Sunday, 12 November 2017

Excision (2012)

Excision is an intriguing and disturbing mix of teen angst, suburban tension, and Cronenberg style body horror.

Pauline (Annalynne McCord) is a teenage outcast, obsessed with surgery and losing her virginity, a combination that leads to some erotic and gory dreams. The interest in medicine is not entirely morbid, as Pauline wants to cure her younger sister Grace, who has cystic fibrosis.

This is an excellent, assured debut from writer/director Richard Bates, Jr, who keeps the pace restrained and the gore unhinged. Some scenes are reminiscent of David Lynch, with the juxtaposition of suburban banality and gross disturbing imagery. Pauline is a great character, a mix of unashamed assertiveness and manipulation, and an disturbing innocence. 

There's an first-class supporting cast with Traci Lords as Pauline's uptight religious mother, locked in a permanent power struggle with her wayward daughter and cameos from Malcolm McDowell and John Waters as Pauline's maths teacher and priest respectively.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Carry On Cabby (1963)

The first few Carry On films are largely variations on a theme, with well-meaning bumblers wreaking havoc in a variety of jobs. Carry on Cabby keeps the work based setting, but cuts back on the bumbling to concentrate on the battle of the sexes.

Charlie Hawkins (Sid James) runs a highly successful cab firm, and the cab firm runs his life, much to the chagrin of his neglected other half Peggy (Hattie Jacques). To teach Charlie a lesson, Peggy clandestinely starts her own business, Glamcabs, employing only sexy young women as drivers. As Glamcabs starts to poach Charlie's business, he resorts to sabotage.

This may look like a case of women getting the upper hand, but, of course, this is a Carry On film, so for the women to fight back they have to use sexist methods, and the drivers are picked purely on their looks and legs.

The script is more story driven than later films in the series, favouring a tone that is warm and innocent rather than the knowing smut that would follow. There is a focus on relationships, and subtle little characterisations, such as Charlie helping out ex-army people, a code he sticks to loyally even if it means employing a hopelessly clumsy halfwit like Pintpot (Charles Hawtrey)

The end result is a film played straight and realistically by an excellent cast, and one more grounded in reality, and less cartoonish than the series would become.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Delta Force 2 (1990)

A sequel only in name and star to the 80s original, Delta Force 2 is typical of the shoot first, ask questions later approach to film making taken by its makers, the legendary Cannon Films studios. While the original at least started with serious intent, before spiralling out of control this one starts stupid and doesn't stop.

Chuck Norris reprises his role as Major Scott McCoy, this time going after a South American drug lord Ramon Cota (Billy Drago). He has a partner, Bobby Chavez, which makes the first part feel like a buddy cop film, and once we are introduced to Chavez's ideal family life, we know he is doomed. At this point the film changes to more of a revenge thriller, akin to the James Bond film License to Kill, released a year earlier than this.

The script throws in every dumb cliché and wretched cornball one-liner known to man, and look out for the training montage that seems to be Chuck trying to cripple everyone else in the Delta Force. Not that you need an army when Chuck is on the case, of course.

Delta Force 2 retains the cheap, made for TV look of its predecessor, although as this is the 90s, whereas the first looked like looked like an episode of The A-Team, this looks like an episode of Macgyver. More importantly, like the first Delta Force, the invincibility of Chuck kills any tension, and the endless explosions eventually become tiring.

However, the real star of this show is not the unlikeable and dull Norris, or the pantomime villain Drago. Instead, John P Ryan, steals the show as Norris’ boss General Taylor. His hilarious, unrestrained take on the role makes Taylor more nuts than anyone Norris is trying to gun down or blow up, especially when he decides to go on a killing rampage in a helicopter gunship.

It is worth remembering that, for all the jingoism and flag waving on screen, at the time Delta Force 2 was released, elements of the CIA had their hands dirty, with some of their South American anti-communist friends financing their operations by smuggling drugs to the USA.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Delta Force (1986)

Inspired by a real life plane hijacking incident, The Delta Force is an odd disjointed mix of tense hijack thriller and goofy macho comic book war film that lacks the truly unhinged quality of the most entertaining efforts by the legendary Cannon Films studios.

The plot, initially at least, loosely follows the true story of the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 by Libyan terrorists. Amongst other things, they separated the Jewish (or Jewish sounding) passengers and shot a US Navy diver who was on board and dumped his body on the runway. The fact that all this took place less than a year before the film's release, almost feels like a throwback to the 1930s Warner Brothers boast of having stories "torn from today's headlines"

The first half has both a tense, docudrama feel and an astonishing support cast that includes Hollywood veterans Robert Balsam, Joey Bishop, George Kennedy, Shelley Winters, and Lee Marvin, all of whom do their best, despite seeming totally out of place in a violent, cheap looking 80s action film.

Eventually The Delta Force switches gears drastically and turns into an A-Team episode on steroids, complete with flat cinematography and a cheesy rousing theme tune, with Chuck Norris leading his troops into battle, then leaving them behind so he can tear around on a motorbike that fires missiles, while all around him people shoot other people at close range without anybody getting hit, and there is a plentiful supply of cardboard boxes and fruit stands to drive through.

Ultimately though, this does start to drag, the endless explosions become numbing, and knowing Norris is invincible makes it impossible to create any peril or suspense.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Hercules (1983)

Made by the legendary Cannon studios to cash in on the likes of Conan the Barbarian, and star Lou Ferrigno's TV success as the Incredible Hulk, Hercules is very cheap and very cheerful, but it asks for so little from the viewer it's hard not to like it.

The plot sees the evil King Minos (William Berger) and the sorceress Adriana (Sybil Danning) scheming to take over the world. For this, for some reason, they need to sacrifice Cassiopeia (Ingrid Anderson), who happens to be the girlfriend of our hero Hercules (Ferrigno).

The star is not exactly charismatic, but fortunately he is surrounded by reliable European genre stalwarts such as Danning and Eva Robin who pick up the slack. The script has the intelligence of a ten-year-old, but it also has the wide-eyed innocence and energy of one too, and the delirious twists and turns have an energy that stops things ever getting dull.

This was not the first time that writer and director Luigi Cozzi had been hired to cash in on more successful Hollywood product. His previous efforts included Alien Contamination, with extra-terrestrials causing exploding chests, and Star Wars rip-off Starcrash. The latter featured some very low budget stop motion work, something Cozzi employs here, when Minos dispatches mechanical monsters to stop Hercules. This use of technology seems rare in sword-and-sorcery films and gives Hercules a minor unique edge over others in the genre.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

An energetic and atmospheric take on the Sherlock Holmes tale, the Hammer Studios version of The Hound of the Baskervilles works as both an exciting detective story and an atmospheric Gothic chiller.

Although some changes are made to the source material, the basic plot remains the same, with Holmes (Peter Cushing) and Watson (Andre Morell) called on to investigate the mythical supernatural beast that has been haunting and killing members of the Baskerville family for hundreds of years. After his uncle Charles Baskerville is found dead, nephew Henry, the last of the line, finds himself left with the family estate – but does this have an unwanted extra, namely, the fatal family curse?

Cushing makes an excellent Holmes, a keen and energetic man with a razor-sharp brain and tongue to match, while Morell plays Watson closer to the literary version of the character, the heart to Holmes' brain, rather than the affable duffer that Nigel Bruce went for in the Basil Rathbone era films. Christopher Lee acquits himself well, playing a good guy for a change, but with enough charisma and haughty aristocratic manner to make Sir Henry convincing.  The script rattles along at a good pace, and the changes from the novel merely help make the story pacey and visual without dumbing it down.

What really makes this a unique take on the story is the way director Terence Fisher seamlessly blends Holmes and his world into that of Hammer Horror. The Baskerville house could just as easily be the Frankenstein residence, and the lush colours, bold music, and spooky atmosphere could be right out of any of their genuinely more supernatural efforts.

Friday, 8 September 2017

The Curse of the Crimson Altar (1968)

A garish mix of occult themed horror and groovy Sixties British psychedelia, The Curse of the Crimson Altar is not scary, but the colourful energy and supporting cast of Barbara Steele, Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff make it worth a look.

Antiques dealer Robert Manning (Mark Eden) is searching for his missing brother, last seen at Craxted Lodge a remote manor in the English countryside. The manor's owner, Morely (Lee) claims never to have heard of him, but nevertheless invites Manning to stay while the hunt continues. While there, manning starts to suffer vivid nightmares involving a sinister witchcraft cult headed by a mysterious woman (Steele). Is there a link between the dreams and to Manning's quests? And what are the real motives of occult expert Professor Marsh (Karloff)?

The plot is a little more confused than that synopsis makes it sound but the oily charm of Lee and the sinister menace of a cadaverous looking Karloff, coupled with the crazy sleazy dreams of rituals involving a green body painted Steele and a man wearing nothing but a leather apron and a helmet of antlers more than make up for any slow points.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Manchester By The Sea (2016)

Manchester By The Sea combines devastating tragedy with flashes of humour to create a film that is heartbreaking and emotional without ever being maudlin or histrionic.

Casey Affleck plays Lee, a gruff janitor living in a basement flat in Boston. After receiving the news that his older brother Joe has suddenly died, Lee has to make his way back to his former home, the snowbound titular Massachusetts town. Through a series of increasingly devastating flashbacks, we learn why Lee left in the first place, and why he is so reluctant to return.

Affleck's performance is astonishing, avoiding any showy, Oscar baiting wailing speeches. He is full of anger and pain, but it is always kept inside, hinted at with uncomfortable stares and gritted teeth.

The other main character is the town itself. The freezing weather drives one important element of the story, and the snow covered streets seem the perfect place for a character who keeps his emotions buried.

The film is ultimately about somebody coming to terms with what they have done and trying to find a way to move on. Kenneth Lonergan is smart enough (and respectful enough to the intelligence of his audience) to realise that this is a slice of real life. Lessons don't get learned, story strands don't get neatly tied up, but people change, and people learn about themselves and each other, and try to get on with life as best they can.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Final Portrait (2017)

Films exploring the challenges of the creative process of other artistic mediums can be a challenge in themselves, the challenge being how to explore that process without having characters just sitting at their typewriters or canvasses, scowling, swearing, and smoking endless cigarettes.

The Final Portrait fails in this respect, and is not helped by a showy, distracting turn by Geoffrey Rush as famed artist Alberto Giacometti, and a bland and forgettable performance by Armie Hammer as real-life writer and art scholar James Lord.

The story revolves around Giacometti offering to paint a portrait of Lord, something that should only take an afternoon, but ends up dragging on for over a fortnight. With each day, Lord gets dragged further into the artist's world and the people in it, such as his brother Diego Giacometti, and his long-suffering wife Annette.

Unfortunately, writer/director Stanley Tucci gives us no insight into why Giacometti is so utterly obsessed with painting Lord and why Lord puts up with the constant delays, which come at great expense and inconvenience to himself.

Instead, we get some heavy-handed characterisation showing Giacometti drinking, cavorting with a prostitute, unsure and uncaring as to where to hide a huge pile of money, and repeatedly shouting "Ow Faaaak" at the canvas as his latest attempt to paint Lord runs into trouble. We get it. He's an artist. He doesn't care about money or other people's feelings. He can't make his mind up about his art. As to why any of this is the case, no idea.

Having said that, the film looks great, and while the characters are not convincing, the boozy, shabby chic world of 1960s Bohemian Paris that they live in most definitely is.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Carry On Teacher (1959)

Being only the third in the series, Carry On Teacher lacks a few of the elements associated with the films, but we can already see a rough blueprint of how they will develop.

William Wakefield (played by Ted Ray, in his only Carry On film) is the Headmaster of Maudlin Street Secondary Modern School. His hopes of getting a job at a shiny new school rest entirely on the results of a visit by Government Inspector Miss Wheeler, and noted child psychiatrist Alistair Grigg (Leslie Phillips). However, the pupils don't want Wakefield to leave, and plot to sabotage the inspection by any means necessary.

Several actors would go on to be Carry On regulars and here seem to be rehearsing the roles they would play on a more regular basis, with Kenneth Connor as an affable duffer, Charles Hawtrey as a camp neurotic, and Joan Sims as Sarah Allcock, the object of male desire. The exception is Kenneth Williams, playing straight as Edwin Milton, the English teacher, very different from the leering grotesque persona of the later films. (Look also for a very young Richard O'Sullivan, of later Man About the House fame)

Being a Carry On film, some of the script revolves around sex, particularly Grigg chasing after Allcock, and the innuendo in her name does not go unnoticed. However, this is rather tame and anodyne, lacking the bawdy energy that the likes of Sid James would bring into later films of the series.

In fact, the world of Carry On Teacher is an uncomplicated, sometimes sentimental one, but modern viewers might find one aspect jarring. Corporal punishment is a recurring theme, particularly the reluctance of Wakefield to administer it, and is a reminder of a time when British school children faced the possibility of physical punishment from their teachers.