Saturday, 28 January 2012

The Darkest Hour 3D

Through An Hourglass Darkly

The Darkest Hour 3D 201 USA/Russia
Directed by Chris Gorak
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Dark spoilers reside in this Farraday cage of a review.

Um... the trailer for this movie looked like a rip roaring, sci-fi alien invasion adventure... the only downside being that it was in 3D. I figured that if the producer was the guy behind the sadly inappropriately adapted but visually spectacular Nightwatch and Daywatch movies, however, then this would be worth my while checking out. So I plonked my money down, put on the dreaded 3D glasses and waited for the high octane action spectacle to start.

Hmmm... what can I say about this one then. Well, it got off to a good start in the opening credits when I found out the music was by Brian Tyler who did such a great job with another recent alien invasion movie Battle: Los Angeles. So I figured at least the music was in safe hands (it was more than competent enough for this movie, that’s for sure).

And... that’s pretty much most of the good stuff in this movie then.

No, come on, I’ll be a bit more charitable because I was sorta entertained by it... just don’t want to ever have to sit through it again.

Okay... so The Darkest Hour is an alien invasion movie co-production between the US and Russia which tells the “story” of a group of teens (although quite possibly these guys n’ gals are in their twenties... just like their IQs) trying to survive the alien infested streets of Russia after a deadly and devastating “invasion” night when, pretty much, invincible, invisible aliens starting wiping people out left, right and centre. They meet up with a few other survivors and attempt to avoid aliens and put up some small resistance while trying to get the Americans among the main protagonists to a waiting nuclear submarine that will take them back to their similarly devastated country so they can mount a resistance with not much in the way of anything that they can fight the aliens with (which doesn’t take massive team effort) effectively.

The film starts out setting up the American protagonists and they are, like almost all of the people you meet in this movie, either very dumb or not really worth knowing or a combination of both. As you go through the film it doesn’t take very long for it to sink in that there really is no real connection with these airheads... you really don’t care whether the aliens suck them up into fragments as they steal their living energy or not.

Now, I am being pretty harsh here but it’s not unfounded. I’ll go ahead and say that the special effects, not something I would normally mention (because I really don’t care about how good or bad the special effects in a movie are... they aren’t really important to the appreciation of a good film... which this isn’t) are actually quite competent and some of the suspense sequences actually do work very well.

The aliens are all fine too...with one or two inconsistencies in the internal logic of the film. For instance, when an alien touches you, you’re dead. You instantly get sucked in and crumbled into dust... unless you happen to be one of the main protagonists. If you are a main protagonist then the mere touch of an alien is not enough to crumble you... they can pull you around this way and that while your friends try to save you when this happens so as to string out the suspense, it turns out.

Okay... so did I mention this movie was dumb? I’ve not seen the Twilight movies or read the novels but I suspect that this movie is aimed at the same teenage audience and the producers of this movie must have taken that as a green light to wantonly disregard any signs of intelligent life in their audience and just make the rules up as they go along... happily contradicting themselves as they follow their movie dream. For instance, the kids hide out for the best part of a week in a small basement room until lack of “coincidentally stored” food in said room forces them back into the alien populated streets. Funny that they all have exactly the same hairstyles and a total lack of facial hair when they come out as when they went in then, isn’t it?

Another example of the extreme lack of intelligence this movie assumes in its audience is the fact that they are locking radios in Faraday cages so that the energy signal can’t be detected by the aliens. However, it seems perfectly reasonable, to the writers of this tripe, that a signal sending to the radio can get into the cage so “our heroes” can find out about the waiting submarine... an underwater shielded nuclear vessel being the only thing left on earth that can actually transmit anything after the aliens turned off all the electrics in the world on their arrival.

And that’s another thing... what about that? The aliens have wiped out all electrical devices like phones etc... except when one of the girls gets her power back on her phone at the end... she has a message waiting from her parents... um... no cell phones or radio masts or electronics of any kind, guys, remember. Script doctor! Is there a script doctor in the house?

I have to say that, while I wasn’t particularly entertained enough by this film to be rivetted by it, it was quite diverting for its short running time and a teenage audience may well get a bigger kick out of it than me. For all its inconsistencies in logic and its lack of grounded or even sympathetic characters though, I really wouldn’t want to be responsible for inflicting this on another audience member. I can’t really recommend this one and I can’t honestly say anything really good about it other than it has some competent scoring and it doesn’t get on your nerves too much, once you’ve calmed down about the inadvertent breaking of the laws of physics throughout the movie. Don’t bother with this one unless there’s absolutely nothing else to watch and lets hope that the people holding the purse strings trust this director with a better script sometime soon because, I dunno, I just got the feeling that half of the problems with this movie were not the directors fault. So fingers crossed for him.

Friday, 27 January 2012


Haywired For Sound

Haywire 2012 USA/Ireland
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: Ever so slight spoilers in
this one... not really spoilers as such.

Okay... so I’m always a bit undecided on Steven Soderbergh as a director. I remember seeing a programme covering the Cannes Film Festival which he won with Sex, Lies and Videotape and I also remember seeing the movie in question at the cinema a little while later and rating it highly (though it’s been years since I saw it). But for every Sex, Lies and Videotape he’s directed, he’s also made, what are for me, huge missteps in direction when it comes to film choices and many of his movies I’ve just plain refused to see.

For instance... if I want to see a Rat Pack film then I’ve got the original Ocean’s Eleven. Honestly, why would I want to see a remake of such when it doesn’t even feature Sammy Davis Jr dancing with trash can lids? Similarly, and perhaps more seriously... why in heck would you get it into your head to make an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris when, frankly, the 1972 version by “the poet of cinema” Andrei Tarkovsky is the definitive last word on what that movie could ever be. Seriously... Tarkovsky’s Solaris is one of the greatest pieces of cinematic art ever made... leave it the heck alone and certainly don’t make a movie where the running time is almost half the length of the original... Solaris is the last movie you’d want to whittle down in the edit. Might as well remake Star Wars or The Third Man.

The few films I have seen by Soderbergh... Sex, Lies and Videotape, The Limey and Full Frontal... were all pretty great movies, especially The Limey, which is a major motion picture event in its own right.

Which brings me neatly on to Haywire because it wasn’t until I saw the credits roll at the start that I realised that this one was written by the same writer, Lem Dobbs, who had done such a fantastic job with The Limey. Now, Haywire is a different kind of film, to be sure... but it’s still quite a cool experience and Soderbergh really comes into his own again on this one by showing what a great eye he has for the way the shots are framed. Even during the action sequences which are, to be fair, really all that the movie comprises of, the shot set ups are beautiful to look at and would not been nearly as arresting in the hands of some of the other directors who are competent with the visual language of the action thriller.

Haywire follows the character of Mallory, played by Gina Carano, a hitwoman/secret agent kind o’ gal who has been set up by her ex-lover and former employee (played by Ewan McGregor) to take the terminal fall for... I dunno, something political I guess. Mallory has other ideas of course and as she does her one woman Jason-Bourne-goes-for-payback-time act to get back at McGregor and find out who’s at the top of the chain, she encounters such established actors as Michael Douglas, Antonio Banderas and Michael Fassbender as she runs, jumps and shoots her way in and out of trouble.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this movie is that it is a big, dumb action movie. There are definite allusions to a deeper intelligence in the script which works hand-in-hand with the overall miasma of the cloak and dagger of the subject matter to give this movie the appearance of being something a little more smart than it actually is... but this certainly doesn’t posess the ice cold, hard nosed intelligence of Adam Hall’s Quiller novels, or even something slightly less challenging by John Le Carre or Len Deighton. But it does filter the atmosphere and dialogue hits of those kinds of books (and movies) to pull the wool over the audiences eyes in terms of the actual simplicity of the story and this is what helps lend credence to the movie as a more intelligent level of thriller... when really it’s actually no more intelligent than something like The Transporter or Taken.

Now I’m not knocking either of those films (love ‘em both) but this movie still seems to have a certain “spy chill” in its make-up and a lot of this chill comes from having actors who can speak these kinds of lines without investing them with too much emotion. Everyone is just a little bit understated and muffled in their characters and this plays rather nicely against the scenes where Gina Carano is fighting for her survival and clawing her way through the chain of people.

The first half of the movie follows a fight sequence where Mallory grabs a guy and his car and starts to tell him all the things that have been happening recently and detailing her betrayal to this “civilian” so that he can talk to the police. The second half of the movie catches us back up to the present and then becomes a race to the finish line as Mallory lays a trap in her fathers house (played by Bill Paxton in a role in which he is a nice kinda guy for once) and springs it near the end of the movie.

Respect, also, to Soderbergh for treating the musical score of the movie with the gravitas it deserved and actually let it effectively carry some of the load. The score by someone I’d not heard of called David Holmes is really deft and jazzy and Soderbergh turns the sound effects right down during most of the action scenes to allow the music to breathe on its own and do its job. This was a really good and positive decision and I wish more directors were doing stuff like this. In fact the sound design in this one was impressive all round. Nice work!

I do have to say though that, despite the allusions to a more intelligent plot line lurking at the edges of the scenes, the film is really quite predictable in a lot of places... especially the action sequences. For instance, the opening sequences set in a diner are not so smart as the film tries it’s best to convince you that it’s not about to leap into a glossy action fight... but you pretty much know when one of the characters orders a coffee, just what he’s going to do with it (although the over-the-top, make believe lack of consequence to these kinds of actions in these kinds of movies ensure that this is no homage Gloria Grahame in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, at least in terms of cause and effect reactions... this movie’s more about people punching things, it has to be said... and there’s nothing wrong with that). Similarly, there’s a scene where you know that two “work colleagues” are suddenly going to burst into action and try to kill each other as soon as they get into their hotel room and little things like this did kinda make me wish the movie had more, actual surprises in it.

However, this didn’t cramp the style of the film one bit and I can honestly say that this is one of the better American made spy thrillers I’ve seen in a while. Plenty of action coupled with some startling acting make this one an unmissable cinema attraction at the moment. Definitely a strong recommendation from me... and Soderbergh is definitely still a major player in todays changeable cinematic landscape, I would say. Take a walk to your local fleapit and check this one out.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

The Artist

State Of The Artist!

The Artist 2011 France/Belgium
Directed by Michel Hazanavicius
Screening at UK cinemas.

Warning: There will be very slight
spoilers silently creeping into this review.

I really wasn’t sure whether I wanted to see The Artist but there’s been so much ballyhoo about it lately that I felt compelled to take a look. I’m a bit cynical when it comes to public reaction over what is, for all intents and purposes, a silent movie. I’ve watched a fair few silent movies and enjoyed most of them, so that really wasn’t a bother for me, although I was worried a carbon copy of the style of silent cinema would prove less entertaining than the public reaction would have me believe.

Also, I’m quite angry in some ways that the public are treating a silent movie as a novelty item... as if such a thing shouldn’t be allowed to exist within the modern cinema landscape... frankly it’s like people are throwing their hands up to cheer for something which they see as a circus performance to relieve them of the nagging boredom of yet another Hollywood blockbuster.

Another thing I’m quite angry about is that the majority of the audiences who have enjoyed this film would not normally be caught dead seeing a French (or any other non-English speaking country for that matter) film because they don’t like subtitles. Honestly, the amount of times I’ve been “warned” by cinema staff on the rare occasions we do get a foreign release that the film is not in English and has... pause to look both ways in case the next word shocks people... subtitles! My response to this is usually to sarcastically... or possibly just ironically... point out to the ticket seller that I am very glad indeed that the film in question has subtitles because I am not in any way multi or bi-lingual (or even bi-curious for that matter) and if the movie didn’t have those... well I wouldn’t be able to understand it now, would I? How grateful I am to the generous movie company for making subtitles available on their few (very few) foreign language movies.

By now the ticket seller has usually gone white in the face but at least they don’t pre-book specific seats anymore. You wanna see the look on a ticket seller’s face when they ask you where you want to sit and you reply that this is entirely dependent on the aspect ratio that the film is being projected in and could they please tell me what that is so I can make that kind of decision?

Anyway... I get angry with audiences who will only go and see a French film if it’s a silent film and doesn’t have subtitles. Perhaps the huge amount of American actors is enough to comfort them during their anxiety or maybe, just maybe, there’s so many US actors in it that they didn’t realise it was French... all I know is that, being a silent movie, the film has no subtitles but plenty of intertitles... so I really don’t understand modern audiences I guess. You still have to possess the increasingly rare and special commodity of being able to read so... what’s the difference?

What I do know, though, is that if The Artist has become the success it has due to audiences of this nature, it has to be said that, after watching it and being moved and entertained by the shenanigans of the characters/actors on screen... it truly deserves to be a success.

A big thing you need to understand about this movie though, is that it’s not trying to doggedly copy silent movies. It’s definitely more Planet Terror than Deathproof in terms of retrospective attitude, for example (and to push a comparison). Both those two halves of the movie phenomenon of Grindhouse were looking back referentially at 70s grindhouse cinema but Planet Terror elevated itself beyond that by looking back at it through a postmodern haze of nostalgia, whereas Deathproof pretty much became the thing it was trying to copy too well (and therefore ended up being the dull and less watchable half of that particular double-bill).

The Artist does the same thing as Planet Terror in that it doesn’t try to be the thing it’s trying to be a pastiche of so much... the film is not actually set during the silent period of cinema but starts just on the turn into talkies in 1927 (the year the first feature length talkie, arguably, The Jazz Singer was released) and goes through to about 1932 or 1933, which is when musicals really took off... which is actually an important detail for the ending of this particular movie. If anything, and it gets quite blatant during the early reels, the film is looking more like Singin’ In The Rain and then peeking backwards from there as a starting point than actually going back and researching the way certain things would have been in the twenties... at least that’s what I believe was happening (not that the film makers didn't do their research on this one... quite obviously they did). The similarities and gestures in the scenes outside the theatre where our leading man and woman meet for the first time, for example, look like the crowds and their reactions have been lifted right out of the aforementioned musical and plopped right on down in The Artist. People who know Singin’ In The Rain well, down to the smallest details, will spot a lot of this stuff happening throughout the movie.

There are, of course, loads of other references (Garbo and such like) but I also thought the leading man... who is presumably modelled here as some sort of cross between Douglas Fairbanks and Clark Gable, had very much the air of Gene Kelly playing Don Lockwood about him... and, to be sure, it also covers problems caused by the same dilemma... the effect of talking pictures on the silent movie stars, many of whom were big stars who were out of a job almost overnight because their voices didn’t fit, followed and aggravated a couple of years later by the notorious Wall Street Crash. This isn’t the specific reason here why George Valentin played by Jean Dujardin in this picture takes the downward spiral to possible suicide... here the main protagonist is as much to blame as his circumstances. I won’t spoil that one for you here though... or what the final outcome is.

This is not just a silent movie though, by any stretch. Much as you might think the movie is going to be something of a one trick pony, it really isn’t. There’s some nice playing around with the language of cinema, especially in the scene where George points a revolver at his head... at us, being the camera eye. I was just waiting for those four frames of red to be inserted like in Spellbound at this point... the fact that they weren’t, I feel, was a missed opportunity on the part of the director. I won’t tell you how this scene, which plays very near to the end of the film, winds up but I do find it interesting that the juxtaposition of two visuals which can use the same onomatopoeic reference is just one of many “tricks of the trade” that a French film will gladly use to confound an audience but which the American’s tend not to do so much in cinema these days... although, clever use of similar “pull-the-rug-from-under-the-audience” explorations used to get used every week on episodes of the TV show The Simpsons. This is good stuff people... and exactly what cinema is brilliant at.

There are two great sequences with sound in this movie too... one at the end which is an homage to Busby Berkeley but without the scale and the other a very clever sequence in the middle which is used to signal the beginning of the decline of the main character while the leading lady invests in the modern technology and begins to soar! Again it plays around with audience perceptions filtered into a viewpoint by everything that has gone before and then up-ended to achieve a surprise effect. Nice work!

This film is actually quite well crafted but, better than that, it’s quite witty and has a cute dog! A cute dog who runs to the rescue like a mini Rin Tin Tin in a sequence where the very essence of cinema is being used as an instrument of suicide... um... when someone is about to possibly burn to death from lighting up heaps of celluloid.

What really matters, at the end of the day though, is how this film made me feel.

Well I could say that it felt like I’d heard Kim Novak being raped if I was being unkind and I’m not about to turn this review into a debate about the very long history of reusing soundtracks in movies (maybe that’s another article). What I will say though is if you put a well known piece of music by Bernard Herrmann up against pretty much anything that any modern composer could write (and don’t get me wrong... the original score by Ludovic Bource is really good in this one), then Herrmann’s score is going to blow anything else away. So, yes, the love theme for Vertigo is very overpowering in its use in this movie towards the end and yes, it does fit in very well with the sequence being scored (which bears no resemblance to what the music was originally written for in any way shape or form) but this does seem to me to be a severe case of temp-trackitus I have to say. It’s like the director or producers lost confidence in the composer, whereas the composer has already proved that he has the talent and skill to score a scene like this... at least in my book he does. It wasn’t necessary to use it but, at the same time, Miss Novak’s comments about being raped by the music while watching The Artist are a little ignorant considering the historical precedents... and she certainly didn’t complain about it being used in 12 Monkeys, as far as I can recall?

So no... I didn’t really get to hear Kim Novak being raped... but I certainly did find myself sniffling all through the final reel and... well okay... pretty much bawling my eyes out. I think partly that’s to do with just getting old and becoming more emotional as the years go by... that’s my excuse anyway.

Despite the time setting and allusions to silent cinema... The Artist really harkens back to those brilliantly over-stylised 50s musicals (even though this movie is not a musical) and so this kind of feeling of having the tears welling up in your eyes while your heart swells up in your chest is not entirely unexpected in this instance. Although it feels a bit hokey and fake in some ways, it’s hokey and fake in all the right places and underplays what is a genuinely well crafted, or at least consistently crafted, piece of movie-making. This one’s a definite recommendation from me and, honestly... who else but the French can make a perfect film about the process of making American movies. Get yourself to a movie house before it goes!

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Top 30 CD Soundtrack Releases of 2011

2011 Merry Go Sound

Okay. So last year I was getting a lot of hassle from people to write an end of year, best movies list which I didn’t do because... basically... I was ashamed of having to exist these days on a diet of mostly US Hollywoodland releases when it comes to the first run stuff because my local multiplex, even though it has 15 screens, is too dumbed down to show non-English language movies (I have to catch up with any outstanding foreign releases on DVD and hope that the financial risk is good).

So, in it’s stead, I decided to write a review of the top 20 soundtrack CD releases of 2010 (read it here), something I felt more qualified to be able to write about, in the hopes that it would be enough to fob people off and distract them enough from the fact that I hadn’t done a “top movies” list.

Now then... this year I was all shameless and actually did do a proper best movies list (read it here) and so I thought I’d done my duty. Not so, apparently, because now I’m being asked what my favourite score CD releases of the year were. Doh!

Okay... I buy hundreds of these things every year and, with all the small boutique labels giving us restored “Holy Grail” type restored score classics on a regular basis in very small, buy-it-in-the-three-hour-window-it’s-available limited edition runs... well, lets just say that last year was a real humdinger for score releases. So much so, in fact, that I really couldn’t narrow it down to just 20.

However, I don’t always get time to listen to the stuff I buy more than once these days (I’m going to try to sort out that problem sometime soon although, apparently, my classic ipod is filled up with over a months worth non-stop listening of scores... something like 36 days of music end to end in there at the moment... thank you 160gb!), so please bear in mind that these entries are not going to be detailed. Also, just because a score is ranked higher than another, just means that “for the moment” I like that score slightly more than the other one... and that could change when I get back into listening to the other.

I’m not, for example, suggesting that The Chemical Brothers’ excellent score for Hanna is in any way, shape or form a greater score than, say, Ron Goodwin’s score for Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines... it’s just what I’m listening to more at the moment.

Also, be aware that these are CD releases for 2011... that doesn’t mean to say the film came out in 2011 and it perhaps says something about the state of modern film scoring (which is actually more to do with the state of modern film making than anything the actual composers are doing) that so few of my favourite score releases from last year were from films that were actually released last year.

The one thing that surprised me about this list was the fact that there was only one Italian release and no Japanese releases on it this year. Oh well... I’m sure they’ll sneak back in "big time" next year. Here, then, is my top 30... for better or worse. Please feel free to share your favourite scores lists in the comments section.

30. Green Lantern by James Newton Howard (Sony)
Okay... so this was a much maligned and underrated score to a much maligned and underrated movie. A movie which, perhaps, suffered at the hands of modern audiences from having a fairly simplistic plotline. The soundtrack is very modern, however, and I think a lot of score fans might be pleasantly surprised by this one if they gave it some time in their CD player or ipod as a stand-alone experience. It perhaps didn’t help that the US release of this was only marketed as a CD-R whilst the UK release was a properly pressed CD from Sony.

29 Mimic by Marco Beltrami
(The Deluxe Edition Varese Sarabande Club)
Okay... this is a heavily expanded and remastered edition of a score I didn’t know much about, from a film I’ve completely forgotten but remember thinking was okay when it was first shown on TV. It was such an “in demand” score that I decided to give it a go based on the posted sound samples because I half expected it would sell its entire limited CD run very quickly (which it did). It was a good call because it’s a classic piece of “semi-melodic-with-some-dark-atonal-textures-thrown-in” modern day horror scoring. Definitely worth picking up in this expanded form if you can still get a hold of one.

28. It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World by Ernest Gold (La-La Land)
Ernest Gold’s vinyl re-recording of the score has been remastered and released at least twice on CD in recent history... but this new two disc edition from La-La Land is the one that gets it right by finally including the cues as they were originally recorded for the film. It’s always worth shelling out for this score just once, if only for the overture song and the main title music that accompanied the late, great Saul Bass’ incredible title designs.

27. Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines
by Ron Goodwin (Intrada Special Collection)
The first CD release of this fine score is given the full and proper two disc Intrada treatment. That opening title song is worth it alone with its very long intro which includes a bad orchestra trying to play Alfred Newman’s classic 20th Century Fox logo ident music. Put it on the speakers... it’ll go up-tiddly-up-up and it’ll go down-tiddly-down-down.

26.River Of No Return by Lionel Newman,
Leigh Harline, Cyril J. Mockridge paired on one CD with
NIAGARA by Sol Kaplan (Intrada Special Collection)
Okay. I’ll come clean. If River Of No Return was released on its own I wouldn’t have bought it... but I just love the score they’ve paired it with.... Niagara. One of my favourite Marilyn Monroe films and the song” Kiss” from this is woven into the score with a firm hand by composer Sol Kaplan. It’s rare for films by composers such as Kaplan and Harline to get a release in the modern soundtrack market place. Golden age composers don’t get a lot of attention these days, unfortunately, so it’s good to have stuff by less bankable composers such as Harline and Kaplan represented on the odd CD like this one.

25. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (Null)
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross made a name for themselves with a score I’ve not heard, to a movie I’ve not seen, called The Social Network. I was a bit defensive about the US adaptation of the first novel in the Millennium Trilogy but it really wasn’t a bad version of the book... And the score is pretty interesting, it has to be said. A very special friend bought me this for my Birthday and I’m really glad she did. Starting off with their noisy cover version of Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, the score has a dark but lyrical electronic sound and it’s quite rare for composers in the medium to actually produce electronic music which holds its own against traditional compositional and performance techniques. Reznor and Ross really do this very well here though and it’s going to get a lot of listens from me, I can tell that already. It’s a much more appropriate musical support than the pleasant but clichéd score on the original Swedish movie and the record company have produced this generous three disc edition which is a lot more than most would. So... much applause for this particular record label on this one.

24. X-Men: First Class by Henry Jackman (Sony)
Ok, so apart from completely and blatantly contradicting various incidents from both the third X-Men movie and also the Wolverine movie, this film was actually pretty good. The music works really well and was amazingly popular with people. The driven ostinato that underscores Magneto is one of the most stand-out tracks of the year, in its various forms.

23. Humanoids From The Deep by James Horner
and Christopher Lennertz (Buysoundtrax)
Woohoo! James Horner’s schlocky horror score for the Roger Corman produced “when fish people attack and rape our women” movie gets it’s first “official” release. This is from the days when we all thought Horner was an original! Not only that, it also has some score cuts from the remake, scored by Christopher Lennertz.

22. Project Moon Base/Open Secret
by Herschel Burke Gilbert (Monstrous Movie Music)
Oh come one. It’s rare enough to get a score release from such an obscure composer. The fact that there are two of his scores on here and one of them happens to be a 1953 scifi movie scored with an orchestra augmented by an electric string quartet and a theremin is just the icing on the cake. What’s not to like about releases of this nature?

21. The Monster That Challenged The World
by Heinz Roemheld (Monstrous Movie Music)
And here we have another rare 50s scifi B-movie score... and it’s by Heinz Roemheld. Serously people, as far as I can make out, this is the only original Roemheld score to ever get a CD release to date... which is kinda criminal when you think he wrote the original opening title music to the first Buster Crabbe Flash Gordon serial (uncredited) and some great stock music for Werewolf of London (also uncredited!). Anything with big sounds to score monsters gets a big tick in my book.

20. It! The Terror From Beyond Space
by Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter (Monstrous Movie Music)
And talking of big sounds to score monsters with... Paul Sawtell & Bert Shefter are better known for their scores for movies like Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea, The Fly, Jack The Giant Killer and Five Weeks In A Balloon. Here they score big again, bringing you their killer notes from beyond the far reaches of space and into your ears. Fear them!

19. Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows
by Hans Zimmer (Watertower)
This score builds on and plays around with the style and melodies which Zimmer created for the previous film. Heady stuff. Perhaps not quite such a brilliantly consistent listen as the first album, this score is still pretty interesting and it’s good to hear those little violin wisps wandering around the foreground of the tracks. Could have done without the additional bad cover version of Morricone’s excellent Two Mules For Sister Sara theme in it though.

18. The Satanic Rites of Dracula
by John Cavacas (Buysoundtrax)
Okay, so it’s probably a toss up as to whether the score to Hammer’s Dracula AD 1972 is more funkier than The Satanic Rites Of Dracula or not. I’d probably argue the former but this album is a lot more consistent in tone than the score to the previous film... even with the inclusion on the disc of some unused cues. Buysoundtrax is not a label I like dealing with due to orders that get consistently lost and absolutely abysmal customer service... however, in their defence, they do get some good, long sought after scores on the market and I try to order their stuff from other dealers now if I want to buy their product.

17. Thor by Patrick Doyle (Disney)
Patrick Doyle has never really been a blip on my radar before... until I heard this score both in the movie (which was pretty good) and then as a stand-alone CD experience (which was even better). Almost Korngoldian in its approach, this one will certainly get the goosebumps rising in certain passages. The score to Thor makes you go “cor”!

16. Hanna by The Chemical Brothers (Sony)
Again, I’ve never heard of The Chemical Brothers before but, hmmm, you know when I said earlier how hard it is to do a decent electronic score? Well these guys (?) have really got a handle in electronic music too. This one really gets under yer ear flaps. Very melodic and poppy but strangely listenable.

15. The Alfred Hitchcock Hour Volumes 1 & 2
by Bernard Herrmann (Varese Sarabande CD Club)
Woah! Right here is one amazing release... except it’s not. These are two separate multi-CD releases so I kinda cheated there I’m afraid. Didn’t want to call the article 31 best score releases of 2011, okay? I never thought I’d get any more previously unreleased Herrmann for Hitchcock releases in my lifetime. This is an amazing find and is, as to be expected, the very definition of Herrmannesque. At times dark, broody and rumblingly repetitive and at other times absolutely beautifully moving, these two limited edition sets should not be missed.

14. Metropolis by Gottfried Huppertz (Capricio)
Well, this is technically a re-recording of Gottfried Huppertz original score to Fritz Lang’s silent masterpiece Metropolis (they used to send the scores out to the orchestras or piano transcripts of them to the cinemas showing these things). What’s that you say? A rerecording on a list of movie scores? Well... yes and no. Actually no. You see, this recording is the one which now accompanies the DVD so it can be heard closer to the original vision of the film would have been... and not with some fly-by-night VHS or DVD label running classical music over it instead. Also, it’s a very important artefact of film history because the score was used a great deal in working out how to put the jigsaw puzzle of the full print of Metropolis back together again after all these years. It’s a not half bad album either! This is now, and ever shall be, the score to Metropolis.

13. Battle: Los Angeles by Brian Tyler (Varese Sarabande)
I’m beginning to really warm to Brian Tyler now. I first started taking him seriously when he stood in for the late Jerry Goldsmith by composing a score, utilising one of Goldsmith’s original themes, for Stallone’s fourth Rambo movie. Battle: Los Angeles is actually a nice little alien invasion movie and Tylers score is surprisingly melodic and, for a modern movie, uses a surprising amount of “martial percussion” in its make-up. A really great little listen.

12. Masada by Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens (Intrada Special Collection)
The theme from Masada was a long held and very popular staple of Jerry Goldsmith’s concert days. The main title is a rousing piece of music which is completely addictive to the ear. This two disc restoration of the original mini series score also includes a good deal of Morton Steven’s score from the same mini series. This music really rocks!

11. House of Usher by Les Baxter (Intrada Special Collection)
I never thought this would see the light of day. Most of these old Corman scores are totally lost but they are so often requested that some companies have been releasing the few cues they do have from various films and putting them out like that anyway. House of Usher is a classic Baxter score for a Poe movie and really gets the atmosphere. This was a must buy!

10. Gremlins by Jerry Goldsmith (Film Score Monthly)
After decades of just having four small cues of score available from this classic Joe Dante movie, Film Score Monthly bring us a definitive 2 disc edition of the whole score. Utilising his own violin motif he wrote for the “Gremlin-on-the-side-of-the-plane” remake in Twilight Zone The Movie, Goldsmith’s score will move you but also keep you in stitches. There are some witty and inventive cues in this score. An absolute classic.

9. Doctor Who Series Six by Murray Gold (Silva Screen)
Continuing his tradition of being one of the most popular composers on the UK scene, Murray Gold’s seventh collection of scores from the well loved TV show is another generous double disc helping and the Bond-like action cue from the opening of the second episode (track 5) is so good that I’m convinced this guy should get to score at least one Bond movie before he dies.

8. 1941 by John Williams (La-La Land)
Again, a long overdue expansion of a timeless classic. 1941 may not have made much of a splash at the box office but the score is typical Williams ear candy and, frankly, once you get that march in your head, it’s not going away again without a fight!

7. The Black Hole by John Barry (Intrada/Disney)
Not only a properly expanded release but also the first ever non-bootleg CD of John Barry’s amazing score to this underrated Disney movie. The overture is Barry’s homage to the Korngoldian resurgence in film scoring popularised by John Williams’ score for Star Wars and the rest is... classic Barry. Sinister and driven and an absolutely beautiful score.

6. Devil - Fernando Velázquez (Varese Sarabande Club Edition)
This score to the M. Night Shyamalan produced horror story about some people stuck in a lift with the devil was overlooked by audiences... but it was quite a nice little horror movie. The score was very strong and I’m really glad it’s got a release (albeit in a limited edition which sold out very quickly) a couple of years down the line. Really good atonal horror fest music that I find myself playing more and more.

5. The Egyptian - Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann
(The Deluxe Edition Varese Sarabande Club)
Well... what can one say about this incredible score co-composed by two of the greatest names in the industry. So many previous releases of this have been out in the past but this limited two disc edition is the first time the whole score has been made available... and it’s an incredible piece by two great writing talents. A necessary foundation stone to any soundtrack library.

4. Casino Royale - Burt Bacharach (Kritzerland)
Woohoo. This umpteenth reissue and remaster of Bacharach’s classic comedy Bond score is slightly expanded but, more importantly, its really well mixed this time around and has never sounded better. No wonder it sold out so quickly. Not only that but this is the first release ever... can you believe it... to feature that groovy end title song on it... “Have no fear Bond is here!” My only caveat is that there’s apparently an even more expanded two disc edition coming out from Quartet Records in February. Looks like I’ll be splashing the Bacharach cash once again then.

3. The Great Train Robbery
(aka The First Great Train Robbery) - Jerry Goldsmith (Intrada)
This is the third time on CD and, frankly, this is the expansion and remaster where the label in question got it right and did a much better job than all the previous labels who have worked with these masters. This is a seriously great “Englishified” Jerry Goldsmith score and I can guarantee you I’ll be playing it for years and years. It is so cool!

2. Lo Strano Vizio Della Signora Wardh
(aka The Strange Vice of Mrs. Wardh) - Nora Orlandi (Quartet)
A track from this score to one of my favourite giallo movies was featured in Kill Bill Volume 2... but for some reason everybody assumed it was tracked in from a spaghetti western. Whatever... all I know is that this is a great album and I’m so pleased it’s finally got a legitimate, if limited, release. Groovy in places but... very, very haunting in others. A great piece of work from the only female composer featured on this year’s list.

1. Bernard Herrmann at 20th Century Fox Box (Varese Sarabande Club Edition)
Blimey... this really was a massive release... and a complete, and very expensive, surprise. This was released on 27th December and has 14 discs worth of numerous Bernard Herrmann scores, some of which have never been released, some of which are expanded and all of them remastered. Plus a 100+ pages accompanying booklet. At $230 (including postage to the UK) I couldn’t really afford to buy this... but I went ahead anyway and scrimped and saved on other things because Bernard Herrmann is my absolute favourite composer and they only made 1000 of these things which sold out very quickly. I was further alarmed that customs charged me a whopping extra £36 on top of that but every time I hear how great classic scores like The Ghost And Mrs. Muir and Garden Of Evil sound in this set, I just can’t bring myself to regret this purchase. An absolutely brilliant end to the year and it easily takes my number one spot.

Honourable Mentions

HM1. The Music of Battlestar Galactica For Solo Piano (Buysoundtrax)
Some solo piano transcripts (transcribed by the composer himself and played expertly by Joohyun Park) of a selection of Bear McCreary’s score for the recent TV show of Battlestar Galactica is a really great two disc set. Because it’s not been used as a score in its own right, I couldn’t include it in the main list... but it’s well worth getting your ears around if you like the music from the TV show.

HM2. The Golden Child (La-La Land)
This three disc set includes the score to the movie by Michel Colombier but that’s not the reason to buy this album. The reason to get hold of this one before it sells out (think it’s still available) is because it also includes the full rejected score by John Barry... and what a classic Barry score it is. Absolutely brilliant listening experience for any Barry fan. It’s really worth shelling out for.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Doc Savage - The Desert Demons

Savage Pulps!

Doc Savage - The Desert Demons
2011. By Kenneth Robeson (Will Murray)
Altus Press. ISBN: 9781618270016

Warning: No real spoilers... but this does get kind of rambly
while I place Doc Savage in context with the rest of my life!

1975 was a really great year for me in terms of movies.

My film education was slowly coming along and getting more focussed the older I got. I was barely one year old when my parents took me to see Hello Dolly at the cinema back in 1969 (these were the dark days before home video remember). I apparently slept through the majority of it but loved it when I saw it again, less than a decade later. I'm told I liked Dumbo a lot better, which I believe I saw at around the same age.

After that my diet of young teeny kid movies relied on Fred Astaire and John Wayne movies on TV, followed by James Bond re-release double bills at the cinema, mixed with the odd fantasy film like Battle For The Planet Of The Apes or The Golden Voyage Of Sinbad (my first exposure as a five year old to Caroline Munro on screen, although I’d often noticed her photograph on the Lambs Navy Rum posters which littered the tube stations I was already travelling through, often, from the age of around 18 months onwards - possibly a lot earlier... but that’s another story).

Then another thing happened which increased my craving for fantasy films... in 1973, or possibly 1974, the BBC showed the entire Flash Gordon (1934) serial on a Saturday or Sunday sliced into two big parts, sandwiching a screening of a Hoppalong Cassidy film... I think this was the first time that the BBC had showed the “Buster” Crabbe starring serial in any form and it most certainly wouldn’t be the last... over the years the three Flash Gordon serials and the Buck Rogers serial would be shown fairly regularly in their proper episodic format and would be a staple of early evening or early morning holiday time viewing in our household. I just ate those things up. Here, there really was a fast moving sci-fi adventure yarn which mirrored, in many ways, the old DC comics which had taught me how to read and get ahead of other kids way before I ever got to Nursery School. Yes, they were simplistic but then, so were the comics I was reading and the Flash Gordon serials blew me away. From that moment on, my love of film and the moving image really took off but... in 1975... there was one more thing that really cemented the deal for me and made sure that I payed no attention to anything else but movies, comics, books and TV shows for the rest of my life.

One afternoon, I was watching a lightweight film review programme presented by Chris Kelly called Clapperboard. On it they showed a clip from a new movie in which a blond haired man, who I instantly recognised as Ron Ely from the Tarzan TV show which aired on Saturday mornings, was doing battle in his study with what looked liked luminous green snakes made up out of laser light (I didn’t know they were green right then as we only had a black and white telly... for years I’d assumed Thunderbird 2 was red!). The green light-snakes had attacked him and were impervious to his wasted shotgun blast... they just reformed themselves before my amazed eyes. I was hooked... and begged my parents to take me to see it as a special family outing (knowing full well the cinema was a long trip for a carless family... all the way over to Enfield by bus or train... which is where I eventually made my home in later years... but again, that’s another story). I desperately needed to see this movie, which Chris Kelly had identified as Doc Savage: The Man Of Bronze.

It was a good call... Doc Savage was my hero from that day on. I didn’t know, or indeed care, that the movie was actually not taking itself very seriously and shot through with a rich vein of camp humour... I thought it was deadly serious (as deadly serious as I took those Adam West Batman shows on TV) and, frankly, the cliffhanger serial-style escapes and homages to the pulp adventure yarns which had inspired it was enough to sell me on that kind of movie for life. I’ll always love the “Doc Savages” of this world and, as it turned out, it was a really good choice for a family cinema trip because my mum and dad absolutely loved it too (yeah, we still watch it once in a while... possibly one of the most fun movies ever made).

Of course Star Wars was only just around the corner... which would leave it’s own rich, postmodernistic, eclectic legacy burned into my retina but, while I waited for “The Joy Of SFX” to whip me up in its droid-like arms and ride me off into the twin sunset, the biggest things in my life were Doc Savage... and the Marvel comics adaptation of Logan’s Run (a movie I wouldn’t have been allowed in a cinema to see at the time).

So naturally I gravitated to the source novels for the movie I’d just been to. I’d seen them around as a kid with all the John Carter and Conan collections in places like the dedicated sci-fi novel and comic shop Dark They Were And Golden Eyed (my favourite shop which closed in the late 70s/early 80s and one which seems to have left a memorable mark on a lot of kids my age at the time). The UK Corgi editions of just three of the novels in the series, The Man Of Bronze, The Thousand Headed Man and Meteor Menace were what I started on first (they were expensive items at 35p each in the mid seventies)... before I discovered that Lester Dent (writing under the house pen name of Kenneth Robeson) had written almost all of around 180 of them in the 30s and 40s which had been slowly bleeding out in reprint form from Bantam in the US since the 60s. In those days, these things were just starting to get quite hard to find but you could often discover hidden treasure in the odd second hand bookshop and, to this day, I still occasionally find one peeking out at me from a dusty wall... although they are extremely hard to come by now. I’ve put together a little library of between 80 or 90 of them so far I think... always on the lookout.

Last year, and I didn’t find out about this until a couple of months ago, there was a brand new written Doc Savage novel by longtime fan and professional writer Will Murray.. again writing under the series’ pseudonym Kenneth Robeson. As soon as I found that little gem out, I immediately leapt into action and asked someone to get it for me as a Christmas present (hey... who wants socks?). I was pretty sure this would be a pretty good homage to the original pulps as Murray had written a small series of seven Doc Savage novels (again, under the original author’s pseudonym Kenneth Robeson) in the 90s and I remember thinking just how good they were and almost indistinguishable in style from the original novels.

So when Christmas came and I found the said literary tome was delivered up to my eager hands, I knew it was going to be the second book I read this holiday (after the latest Patricia Cornwell masterpiece of course). So, after a gap of almost two decades since he’d penned the last one, the question I was asking myself was... would Will Murray be able to fashion a genuinely Robeson-like Doc Savage experience as he had done in the early 90s or not?

Well, I have to say that the answer to that is... yes and no.

There’s no doubt that the language and general flavour of this particular Doc Savage adventure is pitch perfect... it IS a Doc Savage adventure and definitely belongs alongside anything the late Lester Dent created. It’s not particularly philosophical writing. It’s clever in its use of both sticking with while occasionally pulling a surprise out of the standard, adventuresome formula of the original works... but it doesn’t necessarily let on in any way that it’s actually self aware of that... if you understand what I mean. It’s clear that Murray is an absolute expert on the Doc Savage franchise and the writing style... the kind of words Doc and his crew would use, the general language of the time it is set in and the deceptively simpler attitudes to their times that the various characters express are all woven from the exact same cloth as those original pulp magazines from the 30s and 40s.

Above all, the story is high on action and adventure and very strong on the mystery element to keep the reader enthralled at every page turn. Of course, if you’ve read as many of the Doc Savage novels as I have then there will certainly be less surprises in this for you as the cookie-cutter plot and details are all sketched-in exactly as you would expect them to be... but for this kind of nvoel that’s a compliment and is not to its detriment. And it has the same “based-on-science”, “Scooby Doo” revelatory ending as all the earlier novels in the series (although I was a little uncomfortable as to the leap of faith I had to make concerning the geographical origins of the books titular characters, it should be pointed out). However, having said all that, there are some things about it which made me like it a lot less than Murray’s earlier efforts.

It’s too long for starters. Now that would normally not be anything to complain about but, it seems to me, that Murray has packed all the action of a genuine Doc Savage plotline into a much longer page count... which means that, although by modern standards of writing, it’s a blisteringly paced action adventure... the pacing is a little more luxurious than in an original Doc Savage adventure. Stupefying cliffhangers or startling (and, honestly, some not so startling) revelations are there at the end of each and every chapter... but in the old days the chapters were only the equivalent length of a few of these pages long, while here they are 9 to 10 pages long... which slows them down a little in comparison. It’s almost like reading a Doc Savage adventure which was written for a slightly slower venue, like a movie or a TV show... and then transcribed into a novel. That’s just the one and only very weak criticism I have with the writing though... so I’m not getting, in any way, bent out of shape on that one.

My other criticisms are reserved for the marketing on this one. The logotype of the words Doc Savage is not what I wanted to see on a Doc Savage novel. It’s not the original pulp cover logo... although to be fair to the designers on this one, you can see how it could certainly be interpreted as a modernisation or variation on those original logos if you wanted to be kind. Nor is it the more well known logo which was used on the Bantam novel reprints and the movie version of the character... which is really what I needed to be seeing on the front of “a Doc Savage novel”. This new logo really annoyed me.

It didn’t annoy me half as much as the new series’ tag line, however. Apparently, this is the first novel in the series of “THE ALL-NEW WILD ADVENTURES OF...” Doc Savage... and frankly that’s a copy line which betrays absolutely no knowledge or familiarity of the character and his long history at all. In fact, the last thing Clerk Savage Jr is... and I’m sure his cousin Pat, who returns in this novel also, would agree with me... is wild. In fact, he’s one of the least feral or “savage” characters I’ve ever read. Don’t get me wrong... the books are all damn good fun to read... but Doc is not really that fun a person in terms of his boy scout personality. He doesn’t need to be, though. He has his five aids around to supply the comic relief when it’s called for and... yes... long time Doc readers will be pleased to hear that Monk and Ham are arguing incessantly all the way through the novel. Good show, Murray!

So, yeah... didn’t like the design or marketing tag line on the front of this novel one little bit. What I did love though, is the style of the cover painting which perfectly evokes one of those old James Bama covers from the Bantam reprints. It’s funny how those original cover images seem to have been chasing me my whole life since 1975. I remember when I finally managed to get hold of some of those West German/French/American co-produced 1950s TV shows of Flash Gordon (the ones which look way cheaper than the 1930s serials and were genuinely not that great?), I got the strongest feeling like I really recognised Steve Holland, the actor playing Flash Gordon in these shows, from somewhere before, but I couldn’t remember where from. Then the revelation I had a decade or so ago, when the penny dropped and I found out that Steve Holland went on to become James Bama’s model for the cover paintings to those Doc Savage paperbacks and, sure enough, when I looked at my books... there was a painted Flash Gordon dressed as Doc Savage looking back at me... funny old world. While artist Joe DeVito’s cover painting doesn’t look anything like Steve Holland, to be sure, it still manages to retain the essence of those classic covers... and so I’m really pleased about that.

Another thing I’m really pleased about is Will Murray’s foreshadowing the next adventure in his novel just like Lester Dent used to do in the pulps. Here’s an example lifted from the last page of The Desert Demons...

“Little did they dream that awaiting them back in New York was a new challenge just as baffling and deadly as the deadly desert demons had been.

Two men would be strolling down Seventh Avenue, unknown to one another: one of high station, the other a lowly tramp. As they passed, not many feet apart, weird death would strike them down.

Thus would begin Horror In Gold!”

Now this little teaser worked into somewhere on the last page of the story would more often than not be edited out on the original Bantam paperback reprints because, for reasons unknown to me, the reprints were not released in the original order of their first publication... nothing like, in fact. That Will Murray now continues this tradition started by Lester Dent, the original Kenneth Robeson, pleases me no end. He’s really got a handle on this.

All in all I’d have to say that, asides from my slight gripes, I’m really pleased that the Doc Savage series is starting up again (at least in book terms... when can we have a proper 1930s set movie version of Death In Silver or Brand Of The Werewolf please?) and there’s nobody I’d want writing these things other than Will Murray... because he’s one of those writers who doesn’t mind bending his style to fit in with the person he’s evoking and he plain just “gets it”. If you were ever a fan of Doc Savage then you can rest assured that this series is in very good hands. Can’t wait to get the “just published” next Doc Savage adventure - Horror In Gold - so I can put it on the pile marked up for summer holiday reading...

If you like pulps... buy this book and support this character before he disappears again!


Doc Savage and his band of trusty assistants, The Amazing Five, had an oath that I have tried my best to abide by over the years. This is how it goes...

“Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it.

Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice.

Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I say and do.

Let me do right to all, and wrong no man.”

Monday, 16 January 2012

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall

Reichenbach To Basics

Sherlock: The Reichenbach Fall
Airdate: January 15th 2012. UK. BBC1

Warning: If you’re not already familiar with the broad sweeps
of the original Holmes story on which this one is based...
you can be pretty sure this review is gonna have some
massive spoilers... not to mention one hell of a rant!

Hmmmmm. The Reichenbach Fall, based on Holmes story The Final Problem, which ended with the death of both the title character and his arch nemesis, is not the worst episode in the new series of Sherlock. I am firm in my resolve that last week's was the worst. However, it has to be said, that this episode was also not that great and, although this is partially due to obvious writing in a lot of places... the real blame has to be placed at the last 15 seconds or so of the episode, where the BBC (or at least the writers working for them) proved themselves totally gutless by completely copping out in exactly the same way that Guy Ritchie did in his recent (and still showng at a cinema near you) big screen adaptation partially based on the same story, Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows (read my review here).

To address the former problem first... the actual detecting and total lack of the element of surprise was, I believe, due to clumsy writing which made pretty much most of the episode totally predictable. Shortly after an envelope filled with something that looks like thick powder is brought into play as an element of the so-called mystery, for example, a victim’s room is shown to contain a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. As soon as this was glanced on screen I told the people I was sitting with that the envelope obviously contained bread crumbs and that, if the writing continued to be this obvious, then I wouldn’t be surprised if something to do with ginger-bread turns up in a minute.

This, of course, proved to be the case and there really wasn’t a sense of surprise in the episode at all, I’m afraid. I could predict, just from the pacing, when exactly Mrs. Hudson was going to drop into the narrative and how non-existent Moriarty might seem to be sometime soon. To be fair, I assumed about ten minutes into it that Moriarty had not yet appeared on screen at all in either the first or second series but was just a man posing as Moriarty on his behalf... a paid avatar, if you like. When the plot began to look like it was following that prediction too, I must admit I flung my hands up in the air.

However, to give credit where credit’s due, aside from the obvious plot turns, the directing and editing were back to being on form after the “slow-horror” burn of last weeks episode. While I didn’t enjoy all of the little visual representations and metaphors intended to show us the inner workings of Holmes’ mercurial mind quite as much as usual, the information overload, quick-fire delivery of small notions and concepts was a welcome return to the style on display in the majority of the episodes of the two series’ so far.

And, naturally, the acting was superb as I have come to expect from this series. Cumberbatch, Freeman and Gatiss were all great but I’d have to give a special shout out to Rupert Graves who has been consistently playing the most likeable characterisation of Inspector Lestrade since Dennis Hoey’s excellent “why-if-it-isn’t-mister-’olmes” version from the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce versions of the war era. Extra credit, really, has to go to Andrew Scott who is absolutely riveting playing Holmes nemesis Moriarty. It’s true that he plays him in much the same way as he might play a certain Gallifreyan timelord (can we have Moriarty as the next Doctor Who please?) but he certainly isn’t a boring interpretation and is pretty much the only person you are watching when he’s on screen. Completely into this interpretation of the character.

But all this falls down, I’m afraid, and pales into insignificance when it comes to the last 15-30 seconds of the episode... the last in the series until Series 3 airs. This is why...

When Arthur Conan Doyle wrote The Final Problem, he ended it with both Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty plunging to their death in the Reichenbach Falls. And that was it. Game Over. Sherlock Holmes was dead... let that be an end to it.

Why? Well Conan Doyle wanted to write other stuff so he killed his popular character, thinking that would do the trick with his adoring public I suspect. And so Holmes was dead for ten years. Ten long years of real time (and an absence of around 4 years I think, in terms of story timeline... don’t hold me to that one though... I’m not a rabid Holmes fan) barring the writing of the story The Hound Of The Baskervilles after 8 of those years... a story Conan Doyle wrote as being set before the events of Reichanbach. But that wasn’t good enough for his public... they wanted Holmes back properly and so, eventually, Conan Doyle gave him a miracle escape and started writing more stories of the logic-bound sleuth.

And that’s what should have happened in last night’s episode and it’s also what should have happened in the recent Guy Ritchie movie. Unfortunately the new movie proved to worrying a prospect, I suspect, for the film company to risk the non-literary section of the general public thinking the character was “done in” and then wait three years for the next movie without self-hyping it enough. So in the last minute or so of the movie, Holmes makes an unexplained (as yet) return to the narrative... unmasking his deception to the audience while still keeping his fellow characters “out of the loop” at this juncture.

Okay... so it was gutless and annoying and frankly, I’d have expected more fight from the British director (who may have even made the decision to do this himself for all I know) but I certainly didn’t expect Stephen Moffat and co at the BBC not to at least leave Holmes dead for the short year between series'. Honestly... it’s an absolute insult to the general public that they are “writing down” to us in this way, especially when the previous series and the opening episode of this one were so much more intelligently considered. It’s not good enough and when I realised Watson’s graveyard goodbye to Holmes was going on way more than the duration of the shot called for, I said to my dad, who was watching it with me, “Oh no! They’re going to screw it up again aren’t they!” True enough, there was Holmes observing Watson at his “cemetery plot” and I was dismayed that, even after priming the audience sufficiently that Holmes was up to something with Molly and having a “random cyclist” (probably Molly again) hit Watson (presumably drugging him?) just as he’s running to the un-named corpse on the pavement, the audience would be more than prepared for Holmes miraculous return in the next series. But no... the powers that be obviously didn’t want to take that risk (nor the risk that people would not want another series apparently) because they managed to find a way to leave the show on a cliff-hanger, of sorts, again. Yep! They managed to turn Reichenbach Falls into a cliffhanger ending! Doh!

Now everyone wants to know how Holmes pulled off such a trick and they’re gagging for an explanation I expect. I’m sorry... but that was not a clever move. It was too cheap and easy and I don’t think I forgive the BBC for that one. Don’t get me wrong, I love cliffhangers... but this was just not needed and neither, in my book, was it a welcome ending. We needed to see Holmes die and we needed to feel its permanence. Now, all the drama that could have been wrung out of the first episode of Series 3 on this element (not to mention the humour of the situation which, to be fair, they’ll still manage to get in I guess) has been wasted. This was not a good way to end it and, as you can probably guess by now, I was more annoyed by this one than I was by the Series 1 finale.

Okay... not giving up on the show yet. I’ll happily be there at the start of Series 3 because, no matter how valid (or invalid, depending on your point of view) my criticisms are of this series, it’s still pretty much the best written and presented show on British television at the moment... I’ll grudgingly restate that. And the music’s pretty cool too. But they really need to get their game on if they want to hold my interest next time around. Really hope they do.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Doctor Who - The Dominators

The Domination Game

Doctor Who - The Dominators
UK 1968
BBC Region 2

Every time I watch a Doctor Who story starring my favourite incarnation of The Doctor, The Second TV Doctor as portrayed by Patrick Troughton, I marvel at just how perfect a piece of science fiction TV the show was “back in the day”. The five part story The Dominators is just such an experience and, although it’s true that, like a lot of the Troughton stories, it’s pretty simplistic in its overall make up... I ended up enjoying this one much more than I’d been expecting as I tucked myself away with it on Christmas Eve 2011.

There’s a lot of shoddy technical work on this one, as would be expected from a story of this era... the most obvious one being that a lot of the long shots are shot on a rocky landscape on location but the majority of the close up work is done on a set against a backdrop of that same location... these two things do not match or blend well... or in any way, in fact, and I’ve just found out since rewatching it for the first time in a over a decade, that Patrick Troughton was not around for any of the actual location shoots and the footage of him in longshot is all done with a double (although apparently not a very convincing one although... I’m pleased to say I didn’t actually notice that myself).

The story does have a sense of action taking place on a larger scale, even though it’s actually only set in two places on an alien world where the Dominators of the title are drilling into the core of the planet to generate enough radiation when the planet explodes to power their waiting fleet. There are only two menacing (and vaguely stupid looking, due to their enourmous shoulder pads) Dominators in fact, and they tend to argue with each other quite a lot and get all shouty... but they do have an iconic alien robot race with them called The Quarks who were supposed to be a new merchandising opportunity from the BBC along the lines of the popularity of The Daleks. Alas... it’s easy to see why The Quarks failed to have the desired effect because, no matter how iconic they are, they really do only need to be knocked over by someone to get themselves into difficulty and they look quite frail due to the way they’ve been designed. The Quarks didn’t appear in their own right on TV again apart from a brief cameo in the last Troughton story The War Game (reviewed here), although they were briefly considered for a return engagement in the classic story The Five Doctors... before being replaced with a new and deadly creation. I do remember that they did appear fairly regularly in the Doctor Who comic strip during the Troughton era... so they did get around at least that much.

The story is a true delight to watch with the chemistry between The Doctor and his two companions Jamie and Zoe being the absolute best it ever got on the show... also, the team split up often so that two strands of story can be told simultaneously. The clifhanger endings to the first four episodes aren’t great but they are serviceable and the acting is convincing enough to keep you watching.

One thing that made me laugh was the introduction of children’s favourite Brian Cant as the practical miilitary advisor to a pacifistic race who are facing the destruction of their planet. His plan of “waiting to see what happens” doesn’t amount to much and he might have had a better go at it by singing some of his Playaway songs at the enemy rather than attempt to support his lack of strategy by speaking loudly and getting himself killed on his first meeting with one of the Dominators. He does look confident though... you have to give him credit for that. Unfortunately, just when you think that Brian can... you realise that he just plain can’t.

The story feels a bit padded with various characters rushing to and from the main city centre and this kind of business did remind me of some of the Flash Gordon serials I used to love as a kid. Keep everyone moving between the two settings and nobody will notice that you’re unneccesarily dragging things out to fill up air time. It’s all pretty bearable though and there’s enough nice stuff in the script which make all the to-ing and fro-ing much easier to swallow. The final sequences do though, it has to be said, feel like they’ve been lifted from the Hartnell story The Dalek Invasion of Earth (later remade as the movie Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D.) in that The Doctor and his companions and new friends dig a tunnel into the side of the tunnel being drilled so they can grab the bomb before it detonates and send it back to The Dominators to destroy them in a move that more modern incarnations of The Doctor may very well not have approved of.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say about The Dominators. If you like classic Doctor Who then this is definitely one of the better ones and, as far as I’m concerned, anything with Troughton in it is worth a watch. Check it out if you’re in the mood for a switch-your-brain-off serial.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler

Used and Mabused

Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler
(aka Dr. Mabuse The Gambler)
Germany 1922
Directed by Fritz Lang
Eureka Masters Of Cinema Region 2

Warning: Beware der spieler spoilers!

Unwarning: Actually, it’s really spoiler light...
but I had to get that last line in somehow!

Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler is a German Expressionist, crime/gangster style of picture made in 1922 by the same husband and wife team of Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou who would, a few years later, bring to the screen one of cinema’s most cherished triumphs of early cinema... Metropolis (reviewed here). Based on a novel by Norbert Jacques, the sinister Dr. Mabuse (played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, who would later play Rotwang in Metropolis... in fact, a fair few of the actors who are in that later film turn up in this one) is a larger than life criminal genius who is so obviously informed and inspired by the likes of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu and the protagonists of Feuillade’s serials such as Irma Vep in Les Vampires and, more obviously and blatantly (we’re almost into full-on rip off mode here, but not quite), the main protagonist of the Fantômas serials (and books and movies).

The reason I appreciate characters like Mabuse is because I like to follow a character over a long story arc and see different interpretations of them over a period of time... the Dr. Mabuse timeline is a really drawn out one and it appeals to me that Fritz Lang, who directed the first three Mabuse outings (if you count Dr. Mabuse Der Spieler as a single film... four outings if you don’t), came back to the character twice, each time after quite lengthy absences from the screen. This first one is, for example, the only Dr. Mabuse silent film, since it was made in 1922, but Lang made a sequel to this (starring the same lead actor!) in 1933 called The Testament of Dr. Mabuse and then, in 1960, a third outing called The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse... this has got to be a pretty long courtship with a character in directing circles I reckon.

Since then, Mabuse stories have been crafted by a number of different directors including the famous French new wave director Claude Chabrol in Mabuse’s last screen outing to date, Dr. M (actually, I seem to remember really suffering through that film back in the hey day of video rentals and regretting renting it a lot).

Even so... for a character that can have a director like Lang going back to him after many years... as if he’d been haunted by his own partial creation... well, there had to be something special about him and so I have found the proposition of the Mabuse films irresistible over the years but have never had the time to research them. That’s why Eureka Masters Of Cinema’s recent boxed edition of Lang’s Mabuse films, which I was lucky enough to get for Christmas (amongst other cinematic and bookish treasures), is such a great release.

The first film is nearly five hours long and I watched it in one sitting (with the odd short breaks for answering the phone)... if I’d have known that the two main segments (comprising of numerous chapters each) were both originally shown a month apart in cinemas, I would probably have had more of a break between the two sittings, to be totally truthful. As it was though, my stamina was good and while the film can be quite wearing in places, especially if you’re used to watching Feuillade’s Les Vampires, Judex and Fantômas film serials, the power present within the images and the sheer strength of Rudolf Klein-Rogge expressive performance as a powerful master criminal were more than enough to hold my interest.

The movie starts off strong with Mabuse shuffling a deck of cards depicting different disguised versions of himself. He cuts the cards and draws one to find the disguise he will be wearing for that evening’s entertainment and then berates his cocaine addled assistant for not being more attentive of his needs. From there on in we are subjected to a cat and mouse game between Dr. Mabuse, psychiatrist by day and criminal genius by night, and an inspector of police who eventually turns out to be the other main protagonist of this film... as all the other characters you thought were the key characters, including the young romantic lead and his dashing young lady (who is in Mabuse’s pay in order to fleece the guy out of large amounts of money), are systematically mentally abused and killed off until there aren’t all that many people left by the end of the film, if truth be told.

Dr. Mabuse, you see, possesses uncanny powers of mental control on people from a distance, using the power of his mind to force them into losing big at the gambling tables in various underground gambling establishments. However, for all its lengthy running time, there’s really not that much more to the story than that... the pacing is fairly slow (while somehow seeming quite brisk without anything much happening) but I say that not to the detraction of its imagery and the atmosphere of a criminal underworld fleecing bored thrill seekers who are mostly too narcissistic to notice they are being cunningly leached of their finances by the criminal genius who is Mabuse is thick and permeable.

Little details, like the currency counterfeiting factory Mabuse runs being populated by blind money counters (so they can’t see what they are working on and be tempted to steal it) and the strange, Bond-like machinations the Mabuse character uses to ensure he is not rumbled in any of his disguises as Dr. Mabuse make for, a certain compelling viewing. And there’s a brilliant little sequence at the end, while Mabuse is being haunted in his mind by the ghosts of those he has lead to their destruction, where his money printing presses are transformed into what I can only describe as mechanical demons from hell... in the way that they only could be in an expressionist film. It’s very similar in style to Lang’s later transformation scene in Metropolis where the machines metamorphosise into Moloch. It was worth watching, for me, for just for this one surrealistic vision.

So... this is definitely going to be a split recommendation here. Ultimately I really enjoyed watching this one and am looking forward to sitting down with the first sequel sometime soon and I would certainly say that it’s one to watch if you are a fan of Silent Cinema... especially the German Expressionist stuff like Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (who Mabuse bears more than just a vague resemblance to) but I can understand that a lot of people may get bored after a while with such a long production if they are not used to this kind of stuff. In some ways it can be seen as a pale and ghostly reflection of the Fantômas character which so obviously inspired it but, then again, it’s Fritz Lang so it’s done with a certain sense of... almost iconic creativity and visual splendour and, as I intimated before, if you’re a fan of early cinema... chances are you’ll love it as much as I did.