February 22, 2011

They've released THE SATAN BUG (1965) in the US!

(1965, USA)

A different kind of bug hunt...

(An update of my review from 2007)

Before Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, before Outbreak, The Satan Bug was a gripping 'viral' thriller, based on Alistair Maclean’s best-selling novel. Through the 1960s and 70s, Maclean's books inspired a string of hit movies. The author's name on a poster promised adventure and man-centric thrills.

A list of his novels (with their original publishing dates) which were all turned into movies:

1957 The Guns of Navarone
Fear is the Key
1962 The Golden Rendezvous
1962 The Satan Bug
1963 Ice Station Zebra
1966 When Eight Bells Toll
1967 Where Eagles Dare
1968 Force 10 From Navarone
Puppet on a Chain
1970 Caravan to Vaccarès
1971 Bear Island
1974 Breakheart Pass

As you can see, his stories ranged from World War II heroics, through cold war thrillers, to high-tech terrorism. Which brings us back to The Satan Bug, which Maclean wrote under a pen-name and isn’t actually credited in the film.

This is a well-made, tight detective thriller with a slight sci-fi edge (that is if the science of such a bio-weapon is still fictional). The 'Satan Bug' is a virus engineered by the government to kill all living things, a sword of Damacles in a top secret lab in the Nevada desert. Then the bug goes missing, along with another less deadly virus.

So the story starts with a typical ‘locked room’ murder mystery – a well-guarded bunker with a huge combination locked laboratory. How did the thieves get in, let alone escape?

Top security agent, played by George Maharis (Route 66, The Sword and the Sorcerer) is brought in to find out how the virus was stolen, and where it is now. Then an incident in Miami, hundreds of people die mysteriously and suddenly…

The story depends on the audience paying attention, keeping track of a dozen different suspects, all men in suits. Dialogue drives much of the complex plot with many crucial events, even the opening murders, all happening off-screen. The early detective work has the benefit of the spectacular scenery of the desert mountains, and the action eventually takes off. But with a premise like this, it's suspenseful throughout.

The film is helped enormously by an outstanding early score from Jerry Goldsmith, his first sci-fi soundtrack, using unusual percussion and electronic sounds. The opening title theme is very striking and suitably downbeat.

The director, John Sturges, was the man behind Christmas TV hardy perennials The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, as well as many other well-known thrillers. He does well to keep the tension persistent and the settings familiar.

The cast also make this a pleasurable watch, with the late Anne Francis as intelligent eye candy – good to see her in something besides Forbidden Planet. An elderly Dana Andrews (Night of the Demon, Zero Hour, Crack In The World) coordinates the search for the virus, and Richard Basehart (Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) plays the head of the scientific team (below).

Notable bit parts include a young Ed Asner (Lou Grant), with hair, and James ‘Scotty’ Doohan without any dialogue, but stealing one great scene, worthy of his red shirt…

There are also a couple of great-looking helicopters in the film, a regular feature in Alistair Maclean films, just because they were standard issue in thrillers at the time - visual shorthand for ‘high-tech’ and ‘big budget’.

The US VHS release was severely ‘panned & scanned’ down to a tight 1.33 full frame. The first widescreen release was the Fox Laserdisc.

In 2007, I was pleased to find the film on DVD in Denmark and Norway, in 2.35 anamorphic widescreen. However, the picture didn't look much better than an (analogue) laserdisc.

There was visible patterning, with hard diagonals turned into a series of steps (see the edge of the desk, above). It’s only distracting on certain scenes, but there’s also slightly muffled audio - not something I'd expect on a digital release.

So I was looking forward to this new MGM Limited Edition Collection version, even though it was an official DVD-R. I foolishly assumed that MGM (like many of the recent Warner Bros Archive releases) was going to remaster the film, curing the visual and audio faults of the Scandinavian DVD. Many websites selling this new version (it's only available online) failed to warn that this has been 'made from the best source available' - a caption which greets you only once you play the disc. A pre-emptive apology that means it doesn't look as good as it should. The exception is Amazon.com which outlines the problems prominently on the product page. I wish I'd visited them before double-dipping for the same sub-standard transfer. '...best source available'? Please don't tell me that MGM have lost the negative...

My mistake, perhaps, and at least this is a chance for the US to see a great sixties thriller in widescreen, on DVD for the first time.

Jerry Goldsmith’s scary paranoid soundtrack debuted on CD a few years ago, one of my favourite of his works. Several cues only exist today mixed in with sound effects from the film, but there’s also half an hour of just the music. Seems that I'll never get to hear the creepy synthesizers of the robbery sequence without those pneumatic sliding doors...

Lastly, there's an original trailer
on YouTube.

February 17, 2011

ASTRO BOY (2009) - looking good, but...

(2009, Hong Kong/USA/Japan co-production)

If only the script had been as good as the animation...

This beloved Japanese manga character became popular in the US when it was one of the first anime series shown on TV, back in the 1960s. Two further series were made in 1980 and 2003 and released in English language versions, but this high-budget feature film attempted to push the character as franchise material, though no sequel is happening. While it was a hit in China, it wasn't in the US... or even Japan.

The origin story of Astro hasn't been changed too drastically, retaining the tragic death of Professor Tenma's son, and the scientist's attempt to create a robot to replace him. But not just any robot. Tenma packs the it with enough 'defence systems' to remain safe from any foreseeable harm. But when Astro is activated and begins to realise his potential, the government want to use him as a weapon, or destroy him for being a potential threat.

During the power struggle over Astro's future, he escapes and runs away to live down below on the Earth's surface. Not in the beautiful floating city where robots do all the dirty work, but the trash-covered remnants of the Earth's surface...

This is a familiar premise, but clumsily outlined with a wordy, patronising prologue, rather than the elegant introduction of Pixar's recent Wall-E.

The futuristic city where Astro Boy lives was always re-imagined for each new anime series. Here the intricate pastel architecture, the designs of the giant robots and police pursuit vehicles are startling at times. The character animation and motion is dynamic and very high quality, as are the blistering action scenes.

The emotional dilemmas that Astro has to face as he finds a new place in the world are also quite tough for a children's film. The relationship with his father is far from the usual depiction of a single parent, and realistically, touchingly performed by Nicolas Cage. Cora (Kristen Bell), the tough girl he befriends, is rather a stock character, reminding me of Penny Robinson from the Lost In Space remake of 1998, though she's likeable enough.

Bill Nighy doesn't cope with voiceover acting at all well, but thankfully his character isn't in there for long. Donald Sutherland is also put in the shade by Nicolas Cage's vocal performance, as a one-note villain who tells us what he wants near the start and keeps on repeating his dastardly schemes if we'd forgotten.

The main drawback with the film were the secondary 'good' mechanical characters. The robot society in Astro Boy are the crux of the manga - future humanity's relationship with sentient robots. Many of Tezuma's original stories dealt with stories of an integrated automated workforce seriously enough to rival and predate subplots in Spielberg's A.I. (2004). This new Astro Boy includes an arena where robots fight each other to destruction, taken from the stories, echoed in A.I..

Apart from the snazzy-looking 'evil' ones, the robots aren't dealt with seriously at all, but as comedy relief. One dimensional characters with poorly underwritten gags that reduce many scenes to the level of tiny tot TV. Bizarrely, these comedy reliefs are part of a robot liberation front, a non-important subplot trading on jokes about powerless grass roots political groups. It's the wrong era for satire like this and feeble humour. Without them, this would be a much stronger film for all ages.

This new Astro Boy movie is available in the UK and US on DVD and blu-ray.

February 13, 2011

AFTERSHOCK (2010) - heart-rending disaster movie from China

(2010, China, Tangshan dadizhen)

The psychological debris from a natural disaster

The city of Tangshan in China suffered a devastating earthquake in 1976 that left 240,000 dead. But Aftershock doesn't exploit the extent of the devastation, but homes in on the lasting effects of the disaster on one family.

Early in the story, the quake is shown from the perspective of a few people in one neighbourhood (rather than an overview of the city), as a mother and father race to protect their children. The amazing scene is a seamless mix of CGI and large-scale sets. But unlike the disaster movies that I'm used to, the accent wasn't on spectacular destruction. The deaths had more emotional impact, helped by the random victims being played by actors rather than 'digital stuntmen'.

The story really begins when the dust settles and it emerges who survived. As rescuers dig through the rubble, the mother is forced to decide between the lives of her son and her daughter. A natural disaster has forced her to make the most difficult decision of her life, and could ruin the rest of it. She reluctantly chooses to save her son. Without her knowing, her daughter has miraculously survived, but heard her mother decide against saving her. Also completely traumatised, she walks away from the city to a new life.

The story then repeatedly leaps forward to see how these survivors lead their lives, still haunted by the day of the quake, right up to the present day, 32 years later. Some of these 'fast-forward' fades-to-black avoid many events that are ripe for melodrama. The director avoids many of the cliches, often leaving the viewer to deduce some of the major changes in the characters' lives.

In the background, there's a summary of the last thirty years of life in China. It's interesting to see the similarities and differences between western life and communist society. I've read that this film didn't get an Oscar nomination because it didn't appeal enough to an international audience, but it's far from inaccessible. There are very few important references to historic events or unfamiliar places.

There also seemed to be a conscious decision to appeal internationally. An orphan being fostered by both parents in Red Army uniform looked like it was aimed at non-Chinese viewers, trying to counter decades of negative depiction of communism.

The opening shot had me a little worried, a swooping helicopter shot of Tangshan, filled with unconvincing CGI dragonflies, (an illustration of the kinds of natural warnings China had before the quake). Understandably, there were also CGI establishing shots of Tangshan as it was before the quake. But soon the film settled down as a very high-quality production, with the exception of one non-Chinese actor who spoiled a later scene.

Xiaogang Feng, director of Assembly (2007) and The Banquet (2006) assembled a fantastic cast who convey some truly heart-rending scenes. Though apart from the quake itself, the many intimate dramatic scenes were hardly an obvious choice for an IMAX presentation, as it was in China.

With so many regular natural disasters around the world, and so many people affected, it's hard to let yourself be affected by each new catastrophe. Hollywood disaster movies also maintain this distance, rarely depicting death tolls, permanent injuries and lasting emotional effects.

For a disaster movie, this unleashed a huge emotional impact on me, emphasising the personal tragedies that last for decades after the funerals are over.

I watched a DVD from Hong Kong, released by Media Star, with good subtitles and widescreen anamorphic aspect. The extras were deleted scenes, cast interviews and a trailer, but these had no English subtitles. The USA has yet to release this, but there was a limited run in the UK and there's now a DVD, with cover art misleadingly showing skyscrapers in the background (above) - compare it to the Chinese DVD art (at top).

An extensive, spoilery review on
Asia Pacific Arts.

An original trailer on YouTube...

February 05, 2011

TENDERNESS OF THE WOLVES (1973) - still shocking?

(1973, West Germany, Die Zärtlichkeit der Wölfe)

A recreation of the exploits of a German serial killer who attacked young men with vampirism, cannibalism and necrophilia. Watching it again, I've changed my mind about this film.

In post-war Germany (the film moves the setting from the end of the First World War, to the end of the Second), two petty crooks find a new way to find meat to sell to their bankrupt neighbours. Fritz Haarmann murders young homeless men, then sells pieces of their bodies to a local cafe. His lover helps dispose of the remains and cashes in the victims' belongings on the black market.

One of Haarmann's neighbours notices that young men go to his flat but are never seen again. But his reputation as a generous do-gooder and his job as a deputised police inspector help hide his crimes from the authorities...

I've always regarded this as a similarly taboo movie as I Spit On Your Grave, Straw Dogs and Last House On The Left. A 1970s' horror that pushed the envelope too far. An experiment in bad taste that history wouldn't repeat. Viewing it again, my knee-jerk reactions started kicking in again, critical that this was a worst-case representation of gay men. A weird-looking outcast who preys on young straight men for sex, sucks their blood, kills them and eats them... but not necessarily in that order. If that's not enough stigma-by-association for you, some of the victims were under-aged.

More objectively, I imagined the film with female victims, and it became more typical of seventies Euro-horror. The extreme elements of the murders are mostly implied and not shown. The most explicit angle of the film is the sexuality of the killer, and by explicit I mean kissing his boyfriend and the nudity of his prey. Compared to other films of the era, there's little difference in pushing the boundaries, besides gender. In Martin, the bloody victims and the nudity are female. Blood On Satan's Claw and To The Devil a Daughter both had full-frontal nudity of young women.

Admittedly many of the naked young men in Tenderness of the Wolves are gratuitous to the plot, once Haarmann's obsessions have been established. This casual and unflattering male nudity is surprising today, as it continues to be rare in horror or any other genre. I think it's this aspect that makes it relatively obscure, excluding it from it's two genres. Horror and gay-themed cinema continue to keep a mutually-exclusive distance.

I'm accepting the film now, but my paranoid defences originally made me back away, writing it off as indefensible back in the 80s when I first saw it. The theme of gay vampirism was too perfect for providing fuel for demonisation in the decade of AIDS hysteria. But Tenderness of the Wolves was made a decade before the AIDS crisis and might even have been considered relevant had it been released a few years later. It unhelpfully mixed the genre of lurid 'true crime' exploitation with the story of a gay love affair going sour. While it's a truthful and sympathetic depiction of a gay relationship, this isn't a great genre for making positive political statements. But what should you expect from director Ulli Lommel, collaborating with producer Rainer Werner Fassbinder (who also appears in the film as a sleazy pimp)?

Anyone frightened off by the recent quality of Lommel's films can be assured that this early work is well-produced and dramatically convincing. Though it's less of a narrative than a timeline of case history highlights. Even the detective work, usually the focus of true crime dramas, is sidelined as music replaces their dialogue. The corruption angle is hardly exploited, despite Haarmann working for the police while they're also hunting for him.

There are homages to Fritz Lang's M in quoted imagery and Haarmann being as completely bald as Peter Lorre's character, even though the real Haarmann had hair. M was also based on a different serial killer - Peter Kürten, the 'Vampire of Düsseldorf', whose most horrific crimes involved very young girls. The two films and their subjects are often confused, the original cases both being from Germany in the 1920s. Fritz Haarmann was known as the 'Butcher of Hanover', and his victims were young men between 13 and 20.

The shaven-headed Kurt Raab gives a relatively restrained performance as the killer (imagine Klaus Kinski in the same role), charming his neighbours and evoking sympathy when his boyfriend leaves him. Raab only lived to be three years older than Haarmann, ironically dying of AIDS-related illnesses. He'd had a full career as a screenwriter and actor, one of his last appearances was in Escape from Sobibor with Rutger Hauer.

I watched the Connoisseur Video VHS release from the UK (with a slight variation of the English title), which has good subtitles and a 1.66 widescreen aspect. The Anchor Bay release DVD is still available in the US.

February 04, 2011

R.I.P. John Barry (1933 - 2011)

Really wasn't expecting to have to say goodbye to John Barry so soon. He composed some of the most beautiful and the most exciting movie music I've ever heard, first impressing with me with his extraordinary scores for the Bond films I saw as a child in the sixties. There are more of his albums than any other artist in my collection, soundtracks or otherwise.

I'd like to spend some time and care preparing a proper tribute. But for now I need a little time to mourn the man who wrote the background music to The Black Hole.