Monday, 31 August 2015

What was done, was done for our salvation.

Nothing But the Night
(1973)

(SPOILERS) A non-Hammer pairing of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, Nothing But the Night’s neglected status is a fair reflection that it is, mostly, a quite dull affair. Peter Sasdy’s film has been compared to same year’s The Wicker Man, with its mysterious goings-on on a remote Scottish island and particularly for its shocking sacrificial climax, but really it’s only that shocking (and wholly bizarre) climax that marks it out for attention at all (probably spoiled if you watched it under the alternative title The Resurrection Syndicate, but at least not confounding expectations they way The Caste of the Living Dead would).


Indeed, for the most part Nothing But the Night is studiously procedural in tone, as if following the banal minutiae of the investigation of Colonel Charles Bingham (Lee), a semi-retired plod, and pathologist Sir Mark Ashley (Cushing) will somehow make the last ten minutes easier to swallow when it comes. I’d have gladly sacrificed such presumed reverence for a bit more action and drama.


After a coach driver seems to have set himself alight, resulting in an accident that leaves the children of an orphanage run by The Van Traylen Fellowship unscathed, Bingham is keen to get to the bottom of matters. Three trustees of the Van Traylen Trust have died in the previous six months, making the trust £5m richer. Dr Haynes (Keith Barron) attempts to get answers through hypnosis from Mary Valley (Gwyneth Strong, who ignominiously, went on to play Cassandra in Only Fools and Horses; she’s pretty good here), one of the children closest to the accident. Mary keeps talking about a consuming fire, “a nightmare where she feels she is being burned alive”.


On top of this, Mary’s mum Anna Harb (Diana Dors), a former prostitute who has just done ten years in Broadmoor for a triple killing, wants her daughter back, and journalist Joan Foster (Georgia Brown) is keen to stir things up in the name of a good story.


There are more than enough distinctive elements here to provide a hook then, and it isn’t clear just what is going on at any point; are the trustees up to no good? Is Anna, an occultist given to splenetic pronouncements such as “If you’re lying to me, if this is some kind of trick, I’ll kill you!” responsible? Or is something else going on? If it weren’t for the leftfield ending, you’d swear this was a tale of reincarnation. Although, it does turn out to be a (kind of) case of metempsychosis, just not in any expected manner.


Unfortunately, Sasdy, mostly a TV director who was also responsible for Hammers Taste the Blood of Dracula and Countess Dracula, the big screen Doomwatch adaptation and the rather good BBC Nigel Kneale The Stone Tape diligently fails to inject any life into the proceedings.


There’s the occasional moment (the murder of Keith Barron’s doctor isn’t exactly a Vera Miles in Psycho shock, but we’re pretty sure by this point he’s the young lead who will guide us through the picture), but endless scenes of Lee and Cushing debating the next move, or of Diana Dors wandering through scrubland as probably the most laborious red herring ever, has a good go at inducing a soporific response.


The ending, though. Dors has been set up so blatantly that few will believe she’s actually up to no good, but anyone expecting the Bingham trustees to be responsible is simultaneously undercut and validated as Mary revels herself to be one of their number. As Cushing explains, “They have used their power and their wealth to try and achieve immortality”, by “transplanting the nucleus of their adult knowledge, experience and personality into the minds of those children”. How? Well, employ a first class biochemist and a brain surgeon and it can only be a matter of time before bob’s your uncle.


As explanations go, it’s risible, but the sight of Mary exclaiming to Bingham “You could have been one of us, you silly man. Now you’ll burn” is quite chilling in Legend of Hell House possession by way of Village of the Damned kind of way. This after the reveal she put her not-so-dear mama on the bonfire. Any possibility that Lee will make amends for his indulgence of pagan rites in The Wicker Man is staved off, as Joan gets set alight by the convenient gust of Ashley’s incoming helicopter. The obliging remaining kids then go and jump off a cliff, which ties up any loose ends.


At one point a couple of drunks discover a ritually murdered child’s body, and it’s curious the number of British pictures around this time presenting an environment where children are no longer safe; this, The Wicker Man (even merely as a lure for Edward Woodward), The Offence. Perhaps they’re tapping into a post-Moors Murders mood, one more recently further embedded with the Red Riding Trilogy and post-Savile ongoing revelations.


I’d be very surprised if Ben Wheatley hadn’t seen Nothing But the Night, as it feels like the kind of fare he’d lap up. Brian Hayles, a frequent contributor to Doctor Who who also wrote for Doomwatch and gave us the screenplay for the seminal Warlords of Atlantis, adapted the screenplay from John Blackburn’s novel of the same name.


Cushing and Lee are reliable but don’t really have anything to dig their teeth into. Ironically, perhaps, as Lee conceived this as the first of a Bingham trilogy (he optioned two other Blackburn novels); his role in The Wicker Man, the same year, represents just the kind of anti-typecasting part you’d expect him to be aiming for, but I guess anything non-Dracula was a win at that point in his career.


Aside from Strong, it’s Brown who really impresses as the cynical journo in search of a story. Also featured are Fulton Mackay, a young(ish) Michael Gambon and Kathleen Byron (best known as loony Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus). Nothing But the Night really needs the viewer to endure 75 minutes of near nodding off to the ‘70s scenery for its ending to have full effect, but I couldn’t really blame anyone skipping through it on YouTube for the (actual) fireworks.





Friday, 28 August 2015

You’re the kind of machine who should be working for us.

The Black Windmill
(1974)

(SPOILERS) Michael Caine has made so many spy movies, a few are bound to have fallen through the cracks. It’s especially a shame that The Black Windmill, with its proto-Ransom/Taken premise and a fine director in Don Siegel, fresh from career renaissance maker Dirty Harry and follow-up Charley Varrick, doesn’t quite live up to the talent involved. Still, neither does it deserve its all but forgotten status.


Caine’s Major John Tarrant is on the trail of an international arms syndicate/sabotage ring, so they only go and kidnap his son and demand a ransom (£517k in uncut diamonds; about £6m in today’s money, so not that much really, not for an international arms syndicate, anyway). It becomes clear that contact “Drabble” (McKee, played by John Vernon) knows an awful lot about Tarrant, who he works for and what he’s investigating, which can only lead to the conclusion that someone in British Intelligence is helping him. All Tarrant wants is his son back, but his superiors have other priorities, which include the suspicion that Tarrant may be in on it. This state of affairs isn’t helped any when McKee places evidence in Tarrant’s flat suggesting an affair with his associate Celia Burrows (Delphine Seyrig).


So there’s a potentially effective web of intrigue and mystery set up. An additional layer comes with Tarrant’s friction with his ex-wife Alex (Janet Suzman). This isn’t explored to its full potential since her characterisation is undercooked, but the gist is that the security services killed their relationship and ruined Tarrant as any kind of decent person.


The chief problem with The Black Windmill is that Tarrant is too passive a character for too much of the duration. This might be explained in part by everyone noting how composed he is (“Isn’t that what I’m trained to do? Hide my feelings?”) but he’s continually pushed around by both his bosses and by McKee. He never really gets to show much initiative either; the means to get hold of the diamonds is intentionally laid out on a plate for him, and McKee’s dropping of the location of his kidnapped son is pretty foolish given the elaborate plan to hang the operation on Tarrant (which involves Tarrant being arrested, and hopefully not spilling everything he’s learned –including the windmill – before McKee can have him immediately abducted and killed).


In short, Tarrant isn’t the most satisfying of protagonists, although Caine, at his lizard-eyed zenith (the period ’65-’75 is probably his most consistently satisfying period as an actor, and there’s certainly an awful lot of dross in the decade that follows). His impression of his RP boss isn’t up to much, though. Anyone watching this would scarcely believe he’d one day get an Oscar for delivering a very ropey American accent. This is also an early sign of fashion disasters to come, with Caine not only sporting garish suits and oversized ties, but also experiencing the onset of his random “stylish” spectacles faze. A full decade where you’re longing for the return of those NHS specs.


The supporting cast is solid, although the honours go to Donald Pleasance, who seems to be doing something wildly interesting in what ever I happen upon him in lately. He’s Tarrant’s superior Harper, a nervy man with a particularly obsessive habit of playing and straightening his moustache. Pleasance makes the tic powerfully distracting, such that it becomes the focus of any scene he’s in. Harper’s described as someone who “If he hasn’t solved The Times Crossword by 10 in the morning, he has to go to his doctor for a check-up”, and his first appearance finds him misnaming a suspect as Sean Connery, to the disbelief of his superior and the rolled eyes of Caine. Pleasance even has a scene where he makes shredding compelling.


Vernon, four years from legendary status as Dean Wormer in Animal House, previously worked with Siegel on Dirty Harry, and he’s suitably implacable and ruthless. The sort of guy who has no compunction in torturing a child (fairly brutal this, even though its off screen), less still dispatching his associates/ girlfriends. Mentions too for Julian O’Connor, Joss Ackland (positively svelte and sporting a magnificent hat), Catherine Schell (gorgeous as ever, and in a single  scene effectively putting the fear up Harper as a nympho lush), Clive Revill, a pre-Watson Edward Hardwicke and David Daker.


The plot, adapted by Leigh Vance (who mostly worked in TV, including The Avengers, Mission: Impossible and Strange Report) from Clive Egelton’s novel Seven Days to a Killing, has its share of unlikely incidents (including the hows and whys of the bad guys showing up when they do and how they do for the opening abduction), but Siegel keeps things zipping along. Indeed, his non-local eye for the sights and sounds of London is particularly arresting, making this altogether fresh and vibrant visually. There are a series of notable set pieces, including a pulse pounding Tube chase (Daker after Caine) and a simple but tense sequence in which Tarrant slips back into England from France through Customs.


The showdown is pretty standard stuff, though, effectively staged but really just Caine showing up at the titular location (which suggests something much more intriguing and vital than it actually is) and getting handy with a machine gun (ending with McKee being bloodily bullet-riddled in the nethers). 


There’s a feeling that with a few more drafts this could have been closer to Le Carré in presenting a jaded approach to the Intelligence Services, shifting the focus from the fairly straightforward criminal antics of the villains. Roy Budd’s so-so presence on the soundtrack is also a reminder of superior things, in particularly his Caine outing a couple of years prior, Get Carter (when Caine’s summoned to the phone, “Is there a Mr Trapp in the house?” it’s a near quote of Carter). If only Tarrant had ordered that pint in a thin glass.





Thursday, 27 August 2015

You were hit on the head.

Exodus: Gods and Kings
(2014)

(SPOILERS) The immediate question that springs to mind with Exodus: Gods and Kings is “Who is this for?” The core audience for a Biblical epic is surely the hallowed Christian ticket, one that promises potential rewards on a vast scale (The Passion of the Christ). So why make a movie where the Old Testament protagonist’s communication with God is implied to be all in his own head, and where God’s interventions – at least in part – are serviced with “feasible” scientific explanations? Noah also went off message, and had a God who was profoundly silent (not surprising from atheist Aronofsky), but it was stuffed full of enough weirdness to at make it something different. Exodus appears tailored to fall between a myriad of stools and so is thoroughly anaemic (in its casting too), its ultimate undoing.


Watched in an unintentional double bill with The Voices, it’s more than evident that Ridley Scott (with writers Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian) was intent on presenting Moses as a functional schizophrenic (certainly, this was Christian Bale’s take). His first experience of God comes after a bump on the head, a pretty clear indication of how the makers are seeing this.


Effectively, they’re just hedging their bets, mistakenly assuming that if they water down the religious-miraculous they’ll appear to a wider audience, when they end up appealing to no one. Yet the climactic killing of the first-born doesn’t fit into the “explicable” lens Scott is looking at the Biblical account through, so it begs the question of why bother going that route in the first place? Where the director doesn’t get to part the Red Sea and Moses doesn’t even carry his crucial staff around. As for suggesting a host of crocodiles is responsible for turning the Nile red, surely its no more “grounded” than a plague sent by God?


Moses is rendered a strangely passive, on-looking figure in all this. Joshua, played by Aaron Paul as a Monty Python “It’s…” in search of his next crack pipe hit, continually observes Moses’ chats with God from afar. In which Moses is talking to… no one! The nutter! Moses doesn’t interact or announce the successive plagues (compacted into a series of successive connected incidents here), and there’s no progression of confidence as he takes the speaking role first given to Aaron (who hardly figures).


This mad Moses is seen throughout; his voices are even personified as a dramatically inert kid delivering the God part (such a conceit can work in horror, but for gravitas it sucks). When we get to the Ten Commandments, it’s Moses chipping away at them up Mount Sinai, rather than receiving them from Him signed and sealed. As on old man he’s still seeing his young scamp version of Yahweh. Yeah, this version will go down a storm in Sunday school.


It would have been more interesting to see a stark depiction of the Old Testament God, the one who hardens the Pharaoh’s heart, presented in a warts and all fashion. It might have given some substance to Ramses’ outraged line “Is your God a killer of children?” (which might elicit a “I know you are but what am I?” response, to an Egyptian religion that is uninterrogated aside from auguries, entrails and the odd bit of deduction to stress it’s all perfectly explicable during the plagues). Scott handled distinctions between religions much better a decade ago in the (patchy) Kingdom of Heaven.


Which leads one to wonder how Ridley developed this rep for being good with such swords and sandals fare, or period pieces generally. He’s only ever been as good as his script since the mid-80s (when he started out he built worlds, now they’re more like Lego kits), and his successes (The Duellists, and qualified appreciations of 1492 and Gladiator) need to be set against the increasing cluelessness in the likes of Kingdom of Heaven, Robin Hood and Exodus. However you look at it (and most these pictures have done proportionally better internationally than in the US) the price tag hasn’t justified the enormous expense. Then you take into account the critical drubbings and you have to think he’d be best to steer well clear.


He’s particularly off with driving the plot of Moses, spending a lot of time establishing his relationship with Ramasses II (Joel Edgerton) but seeming to have no sense of how to (presumably) navigate a man who finds his way back to his heritage. Exodus is long enough (two and a half hours) that it should be able to cover its bases, but aside from Bale’s uncompelling Moses and Edgerton’s petulant Ramasses barely anyone gets a chance to stand out. Neither of these two is well cast. Edgerton looks plain silly with his bronzed skin and make up and, even leaving aside the whitewashing of the roles, neither seems entirely comfortable. Bale has a very modern sensibility and delivery, in a way say Russell Crowe can overcome by dint of charisma. Bale’s moody authority is bland and unconvincing here, probably the most unpersuasive he’s been in a role since Terminator Salvation.


On the side-lines, Ben Kingsley hardly registers, the same with Sigourney Weaver (as Ramasses’ mum!) John Turturro and Ben Mendelshon make something of limited screen time, the latter as the weasely fellow who gets Moses in trouble in the first place, and the former as Sethi I and Moses’ surrogate father. Indira Varma and Maria Valverde make an impression as a high priestess and Moses’ wife respectively, the former sharing a fate with Ewen Bremner’s “expert” in one of the picture’s few amusing moments (Ramses gets tired of his inaccurate advisors).


The special effects are as accomplished as you’d expect, but all for nought. Exodus is an inert, pointless picture (the irrelevant double think of its subtitle may have been a result of Exodus already being taken, but I’d be surprised if they hadn’t gone with it anyway; it illustrates splendidly that they don’t know who their appealing to or why). Increasingly with Scott, since his Gladiator emergence as a financial (semi-) reliable, it’s hard to pinpoint what he sees in his choices, other than a fleeting whim. He’s a guy who pronounces story is king, to the extent he believed his agnosticism benefited his approach (“because I’ve got to convince myself the story works”), which is like having conversations with NASA before taking on Legend.


Look at the mess that was the storyline progression for Robin Hood, or the permutations Prometheus went through. From the start of Exodus: Gods and Kings, the story allows itself that prediction and the supernatural exist. Moses is told, “I know you don’t believe in omens and prophecies, but I do believe”, something validated when the prophecy of Moses becoming a leader comes to pass. To go from there to vacillating between delusional visions and lucky natural phenomena and actual divine intervention indicates a lack of clarity of theme and purpose. Scott has nothing to say with Exodus, other than that he thinks its still fine to cast white to the point of absurdity and recognises some fairly banal points about the terrible things done in the name of faith. Just keep churning them out, Ridders.


Put me the fuck down, you goddam psycho. I’ll shit in your hand.

The Voices
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Persepolis director Marjane Satrapi’s first US film is a horror comedy just distinct enough to overcome the familiarity of its serial killing subject matter.  Much of this is down to Satrapi’s playful, vibrant style, but credit is also due to never-a-box-office-star-no matter-how-hard-he-tries Ryan Reynolds. His placid schizophrenic Jerry isn’t a showstopper in and off himself but, in combination with his handful of supporting vocal performances, most notably those of Jerry’s pets, dog Bosco and cat Mr Whiskers, Reynolds infuses The Voices with an offbeat energy that perfectly complements his director’s offbeat tone and visuals.


Screenwriter Michael R Perry’s form is mostly in TV, including series both quirky (Eerie, Indiana) and supernatural (American Gothic, Millennium, The Dead Zone). Not that many of them suggest the facility for jet-black humour and clarity of voice found here. His choice to centre on a schizophrenic (off his meds and) entering dangerously psychotic territory is one commonly plundered in the horror genre. One could reel of dozens of titles that fit the bill, even just since the turn of the millennium, where characters’ internal voices and scenarios are physically manifested (Shutter Island, Black Swan, Bug, and on the more “serious”, as in seriously shitty, end of things A Beautiful Mind). The Voices fits more into the heightened territory of Filth or Donnie Darko, where a wicked streak of humour informs its protagonist’s meltdown.


Jerry is likeable but doofish and doormaish, a bit of a joke to his fellow workers, upbeat and overeager to help and please; in the early scenes he comes across as a caricature of earnest vacuity. His world is primary coloured, although his apartment is hermetic and darkened, inhabited by Scottish cat Mr Whiskers, who harangues him for his failings and foolishness (he’s “so hopelessly pathetic”) and dog Bosco, who encourages him to be behave morally and be a good person. Jerry, who also cuts a mysterious figure, develops feelings for fellow employee Fiona (Gemma Arterton), but a series of events including her standing him up and hitting a deer leads to Jerry accidentally killing her (although it was on his mind anyway). This act precipitates a further descent into a free rein for his darker impulses (as personified by Mr Whiskers) and ignoring his better ones (Bosco).


Bosco: I earned the right to be called a good boy.
Mr Whiskers: You earned the right to be hit by a minivan.

This tug of impulses things isn’t such an original device; historically it was more commonly personified in characters with multiple personality disorder. And benign Bosco isn’t on his own a particularly memorable character. Mr Whiskers, however establishes the flippant, knowing attitude of the picture. A vituperative, bloody-minded and vindictive feline, he is constantly barracking and berating Jerry (“In her eyes, you are a ridiculous peasant” he says of Fiona), while presenting Jerry’s worse impulses as perfectly natural (“The only time I felt alive is when I’m killing”). 


Mainly, though Mr Whiskers is absolutely hilarious, as if Dexter was accompanied by a goading kitty rather than a beneficent parent. Foul-mouthed (“Where the fuck’s my food, fuck-face?” he demands when Jerry comes home after being out all night) and devil’s advo-cat, he incites Jerry then gloats at his failures (“That’s you, Jerry. Can I have an autograph?” he requests after the murder of Fiona is described on the news as the work of a serial killer).


If there’s sly, provocative intent here, it’s voiced in Jerry’s world being an insulated and inviting place when he’s not on his meds. When he is, it becomes a harsh, cold and miserable environment. He’s pets no longer communicate. The head in the fridge really is just a head in the fridge, not Fiona willing to converse with Jerry. The picture has a mirthfully ambivalent approach to prescribed treatments; on them, Jerry leaves in a dead, empty world. Off them, well he may be prone to killing a few people, but isn’t he contented?


There’s also the criticism of his mental healthcare treatment, as signified by his relationship with his psychotherapist Dr Warren. Jackie Weaver marvellously embodies her as a well-meaning but ineffectual figure (notably, she pleads with the police not to kill Jerry, but does nothing on repeated occasions when Jerry admits he’s off his pills). Jerry never gets any answers in his therapy until he kidnaps and threatens her. As Mr Whiskers notes, “Great job she’s doing. You’re the picture of mental health”.


Satrapi’s approach follows in the line of black comedies of a murderous bent that stretches from Kind Hearts and Coronets to Danny De Vito’s ‘80s directorial efforts, to Heathers, Serial Mom and American Psycho. This is a picture suggesting a director (or writer) familiar with both Sam Raimi and trad horror clichés (a talking deer, a woman in a negligee running through a woods at night), and keen to emphasise the more colourful, cartoonish elements (the butterflies Jerry sees, Fiona’s appearances as an angel) while eschewing any overt gore.


Indeed, there’s a running theme of religious imagery, extending from Jerry’s flashbacks to childhood and a mother who talks about angels to Jerry’s own interest (“The fourth angel is Lucifer” he tells Fiona of The Bible’s named angels besides Raphael – presumably Jerry has studied The Book of Tobit – Michael and Gabriel). This culminates in a cheesy end credits scene featuring heavenly void for a song and dance number with a stoner Jesus driving a forklift truck. I don’t think it quite delivers. It isn’t especially clever of witty and feels rather obvious, and a little clumsy given the line treaded before this, but it certainly underlines the picture’s ambivalent morality; Jerry can kill whoever he likes and it doesn’t matter once he gets to “heaven”. Even Mr Whiskers expresses fondness for Bosco in the end.


Reynolds, who has an unfortunately slightly cross-eyed quality that makes him perfect for a psycho, is undeniably a quick wit but has been determinedly resistant to audiences warming to him or finding him charming over the years. He’s good throughout, though obviously really scores as Mr Whiskers. By comparison, next year’s Deadpool looks as if it will be pure adolescent one-liners and cheap shots (so probably quite successful). Arterton is fine, although playing up her Englishness gets a little tiresome. Anna Kendrick is also decent, although her character Lisa (a future fridge resident) has little substance.


The Voices is suitably twisted and flourishes several narrative conceits with distinction, but in the end it might be a little too recognisable and reliable in form to attain the status of cult classic. The best of the genre have a readily identifiable satirical intent (the aforementioned Serial Mom and Heathers), but Satrapi presents the markers (Jerry presents the appearance of normality, and that’s enough for most people) without ever feeling inclined to wrestle the material into something more potent.