Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The first film to pair Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles is great fun, with a fast paced story, two perfect actors in the lead roles and lashings of spooky foggy atmosphere.

Sticking closely to the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, the story sees Holmes and Watson investigating the legend of a deadly supernatural beast that has been haunting the Baskerville family for hundreds of years. After his Charles Baskerville is found dead, his face twisted in horror and giant paw marks near the body, his nephew Henry, the last of the line, inherits the family estate – but has he inherited the family curse? Or is there a more down-to-earth explanation?

Moviegoers in the 1930s had no shortage of detectives to watch, such as The Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, Charlie Chan and Mr Moto. One element of The Hound of the Baskervilles that makes it stand out from these is one that we might take for granted nowadays, which is the fact that it is set in the Victorian era it was originally written in, rather than the time it was released in.

Another factor that sets The Hound of the Baskervilles aside from other contemporaries is that, as well as a detective story, it is a wonderfully spooky Gothic tale, with a crumbling mansion, a seemingly supernatural beast and fog shrouded moors, all of which translate perfectly to the screen, with an ambience reminiscent of the classic Universal horror films. It is perhaps not surprising that Hammer chose this same tale to follow up their Dracula and Frankenstein films.

Of course, a detective story is only as good as the detective and thankfully we have one of the best portrayals of Holmes ever. Rathbone is a dead ringer for the Holmes depicted in the Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied the original publication, but he also brings a steely determination and energy to the part, and makes such an impact that it is easy to forget that the character is absent from most of the middle third of the story.

Nigel Bruce's take on Watson has come in for some stick over the years and there is no denying that this is a far more buffoonish than the book version. However, in his defence, Watson does have to be slightly behind events so that Holmes has someone to explain things to for the benefit of the audience, and in addition, there is no shortage of the other essential traits we associate with the character, the tenacity and loyalty.

Rounding out the films credentials as a work of horror is the supporting cast of suspicious characters, featuring no less than John Carradine as the Baskerville butler, a man who could read a shopping list and make it sound like a sinister threat, and Lionel Attwill as Dr Mortimer, the man who brings the whole matter to Holmes in the first place for reasons that seem unclear. Attwill usually gets typecast as sinister or sleazy villains and it is not surprising that he would go on to play Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty in the later Rathbone film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.

Making less of an impression is Sir Henry Baskerville himself, played by future TV Robin of Sherwood Richard Greene, although perhaps that is more a case of being overshadowed by the charisma and talent of the rest of the cast. In a sign perhaps of how little 20th Century Fox anticipated the success of the film, and the chances of any sequels, Greene actually gets star billing on the poster, over Rathbone and Bruce, despite this only being his second movie outing.

All of this is helped by a script that sticks to the basic storyline and zips along a good pace, intriguing without being confusing, while still leaving time to learn about something of the character of Holmes and soak up the glorious gloomy atmosphere of Grimpen Mire.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Movie franchises are ten-a-penny nowadays, but few come with more expectations and built in hype than Star Wars. The seventh chapter, The Force Awakens, goes some way to correcting the horrors of episodes 1 2 and 3, and introduces some new exciting and original new characters alongside familiar faces, and some even more familiar plot points.

Set some time after the events of Episode six (Return of the Jedi) that saw the Rebellion defeat the Empire and Darth Vader, a new threat has arisen in the shape of the mysterious First Order, who seem set on the same sort of Galactic conquest. The Rebellion’s legendary hero Luke Skywalker has long since vanished, but a young scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a droid may hold the key to his whereabouts. Pursued by the evil Kylo Ren, she teams up with Finn, a First Order Stormtrooper who is having second thoughts, and a couple of smugglers.

Ultimately the film plays it safe, giving the fans what they want, in the shape of gun fights, lightsaber fights, battles in outer space, a rousing John Williams score, a bad guy in a mask, and some snappy dialogue courtesy of Lawrence Kasdan. It also suffers the problem that any sequel suffers to some extent, in that being one part of a bigger story may limit how satisfying it can be as a standalone film. 

The most successful and memorable parts for me are the new elements and characters. Rey follows the Luke Skywalker model of a lowly youngster who has to grow up and learn some new skills pretty quickly, although she is distinct enough to not feel overly familiar. The real breakthrough character for me is Finn, as I liked the idea of subverting the trope of Stormtroopers being faceless mindless clones, and having one seems to suffer some sort of shellshock that makes him question his role in life.

Having said that, the familiar elements are there for a reason, and are integrated into a pacey and well thought out story, so the film can appeal equally both to fans, and people who just like exciting action packed films.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Courier of Death (1984)

The history of cinema is filled with people who did not make the big time, but along the way still managed to make at least one film. As that is one more film than I have ever made, I usually have a certain amount of admiration for them, especially if the film is as deliriously entertaining as Courier of Death. Whatever else you might call this film, it is certainly not boring.

JD Blackman is a courier, and his latest job involves a straightforward delivery of a briefcase containing millions of dollars in bonds, which is securely attached to the arm of his partner. However, things quickly go wrong leaving his partner dead and the bonds stolen, quickly followed by the kidnap and murder of his wife. Shortly after all of this an old army buddy, now high up in the government, contacts him with two pieces of news; firstly, the people behind the murder and theft are part of an underground fascist network; secondly, the government are giving Blackman tacit permission to hunt down and kill those same people.

While at no point could you claim this is a well-made movie it is not devoid of positive elements. While the dialogue lacks the deranged poetry of Ed Wood of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster fame, the bizarre plot twists and almost dreamlike feel are on par with these films. The fine story details are a little confused, but the premise is straightforward and clear, a classic action move revenge driven plot, and JD is (conveniently) given a group of people to hunt down one by one.

Granted, in practise you have a series of baffling scenes that don’t always make sense, individually or in the context of the whole film, my favourite being the main bad guy chasing JD over a bridge to an island, then deciding as JD isn’t going anywhere, to put his head down and get some sleep. As well, let’s not forget the endlessly quotable awful dialogue (“I’m going to kick BOTH your eyes out”), and while I suspect that much of what we see on screen was made up they went along, this in itself may account for the energetic anything-can-happen feel of the film.

The other astonishing and genuinely good element is the soundtrack, which at its best is a relentless mix of pulsing and droning synths, industrial noise and weird atmospherics, which is reminiscent of the likes of Skinny Puppy or Throbbing Gristle.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ray Harryhausen - Special Effects Titan (2011)

A trip back to a time when fantasy worlds were painstakingly created one frame at a time, Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan is an affectionate look at the career of the pioneer of stop motion animation, with words of praise from some high profile fans.

The story starts with his childhood, where Harryhausen became besotted with the original King Kong, and friendly with the creature’s creator Willis O’Brien, who became his mentor. We then get a journey through his sci-fi themed work such as Earth vs the Flying Saucers and First Men on the Moon, to the more mythology and fantasy based work like Jason and the Argonauts.

All this is interspersed with talking head clips from the man himself, who comes across as charming, articulate and warm, and celebrity supporters such as Terry Gilliam, John Landis, Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron and Joe Dante, all of whom talk of the influence Harryhausen and his films had on their lives and careers (Interestingly they all have their own favourite of his work, all for different reasons). Rather than just being fanboy ramblings however, they all seem to agree on the key to what makes his work special, which is that beyond the technical skill and spectacle, Harryhausen breathes life and even emotion into his characters.

We also get some insight into his working process, such as how his father used his engineering skills to help with much of the early building work, and how Harryhausen would not just build models, but get involved in story and design work on a film, even when not credited.

Furthermore, there is a plug for the Ray Harryhausen Foundation, set up both to continue teaching his techniques and to preserve his vast archive of models, drawings and notes, work that continues today, following his death in 2013.

The relentlessly positive mood gets a bit cloying after a while, and I started to long for some tales of conflict, something to break up the tone, but overall this is an enjoyable look at one of the greats of cinema.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

James Bond is one of the most enduring characters in cinema and undoubtedly one aspect of the longevity is the producer’s willingness and ability to keep the films relevant to contemporary audiences and tastes. The Man with the Golden Gun is an example of this, reflecting the tastes and attitudes of the target audience and popular culture of the time. Along the way however it needlessly complicates the story, wastes potentially one of the greatest Bond villains of all time, and relies too much on cringe-worthy comedy and weak supporting characters.

The hunter has become the hunted as Bond becomes the target of Scaramanga, a mysterious assassin, who charges one million dollars per job and always uses gold bullets on his targets. Scaramanga is also linked to the death of a scientist working on the "Solex Agitator", a powerful solar cell. How is this linked to the price on Bond's head – and will 007 live long enough find out?

Although the 70s Bond films were still using the original novels as source material, this was increasingly confined to the title, and basic plot, and The Man with the Golden Gun is no exception.  Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman moved the action from the Jamaican setting of the book to the Far East, which, as Enter the Dragon had been released the previous year, allows the film to incorporate elements from the Kung Fu movies which were all the rage. This was neither the first or last time this sort of cash in would happen as Live and Let Die and Moonraker came out within a short time of Shaft and Star Wars respectively, and incorporated many of the tropes of those films as well as playing to the public hunger for them.  However in The Man with the Golden Gun, rather than incorporated, these elements feel clumsily shoehorned in, leading to scenes that are baffling and insulting to the intelligence (why does Hip, Bond's man in Hong Kong, bring his teenage nieces on a mission? So they can beat up bad guys. Because they're Kung Fu experts).

The race and gender depictions are very much also of the time, with the Asians presented as both mysterious and exotic, or simply there to serve the British.  Women come off just as badly, although this is not unusual for Bond films. They range from the helpless and doomed Andrea (played by Maud Adams), who, in a jarring break from Moore's wisecracking smoothie portrayal, gets several smacks round the face from Bond as he tries to get information from her. At the other end of the spectrum we have helpless and stupid in the form of fellow British agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), a character who might have worked as a comedy relief dizzy blonde, but here is someone so stupid, incompetent and grating, that it actually insults the intelligence of the audience.

The goofy broad humour reaches a low point with the character of Sheriff J.W. Pepper, the two dimensional Southern Sheriff who had previously appeared in Live and Let Die. Bizarrely, and completely improbably (even in the improbable world of James Bond films) he is on holiday in Thailand, sat in a car at a showroom at precisely the moment Bond requisitions a vehicle for a chase. To make us believe that an overtly racist character like Pepper would holiday in Thailand is too much, never mind the idea that he would visit a car dealer at the same time

This leads to the most famous scene in the film, the corkscrew car bridge jump, and spectacular though this is, it, like the Sheriff, the Kung Fighting and the Solex Agitator, it adds nothing to the story telling and could have been left out without compromising the plot, or could have been inserted just as arbitrarily into any other film.

This is the crux of the problem with The Man with the Golden Gun, the simple initial premise of two men hunting each other needlessly complicated by these elements. The best Bond films, such as From Russia with Love take a simple plot with clear goals and make everything that happens, a clear and logical part of that. A duel between Bond and a worthy adversary should have been such a premise, and even if this takes in multiple locations and characters, they can all serve this. Sadly and unforgivably, the filmmakers (given this is a franchise, it is perhaps not always clear how much of the final product is down to producers, writers or directors) waste what could have been one of the greatest and most unique Bond villains of all time.

Christopher Lee rose to fame playing Dracula as a suave, charismatic, but ruthless and overtly sexual predator, qualities he brings to Scaramanga and, arguably, qualities that somewhat define the character of Bond. Certainly he is every bit as suave, charming, dangerous as Bond, almost like a mirror image of him, and while he does have a lair, gadgets and, in Nick Nack, played by Herve Villechaize, a sidekick (the 6ft 5 Lee  and Villechaize make a great odd couple, like Kramer and Mickey Abbott in Seinfeld), his focus on assassination and personal enrichment put him in a different league to Blofeld and SPECTRE.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

One Good Turn (1931)

One Good Turn sees Stan and Olly down on their luck, jobless, penniless, with no more possessions than the shirts on their backs and the car they live in. They are, as they put it, “victims of the Depression”, but when a kindly lady offers them a meal, a misunderstanding leads to the pair trying to repay her kindness. However, this being a Laurel and Hardy film, things do not go to plan, and once again we see the truth of the old adage that “no good deed goes unpunished”.

One Good Turn has all of the elements of a solid Laurel and Hardy talkie film. We get Stan's well-meaning stupidity (setting fire to their tent and put it out one cup of water at a time), Olly turning on the Southern charm to get them fed, bickering and friendship between the two, their arch nemesis James Finlayson, escalating tit for tat slapstick (this time at the dinner table) and damage of other people's property.

It is this final element that gives One Good Turn a destructive and slightly jarring (albeit memorable) climax, as mild mannered Stan turns on Olly, after a barrage of wrong accusations as to his integrity. The red mist descends to the extent that Stan takes an axe to the woodshed of their hosts, while Olly cowers inside.

One Good Turn(B&W) 1931 - Laurel & Hardy by herbert-hueller

Monday, 16 November 2015

Thicker Than Water (1935)

The final short to star Laurel and Hardy together, Thicker than Water sees the usual formula of domestic bliss turning to domestic chaos, with brilliant slapstick, a dash of Stan’s wordplay (“Is Mr Hardy Home?” “Yes but he’s not in”) and surrealism.

The story opens at the home of Mr and Mrs Hardy, and their lodger, a certain Mr Laurel. The two men want to go out to watch the ball game – but the lady of the house (played by the diminutive Daphne Pollard) will not hear of it, at least until they have done the washing up. The sight of the under five feet tall Pollard browbeating the hapless duo is mined to great comic effect, and the washing up goes as smoothly as might be expected, especially for those who have seen Helpmates.

The rest of the story revolves around money and debt, in particular, the debt owed to furniture store owner James Finlayson, and the money that Olly gave to Stan to cover this month's payment, money that, needless to say, did not get to where it should have, leading to further ear bending and emasculation for Olly.

In an effort to regain some of his crushed male pride, he is persuaded by Stan to withdraw the couple’s remaining bank balance in order to buy furniture outright, so they are not in hock to Finlayson. As we seen time after time in the world of Laurel and Hardy, no good deed goes unpunished, and Olly’s chivalrous attempts to help a lady get a Grandfather clock at an auction leave him minus his cash and holding the timepiece. Mrs Hardy does not approve, and registers her disapproval, with the help of a frying pan, on Olly's head, requiring a trip to the hospital and a surreal twist ending.

Surrealism is perhaps one of the more underappreciated elements of Laurel and Hardy films, and it crops up here in two distinct ways.  Firstly the body swap gag, where, after a blood transfusion required by Mrs Hardy taking a frying pan to Mr Hardy, Olly dresses, talks and acts like Stan, and vice versa. The voices are dubbed but the pair do an uncannily excellent job of mimicking each other’s body language and tics of each other. These sort of jarringly odd punchlines did crop up from time to time, such as Stan’s grotesquely distended belly at the end of Below Zero

Secondly is the recurring gag where by the pair change to the next scene by having one of them drag the frame in from off-camera, a clever way of getting quickly from one scene to another, seemingly quite innovative for the time.

Laurel And Hardy - THICKER THAN WATER - 1935 by nostalgia04

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Should Married Men Go Home? (1928)

While never rising to the heights of some of their other silent films, Should Married Men Go Home? is an enjoyable and amusing Laurel and Hardy short

The story comes in two distinct halves, starting with a scene of domestic bliss at the home of Mr and Mrs Hardy, bliss that is soon destroyed by the appearance on the doorstep of Stan Laurel, intent on dragging his friend out for a game of golf. When attempts to avoid him fail, Stan is invited in (through gritted teeth) where he proceeds to cause destructive chaos. When Mrs Hardy packs them both off to the gold course, the pair meet up with a couple of lady golfers, as well as Stan’s oversized hat, a mud-bath, and a toupee that just will not stay in place.

The film is an important milestone in the Laurel and Hardy story, as this is the first time they are billed together as a duo. The performers and film-makers are still finding their feet in terms of pacing and execution of the gags, although it is interesting to see that some of them use film editing, something that helped the pair develop from their theatrical roots to being movie comedians. The characters are still being formed, lacking their hats and tatty suits, and the dynamic of their relationship is subtly different, still being friends, but the idea of Olly wanting to avoid Stan and spend time with his wife would not last.

A couple of the routines would crop up later in talkie films, with Olly's bungled attempts to avoid Stan at home getting a second outing in Come Clean, while Stan's constant undermining of Olly's attempts to preserve their meagre cash reserves at the drug store would be reworked in Men O'War. The latter in particular worked much better with dialogue.

There's plenty of slapstick too, from a piece of turf mistaken for a wig to Olly's disastrous attempt to jump over his picket fence, to the messy anarchic ending, something that would crop up repeatedly in their films. In Battle of the Century it was pies, in You're Darn Tootin' it was pants, here the film ends in a mud bath, as once again Laurel and Hardy cause inadvertent but hilarious chaos wherever they go.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

Very loosely based on the classic James Thurber short story, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a fun little romp, with a refreshingly dark and unsentimental side that makes it stand apart from other comedies of the era.

Danny Kaye plays the title character, a young man working at a New York publishing company, somebody with no greater life plans than getting to the end of the day without falling foul of his bullying boss, insufferably bossy mother, and immature and irritating fiancé. The only escape for poor Mitty is his own private fantasyland, where, whether as a brilliant surgeon, a dashing fighter pilot, or a sure shot cowboy, he is always the hero. However, fantasy and reality start to merge when, back in the real world, a beautiful woman drags Mitty into a plot involving stolen jewels – a beautiful woman who happens to look exactly like a woman from his dreams.

The film works best during the fantasy sequences, with the production design in the individual dreams both detailed and surreal (and in the hospital sequence, weird, almost like Cronenberg's Dead Ringers). Director Norman McLeod plays up this visual element more than in some of his previous work with the likes of the Marx Brothers and W.C. Fields, where the emphasis was more on surreal sight gags and word play.

There is also no attempt to gloss over how grim much of Mitty's life is, being undervalued at work and home, henpecked and demeaned by the men and women in his life. Things get genuinely dark too, when those around him convince Mitty that his active imagination is in fact a serious mental illness, and send him to see a shrink, played by, of all people, Boris Karloff. Again, credit to McLeod for balancing the light and dark of the film, ultimately making Mitty a sympathetic rather than just pathetic character.

Monday, 2 November 2015

The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)

The author Shirley Jackson once wrote, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality”, and such thinking may go some way to explain the appeal of watching films with a fantasy or escapist element to them. Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is a clever and charming exploration of this idea, as well as our relationship with movies, movie characters, and the people who bring them to life. Although the film is a move away from the more usual explorations of contemporary New York, it still has plenty of his familiar tropes, as well as a surprising twist in the tail.

Cecilia (Mia Farrow) lives in Depression era New Jersey, struggling to get by on her waitress wages. Her husband, Monk (Danny Aiello) is no help, spending his days playing pitch and toss with his unemployed friends, and his nights drinking, gambling and occasionally hitting Cecilia. Her only escape is the movie theatre, losing herself week after week in the fluff and glamour on the silver screen. During one viewing of her latest favourite, The Purple Rose of Cairo, the impossible happens – her favourite character, Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) comes out of the screen into reality – and declares his love for her. This has serious implications for her marriage – but also for the rest of the characters trapped on screen, who can't move the story forward without their leading man.

The film within a film, The Purple Rose of Cairo is brilliant, a perfect pastiche of the bright and breezy RKO fluff musicals with their mix of beautiful people flitting between big apartments and New York nightclubs, with singers, big bands, and endless champagne. When Baxter steps down into the audience, this takes the film into the world of magical realism described by the writer Matthew Strecher as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”. While atypical of Allen's work overall, it is an area he does move into from time to time, in films such as Play It Again Sam and Midnight in Paris. In addition, as with those films, Allen never explains the cause of the fantastic events, leaving them open to interpretation – is it in people's imagination, some sort of mass hallucination – or has the sheer willpower of a devoted movie fan bought her idol to life? 

The characters themselves are a little two dimensional, but in the context of the era, the films Cecilia likes to watch, and the fantastic events depicted, the slightly unnatural sounding dialogue, such as the onscreen characters having a philosophical discussion, does not seem as jarring as it would in a contemporary setting. Farrow helps, bringing a likeable charm to her character, and her sometimes neurotic mannerisms make her the nearest we have to the “Woody Allen” character that usually crops up if the man himself does not in one of his films.

The period detail feels convincing, and the film clearly had some money spent on it, but more importantly, Allen clearly also spent time on the script, and as feels engaged in the subject, so we feel engaged too. The Purple Rose of Cairo is a film about films, one which looks into not just the creative process that lies behind them, but also the relationship between the filmmakers, the fictional characters they create, and the audience who fall in love with them. Here Allen ask questions as to what it really is that we fall in love with – the actor, the character they are playing, or the image we have of them.

The crux of the drama and comedy is the clash between the world of the movies (perfection, order, repetition, happy endings) and that of real life (imperfect, real, chaotic, unhappy endings). Ultimately Allen celebrates both of these for being what they are, and while he does not appear to be favouring one over the other, he seems to suggest that "real" will eventually win out whether we like it or not. This is most evident in the heartbreaking climax, where Allen refuses to pander to the sort of happy endings of classic movie fantasy, even though he celebrates these as good things in their own world.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Cannibal Apocalypse (1980)

Although it might be tempting to lump Cannibal Apocalypse in with similar gut munching genre films from the 70s and 80s it is both different from and much more entertaining than many of these. Director Antonio Margheriti keeps the action moving but also focusses as much on character as on grue, John Saxon creates a sympathetic lead, and the premise has some surprising symbolism about post traumatic stress disorder.

A platoon of US soldiers lands in a Vietnamese village on a search and rescue mission led by Captain Norman Hopper (John Saxon). Hopper finds two POWs trapped in a pit, munching on the flesh of a villager, and as he reaches out to rescue them, one (the distractingly named Charles Bukowski, played by genre legend John Morghen) bites him. Cut to a few years later, back in the US and Bukowski is released from a psychiatric hospital, but he still has a taste for human flesh, a craving caused by a virus contracted in Vietnam. Hopper starts to realise that Bukowski may have passed the virus on to him - and to anyone else that he can get his teeth into.

Margheriti does not skimp on the gore, such as the football sized hole that a shotgun blast leaves in somebody's guts, and it will not be too much of a suprise to hear that this film made the British Government's infamous Video Nasty list in the 1980s. Nevrtheless, Cannibal Apocalypse has several elements that lift the film above the more grim, cheerless and tiresome horror efforts that were also being made at the time. 

Firstly the script is both straightforward and fast moving, and gives John Saxon the opportunity to build a likeable and sympathetic leading character, an every-man thrust into a bizarre situation that gradually slips out of his control.

The polar opposite of Hopper is his former comrade-in-arms Bukowski. He is brilliantly played by Morghen, an actor who seems here as in the likes of Cannibal Ferox and House on the Edge of the Park, to be typecast as some of the most grubby and unwholesome characters in cinema history.

The most fascinating part of the film is the symbolism of the virus that causes them to turn to flesheating. Unlike the zombies or cannibals of other contemporary horror films, these characters do not become mindless killers, but, although slaves to their new appetites, remain seemingly sentient,  more like high functioning addicts. Another interpretation stems from where the characters originally contracted the virus, their wartime experiences. This, like Post-traumatic stress disorder, is something that they bring back to civilian life, and, like PTSD, can sit dormant for years, but if untreated, eventually begins  to have a detrimental effect on the veterans, as well as their families and friends, and, eventually, their fellow citizens.

One accusation that could be placed at both Vietnam and Cannibal genre films is racism. The North American or European protagonists are, even if cruel and degenerate, still the "normal" people that the audience relate to, and the Vietnamese / Cannibals are savage, exotic, mysterious and "foreign", even if the action takes place for in their own country.  Cannibal Apocalypse overcomes these by placing most of the action in urban America, and making the Americans the cannibals. The flesheating is never implied to be a part of Vietnamese culture, just something that the war has driven the Americans to acting out.

Of course there are some of the usual things present in low budget exploitation filmmaking, such as clunky dialogue, underwritten supporting characters and badly matched stock footage, but none of this detracts from a distinctive, and unsettling slice of 80s horror.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Irrational Man (2015)

Another year, another Woody Allen film and sadly, Irrational Man is one of his lacklustre efforts, with the under plotted story, underwritten characters and clunky dialogue that mar the worst of his more recent efforts.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a tormented professor, starting work teaching philosophy at Braylin College in New England. Drinking heavily, and searching for meaning in life following the death of his mother and watching his wife run away with his best friend, he stumbles into two things that could provide what he needs. Firstly is a relationship with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone, her second Allen film after Magic in the Moonlight). Secondly is the chance to do what he sees as a noble act for a desperate stranger – even if that noble act requires murder.

This is familiar territory for Allen, having explored the morality of murder, (and getting away with it) much more successfully in his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. That had all the positives that this film is lacking, with suspense, wit, and characters who engage us. With Abe Lucas however, we hear so much about how fascinating he is and how original his ideas are – but this all comes from other people, rarely from the words or actions of the man himself. Stone works hard to breathe some life into Jill, but this is an uphill struggle with such an underwritten character, someone who is little more than a perky but unremarkable student infatuated with her tutor. The only spark of interest comes from Parker Posey as Professor Rita Richards, the man hungry colleague of Lucas who starts an affair with him. However, it is difficult to fathom what she finds so fascinating about him, other than a desire to escape her own unhappy marriage.

Without the characters to drive it, the drama falls flat, becoming one simply one set of events after another, with no sense of urgency or suspense, culminating in a hokey twist straight out of Murder She Wrote. The dialogue is another disappointment, awkward, obvious and expositional. The gag writer in Allen usually keeps some sparkle in his words, but here his talents seem to have deserted him. As is so often the case, is the script that makes or breaks a Woody Allen film, and, as he has shown recently with Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, (two wildly different films in style and subject matter), when he bothers to put some effort in with the writing, he is as brilliant and original a film-maker as he ever was.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Death Wish II (1982)

Despite my hopes of some trashy amoral action packed fun, Death Wish II is a joyless test of the viewer's patience. The star (Charles Bronson) and director (Michael Winner) can do better, certainly in the context of the vigilante genre, as shown in the first film of the franchise.

In the first Death Wish, Paul Kersey (Bronson) hunted down the scummiest scum of New York City, following the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter Carol. Now, several years later, he is working as an architect in Los Angeles, and living with Carol and new girlfriend Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). After chasing down a gang who stole his wallet, Kersey finds himself followed back to his apartment by his attackers. The gang proceed to beat him unconscious, rape his Mexican housekeeper and kidnap his daughter, who falls to her death trying to escape. For Kersey, that leaves only one course of action - pick up his gun and hunt them down, one scumbag at a time.

The original Death Wish was a slickly made piece of emotional manipulation, which at least kept the viewer interested and tried to provide some justification for Kersey's actions. Here, nobody seems that bothered about putting that much thought into the script, or the direction (making violence boring is an art, but not one to be admired)

The real surprise and disappointment is the star of the film. Bronson, while never in the slightest bit convincing as an architect, is one of the great movie tough guys, with genuine screen presence and charisma, at his best when exuding an impassive and implacable sense of purpose and menace. Here he just looks stiff and dull, a robot going through the motions.

By having the gang made up of scum of different ethnic backgrounds, Winner does go some way to offsetting charges of racism, but there is no getting away from the unpleasant treatment of women. They only exist to be abused by men or to provide reasons for the men to act, although this is not an unusual situation for this genre.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

Hammer Horror is perhaps mostly closely associated with the Dracula and Frankenstein films, but the studio first explored the horror genre with The Quatermass Xperiment. Although somewhat hampered by the odd choice of leading man, director Val Guest gives both a tense, fast moving adaption of the hit BBC TV serial (the “Xperiment” was presumably changed by Hammer to sell it as an "X" rated film), while keeping the themes of the original intact. The film can also be counted as a very early example of the subgenre known as Body Horror.

Professor Bernard Quatermass, the head of the British Rocket Group, has just sent the country’s first manned rocket into space. However, disaster strikes as all contact with the three crew members is lost, and the rocket crashes back to earth. Two of the crew have disappeared, and the one remaining survivor, Victor Carroon, is in shock, unable to speak, only mouth the words “Help me”. While in hospital, Caroon starts to undergo horrifying changes, and finds he needs to absorb living things in order to survive. Quatermass soon realises that Caroon, or whatever it is that he has become, will not stop growing, and the next stage of his transformation will threaten the entire planet.

Like many low budget European films, The Quatermass Xperiment was given a Hollywood star whose career had hit a lull, brought in for cheap to help sell the film to the American market. This leaves The Quatermass Xperiment with it's only serious flaw, Irish born Brian Donlevy, who had made a name for himself playing tough guys and gangsters, particularly in groundbreaking examples of Film Noir such as Kiss of Death and The Big Combo. Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that he seems a little bit out of place in an English Sci-Fi movie. That said, while he lacks credibility playing a man of science, his tough guy persona gives the movie Quatermass a headstrong decisiveness and a refusal to be bullied or brushed aside. This Quatermass is a leader, a man of action, coupled with an almost reckless arrogance, a character that is tough to like, not least because he seems unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, but who is always unpredictable and interesting.

Far more sympathetic is Richard Wordsworth as the tragic surviving astronaut Carroon. The character stays mute throughout so the anger and despair we see him go through as he loses control of his mind and body is portrayed largely through facial expressions and inarticulate grunts, something that puts him in the same realm as the Boris Karloff’s heartrending take on Frankenstein’s monster. There is also a more overt echo of this, whether it is a conscious one or not, in the scene where Carroon encounters a small girl out playing by herself. Although there is a different outcome here, both scenes are symbolic of the monster's struggle with their intrinsic humanity, and like Frankenstein's monster, Carroon's anguish is not self inflicted, being the victim of a scientists, albeit well meaning, plans gone wrong. This sort of approach would come to be termed Body Horror, and explored many years later by the likes of David Cronenberg, with films such as Shivers, Rabid, and his reworking of The Fly.

The Quatermass Xperiment was the first attempt at a sci-fi / horror film by director Val Guest. He would go on to helm other genre classics such as this film's sequel, Quatermass 2, and The Day The Earth Caught Fire (as well as a long and eclectic career taking in everything from thrillers, comedies and numerous TV shows). If there is a common thread to his approach with these three films, it is to keep the fantastic story rooted in reality, helped by an unflashy, almost documentary approach to shooting scenes, as well as frequent use of actual locations rather than studio backdrops. The screenplay (co-written by Guest, based on Nigel Kneale's original TV scripts) also shows the effects of the events on ordinary people as much as the scientists, military men and government officials.

The film is also fascinating when placed into a historical context, being released at a time when Britain was still wrestling with the mix of World War Two euphoria, Cold War feelings of potential apocalyptic doom, and the realisation that with the collapse of the British Empire, the country was no longer the global colossus that it had been. This was coupled with the clash of the old and new, that Quatermass with his relentless charge to the future and insistence on blasting rockets into outer space represents the latter half of. This insistence is not dulled by the events of the film however, and in the final scenes, we see Quatermass walking off alone into the distance, followed, without any dramatic music, by the final shot of another rocket being launched. Progress, it seems, will not be stopped.


Tuesday, 11 August 2015

First Blood (1982)

First Blood is a good example of how action films should be made. It has a sympathetic lead character, played by a star who is very believable in the role, a talented director, and, perhaps most importantly, a well-structured script. While it is neither overtly a “pro” or “anti” war film, First Blood does have some interesting symbolism in the story that relates to that subject matter.

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is an ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran, drifting around the US, trying to track down his remaining comrades. A stop in the town of Hope sees him thrown in jail on a vagrancy charge and tortured by the Sheriff's deputies. However, Rambo decides to fight back – but can one man succeed against the town's entire police department, the state police, and the National Guard?

First Blood has a number of assets that raise it above the normal standard for action exploitation films. The script, co-written by Stallone, has its fair share of absurdities and logic lapses, (Rambo's physique looks like he spends his life in the gym not on the road, and a fall from a great height onto jagged rocks leaves him just a few scratches). However, this is not unusual in films where the emphasis is often more on spectacle, and if you simply must have a film with no plot holes or unlikelihood, then maybe action is not the genre for you. What First Blood does have is a tight and well thought out story structure with clear goals for the hero, progression, and sufficient pace to gloss over the absurdities. We learn enough about Rambo, his past and his present to understand and empathise with him before the action kicks in, and when it does, it is relentless, as Rambo breaks free from his captors and turns the tables, taking the fight to them. He is on the enemy's territory, but they are the ones who seem overwhelmed by their environment.

The villains are easy to boo, being the archetypal gun toting small town cops. The two exceptions to this are the fresh faced kid cop Mitch, played by a very young David Caruso and the sheriff, played by Brian Denehhy. The former is torn between wanting to please his peers and be part of the crowd, but also knowing that their behaviour towards Rambo is wrong, and not having the confidence or power to stop it. The latter is not a bad person, (the torture takes place without his knowledge), but instead is somebody who has let their ego and stubbornness lead them into a situation that spirals out of their control.

Aside from the script, the other big asset is the star himself, who switches gears from quiet mumbling to white hot unstoppable physical rage in a completely convincing manner, so that we are caught up in the moment, and overlook some of the more implausible scenarios. The only ally Rambo can turn to is his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, who brings a presence and depth to what could have been a two dimensional grizzled warrior soldier. When faced with his protégé breaking down and sobbing, he looks convincingly uneasy with having to confront the consequences of the sort of dehumanising warrior building that is his life and work. Trautman is a man who can face the worst wartime situations, but cannot handle another man's emotions, and this is conveyed in an understated manner by Crenna, an underrated actor.

Director Ted Kotcheff has had a wildly eclectic career, ranging from episodes of the BBC TV Play for Today series, to the truly disturbing Australian outback exploitation classic Wake in Fright. His talent with cast and camera also goes some way to raising this above a standard action thriller. Kotcheff throws in some almost Expressionist touches, especially out in the woods where the overwhelming landscape and angry flashes of lightning make the scenery almost feel like a character in itself, a foe nearly as hostile as Rambo.

The Vietnam War film is as distinctive a genre as any in modern cinema and the war veteran unable to adjust to civilian life is a similarly distinctive sub-genre within this. If First Blood does have a message, it is that perhaps Governments should take better care of the men and women they send to fight their wars for them. There is certainly no discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam conflict, politically or morally, and while Rambo resents the anti-war protestors who greeted his return home and called him a “baby killer”, he does not seem to have thought of it as anything more than following orders and doing the job he was trained for.

First Blood is a film steeped in the history and myth of the Vietnam War and as the real life Vietnam veteran William Adams said the war "...is no longer a definite event so much as it is a collective and mobile script in which we continue to scrawl, erase, and rewrite our conflicting and changing view of ourselves."

Whether intentional or not, there are parallels between the events on screen and those of the war that forms the backdrop to them, or, indeed of many wars throughout history. The Sheriff is the one whose poor judgement and bad luck arguably drive Rambo to his violent vengeance. However, others are the ones that pay a price for Teasle's decisions and actions, whether it is his "troops", the deputies who come back maimed or in body bags or the civilians who have to flee for their lives as the town goes up in flames, watching their homes and businesses destroyed.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

The Master of Ballentrae is a highly enjoyable example of the kind of old-fashioned swashbuckler film they simply do not make any more. It is also significant in that it is the penultimate swashbuckler of Errol Flynn's career, the man who made his name, as well as the success of the genre, with the classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Although starting to look a little long in the tooth, Flynn still crackles with plenty of the charisma, energy and sex appeal he had done twenty years previously.

The story is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name. In 18th Century Scotland, the Jacobite Rebellion is underway, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and his forces trying to reclaim the British throne from George II. Two brothers decide to take opposite sides in the war, in order to preserve the family fortune, whatever the outcome. Jamie Durie (played by Flynn) a hellraising scoundrel, with a string of women (in addition to his fiancé) and a string of gambling debts goes to fight for the rebellion, while his brother Henry, the pious, honest one, stays at home pretending to champion the English cause. When one of Jamie's spurned lovers betrays him to the Redcoats, he mistakenly thinks Henry is the culprit, and finds himself fleeing for his life, getting caught up in all manner of adventures involving slaves, pirates, an unscheduled trip to the West Indies, a Spanish Galleon full of gold, and a lovable rogue Irishman, Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey). Will Jamie ever return to his homeland – and will he ever be convinced that it was not his brother who betrayed him?

Swashbuckling films are one of those genres where you expect certain tropes and The Master of Ballentrae does not disappoint, with sword fights a plenty, ships, colourful villains, treachery and betrayal. If there is a criticism to be made in terms of the genre, it is that this film provides little that we have not seen before. However, taken on its own merits, this is great entertainment, with Flynn belying his age and failing health to fling himself into the action scenes. The story rarely drags, with the goal of Jamie's quest to get back to Scotland constantly driving him on.

The Scotland in question is of course very much a Hollywood version of the country, with lush green hills, humble peasant folk, villainous Englishmen, and Scottish accents that sound like Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. Wisely, Flynn does not attempt the Scots brogue, sticking instead to his familiar smooth tones. Livesey provides the perfect sidekick for him, giving his character as big a lust for life (and whiskey and women) as Jamie, and as much charm, but without ever overshadowing him. Anthony Steel as Henry is a little stiff and bland, but this is entirely in keeping with the character, a man the total opposite of Jamie.

The other big asset for the film is the rich and vivid cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff, who had previously shot the likes of The Red Shoes and The African Queen. The location filming, done around Cornwall, Scotland and Sicily, really brings the countryside to life, with the vivid colours as intoxicating and enjoyable as the star and the on-screen action.