Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Forgotten Films: Breakthrough

If you have ever seen Sam Peckinpah's 1977 World War Two epic Cross of Iron then, like me, you probably thought that it really didn't need a sequel.  Peckinpah had made his point very effectively.  Sadly, the film's German co-producers thought differently and came up with what is effectively a name-only sequel in the form of 1979's Breakthrough, (also known as Sergeant Steiner).  (Whilst Cross of  Iron performed poorly in the US on its original release, it had been a big hit in West Germany, leaving the German co-producers keen to cash in).  I say name-only, but it does purport to open shortly after the events of the first film and features two of the main characters from Cross of Iron.  Unfortunately, these characters are played by different actors and are quite unrecognisable rom their earlier incarnations.  A booze-raddled looking Richard Burton replaces James Coburn as Steiner and phones in his performance.  He clearly doesn't want to be there and he delivers his lines with contempt, (which is fair enough, as the script is diabolical).  Likewise, Helmut Griem is a poor substitute for Maximillian Schell as Steiner's nemesis Captain Stansky, turning him into a standard one-dimensional evil Nazi, (again, to be fair, the script doesn't give him much to work with).  With the main characters effectively emasculated, the Pekinpah film's main driving dynamic - the conflict between the two and the ideologies they represent - is completely absent.  The result is a listless narrative with no real drive or sense of direction.  Consequently, the film lurches from one small scale set-piece to another, with various plot strands fizzling out before they can amount to anything.

The supporting cast, including Robert Mitchum as a US army Colonel (like Burton, he phones in his performance) who bizarrely seems to spend his time going, personally, behind enemy lines to reconnoitre their anti-tank capabilities, and Rod Steiger, (his performance oscillating wildly between Patton-like rants and Bradley-like sympathy) as an American General really don't help.  Curd Jurgens is also on hand, to play yet another in his repertoire of German generals.  Moreover, unlike the Pekinpah film, which was filmed in Yugoslavia and utilised large quantities of authentic World War Two equipment, including T-34 tanks, the sequel was filmed in Austria on tatty-looking sets, with Austrian army M-47s unconvincingly pretending to be Sherman tanks.  As the latter observation indicates, Breakthrough also shifts the action from the Eastern to the Western front.  All of which undermines the film's quality compared to the original.  The change in locale, for instance, results in the first film's grim battle for survival being replaced by a meandering and slow-paced plot which involves Steiner in the 'Generals Plot' to assassinate Hitler.  Sadly, he is a minor player, sent by Jurgens to find sympathetic American officers to support the attempted coup, and most of the interesting action - the failed assassination attempt and the consequent reprisals against the plotters - happens off-screen.  The fact that, unlike Coburn's Steiner, Burton's Steiner frequently appears peripheral to the main action, is one of Breakthrough's major flaws.

But the film's biggest problem - aside from a wildly inappropriate musical score - is the fact that it looks so cheaply made.  Most of the budget seems to have been spent on hiring the main stars, resulting in the use of stock footage for many of its action 'highlights'.  The impressive-looking opening, over which the main titles unfurl, featuring the German army retreating across a snowscape, complete with Tiger tanks and other heavy equipment, is actually a sequence from the Yugoslav war epic The Battle of Neretva.  This is followed by a lengthy stretch of battle footage from Cross of Iron, (which in no way matches the preceding footage).  Worst of all, the D-Day landings are represented by stock footage from Anzio (which, coincidentally, also featured Robert Mitchum) and The Battle of Britain.  The latter piece of footage is utterly inept in its use, featuring what are quite clearly German Heinkel bombers in Luftwaffe colours, to represent Allied aircraft.  The only major action sequence filmed specifically for the film comes at the climax with the US armoured assault on the German-held town. But even this is dull and repetitive.  Which shouldn't be surprising.  Even Pekinpah would have been hard-pressed to make something out of these ingredients, so his successor, Andrew V McClaglan, an experienced director of action movies, westerns and TV episodes, didn't really stand a chance.


Monday, October 27, 2014

The Exorcism Factor

Thanks to Halloween, October seems to be the new silly season, with the media full of stories about black eyed ghosts, giant crabs, sinister clowns and haunted houses.  Even Simon Cowell, desperate to grab as much publicity for the sinking ship that is the current series of X-Factor, is trying to get in on the act, with reports that he is convinced that his house is haunted and that he is seeking an exorcism.  Haunted, presumably, by the ghosts of former winners who have found that their 'careers' consisted of being chewed up and spat out by Cowell's Syco company, discarded in favour of the next five minute wonder once they'd had a couple of quick hit singles to bolster Syco's coffers.  Or perhaps the restless spirits of artists whose songs have been blighted with appalling cover versions by various Cowell acolytes.  The again, maybe the things going bump in the night have something to do with that picture of himself Cowell has in the attic - the one which shows all his debauchery, decay and corruption, whilst he stays unfeasibly healthy looking and apparently ageless.

Obviously, the big risk for Cowell is that if he hires an exorcist, then it might well be him who ends up exorcised and expelled from his own house.  After all, if that plastic, Tory-supporting, egomaniac on an apparent mission to reduce all popular culture to mediocrity, isn't an evil presence, then I don't know what is.  If we're lucky, he might not just find himself ejected from his own house, but he might find himself exiled to some spiritual limbo.  Reduced, perhaps, to a disembodied voice spitting out pithy words of 'wisdom' to X-Factor contestants on the next edition of the show.  Now, that would be more entertaining than a regular episode: the remaining judges have to hold a séance in order to summon up Cowell for the judging, with furious poltergeist activity accompanying the ejection of one of his acts.  If that doesn't put the ratings up, then nothing will.


Friday, October 24, 2014

Hating Mike Read

It isn't the fact that the controversial UKIP calypso song might be racist which offends me, nor is it the idea of an anti-immigration party co-opting a musical form brought to the UK by immigrants which makes me despise it.  No, it is the fact that former Radio One DJ Mike Read is behind it which really makes me want to puke.  I could say that I thought he'd plumbed the depths when he did that rap at the Tory party conference a few years ago, but this current affiliation to UKIP shows how wrong I was - he could stoop lower.  But, ultimately, he's entitled to his political opinions, no matter how wrong and crackpot I might think they are.  I could comment on the general shit-ness of his calypso.  But other people have released far worse and far more culturally insensitive tracks.  What it all comes down to is that I have always hated and loathed Mike Read.  I mean really hated him.  I remember him when he was on Radio One - he was pompous, egotistical and generally smarmy.  He acted as if he was some officially appointed arbiter of good taste and morality, imposing his own censorship on the play list.  Despite always affecting an air of superiority toward listeners and fellow DJs, he was always unfailingly obsequious to the 'rock royalty' of the day when they were on his show.

The fact is that I hate him so much that when, some years ago, I heard on the radio that Mike Reid had died, I hoped that they actually meant Mike Read, rather than the comedian, actor and sometime Eastenders star.  Reprehensible, I know.  But I can't help but feel that the late Mike Reid had made a far greater contribution to entertainment that his namesake, who wouldn't have been anywhere near as great a loss.  Whenever people go on about how crap the current line-up of Radio One DJs are, I always refer them back to the early eighties era of the station when the likes of Mike Read, Simon Bates, Noel Edmonds, Steve Wright, Dave Lee Travis and Jimmy Saville still ruled the roost at the station.  Aided and abetted by the likes of Bruno Brookes and Gary Davies, they were truly awful: bumptious, loathesome and talentless - and in the case of Savile and DLT, sex offenders, to boot.  They all seemed to be in the grip of a powerful self delusion whereby they seemed to think that they were doing something far more important that the rest of us mere mortals - spinning records and making inane comments in between them.  Jesus, how I hated them!  The fact that Mile Read, the worst of all of them, has turned out to be some kind of right wing nut job merely serves to justify that hatred.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster

Having spent part of the day having needles stuck in my mouth, I don't really feel in any fit state to try and post anything profound today.  (If you are wondering, I wasn't exploring the outer reaches of sadomasochism, but rather was at the dentist, having a tooth repaired).  Instead, I'm going to prattle on about a film I recently watched.  It was no classic and certainly not profound, but Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is title which has fascinated me since childhood.  It was one of those films which were available on Super 8mm in a truncated version and advertised in newspapers in the early seventies.  They all had alluring, trashy titles (often changed from more sedate original titles) which captivated the young me.  It was also one of those films which occaisionally turned up in the late night schedules, but I was too young to be allowed to sit up and watch it.  As I got older it seemed to vanish from public view and, frustratingly, in the pre-internet age there seemed to be very little available information about it, even in the specialist press.  However, thanks to You Tube and Google's slack attitude toward other people's copyright, I was finally able to catch up with it last weekend.

I'd love to say that Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster is some kind of lost cult classic.  Sadly, it isn't.  It's just a cheaply made exploitation flick, apparently financed by the Puerto Rican tourist board, there are so many lengthy and gratuitous sequences of the hero and heroine riding around the island's main attractions on a scooter.  Worst of all, neither Frankenstein nor his monster appear.  What we instead get is a malfunctioning US android astronaut called Colonel Frank Saunders, who goes berserk and starts killing people after having one side of his face melted by an alien death ray.  'He's become a Frankenstein' wails the heroine.  Well, no, if anything he's become a Frankenstein's monster.  But there is a space monster - a ferocious mutant the aliens carry around in their spaceship for some unspecified reason.  The plot, such as it is, concerns a group of aliens from a dying planet coming to earth to kidnap earth women (their own are all sterile) and mistaking a NASA rocket launch as an attack on their ship.  The destruction of the rocket leads to the US sending android Frank on the next mission to try and ascertain what happened to its predecessor.  Of course, his own ship meets the same fate, but, using the escape system, makes it back to earth, landing in Puerto Rico, closely followed by the alien spaceship.

It is the scenes on the alien spaceship which fatally undermine the movie.  Whilst the scenes concerning the US military and NASA scientists are indifferently acted and poorly scripted, they at least look realistic.  The alien sequences are, by comparison, incredibly camp, featuring the alien leader, a Princess and her chief scientist, a pointy eared bald headed character who appears to be the prototype for Mike Myers' Dr Evil in the Austin Powers series.  Even when they aren't engaging in abominably bad dialogue - in which every nuance of their plot and situation is painfully spelt out for the audience - they are exchanging camp and archly knowing looks whilst watching the captured earth girls being processed.  Of course, it all ends with the usual conflagration as a partially repaired Frank releases the earth girls and battles the space monster as the spaceship takes off and tries to escape.  Frank naturally sacrifices himself (thereby redeeming himself for those earlier murders) blowing up the spaceship.

Badly scripted, poorly acted and featuring what feels like hours of travelogue to pad out the running time, Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster does have some redeeming features.  It is quite nicely photographed in black and white and features some of the best use of stock footage I've seen in a low budget film.  What I assume is official NASA footage of rocket launches is well-matched to the rest of the film in terms of image quality and is consistent - the same type of rockets, for instance, are featured in each launch sequence.  Indeed Frank's launch into space is built around some fascinating footage of a Saturn 1B test launch and culminates in a sequence featuring a test of the Apollo capsule escape system.  Although not really worth the wait, and despite a misleading title (in the UK it was called, more honestly, Duel of the Space Monsters, although you have to wait until the last five minutes for their 'duel'), Frankenstein Meets the Space Monster was still reasonably entertaining and far more competently put together than most movies of its ilk.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Pregnant Pause

Another Royal pregnancy.  Do I care?  Not really.  But perhaps I should.  According to those crackpot conspiracy theorists, such things are carefully timed so as to distract the public's attention from other major issues.  Maybe they are right: the Tories start losing by-elections to UKIP, the government is consequently in a state of panic, Ebola is running wild in Africa and now threatening to spread (shock horror) to the US and Europe - so what's the solution?  That's right, another Royal pregnancy starts to dominate the front pages in order to distract the attention of the stupid masses whilst the Tories slip on Nazi armbands to try and out-fascist UKIP and NATO napalms West Africa out of existence in order to resolve the Ebola crisis.  All of which begs the question: just how do the shady powers behind the scenes manage to get these Royal women to conceive on cue?  Do they have special artificial insemination teams on stand-by?  Maybe they like to do it the 'old fashioned' way and have 'studs' on call at all times, just in case a political crisis breaks, (not that I'm saying that our Royal princes aren't up to the job, but you know what I mean).

Perhaps, though, the pregnancies are entirely fake.  I mean, we all know the upper classes flinch at the very idea of physical contact, let alone having sex - it's just so vulgar and lower class to rut like animals.  That's for the peasants. They'd rather it was all done for them by someone else, so that they can avoid all the messy bits and just get with riding horses, shooting things and being rich.  So when a convenient Royal pregnancy is needed, the princess in question just has to fake a bit of morning sickness and wear a series of fake pregnancy bumps for the next nine months.   When it comes to the birth, they are whipped into an exclusive private hospital where a new born child is put into their arms and they parade it to the press and public on a convenient balcony.  Now, I know what you are going to ask - where did the actual baby come from?  Well, it's probably snatched from some random working class single mother who is told that they suffered a miscarriage.  Which would explain why Royal offspring frequently don't look like their parents.  For all I know, they might regularly change the children as they grow up, if the original develops a degenerative disease or turns out to be mentally disabled.  Now, is that crackpot enough to get me inducted into the Crackpot Conspiracy Hall of Fame?

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Monday, October 20, 2014

The Most Dangerous Hounds

Now it seems we're using classic suspense stories as the basis for game shows.  At least, that's what I inferred from the title of a new ITV2 gameshow: Release the Hounds.  From what I could gather it involves contestants having too evade packs of dogs hunting them in a forest.  Which, clearly, is inspired (as is the title) by the Richard Connell short story (and later film) The Hounds of Zaroff'/'The Most Dangerous Game', in which a Russian aristocrat hunts human beings for sport on his private island.  Sadly, being on ITV2, I very much doubt that the hounds used are at all dangerous.  Otherwise, I'd like to see a celebrity version in which various irritating non-personalities are hunted down by a pack of slavering and blood thirsty dogs, which have been starved and poked with sticks for a week before being released.  It would be an excellent way of keeping down the numbers of those micro-celebrities constantly created by reality TV and TV talent shows.

Of course, I'm presupposing that he 'Hounds' of the title are real hounds, of the canine variety.  The possibility exists, (as I've never actually bothered watching the show, I was just intrigued by the title),  that the 'Hounds' referred to are actually clones of self-styled comedian Rufus Hound.  I should imagine that being pursued by a pack of c-list comics - all telling identical bad jokes, simultaneously - would b a pretty harrowing experience.  Presumably, these Rufus Hound clones would be genetically modified to improve their sense of smell and night vision, for instance, in order to enhance their hunting abilities.  Somehow though, I suspect that this would be beyond the budget of an ITV2 show and that, in reality, the 'Hounds' are actually a bunch of mangy strays with no teeth and limps rounded up from the local dog pound.  But a man can dream,,,

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Friday, October 17, 2014

The Mole People

You wouldn't believe the week I've had.  So I won't even bother trying to tell you about it.  Suffice to say that it wasn't great.  It was a bloody trial, in fact.  So much so that it has left me exhausted and incapable of remembering what I was going to post about today.  Instead, we'll look at another random move trailer:

Kicking off with a bizarre 'educational' prologue featuring Dr Frank C Baxter, The Mole People is part Universal's attempts to establish a pantheon of new monsters in the fifties.  Whilst an interesting design and concept, the Mole People proved less successful than Universal's contemporaneous Creature From the Black Lagoon, who got two sequels and became a household name.  Unlike the Creature, the Mole People are ultimately secondary to the main lost civilisation plot, (it's notable that, such was the pace of exploration, by the mid-fifties you had to go underground, into the 'hollow earth' to find lost civilisations, whereas barely ten years before you had only to venture into the jungle to stumble over them), and are servile to the main villains.  Consequently, they lacked the Creature's menace.

Post war, Universal, once a prolific producer of B-movies, horror flicks and serials, turned its back on its heritage and tried to move upmarket with more prestigious A-list productions.  By the fifties, the balance sheet dictated a return to more populist, mass--market and modestly budgeted fare.  Noting the popularity on TV of their classic monster movies, (including Frankenstein, Dracula, The Wolfman, The Mummy and their various sequels), their thoughts naturally turned to creating new monsters for a new generation of film goers.  As already noted, of the new creatures, only the one from the Black Lagoon really captured the public imagination and it is notable that the most successful and memorable of this new cycle of Universal horrors (such as Tarantula and It Came From Outer Space) were, like the first two Creature films, directed by Jack Arnold.   Sadly, The Mole People was directed by Virgil W Vogel, a more workmanlike director (also responsible for Universal's 'Lost World' picture The Land Unknown).  Consequently, it stands as a reasonably entertaining, but uninspiring B picture.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

Bad Alternatives

Apparently they now constitute the 'Alternative Media'.  At least that's what that bunch of conspiracy theory crackpots I frequently parody here and on The Sleaze have now taken to calling their rickety collection of blogs and social media pages.  Alternative to what, one is inclined to ask.  Their self-aggrandisement seems to derive from the idea that they are telling the stories the 'real' media - which is full of lies and half-truths and controlled by evil cartels - won't print, because they don't want us to know the 'truth'.  Whilst I'd agree that much of the mainstream media is biased and agenda driven, slanting its reporting to suit the interests of a relatively small clique of owners and their friends, they do at least maintain some semblance of journalistic standards and it is possible to get some kind of recourse against them through the legal system, (although, I'll grant you, this can be time-consuming and expensive).  By contrast, this 'Alternative Media' are a bunch of loons and crackpots, (a lot of them like to describe themselves as 'freelance journalists', despite having no journalistic training and exhibiting no concept of how to critically evaluate evidence or analyse data in their 'work'), against whom we have very little recourse when they make outlandish allegations based on rumours, innuendo and discredited 'facts'. 

They are also just as agenda-driven and biased as the mainstream media they hate so much.  As I've previously noted here, a closer examination of their sites usually reveals that, whatever conspiracy they are ostensibly dedicated to exposing, in reality they always come back to the same tired old anti-Semitism and tales of Jewish conspiracies peddled by the Nazis.  Usually with a big dose of homophobia (another Nazi favourite) thrown in for good measure.  But to get back to the point, the reason, of course, that the mainstream media won't report their 'truths' is because they are simply lies with no factual basis.  Even the likes of the Daily Mail make out sure that there is some factual basis for their scare stories about immigrants, benefit claimants and natural disasters, no matter how tiny it might be.  Most of their readers realise this - very few people actually believe everything they read in the papers or see on TV.  Yet the 'Alternative Media' clearly think that people actually are stupid enough to believe what they read.  Stupid enough, in fact, to believe their concoction of warmed over half-truths, outright lies, urban myths, Nazi propaganda and poorly fabricated 'evidence'.  Not so 'alternative' after all...   

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Bad Business

OK, I've had an idea for one of those charity themed-month fundraising campaigns like bloody 'Movember' and 'Stoptober':  how about 'Nudecember'?  Instead of growing moustaches or stopping drinking, people could be urged to become naturists for a month and wander around stark bollocking naked for charirty.  Not only would it be more of a challenge than the others - it's generally bloody cold in December - but 'Nudecember' actually contains the whole of the real name of the month it is supposed to take place in, unlike the others.  Quite what charity it would raise funds for, I haven't a clue.  But that doesn't matter, because it's an idea, and it's ideas which matter in business.  If you've got an idea, then you can use it to impress some toss pots, sorry, investors, into giving you the money to turn it into actuality and thereby found your multi-billion dollar business empire.  At least, that's the impression the likes of The Apprentice and Dragon's Den give.

Now, I'd never pretend to be an expert on business, but on the basis of the trailers for the latest series of The Apprentice, I have to say that is it any wonder the UK's commercial sector is so shit if the collection of utter bell ends featured really represent the best of Britain's thrusting young business talent.  They seem to perpetuate the myth that successful management is all about shouting at people and mouthing aggressive clichés about one's supposed rivals.  Equally depressing is the way in which the series presents Alan Sugar as the epitome of British business success.  As a Spurs supporter, I still have nightmares about his atrocious stewardship of the club when he was Chairman and majority shareholder.  Very little business sense was on display in those dark days.  I also knew someone who worked for Amstrad as a programmer back in the days when Sugar still owned the firm and it was banging out cheap and crappy home computers - trust me, anyone who could employ that particular individual couldn't possibly be possessed of any business acumen, in my biased opinion.  Anyway, getting back to the point, anyone out there interested in investing in my brilliant new business idea, 'Nudecember'?


Monday, October 13, 2014

Trick or Terror?

With Halloween fast approaching, the burning question is what will this year's favourite costume for trick or treaters be?  The last few years have seen much manufactured controversy on the part of the media about various 'sick' costumes sold by supermarkets and other retail outlets.  These have included such things as the 'mental patient' outfit and various serial killer costumes (including plastic knives, meat cleavers and axes).  Bearing in mind the amount of highly sensationalised stories the tabloids happily print about gruesome murders and mass killers - and the amount of circulation they get from such stories - I find their self-righteousness on the subject of such Halloween costumes more than a little hypocritical.  Besides, does anyone really think that children's perceptions of mental health issues are really going to be affected by some cheap supermarket Halloween costume? 

As long-term readers will recall, I've always favoured the Jihadi suicide bomber (complete with plastic sticks of dynamite and fake detonator) as a contemporary Halloween costume.  To be honest, I'm surprised that the press hasn't already latched onto the possibilities for linking terrorists to Halloween.  I'm amazed that they've been able to resist the temptation to run stories about Muslim extremists dressing as suicide bombers, mingling with  trick or treating youngsters and blowing up householders who refuse to give them sweets.  Or Islamic terrorists smearing door knobs with ricin so that trick or treating children are poisoned.  It doesn't matter that none of it is true - it could happen and that's usually enough for the tabloids to justify running stuff like this.  But to get back to the original point, I'd like to think that this year's 'must have' Halloween costume will be the 'Jimmy Saville' (complete with blonde wig, plastic cigars and jangly gold jewellery).  After all, he's fast becoming the nation's number one bogey man, considered so dangerous that, despite being dead, his image apparently has to be removed from every archived edition of Top of the Pops and his name expunged from broadcasting history.  Perhaps some enterprising supermarket could come up with a themed set of such costumes - 'Showbiz Peados of the Twenty First Century - including Stuart Hall and Rolf Harris (complete with plastic stick on beard and didgereedoo).  

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