Monday, June 19, 2006

Double Dragon

You are in a dark and cavernous room. You are standing immobile; the only feeling is of sand nuzzling sensuously into the recesses of your bare toes. A painting of the grinning clichés of Egyptian mythology graces every grain. You look up and see the ceiling, tessellated with the eroded logos of Capcom and Namco. A pernicious wind swoops over your head, leaving behind the aural residue of pseudo-kung-fu. You glance forward and notice outcroppings ahead, tumours afflicting the room’s sidewalls. A quick sniff of the miasma being emitted from the darkness to your rear and you move forward.

A few tentative steps and a vision of horror arrives from the wayside, a tumultuous greeting card signed by a phantasma hiding in the shadows. It is an apparition of a beret-wearing Van Damme, limbs and sneers akimbo in an almighty and seemingly inviting pose. But the reassuring and vivacious imagery is soon disseminated by the materialisation of a demonic film critic, before any invitation can be answered. The haggard-faced critic wastes no time compressing the fighting stance of Van Damme into a shrink-wrapped salute to its own pretentious omniscience. It then casts the plastic-asphyxiated doleful of invisible boats and posthumous dedications into the void beyond.

You block out the dreadful execution and move forward another few paces. Here another vision. This time the stumpy legs of Bob Hoskins blur into the reptilian features of Blue Velvet, all set against a backdrop of plumbery fungi with welcoming hand-signals. The festivity is sliced short by another vengeful film critic, this time brandishing a portrait of Ebert’s egregiousness. Emotionless and relentless, the critic wastes few seconds in his annihilation of the merry state that once was.

With the nightmarish vapour causing you to wretch, you bend over and begin to cough up chunks of sputum. While doing this you hear an interlude of midi-beeps and arthritic thumbs. Looking up you see a glow in the darkness ahead. Standing, you briskly motion nearer to it. Once in its fallout zone, another vision smacks you in the jaw. This time it’s of a martial artistic dyad, the wallpaper of combat lining its extremities. A waving face, anonymous yet familiar, ushers you towards a swirling vortex, whilst out of the sharp angles of your eye smokes up another vile film critic. Before musing deliberations into a death of more circumlocutions, you take a leap into the maelstrom.

You awaken to the whispery invocations of the Double Dragon movie. It sits opposite you, legs crossed like a parody of a rutted sitcom actor playing a cub-scout in a made-for-TV Disney movie. You dish out a verbal application form, something that goes a little like this, “Who the fuck are you?” Smirk spawning on its somewhat face, it tells you to relax and listen. It takes a breath of the O2 and vociferates, “I am the Double Dragon movie. You may call me Double Dragon The Movie for short. And I am going to tell you a yarn long and tedious about my life….”

In order to save wear and tear on the double-inverted-comma key, and avoid libellous asides, here will be a paraphrasing of that yarn.

Double Dragon, based on the video game of the same appellation, was released in 1994, a year that also saw boisterous releases from the two archetypes of excessive conversation. Such are their names written in every stone and shingle, a direct citation need not be gifted, suffice it to snidely remark, “your man with the chin and that guy with the Star Wars references.”

The film’s synopsis ambles the soil of convention. Two brothers, both adept at stretching inner leg musculature, attempt to keep one half of a special talisman away from Robert Patrick, who possesses the other half. When these two parts are united together, absolute power is granted to the uniter.

That sub-Brandon Lee (how’s that for an insult), Mark Dacascos, plays Jimmy Lee, the mature component of this brotherly twosome. Billy Lee, the younger and more juvenile one, is played by the offspring of some obscene mutual rape between Michael J. Fox, Tom Cruise and Eric Stoltz; a creature who goes by the name of Scott Wolf. Both showcase their primitive set of blows and wallops, taking the requisite break for a wisecrack or two. As if made from manufactured rubber, including holding the substantiality of said substance, the double lizards bounce around with much fervour.

Brawls and one-liners are set within the near-future dystopia of New Angeles, a 1997 post-earthquake variant of the Californian metropolis. Like all good dystopic macrocosms, this one comes with roaming gangs, caricatures of news broadcasts, and a curfewed night-time unpoliced by law enforcement. Amongst this is a grouping of altruistic insurrectionists intend on pulling the city back into civility, led by Alyssa Milano before she became a witch, but after she let John Matrix stick his tongue in her ice-cream.

The film is shimmied along by the presence of one Robert Patrick, just out of a career typecasting turn as the oozy villain in another film that looked with distant eyes towards 1997. He plays the sorcerous Kogo Shuko, whose hair is almost as stupid as his name. He possesses a number of interesting powers, including the ability to float around two-dimensionally; just watch in awe as he flutters about like a Paganini caprice. His pathetic duelling skills tower contemptuously over any of the witticisms the heroic brothers serve up; he is able to backhand scornfully with revelations such as he killed their father. Oh what evil, his ‘tache twitches with every renegade deed.

The only elements in here that can possibly compete with Patrick are a short cameo by that great hairless legend Michael Berryman, and a gang-honcho who is transformed into a reject from The Story of Ricky, a heaving, strapping mould-of-plastic monster.

Other than that we’re incarcerated in Direville here, a place full of roads that snake into horrendous video game digressions, and with boulevards laced with boat chases on a slick of oil. Why the brothers seem to live in a theatre is unknown to me, I can and will only assume they were trying to recreate Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty.

Amongst the occasional moments of hilarity, where I thought my internal organs were going to be vomited out my mouth in a fit of guffaw, there were numerous moments of appalling unpleasantness, where I thought my internal organs were going to exit out my mouth and go and watch something better, like Stalker. The game-to-film malady knifes another victim, a double stab to both plot and characters, and its convulsing self lies helplessly on the carpet south of my DVD player. But whereas Street Fighter received a funeral with all the works, and Super Mario Bros got a nice, low-key cremation, Double Dragon is left simply to bleed-out and decompose alone, it has merited nothing more.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

John Petrucci - Suspended Animation

Against a backdrop of matte black, interspersed with coruscating glimmers of distant stars, rode a gold-decorated chariot, pulled across the sky by two large calluses harnessed by a set of size 9 Ernie Ball nickel-wound lashes. Inhabited by thin men with spade shaped heads, the chariot rainbowed through the misty essence floating north of the moon’s halo. Then, without warning, a second chariot raced into view, this time transporting a cargo of William F. Buckley incisors, their dirty little faces etched with disdain for the hypodermic hussy’s that used to hang around the neighbouring molars.

Then the night’s ceiling of invisible cloud diffused in a circle of expanding radius, as if swept away by a massive wallop of headstock. There were juddering spikes of ionic discharge as the chariots now multiplied, joined by others in this crowded skyline, even a few Volvos were said to have been seen accelerating up the shadow of Orion, as if it were an armadillo-laden freeway. Then from the hollowed blackness above, drifted down a fretboard adorned with the kernels of fervency, the zest of zeal, and all was stopped. Frozen in mid-yell, trapped in a time impasse with no turnoff, stuck on the flypaper of temporarily, the chariots stationed without a whisper in their elevation. Their prior animation wretched from kinesis by a monolith, one that makes that Kubrick domino a jealous shade of pale in comparison, and now sits upon the firmament like a worthy deity.

What has caused this overblown hoopla is none other than John Petrucci’s solo album, the Dream Theater guitarist’s first. Long slaved over, stained with sweat and various other juices of creativity, the album, incidentally going by the moniker of Suspended Animation, was released in March 2005, and is a fully instrumental opus of music. Its audio engravings are unsurprisingly guitar-orientated, and all composed by Petrucci himself. His guitar is seated right at the forefront of the mix, enjoying a prestigious clarity and power, while at the same time he is backed by bass players and drummers who undoubtedly have seen a session or eight in their time (although let it be known, they do a brilliant job).

The omniscient presence on the album goes to the prodigious playing of Petrucci, his inventive riffs and streaming solos clearly propelling the music. And more than that, it sounds huge, especially for a solo guitar record. On my first listen I was blown away by its cavernous sound; it’s a mighty behemoth of depth. Petrucci’s done a fantastic job of producing this, and the mixing is superb.

The album opens with the ululations of a chugging seven-string in ‘Jaws of Life’. Does it chomp and chew as suggested by the title? Well, um, yeah. But not the sort of chewing that necessitates a bib for fear of upsetting nearby diners. And if there was a bib involved, it would be constructed out of atomic palm mutes, and would give off the reverberations of an intricate scalar phrasing. The song comes to a head with a layered feast of harmonious shredding sidekicked by an accompaniment of intensity.

Some commentators have labelled this album as simply Dream Theater minus the keyboards of Jordan Rudess and the vocal stylings of James LaBrie, and perhaps this is a fair remark, after all it is Petrucci who conjures a lot of the DT musical roster. But to say this - to spew the words on page, air, or binaries – is to deal out an injustice and miss the excellence of what has been created here. Let us choose to not do it, let it stand alone out there in the culture, fully ready for inspection.

Second ditty ‘Glasgow Kiss’ seems to have become the big favourite in some quarters; I know it was when I first saw it performed on the G3 Tokyo DVD that the revelation of ‘purchase that damn album you vile fiend’ really smacked me in the jowls. And I did. Don’t go thinking this is a download job - I assure you my hard-earned monies are now jostling in Mr Petrucci’s wallet. Best place for them I say. The licks of ‘Glasgow Kiss’ flip around like some manic etude, catchy and buoyant, an upbeat sequence of tones and semitones. It becomes apparent at this point that the album is not some uniform vehicle of monotony, where each sibling track follows the other, like an octet of twins.

Nope, each track presents something different; following the rambunctious meandering of ‘Glasgow Kiss’, comes the smooth surf beats of ‘Tunnel Vision’. After that we get the emotive balladry of ‘Wishful Thinking’. The electronic drum intro of the former contrasting nicely with the mid-paced vibrato of the latter. ‘Wishful Thinking’ also offers up perhaps the album highlight in a wonderful, fluent unison section that appears halfway through its runtime.

‘Damage Control’ is the other song included on the G3 Tokyo DVD. It opens with a set of percussive power chords, and subsequently muscles along through a multitude of disparate passages, at times evoking the mysticism of Eastern music, at others the grass-nibbling spasticity of bluegrass. It’s the perfect example of that ability to change course mid-song, mid-riff, mid-note that Petrucci imbues in his music; just marvel at that atonal breakdown three quarters in.

The most energetic and jaunty track here is ‘Curve’. It is also the simplest, consisting of basically three riffs topped with assorted fret-gymnastics. But that’s no criticism, it is probably the most fun track on Suspended Animation, the layering of wah-lead and sun-drenched rhythm works a charm.

Penultimate song ‘Lost Without You’ is a slow contemplating one. The bluesy lead playing gesticulates towards Santana, while the sparse drumming signals the tenets of stadium rock. Unfortunately this is the only track that can be branded with the name-badge of anonymity; it’s got an atmospheric aura but lacks any memorable punch.

The final song is, thank your gods, proof that the best has indeed been saved for last. ‘Animate-Inanimate’, the somewhat title-track, is a rip-roaring feast of musical delicacies, complete with little let up in ferocity. It’s beautiful; an open-string meditative measure transfigures into an odd modal lead section, which in turn surges into a boisterous multiple-guitar fete of a riff. The song drags you through its residence, allowing just enough time to succulently indulge in each room’s sonorous charm, before hauling you off to see what the next doorway has in store. A resplendent, adrenalised efflux of musical virtuosity races you to the end, where an Eastern-flavoured part, not unlike DT’s ‘Home’, follows you on your way out through the fade.

I’m still trying to find out if those broken windows in the album sleeve were caused by Petrucci’s Mesa Boogie Road King, but what I do know is that this album is rife with excellence, germinating with quality, a sublime composition of symphonic ingenuity. It’s obvious where the shredding on DT’s last album Octavarium relocated to, it has been alive and well living in these eight songs, and fucking hurrah for it. Kudos to you John Petrucci, you’re a credit to humanity.

And so, the great monument of Suspended Animation retreated upwards into the heavens, forever to be worshipped by the tiny souls below, its prophesised miracle no longer a secret, now available for all to hark till their days go dark and fade like the last notes of John Petrucci’s solo album.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Masters of the Universe

During the 80s, He-Man was awed at by millions of children; how their eyes dazzled when that blonde muscle-bound titan took his rightful place in the centre of the plastic box. It may have been created to sell a few dozen toys, but we didn’t care, all we knew was that this altruistic prince was an archetype of the very adults we wanted to evolve into. However it rarely transpired that way – I once knew a guy tried to ride his tabby down the avenue, sword grasped in victorious pose, and shackles of rubber covering his nipples. Well, little Stevie Smith died that day, and the town turned its back on the fables of Eternia for the rest of the summer.

In 1987 the water broke and out lunged the movie version of the He-Man mythos, it went by the epic title of Masters of the Universe. With a set of primary colours at his fingertips, director Gary Goddard assembled one of the highlights of a decade rife with cancerous synth pop and crayoned corporate logos. Chosen for the fateful role was none other than the man who killed Apollo Creed in Rocky Fights Communism, the delectable Dolph Lundgren.

The film has our heroes - He-Man, his buddy Man-At-Arms, and the wide-grinned Teela - finding themselves transported from their abode of Eternia to our burger-filled cesspit of Earth. This time the psychedelic rip in the continuum is caused by a musical contraption worked by the impish Gwildor. Their adversary Skeletor wants that very machine, supposedly to set up his own hair metal band, and so he gets to work gradually sending his cronies through that tie-dye chasm. Unexpectedly our heroes misplace the instrument, and it falls into the youthful hands of Courtney Cox, ya know, her from that show featuring that girl with the hair. Anyway, people and hairy beasts collide, and battles ignite over who has The Power.

Masters of the Universe begins with a loving tribute to Superman, as it utilises musical hand-me-downs from big daddy John Williams. That, plus the globular spattering of blue glow set to a space background, led me to expect at least one son of Krypton to warble out of someone’s spandex. Closest we got was Lundgren floating around town on a flying body-board. And not once did he extend his arms out in spontaneous homage to DC’s yardstick.

While maybe thirty percent of the film is Clark Kent affiliated, the rest acts as some aborted foetus long cast off by George Lucas, the shame hanging off his beard. “It only wants to be loved,” shouts I, but he turns his head in disgust, not daring to look upon that bloody mound of flesh sitting humbly on the hardwood. The film seems to owe it’s existence to Mr Lucasfilm; in a plethora of ways. Skeletor runs around various sets looking like a calcified Darth Vader; with black cape and menacing demeanour he misses few of the Vader tick-boxes. Skeletor’s lair is his own personal star destroyer, manned by inconsequential little peons and the occasional henchperson. I say henchperson because, of course, there is Evil Lyn always on hand. You’ll be pleased to note that Terrible Maggie and Nasty Patricia were contenders for that spot.

But back to debunking Masters of the Universe; if only all those Dan Brown-consumed bores learned to quit wasting their time debunking things that, to me, look quite bunk as it is. Skeletor is not only a second-rate Darth Vader; he also plays a mean Emperor. Like the crinkled Palpatine, Skeletor can fire off wobbly bursts of lightning from his hands, only his are a nice shade of pink. Following a gruelling session of pugilism, He-Man chucks Skeletor down an infinite pit in a frame-by-frame replay of Return of the Jedi, except with more sweaty Dolph-pits.

There may be the eradicable malodour of films past dripping recklessly over each camera angle and diegetic musical interlude, but all is not lost, there is plenty to carve out a hollow in the side your brain that lusts for technicolour festivity. First you have the monosyllabic thespian duties of Lundgren, the rambunctious grins, and floppy blonde locks. True, Lundgren will only really come into a place where he can compete with the Van Dammes and Seagals of this planet when he comes accessorised with black hair, ala The Punisher and I Come In Peace. Still, this gallops around at a decent meteorological level. Then there’s that bit where the Eternians first find themselves on our celestial blob; out in some forest they gather themselves together only to encounter a cow. Now I don’t know how many cows wonder the forests of America these days, perhaps this was an 80s phenomenon that passed me by.

Another highlight for me: Teela and Man-At-Arms sit munching a bucket of barbeque ribs and Teela enquires why the human locals place their meat on these here white sticks. Our seasoned male then informs her that that stick is none other than a bone, to which her revulsion is overt, and she inquisitively ponders over that greasy product in her hands once being a living organism. I guess in Eternia they get their meat from foliage, or maybe it grows on the undersides of rocks.

In the end, it’s Dolph Lundgren who has The Power. Not that guy from every movie in the 80s needing a cynical tough guy. Nor a ripening Cox before she got that big break everyone recognises her from, which made her famous on a transnational scale, her role opposite Jeff Fahey in Sketch Artist 2: Hands That See. This is Dolph’s movie, he doesn’t need a soaping in Sith, hell he barely needs dialogue, just let him roam and hope to capture some of that glory in the 35mm.

Best Seller

After sticking guns into himself and taking photos in war-torn Central America, but before telling Michael J. Fox to shut his yap, James Woods starred in little-known and little-praised thriller Best Seller.

Written by Larry Cohen of Maniac Cop and The Stuff fame, and, unfortunately, Phone Booth infamy, the film circulates around Woods and that other 80s thriller stalwart, the flamboyant Brian Dennehy. Dennis Meechum (not Mitchum), played by fluffy jowls Dennehy, is a cop. But not just a cop. No. He is also an author of those novel-type things. Following a traumatic incident involving ski-masks, bellows and a thin, crisp hint of sexual tension, Meechum writes it all up in a burst of autobiographical references and mimetic echoes, and comes up with a successful little paperback. Good for him.

With turmoil at home and words like “doubt” rebounding in his head, he finds himself served with a writ of writer’s block. His publishers eye him up from across a plastic table adorned with all sorts of continental breakfast surplus, and coerce him into getting some prose chucked down on the paper. But the only adjectives around are those that line his tweed jacket.

Then Mr Woods enters the frame. A mysterious cipher of a man who shadily saves Meechum’s life during a high speed chase through a cascading arrangement of technological milieu, or at least a plodding stroll through the docks. Turns out Woods is a hitman by the name of Cleve. Yep, it’s imperative that each protagonist comes complete with stupid name in this one. Anyway, being a hitman his cranium contains an anthology of exciting novellas, and he wants Meechum to write all about it. As an incentive he states that the subsequent writings will not only net him some kudos on the book-signing circuit, but will also bring down the nasty, crooked entrepreneur guy who we don’t like. “Boo,” we say to him.

Fighting the moralistic conundrum of dual vocations of cop and author, Meechum hesitantly agrees. But the double act finds it an arduous endeavour to meld their personalities, and that hilarity, oh how it ensues.

Films about writing are not the most recycled of plot ideas; they are perhaps the two-handed tapping solo of cinema, a rare venture that can easy slide down the slope of monotony, but when carried out well is spellbinding. We have the fictionalised biopic of Naked Lunch, a brilliant and surreal vision of William Burroughs’ life percolated through a sieve of jism and mugwumps. Then the similar, but shoddier, Kafka. How we chuckle at each spotted reference, like when Jeremy Irons in the latter tells someone that he’s working on a story about a guy who turns into a giant big. The cockles shook in writhing joy. Barton Fink also enjoyed much capering around the actual writing; a picture of writer’s block clearly written by those afflicted of that disease in the past.

Best Seller doesn’t quite have the creativity and intelligence of a Cronenberg or a Coen flick, but proves itself an enjoyable romp nevertheless. Just look at those sweeping mid-shots of Meechum making scribbles in his notepad, it just warms my heart. Sadly they are infrequent, I was expecting to be seeing him seated confronting a typewriter, pondering over a good synonym for “hitman”. I would suggest “sharpshooter”. Alright, Cleve is more the burst-in-and-stab-your-eyes-out type of vicious murderer, but this is fiction, if you can’t hyperbole here, where can you?

Cleve, while pretty cold-hearted and sadistic, is still endearingly charming. His witty dialogues with Meechum add much exuberance to the proceedings; while Meechum drags out a dreary few words on “I’m still a cop”, Cleve hectically scampers over Meechum’s belly with the wisecracks. Who else would threaten an editor with a knifing to the gullet in order to find out if he’s coming across well in the manuscript? He is the omniscient test-audience, and I’d take his opinion as fact despite the grin upon his face.

Best Seller is an under-rated thriller, even encapsulating the incipient signifier of quality that is the Orion Pictures marker. R.I.P to that house of eminence, it brought much joy to my adolescent years. As for Best Seller, alas it stops somewhere short of a Penguin Modern Classic. My only question is when will Hollywood make a film about some guy attempts to write a review of the Super Mario Bros movie while making all provisions possible to avoid watching said movie?

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The Mondo Mugwump Letters

A brand new series has just birthed on Blogcritics - that being a joint venture by The Duke of Mondo Irlando and myself, a series that goes by the name of The Mondo Mugwump Letters. You will be delighted to learn that the first instalment can be visited right here – The Hills Have Eyes (2006).

Aren't hyperlinks wonderful things?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions

Narration provides the gateway to a fictional world; it gives sight and detail to a story’s reality. Narration can take many forms but there are two prevalent ones. There’s the first-person, where a narrative is communicated via a character ensconced within it. Then there’s the omniscient watcher of events; objectivity embodied in prose. Kurt Vonnegut offers an unusual synthesis of these two perspectives in his novel Breakfast of Champions.

Throughout the first half of the book the narrative is distinctly personalised, it has a relaxed, almost spoken, approach in the relaying of plot points. The comfortable flow of language gives off the vapour of conversation; an intimate dialogue. Towards the latter half the narrator materialises inside the story. This is not strange in itself; concealing narrator identity is a popular and proficient literary device.

What marks this instance out is that the narrator appears in the story as the writer. In an eruption of post-modern self-awareness, Vonnegut situates himself in his own constructed world, with full reference to the created nature of it all. He takes much pride in relating how so-and-so character he created did this and that because he created him to do that very task. Although there’s no overt depositing of Vonnegut in the plot, it’s quite clearly a deified narrator who’s skipping about amongst his fictional little humans. And with a confident and rambunctious smirk on his face.

You do get the impression there is an impish rapscallion Vonnegut audaciously pulling strings from his New York apartment, complete with typewriter and bench top conventions. The book is jammed full of his endearing little illustrations. Aesthetic merit is unlikely to stopover near him any time soon, but the images do add another layer to the highly personalised prosodic slipstream.

What occupies the majority of the writing here are many, many asides. These range from expansive delves into background-character story, to ecological trivia. The tangents that this man’s mind rambles off on – it’s the literary equivalent of a one-way ticket to Mongolia.

The actual story is draped over this mass of squirming digressions, filling the cracks and giving substance to the book. We have two main characters; one is named Kilgore Trout, the other Dwayne Hoover. They are two Americans of roughly similar age, living in different parts of the nation. Kilgore is an unknown science-fiction writer; Dwayne a small-town entrepreneur. Kilgore receives an invitation from an arts festival taking place in Dwayne’s middle-America town, to which he leaves to go to. Most of the story is a build-up to a meeting between these two characters, an event we’re lead to believe will be a boisterous fulmination of two hundred and fifty-odd pages.

The storyline is pretty slight, but, as I said before, it’s all in the asides, and the gleeful wordplay that frames it. Some nice use of repetitive prose techniques, such as the recurring numeration of penis sizes. It’s the type of style subsequently taken to nihilistic extremes with Chuck Palahniuk. The influence is here clear, just a little less visceral imagery in Vonnegut.

But the anthropological and cultural/consumer criticisms are present. The book is written almost as if it’s intended for a young child, or those famous literary aliens from Mars that are constantly cited; someone naïve to the bloodthirsty and corrupt ways of the planet we inhabit. Castigations of government penned in adorable flights of fancy. Lingual knives shot off into the hearts of profit-mongering execs without even the hint of venomous serration.

It makes it all very easily digested, and some of that wisdom can be overlooked in the process. The plot may be slender but the highlights come in the nuggets of brilliant farce slipped in-between, or the hilarious synopsises of Kilgore’s obscure novels that punctuate his hitchhiking across the continent. Let Kurt Vonnegut take you on an excursion into American culture on a torrent of riotous self-acknowledgement.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Mazes and Monsters

Tom Hanks. Hollywood’s Mr Nice. Housewives favourite actor. The mother’s choice. Your man from that film with the beach ball and the island, Fed-Ex Goes To Maui I think it was called. The man drips with synonyms these days, pockets overflowing with awards and nominations, newspaper blurbs about the tilt of his head in a new cinematic visitation.

In two and half decades Hanks has levitated to the summits of Hollywood stardom, receiving upwards of twenty million dollars per flick. Impressive manoeuvres you might say. Look at him there in that Da Vinci Code caper, silly hair and a face of expanding girth, but yet he still gets the zeroes. I have yet to see it, but I can (and will) assume that his symbological prancings are quite easily overshadowed by the presence of the glorious Audrey Tautou.

Let’s not hold that against him. It’s automatically disregarded as anything worth commentary anyway. We all know that which stands proud atop the Hanks filmography. Why it’s his 1989 masterpiece The Burbs, Joe Dante’s farcical take on suburban life, which has a luminous cast attempting to find out whether their new neighbours are horrific flesh-manglers. Are they? Maybe. Maybe not. Go watch it.

That would be a journey deep into the annals; a place full of tombs and trenches, perhaps even Corey Feldman’s rotting cadaver would be unearthed. But no, I want to go a little further, to a place not of tombs and trenches, but of Mazes and Monsters.

The 1982 TV movie of the aforementioned name sits as the first film to showcase Hanks straddling the apex of the cast list. His first opportunity to break from minor TV roles and demonstrate his youthful acting vigour. Hanks is Robbie, a young afro-ed teen, who arrives at a new college, having been banished from his last educational institute. Turns out a number of his peers are into some sort of game, and are looking for a fellow student to partake in their group playings. This game goes by the name of Mazes and Monsters, it is a role-playing board game of the Dungeons & Dragons variety. They are all seasoned players and luckily Hanks is himself a ‘ninth level’ player. Thank fuck for that.

A few words about the game. The primary action occurs on a board to which the main characters position themselves around. The board will be a patterned square of cardboard featuring outcroppings of cards and so on. It’s a difficult image to conjure I admit, this was in the bygone days before the Counter-strikes and Dragon Quests were born and captured the minds and reflexes of adolescents everywhere. Each individual has their own in-game character, for example Robbie is Pardue, an ecclesiastical wizard type.

So they all gather together and break out the dice. Hanks even forms a romantic connection with the female of the group, meeting her for the first time at a dorm shindig brimming with some sort of Yann Tiersen cast-off music. They enjoy montages out in the park, and horrible musical interludes intertwined with music too bad for even the Beaches soundtrack. Watch as they walk amorously through the rain, like a tacky Manhattan. Oh yeah, the analogies are spewing out of it.

Eventually one of the quartet of gaming geeks decides that things are not interesting enough, and so takes the flock out to a local cave to play for real. Well, as real as a plastic skeleton can be. But it’s while here that Robbie has some sort of mental collapse and is confronted with a beast I assume is meant to be an authentic creature of evil. Wonderful TV movie, wonderful TV movie production values.

This episode has a rupturing effect on Robbie’s mind, and he begins to act as his in-game character constantly, even in those moments when the dice is locked safely away. Following some hallucinations where a mysterious robed figure addresses him from the end of a long tunnel, he disappears from campus. The film ends with a twenty minute scene where Robbie wanders around New York looking for the World Trade Centre, while his friends wander around New York looking for Robbie. It’s exhilarating stuff.

The game acts as a kind of social tool in the film. Each of the four central characters has an unsettled or disruptive family life (disappointed parents, lack of parents/siblings etc), but the game allows them to form a connection, a conclave of likeminded people. It acts as an instrument for self-identification, self-definition, to create oneself, to be individual but also to be loved and appreciated. The film coalesces into this quasi-coming-of-age drama at its finale; it attempts to show the reality behind the game, the personalities and their evolution to adulthood. To be honest, I was really more interested in Hanks’ great array of jumpers, those fantastic woollen patterns really leaped from the frame.

In essence the film fluctuates between comedy, fantasy and drama too awkwardly. It lumbers around blindly in the maze of genres it has built around itself. It’s a shame too because it includes favourable references to Tolkien and Casablanca, plus intermittent snippets of reasonable dialogue. But alas it pales in comparison to the demographically-similar films to materialise later that decade, for instance Little Monsters and The Wizard.

Hanks was adequate overall. I will give him some doubt bearing in mind he was absent from a large chunk of the flick, assumed to be lying dead at the bottom of some catacomb. What it doesn’t do is grapple with The Burbs. His magnum opus remains where it is. But if I had a choice between seeing Hanks as Robert Langdon or Hanks reprising his role as Robbie Wheeling in a big-budget sequel to Mazes and Monsters, this time set in a hallowed-out China, I know what I’d choose.