Monday, 30 July 2018

That's Rogertainment! Rogisode 10:
Sherlock Holmes In New York

A lot has happened in the 28 months since our last voyage into the world of Roger Moore films, not least the enormously unwelcome death of Sir Rog himself. It saddens me that I can no longer refer to him as The Greatest Living Englishman, as I have on so many previous occasions, so I suppose I will just have to call him The Greatest Englishman Ever from now on and hope the hyperbole police are off duty.

Anyway one of the things that hasn't happened since I put myself through Bullseye! back in early 2016 is me watching any more Roger Moore films, which is something I imagine a lot of people who have seen Bullseye! have experienced. Well it's time to get back on the horse, because here comes Rog in a deerstalker cap, Ulster coat and Inverness cape, which means he's either hunting deer in the north of the island of Ireland and/or a city in the Scottish Highlands, or - and this is by far the more likely reason - he's playing Sherlock ruddy Holmes.
"What do you call a deer with no eyes, Watson?"
"Dashed if I know, Holmes"
"No idea"
"Nope, none whatsoever"
"No, I mean... oh forget it"

Produced for US TV by NBC in 1976, Sherlock Holmes In New York was the fourth film Roger Moore squeezed in during the Broccoli/Saltzman wars which took place after 1974's The Man With The Golden Gun and delayed The Spy Who Loved Me until 1977. (It's quite something to realise that he played Holmes and Bond concurrently; for context, the modern equivalent would have been the BBC's Sherlock series kicking off in 2010 with Daniel Craig - at that time also sitting through a lengthy inter-Bond hiatus after two films in the tux - filling Holmes' shoes.) Shot at the Fox studios in LA, Rog's film is a lavish production with a cracking cast that's considerably better than I expected, but maybe that's just because I can still smell Bullseye!.

The 1901-set story (an original idea, not based on any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books) concerns a plot by Sherlock's own Blofeld, Professor Moriarty, to nobble a shitload of gold from a Manhattan bank vault, using the then-under-construction subway tunnels as a getaway (weird how no film critics ever mention Sherlock Holmes In New York as inspiration for Die Hard With A Vengeance). In a cheeky twist, Moriarty blackmails Holmes into refusing to help the clueless NYPD in solving the crime by kidnapping and threatening the life of a young boy who, it is strongly hinted, is the illegitimate son of old Sherl himself.

While it's hardly the pinnacle of Holmes on screen, SHINY - as I was delighted to discover is the film's acronym - is an entirely adequate addition to the canon. It benefits enormously from expecting a basic grasp in Sherlology of its audience: Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson, Moriarty, Irene Adler and even Colonel Moran all feature without the faintest whiff of any tedious origin stories. The dialogue is faithful to Conan Doyle's style, the plot is a rewarding puzzle and there's a reasonably exciting horse-and-cart chase at the end. And the supporting cast are top-notch: Patrick Macnee bumbles about as Nigel Bruce's version of Watson, eternally bewildered and ending every sentence with "hoho, eh?"; Charlotte Rampling is appropriately gorgeous and mysterious as 'the woman', Irene Adler, and John Huston's growly Moriarty constantly looks like he's trying to suppress a violent shart.
Co-starring John Pooston as Morifarty

But at the centre of it all is Rog, who - with typical self-deprecation - said of the part: "Another fictional character - I'm going to play them all the same, so it doesn't matter whether I'm going to be called Simon [Templar], Sherlock or Mr Bond." Normally I'd agree with him, but this is a rare Roger role where 007 is nowhere to be seen. Moore's Holmes is a logic machine with a quick temper and a deadly serious manner; Bond's charm and propensity for knob jokes have, for once, been kept in storage at Pinewood for the time being.

Ideal Holmes
Rog delivers his lines with the rapid-fire impatience of classic Holmes, and enhances potentially whiffy dialogue like "Watson, there is devilry afoot! I feel it in my very marrow" with his own naturally mellifluous tones and a deep furrowing of that normally-elevated brow. He also clearly relishes the mischief of the detective's frequent disguises, getting to grips with Irish, Italian and New York accents with varying degrees of success. There are little grace notes, too, that give away how much he's enjoying himself: witness the triumphant cape-toss over his shoulder after he fools Moriarty with what is frankly one of the least convincing disguises in Sherlockian lore. And as a gift for Rogerwatchers throughout history, there's a splendid montage of Holmes mulling over a four-pipe problem which is essentially the same shot of him frowning and smoking, shot from three different angles.

All of which amounts to an unspectacular but worth-your-while Sherlock Holmes film but an excellent Rogerformance, thoroughly deserving of a Rogerating of four Rogers, only the second time such an honour has been bestowed in the long and sad history of That's Rogertainment!.
If the two-year-plus gap between now and the last time I Rogered has left you baffled as to just what the chuff is going on, you can catch up here. See you in December 2020 for Rogisode 11!

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

Mission Zimmpossible:
Celebrating the majestic lunacy of
Hans Zimmer's M:I-2 score

There's a new Mission: Impossible film out in a minute, which is good because the stench of the last one has just about left cinemas. I do love this franchise (well, three-fifths of it so far), but there's no getting away from the fact that 2015's Rogue Nation effortlessly stole the crown of rubbishest Missiossible from 2000's M:I-2, which was a $125 million shampoo ad directed by a psychopath. But that's fine, because it forced us to look for redeeming features in John Woo's batshit sequel that set it above Christopher McQuarrie's snooze-inducing quinquel. And the most obvious of those redeeming features is its utterly insane score, composed by Hansel Florian Zimmer, the only man who literally makes music nervous when it sees him coming.

There isn't actually a bad Mission: Impossible film score yet: Danny Elfman, Michael Giacchino and Joe Kraemer have all done terrific work expanding Lalo Schifrin's perfect, thrilling themes into feature-length ear-parties. But none of them have gone as balls-out bonkers, aurally speaking, as Zimmer's work for M:I-2. It's got fucking EVERYTHING. It's film score tapas, drizzled in every soundtrack condiment in the composer's pantry. So I decided it was time to give it some love in the only way I know how: by thinking about it at an insultingly shallow level and allowing those thoughts to plop gracelessly onto the internet. And so, track by track, here lie those carelessly discarded ruminations. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to forgive me for ending this intro with such a lazy cliché. I'm better than this, honest.

"A Triumph" - Motor Cycle News

Track 1: Hijack
Twenty seconds of threatening bass and none-more-Y2K drum loops give way to a stirring guitar motif perching atop the kind of electronic samples that pervaded most action film scores of the time (cf. David Arnold's The World Is Not Enough). Just over a minute in, a Russian male choir quietly and briefly announce their arrival, as if politely waiting to be asked to join the party. They head for the bar and start drinking, and will return when they are jolly well good and ready. Everything is going smoothly until, at 2'35", a furious crunching drum-and-guitar shaped monster stomps all over everything for a few bars, followed by the kind of hilariously overblown axe solo that makes you think of ill-advised perms and gigantic wind machines. If you don't love this score at its worst then you don't deserve it at its best.

Track 2: Iko Iko
Zap Mama's cover version of The Dixie Cups' delightful original is fine I guess, but I'm just glad somebody chose to include it on this album over Limp Bizkit's "official" theme Take A Look Around, because that song is a fucking war crime. Fear not, musical masochists, for the Biscuits' steaming heap of noise is on the other M:I-2 album of music "from and inspired by" the film, and if you bought that then you deserved everything you got. Anyway none of this has anything to do with Hans Zimmer's score so why are you going on about it?

Track 3: Seville

Music website allmusic.com dismisses the entire M:I-2 soundtrack as "an uneven score that ranges from successful eclecticism to bombastic predictability", as if that's somehow a bad thing. Who wants even? Who wants unsuccessful eclecticism? Who wants bombastic unpredictability? OK maybe that last one sounds fun. But when they spat out that invective, they were just bitter that they'd never thought of following millennial beats and angry electric guitars with an achingly beautiful flamenco heartbreaker named after an orange, as Zimmer does here. Handclaps, footstomps and hugely evocative Spanish guitars lay the groundwork for the voice of Lisa Gerrard, hot off her Zimmer-assisted work on Gladiator, to drift in like a ghost doomed to an eternity of anguished and incomprehensible wailing, sounding much like I did about an hour into Rogue Nation.

Track 4: Nyah
Zimmer regular Heitor Pereira glides in with his Spanish guitar and makes string-based love to everyone in the room simultaneously. Nyah is the exact sound of Thandie Newton wafting around Seville in slow motion, i.e. it is absolutely, life-enhancingly beautiful. It's a tender lament that evokes a serenity and poise rarely achieved in modern film music; a hymn to grace and elegance that HOLY FUCKING SHITBALLS HANS WHAT IN THE FUCKEST OF FUCK IS THAT?!

Track 5: Mission: Impossible Theme
"WHY IT'S THE MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE THEME, WHICH I HAVE CARVED OUT OF GRANITE WITH MY BARE HANDS AND DROPPED ON YOUR FOOT WHEN YOU WERE LEAST EXPECTING IT!! HAHAHAHAHA, I'M ABSOLUTELY MENTAL, SOMEBODY STOP ME BEFORE I KILL AGAIN, PLEASE I'M BEGGING YOU"

"Nothing limp about THIS bizkit bro"

Track 6: The Heist
More flamenco and handclaps introduce a funksplosion of jazz bass jamming, because Zimmer hasn't covered enough musical genres yet. I can't remember what happens at this point in the film (some kind of heist, presumably) but imagine that bit in Spider-Man 3 when emo Peter Parker struts down the street firing finger-guns at people, only it's Tom Cruise and his tectonic plate-sized grin doing the strutting, and that's what this sounds like.

Track 7: Ambrose
Suddenly remembering that this is a film score rather than a neurotoxin-induced psychotropic episode, Zimmer digs out an actual orchestra from behind the sofa and immediately sets the string section to work on this theme for Dougray Scott's entirely forgettable villain. If a low, menacing cello didn't yell "BAD GUY!" loudly enough, then guess what? The Russian male choir from Track 1 are tanked up and ready to go, solemnly grumbling the kind of noises that your brain makes when you wake up hungover and unsure if you're in the same continent you fell asleep in.

Track 8: Bio-Techno
In a moment of uncertainty regarding how one might score a John Woo-directed shootout, Hans Zimmer drops a tab of acid, stares at the faulty fluorescent strip light in his kitchen for four hours and decides the best thing to do is to use three late-'90s techno tracks all at once because his cat, who is a floating cloud of liquid energy, told him to. John Woo drowns it out with gunshots in the final mix, much to everyone's relief.

Track 9: Injection
Lisa Gerrard is back, and so is the string section, and so are the drum loops, and so are the electric guitars, and so is the Spanish guitar, and because that's all a bit sparse Hans casually lobs in a massive fuckoff timpani beat. Zimmer gonna Zim.

Mad as eggs.

Track 10: Bare Island
In the M:I-2 score's standout track, the male choir suddenly produce from beneath their choral robes an entire female choir, and they all get naked and start an absolute orgy of vocal harmonies that sounds like Carmina Burana if, well, Hans Zimmer had composed it. It is quite literally all going Orff, building to an orgasmic climax which ejaculates nothing less than the most histrionically macho rendition of the Mission: Impossible theme on electric guitars. But the guitars have still got more axe-spunk in reserve, so they pump away at that motif from Track 1 for a bit before slowing to a gentle finish, over which Lisa Gerrard sighs the most satisfied sound you'll ever hear. Anyone got a cigarette?

Track 11: Chimera
Everyone is utterly exhausted by the exertions of the previous track so they just lie there moaning for a couple of minutes, gently leaking musical fluid onto the film's best satin bedsheets.

Track 12: The Bait
I know what you're thinking. You're thinking "you said this score had 'fucking EVERYTHING', but we've yet to hear, for example, a bongo drum introduction to the Mission: Impossible theme, you tedious smartarse". Well Track 12 is here to McConaughey that thought right back in your stupid face.

Track 13: Mano a Mano
A largely percussive piece, this is the sound of Zimmer banging his head against a wall trying to think of an instrument he hasn't used yet. Midway through, the answer comes to him: sleigh bells! Of course! The only downside is that it all goes a bit √Čric Serra's GoldenEye score for a bit, but frankly we're in such a state by now that Hans could play Joe Dolce's Shaddap You Face on a rhino's scrotum and nobody would bat an eyelid.

Cheer up love, it'll only be the worst one for another fifteen years

Track 14: Mission: Accomplished
The title of this track is a bit of a spoiler if you've never seen M:I-2, or indeed any Hollywood blockbuster, so look away now. Oh wait it's too late, sorry. The haunting melody of Nyah returns in a gorgeous wave of strings and, because the penultimate track is never too late to introduce one more new instrument, woodwind. It's almost lovely enough to make you stop thinking about the baffling physics of the climactic motorbike-based fight scene that just punched you in the brain. But not quite.

Track 15: Nyah and Ethan
More soothing Spanish guitars attempt to calm you down after the glorious punishment your ears have just taken, and it's a slow and sexy way to end what has been quite the adventure in sound. Naturally the film ends with Fred Durst grunting at full volume over the credits, but the album has better taste than that.

*

So there you have it: the soundtrack about which filmtracks.com said: "avoid if you suffer from psoriasis or eczema, for Hans Zimmer's insultingly simplistic action music for synthesizers and electric guitars could make your lymph nodes swell up and cause a nasty skin rash." Well I am here to tell you that not only is that verdict medically questionable, it is also weapons-grade poppycock. Hans Zimmer's score for M:I-2 is the work of a mad genius; a fearless piece of art that deserved so much better than the film it graced with its musical preposterousness. I mean yes, I have developed a nasty skin rash after listening to it for the umpteenth time, but I'm sure that's just coincidence.

Friday, 13 July 2018

First Reformed: God's lonely clergyman

Father Toller is in Hell (figuratively, not literally). He's dying inside (figuratively and literally). A crisis of faith spreads within him like a cancer, killing off his spirit while actual cancer kills off his body, and he's dipping his toast in whiskey in an alcoholic inversion of holy communion. Welcome to the laugh-a-minute world of Paul Schrader's First Reformed, which finally answers the all too infrequently-asked question: what if Travis Bickle were a priest in 2017?

Full disclosure: I've never seen a Paul Schrader-directed film until now. I've no idea how this compares to his usual visual style, but as a fan of his collaborations as a writer with Martin Scorsese I can spot within First Reformed the DNA of Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Raging Bull and Bringing Out The Dead from the furthest pew from the pulpit. That internal conflict, the despair and rage that come from impotence and failure, and the drive to cleanse the soul via good old-fashioned extreme mortification of the flesh are the arterial flow of Schrader's best-known work. (If that somehow passes you by, Travis Bickle's iconic Alka-Seltzer fizzing away in a glass of water reappears here as Pepto-Bismol in bourbon.) First Reformed might be a more measured, sombre piece for having Schrader behind the camera rather than Scorsese, but it's no less thought-provoking, even for heathens like me.

Shot in austere 1.37:1, drained of most of its colour and almost devoid of camera movement, Schrader's aesthetic mimics the abstinent life Ethan Hawke's Toller has chosen. Everything is shot against a flat wall or the disappearing perspective of a corridor or room, as if the 90-degree rigidity of Toller's life has shaped his very surroundings. He's trapped himself in a cellular structure of devotion to God and the walls are closing in. So when his festering spiritual doubt and general sense of inadequacy are fuelled by a parishioner who points out the unbearable shitness of being, it's little wonder that Toller sets off on a dark path, with only Amanda Seyfried's Mary (obviously she's called Mary) and his diary of increasingly disturbing thoughts - which he can no longer confess to God - as his companions.
Exploring and exploiting the hypocrisy of the church's inextricable links to Big Business, First Reformed is part religious critique, part environmental plea, and swings from subtle to sledgehammer throughout its running time. Why doesn't God have anything to say about the destruction of His creation by climate change? Is it all part of His plan? Toller doesn't know, but he can see in eco-terrorism the same self-sacrifice that the Jesuit priests of Scorsese's Silence suffered to defend their faith. Set pointedly in Trump's America, the film depicts a bubbling liberal fury that can't be quelled despite every attempt at tolerance.

Ethan Hawke is terrific here, the lines of his face like scars for every soul he's tried to save. It's a measured, calm performance, but there's never any doubt about his doubt. Each pause he takes before answering a tricky question betrays Toller's mounting panic that he's in the wrong job, while opposite him, Mary's fragility and determination are enhanced by Amanda Seyfried's then-real-life pregnancy. Toller preaches that life is equal parts despair and hope, and it's impossible not to see him and Mary as the two parts of that equation.

First Reformed builds menacingly towards a nail-biting climax, but don't go in expecting an edge-of-the-seat thriller. Like this year's other Taxi Driver-referencing slow-burner You Were Never Really Here, this is a film of nuance and intelligence, of originality and provocation. It stays with you in the same way, making you want to reach out and give its protagonist a big hug and tell him it's going to be OK, even though it clearly absolutely is not. And if you're like me, it might even make you want to seek out more of Paul Schrader's work. Anyone give us a lend of Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist?