Tuesday, 28 March 2017

LifeAnimated
Dir: Roger Ross Williams
2016
****
When Owen Suskind suddenly became withdrawn and silent at three years old after being a sociable and talkative child, his parents Ron and Cornelia sought medical help and after many test he was diagnosed with autism. Our understanding of autism is much better now than it was back then in the early nineties, the Suskinds weren't given a lot to go on with respects to how Owen could develop, if it was possible and what he understood. They describe the experience as feeling like their child had been kidnapped and hearing them speak of it in this documentary is heart-breaking at times. However, Roger Ross Williams's brilliant LifeAnimated is not designed to pull on the heartstrings or to be emotionally manipulative. This is the story of how Owen has essentially proven there is more to those with autism and how their minds can work. Owen was thought to be speaking gibberish, until he started to repeat dialogue from Disney films. This was shrugged off by doctors as just being echopraxia, a condition associated with autism where people with the condition repeat what they hear without necessarily understanding it. When what Owen repeated was clearly in context to a situation he was in, the Suskind knew that their little boy was in there, understood things but was somewhat trapped in his own mind. Ron Suskind, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist writing for The Wall Street Journal, documented Owen's progress over the years and released the biography Life, Animated: A Story of sidekicks, Heroes and Autism, the book this film is based on. As he developed, Owen became more and more obsessed with Disney as it was his only means of making sense of the world. When he was secretly bullied at school he wrote short stories about himself and how he was 'Protector of the sidekicks'. He saw the Disney sidekicks as being the ones that help the heroes to achieve their goals, whether it is getting the girl or saving the day. It was a complex alternative viewpoint but made perfect sense and helped his parents and therapists understand his thoughts and how he felt about himself. Watching Disney films, or just a few scenes, became a daily occurrence that Owen would enjoy with his family. It slowly helped him develop, communicate and understand the world. The film uses a few old home videos and inserts snippets from famous Disney films as well as fresh animation that features Owen himself with the Disney sidekicks. The documentary joins Owen as he is about to leave home and move into his own apartment and explores his and his family's apprehension. Nothing is forced, Owen is never asked difficult questions and Roger Ross Williams' approach is to just let things happen naturally. Owen is asked to make a speech at an Autism convention in Paris and we see him chair Disney club meetings for his friends but there is never any forced drama, no unnecessary intensity or false sense of suspense. Owen's father Ron is clearly behind much of what goes on but he never comes across as a pushy parent, just a proud one that clearly loves his son. In the wrong hands this could have been just awful, such is the state of documentaries these days. I'm glad Owen's story was handled the way it was and given the feature length treatment it deserved, rather than a made for TV hatchet job. Probably the most uplifting and educational documentary of 2016.
While We're Young
Dir: Noah Baumbach
2014
****
I love a bit of Noah Baumbach but I have to admit, I wasn't exactly thrilled at the thought of watching a Ben Stiller lead film about a couple in their early forties coming to terms with the fact that they're not that young anymore. However, just ten minutes into 2014's While We're Young my wife and I were agreeing that this was us, this was our life was like right now. I expected clichés upon cliché about what it is like to be in your early forties in 2014 and what the youth of today are actually like but I think Baumbach actually hits the nail on the head. The characteristics in both Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts's childless characters, their friends Marina and Fletcher (Maria Dizzia and Adam 'Ad-Rock' Horovitz), who have just had their first child and in new, much younger friends Jamie and Darby (Adam Driver and Amanda Seyfried) are just like people I know who fit in the same category. The details are authentic and I to, as a childless adult, find my friends with kids as they are in the film and also find myself intrigued by the younger generation who do seem to have life sussed. While the film is uncomfortably real sometimes it is also nice to know that others are out there who feel the same. The performances are spot on and the characters are very well written, I wouldn't be surprised if they weren't based on real people. If the overall mood of the film wasn't enough of a pleasant surprise, the surprise appearance of the great Charles Grodin, whose brilliant timing, acting ability and overall presence, is still as strong as it ever was. There were so many moments in the film where I thought 'I do that', 'That's what I've always thought' and 'That's exactly what I do or would have done in that situation'. I liked that it was the adults who were always on the phone, because it is, and I loved it that the Sheman of the ayahuasca ceremony that Stiller, Watts, Driver and Seyfried go to, puts on Vangelis's Blade Runner soundtrack to soften the mood, as I would have totally done the same. I also like the subject explored with regards to the character's professions. There is interesting debate regarding acceptable levels concerning authenticity and craftsmanship and the overall worth of an idea. It's also fascinating how the youth of the story are in agreement with the older generation and vice-versa. It does sometimes feel that my generation have lived under the rules of the previous generation and that they are now congratulating the next generation for breaking them. Old people and young people, I bloody hate them and this film goes some way in voicing my own frustrations, and any film that achieves that is okay by me.
DrPhibes Rises Again!
Dir: Robert Fuest
1972
***
Robert Fuest's 1971 horror opus The Abominable Dr. Phibes is a cult classic, his follow up released the following year doesn't have quite the same impact or notoriety. Dr. Phibes pretty much did what he set out to achieve in the first film, his story was essentially over. This new adventure, that sees Dr. Phibes return to seek eternal life from the fountain of youth, which just so happens to be located in Egypt, in keeping with his interests and murder theme of choice. Now the first film made no sense and it really didn't matter, it was in keeping with the hokey humour, the camp horror and the altogether quirky quirkiness but, for some reason, the story kind of did matter here and the fact it made no sense was somewhat bothersome. In the first film Dr. Phibes killed the doctors he blamed for the death of his wife. Now we are told that these were the best doctors practicing in the world at the time, so when we learn that his wife is essentially in a state of status, you can help but wonder why he didn't force them to try and resurrect her, seeing as that is the mission in the sequel. What is even more confusing is that a few of the said murdered doctors come back in the second film, or at least the actors that portrayed them do. I find it hard to criticize any film that features the work of the great Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith but they both clearly died in the first film, quite horribly too. Both actors’ performances in the first were considered highlights but to include them again in the follow up is a bit lazy and doesn't have half the impact. The producers brought in new writers who didn't get on well with director and co-writer Fuest and this is obvious throughout the film's script. It's messy, not as well polished and just plain awful in places. Not one element of the sequel is as good as the first film, although I quite liked the conclusion. Too much was going on and too much was in preparation for a third film, when really they should have concentrated on making a decent follow up with a strong story. Vincent Price is on top form once more but his script isn't as strong, the set isn't as lavish and the horror, comedy and overall stylishness of the first is missing. It's almost too self-aware and the humour is too self-knowing. In this respect it feels like it is constantly self-congratulating itself, as if it has already become a great series of films, even though they had only made one film thus far. It all got ahead of itself too quickly and was made in a rush. There are moments of pure brilliance though, and these moments make it just about worth watching (as do Price, T-T, Griffith and the returning Peter Jeffery and Ronert Quarry as the alchemist Dr. Biederbeck) but it's not particularly easy watching.
The Abominable DrPhibes
Dir: Robert Fuest
1971
*****
Robert Fuest's cult classic The Abominable DrPhibes is a darkly humorous, Egyptian-themed, operatic, art-deco, horror masterpiece. The tag line used for the movie; "Love is never having to say you're ugly" is clearly spoofing Ryan O'Neal's Love Story that came out the year before, which ended with the immortal line "Love is never having to say you're sorry" but it is rather misleading, as this isn't a spoof or even obviously a comedy. However, it gives the audience a little idea of just how strange and out of sorts it really is. It is over the top and as camp as you like but even more so than the typical Hammer Horror or crime thriller of the day. DrPhibes, an expert in theology and music, is believed to have died in a terrible car accident, shortly after his wife dies in hospital. After rebuilding his own face and teaching himself how to talk again, Dr. Phibes goes about killing the doctors he believes failed his wife during treatment for an unknown illness and thus blames for her death. Simply shooting, stabbing or poisoning would be too dull, so the abominable doctor decides to kill them in the style of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, as seen in the Old Testament. Each murder is as flamboyant as the next, each being dastardly, horrific and also just a little bit funny. Phibes is like a satanic Bond villain, obsessed with revenge, money no object, a thing for masks and a dab hand at the old organ. The sets are about as elaborate as it gets, the stunning set pieces and back-drops make it look like a huge operatic production, and then you are met with Vincent Price in a child-like mask in the foreground, it's never clear when the film is being intentionally or unintentionally funny. I think quirky is the best word I can think of but it is a unique and very special kind of quirk. No one else could have played Dr. Phibes other than Vincent Price and it is one of the best characters of his career. The cast is impressive but it is the short but sweet performances from Terry-Thomas and Hugh Griffith that are the most enjoyable and most memorable. Peter Jeffrey is great however as Inspector Harry Trout, again, I now can't see anyone else playing the part as well. The story is flawed in many respects but it just doesn't matter, in fact, if it made any sense it wouldn't be half as compelling. It's one of the best examples of camp and hokey film making that the 1970s did so well, it's knowingly overblown but also quite subtle in its execution in many respects, like if Orson Welles had directed Carry On Screaming.

Monday, 27 March 2017

The Lost City of Z
Dir: James Gray
2017
****
I can't say I've been enamoured by James Gray's previous films but his 2017 adaption of David Grann's 2009 novel The Lost City of Z, the story of the famous British explorer Percy Fawcett, is a remarkably mature adventure story and a contemporary classic. Although not all the facts are given and explored, there is something extraordinarily realistic about the film, from the performances and attitudes to the era and circumstances. Percy Fawcett has been the inspiration behind many a fictional adventurer, Indiana Jones being the most obvious, and many a character has followed in his steps, such as Biggles (The Cruise of the Condor), Tintin (Tintin and the Broken Ear) and Arthur Conan Doyles' Professor Challenger, as seen in his classic novel The Lost World. The Lost City of Z is nothing like any of the adventures seen in these fictitious stories, although they are as equally exciting. Fawcett made several expeditions into the South American Jungle but only the more important ones are featured, including the first where he first met Corporal Henry Costin (who would become his aide-de-camp on several trips) and found evidence of an ancient civilization. A later trip that included James Murray (who accompanied Shackleton on the Nimrod expedition to be the first to reach the South Pole) who became gravely ill during the trip and caused much trouble for his fellow explorers, and Fawcett's last trip, that he would take with his eldest son, which is explored with a huge slice of speculation and mystery. The character study is quite impressive, I don't think the Amazon rain forest is even mentioned in the first twenty minutes, instead we see what makes Fawcett tick, his ambition and the relationship he has with his wife and with the army in which he serves. His famous ambition led many not to believe his initial claims that he had found evidence and that the so called 'savages' of the amazon had learned cultivation methods and sustained a civilized life, such was the ignorance and arrogance of even the most intelligent of Europeans at the time. This is all explored rather well in the film without usual clichés or stereotypical manner. The overall direction is beautiful, with rich yellow tints and blue-gray tones during the World War One scenes. It has 'epic' potential all over it but instead Gray makes the characters themselves the main focal point and not the landscape. I'm not sure Charlie Hunnam would have been my third or even thirty choice of actor after both Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch dropped out of the lead role but he turns out to be rather perfect as Fawcett. Robert Pattinson has proven his worth since Twilight and once again impresses as Henry Costin. Tom Holland joins the film fairly later on in the story but is good in his short but sweet performance and Sienna Miller is her perfect self as always, giving what could have been a fairly overlooked character a memorable tribute. The pace of the film is surprisingly steady, which works perfectly, and I didn't once feel uncomfortable during the whole 140 minute run time.  Certain characters are left out and certain events skipped over but the majority of the film is incredibly realistic. However, because the end of Fawcett's life is a complete mystery, Gray combines many different theories and comes up with what is a beautifully open visual eulogy, that works as a great tribute to Fawcett and pays respect to his family and reclaims the wonder and passion of what consumed him. The last scene is both subtle and stunning and says a million and one things in just one whisper. This switch from realism to fantasy made the film for me and reminded me of Breaking the Waves in many respects. It amazes me that Gray has gone from We Own the Night to this in just ten years. It's traditional but contemporary, an intelligent adventure full of intrigue, mystery and good old fashioned grit. 
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon
Dir: Roy William Neill
1943
***
Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon is the fourth of fourteen in the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes film series and already certain cracks were starting to show within the franchise. The series is warmly regarded and I also love it but there are serious issues with the story, continuity and the overall fact that hardly any of it is the actual work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon incorporates an idea featured in the short story 'The Adventure of the Dancing Men' but apart from the famous dancing men code, it's absolutely nothing like it. Made in the early forties, The Secret Weapon sees Holmes contributing to the war effort, as only Holmes can. The initial scene sees Holmes travel to Switzerland to help smuggle out a brilliant Scientist who has agreed to help the British with a revolutionary bomb sight he has developed. Holmes adopts the guise of an elderly German bookseller (taken from Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock short The Adventure of the Empty House, which was famously parodied in 1963's The Pink Panther), tricks the Nazis and makes it back to London. There is a spy element to the story that isn't really present in the Sherlock Holmes books, it works in the beginning but soon gets tired and a little silly. When the Scientist goes missing, Holmes follows the clues to his whereabouts and discovers that his old foe Professor Moriarty is also searching for the bomb sight that he plans on selling to the Nazis. Now Professor Moriarty is lots of things but i can't say I ever saw him as a Nazi sympathizer. Like many fictional characters of the era, they were developed to take sides, which I understand but I don't think it really worked. Fascinating looking back at it now though but those continuity errors really do let it down. For starters, Professor Moriarty died in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes which was only made four years previous and was only two films before in the series. To confuse things further, Professor Moriarty is played by Lionel Atwill, who played Dr Mortimer in 1939's The Hound of the Baskervilles, the first film of the series. While Basil Rathbone was on fine form, I'm afraid the same can't be said of Nigel Bruce, although his Dr. Watson has a particularly poor script this time round. The climax is pretty ridiculous, which almost undoes the suspense of the code cracking story line. I'm rather fond of the series and I'm being kind with my rating but all in all, these films were rushed, there wasn't enough care taken with them and it really shows and they haven't dated well.
Winning
Dir: James Goldstone
1969
*****
Quentin Tarantino was once asked what his favourite race car film was and he replied that it certainly wasn't 1969's Winning, adding "I'd rather saw my fingers off than sit through that again". I'd be happy to send him the saw but then the film has a beautiful subtlety about it that isn't in Tarantino's remit. There have been a few notable racing car movies over the years, the 60s and 70s producing the best in my opinion, back when technology hadn't taken over and the driver really was the one in control, you won on skill and perseverance. However, of all the types of racing, I've always found Indy Speedway racing the least exciting. The cars are cool and everything but essentially they just go round and round and round. James Goldstone makes cars going round and round exciting and full of suspense, when it really is neither of those things. The 'off the pitch' drama featured in most sports movies isn't generally that great, it can make or break a film in that genre, but Winning strikes that happy balance. I'm guessing Tarantino didn't like the film because essentially it's a love story, rather than a racing film but personally I think it works as both. The direction is stunning with some of the race sequences bettering other racing classics. The film's final scene is also brilliant and a huge influence on many films that came out the following decade. Paul Newman is brilliant in the lead role as Frank Capua and a lot of what makes the film great is down to his performance. He is supported by the great Robert Wagner and by Joanne Woodward but keeping it together and still looking cool when you have the over the top and excitable young Richard Thomas yapping at your heals couldn't have been easy for him. Unfortunately, Richard Thomas's performance is something of a fly in the ointment, it doesn't ruin anything and he clearly learned lessons from Newman that helped him later in his career but he is incredibly annoying during intense and serious moments of the film. Overall, the film is as good as other classics in the genre but thanks to a couple of key scenes, I regard it as my favourite. I see a lot of the 1970s in the film and can see it being a clear influence on many of my favourites made soon after. James Goldstone is an underrated director and this is one of Paul Newman's most overlooked performances of his career.

Friday, 24 March 2017

It's a MadMadMadMad World
Dir: Stanley Kramer
1963
*****
Stanley Kramer's 1963 film was the first to truly pair comedy with what is known as the epic. I absolutely adore it, it's one of the films that made me into the cinephile I am today and it is without a doubt in my top ten favourite films of all time, maybe even in the top five! I must have watched it over a hundred times, I never get tired of it and I can remember every line, every facial expression and every single detail and I probably quote it on a daily basis. The collective cast is ridiculously good. It includes Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman, Terry-Thomas, Phil Silvers, Spencer Tracy, Edie Adams, Dorothy Provine, Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante, Peter Falk, Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Dick Shawn, Don Knotts, Jim Backus, Barrie Chase, William Demarest, Paul Ford, Jack Benny, Ben Blue, Marvin Kaplan, Carl Reiner, Arnold Stang, Jerry Lewis, Buster Keaton and The Three Stooges, to name but a few. That is probably the greatest cast ever put together. To think it nearly had Jackie Gleason, Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel (who declined, stating that he would never perform again following the death of his comedy partner Oliver Hardy in 1957), Red Skelton (he asked for too much money), Lucille Ball, Martha Raye, Joan Davis, Imogene Coca and Jack Benny in it too is amazing, though as much as I love them, I'm glad that Terry-Thomas replaced Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis replaced Jack Paar and Marvin Kaplan got the role over Jackie Mason. It tells the story of a group of unconnected characters who are all driving through Highway 74 close to Palm Springs one sunny morning. Suddenly, each car is overtaken by a speeding black Ford Fairlane that is being chased by a police car, it loses control and crashes through the roadside barrier, and lands down a steep hill in spectacular fashion. The drivers, Melville Crump (Sid Caesar), Lennie Pike (Jonathan Winters), Dingy Bell (Mickey Rooney), his passenger Benjy Benjamin and J. Russell Finch (Milton Berle) all stop and head down the hill to see if they can help. They find that the driver has survived after being thrown from the wreck. The driver Smiler Grogan (Jimmy Durante), tells the men on his death bed that he's a criminal, on the run and that there is $350,000 of stolen money buried in Santa Rosita State Park near the Mexican border under a "Big W". He dies before the police arrive and the men go about their business without mentioning it to the officers. Later down the road the men stop and discuss a plan of action but bickering between them, Crump's wife Monica (Edie Adams), Finch's wife Emmeline (Dorothy Provine) and his mother in law Mrs. Marcus (Ethel Merman) soon turns the situation into a free-for-all and the group clamber over each other to try and get to the money, which is over two-hundred miles away. The group separate and each acquires the assistance of third parties, all who are promised a share of the treasure. The group steal cars, crash cars and even sink cars, they fly airplanes, destroy garages and even get themselves locked in hardware stores, all under the watchful eye of Captain T. G. Culpeper (Spencer Tracy) who has been on the Smiler Grogan case for many years, waiting to take the money for himself. It's full of mad-cap adventure and manic comedy, the actors all received two scripts each, one for the dialogue and one for physical comedy. The most common release is 160 minutes long after Stanley Kramer's original cut was edited from 210, to 192 for the premiere and much of the footage was lost. A recent restoration has saved much of the original film and it now lasts 197 minutes, just 13 minutes shy of what was intended. There are many different versions out there, some better than others and some almost unwatchable. It claimed it was the first film to be shot using 'One-projector' Cinerama but it wasn't quite the case, although how it was shot led to issues when transferring it to different formats. It could be said that such an epic way of filming was unnecessary for a comedy film but I would disagree, considering the scope of action and the amazing backdrops the film had. The legendary William Rose wrote the screenplay and pitched it to Kramer in 1960. The original idea was set in Scotland but was quickly moved to America. 'So Many Thieves', 'Something a Little Less Serious', 'Where, but in America?', 'One Damn Thing After Another' and simply 'Mad World' were all considered as titles before Rose and Kramer added additional Mads as the project progressed. Kramer considered adding a fifth Mad in the title but thought it would be redundant so didn't, something he said he later regretted. The title sequence is the work of the great Saul Bass and the best example of his work I would argue and the brilliant soundtrack is one of Ernest Gold's most beautiful, I hear it all the time. The money it cost to make makes the $350,000 treasure in the film look like small change but it certainly made it back and then some. It was a huge success and has gain a massive global following, influencing everything from movies, TV and music. The stunts are insane, it is amazing to think that many of the actors performed them themselves but you can see quite clearly on screen when they got hurt. Everyone plays their part and each actor, main or cameo, is amazing. I adore everything about it and I would say that it has the best ending to a film ever in the history of cinema. A truly golden comedy.
Something a Little Less Serious: A Tribute to 'It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World'
Dir: Ronnie Johnson
1991
****
Ronnie Johnson's hour long documentary made in 1991 is obviously a must-see for the hard-core fans of Stanley Kramer's 1963 comedy epic It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and in many respects, it has now become something special in-itself, something worth repeat viewing when perhaps you need a quick 'Mad' fix but don't have 160+ minutes to spare. Made almost thirty years after Mad World, many of the much loved actors had passed and now all these years later many of the interviewees have now joined them under the big W in the sky, so there is a sadness watching it, but also a huge amount of happiness too. The documentary starts off with some original film footage with Chuck Riley's smooth narration explaining how successful the film was and basically telling the audience everything they already know. The interviews then begin with many of the actors saying how wonderful everything was, how much fun they had, how popular it was, how Kramer approached them etc and everything is very 'made for TV'. The format of the documentary explores each actor and suddenly the interviewees slowly come to life. Milton Berle says how muti-talented Mickey Rooney is, how great he is at remembering his lines, stay on-script, he can sing, dance, tell jokes, do physical comedy......."and he's also very good at marrying beautiful women". And so it begins. Legendary stuntman Carey Loftin has no problem with wading in and telling the audience of all the shenanigans that went on off camera, mainly because it was he that was responsible for them. In Bounder!: The Biography of Terry-Thomas, Graham McCann writes about how T-T, like most of the cast of the film, was in awe of the great Spencer Tracy but got tired of the rest of the cast who would compete to entertain and impress him. One incident in particular that he found ghastly, was watching Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett wearing food on their faces, which in turn lead to a food fight with the rest of the cast and crew. He said how he and Spencer quietly bonded while raising eyebrows at one another. The foot fight is mentioned by Loftin but the fun he had with T-T is also spoken of and behind the scenes photos are shown to prove it. Secrets behind some of the film's best loved scenes are revealed, Milton Berle, Sid Ceaser and Buddy Hackett play up to the camera, Jerry Lewis dissects the comedy and everyone tells just how funny, dangerous and wonderful it was to work on the film. Highlights of the short film are Buddy Hackett's story/impersonation of Peter Falk and Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson, Jerry Lewis losing his fee within hours to Phil Silvers who turned the back stage of the film into a mini casino and Sid Ceaser, Edie Adams and Stanley Kramer explaining Milton Berle's legendary camera hogging and how he always manages to be the last person on screen. There is a lot of schmaltz and Mickey Rooney's input is next to pointless and nothing is revealed and everyone is praised but there are many gems within and some I wasn't aware of, and I consider myself an obsessive.
Ice Age: Collision Course
Dir: Mike Thurmeier
2016
*
In some respects I'm astonished that the Ice Age series has lasted this long, its decline in quality is clear and it was never that good in the first place. One might think that they must be doing something right, but I would argue that they're not, the fact of the matter is that Ice Age just got in there early. Many great animations have come out since, we're decent enough, but failed to make what was seen as enough profit to warrant a sequel. Ice Age arrived in 2002, before the huge influx of 3D animation and established itself due to lack choice. A couple of films in and it's a brand, kids will watch anything, parents don't care and cinemas only show kids films these days so Blue Sky Studios can't lose. Ice Age: Collision Course received negative reviews across the board, absolutely no one liked it and all agreed that it was the worst Ice Age film thus far but it still made something like a $300 million + profit and another film is on the way. It has become a licence to print money, without the need for great writing. Huge credit to the special effects people and the animators, what they do is amazing and each film in that aspect is an improvement on the last, it is just that their hard work is incredibly let down by the fact that the stories are always so painfully bad. I hate the melodrama that seems to feature so predominantly in kid's animated features. In this instance, Manny (the huge Woolly Mammoth voice by Ray Romano) has issues watching his daughter grow into a women, settle down and marry. He also has son-in-law issues. Why would kids be interested in that sort of story-line? The stereotype and clichés are now part and parcel of these types of kid’s film and I wonder how much damage it is having (assuming kids actually take any of this stuff in and aren't just still gawping at the screen). I would also suggest Neil deGrasse Tyson's cameo as concerning to kids’ education, given the ridiculous science fiction featured in the story and before you suggest I'm over thinking it, I still know adults who think there are boy cows with udders thanks to 80s cartoons. The film actually feels like three or four shorter stories pieced together, a combination of three or four of those terrible straight to DVD shorts that the animation studios often peddle around Christmas. I would guess that every voice actor probably has around fifty lines each maximum, which I'm sure kept costs low. It's still easy money though for everyone involved. The voice of Sid's new girlfriend seems to be different depending on territory, which seems to be something of a trend these days, although I don't quite understand the point. Francine the Sloth is voiced by Jessie J in the UK (a singer whose popularity was fleeting and kind of over) rather than the original version that had Melissa Rauch in the role. This is an example of the studio not knowing their audience. Jessie J doesn't have a voice you'd especially recognize and it certainly isn't desirable. Melissa Rauch's voice is immediately recognizable, and the producers should know that The Big Bang is popular around the world and we Brits know who she is. I usually like Ice Age purely for the Scrat sequences but these were also quite poor and badly conceived. Why they turned a little joke that featured in one of the past films and made a story out of it just proves that they've run out of ideas/passion or both. It's now (and has been for a while to be honest) all about the money.
King Kong Escapes
Dir: Ishirō Honda
1967
****
Ishirō Honda's King Kong Escapes is a cult classic, certainly one of Kong's most enjoyable film outings thus far as well as an awesome monster film in general. It doesn't really have much to do with 1962's King Kong vs Godzilla but it certainly seems like the same Kong and it has the same feel to it and of course the same film makers behind the camera. Godzilla is obviously absent this time round as he was enjoying his own franchise of films but Kong gets to flex his fighting skills by fighting a giant robot version of himself called Mechani-Kong. He also has a kerfuffle with Gorosaurus (also performed by Yū Sekida) who would go on to enjoy a larger role in the following year's Destroy All Monsters, although most of his scenes in the later film was unused stock footage from King Kong Escapes. The story is half monster story and half James Bond plot, it's a sort of remake of the animated series, which was partly based on the 1933 original, with added mad scientist. The villainous Dr. Who, who isn't that Dr. Who but is more of a Dr. No (confused yet?) has built a giant mechanical Kong in order to mine the highly radioactive 'Element X' from a glacier somewhere in the North Pole. I think the theory behind it is that Kong is the strongest beast on earth but the radio-activeness might be a problem if a living creature were to go near it. Why Dr. Who didn't just build a giant drill is anyone's guess but King Kong vs Drill would have been a bit dull I suppose. When Mechani-Kong malfunctions due to the radiation of 'Element X' (doh!), Who decides to capture the original Kong and attach a mind control device to his ear, which will of course mean that Kong will obey his every command, because science. The story and many of the film's characters are 'borrowed' from other films of the era, particularly from the spy genre. However, no other film in the late 60s was quite as bizarre as this. The bad acting, puzzling plot and melodrama are all part of why the film has become such a cult hit and watching Kong going nuts when he can't get through a door or past a building is still hilarious are several viewings. It's the model work that I love the most though. Everything from the tiny little tanks to the flying helicopter, every model is detailed but not to the point where it isn't obvious that they are what they are. The facial expression on both King Kong and Mechani-Kong are priceless and the fight between them is far more impressive and aggressive than Kong versus Godzilla. Its faults are part of its enduring charm, it remains one of the better monster movies of the many that were made by Toho and is another great addition to the King Kong legend.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

Electra Glide in Blue
Dir: James William Guercio
1973
*****
James William Guercio's 1973 cult classic Electra Glide in Blue is often compared to other films such as Easy Riders, Vanishing Point and Two-Lane Blacktop but apart from being a road movie, it's nothing like them. It's has also been regarded as the conformist reactionary film to those other films, which is also complete nonsense. Robert Blake plays a good-natured and proud motorcycle cop, working the long roads of rural Arizona. Good at his job and with years of experience, officer John Wintergreen aspires to make homicide detective one day, and when he finds the corpse of a well-known local, he ceases the opportunity to prove himself. However, after securing work in the homicide case as a trainee detective, officer Wintergreen soon realizes that those in law enforcement can be just as untrustworthy and corrupt as the criminals and that maybe his good-nature and fair treatment has been taken advantage of. This isn't really a film about America's emerging youth culture, it's a modern take on the classic western with a 1970s twist. It features hippies, social issues and other characters and situations prevalent in the early 70's and indeed, this film couldn't really be made in any other era but there is no agenda as such and no morality lesson as such, other than you're often on your own, there is no left or right, top or bottom, everything stops and starts with you. It's totally a western, just replace the cowboys with cops and the red Indians with hippies. It is also a really good character study and crime thriller. Record producer and label owner James William Guercio never made another film after his cult debut. Robert Blake has since said that he and world renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall assisted the inexperienced director so much that they should have received the director credit instead of him. James William Guercio knew what he wanted though, he accepted a pay-cut so that Conrad Hall could be hired and was paid the grand sum of $1 for his work on the finished movie. Hall's contribution makes the film. It is absolutely stunning from the glorious opening sequences to the devastating last scene, I consider the cinematography to be one of the best of all time, nothing is wasted and everything is intentional. Robert Blake is brilliant in his character, utterly iconic and the ultimate 1970s protagonist. The film drips class and is one of the best independent films of the 70s (and ever). If you are only ever going to direct one film in your career then this is the one. It's even more unmissable for fans of the rock group Chicago, as most band members have a cameo (James William Guercio was their manager) and eagle-eyed viewers might spot Nick Nolte in his feature film debut as 'Hippie in the crowd'.
Eyes Without a Face
Dir: Georges Franju
1960
*****
Based on Jean Redon's novel of the same name, Georges Franju's adaptation sent shock-waves through the world of cinema, even though it had been purposely toned down. It is now considered a masterpiece, and it really is, but in 1960 it was met with revulsion from many of the top critics. Film producer Jules Borkon wanted to tap into the popularity of British horror at the time, films such as The Curse of Frankenstein and Horrorof Dracula had done well but there weren't any French equivalents. Borkon bought the rights to Redon's novel and asked George Franju, one of the founders of Cinémathèque Française, to direct. Franju jumped at the opportunity, as he saw it as a continuation of fantastique French cinema, the logical progression of the early Georges Méliès and Louis Feuillade films he grew up watching. He saw the film as a complex drama rather than a horror film, which it is, and as well as taking out scenes of torture and blood for the sake of censorship, he also got rid of the mad-scientist element of the original story to produce a more suitable tone to give the crux of the story a more poetic feel. He described the story as one of "anguish...it's a quieter mood than horror...more internal, more penetrating. It's horror in homeopathic doses". The performances are strong but Édith Scob steals the show and proves that it is entirely possible to act and pull off an incredible performance while wearing a mask. It is proof that horror isn't always in the blood, the gore, the attack or the suspense but it also lies in the idea, passion and in the madness of kind. It may be Cinémathèque Française technically but there is a lot of German expressionism going here too, the film feeling more like a universally European film in general. The direction is exquisite and the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, it's somewhere between Jacques Tourneur and Alfred Hitchcock but it could be said that Franju influenced them both, with all three raising each other's game. It certainly is influential in its style and most certainly one of the pillars of the Giallo genre. It has influences a whole host of films since, including everything from Pedro Almodóvar's The Skin ILive In to John Woo's Face/Off. You could also say that it influenced every horror film that features a masked villain, John Carpenter's Halloween being the first that springs to mind. An incredibly moving masterpiece that will haunt you long after you watch it. Eerie but beautiful.
Chasing Mavericks
Dir: Curtis Hanson, Michael Apted
2012
**
Chasing Mavericks is a biopic of a celebrated surfer called Jay Moriarity, who I'm afraid I knew nothing about before watching. After a little further research, I believe Moriarity's story to be rather touching, compelling and something to aspire to, you just wouldn't think it after watching the 2012 film of his life. The production had some issues, the original director Curtis Hanson feel ill within a few days of shooting after having heart surgery a few months before filming began, Michael Apted took over but it would be the last film Hanson would ever work on. Both directors were well suited to a film such as this but the film is unquestionably disjointed due to a conflict of direction styles. It must have been quite tough on the cast and crew also, especially on such a gruelling shoot. That said, Chasing Mavericks still looks amazing, the surf footage being as good as any I've seen in similarly themed movies, the real problem for me was the acting. Jay and his mentor Frosty Hesson were said to have been close but I never felt that watching actors Jonny Weston and Gerard Butler interact. The chemistry between the two just isn't there and it is a huge distraction. I have no idea what the story behind Jay's personal life was like but the bullying story-line was poorly handled and the romance between he and his childhood sweet-heart Kim (who he married in real life) was terribly unconvincing. Elisabeth Shue was cast as Jay's mother, she's an amazing actor, one of my favourites, but she was given absolutely nothing to do and barely ten lines in the whole film. Certain aspects of Jay's life were touched upon but never really explored, even though it was made clear that they were important in his development. Absolutely nothing about the film felt believable or true, I don't think Jonny Weston did a particularly great job in portraying Jay and Gerard Butler seemed somewhat uninspired for the duration of the story. The less said about his awful accent the better. The film is largely underwhelming, with only the final surf scene being suitably impressive. That said, it was the boats going over the maverick waves that was more exciting than the surfers themselves. Another thing that annoyed me was an early scene set in 1994 (the first scene said it was 1987, the scene in question said seven years later, making it 1994) where Jay is working in a Pizza restaurant. Everything appears like it is 1994 until 1997's Brimful of Asha comes on the radio. It is an unimportant mistake but you do have to wonder what other detail they might have got wrong. It's a pet hate of mine. It is a generally forgettable film and something of a poor tribute to a guy who has clearly been an inspiration to many.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

The Hit
Dir: Stephen Frears
1984
*****
Director Stephen Frears has had a fascinating career. He will mean something different depending on the person, he's probably best known these days for The Queen (2006), while my generation will most likely think of High Fidelity (2000) although Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) has opened up a whole new audience for him. Most cinephiles will immediately think of his early films such as My Beautiful Launderette (1985) and Prick Up Your Ears (1987) and his big successes Dangerous Liaisons (1988) and The Grifters (1990) but for me, it is probably his best and most influential film that is largely forgotten and overlooked that comes to mind. 1984's The Hit, Frears' second feature, starring John Hurt, Terence Stamp, Laura del Sol and Tim Roth is full of suspense, has an amazing script and is full of wonderful characters, performed brilliantly by the lead cast. After The Hit came Sexy Beast, Gangster No.1, The Limey and eventually Snatch, while film's like The Long Good Friday can also take credit for great British gangster films post-'84, The Hit offered something a little different. I have absolutely no doubt that Tim Roth was hired to play Mr. Orange in Reservoir Dogs because of his performance here and indeed, all of Quentin Tarantino's film have a little bit of The Hit in them. Hurt and Roth make a phenomenal on-screen duo (Braddock and Myron), partners in crime, one hot-headed and reckless, the other a silent world-weary professional killer, a couple of heavies for a big crime boss. The pair are sent to Spain to capture Willie Parker (played by the brilliant Terence Stamp), an ex-gangster who has been in hiding for over a decade after giving evidence in court that incriminated his criminal compatriots, sending them all down for serious time. After snatching him from his hide-out, the two heavies realise that a Spanish police-man has been killed in error and the three men head to their nearest safe-house. Here, they are startled to find Harry (played by Bill Hunter), another gangster who previously worked with Braddock. Thinking the house was unused, Harry had been staying there with his girlfriend Maggie and when Willie intentionally introduces himself, Harry and Maggie soon become witnesses to a delicate situation where trust isn't enough. This scene alone is everything Tarantino has ever wanted to recreate. It is thrilling and electric in its intensity. As the story continues, the characters reveal a little bit more about themselves just before the unpredictable and climactic conclusion. The direction is stunning, Frears is a great director but this was only his second film (first in well over a decade) and he was far more used to working on small screen productions. Some of the shots are beautiful, the stuff of John Ford, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah and indeed it feels just as much a western than it does a gangster movie. The performances between the five main players is outstanding, it is no wonder that Tim Roth was nominated for the BAFTA for best newcomer in what was only his second film. To think that Joe Strummer of The Clash was originally going to play his part, thankfully his bad-mates talked him out of it and he suggested Roth after seeing him in Alan Clarke's Made in Britain (1982). It's the great British gangster masterpiece that no one ever talks about, it was received well but didn't make any money and didn't have a wide release. It's probably one of the best British films ever made and certainly one of the best gangster films ever produced as well as the most influential.