Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Take Aim At The Police Van



Aiming To Tease

Take Aim At The Police Van
1960 Japan
Directed by Seijun Suzuki
Nikkatsu/Criterion Eclipse DVD Region 1 
(as part of the Nikkatsu Noir boxed edition).

Warning: Yeah, this one’s going to have spoilers.

Wow. Another great Seijun Suzuki film.

Very much a man who I would call the Sam Fuller of Japan, with one big difference. Sam Fuller was a great American B-picture director who would churn out projects under a studio system. However, because he was working on lower budgets, he wasn’t attracting A-List attention too much... and that was the very reason Fuller could make films more or less the way he wanted... which was usually with a quirky and interesting artistic sensibility all of his own. Similarly, Suzuki was making films pretty much exclusively for Nikkatsu studios in, more or less, a similar kind of set up I would guess. This let him experiment in interesting ways with the art of film technique but, unlike Fuller, Suzuki began to attract too much interest with what he was doing and this ended up with his dismissal and blacklisting after his work on what is probably his most famous film in terms of broad recognition in the west, Branded To Kill. 

His works were getting more and more surreal and less comprehensible to a lot of audiences, although people of a certain sensibility cherished and loved them probably as much then as when they were rediscovered years later. It took around ten years for Suzuki to work on feature films again after he made the decision to sue Nikkatsu studios (rightly so, in my opinion... I’ll take art over the risk of offending people or financial concerns, any day thank you very much) and even then it was sporadically.

Take Aim At The Police Van comes from very early on in Suzuki’s career but, even so, he was so prolific that even though he made this at the start of the fifth year of his career, this was already his fourteenth feature film. And it’s a film I’m really glad to have added to my little library of Suzuki classics because it’s easily one of the better examples of his work I’ve seen.

Now I know, from doing  a quick little bit of research (no, honestly, very occasionally I do the odd five minutes or so of research before I write a review here, believe it or not) that this film is generally not thought to be as good as his mid to late sixties output but, frankly, I think that’s a bit of a wrong call and I’m here to tell you different. This is a nice little masterpiece... not exactly “noir” as the Criterion Eclipse box proclaims it to be (although you could argue that the plotting has a certain, noirish tendency, I suppose) and much more like the hip, action kind of movies that would make his work stand out against various other directors churning out similar films at the same time.

Even the story is a little bit unusual in that it deals with a middle aged hero and not a young teenager or 20 something protagonist. The character in question, Tamon (played very well by Michitaro Mizushima) is a likable prison guard who is transporting a load of prisoners in a van when a sniper crashes a driverless truck into the van and shoots two of the prisoners dead. Because Tamon is in charge of the prisoners at the time and is therefore technically responsible, he is suspended from his job for 6 months. However, he needs to know just why the events at the start of the film happened and so he does his own investigation into matters which, of course, mixes his character in with all sorts of underworld types and also the cops.

Right from the outset the film shows a visual flare which is typical of Suzuki’s work for Nikkatsu. The pre-credits shows an unknown sniper at night attaching a piece of chewing gum to the top of his sight before we are treated to a camera eye view of just what the sniper is seeing. He slowly pans down an empty road and focuses on a series of five or so signs which each make up part of a single message, warning about the danger of accidents in the area. It all looks very cool  (and is replayed but, I think, with slightly different footage, later on in the film) and it really sets up the whole “predator laying in wait” vibe which, quite recently, the opening sequence of Jack Reacher (reviewed here) also managed to do very well... but this movie does it in a fraction of the time. It then goes into the opening credits where a song plays against a view from the front of the titular police van’s windscreen, split into two by the vertical middle-section as credits play out against the beam of the headlights hitting the road while the van is in motion.

Suzuki really is on form with this one and although he didn’t write it, and it’s adapted from an existing novel, he really does let loose with what would become some of his very definitive stylistic traits later on in his career. Such as the way the screen can be split with verticals and horizontals to allow actors and actresses to be separated by those artificial planes, sometimes at a different size due to the way perspective seems almost flattened against the foreground elements. Or a flashback sequence where various incidents from the film (including a naked girl clutching her breast where she has been shot with an arrow) are replayed almost exactly as they were in the earlier sequences... but against a black backdrop and sometimes from a different angle. It’s almost like the early Soviet montage of Sergei Eisenstein where he would pull a person artifically from long shot and intercut a more perfectly composed version of that person in contrast, instead of dollying in on them. This gives the flashback sequence, as Tamon tries to piece together all the clues he is thinking of, a surreal and almost nightmarish quality which is a good way of expressing the world in which Tamon has accidentally landed, perhaps.

Another, surreal sequence is where Tamon and a woman who he is investigating are tied up in the front seats of an oil truck which is sent down a long slope with a blaze of fire chasing the leaking oil tap... it seems strange that a bunch of not very imaginative gangsters would be responsible for such a long, drawn out method of executing their enemies but then, hey... welcome to the world of Seijun Suzuki.

The performances are all really fine in this and the music by Koichi Kawabe is really energetic, jazzy and addictive. It’s the kind of thing I would love to turn up on CD one day, although I suspect I won’t be in luck. The photography, also, is of a particularly crisp black and white quality... almost but not quite foreshadowing Branded To Kill in its intensity and the compositions, as noted earlier, are all very interesting and ensure you won’t have a dull time as you wait for Tamon to survive various perils and gun battles in order to finally solve the problem of why two of his prisoners were targeted and how it affects everything else in the story. But then again, it’s a rare occasion when a Suzuki film is actually dull, to be sure.

Another winner, then, for the Criterion Eclipse Nikkatsu Noir set although, as I pointed out earlier, I wouldn’t say that labelling it as noir is really doing it much of a service. Definitely one to check out, though, if you’re a suzuki fan and, even if you’re not, there’s enough of his stylistic flourishes in this movie to make it a fair enough jumping on point if you’ve never seen one of his movies before... although I would probably point you in the direction of Youth Of The Beast or Branded To Kill if you wanted to hook yourself right from the first viewing.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Contagion




Bugs N’ Kisses

Contagion
2011 USA/United Arab Emirates
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Warner Brothers Blu Ray B 

Warning: Spoilers slowly mutating and spreading 
throughout this review as you read it.

Okay, so Contagion was a movie I really wanted to see when it came out in cinemas at the end of 2011 but I was already well into my 3-4 month Christmas preparations by then so I just couldn’t claw back any time to get out and see this one. I forgot about it after that, in all honesty, but when I saw a copy of the 2 disc Blu Ray/DVD edition in my local exchange shop going for a fiver, I finally remembered I’d wanted to see this one.

It’s interesting because, at the time it came out, I don’t remember this one being particularly marketed on the strength of the director and, considering it’s got a very big cast of ‘movie star’ actors like Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslett, Lawrence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard, Jude Law and Elliot Gould in it, it’s no wonder that the movie was kinda sold on its cast rather than any of the non-acting crew. In fact, because there are no credits at the start of the film, I managed to go all the way through the movie without knowing who directed it... although I did pick up right from the outset that the way this movie was shot was definitely something above average. I’d just assumed it was an old Hollywood director from the 60s and 70s come out of retirement to get that kind of ensemble piece going... but now that I know it’s Soderbergh and compare it to the last film I saw by him at the cinema, Side Effects (reviewed here), it all makes sense now.

Contagion is, for the most part, a quite impressive beast of a movie. It manages to look and feel epic in scope without really becoming too bloated by its own ambitions, although the second half of the movie did drag just a little in some places... but for the most part, especially in the first half, I was absolutely riveted.

Since I hadn’t known who the director was before I watched it, my main attraction for actually giving some time to this “virus movie” (yeah, it’s Outbreak without the monkey, but that’s okay) was actually Gwyneth Paltrow, who is an actress I seem to rate a lot higher than most people do. I rarely watch the kinds of films she’s in so I was looking forward to seeing what she was like in this one but, unfortunately, it turns out that she doesn’t make it through maybe even five minutes of the movie before dying from the virus she’s contracted on the day before the opening scene. There are some scenes with her later on in the movie where Soderbergh cleverly uses standard film footage and then freezes it at specific moments as a metaphor for the long distance security cam footage of this character that Kate Winslett’s character is reviewing simultaneous to this... but for the most part her quick death and the subsequent death of her son while Matt Damon is away having to deal with her dying in hospital, is merely used to make an opening point.

Matt Damon is not the main protagonist of this movie though... or, to put it another way... Matt Damon is one among many main protagonists throughout the film (as indicated by the actors playing them in the cast above) and as a result, no person stays as the focus of the film for very long. It’s also a film about the way characters can drop out of the narrative when you least want them too and it all meshes together to present an experience which is very much about a disease and the effects that disease has on every one (whether they have contracted the disease or not) and so, for instance, Kate Winslett’s World Health Organisation employee who is working for Lawrence Fishburne becomes this film’s Marion Crane character (Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho) as the story strands you are following with her character come to an end when she ends up being a customer in one of the big triage sites she has set up to deal with the onslaught of the virus. Her death works really well and, although you obviously have some warning of the end coming with her character, the slight shock value is not really deadened all that much by the inevitability of her situation.

However, in some scenes, this tactic about the film being about the effects of a disease rather than the people, backfires somewhat when the characters are maybe a little too fully explored than necessary (which is why I believe the second half of the movie loses it just a little) and while it’s very interesting and brilliant to explore just how Lawrence Fishburne’s character manages to get himself into trouble with the government just by showing a little empathy or the way in which Marion Cottilard’s character is kidnapped and used as a bargaining chip specifically because of her relationship with the World Health Organisation... or even how Jude Law’s unsympathetic (for the most part and dependent on your view of homeopathy and greed) blogger gets taken down by the CIA, I think we didn’t really need to have such closure on the ends of these mini stories because they detract from the “virus sweeping everyone along in its wake” kind of sensibility which a lot of the rest of the movie has in spades.

Actually, Lawrence Fishburne has to get an extra mention from me because he has been given some of the best lines (the dialogue is very 1970s “Hollywood crisp” in some sequences) and because his character is just so righteous and sympathetic that you would always want to be fighting in his corner. He is portrayed as a boss who actually does care about his workers and their personal physical and mental health as much as the jobs they need to carry out for him.

I said I knew right away that this movie had been directed by someone special. Well there’s at least two interesting things going on with this movie which I think I’ve got Soderbergh pegged on now. One is the way in which the colours go from very neutral to quite colourful (especially in the sequences with W.H.O workers in their more natural office environments, which are usually accompanied by some bright warm yellows and oranges) as opposed to the washed out greys and blues of the rest of the film and then switch back again from scene to scene. Even a bright green used to desaturate the feel of the shot at the start looks very drab because, as you probably know, green lighting usually kills off or neutralises flesh tones and this is used to give the usually glowing Gwyneth Paltrow a real visual sense of being someone who is feeling run down which, coupled with her excellent acting, works really well, of course.

The other great thing Soderbergh does is to have the camera lingering on little details in the shots... which is a tactic I’ve seen him use before to highlight certain details but which, in this movie, is used almost specifically to allow the audience to reflect on how something might be carrying the killer virus that is the main subject of the film. A folder left on a desk, for example, suddenly makes us think twice after the owner has walked off and we stay at the desk with a file. Or the way in which, instead of following Matt Damon and his daughter out of the hospital environment, our camera eye stays behind to linger and watch the door to the outside world slowly shutting, to make us think of the possible consequences of Matt Damon maybe being a carrier of the infection. That kind of thing is done at suitable intervals and it all raises this movie up and gives it a certain lift and entertainment value where another director might have made less of a point of it.

My only real complaint about the film, other than it trying to bring too much closure on certain scenes (the Stockholm Syndrome style reaction of Marion Cottilard towards the end after she has escaped and then goes back to warn her prior captors is something which stretched credibility just a little and which I could honestly have done without), is the score... which is quite wonderful in it’s own right as a score by Soderbergh regular Cliff Martinez but which seems to give us a little too much of a high in some scenes, where it deviates from it’s quiet, sinister tone into something more like techno dance in certain sequences. It’s a valid way of scoring the scenes in which it does this, I think,  but I kept asking myself if I should have been tapping my feet when everyone was fighting for their lives against a killer bug. It maybe works more appropriately in Italian giallo or horror movies than it did here but, still, it managed not to stretch things too far, maybe, and all in all it’s something I’d like to hear away from the movie if I get a chance. So that can’t be bad.

The ending scene was a slight disappointment, perhaps, only because you knew how this film was going to end from the first shot. The movie catalogues the number of days the virus has been active and we start the opening of the movie on Day Two and carry on from there... so it’s really not rocket science to figure out that with such an important moment remaining undisclosed, we will flash back to Day One for the finale and it certainly doesn’t play badly. Just might have been nice to be a little less predictable there, maybe.

So, anyway, my verdict for this movie is very much that it’s a film which is an impressive piece of screen art. It takes what is ostensibly a big name, Hollywood style cast and manages to pitch them against each other in the service of the story and main messages rather than use them as performances to just hang big movie moments on. This is a film which is put together as a creative and expressive piece, as much as a film like this could be, with the kinds of funding modern movies need and I was really pleased to have seen it. Definitely worth your time if you like big disaster movies or Soderbergh movies in general.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Mission Impossible




When You Mission ‘pon A Star

Mission Impossible
1996 USA
Directed by Brian De Palma
DVD Region 2

Warning: This review will self destruct in an 
explosion of spoilers in 5 paragraphs.

I’d never seen any of the modern Mission Impossible films up until very recently, but my father had been going on at me to watch them for years, as he’s a fan of the series. I perhaps sealed my own fate in regards to this particular franchise because I bought him the four films on DVD last year and since he watched them again, the pressure was on me again to follow suit. Well the other night he finally talked me into watching the first one with him... I had certain expectations as to what I was going to be watching but, I can honestly say, this was not the film I thought it would be.

Now I know I used to watch the old TV show with people like Peter Graves, Martin Landau and Leonard Nimoy appearing in it on the old black and white TV set when I was five or six years old... or at any rate, it used to be on in the background. The only things I can remember about it, to be honest, were Lalo Schifrin’s blisteringly famous theme tune and the “this tape will self destruct in x number of seconds” thing at the start of each episode. I wasn’t exactly expecting the movie version to be a good representation of what the TV show was about (although it certainly turned out to be something closer to the style than what I was expecting).

Now I really like Brian De Palma as a director but, I do find his post 70s work a bit hit and miss, to be honest with you. I love his early “Hitchcock” parodies and occasionally he does something in the style of his early work which reminds me of the DePalma I used to love at the time. Some of my favourites being Sisters, Dressed To Kill, Body Double, Raising Kane and Femme Fatale (am seriously looking forward to his new film Passion if it ever gets any kind of release over here in the UK). Even so, though, I wasn’t expecting this movie to be in any way reflective of his earlier work but, in certain sequences in the movie, I was dead wrong about that. I was expecting, from all I’d seen and heard about the film which, admittedly, wasn’t much... a big, modern action movie with long drawn out chase sequences, explosions and more bullets than brains. When, in actual fact, it’s not a bad attempt at being a slow burn thriller with the occasional action sequence used to merely punctuate certain areas of the story.

I wasn’t disappointed by the film but, neither was I as impressed with it as I’d expected to be (I think my dad had really raised my expectations of it to unfair levels of excellence, I have to say). It does, as I say, work well as at thriller and there were some sequences which did remind me of those early DePalma days, especially since you have Danny Elfman on the score and, when he’s not belting out adaptations of Lalo Schifrin’s original theme, some of the scenes did actually remind me of what Bernard Herrmann would have done had Hitchcock been directing this movie... which, of course, does ring true to my perception of the subtle genius of Brian DePalma (I’ve often heard Elfman’s scores compared to the works of Herrmann but I’d never really seen the connection myself, until watching this film).

The positive things about the film for me were the fact that it had a good cast, it wasn't just another episode of “the Tom Cruise show” (although I almost wouldn’t have minded that because I think he’s got enough charisma to keep a piece together) and more of an ensemble job. Jean Reno was especially good but, alas, was underused and not put in a position whereas he could return in a sequel (if you know what I mean). The set pieces such as the hanging down above the computer at Langley and the “helicopter hitched to a high speed train under a tunnel gag” sequence were all okay but certainly didn’t match my idea of what they could have been. The emphasis on this film is definitely one of suspense and good storytelling over action... which is where I come to the negative parts of the movie.

I didn’t know anything about this film but right when Emilio Estevez gets killed off I knew they’d pretty much kill off the whole team during that sequence (or at least appear to). Secondly, when the character played by John Voight (and Peter Graves in the old TV show) is seen being shot, I pretty much knew he was doing it himself and had caused the destruction of the team right there an then which was, I dunno, maybe ten to fifteen minutes into the movie? I knew he’d be turning up again and when his wife escaped unharmed, played by the always delightful but painfully underused Emmanuelle Beart, I figured out she’d be in on it too. So basically, within the first 15 minutes I had the story twists completely figured out and the rest of the film was just waiting for the penny to drop with Tom Cruise and biding my time spotting little known actors like Tony Vogel (who played the 1970s TV version of Dick Barton: Special Agent before lapsing into obscurity again with roles like a few seconds playing German U-Boat Commander in Raiders Of The Lost Ark) turning up as a member of MI5, in a role which must have been less than a minute of screen time, mostly with his head turned away from the camera.

I was a little disappointed at the start of the movie when I thought that Brian DePalma’s shot design and editing were going to be as pedestrian as the original TV show might have been. The first ten minutes or so seemed to be zoom, cut to shot, cut to another shot, cut back to a close up etc. Very uninspired and boring. However, after a little while he did pick up speed again and get back into the kind of sweeping and beautiful mise en scene I would normally peg him for. This included a beautiful shot of Tom Cruise running away from a giant, exploding fish tank which, due to the way his arms and legs fall within the shot,  instantly reminded me of one of the original posters for Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest... I promise I wasn’t deliberately looking for DePalma/Hitchcock moments to highlight here though. Honest, guv!

All in all, I’d say the first Mission Impossible film was a lot better than I was expecting, although really obvious on the story level. Not the action fest I was kind of half dreading, half hoping for, by any means, and certainly not something I would tell people to avoid... although I wouldn’t particularly go out of my way to recommend it either, in all fairness. Looking forward, though, to seeing how the series progressed after this initial movie. The second one is, I understand, directed by iconic action director John Woo... so I suspect it wil be an altogether different kind of mission to the first one. Watch this space...



Mission Impossible at NUTS4R2
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to click on one of the titles below to take you to my review.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

For your Eyes Only




Eye Society

For your Eyes Only
1981 UK
Directed by John Glen
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

The 1981 cinema release of this film was kind of a big deal for 13 year old Bond fans like myself. I can’t remember why exactly, but I think the hype machine was in full swing on movie tie-ins by then... not even a hundredth of the merchandising available for most films these days, mind you, but I remember I had bought the For Your Eyes Only poster magazine, which was basically a thing which was very big for movie promotions in the wake of the first Star Wars movie especially (although I also have, among many, a Doc Savage poster magazine from 1975, so the phenomenon wasn’t entirely new when Lucas’ holy trilogy unleashed merchandising heaven). Poster magazines were basically just a big poster which was folded in half twice with the cover and promotional articles printed on the reverse page to accommodate the folds. For young film enthusiasts they were a big deal and I believe I still have all mine, there must be between 30 and 50 of them, tucked away in a box somewhere. My proudest possession when it comes to poster magazines, asides from the afore mentioned Doc Savage poster magazine, obviously, was the one dedicated to my favourite TV show of the time, Tales Of The Gold Monkey, which was promptly cancelled after one series and which, I believe, had already just stopped showing when that particular issue hit UK newsagents.

The other, and more exciting, tie in that I remember for the film was the For Your Eyes Only Marvel Super Special, single issue comic book... which retold the story in the usual Mighty Marvel Manner and which I didn’t realise until many years later was a UK reprint of the two issue American For Your Eyes Only comic. However, the UK edition is much, much nicer than the original US version in that, aside from having the whole thing printed in one thick issue, it was a slightly larger size and it was printed on a much better quality paper stock which really did justice to the colours used on the page. Marvel did a fair  few of these Super Specials towards the end of the 70s (as opposed to their Treasury Editions, which carried a special thrill all their own), the two sticking in a lot of children’s minds of the time would have been their reprint issues of Close Encounters Of The Third Kind and Battlestar Galactica. And, yes, these comics were published, at least in the UK, a good while before the film had come out on general release... so it would be fair to say that a lot of the kids had read the new Bond film a few weeks ahead, at least, of when they eventually got to see it in the cinema (in those days, the concept of spoilers was really not an issue, the most exposure we’d had to that particular concept being an episode of The Likely Lads on TV... but that’s another story).

For Your Eyes Only was the first film to have John Glen as the director, who worked his way up from being a Bond editor into the eventual director’s chair just as Peter Hunt had done before him for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Now I have to say that I do find Glen’s directing style very work-a-day and professional... which is my way of saying that it usually serves the story very well. But which is also my way of saying that I find his films a bit hit and miss depending on the quality of the writing... at least that’s how I feel about it. I have nothing but respect for him as a director and what I sometimes feel he lacks in dynamic shot composition, he more than makes up for with coaxing great performances and the knowledge of how to shoot exactly what is needed for some good action editing.  He would direct this plus the next four Bond films in a row and I have to say that this is one of only two Roger Moore films which I admire enough to be able to watch a few times and which I think can credibly stand up there with the better Bond movies... Live And Let Die being the other Moore film I have a little more time for.

For Your Eyes Only has a really good stab at being a serious Bond film and, since it was written at a time when Roger Moore was not expected to return to the role, the Bond character is toughened back up a little to suit the stylings of another actor. To tie a link to the old movies, the film starts off with Bond, who turned out to be Roger Moore after all, visiting the grave of his dead wife Teresa Bond... who we saw killed just after the wedding reception at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, riddled with machine gun bullets courtesy of Blofeld and Irma Bunt. However, as promising as this opening is, it sets up one of the silliest and, for me, least watchable opening sequences in Bond history, ending with Bond dropping an unofficial, wheelchair bound Blofeld to his death down a tall chimney (the character name of Blofeld was with Kevin McLory at that time and so EON weren’t allowed to use it - see my review of Thunderball here for a little more info on McLory’s relationship with Ian Fleming and 007).

Fortunately, things get better right after this title sequence and we go into a credits sequence designed by the often imitated Maurice Binder which was the first one to actually incorporate footage of the title song’s singer into the titles - namely a gorgeous looking Sheena Easton in this particular case. And then, after this, the film gets rather good again and the writing is pretty cool. This is, perhaps, partially because the writers and producers actually went back to Ian Fleming’s original source material again (for the first time in a while) with a lot of the plot elements and characters coming from two of the short stories in Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only collection, namely the title story and one other called Risico. In addition, there is also a “coral drag” sequence where Bond and his leading lady (played her by famous French actress Carole Bouquet) are dragged behind a boat, underwater through coral in the hopes that they’ll either be cut to ribbons or attract sharks, which comes straight out of Fleming’s second Bond novel Live And Let Die... not the last time that novel would be further pillaged for the series, either.

This really is a great little Bond film (considering my dislike of Moore in this particular role) and the action sequences, tougher attitude of Bond (compared to the last two movies) and the decision to pare down Bond’s over reliance on Q branch gadgets for this one is greatly appreciated... just as it was by my thirteen year old self. In addition to this, there are some fine actors in the film. In addition to the leading lady we have ice skater Lynn-Holly Johnson playing a real “baby doll” jailbait character called Bibi Dahl (I can’t believe, after the number of times I’ve seen this movie, I only just got the Eli Kazan reference with that name) and iconic sci-fi horror villain Julian Glover (who played a bad guy in such famous fan favourites as Quatermass And The Pit, The Empire Strikes Back, Doctor Who and Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade) adding another of his “best bad-guy” routines to the cast.

We also have the wonderful actor Topol (aka Chaim Topol), who made an excellent Dr. Zarkov opposite Sam J. Jones’ Flash Gordon in a performance to give even Frank Shannon’s 1930s recreations of the character a run for their money. Here he is playing the role of Milos Columbo, who turns out to be a friendly ally to Bond, after he’s won his trust and shown Bond the truth about Kristatos, the character that Glover plays. His performance is truly joyous to behold and one wonders why he wasn’t asked back to be in more Bond films... his scenes really bring the film to life.

Another casting oddity is an early role for noted British actor Charles Dance who has no lines in the film and plays a determined “third villainous thug on the left” kind of role for a couple of scenes in the movie. Perhaps the less I say about this one the better.

An important future Bond link comes in the form of the late actress Cassandra Harris, taking on the role of Lisl. She would be dead from cancer ten years later but she was the wife of future Bond and Remminton Steel actor Pierce Brosnan, who was first introduced to the people behind the scenes of the Bond movie phenomenon such as Cubby Brocolli by Harris while she was making this film. Four years after Harris’ death, Brosnan made his debut as James Bond in the 1995 film Goldeneye... and helped get the franchise back on track again by being an absolutely wonderful version of the character.

One of the actresses brought her own problems and this resulted in some amazing “work round” sequences by the cast and crew. Carole Bouquet, it turned out, had sinus problems, so she just couldn’t film any scenes underwater, which is where a few of the key scenes of the movie with her character in them take place. As a solution, whenever you see a close up shot of Bouquet under water, or indeed anything that looks recognisably like her, those specific shots were recreated on a dry studio set. Yes, really! Actors were suspended to make them look like they were swimming and combined with high speed photography (later slowed down in playback) with wind machines to make the hair look like it’s floating in water. Coupled with underwater lighting effects and snorkel bubbles which are literally superimposed onto the screen this works surprisingly well and I defy anyone who watches this movie, who doesn’t already know about this technical solution, to actually realise that all these shots were taken without any water being present. It’s a truly superb feat of “movie magic” and you have to really keep an eye on it if you want to catch the visual clues. I never found out about this until decades later and I still find some of the shots hard to spot. Seriously good work here.

Bernard Lee, was supposed to be playing his long standing role as M again for this movie but, although he did make it to set, he was just to ill to do the job and died soon after. So this is the first Bond film not to have the M character in it... Bond being instead briefed by the minister character and actor who appeared in a few Bond films before this one and with the rest of M’s role being rewritten for Desmond Llewellyn’s Q character, Major Boothroyd.

The only other thing I want to mention is Bill Conti’s score. Barry was not available, once again, to score this movie and Conti landed the gig. While some of the score is quite classically dramatic adventure movie underscoring which can hit the right kind of emotional notes that Barry could do effortlessly (although you would never have guessed this from the original, unexpanded edition of the soundtrack album), the other half of the score is... well... there’s no two ways about it... it’s Disco Bond. Synthesiser pop scoring which, while exciting, really helps to date the film for modern viewers and it’s interesting that when Barry used synthesiser to augment the orchestra himself in a more transparent manner, in stretches of the scores for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and The Living Daylights, those scores still hold onto a certain timeless quality which Bill Conti doesn’t seem to be able to do on this one. But still, even if they are “of their time”, Conti’s synthesiser scoring for this is still pretty high energy and fun and, certainly at the time, they seemed to make sense and help the film out well.

For Your Eyes Only is a fairly good Bond film and I think most fans of the character would have a reasonable time with this adventure... unfortunately, one of the very worst Bond films ever was soon to follow.



EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Relic




A Fright At The Museum

The Relic
1997 USA/UK/Germany/Japan/New Zealand
Directed by Peter Hyams
Universal DVD Region 2

Warning: Slight spoilers.

Wow. I hadn’t given this movie much thought in years... since I saw it back at the cinema in 1997 actually. Back then I’d gone away thinking I’d seen a pretty much half decent movie, but nothing too special. In fact, the reason why I decided to take advantage of HMV’s closing down sale and unearth this rare specimen again is because, earlier in the year, a proper CD version of John Debney’s score to this was released by La La Land Records and I liked the samples and ordered myself a copy (I’ve not got much Debney anyway and I always loved his gorgeous score to Cutthroat Island). So I thought I’d better remind myself of the movie again at some point if a cheap option of doing that became available.

Having seen it again, I am now in a position to be able to upgrade my original “meh” opinion a fair bit.

Based on a novel by Douglas J. Preston and Lincoln Child which was called, simply, Relic... this is one of those cases where the film rights are bought before the novel has even been published and then it’s forced to wait for release until the movie is out. Now I’ve not read the original novel as yet but, from what I can understand about it, I just can’t see why there was such a clamour to buy this thing when the studio obviously wanted to change so much of the basic characters and events and do their own thing instead.

For example, Relic is the first in a whole series of novels featuring Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, who investigates strange things in what I can only assume is a series of stories written in The X Files manner. In the movie version, however, this main protagonist of the series is removed completely and some, but not all, of his character is combined with one of the other characters in the book... a character who is also quite badly misrepresented on screen, as far as I can tell, being that he’s extremely superstitious in the movie and quite the opposite in the original novel.

Never mind, though. Such, admittedly major, details as disappearing protagonists are not the be all and end all of the process of a good adaptation... I’m just not in a position to be able to tell you if this is a good adaptation or not. However, what I can tell you is that, although it’s cliché ridden, as a good old fashioned jump-scare horror yarn, this movie really does the trick.... building up the tension quite effectively as we wait to see if our two main protagonists detective Lt. Vincent D'Agosta and Dr. Margo Green (played by Tom Sizemore and Penelope Ann Miller respectively) are going to be bluntly decapitated by a man mutated into giant reptile creature and have the hypothalamus regions ripped out of their brains for food. Yeah, I know, It’s a B movie plot but the writers of the original novel are extremely well respected in their fields and I would still like to read both Relic and its direct sequel, Reliquary.

The basic strands of the story structure, at least in terms of the screen version of it, are fairly complicated to tie up in that you have to establish ways of having a police presence interested enough in a museum fund raising event to be there when things start to go wrong without actually cancelling it... which means political pressure to allow the museum to still run the event after several people have been found with their heads ripped off, either at the museum or on a boat that has connections to the museum itself in terms of a specific shipment. The director does this, mostly, quite deftly with me only raising my eyebrows a couple of times in response to some of the scenes... but it doesn’t detract too much from the visceral pleasures of the film’s ability to scare you when you least expect it to... and also when you most expect it to, to be fair.

Interestingly, there’s a nice inclusion in the movie which doesn’t, I’m think, come from the version of the story found in the book. When the “monster who was a man” comes to the US inside his packing case, the boat bringing the various bits of cargo back is found drifting somewhere not far from the central location. This makes for a scene where the crew on the boat are missing (although a lot of their blood is around and a lot of the crew turn up in various states of long dead goriness as the film progresses) and it becomes clear that something has been praying on them while it makes its passage to the USA. This, of course, is a direct parallel for Count Dracula’s voyage across from Transylvania to Whitby on the ship known as The Demeter and the sequences where Bram Stoker’s monster feeds off the crew inadvertently shipping him to England in his coffin. I’d like to think this was a specific reference and I was impressed with this little touch, if indeed it was the blatant referral I am giving them credit for.

There’s also a nice bit of what I’d like to think of as good natured stunt casting for a film which is, after all, primarily a large budget 1950s style monster movie, with the elderly, wheelchair bound Dr. Albert Frock being played by character actor James Whitmore. The character makes a good meal for the monster in this movie, being served up à la carte in his role... or should that be à la wheelchair... but I had to grin at this unfortunate turn of events. It was Whitmore himself, after all, who had played Sgt. Ben Peterson in the 1954 giant ant movie THEM!, so he should have been able to handle himself a little better, I feel, after hunting down all those giant ants in the tunnels at the end of that movie.

There are some strange little bits of business within the movie which don’t quite seem to make sense, though, which lets it down a little.

For example, a scene when two truant school children are locked in the museum one night and the last you see of them is where they corner themselves in the museum with the scary tell tale signs that they are about to be hunted to extinction by the movie’s prime special effect. There is no closure on this and you don’t see them again so the assumption is that they ended up as monster bait. However, I noticed a stray throwaway line spoken by one of the policemen later on that mentions “the kids who found that body the other night” and this seems to be at odds with any prior information we’ve been given. My guess is the two kids stayed around a bit longer in the original cut and that there’s probably footage of them finding a body and then finding a way out of their predicament. For some reason or another, either kids finding head ripped bodies being too gruesome or maybe the kids getting away from the monster not ratcheting the tension up (who knows), I reckon some footage was cut but there was no easy way to lose the later line in the edit... so they just left it in hoping nobody would notice. That’s my best guess on that one, anyway.

The other thing that really bothered me is that, throughout the movie for about two thirds of it, we keep cutting back to a museum technician who is painstakingly trying to restore a stone idol, presumably the “relic” of the title... however, once it is complete and some ominous music has played behind it, that’s the end of that. The relic in question seems to have no practical significance or interest, at least in the movie version, to the film called... um... The Relic. So I had no idea what was going on there then.

But, since I mentioned the ominous music... what about that score? Well, it’s really good, if derivative (although I don’t think the way it’s mixed in the movie as opposed to the album mix does it any favours). Derivative in the sense that, although both the composer and director are obviously admirers of the astonishing film scores of Jerry Goldsmith, the word homage is a bit of an understatement when it comes to the fact that this score seems, to me at least, to be very much John Debney’s version of Jerry Goldsmith’s ALIEN. Now that’s not an unusual thing for a lot of sci-fi and horror films  post-1978 in all honesty, but this one is a very good tribute to the score... which means it’s very close and blatant in a lot of spots, it seems. Still, it serves the movie reasonably well (and would do a whole lot better if you could hear some of those mini stingers fading out properly within the mix) and it makes for a great listen away from the accompanying images too... so job well done on that one too Mr. Debney.

And that’s about it... despite its weak points, the acting and script are of a sufficient quality that the lack of characterisation filled in by psychological and emotional props are enough to invest the audience with a certain level of interest and that helps when you are supposed to be worrying about various characters ending up as hypothalamus appetisers. The jump scares are cheap and clichéd but no less effective because Hyams as a director definitely knows how to build up a certain level of suspense. This makes it not too terrible as a horror flick... asides, maybe, for the love it or hate it creature effects by movie magician Stan Winston. Personally I thought the monster could have done with being a lot more badly lit, so we couldn’t really see it. Still it’s certainly effective as a big bulky thing coming to eat you and if you have a love of 50s B movie monster science, then this very late entry into that genre should fulfil your needs very nicely. Just watch out for that first cat!

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Rusty Knife




Big N’ Rusty

Rusty Knife (Sabita Naifu)
1958 Japan
Directed by Toshio Masuda
Nikkatsu/Criterion Eclipse DVD Region 1 
(as part of the Nikkatsu Noir boxed edition).

Warning: Light, rusty spoilers within.

Made the following year, after Kurahara’s I Am Waiting (reviewed here), Rusty Knife, the second in Criterion Eclipse’s excellent boxed edition Nikkatsu Noir, retains the same lead actor and actress from I Am Waiting but now I find myself in more familiar territory with Nikkatsu, in that this movie is shot in “Nikkatsuscope”, allowing this movie’s director more room to design some compelling compositions.

I’m not so sure, after having seen this film (another first time watch for me here) that I’d personally call Rusty Knife a film noir... maybe more of a crossbreed between a crime thriller and police procedural, I would say. The tone is quite dark but certainly the characters and atmospheres mostly don’t seem moody enough for what I am used to seeing in a noir and, to be honest, I would have said this is more like the later films I’ve seen in the Nikkatsu releases (the majority of which were directed by Seijun Suzuki... although I’m not sure how much he was influenced by his contemporaries at the studio or, indeed, whether his contemporaries were paying much attention to his particularly uncompromising style at the time).

What I do know is that the storyline is a little skewed again and doesn’t necessarily follow a simple narrative line as you might expect. Starting off as, like I said before, a police procedural movie, the lead detective arrests the mascot boss of a gang of criminals but, as often happens to him, has no proof that he has killed anyone, as they suspect. No witnesses will go against him in court. When the police are tipped off that the man in question has killed someone and it was witnessed by three people, the man who wrote the letter tells the police that he will be the one to finally testify against this small-time “kingpin”.

The man who prompts the reopening of the investigation is a trademark Suzuki actor in an early role, Jô Shishido... not two years after he had undergone the plastic surgery which made his cheeks more prominent and earned him the nickname, in some quarters, of “The Chipmunk” (he is perhaps best known to Western audiences as the anti-hero assassin of Suzuki’s Branded To Kill). It doesn’t take that many minutes before Jô is in trouble with the gang who have tailed him and when he thinks they are the police, he follows them aboard a train... only to be thrown from there into the path of another oncoming train in a brutal murder. It is his tip off letter which his girlfriend sends to the police when he doesn’t show up after a pre-arranged amount of time has passed, that allows the police to both identify his body and go off to find the other two men who witnessed the fake suicide.

Things get complicated as the two men are working in a diner they opened after the main protagonist, played by Yûjirô Ishihara, served some jail time for a crime which is revealed in its scope later. Now he just wants to stay straight and out of trouble with the law, while still keeping himself out of danger from the gang who know he and his friend were witnesses. Then things start to get ugly, as friend turns against friend, people are bought off and ultimately elected for disposal by the main antagonists.

Ugly for the main characters, at any rate. Quite beautiful for the audience, though, who are able to watch the action unfold in Masuda’s not too flashy but still quite beautiful shot compositions and it’s an especially good picture for those who require some action in their movies. There’s a great little high speed truck chase which leads to fisticuffs in one sequence and there’s also some betrayal and a quest for vengeance as Ishihara’s young friend finally turns up for the police, only to be taken out by a sniper while he’s left in one of their interview rooms. It’s at this point that we realise that a character at the police station is also corrupt and very much, on the take, as it were.

The film is nice to look at with some engaging cinematography, the editing is naturalistic and leading lady Mie Kitahara’s screen presence, while not nearly as “smouldering” as it was in I Am Waiting, is still something which is very much on the forefront of your mind as you watch the scenes with her in them. Godzilla and Kurosawa composer Masaru Satoh’s score is serviceable but doesn’t really stick in your mind after the film is done... but it does it’s job, to be sure, and so the viewer (or listener) should be happy.

There’s not a lot I can really say about this one since my knowledge of this particular part of Japanese cinema is not as great as some other areas but I will say the film lives up to the other 30 or 40 Nikkatsu branded movies I’ve seen by being slick and having a certain stylistic bent towards empty but beautiful posture and artifice within the shot. These Nikkatsu films really couldn’t look bad if they tried. Certainly another film I’ll be looking at again at some point in the future and absolutely a must see for fans of these kinds of features.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Doctor Who - The Name Of The Doctor




Tomb It May Concern

Doctor Who - The Name Of The Doctor
Airdate: 18th May 2013. UK. BBC1

Warning: Kinda spoilers... I suppose.

Well that was kinda interesting. It didn’t actually move me in any way like a fair few of the Russel T. Davies era did, for sure, but I didn’t hate that episode. I didn’t quite enjoy it either, to be honest. It felt too much like a mathematics problem about half way through the episode for my taste. Or like I was admiring the blueprints of some very clever machine with great enthusiasm... but without really connecting with it, if that makes sense.

Okay, so four or five years ago I started suggesting to a lot of people that, for the 50th anniversary episode (which we’re just a little over 6 months away if they air it one the day they should be, it falls on a Saturday this year, after all), it would be good if they could get all the Doctors together by CGI-ing the current doctor into scenes with his past lives in much the same way that they did so well in the old Deepspace Nine episode Trials and Tribbleations, in which the crew of the DS9 were spliced and dropped into the old classic Star Trek episode The Trouble With Tribbles. Well it looks like Steven Moffat thought along the same lines but dropped it early, into this episode instead.

Unfortunately, although the sight of seeing “impossible girl” Clara Oswald Oswin interacting with the previous versions of The Doctor from various past stories did cause me to go “ooh” a bit... I couldn’t help but notice that the traditional shoddiness of the BBC budget maybe let things down a bit and we got the equivalent of CGI matt lines and colour balance problems and goodness knows what else showing up as artefacts by the look of it. Not having a go mind you... I’m sure the task of working with such mismatched material in the first place must be incredibly hard and time consuming and it was at least nice that they decided to have a go at it... but all the same I think it might have been better to not attempt it at all if the result was looking like this.

Also, the set up with Moffat’s story arcs, as another blog writer pointed out to me in one of their reviews of an episode from a couple of years ago, is usually a lot more satisfying than his end games and, I have to say, I found that to be the case here. Even in microcosm, taking just this episode by itself, the opening 20 minutes or so were absolutely riveting storytelling which pulled me in but, when The Doctor, Clara, Jenny, Madam Vastra, Strax and River Song finally got to The Tomb Of The Doctor and scar tissue of his timeline, all the promise of something amazing happening with revelations to be told were shamelessly carpeted over with a bit of fakery consisting of half a packet of pseudo-science and the white of an egg.

The great trouble with certain kinds of science fiction writing is that, when you rely on a premise which has no real basis with fact, like time travel, then you can start writing your own rules about the nature of that specific factor of the story and use it as a crutch to write yourself out of anything. This is not the best form of science fiction writing, I think it’s fair to say. Some of the best science fiction is about using those small leaps of technological faith to heighten the way you can push the envelope on real life questions and use the premise promised by a specific scientific idea to explore speculatively the drama at a higher level than you can in real life.

Alternatively, space opera like Star Wars and Star Trek used speculatively changed real life physics to boldly go to places which are still tied in to basic real life truths. Engines get you to so and so, therefore a warp engine will get you to somewhere else where this can happen in the reality made possible by this pretence... and so on.

The worst thing you can do, I reckon, is have science fiction which talks about an amazing concept, like time travel, and then doesn’t follow on from the logical speculation of the way you can play with that, it just throws a few scientific words in together to form an impressive sounding piece of, essentially, mumbo jumbo and there you have it... whatever problem you’ve temptingly lead up to is solved in a jiffy and I’m afraid I’ve noticed that happening more and more in the show of late. An ending nowadays in this series can simply be a bit of “well you did this but that means if I [insert technical sounding jiggery pokery here] then the day is saved and it’s simple as that." Now you could argue that The Doctor has always relied on “reversing the polarity of the neutron flow” over the years but I don’t think it’s usually set up to be the one thing which solves all the problems he is having with his enemies in whichever shows he does this, unless it actually makes some sort of scientific sense, like two poles cancelling each other out might actually help in some situations.

I guess what I’m saying here is that, although it was all very nice to see the original Doctor on his way to steal a TARDIS and Clara suggesting he nick the old Type 40 instead, because it would be more fun, I’d rather have seen a more solid grounding in reality for the solution to The Impossible Girl storyline than this. Introducing John Hurt as The Doctor at the end of the episode didn’t quite cut it either and, although I’m really glad that Moffat really didn’t let slip the name of The Doctor this time around, it did feel just a little bit of a cheat making the title of the episode seem like something to be revealed when, in fact, it was just half of a quote spoken by The Doctor in reference to his John Hurt incarnation. Much as I love John Hurt, and I do think he’s a terrific actor (Will somebody please release Mr. Forbush and the Penguins onto DVD or BluRay please?), I can see that he was obviously chosen to add a certain kind of weight to the character... for me it felt a bit of a letdown, having a cliff hanger onto the 50th Anniversary story end with, to be honest, nothing really happening.

I was also a bit disappointed that the threat of The Great Intelligence did not bring about a reappearance by the Yeti... a basic “give the people what they want, or at least, what they need” should have been the order of the day here after teasing fans with this particular foe only to have his most beloved foot soldiers not make an appearance. So I was a tad let down there, I think.

At the end of the day i have to ask myself, did I enjoy the episode and I have to say... I really don’t know. I loved the interplay between Jenny, Vastra and Strax (as usual) and it was really nice to see a post-library version of River Song here, although I’m really unsure if that’s going to be her last appearance or not. Similarly it was nice to see... um... no that’s it actually. I loved the first 20 minutes or so and the rest of this episode stalled for me there. I didn’t think it was terrible, for sure, but neither was it a great episode, I think. It sets up more questions than it answers (naturally, that’s been Moffat’s main modus operandi for season finales over the last few years, so that was expected anyway) but it would have been nice to get just a little more closure and start afresh next time, methinks, than drag this out any longer.

I didn’t enjoy it like I’d hoped I would but then again, I didn’t hate it either... and that will have to do until next time I guess. Hope you all enjoyed it though. I think I may be getting a bit long in the tooth for it, perhaps. I’ve been watching from Jon Pertwee’s first appearance in the show so... maybe I should accept that the show is going to continue to have some off years, like it always had in the past, I guess. Better luck next time.

P.S. I still like Clara though, so looking forward to seeing more of her in the future.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Moonraker




Drax Inspector

Moonraker
1979 UK/France
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
EON Blu Ray Region A/B/C

Moonraker is the third and final Bond film to be directed by Lewis Gilbert. His previous film, The Spy Who Loved Me, had continued the tradition of the “James Bond will return in” caption at the finish of the end credits sequence but falsely, as it turned out, named the next film to be For Your Eyes Only. The reason for this is very simple actually and it’s also the reason why this Bond film in particular is sometimes thought of as a bit of an anomaly to the series when, really it isn’t.

The Spy Who Loved Me was released in 1977 but something else happened later that same year which not only changed the course this next Bond film would take, but changed the course of cinema as a whole (something we are still feeling the after effects of today at all kinds of levels, actually). And that something was this...

George Lucas released a little film which he didn’t think was going to do all that well at the box office called Star Wars. Not including the obvious stylistic influences or the fact that it repopularised the orchestra as a valid option in musical scoring for a movie, this blockbuster of “all blockbusters ever conceived” and the scale and success of its merchandising significantly changed the values and expectations of producers and studios world wide... strongly influencing the way that movies were designed and the way the deals for those movies are being put together, even 36 years later. Every studio wanted a science fiction clone to cash in on the success, preferably several a year if it brought in the kind of figures they were seeing on Lucas’ budding epic.

Consequently, pretty much all the younger audiences for these kinds of movies were being subjected to from 1977 to at least 1986 were cash ins, traditional TV or comic book heroes brought to a larger venue or, frankly, some very cheap rip offs... desperately trying to keep up and ride the Star Wars bandwagon. But that’s okay, because after we’d all seen Star Wars a hundred gazillion times at the cinema... we all wanted more of the same anyway.

And we saw them all... Battlestar Galactica, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, The Black Hole, Superman The Movie, Star Trek The Motion Picture, Star Crash, Battle Beyond The Stars, Alien and, yes, even The Humanoid (which starred Bond villain Richard Kiel in a lead role... remember that?). We lapped it up and so the producers of the Bond franchise realised, I think, that they needed something vaguely reminiscent of space and with a fistful of laserguns in it to hold the public’s interest at the time.

Now I know they’ve been criticised for stuttering the Bond franchise into this area for a film but, you know what? I think they were right. I was eleven years old at the time and it was highly unlikely I was going to sit still for just another Bond adventure around this time... but the trailer, posters and magazine covers showing Bond in a silver spacesuit with a laser gun promised something truly special and we fell for it hook, line and sinker. What could have turned out to be a Bond that was forgotten against the constant barrage of cinematic space armageddon, triumphed and made a big splash when it might easily have been overlooked if the content and, more importantly, the marketing for it... had hit a wrong note.

Fortunately for Cubby Broccoli and co, Fleming had written a book which had a title one could use perfectly to suggest a science fiction theme. Unfortunately, the story in the novel was jettisoned in the process, if you’ll pardon the expression, but it’s just as well on some level because the low key story in the book would never had been accepted in the canon of what had, by then, become the powerful Bond action franchise.

Released in 1955, the novel is actually, for this humble scribe at least, one of the greatest of the Bond novels (up there with Live And Let Die, From Russia With Love and The Spy Who Loved Me) and it’s entirely set in England. The first half concerns Bond who, at M’s request, goes with him to M’s “Gentleman’s Club” to ascertain if, and then how, a multimillion national hero and bridge player, is cheating at cards and Bond has to go up against him, card for card. The second half is Bond successful attempt to stop Drax from launching a nuclear missile on London. It’s all very British and is also very reminiscent in places of Bond’s first novel (2 books earlier), Casino Royale.

The movie ditches almost all of the plot elements of the novel and goes for all out Bond carnage in the usual manner, bringing back various characters from previous films including Jaws and a slightly more brief appearance from General Gogol. It’s Moore at his cheesiest but it works maybe a little bit better than the previous film, perhaps aided a little by John Barry’s return as composer. It all hangs together a bit better, I reckon, than The Spy Who Loved Me but it doesn’t get any better in terms of the sheer lack of intelligence in terms of the plot... with each encounter leading link by flimsy link to the next set piece with no real detection involved.

There are some really nice things about it though so let me focus on those for a moment...

Well, Jaws is back and this time, instead of treating him totally like a cartoon villain, they also give him some comical love interest, a spoken line and a big shot of redemption at the end of the movie where he teams up with Bond to take out the bad guys.

The script also has some choice lines which are quite often “groaners” like Qs final line “I believe he’s attempting re-entry sir” (not realising Bond is having zero gravity sex with Moore’s co star, Lois Chiles, at the time) and it might be said that what it lacks in story drivers it makes up for in dialogue. French actor Michael Lonsdale (who had also worked with the likes of Bunuel) plays the lead villain, Hugo Drax, and it’s an absolute pinnacle of Bond villain performance... it’s just such a shame he’s not doing it in a better Bond film. His delivery of the line “Show Mr. Bond around. See some harm comes to him.” is absolutely pitch perfect and he steals pretty much all the scenes he’s in.

Lois Chiles seems a strong but also strangely “easy” Bond girl, although I liked her when I was a kid and first saw it and her performance works fine contrasted against Moore (she had interestingly turned down the role of the leading lady Anya in the previous Bond movie). And Richard Kiel really plays the hell out of Jaws this time around, fleshing out a comically unlucky assassin pretty much as well as anyone could expect and even giving the role a certain amount of gravitas in some scenes... which is helpful when contrasted against some of the other elements of this movie... which have zero gravitas in zero gravity.

And that leads me onto the zero gravity space battle which, quite honestly, tries to do for Moonraker what the underwater harpoon gun battle in Thunderball did for that film... but with laser guns instead of harpoons. The trouble with this though, is it looks and sounds a bit rubbish when compared to the pinnacle that this kind of film effect had reached just two years before in Star Wars. And in George Lucas’ epic, at least the weapons had a bit of recoil to them. The only good thing to come out of this was that I got to own a toy replica of the Moonraker laser gun to play with and, it has to be said, it was a real beauty. Of course, it didn’t shoot blue laser death upon an unsuspecting playmate but you could put caps in the thing so if you couldn’t exactly laser your friends off this mortal coil, you could at least give those of a nervous disposition a playful heart attack. It was a toy weapon to be cherished and loved.

There are also some other quite dreadful things in the movie.

The musical joke of incorporating Maurice Jarre’s Lawrence Of Arabia theme into the soundtrack at one point in the previous instalment, continues in this film with Roger Moore riding into town dressed like Clint Eastwood. Considering the character he’s dressed like, it’s a mystery why none of Morricone’s epic spaghetti western music was used to accompany this scene, the producers instead plumping for a rendition of Elmer Bernstein’s score for The Magnificent Seven (perhaps there were some copyright issues). Yet another musical joke in the movie is the use of the famous, five note Johnny Williams motif from Spielberg’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind... and that’s about the only one that brings a smile to the face now in all honesty (there’s also a computer sound effect from ALIEN used in the movie but I suspect this is a case of accidentally picking the same sound sample from an effects library rather than intending it to be an actual homage to Ridley Scott’s masterpiece).

The music in this one seems quite sluggish and is certainly a John Barry of 'a different time' returning to score this. I personally think of it as his worst Bond score, even though something quite special happens in the scoring at one point. That something special is the return of Barry’s 007 melody, which he first composed for the Bond film From Russia With Love. This was the only time that Roger Moore’s version of Bond was scored with this theme and it’s the fifth and final film that this melody is used in. A shame, then, that in this incarnation the theme is slowed down to treacle setting and reorchestrated to the dreariest you’ve ever heard it. It’s supposed to be scoring a fast and furious boat chase but it feels like it’s scoring a game of “Pooh Sticks” to be honest with you. It’s a theme which I still wish they’d re-use in Bond films today but its inclusion in Moonraker is a very dull affair.

And that just about covers it, I think. Other than to mention that this marks the last film that Bernard Lee played M in, before his death in 1981 (just before he was due to start shooting the next one).

Moonraker is not a great Bond film but it is, at least, a livelier affair than the previous film in the series. Moore’s Bond character is totally toned down to “inoffensive and probably quite harmless” again but the next film in the series would put a little edge back into the character. And with Moonraker, they once again got it right in the end credits. James Bond would, indeed, return... in For Your Eyes Only.




EON James Bond Movie Reviews on NUTS4R2

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

War Gods Of The Deep




Reservoir Gods

War Gods Of The Deep 
aka The City Under The Sea
aka City In The Sea
1965 UK
Directed by Jacques Tourneur
DVD Region 1

I was looking forward to this movie after just having listened to the score a few times and wanting to know how the music “fit the picture”, so to speak. Well... I think to best summarise my experience would be to say that War Gods Of The Deep is a very... um... interesting movie.

That is to say...it’s quite a bad movie on many levels and, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite (for me at least) fit into the “so bad it’s brilliant” category of cheesy B-movie that I’d kinda been hoping for, although there are many bad judgement calls made along the way. However, where it fails in certain areas, it does make up for with other factors so... wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Let me put a few facts before you first.

The director of this mini adventure is none other than the famed genre director Jacques Tourneur who made such classics as the original Val Lewton produced movies Cat People (a brief review of which is included here), The Leopard Man and I Walked With A Zombie (the latter of which is famously, of course, a zombie remake of Jane Eyre). He also directed the brilliant “adaptation” of M.R. James Casting The Runes as the film Night of The Demon/Curse Of The Demon (reviewed here), which is another piece of cinematic horror movie brilliance. I was, therefore, rather surprised when I saw he’d directed this piece of tosh, to be honest.

The film is distributed by AIP who was in the middle of a string of hits with films that were adaptations (aka inspired loosely by a scene or two) of the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe and so they’d kinda started really cheating on the extent they could get away with tagging up movies with the legendary author’s name. The movie known as “Egdar Allan Poe’s The Haunted Palace”, for example, is not actually based on Poe’s poem of the same name at all. It is, instead, an adaptation of H. P. Lovecraft’s brilliant tale The Case Of Charles Dexter Ward and the “Poe” designation is, barely,  justified by including a few lines from Poe’s verse at the end of the movie. My understanding is that, at this time, Lovecraft was a bit less known and not the legend he is today.

War Gods Of The Deep suffers a similar fate in countries where it was marketed as either The City Under The Sea or City In The Sea, because it was pretending to be based on Edgar Allan Poe’s poem City In The Sea (see the link below this review for a reading of this poem by Hypnogoria) but all it has in common with that piece is some lines of the poem recited by Vincent Price, who was at that time (and possibly still is to some extent) the figurehead for all things Edgar Allan and I suspect even he knew that for a lot of people he was “Poe made flesh” in celluloid. The “E. A. Poe-To-Go” guy, so to speak. Oh well, alright then, it does technically have a city in the sea in it too... but you don’t really get to see much of it, to be honest.

What we have here, then, is a completely made up story about stumbling upon a city under the sea off the coast of Cornwall, peopled by immortal smugglers who have been kept alive for hundreds of years due to... um... the properties of the water... and who have captured the leading lady of this movie because she looks like someone Vincent Price’s character used to love, many decades past.

The film starts off quite promisingly, actually, with some locals finding a washed up corpse on the beach and among them is leading hearth-throb Tab Hunter, who is quite convincing as a tough, cynical character... for about 3 minutes, until he goes up to “the house” to see his new lady friend acquaintance to tell her one of her guests is missing. From that point on his “acting switch” just seems to get turned off and he seems to be wooden, contradictory to his character’s initial set up and just generally inappropriate in his acting style for the entire rest of the movie. When his ‘lady friend’ gets kidnapped by a gill-man, he goes off with his other new friend, played as complete comic relief by David Tomlinson... and Tomlinson’s pet chicken.

They find a secret passage through a bookcase in the house which takes them down to a City In The Sea... too complex a labyrinth for them ever to find their way back (or so we’re expected to believe). There they see a young Tony Selby chained up in a water filling cavern and try to rescue him for all of 10 seconds before running off and saving themselves instead, which is not that great behaviour for ‘the good guys’ really but then again, who hasn’t wanted to drown Tony Selby at some point in their lives (no, don’t quote me, I’m kidding). Then they meet Vincent Price, who had apparently only read the script six days before arriving in England for the shoot. He plays the evil leader of the smugglers in his best and most earnest Poe style... which is also completely inappropriate for the style of the picture as it’s been playing so far.

In fact, there is no real chemistry in this movie at all with, it seems to me, any of the actors and actresses involved. They all seem to be very much doing their own thing with no thought about how their acting style fits in with anybody else and how it may help or, in this case, damage the picture... which is a bit of a shame because there’s some nice stuff happening on a technical level with the movie which is really quite brilliant.

Anyway, it turns out the dwellers of the city under the sea are looking for a way to plug up the underwater volcano which has been threatening to erupt and destroy them all for many decades now... so Vincent Price gives his new captives the job of finding out how to nullify the volcano with a deadline of three hours, or they will both be killed. Which is kind of unfair, really, considering he’s been trying to figure out a way of doing it for many years with no result. It turns out, of course, that the smugglers can’t return to dry land by day or the sunlight will rob them of their extra years and they will all die of extreme old age in moments... which is why they use their friends, the gill-men, if they need to “acquire” anything from the land above the sea.

At this point, our heroes meet the only person in the movie who actually seems to be doing a really good acting job and who is trying his best (and mostly succeeding) in fitting in with all the different modes of acting expression going on about him... as a new character helps our heroes escape and shows them a route back to their home which, naturally, involves wading about in diving suits and warding off gill-men and underwater crossbow armed smugglers in a long and quite tedious, extended chase scene. That actor is... John Le Mesurier.

Yes, that’s right. Sergeant Wilson from Dad’s Army acts everyone else off the screen in this film.

And that’s about as much of a simplistic and, frankly, impenetrably contradictory plot you will get out of this film. The volcano happens to go off before even our heroes’ three hours are up and it really does seem to be a bit of a coincidence that, after decades upon decades, the volcano decides it’s going to go off right this minute.

So... acting and script aside, the actual direction and cinematography on show in this one is quite astonishing. It’s always been my long held belief that Corman’s use of extreme colour contrasts in certain scenes in his Poe films for AIP are what contributed to the eventual assimilation of a design style which led to psychedelia within the public consciousness of late 60s pop culture and my personal belief is that this is because he saw a lot of the foreign product put out in a re-edited form by AIP, notably the films of Mario Bava. And this highly saturated method of colour work is something that some of the other AIP films kind of inherited too. Certainly War Gods Of The Deep is no exception. One could be excused for thinking the director is channelling Bava in no uncertain terms as deep reds and lime greens are pitched against other within shot in the least naturalistic and artificial way you could imagine.

And it looks incredible... especially when the design of the shots is so clean.

Tourneur also seems to have inherited Corman’s trick of leaving doors in the background of the sets open so another set shows through from behind, to give the shot a general sense of depth. One can be forgiven for ignoring the obvious mish-mash of different architectural styles and artefacts juxtaposed in the sets, which obviously are mostly borrowed from previous productions (it suddenly all goes a bit Egyptian at one point for a little while, for no apparent reason) because the composition of the shots and the way he directs the actors to move around them, is all very breathtaking.

This makes up for a lot but, it must be said, the gill-men aren’t all that great. They’ve tried, as films which came after this like Island Of The Fish Men and Humanoids From The Deep have also tried, to make the monster costumes be a stylistic flashback to the original Universal Creature From The Black Lagoon films... but, like those other two movies I just mentioned, fail utterly to capture the sheer impact and appealing quality of that first costume from the fifties film series. So that’s a shame... but the first fight in the house between a gill-man and Tab Hunter, where they throw things at each other for a bit, is still pretty good.

Stanley Black’s score for this movie is also pretty good, I would say, pushing the adventuresome qualities of the movie to their full... probably a lot fuller, actually, than I would have expected but it certainly adds to the fun. It’s just a shame it’s being showcased in a less than perfect movie.

So there we have it. War Gods From The Deep is really not a Poe film and if you go into this thinking it will be then you’ll probably be disappointed. The acting and script are both laughable elements but this is saved by some good shot design and execution. Steer clear if you are not a fan of trashy b-movie AIP films but certainly go and have a look if you are interested in exploring the less successful spin offs from the ‘Poe Fever’ that was on everybody’s mind at the time. For this reviewer, however, one Poe quote certainly springs to mind... “Nevermore.”

To hear a reading by Hypnogoria (aka Jim Moon) of Edgar Allan Poe’s City In The Sea, click here.