Tuesday, 10 December 2019
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 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
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.
Monday, 11 November 2019
If you are familiar with Italian cinematic science fiction then you will already have a fair idea of what to expect - this is a shiny plastic and chrome vision of the future with flying cars and a huge rotating space station (called Gamma One) and rockets shuttling back and forth between the planets. This was the 1960s, so everything in the future was going to actually work. Everything in the future was going to be very cool. The men would be handsome and, more importantly of all, the women were all going to be gorgeous.
It’s not actually explicitly stated but this is a future of very advanced biotechnology so it’s possible that the women just stay young and beautiful forever. Or maybe the producers just wanted lots of hot women in the movie.
This is not Star Trek however, where sordid details like politics and business never intrude. This is a future in which real power seems to be in the hands of giant corporations. They’re not just transnational corporations, they’re transplanetary corporation. And it seems that the big money is in post-humanism - which means there’s a huge market in replacement organs. One of these corporations, CBM, has plans to grow artificial organs.
This kind of medical technology raises obvious ethical questions but CBM doesn’t seem too worried about such things. In fact CBM isn’t the least bit concerned about ethics and as will discover their chief scientist is both evil and insane.
So in some ways this movie actually does a better job of predicting the future than most British and American TV and movie sci-fi of its era.
The future might be cool but it’s not trouble-free. People are disappearing. Lots of people. And in increasing numbers. There’s a suspicion that these disappearances might be connected with flocks of girls hanging around the city. The people who have disappeared may have been kidnapped by the girl. There’s also a weird sinister guy in sunglasses who keeps popping up and then vanishing.
There are some macabre touches. Like miniature people. And people with too many arms.
Commander Mike Halstead of Space Command thinks there’s a connection with the mysterious planet Delphus. Which is a bit of a worry since his girlfriend Lieutenant Connie Gomez (Lisa Gastoni) has accepted an invitation from Mr Nurmi to take a vacation on Delphus. Mr Nurmi works for CBM.
There are no space battles but there are spaceships and they look the way people in the 60s knew spaceships should look. This is the future that we never got and it looks much better than the future we actually did get. The evil robot girls are a nice touch. I’m not sure that they’re actually robots but they do seem to be an artificial maybe semi-organic life form which is actually more interesting. And the evil artificial guys are actually quite spooky.
There is some action, and even some definite hints of horror (the bad guys are up to some pretty nefarious tricks and the results are not pretty). Margheriti had spent the preceding couple of years making gothic horror movies so he had a sound understanding of creepiness.
The acting is adequate for the type of movie this is. In other words it’s enjoyably terrible. Look out for Franco Nero in a small rôle.
I’ve never understood why producer-director Antonio Margheriti doesn’t have a bigger following among cult movie fans. OK, he was no Mario Bava and you aren’t going to get the kind of visual genius that Bava could provide. But by the standards of European low-budget/exploitation film-makers Margheriti was quite competent and he had a very clear understanding of what sells - his horror movies (like The Long Hair of Death starring Barbara Steele) have some reasonable chills and some hints of sleaze and his science fiction movies have glamour and a certain amount of enjoyably cheesy style. His movies are undemanding fun. He went on to make three more Gamma One movies.
While the very low budget is evident the special effects and miniatures work is generally at least witty and fun even when it’s ludicrously unconvincing. Antonio Margheriti had a background in those areas and obviously loved using miniatures. It might be a cheap movie but it’s colourful and filled to overflowing with 60s visual style. The production design is original and impressive.
The plot is goofy and outlandish and basically crazy but it does make a kind of sense, and this is after all a mad scientist movie so the craziness is a feature rather than a bug.
The Warner Archive release offers a very nice anamorphic transfer (the movie was shot in colour and widescreen). The colours look pretty good. There are of course no extras.
The Wild, Wild Planet is not by any objective standards a great or even a good movie but as a silly outrageous popcorn movie with a lot of 60s style it’s gloriously entertaining if you’re in the right mood. And as it happens I’m always in the right mood for this type of movie! So I’m not going to apologise for giving it a highly recommended rating.
Saturday, 2 November 2019
The character he plays, Vince Everett, is a nice guy but he’s impulsive and he has a temper. He gets into a bar fight. He’s trying to defend the honour of a lady (who probably isn’t much of a lady) but he gets carried away and the guys dies and he finds himself serving a prison sentence for manslaughter.
His cell mate is a broken-down country singer named Hunk Houghton (Mickey Shaughnessy) who is the prison entrepreneur. If there’s a way of making money in prison Hunk knows it. Hunk teaches Vince that if you don’t have money in this world you’re nothing but he also gets Vince interested in the idea that you can actually earn a living as a singer.
After being released Vince meets music industry insider Peggy Van Alden (Judy Tyler). His first attempt at stardom fails but Vince is not a guy who gives up easily. They start their own record company and pretty soon Vince is the biggest sensation in the music business. He’s on the way to fame and fortune but he’s also in danger of losing his basic decency. Too much fame and fortune too soon can be a dangerous drug. And the inevitable romance between Vince and Peggy seems destined to crash and burn.
This is of course a musical and it pretty much follows the long-established template for movie musicals. It borrows elements from the classic backstage musicals and it’s your basic rags-to-riches story wherein the star makes it to the top but then they’re going to have to learn that there’s more to life than money and fame. Musicals don’t require complicated plots and the plot in this movie is more than adequate for the purpose.
As an actor Presley is actually not that bad. In Hollywood he quickly gained a reputation for professionalism and for being, by Hollywood standards, a remarkably polite and easy-going guy. He refused to take acting lessons but he took acting quite seriously. What’s interesting is that he really is acting here, he’s not playing himself. Vince is not at all like Elvis. He’s surly and rude and bad-tempered and he tramples over other people’s feelings. It’s not that Vince is a bad guy. He would never actually cheat anybody. He won't even cheat Hunk even though Hunk tries to cheat him. There’s a lot of good in Vince. He just needs to grow up and he needs to think before he acts.
This was the era of the brooding self-pitying new style of star like Marlon Brando and James Dean who were seen by Hollywood as the key to attracting a younger audience. The performances of Brando in movies like The Wild One and Dean in Rebel Without a Cause now seem embarrassing but Presley’s performance stands up quite well. He didn’t know anything about Method Acting techniques. He just followed his instincts and as a result his performance comes across as more natural and less contrived. He wasn’t a great actor by any means but in a rôle like this he’s fine.
Judy Tyler is the perfect leading lady for Elvis. As Peggy she’s strong-willed but feminine and while she’s not going to let Vince walk all over her she’s not going to give up on him either. Tragically Tyler was killed in a car accident at the age of 24 shortly after shooting of the film was completed.
It helps if a musical has good songs and that’s where Jailhouse Rock really scores.
The tricky part for Elvis was that Vince, when he’s first trying to get a break in the music industry, is really not very good so in the early songs he has to come across as a mediocre singer and it’s not easy for a great singer to sound mediocre. He does this pretty well. He manages to make those early songs sound slightly lifeless. Of course Vince soon learns what he’s doing wrong as a singer and then Elvis gets to give us some truly great local performances.
The Jailhouse Rock number was Hollywood’s first ever attempt at a rock’n’roll big production number in the classic movie musical style and it’s great. Elvis rejected the initial choreography explaining that he just couldn’t do that type of dancing so the choreographer then built the whole routine around the type of dancing that Elvis could do. The results are superb. The (You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care production number is in a different style but it’s just as good.
The Blu-Ray release is excellent. The black-and-white cinematography looks terrific and there are a couple of worthwhile extras including an audio commentary.
This is not a big-budget blockbuster but neither is it a low-budget affair. Production values are quite high. Having Elvis as the star in 1957 was pretty much a guarantee of box-office success (and it did extremely well) so it was obviously considered worthwhile to spend some real money on the production. It’s well made and the acting performances (Including Elvis’s) are a cut above B-movie standards.
Jailhouse Rock combines all the virtues of the traditional Hollywood musical with the energy of rock’n’roll and the charisma of Elvis. Highly recommended.
Thursday, 17 October 2019
The basic plot is a stock-standard hijack/hostage suspense thriller but it’s made a lot more interesting by having a New York City subway train rather an aircraft as the hijackers’ target.
Four men calling themselves Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Brown and Mr Grey hijack the subway train that leaves Pelham at 1.23pm, hence the film’s title. They demand one million dollars to be paid within one hour. If the money is not paid they will start killing the seventeen hostages one by one. Dealing with a hostage situation is difficult enough at the best of times but when it’s a subway car stopped in a tunnel it’s almost impossible. There is no way of approaching the car without being seen and no way for snipers to get clear shots to pick off the hijackers.
The city bows to the inevitable and agrees to pay the money. But Mr Blue has given them just one hour to make the decision and deliver the money which sets up a thrilling race against time.
The man who has to deal with this mess is Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the Transit Police. It’s not the sort of situation a transit cop expects to have to face. Garber is no super-cop and he makes a few mistakes but he’s unflappable and he’s dogged.
There’s actually not a huge amount of violence in this movie which makes the violent moments all the more effective.
This is a very very New York movie. This is new York in the 70s, for better or worse. But it feels very very real.
Peter Stone’s excellent screenplay throws in some good twists at the end but mostly the tension comes from the reactions of the characters to the stresses they’re under.
Director Joseph Sargent worked mainly in television and on TV movies. He made a few feature films including the brilliant science fiction thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film rather than an action film, and the suspense is maintained at the highest pitch throughout. Sargent is in complete control.
Special mention must be made of Owen Roizman’s gritty cinematography (he also did the cinematography for The French Connection so he certainly knew how to get a New York feel).
The casting is nothing short of inspired. Everything about this movie is so New York that it was a very nice touch to have the chief villain be an Englishman played by an English actor. Robert Shaw plays Mr Blue as a man who seems to have everything, including his emotions, under tight control but there’s obviously a lot of rage bubbling just under the surface and liable to break out at any moment.
Casting Walter Matthau as Garber was a masterstroke. He’s the last guy you’d expect to find playing a cop which is why his performance works. He seems like a real workaday cop rather than a movie cop.
Hector Elizondo is nicely chilling as Mr Grey, a guy who is just a bit too eager to kill people. Martin Balsam is solid as Mr Brown, a subway train driver fired by the Transit Authority who is basically a defeated little man who thinks he’s finally going to make it big.
There’s a lot of humour mixed in with the suspense. Much of it would be considered very political incorrect today but actually it’s quite good-natured, and it’s funny. It’s kept within limits, the emphasis being on the suspense thriller elements.
The Blu-Ray release is bare-bones but looks great.
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a meticulously crafted and very effective thriller with a clever low-key battle of wits, and nerves, between Lieutenant Garber and Mr Blue being a major bonus. Highly recommended.
Wednesday, 9 October 2019
The story of the Ghost in the Shell franchise is a bit complicated. It started as a manga by Masamune Shirow. The original Ghost in the Shell movie (which is what this review is about) followed in 1995. It was directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Itô. A few years later this was followed by the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series. The TV series does not follow on directly from the movie however and appears to take place in a different timeline. Then there was a second series of the TV series, and then the Solid State Society movie. Then in 2004 Mamoru Oshii made a sequel to the original movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. And I think there are some other iterations as well that I’ve overlooked.
The central character of the movie is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She works for Section 9, a kind of counter-terrorism counter-intelligence agency. When the government wants something done that can’t be done by strictly legal means and they want plausible deniability they call on Section 9.
Major Kusanagi is not exactly human. She’s a cyborg. In the Ghost in the Shell universe a cyborg is a human whose brain has been enhanced. The cyberbrain is partly human and partly computer. In many cases cyborgs have bodies that are also artificial. These cyborgs are not machines as such but the extent to which they are still human is perhaps debatable. That’s particularly so in Major Kusanagi’s case. She was once entirely human but now there’s nothing human left of her but her ghost. The ghost is not quite a soul but it is the product of a person’s memories and experiences. It’s what makes a human being a human being. You can call it a soul. Major Kusanagi still has that.
The ghost is what makes one human. Everything else is referred to as the shell.
In a world of cyborgs and cyberbrains there are going to be people who are going to try to hack into people’s cyberbrains. They may even implant false memories. So even a person’s ghost may not be as secure as one might like it to be.
The world of Ghost in the Shell is a troubled place. Terrorism is an ever-present threat. Espionage and white-collar crime are very high-tech enterprises. In the movie the Japanese Government has a problem with its relation to a certain foreign government, part of the problem being that the foreign country in question now has a new government and the leader of the old government wants political asylum in Japan. And there’s the problem of the Puppet Master, a kind of super-hacker. He’s gained that name because when he hacks someone’s cyberbrain they really do become nothing more than puppets.
More worrying is that escaped shell. It’s just a shell. There’s no ghost. Or is there? If there is a ghost in the shell where did it come from?
Section 9’s problem is how to proceed. They’re not sure they can trust Section 6. Or the diplomats. They’re not sure they can trust anybody. And Motoko Kusanagi is behaving strangely. It’s as if she’s not sure how real she is. Or how human. And she seems dangerously obsessed with the idea of the ghost in that shell.
This is a Japanese movie with a distinctively different approach to action scenes compared to American movies. The action sequences are not merely stylised but rather poetic, and at the same time often extremely violent.
The cyberpunk aesthetic is very strong. This movie though is closer to literary cyberpunk than to American movies with a cyberpunk influence. Can a machine be alive? Can a cyborg remain human? These issues are complex and they’re treated as complex issues without easy answers. These are also issues that other anime productions have grappled with, the most notable being the extraordinary and superb TV series Serial Experiments Lain.
The animation is what you expect from a big-budget 1990s Japanese production. Very stylish and with a heady mix of poetry and violence.
Ghost in the Shell is intelligent thoughtful science fiction, in fact one of the very best science fiction movies of the 90s. Very highly recommended.