Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘cobblers’

Proof that you can take anything too far comes as we look at yet another pseudo-Arthurian movie (must be about the fifth since the summer). Frankly, I have nobody but myself to blame: a little research into the personnel of The Spaceman and King Arthur would have revealed that leading man Dennis Dugan went on to receive no fewer than four nominations for Worst Director at the Golden Raspberries, winning once (for his work across the entire year of 2011, impressively enough), while actual director Russ Mayberry was the man who went on to be sacked from the proverbially dreadful TNG episode Code of Honour, mainly due to his casting decisions (the main actors later tried to have the episode removed from re-runs).

I should mention that this film is currently available on Mouseplus under its original title, Unidentified Flying Oddball, which is a perhaps appropriately rubbish title, but gives little sense of what it’s actually about. The title was changed to something more like the British one even for an American re-release.

Anyway, unless you have very small and undemanding children, or enjoy the sight of distinguished British actors trying to hide their embarrassment, there is little here to detain you, I suspect. The film opens with a reasonably decent and slightly meta gag, as what has appeared to be a model pretending to be a space rocket turns out to just be an actual model space rocket, at a NASA demonstration.

Even the poster is so embarrassed it’s pretending to be Italian.

The UK production base for this film is instantly apparent to those of us in the know, as playing Air Force generals and senior US politicians are familiar faces like Robert Beatty (guest artiste in too many British TV series to mention) and Bruce Boa (assured of a certain kind of immortality by his performance as Mr Hamilton in Fawlty Towers, but he was also a rebel general in the best of the stellar conflict films, too). A top NASA boffin (Cyril Shaps, another ubiquitous character actor) demonstrates their concept for a new spaceship capable of travelling at close to the speed of light, but the politicians refuse to risk the lives of brave young American men (or women).

Nevertheless, a brainwave strikes the boffin and he gets on the phone to one of his technicians, Tom Trimble (Dugan) – Trimble is presumably some sort of robotics expert, but he honestly comes across as an all-purpose idiot savant. Anyway, Trimble builds an android to fly the spaceship, and for reasons best known to plot contrivance makes it a duplicate of himself (cue dodgy split-screen effects and a chance for Dugan to show his – what’s the opposite of range? Anyway, that – as an actor).

Well, the mission is nearly scrubbed when the android has an attack of nerves, and Trimble is sent into the capsule to deliver a pep talk. At this point the launch vehicle is struck by lightning and, er, launches, sending both of them into space. Trimble decides he doesn’t fancy experiencing thirty years’ worth of time dilation and turns the ship around, only to notice that something very odd is happening to the clock…

Yes, there is a reason why the credits suggest this is based (very loosely, one suspects) on Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Trimble lands in 6th century England, where he soon meets good-hearted local girl Alisande (Sheila White) and shortly afterwards is captured by scheming knight Sir Mordred (Jim Dale). Off they are taken to Camelot, where King Arthur (Kenneth More) is holding court, in the presence of (most notably) Sir Gawain (John le Mesurier) and Merlin (Ron Moody) – in this version of events, Merlin is just a rather wily conjuror, having no actual magic powers.

There follows a chunk of film in which Trimble must avoid Mordred’s various attempts to do him in, in the course of which he uncovers some of his enemy’s nefarious plots; with Mordred now banished but planning to conquer Camelot and usurp the throne, it once again falls to Trimble to save the day. Needless to say, he achieves all this through a combination of advanced technology, scientific knowledge, and slapstick mugging.

There’s the odd funny moment or sequence in Spaceman and King Arthur – the fight between Trimble and Mordred, with the latter using a magnetised sword, is probably the best of them – but the main problems of the film are that it’s just not funny enough to succeed as a comedy and too contrived and silly to work as a more straightforward adventure. Some really shonky special effects don’t help the film’s cause much.

The main reason to watch it, as noted, is the cast, which is quite remarkable for something which is essentially a frivolous piece of fluff: Jim Dale is best known for appearing in ten of the better Carry On films in six years, but has also had a distinguished career in the music business and on Broadway; Kenneth More was one of the biggest movie stars in Britain for a while in the 1950s; Ron Moody won all sort of awards and nominations for playing Fagin in Oliver!; and Sheila White was in Oliver! too,  but for my money was most memorable for her brilliant performance as the crazed Messalina in I Claudius. Pat Roach, reliable British heavy, is here as well. And all of them do battle with the material as best they can.

The results are rather endearing, if not as entertaining as you might wish. Moody, you feel, is a little underserved; Jim Dale manages to find some sort of sweet spot between playing the villain ‘straight’ and servicing the slapstick required of him. White really does have a thankless task, though, playing a character who’s not only apparently quite dim, but also required to do things almost without motivation. All of them outperform Dugan, though.

You can just about imagine how this film might work as an incredibly whimsical piece of entertainment, given a lead performance of sufficient charm and comic skill and with some of the more contemporary gags taken out (Trimble takes a girly mag back in time with him, which inevitably causes a stir amongst the peasants). I’m thinking, really, of something like Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, which is a very silly film, but still rather watchable. Dennis Dugan, however, is to Danny Kaye as a paper plane is to an F-15: he’s nowhere near good enough, although to be fair the script is giving him no help whatsoever. This film probably looked very dated and primitive back in 1979 and the passage of time has done it few favours.

Read Full Post »

Just as every family has its oddballs, its black sheep, and its estranged relations, so every long-running film franchise has its weird outliers – its equivalent of Licence to Kill, or Godzilla’s Revenge, or Terminator Salvation. In the case of the Halloween series, the film that probably never gets invited round to dinner by the others is the third one, Halloween III: Season of the Witch, simply because they have so little in common.

What makes it even odder, perhaps, is that this was the intention all along – nine sequels further on, it seems hard to believe, but John Carpenter and Debra Hill had concluded there was no further mileage to be extracted from the doings of Michael Myers. Their idea was for Halloween to become effectively an anthology franchise, each film introducing new situations and characters.

Hence this film, which is not a slasher movie, and only refers to the original diegetically (characters in Halloween III are seen watching Halloween on TV, where it is modestly referred to as a ‘classic’). Looking for a new angle, Carpenter made the inarguably smart move of hiring Nigel Kneale (writer of The Stone Tape, amongst other things) to produce a script – but an intervention by the producers to add more gore and violence led to Kneale disowning the film, and the screenplay is credited to director Tommy Lee Wallace.

Perhaps this was a typically smart move by the veteran scribe. The film opens a week or so before Halloween and counts down towards the night in question. We initially see a man being pursued by sinister figures in grey suits, from who he barely escapes, wandering into a man’s shack and then collapsing. The man has one of those handy exposition TVs, which only shows things which have some bearing on the plot of the film, and so we soon learn that Halloween masks made by the Silver Shamrock company are important to whatever’s going on, along with the fact that someone has apparently managed to pinch one of the blocks from Stonehenge (yes, I know your disbelief is turning a funny colour, but just keep it suspended anyway).

The man who was being chased is whisked off to hospital where he is placed in the care of Daniel Challis (Tom Atkins), a slightly boozy doctor with a failed marriage behind him. One of the grey-suited men manages to sneak into the hospital and crush the patient’s skull, which I would describe as evidence of negligence, but Challis at least chases after him – the grey man immolates himself in the hospital car park.

It turns out the murdered man was a toy store owner, who was last seen heading to the small town of Santa Mira to collect a load of – oh, is that a bell ringing? – Halloween masks. So Challis, largely because the plot requires it, goes up there to investigate, in the company of the victim’s rather striking young daughter Ellie (Stacy Nelkin, who as a teenager was in a brief relationship with Woody Allen and claims Manhattan is partly based on this). Despite there being no discernible chemistry between them, Challis and Ellie get it on: this happens like someone turning a switch, and is presumably just there to meet some kind of assumed audience expectation. Needless to say, Nelkin gets a couple of nude scenes, Atkins (thank God) doesn’t.

I’m guessing the setting of Santa Mira is one of Wallace’s amendments to the original Kneale script, as it’s a very obvious call-back to the original Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which this seems in part to be a rather clumsy homage to. The parallels between the two films become much more pronounced as it continues, anyway, not that there isn’t always a lot of other stuff going on.

Santa Mira is a company town for a Halloween mask-making outfit run by wealthy old Conal Cochran (Dan O’Herlihy), and he and various other characters turn up to pad out the plot a bit. Cochran is obviously a bad ‘un and the other characters are there to meet sticky ends of various kinds – someone gets zapped by the maker’s tab off the back of a Halloween mask and their face falls off, someone complaining about Cochran has their head removed by two grey men, and so on. Cochran clearly has special plans for this year’s Halloween…

The act of reviewing some films does make demands upon your critical judgment and ability to articulate complex philosophical concepts. Halloween III is not one of those films. Halloween III is the kind of film that only really requires you to describe what happens in it, in order to provide a very clear picture of the kind of quality involved.

That said, simply describing the plot does not quite do the film justice. As the plot concerns an insane toymaker with an army of android duplicate henchmen, who steals part of Stonehenge and grinds it up to hide the dust in Halloween masks, which will then respond to a particular TV commercial by killing the wearers and causing poisonous vermin to erupt from their corpses, all because of a sentimental fondness for the traditions of Halloween, this is no small thing. The basic synopsis does not cover the quality of the playing, which is basic, to say the least: the closest thing to an acting performance comes from Dan O’Herlihy, who seems to have nicked it from Alec Guinness in The Ladykillers. Tom Atkins resembles someone who has wandered onto a film set, possibly to make a delivery or do some maintenance, and accidentally ended up being cast in the lead role. Stacy Nelkin is better, but grievously underused.

I can imagine a version of this film in which the sheer lack of narrative cohesion worked in the film’s favour – where it had something of the accelerating quality of a hideous unfolding nightmare, with a succession of bizarre images (mutilated faces, masks erupting with snakes and insects, characters revealed to be androids) piling up on top of one another to a disorienting cumulative effect, rather as in Hellraiser II. Unfortunately, Tommy Lee Wallace doesn’t have the skill or narrative control to pull something like that off, and he takes a very meat-and-potatoes approach to the material. At the very end, when the film’s debt to Body Snatchers is clearest, it does acquire a certain kind of energy, but it’s really too little, too late.

It would be interesting to speculate on a parallel world where Halloween III was, well, good, and the series went off on the anthology tangent Carpenter and Hill originally envisaged (in our world, the relative failure of the film meant that every subsequent episode has been firmly Michael Myers-centric). But it’s hard to imagine that world, based on this film. Halloween III isn’t just poorly assembled, it’s weird and tonally inconsistent, often mixing unintentional camp with stodgily-presented B-movie staples. This may have been quite a good idea, but it’s also an extremely poorly executed one.

Read Full Post »

After being almost-unseen for decades and seemingly like a prime candidate for ‘lost movie’ status, Ray Cameron’s Bloodbath at the House of Death, released in 1984, has recently turned up on the UK incarnation of the world’s biggest streaming service. If ever a comparatively recent film has languished, it is this one. Perhaps the distinct lack of enthusiasm for it, even amongst some of the people involved in its production, may give us a clue as to why. ‘It’s a fairly terrible film,’ recalled the producer in a 2008 interview. ‘It’s not the film I want on my headstone, or in my obituary when I die.’

Well, there’s a refreshing sort of honesty there, anyway, and the movie does have the kind of bizarre cross-genre conception and eclectic cast list that usually indicates it may be on the road to cult status. As you may know, being ‘fairly terrible’ is not the kind of thing to put me off a film, and the thing is only a brisk 90 minutes or so long. So: how bad could it be?

Well, the producer was possibly being a bit over-generous. The film opens with the first of many swipes at horror cliches: we start with a shot of a big old house in the countryside, as seen via a POV shot from someone creeping towards it through the undergrowth. The watcher pulls back the branches to get a better look – only to lose his grip, and them to spring back into his face, painfully. It’s a better gag than it sounds (the first time they use it, anyway) and a promising start.

Anyway, a mob of robed figures with axes, spears, shotguns, nooses, and so on, break into the house and kill everyone inside, leaving a scene of absolute carnage, in which none of the other attempted jokes have been very funny. British comedy legend Barry Cryer (who co-wrote the film with Cameron) briefly appears as a cop investigating the slaughter, but doesn’t manage to uncover any clues (or any more decent lines).

Then we are nine years later, and rather than death by stabbing or shooting we are threatened with death by exposition as the main cast all make their way to ‘Headstone Manor’, scene of the massacre, carefully telling each other who they are and why they’re going there. Most prominent are top-billed DJ-turned-comic Kenny Everett, in his only movie lead, and comic-actress-turned-latterday-sex-therapist Pamela Stephenson; the rest of the ensemble is not unimpressive as it includes the likes of Gareth Hunt, Sheila Steafel, Don Warrington, and John Fortune; appearing as the juvenile leads are Everett’s regular stooge Cleo Rocos (who brings big hair but no discernible acting ability) and John Stephen Hill (a fairly nondescript young fellow whose Wikipedia page claims he stopped acting the year before he made this film; maybe there is sometimes truth in Wiki after all).

Apparently they are all scientists, sent to the spooky old house to investigate reports of supernatural phenomena and high levels of radiation. The cognisant viewer will by this point essentially be expecting something along the lines of Carry On Up Hell House, given the broad low comedy on display and the premise thus established, but the film doesn’t even have the coherence and focus to hit this rather low target. (The censor, when showed the film, apparently thought it wasn’t especially problematic and indeed had its moments – generous fellow – but thought there’d been a mix-up and he’d been shown the reels in the wrong order. He had not. The plot makes that little sense.)

What you end up with is an increasingly baffled and/or desperate-looking cast, flailing about for a way to get laughs – Stephenson opts for a silly voice, while Everett starts off doing a silly walk and then also goes for a silly voice. Nothing, by the way, makes it apparent that Everett is a TV star doing his first movie more clearly than the over-the-top mugging he indulges in throughout. Some of the dialogue would struggle to get into even a late Carry On film, as when Rocos and Hill are exploring the kitchen: ‘Could you pass me a spoon?’ – ‘I suppose a fork is out of the question?’ – ‘Maybe, but let’s get dinner out of the way first’. Much of the rest of the film is made up of scattershot parodies of other films from around the same period – there’s a Carrie spoof, a very problematic Entity skit with some gratuitous T&A from Stephenson, a scene apparently referencing American Werewolf (which was partly a spoof itself), and even a gag based on E.T. (Inexplicably popular – if you ask me – comedian Michael McIntyre apparently appears in the E.T. segment, due to his being the director’s son.)

The vast majority of this movie is dreary, awful rubbish, one of the signs of the moribund state of the British film industry in the 1980s; it’s actually quite surprising how it manages to take normally capable performers and seemingly drain all the talent and charm out of them. The occasional flash of directorial cleverness, or a decent special effect, doesn’t come anywhere close to rescuing it.

However, there is a reason to watch this movie, and that reason is the presence of no-foolin’ horror legend Vincent Price, making his final appearance in a British film. I have often written in the past of the remarkable ability of stars like Price, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee to lift dodgy material through sheer talent and presence, but what Price achieves here is truly exceptional: to say this is a game piece of self-parody is a huge understatement. Price’s scenes are genuinely very funny: he plays the leader of the local Satanic cult, saddled with a bunch of insubordinate and incompetent followers (he’s off by himself and never interacts with the rest of the main cast). He gets a magnificent speech about his centuries-long career of evil, delivered in the classically arch Price manner, concluding with ‘…and you tell me to piss off? No, you piss off!’

That said, Price is only in the movie for about ten minutes, and it’s a near thing either way as to whether this is enough to justify watching the rest of it, which is really and truly properly dire. I have considerable tolerance for and fascination with bad movies, and even I found most of it tough going, so go in prepared and don’t be ashamed of bailing out. I can’t imagine anyone genuinely liking this movie, and even those who can get through the whole thing will probably only do so once.

Read Full Post »

I earned various gasps and envious mutterings from my friends the other night when I casually let slip that the next day I had a ticket to a showing of Dune on the big screen. This naturally abated somewhat when I made it clear this wasn’t the delayed, and now even-more-eagerly anticipated new version of the story directed by Denis Villeneuve, but another outing for David Lynch’s 1984 crack at the story, courtesy of the Prince Charlie near Leicester Square.

(Ah, the Prince Charlie: looking back I’m startled to realise I’ve only been there two or three times in the past, and not since 2013, but every time I even go past I feel like it’s somehow my spiritual home. It’s almost enough to make me contemplate moving to London just so I can go to this one cinema more often. Very odd.)

‘I become very happy, because the film is terrible,’ said Alejandro Jodorowsky, describing his own first experience of seeing Lynch’s Dune on the big screen. As is now quite well-known, Jodorowsky spent years planning a lavish ten-hour-plus version of the book, starring Orson Welles, Mick Jagger, Gloria Swanson and Salvador Dali (amongst others), with music by Pink Floyd. Strangely enough, no studio was willing to finance this project, and the rights to Frank Herbert’s novel fell into the grasp of Italian impresario Dino De Laurentiis. Meanwhile, if you believe the folklore, Jodorowsky’s pre-production work went on to inspire the great wave of blockbuster SF-fantasy films that came out in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

It’s kind of ironic that the Lynch Dune is part of this wave itself. I was vaguely aware of it at the time it came out, when it was definitely marketed as a sci-fi blockbuster not unlike the previous year’s Return of the Jedi, complete with Panini sticker album given away free with the comic 2000 AD. But I don’t remember anyone ever really being very excited or interested in Dune, hardly anyone bothered collecting the stickers, and I’m not even sure it showed near me. The only person I knew who’d seen it (much older than I was) said it made no sense at all unless you’d read the book.

But, hey, there was a pretty good turnout for the Prince Charlie revival, so what were we all there for? Presumably a few sci-fi die-hards, and David Lynch completists, and people wanting to refresh their memories ahead of the new film (across the way they were showing a thirty minute preview of the Villeneuve version; hopefully nobody got confused and went to the wrong one). And I suppose this is a sort of cult film, which only goes to show that cults can crop up in all sorts of places.

The film gets underway with an introductory monologue from Virginia Madsen, playing Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor of the Universe. This actually does a pretty decent job of setting the scene is very broad strokes, establishing that we’re in for an epic tale of ruthless galactic politics, all based around control of the planet Dune, source of the most important substance in existence. The titles and music crash in, it’s all very impressive and stirring, and it’s only much later that you realise that pretty much all that Madsen does in the rest of the film is stand around in the background; her character is completely insignificant.

Things stay visually impressive, in terms of costuming and set design and a lot of the special effects, as we get a brief gazetteer of important planets in the story (Arrakis, Caladan, Giedi Prime, Kaitain), and the various factions attached to them (the Fremen, the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Imperial House, the Guild of Navigators) and we are privy to an audience between the Emperor of the Universe (Jose Ferrer) and a third-stage Guild Navigator, telepathically overheard by his Bene Gesserit advisor (Sian Phillips), where the Emperor’s plan to use the Harkonnens to destroy his Atreides rivals is outlined, while the threat posed to the Navigators by Duke Atreides’ son Paul (Kyle McLachlan) is also touched upon.

And all this is just in the first scene. Are you baffled yet? If not, you are either some kind of a savant, or have read the book, or aren’t really bothering to pay attention (all of these are equally acceptable excuses).

The thing about Dune, the novel, is that it is essentially a straightforward, even archetypal tale of a young man born into privilege who loses everything but undergoes various trials through which he attains superhuman faculties, which he uses to avenge himself on his numerous enemies. Nothing wrong with that; that’s a perfectly solid framework for a story.

The other thing about Dune, however, the one that makes the book so extraordinary and has ensured its reputation as a masterpiece of SF, is the complexity of the world of the story, and the way it is filled with intricate background detail. The main problem with the film is that Lynch concentrates on all the throwaway detail and back-story so much that the actual central narrative disappears from view.

Names of people and things pile up: Mentat, Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Shadout Mapes, Shai-Halud, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, weirding modules, Gom Jabbar, the Waters of Life. Introducing all of this (all without ever quite explaining what much of it is) causes the film to grind to a halt and buckle under the weight of its own baffling exposition. Characters like Irulan are introduced as if they’re going to be significant, only for them to barely appear again.

That the film makes any sense at all is because of Lynch’s lavish use of voice-over as an aid to explaining what’s going on. We are frequently privy to the thoughts of many characters, mid-scene, even when we could likely figure out for ourselves what they are thinking, while the progress of the story is usually accompanied by a bit of voice-over explaining what’s happening or has just happened.

I can’t stress enough how important this is: I’ve read Dune several times and some parts of this film are still impenetrable. You can usually tell when something important is happening in a scene – the appearance of the stirring main theme is usually a clue, especially if the electric guitars kick in – but quite what it is or its significance is frequently a mystery. Everything that’s wrong with this film is encapsulated in the final moments, with the last line of the film being an unlikely cry of ‘For he is the Kwisatz Haderach!’ Who or what the Kwisatz Haderach actually is has only been touched upon in the vaguest of terms, rendering this moment both momentous and deeply obscure. This doesn’t feel like an attempt at a slingshot ending or an enthymeme, where lack of traditional closure is part of the intended effect – it’s just bad scripting from Lynch.

You can see why they employed someone with Lynch’s kind of visual sense on a grandiose project like this one, but the narrative utterly escapes his control and he seems more interested in small details  – Baron Harkonnen’s disgusting pustules, for instance – than epic storytelling. I think it’s telling to compare Dune with the 1980 version of Flash Gordon, another lavish De Laurentiis extravaganza – Dune’s climax, where desert warriors riding on gargantuan worms do battle with imperial terror troops as atomic weapons go off in the background, is broadly akin to the Hawkman attack on the rocket ship in the earlier film, but where Flash Gordon is lively and colourful and thrilling, Dune is subdued and ponderous.

Most of the cast (McLachlan, Sean Young, Francesca Annis) are good looking but bland. Even very fine actors like Max von Sydow, Sian Phillips and Patrick Stewart (yes, it’s our week for discussing early Patrick Stewart fantasy movie roles) end up just standing around doing the best they can to make an impression. Well-drawn characters simply vanish into the art direction (which, to be fair, is consistently good); Baron Harkonnen, one of the great villains of SF, is reduced to being simply a ‘flying fatman’, in charge of a family of slavering perverts.

Perhaps Jodorowsky was right and it’s impossible to do Dune justice as a conventional movie; you either need to do it as a TV mini-series or an absurdly long mega-epic, or a series of films. Jodorowsky opted for the mega-epic; Villeneuve, I understand, has opted just to do the first half of the book and hope the film is successful enough to allow him to finish it off in a second movie. We shall see; the audience is certainly there for a really good Dune movie, the question remains whether such a thing is even really possible.

Read Full Post »

A now-obscure movie called The Siege was briefly the focus of some attention back in 1999 when odd behaviour amongst some of its patrons was noted: they would buy a ticket, take their seats, but then walk out as soon as the credits began. The reason? This was before the age of widespread and easy internet and they had just come to watch the trailer for George Lucas’ upcoming stellar conflict movie.

Now we are in the age of widespread and easy internet, trailers are a lot more accessible and subject to much more scrutiny than was the case in years gone by. Back then, much more of the heavy lifting when it came to promotional duties was done by the poster. We have considered in the past some of the more outlandish claims made on the posters of ambitious but low-budget exploitation movies, but few attempt the hard sell quite as ferociously as the advertising for the 1968 movie The Lost Continent:

Blood-beasts, female flesh, torture-pits, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, floating death-ship, helpless beauties, crazed kelp-monsters – sounds like a hell of a movie, doesn’t it? Or possibly just hell, depending on your taste in films. The Lost Continent (NB barely features a continent, and certainly not a lost one) was made by Michael Carreras for Hammer Films. Now, Carreras produced many of the studio’s best and most successful films, and deserves credit for that. However, as a writer and director his track record is rather less stellar, with The Lost Continent (one of two films that he wrote under a pseudonym and directed, the other being Prehistoric Women) a powerful exhibit for the prosecution’s case.

The movie opens with beat combo The Peddlers treating us to the title track, which is heavy on the Hammond organ (this forms a key element of the film’s soundtrack). We find ourselves in a strangely-hued graveyard of ships, aboard one of which a burial-at-sea is just under way: various people, some dressed as Spanish conquistadors, others in modern dress, stand around gravely.

Presiding is Captain Lansen (Eric Porter), a man who is deeply troubled by questions of how he got into this situation (there may not have been much acting required from Porter, to be honest). The film obligingly flashes back to provide some answers: Lansen’s ship, the tramp freighter Corita, is making a swift departure from Freetown in Sierra Leone, trying to dodge the customs launch in the process. Why? Well, Lansen has got sick of being the owner-operator of this leaky old tub and has taken on a lucrative but illegal cargo of highly explosive white phosphorous, with a view to selling it and the ship in Caracas and retiring on the proceeds. His more principled first officer is duly shocked.

When the ship runs into a hurricane and starts taking on water, the rest of the crew demand that Lansen turns back (white phosphorous detonates when wet, apparently), but the passengers are having none of it (the crew includes some fine actors, including Victor Maddern, Michael Ripper and Donald Sumpter, but they don’t get much to do in this film). Despite the contemporary setting, the roots of the story in a 1938 novel by Dennis Wheatley are very obvious here, as there is something rather hokey and dated about all these people sitting around the saloon of a freighter making a transatlantic crossing. Amongst them we meet a boozy con-man (Tony Beckley), a former trophy-wife on the run (Hildegard Knef), an enquiry agent in pursuit of her (Ben Carruthers), a doctor fleeing a scandal (Nigel Stock, who is briefly seen reading the Wheatley novel – about as close as the film gets to genuine wit) and his daughter (Suzanna Leigh), whom he is fiercely protective of for self-interested reasons.

None of this lot want to go back to Africa and so the crew mutiny and depart, taking one of the lifeboats; only a handful stick around, including the steward (Jimmy Hanley) and the chief engineer (James Cossins). We have commented in the past on Cossins’ tendency to be cast as pompous establishment figures; this is about as proletarian as he gets, although as the story goes on the chief engineer proves to be a man with a side-line is fierce theological rigour.

With the ship leaking, the movie attempts a tense sequence with the passengers having to shift all the explosives to somewhere less damp. It is not really very tense, to be honest, and concludes with Lansen deciding they have to abandon ship anyway. So everyone piles into a lifeboat, which is launched into something which is very obviously a medium-sized water tank.

Some occasional rowing (‘It’ll keep you fit!’ growls the captain) and arguing over the rations ensues, with everyone bemoaning their lot and the viewer possibly beginning to wonder when the crazed kelp-monsters, giant jaw-snapping molluscs, and indeed the lost continent itself are actually going to make an appearance in the movie. In the end Tony Beckley can’t take it any more and hurls himself over the side in a drunken stupor; Nigel Stock dives in to save him and is eaten by a rubber shark, but Beckley is retrieved anyway.

The lifeboat becomes entangled in thick sea-weed, which proves to be more serious than it first appears when the weed grapples onto Lansen with its thick, thorny fronds – yes, the crazed kelp-monsters have finally arrived! Another extra is eaten by the weed before the lifeboat bumps into the Corita, which has likewise been snagged by the kelp. Everyone gets back on board, which only leads one to conclude that this whole sequence has just been there to get rid of Nigel Stock.

With Stock out of the way, his daughter reveals he has been repressing her for ages and goes a bit mad as a result of her sudden freedom, chucking herself at Beckley (not keen, racked with guilt following the bit with the shark) and then Carruthers (rather more receptive). The two of them slip out onto the deck to see what happens, but any developments are forestalled by the appearance over the gunwale of a giant octopus, which proceeds to eat Carruthers and cover Leigh in green slime before it can be driven off.

There is a sense of the plot finally getting somewhere, and not before time, as the freighter pitches up in a strange weed-infested realm of wrecked ships, some of them seemingly very ancient, and rocky outcrops. (It’s still not a continent though.) Strange shapes are sighted through the mist, and then contact is made with the locals, as a young woman approaches the ship. She is played by latter-day blues singer Dana Gillespie, and has an impressive set of flotation devices. She also has a set of helium balloons strapped to her shoulders.

(Yeah, I do kind of appreciate that that last attempt at a gag is probably unacceptable in these enlightened days of 2021, and I feel duly apologetic – though clearly not to the point of actually removing it from the review. It’s not as though the film doesn’t go all out to exploit the potential of the stunning Gillespie decolletage: the poor woman is in a shirt open practically to the navel, and most of the publicity photos for this film seem to show her leaning forward while sitting on a giant plastic crab:

My mistake, it’s a giant scorpion, not a crab.)

Gillespie is being chased by Spanish conquistadors working for the Inquisition, with whom there is a brisk scrap. (All the locals wear balloons and snowshoes to let them walk around on the weed.) She reveals they are the descendants of explorers who got stuck here centuries ago and are reigned over by the tyrannical El Supremo, a child ruler under the control of a pointy-hood-wearing maniac. Clearly conflict between the newcomers and the Inquisition is on the cards, but not before they can cram in Jimmy Hanley being throttled by a giant crab and a death-struggle between the crab and a giant sea scorpion (the question of which is the worse prop is also fiercely contested).

The poster catch-line ‘A living hell that time forgot!’ accurately nails The Lost Continent as a precursor to the Trampas movies made by Amicus in the following decade (The Land That Time Forgot, etc) – but while those films occasional attain the level of Good Bad Movie, this one is (to quote the Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction’s review) wholly absurd, even if the art direction is good. The Doug McClure films are unashamed pulp from start to finish: Carreras seems to think this film has an outside chance of functioning as serious drama, hence a lot of very intense scenes as the captain and passengers articulate their various personal issues to each other, usually by monologuing. These would probably feel corny even in a conventional context; surrounded by scenes dealing with killer sea-weed and rampaging invertebrates, they become utterly ridiculous and just as funny as the bad creature effects.

The saving grace of The Lost Continent is that its general badness is still somehow exceeded by its extreme silliness; how anyone involved managed to take any of it seriously is a miracle, but somehow they did and the result is an extraordinary piece of unintentional comedy. Perhaps I’m being unnecessarily harsh to the producer class, but so many producers-turned-directors start off by making this sort of tat: plenty of action and character and colour, but no developing storyline, no connections, just incident after incident. The material here is so bizarre that the film achieves a surreal kind of bad-acid-trip quality; afterwards you can’t quite believe what you’ve been watching. It’s a terrible film, but also enormously entertaining.

Read Full Post »

Lots of positive press in the media this week about Sir David Attenborough’s latest film, which – obviously – is the perfect way of starting a review of something completely different. Well, mostly different. (The wildlife documentary genre has diversified a bit in recent years.) One of the most vivid TV memories of my youth was watching Attenborough’s Life on Earth in 1979, the show which really began his ascension to the position of global icon which he now occupies. This was not inevitable, however: the American networks which helped to fund that first series were a bit uneasy about the fact it was fronted by a then-obscure British TV executive and suggested that, for the US transmission, Attenborough’s on-screen appearances be cut back to an absolute minimum and his inimitable voice-over be replaced by those of someone more familiar to the good people of Boise, Idaho – Robert Redford, maybe? Attenborough checked the contract and refused. Nevertheless, the influence of the US backers on the blockbuster series persists, and has – if you ask me – become rather more pernicious.

The first few big Attenborough series had all the big images and breathtaking photography you would expect – but coupled to this you actually learned something, about ecology, animal behaviour, deep time and how evolution functions. The world being as it is, you won’t hear much talk about evolution in the new, blockbuster shows. Lots of beautiful images, stirring music, and powerful narratives about animal lives – but actual science? Not so much of that. The emotional response has supplanted the intellectual.

It’s a trend fully on display in Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed’s documentary My Octopus Teacher, available on that big old market-leader streaming site. Now, you might just possibly be drawn in to watching this film by the thought that it is about some wealthy eccentric who hires another person to teach his collection of cephalopods something. (Is this the time or place to get into that knotty ‘what is the correct plural for octopus?’ question? Apparently, it’s octopuses, but I’m not expecting it to come up that much.) There’s actually some potential there – another good title gone to waste. Or it could be about someone who is educated by an octopus, which likewise invites the potential viewer to engage in some productive speculation.

(Foster is the one at the bottom.)

Well, it turns out to be the latter, sort of, but I do suspect most people will conclude the title of the film is a bit of a chiz. It concerns the activities of one Craig Foster (apparently some sort of documentary film-maker, m’lud, and also the producer of this film), who seems like an intelligent and intense fellow, though perhaps not a man one would wish to be trapped in a lift with. The story as the film tells it – and the only voice you will hear throughout the film is Foster’s – is that Foster was having some kind of existential crisis, many years ago, when he decided to start swimming every day in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. It was during his daily briny sojourn that he first made the acquaintance of, um, a little octopus. (At the time of writing this film’s Wikipedia page lists the cast as ‘Craig Foster’ and ‘Little Octopus’.)

Foster says he was gripped by a sudden idea: what if he spent time every day swimming with Little Octopus and really got to know her and the kelp forest? Which is what he obviously did, as it’s the subject of the film. The documentary goes on to recount the growing bond between Foster and Little Octopus, their increasing fascination with each other, Foster’s grief and trauma when Little Octopus is partially-eaten by a pyjama shark (not as cute as it sounds), his joy at her recovery, and his gradual acceptance that the two of them are just not destined to be together. (I think there’s scope here for a companion piece – maybe The Man with the Octopus Teacher’s Wife – in which Mrs Foster’s feelings about her husband’s activities are made clear.) 

At least, that’s what we’re told. Recently, though, the issue of just how extensively the narrative of this sort of documentary film has been massaged has become a live one, and it seems to me that there’s something fishy about this octopus. The whole thing is framed as Foster looking back on his time with Little Octopus and her impact on his life – and vice versa, I suppose – and yet it is accompanied by suspiciously high-quality footage of the events he’s talking about. Was he filming it all at the time? If so, who’s doing all the second-unit stuff showing him swimming around? Are we actually seeing reconstructions of what happened, using a different octopus? If so, does the octopus know it’s just participating in a reconstruction? It seems unlikely.

Frankly, it all comes across as a bit one-sided, too, and would be greatly improved by some input from Little Octopus herself, giving her side of the story. ‘I was just overwhelmed by my feelings for her,’ confesses Foster at one point. Was this a reciprocal situation, or was he just the latest in a long line of men to have their heads turned by a much younger and impressively flexible female? Sadly the technology is not there yet for Little Octopus to make a proper contribution concerning how she felt about this whole situation.

(One of the odder things I’ve been involved in recently was a protracted and slightly combative discussion over the philosophical issues involved in translating communications between human beings and intelligent cephalopods – we weren’t even talking about that film in which Amy Adams teaches alien squid to speak English rather badly – particularly when it comes to proper nouns. But it has been that sort of year overall, I suppose.)

In short, I found the whole thing to be rather suspect simply on a conceptual level, but then it’s pretty clear that the film is not intended to be especially rigorous when it comes to objective fact. The nature of cephalopod cognition and the possible inner lives of octopuses is a fascinating topic, on which books have been written, but it’s one which is barely touched on here – although Foster does mention that one of the differences between Little Octopus and him is that her brain is largely distributed throughout her body – this film is only really educational in a ‘look at these wonders of nature!’ sort of way. The real focus of the thing is on Foster talking about Little Octopus in a brazenly anthropomorphic way, often accompanied by stirring violin or piano music. As previously mentioned, the whole film is intended to work on a sentimental rather than an intellectual level.

If you were to design a documentary intended to leave me cold, I think you would find it hard to do a better job than My Octopus Teacher – although I must confess to deriving a sort of pleasure from shouting at the screen, which I did on a regular basis throughout. The camerawork and images of the sea life in the kelp forest are, needless to say, very beautiful to look at – but most of the rest of it is borderline irritating. It might actually be a bit less annoying if they released an alternative version with all of Craig Foster’s pieces to camera edited out, along with his voice-over. It would be nice to look at and still emotionally fairly stirring, I expect, and the most egregiously questionable bits would be excised, so I think that might be a great improvement for everyone.

Read Full Post »

It is, of course, very nearly a truism that professional creators of horror fiction generally turn out to be the nicest, sweetest bunch of people one could ever hope to meet. The people who finance horror movies may be exempt from this, unfortunately: this is the thought which inevitably crosses my mind when the logo for Dimension Films crosses the screen. This is, or was, a mini-studio which started life as a sort of off-shoot from Miramax, with the intention of making the sort of disreputable but remunerative genre pictures that just weren’t classy enough for the parent studio. The association with Miramax means an association with Harvey Weinstein, and there is of course a rather sick irony in his reluctance to associate himself too closely with horror and exploitation – on screen, at least.

I would have pegged Dimension Films as an outfit which got going in the mid to late 90s – I would have sworn that Demon Knight and Bordello of Blood were both Dimension productions – but no: the studio launched itself on an unsuspecting world in 1992, starting as it would continue with a fairly undistinguished sequel (various entries in the From Dusk Till Dawn, Halloween, and Children of the Corn series would subsequently appear under the Dimension marque). That very first film was Anthony Hickox’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth.

The geographical ambiguity which formed such a peculiar part of the atmosphere of the first two films is instantly banished, as we are clearly in the Land of the Good Old Uncle US of Stateside right from the off (exactly where is left slightly vague, but it looks like it’s meant to be New York City). We meet nightclub entrepreneur, artist, womaniser, parricide and psychopath J.P. Monroe, who is clearly a man who believes in the value of a well-stringed bow. Monroe is played by Kevin Bernhardt, who in turn is a man who – I would wager – believes in the value of writing one’s own Wikipedia page (or at least paying someone else to write it) – a big deal is made over how many screenplays Bernhardt has had produced, but on closer inspection an awful lot of these are uncredited, star Orlando Bloom, or have titles not likely to inspire confidence in their quality (Jill the Ripper, for example). Just about the only ones an even vaguely average person will have heard of are the last two Rambo movies. But I digress.

Anyway, Monroe is looking for fixtures and fittings for his nightclub and pops into an art gallery, where he finds the ominous pillar which manifested right at the very end of the previous film. He decides it is just the ticket and picks it up for a bargain price. Next, we find ourselves in the company of plucky young reporter Joey (Terry Farrell, still probably best known for six years in Deep Space Nine and for playing the cat in the American pilot for Red Dwarf). She is hanging around the emergency room when someone is rushed in impaled on barbed chains: the chains duly animate and gorily tear the poor unfortunate to pieces, but this should at least reassure latecomers that they really are watching a Hellraiser movie.

Joey befriends the victim’s companion, a lost soul named Terri (Paula Marshall), who reveals that they came from Monroe’s club – and also that, while there, they managed to acquire a puzzle-box like the ones which drove the stories of the first two films. It turns out this box was embedded in the pillar, and investigating the gap it left leads to Monroe being injured and his blood falling on the pillar (yeah, there’s a lot of quite elaborate and contrived exposition in this movie). Well, to cut a long story short this wakes up Pinhead, the sado-masochistic Cenobite, whose head is sticking out the side of the pillar.

Doug Bradley, who plays Pinhead, displays an impressive capacity for chewing the scenery even while technically being part of it, as he lures Monroe into indulging in his darker vices. Needless to say he has his own agenda, which revolves around not being stuck in a piece of set decoration. Joey, who has been doing her research into the previous films (this includes a very brief and slightly bemusing appearance by Ashley Lawrence as Kirsty), has basically figured all of this out too, although she is helped by the shade of Captain Spencer (Bradley again), the man who was transformed into Pinhead. (For what’s basically a pretty dumb movie this one does have a lot of complicated back-story, too.)

It turns out that the residual presence of Spencer, along with being bound to the box, meant that Pinhead was originally constrained in his funny little habits and could only terrorise and torture people who actively sought him out. Now the rules have changed, however, and if Pinhead does get out of the pillar he will be able to carve a bloody swathe across the world.

As I have suggested, there is a lot of pipe-laying in the first half of Hellraiser III, and I would usually suggest this sort of thing is only justified if it sets up a really spectacular climax and conclusion to the movie. Unfortunately, the first half of this film is the better part. I feel obliged to make it absolutely clear that I am using ‘better’ in a relative sense, and that the relation in question is that between the first half of Hellraiser III, which is pretty bad, and the second half, which is terrible.

The first thing you notice about this movie is how glossy and American it seems: the transatlantic feel of the first couple of films has gone completely. There was always something a bit awkward about that, but at least it gave them a distinctive atmosphere. This is much more of a generic American horror film, and that does seem to have been a deliberate choice. It seems to be trying to establish Pinhead (who wasn’t a lead character in the earlier films) as someone they could build a franchise around, rather like Freddie Krueger or Jason Voorhees. The immobile Pinhead who can only talk is actually quite interesting, almost a tempter in the classical sense, but once he is wandering around laughing maniacally and randomly slaughtering crowds of complete strangers, he very quickly becomes boring. The Chaotic Evil Pinhead is simply very dull compared to his earlier Lawful Evil incarnation.

Most of the second half is just dull and stupid too, to be honest. For all the flaws in the earlier films, they have moments which are genuinely eerie and twisted and somewhat transgressive. Hellraiser III is just a dumb slasher movie which vaguely gestures towards the subtlety and style of its forebears: when the script came in and the producers got to the scene with Cenobites wandering through New York, fighting the police department, they should have sent it back with a very strongly-worded note. One must presume Clive Barker himself only became involved once post-production was underway, for all that the film has a ‘Clive Barker Presents’ credit and he is an executive producer.

Here is the odd thing: Hellraiser III does have a coherent and functioning story – just a pretty stupid and dull one. Nevertheless, in this regard it still scores over the second movie, which is a narrative mess. But it lacks the extraordinary and relentless visual style of Hellbound, the imperative to bombard the viewer with grotesque and surreal images. Only a couple of moments even come close (Pinhead’s disgusting sacrament, for example). The closing scene, with an entire building taking on the form of a puzzle-box, promises a rather more inventive basis for the next sequel – but as it turned out, they went for the apparently compulsory ‘in-space’ installment next.

What positive things can one find to say about this film? Well, Doug Bradley is always a watchable presence as Pinhead (maybe a touch less so as Spencer) and most of the supporting turns are not what you would call actively bad. But most of it is just lazy studio sequel-mongering of the worst kind. The main achievement of Hellraiser III is to make Hellraiser and Hellraiser II look rather better by comparison to it.

Read Full Post »

A lot of people involved in the film business are wont to get a bit precious about it, going on about artistic integrity, following their creative instincts, stretching themselves and their talent, and so on. And this is often a laudable approach to take. The question is whether it excuses the rather disdainful approach sometimes taken to people who are quite happy to treat the business as a business and simply concentrate on maximising returns, more high-falutin’ concerns be damned.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Vin Diesel has no artistic integrity – anyone who’s seen the videos revealing the method approach he takes to playing Groot in the Marvel movies will know this is not the case – but he does seem to be an actor and producer who has figured out that his films are going to do better if he just sticks to making sequels and franchise movies. Of the twenty or so films where he’s played the lead since making Pitch Black, there are eight Fast & Furious movies, three as Riddick, and two xXx films, the balance consisting of before-he-was-famous obscurities like Knockaround Guys and A Man Apart, his mid-2000s dabble with full-on comedy (The Pacifier and Find Me Guilty), and stabs at other kinds of genre movie such as Babylon AD and the recent Bloodshot. What is perhaps telling is that Babylon AD came out in 2008 and Bloodshot earlier this year: in between these two, almost every single movie led by Diesel was from one of his franchises. It’s not that people don’t go to see Diesel in other films: he just doesn’t make other films.

The sole exception, and thus potentially quite an interesting entry in the Diesel filmography, is Breck Eisner’s 2015 movie The Last Witch Hunter. I say it is potentially quite interesting as a bit of an outlier where Vin is concerned, not because of any particular merits of the film itself, because these are marginal as we shall see.

The movie opens in the twelfth century, with a group of warriors venturing into the fabled Tree of Evil to kill the Witch Queen whose plague has devastated their land (there is a lot of Implicit Capitalisation in this movie). I was mildly diverted by the realisation that this sort of magic pagan villainess has almost become a stock character in (usually bad) fantasy movies – I was reminded of the Milla Jovovich character in the last Hellboy, and also Rebecca Ferguson in The Kid Who Would Be King – but much more distracted by the beard and hairpiece they have glued onto Diesel to make him look like a man from the dark ages.

You know, I honestly can’t decide if this is a good look for Vin or not. Initially it just seems quite funny in the same way that seeing him with dreadlocks at the start of Chronicles of Riddick draws a smile, but this may just be because Diesel is such a famous baldy. If he kept the hair for the whole movie perhaps we would get used to it, but it is just a bit of set dressing for the prologue: soon he is waving a flaming sword around and shouting things like ‘Fire and steel!’ The Witch Queen is briskly dealt with, but has the last laugh, as she curses Vin with eternal youth and immortality (not, you might think, the most onerous things to be cursed with).

Well, we skip forward to the present day where Vin has adopted his usual shiny-scalped mien and is working for an organisation named the Axe and the Cross (which looks very much like the Catholic Church, to be honest). It turns out there is a population of witches with magical powers living unseen alongside regular folks, and it’s Vin’s job as – all together now – the Last Witch Hunter to make sure they behave themselves. Already the astute viewer will be having thoughts along the lines of ‘Hang on, this is Highlander meets Hellboy meets Harry Potter meets Blade meets Men in Black.’

Such thoughts are dispelled with the appearance of Michael Caine (yes, really) as Vin’s best friend and confidante, Dolan the 36th. It is almost instantly apparent that Caine has been hired to reprise his performance as Alfred the Butler from the Christopher Nolan Batman films, but Caine does his best with the role despite the fact he is required to deliver dialogue like ‘I trust you were able to retrieve the weather runes without complications?’ It seems like Caine is just here for a cameo, anyway, as he is on the verge of retirement and due to be replaced by the youthful Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood). However, the elder Dolan is fatally clobbered by black magic and it is up to Vin and the new guy to avenge their friend! But could there be a deeper conspiracy at work…?

It strikes me there would be potential in a horror-comedy buddy-movie starring Vin Diesel and Elijah Wood as mismatched occult cops, but sadly The Last Witch Hunter is a Vin Diesel vehicle through and through, and Wood is stuck in a very subordinate role. The Vin Dieseliness of this film is so complete that it is apparently based on one of the characters the big man used to play in his Dungeons & Dragons games. (I feel if we could get transcripts of Vin’s old RPG sessions we might gain many insights into his creative identity.) Then again, one inevitably finds oneself wondering about the quality of Vin’s role-playing, as this is not a film which suggests he has a great range as an actor which he is keeping quiet about. As a reluctant supernatural warrior and man out of time, he gives exactly the same smirking, swaggering, smug performance that seems to be his default setting when not playing Dominic Toretto. He actually makes Christopher Lambert’s turn in a vaguely similar role in Highlander look nuanced and thoughtful, and Lambert was acting in a language not his own.

That said, nobody but Caine (and, just possibly, Wood) emerges from this film with any credit when it comes to acting, nor is the rest of it any more distinguished than I have suggested: this is a hugely derivative film, pinching indiscriminately from other action-fantasy films, and not doing anything to distinguish itself. It kind of functions at the most basic level, but just trundles along without ever becoming interesting or developing a life of its own: copious use of CGI does not in and of itself make a film interesting, although it does contain a moment where Vin delivers his trademark flying headbutt to a giant wooden insect (the film sorely needs more of this kind of thing).

Only the mystifying elements of the film make it distinctive: for instance, Rose Leslie turns up as a friendly witch who ends up helping Vin out, and you think, aha, here is the love interest. It certainly seems to be written that way, but for some reason the relationship remains very understated for no obvious reason. I know it is still the received wisdom that inter-racial relationships are probably best avoided in commercial movies (cf Will Smith’s non-romance with Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Gemini Man as another example), but is that really the reason for it? I suppose it is an example of what they call creative ambiguity.

I suppose it is an example of Vin Diesel’s star power that despite all of this, and some unfriendly reviews when it was released, The Last Witch Hunter was not actually a bomb, just about making enough money for a sequel to seem like a viable option. Before the world shut down, Diesel announced they were going through with it, but I suppose we shall just have to wait and see what the cinematic landscape looks like when the current situation eventually resolves itself. Personally, my fondness for Diesel remains undiminished, but I’m not in any hurry to see more outings for these characters.

Read Full Post »

Disney’s current near-hegemony at the box office is always just a bit more apparent at Christmas time, where for some years now it has been very apparent that everyone else is running scared of the power of the Mouse House. One sign of this is that other studios are releasing their festive movies absurdly early: bringing anything new out at a sensible time, like actually at Christmas, risks being squashed like a bug by their latest stellar conflict brand extension or whatever.

As a result, Paul Feig’s Last Christmas has been out since about the middle of November, which is plainly a bit ridiculous, especially when you consider the grim, steely determination with which it sets about spraying the audience with yuletide cheer, like an Uzi set to fully automatic. As is not entirely unexpected for a film heavily trading on affection for George Michael and his music, it opens with a choirgirl singing ‘Heal the Pain’. This is not unpleasant to listen to, but I was almost at once distracted by the fact she is apparently singing it in a church, in – according to a caption – Yugoslavia in 1999. Did they sing pop songs in Balkan churches in 1999? Was Yugoslavia even still around in 1999?

Best not to get too tangled up in such issues, anyway. For reasons which remain obscure, the bulk of the film is set at Christmas 2017, and concerns the now-grown choirgirl, Kate (Katarina to her family), who is played by Emilia Clarke. She is an aspiring musical theatre actress, but is going through a sort of ill-defined long-term personal crisis. She is also (initially at least, though this kind of gets forgotten about) a huge fan of George Michael and Wham, and (in the name of ensuring the film’s festivity quotient is maxed out) works in a year-round Christmas shop run by Michelle Yeoh.

It is while she is working here that she meets Tom, a mysterious stranger played by Henry Golding, in a more than usually contrived cute-meet involving a bird shitting on her face. All the usual stuff blossoms between the two of them, and slowly she begins to reassess her life, be more considerate of the people around her, and generally attempt to be a bit more positive… WAKE UP!!! (Sorry. I just know the effect that this sort of thing has on me, and I imagine it’s the same for other people.)

The first thing I should mention about Last Christmas is that it is a film built around a plot twist. Nothing wrong with that; many fine films can say the same. The thing about a good plot twist is that it should come as a complete and breathtaking surprise when it actually happens in the film, but (in retrospect) seem entirely reasonable. Last Christmas‘s plot twist does not quite reach these lofty heights: unless all the bulbs in your cerebral Christmas lights have blown, you will almost certainly be able to guess the twist just from watching the trailer. Even then, this wouldn’t necessarily be a fatal problem if most people were not then moved to say ‘That’s a really cheesy/stupid/terrible idea’. But they are. Hereabouts we respect plot integrity (even in bad movies), so I will simply suggest that the film’s plot pivots around a uniquely reductionist interpretation of some George Michael lyrics. Enough said.

So: basically, what we have here is the archetypal seasonal story, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, involved in a head-on smash with the Richard Curtis rom-com formula. Various often acceptable performers are scythed down by the ensuing shrapnel, and quite possibly members of the audience too. The story was thought up by Emma Thompson and her husband, and written down by Thompson and Bryony Kimmings, possibly all on the same afternoon. I can’t speak about Thompson’s husband or Kimmings, but Emma herself always struck me as a fairly smart cookie, and I am surprised to see her so signally fail to figure out that these two story-patterns are just not compatible. For the Christmas Carol pattern to work, you need to have a genuinely flawed character seriously in need of redemption. Rom-com characters are also flawed, as a rule, but not to anything like the same degree: the form requires them to be cute and loveable from the get-go. Last Christmas‘ problem – one of its problems – is that it can’t get over how wonderful it thinks Emilia Clarke’s character is. We are occasionally told what an awful person she is, but that’s all: the film is almost palpably needy in its attempts to make you root for and sympathise with her. Only having watched certain selected highlights of Musical Chairs on the internet, I am not really familiar with Emilia Clarke; but even if she really is as great an actress as my friends often assure me, she would need a much better script to make this particular character work.

It probably doesn’t help that she is sharing the screen for a lot of the film with Henry Golding, who is playing – and let me just pause for a moment here while I reflect upon the mot juste – a git. Specifically, he is a rom-com git, the kind of relentlessly warm, quirky, caring, decent chap guaranteed to evoke feelings of homicidal animosity in any right-thinking viewer (cf Michael Maloney in Truly, Madly, Deeply, for instance). As the name suggests, it takes an actor of significant skill, nuance, and charisma to transcend the essential gittishness of this kind of role and turn them into someone whose appearance in a scene does not cause the heart to sink. Golding brings to bear all the experience and technique he has acquired in his long career as a presenter of TV travel shows, and yet still somehow falls short.

There does seem to be something awfully calculated and insincere about Last Christmas, and I do wonder if this doesn’t extend to the casting. One of the trends I have noticed in commercial cinema over the last few years is the tendency to stick in a couple of Asian actors, just to help flog the film in the far east, and I can’t help wondering if the inclusion of Golding and Yeoh (Anglo-Malaysian and Chinese-Malaysian respectively) isn’t just another example of this sort of thing. It does make the various jokes in the film about the proliferation of horrible commercialised Christmas tat seem rather lacking in self-awareness, given the whole movie is horrible commercial Christmas tat itself. Nevertheless, we are assured this is ‘the Christmas film of the decade!’, although without specifying which one: possibly the 1340s.

It would be remiss of me to suggest that Last Christmas is all bad, of course: there was one moment which actually made me laugh, although as it featured Peter Serafinowicz this is not really surprising. Unfortunately he is only in the film for about a minute. The rest of it is fairly consistently horrible, containing weird plot holes, mistaking quirkiness for genuine wit, and failing to realise that feel-good moments only come at a price: you have to really believe the characters have been knocked down if you’re going to rejoice when they get up again. The film’s attempts at moments of genuine emotional seriousness and pain just feel trite, though I should note that Clarke is trying hard throughout. The film’s habit of occasionally sticking in a glib and superficial political subtext with little real bearing on the plot is also rather crass, and does rather jar with Emma Thompson’s sizeable performance as a comedy Yugoslavian immigrant.

In the end, this is all surface and sentimentality, without any real sense of believeable characters or genuine emotions, with a soundtrack of George Michael songs (seemingly picked at random) trying to hold it together. I imagine that admirers of this thing (and they must be out there, for it has made $68 million to date) would say that its heart is in the right place. Given how the plot turns out, this is somewhat ironic, but it’s not true, in any case. Last Christmas‘ heart is in the right place only if you believe the right place for a heart is between the ears.

Read Full Post »

Massed letter-writing campaigns and appeals to basic human decency have all clearly come to nothing, for the schedulers at the Horror Channel have plunged on with the second season of Space: 1999 regardless (you can take this ‘horror’ remit a bit too far). All you really need to know about the second season is that the show only got renewed by the skin of its teeth, and on condition that Gerry Anderson’s soon-to-be-ex-wife Sylvia was replaced as producer by someone more in tune with the demands of the US TV sci-fi audience. Who they got was Fred Freiberger, one of the most notorious figures in the history of the genre. Diligent Horror viewers can get enjoy a double helping of Freiberger every night at the moment – their SF-themed block of programming kicks off with a repeat of an episode of the third season of the original Star Trek (cancelled, and I am tempted to say deservedly, during Freiberger’s producership) and then concludes with Space: 1999 (ditto, except this time it was definitely deserved). Freiberger, later in his life, compared his encounters with science fiction and its fans to falling out of a plane during the Second World War and being held prisoner by the Nazis. He was in no doubt which was the less gruelling experience (hint: it was not the one with the plane).

To get maximum Freiberger (although God knows why you would want to) you should check out one of the episodes he wrote as well as produced. The most notorious of these, probably, is… well, first I should probably say that this was a UK-based production and the UK is doubtless an exotic place to many American visitors. Even the place names sound bizarre and alien (probably). And, we should remember, Freiberger’s remit was to think primarily of the American viewer, unfamiliar with the towns and cities of southern England. So it was that Freiberger decided it was perfectly reasonable to turn in a script entitled The Rules of Luton. (Legend has it he saw the name on a road sign while driving in to the studio one day.)

Now you and I might think that the rules of Luton mainly concern long-term parking at the airport and possibly the punishment for jumping the queue at one of the local curry houses, but Freiberger had a different take on this. The episode opens with a bunch of the characters en route to a mysterious new planet which they are going to survey in the hope it will provide a new home to the long-suffering inhabitants of Moonbase Alpha. (We are already pretty sure it won’t, as this would mean the end of the series.) However, just as they are about to land, their Eagle transporter springs a leak, and (in a somewhat questionable piece of decision-making) Commander Koenig (Martin Landau) opts to be dropped off there for a few hours, along with alien science officer Maya (Catherine Schell), while the pilot (someone from Howard’s Way) goes back for a fresh ship.

The planet seems very nice, helped no end by the fact this is one of the series’ most extensive location shoots, but things go badly wrong when (in another dodgy piece of decision-making) Koenig tucks into one of the local berries while Maya starts picking the flowers. There are wails of outrage from all around them! A booming, apparently disembodied voice (David Jackson, probably best known for playing Gan in Blake’s 7) decries them as criminals and cannibals. (Dude, it’s a berry. This isn’t cannibalism – Landau’s performances may be a bit ripe sometimes, but he ain’t no fruit, nor indeed a vegetable.)

Well, it turns out the planet is called Luton (the British cast-members do their best to salvage the situation by pronouncing it Luh-Tahn) and here the fruit and veg is running the place, and takes a dim view of flower-picking and vegetarianism. (Insert your own joke about vegans here.)  Some trees of great local importance inform Koenig and Maya that they will now be required to fight for their lives against other berry-eating recidivists, if they want to leave in one piece. Three actors in some of the dodgiest alien suits ever to make it onto a film set duly appear and wave bits of rock at them. The slightly mind-boggling thing is that the producers went ahead and hired what I can only describe as proper actors to play the opposition – looking rather like a green version of Lemmy in a costume which is mostly black leather and long hair is Jackson, again, while Roy Marsden (later to become a respectable TV face) is obliged to dress up as a mangy parrot. The third alien is played by Godfrey James – more of a jobbing actor than the other two, but still someone with a very respectable list of credits.

They were (reasonably) young, they needed the money…

Koenig’s laser-stapler doesn’t work on the aliens (a typical example of a brazen Freiberger plot device) and so he and Maya are obliged to leg it from the hostile trio. The boss tree makes a rather ominous announcement: in order to make this a fair fight, they have given the aliens ‘special powers’ which are the equal of those of Koenig and Maya. Even Koenig recognises this as being distinctly iffy, given they are outnumbered and all. Maya, admittedly, has the power to change into easily-trained animals and rubber-suit aliens, but what exactly is Martin Landau’s special power supposed to be? It’s certainly not the ability to lift a duff script.

Well, there’s a lot of chasing about, during which Koenig gets dinged, one of the aliens falls in a river and drowns, and so on, and so on. Meanwhile the chap from Howard’s Way is making good on his promise to return for them, even though the entire planet has vanished from his sensors (these trees are remarkably resourceful). What follows is a load more chasing about, with what looks very much like a cameo appearance by the killer vine from the Fluff Freeman segment of Dr Terror’s House of Horrors at one point.

The only non-chasing about element comes when our two heroes pause for what feels like a good ten minutes to share back-story with each other. Maya talks about her long-lost brother and the history of her planet; Koenig talks about his dead wife (killed in the Third World War of 1987 – don’t know about you, but I missed that at the time). It is an entirely unexpected piece of character-building, which leads me to conclude that a) Freiberger didn’t write this scene and b) it was something they had to come up with on location when the episode turned out to be running short. So far as I can recall, neither Mrs Koenig or Maya’s brother are mentioned at any other point in the series.

In the end it’s back to the chasing about. One of the noticeable things about Freiberger’s run on Space: 1999 is the extent to which the plots are thinly-disguised rip-offs of ones from original Star Trek, or at least contain virtually identical elements. So the replica Enterprise from The Mark of Gideon gives us the replica Moonbase Alpha of One Moment of Humanity, while the Space: 1999 episode New Adam, New Eve resembles a cross between Who Mourns for Adonais? and a wife-swapping party. The chief donor where The Rules of Luton is concerned is the iconic episode Arena, with all the usual Freiberger nonsense (super-powered aliens, absurd science, silly plot-devices) added to it. Arena concludes with Captain Kirk building a bamboo cannon to defeat his opponent. Rules of Luton concludes with Commander Koenig turning his jacket’s belt into a bolas with which he entangles Lemmy the alien’s legs: the alien promptly falls over and bumps his head, thus giving Koenig a win. He also gets to make a speech denouncing the cruelty and arrogance of the tree praesidium, stirring up trouble on Luton. Wisely, he and Maya make their departure before the gooseberries start rioting.

If you have travelled at all in the wonderful land we call SF, you do expect the script from Rules of Luton to be awful – what genuinely comes as a blow is how bad the direction is, considering this episode was overseen by Val Guest. Earlier in his career, Guest oversaw two hugely important and very accomplished British SF films – The Quatermass Xperiment and The Day the Earth Caught Fire – but here his work is just clumsy, with endless use of the same bits of footage. One wonders how severe the constraints on this production really were: the whole thing owes its existence to the fact that season 2 was given a very tight schedule, with twenty-four episodes to be made over no more than ten months. (From start to finish, season 1 was in front of the cameras from late 1973 to early 1975.) As a result Freiberger decided to double-bank some of the episodes, which is why Landau and Schell are so prominent here and yet peripheral characters in The Mark of Archanon (which isn’t quite as bad as this), and why this one is largely shot on location (the standing sets were being used by the other unit). Even so, filming a whole episode on location must have meant working at a hell of clip, which is presumably why the tipped-off viewer can apparently spot picnic tables and canoeists in some shots of the planet Luton. (I’ve never been able to bring myself to pay that much attention to it.)

So it’s rubbish, but like much of second season Space: 1999, it’s so extravagantly, uninhibitedly rubbish it’s almost enjoyable. One critic of the series has said ‘it is as bad as TV can get’, and I can see what he means. But would the world really be a better place without The Rules of Luton? I can’t quite bring myself to say so.

(Ho ho – when the Horror Channel first broadcast Rules of Luton, not long after showing the Freiberger-produced subtlety-free racism allegory Let That Be Your Last Battlefield, the transmitters battled on heroically for most of the episode before packing up in shame midway through the closing credits. The Horror Channel was off the air for over an hour. Lord knows what will happen when they show Space Warp.)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »