Sunday, 22 March 2015

Evil Brain From Outer Space (Koreyoshi Akasaka, Teruo Ishii, Akira Mitsuwa, 1965)

Man, the amount of times I've typed 'evil brian' while writing this review is ridiculous. Ironically, when I typed that last sentence I typed 'brain'. Oh, have we started? Sorry. I should be forgiven for feeling a little discombobulated because I've just watched Evil Brain From Outer Space (nailed it!), a mad science fiction superhero romp filled with mutants, witches and ill-advised spandex pants.

An evil alien brain travels to Earth to cause as much havoc as a brain can and it falls on an alien council, full of crazy big-headed googley-eyed extra terrestrials, to find a solution. And so Starman is dispatched to intercept the lobey little prick.

The episodic plot is a little hard to follow. The evil brain has a number fiendish plots that it rolls out over the running time, along with a supporting cast that are also replaced every twenty minutes. I got the distinct feeling I was watching a movie made by editing a load of TV episodes together. Turns out I was partially right. Evil Brain was actually stitched together from three TV movies (from the Super Giant series) with a painfully boring American voice over laying out the exposition in a feeble attempt to draw all these disparate elements together. Believe it or not, it doesn't quite work.

That's not to say the movie is no fun. The movie is surprisingly cinematic with a liberal use of crane and tracking shots. The sets and locations are evocative and of scale, especially the underground fortress of the evil brain's army of Batman-esque followers. This evil Batcave of sorts plays host to two huge fight scenes and its many platforms and smoking pits allow for plenty of swashbuckling superhero antics.

As well staged as the fights are they don't entirely work. This is primarily due to Ken Utsui's game but unskilled involvement. He is energetic and can execute a sequence of complex fight moves over long takes, but none of his punches ever really connect. This leads to most of the scenes looking a little like Fake Purse Ninja from the end of Bowfinger

Thankfully the monsters are fun. These goofy fuckers are all rubber heads and wobbly fingers yet claw and breath radiation enough to pose a threat. They also occasionally come across as genuinely unsettling. A tracking shot of an appearing witch is a little creepy while a back-projected shot of two mutants crawling through the sky is utterly absurd but in a nightmarish way.

Despite being packed full of crazy costumes, fast-paced action and nefarious scheme after nefarious scheme it took me two sittings to get through its 80 minute running time. Like your first protein bar, Evil Brain From Outer Space is so densely packed consuming it is an often overwhelming experience that leaves you feeling a little woozy.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Icons of the Overlooked #12: Chris Parnell

Chris Parnell appeared in eight seasons of Saturday Night Live alongside iconic cast members such as Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon, Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader. So vital to the show was he that when he was fired towards the end of his third year performers and writers rallied to convince showrunner Lorne Michaels to re-instate him mid season. He was voted 35th (out of 141) best SNL cast member in a controversial Rolling Stone article, was partly responsible for an internet sensation and since leaving SNL for a second time in 2006 has continued to appear in movies and television. So why is he less well known than other SNL alumni?

Sketch comedy may often focus on absurd characters and catchphrases but what makes those characters work is the world created around them by the supporting players. That's not to say Parnell was a glorified extra or straight man, far from it. Parnell's warm announcer's voice and deadpan expression allowed him to carefully shepard whatever conceit the sketch orbited around, selling its daftness with a serious look but playing it big enough to never throw it under the bus. Although he could have played authority figures in his sleep, his unassuming and, well, nerdy approach never made him feel pompous. What Parnell has is integrity. And it is this integrity, and his constant subverting and challenging of it, that allows him to steal almost every scene he appears in. 

Take his few brief scenes in Andy Samberg vehicle Hot Rod, for example: the stiff radio tones, the professional but unfashionable suit and the fixed expression all allow him to say some really weird shit and create what is, for me, the funniest scene in the movie:

Parnell pops up in small doses all over the place. His re-occurring role as Dr Spaceman in 30 Rock was always a delight. It takes real skill to make a character this dangerously incompetent so bloody likeable but Parnell made it look easy:

Although Parnell plays on his apparent stiffness a great deal he is by no means a one-trick-pony. The spectrum of ways he subverts his demeanour shows unbelievable range. Take this bit for example:

It was these performances that lead him to team up with Samberg and The Lonely Island for Lazy Sunday, a sketch that went viral before going viral was really a thing. Even when given only a few lines to say Parnell kills it. His fleeting appearance in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgandy never fails to raise a laugh out of me.

Not only was he criminally underused in Anchorman but the fact he appears in both versions of the sequel and gets no lines in either is bordering on a crime against humanity.

He's not cool nor goofy and as funny as descontructing integrity in a variety of ways is it rarely makes for centre stage stuff. Parnell works best as part of team and his constant appearance with some of the best American comedy teams in recent memory is testimony to his abilities. Perfectly judging the needs of both the sketch and the moment Parnell fulfils support roles with confidence. As absolutely vital as support roles are, however, they rarely get a spotlight shone on them. 

Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Ninjas Ninjas Ninjas!: The Octagon (Eric Carson, 1980)

Chuck Norris discovers his adopted brother Seikura is training terrorists and mercenaries in the secret ways of the ninja and completely loses his shit. Travelling to their secret training base known as The Octagon, Norris sets about handing Seikura and his ninja army their arses.
It takes a little while for this movie to get going but when it does it has a lot to offer. The conceit of using an echoey voice-over to represent Chuck's thoughts is a constant pleasure. Watching him look around a room with a confused expression on his face while he whispers a variety of questions to himself never fails to raise a smile. There is a parade of famous (or soon to be famous) faces including Lee Van Cleef, Ernie Hudson and Richard Norton. He also has a friend with a superb lion's mane, but the movie gets no points for that.
It does get points, however, for its ninja heavy finale. It also gets points for the utterly badass Vader-esque ninja master. The showdown between him and Chuck is not only nicely choreographed it appears that, editing aside, it was shot as one continuous take. The rest of the ninjas are an inept bunch of bumblers who are frequently overpowered by the people they are training and cannot use their intense focus to sense a foot flying towards their face. It does make you wonder whether the rigour of the entry exams has slipped somewhat. One might be inclined to think these ninjas are products of one of Beverly Hills' two ninja academies. As rubbish as they may be they do wear capes on a regular basis so they're alright in my book.
It might be bloodless and suffer from long ninja-less sequences but The Octagon is a relatively original way of introducing these masked killers into a western action movie. This, alongside its excellent fight scenes and carefully measured amount of batshit crazy makes it a solid entry into the ninja canon.

Ninja Abilities – Sense opponent in another country, ninja hiss

Ninja Kit –Knife, sword, sai, nun-chuku, sticks, claw, sickels, blow pipe, net, staff, NINJA CAPES, batons, ninja assault course, crossbow

Ninja Colours –Black, Super-ninja outift (blue, red, black with metallic finishes)

Notable Ninja Kills – Shuriken to back of neck, blowdart to throat, throat slit, bolt in the heart

Ninja Activity? – Medium (light showers throughout, very heavy in the last 20 mins)

Ninja Mythology - Some ninjas are just fuckwits in balaclavas.

Overall rating: - 6

Wondering what the hell you just read? Check out the introduction that explains everything you need to know about this column here!

Friday, 6 March 2015

Movement, Music and Nothing Else.

For a moment I was convinced I’d never hear a new score that made me feel the way my favourite scores used to. That all new movie music was just drumbeats, horns and chanting designed to fill silence or crowd an already busy soundscape. It turns out I was only partially correct: Over the last few years I have heard some truly stirring and magnificent movie scores, just not at the movies.

I guess I should clear up something before I begin; I have no idea what I’m talking about. I don’t know what characterises certain musical elements, I don’t know the names for particular sections nor could I even accurately identify instruments. I just know what it is I like hearing. I’m also primarily talking about a particular type of score. So as much as I love electronic and synth music and as much as I adore the soundtracks of 70’s crime movies nothing excites my nerves and emotions like a bold orchestral score.

Everything I want from a big score is there in John William’s work on The Empire Strikes Back. The end credits alone contains more stimulating and iconic sounds than most musicians achieve in a career. It’s big and bombastic but it warmly extends its arms into the audience and pulls them along with the movie so effectively I cannot separate musical cues from story beats or performances. Williams obviously composed a number of equally sweeping scores but he wasn’t the only one producing this kind of music. Jerry Goldsmith, Alan Silvestri, James Horner and their peers were not afraid to make their music an overt storytelling tool and their directors were not afraid to let them.

So when I consider the vast number of summer blockbusters over the last twenty years that have been big science fiction and fantasy adventures and that only a handful have music I could hum I don't find it particularly difficult to feel short changed. How many superhero movies have been made recently? How many of their themes can you whistle? And so I had it in my head that no one makes scores like they used to. That is until I heard those scores independently from their respective movies. Suddenly I was aware there is some truly wonderful music out there, it's just they rarely get a chance to be heard.

There are a couple of reasons I think this might be the case. Firstly, modern filmmakers (Directors, Producers, Executives) seem fine with fantasy as long at it can be demystified, deconstructed, explained and rationalised. A side effect of this proclivity seems to be shrinking the scope of the score. During the 80s even some street level action movies would have a full orchestra powering their engine but today Hercules fighting a Hydra would be scored with guitars, synthesised drums and dubstep motions. This is only part of the problem, though, as the main reason is that modern scores rarely get room to breath.

Williams and the other big hitters often relied on themes and melodies to lodge themselves in the memories of the audience yet they didn’t reserve these merely for characters. I remember listening to the The Asteroid Field cue in Empire and thinking that most movies would be lucky to have that playing over their opening credits. They gave moments themes as much as characters because the filmmakers gave them room to. As the sun sets above the map room in Raiders of the Lost Ark, draping a shadow across the model city we get nothing but Spielberg and Slocombe’s gentle camera moves and William’s swelling composition. As the location of the Ark is revealed the cue builds, the magnitude of the discovery sold as much by Williams' baton as Ford's reaction. The audience aren’t told it’s a huge discovery, they feel it. How about Krull? As Colwyn rides those magnificent flying horses we need nothing but visual effects and Horner’s blissfully triumphant Ride of the Firemares. Basil Poledouris' Home breaks the heart as the camera glides through Alex Murphy's shattered memories while Bill Conti's brazen march accompanies the arrival of Skeletor on Earth. Even when there are sound effects in the mix the driving, sweeping orchestra takes the lead.

Modern mainstream cinema likes to attack its audience's ears and attention spans from all directions. A bullet must whizz from left to right, every step of its journey punctuated with processed sound while quick cutting and a need to get to the point races us from scene to scene without ever giving us time to fully experience and explore the moment. The themes composed for the first two Iron Man movies are fine, but there is no point in the first movie where ol' shellhead is given a heroic moment for it to play out. The most memorable scene from the second movie is the suitcase armour sequence. Why? Because it is the one time we get to hear John Debney’s heroic theme. Marco Beltrami always delivers exciting music. His score for the recent Die Hard fiasco is a great action score while his pulse-pounding Bullet Train cue for The Wolverine never even made the final cut. For all the experimentation and edginess of Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard's The Dark Knight score Harvey Two Face is an escalating orchestral joy, and yet I can't for a second remember when it plays in the movie. I do not believe that the lack of memorable music is due to there being no more Williams or Goldsmiths because I've heard them! The music is out there it's just that we only get to appreciate it when it's not competing with the rest of the movie. Where once they drew long, deep breathes, now they gulp for air before sinking beneath the waves.

Things are starting to change. Peter Jackson has always seen the value in letting movement and music take the reigns. Marvel is starting to get it. Thor: The Dark World features a long and largely silent funeral sequence driven only by some gorgeous visuals and Brian Tyler’s beautiful music. He also does good work on The Expendables movies, resisting the temptation to go with blues or rock and instead delivering a largely classical score. In both of Silvestri’s Marvel efforts he manages to take the lead, getting us to root for Steve Rogers with Training the Supersolider and introducing us to the Avengers for real with Assemble. But then like Williams, Silvestri always delivers a big orchestra bringing scale and magnificence to obvious choices like The Mummy Returns or Judge Dredd and less obvious choices like The A-Team. For all the movie's issues (some of them musical) the heroic theme from The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was almost enough to convince me I loved that movie while Michael Giacchino is, for want of a more academic appraisal, the shit. And if only someone would give Oscar Arajo a big feature to score!

I know a big thematic score is not always appropriate. I know it sounds like I'm being nostalgic (I'm not, this stuff still works). And yes I'm aware of the benefits of subtlety and experimentation but dammit I want a big movie with big moments and big characters to have big music. Music that is allowed to take the lead and not compete with clever but overactive sound effects and editing. I dream of long sequences of motion and classical music and little else. I want more firemares, more map rooms. There are some amazing composers creating amazing music out there they just need the room for their work to be heard.