Sunday, 29 June 2008

Get Smart (2008)

The original show is, let's face it, no model of consistency. It was always uneven, with many strained gags and a truly lousy laugh track. But it also harvested many genuine laughs - as opposed to this film, which more or less manages to keep a goofy smile on the face, even elicit the odd titter, but I can't remember any proper laughter. Director Peter Segal never has had nor ever will have style, and that's one thing this film badly lacks. His staging is leaden and his attempts to make visual satire out of the Michael Bay era blockbuster flourish are infinitely less competent than that found in Hot Fuzz. Despite its flaws, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Et Cetera is a master class on how to make comedy-action scenes; Get Smart flounders semi-competently. One aspect that the film does get right, despite the odd (and clearly forgetful) carping of many critics, is Max's occasional displays of lucid competence and killer instinct, which did show itself in spurts during the original series. The film is loaded with the compulsory "Oh my bum hurts!" style of gag, and the sticky slime of our post-Austin Powers comedic era coats the material, which is a pity especially because the direct references to the original show are almost always the funniest in the film. Star Steve Carrell is often stranded at the helpless mercy of some incredibly weak lines. And yet the film holds together, especially after a wobbly first half-hour, mostly thanks to the excellence of Carrell and Anne Hathaway's 99. Both stars' charm buoys the paper-thin script, and Alan Arkin, despite having a terribly underwritten role, delights.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Bobby (2006)

Thoughts I had watching Bobby:

The ‘60s had Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Baby Jane. We have Sharon Stone and Demi Moore.

Freddy Rodriguez is cool. But we knew that.

“Alright class. A new exercise for today. It’s 1968, people! I want ethnic political tension. Wow me!”

About an hour in, Larry Fishburne tells Freddy he’s The Chosen One.

Apparently, Ned and Maude Flanders wrote this script whilst working on their fire-prevention play.

Ashton Kutcher playing Billy Freakout is selling “acid” to Roy and Roger Uptight (Shia LaBeouf and Billy Geraghty)

Meanwhile, several Johnny and Judy Squaresvilles are questioning their marriages.

When Joshua Jackson seems like the butchest guy in the room, Alice is definitely in Wonderland.

Bill Macy just tongue-kissed Heather Graham. My eyes!

It only took twenty years for Christian Slater to play a grown-up.

Bill Macy’s watching Heather Graham get dressed. I bet he never complains about the pains of being an actor.

Eek! Gratuitous use of The Moody Blues!

What the fuck has this Susan Hayward film with Otto and Striptease Girl got to do with Bobby Kennedy?

Anthony Hopkins may have come out of retirement, but that doesn’t mean he’s started acting again.

Gack! Gratuitous use of Donovan!

Harry Belafonte is still cool.

Nice to see the director giving his old man some work.

LaBeouf and Geraghty are the best reasons to watch. Yes, their subplot is dumb, but it’s funny.

Lindsay Lohan and Elijah Wood just burn up the screen with their lack of chemistry.

Yargh! Gratuitous use of Simon and Garfunkel!

Yes, I’m sure watching Planet of the Apes on acid is great. In fact, why don’t we watch Planet of the Apes right now?

Reefer Madness (1936)

I just had the privilege of seeing, at long last, this famous film of great dramatic depth, towering performances, dynamic direction, searing portrayals of crime and punishment, and frenzied piano playing that would put Jerry Lee Lewis to shame. Honestly, the creepiest thing about this film was Joseph Forte, playing the high school principle. With his Himmler glasses and vicious mouth, I thought perhaps his hobbies included imprisoning students and subjecting them to bondage sessions when he wasn't subjecting the PTA to snore-inducing sermons.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Holy shit, where has this been all my life?

But enough from me. Here's what my mother thought:
.
When Joan Crawford, Vienna, first made her appearance at the top of the stairs dressed in a tight cowgirl outfit, as the tough female owner of the saloon, I knew I was in for something different. After she stages her entry, she then begins to descend the stairs with her back turned to the audience consisting of men and one other woman, Emma. While walking down the stairs she suddenly turns holding a pistol looking as though she could and would use it. She did not disappoint.

As she ascended she acted tough and talked tough in response to another tough woman who was her equal in the group of men below her, Emma who keeps hollering for the other men to shoot Vienna. She claimed Vienna had caused the death of her brother in being associated with the outlaw known as the ‘Dancing Kid’. The names induce a sense of homoerotism into the movie. Some of these men were with Vienna, including Johnny Guitar, her ex-lover that had turned up only that day to play the guitar. However, we don’t know about the past relationship between the Johnny and Vienna until latter but their interactions and body language was of such intensity that would put any silent movie to shame only adds to the building spice in the film.

It was not only the sexual spice of the Vienna and Johnny that gripped me but also the aggression between the two women, which had a homoerotic quality to it. For this reason, it had me thinking that this film was about a lesbian break-up but in the end it involved males taking sides with whoever they thought was right. After most of the ‘baddies’ were killed, including Emma, the film folded into something more ordinary, with the two ex lovers finding that they were still in love and restarting their relationship.

Attack (1956)



Certainly one of the great war films, and possibly superior to Robert Aldrich’s better-known neurotic-noir Kiss Me Deadly, there is nonetheless one thing about it that has bugged me that gelled watching it again: the finale is false, and has that antiseptic stink of that epidemic of ‘50s righteous romantic masochism, where heroes Stand Up For What They Believe In whether it fucks them over or not, in the mould of the most famous example of that style, Kazan's On The Waterfront and Miller’s The Crucible. Nonetheless, the film has a hard and bitter force. Like so much of Aldrich’s oeuvre, the acting has a nervous, edgy, almost hysterical quality, as if Aldrich is holding a gun on them out of frame. Obviously a major influence on Saving Private Ryan. Plus Jack Palance was The Man.

Into The Night (1985)




I’ve always had a great affection for what could be called the midnight odyssey genre, which theoretically covers films as disparate as Adventures in Babysitting and Eyes Wide Shut. Into The Night had a troubled production and indeed the resulting film is a queer duck, a mix of Hitchcockian thriller, satire, romantic comedy, and a kind of wry existential joke. It works – it captures the state of sleeplessness, where the world feels both utterly surreal and yet also utterly inconsequential, better than any film before Lost In Translation, so the film’s bizarre clashes of tone and plot make perfect sense filtered through John Landis’ deadpan reproduction of Goldblum’s alienated perspective. The film ends up being perversely exhilarating, with Jeff Goldblum and Michelle Pfeiffer both being at the height of their charm.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

It's peculiar that all the high-gloss, big-name casting, and sense of high drama has been expended on what amounts to a bunch of people chatting on a train. Generally I have no fondness for the whodunnit genre, and to a great extent MotOE embodies why - the story is tension-free, the set-up mechanical, the situation absurd. Add the fact this film kicked off a series of crummy Christie adaptations, most starring an entirely miscast Peter Ustinov, and I ought to loathe this film. But it's entertaining, largely thanks to Sidney Lumet's crisp, stylish direction. An apparently peculiar project for him when he was deep in the midst of his golden run of the '70s, it isn't really - it plays into his hands as another chance to show off his tremendous skill at herding a large cast of idiosyncratic actors in sketchily written roles, and his true mastery of the crime drama, both exemplified by his debut film, 12 Angry Men. Lumet manages to bring a bit of noir tautness, especially in the eerie opening, to a narrative that would otherwise be a fatal mixture of period lark and minor intellectual exercise. That, and Albert Finney's having a ball playing Poirot as a brilliant, excitable but slightly socially inept nerd, gives the film an energetic heart.

Holiday (1938)

Though not up to the standard of The Philadelphia Story, this is a delightful little film, featuring Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn at their most incandescently charming and backed up by marvellous turns from Edward Everett Horton, Binnie Barnes, and Lew Ayres. It's a fascinating exercise to compare a film like this with its modern comedic descendents. This film is built around a piece of social satire, and stands staunchly for individualism, anarchy, free-thinking and the right to opt out. Modern rom-coms stand staunchly for conformity, looking down your nose at the different, and the need to earn five million a year before you're worth marrying.

The Portrait of a Lady (1996)

Started watching this Campion/Kidman fiasco; stopped bothering a half-hour in. Dreary, listless, badly acted, and with an opening credits sequence that could have passed for a send-up of a film school short.

Zatoichi meets Yojimbo (Zatôichi to Yôjinbô, 1970)


The first of the classic Zatoichi films I ever saw, and it's an unusually classy entry for the series, because of Toshiro Mifune's presence and a top director, Kihachi Samurai Assassin Okamoto, at the helm. Indeed, there's tension within the film between its more ambitious elements and the generic hurlyburly of the plot - there are points where I had virtually no idea what was going on, whilst still enjoying it hugely. Mifune doesn't, despite expectations, play Sanjuro, but a more erratic character, Sassa, who's drunken, coarse, and often at odds with Ichi, but also on the side of the angels, and with a romantic interest to boot. Ichi returns to a village he remembers as beautiful and peaceful, only to find, of course, that it's now riddled with yakuza scumbags, divided into warring factions centred around an elderly boss and his loutish younger son. His elder son has married into the family that manages the Imperial mint, and is running a gold pilfering scam. Younger son wants a cut of the gold, elder son wants all of it, father has it and has hidden it where no-one can find it. The plot is, really, about as important as that of The Big Sleep, and about as comprehensible. What's really important are the humour and character interludes, as Ichi and Sassa trade insults, threats, help, and booze whilst trying to find what the other is up to. Mifune's expert playing of seedy nobility matches Shintaro Katsu's easy warmth as Ichi. Between them is the damsel in distress Umeno (Ayako Wakao), whom Ichi idolises and Sassa loves, but she, once raped by younger son and in debt to the father, works as a prostitute. And the inevitable serious badass turns up in the shape of Kuzuryu (Shin Kishida), a character who's a plain steal of Tatsuya Nakadai's in Yojimbo, carrying as he does a deadly pistol that's a joker in the pack for the two master swordsmen. As in Samurai Assassin, when Okamoto gets the plot out of the way he cuts loose with an incredible final battle, which sees a stack of gold dust blowing away in a snow storm as the three twisted siblings do each-other to death in a total freak-out of a scene. Ichi and Sassa slice and dice their opponents, and then turn on each-other when they think Umeno is dying, and nearly cut each-other to pieces. It's a flawed but often beautiful, exciting, and hilarious film. I am struck how a series like this in its twentieth episode is so vigorous, where Hollywood sequels are so deathly.

Factory Girl (2006)

I liked this much more than I expected to. The script was one-dimensional, but the elegant combination of George Hickenlooper's energetic direction and Sienna Miller's vivid performance, achieved a voluble sensation of what it's like to live the high life and suddenly find there's no ground beneath your feet. I even dug Hayden Christensen's Bob Dylan, Christensen deftly describing a man whose dedication to a certain emotional authenticity is both a breath of fresh air to the heroine and audience, but also makes it clear that such a dedication makes him the wrong guy to give her a soft landing. His confrontation with Guy Pearce's Andy Warhol captured a genuine sense of two completely opposed gravitational forces colliding and recoiling, with our heroine crushed in between. Miller's inhabitation of a waif with a bright smile that becomes ever more forced was a brilliant change from the usually more showy portraits of glam-fem self-destructiveness.

Fort Algiers (1953)


I can't really understate the humour value of Raymond Burr in a turban. Otherwise, spare yourself an hour and a half of boredom. You'd think a film with Yvonne De Carlo as a plucky French spy/chanteuse, plus that turban, would be entertaining, but nope. De Carlo plays a spy trying to infiltrate Berber sheikh Burr's palace to prove he's a provocateur trying to excite anti-imperialist agitation, and her character is fascinatingly multi-skilled, like a prototypical female James Bond, but she still plays second fiddle through much of the film to Carlos Thompson's boring French Legionnaire/ex-lover. Some visually interesting locations, like an oil drillers' shanty town in the middle of the desert, aren't used for anything more than extremely tedious shooting and skulduggery.

To Catch a Thief (1956)

And what electric eye-candy it is. One gets so used to the dark undercurrents of Hitchcock's work that it's refreshing to watch him create a piece that is basically total style. Yet even here the colour and light obscure the utterly delightful and perverse depths of its characters and their relations. Like most of Hitchcock's films this is about a weird romance - and the metaphoric sex that goes with it - presented here in the teasing menage of ageing roue Grant, quietly kinky Kelly - who gets off on suspecting Grant a thief and then acts outraged when it seems proven - and Brigitte Auber's duplicitous teenage wannabe femme fatale. Grant is fine but Kelly really shines in a part that's actually very difficult to play - the woman who may be a safe harbour or a reef to be smashed upon. Great fun.

The Page Turner (La Tourneuse de pages, 2006)



Pithy, nifty, and very dark Hitchcockian creep-fest with Déborah François as a cute blonde sociopath wreaking revenge on a nervy, self-involved pianist Catherine Frot, who ruined her childhood ambitions. The threat of violence and lesbian passion lurks beneath every frame! But the film successfully resists becoming tawdry, instead retaining its icy, poised mood of relishable cruelty. Pascal Greggory seems to have cornered the market on self-satisfied bourgeois husbands whose wives stray. One scene with a cello is...pointed.

Sunshine (2007)

Starts well, degenerates into visual gibberish that matches a precipitous drop in story coherence. Add to this the groan-inducing new-age philosophising and the indecision as to whether to play this claptrap as a metaphoric or realistic journey, and it proves official that Danny Boyle has become a bullshit artist.

Death at a Funeral (2006)

Suffered from having a lot of its best gags given away in the trailer, but it's remarkable for being a contemporary comedy that doesn't stink like a ruptured septic tank. Great cast give slick performances. Short, and, as with Peter Dinklage, that's a good thing.

Hannibal Rising (2007)

Revenge is sweet. Especially when you add barbecue sauce.

Split Second (1953)

Atom-age variation on the Petrified Forest-type gangster-takes-hostages tale. Stephen McNally plays the icy villain who realises the perfect place to hide out from the police is an old mining town - which will be consumed at dawn by the fireball of an atom bomb test. Along the way his partner cops a bullet in the belly, and he collects a motely selection of types - square-jawed but remarkably useless journalist Keith Andes, grizzled prospector Arthur Hunnicutt, dance-hall floozy Jan Sterling, high society floozy Alexis Smith and her dopey paramour Robert Paige. McNally gets the brilliant idea of calling up Smith's soon-to-be-ex-husband Doctor Richard Egan to come and save his beloved by operating on the wounded criminal. Dick Powell directs to much effect: if the story is cliched, the by-play between the various characters, especially the warped Smith-Egan-McNally triangle, is gripping, and the finale when everyone flees the bomb blast is a brilliant sequence. It's a delightfully portentous line the aggrieved Egan mutters: "Let's see what the world of tomorrow looks like", before they ascend to a desert reigned over by a mushroom cloud.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)


Indiana Jones vs Ninotchka

The Good:

Two hours absolutely fly by.

Cate Blanchett’s delightful villainy.

Ford’s most relaxed acting in fifteen years, aging comfortably.

Terrific by-play between Ford, LaBoeuf, and Allen.

Thrilling, often hilarious action scenes.

A surprising richness in character, back-story, checking off earlier episodes.

Nifty, often very funny ‘50s touches – the drag racers at the beginning, the dummy A-Bomb village, the Greaser/College Kid fight, etc.

The Not-so-good: A really clunky plot and some flaccid story development.

Too much The Mummy/National Treasure level cartoonish action flourishes, gizmos, plot points, CGI creepy crawlies.

Lacks the grit of Raiders and Temple of Doom.

Poor use of Ray Winstone in foolish role.

Lack of strong melodramatic stake in story, like saving the world from Nazism (Raiders), freeing enslaved children (Temple of Doom) – Commies just don’t have the same punch, and the McCarthyism references feel confused – leading to

Anti-climactic climax. Though Blanchett’s demise is a gas.

When did Indy become so Republican?
Monkeys?

Possible prejudices: I dislike The Last Crusade which many now cite as the best episode and the one Spielberg and Lucas apparently must wanted to honor. The third auteur to have a hand in Indy’s creation was Philip Kaufman, and Indy in many ways still resembles Kaufman’s grumpy anti-heroic males more than Spielberg’s Everymen and Lucas’ Styrofoam knights.

The Verdict:

Flawed, but it’s a largely a pleasant surprise.

Lust, Caution (Se, jie, 2007)

Recovers from a rather lackadaisical first act to deliver a darkly entrancing tale. Ang Lee surrenders his usual watchmaker's dispassion for something resembling emotional heat. Not a great film, but one that signals new directions for an undeniable talent.

The Illusionist (2006)

Expended about half the energy of The Prestige for twice the effect. Great turn by Paul Giamatti.

Rocky (1976)

Dang if it isn't irresistable in its faux-gritty fashion, with its believably screwy characters and pointed class politics. All of which were kind of lost by the time Rocky was defeating the whole Red Army singlehanded.

The Vampire Lovers (1970)

Sticky mixture of gutless prurience and half-hearted gothic, with a poor, disjointed screenplay, slightly redeemed by spurts of stylistic elegance in Roy Ward Baker's direction. Ingrid Pitt's voracious, faintly despairing lesbian vampire is the main reason for watching; she has a kind of compulsive force to her, and easily outdoes the rest of the cast, especially the pretty mannequins she's supposed to be "loving". Someday, someone is going to do a good film of LeFanu's "Carmilla" (and don't bring up Blood and Roses or I'll strangle you with your own feet).

Smokin' Aces (2006)

"Steaming Shit" is more accurate. Does anyone know how to make a crime-action film anymore?

Little Miss Sunshine (2006)

Packed full of cute contrivances - you know, Swearing Grandpa! Motivational speaker Dad who's a loser! Obvious, and over-stuffed with Winning Indie Formula; but also funny, well-cast, and with a great finale.

Gun Glory (1957)

An obvious blending of Shane and High Noon. Stewart Granger plays a gunfighter who returns to his home ranch after many years and faces prejudice from yellow-bellied townsfolk and his son before a bunch of evil cattle men arrive to start shit up, prove sometimes you need a gun, and obviously no-one subsequently agress that the cowman and the farmer should be friends. Granger's surprisingly not too bad in buckskins. Made in Cinemascope, but in truth it's really a quickie oatser with a larger than usual budget.

Coma (1978)


Things I noticed watching this again:

1) Genevieve Bujold is le mucho cool.

2) It's basically Green For Danger ripped-off and re-framed for the Watergate era.

3) Michael Crichton is actually a better director than novelist.

4) Holy shit, that's a really young Tom Selleck.

5) Half-way through, the film briefly turns into an advertisement for the Massachusetts Tourist Board, as Bujold and Michael Douglas walk the sandy beaches, stroll in quaint fishing villages, drink ice tea in a charming bistro above a sun-dappled bay, and drive in the green and sunny countryside.

6) Holy shit, that's an even younger Ed Harris, with hair.

7) Michael Douglas was once almost cool.

8 ) Modernist architecture is very creepy, and this film knows it.

9) You can tell something evil is going on in that creepy modernist building, because the music says so. Don't let the green and sunny Massachusetts countryside fool you.

10) The expression on Richard Widmark's face at the end is priceless.

Crack-Up (1946)

Atmospheric mystery yarn (from a novel by signal pulp author Frederic Brown) featuring Pat O'Brien as - get this - a radical-minded art historian who crashes through the front doors of the museum he's lecturing at, late one night, convinced he's narrowly survived a catastrophic train crash. Only there hasn't been a train crash. Most assume he's drunk or going crazy, and only his Girl Friday Claire Trevor and mysterious English colleague Herbert Marshall are sympathetic. O'Brien soon realises he's become involved in a shady art forgery scam. Irving Reis' direction isn't great, but the script is taut and photography excellent, leading to the traditional moment in old-school noir when the perverse villain reveals his perverse motives.

Armored Car Robbery (1950)

Rock-hard crime film, immediate precursor to director Richard Fleischer's The Narrow Margin, also featuring Charles MacGraw, here as a dogged cop who contends with a group of heist artists who kill his partner in performing the title robbery outside Wrigley Field. Films that have some of this film's DNA in them must include The Killing, Dirty Harry (MacGraw contends cynically with a young new partner), Bullitt (in the airfield finale), through to Reservoir Dogs (the criminals have to deal with one of their number being gut-shot, and turn on each-other in a warehouse hideout). William Talman is particularly effective as the ice-cold chief villain. Fleischer's handling is lean and procedural, and its wraps up in a snappy 63 minutes.

Day of the Triffids (1962)

No matter how many times you watch it, it never improves, but the spectacular camp value increases. Heroic Keiron Moore! Screaming Janette Scott! Boring Howard Keel! Phillip Yordan getting one of his front-job pay cheques! Doctor Who's granddaughter being eaten by giant mobile parsnips! I love how everyone's blind, but the villainous mob of French convicts somehow dig up a whole bunch of women who can see and who are also really hot, and force them to dance! Dance! Dance!

Hostel (2005)

A film that's gotten an awfully bad rap, it's actually rather less gratuitous than many said, and is in truth a cleverly-built satirical thriller with a nailbiting escape finale. Eli Roth has talent.

The Big Combo (1955)

A Film Noir zenith, from dark horse director Joseph Gun Crazy Lewis. Brilliantly photographed, relentlessly tough, featuring Cornel Wilde as a resentful cop out to nail serious asshole gangster Richard Conte. Puts a hearing aid to imaginative use. Features Lee Van Cleef and Earl Holliman as a pair of assassins who are also a gay couple.

Hamlet (1996)

Ten years or so ago, on the first occasion I sat through this, I felt it was something of a mighty miscalculation. I still think it’s one, but time has affected my response to Branagh’s florid approach. Adaptation, even unexpurgated adaptation, is all about choices, and his choices are commendably bold. If it’s a strange project to try and simultaneously honor Shakespeare, English stage tradition, Hollywood epic tradition, and Errol Flynn all at once, well, at least it’s original. I can give him many props – for breaking Hamlet out of the mould of moping Freudian loser, for finding the melodramatic pizzazz in the play, for locating the beating heart of its plot and progression. But it’s still not perfect. Branagh’s performance is uneven, and I still have the mighty feeling he miscast himself in the part. I doubt Branagh has had a moment of philosophical panic in his life, and it tells in his characterization. The extravagant moments tend to dull the weight of the work. The unedited text reveals that sometimes editing is a good thing – as great as Hamlet is as a play, it is also an occasionally verbose work, and quite often you have the impression of the actors speaking their lines as quickly as possible to get the more convoluted passages done with. Especially towards the start, there is some startlingly bad editing. The acting is generally marvelous, however, from unexpected contributions like Billy Crystal’s playful Gravedigger through to Richard Briers’ Polonius, which is one of the best performances I’ve seen anywhere, by anyone.

The Light (L'Equipier, 2004)

Melancholy, atmospheric film set in Brittany in 1963, when a wounded veteran of the Algerian uprising (Grégori Derangère) takes a job in a lighthouse, and finds himself cold-shouldered by the clannish locals, except for his taciturn boss (Philippe Torreton) and boss's lonely, love-hungry wife (Sandrine Bonnaire). For some reason he passes up the luscious Emilie Dequenne, as a less-attached local girl who digs him, for Bonnaire's waifish charm. Even if it's just a variation on Ryan's Daughter, it's an affecting work that neatly skips around threatened cliches.

Domino (2005)

One of the worst films I've ever sat all the way through. There was a really good, exciting, seamy, sexy thriller to be made out of this, especially with the cast it has. Tarantino could have worked wonders. Instead, it's just more proof that Tony Scott is and always shall be an asshole. It does confirm something we already know - Tom Waits is God.

The Quiet (2005)

Interesting but weirdly low-key domestic thriller featuring rather good performances, but might have had more cred as a chilling portrait of incest and murder if it had spent less time ogling middle-class interior decoration and Elisha Cuthbert and Camilla Belle with roughly equal zest.

The Brighton Strangler (1945)

The old art-imitates-life-imitates-art-imitates-life-imitates-who-the-hell-cares type of story is a pet-hate of mine. The idea of an actor who goes too far and lives the role seems to be perpetually fascinating to everyone but me. John Loder, calcified as usual, plays an actor famous for playing “The Brighton Strangler”, who, during an air-raid, is hit on the head by a chunk of roof, and heads to Brighton to act out the play for real in his delirious state. Utter tosh.

The Dark Mirror (1946)

A precursor to Dead Ringers, this bright little nugget of a film is essentially a one-woman show for Olivia De Havilland, who plays twins Terry and Ruth, one of whom is a goody-two-shoes and the other of whom is a pathological murderer. Only heroically weedy psychologist Lew Ayres can find which is which, bravely revealing the killer with Rorschach blots and free-association sessions. Robert Siodmak's direction is surprisingly bland, so it’s chiefly interesting for De Havilland’s performances, relying on her ability to play fifty-seven varieties of sweetness and light, before her carefully delineated divergences in characterization become more and more telling, building to the climactic revelation of pure madness.

The Shadow (1994)

Just how much of a missed opportunity was this? Alec Baldwin as one of the great retro-stylish superheroes! Uber-cute Penelope Ann Miller! Ian McKellen! Why did it have to be allied to Russell Mulcahy's hamfisted direction and an ungainly script by David Koepp, who would later do so much to help Spider-Man work? And especially considering how much Batman Begins ripped off from it?

Aliens (1986)

Still severely rocks. More than that, I was struck at how much time has gone by - is it really 22 years old? - and how it's become, by that mere fact, an historical marker rather than the avant-garde of modern blockbuster cinema technique. Could, I wondered, a current director actually get away with a first act in a blockbuster that takes over an hour to unfold before any action happens? Some of Cameron's canned grunt-speak hits my ear far less kindly now, and of the many films to get the "special edition" treatment, this one has long been one of my least favourites - the whole Newt's-family-finds-the-spaceship bit always struck me as scrappily done and sapping of the original cut's mystery. The black-hearted sequels have somewhat spoilt it, too. But the pacing and filmmaking are virtually perfect and Sigourney's still the coolest.

The Edukators (Die Fetten Jahre sind vorbei, 2004)

Entertaining, humane, slight film only suffers from bland direction, and missteps with a slightly obfuscatory final scene. Between this and Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, Julia Jentsch officially rocks.

Control (2007)

Overlong, especially for such a morbid subject, and Anton Corbijn's eye more than occasionally feels over-aestheticised and studied, compared to the knockabout grit of 24 Hour Party People. Another problem is that whilst it deftly contextualises and makes intelligible Ian Curtis' life and suicide, unlike 24PP's glib rendition, it doesn't really make you understand Curtis as an artist who wrote great, groundbreaking songs. It's really just another portrait of a poetry-doodling sensitive lad who finds enablement of his fuck-ups in rock music - the depressive flipside to The Doors. Is Samantha Morton sick of playing this kind of part yet? But Sam Riley is fucking dynamite.

Out Of The Fog (1941)

Based on an Irwin Shaw play, it has that familiar refrain of Key Largo in comparing Nazi-type ideology with gangsterism, and also (with Robert Rossen co-scripting) sneaks in a few capitalism-as-evil points too - paging Joe McCarthy! Garfield's garrulous ratbag of a villain is fond of pseudo-ubermensch pronouncements and we know he deserves just about any nasty fate when he beats Thomas Mitchell with a rubber hose. It's the only film I've ever seen where Garfield plays a complete asshole and he does it exceptionally well; Ida Lupino matches him as Mitchell's hot-to-trot daughter who mysteriously finds Garfield sexier than prospective boyfriend Eddie Albert. Lupino was rare and cool in her willingness to play females of less than stellar moral status. But the film really belongs to Mitchell and John Qualen as the put-upon "gentle people" who decide to fight back.

Blood Diamond (2006)

As much as this was a pulpy Fred Forsyth style adventure I tolerated it. The pretensions to relevance and the excruciatingly milked finale were, however, vomitiferous. Really, it should have been made in 1942, starred George Raft, Rex Ingram, and Linda Darnell, and been called The Diamond Raiders or something. It's both laughable and, yet, not amusing when filmmakers set out to make a movie about current crises and offer up leering, cigar smoking villains and a full barrage of contemporary Hollywood screenwriting cliches. Mercenary with a heart of gold. Foxy female journalist. Simple good-hearted black hero. Asshole baddie ripe for severe chastisement. Kept a grip thanks to Leo DiCaprio's unwavering commitment to his ridiculous character and Djimon Hounsou's force of personality - I think it's time he got a new agent however, so he doesn't have to go stripping bare-assed and swimming about in mud for once. Ed Zwick once again proves himself an utterly meretricious director with a flair for action and overripe drama.

Trilogy: The Weeping Meadow (2004)

Film by Palmes D'Or winner Theo Angelopoulos. Angelopoulos is the art-film director your mother warned you about - his works are regularly four hours long, have little story, have twenty-minute-long scenes of people wandering about the landscape and then disorientating time jumps when you find half of the people in the last shot are now dead, and demand a working knowledge of eighty-year-old Greek history. The Weeping Meadow is in largely the same style at his great The Travelling Players, featuring a tapestry-like telling of ordinary people being fucked over by history. Some directors who may owe something to him, or at least claim kinship, include Hsiao-hsien Hou, Michael Cimino, and Gus Van Sant. The Weeping Meadow is a sad, slow, tragic work spiked with moments of joy, concluding on a note of total devastation. It tells the story of a young man and his girl, Eleni, who are thrown together as children and grow up to be lovers, despite the fact that his father, her adopted father, has forced her to marry him; they run off and live in abandoned buildings in Thessaloniki, are adopted by rambling Rembetika musicians, and eventually lose everything as Fascism and war come to Greece. Angelopoulos channels the mood and sensibility of folk myth with uncommon fidelity. It's not as vivid and dramatic as The Travelling Players, but an hypnotic and haunting experience all the same.

Butterfield 8 (1960)

Really, really dull. One memorable scene with a stiletto can't make up for cardboard characters and dialogue that can't even achieve the status of camp.

Æon Flux (2005)

It sux.

Shadowless Sword (2005)

Zippy Korean imitation of the Crouching Tiger Heros with Flying Daggers neo-wu xia genre, mixed with a liberal dash of Lord of the Rings, mercifully free of Ang Lee self-seriousness. The film has that familiar, richly disarming quality of so much Asian genre fare of beginning goofily but blooming with operatic emotion. Exiled warrior-prince Gun Hwa-pyung (Hyeon-jun Shin) is making a living as a shady purveyor of stolen goods, when super-femme-warrior Yeon So-ha (the mega-cute So-yi Yoon) arrives to take him back to become king and resist their country's domination by their villainous neighbours. On their ass are Dae Jung-hyun (Seo-jin Lee), a bad guy with an axe to grind with Hwa-pyung's royal clan, and his foxy girlfriend/super-femme-warrior Mae Yung-ok (Ki-yong Lee), who engages in several super-femme-warrior catfights with So-ha. The narrative proceeds apace, but I didn't notice much through becoming lost in imagining the heroine and villainess gettin' it on. Oh yeah, and when they're stabbed, people explode in red dust. Pure eye-candy.

The Descent (2005)

Neil Marshall's second exercise in studying a besieged group in a remote place at the mercy of monsters is well-made, and fairly gripping, but dramatically slight, and walks literally into a dead end. The hints of a misanthropic "people are more dangerous monsters" theme weren't pursued with much zest, and the undercurrents suggested never build to anything of consequence. It' really just another chase-and-chomp yarn. Sarah's (Shauna Macdonald) eventual murder of her last remaining companion, being the fulfillment of a weak and under-developed sub-plot, came across as stridently illogical. It lacks Dog Soldiers' deft characterization and impudent humour, replacing it with fashionable grimness and clunky dream sequences. The music's constant evocation of Ennio Morricone's score for The Thing had me wondering when Kurt Russell was going to stumble in.

Thief (1981)

Michael Mann's debut holds up superbly. It pulsates with fully-evolved stylistic originality, and shows that Mann in many ways took up where Coppola left off with The Conversation. James Caan leans a bit heavily on his Sonny Corleone deliveries at first, but settles into a subtler groove balancing lean cool, pathos, and a def humour. Robert Prosky is awesomely slimy as his Mafia sponsor. Mann virtually owns the genre of modern noir, and this film is a vital work in the creation of modern cinema style, in the best sense. Pity about the rather throwaway shoot-out at the end.

The Mark of Zorro (1940)

An odd duck for a classic swashbuckler - short, packed with droll humour, and with very little action. Its climactic swordfight between Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone takes place in a cramped office - and is still often voted, despite its lack of expanse, by many as the best duel in cinema, and they're right. Rathbone and Power really look like they know what they're doing and want to kill each-other. Power, at his most energetic and charming, must have been going blind in those tight pants. Linda Darnell's cute in a weak role. A general blast.

The Black Dahlia (2006)


A strange, occasionally brilliant, occasionally awful work that shows what happens when two off-kilter talents collide - in this case, Brian De Palma's elegant, operatic film style going mano e mano with James Ellroy's neurosis-fuelled, testosterone-drunk hyper-noir. Both men are certified perverts, both love stretching things to the limit, but they don't get along so well. De Palma's filmmaking in the first half is some of the most beautiful of his career. As with the novel, the proliferation of subplots and insanity becomes positively surreal; unlike with the book, De Palma can't hold it together with pure force of will, and it builds to superfluous resolutions. Fiona Shaw's Grand Guignol performance is something else, whilst Scarlett Johansson is bottomless in her ineptitude here.

Eko Eko Azarak: Wizard of Darkness (Eko eko azaraku, 1995)

Promises, on its DVD cover, "Satan worship, lesbian orgies, and buckets of blood." Naturally, I couldn't resist. In grand old grindhouse tradition, it couldn't deliver what it promised. For "lesbian orgy", read utterly superfluous make-out scene between satanist teacher and student (as we all know, all lesbians everywhere are satanists). For "buckets of blood", read...well, buckets of blood. Anyway, this is a J-horror film that's refreshingly not a rip-off of The Ring. Which could be because it was made before The Ring. Instead it's like The Devil Rides Out meets any teen slasher flick. Plot: a cabal of devil worshippers is trying to conjure Satan in a high school. I know my friends and I tried to do that several times. You think I'm kidding? Pretty young witch Misa (Kimika Yoshino) transfers in, and immediately becomes suspect for the weird shit going on because she's handy with a voodoo doll. She and twelve other students are trapped in the school one night, offered up one by one for slaughter in the great Wake Satan experiment. The film is silly, badly acted, tacky, and short - just what a horror film should be. The most interesting touch is in setting up a potential cult heroine and then having her prove utterly useless in most of the film (her powers have been nullified by a curse). Three sequels followed, nonetheless.

The Libertine (2006)

Lumpy but interesting with some very good performances - Rosamund Pike had a spectacular scene late in the piece, and Johnny Depp rots away convincingly. This aspect's largely responsible for the last third becoming a drag. Still, it's a film with something interesting to say about an historical example of what's called Intellectual Immigration - the refusal to use one's talents and skills to impress people and an era not worthy of glorification.

Suburban Mayhem (2006)

Another barely watchable Aussie film that feels absurdly retro in its punk stylisation, with a proliferation of cliche gimmicks (such as the characters all being interviewed for television - wow, like we haven't seen that one done to death already) and predictable "dark" satiric twists stolen point-blank from films like To Die For. If it possessed an iota of substance, it would have been offensive. What it's got going for it is Emily Barclay, in the kind of gritty, no-holds-barred, I-own-this-fucking-film performance by an Australian actress in an Australian film that's very rarely seen.

Bad Education (La Mala educación, 2004)

A long way from Almodovar's best. Ultimately, the twisting story really goes nowhere. Nonetheless, it's built with a system of dramatic and perceptive layerings that are almost novelistic, an edge of provocation and curiosity that makes it absorbing, and his formal mastery is at its peak. Much better pseudo-Hitchcockian melodrama than Volver.

Once (2007)

It's like Hustle and Flow with folk music, no hos, and less entertainment. A couple of nice songs, though.

Copying Beethoven (2006)

Here it is folks, the film which finally asks one of the most important questions in the history of human endeavour: Can Beethoven concentrate on conducting the 9th Symphony whilst staring into Diane Kruger's cleavage as she does charades?

Macbeth (2006)

Geoffrey Wright's version of Shakespeare, set amongst Melbourne gangland, could have been great - who can resist the idea of the three witches as a gang of goth schoolgirls? - but proves numbingly bad. Nothing tests the verbal skills and dexterity of imagination and interpretation of an actor like Shakespearean dialogue; Sam Worthington and his fellows rise to the challenge by reciting with all the passion and clarity of a McDonalds drive-thru attendant.

No Way Out (1950)

Richard Widmark plays a man whose powerful social resentment manifests as explosive displays of racist hate and borderline psychosis. This film is a classic piece of Old Liberal Hollywood – a story composed of simplistic philosophy class dilemmas, stirred together with high-octane melodrama. There’s the usual godawful passages of do-you-get-the-point rhetoric, but the film is notably brave for the time in its raw language and Widmark’s willingness to push the envelope – at that time, actors like him and Kirk Douglas made a virtual religion out playing absolute assholes, and became stars doing it, which not so many mollycoddlers these days could claim. Sidney Poitier in his film debut is his usual spiffily upright self, shown up in the five lines of dialogue delivered by Ossie Davis with a peerless sense of realism (Davis and Ruby Dee are also making their debuts). Linda Darnell gets down and dirty and gives probably the best performance of her career. Director Joe Mankiewicz puts down all accusations that he wasn’t a good visual director with a brilliantly shot riot in a junkyard.

Mysterious Skin (2004)

Took me a while to get around to it; a very hard film for me to watch. But a gutsier and better done movie I’ve barely seen. It’s what American indie cinema should be, but all too rarely is. Between this and Brick Joseph Gordon-Levitt is showing signs of being the Brando of the now generation.

The Golden Compass (2007)

Lacks wit, depth, detail, and soul. All the money in the world thrown at the screen can give you big cheesy sets and CGI effects but will not actually turn those into cinema. The villains hissing in the shadows (Derek Jacobi and Christopher Lee, no less, amongst them), the Catho- er, Magesterium, ar the usual mob of prissy wankers with a line in fetchingly tailored black tunics. This bunch, combined with Nicole Kidman, whose face has finally become paralysed by excessive collagen, hardly make for terrifying opponents. There’s poor dramatic rhythm, choppy character and plot exposition – why does Eva Green, the Jeanne Moreau of the ‘00s, playing a witch (yeah baby!), have only two ruddy scenes? The production is weighed down by spiffy yet poorly detailed sets and situations, and things often threaten to descend to the level of clumsily staged chintz displayed by Tomb Raider or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. But the film generally improves as it goes on, is often beautiful to look at, and much of the cast is good, including, for a change, the adolescent lead, Dakota Blue Richards, whose confidence and expressiveness is delightful and especially shows up the mugging of the Harry Potter stars at the same age. Sam Elliot and Ian McKellen’s voice add real zest to the last half (and I’m so glad to see Tom Courtenay again) and two good battles – one between digital polar bears and the other a free-for-all decorated by flying witches and “daemons” exploding in golden sparks – make it an okay afternoon at the flicks.

The Wind That Shakes The Barley (2005)

Ken Loach's Palmes D’Or winner is an ambitious and troubling work, with Loach’s usual effortlessly real mise-en-scene, but it is a retread, in story, theme, and feel, of his galvanising 1995 Land and Freedom. Like that film it centres on a set of heroes in a borderline-historical conflict, who pay the price for sticking to their principals and are destroyed by the people they fought with and for, thus preserving a note of unbridled, uncompromised idealism within an otherwise shitty mess. Except that unlike in Land and Freedom, the romantic element is colorless. Cillian Murphy’s hero eventually irritated me, signing on with anti-treaty forces to fight for a Socialist Ireland and putting more innocent people, and finally himself, in mortal peril. This seriously weakens the would-be tragic conclusion, and the film actually does not measure up to Neil Jordan’s Michael Collins, a bolder work of cinema and political contemplation, even if Julia Roberts did suck in it.

The Man Who Came to Dinner (1941)

Monty Woolley rocks. Certainly more so than the corn-fed idiot Bette Davis mysteriously wants to marry.

Abe Lincoln In Illinois (1940)

Veers close to cornball on occasions, and littered with dire patches of stagy acting by much of the supporting cast, but Robert Sherwood’s politically purposeful late ‘30s subtext and Raymond Massey’s mostly well-judged performance, marred only by occasional lapses into pseudo-saintly oratory, manages to make for a lively, intelligent character portrait. It attempts to drag real people out of the folklore and marble, and builds to an excellent, charged contraction of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

This Is England (2007)

Shane Meadows’ first film, Twenty Four Seven, was a work that promised big things without delivering them, hyper-realistic but slightly hollow. Meadows seemed to realise this himself, and his follow-up, the superb A Room For Romeo Brass, was looser and artfully artless, establishing a great gift for organic character studies of very ordinary people, which often defy cliche in their story arcs. This Is England is a concise, quietly symphonic expansion of his style, if not his material, one of the best directors of actors working, and proves him the only director in Britain doing something interesting with the Loach/Leigh tradition, as well as retaining of dash of Truffaut and Dickens in his interest in poetic-realist portraits of youth – the search for a way to grow up in a time and place that makes a mockery of human potential is Meadows’ strongest theme. This Is England has the advantage of a very concentrated, simple story that happens to involve a personalised take on a specific cultural moment. The longings and losses of its young hero, Shaun (Thomas Thurgoose), make him grip like a limpet to anyone who can give him an iota of love and empowerment, gravitating from the gregarious Woody (Joe Gilgun) to the fierce, bullock-browed ex-con skinhead Combo (Stephen Graham) who promises to barge his way through the bullshit of Thatcherite Britain. Except Combo’s a mass of conflicting, entwined impulses, whose desperate, quaking desire for love and acceptance is counterbalanced by a vast, rumbling rage for a world that denied it, so the small family he builds for himself in his tribe of skinheads, and his xenophobic passion, are sides of the same coin, to both reach out and embrace and reject and destroy. Finally, both impulses collide head on in a brutal finish we sense is coming but are not certain who it will involve and when it will come. Meadows effortlessly swings the tone between wispy joy, serio-comic romance, and taut foreboding. The film is hurt by a postscript that is flabby and obvious, to let us know it’s all okay, as Shaun reassures us with a foolish symbolic act. If Meadows had ended it on the same note of woozy shock where Scorsese ended Mean Streets, he’d have had a far more emphatic film.

Clean (2004)

Olivier Assayas is the guy who, with Demonlover, made an S&M fantasy whereby Connie Nielsen was exiled to a fate of being tortured in a leather catsuit, and yet still came out of it with art-house cred, so I have to respect the guy. Clean still manages to make time for a lipstick lesbian subplot that has nothing to do with anything, but chiefly it’s a fine showcase for Maggie Cheung, who manages to hold together the poles of her character as bad-luck drug-addled loser and once and future singing star. Assayas, like Sofia Coppola and Alejandro Inarritu, has an abiding interest in global village culture, and successfully portrays grey Vancouver suburbs, Parisian restaurant kitchens and record company offices as part of the same queasy-making dream. Cheung and Nick Nolte as her father-in-law are delightful as the heart and soul of the story – a line Nolte delivers to Cheung late in the film almost made me cry – and almost compensate for Assayas’ rambling screenplay littered with clunky dialogue.

City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002)

One of the best films of the decade, a Brazilian The Roaring Twenties, raw, violent, warm, hilarious, scary and confronting, put across by a director with energy and purpose to burn, although it shows its Scorsese/Stone/Boyle roots flagrantly. Only overlength dilutes its impact.

Kinky Boots (2005)

Blandly pleasant, paint-by-numbers entry in the genre inaugurated by The Adventures of Priscilla but turned into a cash-cow by the British industry – The Full Monty, Billy Elliot, Calendar Girls, Bend It Like Beckham, Mrs Henderson Presents, etc – where a slightly transgressive idea, person, or act - e.g. drag queening, stripping, women playing football, stripping again - is played against a background that plays at social realism but actually evokes Ealing style folk-whimsy. Said transgressives strike sparks against shallowly investigated cultural mores, and gain an underdog triumph. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives his role as the clichéd outrageous-but-haunted queen Lola all he’s got, and he's fun, but never convincing. Joel Edgerton, the leading man, is as exciting as a bucket of bleach.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)



Shekhar Kapur’s original Elizabeth was an odd mutt of a film that tried to play English history as The Godfather, distinguished by Cate Blanchett’s marvelous embodiment of a woman who moves from pale, panicky ingénue to self-immolating autocrat, and backed by ferocious performances by Geoffrey Rush and Chris Ecclestone. It was raw and upfront with sex scenes and Protestant bonfires in a strained attempt to prove this wasn't no pansy-assed Merchant Ivory film. But its pretences to modern edginess and Byzantine artistry were hollow, its dramatics shallow – it’s not especially well-written or directed, in comparison to, say, The Lion in Winter or The Devils, which outclass it effortlessly. Elizabeth: The Golden Age retains almost all of the faults whilst keeping none of the virtues of the first film. Kapur’s direction is even more pointlessly showy than before, threatening to turn his film into an ‘80s art-rock video – there’s one astonishingly stupid shot where the camera revolves endlessly about Blanchett in a frilly frock, and you expect her to start singing “Sweet Dreams” – whilst pushing aside concern for history and fidelity to his murky original in exchange for a high-camp mating of an Errol Flynn swashbuckler, a Bette Davis melodrama of a great woman of frustrated passion, and Blackadder. Blanchett’s Elizabeth has turned into a mix of Marisa Paredes playing Blanche Dubois and a Rachel McAdams high school queen, who chucks a serious hissy fit when her boyfriend the quarterback prefers her appointed purse-clutcher. Clive Owen strolls in as Walter Raleigh, dripping charisma, sex appeal, and other bodily fluids, oddly, for the first time in his career, living up to every ounce of movie star potential in his scruffy frame.

This first third is almost a Carry On film as Elizabeth and Lady-In-Waiting Bess Throckmorton (Abbie Cornish) jest, joke, and eagerly assess every male about them, from Rush’s aging Walsingham to some pimply German git who comes as a male order husband, whilst evidently preferring each-other in the bath. Raleigh comes heaven-sent, and Elizabeth uses Bess and Walt as meat-puppets to enact her cheated romance, then has the gall to get mad when they have one of those dissolve-riddled montage sex scenes in front of a fireplace. Meanwhile, Philip II of Spain (Jordi Molla) and his Catholic ministers stalk dark churches, hiss and spit and plot. You can tell they’re the baddies because they wear black. They plan righteous fury as the Armada is built, and manipulate a plot that will force Elizabeth into executing Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) and thus provide a pretext for invasion. Morton, given about six lines of dialogue, tries to make up for it by twisting her face up and spitting words out in random accentuations, before getting put out of her misery by a guy with an axe.

When the Armada arrives, there’s a hopelessly romanticized version of the Battle of Gravelines where Walter personally Luke Skywalkers the fleet with a fire ship, with a little help from a Divine Wind. All of this actually makes the film entertaining in its first and final quarters – the unpretentious urge to go for broke and make grand romantic-adventure nonsense can be felt straining behind every scene, and busts loose in the bizarrely beautiful battle. Unfortunately, the complete lack of depth to the historical background or to any character other than the histrionic Elizabeth results in the middle half becoming an intolerable mix of will-they-or-won’t-they romantic tension and lazy attempts to recreate the Machiavellian atmosphere of the original, featuring Rhys Ifans as the least scary super-assassin in film history. Rush’s Walsingham has been sucked of juice by age and his deathbed scene is so cursory it’s an offense to the arts of good dramatic fulfillment. Morton’s Dadaist contribution is immaterial. It also lacks the sexy, violent boldness of the first episode, and the villains are all ridiculous shadows of Ecclestone’s Norfolk. Blanchett also gives a weirdly perfunctory version of the Tilbury speech, curtailed (is “I may have the body of a weak and feeble woman etc” too politically incorrect for this faux-feminist film that still portrays the end result of a powerful woman refusing to marry as loneliness, sexual frustration, and bitch queen wrath?) and so clunkily staged a piece of grandstanding (Blanchett’s horse won’t stand still), it could have been a satire staged for Extras.

The Music Lovers (1970)

Ken Russell's artist biopics generally have the same relation to their subjects that A Hard Day’s Night has to the Beatles – love letters to the idea of the artist’s life rather than exact accounts of biographical detail. The Music Lovers doesn’t quite have the exhilarating, poetic intensity of The Devils or Savage Messiah, and though Russell goes all out in portraying rampant female sexuality (as expressed by Glenda Jackson, who was, is, and always shall be, a cruel and sublime goddess), he’s oddly shy here with male sexuality – he can’t manage to show Tchaikovsky kiss a guy. And he can’t get much propulsion from the story. But the film’s restless physicality is hypnotic, and the systematic style of the film is actually very clever, where both Nina (Jackson) and Tchaikovsky (Richard Chamberlain, competent) are devoted fantasists, and their various fantasias are variously tongue-in-cheek, syrupy, and glorious, and are always rudely interrupted by reality. Russell conjures some astonishing scenes; like when Nina’s tied up, blood running from her nose and between her legs after being ravished by a soldier she had a crush on; she and Tchaikovsky getting drunk and bawdy in a rocking train compartment, which concludes with Jackson rolling drunk, dazed and naked on the floor whilst Chamberlain laughs in giddy relief he doesn’t have to screw her; Tchaikovsky and his brother imagining a glorious triumph where “The 1812 Overture” accompanies their triumphal march and the beheading of the various pests in their lives; and Nina's ultimate madness, where she gleefully squats on the bars above the dungeon allowing caged madmen to give her cunnilingus. Written by Melvyn Bragg!

Gabrielle (2005)

Adaptation of a Conrad short story - fertile material for films; see also The Duellists - and a pitch-perfect bit of filmmaking from veteran Patrice Chereau. Unfolds with Hitchcockian precision and Bertolucci's foreboding grace, whilst remanining resolutely intimate. Tells the tale of a haute bourgeois gentleman's disillusionment and downfall because of his wife's leaving - and then returning to - his house one afternoon. Pascal Gregory is a study in fraying control as the man and Isabelle Huppert is his sphinx-like wife. As the story builds, with Gregory beginning as utterly assured and triumphant, and finally prowling his own cavernous mausoleum of a mansion like a starved lion, it delivers a merciless punchline. Both its poise as cinema and the subtle but scalpel-sharp character study show up a helluva lot of shit that passes for incisive filmmaking these days.

The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)


I have finally seen the greatest movie ever made. A work that dwarfs the combined oeuvres of Kurosawa, Hitchcock, Mizoguchi, Renoir, Scorsese, Ford, and Bunuel. A work that responds with preternatural sensitivity to all possible desires one can hope for a motion picture to answer. Want endless shots of mini-skirted geisha girls getting in and out of cars? Casual lesbian make-out scenes? Fast and, might it be said, furious car chases augmented with digital effects and Japanese surfabilly? A hero who speaks with an indecipherable southern accent? Evil yakuza car-driving villains? Sonny Chiba as a benevolent crime lord? The most superfluous dialogue this side of a George W. Bush speech? Lil Bow Wow in an acting role? This one has it all, motherfucker.

First Blood (1981)

Some have been trying to make the case for this film lately as a misunderstood masterpiece undone by crappy sequels, which subverted the film’s bitter, poignant study of the corrosive memory of Vietnam. Upon returning to it, I can’t agree. True, the film has something to say, and bravely packs in an action climax in exchange for a rapid-fire moaning monologue from Stallone that’s something about friends getting blown up and hippie scum spitting on him. Ted Kotcheff’s atmospheric take on a rainy, dreary Pacific Northwest is moody and memorable. But the movie suffers from split impulses, substituting realism and seriousness by playing up the action-movie value of its story for all its worth, complete with cliffhanger climaxes, snarling music hall villains, Stallone’s martyr/demigod complex, and Jerry Goldsmith’s heroic martial score. In a way, Rambo: First Blood Part II fulfills this film’s ambitions much more clearly – to become a whoop-ass Commie-kicking eat-shit-Abbie Hoffmann good time.

The White Countess (2006)

Ismail Merchant’s last film as producer, and one of the best to have his and James Ivory’s fingerprints over it, benefits from what is basically a story that once would have had, say, Joan Crawford and Errol Flynn in it, as the Russian countess turned cheap dance hall hostess in ‘30s Shanghai, and the blind American diplomat who’s disillusioned, drunk, and wants to open his own bar. As it is, Natasha Richardson and Ralph Fiennes fill the parts, neither of whom scream “screen passion”, but Fiennes’ playing of broken-hearted misery is strong. Ivory’s direction is hamstrung by its usual limitations – a self-important style that seems oblivious to its own sophistry. But there’s color, atmosphere, and, in the last quarter, some exciting melodrama.

Blood Beach (1980)

Beware the giant asparagus that lurks underneath a southern California beach sucking down unfortunate bathers - and one unfortunate rapist's balls. One must admire director Jeffrey Bloom’s talent for devising opportunities for large-breasted women to go out onto the beach in the middle of the night. Romantic leads Bruce Heffernan and Marianna Hill tackle their roles with a commitment that indicates they thought they were in a cute and serious romantic comedy about childhood sweethearts finding eachother – and the film leaves them to it, because they’re absolutely inconsequential to the story. A performance by Burt Young ought to be in the running for Least Amusing Comic Supporting Character In Film History. Luckily, John Saxon’s on hand. Vintage ‘80s crap.

Ask The Dust (2006)

Colin Farrell bestows his often obnoxious writer Arturo Bandini with much soul, and Salma Hayek was born to play her coarse, explosive, but vulnerable waitress. Otherwise Robert Towne’s adaptation of John Fante’s novel is pretty, but lacks the high-tensile cinematic touch and feel for human behavior Mr Towne’s mentor Roman Polanski could have brought to this tale of minority group romance. Towne, armed with two of the most sexually vivid stars around, remains utterly shy of the charge they could have provided. Nor can he generate any visual companion to the poetry of Fante’s writing recited on the soundtrack. Without the bite of real sex and real blood in its central romance, the film turns to warm cream. The finale has an edge of sweet tragedy.

Tightrope (1984)

Slick, sick, seedy neo-noir, intriguing for diving into gamy territory, with Clint Eastwood's New Orleans cop balancing life as a depressed single father, hard work in tracking down a serial killer, and indulging his own developing taste for hookers and kinky sex. The film has atmosphere thick as molasses, and throws in just about every Big Easy cliche short of voodoo curses, but blows it by sticking too close to formula at the end, leaving questions and plot details as unconvincingly curtailed as the baddie's arm that clings onto Clint's neck. Still in all, one of Eastwood's better starring vehicles and a notable entry in the '80s roster of grown-up thrillers, a now defunct genre.

The Cassandra Crossing (1977)

The film with the greatest line in cinema history - Richard Harris enquring with an utterly straight face, "What sweaty pervert?" - The Cassandra Crossing is also a stand-out from the pack of cheesy all-star disaster movies of the '70s in being a Euro-heavy production, and for mantaining a real dramatic tension, and presenting a solid sub-text, as US militarism and terrorists-for-peace clash, resulting in the passengers on a luxury train being infected by a bug that just so happens to behave in the same fashion as the Andromeda Strain. This causes Burt Lancaster to get mean and send them all heading for certain death on a rickety Polish bridge, so passengers have to fight The Man to survive. The film consistently references Nazism both visually and in the script, as Lancaster's plastic-suited goons take over the train at Nuremburg, and the film effectively evokes European Cold War anxiety of the past never really leaving anyone alone. If much of the film is silly - how about OJ Simpson as an undercover Interpol agent disguised as a priest hunting down Martin Sheen's drug-dealing mountain climber who's Ava Gardner's toyboy? - it still entertains.

As You Like It (2006)

Ken Branagh! Doing Shakespeare! Again! Can’t this guy take a hint? No-one cares! Take your pudgy little Irish mug and stick to the stage! You ain’t competing with Ben Stiller! What does it matter it’s his best film since Much Ado About Nothing, and that it’s warm, witty, and funny? Yes, he’s made a Shakespearean comedy that’s funny – truly radical. Branagh’s directorial approach since the masterfully shaped Henry V has been to throw his ideas at the screen and see what sticks, resulting in films as dazzlingly weird as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and as hit-and-miss as his Hamlet. He tries to hard – even here, the moments of fall-down-with-a-clunk slapstick are awkward. I could just hear the noises my old high school English class would have made when the characters broke out dancing at the end. But that’s why I love Ken. He’s the rare modern director who loves the outsized gesture, the big emotion, the rhapsodic camera – his style owes more to musicals than anything – and he’s much better at more serious or trenchant stuff; he wants his audience to feel something with operatic expansion. His handling of Adrian Lester’s soliloquy, as Oliver De Boys, is spellbinding, and so too is a long-take tracking shot of Kevin Kline’s Jaques as he delivers the “All the world’s a stage” speech. On top of this, his main conceit for the adaptation – resetting the play amidst gone-native merchants in Meiji era Japan – is beguiling but thin; surely it was for more than just to let Orlando get around with a samurai sword? Branagh's bold multicultralism is both refreshing but jarring. But really this shouldn’t distract from the sophistication of his handling – his handling of camera and his framings are fluidic and gorgeous, and most of the cast rises to occasion – I couldn’t help but get loopy about Bryce Dallas Howard’s Rosalind, Lester and David Oyelowo as Orlando are marvelous. But Alfred Molina and Romola Garai are badly served by being pressed, in playing Touchstone and Celia repectively, in broad, clunky comic style. So it’s a mixed bag. But many goodies inside.

Häxan (1923)

Benjamin Christensen’s legendary silent mockumentary is a breath of fresh air in its blackly comic, highly irreverent and spooky take on the history and psychology of witchcraft. The filmmaking is vital, original, and witty, especially for the time, and you can seen the DNA of directors as diverse as Ingmar Bergman and Tim Burton in it.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

Quite apart from its historical significance – five minutes’ worth of trite dialogue and numerous horrific Al Jolson songs – this film is interesting for its still relevant issues of personal desire versus familial andcultural expectations, and the contradictions and pressures of integration and multiculturalism. These intriguing points hardly counterbalance the fact that the film stinks. If they’d cut all the shots of our hero’s mother looking distraught and pained, and the horrendous songs (jazz my ass), it would have been half an hour long. Jolson’s acting is better when silent – when he talks, he insists on twisting his mouth up in a weird grin that suggests he’s gearing up to play The Joker.

Proof (2005)

A solid character drama, that overcomes glib story and dialogue points, and a weak foil that Hope Davis did her best with. Nice to see Gwyneth and Sir Anthony earning their pay for the first time in too long, and a very neat performance from Jake Gyllenhaal.

High Tension (Haute Tension, 2003)

Well enough made, and Cecile de France is a spunky enough screen presence, to almost hide the fact this is just another dumb chase-and-whack horror film, badly dervative (especially of See No Evil) that goes one twist way too far.

Stage Fright (1950)

So lacking in compulsion and intensity you could almost mistake it for imitation Hitchcock rather than the master himself. But it's still witty and put together with skill. As Hitch's first British film in eleven years, feels like a deliberate return to his roots to regain his bearing, after several dud films and prior to his rip-roaring return to form with Strangers on a Train. Hitch emphasises his delight in returning home by throwing in disjointed but amusing cameos by Brit character actors like Joyce Grenfell and Miles Malleson, and lets Alistair Sim walk off with the film as heroine Jane Wyman's canny father. The film skips in unexpected directions just when you think it's settled into an obvious rut. This does keep the audience on their toes, but it also prevents the plot from solidifying into a truly involving tale - no idea ever quite seems to go anywhere as interesting as Hitch ususally takes us. At the core of the film is a piece of unreliable narration which is a pretty bogus stunt Hitch should have had better sense than to employ. Wyman is cute in a wishy-washy role, trying to pretend to be interested in leading men as dull as Richard Todd and Michael Wilding. Marlene Dietrich is uncharacteristically inert as the villainness of the piece. The one moment of high-Hitchcockian drama involves Richard Todd's slightly creepy hero, revealed as a baddie, the camera cutting between his and Wyman's faces, bathed in shadows except for their contrasted eyes. In throwing off this light and amusing bit of standard British mystery-comedy, Hitch seemed to redefine just exactly what his own cinema was about, and proceeded accordingly.

Match Point (2005)

The first real movie Woody Allen's made in a long time. He sustains tension and character and refines his style down to sleek functionalism, his mannerisms employed for effective ends, like his gift for group stagings. He channels his more irritaing mannerisms - ogling real estate, wines, clothes and women - into appropriate material. Emily Mortimer steals it, as is her habit, as the clingy, needy wife. Scarlett Johansson's character barely progresses beyond a pair of tits with an inconveniently loud voice, but Meyers plays sociopathic exceptionally well, and it served particularly in the climax. Too long, often stilited, and owing rather too much to better tales like An American Tragedy, and as usual Allen's efforts at getting philosophical irritate, but at least, for once, he's tapped into something that justifies philosophising. In the end, Meyers' lonely face says a helluva a lot more than dialogue, and there, at last, Allen finally knows what a camera is for.

Nathalie... (2003)

Might have been more accurately called Yet Another Film About Parisian Bourgeoisie Fucking Around. People with excessive disposable income trip over each-other's repressions and do strange things to deal with it. In this case Gerard Depardieu plays an editor - I think he's an editor, I saw him scribbling on papers with a pen at one point - has a casual fling because he and his wife (Fanny Ardant) can barely connect physically anymore. Ardant is mature in her reaction - that is, she goes off and makes her not-quite-smiling, not-quite-wincing face she's good at (and which Marion Cotillard's inherited), and decides against cracking the china over Gerard's head and booting him out. To get into her husband's head, or to provide him with more of what she can't give, or something or other, she goes into a brothe- er, club, and hires the skinniest, willowy-est blonde she can find, being Emmanuelle Beart. She pays Beart to strike up a relationship with Gerard and have an affair with him, and then relay the details. Mutually fascinated, the two women become closer and closer and closer...thus relentlessly teasing with crypto-Sapphic tension. But never fear, folks, this film is all about sex in the head. Anyway it all turns out Beart takes the money and makes up the stories about Gerard, which allows husband and wife to reunite happily and Beart gets to go back to morosely sucking cock for cash. Fab!

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (1962)

Okay, which genius thought it was a good idea for Glenn Ford to play a devastatingly charming and sexy Latin playboy previously incarnated by Rudolph Valentino? And cast him opposite Ingrid Thulin, who could barely speak English (so she’s dubbed right through) and with whom he shares about the same sexual chemistry as a housebrick shares with a nail? And then let Lee J. Cobb explore the outer recesses of the Hamiverse? And cast Yvette Mimieux as a plucky resistance chick? And twenty years after Casablanca, cast Paul Henreid yet again as a freedom fighter whose wife screws around? There’s good patches here and there, with Vincente Minneli’s gift for lovingly decorated framings and dance-like staging of physical action. Andre Previn gives it a lovely score, and a particularly good scene late in the film between Paul Lukas and Charles Boyer as grieving fathers, but for the most part this film doesn’t seem to have any clue why it’s been made.

The Golden Bowl (2000)

I’ve seen worse acting performances than Kate Beckinsale’s in this, but I can’t quite remember when. Her spray-on American accent meets its match in Jeremy Northam’s I-learnt-it-from-Fabio Italian brogue. And they play husband and wife! Their dialogue together begins to sound like a skit. Nick Nolte and Uma Thurman emerge largely unscathed from yet another uninspired James Ivory transcription. How a director as unimaginative and academic as him achieved the reputation he has is beyond me.

House of Strangers (1949)

Ripe and juicy melodrama later recycled as Broken Lance; Edward G Robinson has a ball playing an Italian banker whose hammy bonhomie conceals a ruthless prick; Richard Conte’s great as his hardboiled son; Luther Adler’s a brilliant ball of slimy treachery. Susan Hayward, as always, expends a lot of energy for no good effect. Joe Mankiewicz directed, and revised Phillip Yordan’s script, obvious in lines like “In Old World, boy and girl get engaged, after one year, two year, they get tired of each-other, then they get married.” Some extremely nifty location shooting anticipates Lumet, Cassavettes, Scorsese, and the finale’s a nailbiter.

Modigliani (2004)

Stars an over-aged Andy Garcia who starts off well by dancing on a table and making come-ons to Pablo Picasso (who as we know was never called an asshole), but here he doesn't go even for play-act maricones and tries to punch our eponymous hero. Things slide rapidly downhill from there. You'll wish you could paint like our hero when you see what a substitute it is for a good pick-up line. He beds a chick after making puppy dog eyes and doing tricks with a puppy dog - this is so we, the audience, and said chick, know what a sweet, amazing guy he is. But then he gets her knocked her up. Her mean papa preaches and keeps her baby. This takes place on the fakest Parisian set since the heyday of Gene Kelly, and soon one notices this portrait of '20s Paris is a collection of arch Art School Wanker in-jokes like funny little guys in bowler hats stealing beef carcasses, la femmes with safari suits and elephant guns taking pot shots at our hero, and Modi and his lady dancing to Piaf's "La Vie en rose" only about fifteen fucking years before it was recorded. That's where I turned it off, mes ami.

Everything Is Illuminated (2005)

I turned this off after ten minutes. Pretentious, stilted horseshit.

Thursday, 26 June 2008

300 (2007)

Not too bad as rock-'em sock-'em color and noise - despite the whizz-bangery, it's old-fashioned sword-and-sandle biffo, pure and simple. Georges Melies would have been proud of this movie. Gerard Butler has low-key but effective gravitas and charisma. Plus the comic value of all those widescreen group framings of chippendale Spartans can't be overstated.

Newsfront (1978)

One of those semi-legendary works from the "Golden Age" of Aussie film that launched Philip Noyce's career and cemented the reputation of co-writer Bob Ellis, whose screenplay was infamously toyed round with by others, including Noyce and Phillipe Mora. Details the travails of two competing newsreel companies in the 1940s and 1950s and reflects the social transitions of the era. You can't really call it a drama - it has no story cohesion, consists of scenes where the cast sit about the recording studio arguing facile politics, and delivers a lame, limp final scene meant to be rousing, and instead feels like a bad joke. Noyce's direction is slick, clever, professional, and bland. No wonder Hollywood came knocking. Some TV soap dramatics occasionally engage the heroes, with that well-known sex god Bill Hunter swapping first wife Angela Punch for Wendy Hughes, and Cockney immigrant cameraman Chris (the over-employed Chris Haywood) gets a girl knocked up, marries her, and then gets himself drowned in flood. What does hold it together is some surprisingly good acting, especially from Hunter and Haywood. Ellis' trademark wit occasionally gleams through unimaginably bad interpersonal dialogue.

Candy (2006)

Yet Another Drug Film has Heath Ledger and Abby Cornish, two of the best young actors, working hard for their paltry Oz-industry wages. Ably back up by Geoffrey Rush as a queer chemistry professor who makes a home-made heroin brewski. The direction by theatre veteran Neil Armfield is replete with arty visual cliches, including Gratuitous Shots of People Swiming. A decent strain of harsh comedy runs through the proceedings. What it lacks is a reason to exist. If you've seen Days of Wine and Roses and Panic in Needle Park, you've seen this film done better. The scag-addicted pair in this drama, he a poet, she a painter, command none of the tragic weight that would be the film's sole claim to distinction, that their mutual artistic ambitions being fucked up would grant, because what little we see of their abilities and their lovey-doveyness has no context - her paintings are crap, his poems sound dumb, and when the film starts they're already dopers. That's all our film industry needs. Hey look! We can go gritty too! Ten years after Trainspotting! Aren't we cool?

The Color Purple (1985)

I expected this to be uneven - great as they are, all Spielberg's dramas are uneven - and for the first two-thirds of the film I wasn't quite sure where it was going. But l'il Steven finally lets slip with a kind of operatic melodrama, balanced by gentle hands between Dickensian epic and magic-realist parable, with some beautifully orchestrated sequences. Spielberg was much derided for not showing Cellie and Shug's lesbian relationship, and that's a key piece of cowardice, but in some ways it's utterly trivial in a film that so effectively presents human companionship as a life force. Whoopie Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey surprisingly good - certainly better than they've been since - but I admire Danny Glover's turn most, since he has the hardest part, having to be alternatively monstrous, boyish, foolish, charming.

Halloween II (1981)

To say it's not a patch on the first one is, well, not saying much, but I had forgotten how laaaaaaaaaammmmmmme it truly is. Which is a pity because it tosses a couple of ideas with potential into the mix - Michael referencing Celtic Samhain rituals, and the fact he's Laurie's brother. It's just a pity then the film's got no idea what to do with these - even thouh John Carpenter and Debra Hill are still credited as the writers. Must've had their minds on Escape From New York at the time. The wit and precision of the first film's murders are nowhere, just regulation dickheads wandering around dark corridors (hospital) getting killed after screwing in the hot tub. Oh yeah, and Lance Guest as the most useless young male lead in a horror film since David Manners. Still, when it settles into chase-Jamie-Lee-and-Don-Pleasance-around mode, it manages a modicum of tension.

36 Quai des Orfevres (2004)

A tough, involving, emotionally fraught melodrama unfortunately peppered by plot holes and loose ends. The director, Olivier Marchal, is an ex-policeman, and he's obviously strongly influenced by Heat in particular, with some dashes of Jean-Pierre Melville. For the most part he gets you in and keeps you in. Daniel Auteuil and Gerard Depardieu play two rival Surete captains who find themselves both pursuing a gang of near-paramilitary armored car thieves and a shot at the Commissioner's slot. Depardieu's emotionally unstable and neither man is above bending the rules along way, which soon puts them both in the hottest of hot water, with tragic consequences. There's a gem of a supporting performance from Francis Renaud.

Lust For Gold (1949)

Crackerjack little film noir-western-true crime thriller based on the legend of the Lost Dutchman mine in the Superstition Mountain of Arizona. It's taken from a book by Barry Storm, played in the bookend sequences by William Prince, a money-hungry but decent descendent of the legendary Dutchman. He stumbles upon contemporary murder in the rugged, lonely locale. In researching the area's history, he hears the grim story of the Dutchman himself, Jacob Waltz (Glenn Ford), who killed three men on discovering the buried treasure, originally excavated by a family of Mexican prospectors who were killed by an Apache raid. Waltz is a true noir anti-hero; he's actually a desperately lonely, paranoid immigrant who gets sucked in by his own personal femme fatale, baker's wife Julia Thomas (Ida Lupino), whilst her hubby (Gig Young) seethes, awaiting the chance to seize the gold. Both storylines build to violent, intense finales.

Cimarron (1931)

Tough going - looks older than Moses, with an excruciating yessir massasir comic relief black boy. The static, talky, anti-epic sensibility of early sound cinema means the film has to lean on long, highly involved dialogue scenes, especially in the riotous centerpiece sequence involving a frontier religious-cum-political gathering. Richard Dix's performance is freakin' weird, but it suits the mercurial, slightly cracked hero. Irene Dunne keeps pace as his blue-blood wife who slowly adopts her husband's frontier liberalism. Speaking of which, it's amusing how the film pitches itself as both a triumph of manifest destiny expansion whilst crying on its sleeve over Indian rights, and finally becomes a kind of feminist victory lap as Dunne ascends to Congress and Dix dies an anonymous death because of his nagging wanderlust.

Lair of the White Worm (1988)



A perverse, high-camp classic. Ken Russell doing Bram Stoker is bound to be insane (especially considering that the book is so godawful no-one can be expected to film it faithfully). Russell extrapolates the potential for a symbolically aware pagan/Christian clash, and throws in tacky FX, erotic dream sequences in a Concorde, mammoth dildos, the compulsory Russell Jesus dream (with raped nuns), and penis bites. He receives a deliciously poised performance from Amanda Donohoe as bitch goddess Lady Sylvia Marsh who tries to sacrifice a talent-deficient Catherine Oxenberg to an underground dragon. All this, and really young Hugh Grant and Gina McKee too.

Sideways (2005)

A mixed experience. When concentrating on its central anti-hero, the film is swell; Paul Giamatti makes his dolorous, asocial character understandable. That far, is is an affecting portrait with a lot of truth to it (my favorite struggling writer-ism was the soon-to-be-father-in-law saying he only likes non-fiction; yeah, if I had a nickel for every time some blowhard’s said that to me I’d have…a few nickels). Whenever it moved beyond him, it was on much less stable ground; for the great acting they received – and the acting is great – the main supporting characters, Tom Hayden Church’s drippy poonhound and Virginia Madsen’s middle-aged-guy’s-fantasy, could have had their characters outlined on the back of a matchbook. The asinine style aimed for and struck Middling Art Movie right in the centre, the sort of dead-pan soft-jazz-scored faux-class that The Simpsons parodied so well in “22 Short Films About Springfield”. Alexander Payne’s irritating fondness of picking on little old ladies and blue collar people was rife. The film’s character-based comedy was often sharp and laugh-out-loud funny – particularly the golf course scene – and the film on many occasions felt close to a good French melancholy comedy. But it kept doing itself in by trying too hard to be whimsical, and dramatically speaking, jumped the shark with the strained, utterly superfluous comedy of sneaking back to get the wallet, and the subsequent car-crashing; silly, silly, silly.

Grace of My Heart (1996)

I'd been eager to watch this since hearing one of Burt Bacharach's songs for the film, "Unwanted Number", on the radio; I figured even if the film was lightweight the music might be good. As it was, the film was lightweight and the music was good (but I only heard three bars of "Unwanted Number"!). Allison Anders' approach lacks pep and depth, and eventually the film reveals its lack of anything really incisive or dramatic to say about pop culture factories or its characters. Kept a grip thanks to good acting from Illeana Douglas and especially John Turturro. Material that might have provied a wealth of ironic termite art, like the subplot involving a Lesley Gore-esque closted bubblegum singer (Bridget Fonda) came to absolutely nothing, giving us instead an extremely shallow conflation of two of the Wilson brothers instead.

List: Top Ten Villain's Comeuppances

A tribute to sticky ends we relish. A great villain’s end is a culmination – of good storytelling, good acting, emotional involvement, a palpable sense of threat and danger – and a victory for a hero we want to win through or a human value we treasure.

The Manchurian Candidate (1963, John Frankenheimer) Angela Lansbury’s most perfect incarnation of wicked maternity and political mendacity knows that bullet’s coming, and it’s very hard not to gloat.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981, Steven Spielberg) …And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you!

The Night of the Generals (1968, Anatole Litvak) The film’s flashback structure leads to a brilliantly delayed confrontation between Tom Courtenay’s helpless pawn and Peter O’Toole’s sadistic megalomaniac who thought he’d gotten away with it.

To Have and Have Not (1944, Howard Hawks) A tribute more to Bogart’s feature-length slow-burn than the quality of the villains, the Surete Nationale trio of sleazeballs led by Dan Seymour’s fat Captain Reynard and Aldo Nadi’s speak-little-carry-big-gun henchman, as Harry Morgan puts up with all the world’s evils with a tense shrug until the situation becomes desperate, and then god help the Vichy when he reaches for that gun in the desk.

The French Connection II (1975, John Frankenheimer) Popeye Doyle, our favourite pot-bellied, balding, racist jerk NYC cop, having spent two movies chasing smooth criminal Charnier (Fernando Rey) and only succeeding in shooting other cops, getting held captive and pumped full of dope, and setting US-French relations back with more art than anyone prior to the Bush II administration, finally drives himself nearly to a heart attack in chasing down his quarry who almost makes it…

Manon des sources (1986, Claude Berri) A different type of just desserts, in that the grim ends of Cesar (Yves Montand) and Ugolin (Daniel Auteuil) are as much tragedies as their destruction of Jean (Gerard Depardieu), which, at the end of the first chapter, one felt worth punishing with old testament wrath, which daughter Manon (Emmanuelle Beart) heartily provides; yet when it comes – Ugolin hanging himself in agony over impossible passion, Cesar dying of a broken heart after realising he’s killed his own son – it’s a terrible thing.

The Return of the Jedi (1983, Richard Marquand) Originally a supremely pleasurable climax to the uneven third chapter and (the best achievement of the new trilogy) even more so when its context is known, as leathery, crypto-incestuous sadist and manipulator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) finally goes too far and pisses off Darth Vader – and don’t we all know not to piss off Darth Vader?

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938, William Keighley and Michael Curtiz) The greatest swashbuckler’s contest: Robin Hood (Errol Flynn) and Sir Guy are near-doppelganger representatives of the fledgling British national aristocracy, competing through the film romantically and politically; but Robin can’t even be bothered killing the shit until he gets sneaky and pulls that stunt with the dagger, a distinctly unchivalrous no-no.

Witness for the Prosecution (1958, Billy Wilder) Ah, poor poor Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power); such a clever murderer, apparently entrapped and betrayed by his Germanic Frigidaire wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich), actually enabled and aided by her, makes the mistake of spurning her just a little too soon. Hell hath no fury indeed.

Dial ‘M’ for Murder (1953, Alfred Hitchcock) The whirl of tiny details that the murder plot and story of this film find their payoff when the tiniest object reveals and traps Ray Milland’s smiling psychopath just hours before his wife’s due to be hung.