Thursday, 25 December 2008

More reconnoitring.

Once or twice a year I will head off to one of my favourite haunts the 'Abbey Pumping Station' now a museum on the out-skirts of Leicester (Leicestershire, England), usually on one of its special event days, to soak-up the smell of coal smoke and steam, and to see the massive beam engines in motion. On this occasion is was the Christmas toys & steam day, and I was hoping to see something inspirational, to get my old steam hart pumping again.
When you enter the grounds from the car-park side (over looked by the National Space Centre) you can see immediately on your right a sleeping Iron Dinosaur, its caterpillar feet being overtaken by weeds and grass now, this once long ago tamed beast, would have work as hard as any, its familiar sound known to all. What a SteamPunker's restoration project it would make bringing this Steam-shovel back to life, sitting in the cab with levers at your command!

Monday, 22 December 2008

SteamPunk Review: First men In the Moon. Pt.1

H G Wells' First men In the Moon

Synopsis: In 1964 a United Nations lunar mission comes across a union jack and note claiming the moon in name of Queen Victoria and dated 1899. The U.N. Traces this back to Dimchurch, England and an elderly man called Arnold Bedford. Bedford recounts his tale to the investigators of how he and his fiancée Kate encountered the eccentric Joseph Cavor. Cavor has created an anti gravity substance. He intends to use this to take a trip to the moon whist Bedford is chiefly interested in in its mineral resources. Kate is accidentally brought along and the three encounter a subterranean and technologically advanced civilisation that Cavor names Selenites. The trio are captured and studied before escaping back to earth. In the present day Bedford is told by the U.N. That all traces of life on the moon are now extinct, wiped out by the earth men's germs.

Critique: First men in the moon is one of producer Charles Schneer and animator Ray Harryhausen's collaborations together. Clearly the producers and writers (including Quatermass creator Nigel Kneale) had a more optimistic view of the world than many at the time. Filmed during the cold war and two years after the Cuban missile crisis it is a United Nations space expedition that lands on the moon including an American a Russian and an Englishmen. Interestingly it is the American who actually gets to step foot on the surface first, although if he makes any speech about the betterment of mankind we don't get to hear it the film immediately cuts to a montage of worldwide news broadcasts.

This is merely the prologue before we are taken back to 1899 and Bedford's story. Here we are introduced to the protagonists. Bedford is a down on on his luck playwright and some thing of a prevaricator. He tells Kate he inherited his cottage from an aunt, that all his money is tied up in Boer war surplus army boots (the war had barely started in 1899) and later, whilst trying to raise finances for Cavor, persuades her to sign her name to the deeds of the cottage. Edward Judd is affable enough to make Bedford likeable through all this. Kate is American and it seems that early drafts of the script might have tried to portray her as a modern type of gal. After all she drives a motor car, or “infernal contraption” as the postman refers to it, but, and not helped by a fairly bland Martha Hyer in the role, has very little to do other than be captured and rescued. Finally we have the great Lionel Jeffries and his superb comedy talents as the wonderfully eccentric and chicken hating (but goose loving) Cavor. Cavor is largely a comic figure in the early sequences and quite similar to the role Jeffries played in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but later his obsession with the moon proves to be almost as dangerous to Bedford and Kate as the Selenites.

Guest review by Sir Guy

SteamPunk Review: First men In the Moon. Pt.2

Perhaps not one of the best known of Schneer and Harryhausen's works together first men has a sense of humour not always to be found in their movies. This is probably due to Kneale and co writer Jan Reads script and their extensive background in British television and radio. The comedy is not just kept to Jeffries' buffoon, Cavor, but Bedford's attempts to keep Kate in the dark about his finances. They also have a U.N. Investigators say: “ Don't forget, England is a land of eccentrics” when they sceptically seek out the story. The mood is also enhanced by composer Laurie Johnson;s score which is decidedly whimsical, especially for its early scenes in period England. Johnson also had an extensive television background including the Avengers theme tune.

Technically the film is superb with nicely rendered period detail a charming, cluttered mise en scene to Bedford's cottage and Cavor's lab, whilst their spacecraft's interior is all upholstery with mahogany fittings and brass instruments. The cinematography is bright and colourful for the scenes on earth whilst the lunar landscape is beautifully lit in both its sound stage and miniature realisations.
What really stands out, however, is the production design of the Selenite's caverns. Chrystal caverns, a mushroom forest and the awesome, psychedelic oxygen generator this is all lit in garish, primary colours that give the caverns the look of a Mario Bava movie. Bava's classic Blood and black lace was released the same year.

What any review really comes down to is of one of these movies though are Harryhausen's creations. Although we don't see any until over an hour in. The Selenite design's are interesting with their insectoid bodies and hive system of warriors, engineers and best of all the Mekon like overmind we see towards the end. Unfortunately apart from the gigantic moon cow (and bull) this is all we see of lunar life. Admittedly this comes from the screenplay itself and no lack of imagination on Harryhausen's part, the stand out effect is Kate's skeleton in the Selenite's X ray device. The miniature work for the moon itself and the contemporary and period landings are also terrific.

Technically the DVD is presented in 2.35.1 and is a wonderfully crisp transfer with quite muted colours for the rustic scenes in Victorian England and is amazingly crisp for the lunar scenes with solid blacks and the Bava-esque lighting of the interiors shown off in its full glory.
Extras wise we get a neat from the time this is dynamation feature and a Harryhausen documentary which uses many of his fantastic production sketches. Unfortunately other than a photo gallery and trailer there are no extras specific to the movie itself.

Overall first men is a great movie although I doubt its on anyone's favourites list of Schneer and Harryhausen's work together. Nathan Juran ( a workmanlike director with a background in American genre TV and a number of giant monster movies to his credit) handles the direction competently enough although I suspect his experience with effects got him the job.
The movie's real achievements and successes lie with Kneale and Read's script, the likeable cast and, of course, the incredible work of Ray, brought to you in “Dynamation”.

Guest Review by Sir Guy