Tuesday, 26 December 2017

Sorcerer (1977)

Panned and largely ignored on its initial release (although it was up against Star Wars at the Box Office), Sorcerer is a beautiful, brutal and unbearably tense film.

The first half an hour or so is set up, where we learn something of the back story of Nilo (Francisco Rabal), a hitman who pulls off a killing in Mexico, Kassem (Amidou), an Arab terrorist who has just set off a bomb in the middle of Jerusalem, Serrano (Bruno Cremer), a crooked French banker, and gangster Scanlon (Roy Scheider) who has to flee after robbing a church and killing a priest whose brother is in the mob. All four find themselves in the South American town of Porvenir, a dismal place where, to quote Hunter S. Thompson, "men sweat 24 hours a day". With funds low and desperation high, their only way out is to drive trucks full of highly unstable Nitro-glycerine over treacherous mountain dirt roads to help put out a fire at an American owned oil well.

The film takes the same source (the novel Le salaire de la peur) as the 1953 French thriller The Wages of Fear. However, director William Friedkin, who denied this was a remake of the earlier film, stamps his own personal style on to the material with a mix of the documentary realism and stylised imagery seen in The Exorcist.

There is shaky handheld close-up camera work, which bring us right into the chaos and confusion, but Friedkin also seems to anthropomorphise objects. The jungle sometimes feels like a malevolent sentient being, with vines and branches leaping out from nowhere to attack the trucks, and, when viewed from the front with their headlamps glowing in the dark like eyes, the trucks almost have a life of their own, like beasts that the men are riding on an ancient mythical quest. Friedkin is also comfortable with regular passages of non-English dialogue, or even long passages of no dialogue whatsoever, using images to tell the story.

Visually the palette is rich, with blue skies and green jungle backdrops contrasted with fiery orange explosions and the ubiquitous brown mud. Sound also plays a big part in the film, from Tangerine Dream's creepy, gloomy score to the contrasting scenes of noisy chaotic action, and total silence.

The brilliant direction is backed up by a brilliant cast, headed by Roy Scheider, who, despite playing a mafia hitman, brings the same likeable and identifiable everyman quality to his role that he did in Jaws. From the rest of the cast Bruno Cremer makes the most impact, as the suave playboy thrown from a world of luxury and money into one of sweat, toil, desperation and poverty. These are people trapped by location and circumstance of their own making.

The other character is that of the landscape itself, which suffers as much as any of the people, both from the trucks ploughing through trees and churning up mud, and the fires and pollution of big business.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Miracle on 34th Street remains perennial yuletide viewing, largely thanks to the charm of the cast, the innocence of the main characters and the lack of any heavyhanded preaching.

After seeing the Santa at the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade staggering around drunk, Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn) protests to the parade organiser Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara). She offers him the job and he proves to be such a hit, he is taken on as the in-store Santa too. However, after a run-in with a psychologist, Kringle is sent to a mental institute - but a wily lawyer reckons he can get him out, if he can legally prove that he is the real, genuine, one and only Santa Claus.

Gwenn is utterly charming as Kringle, bringing a total unironic sincerity and a genuine sweetness that makes him impossible to dislike. The other star is Natalie Wood as Walker's daughter Susan, a girl brought up by her disillusioned mother to only believe in the rational and not to waste time on imagination. The character's pessimism stops her from becoming cloying, but Wood also manages to give her enough charm to make her likeable. Also, look fast for the always enjoyable Thelma Ritter making her big screen debut as a harried toy-hunting mom, before going on to memorable roles in the likes of Rear Window and All About Eve.

It is perhaps easy to label a much-loved film like this as timeless, but in many ways, it is very much of its time. A world without computers, iPads and mobile phones (and one where a mother happy to let a complete stranger spend whole days babysitting her young daughter and taking her out to the zoo) seems like a completely foreign one. Basing the story around departments stores and marketing men puts it between the time of post war euphoria and the increasing commercialism and Mad Men style ad campaigns of the 1950s. The film doesn't beat you over the head with a radical anti-capitalist message, but if there is anything to take away, perhaps it should be that amongst the noise, booze, shopping and stress, there should always be time for a little bit of magic.

Monday, 4 December 2017

My Bloody Valentine (1981)

My Bloody Valentine has little in the way of scares but there is enough gore and enough of a deviation from the usual slasher film template to make it stand out from the crowd and be worth a look.

The story (which, weirdly, reminded me of Jaws) takes place in the little coal mining town of Valentine Bluffs, where the residents are planning their first Valentine's Day party in 20 years. The last time they held one, there was an accident in the mine, an accident caused by the mine's safety officers being at the party. Only one man, Harry Warden, survived, and he killed the people responsible and ordered the town never to have another Valentine's party. So, what could possibly go wrong?

The cliché with slasher films is to have the story revolving around sexually charged teenagers, but here the story revolves around adults with jobs. What also sets this apart from others in the subgenre is the way director George Mihalka makes use of the locations, tying the story to the coal mining town (a real one in Nova Scotia was used) something which grounds the convoluted, slightly silly story, and the mine itself certainly adds to the claustrophobia.

A film where a deranged killer is cutting out people's hearts with a pickaxe is not going to skimp on the gore, so it's no surprise to hear that My Bloody Valentine suffered at the hands of the censors. The version doing the rounds now has had some of this restored, and the blood certainly gives a shocking jolt of energy which goes someway to compensating for the lack of inventiveness in the kills.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Your Vice Is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (1972)

Aside from having one of the greatest titles in cinema history, Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key is an interesting take on the giallo film.

Oliviero is a washed-up author, obsessed with his dead mother, battling writer’s block with booze, drugs and decadent parties at his crumbling villa, where he regularly humiliates and abuses wife Irina. When one of his flings turns up dead, he becomes the prime suspect. As more murders occur and the paranoia grips Olivero, his life is thrown into even more turmoil by the arrival of his long-unseen niece Fiorina (Edwige Fenech), who takes a shine to Irina. What mysterious secrets could she be hiding? And why is Irina so afraid of their black cat, the one that used to belong to Olivero's mother?

As usual with this genre the plot is a little wild and not always lucid, but the more outré elements simply reflect the increasingly delirious mental states of the characters. In addition, the script benefits from borrowing some ideas from Edgar Allan Poe's short story The Black Cat, meaning the story wraps up in a relatively rational and satisfying way (and having the protagonist live in a crumbling villa feels very Poe as well).

As well as including many of the standard Giallo tropes, such as sex, violent death, knives, and J&B whisky, director Sergio Martino creates a hothouse atmosphere of insanity, decadence and suppressed anger, helped by some excellent cinematography, crazy camera angles and clever editing, particularly during one scene of a motorcyclist having an unfortunate meeting with an oil slick. All of this is supplemented by a lush score from Bruno Nicolai.

The emphasis is less on baroque set pieces (although there is no shortage of blood), more on the destructive nature of the relationships between the characters. Fenech is excellent as Fiorina, her icy cool demeanour providing a good counterpoint to the hysteria of Oliviero and Irina.

Your Vice also predates The Shining in terms of using an alcoholic writer's literary frustration as a metaphor for frustrations in life and relationships.

Monday, 20 November 2017

Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

The jukebox musical film, where existing songs are strung together to tell a story is not a new genre. Singin' in the Rain is perhaps the best and best-known example, but the film's reputation owes much to the distinctive directing style, witty script, strong story, and excellent approach to the music and the integration of the songs into the plotline. Sgt Pepper's Lonely-Hearts Club Band is the total antithesis of this, with crummy versions of great songs, shoehorned into a vague and confusing storyline, albeit starring a once in a lifetime cast.

The story revolves around the titular band, led by Billy Shears (Peter Frampton), and his friends the Hendersons (The Bee Gees), and some magical musical instruments that protect the town of Heartland. The band are lured away to Hollywood and the big time by their greedy manager (Paul Nicholas) and a sleazy record company executive (Donald Pleasance), who lure the naive musicians into a life of debauchery and mega stardom. Meanwhile along comes the villainous Mr Mustard (Frankie Howerd) to try and steal the magic instruments and then, I don't know, there is something about an evil scientist, Dr Maxwell (Steve Martin) and a cult leader, Father Sun (Alice Cooper). Oh, and George Burns is the mayor of Heartland. I won't lie, I lost track of and interest in the plot several times.

Musicals seem to be written in two ways. Either the story is written first, and the songs come second, and they, ideally, help drive the narrative forward, or the filmmakers are given a pool of songs to work with which they then must cobble together or shoehorn into a plot. With Singin' In the Rain the writers were given access to all the songs that Nacio Herb Brown had written for MGM musicals over a ten-year period, but these were used to add colour to scenes and move the story on. In Sgt Pepper, the characters are ill thought out and the situations lack any internal logic, with the likes of Mr Mustard and the Hendersons only included so that the corresponding song can be used, and with little in the way of dialogue, the lyrics are left to do a poor job of telling the confusing storyline.

Compounding the story problems is the terrible music, with the Bee Gees faring no better than they had on their previous attempts at covering Beatles songs for a film soundtrack, the bizarre All This and World War 2, (which suffered the opposite problem of trying to attach Beatles songs to an existing story, that of the Second World War), at best, adding nothing to the originals.

However, the film is not without merit, as Steve Martin delivers an entertaining version of Maxwell's Silver Hammer that is in keeping with his "Wild and Crazy Guy" persona of the time, and Aerosmith do a coolly menacing version of Come Together. If nothing else, the film provides an oddball insight into popular culture of the time, and where else are you going to get a cast like that?

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Excision (2012)

Excision is an intriguing and disturbing mix of teen angst, suburban tension, and Cronenberg style body horror.

Pauline (Annalynne McCord) is a teenage outcast, obsessed with surgery and losing her virginity, a combination that leads to some erotic and gory dreams. The interest in medicine is not entirely morbid, as Pauline wants to cure her younger sister Grace, who has cystic fibrosis.

This is an excellent, assured debut from writer/director Richard Bates, Jr, who keeps the pace restrained and the gore unhinged. Some scenes are reminiscent of David Lynch, with the juxtaposition of suburban banality and gross disturbing imagery. Pauline is a great character, a mix of unashamed assertiveness and manipulation, and an disturbing innocence. 

There's an first-class supporting cast with Traci Lords as Pauline's uptight religious mother, locked in a permanent power struggle with her wayward daughter and cameos from Malcolm McDowell and John Waters as Pauline's maths teacher and priest respectively.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Carry On Cabby (1963)

The first few Carry On films are largely variations on a theme, with well-meaning bumblers wreaking havoc in a variety of jobs. Carry on Cabby keeps the work based setting, but cuts back on the bumbling to concentrate on the battle of the sexes.

Charlie Hawkins (Sid James) runs a highly successful cab firm, and the cab firm runs his life, much to the chagrin of his neglected other half Peggy (Hattie Jacques). To teach Charlie a lesson, Peggy clandestinely starts her own business, Glamcabs, employing only sexy young women as drivers. As Glamcabs starts to poach Charlie's business, he resorts to sabotage.

This may look like a case of women getting the upper hand, but, of course, this is a Carry On film, so for the women to fight back they have to use sexist methods, and the drivers are picked purely on their looks and legs.

The script is more story driven than later films in the series, favouring a tone that is warm and innocent rather than the knowing smut that would follow. There is a focus on relationships, and subtle little characterisations, such as Charlie helping out ex-army people, a code he sticks to loyally even if it means employing a hopelessly clumsy halfwit like Pintpot (Charles Hawtrey)

The end result is a film played straight and realistically by an excellent cast, and one more grounded in reality, and less cartoonish than the series would become.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Delta Force 2 (1990)

A sequel only in name and star to the 80s original, Delta Force 2 is typical of the shoot first, ask questions later approach to film making taken by its makers, the legendary Cannon Films studios. While the original at least started with serious intent, before spiralling out of control this one starts stupid and doesn't stop.

Chuck Norris reprises his role as Major Scott McCoy, this time going after a South American drug lord Ramon Cota (Billy Drago). He has a partner, Bobby Chavez, which makes the first part feel like a buddy cop film, and once we are introduced to Chavez's ideal family life, we know he is doomed. At this point the film changes to more of a revenge thriller, akin to the James Bond film License to Kill, released a year earlier than this.

The script throws in every dumb cliché and wretched cornball one-liner known to man, and look out for the training montage that seems to be Chuck trying to cripple everyone else in the Delta Force. Not that you need an army when Chuck is on the case, of course.

Delta Force 2 retains the cheap, made for TV look of its predecessor, although as this is the 90s, whereas the first looked like looked like an episode of The A-Team, this looks like an episode of Macgyver. More importantly, like the first Delta Force, the invincibility of Chuck kills any tension, and the endless explosions eventually become tiring.

However, the real star of this show is not the unlikeable and dull Norris, or the pantomime villain Drago. Instead, John P Ryan, steals the show as Norris’ boss General Taylor. His hilarious, unrestrained take on the role makes Taylor more nuts than anyone Norris is trying to gun down or blow up, especially when he decides to go on a killing rampage in a helicopter gunship.

It is worth remembering that, for all the jingoism and flag waving on screen, at the time Delta Force 2 was released, elements of the CIA had their hands dirty, with some of their South American anti-communist friends financing their operations by smuggling drugs to the USA.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Delta Force (1986)

Inspired by a real life plane hijacking incident, The Delta Force is an odd disjointed mix of tense hijack thriller and goofy macho comic book war film that lacks the truly unhinged quality of the most entertaining efforts by the legendary Cannon Films studios.

The plot, initially at least, loosely follows the true story of the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Libyan terrorists. Amongst other things, they separated the Jewish (or Jewish sounding) passengers and shot a US Navy diver who was on board and dumped his body on the runway. The fact that all this took place less than a year before the film's release, almost feels like a throwback to the 1930s Warner Brothers boast of having stories "torn from today's headlines"

The first half has both a tense, docudrama feel and an astonishing support cast that includes Hollywood veterans Robert Balsam, Joey Bishop, George Kennedy, Shelley Winters, and Lee Marvin, all of whom do their best, despite seeming totally out of place in a violent, cheap looking 80s action film.

Eventually The Delta Force switches gears drastically and turns into an A-Team episode on steroids, complete with flat cinematography and a cheesy rousing theme tune, with Chuck Norris leading his troops into battle, then leaving them behind so he can tear around on a motorbike that fires missiles, while all around him people shoot other people at close range without anybody getting hit, and there is a plentiful supply of cardboard boxes and fruit stands to drive through.

Ultimately though, this does start to drag, the endless explosions become numbing, and knowing Norris is invincible makes it impossible to create any peril or suspense.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Hercules (1983)

Made by the legendary Cannon studios to cash in on the likes of Conan the Barbarian, and star Lou Ferrigno's TV success as the Incredible Hulk, Hercules is very cheap and very cheerful, but it asks for so little from the viewer it's hard not to like it.

The plot sees the evil King Minos (William Berger) and the sorceress Adriana (Sybil Danning) scheming to take over the world. For this, for some reason, they need to sacrifice Cassiopeia (Ingrid Anderson), who happens to be the girlfriend of our hero Hercules (Ferrigno).

The star is not exactly charismatic, but fortunately he is surrounded by reliable European genre stalwarts such as Danning and Eva Robin who pick up the slack. The script has the intelligence of a ten-year-old, but it also has the wide-eyed innocence and energy of one too, and the delirious twists and turns have an energy that stops things ever getting dull.

This was not the first time that writer and director Luigi Cozzi had been hired to cash in on more successful Hollywood product. His previous efforts included Alien Contamination, with extra-terrestrials causing exploding chests, and Star Wars rip-off Starcrash. The latter featured some very low budget stop motion work, something Cozzi employs here, when Minos dispatches mechanical monsters to stop Hercules. This use of technology seems rare in sword-and-sorcery films and gives Hercules a minor unique edge over others in the genre.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

An energetic and atmospheric take on the Sherlock Holmes tale, the Hammer Studios version of The Hound of the Baskervilles works as both an exciting detective story and an atmospheric Gothic chiller.

Although some changes are made to the source material, the basic plot remains the same, with Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell) called on to investigate the mythical supernatural beast that has been haunting and killing members of the Baskerville family for hundreds of years. After his uncle Charles Baskerville is found dead, nephew Henry, the last of the line, finds himself left with the family estate – but does this have an unwanted extra, namely, the fatal family curse?

Cushing makes an excellent Holmes, a keen and energetic man with a razor-sharp brain and tongue to match, while Morell plays Watson closer to the literary version of the character, the heart to Holmes' brain, rather than the affable duffer that Nigel Bruce went for in the Basil Rathbone era films. Christopher Lee acquits himself well, playing a good guy for a change, but with enough charisma and haughty aristocratic manner to make Sir Henry convincing.  The script rattles along at a good pace, and the changes from the novel merely help make the story pacey and visual without dumbing it down.

What really makes this a unique take on the story is the way director Terence Fisher seamlessly blends Holmes and his world into that of Hammer Horror. The Baskerville house could just as easily be the Frankenstein residence, and the lush colours, bold music, and spooky atmosphere could be right out of any of their genuinely more supernatural efforts.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

A garish mix of occult themed horror and groovy Sixties British psychedelia, The Curse of the Crimson Altar is not scary, but the colourful energy and supporting cast of Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff make it worth a look.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is searching for his missing brother, last seen at Craxted Lodge a remote manor in the English countryside. The manor's owner, Morely (Lee) claims never to have heard of him, but nevertheless invites Manning to stay while the hunt continues. While there, manning starts to suffer vivid nightmares involving a sinister witchcraft cult headed by a mysterious woman (Steele). Is there a link between the dreams and to Manning's quests? And what are the real motives of occult expert Professor Marsh (Karloff)?

The plot is a little more confused than that synopsis makes it sound but the oily charm of Lee and the sinister menace of a cadaverous looking Karloff, coupled with the crazy sleazy dreams of rituals involving a green body painted Steele and a man wearing nothing but a leather apron and a helmet of antlers more than make up for any slow points.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

Manchester By The Sea combines devastating tragedy with flashes of humour to create a film that is heartbreaking and emotional without ever being maudlin or histrionic.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, a gruff janitor living in a basement flat in Boston. After receiving the news that his older brother Joe has suddenly died, Lee has to make his way back to his former home, the snowbound titular Massachusetts town. Through a series of increasingly devastating flashbacks, we learn why Lee left in the first place, and why he is so reluctant to return.

Affleck's performance is astonishing, avoiding any showy, Oscar baiting wailing speeches. He is full of anger and pain, but it is always kept inside, hinted at with uncomfortable stares and gritted teeth.

The other main character is the town itself. The freezing weather drives one important element of the story, and the snow covered streets seem the perfect place for a character who keeps his emotions buried.

The film is ultimately about somebody coming to terms with what they have done and trying to find a way to move on. Kenneth Lonergan is smart enough (and respectful enough to the intelligence of his audience) to realise that this is a slice of real life. Lessons don't get learned, story strands don't get neatly tied up, but people change, and people learn about themselves and each other, and try to get on with life as best they can.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Final Portrait (2017)

Films exploring the challenges of the creative process of other artistic mediums can be a challenge in themselves, the challenge being how to explore that process without having characters just sitting at their typewriters or canvasses, scowling, swearing, and smoking endless cigarettes.

The Final Portrait fails in this respect, and is not helped by a showy, distracting turn by Geoffrey Rush as famed artist Alberto Giacometti, and a bland and forgettable performance by Armie Hammer as real-life writer and art scholar James Lord.

The story revolves around Giacometti offering to paint a portrait of Lord, something that should only take an afternoon, but ends up dragging on for over a fortnight. With each day, Lord gets dragged further into the artist's world and the people in it, such as his brother Diego Giacometti, and his long-suffering wife Annette.

Unfortunately, writer/director Stanley Tucci gives us no insight into why Giacometti is so utterly obsessed with painting Lord and why Lord puts up with the constant delays, which come at great expense and inconvenience to himself.

Instead, we get some heavy-handed characterisation showing Giacometti drinking, cavorting with a prostitute, unsure and uncaring as to where to hide a huge pile of money, and repeatedly shouting "Ow Faaaak" at the canvas as his latest attempt to paint Lord runs into trouble. We get it. He's an artist. He doesn't care about money or other people's feelings. He can't make his mind up about his art. As to why any of this is the case, no idea.

Having said that, the film looks great, and while the characters are not convincing, the boozy, shabby chic world of 1960s Bohemian Paris that they live in most definitely is.