Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Sword of Sherwood Forest (1961)

A lesser-known entry in the Hammer studios back catalogue, Sword of Sherwood Forest is a slight and only sporadically entertaining take on the Robin Hood legend. The plot sees the Sheriff of Nottingham (Peter Cushing) trying to get control of the estate of a nobleman who has been killed fight in the Crusades. When the Archbishop of Canterbury intervenes, the Sheriff plots to have him assassinated. Meanwhile Robin finds himself falling for the mysterious Marion - despite her links to the Sheriff.

Unfortunately, the story is part of the problem, not being substantial enough to sustain a whole film, instead feeling more suited to an episode of the Robin Hood TV show of which Green was the star. Green himself is another part of the problem, seeming a little long in the tooth, lacking the exuberant energy of Errol Flynn.

Thankfully his co-stars pick up some of the slack, with Peter Cushing oily but charismatic as the evil Sheriff and Niall MacGinnis (who played the creepy Julian Karswell in Night of the Demon) as a fun and funny Friar Tuck. Look fast for Desmond “Q” Llewelyn and a virtually unrecognizable Oliver Reed, although as the former has no lines and the latter is dubbed, neither of them make much of an impact

The other asset the film has is legendary Hammer director Terence Fisher who makes the most of the beautiful Irish countryside locations and ensures the sword fights and horse chases are fast and exciting, even if the script is not. Sword of Sherwood Forest was not the only time Hammer adapted a TV show, but unlike with the other examples such as the Quatermass series, here they failed to develop it into something cinematic.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Calvaire (2004)

A Belgian take on well-worn horror clichés, Calvaire is a slick but empty affair which brings us little new, instead getting bogged down in pretentiousness.

Marc Stevens (Laurent Lucas) is a travelling singer, scraping by, driving around Belgium performing at small venues such as retirement homes. While on route to a Christmas special, his van breaks down in a storm, but fortunately, an innkeeper, Bartel (a charming and disturbing turn by Jackie Berroyer), rescues him. Unfortunately, the innkeeper seems to associate Marc with his now departed wife, and is extremely reluctant for him to leave.

Director Fabrice Du Welz is clearly familiar with the horror genre, both classic and modern, with unconscious and self-conscious nods to the likes of Psycho, Don’t Look Now, and Deliverance. Given the backwoods setting (with animal loving locals) and the gruesome fate that awaits the main character, Calvaire can also be linked to so-called “Torture porn” films such as Hostel.

The most interesting aspect of the character of Marc is that he essentially fills the role that would normally be a woman. Indeed, there is little masculine about him, either before things turn nasty, or afterwards when he is being tortured, sexually assaulted and dehumanised, in the way females often are in this genre.

There is a nagging feeling that Du Welz is trying to inject the film with some depth, but the religious imagery and themes are simply frustrating and vague. The most obvious one comes from the film’s title, which, as well as being the place where Jesus was crucified, translates from the French as suffering or ordeal.  Quite why we are supposed to equate the events of the film with the events in the life of Christ is never made clear.

Calvaire is beautifully shot, with bleak cinematography making the beautiful Belgian countryside seem brutal and unfriendly, and there are a couple of dizzying 360-degree pans accompanying particularly unpleasant on screen events, adding to the nauseous feeling. For all of the cleverness, gruesomeness and torture, there is little genuine dread or terror, aside from one bar-room scene which ends in the locals doing a demented waltz, a scene made disturbing by its inexplicable randomness.       

The poorly defined religious imagery has already been mentioned, and the rather reactionary idea of the countryside and its bizarre inhabitants who pick on the innocent from the big city has already been explored far more effectively in the likes of Deliverance. However, there is a third theme suggested by the events in the film – that of the unintended influence of art on an audience. Marc's singing has such an effect on both an elderly resident and an employee of the retirement home that they both throw themselves at him afterwards, to his obvious discomfort and embarrassment, and it is his singing that triggers the events with Bartel. Films, especially horror films have long faced calls from naysayers with their tales of the terrible effect the medium has on innocent minds. However, if this film is saying anything, perhaps it is that the trigger factors are so random (Marc’s singing is as competent and uninspiring as this film) it is pointless to censor yourself.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight (2014)

Equal parts brilliant and exasperating, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Midnight borrows liberally from lots of clichés and tropes in vampire and indie cinema, and puts them into a new context. Ultimately, though, it fails to develop them any further, and ultimately feels like a short film overstretched to feature length.

The emphasis is more on mood than plot, but what story there is revolves around a fictional Iranian town, where a female vampire is stalking the residents – the difference here is that the vampire wears a chador (a traditional Iranian cloak) and rides on a skateboard.

Director Ana Lily Amirpour has a great eye for visuals and the film looks and sound great, steeped in creepy and off beat atmosphre. It owes much to the eccentric and indie side of 80s American cinema, directors such as Lynch, and Jarmusch especially, and stylish vampire films like The Hunger. It is shot in black and white and looks, everybody smokes, characters meet at a run down power plant and the vampire lives in a bedsit festooned with posters, listening to vinyl.
However, the style overwhelms the substance too often and for too long and too many scenes drag on with people staring at themselves or each other while whole songs play, and it begins to feels at times like a music video or commercial. 
The vampire is interesting, as she is not presented in the clichéd overtly sexual way. There is sexual imagery and a metaphorical castration involving a finger – but perhaps ultimately she represents something heterosexual men find threatening – a woman who is indifferent to and uninterested in them.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Duck Soup (1933)

While not a hit on release, Duck Soup is now rightly regarded as a comedy classic and for my money it is definitely the most consistently laugh out loud funny of all of the Marx Brothers films.

The tiny fictional state of Freedonia is at the brink of war with neighbouring Sylvania, as well as being nearly bankrupt, with the leaders resorting to borrowing huge sums of money from a wealthy widow, Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont).  The catch is that she insists on replacing the current president with her friend, Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx), despite his seeming lack of qualifications for the job. Within no time he has insulted her friend the Sylvanian ambassador and the two countries are on the brink of war. Time for Sylvania to send in their finest spies, Chicolini (Chico Marx) and Pinky (Harpo Marx).

Although often thought of as a satirical piece, Duck Soup is not the sort of focussed dissection that Chaplin would attempt a few years later with The Great Dictator. Instead, the key word is anarchy. Most Marx Brothers films revolve around them taking down pompous University Professors or Opera directors and the same applies here, the difference being that the context is political rather than the content. Just like their other classic films, we are introduced to a staid, controlled, highly ordered world before the human fireworks are thrown in.

The rest of the humour comes from the relentless barrage of puns and wordplay, Harpo's insane visual gags and the kind of physical comedy the brothers had been perfecting since their vaudeville days. The most famous is the mirror sequence, impossible to describe as the magic of it is in the flawless timing.

Although the Marx Brothers roots were on the stage, there are some signs here of them embracing the medium of cinema in their own way. For example, during the final battle sequence, there is a bizarre montage of everything from stampeding elephants, to fire engines responding to Groucho's call for reinforcements. 

The influence of Duck Soup can be seen in a number of artists from Woody Allen (especially his film Bananas, with it's surreal tangents and a plot based around tinpot potentates) to Sacha Baron Cohen's recent movie The Dictator. Duck Soup may be over 80 years old but the biting cynicism still helps it feel surprisingly fresh and modern too. “...while you're out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we'll be in here thinking what a sucker you are”. 

Friday, 27 March 2015

Caprice (1967)

Caprice is a joyless grating mess of a film that wastes the charms and talents of the two stars. Doris Day plays Patricia Foster, an industrial spy for a global cosmetics firm run by Sir Jason Fox (Edward Mulhare of Knight Rider fame). She crosses swords with rival snoop Christopher White (Richard Harris), both of whom are chasing the latest vital inventions from each other’s companies, inventions such as a spray that keeps hair dry under water and mascara that turns into LSD if you burn it and ingest the ashes.

Beyond that, I am not entirely sure what happened. Patricia’s dad used to be an Interpol agent who was murdered, so she is trying to avenge his death, and White may not be all he seems. Day is a great comic actress but here she feels out of her depth, unsure how to act amongst the avalanche of sixties clichés, while Harris varies between embarrassed and can’t be bothered, and there certainly isn’t the slightest bit of chemistry between them, surely a vital requirement for any romantic comedy.

The comedy is thin on the ground too with jokes that fall flat and an irritatingly self conscious wackiness. The constant shifts in tone feel like the film-makers, or perhaps the studio, were unsure what they were after.

Perhaps more importantly than not knowing what was happening is that after one too many exasperating double cross plot twists, I eventually stopped caring.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Carry On Don't Lose Your Head (1966)

The 13th in the venerable series of British comedy films, Carry On Don't Lose Your Head is an often funny but also often unremarkable effort, with good performances undermined by a few slow spots and a script that runs out of steam before the end.

Set in the time of the French Revolution, the plot spoofs the famous story of the Scarlet Pimpernel, with jaded layabout English noblemen, Sir Rodney Ffing (pronounced "Effing") and Lord Darcy Pue (Sid James and Jim Dale respectively), leading double lives saving French aristocrats from beheading at the guillotine, always leaving behind the mocking sign of the The Black Fingernail. But soon they find themselves crossing swords with head revolutionary Citizen Camembert (Kenneth Williams) and his sidekick, Citizen Bidet (Peter Butterworth), two Frenchmen who are so desperate to track down the Fingernail they are even prepared to travel to England.

Carry On films are never noted for their extravagant budgets and lavish sets, but this one looks great, with fancy costumes and country houses helping to recreate the tropes of the swashbuckling genre, in the same way that the previous film in the series, Carry On Screaming, did with Gothic horror.

Script wise, we get the usual wince inducing puns, and running jokes, this time based around lapses into schoolboy level French, and Sir Rodney’s surname. The other gags come thick and fast, and some do not work (there is a talking to camera sketch that goes on too long), but others hit the mark and the cast are more than capable of breathing life into the few other dry spells. 

Sometimes the story takes second place to a more sketch based approach, and there are caricatures rather than characters, with some broad acting to match, perfectly in keeping with the pantomime feel of the film. Almost stealing the show is Charles Hawtrey as sex-crazed aristocrat Duc de Pommfrit, one of those saved at the last minute from Madam Guillotine ("Your grace, there's an urgent letter for you!" "Oh, drop it in the basket, I'll read it later"). Sadly things run out of steam in the climactic sword fight which is not played for as many laughs as it should be and goes on too long.

There are also a few swipes at England, with gags about strikes and unions, not surprising given that it was released in the same year that saw a walkout by the National Union of Seamen lead to Harold Wilson’s government declaring a state of emergency.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Scanners (1981)

Best remembered for the iconic scene of an exploding head, courtesy of make up legend Dick Smith, Scanners has a fascinating central idea but is hampered by a wooden lead actor and a plodding, sometimes messy script which fails to make the characters as interesting as the premise.

Scanners are people with extraordinary X-Men style psychic powers, able to join with, read and control the minds of others, with sometimes terrible side effects, such as in the previously described head explosion. One of them, Daryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has clearly let that power go to his head as he is hell-bent on world domination using Scanners loyal to him. The mysterious Dr Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) wants to stop him, using both the resources of his employers, the shady ConSec Corporation, and one Scanner, Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack) who has not fallen under the spell of Revok. But as the bodies pile up, so do the questions, as nobody seems to be who they say they are.

Cronenberg made Scanners during the first phase of his career, a phase that also included Shivers, Rabid, and The Brood, and out of this astonishing, disturbing and bloody body of work, Scanners is easily the weakest. At this stage of his career as a filmmaker, Cronenberg had never been one for involving human drama, preferring to use his characters primarily as a means to explore themes and ideas. In this respect Scanners is no different, but what those other films all had was a little something extra.

With Shivers and Rabid it is a lurid energy, betraying their exploitation film roots. The Brood had a human interest story, and for all the blood and perverse scenes still feels like a heartfelt and personal work. Scanners has none of these, and after the initial shock of the exploding head, Cronenberg moves away from the unique sexually charged body horror of his other earlier work towards a more conventional sci-fi / spy genre, crossover film, with evil scientists, car chases and guns. Disappointingly, the exploding head does not occur again, and, coupled with some clunky scenes of expositional dialogue, and an odd departure of one main character, it rather leaves the impression that not all the kinks and loose ends in the script had been ironed out before filming commenced. Perhaps the most notable missing element, certainly one I found surprising for a Cronenberg film, is sex, both in terms of sexual chemistry between the leads and any kind of sexual desire in any of the characters.

The other big liability is the actor in the main role, and while Stephen Lack may have surprising large blue eyes that make for a memorable face, here his delivery is stiff and wooden, sometimes to the point of sucking the life out of a scene. Scanners does have two aces in the cast, Patrick McGoohan and Michael Ironside. McGoohan brings gravitas and believability to the character of Dr Ruth, while Ironside gives Revok a charismatic unpredictable menace.

Smith's excellent make up skills make a comeback in the explosive finale between Vale and Revok, and also worth a mention is Howard Shore's score, a mix of dramatic sweeping strings and cold eerie synths that blend seamlessly with the images on the screen.