April 29, 2012

THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974) - high adventure

(1974, USA)

A lost world adventure written by Joss Whedon's grandad!

A British adventurer (Donald Sinden) sets off in search of his son, lost on an Arctic expedition. He enlists the help of an American expert in ancient civilisations (David Hartman) and a French pilot (Jacques Marin) who can quickly take them over the frozen wasteland in a huge airship. They're expecting a dangerous trip, but not a lost civilisation living above the Arctic circle...

This is adapted from the novel 'The Lost Ones', written by Ian Cameron. Wikipedia reveals that this is a pen name for Donald G. Payne, who also wrote as James Vance Marshall. His novel 'The Children' was filmed by Nicolas Roeg as Walkabout (1971), starring Jenny Agutter. As Ian Cameron he also wrote a sequel to 'The Lost Ones' called 'The Mountains At The Bottom of the World'.

The script for Island at the Top of the World is credited to John Whedon. The name looked suspiciously familiar and, sure enough, it's Joss Whedon's grandad. Currently basking in the success of Cabin in the Woods and Avengers Assemble, I hadn't realised that Joss Whedon's dad and grandad were both screenwriters...

UK teaser art

As a child in the 1960s and a young teenager in the early 1970s, I soon decided that Walt Disney's animated films were too immature for me. I was already enjoying the violent, flashy adult fantasies of the Sean Connery James Bond movies by the age of ten. Back then, Disney's publicity was aimed squarely at young children with friendly, unthreatening, simplified poster art which severely undersold their classic animated re-releases.

I'd still go and see the live-action Disney films if it was a slow week, like The World's Greatest Athlete or The Love Bug, as long as the cast hadn't any annoying children in the cast (when's the last time you saw a children's film with only adult characters?). But when The Island at the Top of the World arrived, it was a must-see for me, promising spectacular adventure with some lengthy, action-packed clips on a couple of episodes of Disney Time.

UK quad poster

In the early 1970s, there was a continued enthusiasm for 'lost world' adventures, set around 100 years ago, where adventure was found in unlikely places around the world, or under its surface. Ray Harryhausen's films had dominated this genre with Sinbad's adventures, Mysterious Island and many others, but Britain's Amicus studios had started adapting Edgar Rice Burroughs novels with unconvincing men-in-rubber suit dinosaurs (which I still wanted to see!). But here, Disney threw a hefty budget and superior visual effects at this Jules Verne-inspired variant, which was less far-fetched than most, but more spectacular.

While I baulk at recommending The Land That Time Forgot (though I may yet attempt to), Island stands up far better today. Indeed it compares favourably to two other airship dramas of that decade - The Hindenburg (1975) and Zeppelin (1971), which offer little besides a trip in an inflammable balloon.

Some of the visual effects have obviously dated, particularly the blue-screen compositing of live-action with model work. But the large-scale miniatures, huge functional sets (extended by many beautiful matte paintings) stand up pretty well. The briefly-glimpsed full-size animatronic killer whales are still superb, (just) predating good old 'Bruce' from Jaws, who surfaced the following year. But these look more realistic because of the shiny skins of their real-life counterparts. I honestly thought they were real at the time I saw this on first release (in the UK in January 1975).

David Hartman, Donald Sinden and David Gwillim

Besides the engaging storyline, whose research into ancient societies and animal behaviour still stands up well today, the cast are just as much fun. There's all-purpose Asian Mako (the voice of Aku for Samurai Jack), a Japanese actor portraying an Eskimo. David Hartman, another likable American actor, is convincingly stoic and knowledgeable. I've not seen him in anything else but understand he was something on US television. Great voice! My favourite though is Donald Sinden, a well-known British actor, mainly known for his sitcom work, but here proving his worth as an eccentric adventurer, fearless, fallible and indignant that the rest of the world doesn't speak decent English. He's great fun throughout and I'm at a loss why he didn't get more leading roles, if only in Disney comedies.

I've loved the rich soundtrack ever since first hearing it, composed by no less than Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia). The recent debut of the score on CD (that I thought would never happen) prompted me to revisit the film. The music is quite superb with a variety of themes, some of which I'd forgotten. Until now, the only album release was on vinyl, with the music smothered by dialogue, sound effects and a 'storybook' narration. It's a gem, mixing in ancient instrumentation with a classic orchestral soundtrack.

I watched the UK DVD (above) which is presented in 1.85 widescreen anamorphic. It's good enough, but I'd still like to see a project of this scale treated with a Blu-ray.

Amazon list a few extras on the US DVD that aren't on the UK release.

The beautifully-designed airship 'Hyperion' from the film has actually been recreated in quite a large-scale as the centrepiece restaurant of Discoveryland in Disneyland Paris. I was surprised to see it when visiting the park when it first opened as EuroDisney in Easter, 1992, and I trust it's still there.

April 25, 2012

VOICE: WHISPERING CORRIDORS 4 (2005) - a bloody, ghostly mystery

(2005, South Korea, Yeogo gwae-dam 4: Moksori)

Fourth in the Whispering Corridors series, Voice has the most lavish budget so far and delivers a stylish, bloody ghost story. All five films are linked by similar themes rather than ongoing characters. Each is set in a girls’ high school ‘with a history’, the stories involving suicides, lesbian relationships, and hauntings. 

Whispering Corridors 
(1998) got the series off to a shaky start. But Memento Mori (1999) has become a favourite of South Korean cinema, as an excellent drama, with convincing naturalistic performances depicting school life. The arrival of a ghost character almost spoils the film by returning it to a more predictable story. It’s a good film, but not an essential horror. Then Wishing Stairs (2003) fell back on Ring for horror ideas and also failed as drama because of the lower standard of acting. Other Korean films, like Bunshinsaba, use similar story ideas to greater effect, if horror is what you’re hoping for.

Then there's Voice, another high point in the series, with fresh new ideas for scares, ghosts and twists. The close friendship of two schoolgirls is shattered when one of them disappears from the music room. The ongoing mystery is why and how...

There’s a bigger budget here for some unique visual FX flourishes. The cinematography is stylish and beautiful, adding saturated colours to some scenes, that defy the glassy cold look of the school. The cast are all excellent and the characters almost all women. The depiction of school life isn’t as realistic as 
Memento Mori, but Voice succeeds admirably as a ghost story, a mystery, and almost a slasher... with the added slant of having the ghost take centre stage.

There are some startling death scenes and extensive FX to depict the various complications of being dead, for instance a ghost being confined to the school building. These are ambitious and imaginatively done, but look more scientific than spiritual, as if the afterlife were a natural phenomenon.

It all makes for a very different and eventful ghost story, the modern design of the school building reinforcing that this has nothing to do with gothic. If you're after horror, this is the best in the series so far.

The back cover of the US DVD release promises a 5.1 mix, but there's only stereo on the disc, at the expense of the subtle but intricate sound design. Otherwise, this is a well-produced DVD, presented 1.85 anamorphic with great picture quality and well-translated English subtitles, though they're overlarge. I'd hoped for 5.1 audio, but also upgraded to the US DVD because my Thai disc had been censored, not for violence, but scenes of schoolgirls smoking!

The downside to the US DVD is the cover art (above) which is pretty stupid. If you're expecting the extreme horror depicted, it's not in the film and nothing to do with the story. 

There's also a four-movie boxset of the Whispering Corridors series released by Tartan in the UK, under the title Ghost School Horror, and the fourth film is unfortunately retitled The Voice.

The soundtrack of Voice is available on this Korean CD.

Here's an interview with one of the lead actresses and the director of Voice over on KoreanFilm.Org 

Here are my reviews of the first three in the series:

Whispering Corridors (1998)

Memento Mori (1999)

Wishing Stairs (2003)

Soon I'll review the fifth film Blood Pledge.

(This is an update of my review of Voice from April 2006.)

April 12, 2012

The soundtrack to DRIVE (2011) - possible 80s routes

The Drive soundtrack is "80s-inspired", but which bands exactly?

From the opening track, Drive (2011) took me back to the synthesizer soundtracks of the early 1980s. Throughout the film, most of the music has an electronic element, using old synthesizer voices and early, simple rhythm machines. I couldn't wait to hear it again.

I've always been strongly drawn to electronic music. Electro-pop, rock, soundtracks - anything with synthesizers in - and especially the bands that went the whole way, using keyboards instead of guitars, drum machines instead of drums. Having collected this music since the 70s, with much of it from the 80s, I thought that identifying the possible influences on the Drive soundtrack might be easy...

, the movie, is hugely impressive. The crystal-clear cinematography of nighttime L.A., the dark surprises, the precise characters, the extreme violence, all made it unforgettable. I'd deliberately delayed listening to the soundtrack until after I watched the movie, which certainly increased its impact.

But listening to the album, it was initially hard to pinpoint any precise musical references. So I began rifling through my playlists of 80s electro pop, Eurodisco, post-punk, and movie soundtracks for anything that sounded similar. At the very least, you'll have some suggestions for further listening.

Googling interviews and reviews only yielded the phrase "80s-influenced" and the only trustworthy interview I've seen was director Nicolas Winding Refn's amusing lengthy chat on the UK Blu-ray. He vaguely mentions 80s Eurodisco as a musical influence, which wasn't quite what I was expecting and proved to be completely unhelpful (though I feel easier about suggesting the song by Berlin).

The album starts with several existing songs by various bands. Then, bridged by an instrumental from The Chromatics, settles into Cliff Martinez's original background score.

A couple of sound-alike songs I picked out could possibly be described as "eurodisco", but they're bleaker, slower, downbeat. Far more like early 80s post-punk, where the bands rejected drumkits and guitars for a totally electronic sound apart from voices. Interestingly, none of the guest tracks were written specifically for the film. 
The songs are all very recent tracks, with the exception of 'Oh My Love'. Luckily for Refn, there's been a resurgence in early-80s electro completely suited to his needs. 

I've attempted to match the pace, synth sounds, or aural atmosphere of each track, or even just sections of them. Numbers in brackets (1'12) refer to moments that are minutes and seconds into a track. To illustrate, I've embedded YouTube clips purely for their musical content (please try and ignore the visuals). I avoided film clips or pop videos because we're only talking music here. In the interest of simplicity, I've not included any YouTube clips from Drive, because you already have the soundtrack, don't you?

'Nightcall' by Kavinsky & Lovefoxxx (2010)

This opening number hit me with a huge 80s stick, a decaying twangy synth sound, plodding drumbeat, a scarily processed male vocal with a downbeat counter-vocal, and a sweet female chorus. But this was the hardest track to match with an 80s counterpart.

Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away' (1986) has similar drums, electro sounds and sad female vocals, but I could not find an example of that main keyboard sound.

Kavinsky's scary vocals sound like a Vocoder, an electronic effect orignally used for novelty 'sweetening', for example Herbie Hancock's 'Tell Everybody' and 'You Bet Your Love' (both 1978) and of course the Electric Light Orchestra's 'Mr Blue Sky' (at 2'21) from 1977. But closer to Drive, I remembered the especially scary Vocoder voice (at 4'45 below) 
in Godley & Creme's 'Wind' off their 'Consequences' album, also from 1977. This track was used in a famously expensive Benson and Hedges advert, where a mysterious helicopter glides over the desert to drop it's cargo into a swimming pool.

'Under Your Spell' by Desire (2009)

Synth drum beats, electro rhythms and keyboards with a downbeat female vocal, further distinguished by looped echoing guitars.

Yes, this all sounds very 80s, but more specifically the first few years of the decade when post-punk and gothic bands were trying out newly-affordable synthesizers and similar gadgets. The first Cocteau Twins album 'Garlands' (1982) used drum-machines and guitar loops to similar effect as this Drive track, with Elizabeth Frazer's vocals soaring sadly over it all. I picked 'Shallow Then Halo' from the album 'Garlands' for the similar tempo and structure.

'A Real Hero' by College featuring Electric Youth (2009)

A sweet and impassioned voice floating over a stomping bassy synth. But dare I say the lyrics are too obvious at underlining the action. 

The intro with the lone keyboard is a closely matched by 'Summer Spies' (1985), a single by Fatal Charm, which also has a heart-rending female vocal. Incidentally, they were the first band I ever saw live, as a support act for Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark.

'Oh My Love' by Riz Ortolani and Katyna Ranieri (1971)

This is the Joan Baez song in the pack (I'm thinking of the end of Silent Running) with simplistic lyrics about the beauty of nature. The track also jars against the rest of the album by being devoid of synths. But the lush orchestration is growing on me, providing a similarly beautiful everything-stands-still moment as 'Llorando', sung by Rebekah Del Rio in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. If only 'Oh My Love' had been sung in Spanish, the lyrics wouldn't have been so distracting...

'Oh My Love' was originally used in a controversial film... find out more here in this great Drive article on A Fistful of Soundtracks.

'Tick of the Clock' by The Chromatics (2007)

The album goes completely instrumental at this point, but before Cliff Martinez' original score takes over, there's this great mechanical track from The Chromatics. It sounds like a very early rhythm machine with a sparse drum machine pared down to a light metal chink.

If the track had been built up into a song, it might have sounded like John Foxx's 'Burning Car' (1980). Foxx was the original lead singer for Ultravox before Midge Ure took over. He had several hits at this time when his synth sound was ahead of the game.

Also from the early 80s is this more laidback track 
from Pink Industry - suitably sparse, but with a female vocal befitting the Drive vibe. The emphasis is again on a simple drum machine. 'Pain of Pride' is listed as hitting vinyl in 1985, but had been recorded years earlier in BBC sessions for John Peel's radio shows, maybe as early as 1982.

The core of Cliff Martinez's score, which makes up the rest of the album, is actually very modern. Roughly half of it is ambient - daunting atmospheric sound that refuses to betray what instrumentation is being used, often devoid of drumbeats. Some tracks are like single notes stretched and held until they transform into the next, reminiscent of the ethereal music made by rubbing wineglass rims. The overall vibe is similar to the albums of Jon Hopkins, who provided a gorgeous, melancholy soundtrack to Monsters (2010). 

Several tracks give way midway to synthesizers that recall the sound of specific 80s soundtracks. Drive's thematic parallels with Michael Mann's Thief (UK title Violent Streets, 1981) leads us logically to the work of Tangerine Dream, among others from the early to mid 80s.

'Rubber Head'
(all the remaining tracks are by Cliff Martinez, 2011)

This begins with ambience and then, after a minute, brings in a rolling electronic rhythm. 'Love On A Real Train' by Tangerine Dream from the Risky Business (1983) soundtrack roughly matches the rhythm, but 'No Future' from the same album would be more apt for the dark tone of Drive. If memory serves, this is playing over the scene where Tom Cruise, um, pleasures himself...

'I Drive', 'He Had A Good Time', 'Wrong Floor'
Completely ambient tracks with mournful chords that occasionally offer hope, and a subtly celestial backing. I'd offer 'Olancha Farewell' from Harold Budd's album 'Lovely Thunder' (1986) in comparison. Harold Budd was a collaborator with the Cocteau Twins and continued to work with Robin Guthrie from the band, most notably on the beautiful soundtrack to Greg Araki's Mysterious Skin (2005).

'They Broke His Pelvis'

Similar to 'Rubber Head', but with a slightly lighter mood. 'Love On A Real Train' by Tangerine Dream, also from Risky Business (1983), has a similar rhythm. But Klaus Schulze's 
'Lecter's Cell' from Michael Mann's Manhunter (1986) is similar in tone.

'Kick Your Teeth'

Again the ambience gives way to a strong driving rhythm (at 0'44) and then a gently rolling guitar (1'45), reminiscent of U2's 'Where the Streets Have No Name' (1987).

'Where's the Deluxe Version?'

Starts with ambience but builds into the defining 'driving' music of Drive, with the bubbling rhythm that kicks in (at 2'30) and what sounds like passing trains. The rolling synth seems to echo the guitar from 'Where the Streets Have No Name'. But the kings of dark 'driving in L.A.' music are again Tangerine Dream. Try 'Diamond Diary' from their soundtrack to Thief (especially at 2'15).

'See You in Four'

Ambient, but incredibly dark. An echoing murk with (at 1'04, 1'24, 2'08) the sound of a scary clanging feedback. This drifts from note to note like this track 'Spores' from Jon Hopkins' score for Monsters (2010).

'After the Chase'

An electro foghorn opening and then spooky jangling keys. At (3'08) a rolling synth in a dark mood, a little like Tangerine Dream's 'Betrayal' from their soundtrack to William Friedkin's Sorcerer (UK title Wages of Fear, 1977).


This ramps up with a gentle snare drum at (1'21) and then a wonderful bubbling rhythm at (1'39). There's a scary blasting (at 2'24) which again sounds like the punctuations in Tangerine Dream's 'Diamond Diary', from Thief (1981) at (2'50). 'Diamond Diary' is already embedded further up the page.

'Skull Crushing'

A murky, industrial sound, with bassy bursts at (1'12, 1'44) reminiscent of the skull-crushing scene in Blade Runner...

'My Name on a Car', 'On the Beach'

Ethereal, cold downbeat tones and an echoing rushing sound. 'On the Beach' has a
n unnerving metallic tone that gives way to a very downbeat murk, eventually relieved by more hopeful chords at (5'03). Here I'll offer another track off the 1986 'Lovely Thunder' album, Harold Budd's 'Ice Floes In Eden'.

'Bride of Deluxe'

The last track on the album starts off like 'Wrong Floor', with those 'wine glasses' vibes, then 
(at 0'47) guitars come in and build until (at 1'30) the electro rhythm kicks in brilliantly. A close electro-match would be the intro to Freddie Mercury's 'Love Kills', which he recorded with Giorgio Moroder for the soundtrack to Metropolis (1984), an early restoration of Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi epic.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Before I started listening to the Drive soundtrack more intently, this 1985 instrumental track from the Cocteau Twins was an early contender. It has always suggested to me moving through a darkened L.A. sometime in the near future. It might work with the cityscapes of Blade Runner, but it could easily complement the nighttime scenes in Drive. So finally, why don't you also try 'Ribbed and Veined'...

April 06, 2012

APOLLO 18 (2011) - found footage from outer space

(2011, USA/Canada)

Effective scares, scary effects, but a familiar story...

I've not gone after many 'found footage' horror movies because I baulked at cheap video formats being used to shoot feature films. But though this is relatively low budget, Apollo 18 challenges itself by presenting the whole story as if filmed on the various formats available to a NASA Moon mission 40 years ago - early video recording, small film formats, large photo formats, long-range satellite video transmissions.

Aged 8, I was hustled out of bed early one school morning to watch Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon live on TV via a blurry black-and-white video link. The idea that two people could travel so far to an airless rock was exciting enough. Apollo 18 compounds the dangers they faced with a new threat...

Like Apollos 11 to 17, a three-man crew reaches Moon orbit, then two astronauts descend to the surface in a detachable landing vehicle. Their mission is simple: deploy a few experiments, pick up a few rock samples and take some photos. Onboard video cameras watch the crew (their picture's a too clear for video from the 1970s) and they also take film cameras out on their 'Moonwalks'. Cutting between these, time-lapse photography and external surveillance videos keeps the mood unsettling.

Not knowing anything about the story, I was in a considerable amount of suspense from not knowing where any threat was going to come from. The uncanny-looking footage, cleverly integrated with actual NASA archives, is really impressive. The jumpy scares repeatedly worked on me after a steady build-up, hugely aided by the eerie sound effects and complete lack of music.

It helped that I wasn't expecting a big flashy movie. This is a carefully claustrophobic ghost story, reminiscently small-scale to 'The Invisible Enemy' episode of The Outer Limits, but with a very different story. This could also make a good companion piece to Moon, with its small cast and isolated location.

After a few effective reveals, I felt that the writers could have gone a little further with their premise to give us a totally original story. Falling back on familiar imagery lessened the final impression and made the big pay-offs too predictable. Plus there's a huge plot-hole left unanswered. But the build-up is very enjoyable and almost all the visual effects are really convincing - fascinating to watch if you're a fan of the original Moon mission footage.
But I certainly wasn't expecting so many echoes of Thunderbirds Are Go...

Timur Bekmambetov is the most familiar name on the project, also the director of the dark Russian vampire fantasy Night Watch (2004), the Angelina Jolie assassination bureau Wanted (2008) and the forthcoming Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

I watched this on Blu-ray and it looked and sounded... scary!