Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Irrational Man (2015)

Another year, another Woody Allen film and sadly, Irrational Man is one of his lacklustre efforts, with the under plotted story, underwritten characters and clunky dialogue that mar the worst of his more recent efforts.

Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is a tormented professor, starting work teaching philosophy at Braylin College in New England. Drinking heavily, and searching for meaning in life following the death of his mother and watching his wife run away with his best friend, he stumbles into two things that could provide what he needs. Firstly is a relationship with one of his students, Jill (Emma Stone, her second Allen film after Magic in the Moonlight). Secondly is the chance to do what he sees as a noble act for a desperate stranger – even if that noble act requires murder.

This is familiar territory for Allen, having explored the morality of murder, (and getting away with it) much more successfully in his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors. That had all the positives that this film is lacking, with suspense, wit, and characters who engage us. With Abe Lucas however, we hear so much about how fascinating he is and how original his ideas are – but this all comes from other people, rarely from the words or actions of the man himself. Stone works hard to breathe some life into Jill, but this is an uphill struggle with such an underwritten character, someone who is little more than a perky but unremarkable student infatuated with her tutor. The only spark of interest comes from Parker Posey as Professor Rita Richards, the man hungry colleague of Lucas who starts an affair with him. However, it is difficult to fathom what she finds so fascinating about him, other than a desire to escape her own unhappy marriage.

Without the characters to drive it, the drama falls flat, becoming one simply one set of events after another, with no sense of urgency or suspense, culminating in a hokey twist straight out of Murder She Wrote. The dialogue is another disappointment, awkward, obvious and expositional. The gag writer in Allen usually keeps some sparkle in his words, but here his talents seem to have deserted him. As is so often the case, is the script that makes or breaks a Woody Allen film, and, as he has shown recently with Blue Jasmine and Midnight in Paris, (two wildly different films in style and subject matter), when he bothers to put some effort in with the writing, he is as brilliant and original a film-maker as he ever was.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Death Wish II (1982)

Despite my hopes of some trashy amoral action packed fun, Death Wish II is a joyless test of the viewer's patience. The star (Charles Bronson) and director (Michael Winner) can do better, certainly in the context of the vigilante genre, as shown in the first film of the franchise.

In the first Death Wish, Paul Kersey (Bronson) hunted down the scummiest scum of New York City, following the murder of his wife and rape of his daughter Carol. Now, several years later, he is working as an architect in Los Angeles, and living with Carol and new girlfriend Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). After chasing down a gang who stole his wallet, Kersey finds himself followed back to his apartment by his attackers. The gang proceed to beat him unconscious, rape his Mexican housekeeper and kidnap his daughter, who falls to her death trying to escape. For Kersey, that leaves only one course of action - pick up his gun and hunt them down, one scumbag at a time.

The original Death Wish was a slickly made piece of emotional manipulation, which at least kept the viewer interested and tried to provide some justification for Kersey's actions. Here, nobody seems that bothered about putting that much thought into the script, or the direction (making violence boring is an art, but not one to be admired)

The real surprise and disappointment is the star of the film. Bronson, while never in the slightest bit convincing as an architect, is one of the great movie tough guys, with genuine screen presence and charisma, at his best when exuding an impassive and implacable sense of purpose and menace. Here he just looks stiff and dull, a robot going through the motions.

By having the gang made up of scum of different ethnic backgrounds, Winner does go some way to offsetting charges of racism, but there is no getting away from the unpleasant treatment of women. They only exist to be abused by men or to provide reasons for the men to act, although this is not an unusual situation for this genre.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

Hammer Horror is perhaps mostly closely associated with the Dracula and Frankenstein films, but the studio first explored the horror genre with The Quatermass Xperiment. Although somewhat hampered by the odd choice of leading man, director Val Guest gives both a tense, fast moving adaption of the hit BBC TV serial (the “Xperiment” was presumably changed by Hammer to sell it as an "X" rated film), while keeping the themes of the original intact. The film can also be counted as a very early example of the subgenre known as Body Horror.

Professor Bernard Quatermass, the head of the British Rocket Group, has just sent the country’s first manned rocket into space. However, disaster strikes as all contact with the three crew members is lost, and the rocket crashes back to earth. Two of the crew have disappeared, and the one remaining survivor, Victor Carroon, is in shock, unable to speak, only mouth the words “Help me”. While in hospital, Caroon starts to undergo horrifying changes, and finds he needs to absorb living things in order to survive. Quatermass soon realises that Caroon, or whatever it is that he has become, will not stop growing, and the next stage of his transformation will threaten the entire planet.

Like many low budget European films, The Quatermass Xperiment was given a Hollywood star whose career had hit a lull, brought in for cheap to help sell the film to the American market. This leaves The Quatermass Xperiment with it's only serious flaw, Irish born Brian Donlevy, who had made a name for himself playing tough guys and gangsters, particularly in groundbreaking examples of Film Noir such as Kiss of Death and The Big Combo. Given this background, it is perhaps not surprising that he seems a little bit out of place in an English Sci-Fi movie. That said, while he lacks credibility playing a man of science, his tough guy persona gives the movie Quatermass a headstrong decisiveness and a refusal to be bullied or brushed aside. This Quatermass is a leader, a man of action, coupled with an almost reckless arrogance, a character that is tough to like, not least because he seems unwilling to take responsibility for the consequences of his actions, but who is always unpredictable and interesting.

Far more sympathetic is Richard Wordsworth as the tragic surviving astronaut Carroon. The character stays mute throughout so the anger and despair we see him go through as he loses control of his mind and body is portrayed largely through facial expressions and inarticulate grunts, something that puts him in the same realm as the Boris Karloff’s heartrending take on Frankenstein’s monster. There is also a more overt echo of this, whether it is a conscious one or not, in the scene where Carroon encounters a small girl out playing by herself. Although there is a different outcome here, both scenes are symbolic of the monster's struggle with their intrinsic humanity, and like Frankenstein's monster, Carroon's anguish is not self inflicted, being the victim of a scientists, albeit well meaning, plans gone wrong. This sort of approach would come to be termed Body Horror, and explored many years later by the likes of David Cronenberg, with films such as Shivers, Rabid, and his reworking of The Fly.

The Quatermass Xperiment was the first attempt at a sci-fi / horror film by director Val Guest. He would go on to helm other genre classics such as this film's sequel, Quatermass 2, and The Day The Earth Caught Fire (as well as a long and eclectic career taking in everything from thrillers, comedies and numerous TV shows). If there is a common thread to his approach with these three films, it is to keep the fantastic story rooted in reality, helped by an unflashy, almost documentary approach to shooting scenes, as well as frequent use of actual locations rather than studio backdrops. The screenplay (co-written by Guest, based on Nigel Kneale's original TV scripts) also shows the effects of the events on ordinary people as much as the scientists, military men and government officials.

The film is also fascinating when placed into a historical context, being released at a time when Britain was still wrestling with the mix of World War Two euphoria, Cold War feelings of potential apocalyptic doom, and the realisation that with the collapse of the British Empire, the country was no longer the global colossus that it had been. This was coupled with the clash of the old and new, that Quatermass with his relentless charge to the future and insistence on blasting rockets into outer space represents the latter half of. This insistence is not dulled by the events of the film however, and in the final scenes, we see Quatermass walking off alone into the distance, followed, without any dramatic music, by the final shot of another rocket being launched. Progress, it seems, will not be stopped.


Tuesday, 11 August 2015

First Blood (1982)

First Blood is a good example of how action films should be made. It has a sympathetic lead character, played by a star who is very believable in the role, a talented director, and, perhaps most importantly, a well-structured script. While it is neither overtly a “pro” or “anti” war film, First Blood does have some interesting symbolism in the story that relates to that subject matter.

John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is an ex-Green Beret Vietnam veteran, drifting around the US, trying to track down his remaining comrades. A stop in the town of Hope sees him thrown in jail on a vagrancy charge and tortured by the Sheriff's deputies. However, Rambo decides to fight back – but can one man succeed against the town's entire police department, the state police, and the National Guard?

First Blood has a number of assets that raise it above the normal standard for action exploitation films. The script, co-written by Stallone, has its fair share of absurdities and logic lapses, (Rambo's physique looks like he spends his life in the gym not on the road, and a fall from a great height onto jagged rocks leaves him just a few scratches). However, this is not unusual in films where the emphasis is often more on spectacle, and if you simply must have a film with no plot holes or unlikelihood, then maybe action is not the genre for you. What First Blood does have is a tight and well thought out story structure with clear goals for the hero, progression, and sufficient pace to gloss over the absurdities. We learn enough about Rambo, his past and his present to understand and empathise with him before the action kicks in, and when it does, it is relentless, as Rambo breaks free from his captors and turns the tables, taking the fight to them. He is on the enemy's territory, but they are the ones who seem overwhelmed by their environment.

The villains are easy to boo, being the archetypal gun toting small town cops. The two exceptions to this are the fresh faced kid cop Mitch, played by a very young David Caruso and the sheriff, played by Brian Denehhy. The former is torn between wanting to please his peers and be part of the crowd, but also knowing that their behaviour towards Rambo is wrong, and not having the confidence or power to stop it. The latter is not a bad person, (the torture takes place without his knowledge), but instead is somebody who has let their ego and stubbornness lead them into a situation that spirals out of their control.

Aside from the script, the other big asset is the star himself, who switches gears from quiet mumbling to white hot unstoppable physical rage in a completely convincing manner, so that we are caught up in the moment, and overlook some of the more implausible scenarios. The only ally Rambo can turn to is his former commanding officer, Colonel Trautman, played by Richard Crenna, who brings a presence and depth to what could have been a two dimensional grizzled warrior soldier. When faced with his protégé breaking down and sobbing, he looks convincingly uneasy with having to confront the consequences of the sort of dehumanising warrior building that is his life and work. Trautman is a man who can face the worst wartime situations, but cannot handle another man's emotions, and this is conveyed in an understated manner by Crenna, an underrated actor.

Director Ted Kotcheff has had a wildly eclectic career, ranging from episodes of the BBC TV Play for Today series, to the truly disturbing Australian outback exploitation classic Wake in Fright. His talent with cast and camera also goes some way to raising this above a standard action thriller. Kotcheff throws in some almost Expressionist touches, especially out in the woods where the overwhelming landscape and angry flashes of lightning make the scenery almost feel like a character in itself, a foe nearly as hostile as Rambo.

The Vietnam War film is as distinctive a genre as any in modern cinema and the war veteran unable to adjust to civilian life is a similarly distinctive sub-genre within this. If First Blood does have a message, it is that perhaps Governments should take better care of the men and women they send to fight their wars for them. There is certainly no discussion of the rights and wrongs of the Vietnam conflict, politically or morally, and while Rambo resents the anti-war protestors who greeted his return home and called him a “baby killer”, he does not seem to have thought of it as anything more than following orders and doing the job he was trained for.

First Blood is a film steeped in the history and myth of the Vietnam War and as the real life Vietnam veteran William Adams said the war " no longer a definite event so much as it is a collective and mobile script in which we continue to scrawl, erase, and rewrite our conflicting and changing view of ourselves."

Whether intentional or not, there are parallels between the events on screen and those of the war that forms the backdrop to them, or, indeed of many wars throughout history. The Sheriff is the one whose poor judgement and bad luck arguably drive Rambo to his violent vengeance. However, others are the ones that pay a price for Teasle's decisions and actions, whether it is his "troops", the deputies who come back maimed or in body bags or the civilians who have to flee for their lives as the town goes up in flames, watching their homes and businesses destroyed.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

The Master of Ballantrae (1953)

The Master of Ballentrae is a highly enjoyable example of the kind of old-fashioned swashbuckler film they simply do not make any more. It is also significant in that it is the penultimate swashbuckler of Errol Flynn's career, the man who made his name, as well as the success of the genre, with the classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Although starting to look a little long in the tooth, Flynn still crackles with plenty of the charisma, energy and sex appeal he had done twenty years previously.

The story is loosely based on the Robert Louis Stevenson novel of the same name. In 18th Century Scotland, the Jacobite Rebellion is underway, with Bonnie Prince Charlie and his forces trying to reclaim the British throne from George II. Two brothers decide to take opposite sides in the war, in order to preserve the family fortune, whatever the outcome. Jamie Durie (played by Flynn) a hellraising scoundrel, with a string of women (in addition to his fiancé) and a string of gambling debts goes to fight for the rebellion, while his brother Henry, the pious, honest one, stays at home pretending to champion the English cause. When one of Jamie's spurned lovers betrays him to the Redcoats, he mistakenly thinks Henry is the culprit, and finds himself fleeing for his life, getting caught up in all manner of adventures involving slaves, pirates, an unscheduled trip to the West Indies, a Spanish Galleon full of gold, and a lovable rogue Irishman, Colonel Francis Burke (Roger Livesey). Will Jamie ever return to his homeland – and will he ever be convinced that it was not his brother who betrayed him?

Swashbuckling films are one of those genres where you expect certain tropes and The Master of Ballentrae does not disappoint, with sword fights a plenty, ships, colourful villains, treachery and betrayal. If there is a criticism to be made in terms of the genre, it is that this film provides little that we have not seen before. However, taken on its own merits, this is great entertainment, with Flynn belying his age and failing health to fling himself into the action scenes. The story rarely drags, with the goal of Jamie's quest to get back to Scotland constantly driving him on.

The Scotland in question is of course very much a Hollywood version of the country, with lush green hills, humble peasant folk, villainous Englishmen, and Scottish accents that sound like Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons. Wisely, Flynn does not attempt the Scots brogue, sticking instead to his familiar smooth tones. Livesey provides the perfect sidekick for him, giving his character as big a lust for life (and whiskey and women) as Jamie, and as much charm, but without ever overshadowing him. Anthony Steel as Henry is a little stiff and bland, but this is entirely in keeping with the character, a man the total opposite of Jamie.

The other big asset for the film is the rich and vivid cinematography by the legendary Jack Cardiff, who had previously shot the likes of The Red Shoes and The African Queen. The location filming, done around Cornwall, Scotland and Sicily, really brings the countryside to life, with the vivid colours as intoxicating and enjoyable as the star and the on-screen action.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Brats (1930)

A great example of Laurel and Hardy at the height of their powers, Brats takes a single idea, some slapstick, destruction, word play and mixes the lot into some great laugh aloud moments. The film also has some interesting symbolism relating to both the characters and to how parents see their children, as the juniors are literally small versions of the seniors.

Being a short film there is not much in the way of plot, simply a premise. Stan and Olly have been left in charge of their respective sons for the evening, sons that look exactly like miniature versions of their fathers and have a similarly antagonistic relationship. All the grownups have to do is keep the little ones out of trouble - what could possibly go wrong?

The answer is, of course, plenty, but what makes Brats more than a series of gags is the insight it gives us into the relationship between Stan and Olly. In the absence of their partners, the duo form a parental duo, with Olly as the stern father figure and Stan as the more easygoing mother.

Brats is also a perfect example of Laurel and Hardy's approach to talkie comedy, taking a more deliberate and measured pace compared to the frantic style of their silent work. Many of the gags are telegraphed in advance, and the build up to the laughs comes not from an unexpected surprise but from looking at the skate at the top of the stairs, or the snooker cue in front of a glass cabinet and realising, it is just a question of when things are going to go wrong.

Fans will recognise many favourite motifs that recur throughout the duo's films, such as Olly's withering glances to camera (and plaintive cry, not for the first time of "why don't you do something to help me?"). There are also some surprisingly agile slapstick moves from Hardy, as well as Stan's surreal mangling of the English language ("You can lead a horse to water, but a pencil must be lead”).

Director James Parrot uses some cinematic tricks such oversized props and clever editing to create the illusion of the children and adults interacting. To me this shows that the films of Laurel and Hardy can be considered groundbreaking, not just for the comedy, but also for the way they, and the directors they worked with were willing to go beyond their theatrical roots and exploit the medium of cinema.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Leviathan: The Story of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (2015)

The 1980s were a boom time for horror franchises, but one stood apart from the Freddy and the Jason pack, with a unique sense of maturity, darkness and perversity. Leviathan is a Kickstarter funded labour of love documentary that aims to explore the roots of Hellraiser, and its sequel Hellbound, and how writer/director Clive Barker came from fringe theatre in Liverpool to the big screen in Hollywood.

Although hampered by limited resources to being, cinematically at least, little more than a series of talking heads, the story Leviathan tells is more than fascinating enough to sustain interest for fans of the films. Director Kevin McDonagh has managed to round up many of Barker's theatre collaborators, many of whom ended up involved in the films, such as Hellbound writer Peter Atkins, and most famously, Doug Bradley, who played Pinhead. Their stories of life on the road with the Dog Company theatre troupe help provide some insight into the journey from stage to page to big screen. However, they also leave no doubt that despite the collaborative and collective nature of the organisation, Barker was the prime mover.

Eventually though, it dawns on you that his is the one voice missing, presumably as he was unable or unwilling to talk. Obviously, this skewed the overall viewpoint, and was one of three factors that, by the end of the film, left me feeling as though the story was still incomplete.

The second was, although there is no shortage of people saying that the film is great and Clive Barker is a genius, this was not followed up with anywhere near enough real discussion of why the film and the characters associated with it were so original and iconic. There also no questions as to what sort of wider cultural impact did the film have, or any of the themes explored in Hellraiser.

Thirdly, despite the title, the version of Leviathan that I saw stopped abruptly just as the story got to the sequel, Hellbound, with that film getting little more than a cursory mention. Perhaps both of these complaints will be remedied on the DVD, with a longer version or bonus features. In the meantime, Leviathan is worth a look for horror fans, especially those interested in the early years of Clive Barker, even though the end product is ultimately a little frustrating for not going beyond the surface of the story.