Monday, 30 May 2016

AFS Screening: Night of the Demon (1957)

Another year, another batch of film society screenings. Same criteria as last year: I pick three films I have not seen before. Unlike last year, one of the films I am (re)viewing this year is not an old classic, but I'll get into it in the next review.

Night of the Demon (AKA Curse of the Demon for its US release) is a British horror film with a great pedigree. It is directed by Jacques Tourneur, the great filmmaker behind several classic horror films of the Forties, including the seminal Cat People (1942), and the classic noir Out of the Past (1947), with Robert Mitchum.

Tourneur's forte was atmosphere and inference, not traditional horror effects. This famous scene from Cat People is the best example of his unique talent. I have heard great things about Night/Curse, so this screening was a no brainer.

Extremely atmospheric. with some excellent jump scares and unsettling imagery, Night of the Demon is a fantastic finale to Tourneur's work in the horror genre, and a terrific start to The Midnight Ramble's series of AFS reviews.

The story is pretty simple. John Holden (Dana Andrews), a paranormal sceptic, arrives in England to do a series of lectures debunking supernatural phenomena. Shortly after arrival, he has to change his plans when he learns that the colleague he would be working with has died under mysterious circumstances. In trying to solve the mystery, he is soon crossing paths with cult leader Professor Karswell (Niall McGinnis), and finds his views challenged by a series of increasingly terrifying incidents...

While the acting by the leads is solid, the real star of the show is MacGinnis as the villainous Professor Karswell.
Slightly effete, and permanently attached to his mother, there is something strangely vulnerable about Karswell that makes him more than your stereotypical Satanist.  It is clear that the forces he is unleashing take a great toll, and he is clearly just as frightened of them as his victims.

The movie is filled with memorable set pieces -- the first appearance of the demon; Holden's desperate dash through the woods while an invisible entity leaves burning footprints behind him. Tourneur's control of these sequences is so precise and imaginative, there are moments here that feel totally contemporary. There is an intensity and level of dread here that few films of the same era can achieve.

One thing that separates Night of the Demon from Tourneur's other work, is the wonderfully eccentric vein of humour running through the film. It makes the film feel even more British. At one point there is a seance sequence. Now typically scenes like this one are the kind of hoary cliche that could have stopped the movie dead, yet Tourneur carries it off by focusing on the eccentricity of the medium and his helpers. Singing and chatting away like a family around the radio, they are an offbeat delight that grounds this supernatural hokum in something vaguely approaching reality.

While the film is still extremely scary, the one aspect of the movie that has never worked is the demon itself. The result of a producer's mandate, the demon appears at the beginning and end of the film. It is frankly rubbish.

It is a testament to Tourneur's talents that this bargain basement effect does not ruin the film's credibility. There were collective giggles all round whenever it popped up onscreen.

That aside, Night of the Demon is a terrific slice of classic horror and worth seeing on the big screen.


Omar is an Oscar-nominated thriller from 2013. Written and directed by Hany Abu-Assad, this is a tense and poignant film that nearly reaches greatness but stumbles at the finish.

Financed and produced by American character actor Waleed Zuaiter, the film offers a ground-level view of the endless cycle of violence, hate and paranoia in one of the most contested, controversial and debated regions on the planet.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is a young baker living in Israel who is in love with his best friend's sister (the luminous Leem Lubany). Every chance he can, he climbs over the wall between Israel and the West Bank to visit her. Complicating matters, Omar is involved with her brother in a plan to kill Israeli soldiers at a security checkpoint.

Following the mission, Omar is arrested and thrown into prison where he comes under the thumb of a Mossad handler (Zuaiter). Sent back out into the world, Omar is ordered to find his friend so he can be executed in retribution for the dead soldier. To force his compliance, they threaten his relationship with his young love.

Caught in horrifying Catch-22, Omar is forced into a escalating series of actions which threaten to destroy the new life he hopes to escape to.

Man, this movie is really strong. The acting by Bakri and Zuaiter is excellent, the tension is always omnipresent and the film never reverts to didacticism. In this way it reminded me of movies like '71 or Lebanon (Samuel Maoz, 2009), where the action is located in a specific historical/political context and played from an extremely subjective, visceral point-of-view. It's the kind of immersive filmmaking where you can almost smell the characters sweat.

For most of the running time, I was going to give this movie a 9 or even a 10 -- it was that good. Right up until the last act.

It's like Abu-Assad lost confidence in his material. You just watch as the the energy bleeds away in a rush of unconvincing, confusing plot twists.

There is a way to show the confusion and moral muddiness of war but the ending of Omar is based on a betrayal with so many moving parts that it shatters credibility.

Overall, Omar is a really good picture, with great acting and direction --- the script just isn't as strong as it needs to be. Still, definitely worth a watch.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

BITE-SIZE REVIEW: Peace After Marriage (2013)

I saw a trailer for this a few years ago, but it never came out down here. It's a small move that did the festival circuit for a while, so I was hopeful it would turn up, but no dice. Thanks to the magic of the Internet, I finally got around to seeing it.

A Palestinian-American man, Arafat (Ghazi Albuliwi) is looking for love. Stuck at home with his parents, he is a struggling comedian and actor. Desperate for cash and a chance to escape his parents, he gets into an arranged marriage to help a young woman get her Green Card. 

The only catch is she's Israeli. 

The basic plot is fairly familiar. Two opposites are brought together by contrivance, clash and then eventually...

First things first: This movie is very, very funny. 

Albuliwi has a great way with one-liners, and is a warm, affable lead. The film boasts some great set pieces poking fun at the cultural divide between Arafat and his new bride Miki (Einat Tubi): 

Particular highlights for me included: 

  • Arafat's attempt to dispose of his porn collection is foiled by cops who think an Arab with a suitcase is suspicious
  • the interfaith ceremony is a disaster, with the rabbi and Iman officiants just shouting over each other.

Peace After Marriage is a very New York movie. It's hard to imagine a comedy like this working anywhere else. The backdrop also can't help but recall the work of Woody Allen. Albuliwi (who also wrote and co-directed with Bandar Albuliwi) has been working as a stand-up comedian since he was 17, and has a neurotic, nervy energy that is very reminiscent of Annie Hall-era Allen.

Final verdict: Peace After Marriage is a fun movie. It's a little ragged around the edges and the plotting is a little cookie cutter, but it's a warm, funny little comedy which, however unintentionally, acts as the perfect rebuke to the paranoia and cartoon distinctions of these Trumpified times.

Friday, 27 May 2016

F%#$@^#&%# Adam Sandler

Forewarning: If you would rather read a review about a good movie, click here.

I made it halfway through this shit heap, which is saying something.

I can't tell if Adam Sandler is making a choice to play a sociopath or he's reached that point of not giving a shit where his real-life personality is bleeding through onto the screen.

It would not have surprised me if this movie had ended with David Spade waking up back at SNL in the early nineties, finding Adam Sandler, and killing him to make sure his premonition of starring in this movie never came true.

Paula Patton is in this movie.

Thanks Netflix.

The Nice Guys: Another great Black comedy

Before we get started, here's the music I want you play while reading this review.

Done? Okay, let's get into it.

Earlier this year, I wrote an article on Shane Black.  I've been a fan of his work for years, especially The Last Boy Scout, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3. Time to see how his latest effort, The Nice Guys,  measures up to his previous films.

Simply put, The Nice Guys is another great exercise in genre storytelling from Shane Black. A spiritual sequel to his directorial debut Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it is based around an odd couple of investigators trying to unravel a mystery while the minions of some unknown antagonist kill off anyone who might give them a clue as to what is going on.

Russell Crowe plays Jackson Healy, a freelance enforcer who is trying to figure out how to be a 'nice guy'. He is a veteran bruiser seeking to reconnect with the concept of being a decent human being. Ryan Gosling is Holland March, a failing private eye who has lost all purpose and integrity after  a personal tragedy in his backstory. The only beacon of hope in his life is Holly (Angourie Rice), his precocious daughter.

This trio are thrown together by the case of a missing girl, which quickly mutates into something far more complex, after every lead starts turning up dead.

Like Kiss Kiss Bang BangThe Nice Guys is set an LA populated by weirdos and scumbags. Unlike its predecessor, The Nice Guys sets the action in 1977. It is an inspired, appropriately noirish backdrop to the action. Post-Nixon, pre-malaise, it is a transitional period -- when kids could hang out at night, the cars were long as buses and, uh kids could drive(?). It's a great short-hand for an America faded and declining, both economically and spiritually. The characters are either cynics or opportunists, with no adherence to any kind of moral code.

Right from the beginning, this movie pulses with a terrific vibe and energy. It boasts a great soundtrack, opening with 'Papa Was A Rolling Stone' (The Temptations) and even makes time for 'Horse With No Name' (America). In a great period-appropriate moment, the band Earth, Wind and Fire cameo during the big party scene, playing 'Boogie Wonderland', 'September' and other hits. Great stuff.

It's beautiful to look at. Black and cinematographer Philippe Rousselot manage to capture the vibe of LA in the late seventies to a T. It glistens but there is nothing glamorous about any of it. The filmmakers aren't in love with the period setting, infusing it with a grit and lived-in quality that makes it feel more tactile and alive.

Enough of the surface crap, onto the performances. Ryan Gosling is another in the long line of Black loser-heroes -- a man broken by life, whose given up on the ideals he used to have. Gosling makes the movie. Loose, jittery and possessed of terrific physicality, his performance is half of the bruised beating heart of the movie.

Complementing his co-star, Crowe gives great straight man as a sociopathic leg-breaker trying to be a 'good guy'. He has the less showy role, but Crowe fills Healy with a twisted nobility. He's a bad guy with a bizarrely wholesome view of what normal people are like, and it makes for interesting clash when he is confronted with the bomb site of March's life.

The other highlight of the performances is Angourie Rice as March's whip-smart daughter and the other half of the movie's much abused heart. Optimistic yet worldly, Holly is another of Black's child protagonists, who have been forced to grow up while the adults around them are regressing the other way. It's intriguing that for a filmmaker so associated with the male-dominated action genre, Black has created some truly terrific female characters, and Holly may be the best of the bunch.

The supporting cast is a collection of familiar faces. The great Keith David turns up as a veteran hitman, and while he isn't in the movie much, he does get one great scene on a rooftop.

Matt Bomer is terrifying as the chief muscle of the big bad. He's another dead-eyed professional in the mould of previous Black heavies Mr Joshua (Gary Busey, Lethal Weapon) and Mr Milo (Taylor Negron, The Last Boy Scout).

And in a nice callback to another neo-noir classic, Crowe's LA Confidential co-star Kim Basinger turns up as the missing girl's mother.

What often gets lost in looking at Black's work as a screenwriter and director is how his movies are all about men trying to figure out what being a man actually means. These aren't macho archetypes spewing one-liners. From Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson) in Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner, 1987) through Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) in The Last Boy Scout (Tony Scott, 1991) and Harry Lockhart (Robert Downey Jr) in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, all are bruised, beaten men struggling to figure out what being a good man is, when the all traditional role models are bankrupt and outmoded (think about Harry's faux tough guy routine in this scene -- doesn't really work out). The Nice Guys is another variation on this theme.

The movie, beginning to end, is a delight. The story unfolds with at a good clip, with plenty of attention paid to the central relationship between Healy and March. While the mystery is involving, like a good Chandler novel, the real enjoyment comes from everything else -- the strange people and places that our heroes have to wade through in order to reach their goal.

Like his previous work, the movie has a very dark sense of humour. While not as consistent as Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it does pack some terrific laughs -- from the poor bystander on stilts who gets caught in the crossfire, to Gosling struggling to avoid getting shot while hiding behind a car on a revolving platform, to a gloriously zen moment where our heroes, stuck in a slow-moving elevator, dazedly watch a screaming mobster plummet past them. All great stuff, and very Shane Black.

All in all, a great time. If you are in the mood for some R rated fun, The Nice Guys is tailor-made for you.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Private Eyes: I like a Hall & Oates album

I haven't listened to any other Hall & Oates albums. This one however...

I heard the title track and the funky 'I Can't Go For That', and I was really drawn to the sound. The songs weren't as swathed in eighties synths as their more famous hits from later in the decade. Eventually I figured out the songs I liked were off the one album so I checked out the whole thing.

As with my other music reviews, there will be little discussion of musical technique. I am completely illiterate when it comes to this stuff (and after this review, I'm sure some people will say the same about my musical taste). 

Enough rambling. Let's dive in.

'Private Eyes' starts the album at a gallop. One of H&O's most memorable tunes. No real need to go into it, it's a great song. Next!

'Looking for a Good Sign' is clearly designed to evoke classic Motown, and is a solid homage performed with a great sense of vervc. The reason why I like it is that unlike so many covers of soul classics, H&O don't try to directly ape the style of those old hits -- instead of female backing, they just do their usual backing vocals. It means the song evokes the past without feeling like a poor carbon copy.  

'I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)' might be my favourite track on the album. Over a glistening keyboard bottom, Daryl Hall delivers one of his best blue-eyed soul vocals. The song has a light disco edge, but there is an edge to it which prevents it from tipping over into schmaltz. It's a slight melancholic dance number, and the closest thing to a slow jam on the record.

'Mano a Mano' is positive pop. It's a bit too light for me. I forgot it about 5 seconds after it ended.

'Did It in a Minute' sounds like a parody of H&O. I didn't like it. Shows what I know it -- it was a big hit.

'I can't even be bothered getting through 'Head Above Water'. I tried three times and gave up. Made me regret this review.

For roughly the first 30 seconds, 'Tell Me What You Want' begs you to turn it off. Filtering the song through some kind of distortion, it sounds like H&O are broadcasting from a radio station in 1937. And then the song kicks into gear. It's a fun tune with an infectious chorus. The lyrics are a bit dark and manic, but that blunts what could have been an overly sugary tune. In other words, it's a terrific piece of pop, circa 1981.

'Friday Let Me Down' continues the resurgence with a raucous party tune about a bad party. Continuing the theme of the previous song, this combines a rather depressing lyric with an uplifting melody. It's a sweet'n'sour approach that accounts for most of the songs on this album.

Following the same theme, 'Unguarded Minute' is about letting your guard down for love. It feels like the kind of song I like at first, but I grow to really love some time down the road.

'Your Imagination' is great. Packing a slightly heavier bottom, and a weird synth keyboard motif running endlessly under the whole thing, this is up there with 'Private Eyes' and 'I Can't Go For That (No Can Do)' as one of the album's highlights.

'Some Men' is a breakdown of various masculine stereotypes (beer-drinking machos, playboys, mamma's boys). It's a weird song, with lyrics I had a little trouble focusing on. I guess it's about how not all guys are jerks? I dunno. I'll have to let it sit for awhile.

Overall thoughts? It's a really good album. It's darker than I expected, and not as drenched in synths as other eighties pop. Based off of this, I would definitely dive into another H&O joint.

And thus this slightly awkward review comes to an end. The Midnight Ramble will return very soon with another review.

You'll like it. It's a Black comedy.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

BOOK REVIEW: In The Country We Love

Later this year, The Midnight Ramble will be doing episode-by-episode reviews of Season Four of Orange is the New Black. As a prequel, here is my review of a book by one of the cast.

In The Country We Love is the autobiography of actress Diane Guerrero. You might remember her as Flaca's feisty best friend Maritza on Orange Is The New Black (She's chiefly memorable for coming up with the slogan 'If you want pizza, vote for Maritza'), or Jane's feisty best friend Lina on Jane the Virgin.

Last year I got on the Netflix train and I got into OITNB in a big, bad way. The big thing I plugged into was the diversity. You don't see so many women on a show, much less an American show, and of all different stripes, races and creeds. And every character, over the course of the show, has been allowed to grow and change. How many other shows would give actresses, much less WOC opportunities like that?  And no matter how dark and cynical the show gets, there's the weirdly uplifting sense of camaraderie to the characters, a sense that somehow they can get through this. It's wonderful.

Once I had exhausted the series, I went a step further and started researching everyone on the show. Along with how the show has become a beacon for everything from LGBT rights to prison reform, the cast are not content to just be in the show, but are a part of the issues that the show covers.

I caught Guerrero's interview on CNN in which she talked about her parents' deportation when she was 14. It really hit hard and I had a million questions I wanted the answers to, the big one being 'How did she go from that to now?' I heard she was writing a book and pre-ordered that sucker as soon as it popped up.

The book is surprisingly lean. Guerrero and co-writer Michelle Burford jump right in, starting with the day a teenager came home to find her parents missing. It's the same material Guerrero described in the op-ed she wrote a few years ago, but a good way to bring the reader in. This sequence gains an added poignancy by the succeeding chapters, in which she goes back to describe her parents and their reasons for coming to America, and Diane's early years.

I won't spoil it, but it's really interesting read. While it is a powerful scene, the opening has some rather florid prose that detract from its impact. When Guerrero and Burford return to her parents' deportation after covering Diane's childhood, it is far more powerful.

Guerrero's story does have its dark passages -- the actress is extremely forthright about her battles with depression, her mixed feelings toward her parents, and the way she was forced to become an instant grown up in order to survive.

It's a powerful read, but it is not all a downer. The last third of the book documents Guerrero's slow, stilted beginnings as an actress -- it's a ground level view of acting, where the jobs are few and the rejections many, and Guerrero really nails the gofer attitude all young artists have to do anything to get a foot in the door -- student films, commercials, a weird episode where she has to sell her old shoes to a salesman for foot fetishists... It's one of the strongest sections of the book.

It's a little rough and unvarnished, but overall In The Country We Love is a really good book, and does a great job of putting a human face to the plight of many illegal migrant families. Guerrero has gotten involved with the fight for immigration reform and this book is clearly meant as a personal statement on the issue. It is not a polemic, and not intended as a political treatise. However, as a meditation on the personal impact of the issue, it is a complete success.

Well worth a look.

Monday, 23 May 2016

Celebrating the camp thrills of Diamonds are Forever & Octopussy

Pardon any confusion. It's surprisingly hard to find pictures of Rog and Sean together

They don't rank high on most people's favourite lists, and are often used as evidence in the case against the series's post-peak years.

While I would never claim that either of these are great movies (even calling them good is a bit of stretch), despite their flaws (and I would argue, because of them) there is something so quintessentially Bond about these two films in particular that makes them extremely watchable.

For me, these two films have always felt of a piece with each other. Both movies mix a spy plot with extreme levels of camp and humour, to varying degrees of success, and the often uneven mix of the two tones is fascinating to pick apart.

There is a lot of stuff that does not work about these films, but that is part of the fun. Time to break into a more in-depth look of these extremely strange movies.

Diamonds are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971) 

For many, the pre-credit sequence of this movie is as egregious as the end of Man of Steel was to comic book fans. After George Lazenby refused to return, the producers sent a dump truck full of money to Sean Connery to make him come back. Following the less-than-stellar reception to Lazenby's more grounded On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the key creatives decided to go back to formula, leading to one of the most hilariously inappropriate ret-cons in cinema history.

Bond films are famous for their lack of continuity, but trying to sync the ending of OHMSS with Diamonds are Forever will destroy your brain. To boil it down, OHMSS ends like this. I'll wait here until you're done watching.

Real poignant, right? Kind of sad. Not really like a Bond movie at all. And it makes you wonder what happens next. Well...

Overlooking the incredibly poor editing (especially the weird delay after the Japanese dude hits the wall) and dubbing (they aren't even trying with the Egyptian guy), the tonal shift is insane. What makes it even weirder is that after Lazenby's boyish features (he was barely 30), Connery has aged considerably and is extremely out of shape. The hairpiece and shoe polish eyebrows don't help either.

However, this is where I begin to love this movie. The pre-credit sequence, in all its crappy glory, is made palatable by Connery's breezy performance. It's clear he does not care, but he's clearly having a lot of fun, and that gels with the light, campy tone of the movie.

Roger Moore is often labeled the 'camp' Bond, but the tone was set with Diamonds Are Forever. In fact, it might be the broadest of the Bond films. The script by Tom Mankiewicz is packed with great one liners, and while the plot is absolutely impossible to follow, it is filled with so many strange characters, set pieces and oddities that plot logic and character motivation take a backseat to entertainment value.

Any movie that chucks in the fake moon landings is doing something right.
Diamonds are Forever is notable for several terrific bits and pieces. I'm not going to get hung up trying to summarise the plot, because it really isn't worth it. A lot of Bond movies feel like a collection of set pieces, this more than most.

Here's a list of the goodness:
  • The title song by Shirley Bassey -- a strong contender for best Bond song of all time

  • Any scene with henchmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd. Played by an actor (Crispin Glover's dad, Bruce) and a jazz musician the director thought looked interesting (Putter Smith), this bizarre clash of styles epitomises the weirdness of this movie. Somehow, their dynamic works, and they remain two of the creepiest and most memorable supporting characters in the Bond rogues gallery.  They combine a penchant for overly complicated modes of killing with extremely obvious puns. 

  • Still on the villain track, Charles Gray is a terrifically amusing Blofeld. While he is not as iconic as his predecessors in the role, Gray gets all of the best lines. For once Bond gets one-upped in the one-liners, and it is awesome. If the character had been someone else, Gray might be more memorable.
  • On the one-liners, Diamonds Are Forever is possibly the funniest Bond film in terms of verbal sparring. Every character gets at least one or two zingers, and most of them hit. You get the obvious ones ("Hi! I'm Plenty." "But of course you are." "Plenty O'Toole." "Named after your father perhaps?") and some that are just clever (Bond, on being told that his female contact got her name from being born in Tiffany's: "Well, I'm glad for your sake it wasn't Van Cleef & Arpel."). You expect a certain amount of funny patter in Bond, but Diamonds Are Forever takes it to a level that most Bond flicks wish they could reach.
  • Most of the action in this movie misfires, but the fist fight in the elevator is terrific -- it is a complete ripoff of Bond's train fight in From Russia With Love, but still fun. And it leads to some more of that great repartee.
  • John Barry's score is very odd in comparison to his other work. It's got all the trademarks you'd expect, but distinct to the movie. It's sleazy, jazzy and (since it's the seventies) just a touch funky. It captures the atmosphere of the Las Vegas locale to a T, and provides a terrifically creepy theme for Messers Wint and Kidd.  
Octopussy (John Glen, 1983)

While Diamonds Are Forever takes a hard turn into camp and stays there, Octopussy zigs and zags all over the place. It feels like two movies mashed together. On the one hand you have a tense cold war thriller with a loose nuke and a mad Russian general (eighties heavy Steven Berkoff) as the bad guy. On the other hand you have a Bollywood caper in which an English tourist crosses swords with a mad Afghan prince and romances a female crime lord.

While these two  subplots are connected, they never really fit together, and it's hard to invest in one storyline because the other one will always veer in to take the limelight (and vice-versa). And yet, like Diamonds Are Forever, there is something incredibly watchable about Octopussy. Both of these movies probably benefit from TV and video because they are perfect examples of the kind of movie you can switch on while you're doing something else.

Unlike Diamonds Are Forever, there is a lot of plot in Octopussy, albeit too much for one movie. Let's break it down.
  • The first scene after the credits is genuinely terrific. A secret agent, disguised as a clown, flees through the woods outside East Berlin while twin knife-wielding psychos hunt him down and kill him outside the British Embassy. The scene ends on a great button, with the dying clown crashing through a window into the middle of the Ambassador's dinner party, where he dies with a priceless Faberge egg in his bloody hand. The lack of music, atmospheric lighting and good pacing make this one of the more tense pieces in the Bond canon. Originally this scene was supposed to act as the pre-title sequence, when this movie was set to introduce a new Bond, but Roger Moore's return meant this scene got bumped. A pity -- this scene establishes an interesting mystery, and would have made for a more original opening. 

  • Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) is a villain in the Charles Gray mould. While not really threatening, he makes up for it with a strong supply of one-liners ('Mr Bond is a very rare breed. Soon to be made extinct.') and a good line in upper class snobbery. Like Blofeld, he is highly incompetent, and Jourdan, while smooth and suave, is a bit stiff compared to Gray.
  • Vijay Armitaj, the famous tennis star, basically plays himself as Bond's Indian contact. He is incredibly charming and naturalistic, and is one of Bond's most memorable allies. When he dies it is genuinely affecting. 
  • While the filmmakers botch it with an extended finale, the third act set in East and West Berlin is a real cracker. Involving several cars and trains, it is a genuinely exciting race against time as Bond struggles to reach the nuclear weapon before it is detonated. 
  • This movie gets rubbished for putting 007 in clown make up but both sequences (including the opening scene previously discussed) are genuinely exciting. Plus it makes sense within the context of the movie -- the only wayBond can avoid the police is by hiding among the circus folk -- for Bond, who never bothers with disguises, it is a rare moment of covert action.  It helps that Roger Moore is the one in the makeup (you can't really see any of the others getting away with this).

  •  The final battle at the castle leading to the fight outside the plane is a set piece too far (a flaw of many action movies), but the plane sequence does boast some great stunt work. It also gets points for including the best moment for scimitar-yielding henchman Gobinda ('Go out there and get him!' 'Out there?').
Neither Diamonds Are Forever or Octopussy can be ranked as great cinema, but if you watch them with the same set of expectations as the Fast and Furious movies or the more insane corners of Arnold Schwarzenegger's filmography, you'll have a lot of fun.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

RAMBLIN' RANT: Why Steven Seagal is more interesting than his movies

In the desire to keep this blog going, occasionally there will be a post which will make no sense. This is probably one of those times.

I was never a fan of Seagal growing up. I was a bit too young when he was at his peak, and by the time I was checking out action movies, he was well past his peak. My dad was more of a Schwarzenegger and Willis fan, so I caught these two first.

By any estimation, I was frankly spoiled. By the time I caught my first Seagal, Under Siege, it just came off as underwhelming when compared to The Terminator, Predator, True Lies and Die Hard. The movie had a few good points, but the action was never that original or intense, and Seagal just did not jibe as an action hero.

Over the years, I kept hearing from people who were Seagal fans, which made me more interested in seeing more of his movies. I eventually caught a couple of his other flicks, Marked for Death and Hard to Kill, but they only reinforced my general apathy toward him.

The big problem I had with Seagal was that he was never at a loss. The bad guys are always dumber than he is. He's always the best fighter. He never gets hurt. He's never under pressure. He. Uses. The. Same. Speech. Cadence. For. Everything.

And then there is the random ethnic stuff. For years, I honestly thought Seagal was part-Asian or Amerindian. But no. He's just a white guy engaged in some really dubious appropriation of other ethnicities. It's really hard to grasp what the underlying reason for this is, but it just comes off as wrong.

In real life, Seagal is a pretty strange dude. And that's not even taking into account the reality TV show, the sexual harassment/slavery scandals he was embroiled in a few years back, the DTV movies or his friendship with Putin. Seagal's been selling his brand of crazy since the beginning.

We'll just skip over this...
Seagal got his break thanks to Mike Ovitz, the mega-agent who basically ran Hollywood in the 80s. Seagal was his akido trainer, and for whatever reason Ovitz made it his mission to turn him into an action star.

When he was starting out, Seagal had something his contemporaries didn't: a badass backstory involving CIA black ops, Vietnam and security for world leaders (including the Shah of Iran).

Sadly for action fans, it turned out to be BS.

And then there was the backstage behaviour, where Seagal blended diva-like excess with the moral compass of a pimp.

There was his disastrous stint on SNL, in which he tried to force the writers to accept his own skits. He is regarded as one of the worst hosts ever. There was his extremely skeevy behaviour toward co-star Elena Elaniak on Under Siege (apparently he was so lecherous, she had to hide behind friggin' Gary Busey -- you know something's out of whack when Busey is you body guard). There was his extremely unfunny interview with Arsenio Hall (captured for posterity in Paul Scheer's re-enactment).

And there is the famous choke incident. Apparently, Seagal was on the set of one of his movies and, as usual, was bragging about his martial arts abilities. He claimed that he was immune to getting chocked out. One veteran stuntman, a judo expert, decided to give it a shot. According to the story, Seagal was out in about two seconds and, to make it even better, soiled himself.

So Seagal is basically a terrible person, and totally crazy to boot.

But like Chuck Norris, another action star from the eighties, Seagal has become fodder for some terrific send-ups. There is Will Sasso's note-perfect impressions on Mad TV, the Glimmer Man episode of How Did This Get Made? and a raft of great features from Cracked on his superpowers.

Why this rant? Everyone has a crazy celebrity that they like to follow. Admit it, you do.

Seagal is mine. There is something about his brand of un-self awareness that I find extremely engrossing. I caught a few of the fruitier anecdotes about Seagal, and that peaked my interest in a way that none of his films ever did.

So while his movies will never be at the top of my 'gotta see' list, his real-life antics will always have a very guilty place on that list.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

The glorious puzzle of John Martyn's SOLID AIR

After a bit of a break, the Midnight Ramble is back with the soundtrack of this blog...

I was put onto this record a few weeks ago. I have never heard of John Martyn before, but I was intrigued enough by the way he was pitched to me that I immediately went on Youtube to check it out.

I am not a musician and my knowledge of folk music is not that deep, so bear with me as I attempt to encapsulate what makes this album so great.

First, the title track. A great mood setter. 'Solid Air' establishes a haunting, jazz-infused tone that seeps into your brain and just sits there for weeks, simmering like a good steak and marinating your subconscious in its mysterious melancholia.

Apparently, it was originally written by Martyn as a tribute to his friend Nick Drake. Martyn claimed the song had a hidden meaning only the two them could truly understand. It's an enigmatic track and one of my favourites off the album.

'I'd Rather Be the Devil' is a blend of a jazzy folk tune and and an instrumental -- it feels like two tracks bolted together. I lose a little patience with it toward the end (okay, let's wrap things up!), but it's still really good.

The other track that really stands out is 'Dreams By The Sea', which is the closest thing to seventies funk on the record. It's really weird, and almost feels like a dark joke. Like the other tracks, I feel like I'll need a few more spins before I can begin to decipher their secrets. Even though it is more 'danceable' than anything else on the album, what makes this track great is that it still feels of a piece with the rest of the tracks, and maintains the surreal, vaguely unsettling mood established by 'Solid Air'.

I really recommend this album. If you are a fan of jazz or Tim Buckley, there you will love John Martyn and Solid Air.