Friday, 1 November 2013

Freeview (UK) film of the day ; friday 1st of November

Le Scaphandre et le Papillon / The Diving-Bell And The Butterfly (2007 107min.) [BBC2 12.10am saturday]

Biographical drama starring Mathieu Amalric. In 1995, journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a catastrophic stroke and emerged from a coma suffering from "locked-in syndrome" - unable to move or speak. But he painstakingly dictated his memoir, adapted here, by blinking his left eye to signify letters of the alphabet.

Directed by painter turned director Julian Schnabel and with terrific cinematography by Janusz Kaminski.

Mathieu Amalric is superb in the lead role, especially given the fact that he is more or less immobile throughout and there is terrific support from Marie-Josee Croze, Emmanuelle Seigner and Anne Consigny.

Involving, moving, touching, funny, sweet and unmissable.

Kill List (2011 91min.) [Film4 12.30am saturday &+1]

Horror starring Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring. Ex-soldier-turned-contract killer Jay is talked into doing one last job by friend and fellow hitman Gal. But as the bodies pile up, it soon becomes apparent the pair have become involved in a situation beyond their control.

Terrific British low budget thriller/horror film that casts back to the glory days of Hammer for its inspired air of creepy menace and moments of genuine shock.

Superly directed by Ben Wheatley, off the back of the equally striking Down Terrace, it's a mixture of gangster film, Mike Leigh style improvised domesticity and grand guignol horror.

A thoroughly engaging and satisfying film from beginning to end.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Freeview (UK) film of the day : monday 28th of October

Waltz With Bashir (2008 86min.) [Film4 1.20am tuesday &+1]

Award-winning animated documentary. Haunted by his combat experiences during the first Lebanon War in 1982, film-maker Ari Folman interviews old friends and Israeli comrades from that conflict, presenting the collective memories in a passionate bid for redemption.

As a young man film maker Ari Folman undertook his national service in the Israeli army ; during this time he took part in the 1982 war with Lebanon.

This is his reflection, memoir and documentation of that time.

Twenty five years after the event he tracked down family, friends and other former members of his batallion of conscripts and recorded their conversations as they discussed the events that they had been part of and the effects it had on their subsequent lives.

He's then animated these reminiscenses using brutal low-key black and white drawings (almost outline sketches) which suddenly burst into vivid colour at key points in the narrative.

He doesn't shy away from the traumatic events of the war either : carefully pulling together different voices to tell the story of the massacres at Sabra and Shatlia in an almost dispassionate way that serves to underline the brutality of what happened and the way that Folman and his comrades are still haunted by their memories.

It's a beautifully executed piece of work; part-documentary, part-folklore - that allows Folman to explore the way in which the events scarred a generation of young people on all sides of the divide.

Very highly recommended.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Freeview (UK) film of the day : Monday 21st of October

Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter...and Spring (2003 98min.) [Film4 12.30am tuesday &+1]

An elderly Buddhist monk shares the wisdom of his years with a youngster in a one-room monastery floating on a beautiful lake. As the boy grows up, his burgeoning sexual desires overwhelm his need for inner peace and he abandons his master for a more modern life. However, when his quest for love ends in unhappiness, he returns home seeking enlightenment.

In the current century Eastern Cinema has gained a (deserved) reputation for producing some of the most inventive fantasy, horror and thriller films.

But it is also able to produce film such as this.

Kim Ki-Duk's direction and photography is elegant and poised, and he also takes the part of the adult monk; Oh Young-Su is the older monk and they are at the centre of a film that's about image, ritual and repetition and is more concerned with form and tone than action set-pieces or jumps & shocks.

It's not going to appeal to everyone (this may be an understatement) but it has a beautiful, quiet, reflective majesty which, if you allow it to, will entrance you for just under 100 minutes.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Trouble Every Day (2000)

Trouble Every Day (France 2000 - 101 min.). Directed by Claire Denis, written by Denis and Jean-Pol Fargeau.

"The ability to love. The inability to love... The hunger to love"

Shane Brown (Vincent Gallo) and his new wife June (Tricia Vessey) are travelling to Paris on what appears to be their honeymoon.
Meanwhile Leo (Alex Descas) is desperately searching for his wife Core (Beatrice Dalle) - when he finds her he incarcerates her in one room of the heavily fortified family home.
Elsewhere Christelle (Florence Loiret) goes about the everyday mundanity of her life as a chambermaid at the hotel where Gallo and Vessey will shortly be staying.
The story (such as it is) revolves around the way in which these five character's lives come to intertwine and revolve around each other and the ultimately destructive effect that this has on each of their lives.
While the story is slight and faintly preposterous (there's some pseudo-scientific explanation for everything at the mid-point that left me more baffled than before) the reasons to watch and enjoy this film are in the skilled direction, the haunting sense of impending disaster and the visually impressive photography of Agnes Godard.
The film moves at an extremely leisurely pace between it's set pieces, but this creates a more effective shock when the flash points and moments of extreme violence occur.
Denis created a mood piece around a slight and preposterous central concept - filled with shadows, nightscapes and the juxtaposition of the drab and the extraordinary.
A film that's going to disappoint the horror film attracted by the hyper-gory DVD sleeve or it's reputation and which was never going to find a mainstream audience of any kind; it's success is as a piece of pure film making in which each and every scene is carefully constructed and shot in order to contribute to the overall tone of the piece.
A word of praise too for the band Tindersticks whose custom-written soundtrack music and songs adds perfectly to the mood of the film.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : monday 29th of July

Cache/ Hidden (2005 113min.) [Film4 1.40am &+1]

Mystery thriller starring Juliette Binoche and Daniel Auteuil. Successful Parisian couple Anne and Georges Laurent begin to receive secretly shot videotapes of their home and private life, accompanied by macabre drawings. As the tapes become more personal in nature, they begin to reveal a secret from Georges's past.

Michael Haneke's gripping, multi-layered arthouse thriller is an intricate, complex and delicate film with an endlessly debatable ending.

Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche are both as good as you'd expect in the lead roles as the chic couple whose facade of sophisticated modernism is slowly stripped away as events fold in upon them.

A truly remarkable, utterly wonderful film.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Freeview (UK) film of the day : sunday 28th of July

Animal Kingdom (2009 108min.) [Film4 11.45pm &+1]

Australian crime drama starring Ben Mendelsohn, Joel Edgerton, Mike from Neighbours and James Frecheville. After his mother dies of an overdose, young Joshua Cody takes up his grandmother's offer of a home. But he must also gain the acceptance of his three career-criminal uncles, who are under investigation by the local police.

Australian writer/director David Michôd's feature debut is a terrific piece of film making with a gritty but realistic central story that spins off in any number of directions and includes at least three "oh no!" moments of genuine shock.

Packed with great performances, but special mention for Jacki Weaver who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the mater familias to this trio of hard-bitten, brutal but fading would-be gangsters.

It's a remarkable film that is highly recommened to everyone, but especially to those who found Chopper (to which this film has a stylistic resemblance) to be a gripping and taut piece of cinema back in 2000.

A really, really well made crime drama

Saturday, 27 July 2013

The Half Naked Truth (1932)

The Half Naked Truth (US 1932 - 76min.) Directed by Gregory La Cava,  written by Corey Ford and La Cava (& the uncredited Bartlett Cormack)

Comedy starring Lee Tracy and Lupe Velez. A fast-talking carnival barker attempts to turn a fiery hooch dancer into a Broadway star.

This pre-Hays Code comedy has a lot of fun poking fun at the showbiz. world of the early thirties, it's ways, traditions and idiocy.
It's also, in many ways,  a working blueprint for the screwball comedy films that would soon become big box-office with big stars and big name directors.

Lee Tracy stars as the carny who parlays himself into the position of a Broadway showbiz agent and publicist. Although his name recognition these days is near zero he was a very talented and skilled actor who created a career for himself as a  fast-talking, wisecracking, scruple-free unconventional leading man.
He brings all of that skill to this role, appears in every scene and carries the weight of the extremely wordy script with seeming ease.

His co-star is Lupe Velez (the Mexican Spitfire according to the studio's idiotic publicity) who is now remembered as the wife of Johnny Weissmuller and for her spectacular self-destruction and suicide as described in detail in Kenneth Anger's book Hollywood Babylon.

Which is a shame because, as she demonstrates here, she was a spirited and energetic comedy musical performer who gives her all to the song and dance numbers and manages to (just about) keep up with Tracy in the dialogue-heavy exchanges between the two.

There's other stuff of interest for the 21st Century viewer here : there's an extended opening act set in an authentic looking 1930's travelling carnival, which is fascinating in detail and in it's depiction of a long lost world of sawdust and sideshows. When the action shifts to New York there's some terrific location footage of the city - packed with people, motor cars and advertising hoardings - again a record of a time and place that's now lost to us.

Director Gregory La Cava demonstrates his skill with the camera that he would later bring to the classic farce My Man Godfrey (1936)  and the Katherine Hepburn/Ginger Rogers backstage comedy  Stage Door (1937). There's very little of the wide-shot, theatre style framing that so many films of the era suffer from : La Cava's happy to mix in close-ups, two-shots and clever angles to tell the story.
There's a superbly shot in the opening scene of a high board diver at the carnival that many of todays directors (with lightweight cameras & auto-focus) would struggle to replicate or better.

The supporting cast includes the human bullfrog Eugene Pallette as Tracy's best friend and Frank Morgan as the Broadway producer of limited imagination who is obsessed with setting 'moods' and has no idea of material. There's also a  noteworthy performance by the superb Franklin Pangborn as a prissy, oily hotel manager.

It's a funny, well made and strongly acted film with a smart script and some great performances; it's also a big hint at the direction that studio comedies might have taken had the moral clampdown and fear of change hadn't forced them into the constraints of the code.
Worth investigating.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Sisters (1973)

Sisters (US 1973 - 92min.)  Directed by Brian De Palma, written by De Palma and Louisa Rose

"What the Devil hath joined together let no man cut asunder."

An ambitious journalist thinks she has got hold of a career-making story when she witnesses a murder at her neighbour's house - but as she tries to find evidence of the crime, she discovers events are not as straightforward as she thought. Starring Margot Kidder, Lisle Wilson and Jennifer Salt.

It's impossible to discuss this film without making reference to Hitchcock, so let's get that out of the way first.
Sisters was De Palma's first feature length work and his love and worship of Hitchcock is evident in almost every frame - there's echoes and references back to (at least) Vertigo, Rear Window and Notorious, there's a under-hypnosis section with more than a hint of Spellbound about it, the closing shot puts us in mind of The Birds and the entire structure of the story owes a large debt to Psycho.

Now, to my way of thinking this doesn't matter too much - plenty of directors (rightly) admire Hitchcock's way with a thriller and many have littered their films with homages, references and downright rip-offs from his work, De Palma is at least honest in acknowledging the fact. He would continue to reference back in almost all of his work throughout the seventies and eighties, but nowhere is the debt and devotion more on view than in this film.

As to the film itself : it's charmingly askew with all sorts of elements chucked together with the aim of hoping they stick together. There's a sinister doctor straight out of any number of sixties TV melodramas, Charles Durning plays a PI who tags along on Jennifer Salt's investigation and who seems to exist largely as comic relief, there's a gory murder, there's sex (inter-racial sex at that), a cake that is both a clue and a plot device (and echoes the central device of Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes), hypnotism/bad trip, 'found' footage, a TV game show spoof and a double twist ending.

It's a lot to pack into ninety minutes of running time and some elements feel under-developed, but De Palma's skill is evident from the way that he just about manages to keep all of the plates spinning.

The bulk of the story is set on Staten Island and De Palma makes good use of this under-used part of New York to provide a realistic backdrop to the fantastic elements of the story; at one point we visit Manhattan and there's some thrilling guerrilla footage shot among streets and signs that have now disappeared beneath the re-developers bulldozer.

The film was also the breakthrough role for it's lead actor. Margot Kidder is (for some reason which isn't clear from the film) asked to deliver her lines with a French-Canadian accent ; although she does this perfectly well some poor sound recording means that at times you do have a struggle trying to make out exactly what it is that she's saying.
Kidder's (sort of) 'dual' role gives her plenty to work with and she makes the absolute best of the opportunity - she's by turn kittenish and playful, puts in a good drunk turn, threatening, scheming, devious, the victim and the predator.

I've always felt that she was badly served by Hollywood - after some terrific work in low visibility films such as this and Black Christmas (1974)  she was pitched slap-bang into the middle of the mainstream by Superman (1978) after which the studios seemed to be a bit flummoxed as to what to do with her.
Thirty years old when she played Lois Lane she was difficult for Hollywood to fit into one of their neatly stacked pre-arranged moulds : too old to play juvenile leads, too attractive to be a character actor, too smart to lose in the background/ best friend/ plot mover role usually prefaced by "and featuring" in the opening credits.
Two years after Superman II (1980) she was already back int he world of TV movies which she must have thought she had left behind forever after fame came knocking. From there it was a short walk to voice work for films, TV and video games and TV bit-work; until a recent revival now that she is of a physical age to play elder statesman roles, something which she, of course, has done with great skill.
Terrible waste of talent for twenty years though.

Sisters is an entertaining watch, there's plenty going on both on-screen and within the text. It's obvious that De Palma would go on to have a career within the mainstream from the neat way in which he arranges the elements of the story and the visual flair and (borrowed) style on show.
Just a shame about Margot Kidder's career really.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Hatchet For The Honeymoon (1969)

Il Rosso Seno Della Follia / Hatchet For The Honeymoon (Italy 1969 84 min.) 
Directed by Mario Bava, written by Santiago Moncada

A fashion designer tormented by his sexual failings vents his frustrations by murdering the models for his range of wedding dresses. When he goes on to kill his own wife, she returns to plague him as a ghost. Mario Bava's horror, starring Stephen Forsyth, Dagmar Lassander, Laura Betti and Jesus Puente.

Dario Argento may be the accepted master of Italian horror film making but Mario Bava is the genre's supreme stylist. This compact film is littered with startling and beautifully composed shots.

The story begins as the sort of psychological thriller so beloved by makers of the giallo sub-genre in Italy through the late sixties and in to the mid seventies. However, around the half-way mark it warps into something entirely different, part-ghost story part paranoid thriller and there's a massive (literal) kink at one point as Forsyth's John Harrington dresses in a bridal gown and slaps on make-up prior to murdering his domineering wife (Laura Betti).

Along the way there's plenty of visual treats for the viewer. Look, for example at this superbly composed and lit still from the first act of the film :

It's part of an extended scene between Forsyth and an intended victim that revolves around the couple waltzing around a store room full of brides dresses that is shot using a near weightless camera to zoom in and around the couple, it's beautifully timed in such a way that, although we know what's coming, the suspense is built up and up until you feel that the moment of release can't be held off any longer. And then it is. A real tour de force and one of several that lift the film above the competent into the magical.

Or how about the scene where Harrington answers the door to the police moments after committing his most recent act of homicide? His still warm victim is bleeding to death on the staircase above the baronial style hallway where the men are talking. Blood drops form along the dangling fingers of the near-corpse and threaten to fall into the hall below, alerting the visiting coppers to the foul deed which has just taken place. Brilliantly handled with a real sense of tension and impending doom.

There's also a very clever use of a running motif of breakfast on the terrace of Harrington's mansion-style home. Twice we see them sitting down to a very formal meal with perfect table settings, a maid dancing attendance upon them as they plough through course after course of high-end food. Throughout Harrington reads his newspaper and attempts to totally ignore his nagging spouse.

Later in the film, after Harrington believes that he has removed his hated wife from his life forever. we see him once again at the breakfast table. The place settings lie in disarray, he has his feet up on the table and is happily guzzling down coffee and discarding the pages of his newspaper that he has read with relish and abandon, strewing them across the table and floor.

As a visual symbol of the physical and mental release he feels after freeing himself from the shackles of his loveless marriage it's very funny and is handled very skilfully by both director and actor.

Stephen Forsyth's Harrington can easily be seen as an ancestor of TV's Dexter, the seeming professional/ normal man with a hidden appetites explained by a childhood trauma and the 'killer in a dress' motif is a clear pre-echo of De Palma's Dressed To Kill (1980).

Visually arresting with an interesting script - the only downside being that (as usual) the film was badly dubbed into English rather than subtitled.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : wednesday 23rd of July

Serpico (1973 124min.) [Film4 11.25pm &+1]

Police thriller starring Al Pacino, based on the real-life story of a young undercover cop. Despite the violence and cynicism that surround him, Frank Serpico retains his ideals, refusing the pay-offs which are common to his colleagues. Gradually, his attitudes and behaviour isolate him within the force, and he faces danger from both sides of the law.

There's a careful and nuanced performance by Pacino at the heart of this based-on-real-events drama which is deftly and expertly directed by Sidney Lumet, it makes the absolute maximum use of it's multiple New York location settings and some superbly realistic sets.

The central story is gripping and the (largely unkown) cast give some top-class support to Pacino as he rolls through the film with a convincing blend of swagger and deep-grained paraniod introspection.

An oustanding film, very much deserving of your time.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Dead Presidents (1995)

Dead Presidents (US 1995 - 114min.)   Directed and written by Albert and Allen Hughes.

"In this daring heist, the only color that counts is green "

Crime drama starring Larenz Tate, Keith David and Chris Tucker. Despite a happy upbringing and success at school, young Anthony Curtis feels a need for action, and enlists in the army. After two tours of duty in Vietnam, he returns home to find that the Bronx has little to offer a black former GI - except a life of crime.

A fast-moving and swirling attempt to document the experience of young black men growing up in the United States of the late sixties, the effects of the Vietnam War on those that served and the social and financial pressures that ultimately lead to a seemingly inevitable return to crime.

It's a massive subject to attempt to cover in just under two hours and the Hughes brothers sacrifice in-depth sociological probing of their characters development (or lack of it) in favour of a series of impressionistic sketches from the lives of the protagonists.

Anthony (the excellent Larenz Tate) journeys from high school graduate without much of a plan to US Marine in a superbly realised guerrilla jungle war and back to his original neighbourhood where he struggles to find steady work before becoming enmeshed in the bank heist that opens and closes the film.
Along the way he meets representatives of the generational change taking place around him - the old school numbers racketeer, the newly radicalised generation of revolutionary youth (a superb turn by N'Bushe Wright), the creeping effect of hard drug use and the controlling influence that the criminal lifestyle could have on those at the bottom of the social pyramid.

The Hughes Brothers had exploded on the film world with "Menace To Society" (1993) and that film coupled with "Dead Presidents" suggested that they would, along with John Singleton and Spike Lee, become documenters of the black American experience. Sadly their career appeared to stall : the disappointing "American Pimp" followed in 1999 before they turned their attention to more mainstream film making with the interesting comic book adaptation "From Hell" (2001) starring Johnny Depp and 2010's "The Book Of Eli"

What "Dead Presidents" shows is an ambition and an abundant natural talent - it's detractors lament it's lack of depth and character study; but in attempting to encapsulate a symbolic life over a fairly lengthy time span there's little running time left for anything other than an edited highlights package which attempts to show how Anthony turns from carefree teenager into desperate gun wielding bank robber.

Three special mentions : the superb soundtrack of period appropriate soul and funk and Danny Elfman's original theme and score; the visually arresting "ghost face" make up used by the characters during the heist and a couple of surprising cameos from big name Hollywood stars (watch especially the scene where Anthony hails a Bronx cab in the early seventies segment of the film).

A bold and distinctive film visually that might have benefited from a little script editing but overall a hugely satisfying watch.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

An apology

I do have to apologise for the break in service.
This has been caused by a combination of technical issues with the site and a lack of time to resolve them caused by outside events.

Working quite hard to get both resolved.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Milk (2008)

Milk (US 2008 - 128min.)   Directed by Gus van Sant, written by Dustin Lance Black.

"His life changed history. His courage changed lives."

Milk" is a biopic of Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a gay activist who became engaged with the political process and ultimately rose to the position of power in San Francisco before meeting an untimely death at the age of 48 in 1978.

The film follows only the last eight years of his life when, having relocated to the West Coast from New York, Milk opens a shop that becomes a hang-out, information exchange and talking shop for the local gay community. He becomes an organiser and social campaigner (not just for Gay Rights but as representative of all excluded people), runs for city office unsuccessfully several times before finally becoming elected as a City supervisor on the same day as his nemesis, the arch-conservative Dan White (Josh Brolin).
van Sant cleverly mixes archive footage of the United States at the time and of the real Harvey Milk with the scripted portions of the film, giving it a feel closer to a documentary than a drama ; he opens with newsreel of late fifties and early sixties police persecution of gay men (and women) - busting up their drinking places and herding them into paddy wagons in the style of a thirties Speakeasy bust.
It then roles into Penn as Milk living a closeted life in New York. Unhappy and unfulfilled a chance encounter provides the catalyst for a move to San Francisco where the action of the remainder of the film is played out.
Despite the obvious input that van Sant has to the look and feel it's Sean Penn's film from beginning to end - he is in practically every scene and makes Milk a believable real life figure.
As he transforms and evolves from wild-eyed idealist into mainstream political animal not only does the superficial aspect of his appearance (clothes, hair etc.) change so does Penn's physical portrayal - he becomes "bigger" as he emerges from his safety zone and into the larger world. His mannerisms and speech patterns change; the transformation is complete in the final section of the film where Milk has become the establishment figure and the role of fire-brand wielding tyro is passed to others.
A confident, poised and fully engaged Milk emerges from Penn's performance - striding up the steps of the Town Hall to address protesters in conciliatory terms rather than the language of defiance and opposition that he was using earlier.
It's a film with an obvious message but it's delivered in a non-hectoring style; placing the Gay Rights movement within the context of the ongoing civil rights campaign in the United States and delivering a piece of filmed social history that has it's faults (mainly caused by the need to reduce a story with massive scope to a highlights package) but is entertaining, humane, warm and uplifting.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : saturday 6th of July

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (2010 112min.) [C4 10.00pm&+1]
Freeview premiere

Action comedy from the director of Shaun of the Dead, starring Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Despite having a high-school girlfriend, wannabe rock star Scott Pilgrim can't help falling for the woman of his dreams, the enigmatic Ramona Flowers. But Ramona comes with baggage in the shape of seven ex-lovers that Scott must do battle with in order to win her heart.

Director Edgar Wright attempts to bring the style of the series of graphic novels on which the film is based to the screen; he uses a wide variety of visual styles, camera tricks and moves and attempts to create a hightened reality for his characters to live in.

He's not always succesful and some may find the film irritating for it's seeming inability to sit still for five minutes and there's a growing sense of deja vu as the hero attempts to complete his series of tasks - rather like boss levels in video games the action sometimes seems to be repeating itself but against a different backdrop.

At the heart of the film though there's charming performances by Cera and Winstead which contrast nicely with the turmoil surrounding them.

A flawed but interesting attempt to do something different with a comic book adaptation.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Freeview film of the day : thursday 4th of July

Kill List (2011 91min.) [Film4 11.05pm &+1]

Horror starring Neil Maskell and MyAnna Buring. Ex-soldier-turned-contract killer Jay is talked into doing one last job by friend and fellow hitman Gal. But as the bodies pile up, it soon becomes apparent the pair have become involved in a situation beyond their control.

Terrific British low budget thriller/horror film that casts back to the glory days of Hammer for its inspired air of creepy menace and moments of genuine shock.

Superly directed by Ben Wheatley, off the back of the equally striking Down Terrace, it's a mixture of gangster film, Mike Leigh style improvised domesticity and grand guignol horror.

A thoroughly engaging and satisfying film from beginning to end.

A Prophet (2009 148min.) [Film4 1.00am friday & +1]

A 19-year-old Arab petty crook is sentenced to six months behind bars, serving his time in a prison dominated by rival Corsican and Muslim gangs. When he agrees to commit murder for a Corsican leader, he wins the respect of his fellow inmates and starts putting plans in motion for forming his own crime syndicate. Drama, with Tahar Rahim and Niels Arestrup. In French, Arabic and Corsican.

Superb - easily one of the best ten films released anywhere in the world in 2009.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Thieves Like Us (1974)

Thieves Like Us (US 1974 - 117min.) 

 Directed by Robert Altman; written by Altman, Joan Tewkesbury and Calder Willingham.

"Robbing 36 banks was easy. Watch what happens when they hit the 37th. "

The story is derived from Edward Anderson's novel of the same name which was also the source of Nicolas Ray's noir classic "They Live By Night" (1948) - Altman, however, opts not to shoot the film in a neo-noir style but instead presents the story as a period drama; in much the same way as his earlier "McCabe And Mrs. Miller" (1971) was a 'western' only in terms of time and place of it's setting.

The story revolves around a trio of fugitives (Keith Carradine, Bert Remsen, and John Schuck) who rob banks in Mississippi while trying to stay out of the hands of the law; meanwhile, Carradine develops a crush on a gas station attendant (Shelly Duvall), Remsen falls for a blonde beauty school student (Ann Lathan), and Schuck shows increasingly violent tendencies.

Viewed as a period drama (like Arthur Penn's 1967 "Bonnie And Clyde") this is a beautifully constructed and photographed film - d.p. Jean Boffety gives it a warm and alive tone, a lived in look and the sense of hyper-realism is added to by the attention to the minutest detail in the set construction, costumes and props.
It's like a very violent Merchant Ivory production.

The same level of care is taken with the story. At it's heart there are two (possibly three) love stories and it's here that the focus of the film falls - only one of the bank robberies is shown in any detail, the death of one of the central characters happens off-screen.

Instead Altman immerses us in the human relationships : Carradine is a man in love who just happens to rob banks for a living. The mechanics of his work life are a commonplace to him, the driving force in his life is his desire to spend every waking moment with Duvall.

It's a beautifully told story that unfolds on screen, as with all Altman's best work he engages the viewer and makes you care enough about the characters that you really do want to know how things work out for each of them.

Perfectly cast and almost flawlessly delivered it's a real shame that "Thieves Like Us" has ended up in the 'neglected gem' file. Well worthy of your time and of critical re-evaluation.

Freeview (UK) film of the day ; wednesday 3rd of July

Down Terrace (2009 89min.) [Film4 10.50pm &+1]

Crime comedy drama starring Robert Hill and Robin Hill. Small-time criminals Bill and his son Karl deal drugs from the family home in Brighton, but when suspicions arise about an informant in their midst, things take a turn for the worse.

A low budget British film that's short, snappy and well balanced between the comedy and drama elements. It's a bit like a cross between a UK version of The Sopranos and The Royle Family as everday mundanity and sudden, brutal violence meet - all laced through with an atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia.

This was writer-director Ben Wheatley's first full length film and he demonstrates the skill that made his subsequent Kill List (2011)and Sightseers (2012) such watchable films.

There's a strong cast of little known British character actors with an outstanding performance by Julia Deakin as the materfamilias of the criminal dynasty.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Children Of The Revolution (1996)

Children Of The Revolution (Australia 1996 101min.)  Directed and written by Peter Duncan

"What do you do when your father is no ordinary Joe?"

Political comedy drama starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill and Richard Roxburgh. Joan is a fanatical Australian communist whose devotion to the party is rewarded when she is invited to meet her hero, Josef Stalin. The two have a brief affair which produces "Little Joe", who, in his later life, demonstrates serious political ambitions of his own.

Another in the chain of small, charming, comedy drama films that emerged from Australia during the mid and late nineties. Very much mining the same vein as the likes of Muriel's Wedding (1994) , Diana & Me (1997) and The Dish (2000) .
Judy Davis plays a young woman living in 1940's Australia besotted with the idea of bringing Russian-style worker's revolution to her homeland. She's pursued romantically by Geoffrey Rush, who has no love of revolutionary politics but feigns an interest in the course of his wooing.
She's also of interest to Sam Neill as an Australian secret service agent with a secret or two of his own to keep.
After being invited to Russia to meet Stalin she returns to Australia and, nine months later, there's a rather surprising addition to her life.
It's a very slight and sound plot, more of a stage play than a cinematic experience, but the performances are all so adept that the shortcomings are easily covered over and the film moves along smartly to it's predictable but still well handled conclusion.
Davis and Neill are both excellent and there's sure handed work among the support cast from Rachel Griffiths as a pseudo S&M clad police officer and the always fine F.Murray Abraham as Joe Stalin.
The scenes within the Kremlin before and during Davis's visit are clever and funny by turn, the "disappearance" of several of Stalin's secretaries for unspecified crimes against the state is especially amusing.
Duncan cleverly cuts newsreel footage (both real and doctored) into his film and has a fluid style (although this sometimes runs away from him leaving shots hanging in mid-air) and it never quite lives up to it's satirical ambitions.
Despite this the film cracks along at a sprightly pace, has some moments of genuine comedy and farce and scores with a few of it's satirical points.
An enjoyable, if lightweight, film.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Scream Of Fear (1961) aka Taste Of Fear

Scream Of Fear (UK 1961 82min.)  Directed by Seth Holt, written by Jimmy Sangster.

"For maximum thrill . . . we earnestly urge you to see this motion picture from the start!"

Following a tragic accident in which she came close to drowning, a wheelchair-using woman decides to take a vacation in the French Riviera, but finds herself haunted by the corpse of her father. Psychological horror, starring Susan Strasberg, Ronald Lewis, Ann Todd and Christopher Lee also star.

When you think of the UK's Hammer Studio you tend to associate it with their "monster movie" quickies, the Dracula and Frankenstein series for example. They were, however, equally adept at the more calculated psychological thriller and produced many fine examples of the genre throughout the sixties and in to the early seventies.

This, though, is their finest moment in the field. Released within a year of the first showing of Hitchcock's Psycho it's clearly learned the lesson that a top class horror film doesn't require buckets of gore and severed limbs to be effective.

Jimmy Sangster's script is a beautifully realised thing : in a pre-credits sequence we see police in an unnamed European country removing the body of a dead young woman from a lake. We then meet Susan Strasberg (career best performance) arriving at the south of France home of her step-mother (Ann Todd) and father, who has left suddenly for a business trip.

Feeling alone in the strange house she befriends Robert(Ronald Lewis), her father's driver, and shares oddly staged meals with her step-mother and a local doctor friend of her father (Christopher Lee, best Robert Blanc French accent at the ready).

A series of strange and unusual events and meetings then unfold and the story seems to be taking us down the path of "driving her insane to claim her inheritance" path which has long been a staple of this branch of the old dark house story.

It's then that Sangster's script really shifts up a gear and the final third of the film brilliantly opens up the story to reveal that absolutely nothing is as we assumed it was. It's one of those films that bear a repeated viewing shortly afterwards in order to watch the pieces of the story being manipulated and moved into place.

A word for Seth Holt's direction as well, which is precise and effective throughout and throws in two very, very good underwater sequences.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Alamar (2009)

Alamar ( Mexico 2009 - 70min.)  Directed and written by Pedro Gonzalez-Rubio

Drama starring Jorge Machado and Natan Machado Palombini. Before his ex-wife moves back to her native Rome with their five-year-old son, Jorge decides to teach young Natan about his Mayan origins by taking him to the Banco Chinchirro, the largest coral reef off the coast of Mexico. The longer father and son spend together, the more unforgettable the experience becomes.

Shot in documentary style but presented in widescreen and with gorgeous use of light and colour it's obvious from the opening five minutes that Gonzalez-Rubio's film is a drama rather than a straightforward  fly-on-the-wall film.

The edges of reality and fiction are further blurred by the naturalistic style of the actors and the frequent depiction of everyday tasks (although these are presnted in the most cinematic way possible).

It's a slight film but an obvious labour of love and immense care has been taken to present the location in the best possible light.

Part autobiography, part-eco warning and part attempt to capture a disappearing lifestyle the film adds up to far more than the sum of it's parts.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Freeview (UK) film of the day : thursday 27th of June

The Hurt Locker (2008 125min.) [Film4 9.00pm &+1]

Oscar-winning thriller starring Jeremy Renner. A US Army bomb-disposal team working out the last 38 days of their tour in Iraq are joined by Staff Sgt William James, whose unorthodox methods make him initially unpopular with his colleagues.

The film follows them as the team as go about their potentially deadly missions and uses a variety of techniques (both visual and verbal) to show the enormous pressure that they work under on a daily basis and the lengths that they go to in order to attempt to relax at the end of the day.

The bomb disposal scenes themselves are very well done; there's a real sense of tension and the nearness of death about them. A long central scene away from Baghdad points up the constant threat to their lives even in the most common place situation and we learn more about the characters attitudes and inner lives during this stand-off than from any amount of barrack room exposition.

All of the acting roles are handled with skill and Bigelow directs with the same kinetic energy that she brought to the fantastic "Near Dark" (1987) and "Strange Days" (1995).

It works well on the smaller screen too - the intimate nature of the film making comes over well and there's an added sense of claustrophobia.

An intense and involving film that sets the bar fairly high for those to come.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Track 29 (1988)

Track 29 ( 1988)    Directed by Nicolas Roeg, written by Dennis Potter.

"He Was Her Dream And Her Obsession. Her Son... And Her Lover"
A woman stuck in an unhappy marriage meets a mystery man who claims to be her long-lost son. While they quickly bond, she realises he is developing a dangerous hatred for her neglectful husband.

Linda Henry (Theresa Russell) is slowly going out of her mind as a stay at home wife to doctor Henry Henry (Christopher Lloyd). He's obsessed with his model train set and (odd) affair with Nurse Stein (Sandra Bernhard). She spends too much time alone, drinking and floating around their house in search of something to do.

At a diner one day she meets a young British man (Gary Oldman)who reminds her of a man from her own past. The meeting triggers a series of events which lead, in the end, to a tragedy, a release and a new beginning.

As you would expect from a script by Potter directed by neo-surrealist Roeg, nothing that you see on the screen can be taken at face value and it is necessary to keep your wits about you to differentiate between the real and the internalised throughout the film.

As an unfolding story of one person's creeping insanity though it's very effective. There are any number of set-pieces designed to demonstrate Russell's increasing loss of any sort of grip on reality : including a scene where Oldman, at his most effectively creepy, serenades with her the cornball ballad "M-O-T-H-E-R" and a bar scene that provides the first clue as to the coming storm. There's also a marvellously filmed slow-mo (model) train wreck.

And a scene of genuine hilarity during which Lloyd gives a speech to his fellow model enthusiasts only for the whole thing to collapse into a bizarre collision of musical song and dance and political rally.

Lloyd is agreeably distant and disconnected throughout, Oldman does his standard slightly menacing outsider turn and Russell floats and wafts through the film with no fixed accent but with a good line in Thirty Yard Stare vacancy.

Not one of Roeg's best films, certainly nowhere near the brilliance of "Walkabout", "The Man Who Fell To Earth" or "Insignificance", but interesting none the less and will certainly make you concentrate on the on-screen action.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : wednesday 26th of June

Unknown (2011 108min.) [C4 9.00pm &+1]

Thriller starring Liam Neeson. While in Berlin for a biotechnology conference, scientist Dr Martin Harris is involved in a car accident that leaves him in a coma. He wakes up four days later with gaps in his memory and no identification, but then when he returns to his hotel, his wife Elizabeth doesn't recognise him.

It's something of a throwback to the sixties and seventies mystery thriller where Something Odd happens in a mysterious European city with echoes of the Harrison Ford starring Frantic (1988) and Roger Moore's The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).
There's also more than a hint of Hitchcock about it - especially Torn Curtain (1966) - the casting of Mad Men's January Jones as Neeson's wife is an obvious call-back to Hitch's ice-cool blonde leading women.

It's quite daft and the plot is absurdly intricate but while you're watching it you get swept along in the action and director Jaume Collet-Serra's skill at keeping all the plates spinning marks this out as an above average genre piece.

The constantly under rated Diane Kruger adds weight to the supporting cast that also includes good work from Aidan Quinn, Bruno Ganz and Frank Langella.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Anatomy Of A Murder (1959)

Anatomy Of A Murder (US 1959 - 153min. )   Directed by Otto Preminger, written by Wendell Mayes from the novel by John D. Voelker.

Classic courtroom drama, starring James Stewart, Lee Remick and Ben Gazzara. When an army lieutenant is held for the killing of a bartender, his defence is "justifiable homicide", on the grounds that the man had viciously assaulted and raped his wife. Paul Biegler is the lawyer hired to defend him.

A groundbreaking and exceptional film and a marvellous starring vehicle for one of America's most talented screen actors of all time.

Paul Biegler (James Stewart) is a washed up lawyer, a former DA who now divides his time between fishing, drinking and modern jazz. And not doing much law work.

Out of the blue he's engaged by Laura Manion (Lee Remick) to defend her husband (Ben Gazzara) on a charge of murder.

As the story unfolds we learn that Gazzara shot his victim following his wife's claim that she was raped by him. An act of summary justice carried out by a career soldier who now faces the death penalty.

The first half of the film follows Stewart as he carries out his preliminary interviews with the Manions and others aided by Arthur O'Connell as his booze hound best friend and the splendid Eve Arden as his absurdly loyal secretary.

The last hour is dedicated almost entirely to an extended courtroom drama in which Stewart wrestles with the hot-shot prosecutor (a splendidly well acted part by George C. Scott).

In the course of the trial Stewart exposes acts of selective memory among the witnesses, some slipshod and fatally biased scientific evidence produced by the police and Scott's win at all costs attitude towards prosecuting the case.

The strong script and Preminger's tight direction allow the actor's to get on with telling the story. There's no flashbacks or reconstructions, no niggling narration or characters explaining the plot to each other. The film is driven by the story and the main actors all deliver.

James Stewart is, of course, superb. Alternating between his out of court bumbling everyman figure and his defence counsel with a mind like a steel trap. Every second he's on the screen he's totally believable and, in the court room sequences, delivers a perfectly pitched turn.

Gazzara delivers a fine performance as the tormented husband, unsure of almost everything : what happened on the night in question, why did he do what he did, is he totally sure of his wife's story?

And Lee Remick is superb as the free spirit trapped within the small town morality. Playing the role almost as a femme fatale in the Barbara Stanwyk mould at times before Stewart peels off the layers to expose the frightened young woman underneath.

Two other contributions worth noting : Joseph N. Welch as the trial judge (by turns amused and amusing, exasperated and wise is excellent as is the soaring and flying jazz score by Duke Ellington, who also makes a brief appearance.

On the film's release it had a huge effect of pushing forward the boundaries of what exactly was allowed to be presented to the public as entertainment : apart from the obvious issue of the subject matter (which is referred to openly, not hidden by words such as "assault") there's a lot of technical evidence introduced which refers in detail to the methods that the police of the time used to investigate rape cases.
There are numerous reference to women's undergarments, which was also unusual at the end of the fifties. References to girdles, panties, penetration, sperm, slut, illegitimacy etc. would have been shocking in the context of a 1959 mainstream film. In fact it was banned from public exhibition in Chicago for just this reason.

A very brave film that is also extremely watchable and constantly entertaining. Well worth the five star rating that is usually awarded to it in film guides.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : tuesday 25th of June

The Spirit Of '45 (2013 98min.) [Film4 9.00pm &+1]
Freeview premiere

Documentary from director Ken Loach. Following the Second World War, Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee implemented a process of social reform in Britain that led to the creation of large amounts of council housing and the National Health Service. But what began in a wave of optimism and public spirit changed immeasurably in the intervening years.

Despite clearly having it's heart firmly in the right place Ken Loach's documentary suffers badly from a lack of context and narrative.
This means that it ends up being more of an oral history of the Labour Party between 1945-51 rather than the documentary about the causes and effects of the social and political changes that were brought about at this time - there's also very little examination of what happened afterwards.

The recollections, insights and thoughts of the interviewees are all fascinating but the lack of an overall story gives the film an unfinished feeling.

Certainly interesting but also something of a missed opportunity.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The Player (1992)

The Player (US 1992 -  124min.)  directed by Robert Altman, written by Michael Tolkin.

"The Best Movie Ever Made!" - Griffin Mill

Altman was able to continue making outsider pictures with Hollywood money throughout his long career, despite his refusal to play according to any established set of rules.

At his very best he was in the top five of post-Golden Age American directors. Film such as MASH (1970), The Long Goodbye (1973), Nashville (1975) and Short Cuts (1993) are superb examples of the independent spirit flourishing within the Hollywood studio system.

Even his relative commercial failures (such as Popeye(1980), McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971) or Cookie's Fortune(1999)) have a great deal to be said in their favour in terms of invention and innovation.

"The Player" is a pitch black comedy mocking the mores of the Los Angeles film community in the late eighties/early nineties, when self-absorbtion and the pursuit of wealth became the new gods of cinema production.

Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) is a studio vice-president whose job it is to "green light" pitches and scripts for production.

His venal life of self-gratification is disturbed when he starts to receive death threats from (apparently) a writer whose work he's previously rejected. After an ill advised drunken meeting with his prime suspect his life begins to spiral into a vortex of fear and potential ruin.

All the while his lifestyle and position are also under threat from the arrival of new kid on the block Larry Levy (Peter Gallagher) who Robbins sees as a threat to his status and a potential usurper.

The final third of the film (the most successful part of all) deals with his attempts to engineer Gallagher's decline and fall while maintaining his own position.

All of which is neatly resolved in a laugh out loud final ten minutes.

Altman directs with enormous skill throughout : changing style to match the various stages of Mill's descent. The opening is full of cross-cuts and tracking shots (in the style of Short Cuts) emphasising Mill's maxim of "twenty five words or less" which he uses as a defence against aspirant film makers.

As the mood and scene move away from the studio and business and into the personal, Altman slows down the camera and produces some striking shots lingering on the various participants. A scene in a police station is over-lit and filmed in a flat style to emphasise Mill stepping out of his comfort zone and into a world he doesn't recognise or understand, except by reference to his own films.

Tolkin's script is full of barbed satire at the expense of the "system" and the "process" of film making and scores with most of it's shots. Never tipping over into pure comedy it builds the characters at the same time as poking fun and keeps the various threads of the story contained and moving forward throughout.

Tim Robbins gives a perfectly pitched performance as the egomaniac central character and Peter Gallagher is suitably oily and weasel like as his presumptive heir. There's also a fine performance from Richard E. Grant whose pitch to Robbins of a film about "truth" is beautifully done - it also sets up the final reel of the film and the very clever final scenes.

In fact, the supporting cast are all fine : especially Whoppi Goldberg and Lyle Lovett as a slightly demented pair of police officers and Cynthia Stevenson, Sydney Pollack and Dean Stockwell as those who enter Mill's orbit and are affected in different ways by his single minded pursuit of his own ends.
Even Greta Scacchi turns in an almost believable performance as a bohemian artist and Mill's potential saviour.

Altman's Hollywood is populated by recognisable "real" actors - almost two dozen pop up at various points, adding a veneer of realism to the film. This does have it's downside though, unless an actor in a cameo is referred to be name it's easy to assume that they are part of the cast. Grant's first appearance suffers from this - is he a new character or is he Richard E. Grant?
It's quickly resolved and a tiny fault - but there is a case to be made for the sheer weight of cameos being an unnecessary distraction; a layer too much on the cake.

Despite this minor quibble "The Player" is a superbly realised and beautifully finished film : hardly a moment is wasted and it's a joy and a pleasure to watch from beginning to end.

Freeview (UK) films of the day : monday 24th of June

Limitless (2011 100min.) [Film4 9.00pm &+1]

Sci-fi thriller starring Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. One of life's losers is transformed into a high-achieving dynamo thanks to a mysterious new drug, but his overnight success attracts the wrong kind of attention from those keen to profit from the discovery.

A fairly routine fear of the future thriller is made into an above average film by Bradley Cooper's believable everyman whose life suddenly becomes filled with impossible highs and equally violent lows and by the skilled direction of Neil Burger who creates a visual world to match these changes of mood.

Not essential by a long way but interesting enough.

Departures (2008 125min.) [Film4 1.20am tuesday &+1]

Drama starring Masahiro Motoki. When unemployed cello player Daigo answers an advertisement for a job in "departures", he imagines working for a travel company. But his new job is with a funeral parlour, and the experience of preparing the dead for burial will give Daigo a new perspective on life.

An odd little film that is, by turns, comic, uplifting, witty and just a little repulsive.

Motoki, Ryoko Hirosue and Tsutomu Yamazaki are all excellent in the lead roles and director Yojiro Takita seems to be having enormous fun with the off-kilter subject matter.


Saturday, 22 June 2013

Seance On A Wet Afternoon (1964)

Seance On A Wet Afternoon (UK 1964 111min.)   Directed by Bryan Forbes ; written by Forbes from the book by Mark McShane.

A self-professed medium with a greed for money and publicity arranges the kidnap of a wealthy industrialist's daughter, with the intention of winning acclaim and the ransom when she locates the child using her alleged psychic powers. British psychological thriller, starring Kim Stanley, Richard Attenborough, Mark Eden, Nanette Newman, Gerald Sim and Judith Donner.

Somewhat overlooked and partially forgotten British film that takes the realistic style that was popular at the time and overlays it with an air of the supernatural and other worldly to extraordinary good effect.

There's all sorts of themes and ideas being explored here : the nature of self-deception, the lure and pull of fame (long before it became fashionable to comment on), insanity, loss, delusion and desperation.

Kim Stanley as Myra is utterly astonishing. She holds the centre of the film and turns in a magnificent performance; by turns dominating, beguiling, wheedling, cunning and (ultimately) broken. Nominated for an Oscar (she lost to Julie Andrews for Mary Poppins) it's a fine piece of work, even down to an almost note perfect English accent.

She was to be nominated again in 1983 for her supporting role as Jessica Lange's chillingly dominant mother in Frances (1982) (losing again) - in between times working only fitfully and then mainly in TV; another example of a woman of enormous talent that Hollywood found difficult to slot into it's rigidly stereotyped casting moulds.

The other lead role - the defeated and compliant Bill, Myra's husband - is taken by Richard Attenborough, again giving one of his quiet unshowy performances that he was capable at one time. Meekly sublimating himself to his mentally scarred wife's every whim and command until, in the final reel, she pushes him just a little too far bringing about the hugely satisfying climax to the film.

Good support work from Nanette Newman as a clutching-at-straws young mum, Mark Eden as her husband and Patrick Magee as the investigating superintendent, all charm and urbanity.

A quick word for John Barry's score which is not only excellent (as you would expect) but adds superbly to the general air of strangeness that pervades the film.

And special words for director Bryan Forbes whose best film this is by some comfortable distance. He builds tension into every scene by the use of unusual camera angles (there's a lot of low angle shots), some well used extreme close-ups and constructive use of lighting. He drapes the entire film in an aura of other wordiness and drops in the shocks and surprises with a deft touch.

Finally praise for the location shots of London just on the edge of becoming "swinging". A document of lost times including some great scenes shot in and around the Underground system.

A truly excellent and thoughtful film.

Freeview (UK) films of the day : saturday 22nd of June

Arlington Road (1998 112min.) [BBC1 11.30pm]

Thriller starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins. College professor Michael Faraday has lived a lonely life since his wife's death at the hands of extreme right-wing terrorists. But when he saves the life of a small boy, his kindness brings him into friendly contact with the child's parents. However, Michael soon begins to suspect the couple are not all that they appear. Is he a man haunted by his traumatic past whose paranoia is getting the better of him, or are his suspicions well founded?

Above-average paranoid thriller with a well developed sense of suspense. Director Mark Pellington keeps the viewer in the dark and off-balance for the most part, right up until a dramatic final act reveals the truth.

Jeff Bridges is excellent in the lead role, Tim Robbins is an effective foil and Joan Cusack does terrific work as Bridges' conflicted wife.

Oldboy (2003 114min.) [Film4 1.40am &+1]

Action thriller starring Choi Min-sik. Oh Dae-su is kidnapped and imprisoned for no apparent reason. He is then horrified to discover that his wife has been murdered and he is the chief suspect. After being held for 15 years, his mind disorientated by hypnosis, he is released without explanation and sets about seeking vengeance against those who incarcerated him.

A great example of the modern Korean gangster film. There's some strong scenes in among the tale of guilt and revenge that might put off the more fainthearted; but if you can handle them then you should find this an enjoyable and well crafted film.

In addition Channel Five have a terrific double bill of Howard Hawks westerns this afternoon : Rio Bravo (1958) is on at 1.45pm followed by El Dorado (1967) at 4.30 - both films are genre classics.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Carny (1980)

Carny (US 1980 102 min.)   Directed by Robert Kaylor, written by Phoebe and Robert Kaylor.

Drama starring Jodie Foster, Gary Busey and Robbie Robertson. Frankie and Patch are side-show artists in a travelling carnival. When they meet Donna, it is the beginning of an erotic and dangerous adventure.

Produced by Robbie Robertson, formerly guitar player with sixties/seventies alternative heroes The Band, who also co-stars along with Gary Busey and Jodie Foster.

Robertson and Busey are a pair of carnival ("carny") workers/grifters whose attraction is based around something that resembles a more sophisticated and adult version of the "stocks" game that you see at village fairs and the like.

Busey sits inside a cage suspended over a tank of water, abusing and mocking the customers while Robertson hustles them into buying three throws worth of balls with which to hit a target and dump Busey into the water.

Of course anger and the constant torrent of verbals from Busey make aiming very difficult, ball after ball misses the target while Robertson pockets the dollars.

The opening ten minutes of the film focuses on the sideshow. We watch Frankie (Busey) preparing himself, applying the grotesque make up he affects, climbing into the cage and readying himself for that evening's "performance".
Meanwhile, Patch (Robertson) walks the midway, chatting with the other operators, resolving problems, relaxed, cool and enjoying himself.

Frankie and Patch are perfectly content : they travel light, drink and smoke (there's an awful lot of smoking) and (we assume) womanise through the south with (it seems) not a care in the world.

Until, at one small middle of nowhere town, Frankie encounters Donna (Jodie Foster) a bored and frustrated waitress. She falls for Frankie's charm and air of mystery outsiderness.
Frankie assumes it's a one-off liaison, until Donna appears bag packed and ready to go, seduced by the glamour of the carny lifestyle and determined to be part of it.

The film then explores this unexpected (and largly unwanted) intrusion into the perfect lifestyle of Patch and Frankie, the effect it has on them, the traumatisation of Donna as she realises some of the truth beneath the exterior glamour (especially when she tries her hand as a burlesque dancer in a truly creepy scene).
There's a few sub-plots that keep the action moving along : the way that the carnival is constantly given the shakedown by corrupt town officials, and the way in which Frankie and Patch deal with one especially nasty slimeball; the carny's constant dream of giving up the travelling life and the rather brutal way in which they are reminded that for most it's a lifetime job.

Kaylor (who previously directed the strange Roller Derby (1971)) keeps the camera moving throughout, giving a sense of the claustrophobic nature of the carnival workers inter-connected lives, allowing himself a few flashy camera tricks here and there especially during the denouement of the shakedown story mentioned above.

A lot of the background artists are genuine carnival workers, including a large number of "freak show" workers, as such the film is a record of a part of the entertainment industry that has all but disappeared in the US (and makes no moralising point regarding their exploitation or otherwise, to the other carnival staff they are merely co-workers)

Busey was hot off his utterly splendid title role in 1978's The Buddy Holly Story and is, once again, mesmerising in the dual role as the taunting sideshow attraction and the best buddy whose life suddenly loses a lot of it's anchoring.
Robertson, for a non-actor, is surprisingly good - exuding a sort of effortless cool as the always slightly-in-the-background brains behind the operation.
Jodie Foster is slightly anonymous in the role, 18 at the time she's perfectly cast but always seems to be slightly too knowing to be entirely convincing as a wide eyed small town girl in awe of this travelling melange of oddballs.

It's not a great piece of cinematic art, but there's a lot going on of interest. I guarantee that the first fifteen minutes will hook you in and provide you with sufficient reason to stick with it to the end.
Odd but enjoyable independent (in every sense) film from a time when such things existed within the mainstream in far greater numbers than they do today.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : The Deer Hunter (1978)

The Deer Hunter (1978 176min.) [ITV 10.35pm &+1]

Oscar-winning drama starring Robert De Niro. In a small Pennsylvania steel town, three close friends plan their final hunting trip before they leave for service in Vietnam. Ahead lies a shattering experience at the hands of the Vietcong that will change their lives for ever.

Michael Cimino's elegant and poised film is about the psychological and physical effects on the US national psyche caused by the exposure of a generation of young men to the horrors of jungle warfare and the desperate need for those lucky enough to return home to receive proper care and recognition for their efforts, both at a national and a local level.

It takes it's time to move the action to south east Asia, but once there the horrific brutality of the daily existence is represented with skill building to a central scene which is among the most tense every committed to film.

The entire cast are perfect with the central characters (played by Robert De Niro, John Cazale, John Savage, Christopher Walken and Meryl Streep) all brought to life perfectly by the skill of those involved.

Cimino won an Oscar for his controlled direction which provides a further contributory element to a film that is rightly considered one of the finest that US mainstream cinema produced during the seventies.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Hot Spot (1990)

The Hot Spot (1990)  Directed by Dennis Hopper, written by Nona Tyson from the book by Charles Williams

"Film Noir Like You've Never Seen"

A man with no back story (Don Johnson) drifts into a small Texas town and, having caused havoc in the lives of others, is almost redeemed by the love of a woman (Jennifer Connelly) before fate ensures that he arrives at a more appropriate destiny.

Hopper does a pretty good job of creating a modern take on the forties film noir, observing most of the conventions. He has the cynical, amoral leading man with an ulterior motive or two, the smouldering femme fatale (a scene stealing performance from Virginia Madsen), the constrained and constricting locale and a spot of petty larceny.

And this being in 1990 he chucks in a bit more explicit sexual behaviour than would have been allowed back in the genre's heyday, although this actually detracts from the film rather than adding to it.

Don Johnson, limited actor that he is, is much more comfortable looking troubled and moody than he does in trying to portray the boredom and ennui that leads his character to seek excitement through robbery, fire starting and illicit sexual relationships. During the scenes that are supposed to show how he has become so world weary that nothing can spark any interest (drinking, smoking, visiting a strip club ) he looks more as though he's waiting for someone to shout "action" rather than portray some sort of desolute dead end.

On the acting front the film is saved b the two female leads : Virgina Masden's bored small town wife (of Johnson's boss) manages to vamp her way through each of her scenes, smouldering away, yet never appear ridiculous or a pantomime character.
Equally, Connelly does a pretty good job of floating around as the damaged/fractured innocent who offers Johnson's character redemption right up to the very satisfying pay off in the final scene.

Dennis Hopper directs in a solid fashion, far less showy than in "Colors" or "Out Of The Blue", he allows the setting, the script and the construct to pull the film along, only once dropping in a showboating shot -and then to good effect.

A respectable, well made film that only just misses out on hitting the targets it sets out aiming for. Could have been much, much worse.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : wednesday 19th of June

Devil (2010 76min.) [Film4 10.55pm &+1]

Five office workers become trapped when a lift breaks down. As a cop and a security guard try to free them, it becomes clear they are in far greater danger. One of the group is the Devil himself, who has assumed human form to harvest the souls of sinners - but nobody can tell who he is. Horror, starring Chris Messina, Bokeem Woodbine and Caroline Dhavernas.

Based on a story by M Night Shyamalan, and planned as the first movie in the proposed Night Chronicles trilogy - supernatural stories set in the modern urban world.

It's a slight (and rather obvious) idea but it works because of the skill of the screenwriter Brian Nelson, the director John Erick Dowdle and his cinematographer Tak Fujimoto.
The decision to make the film as that modern rarity, a horror film that relies on atmosphere rather than gore, pays off and although the 'mystery' is nothing more than a red herring it's a well delivered, breezy little piece that makes very good use of its confined setting.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Candidate (1972)

The Candidate (US 1972 - 105 min.) Directed by Michael Ritchie, written by Jeremy Larner.

Political drama starring Robert Redford and Peter Boyle. An idealistic young lawyer, whose father was a former governor of California, is persuaded to run for the Senate, but only on the condition that he is not forced to toe the party line.

Redford's is at the very heart of this film, it has the distinct feel of a personal project for the man who was, at the time, one of Hollywood's most bankable and popular leading men. He was the executive producer on the project and his character's small l West Coast liberal politics chime very clearly with Redford's public persona of the time.

He and director Michael Ritchie had previously worked together on the (now largely forgotten, but rather good) skiing and politics drama Downhill Racer (1969) and the original screenplay is by Jeremy Larner who later forged a career as a novelist and poet of works with distinct leftist themes.

But how does the film stand up forty years on : after we've seen the US political process dissected in dozens of film and TV documentaries, after the mighty television giant The West Wing pulled and scratched at the fabric of the series of compromises that are necessary to get anything at done under the fractured modern system? After all the inside story books, Watergate, Reagan, Clinton, the Bushs  et al. does this film retain it's freshness and is there still any novelty in the story of an idealistic candidate being slowly subsumed and absorbed by The Machine?

Well, the short answer is yes.

The key lies with the films star and its director. Redford has the looks, the youth, the manner and the conviction to make us believe in his character. Obviously there's more than a passing resemblance to the Kennedys (more Bobby than Jack, in truth) , especially with reference to the candidate's father (superbly played Melvyn Douglas) who begins the story as a distant figure but then can't help getting closer and closer to the action - pulling strings behind the scenes, calling in favours and helping create exactly the sort of candidate that Redford begins the film determined not to become.

As the film moves along Redford is excellent at conveying the internal struggle of a man who entered the race on the promise that the worst thing that could happen to him would be that he would lose the race at the primary stage. By the two-thirds mark he has, in reality, lost almost everything that mattered to him : his marriage has become cold and distant, his ideals lie in tatters, former colleagues and friends don't want to know him, shocked by his sell-out.
Redford sits in the back of a car on the way to yet another meeting, free associating the words of the slogans that have now come tor represent all that he stands for as a candidate. the final shreds of idealism have been stripped away and replaced with nothing other than a string of platitudes and meaningless word-strings.
Can't any longer play off black against old - young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless - feed its foodless.

Michael Ritchie's direction is also a key ingredient : he skilfully mixes styles - the sedate dolly shots and static cameras used to film the elder statesmen, comfortable in their mansions and hunting-lodge style homes contrast with the frantic, grabbed and garbled hand-held camerawork that surrounds most of the candidates public appearances. The sound design is also rather well handled, lots of naturalistic sounding background crackle and confusion which both drown out the message and make sensible conversation impossible. The sense of a whirling mass of confusion surrounding almost every waking moment of Redford's day is very well conveyed.

Redford is on screen in every scene of the film but he's surrounded by some excellent actors working hard with smaller parts. Most obviously Peter Boyle as his campaign manager, a professional who, despite his professed belief in the candidate and his views, is revealed as seeing his job as just another gig. Boyle's obviously having fun with the role which is, even down to the look, a walking prototype for The West wing's Toby Zeigler.
Elsewhere the reliable Don Porter is the Republican incumbent and opponent - all old world grace and manners hiding an entrenched conservatism unable to recognise that his days are over, the world has changed and left him and his beliefs behind (at least until they re-emerged in the Reaganite eighties).

There's also fun to be had spotting the (then) contemporary US political and media figures who appear as themselves, including Senators Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern and news reporters such as Ken Jones and Howard K. Smith as well as a brief cameo by Natalie Wood as the well-meaning but out-of-their-depth celebrity supporter that such candidates will always attract.

With a restrained running time but with plenty of ideas packed in per scene the film acts not just as an historical document of US politics at the point where sixties idealism ran into the cold reality of the Nixon White House but also as a fine example of what the New Cinema of post-Easy Rider Hollywood was able to get made when it had a big enough star involved and an interesting idea with which to run.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : tuesday 18th of June

127 Hours (2011) [C4 9.00pm & +1 89min.]

Drama based on a true story, directed by Danny Boyle and starring James Franco.

In 2003 hiker Aron Ralston embarked on a wilderness jaunt in a Utah national park, without informing anyone where he was going. But a freak accident saw him become quite literally stuck between a rock and a hard place - trapped by his forearm between a boulder and a cliff-face.
Over the next six days (the 127 hours of the title), with no sign of rescue and his water having run out, the brutal solution to his ghastly predicament became increasingly clear.

Danny Boyle re-creates this true story of survival using flashbacks, hallucinations and kinetic editing; he transforms a necessarily static situation into a collage in which we get to see a man pondering his imminent demise and discovering whether he has what it takes to save himself.

Warning: 127 Hours contains a song by Dido

Monday, 17 June 2013

A Chinese Ghost Story (1987)

A Chinese Ghost Story (Hong Kong 1987 - 91 min.)  

Directed by Siu-Tung Ching, written by Gai Chi Yuen

An accident prone young tax collector arrives in a small village and ends up spending the night at the local "haunted" temple. Here he gets the opportunity to prove his belief that love conquers all and is eternal when he falls in love with the ghost of a young woman and joins with a legendary ghost hunter/killer in a battle to save her soul from perpetual damnation.

This is an outstanding example of the "ghost" genre that was enormously popular in Asian cinema during the late eighties, before they succumbed to the joys of wire work and endless gymnastic routines.

It's shot through from beginning to end by a lightness of touch, both in the performances and in the direction that keep the film rattling along.
The casual viewer from the Western hemisphere who enjoys the "Evil Dead" films will find plenty to admire here. The entire film is dripping in the same self-mocking, gentle slapstick style of humour. There's a marvellous scene where our hero destroys an entire cellar's worth of zombie ghosts while remaining totally oblivious to their existence.

There's plenty of action sequences featuring some dazzling swordplay to keep you watching and some great pieces of visual comedy to keep you laughing ( Ning Tsai-Shen attempting to hide in a bathtub to avoid detection by the Mistress Of The Witches)

Great fun, hugely enjoyable and visually beautiful

Freeview (UK) film of the day : Monday 17th of June

Die Hard (1988 126min.) [Film4 9.00pm &+1]

Action thriller starring Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman. New York cop John McClane gets caught up in a terrorist plot after arriving in Los Angeles to spend Christmas with his estranged wife Holly and his two children. When Holly is taken hostage in the offices of the Japanese corporation she works for, McClane launches a daring rescue attempt.

The defining thriller of it's decade.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Freeview (UK) films of the day : sunday 16th of June

District 9 (2009 107 min.) [C4 10.05pm &+1]

Sci-fi action drama starring Sharlto Copley. Nearly thirty years after aliens landed near Johannesburg, the extraterrestrial visitors are living in a squalid refugee camp called District 9. With the initial welcoming attitude of the human population long since faded, the order is given for the space visitors to be forcibly evicted. For one man, the operation will be a life-changing experience.

Neill Blomkamp's film is part sci-fi adventure, part social satire and part drama ; put together with a great degree of skill and not a little charm it's a throughly rewarding and entertaining film that has across-the-board appeal. Even people who would normally steer clear of films about giant creatures from space will find District 9 engaging, exciting and fun.

A superb, heartbreaking central performance from Sharlto Copley and Blomkamp's skilled direction ensures that the message doesn't get in the way of the action while allowing all of the themes of the film to be developed.

Frozen (2010 93min.) [Film4 9.00pm &+1]

Three skiers are left stranded on a mountain chairlift when the resort staff turn off the power in the middle of their ascent. Faced with the prospect of remaining in the freezing cold until the following weekend, the trio are forced to make a difficult decision that could cost them their lives. Thriller, starring Emma Bell, Shawn Ashmore, Kevin Zegers, Ed Ackerman and Rileah Vanderbilt.

Rather well done, low budget lost-in-the-wild thriller which explains why you should never muck about on a chair lift.
There's a stand-out performance by Emma Bell and a moment (and a sound effect) that will make you wince and grimace with pain.

I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Gwoemul / The Host (2006)

Gwoemul (The Host) (2006)

[South Korea/ Japan 119 min.]

Directed by Jooh-Ho Bong. Written by Chul-Hyun Baek, Joon-Ho Bong and Won-Jun Ha.

Blackly comic science-fiction horror. A giant mutated tadpole attacks Seoul citizens and carries off a young schoolgirl who must fight for survival.

"It is Lurking Behind You "

In short, a Korean Big Bad Monster movie where the beast is the result of man's folly, similar to the American 1950's radioactive threat films such as "Them!"

It revolves around three generations of the Park family who eek out a living with a food stall on the banks of Seoul's Han river. Irresponsible scientists (as usual) poison the river, creating a mutant creature that's part Alien, part fish and a rather skilled gymnast.

On the creature's first foray onto dry land it picks up young Hyun-Seo and carries her off to it's lair. Her father, grandfather, aunt and uncle set out to rescue her, hindered by the constant interference of the authorities.

As a bold outline it sounds like dozens of other post-Alien big monster movies. However, this film has picked up another of the themes of the fifties nuclear scare films - the role of those charged with protecting the public's safety and their reaction to the threat.

The Bad Guys here are the Americans. It's an American scientist who causes the poisoning of the river in the first place, it's American military clean up team who are sent in by the UN to put matters right.

It's very easy to read these as symbolistic plot devices, referencing the way that the US tends to react to any problem with military might. It's an obvious parallel with Iraq, with the monster as Saddam.

However, rather than the heavy handed polemic that such obvious symbolism could have created what we have here is a fast moving, sometimes funny, always involving film with a handful of genuine shock moments.

The brave decision to place two (very) young people at the centre of the story could have backfired badly, however the actors carry it off with some style.

A good CGI monster and that neat way that Korean directors have of twisting a genre will keep you entertained throughout. Huge fun, especially for a film with such a deep seated political message.