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Showing posts from February, 2021

A ship is the finest nursery in the world.

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965) (SPOILERS) An odd one, this, as if Disney were remaking The Swiss Family Robinson for adults. One might perhaps have imagined the Mouse House producing it during their “Dark Disney” phase. But even then, toned down. After all, kids kidnapped by pirates sounds like an evergreen premise for boy’s own adventuring (more girl’s own here). The reality of Alexander Mackendrick’s film is decidedly antithetical to that; there’s a lingering feeling, despite A High Wind in Jamaica ’s pirates largely observing their distance, that things could turn rather nasty (and indeed, if Richard Hughes’ 1929 novel  had been followed to the letter, they would have more explicitly). 

You know what I sometimes wish? I sometimes wish I were ordinary like you. Ordinary and dead like all the others.

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) (SPOILERS) Bryan Forbes’ adaptation of Mark McShane’s 1961’s novel has been much acclaimed. It boasts a distinctive storyline and effective performances from its leads, accompanied by effective black-and-white cinematography from Gerry Turpin and a suitably atmospheric score from John Barry. I’m not sure Forbes makes the most of the material, however, as he underlines Séance on a Wet Afternoon ’s inherently theatrical qualities at the expense of its filmic potential.

We're going to take the ATM machine with us to Mexico.

Southland Tales (2006) (SPOILERS) Richard Kelly’s (kind of) post-apocalyptic smorgasbord of science-fiction, politics, music and musing was memorably lambasted at Cannes in its unexpurgated three-hour form and subsequently mauled by critics and shunned by audiences. Check its IMDB score for confirmation that most are not on board with recognising it as a misunderstood classic. And that’s fair. A classic Southland Tales is not. On top of which, it’s certainly unrefined in some of its targets (Jonathan Ross labelled it “ a bad, overlong student film ” and there’s something of that messy over eagerness in its scattershot approach). This is, undoubtedly, an instant cult movie; indeed, Kelly could be argued to have self-consciously made a cult movie, always a dangerous intent. A cult movie which simply has too much going on to be rebuffed as “bad”, for all the hit-and-miss, slipshod structure and motive that even an insistently expositional narration fails to remedy. A mess, definitely, b

Look mister, why can’t you leave this intelligence work to us professionals?

Torn Curtain (1965) (SPOILERS) Torn Curtain boasts a scene, about forty minutes in, that is every bit as proficient and startling as the Psycho shower scene. Unfortunately, in contrast to Psycho , the rest of the movie is a dog: a bog-standard Cold War spy affair, complete with miscast leads, a frequently flagrant disregard for verisimilitude and a rote and at times entirely inappropriate score. In the latter department, it seems studio interference led to Hitchcock rejecting Bernard Herrmann’s contribution and thus their falling out. He had also lost his regular cinematographer and editor. No sooner had Hitch reinvented himself for a new generation, first Marnie and then Torn Curtain show him wildly out of touch with the prevailing trends, both in terms of subject matter and moviemaking. Apart from that scene.

I tell you, it saw me! The hanged man’s asphyx saw me!

The Asphyx (1972) (SPOILERS) There was such a welter of British horror from the mid 60s to mid 70s, even leaving aside the Hammers and Amicuses, that it’s easy to lose track of them in the shuffle. This one, the sole directorial effort of Peter Newbrook (a cameraman for David Lean, then a cinematographer), has a strong premise and a decent cast, but it stumbles somewhat when it comes to taking that premise any place interesting. On the plus side, it largely eschews the grue. On the minus, directing clearly wasn’t Newbrook’s forte, and even aided by industry stalwart cinematographer Freddie Young (also a go-to for Lean), The Aspyhx is stylistically rather flat.

You mustn’t underestimate American blundering.

Casablanca (1942) (SPOILERS) I’m not sure, way back when, that I went away from Casablanca on first viewing recognising it as the all-time classic for which it is so acclaimed. Perhaps it was just too hallowed to be viewed with unprejudiced eyes. I enjoyed it well enough, but my reaction wasn’t comparable to first sight of the similarly lauded Citizen Kane . And as Humphrey Bogart movies went, I was much more persuaded by The Maltese Falcon . Nevertheless, subsequent visits have served only to elevate its status and confirm the hype was right. You can see very clearly that Casablanca was just another studio picture that somehow separated itself from the pack to earn a status for the ages. But you can also see just how and why it deserved such singling out.

So God ordered a hit on an investment banker?

End of Days (1999) (SPOILERS) Or Arnie v Satan. And maybe, a decade earlier, it could have been a match worth catching. Or maybe not. Because End of Days simply cannot escape the fact that this is a terrible fit for the Austrian Oak. That it remains an entertaining movie – in most respects more so two decades on from its release, when it came across as no more or less than a rather desperate cash-in on pre-millennial angst – is almost entirely despite his presence.

Neutralise the Q switch.

Doctor Who Vengeance on Varos It would be understandable, given how well written parts of Vengeance on Varos are – superbly written, even – to tend toward the reasoning that those aspects which aren’t must be intentionally bad. You know, as a commentary on the artifice of the medium, in a similar fashion to the way the story is commenting upon the medium generally. Unfortunately, I don’t think that explanation holds up (take a look at the synopsis for Philip Martin’s subsequent and aborted, except by Big Finish for whom nothing is ever aborted but instead an opportunity for a six-part box set, Mission to Magnus ). Even the most charitable reading must accept that Vengeance on Varos displays bursts of brilliance and stretches of utter stodge.

The best thing in the world for the inside of a man or a woman is the outside of a horse.

Marnie (1964) (SPOILERS) Hitch in a creative ditch. If you’ve read my Vertigo review, you’ll know I admired rather than really liked the picture many fete as his greatest work. Marnie is, in many ways, a redux, in the way De Palma kept repeating himself in the early 80s only significantly less delirious and… well, compelling. While Marnie succeeds in commanding the attention fitfully, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. And Hitch, digging his heels in as he strives to fashion a star against public disinterest – he failed to persuade Grace Kelly out of retirement for Marnie Rutland – comes entirely adrift with his leads.

My Doggett would have called that crazy.

The X-Files 9.4: 4-D I get the impression no one much liked Agent Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), but I felt, for all the sub-Counsellor Troi, empath twiddling that dogged her characterisation, she was a mostly positive addition to the series’ last two years (of its main run). Undoubtedly, pairing her with Doggett, in anticipation of Gillian Anderson exiting just as David Duchovny had – you rewatch these seasons and you wonder where her head was at in hanging on – made for aggressively facile gender-swapped conflict positions on any given assignment. And generally, I’d have been more interested in seeing how two individuals sympathetic to the cause – her and Mulder – might have got on. Nevertheless, in an episode like 4-D you get her character, and Doggett’s, at probably their best mutual showing.

You have done well to keep so much hair, when so many’s after it.

Jeremiah Johnson (1972) (SPOILERS) Hitherto, I was most familiar with Jeremiah Johnson in the form of a popular animated gif of beardy Robert Redford smiling and nodding in slow zoom close up (a moment that is every bit as cheesy in the film as it is in the gif). For whatever reason, I hadn’t mustered the enthusiasm to check out the 1970s’ The Revenant until now (well, beard-wise, at any rate). It’s easy to distinguish the different personalities at work in the movie. The John Milius one – the (mythic) man against the mythic landscape; the likeably accentuated, semi-poetic dialogue – versus the more naturalistic approach favoured by director Sydney Pollack and star Redford. The fusion of the two makes for a very watchable, if undeniably languorous picture. It was evidently an influence on Dances with Wolves in some respects, although that Best Picture Oscar winner is at greater pains to summon a more sensitive portrayal of Native Americans (and thus, perversely, at times a more patr

You’re a disgrace, sir... Weren’t you at Harrow?

Our Man in Marrakesh aka Bang! Bang! You’re Dead (1966) (SPOILERS) I hadn’t seen this one in more than three decades, and I had in mind that it was a decent spy spoof, well populated with a selection of stalwart British character actors in supporting roles. Well, I had the last bit right. I wasn’t aware this came from the stable of producer Harry Alan Towers, less still of his pedigree, or lack thereof, as a sort of British Roger Corman (he tried his hand at Star Wars with The Shape of Things to Come and Conan the Barbarian with Gor , for example). More legitimately, if you wish to call it that, he was responsible for the Christopher Lee Fu Manchu flicks. Our Man in Marrakesh – riffing overtly on Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana in title – seems to have in mind the then popular spy genre and its burgeoning spoofs, but it’s unsure which it is; too lightweight to work as a thriller and too light on laughs to elicit a chuckle.

Mondo bizarro. No offence man, but you’re in way over your head.

The X-Files 8.7: Via Negativa I wasn’t as down on the last couple of seasons of The X-Files as most seemed to be. For me, the mythology arc walked off a cliff somewhere around the first movie, with only the occasional glimmer of something worthwhile after that. So the fact that the show was tripping over itself with super soldiers and Mulder’s abduction/his and Scully’s baby (although we all now know it wasn’t, sheesh ), anything to stretch itself beyond breaking point in the vain hope viewers would carry on dangling, didn’t really make much odds. Of course, it finally snapped with the wretched main arc when the show returned, although the writing was truly on the wall with Season 9 finale The Truth . For the most part, though, I found 8 and 9 more watchable than, say 5 or 7. They came up with their fair share of engaging standalones, one of which I remembered to be Via Negativa .

No, they have to make a choice of their own freewill. Otherwise, the system doesn’t work.

The Cabin in the Woods (2011) (SPOILERS) Drew Goddard and the recently cancelled Joss Whedon attested that The Cabin in the Woods , bashed out over an intensive weekend, represented a critique of and love letter to the horror movie. Such a mission statement shouldn’t be that much of a surprise from Whedon, the guy who made meta a badge of pride throughout his various pop-culture-littered TV shows and movies. But it’s as a consequence of that very element that The Cabin in the Woods also very easily invites another layer of reading; indeed, not to read it this way invites a response that’s more towards the typically shallow end of Whedon’s favoured pool, rather than the slightly more substantial one Goddard tends to prefer.

Do you have any plans, of any kind, to manipulate the world?

Frequencies (2013) (SPOILERS) Low budget science-fiction movies are often among the genre’s most satisfying, since they have to rely almost entirely on their core ideas rather than showy effects or spectacle. Frequencies is one such, positing an alternate reality where we are defined by our frequency – high, low, somewhere in between – and positioned in society accordingly (everything from luck to romantic entanglements is affected – opposites here repel). At its root, this is a love story and rumination on freewill and determinism, but writer-director Darren Paul Fisher infuses the proceedings with such a rich conceptual framework that Frequencies very nearly convinces you of its fictional profundity. Before you pull back and realise it doesn’t really hang together, that is. Although, I’m not altogether sure it needs to.

There's just something about old ladies. I can't... I can't stand them.

The Ladykillers (1955) (SPOILERS) Alexander Mackendrick’s ghoulish black comedy, with the emphasis on ghoulish, as five crooks pull off a daring robbery, a key component in the success of their plan being the co-opting of a dear, sweet, oblivious little old lady. Unfortunately for them, she turns out to be the Terminator. Obviously, if The Ladykillers were a modern take – of the sort John Hughes’ might have fashioned, perhaps – she would be delivering literal blows, Home Alone style (the Coen Brothers’ 2004 remake has its moments, but it fails to come up with a distinctive reason for existing, aside from transatlantic relocation with concomitant uncharacteristic crudity). But Mrs Wilberforce (Katie Johnson) rather comes armed with saintly intransigence, puncturing their best-laid plans at every turn.

Apparently, they all got it in a movie theatre.

Outbreak (1995) (SPOILERS) One thing in Outbreak ’s favour: it’s unashamedly Hollywood. Contagion might fool the unwitting movie peruser into believing it’s based on real, hard science, but Outbreak is so intent on throwing the kitchen sink of all-star moviemaking tics and tropes into the mix that it’s hard to take seriously. Even as it’s flourishing an Ebola-esque virus fully equipped to make you queasy (it’s interesting that Wolfgang Peterson is much less reticent that Steven Soderbergh in respect of the horror elements, even though this is a much bigger production. Perhaps because Peterson’s a much more imaginative director). Outbreak isn’t a good movie by any stretch, but at least it’s having a bit of fun with its clichés.

Just wait. They’ll start listing side effects like the credits at the end of a movie.

Contagion  (2011) (SPOILERS) The plandemic saw Contagion ’s stock soar, which isn’t something that happens too often to a Steven Soderbergh movie. His ostensibly liberal outlook has hitherto found him on the side of the little people (class action suits) and interrogating the drugs trade while scrupulously avoiding institutional connivance (unless it’s Mexican institutional connivance). More recently, The Laundromat ’s Panama Papers puff piece fell fall flat on its face in attempting broad, knowing satire (in some respects, this is curious, as The Informant! is one of Soderbergh’s better-judged films, perhaps because it makes no bones about its maker’s indifference towards its characters). There’s no dilution involved with Contagion , however. It amounts to a bare-faced propaganda piece, serving to emphasise that the indie-minded director is Hollywood establishment through and through. This is a picture that can comfortably sit alongside any given Tinseltown handwringing over the Wa

Is there a difference between crows and blackbirds?

The Birds (1963) (SPOILERS) Perhaps the most impressive thing about The Birds is how palpably it succeeds in spite of itself. Other Hitchcocks have been beleaguered by a lead not quite delivering the goods, such that the overall piece has suffered (for example, Foreign Correspondent ). Often with the consequence of drawing attention to supporting characters (the aforementioned, and also Stage Fright ). Here, Hitch has two so-so leading players, and yet you could almost believe he was deliberately making that work in the material’s favour. Certainly, the horror movie where the setting and the horror is the star, and the players neither here nor there, would become something of a staple in the decades ahead, usually as envisioned by grossly inferior filmmakers. And that’s the key. Because The Birds is the last great film of a master and as influential on the genre as its predecessor, Psycho . As much as aspects of it have aged – the special effects, but not nearly as much as you’d thin

The Blessed Reverend always builds for eternity.

The Loved One (1965) (SPOILERS) Tony Richardson’s follow up to Tom Jones rather suggests his success with that film was an accident (I’m an unabashed fan, and regard it as a rare Best Picture Oscar winner the Academy got right). More likely, it was a case of the very things that worked for Jones… didn’t so much for The Loved On e. The movie entertains consistently – it couldn’t really not with that cast – but it never feels quite as incisive or as effective as it should, Waugh’s eviscerating satire ending up rather too broad and scattershot. 

Don’t encourage the President to think scientists are wizards, Jeremy.

The Andromeda Strain (1971) (SPOILERS) Robert Wise’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s alien invasion fantasy plays things entirely straight, which undoubtedly helps to sell its mile-high absurdities. But then, Crichton was a master of legitimising official science under the guise of airport fiction, boosted as his novels were by his authoritative status as qualified doctor. All that’s really proof of, of course, is that he’s able to parrot what he’s been taught. Which is very handy when you’re making a living from selling the excitingly plausible. The Andromeda Strain relates and celebrates the wonders of modern science with diligent, unquestioning, reverent awe, and Wise’s approach – faux-documentary, complete with underplaying, non-starry lead actors – serves to emphasise the strengths of the conceit. Make no mistake, though. This movie is about as realistic as Star Wars .

This cannot be the Rhondda Valley.

At the Earth’s Core (1976) (SPOILERS) It’s worth making the most basic of compare-and-contrasts between this cheep and cheerful Amicus follow up to their reasonably successful 1974 Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation The Land that Time Forgot (which also happens to be reasonably decent) and the subsequent year’s game-changer Star Wars . Because while a slew of cheap and cheerful Star Wars rip-offs would follow that wouldn’t look so out of place in At the Earth’s Core ’s company, George Lucas’ movie instantly relegated this kind of picture to the status of a dinosaur (or Mahar).

Help yourself to a piece of eternity.

Doctor Who The Chase It’s for good reason The Chase is commonly derided. I’m not here to rock that particular boat – or indeed Marie Celeste – although I think by far the worst of it comes early in the proceedings and the last half, while never amounting to very much essential, is much easier going. One can, if one is lenient of spirit, make all the excuses going for director Richard Martin – in much the same way one might find Pennant Roberts not guilty of Ingrid Pitt karate chopping a Myrka beyond the brink of sanity – but one would be looking in the wrong direction for other culprits.

Isn’t it true, it’s easier to be a holy man on the top of a mountain?

The Razor’s Edge (1984) (SPOILERS) I’d hadn’t so much a hankering as an idle interest in finally getting round to seeing Bill Murray’s passion project. Partly because it seemed like such an odd fit. And partly because passion isn’t something you tend to associate with any Murray movie project, involving as it usually does laidback deadpan. Murray, at nigh-on peak fame – only cemented by the movie he agreed to make to make this movie – embarks on a serious-acting-chops dramatic project, an adaptation of W Somerset Maugham’s story of one man’s journey of spiritual self-discovery. It should at least be interesting, shouldn’t it? A real curio? Alas, not. The Razor’s Edge is desperately turgid.

Look out the window. Eden’s not burning, it’s burnt.

Reign of Fire (2002) (SPOILERS) There was good reason to believe Rob Bowman would make a successful transition from top-notch TV director to top-notch film one. He had, after all, attracted attention and plaudits for Star Trek: The Next Generation and become such an integral part of The X-File s that he was trusted with the 1998 leap to the big screen. That movie wasn’t the hit it might have been – I suspect because, such was Chris Carter’s inability to hone a coherent arc, it continued to hedge its bets – but Bowman showed he had the goods. And then came Reign of Fire . And then Elektra . And that was it. Reign of Fire is entirely competently directed, but that doesn’t prevent it from being entirely lousy.