Thursday, 30 June 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Bay For Night!

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (aka Transformers 3D) US 2011
Directed by Michael Bay
Playing at cinemas now.

Warning: Yeah, there’s going to be some big, twisty, Rubik cube-like spoilerage on this one... but, frankly, how spoilery can it get on a movie like this?

Okay, I had my reservations when I took my long suffering cinema companion Orange Monkey to see the new Transformers movie. This took on more of an edge when I got in the car and she drove me down to my local as I was soon made aware that she hadn’t seen the first two movies in the series. Ignoring my own initial concerns as to why you would want to see the third movie in a series first (okay, so I like to watch things in order, no big deal) I then gave her a brief rundown of my personal experiences of the first two Transformer movies which I will repeat and elaborate on here so anyone reading can get a handle on where I’m coming from on my review of the third one and which goes a little something like this...

I was dragged kicking and screaming to the cinema to see the first Transformers movie back in 2007. I really did not want to go and the toys were something I’d missed out on as they arrived just past the point where I had stopped playing with kiddie toys (don’t worry, I’m happy to play with them now... I just don’t have any Transformers) and I’d not bothered with the old cartoon show or the comics back in the 80s and... well I just didn’t get it and wasn’t interested okay? But then an odd thing happened... a friend of mine, who is a mother of two, wanted to go and see it because she remembered buying the toys for her boys when they were kids. She didn’t get out to the movies much and... well I’m never one to intentionally disappoint the ladies (unless dancing or weddings are involved). And so we went to see it...

I was blown away by that first one big time.

It was a really great movie in all the right ways a summer blockbuster should be (for once) and everything just seemed to work on it. You had some cool visual effects, which are always the last thing on my mind but they were quite visually striking in that first one. Then you had the amazing opening sequences of total balls-to-the-wall, 21st Century cinema, state of the art action flick Bayhem... and then something really strange happened because the "other" storyline, which was set up to run simultaneously with the action heavy sequences, was an absolute throwback, but done really well, to those old mid-80s family movies which I remember living through when I was a teenager. The sequences with Shia LaBeouf and his Transformer pals were written, performed and shot with all the sensibilities of those much loved romps like Back To The Future and Gremlins. So already we had that strange juxtaposition going on.

And where it really worked was where director Bay pushed those storylines together and merged them for the final act... it was incredible that he managed to pull off that massive juggling act without the two different genre-types cancelling each other out. It was entertaining as hell and it had, from composer Steve Jablonsky, one of the most well crafted and best movie scores of the entire decade. The original score release, which is now quite hard to find as it was deleted very quickly (for some bizarre reason) was not out of my player for very long for a couple of years.

But then Bay ruined it with a sequel... Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen which, frankly, was one of the worst movies I’ve ever had to sit through in my life. I was so looking forward to it on the strength of the first film but instead I had to bite back on my disappointment that Bay had dropped the ball quite this badly and just find a way of moving on. Surprisingly though, even Jablonsky’s follow up score was not a patch on his first one... what could have been the second movie’s one saving grace felt kind of thrown away and lazy and I think it would be true to say that the best musical moments of the second movie were the parts which were just tracked in from the first.

And so I had really mixed feeling when I went to see the third... especially now I’d found out that my friend Orange Monkey had not realised fully what she was letting herself in for when she’d accepted my invitation to see Michael Bay blow things up in 3D. Still, not to worry... I told her that whatever happened, it was impossible to make a movie worse than the second one... so we armed ourselves with chocolate raisins and Cadbury’s mini-eggs and settled down to the watch the film.

Okay, now I have to say that while I wasn’t particularly entertained by the third movie... I was impressed by a few things. First up was the plotting which started off in the space-race of the sixties which turned out to be a response to discovering footage of an Autobot ship which had crashed on the darkside of the moon. It then went on to show us what “really” happened when Neil Armstrong and co went to check out the crashed ship. It then catches up to present day and we are back with Shia LaBeouf’s Sam Witwicky character and we meet his new girlfriend... with barely a reference to what happened to the Megan Fox character from the first two films (Hitler insults and dumb Lohan-like publicity aside... they should have stayed with the continuity and kept her in the movie).

After this, though, as the plot about the resurrection of the Einstein of the Autobot world in the form of a character called Sentinel Prime continued on... I was getting more and more impressed about the actors and celebrities appearing in this movie, often for large chunks of screen time.

John Malkovich as the bizarre managing director of a company where Sam gets a job, for example, is an amazing thing to watch. And then we had Dutch, played by Firefly/Serenity’s Alan Tudyk and Frances McCormand as a CIA (or is it FBI?) director ... not too mention Mr. Buzz Aldrin playing himself (in a small cameo really) and looking quite chipper. And to really top things off you had the voice of Leonard Nimoy playing Sentinel Prime... and there were some very blatant Star Trek references to be found in his lines (The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few) and a fair few little Star Trek moments scattered throughout the movie as it happens. Now I won’t give away too much about Sentinel Prime’s character here (although if you’re a Star Trek fan I might mention that perhaps he should have had a beard... if you know what I mean) but I do have to say... for someone who is supposed to be, as I said earlier, the "Einstein of the Autobot World"... well I don’t remember Einstein punching and kicking people and wielding big hot-metal swords when he wanted to push a point about his brand new spanking Theory of Relativity... and that’s all I’m saying about that particular character right there.

The acting in this movie is all solid (as I would expect from the very professional cast and crew assembled to make this movie) but it was with some of the returning characters from the first movie with whom I was mostly disappointed... and then, in terms of the scripting of them, not their performances. Josh Duhamel, for example, had very little to do in this movie and he’s almost entirely absent in terms of screen presence here until the second half of the final “Explosions R Us” third act set piece of the movie. John Turturro was also badly scripted in this one and in some ways he was very much treated as an add-on (we gotta get him in because he was so good in the first two movies) to the rest of the cast... most of his scenes focussing on his personal assistant Dutch. This is a great shame because Turturro kinda stole his scenes in the first movie and had pretty much the only funny lines in the second movie. A real waste of this actor this time around but... let’s be fair... I’d be moaning even more if he didn’t turn up in it at all.

This movie was pretty much an okay piece of popcorn fodder which, I think I would be reporting in a far better light if, unlike Orange Monkey, I didn’t have the fantastic first movie to compare it to. The action is spectacular and doesn’t feel too truncated as it did in the second movie... seriously people, that "Optimus Prime is back from the dead" one-on-one fight at the end of the second one needed to be way longer than the minute or two it ended up being. Such an anti-climax to something that almost the entire running time of the movie had been building up to.

Similarly with Jablonsky’s third score for the series... nice enough and not the disaster that underscored the second movie... just nowhere near as good as the first. He did remember to write in some riffs from the first and revisit the leitmotif he had established in the original... but the main melodies did seem a little delayed or slowed down and lacked the emotional punch of that initial work of musical genius. It may, however, play a lot better as a stand alone listen if the studio decide not to delay or cancel the score release CD scheduled (and rescheduled) for later on in the year. I’ll give it a go anyway.

All this added up to a not too terrible time at the cinema... and certainly not as disappointing as the last time around with the franchise. Orange Monkey actually seemed to have enjoyed it a lot more than me... which holds up to my theory that if you don’t have the better movie to compare it to, Transformers: Dark of the Moon can be a pulse-pounding thrill ride of a cinema outing. I’ve urged her to seek out the first movie if she really wants to see a well made piece of hokum.

And that’s about it for this one. If you loved the first movie and was let down as much as I was by the sequel... and are planning to see this one too... you won’t come out of the cinema feeling as angry as last time. On the other hand... if you didn’t get anything out of the first one... this movie has “Stay Away... Move Along... Nothing to see here” written on it’s armour-plated, metalmorphosising forehead. You have been warned!

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Bell, Book and Candle

Bothered and Becandled

Bell, Book and Candle US 1958
Directed by Richard Quine
Columbia Pictures

Ok then... I think this must be my first ever review talking about a movie I’ve watched off of a TV broadcast. Why? Because I’d never seen Bell, Book and Candle before and I wanted to check it out before parting with any of my hard earned cash on a DVD transfer. That simple.

Yeah, I know. Considering one of my all-time favourite movies is Hitchcock’s Vertigo, I probably should have caught up with this one long ago... seeing as it also top-lines Kim Novak and James Stewart and was shot in the same year.

Well... I’ve seen it now and I have to say I was mostly pleased with what I saw. The first half an hour of this tale of a coven of mostly benign witches was actually pretty mind blowing and I was having a good time with it. The film also stars Jack Lemmon as Novaks hip-witch brother (bongo drums and jazz clubs baby) and Elsa Lanchester (possibly my all-time favourite Universal Horror icon - yeah okay, so I’m a walking cliché) as Novak’s aunt... so it’s quite a watch.

To be honest though, after the initial “wow” of the first half hour or so which culminated for me in an absolutely gobsmacking and iconic (there’s that troublesome word again) piece of footage of Novak and her cat/familiar Pyewacket as they “bewitch” James Stewarts “Shep” character to fall for Ms. Novak’s character Gillian, then the film starts to slowly fall a little flat and become a little more hum-drum in its make-up. Seriously though, that scene I just described was like watching raw sex hotwired into the brain as Novak hums a spell of a tune which actually ties into the George Duning score on the soundtrack (not one of my favourites within the context of the movie, but I’ll get on to that later). Her head behind and above her cats head, Novak is already playing the role with an eerie and provocative, lazy, calm sexuality which just about reaches melting point by this time. I thought she was amazing in Vertigo (and she is) but here, although Bell, Book and Candle is a far inferior film to Vertigo... well she’s absolutely scorching.

I think there’s lots of good things I could say about this movie and probably an equal number of negatives.

The colours on this one are superb and though they follow a similar scheme as the colours in some of the scenes in Vertigo, washes of greens and orangey reds contrasted together (and green is not a good colour to light a human face with, they kinda turn neutral), these are not the same intense colours that were on display in Hitchcock’s masterpiece. Neither are hey the full-on almost fluorescent reds and greens of contemporary directors like Mario Bava or his direct “lighting descendent” Dario Argento. These are quite muted greens and reds but I found these kinds of colour schemes in this more pastel palette as interesting as the gaudier directors and cinematographers because the vibrancy created within the juxtaposition of those hues is equally striking... or at least it seemed so to me.

There’s some bad stuff here too though... and I’m aware my views here might be a little sacrilegious for dyed-in-the-wool fans of this movie but, please don’t judge me too harshly... I am going to go back for another look (I just saw how cheap the DVD is on Amazon... woohoo!) on a hopefully perfect transfer from a clean print at some point in the next six months or so.

So, bad to not so great stuff...

First of all there’s the fact that this movie was based on a stage play and, like a fair few movies of this type (I might mention The Seven Year Itch), it never really seems to break away from it’s stage requirements. The whole thing is set in just a few different interiors while the few location shots in the movie seem to be... um... locations built inside a studio. I can understand why, when you have such a successful play as this one obviously was, you wouldn’t want to fiddle with things too much... but this one does seem to suffer from a sense of being anchored to the original stage version a little... clumsily I guess.

Secondly, and this might just be in the casting as opposed to the scripting, but I’m used to seeing Stewart and Novak play off against each other in a very sultry manner and picking their way through the dialogue almost like a cat plays with a mouse... a mouse that thinks it’s also a cat. There’s a very serious edginess to the performances or... well I guess I’d probably be better off calling it screen chemistry here... and these two work very well together, except...

This movie is obviously supposed to be an absolutely hilarious comedy... and I believe it was successfully received as such... and therefore this kind of sexual smoldering seems to makes no sense. I was expecting this movie to go in a much more serious direction than the way it went because of the incredible tension between the two leads... but no! The wild and playful music is telling me this is like the 1958 equivalent of laughing gas and... then you have Jack Lemmon playing the bongos. Doh!

And what about that George Duning music? It’s fine but completely inappropriate to the tone of the piece... if you’re watching the two main leads. For the other characters this raucous and jaunty music makes sense... or at least doesn’t seem to be wildly overscored as it does when you’re watching either Novak or Stewart. This really was a problem for me because I couldn’t quite get a handle on the tone and the whole thing began to feel a little uneven after a while.

But, these minor grumps aside, Bell, Book and Candle is a brilliantly acted, exquisitely shot movie and certainly something I have a feeling will get a fair few repeat viewings from me in the years to come. If you’re a fan of classic, fifties Hollywood movies and you haven’t seen this one as yet, then I would strongly put it on your list as a contender to be watched soon. Just for that one scene where the sultry Novak hums her spell... this alone is worth the price of purchase.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles

Terra in the Philes

Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
by Michael Moorcock
Publisher: BBC Books
Language English
ISBN: 9781846079832

I’ve been "umming" and "ahhing" about what to write about this novel since before I finished reading it. This is a tough one for me and I feel really split. Here’s why...

When I was a kid I read those brilliant old Target novelisations of Doctor Who stories (starting with Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowman) that were on sale literally everywhere books could be bought.I literally had around 60 of them at one point... many of them put together from an old second hand book shop and some of the rest bought brand new, probably from W. H. Smith’s at Liverpool Street Station... they were always a rich source of good books back in the early to mid-seventies. Shops weren’t as bereft of interesting stock back then like they are nowadays. And this was, of course, at a time when I was not quite yet old enough to recognise the “evils of the novelisation” that were embedded in the unwary general public’s consciousness... or as Woody Allen referred to tie-in novelisations in one of his true masterpieces, Manhattan, “an American phenomenon that is truly moronic”.

I stopped reading these things in the mid-80s and “put away childish things” as the biblical reference sometimes goes, depending on translation... well okay, I still am quite, um, childlike in my approach to life to be honest but... whatever... the practical upshot is that I stopped reading Doctor Who novels back in the 80s sometime. Okay, my first point hopefully made.

Part of what replaced these novels for me, along with the works of my favourite writer Philip K. Dick, were the works of one of my all time favourite writing heroes Michael Moorcock. His Jerry Cornelius and Elric and Hawkmoon tales were completely captivating and rivetting to me in those days (and probably still would be if I had time to read them all again these days). Anyone who has read my review of the movie version of Michael Moorcock’s first Jerry Cornelius novel The Final Programme (right here) will know how much I revere the man... so when I heard at a Q&A session with Moorcock after that particular screening in London that he’d just written a Doctor Who novel... well it was a no brainer for me to put it on my Christmas list, that’s for sure.

Santa came along bearing various gifts including an abundance of reading materials and, since I don’t get time to read these days (no more long train journeys for me at present) it’s pretty much taken me this long to get to it. But get to it I did and, although I can’t say that I didn’t exactly enjoy it, it was certainly less than the novel I’d been expecting (especially after I’d heard that a certain “Captain Cornelius” would be appearing in it.

Now then... I couldn’t absolutely put my finger on how to express my feeling as to why this novel fails in some ways, until I read one of Hypnogoria’s reviews of a Doctor Who episode some weeks back (Hypnogoria’s site can be found here) in which, when talking about the great Neil Gaiman, who incidentally is quoted giving a positive review on the front cover of the UK hardback edition of Mr. Moorcock’s book, he said

“And as much as I admire the the man’s works, I was also worried whether he could actually produce something that felt like ‘proper’ Doctor Who. After all, many name authors have written pieces for universes other than their own and, sad to say, have come a cropper (names withheld to protect the guilty).”

I think the pertinent part of that little chunk is the phrase “ written pieces for universes other than their own" because, what I think Mr. Moorcock has given us with his novel is, in fact, fine as a stand-alone novel... just not a very good fit with the franchise/universe he’s been asked to write about. And that’s not necessarily his fault either.

Ok, so allow me to elaborate just a little on this.

Bear in mind I’ve not exactly had any experience at all of this, so my guesses at the process and effect of writing fiction here may be best taken with a pinch of salt. When you’re writing for a long established character you can probably get away with being a little off and making slight errors of judgement because I suspect the reader’s familiarity with the characters is enough to smooth things over and allow the words coming out of those characters mouths and the actions and mannerisms of those characters to kind of adapt themselves in the reader’s brain and fill in unconsciously over any slight discrepancies in their words and deeds. However, there needs to be at least a good sense of the characters inner and outer workings there in order to kick start this imaginary process in the reader... the author has to meet them at least 50% of the way I’d imagine. But in The Coming of the Terraphiles... things just felt wrong. The Doctor was doing and saying, it seemed to me, most unDoctor like things... and Amy Pond wasn’t a whole lot better either. I realised as I was reading this that The Doctor isn’t as much of a blank cypher as I’d imagined he would be because, it has to be said, this is all set in a very Moorcock universe.

Moorcock’s multiverse is a concept which The Doctor has much familiarity with in this novel and it kinda grates against what you know of The Doctor from TV. Since the multiverse seems to play such an important role in the lives of all beings in the galaxy, one almost wonders why you’ve not heard him speaking of it before in the TV show... seeing as it’s pretty much all that’s talked about here. Also, the sense of whimsy and love of the ridiculous, while all good Doctor traits, are just way over the top on what we’d get out of the character on TV. But... and this is where it gets interesting... I think I know why this is all a little out of kilter.

When I saw Mr. Moorcock doing Q and A after a screening of The Final Programme at the NFT last year, he explained that he’d written The Coming of the Terraphiles before the Matt Smith and Amy Pond episodes had even been aired (and possibly before they’d been shot) and that all he had to go on were detailed descriptions of the characters etc. Well that’s a pretty big burden placed on the writer right there if you ask me... I’m sure Mr. Moorcock felt no incongruity between what he was writing and what would eventually become the Matt Smith incarnation of The Eleventh Doctor because, frankly, he had no idea really of how they should be written.

As such then... I’m surprised he did as well as he did. It’s still not great Doctor Who, however.

What it is though, if you forget about the clash between the characterisation in this novel as opposed to what eventually became the on-screen counterpart, is a very entertaining Michael Moorcock novel. The story of a hidden object suspected of being the prize in an intergalactic games competition which claims The Doctor as one of the team players (he's particularly good, it seems, and more superior than the two Judoon competitors he goes up against, in the difficult sport of cracking nuts with a sledge-hammer) in what is pretty much a multiversal road movie style plot (or is that spaceway plot?) is not going to fail to bring a smile to the face of even the most jaded reader, with its sly literary references peppered constantly throughout... including hefty references to the legend of Robin Hood (especially the Errol Flynn version) and also some welcome references to Barsoom (which I guess you could expect from Mr. Moorcock, given his associations with the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs).

So even though I didn’t enjoy my return to reading the good Doctor’s adventures in print, I did at least get a smashing Michael Moorcock novel out of it (which wouldn’t look too out of place with the style of his Dancers At The End Of Time series I suspect, from what I remember of them nearly three decades since reading them). Definitely a big thumbs up if you’re a fan of Moorcock but not such a big thumbs up if you’re a fan of Doctor Who.

Hopefully they’ll give him another crack at the character soon, is my hope.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The Rambo Tetralogy

Only The Stalloney!

Spoiler Warning! The first spoiler was for me. The second spoiler was for my country. The third spoiler was for my friend! My fourth spoiler never dies... it just reloads!

It’s been a very long time since I first saw the initial three of the four movies reviewed below... and out of all of them the only one I’ve ever actually seen in a cinema setting is the fourth one. It’s not because of my age, I was around and able to remember these things playing at my local cinema at a time when I would have been able to easily gain access with a few deceptive exaggerations regarding my date of birth... so that’s not the reason. I think it’s more about the way I perceived the first three Rambo films at the time which, to be brutally honest, was not in a good light... so I think before I get into my review proper, I’d just like to share with you why I’ve mostly in the past kept these movies at bay with a long pointy stick and why I decided to start watching them again now. So please bear with me here or... well, you know... scroll down the page a bit if you like.

When I was a kid I hated being in school but we had a film club after hours and they used to show some interesting films (in the days before commercial video tape) on a decent sized screen one night after lessons every week. I remember the caretaker who at one time ran the “cinema club” getting into trouble for showing another film which featured Stallone, Deathrace 2000, to a load of 12 and 13 year old kids (who all loved it I might add... unfortunately I was not present at that screening and had to discover it properly years later on home video). One film they showed... it must have been in 1984 when I was about 16 years old, was the 1982 movie First Blood starring Sylvester Stallone who I knew from the Rocky movies and a film I much admired at the time (and haven’t seen since) called Paradise Alley. So that was one of the rare nights I attended (the other times I went along were for Freaks, Psycho and Plague Of The Zombies) and I remember thinking to myself... mmm... okay but nothing special. Don’t need to see this again.

Then about... what?... a year later the sequel came out and, when it finally came to home video rental I hired it out and watched it and thought... okay, that was worse than the last one. Just a big dumb action movie. I really didn’t need Rambo in my life, I believed (hang in there... tastes very occasionally change). I had nothing against the star of the show... I really liked the writing on the first few Rocky’s and thought he put in a good performance and was a lot smarter than the popular public image of him (at the time over here in the UK he was pretty much lambasted a lot on various TV comedy shows)... I just didn’t like the gung-ho action movies he chose to participate in... although for some reason I hold the distinction of being one of the few people who really loved and embraced Cobra. Make of that what you will. :-)

When the third one came out it was full-on in the time when the video piracy bug had hit Britain big. Again I didn’t see it at the cinema... I saw it about a year or more before that (release windows between countries were a lot longer in those days kiddies... especially if you had the pirate copy before the US even had it at the cinema) and I remember seeing a half blurry copy with some strange subtitling on it... I didn’t go out of my way to see this, a friend had it kicking around and put it on because a couple of my mates wanted to see it. I watched with them and remember thinking that it was even worse than the other two and that I never needed to see another Rambo movie again... and I never expected I would either.

Then, not so many years ago, Sly did a sixth Rocky movie and it was actually pretty good (I’d really not thought so much of the fifth one). When they announced that John Rambo (as the fourth movie was originally going to be called before it was just shortened to Rambo) was hitting our screens soon, the wave of 80s nostalgia crept over me and I decided to go take a look in the local cinema. Two things happened to me that night... 1.) I finally got to see a Rambo movie in a proper cinema (if you can count the local dodgyplex as a bona fide cinema entertainment) and 2) I really enjoyed and was pretty much impressed by a Rambo movie. Not too shabby.

But my story doesn’t end there (oh honestly, scroll down if you’re bored, I won’t hold it against you!)... anyone who’s read my blog or who follows me on Twitter would know by now that I’m a big listener of film scores. I can’t help it, there’s celluloid in my blood somehow and to complement it I like to have music from the movies pounding against my eardrums to make me feel half alive.

Being such a person, then, one of my favourite composers (of many) is obviously going to be Jerry Goldsmith and I’d realised a few months or so ago that I’d really never listened to his Rambo scores at all (although I had a barely played, cheaply bought CD of the first score on the shelf). My memory was “slyly” jogged by Intrada re-releasing the score to First Blood as a two disc complete and remastered job very recently. So I ordered it and enjoyed the Jerryism of it enough that I sought down the fullest, and in a couple of cases out of print, CDs of the scores to the other three films in the series by Goldsmith and Brian Tyler respectively. These scores are pretty great and though they all make use of Goldsmith’s original theme for the central character, each of them has a different approach to the writing style and I was wondering... now I’m here in the 21st Century... how the styles of the actual movie-making demonstrated in these four movies was, or was not, reflected in the scores themselves.

So I figured I’d take another look at them but when I looked up a boxed set it was out of print... although I could have got ahold of one for about £40. And there was no way I was paying £40 for a bunch of Rambo movies.

And then fortune smiled at me... as she does sometimes when she realises what a tight bas-... er... what a value for money kind of guy I am. When I went to the last film fair at Camden I got a bundle of the not-out-of-shrinkwrap, unplayed Rambo Trilogy boxed set along with the slipcase edition of the fourth movie (tastefully bundled together with one of man’s greatest inventions... the elastic band) all for the princely sum of... £6. Weehay! I do love a bargain.

And so here I am... now I can revisit those movies and write about my experiences in Rambo’s War and figure out if the first three movies are really as bad as I remember when I was a lot less visually sophisticated than I am now (don’t laugh or I’ll get my dad on to yer) or whether there’s more going on than met my teenage eye.

First Blood 1982 USA
Directed by Ted Kotcheff
Anabasis N.V. Region 2

Ok, the first thing that struck me straight away... and I was kinda expecting this to be honest, is that First Blood is really not an 80s movie. Sure it was released in 1982 but it’s not really got to the point where the style over substance veneer of much of the post-Star Wars movies had taken such a deep root in US cinema and in all fairness I’d have to say that this particular movie, along with a fair few from 1982, is still very much a 70s film in spirit.

That is to say there’s room to breathe in it... not every single moment on screen suffers from modern Hollywood cause and effect dynamics. If I was still a youngster and had not seen a great many pre-80s US made movies I’d probably describe the atmosphere and pacing on this one as somewhat European in tone... and in some ways that would probably not be a bad comparison to make either.

The other thing that is interesting about this first movie is that Rambo really isn’t the hero. Sure, he’s a hero in the sense that he’s a returning combat veteran and decorated war hero... but the point of this film is that things really aren’t that black and white. Certainly, the audience sympathises with him because of the obviously upstanding and fine individuals who make up the local law enforcement of the town Rambo just wants to get a cup of coffee in. Figureheaded by the always excellent Brian Dennehey, these coppers are, for the most part, painted as the bad guys to a certain extent. There are no clear cut black and white protagonists and antagonists in this movie... with the one saving grace maybe of Rambo’s old Colonel and friend played by Richard Crenna. So the police force kinda take on the role of the bad guys for a while and although this movie isn’t exactly a poster girl for character development, there’s still a lot more development on show than in most movies that get released these days and certainly both Dennehey’s character Teasle and Stallone’s Rambo are not easy people for the audience to immediately relate to... everyone except the aforementioned Crenna seem to be a little bit “damaged” in this movie. They’re just not that easy personalities to digest and there’s a certain ambiguity to the dramatis personae that this film befriends and celebrates.

The plot is very simple... a man gets moved on from a town he’s passing through when he wants to buy a coffee and his refusal to just roll over escalates the situation so he is arrested. Flashbacks to his times in vietnam while he is being brutally treated in “lock up” triggers him to violently escape and go on the run from the relentless police department, headed up by Dennehey’s Teasle. Then the deaths start and there’s no going back. It’s a nice look at how the whole “for want of a nail a shoe was lost” scenario can build up to something involving extreme violence and death from the smallest of incidents.

It’s also very interestingly filmed with lots of long shots and establishing shots languidly flowing on the screen and everything takes as long as it takes. The fast forward button is not on with any of these characters (compared to what was to come later on in the series and in 80s cinema in general) but there’s a little trick I noticed which gives it a little lift where other movies would stumble and get locked in. In most of those long takes on long shots which act almost like long establishing shots populated by various members of the cast, there’s always some movement going on... even if the camera is not following a specific person. This movie is full of handheld but it’s not just the close-up rush-follow handheld that we’re more familiar with these days, it’s like the camera is never settled on a tri-pod and is being continually moved but... and here’s the trick... unless you are paying real close attention to some of those shots, you are not going to even notice the camera is moving. Some of these shots look and feel like static shots but if you focus on the entire frame rather than a piece of action within the frame, you’ll notice there’s some very slight, very slow, almost imperceptible movement going on from the cameraman all the time... and it makes for an interesting atmosphere to the movie.

There’s also a couple of sequences which I suspect were pretty influential in both the future course of the Rambo movies and in 80s cinema in general. One is the stalk and slash sequence... and I won’t say anything about that on this part of the review, I’ll leave it for the second movie. The other is what I’ll call the self-administering scene. Rambo is hurt bad... bad I tells ya! His arm is all ripped up so he sews his wound back together and we see the blood running out as he does this... and this almost became a trend in 80s cinema after that. Big action heroes would often have a scene where they could be seen “taking care of themselves” and fixing their wounds... usually in the most painful manner their actions-speak-louder minds could figure out. Schwarzenneger does this in the first Terminator movie with the “then” notorious eyeball scene, for example (granted he was the villain in the first movie but I believe he was of iconic enough status in that film as a protagonist to warrant the inclusion of the scene) and of course this is something which is taken further in later Rambo adventures.

Goldsmith’s score is classic Goldsmith and the film is spotted* in a typical fashion by the composer who was not afraid to let some sequences breathe for themselves and would often talk a director into not going for the wall-to-wall musical accompaniment which can be found in most films these days. The whole score throughout the entire movie lasts just over a half an hour... and it’s all good classic Goldsmith with some reflective moments, some pulse pounding piano based action cues and a Rambo theme which can be used to great effect in different orchestrations and even has a brilliant, cheesy vocal version on the end credits... “It’s A Long Road”.

At the end of the day, though, First blood is about a combat veteran who comes home to find, like many of them did in real life, an uncaring country (which they fought for) and all their friends dead or as crazy or depressed as they were. John Rambo cracks up impressively towards the end of this movie. It is very much a movie about a human being and not a war machine... which brings me to...

Rambo: First Blood Part Two 1985 USA
Directed by George P. Cosmatos
Anabasis N.V. Region 2

Okay... so the success of the first movie led to a sequel which is unusual because at the end of the original novel that First Blood was based on, written by David Morrell, John Rambo gets killed. I know this because my cousin was a big fan of the Rambo series and he had Morrells original novel and he also had Morrell’s “movie tie-in” novel of the second movie which was based on his characters from the original novel. Which is kind of a strange thing if you come to think of it. A guy writes a novel in which the main protagonist dies, he doesn’t die in a movie adaptation of that novel and comes back in the sequel and then the writer of the original source material is asked to write the tie-in novelisation of the second movie. I remember my cousin showing me the “novelisation” of the second movie, specifically the introduction where Mr. Morrell comes clean about there being no way of bringing Rambo back credibly, so the reader will just have to “imagine” he didn’t die in the first book and take things from there. And I bet the tie-in sold by the bucketful back in the 80s too!

It’s really interesting how the people behind the camera on this second installment manage to have their cake and eat it by re-inventing the John Rambo character from the first movie while still retaining familiar elements and recycling them for the second. The biggest returning element is the aforementioned stalk and slash sequence from the first movie, where Rambo lays in wait for his captors like a violent and patient chameleon and takes them out one by one, either up close and personal or with specially made traps he’s constructed. This John-Rambo-as-ninja sequence in the first movie is one of the few hints we’d have at how the character would be re-familiarised for subsequent sequels and the basic reprise of it here would have been an audience pleaser for the people who were fans of First Blood but it actually does lose a lot of its punch because Rambo is a much more, clear cut and defined American hero in this movie. He is not “on the edge” and he is recruited from clearing rocks in prison as restitution for his crimes in the first movie to go and do reconnaissance in Vietnam to prove there are still prisoners of war being held captive.

So already we have two big differences to the character in that he is not a wandering vagrant who has no clear goal... here he is recruited by his old boss, again played by Richard Crenna, to do a specific mission after his name has been computer selected out of three possible candidates to be one of the few who would be able to do the job (oh yeah, Our Man Flint springs to mind). We’re in a very different and less interesting scenario than in the first movie. And this movie is very much an action movie with a capital A.

The second big shift from the first film is that the main character and the supporting cast have very much lost their sense of ambiguity in this one... you know who the good guys are and who the bad guys are... no room for subtlety as we have to get another explosion in sometime soon.

Yep... this is Rambo reinvented as James Bond... he even starts making little quips to comment on things that have just happened... he really isn’t the same character. He even has some love interest for a fair amount of the film and former Bond villain Steven Berkoff reprising his role from Octopussy (almost) as a dodgy Russian heavy.

The style of the film is much more 80s by now too. No more the dawdling long shot with a camera lazily following the action around... this is short shots cut together and carefully framed to maximise the mayhem for you as it happens.

And of course Jerry Goldsmith steps up to the baton and composes a full-on action score with loads of patriotic percussion hits and an orchestra heavily augmented by prominent use of synthesisers in the score. Although the use of synths does kind of date this movie, Goldsmith was very much a pioneer in terms of using synthesisers in film scores. Not in the same way that Walter/Wendy Carlos was but he certainly knew how to make use of the synthesiser as “just another part of the orchestra” and use them to highlight certain areas of the music and give the score a very rich texture to it. It’s interesting actually that the more blandly the films were shot (in the second and third movies) the more the music starts getting more ferocious to compensate. First Blood was a film very much about the movement of a shot and the different textures within those shots (lots of trees, rocks, caves and light) whereas in the second and third movies, the texturing all comes from the scoring... well that’s how I see/hear it anyway. Also, there seems to be a lot more score written for the second one... it’s a lot closer to how it would have been scored today... but, while continuous listening of wall-to-wall action cues can sometimes be a drag to listen to in one go (outside of the context of the film itself) and probably even more boring to write for as a composer (Goldsmith had got really tired of writing action cues towards the end of his life) the score services the visuals nicely and also makes use of the original Rambo leitmotif at key points.

Rambo III 1988 USA
Directed by Peter MacDonald
Carolco Region 2

This time it’s for his friend. Bwahahahahahaahahahahahaha! Pardon me while I wipe a tear from my eye. It’s easy to make fun of this kind of marketing copywriting as it’s become such a terrible action-movie cliché but what any youngsters reading this should remember is the old.. um... cliché that clichés are clichés for a reason... they work, quickly and efficiently. It’s why they became clichés in the first place. You have to realise that this was pretty much the first time we’d seen this kind of “this time it’s personal” marketing for a film. This was new. This was bold. This was in yer face because you knew that if Rambo was doing this... “for his friend”... then he would go to whatever country he was told to go to and not just kick ass... he’d kick double ass in double quick time and then slice and dice his enemy like he was a human cheese grater... and then stamp on all the little left over bits and then shove it down his throat like his enemy is his cannibalistic picnic lunch and he’s “game on” for dessert. That’s what “for his friend” meant to a generation who’d not heard all that twaddle before!

And that’s just what he does. In a film which is the next logical point from the second movie and about as far from that first movie as you’re going to get. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some nice character stuff established for Stallone at the start and some of the gentle reminders of the war-torn Veteran he used to be... but yeah, he’s still “the hero” and when his former Colonel, again played by Crenna, gets taken prisoner by... well, you know... bad guys, it’s dessert time for Rambo!

The film continues the tradition of key Rambo set pieces though with both a stalk and slash scene (this time in a cavern) and a much more gruesome, action hero fixes himself up scene... but that’s really all they are in this movie... set pieces.

What I’m trying to say here is this... another one of the reasons why I see the original First Blood as more of a 70s movie is because it has a story... or at least it has a series of events that rise fluidly from a narrative thread and escalate from and with that story. By the time we’ve got to Rambo III (and Rambo: First Blood Part 2 is also guilty of this) we’ve got a series of designed set pieces which are then hung onto something which resembles a narrative framework, but doesn’t really serve much purpose other than to give those sequences something to hang from. Now you may like to argue that all storytelling is like that and I might be willing to go down that path with you to some extent and I’d certainly agree the majority of large, modern blockbusters are put together in exactly the same fashion, but I think these things do tend to lack a certain amount of heart or, as Bruce Lee might put it, “emotional context” when it comes to serving the narrative... the narrative serves the set-pieces for some reason, not the other way around.

And it’s a pity in this case because the first quarter of an hour or so of Rambo III actually works quite well. There’s a strong sense of emotional depth to the John Rambo character which is pushed to the fore for a while... and you can tell the writers have thought about the character a little and brainstormed the ideas... but ultimately it’s an interesting prelude to bunch of action set pieces. It’s an okay watch but I could have probably done without it... oops.

Sorry, the third one is definitely my least favourite of the movies and it even has a “tough kid” in it to sprain his ankle (okay, he takes a bullet but that’s, like, the Rambo equivalent of spraining your ankle) so we can end one action set piece and then have an excuse to take the kid out and go back for another series of action pieces later. Not the best writing out there but... aw, heck. I’m sure these things are pretty much written in committee and although Stallone obviously had some major input (and I do admire him as both a writer and a director), this movie does seem a little like everybody probably had a finger in the pie and it had to tick all the boxes for everybody. That just happens sometimes I guess.

Goldsmith’s score takes a different tack yet again on this one. Again it’s wall to wall action cues but the synths have been knocked back (possibly even excluded) and instead we have the kind of action writing that is not a million miles away from his Our Man Flint/In Like Flint days in structure. Again, a brilliant score for an entertaining but not completely soulless action flick. It’s not a good movie... but it’s not completely terrible either.

Rambo 2008 USA/Germany
Directed by Sylvester Stallone
Lionsgate Region 2

Okay... so 20 years later they decide to do another one... and this is the one that really impressed me at the cinema and I have to come clean here and say that, while I watched it again for this article and enjoyed it just as much, I’m having a hard time identifying why I liked it.

Gonna have to think about this and work through it as I’m writing I think.

Okay... the least interesting aspect of a Rambo movie for me is the violence and action sequences to some extent... but in this one movie, seriously... they rock. They are impressive. Stallone really knows how to direct a movie (yeah, laugh at me all you want, I’m gonna defend him on stuff like this, he’s good at it) and the action sequences in this are absolutely superb... and possibly contains some of the most violent footage I’ve seen outside of a samurai movie. The action sequences all appear to be shot on the same kind of high speed (non-blurry) film that the action sequences of Saving Private Ryan were shot in... so every detail can be seen and the blood and viscera (which I’m assuming involves some impressive CGI in some places) is like nothing you’ve seen done with gun play. This one shows what really happens when you shoot people up with a machine gun... bodies cut to bits and arms and legs flying in different directions before your very eyes. I rarely get that excited about violence on screen (and please don’t try this at home kiddies) but the sheer in-your-face attitude of the violence and, more importantly, the repercussions of violence, add a very interesting layer to this movie.

I think films like this and certain movies of people like Pekinpah and Tarantino should be shown widely because, frankly, although at some level this stuff does tend to glorify the violence on screen... it also makes you very aware that guns and weapons are not things you want to get involved with. You will fear and respect these terrible inventions after watching something like this... and I believe Stallone’s smart enough to know that these kinds of sequences work on two levels so... okay I’m sounding like the guy has paid me to write this article now but, seriously, power to him for doing such a good job with the action sequences.

And with the rest of the movie too... it has to be said. Rambo is a little lighter on words in this one, which sees him rescuing a group of Christians from war-torn Burma, but the true power and humanity of the character shines through like it never did before in the previous three movies. We got glimpses of it in the first one but the emotional heart of John Rambo can be found in this movie.

Now it’s true we’ve got some clichés in this one again... like the bunch of alpha-male mercenaries Rambo acts as a guide for before outshining them all. But that’s okay because, as “oh-my-gosh-are-they-really-going-to-act-like-this-all-the-way-through-the-movie” as this gets, the harsher and more brutal realities bounce off these kinds of scenes and in some ways, this very familiar macho wordplay (with a sequence which almost but not quite strays into Bruce Lees “fighting without fighting” sequence from Enter The Dragon) is a very necessary antidote or safety valve for the audience when juxtaposed with some truly gruesome goriness!

There’s also a wonderful cliché used in the earlier stages of the film to remind the audience that Rambo is still actually a bad ass in a fast-draw Western style shoot out with a bunch of pirates which seems almost lifted from Clint Eastwood’s first gunplay scene in A Fistful of Dollars. It works though... and I didn’t hear anyone else in the audience at my first showing groan nearly as loudly as I did.

This is a really worthwhile action movie which raises some questions about “turning the other cheek” and doesn’t make the mistake in trying to wade through to a definite answer for you. It’s quite clearly labelled as a grey area and no “black and white” glasses are even attempted to be worn on this one. It is what it is and asks what it asks and doesn’t care that there’s no comfortable answer to the issues raised... which is a great thing for the writers and director to do. There’s also a nice little coda at the end where Rambo gives up eking out a hard living in Thailand and is seen returning to his fathers house, back in the United States, to see if his father is still alive or not.

And the absolute kicker which makes all this work as much as it does is... and you knew I was going to say this didn’t you... yup, Brian Tyler’s excellent score, which brings a lump to the throat every time he quotes Jerry Goldsmith’s original John Rambo/It’s A Long Road and which, again ascends to its own kind of action scoring to service a very different kind of movie to its predecessors. Tyler’s percussion within a scene really helps drive the action like Jerry Goldsmith would and not just comment on it or illustrate it. Ive really gotten into this composer lately and anyone who’s still on the fence about Tyler should probably check out both this score and the absolutely gorgeous score he composed for Battle: Los Angeles... they really work.

So there you have it. That’s me pretty much done. I actually really enjoyed catching up with these movies again. The first one holds up surprisingly well and while the second and third parts are a little dull, they are interesting exercises in how you can reinvent a character to be something a little more heroic than he was in his original form. And, basically, the fourth one double-kicks major ass and then... oh yeah, you know how that one goes now. This is not a series of movies I would ever have expected to find myself ever taking seriously... but I did and it seems to have turned up my longest blog review to date, which is kinda interesting considering I didn’t think I had anything to write. I’ll possibly check these movies out again in another ten years time and see if they’ve dated anymore since the time of this writing. Thanks for reading.

*A spotting session is where the director and the composer sit down together to review the film and work out how much music should be in the film and where each musical cue should start and end. Goldsmith was a past master at this very necessary part of the process.

NUTS4R2’s Astonishing Trivia Treats: Although, as mentioned earlier, the original novel First Blood finished with Rambo dying, Stallone suggested that he be allowed to live at the end of the movie... not because anyone realised that the film would prove to be successful enough to earn a sequel, but because he didn’t want to send out such a negative message to returning Vietman veterans.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Green Lantern 3D

Greening From Ear to Ear!

Green Lantern 3D US 2011
Directed by Martin Campbell
Playing at cinemas now.

Not a spoiler warning: I don’t think I can really, legitimately put a spoiler warning on this one. This is a big, dumb summer blockbuster movie which has no real twists or turns in the narrative. There’s never any doubt that Green Lantern won’t win the day and, as such, there's nothing I could possibly give away that might be considered as spoiler material. So consider yourself un-warned!

“In brightest day, in blackest night,
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil's might,
Beware my power... Green Lantern's light!”
Revised Green Lantern Oath from the mid-forties to present day.

You know it’s kinda ironic that, after my initial reaction to seeing this movie last night, I really hadn’t been looking forward to seeing this one at all. All the signs that it would be a bad one were there right from the start... before they’d even started writing the movie. I like to see my superhero movies done right... and it's a rare occurrence when they are not screwed up by the movie studios “adapting” them.

Not setting the original X-Men, Spiderman, Fantastic Four and Hulk movies in the early sixties, for example, made me really mad. As did DC’s decision not to set their Superman and Batman movies in the late thirties. Not to put Daredevil in his proper yellow costume instead of the red one they elected to use, which he didn’t use in the comics until a few issues into his run (if memory serves) got me really angry. The decision to give the Hulk green skin in the movies instead of the grey skin he had in his first issue... what the f***? They take too many liberties with these properties! And look, in the new Captain America movie they have him with a circular shield! He didn’t have a shield that shape until his second issue! And where are The Original Human Torch and Namor, The Sub Mariner if you’re going to do a Captain America set in his proper time period... seriously people... where are The Invaders?

All the things that have really annoyed me over the years about superheroes on film looked set to be happening again, as expected, with the new Green Lantern movie... but by this time my response has pretty much been numbed down to... whatever.

My first disappointment when the Green Lantern movie was first announced was the fact that they weren’t doing the “proper” Green Lantern... aka the Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott who made his comics debut in 1940. He wore a red costume (don’t even ask) and his “magical” power ring, powered from the Green Lantern, affected everything except things made of wood. But no... in their wisdom, the movie studios decided that they were doing the 1959 Silver Age Green Lantern Hal Jordan, who did wear a green costume and who had a power ring that would be useful against everything unless it was coloured yellow. Okay... so not such a big deal I guess. I always quite liked the silver age incarnation of Green Lantern, even though he was a member of the more modern Justice League of America (JLA) and not the forties super group Justice Society of America (JSA) as his earlier counterpart had been. After the mid-seventies I kinda lost interest in Green Lantern... so I don’t know about any of Hal Jordan’s replacements or the story arc where Hal Jordan became the prime villain of the DC universe Parallax and destroyed the Green Lantern Corp before somehow redeeming himself later on. I’m in my early forties now (old man alert) so it’s been a long time since I really caught up with these characters.

My first and only real hope was that Martin Campbell had signed on to direct the movie. Now I wasn’t overstruck on that third version of Casino Royale he directed back in 2006 but he’s done some good, well crafted work over the years and I was particularly impressed with his first, resurrection of the Bond franchise on Goldeneye. In fact, I’d probably put Goldeneye at the tail end of my top 5 Bond movies, up there with the excellent Lazenby movie and a few of the Connery films.

Even this though, couldn’t really get me in any way fired up to see the new Green Lantern movie... but I’d liked the character as a kid (especially when he used to team up with Green Arrow) and I’d already seen a rubbishy movie with Green as part of the title earlier in the year (yeah, you all know what that was, right) and I figured... “what are the odds?” Well actually, the odds were pretty bad because, from what I‘d gathered on Twitter, the reviews and comments about the new Green Lantern movie were not at all good... so that was kind of a dampener too. And, of course, the final insult to my potential of the enjoyment of this movie was also locked firmly into place... they’d shot it in 3D. Oh, good grief!

But I went along anyway because I don’t get to the cinema as often as I'd like these days (mainly because the movies they show are mostly dire) and this one was at least something I could relate to.

Colour me surprised. I loved it.

Green Lantern is not a tricky film to get to grips with. The direction is solid and it’s fairly fast moving and does pretty much everything you’d want a Green Lantern movie to do, to be honest. I’ve heard some disappointed people talking about this on Twitter and they’ve been let down by it and said it was boring. Now I don’t know if that’s a reaction to the wall-to-wall action in this movie... I personally, usually get very bored with action flicks because action without context is very dull. However, there was enough talking and other spectacle on show in this that I was never once bored in this movie.

I was thinking about this a lot last night and I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the reasons people may be inclined to dismiss this movie is that, depending on their age, the storyline just may be way to simplistic for an audience that demands more sophisticated, or at least more convoluted, plotting in this day and age. As I more than intimated in my opening to this post, there aren’t really any twisty turny plot points to be found in this movie or anything that anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of sixties Green Lantern could consider unexpected or spoiler worthy. As my modicum of research for this article (and I rarely ever bother to do research, just fact checking from my unreliable old man’s memories... but shhh, don’t tell anyone) I reread the first three silver age Green Lantern stories which debuted in DC Showcase Issue 22 and I have to say that, while the movie has tarted up the background of Hal Jordan’s character (well you had to really), it’s pretty much left all the basic anchor points of the story as they originally were... and I think that with a character who is, basically, as cut and dry as Green Lantern was back in the sixties, this was probably the right call to make for his big screen debut.

There isn’t anything amazing or new on show in this film, to be honest, but it does have a very strong supporting element to it in the shape of an actor called Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan. Now I don’t really know this actor, I don’t remember him from the one film I’ve seen him in - Smokin’ Aces - and so I can’t really pass too much comment as to whether he’s a good actor or not. But what I can say is that he looks the dead spit of the Hal Jordan character as he was drawn in that debut issue back in 1959 and that he does brilliantly in the role, giving it the seriousness and respect that a role like this deserves. I’ll say it again... colour me surprised.

There are also a couple of nice touches in the movie. For instance, and I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this but, after Green Lantern's big entrance in the “helicopter rescue” scene, when he flies off, I’m pretty sure that the four notes played in James Newton Howards barely noticeable score as he does this (it’s mostly lost in the action mix of big explosions and effects sounds, which is a shame) are a version of Johnny Williams Superman the Movie theme (apparently a cameo appearance by Clark Kent was originally scheduled into the movie but got dropped later on).

The other great thing is when they pull the rug out of an unbelieving audience when it comes to Green Lantern protecting his secret identity. Pretty much all his friends figure out who he is and when one particular person seems like she isn’t, I was all ready to leap down the films throat because it’s really only a little mask with not much practical use in real life, there’s no way it would hide someone’s identity (this has always been a flaw with DC’s heroes... Mr. Kent’s glasses and very slight hairstyle change, for instance). But the director is definitely in on the joke and that character also realises, within less than a minute, that Green Lantern is, in fact, Hal Jordan... so that’s a nice little twist the movie makes... perhaps as a nod to the recent success of the Iron Man franchise which makes no bones about everyone knowing that the titular character is Tony Stark.

True, there’s a few little clunkers in the movie... like the ring giving Hal Jordan a background knowledge of The Guardians and the Green Lantern Corp but then still having to have stupid plot points explained to him for the benefit of the audience. What they really needed to give him was an exposition ring!

And the fact that the ring gives him the power of hearing everything translated into his own language but when a scene showing a sizeable gathering of aliens is shown, they’re all speaking alien languages. But these flaws are minor considering some of the clunkers made in other recent superhero movies (I loved the new X-Men: First Class but there were some amazing continuity errors made in it) and the entertainment factor kinda outweighs the little details on this one.

Even Sinistro, as played by Mark Strong who is probably best known for being the lead villain in Guy Ritchie’s first Sherlock Holmes movie, is a pretty likeable guy. Now before all you Lantern lovers scream at me about Sinistro... yeah, I know he’s a bad guy and so will most of the audience. After all, Sinistro is to Green Lantern what The Joker is to Batman, right? Well, they’ve really done a good job with Sinistro here as this film also serves as background detail to his character in light of a possible sequel. Most people in the audience are going to be waiting for the penny to drop and for Sinistro to turn into the bad guy, Green Lantern’s arch nemesis... well, all I’m saying is that, if you wait until a little of the way into the end credits, Sinistro fans will be rewarded!

And, really, there’s not much else to say about this film. Simple but effective big budget effects movie with a touch of heart that I really was not expecting to have a good thing to say about.

Colour me surprised.

Colour me green!

NUTS4R2’s Astonishing Trivia Treats: Although the Green Lantern oath used in the film will be familiar to fans of the character, this version of the oath was a revised one running from the mid-forties onwards. The original Green Lantern oath went something like this... “...and I shall shed my light over dark evil. For the dark things cannot stand the light, The light of the Green Lantern!”

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Stake Land

Make No Mistake!

Stake Land US 2011
Directed by Jim Mickle
Playing at cinemas now.

This one’s pretty much spoiler-free... as opposed to having free spoilers.

Jim Mickle’s independent horror movie Stake Land is a really interesting genre piece which, while not actually giving us anything new to established vampire cinema (asides, perhaps, from the nice touch of collecting fangs from your victims to keep a tally of undead kills), certainly pulls no punches in delivering good old vampire thrills and chills which other movies might gloss over to some extent or bulk up in a more commercially wrapped offering. Co-written by the director and one of the main leads, Nick Damici, Stake Land takes us into a scenario which is usually the exclusive bailiwick of the vampire’s illegitimate cousin of a genre, "the zombie movie" in that it takes us into a setting where the earth has been overrun by hordes of the undead and the few humans left alive have formed into little communities and outposts to survive their situation.

Like most undead movies, this vampire flick makes absolutely no attempt to explain why earth has come to be plunged into such a dire set of circumstances... content to let the action play out in an alternative universe which you have to invest in from the very start. Like the recent film Zombieland, which also uses a post-undead road trip format for its story to hang on, it also tells it’s story from the narrative viewpoint of a teenage boy who has been picked up by, in this case, a tough as nails vampire-killer named Mister (played by the aforementioned Nick Damici) including voice-over dialogue which reminded me at first of the Sissy Spacek narrative on Badlands... but there the similarity ends. Zombieland is a fun movie with a few scares and the usual predilection for zombie-killing body count sequences. Stake Land is not exactly shy of vampire-killing but it’s a lot more heavier on the scares and it has a lot more going for it than that.

For starters, it’s a lot more grittier than your standard undead-creatures-overrun-the-earth movie and right from the outset contains scenes which a major studio might have backed off from... for instance when one of our main protagonists is lured from his home and returns to see his family has been eaten and a vampire chowing down on a babe in arms... the bloody toddler carcass is left to drop to the floor as he sees the returning teenage boy. And it also doesn’t shy away from letting the audience make connections and skip scenes a less independently financed movie might want to stop and elaborate on. For instance, during the first ten minutes or so of the movie, we are led up to a mentor using a live vampire to train the young newbie in the necessary art of lethal defence and offence... as this sequence starts though, we just skip to the next part of the movie and are left to assume that it all went fine. This is fair enough and there’s plenty of vampire combat later to more than make up for the ommission in the early parts of the movie.

The movie also feels gritty through its cinematography. Lots of hand-held camerawork going on in this one but also an interesting amount of busy texture and constant filming of objects and details in the foreground of a shot to overshadow the actual action within the frame at any one time and this gives everything a sort of added sense of realism or at least depth to the shots... in much the same way that Roger Corman would leave the doors in his interiors open with a view of another room to give his shots an added richness they might otherwise be lacking. I’m not saying that this is why the director of Stake Land does this with his shot compositions... just that it’s what it reminded me of.

While this movie does suffer from the use of a lot of genre clichés, including a pregnant woman to slow the main protagonists down when they’re trying to run from a vampire attack... this movie more than makes up for it in the places its willing to go to in order to make all its points and I was particularly impressed with the decision on the writers’ parts to examine other effects on society that a vampire holocaust might bring. I don’t want to spoil things for readers who might not have seen the movie yet but lets just say that the robust and super-fast, super-strong vampires in this movie are not the only dangerous perils in this brave new world of survival and hardship. There’s worse things than vampires in them thar hills folks.

Stake Land can be a gruelling watch but it is at times tempered and sometimes adrenalised by a nice, homespun Americana-fiddle-de-do score by Jeff Grace which, at times gets a little minimalist and Glass-like but more than anything reminded me quite strongly of Greg Edmonson’s similar scoring for Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly. It’s pretty good... I’m not sure I’d buy it as a stand-alone listen but it’s certainly quite effective as a supporting voice to the film and helps keep everything nicely tacked together. It’s all very listenable within the context of the movie.

There’s one grump I had with this film (there’s gotta be one right?) and that was this. The movie doesn’t exactly draw attention to the fact that a vampire will react to sunlight like a piece of overdone toast left on for too long... it certainly doesn’t downplay it either... so why is that first, live (um...undead) vampire training session we don’t really get to see set in broad daylight. I think the answer to that question is possibly that they made the decision to go with that useful part of the vampire myth after they’d shot those scenes... and that they probably left as much as they thought they could get away with in the movie (ie. practically nothing) without people realising they’d just violated a major piece of vampire legend in much the same way that the makers of Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein did when they accidentally let Bela Lugosi’s Dracula cast a reflection in a mirror in that movie. If this is the case then my earlier statements about the paring down of certain scenes are less valid and less complimentary to the film-makers... so I’ll not worry too much about that one... continuity being the hobgoblin of small minds and other clichéd but useful quotes which directors and producers often use to help justify their own stupidity.

In summation then, Stake Land is a wonderful gem of a movie which should sit well with most horror movie fans (if not necessarily vampire fans). While I personally won’t be spending any time in Stake Land again in the forseeable future (unless they do a sequel) there’s certainly a lot to recommend in it and there’s a certain mean-spiritedness to the villains of the movie which, although the violence and gore are not excessive, make for a harrowing time at some points in terms of suspense and there's also some nicely unexpected turns of events that people used to a solid diet of blockbuster cinema might find a little more refreshing than their standard fare. Definitely worth a gander if horror cinema is your thing.