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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

Long-term readers may recall that towards the end of last summer, the release of Pain and Glory and an accompanying season of revivals led to my discovering (at long last, some might say) the work of Pedro Almodovar. If there’s a flaw in Pain and Glory, it’s that it’s so rooted in the Almodovar canon that many of its subtleties aren’t apparent to the newcomer (at least, they weren’t to me at the time I saw it), but there’s very little at all wrong with All About My Mother, Talk to Her, or Bad Education, all of which were shown around the same time. I had a holiday booked in September, which meant I had to miss the screening of Volver, but looking on the bright side our trip did take us to places which still have DVD stores and I was able to pick up two boxed sets of Almodovar movies – not quite the complete collection, but most of the major works.

The challenge after such a purchase is finding the time to actually watch all the movies – I have a couple of box sets of Kurosawa movies I bought in 2012 I still haven’t watched all of – but I suppose one of the few advantages of the world being on pause is that one no longer has any serious excuse for not catching up on culture. For no particular reason, I decided to commence what could become an Almodovarathon with his 1987 movie Law of Desire (title en Espanol: La ley del deseo).

This is the movie which first brought Almodovar to wide international attention, although it is actually his sixth film. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise to discover that many elements of the now-recognisable Almodovar style are already present, if perhaps not quite fully developed: the mixture of provocative melodrama with suspense movie tropes, the blurring of the line between fact and fiction, the tendency towards outrageous plot developments.

Eusebio Poncela plays Pablo, a successful gay film director whose latest film has just been released (Law of Desire kicks off with a scene from the film-within-the-film, which appears to mainly be there to challenge the audience). Pablo is involved with a younger man, Juan (Miguel Molina), who isn’t sure he wants a serious relationship or not. They part, and Juan goes to spend his summer on the coast. Pablo devotes himself to working on his next project, a stage play to star his sister Tina (Carmen Maura), a transsexual.

While doing so he encounters Antonio (Antonio Banderas), a young man who initially seems a bit conflicted, to say the least. However, after spending the night with Pablo, Antonio becomes obsessed with him to the point of violent possessiveness…

It takes quite a while for this to become apparent, however: the film begins by looking very much like a ‘conventional’ drama about the life of a writer and film director and those around him (to the extent that any film directed by Almodovar can be described as conventional, anyway). Only gradually – but, it must be said, fairly comprehensively – does it slide into the realms of the suspense thriller. By the end, however, there has been a murder, a car crash, someone has been in hospital with a rather convenient case of amnesia, there has been some stalking, a hostage crisis, gunfire and a suicide.

Even then, however, deep in the third act Almodovar still finds time for a scene between Pablo and Tina which is obviously very significant: Pablo is in serious trouble by this point, but this does trigger what is clearly the first serious conversation he and his sister have had in many years. It almost goes without saying that the back-story Tina reveals (which is almost wholly incidental to the plot, if not her character) is far-fetched to the point of being completely ludicrous. As ever with Almodovar, you end up accepting it, though this is largely due to the strength of Carmen Maura’s performance – Maura’s character is one of the elements of the film which is most memorable, and even though she is really a secondary character, it almost functions as a character piece about her.

You would really expect it to be more about the character of Pablo, but he does remain an oddly passive presence at the centre of the story. Perhaps Law of Desire does have something to say about the ironies of attraction – Pablo pursues Juan, who isn’t sure if he wants him, and tries to reject Antonio, who is besotted with him – but this is left implicit; the film always seems to have other things on its mind. It’s not that Eusebio Poncela (resembling, to my mind, Graham Chapman in his later years) gives a particularly bad performance, but he is out-horsepowered by both Maura and Antonio Banderas.

Antonio Banderas is such an established face in Hollywood movies now that I suppose it’s quite possible to have followed his career reasonably closely and still not be aware that he rose to fame off the back of a string of fairly provocative movies made with Almodovar: possibly the closest Hollywood ever came to acknowledging this was in Philadelphia, where he was cast as Tom Hanks’ lover. Here, Banderas’ sheer charisma, coupled to the fact that he is a very handsome chap, means that you’re looking at him whenever he’s on the screen: it doesn’t hurt that his character is the main driver of the plot, either.

If you were watching Law of Desire as a ‘new’ movie, with no idea of its historical context, I imagine you would conclude that it’s a curious but mostly successful attempt at combining elements of drama and thriller: possibly also that it’s equally successful in including LGBT elements in a film which is still appealing to a mainstream audience. All of this obviously true – it’s only when you consider the heights to which Almodovar was later to take this kind of film that you become aware of the ways in which this one is not quite as deft or assured or as satisfying. Nevertheless, Almodovar himself says this is the most important film in his career, and given that historical context, you can see what he means.

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At times like this, with all the cinemas closed and all new releases cancelled, the big streaming sites virtually qualify as an emergency service for those of us who normally try to watch two or three movies a week. Oddly enough, though, I find myself drawn not to all the shiny new original films these guys have been making, but those older classics (or not) which have found a place in their libraries. (I did read a piece pointing out the sheer scarcity of films from before about 1980 on Netflix, the implication being that the site eventually wants us all to become consumers solely of its own product, in much the same way that Disney Plus is trying to make people forget any other studios exist – mind you, if you look at box office returns over the last few years, this seems to be happening anyway…)

To take my mind off what’s starting to look, for some angles. a bit like the popular conception of the apocalypse, I decided to revisit a somewhat offbeat take on the post-apocalypse, in the form of Thom Eberhardt’s Night of the Comet. I don’t think I’ve seen this movie in over thirty years – the BBC used to have a regular Sunday night slot called Moviedrome, where they would show a different cult film every week, and as you can probably imagine this had a major impact on my development as a cinema bore. I saw my first Kurosawa movie through the auspices of Moviedrome, not to mention The Terminator, The Man Who Fell to Earth, the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alphaville,  Assault on Precinct 13, and many others. Classics all – but they also showed things like Night of the Comet, which appeared in the strand (a little research has just revealed) in 1989.

Night of the Comet was originally released in 1984. A knowingly portentous voice-over kicks off proceedings, describing the approach towards our planet of a mysterious comet, which made its last visit 65 million years ago, right about the time the dinosaurs died out. What a coincidence… It’s not one which most people pay much heed to, gathering in the streets and parks in anticipation of a literally stellar display.

Not watching the celestial fireworks, however, is steely eighteen-year-old girl Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), as she has spent the night in the steel-lined projection room of a Los Angeles theatre with her kind-of boyfriend. Come the morning, he heads off on urgent business, only to be brained by a zombie with a wrench the moment he steps out of the building. Luckily, Reg’s dad is in the army and has taught her to deal with this kind of emergency, and she heads home, slowly realising something unexpected has occurred: piles of clothes filled with reddish dust litter the streets, and the sky is stained a baleful orange colour (‘Bad smog today’ is her first thought). Eventually she puts two and two together and realises that the comet’s radiation has disintegrated the vast majority of the population and turned everyone else into a homicidal zombie!

Well, not quite everybody else: in a credulity-bothering development, Reg’s sassy younger sister Samantha (Kelli Maroney) has also survived after spending the night in a steel garden shed. It takes a bit of persuading to make Sam realise the gravity of the situation, but eventually she wises up. The sound of DJ chatter on the radio gives the girls hope there are other survivors – but on arriving there, they find only automated equipment, broadcasting as usual. ‘Beam me up Scotty,’ says an impressed Sam.

Which is a decent cue for the appearance of truck driver Hector, given he is played by Robert Beltran (Beltran is best known for his stint in Star Trek, and the epically disgruntled interviews he would give about his lack of character development). Beltran gets top billing here, but doesn’t really deserve it. Hector also spent the night in a steel box (the back of his truck) and has had run-ins with the zombies. There is perhaps a little spark between Reg and Hector (rather to Sam’s chagrin), but before anything can develop, Hector announces he has to go and see if his mum has survived.

There is also a phone call to the station from a secret government installation who claim to be bringing survivors together – like you’d ever trust the government in this sort of situation. The head of the installation is played by Geoffrey Lewis, who is the closest thing to a mainstream movie star in this picture, while assisting him is Mary Woronov, who is both practical and stylish in boiler-suit and legwarmers. It turns out the boffins need to develop a cure for zombie-ism rather quickly (their shelter wasn’t completely steel-lined) and require the blood of bright young women to do so… Little realising the peril they are in, Sam and Reg decide to take things easy and do what any self-respecting California girl would do in this situation – load up with automatic weapons and hit the nearest shopping mall!

One of the main reasons for Night of the Comet‘s charm (which is considerable) is the way in which it shamelessly mashes together two notably dour pieces of SF to produce something much more tongue-in-cheek, even silly in places. The opening, with crowds gathering in anticipation of the show from the comet, and early reports of communication black-outs being ignored, is lifted almost beat-for-beat from John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, while the vision of an empty Los Angeles with lurking zombie-like survivors is likewise an obvious steal from The Omega Man (vide Richard Matheson, again). There are also nods to Dawn of the Dead, although to be honest the zombies remain a fairly minor element of the story, perhaps explaining why this film only received a PG-13 rating on its release, one of the first films to do so.

And yet the finished film feels like it really wants to be a comedy or spoof – a line of dialogue retains the original working title for the movie, Teenage Comet Zombies, which does feel like it would have been a better fit than the one they finished up with. I’ve always felt there was a largely-unrecognised movement of low-budget SF movies made in California in the early to mid 80s, and this is part of it – I’m thinking of movies like Trancers and Cherry 2000, as well, with The Terminator undoubtedly the most significant film to come out of this scene. As a rule they are clever, inventive, and witty, and to begin with this film is no exception, playing with its genre conventions with a knowing deftness and treating the viewer with intelligence.

The first act, until the point at which Reg and Sam meet up with Hector, barely puts a foot wrong, with the revelation of the aftereffects of the comet and the presentation of the silenced city being particularly well-done. It kind of loses focus and runs out of steam after this, though: the plot sort of ambles around for a bit, with various set-pieces going on, before pulling itself back together for a half-decent finale. The good lines are further apart and the contrivances of the plot somehow more obvious; Stewart and Maroney are good enough to make you wonder why they ended up becalmed in TV, but there are some very iffy performances further down the cast list.

The problem with the movie is that it’s just not funny enough to work as a full-on comedy or spoof, but the fact that it wants to be one means it is fatally lacking in heft in its dramatic moments – Eberhardt may have based his script on interviews with actual California teenagers, asking what they would do in the event of an apocalyptic crisis (‘go shopping’ was apparently the result – they only became concerned when he pointed out the problems involved in getting a date), but there’s still something very absurd about the sisters’ untroubled response to the catastrophe that has befallen the world. This is a fundamentally superficial film, and intentionally so, but that doesn’t mean there is not a considerable amount of entertainment value to be derived along the way.

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It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

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It’s easy to talk too much about cinema in rarefied terms of its themes and value as pure art, but I think it is important to remember that it also serves a valuable purpose by cheering people up when times are especially hard, as they are at the moment. The world feels like a tough old place at the moment. Will this rain never cease? It is enough to make one permanently miserable. This is before we even get to the ceaseless glare and noise from the giant billboards everywhere, or the perpetual whine of the cars zipping about overhead. It is no wonder that virtually anyone who can afford the fare and pass the medical is choosing the emigrate to one of the outer space colonies, even if they are stuffed with homicidal androids. At a time like this one has to get one’s pleasures where one can, such as in the form of a revival of Ridley Scott’s eerily accurate dystopian thriller Blade Runner, originally released in 1982.

The movie is set in present-day Los Angeles, shortly after a group of synthetic human beings – known as replicants – have illegally arrived on Earth. They appear to be trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, which originally created them, for reasons which are not immediately clear. The business of finding and eliminating replicants is entrusted to a special corps of investigators known, for no very obvious reason, as blade runners. The blade runner initially assigned to this case is murdered by one of the replicants at the start of the movie, and as a result jaded former blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford with an unflattering haircut) is essentially blackmailed into taking over.

Deckard’s investigation is made a little more complicated by an encounter with Rachael (Sean Young) a woman at the Tyrell Corporation’s HQ who eventually proves to be another replicant herself – just one who believes herself to be human. Is the distinction between natural and artificial humanity really as clear cut as his job requires him to believe? Rachael takes badly to the news of her true nature and drops out of sight, giving Deckard another target to locate. He ploughs on with the case regardless.

Meanwhile, the surviving replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), persist in trying to get to Tyrell himself. They have been constructed with a drastically limited lifespan and their time is almost up. Can they find of way of extending their existence before the blade runner catches up with them?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner – it must be at least three or four – and, to be honest, of all the different versions of the film that have been in circulation over the years. On this occasion we were treated to The Final Cut from 2007, which is one of the ones without Harrison Ford’s voice-over. This is obviously a film of significant cultural importance, and I have never watched it and come away thinking it was outright bad. But at the same time I’ve never quite been able to see what all the fuss is about. I know at least one person who says this is their favourite film of all time (I once encountered them smoking a very nervous cigarette outside the cinema as they waited for the sequel to start), but… it always leaves me oddly indifferent. I have struggled to have a strong opinion about it of any kind. Part of the reason I went to see this revival was the hope that encountering it on the big screen might help me to finally connect with it.

And did this happen? Well, not really. There was obviously some additional amusement value this time around, simply because the film’s vision of the future is (joking apart) so much at odds with how things have actually turned out – although it turns out it was spot on about all this rain we’ve been having lately. Overall, though, no matter which version I see, I always have the same response to Blade Runner, which is the same one I have to a lot of Ridley Scott films, especially the early ones: this is a director obsessed with the visual impact of his films, to the point where the actual narrative suffers badly.

I don’t deny that Blade Runner is one of the most visually and striking and dense films of its time, and very influential as a result of this – although, as I have noted in the past, all of these dystopian urban hell-scapes ultimately find their roots in Lang’s Metropolis. The screen is packed with fascinating incidental detail, rather as in the first couple of stellar conflict movies, but this being a Scott movie the camera is inclined to dwell on these vistas rather than treat them as a casual backdrop to the ongoing narrative. Impressive though the look of the film is, it still strikes me that some of the imagery is remarkably clumsy in its symbolism: the theological subtext of Roy’s quest to meet his maker is quite obvious before we get to the point where he starts inflicting stigmata upon himself, and the moment with the dove is about as subtle as a brick through a window.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making a very pretty film, as long as the pictures don’t start eclipsing the story. Arguably, here they do: the plot, on reflection, is remarkably thin, with Deckard in particular coming across as a rather drab and only borderline sympathetic (not to mention competent) individual. Ford does his best with the material, but Deckard does recede into the scenery a bit. It probably doesn’t help that the typically offbeat elements of the character from Philip K Dick’s original book have almost all been excised (in the novel, Deckard is unhappily married to a wife obsessed with acquiring robotic animals, which represent a status symbol in their society – he spends a lot of the novel worrying about whether the bounty he will get for killing Roy and the others will allow him to buy her the replicant sheep she has her heart set on).

As a result, the film is dominated by Rutger Hauer’s striking (and one might even say career-defining) performance as Roy. As he himself admits, this is a character who does some very questionable things, but he still comes across as a vivid, sympathetic individual, perhaps the only one in the film. As noted, the film’s focus on the visual and aesthetic elements means that its more philosophical ideas get rather neglected – a shame, as this is the very purest kind of SF, reflecting on what it really means to be human – but Hauer manages, almost single-handed, to make you think about this.

So, well, maybe I did see something in Blade Runner that I didn’t before. I must confess I am one of those people who always preferred the original version anyway – the voice-over by Ford gave the film a kind of identity as a Chandler-esque private eye pastiche, which I thought gave it a sense of identity and a level of accessibility it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise possess. As a piece of visual art, and in terms of its production design, this is obviously a hugely successful and important film. But as a conventional drama it frequently feels underpowered and rather hollow; the surface detail is remarkable but beneath it there is a distinct lack of substance.

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The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

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One major religion tells us that when we die, we are summoned before a senior spiritual personage and asked to justify our existence – what did we contribute to the common good? Did we leave the world a better place than we found it? The cynical suggest that this is just a myth made up to encourage the oppressed and down-trodden to lead lives of dubious virtue, keeping their noses clean and generally being obedient in the hope of receiving a reward in the next life.

The question, of course, is one of how you justify your existence, and surely this doesn’t just apply to people. The simple and reductive answer, as far as films go anyway, is to say that a film’s purpose is to make money for its producers. I’m not so sure about that. Possibly my prejudices are showing but I don’t think the fact that the various Transformers films have added umpty-tump million dollars to the bank accounts of their makers comes close to making up for all the misery and horror they are responsible for. Conversely, though – could it be possible for a film not to do all that well at the box office yet still have made a worthwhile contribution to the sum total of human happiness, irrespective of how good it is?

Which basically brings us to John McTiernan’s 1986 film Nomads, one which seems to be promising a lot but ends up delivering… Well. The film is set in Los Angeles, where we initially encounter young ER doctor Eileen Flax (Lesley-Ann Down), recently moved to the city. In the ward one night she meets another new arrival, Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), although this is not immediately apparent, mainly because Pommier is a frothing, raving nutcase, who whispers in a mysteriously French manner in her ear before trying to bite her and then dropping dead. Zut alors.

Well, Flax is bemused by Pommier’s case, learning he was a distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist who recently settled in LA to teach in a university there. So what’s he doing turning up in ER, off his head and about to cark it? The answers, when they come, mainly take the form of strange visions which afflict Flax, allowing her to relive Pommier’s last few days and the strange mystery he uncovered that ultimately led to his death.

As everyone knows, you can’t trust estate agents and the house Pommier and his wife (Anna-Maria Monticelli) have bought was previously the scene of a horrific murder. As a result it seems to have become something of a magnet for the local weirdos, who dress like punks and goths and drive around in a big black van, never stopping anywhere for long. (One of them is played by Adam Ant, another by the cult actress Mary Woronov.) In the flashback, Pommier becomes fascinated by them (not, it must be said, for any particularly compelling reason) and ends up following them around the city. He witnesses them casually committing a murder and various other antisocial acts, and is disturbed to discover they don’t show up on film when he attempts to photograph them.

The answer is logical and obvious – it’s the 80s! They’re punks! They drive around in a van! They don’t photograph! They’re obviously vampires! Reader, mais non. (Although this might have been a better film were the answer mais oui.) Pommier eventually figures out, with the aid of a handy exposition-nun, that the gang of weirdos are actually evil Eskimo desert-spirits, infesting Los Angeles. Well, of course they are. It turns out you can have an Eskimo desert-spirit, you just have to be a bit flexible with your definition of a desert. And a spirit. And possibly an Eskimo.

The problem is that Pommier has now attracted the attention of the evil spirits (known as Einwetok, apparently), they are keen to claim his soul in order to maintain the secret of their existence. Can he and his wife escape them? (Anyone who’s been paying attention should already know the answer.) And will Flax’s own investigation imperil her life?

Nomads is, it must be said, a not especially good and honestly rather silly film, but it is clearly a second cousin to rather more impressive fare – it’s not a million miles away from other 80s fantasy-horror films, especially those with a James Cameron connection. There are various elements of this film which do recall The Terminator and especially Near Dark, even though it’s not anywhere close to the same standard. Elsewhere, it does incorporate all the things you would associate with a certain kind of laboriously stylish 80s movie – heavy use of drum machines and synth music, and indiscriminate slo-mo when you’re not expecting it.

All this, of course, is less noticeable to the average viewer than the fact that the film stars a fairly young Pierce Brosnan (this was his first lead movie role), playing a Frenchman. It is not entirely clear why McTiernan decided to make his protagonist French, but it certainly gives Brosnan a chance to have a go at an allo-mon-amee-ah-am-from-Paree accent. Now, I like Pierce Brosnan a lot; he was a very good James Bond and I find him to be a very likeable screen presence in general. But he does a convincing French accent about as well as he can sing. (And one has to wonder why the two French characters appear to spend most of their time speaking English to each other.) It is quite hard to get past the accent and assess the rest of the performance (one notes Brosnan was still young and keen enough to say yes to a nude scene, though it is tactfully lit and framed).

He kind of drops out of sight in the closing stages of the film, anyway, as the focus of the story switches more to Flax and Pommier’s widow. Again, one has to wonder what the merit is of the rather complicated flashback structure which McTiernan has opted to give the film – it doesn’t seem to be contributing much, cluttering the narrative rather than deepening it. I suppose it does enable the final twist of the movie (although this is using the word ‘twist’ very generously), but I’m not sure this is enough.

Nomads starts off showing signs of promise but unravels into incoherent silliness long before the end. You have to admire its attempts to be a gore-free piece of stylish, atmospheric horror-fantasy, but it just ends up being bemusing; it’s certainly not frightening in any way. Nor is it quite bad enough to be a fun slice of shlock. However – it got Pierce Brosnan started in movies, and that’s no bad thing, and apparently Arnie was sufficiently impressed by it to hire John McTiernan to  direct Predator (which in turn led to him doing Die Hard and other rather distinguished films). So while this may be a bad movie, it did eventually lead to some rather good ones.

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It is, obviously, much easier to make a good film worse than to make a bad film better, but that doesn’t mean the degradation process is never without points of interest. In the past we have discussed the phenomenon of the ‘American edit’, in which a foreign movie (usually something fairly disreputable to begin with) was sold to the States and had new scenes added with Caucasian performers to make it a bit more appealing to the supposedly xenophobic folks of the Land of the Free. I always think of this as a phenomenon from the 1950s and 1960s, but it did linger on much later – the late-90s remake of Yonggary was heavily re-worked and released in the US as Reptilian, for example. A bit earlier than this, the world was troubled by R.J. Kizer and Koji Hashimoto’s Godzilla 1985 (I will leave you to guess what exact year saw this film released).

This is the American edit of a Japanese film known either as The Return of Godzilla or Godzilla 1984, the fifteenth film in the unstoppable franchise. It is somewhat notable for being the first Godzilla movie following a nine year gap in production, following Terror of Mechagodzilla, and was characterised by a conscious attempt to lose some of the more campy elements that had overtaken the series as it had progressed, with a return to a more antagonistic Godzilla and no monster tag-wrestling. Sounds hopeful, doesn’t it? Well, Constant Reader, I have The Return of Godzilla on VHS somewhere and all I can say is ‘Fine in theory’, for while the film’s attempts to be serious are laudable, it has a somewhat sluggish plot and struggles to find itself a decent climax (this seems to be a flaw in all Godzilla movies which don’t have another monster in them for him to fight, and – if we’re honest – even some that do). Nevertheless, for all of The Return of Godzilla‘s flaws, it’s still superior to Godzilla 1985.

Just as The Return of Godzilla is a direct sequel to the 1954 Godzilla, ignoring the intervening fourteen films, so Godzilla 1985 is a sequel to Godzilla, King of the Monsters! – not the current-at-time-of-writing, rather fun movie with Charles Dance and Ken Watanabe, but the 1956 American edit of the 1954 film. Now, this is a movie I haven’t seen, but it seems like the main difference to the original – at least, the only one anybody talks about – is the addition of scenes in which Raymond Burr, playing an American foreign correspondent in Tokyo, occasionally looks out of the window and shouts ‘It’s a monster!’ down the telephone. Burr’s character, quite reasonably in 1956, is named Steve Martin.

Godzilla 1985 opens very much like its progenitor, with a fishing boat caught in a storm at sea. Finding themselves almost forced onto the rocks of  a bleak and remote island, the crew are naturally alarmed when the island starts to break apart, letting out a familiar roar as it does so. Half a world away, Raymond Burr wakes up with the bleak stare of a man who has seen something dreadful. Probably the script for the rest of his scenes in this movie.

Well, next we meet square-jawed young journalist Goro (Ken Tanaka), who happens to be the one to find the missing trawler. One might very well ask what the air-sea rescue services are doing, but not if one is familiar with the plotting in this sort of movie. Goro goes on board and finds most of the crew are dead and look rather dessicated – he is attacked by a gribbly giant insect (the culprit) but rescued by a lone survivor (Shin Takuma), who tells him of the ship’s encounter with Godzilla. (Godzilla 1985 never bothers explaining what the gribbly insect is; in the original it is revealed that this is a mutant sea louse which is normally a parasite on Godzilla’s skin.)

The Prime Minister of Japan is duly informed that Godzilla has returned; exactly where he has returned from, and how, is not really discussed (beyond the suggestion, late on in the film, that the first Godzilla’s body was never recovered). His aide hopefully suggests that there is no reason to think Godzilla will attack Japan again – clearly another man unfamiliar with this kind of film. Meanwhile, Goro’s story on Godzilla is being suppressed by the authorities, and he is sent off to interview a brilliant but conflicted scientist who is an expert on the monster. Who should he find working in the scientist’s office but the sister of the survivor (Naoko Sawaguchi)? Never knowingly underplotted, these films. Needless to say he ticks off the government by informing her of her bro’s whereabouts.

Thankfully, the plot progresses as Godzilla is taken hungry and proceeds to snack on a Soviet nuclear submarine in the ocean off the coast of Japan. This raises international tensions, as you might expect, and the Pentagon take an interest. This makes a change from their usual interest, which seems to be in caramel-flavoured carbonated soft drinks, judging from how prominent the products of the Dr Pepper corporation are, in and around the Pentagon’s rooms and corridors – we are definitely in the realm of the preposterous when it comes to the product placement in this movie. The top brass decide to call in the only American witness to the first Godzilla’s rampage in 1956, a man known only as… Martin.

Enter Raymond Burr, looking grave. Hello, he says, my name’s Martin. Is that your first name or your surname, Martin? would be the logical question. But no. Clearly not wanting to raise the awkward issue of him having the same name as a white-haired banjo-playing comedian, the Pentagon adopts a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy as to what Steve Martin’s first name actually is (he’s even listed in the end credit as Steven Martin), and together the senior staff and he proceed to… well, blather a lot.

Godzilla eats a nuclear power plant? They blather about it. He pops up in Tokyo bay and shrugs off the usual efforts of the JSDF? Blather. The Japanese deploy their new weapon, the Super X flying tank, equipped with cadmium missiles to neutralise Godzilla’s nuclear metabolism? Blather. They do nothing that actually impacts on events back in Japan, mainly because these scenes were shot a year after the rest of the film was finished.

The one exception to this is when the captain of a Russian ship, damaged by Godzilla when he appears near Tokyo harbour, triggers the launch of a nuclear missile from a Soviet weapons satellite, thus threatening all of Tokyo with obliteration. The Americans heroically intercept the Russian nuke with one of their own. The thing is, that in the original film the Russian missile is fired by accident, and this version has been re-edited to make the Russians into bad guys. It is a rather clumsy hack of the plot to make the film more consonant with Reagan-era values, and still doesn’t quite mesh with the consistently anti-nuclear weapons, anti-superpower stance of the Japanese version – for once, the Japanese actually manage to put Godzilla down, but the radiation from the exploding missiles over Tokyo revive him in time for the final act of the movie.

It isn’t even as if The Return of Godzilla is a movie which can easily absorb this sort of jiggery-pokery, for, as mentioned, it is a clumsy beast it its own right – although perhaps not quite as clumsy as its star, for the wobble-headed Godzilla in this movie shows every sign of having been at the sake. There are some quite impressive scenes of Japanese tanks, planes, artillery and laser cannon taking their usual ineffectual pop at Godzilla, and the battle with the Super X would work well as a supporting set piece – but overall the film feels sluggish, and while its method of actually getting rid of Godzilla is inventive, the climax is very flat indeed. You can see why New World Pictures (architects of the US edit) planned to play up the campy elements of the story, but apparently Raymond Burr refused, feeling it was important to preserve the seriousness of the central metaphor of the Godzilla story.

Well, an admirable stand, but I can’t help thinking that the best way to preserve the integrity of this story would be not have made the American edit in the first place. If you want to watch a version of this film, watch the Japanese one first: The Return of Godzilla shares this along with its illustrious forebear, even if it lacks most of its other qualities.

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