Monday, 22 September 2008

Mystery Street (1950)

..John Sturges has never had the kind of respect Anthony Mann gained, despite, like him, moving from noir films to westerns and into blockbusters. It’s understandable, as where all of Mann’s films betray an innate sensibility, punctuated by vivid flourishes of cruel violence and raw physicality, Sturges was the definition of the intelligent professional director. But it’s worth noting that Mystery Street, as with Mann’s own brilliantly terse Border Incident, sports Ricardo Montalban (long before he became a pop culture joke) giving a neat performance in a crime drama that feels well ahead of its time, predicting our CSI age and one of the films that mediated the shift from the neurotic intensity of ‘40s noir into a new, leaner, more procedural type of crime genre.


The first twenty minutes details a series of events that will be discovered, and mostly misinterpreted, in the ensuing investigation, as Bostonian B-girl Jan Sterling, pregnant by her sugar daddy and trying to squeeze him, is murdered, and sucker Marshall Thompson, through a series of circumstantial clues, is identified as the culprit.
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Montalban is cleverly cast as a Provincetown Portuguese police lieutenant, Peter Moralas, who has never worked a murder case before. When Sterling’s bones are found months after her murder, he takes them to be analysed by Harvard professor Bruce Bennett, whose laboratory specialises in such work, and which begins providing the clues that slowly unravel the case. The villain is a yacht designer (Edmon Ryan) who finds himself blackmailed by Elsa Lanchester, as Sterling’s tosspot landlady, deducing the culprit from the phone number Sterling left written on the boarding house wall.
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The film is built from layered observations of not merely investigation and the detailed exegesis on early forensic procedures, but also through pointed social and character vignettes: Ryan pretending to be kissing Sterling’s corpse as a car passes him carrying it to the sea, and later pricking Montalban with his sneering WASP chauvinism: “My family was here before there was a United States. By the sound of your accent your family hasn’t been here so long...”; Thompson’s wife (Sally Forrest) struggling through her husband’s impoverishing incarceration on the back of losing her child; even Sterling’s friend Betsy Blair has a neat moment handling a .45 and meditating on “what I learnt about guns…and the Marines.”
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Sturges makes skilful use of relatively unfamiliar locations – the windy beaches of Cape Cod, the tranquil grounds of Harvard, and the grimy charm of pre-urban renewal Boston. If it had been tightened a little, this would have been a minor classic. It's also interesting in being set mostly in the poor districts of old Boston, long before the age of Dennis Lehane and The Departed, and being fuelled, like those more modern works, by an equally tart portrait of social resentments.
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Diamonds Are Forever (1971)

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The Bond films had displayed a certain care in planning until this point, through Dr. No hinting at SPECTRE's malevolence, From Russia With Love’s introduction of the unseen, malevolent Blofeld, You Only Live Twice’s first glimpse, and finally the tragic climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, still the best film of the series. Because of George Lazenby’s less than stellar reception as Bond, and, it seems, objections to that film’s depth of plot and characterization, Sean Connery, bored with the role, was offered a pretty penny to return in a contrived, resolutely low-brow entry. Sean’s resulting mercenary presence in the film, already looking flabby, aging, and barely interested, can hardly prevent this being possibly the worst Bond ever made (a tie, perhaps, with Moonraker, though I confess to not having watched most of Pierce Brosnan’s rubbery entries). The film starts where it ought to, with Bond ruthlessly hunting for Blofeld after murdering his wife, throwing men through walls and strangling girls with their bikini tops in gaining information. Yet the film never even remotely threatens to build any melodramatic oomph.


In fact, Diamonds Are Forever shows the Bond formula ossifying terribly, turning into a sideshow attraction as gaudy and tacky as the Las Vegas locations it highlights, with its silly sight gags and DOA one-liners. Apart from one neat scene, where Bond gets his arse kicked by lithesome female guards pricelessly named Bambi and Thumper, the action set-pieces are dull, contrived, and shot without élan or a sense of dramatic purpose; the Bond girls underdeveloped and boring; and gay killers Wynt and Kydd steal the film. Charles Gray’s Blofeld is properly smooth, but he’s reduced to a comic-book cipher, as is Bond, going through the motions in a film that feels oddly cheap and rushed, as if Connery’s extra pay cheque had been provided at the expense of the rest of it. Which is, in fact, true. It was appropriate that the classic series gave up the ghost here, bringing in Roger Moore next and devoting about half of Live and Let Die’s running time to chases, and abandoning the whole SPECTRE plot arc, left literally dangling here - and the lame intro to For Your Eyes Only doesn't count as a resolution. .

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

10,000 B.C. (2007)

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Where's Sarah Palin when you need her?

Lo, the legends tell that in the dark years of the millennium’s turn, there did live a shitty filmmaker known as Roland of Emmerich. And he did make unto the dark gods many a graven image of a blockbuster, some bearable, others like demons in their nature, oily, low, and illiterate. And he did make a film barely an hour and a half long, but yet did feel like three, telling of the ancient times, when all humans were hippies, peaceful in their stick-and-stone abodes, at one with nature. Except for the mammoths, whose big furry asses they did eat. But woe unto the tribe of Dreadlock Dude (Steven Strait) and Good-Teeth Girl (Camilla Belle), when the mysterious four-legged demons of the north snatch her away, forcing Dude and his homies to follow. Whence they did clash with many strange animals that ought to have been extinct, and with the harsh elements of montage, and with the screenplay that had been written on a cocktail napkin.
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"We have to wait here, they're shooting The Hobbit on the other side of this hill."
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When getting Thanksgiving dinner was an extreme sport...
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...and cat ownership wasn't for sissies.
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And lo, the villains are meanies, like the slave-master who doth tell Good-Teeth Girl; “I like your spirit, but I will have to break it.” Whereupon he whips her, and then he takes her to his palace and has her wrapped her in his finest silks, but finds she still won't put out for some reason.
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Kong! Kong!
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The baddies did work for a mysterious being of great knowledge, from Atlantis so it is suggested, but also possibly from Mu-Mu, too. And he did know much of the arts of astronomy, and architecture, and how to cavort, rant, and hiss effeminately like a true movie villain.
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In this early instance of the culture war, the oppressed masses resent their overlords for their skills in science, art, construction, and fancy-pants Harvard law degrees.
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But lo! Dude did bring together the many tribes of Africa, who always need a lighter-skinned being to command them, and they did attack and cleverly destroy the budding civilisation, with battle tactics consisting of pissing off mammoths.
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Mammoths, successfully pissed off.
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Joy unto the slaves, as the baddies are brought down with much spear-waving and shouting, and Dreadlock Dude and Good-Teeth Girl did run to each-other in slow motion, with both sets of bosom a-jiggling. And they all did jiggle together.
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Something for everyone here.
For freeing the peoples of many lands, the black guys gave unto Dreadlock Dude the seed of the toker’s weed, and much joy was known throughout the land henceforth. And Dude set about inventing the Monaro, so he could make out with Girl on the back seat of it.

And who did write this screenplay, known through all the lands for its lack of character and story development, its superfluous dialogue, and total lack of dramatic passion? “We!” sayeth Emmerich and Harold Kloser. And who did waste his time by shooting this film with much beauty? “I!” sayeth Ueli Steiger. And who did produce it? “Us!” quoth the sixteen credited men. And though he does shoot action well, and spectacle with skill, woe unto the wicked king Emmerich for not caring at all about the arts of the dramaturge, for his days of dark rule may be ending lo.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Gone Baby Gone (2007)

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Of last year’s raft of arty-noir (No Country For Old Men, Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead, We Own The Night, Michael Clayton, Eastern Promises, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is the most traditional, and, cumulatively, an intriguing but only minor success. Based on Southie laureate Dennis Lehane’s novel, it balances familiar private-eye genre tropes with some original flourishes – the dicks in question are a couple, Patrick (Casey Affleck) and Angie (Michelle Monaghan), neither of whom are exactly immediately persuasive tough guys - and an admirable sense of urban-slum atmosphere and moral questioning. The film however works in fits and starts, alternating startling scenes of percussive realism and remarkable grimness, but also some rather tired elements, like Ed Harris’ aging, grumpily vengeful cop. The plot woven around him relies on some very thin linkages, and builds to some climactic scenes that are both emotionally and ethically demanding but also, dramatically speaking, hard to swallow. Whilst the film’s visual patterns and thematic interests flirt with the power of fragmentation and chaos, the breakdown of awareness, of no longer knowing what’s going on and why, and what such hazy perception means for the desperate individual human, the narrative nonetheless insists on a false-seeming neatness. Making sure Patrick loses things he cared about, in making a choice in a moral conundrum that is presented in a set of flimsy oral presentations, isn't quite the same as courting real moral threat.
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It’s still an interesting, detailed directorial debut from Ben, with brother Casey in front of the camera – an arrangement I’ll be happy to see continue. Ben tends to present his Bostonian neighbourhood types too broadly, replete with square-jawed shit-talking Irish thugs, chunky chain-wearing fake gangbangers, and hoody-jacketed, bare-navel welfare skanks. He offers his heavyhitter cast – perhaps a touch too much so, each demanding their indulgent bit of show-acting – meat to munch, but as with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Casey delivers the film with his subtle yet highly expressive performing. In the best scenes, Ben’s camera averts and glimpses with intelligence and felicity, breaking up the smooth flow of its otherwise overly-generic writing and structuring with a real sense of the modern world’s eeriest hells.
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Saturday, 13 September 2008

Jules et Jim (1961)


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Having watched this film twice, I can say it consistently gives me a conflicted reaction. I love Truffaut’s stylish filmmaking, particularly in the freewheeling first half-hour, but always find the story, frankly, a little tedious. I want to know more about the inner lives of the characters, Catherine especially, than I’m given, so I react with impatience to the fumbling second half of the film.
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It is, to a certain extent, fitting that the second half is about fumbling, as that is what the characters are doing, feeling their way intuitively through a new life and new morality, but somehow the film never really develops the kind of depth of perspective or psychology to make the characters and the film truly affecting. Catherine’s siren-like irresistibility never feels true – I wish the film had more to say about her than to pass her off as a semi-mystical force of feminine caprice. I prefer Truffaut’s follow-up, Two English Girls, an altogether darker, less blithe, less euphemised adaptation of a Henri-Pierre Roche novel involving a ménage a trois – that film burns with a kind of frustrated midnight ardour, where Jules et Jim skips gaily along until it seems to realise it should be being serious about something, but doesn’t know why. .

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That said, it’s an often beguiling, and, occasionally, very funny film. It articulates an intriguing thesis, on the exhaustion of European civility, which theoretically enables this situation but really only exacerbates it troubles, and the attempts to construct something new. Jim speaks the unwritten theory: “You tried to invent love. But pioneers must be humble, without egotism.” Whereas Catherine and Jules are all ego, despite their longing – only the selfless but morally impotent Jules survives, and remains in the heart. Jules et Jim feels like both a nod to fin de siecle bohemianism, and also a fanfare for ‘60s experimentalism, and other, more substantial films, like Two English Girls or Eustache’s The Mother and The Whore.
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Monday, 8 September 2008

The Sentinel (1977)

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Knife-wielding lingerie models in the haunted house of Satan.

Oft-referenced (
Ghostbusters, 1984; The ‘Burbs, 1989) but witless horror yarn presents an intriguing tale with all the subtlety and sense of mystery of a shovel to the cranium. Often the words “Michael” and “Winner” are deal breakers for me, and The Sentinel is beset by his innately trashy sensibility.


Young. Innocent. Beautiful. Yeah, she's screwed.
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What could have been a chilling, darkly erotic story, that of young, gorgeous, feted, but melancholy model, Alison (Cristina Raines, competent) who’s chosen to be the next guardian of the gates of hell, is instead reduced a thundering grab-bag of cornball effects and tawdry stereotyping. Winner’s actively offensive conception of damnation presents onanistic lesbian ballerinas (three strikes and you’re out) and deformed and disabled people as hell's minions. Actual line of dialogue; “The people you saw here – the lesbians – all of them – are reincarnations – devils!” Yeah.


Here's an onanistic lesbian ballerina, just to prove I wasn't kidding.

The plot development is both obvious and disjointed, and quite often the reading of lines, especially from Chris Sarandon in the last quarter (“I am one of the them!” Sarandon hisses at one point, revealing his caved-in skull, with the cadence of a teenager telling a ghost story with a torch on their face), strain so hard to impress us with their spookiness that they become almost satiric. But it’s not in the least satiric, it’s just mercenary and contemptuous. And The Sentinel was obviously not cheap – Winner had just come off the success of another gross portrait of contemporary urban nightmares, Death Wish. The film boasts an astonishing, and astonishingly wasted, cast, from the old pros like Arthur Kennedy, Martin Balsam and Ava Gardner in thankless roles, to newbies like Jerry Orbach, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Goldblum, who, despite having appeared in Death Wish, is dubbed for some ungodly reason.


They warned me about these Greenwich Village parties...

The essentials of the story had promise, with its death-and-the-maiden keynote. The transitory quality of beauty and privilege, with Alison as a priestess of the modern cult of beautiful, shallow people, contrasted with an inevitability of decay, sin, and deathless responsibility, had rich potential.


The bottomless depravity of Alison's father's cake-and-sex orgies.


Cristina Raines' reaction to being cast in this film.

That potential isn't entirely squandered – the final image of Alison, decrepit, blind, cocooned in a nun’s habit, possesses some impact. But Alison is loaded down with comic book traumas; the flashback to schoolgirl Alison stumbling in on her father having an orgy, getting slapped around for her sins – he even tears off her crucifix necklace, so we get the point – and then making her first suicide attempt, is stupefyingly sensational. In the idiotic climax, John Carradine, to save the day, has to press his way through one of those hand-grabby free-for-alls that irresistibly calls Ed Wood to mind.


Snips and snails and puppy dog tails...

Only once does Winner’s vulgar bent pays off, in one sequence where Raines, scantily dressed in a nightie, armed with a carving knife, prowls her haunted house, encounters her dead father’s ghostly form and furiously stabs him – for this scene, at least, he captures some of the heady, morbid sexuality of underground gothic art.


Take warning, Kate Moss! This is where your coke-snorting, girl-kissing model lifestyle is leading you!

Thunderball (1965)

One of my favourite Bonds as a lad, now I could barely sit through to the end of a film beset by shoddy, plodding middle act shenanigans. Only Luciana Paluzzi’s entertaining villainess, the first super-bitch of the Bond films, Fiona Volpe, keeps the film’s pulse-rate above placid. The mix of terse phrasing and plush detail that marked out Ian Fleming’s writing can be seen dwindling into the distance already. And I caught myself thinking about the plot – a path to madness if ever there was one (if Major Duval is only on board the bomber as a special, one-off NATO arrangement, how come SPECTRE knew to start training a guy to take his place two years before? How come Volpe knows enough of Bond to mock his sexual reputation, but Largo doesn’t? Etc.) Adolfo Celi is dubbed (by ubiquitous '60s British voice-over actor Robert Rietty), and so is Claudine Auger, rendering her gorgeous but wooden – I was waiting for the inevitable juicy scene where the heroine is caught snooping and subjected to torture with even less patience than usual (Largo likes to work with a cigar and ice cubes “applied scientifically” – very chic. Eli Roth, take note). The colourful Nassau atmosphere, John Barry’s excellent score, and Sean Connery’s ever-remarkable poise in playing a ridiculous character, aid Paluzzi enough to keep it watchable.

Sunday, 7 September 2008

It Came From Outer Space (1953)

I had seen this splendid sci-fi/noir film only once in my youth, but certain scenes had burnt themselves into my brain – the gigantic spherical alien spaceship buried in the pit; Richard Carlson flinching in horror at the sight of an alien’s proper form; even the small yet fascinatingly vicious and revealing moment when Charles Drake’s blockheaded sheriff steps on a tarantula in response to Carlson’s probing about how to react to the threat of the different.
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It’s still one of the most uniquely sober and intelligent genre films of its era, in its meditation on a conflict between alien arrivals and humans where the humans are the most dangerous, but the aliens aren’t necessarily all peace and love either. The script is brittle in places, especially close to the start – ‘Holy cow!’ Carlson remarks dramatically when confronted with a gigantic smoking meteor crater – and the acting less than intergalactic. The insistence of so many films of the period in having square-jaw dullards like Carlson playing nerds is always amusing. But director Jack Arnold, as became his trademark in the handful of strong genre films he made at this time, achieves a kind of terse, noir-sodden poetry, aided by a story laced with Ray Bradbury’s dexterity of imagination, as the seemingly barren desert becomes a spine-tingling space full of alien life, both large and small, newly arrived and primeval.

Unlike Arnold’s slicker Creature from the Black Lagoon, it doesn’t subvert its more incisive interests for a monster hunt. It’s the first of the alien-possession films too, and though not as driven as Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, it’s also more probing and more morally complex. There’s a breath of real mystery to sequences like when the aliens take possession of people, and quiescent eroticism when Carlson pursues one alien who has taken on the illusory form of his girlfriend (Barbara Rush), changed from eager suburban miss to a black-draped femme fatale, who tries to assassinate him. It presents an intergalactic culture clash, where the aliens are cleverly shaded opposites of the humans they encounter.

Carlson’s John Putnam is defined as a intellectual misfit, resented for his curiosity and difference, and he becomes the ideal catalyst then for first contact, to the point where Carlson finally confronts their leader who has taken on his own form, reflecting his own yearning and probing imagination, but also his own limitations and paranoia, back at him. It could be called a companion piece to another ’53 film, The Wild One, which is also about a group of disturbing “invaders” who provoke equally disturbing reactions from the “normal”, whilst commenting on the difficulty of communication between creatures of vastly divergent experience, revealing the hidden faultlines in the consciousness of the decade we have come to remember as a settled, conformist, and optimstic period. It Came From Outer Space is the superior film, not merely for being less sensational, but for the acute way it entwines both the ambitions of its time, its sense of limitless horizons, and also its deeper troubles, the fear of the unknown both within and without.



Thursday, 4 September 2008

The Power (1968)

Fifteen years after their splendidly colourful, feverish collaborations on War of the Worlds and The Naked Jungle, director Byron Haskin and producer George Pal, produced this film, long regarded as a great disappointment. And it is. Adapted, loosely and incompetently, from a well-regarded sci-fi novel by Frank M. Robinson, The Power alternates an intriguing story set-up and exciting ideas with some truly lame scenes. Casting perennially well-scrubbed and unpersuasive George Hamilton in the lead doesn’t help, and the rest of the film manages to waste, with astonishing dexterity, an interesting cast, from Suzanne Pleshette to Richard Carlson. The Power has a potentially riveting story to tell, as the directing committee of a scientific institute find themselves infiltrated by a vastly powerful psychic, who proceeds to attempt to destroy all rivals in a quest for power.
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Trouble is, all of the sense seems to have been left out of the film, as the finale leaves more questions to be asked than answered – and not in a good, David Lynch fashion. The elements of the original storyline have been treated with contempt, and it’s easy to guess who isn’t the omnicompetent super-psychic, considering how many characters keep getting snuck up on, or not detecting that they’re being spied on. How and why villainous Michael Rennie (my new rule – always suspect Klaatu) decided to infiltrate an institute that happens to have both an old friend and another, undiscovered super-psychic on the staff, is beyond my puny intellect’s grasp. The film bends over backwards to be an action-adventure in a sub-Hitchcockian mould, and subjects us instead to awful imitation hippie-rock in a particularly naff party scene in order to seem, like, with it, man.


Haskin provides a surplus of spectacularly ordinary suspense sequences, as Hamilton keeps surviving assassination attempts, through such outlandish methods as on an out-of-control carousel and being stranded on a jet missile firing range, which is a particularly ludicrous moment – the firepower of the stock-footage jets seems to equal a few hand grenades. The film is further hurt by sloppy filmmaking, and by poor production values, full of short-cut effects, cardboard sets, and tacky, modish visual tricks. It’s sad to compare the excellence of the filmmaking in Pal and Haskin’s earlier collaborations with the overall air of barren competence here, and this bears out just how much Hollywood studio craft had declined in the intervening decade and a half, shaken by uncertainties of which audience to pitch to and at what level, and starved of passion and ingenuity. Notably, later films like The Fury (1978) and Scanners (1981) stole liberally from this film and proved infinitely more entertaining. The Power is only just interesting enough to watch until the end.
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