Monday 30 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #5

I haven't posted any reviews to Apocalypse Later this week, but I did get an outstanding Weird Wednesday review staged and ready to go this week. I'm having a blast with that project and this one will amaze.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site:

Operator (2015)

Director: Brothers Olson
Stars: Luke Goss, Mischa Barton, Michael Pare and Ving Rhames
The core idea of this film is a good one and I appreciated it a great deal. The great movie that it surely will become one day merely isn’t this one.

We’re focused on a broken relationship. Pamela Miller is a 911 dispatch operator, who started divorce proceedings after her alcoholic husband left their daughter, Cassie, alone in the house on the night that it was burgled and burned to the ground. That Cassie made it out was none of his doing. Jeremy Miller is a cop, now five months sober, who wants nothing more than to atone for his mistakes and be with his family. That difficult relationship is highlighted quickly but just as quickly ignored because the events we’re about to watch unfold tie them together professionally and they both do fine. This had the most obvious happy ending of any film I think I’ve ever seen.

Those events involve an ambitious crime and an equally ambitious attempt to divert all professional attention away from it by kidnapping Cassie, tormenting Pamela and having her move Jeremy around from location to location avoiding the big picture. Of course, at some point he figures it out and decides to do something to save the day that clearly isn’t what the mastermind at the core of the film wants.

As I mentioned, it’s a great idea and I’d love to see it done justice, but this fails on more fronts than can be comfortably counted. So let’s try counting them.

One is that the criminal mastermind is Ving Rhames, whose rather memorable dulcet tones are utterly unmistakeable even through the sound manipulation software he’s using. While we know it’s Rhames, Pamela doesn’t and that’s the ace that this house of cards is built on.

A bunch tie to little issues that can’t be ignored. After Jeremy is injured by a truck jackknifing right over his police car, his partner lets him climb into the empty truck first. Then they leave the scene, contrary even to procedure that’s quoted in dialogue. Why would patsies be paid off in clues? How come the bad guys can’t even shoot as well as Imperial Stormtroopers? Hostages turn from chaotic to well behaved on the turn of a dime. And back again.

Perhaps the worst is the fact that Pamela works in a small call center, sits at someone else’s terminal (who wants it back, no less) and ignores hours of 911 calls because Rhames keeps her on the line. Yet those 911 calls don’t get automatically routed to other dispatchers, nobody notices what she’s going through and she clearly doesn’t have any mechanism at her disposal to tell anyone else. That’s nuts, except in the wacky world of Hollywood plot convenience, which does descend as far as outrageously clichéd moments like a car chase on a deserted rural road suddenly running into a tractor coming the other way. For a great core idea, this is a horribly written script.

Rhames does better here than he did in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, but that wasn’t difficult. It gives him a good opportunity to sound villainous and, on that front, he succeeds, but he’s hardly the commanding mastermind that so many other Hollywood actors could have been. He’s also so soothing that I actually started blotting him out at points. That’s not good. Maybe he should take up a job DJ’ing smooth jazz.

At least he’s better than Michael Paré, who sleepwalks through this film so poorly that it takes us about five seconds of his screentime to see through his every facade. He’s made over a hundred films since his debut in 1983 as the lead in Eddie and the Cruisers, but I truly hope that he never gave a performance more lackluster than this in any of them. He phones this part in so relentlessly that I wonder if he had some sort of grudge against someone important behind the project.

At least the Millers are decent. I’ve finally got over the stunning discovery that the glorious Prince Nuada in Hellboy II: The Golden Army was played by one of the brothers in frickin’ Bros. Maybe the fascinating chameleon Donnie Wahlberg turned into began to calm my objections over boy band divas thinking they could act, but Goss finished them off. I’ve seen him in a few films since then and he’s far better than he ought to be. Sadly he’s not as good as he ought to be here, fine as the cop but less so as the husband, noting the caveat that the script really didn’t help him in that regard at all, rendering him watchable but also forgettable.

Mischa Barton gets the opportunities as his estranged wife and she does try to do something with them, leaving her easily the best of the major actors in the cast. However, while the script gives her plenty to do in order to shine, it doesn’t provide much coherent grounding for her to build on, so we have trouble sometimes differentiating between her acting and her situation.

I wanted to like this, because of the idea, and I’d still like to see it done justice. Unfortunately it warrants an audience that doesn’t know what a plot convenience is and is scarily happy to suspend disbelief. That isn’t me.

Momentum (2015)

Director: Stephen S Campanelli
Stars: Olga Kurylenko, James Purefoy and Morgan Freeman
At least Momentum is honest. Rather than conjure up a lackluster plot to pretend at depth, it pretty much ignores that one might even be needed. It’s an action film that has no interest in anything except action, which it showcases as stylishly as it can. If that’s what you want, you should enjoy this. If you want more, like a purpose for it to actually exist, you’re going to be rather frustrated at how little it cares.

Before the opening credits, Morgan Freeman calls for a war. After them, we see a heist, perpetrated by people in futuristic black outfits with coloured LEDs on them. They could be advanced cycling suits with added voice changers. They want into a vault that’s protected by a space age security system. Out of a wall pops a hexagonal safety deposit box, like this is a technological hive. Out of that pops a bunch of diamonds. This is incredibly cool and just as incredibly unrealistic.

These robbers get away, taking with them the diamonds and the corpse of the one with a temper. They plan on landing $30,000 each for this job, which doesn’t seem like much, especially with this level of tech and with the destruction of a nice car to cover their tracks. But hey, Hollywood, right? Well no, this is actually a South African feature that merely added Morgan Freeman to the cast to give it a Hollywood flavour. As a clichéd corrupt senator, he gets a few scenes back in the States but never interacts with the rest of the cast except by phone.

If this sounds like a plot, ignore it. After about five minutes, the female robber finds herself on the run from an infuriatingly calm employee of the senator’s and we settle down for a long chase. On occasion the plot makes a half-hearted attempt at reasserting itself, but we mostly just ignore it because at least the chase is a lot of fun.

There are problems with it. Part of that initial escape ironically involves a character mentioning how he’s seen some of this before in movies, right before we watch Alex, the lady being chased, reverse down a long spiral ramp to get away from a car going forwards. Yes, I’ve seen that in the movies before too, but it’s done very well. Even though I’m not a fan of the sort of rapid impressionistic editing that this uses to build tension, that’s mostly because it’s not usually done as well as it is here. There are great little details here too, like how Alex exits over the top of a security guard’s car and through his booth to avoid the traffic spikes. I also like how this chase ends, at least the driven part of it, which is handled particularly well. So maybe we can ignore the problems and settle back with our popcorn.

What we realise when we get to this point is that we’ve spent more time watching a chase scene than we have watching the actual story. And every time we jump to an actual plot detail, such as when Alex turns up at the remaining robber’s place ahead of the ‘cleaners’ and rings her dead partner’s wife, we’re thrown right back into the chase. All we really need to know is that this isn’t about diamonds, it’s about a drive, a clichéd but suitable MacGuffin of the piece.

I like Alex. She kicks royal ass but she’s not an invincible machine; she has a brain as well as brawn and she’s able to use both in a mostly believable fashion. She’s played by Olga Kurylenko, who had a strong run about eight years ago with Hitman, Max Payne and Quantum of Solace (yes, she’s a Bond girl) and clearly she’s only got better. While this isn’t a great film, it’s certainly a great showcase for her.

I also like that she’s not the only woman with impact in the film. That dead partner’s wife, not a crook in the slightest, gets to strut her stuff too, such as when she beats one bad guy to death with a Tonka truck. She’s only in the film to be a mother defending her child and she does that superbly.

The man she’s defending her child from and who chases Alex throughout the film is Mr Washington, the senator’s man in Capetown. This role was originally intended for Vincent Cassel, who would surely have handled it very differently to James Purefoy, who is infuriatingly calm and polite throughout. It’s a great approach for him to take and I appreciated how well he did it.

Morgan Freeman is Morgan Freeman and he does precisely what you might expect from him in a darker role than usual, but he only does it for a few brief scenes which are really inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. He could have been cut out of the film entirely and we wouldn’t have noticed. This is really all about the cat and mouse between of Alex and Mr Washington, an oddly sympathetic bad girl versus the worse guys.

If you’re going to watch it, watch it for the action, the strong (in more ways than one) performance of Olga Kurylenko and for the visuals, which are slick indeed for an indie feature. While the film is South African, it’s a Canadian, Glen MacPherson, who was responsible for the cinematography. Looking at his credits, I see that he’s done good work in bad films before, like the more recent Resident Evil movies. I should check out some of the good films in his filmography to see how he shines in them. Was that supposed to be my takeaway here? I don’t think so.

The Transporter Refueled

Director: Camille Delamarre
Stars: Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson and Loan Chabanol
I’m a big fan of The Transporter, the original 2002 movie, which helped establish Jason Statham as an action movie leading man. The two sequels were fun too, though not up to the same standard, but they were all about Statham and how effortlessly cool he was as Frank Martin, a sort of take on what Steve McQueen might be doing if he were alive and young today.

When Luc Besson’s company, EuropaCorp, wanted to make a new Transporter trilogy, they naturally aimed for Statham but terms couldn’t be met and so Ed Skrein was given the unenviable task of attempting to fill the skin of Frank Martin. He isn’t up to the task, but he did grow on me somewhat during the film and I’ll happily take a glance at films five and six when they’re made.

This reboot is very much in the traditional Besson style, focusing on the attempts of a team of prostitutes to rob their Russian boss blind and destroy his empire in the process. He’s Arkady Karasov and he’s the ruthless crime boss you might expect, beginning the film in 1995 by machine gunning a row of whores and then replacing them with a new row from the van following him. So much for West African pimps on the French Riviera; now Karasov owns that business.

Fifteen years on, some of his girls still want revenge, led by Anna, who was there in 1995 as one of the new girls. She starts off as she means to go on, shooting Karasov’s accountant in the head, then follows up by emptying his safe deposit box in a neat little bank robbery that lands her a little black book that sets up the entire rest of her plan and our picture.

It also brings the Transporter into the main thrust of the story. Anna hired him to be her getaway driver but, knowing that he’d bail immediately because she broke his cardinal rules, took the opportunity to kidnap his father first. Martin plays along with Anna’s plans in order to save his father, but things aren’t quite that simple. There are a number of twists still to come and they’re handled pretty well for the most part. Certainly they aren’t the biggest problem that the film has to deal with.

Ed Skrein isn’t bad as Frank Martin, but he tries way too hard to be as cool as Statham, who didn’t have to try at all, and he can’t manage it. The film tries way too hard too, carefully notching off all the things we need to know about Frank Martin, his job as the Transporter and the rules he follows while doing it, just in case we hadn’t seen the previous three films. It’s too clinical and too forced a reboot.

What impresses most early on is the car chase, which is a good thing because this is a Transporter movie, after all. The Luc Besson crowd really don’t mess around when it comes to car chases, and while this is far from the best that he’s ever put his name to, it’s still a bundle of spectacular fun.

The other early positive is Ray Stevenson, who plays Frank Martin Sr, who has just retired from the British government on a €790 a month pension for being a ‘water salesman’ (read ‘spy’). He’s a charismatic foil for his rigid son and he provides most of the fun early on that doesn’t revolve around beautiful women or driving scenes.

And so on we go. I like the confidence that Skrein has, whether he’s taking on six idiots who want to steal his car, his home ground of precision driving or having to leap into a different persona at the drop of a hat to work a job with Anna. There’s one great scene in which he sets his car into motion with three girls in it, promptly gets out and fights his way forward until leaping back into the driver’s seat at just the right moment. It’s exactly what we want from a Transporter movie.

The choreography is decent, which is no surprise. Given the last few movies I’ve seen, including Taken 3, which was another EuropaCorp feature this year, I was impressed by how damaged people get in this film when doing things that really ought to damage people, such as Frank taking on four tough guys at a club in a fight that ends up with solid metal weapons.

The driving is great, including a gorgeous escape from an airport which is that rare example of a clearly unbelievable stunt that still looks like someone actually performed it for real. The style is fine, including the awesome choice to put three girls in matching disguises in a number of scenes. The story is a stretch, of course, but it’s a fun stretch with only a few annoying plot conveniences that should have been tidied up before shooting commenced.

Sure, we need to suspend disbelief a number of times, in the holy tradition of action movies, but this flows a lot better than I expected it to. If the next film can build on this and Ed Skrein can find a way to loosen up and play the Transporter more naturally, it could have a good chance to start carving out its own legacy and not merely fail in comparison to the previous trilogy.

Monday 23 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #4

I've posted one review to Apocalypse Later this week.

This week's Weird Wednesday review was of The Fuzzy Fairy Incident: A Furry Tale (2010), a fairy tale with dogs in the leading roles, courtesy of a dog trainer who can clearly train dogs but not make movies.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site, at least anytime soon.

Inserts (1975)

Director: John Byrum
Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Jessica Harper, Bob Hoskins, Veronica Cartwright and Stephen Davies
I noted in my review of Phantom of the Paradise in last week’s Monday Night Roundup that Jessica Harper had three films in the Top 100 Cult Films list. It’s worth mentioning here that they were all released around the same time. That one was 1975 and Suspiria was 1977. This one came in between in 1975, along with Woody Allen’s Love and Death, but it’s the one of the three that I haven’t seen. In fact, I hadn’t even heard of it, surprising given the subject matter.

It turns out that it stars another name who was doing great work around the same time. The lead is Richard Dreyfuss, the same year as Jaws and two after Dillinger and American Graffiti. He’s a major film director in the Hollywood of the early thirties, known as Boy Wonder, who’s fallen from grace because of his alcoholism. Now he’s retreated into his mansion on Hollywood Boulevard, the only one left in a block scheduled for demolition to make way for a freeway, to shoot silent stag pictures. He’s well aware that he’s fallen on hard times but he tries to maintain his artistic integrity, even while looking down on his audience, who he calls ‘syphilitic perverts’.

The leading lady in those black and white blue movies is a drug addicted former actress called Harlene, surprisingly cheerful given that her squeaky voice did for her career in ‘real movies’. She’s played by Veronica Cartwright, who had just returned to features at the age of 26 after more than a decade away. As a child actor, she had appeared in films as notable as The Birds, but her real break wouldn’t come until later in the decade with the trio of Goin’ South, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien over a period of two years. She’s a lot more naked here than I can remember seeing her in anything else.

Her screen partner is Stephen Davies, whose character she calls Rex, the Wonder Dog, either because one part important for his current career is good at sitting up and begging or, more likely, she’s cynically digging at the fact that it isn't. He also appears a lot more naked than I might have expected, given that he graduated from RADA the same year he made this film. As his character says, he has star potential, but he does so well at not being the brightest bulb in the pack in what was originally an X-rated movie that it’s almost unsurprising that he didn’t make another feature for five years.

They’re all working for Big Mac, played by Bob Hoskins in his debut feature in the States. His big break wouldn’t be for another five years, back in England, when he played the violent lead in The Long Good Friday, a film which, probably uncoincidentally, also had a role for Stephen Davies. He’s as calm as everyone else is loud and obnoxious. Well, for about two minutes, then Boy Wonder riles him up and circumstances only make that worse. He’s a businessman who thinks big. With freeways coming, he’s going to build hamburger stands and gas stations up and down so people get them coming and going. Guess why we don’t have a full name for this guy.

Harper is Big Mac’s ‘fiancée, maybe’, with an oddly pale tone and delicate movement to her like she’s a ghost. Like everyone else in Hollywood, she wants to be in the movies and she already has a movie star name, Cathy Cake. She also wants to see it all and do it all, as she explains a number of times during the picture. Unfortunately she gets to see a lot more than she was expecting, because Harlene dies of a drug overdose halfway through the movie. Then the real story begins.

Except for the initial scene, which is of the stag picture we’ll soon watch them shoot, everything unfolds in real time, which feels weird for something set this far back. It’s not a one take deal, like Hitchcock’s Rope or a few recent features like Russian Ark or The Silent House, because there are frequent cuts and, frankly, given how much he drinks, there’s no way that Dreyfuss could have avoided half a dozen trips to the bathroom had this been a one shot take, but the film proper begins and then continues in real time until it ends, almost two hours later, making us feel like we’re there in Boy Wonder’s house along with these characters as an unseen observer. This is only one reason why it feels like a stage play. It wasn’t, having been written for the screen by debuting director, John Byrum, who had, bizarrely for the subject matter, been working as one of the original writers on Sesame Street, but it does feel very much like it could have been.

Like a stage play, we focus a lot less on the setting and the direction and a lot more on the actors and the dialogue heavy script. Dreyfuss is the mainstay throughout. He works well with Cartwright early on and Harper later on, the two screen relationships being very different indeed. With Harlene, Boy Wonder is in charge, not enough to stop her addiction or prevent her death, but he’s the dominant one of the pair. With Cathy, she’s clearly in charge and he runs through a whole story arc during the second half of the film. It’s certainly a much more substantial performance than she gave as Phoenix in Phantom of the Paradise.

It’s an odd film to have a cult following. It’s certainly a magnetic script, with strong dialogue and a few great quotes that are all the more quotable given who delivers them (Dreyfuss mostly, but Hoskins on occasion). There are many namechecks of industry luminaries of the time, especially Clark Gable, who gets mentioned rather a lot as ‘the new kid at Pathé’, but also many of those who either didn’t survive the silent era at all or for long, like Wallace Reid and Jack Pickford, or did so at a notably reduced level of prominence, such as Erich von Stroheim, Francis X Bushman and Lillian Gish.

It’s clever stuff, with a great deal of depth to sit back and analyse once it’s all over, but it seems weird today to see such clever stuff dished out by actors we recognise in an old film with genitalia frequently on show. In a very different way to Phantom of the Paradise, this was a product of its time, porno chic being a cultural phenomenon in the very early seventies, until the Supreme Court redefined obscenity and films like The Devil in Miss Jones, the seventh highest grossing picture of 1973, was prosecuted.

I often talk about the precodes of the early thirties as being constant surprises to the modern audience not used to seeing that sort of edgy material in black and white. The other magic time in American cinema is the early seventies, because the studios had lost the plot entirely and admitted it, handing over seven figure sums of money to counterculture icons to see if they could find it again. It was only with the blockbuster success of Jaws in 1975 that they managed it and this era was over for good. Perhaps Inserts is a cult film because it was made during one of those two brief eras of magic American cinema and set during the other.

This was film #79 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

Men in Black 3 (2012)

Director: Barry Sonnenfeld
Stars: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones and Josh Brolin
Boris the Animal has a visitor. She’s a cute little thing in a skimpy black number with a large pink cake. He’s locked up a long way from the outside world in a massively secure facility on the moon. Out of the cake comes a weird spiderlike thing that crawls into his hand and enables his escape. With the aid of a conveniently vulnerable armoury, he promptly breaks out. ‘Let’s rewrite history,’ he says, right next to the Apollo 11 landing site, and on we go into the opening credits.

I enjoyed the irreverent humour and imagination of the first two Men in Black movies so was hesitant to watch the third, made a full decade after the second in an era where long awaited sequels have tended to disappoint. It doesn’t help that I’ve not found much to enjoy in Will Smith’s post-MIB career, although I’m as big a Tommy Lee Jones fan as ever. What I found was that this mostly picked up where it left off, with the two of them notably older but working just as well together and the imagination still very much on show, including strong work from Rick Baker in the alien character design. I wasn’t disappointed until later.

Naturally, the history that Boris the Animal is talking about involves Agent K, Jones’s character. In the world we know, the young K scuppered his plans at Cape Canaveral in 1969, capturing him alive (but taking one of his arms) and putting up a protective shield around the planet called the ArcNet, thus stopping the Boglodite invasion in its tracks. In the world we’re about to join, the future Boris the Animal has gone back in time, killed the young K and prevented the ArcNet from being deployed. Only Agent J, played by Smith, remembers that other world and naturally does something about it, jumping off the Chrysler building to go back in time himself, save the younger version of his future partner and thus undo the undo to restore the world we know.

One reason this works so well is that Josh Brolin was cast as the young Tommy Lee Jones and he’s spot on. I loved the pairing of Brolin and Smith, which reflected well on the pairing of Jones and Smith that we know well. Alice Eve isn’t anywhere near as convincing as a young Emma Thompson, but she doesn’t have to carry the movie. Brolin does and he nails it. I have to say that Michael Stuhlbarg is better still, stealing the entire film in my eyes as an alien called Griffin who can see multiple divergences of time ahead of them happening. Griffin deserves his own movie and I’d stand in line for that. I noticed David Rasche, Sledge Hammer himself, as the head of the 1969 MIB, but sadly he has a blink and you’ll miss it part.

With Brolin and Smith working well and the wild variety of aliens as imaginative as ever, this belated sequel is right on track for quite some time. There’s a neat continuation to the traditional reveals of celebrities as aliens. This one adds Lady Gaga, Tim Burton and Mick Jagger to that pantheon, along with a number of folk at Andy Warhol’s Factory, all models apparently being aliens, though Warhol himself turns out to be an undercover MIB agent instead. ‘I don’t have a problem pimp-slappin’ the shiznit out of Andy Warhol’ isn’t a line I ever expected to hear in a movie but wasn’t unhappy to hear here. The scriptwriters chose not to involve the Apollo 11 astronauts in this, though. I expected to see more of them than we do.

There are problems, though. This 1969 is a notably sanitised take on the real one, which does get tiring and at points actively annoying, and those sixties Men in Black sure liked to flaunt their tech, contrary to everything we’ve been told thus far, chasing around New York on gyrocycles and jetpacking their way across country. We don’t buy that in the slightest, but worst of all is the finalé. It’s by far the weakest, most clichéd and most obviously greenscreened part of the film, which also happens to throw away the strong potential of Boris the Animal and settle for him being nothing but a cheap cartoon villain. Kiwi actor Jermaine Clement blusters well and has a great character design, which oddly makes him look like Macho Man Randy Savage in 1969, but he’s utterly wasted in the end. Fortunately there’s material after the finalé, which plays much better and helps us to leave with a good taste in our mouths.

A proposed Men in Black 4 is sitting somewhere in the development cycle, presumably because this one made a strong showing at the box office, and, on the face of it, I’m not automatically against it. It could succeed and succeed well, critically as well as financially, but it needs to be a lot more consistent than this one to really kick the franchise back into high gear.

Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

Director: Aleksander Bach
Stars: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciarán Hinds, Angelababy, Dan Bakkedahl and Thomas Kretschmann
In case we haven’t seen the first movie, 2007’s Hitman, featuring Timothy Olyphant as Agent 47, or played the game on which both films were based, we’re given a quick rundown at the beginning to give us a grounding. A government program to create human killing machines with no emotion, no fear and no remorse was, of course, successful. These killing machines were called Agents and they’re conveniently identified by barcodes on the backs of their bald heads. Talk about a giveaway. However, the price of the program was the conscience of the creator, Dr Litvenko, and so the program was shut down. Huh? Like the government cares about that sort of thing. Anyway, the Agents disperse. Various people try to kick the program back into gear and fail, but they persevere.

We kick off in Salzburg, Austria, with a huge gesture-driven display. An Agent presses a button on his smartphone to upload a virus to the system and everyone promptly evacuates. OK, credibility is officially lost before the opening credits are over, but at least the proceedings are pretty. They’re also action-packed. We’re only five minutes in and a bunch of people are dead, two secure facilities are compromised, two cars are destroyed and an armoury has been blown up. At least we can’t accuse the film of skimping on action. Sure, we could have done without the supposedly stylish blue flashing light backing the firefight, the only colour in the scene being the Agent’s red tie, but hey, we can’t have everything.

Then it’s off to Berlin. A young lady doesn’t know who she’s searching for or what his name is, but she knows she has to search. She’s an odd duck: she has hypersensitive sight and hearing, which she suppresses with meds. She can’t bear to be touched. She has major maths skills. She cares about people. And, of course, she’s the target of Agent 47, turning this into a chase in The Terminator style, highlighted to no small degree by a man calling himself John Smith suddenly introducing himself and volunteering to help, save and/or protect her. He’s from Syndicate International, about whom we know nothing except that they have huge gesture-driven desks at their HQ in Singapore. He knows her name, Katia van Deese, and he’s just in time because Agent 47 immediately shows up to kill her. The fight is on.

This film in microcosm is the scene shortly afterwards, well represented in the film’s trailer, after Smith gets Katia into safety at the US embassy. Agent 47 walks through the metal detector in the lobby, loaded for bear, and sticks up his hands so they’ll bring him in deeper. It’s a ‘no, you’re locked in here with me’ scene and yes, they even steal that very line from Watchmen, where Rorschach used it in prison. It’s a very cool, very stylish and very powerful scene, but it would be cooler if it wasn’t lifted from another source.

This is a very cool movie, but it’s also very derivative. There’s cool architecture, even before we get to Singapore. There’s cool tech. There’s a particularly cool use of a Gideon Bible as a weapon. There are also imaginative attacks, such as a great bullet POV sniper shot through a train and a neat way to stop a fast car. The notably international flavour to the cast is impressive too. However, that architecture isn’t used to its full advantage, that tech is mostly unbelievable and those attacks come in between a great deal of repetitive action. We’re also massively reminded of the Terminator movies throughout and the story never really escapes that, even with a couple of fair twists to the concept.

Rupert Friend is an appropriate Agent 47, but it’s the sort of part that could have been replaced with CGI and he doesn’t distinguish himself enough from that thought. Zachary Quinto is appropriate too as John Smith, with his odd mix of acting and non-acting underlining why he was cast as Spock in the Star Trek reboots. He does exactly the same thing here, clearly trying to instil emotion into scenes without really understanding what emotion is. It makes more sense when he’s half-human, half-Vulcan. That leaves Hannah Ware and her inconsistent accent as Katia. She’s actually better than both the guys, because she has the opportunity to find some depth in her role, but she can’t save the film on her own. Ciarán Hinds has too little screen time to help much, but he does good work towards the end. I was hoping to see a lot more of Hong Kong actress Angelababy in an English language film, but she hardly appears at all, which is a real shame.

What I left the film with was how awesome Singapore looks nowadays. The Supertree Grove at the Gardens by the Bay is as iconic a location as I’ve seen since Hitchcock was alive and I’m now waiting to see which blockbuster gets to shoot at the Marina Bay Sands, which is the trio of skyscrapers with what looks like another one lying on top of them. It cost $8b to open and I’m sure they’ll be looking for ways to recoup some of that money from Hollywood, who would be crazy not to seize the opportunity. Sadly I don’t think this is what’s supposed to stick with me the most.

The Man from UNCLE (2015)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Sylvester Groth, Christian Berkel, Luca Calvani, Misha Kuznetsov, Jared Harris and Hugh Grant
Check Point Charlie in 1963 and an American heads from west to east to talk to Gaby Schmidt about her father, Udo Teller, who was ‘Hitler’s favourite rocket scientist’. Apparently, he came to work for the US nuclear program, but disappeared two years ago. Now that he’s shown up again in Rome, working for (or being forced to work for) a couple of Nazi sympathisers, the Vinciguerras, the CIA have naturally become very concerned. As a period piece, this was always going to be about a nuclear bomb, which is ‘end of the world stuff’, and they clearly need Gaby’s help.

This is a Guy Ritchie movie, so the stylish car chase that follows is hardly surprising. It’s shot beautifully and parts of it play out very much like a dance. There’s good music, good camerawork and good driving for whoever’s doubling for the young lady. Everything is promising so far.

The American is Napoleon Solo, a former army sergeant and former art thief, now a successful agent. The CIA felt that he, once he was eventually caught, would be wasted in prison, so they put him to work instead. Chasing him like a Terminator is a KGB agent, Illya Kuryakin, who appears to be equally good, losing the chase only when he’s dropped into a minefield in no man’s land. Well, no, he’s still on the chase even after we think it simply can’t continue. It’s also very nicely done.

At this point I was impressed with the movie but not sold on the fact that it’s supposed to be The Man from UNCLE. Henry Cavill, who I haven’t seen play Superman and don’t remember from Stardust, is appropriately calm as Solo and he’s reasonably suave too but he doesn’t quite have the presence or the wry sense of humour we’re used to from Robert Vaughn. He feels less like an agent and more like an actor playing an agent. At 6’5”, Armie Hammer was well cast at the Lone Ranger but he’s too big, too unemotional and too wooden to play Kuryakin. He does, however, try for the sense of humour that Solo struggles with, and achieves it a little more often.

For the first half of the film, I was much more sold on the script than the stars, even when it throws them together as unlikely partners, teaming up to infiltrate the Vinciguerras’ shipping firm where Gaby’s uncle Rudi also works. Kuryakin plays her Russian architect fiancé and Solo an antiquities dealer (read: high class thief). Solo’s too sassy and obnoxious, Kuryakin’s too robotic and boring. It takes scenes like a wrestling match between Gaby and Illya to break some of the ice and let us believe that these guys might actually be able to work together.

What’s really surprising is that three short words is all it takes Hugh Grant to nail Alexander Waverly. We don’t even see him this early, except from the back, but I honestly thought I was listening to Leo G Carroll. He even gets another brief moment a while before he actually joins the story and that fraction of a second was enough to suggest that he looks like him too. Once he appears as a character, the cracks show but Grant’s work is in a whole higher league to Cavill’s and Hammer’s.

There’s a lot of good on show here. Ritchie’s visual eye is still strong: the vintage cars racing at the Vinciguerra’s party are gorgeous, the set decoration is excellent throughout and there’s a lot less gimmickry on show than is usual for him. When it does appear, such as a couple of wild split screen sessions, it’s appropriate and well done. The music is consistently enjoyable and I didn’t even recognise most of it, which is always a good thing in my book.

However, there’s a lot that’s bad too. Ritchie’s visual eye may be solid but nothing coalesces here; it’s just random cinematic beauty without context. One knife kill, for example, is shot with close ups of the participant’s faces, then the camera leaps above them to watch one fall along with a whirl of raindrops. It’s gorgeous but has precisely no connection to the scenes before or after or at any other point in the movie and this is far from the only example.

Cavill and Hammer continue to struggle. Cavill does get a good scene now and then, such as a confident demonstration of his thieving credentials to Victoria Vinciguerra, which reminds of Cary Grant even more than Robert Vaughn. Hammer has more trouble finding his feet, but he’s hindered by some really odd character decisions on the part of the scriptwriters. While they do play up the characters over the action and intrigue, they do so mostly through bickering and that doesn’t endear either of them to us, especially with Kuryakin ready for childish fits so often. With each of them unlikeable and the pair dysfunctional, I found myself rooting for the bad guys, even if they were Nazi sympathisers. That isn’t good.

And worst of all, the promising script becomes a mess of clichés that fails to distinguish itself above the plethora of cold war spy movies rolling around my brain. What’s strangest of all is that it weakens both Solo and Kuryakin, an odd approach indeed to take on a reboot of The Man from UNCLE, which phrases itself very deliberately in the end as an origin story. Neither agent really contributes much to the grand scheme of things. Solo’s grand achievement is saving his partner’s life in a half-hearted manner and Kuryakin’s is that opening chase scene before we even really begin. Given that the big picture is about saving the world from a Nazi-owned nuclear weapon, those aren’t particularly great achievements.

If I knew everything that happens in this picture and was asked to choose which agent to hire for my new organisation called UNCLE, I’d hire Gaby Schmidt, however horrendous her sunglasses.

Sunday 22 November 2015

Connections #1

With Apocalypse Later firmly a film review site, I've long struggled to find a place where I can talk about films outside of reviews. Apocalypse Later Now! was always intended to be that place but I'm only now getting round to actually fleshing out some of the variety I'd like to see here.

I don't plan on turning Apocalypse Later Now! into yet another press release site, but I would like to be able to share news and thoughts about films that I've reviewed at Apocalypse Later or by the people who made them.

Help Falls

One of the great joys of reviewing short films is that I get to see the work of young filmmakers, often students, before the world realises what they can do and they go on to fame and fortune. One who is clearly on that path is an Aussie who relocated to Tempe to attend the University of Advancing Technology.

He's Jordan Wippell and the first film I saw by him was a stunning black and white drama called Rain Dog, which played the Phoenix Film Festival a few years ago. It would have been praised had it been made by an established filmmaker but for some kid student from down under it was utterly amazing. The magic I felt watching that short for the first time is why I'm a critic.

Here's my review of Rain Dog at Apocalypse Later.

Wippell is keeping busy on a number of projects but one of them, Help Falls, is trying to raise money on Indiegogo. It's an odd project, calling itself 'An Interactive Horror Experience', and I'm all for people trying to do something different with film. The campaign has ten days to go and it's in need of your help. I'd recap it here but wouldn't be able to do it justice. Suffice it to say that it'll involve short films in a number of horror subgenres tied together in interesting ways. You really ought to head over to Indiegogo and read about it there.

Here's the Indiegogo page for Help Falls.

The House That Jack Built

I really need to get round to reviewing The House That Jack Built, a superb drama that won Best Picture and Best Director at the Phoenix Film Festival in 2014. It also won Best Screenplay, even though Joe Vasquez, the scriptwriter, had died almost twenty years earlier. Talk about development Hell!

However, I have reviewed Henry Barrial's previous film, Pig, which won Best Sci-Fi Feature at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival in 2012. In fact, an updated version of that review can be found in my new book, The International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival: The Transition Years, which was published last week.

Here's my review of Pig at Apocalypse Later.

The reason I mention The House That Jack Built is that it's finally obtained a full release. On 6th November it opened in select cities and on demand. I highly recommend it.

Here are the film's website and iTunes page.

Halloween Hell

Nipples & Palm Trees came out of the blue for me, courtesy of director Dylan Reynolds sending me a copy for review. Beyond merely enjoying the oddly titled but fascinating relationship drama, I found that it stayed with me and I was happy to help bring it to the Jerome Indie Film & Music Festival last year.

Here's my review of Nipples & Palm Trees at Apocalypse Later.

Through All Channel Films, Dylan is now helping to distribute a horror feature called Halloween Hell, which I haven't seen but was written and directed by Ed Hunt, who performed the same roles on 1981's wild cult hit Bloody Birthday. He isn't prolific but he is interesting.

This film, his first since 1988, traps the contestants of a reality TV show on set with 'a deadly Devil Doll from Hell'. The show's host believes he's Dracula and is played by Eric Roberts.

It's available on VOD and at Amazon Prime. Here's the trailer.

Hillbilly Horror Show

Another welcome blind submission to Apocalypse Later was House of Good and Evil, sent to me by writer Blu de Golyer. This is one of those features that highlight how different the festival audience, who raved about it, from the commercial one, which really didn't. I can only assume that marketing didn't get it in front of the right eyeballs.

He also got me a screener for a very different movie called The Cabining, on which he served as a consulting producer.

Here's my review of House of Good and Evil at Apocalypse Later.

Here's my review of The Cabining at Apocalypse Later.

Since then, he's been busy on a compilation series called Hillbilly Horror Show, which I (mostly) haven't seen yet but which looks agreeably diverse. Each volume combines a number of short horror films and I've reviewed two of these outside this framework.

Volume 4 includes Jason Tostevin's 'Til Death, which was a favourite of mine at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival last year. Volume 1 includes Rose White, which I reviewed along with a few other Deneen Melody films a couple of years ago. I recommend both of these highly, which suggests that these compilations ought to be pretty good.

Here's my review of 'Til Death at Apocalypse Later.

Here's my review of Rose White at Apocalypse Later.

The first three volumes of Hillbilly Horror Show are available to buy on DVD and the fourth is on Amazon Prime.

Here are the website and Amazon Prime page for Hillbilly Horror Show.

Batkid Begins

One of the best films I've seen on the festival circuit is Kurt Kuenne's Shuffle. I saw it first at the Phoenix Film Festival, then again at Phoenix Comicon, with Kuenne giving a Q&A both times. It's a dramatic feature, told in an unconventional style, but with great impact.

Here's my review of Shuffle at Apocalypse Later.

Since then I've watched his almost unbearable but utterly stunning Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father and the fascinating Drive-In Memories. These are documentaries, which Kuenne also wrote and directed. I highly recommend them both, though be warned: Dear Zachary will haunt you.

His new film, Batkid Begins, is another documentary, which he co-wrote with director Dana Nachman and which is now available everywhere. If it's not amazing, I'll be surprised.

Here's the film's Amazon Prime page.

Here's Kurt Kuenne's page on Indieflix, where you can see all three of the older films mentioned above.

Monday 16 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #3

I've posted a couple of reviews to Apocalypse Later this week, both part of my Make It a Double series in which the stars pick two movies from their careers for me to review. These two were picked by the late Gunnar Hansen.

Gimme Skelter (2007), a character study of a small New Mexico town masquerading as a horror movie, because it revolves around the arrival of a man who believes himself to be the bastard son of Charlie Manson, complete with five followers. Eager to get noticed, he plans to take the population of Banion's Cross down from 67 to zero.

Brutal Massacre: A Comedy (2007), a mockumentary in the This is Spinal Tap style, in which an interviewer follows Harry Penderecki as he attempts to make his new movie, Brutal Massacre, against all the odds, capturing all two months of the three week shoot. It has a killer cast and a clever script, full of little details that make this funnier the more we know about the movie industry.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site, at least anytime soon.

Bone Tomahawk (2015)

Director: S Craig Zahler
Stars: Kurt Russell, Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Lili Simmons and Richard Jenkins
It’s good to see the weird west apparently thriving in the indie world. I’ve just finished Ghostwalkers, a glorious ride of a novel by Jonathan Maberry that’s based on a video game. Now here’s an indie feature with a real budget that allows for many recognisable faces.

It begins with David Arquette cutting a man’s throat while he sleeps. He and Sid Haig take down a whole camp site, searching for something, but, with horses fast approaching, they attempt an escape into the hills, only to get caught up in some sort of burial ground skull art installation. ‘It ain’t no concern for a civilised man,’ says Haig, scratching his nuts with the barrel of his gun. He’s taken down quickly but Arquette manages to stumble away, eventually making it into the town of Bright Hope, where he unwittingly sparks all the events to follow.

What we see is done with style and it’s done with some substance. It looks great, it sounds great and it pays a lot of attention to character development. There are quite a few cast members with something notable to do here and the opportunity to shine while doing so; most of them take that opportunity with both hands. Best of all, for what is partly a brutal horror movie, there’s a wry humour that pervades the script and keeps us interested in a whole bunch of different people.

The catches are that it’s a slow burn that gets slower until the final showdown and it carries a great inevitability to it that means few surprises are forthcoming. I have no concerns with slowness when that’s called for, such as the glacial pace of Beyond the Black Rainbow, but this could have sped up a little and shed a few scenes without the desert’s sense of vast emptiness being lost to the tone of the piece. The inevitability is more understandable, as this is a Heart of Darkness-type journey as much as it ever is a destination, summed up well by a single line late in the movie.

Kurt Russell is the biggest name. He plays Sheriff Franklin Hunt of Bright Hope, not a stupid man but one who perhaps has too much confidence in his abilities. When Arquette vanishes from the town’s jail, apparently kidnapped along with Sabrina O’Dwyer, the lady doctor treating his wounds, and Hunt’s young deputy, Nick, leaving only her doctor’s bag and an arrow stuck in a wall, it’s the sheriff who leads the party to rescue them.

Going along for the ride are Arthur O’Dwyer, the lady doctor’s cowboy husband who’s supposed to be in bed resting his own wounds; Chicory, the town’s other deputy; and John Brooder, a mysterious but very well dressed man with an apparent talent for killing Indians. Given that Chicory is far from a young man and O’Dwyer’s leg is bad enough that he has trouble walking, we don’t need to wait for the bewildering end credits song to tell us that ‘four doomed men ride out’.

Each of these actors are names too, though I have to admit that I didn’t recognise most of them. Brooder is Matthew Fox, best known as Jack Shephard in Lost, O’Dwyer is Patrick Wilson, Nite Owl from Watchmen, and Chicory is character actor Richard Jenkins; just look at his long list of credits to see how many times you’ve seen him without necessarily knowing it. We’ve already met Arquette and Haig. The sheriff’s wife is Kathryn Morris, Lilli from Cold Case. The mayor’s wife is Sean Young and there’s also Michael Paré as a local gentleman of importance. S Craig Zahler, who wrote and directed, clearly knew who to talk to when putting his cast together.

Perhaps most impressive out of all of them, though, is Lili Simmons who plays Samantha O’Dwyer as a very different sort of damsel in distress. She’s only made a couple of movies but she has done a lot of TV work, where she’s best known for a show called Banshee. Maybe, now that I’ve heard of it, I should seek it out to see how she does with the much more expansive screen time that a TV show provides. She doesn’t get anywhere near a lot here.

The story of Bone Tomahawk is pretty simple and is frankly given away by the one sentence IMDb has for plot description: ‘Four men set out in the Wild West to rescue a group of captives from cannibalistic cave dwellers.’ It’s not really cowboys and indians, where the cowboys have lost their horses and the indians are troglodytes in the Valley of the Starving Men. It’s more like the cannibal horror movies where the first world protagonists gradually come to realise just how far they are from home, not just physically but culturally too, that ‘You’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy’ feeling. This is the wild west rather than the unexplored jungles of South America, so these caves are only a three day ride, but that’s a lot further on foot with a crutch and unimaginably further in mind.

I enjoyed the film, but more for its detail than its sweep. I admired the character building, which is too often prioritised far below the action, but felt that the balance had shifted a little too far the other way. The dialogue is superb, both in its writing and its delivery, but there are points that could easily have been trimmed. The stunning brutality of some scenes highlights how this is very much an indie feature, but the stars on show, the use of a decent budget and the obvious quality of many technical aspects often make us forget that. That last sentence translates to a strong recommendation, however flawed the film is.

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015)

Director: Christopher McQuarrie
Stars: Tom Cruise, Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Simon McBurney, Zhang Jingchu, Tom Hollander, Jens Hultén and Alec Baldwin
We begin with comedy in Belarus. Marvel’s Hawkeye talks to Shaun of the Dead and Marsellus Wallace about a package. It’s on a plane and the plane needs to not take off. Fortunately Ethan Hunt is ready to leap onto that plane and rescue that package at incredible risk to himself. It’s telling that when we see Tom Cruise nowadays, we have no problem thinking of him as his Mission: Impossible character, while we’re not really ready to do that with any of these other very recognisable faces. This is his fifth Mission: Impossible movie, but he’s kept them spaced out, the first one dating as far back as 1996.

‘I’ve heard stories,’ says the record store girl, who gives him an LP to listen to in a booth. ‘They can’t all be true.’ Unfortunately the recording turns out not to be from the Impossible Mission Force but from the Syndicate, whom Ethan Hunt has been trying to prove exists for a year.

Back in the US, Jeremy Renner battles Alec Baldwin. Renner is William Brandt, fighting for the IMF’s survival in front of a senate committee. Baldwin is Alan Hunley, the director of the CIA, fighting to take over its operation. The latter wins and the IMF is history.

Cruise is Ethan Hunt, of course, whose job is now to take on the Syndicate solo. This experience proves that they exist, but he has very little to go on, just a former, supposedly dead, agent called Janik Vinter, better known as the Bone Doctor.

Baldwin pledges to have him in a day. Six months later, our story really begins, with Hunt setting up a wall of details for the inevitable CIA squad to find, details that show that he really hasn’t been inactive.

Pegg is Benji Dunn, Hunt’s tech genius, now playing Halo at the CIA and lying on his weekly polygraph. Hunt brings him back in by sending him tickets to Turandot at the Vienna Opera.

This is strong stuff. We’re in a classic setting, with a European head of state in attendance, the Austrian Chancellor. There’s a killer, of course, a big, tough killer with cool tech and a cool gun. There’s another shooter too, a stylish lady in yellow. And... well, let’s just say that things aren’t quite as simple as they might seem because this is intrigue as much as it is action.

Rebecca Ferguson is Ilsa Faust, part of that intrigue, and hers is a name I wasn’t familiar with, even though I’d seen her in Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules. She’s a Swedish actress who does good work here, with solid acting chops, impressive agility and a Charlotte Rampling meets Maggie Gyllenhaal look. Clearly she’s the key to the puzzle. She’s also the means by which the picture sets up all the usual impossibilities for Hunt and Dunn to find a way to achieve, beginning with an impressive underground and underwater datacenter in Casablanca that’s right out of science fiction and complete lunacy. It’s hilarious how impressively air gapped networks are set to allow USB keys to plug right in.

That leaves Ving Rhames for the good guys. He’s Luther Stickell, who resigned rather than shift from the IMF to the CIA along with Brandt and Dunn. Once we find out about Ilsa Faust and what she’s up to, Brandt brings Stickell back into the picture to find the other two and figure out what’s going on, without the CIA finding out in the process.

Of course, we’re set up from moment one to believe that Baldwin is clearly a major player in the Syndicate, if not the head of it. However, that’s too obvious and the last piece of the puzzle is Solomon Lane, a former British intelligence agent played by Sean Harris. This is a long way from his role as Ian Curtis, the singer of Joy Division, in the underrated 24 Hour Party People, though sadly I’d guess most people know him nowadays from Prometheus. This reminds me that I really need to get round to watching Creep.

There’s a lot of good here, but there’s some Hollywood excess, of course. The Casablanca chase scenes are truly spectacular, for instance, but it’s a ridiculously empty city and the stuntwork has none of the impact of Mad Max: Fury Road because we don’t believe that almost any of it is real. It doesn’t help that, as ever, Tom Cruise appears to be entirely immune to bruises. And that’s just Casablanca. After that, as the web of intrigue starts to unravel, things get shouty as if secret agents all do their training on The Jerry Springer Show. And so it goes.

I enjoyed this mostly for the writing, because it ponders interestingly on ethics in espionage and weaves a complex web with move and countermove, and for the quality character acting in a surprisingly small supporting cast. Rebecca Ferguson impressed me most and Sean Harris was very interesting, especially vocally. Simon McBurney fills a brief supporting role with impressive gravitas. The franchise regulars are less impressive but they do everything they need to, even Ving Rhames who seems to act without acting. As for Tom Cruise, he ought to be getting too old for this shit but he’s actually getting more interesting. I liked this, in many ways, more than I remember liking the first few films in the franchise.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Director: Brian De Palma
Stars: Paul Williams and William Finley
One of the Top 100 lists that I’ve enjoyed the most is the Top 100 Cult Films list put out by the long defunct website, but I haven’t quite seen all the films on it or rated them all since 2004 when I started tracking that sort of thing. I have seen Phantom of the Paradise, but it’s been so long that I’m not sure that I even knew who Rod Serling was when I first heard him give the opening narration.

That was my first surprise revisiting the film and the outrageous behaviour of the backing singers of the Juicy Fruits during their opening number was the second. Swan seems to approve and he’s the producer who matters, so much so that we’re first introduced to his white gloved hands and his monotone voice rather than his face. He’s about to open the Paradise, a grand auditorium to his greatness. He, through his enforcer, Arnold Philbin, is also about to steal the music of Winslow Leach to open it. Leach is the singer/songwriter playing piano after the Juicy Fruits and he has a whole cantata written around the legend of Faust, hardly a accidental choice of subject matter given the circumstances.

Leach unwisely lets Philbin take it on the promise that Swan will produce his first album, but a month later he’s heard nothing and they won’t even let him through the door of Death Records to talk to them. When he breaks in, he discovers girls rehearsing his music for audition, without his name on it. Of course, he’s promptly thrown out again, but this time also framed for a serious drug offence and sent to a Swan-funded medical experimentation laboratory at Sing Sing. It’s only when he hears on the radio that Swan is opening the Paradise with the Juicy Fruits doing Faust that he goes mad, escapes and breaks back into Death Records to sabotage it with dynamite.

The catch is that he gets stuck in a record press and horribly disfigured. Last seen diving into the East River, the world believes him drowned but, as the title suggests, he survives and finds his way into the Paradise where he starts a campaign of destruction because hey, this was always going to be the old Phantom of the Opera story updated into a 1970s rock opera framework. Just check out the wild sets, outrageous costumes and camp sensibilities. There are also claustrophobic angles, overlaid frames and split screen, not to mention an early use of handheld camera.

What follows isn’t just Phantom of the Opera, it’s also Faust, because Swan isn’t just a debauched 70s music producer, he’s clearly playing Satan, as is made quite obvious in the key contract signing scene. Well, sort of. The Picture of Dorian Gray comes into play before too long as well. Brian De Palma took from a variety of the best.

Faust kicks in when Swan’s eagle eyes notice Winslow after only one explosion. He quickly tracks him down and talks him into a partnership, where he’ll rewrite the cantata for Phoenix, the girl he wants to sing his work now that his voice has been taken from him. Of course, he doesn’t get what he wants because then we wouldn’t get a movie and Swan is just too wicked a part for Paul Williams to play it that easily. Of course, Swan is always going to go back on every promise he makes just because he can.

This is something of a trip to watch outside the mid-seventies. It’s overdone throughout, even though it takes itself as seriously as rock opera always did. This is a year before The Rocky Horror Picture Show, though a year after that debuted on stage. It’s a year before Bohemian Rhapsody and the recording of Bat Out of Hell, which wasn’t released until 1977. It plays with prog rock, glam rock, shock rock and all the excess of the decade. The opening night even presages a certain iconic scene in Carrie, made by the same director, Brian De Palma, only two years later.

It hasn’t aged as well as it could have done. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is still playing forty years on across the globe, Bohemian Rhapsody is as great as ever and I can still sing along to Bat Out of Hell, but the music here is much more weighed down by its time. I can appreciate what De Palma (and his DP Larry Pizer) did, because the variety of technique is impossible to ignore and it’s consistently strong throughout, with some stunning dolly shots and a gorgeous dive into psychedelic bloody chaos for the finale. I’m less impressed by the music of Paul Williams though. On screen he’s a glorious creature, the quintessential corrupt seventies music impresario, as tied to the iconic character of the Devil. He sings well too, providing the singing voice for William Finley, who rages outrageously otherwise as Leach. It’s just that the songs are mostly forgettable. They’re also repeated rather a lot.

There are few people on screen to compete with Finley and Williams. Gerrit Graham is utterly outrageous as Beef, a sort of flamboyantly gay Gary Glitter type glam singer. He’s awful but in exactly the way he’s supposed to be, so he’s doing a great job. Jessica Harper is decent as Phoenix but not so much that she warrants the attention lavished upon her by Leach and Swan both. She was far more memorable in Dario Argento’s Suspiria three years later, also on the Top 100 list, as was Inserts, which was released in between them in 1974. Other than those, there’s only really George Memmoli as Philbin, who’s good at his job but hardly a scenestealer.

Really, Phantom of the Paradise is a relic, a product of its time, a fascinating artifact. I’m very happy that I got to see this again after what must surely be three decades, but I doubt I’ll come back to it any time soon and I’m certainly not going to be humming the music tomorrow at work.

This was film #78 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

Sunday 15 November 2015

November Book Reviews at the Nameless Zine

As I mentioned here last month, I write book reviews for The Nameless Zine, an online zine run by the Western Science Fiction Association (WesternSFA), a non-profit fandom group based here in Arizona.

As the Nameless Zine follows a graphical indexing system, I also maintain my own text index of what I've written at my own website. You can find it here at the Reviews at the Nameless Zine page.

Reviews at the Nameless Zine post monthly on the 15th of each month and November's batch are now online. I reviewed three books this month:

Gideon Smith and the Mark of the Ripper

This is the third in the Gideon Smith series and I believe, after one eager read, may be my favourite. Instead of whisking us around the globe, as the first two books did, it keeps us firmly in London, the heart of this alternate British empire, with problems for many of the regulars in the series.

Gideon Smith himself, the Hero of the Empire, is hypnotised by the sinister vaudeville performer, Markus Mesmer, into forgetting who he is and what he's investigating, namely the disappearance of a young lady who looks exactly like Maria, the Mechanical Girl. He finds his way quickly off the streets of London, which are hounded both by the murders of Jack the Ripper and the growing mob mentality of the locals, upset at the inability of the police to keep them safe. What's more, Rowena Fanshawe, the Belle of the Airways, has been arrested and charged with murder.

It therefore falls to Aloysius Bent, Smith's foul mouthed chronicler, and Maria herself, who is trying to come to terms with her growing humanity, to solve all the mysteries of the day, which are more numerous than merely what I've mentioned above. Barnett weaves in many characters from the previous two Gideon Smith books and even from the history that predates them to craft this complex web of a story.

I much prefer Smith in peril to Smith the routine heroic lead and I was happy to see both Bent and Maria grow massively as characters. I'm always in favour of the fictionalisation of new historical or fictional characters, chief amongst which here are Inspector Lestrade, in charge of the Ripper investigations, and the pairing of Dr John Watson and his mental patient, the unnamed 'Great Detective'. The latter alone has already prompted negative reviews on Amazon, which makes it all the more enjoyable a concept for me.

Like the earlier books, this is a fast-paced blitzkrieg of a ride that will no doubt be worth a much more sedate re-read.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine. I also reviewed the first two books at the Nameless Zine: Gideon Smith and the Mechanical Girl and Gideon Smith and the Brass Dragon.

The Drawing of the Dark

I was honoured to appear on a panel with Tim Powers, one of the triumvirate of writers who pioneered steampunk, at the 2015 Gaslight Gathering, and I felt it was about time I read some of his work. For some reason, it was much easier to find books by the other two in England, James P Blaylock and K W Jeter. Fortunately Mysterious Galaxy was happy to sell me a bunch and Powers was happy to sign them.

This 1979 novel is set in the Vienna of 1529, where we discover that the most important place in the entirety of the western world is the Zimmermann Inn where they brew Herzwesten beer. Clearly we're soon going to be let in on historical, fantastic and mystical reasons why, but we're kept completely in the dark (pun not intended but I'll take it) for a while.

Instead we follow an Irishman, Brian Duffy, a mercenary not coincidentally hired to be a bouncer at the Zimmermann, even if he thinks he'd be put to better use fighting the approaching Turks of Suleiman, who are about to lay siege to the city. Of course, he ends up doing both, amongst other things, because, in the tradition of Tim Powers novels, what might appear to be the case to the majority of people, isn't necessarily what's really going behind the scenes and that is fantastic indeed.

I enjoyed this book a great deal, perhaps partly because there aren't too many fantasy novels featuring magical stout. Now I just need to read some more of Powers's work and discover why this highly enjoyable read isn't generally regarded as one of his best. Surely the rest must be pretty astounding. Expect reviews of some of those over the coming months.

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

The Man of Bronze

I had such a blast at Doc Con, a local Doc Savage convention in its eighteenth year, that I had to go back to reread the original novel. It was turned into an annoyingly camp Hollywood movie forty years ago, an event that was the focal point of this years con, and Ron Ely, the well-cast star, was the highly enjoyable guest of honour.

The book is far superior to the movie, even if Lester Dent, the man writing as Kenneth Robeson, hadn't quite mastered a lot of the writing techniques that would serve him well over hundreds of future books. The sentences often blast out of the page like staccato bullets and the Fabulous Five aren't well featured in this one, but the action is strong and the setup for what was a new pulp magazine in 1933 is superb.

For those who don't know, Doc Savage was the original Superman and the latter stole a lot from the former. The biggest difference between them is that Doc's powers didn't come through being an alien cast adrift onto our planet but through a lifetime of dedicated training which includes two hours of focused mental and physical exercise per day. In other words, we could become a Doc Savage, as unlikely as that is, but we could never become a Superman. That's the primary reason I enjoyed Doc's adventures far more than Clark Kent's.

This first adventure sees him investigate the murder of his father in central America, a trip in which he and his five cohorts survive concerted attacks and experience fantastic events in a lost valley populated by a forgotten tribe of Mayans. How they survive it sets up not only what they do, but how they can continue to do it, because globetrotting is an expensive business and a lifetime supply of mysterious gold is a great way to finance it!

For more, visit my review at the Nameless Zine.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Book 4 - The International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival: The Transition Years

I'm proud to announce today the publication of my fourth book, The International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival: The Transition Years through Apocalypse Later Press. Yeah, not all my books were going to have titles as catchy as Huh? and yeah, you haven't seen book three yet. I'm still working through cover issues but that will be out soon too!

It will be available at, the various international Amazon stores and other usual online merchants such as Barnes & Noble in the next few days, priced at $17.99 in the US, £12.99 in the UK and €16.99 in Europe. It's not only my longest book thus far, but actually longer than my previous two put together, running to 446 pages. Here's my author page at, where you'll see it first.

The inspiration for this book came from the realisation that many of my reviews of festival films, especially but not only for this particular festival, were the only reviews that existed online. What's more, some films had no presence left on the internet, as if they had never been. Film festival sites tend to last twelve months before rolling over to the next year's event. Many short films never have websites of their own, but those that do tend to lapse as filmmakers move on to new projects. Films don't even always make it to IMDb, the 'source of record' in this industry. If a feature doesn't obtain distribution or a short film doesn't get uploaded to Vimeo or YouTube, then a few years can be all it takes for them to vanish from the internet.

So, while I'd already been reviewing films from this particular film festival, the first one that I'd ever attended and still the closest one to my heart, I redoubled my efforts to cover everything that screened, not only the features but especially the short films. This book, whatever else it is, is a line in the sand to say that these films existed, that they played a festival, were seen by an audience, even won awards. Hopefully reading about them here will keep some of them alive because no film deserves to die. No, not even that one.

The scope is every feature and every short film which screened at the International Horror & Sci-Fi Film Festival at the Harkins Ciné Capri in Phoenix, AZ in 2011, 2012 and 2013. These were 'the transition years' as, after six years as a separate entity, the festival had merged into its big sister, the Phoenix Film Festival, and it was forced to reinvent itself.

They followed 'the early years' of 2005 to 2007 at the Harkins Centerpoint in Tempe, when founders Brian Pulido and Chris Lamont were building it into something sustainable, and 'the classic years' of 2008 to 2010, when it went on the road, playing indie venues like Chandler Cinemas and MADCAP Theatres. 2016's event, which you can follow at, will be the last in the fourth set of three years and I'm still trying to figure out what they will be known as. I hope to cover all these in future books.

The thoughtful foreword was written by Mike Flanagan, the director of Absentia, my favourite film of the last decade, which won Best Horror Feature at this festival in 2011, and Oculus, which screened in 2014 as a showcase feature.

The gracious afterword was written by Andrea Canales (formerly Beesley-Brown), the Midnite Movie Mamacita, who had served as the festival's program director for many years.

The handsome cover is by Marty Freetage, who was responsible for some of the most memorable posters, T-shirts and other imagery that the festival has had over the years. He also handles that work for the parent Phoenix Film Festival.

The book is dedicated to Jason Carney, the most obvious face of the Phoenix Film Foundation, which puts on this festival every year, not only because he's had to put up with me for the last, holy crap, nine years and has done so without throttling me to death.

Features reviewed include Absentia, Midnight Son, The Mole Man of Belmont Avenue, Triple Hit, Hisss, I am Nancy, The People vs George Lucas, Stake Land, Tucker and Dale vs Evil, Below Zero, It's in the Blood, Folklore, Pig, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Brain That Wouldn't Die, FDR: American Badass!, Monster Brawl, Slumber Party Slaughter, The Theatre Bizarre, The Victim, With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story, Found, Nailbiter, Sader Ridge, Channeling, Found in Time, Space Milkshake, Errors of the Human Body, The Four, Gamera vs Guiron, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, Kiss of the Damned, Play Dead, Saw and They Live.

Short horror films reviewed include Zombiefication, I Rot, Last Seen on Dolores Street, Cold Sore, Bugbaby, Red Umbrella, Cell Phone Psycho, Escape, Shoreditch Slayer, Follow the Sun!, Brutal Relax, Bad Moon Rising, Ambush, The Table, Roid Rage, The Waking, Employee of the Month, Diecons, Game, The Root of the Problem, Steve from Accounting vs The Shadow Dwellers, Sybling Rivalry, Midnight Daisy, Welcome Wagon and Killer Kart.

Short sci-fi films reviewed include The Island, Earthship, Picture Show at the End of the World, Roman's Ark, Earwigs, Antedon, The Hollow Men, SNAFU, The Turing Love Affair, The Recipient, Carry Tiger to the Mountain, The Uncanny Valley, Doctor Glamour, Hollywood Forever, Secret Identity, 20th Century Man, Solaria, Alchemy and Other Imperfections, Mirage, Y Sci Fi, How to Kill Your Clone, Anaphora, Outsight, Dream Cleaners, Dry Gulch, Ontogenesis, Ellie, A Conversation About Cheating with My Time Traveling Future Self, The Secret Keeper, Low Tide in the High Desert, Restitution, Iris, Odokuro, Sol, All I Think of is You, Quantum, Golem, Sunset Day, Flashback, White Room: 02B3 and The Phoenix.

Thursday 12 November 2015

Gunnar Hansen and Make It a Double

I've met and talked with a lot of filmmakers over the years, at screenings, festivals and conventions. In and amongst those conversations, I've come to realise that the films with which we generally associate them are not necessarily the ones that they would prefer to be remembered for.

That's not to say that they're not proud of the titles that made them famous and wrote their names in the annals of popular culture. Those pictures usually did well because the people who made them did memorable work, but that's never the only reason why films are successful. There are so many other reasons that they can't be counted, but often the most important one is that they were simply the right film at the right time to touch the right nerve.

Sadly, that often means that many far worthier titles are unjustly forgotten, relegated to obscurity by the sheer quantity of films that are made and the overwhelming power that is generated by the publicity departments of the major studios.

Back in 2012, at Phoenix FearCon V, I decided to start asking each name I met to select two films from their careers that they would like to see reviewed at Apocalypse Later. I left the reasons entirely up to them, very deliberately to see what they would come up with. They could pick their personal favourites, the ones that they feel are most unjustly neglected, those which were most memorable to make. They could merely be movies which were special to them for reasons that they may or may not wish to disclose.

The first person I asked was Tiffany Shepis, but the list gained momentum in 2014 and I have no doubt will continue to do so. Very few people decline to take part. Thus far, 32 filmmakers (mostly actors, but with a few effects guys) have given me their doubles and I've even had doubles picked for four others who are deceased by their descendants. Only three have said no and one of those decide to join in a couple of years later. The other two were clearly not happy with critics in general and so foresaw the worst.

Shepis made her two choices quickly and surely, while I've found that many have one title ready on their tongue but have to ponder on the second. I've found it fascinating to see their minds conjure up a pair of titles from often expansive filmographies, especially as they don't always explain themselves. Sometimes I can only figure out why the films were important to certain actors by actually watching them. I hope you find their choices as interesting as I have.

And the reason I bring this up now is because we lost Gunnar Hansen at the weekend.

He died on Saturday, 7th November, 2015, leaving behind an interesting body of work that was dominated by one film, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.

When I met Hansen at Mad Monster Party in 2014, he was a gentleman. Not only did he sign 8x10s for my better half and I, he also signed one for her ex. Way back before I ever came along, my wife's first date with the man who would become her first husband was to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Hansen kindly dedicated it with the words, 'What were you thinking, taking a 15 year old girl to this movie?'

During our brief chat, he picked his two choices for my Make It a Double project. Like many, he didn't go for the one everyone knows, selecting instead a couple of odd comedies from 2007 that tie to the horror genre but don't really fit within it. He didn't have a large part in either film, but he made both of them count, the first with an odd monologue and the latter with some glorious overacting.

Gimme Skelter

Gimme Skelter appears to be a horror movie because it revolves around the arrival in a small New Mexico town of a man who believes himself to be the bastard son of Charlie Manson, complete with five followers. Eager to get noticed, he plans to take the population of Banion's Cross down from 67 to zero.

Regardless of how many boobs and how much gore director Scott Phillips puts on screen, this is a character study of a small town rather than a horror movie. Eventually we realise that at least Charlie Jr is honest about what he wants to do, while the townsfolk all put on faces when they leave their homes and take them back off when they get home. They're not exactly the nicest of people either.

For more, visit my review at Apocalypse Later.

Brutal Massacre: A Comedy

Brutal Massacre: A Comedy is a mockumentary in the This is Spinal Tap style, in which an interviewer follows Harry Penderecki as he attempts to make his new movie, Brutal Massacre against all the odds, capturing all two months of the three week shoot.

It's a clever script, full of little details that make this funnier the more we know about the movie industry. It also has a killer cast, led by David Naughton, who also chose this for his double, Ken Foree, who didn't, and two of the ladies from The Evil Dead, Ellen Sandweiss and Betsy Baker.

For more, visit my review at Apocalypse Later.

Monday 9 November 2015

Monday Night Roundup #2

I've posted a couple of reviews to Apocalypse Later this week:

Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? (1969), which could well depict the real mid-life crisis of Anthony Newley and a possibly subconscious attempt to destroy his own career. The title isn't the only reason why it was this week's Weird Wednesday review.

Firebird 2015 AD (1972), an ecological sci-fi thriller set in the far future America of, erm, 2015. Shortages and corruption have led the US to outlaw cars and gasoline, but 'burners' like Darren McGavin drive illicitly around the Alberta countryside anyway and government thugs like Doug McClure chase him.

Here are brief reviews of the other films I've watched this week that won't end up reviewed on that site, at least anytime soon.

Tower Heist (2011)

Director: Brett Ratner
Stars: Ben Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Casey Affleck, Alan Alda, Matthew Broderick, Téa Leoni, Michael Peña and Gabourey Sidibe
It feels odd to say that this is Hollywood done right, because it isn't. They really should make better movies with better scripts and I don't buy into the dumbing down of the audience that the studios seem to give as their excuse for throwing out crap year after year. However, if Hollywood is to make each film as a ride, with charismatic actors whisking us with charm past the many plotholes quickly enough that we might not notice them or at least forgive them for existing, then this isn't a bad example of what they can do. I enjoyed the downtime for my brain.

The film did change a lot over its development time though. Originally it was going to be a vehicle for Eddie Murphy and a team of black comedians, including Chris Tucker, Dave Chappelle and Martin Lawrence, among others, playing a set of disgruntled employees who get their revenge on Donald Trump and the Trump Tower. How perfect that would seem today! Perhaps it could only be better if they were all Latino comedians.

After five years it gradually changed into a Ben Stiller movie, though Eddie Murphy did return to the project, both as a producer and an actor, and he provided an edgy performance far superior to anything I've seen him do in at least a couple of decades. He certainly outshines Stiller without even trying, though the latter does what he does well enough to keep his fans happy. Yeah, I know that doesn't take much.

The Trump Tower turned into an exclusive New York apartment block (average cost: $5.6m) and revenge was sought on its most prominent tenant, Arthur Shaw, a 'Wall Street kingpin' played by a double-edged Alan Alda, who lives in the penthouse. He has a swimming pool on the roof, painted to look like a giant dollar bill, and Steve McQueen's Ferrari in his living room. On the 65th floor. He's quickly caught up in an FBI sting because he's a securities fraudster and it doesn't take long for the staff to find that their pensions, of which he'd been taking care, are all gone.

64 floors down is Josh Kovaks, the floor manager, who's responsible for the smooth running of operations. He's Stiller, of course, and he appears to be good at his job. However, he had taken it upon himself to hand the pension fund up to Shaw; the staff didn't even know about it and are really not happy with him. Clearly Kovaks needs to do something to make it right and getting fired for busting all the glass in that Ferrari doesn't help, especially as he takes a couple of other employees with him.

The final piece in the puzzle is the admission by FBI special agent Claire Denham, under the apparent influence of alcohol, that they haven't found Shaw's safety net. There's $20m hidden somewhere and they have no idea where it is. Grab the pitchforks and storm the castle, she drunkenly suggests.

And so we can write the rest of the film ourselves. Kovaks assembles a team of misfits: Enrique the new guy, Charlie the desk clerk, Fitzhugh the broke resident who's just been evicted and Slide, the local crook who he passes every day on the way to work. After all, they've been casing the joint for ten years without realising it: they know everything about the building, the people in it and their routines. Who better to break in and search Shaw's apartment for that $20m?

The cast do have fun, but nobody comes close to Murphy, who plays Slide, that local crook. He's savvy, though not so much as he believes he is, but the rest are well meaning idiots who just happen to have the right skills for this particular job. Matthew Broderick is best as Fitzhugh, providing him with depth while remaining believably lost. Gabourey Sidibi does well with not much. Casey Affleck and Michael Peña do what they're asked to do, but they're as utterly routine as Stiller is as Mr K.

It's people a level further away from the plot who do better work. Alda is great fun in the only supporting role with any real substance. Judd Hirsch is good as Mr K's former boss, but he's stuck in a wasted role. Téa Leoni is great as the tipsy FBI agent, but she can do this sort of thing in her sleep.

And this is the real problem.

I popped this on after a long but very fun weekend at Comic & Media Expo and a deluge of family drama that descended out of nowhere. My better half and I sat back to relax with the magical combination of peace, quiet and alcohol and laughed a lot at this film. I had found out about Tower Heist when the guy next to me on a plane was watching it while I read and my eyes drifted over once in a while. It seemed like it could be a decent choice for an evening that needed laughs but not brains and that turned out to be exactly what it was. We could sleepwalk through it too.

In a more regular scenario, it would have felt much worse. People like Alda, Hirsch and Leoni shouldn't be stuck in work they can do in their sleep. The only winner here is really Eddie Murphy, who had been doing work in his sleep for the last decade and seemed to relish getting his teeth into a part again, even if it could still have had a lot more substance.

Tower Heist is nicely set up and nicely wrapped up, but in between it was only ever going to be fluff. Thinking about it quickly exposes all sorts of problems, but it moves along well enough and with enough character charm to distract us during the ride. As long as you want a ride, you'll certainly get one. If you want anything more, it won't fit the bill.

The Black Cat (1934)

Director: Edgar G Ulmer
Stars: Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and David Manners
Of all the Universal horrors in their golden era of the 1930s, this is the one that I never could quite get. Now I've always enjoyed The Black Cat and I've acknowledged it as a good movie, but I never managed to appreciate it the way so many others apparently do. Its inclusion as one of the best, if not the very best of the entire Universal decade, in so many lists always sat oddly with me. So, given that we were still hovering around Halloween, I thought I'd give it a fresh chance.

I now realise where I'd gone wrong. I'd always watched it as a horror movie and, as much as it clearly is one, it's really a precode drama first and foremost. Last time I saw The Black Cat, back in 2004, I hadn't yet discovered the joys of precodes, so didn't really understand what the film was doing. Now, as a confirmed precode aficionado, I get it completely and see how it ties the edge of the precode era with the more traditional gothic horror of the more famous Universal titles into a very polite but very dark drama.

Released in May 1934, only a month before the Production Code would become enforced and films like this no longer viable in Hollywood, its chief claim to fame back then was to put the two biggest stars in horror onto the same screen for the first time: Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Dracula and the Frankenstein monster, albeit in far more earthly roles for a change. David Manners, a lesser known mainstay of those classic Universal horrors, plays support, eerily reminiscent today of Joseph Gordon Levitt.

We meet Lugosi first, as the sinister Dr Werdegast, who ends up sharing a train compartment with a couple of newlyweds honeymooning in Hungary. He's creepy, paying far too much attention to the sleeping Mrs Alison, but he's also sympathetic, because he explains himself well. He left his own wife to go to war, only to spend the last decade and a half in an infamous Russian prison camp. All he wants is to see his wife Karen again but their time apart has clearly messed with his sanity.

Leaving the train for a carriage, the three of them are swept off the road during a storm which kills their driver. Dr Werdegast therefore takes the newlyweds to his own destination, the home of Hjalmar Poelzig, an Austrian architect who had built a home on the ruins of Fort Marmorus, which he had commanded during the war, the location of a notorious massacre of thousands of Austro-Hungarian soldiers.

Poelzig is Karloff, of course, and he and Lugosi spar immediately in the most polite manner possible, an almost surreal experience given that the latter blames the former for that massacre and believes him to have stolen his wife. Their relentless politeness carries a weight that is impossible not to share, knowing as we do the seriousness of their conflict. It tells us that these two luminaries are both mad, even if they carry the veneer of civilisation better than their guests. By extension, it suggests that the world itself is mad, which is a resonant idea. Their polite game of chess for outrageous stakes, which consumes their attention at a time when the Alisons are trying to escape, adds the idea that in a mad world, it's the madmen who are really in charge.

Much of the rest of the film works as resonant ideas too. It's too short, something I remember from prior viewings, but its mere 65 minute running time includes a nightmarish set of imagery, most of which features subjects that couldn't be even touched on under the Production Code which was looming in the Hollywood shadows, leaving this the last stop on Universal's journey into real horror. Dracula and Frankenstein were great films but traditional ones, as were The Mummy and The Old Dark House. Only with The Black Cat did they really start getting notably horrific and we can only dream of what they might have done over the next few years had the code not stopped them in their tracks. They had to shift gears to make the wildly camp Bride of Frankenstein, which may, ironically, really be the best horror film they ever made.

Werdegast is insane, bent on murderous vengeance on the one man he holds responsible for so much of the pain of his life. His fear of black cats, hence the title, works not to drive a story but to highlight that insanity isn't just the histrionic nonsense we're used to. Only after his overdone first scene with a black cat do we truly realise how scary his everyday insanity really is. Poelzig is insane too, with a Satanic cult under his command and women preserved in glass cases in his dungeons, but Karloff plays the role as straight as he ever did. I've seen outrageous overacting from Karloff, but he's chilling in how everyday he plays this madman. Had these two actors gone overboard, as they both could, this would be a very different and far less successful film.

So The Black Cat is as great as so many people have suggested and I finally understand why. I have a feeling that Edgar G Ulmer, who directed and wrote the original scenario which Peter Ruric adapted into a screenplay, may well be one of the biggest reasons for its success. Because he stole the wife of Universal head Carl Laemmle, he spent most of his career working in Poverty Row studios and didn't get the opportunity to showcase what he could really do with a decent budget. So, instead he occasionally showed what he could really do without one, which is where films like Detour came from. This was his last real shot in major Hollywood.

Island of Lost Souls (1933)

Director: Edgar G Ulmer
Stars: Charles Laughton, Bela Lugosi, Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams and the Panther Woman
With my belated reevaluation of The Black Cat as a great amalgam of horror, precode and psychological drama, I felt drawn to rewatch the other classic of the era that I remembered in exactly those terms: the MGM adaptation of The Island of Dr Moreau, released in 1932 at the heart of the precode era, with Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi supported by Richard Arlen and Leila Hyams.

Back in those innocent days before I had a clue what a precode was, I saw both this film and its source novel as a logical extension of Frankenstein, in its focus on science run amok and outpacing the much slower progression of morals. Dr Moreau was another Dr Frankenstein, whose scientific skill and ambition rendered him an outcast from the mainstream community. Moreau was merely bright enough to avoid the inevitable pitchforks and torches by moving his research on human/animal hybrids to a remote island of which few were aware.

Now I see much more, because Wells had much to say and scriptwriters at the time were able to bring a great deal of that to the screen. This script was written by Philip Wylie, famous science fiction author, and Waldemar Young, who had written many films for Lon Chaney even though he was, ironically, a grandson of Brigham Young. The precode era was a brief window during which something as dark and adult as this could be made by mainstream Hollywood. Fortunately MGM took that opportunity, even if the British included it as one of the five films they banned outright in the classic era as obscene.

The story is perhaps an exercise in inevitability. Dr Moreau is a classic mad scientist, played to arrogant perfection by Charles Laughton, who sees his island and the creatures who live there as his dominion. Initially we might see a comparison to a plantation owner and his slaves, but soon we realise that the true comparison is to God and his creation. No wonder the British banned it. Moreau wisely left London because his work had already moved beyond what the scientific community saw as remotely ethical and he only shifted to further extremes from then on. That he succeeded with much of his experimentation does not validate what those experiments were.

In such isolation, Moreau could have carried on forever because those few who knew about him, such as the ships delivering animals for his work, shun him as far as possible. The catalyst for change is the arrival of Edward Parker, a shipwreck victim rescued by one of those supply ships who fell afoul of its captain and gets subsequently dumped overboard into Moreau's unwilling custody. While he's treated well by the scientist, even introduced to an oddly charming young lady called Lota, it doesn't take him long to notice what's really going on, as he follows the screams emanating from the House of Pain and finds Moreau apparently vivisecting a human being without any anaesthetic. Soon he realises Lota is a panther/human hybrid.

Normally, I'd suggest that we could write the script ourselves from here, but in this instance we'd need to have a morbid imagination. If Laughton is the lead, playing God over all he surveys, the most recognisable name today is that of Bela Lugosi, playing one of his creations, the Sayer of the Law, who maintains the status quo by submitting to Moreau's (ie God's) rules.

H G Wells apparently wasn't fond of this adaptation, the first on film for it, in his mind, emphasised the horror over the philosophy. I don't buy that interpretation because the horror drives the philosophy which is all the more powerful because of it. We're horrified at Moreau's work, through our screen avatar of Edward Parker, reacting viscerally first but later morally too. The power of what this script throws at us and leaves us to ponder on is vast and very much the product of its brief time.

Like The Black Cat, this could not have been made under the production code, which wouldn't allow man and wife to share the same bed, let alone dream of allowing themes of blasphemy and bestiality. Fortunately today the code is a quirk of history and we can happily revisit these films without censorship.

Evil Roy Slade (1972)

Director: Jerry Paris
Stars: John Astin, Mickey Rooney, Henry Gibson, Edie Adams, Milton Berle, Dom DeLuise and Penny Marshall
While we were in Hollywood in January to work on the short film, Flight Fright (I was an extra, my better half was the set photographer), the film's director, Jim Politano, recommended that we make a side trip to the Fry's Electronics store in Burbank because it's decked out like a sci-fi monster movie from the fifties with giant ants, spaceships and tentacles.

Naturally I wandered through their DVD aisles and couldn't resist buying a pack of two John Astin comedy westerns, collected in one of those tins that looks great but won't fit on regular shelves with regular movies. I hadn't heard of either Evil Roy Slade (1972) or The Brothers O'Toole (1973), but I'm that usual fan of Astin who knows him primarily from The Addams Family but not much else, realising every time he shows up in a TV show or movie that I really ought to track down more of his work.

Before watching this one, I realised that it was a TV movie with an all-star cast but had no real idea how it would handle itself. Astin's justly famous grin is in full effect on the back of the tin, but it comes truly alive in the movie itself, which went far beyond my expectations to become something ahead of its time.

Now, let's not get off on the wrong foot. This film is dumb and ridiculous and it knows it. Many of the jokes are so obvious that we can see the setup coming a mile away. The gags are traditional, so that this often feels like a sitcom without a laugh track. However, if it sometimes feels old today, it's really a strong look forward, not only to other comedy westerns like Blazing Saddles, which owes this film a debt, but also to the entire genre of movies started by Airplane!, ironically shot at the same studio I was at for Flight Fright.

It's also very funny, partly because of Jerry Belson and Garry Marshall's relentlessly gag-ridden and incredibly politically incorrect script and partly because John Astin plays Slade like it's the best comedy role ever written. He throws himself into this part, albeit the way he always seemed to throw himself into every part. I get the feeling that he's a larger than life person who found his true calling trying to top reality in front of a camera. I've caught up with a bunch of odd Astin roles here and there and not one has ever given me the impression that he didn't have an absolute blast on set. I've never seen anyone who clearly enjoys himself more.

He's Evil Roy Slade, of course, an outlaw in the wild west, who starts out making a cripple dance at gunpoint and then progresses through every dastardly deed you can comfortably imagine. He's villainous through and through, to the degree that when he survived a wagon train massacre as a baby, the Indians and wolves both left him well alone; he had to bring himself up. Of course, he grows up to be the leader of a gang of bank robbers, but he's evil even to them and they love him for it. Come to think of it, Minions owes this film a debt too!

His story arc begins when Betsy Potter and her mum walk into a bank that he's busy robbing. He's immediately smitten, having her write her address on a banknote while his gang swap bullets with the sheriff outside. She's smitten too and naturally thinks she can reform him. The film pursues that conflict with a very sly grin.

The cast are amazing. Astin steals the entire film, of course, because it's tough to even think of competing with his energy. Pamela Austin wisely plumps for being as wholesome and delightful as possible, but the character actors in support give it a go.

Nelson L Stool, the president of Western Express Railroad, the target of many of Slade's jobs, is played by Mickey Rooney, who flounders well. His nephew, Clifford, is Henry Gibson, another actor whose work I need to track down more. With Clifford a rank coward, Stool tries to call in the retired marshal Bing Bell in the form of outrageous singing cowboy Dick Shawn who has, get this, an Indian manservant called Turhan who's played by Pat Morita of The Karate Kid fame. How politically incorrect can this film get?

On top of those guys, there's Luana Anders, Dom DeLuise and Milton Berle, as well as a few names who wouldn't become famous until long after this: a very young Ed Begley Jr, a younger still Penny Marshall and an amazingly young John Ritter as a priest.

Dom DeLuise is the most fun of these, playing a psychiatrist who Betsy has try to treat Slade, but every one of these folk find some fun in the shadows of John Astin.

Needless to say, he gets the vast majority of the great lines, which are so plentiful here that Mel Brooks would be jealous. Take your pick... 'My idea of a nine to five job is nine men robbing five men.' 'I learned two valuable lessons today: never trust a pretty girl or a lonely midget.' 'I can't read, you dumb... love of my life.' 'I figure I didn't commit any really big sins until I turned four years old.'

As willingly stupid as this is, I heartily recommend it, especially to the folk who seek out obscure cult gems. Hey, Cult Film in Review team, you need to add this one to your schedule!