Monday, 30 April 2012

Total Cults Podcast #33: Back to the Past

Click on the Eric Stoltz version of Marty McFly in order to hear Gogol and Trick romp through history! Romp, they will! Umm.. I think it's something about the 80s.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Film and the Immersive Experience

Some have proclaimed that film is either dying or dead. Many attribute this to the benefits of digital film-making, but this article is not about that. For the purposes of this piece I am not referring to film as defined by its physical properties, rather film as an output, a product or as art. In other words, the ninety minutes plus of contained visual storytelling, intended for viewing in mostly one sitting that we refer to as film (regardless of whether a single frame of film has been exposed in its production or not). Film, in that context, still has a healthy lifespan ahead of it yet it is currently going through something of a metamorphoses. Into what? Now that is what this article is about.

Cinemas have been trying to find ways to drag people to their screens ever since television provided a way for people to watch visual media in their own homes. Now that many people can watch a film or television show wherever they are in the world, in addition to the fact that current television shows can be as cinematic as some feature films, cinema is having to pull out every trick it has to get people's arses in its seats.

3D is not new. The first screenings of 3D film took place in the 1920’s and the technique has been rolled out to cinema goers on a regular basis ever since. The current trend for releasing films in 3D seemed like a good idea at the time, yet almost immediately 3D televisions, hand-held games consoles and camcorders flooded the consumer market. Another victory for revolutionaries in their fight for equal entitlement, or a respected and dignified aristocrat pulled from position and thrown in the shit with the rest of the peasants, depending on your view (for what it is worth, mine is the former).

IMAX is something of unique experience as it changes the very canvas onto which the light is painted. Sometimes utilising 3D, IMAX can be at times an overwhelming experience and one that immerses you to a degree that you are given a choice as to on what part of the screen you will focus your attention. IMAX gives you the power to adjust the director’s vision, re-framing to your own demands making it not just immersive, but ever-so-slightly interactive. The ideal? An awesome assault of visuals filling your peripheral vision with cinematic artistry forcing you to experience rather than observe. The risk? Live pan and scan.

Faster frame rates are the next big cinematic experiment. Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is being shot at 48 frames per second and in 3D. Early promotional soundbites suggested that it was as if there was a hole in the wall where the cinema screen should be; so real it is like you are really there. Like all the above techniques, however, it has its detractors. My problem, however, is not with the individual issues that each of the techniques have but with the ethos behind them all:

The idea that film should be an immersive experience.

As the image fills your eyeballs and objects float out around you, all in frame rates desperate to capture movement the way the human eye does you, the audience, are being asked to participate in the events unfolding. And who knows what the future holds? With the recent Tupac ‘live’ performance via hologram, who's to say once the consumer market is flooded with giant home IMAX systems that pioneers won’t be desperately trying to find a way to extend sets out of the screen so that they surround the audience. It all sounds extremely exciting doesn’t it?

But that is not what film is about. Yes, film should always aspire to be emotionally and intellectually immersive but that is not the same as trying to put people inside the events. Film is, for me, a medium used to understand how other people view the world. How a director frames an image tells us everything about how they see and then interpret everything around them, it is a way of communicating their imagination and interpretation of the world to an audience. That audience may be asked to become involved with the drama, or to consider the concepts explored, but we are always observers. Even when we are not given all the answers, when we have to work hard to piece together concepts and narratives to form our own ideas, it is still the filmmaker in control.

The moment we are immersed totally is the moment we are given choice. It is then that the film has escaped beyond the confines of the director's frame and we are able to frame the images ourselves. We can choose what to concentrate on, or what narrative to follow. We can even create our own narratives. The moment the world represented on film becomes our world it ceases to be the world of the directors. When we, the viewer, are so enraptured by the realism of the grass at our feet than at the subtle drama unfolding between two characters we find ourselves in an entirely different medium altogether. Whatever it is, it is not film.

That does not mean I cannot appreciate this new medium, whatever it is. I love seeing films at the IMAX, I cannot wait to see what 48fps second actually looks like and I am still desperate for 3D to really work well. In the application of each of these techniques there can be meaning and artistry. Yet at what point is the line crossed that redefines what it is that is being created?

Am I being pedantic? Does it matter what we call the experience? Who cares if I see I watch a TV show and call it a film, or listen to a piece of music and claim I’ve read a book?

I fucking well care.

If you were hoping for a more academic conclusion then I’m sorry. As much as I understand, appreciate and respect film I love it first and foremost and love, as we all know, isn’t something that can be intellectualised.

Regardless I should at least try and finish with some kind of conclusion.

Maybe it is not film that is changing, but cinema. Maybe in the future films will be something watched at home and this new immersive medium is what we see at the cinema. That is until the technology is made available for home use and the whole cycle starts again.

To be honest, as much as I don’t like to play the cynic, I can’t help but think that these developments will be fads that come and go and that films will remain films, wherever we choose to watch them.

Friday, 20 April 2012

Red Sun (Terence Young, 1971)

I have always been fascinated with the iconic mythologies of countries and how they re-occur in their cinematic output. I particulalry like it when these mytholgies clash. Unfortunately it can often be at the expense of one of the cultures.

The all-american cop who is partnered with an international counter-part, usually asian, whose odd customs and almost supernatural abilities help solve the case is all too familiar. Yet these films are not so much about finding some common ground and respecting what differences are left, but rather painting the outsider as 'other'. If the alien cop can survive the racial slurs and learn to loosen his values he may well earn the trust of the people slinging those slurs at him in the first place. His mission is to merely justify himself to the audience.

On paper, Red Sun sounds pretty much the same and though it dances close to the above conventions it never treats the outsider with anything other than respect.  Considering this is something of an international affair, that's no surprise.

Outlaws Charles Bronson and Alain Delon rob a train only to find a Japanese ambassador and his Samurai guards carrying a golden sword as a gift to the American President. Delon steals the sword leaving Bronson, his partner, for dead. Fearing disgrace, the surviving Samurai, Toshiro Mifune, teams up with a Bronson to track down Delon and retrieve the sword. Aside from having a western with principle characters that are from three very different countries, the main female characters are played by Ursula Andress and Capucine and was shot in Spain under the direction of the very British Terence Young (who incidentally was born in Shanghai).

As Mifune and Bronson search the plains they form a begrudging respect for each other. Though Mifune takes on the role of the outsider and his martial arts ability and unwavering discipline initially present the character as alien and otherworldly, the film quickly places the two of them on an even keel.

Their relationship is quite interesting. Although their primary goal is the same, their motivations are very different. Mifune wants to regain his honour by slaying Delon at first sight, while Bronson wants Delon to lead him to his share of their spoils. At every stage of the film the threat that one might betray the other is present, yet they both fully understand and respect this and neither character is portrayed as any more distrustful as the other.

It would be remiss of me, however, to not mention that despite all this wonderful multi-culturlism the Native Americans are reduced to whooping savages. Whereas the main characters are icons, these poor buggers are nothing more than stereotypes. I guess you can't have everything.

And that is not the only problem the film has. The action is efficient, but rarely either brutal or exciting enough to fully monopolise on the potential of having some major Bronson/Mifune ass kickery/choppery. Don't get me wrong, they do get their share of action and blood is spilt, but it is never to the level one would hope. The visuals are much the same in that they do their job but that's about it.

That being said the brief Samurai vs Comanche sword on spear fight set against a burning field is pretty cool, but nothing else in the film quite matches it.

Regardless, there is a lot to like here.  It's so refreshing to see a film that treats its international characters with such respect. Not only that, but have another look at that cast.  These are not just international actors, but truly iconic ones. Bronson and Mifune work well together and the Maurice Jarre score is sparse yet effective.

Red Sun remains a fun little entry into the East meets West films that treat its conlficting cultures with equal respect. It may never reach its full potential but it has a bloody good go and is well worth your time.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Murder (by) Magic

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
When I was about six years old, in 1980, I bought a copy of Spider-Man pocketbook. To this day, I can tell you the newsagent I bought it in and I can remember how excited and happy I was to have a new Spider-Man comic. Cover price of 15 pence, coughed up by my brilliant Mum.
I loved Spider-Man. He was my favourite superhero and carried with him that odd sense of security that is such an important part of childhood. Kids like to know where the boundaries lie, and I felt I knew the rules with Spider-Man. I knew that his universe could sometimes have slightly scary bits. I knew that sometimes people died. But Spidey’s universe felt comforting despite the bad bits, because your friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man would sort it out.
As anyone who listens to the podcasts regularly will know (and I think I’ve actually banged on about this on three separate occasions in the past year), that particular issue of Spider-Man pocketbook wasn’t destined to be a good experience for me. It had an illustration in it that utterly freaked me out; a picture which has been hovering around the fringes of my consciousness ever since
The basics: a stage magician levitates a volunteer. The man in the air comes to pieces; head and arms floating off. The now-corpse has a horrible blank expression on his face, and someone in the audience shouts out that the man is dead.
I describe my memories of it in the podcasts far better than I could do now, because now my memories are contaminated. Because, this week, I found it.
The illustration is at the bottom of this page. To scroll or not to scroll? If you look at it before you’ve read what follows, will my memories become laughable? If you look at it afterwards, will it have been built up way, way too much? I almost feel weird posting it without some kind of warning. I realise that a warning would just be ridiculous; this is a site for grown-ups, featuring various unpleasant elements dealt with in an often frivolous manner. But, fuck it, I’m not going to be frivolous about the picture. I want to talk about it.
I find it a rather strange thing to look at. I found the picture again on Monday 16th April 2012. Prior to that date, I hadn’t seen it since (by my rough calculations) around April 1980, when I would have been six years old.
The picture massively upset me as a child. I can’t help wondering how long I must have looked at it for after opening the comic, puzzling over it, trying to work out what I was looking at. I was certain, before this Monday, that my memory must be exaggerating or playing tricks because it just didn’t seem to make sense. Why would such a panel be in a Spider-Man comic? It didn’t fit the universe. I Googled every different thing I could think of that might lead me to the answer. I Googled ‘Murder Magic’ (which is how I remembered the title; my six year-old self clearly missed the ‘by’), I searched for info on the 1980 pocketbooks (and could only find that they held reprints of classic Ditko Spidey), and pulled up nothing.
Then, last week, I found a copy of Spider-Man Pocketbook issue 2 on Ebay. I thought there was only about a 30% chance that it would be the right issue (I remembered the magician image clearly, the cover of the hastily-binned comic was vaguer) but thought it was worth a few quid to find out. I was laid up in bed sick the day the comic turned up, and thus the fact I was vaguely feverish when confronted with the image again after 30+ years may well have added to the impact.
But, there it was.
It’s a reprint of a Marvel Boy story from ‘Astonishing’ comic circa 1951, and was thus almost 30 years old by the time it comprehensively ruined my day in 1980. The fucking thing is *exactly* as I remember it, and still seems incongruous to my eyes in the middle of a very child-friendly Spider-Man comic.
Of course, finding out that it was a Marvel Boy story made it a lot more Google-able, hence the fact that I was actually able to find an interactive preview of the original issue of 'Astonishing' which you can peruse over here (and it's that version that I grabbed the image at the bottom from). The version in the pocketbook is black & white. I don’t think the colour makes it any more reassuring.
Most things that scare you as a child become cuddly to you as an adult. I feared the poster for Scanners as a kid; by the time I was at Uni I prided myself on having an original UK quad on my wall. I can’t see myself clutching this one to my chest in the same way.
Truth be told, it still creeps me out, and it also makes me feel angry and slightly sad. I can trace the threads of Murder by Magic in various creative stuff I've done over the years, so I guess it's given me something back for that ruined afternoon in 1980.
These things that upset us get carried with us, though, and ultimately become part of us whether we want them to or not.
Here's the image, folks.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Total Cults Podcast #32: Comics 2

Gogol has a few things he'd like to get off his chest in this second podcast in which your favourite comics get fingered lovingly. From James Cameron's unproduced Spider-Man script through to comic art gettin' no respect, join the boys as they romp through the concept of a world in which Bob Hoskins played Wolverine.

In this podcast:

Have you lost weight?
Gogol wants to rant
Comics are undervalued
Once upon a time
James Cameron's Spider-Man script
Bob Hoskins in yellow lycra
Unproduced X-Men script
Stan Lee is a genius
Fucking Orko drops litter
Magneto is Malcolm X
Mutants as a metaphor
Curing your identity
Writing for Superman
Slow-drying candle wax

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Slash (Jun Gallardo, 1984)

There is a moment in Slash where a man leaps up from a nightmare and shouts “Barbara!”. This may not seem worthy of any real attention for most of you, but for the group of newly formed friends gathered for their first 'bad movie' night it became a moment that resonated with us deeply. There was nothing especially remarkable about that moment. Maybe it was the delivery, or perhaps the actors luxurious moustache... something about it just made us laugh.

And that is Slash all over. It's hardly up there with the classic 'so-bad-it's-good' movies, in fact to many it would seem boring and utterly forgettable. Yet it was inept enough in a particular way to make the film easy pickings for the vultures that had gathered that night to watch it, and the purpose of this article is to characterise that particular way to the best of my ability.

Slash opens with the word 'Vietnam' crash zooming towards the audience while behind it a battle rages between American soldiers and guerillas. This would have been an incredibly effective opening had it been set in deep rain-soaked jungle. However this particular battle takes place in the driveway of a country house, on what looks to be quite a pleasant afternoon, while around the soldiers lay bed frames and an overturned jeep. Not quite Apocalypse Now

Of course in low budget film-making you have to make the most of what you've got. It's not like they had the money to fly to a country that would easily double for Vietnam. Did I mention they shot this in the Philippines?

This opening sequence also features one of the most harrowing depictions of death I think I've ever seen. A soldier is shot and reacts by stopping dead in his tracks, spinning round one hundred and eighty degrees on the spot and then sitting down. Now maybe I'm being unfair, maybe destroyed beds would often litter the battlefields of 'Nam. Perhaps the effect of being hit by a bullet fired from an M16 assault rifle would have been to spin round before retiring to a seated position. If 'm honest I'm basing my knowledge of Vietnam entirely on what I've seen in other films. I have to, I wasn't there man!

It's about this time in the film a character tells us Vietnam “ain't no fucking bus” and is in fact “a country with real live people”.

Aside from pearls such as that, the film depicts the Vietnam war as a series of indistinguishable soldiers running around fields and falling over. As with the spectacular opening battle, the problem with action scenes in Slash is not scale. Throughout the film we are treated to armies running across battlefields, tanks, bridges exploding, helicopters, you name it. Yet every single sequence is captured in wide shots, making it feel like we are watching a battle re-enactment group rather than being in the midst of an exciting struggle. The deaths do not improve either, the stuntmen apparently being instructed to either casually lay down or leap into the air with all extremities outstretched (regardless of how close or far away the explosion was to them). To make matters worse they don't intercut the wide shots in an attempt to create any kind of pace, deciding instead to paste the shots back to back to try and sell the audience the idea that they had more than four explosions going off. It becomes something of a chore watching the same three stuntmen pathetically flail about in response to the same explosion time after time.

It's about this time in the film the heavily moustached “Barbara” shouting Major Scott's leg grows back.

Major Scott does not have a good time in this movie. A failed evacuation from a besieged city ends up with his wife, the aforementioned Barbara, in the hands of rebels and himself down a leg. However, later on in the film he has both legs back. When we first watched the film it appeared to everyone that his leg had grown back.

When I watched the film again in preparation for writing this article, I discovered that this was the not case. What we had all missed was a single, dialogue-less shot, where Scott points to his knew rubbery artificial leg. I think we can be forgiven for that mistake as it's not like they laboured the point and once the leg is on Scott doesn't so much as limp. Does this revelation exonerate Slash?

Not. At. All.

A leg growing back was the kind of major flaw one would expect from a proper bad movie. Although confused at the time, I had since decided there must have been a rational explanation, such as a scene having been cut somewhere along the way. However, now that I am aware they intended the leg to come back and that this was the best they could come up with only cements the film-makers particular brand of ineptitude. In fact I'm beginning to suspect they forgot the character had lost a leg and where forced to come up with that tenuous explanation on the fly.

I have also found on second viewing a number of other moments that are only partially inept, but inept enough to rob said moment of any effectiveness. Here are my three favourite:

  1. An early sex scene cuts from the Scott being on top to being on bottom. Unfortunately we never see the transition from top to bottom which means that due to clumsy editing it looks like Scott is having sex with another man.
  2. A character arrives at the scene of a shoot out to find three dead bodies on the floor. It's a throwaway shot that lasts mere seconds, yet they decided to keep the take where the central corpse's shirt blows over his face.
  3. The line “...or I'll blow his brains off!”.

It's about this time in the film that Barbara spits in the villain's face causing him to make a sound like a recording of a motorbike engine revving played at double speed.

Interrogation scenes are an ideal way of demonstrating your protagonists devotion to his values as well as his durability. The film seizes this opportunity, yet again gets it wrong. Slash (our hero who is helping Scott rescue his beloved Barbara) has already agreed to give our villain the location of the McGuffin (in this instance a suitcase) in order to stop Major Scott from being repeatedly shot (c'mon, give Scott a break). Alas the the story calls for a little water to be tread in order to allow an escape plan to be put into place. Thus, the screen-writers come up with a solution to drag the scene out a little longer.

Just ask him you twot.

It's about this time in the film that slash has a conversation with someone for nearly thirty seconds before realising the guy is clearly dead.

Poor Scott, his wife is kidnapped, he loses a leg, he is repeatedly shot and then when he finally dies his “friend” shouts at him for being dead. What is important about that clip, however, is how it highlights actor Ron Kristoff's craft.

I'm not familiar with Kristoff's other films (many of which were of a similar theme) but one can only hope he got to display this range of emotion in them. My favourite moment of his, though, is his reaction to discovering his escape route has been compromised.

Put your actor's hat on for a moment.

You've just rescued a POW and are racing through the jungle to get back to your helicopter only to discover it is no longer there. As an actor consider your choices of how you should play this moment. Do you simmer with rage, desperate to scream out but repressing the urge so as not to give away your position? Do you collapse in acceptance, perhaps with a wry smile as you acknowledge that all along you knew this was a suicide mission? Do you break down and sob like Stallone at the end of First Blood?

No doubt all of these choices went through Kristoff's mind prior to the cameras rolling, but in the end he went with this:

Watched alone one might not make it a half hour into Slash. I'll admit on second viewing I found myself eyeing the fast forward button on several occasions. Yet with a group of friends all looking hard enough there is plenty to enjoy. It's not that the film is cheap, on the contrary it is full of production value, yet every decision on how to capture that value was made by someone who didn't know what the balls they were doing. It was this constant evidence of poor decision making that kept us going, even through the dry spells. It was a film that but because of, not in spite of, it's mild yet frequent ineptitude that allowed us to bond in mutual mockery.

For some time after that evening shouting “Barbara!” at a friend roused a fond memory and raised a sly smile. That is the power of cinema; even a forgettable Rambo rip-off made in the Philippines can bring people together.

Of course I don't expect you all to understand, but that's because you weren't there, man.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Total Cults Podcast #31: Comics

Spider-Man pocketbook

Delving into the wonderful world of comics, Trick & Gogol get their hands dirty and discuss the comics that shaped their childhoods and corrupted their adulthoods.. And just what the hell did Trick once see in a Spider-Man pocketbook that scarred him for life?

In this podcast:

Writing obscenities on a Barbie doll
"We haven't mentioned comics yet"
Packs of American comics
Tossing Batman and Superman
A large petri-dish full of bodily fluids
Comic adaptations of films
That girl in Dragonslayer
Time Bandits comic
Little Shop of Horrors comic
Spider-Man pocketbook freaks Trick out
'Murder Magic'
Goat-skull billboard
Comics are expensive
Why are comics for kids?
"You're a bit old for that"
Eagle and Doomlord
Death Wish (not the Charles Bronson one)
My first Daredevil comic

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Icons of the Overlooked #4: Reb Brown

The purpose of this feature is to highlight artists who should, by all rights, have transcended cult status and entered the mainstream. Reb Brown, however, is slightly different.  This is an actor yet to even reach cult status.

That might be unfair.  Reb Brown does have a small following, undoubtably appearing on many a radar due to his role as Marvel's sential of liberty in Captain America (Rod Holcomb, 1979) and Captain America 2: Death too Soon (Ivan Nagy 1979).

These TV movies may secured Brown's place in Marvel lore, but not in a good way.  Not only did they significantly tamper with Cap's backstory, but with the costume as well. The changes that occur during the process of adaptation can always be justified if the final production is good.  Alas these films are not regarded so and are often forgotten.

Yet they are not even great Reb Brown performances. So what makes a great Reb Brown performance I hear you ask (out of nothing but politeness)?

The Reb Brown method has two distinct modes:
  1. Cold, dead-eyed and softly spoken.
  2. Shouting.
Brown expertly slaloms between these two modes, sometimes turning on a dime when you least expect it. Yet Brown's range does not stop there. Like Derek Zoolander's Magnum, Brown was keenly developing a third mode of acting; the high-pitched slightly manic laugh.  Yet it's the shouting that really sets Brown apart from the rest of the bunch. Here is a montage of some of his finest shouts.

Brown applied his method to a number of genres and some of his most memorable moments can be found in his dalliance with science fiction.  Brown's space opera/cave-man mash-up Yor: The Hunter from the Future (Antonio Margheriti, 1983) has been mentioned on the podcasts, but for those that didn't actually believe the film existed, here is the trailer:

But trumping Yor is Brown's sf epic Space Mutiny (David Winters and Neal Sundstrom, 1988). I could honestly spend an entire article discussing this film so instead will let this one clip do the talking for me:

I may be coming across a little sarcastic so far, it's hard not to, but despite everything I've shown you above I do believe Brown deserves greater recognition. Though Brown's potnetial was often obscured by the fog of poor production values and direction, very occasionally the horn of his charisma could be heard.

Uncommon Valour (Ted Kotcheff, 1983) is one of my favorite eighties war films. It riffs on the oft-told story of army vets going back to vietnam to rescue forgotten POWs, yet stands out because it doesn't use this trope as a platform for patriotism. This film is about a man trying to get his son back and it's this emotional core that sets the film apart from other, more gung-ho, films of the period.

Don't get me wrong, it's an action movie first and foremost but with a solid emotinal centere and amazing chemistry between a great cast (that includes Fred Ward, Tim Thomserson, Rex Cobb, Patrick Swayze and Gene Hackman) it's a guilt free pleasure and effortlessly entertianing. The cast is full of actors on the brink of breaking out and Brown fits snugly in amongst them all, providing a manic, but always likeable, energy amongst the macho posturing.

And that is why depsite the evidence above, I firmly believe that surrounded by the right cast, material and director Reb Brown could have easily devleoped into an engaging 80's action star with a huge cult following all of his own.