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Tony Talks #19: Happy New Year + 2020 Update!

Happy New Year (and decade) everyone!

Firstly, I’d like to thank each and every one of you who reads this blog when you get the chance. I’ve worked hard particularly in the last few months to keep content rolling on a daily basis and I appreciate any interactions I have with you, whether via likes on posts or comments or on social media. I hope for more of that in 2020 and to get to know many of you better, if I don’t know you already.

This blog has kind of become my central focus point over the last six months ever since I quit my role as co-founder/co-editor of Set The Tape in April. That was a really interesting almost 2 year project that taught me, primarily, that I am not an editor! I am a writer, for better or worse. I have enormous respect for anyone who edits copy and runs a website with multiple staffers and content daily because it is an all-consuming task with little financial reward that can end up quite the grind. It just wasn’t for me, in the end.

Ever since, I’ve been toying with what the future holds as we enter the 2020’s in terms of writing and podcasting and I thought I’d share my musings with you on this New Year’s Day.

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Blu-Ray Review: MOBY DICK (1956)

Even if you haven’t read Herman Melville’s 19th century novel, who doesn’t know the story of Moby Dick? Captain Ahab and his wooden leg obsessively hunting the titular white whale off the Cape of Good Hope. Moby Dick means all kinds of things to a great many people, in the case of this 1956 adaptation, film director John Huston.

Before this lavish Technicolor adaptation, Melville’s great American novel had only been committed to celluloid once, or sort of twice; John Barrymore starred in 1926 in The Sea Beast as Ahab, which was then remade with sound in 1930 as Moby Dick, as the silent film gave way to the pre-Code Hollywood age of talkies. Huston’s version was the first screen take on the source material to truly capture the scope and majesty of Melville’s tome, and no one since in over sixty years has really tried to better it, even if certain seafaring pictures have emulated it, or allegorically science-fiction—Star Trek in particular—has worked to capture the spirit of Moby Dick on a different canvas. Perhaps nobody has tried to match Huston’s version, co-written incidentally with legendary science-fiction author Ray Bradbury, even with more advanced effects and filming techniques, because it would be hard to do a better job.

By degrees theatrical, Shakespearian, moving and thrilling, Huston’s Moby Dick remains a gorgeous piece of late Hollywood Golden Age filmmaking to this day.

Blu-Ray Review: UNIVERSAL SOLDIER (1992)

Andrew Davis, director of The Fugitive most notably, was the original choice to helm Universal Soldier but was replaced by Roland Emmerich, in his first Hollywood picture alongside co-writer Dean Devlin, and you sense had Davis helmed what stands as a textbook example of the high concept 90’s action thriller, it might have ended up a very different film.

Emmerich, who has made some terrific pieces of popcorn entertainment over the years—among his best arguably Independence Day and Stargate—is not exactly the most subtle of auteurs and that is evidenced as early as Universal Soldier, after he and Devlin originally were slated by super-producer Mario Kassar to make a science-fiction film called Isobar (eventually shelved). Universal Soldier isn’t the most exuberant film Emmerich has made to date but it could well be the silliest, the most empty-headed, and is without doubt the most homoerotic, and given Emmerich is known as a modern day Irwin Allen making crowd-pleasing, world landmark trashing, CGI-fuelled epics, that is quite the statement. It was always going to be this way when you throw in, as your leads, the double sucker punch of Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren.

Truthfully, Universal Soldier is not a film that is ageing particularly well but with a beer in one hand and a pizza in the other, you would be hard pressed not to find some enjoyment in the hammy theatrics and ridiculous action set-pieces.

Blu-Ray Review: RED HEAT (1988)

If someone asked you to name five, even perhaps ten Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, chances are none of them would be Red Heat. Even in the context of the 80’s, arguably his most successful period as a marquee action star, Walter Hill’s buddy cop action thriller hasn’t resonated down the ages as a signature Arnie movie. The question is why.

For a start, Red Heat deliberately eschews what by this point people had started to love the Austrian Oak for – his clumsy, cod-American charisma, most effectively delivered in films such as Commando in 1985 or Predator in 1987 (and they would see again later in 1988 with Twins). That isn’t to say that Arnie’s Soviet detective Ivan Danko doesn’t wisecrack—he often does, for deliberate ‘fish out of water’ effect’—but Danko lacks the hard man smarts of John Matrix or Dutch Schaefer. Arnie has to play him more like the T-800 in a Russian costume, with occasional deadpan comic lines. He ports some of this style actually into the T-800 when he plays a reversed, good-guy version of the character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day three years later.

This presents a problem, in that Arnie comes off a little stilted, a little restrained. By this point, as he has settled deeper into the acting persona he has started to develop, Schwarzenegger struggles to play both the straight man *and* comic foil in Red Heat, which is essentially is forced to do. In theory, James Belushi’s smart-mouthed Chicago cop, his reluctant partner Art Ridzik, should fill the comic role but he just comes off as Martin Riggs with the edges filed off, and Belushi—a gifted comic actor—just doesn’t have the material to be more than an annoyance for much of the picture. There’s a reason Art Ridzik never comes up when people talk about the 80’s finest buddy cop characters, you know? Red Heat falls down because the central partnership never really comes alive, and the premise is predicated to an extent on the match up.

The reason Red Heat is perfectly watchable, however, lies in some of the broader aspects to Hill’s picture.

Blu-Ray Review: Fright (1971)

Peter Collinson is one of the lost, potentially great cult British directors who never was, for various reasons (principally his death at a young age), and while Fright is a flawed piece of work, you can see and feel the influence it had on 1970’s exploitation cinema, particularly in Britain.

Collinson is best known for 1969’s legendary crime caper The Italian Job, but that is a picture which most people primarily associate with Michael Caine as a key cultural touchstone of the Swinging Sixties, not to mention the iconic Mini Coopers. Unlike other pictures of the period, 2001: A Space Odyssey, say, which first and foremost people would associate with Stanley Kubrick, Peter Collinson was a mere component of The Italian Job’s success in the eyes of many and found his talent as a helmsman overshadowed by the colour and style of that picture. Had things turned in a different direction, Collinson’s follow up might have ended up more anticipated as well as venerated.

As befits someone who was prone to experimentation, Collinson completely changes tack with Fright, a picture about as distant from the Europe-hopping caper of The Italian Job as you could probably imagine. Susan George as a teenage babysitter looking after the young child of middle class couple George Cole and Honor Blackman in a big, old fashioned house, who finds herself terrified and menaced by Ian Bannen’s escaped psychopath. Collinson probably didn’t realise it at the time but Fright is, unexpected, a British forerunner of the American slasher sub-genre in the broader horror context that would be mainstreamed and popularised by Halloween at the end of the same decade, before spawning a legion of imitators and sequels that would define 80’s horror.

Why, in that case, is Fright not better known within both the annals of cult, horror or British cinema?

Blu-Ray Review: Lock Up (1989)

Sylvester Stallone’s career was on a high around the time Lock Up, one of his lesser known pictures, came to bear at the tail end of the 1980’s.

The same year as the popular Tango & Cash, three years after the towering success of the unforgettable Rocky IV, and a year after the guns blazing bravado of Rambo III, Lock Up sees Stallone riding his natural charisma and innate mix of machismo and vulnerability to diminishing returns. A direct attempt to challenge himself beyond the two major franchises which have marked his career, Lock Up suffers from simply being quite bland, rote, underwritten and stocked with cliches. Stallone’s spiritual successor a quarter of a century later, Escape Plan, at least has the virtue of being absurd. Lock Up seems to want you to believe it’s all quite plausible.

In truth, it’s about as high concept as films like this come. Stallone’s mechanic, Frank Leone, is a good guy who just happens to be in jail, serving his time as he awaits release and a life with his girlfriend, only to become the victim of the sadistic, vengeful Warden Drumgoole, of the infamous Gateway prison – a maximum security prison where the lowest of the low are sent to rot in hellish conditions. Can Frank find strength in adversity and gain the respect of his fellow prisoners? Can he expose Drumgoole’s cruelty and corruption before he ends up dead? Can he be reunited with the woman he loves?

It’s a Stallone movie. Of course he can. It’s just that this time, the journey along the way isn’t nearly as thrilling, charming or action packed as usual.

Blu-Ray Review: The Doors (1991)

Oliver Stone manages to capture in The Doors precisely what made the band so compelling – pretentiousness and brilliance all wrapped into one.

There was a level of kismet in how Stone came to detailing the life story of Jim Morrison, the tragic lead singer of the eponymous band. An aspiring filmmaker at the tail end of the 1960’s, Stone missed out on the excessive West Coast counter-culture revolution that the Doors helped fuel, split as he was between serving in Vietnam and living in New York, but he wrote a script which he sent to Morrison—looking to move away from the group that defined him into filmmaking—which tapped into that aesthetic. When he started developing The Doors twenty years later, Stone discovered that Morrison had his script in the Paris apartment where he was found dead in 1971 of heart failure. A sign of filmmaker destiny? Perhaps.

Stone certainly feels like the kind of director who fits the material, given he had built a career before the 1990’s on pictures which depicted the darker side of America’s post-war boom culture, specifically the Vietnam War in films such as Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July. Stone understands that the late 60’s saw the death of something cultural and this is very much reflected in the life, career and ultimately demise of Morrison, around whom the film pivots. Without Morrison, there is no The Doors, much like without the front man there was no band, or at least not the same unique, trippy, rock-fuelled quintessence of the Doors at their height. The Doors understands this and Stone wraps his film around Morrison’s languorous, drug-induced egotism.

You can see why The Doors might divide. It’s a film full of life, full of music, full of colour and dappled sun, yet it is surrounded and subsumed by the somber pallor of death and tragedy.