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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

I first saw James L Conway’s Hangar 18 when it showed up on prime-time UK TV in the summer of 1986 (the film itself came out in 1980). I seem to recall I was more pleased than anything else, at the time – it wasn’t that often that a new sci-fi movie turned up at a time I could actually watch it – and the movie itself seemed engaging. Looking at the movie again now, however, I am somewhat astonished that, even thirty-two years ago in the dog days of summer, the BBC actually put this sucker on in the middle of the evening. As far as the development of my critical faculties go – well, we were all young once.

 

Hangar 18 was the product of Sunn Classic Pictures, an outfit which is indulgently remembered as a producer of a series of rather credulous sensationalist drama-documentaries, with names like In Search of Historic Jesus, In Search of Noah’s Ark, Beyond and Back (a movie about near-death experiences which made it onto Roger Ebert’s most-hated films list), The Bermuda Triangle, and The Mysterious Monsters. Hangar 18 has a go at whipping up the same kind of ‘could it be true?’ vibe, but is nowhere near up to the task.

Things get underway and we find ourselves watching the inaugural mission of the space shuttle (which presumably gave the film a near-future kind of vibe on release, as the first shuttle launches lay in the future in 1980). Aboard the ship are astronauts Steve (Gary Collins) and Lew (James Hampton). I would say they are the world’s least convincing astronauts, but then almost nobody in this film is convincing as their character. The crew are in the process of launching a satellite when they find themselves joined by another space vessel of extra-terrestrial origin. Despite their enormous technological prowess, the aliens prove themselves unable to get out of the way of the satellite and there is what orbital mechanics experts would describe as a bit of a ding.

The UFO falls out of orbit, landing in Texas, and the third crewman on the shuttle is beheaded by flying debris (the unconvincing special effect of the floating corpse seems to be one of the things about this movie that everyone remembers). Steve and Lew land back on Earth safely, but find themselves being blamed for the accident, with the presence of the alien ship not mentioned. What on Earth is going on?

Well, there’s a presidential election only two weeks away, and Machiavellian White House chief-of-staff Gordon Cain (Robert Vaughn, on autopilot) has decreed that all information relating to the saucer be kept under wraps until the votes are in (his reasoning here is a bit complicated but essentially spurious). This is almost certainly the least convincing cover-up in history, or possibly the worst thought-through. Steve and Lew get hung out to dry for the death of their crewmate, but there seems to be no attempt to keep tabs on them, as they are allowed to wander about doing some fairly inept sleuthing with no real difficulty.

Meanwhile the saucer itself has been whisked off to Hangar 18, which is not the same as Area 51, of course: Hangar 18 is in Texas, for one thing, and looks like a beat-up old aircraft hangar rather than a state-of-the-art government installation, although they try to get round this by suggesting it is cunning camouflage. ‘Don’t let the outside fool you!’ cries NASA boss Harry (Darren McGavin), introducing his team to the site, which is about as close to inventiveness as the film gets.

Mind you, the alien ship looks even more cruddy than the hangar, resembling a collection of vacuum-formed plastic boxes glued together, and it has not-terribly-interesting black-with-black-highlights décor, too. (On the other hand, it does seem to be bigger on the inside than the outside, so maybe one shouldn’t be too critical.) Harry and his team set about studying the ship and the bodies of the dead aliens inside, uncovering the odd abductee, translating the alien language with almost unseemly speed, and so on.

All this time, however, Steve and Lew are closing in on the heart of the cover-up, threatening to expose the secret of Hangar 18 and potentially really mess up the presidential election result. How far will Cain go to keep the situation under control…?

It’s not very far into Hangar 18 that you realise that, for whatever reason, you have sat down to watch what is fundamentally a bad movie. It is not quite the case that it is a comprehensively bad movie, for Darren McGavin works his usual magic and manages to lift many of the scenes he appears in to the level where they are relatively engaging. The film has a decent premise and is somewhat revealing as a post-Watergate, pre-X Files conspiracy thriller. But most of it is very heavy going. Partly this is because it has clearly been made on a punitively low budget, with minimal special effects.

However, a low budget does not excuse the suckiness of much of the script, which is the kind of thing that gives melodrama a bad name. The main driver of the plot is the sheer ineptness of the government cover-up, which allows Steve and Lew to roam the country gathering evidence and following tenuous leads almost with impunity. It is not one percent convincing as a depiction of the intelligence services in action, and as a result the film is almost impossible to take seriously as a drama.

The stuff with Harry and the others investigating the saucer is somewhat more interesting, though there is little original to be found here, either: it turns out the aliens have been abducting people, and also possibly armadillos (it’s not entirely clear); the ancient astronaut ideas of Swiss hotel manager and convicted fraudster Erich von Däniken are also dusted off and wheeled out. It barely qualifies as proper science fiction, to be honest, and I can imagine many modern commentators having issues with the fact that this is a movie almost wholly populated by middle-aged white dudes.

In fact, I have to say that possibly the most interesting thing about Hangar 18 is the ending, or perhaps I should say endings, for there are two: the original theatrical one, and another one cobbled together for the film’s TV broadcasts (some of which took place under the spoiler-tastic title Invasion Force). Now, it seems to be the case that it’s the second ending which is in general circulation at the moment. The difference between the two, so far as I’ve been able to find out, is as follows. Both versions conclude with Cain deciding to make the problem of Hangar 18 go away by blowing it up in a faked plane crash (listen to the 9/11 conspiracy nuts squeal). Meanwhile, Harry and the others have just discovered that the alien ship is an advance scout for an imminent invasion. But before they can raise the alarm generally, the hangar is blown up and Cain’s machinations leave humanity unprepared! (In the theatrical version anyway.) In the TV version, the ending is somewhat recut to suggest the alien ship survived intact, along with everyone who was inside it. It’s a bit of a cop-out, to be honest, concluding a rather bland movie in a very bland way. So I suppose it has consistency to commend it, but at least the darker original end would have been more memorable. Even so, I’m not even sure Hangar 18 really has any particular claim to be remembered.

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Looking ahead to the biggest films of the summer, it’s a fair bet that the latest iteration of Jurassic Park (which appears to focus on people fleeing from dinosaurs and a volcano) will be somewhere near the top of the list. On board for this latest excursion into peril-based running is one of the original cast, Jeff Goldblum, reprising his role as the wacky mathematician. I wonder if there is any correlation between who is fronting a Jurassic Park film and the actual quality of the movie? I always felt that of the original three, the ones with Sam Neill were rather better than the one headed up by Jeff Goldblum (although I suspect Goldblum will be in the heritage cameo slot this year, with Chris Pratt once again doing most of the heavy lifting, heroically speaking).

I mean, I like Jeff Goldblum a lot, and I know that if he’s in a movie then I’m going to enjoy his bits if nothing else. The fact that he seems to be enjoying a bit of a profile spike at the moment (Isle of Dogs, Ragnarok, and the new Jurassic Park) is great. As a movie veteran, he has developed into a great character performer; but looking back at his career one can’t help wondering if he was ever quite cut out to be a leading man in the conventional sense.

Recently making an appearance on the local version of a world-conquering streaming site was John Landis’ 1985 film Into the Night, a black comedy which was really Jeff Goldblum’s first leading role. Exactly what genre (or subgenre) this film belongs to is a curious matter we will return to shortly; suffice to say that it seems to me to be a quintessentially 80s movie.

Goldblum plays Ed Okin, a disaffected executive at an aerospace engineering company in Los Angeles. He is suffering from severe insomnia, which causes his work to suffer, and this in turn results in him discovering his wife is having an affair. Shocked and uncertain, he finds himself driving out to the airport around midnight, perhaps contemplating flying off to parts unknown. He arrives there just in time to meet Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman-on-the-make who’s just returned from Europe. The guy meeting Diana is killed by a quartet of hoodlums of Middle Eastern origin, and they seem intent on taking a similar interest in her. Needless to say she hurls herself into Ed’s car and begs that he drive her out of there.

Ed, naturally, has no idea what’s going on, and just wants to conclude their association and go home (he seems to have been startled out of his ennui),  but – inevitably – events conspire to keep them together. (Plus, every time she says ‘Please stay with me for a little while longer’, he seems just a little too willing to agree.) It turns out that Diana has got herself mixed up in a dodgy deal involving the heritage of the Shah of Iran and some jewel smuggling, and now various heavies of Iranian, French, and British origin are on her tail. Can either of them get through the night in one piece?

Careers go up, careers go down; Goldblum had been appearing in films for over ten years by 1985, and was just on the verge of breaking through to genuine stardom (he appeared in The Fly the following year). Pfeiffer wasn’t quite so well established, being mainly known for Grease 2 and Scarface at the time, but was just beginning the run of movies that would lead to her becoming one of the most successful actresses of the late 80s and 90s. John Landis, on the other hand, had already directed The Blues Brothers, Animal House, An American Werewolf in London, and Trading Places, but from the mid-80s on he would struggle to consistently find creative or commercial success. You could argue that Into the Night marks the onset of this: Landis’ previous movie, Trading Places, made $90 million; Into the Night made less than eight.

There were quite a few films with a similar theme doing the rounds in the middle 80s. I’ve heard this described as the ‘yuppie nightmare’ or ‘yuppie in peril’ subgenre, but the thing is that this seems mainly used to describe films like Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, and Bad Influence, straight thrillers concerning the ‘[insert noun] from hell’ – the one night stand from hell, the room-mate from hell, or whatever. I think that Into the Night represents something a bit odder and more obscure, which I would refer to as ‘yuppie-led-astray’ movies (a different subgenre – or perhaps subsubgenre?). Into the Night came out in early 1985, Scorsese’s After Hours appeared later the same year, and Jonathan Demme’s Something Wild was released in 1986: all of them concern outwardly successful but quietly unhappy men who find themselves involved in a series of misadventures after encountering a free-spirited young woman.

As Into the Night was the first of these films off the blocks, it can hardly be that people were already sick of the idea when it came out, so its relative lack of success must be due to something else. One of the elements of the film singled out for criticism by directors at the time is the fact that it is stuffed with cameos by Landis’ friends and acquaintances from the film-making world. If you really know your stuff you can spot people like Jack Arnold, Don Siegel, Jim Henson, Rick Baker, Roger Vadim, Paul Mazursky, Jonathan Demme, Lawrence Kasdan, Jonathan Lynn, Amy Heckerling and David Cronenberg, all making small appearances. I’m not sure this is necessarily a huge problem, as it’s only distracting if you have a genuinely encyclopaedic knowledge of cinema – I’m a big fan of Jack Arnold’s films, for example, but I had no idea what he looked like until I found out he’d been in this film.

More of a problem is the sense that the elements of the yuppie-led-astray film are here in embryonic form but haven’t quite fully developed yet. The best of these films have a strong sense of time about them: After Hours takes place in the course of a single night, Something Wild over a single weekend. You would expect Into the Night to follow the same pattern, with the main action of the film all happening in the course of a night and the climax, perhaps, coming at dawn. This is not the case – about two thirds of the way through, a new day dawns, and there’s about ten minutes of plot before the protagonists decide to nap through until the following evening, which is when the rest of it takes place (the conclusion is not great, and the film ambles to a close rather than actually having a strong climax). Maybe they just ran out of money for night shooting; certainly the production values of some parts of this film resemble those of an episode of The A Team or The Rockford Files rather than a genuine movie.

I think it may just be that John Landis wasn’t quite a good enough director to pull off this kind of movie, as they require a level of wit and subtlety that you don’t necessarily associate with this director, except perhaps in American Werewolf. There are some rather embarrassing slapstick hoodlums in this movie, one of whom is played by Landis himself; in one particularly tonally-off moment a gag where they struggle to get through a door, which is not funny, is followed by them pursuing and then murdering a fleeing woman, which would never be funny. There is a definite problem with pervasive misogyny in this movie, I would say: most of the women in it are, if not actually prostitutes or mistresses, then defined by their attractiveness. There’s also a fair degree of gratuitous nudity in it, all female of course.

Even Michelle Pfeiffer is required to get every stitch of kit off for a couple of brief sequences, but she manages to rise above this, not to mention a generally underwritten part, and delivers a convincing and effective performance as a recognisably human character. You can see why she became such a big star. Can the same be said for Jeff Goldblum? Well – here’s the thing about the protagonists of yuppie-led-astray films; they are by nature hapless everymen, audience identification figures plunged into peculiar and unexpected worlds. Goldblum is a fine performer, but he is almost always the quirky one, the slightly off-kilter character. In this film he has to rein all of that in and be the most normal thing in the movie, basically spending nearly two hours reacting to the more eccentric characters around him (and some of them are highly eccentric: David Bowie cameos as an extremely polite moustachioed English hitman). And you can’t help feeling, what a waste of potential. This isn’t to say Goldblum is bad in this film, but you’re just aware he can be much better when he isn’t so badly miscast.

Into the Night is basically one of those odd movies which has a certain kind of curiosity value and passes the time in a not too objectionable manner. The thing is that everyone in it is much better in other, more famous movies; it’s not the director’s best work, either; and this whole style of story is handled much, much better in other movies (my recommendation would be Something Wild, which is darker, stranger, sexier, and more emotionally engaging). Just about worth watching though, particularly if you like Goldblum and Pfeiffer.

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A couple of weeks in and Ready Player One seems to be doing okay, although I suspect not quite as well as its producers might have hoped, all things considered. (Just to digress a little, the list of the best-performing films of the year so far is fascinating reading, with Chinese blockbusters unheard of in the west doing massive business, and the appalling you-know-what having made a soul-bleaching $275 million so far.) Maybe this is because wider audiences are indeed struggling a bit with the non-stop in-jokes and pop-culture references which are such an integral part of the film. You could probably get a good sense of a person’s age and background based on how many of Ready Player One‘s Easter Eggs they recognise; most people will get the Back to the Future DeLorean and the chestburster from Alien, probably rather fewer the glaive from Krull.

One of the things that is likely to separate the adults from the younglings (oh yeah, post-Weinstein my idioms are all going to be gender-neutral) is their response to Olivia Cooke’s ride during the race sequence: once again, the majority will, I suspect, limit themselves to something along the lines of ‘Cool motorcycle’ – for the rest of us, of course, it is instantly and obviously recognisable as The Bike From Akira.

It is a little strange and perhaps even unique that a single element of design should become quite as emblematic of the film it appears in as The Bike From Akira. If you google for Akira-related images then six of the first ten results are pictures of The Bike. This is despite the fact that The Bike has relatively limited screen-time and is really only tangentially significant to the plot of the film. Just goes to show the power of a really great piece of design, I suppose.

Hard to believe though it is, Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira is thirty years old this year, and its futuristic setting should be our here-and-now – thankfully, most of its predictions have turned out to be incorrect, with the amusing exception of the fact that Tokyo is indeed hosting the Olympics in 2020. I first saw it as a teenager, and hadn’t seen it again until very recently; it was a bit of shock to realise that if I leave it as long again before watching it for a third time, I’ll be in my seventies. However, time has not diminished the exceptional qualities of this film, while a little bit of distance has allowed the film’s cultural significance to become clearer.

There’s a fair of backstory to Akira, most of which the film quite sensibly parcels out in the course of the story. The essentials are as follows: in 1988, Tokyo was destroyed by a devastating, unexplained explosion, triggering a third world war. By 2019, it seems that civilisation has recovered, up to a point – the movie takes place entirely within the sprawling megacity of Neo-Tokyo. The city is beset by political tensions and random violent crime, with rival biker gangs battling for control of the streets.

Members of one such gang are Kaneda and Tetsuo – Kaneda is the owner of The Bike. (A number of versions of this film exist, with different actors voicing the characters.) They are both orphans and have been friends since childhood, although the more insecure Tetsuo is wont to chafe a bit in the face of Kaneda’s swaggering cockiness.

Things change for the duo one night, when a run-in with another gang takes an unexpected turn. Tetsuo encounters a very peculiar child who has recently been abducted from a government installation; when the forces of Colonel Shikishima take the child back into custody, Tetsuo is taken too.

Kaneda and the others are worried about their friend, and possibly with good reason: he is having visions of a mysterious boy calling himself Akira, and rapidly developing extremely potent psychic powers. The authorities already have a trio of psychics, trapped in a state of arrested development by the drugs they take to control their powers, and are using them to investigate the forces that Akira represents. They want to add Tetsuo to their programme, but have they underestimated his raw power?

Meanwhile, Kaneda has fallen in with an anti-government group (suffice to say there is a girl involved) determined to free Tetsuo. However, they too don’t quite appreciate just what they are up against, as events spiral out of control and Tetsuo attempts to waken the dormant power of Akira…

Animated Japanese cinema is experiencing a bit of a spike in its profile at the moment, following the recent passing of Isao Takahata and with the imminent release of the not-Studio Ghibli movie Mary and the Witch’s Flower. In the UK, of course, animated Japanese cinema is essentially synonymous with Studio Ghibli and those associated with it. Akira is the great exception to this, being the product of a bespoke coalition of companies, such as Toho, who came together specifically to make the film.

Nevertheless, the much-commented upon beauty and technical virtuosity of any Studio Ghibli film you care to mention is absolutely matched by Akira, which is a visually stunning film from start to finish. Every frame is filled with colour, energy and movement; the detail of every piece of design is breathtaking. I imagine one could watch the original Japanese version of Akira, not actually comprehending a single word of the dialogue, and still have a pretty good time with the movie.

Of course, even being able to speak Japanese, or have access to the English dub, doesn’t necessarily mean you will completely understand the movie the first time you encounter it; I know I struggled a bit, certainly. The fact that it’s called Akira and yet there isn’t really a character called Akira in it can be a bit wrong-footing; the sheer density of the film’s plot and ideas, which are concerned with themes of transhumanism, can also take the unwary by surprise. As well as being several flavours of SF film, there is a sense in which Akira is also a superhero movie and a political thriller, to name but two.

I don’t think anyone would honestly watch Akira and believe it was a Ghibli movie, of course, for – other than a few sequences of surreal grotesquery – it is clear that Otomo’s movie has an entirely different sensibility. Ghibli movies are, with the occasional famous exception, fairly soft-centred and ultimately quite gentle; there’s a sense in which Akira revels in its scenes of carnage and devastation. It is absolutely of a piece with a whole movement of dark SF from the 1980s, embodying a kind of dystopian urban alienation. You can draw lines between Akira and Robocop, Akira and Blade Runner, Akira and The Dark Knight Returns.

It’s not simply that Akira has clearly been influenced by these other things; it may in fact be the case that it influenced some of them. It’s that it is every bit as sophisticated and challenging as any of them. It may conclude on a guardedly hopeful note, perhaps somewhat inspired by 2001, but on the whole it is asking harder questions about the dehumanising effects of urban life, the real nature of progress, and – perhaps the quintessential SF theme – our ability to responsibly use our own potential. A great animation and a great SF movie, too.

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Maintenance of aim is terribly important in any undertaking: if you’re a surgeon doing heart-surgery, for instance, it is generally accepted that changing your mind halfway through and embarking on a tonsillectomy is not best practice. This kind of goes without saying in most walks of life, and is not normally a problem when it comes to film-making, anyway; any decent movie, once it enters serious production, has all the agile manoeuvrability of a fully-laden oil tanker – it’s just too complicated and expensive to start changing things. (Many a famous flop is the result of clashing creative visions causing a bad movie to go soaring over budget.)

Movies are a bit more vulnerable at the scripting stage, of course, and a spectacular example of just how badly things can go wrong at this point appears to be John Hough’s 1986 film Biggles (released in the US a couple of years later, under the title of Biggles: Adventures in Time). Now, anyone familiar with W.E. Johns’ famous boy’s-adventure hero could probably have guessed that the producers of this movie had set out on a slightly rocky path: doing Biggles authentically would involve dealing with a lot of problematic material, mainly due to the character’s origins during the dying days of the British Empire – there are some fairly unreconstructed attitudes on display from time to time, if not outright racism.

Nevertheless, you could certainly imagine a Biggles movie kind of working, provided it was sensibly scripted to catch the spirit of the stories – lots of courageous aerial derring-do, all in the cause of righteousness, naturally – in fact, you could imagine the 1983 Tom Selleck movie High Road to China serving as a template for a fairly successful Biggles film. And apparently Hough’s movie started life as just such a rousing period adventure, in the Raiders of the Lost Ark style. However, and this is the point at which the catastrophe started to unfold, while the film was being scripted – it may even have been while it was in production, such are the timescales involved – key figures on the project noted the success of various science-fiction films, particularly Back to Future, and the decision was made to try and attract the same audience to the Biggles movie.

So it is that Biggles, a film supposedly about a British First World War flying ace, is primarily about Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a New York City yuppie living in the middle 1980s. Ferguson’s job is running a company that produces fairly rancid-looking ready meals (he keeps getting dragged out of meetings by people declaring ‘there’s a glitch with the mashed potatoes!’) but his life is generally quite ordinary, except for the fact he is being stalked by a mysterious old man (a frail-looking Peter Cushing, giving it all he’s got).

Well, all this changes one night when Jim, apropos of nothing much, finds himself in 1917, saving the life of a British airman when his biplane crashes (this, needless to say, is Biggles, played moderately well by Neil Dickson). And then he’s back in New York, none the wiser. This happens a number of times, until he decides to sort it all out by tracking down the old man, who seems to be connected to this odd phenomenon. Cushing’s character actually lives inside Tower Bridge in London, for no very good reason, and turns out to be Air Commodore Raymond, Biggles’ commanding officer during the war. This would make him about a hundred years old, and the uncharitable would say Cushing possibly looks it, but the film skips daintily over such things.

Well, Cushing is saddled with the exposition, and reveals that Ferguson and Biggles are ‘time twins’ and that apparently ‘time travel is much more common than people think.’ This is the sole rationale for the movie, and not even Peter Cushing can sell it, I’m afraid. Anyway, every time Biggles is in danger, Ferguson finds himself plucked back through time to help him out, and spends most of the film ping-ponging back and forth. There is a plot about the Germans having developed a new weapon that delivers a devastating sonic attack (all together now: ‘You will feel dizzy, you will feel the urge to vomit’, and so on), which most of the action revolves around.

And it is all almost indescribably awful. It’s not as infuriatingly, wilfully ugly as the Peter Rabbit movie, but this is the kind of film that made some people spend most of the eighties announcing the death of the British film industry. Cushing is the only person connected with this film who had any kind of movie career of note, and it was his last role. Everyone else has a solid background in duff TV, for it is full of faces from things like Allo Allo! and Roland Rat. Well, maybe I’m being a little too harsh on John Hough, who in addition to doing various episodes of The New Avengers and similar things also made Twins of Evil for Hammer and the original Witch Mountain movies for Disney. There’s a bit of a Hammer thread running through this movie, for in addition to the presence of Cushing and Hough, a Hammer subsidiary part-financed the film. It just shows the extent of the company’s fall from grace in the 1980s, I suppose.

I mean, the film verges on the downright incompetent when it comes to things like editing and pacing, to say nothing of the tranquilised quality of most of the performances – Hyde-White is a particular offender in this department. All this just compounds the flaws inherent in the basic conception of the film, which crassly hedges its bets by attempting to combine swashbuckling adventure with time-travel fantasy and broad comedy: Ferguson keeps time travelling at inappropriate moments, so his friends discover him dressed as a nun (ho ho!) or he finds himself inadvertently machine-gunning the London police (ha ha!). The casual profanity in this film, to say nothing of the gags about breast implants, just feels horribly wrong for a Biggles movie, but the uncertainty of tone is pervasive – we go from moments of near-slapstick to a bit where Ferguson’s girlfriend (Fiona Hutchison), for no very good reason, claws an incinerated corpse’s eye from its socket. Even in the bits which seem vaguely historically accurate, the synth-pop soundtrack destroys any chance of atmosphere (this film contains Queen bassist John Deacon’s only recordings outside the band, which may mean it is of marginal interest to obsessive fans).

The real problem with Biggles is that it doesn’t have an audience: I don’t mean that no-one would be interested in a film based on this character (I think that a serious film based on the earliest stories, which are darker and grittier, could be really interesting), but that the structure of the story is so slip-shod and weak it appears to be aimed at undemanding children, while much of its substance is clearly pitched towards a much older age-group. The result is a strikingly incompetent film with a very broad lack-of-appeal; other than Queen aficionados, it’s only likely to be of interest as Cushing’s final (non-CGI) big screen appearance, and even in those terms it’s a horribly unworthy valediction for the great man.

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I must confess that my fondness for the Phoenix, my local art-house cinema, has taken the odd knock over the last few years, mainly because with each new refurbishment (there have been several) it seems to have become more and more bland and corporate and just a little bit less charming. Admittedly, the complete rebuild of the smaller theatre is a vast improvement, but then the big one has also been totally redone and it didn’t really need it. Hey ho; that’s progress, I guess. One reason to still love the place is its habit (on the verge of becoming a tradition) of digging out a classic fantasy or horror movie to inaugurate the start of every Christmas season. Last year it was the wonderfully nasty Blood on Satan’s Claw, and this year it was Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, based on a story by Angela Carter.

Looking at this film now inevitably takes one back to a lost age of the British film industry, a time when companies like ITC were cranking out movies like Hawk the Slayer and The Dark Crystal on a fairly regular basis, while the hip young gunslingers at Palace Pictures, who started out by distributing art house movies from abroad, were chancing their arm with projects like Mona Lisa and and Absolute Beginners. The Company of Wolves is an ITC-Palace production, of course.

This is one of those movies which it is rather difficult to give a capsule synopsis for, but let’s have a go anyway. The story opens in what appears to be the real world, with a well-off couple (David Warner and Tusse Silberg) returning home to their rather expansive country home and their two daughters. The elder (Georgia Slowe) is packed off to rouse the younger (Sarah Patterson) from her attic bedroom, but it quickly becomes apparent that there is tension between the sisters. The younger girl continues to sleep, and suddenly the atmosphere darkens, the vista beyond her window becoming that of a dark, fairytale world.

She dreams of her sister becoming lost in the woods, initially encountering giant sized, animated toys, and then – as the forest itself becomes more grotesque and fantastical – a pack of wolves, which pursue and set upon her (this is still a very creepy and effective sequence three decades later). But the dream continues, and makes up the rest of the movie, as she herself appears as a young girl named Rosaleen, along with her parents, and her grandmother (Angela Lansbury, back in the days when she was much less controversial).

What follows is a kind of adult fairytale, very loosely following the plot of Little Red Riding Hood, but with many discursions and embellishments along the way. Quite apart from the main plot (which concerns a wolf menacing the village, and also, not to put too fine a point on it, Rosaleen’s incipient sexual awakening), there are a number of shorter stories woven into the film, usually as tales told by either the grandmother or Rosaleen herself, most of them taking a lupine bent – for example, a young woman marries a ‘travelling man’ (Stephen Rea), who disappears on their wedding night while answering, ha ha, the call of nature (there is a full moon), while a village girl dishonoured by a local aristocrat turns up at his wedding party to exact a startling revenge on the degenerate nobility there. Most of these are not much more than vignettes – one of them, featuring an uncredited Terence Stamp as the Devil, materialising in a white Rolls Royce, is very short indeed – and all of them are rather impressionistic and allusive.

Then again, this is the sort of film where everything seems to allude to something else. There are layers of meaning heaped upon each other as the film goes on, and in a rather ostentatious way. This is not the sort of film where the allusions and symbolism contribute another layer of meaning to the story – this is the sort of film which makes virtually no sense unless you accept that it is intended as a kind of coded parable, to be interpreted as such. At one point Rosaleen, hiding in the forest from an amorous boy, climbs a tree to discover a stork’s nest full of eggs. The eggs all spontaneously hatch out into tiny homunculi. On the face of it this is just weird, but it is clearly a moment of deep importance.

So, to coin a phrase, what is The Company of Wolves really all about? Well, for all that it occasionally resembles a rather superior Hammer horror pastiche, made with 1980s production values, I don’t think I would call this an actual horror movie as such – though, as mentioned, there are plenty of unsettling sequences, gory moments, and bits you wouldn’t necessarily want to show your own granny. It is clearly framed as a combination of fairy story and folktale (hence this revival, as part of a season of films in that kind of vein), and as for its central theme…

Well, to begin with, the stories all have a cautionary bent – not quite Beware of the Dog, but certainly Beware of the Wolf – the wolf in question often having something to do with aggressive male sexuality (I have an essay on the topic of lycanthropy as a metaphor for toxic masculinity in a book coming out next year, but what do you know, The Company of Wolves was there decades ago). All men are beasts, especially ones whose eyebrows meet in the middle (and this film was made years before the Gallagher brothers became famous).  The thing is, though, that as the film progresses, it becomes quite clear that everyone’s a little bit lupine occasionally – it doesn’t shy away from accepting the existence of female desire, nor is it treated as something wrong or shameful.

I suspect that one of the reasons the film remains so oblique and obscure in its meaning is because the structure established at the beginning is never really resolved. Normally, when a film opens in the ‘normal world’ and then moves to a dream reality, the conclusion sees the main character waking up and putting the lessons they have learned from the dream into reality – the classic example being, of course, The Wizard of Oz. This does not happen here: the end of the film sees a pack of wolves breaking through the walls of the dream, into the bedroom where the ‘real’ Rosaleen is still sleeping, but then abruptly concludes on an unresolved note of menace. I was not surprised to hear a group of people a couple of rows behind me discussing the film and admitting that they had no idea what the frame story was supposed to mean.

Nevertheless, this is a handsomely mounted and atmospherically directed film, even if the fairy-tale forest is fairly obviously a soundstage somewhere in Shepperton. There is also an undeniable pleasure in seeing people who are undeniably proper star actors (Lansbury, Warner, Rea) rub shoulders with folk you’d more normally see on the telly – Brian Glover is in it (his second British-made werewolf movie of the decade), so is Graham Crowden, so is Jim Carter (uncredited). Sarah Patterson, on the other hand, is so good in what was her movie debut that it’s genuinely surprising she didn’t go on to have a much bigger career. For what was a fairly low-budget movie even in 1984, it looks rather good, although some of the special effects – I’m thinking here particularly of the flayed werewolf transformation – have not aged particularly well.

I have to say I didn’t enjoy seeing The Company of Wolves again quite as much as I did The Blood on Satan’s Claw last year, but that’s probably because the latter is a (no pun intended) full-blooded supernatural horror movie, while the former uses some of the trappings of the genre to explore its own areas of concern. While the results are thought-provoking, it’s also a film where the narrative is there to service the author’s ideas and message. As a result it’s a film which is clearly at least as interested in making you think as it is in entertaining you – not that there isn’t a lot here to entertain, anyway. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a time when British films were not afraid to be properly ambitious, experimental and imaginative.

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Imagine my shock: it is, the calendar informs me, September at the moment, and likely to remain so for the rest of the month. So, what better time to absorb and cogitate upon a film so deeply concerned with the month of September that it is, in fact, actually called September?

Reader, I have to inform you that there is a con going on here. September is not about the month of September. It’s not even set in September – at one point towards the end of September, one character says words to the effect of ‘Ooh, and it’s not even September yet’. Is this some dark situationist prank from director Woody Allen? September actually takes place in August. What an outrage, likely to sow confusion and distress amongst film-goers everywhere.

You know, I’m tempted to say ‘…if only September were actually that dramatic’, because while Allen’s 1987 movie is certainly a drama, it’s one of those dramas in which – to the eye of the casual or inattentive viewer, at least – not very much at all happens that you could actually call dramatic. But it is, at least, something of a departure from the norm for a director who occasionally seems to have been intermittently remaking more or less the same film for nearly forty years now.

September takes place in a house in the countryside in a fairly remote part of Vermont – don’t get too excited about this departure from Allen’s normal New York City milieu, the entire movie was shot on a soundstage in, you guessed it, New York – where a woman named Lane (Mia Farrow) is coming to the end of a period of recovery, following an initially-undisclosed personal crisis. Her best friend Stephanie (Dianne West) is there to support her, while also present (if somewhat less supportive) is her mother Diane (Elaine Stritch), a faded Hollywood star, and stepfather Lloyd (Jack Warden). Hanging about the place are Howard (Denholm Elliott), an older man who is a teacher, and Peter (Sam Waterston), an aspiring writer.

It’s a bit hard to describe the premise of September without spoiling the whole plot, because the whole focus of the movie is on initially presenting this group of characters and then gradually uncovering the relationships between them and the events in their pasts which have shaped them as people. It’s also the kind of movie where very quick and allusive references are made to characters’ back-stories right at the start, which are not expanded upon until much later in the story, which demands a certain degree of trust and patience on the part of the viewer. Just what is the scandalous event in Diane and Lane’s past which Lane is so very keen not to see raked over in Diane’s proposed memoirs? What exactly has Lane come to Vermont to get over? You have to wait until well into the movie for these things to be elaborated upon, and even then the most you sometimes get is a strong implication.

In the end this is, at heart, not very much different from many Allen movies, concerning a group of well-off and articulate people operating on a level somewhat removed from quotidian turmoil (Lane is planning on moving back to New York but can’t decide if she wants to be a photographer or an artist), with an underlying theme not exactly calculated to warm the soul. Warden’s character gets a cheery scene where, as a physicist, he announces that the universe ‘doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s all random, resonating aimlessly out of nothing and eventually vanishing forever. I’m not talking about the world, I’m talking about the universe, all space, all time, just temporary convulsion… I understand it for what it truly is. Haphazard. Morally neutral, and unimaginably violent.’ (On the whole I think I prefer Allen’s one liners.)

On a personal level this basically manifests as a high ambient level of misery and personal unfulfillment amongst all the various characters. Howard is in love with Lane, but can’t bring himself to tell her. Lane is in love with Peter, but has been hurt too many times before to be remotely proactive about it (well, unless you count arranging to go and see Kurosawa’s Ran with him – personally it’s not really my idea of a date movie, but I can well imagine Woody Allen disagreeing). Peter himself has fallen for Stephanie, who is unhappily married but can’t imagine leaving her children. All of these plotlines, along with that of the constant tension between Lane and Diane, work themselves out over the space of a concise 82 minute running time (it does perhaps feel a mite longer while you’re watching it), leaving you with an undeniable sense of a group of people realising that, perhaps, their best years are behind them, with only the autumn of their lives yet to come (hence, I’m guessing, the title of the movie).

And the craftsmanship of the writing and performances is really undeniable – Allen has clearly set out to tell a certain type of story in a particular way, and largely achieved his goal. Although not without a certain degree of struggle. Actors who’ve worked with Allen have occasionally grumbled about the director’s perfectionism and insistence on a contractual clause obliging them to be available for any reshoots he deems to be necessary. There is also the story that, having completed Manhattan, Allen was so unimpressed with the finished movie that he asked the studio for permission to scrap it and make an entirely new film for free. Something similar appears to have happened with September – having completed the film, the director decided that he wasn’t happy with it, so rewrote it, recast some of the parts, and made it all over again. (The Sam Waterston role was originally played by Sam Shepard, which I find a little ironic as I’m always getting those two actors mixed up. Apparently, it was even Christopher Walken playing Peter for a bit, which would have been much less confusing for me.)

Of course, you could argue there’s a fine line between perfectionism and self-indulgence, and if so then September is surely a rather self-indulgent piece of film-making, with its very stagey style and formalism. Why set out to make a movie which is, to all intents and purposes, just a very thinly disguised stage play? If you’re going to make a movie, then make a movie. On the other hand, if you’re going to make a movie pretty much every year (as Allen has been doing for nearly half a century now), then coming up with new material and new approaches must inevitably become a bit of an issue for you, so you may well end up either repeating yourself endlessly or doing very odd things just because you’ve never done them before. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if Woody Allen’s enviable work ethic and productivity aren’t partly to blame for the inconsistent quality of his films. September is admirable on its own terms, but I’d struggle to say anything much more positive about it than that.

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As you grow older and wiser, you kind of reach a point where you believe that you will never find yourself intentionally sitting down to watch Star Trek V: The Final Frontier ever again. But clearly this moment has not quite yet arrived. Look at that, two sentences in and I’m already putting the boot into the movie – but then few movies seem to be quite as eminently bootable as Star Trek V. Certainly, the first time you see it, it doesn’t just come across as a bad film, it seems almost bafflingly, inexplicably bad.

I remember my own first contact with Star Trek V. It was the Earth Year 1989 and this was the first Trek film I went to see with friends rather than family. It was the Monday afternoon showing on the first day of the Autumn half-term break. Three or four months had gone by since the film’s US release (believe it or not, this was extremely common at the time, young ones), and yet I seem to recall very few plot details had crossed the Atlantic – I don’t even recall having seen a trailer. So we settled down in the cinema, only marginally distracted by the presence some seats along and a row back of a girl I had been trying to impress for some weeks (the smallest member of our party was despatched to offer popcorn and other sweeties as propitiatory gifts until she told us to stop it). Well, the movie rolled, our excitement fizzled away, and at the end, subdued, we separated and wandered off into the rush-hour traffic in search of our buses. Possibly my most vivid memory of the whole afternoon is of something that happened at the bus stop: a somewhat frazzled-looking father was there with his bemused young son (telltale signs, I now realise, of recent exposure to Star Trek V). My ears pricked up as I heard their conversation.

(Plaintive incomprehension.) ‘Daddy, I don’t understand. I thought God was supposed to be a goodie?’

(A terrible weariness.) ‘Well, yes, but that wasn’t God, was it? Because God wouldn’t have tried to kill Captain Kirk.’

There are obviously things wrong with Star Trek V, but it is perhaps its contribution to the field of theology which makes it such a problematic film. Certainly its start is, well, not too bad. We open on the wasteland planet of Nimbus III, in the Neutral Zone between the major space powers, where everyone seems to be having a fairly miserable time. Fertile soil for interstellar cult leader, Vulcan revolutionary, and previously unmentioned long-lost brother Sybok (Laurence Luckinbill) to gather a following, then. Sybok takes over Nimbus III and captures the ambassadors posted there.

Well, for once it isn’t quite the case that Starfleet doesn’t have any other ships in the area, but the admiralty reach the conclusion that a fully-functional ship with an experienced crew is not what the situation requires. A ship which is falling to bits, crewed by new and untested personnel, is a much better bet, just as long as the ship is commanded by James T Kirk! (You can tell that William Shatner wrote the story for this film himself, can’t you?) Shore leave is cancelled and the Enterprise warps off to Nimbus III in an attempt to get there ahead of some angry Klingons.

Well, Sybok proves a tricky fish to land, and succeeds in swaying the Enterprise crew to his cause. He reveals his true intent – he has had a vision of the fabled planet of Seanconnery (well, not quite, but the in-joke becomes blatant once you’re aware of it), at the heart of the galaxy, where resides the infinite wisdom of the Almighty and perhaps even God Himself…

The problems with Star Trek V surely started with the lawyers, back in the 1960s. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy struck a deal where they had a ‘favoured nation’ clause inserted into their Star Trek contracts, basically meaning that whenever Shatner got a pay rise or a bigger trailer, Nimoy automatically got one as well, and vice versa. So, when Nimoy was given the opportunity to direct a Star Trek movie, the producers were legally obligated to give Shatner a go, too, regardless of whether they thought it was in any way a good idea or not. It is safe to say that not everyone on the production was overjoyed at the news – George Takei’s response, on hearing the tidings, was a cry of ‘Oh, God! What are we going to do?!?’ (although to be fair he apparently found the experience of being directed by the Shat less gruelling than expected).

A lot of what’s wrong with Star Trek V boils down to Shatner’s original vision of the Enterprise going in search of God and having various encounters with spiritual beings – it seems like everyone he spoke to about this told him in no uncertain terms that this was a terrible premise for a movie, hence its slight modification in the final version (Shatner still seems pretty insistent that if he’d been permitted to make his original idea, rather than a film compromised by studio demands, budget requirements, fractious co-stars, and so on, it would have been much better – you have to admire the guy’s cojones, if nothing else).

So we can blame Shatner for the flawed central premise of the movie (and also for the casting the great David Warner and then giving him virtually nothing to do), but in the interests of fairness we should also consider the fact that culpability also lies with other people. If you look at the history of the Star Trek film franchise, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that Paramount Pictures viewed the series solely in terms of its money-making potential, with most of their decisions intended to maximise box office while reducing costs.

That policy really starts to bite here – this is a notably cheap-looking film with flat cinematography, and painfully primitive special effects – ILM were booked up doing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Ghostbusters II that year, forcing the production to engage a cheaper effects house. The climax had to be completely reshot when the initial monster suit just didn’t work. And, perhaps more insidiously, Paramount concluded that the huge take of Star Trek IV was down to it being full of jokes, with the result that this film is, too, regardless of whether they’re tonally appropriate or in character – hence the utter, wince-inducing wrongness of those scenes where Scotty knocks himself out by walking into a bulkhead, Sulu and Chekov get lost on a hiking trip, and Uhura does a fan dance (the main troika emerge more or less unscathed, and director Shatner ensures actor Shatner’s gravitas remains uncompromised throughout).

But, what the hell, it’s not as if Shatner gets everything wrong – for one thing, he hires Jerry Goldsmith to do the soundtrack, so that’s pretty good. There’s a new take on the Klingon music, and the main theme from The Motion Picture returns (although this may have been a branding decision, given The Next Generation had been running for a year or two when this film came out). And, the character scenes with Kirk, Spock, and McCoy together do work – much better than most of those in The Motion Picture, if we’re honest.

Nevertheless, few films are as actively loathed as this one – never mind the movie’s impressive haul at the Golden Raspberry Awards, Gene Roddenberry himself announced parts of it had to be considered ‘apocryphal’, and at least one officially-licensed book has announced these events never actually happened (what we are seeing is an in-universe film made by aliens from the Roman planet in Bread and Circuses, which is why the characterisations are a bit off, not to mention some of the laws of physics). Perhaps it just reflects our somewhat ambiguous attitude towards Shatner himself these days.

Given the combination of 1989’s heavyweight summer release schedule (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, License to Kill, Lethal Weapon 2, amongst others) and the fact that Star Trek was back on TV, Star Trek V would have to have been something pretty special in order to cut through and achieve the same kind of success as previous entries. If it is special, then that’s not in a good way, but you can’t lay all the blame on William Shatner. A good-sized chunk of it, maybe. But not all of it.

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