April 29, 2009

BILLION DOLLAR BRAIN (1967) - Ken Russell's offbeat cold war epic

(1967, UK)

This was the third Harry Palmer film,
based on the books of Len Deighton, following the adaptions of The Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin, and helped to confirm Michael Caine as an international star.

This was also Ken Russell's first feature, and seems restrained compared to his later outrageousness in The Devils, Mahler, Women In Love, Lizstomania... But the director's love of classical music and silent cinema is evident here, with several key sequences playing over orchestral music with minimal sound effects. I noticed an advanced echo of the visuals of Tommy, when a hundred soldiers in shiny silver helmets funnel through a narrow archway. It looked very much like pinball imagery to me.

While much of the film is a cold war spy thriller, Russell's style is in evidence whenever characters get tight close-ups and look straight at the camera, or when action is shot with wild hand-held camerawork.

This is in line with the surreal cinematography of The Ipcress File, where Sidney Furie used deep focus and wide-angles to make London look more sinister. Although the Harry Palmer films were made by many of the same production crew as the 1960s James Bond films, they took pains to distance the two series. This is initially an unglamorous depiction of spying - Palmer has to cook for himself, argue about pay with his boss (Guy Doleman, also a star of Thunderball), he doesn't have any gadgets, and he wears glasses... Bloody hell!But the last of the trilogy is veering nearer to Bond territory, with its tale of world domination, silvery sci-fi settings and larger-than-life baddie (Ed Begley Sr at his most grotesquely frightening). The title sequence is also designed by Maurice Binder, verging on Matt Helm goofiness, with its repetitive, looped animation.

Harry gets a weird phone call from a faltering, monotone voice telling him to deliver a package... to Finland. There he meets Leo, an old friend who offers him work in a secret organisation supporting a revolution in Latvia that will threaten the stability of the USSR. Leo is also getting his orders from the same computerised voice and recruits Harry for assassinations and other dirty work. The trail, or in this case wiring, leads all the way to Texas, where a communist-hating oil-billionaire has designs on the fall of Russia...

The super-computer central to the plot also reminds us how hacking used to be done in the 1960s, by changing reel-to-reel tapes and shuffling punch cards. Computing is presented as a new threat to the world, just before Hal 9000 threatened 2001: A Space Odyssey. The science-fictional technology predicts retinal scans, voice-activated computers and bio-weapons, which still looks a little futuristic, if it wasn't for the punch cards...

The extensive location photography makes the most of the unusual frozen lakes, churches and castles of Finland, contrasted by the shiny petrol tankers and cutting-edge skidoos.

The soundtrack music is another reason I keep revisiting Billion Dollar Brain. Richard Rodney Bennett's score accompanies the snowbound landscapes with the surreal ondes martenot, a keyboard adaption of the theramin (famously used in The Day The Earth Stood Still). Barry Gray was also a fan of the martenot, using it to accompany the loneliness of space travel in Journey to the Far Side of the Sun. Bennett's cascading piano theme couldn't be more dramatic, but the most serious scenes use adaptions of Russian classical symphonies, in line with the Soviet sub-plot.

Michael Caine's character prompted his appearance as Austin Powers's dad in Goldmember, as well as Myers' choice of glasses. Karl Malden plays the slippery Leo, years before he raced The Streets of San Francisco with Michael Douglas. The enchanting Francoise Dorleac (Polanski's Cul-de-sac) was en route to being as big a star as her sister, Catherine Deneuve. The jovial Oscar Homolka (Mr Sardonicus) makes a welcome return as Colonel Stok, reprising his role from Funeral in Berlin.
This was a latecomer to DVD, now available 2.35 widescreen by MGM. The delay was presumably because of the music rights to a Beatles track. Unfortunately, the solution has been to remove a short scene, but you might still catch that on TV.

The Harry Palmer Movie Site has much more on all three films, and boasts rare behind-the -scenes footage.

The soundtrack liner notes (from a huge and expensive MGM boxset) are full of insight into the production, including the sad news that Francoise Dorleac died at 25, shortly after the film's release.

April 26, 2009

DOC SAVAGE - MAN OF BRONZE (1975) - on DVD with other WB rarities

Warner Bros. is offering a new service that could lead the way for film fans to see rarities hidden in the studio archives. Movies that might not make their money back in a standard DVD release, are being released in limited numbers, depending on demand. There's also the option to 'download to own'. Whoever is interested can now see these older movies, and the studio doesn't waste money on over-production. The online store is linked here.

There've been two 'waves' of releases so far. The downside is that this is only available in the USA at the moment. Here's what initially caught my eye...

I can now officially take Doc Savage - Man of Bronze off my 'not on DVD' list. The 1975 adaption, of the long-running 1930s pulp action hero adventures, isn't popular with every fans of the bronze giant, but it still deserves to be out there. I reviewed the movie, fondly, here.

Want to see Francis Ford Coppola's 1969 'existential road movie'? Now you can - a youthful James Caan, Robert Duvall and Shirley Knight starred. I shouldn't be surprised when films by important directors aren't available, but I am.

Looking for information on early 'flight panic' movie Zero Hour, (the movie that largely inspired Airplane!), I heard about The Crowded Sky and it's close links with the genre. It's based on an Arthur Hailey book that was adapted before he had the huge hit with Airport (the template for 70s disaster movies). The Crowded Sky also pre-dates Dana Andrews mid-air collision in Airport 1975. Now if only I lived in America, I could get to see it...

Hammer films were all made by the same British studio but distributed by many different American distributors. Tracking them all down has become a lifetime quest. But Hammer fans can now see the psycho-thriller Crescendo (1970) starring Stefanie Powers (Hart to Hart, The Girl from U.N.C.L.E.) and James Olsen (The Andromeda Strain, Moon Zero Two).

Many of the movies on offer are early black-and-white film. Rasputin and the Empress (1932) impressed me greatly when I caught on late-night TV. A grand recreation of the legendary puppet master and his friendship with the Russian royal family. This is the only time the three heavyweights of the Barrymore acting dynasty starred together. Drew's grandad John has a terrifying showdown with Lionel, as Rasputin, where they beat bloody hell out of each other, in a violent approximation of real-life events. This movie being 'pre-code', it's a still shocking scene today.

Hopefully, this will be a success and Warners will continue to dust off more treasures from their vaults, and maybe other studios will follow on.

April 23, 2009

THE SKY CRAWLERS (2008) - new anime from Mamoru Oshii

(2008, Japan)

While I'm in awe of Mamoru Oshii's achievements, especially the Ghost in the Shell movies, I've yet to enjoy any other films he's directed. Red Spectacles (1987), Avalon (2001) and now The Sky Crawlers all left me cold, and confused. I'd highly recommend other projects which he's an important creative force behind, like Jin-Roh (1998) and Blood - The Last Vampire.

Unfairly perhaps, I watched The Sky Crawlers with sub-standard subtitles (on this Malaysian DVD, pictured below) which fails to introduce the rules of 'the war' or translate the more complex dialogue adequately. But this is also how I first watched Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, and it instantly became a favourite film.

On a near-future Earth, young people fight wars so that no-one else has to (it's explained a little more fully than that). A new fighter pilot arrives at an airfield, but is trying to unravel the mysteries surrounding his (pretty, young, female) commander. As fewer of his comrades return from their regular hazardous missions, the truth slowly emerges...

The flying sequences are exceptionally dynamic, the 3D animation almost photo-real. The action is almost too fast to follow, in complete contrast to the slowly developing plot. The fluid and intricately detailed animation of the aerial scenes is also in jarring contrast to the simply-rendered 2D characters, still moving at a jerky eight times a second (the customary speed for Japanese animation). The designwork is exciting, but limited to only a few different types of aircraft.

On the ground, most of the story takes place in dull, muted interiors, reminiscent of wooden-panelled houses of WW2 England - far removed from the sci-fi scenarios anime fans might expect. The drama, basically a two-handed struggle, lost my interest completely. I'm no action junkie, but I just couldn't get involved.

While Innocence was also heavy on philosophy, I at least had a handle on the issues he was exploring, from my knowledge of the Ghost in the Shell universe. I could also enjoy Oshii's very visual imagining of the near future, without fully understanding what was going on. The weighty dialogue was compensated with intricately predicted cities, computers, robots, vehicles...

This isn't the sort of film I can recommend to anyone other than Oshii fans. The aerial scenes are stunning, but unlike Hollywood action films where the effects are special but the plots aren't, the difference here is that the story is not lowbrow, but too highbrow.

The Sky Crawlers will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on May 26th in the US (cover art at top). I wouldn't recommend anyone jumps the gun with the Malaysian DVD, because the transfer makes the action look juddery. The subtitles are poorly translated and often only flash up for a fraction of a second.

April 21, 2009

ALLIGATOR (1980) - great monster movie, with sewer humour

(1980, USA)

Trailing the animal attack genre of the 1970s, witty dialogue, constant action, and great character actors keep Alligator afloat to the very end. Added to this, modest outbursts of gore, building on the bloodier moments of Jaws (1975), makes this latter-day b-movie very watchable for genre fans today. I remember it was a huge hit on VHS. I also miss the days when John Sayles (now a top director) just wrote low-budget and exploitation films. His script for Piranha (1978) also helped elevate it to cult status.

The story builds up the urban myth about alligators breeding in the sewers into an (almost) believable tale about growth hormone experiments gone wrong (like Food of the Gods). The police investigation keeps the film rooted in reality, opening with the discovery of body parts in the sewers. This is all too commonplace in the news nowadays, but felt really unlikely when I saw it back in the day. As the cops find more victims, they eventually realise they have a big problem down under.

Clever, but low-tech special FX make the most of real alligators in scaled-down sets. But my favourite scenes involve a tremendous-looking full-scale prop, used to crunch on stunt performers and actors alike. There's also some bad-taste use of amputees to show alligator attack aftermaths.

Director Lewis Teague (Cat's Eye, Cujo) follows in Spielberg's footsteps with a marvellous night-time episode in a swimming pool. But full credit to him though for making a Jaws rip-off that actually entertains. Similarly, the story starts by not showing too much too early, while keeping the bodycount steadily rising. The ridiculous car crashes and explosions are slotted in to pump up the trailer - a regular device in the straight-to-video market.

The alternately dramatic/ghastly/humorous tone reminded me of the recent Korean hit The Host, as well as the 'Gnaws' episode of The New Avengers, which also crept around the sewers after some growth hormone had been dumped down there, hmm.

Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Dragon Wars, The Black Hole) suffers a running joke about going bald, but his hair has magically looked the same ever since. His A-list performance is almost too good for a monster movie, but the rest of the cast also play it straight, to the movie's benefit. I was surprised to see Dean Jagger again, so long after he was the quasi-Quatermass character of X - The Unknown (1956).

Anchor Bay's 16:9 widescreen transfer loses picture information on all sides, compared to the VHS and 4:3 DVD releases, but nothing too important. The big plus is a sharper picture and a welcome commentary track.

For screengrabs and another review, see DVD Active here. For the lousy UK poster that played up the comedy way too much, see Cinema Is Dope here.

All I can say about the belated sequel Alligator 2: The Mutation (included on the UK set) is that even the trailer is dull, despite having Dee Wallace Stone (The Howling, Cujo, The Frighteners) and Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter, The Stuntman).

April 17, 2009

THE FALL (2006) - when, will it, will it be famous?

(2006, India/UK/USA)

It’s possible to fall in love with new Hollywood movies that cost millions of dollars but no-one has heard of. These can be box-office flops that were killed by word of mouth and/or negative critical reaction. I think The Fall just never got a good enough launch. Looking at the reviews and reactions of anyone who's seen it, there's a potentially large audience out there. An audience that is having to discover the film for themselves. Logically, this is a bizarre phenomenon for an epic film. Sort of similarly, another film slowly gaining an audience is last year's Speed Racer, which had a huge marketing push that somehow failed to attract an adult audience. Speed Racer was special effects-heavy, as in every single scene, while The Fall is also spectacularly beautiful, but naturally so.

Last year, after a telling delay, it was finally released in the UK. I was very interested because of director Tarsem Singh’s previous film The Cell (2000), a mixture of imaginatively lush visuals and dark subject matter - a journey into the mind of a serial killer. I suspect that more people would have gotten to see The Fall if the story hadn’t taken such a late hairpin turn into the dark side, because it's almost a children's film... for all ages.

It's Hollywood, 1915. A stuntman is recovering in hospital from a broken leg. Another patient, a little girl, happens to visit him one day and he starts making up a story for her. A swashbuckling tale full of colourful characters in even more colourful, fantastic locations. The little girl has to imagine it all, but we see everything as he describes it. A band of skilled adventurers from far-flung lands, teaming up against a common foe in a mysterious desert kingdom. The little girl visits him every day for a little more of the story. But as the stuntman’s luck goes bad in real life, he evokes his troubles on the characters in his story, much to the distress of the little girl. Will there be a happy ending to his story?

The Fall starts off as a good-natured, multi-cultural adventure intercut with the light-hearted friendship of the stuntman and the little girl, a slightly unusual and different-looking family film. But towards the end, the tone shifts and gets very dark very quickly, making the film rough for young children and adults expecting to chill out. This leaves the film in a niche category of adult-biased dark fairytales. Presumably this made the film too hard a sell but shouldn't have sunk it completely. It's hopefully being discovered on DVD and, especially, Blu-Ray which is perfect for spectaculars like this.

Director Tarsem (as he now calls himself) has carefully picked beautiful and astonishing locations that I’ve not seen before, though I suspect that some may have already appeared in Indian cinema. Of the many other countries used in the film, he's also revisited a few choice locations from Baraka (1992), a mix of startling images and music from the cinematographer of Koyaanisqatsi (1982). With Tarsem's flair for cinematographic splendour and outlandish fashions, the movie regularly looks surreal, though the marvellous vistas actually exist.

The international cast is led by the charismatic Lee Pace (star of Pushing Daisies). Whenever I see an actor successfully play two entirely different roles, I’m very impressed. Pace impresses as the attractive romantic action hero, but he was also totally convincing as a male-to-female transsexual in A Soldier’s Story! Anyone who can succeed in polar-opposite roles can surely play a whole range between.

While the climax is problematic, The Fall is still the most sumptuous, FX-lite, eye candy of last year, and likely to fuel holiday ideas for decades to come.

DVD Beaver has more screengrabs here, and the promotional website is still live.

After a clue in the end credits, it turned out that the story has been filmed before, on a much lower budget. Yo Ho Ho (1981) is a Bulgarian film that's provided the inspiration here. Though Tarsem has made The Fall very much his own, it would be interesting to compare it. There's a plot description and some useful screengrabs here at Gotterdammerung.

April 14, 2009

Happy Birthday, Gerry Anderson - thank you for the rock snakes

My first memory of going to the cinema was of being frightened by a Martian rock snake (above). My mum had taken me to see a movie that span off one of my favourite TV shows, Thunderbirds. Thunderbirds Are Go is still in my top ten, and after all this time never fails to entertain me from start to finish. During the Zero X expedition to Mars, man encounters a strange new alien lifeform that haunted my nightmares for years.

While Thunderbirds has always been derided for being entirely cast with puppet characters, and sent up recently with Team America: World Police, I've always taken it at face value, immersed in the stories. The modelwork and special effects were unprecedented for any TV show, even adult ones, for years to come. For a children's show, it didn't get any better for adventure, action and entertainment.

Thunderbirds is the pinnacle of Gerry Anderson's 'puppet years', inspiring me to watch everything he has ever produced. I have boxes of his shows, most of which are from the 1960's and 1970's. Fireball XL5, Stingray, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, UFO and Space 1999 are the best, but all his series have endured repeated TV showings and every subsequent home video format.

Despite moving into live-action TV back in 1969, Gerry has remained firmly associated with his puppet shows. He recently leapt into the CGI world with a reinvention of the Captain Scarlet series, using motion-captured 3D computer-generated characters for a terribly overlooked and gritty series.

I could talk about his work for hours, though these pages are fairly unaffected so far. I'm not alone though - there's these new books coming out for instance. Filmed In Supermarionation goes behind the scenes on the extensive special effects work involved in the shows, and two volumes of Century 21 reprints some of the beautiful comic strips that appeared in the tabloid-sized comic TV21. Also, Gerry's shows are being remastered for HD presentation. Fanderson, the fan club, is still thriving, and new merchandise still keeps coming out for shows that are over forty years old (besides endless Japanese Thunderbirds replicas, there's also a new Stingray CD soundtrack just out).

But, for providing me with so many thrilling memories, I can only say thank you, and...

Happy 80th birthday, Gerry. Wishing you many more.

April 10, 2009

Walking in L.A. - BLADE RUNNER locations and Japanese shopping

A quick, furtive look round Downtown Los Angeles

Last year, I had a couple of days to spare in Los Angeles, but no car. Luckily I was staying near a subway station of the slowly spreading LA County Metro Rail. There are convenient stops near tourist attractions like Universal Studios (the Metro stop is Universal City), Mann's Chinese Theater and the Kodak Center (both near the Hollywood & Highland stop). The tunnels and the Hollywood station featured extensively in the central heist in The Italian Job remake in 2003.

I first surfaced at the Civic Center stop, just two short blocks from the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, at
111 South Grand Avenue, an architectural marvel from the same designer as the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum (which was seen briefly at the start of Tomorrow Never Dies). The curved reflective silver surfaces intersect in shapes that almost defy description. On a sunny day it's hard to look at the outside without being blinded by the glare, perfect for busy intersections!

Walking downhill, I wanted a closer look at the huge tower atop City Hall, that was blown to pieces (in miniature) in the original The War of the Worlds (1953).

I kept going until Little Tokyo, that has several streets of Japanese stores. I was surprised by a huge replica of a space shuttle standing in the street, that celebrates the first Japanese astronaut in space.

In a small outdoor multi-level mall off E 1st Street is Kinokuniya, an excellent Japanese bookstore that had a good selection of DVDs and film-related books and magazines. Many of the DVDs had English subtitles, but there wasn't much anime.

Not to worry, for only a block away at 319 E 2nd Street was Anime Jungle, a store full of rare DVDs, magazines and Japanese toys. A mixture of the best US and Japanese anime releases.

A short walk to 304 South Broadway meant I could return to the Bradbury Building, a stop that we made on our first trip to the East Coast, ten years earlier. The interior of this office block was a pivotal shooting location for Blade Runner (1982), doubling for the interior of J.F. Sebastian's apartment block.

The staircase, lift, entrance hall, elevator, balconies and skylight are all in the film - an evocative place for BR fans. The exterior shots of the front entrance were dressed up with huge pillars, but the cinema opposite, the Million Dollar Theater, was visible in the reverse shots, like when Pris bangs into Sebastian's car.

A couple of blocks north is the 2nd Street tunnel, used for a startling night scene of Deckard driving, his headlights illuminating the shiny interior of the tunnel. Luckily there's a sidewalk running through the tunnel so it's easy to get a close look.

From the tunnel it's just a short walk back to the Walt Disney Concert Hall - a very satisfying circular tour.

Back onto the Metro, it's only one stop further to Union Station, where the main hall was also used in Blade Runner. The establishing shot of Deckard being escorted towards the police chief's office used the huge interior of this beautiful art deco building.

So if you're ever in town, just a few reasons to detour Downtown.

April 06, 2009

ORANG MINYAK (2007) - the Oily Man of Malaysian legend

(2007, Malaysia, The Oily Man)

I couldn't visit a new country without sampling the local horror films. While browsing DVDs, I remembered this title one from a poster on 24framespersecond, back when it was first in cinemas. There's definitely better Malayan movies out there and low-budget horror films give a remarkably skewed view of a country's film industry. But while Orang Minyak (2007) is pretty bad, it led me to a previous version of the legend Sumpah Orang Minyak (1957) which was far more impressive, and I review it further down...

Watching Orang Minyak, the complexities of the plot, if there are any, were hamperered by the lack of English subtitles. Like Thailand, the available languages on DVDs vary from film to film. But here goes...

In a small village in the rainforest, young women are being attacked in their homes at night. A bald, naked man, apparently covered in black grease, hypnotises his victims with red glowing eyes, rapes them and leaves them comatose. The villagers know that the Oily Man of ancient legend is back. But two of them are confused because they'd already vanquished the evil spirit by imprisoning it in a small bottle and throwing it in a lake. Meanwhile the Oily Man is loose, and has sealed a deal with the devil - he's going to need 21 victims in all...

While I've little idea about local beliefs and customs in rural Malaysia, I do know when a camera is out of focus, which it repeatedly is in many shots. Added to this the special effects, brightly coloured animated overlays, which give the film the surreal look of a Chinese ghost story from the 1980's. Together with a flurry of film scratches that belong to 1970's prints, this movie looks decades older than it actually is.

The demon, with red glowing eyes, looks most effective in close up. But in longshots he's unconvincing, wearing what look like skindiver's rubber trousers pulled up to his chest. His superhuman leaping around is achieved with rather slow wirework. The atmosphere is helped by the deep blue light that bathes the night scenes, but the Oily Man is often far too well lit to look anything other than a non-oily man.

The story stalls as the attacks continue without progressing the plot. The young hero tries to defeat the Oily Man with martial arts and cheap animation, where the local priests' ceremonies and endless angry villager meetings have failed.

The broad acting from the supporting cast, and lush jungle locations reminded me of Thai horror films of ten years ago. While this film is sold as horror, and despite the theme of sexual violence, the film is actually non-explicit and I'm presuming it was made for a general audience, particularly with it's many slightly comical characters.

The trailer is here on YouTube, but you have been warned. If you want a horror film, this isn't one. The Malaysian DVD, from Golden Satellite, has no other languages on it, 5.1 stereo, and is letterboxed but not anamorphic. The cover art is the same as the poster. (Movie stills and poster courtesy of Sinema Malaysia).

(1957, Malaysia, Curse of the Oily Man)

Looking around online for more information about Orang Minyak (which hasn't even got an IMDB entry), I learned of the earlier filmed version of the legend, Sumpah Orang Minyak (1957), which I thought I'd little chance of seeing, until discovering it was also on YouTube in it's entirety (linked below)! It's a very different story, grander in scale, in budget, and in the end more effectively scary than the modern version. Again, it has no subtitles.

Starting off as a drama, in the vein of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a facially disfigured man (possibly referenced in the new version by a priest with a hugely swollen jawbone) is taken in by an unlucky batik printer. But the dirty-faced outcast is also an excellent artist and helps turn the printer's business around.

When the hunchbacked outcast gets viciously bullied by local fishermen, the women of the village take pity and he begins to fall in love with one of them. While believing she couldn't ever love him back, he appeals to the gods and is miraculously restored to full health and a handsome appearance. But when he approaches his intended love, the villagers realise who he really is and get ugly. They attack him, and by killing one of them, he angers the gods. Outcast once again, he makes a deal with the devil, and is transformed into the Oily Man, and takes revenge with a rampage of violence.

This black and white film gets a handsome budget and big sets, managed by Run Run Shaw, the producer who went on to make it big in Hong Kong by making dozens of internationally successful kung fu films. Some of the special effects rely on simple editing, and appear a little bit Monkey, but there are elaborate camera effects too. The cinematography and acting are far superior to the modern version - but it's a fantasy drama that only really enters the darker supernatural world towards the climax.

While it's again aimed at a family audience, this version is slightly more explicit, more bloody and even gets unsettling, when we hear the nerve-jangling screams of his victims. A grisly touch is the oily 'X' he draws on their faces.

Altogether it's very watchable, and one of the best 1950's Asian films (from outside of Japan) that I've seen.

The film is available on VideoCD, as an example of a Malaysian classic movie, and also for the lead actor P. Ramlee, a much-loved actor and singer of the time. He plays the multiple central roles, sings a couple of songs, in the heaven sequences and directed as well.

The entire film is on YouTube, part 1 is embedded below, but the Oily Man doesn't appear in the story until part 8...

April 05, 2009

THE CHASING WORLD (2008) - deadly fast-paced fun

(2008, Japan, Riaru onigokko)

My friend Del (the brains behind 24framespersecond) showed me the trailer for this one and I immediately wanted to see it. So far, the only English-subtitled version is this Malaysian DVD (above) which I stupidly purchased just before visiting Malaysia. The disc isn't recommended, due to lousy subtitles and poor motion compression, but at least I've seen it now.

While the literal translation is something like The Real Monster Game, it's known in English under the catchier title of The Chasing World. The low budget makes the very most of a little. Like Monty Python and the Holy Grail couldn't afford real horses, The Chasing World is like Death Race 2000 without the cars. Scary masked assassins (the iconic poster image) roam the streets and garrot their victims with red hot wire weapons that cut through bodies like Swiss cheese!

Tsubasa Sato is a teenager who's great at not being caught. He can run fast and even up the walls, parkour-style, useful for evading school bullies. But throughout the city, there's a wave of freak accidents killing anyone with the rather common surname of Sato. Just as Tsubasa gets cornered by his enemies, he suddenly swaps dimensions into an alternate world where everything looks similar but different. There, his best friends are a gay couple, his dad isn't a drunk, and Japan is ruled by an insane emperor who's rooting out anyone called Sato in a series of sanctioned street fights. It's their actions that are triggering the freak events in the real world.

As Tsubasa Sato starts running for his life, he starts piecing together his alternate life, family and friends. If he survives, maybe he can also fix his family problems by altering events in this parallel world.

Like a classic Roger Corman film (let's say anything between 1950 and 1979), the constraint of the low budget has made this inventive but no less ambitious. The story is more anime adventure than science fiction, a story that supports the premise of the running game rather than any consistent logic. There are several witty touches early on, but the tone gets more downbeat and starts taking itself a little too seriously. For such a flimsy premise, it could have had a little more fun with it. Likewise, the implied sexual abuse of his semi-comatose sister makes the story more real than it needs to be.

Otherwise, it's fast-paced fun, with dynamic fights, a little gore, and special effects that verge on impressive, particularly the futuristic imperial tower dominating the city skyline. Though shot on video, there's superior camerawork and dynamic composition giving it a very filmic look. Just because there's no money, doesn't mean not taking the story, the acting and the cinematography seriously. Veteran actor Akira Emoto is particularly impressive as the nasty doctor. In the end, this was a surprise hit in Japanese cinemas.

The Malaysian DVD is fairly easy to get hold of, until a better release comes along, at
HKflix for instance. The subtitles are very vaguely translated and didn't convey the complexities of the plot. The action scenes are juddery and spoilt by the poor compression. The trailer I mentioned isn't on the DVD. So I'll definitely buy this again if/when it gets released anywhere else in English.

April 02, 2009

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980) - a blast into the past

(1980, USA)

This was far better than I remembered in the cinema, when I was expecting a big summer blockbuster movie. High on the possibilities posited by mysterious non-fiction paperbacks like Charles Berlitz' The Bermuda Triangle and The Philadelphia Experiment, I was initially disappointed by this slightly science fiction, naval drama. It's like a single Twilight Zone episode padded out by a US Navy recruitment film. That’s not to say it doesn’t have a certain bonkers charm.

Though the widescreen photography of military hardware would soon be eclipsed by the stylish, kinetic camera-moves and even faster editing in Top Gun six years later, this has a tantalising premise that carries along most of the story. A US aircraft carrier sets sail from Pearl Harbor in 1980, but is sucked back in time to 1941, just before the fateful sneak attack by the Japanese air force. The Final Countdown sets up far more possibilities than it delivers on, but it's Sunday afternoon fun while it lasts. The variable acting from the supporting cast, the actual crew of the USS Nimitz, is bolstered by an impressive display of jets, helicopters, perilous take-offs and landings.

A top-heavy cast tries to pump up the drama of the meagre plot. A battered-looking Kirk Douglas never quite takes it all totally seriously, despite the evidence before his character's eyes, and he looks much older than he did in his previous Holocaust 2000
or The Fury. A young-looking Martin Sheen appears relaxed and grateful to be out of the jungle hell of Apocalypse Now, looking good despite his heart attack during filming. James Farentino (Dead and Buried, Blue Thunder) appears grateful he's not doing TV. Katherine Ross (The Stepford Wives) looks grateful that the so-bad-they're-good The Legacy and The Swarm are behind her.

Bizarrely, future chief of schlock quickie, straight-to-video factory Troma Films, Lloyd Kaufman, not only associate produces here, but gets a bit part as communications officer 'Lloyd'. This must be the biggest film he's ever worked on. In fact, the budget would probably pay for everything he's done before and since. (Update: there's a blatantly honest interview with Lloyd on the Blue Underground special edition that's well worth watching, detailing how the movie could have been very bad indeed, or almost never made at all. Plus a frank account of his experience of the cast and crew!).

Though it's light on special effects (especially considering it was up against The Empire Strikes Back in the cinemas), the impressive aspect is the use of real craft instead of effects. Though James Bond title sequence veteran Maurice Binder produced the beautiful, simple, and scary time tunnel effects - the genre highpoint of the film, heightened by eerie sound effects. While John Scott composed the stirring soundtrack that’s almost too good to be used on this - the music was the only thing I'd actually remembered over the years between viewings. Recently, it's had a CD release, with some interesting liner notes in which Scott recalls his time on the project. He also mentions that his music was 're-used' in Japan and even became a hit single! Anyone out there know what Japanese music in the style of The Final Countdown soundtrack? I'll ignore any quips about Europe...

Blue Underground have released a handsome 2.35 anamorphic widescreen DVD, and a Blu-Ray! Lavish treatment indeed, but I'm very tempted. The largely location photography bathed in sunlight should look good in high-definition.