Sunday, 23 October 2016

The 39 Steps (1935)

Fast paced, sexy and brilliantly written and directed, The 39 Steps is a landmark in the career of Alfred Hitchcock that lays out his distinctive vision, both in terms of story and cinematic technique.

A simple evening at a London music hall turns into a nightmare for Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), when it ends in gunshots, a panicked crowd and a beautiful and mysterious woman who calls herself Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim). After a trip back to Hannay's flat, Smith reveals that not only is she a spy, but she is being pursued by enemy agents after uncovering a plot to steal British military secrets. When Smith is murdered in his flat, and Hannay framed for the crime, he has no choice but to go on the run, using the little information Smith and told him to find the secrets and clear his name. With this being a Hitchcock film, we also get a beautiful blond woman to join him for the ride.

The film starts off at a roaring pace and barely stops for breath. Within twenty minutes of screen time Hannay goes from rakish man about town to wanted man on the run. Hitchcock effectively deploys one of his trademark storytelling devices, The MacGuffin. This is an object or person that presents the motivation or goal for a character, in this case the stolen military secrets, and drives the story, without ever overwhelming it, so the audience can enjoy the digressions.

Hitchcock also shows an assured and developed cinematic technique, going far beyond the simple static framing and sluggish editing of some of his contemporaries. He uses the camera lens to manipulate the point of view and knowledge of the audience, mixing suspense and surprises, and throws in simple but effective methods such as quick transition shots showing changes of location help keep the breakneck pace.

All of this is aided by, as you would expect from Hitchcock, a well constructed script, with set ups and pay-offs. The "innocent man caught up in something dangerous" plot was something that Hitchcock had used before in the silent film The Lodger and the original version of The Man Who Knew Too Much and would use again, most notably in North by Northwest. But here is where we see him first trying other tropes and ideas that he would come back to, the sharp witty dialogue, such the icy cool blonde female sidekick, and the chemistry between the two lead actors. It is also a surprisingly, for the time it was released, sexy film, whether in the scene of the two stars handcuffed together on a bed, or the conversation between two ladies underwear salesman on a train.

The story itself does sound absurd, and at one point one character says that Hannay's tale "sounds like a spy story". This is the case with many of Hitchcock's films, but to use this is as a criticism is to miss the point of what a film like this is about. It does sound absurd, but, like somebody trapped in a dream, that is what he has to deal with, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

Monday, 10 October 2016

The Sorcerers (1967)

The life and career of Michael Reeves was tragically cut short at the age of 25 by an accidental drugs overdose, and while much of the focus of his career is on the brilliant Witchfinder General, it would be shame if The Sorcerers was overlooked. Although made cheaply and quickly, it has a creepy, decadent atmosphere, a fascinating premise and a sympathetic and dignified turn from Boris Karloff.

He plays Professor Marcus Monserrat, an ageing hypnotherapist who has a bizarre new contraption that lets him and his wife Estelle enter and control the mind of anyone they can persuade to undergo his treatment. Not only that but they get to live vicariously through them, experiencing the sights, sounds and sensations that the subject does, the subject in question being Mike (Ian Ogilvy), a jaded party animal in Swinging Sixties London. But the scientific quest of the Professor starts to take a back seat as Estelle starts to want more and more thrills - including murder.

Reeves was, despite his youth and inexperience, gifted at using limited time and resources. He also made good choices both in casting and direction. With the former, he clearly realised the artistic and commercial potential of having a charismatic horror film icon in the lead role, and Karloff brings a humanity and sympathy to the character of Monserrat, who grows increasingly appalled as his creation spirals out of control. This trick would be repeated by Reeves with Vincent Price in Witchfinder General. He also gives the film a gritty, and at times, brutal feel, and doesn't skimp on the blood and violence. The photography is sharp with a documentary feel which does not paint a flattering picture of the groovy young swingers and their world.

The premise is ludicrous but Reeves quite rightly does not focus on how the machine works, but rather on the consequences of having this sort of power. This is in turn leads to a number of possible readings of the film. On one hand it can be seen as a morality tale of how absolute power corrupts absolutely, or alternatively, a metaphor for cinema itself, how we the audience vicariously live through the characters on screen.

The Sorcerers (1967) Trailer from from PICTURE PALACE MOVIE POSTERS on Vimeo.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

That's Entertainment! (1974)

Made to commemorate fifty years of MGM, That’s Entertainment is a nostalgic trip through the history of the studio's contribution to the genre that made them. It features the contemporary presence of several bona fide stars of the day, such as Frank Sinatra, James Stewart, Bing Crosby and Debbie Reynolds, all waxing lyrical about their experiences with the dances, songs and fellow artists, and clips from over sixty MGM films from the 1920s (starting with the first MGM musical, The Broadway Melody of 1929, the first film to feature the song Singin’ in the Rain) to the 1950s. Fascinatingly, when viewed together, the deluge of clips reveals some interesting things.

Firstly is the contrast between the sleek, extravagant sets in films such as The Band Wagon and Good News and the rather sad, dilapidated state of the MGM lot as it was by the 70s, on the verge of demolition. This certainly emphasises the gulf between the two eras, and increases the feeling of nostalgia. This is something that could well have been felt at the time of release, with the United States mired in the Watergate Scandal, and is tacitly acknowledged in the strapline on the poster (“Boy, do we need it now”).

Secondly, while we are used to seeing the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and Eleanor Powell in musicals, the ubiquity of the genre during the 30s and 40s meant that all of MGM’s talent were expected to be able to sing and dance, and the sight of James Stewart and Cary Grant giving it their best is wonderfully surprising.

Thirdly is the gradual evolution of cinematic style, from simply pointing a static camera at performers on a stage, to two distinctive directing techniques. On one hand is the style made famous by directors such as Stanley Donen in the likes of Singin' in the Rain, where the emphasis is very much on individual performers, with long unbroken takes as the camera glides up and down in their wake. The polar opposite of this is the Busby Berkeley style, of grand, often surreal spectacle, with scores of performers moving in sync amid lavish sets, or in the case of Small Town Girl, Anne Miller dancing through a sea of disembodied arms holding musical instruments.

One thing that all of the clips have in common is an energy and exuberance, which means That's Entertainment is never dull viewing. It works as a primer for those new to the genre and trip through memory lane for existing fans.

Friday, 9 September 2016

Cafe Society (2016)

After one or two recent misfires, Woody Allen is back on form with Cafe Society. More of a witty drama than an outright comedy, this is a film which harks back to the era of some of his earlier work such as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Bullets over Broadway, although with a completely different style to either of these.

Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) is the youngest child in a 1930s New York Jewish family, where elder sister Evelyn works as a school teacher, while his elder brother Ben is a gangster. Desperate to escape all of this, Bobby moves to Hollywood, getting a job running errands for his high flying agent uncle Phil (Steve Carell). From here, he falls in love with Bobby's secretary Vonnie, has his heart broken in a particularly cruel twist of fate, moves back to New York, starts managing his brother's high-end nightclub, meets and marries another woman called Vonnie - then meets the original Vonnie again.

The different story strands illustrate themes that have recurred throughout Allen's career, particularly in regard to chance, fate, and justice, summed up in Bobby's observation that ‘Life is a comedy written by a sadistic comedy writer.’

Eisenberg does a great job of channelling the tics and mannerisms of Allen's onscreen character. He is aided by Kristen Stewart, who as Vonnie number one, switches gear believably between lowly secretary and Hollywood wife, Steve Carrel, who brings both toughness and vulnerability to the part of Uncle Phil and Blake Lively, who makes the best of an underused part as Vonnie number two.

It is also interesting to see Allen return to a subject that he seems to have left alone for a while. Jewishness is something that defines the Dorfman family, and while it does fuel a few trademark Allen one-liners, the abandoning of this by one of their clan drives one part of the story.

Allen is not afraid to both explore and criticise two big American mythologises of the 1930s, Hollywood and gangsters. While both are undeniably glamorous for the people viewing them from a distance, and financially rewarding for those involved, any wide eyed naivety is undercut by unpleasant bitchiness for the former and gruesome violence for the latter. He also, and not for the first time in his work, ends the film on a somewhat bittersweet note, with lives changed for the worse, hopes and dreams left unfulfilled and characters left wondering what could have been.

Friday, 2 September 2016

That's My Wife (1929) / Along Came Auntie (1926)


From their sometimes underappreciated silent era, That's My Wife is quintessential Laurel & Hardy, featuring the key ingredients of a well-structured script, great chemistry between the stars and a scheme that may be fool proof, but certainly isn't idiot-proof.

The script spends little time getting down to the action, and the gags are not strung together at random, but are driven by the plot, as well as driving it forward. Olly has a rich uncle who has promised him a large sum of money, provided he is happily married. Unfortunately, this is not the case, with Mrs Hardy having stormed out of the marital home in disgust at their malingering houseguest, Mr Laurel, just minutes before the arrival of said uncle. So, Stan is pressganged into putting on a dress and posing as the love of Olly's life, even when Uncle insists on a visit to a raucous nightclub.

Much mileage is got out of Stan’s poor attempts to pass as a woman, from his fondness for cigars to his dumbbell cleavage enhancement, but there is no shortage of slapstick, such as the recurring gag with a hapless waiter and a cake. Far from becoming repetitive, jokes like this start to take on a feeling of inevitability, that somehow when Laurel and Hardy appear in people’s lives, chaos and misfortune inevitably follow. But as well as their effect on other people, all the best Laurel and Hardy films are also about the effect they have on each other, and the way they seem inexorably stuck with each other. Indeed, by the end, Olly has lost his wife and his chance of getting his hands on a big sum of money, and all he has left is Stan.

For completists, a interesting companion piece to this film is a 1926 silent comedy called Along Came Auntie. Only Olly appears on appears on screen, Stan's contributions being purely on the writing side.

The plot has similar basis to That's My Wife, with a woman, played by Vivien Oakland, set to receive $100,000 and a truckload of diamonds from her aunt. Said Aunt is not a fan of divorce, which proves awkward as Vivian has, unbeknown to her current husband, taken in first husband Vincent Belcher (played by Olly, initially hard to recognise, being several pounds lighter than usual and hiding behind a big moustache) as a lodger in order to cover her mounting debts.

Much slightly strained farce ensues, with the film most noticeable for what it lacks compared to That's My Wife. Firstly the action all takes place in one house, often feeling like a filmed stage comedy, whereas the second part of That's My Wife moves out of the house and into the nightclub. Secondly the script does not have the same structure or pacing of That's My Wife, seeming both rushed and tiresome in places, and the characters bland and uninteresting. Thirdly, what is really lacks is the chemistry and partnership of Stan and Olly, again emphasising what a bright idea it was to pair them up together.

Along Came Auntie (B&W) 1926 - Laurel & Hardy by herbert-hueller

Friday, 12 August 2016

The Green Inferno (2015)

The Green Inferno harks back to the Italian cannibal films of the 1970s but lacks the truly disturbing edge of the likes of Cannibal Holocaust, as well as their grimy underground feel. In addition the misjudged tone and annoying characters blunt any satirical edge.

Justine (Lorenza Izzo) is a college student and daughter of a UN lawyer. After going to a lecture on female genital mutilation, and meeting hunky rabble-rouser Alejandro, she agrees to sign up his protest trip to take a gang of do-gooders to halt a logging company and their paramilitary security in the Amazon rainforest. It looks like their protest is a success, but after their plane crashes on the return trip, the protesters soon realise that the people they are trying to save would rather have them for dinner.

To his credit, Roth has made a mostly well-structured film in terms of plot, and there are also some brilliant set pieces, not least the plane crash, which is every bit as stomach churning as any gut munching scene.

While the most of the characters exist in order to be bumped off, Roth takes time introduce some tension in the group, particularly through Justine, who finds to her disgust that the crusaders are happy to put her life at risk without asking, banking on her daddy's reputation to avoid her getting killed.

The film also brings the cannibal genre into the twenty first century. For a start, the idea of Westerners flying into a foreign country uninvited with good aims, only to have the natives turn on them still seems topical. The narcissistic campaigners seem as obsessed with getting their work noticed on the internet or planning their next tattoo as with any good they are doing. However Roth seems to lack any ideas as to where to go beyond this, and the constant sneering at the mostly unlikeable characters becomes tiresome, not helped by misjudged scenes about drugs and diarrhoea.

The lush photography is wonderful and is a throwback to more highbrow 70s films such as Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God. The cannibals, while portrayed by a real South American tribe, are never shown to be more than obviously outrageous caricatures so I found it hard to get as offended I might have done if I thought Roth was trying to portray anything realistic. But for all the nods to more lowbrow Grindhouse cinema of the same decade like this, The Green Inferno lacks two important elements from these films.

Firstly is unsimulated animal cruelty, something that makes the likes of Cannibal Holocaust uncomfortable viewing even in these jaded times. Incidentally, it is something that Holocaust director Ruggero Deodato seems to regret, having recently completed a special cut of the film that eliminates nearly all of the animal footage, while keeping, it should be noted, nearly all of the human cruelty. Similarly, the focus in The Green Inferno is on the grim and gory fates that befall the cast.

The second hinges on the viewing experience itself. I watched The Green Inferno on a plasma screen TV from a DVD I had bought in a supermarket. I first saw Cannibal Holocaust on a grimy, wonky, third generation dubbed VHS (on a double bill with Cannibal Ferox), borrowed from someone at school who had bought it from an ad in the back of a horror movie mag, with the sound turned down so my parents wouldn’t hear it. Every aspect of this reinforced the feeling that I was watching something truly underground and transgressive, (which also distracted from the problems with the film). Without being able to capture these elements The Green Inferno becomes ultimately, just another horror film.

Eli Roth's The Green Inferno - Official Trailer by FanReviews

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Night of the Demon (1957)

Night of the Demon is a wonderfully wry supernatural story, with the chills coming from the ambiguity and atmosphere, and the tension and drama coming from the battle of wits between the human lead characters.

Psychologist Dr. John Holden (Dana Andrews) comes to England from the US for a science convention at which he plans to expose renowned occultist Julian Karswell (Niall MacGinnis) as a charlatan and a cult leader. On arrival he finds that not only has his research partner, Professor Harrington, has died in a mysterious accident, but Harrington was growing increasingly afraid of the powers he thought Karswell possessed. Holden is having none of this however, even when Karswell tells him he is going to die in three days time. But as increasingly strange incidents keep occurring, Holden is forced to question whether the supernatural does exist - and whether or not his days are numbered.

Andrews does not totally convince as a scientist, but one thing he does bring to the role is a forcefulness and an unshakeable faith in rationalism that makes him a believable opponent to Karswell, an equally strong character supposedly based on the so-called “wickedest man in the world”, real life occult guru Aleister Crowley.

The tension between the two is palpable as the cat-and-mouse games escalate, but it also found an off screen parallel in tensions between this film's producer and director. Hal E Chester originally wanted to make a straightforward monster movie rather than ambiguity and atmosphere, and shot the scenes involving the demon without the director's knowledge. With little money in the budget, the end result is a little bit silly. The appearance at the beginning of the film sets completely the wrong tone for what is to follow, and the appearance at the end almost undoes the hard work that the director and actors have done up to then - almost,but not quite.

Director Jacques Tourneur had built a career on spooky and atmospheric horror classics such as Cat People and I Walked with a Zombie. He takes a similar approach here, with the end results feeling wonderfully spooky, rather than actually terrifying, with a ghoulish sense of humour thrown in, and much as the incidents affecting become ever more baffling they never truly spill over into the supernatural.

In addition, in all three of the demon's appearances, there are no external witnesses so it could still be argued that there is some ambiguity as to whether it makes it into the real world or whether it is simply a demon of the mind.

Night of the Demon (1957) by MargaliMorwentari