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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

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 dy 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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I trust I am not revealing too many secrets of the scrivener’s craft if I briefly tweak the curtain aside and reveal that some things are easier to write than others. Give me something truly awful, misconceived, or objectionable to review, and I am as happy as can be; the thing about Hampstead practically wrote itself. Something a bit more indifferent – or, even worse, boring – and it can be quite hard work getting my thoughts in order, or even finding enough to say. Worst of all can be writing about something which seems really good, or which I really like (not always the same thing, of course) – how to avoid just a string of ‘this bit is really good… this bit is also really good… this bit is really good too’?

I mention all this because we are about to look at Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which was for quite a few years my favourite of the series (since displaced by The Wrath of Khan), and which remains to this day not just my father’s favourite Star Trek movie but almost certainly his favourite science-fiction film, full stop (his absolute favourite film of any kind may be The Muppet Christmas Carol, which he will happily sit down to watch on a broiling August afternoon). ‘The one with the whales’ is how it is known in my parents’ house, which is as good a description as any, I suppose.

Nevertheless I feel it is incumbent upon me to look at Star Trek IV with a slightly more objective eye than I have customarily done in the past, hopefully not just to be critical for its own sake, but to see what makes this film so distinctive and a bit of a landmark for the series.

This movie was released in 1986 and, like its predecessor, was directed by Leonard Nimoy. To be honest, it gets off to a slightly rattly start: the action opens a few months after the end of Star Trek III, and finds an alien probe of immense power heading directly for Earth (again), swatting aside all resistance and generally causing consternation and outright panic. On Earth, the Klingon Ambassador is demanding Kirk’s extradition for crimes against the Empire (this is a decent scene, but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the movie). Kirk (William Shatner) and the rest of the gang are still holed up on Vulcan (or possibly, to judge from the hats, in Tibet) getting ready to fly home in their captured Klingon vessel, because apparently Starfleet can’t send a ship to Vulcan to collect them.

(Hmmm. I mean, hmmm. In four out of the first five Star Trek movies, the plot is driven by the fact that Starfleet ‘doesn’t have any other ships in the area’. Just how big a fleet is this? Exactly how enormous is Federation territory, if Starfleet is always spread so thin? It compares very oddly with latter episodes of Deep Space 9, admittedly set about a century later, in which dozens of Starfleet ships routinely appear.)

Oh well. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) is almost back to his old self, though perhaps a little flakey (and Harve Bennett, who wrote this section of the film, appears to be under the impression that pure-blood Vulcans don’t have emotions at all, rather than exercising control over them). Nevertheless he decides to go back to Earth with everyone else. Inevitably, news of the probe’s attack on Earth causes a change of plan. (Apparently Leningrad is back on the maps in the late 23rd century – maybe all those complaints that the Federation is a communist superstate are true.) Spock figures out that the alien probe is trying to talk to humpback whales (the Klingon ship’s databanks are remarkably detailed when it comes to Terran marine biology), which were wiped out centuries earlier, and comes up with a somewhat outlandish plan.

You’re proposing that we go backwards in time, find humpback whales, then bring them foward in time, drop ’em off, and hope to Hell they tell this probe what to do with itself! That’s crazy!’ cries Dr McCoy (DeForest Kelley). Nevertheless, that’s what the script has been setting up (in its own, somewhat contrived way) and so back they zap to San Francisco in the mid 1980s. Save the whales – save the planet!

The meat and heart of the film is the visit to the present day by Kirk and the gang. As you might expect, the general tone is rather comic, with various scenes of the Trek regulars being baffled by public transport, profanity, the attitudes of the locals, and so on. The 20th century portion of the film is written by Nicholas Meyer, who had form with this sort of thing, having written Time After Time, another time-travel adventure story set in contemporary San Francisco, a few years earlier.

Apparently the general intention from the start was to ‘do something nice’, and the decision to play much of the film for laughs may well have been influenced by the fact that for part of its development, this film was going to star Eddie Murphy alongside the Star Trek regulars. Quite why this never happened is a little unclear – some sources indicate Murphy wanted to play a Starfleet officer or an alien, others suggest that the studio realised that releasing a Star Trek film and an Eddie Murphy film would be more profitable than a single movie combining of the two brands. In the end the Murphy character ended up being re-gendered and played by Catherine Hicks, who does as well as anyone in the thankless role of Trek movie guest character/love interest.

Much of what goes on is genuinely funny, even today, with everyone involved clearly having a – hmmm – whale of a time (well, George Takei was apparently distraught when an uncooperative child actor meant his big scene in the movie had to be abandoned). The movie continues the trend, which began in the previous film, for Star Trek to now be specifically focused on these seven characters as a group, rather than Kirk and Spock, or the voyages of the Enterprise. And it works well, even if Meyer arguably pushes it in search of the laughs he’s clearly going for. The crew’s familiarity with 20th century idiomatic English is preposterously selective, given that’s basically what they’ve been speaking for the previous three movies and seventy-odd TV episodes – although I suppose most of the jokes are at the expense of the slightly-addled Spock (Chekov is still slightly too much of a dipstick to be credible). The problem, of course, turned out to be that the studio got the impression that cramming jokes into their Star Trek movies was a sure-fire boost for their box office, which would prove to be bad news for Star Treks V and VI.

In the end the film is so good-natured and funny, and its general message about saving the whale so unexceptionable, that it would take a titanic effort of will not to cut the film some slack and enjoy it on its own terms. (Even if the music, by Leonard Rosenman, is not even close to James Horner’s standards.) And there is a pleasing sense of the world returning to its proper state at the ending, with Captain Kirk back on the bridge, his friends around him, new adventures awaiting a new Enterprise.

Of course, new adventures were awaiting a new Enterprise, only not this one, and not for this crew. It was a few weeks before the release of Star Trek IV that Paramount announced the production of what would eventually become Star Trek: The Next Generation, the long-term popularity of the series now seemingly proven (and, apparently, a new crew of unknown actors being a more appealing prospect than the ever-more-expensive Shatner and Nimoy). The next six films in the series would all be released into a world in which Star Trek was back on TV, and perhaps it’s no surprise that they feel less cinematic, more narratively constrained, than the first three or four films in the series. I still feel that II, III, and IV are the highpoint of the Trek movie series, simply because they are Star Trek when it manages to be very true to itself, and yet also truly cinematic. The Voyage Home may be the most indulgent and soft-centred of any of them, but that doesn’t make it any less likeable.

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We have previously touched upon the received wisdom of the ‘curse’ of the odd-numbered Star Trek films and the extent to which this colours people’s perception of them (presumably it doesn’t apply to the Abrams movies, which are – strictly speaking – 11, 12, and 13 in the series). I think the existence of the ‘curse’ is questionable at best – I completely agree that by far the best films of the lot are even-numbered ones (II and IV for me; your mileage may differ), but it doesn’t necessarily follow that all the odd numbers are flat-out bad or worse than the less-impressive even-numbered films.

For me, the film that really doesn’t deserve to be tarred with the brush of the curse (I apologise for this somewhat baroque metaphor, by the way) is Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, released in 1984 and directed (following much fun and games between the studio and the director’s representatives) by Leonard Nimoy. Does it reach the same standard as the films on either side of it? Well, no; but, as mentioned, there is space between excellent and mediocre, and it’s this space that the film confidently occupies.

We find ourselves once again in the year 2285, with the damaged starship Enterprise limping home following the climactic events of the previous film. The sense of contentment felt by Admiral Kirk (William Shatner) seems to have faded, and he is troubled by the death of his best friend Spock. His other close friend McCoy is acting erratically, too. Orders from Starfleet Command that the Enterprise is to be decommissioned and that they are not to return to the Genesis Planet, where Spock died, do not help his mood much. The situation becomes acute when he is visited by Spock’s father Sarek (Mark Lenard), and they deduce that before dying Spock effectively placed his soul into McCoy’s body (which explains his strange behaviour). Kirk finds himself compelled to go against Starfleet orders, steal his own ship, and return to Genesis in search of Spock’s body.

Of course, it isn’t even only as complicated as that – for a Klingon warlord named Kruge (Christopher Lloyd) has got wind of the Genesis Project and is heading for the new planet, too, intent on terrorising the Federation science team already on the scene, as well as a revived and rejuvenated Spock…

Star Trek III was written by series producer Harve Bennett, whose work is of course not quite up to the standards of that of Nicholas Meyer (writer of Star Trek II) , but still solid. The main problem with it, once you accept the mystical properties of the Genesis effect (raising the dead) and Vulcan, um, mysticism, is that it’s never made quite clear why Kirk goes back to Genesis, rather than just taking McCoy straight to Vulcan for some kind of psionic detox – not only is he completely unaware Spock has come back to life until after his arrival there, he presumably believes his body has been incinerated (this was the original intent, after all).

That said, the movie barrels along cheerily enough for you not to notice this on the first viewing. The movie has a confidence and swagger that the previous movie didn’t actually possess – Star Trek II was considered the absolutely final roll of the dice for the series (why else would they have killed off the most popular character?), and was produced on a minimal budget, with re-used special effects and most scenes being shot on just one set. Here you do get a sense of people realising that the old dog might have much more life left in it than anyone could have guessed, hence much more lavish special effects and sets throughout.

It also feels rather more comfortable in its identity as a piece of Star Trek, perhaps because Bennett had made an effort to steep himself in a series of which Meyer was never a particular fan. The script is happy to bring back Sarek, a recurring but fairly obscure character from the various TV series, insert a tiny cameo for Grace Lee Whitney, include some Tribbles, mention the pon farr undergone by Vulcans, and so on – although without letting any of these things get in the way of the story.

Perhaps the most obvious result of this desire to take Trek back to its roots is the presence of Klingon antagonists at the heart of the story. We should recall that this is the only major appearance by the Klingons between the end of the original TV series and the beginning of Next Generation, and it’s not surprising that the depiction of them is in something of a state of transition – though still depicted as ruthless, sadistic villains (‘I hope pain is something you enjoy,’ says Kruge, shortly before ordering the execution of a prisoner as a negotiating ploy), they are much more obviously alien (they appear to be stronger and more resilient than humans), and they show signs of the obsession with honour that would define them through the Next Gen and DS9 era. Plus, of course, this film marks the first real appearance of tlhIngan Hol (better known to us tera’nganpu’ as the Klingon language). Inevitably, there are still some oddities – everyone, even Saavik, addresses Kruge as ‘my lord’, which isn’t the case with any other Klingon character in the series, no matter how distinguished they are. That said, Christopher Lloyd’s full-on performance as Kruge certainly demands respect.

As does that of William Shatner, to be honest. Joking about Shatner’s ego, waistline, musical career, hair, and line readings has become so much de rigeur these days that we can sometimes overlook what an effective performer he can be with the right script and appropriate direction. Shatner reports feeling initially uncomfortable being directed by Nimoy, but the final product contains some of his finest moments as Kirk – the ‘Klingon bastards’ scene (usually edited out when this movie turns up on TV nowadays) had the potential to be unintentionally comic, but Shatner and Nimoy turn it into something genuinely affecting.

The one thing about this movie that everyone seems to like is James Horner’s music (he did the previous film as well, of course). Horner’s predilection for, um, paying homage to other people’s tunes in his work has been much commented upon, but he’s far from alone in that, and he makes a huge contribution to the movie – Horner’s music manages to make a spaceship reversing out of a garage feel like a moment of epic high adventure.

As I mentioned, Star Trek II was made with the real expectation that it might be the end of the line for the series. Perhaps as a result of the creative licence that gave them, it turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be the start of a whole new lease of life for the series. The Search for Spock is the first piece of Trek to be made in this new atmosphere of confidence and possibility, and it marks the beginning of a roll which continued for the next two decades. Not to mention being a very entertaining movie in its own right.

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As a long-time partaker of the wonder and glory that is the Eurovision Song Contest, I have to admit that it has changed over the years, and not necessarily for the better. I’m not necessarily referring to the influx of vast numbers of formerly Soviet countries, although this has obviously had an effect, but some of the other little rule changes along the way. I speak, of course, of the change in rules that means that these days everyone is allowed to sing their song in English, regardless of whether or not it’s a dominant language in their country or not. You might think this was an absolute positive, and I suppose in terms of simple comprehension it has something to commend it. But what it has robbed the world of are the many creative solutions different countries found to the problem of how to write a song which connects to a vast audience which doesn’t share their native tongue.

This is, of course, gibberish. (I mean that the solution is gibberish, not the preceding paragraph, though I admit this is probably open to debate.) I direct you to such classic Eurosong entries as 1975’s Ding-a-Dong, 1968’s La La La La, 1969’s Boom-Bang-a-Bang, and 1967’s Ring-Dinge-Ding. The best way, it seems, to write a song which makes sense to the whole of Europe, is to write a song which only marginally makes sense at all. And I think the world is lessened just a little by the fact that this sort of thing doesn’t really go on any more.

Having said that, of course, the question of how to connect to a wide audience in a world without a common language is a real one, and one solution that several people have discovered and rediscovered over the years is to dispense with language entirely. Michel Hazanavicius scored a big international hit five years ago with his faux-silent movie The Artist, although he seems to have struggled a bit to convert this into continued international success. It’s interesting to compare his career with that of another notable French film-maker who also came to prominence with a black-and-white, effectively silent movie, and went on to forge a significant, if not entirely respectable, career: Luc Besson, whose first full-length film as director was 1983’s Le Dernier Combat (E-title: The Final Battle).

The film takes place in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with buildings reduced to ruins and the countryside replaced by a blasted desert. Quite how this has come to pass is never really explained, mainly because whatever catastrophe has befallen the world has also robbed people of the ability to communicate – writing and even speech seems to be beyond most people, without chemical assistance anyway.

Naturally, with this sort of premise, there’s a limit to how much back-story you can give the characters. Chief amongst these is a man known only as the Man (Pierre Jolivet), who as the story opens is trying to complete a home-made plane, presumably so he can escape from the wasteland and find his way to somewhere better (the temptation to start ascribing motives and goals to these characters is almost impossible to resist, as you can see). The local gang of survivors present some difficulties, but eventually he completes his project and flies off.

Elsewhere, a semi-derelict hospital is under siege, if you can call it that when the attacking force only consists of one man. He is the Brute (Jean Reno), and the reason why he is so keen to get access is not immediately apparent – but his persistent efforts are the source of much dismay to the one remaining doctor (Jean Bouise) living in the building. When the Man’s plane makes a forced landing in the vicinity, he finds himself drawn into the struggle between the Brute and the occupants of the hospital. But in this bleak and violent world, is there any chance that basic human compassion can survive?

If I was the sort of person who went around wrangling comparisons between films, Le Dernier Combat would give me lots of material to work with. But, of course, I’ve sworn off that sort of thing. So to describe it as being very much in debt to Mad Max 2, with perhaps a delicate seasoning of Alphaville, is not something I would ever find myself in danger of doing. Nevertheless, this is obviously another of those decaying society/barbarism in the ruins sort of films. It’s a little unclear whether the decision to shoot in black and white is a stylistic choice or one forced on the film-makers by the meagreness of their budget, but the film looks as good as a well-photographed black and white movie always does. I’m not quite sure, but I suspect this may be one of those films which started off low-budget but then received an injection of cash just to get it ready for release – the production was apparently originally designed to make cost-effective use of the large number of ruined and derelict buildings dotted around Paris in the early 1980s, but the final product also includes scenes filmed in Tunisia, and at least one striking VFX shot (the office building standing incongruously in the middle of the desert).

The no-dialogue gimmick is a reasonably good one and does at least mean that Le Dernier Combat travels better than many French movies – one notes that as his career progressed, Besson eventually accepted the inevitable and started making films in English. However, I found the movie had the same problem as, say, your typical Hammer dinosaur movie – by dispensing with dialogue, it becomes incredibly difficult to have more than a fairly simplistic plot, with only rudimentary characters and virtually no humour.

Of course, many people would argue (a bit unfairly, if you ask me) that simplistic plots and rudimentary characters have been Luc Besson’s stock in trade throughout his career ever since. Are there some inklings of his future success to be derived from this movie? Is there something essentially Bessonian about it?

Well, apart from the presence of Jean Reno and music from Eric Serra – both of whom went on to become regular presences in the Besson rep company – there may be a few indicators. Besson is a noted writer and producer of headbanging action movies by the skip load, but many of the films he’s actually directed have either definitely been SF or carried a faint whiff of it about them. The opening shot of this movie is up there in the surreality stakes, including a deserted office, a partially-constructed plane (in the actual office), and a man disporting himself with an inflatable rubber woman (no one does brazen, lunatic excess quite like Besson). And there is something unreconstructedly blokey about it – all the main characters are male, with women kept largely off-camera as objects of desire. Which isn’t to say that Besson movies don’t feature interesting female characters, but they do tend to be impossibly glamorous ass-kicking babes.

So, anyway… Le Dernier Combat is an interesting movie, and you have to admire the invention that’s gone into it, but it’s very obviously the director’s first time doing this sort of thing. As you might expect, the story is a little slow and not very much happens, but it looks good and the storytelling is solid. Definitely an interesting movie for fans of low-fi SF and Besson himself.

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Only a visually-impaired person could look at the history of popular cinema over the last half-century and not notice the huge spike in the number of SF movies in the late 70s and early-to-mid 80s, courtesy of (need it even be said) George Lucas and his stellar conflict franchise. Many of these movies were hugely popular and quite accomplished in their own way – I’m thinking here of films like Alien, Flash Gordon, Moonraker, The Terminator, and so on.

However, what I think gets forgotten sometimes is that the big SF boom sort of obscures an equivalent spike in the number of fantasy films that were made at the same time (Lucas’ project being fantasy at least as much as SF, after all) – in some respects a more notable trend, as SF films had a fairly distinguished pedigree as a genre prior to 1977, while genuine fantasy films not aimed at children were much rarer. I know in the past I have occasionally expressed the opinion that the majority of ‘traditional’ fantasy films released before 2001 usually verged on the awful, but considering early-80s movies like Excalibur, Time Bandits, The Dark Crystal, and Krull… well, many of these films are not bad, to say the least. Also very much not bad is Matthew Robbins’ 1981 movie Dragonslayer, which I watched again recently for the first time in many years.

dragonslayer

Set in a conveniently vague region of Dark Age Europe, the story opens with supplicants arriving at the tower of the world’s last sorcerer, Ulrich of Craggenmoor (Ralph Richardson), begging for his help. The visitors are led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), who reveals that their home, the kingdom of Urland, has been ravaged by the ancient dragon Vermithrax Pejorative for decades. To placate the great worm, the king has instituted a policy where twice a year a virgin is selected by lot and sacrificed to the dragon. Feeling this is not satisfactory, not least because the wealthy have been quietly buying exemptions for their children, Valerian has led some of the common folk to ask for Ulrich’s help in killing the beast. (There’s a plot bit about Clarke having been raised as a boy in order to keep her from being subject to the lottery, but it’s not exactly central to the story, and as a twist it doesn’t quite come off – it’s quite obvious that Caitlin Clarke is a woman even before her revelatory nude scene).

Unfortunately, the villagers have been followed to Craggenmoor by Tyrian (John Hallam), a soldier of the king, and to the surprise of all involved he kills Ulrich before the journey even gets underway. However, Ulrich’s apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol), inherits his mystic powers, and promises to kill Vermithrax Pejorative himself…

The very least you can say for Dragonslayer is that it is solidly plotted, looks fantastic for most of its running time, and has a great supporting cast. You can forgive a certain degree of confusion on the part of the film-makers as to where exactly the film is set (there seems to be the implication that King Casiodorus is in some way Romano-British, which is rather at odds with other points suggesting an Irish setting), for there is a mostly quite authentic Dark Ages feel to the film. There’s also an interesting subtext to the film, which is essentially about the passing of magic from the world and the rise to dominance of a different kind of world-view: while initially happy to ask a sorcerer for help, by the conclusion of the film the villagers are all adopting the new faith of Christianity (an almost indecently young-looking pre-Palpatine Ian McDiarmid plays a missionary who meets a sticky end).

However, for this to really be effective, the contrast between the grimy quotidian mundanity of Dark Ages life and the fantasy elements of sorcery and the dragon would have to be somewhat better realised than it is here, and this is at least partly a question of special effects. Now, this is a 1981 movie, made using technology of that period, and I would still say that Vermithrax Pejorative is still one of the very best dragons in movie history, in terms of overall presentation – by which I mean it’s a beast of terror and mystery. It’s just that, well, the dragon’s big set pieces never quite grip or excite, although this may be down to the direction and editing as much as any shortfall in the effects. (It seems to me that Robbins’ handling of the dragon in the early part of this film was an influence on how Spielberg depicted the tyrannosaur in Jurassic Park, but that’s by the by.)

Some people have criticised this movie for having rather too much of a modern sensibility, at least in terms of its characterisation – the heroine is a bit too bolshy, the king rather too much of a politician, Tyrian too much of a brutal pragmatist – but I don’t think this is necessarily a problem, if you consider that the story is trying to subvert or undermine the traditional fairy-tale archetypes. If the film has problems in this department, they are two-fold – firstly, Ralph Richardson is the actor you really want to see, and he’s not in it enough (Richardson made a string of late-career appearances in genre movies, but never quite hit the jackpot in the same way as his peer Alec Guinness), and secondly… well, I’m not sure if this is a writing or a casting problem, but I’m talking about Peter MacNicol.

Peter MacNicol is one of those actors who is never less than interesting to watch, and of course he does eccentricity very well, but here he is called upon to play a character who in the course of the film is a young apprentice, a romantic lead, and an action hero, to name just three things. There’s plenty of opportunity here for the right actor to turn Galen into an unusually well-rounded fantasy hero, but unfortunately MacNicol is always just a bit too much of an odd little hobbit to really convince in the part. (Plus the romance between Galen and Valerian appears out of nowhere, between two characters who seem to have absolutely no chemistry together.)

Then again, it’s not entirely MacNicol’s fault – Galen and Valerian are somewhat sidelined during the climax, which promises the epic battle to the death between the world’s last sorcerer and its last dragon. That’s quite a big promise to make to an audience, the stuff of proper high fantasy, and whether it’s the gear-change from the decidedly low fantasy of the rest of the movie, or the limitations of 1981 technology, or the slightly laborious direction… it never enthralls or even really thrills you as it should, for the film to really deliver the ending it needs.

There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in Dragonslayer, but most of it is ambient, if not completely incidental: the real strengths of this film are its atmosphere and many other things all going on in the background. It has an interesting and smart take on one of the great mythic tales, but the problem is that when it really counts, it’s just not quite convincingly mythic enough.

 

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