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Posts Tagged ‘1980s’

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.

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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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As usual, the film companies have taken pity and not bothered to release any big movies over the Christmas period, thus allowing us a little bit longer to consider the finer works of some of the people who have left this dimension in the last twelve months. Having recently doffed my figurative cap to the late Peter Vaughan, how else could one follow this but by adhering strictly to alphabetical order and paying a small but not unattractively formed tribute to another of the year’s more notable departees, Mr Robert Vaughn?

Vaughn split his career between cinema and TV before it was really acceptable, with plenty of famous movies and iconic TV shows on his CV: The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt, The Towering Inferno, Superman III, The Man from UNCLE, The A-Team, Hustle… However, if we’re short of one thing at this time of year, then it’s surely knockabout late-70s-influenced space opera, and so in remembrance of Mr Vaughn I thought we might cast our minds back and consider Jimmy Murakami’s 1980 movie Battle Beyond The Stars.

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Our story takes place a long time in the future, in a galaxy quite a long way away, where the peaceful natives of the planet Akir find themselves being hassled by interstellar despot Sador of the Malmori (John Saxon) and his mutant raider henchmen. Being a despot with a well-organised schedule, Sador informs the Akira that he will be back in a week to conquer their planet, as he has some other tyrannising to do in the meantime. Cue concerned discussions amongst the Akira, and the decision to send bold young fellow Shad (Richard Thomas) off in their one and only spaceship to recruit some mercenaries to help defend the village – sorry, I mean planet…

Is this sounding a bit familiar, plot-wise? Well, it should, because… hmmm. Firstly, we should take a moment to pay tribute to the wisdom of producer Roger Corman and screenwriter John Sayles. Corman is a legendary figure in the low-budget exploitation movie business, but justly admired for his willingness to leave his writers and directors alone as long as their films hit the requisite quotas of whatever exploitation ingredients he was after. Hence, they are quite often much more interesting movies than you might expect, and some very distinguished people started their careers working on Corman movies (as we shall see). It was this policy that allowed Sayles to write a script which is much more inventive and knowing than could easily have been the case.

You couldn’t turn round in a cinema in the late 70s without falling over a homage/rip-off clearly inspired by a George Lucas stellar conflict project (how far we have come since then), and the question was obviously one of how to make Battle Beyond The Stars distinctive and less obviously a rip-off. Sayles hit upon the solution of diverting everyone’s attention by making it an equally blatant rip-off of another, equally famous film, The Magnificent Seven. It would be lazy critical shorthand to describe Battle Beyond The Stars as The Magnificent Seven in Space. But it would also be perfectly true.

The real cleverness of this ploy, if you ask me, is that it means the movie is essentially remaking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai again, and quite apart from the fact that this is almost never a bad idea, it puts this film on a much more level pegging with that other stellar conflict movie which we’re being quite careful not to name, for that itself was famously inspired by another Kurosawa film, Hidden Fortress. Sayles clearly knows exactly what he’s doing – as well as various tips of the hat to The Magnificent Seven, the script references elements of Seven Samurai which didn’t make it into the 1960 remake (plus, of course, the villagers in peril are called Akira).

Chief amongst the loving little references is, of course, the presence of Robert Vaughn as Gelt, the most experienced and lethal of the mercenaries gathered to defend the Akira. It’s not exactly a reprise of his role as Lee from The Magnificent Seven, but it’s close enough, and if Vaughn found appearing in a low-budget SF B-movie in any way beneath him, you can’t tell that from his performance, which is immaculate. Elsewhere the film looks a little further afield, and isn’t afraid to go properly SF on the audience: apart from Shad and his techie love interest (Darlanne Fluegel), the team includes Gelt, a wise-cracking trucker called Space Cowboy, a cloned telepathic hive-mind entity, Cayman the space-whaling slaver lizard, two dwarves who communicate through manipulating the local temperature, and a warrior woman called Saint-Exmin. It’s a toss up whether the characters are any more of a mixed bag than the cast assembled to play them, which includes one of The Waltons, two bona fide movie stars in Vaughn and George Peppard, Morgan Woodward (probably best known for playing a nutty Federation captain in an episode of Star Trek only I seem to like), a handful of anonymous character actors, and Sybil Danning, an actress who started her career appearing in, erm, specialist films for German gentlemen. (When this movie got a UK release I distinctly recall Danning doing the publicity circuit to promote it, which must have been the only time anyone from The Long Swift Sword of Siegfried turned up on Saturday morning kids’ TV.)

Battle Beyond The Stars arguably surpasses many of its late 70s brethren in its imagination and its capacity to build some of its SF ideas into the plot, rather than just treating them as set dressing: the various alien powers of the hive-mind and the thermal dwarves do end up influencing the action, one way or another. Being only 100 minutes or so long means that the film never has time to get stale or particularly repetitive; it may not all quite be killer, but there’s certainly no filler – there is a consistently high level of inventiveness and wit that makes it easy to overlook the obviously very low budget. The ebullient score is another major plus – one of the very first works of James Horner, later to go on to score two of the better Star Trek movies and Krull (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar).

In fact, the only thing that keeps this film from being a real gem is the slightly ropey nature of the special effects, primarily the space battles. Now, some of the ship designs are interesting and most of the models are okay, but the special effects people responsible just don’t have the technical capacity to put more than one spaceship in any given shot, which is a bit of a problem in any film with as many space dogfights as this one: it’s the equivalent of trying to film a drama with the camera locked in a static medium shot. The rest of the film is good enough for this not to completely torpedo it, and given that the special effects guy involved was James Cameron, later to direct The Terminator and Aliens (plus, if you really must, Titanic and Avatar), we must assume he was doing the best he could.

A lot of homaging and ripping-off has gone on over the past nearly-forty years since George Lucas had his bright idea; it continues to this day and shows no signs of stopping. The quality of the results has frankly been rather variable, with actual possession of the rights apparently no guarantee of a good movie being the end result. Battle Beyond The Stars gets much closer than many better-resourced movies to capturing the same imagination and free-wheeling sense of fun that Lucas did in his original films: this is the movie that deserved the big budget, all-star remake, not The Magnificent Seven (which they got right the first time round anyway). One would have thought James Cameron would have felt some obligation… but no, apparently not. Oh well: nothing can change the fact that this is a great little movie, and a fine showcase for everyone involved. Except James Cameron, obviously.

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Whatever else you want to say about 2016, and let’s face it you’re not exactly short of raw material, it has been a bumper year for the Death of Celebrities: the glitter-spangled reaper got going very early on with David Bowie and Alan Rickman, then never stopped to draw breath (appropriately enough): Terry Wogan, Ronnie Corbett, Victoria Wood, Prince, Muhammad Ali, Gene Wilder, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn… if you sat down and tried to do justice to everyone who shuffled off this year, you’d be overwhelmed. So perhaps best to just pick a couple and at least do that much properly.

So, then: a film co-starring the always-memorable Peter Vaughan, whose notices tended to focus on his roles in Porridge and Musical Chairs, when of course he was in so much more. Including something which is quite possibly my favourite specifically Christmassy film of all time (stop complaining, of course it’s not too early to do a Christmassy bit, they’ve been showing Christmas films non-stop on Channel 5 for the last fortnight) – Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.

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Brazil is about bureaucracy, tyranny, paranoia, despair, and madness, amongst other things, which may be why it does not typically feature higher when lists of the great Yuletide films are drawn up – but then it’s a film which seems to drift in and out of public awareness with the passing of time. It was released in 1985, but I don’t think I was even aware it existed until trailers started showing for it ahead of its TV debut at Easter 1988 – which, to be fair, was accompanied by some fanfare from the BBC. I remember that the trailers themselves were like nothing else on TV, even in the late 80s: monolithic skyscrapers erupting out of an idyllic country landscape towards a winged figure, a trick perspective shot where an enormous tramp’s face looms into view over a set of cooling towers, striking retro-40s design…

I made an extremely specific point of watching it, of course, for something so very different hardly ever came along, and I was very impressed by the atmosphere and imagery of the film even if the story didn’t seem quite to hang together. Impressed enough to watch it again the next time it was on a couple of years later (by this point everyone seemed to have decided it was a cult classic, whatever that means, as it was showing as part of Moviedrome), this time I managed to keep myself from getting too distracted by the art direction, realised what it was all about and promptly awarded it a spot on my all-time favourites list, which it has retained ever since.

So what exactly is it all about? Well, Brazil is, I suppose, essentially a grotesque, non-naturalistic fantasy about the horrors of life in the 20th century: but a strange, amalgamated 20th century, where computers and drones and automation exist, but the microchip hasn’t been invented (everything seems to function using valves), where baseball caps and overalls are worn alongside fedoras and suits. A faceless government, basically embodied by a labyrinthine bureaucracy, is doing battle with terrorists (apparently), and is quite prepared to brutalise its own citizens to do so.

Trying his best to ignore all this is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a lowly clerk in the records department, who to the despair of friends and family is doing his best to disappear – not trying for promotion, not trying to distinguish himself, just live a quiet life where can find escape in his dreams and the beautiful woman he fantasises about there. However, events conspire to force him across the path of the exact lookalike of the object of his affections (Kim Greist), and his increasingly desperate efforts to first find and then protect her lead to the destruction of his quiet little life…

A peculiar kind of nostalgia is part of the rich mixture of elements that makes up Brazil, but even so, watching it now one is reminded that thirty years ago, not only was the British film industry willing to mount a challenging, big budget fantasy film for grown-ups, but that Terry Gilliam could actually get a gig directing it. Neither of these things could happen today: I for one found it bitterly ironic that one of the Harry Potter films included a homage to Brazil, when the studio had rejected JK Rowling’s choice of Gilliam as the director of the first film in the series, due to his perceived unreliability.

Still, the 80s were a different time, I suppose: Python had been a going concern very recently, and you can perhaps detect attempts to position this film to appeal to an audience expecting the same kind of thing – most obviously, the presence of Michael Palin, cast firmly against type and giving quite probably the performance of his career as an utterly immoral government torturer. There’s also a tendency towards the surreal, not to mention a lot of extreme black comedy. The actual jokes included in the script tend to be less successful, however, and sometimes come across as a little bit affected.

The gags do feel like a bit of a sop to audience expectations, anyway, as for all that this film has a remarkable cast of character actors noted for their comic ability – apart from Palin, there’s Ian Holm, Ian Richardson, Jim Broadbent, Bob Hoskins, and of course Peter Vaughan himself – it’s clearly dealing with quite serious and indeed very nearly heavy topics. Like many British films of its time, it’s almost impossible to look at Brazil now and not conclude that it is on some level about Britain under Margaret Thatcher – not that the film has a particular political message to promote, unless it is that every system crushes somebody.

In the end what sticks with you is the extraordinarily vivid and coherent visual world that Gilliam creates for the film – like others before him, he appears to have realised that nothing dates quicker than attempts to predict the future, and quite sensibly has hasn’t even tried. It’s somewhat confounding that such an obviously stylised, abstracted world can seem so real while you’re watching it, but it does, simply because of how thought-through it all seems. No wonder the story can sometimes feel like it gets a bit lost amongst all the production designs.

Brazil is explicitly set ‘somewhere in the 20th century’ and does seem to be both a homage and a reaction to the great 20th century dystopian satires (one working title was apparently 1984 and a Half). And yet, particularly after the 2016 we’ve just lived through, it still feels like a very timely film for the 21st century too: the urge to retreat into fantasy and abandon the real world entirely is as strong as it ever was for many people, or so I would imagine. The film itself suggests that this may be the only real means of escape, although whether it actually encourages it is another question. Brazil may look surreal and peculiar, but it is at heart a serious film about a serious world, and one which looks every bit as impressive and relevant now as it did three decades ago.

 

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Everyone has a comfort zone, and I suppose they’re entitled to it: it’s part of human nature to simply want to relax and take it easy sometimes. This is as true of film-makers as anyone else, if not moreso. Indeed, if we consider a field considering so many specialists of different flavours, in a way it’s more than usually commendable to be one of those individuals who’s willing to push their creative boundaries once in a while.

Most people, inasmuch they’re aware of the massive bulk of the Woody Allen back catalogue, would probably tend to peg his films as primarily contemporary and metropolitan, before going on (if they were especially well versed) to make a few well-chosen comments about the common motifs and themes of his various films: nice guys often finish last, it’s often completely acceptable and normal for fantastically attractive young women to get into relationships with physically unremarkable but very cultured (much) older men, there’s always time for a discussion about existentialism, and so on. And this is generally true. However, it does overlook the sheer range of settings and genres he has covered in his movies – he’s done rather accomplished sci-fi, historical pastiche, mockumentary, thriller, broad comedy, a (fairly dire) musical, and many other things, and it’s fair to say that some of his most successful films come from amongst these excursions into parts unfamiliar. Historical fantasy seems to be a particularly rewarding seam for Allen: his last really big hit, Midnight in Paris, was arguably in this genre, as is one of the best films from the middle period of his career, 1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.

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Purple Rose is set during the Great Depression (pedants would insist no earlier than the second half of 1935, though this is really the wrong kind of film to break out that sort of attitude for) and focuses on Cecilia (Mia Farrow), an unhappily-married and rather incompetent waitress working in New Jersey. (Allen himself stays behind the camera for this film, though it does hail from the period when he was more often found acting in his movies than not.) Her job is chaotic and her home life (married to Danny Aiello’s unemployed, unfaithful jerk) is miserable. All her pleasure comes from visiting the local movie house, which she does over and over again.

Well, basically things go from bad to worse, and when she’s actually sacked she virtually takes up residence in the cinema, watching one particular escapist romance, The Purple Rose of Cairo, numerous times back-to-back (you could still do that in British cinemas when I was a lad). Eventually, partway through the film, Tom (Jeff Daniels), a supporting character, starts addressing her directly about her obvious love of it. Moments later he walks out of the film and into the ‘real world’ in order to talk to her more directly…

Pictures, statues, and so on coming to life have been a bit of a staple of romantic fantasy since the genre began, but normally the existence of the fantasy lover – or at least their true nature – remains a special secret of the film’s protagonist. What makes The Purple Rose of Cairo so distinctive and indeed powers the film along to some extent is the way in which it absurdly and systematically undermines this convention: everybody notices it when Tom walks out of the film.

People in the theatre audience scream and faint. The other characters in the film are outraged and yell at him to come back, because they can’t finish the scene without him. The theatre owners place angry telegrams to the film studio in California, insisting they keep better control of their characters – and the spectre looms of other iterations of Tom leaving different showings of the film. As things threaten to spiral out of control, the studio sends Gil, the actor who played Tom in the film (Daniels again, naturally) to go and reason with him and get him back into the picture somehow so things can begin to get back to normal. But will Gil prove susceptible to Cecilia’s charms as well?

As you can probably tell, something by one of the Russians this is not, but as a (fairly) extended piece of whimsical drollery it is really very charming, as Allen grabs a ridiculous idea and pursues it towards a number of logical conclusions. I have to say that the central love triangle between Farrow and the two Jeff Danielses didn’t much grab me, not because Daniels is ever less than solidly watchable, but because I usually find Mia Farrow to be a less than captivating screen presence and this film is no exception. (Plus, there’s a scene where she has to fake playing the ukulele, and I have to say it’s the worst fake-uke-playing I’ve ever come across.) Indeed, I’m almost tempted to suggest that the real joy of this film is in all the incidental jokes and dialogue happening around the periphery of the main story – Tom wanders into a brothel and is utterly bemused (brothels don’t exist in film world in the 30s, naturally), while the maitre d’ of a restaurant in the film, upon learning he’s no longer obligated to keep acting out the role prescribed for him, instantly reinvents himself as a flamboyant tap dancing star.

Not quite, though, because the nature of that central relationship (one woman and two versions of the same man – one real, one fictional) is a perfect metaphor for Allen to consider the complex relationship between reality and fantasy and what we really want in our lives. Is it better to try and live in the real world, or escape from it into some fictional paradise? The standard Hollywood answer would probably be the former, naturally, but Allen is daring enough not to stick quite so closely to the approved answer. He even goes further and gives his frothy, silly fantasy one of the most painfully downbeat endings of any of his films – though again it’s not quite as simple as that, and the film has one final moment of transcendent joy to offer, courtesy of Astaire and Rogers (Fred is thanked for his assistance in the closing credits). In the end, the film doesn’t offer a simple or easy message – life will hurt, it seems to assure us, but look on the bright side: going to the movies can take the edge off this.

Woody Allen is such a noted misery these days that even such a qualified note of positivity feels like a great revelation, and this is probably one of his most likable films, as well as playing to his strengths as an absurdist playwright and a lover of nostalgia. The Purple Rose of Cairo  may be a very slight movie (rather less than 90 minutes long), but it’s overflowing with ideas and jokes and never less than a pleasure to watch. It’s as good an argument for a director staying well out of his perceived comfort zone as any that I can remember, and definitely one of his best films.

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Hey, kids, kidnapping people is wrong. I feel obliged to make this clear right from the start, just in case it seems like I might be endorsing the practice later on. Wow, this particular piece of nonsense has taken a wacky turn right from the start, you may be thinking. Stay with me, friends; stay with me.

People sometimes very casually talk about ‘crimes against cinema’ – the Daily Mail‘s pet critic said that about Kick-Ass, and was then cyber-bullied about it, for instance – and every once in a while, unfortunate on-set events result in a court case being brought, usually against producers who have managed to kill one or more of their employees. But for a movie to be the product of criminal activities? That’s still quite unusual, I think.

Which brings us to Shin Sang-Ok’s Pulgasari, released in 1985. This was a necessarily narrow release, given the movie was made in North Korea, and represents – to my knowledge at least – the DPRK’s sole entry into the giant monster fantasy genre. (Convenient shorthand for Pulgasari is that it’s ‘the North Korean communist version of Godzilla produced by Kim Jong-il’.) It gets weirder and weirder, doesn’t it? And we’re not even onto the synopsis.

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To be honest, the story-behind-the-story is probably more gripping: in 1978 the director and his wife (a noted actress) were literally kidnapped by members of North Korean intelligence, whisked off to Pyongyang, and forced to make propaganda movies by the film-loving ‘dear leader’, not that he was actually in charge at the time. This was part of a systematic scheme by the North Koreans to forcibly recruit talented artists to their cause, although if Pulgasari is a typical representative of this program’s results, I would say the DPRK really needn’t have bothered.

The story unfolds in medieval Korea where honest, hard-working farmers suffer under the oppressive rule of their cruel masters. (You can perhaps already see where this is going.) Bandits are threatening the entrenched system of control and so the local governor recruits the beloved blacksmith (Gwon Ri) from a small village to make more weapons for him to fight them, even though this means melting down all the farming tools people need to survive. He refuses and goes on hunger-strike, and when his horrified family throw rice into his cell, all he does is mould it into the shape of a tiny monster and pray that his sacrifice, at the end of a life of virtue, will not go unnoticed by the gods.

Well, anyway, the blacksmith snuffs it and sortly afterwards the tiny monster, nicknamed Pulgasari after a mythical Korean beast, accidentally has a drop of blood splashed on it by his grieving daughter, Ami (Chang Son Hui). Lo and behold, Pulgasari comes to life. He may be small but he has a hearty appetite – even if he is a fussy eater. Yes, Pulgasari only eats metal, starting off with the contents of his mistress’ sewing box, then moving on to the bolts on the nearest door, and so on.

Meanwhile, the oppression of the decent farmers continues, with Ami’s cousin, the magnificently-mulleted rebel leader Inde (Ham Gi Sop), due for the chop. As luck would have it, however, Inde is saved when Pulgasari pops up in the nick of time and eats the executioner’s sword. A full-scale uprising results, with the evil king dispatching his top general to put down the farmers once and for all. But can he deal with the rapidly-growing monster that marches with them?

As you may have been able to gather, Pulgasari is a fairly weird movie, even by the standards of the kaiju genre (which it surely qualifies for, even if it isn’t strictly Japanese). The period setting, if nothing else, marks it out as being a bit different. To be honest, even without the monster, this wouldn’t really work as a stirring historical epic as the production values are just too low: I know we all keep reading in the news about how backward North Korea is and how low the quality of life has dropped, but watching Pulgasari you do get a real sense of this. It looks like an episode of Monkey, although the special effects probably aren’t as accomplished, and – it’s hard to say why – has more the feel of something made in the late 1960s than a product of what was, in the west, the Reagan-Thatcher era.

Then again, we’re dealing with a film which is the product of a totally different ethos. Actually, describing Pulgasari as ‘the North Korean Godzilla‘ is simultaneously spot-on accurate and rather misleading: because the monster effects which are central to proceedings were not the work of North Koreans alone, but made with the participation of the effects guys from Toho in Japan (this movie is roughly contemporaneous with The Return of Godzilla, which is a bit more technically accomplished). The guy in the Pulgasari suit is Ken Satsuma, a long-time and distinguished Godzilla suit actor, so the two monsters are, to say the least, brothers under the skin. (Pulgasari does look rather like Godzilla with all his dorsal plates removed and bull’s horns added.)

Now, you may be thinking that Pulgasari is bound to turn out to be a crushingly simplistic and obvious piece of old-fashioned communist propaganda. To some extent this is true, for all the human characters are there solely to serve a story of united workers overthrowing evil bosses, and most of the non-monster scenes have a rather laborious quality, as though the film is going slightly slowly just to ensure we understand the message. But as far as the central metaphor is concerned, Pulgasari is slightly more oblique.

The key thing is that Pulgasari himself is not the bad guy, the king is: the monster is sympathetic virtually throughout. Only at the very end of the film does it become apparent that his ever-increasing appetite for metal is bound to become a source of conflict and that the world will be a better place without him. It’s very hard not to draw the conclusion that the permanently-hungry, ever-growing beast is a metaphor for consumerism. But you would expect the DPRK government to be unequivocally down on that, whereas the movie implies it has a central role to play in creating a fairer society. The trick is to know when to get rid of your monster, apparently. It’s an unexpectedly subtle element of a film which isn’t really understated in any other respect, and sets up one of the most downbeat conclusions to any kaiju movie.

Shin Sang-Ok’s own tale had a slightly happier ending, as he and his wife were able to give their security detail the slip and escape to Austria the following year, and I believe the director has since disowned Pulgasari, as you would in the circumstances. That said, it’s not the hilariously bad piece of agitprop you might be expecting, nor even particularly poor as kaiju movies go. It’s just a bit too worthy and slow to be really interesting as anything but a historical curiosity.

 

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This is going to sound weird – and, more than likely, it is weird – but I’ve been thinking about films which, whatever their running time may be, are most associated with a single iconic image. Sometimes this isn’t even in the film itself – and sometimes the image is much more famous than the film itself. I imagine most people in western culture are familiar with the image of Marilyn Monroe on the grating in the white dress, or Raquel Welch on the lava flow in not very much rabbit-skin, but I would also go on to venture that many of these people might struggle to name The Seven Year Itch or One Million Years BC.

I am the kind of person with the kind of brain where, once I hear a piece of information like that, it sticks with me. But sometimes the single-picture principle still applies. What’s brought all this on is recently watching Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway – yes, it’s another Luc Besson review – for the first time. This is a film I’ve been aware of for a long time without ever actually seeing; I vaguely recall its first TV broadcast in the UK about a quarter of a century ago, remember seeing it in various arty video rental shops (remember those?), and so on. And the film is always advertised with a single, striking image: a dyed-blonde, shock-haired Christopher Lambert in a tunnel somewhere, dressed in a tuxedo, casually wielding a flourescent light tube as though it’s a lightsaber. I bet it’s on the actual film poster. Let’s find out:

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Well, you see what I mean. I must confess I didn’t expect Isabelle Adjani to be quite so prominently featured, but she is very photogenic, after all. There’s something strikingly odd and atmospheric about that photo of Lambert and his tube, and it perhaps creates a false expectation of what the actual movie’s going to be like – something very visually inventive and intense.

The actual movie opens with a knockabout car chase through the streets of Paris between Fred (Lambert), an enigmatic young man, and some other guys in tuxedos. This concludes with him driving his car down the steps into a metro station and taking refuge there. It transpires that Fred is some sort of loveable pathological safebreaker and has just blown up the vault of a rich man whose party he has been attending. He has nicked a lot of valuable documents in the hope of selling them back for a substantial sum of money.

The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact Fred has developed un thing for the beautiful young wife of his victim, Helena (Adjani), and would quite like to see her again. And so he attempts to romance her, while striking up a relationship with a bunch of other unlikely characters living in the subway system and avoiding the police and various agents of his victim.

The first thing you notice about Subway is that this was clearly the film to be in if you fancied moving out of the Francophone movie business and appearing in mainstream American movies in the mid 80s: quite apart from Lambert, who by this point had already made Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and was a year away from his signature role in Highlander, and Adjani (less of a crossover star, but still appearing in Ishtar and Diabolique), the film also features substantial appearances by Jean-Hugues Anglade (later to turn up in Killing Zoe) and a young and beefy Jean Reno (Leon, the first Mission Impossible, and the 1998 Godzilla, to name but three). There’s even a semi-acting appearance by Eric Serra, who’s best known as a film composer these days (various other Besson movies and GoldenEye).

Then again, this is a Luc Besson movie, and his films have nearly always had at least one eye on the international mainstream. This is Besson near the beginning of his career, and you can almost sense that this is the work of a guy in his 20s (he was 26 at the time) – the film is vibrant with a restless, unfocused, extravagant energy. While some elements of the plot suggest a homage to French New Wave cinema, the film’s debt to American cinema is almost too obvious to need mentioning – this felt to me to be very much like the kind of low-budget punk-inflected movie coming out of Los Angeles at about the same time, and various aspects of it make it hard to believe that Besson hadn’t spent a few evenings watching and rewatching The Warriors.

The crucial difference, for me, is that films like The Warriors had a very definite sense of what they wanted to be – they were unapologetic genre movies, in short. The Warriors is an action movie, whereas Subway is… well, it’s a bit unclear. There’s a car chase, and someone gets shot at one point, and there are various scenes involving police, but on the other hand there are various light-hearted scenes, and at one point even a musical number… it’s trying to be all sorts of things, and not unsuccessfully, but one gets a sense that the plot and characters are secondary to visuals and imagery and colour.

And it’s not quite as dark or stylish as that photo of Lambert and his tube might lead you to expect. At one point it looks like the film’s about to develop into a quasi-fantasy about a hidden world of unlikely characters living out-of-sight in the underground – a more mundane version of Neverwhere – but it never quite follows through on this, and the most improbable thing you see in the course of the movie is Jean Reno in an explorer’s outfit and pith helmet, playing a full drum-kit on a subway platform (which is admittedly still fairly improbable).

All-in-all I found it a hard film to really come to grips with. If this is, as everyone claims, part of the cinema du look (or possibly cinema du Luc, in this case), then perhaps its not surprising that three decades later that look is a bit less striking. Or perhaps it’s just that I am a sucker for a film with a little bit more substance than this one. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, given how the careers of many people involved have developed, but I don’t think anyone would honestly claim it as a career high.

 

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One of the things I am occasionally taken to task for by those who know me is the fact that I don’t watch Musical Chairs (or, as they prefer to refer to it, Game of Thrones). Partly this is because I don’t have access to an ethically-sourced copy of the series, not least because I try to avoid giving money to Rupert Murdoch on moral grounds, but also because of all the fuss about it being ‘Fantasy for people who don’t like fantasy’. Well, I do like fantasy, generally speaking, so it’s probably not aimed at me.

The success of Musical Chairs means that now, whenever someone is trying to big-up anything else vaguely fantastical, the two get compared in more-or-less the same way that The Lord of the Rings was the genre yardstick ten years ago. When it comes to vintage fantasy films I am certain this is stretching a point, because – whatever else you might think about it – Musical Chairs is critically-acclaimed, while the overwhelming majority of heroic/epic/high/whatever-you-want-to-call-it fantasy films, even to this day, have been fairly naff.

Nevertheless, they’re still at it: introducing John Milius’s 1982 film Conan the Barbarian the other night, in the announcer weighed with ‘Long before Game of Thrones…’ or something like that. Now, obviously I’m not in a position to judge just how justified this association is, but I am inclined to be a little more generous than usual as Conan the Barbarian is that rare beast, a 20th century heroic fantasy film which is not completely and embarrassingly awful.

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Proceedings kick off with a quote from Nietzsche and Basil Poledoris’ thundering score, which together sum up pretty well the tenor of what is to follow. Hum: young Conan is the son of a smith in a Cimmerian village, many thousands of years ago. His father is wont to take him up a mountain and deliver somewhat baffling homilies about gods and giants and steel and the untrustworthiness of other people, but he is still quite upset when their village is raided by marauders under the banner of evil sorcerer Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones, taking it all impressively seriously). Conan’s dad having been hacked down and his mum having had her head chopped off by Doom himself, our hero finds himself strapped to a giant capstan of indeterminate purpose for the duration of a he-grows-up-into-a-strapping-young-man montage sequence.

‘Strapping young man’ probably doesn’t quite do justice to the physique of a young Arnold Schwarzenegger, for it is of course he who plays Conan for most of the movie. Conan is freed from the capstan to become a star gladiator amongst the steppe nomads of the region, thus allowing Arnie to sweat and flex and grunt without the need for any dialogue. In the end, however, his sympathetic master releases him back into the wild (even with the benefit of an expository voice-over, it’s not entirely clear why this happens) and Conan sets out on a career as an improbably big and homicidal burglar.

As you might expect, he soon acquires a sidekick (ex-surfer Gerry Lopez) and a love-interest (the very-nearly-as-statuesque ex-dancer Sandahl Bergman) and three of them have a high old time breaking into temples in search of treasure, fighting slightly dodgy monsters, and generally behaving like a stereotypical D&D party. However the trio find themselves caught and dragged before the local king (a baffled-looking Max von Sydow) who offers them a deal: all charges will be dropped if they liberate his daughter from the insidious snake-cult run by, you guessed it, Thulsa Doom…

‘Good’ is obviously a relative term if we’re discussing Arnold Schwarzenegger’s filmography, but this is still a pretty good movie, for all that it’s attempting to realise a vast fantasy world on a clearly inadequate budget, with a trio of protagonists played by a bodybuilder, a dancer, and a surfer. You look at it now and just imagine how much a decent digital grade, some subtle CGI, or even just better cinematography would give the film more of the scale and vibrancy it really needs to capture the energetic spirit of Robert E Howard’s original stories. Practically the only thing which genuinely feels epic about it is Basil Poledoris’s thumpingly good music – for many years, if you wanted to make a hugely violent and ideologically slightly-suspect blockbuster and needed some bombastic-yet-somehow-romantic music, Poledoris was the guy to go to (as Paul Verhoeven demonstrated with Robocop and Starship Troopers).

Stripped of the music this is much more clearly a close cousin to the dinosaur movies that Hammer were making back in the sixties, targeting the same kind of audience hungry for violence, bare flesh, a touch of fantasy, and the kind of haircuts not normally seen on men outside of British New Wave Heavy Metal bands. Milius is clearly not attempting to make a camp film and so Conan the Barbarian takes itself very seriously indeed – there are virtually no jokes in it, though this obviously doesn’t stop parts of it looking unintentionally hilarious today (the scene in which Arnie is playing Whose leg is that? with a woman, who thoughtlessly starts turning into a demon in flagrante, is uproariously funny).

Milius goes further and drains most of the fantasy silliness from the film – modern films in this genre tend to revolve around the collection of plot coupons and Lost Artefacts of Convenient Doom, with no real sense of an emotional core to the story. Well, there are touches of the supernatural throughout this film, but it’s primarily about Conan’s quest for revenge on the man who killed his parents, and this is at least more accessible. There’s still the problem that Schwarzenegger, as a performer, is all surface, unable to suggest any kind of interior life in his character: the script may call for a scene in which a barbarian sits on a rock, brooding intensely, but what reaches the screen is a scene in which a bodybuilder just sits on a rock. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine anyone else having the same kind of physicality as Conan.

Schwarzenegger may not capture all the subtleties of Howard’s Conan, and his transformation in the film from barely-articulate brutalised gladiator to (relatively) eloquent moral agent is rather implausible, but the film does pay its dues to the original stories, even if it isn’t a strict adaptation of any of them. What Milius adds to the mix is a ferocious ideological element Howard himself might well have approved of: it all opens with Nietzsche’s ‘That which does not kill me makes me stronger’, and further words of wisdom pepper the film, all in a similar vein: ‘Grab the world by the throat and take what is yours by right’, ‘Time enough for peace in your grave’, and so on. If this film was a person it would probably take you off into the woods and make you live up a tree, eating only things you had killed yourself. Equally tellingly, the contemptible followers of Thulsa Doom’s cult all carry bunches of flowers, and one of them, it is suggested, has inappropriate designs on Conan’s person. Subtext isn’t always necessarily subtle.

Perhaps it’s the sheer right-wing bravado of Conan the Barbarian which stops me from liking it a bit more than I do. I always find Arnie to be an agreeable screen presence, James Earl Jones is good, and so – perhaps surprisingly – is Sandahl Bergman. But despite all this, and of course, the score, the film is just so stolidly po-faced and stoic. The original stories had a bit more energy and life to them. That said, of course, this is still the best Robert E Howard film which has yet been made, and one of the best heroic fantasies of the 20th century: though that says more about the state of the genre than anything else.

 

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