Sunday, December 18, 2011

Merry Christmas? It's enough to send you out on a killing spree...

I'll spare you the rant about why I really despise this time of year (maybe I'll save that for a later post!]
Instead I'll just share the love on one of my favourite horror films.

Black Christmas (Bob Clark)

Billy just loved wrapping the gifts 

Oh the heady days when the women smoked, said cunt and didn't have to get their tits out when they got throttled. One of Black Christmas's chief pleasures is it's spunky women. Of course it's a slasher flic and they're all here to be victims but at least they are funny, sassy and likable enough for you to give a damn if they get throttled or not - sensible but vulnerable Olivia Hussey, sparky and sexy Margot Kidder (cussing and feeding booze to minors in a very pre-Superman role) and of course the curmudgeonly and inebriated 'Mrs Mac' looking for that son of a bitch cat (Marian Waldman instead of Bette Davis provides most of the laughs and is marvellous fun and she also gets one of the great horror movie death scenes). Unfortunately Keir Dullea seems thoroughly bored, though he often does to me, but he's only there as a red herring anyway.
A gleeful delight in the macabre keeps things going nicely - Norman Bates had his mummified mother in the cellar, this heavy breathing mentalist sits giggling in the attic, taunting us with a suffocated sorority sister in a rocking chair and a throttled house-keeper, while our unknowing heroines get festive downstairs!

It's certainly not as bloody or graphic as what we have become accustomed to and some may prefer the more horrific and gory remake (which, though far from great, isn't too bad as remakes go but is let down by it's uninspiring script, Barbie-doll victims and the ever depressing need to patronise the audience by explaining everything). But even after nearly 30 years of immitators and copycats [pre-empting Halloween by nearly for years] it still manages to be deeply unsettling - the horribly screechy obscene phone calls ["Filthy Billy, I know what you did nasty Billy!" "Let me lick your pretty piggy cunt!"]; the aural assault from the soundtrack [achieved in part by the composer tying cutlery to the strings of the piano!]; the staring eye through the crack of the door; the asphyxiated corpse in the attic window; and not forgetting the 'rug-pulling' open ending. Clark refused an alternative ending that was less ambiguous; one that the makers of the remake obviously seemed to have picked up on (more fool them).

Merry bleeding Christmas...

Monday, November 28, 2011

RIP Ken Russell

"Reality is a dirty word for me, I know it isn't for most people, but I am not interested. There's too much of it about."

"Art is alive. Enjoy it, laugh at it, love it or hate it but don't worship it!" Savage Messiah

Russell was one of British cinema's creative geniuses. Always pushing the limits, always provocative, much maligned, reviled and misunderstood, often brilliant, often excruciatingly bad and screamingly camp. He could be infuriating, shocking and disgusting but he was never ever boring; very much a saint and a sinner to British film and for that we weary cinephiles thank you.

And I won't dwell too much on what seeing Oliver Reed and Alan Bates wrestling naked in front of an open fire did to me as a sexually burgeoning young teenager. For that I thank you too.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

"She's a high-riding woman with a whip"

Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller)

The idea of Barbara Stanwyck galloping around the prairie in a stetson, cracking a whip, is disappointingly underplayed in Forty Guns. Also the potential Freudian and feminist elements are never explored past the surface (though the two female stars are as spunky as the men are handsome, Jessica Drummond is only waiting for a man to take charge). If you want a western with Freudian subtext and lesbians in spurs & chaps then see the superb Johnny Guitar instead.
It's still good fun and camp enough to make the already short running time whiz by. Stanwyck is always never less than watchable and Barry Sullivan's rugged presence does the job it's intended. The dialogue is sparky if a little ropey "I've never kissed a gunsmith before" "I need a strong man to carry out my orders... And a weak one to take them". And the visual effects are a bit of a treat: a big close-up of Sullivan's eyes, during a shoot-out, diminishs the desired dramatic effect as it causes us to titter but it's still a thrill. As is the scene when the burgeoning lovers spy each other lovingly through the barrel of a gun! (how romantic)
But the absolute highlight here is the two songs - both of which are unexpectedly and quite spectacularly sung in character. The Woman With a Whip number is especially ripe as it's sung by one of the male leads as his mates watch on, smiling nonchalantly, as they soap themselves in their bath-tubs! The other song, sung as a funeral rite, initially startled and surprised me in it's bravado of having a man sing a love song where the object of desire is another man. Of course the 'He' of his affections had to be God [damn!] but a guy can project can't he??
All this (vaguely homoerotic) campery had me thinking... Forty Guns is probably only two songs shy of an all-out musical! Now that would have been a lot more intriguing.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Big films, big stars, big blah...

The Debt (John Madden)

A worthy subject given the big superficial treatment that isn't a total loss but the disappointment is bitter - mostly when anyone opens their mouth.
Except Jesper Christensen. This really is his film. While everyone else is busy hamming it up (or, if you're Sam Worthington, just looking blank) and/or impersonating each other, while failing to convince us with hoky accents, Christensen is scaring the Hell out of us in one of the greatest pieces of cinema villiany I have ever seen.
Laurence Olivier had a drill and "is it safe?" for Dustin Hoffman in The Marathon Man - Christensen manages to be even more unnerving and terrifying with a speculum for Jessica Chastain!


Contagion (Steven Soderbergh)

Good idea to kill off Gwynnie early on but how many of us will not be happy to spend nearly two hours wishing Jude Law would die next!

Hopefully he's forgotten the air-holes
Not bad but not really that great either. The characters were too thinly stretched and it cried out for a better script - too many lazy montages with a misplaced synth score that will date this one by the second.
It's still gripping and very watchable though and Kate Winslet was great. Special mention should go to Jennifer Ehle (an effective British actress usually relegated to bit parts in big films) who was given a lot of screen time for a change - a subtle and natural performance that seems to be getting passed over because she's not one of the A lister's.
It was also surprisingly very funny (the 'always wash your hands' warning of the coda will have you tittering into the credits). But I'm not convinced that was always the intention however.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

"It's in the trees... it's coming!"

More for Halloween...

Curse of the Demon (Jacques Tourneur)

For Curse of the Demon Jacques Tourneur was totally against showing the actual demon (he claimed it was added to the completed film without his direction or consent). He preferred suggestion when it came to horror; allowing for our imagination to fill in the gaps. His films for Val Lewton were all about atmosphere and the unease of ambiguity instead of the cheap thrills and obvious shocks of an actual monster (I Walked With a Zombie and Cat People most especially are great examples). And some do see the creature as a little creaky and may snigger (especially when viewed out of context on a YouTube video clip on some twittering blog... hoho).
Pah... I don't agree. I love the demon and seeing it has always made perfect sense to me.
Curse of the Demon is proof that you can sometimes have the big pay-offs without dissipating the atmosphere or the scares.

Halloween handfuls

Halloween is nearly upon us and so, in the spirit (ho-ho) of things, here are some recommendations:

Dead of Night (Basil Dearden, Alberto Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, Michael Balcon)
"What sort of dummy do you think I am?"
and the portmanteau horrors it spawned.

Amicus are the most prolific and most famous exponents of the portmanteau horrors but Ealing got there first with the chilling compendium Dead of Night. The idea of sandwiching a handful of scary stories into one whole is a notoriously hit & miss affair (stinkers alongside classics) so the viewer will always have their favourites.
Here are some of mine.

'Frozen Fear' from Asylum is hysterical as well as being scary stuff (a film maker at Amicus usually had his bloody tongue poking through his cheek). Adulterous husband (Richard Todd) kills off his unwanted wife (Sylvia Sims) while she stands cooing over the chest freezer he's just bought her. He then chops up the corpse, wraps it all in brown paper and dumps the bits in the freezer. As he closes the freezer door he quips "rest in pieces". Well, as it happens, she doesn't. And how the cheating husband and his mistress (Barbara Parkins) get their just deserts is truly gobsmacking. Once seen, never forgotten.

'...And All Through the House' from Tales from the Crypt, is a little bit rubbish if truth be told. But Joan Collins, after dispatching of her husband with a poker while her young daughter plays upstairs, being tormented by a psychotic dressed as Santa is as much fun as it sounds. Marvelous!

The genuinely shocking outcome of 'Blind Alleys' from Tales From the Crypt is fantastic. The slow drip, drip pace expertly builds up the dread factor and Nigel Patrick pays the price for his cruel treatment of the blind veterans in his care. Nasty
Not one for animal lovers!

'Gatecrasher' from From Beyond the Grave takes its cue from the mirror story from Dead of Night but takes a step further into the abyss with a very dark and bloody bit of gothic nastiness. "Feed meeee... bloood"

Trilogy of Terror, based on stories by Richard Matheson, is not an Amicus film of course (surprisingly it was made for American TV). The highlight of this threesome is Karen Black being chased about her apartment by a pint-sized voodoo doll. I remember watching this one as a teenager with my mom and although we were absolutely terrified we were also in fits of laughter. I also remember dad never shared a taste for gallows humour ("Why are you watching it if you think it's funny?").
Seeing it again more recently proved that it still is pretty scary stuff and still is very, very funny.
Mmm... can I smell dinner??

But, best of all of course, is the forerunner Dead of Night. True to form, it has its misfire - lovely Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (unofficially doing their Charters & Caldicot shtick), in the 'Golfing Story' segment, is fun, but the whimsical tale is quite out of place and dissipates the chilly atmosphere that's been built up so far with the preceding two tales: of ghostly apparitions at a Christmas party and a man possessed by a haunted mirror.
Luckily the chills return because they've kept the best till last. The last story, a psychological horror of an unhinged ventriloquist being driven insane by his dummy, is one of the most terrifying in all of British cinema. Under Cavalcanti's direction Michael Redgrave is absolutely mesmerising as the ventriloquist, helping to invest his character with enough pathos and horror for us to empathise as well as draw back. A deeply human performance.
As the story unfolds, the dread we feel is palpable (it actually brings a lump to my throat) so that by the final moments, when Max 'kills' Hugo, the brutality of the scene - Hugo's terrified screams, the kicks and the final shot of his caved in scull - is profoundly disturbing. Just as Cavalcanti managed to get away with a surprising amount of shocking violence in the superb WWII drama Went the Day Well? simply because it was a propaganda piece, so he manages it again here because it's only a doll getting it's head bashed in. After all, the flesh and bone of a human head is gonna look pretty much the same in black & white as the wood and sawdust of a doll's head.
Of course, as this segment ends, we're not let off the hook here. We still have the nightmarish finale to deal with (complete with the return of Hugo)... round and round it goes...

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Fanboys and show-offs need restraining sometimes

Drive (Nicolas Winding refn)

A film that tries a little too hard to have its cake and bash the fuck out of it too - it wants to be both Michael Mann and Jim Thompson. Personally I think they are poles apart (the sheen of director Mann is somewhat at odds with the grubby immorality of pulp's greatest exponent Thompson) and I find it depressing that so many film-makers are more than happy to blur the distinction in the bid to be cool.
It still is a great piece of cinema - dialogue is spare and judicious; the camera loving the city. And there is exciting screen presence to behold. Carey Mulligan isn't given much to do beyond adore Gosling and/or look disappointed when expected, but she does do it effectively. And Albert Brooks should be commended in a part that, if it had been played by a bigger star, would have made things feel more showy and indulgent. As is he's incredible and terrifying.
But even Brooks is upstaged by Bryan Cranston totally stealing every scene he's in - Shannon is gruff, world weary, chain-smoking, grounded and a bit tragic. In Cranston's hands he is by far the most likable and interesting character.
However, everyone will tell you (and they won't be far off the mark) that this is the kid's film(Gosling's character is a man with no name and when he is referred to as the kid in the film it feels like a subtle joke on more than one level). But, as the fetishising of 'homme du jour' Gosling shows no signs of abating (thank the good Lord) far be it from me to comment too deeply on a film that loves his curves so much while still managing to uglify those of Christina Hendricks (saggy denim and cruelly dispatched in a somewhat thankless role).

Insidious (James Wan)

It's behind you!...  pity he didn't stay there  
The makers prove they know how to make a really scary film - things begin as a kind of homage to both The Haunting and The Exorcist as they expertly crank up the suspense so tight I thought I would crack my knuckles. I was more than a little impressed.
Then they throw it all away in gleeful horror fanboy abandon. I suppose I should have known better than to trust in 'the makers of Saw' - James Wan and Leigh Whannell (how old are these guys anyway???).
It all starts to go wrong when the 'ghost hunters' turn up and the sillier aspects of Poltergeist are evoked. But in a pastiche overload we get them all - we've already had The Haunting, The Omen, The Exorcist and Poltergeist, now we have Sam Raimi in all his obviousness, John Landis, Argento and even Jeepers Creepers?!
By the end of this mess I half expected the marshmallow man from Ghostbusters to appear!
Coming to Insidious, I didn't expect much really and so I was pleasantly surprised by the first 20 minutes or so of expertly wound tension. It's just a shame the elastic snapped so early. Still, If you thought Drag Me to Hell was the scariest film you've ever seen then you might enjoy this a lot. Long before the end I was feeling a tad deflated and was pining for the chills of Hill House.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

An immoral conundrum as a love story

Lust, Caution (Ang Lee)

There is a moment towards the end of 'Lust, Caution' where the two main characters give each other a series of looks. It lasts for quite a while and there is no dialogue. It's not necessary - the protagonists tell each other what they are thinking simply with their eyes. We know exactly what they are thinking - or at least are given the opportunity to make up our own mind. We also know a fraction of a second before she delivers the killer-line that she will say it. It's a great moment which made me gasp. Up till this moment in the film, I feel that Ang Lee has given us one big tease. Is she, isn't she? Is he isn't he?

'Lust, Caution' is quite obviously a take on Hitchcock's Notorious (something Lee has gone on to say as much in interviews). But anyone coming to this film expecting a romantic thriller, will be sorely disappointed. This is a completely different kettle o' fish. The heroine of 'Lust, Caution' is most assuredly on her own here. There is no Cary Grant to save her from the villain or, more to the point, herself - Ang Lee fondly reminds us of this when our heroine sees Penny Serenade at the cinema and we have the spectacle of Grant's big close-up bearing down. It's a very touching moment and a subtle reminder that this tale will probably not have a happy ending. I imagine a clip from 'Notorious' would have been a bit too obvious but in another scene we do see her crying over Ingrid Bergman in Intermezzo (Grant's co-star in 'Notorious' and the original spy/whore).
It's interesting that we also catch a glimpse of a poster for Suspicion. In that film Joan Fontaine's ingenue marries Cary Grant's probable killer. The moral dilemma that story kicks up is clearly brought to mind here. But that film is ultimately too timid - studio pressure meant that the morally explosive climax of Malice Aforethought (Anthony Berkeley writing as Francis Iles) was expunged for the film adaptation in favour of a much tidier 'safe' ending (Hitch wasn't happy and neither are we). The twisted morality of 'Malice Aforethought' is much closer in spirit to 'Lust, Caution' than 'Suspicion' for sure.
But it's 'Notorious' Lee is most interested in here. At least as a counterpoint.
Anyone who knows 'Notorious' will know the differences - not just in plot but in pacing and narrative. 'Lust, Caution' is as much an espionage thriller as Brokeback Mountain is a Western (not much then!). Characterisation is poles apart also. In 'Notorious', Ingrid Bergman's Alicia is a drunk and treated as a tramp (Personally I'd like to think she was just a hedonist who liked a good time or two - which to the more prudish and judgmental among us equals a tramp anyway). Cary Grant comes along and persuades her to become a spy, to seduce the Nazi, Alexander Sebastian (Claude Rains) in to bed so they can find out what he and his fellow Nazis are up to in Rio. Of course, Alicia is initially reluctant for many reasons. But Dev knows she's been round the block a few times - she knows the difference between work and play, and she goes along with the plan very much with her eyes wide open. And essentially what follows is a love story pretending to be a spy thriller - at the heart of 'Notorious' is a story of redemption through love. The spy element is the 'mcguffin'.
But it is still a thriller.
'Lust, Caution' on the other hand, with its deliberately slow pacing and intense eroticism, is something else entirely. One thing it is not, is a thriller. At least not in its conventional sense.
Although the 'heroine' of 'Lust, Caution' is not a virgin when she meets Mr Lee, she is very much an innocent. The clumsy, and tragically comic, fumbling 'sex lessons' she endures with one of her fellow resistance troupe is certainly no real learning experience for life or for what she has to do. Unlike Alicia, she is an innocent to men and sexuality - she wouldn't find it so easy to distinguish between 'work and play'. Like Alicia she is 'Mata Hari' - she "makes love for the papers". A spy. Unlike Alicia, she is practically a child. But she is also an actress.
So, what are we seeing? Is Wong Chia Chi an actress giving a convincing performance for fear of risking her life? A naive innocent? Is this even a love story? It's a severe test of our empathy if it is.
Here, we are not given the luxury of knowing what she is really thinking. That's were the tension comes from. That's its genius. It's also its biggest flaw.
I don't think we ever truly know what the heroine is really feeling - is she acting, is she falling in love with Mr Yee? Or is it maybe a mixture of both? Possibly. Over the course of a little under three hours I don't think we ever truly know. In the same way, we know practically nothing about Mr Yee - his actions, what he is feeling. We only know what is told us - what is spoken about by the troupe of resistance fighters, what they believe: that he is a collaborator and torturer.
But we never see it! (Only once, I think, does Mr Yee talk about it). Is this dishonest of Lee? Or do we really need to see it?
Maybe it's not important. After all, Wong Chia Chi never sees it so why should we? This is her tale.
The first real clues to Mr Yee's true nature become blisteringly apparent in the first time they have 'sex' - a scene of such brutal ferocity that it gave me a knot in my stomach - he beats her with his belt and rapes her. For the audience, it's very easy to see the corrupting monster he is from this scene. Maybe this is how he has treated his (female) captives? It's not hard to imagine. But for the naive innocent Wong Chia Chi, I think it's entirely possible to imagine her seeing this brutal act as making love - how would she know any different? She's no Mata Hari or Alicia Huberman. She doesn't know men.

I don't know. Even after a second viewing, I'm still undecided if I really like Lust Caution. I certainly find it hard to engage with the main characters.
Ultimately, the ambiguity of the heroine's motivations and the inscrutable characterisation of Mr Yee not only alienates much of the audience but also leaves the film open to accusations of immorality - is this really a love story? And if so, do we empathise with a woman who is very likely in love with a monster?
Is it enough to say she is an actresst, even more than that, an innocent. I would say that, by the end of the story, she has certainly become a little infatuated with (inscrutable) Mr Yee and so her naivete means she makes a terrible decision. Whether he is in love with her is an irrelevance almost. It's too late.
If she - or we, the audience for that matter - were shown Mr Yee's crimes, this would be a very different story. Motivations would be black and white. Whether this would have made it a better film or easier to understand is a moot point. I do feel though, it would have been an easier film to forget.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Tilda, the cold-hearted child-catcher... Tilda, the saviour

Julia (Erick Zonka)

As shamelessly biased as I am towards the monumental abilities of our transcendent goddess of cinephilia that is La Tilda of Swinton (she is, without any shadow of doubt in my mind, the greatest living screen actor), I was still a little in awe of her raw, not to mention brave, performance as Julia. She is utterly convincing as, let's be honest here, a quite repulsive woman. Someone who, at the very least, is profoundly flawed - a self-centred alcoholic lush who cares about no-one and wears her propensity towards self-destruction on her sleeve. Who then goes one step further towards obliterating any last vestiges of sympathy she may have elicited from the people around her and us, the audience, by doing the unthinkable - kidnapping a child for ransom.
If that isn't bad enough, the rough treatment she metes out on the boy is nothing short of spiteful and cruel. Her careless attitude is unflinching (locking him in the boot of her car till he shits himself, screaming obscenities at him while waving a gun in his face, gagging him and leaving him tied to the radiator of the motel room, abandoning him in the Mexican desert at night). It's deeply upsetting to watch and you wonder how you can engage with this mascara smeared devil. And yet yes, we are still rooting for her! Highsmith fans will be smacking their chops.

It's not until the last 40 minutes or so, when the mother instinct breaks through the seemingly hard-as-nails but still very brittle exterior, that her humanity and compassion spills out at last. (It's been an emotional slog getting there so our relief is palpable). As she awakes (from a night of filth with her Mexican trick) and her poor wretched captive tyke is led in to her, bathed in the warm orange and yellow glows of a South American sunrise, the dispossessed lush and motherless son seem to bond. It's a profoundly moving scene (reminding me a little of the restorative feel that the later scenes in Irreversible invoked) and just about stops you wanting to kick Julia into submission. Can Julia redeem herself? Well, she does try - she really does. Unfortunately for them it may be too late for redemption, as events take a terrible turn and spiral even further out of Julia's control and we wonder if anyone will get out of this alive?

The ending is frustratingly abrupt but also kind of perfect - I'd love to know how things panned out but whatever happens next is a whole different story of course and nothing is better than our imagination for filling in the gaps.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Love? Pah!

Blue Valentine (Derek Cianfrance)

As near accurate a portrait of the perfect love affair and its literal death are rendered here explicitly and so utterly, that it's jaw-dropping closing moments will floor even those hardest of hearts [I can imagine the disappointment of the archetypal couple, hoping for a romantic diversion to affirm their own burgeoning amore: she persuading him that it's not a sentimental chick-flic, while secretly assuming it is and he, all harrumphing scepticism, ending up being the first one dribbling tears and snot into his half-empty pop-corn bag when he realises they're probably doomed].
The chemistry between Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams is deeply involving. They're total opposites. She's very internal, reserved - a little too inscrutable [to the point that some will empathise less with her] but her restraint does what it's supposed to - unwittingly pulls us in. Williams is exquisite with restraint [as just one single heart-stopping shot in Brokeback Mountain will testify]. He's visibly emotional, always (self)analytical, his heart not just on his sleeve but worn proudly like some shiny enamel badge - all gamboling immaturity that drags us along for the ride. If it was anyone but Gosling we'd be gagging.
With her quiet intensity & seriousness and his openness & sentimental nature, in some ways it's quite a gender role-reversal for a love story. But this chalk and cheese characterisation is also an early alarm-bell of the cracks to come and not only do they ignore it but so do we - who in life hasn't ignored those warning signs while skipping along the wishful-thinking path? Hopeless romantics will wax lyrical about the attraction of opposites, that spark of instant amore, the clash that is only a hurdle on the path to 'true' love. But that's the point of opposites - they have a tendency to end up being exactly that. That's the real tragedy here. The real tragedy of love.

It's the first Great film of 2011. You'll laugh. You'll cry. You'll want to fall in love. And then you'll wanna run screaming the other way.
And then run back again of course!

originally published on Flixter February 2011

Thursday, September 01, 2011

In defence of the superficial... oh, the glamour!

Arabesque (Stanley Donen)

Arabesque has the unfortunate handicap of being Stanley Donen's follow-up to the rather more revered and more polished Charade. It's unfairly dismissed as a poor imitation of it's predecessor. That Gregory Peck is a poor man's Cary Grant and that the film is, at best, camp hokum and at worst lazy and boring. Even a Bond rip-off! No matter. 
I will say I have never been a huge fan of Gregory Peck. I have always thought him a little too cold and wooden. His granite façade often seems impenetrable to me. There are one or two exceptions (the campy but under-rated Duel in the Sun always comes to mind). The label of poor man's Cary Grant is maybe a little too harsh but sometimes is rather fitting. Here though, the character of Prof. Pollock is a rather fusty and naive character. A 'wet fish' if you like. So the first time we see him he has literally driven his pupils to sleep with his dry lecture. He is a quintessential stereotype and Peck fits the part like a glove. Cary Grant, at this point in his career, was the very epitome of cool suave and knowing sophistication. He just wouldn't have been right for the part. He wouldn't have sent anyone to sleep and he certainly would have seen through Yasmin (Sophia Loren) from the outset.

Arabesque is not a pale imitation of Charade. It's just a less subtle pastiche of Hitchcock. The line between pastiche/homage and actual rip-off is often a thin one and always subjective of course. But it's more problematic with Hitchcock because many of his films are templates - he invented and perfected a lot of the rules and techniques of the spy/suspense genre we now take for granted. Arabesque and much of the spy/suspense genre films from the 60s, including the Bond films, are remakes or variations on the 'formula' perfected by Ernie Lehman and Hitchcock in North By Northwest - the sophisticated hero, armed with witticisms if not a gun, the cool and beautiful heroine who is not what she seems and who beds the villain as well as the hero, the famous landmark set pieces and breakneck chase sequences, the charming villain surrounded by loyal & lethal henchmen and so on (while on the subject, two Hitchcock regulars were considered when making the Bond films: Cary Grant was considered for playing Bond and Bernard Herrmann was considered for the score. Imagine how much more Hitchcockian Bond would have felt with those two elements in place)

The sequence at the racetrack is most definitely a send up of the racetrack scene in Notorious. In Notorious it's a scene about restraint and is played for tears. A heartbreaking Bergman is reduced to tears as she is rebuffed by a seemingly uncaring Grant. In Arabesque, Donen keeps it light and frothy; plays it camp - Peck and Loren overplaying the cloak and dagger routine by speaking in 'la-di-dah' clipped tones and Loren in an improbably large hat. Just as this is a tongue-in-cheek wink to Notorious, during the finale, where our heroes are chased into a field of green crops and are attacked by the villains with farming machinery, we get a joke on the crop-duster sequence in North by Northwest. But these are only a couple of very obvious references - Arabesque is full of them, some more subtle than others, and that's why it's such fun.
That and Sophia Loren looking utterly splendid - she is given a different Dior outfit for every scene and when Peck meets her for the first time, and utters "Hello... helloo, hello, hello helloooo!", you are with him with every coo!
The villains are thoroughly camp if slightly inconsequential. Alan Badel as Beshraavi, like Blofeld with his cat, is never without his falcon on his arm and never takes his dark glasses off - I think it's meant to be intimidating. It's not - you just keep expecting him to walk into the furniture. He also seems a little too interested in dressing Yasmin in new shoes rather than threatening her with anything more physical!
And all the Arab characters are just Brits with painted faces - mostly not even bothering with an accent. Which of course only adds to the camp value.
Mix in Henry Mancini's fantastic score and Christopher Challis' distinctively psychedelic and very sparkly camera-work (lights, mirrors and reflections just about everywhere) and Arabesque feels totally of its time and genre - glamorous, sophisticated, huge fun and completely superficial. What's not to enjoy?

Watch Arabesque (1966) Gregory Peck, Sofia Loren, Dual Sound (Eng-Span).avi in Entertainment | View More Free Videos Online at

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Less about the mummy than the tits

Blood From The Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt)

Certainly not Hammer's finest hour but neither is it the least. But with its utterly nonsensical plot and lack of any actual creepy bandaged mummies its surely a candidate for one of the most tedious. Add to this the cheap sets, flat cinematics and a distinctly rushed feeling, all shows up its second feature status most obviously (maybe it played second fiddle to a bandaged Christopher Lee??)
But to be fair, it's still occasionally camp fun - even the worst of Hammer will have that going for it! Namely, Valerie Leon (in an unnecessary wig) flouncing about in a series of revealing black or pink nighties, pouting excessively and rolling her heavily mascaraed eyes, killing off the rest of the (wasted) cast - seemingly armed with nothing more than a few Egyptian artifacts and her very ample, and admittedly quite impressive, cleavage.
Her nervous co-stars are a mixed bag of (mostly quality) character actors (supplementing their theatre work no doubt) wasted in thankless rolls: James Burden sweating to death - probably from wearing a worse wig than Leon's; Poor George Coulouris doing what is required - hamming maniacally and hysterically to death; Rosalie Crutchley being typically granite-faced to the end (maybe this was the look she gave to her agent?); And (poor man's Peter Cushing) Andrew Keir being... well, boring, bearded and bed-ridden. Only marvelous James Villiers comes out with any shred of dignity. But that's maybe more to do with his playing it suave and aloof.
Incidentally the ironic ending is, surprisingly, rather good and very nearly made the effort to get there bearable. Someone, with their tongue still wedged firmly in their cheek, is definitely teasing us for the disappointing sparsity of anything as thrilling as actual creepy bandaged mummies!

originally posted on Flixter April 12th 2010

Making it all worth while

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I have often wondered over the years if Malick is the laziest [genius?] film-maker on the planet. I have had a notion that he may not be worth my patience - this is only his fifth film in 38 years. I had an idea that The Thin Red Line, as great as it is, was not quite worth waiting 20 years for (I still think so). I have even had a thought that, as great as Days of Heaven and 'The Thin Red Line' are, that they don't quite come up to scratch when compared to Badlands (surely his debut is the one film of his that has influenced many of the very best film-makers working today). So I was a little off the radar when The New World was released (and I've still to rectify this criminal oversight). Now we have his fifth film. Seeing the trailer for 'The Tree of Life' reminded me a little of what was great about 'Badlands'. To say I was a little apprehensive would have been an understatement.

There was no need. It far exceeded my expectations.

Most film-makers know what donkeys we have become and they play the pre-publicity game to death - except the carrot is never quite in reach (doesn't anyone ever tire of the disappointment??) and is forever snatched away for the next big tease. Malick, in the meantime, has been cooking up an absolute feast to reward our patience and I for one thoroughly enjoyed the banquet (are we really gonna get dessert next year already?).

Part tone-poem, part contemplation on life, the universe and everything (yes, the reference is intentional) and part abstract meditation on [mostly] memories of childhood, rather than straight-forward piece of cinema - not only does it lack a narrative flow but much of the dialogue, whether spoken by the characters in context or narrated in voice-over, never actually carries a story as such. Dialogue is minimal and never more than incidental; scenes are random, fractured and often ambiguous in intent and the characters' voice-overs are more introspection [and prayer] rather than real thought processes. Much of the time we only have music and visuals (it really is almost a crime to even blink at such marvellous music and imagery), which all serves to add to the overall abstract feel. I will concede that the music [and sometimes even the imagery] is occasionally a little intrusive - loud, orchestral and choral sometimes felt too random and was not always appropriate. Any message or meaning is constantly in danger of being lost as we marvel at the glorious soundtrack.
If you like Terence Davies' early films you will certainly approve. Despite Malick's unique qualities, Davies is the most obvious comparison here and deserves a mention. Though the themes of the fall of the Garden of Eden (the telegram at the start of the film is a constant reminder that this perfect childhood of the 50s will give way to the harsh brutalities of the 60s), spirituality and a cruel [to be kind] mother nature (here most notably represented by the mother and father respectively) are all recognisably Malick. But the loose non-linear narrative, the use of carefully placed evocative music and sounds, also put me in mind of The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives.
I fear some will dismiss much of 'The Tree of Life' as pretentious and a bit of a head-scratcher. Maybe even a tad bored? (except for the closing moments, I wasn't for a single moment). And some may take umbrage at what could be perceived as two and a half hours of religious rumination (I'm agnostic so I get to take from it what I like!).
But what makes great cinema is somewhat twofold. It's partly about how much we take from it as an individual; how we interpret cinema's rich tapestry of imagery, music, themes and subtexts should be as much a personal thing for us as it is for the film-maker. Also the best kind of cinema stays with us not just because it throws up all the big questions but when we aren't given all the answers - better to have to find [and interpret] some ourselves. 'The Tree of Life' perfectly encapsulates all this like no other film I can think of.
In the closing moments things begin to unravel and the film begins to lose its way somewhat. I could have done without Penn, as the middle-aged Jack, on an immense beach and surrounded by what? Ghosts? Memories? Somnambulant extras?? Things teeter into mawkish navel-gazing. It was as if no-one knew how to end things (apart from the end of the everything of course). But, up until this final misstep, 'The Tree of Life' really is a magnificent piece of cinema and a true work of art.

By the way, you HAVE to see it on the big screen. I demand you do before it gets dwarfed onto a small screen.

originally posted on Flixter July 16th 2011

Duffle coat introspection

Submarine (Richard Ayoade)

In Richard Ayoade's assured debut feature he seems to be asserting his cinephile credentials by wearing his influences proudly on his sleeve. 'Submarine' most obviously evokes the Nouvelle Vague - especially Truffaut and Goddard - but there's a few surprising nods to 'Harold and Maude' and 'Don't Look Now'. But what lifts it all from slavish homage is the sheer joy and fun of it all. And the precocious leads are really great. Most especially Craig Roberts as Oliver - his dead-pan presence is like a warmer (less creepy?) Bud Cort as Harold (from 'Harold & Maude') - the duffle coat and lank mop are surely there to reinforce this. He hardly ever expresses more than a laboured grin and his downbeat monotone narration stops things getting too mushy (despite my irritation of most voice-overs). But his puppy-dog eyes encourages us to warm to him a little more than he sometimes deserves (he's not really grumpy, just a repressed intellectual) so that we forgive his pompous allusions & affectations and the rotten way he treats Jordana - as played by Yasmin Paige. She's good too - Jordana has a defiance of all things sentimental which is a perfect foil for Oliver's pretensions.
Unfortunately the grown-ups are given short shrift. Sally Hawkins manages to shine through with genuine warmth as Oliver's mother. But Noah Taylor's miserable 'dad-in-a-dressing-gown' and Paddy Considine's caricature of the 'other man' are somewhat one-dimensional and decidedly irritating. This is probably the intention - teenage coming of age tales usually have little time for the grown-ups and distance is often required when emphasising the isolation. But such scant regard for characterisation made it hard to empathise and so had me scratching my head wondering, not only why the parents would stay together but why this woman would even consider the phoney smarm of the alternative. It's only a minor quibble though. It's still a thoroughly entertaining little flic, with enough cinematic allusions and tricks to keep me interested in what Richard Ayoade may come up with next.

originally posted on Flixter May 25th 2011

Could even I be anticipating the The Avengers... not quite

Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

More comic-strip than comic-book - in other words fun, more than a bit camp and always unpretentious (which doesn't mean this is anything more than slightly akin to Joel Schumacher or Mike Hodges - though I'm sure the humourless won't agree with me).
The love interest is completely disposable and is far less important than the Shakespearean (ahem)/Greek tragedy (don't scoff)/soap-opera at the heart of 'Thor' - two brothers, only they're not (far be it from me to inject the queer reading here), one misunderstood, one 'different' (still not saying it's queer) slug it out for the approval of their father - and the throne. Or not.
Having the story (kind of) split in two, not only makes things feel a little like having two films for the price of one (epic fantasy and Superman type comic-strip) but also makes for a real lip-smacking sense of self-deprecation and is the film's biggest delight - the histrionic fantasy of the Gods clashing with Earth-bound mundanity is genuinely funny and also helps to create a warmth that is usually lacking in much of the more po-faced comic-book flics (usually about Knights who are a bit uptight or, more more apropriately, 'dark'). It's an 'in-joke' that never feels smug and knowing.
The visuals and the costumes are the right side of kitsch and are quite stunning - got to love the under-light bridge & 'disco-ball' gateway, complete with a gold larme'd bouncer (Idris Elba).
The story of the Gods is a bit simplistic but the villains are villainous and the characters are never less than likable (excepting that I'm ignoring the potential for queerness and prefer that Thor had taken a shine to spunky Darcy rather than winsome Jane).
What can I say? It's a lot of fun and It made me feel 12 again.
...those wetting themselves over the anticipation of 'The Avengers' flic don't need me to remind them to wait for the post-credits tease either. But if this is indicative of what's to come then I may be riding the wave myself (who am I kidding??)

originally posted on Flixter May 22nd 2011

Letting the Nazis in through the back door - definitely no pun intended

The 49th Parallel (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

I have a real soft spot for The 49th Parallel. It's certainly not held up by many as the best of Powell and Pressburger but it's one of those films I find myself drawn to again and again - P&P's warm and involving characterisation, the landscapes of Canada, Vaughn Williams' evocative score (given its due reverence as an 'honorary' character in the title sequence) are all scrumptious trimmings to a thoroughly exciting story.
Along with Hitchcock's WWII propaganda films Lifeboat and Foreign Correspondent and Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well?, it is the very best of its type - a call to arms that also happens to be cracking good cinema.
The cast list reads like a roll-call of all the great (mostly) British character actors of the day and, excepting the misfire of Olivier's phony accent, no-one puts a foot wrong. And how marvelous that Powell & Pressburger made such a successful piece of anti-Nazi propaganda and still managed to sneak in not just one of their trademark 'good' Germans but two - Anton Walbrook as Peter, the 'leader' of the (German!) Hutterite commune [his blistering speech is deeply moving and is certainly the heart of the film's message] and Niall McGinnis as Vogal, the German soldier who finds his conscience just a little too late - his demise being the quiet tragedy of a man who wanted a return to a simple life baking bread, instead of being an unthinking killer!

I've a feeling we're not in Holland Park anymore

Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz)

Think Don't Look Now crossed with Lord of the Flies but with characters drawn with such extreme bourgeois naivety that it's impossible to elicit the slightest sympathy for (precursors to the punchable leads of von Trier's Antichrist for sure). The longueurs would be fine and cinematic if we liked or empathised with these people - I would have been quite thrilled by the slightly abstract, lingering close-ups of Sewell and Béart if the overwhelming urge wasn't to slap some sense into them.
However it's still a very intriguing tease that gets so under the skin that it's hard to shake off too thoroughly without shuddering. Seared with some genuinely sinister and gothic sequences - horrid dream sequences that blur the line between what's real and imagined/dreaded, a vile dirty jungle so reeking of death and decay that you wonder why anyone would think anything living could be found there - it's not till it's over that, apart from humans, you realise we haven't seen a single living beast or insect (though we always here them). It's nothing less than a descent into Hell of course.
And the totally over the top, completely bonkers finale suddenly makes things worth the effort. Horrific, beautiful, disgusting and disturbing all at once. I would have laughed my tits off at it's final shots if I wasn't more than a little terrified.

originally posted on Flixter September 26th 2010

The most misleading title in cinema?

Monsters (Gareth Edwards)

A genuinely moving story about two lonely people trying desperately to get home against seemingly impossible odds - the occasional giant squid-like alien being the biggest hurdle of course. Along the way they (very) gradually fall in love so that by the end of their journey they realise - too late - they don't want to go home anymore.
As a travelogue/road movie it's quite stunning - in spite of and because of it's premise, the jungles and sunsets of Mexico punctuated by the odd ancient pyramid as well as the huge man-made walls and fences (to keep the alien threat at bay) are breathtaking. And the two leads are very effective too - with minimal dialogue, we are given so much more with looks and quiet moments where the simple gesture of a hand on a shoulder tells us all we need to know. The film's finale is somewhat quietly devastating and its irony puts it on a par with the great cinematic love stories.
As it happens, the title is a bit of a red herring and many expecting the obvious will be sorely disappointed. However, I was pleasantly surprised

originally posted on Flixter December 5th 2010

A Lazy Update

Once again my rambling is much overdue - has it really been 10 months?? Shocking I know. I would like to say that I have been leading some hectic social life and been quite preoccupied. I would be lying of course. I'm just lazy.
So today I will be just as lazy and simply upload some of my cine-thoughts of the past 10 months that have appeared elsewhere