My friend and colleague Alan Bligh passed away on Friday 26th May.
Obviously it is difficult to sit here and write these words, trying to marshal my thoughts as a blank screen stares back at me, willing me to type something, anything. It seems appropriate to begin when I first became acquainted with Alan, which as a lot of my friendships have done, came through my employment at Games Workshop.
In the summer of 2010 I began working as a Graphic Designer in Forge World, where the Dark Lord, as he was affectionately known from time to time, served as the lead writer on the Imperial Armour series of books. Being a tight knit team, I worked closely with him and struck up a rapport with him based on our mutual love of sci-fi/horror/fantasy b-movies, history, politics and general culture, both low, high and pop. In fact there was barely a rare factoid or piece of useless, but always interesting trivia that Alan couldn’t summon up from his vast well of esoteric knowledge.
We discovered that we both shared a great fondness for Nottingham’s Broadway arts cinema, due to its habit of occasionally showing our favourite genre pictures and hosting the annual Mayhem horror film festival, the various offerings of which spurred on several reviews on this very blog.
Alan was a man big in both spirit and generosity as well as intellect. He was always ready to give his time, his talent and his thoughts to anyone who had need of them whether in the office or outside of it. Our many long chats over countless cups of tea (always tea!) about films, literature and toy soldiers provided the major inspiration and impetus for me to start this blog, so in a small way I hope that its existence serves as a tribute to him.
There have already been several heartfelt, and doubtless more eloquent eulogies to Alan’s memory than what I have put down here, written by those who were closer to him than I. In particular those published on the blogs of messrs John French and Aaron Dembski-Bowden, both very close friends to Alan, give a true measure of his character in a way that my humble prose can in no way hope to evoke.
His passing leaves a gaping hole, not only in the lives of his family and friends, but also in the Games Workshop hobby that he loved so much, and the invaluable contribution that he made to its fictional lore through his prose.
For those who knew Alan well, and those who enjoyed only a cursory acquaintance with him, down to those countless individuals across the world who never had to chance to meet Alan, but continue to be immersed and fascinated by the work that he has left behind, the news of his passing has been met with obvious shock, sadness, but also many beautiful words. Which is more than fitting for a man who loved the written word so much.
This one is going to be a bit longer than my usual posts, but it’s a subject I’ve been mulling over writing about for a while now, and I’ve built up a head of steam in anticipation of committing my thoughts to paper (sic). I refer to the oft maligned 1984 film adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal science fiction novel Dune. Although fans of the novel remain divided over the film’s merits, personally I consider it to be the most successful attempt to capture the spirit of Herbert’s multi-layered universe on screen. And from the point of view of a film buff, I’m an unapologetic fan of Lynch’s version due to its sheer uniqueness in terms of its visual texture and otherworldly atmosphere.
First then a bit of background. It was either the fag end of 1984 or the beginning of ‘85 when I was taken to see Dune as an excitable sci-fi and fantasy obsessed nine year old. As I sat shrouded in the darkness of the ABC picture house in Leeds, what unfolded on the big screen was the strangest big screen feature that I’d yet experienced. My vague and fragmentary memories of this time recall that the marketing of the film made it out to be the next Star Wars or Star Trek, so I’d been led to expect a slew of the usual fast paced space battles and alien menageries. Although I remember feeling much disappointment when this turned out not to be the case, the film did leave a deep impression on me, perhaps because I found the narrative so incomprehensible, but also because the look and feel of the whole thing was so distinctive and esoteric. I’d never really seen anything quite like it, and the experience lodged itself firmly in my youthful memory.
Fast forward a few years, and age, along with several repeat screenings on late night Channel 4 (for any non British readers, this is the UK’s channel for more niche and left field material. Perfect for Dune then!) had caused me to reappraise the film. It’s disappointing box office and portentous tone had relegated it to bargain bin status and critical ridicule by the this point, and opinion among fans of the book still remained divided. Around this time, I got the urge to read the novel, in large part in order to try and fill in the gaps in the film. This happily connected all the dots and made the film adaptation a lot more comprehensible, while also having the fortuitous side effect of introducing me to the literary wonders of the Dune mythos. I’m guessing most readers of this blog are familiar with the novel; a sprawling science fiction epic encompassing themes of politics, religion, ecology and humanity’s evolutionary potential. If not,then a browse on Wikipedia will bring you up to speed, or better still grab a copy and enjoy. It’s the biggest selling science fiction novel ever for a reason (and it’s in my my top five favourite books of all time, but that’s for another blog).
I really did start to reappraise the film at this time and I still think that nothing like it has really been attempted before or since. Dune was a brave attempt to put a fictional universe of astonishing complexity on screen, and attempt to tell the story in just over two hours (Lynch’s original cut was just over three hours, but the studio demanded a shorter running time to make it more commercially viable). This was always going to be an unenviable task, and it’s a tribute to the skills of everyone involved in its production that it happened at all. So yes, Dune was a failure in many ways, but what a glorious failure! For anyone who has not yet seen it (cheap as chips on Amazon Prime), the most succinct way to describe it is as a historical epic set with science fiction trappings with a great dollop of drug induced mysticism thrown in. But given the complexity of the source material, how did the project get to the big screen at all?
The journey of Dune from page to screen was certainly a chequered one. The book’s author Frank Herbert had originally had it published in serial form in Analog magazine in the early sixties and had been turned down by numerous publishers before finally being picked up by Chilton, a publisher of car manuals, in 1965. Like Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings, Herbert’s novel benefitted greatly from the advent of the sixties counter culture, whose adherents identified with the elements of mysticism, environmentalism and trippy space drugs prevalent in the story. Publishing rights in the UK were snapped up by the left wing publisher Gollancz, and Herbert’s achievement was recognised by his peers when Dune won the coveted Hugo award.
The novel’s success inevitably attracted Hollywood, and the rights were optioned by 20th Century Fox producer Arthur P. Jacobs, fresh from his success with Planet of the Apes (1968). The project was still in development by the time of Jacob’s untimely death in 1973, and Fox let the rights lapse.They were picked up by a French business consortium that proceeded to hire the avant garde Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky to direct a feature length adaptation of Dune.
The saga of Jodorowsky’s attempt to bring his vision of Dune to the screen is worth a blog all of its own, and is covered in great detail in the excellent documentary film Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013). I highly recommend it, and also his later graphic novel series The Metabarons, for anyone searching for visual clues as to how this version might have looked.
After Jodorowsky’s project collapsed due to burgeoning costs, a few years elapsed before the project was handed to the British director Ridley Scott, then enjoying the success of his second feature Alien in 1979. The massive box office returns of Star Wars in 1977 had signalled to the studios that science fiction was a potential goldmine. Paramount studios had been encouraged to reignite its moribund Star Trek property, and the hunt was on for the next big thing. The Dune project was thus resurrected, however Frank Herbert was reportedly unhappy with Scott’s treatment of his novel (several major changes to the story in the script reportedly included an incestuous relationship between the central protagonist Paul Atreides and his mother the Lady Jessica) and Scott struggled to come up with a satisfying adaptation, quickly moving on to the project that would result in Blade Runner (1982).
By this time the rights to Dune had been acquired by the Italian born movie mogul Dino De Laurentiis, a producer of several hits and just as many misses at the box office including a number of collaborations with the director auteur Federico Fellini. De Laurentiis and his daughter Rafaella chose the young American experimental filmmaker David Lynch to adapt a screenplay of Dune with Lynch also attached to direct.
Lynch had previously directed the surrealist nightmare Eraserhead (1977), and his first major studio feature The Elephant Man (1980) had gotten him noticed. George Lucas had offered Lynch the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi (1983), but the director had turned it down in favour of Dune. On December 14th 1984 Dune was released theatrically in the US. It’s budget was $40million, and the North American box office took $30million. The film was considered a massive flop, and Lynch, who had not had final cut stated that the experience nearly caused him to walk away from the film industry. Unsurprisingly Lynch rarely mentions Dune in interviews, but stated years afterwards –
“I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in, there was so much room to create a world. But I got strong indications from [producers] Raffaella and Dino De Laurentiis of what kind of film they expected, and I knew I didn’t have final cut. And little by little – and this is the danger, because it doesn’t happen in chunks, it happens in the tiniest little shavings, little sandings – little by little every decision was always made with them in mind and their sort of film. Things I felt I could get away with within their framework. So it was destined to be a failure, to me.”
Despite Lynch’s unhappy experience, I genuinely think that he managed to craft the best adaptation of Dune that was possible at the time, given the twin constraints of technology and interference from above. Frank Herbert was on record at the time as being generally happy with the film, with a few quibbles (the film implies that Paul has developed the powers of a god by the end, whereas in the novel, he is merely a man playing god, still at the mercy of events over which he has little or no control over). One gets the impression that Herbert was just happy to get a half decent version of his story on the silver screen given the amount of development wrangles it had been through since the early seventies, and who could have blamed him?
So why do I love Dune? I‘ve already stated that the film has a unique look to it, a visual texture that evokes the interplanetary feudal society and its fear of technology (specifically artificial intelligence, or ‘thinking machines’ as they are referred to in the narrative.) The production design by Anthony Masters (2001: A Space Odyssey) is superb, and does so much to immerse the viewer in the Dune universe. Whenever I read any of the Dune novels, the look of the setting in my mind’s eye is that of the 1984 film.
Likewise with the cast. Every actor and actress is perfectly suited to their role. Even the Harkonnen’s, who are transformed into true Lynchian grotesques in the film as opposed to their more one dimensional baddie personas in the novel don’t feel too out of place, given the sheer weird inventiveness of Lynch’s visuals in the rest of the film.
The synthesiser score by Toto perhaps dates the film for some people, but again, for me it just seems to suit the otherworldliness of the material so well, especially when accompanied by Brian Eno’s ‘Prophecy’ theme. Although Dune is a human-centric universe, these are humans with very different attitudes and outlooks to our own, so different in fact, that they may as well be aliens from another planet.
In our current world of Netflix and Amazon Originals along with sci-fi and fantasy extravaganzas like The Lord of The Rings and Hobbit trilogy’s, not the mention the penchant for ‘extended universe’ franchises, perhaps the tragedy of Lynch’s Dune is that it arrived way ahead of its time. In 2000, the Sci-Fi Channel produced a three part mini-series adaptation of Dune, which, while a fair effort, and also being a more faithful adaptation of Herbert’s novel, lacked the visual majesty and atmosphere displayed in Lynch’s version.
The mini-series was generally well received though, and at the time, was Sci-Fi’s most profitable production, spawning a sequel; Children of Dune (2003), that adapted both Dune Messiah, and the eponymously titled story.
With modern audiences now a lot more sophisticated and arguably open to more challenging material, rumours of a Dune remake have been doing the rounds for years on the internet. The project seems to have been stuck in development hell (a familiar story!), but the word around the campfire is that Denis Villeneuve (Sicario, Arrival) is attached as director. Given that Villeneuve has helmed the upcoming Blade Runner 2049, this bodes well if the footage released of this film is anything to go by. Time will tell if the French Canadian director can deliver a version of Dune that can exceed David Lynch’s quirky eighties masterpiece.
Apologies for the lack of blogging over the last few months, all that boring ‘real life’ stuff keeps getting in the way! I’m resolved to start disciplining myself to trying to post at least one or two missives per month this year as I really feel the need to start exercising the writing muscles again.
What dark corners of the cinematic underbelly have I been visiting then? Well, I’m been on a bit of a horror binge lately, so I’ve been diving into Netflix and Amazon to see what delights are on offer.
First up was the Evil Dead remake, continuing the glut of new versions of classic 70’s and early 80’s stalk and slash splatter classics. The premise of the original stays largely intact, but with the interesting twist of the main female protagonist Mia (Jane Levy) being brought to the cabin in the woods by her friends who are planning to stage an intervention over her drug addiction. I was wondering whether the film would make any play with this, perhaps introducing an element of ambiguity (are the subsequent horrific events all in Mia’s tortured mind as she undergoes cold turkey?)
Alas, the writers aren’t brave enough to go down this route, and we end up with a stock splatter movie with added gloss due to a budget higher than the threepence that Raimi and Tapert funded the gloriously overblown original with, but minus the anarchic gross out comedic edge. Average.
Next was an interesting little found-footage flick called TheBay that popped up on Netflix. I’m inclined to think that the found-footage format has long run it course, but in this case it’s the right vessel for the film’s faintly ridiculous premise of hormone riddled chicken poop being pumped into Chesapeake Bay, wherein a species of tiny ocean parasite feed on it, infects the drinking water, and…you get the picture. Manifesting first as a viral outbreak, the film deftly portrays the sense of mounting panic, and doesn’t show its hand too soon when playing the reveal. Worth a couple of hours of your time.
A Good Marriage is based on the eponymous Stephen King short story featured in his collection Full Dark, No Stars. This is an interesting premise, (wife learns that husband of twenty five years is a serial killer), that feels like an episode of an anthology series rather than a full length feature. Still it’s lifted out of its tv movie feel by great performances from Joan Allen and Anthony LaPaglia as the two leads.
So far, horror feels like a moribund genre, awash with reimaginings made with more money than passion. Rob Zombie probably has a great film in him somewhere, if he can ever move past his influences. At this point, I’m still awaiting the great white hope to come along and lift the genre out of the doldrums. If anyone has any suggestions for scary flicks that they’d like me to review, let me know in the comments.
Away from the box, I’ve been reading a couple of the late Iain M. Banks Culture novels. Now I know that these books have a lot of ardent fans, and his fictional universe is definitely one of the greatest creations in science fiction, but to be honest I’ve found the books hard going. Although his world building is up there with the likes of Herbert et al, I find his characters pretty unlikable and the prose cold. Still, the adventures of a space borne post scarcity society run by benevolent AI’s called Minds feature loads of brilliant concepts (too many to list here, just pick up a couple of the books – Consider Phlebas and The Player of Games are probably the most accessible to my mind). Just one of these books would make a very intriguing Netflix or Amazon series if the material was handled correctly. I’d be interested to know if Banks ever sold the film or TV rights to his sci-fi stuff.
After ploughing through the first season of the The Man in the High Castle, I’ve picked up a couple of alternative history novels, one of which Dominion by C J Sansom, I’m on with at the moment. The point of divergence is Halifax gaining the premiership in 1940 rather than Churchill, in the aftermath of the Norwegian campaign. Fast forward to 1952, and Britain is a nominally independent satellite state of the Reich. Hitler is rumoured to be gravely ill and factions within the party, SS, and Wehrmacht are preparing for the coming power struggle when the Fuhrer pops his clogs. Meanwhile the Russian campaign is still raging with Germany controlling European Russia, but the soviets waging a vicious guerrilla war,against the Nazis, which is slowly bleeding the economy dry. If like me, you’re disappointed with the BBC adaptation of SS-GB, then you could do worse that pick this up.
‘That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over! What the fuck are we gonna do now? What are we gonna do?’
With those words Bill Paxton seared himself into the collective consciousness of geekdom. His performance of the frit marine Hudson in James Cameron’s classic Aliens (1986) is full of endlessly quotable lines, much of it ad-libbed by the actor himself if Hollywood legend is to be believed.
I’m obviously writing this in the sad knowledge of Bill Paxton’s passing on Saturday at the far too young age of 61. To the children of the VHS generation he’ll be forever remembered as the aforementioned Hudson, as well as in roles in other iconic films of the era such as Kathryn Bigelow’s wonderfully downbeat vampire noir Near Dark (1987), as the sociopathic Severen, and the histrionic Predator sequel, as the wisecracking Detective Jerry Lambert.
For my money though, Paxton’s finest hour is in his criminally underrated directorial debut Frailty (2001), where he also stars as the widower dad of two young boys who may or may not have been tasked by ‘angels’ to slay ‘demons’ that, of course, only he can see. Well worth checking out as part of the Bill Paxton tribute filmathon that I’m sure many of you are planning, that’s if you haven’t done so already of course?
So long Mr Paxton, and thanks for all the movies. You will be missed.
I’m a bit late to the show with this review, what with the annoyance of real world responsibilities constantly throwing obstacles in the way of me actually being able to get to the laptop, but such is life. It’s been a few weeks since I parked my bum down the local fleapit for the latest spandex extravaganza, but I’m glad to say that the memories remain fresh enough for me to review the movie for your reading pleasure. Onwards! –
I love comics, and I think it’s fair to say that if you’re reading this blog then you’ve got more than a passing affinity with the medium. But here’s a confession: I’m not the biggest fan of superheroes. Maybe this is because being a Brit, the spandex clad dominant in the US market wasn’t the stuff I grew up with, and as I remember it, neither Marvel nor DC imports were that widely available in the UK during my formative years.
As a kid growing up in t’Grimm North in the early 80’s, comic books were mostly bog paper anthologies concerning WWII era derring do from the likes of Hurricane pilot Johnny Red and German Tiger ace Hellman of Hammer Force. The sort of schlocky pulp action beloved of small boys, whom it makes disappointed that they missed out on the fight against Adolf. But then along came the discovery of 2000AD, and the rest was, well, that’s for another blog…
My first real exposure to the American stuff was Richard Donner’s Superman (1978), starring the late, great Christopher Reeve as the Last Son of Krypton, and for my money still one of the most successful attempts to transfer the spirit and exuberance of the comic book form on the silver screen. At around the same time the Wonder Woman tv show starring Lynda Carter was still enjoying reruns on UK TV. Before the likes of The A-Team and Airwolf drew my attention, and in the pre-VHS era, this was pretty cool stuff. In contrast the Spider Man tv show was short –lived, and in my eyes suffered from the lack of the Green Goblin, whose lurid visage adorned my lunch box locked in mortal battle with Spidey. In the battle for my affections, DC inched it. They’d been first to market cinema and tv wise, and for the time their parent company Warner Bros certainly weren’t parsimonious with the budgets. In contrast, with the exception of The Incredible Hulk tv show, Marvel were the poor cousin on screen, and seemed confined to Saturday morning animated shorts.
Fast forward to now, and how times have changed. After a few faltering steps, Marvel Studios’ IP juggernaut has steamrollered through the box office with a series of competent, if increasingly generic superhero actioners that have at least done visual justice to Marvel’s universe. For a while, DC seemed to have been left in the dust, forever playing catch up (Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy aside). Crucially, Marvel replicated its joined up universe on the silver screen with each film either directly joining up with the next or at the very least referencing events in other films in the same stable. Even Netflix’s excellent Daredevil tv show ties in through oblique references to the climactic battle at the end of the first Avengers movie.
DC finally got its act together with 2013’s Man of Steel, I film I liked if not quite loved. Zack Snyder’s reboot of the Superman mythos certainly divided opinion, but also heralded the beginning of DC’s cinematic universe. Now, instead of a stand alone sequel for Supes, DC have kept faith with Snyder and served up a face-off movie bringing in not only Batman but also a certain Amazon warrior too. And the results are…interesting.
This is a huge, sprawling, incoherent, glorious, flawed over rich pudding of a movie. Visually it’s vintage Snyder: dark, desaturated and rich in the director’s trademark visual texture. Plot and structure wise, Dawn of Justice is all over the place, leaving the suspicious and distinctive whiff of heavy handed interference by the studio brass, leaving me me with the impression that a a awful lot of the movie ended up on the cutting room floor ( Snyder has already promised his own cut for the DVD release.) As ever with such farragos it’s the audience that suffers. The plot kicks off on a simple but flimsy pretext: Bruce Wayne, blaming Superman for the destruction and loss of life visited on Metropolis during the climactic battle in Man of Steel decides that Superman is a loose cannon who needs to be brought down a peg or two (other than dressing up in an armoured batsuit, we’re not quite sure how the Dark Knight is going to defeat Supes and what the consequences for Superman will be if he does). Then a supremely hammy Jesse Eisenberg turns up as Lex Luthor (somehow seeming to have lots of advance knowledge about Kal-El?) with a plan to bring Superman low using that pesky old green kryptonite. And then mixes his blood with the corpse of General Zod, which creates Doomsday, for no other reason that the plot demands a big gribbly for our heroes to have a big scrap with (he’s on screen for about ten minutes at the climax and completely wasted). Wonder Woman gets thrown into the increasingly opaque proceedings followed by several sledgehamer allusions to terrorism and 911 in particular. By this point I’d completely lost my admittedly tenuous grip on what little attempt at narrative there was, but still kept in my seat gazing at Snyder’s visual swirl and wondering how it was possible to make such a dog’s breakfast of such a paper thin plot.
Along the way there are lots of cameos and easter eggs for DC fanboys to get excited over, with sneek peeks at Aquaman, Flash, and Cyborg. Henry Cavill cruises on through, and Ben Affleck makes an intriguing Batman, on the edge of being burnt out and walking along a moral tightrope that he looks unsure of staying balanced upon. The breakout star of this overcooked celluloid soup has to be Wonder Woman herself, played with enigmatic relish by Gal Gadot. To be honest she was the only thing that was keeping me watching towards the end, and I await next year’s stand alone movie with cautious anticipation.
Compared with Marvel Studio’s more consistent, but formulaic output, DC seem to be much open to taking creative risks with their properties, an approach which has the potential to produce perhaps some memorable movies in the future, but whose down side is a greater risk of producing an expensive misfire. Such is the result with Dawn of Justice. An interesting mess.
Kurt Russell? Check. Old West setting? Check. Cannibal troglodyte mountain men? Check.
Well, you had me at hello. A Sunday afternoon trip to favoured cinephile haunt the Broadway with my old partner in crime Alan saw pair of us spend an enjoyable couple of hours viewing this under the radar mash up of two of our favourite genres, namely the western and horror. As you might have guessed from my opener, I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with Kurt in (Overboard and CaptainRon are great films, and I’ll take issue with any man who says otherwise.) Apart from that other little Tarantino flick he’s just knocked out, the last film where The Russell has sported such impressive facial hair was the stone cold 90’s classic Tombstone. Clearly I was in for a treat.
I wasn’t disappointed. Okay, the film does have some flaws (a bit more tension in places wouldn’t have gone amiss, along with a ramping up of the grand guignol splatter element), but these are minor quibbles in what turns out to be a solid and respectable, if not quite a classic effort from director S. Craig Zyler.
The opening prologue sees a welcome cameo by genre stalwart Sid Haig, playing drifter Buddy, cutting throats and stealing from a bunch of napping cowhands along with his ne’er do well partner Purvis (a seedy David Arquette). Sure enough they soon stumble into a weird burial ground where natural justice is inevitably soon dispensed, with Buddy quickly dispatched with an arrow to the throat followed by disembowelling by a shadowy assailant, and the terrified Purvis making a desperate run for it.
Cut to the frontier town of Bright Hope where a drunken and nervy Purvis is confronted by Sherriff Hunt (Russell) and town troubleshooter and ladies man Brooder (Lost’s Matthew Fox). Shot in the leg trying to escape, Purvis is quickly thrown into jail where Hunt calls on the services of town doctor Samantha O’Dwyer (True Detective’s Lili Simmons) to patch up the miscreant.
Sure enough Buddy’s mysterious killers have followed Purvis to Bright Hope where they wreak some bloody mayhem before abducting Samantha, Purvis and Deputy Sheriff Nick (Evan Jonigkeit). Examining an arrow left behind by the attackers, token Native American Chief Ominous Exposition informs Hunt and Samantha’s distraught husband Arthur O’Dwyer (the excellent Patrick Wilson) that it belongs to a band of ‘trogodytes’, a tribe of devolved cannibal savages, who dwell in the ‘Valley of the Starving Men’ (how did the US Cavalry miss this lot?). Sheriff Hunt and O’Dwyer decide to form a posse with Brooder and back up deputy and comic relief Chicory (Richard Jenkins) to rescue the captives.
From this point the film enters into The Searchers meets The Hills Have Eyes territory where the macho men of the old west most definitely meet their match in the troglodytes (interestingly, their look evokes that of the cannibals in Ruggero Deodato’s infamous 1980 splatter Cannibal Holocaust and its many imitators) and the wilderness itself begins to take on an ever more threatening mileau.
As with a lot of horror flicks, the theme of masculinity in crisis looms large. Arthur O’Dwyer has been rendered lame, his leg broken in the course of a roof repair, and both Hunt and Brooder mine the classic western trope of violent men outliving their time (The Wild Bunch, The Shootist, Unforgiven.) While this serves to give their characters a certain mythic air, this is splendidly punctured later on when the captive Samantha berates Hunt and Chicory on the ‘stupidity of frontier life’ in them allowing her lame husband to accompany them on the rescue mission against a tribe of bloodthirsty cannibals. There’s just no helping some people. One scene of (literally) gut wrenching violence later, and it seems as if the posse’s emasculation is complete (where is Snake Plissken when you need him?).
I won’t give anything more away though, suffice to say it’s not for the squeamish (but then why ever would you come to this blog? Stumbled upon by accident you say? You’ll never leave…), but an interesting and solid attempt to marry together two iconic film genres.
Okay, I know it’s perhaps a bit mainstream for this blog, but to hell with it, the Star Wars movies are an indelible part of my cultural hinterland. Besides which every other Tom, Dick and Harry has thrown their two’pennorth in, and the Star Wars universe has cool spaceships, droids, lightsabres, walking carpets and oh god, will someone deliver us from the leaden prequels…
Well, say what you like about JJ Abrams, but the bloke knows how to spin a yarn, and on this showing he might just have saved the Star Wars IP from disappearing up the Trade Federation’s backside. There isn’t an inch of expository lard to be trimmed from the first outing since Disney paid the equivalent of Africa’s GDP to get their hands on the property. You can almost hear the sound of Mickey Mouse mopping his brow with relief.
I have to admit, I went in with low to zero expectations. Perhaps that helped, but my initial reaction is that the galaxy far, far away has got its mojo back. Perhaps the lack of blue screen helped, the deliberate scaling back, less is more approach to the CGI, Abrams decision to film in real locations, making the Star Wars universe feel like a real place again. All these factors edged me towards giving The Force Awakens a favourable nod, yet there is something intangible about Episode VII that makes it feel like a Star Wars movie, a spirit that the prequels failed to capture (although I should add that I think the Clone Wars animated series does).
It’s this impossible to put your finger on ‘x factor’ that swung the movie in a favourable direction for me. Inevitably it already has its detractors, but people my age just need to get over the fact that it’s not going to be like it was when you first watched A New Hope or Empire or Jedi when you were six or seven years old. The cruel world of death and taxes inevitably soils your sense of wonder to some degree. Such is life.
I won’t bother to blather on about the plot here, there are plenty places you can go to for a full throated review of the narrative, spoilers and all. What then does the movie have going for it, I hear you cry? First, the two leads; Daisy Ridley does a hugely impressive job of carrying the weight of the movie on young untested shoulders, with John Boyega putting in a grand turn as comic foil playing a deserting stormtrooper (specialisation – sanitation. Can’t they get droids the clean the traps?) Harrison Ford pretty much phones in his performance, but you get the sense that playing Solo again feels like putting on a comfy old jacket for him. His scenes with Carrie Fisher carry an emotional depth that betrays thirty years of their characters unseen travails with a glance and gesture almost sans dialogue, a masterpiece of small acting and ‘show, don’t tell’ direction. Abrams understands that stories are ultimately, all about characters.
New droid BB8 is endearing rather than irritating, and the already much maligned by fandom Kylo Ren is pitch perfect as the wannabe dark jedi with anger management issues. Yes you want to give him a hiding, but surely that’s a tribute to the Adam Driver’s portrayal of who Ren is as a character. A dislikable sulky little wretch who didn’t get enough cuddles off his mum and now wants to go round blowing up planets because of it.
Plenty of questions are raised along the way, neatly setting up the story arc for episodes VIII and IX, and the ending is a classic cliffhanger; Abrams knows to always leave ‘em wanting more. On this showing I await the next instalment with renewed excitement.
First of all, a very happy new year to all those souls that have stumbled across my humble well of interwebbery since it crept into cyberspace late last year!
With any luck and with time and finances permitting, one of my first projects for 2016 will be sprucing up the blog to make it a more aesthetically pleasing experience, with lots more visual elements added to complement my wonderful/wildly self indulgent adventures in prose.
There’s certainly no shortage of material to blog about. I’m pretty optimistic for getting plenty of film related posts out in 2016, with a fair few old faves from the VHS era popping up on YouTube and demanding a retrospective (Blood Beach and Timestalkers being two particular rough diamonds from a misspent youth in front of the box). On the mainstream front, Dawn of Justice has me cautiously excited, and I’m pretty certain there’ll be plenty of under the radar cinematic delicacies from the indie circuit that draw my attention.
Away from the underbelly of cinema, I hope to be posting semi-regular updates on my Warhammer 40,000 Astra Militarum army, having picked up the hobby baton again in the winter with renewed vigour. I’ll be posting pics and waffling on about all sorts of ephemera relating to my love of painting toy soldiers and gaming in the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium. Who knows, I might even get motivated to start planning and writing the long gestating campaign idea I have roaming around the old grey matter.
Last but not least I have a stack of genre related fiction on the kindle to start ploughing through, not least Bloodrush, the first part of an alternate history fantasy western by indie author Ben Galley (check out his Emaneska series). After that there is more First Law material promised from the great Joe Abercrombie to look forward to. Exciting times.
An affectionate homage to seventies Italian giallo movies, BerberianSoundStudio stars the always dependable Toby Jones in diffident Englishman mode as Gilderoy, a sound engineer hired by the eponymous film studio to create the sound design for their latest feature TheEquestrianVortex, which the slightly unworldly Gilderoy naively assumes to concern our equine friends, but which, of course, turns out to be exploitation schlock horror of the kind that got the British tabloids all worked up at the dawn of the VHS era in the early 80’s.
This being a film primarily about sound as its title suggests, we get to see nothing of the visual aspects of the fictional movie within a movie, bar its grotesquely lurid title sequence which is cleverly substituted for the credits sequence of the ‘real’ film the audience is watching. Instead we get glimpses of its narrative through the characters dialogue and sound effects (most Italian movies of this kind were usually shot cheaply, without sound, with the dialogue dubbed over the top in several languages, enabling the studios to distribute their productions into numerous European and overseas markets).
Gilderoy, belatedly realising he isn’t making a documentary on equestrian pursuits, but a horror film about undead witches laced with healthy dollops of misogyny and sadistic violence, starts to become ever more estranged from the rest of the production staff, most of whom consist of surly engineers, an ice maiden secretary and a production head with the sexual morals of Attila the Hun. Right from the start we get a feel for the englishman’s sense of alienation and displacement in a foreign clime, exemplified first by the language barrier, then by the byzantine office politics, and treatment of actresses that would make the Taliban blush.
Up to this point, at about two thirds in, I’ll admit I wasn’t sure where the film was heading, and the last third veers off into Lynchian surrealism, which judging from a lot of reviews I’ve read definitely isn’t a lot of people’s cup of tea. My own reaction was one of slight frustration, as it seemed the film lacked the courage of its convictions (is Gilderoy suffering hallucinations due to his isolation, is he going mad?) in taking the story to its ambiguous conclusion. That said, Berberian Sound Studio is perhaps best viewed as an experience, rather than a strict piece of narrative. The last act certainly has the quality of a nightmare, in keeping with a lot of Italian horror movies and giallo of this period (check out Lamberto Bava’s Demons, if you haven’t already, for a great example of this).
Certainly recommended for those with an appreciation of the oevres of Dario Argento and Mario Bava, and the underbelly of Italian seventies cinema in general. An interesting curio.
NB -For those interested BerberianSoundStudio’s director Peter Strickland (great name, but sadly no relation) has recently directed a reimagining of Nigel Kneale’s classic 70’s chiller The Stone Tape for Radio 4. At the time of writing, it’s still got a week to go on iPlayer, and is well worth an hour of your time.
With the advent of All Hallows Eve last weekend, my better half and I settled down in front of the box for our traditional scary movie night. This year’s choice was low budget little Australian flick The Babadook, (hat tip to Mr Bligh yet again, for the recommendation).
The story centres around six year old Samuel who lives with his frazzled and sleep deprived single mum Amelia. We are shown in flashbacks how Samuel’s dad Oskar died in a car accident while driving the pregnant Amelia to hospital to give birth to him. Forward to the present, and Samuel is convinced that an imaginary monster inhabits the house and builds a variety of makeshift weapons to defend himself and Amelia against ‘it’. Her son’s night terrors and increasingly erratic behaviour have caused the sleep deprived Amelia to reach breaking point.
After one of Samuel’s weapons is discovered in his possession at school, Amelia removes him rather than have the boy put under special measures. That evening Samuel selects a bedtime story book called ‘Mr Babadook’ that Amelia is unfamiliar with. At this point the fun kicks in. Mister Babadook turns out to be possibly the most splendidly inappropriate children’s pop up book of all time, its sinister charcoal drawings accompanied by a rhyme that reads like it was written by a particularly vengeful Spike Milligan on a bad acid trip.
As things start to go bump in the night, an increasingly terrified Amelia begins to suspect that Samuel’s insistent warnings about ‘the Babadook’ may well be founded in reality. Or is it all in her head, a twisted hallucination borne of past trauma and too little pillow time?
Well, glad to say it certainly isn’t, and I was cheered that the film didn’t end up going down the route of that well roasted old chestnut of a plot twist. At its core The Babadook is a film about repressed grief; a theme that runs through the film and forms its inner core. Amelia refuses to have Oskar’s name mentioned in her presence, and cuts a rather wan and fragile figure, listlessly moving from one day to the next, feeling increasingly isolated due to her son’s behaviour. It’s almost painful to watch Essie Davies’ nuanced portrayal of a single parent laden down by grief, confronting the seemingly unsympathetic world around her. Amelia’s mental and emotional state is deftly evoked in the films cinematography, all washed out greys punctuated by harsh lighting.
Is the Babadook itself is a manifestation of Amelia’s repressed grief for Oskar, (the Babadook appears to Amelia as her dead husband at one point) brought to the surface by Samuel’s fear of ‘monsters under the bed’ and her subsequent lack of shut eye? The Babadook certainly ends up acting as a catalyst in shaking Amelia out of her moribund state, forcing her to confront her fears (of grieving for Oskar?)
The monster (poltergeist would be more fitting) is a suitably ambiguous presence. Although we are left in no doubt of its malign intent, the spirit’s personality is childlike, if nasty and unpleasant; it hides in dark shadows (Amelia and Samuel’s home is a gloriously lit sound stage steeped in sharp and oppressive shadow of which F W Murnau would have been proud), and delights in mischief like bobbyknocking. In fact, the spirit seems to be capable of being frightened itself as when an enraged Amelia confronts it at the film’s climax forcing it to retreat into the cellar and perceived safety away from a mother’s wrath (in the final scene we see Amelia and Samuel collecting earth worms from the garden which Amelia then takes to feed the Babadook who has taken to living in the cellar, thus representing Amelia coming to terms with her fears and living with the loss of Oskar).
The aspect I loved most about The Babadook (apart from the fantastic, intentionally lo-fi appearance of the Babadook itself, you’ll see what I mean if you watch the film) was the ambiguous nature of the eponymous spirit. It is left unclear as to the provenance of the storybook that unleashes the entity into the lives of Amelia and Samuel, leading one to suspect that both book and spirit are manifestations of either mother or son’s ids, manifesting physically in order to force Amelia to confront her demons. Horror, I think, is the genre that does this sort of ‘show, don’t tell’ approach the best when handled skilfully as I believe it is done here.
But don’t take my word for it. Take a look, ‘cos you can’t escape the Babadook.
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