Monday, 31 October 2016

Ghoulies
Dir: Luca Bercovici
1984
***
Ghoulies is one of those comedy horror films of the 1980s that found notoriety thanks to a brilliant VHS cover. Originally titled 'Beasties', the film was meant to be directed by Charles Band of Empire Pictures fame, featuring the special effects and puppetry of the mighty Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, The Thing, Predator). Band directed a segment of Ragewar (AKA The Dungeonmaster) instead while Winston made a little film called the The Terminator, leaving Luca Bercovici with directional duties and John Carl Buechler (who would go on to direct Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College and Troll) in charge of the puppets. The acting is fairly awful and the story a little ridiculous but these things are unimportant in cheesy b-movie horror. The real shame is that there is a distinct lack of Ghoulies, somewhat of a problem when a. the poster promises Ghoulies and b. the film is called Ghoulies. Unlike Jaws, less isn't more when it comes to low budget horror. The VHS cover is glorious and always had me transfixed when I would gaze up at it on the shelf of my local video store in the late 80s. It basically shows a little green Ghoulie puppet popping out the top of a toilet with the tag line 'They'll get you in the end'. Utterly brilliant and if there was an Oscar for best poster it would have been sure-fire winner. The film is a bit rubbish, it is this image alone that gave it it's cult following. However, the film is in so bad its good territory and thanks to a couple of choice scenes, it's a firm three star film. The Ghoulies themselves could have been better but their awakening scene is glorious, as is the scene when one finally did come up the toilet, although it doesn't make any sense and was clearly put in to match the promotional image. Some of the better horror scenes actually come courtesy of Michael Des Barres' devil-worshiping character. Des Barres, who has clearly found his inner Klaus Kinski, appears in the two best scenes of the film, the first being when he suddenly pops out of his own grave, mouth wide open and then when he turns into an older woman and extends his tongue around one of the teenage party guest's neck. The film is at its best when it isn't taking itself too seriously, personally I think it could have ditched the devil worshiping type story line and the Ghoulies themselves could have come from elsewhere but it's all good. It just needed more Ghoulies and more toilets.
High Spirits
Dir: Neil Jordan
1988
****
There is something rather topsy-turvey about Neil Jordan's family-friendly horror High Spirits, and if it were any other film I'd probably be quite critical about it, but there is a certain charm about it, a unique quirk, that I find rather irresistible. Peter O'Toole is fantastic as Peter Plunkett, a hard-drinking descendant of a wealthy and illustrious family and now owner of the family's castle. In the heart of rural Ireland, the castle is in disrepair and with no money to speak of, Plunkett considers ending it all. That us until, after a hilarious conversation with his Mother (the brilliant Liz Smith), he realizes that opening the castle as a haunted hotel would probably attract the attention of wealthy (and rather gullible) Americans. He and his staff set about creating various ghostly special effects to trigger once the guest have arrived, all of which end with hilarious results. The American guests and an eclectic mix of actors including Steve Guttenberg, Beverly D'Angelo as his wife, Jennifer Tilly as a sex kitten on holiday, Peter Gallagher as a priest visiting the holy land and is brought to temptation by Tilly, Martin Ferrero (the guy who gets eaten on the toilet in Jurassic Park) and his wife Connie Booth of Fawlty Towers fame. The fake haunting is soon discovered by the disgruntled guests, however, the castle's real ghost soon appear and spooky high jinks follow suit. The acting is okay, Steve Guttenberg is the same as he is in everything he's ever been in, Beverly D'Angelo is a great actress but is given very little to play with and I'm pretty sure Peter O'Toole just played himself and was actually drunk in all the scenes his character was required to be drunk in. I quite liked Jennifer Tilly and Peter Gallagher's relationship but it very much took second seat to the main story. The film does get a little odd towards the end when Steve Guttenberg falls in love with the ghost of 'Toole's great, great, great, great, great, great grand cousin (played by Daryl Hannah) and Beverly D'Angelo falls in love with the ghost of her murderous husband (played by Liam Neeson). Somehow, D'Angelo dies (is murdered) and Hannah manages to come back to life in her place and essentially the two men swap wives and it is meant to be a happy ending. Guttenberg is pretty over the top and much of the comedy is forced by the American cast, while the Irish cast keep it quite subtle and therefore more effective. It is a madcap mess in all honesty but in the most wonderful of ways. There is nothing worse than a light-hearted family horror that tries to take itself too seriously and the main strength that makes the film so appealing is that it is consistently fun. Unlike any other film by Neil Jordan but just as good in my opinion, but for completely different reasons.

Friday, 28 October 2016

I, Daniel Blake
Dir: Ken Loach
2016
*****
Ken Loach announced his retirement in 2014 following the release of Jimmy's Hall, a film about Jimmy Gralton, leader of the Revolutionary Workers Group of the 1930s. He was 78. However, on the news that the Conservative Party had been re-elected into Government in 2015 and following their controversial 'Fit for Work' scheme that has since led to countless premature deaths and suicides, Loach declared he had another film in him, one that he felt was important to make. I, Daniel Blake is a very simplistic tale of how real people are effected by the 'Fit for Work' scheme, Britain's Employment and Support Allowance and the Support Allowance Work capability Assessment. Loach has used just a few of the many real stories he has collected from people in similar situations as an example of what people have to go through during tough times. For years, the British (mainly right-wing) media have pointed the blame for the country's financial failure at those that claim sickness and job seekers benefits, with I, Daniel Blake, Loach explores the truth of the situation, that many people who have worked all their lives and have paid their taxes, have been left without any of the benefits that they are entitled to. The Court of Human Rights have deemed the new scheme as unlawful, although the government announced they had said otherwise. The government attempted to hide the real number of those that have actually died as a result but even when it leaked, the media barely covered it. It is a stand against the bureaucracy and the cruelty that has been inflicted on the poor and hardworking by the rich and greedy. It really is that simple, it's an opinion often mocked but it is an age-old truth. I fear things have got worse and that people have become numb to other's suffering, as Loach has also said. Many have stated that I, Daniel Blake is the Cathy Come Home for the current generation and there is a lot of weight behind that. Cathy Come Home, a look at homelessness and the system, had quite the impact when it was released in 1966 and although certain aspects are different now, it is eerily similar. How sad and ridiculous is it then that Loach even had to make I, Daniel Blake, a whole half a century later. The film also tackles the issue of social housing. I've heard a lot of criticism from people who actually grew up in social housing, suggesting that beggars can't be choosers etc but, as we see in the film, people are being moved across the country to get homes they are entitled to, when years ago the waiting list was only a couple of days and it would be where you currently lived. The idea that everyone is on the take is absurd and immoral, turning our backs on each other is a product of a very sick society. The 1980s declared that 'Greed is good' but it's not, it's a sickness and it is time we worked on a cure. Comedian Dave Johns is a bit of perfect casting by Loach, his performances is direct, no nonsense and without manipulation. Hayley Squires is also fantastic, the scene whereby she refuses Daniel Blake's pity and kindness because it will weaken her is a very simple but astonishing piece of cinema. The film doesn't use emotional blackmail, it isn't deceitful or manipulative and certainly isn't sensationalist. That has never been Loach's style or approach. It's the sort of film that makes everyone angry, no matter what side of the political debate you sit on. Loach is now eighty years old, my concern is that there isn't a clear successor to his work, it is tragic that I believe there needs to be. I walked past at least seven homeless people on the walk between underground station and office this morning, this is a very real problem and bless Loach and crew for inserting it into the public's consciousness once more. The best and most important film of 2016.

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Hitchcock/Truffaut
Dir: Kent Jones
2015
****
In 1966 François Truffaut published Hitchcock/Truffaut, a book based on the work of his idol Alfred Hitchcock, following a six day interview he agreed to that took place at universal pictures offices four years earlier. The book is a must for all cinephiles and hopeful film makers alike, it is up there with Adventures In The Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood by William Goldman, Kazan on Directing by Elia Kazan and Making Movies by Sidney Lumet, In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch and On Directing Film by David Mamet. So what exactly is the purpose of Kent Jones' film I wondered? Well, firstly Jones' passion is clear, here he allows other great directors to discuss how the book effected them and how it influenced their great works. Directors such as Martin Scorsese, Paul Schrader, Wes Anderson, David Fincher, Richard Linklater, Arnaud Desplechin and Olivier Assayas explain how this in depth interview, with accompanied stills, really did get to the heart of what makes a great story. It is also a historical piece that you can't truly understand just by reading. The book was almost 50 years old at the time this documentary was made, both Hitchcock and Truffaut are long gone but their techniques are still regarded the best, even though the two directors couldn't be more different. It was a fascinating discussion between the old school and the new wave. I say old school, what I mean is that Hitchcock practically invented modern cinema and gave it a clear structure, there were rules. Truffaut came at film making from a different angle, he even let actors have an opinion on the characters they played. Personally, I think the two men discovered what makes the perfect balance in their discussion and it can be seen in the book. However, thanks to Jones' documentary and the advantage of time, we see the bigger picture. To see the moving pictures as seen in the book gives Truffaut's words a little more clarity and to hear of the two director’s correspondence and friendship that followed the completion of the book is quite a treat that we can learn from further. It certainly made me want to re-watch many of my favourite Hitchcock films and then try to see more influences he may have had in Truffaut's films after 1966. Jones' piece, much like his 2010 film A Letter to Elia, has a certain resonance about it and I suspect it will be a rare example of a documentary that requires repeat viewing to discover more each visit.
The Girl Can't Help It
Dir: Frank Tashlin
1956
****
Frank Tashlin's 1956 musical The Girl Can't Help It came from an amalgamation of rushed ideas and ended up being one of the most influential films to a whole generation, although that generation may not be aware of it. Based on an idea featured in the novel Do Re Mi by Garson Kanin (writer, director, husband of Ruth Gordon and most quotable man in Hollywood history) the film was initially intended as just a quick and cheap vehicle for rising star Jane Mansfield. The joke in Hollywood at the time was that Mansfield couldn't act, she only looked pretty and the film was a satire along the same lines. Mansfield plays Jerri, a 'nobody' with a body, who is due to marry Fats Murdock, a once notorious slot-machine mobster who is only a few years out of the clink. Murdock wants Jerri to become a big star (so he can be seen to marry 'somebody') and hires down on his luck (and alcoholic) press agent Tom Miller to work his magic. Miller has a 'strictly business' reputation, so Fats feels he can trust him but as the two work together, they soon fall deeply in love. The story is fine but the film really is all about the performances and the music. It strikes me that instead of writing a standard musical, the makers cut out the middle and simply hired current young musicians to play themselves and their own music. It could have been laziness, it could have been the work of genius but The Girl Can't Help It has since become known as the birth of Rock 'n' Roll in Hollywood. The film's big number, 'Rock around the Rockpile' is one of the few songs written for the film and is supposed to be a satirical example of how easy Rock 'n' Roll is to produce, as it follows Eddie Cochran's 'Twenty Flight Rock'. It's a bit shocking really and I wonder whether Cochran was aware he was indirectly being made fun of but it was his performance that struck a young John Lennon who had gone to see the film at his local cinema in Liverpool. Lennon would play the same song and perform the same actions to entice a young Paul McCarthy to join his band. Lennon, and many other young musicians and music lovers saw their favourite singers for the first time in the flesh. The film features Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, The Platters, Abbey Lincoln and an amazing performance from Gene Vincent that is so striking, it's no surprise people state that it was the birth of rockabilly. Elvis Presley was offered a role in the film but his agent asked for too much money. Interestingly, Elvis made Jailhouse Rock the following year, with much of the film visiting similar themes and songs. The music is awesome, personally my favourite parts are when the fictional character of Tom Miller sees his lost love, the very real Julie London, every time he drinks too much whiskey. London appears as a scantily dressed ghost and sings a couple of her greatest hits in what are easily my favourite parts of the movie. I also love Edmond O'Brian as the larger than life Fats Murdock and his sidekick/partner in crime Mousie (played by the brilliant Henry Jones). The film also breaks the forth wall quite wonderfully. The introduction sees Tom Ewell literally push the sides of the screen away to create cinemascope and switch the film from black and white to vibrant colour. The closing credits is also brilliant, whereby Fats Murdock jumps through the closing fade to beg the audience to stick around and meet him after the show. I would love to have seen that in the cinemas in 1956. There is so much going on and so much to enjoy, it is amazing that Jane Mansfield actually got a look in, but she does and she proves that she is indeed, more than just a pretty face.
A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor's Hammer
Dir: Leythum
2011
***
The Consultant (also directed by Leythum) acted as a bridge between Iron Man 2 and the rest of the Avenger films. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor's Hammer however, takes us straight to Thor, Marvel's first risk, given that Thor is a mythical God from another world. Thor actually ended up working remarkably well without needing much explanation but Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson was the initial glue the Avengers needed to link together, and also the reason to become Avengers in the first place. Marvel knew the importance of Agent Coulson early on and his popularity was also hard to ignore. Thor's hammer is discovered at the end of Iron Man 2 and Coulson goes to investigate. By this time Marvel knew they were going to make an Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV spin-off show, so A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Thor's Hammer both linked the films and the show and once more gave a far more personal side to Agent Coulson. Much like the The Consultant, the idea is simple, although this time round it really is a one off story and a character piece. It was a very effective exercise in explaining that S.H.I.E.L.D. wasn't just a bureaucratic organisation of worker ants and gives a little bit more of an insight to their methods. It serves a purpose, is a marketing tool but is a likable and very watchable one.
The Consultant
Dir: Leythum
2011
***
The first of the Marvel One-Shots, The Consultant bridged a gap between films, made clear what had happened in the background of Iron Man 2 and helped introduce the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. into the Avengers Universe. Marvel explained that it was a way of experimenting with some of the smaller characters and help interweave plots, which is very true, but the reality is that they formed what is a very clever marketing campaign. You have to buy the following Marvel film on DVD or BlyRay in order to see these One-Shots, which is fair enough as nothing is free, but therein lies their real purpose. It is what it is but The Consultant is good fun, kept the fans keen and let the writers stretch their legs somewhat and have a bit of fun. Clark Gregg's Agent Coulson is a very likable character and vital component in the Marvel universe and The Consultant was the first time we really got to see him doing what he does best for longer than a couple of seconds. The writing is sharp and quick and led the way in the films and in the subsequent TV series. It really did help set an important tone and I believe the later films are better because of the One-Shots. Maybe it’s a nerd thing, I'm a nerd and I appreciate them. While it is nothing special as its own standalone film, it's still likable and enjoyable.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Doctor Strange
Dir: Scott Derrickson
2016
****
Doctor Strange was never a comic I had much time for. I liked the character but I was more into the sci-fi elements and science of the superheroes/Avengers rather than the mystical. Apart from the ill-fated 1978 TV movie, Doctor Strange has troubled Marvel somewhat, with few people wanting to touch it and fewer people knowing quite how to adapt the idea to film. He has appeared in several episodes of the animated Spider-Man, Hulk and his own one-off feature length cartoon (Doctor Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme) but never with any gusto. The character has always been full of potential and finally in 2016 it has been realized. The changes to Doctor Strange's origins are slight and the character tweaks work so much better than in the comics. Conceived back in 1963 by Steve Ditko, the original story saw a brilliant and wealthy surgeon loose the use of his hands following a car accident. Dr Steven Strange then exhausted his life savings and all that he had on experimental procedures and medicines to no avail until he hears of an alternative. He hears of an ancient one who lives in Tibet that can cure anyone and anything and spends his last penny on flying there to find him. He is eventually taught the universes mystical ways and discovers far more than he had anticipated about the world and what threatens it. Instead of returning to medicine he becomes a Sorcerer Supreme and help defend the earth against magical bad guys. Scott Derrickson's version is much the same except for a few changes. Firstly, the ancient one is a white women instead of an elderly Tibetan man. Marvel were accused to a 'whitewash' with this casting decision but as co-writer C. Robert Cargill pointed out in interviews, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn't with this particular character as keeping him as he was could have seen people accuse them of racial stereotyping, and to be fair, a racial stereotype is exactly what he was. Doctor Strange is one of the many silver age comic characters that are particularly out of date. Cargill stated that they cast Tilda Swinton as the ancient one as the character didn't need to have a sex, it was unimportant, the actress would give the character an androgynous feel. I'm not sure how Swinton feels about that but I understand and agree with where he is coming from. She is described as having Celtic origins, fine by me, she's a great actress and is fantastic in the role. Strange's old nemesis Baron Mardo is given a maker over too, he is now much younger, black, has been stripped of his Baronhood (just call him Karl) and looks a lot like the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor. If you are so small minded you think that Marvel are somehow racist, or indeed too politically correct, his casting should balance things out and address your concerns, you also may like to know that Mr Ejiofor does a pretty good job in the role. The look of the original comic has been refined and the good Doctor has quite a panache about him. I've not always been a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch but I have to agree that he is perfectly cast in the role, I honestly can't picture anyone else doing as good a job as him, apart from maybe Robert Downey Jr. There are two baddies (three technically) in the film, one real and one not so real. The real one is Kaecilius, played by the great Mads Mikkelsen (my goodness he's come a long way since Pusher). Originally a student of Baron Mardo, Kaecilius is now an ex-student of the ancient one who wants to join with Dormammu, ruler of the dark dimension and the films not so real villain. The existential ideas and the mirror dimensions explored in the film are in tune with Ditko's interest in the philosophy of Objectivism. The changes, in many respects, keep the essence of his original idea alive. No cameo for Ditko though, he's above all that but I'm glad there is plenty of his in the film to enjoy and enjoy it I did. It's got to be said (and has been), Doctor Strange was a big risk for Marvel. He's not a big character unless you're a fan, most viewers and fans of the film are not comic readers and he will be fairly new to most of them. This is perhaps why Marvel made sure that the film would be particularly unlike the other films in the Marvel/Avengers universe. The Special effects are so good they make Inception look like a Mr. Men book but they're not overdone and they serve a very important purpose. Science takes a bit of a hit but then this isn't all about spirituality and magic either, it's got far more in common with philosophy than it has with and kind of mumbo-jumbo. It really is the thinking person's superhero film, with elements of horror/thriller thrown in for good (and mature) measure. The only thing that doesn't work as well is the humour but I can see huge potential once the Doctor meets up with certain people in the Avengers. The conclusion/finale is unexpected and quite thrilling in that it is unlike any superhero/comic adaption ending that has come before. There is no big fight as such, at least not a physical one, and things are actually fixed rather than destroyed. It's quite an inspiring bit of writing from the guy who wrote the overrated Sinister and the man who directed the worst of the Hellraiser/Urban Legend sequels and the horrible 2008 remake of The Day The Earth Stood Still and wrote the most pointless film ever made (Devils Knot, seriously, why watch it and not watch Paradise Lost instead?). Marvel have made the right decision once again, to be fair though Derrickson's visuals are amazing and C. Robert Cargill started out as a film reviewer, so I have a lot of time for both of them, they have made one of the year’s best blockbuster, so much so that the term blockbuster is probably a bit insulting. I agree with others who say that Marvel go from strength to strength but here, with their least known and most risky character, they've more than delivered, they have excelled.
The Gold Rush
Dir: Charlie Chaplin
1925
*****

Famous for being the film that Charlie Chaplin himself said he most wanted o be remembered for, The Gold Rush signified the beginning of a new high for the director/performer. It was the second of Chaplin's big feature-length films with United Artists and is full of classic scenes. There are two different versions of the film; the silent 1925 original and a re-released version that was shorter and had added music and narration by Chaplin himself. The shorter run time is mainly due to tighter editing but Chaplin also cut many of the romantic scenes between himself and Georgia Hale, the most significant being a long kiss they shared in the final scene. Chaplin's marriage collapsed during the filming of The Gold Rush and he and Hale embarked on a secret relationship. By 1945 Chaplin was married to his fourth and final wife and he didn't want any other declarations of real love to exist on film, particularly in the film he was fondest of. So much of The Gold Rush can be seen in films that have been made since in a cross-section of genres. The cabin on the edge of a cliff is the inspiration behind countless cartoons for starters, I'm not sure the great Hanna-Barbera studios would have even existed without it. Probably the famous and popular scene from the film is Chaplin's little 'Roll dance' whereby the little tramp entertains his dining guests by sticking two forks into two rolls and makes them dance like they are little legs. At the time, audiences around the world laughed so hard that many cinemas would repeat the scene again and again at the viewer's request. Personally it's not my favourite Chaplin movie. I like his more simplistic films, I felt that The Gold Rush had too many plots and an unnecessary romance. I've always favoured The Great Dictator and Modern Times over The Gold Rush but its key scenes do make is an enjoyable classic I'll never tire of watching. Credit is due also to Mack Swain and Tom Murray who are both awesome, it really is their film as much as it is Chaplin's. Genius slap-stick with a bigger budget, an absolute classic and probably one of the most influential comedies of all time.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Batman vs. Robin
Dir: Jay Oliva
2015
****
While I wasn't overly keen on Son of Batman, I thought there was much more to its sequel. It's a direct follow up to the Grant Morrison adaptation but it is based on Batman: The Court of Owls written by Scott Snyder and illustrated by Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion. Jason O'Mara (Batman), Stuart Allan (Damian Wayne/Robin), Sean Maher (Dick Grayson/Knightwing) and David McCallum (Alfred) return for voice acting duties and are joined by voice over veteran Troy Baker as well as Jeremy Sisto and 'Weird Al' Yankovic. The mighty Kevin Conroy voice cameos as Thomas Wayne in a couple of flashbacks, which is a nice touch for fans. Both Jeremy Sisto and 'Weird Al' Yankovic turn out to be presently surprising and Yankovic's version of The Dollmaker is by far the best I've seen across all of the comics and games he has appeared in. Much like Ethan Spaulding's Son of Batman, this animated story arc is unashamedly violent and all the better for it, but Batman vs. Robin takes it to a much higher level. Father and son really do go at it together and the fight between the new and old Robin is also rather brutal but it isn't just the action that is brutal. The very idea behind the story, of secret societies and ultra-conservatism is pretty serious stuff compared to most DC animations. Talon kills without any sense of regret and the young Son of Batman is tempted to follow suit, The Dollmaker kills kids and wears a child's face and Batman is stabbed repeatedly by various undead soldiers. It's pretty awesome really, something the live action DC films could learn from. The character of Damian Wayne is still fairly annoying if I'm being honest but he has purpose and is a little more complex than most comic characters. The script is also refreshingly grown up, with some of the lines being far more killer than most of the punches. Overall it's a breath of fresh air as far as DC animations go.
Carry on Sergeant
Dir: Gerald Thomas
1958
****
Carry on Sergeant is the first Carry On film of the famous British series, although that was never an intention. Based on the play The Bull Boys, Carry on Sergeant was a goofy comedy based on National Service that sticks to the original story apart from the fact the main characters are changed from ballet dancers to a married couple. The term 'Carry on' is used by the British army, it is the alternative to the American 'As you were' but it was used to cash in on the popularity of Val Guest's Carry On Admiral that was released the previous year. The film was a success, so director Gerald Thomas and producer Peter Rogers looked to repeat the formula using a different setting but keeping the 'Carry On' prefix. After the success of their follow up Carry On Nurse, a series was born. Carry on Sergeant featured many rising stars of the time, many of them returning several times as regulars in the Carry On films. Bob Monkhouse is the film's biggest young star but he decided not to return to the franchise. William Hartnell was perfectly cast as the film's Sergeant and was said to have been congratulated by visiting servicemen on his accurate portrayal. He also never returned to the Carry On franchise, choosing to become the first Doctor Who instead. While Shirley Eaton (the golden girl in Goldfinger), Eric Barker (Culpepper Brown in The St Trinian's films), Terence Longdon and Norman Rossington (The Beatles' A Hard Day's Night) appeared in several of the earlier Carry On films, Carry on Sergeant saw the first appearances of some of the series' regulars including Kenneth Williams, Charles Hawtrey, Hattie Jacques, Kenneth Connor and Terry Scott who would all appear on and off in the following 30 films until the last proper Carry On in 1978. It's very different to what is commonly thought of as a Carry On film, there was no over the top finale, it was a little sentimental and had very little of the double entendres the series would become famous for. However, it had that unique character led comedy and killer script the nation would fall in love with. It features probably one of my favourite script-driven scenes across the whole of the series, whereby Eric Barker's Captain Potts analysis each recruit by their individual answers when simply asked for their name and rank. It's good clean fun and it is easy to see why it was such a big hit in 1958, a much loved (and hugely missed) institution was born.
Robin Hood
Dir: Wolfgang Reitherman
1973
***
Walt Disney's Robin Hood is a rather odd mix of merry old England and America's Deep South. Disney had wanted to make an adaption of the Reynard the Fox tales back in the 1930s and although there is still much of the original stories style within Robin Hood, it was thought Reynard himself would be a rather difficult character to sell as a hero to parents. Uncle Walt though the idea was brilliant but argued it would be too sophisticated. They tried again to incorporate Reynard the Fox in their 1950's Treasure Island and then in the 60s they decided a full adaptation was achievable but they changed their minds at the last minute and made The Sword in the Stone instead. Ken Anderson eventually convinced the studio to have a Reynard the Fox type character in a lightened version of Robin Hood but his idea of setting the film in America's Deep south was rejected (Anderson was art director on Song of the South and wanted to recapture it's spirit). However, most of the voice cast had already been hired and this is why many English voices are met with deep southern drawls. The animation is good, no one does sad baby bunny rabbit like Disney, but for me this film is all about the voice work. Brian Bedford was pretty good as Robin considering he was third choice behind Tommy Steele and Bernard Fox, he was joined by the brilliant Phil Harris who pretty much played a slightly different version of Baloo the Bear from Jungle Book. Director Wolfgang Reitherman decided to give the two more of a lead so that the film had more of a 'buddy' element about it, rather than include the merry band of men as Anderson did in the original draft. Roger Miller headed the southern voice cast and narrated the story via a Rooster, western legends Andy Devine and Pat Buttram played Friar Tuck and the Sheriff of Nottingham respectively and John Fiedler (Piglet) played a church mouse. The real pull however was from the voice pairing of the mighty Peter Ustinov as Prince John and Terry-Thomas as his servant and adviser Sir Hiss. The story was very tongue in cheek and reminiscent of the live action comedies of the time. Anderson was said to have cried when he saw what had been done to his original script, and it certainly isn't one of Disney's greatest achievements, but it's an enjoyable version of the Robin Hood story all the same.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Scarface
Dir: Brian De Palma
1983
*****
Brian De Palma (director) and Oliver Stone's (writer) crime classic is loosely based on 1932's Scarface staring Paul Muni and produced by the two big Hollywood Howards; Hawks and Hughes. It was based on the rise of real life gangster Al Capone but changed the names for obvious reasons. Stone's rewrite for De Palma's remake updated the story and made the main character a Cuban Refugee instead of the son of Italian immigrants. Al Pacino had wanted to make a period remake of the original for some time and legendary director Sidney Lumet came up with the idea to have the crime boss start out as a refugee from the mariel boatlift of the early eighties. After the economic collapse of Cuba, 10,000 Cubans came over to America with the agreement of Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter, while most of the refugees had honest intentions of a better life, there were also some who took advantage. Many criminals saw it as an opportunity and indeed many of the prisons were emptied by the Cuban government and shipped over. It is fair to say that the film didn't help Cuban-America relations and there are many unfortunate stereotypes but this more of a reflection on the popularity of the film and a generalization thought of from an audience. There were no malicious intentions and to be fair most of the criminals in the film are American. Lumet and producer Martin Bergman disagreed with much of Lumet's script which was far more political and was more about the American government’s involvement in the drugs trade. Stone and De Palma were hired soon after and were said to be persuaded within just a couple of phone calls. Stone was actually battling his own Cocaine addiction at the time and even moved to Paris were he knew it would be much harder for him to get any so he could finish the script.  Even though Pacino had fought for the film, his friend and rival Robert DeNiro was offered the part first before turning it down. Steven Bauer was cast without an audition in his role as Manny as he was noticed by casting directors in the waiting room and seen as perfect for the role, beating John Travolta who was at that point first choice. Michelle Pfeiffer was Bergman's first choice, while Pacino and De Palma actively fought against her casting, preferring Glenn Close, Geena Davis and Carrie Fisher among many others. Bergman put his foot down and Pfeiffer was cast, which I'm sure wasn't in the least bit awkward during filming. While I think there are many actors who could have played her part just as well, Pfeiffer played it perfectly. F. Murray Abraham is brilliant as a sleazy shoulder-padded Hench-man for Robert Loggia's all too trusting mob boss and Paul Shenar was perfect as Alejandro Sosa, a notorious Bolivian drug lord. Harris Yulin is also great in a minor role as a corrupt narcotics detective but my favourite cast member of all is Arnaldo Santana, the awkward Hench-man who you can't help but feel sorry for. The film did well at the box office but was met with scathing reviews. Even now, there are some who claim it is over rated and mistaken as being a great gangster movie. I disagree, I believe it is one of the greatest gangster movies. Looking at at it now in retrospect, it's the ultimate 80s gangster movie. It's very clever, of its time and with an edge that still rubs some people up the wrong way today but its influence is vast. Many of its scenes are now classics and many of the lines are infamous ('Say hello to my little friend'). It's brilliantly acted, certainly one of Pacino's best and the direction is sublime. The script is top notch and the soundtrack is hugely underrated and one of my favourites. You detest the villain but still want him to succeed all the same, a perfect tale of greedy, power and the delusion of grandeur with plenty of political symbolism for good measure. It's epic.
The Little Match Girl (La petite marchande d'allumettes)
Dir: Jean Renoir
1928
*****
Hans Christian Anderson's heart-breaking short story of The Little Match Girl is brought to life beautifully by one of the world’s greatest ever directors. Jean Renoir's silent film is full of wonder and amazing techniques for the era and Anderson's dream really does become a reality. Catherine Hessling really was stunningly beautiful, it is no surprise that she was discovered by the likes of Henri Matisse who introduced her to her future father-in-law Pierre-Auguste Renoir. You can tell how infatuated Jean Renoir was with his wife in this film, every single shot placing her at the centre even though she was probably a little too old for the part at 28. The dream sequences that the little match girl has are quite wonderful and brilliantly animated and the scene whereby reality melts away is still as striking today as it was in 1928. It is a million miles away from the sort of films he became famous for but it is quite an interesting point of reference in term of his technique and viewpoint and taking away the usual structures of silent film, you can still see much of what you see here in films he would make twenty and thirty years later. The dream sequence is a big part of the story but I would argue that the story's conclusion is the most important and both Renoir and Hessling capture the mood perfectly in all its melancholic glory. The lighting is perfect, to capture the glow from the tiny match flame must have been incredibly challenging, you have to wonder why Renoir would pick such a story to tell but I think it shows just how far he wanted to push himself and his wife. It's often overlooked but I think it is a very important work and I'm not sure many of the great directors were this capable this early in their careers, I think it is still to this day a stunning piece of film.

Friday, 21 October 2016

Meet the Feebles
Dir: Peter Jackson
1989
*****
Long before Peter Jackson was directing epics, winning Oscars and was a knight companion of the New Zealand order of Merit, he wrote, directed and stared in a vomit-inducing sci-fi splatter horror comedy involving aliens and a bloke called Derek who defeats the said aliens single-highhandedly with half of his brain missing. After that, in 1989 to be precise, he made an anti-muppet black comedy musical in which the puppets are involved in adultery, drugs, pornography, and murder and use bad language. It is a masterpiece. Back in the day, Meet The Feebles had a legendary status at school. Spoken of in hushed tones, someone would have claimed to have seen it and some even suggested that 'their brother's mate's dad could probably lend it to them' and there was always false promise that they'd lend it on. I and my mates were desperate to see it, even though we had no hard evidence that it even really existed. This was life -pre-internet. It did exist though and it took quite a long time to track down and buy a copy but it was well worth the wait. It's extremely juvenile, questionable in taste, rips the hell out of all things Jim Henson and is rather graphic but it's also hilarious. It's the dark, underground cult film that I had always hoped it would be. It keeps the format of the Muppet Show in that the puppets perform and are then seen socializing back stage, in the Muppet Show they generally interact with the guest star and mess about a bit, in The Feebles they argue, have sex, do drugs and kill each other. I'm a huge Muppet fan but to see the exact opposite of my childhood favourite, in all its spectacular depravity was quite a moment for me in my adolescence. The songs are outrageous and 'roll about on the floor' funny. It was one of those hard to get cult films that surpassed its reputation. There is so much to enjoy, indeed, there was nothing about it I didn't enjoy, and it contains what is probably the finest Vietnam flashback ever committed to film. It makes me wonder why Jackson and co spent millions on The Lord of the Rings films when they could have used less than half the money to make a Feebles Trilogy? The Feebles was initially intended to be a TV show, with Japanese investors keen to invest but alas, all we have is this treasured film. Some of the best films have come from funny people, with wild ideas and no money to make it, Meet the Feebles is probably the best example of that that I can think of. The stuff of cult legend.