Saturday, 23 April 2016

Banzai Treat

The Betamax of cult sci-fi comedy-adventures, Buckaroo Banzai is another example of a superior product let down by its own inadequate marketing in the mid-1980s.

This poster does give some indication of the studio's cluelessness in marketing the film.
I had a tie just like that in 1984, though!

Trapped somewhere in time and tone between the phenomenally successful Repo Man, Back to the Future and Ghostbusters, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was possibly too clever for its own good. Personally, I think its also too good for its own good - boasting a phenomenal cast including John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd, Clancy Brown, Jeff Goldblum and Ellen Barkin, endearing characters, sharp dialogue, still-impressive effects and two of the most quoted lines in science fiction film history:

"Remember, no matter where you go..."  (1:44)

Summing up the plot is one of the films biggest problems and in fact, is probably what confused and stymied any attempts to market it properly.

A Studio publicist claimed, "Nobody knew what to do with Buckaroo Banzai. There was no simple way to tell anyone what it was about—I'm not sure anybody knew".
John Lithgow, who giving an unforgettable performance as villain Dr Emilio Lizardo, said, "I've tried to explain the story line to people and it takes about an hour. I mean it; it's that complicated. But it's terrific."

John Lithgow as Emilio Lizardo/John Whorfin and Ellen Barkin's leg.
Simply put: Our hero - neurosurgeon, particle physicist, race driver, rock star and comic book hero - Buckaroo Banzai and his team the Hong Kong Cavaliers become caught in the crossfire between two warring factions of aliens , the Red and Black Lectroids. Unless Banzai can thwart the plans of the Red Lectroids evil leader to release his cohorts from the 8th Dimension onto Earth, the normally Peaceful Black Lectroids will be forced trigger to WWIII to ensure their enemies remain trapped.

But these bare bones of a story are adorned, accessorised and sometimes even camouflaged by eccentric but loveable characterisation and deliberately obscure but somehow naturalistic, dialogue. Bizarre set pieces hover between improvisation, stylisation and beloved, cheesy mid-eighties action and romance tropes.

Jeff Goldblum dressed in oversized furry chaps as a cowboy from New Jersey is an arresting sight, as is an entire race of aliens who look and sound like dreadlocked Jamaicans (and are all called 'John').

Effects wise, the film saves its powder, and the cloud-skimming skirmish between the two alien vessels, (the smaller having so much personality that it got the biggest laugh from my put-upon viewing partner), can hold its head up high amidst today’s digital conjuring tricks.

The Red Lectroid Shuttle - personality plus.
But alas, Buckaroo Banzai’s box Office performance not only sunk the film and its planned sequels, but the also small production company which financed it. Despite this, the lead actors went on to become some of the biggest names of that era’s cinema, and our dimension moved on.

How do you fail to market a film which provided so many instant memes?
(geek fact: the name Yoyodyne Propulsion Systems was later appropriated by Star Trek
as the manufacturer of all the Federation's ships)
Like many films which fail to find their audience at the time, Buckaroo Banzai would probably have flourished in our current times of social media. Hong Kong Cavaliers T-shirts would be worn everywhere by the in-crowd, while live band performances and maybe even racing track events would bolster publicity. The possibilities for the contemporary phenomenon of ‘cosplay’ are limitless.

The film isn’t perfect, suffering, for example, from a slight Act II drag, but exists in its own reality where it’s difficult to judge by conventional standards. Viewers really just have to keep up.

Buckaroo wins the day, gets the girl (who seems to be, ummm, his deceased wife’s twin?) and the Earth is saved.

But wait, there’s more:

“I hope that when all life on this planet dissipates that the only
remainder of mankind is a copy of
Buckaroo Banzai.”
(You Tube comment)

Saturday, 16 April 2016

Electric Dreams

How does an 18-year-old woman called Mary pass her time during a wet holiday in Geneva, in 1814?  She only goes and writes the world’s most famous horror story.

Frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
When I got my first summer holiday job it nearly killed me.  Helping set up posts and wires for now famous marlborough vines, as a gangly 15 year old I was labouring way above my weight. I lost all the skin off my hands to blisters, more skin to sunburn and slept at nights like never before.
Certainly not for the last time I found an evening escape from this punishing routine in fantasy media - most particularly, a two-night television event which I’ve never forgotten.

Audaciously, and mendaciously, called Frankenstein the True Story this was a TV movie shown in two parts with an incredible cast. It boasted James Mason, David McCallum, Jane Seymour and even a cameo from Tom Baker, and seemingly lavish production values (the closing scenes in the Arctic were especially cinematic).

Mason played a sinister character called Dr Polidori, and one of my strongest memories is David McCallum speaking through the monster’s lips and mocking the Doctor in his distinctive, acerbic tones by referring to him as “Polly-dolly”.

James Mason (right) as Polidori about to bring Jane Seymour to life
through the wonders of chemistry. Never got to do that in School Cert science...
John Polidori was actually the vain and long-suffering doctor who attended Lord Byron during that fateful stay at Villa Diodati where 18-year-old Mary Shelley first imagined the story which would become Frankenstein, but what I’ve learned recently is that Byron did actually refer to the hapless medic as ‘Polly-dolly”!

As someone who thought he knew a lot about the creation and countless adaptations of this story, I’ve discovered even more I didn’t know from a book, written, fittingly by a female academic Roseanne Montillo.

The Lady and her Monsters is a fascinating look not only at the remarkable life of Mary Shelley and the famous figures around her, but contemporary factors which would have contributed to her most famous story. Body-snatching and early experiments in the electrical stimulation of deceased tissue are examined in a historical and medical context, which in turn provides an often uncomfortable view of the society of the time.  More than just dead frogs were made to jump around on the end of leads from a galvanic battery.
It’s easy to decry early medical experimentation as barbaric, particularly as many human dissections were made accessible to the general public for entertainment, but discoveries made also helped ensure that we are all so fit and healthy now.

Shelley was the daughter of a writer regard as the 'first Feminist', Mary Wollstonecraft, and went on to lead a sensational but mainly unhappy life. The first edition of Frankenstein was published anonymously in 1818, it would never have done for the public to know that a woman had written it. Even after she was finally credited, it was Shelley’s collection of her late husband's poetry which finally brought her something approaching financial security.  Percy Shelley died in a sudden storm on the Gulf of Spezia, Byron expired on a remote Greek Island of self-inflicted ill health, and a destitute Polidori poisoned himself.

The achievements of the two Poets are well-known, but even 'Polly-dolly' managed, through his own ghost story conceived at Villa Diodati, to give the world Lord Ruthven, establishing the image of the ‘modern’ aristocratic vampire before Stoker ever wrote Dracula.

The first edition of Polidori's The Vampyre
was erroneously credited to Lord Byron,
which pleased neither men.
And speaking of which, I’ll finish with a piece of trivia which Montillo uncovered which binds the two protean figures from the dawn of literary horror together:

" The real Frankenstein family had settled in a formidable castle overlooking the Darmstadt (Rhineland) region, where their deeds, famous and infamous began to be recorded in the annals of history...
 In the mid-1400s the castle was the site of much bloodshed when a member of the family was locked in mortal combat with an enemy of unusual fortitude and cunning, with a deep understanding of psychological warfare...
Known for his brutality, Vlad the Impaler and his doings provided, in part, inspiration for another gothic masterpiece: Bram Stoker's Dracula."

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

Friday, 8 April 2016


I’m trying to rediscover an enthusiasm for running in time for an event next month. But I can’t do worse than I did last spring…

'Run through the jungle' (Image copyright Breadcraft Wild Challenge)

I'm an occasional runner and cyclist, but not especially talented at either. Really more of a hobbyist, I occasionally like to enter a race event with actual athletes. Setting a goal - even if it is as simple as turning up on time, on a given day, always feels like a good idea.

So last year I had another go at the Pukaha (Mt Bruce Nature Reserve) Wild challenge, this time not just doing the 10k run up and over the bush-clad slopes behind the reserve, but also the 32k cycle ride back to the starting point.

The dawn of the big day was full of promise, the first clear day after an unrelenting week of spring rain. And so the sunrise drive north to drop off my bike at the transition point was a very pleasant experience. Unfortunately, this was overlaid with a much less enjoyable factor as a few hours earlier clocks had been wound forward an hour for the beginning of daylight saving. Climbing out of bed cheated of an hour's sleep after a late night laced with champagne and whisky in celebration of a friend's birthday might have been one of the day's biggest challenges.

Resigned to the fact that a recent brush with the flu virus meant it wouldn't be my best work, I decided just to try and enjoy the experience instead. It's surprising how liberating this can be; we males are afflicted with obsessive competitiveness, something which can presumably be traced all the way back to ensuring our genetic line would prosper in more desperate prehistoric times.

Mammoths and sabre tooth tigers are not among Pukaha's bounty of exotic species, so I was determined that testosterone poisoning need not play too big a part in the day’s gathering (but it probably would).

The starting line. The serious competitors have little rubber tubes on their shoulders...
Like all races, the starting line scramble very quickly resolved itself into three distinct groups. The serious athletes in body hugging black 'superhero' outfits were already out of view in a flurry of wet leaves; as usual I was loping over tree roots somewhere in the middle group and the more casual, recreational participants were ambling happily somewhere behind us, enjoying the beauty of the surroundings.

The recent rainfall had mixed with the leafy ground-cover to create a slippery vegetarian paste infamous for its reputation to delay trains, and as the track turned steeply upwards my breathing started to rasp in my throat almost immediately. It's dispiriting to be out of condition and only too aware of it, but the fact that some of the steepest, greasiest sections were literally impossible to run over, slowing you to a careful walk, was actually a breath-catching blessing.

A spectacular view across to the Tararua range opened up very quickly behind us and I sacrificed any last slim hope of a respectable finishing time to stop and take photographs at each of the recording points on the way up. This caused the race Marshals some amusement, and a couple of them even posed for me. 

One of the day's true heroes: a Race Marshal.
 It also instigated a weird game of leap frog with the runner closest to me. She ran past me as I clicked away like a tourist, and then I’d eventually overtake her before stopping again at the next photo opportunity. No doubt I’d discovered a new way to irritate a fellow competitor.

This stop-starting might be anathema to an adequate finish, but did mean that the summit was reached relatively painlessly and there was only a small pause before joining everyone else in flinging myself down the descending track. This would have been an opportunity to regain a lot of ground if it wasn't for the extremely treacherous terrain, and I slid and fell more than once.

We broke out into open farmland surprisingly quickly, and I was able to use my stride to edge far ahead enough of my group to stop and photograph them pounding past me again.

The slippery slope downhill.
Reaching the bottom of the hill irresistibly registers in your psyche as the end of the on-foot section, so the slowly unwinding, dusty farm road making up the final couple of kilometres just felt like extra homework.

Interest was added by a shoelace malfunction and the unseen presence of another runner matching pace with me, their breathing and crunching footfalls issuing an unwanted challenge as the finishing line comes into view at last. Although I'm tired and in imminent danger of being taken down by my own loosening footwear, a tiny spark of competitiveness kicks in at last and I decide not to relent, or even turn my head to see who it is, until the end.

My ‘shadow’ turned out to be a very petit mother of two who quickly disappeared under congratulatory hugs from her family once past the finishing line. Mounting my bike, I cycled off off into even greater ignominy.

The fact that there would be a head wind for the entire journey back to Pukaha, supernaturally shifting to hit me in the face no matter which direction I pedalled in, was a given. But what I couldn't blame anything else for was my decision to bring my cross-terrain bike, a sturdy 'draft horse' quickly left behind by super-light racing bikes; buzzing fluorescent hornets quickly disappearing around distant bends on the sealed road.

Being too concerned with the run and not checking the cycle course details properly had led to me bringing a proverbial knife to a gunfight.

I tried to enjoy the scenery, which was rolling and verdant in the new spring sunshine, but became hugely disconcerted by the complete absence of any other cyclist after that initial swarm had vanished. Was I lost? Or was I so far behind that the race organisers would have to make accommodation arrangements to wait for me?

This distinctive road sign means the end is nigh. (Copyright Breadcraft Wild Challenge)
I wasn't last; no doubt some terrible catastrophe, or at least flat tyres, had befallen those few behind me. The ragged, sympathetic cheer which went up from big-hearted spectators at the finishing line gave me my first cause to smile for the last 32km as I coasted into the car park.

Talking to a regular event competitor afterwards, I admitted that although I couldn't take much pride in my time, I had genuinely enjoyed myself.
"Enjoying it is the main thing”, I was assured.

I vowed to beg, borrow or steal a road bike when I attempt this event again, but now need to come up with something else to blame my performance on, next time.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Man, oh Man...

Nerd rage over Batman v Superman is clogging the internet. 

(spoiler warning)

World's Finest: All the following, aspirational artwork is by the incomparable Alex Ross.
And although I agree with most of it, I’ll try not to bother repeating it here.  As most of us seem able to concoct a more logical, intelligent and entertaining plot for this long-awaited film just a few minutes after having seen it, I’m going to present my own thoughts in the form of a scenario:

1975: just before tea-time.  
A young stick insect with a red beach towel tucked into the neck of his blue t-shirt is watching with bolt-upright attention as an episode of The Adventures of Superman begins on a small black and white TV set.  “Faster than a speeding bullet…” the rapt youngster mouths in time to the opening narration…

George Reeves and Adam West,  the superheroes of my childhood.
Suddenly a confusing special effect appears in front of the screen: a swirly, lightning-rimmed tunnel from which protrudes the head and shoulders of an older stick insect, shouting almost incoherently above the electrical crackling and reverb filter.

This is ‘Future Phas’ and he’s bringing himself an urgent warning from dark days yet to come.
“You like Superman, don’t you?  the apparition yells.  “In a few years time a couple of films are going to come along which you will just love.”
The young insect’s antennae flick upwards at this.

“At the moment you like him because he’s stronger than anyone else and can fly, but as you get older you’ll realise that Superman stands for so much more. Compassion, courage, the determination to try always to selflessly do the right thing, to help and protect others at any cost…”  

"...who came to Earth with powers far beyond those of mortal men..."
“The point is”, noting his younger self’s attention drifting back to the TV, he moves on quickly, “after the good films there will be some not-so-good ones.  But you’ll always find something to like about them, and keep hoping for better.”
“However,” He allows an ominous pause,  “in forty-one year’s time there will come a film which will betray all of those principles I just mentioned, and you must avoid it at all costs...” 

Future Phas shouts louder as the noise of the tunnel around him starts to increase:
“It’s going… to be called…  Batman v-v-v-v-v….” The last syllable elongates then cuts off like a needle being pulled off a record, as he suddenly winks forward to his own time.
“Batman?” mutters the little Phasmatodea in the abrupt silence, as he rises to fiddle with the vertical hold,  “I thought he was talking about Superman…”

Clark, Diana and Bruce from the conclusion of 'Kingdom Come'.
In the distant future, evil sometime-scientist, billionaire and occasional property developer Lex Luthor has hatched the perfect plan to finally destroy Superman.  He’s realised that propaganda is the best way to bring his nemesis down, so makes contact with someone who hates Superman almost as much as himself - a man called Frank Miller, and arranges to adapt one of this Writer/Artist’s most brutal works.

Luthor hatches a scheme to produce two propaganda films, three years apart. He’ll be subtle, posing as a director with the same amount of syllables in his name, even ending with the same letter. 
The first film will introduce doubts about Superman, undermining public trust in him and shifting the Man of Steel’s fundamentally benevolent nature. Then the follow-up will really go in for the kill.

In the next one Superman will be vilified, demonised, beaten, humiliated.  He’ll barely be given any lines so audiences will never hear his point of view, he’ll be made to act out of character not just for himself but any sane person, and finally he’ll be killed and buried. 
And although overlong and utterly joyless, if this film is marketed properly people in their millions all over the world will pay money to watch.  

To really cement Luthor’s victory he’ll even include a scene metaphorically showing exactly what this film really is, and will laugh long and hard when audiences everywhere raise that warm jar to their lips and drink it all down.

Alex Ross illustrates yet another sequence between the two leads 
better than anything currently on offer elsewhere.