June 30, 2010

ROBOGEISHA (2009) - not quite a cult classic

(2009, Japan)

This should have been a winner...

Cross the polite, subservient world of Japanese geisha with the high-tech armaments of Robocop and this is what you get. Two wannabe geishas turned robot assassins, recruited into an army of… even more robot assassins, all working for an evil mastermind who wants to… well, you’ll have to watch to find out.

But I can’t quite explain it. This movie is packed with everything that I usually enjoy in a movie: killer robots, unnecessary gore, hidden weapons, girls with guns… even a giant monster. Admittedly the fantastic trailer had raised my expectations, but the movie didn’t deliver any more entertainment. I was a little wary because I hadn't enjoyed Machine Girl, and had skipped over Tokyo Gore Police completely. All three films are from the same production team.

I was also cautious because these are Japanese films that have been made specifically for a US audience. Presumably that meant more women in bikinis, no sex, loads of knives and guns, and plenty of blood. All perfectly understandable elements for the exploitation genre, but I think RoboGeisha misjudges what passes for American humour.

It’s good to treat this amount of cartoon violence with humour, but it’s mostly a Japanese sense of humour which really doesn’t translate. I appreciated the excessive number of weapons springing out of every item of clothing and bodily orifice, but that's all in the trailer. The overkill of a long, slow-motion gun battle is also very dull if every gunshot is a CGI flash, and every bullet-hit is a CGI blood splatter.

When FX make-up is used, it’s impressive, like the throwing stars in the face (above). There’s also some Savini-style blood-letting. I just wish they’d used these physical effects more, with one exception. ‘The samurai sword in the ass’ is too realistic and downright nasty to be funny (it’s in the trailer).

The constant switching between practical FX and computer wounds is very distracting. RoboGeisha has plenty of weapons, but many have no visible effect, meaning there's no threat. Even when the effect was just to have a little steam rising from someone’s acid-scarred face, why superimpose it later when they could have just blown some smoke up her shirt?

When there isn’t fighting, there’s drama. Mainly the rivalry between the two sisters, which is rather an unimaginative relationship, but well-acted. Both lead actresses are also good at comedy, but a cartoon tale of mayhem has no room for lengthy scenes of dialogue. This overplotting lengthens RoboGeisha to over 100 minutes, way too long for such a silly idea. It also takes the first half of the film to bring us up to speed with RoboGeisha’s origin.

This isn’t nearly as bad a let down as MegaShark vs Giant Octopus, with it’s similarly promising bonkers trailer. RoboGeisha delivers what it promises, but with too much repetition, too much plot and not enough laughs…

RoboGeisha is out on DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, from CineAsia Extreme.

Here's the trailer...

June 25, 2010

Farewell, Frank Sidebottom - the death of a clown

Monday evening, I was shocked and saddened by the sudden death of Chris Sievey, a man whose face I'd never seen.

To the world he was mainly known as an alter-ego, his true identity as successfully shielded as Batman, for many years. Frank Sidebottom was his comedy creation, first on radio, then stage then TV. The characters he created for Manchester's Piccadilly Radio were as inventive and funny as those Kenny Everett created for London's Capital Radio. But Frank was even more anarchic, never pretending that his sidekick, the demented Little Frank, was anything more than a puppet made of cardboard.

Their adventures in space, football, pop music (Little Frank released records as well) and Sherwood Forest were little more than sound effects and library music, with Chris and a few friends ("Lard!") doing the voices, but they were as evocative as any radio play, and side-splittingly funny.

Having fronted bands before, notably The Freshies ('I Can't Get Bouncing Babies by The Teardrop Explodes'), it was easy for Chris to take Frank on stage to sing his songs, play his banjo or cheap synthesizer, and argue with Little Frank. The best joke was that Sidebottom's skills at ventriloquism were completely hidden by his mask. The huge proportion of Frank's head was due to the character originally being a schoolboy, broadcasting Timperley Radio from his mum's garden shed.

Frank's crap puppetry was all part of the fun. But if he invented a new character, the audience expected to see them up on stage too. Even Breville Toaster Puppet could make a grand entrance, riding in an Action Man jeep.

Frank's escalating popularity seemed to peak when he hit National Children's TV, like as a regular part of Saturday Morning's TX, presented by Tony Slattery. I thought this was the start of the big time for Frank, but no.

He continued touring, (supporting John Cooper Clarke earlier this year) but his music is only represented as a couple of belated compilation CDs, of his best songs and unforgettable medleys (A Tribute to Queen). Apparently, he had fans in the US and I'm pleased to hear his appeal travelled so far. Now that he's gone, I expect to fill in the gaps of just what he got upto through the years.

My fondest memory isn't of seeing Frank in concert, but when he recreating the madness of his radio sketches in one of his Christmas Pantomimes at a packed Timperley Labour Club. Effortlessly funny, he could create a whole evening's entertainment out of cardboard. If anything went wrong, he could improvise his way out, or simply blame Little Frank.

I was hoping one day to see an interview with the man behind the mask, and see Chris actually doing 'that voice', finally linking up the man to the character. But perhaps it's better this way.

Sadder news came later in the week, in that Chris was flat broke at the end.
But his many fans are making sure he'll get a fitting send-off. Here's a fuller career obituary from The Independent. A picture gallery from The Guardian. Frank's blog is brimfull of all his recent works and remains online.

One of my favourite records was this medley of Frank's favourite sci-fi shows, bashed together into a medley.

There's still plenty of Frank Sidebottom on YouTube - clips of his TV shows, pop videos, live performances and even an animated visualisation of Frank's world, entirely made of cardboard.

Chris, Frank, I thank you.

June 23, 2010

OSS 117: LOST IN RIO (2009) - a very welcome sequel

(2009, France, OSS 117: Rio Ne Repond Plus...)

France's most oblivious secret agent in the summer of love...

This is last year's sequel to the highly enjoyable
OSS 117: Cairo - Nest of Spies (2006). OSS 117 was originally a serious character in books and films, a French secret agent who first appeared in 1949. These new films spoof the old OSS 117, James Bond films and, this time, even Hitchcock.

The year is 1968. Once again, France's best secret agent, (the best at vanity and pig-headedness) is on the case. Besides an important mission to Rio to deal with Nazi blackmailers, he's also being targeted by Chinese assassins. Going undercover to team up with the American and Israeli secret services, tracking the blackmailer leads him around some of Brazil's most spectacular tourist spots.

The fun begins from the very first second, with a spoof of the late 1960s use of complicated split screen images (think Grand Prix or The Thomas Crown Affair), filling the widescreen frame with a brilliantly co-ordinated overuse of parallel action. If you think you know split-screen from Brian De Palma films, when the image is neatly divided down the middle, prepare to be dazzled.

While I thought there wasn't quite enough action in the first film, there's no shortage of gun battles here. While the hail of bullets manage to miss our hero, he never, ever empties his clip.

OSS 117's ignorance of world politics and history missed the point of the entire Muslim nation while he was in Cairo. Now working with Israeli agents, it's similarly excruciating as he, gulp, only seems to remember the Nazis because of Hitler, rather than their treatment of Jewish people. Added to this are his complete insensitivity to the equality of women, the hippy revolution or innocent bystanders. There are very few back references to the first film and thankfully few repeated gags from the first film.

With advanced digital compositing, it's hard to say how much of Lost In Rio was actually shot there. But I recognised a few nods to the Bond film Moonraker (1979) which used some of the same Brazilian locations. Jean-Paul Belmondo's That Man From Rio (1964) may have been a reference too, which also visited Brasilia, while the city was still being built.

Thankfully OSS 117 gets to dance again. Once more, actor/comedian Jean DuJardin is effortlessly funny, and I'd like to see more of his films, comedy or otherwise, but none seem to be subtitled anywhere else in the world.

I also really liked the soundtrack, a very catchy mix of contemporary crooners and modern lounge pastiche, incorporating nods to John Barry, Henry Mancini and Bernard Herrmann. I can't find it on CD anywhere, but can be downloaded from iTunes and Amazon.

While a third film is supposed to be in production at the moment,
OSS 117: Lost In Rio is out now on DVD in the UK from ICA Films, and coming soon to the US. The region 2 DVD only has English subtitles, with no dubbed audio track.

Here's the movie trailer on YouTube...

June 18, 2010

STREET HAWK (1985) - finally on DVD

(1985, TV, USA)

The man... the machine... Street Hawk (rrrm rrrm)

I never missed an episode when this went out, and have been waiting years to get this on DVD. But a warning to newcomers - it's soooo 1980s...

A top secret government experiment involves a souped-up attack-motorbike to fight crime. Jesse Mach (Rex Smith) can't tell a soul that he's secretly the rider of the mysterious Street Hawk. He has a 'co-pilot', who co-ordinates Street Hawk's missions back at their hidden base, inventor Norman Tuttle (Joe Regalbuto). The secret street exit was hidden behind a sliding billboard in an alleyway, which always reminded me of Batgirl's similar Batbike exit. Can't have been much of a secret location because Mach's flashy bright yellow Mustang was always parked outside, next to Tuttle's station wagon...

The short-lived TV show had storylines and dialogue that a five-year old could follow, which didn't really sit comfortably with its atrocious lessons in road safety in road safety. Yes kids, try and jump your bike over police cars, through windows, and ride as fast as you can - you'll never hit anything, honestly you won't...

Like so many other family-friendly action shows, the characters are two-dimensional (grumpy police chief, geeky engineer), and the comedy relief is goofy rather than funny. I only ever saw Rex Smith (Jesse Mach) in TV bit parts after this, which was a real waste of a leading man - his half-naked turn in the foam-filled, suit-moulding tube (glimpsed in the theme tune) made me an instant fan. Joe Regalbuto (Norman) had previously been in the bonkers Conan knock-off The Sword and the Sorceror (1982) - he was good, funny, but looked rather out of place amongst all the barbarian mullets.

The technology is fantasy, rather than reality-based. A bike with jet thrusters, a laser, missiles! It's a comic strip, but at least it's an original custom-made concept, rather than an adaption. Despite the high-tech dressing, (when technology meant flashing lights and dry ice, and animation poses as computer displays) the thrills are not from the visual effects (like the 'particle beam') but from car chases and explosions, placing this in similar territory to Airwolf and Knight Rider.

BUT. For all its faults, where else can you get so many car and bike (and boat and helicopter) stunts in a weekly TV show today? In every episode, there's never a shortage of genuinely exciting stuntwork. Street Hawk actually deserved slow-motion for its leaps and crashes. From the high jump through a (closed) window, to chasing a helicopter at high speed.

The fake sped-up 'hyperthrust' mode wasn't as dangerous, but fired-up every episode - as Street Hawk was cleared to travel at 200 mph through Los Angeles at all times of the day. How traffic could be stopped for a stretch of twenty miles, with a guarantee of zero jaywalkers, was beside the point. The effect took a visual cue from Koyaanisqatsi - headlights and neon at night, flashing past as streaks.

Guest stars included Christopher Lloyd playing almost too nasty a villain to square up to such cartoony heroes. There's also Bianca Jagger, Sybil Danning (Battle Beyond the Stars) and Marjoe Gortner (Earthquake, Food of the Gods), but famously this was George Clooney's second-ever featured role.
Rex Smith was making much of that episode, on his recent UK publicity tour for the DVD launch, saying that Clooney owed him a return favour for Smith giving Clooney his big break in Hollywood...

Another aspect that helps me rank this over Knight Rider, is the synthesizer soundtrack. Tangerine Dream's track Le Parc was used as the theme tune and the band provided the background score throughout. This is the same year they were brought in to score Ridley Scott's Legend for the re-edited US version, replacing Jerry Goldsmith's soundtrack.

The movie-length pilot episode (well, barely 75 minutes long) appeared on laserdisc, but this UK region 2 set is Street Hawk's world debut on DVD - the entire series runs only 13 episodes. It's coming to the US in July.

For absolutely everything else about Street Hawk, there's an extensive fansite here.

The theme tune is here on YouTube...

June 04, 2010

ZARDOZ (1974) - Sean Connery in a post-apocalyptic parable

(1974, UK)

Ye gods!

This might have been better if they'd tried for serious sci-fi, instead of opting for a preachy parable, free of logic or science. It's certainly entertaining, but often unintentionally amusing. The overload of pretentiousness is offset by Sean Connery trying to keep it believable. This also shows just how much he wanted give up the role of James Bond, turning down Live and Let Die with its offer of $5.5 million dollars, compared to the $200,000 he got for Zardoz.

At times, it's like watching the death of the British film industry. I would have loved to see the faces of the 20th Century Fox marketing team as they watched, (how the hell are we going to sell this?). Indeed, that would be high on my list of things to do with a time machine.

Halfway through watching Zardoz in widescreen for the first time, I thought it was about to end, a buried memory of where I'd given up watching it so many times before. I was too young to see this in the cinema, but remember many impressive publicity photos during the release, and reading the novel (based on the script). I recently heard that director John Boorman (Deliverance, Point Blank, Excalibur) considered that after filming it, Zardoz would perhaps have been better as a book. Certainly the novel didn't have the daft acting or unforgivable fashion statements.

As Zardoz crept onto late night TV in the 80s, I remember watching it with flatmates, struggling to take it all seriously and attempting to understand what the hell the director was thinking. Now, I think it's fun to unravel as a philosophical puzzle on your own, or to enjoy it as a comedy with a blitzed gang of friends. A film that could happily co-exist with the world of The Mighty Boosh.

A huge stone head floats over desolate grasslands, landing to receive sacks of grain from armed horsemen, spewing out a reward of guns and ammo from its open mouth. They savages worship Zardoz, literally a god-head. When it flies back home, one of the raiders is hiding inside. Zed (Sean Connery) is an Exterminator, the first 'Brutal' to enter 'the Vortex'.

There the inhabitants are civilised, seemingly from a higher evolutionary stage than the Brutals. While they're fascinated with him and enjoy reading his mind to see what life is like outside their city, Zed is curious to know why exactly his world is divided from theirs.

I really enjoy the vision of a post-apocalyptic world, with the Exterminators roaming the Outlands. These gritty scenes, with Earth's survivors riding around on horseback, is more realistic than the many car-driven post-nuclear movies that Mad Max sparked off. Covered in war-woad and wearing two-faced Zardoz masks, the brutals look suitably threatening, despite their bright red diapers and gunbelts. Added to this, thigh-length boots and a pigtail make Connery look less like Bond than he could ever have hoped.

The floating head has a fearsome, booming voice reminiscent of The Wiz (made four years later). The floating effect is elegantly and smoothly filmed.

But once the narrative enters the Vortex, the blunt allegories begin being hammered home. Zed is in the stronghold of the ruling class, who control the workers with violence and a fake religion, while they concentrate on preserving science, art, history and themselves. The story dissipates into a dissection of what is wrong with the ruling class. I was reminded of the 'film' that the circus master shows the townspeople in The 7 Faces of Dr Lao - not a historical story, but a reflection of their own lives.

Zardoz still serves as a warning about our modern society, rather than an attempt at predictive science-fiction, which it resembles at first glance. Many interesting sci-fi concepts are thrown out like random ideas, rather than explored and integrated into the story. It makes me wish that directors new to the genre of sci-fi (and horror) be required to take an exam first. The director even attempted to alter audience's expectations by "tacking on" (Boorman's own words) a prologue that flags Zardoz as an entertainment, an artifice, because the audiences "weren't getting it".

Having said that, the sci-fi elements, like the Immortals and their hardware, are impressively presented. The Eternals can talk to an interactive databank via a crystal ring, which can project associated images (a well-mounted and convincing stage effect), eradicating the need for TVs and computer screens in all but the largest meeting places. The Eternals can also use psychic violence to impose their will, easily outmatching Zed's pistol (though this ability is forgotten later on).

Indeed, I even saw a parallel with the Cylons of the new Battlestar Galactica, as the Eternals show Zed the 'Eternal Tabernacle', a greenhouse for regenerating Immortals who are killed, or commit suicide out of boredom. The image of Zardoz's stone head also reminded me of a Viper pilot helmet.

For all it's ideals, Zardoz looks more like Logan's Run, certainly in terms of bad fashion, which also relied on brightly coloured, uniform designs. Unflattering scraps of cotton for the women and macrame waistcoats for the men. This was also a regular style of cursed fashion in TV's Space 1999, also made shortly after Zardoz. The idea of sun-shy, gangly British actors suddenly being asked to wear tight-fitting, chest-baring outfits convinced no-one at the time, especially with futuristic silver, permed wigs for both sexes. Actually, the first season Space 1999 episode Mission of the Darians echoed many of Zardoz's plot points (like a functionally split society) with a far tighter narrative, loaded with atmosphere (and Joan Collins).

The acting ranges from intensely convincing (especially Charlotte Rampling and Sara Kestelman), down to (possibly intentional) pantomime. The embarrassing prologue cues the audience that not even the director is taking this all seriously, so why should we? Even Sean Connery is made to look silly as he tip-toes around a maze of mirrors, waiting for something to happen. John Alderton is good but miscast, unable to draw on his extensive comedic talents. Niall Buggy is not quite convincing as the trickster Arthur Frayn, though I'd like to check out his later appearance in an episode of Father Ted.

Director John Boorman (left), Charlotte Rampling and Sean Connery
I watched a good transfer on the 2003 region 2 UK DVD, my first chance to see the film in 2.35 widescreen. Besides some radio ads, narrated by Rod Serling, it also has a fairly self-effacing, recent commentary track by the director. While I'm tired by film-makers complaining 'we didn't have CGI back then', at least Boorman is pleased with what he achieved on a relatively low-budget, talking about how most of the convincing visual effects were done 'in camera'. The floating head and the crystal ring projections look very good, as does the 'touch teach' sequence, where the sum of human knowledge can be gained by osmosis, realised with multiple front projections.

Boorman wisely comments that some (but not enough) scenes look silly or too long, and appears to recognise the fairly bad reputation of the film. I'd liked to have heard more about where his more bonkers ideas came from.

The current DVD cover art is lousy though, not nearly as compelling as the original poster, missing out both the stone head and Charlotte Rampling. Even Sean Connery's face is hard to recognise.

Taking it all less seriously, the funniest review I've seen of Zardoz is here, on Movie Mistreatments...

An original trailer for Zardoz is here on YouTube - "Kill the tabernacle!"...

The BFI were brave enough to include Zardoz in a recent John Boorman retrospective. Here's me with an original poster. Zardoz speaks to me!