September 29, 2011

WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965) - Woody Allen, Peters O'Toole and Sellers


WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?
(1965, USA/France)

(To camera) "As a man's life passes before his eyes, you are there."

A sex comedy of yesteryear that's such a tame romp it's almost kid-friendly today. No nudity, no swearing, but that doesn't make it any less funny, with a cast put to far better use here than in the similarly mad, but really very expensive Bond-spoof Casino Royale (1967).


Michael (Peter O'Toole) has a dilemma. Should he give up his lifetime habit of sleeping around with every beautiful woman who gives him a second glance, or should he commit to just one woman, his girlfriend (Romy Schneider)? He can no longer rely on the advice  of friends (like Woody Allen), the problem warrants a trip to a psychologist with some radical methods (Peter Sellers), who himself has fixation for one of his clients (Capucine). Michael then has to resist the temptations of the most beautiful stripper (Paula Prentiss) at his favourite club in Paris, and any other 'pussycat' who happens to drop by (like Ursula Andress)...


It's sometimes silly, sometimes breaking the fourth wall, slightly kinky ("please send up six French loaves and a boy scout's uniform"). Despite being set in swinging Paris in the sixties (and being filmed there), the advent of the permissive society is only gently hinted at, as are Freudian psychology, orgies and other 'deviations'. Nothing more daring than a wryly cheeky comedy for adults, but with fuller characters than the one-joke boob, knob and toilet-obsessives in the Carry On films.


It's portrays a still very recognisable struggle of someone resisting settling down and marrying when they're having so much fun. Also, like many later Woody Allen scripts, despite the central character being a man with a sex habit, there's a range of female characters with a variety of their own sexual appetites. Romy Schneider as Michael's fiancee is also a realistic character who's beautiful, complex and fun.

This is Woody Allen's first movie screenplay and first big screen appearance. His script is at it's best when everyone in the cast sticks to it, less funny when there's madcap improvisation and farcical running around between bedrooms. It's almost a pity that it descends into (French) farce because the dialogue and interplay between all the characters achieve comic brilliance, like an early Clouseau movie written by, well, Woody Allen.


One of the main draws here are the top members of the cast at the top of their game - a rare but effortless comedy turn from Peter O'Toole shortly after Lawrence of Arabia in his most gorgeous decade. Peter Sellers, hot off his second Clouseau film, A Shot In The Dark, as Dr Fritz  Fassbender, the neurotic psychiatrist who hates his wife and kids.


Sellers hones his scenes to pack in every last gag, all while staying firmly in character. Even his hair is funny. While his accent is a typical Austrian psychiatrist, he appears wrapped in a Norwegian flag in one scene. The voice could be a discarded idea from his far more warped German madman, Dr Strangelove.


Woody Allen plays the desperate nerd who can't land a woman for himself, very different from his later scripts where he always gets the girl. A big success, this led to a stupidly expensive James Bond spoof in a similar madcap vein. There's even a strangely anticipatory Bond joke, which mirrors a couple of throwaway Pussycat in-jokes that later appear in Casino Royale. Both films had Woody in a scene-stealing supporting role, but only Pussycat has the unique chance for Allen to share scenes with Peter Sellers.

Capucine had previously played Clouseau's long-suffering wife in The Pink Panther and again maintains an icy composure in her scenes with Sellers (which must have been hard). Also inherited from Pink Panther are animated titles by Richard Williams, who eventually brought to life the title character of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

In bit parts, watch out for a young Daniel Emilfork - he later played the obsessed inventor in Jeunet and Caro's The City of Lost Children (1995), and Howard Vernon, the awful Dr Orloff himself! Also watch out for a lightning cameo from one of the, then, most famous actors on the planet...


Add to this the catchy Burt Bacharach score, topped with a top ten title song from the powerfully sexy Tom Jones, plus background music from Manfred Mann and Dionne Warwick and the whole film practically epitomises the decade.

Released by MGM in 2004, the current DVD is very disappointing. I don't often notice audio faults, but the mono audio sounded thin, almost tinny in some scenes, with no other audio option. The widescreen anamorphic picture also annoys by cropping off action on all sides - particularly noticeable during the opening credits. Any English subtitles have been removed in order for the DVD to be subtitled in any language, which ruins the "Author's Message" gag (pictured above), an animation obviously added by Richard Williams. No extras either. Grrrr...


September 16, 2011

DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND (1964) - a monochrome BLADE RUNNER



I can't stay away from The Outer Limits for very long and return to them more often than The Twilight Zone. The stories are more detailed, less predictable, less fanciful, usually scary and often cosmically mind-expanding. The original 1963-1965 run is easily in my top ten TV series. Beautifully directed and photographed in black and white, with familiar and surprising faces in the cast (Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Bruce Dern, Donald Pleasence...). The stand-alone stories sometimes pack enough ideas into a TV hour to blow away most sci-fi B-movies and many A-list productions as well. Sometimes, not all.

I first watched them on late night TV at the end of the 1970s (Friday nights on BBC2), primed by monster magazines that there'd be weekly creatures and aliens - outlandish man-in-a-mask creations, but also shapeless entities, things made only of energy, beings from different dimensions... each with their own very different story, challenging the scientific status quo.


The Control Voice alone, setting up and summing up each episode, through a broken TV transmission, authoritatively prepared us for the wonders and dangers of the future, and to appreciate better the size of the Universe and the potential variety within. Even the worst monsters and outlandish stories get high marks for at least taking themselves seriously, an approach which could still easily convince me, watching on my own, slightly wasted, sometime way after midnight.


Many years ago, my initial response to Demon With A Glass Hand was muted, the scary 'bear' of the week was disappointing - a guy with a transparent hand and some cheap-looking aliens. I wish they hadn't worn those rubber caps, but the 'ghoul' make-up is effective enough. A lone human (Culp) is trying to evade the murderous aliens and complete his mission. His hand has been replaced by fingerless glass, missing a few fingers but full of electronics issuing him instructions. In a classic script ploy, he has no memory before the story started, putting him in the same position as the audience as to what the bloody hell is going on.


Why are they all trying to kill him? What is his mission? While working his way up the building, getting closer to the truth, he encounters a young woman who's horrified by his transparent hand. Her reaction partially explains the episode title, but it's a cheat.


It's a gripping episode, the hero using tough tactics from the very start to get to the truth. It's exciting because he's outnumbered, it's fascinating because of the mysteries piling up from the clues from his talking hand... Unlike much sci-fi, the seemingly bizarre story elements converge and conclude logically, while still leaving the viewer a few implications to mull over.


There are two editions of the appreciative and informative series companion, introducing the many creative minds behind the series, script decisions, special effects and a critical analysis of each episode - not the kind of scrutiny most TV series can justify in such detail. The more recent publication (on the right) has been revised, expanded and printed on less pulpy paper. I didn't initially appreciate the cult status of this particular episode, compared to my many other favourites. But watching through the second series again, I relaxed and really enjoyed it, particularly it's premonitions of Blade Runner...

I'm not just talking about the main location for the episode - most of it takes place inside the Bradbury Building, the scene of Rick Deckard's main confrontation in the film. Demon also has the protagonists working their way up the Bradbury, and even chasing out the window... An astonishing piece of parallel action with the film.


This time around I was also struck by the naked shoproom dummies in the dressmaking shop. Female dummies also appear in Blade Runner, stood outside J.F. Sebastian's apartment, also filmed in the Bradbury Building. The location, the symbolism, the themes of both stories overlapping, possibly intentionally, making this the closest you can get to Blade Runner if it was shot in black-and-white and twenty years earlier.



The story is packed with so many ideas, the episode could easily have expanded to feature-length. The fact that they're crammed into a TV hour makes it rich enough for fans of serious science fiction. Some elements of the story prefigure Blade Runner as well as The Terminator - Harlan Ellison wrote this and the episode Soldier, later suing James Cameron for lifting too many ideas from these scripts. Spoilerage prevents me from elaborating on which particular elements of the plot.

I had thought of cherrypicking my top ten episodes of the original Outer Limits as must-see, but it's too good a show to divide up. Watch them all. Pick your own favourites. They're all available on DVD in the US and UK.

A thorough (though spoilery) guide to the series, with plenty of screengrabs and some rare stills, plus a review of every single episode, all on this blog in collaboration with the David J. Schow, the author of The Outer Limits Companion, We Are Controlling Transmission...

September 07, 2011

September 03, 2011

BAREFOOT GEN (1983) - he saw the bombing of Hiroshima


BAREFOOT GEN
(1983, Japan, Hadashi no Gen)

A terrifying account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, for children...

Disaster movies are currently all about meteor collisions and climate change. But for decades, the most likely apocalypse was nuclear war. In the 1980s, I was seriously worried it might become a reality, with Ronald Reagan constantly talking tough with the Russians. For all I knew, they all had their fingers on big shiny red buttons ready to launch hundreds of missiles at each other. It was hard to imagine what might happen.


Post-apocalyptic movies portrayed nuclear-ravaged worlds (usually as desert, as in Damnation Alley and Mad Max 2) and sidestepped showing the disaster itself, except for increasingly familiar stock footage of nuclear test explosions. But what was it like to be in a city at ground zero? This wasn't shown - the effects of radiation had only been hinted at with deformed humanoid monsters and giant animal mutations. (The original Godzilla (1954) had carefully portrayed the many effects of a nuclear blast in a work of fiction, but I didn't get to see that until the mid-1990s).


Despite being decried as anti-government propaganda, realistic depictions of what a nuclear war could look like crept onto TV in the 1980s. The first that I saw was a short, shocking clip from Peter Watkins' The War Game (1965) made by the BBC but too realistic to be transmitted for several decades. The BBC however produced and transmitted the dramatic imagining of a nuclear strike on England in Threads (1984), just after America saw The Day After (1983), also made for TV. Both made sobering viewing - any country launching nuclear weapons would also automatically become a target. The fates of the USA and the UK would have been the same. Raymond Briggs' (The Snowman, Fungus The Bogeyman) graphic novel When The Wind Blows was then adapted as an animated film in 1986, describing how a suburban couple might cope with a nearby nuclear explosion if they follow the official government information booklet.

But I still had little idea of what the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had actually experienced during and after the nuclear blasts in 1945. The only depiction in a movie I saw in the 90s was a brief scene in Black Rain (Japan, 1989), shown on TV.


Eventually there was Barefoot Gen. I first saw a clip from the anime movie on Japanorama, a 2002 Jonathan Ross TV show about Japanese pop culture. The moment the bomb detonates over Hiroshima was incredibly shocking. It was simply-drawn animation, but depicted horrendous and graphic events. A nightmare on Earth. It's even more horrifying because the author had personally witnessed it all. To see the film I bought a secondhand VHS from the US, where it had been originally released.


Keiji Nakazawa was six years old when the bomb dropped, as he was on his way to school in the centre of Hiroshima. A split-second quirk of fate saved his life. In an instant, everything around him changed. The city was levelled, there were very few buildings with foundations of steel and stone. Anyone who wasn't instantly vaporised had been hit by the explosive blast and then a firestorm. The survivors could then die from the effects of radiation in the next few minutes, months or years... Keiji stayed on the outskirts of Hiroshima as it started to rebuild itself.


He became a manga writer, but wasn't able to publish the first volume of his most famous work until 1973 when Japan started to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki again. The stories of Barefoot Gen are dramatised versions of reality, but were "70 percent" (his words) based on Keiji's actual childhood experiences. Immediately popular, they soon inspired three live-action films at the end of the decade. But the manga proved a better way to spread the story overseas, being translated into many languages. An anime adaption was a logical extension.


However the animated film (produced by Madhouse) is strangely aimed at children, the title music is fiercely corny and upbeat. It even starts like a Ghibli movie following boisterous six-year old Gen (pronounced with a hard 'g', as in 'begin') and his younger brother trying to scrape fun and food out of the rural war-torn Japanese countryside. Gen's father struggles to feed his family and decries the rulers of Japan for not surrendering. But the boys still have fun together and little mischievous adventures - the children even look like typical Ghibli creations, the youngest child has a huge mouth and a big grin. The animation is fairly simple but well-observed. Occasionally, there's a brief voiceover about the state of the war and the bomb being prepared.

The first half of the movie takes time to set up what life was like around the city in 1945, and then the bomb drops.


In an instant, 80,000 civilians die instantly. Gen accidentally survives, finding himself in the middle of a nightmare. Some of the walking wounded are partially melted, many of them are better off dead. It looks like hell on Earth. Corpses are everywhere and the rubble is still on fire.


The next scene is just as upsetting as the explosion, as Gen discovers what has happened to his family.


In the days that follow, as Gen is struggling to find food and shelter, people are still slowly and painfully dying of the effects of radiation. (Decades later, that exposure to radiation is still killing the survivors of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki - Keiji Nakazawa himself is currently battling cancer).

The story continues to follow Gen through the initial dark days after the bomb, until he starts a new life, staying in Hiroshima, making his way anyway he can, with nothing. Against all odds, Keiji wants the story to be an optimistic one. This is where the perspective of a six-year old actually helps, when nothing is impossible and humour can be found in the simplest things in life.


It's an extraordinary film, with a deceptively comic start. I've not seen such an explicit, realistic vision of what it was like on that day. It's horrific, even depicted with simple drawings. I still don't think it's possible for a live-action equivalent of the same sequence. A recent Japanese TV adaption expanded the story to three hours, spending more time with Gen's family, but the scene of the bombing is quite short, treated in a similar way to The Day After.

Gen's story continued in another animated movie set three years later. Barefoot Gen 2 (1986) shows Hiroshima slowly recovering, but with orphans roaming the streets and the black market thriving. It's similar to other post-war stories, but with the characters dealing with the continuing effects of radiation. The doctors are trying to deal with radiation sickness, when no research or treatment yet exists. Understandably, with all the dead still not buried, there's resentment of the occupying American forces.

Again, the story strives for optimism and the chirpy opening title song seems inappropriate, but the story is gritty and memorable, still refusing to pull punches. The sequel is included as a double-bill on the DVDs.

The atomic dome in modern Hiroshima
(photo by Hirotsugu Mori, 2006)
Barefoot Gen prepared me for my own visit to Hiroshima in 2004. A day trip included a visit to the iconic 'atomic dome', one of the only recognisable landmarks left standing close to the centre of the blast. Rubble lies around the skeletal building as if it had been destroyed the day before. A short walk through the memorial park took us to the huge museum which traces the events of how the bomb came to be dropped on Hiroshima and the devastation it caused. There are two huge scale models of the city as it looked before and after the explosion. An exhibit of photographs of the effect of radiation burns was simply too much to look at.


In the anime, as Gen runs to school just before the blast, there's a series of seemingly inconsequential images that resonate with some of the artifacts in the museum. He passes a pile of bottles and a woman sitting on a doorstep. You can see these bottles all fused together from the heat of the blast, as well as the shadow of the woman vaporised into the stonework of the wall she was sitting in front of. The grim events are of course in complete contrast to the vibrant modern city that Hiroshima is again today. My most vivid memory of the day was the tribute of hundreds of fresh flowers still being laid out at the memorial arch.



In 2005, Barefoot Gen and the sequel were released in the UK on DVD from Optimum Asia (at top), in Japanese with English subtitles. The 4:3 aspect ratio looks accurate. They're now on DVD in the USA as well, from Geneon (above). Through the efforts of Project Gen, the manga has also been widely translated and published. More about the original manga, and some pages from it, here, with spoilers.



I've not seen the three live-action Japanese films made in the 1970s (directed by Tengo Yamada), but here are some screengrabs from the first film, made in 1976 .



The 2007 two-part TV series expands on the events portrayed in the anime, including more about Gen's older brother joining the army. Only available with English subtitles on this Hong Kong DVD (from Amazon USA here).


Of course now the Japanese nightmare of deadly invisible radiation is no longer confined to World War 2. The recent earthquake damage to the nuclear power station at Fukushima has again spread radioactivity into the ground, the sea and the air, with little information as to where it is and what the effects can be, short term or long term. It's like a slow-motion replay of the aftermath of Hiroshima.

Keiji Nakazawa is finding a new audience as he attempts to dispel the myths about the effects of radiation. After a lifetime of campaigning against the use of nuclear power and weapons, he's also currently participating in a new documentary. News article and a recent photo of Keiji.