Monday, 13 January 2020

Cherry 2000 (1987), Blu-Ray review

Cherry 2000 is a movie that I am, perhaps oddly, inordinately fond of. Buying the Blu-Ray release provides the perfect opportunity to revisit this very underrated little 1987 sci-fi flick.

Sam Treadwill (David Andrews) is a recycling executive in Anaheim and he’s had a hard day at work but that’s OK because Cherry (Pamela Gidley) is waiting for him at home. Cherry is not only gorgeous, she’s the sweetest girl in the world. Sam can’t believe how lucky he is to have a woman like Cherry. She is the perfect girlfriend. Tonight she’s made his favourite dinner, and the wine is ready as well. Sam and Cherry start getting romantic (as they always do). Making love on the kitchen floor seems like a really good idea - exciting but still kind of romantic (Sam and Cherry are both romantics). And it would have been a great idea, if only the dishwasher hadn’t chosen that moment to overflow. The water all over the kitchen floor doesn’t slow Sam and Cherry down (it just makes it more exciting) but then the water gets inside Cherry’s circuitry and blows her electronics completely. You see Cherry is a sex robot.

Cherry is however more than just a sex robot. She’s a Cherry 2000. You can’t get them any more. They don’t even make the parts for them now. Among connoisseurs they’re recognised as classics. The newer models just aren’t as responsive. Cherry belongs to the age when pride in workmanship was still a thing. But Cherry is now just a useless collection of electronic junk. Well, not quite. Her chip is still intact. That means her own distinctive personality (like women, every Cherry 2000 is slightly different) is still there. And her memories are still there. The memories of all the wonderful times they had together. All Sam needs to do is to find a replacement body for her.

That’s where things get tricky. Cherry 2000s are very very hard to find. There is a rumour that there’s a warehouse in Zone 7 that has some, still in mint condition. But that means travelling to the Zones. That’s something to think twice about. This is a future world that owes a good deal to Mad Max. The Zones are beyond the reach of the law. They’re seriously bad places. They’re like a nightmare cyberpunk version of the Wild West. No sane person would go there. But that’s the only place there’s a chance of finding a Cherry 2000. And Sam misses Cherry terribly. He wants her back.

To get to the Zone he will need to find a tracker. There’s one named E. Johnson in the town of Glory Hole that sounds like just the man for the job. Except it turns out that E. Johnson (Melanie Griffith) is a young woman. And she wants Sam to come along when she goes to Zone 7 (she needs someone to ride shotgun). The movie now becomes more of an 80s action movie, but a good 80s action movie with some original and clever set-pieces (the magnetic claw, the enormous drain thing).

In between the action sequences Sam gets to know Johnson. She’s seriously tough and very dangerous but also oddly feminine. Melanie Griffith does not play Johnson as a typical action heroine. We never forget that for all her weirdness Johnson is still very much a woman. And she never forgets it. In her own way she’s a romantic, but like Sam she’s never figured out how to do the emotional relationship with the opposite sex thing, although she’d clearly like to. She’s slightly bewildered by men (in this future world the men are as damaged and deranged as the women) but she really would like to find one of her own. She’s not like any girl Sam has known before. She’s strange but somehow more like a real woman than any of the women you meet in singles bars in Anaheim. And she is a real woman. There’s no need to worry about her circuitry burning out. Of course Sam is still in love with Cherry.

This is a very 80s movie, but it’s 80s in a good way. It has actual style. This vision of the future obviously owes a lot to the Mad Max movies and to the emerging cyberpunk genre but it has a flavour of its own. This is a slowly collapsing society. It’s collapsing economically and it’s collapsing socially. We get a glimpse of what dating is like in this future world, and we can easily understand why Sam is happier with Cherry. In this world a one-night stand requires complex legal negotiations that specify exactly what sex acts are and are not included in the package. We can only imagine how nightmarish an actual relationship would be, if people still had actual emotional relationships. With Cherry Sam does have an emotional relationship and it’s delightfully uncomplicated - he loves her and she loves him. He loves having sex with her and she loves having sex with him. They do sweet romantic things for each other. And they don’t need a lawyer to negotiate a contract for them when they want to make love.

It’s a vision of a future in which buying a sex robot isn’t something you do when you’re a hopeless loser (and Sam isn’t a hopeless loser). It’s something that really seems like the least worst of some very unappetising options.

One of the really appealing things about this movie is that despite the subject matter it isn’t crass or vulgar. It’s a movie about the search for love. It’s a love story. It’s a romantic triangle - a boy, a girl and a sexbot - and it’s handled with sensitivity. When we discover that Sam is having sex with a robot we might be slightly taken aback, but once we get to know him and once we come to understand why he loves Cherry we can’t help feeling that it’s romantic, in a weird sort of way. And as sex robots go Cherry is a very nice girl.

David Andrews is very good. He makes Sam slightly geeky but not too geeky and manages to avoid making him seem creepy or pathetic. Sam lives in a broken world and even if he is in love with a sex robot in a paradoxical way he’s more normal than most of the men in his world. He wants love, commitment and romance.

Melanie Griffith is one of those actresses you love or hate. I like her performance. Even that little girl voice of hers makes her an interesting action heroine. She makes Johnson eccentric and odd but still rather likeable. In her own paradoxical way she’s more normal than most of the women in this world. She seems like she wants to be fiercely independent but she also wants love, commitment and romance.

Pamela Gidney gives Cherry just that very very slight touch of disconnectedness that makes her seem like a robot that is a very realistic simulation of a woman, but just not quite right.

Some critics have fallen into the trap of seeing this as a feminist film. It’s a fine example of the way critics impose their own views on a film and ignore the film itself. This is not a gender-reversal film. While Johnson seems to be cast as the action heroine Sam is not a mere sidekick or a bumbling wimp. He’s an ex-military guy who handles himself just fine in a gun fight. He’s not a male weakling. Johnson wouldn’t be interested in him in that case. She is interested in him because she slowly learns that in his quiet unassuming way he’s reasonably masculine whilst also being caring, a combination that women have been known to fall for. And she learns that she can rely on him.

Johnson is superficially fiercely independent but in fact it’s very obvious that she’s looking for a man to love her. In this crazy future world finding a mate is extremely difficult, but she wants one. There’s a key moment, usually overlooked, when he happens to see her with her guard down and she gives him the sort of smile that lets him know she’s OK with that. Both Sam and Johnson are in the same boat - despite their surface eccentricities they’re the most normal healthy people in the movie. They both want all the things usually associated with good old-fashioned tradition marriage - love and commitment and dependability and romance. The message of the movie seems to be that these are good things and that a society that doesn’t value these things is in trouble. It’s actually a very socially conservative message.

There’s obviously plenty of satire here but Cherry 2000 doesn’t just take aim at the obvious targets such as the rampant consumerism of the 80s. It’s a movie about social collapse and about the way that the devaluing of human relationships and a society obsessed with pleasure and consumption set up a vicious feedback loop and everything falls apart.

The Signal One Region B/2 Bu-Ray looks great and there are quite a few extras including a director’s commentary track. The commentary is interesting - director Steve de Jarnatt was brought into the project very late and seems to have very little input into the film’s visual style. He was simply a hired gun working with a production team that had already been assembled. He also appears to have had no idea what Michael Almereyda’s screenplay was all about and he still doesn’t understand why the film has gained an enthusiastic cult following.

Cherry 2000 has a great deal of obvious cult appeal but it’s really an intelligent and provocative science fiction film as well as being a fine action flick. Very highly recommended.

Sunday, 5 January 2020

The Sin Syndicate (1965)

With nudie-cuties obviously getting perilously close to being past their use-by date (nude volleyball could no longer be guaranteed to drag in the customers) American exploitation film-makers came up with a new genre, the roughie. Roughies were invariably shot in black-and-white and ranged from moderately sleazy to very sleazy indeed. They didn’t come much sleazier than Michael Findlay’s films. The Sin Syndicate, from 1965) is one of his earliest efforts.

The plot (and I’m stretching things to call it a plot) concerns four young women who tell us, in flashbacks that occupy almost the entire 70-minute running time, how they ended up as zero girls. Zero girls are hookers for the Syndicate. They provide sexual favours to anyone for whom the Syndicate thinks it’s in their interests to provide such favours. We’re told that being a zero girl is the end of the line.

There’s some vague gangster stuff with Syndicate big wheel Lansing testifying in front of a Senate committee. These scenes are entirely unnecessary and completely irrelevant. They pad out the running time but at the cost of extreme tedium since this subplot goes nowhere at all.

Dolores had been a dance in Cuba before the Revolution. The violence of the Revolution and the coming to power of Castro meant it was time to leave Cuba. Lorna (Judy Adler) and Candy (June Roberts) had been born in wartime England while Monica (Darlene Bennett) hailed from small town USA. The flashbacks include lots of stock footage of wartime bombings and other horrors. It’s possible that Findlay was suggesting that these experiences of war left the girls damaged and facilitated their slide down the slippery slope of sexual degradation. Or maybe he just liked the war footage. Or maybe he just wanted to pad the film out. Having seen the film I would hesitate to claim that I have any real idea what Findlay thought he was doing.

The women drift in erotic dancing and then prostitution the way such things usually happen - they’re tempted by the thought of easy money. Working for the Syndicate certainly means money but easy it’s not. The Syndicate’s policy with new girls is to break their spirit. They find that a few days of non-stop rape and beatings invariably achieves this objective. They then have suitably docile employees who no longer have any sexual inhibitions because they don’t care any more.

Findlay is often thought of as being one of the more overtly misogynistic sexploitation film-makers and his infamous Flesh trilogy would seem to provide ample evidence for this. Curiously The Sin Syndicate provides plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction. The girls have really been guilty of nothing more than naïvete. We’re clearly expected to be sympathetic towards them, and we are. The men in the film on the other hand are total sleazebag scum. I suspect that the explanation is simple. Michael Findlay didn’t hate women at all. He regarded the entire human race with equal contempt. This is a very very dark movie.

Roughies can at times be a bit confronting, and this one is particularly so. We have four young women who are harmless and even likeable. But roughies were sexploitation movies and their primary purpose was to provide sexual titillation, which was mostly provided by scenes of women being subjected to violence and degradation. In this movie a stark illustration is provided by the rape scene on the truck. The Syndicate disciplines its girls by having them repeatedly raped and beaten. Lorna gets her dose of this discipline in the back of a moving truck. We can’t help being horrified by her terror. On the other hand the scene is clearly intended to be a thrilling blend of violence and eroticism. And it has to be said that the scene is executed in an extraordinarily effective manner. So can we enjoy the scene and be horrified at the same time?

Findlay pulls some clever surprises, one of them being the shower scene. Now when one of the girls is taking a shower and one of the other girls asks if she can join her we know we’re in for the obligatory lesbian sex scene. But it doesn’t happen. What we get is two girls who are emotionally starved displaying physical affection. It’s done in a way that makes it crystal clear that there is nothing even remotely sexual going on and that there is not a trace of sexual attraction between the two women. The lesbian sex content is zero. You’d think this would be a big mistake in a sexploitation movie, but oddly enough the scene is very erotic and quite touching at the same time. It’s the fact that there’s emotional hunger combined with affectionate playfulness rather than sexual hunger on display makes us feel immense sympathy which perhaps in a strange way makes the scene more arousing. The fact that the two girls are extremely hot doesn’t hurt.

You can’t judge the acting in movies like this by conventional standards. In a Michael Findlay film you probably can’t say anything at all about the acting one way or the other although in the rape scene mentioned earlier the actress convey’s the character’s terror and desperation well enough. The actresses include June Roberts and Darlene Bennett, familiar faces to devotees of this genre.

Of course in a Findlay film the eroticism is dulled by the relentless air of hopelessness, desolation and degradation. If you do find parts of his movies erotic you always end up feeling that perhaps you shouldn’t have. There’s eroticism on offer but it sure ain’t healthy.

Findlay does manage to pull off the occasional moments of visual near-inspiration. They are of course mixed in with much more frequent moments of out-and-out cinematic chaos and/or tedium and/or incomprehensible weirdness.

But give the guy his due, whatever his faults Michael Findlay had a style. His movies are instantly recognisable. He had a vision, even if it was a vision most people would be happy not to share. And they have a weird and unsettling fascination. The intriguing thing about The Sin Syndicate is that what you actually see on the screen is mostly incredibly tame. The violence and the sex are either offscreen or they’re shown in an indirect manner or at the very least they’re shot so you see no details. In the case of Lorna’s rape, content-wise it’s a very tame scene but the mood builds to an utterly maniacal fever pitch of intensity. But it’s the responses of the women coupled with what you know they must be feeling that  will leave most viewers feeling decidedly uneasy.

Something Weird’s release includes two other films, Sin Magazine (about which I know nothing) and She Came on the Bus (which is just as sleazy and chaotic as The Sin Syndicate). This triple-feature is not for the faint-hearted.

The Sin Syndicate is one for dedicated fans of sleaze only, but they’ll find it more than interesting.

Friday, 27 December 2019

A View to a Kill (1985)

A View to a Kill is the Bond movie everybody hates. There are plenty of people who will tell you it’s the worst of all the Bond films. It does have its problems but actually it’s nowhere near as bad as its reputation would suggest.

It’s true that Roger Moore was, in his own words, about 400 years too old to be playing the part once again, for the seventh and last time. But he’s still Roger Moore. He still has the charm.

The plot is a stock standard Bond plot. MI6 have discovered that there’s this super-villain planning something really big but they’re not sure exactly what it is. Bond has to find out. To do that he has to get close to the villain by insinuating himself into the villain’s inner circle. Then Bond will conduct a low-level psychological guerrilla war against the villain, getting him angry enough to make a few mistake. Then Bond destroys him and saves the world.

In this case the super villain is (as in so many Bond movies) a crazed industrialist. Max Zorin (Christopher Walken) is obsessed with horse racing, oil wells, computer chips and world domination. He’s the result of a Nazi science experiment intended to produce geniuses. He is a genius but he’s totally unhinged and psychopathic. Bond gets close to him by posing as a possible purchaser of one of Zorin’s super horses (also the result of an experiment by a crazy Nazi scientist).

On this case, unusually, Bond is given a sidekick. The fun part is that the sidekick is played by Patrick Macnee, posing as Bond’s chauffeur/valet. Macnee was even older than Moore but they make an amusing and effective team.

The biggest problem with this movie is that at 131 minutes it’s much too long. There’s nothing particularly wrong with the first half of the movie except that there’s too much of it and it’s too slow. At about the halfway point the pacing picks up dramatically, the plot starts to become more interesting and we get some pretty decent action sequences. The fire engine chase is particularly good and the action climax with the blimp is justly famous. The taxi chase early on is also terrific.

Peter Lamont was art director or production designer on most of the Bond movies from the early 70s up to the first decade of the 21st century. He could always be relied upon and does his usual fine job here. So A View to a Kill looks good.

Christopher Walken is an interesting Bond villain. He’s definitely creepy although perhaps he needed to make Zorin a bit more larger-than-life. Tanya Roberts as the Bond girl has been much criticised. I don’t know why. She’s not much of an actress but she does what she needs to do, which mainly consists of looking terrific (which she does extremely well) and getting rescued by Bond. As far as the cast is concerned the standout is Grace Jones as May Day, Zorin’s girlfriend and chief henchwoman. She looks bizarre, crazy and scary which is obviously why she was picked for the rôle. She’s actually much scarier and more sinister than Zorin.

The pre-credits action scene with the infamous snowboarding to the sounds of a cover version of California Girls has been accused of excessive silliness. It is silly, but silliness and campiness were things that you just have to accept in Bond films of this era. What’s interesting (and very pleasing) is that once that sequence is out of the way the silliness and campiness disappear and the rest of the movie has a slightly serious if mildly tongue-in-cheek tone that is closer to classic Bond.

Mention should be made of Duran Duran’s pretty good title song which also hits the right tone for a proper Bond movie.

If you compare it to another much-disliked Bond movie, the lamentable Die Another Day, which I reviewed here recently then A View to a Kill doesn’t seem too bad. At least, unlike Die Another Day, it feels like a proper Bond movie.

With a bit of tightening up in the first half and with a bit more energy and enthusiasm from Moore and Walken this could have been a very good Bond movie.

Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Henry’s Night In (1969)

Henry’s Night In is a 1969 American sexploitation movie that falls into a fairly select genre - sex comedies that actually work.

Henry is an inoffensive rather nerdy sort of guy with a passion for building model ships. His marriage is not going well. His wife would prefer it if he took a bit more interest in her body and a bit less interest in his model ships. To say that she is sexually dissatisfied would be putting it mildly.

She regards Henry as a weakling. In fact she despises him. Of course this might be part of the reason for the lack of bedroom action in their marriage. Her shrewish behaviour is not exactly calculated to kindle the fires of passion in a man.

Then Henry goes to an auction and finds that he’s bought a mysterious trunk. He’s not sure exactly how he managed to buy it since he didn’t want it. The trunk contains one item, a diary. It’s the diary of an invisible man, and it contains instructions for achieving temporary invisibility. Surprisingly enough it works. All you have to do is to swallow the chemical formula and then sneeze and you become invisible. If you sneeze again you become visible again.

The erotic possibilities are obvious and they’re not lost on Henry. Maybe in ordinary life he’s no stud but that’s because he’s nervous and awkward and repressed. Possibly an invisible Henry would not have those problems. His inhibitions might disappear. And that’s exactly what happens.

Of course the first thing that occurs to Henry is that he could sneak into the house of Sandy, the attractive brunette who’s just moved into the neighbourhood. It’s just a few doors from his own house. Since his invisible the brunette has no idea there’s a man in her house and Henry gets to watch her parading about the house naked. This is something she spends a good deal of time doing. As we’ll soon find out, all the women in this neighbourhood seem to spend most of their time naked when they’re home alone. Of course an invisible man can also do more than just look. All he has to do is wait until they turn the lights out, then hop into bed with them and have sex with them. Since all the local women are having love affairs they’re not the least bit surprised by a man slipping into bed with them. They just assume it’s one of their lovers.

Pretty soon Henry has sampled the delights of most of his female neighbours.

His wife soon notices that he’s behaving strangely and disappearing at odd times. She’s determined to find out what’s going on.

There’s actually a bit more than this to the plot. There’s the question of the identity of the mysterious Jack who has been pleasuring all the women in the neighbourhood, but none of them can say what he looks like. He only makes love to them with the lights out. Is he invisible as well, or does he have some other secret?

The invisibility idea provides a neat solution for one of the problems facing sexploitation movie-makers in the mid to late 60s. Nudity was no problem, but they had to be very cautious about sex. Even mildly explicit simulated sex was a no-no. But if only the girl is visible she can be as uninhibited as she likes in simulating sex with her invisible partner and some of the girls in this movie do get very uninhibited indeed.

There’s an enormous amount of nudity, including lots of frontal female nudity (since the ladies’ sex partner is invisible there’s no need to worry about male nudity). The girls are mostly pretty attractive, and this being a 60s sexploitation movie they do look like real women rather than super-models or the products of plastic surgery.

As you may have guessed from the plot outline (invisible men ravishing unsuspecting women and the women loving every moment of it) the political incorrectness levels here are absolutely off the scale. In spite of this it’s a remarkably good-natured little flick. It should be noted that neither Henry nor Martha (his wife) has given up entirely on their marriage. Henry actually does love Martha and he would very much like to be able to satisfy her physical needs. Martha loves Henry, and if only he could perform his husbandly duties in the bedroom with a bit more energy and enthusiasm she’d be quite happy with him. She isn’t really a shrew after all, she’s just incredibly frustrated sexually and emotionally. It’s pretty upsetting for a gal if her husband doesn’t want to make love to her.

The other young ladies in the neighbourhood aren’t overly outraged about being ravished - it was all very exciting and romantic.

In tone this is really a very late nudie-cutie. It’s an excuse for copious amounts of female nudity combined with light-hearted fun. There’s zero violence, the worst thing that happens to anybody is that the girls get frightened by invisible mice. And of course they do what any woman would do in those circumstances - they immediately take all their clothes off.

Henry’s Night In was paired with The Girl from S.I.N. in a Something Weird double-header DVD. The Girl from S.I.N. is actually one of the best and most entertaining of all 60s sexploitation features and in this case the two movies make a perfect double feature, since The Girl from S.I.N. is also a fun light-hearted sex comedy dealing with invisibility. Henry’s Night In gets a pretty good transfer. The black-and-white image quality is quite acceptable. This is one of Something Weird’s best DVD releases.

Henry’s Night In is sexy and it’s amusing. It could even be described as a feelgood sexploitation movie with an offbeat love story. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Everybody’s Girl (1950)

Everybody’s Girl is a 1950 burlesque movie, which means it’s an actual burlesque stage show that was filmed. In this instance it was a show at the Follies Theater at Third and Main in Los Angeles.

Burlesque movies were filmed stage shows, but usually without an audience. That’s understandable enough. Trying to record the sound live with the added complication of an audience would have been a technical headache best avoided on the very very limited budgets these films would have had. Of course the lack of an audience does mean you miss some of the atmosphere. It’s slightly disorienting watching the comedy routines with no audience response. Whether the strip-tease routines would have benefited from hearing an audience’s appreciative response is harder to say - without the audience I guess they do seem more tasteful (and they’re pretty tasteful anyway).

This one does have a subtly different feel to Midnight Frolics. The show seems to have a bit more glamour and style, the strippers are prettier and the strip-tease routines are just a tiny bit more daring.

Which raises an interesting point. It seems quite likely that the comic routines have been cleaned up a bit for the purposes of filming. It’s also possible that the strip-tease routines have been toned down a little. In the case of a burlesque movie like Midnight Frolics it seems pretty certain that the girls have toned down their acts. The acts in Everybody’s Girl are slightly more risque but possibly still not quite going as far as they might go in a normal show.

Of course one of the interesting features of burlesque is that the risque nature of the stripping could vary quite a bit from town to town. In some towns stripping down to bra and panties was about as as the girls would dare to go, but when they played in other cities they could get away with much more and in some places they might even be tempted to risk full nudity. The problem for anyone making a burlesque movie in 1950 was deciding just how much of a risk you were going to take.

I’m quite intrigued as to what kind of an audience these movies find today. I’m inclined to think that this sort of thing would appeal more to women than men. There are some very beautiful women, they have fabulous hairstyles and wear gorgeous costumes and they dance and they project glamour and sensuality rather than overt sexuality. And there’s no actual nudity. I know that there are quite a few women these days who are fascinated by the world of burlesque.

What is particularly striking when you watch these movies today is that it’s sexiness rather than sex that they’re selling. It’s flirting and teasing and it’s good-natured and playful, which is why I’d imagine that women would enjoy them more than men. Unless of course you’re the sort of man who finds watching women indulging in flirting and teasing and playful sexiness very appealing.

This is a movie that offers us a glimpse into an erotic world that seems like a foreign country, albeit an oddly appealing one.

If you have an enthusiasm for the lost art of the strip-tease there’s plenty here to enjoy.

Everybody’s Girl is one of the six (count 'em, six) feature-length burlesque movies in Something Weird's two-disc Strip Strip Hooray set. They have found a very good print. In fact it’s good enough to suggest they may have found the original negative. Obviously filming a stage show imposes severe limitations but Everybody’s Girl is photographed rather well, and obviously with more than one camera. Overall it looks very good. Recommended, if it’s a subject that interests you.

Monday, 2 December 2019

Appleseed (1988)

Appleseed is a 1988 anime OVA based on a manga by Masamune Shirow (who was also responsible for the original Ghost in the Shell manga).

Appleseed is set in the aftermath of the Third World War. As part of the rebuilding of society the model city of Olympus has been constructed. It’s an attempt at utopia and is strictly policed. It is inhabited partly by humans and partly by bioroids (artificial humans). The city is controlled by a central super-computer, Gaia.

All is not well in Olympus. Terrorism is a major problem. The terrorists claim to want freedom (of course being terrorists they would say that) and seem to be opposed to the bioroids.

We get straight into high-voltage action with a hostage situation that ends with several ESWAT team members dead. Deunan, a young female ESWAT cop, wants revenge and so she applies for a transfer to Special Investigations. She is tired of just responding to terrorists - she wants to track them down and destroy them. Her cyborg friend and partner Briareos will naturally go with her.

Now you have to concentrate a bit on this one because the background to the story isn’t explained in detail. The bioroids are not cyborgs. They’re not machines in any way. They seem to be artificial people, created by genetic engineering. They look completely human. There are also actual cyborgs, like Briareos.

In fact this is an anime that you’ll probably appreciate more on a second viewing. Early on there’s a woman committing suicide which serves to provide the motivation for her husband’s actions but is otherwise inexplicable. Later on it starts to appear that the suicide is quite important in its own right - it’s a symbol of what’s wrong with Olympus, of the city’s lack of humanness.

One of things that’s interesting is that despite the obvious cyberpunk influence this is not a dystopian film in a conventional sense. Olympus is not utopia, but it’s not a dystopian nightmare. Most people there are happy. Of course that might well be the point that is being made - they’re happy because they have everything anyone could want in terms of material prosperity but they don’t have freedom. It’s closer to Brave New World than to your average cyberpunk future. In Huxley’s classic novel most people are happy because they have unlimited consumer goods and they have drugs. They don’t even want freedom. And in Olympus a large proportion of the population is not even exactly human, being bioroids who are programmed to like living in Olympus. Which is presumably what the terrorists don’t like - it’s an artificial utopia in which ordinary emotions like frustration and unhappiness are entirely suppressed.

The relationship between Deunan and Briareos is ambiguous. They’re partners on the force. They’re friends. They live together. But are they lovers? We can’t be sure. Two unmarried cops sharing an apartment is presumably not wildly unusual. They’re obviously fond of one another but they don’t display the kind of affection you’d expect if they were a couple. This is another of the things that I’m not quite sure about, like whether Olympus is supposed to be a flawed utopia or a not-too-terrible dystopia - are these ambiguities deliberate or not?

The most dangerous of the terrorists is A.J. Sebastian. He really is pretty sinister and he’s a more memorable character than either Deunan or Briareos.

There’s a lot of action, some of it fairly graphic. The action sequences are generally fast-moving and pretty impressive.

The comparisons to Ghost in the Shell are obvious. The main difference is that Ghost in the Shell had a lot more money to play with and is thus obviously considerably more ambitious visually. It’s also worth pointing out that Appleseed was one of Masamune Shirow’s earlier mangas which is possibly another reason that the Ghost in the Shell movie is more complex and more ambitious. Both the manga and anime versions of Appleseed can be seen as dry runs for Ghost in the Shell.

In judging Appleseed you always have to remember this was 1988. Anime for grown-up audiences was still a very new thing. Over the next few years budgets would get bigger, techniques would improve and anime would become more thematically ambitious. Appleseed was a step, and a moderately important one, on the road to much bigger and better things for anime.

The DVD release offers a good transfer (it’s full frame which was how this movie was shot) with negligible extras. Both the English dubbed soundtrack and the Japanese version (with subtitles) are provided. I watched the subtitled Japanese version because I find that American accents in anime diminish the flavour.

A lot of people don’t like Appleseed. I think they may be missing the point. The plot and the characters’ motivations are a little confusing at times but I’m inclined to think that this is deliberate, that the intention is to avoid spelling things out for us. We have to decide for ourselves whether we approve of Olympus or not, and whether we think the terrorists are mostly wrong or whether they may have a point. Appleseed may not be a complete success and it’s certainly not in the same league as Ghost in the Shell but it’s entertaining and in its own way it’s provocative. Recommended.

Wednesday, 20 November 2019

Blue Thunder (1983)

Blue Thunder is a 1983 action techno-thriller directed by John Badham that suffered greatly from being constantly tweaked and rewritten. It’s still a lot of fun and it’s better than its rather dubious reputation would suggest.

Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider) is an LAPD helicopter pilot with a tendency to get himself into trouble. He’d been in Vietnam and he’s never been quite stable ever since. He’s not crazy, just inclined to lose his cool at times. He and his observer, Richard Lymangood (Daniel Stern), are pretty disturbed by an attempted rape case they were involved in (they were spotting from the air for the cops on the ground). What disturbed them was that it was obviously not an attempted rape at all. Something was certainly going on and a woman ended up in hospital with gunshot wounds but the official version does not tally with what they saw. And it’s been made clear to them that they should just forget about the case.

Then Frank and Lymangood get what seems to be a great opportunity. They’re selected to crew a new experimental police helicopter, known as Blue Thunder. It’s more like a military helicopter gunship than a police chopper. Frank is not entirely happy about this. Having been in Nam he’s understandably a bit sceptical about the government and the military and he has just a bit of a bad feeling about Blue Thunder.

He has even more of a bad feeling when he discovers that a certain Colonel Cochrane (Malcolm McDowell) is involved in the project. Frank served with Cochrane in Vietnam and they hate each other. Frank figures that anything that Cochrane is involved in is something to be suspicious of.

Apart from an absurd array of heavy weaponry Blue Thunder carries all sorts of surveillance equipment, giving it the kind of capability that might appeal to the Feds but is perhaps not entirely appropriate for a police force. Everything about Blue Thunder seems to be calculated to give the cops capabilities that could very easily be abused, and when you give law enforcement agencies the opportunity to abuse their powers experience suggests that those powers will in fact be abused.

Frank’s fears turn out to be well grounded but as he discovers more he realises that maybe he’s discovered too much for his own safety. And maybe too much for other people’s safety as well.

It all leads up to some spectacular action sequences and some very cool aerial combat scenes.

One of the reasons that this movie is often viewed in a negative light is that the original concept (by screenwriters Dan O’Bannon Don Jakoby) was quite different and a lot of people think that original concept had a lot more potential. There’s probably some truth to that. The political overtones could have been more fully developed. On the other hand the movie does make its main political point effectively enough, and that point is much more relevant today than it was in 1983. Today we really do have government agencies with frightening surveillance capabilities at their disposal and we have much more militarised police forces than was the case in the early 80s.

The script does show signs of having been fiddled with obsessively. Some of the dialogue is clumsy (there was a writers’ strike at the time so director Badham had to write some of the dialogue himself). The characters don’t have a lot of depth. The plot has some contrived moments. It can get rather silly and cartoonish.

In the original conception Frank Murphy was a much darker character, a genuine out-of-control crazy. Murphy’s craziness was toned way down and the Colonel Cochrane character added as the chief villain. I think this change may actually have been a positive one. Having Murphy as a hero (even a flawed hero) at least gives us someone to care about and avoids too much of an emphasis on 1970s nihilism.

Roy Scheider is OK as Murphy. He’s sympathetic but we’re never entirely sure he knows what he’s doing. Malcolm McDowell plays Cochrane as an over-the-top melodrama villain but that’s why he was cast - he was very good at that sort of thing. Warren Oates is terrific as Murphy’s long-suffering boss and Candy Clark goes close to stealing the picture as Murphy’s ditzy girlfriend.

This was 1983 so there’s no CGI. The action sequences, including most of the aerial sequences, were done for real with real helicopters. It has to be said that as a result those sequences look a hell of a lot better than they would have done had they been achieved with CGI. The stunts are spectacular and all the action stuff stands up extremely well today.

The Blu-Ray special edition offers a very good anamorphic transfer and is packed with tempting extras.

Blue Thunder was successful enough to spawn a spin-off TV series which flopped badly. It also very obviously inspired the excellent Airwolf TV series.

As a politically tinged techno-thriller Blue Thunder might not have realised its full potential but mostly it works. As an adrenaline-charged fun action movie it works superbly. Highly recommended.