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Showing posts from January, 2021

It’s not as if she were a… maniac, a raving thing.

Psycho (1960) (SPOILERS) One of cinema’s most feted and most studied texts, and for good reason. Even if the worthier and more literate psycho movie of that year is Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom . One effectively ended a prolific director’s career and the other made its maker more in demand than ever, even if he too would discover he had peaked with his populist fear flick. Pretty much all the criticism and praise of Psycho is entirely valid. It remains a marvellously effective low-budget shocker, one peppered with superb performances and masterful staging. It’s also fairly rudimentary in tone, character and psychology. But those negative elements remain irrelevant to its overall power.

Schnell, you stinkers! Come on, raus!

Private’s Progress (1956) (SPOILERS) Truth be told, there’s good reason sequel I’m Alright Jack reaps the raves – it is, after all, razor sharp and entirely focussed in its satire – but Private’s Progress is no slouch either. In some respects, it makes for an easy bedfellow with such wartime larks as Norman Wisdom’s The Square Peg (one of the slapstick funny man’s better vehicles). But it’s also, typically of the Boulting Brothers’ unsentimental disposition, utterly remorseless in rebuffing any notions of romantic wartime heroism, nobility and fighting the good fight. Everyone in the British Army is entirely cynical, or terrified, or an idiot.

You know, I don’t mind admitting, I’ve always found it extremely difficult to solve the fourth dimension.

Doctor Who The Space Museum I might not be fully on board with his takes on The X-Files , but Rob Shearman does have a point with his defence of The Space Museum . It has a lot more going for it than its frequently lethargic realisation inclines one to assume. It’s also… Well, I wouldn’t exactly label it dynamic, especially given some the torporous supporting characters and performances thereof, but director Mervyn Pinfield gives it far more welly than Richard “When’s-lunch?” Martin in the season’s three big-budget prestige stories.

Mellow greetings. What seems to be your boggle?

Demolition Man (1993) (SPOILERS) Demolition Man , the point at which Sly finally dipped his toe into SF waters – he’d formerly left that to President Schwarzenegger – is not a great movie. But it’s easy to assume the bits of it that are – great – are all down to screenwriter Daniel Waters, impressing his acerbic and absurdist perspective on what would otherwise surely have been another forgettable future-tense flick. There’s much in here that might be labelled predictive programming, but equally much that could be laid at the door of the bog-standard mechanics of your standard Joel Silver production. Indeed, once we’re into the last half of the movie, and the interminably uninvolving action sequences take precedence, it becomes very easy to see why Stuart Baird was called in to fix the thing (he did a much less persuasive patch job than on Last Boy Scout , but then one can only work with what one is given).

I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me.

North by Northwest (1959) (SPOILERS) North by Northwest gets a lot of attention as a progenitor of the Bond formula, but that’s giving it far too little credit. Really, it’s the first modern blockbuster, paving the way for hundreds of slipshod, loosely plotted action movies built around set pieces rather than expertly devised narratives. That it delivers, and delivers so effortlessly, is a testament to Hitchcock, to writer Ernest Lehmann, and to a cast who make the entire implausible exercise such a delight.

I can’t believe I’m in a body on this hellish planet.

Soul (2020) (SPOILERS) Pete Docter was doubtless aware that, with a title this presumptive, Soul was asking to be written off with “It ain’t got none”. But he probably also knew that, excepting something going fascinatingly wrong – The Good Dinosaur – Pixar movies tend to get a free pass, from critics and audiences alike. And Docter, responsible for telling kids it’s good to be scared so that benign invisible monsters can feed off their loosh, or – hey, why not, if it’ll make them feel better about it – their laughter, is guilty of the same plodding literalism of all Pixar pictures. It’s most obvious in the anthropomorphic likes of Toy Story , A Bug’s Life and Cars , whereby our own societal signifiers are reproduced in the most banal and recognisable form. Most irritatingly, this unimaginative and strategic – some might say obsessively so – lens also extends to explorations intangible and subjective. Realms such as the mental space of Inside Out – a much better movie, but all the

Every day you die in here and every day it starts all over again.

The X-Files 6.14: Monday Monday ’s a little masterpiece. By rights, following as it does in the wake of the ever-burgeoning-in-reputation Groundhog Day , it ought to have come across as little more than a weak pretender, treading where many others have gone before – also 12:01 in that decade, along with a smattering of other eager TV shows – as a lukewarm Mulder and Scully encounter the same fateful events over and over again. But scripters Vince Gilligan and John Shiban, in tandem with never better or more attuned direction from Kim Manners, produce a forty-five-minute gem that counts as one of the very best of the series’ – or any series’ – standalones.

This isn’t a spice dream.

The Mandalorian  Season 2 (SPOILERS) The Mandalorian Season 2 has received all the raves, and it’s easy to see why. If what you wanted from Star Wars was a one-dimensional Luke Skywalker avatar dispensing the kind of kickass Force-ful justice you used to have his Kenner figure inflict on stormtroopers, then you’re quids in. Which is to say, shallow as his appearance is, the response is entirely understandable and not a little earned after the carnage Kathleen Kennedy has wreaked on the Star Wars universe (and I say that as someone who rather enjoyed green milk-guzzling hobo Luke in The Last Jedi ). His appearance is also motivated within the realm of the show itself, so providing a contrast with its obvious parallel, the kung-fu kickass Darth Vader sellotaped onto the end of Rogue One . Which let’s face it, was the reason fans responded to the movie, rather than the cardboard characters.

You speak terrible Jawa.

The Mandalorian Season One (SPOILERS) A few weeks back, I mooted the unlikelihood that I would succumb to Disney+ – I mean to say, nothing good can come from all those tunnels under Disneyland, can it? Since then, I reconsidered, on the basis that a month’s subscription amounts to little more than a rental (remember, back in the old days?) I know, I know, that’s how they suck you in. But there really is very little I’m hankering to see in their wonderful world. This mainly, since it will probably be the crack of doom – definitely , since that’s looking sooner rather than later – before they release it on Blu-ray. Was The Mandalorian worth it? Well, most of what I’d heard said is undoubtedly the case. It’s nothing especially special, but it has two crucial things going for it. Even if it’s playing things very safe, it very much feels like it’s Star Wars made by people who know the universe and actually love it. And, baby Yoda is sooooo cute.

You were a few blocks away? What’d you see it with, a telescope?

The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978) (SPOILERS) John Carpenter’s first serial-killer screenplay to get made, The Eyes of Laura Mars came out nearly three months before Halloween. You know, the movie that made the director’s name. And then some. He wasn’t best pleased with the results of The Eyes of Laura Mars, which ended up co-credited to David Zelag Goodman ( Straw Dogs , Logan’s Run ) as part of an attempt by producer Jon Peters to manufacture a star vehicle for then-belle Barbra Streisand: “ The original script was very good, I thought. But it got shat upon ”. Which isn’t sour grapes on Carpenter’s part. The finished movie bears ready evidence of such tampering, not least in the reveal of the killer (different in Carpenter’s conception). Its best features are the so-uncleanly-you-can-taste-it 70s New York milieu and the guest cast, but even as an early example of the sub-genre, it’s burdened by all the failings inherit with this kind of fare.

One final thing I have to do, and then I’ll be free of the past.

Vertigo (1958) (SPOILERS) I’ll readily admit my Hitchcock tastes broadly tend to reflect the “consensus”, but Vertigo is one where I break ranks. To a degree. Not that I think it’s in any way a bad film, but I respect it rather than truly rate it. Certainly, I can’t get on board with Sight & Sound enthroning it as the best film ever made (in its 2012’s critics poll). That said, from a technical point of view, it is probably Hitch’s peak moment. And in that regard, certainly counts as one of his few colour pictures that can be placed alongside his black and white ones. It’s also clearly a personal undertaking, a medley of his voyeuristic obsessions (based on D’entre les morts by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac).

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

I especially care for the SPLUNK!

How to Murder Your Wife (1965) (SPOILERS) I feel it’s probably necessary to present to the jury the case for the defence: that it really is okay to like How to Murder Your Wife , despite the rampant sexism, misogyny and chauvinism. I mean, after all, it’s a very, very silly movie. A brazen example of a “You’d never get away with it now” cheeky wish-fulfilment fantasy with a jet-black streak that can only truly be labelled offensive if you take its characters’ positions literally. Well, okay. No. It is offensive, but it’s also clearly absurdist: it knows it’s being provocative (see the poster). The finale revolves around the idea that all married men – all of whom are harmless chumps, forced into servitude once the knot has been tied – would wipe their spouse’s out of existence if they could, at the press of a button. So the hyperbole that “ The court scene turns into one of the most appalling scenes since the veneration of the KKK in Birth of a Nation” is almost as funny as the fi

Well, Satan is in deep shit!

Split Second (1992) (SPOILERS) Greta Thunberg’s favourite movie. Probably. Well, her “people’s” anyway. Somehow, I managed to miss this one when it came out, although its lousy reviews probably had something to do with it. I was nudged into taking advantage of its current, Bezos-sanctioned availability by an Empyre take that called it “ glorious ” and suggested “ As a showcase for a mischievous Hauer behaving badly… it’s almost matchless ”. The recently departed Rutger Hauer is on magnificently over-emphatic form, it’s true, and there’s frequent amusement to be had from the dialogue and chemistry between the star and sidekick cop Neil Duncan, but Split Second lacks a crucial sense of gusto as it crunches through its B-, straight-to-video, supernatural sci-fi serial-killer buddy movie clichés.

You’re even more beautiful in person than you are in real life.

After the Fox (1966) (SPOILERS) I’ve always liked After the Fox , from when I first saw it as a youngster, in thrall to its catnip Burt Bacharach score while simultaneously perplexed by its final reveal. It has to be admitted, though, that it perhaps isn’t quite as funny as it might have been. And further, that it may have been a bit too clever to have stood a chance of garnering another The Pink Panther  (1963) size hit for Peter Sellers (it came complete with animated-animal titles and potential hit single from The Hollies that failed to chart). Taking shots at Fellini movies simply isn’t the kind of thing that engenders mass-audience raves.

If a picture says a thousand words, then our eyes can see a thousand lies.

One by One (2014) (SPOILERS) This first came on my radar last year, loosely labelled as “the film that got Rik Mayall killed” (although he managed to shoot another first). And more particularly, noting its importance as a portent of current times. I didn’t bite until now, as I didn’t think it sounded much cop. And... It is certainly topical, I’ll give One by One that. Unfortunately, however, it falls into the great yawning trap awaiting all dramatised polemics: being both patronising and preachy. And not very dramatic. It’s very rare that such approaches do work – JFK (1991) is a rare exception – and the more problematic that Diane Jessie Miller’s film finds itself following a path that closely resembles the Christian conversion movie. Dion (Heather Wilson) is “born again” as a conspiracy believer – and more to the point, a believer in the population-reduction agenda – by means of induction by a small cadre of proselytisers to the cause headed by Mayall’s Ernest.

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

How real do you feel, Mrs Peel?

The Avengers  (1998) (SPOILERS) The 1990s witnessed a slew of attempts at rebooting old properties, from comic book fare to movies to big screen versions of much-loved television shows. With generally mixed-negative results. The likes of The Saint (1997), The Phantom (1996), The Shadow (1994) and Doctor Who (as a 1996 TV movie) predominated over rare successes like Mission: Impossible (1996), Blade (1998), Pierce Brosnan’s Bond and Batman (okay, the first was 1989). In most cases, the problems stemmed from an intention to refashion those characters or premises in the image of another existing hit, in the process capturing little of what made the material so compelling/popular in the first place. It’s possible that the bare bones The Avengers , equipped with a director with an actual vision and sensitively cast leads, could have made for a serviceable movie adaptation. Unfortunately, one ends up with a view that this is exactly why you shouldn’t exhume old material, plundering as

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

Maids are like chopsticks.

The Handmaiden (2016) (SPOILERS) Park Chan-wook’s highly-acclaimed BAFTA winner, a loose adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith – she suggested “ inspired by ”, rather than “ based on ” – gets its salacious cachet from the erotic lesbian love affair at its centre, artfully choreographed by the director. But it’s the presence of themes of incest, tricksy plotting and gratuitous violence that announce it as Park’s work through and through. As someone entirely underwhelmed by Oldboy (2003), my appreciation of The Handmaiden was correspondingly muted.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.

If you don’t hear from me by midnight, feed my fish.

The X-Files 5.22: The Pine Bluff Variant I had a hankering to revisit this one because I remembered it as a first-rate “What-If?” What if The X-Files eschewed the supernatural/aliens/sci-fi and was instead a straight FBI drama show? Because The Pine Bluff Variant is played pretty much on that level, courtesy of series supremo director Rob Bowman. I’d pretty much forgotten anything else about it besides Mulder going undercover and mustering palpable tension as a result. There is, inevitably, a science-fiction element, courtesy of a flesh-eating biotoxin, but its presence is almost an apologia to anyone affronted by the otherwise lack of weirdness.

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

That’s what people call necromancer’s weather.

The Changes (1975) This adaptation of Peter Dickinson’s novel trilogy carries a degree of cult nostalgia cachet due to it being one of those more “adult” 1970s children’s serials (see also The Children of the Stones , The Owl Service ). I was too young to see it on its initial screening – or at any rate, too young to remember it – but it’s easy to see why it lingered in the minds of those who did. Well, the first episode, anyway. Not for nothing is The Changes seen as a precursor to The Survivors in the rural apocalypse sub-genre – see also the decidedly nastier No Blade of Grass – as following a fairly gripping opener, it drifts off into the realm of plodding travelogue.

The gods are best served by those who want their help least.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963) (SPOILERS) I dare say post- Star Wars generations tend to see Ray Harryhausen and his ilk as a hoary old joke. But even as one who was the right age to be fully on board with the shiny new cinema of Lucas and Spielberg, the period before any of their fare reached television, when it was populated by all sorts of movies – 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea , The Valley of the Gwangi , The Land that Time Forgot , Doc Savage: Man of Bronze – that would now generally be regarded as less salutatory fodder, was in fact a kindling of the imagination. And Harryhausen influenced a slew of filmmakers, rabid acolytes including the aforementioned, John Landis and Sam Raimi. He was, after all, overtly about spectacle, which is why – not unlike latter-day blockbusters – you tended to be short-changed with regard to solid characterisation or performances from the main protagonists (if you can easily distinguish the leads of the Sinbad s, or Jason, you’re a better fan than I

I've always had instincts about the future.

2020-21 Bests-of, Worsts-of and Everything Else Besides As one, year-end lists and retrospectives are keen to see the back of 2020, doubtless under the blithe illusion – or brazen fabrication – that what’s coming next will be any kind of improvement. The good news is, if you’re into ramped-up New World Orders, you’re in clover. Otherwise, the outlook is far less rosy. My take on such matters comes via an ostensibly filmic blog, which may at least temper the veneer of doom mongering beneath a slick, or sick, auteurish sheen. Or perhaps not.