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.

Freeview (UK) films of the day : Saturday 15th of June

Skeletons (2010 93min.) [BBC2 11.40pm]
Freeview premiere

Comedy starring Andrew Buckley, Ed Gaughan and Jason Isaacs. Davis and Bennett are employed by the Veridical company to remove the psychic detritus that clogs up people's lives - a process that involves entering their clients' closets. However, when the pair are ordered to the house of a woman whose husband disappeared years ago, they embark upon a case that challenges all their working methods.

It's the sort of small scale, quirky comedy that Britain should be producing more often : there's some lovely character development and some touching scenes in among the laughs and giggles.

There's nice attention to detail - the exorcists constant need to ensure that all their paperwork is up to date, for example - and the entire film has a genial, warm feeling to it, even when dealing with subjects of the utmost seriousness for the characters.

Thoroughly enjoyable and a fine example of the small budget film made to work by the vision and skill of the writer/director. Well worth the effort.

Devil (2010 76min.) [Film4 9.00pm &+1]
Freeview premiere

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.

Friday, 14 June 2013

London To Brighton (2006)


Written and directed by Paul Andrew Williams

Crime drama starring Lorraine Stanley and Georgia Groome. A prostitute and her underage charge flee for their lives from the London underworld when a sleazy assignation results in the death of a wealthy gangster.

In lesser hands (say Guy Ritchie) this story of London, prostitution, pimps, paedophilia and gangsters would be an unholy mess - a random selection of paper thin characters talking a barely recognisable language with moments of ulta-violence to satisfy the bloodlusty in the audience.

It's to Paul Andrew Williams' eternal credit that he manages to avoid this simple route and, instead, create a film that attempts to look below the surface of so many tired mockney gangster films of recent years and create a believable world where the characters could actually live and, even better, make us care about their lives.

The basis of the film is the desperate flight from London of career prostitute Kelly (the outstanding Lorraine Stanley) and twelve year old runaway Joanne (an astonishing turn from Georgia Groome). They are pursued by Kelly's pimp Derek (Johnny Harris) who is, in turn, anxious to avoid the attentions of gangsters son Stuart Allen (Sam Spruell)

Williams uses as his the starting point the beginning of the women's journey, no reason for their plight is immediately obvious, being revealed in flashback as the film unwinds.

The flashback scenes are the less interesting part of the film, being fairly standard demi-monde activities filmed in a flat style until we get to the central act which preciptates the action, when there is a sudden use of an impressionistic style that renders the awful images even more potent.

There are some beautifully written moments where we are reminded of the Joanne character's extreme youth. Arriving at Brighton beach she suddently reverts to childhood, skipping down the beach towards the sea squealing with pleasure and later she indulges the universal childhood waste-of-money, the desperate attempt to win a stuffed toy from a claw machine.

And an arresting visual metaphor in the scene where the two, sat outside a beachside cafe and having finished drinking their tea from styrofoam cups, let the cups go and watch as they are taken by the wind and blown in random sequence along the promenade. Lost in events and unable to control their destiny, just like the central characters.

It's tight running time of 85 minutes ensures that the plot never slips or sags, every scene is vital to the progression of the story and not a minute is wasted.

There are echoes of recent superior British gangster films - Gangster Number One and, of course, The Long Good Friday - but underpinning the whole story is a warmth and affection for the central characters that prevent "London To Brighton" slipping into cliche or becoming (as too many recent entrys in this area have) nothing more than an extended version of a "gritty" television drama.

Thoroughly recommended.

Freeview films of the day : friday 14th of June

Inland Empire (2006 172min.) [ITV 10.35pm &+1]

Mystery drama starring Laura Dern. Hollywood actress Nikki Grace faces an escalating nightmare after winning a role in a new film that has been cursed with problems. Becoming increasingly consumed by her character, Susan Blue, Nikki finds screen life and real life merging, until she's uncertain of who she really is, and whether the disturbing events that unfold are fantasy or reality.

It would be difficult to think of a flim that's less suited to showing on a commercial channel with the implicit need to insert advert breaks, If my basic maths is right there will be at least 15 minutes of breaks during the film.

David Lynch (mostly) makes films that are like photographed dreams - there's little in the way of conventional narrative structure, characters appear, disappear and reappear for no obvious reason and sometimes played by a different actor.
However, the viewer who's prepared to forget about traditional concepts of plot and character arcs and allow themselves to sink into the artfully created world of artifice and illusion can be rewarded with a dizzying viewing experience.

Inland Empire isn't in the same class as Lynch's post-Elephanrt Man surreal masterpieces (Blue Velvet and Mulholland Dr.) and it's way, way too long - but there's enough ideas and wit, shock and twists to satisfy the curious; provided you can cope with the mood-breaking advert breaks.

Audition (1999 110min.) [Film4 1.15am saturday &+1]

Psychological horror. Seven years after the death of his wife, a lonely man is persuaded by a friend to hold auditions for a new bride, with the candidates under the impression they are trying out for a film. He becomes capitivated by a demure young woman who seems to be everything he wants, but appearances prove deceptive.

Terrific Japanese/Korean thriller superbly directed by Takashi Miike and with a thoroughly disturbing air of menace and dread.
There's an outstanding performace by Eihi Shiina and one of the best "jump" moments in recent cinema.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared) (2003)

Io Non Ho Paura (I'm Not Scared) (Italy 2003) [108min.]

Written by Niccolo Ammaniti, directed by Garbriele Salvatore

In Italian with English subtitles

"Secrets. Betrayal. Murder"

A beautifully photographed (by Italo Petriccione), marvellously constructed, perfectly paced film that constantly wrong foots the viewer and rightly carried off a whole basket full of awards on the European circuit on it's original release.

Set among the pastoral idyll of Southern Italy, it's the story of Michele, a ten year old boy from the poorest of poor villages, who discovers Something Odd while out playing one day.

The initial shock of his discovery is superbly realised, even more so in that while grown ups watching may well dive for cover Michele faces this (and the other discoveries that he makes along the way) with a mixture of wild eyed wonder and stoic courage.

Giuseppe Cristiano as Michele, along with the other children of the village, is a "found" actor with no formal training and yet he brings to the role the sort of simple, natural style that any Method-fiend would kill for.

Initially leading the viewer to suppose they are watching the story of a foundling in the spirit of The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser or (more closely) Powder, the script twists and turns with a continuous and yet wholly believable series of pace changes and digressions.

The atmosphere of daily life interrupted by the unmentionable is held together throughout ; all of the performances are believable from the loving but troubled mother, through the various children, to the slightly sinister outsider Sergio who arrives at the family home with a motive I defy you to guess during the first third of the film.

A difficult film to write about without disclosing too much, however I guarantee that if you make it through the first third (and the scenery alone is worth making that effort for) then the film will grip and enthral you from that point on.

Superb and, for once, a worthy critical (if not commercial) success.

Freeview film of the day : Wednesday 12th of June

Hairspray (2007 111min.) [E4 8.00pm &+1]

Satirical musical comedy starring John Travolta, Nikki Blonsky and Michelle Pfeiffer. In 1960s Baltimore, chubby teenager Tracy Turnblad wins a place on her favourite television dance show. She soon faces a battle with ruthless station manager Velma von Tussle, who fears Tracy may steal the Miss Teenage Hairspray crown from her daughter.

Some great songs and likeable performances from Zac Efron and Nikki Blonsky; Michelle Pfeiffer is superb as the panto villan and Christopher "Twinkletoes" Walken dances up a storm.

Look out for the cameo by the writer/director of the original film John Waters in the opening song.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Pusher (1996)

Pusher  [Denmark, 1996 : 105min.] Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, written by Jens Dahi and Nicolas Winding Refn

Danish crime drama set on the streets of modern-day Copenhagen. Drug-dealing is proving to be good business for Frank, until a police bust leaves him with no merchandise and a huge debt to a local crime lord. The pressure is on Frank to try and raise money from his lowlife connections, but as the clock ticks so his actions become increasingly desperate.

"Du har ikke en chance. Grib den."

Frank ( Kim Bodnia) is a drug pusher. At the start of the week he's king of his world - money in the pocket, a woman who loves him, a best friend and partner in excess who adores him and connections to all the right people.

Over the space of a week his life falls apart in spectacular style, everything collapses around him , doors are shut in his face and by the end of the film he's a broken and damaged man with nowhere left to go.

This is director Refn's debut film, winding himself up for the twin delights of Bleeder (1999) and Fear X (2003) with a shot-on location delve into the (limited) delights of Copenhagen's druggy underworld.

I don't think there's a single static camera shot in the whole running time and this allows Refn to create a constantly moving world against the shifting background of which are paraded a series of desperate characters ; almost all of them motivated by the need for the next high, the next hit or the next big score.

And the astonishing thing is that, even though were in amongst such lowlife scumbags, the script and the acting actually makes you care about them and (kind of) hope that everything works out for them.

There's a nice supporting cast of well drawn oddballs - Frank's best friend Tonni, eager as a puppy to please and his "girlfriend" Vic who's "not a prostitute.. I'm an escort" and who carrys a rather large unrequited torch for Frank.
Best of all though are Frank's "connection" Milo, slow moving and talking but capable of the most astonishing acts of random violence. His hobby is making cakes.
Also Milo's giant right hand man and enforcer, Radovan, who commits even more astonishing retribution on his master's enemies, and who dreams of quitting the enforcing game to open a tea shop.

There's a rather fine soundtrack made up of songs by (I assume) Danish punk bands and just enough blood and gore to remind us that the world of drug trafficking isn't all pastries and good times.

We also learn, in a laugh out loud moment of pitch black humour, that attatching electrical cable to someones nipples can cause your domestic fusebox to trip out.

Making us feel sympathy for such an essentially unpleasant lead character is a difficult trick to pull off, and the fact that Refn manages it is an indication of how he went on to become a sought-after director in the mainstream.

Interesting and entertaining.

Freeview (UK) Film of the day : Monday 10th of June

Talk To Her (2001 108min.) [Film4 12.55am tuesday &+1]

Romantic drama directed by Pedro Almodóvar, and starring Javier Cámara and Darío Grandinetti. Male nurse Benigno and journalist Marco meet in a hospital ward where they're waiting for a ballerina and a female bullfighter to emerge from comas. As the days go by, Benigno and Marco become friends.

A restrained, quiet film by Almodóvar's usual standards but still up there with his very best work.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Boyz N The Hood (1991)


Boyz N The Hood (US 1991 111min.)  Directed and written by John Singleton.

Urban drama starring Larry Fishburne, Ice Cube and Cuba Gooding Jr. South Central Los Angeles, 1984: young Tre's mother decides it would be in his best interest to live with his estranged but disciplined dad. Seven years on, he has managed to steer clear of the drugs and the violence but, as the teenage gang wars begin to invade his neighbourhood, it becomes almost impossible for him and his friends to avoid trouble.

"Increase the peace "

John Singleton's debut feature was an assured and committed film reflecting the lives of boys growing up amid the chaos and confusion of Reaganite America. Set in south central Los Angles we follow Tré (Cuba Gooding), Ricky (Morris Chestnut) and Doughboy (Ice Cube) as they turn from children to street urchins to young men with destinies.

In a remarkable, concise style Singleton let's us eavesdrop on the boys growing up and witness the way in which the choices they make each step along the way will, in the end, come to shape their futures.

It's a film bursting with ideas and with plenty to say, but very seldom do you get the feeling that you're being lectured. Too many films (both of this time and later) that attempted to look at the state of the States ended up as finger wagging polemic or just plain dull.

Singleton sets out to tell a story, albeit a story with a purpose and a moral, but each of the central characters does have a story arc and the film remains true to itself at all times. At no point do we think "s/he wouldn't have done that" - nor do we feel like we're being insulted or patronised for not being part of the target audience.

It's not a seperatist film, the film (rightly) condones the idea that black-on-black killing is an acceptable thing and challenges a lot of the preconceptions that the audience would bring with them.

Tré's father is played by Laurence Fishburne in his first leading role. Jason Styles , known to all as Furious, is a man deeply steeped in the history of the black man in the US , radicalised by the Civil Rights movement. At the time of the film we find him operating a home loans company, aiming to provide funds for his black customers to move on up.

It's to (the excellent) Fishburne that the script turns to deliver it's one moment of out and out politicising. Taking Tré and Ricky into Compton, in an attempt to show them the eternal truth of "the other man's grass is always more yellow", he begins a street corner sermon on the lot of the black in (then) present day America.
As he warms to his theme a small crowd gathers and an imprompteu Q&A / call and response is set in motion.

[referring to drug epidemic] I know every time you turn on the TV thats what you see, Black People, pushing the rock, selling the rock, that's what you see. But see that wasn't a problem as long as it was here [referring to Compton, Watts, other Black ghettos] It wasn't a problem until it was in Iowa or on Wall Street where there are hardly any black people.

And this is the central message of the film - the young characters are in need of someone like "Furious" to point these things out to them. For all the clamour in the popular US press the sad truth is that then (and now) the people who were in the centre of all this shit were the very same ones that were most cut off from any sense of why they were who they were or where they were.
Doughboy says : Tre, your pops is like muthafuckin Malcolm... Farrakhan
He knows the names, he knows that they are people to be listened to, but in his juiced up brain all that they amount to is a jumble of vaguely related names.

A word on the soundtrack. Superb, especially the use of Ice's "How To Survive In South Central" and Dr.Buzzard's "Sun Shower"

The poster tagline "increase the peace" is also the last words on the screen when the credits stop rolling - this was the writer/director's plea and, to an extent, he got his wish.

Sadly, a director this talented couldn't stay outside the mainstrean's radar for long and he ends up working on the reamke of Shaft (2000) and the truly awful 2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) - nice irony in the title.

But in 1991 John Singleton wrote and directed one of the most astonishing debut features since Citizen Kane. I trust that is enough to make you watch the film next time you get the chance.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas (Canada 1974  97min.)   directed by Bob Clark, written by Roy Moore

Horror thriller starring Olivia Hussey. Pre-Christmas festivities turn sour as a group of female college students get a series of obscene and threatening phone calls. Then the murders begin...

 "If this movie doesn't make your skin crawl... It's On Too Tight! "

Black Christmas is an under rated Canadian film which predates the slasher/stalker sub-genre that came to dominate the Horror field folowing the success of Halloween (1978) and Friday The 13th (1980).

Writer Roy Moore came from television and this background obviously came in useful - the film is tightly plotted and manages to walk the comedy/horror line very successfully during the first half ; thus setting up the full steam ahead horror of the second.

It's a slight story and one that has been used in numerous variations over the past thirty years. Small group of people (in this case female students) are caught in an enclosed space (their sorority house) and are picked off one by one by an unseen lurking psycho.

So far - so much the same. However director Clark keeps finding new and inventive ways to move the story forward visually and uses the scripts standout device of the insane, garbled phone calls from the killer in a very effective way.

Olivia Hussey is the nominal star, which is a shame as her acting talent wasn't (yet)  really up to the role ; however, the rug is pulled out from under her by Marot Kidder - still four years away from Superman - she grabs the role of Barbie (drunken loudmouth no-nonsense tough girl) and clings on for dear life. An exceptional performance from an actress that Hollywood found too difficult to manage and handle and was allowed to slip from the public view - a terrible waste of talent.

Also among the cast are the always reliable TV actors John Saxon (as the investigating detective) and Keir Duella as the prime suspect boyfriend of Hussey's character.

At this remove it's possible that Black Christmas would appear to be just another in a long line of haunted house/ slasher films - however, there is still enough that is novel and fresh on offer to distinguish it from the mundane and average.

You should also bear in mind that at the time of it's release many of the conceits and detail of the script, which are now over familiar, were fresh and new. I'm fairly sure that a trick that now turns up everywhere from CSI down with regard to the phone calls was being used for the first time here.

Director Clark was later responsible for the Porky's films (!) before disappearing into Canadian TV . Roy Moore has only ever had one other screenplay filmed.

It's one of those films that is much greater than the sum of the parts - the cinema equivilent of the punk group who manage one timeless single before being returned to obscurity.

Avoid the 2006 remake at all costs. It's rotten.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Chung King Express (1994)

Chung King Express (HK 1994 101min.) written and directed by Kar Wai Wong.

Romantic comedy drama. In Hong Kong, two lovesick policemen become involved with unsuitable women - one a ruthless drug dealer, the other a fast-food waitress.

"If my memory of her has an expiration date, let it be 10,000 years... "

Two non-intersecting love storys that both feature the fast food bar of the title as a central locale.

Lovely to look at - it's intercut with a series of impressionistic splashes of colour and movement that make Hong Kong appear as though it's a futurescape straight out of Bladerunner.

The first half tells the story of the unnamed Cop 633 - he mourns his lost love, discovers the epicene delights of tinned pineapple and fall for a deeply unsuitable woman who, we know but he doesn't, is a drug runner and cold blooded killer.

The second half belongs (in every sense of the word) to Faye Wong as the dizzy dreamer who works on the counter at the Chung King Express. It's about her hopeless romantic spirit and the pursuit (borderline stalking) of He Zhwiu, Cop 223.

Faye Wong steals all the acting prizes for the film - a dreamer who floats through her days lost in thoughts of love and romance with a soundtrack provided by The Mamas & The Papas. It's a magnificent performance.

Australian director of photography Christopher Doyle fills every scene with magic, light is bent and shaped and choreographed. Neon signs dance and shimmer, the cityscape is bathed in the most gorgeous hues.

And what's it all about ? - nothing much really. If it has a "message" it's about how much Kar Wai Wong loves Hong Kong, popular culture and modern life. It's a three minute pop single disguised as a film - light,catchy and unforgettable.

A remarkable and memorable film; all the more so for being a stop-gap project for the writer/director with the entire shoot taking just twenty three days. I promise you'll love it and that you'll never hear "California Dreaming" or The Cranberries' "Dreams" in quite the same way ever again.

Freeview (UK) film of the day : Tuesday 4th of June

Mother (2009 123min.) [Film4 11.05pm &+1]

Crime thriller. When a young man with learning difficulties is accused of murder and then confesses to the crime, his mother turns detective to prove his innocence.

Bong Joon-ho's film plays out as a gleefully eccentric mix of straightforward whodunnit, David Lynch-style surrealism, comedy romp and thriller.

But the main themes are suspense and melodrama and these two are welded together with great skill into a genuinely gripping story. This, plus the terrific, subtle central performance by Kim Hye-ja and the beautiful photography, all combine to form a spellbinding and absorbing film.

Highly recommended.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Man With The Golden Arm (1955)

The Man With The Golden Arm (US 1955 119min.) directed by Otto Preminger

Gritty drama starring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak. Chicago: card dealer and heroin addict Frankie Machine has just got out of jail. He returns to his old haunts determined to kick his habits and become a musician. But the pressures of dealing with a wife in a wheelchair, a pusher and the woman he really loves make things tough.

In the mid to late-fifties Otto Preminger made a near-career from upsetting those who were intent on maintaining the status quo both in society as a whole and especially on the cinema screen ; his Anatomy Of A Murder (1959) became a cause celebre with its frank portrayal of marital infidelity, abortion and discussion of women's undergarments.

The Man With The Golden Arm is, if anything, more groundbreaking. Its full and (reasonably) honest approach to the perils of  heroin addiction certainly has nothing to do with the Doris Day/Rock Hudson view of American life during the immediate post-War decade.

At the centre, leading man Sinatra is on fine form, In something approaching the doldrums in his musical career (although on the cusp of a re-birth) he seems willing to put everything he can into his portrayal of a weak man who feels he deserves a break after cleaning-up but who finds, time and time again, that circumstance and fate have different ideas for him.

He's a jumping bag of nervous energy, seldom able to sit still, flitting from flat to bar to card game and constantly attempting to push back against the tide of people who all want a piece of him and are intent on pulling him (almost literally) apart.

Aside from the Robert Strauss character, who wants him back dealing at his illegal card parties, and the smooth, elegant evil of the local pusher Louie (a great turn by Darren McGavin) Frankie is also constantly tugged at by the two women in his life.

Eleanor Parker plays Zosch, the wife Frankie married as she lay in hospital following a car crash caused (it's implied) by Frankie driving while high. Confined to a wheelchair Parker is constantly nagging Frankie for money - for more doctors, for better food, to fund dreams and schemes - she appears to contribute nothing to the couple's life other than being a perpetual drain on Frankie's energy, resources and time.

Parker is convincing and suitably annoying in this difficult role.

His escape from this domestic torment is downstairs neighbour Molly (Kim Novak, herself on the brink of becoming something rather special via Hitchcock) - she's a nightclub worker and has a greater understanding of Sinatra's character's desperate desire to break free from his background and make something of himself.
She allows Frankie to set up his drums in her flat and practice there when Zosch bans them from the marital home on account of the noise and the affect this has on her 'delicate' nerves. She listens to and encourages his dreams, she's the one who attempts to keep him straight and out of the clutches of the more shady members of their neighbourhood. It's obvious from the first time we meet her that Novak's character is Frankie's soulmate ; but his sense of duty and obligation seems destined to keep them apart.

Arnold Stang also puts in good work as Sparrow ; Frankie's friend, a low level hustler who hero worships Frankie but whose enthusiasm and lack of skill at his chosen profession also constantly threatens to bring even more trouble into his life.

Preminger makes good use of the limitation of budget which restricts most of the action to a Hollywood backlot distressed so as to appear like a low-rent (Chicago?) neighbourhood. The sense of place is so well developed that it becomes almost as real as any location-shot neo-realist film.

The three central actors are all perfectly pitched and played, the script is solid with an absorbing story, the supporting cast is excellent and Preminger's direction deft and un-intrusive.

A very fine example of a fifties Hollywood film that's not afraid to move outside the mainstream and have the courage to tackle some very mature themes in an honest and thoughtful way.

Freeview film of the day (UK) : Monday 3rd of June

Buffalo '66  (1998 109min.) [Film4 11.15pm &+1]

Drama starring Vincent Gallo and Christina Ricci. On his release from prison, Billy Brown coerces dance student Layla into helping weave a tall story for his emotionally distant parents, who are unaware of his jail term. Meanwhile, Billy plans revenge against the man responsible for his incarceration.

Writer/ director/ lead actor Vincent Gallo isn't an easy man to like either in real life or in his on-screen characterisations; however Buffalo '66 works largely because Gallo's character is such an utter waste-of-space loser.

His relationships, with bored student Chrstina Ricci and his long-suffering parents (Ben Gazzara and Anjelica Huston, both excellent) are at the heart of the film and, no matter how loathsome we find Billy Brown, the possibility of personal redemption sustains our interest.

As does the sharp, witty script and the interesting direction that makes use of a clever twist on the use of flashbacks within the narrative.

Not essential, but an interesting film (probably Gallo's best) with plenty of interest if you can get past the surface nastiness.