Sinbad!

Indicator’s recent box-set (the first in a series of Harryhausen sets) contains UK blu-ray premier’s of the Sinbad trilogy, with the usual great special features we have come to expect. I may struggle to get through those extras, but the films? Well, I’ve no wish to add to the ‘to watch’ pile, and I intend to justify every 2017 purchase by actually watching them, so this past week it’s been a Sinbad triple-bill at Ghost Hall…

7thvoy1The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

The oldest of the three films, it shows its age in places but also likely benefits from that age in its bold, technicolour-drenched, almost gothic stylings that lend it a similar charm to the best of Hammer of that period. The comic book-styled colours, and deep dark shadows are particularly vivid and atmospheric-it looks like a timeless European fantasy, unfortunately handicapped by the casting of two incongruous American leads- the bland Kerwin Matthews as Sinbad and a frankly terrible Kathryn Grant (who thankfully retired from acting soon after). The film is enlivened considerably by Torin Thatcher as the villain, Sokurah. He chews up the scenery and hugely improves the film- a towering over the top pantomime sorcerer, a joy to witness. He’s about the only human aspect to match up to Harryhausen’s wonderfully imaginative stop-motion creatures. The increased grain of the process photography doesn’t do the film any favours, especially in this beautiful new HD master, but the imagination and craft in the design, building and animation of the creatures is brilliant. The film remains a timeless classic and is served by a spectacular Bernard Herrmann  score that is probably the finest musical accompaniment to any Harryhausen feature.

golden12017.40: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

As the prefix above suggests, somehow I’d never seen this Sinbad film before. The surprising gap between this film and its predecessor results in a new cast and an initially disorientating change of approach. The cast is a definite improvement- John Phillip Law as Sinbad and the gorgeous Caroline Munro as his voluptuous love-interest. Initially Law struck me as an odd-looking Sinbad but I warmed to him considerably as the film went on; a good actor with great screen presence. Munro… well, she doesn’t have to act, she just looks incredible and I always had a crush on her as a young lad- well, what young man in the 1970s wouldn’t? You’d have to be a Vulcan with green blood in your veins not to fall under her spell. This is actually one of her better performances/movies, and as I’d never seen the film before a genuine treat.

The change of approach with the movie is also a bit surprising but quite commendable. It has a bigger budget and a more accomplished scale and style; less European fantasy and more real-world Arabic adventure, helped no end by some great location shooting. Harryhausen’s creations are as fantastic and memorable as ever, but by now his stop-motion technique was showing its age and limitations in the photographic process all the more apparent. Certainly the leap in grain and the impact on mattes leave the film suffering in HD. It’s a great pity but the beauty of these films is that they are such fun and so imaginative in design that you can easily forgive the limitations in the fakery. It’s still movie magic and few cgi creations have the heart and soul of a Harryhausen creation.

And I still haven’t mentioned Tom Baker as the villain, another evil magician, Koura. Less the panto villain of Thatcher’s Sokurah, Koura is more ‘real’, more genuine, and Baker is brilliant. This film was great, possibly the best of the three and I look forward to delving into the discs special features.

eyetiger1Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Oh dear. Horrible. Time (and Star Wars) finally caught up with Harryhausen, and although fans will always forgive the faults inherent in his stop-motion effects, this time the film around them was truly terrible. It’s also likely why this boxset exists- I can imagine genre fans rushing to buy 7th Voyage and, having now seen it, Golden Voyage, but really, how many would fork out hard-earned dosh on nonsense like Eye of the Tiger? I watched it once for completists sake having watched the other two, but now this disc is back in the box where it will stay. Sure, a Sinbad box makes sense but really, it’s surely the only way this film would ever sell.

To be fair, it’s not helped by the film committing one of my very worst pet hates in film- it runs the opening scenes under the title credits. I hate that. I much prefer text over a blank screen, or over graphics, whatever, but not over the opening shots of a film. Worse than that, the film compounds this heresy by showing the closing titles over the closing scenes of the film. The plot of the film involves rescuing the prince from his curse, returning him to human form and ensuring his coronation before the time limit, and then just as our heroes are triumphant and we see the fruits of their labours, boom, full-colour text is processed over the valedictory sequence. Horrible. I hate it.

Another thing, no matter how bad Kerwin Matthews was in 7th Voyage, Patrick (son of John) Wayne is even worse. Its Sinbad channeling a young Clint Eastwood. Seriously, close your eyes and listen to him- maybe it is his American drawl, but he sounds like he is actually mimicking Clint. Its utterly bizarre, and quite out of keeping with a Sinbad fantasy. There seems to be little chemistry between himself and Jane Seymour too, and Seymour herself is a pale reflection of Munro’s sultry heroine of the previous film. It’s all pretty weak and insipid, frankly: the villain (a sorceress this time, with a son for a stooge) is much inferior to those of the first two films, and the direction fairly uninspired. Even the music score is a pale shadow of the Herrmann and Rozsa scores previous. No, I really didn’t like it. Why waste time with this when you can rewatch one of the previous two?

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Zimmer’s Blade Runner…

br2049Ouch. Consider this possibly the first real negative news about the upcoming Blade Runner sequel: Hans Zimmer is working on the soundtrack. Not necessarily a case of ‘Johannsson out, Zimmer in’ (which really would be a case of the film jumping the shark in my view), but all the same, bit worrying. Sure, Zimmer has done some good scores, but these days much of it sounds like sound design rather than score (in order to get some emotion for Dunkirk they had to dig out Elgar for crying out loud).

To quote a new interview with director Denis Villeneuve: “Johann Johannsson of Iceland composes the main theme as planned. However, given the scale of the task, Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer joined the team to help Johann. It’s hard to get to Vangelis’ angle. We have Johann’s breathtaking atmospheric sounds, but I needed other things, and Hans helped us” (Studio Cine Live).

I would much rather have seen/heard Johannsson left alone, doing his own thing and using his own voice to give the film, well, its own voice, like the film Arrival had. Too many modern film scores sound like Zimmer even when he didn’t do the soundtrack; his ‘sound’ is too pervasive and it can be argued has actually hurt film scoring in general. My one hope about Johannsson doing the score was that it would hopefully sound new, fresh, exciting, just as Vangelis’ score did back in 1982.  Besides which, I don’t think this film should even really have that Vangelis ‘sound’. This film isn’t Blade Runner 1982, its Blade Runner 2017 (well, I know it’s actually ‘2049’ but you know what I mean).

 

Beauty and the Box-Office Beast

batb1.jpg2017.39: Beauty and the Beast (2017)

Why is there a new live-action Disney Beauty and the Beast? It is a valid question, surely. I can only imagine it’s something to do with making money- well of course it is, otherwise it would be about adding something new to the cultural zeitgeist of the 21st Century and, well, this ain’t. Its surely also rather more about furthering egos and careers at the same time as Disney continues its almost incestuous trend of rebooting its back-catalogue of animated classics (previously rebooting Cinderella and Jungle Book, and I suppose Sleeping Beauty in its Maleficent, although I’d give that film points for trying a new angle).

In many respects, this Beauty and the Beast is just another example of an ideas-adverse/intellectually deficient Hollywood in action. And I’m afraid to say, it works: depressingly, this film is the biggest-grossing film of this year, so far. Currently something in the region of $1.2 billion worldwide. So more Disney reboots seem inevitable, for one thing- if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as they say.

Watching this film was a somewhat bizarre experience of re-experiencing something I had never seen before. Indeed, at its worst, it seems to follow so closely the original 1991 film, its as if that film was a pre-vis animated storyboard such as they use on many films these days. At its best, the film diverts somewhat, with three new musical numbers and added back-story for some of the characters, the brooding feeling of deja-vu dissipating somewhat as something actually new appears.

But it is such a strange viewing experience, caught in some kind of Philip K Dick-style alternate reality, wondering what the bloody hell is going on. I knew very little of this film going into it, and actually wondered if it would have any musical numbers at all. In hindsight, I must have been some kind of bloody idiot. This is the 1991 Beauty and the Beast done in live-action, musical numbers and all… well, I say live-action; there is an awful lot of digital set-augmentation, digital characters and post-production tinkering of the image in general that at times it looks more animated than live-action, resulting in an almost painterly style to the image that, while it may be pretty to look at does actually make me wonder what actually defines as ‘live-action’ these days.

This 2017 edition is not a terribly bad film by any means, and it does have its moments, but its very existence is rather depressing, and it’s huge box-office success even more so, for what that success portends. I do find it very disheartening how easily the current generation of entertainment industry ‘luvvies’, from actors to directors to producers to craftsmen so readily exult in cannibalising the work and success of those that came before them. As if rejoicing that there is nothing new under the sun and how easy it is to retread paths already taken, basking in the box-office glow that all that audiences want is more of the same but with added sparkle.

I hate the new Star Trek reboots, despair at ‘new’ Alien movies and endless POTC films and Transformers films and all the rest. I really should be concerned that even my beloved Blade Runner is not impervious to current trends. They recently released a ‘new’ Spider Man film and I didn’t bother to even go see it; the thought never occurred to me- a sixth Spider Man film already, and the second reboot too, it just feels ridiculous.

Being a film-lover and writer of a blog such as this is, films like this Beauty and the Beast, as efficiently made as it is, and all the other reboots and remakes and sequels and prequels feels like a never-ending tide. Of course it is too sweeping a generalisation to suggest that this is all that there is, but it is all rather alarming. Yes there are ‘new’ films being made and not all reboots are pointless. But this tide is just getting stronger and I wonder how long it might continue or where it ultimately leads.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

stigmata“She was a redhead and he liked redheads; they were either outrageously ugly or almost supernaturally attractive.” 

Thankfully I still have quite a number of Philip K Dick novels to read; the guy was nothing if not prolific, with a huge body of work. Reading a PKD novel or story for the first time is a very welcome treat, but it can prove to be addictive. Once you’ve experienced PKD’s rather unique mindset, you find its rather seductive, and as you’ve finished one novel or short story, its all too easy to reach for another. Another ‘fix’. Which is an interesting analogy considering that The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, which I’ve just read and was originally published back in 1965, is a story partly about addiction and drug-induced hallucinated alternate worlds. And God. And aliens. Well, God as an alien, infecting the realities of those who try the new drug that this God has brought from deep space. Sounds odd? Welcome to the mind of that genius visionary Philip K Dick.

The funny thing about PKD, is that its easy to get the impression he is making up the story as he goes- its not often that I ever get the feeling anything is really planned out or reasoned before he wrote it. I may well be wrong, but it does seem that he simply takes a proposition or turn of thought and runs with it, sees where it goes. There’s a sense of chaos under everything, as if anything could happen next. One of the best things about his stories is when he indeed pulls the rug from under you, suddenly twists the story into a new direction. Usurps your expectations and, most of the time, your sense of reality. You think its one thing, and then it turns into another.

stig2In the case of The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, you find yourself wondering if what is happening to the characters is ‘real’ or just another hallucination, like dreams within dreams, layers of hallucinatory experiences. Time has little meaning- someone under the influence of the drug might be unconscious for just minutes in the ‘real world’ but years or even decades could go by in the strange hallucinatory world he/she might find themselves in – indeed, even trapped in, as Palmer Eldritch/God proves to be rather dangerous and threatening in his/its own attempt at survival.  Is reality being infected by God, as he manifests himself everywhere like some kind of virus, a multitude of Palmer Eldritch’s, or is it just another fantasy? Is it God that has infected Eldritch or some alien approximation? I often think PKD is always writing on the edge, reconsidering where he is going, threatening to go racing off in some other path entirely on a whim. It makes his stories rather challenging but also greatly rewarding.

There’s certainly no way there will ever be a film based on The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. But I’d love to see one.

 

Hail the King

2017.38: Kong: Skull Island (2017)

kong1If Lara Croft was a photographer, then she’d look like Brie Larson in Kong: Skull Island. Not that Lara Croft: Tomb Photographer is a likely prospect for a future film/videogame, but its definitely the ‘look’ they were going for.

Kong: Skull Island is immense fun. Its one of my biggest genuine surprises of the year so far- its a film that from the trailers looked pretty lackluster to be honest, so the film didn’t really interest me too much- I gave it a miss at the cinema, as I expected it to be just another cgi snore-fest. Boy, was I wrong.

As it turns out, yes it is a cgi-fest in places but that cgi is very well done, indeed technically audacious and quite imaginatively executed with some thoughtful design choices and while it is a fairly dumb film,  its also great fun. The cast is great, the script witty and the direction has considerable flair. Its a far better film than I expected and really much, much better (and decidedly less calculated/by the numbers) than the recent Jurassic Park reboot.

Kong himself is huge here- I mean, crazily, ridiculously, mentally over-sized, but I suppose its all part of the intentional, over-the-top fun of the whole piece. This Kong is literally Godlike, a gigantic force of nature to finally put puny man in his place. This Kong won’t get beaten by humans in their war planes- this King tosses around helicopters straight from Apocalypse Now as if they are playthings. Its like monster-movie revenge for the 1933 original finale (and that of the 1976 and 2005 remakes); gloriously rewriting the traditional Kong story- I can almost imagine this being a Joe Dante movie, its so like Gremlins in how it has such naughty fun subverting conventions of earlier Kongs. Its glee could only be intensified had it somehow got a Jerry Goldsmith score similar to his riotous Gremlins score.Yeah, a Joe Dante King Kong movie- this is nearly it.

With credentials like that, this film is a must-watch. I can still hardly believe it, and can’t wait to watch it again. If they can keep the creative team together,  the Godzilla vs Kong mooted to follow will be an absolute riot. Hail the King indeed.

Into The Depths

2017.37: Leviathan (1989)

levi4For any genre fan of my age, the cast is to die for: Peter Weller (Robocop, Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, The Naked Lunch), Richard Crenna (Rambo 1, 2 & 3), Amanda Pays (Max Headroom), Daniel Stern (DOA, Diner, Blue Thunder), Ernie Hudson (Ghostbusters), Meg Foster (They Live)… A cast like that, you’d think Leviathan would at the very least be a poor-man’s The Abyss with a gloriously nostalgia-filled 1980’s genre cast- forget the movie, just bask in the nostalgic joy of seeing these stalwarts of 1980’s-era genre film and tv in something ‘new.’  Well, as ‘new’ as a film can be when you watch it for the first time when it is, what, something like 28 years old. You have to make allowances I guess, and just, yes, enjoy the nostalgia.

But it is so bad it isn’t even that- indeed, it’s just a stark reminder of just how good Alien, The Abyss and The Thing were, because this film is a horrible imitator of all three- a dodgy replicant, if you’ll forgive another reference to Blade Runner here, and a reminder that the fondest memories of actors can be sullied by the reality that they appeared in bad films too- talent no indicator of quality.  Actors are just working people looking for jobs/gigs, jumping from film to film, tv show to tv show. Just as long as it pays. Rarely the job turns out to be something classic or memorable. Over the years we tend to remember the good ones and forget/ignore the rest- well, this is clearly one of ‘the rest’.

Leviathan came out originally in 1989 at around the same time as Deepstar Six and The Abyss, imitation clearly the sincerest form of flattery and that year undersea thrillers were the next Big Thing (except it wasn’t, all three films failed at the box office). Well, I loved The Abyss, but steered clear of the other two. Until now, with Leviathan rising up from the depths and dragging me back down with it.

A deep-sea mining base on the ocean depths stumbles upon the sunken wreck of a Soviet vessel and unwittingly becomes contaminated by the genetic experiments that were taking place before the Soviets evidently scuttled the ship to destroy/hide their grisly work. The opening half of the film seem overly familiar but also almost gently quaint, in how the scene is set and the motley characters established- its all very Alien– indeed, the Alien nods in particular seem endless and continue behind the camera- Ron Cobb was a production designer, so the sets look like the Nostromo and indeed Deepcore from The Abyss (which he also worked on), and the score was by Jerry Goldsmith (although to be fair, it sounds nothing like his Alien score). But you know, as guilty pleasures such as Event Horizon (and better efforts like Sunshine) will tell you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sci-fi film with nods to Alien- it can almost be cosy and reassuring. The cast is along the lines of so many ensemble films like Alien, we see them at work, we see them come upon the derelict, watch them enter and stumble upon a horror that they unwittingly bring back aboard their own ship whereupon after a lull the true horror begins…. wait, what film am I watching here…? You get the idea.

But Leviathan is vastly inferior, not just to Alien and The Thing, but to both Event Horizon and Sunshine too- and if that statement makes you nervous then good for you, you’ll know to never give in to nostalgic temptation and ever give this film a try. Well, here’s one I took for the team then.

levi2Seeing Peter Weller and Amanda Pays and Richard Crenna back ‘in their prime’ as it were is always something good, but this film can’t even be saved by pleasant surprises such as seeing Amanda in the shower in her underwear, a reminder of something of a crush I had back in the day watching her in Max Headroom (God, I’d long forgotten, was I ever that young?)It’s really a pretty empty and banal film all told, sodden (well, it is underwater) with cliches and predictable plot points and general stupidity. Nothing really surprises, and to be honest it is the awful execution of everything- the cinematography and lighting (the sets are shot in such an unimaginative way devoid of tension or atmosphere), the creature effects are laughable (even with Stan Winston’s crew involved). In truth, the best thing about Leviathan is that it makes you appreciate the achievements of films like Alien and The Thing even more. It makes you realize just how difficult those films must have been to make and how much they just get so right. The casting, the photography, the music, the pacing, the visual/creature effects… they get so much so right, and that why they are deemed classics, decades later, when imitators like Leviathan just sink (sorry, couldn’t resist).

Life’s A Beach

dunkirk2017.36: Dunkirk (2017)

My long-standing opinion of Christopher Nolan is that he is very similar to Stanley Kubrick, in that he is very technically adept with the logistics and craft of film-making, but doesn’t really have the skills to facilitate the dramatic aspects. His films are cold and clinical, more an intellectual exercise than an emotional one. Further to this, I must make the point that on this intellectual level, Nolan’s films are inferior to Kubrick’s if only because Nolan doesn’t make such interesting films as Kubrick did.  Nolan’s space epic Interstellar is vastly inferior to Kubrick’s 2001, for instance.

This opinion is in no way revised following watching Dunkirk, a film clearly impressive as a work of logistics and craft but as lacking in emotional content (despite the endless hysterics of Hans Zimmer’s noisy score) as anything Nolan has done. It is a very good film and one easy to admire- the sound design is quite extraordinary and many of the visuals highly impressive, but as with most (if not all) of Nolan’s films, I have to question any emotional involvement with any of the characters, any sense of really knowing anybody. The characters seem to be pieces on a chess board moved with clinical precision without really knowing how or why they are there- their mindset or purpose or what makes them tick utterly unknown, almost as if they were the monoliths of Kubrick’s 2001.

Which is not to suggest that Dunkirk is a bad film. It is just that there is a hollowness in Nolan’s films that I find personally frustrating that precludes his films ever really achieving the greatness that so many critics seem so keen to label them with. Of course comparing Nolan’s films with blockbuster fodder such as the  Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, they are practically high art and deserve all the accolades they get, but films can be more. I do worry that such inevitable comparisons elevate Nolan’s work to a stature they don’t truly deserve, for we are where we are in film entertainment and we truly do lack the serious film-making talent of people like Kubrick.

dunkirk2When I watched Dunkirk at my local Cineworld, there was an advert for films in Imax and 4D and 3D, as if all audiences are after is sensory overload and the thrill of the new, whether it be cgi spectacle or the actual methodology of viewing, etc, as opposed to quality drama or acting. It matters if your seat shakes, it seems, or the sound is all around you or if the image is huge or reaches ‘out’ to you in 3D, more than if the film is well-written and directed with skill and dramatic flair or acted well. In some ways Dunkirk is symptomatic of this trend. It is very loud and visually impressive with plenty of ‘wow’ moments and the soundtrack relentlessly hammers at you as Zimmer tends to at his worst (more sound effects design than scoring, here) but does it really involve on a deep level? Do we ever really get to ‘know’ these characters or what makes them tick, really care whether they live or die? Dunkirk portrays an event but what does it say to us about that event?

So Dunkirk is ultimately a frustrating experience, at least for me. Yes I could well praise its editorial conceit of telling three seperate stories over three time-periods that interact with each other at particular moments of the film, or note Nolan’s evident fascination with such plays with time in several of his films. But beyond its success on an intellectual level, does it ever really facilitate any more emotional involvement than a simple chronological telling might have managed? Early on I was distracted by continuity errors in lighting and time of day until I realised what Nolan was doing with his three timelines/stories. No doubt it’s a tricky feat what he was pulling off and many critics adore Nolan for that kind of stuff but I have to wonder what his films gain with it.

So anyway, Dunkirk is a good film but I hesitate to heap the praise upon it that others seem to be rushing to. Maybe I’m missing something. I am sure this film will be very successful at the box office and many will simply adore it. But I fear that there is a trend in film these days to elevate the technologies of film-making over the decades-old basics of good storytelling. Maybe Kubrick would have loved these new tools and made films inferior to Nolans, I don’t know. I just have to wonder what are we losing with everything we gain?

And yes, I hope that Nolan finally really achieves greatness with his films when he realises the skill of empathy and emotional content as much as his skill with logistics. To be fair, that’s a film I really want to see., and I dearly hope to see it. Someday. Dunkirk just isn’t it.

Half Man, Half Ant, All Terror!

matinee2017.35: Matinee (1993)

One of the few Joe Dante films I hadn’t seen, I admit I’m spectacularly late to the party with this one. As it turns out, it’s an utterly charming film that deserves a reappraisal- it may turn out to be one of Dante’s very best. It has the feel of The Burbs, and if you enjoy that film, I’m sure you will love this one. It has that same gentle tone of warm comedy and pokes fun at its characters and its situations- anyone who grew up watching the sci-fi b-movies made in the 1950s, full of Cold War paranoia and wild fears of radiation will find much to enjoy with its film-within-a-film, Mant! which serves as a delicious tribute to all those old movies (“oh, Bill….!”).

And of course, being a Joe Dante picture, there are plenty of actor cameos from other Dante films, which offers a great drinking game for genre fans- it is like meeting old friends and it is fun noting them and the other Dante films they appeared in. It even has a great little score by Jerry Goldsmith that serves to remind us how much films have lacked since his passing, and how much soundtrack music has changed for the worse.

What surprised me was just how substantial the film is. It doesn’t just poke fun at old 1950s b-movies, it recalls with some sincerity the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and an era when nuclear apocalypse was a very real fear. There is a wonderful juxtaposition of the real crisis and the real drama, reflected in  the exploitation of horror movies of the time with their giant insects and science gone horribly wrong.

Sometimes films are made and released at just the wrong time, and for no fault of their own fail to find an audience. Thankfully, sometimes they eventually get their due and I suspect that this Arrow edition on Blu-ray will ensure that Matinee is now discovered by genre fans who missed it first time around, if only they will give it a try. Certainly it is a must-see for any Joe Dante fan. Why in the world is he no longer making films?