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Christine (1983) – Carpenter countdown #9

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At the time, Stephen King was an enormously successful horror writer and the rights to Christine were bought (and the film started production) before the book's publication.

Concept: The film of the Stephen King novel.

A red Plymouth Fury car is being built on a 1957 assembly line to the anachronistic sound of Bad to the Bone. Someone hurts their hand when the hood falls on it, while another person is killed while smoking in it during a break. Twenty-one years later, nerd Keith Gordon spots the car as a barely mobile wreck and falls in love with it despite the advice of cool friend John Stockwell who goes on to discover that the body count has increased in the intervening years. By that point, it's too late: Gordon may be unable to open his school locker without help, but he proves able to fix the car at the local junkyard cum garage.

Before long, he's dating the most gorgeous girl in the school, Alexandra Paul, and distracting Stockwell enough to help cause a serious football injury. Paul nearly chokes to death inside Christine, and when she gives Gordon a 'me or the car' ultimatum, he picks the car. But before long, the school gang of bullies has completely trashed the car. Oh noes! Gordon's reaction is to call Paul a 'shitter' and his father a 'motherfucker', but is delighted to see that Christine can repair herself. The gang is then hunted down: chased, crushed and crisped by car. Despite sustaining serious damage each time, Christine is restored. Concerned about Gordon, Stockwell and Paul get together and decide to save him, even if that means destroying Christine. But will he let them do that? And will she?

What’s good: The cinematography, this time by Donald M. Morgan, is excellent and it has lots of Carpenter's fluid camera work.

For almost unknowns, the leads are all very good. Gordon's transition from nerd to cool, and from nervous virgin to sexually confident (but still possibly a virgin) is done particularly well, both with his acting and the visual design. The supporting cast, including Harry Dean Stanton, is even better.

The question of whether or not Gordon is behind the wheel as Christine attacks the gang that trashed her is kept nicely concealed until the reveal.

Typically, the 'why' for Christine being evil is simply handled. In the book, it's the ghost of a previous owner encouraging the bad stuff, but here, Christine is just evil from the assembly line. No explanation, much better.

What’s not so good: Not much actually. The main problem is that, for a film sold as horror, it's simply not scary and there's not enough tension either. There are a couple of effective 'boo's, but ultimately, the story is silly. It's also a tiny bit long at 1h45m.

Music: Improvised 'in association with' Alan Howarth. At the time, I wasn't convinced. There's no main title music (there's just the sound of the car's engine running over them) and the best section – Christine Attacks – is an hour in. But it is very atmospheric and the use of other music is well done (Christine's radio will only play 50s music) such as having Little Richard's Keep A-Knocking ('but you can't come in') is used when Stockwell tries to open the door. There's a lovely transition between the Buddy Holly Not Fade Away and a modern cover version as the film moves from 1957 to 1978.

Miscellany: There's not much gore. In order to get the US 'R' / UK 18 rating that the makers thought horror fans would expect, lots of swearing was added. Without that, I suspect it'd be a 12A.

The leads are one of the very few in Carpenter films who don't smoke on screen.

Overall: The first and easily the best of Carpenter's 'films of the book' (the others being Vampires, Memoirs and Village, so that's not hard), this is much better than I remembered. Part of the problem was that it directly followed two of his very best films, and as mentioned, the marketing was misleading as well. I wouldn't characterise it as a horror film – the car doesn't scare me – more a supernatural drama. The commercial flop of his previous film meant that this was the only thing on offer, but he ended up doing a very good job.

The love between Gordon and the car comes across as the second best romantic relationship in a Carpenter film. The budget it had in comparison to Carpenter's early films shows, the pre-CGI effects work well, and almost the only thing that looks dated is Alexander Paul's hairstyle. Easily a contender to be the fifth best of the many adaptations of Stephen King's work (Carrie, Stand By Me, Misery, and The Shawshank Redemption have the top four places).

TL;DR It's hard to believe that the same person did this and Memoirs / Village

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

Commentary with Keith Gordon (a mix of reminisces and technical info), deleted / extended scenes and three modern featurettes. Excellent visual quality for its age.

DVD and the Carpenter/Howarth score:

Written by Ian

June 20th, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

The Fog (1980) – Carpenter countdown #10

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While making a TV movie, John Carpenter was surprised to be offered a two picture deal by Avco Embassy – he apparently hadn't realised that Halloween was breaking records and that he and producer Debra Hill were hot properties. So what to do for the follow-up? Horror, yes, but they decided on an old-fashioned ghost story.

Concept: 'What if there's something in the fog?'

It's nearly midnight and John Houseman is telling ghost stories on the beach to some children. Tomorrow will be the 100th anniversary of a shipwreck, when a ship in the fog mistook a fire on the beach for the guiding light it was looking for and was destroyed on the rocks. When the fog returns to the bay, the men who drowned will return, looking for revenge. Sleep tight, little ones…

The alcoholic Father Hal Holbrook is startled when a bit of the church wall falls out, revealing the 100 year old journal of his grandfather. 'Midnight to one belongs to the dead' it says. Elsewhere in the town, supernatural things start happening, such as things moving by themselves. Outside the town, Tom Atkins picks up hitch-hiker Jamie Lee Curtis. Suddenly, the truck windows are smashed. Local radio owner and DJ Adrienne Barbeau gets a call from meteorologist Charles Cyphers. There's fog coming, warn the ship out there. She does so, and 'Ha', go the three on board, but then it comes. The fog disables their engine, a sailing ship comes alongside, and with it, the sailors who massacre the crew. The fog then moves west despite the wind blowing east. Meanwhile on land, Atkins is in bed having a post-coital chat with JLC (only at that point do they exchange names!) A ghostly visitor arrives at the door, but goes away as one o'clock strikes.

The next morning, Barbeau's son sees a gold coin on beach, but it is covered by a wave and becomes an old piece of wood, with the word 'Dane' on it. Meanwhile, Janet Leigh is trying to arrange the celebrations for the centenary of the town, and Father Holbrook reads some of the journal to them: a wealthy leper called Blake wanted to move a leper colony near to the settlement, via the ship Elizabeth Dane. To stop this, and to use Blake's gold to build the church and create the town, the grandfather and five other people decided to light a fire in the wrong place so that it would go onto the rocks. Aided by a mysterious fog, it worked. 'We're honouring murderers,' Holbrook tells them. While this is happening, Atkins and JLC are on the overdue ship, where it turns out that the generator is full of water but the deck is dry as a bone. They discover a body when it falls out onto JLC. He's drowned, despite being in a locker. Oh, and his eyes have been put out. As they're returning to shore, the piece of wood Barbeau's son found suddenly starts seeping water, and the writing changes to '6 must die'. While medical examiner Dr Darwin Johnson is talking Atkins about how strange the case is, the body gets up and starts moving towards JLC… it falls down, leaving a '3' mark on the floor, the number of deaths so far.

Come midnight that night, there soon two more deaths (Cyphers and the woman babysitting Barbeau's son). That brings the count up to five and it's time for the final confrontation at the church built with the gold Blake, the sailors and passengers were murdered for.

What’s good: Dean Cundey's cinematography is stunning, especially at night. The daytime views, with the space of the Californian coast and the setting of the lighthouse/radio station, also contrast beautifully with the confined feeling in the night fog. The music is equally good and the effects still work 31 years on.

Most of the cast is fine. Adrienne Barbeau's voice is perfect for radio, Jamie Lee Curtis has the combination of screaming and strength she brought to Halloween, and the support is good throughout.

What’s not so good: While the lines are good ('Fog bank out there?! There's no fog bank out there… Hey, there's a fog bank out there!') there's not much in the way of character development. Despite being co-written with Debra Hill, JLC is the hitch-hiker of male dreams – gorgeous, sleeps with you that night, and sticks around to help save you from ghosts! (Apparently she wanted a different sort of role from being the virgin in Halloween.) There's also the problem of the body count: the ghosts are after six descendants of their murderers, and towards the end they've killed five, so why are they still after at least two different people? Plus why does the body move (apart to go 'boo' at us)? But one of the points of ghost stories is that they don't make sense.

Tom Atkins is a fine supporting actor, but I don't believe anyone thinks of him as a romantic lead. (See the Carpenter/Hill produced Halloween III for another – the only other? – example of trying.)

Music: One of his most atmospheric scores. Parts of it have been reused by theatre and TV shows endlessly.

There's a 'complete score' CD available from a specialist source, but many of the extra tracks are the background jazz on the radio, and it's one for completists only.

Miscellany: It has possibly the highest number of in-jokes in the cannon. Lots of the characters in the film are named after friends (Nick Castle, Dan O'Bannon, Tommy Wallace, Elizabeth Solley) or characters from films (Dr Phibes).

Many of the cast and crew were, or would become, regulars. One actor who wouldn't is Carpenter himself – he has some lines at the start, but this would be the last time he'd attempt to do more than a "Roger that" speaking part.

Partly because the original cut didn't work and partly in reaction to Scanners coming out with its exploding heads, the more explicit horror scenes were added just before the deadline for releasing the film.

He made (his then wife) Adrienne Barbeau smoke, so she'd look more like a Howard Hawks heroine.

Overall: It's still an effective bit of story telling, and definitely in the second tier, but watching it again, I get the feeling it could be overtaken in the list as others move up over the years. Having said that, one of the measures of how good it remains is how much better it is than the awful remake. It still looks and sounds great.

TL;DR A solid ghost story, miles better than the remake

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

Informative commentary with Debra Hill talking about the joys of low budget film-making and effects work before CGI, a look back at the film, a contemporary 'making of', out-takes, trailers, short storyboard to film comparison, and photos.

DVD, Blu-ray, import CD

Written by Ian

June 17th, 2011 at 9:01 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

They Live (1988) – Carpenter countdown #12

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By far the most political thing he's done, but its ambition is bigger than its budget allowed. Made at the end of actor Ronald Reagan's presidency, it grew in reputation during puppet George W Bush's.

Concept: 'I hate Ronald Reagan's policies'.

Roddy Piper walks into town looking for a construction job, but there's not much going. He passes a blind preacher telling it like it is – 'Why do we worship greed?' – and TVs with their promotion of greed. With no money until pay day, fellow worker Keith David points him to a squatter camp. Even there, there's a TV… which starts broadcasting a message from TV hackers saying that 'we are cattle, we are being bred for slavery', but the reaction of viewers is to complain of headaches. It turns out the signal is being sent from the church near the camp and before long the church is being raided by the police while the camp is bulldozed. Piper escapes, passing the police beating up the blind preacher. Returning to pick up anything that's left of his possessions, he looks into the church and collects a box, hoping it will be important or valuable. It turns out to just contain sunglasses, so throws all but one away… and discovers that they show the world as it really is. Ads cover words like 'obey', 'marry and reproduce' and 'no independent thought', while money has 'this is your god' on it. Oh, and some smartly dressed people look like aliens when seen through the glasses.

Before long, the aliens are talking into their wristwatches, 'I've got one who can see'. The police – two aliens – turn up, corner him in an alley and want to know where he got the glasses from. He kills them both – 'You bastards die just like we do' – and takes their weapons. More police arrive, so he ducks into a building.. which turns out to be a bank. It's time for the film's signature lines: 'I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I'm all out of bubblegum.' He shoots the aliens there, but one is able to disappear. He kidnaps TV assistant Meg Foster to escape, but for some strange reason, she doesn't believe that he's fighting the forces of evil that can only be seen with sunglasses. Odd that. Before long, she's twacked him over the head and he's flying through a window.

His sunglasses were left in her house, and so he goes looking for the rest. Just after he's got them, David turns up to offer him some money. Obviously, Piper wants him to try the sunglasses. Thinking he's talking to a killer and not wanting to get further involved, David declines. There's a fight, with Piper trying to force them on him. Eventually, the glasses are on, and then there are two. They're contacted by the resistance who escaped from the church, and go along to a meeting. Foster is there too, but just as she apologises for not believing him, the wall is blown in and the police come in shooting at anything that moves. Piper and David get away, thanks to an alien device, and discover there's a network of tunnels underneath the streets. They walk into a banquet meeting for the rich ('income up 36% this year') and the aliens. Oh, look who's there: one of the homeless, now rather richer and in a tuxedo. Assuming that they have sold out too, he gives them a tour of the operation, from starport to the TV station which is beaming the signal controlling everyone. Time to destroy the transmitter, but there's one twist first. Eventually, the signal is stopped and everyone can see the truth.

What’s good: For a wrestler, Roddy Piper is a pretty good actor and in this is better than subsequent 'wrestler turned actors'. The highly scripted and faked world of professional wrestling probably helped, but he's clearly bringing personal experience to some of the role. Keith David, previously in The Thing, is as good as ever.

The fight. It lasts just over five minutes. As you can imagine just from the length, it's over the top in several ways. What makes it a bit special is the context – two friends getting progressively dirtier but realising that they are not, in fact, out to kill each other. At one point, Piper apologises for getting too nasty, but continues to go at him anyway. Apparently, it was rehearsed between the two for over a month.

The politics. Lines like 'We gave the steel companies a break. They gave themselves pay rises' ring just as true today as they did then, especially if you change it to the banks. So too the treatment of globalisation ('There ain't no countries any more') and corporate disregard for the environment (greenhouse gases are being used to change the planet to be more to the aliens' liking). We also see Los Angeles from a very different angle than usual – this is a city with a very large underclass, not just the angels.

The respect for the audience's intelligence. The sunglasses reveal section is almost wordless. Typical for a Carpenter script – Frank Armitage is a pseudonym – the difficult bits are skipped over in a simple way. 'I'm not too familiar with it myself' says their guide, and we accept that better than a minute's pseudo-scientific explanation or mystical crap (yes, The Matrix, I'm thinking of you!)

What’s not so good: The low budget really shows, particularly in the aliens who just have a zombie / bare flesh mask. The long-time Carpenter stunt co-ordinator played most of them himself, because he fit the main mask.

There are times when the intelligence is abandoned for an action scene.

Music: As with almost all of his 1980s films, it's composed and played with Alan Howarth. This one's a solid working class blues score.

Miscellany: Most of the homeless people in the film were really homeless – feeding and paying them was part of the political statement.

'We all sell out every day' was apparently a line from a studio exec who didn't see what the threat the heroes were fighting against was.

Unsurprisingly, getting permission to use any real ads or media in the film was almost impossible. Kudos to Control Data for being the exception.

Overall: Another one with more intelligence than in most Hollywood films. What it would really love to be is the 1980s equivalent of the 1950's Invasion of the Body Snatchers which used SF to show McCathy's America, or the 1970's The Parallax View which fit into the 'conspiracy at the heart of the US government' mould. Sadly, it's not quite there and the 1980's film which nailed the rich better was Society while RoboCop did the corporations. Even so, you'll never watch TV in the same way again. Especially the aspirational crap.

This was the last one with Larry Franco as producer as well as the last time the soundtrack was done with Alan Howarth. (Future wife and producer Sandy King was associate producer.) There's an argument that this is the last classic Carpenter and it's another one which IMDB users rate higher than the ones in my next batch. Apparently it's being remade, but flawed as this one is, I can't imagine a new one being better.

TL;DR As the situation it was talking about in the real world has got worse, this film gets better

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 4/5

An informative and chatty commentary with Roddy Piper and a 'making of'.

DVD, the 'coming soon' Blu-ray, and soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 15th, 2011 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Vampires (1998) – Carpenter countdown #13

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Back to the 90s, but this is the last (best? least worst?) of them.

Concept: The Wild Bunch meet Vlad the Impaler.

A team of armed men lead by master slayer James Woods arrive at an old farmhouse in New Mexico. It turns out that they're hunting wabbit vampires and have a priest in tow. Several vampires are indeed inside and, after a fight, are exposed to sunlight, catching fire. That night, the team are at a motel, celebrating with drinks and hookers, when the master vampire they have been looking for turns up. He slaughters all but two of them. You can guess one of them, and the other is Daniel Baldwin. They have Sheryl Lee with them, but she's been bitten (on the thigh) by master vampire Thomas Ian Griffith and will soon have a psychic link with him, so she's taken along as bait. After cutting heads off and staking the bodies of the team, they head off for a meeting with Catholic cardinal Maximilian Schell (Woods) or a hotel (the other two). It turns out, as it so often does, that the church knows a bit more than it is saying and that, having created the master vampire with a botched execution for heresy in the Middle Ages, they've spent the past few hundred years trying to wipe out vampires. Except that if you no longer believe in the church's teachings, the prospect of eternal life another way would be awfully tempting, wouldn't it? So it becomes a race between Woods trying to find and kill the master vampire and its search for the cross to perform the ceremony that will enable it to survive sunlight. Who will win? Who do you think?

What’s good: The opening sequence is possibly his best work in the 90s and all the action sequences are handled well.

None of the good guys are nice. Woods is potty mouthed (as we now know Natasha Henstridge would say) and as dangerous as the vampires he's after. Baldwin is quite capable of hitting Lee, but also ends up falling for her, despite the consequences. About the only good thing the two of them have going for them is their relationship and you could read it as homoerotic quite easily. Woods will keep talking about other men's penises after all…

Most of the effects are good, particularly the fire and the splatter ones.

What’s not so good: The plot's got the huge problem of trying to explain why the oh-so-valuable cross is known to some, but not protected even half way decently by anyone. It doesn't bother.

The rest of the plot.

Music: It's not his best, but it's good enough to be one of the things that makes me rate this one above Ghosts. It's a collection of blues and Mexican themes, with guitar played by Carpenter successfully trying not to disgrace himself in a band featuring, amongst others, Steve Cropper and Donald 'Duck' Dunn, the legendary session players featured as part of the backing band in The Blues Brothers. Some of it is written by Cody Carpenter, John's son.

Miscellany: The DVD back cover says 'In the blood-chilling tradition of HALLOWEEN and VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED'. The first I can obviously understand wanting to reference, but I'd want people to forget the latter personally.

People who have read the book about a group of vampire-hunting mercenaries, Vampire$, that this was based on tend to like the film a lot less. There's a quote from its author, John Steakley, saying that they kept much of his dialogue and lost his plot, which may explain why. I haven't read it, but I wouldn't be amazed if its plot was better than the one we're given here.

Overall: Like Ghosts, a lot depends on your expectations on coming to this one. It's a low budget action picture rather than horror and if you treat it as such, it's ok.

If you're going to watch a John Carpenter vampire film, this is your only choice. I'm not sure whether that's a good thing or not. There are certainly a lot better Carpenter films and a lot better vampire films out there. But there are also a lot worse, including the first three films in the countdown and the two sequels to this one.

TL;DR Yet another disguised Western from Carpenter, with a reasonably interesting twist

Film: 3/5
DVD: 3.5/5

Solo commentary, quite a thoughtful one, plus trailer and 'making of' promo.

DVD, the trilogy, the better option of this plus Ghosts, and the soundtrack:

Written by Ian

June 14th, 2011 at 9:59 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Ghosts of Mars (2001) – Carpenter countdown #14

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We're out of the 1990s for a film that is certainly watchable but which could and should have been better. It would be his last feature and his last film to get a theatrical release for nine years – and The Ward was straight to video in the US.

Concept: 'Let's remake Assault on Precinct 13 – not that we'll admit it – and set it on Mars.'

It's 2176 and Mars is being terra-formed. Something has been uncovered in South Valley and is moving towards the main city, 'leaving behind only silence and death'. A train on autopilot from the valley arrives at the main city, with just Natasha Henstridge, handcuffed and asleep, on board. It turns out that she's a police officer, part of the team sent to bring in Ice Cube as notorious criminal Napoleon Wilson Desolation Williams, and the story is told via flashback as she gives evidence to the inquiry. When they got there, the place was a mess, with lots of bits of dead bodies, and only Cube and a few other people in the jail are alive. There are a few others, but they're now possessed by something and before long Grier's head is on a spike and a couple of hundred LA gang members possessed miners are attacking the jail. Cops and criminals are forced to work together to survive against a foe you can't negotiate with. It turns out that a nearby mine uncovered remains of an ancient Martian civilization. When investigated, the ghosts came out, possessing the humans. When their host is killed, they look for a new host. At one point Henstridge is one, but it turns out that her altered states drug of choice drives the ghosts out. But it's soon back to the shooting as they escape, go back to explode a nearby nuclear reaction, escape, and meet up again when the ghosts reach the main city on Mars…

What’s good: The cast. Amazingly, Natasha Henstridge was brought in a week before shooting started and we should all be grateful that the original choice, Courtney Love, couldn't do it. Ice Cube is good, Jason Statham gets to do macho prick once more, and I can't think of a bad casting choice.

The cinematography is very good, the effects are fine, and I also like the script's sense of humour. In particular, Cube's sidekicks ('Uno, Dos and Tres') aren't that clever and get treated with the lack of respect they deserve by everyone.

There's an interesting approach to drugs – Henstridge uses 'clear', a mix of LSD and ecstasy, and this saves her.

What’s not so good: I'm almost tempted to restore the 'bad' section for the first problem, the music. It opens with a very typical Carpenter theme over the main titles – it could easily make the 'John Carpenter's Greatest' compilation. The music for most of the first fifty minutes (the build up) is fine, but whenever we see the possessed (much of the rest) it's some awful heavy metal played by Anthrax. I can almost get it, artistically: the ghost possessed are noisy and nasty.. so let's make the music noisy and… But it's a distraction, not an enhancement.

The nature of the threat could have been better. The ghosts are insubstantial on their own, and we see that they can be exorcised by recreational chemistry. Is that built on? No. Is the description of the place somewhere where everyone goes to do drugs? Yes… so why didn't more of them escape infection? There's no negotiating with the possessed and they're a dangerous foe, but they're not actually frightening in the way that they could have been. It's usually a bad idea to show too much of the monster, and here, we see the lead possessed, 'Big Daddy Mars', but he doesn't get to do much except scream and point the rest of the possessed the right way. It'd have been a lot more interesting to show armed Americans and Brits in uniforms trying to police a desert state and being assaulted by oh, the rational Mars Liberation Front fanatics, with the 'It's their planet… we are the invaders aliens' tagline and realisation that the stars come to.

Some of the ideas in the script, like the matriarchal society are thrown away – it's almost as if it's only an excuse for Grier to make a pass at Henstridge, because everyone is expected to think that women in charge = lesbianism.

The physics aren't great either. There's a mention of the issues around breathing a not-yet-Earth standard atmosphere, and that a Martian year is about twice an Earth one, but you'd never know the gravity on Mars is less than 40% of that on Earth. You don't make a nuclear reactor into a bomb that easily either (the core would melt, creating a highly radioactive mess and cloud, rather than have a two mile blast radius), and the explosion is waaay too big on the orbital view.

Music: Credited to him alone. Arrggghhhh. See above. For some reason, the soundtrack album just has the main title, one ok track (from her tripping), and the crap. It'd be interesting to hear some of the build up music separately. I'd also love to have had a 'music only' audio option on the DVD, so you could use that to subtract most of it out of the film and replace it with something better.

Miscellany: Originally, this was going to be told as a linear story, starting with uncovering the ancients. It works better the way it was made.

This film apparently has Stratham's first screen kiss. No, I wouldn't either.

I cannot find Carpenter admitting this is a remade Assault anywhere. Is he really the only person on this planet who doesn't think that's what this is a remake of, or is this a contractual issue – having been paid for the remake rights, he can't say he remade it too?

Overall: According to IMDB.com's rating system, this is the worst Carpenter film by far with a shockingly low rating of 4.8 – half a point lower than the incredibly dire Village and awful Escape from LA, and a full point lower than the meh Memoirs. It's much better than that. It's far from his best, but it's a fun 'Western on Mars' action picture.

As I said, this section took a lot of shuffling about to get them in order. I am almost tempted to promote this one a slot or two – having watched it again for the first time in ages with commentary, I immediately watched it again again with the proper audio (and even the music didn't sound that bad!) It gets better over time. So thinking about it, one reason it's down here is that throughout the nadir of his nighties, I said that what someone should do is give him a little money and have him remake Assault, because it'd have to be good. Someone did, he did and it's not as good as Assault despite looking better. It felt like a personal insult when I first saw it.

TL;DR It's considerably better than the official remake, but argh, the music.

Film: 3/5
DVD: 4/5

A very good commentary with him and Natasha Henstridge being very chatty – even if you don't usually do commentaries, this one's worth listening to (and you get to escape the music!) At no point does either mention Assault although she does challenge him on the music. Features on the music, effects, and the desert night shoots in a gypsum mine with lots of red dye.

DVD, Blu-ray and soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

June 13th, 2011 at 10:31 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

In the Mouth of Madness (1994) – Carpenter countdown #15

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Well, we're out of the three really bad ones and into the four that have their flaws, but which are watchable without wincing throughout. The order of these has been shuffled round more than any other section, because there's stuff to like about each of them.

Concept: An HP Lovecraftian 'Elder Gods' story of someone being driven insane by seeing the world as it really is.

Sam Neill is brought into an insane asylum. It turns out that he's not quite recovered from being in Memoirs a cynical insurance investigator who was asked to find a missing horror author, Jürgen Prochnow's Sutter Cane. Cane's books are extremely disturbing, and many of their readers go insane – one example attacks Neill with an axe in a restaurant. But the books are also extremely successful and business is business, so the publisher Charlton Heston wants to find him because he's after the rest of the manuscript for the next, In the Mouth of Madness. Only two people have seen any of it, editor Julie Carmen and Cane's agent – the man who attacked him with an axe… So as the world around him begins to go wrong, Neill starts reading the novels and realises that they reveal their fictional setting, Hobb's End, to be somewhere in New Hampshire. Carmen and Neill set off, get lost, and mysteriously find it. Everything is as in the novels, right down to a loose floorboard in a hotel, and of course, everyone in it is being turned into monsters. They meet Cane who declares that he's just writing what the Elder Gods tell him so that more people believe in them and they can end the world. Hobb's End is impossible to escape from, but having been given the manuscript, Neill is sent back into the 'real' world where he destroys it, only to be told that Carmen never existed and that he gave the manuscript in months ago. The world goes mad, Neill escapes the asylum and ends up laughing while watching the film of the book… the film we have just been watching.

What’s good: The 'something's not quite right' sections are very good, such as the group of children chasing a dog… later seen with only three legs and with the children having bloody, deformed mouths. The samples of other Hobb's End storylines – the lovely old owner of the hotel who's got her husband chained up naked and who is growing tentacles, the Thing in the Greenhouse, the child taken for sacrifice in the church – are all good stuff.

There's more intelligence here than the vast majority of horror films. The issue of what's reality and what's in Neill's head is left nicely open: 'Reality isn't what it used to be!'

What’s bad: Nothing really, which is why we're out of the dire group.

What’s not so good: The reveal isn't as good as the build up. Other films have this problem too, of course. By far the best bits of the Kubrick version of The Shining are the shots of the boy cycling around the hotel: you know something horrible is going to happen, but not what or when. In contrast, Jack Nicholson finally going wild with an axe is amusing rather than frightening. Here, we're treated to some not terribly convincing wobbly tentacled beings which are supposed to send you insane just by looking at them. They don't.

The structure doesn't quite work. There's a fanedit that recomposes the film into a linear story, losing the occasional flashes of the other bits of the story, and it works much better that way.

The casting isn't quite right either. Neill does cynical investigator much better than madman, while Carmen is better asleep (or as a model head on an acrobat's body!) than awake. In contrast, Prochnow doesn't really get a chance to show his talent.

Music: Co-composed with Jim Lang. It's one of the better later ones, with an interesting mix of 'rock', 'blues' and moody 'synth' tracks.

Miscellany: Carpenter reckons this is the third of a trilogy of unconnected 'apocalypse' films (the others being The Thing and Prince of Darkness). While all have 'end of civilization as we know it' themes, the others are better.

Hobb's End was the name of the fictional London Underground station in Quatermass and the Pit.

Overall: This has more ambition than the previous three films (and the next) added together. It's just a pity that it doesn't quite work. The 'it can't be true… but it is!' genre has produced some better films than this and similarly the 'you are just a character in my book' twist has been done better too.

This has a surprisingly high 7.0 rating on IMDB.com, higher than all of the films in my next section, so clearly there are people who appreciate it more than I do. It is certainly striking and memorable, but I'd just like it to be better.

Part of the problem is that no-one's done a good commercial 'Elder Gods' type film. The best effort is from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, who were behind the 2005 b/w(!) silent(!!) Call of Cthulhu, and no-one's going to spend $20m on making that.

TL;DR A good effort at filming the unfilmable.

Film: 2/5
DVD: 3/5

For some reason, this isn't available on DVD in the UK. There's a R1 (USA / Canada / etc) release which has the most technical commentary he's ever done – it's with the lighting cameraman director of photography, and at times goes into details like which gels were used in front of which size of what sort of lights from what direction. Director's commentaries are sometimes called free film school lessons, and this one certainly qualifies for anyone thinking of making a film themselves.

The imported DVD and the soundtrack CD:

Written by Ian

June 10th, 2011 at 9:34 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

Escape from L.A. (1996) – Carpenter countdown #16

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Another one from Carpenter's dire 1990s.

Concept: Surely a sequel to Escape from New York can't go wrong?

Much of Los Angeles is destroyed in an earthquake in 2000 and it becomes an island. The right-wing religious presidential candidate who predicted the earthquake is elected, made President for life, and turns LA Island into a dumping ground for immoral ex-citizens. Once again, once you go in, you don't come back. It's now 2013 and once again Kurt Russell's Snake Plissken is about to be deported, this time having been convicted of 27 moral crimes, when once again it turns out that US Police Commissioner Lee Van Cleef Stacey Keach needs someone to do a rescue operation. This time, it's the President's rebellious daughter along with a doomsday device. Once more, if he doesn't come back within 24 9 1/2 hours, he's automatically dead, but this time the authorities are only interested in the device… Does he succeed? Of course.

What’s good: The setup's fine, up to the point of the submarine journey to the island. The basketball scene is good, especially if you know Kurt Russell did all of the basketball shots himself. It's nice to see Snake again.

The politics are interesting and they must have known that being explicitly rude about right wing Christians (the President is happy to kill his own daughter because she won't obey him and spends some time time hiding under a table during a minor quake while everyone else gets on with it, before going off to pray) wouldn't help at the box office. On the other side the Duke of LA Che Guevara lookalike 'Cuervo Jones' looks attractive, but likes to kill people for fun. Given freedom from the rules of the US theocracy, all the inhabitants of the island want to do is kill each other, while Snake is prepared to send the whole planet back into the Dark Ages. Hmm.

What’s bad: The budget is clearly bigger, but the imagination isn't. 'If in doubt, have a shoot-out' seems to have been the guiding principle.

Despite Carpenter's claims before it was released about it having more ambition, ambition is one of the big failures: it's really an attempt to re-do the original rather than be better. So there's a Brains equivalent (Steve Buscemi's Map to the Stars Eddie), an 'in the ring' equivalent (the basketball court at the noticeably underpopulated LA Memorial Coliseum), a Girl in Chock Full O'Nuts equivalent (Girl in the bushes), a 'I thought you were dead' equivalent ('I thought you'd be taller'), etc etc etc.

Plus some of it is just plain silly (I'm thinking of the surfing in particular, but the submarine journey isn't far off) and when an interesting idea is there, usually nothing is done with it (Bruce Campbell's Surgeon General of Beverly Hills, seeking to do live cosmetic surgery transplants, is the main example).

Technically, there are problems too. The wide effects shots are especially poor – when other reviewers wonder if this is a deliberate tribute to the 1980s, you know you have problems. The cinematography and lighting could also be a lot better (it's noticeable that Dean Cundey wasn't on board).

Music: Co-composed with Shirley Walker. I have the soundtrack CD for this one (it was 10p second-hand somewhere, and that's about the right price) and it helpfully says who composed which bit. The tracks he did are better, mostly because they're closer to the simpler music from the original rather than full orchestrations. For some reason, the opening title music (a reworking of the Escape theme) has whooshes over it. They're not on the soundtrack CD and it's much better as a result.

Miscellany: If it's true that Kurt Russell did the basketball shots live, why on earth didn't they take a leaf out of Jackie Chan's book, and show the outtakes for this (and other stunts) over the end credits?

Where's the electricity coming from? There's way too much light around.

Overall: The original John Carpenter / Debra Hill script is available online and there's more interest in comparing it with what was filmed (where the script was credited to Kurt Russell as well) than watching the result. At one point, a remake of Escape From New York was on the cards, staring Gerard Butler. Obviously it would have been very bad, but I am not sure it would have been worse than this.

TL;DR They had more fun making it than anyone had watching it.

Film: 1/5
DVD: 1/5

You get the film and trailer.

The DVD, Blu-ray, score CD and 'soundtrack' (i.e. assorted tracks by other people featured or 'inspiring' the music in the film) CD

Written by Ian

June 9th, 2011 at 10:32 am

Posted in Cinema,Countdown,DVDs

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World

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A gangster has a car crash, and just before (literally) kicking the bucket, tells people in the four vehicles that stopped to help where a large sum of money is. Do they co-operate? Ha! Before long, it's everyone for themselves as they hunt out the 'big W' it is buried beneath. More and more people get involved in the race, which is being monitored by the police throughout.

What makes this film is its cast, which includes half of the middle-aged and older comedians in the US at the time. If they were breathing, and available for a day's shooting, they're probably in it somewhere. There are people who love this film, but they're a dying breed because many of them saw it when it was released in 1963, usually just after President Kennedy was assassinated and the country needed both a laugh and a sense of its (comedic) history. They recognise even the minor cameos.

The problem is that the cast size contributes to the length – here, it's 160 minutes, but as originally released, it ran for 192. The difference was edited out by the studio after they realised they had a hit on their hands and wanted to be able to fit in an extra showing per day to maximise their revenue – the version most people will have seen was cut down to 154 minutes! Much of the cut footage is believed to be irretrievably lost.

Its fans will hate me for saying this, but it could do with a bit more trimming. To a modern UK audience, many of the faces will not be recognisable, and without that knowledge significant bits are not funny. So at the airport, there's a lingering take of three firemen, waiting for the plane to land. If you don't know it's the Three Stooges, it's a 'huh?' moment – they just stand there. If you do, then you can go 'ho ho, anyone relying on them is doomed'. I did know, and I know who Jack Benny was (I've even heard some of his radio shows) but I had to go back to view his short appearance – he's the one who stops his car and offers to help before being told to go away by Ethel Murman as the mother-in-law – after looking up where it was. (If you know his character, the humour is in the way that he would be too mean to offer to help anyone. If you don't, it's just Ethel Murman being rude to yet another person.) So the best bits are with those people who are still recognisable: Phil Silvers could be his Sgt Bilko character out of uniform, for example. We know what's going to happen when one of the original helpers tells him what's happening, and it's all the better when indeed it does.

Perhaps the best comparison is with The Blues Brothers. The humour is similar – in both cases, the makers took the view that if crashing one car can be funny, crashing more must be funnier, right? – and both feature extended chase sequences. But while it adds something if you recognise the musicians who have roles in BB, it works perfectly well if you don't.

TL;DR It could do with a trim, but it's pleasant enough and the more 1950s American comedians you recognise, the better.

Film: 3/5
DVD: 3/5

You get the film and sound and vision are ok. That's about it. There's a US edition with a documentary and some of the missing scenes.

Written by Ian

May 16th, 2011 at 10:48 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

The Long Firm

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Jake Arnott's novel re-imagines the London underworld in the 1960s, telling the story of Harry Starks, a homosexual Jewish East End gangster, via five people he came into contact with. This adaptation cuts that down to four people – the BBC only wanted that many episodes, apparently – but retains the basic structure of the story. Some real (and safely dead) people are included, and others are 'inspired' by those still alive and thus able to sue for libel. The back cover includes a statement that the corrupt police detective inspector is not linked to a real officer with a similar name…

The basic foundation of any good film is the script, and this has that. One of the memorable things from the commentary is star Mark Strong saying that it was something everyone wanted to be in, because the scripts were so strong. Unusually, reading the book first does not spoil watching the adaptation – normally, I am left thinking 'this isn't as good as the book…' Some scenes have been moved about, such as the red-hot poker trick, but even if you know how it ends, the ride is still so enjoyable. It helps that Strong in particular is excellent, and the visual look shows how much the makers cared about what they were doing.

Episode one features a homosexual Tory peer, played by Derek Jacobi. He is seduced, in more ways than one, into working for Starks. Despite the ups and downs of their relationship (he learns you do not get something for nothing when dealing with Starks) they end as friends. One of the aspects of Stark's character that makes him such a fascinating anti-hero is shown by both his willingness to use violence, but also to just use threats. Another character is seen to move straight to the violence, shocking both Stark and Jacobi's character.

Episode two sees a fading movie starlet become involved when her partner is sent to prison. Starks asks her for help with trying to make one of his boyfriends an actor and with running his nightclub. Again, she ends up still liking him, despite assisting in a killing of a lover. (For those of us living close by it and who enjoy playing 'spot the Rivoli Ballroom', the opening scenes were shot there.)

Episode three has Phil Daniels as a 'Jack the Hat' alike, who helps investigate the killing of a young male sex worker (the narrator missing from the book) while veering between trying to avoid becoming a murder victim himself and not caring if he lives or dies.

The final episode starts with Starks in prison and being the star prize for a visiting sociologist looking for something to write about. (There's a curious mismatch between the sentence announced by the judge and the one shown in newspaper headlines etc – was there an appeal or is this just a mistake that should have been picked up?) This is the funniest of the four, with my favourite being Starks introducing the sociologist with '.. this is my biographer' before the climatic confrontation. As with all the other 'civilians', he discovers you once you're involved, you can't avoid getting into deeper waters.

TL;DR Wonderful adaptation, reflecting the complexities of the novel. Well-acted, well-scripted, well-directed.

Film: 5/5
DVD: 4/5

Two discs, with two episodes on each. Informative and interesting commentary on the first and last episodes from Mark Strong, producer Liza Marshall, and screenwriter Joe Penhall. It's 'some music edits have been made' time though (the BBC can use music for broadcast programmes under a general licence that they cannot use – for a reasonable price – when issuing programmes on DVD). I didn't notice any difference and the original score is very good.

DVD and book links:

Written by Ian

May 10th, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Posted in DVDs,TV

All That Jazz

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I don't remember which was the first DVD I bought. I do remember that this was the first VHS video I ever rented, c1982, so it seems a good place to start this blog.

The film was released in 1979 and won the Palme d'Or at Cannes (a joint win with Kagemusha) plus four Academy Awards, being nominated for five more, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Cinemaphotograhy and Best Original Screenplay. Despite that, it took about a year to reach a cinema anywhere near me – I still remember seeing it at one of the smaller screens in the Odeon in Coventry. It was worth the wait though, further proof from Fosse that musicals can be spectacular without having to be brain dead.

It's described as semi-autobiographical – you judge how 'semi'…

In real life, following the smash hit success of Cabaret, Bob Fosse was editing his next film, Lenny about the stand-up comedian Lenny Bruce, and directing and choreographing a new Kander & Ebb musical, Chicago, staring his separated wife, Gwen Verdon, when he had problems with his heart and had open-heart surgery.

In the film, following the smash hit success of one film (named as 70 Girls, 70, the title of another Kander & Ebb musical in real life), Joe Gideon is editing his next film, The Stand Up, about a comedian, and directing and choreographing a new musical by a camp composer / lyricist pairing, staring his separated wife, when he has problems with his heart and has open-heart surgery.

Hmm 🙂 It also features several of Fosse's real-life partners, including Anne Reinking as his live-in girlfriend.

As well as being brutally honest about his / Gideon's drug use, infidelities and obsessions on screen, you get an idea of just what sort of person Fosse was by the way Anne Reinking had to audition for the part of herself in the film. But one of those obsessions is his work and this shows in the superlative staging. All the dance numbers, from the opening audition scene, to the 'here's one way to do this song, but here's a better – more sexual! – way' rehearsal staging of one of the show's numbers, to the girlfriend and daughter's private 'welcome home', to the closing routine, are fabulous. There's also a statement about the importance of editing: The Stand Up's producer wails about how long it's taking to edit one of the comedy sequences, but has to admit that the final version is better.

I also like the sense of humour: another theatrical director has a waitress recognise him and ask for his autograph. He's delighted, only to be told that he's her second favourite director, after Gideon, and she's really sorry his shows flopped.

For a film obsessed with death – the The Stand Up scene being edited is about death and its re-ordering of the Kübler-Ross model ("This chick, man, without the benefit of dying herself, has broken down the process of dying into five stages: anger, denial, bargaining, depression and acceptance") is followed by Gideon – the ending shouldn't come as a huge surprise.

TL;DR: It defines 'self-indulgent', but it's wonderful.

Film: 4.5/5
DVD: 3/5

Good picture, just 2.0 stereo sound. The version I have includes a commentary by star Roy Scheider on some scenes, plus some clips of Fosse and some 'it's wonderful' interviews with Scheider. The US / Region 1 2007 version has a commentary by the editor (who won one of its Academy Awards).

Written by Ian

April 26th, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs