Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Catalina: A New Kind of Superhero

Director: Kenneth D Barker
Writer: Kenneth D Barker
Producer: Kenneth D Barker
Cast: Nathan Lubbock-Smith, Laura Martin, George McCluskey
Country: UK
Year of release: 2008
Reviewed from: screener
Website: www.wotr.co.uk

Ken Barker ploughs his own furrow, making films which seem to be somewhere inbetween obviously commercial and defiantly individualistic. His debut feature was the 1999 children’s fantasy adventure Kingdom which, while its effects were by necessity a long, long way from Jurassic Park, was nevertheless the first British live-action feature film to include entirely computer-generated characters. You’ve got to give Ken credit for that.

A few years after Kingdom, Ken was kind enough to invite me up to Leeds for a screening of his second feature, Rosetta: Prima Donna Assoluta. In complete contrast to the first film, this is a serious drama, set in 1960s Italy, about an aspiring opera singer. What is frustrating about both these movies is that, unless you know Kenneth D Barker personally, your chances of actually seeing them are virtually zero. Perhaps Catalina: A New Kind of Superhero will be Ken’s breakout picture.

But before we begin, you have to approach a Ken Barker film in the right way. The effects will be cheap but, rather than pushing the cheapness into your face, and rather than over-reaching in defiance of the tiny budget, those effects will be something different and offbeat and imaginative.

Although ostensibly a superhero film - in fact the world’s first transvestite superhero film - Catalina takes a long, long time to reach any superhero stuff. The first twenty minutes is all space operatics, interspersed with numerous short captions about people and planets. In a nutshell, there is a very rare element (called Thrixium) which is only found on one planet and there is a distinctly bad fellow (called General Krillgarth the Negative, played by George McCluskey - The Zombie King, The Last Transmission - without anywhere near enough bombast) who wants it for himself. I think it’s vital for some super-weapon or something although Krillgarth seems to have plenty of weaponry on his space fleet already. There are various space battles and Krillgarth is captured by some sort of Galactic Senate (or something) one member of which lives on Earth.

This alien-disguised-as-middle-aged-woman (Martina McClements, who was a nurse in a few Emmerdale episodes in 2008 and is also a dancer and choreographer) is tending her flowers when the call comes through and she is teleported away to do her senatorial duty. Although she does reappear briefly at the end, the fact that she is living on Earth as a human is never explained or explored and seems to have no relevance.

So anyway, Krillgarth can’t be executed because that would make him a martyr so he’s going to be exiled. He’s put onto a spaceship, the pilot of which (Matt Cain) has a touching but completely irrelevant vidphone conversation with his girlfriend (Jennifer E Jordan) before blast off.

This whole prologue goes on far, far too long and could have been summed up in a couple of minutes: very evil, very dangerous space criminal being transported into exile. That’s all we need to know. Frankly, that’s all we do know because despite the sequence going on for so long, the actual details of Krillgarth’s crimes are as complex as they are irrelevant to the plot.

It is possible however that there were some clear explanations that I missed because I was distracted by the spaceships. In a valiant attempt to depict massive interstellar space battles between rival fleets, Ken has gone for the unusual step of depicting all the spaceships using cut-out, flat images. Craft can go left, right, up, down, whizzing everywhere in two dimensions. Sometimes they even go towards or away from us by simply being enlarged or shrunk. But of course, however much they may twist and turn, the pattern of shadows on the spaceships remains constant - because they are, to all intents and purposes, photos.

It would be very easy to mock this technique and I’m sure some people will do but I prefer to think of it as a clever trick which not only gives the film greater scope but also provides a unique, frankly Gilliam-esque air to the proceedings. Once you get used to it, this cut-out spaceship thing is actually great fun. And it’s not like Catalina: A New Kind of Superhero takes itself seriously.

No, the problem here lies not in the effects but in the whole space thing dragging on so that we’re a full twenty minutes into the film before we even meet our central character. And it will be another twenty minutes before we see any superpowers.

Ben Gerick (Italia Conti-trained Nathan Lubbock-Smith, who was a prefect in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) is a hotshot young executive in a successful law-firm, working his way up both the company ladder and the floors of the office block. But there is something that neither his snooty posh girlfriend Philomena (South African radio presenter Cleone Cassidy) nor his work buddy Imran (Waleed Khalid, who played the Ernie Hudson character in a student remake of Ghostbusters!) know about him. When he’s alone, Ben likes nothing more than to kick back and relax in a bra, blouse, skirt and pair of slingbacks. Thus clad, he is watching telly when Philly unexpectedly walks in and demands to know who he is.

Now this bit caught me off-guard. We hadn’t met Philomena before so it took me a while to realise that the woman who unlocked the front door and walked in as if she owned the place was actually Ben’s girlfriend (with her own front door key). Because her reaction, on spotting the person on the sofa is not, “Oh my God, Ben, what are you doing?” but rather, “Who the hell are you?” I was confused. Was Ben in someone else’s flat? Was he taking transvestism to a new level which involved not only wearing women’s clothes but also sitting on women’s sofas watching women’s televisions in women’s city centre apartments?

Eventually I realised: this is his girlfriend and she doesn’t know that’s Ben. And the cause of my confusion is simply this: tranny Ben doesn’t wear a wig. He mousses up his normally straight, short, fair hair a bit but that doesn’t substantially alter his appearance. With a long, dark wig on, Philly’s confusion would be credible. Her boyfriend has short, fair hair; there’s a young woman with long, dark hair sitting on her boyfriend’s settee; what’s going on? But this young woman she confronts has short, fair hair, very like Ben’s and consequently the distinctive shape of Ben’s face (which a wig would alter) remains the same old fizzog she’s used to and should recognise.

In a nutshell, the person on Philomena’s boyfriend’s sofa does not look like a woman, it just looks like Philomena’s boyfriend in a blouse and a skirt. In fact, Ben actually has small sideburns and no amount of eye-shadow or lippy is going to distract attention away from them.

On the one hand, there’s a degree of accuracy here. I’ve known several transvestites in my time - hey, it’s a modern world - and they were mostly nice enough blokes. But the one thing they all had in common - and I believe this to be a general tendency among those who partake of this particular lifestyle - is that not one of them looked like a woman. It’s a cruel irony that those men who want to dress as women are those with the least feminine body shape and build. Every tranny I have ever met has looked like a bloke in a dress. Whereas, on the other side of the irony equation, I’ve seen some straight fellas togged up in female fancy dress so realistic that even their close friends are completely taken in.

That’s the way the world works, I’m afraid. Only those men who don’t get a kick out of women’s clothes can get away with looking like a woman rather than a bloke in a dress. One of the reasons why Eddie Izzard was always able to get away with looking stylish in a skirt was that he made no attempt to ‘be’ a woman. Remember, he used to say: “They’re not women’s clothes, they’re mine.”

So the fact than Ben, in a skirt, simply looks like Ben in a skirt is true to life. Philomena’s failure to recognise him... well, that’s very Lois Lane. As has often been pointed out, the central love triangle of the Superman mythos is based entirely on Lois Lane’s inability to recognise her boyfriend without his glasses. Similarly, central to Catalina is Philomena’s inability to recognise her boyfriend with a dab of make-up and his haired slightly mussed.

Thinking on his feet, Ben adopts a falsetto voice and claims to be his own sister whom he names ‘Catalina’ because - I kid you not - he was reading a magazine about flying boats. It’s a great name - and a great aeroplane - but man, where do you even find a magazine about flying boats? All kudos to whoever located that prop.

In a scene that maybe should have been played a bit more farcically, Ben retreats into the bedroom, has a conversation with himself and emerges in men’s gear, saying that his sister is feeling tired and is having a lie-down. While the quick change act is believable, you do wonder how he’s managed to get the make-up off so thoroughly and so quickly, not to mention getting his hair back to its original style. And remember, this is before he gets any superpowers.

All this malarkey takes another twenty minutes. If this was on celluloid we would be two reels in by now and the projectionist would be wondering whether he had threaded up the wrong movie. At the forty-minute mark, the story goes back to General Krillgarth, being transported to his planned exile.

Something goes wrong - possibly the transport ship is attacked by some of Krillgarth’s troops - so the pilot and prisoner are forced to abandon ship in an escape pod, heading towards a nearby blue-green planet. In a notable contrast to the massive over-the-top security around the prisoner in The Planet, there’s just this one guy and in the escape pod the two men have to lie down next to each other (subtext ahoy! - maybe not...) without the prisoner being restrained in any way. As the pod hurtles towards Earth (specifically West Yorkshire - well, why not?), Krillgarth attacks the pilot and then actually leaps out of the little spaceship, several metres above ground, moments before it crashes into a park. The pilot also survives, just.

This crash is witnessed by Ben-in-drag and the injured pilot gives him a glowing ball (about the size of a cricket ball) which is made of Thrixium and which somehow embeds itself inside Ben’s chest. That rotten old General Krillgarth, before leaping from the crashing escape pod, snatched a glowing ball of Thrixium off the pilot... but the pilot tricked him, letting him take a fake glowing ball of something else.

The question is: if this stuff is so valuable and if Krillgarth was prepared to lay waste to planets to get his hands on it, why was a lump of it being transported in the pocket of the solitary crewmember of the spaceship which was charged with transporting the unrestrained prisoner into exile? I fear that Ken’s script comes apart around here. It’s all very well having a McGuffin - for that is what the Thrixium assuredly is - but that McGuffin must be consistent in its concept. There is just no reason for the pilot to be carrying Thrixium (plus a dummy Thrixium ball, just in case his prisoner decides to pinch it) except to give Krillgarth a reason to hunt down Ben on Earth.

Everything gets a but confused from this point on, to be honest. The main thing is that Ben discovers he now has ‘superpowers’ - basically telekinesis, which he tests by changing the TV channel without using the remote! - but only when he’s in drag, which somehow causes the Thrixium ball in his chest to glow.

Hang on a moment, doesn’t this sound familiar? A good alien and a bad alien both crash onto Earth and the good alien, in dying, passes a glowing item to a human which sits on that human’s chest and gives him incredible superpowers, with which he can vanquish the evil alien. Isn’t this the Ultraman origin story? Yes indeed, as originally recounted back in the 1960s and re-recounted in start-from-scratch reinventions such as Ultraman: The Next, that’s how Ultraman came to be. Kenneth Barker has, possibly unwittingly, written and directed a cross-dressing British remake of Ultraman!

But anyway things, as I say, get complicated from hereon. There are quite a few other characters. Krillgarth acquires a working class female assistant (‘Kylie the Chav Git’, adroitly played by Laura Martin with precisely the comic touch that the character requires) who is too thick to realise that she’s dealing with an alien warlord while Ben/Catalina meets a Chinese hacker named Dr Xan Terminus (Jeremy Tiang, who was in Dean M Drinkel’s production of Clive Barker’s Frankenstein in Love) who seems like he’ll be the superhero’s sidekick but gets killed a couple of scenes later. Philly splits up with Ben, not over his crossdressing but over the lack of trust exemplified by the fact that they went out for three years without him even mentioning his sister. Ben seeks (a quantum of) solace in his old friend from university, Casey (Gemma Head, a regular with Murder One Theatre Company) who is astute enough to already know about his cross-dressing and who insists on ‘rehearsing’ a rather saccharine song for Ben (and us). Fortunately Ben meets a girl named Kerry (Anna Fiorentini, who runs her own award-winning theatre and film school in London) in an art gallery who, in the final scene, accepts his sexual quirk.

There is also an inexplicable subplot about a scientist named (according to the credits) Professor Critchon (Warwick St.John, who was in The Seamstress with Marysia Kay) who has hooked a badly scarred, badly injured man up to a computer. Ro Goodwin is under the prosthetic make-up and wires, credited as ‘Mainframe Symbiot’; he also plays ‘Man in Theatre’, ‘Space Command Officer’ and something/someone called Yatook Boze. I couldn’t follow this part of the story at all, to be honest, and its connection with the main Ben/Catalina/Krillgarth plot remains a mystery to me. On top of all this, Sarah Waddell turns up as a deeply irritating Scottish character with multiple personalities (but only one trouser suit) who is credited as ‘The Enigma aka The Tritium Gang’. She is also looking for Ben and/or the Thrixium for some reason.

As for Krillgarth, there’s some sort of climactic showdown where Ben/Catalina whooshes off up into space to battle the bad guy. (There was no previous indication that he could either fly or survive in a vacuum but Ben - and indeed Ken - seems to have assumed that these capabilities are integral to generic ‘superpowers’). I think he flings all of Krillgarth’s spaceships into a black hole or something. To be honest, I had difficulty following this bit, not least because I was disappointed at the realisation that we weren’t going to see this ‘new kind of superhero’ actually doing any superhero stuff.

Call me picky, but in a superhero movie I expect some crimefighting. I realise that the archetypal superhero, Superman, is an alien and so many (not all, by any means) superhero tales involve some degree of extraterrestrial shenanigans. But surely ‘heroics’ are integral to ‘superheroics’: defence of the weak, punishment of the wicked etc. Aren’t those the tropes that define the superhero mythos as a genre? Granted, there are exceptions. Ultraman, for starters, but Ultraman is almost his own subgenre and his role is to act as Earth’s defender, growing to giant size and wrestling monsters, rather than being a ‘superhero’ per se.

Defeating some intergalactic villain whose sole aim is to retrieve the glowing ball which gives our protagonist his ‘powers’ is just unsatisfying. It makes Catalina a new kind of space soldier, not superhero. Rather than that endless first reel of spaceships whizzing back and forth and Galactic Senate deliberating, couldn’t we have had a sequence in the middle of the film, inbetween Ben discovering his powers and Ben defeating Krillgarth, when ‘Catalina’ finds him/herself using these superpowers in an Earthbound setting, scaring off muggers, rescuing trapped people from buildings, saving potential suicides - all the while generating confusion among people as to who (or indeed, what) this new superhero could be? Because that’s what the premise of the film promises. And this could have provided a build-up to the climactic battle with Krillgarth which, as it is, is both too sudden and too swift. There’s no real sense of achievement and afterwards there’s no real sense of resolution when Ben is contacted by the Galactic Senate (who appear in the sky like Yoda, Obi-Wan and Anakin) asking him if he wants to keep his powers. It’s not as if he has to give them up to be with Kerry, the woman he now loves, so his shrugging them off is almost incidental.

Basically, he acquires superpowers, bustles about for a bit, gets chased by the villain who wants the Thrixium then kicks some arse in outer space and comes home. There’s no build-up to all this and, I’ll say it again, the lack of any actual superhero-stuff leaves the viewer dissatisfied. It’s like there’s a missing reel or something.

Don’t get me wrong, there is stuff to enjoy in Catalina, not least a corking central performance by Nathan Lubbock-Smith, both in and out of drag (he even says, “I’m a lady,” at one point). Some of the other cast are good too (others less so) and the actual direction of scenes is fine. Camera-work and editing are good although the sound is poor with many of the alien voices (in the space battles and on a little digital computer-monkey-thing that Krillgarth steals from the escape pod) treated beyond the point of intelligibility. And some of the (human) dialogue is simply too quiet to make out clearly, which is a shame.

But it’s the script where Catalina hits its biggest problem. It’s not just that it’s top heavy with this massive, unnecessary prologue about Krillgarth, it simply never explores the premise of a transvestite superhero. Which, let’s face it, is what the punters are here to see. The fact that only Catalina has the powers, not Ben, is simply glossed over. We never find out how it affects Ben and it never affects anyone else because he doesn’t actually do any of the crime-fighting that we’re expecting. It’s a quirk but it’s irrelevant to the film’s actual plot and that can’t help but leave audiences disappointed and frustrated.

Catalina simply doesn’t do anything unique or distinctive that would justify the ‘new kind of superhero’ tag. Somewhere along the way, Ken has become distracted with all his neat cut-out spaceships and other effects and forgotten about the central selling point of the film. Even when Catalina flings Krillgarth into that black hole, it’s really just Ben doing the flinging. Yes, he’s wearing a skirt. So what? Krillgarth never even notices. And it’s not like most other superheroes wear three-piece suits or T-shirts and jeans. Wearing a skirt is not that much more outrageous than wearing your underpants outside your tights, is it?

And if Superman wears tights, how ‘new’ can the concept of a cross-dressing superhero actually be?

But Catalina is a British superhero - and that is indeed something rare and unusual, if not completely new. British superheroes are few and far between. There’s Marvel Comics’ Captain Britain of course and Zenith in 2000AD of yore and on screen we’ve had a couple of sitcoms: My Hero and No Heroics. And there’s the occasional porn spoof; I’m reasonably certain that Boobwoman was a British production (don’t ask). So a new British superhero feature is to be celebrated. But it pains me to say that Catalina just doesn’t hit that mark. Too much space opera, not enough superhero stuff and frankly not enough cross-dressing stuff either. Perhaps if the film was marketed as a sci-fi film about a threat to Earth, viewers might have a clearer idea going in what they were about to watch. Because if you promise a viewer one thing and deliver something different, the quality of the production becomes less important than the viewer’s expectations and almost unavoidable disappointment.

Ken pulled quadruple duty as writer, director, producer and editor with James Ritchie as associate producer. The film was shot in HD by Jun Keung Cheung who also photographed Steve Rehman’s psychological chiller The Shadow and Christopher Hutchins’ sci-fi/horror picture Horace K48. No production designer is credited but the art director was Daniel Holloway.

Effectsland ‘a subsidiary company of WOTR Ltd’ (ie. Ken’s prodco, Water on the Rock) is credited with ‘visual effects, 2D models and compositing’ while Dark Raven Digital (who also worked on Kingdom, Rosetta, Ironwerkz, The Demon Within and The Witches Hammer) provided ‘additional visual effects’. Gary Rowntree’s GazMask Studio handled ‘live action prosthetics, miniatures, special make-up and Alien Ambassador design.’ Also in the cast are Bob Mallow (who played Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a short film called Turner’s War) and Anthony James Berowne (who was in Rosetta and also in Charly Cantor’s Blood).

All credit to Kenneth D Barker who, together with his cast and crew, has put a lot of hard work into Catalina: A New Kind of Superhero, as evidenced by the copyright date of ‘2005-2008’. But I fear that somewhere during the film’s protracted genesis the basic concept of a transvestite superhero has been mislaid. The whole cross-dressing thing is simply never explored and is entirely irrelevant to the main plot - and would still be so, even if Catalina looked more like a drag queen and less like a bloke in a skirt.

I really enjoyed some aspects of this film, not least the performances by Nathan Lubbock-Smith, Laura Martin and others and the funky cut-out spaceship battles. But the script is so crammed with ideas and characters that there’s no room left for the central premise. It pains me to point out that Catalina simply isn’t a new kind of superhero.

MJS rating: C+

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