Monday, April 29, 2013

Clockwise (1986)**, A Fish Called Wanda (1988), Fierce Creatures (1997)*

Clockwise (1986) **
directed by Christopher Morahan; screenplay by Michael Frayn; cast includes John Cleese, Penelope Wilton, Alison Steadman, Stephen Moore, Sharon Maiden, Geoffrey Palmer, Joan Hickson, Ann Way, Constance Chapman, Michael Aldridge, Benjamin Whitrow, Peter Cellier, Sheila Keith.
A Fish Called Wanda (1988)
directed by Charles Crichton  screenplay by John Cleese; cast includes John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Maria Aitken, Patricia Hayes, Geoffrey Palmer, Ken Campbell, Roger Brierley.

Fierce Creatures (1997) *
directed by Robert Young and Fred Schepsi; screenplay by John Cleese and Ian Johnstone; cast includes John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, Michael Palin, Robert Lindsay, Ronnie Corbett, Carey Lowell, Derek Griffiths, Maria Aitken, Gareth Hunt

Three starring vehicles for John Cleese, the former Monty Python writer-performer and for many the most important single living figure in British comedy (largely on account of Fawlty Towers, a surprisingly traditional but impressively controlled and often irresistibly funny BBC sitcom).

Of these three, it is the first, Clockwise, that trades most explicitly in the legacy of Fawlty; it is also by far the least-remembered and appreciated of them, perhaps because Cleese had no hand in the screenplay. Yet it seems to me by some measure the best; indeed, for the first fifty minutes or so it looks set to be a small post-Ealing classic of British social comedy, with Cleese's Brian Stimpson (basically Fawlty recast as a school headmaster) gradually losing his reason as he tries, against relentless obstacles, to get to a headmasters' conference in Norwich. 
Sadly, it trickles away to nothing in the final third of Michael Frayn's screenplay: regardless of his reputation, someone should have pressed a collaborator (or polisher) on him, ideally Cleese himself, who knows a thing or two about comic narrative momentum. 

A Fish Called Wanda proved an inexplicable smash hit at the time of its release, though I doubt many come back to it today with the same undimmed fondness retained for Fawlty. The Ealing heritage is here made explicit by the recruitment of Charles Crichton as director, but it's always struck me as very rudimentary stuff indeed, with few laughs and fewer surprises, and little value even as a time-passer thanks to its relentless cruelty and mean-spiritedness. 
The plot is an elaborate thing about unlikely robbers pulling off an unlikely heist, but any resemblance to The Lavender Hill Mob ends with the pedigree and the précis.

Fierce Creatures, a second trip to the well for the same players, proved as surprisingly difficult to launch as Wanda had been surprisingly successful: poor previews led to its withdrawal, and to extensive, almost certainly detrimental re-shooting with a new director. What finally emerged was generally conceded to have just missed the mark, with a weird premise about a huge American conglomerate buying a small British zoo and making it stock only ferocious animals. But while it is scarcely any more inventive or important than Wanda, it is, surely, a hundred times more likeable.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The “Confessions” series

Directors: Val Guest (Window Cleaner)/Norman Cohen
Screenplays: Christopher Wood, from his novels
Cast: Robin Askwith, Anthony Booth, Dandy Nichols (Window Cleaner)/Doris Hare, Bill Maynard, Sheila White

By far the most famous and well-remembered of the 1970s British sex comedies, the Confessions, along with the distinctive features, physique and mannerisms of their iconic star, Robin Askwith, have come to be seen by many as the very definition of the sub-genre.
They marked the first and most successful attempt by a major studio (Columbia) to muscle in on a hitherto scuzzy and bargain basement industry, resulting in a strong infusion of well-known faces (who might hitherto have refused to be seen dead in any such thing) and basic but effective comedy. (Among the many guest stars, John Junkin, Liz Fraser and Linda Hayden distinguish themselves by each appearing twice in different roles; the latter, Askwith's on-off real life girlfriend, is the sympathetic female lead in the first, and a phoney French-accented member of the background crumpet assortment in the last.)
And they were, for a while, phenomenally successful: pitched as Carry On films in which you can actually see the breasts and pubic hair of the female stars, they effectively ended the Carry On series as a going concern, which tried vainly to catch up with the new mood before dying of embarrassment.
Ironically, however, the Confessions themselves came to an end not long after, after only four titles, partly because it is the fate of all radical innovation to become commonplace in the blink of an eye, but also because the set-up of the films was too restricting and allowed for only superficial variation, whereas the Carry Ons had established a format where the usual cast and jokes can be inserted into any imaginable modern, historical or fantastic framework. With the Confessions, audiences soon tired of the limited formula, and a slew of imitations (such as Stanley Long's Adventures series) staled the whole concept in quick time anyway.
Each film concerns Lea's brother-in-law (Anthony Booth, Tony Blair's father-in-law) starting some new business, which Askwith's Timmy Lea does his accidental best to ruin with a combination of slapstick sexual misadventure and goonish physical ineptitude. The reappearance each time of his family (father Bill Maynard, mother Doris Hare - Dandy Nicholls in the first film - and sister Sheila White) add to the saminess of the films, and hastened their demise, though Maynard invariably provides the most substantial laughs.
Watched en masse, there are a few surprises in the films. The popular image of Askwith's character - a randy and absurdly successful lothario who scarcely has to look at a woman to end up bashing about on the floor with her - only really comes to be in the first sequel. Confessions of a Window Cleaner, Val Guest's original film is - by the standards of the rest - an oddly sincere character comedy about a young man's coming of age, with only a small number of more-explicit-than-usual sex scenes to distinguish it from the likes of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush. Timmy is a virgin when we first meet him, and a gauche and nervous sexual inadequate thereafter, who is taught technique and confidence by the experienced older women - those habitual oversexed housewives of seventies comedy - he meets on his daily rounds. (His soap suds-drenched scene with Sue Longhurst is perhaps the most famous of the series.) But he almost immediately falls in love with Linda Hayden's young policewoman, and finishes the film within an inch of getting married.
It's the second film, Confessions of a Pop Performer, that perfects the formula. (Also in its favour is a good supporting cast of comic players, as well as some funny pop songs that represent the height of musical degeneracy in the last few minutes before punk, when rowdy delinquent pop oiks still can, and do, play piano.)
But the limitations of the set-up are already looking fatal by the time of Confessions of a Driving Instructor, which plays as a series of unconnected chunks held together with gossamer - boring and increasingly irrelevant sex scenes, comedy turns from Maynard and Windsor Davies, broad physical slapstick.
Ironically, it's the last in the series, Confessions From a Holiday Camp, that gets the mix right: the situations are reasonably funny, there are a few genuine laughs, the regular characters are integrated legitimately, and even the sex scenes have some basis in the narrative and pay off comedically.
But despite the climactic captions advising audiences to avoid imitations, and a closing narration from Askwith indicating yet another adventure, after this Timmy Lea confessed no more.

Confessions of a Window Cleaner (1974)
Supporting cast includes Linda Hayden, John Le Mesurier, Joan Hickson, Katya Wyeth, Richard Wattis, Melissa Stribling, Sue Longhurst

Confessions of a Pop Performer (1975)
Supporting cast includes Carol Hawkins, Jill Gascoine, Bob Todd, Peter Jones, Peter Cleall, Robert Dorning, Ian Lavender, Bill Pertwee

Confessions of a Driving Instructor (1976)
Supporting cast includes Lynda Bellingham, Windsor Davies, George Layton, Liz Fraser, Irene Handl, Suzy Mandel, Sally Faulkner, John Junkin

Confessions From a Holiday Camp (1977)
Supporting cast includes John Junkin, Lance Percival, Linda Hayden, Liz Fraser, Colin Crompton, Nicholas Bond-Owen

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985)

Director: George P Cosmatos
Screenplay: Sylvester Stallone, James Cameron
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Richard Crenna, Charles Napier, Steven Berkoff, Julia Nickson

Vietnam vet John Rambo, last seen under arrest following a rampage in which he killed and maimed several policemen, is bizarrely revived as an avenging hero in this preposterous, if undeniably efficient action extravaganza, loved by audiences and loathed by critics, that became one of the cultural signposts of the Reagan era in America.

First Blood, a very different and basically admirable thriller, had become Stallone's biggest hit since Rocky in 1982, and he responded to its success in exactly the same way. In both films he had bravely offered audiences a hero who was basically a loser, and allowed them only the most ambiguous of victories at the end.
When the public embraced them, he rewarded them with radically re-inventive sequels, in which the same characters suddenly turn from losers to the exact opposite: pure comic book heroes, one dimensional and indestructible. It's hard to decide which is the least likely: that loveable dope Rocky Balboa could genuinely become the heavyweight champion of the world, or that the mentally ill war casualty John Rambo could be successfully re-enlisted on another top secret military mission. But in Stallone-land, that's what happened.
Strange, that all of the innate good creative sense (and taste) that Stallone displayed in creating both characters in the first place was so spectacularly abandoned when it was rewarded with box-office success. But then, he did know his audience: Rocky II and First Blood Part II were both box-office smashes.

Nearly twenty years on, Rambo plays inevitably as a period piece, and in the extent to which it spoils the sincerity and seriousness of the first film it is basically to be regretted. On its own terms, however, it remains a blazingly vigorous and pacy action caper for those whose tastes run that way, and of much historical interest as a reminder - in these days when even Batman is portrayed as divided and tormented, in pretentious epics praised for their moral ambiguity - of how a film much condemned for its prurient violence and sensationalist appeal still upheld establishment ideals.

First Blood (1982) **

Director: Ted Kotcheff
Screenplay: Michael Kozoll, William Sackheim, Sylvester Stallone, from the novel by David Morrell
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Brian Dennehy, Richard Crenna, Bill McKinney

Though he maintained a high celebrity profile, Sylvester Stallone found it surprisingly difficult to duplicate the box-office success of Rocky, other than in direct sequels. Unexpectedly, this gritty action shocker - basically just another spin on the now  ten-year-old Deliverance formula - turned out to be his only other certain smash of the decade, giving rise to its own run of extremely eccentric sequels and establishing him as one of the key icons of 80s Hollywood.

This original invariably surprises audiences coming to it fresh on the strength of the popular image of John Rambo, its main character. Far from the indestructible avenger of the blockbusting sequels, this authentic Rambo is a mentally damaged Vietnam vet, adrift and friendless in an age that would rather forget about him, who goes on a survivalist rampage after he is goaded and wrongly imprisoned by the sheriff's department of a quiet redneck town.
The action sequences are exceptionally well-staged, but the film takes time to establish the human drama, and the final ten minutes, in which Rambo collapses with grief over the memories that torment him, puts the mayhem poignantly in context, and remind audiences of the very real talent Stallone delights in revealing only in lightning flashes.
A Kewpie doll please, Maltin.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Possession (2002) *

Director: Neil La Bute
Screenplay: David Henry Hwang, Laura Jones, Neil La Bute, from the novel by AS Byatt
Cast: Gwyneth Paltrow, Aaron Eckhart, Jeremy Northam, Jennifer Ehle, Lena Headey, Holly Aird, Toby Stephens, Trevor Eve, Graham Crowden, Anna Massey

Having never read the Booker Prize-winning novel upon which this is based, nor seen any of LaBute's other films, I have no idea how valid the two most generally-offered criticisms of this film are: that it is a simplistic travesty of the former, and so self-consciously different from the rest of the latter as to make sense only as a stylistic experiment, with no real heart or any other raison d'etre.

The second criticism sounds a bit shabby to me - the intrinsic absurdity of auteurism finally coming back to bite the auteur in the ass - and anyway, when the remake of The Wicker Man arrived the debate became a degree less important anyway.
But what seems to me the film's biggest narrative fault may well be a consequence of the first complaint, that being the way that a literary discovery that is nothing short of monumental, but which has gone completely unsuspected for a century, is stumbled upon accidentally, and then the subsequent investigation casually produces reams of corroborative evidence from dozens of sources and locations in at least two countries, all of which has somehow passed over the heads of previous scholars, even as it was passing under their noses.

That aside, the film is a careful and sincere piece which blends a story about 21st century academics investigating a Victorian literary romance with a recreation of the romance itself, stocked with enough interesting roles to keep the wolf from the door of most of Britain's Jane Austen acting industry, and giving Paltrow yet another chance to show off what is surely the best (and arguably the sexiest) fake British accent in the business. (Perversely, or possibly with deliberately mischievous intent, Trevor Eve is cast as one of the film's very few Americans.)

Maltin has time only for the historical sequences, and calls the modern scenes "full of ludicrous dialogue and arch, affected performances". Well, it's each to his own of course, and I have no particular torch to carry for the film, but I have to say it hit me the opposite way: that almost all of the customary howlers associated with American film-makers recreating modern England are avoided, the rhythm is natural and unforced, and some of the dialogue is really rather good. Compare it with Woody Allen's Match Point and surely anyone should be able to see what I mean. It's interesting that this came over as false to an American (yet Maltin praises Match Point for its "fresh British milieu") : I'd be amazed if a British viewer felt the same.

As drama, it did keep me at arm's length throughout: I found it frequently impressive, always diverting, but very rarely gripping and never moving. Whether this is a fault of the film-makers or merely an honest representation of its singularly remote and self-indulgent characters is a moot point. But the leads all contribute dependable work, the cross-cutting works, and there may be a surprise or two for viewers who have not been down many similar roads before.
All technical elements hit the bell safely.

Final Destination (2000) *

Director: James Wong
Screenplay: Glen Morgan, James Wong, Jeffrey Reddick
Cast: Devon Sawa, Ali Larter, Kerr Smith, Kristen Cloke, Seann William Scott, Amanda Dettmer, Tony Todd

Popular addition to the post-Scream ironic teen horror boom, the longevity of which as a franchise must have surprised even its biggest fans.
Ironically, given how soon after Scream it came, critics were even at this stage praising it for its general seriousness and for eschewing the nudge-and-wink approach that was already standard, and already staling.
It also re-integrated supernatural themes with the new formula, and in its biggest error of judgement, revived the hoary old idea of giving all the characters the surnames of famous genre actors and directors.
Time has not been massively kind overall: a nail-biting opening segues into an inevitably anti-climactic whole, since once the ingenious premise is established there is nothing left for it to do, other than punctuate mechanical suspense with ingenious vignettes of spectacular death.

Four sequels followed, and more may yet join them, suggesting that no matter how formulaic the material - and to be honest, this pretty much redefines the term - they'll keep coming out to watch teenagers die provided you can keep coming up with inventive ways for it to happen. The second is worth watching mainly for the reappearance of Larter, the rest are strictly for the chronically addicted.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Run For Your Wife (2012) *

Directors: Ray Cooney, John Luton
Screenplay: Ray Cooney, from his play
Cast: Danny Dyer, Denise Van Outen, Sarah Harding, Neil Morrissey, Ben Cartwright, Nicholas Le Prevost, Jeffrey Holland, Christopher Biggins, Lionel Blair, Derek Griffiths. Dozens of stars in cameos and walk-ons including: Judi Dench, Russ Abbot, Richard Briers, Bernard Cribbins, Su Pollard, Cliff Richard, Barry Cryer, Rolf Harris, Donald Sinden, Robin Askwith, Brian Murphy, Ray Cooney, Maureen Lipman, June Whitfield, Bill Pertwee, Frank Thornton, Vicki Michelle

This long-gestating film version of Cooney's phenomenally successful stage farce opened to excoriating reviews, many hailing it as the worst film of the year or even the worst British film of all time, and a much-quoted first weekend take of around £750.
Hard to imagine just how utterly bewildered Cooney must have been left by such savagery, when the target was as jolly, harmless and pleasant a piece of work as this. What a bunch of pretentious, humourless bores.

I had been tipped off before the screening I attended (its only showing in Bath) that where audiences were actually getting a chance to see it they were enjoying it enormously, and sure enough, my crowd had a thoroughly good time: lots of loud, unforced laughter throughout, and a decisive summing up of “well that was brilliant!” from an elderly lady at the end. The situations might be just a little too ludicrous for that suspension of disbelief necessary for truly great farce, but the construction is clever, the pace unflagging, the direction efficient, and most of it is extremely funny.

Nice performances all round, especially from Morrissey (who gets the lion's share of the laughs), Biggins (who gets most of what's left over) and Le Prevost (who gives a performance of effortless comic charm, of a sort I thought I'd never see again outside of re-runs.) Casting Dyer in the lead was a mistake – he looks far too loutish for a role that needs as much audience sympathy as it can possibly get – but even he has a defter comic touch than I predicted (a measure, perhaps, of Cooney's proven expertise in extracting fine comic performances from his casts). Van Outen and Harding are fine.

Most of the blink-or-miss-them cameos (thanked collectively in the credits as Ray’s “theatre chums”) really are blink-or-miss-them (only a very few have lines). In fact I’m ashamed to say – given my reputation as an eagle-eyed actor spotter - a good third of them proved sadly to be blinked-and-missed-them. And because the Imdb very oddly lists only a fraction of those claimed by the end credits, I wasn’t even looking out for Jacki Piper or Carol Hawkins.
But Robin Askwith at least has a nice, proper cameo that makes you want to stand up and cheer as a cheeky bus driver. And Derek Griffiths looks about a year older than when I last saw him at work in the 1980s.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Cat People (1982)

Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Alan Ormsby
Cast: Nastassja Kinski, Malcolm McDowell, John Heard, Annette O'Toole

When it was announced that Lewton's masterpiece was going to be remade, paying more explicit attention to its considerable erotic undercurrent, fans divided sharply into two camps: those who thought it a valid and intriguing exercise and those who damned it as heresy.
On release, though, they swiftly recombined to establish the overriding consensus: good idea or bad, the film is just terrible.
Perfect though I feel the original to be, I had no particular problem with the concept (and the casting of Kinski in Simone Simon's role seemed especially promising), but the finished film is neither atmospheric nor excting, and it's not even all that sexy.

Sadly, because the potential was there, the film never stops making mistakes. The plot has been altered almost beyond recognition, and in silly ways that totally undermine the point and the tension of the original story. The elements that should have proved most inspiring are replaced with new and vastly inferior alternative ideas, while well-worn highlights, like the darkened swimming pool scene and the mysterious woman who acknowledges Irina, are retained (and just tamely re-staged) even though they no longer make any sense in the revised narrative.
The inclusion of McDowell as Kinski's incestuous cat person brother is on its own a disaster from which no production could recover, but just to make sure a bizarre mystic back story and the kind of ending that seems specifically designed to annoy act as insurance. Add to this the annoyingly inhumane use of real animals and a horrible Giorgio Moroder score (including a Moroder-David Bowie collaboration of the sort that comes along only once in a lifetime, or less if you're really lucky) and all is truly lost.
Even Kinski, set certain to compensate with her hitherto effortless erotic power, seems constrained by the eccentricities of the material, as well as drably styled and saddled with an unflattering short hairdo.

Magnum Force (1973) *

Director: Ted Post
Screenplay: John Milius, Michael Cimino
Cast: Clint Eastwood, Hal Holbrook, Mitchell Ryan, David Soul, Tim Matheson, Kip Niven, Robert Urich, Felton Perry, John Mitchum, Albert Popwell, Christine White, Adele Yoshioka

Dirty Harry tracks down a vigilante death squad operating from within the San Francisco police department, in a sequel that confirms just how much you can get away with when you have a foolproof formula.

The one and only new twist is the plot gimmick: a grovelling apologia to Pauline Kael and her proxies, who accused the original of pandering to vigilantism and labelled it fascist. In bending over backwards to disprove that charge the film comes off as cynical and, far worse, disrespectful of the audiences who loved the original just the way it was. ("I'm afraid you've misjudged me," Harry says at one point.)
Apart from that one dubious innovation it sticks like super-glue to the established template: the rookie partner, the battles with superiors, the snarled catchphrases,  the selection of incidental assignments (including one that Harry happens to intercept while eating at a hamburger restaurant and embarks upon still chewing)... all are present and correct. It's also far too casually paced, a ninety minute movie that comes in at a flabby 124; with tighter direction and editing at least half an hour could have been trimmed without removing any one scene in its entirety.
And yet, despite all that, the bastard works, and never even begins to seriously tax the patience of anyone who loves to see Clint going about this kind of business. Just having him show up in the role is to have half the film's job done: it would have to be terrible to fail with that kind of a head start, and for all its faults, it's far from that.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Quartet (1948) ****

Directors: Ken Annakin, Arthur Crabtree, Harold French, Ralph Smart
Screenplay: RC Sherriff, from stories by W Somerset Maugham
Introduced by W Somerset Maugham
Cast includes: Jack Watling, Mai Zetterling, Dirk Bogarde, Honor Blackman, George Cole, Hermione Baddeley, Mervyn Johns, Cecil Parker, Nora Swinburne, Basil Radford, Naunton Wayne, Ian Fleming, Raymond Lovell, Irene Brown, Francoise Rosay, Susan Shaw, Bernard Lee, Wilfrid Hyde White, Ernest Thesiger, Linden Travers, Felix Aylmer

One of the greatest compliments that can be paid to Quartet is that watching it feels somewhat akin to reading four Somerset Maugham short stories.

And so it should, you snort derisively, because, of course, an adaptation of four Maugham stories is exactly what it is.
But films that announce themselves as adaptations of a specific author can rarely be relied upon to adhere with any great respect even to the letter of the originals: capturing their spirit is almost always beyond them. Look at Edgar Allan Poe: he must have been given the possessive name check in dozens, perhaps hundreds of movies, some of them terrible, many good and a few of them certain masterpieces. But how many have any qualities reminiscent of actually reading one of his tales? I'm not sure I can think of any.

Neither should greater than average fidelity be inferred simply from the fact that Maugham felt sufficiently paternal towards this production to give it his personal imprimatur, introducing and closing the film as himself, with endearing nervousness (those fidgety fingers!) in a studio mock-up of his own study that, according to accounts, almost spooked him with its accuracy, the more so when he discovered that a paper knife he took to be his own (he fiddles with it through much of his opening address) was in fact made of papier mache.
Many another author had been happy to take the money and run - often as fast as they could - from productions they knew would do their literary reputations no possible good, but, they reasoned no doubt correctly, very little harm either, while swelling their bank balances to a degree that more than compensated for the unmistakable feeling of having joined the oldest profession.

But Quartet really is the exception.
There is a profound subtlety to it, a desire to convey in miniatures of gesture, dialogue and event exactly that quality of minute observation that makes Maugham's short stories among the best ever written.
Surprisingly, it is the spirit that is recreated rather more than the letter: the adaptations are not religiously unadorned, and the desire to tidy them up dramatically, particularly in terms of narrative pay-off, is more freely indulged than one might think, especially if you haven't read the stories for a while, and only becomes apparent if you then return to them.
It's the capturing of their essence, as I said, that is so striking: that brittle, half-concealed iceberg psychology, where the very scarcity of surface revelation somehow makes naked the vast reserves of emotion and meaning beneath.
The four stories are each beautifully transferred, each establishing a perfect mood, never outstaying their welcome, and varying the bill only beneath the skin: there are no jarring transitions in style or feel; each episode is clearly a part of a perfectly unified whole, and yet one is light and amusing, one tragic, one quixotic, one powerfully moving.
The last, 'The Colonel's Lady', feels like the best, but as much because it is a culmination, a drawing together of all the elements of the preceding three, as for its own specific virtues, striking though they are. Fascinating as every moment of this story is (concerning the effect on a staid marriage of the wife's unexpected success with a volume of racy poetry), note just how much is conveyed in the first scene, where nothing much happens at all, but in which we eavesdrop on the couple at breakfast and learn all we need to know about them as individuals and as a couple, simply by observing the bland formality that has taken the place of intimacy between them. (And how much is conveyed by such seemingly inconsequential lines of dialogue as the husband's: "You know I cannot bear to see people cutting string!")

It could be argued that the transition between stories should somehow have been handled in such a way as to allow the viewer time to digest what they have just seen before haring into the next (though I can't think how, other than with three intervals, which actually may not have been all that bad an idea), but the overall effect is hardly lessened by what can sometimes feel a little bit like being ushered around an art gallery by an over-officious guide, intent on making you see everything when what you really want to do is stand and contemplate, at your own pace.
But that hardly detracts from what is plainly one of the most adult and stylish British films of its era - and rare in any age is a film so happy not to lead its audience by the hand towards its intended effects but content to let them find their own way.
Quartet is a certain triumph, but in keeping with its sources, one perversely incapable of announcing itself thus. Watching it almost feels like joining an exclusive club; it is also one of those rare films that becomes more interesting with repeated viewings.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Fever Pitch (2005) **

Directors: Bobby and Peter Farrelly
Screenplay: Lowell Ganz, Babaloo Mandel, from the novel by Nick Hornby
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Jimmy Fallon, Jason Spevack, Jack Kehler, Scott Severance

British viewers will know it better as The Perfect Catch, a nicer title, albeit one rather mischievously designed to hide the fact that it was another version of Nick Hornby's paean to English football, which had already been filmed in typical dead weight British style with Colin Firth.
This transatlantic baseball makeover is streets ahead, and a genuinely enjoyable romantic comedy. The two leads are equally charming, and click together on screen with an effortlessness surprisingly rare in this genre.
Too bad it didn't go over bigger at the box office, as it represented a major step out of the playground for the Farrelly Brothers, who older readers may recall were once important names in American film comedy.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Going the Distance (2010)

Director: Nanette Burstein
Screenplay: Geoff LaTulippe
Cast: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Charlie Day, Jason Sudeikis, Christina Applegate

Slightly misjudged formula romcom, undone by the sheer obnoxiousness of virtually all the central characters.
A few good laughs and scenes, but a will-they-won't-they romance needs to try much harder to make the audience care whether they do or not than this one.
Barrymore labours to bring her usual effervescence and likeability to a character hardly deserving of either.

Marnie (1964)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock
Screenplay: Jay Presson Allen, from a novel by Winston Graham
Cast: Tippi Hedren, Sean Connery, Diane Baker, Martin Gabel, Louise Latham

After the partially validated excesses of The Birds, this came as final proof that highbrow acclaim was the worst thing that could possibly have happened to Hitchcock.

Where once he was free to take on just about any project that appealed to his sensibilities, now each new film had to be an event, different from what went before and with some new gimmick or sensation to justify his involvement. As a result, the films become strange mixtures of hubris and uncertainty, replacing the uncomplicated confidence of his best work with a painful self-consciousness and straining for significance that the material is increasingly unable to justify or sustain.
This naive and untypically overlong melodrama, sold as a daring and sophisticated psychosexual thriller, labours under the triple imposition of his most hokey plot since Spellbound, a massively artificial production, and Sean Connery, the latest in a series of miscast leads that would prove a problem for the rest of Hitchcock's career. Hedren is elegant and watchable in a basically unplayable role, but the big revelations, when they finally come, are risible in the extreme.
Ironically, Vertigo, which had left critics and audiences equally perplexed just six years earlier, would have gone down a storm at this point: instead he offered a cranky imitation of that overrated but vastly superior film, stuffed with Freudian cotton wool.
Nonetheless, and I suppose unsurprisingly given its preoccupations, a revisionist cult has grown around the film. Robin Wood has claimed that if you don't love Marnie you don't love cinema, in which case I am happy to accept that I don't love cinema.

“Halloween” series

Halloween (1978) *
Director: John Carpenter
Screenplay: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Nancy Loomis, P. J. Soles, Charles Cyphers

It is often the case that the more groundbreaking a film was, the harder it is to see what all the fuss was about a generation or so on, and it's surely the case here. But even with its innovations now commonplaces, this is still a good, scary piece of work, a Psycho-like confidence trick that works brilliantly once, though the longueurs certainly get longer with repeated viewings. Carpenter's era-defining score, a nicely conveyed small town atmosphere and a fresh and likeable cast help the somewhat mechanical jolts and judders find their mark, and Donald Pleasence is a hammy delight as the obsessed psychiatrist. (All the same it's a pity both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing turned the role down: had they not done so the transition between their era and the one this ushered in would have seemed a lot smoother and less confrontational.)

Halloween II (1981)
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Screenplay: John Carpenter, Debra Hill
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Donald Pleasence, Charles Cyphers, Jeffrey Kramer, Lance Guest

Straightforward second helping, prosaically rewriting the plainly supernatural implications of the original film's ending, and replacing the mood and suggestion with simple-minded blood and thunder. Don't fall into the trap of blaming that on stand-in director Rosenthal, though: the extra splatter was added by Carpenter himself after principal photography was completed in an effort to goose the film up a little (just as he had done, rather more successfully, in The Fog). It's an ironic compliment to the influence of the original that in just three years a simple retread seemed unworkably stale.
It's nice to see Jeffrey Kramer again, after his immensely likeable work in Jaws and Jaws 2.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1983)
Written and directed by Tommy Lee Wallace
Cast: Tom Atkins, Stacey Nelkin, Dan O'Herlihy

A major disappointment at the time, this curious effort to extend the series using 'Halloween' as a banner title for unrelated stories has subsequently become a cult favourite among later generations on television. The fact that the idea was deemed a mistake, and so this is the only film in the series with a plot totally unlinked to the others, makes it seem odder still today. Originally scripted by an uncredited Nigel Kneale, it's a campy fantasy about a deranged toymaker, with Tom Atkins returning in the lead after his good services in The Fog, and a ghoulish ending. As a time-passer, not too bad.

Halloween IV: The Return of Michael Myers (1988) *
Director: Dwight H Little
Screenplay: Alan B McElroy
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Ellie Cornell, Danielle Harris, Michael Pataki

A new team revived the original concept after a five-year lay-off in an obvious programmer that nonetheless has enough pace, style and excitement to qualify as perhaps the most entertaining of the whole series, including the original. The twist ending is unexpected and clever, and Harris's performance is one of the best ever by a child performer.

Halloween 5 (1989)
Director: Dominique Othenin-Girard
Screenplay: Dominique Othenin-Girard, Michael Jacobs, Shem Bitterman
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Danielle Harris, Ellie Cornell

Inevitable but undistinguished extension, which never justifies the need to spoil the ending of part four. Some noble attempts to revive the mysterious, supernatural aspects of the original help very slightly to hold interest in what is otherwise the standard recipe of mayhem and pursuit.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Director: Joe Chappelle
Screenplay: Daniel Farrands
Cast: Donald Pleasence, Paul Rudd, Marianne Hagan

Released after the plainly ailing Pleasence's death, this sequel takes the original idea into some very strange areas indeed, and gamely clears up the mystery of the man in black that was introduced in the previous film and that, six more years down the line, surely nobody was worrying about too much. So weird it can't help but hold the interest to some extent, but the formula elements are routinely deployed.

Halloween H20: Twenty Years Later (1998) *
Director: Steve Miner
Screenplay: Robert Zappia, Matt Greenberg
Cast: Jamie Lee Curtis, Adam Arkin, Josh Hartnett, Michelle Williams, Jodi Lin O'Keefe, Janet Leigh

Inanely titled but otherwise admirable reinvention of the original, made under the wing of Kevin Williamson, with something of the savviness of Scream but none of the self-mockery, and Curtis making a splendid comeback in the lead (with mother Janet Leigh in support). The story ignores the bizarre developments of recent episodes, and after a tense first half turns into simple, excellently directed stalking and jumping out of dark corners.It's as formulaic as can be, but somehow it works all over again. As with the equally admirable Halloween 4, however, it finishes with a splendid last scene that shouldn't have been tampered with, but the film's success meant a further sequel was inevitable.  Director Miner had made some of the early entries of the rival Friday the 13th series.

Halloween Ressurection (2002)
Director: Rick Rosenthal
Screenplay: Larry Brand, Sean Hood
Cast: Busta Rhymes, Bianca Kajlich, Sean Patrick Thomas, Kyra Banks, Jamie Lee Curtis

A further extension, now firmly in the idiom of the post-modern, post-Scream self-referential slasher, with a reality TV subplot and an audacious death for Jamie Lee Curtis to kick things off. Nothing like as bad as it could have been or is reputed to be, but nobody's idea of essential viewing. Nice to see Rosenthal returning as director.
The last  of the series to date, the film was followed by a remake of the original in 2007, and a subsequent Halloween II that was not a remake of the original Halloween II - it would all be terribly confusing if it mattered a damn, but under the aegis of Rob Zombie the films were so irredeemably terrible in conception and execution that it's easier just to pretend they don't exist. The only point of interest was the return to the series of Danielle Harris, as a different character in each film.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Intelligence Men (1965) *

Director: Robert Asher
Screenplay: Dick Hills & Sid Green
Cast: Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise, William Franklyn, Francis Matthews, April Olrich, Gloria Paul, Richard Vernon, David Lodge, Terence Alexander, Warren Mitchell, Tutte Lemkov

First of three big-screen outings for Eric and Ernie, all generally accounted as failures, though audiences liked them well enough at the time, and eyes both fresh and sympathetic may well find them far from the dead end of official estimation.
This is pre-packaged comedy, for sure, making few more demands of the talent than it does of the audience, but it's still often very amusing for all that, with a lively climax, a number of effective if well-spaced highlights, two ideal stooges in Franklyn and Matthews, and consistently entertaining work from the leads.
Also a key film for we small but devoted band of Tutte Lemkov addicts.

Grease (1978) *

Director: Randal Kleiser
Screenplay: Allan Carr, Bronte Woodard, from the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Cast: John Travolta, Olivia Newton John, Stockard Channing, Jeff Conaway, Didi Conn, Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Joan Blondell, Frankie Avalon

Perhaps the oddest of all phenomenon movies, achieving huge box-office success at the time and if anything even greater cult longevity thereafter, first as an exercise in fifties nostalgia for seventies audiences, then as seventies nostalgia for original audiences too young to pick up on the references at the time. 
(I expect I was one of many that saw it on its original release and understood not one word of it; I didn't even realise it was set in the past. Among a myriad misreadings of the sexual references I thought the line 'Did she put up a fight?' was 'Did she put up and fight?', asked enthusiastically because boys like fighting). 

Almost senseless, in the light of what it has become, to offer objective criticism, but overall it’s surprisingly good, if surprisingly plotless: very energetically directed (by Kleiser, a big favourite of John Waters and the director of that other great relic of my youth, The Blue Lagoon) and well edited. 
The cutting between shots during the musical numbers is done with dexterity and judiciousness, and some of the songs are charming. (I don't like them all, simply because I'm not a fan of fifties music, and the three show stoppers – ‘Summer Nights’, ‘You’re the One That I Want’ and ‘Greased Lighting’ - are just too accurate as pastiches; I find the latter in particular near-unendurable.) 
The leads are all good to excellent, with Stockard Channing taking top honours in a role few performers might, on the face of it, have seemed less suited for, and John Travolta, much underrated for his unusual ability to combine the functions of dramatic actor and self-mocking song and dance man, while at all times retaining possession of one of the weirdest faces on any man ever, is also very impressive. 
Best of all, room is also found for Sid Caesar, Eve Arden and Joan Blondell.

Grease 2 (1982)

Director: Patricia Birch
Screenplay: Ken Finkleman
Cast: Maxwell Caulfield, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lorna Luft, Maureen Teefy, Adrian Zmed, Didi Conn, Eve Arden, Sid Caesar, Tab Hunter, Connie Stevens

A second trip to the well, with a gender switched but otherwise carbon copied plot, that didn't have the good luck of the first either at the box office or in terms of cult longevity.
Despite plenty of energy and the same desire to please as the original, it suffers from unavoidably second-drawer casting and incredibly unmemorable songs.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Frankenstein and the Monster From Hell (1974) *

Director: Terence Fisher
Screenplay: John Elder
Cast: Peter Cushing, Shane Briant, David Prowse, Madeline Smith, David Prowse, John Stratton, Patrick Troughton, Charles Lloyd Pack, Michael Ward, Bernard Lee, Peter Madden

Hammer's last Frankenstein picture is an oddity indeed, deliberately conceived in an era of upheaval and experimentation as a conscious experiment in back to basics aesthetics, with as many original contributors on board as possible.
Unfortunately, austerity measures demanded a savagely low budget, necessitating that the film be almost entirely shot in a few claustrophobic studio interiors. It's grim, too, with several surprisingly unsavoury grand guignol flourishes and a pervading air of gloom, while the monster make-up is as weirdly over the top as the film's title.
The result was a film that remained unreleased for two years (and as long again in the US), but such is the professionalism of the studio, even at this low an ebb, that, to aficionados at least, it remains interesting and oddly compelling at all times.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The Gentle Sex (1943) **

Director: Leslie Howard 
Screenplay: Moie Charles 
Cast: Joan Gates, Jean Gillie, Joan Greenwood, Joyce Howard, Rosamund John, Lilli Palmer, Barbara Waring, John Justin, John Laurie, Miles Malleson, Jimmy Hanley 

  "Women... women all over the place... They think they're helping, I suppose..." 

So begins director Leslie Howard's narration, but like much else in the film (especially the credits, picked out in needlepoint) it is clearly ironic. In fact, the film both announces and welcomes the changing social status of Britain's womanhood. 
Howard had returned to England from Hollywood when war broke out to make propaganda films. With the exception of The Lamp Still Burns (1943), a similar effort about wartime nurses for which Howard is credited as producer, this film (in which he takes no acting role) was to be his last before his plane was shot down in 1943. Though direction was completed (without credit) by Maurice Elvey, after Howard's mistress suddenly died during production, Howard's is the film's controlling voice. 
This is instantly established by the opening sequence, in which we glimpse him from behind on a balcony overlooking a railway station, choosing, like a Greek God, the women whose destiny he is to control (or rather, whose progress the film is to follow). Thus as narrator he is selecting the characters just as he must have chosen the actresses as director. (The viewer must decide which of the two provides the accompanying voice-overs: "Oh, we must have her... We might keep an eye on this one, she looks worth following.") 
This omniscient tone, both an irony and a comfort in the uncertain times in which the film was first received, is countered by moments of unexpected realism, as when a central character is reported missing, presumed dead. It is the uncertainty of the communication that surprises today (we never receive definite information), but it would have struck a recognisable, and of course harrowing, chord at the time. Our knowledge of Howard's own death so shortly after intensifies the effect of such moments still further. 

In order to salute the real-life equivalents of its subjects, the film affects a semi-documentary style, casts character actresses rather than stars in the leads, and uses genuine military personnel as walk-ons. 
It also contains much discussion of how a post-war future should be constructed. (Present-day audiences may find the simple optimism of these sequences among the saddest parts of the film.) As such, it resembles Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944), another film that drew a distinction between why we fight and what we are fighting for.

The Woman In Black (2012) **

Director: James Watkins
Screenplay: Jane Goldman, from the novel by Susan Hill
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Ciaran Hinds, Janet McTeer, Liz White, Roger Allam, Jessica Raine, Shaun Dooley, Mary Stockley, David Burke, Victor McGuire

A film that has done the seemingly impossible: justified the use of the revived name of Hammer Film Productions, honoured the traditions of the studio’s past, evoked much of its style, and at the same time managed to appeal to a broad, modern audience that have no interest in, or perhaps even awareness of, the original films.
As a film it’s good, as a juggling act it’s amazing.

There are the expected anachronisms of course, of the sort which no modern film set in the past could now be expected to avoid, annoying though they are all the same: designer stubble, men walking about in the rain without hats, characters suggesting they “get the hell out” of places, and ugly modern metaphor-speak (Radcliffe’s boss urges greater commitment from his employee on the grounds that they “don’t carry passengers”).
And Radcliffe is too young; there’s no point pretending he isn’t. But neither would it be right not to add that, given that initial handicap, he delivers an excellent performance that does everything possible to make you forget, or at least excuse, his fundamental unsuitability for the role. His commitment and intensity cannot be faulted – his facial acting alone has to carry a good fifty percent of the film – and if he never quite convinces us he’s a widowed lawyer with a four year old son, well… Julie Ege wasn’t my mind’s idea of an Edwardian feminist adventuress in Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, and I can’t say that worried me unduly either. These are precisely the kind of eccentricities that Hammer must be allowed.
 The rest of the film? Well, it’s not especially original and it’s not especially ambitious, so hyperbole would sit ill on its frail shoulders. But in terms of the limits it sets for itself, there's not much wrong with it at all.
 Even rendered in tacky digital format, the art direction is astounding, the photography is rich, the locations are beautifully atmospheric. (Did you not dream of seeing a Hammer character making his way up and down a baroque staircase left of frame again? Dream no more!) At least two of the big scare moments work better than anything comparable in any of the similar films to which this has been compared, and the lingering sense of dread that strings them together is better yet.
 There’s even a slightly sappy ending that, a meaningless close on the Woman in Black’s face notwithstanding, honours the original Hammer’s commitment to ultimately restored order, even to restored order within a framework of Christian dogmatics.
 I liked the casting, too, which seemed to me chosen by the classic Hammer method: an attention-catcher in front, sturdy support from traditional talent (Ciaran Hinds is rock solid) and a fine third-row of well-chosen rhubarbers (David Burke, probably tv’s best ever Dr Watson, gets a line or two as the village bobby; Victor McGuire gets one as an anguished father).
It’s good to see them, and they have the feel of a new Hammer repertory. If any of them showed up again in the next one it would be wonderful. It is in such matters as these that the true Hammer flavour can most usefully be recalled.
What the studio really needs is an overarching identity that links its new films to each other, rather than something that links any of them to the past.

Unfaithfully Yours (1984) **

Director: Howard Zieff
Screenplay: Valerie Curtin, Barry Levinson, Robert Klane
Cast: Dudley Moore, Nastassja Kinski, Armand Assante, Albert Brooks, Cassie Yates, Richard Libertini

This is one of those heretic remakes, another being the Mel Brooks version of To Be Or Not To Be, that take on an original so acclaimed that it is impermissible to suggest revisiting it was even a good idea, and absolutely forbidden to dare admit that the interloper might be as good as its source.
The reason it is so imperative to deny any such thing, however, and in the case of both films, is because it is so manifestly true.
But Lubitsch and Sturges occupy a secure position in film history, and it will wobble neither's pedestal to concede that, in their very different ways, the remakes are fully comparable to the originals, and in some ways perhaps even superior.

The advantage this one has over its inspiration is that it streamlines the action. Sturges had an amazing comic imagination, but also a profligate and undisciplined one, which was fine when he was firing on all cylinders, but which at other times could leave the narrative feeling a little flabby and unfocused. The original Unfaithfully Yours, in which orchestra conductor Rex Harrison imagine three separate means of dealing with what he believes to be his wife's infidelity, is perhaps a good case in point.
But here, Dudley Moore (so much more likeable than Rex) concocts only one plot, a hopelessly convoluted 'perfect murder', which then goes deliciously wrong at every step in a final third that surely eclipses the Sturges version on a purely laugh-count basis.

Forget the inherent heresy and you should find yourself enjoying a relaxed and charming comedy, almost certainly Moore's best post-Arthur vehicle, with enjoyable concert hall backgrounds and nice work from Assante as the supposed rival, Brooks as Moore's naive confidante, and Kinski as his wife. The latter, an icon of early-eighties cinema, is here at the zenith of her mainstream popularity, stunningly beautiful, playing nicely against Moore, and infectiously enjoying herself in a rare comedy role.

Atonement (2007)

Director: Joe Wright
Screenplay: Christopher Hampton, from the novel by Ian McEwan

Cast: Keira Knightley, James McAvoy, Saoirse Ronan, Romola Garai, Harriet Walter, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Minghella, Patrick Kennedy, Brenda Blethyn, Juno Temple, Benedict Cumberbatch

Fashionable despair-porn for the terminally ironic: insincere, weightlessly cast and pretty boring to boot.

It has its strengths, I suppose: good photography, general seriousness of intent, signs of a budget well spent... none of these bare minimum qualities are to be taken for granted anymore. But I don't like it.
I don't like the ending, for a start. The central character, supposedly the novel's author, first gives us an ending in which the various conflicts are resolved and some kind of happiness restored, then tells us it did not really happen that way; the lovers were both killed without meeting again, wrongs were never forgiven etc etc. People like happy endings, she explains, but life cannot be expected to conform to such expectations.
Which, if it were a real autobiography, would be fair enough, and very moving in its own way. But this is a fiction, written by a man called Ian, so what's the point? Why ignore his own moral? Why say that audiences and readers prefer to leave with a sense of hope, hint that the very point of fiction may have something to do with these matters, and then not only renege on that trust but do so in such a sneaky, clever-clever way? The answer has nothing to do with narrative or dramatic effectiveness, and everything to do with a writer showing off.
Still, at least it makes sense as a literary device, confided to us at the end of the book in a voice that has been speaking to us throughout. The film's desperate attempt to convert it into a dramatic twist, by suddenly showing the central character in old age (with the same hairstyle she had when she was twelve) explaining it all very... very... very... slowly, on an incredibly unrealistic chat show, doesn't play at all.
And we have the usual problem with period. Visually it's fine: the hairstyles, the decor, Keira Knightley's swimming costume - all of these are spot on. But the rest is baloney. Adrift in the solipsistic ignorance of their own times, modern actors are no longer able to inhabit the more robust skins of earlier generations - they look like kids at the dressing up box; they can't even smoke casually. Especially annoying, then, to see them pretending to be World War II soldiers. (Tip to director: next time you want to convince us that the Dunkirk evacuees were brutal, despairing maniacs, don't include any real documentary footage of the genuine article, with humanity and stoicism and decency shining from every face.)
As a piece of drama set before and during the war, I simply don't buy a second of it. I have very protective feelings about the nineteen-thirties, which seem to me the most optimistic as well as the most tragic years of their century, and this sequence of events simply does not fit there.
These people, and their fecklessness, pettiness, self-obsession and incontinence, have not come from there.

Targets (1968) ****

Director/Screenplay: Peter Bogdanovich
Cast: Boris Karloff, Tim O'Kelly, Peter Bogdanovich, Arthur Peterson, Monty Landis, Nancy Hsueh 

Like the French New Wave directors, Peter Bogdanovich began as a critic before going on to make movies heavily informed by his passion for directors like Hawks, Hitchcock and Welles, imbued with a poignant sense of loss that chimed well with the so-called ‘nostalgia boom’ (when audiences suddenly realised that, with the collapse of the studio system, something cherishable had been lost beyond recall.)
Targets (1968), his directorial debut, is many things: a thoughtful and brilliantly tense thriller, a love letter to the past and a poison pen letter to the present, an elegy for Hollywood’s golden age, and – for its star Boris Karloff – the kind of loving valediction of which all actors must dream.

Karloff plays Byron Orlok, a horror star who decides to cancel his next film and retire because he has grown to loathe Hollywood, and the modern world, and feels like an anachronism amidst slick new kinds of film-making and vapid young audiences:

Everybody's dead. I feel like a dinosaur. Oh, I know how people feel about me these days - old-fashioned, outmoded... 'Mr Boogeyman, King of Blood' they used to call me. Marx Brothers make you laugh, Garbo makes you weep, Orlok makes you scream... I couldn't play a straight part decently anymore. I've been doing the other thing too long... and even that isn't the point. You know what they call my films today? Camp, high camp.
Wait a minute, I want to show you something. My kind of horror isn't horror anymore. Look at that. 
[He produces a newspaper, headlined YOUTH KILLS SIX IN SUPERMARKET.] 
No-one is afraid of a painted monster.

He will honour one last professional commitment - to introduce his new film (actually Karloff's 1963 Corman quickie The Terror) at its drive-in premiere. 
As we follow him through the day in the company of his director friend Sammy (played by Bogdanovich), Karloff/Orlok holds court on old age, the decline of the movies, the golden age, and modern society. We see him argue with agents and studio heads, reminisce, get drunk and fall asleep, and even watch himself on television in Howard Hawks's The Criminal Code.

Karloff told Bogdanovich that one of his lines in the film was the truest he had ever delivered. When the writer-director asked him which one, he replied: "The one when I'm looking out the car window at the city streets and I say, 'God, what an ugly town this has become.' My Lord, it's never been truer."
Perhaps the most impressive moment comes when Orlok is, with the utmost reluctance, meeting the moronic, trendy interviewer who is going to speak to him as he introduces the movie ("When I was a kid, Mr O, I must have dug your flicks four zillion times. You blew my mind." "Obviously.")
So infuriated is he by the inanity of the questions he decides instead to tell a story to the audience, and launches into it. It's a short, clever tale of the unexpected about a man who meets Death in person, delivered hypnotically by Karloff in a single fluid tracking shot that moves slowly to extreme close-up in time for the punchline. It is utterly mesmerising, and the crew burst into spontaneous applause after shooting it. Later Bogdanovich noticed that Karloff's wife Evie had been discreetly crying. "Do you know how long it's been since a crew has applauded for Boris?" she explained quietly. 

Throughout all this, Bogdanovich is constantly cutting to a second, seemingly unrelated story, concerning a disaffected young man, living a sterile, joyless existence with his wife and parents who, we soon learn, is dangerously disturbed. Eventually, he murders his family and we watch him matter-of-factly take his gun collection to a water-tower, climb it, and shoot randomly at the cars passing by on the nearby freeway.
As the two stories alternate, they begin to brush against each other. ("Guess who I saw coming home? Byron Orlok!", the young man tells his family at dinner. "Did he scare you?" jokes his father, explicitly evoking Orlok's own analogy between his tame, old-fashioned horrors and the new horrors of the real world.)
We realise that each man is moving in ignorance of the other to the same ultimate destination: the drive-in. Here, as Karloff approaches to make his public appearance, the young killer climbs the scaffolding behind the screen and, through a small hole in the fabric, begins shooting at the audience.
They finally meet in the film's final moments in a confrontation that is dramatic, clever, and moving. Walking blithely into danger, Orlok disarms the killer and slaps him hard in the face, encountering for the first time not just the evil but also the banality of this new kind of horror. 
"Is that what I was afraid of?" Karloff asks in sadness and disgust.

As I said, this is a gripping thriller, a profound rumination on cultural decline, and a salute to a great star that allows Karloff a chance, at just the right moment in his career, to show exactly the kind of work of which he is capable. He made other films after, Curse of the Crimson Altar in England and some terrible back-to-back quickies in Mexico, but apparently always referred to Targets, with metaphorical if not literal accuracy, as his final film. One can easily imagine many another old actor watching it and wishing that they had been given an opportunity to round off their career so show-stoppingly.

Bogdanovich followed the promise of the the film with three deserved smashes (The Last Picture Show, What's Up, Doc? and Paper Moon) and then an unending run of bad luck, if not bad movies. Films like At Long Last Love (1975) and Nickelodeon (1976) reflect not so much a drop in standards as a sense of being left behind by fashion. Though major commercial and critical flops, there's not much wrong with them except, perhaps, opportunistic casting. He still makes good films when he's given the chance - The Cat’s Meow (2000) was excellent - but in the final analysis, Targets remains his masterpiece.

Two Days In Paris (2007)

Director/Screenplay: Julie Delpy
Cast: Julie Delpy, Adam Goldberg, Daniel Bruhl, Marie Pillet, Albert Delpy, Alexia Landeau, Adan Jodorowsky 

Julie Delpy's comedy about a French girl and her American boyfriend wandering about Pairs is the most unembarrassed Woody Allen imitation since Kenneth Branagh's In The Bleak Midwinter, over which it perhaps just has the advantage of not assuming we won't realise. (As the still below suggests, this one is a bit more savvy.) 
There's also a dash of the two rambling-around-with-a-guy-and-talking movies she made for Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), and of Sofia Coppola.

I went predisposed to like it because I like her (the Trois Couleurs came out when I was at University, so she - and Binoche and Jacob - were kind of my generation's Beatrice Dalle) and because it looked quirky and had good reviews.
It was round about this time that I learned never to trust reviews of quirky indie movies, or rather to trust them rigidly, but in the certainty that if the reviewer thinks they're just terrific then I'm going to hate them. (In fact it was this and Broken Flowers that convinced me.)
So, for the last time, I was led blindly by the geezer in The Times who said he was dreading it but ended up bowled over by its wit, insight, sophistication and what-have-you, and by the quote on the poster from some broad about making sure you wear waterproof makeup because she laughed until she cried. Oh please... 
An early dinner table scene promises well, but the rest is complacent and witless: hateful characters, brazen toadying to the European anti-American consensus, and not even a well-conveyed sense of Paris. Goldberg's character, in particular, is obnoxious beyond all endurance, and the film panders relentlessly to fashionable metropolitan certainties and pieties. I feared at the time that it was set for cult status, but I don't see anybody referencing it these days, which is something at least.
Two Days in New York, a 2011 follow-up, omitted Goldberg and added Chris Rock and Vincent Gallo as himself: hard to imagine what it might be like, and few people seem to have even heard of it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Berserk (1967) *

Director: Jim O'Connolly
Screenplay: Herman Cohen, Aben Kandel
Cast: Joan Crawford, Ty Hardin, Michael Gough, Judy Geeson, Diana Dors, Robert Hardy, Geoffrey Keen, Philip Madoc, Ambrosine Phillpotts

And berserk it most assuredly is: a demented potboiler about a black-gloved psycho offing the acts at Joan Crawford's circus during the show, with ticket sales rising every time as the punters come back hoping for a repeat performance.
It's easily the better of Joan's collaborations with producer Herman Cohen, and along with Horrors of the Black Museum probably Cohen's most sheerly entertaining film, the absence of men in gorilla suits notwithstanding.

Though she looks a bit like Franz Liszt in the slightly embarrassing scenes where she has her hair down and Ty Hardin has to pretend to be madly in love with her, there's no denying Joan looks sensational for a woman of 61 in the big top sequences: her legs are still a knockout in tights. It's probably the least demeaning of her end-of-career horror roles: she has loads of well-tailored costumes, and the role is swaggering and brassy and non-camp. According to Cohen the role was originally written for a man, then hastily rewritten (though not much, I'll warrant) when Joanie stepped in. It is a star part, just not in a star movie.

But the film itself offers myriad other delights for connoisseurs, including the once in a lifetime casting of Joan, Diana Dors and Judy Geeson as the three-generational female leads, Robert Hardy as a foppish Scotland Yard detective accidentally stepping in elephant shit, Michael Gough having a tent peg hammered through the back of his head and out the front while he's standing up (just one of the film's wildly inventive and physically impossible murder highlights), Philip Madoc sawing Diana Dors in half for real (another one), a song and dance number from the circus freaks, and a full performance from Phyllis Allan and her intelligent poodles.
Though the parade of real circus acts shown in full tends to slow it down a little in the second half, the film is good guilty fun, and with a genuinely surprising villain.