Saturday, 21 April 2018

The Earth Dies Screaming

Cast: Willard Parker, Dennis Price, Virginia Field, Thorley Walters, and Vanda Godsell

director: Terence Fisher

62 minutes (PG) 1964
20th Century Fox DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Richard Bowden

After a series of unexplained disasters and deaths - planes and trains abruptly crashing, people collapsing for no reason, and so on - the English countryside is reduced to a few survivors. After the worst has passed, test pilot Jeff Nolan (Willard Parker) arrives at a seemingly deserted village...

The Earth Dies Screaming starts as something of a misnomer, in that budget limitations mean we only see the disaster’s main effects manifest in a very localised area of northern England. And as for the screaming, there’s no human sound heard at all until eight minutes into the story - that’s well over 10 percent of the running time. Like many of the small cycle of English invasion films made at this time - Unearthly Stranger (1963), The Night Caller (1964), Invasion (1966) - Fisher’s movie is small scale and un-ambitious for various reasons, almost domestic in its setting, frequently implying a catastrophe at a personal level just as much as a national one.

Such films are in contrast to those produced in America, which critics have typically interpreted in relation to the contemporary red scare and fear of communist take-over. In England, invasion threats by this time were often less grandiose and paranoid, relying more on alien intrusions into more realistic, even humdrum worlds, places where the ordinary is ever present. Like the cult movie Devil Girl From Mars (1954), substantial scenes of Fisher’s movie take place in the comforting atmosphere of a pub or nearby. 


In a disaster it seems, British folk naturally congregate round the local hostelry for comfort as well as safety - one thinks of the last refuge taken in Shaun Of The Dead. In Unearthly Stranger, the extra-terrestrial threat is discovered even more locally, being found within the relationship between husband and wife; events in Invasion principally take place at a local country hospital, and so on.

Director Terence Fisher is most known for the series of gothic horrors he helmed over at Hammer. Colourful, often erotically charged and gruesome, the Frankenstein and Dracula outings are what have occupied critical attention, then and now. Fisher’s SF work has been more readily dismissed; a genre apparently in which he had little interest. It began with Four Sided Triangle, and Spaceways (both 1953).

A decade later in his career, he made The Earth Dies Screaming, being the first of a trilogy for the appositely named Planet Productions company. The other two films were Night Of The Big Heat (1966), and Island Of Terror (1967). All three feature an alien invasion and a small group of people trying to fend off the intruders. Negative responses to this work perhaps stem from the fact that, often, it’s the people who are more interesting than the monsters and junk science on display and that the films lack the vibrancy of his horror work.


At the heart of The Earth Dies Screaming are three relationships: that between Quinn Taggart (a splendidly caddish Dennis Price), and Peggy (Virginia Field); the often drunk Otis (Thorley Walters), and his party friend Violet (Vanda Godsell), as well as the young couple Mel (David Spenser), with the pregnant Lorna (Anna Palk). Starting out independent of this group is Jeff Nolan, played by the film’s sole American actor.

Producer Robert Lippert had a successful formula of adding transatlantic appeal to his films by stocking them with token imported talent, and here Willard Parker fits the bill. Parker, who appeared, with little impact it must be said, in over 50 films during his career, plays Nolan, the man who takes charge of events, organises the survivors, and figures it out - right down to where the alien’s transmitter can be found.


In this regard he can be seen, in his mild way, as the ‘Quatermass’ figure of Fisher’s story: a technically competent individual who takes charge to protect British society from intrusion. While no pure scientist, Nolan still has enough know-how to quickly grasp what has happened, how the invasion can be thwarted and go on to take decisive action. In doing so, by the end of the film, he wins the right to a relationship of his own.

Critics such as Peter Hutchings, in his piece ‘We’re All Martians Now’ from British Science Fiction Cinema (Routledge, 1999), have identified such influential figures as typically being a “boffin-like protector of a society which seems incapable of protecting itself.” At the same time of course, through the novelty of his presence, Nolan is a reminder of British insularity. At the time many of these films appeared British society was still relatively isolated, but felt under pressure from new pressures and changes both international and local.


In The Earth Dies Screaming, only the cynical Taggart has a competing world-view that’s as strong as Nolan’s. For Taggart the new global conflict is over. Worse, “whoever did it has won... it’s every man for himself,” fatalistic sentiments in stark contrast to the famous spirit of the blitz, which would have been familiar to many of those watching. The punishment for his criminality and selfishness will be the loss of his tenuous relationship with Peggy and, ultimately his humanity, when he becomes part of the alien zombie army.

Most obviously, the big social change in Fisher’s film is obvious - a successful first strike against British society, together with silver-clad aliens walking the streets with their zombie work-force in support. Blank-eyed and as slow-moving as their masters, these zombies are among the most effective elements in the film. They must have been rather a novelty to contemporary audiences. I can’t, off-hand, think of an earlier representation of the creatures in British cinema before this (Hammer’s Plague Of The Zombies appeared two years later, but even that was set in the past). They provide one of the highlights of the film - a scene when Peggy is pursued, then trapped breathlessly in a bedroom closet, when Fisher makes use of a very dramatic close-up to add terror.


In contrast to the unsuccessful efforts of the un-dead to find a female, Nolan succeeds in gradually establishing a relationship and, one presumes, goes on to a successful romance. His success against the invader acts as a catalyst and, by the end of the film, he is entitled to re-integrate back in society. There’s a parallel to be found between the zombie’s painfully slow pursuit/ search and unnerving, soulless staring at the closet in which Peggy hides to a scene where Nolan had looked on, affectionately, as she pottered over small things in the pub’s kitchen. The difference between humanity and the alien, the film suggests, is that the former can bring value and sentiment to what it sees and so, once again, the British invasion variant gravitates naturally to the domestic.

The Earth Dies Screaming is further helped by a very effective score by Elizabeth Lutyens, as well as some high contrast, atmospheric cinematography by Arthur Lavis, especially effective when shooting on village location. These are elements that help to make it my favourite out of Fisher’s small group of SF movies, a feeling which even the overacting of Walters (who also popped up by way of support in some of the Hammer horrors) can’t dissipate. It is also blessed with a dramatic pre-title sequence - a world wrecked by sudden accident, recalling the night before Day Of The Triffids, as well as an eerie sense of a familiar landscape made empty, a horror-fantasy tradition which persists right down to such British films as 28 Days Later. Fisher’s film may be short, cheap, and with a disappointingly flat denouement, but its modest pleasures easily invade the mind.


Monday, 16 April 2018

Accident Man

Cast: Scott Adkins, Ray Stevenson, Michael Jai White, Ray Park, and Amy Johnston

Director: Jesse V. Johnson

101 minutes (15) 2018
Sony DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Ian Shutter

A lively comedy-thriller based upon a memorably absurdist comic-strip, written by Pat Mills and Tony Skinner, and published in colour weekly Toxic! (1991), Accident Man is, basically, a story of vengeance, as up-market hit-man Mike Fallon strives to discover who murdered his ex-girlfriend. His rampage through disreputable venues of the big city’s underworld stirs up his varied league-of-assassins type colleagues, and results in trial-by-combat confrontations with known associates in a friendless society.


Unlike the recent American hit-man movie John Wick, where professional killers congregate in a posh hotel, this British production has rather coarse, often misogynistic, characters, and grim, splattery killings that are organised by a pub landlord. In contrast to slick Hollywood efforts, and even other British action movies about assassins like The Tournament (2009), this is a lower-budget London-centred sub-genre project concerning wholly gritty and bleak unreality where British cultural stereotypes, such as Big Ray, the pub landlord (a fiercely moustachioed Ray Stevenson, once the star of sequel Punisher: War Zone, before his casting as Asgardian warrior Volstagg in Thor movies) are remade as larger-than-life, with routinely disconcerting and equally amusing conviction.


Fallon’s climactic fight against Jane the Ripper (top stunt-performer-turned-actress Amy Johnston, Female Fight Club) cranks up the movie’s engine to run on a pure comic-book adrenaline. It’s a fine closing act. Director Jesse V. Johnson comes from a background in stunts and it shows, most obviously, in the slickly stylised choreography for this movie’s fighting scenes, where every punch and kick is expertly shot despite the modest budget. What's unexpected here is how precisely the humour works to make the comicbook world come to life. This is not a particularly realistic milieu but more of a tribute picture to the ever-popular cinematic realm of contract killers.


However, Accident Man draws its action genre riffs not from the likes of Michael Winner’s classic The Mechanic (1972), a notable vehicle for stony-faced Charles Bronson, but from Simon West’s remake The Mechanic (2011), starring Jason Statham. The main difference for Accident Man is that antihero Fallon pursues an investigation and revenge plot instead of being a retiring mentor (Bronson’s melancholic Arthur Bishop), who is ultimately betrayed by his protégé. It borrows far more from the Statham version of Bishop, and that’s arguably a very good and wise choice.


Saturday, 14 April 2018

Score: A Film Music Documentary

Featuring: Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Williams, James Cameron, and Quincy Jones

Director: Matt Schrader  

92 minutes (E) 2016
Dogwoof DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Howard Yarborough  

Essay movies have a long pedigree in the cinematic documentary field with a special reference to critical academic works. Music for the screen is of such intrinsic value to visual entertainment its importance cannot be stressed enough. Score: A Film Music Documentary ranges from the bygone times of Wurlitzer theatre organs played for silent movies, to synthesisers a go-go, and it explores how music for the movies is created by bold experimenters and canny interpreters, not just by successful musicologists. Sometimes they are vague historians of musical instruments - including pipes, drums, and strings - from a variety of cultures, and many astute composers of classic scores fuse exotic folk sounds with cutting-edge technology, and time-distorting innovations, to generate the strongest and most evocative memories that might well be possible without factoring in the direct sensorial effect on the human brain of smells.


As this documentary attests, movie scores communicate both raw and refined emotions capable of inducing uplifting tears of joy like few other experiences, and cinematic music frequently provides the engine-heart of a whole production with changes of tone supporting an unfolding narrative. It’s quite interesting how many top composers often appear to be swaggeringly odd eccentrics, with even a few hipsters, or staidly professorial types. Perhaps their anti-fashion sensibilities are just another expression of a magically imaginative approach to breaking traditional rules, subverting directorial expectations, and absorbing various contemporary rock and pop influences for an essentially visual medium.


Rachel Portman and Deborah Lurie are not the only women interviewed but they are the only two female composers among nearly four dozen such interviewees in this evidently male-dominated field, despite a far greater diversity usually found in orchestras or bands of session players employed for scoring movies. How much of this bias might be due to the familiar tyrannical stereotype image of the orchestra conductor is left sadly unexamined and unquestioned here. Dr Siu-Lan Tan is a professor of psychology who studies and teaches how music works on the brain. Her fascinating comments are key scenes in this educational movie’s highlights of investigating the ways that sublime dissonance from aural products of creativity affects or challenges us while we are watching movies.


The compositional ambitions that can result in a ‘beautiful chaos’ are faced by not only sometimes ‘insane’ levels of only unconventional complexity, but enormous pressures from studio executives. Authentic milestones celebrated here include the screechy violin of Hitchcock’s Psycho, the famous five-note motif that made Close Encounters Of The Third Kind - a sci-fi classic that’s partly about music used for communication with aliens, and the unexpected revival of rousing orchestral themes for Star Wars. Whether entirely complimentary or radically counter-intuitive of acoustic-space overtures, dramatic cues, and simple codas that raise goose-bumps, all of these provocative moments, electrifying statements, and sequences of dark melancholy can sound timeless and inspirational. Movie music is clearly a unique art-form that bridges two centuries and, more importantly, reveals and revels in an astonishing power to move minds that defies rational scientific explanation.


Pick of the disc’s extras: James Cameron interview (29 minutes), which is partly a remembrance of James Horner.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Danger: Diabolik

Cast: John Phillip Law, Adolfo Celi, Marisa Mell, Michel Piccoli, and Terry Thomas

Director: Mario Bava

96 minutes (12) 1968
Paramount DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

Dino de Laurentiis produced Danger: Diabolik in the same year as Barbarella, which also starred John Phillip Law. While Law was quite literally an angel in Barbarella, here he is the very devil, an anarchist super-criminal for whom the spoils of his various heists are just an excuse to blow things up. Sheaves of folding money make a comfy mattress where he can romance his beloved Eva (Marisa Mell). Where Danger: Diabolik fares better than Barbarella is in having a cult director in Mario Bava who seems to understand his material, and a score by the great Ennio Morricone. Barbarella had a big budget, publicity, and a director in Roger Vadim who used the film in an attempt to make his lovely blonde wife Jane Fonda queen of the galaxy.


Drawn from the Italian fumetti, literally ‘a puff of smoke’, comic strip, created by the sisters Angela and Luciani Giussani in 1962, Diabolik is an anti-hero preying mainly upon fellow criminals. His activities in this film version seem geared to bring about his unnamed country’s economic collapse. The most obvious parallel is with the French master criminal Fantomas, created by writers Allain and Souvestre, a hero to the surrealist group of artists, and star of many screen and print adaptations. Fantomas followed the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin into print. Created by Maurice LeBlanc, Lupin is in the tradition of criminals ultimately doing good by doing bad and has also inspired print and screen versions, latterly the Lupin 111 anime series. Fantomas is amoral and murderous where Lupin adheres to a moral code; Diabolik seems to straddle these moral positions. The enigmatic screen version of Diabolik betrays no obvious motivation other than to acquire nice things for Eva and make a lot of hard currency extremely sticky.


Escaping after his opening robbery Diabolik is pursued by an iconic helicopter, but goes to ground in his underground lair. Diabolik further humiliates the state by administering laughing gas during a televised speech by the minister of finance, played by the ever-wonderful Terry Thomas. Under pressure, Diabolik’s archenemy Inspector Ginko (Michel Piccoli, Belle de Jour) targets crime boss Valmont (Adolfo Celi, Thunderball), brokering a deal whereby the police will lay off Valmont’s operations if he helps bring in Diabolik. Valmont tracks down a physician who treats Diabolik and Eva, and manages to kidnap Eva, crossing the physician ‘off the human list’ with a machine-gun in the process. Diabolik goes to the rescue, disposing of Valmont and using stolen emeralds as ammunition in a gun battle with Valmont’s gang and the police. Facing economic ruin the state hits on the risky notion of concentrating all its financial reserves into one giant gold ingot, which inevitably Diabolik is driven to steal.


An impressive array of DVD extras actually enhances the enjoyment of Danger: Diabolik. There is a commentary by John Phillip Law, and Tim Lucas, the biographer of Mario Bava. There are a couple of trailer reels, and an excellent Beastie Boys music video for Body Movin’, which incorporates actual film footage with the boys’ spoof versions. Finally, From Fumetti To Film looks at the film’s comic-book origins, and features artist Stephen R. Bissette, who collaborated with Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. Bissette discusses Bava’s framing technique, which echoes comicbook set-ups, but points out how the movement within the frame is more suggestive of the ‘animation’ that comics seem to achieve, while Vadim’s set-ups are static and pedestrian. Director Roman Coppola also features, explaining how his feature CQ (2001), pays homage to Italian fantasy movies.


Colourful and cheerful Danger: Diabolik is everything a comicbook adaptation should be, remarkable that audiences had to wait some 30 years before the industry cottoned-on how to do it as well.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Amazon Women On The Moon

Cast: Arsenio Hall, Michelle Pfeiffer, Griffin Dunne, Rosanna Arquette, and Henry Silva

Directors: Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton, John Landis, and Robert K. Weiss

85 minutes (15) 1987
101 Films DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Perhaps after DC movies like Wonder Woman and Justice League, it’s amusing to recall this fusion of anthology movie and genre spoof. With numerous sketchy comedy routines, peppered and salted with absurd fake adverts (Silly Paté, etc), and TV remote control as the linking device, its scattershot humour abounds. As a merely non-threatening exercise in tasteless jokes, Amazon Women On The Moon often succeeds like radical improv, or coolly satirical gags at the expense of easy targets. While bogus technical difficulties may spike much of its wild media farce with throwaway punch-lines, this engagingly irreverent production’s cult-movie status is assured. It’s cumulative effect is of astounding diversity.


AWOTM mixes blaxploitation slapstick, a nude interview parody, and balding man named Murray who zaps himself, via appealing sci-fi conceit, into TV worlds to gate-crash varied shows. The movie’s centrepiece is appallingly cheap and tacky special effects for a rocket to Moon adventure. However, this genre spoof does not dominate the comedy. There are choice spots for Griffin Dunne as a crazy sitcom doctor tending to Michelle Pfeiffer’s pregnancy, guest star B.B. King warns of blacks without soul, and Steve Guttenberg completely fails to score Rosanna Arquette on a blind date.


Henry Silva presents mystery debunker show ‘Bullshit, Or Not’ - which suggests Jack the Ripper was in fact the Loch Ness monster. Movie critics savage the ordinary reality of one TV viewer and the effect is quietly disturbing. A sea battle for video pirates intros ‘Son Of The Invisible Man’. Pop culture is frequently interrupted by trash. Sometimes the culture being parodied is actually trash, anyway. Eventually, statuesque Sybil Danning appears as the Lunar Queen, super-fan Forest J Ackerman plays the US president in this premier yet episodic narrative, and the lucky astronauts escape from an unlikely volcano disaster before returning to Earth.


Unlike the original cinema release the re-mastered package includes such bizarre oddities as The French Ventiloquist’s Dummy, Peter Pan Theatre, and The Unknown Soldier.     


Disc extras:
We’re Gonna Need Bigger Skits - an interview with Carl Gottlieb (16 minutes). Cinematographer On The Moon! - an interview with Daniel Pearl (15 minutes).
There’s also a commentary track, a picture gallery, six deleted scenes, and bloopers.



Monday, 2 April 2018

Lies We Tell

Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Sibylla Deen, Mark Addy, Gina McKee, and Harvey Keitel  

Director: Mitu Misra

109 minutes (15) 2017
Bradford International DVD Region 2

Rating: 6/10
Review by J.C. Hartley  

Well this seems to have got a rough ride out there in the wide world of everyone-has-an-opinion. This is quite a daring film in its way, risking upsetting queasy liberal consciences (holding my hand up), risking upsetting minority/ majority sensibilities, and oh dear oh dear upsetting people who care about the correct identification of genre (hand still up; may I be excused?). Perhaps the reason I’m going against the tide here is down to expectations.

Why is this being reviewed as some sort of British noir, or thriller, citing Get Carter (1971), and Stormy Monday (1988) as distant godparents? Is it because it’s set in the North, then how lazy is that? Now, I don’t dip more than a painted toenail into that sort of critical click-bait (joking, I haven’t painted my toenails since 1976), but are British thrillers so thin on the ground that every gritty urban drama has to be corralled into the mosh pit of noir? Admittedly, the marketing department have created a montage poster of Gabriel Byrne brandishing a shotgun, like Michael Caine’s Jack Carter, although given the age of Byrne’s portrayal of ‘Donald’ the reference would be more in keeping with Harry Brown (2009).

But this is no revenge thriller, it’s simply the story of someone getting dragged into a situation not of their choosing and trying to do the right thing, whatever that is. This is the second time I’ve reviewed something trumpeted as a crime thriller, or new British noir, that turned out not to be. The last time was Trespass Against Us (2016), which turned out to be more like an extended episode of Daisy May and Trevor Cooper’s This Country (2017-8), with more swearing and less jokes. Crime and the criminal classes have their place in Lies We Tell, but then they are also increasingly staples of TV shows EastEnders and Coronation Street, and no one to the best of my knowledge has claimed those for the great tradition of British thrillers.


Chauffeur Donald (Gabriel Byrne) ferries his employer Demi (Harvey Keitel, whose every appearance sells insurance) to assignations at the swank residence he keeps for his mistress. When Demi dies, seconds into the film, he leaves instructions for Donald to tidy up, so that his widow and family will never need to know. Attending to business, Donald meets Amber (Sibylla Deen), Demi’s mistress, a young Muslim woman whose legal career he was funding as a ‘business arrangement’. Despite getting off on the wrong foot, Donald finds himself being drawn into Amber’s domestic situation, and increasingly being called upon to help out in her confrontations with her family and the cousin to whom she was once married.

Amber has broken free of her family and the restrictions of her faith, finding herself almost a pariah within her family and culture. Aged 16, she and her cousin KD (Jan Uddin), found themselves transported to Pakistan where they were told they were to be married. In order to be allowed to return to Britain they agreed between themselves to go through with the ceremony, effectively lying on the Koran and in the sight of Allah.  However, once back in the UK, KD enforced his ‘rights’, inflicting marital rape upon Amber who had always viewed him as a surrogate brother. Now divorced from Amber, KD is paying court to Amber’s younger sister Miriam (Danica Johnson), despite having a white English girlfriend pregnant with his child. Worse than this, KD is involved with drug-dealing and sexual exploitation. Amber is determined that her sister will not be forced into an arranged marriage, a pawn exploited to smooth over family differences arising from her own perceived rebellion.


There’s a mcguffin of sorts, a mildly sexy video on Demi’s mobile phone, that Amber asks Donald to retrieve, overcoming her initial antipathy to him. Donald steals the phone and Amber deletes the video but a copy is retrieved by Demi’s obnoxious son who assumes he can take over where his father left off. The video finds its way into the hands of KD who tries to blackmail Amber into stopping trying to sabotage his wedding to Miriam. At times it appears that Amber is trying to impose her own emulsion of cultural values, hijab-wearing, but wine-drinking, and enjoying extra-marital sex, on her younger sister, who at one point asks what is so bad about being married.

Amber, much more than Donald, is the focus of the film, an intelligent westernised woman trying to live an independent life but hamstrung by family responsibilities.  Donald by comparison is an outline, blocked-in by Gabriel Byrne’s convincing performance, but providing little in the way of back-story. He lives on a run-down farm with his brother-in-law, Mark Addy in his usual sure-footed role of ‘best-friend’, a stark counterpoint to the sumptuous home of his employer. Donald is being pursued for divorce by his angry wife, Gina McKee in a haggard and harassed brief cameo. There is some unresolved issue relating to their, probably deceased, daughter. Donald and Amber’s relationship is a potentially father and daughter surrogacy, Donald is defensive and uncomfortable when Amber tries to flirt, and his relationship with Miriam is even more paternal. 


Amber herself seems to undergo a personality change early in the film, when we first see her, trying on her seduction-kit anticipating Demi’s arrival, and in her early scenes with Donald she is more ‘Yorkshire’, almost brazen, referring to the chauffeur as an ‘arsehole’ for refusing to let her take anything from the love-nest. There seems to be a disconnect between the Amber who has entered into a relationship with Demi, apparently to have her legal career funded, although there appears to have been real affection, and the high-minded woman battling to save her sister from an arranged marriage. Still, people are complicated, and Sibylla Deen’s performance is never less than convincing.

A difficult and daring film then, elements of the Muslim community being shown in an uncompromising light. Amber is vilified by her family but the men-folk are shown to be hypocritical, not only KD and his associates but also Amber’s father, seen at one point chugging down supermarket vodka and gambling in a back-alley. I must admit the first half-hour made me squirm, those wishy-washy liberal sensitivities again, but once the film itself had settled down, and thanks in no small part to Deen’s performance, I thought it was a valiant effort.


Interestingly, this is writer-director Mitu Misra’s first foray into film-making, funded by his success in business. It’s a very professional-looking debut, helped by a brilliant cast and the contribution of cinematographer Santosh Sivan. Misra and his producers did very well assembling the team and capturing Byrne was a real coup. I first saw Gabriel Byrne in Excalibur (1981), riding across a bridge made of Nicol Williamson’s breath to impregnate the mother of the future Arthur Pendragon, while never taking his armour off. Byrne has something of the tragic flavour that made the great James Mason a matinee idol, born into a different era he might have enjoyed a similar starry trajectory, although he has hardly done badly. 

Byrne was a natural fit for Lord Byron in Ken Russell’s ludicrous Gothic (1986). Unlikely now to become an action-hero like his compatriot Liam Neeson, Byrne has had his share of tough-guy roles. He was the heart and soul of The Usual Suspects (1995), a film that perhaps needs some reassessment since Kevin Spacey has been revealed as a real-life Keyser Söze, albeit with a different level of predation. He was the lead with Albert Finney in Miller’s Crossing (1990), a film many critics consider the Coen brothers’ best, but which I found to be turgid in the extreme. Byrne won great acclaim as therapist Paul Weston in HBO’s In Treatment (2008-10). In interviews, director Mitu Misra says Byrne was fastidious in his examination of the script, a level of professionalism evident in his performance.


Clunky, pretentious, unconvincing - these are just some of the epithets I’ve seen attached to this film in other reviews, which is a shame, as it’s not that bad, and certainly not a bad effort from a first-time film-maker. There are the usual slew of DVD extras, deleted scenes, cast and crew interviews, behind the scenes footage, and some audience interviews from the premiere, where they liked it.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Casshern

Cast: Yusuke Iseya, Kumiko Aso, Akira Terao, Kanako Higuchi, and Fumiyo Kohinata

Director: Kazuaki Kiriya

125 minutes (15) 2004
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Momentum Asia DVD Region 2 retail

Rating: 9/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary

As a beguiling retro-future, packed to the margins with Jules Verne-inspired sky-ships, primitive but powerful looking machinery, and clustered elements of genre-movie set design work (particularly the baroque architecture of Fritz Lang’s classic Metropolis), the exceedingly cinematic artistry of Casshern blends its Japanese sci-fi political melodrama with the iconography of heroic fantasy adventure. First-time director Kazuaki Kiriya draws upon manga influences and the animated TV series Shinzo ningen casshern (1973), known in the west as Robot Hunter, fuses his fashionable art-house pretensions to blatant pop/ rock-video sensibilities, and eagerly polishes this big-screen debut’s frequently vigorous live action scenes with gorgeous cinematography and much visually striking photo-real animation.

Indeed, the movie’s prominent colour schema flits dazzlingly between harshly urban ‘monochrome’ sumptuous tinted flashbacks and the positively lurid primaries of a military-industrial ‘present’ where the imaginative back-story offers us a splendid celebration of alternative-history SF, comparable to Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, yet without that adventure’s rampant optimism.


Tetsuya (Yusuke Iseya) is the angry young man that defies his upper-class parents’ wishes and goes off to war, leaving behind luminous beauty Luna (Kumiko Aso). When Tetsuya is killed on the front-line, he’s re-animated - while his ‘ghost’ hovers in the background - by the well-meaning yet morally corruptible Prof Azuma (Akira Terao), using an untested experimental bio-tech. This ‘neo-cell’ soup also gives rise to a band of freaky Frankenstein-esque mutants led, and driven to maniacal vengeance, by the ranting hysteria of chief bad guy Burai (Toshiaki Karasawa), who promptly escapes to raise an army of robots and intends to stage a coup against the brutally oppressive military-industrial regime. Only the cyber-armoured Tetsuya, taking on the mantle of legendary hero ‘Casshern’, stands any chance of defeating Burai’s mechanoid hordes and superhuman followers...


Despite the wonderfully dark, glossy-gloom imagery, the unhurried pace of early ‘chapters’ in this picture’s story-line may test the patience of some viewers. However, if you can get through a multitude of establishing scenes in the first hour, what follows is a sequence of astonishingly fast-moving comic-book superhero fighting, and some startlingly tragic developments for the characters and their relationships with others (on either side of the muddled conflict). In the end, you will either love or hate the movie’s reliance on style over content for its entertainment value. I thought it was vivid in its action sequences and admirable in its painterly ‘tech noir’ tableaux. Casshern is a movie to be seen and heard, but not necessarily understood in terms of plot, characters, or its mixed bag of genre themes. It runs the gamut of unguarded human emotions from love and rage to expressions of regret and forgiveness, though its sense of poignancy is determined largely by the individual viewer’s responses to the evocative digital-simulations of life, afterlife, rebirth, and death. In those terms, and in spite of its narrative flaws, Casshern is ‘pure cinema’ par excellence, and it gets my vote for SF picture of the year, so far!


The second disc of special features in this DVD package is comprised of subtitled interview clips, 11 deleted scenes with director’s commentary, some 8mm footage - that includes flashbacks to Tetsuya’s childhood, plus a couple of trailers. There’s not much in this clutch of typical extras that’s making an essential contribution to the filmic project or enhancing its production, but I think it is halfway amusing to try and figure out who’s who in the (un-captioned) video and publicity interviews - as at least a couple of the cast are hard to recognise out of make-up and costumes.