Monday, 28 February 2011

AFED #58: The Admirable Crichton (UK, 1957); Dir. Lewis Gilbert

I didn't hold particularly high hopes for today's film, The Admirable Crichton (known in the US as Paradise Lagoon, lest the poster cause any confusion). It was an arbitrary late choice and seemed likely to be a stilted fifties comedy that hadn't aged well. It certainly belongs to a different era but proved surprisingly enjoyable.

An adaptation of J.M. Barrie's 1902 play, Kenneth More stars as Crichton, the resourceful butler with a impeccable sense of duty and his place in the social hierarchy. Whilst serving his master the Earl of Loam on board the Earl's luxury yacht in the Pacific, they are forced to abandon boat and become marooned on a desert island. It's swiftly evident that the Earl and his family haven't a clue how to cope for themselves and it's up to Crichton to take charge.

We jump forward two years and the social order has been completely reversed. Crichton is now the top dog and incontestable alpha male, what's more the Earl and the rest of the family seem to love the new status quo and life on the island has become an idyllic paradise. Naturally a boat then finally arrives to return them to reality, and Crichton modestly resumes his former standing.

As a subversive critique of the class system this definitely isn't The Servant, which a few years later would offer a far more dissolute portrayal of the relationship between the master and his underling. Yet even during the early Edwardian period of Barrie's original drama the cracks were beginning to show; the Earl attempts to demonstrate his liberal sensibilities by inviting his servants to tea and there are topical references to the suffragette movement. Crichton's island adventure might ultimately proves a fantastic lacuna and no threat to the natural order, but notwithstanding the laughs it must have seemed quite whimsical to a fifties audience who were watching that world disappear.

Kenneth More excels as the butler, as does the splendidly lordly Cecil Parker and Sally Ann Howes as the daughter who falls for Crichton's charms. The ending is admittedly somewhat anticlimactic and you do find yourself wishing it had dared to remain as silly as it becomes in the middle act. Yet in an oblique way it's hinting that men of Crichton's ilk will become the new ruling class while the aristocracy wither into obsolescence.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

AFED #57: Wild in the Streets (US, 1968); Dir. Barry Shear

It's a reflection of just how vibrant a time the late sixties were, both in the cinema and the world at large, that a film like Wild in the Streets is largely forgotten today.

In fact, this tale of a rock star who becomes President actually earned an Oscar nomination for its modish editing. This represented a rare distinction for a film by AIP, a company best remembered today for Roger Corman's Poe adaptations but whose teen-centric productions had grown increasingly more stylish and 'turned on' to the counterculture as the decade continued, with work such as The Wild Angels and The Trip.

Although the idea of the euphoria surrounding pop star being exploited for political ends had been explored by Peter Watkins in Privilege the previous year, that film had centred on the notion of the celebrity as a Warholian facade ripe for manipulation. Wild in the Streets offers a premise that's superficially more progressive but ultimately far more reactionary.

Max Frost (Christopher Jones) is a massively successful pop star who lives in decadent palatial splendor with an entourage of fellow band members and sycophants (amongst them a young Richard Pryor). Yet he's also the quintessential rebel, with an unhealthy contempt for the older generation (borne of an unhappy childhood) and aspirations of changing the status quo. So when a politician (Hal Holbrook) campaigns for Senate with a pledge to lower the voting age to 18, Max sees it as an opportunity to play agent provocateur. After ostensibly giving his support he then declares during a performance the age should be reduced to 14 and issues a rallying cry to the youth of America.

The film makes heavy use of a much banded statistic of the time that 52% of the US population were under 25. The potential of these baby boomers to overthrow the establishment was of course hugely relevant, although there's something perversely optimistic about the idea that widespread protests would cause the government to buckle and give in to demands, as happens here. It didn't quite work out like that at the '68 Democratic Convention a few months after the film's release.

Having usurped the system and manoeuvred his way to the Presidency, the 22 year-old Frost reveals a fascist agenda by announcing that anyone over 35 will be rounded up into 'retirement camps' where they will be encouraged to take LSD to help them appreciate the younger generation's perspective. Alternatively they can just kill themselves, it makes no ends. The film ends with the caustic reflection that he too might be considered old to those of a certain age, and might himself end up on the receiving end of a coup by an even younger generation.

While Wild in the Streets has some pertinent things to say about the 'cult of youth' and how modern America appears to value it over wisdom and experience, the underlying cynicism is transparently obvious. It's a cartoonish satire, a morality that's unlikely to have changed many opinions, but at least manages to be fairly entertaining.

Christopher Jones is a charismatic lead with shades of James Dean (at times he appears to deliberately mimic the late actor) who might have progressed to bigger things had tragedy not also intervened in his own career. Jones was a close friend, and also supposedly lover, of Sharon Tate and was profoundly affected by her murder. Although he worked with David Lean on Ryan's Daughter shortly after he became disillusioned with acting and left the profession to become an artist.

Hal Holbrook also gives good value as Max's foil, but the inclusion of Shelley Winters as the star's disowned mother and light relief doesn't enhance the picture. Ms. Winters did turn in some splendidly over the top performances in other AIP films such as Bloody Mama and Whoever Slew Auntie Roo?, but here she just seems superfluous.

It's probably a film that's best filed alongside such oddball dystopian fantasies as Strange Holiday (1945), and whilst not the most acerbic social commentary it's slick and tasty enough to go down without much discomfort.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

AFED #56: Stachka [Strike] (USSR, 1925); Dir. Sergei Eisenstein

Like many people I like nothing more on a Friday night than to relax with a work of Russian Constructivist cinema. There's just something about rousing Soviet agit-prop that says "the weekend starts here". If you disagree well that's obviously because you're a bourgeois individualist, an anachronism destined to be swept away by the inexorable tide of communism.

Strike was Sergei Eisenstein's feature debut, at the disarmingly young age of 26 he found himself spearheading the new Soviet film drive with what was meant to be the first of seven (some sources say eight) films intended to chronicle the path towards the proletariat dictatorship. The remainder of the series were never completed but the director demonstrated enough talent to be commissioned to produce the even more celebrated Battleship Potemkin later that year.

Strike centres around an uprising of workers at an unspecified factory in Russia in 1903 (i.e. some years prior to the Revolution). The slothful, venal factory bosses (they're the ones whose faces are caricatures of malice) are spying on the workers and deploy an array of agents to infiltrate them and cause mischief.

When one of the workers is accused of stealing a piece of equipment worth three weeks wages he is driven to hang himself on the shop floor. The workers revolt and, as the title suggests, go on strike. The factory bosses refuse to accede to their demands for improved pay and working conditions, while the workers grow increasingly desperate as food and money run out.

In a bid to stir up further trouble the bosses recruit the services of an exotic underworld figure, 'King', who deploys his underlings to loot and set fire to a store in the hope of incriminating the strikers. When the workers realise its a trap and attempt to flee they are set upon with the firemen's hoses before the military launch a full scale assault in brutal climax.

Although widely respected overseas Eisenstein had a somewhat fractious relationship with the Soviet authorities over the years. His critics felt that the director should adhere to the more stoic aesthetics of the socialist realist school rather than his virtuoso approach to narrative. In retrospect this is what makes his work still so exhilarating today, although the pontificating now seems rather heavy handed. We are drawn into the workers' struggle, their rage at the injustice they duffer, the collective rise to action and escalation into hostilities. It plays like a textbook account of civil insurrection and continues to serve as an inspiration for film-makers (see Romero's Land of the Dead for a recent example).

What I found most impressive was the director's visual flair. The film's most famous moment is the cross-cutting of the military's violent attack on the workers at the climax with cattle being slaughtered by way of metaphor, one of the definitive examples of Eisenstein's montage technique. Yet there are other images - such as the dwarves in evening dress dancing on a dining table, or the moment when King's henchmen climb out of a collection of giant barrels - that suggest a surrealist sensibility.

One imagines that the strictures of serving communism were both a challenge and frustration to Eisenstein's creativity, and it's fascinating to imagine how he might have operated in a different environment. I'd like to look at his last film, Ivan the Terrible, later in the year so I'll leave it there for now. But seriously, if you've never checked out either this or Battleship Potemkin then you really need to catch up.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

AFED #53: Anastasia (US, 1957); Dir. Anatole Litvak

In Hollywood the truth is always inconvenient. Facts become mutable, actual persons are delineated into caricatures and around it all is erected the scaffolding of a narrative arc, implying subtexts and relationships which never existed.

Take Anastasia; inspired by the case of Anna Anderson, the mentally ill Polish woman who claimed to be Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Czar Nicholas II that allegedly escaped death when Bolsheviks murdered the rest of the Russian royal family in 1918. Although the veracity of Anderson's story couldn't be completely dismissed until 2008, when Anastasia's remains were finally discovered, even in 1957 it had unravelled to the point of becoming laughable.

But not according to the account given here, in which the amnesiac Anderson (Ingrid Bergman) is discovered by General Bounine (Yul Brynner), a former white Russian officer who has been seeking out a suitable Anastasia in order to get a slice of the £10m deposited by the Romanovs in a London bank account.

To add to the enigma it seems Anderson possesses not only a resemblance but also uncanny knowledge of life in the Russian court. With Bounine's careful tutoring she soon beguiles the exiled Russian aristocrats in Paris, before they head to Denmark to meet Anastasia's closest surviving relative, her grandmother the Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna (Helen Hayes). After initial cynicism the Empress finally meets and accepts her only for Anderson/Anastasia to give up her new found glory to be with Bounine.

None of which ever happened. The character of Bounine was inspired by Gleb Botkin, the son of the Czar's former physician who had known Anastasia and championed Anderson's cause, although there doesn't appear to have been any love affair between them. There were in fact numerous imposters who claimed to be Anastasia or other dead members of the Romanov clan, one point that the film does make clear.

But enough of all this, you say. Isn't the job of the cinema to romance us with stories that seduce our imagination? Who cares how accurate it is?

Just as this is a tale played against a backdrop of regal splendor, so too the lavish art direction and CinemaScope camerawork belong to the declining grandeur of the old Hollywood. To modern sensibilities it's perhaps too opulent and superficial for its own good, where human drama is deficient and the allusions to Russian culture (references are thrown in to Stanislavsky and Chekhov for no good reason) could cause cringing.

Yet for Ingrid Bergman, in her first Hollywood role for seven years after scandalously absconding with Roberto Rossellini, it represented a popular and critical rehabilitation. She won a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal, but although it's a capable and occasionally touching performance of a troubled woman, sentiment must have played a bigger part. Yul Brynner struts magnetically as only he could, but the love we're supposed to infer has been simmering between their characters is implied too casually.

The irony is that subsequent adaptations of the story appear to have taken this, not historical fact, as their principal model. While here there remains ambiguity as to whether Anderson is Anastasia, by the time of an animated version in 1997 she had unequivocally become the Romanov princess. Bizarre that an episode less than a century old can be transformed into a fairytale.

Monday, 21 February 2011

AFED #52: Hush (UK, 2009); Dir. Mark Tonderai

I've never been a driver but from what I understand for the majority of motorists the greatest challenges they are likely to face are negotiating traffic jams, speed cameras and adverse weather conditions. There are accidents of course and even the occasional road rage incident, but providing you have some basic common sense they seem to be few and far between.

In the cinema, on the other hand, the unsuspecting traveller is never more than one wrong turning away from Hell's Highway. As with many fairy tales and folklore, mysterious strangers and the dread hand of fate are always waiting to strike and hurl characters into circumstances the like of which they never believed possible.

Being a cheap and convenient setting it's long been a staple of 'B' movies; perhaps the archetypal example being the cult noir Detour (1945), in which Tom Neal's hapless piano player finds himself plunged into a surreal confluence of misfortune while hitchhiking his way to California. There have been numerous other minor classics, from The Devil Thumbs a Ride (1947), to Steven Spielberg's feature debut Duel (1971, still for my money the best thing he's done) and The Hitcher (1985).

In more recent years Breakdown (1997), an underrated suspense with the equally underrated Kurt Russell, demonstrated once again how you don't need much to tell a gripping yarn. I mention this film in particular as I suspect British road thriller Hush owes it no small debt.

Zakes (William Ash), an aspiring novelist - *yawn* - who scratches a living putting up advertising posters at motorway services, is driving the down the M1 one night with his girlfriend Beth (Christine Bottomley) when he narrowly avoids a collision with a lorry. As the truck pulls away Zake thinks he sees a woman trapped in a cage in the back. But did he?

After following the vehicle to another service station Zakes and Beth argue and she storms off, but when he can't find her Zakes suspects she too may have been abducted. Of course, nobody believes him and thus begins a long night in which Zakes will find himself both the hunter, and the hunted...

I've already mentioned Breakdown, which utilises a similar kidnapping plot, but writer/director Mark Tonderai's script is such a bricolage of sources it's struggle to find anything here which is the least bit original. The doubtful witness idea who may, or may not, have witnessed a crime is of course pure Hitchcock, as is the contrivance by which Zakes himself ends up fleeing the authorities to prove his innocence. The trouble is that Tonderai has such a perfunctory understanding of suspense that the twists and set pieces are seldom more than cliches, and many of them just fall flat.

One could forgive this clumsy comprehension of grammar if he'd at least cast likable performers in the major roles, but William Ash is such a resoundingly obnoxious leading man it did little to evoke sympathy with his plight. It's difficult to judge how much of the fault lies with him as the doleful script - with dialogue that sounds like an A-level drama student's project - is an embarrassment. You could fit a four-lane motorway through the holes in the plot and have ample room for the hard shoulder.

I'm always glad to see solid, low-budget British thrillers but given this was produced with Film Council money surely one has a right to expect something with at least a hint of originality? If you're generous enough to overlook its shortcomings than I guess one could consider Hush reasonably diverting, but it ain't nothing to shout about.

AFED #51: Císařův slavík [The Emperor's Nightingale] (Czechoslovakia, 1949); Dir. Jiří Trnka

Jean Cocteau once said of the Czech animator Jiří Trnka that "the very name conjures up childhood & poetry". Sadly to most people the Trnka's name is only likely to draw a blank expression, but in animation circles his standards of excellence once drew comparisons with Disney.

The son of a plumber, Trnka first achiewed renown as a painter and childrens' illustrator and didn't begin animating until the age of 33. His earliest shorts were cell-based, but it was with stop motion, or puppet animation, that he emerged as an original voice, adapting the distinctive style of his illustrated work to the three dimensional medium.

With Czechoslovakia now under Communist rule in those post-war years, animation enjoyed state patronage and a degree of creative freedom not allowed to feature films with their wider audiences. Unlike the industrialised production methods of Disney et al, Trnka worked in a small studio, personally supervising the entire process. His work incorporated a breadth of subjects; from traditional tales of village life in The Czech Year (1947) to cowboys and Indians in Song of the Prairie (1949).

Probably his best known work, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Emperor's Nightingale received widespread distribution in the West in 1951, with Boris Karloff lending his rich, paternal tones in an English voiceover. Strangely, this is the second Sunday running I've found myself reviewing an Anderson adaptation from across the Iron Curtain, following The Tinderbox, but while that film was kitsch, there's no mistaking Trnka's class.

Aside from a live action framing sequence about a lonely young boy, it's a faithful adaptation of the original story. A pampered Emperor hears of the beautiful singing of the nightingale and decides he wants one of his own, discards it when a new novelty comes along, then realises the error of his ways.

The puppets are exquisitely crafted; their subtle features evocative of oriental art. As with all his work, facial expressions are less important than the choreography of the figures and the subtle use of camerawork to communicate meaning. The set designs are sometimes ornate and detailed, on other occasions abstract and expressionistic. Trnka is quite capable of showing off his virtuosity, but the story always takes priority.

Naturally, in an age of computer generated visuals there's something rather quaint about this technique. Probably if Trnka were working today he'd work in that medium himself, but the fundamentals of visual narrative remain the same and it would be interesting to see how the film played with a contemporary juvenile audience. My own thinking is you don't need a rapid, kinetic style to capture the imagination; though given the absence of any alternative in modern cinema you'd be forgiven for thinking so.

Friday, 18 February 2011

AFED #49: Curse of the Undead (US, 1959); Dir. Edward Dein; The Cabinet of Caligari (US, 1962); Dir. Roger Kay

Another Friday night at the Gothique Society and this time a double bill of American films. Given the growing backlog of unwritten or unfinished reviews on this blog I'll have to keep it brief.

First up was Curse of the Undead; an example of a rarely spotted sub genre: the vampire western. Australian actor Michael Pate stars as Drake Robey, a mysterious gunslinger whose arrival in a small town in the Old West coincides with a spate of mysterious killings.

After some misgivings he wins the support of pretty maiden Dolores Carter (Kathleen Crowley), who's inherited the family farmstead after the death of her father and recruits the stranger as a ranch hand. Robey isn't quite so well received by Dolores's beau Dan (Eric Fleming), the local preacher, who conveniently uncovers a diary that may hold the secret to the gunslinger's true nature.

Given how certain facets of vampire lore had become a staple of film horror, it's notable that Curse of the Undead returns to the folkloric roots of these monsters. Robey is revealed to have committed suicide in his previous life and thereby been condemned to his present state, one which he intimates to Dan causes him no little angst. Religion plays an important role in the story, and the preacher finally dispenses with his nemesis not with a stake to the hear, but by shooting him with a bullet with a cross carved in it.

It's a tidy little film and Pate steals the plaudits as a more nuanced vampire than the norm.

The second film was harder going, being far longer than necessary for such a slight story. Despite its title The Cabinet of Caligari bears little relation to the seminal Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari other than featuring a character with the same name and an Expressionism inspired fantasy sequence late in the film.

Glynis Johns, who'd matured very attractively since her appearance in The Halfway House some seventeen years earlier (AFED #41), gives a solid and occasionally daring performance as a woman who finds herself trapped in the residence of a mysterious German named Caligari (Daniel O'Herlihy), when she seeks assistance following a blowout. While Johns seeks allies amongst her fellow residents in this weird abode, she's intermittently subjected to Caligari's belligerent questioning about her personal life.

Vaguely reminiscent of L'Année dernière à Marienbad and anticipating the enigmatic ethos of The Prisoner a few years later, it's reflective of the post-Psycho vogue for dimestore psychiatry, a companion such works as Sam Fuller's fabulous Shock Corridor and even The Manchurian Candidate with a similar off-kilter visual approach. Psycho's original novelist Robert Bloch even penned the screenplay, the final twist of which is unlikely to come as surprise anybody experienced with these kind of films. Let's just say it might well have inspired Scorsese's Shutter Island.

Not a bad effort but takes far too long to get anywhere.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

AFED #48: Italian for Beginners (Denmark, 2000); Dir. Lone Scherfig

It's slightly unnerving when, at the start of Italian for Beginners, you see it was produced under the guidelines of Dogme 95, the quasi avant-garde manifesto for film-making devised by renowned director Lars von Trier.

Fortunately, while it presumably adheres to Dogme principles, that doesn't prevent director Lone Scherfig from telling a charming romantic comedy about misfits finding love in a small Danish town. Although the film is shot in a handheld verite style there's none of the detachment this approach can create.

The story revolves around six lonely individuals, three men and three women, who all enroll to take Italian lessons at the local community centre. When their teacher rather inconveniently dies one of the group takes over his duties and they carry on. Gradually they pair off, two of the women discover they are actually long-lost sisters, and the story ends with a group trip to Venice.

Although Scherfig didn't admit so at the time she'd actually 'borrowed' the idea from a novel by the Irish writer Maeve Binchy. Although a settlement was later reached this plagiarism rather casts a pall on this twee but humourous story, which offers the promise that even the most hopeless amongst us can find happiness. I'd love to believe it.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

AFED #47: Beat Girl (UK, 1960); Dir. Edmond T. Gréville

Ever since Jack Kerouac and his cohorts first coined the term, 'Beat' has held an ambivalent status. It was derived from the slang talk of hustlers and addicts, an epithet for their abjection; but for Kerouac it also stood for 'beatitude'; a certain state of grace.

As it was appropriated and commodified by the mainstream, that spiritual aspect became subordinate to the pursuit of pleasure and as mitigation for pretentious excess. The 'beatnik' was born; a subculture for the kids who dug the Bohemian coolness of jazz culture. They fancied themselves as more sophisticated than 'square' society and made sure everybody knew it.

The beatnik cliche: goatee beards, shades, turtle-neck sweaters, the coffee shops where cool cats would recite jazz poetry, was ripe for parody and exploitation by the movies. In Funny Face (1957), Audrey Hepburn discovers pseudo-intellectual pretensions are no match for Fred Astaire's old school charm. A couple of years later Roger Corman's horror comedy A Bucket of Blood served up a caustic parody of the Beat scene that, by all accounts, was surprisingly close to the truth.

In Britain a scene grew up around the expresso coffee bars which began springing up in Soho in the mid-fifties. Unlike pubs, they weren't subject to licensing laws and were therefore able to stay open until late. Teenagers, prohibited from being served alcohol until they were twenty-one, began adopting them as places to hang out, particularly if there was a jukebox.

In this new, classless environment they would rub shoulders with art students, intellectuals and what would now be called media professionals. The proximity to the strip bars, sex shops and the nascent gay scene all made for a febrile melting pot. Some coffeebars, such as The Partisan (established to help fund a left-wing journal) and Le Macabre (with its coffin-shaped tables), would enter legend as places of music, poetry and lively discussion.

It's against this backdrop that Beat Girl tells its story; a fairly typical 'problem' film that's become an interesting glimpse into the beatnik milieu and perceptions surrounding it.

When wealthy architect Paul Linden (Davd Farrar) returns home with new young French bride Nichole (Noelle Adam), his surly teenage daughter Jennifer (Gillian Hills) isn't impressed. After Jennifer, who's part of the beatnik crowd, discovers her mother-in-law has a sordid past as a stripper she decides to use it to humiliate her. But although she has a penchant for danger, pretty Jennifer may have bitten off more than she can chew when she crosses paths with lecherous strip club manager Kenny (Christopher Lee).

Predictably Beat Girl both celebrates and reacts to the teen subculture, but is delivered with enough sultry style by veteran French director Edmond T. Gréville to lift it above many films from this genre. This may not be Rebel Without a Cause, and when Jennifer articulates the beatnik philosophy ("It means us! Something that's ours! We didn't get it from our parents, we can express ourselves and they don't know what we're talking about! It makes us different!") you're more inclined to smirk than empathise, but n a modest budget its a slick production.

A decent ensemble cast helps; although David Farrar looks tired and uninterested and Noelle Adam little more than a pretty face, the younger members perform well enough. Gillian Hills pouts with allure in the title role, and her crowd include a young Peter McEnery, Oliver Reed and Shirley Ann Field, with Adam Faith performing a couple of impromptu musical numbers as Jennifer's bit-of-rough boyfriend.

Faith was at the time a protege of the late John Barry, whose jazzy score purrs with sex and menace, anticipating his Bond work a couple of years later. It's a catchy arrangement, probably the film's highlight, and deserving of its imminent re-release on CD.

The denouement is admittedly rather silly, turning the story into a cautionary tale of what can happen when kids start mixing with the wrong sort of people. Still, there's more to like here than not.

AFED #46: Indiscretion of an American Wife [aka Terminal Station] (US/Italy, 1953); Dir. Vittorio De Sica

When Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica agreed to work with David O. Selznick it was probably a disaster waiting to happen. Although the legendary producer had enjoyed great success with work such as Gone With the Wind, Selznick was also an infamous control freak, often clashing with his directors (including frequent collaborator Alfred Hitchcock) over control of the final edit.

For De Sica, whose Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D. had brought world renown, one suspects the motive was mainly financial. Why else agree to shoot a film in English when you can scarcely speak a word of the language? Add to that Selznick's requirement his wife Jennifer Jones lend her attractive but insipid presence in the lead role and the term 'Faustian pact' springs to mind.

Yes, Indiscretion of an American Wife is an inconsistent and disappointing slice of fifties cinema.

The plot could almost be sumarised as the final station scene of Brief Encounter stretched out to (barely) feature length. Mary (Jones) a married American woman who's had a short-lived fling with Italian Giovanni(Montgomery Clift) whilst on holiday, is about to terminate their affair and take the train away. Just as she's about to leave Clift rushes to the platform and she changes her mind. Mary vacillates for the remainder over whether to leave on the next train or accept Giovanni's plea to be with him.

Note that I described the film as inconsistent as there are both bad points and good. On the negative side Montgomery Clift is absurdly miscast; he sounds nothing like a native Italian and really doesn't look comfortable in the role, the method acting techniques - face rubbing, et al - only making his performance appear more self-conscious. Brando and Burton were both considered for the part and the story goes that De Sica actually hired another Italian actor for Clift to mimic in order to convey his direction, much to Monty's chagrin.

Jones is more at home but that's unsurprising given the part was all but written for her. She and Clift don't have the greatest chemistry but it's passable. It's said (anecdotes surrounding the production being more interesting than the picture itself) that Jones was infatuated wth Clift until she discovered to her horror that he didn't swing that way.

On the plus side G.R. Aldo's cinematography is splendid; a sumptuous, deep focus monochrome. Visually at least it's a cut above the standard Hollyood production.

As the title intimates the film's true theme is not love but guilt and the fear of condemnation. Throughout the couple, and Mary in particular, are subjected to reproachful or meaningful glances from those they encounter. Religious iconography - such as the recurring figures of some Jesuit priests loitering around the station - pervades.

At one point Mary seeks atonement by giving chocolate to young wastrels in the third class waiting room; it's both a sentimental and rather pathetic gesture. After an altercation with the authorities brings the threat of a criminal trial and possible exposure of the couple's infidelity, the senior policeman's decision to destroy the report and let them leave is nothing short of an absolution.

De Sica evidently had something more sentient to say and other different circumstances who knows what this might have yielded. Perhaps the longer (89 minute) director's cut of the film comes closer to his vision, although some shortcomings would require more than a longer running time. As it is Selznick's butchering down to just 61 minutes leaves it wanting for substance.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

AFED #45: Suna no utsuwa [Castle of Sand] (Japan, 1974); Dir. Yoshitaro Nomura

As a rule most films stick to a particular pitch or tone when telling a story. The pacing may rise or drop, there may be quirks or twists, but you can usually be fairly confident what kind of film you're watching after the first five or ten minutes.

Even when the script takes a detour into the strange its usually given some kind of foreshadowing. But when the style suddenly shifts dramatically our fondest held notions of classical aesthetics are rather rudely challenged. Imagine you were watching a stirring account of the brutality of trench warfare in 1917 when an hour into the film without explanation a talking panda suddenly turns up in a time machine. You'd feel perplexed, perhaps even a little angry.

Granted, if you'd heard or read about what to expect beforehand it might not be such a surprise, but that was almost how I felt when watching Yoshitaro Nomura's Castle of Sand. It's a film that moves the goal posts a couple of times during its 142 minutes and consequently left me more bemused than affected.

Apparently considered one of the classics of Japanese cinema, I'll confess to never having heard of Castle of Sand until a couple of weeks ago; an interesting example of how well-regarded products of a national cinema can miss out on wider distribution or recognition. This was one of several films the prolific Nomura adapted from the popular novels of Seichō Matsumoto, but it's the structural approach that makes it so distinctive.

It begins as a dry police procedural story as two Tokyo cops - the traditional senior/rookie combo - begin probing the murder of an old man. Following up the sparsest of clues into rural backwaters, it's only when the victim is finally identified as an ex-policeman that they start to make significant headway.

The dynamic shifts when their investigations become intercut with scenes the life of a famous contemporary composer, who the cops had seen during a train journey earlier in the film and has some tenuous connection with the dead man. A pretentious and unsympathetic character who's writing a piano concerto while having affairs with two women (one the daughter of a minister) you don't need to be a genius to realise he's somehow implicated; the question is 'why?'.

Answers come in the last forty minutes and a totally unexpected change in style. As the cops prepare to make their arrest we learn in a flashback sequence about the composer's tragic childhood. Played out without dialogue to music from the composer's concerto as he gives his debut performance, this incongruous melodrama seems to belong to a completely different film.

Even the reaction of the cops as they recount their evidence becomes bizarrely overwrought. Depending on your perspective it's either an inspired juxtaposition of different genres or clumsy and contrived storytelling. The same information could have been imparted without the reductio ad absurdum, so one wonders what the point was.

Castle of Sand may be a film that improves on repeat viewings when the surprise factor of the style shift is removed from the equation. On the other hand the novelty value may be the only thing in its favour. Personally I came away thinking this is a film that has probably been overlooked with good reason.

Monday, 14 February 2011

AFED #44: Das Feuerzeug [The Tinderbox] (East Germany, 1958); Dir. Siegfried Hartmann

Those of you of a certain age may recall The Singing Ringing Tree, a bizarre childrens' fairy tale that was serialised by the BBC and shown several times during the sixties and seventies and sometimes cited as one of the scariest things ever shown on television.

I was born a little to late to catch these screenings and only became aware of it several years ago, my interest piqued by the many vivid recollections people had. It's certainly a very strange production and probably best avoided if you've a penchant for hallucinogenics.

Before it had been split up into episodes for broadcast purposes, The Singing Ringing Tree had actually been a feature film produced in 1957 by the mighty East German state studio DEFA. Notwithstanding the folkloric traditions of central Europe, fairy tales were the ideal means for priming kids with wholesome communist values and DEFA churned them out at a fairly prodigious rate. The year after they followed The Singing Ringing Tree with an adaptation of Hans Christian Anderson's The Tinderbox.

Marking the directorial debut of DEFA stalwart Siegfried Hartmann, it's a faithful recreation of the source text. ..

An impoverished soldier is returning from an unnamed conflict - lamenting how the king he had been fighting for has tricked him out of his rightful recompense - is accosted by a witch who asks him to retrieve a tinderbox from a hollow tree.

After he's clambered inside the soldier discovers three rooms, in each of which a giant dog is guarding a chest of coins. However, despite the weird sparks coming from their eyes the dogs are obviously benign, and having helped himself to the most valuable coins the soldier retrieves the tinderbox and climbs out the tree. The witch promptly transforms herself into a rather unconvincing snake, the soldier chops her down with anticlimactic ease and carries on his merry way.

When he arrives in town our hero wastes no time in throwing around his new money and falls into the company of some bourgeois parasites who are only to happy to help him spend it. Meanwhile he learns that the king's daughter, a 'beautiful' princess, is prophesied to marry a humble soldier like himself but is kept locked away out of sight. He's desperate to meet her but finds himself with other problems when his money runs out and he's plunged back into poverty.

At this point the idiot, er... hero, remembers the tinderbox and upon striking it one of the giant dogs appears. When he asks the dog to bring him more money it disappointingly obliges as by this time I'd have sooner it savaged him. Back in credit the soldier does at least have the sense to cast off his fair weather sycophants and instead focuses his attention on the princess. After sending one of the ever faithful dogs to retrieve her, he's overwhelmed by her beauty (I wasn't) and kisses her. However an attempt to rescue her from her tyrant parents lands him in prison and awaiting execution.

All is not lost though. As he climbs the scaffold the soldier asks if he can have the tinderbox for one final smoke of his pipe. Back come the dogs to chase the king and his aristocratic acolytes out of town. The are liberated - because it doesn't need explaining the ruler was an absolute despot - and the soldier can now marry the princess. The End.

The appeal of this story to communist ideologues is self-evident and one imagines the makers were thanking Hans Christian Anderson for a yarn that was so accommodating to that agenda. Having said that contemporary accounts suggest their were some reservations about the appropriateness of depicting a revolution.

But rest assured the propaganda by no means diminishes the tale, which is playfully told and boldly shot in a colourful palette. Production standards aren't that far beneath Hollywood fantasies of the same period if you accept realism was never the intention. The giant dog special effects are fairly well executed and left me wondering how they'd been achieved; most likely it was a mixture of composite shots, miniature sets and rear projection. There have been criticisms the animal actors aren't ferocious or imposing enough; they seem more bemused than anything which just added unintentional irony.

All in all it's a more accomplished piece than The Singing Ringing Tree and for that reason couldn't aspire to be a such a cult classic. You've to love those dogs though.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

AFED #43: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (US/UK/Canada, 2010), Dir. Edgar Wright

So what's the only comics adaptation ever to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture? Perhaps The Dark Knight? Or how about the The Road to Perdition? Both picked up nominations - even gongs - in other categories but not the big one.

In fact you have to go all the way back to 1931 and a film called Skippy, based on Percy Crosby's comic strip and starring Jackie Cooper, who (at nine years-old) also became the youngest ever Best Actor nominee. No, I'd never heard of it either, but you know I'm now going to have to try and track it down. Wish me luck because it seems to be incredibly obscure.

The reason I bring this up is that given the number of nominations for Best Picture was increased to ten last year, it seems mean-spirited that comedy Scott Pilgrim vs. the World didn't receive this recognition. Here's a film that's original, creatively daring and far more relevant to the world we live in today than The King's Speech. Apparently misplaced notions of worthiness still abound in the corridors of AMPAS (pronounced 'impasse').

Director Edgar Wright has spent his career mining the niche of genre-blurring 'mash-ups'. I never really latched onto to the tv series that launched him, Spaced, but Shaun of the Dead is a definitive parody of zombie movies.His next, cop satire Hot Fuzz, gave me one of my most uncanny film-going experiences upon realising it had been shot in a place I'm very familiar with, the small Somerset town (technically a city, by virtue of its cathedral) of Wells, where in fact Wright himself hails from.

With Scott Pilgrim Wright has left the cosy British parochialisms behind and immersed himself in North American cultural idioms. Not being familiar with Bryan Lee O'Malley's original graphic novels it's unclear just how much of the innovation was present in the source text but its transposed to the screen with flamboyance and gusto.

Dorky actor of the moment Michael Cera stars as the eponymous Scott, a 22 year-old slacker in Toronto whose life revolves around playing bass for garage rock band Sex Bob-omb and playing arcade games. Scott's just started going out with schoolgirl Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), much to the chagrin and amusement of fellow band members of his gay roommate Wallace (Kieran Culkin), but he then meets the girl of his dreams in worldly emo chick Ramona (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).

But there's a problem: in the best tradition of martial arts video games to win Ramona Scott must defeat her seven evil ex boyfriends. Between tussling with these adversaries, the continuing attentions of Knives and Sex Bob-omb's participation in a band competition in the hope of getting signed up, our hero has his hands full.

Scott's world is a surreal hybrid of teen movie melodrama and the best and worst excesses of kung-fu movies. Everything is larger than life but delivered with playfulness; after epic battles the defeated boyfriends explode into a shower of coins and there's explicit referencing to its comic origins in the frequent use of descriptive captions.

Michael Cera is the embodiment of detached geekiness and although I find his style a little irritating and affected it's not to the film's detriment. It'll be interesting to see where his careers at a decade from now when he's no longer viable in such roles. Of the rest of the cast I particularly warmed to the jilted Ellen Wong who plays her part with infectious innocence and charm.

Wright was a child of the eighties like myself and I thought I detected the influence of John Hughes's films about teen angst and romance. Without wishing to give too much away the ending bears a definite resemblance to Some Kind of Wonderful, although substituting the 'wrong' ending of his earlier Pretty in Pink, ironically because test screenings of the original cut forced a reshoot.

The sentiment appears to be that older audiences won't get Scott Pilgrim, but this probably tells us more about the reactionary tendencies of many critics. It's a brash, loud, kinetic piece of cinema but that's modern life and you might as well demand kids hand over their X-Boxes and PS3s if you don't like it.

Interesting that the film flopped (relatively speaking) at the box office, which probably gave the ideal pretext for the awards panels to ignore it. Yet it's been doing great business on dvd, showing how modern films can have two separate lives and possibly even slightly different audiences. Take note Academy; the times they are a-changing.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

AFED #42: The Young One (Mexico/US. 1960); Dir. Luis Buñuel

Although it's hard to imagine the director of such arthouse classics as The Discreet Charm of the Bourgoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire as a Hollywood player it isn't as unlikely as you might think. Immediately after shooting his second and final collaboration with Salvador Dali, L'Age d'Or, Luis Buñuel spent six months learning about American film-making processes at MGM's studios as well as meeting the likes of Chaplin and Von Sternberg.

Buñuel returned to the US again after the Spanish Civil War forced him into exile, helping produce Spanish versions of films for the international market. However it wasn't until he relocated to Mexico in 1946 that he resumed his directing career.

Most of his work there over the next twenty years was in his native tongue, but he did produce his only two English films, of which Bunuel notes in his biography My Last Sigh that he was very fond. The first of these was an adaptation of Robinson Crusoe, the second was a drama exploring racial tensions and underage sex, The Young One.

Traver (Bernie Hamilton, aka Capt Dobey in Starsky and Hutch), a black musician on the run after being wrongly accused of rape, steals a boat and escapes to a small island off the coast of Carolina. This remote spot is the home of bee keeper Miller (Zachary Scott) and Evvie (Key Meersman) the gauche teenage granddaughter of his recently deceased business partner. Having previously treated Evvie with cruelty, Miller's attitude towards her changes when he realises she's maturing into a beautiful young woman and he begins to harbor lecherous designs.

While Miller is making a trip to the mainland Traver comes in search of supplies and encounters Evvie, who's fascinated by the charismatic stranger. Miller is less impressed and a confrontation inevitably occurs before a truce and arrangement of sorts. But when further visitors come to the island and Traver's fugitive status becomes evident the dynamic shifts again.

It's a very different piece to the surrealist inflected work for which Buñuel is best remembered and but for the sexual taboo it touches upon you could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a Hollywood movie. Although Miller's eventual seduction of Evvie is a key dramatic moment it's not overplayed; morally repugnant though it may be such incidents weren't uncommon. Miller might be a bit of a scumbag but he's a man hardened and frustrated by his circumstances rather than a pantomime villain. On the evidence of this Scott was probably capable of more than the bad guy roles upon which he'd built his career.

The black/white confrontation has overtones of The Defiant Ones a few years earlier, but is played out with less melodrama. During their conversations we learn Miller and Traver are both war veterans who served in Italy, yet although they might share common ground the nature of southern segregation at that time meant they could never consider one another friends. In the denouement a reconciliation of sorts is arrived at and in certain respects Miller's simple gesture of waving goodbye to Traver says more than the grandiose statement of the Curtis/Poitier film.

Judged on its own merits, rather than just as a minor film in the catalogue of one of cinema's giants, The Young One is actually a very good piece of cinema. Over the years there's been a tendency to focus on the sensationalistic aspects of the plot rather than assess it as a drama; in the US it was released as White Trash while in the UK it was originally known as Island of Shame (coincidentally it came out a year before Ingmar Bergman's island-based drama Through a Glass Darkly). Perhaps nowadays it would be received with a little more balance.

Friday, 11 February 2011

AFED #41: The Halfway House (UK, 1944); Dir. Basil Dearden

It's sometimes inexplicable how certain films become completely forgotten. Unless you're a devotee of old British horror/supernatural films there's a good chance you've never heard of The Halfway House, yet this Ealing drama prefigures their more celebrated Dead of Night and one suspects its musing on our final destinies could even have influenced Powell and Pressberger's A Matter of Life and Death.

Ten people of varying backgrounds are drawn to spend the weekend at a remote guest house in rural Wales. They're a cross section of British wartime society: a famous conductor who has just months to live, a feuding middle-class couple and their adolescent daughter, a retired seaman and his wife still grieving over the death of their son in conflict, a neutral Irishman and his fiancee, a deserter recently released from prison and a racketeer who's made a fortune from the war.

Their hosts are the Halfway House's enigmatic innkeeper Rhys (Mervyn Johns) and his daughter Gwyneth (Johns' real-life daughter Glynis). Rhys tells his guests that the hotel was subjected to bombing a year earlier, but the visitors soon realise there's something that doesn't quite add up. Why has the Halfway House's guestbook not been signed in the past year? Why are the newspapers similarly a year old? And why is it that Gwyneth casts no shadow?

More bemused than frightened the guests slowly grow to understand that they've been called here by fate, having each reached a crossroads in their lives. For some it's a call to be reconciled, for others to move on or make amends.

Adapted from a play by Denis Ogden The Halfway House is both a quaint ghost story and a morality tale. Although two of the characters are spirits, the film ventures no suggestions about what's to come, only that we must live in the moment and face our destinies with courage. Death understandably weighed heavily on the popular consciousness during this period and one surmises that, although a fantasy, the public may not have been disposed to such a theme, which might account for its relative obscurity.

Despite the supernatural element and wartime backdrop it's hard to imagine a  film that's less sinister. Watching The Halfway House is like putting on a warm, comfortable pair of old slippers, but despite that manages to explore its themes without ever becoming twee or sentimental. Although representative of types, the characters are more than just cyphers and it's not such a stretch to imagine Ingmar Bergman making a film like this a decade or so later.

A literally enchanting little picture in need of some long overdue recognition.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

AFED #40: Deadly Weapons (US, 1974), Double Agent 73 (US, 1974); Dir. Doris Wishman

Back in the late eighties Jonathan Ross presented a series on Channel 4 that's pretty much the only worthwhile thing he's ever done. The Incredibly Strange Film Show ran for just twelve episodes and served as an introduction to all manner of weird and wonderful cult movies; everybody from Ray Dennis Steckler to George Romero.

In those pre-internet days it was all but impossible to get hold of such films and the series gave a tantalising glimpse into a forbidden world. One episode in particular which lodged in my memory featured the work of Doris Wishman; most famous of which are the two films she made starring exotic dancer Chesty Morgan.

Even as a pubescent 14 year-old I remember being more appalled than turned on by Chesty's 73FF-32-36 figure. I mean, all straight men will tell you that breasts are great but for most of us there are acceptable limits. Chesty - real name Lillian Wilczkowsky - was quite simply a freak and apparently happy to let herself be defined by those monstrous attributes.

It puts a slightly different perspective on things when you discover she was a Polish emigre struggling to raise two children after her husband was brutally murdered. Stripping and burlesque offered a route out of poverty and within a couple of years she'd become a huge star on the club circuit.

Then in 1974 Chesty met nudie and sexploitation specialist Doris Wishman. Sometimes referred to as the 'female Ed Wood', the more I learn about Wishman's career the more intrigued I become, and would like to return to her more specifically in a later entry when I've researched further. By all accounts the two women didn't really hit it off, but their collaboration spawned two films, Deadly Weapons and Double Agent 73...

Now if you know the sexploitation genre it probably won't come as a surprise that neither film is blessed with a great plot. It's fairly obvious what their chief asset will be and they're milked (figuratively speaking) to their full potential. I doubt longer than two minutes goes by in either film without Chesty unleashing her mammalian protuberances and you'd have to be a true fetishist not to get bored of them very quickly.

In Deadly Weapons Morgan plays the girlfriend of a mobster who unwisely decides to blackmail his boss and pays for it with his life. Chesty embarks on a revenge mission and, after tracking down and seducing each in turn, smothers the two murderers to death with her breasts. They're the 'deadly weapons' - you see? In both cases you do wonder why it wouldn't have been easier to grab a pillow or knock them over the head with a blunt instrument. Hold on... I guess that might have ruined the gimmick.

As Double Agent 73 she undertakes a secret mission to expose heroin dealer. Instead of breast asphyxiation this time Chesty has a hidden camera surgically implanted in one of her mammaries, necessitating her to remove her top and squeeze the breast when she wants to take a picture. It was so excruciatingly dull and incoherent that after the first thirty minutes I was more intent on watching the Time Remaining counter on my dvd player. Seriously.

Truth be told Morgan has nothing to offer besides her tits; she's not especially attractive, can barely act and had to be dubbed because of her Polish accent. Even on the occasions she's called upon to perform a striptease she's surprisingly uncharismatic. If you're not getting off on the novelty value you're pretty much at a loose end.

Wishman's direction is an experience in itself. She's incapable of holding a shot for more than a few seconds and the use of odd angles, arbitrary jump cuts and meaningless cutaways is, to say the least, unique. That's if you excuse a shameless ripoff of Psycho's most famous scene in Double Agent 73. She may not always seem entirely competent but you have to compliment her audacity. I've a suspicion there are more engaging pieces in the Wishman filmography.

I suppose it would have been more surprising if I had liked these two films but one always hopes for the best. Onwards!

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

AFED #39: The State of Things [Der Stand der Dinge] (West Germany/Portugal/US, 1982); Dir. Wim Wenders

Coincidence is a strange thing. I only read about the death of John Paul Getty III this morning and was completely ignorant that he had a small role in today's film, The State of Things , until I saw his name in the closing credits.

Getty, who presumably knew director Wim Wenders through his German wife Gisela Zacher, shot the part of a troubled screenwriter not long before the overdose and stroke that left him paralysed. In truth he doesn't seem entirely compos mentis and it could be little acting was required.

Fortunately there's rather more to recommend Wenders' film than that, although had I been asked to draw any conclusions after the first hour it wouldn't have been nearly so favourable. It's one of the most schizophrenic films I've ever seen but so skillfully accomplished that at the end I wished I had time to sit through it all over again.

Just as Fellini had and Truffaut Day For Night, The State of Things is Wenders' film about film-making. Like a number of the director's films it also explores the contrast between European and American values, art and commerce; the message being that in cinema one cannot exist without the other.

It commences with ten minutes of a film within the film; a ponderous b&w remake of Roger Corman's Day the World Ended with characters forlornly wandering through a hostile post-apocalyptic landscape. Abruptly it's revealed to be a film set in Portugal, where German director Friedrich (Patrick Bauchau) is about to discover there's a major problem; his American cinematographer Joe (none other than Sam Fuller) tells him they've run out of film.

Without the funds to acquire further stock production is suspended, anticipating that the producer, Gordon, will shortly return from LA after securing the necessary financing. The cast and crew then spend the best part of the next hour of the killing time; idling around chatting about nothing in particular at the hotel, pairing off into couples to get better acquainted, and getting drunk in the bars of Lisbon.

These scenes have a heavily improvised feel but might almost be a parody of the worst navel-gazing, self-reflexive excesses of European art cinema. While there are pearls of insight it seems interminable and directionless; the frustration of the crew become our own as we wait for some kind of progress to be made. This might be real life but it sure as hell ain't a story.

Finally Friedrich has no alternative but to head to LA in search of his producer and some answers, marking a change of pace. After coming up against a brick wall in the form of his lawyer (Roger Corman himself), Friedrich eventually tracks George (Allen Garfield) down and gets a harsh dose of the truth. It transpires that the film was being funded with laundered Mafia money, but the mob aren't too impressed with the director's vision and have decided to recall the debt, leaving George in dire straits. After spending the night driving through the city, musing on the life as only Wenders characters can, Friedrich and George's careers come to a violent end.

It's a hugely cynical view of Hollywood borne of the director's own frustrations in working there. Still, while being an indictment of Tinseltown's seamier side I don't share the view that Wenders' is an unequivocal condemnation of Hollywood.

What he appears to be saying is that a personal vision doesn't have to come at the sake of narrative; you can have both and not just settle for regurgitation of the same old tired formulas. As such it anticipates Wenders' shift to a somewhat more populist approach with Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire.

Monday, 7 February 2011

AFED #38: There's Always Vanilla (US, 1971); Dir. George A. Romero

If you follow the movies then it's familiar story. A young director has a breakthrough success and, heady with his new status, decides to follow it with something completely different. The public aren't impressed and the film bombs. Chastened by this hard lesson the director reluctantly retreats to safer ground, destined to remain working in the genre that first brought success.

That was more or less what happened to George Romero when he chose to follow the flesh-eating ghouls of Night of the Living Dead with groovy love story There's Always Vanilla. Like many before and since Romero discovered that he didn't quite possess the Midas touch; and subsequently he's all but disowned the film, describing it as "a total mess".

But hold on a second... didn't I mention a very similar response from Alfred Hitchcock to his Number Seventeen just the other day? Could this be another neglected gem hidden away in the depths of a renowned director's filmography?

There's Always Vanilla is very much a product of its time; that particular epoch when the peace and love generation had to start getting real, whether they liked it or not. It opens with an odd sequence in which we hear vox pop soundbites in response to a modern art sculpture entitled "the ultimate machine". The machine is an allegory for the counter-culture movement and the public's opinions are divided as to whether the machine is an important anti-capitalist statement or essentially useless. There have been more pretentious moments in film history but it's a very good attempt.

Then Chris (Raymond Laine) begins recounting the story direct to camera in a quasi-documentary style. An ex soldier turned wayward young drifter, Chris returns to his (and of course Romero's) native Pittsburgh ostensibly to sort his life out. After meeting his father, hiring him a prostitute (as you do) then catching up with his ex-girlfriend (and a hitherto unseen son), he encounters Lynn (Judith Ridley), a young actress on her way to an audition for a tv commercial.

Lynn, is more level-headed than Chris, one might even say a little 'straight'. But they hit it off and, this still being the era of free love, are soon back to her apartment to get to know each other more intimately. Chris promptly moves in and has some vague notion about being a new Jack Kerouac (haven't we all?), while Lynn just wants him to find a job or sign up for college. Inevitably the relationship goes into meltdown and the pregnant Lynn finds solace with another man while Chris moves back in at his parents.

It's actually, for the main part, a good deal lighter than that precis might suggest; tapping into a vein of wry social satire vaguely reminiscent of The Graduate but without any of the bite. Romero and the film's production company, Latent Image, had cut their teeth making commericials and modish editing pervades.

There is one incongruously sinister sequence when Lynn encounters a shadowy back street abortionist, only to change her mind at the last minute and fleeing. Even the choice of music is totally out of place and the episode seems to belong to a totally different script. Ironically it's also about the best thing in the whole film.

The two leads were never going to win any awards but neither is terrible. As the obnoxious dreamer Chris, Raymond Laine is a relaxed and confident screen presence and would work on Romero's next film, the underrated Season of the Witch. Judith Ridley, an attractive but rather underwhelming performer, is best remembered for her role as the barbecued Judy in Night of the Living Dead. With the best will in the world it seems unlikely she'd have got the role if she wasn't the wife of the film's producer Russell Streiner and her acting career went no further than this.

There's Always Vanilla is no masterpiece but at least it's attempting something worthwhile, which is more than can be said for some of Romero's recent insipid Dead cash-ins. With a little more persistence he could have avoided his niche as a horror director; whether he'd have attained the same kudos is another matter.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

AFED #37: Brighton Rock (UK, 2010); Dir. Rowan Joffé

When I heard there was a fresh adaptation of Brighton Rock my first thought, probably like many others was, "Why?". The Boulting Bothers' original is one of British cinema's sacred texts; a dark, brooding film that dared to explore territory other work from the period baulked and retains its vitality after more than sixty years.

But it's ridiculous to be so precious. The original is still there regardless of whether the new rendition fails to match its standards and there's always the possibilty, however remote, it will either improve or at least bring a fresh perspective to some of the themes of Graham Greene's novel. 

So, having thrown caution to the wind, I entered the cinema with two questions. First, how would Sam Riley's depiction of the vicious young gangster Pinkie compare with Dickie Attenborough's career-making portrayal? Second, how would this version choose the interpret the most sadistic ending in all of English literature?

But there's a twist to writer-director Rowan Joffé's version that probably goes some way to explaining how an otherwise perfunctory remake found backing from the Film Council. While both the original novel and film had been set in the 1930's this version updates events to 1964 and the legendary mods and rockers confrontations on the Brighton seafront. Still, a cute gimmick doesn't win you kudos alone; Pinkie might get to wear a tight-fitting suit and ride a scooter but if anything Joffé only makes more of a rod for his own back.

Sam Riley, flush from the critical acclaim for his portrayal of Ian Curtis in Control, rises to the challenge of the central role. From the onset it's clear that his will be a more humanised, although by no means sympathetic, interpretation of the character than Attenborough's; there are hints of a curtailed childhood and an absent father.  In an early scene he's out-psyched and visibly terrified by rival mobster Hale (the ever excessive Sean Harris). Revenge swiftly follows, sparking the events that will propel the rest of the story.

Strictly speaking he's too old for the role, as is Andrea Riseborough as Rose, the naive young girl who knows too much whom Pinkie marries to ensure her silence, yet both perform well enough. It's their relationship that represents the (broken) heart of the story; Rose blinkered by love to Pinkie's true sentiments. Surprisingly Joffé doesn't attempt to do anything fresh with the ending, which effectively replicates that of the 1947 version.

The supporting roles are a who's who of British character actors, including John Hurt (as a bookie who falls foul of Pinkie) and the scenery-chewing Andy Serkis.  Helen Mirren, portraying Ida, the manageress of the tea rooms who seeks to expose Pinkie, isn't quite as blousy as Greene's heroine and might have been more interesting if Joffé had sought to emphasise more of the generational divide.

Indeed the big problem with this film is the director doesn't do enough to justify his remake; it's perfectly adequate as a period thriller and younger viewers might appreciate it coming to the story afresh. The trouble is that, judging from the audience when I went to see it, they're probably not going to bother. Still, this is just the kind of 'safe' product the British film industry seems to pride itself on these days.

AFED #36: Millenium Actress (Japan, 2001); Dir. Satoshi Kon

A few days ago I reviewed Ozu's Late Spring, starring the legendary actress Setsuko Hara. Widely regarded in Japan as one of, if not the finest talent of her generation Hara shocked the nation when she decided to retire from the profession in her mid-forties shortly after Ozu's death, bluntly stating that she had made enough money to support herself and simply didn't care to continue.

Since that time Hara has lived as a recluse and gradually a mystique has built up around her, perhaps due to the fact we romanticise the arts and can't fathom how anybody could regard acting as merely a job. But I was intrigued to discover that her life had served as partial inspiration for a feature length anime, Millenium Actress, and naturally had to seek it out.

Made by anime director and cartoonist Satoshi Kon, who died last year, it explores precisely that theme of how we project biographical legend upon an artist's body of work, blurring fantasy and reality.

Tachibana, a tv producer with a rather disturbing obsession with a retired famous actress, Chiyoko Fujiwara, manages to obtain an interview with his idol.Accompanied by his cameraman, a comedy deadbeat, the pair visit the venerable Chiyoko at her home. After Tachibana presents her with a mysterious key, Chiyoko begins recalling her career and the tv crew are magically thrown back in time with her, participating in the dramas of her films.

The key, it transpires, was presented to Chiyoko as a girl by a dissident young artist fleeing the fascists in the 1930's, and her desire to be reunited with her love became the driving force in Chiyoko's life. Across a series of vignettes depicting various historical periods and genres (such as the popular samurai epics with which Kurosawa achieved such success) Chiyoko continues her pursuit, running into various dangers along the way. Tachibana, taking on a variety of roles, saves her life on a number of occasions; something we eventually discover he'd done for real as a young runner on the set of her final movie.

Millenium Actress was favourably compared on its release to Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, both in its fantasy theme and quality of animation. While the latter is true - the different epochs being rendered with loving attention to detail - it struggles badly with a lack of narrative coherence. We're swept from one event to the next but it's difficult to follow what's supposed to be happening. The notion that an actor's life story can be told through their roles is certainly one worth exploring, but without a strong plot the result is confusion and the viewer's attention drifts.

It's a great pity that Kon didn't give more thought to the script instead of letting it play second fiddle to the spectacle. Ironic that the film's rather sweet message that - regardless of whether we achieve our goals - we need purpose to give our lives direction, wasn't applied literally.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

AFED #35: Beau Travil (France, 1999); Dir. Claire Denis

I didn't realise while watching it that Claire Denis's Beau Travil was a loose adaptation of Herman Melville's Billy Budd, but wasn't terribly surprised. Beneath the oblique veneer lies a nineteenth century morality tale in a military setting vaguely reminiscent of Tolstoy.

The story is relocated to the present day and a regiment of French Foreign Legion troops stationed in Djibouti. Galoup (Denis Lavant), a committed but somewhat sullen staff sergeant, develops a festering jealousy towards Sentain, a popular and good looking new recruit. When Sentain is awarded a medal for bravery in the wake of a helicopter accident Galoup's hatred only grows and he begins trying to unsettle his rival. When an opportunity finally presents itself to discipline Sentain, Galoup takes it too far and destroys his own career.

For long stretches very little takes place; much of the narration is told through Galoup's voiceover and the dialogue is sparse; a great deal imparted through casual glances and cutaways. A love triangle of sorts develops between Galoup, Sentain and their commander Bruno Forestier, a veteran of the Algerian war, which raises questions about the underlying motivations of career soldiers. Certainly, the implication at the end is that Galoup's discharge has left him a broken man and he'll shortly take his own life.

Narrative is really only one component of Denis's film, however. Her real fascination is with the pervasive latent homoeroticism within the routines and rituals of military life; Beau Travail is a celebration of the beauty of the male form, young soldiers working and playing half-naked in the baking desert heat.

The cinematography by Agnès Godard perfectly captures both the physical grace and arid tranquility of the setting. Music also plays an important part: Billy Budd had previously served as the basis for a Benjamin Britten opera and snatches of if are used to heighten the sensuous potency.

For some viewers the approach will likely be too ponderous and there's something rather sneaky in having the most dramatic incident - the helicopter crash - take place off-camera, though budgetary constraints presumably played a part in that decision. Perhaps some straight men will be left feeling a little uncomfortable by all the gazing at the male form, which can inspire some doubts about your orientation. Get over it, it's only a movie.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

AFED #34: The Killer Shrews (US, 1959); Dir. Ray Kellogg

This is a shrew, a small rodent of the order Soricomorpha. Despite being fairly prolific both in Europe and North America (albeit separate sub species) they're quite reclusive and I can't recall ever seeing a live one.

My first awareness of these strange little creatures came through a card game called Woodland Happy Famiies, a pack of which could be found sequestered amongst the vast array of junk at my grandmother's house as a kid. I liked the pictures (by the prolific illustrator Racey Helps) so much that years later I bought a new set for myself. Here are the Shrew Family...

Okay, so they're anthropomorphic versions but still recognisably shrews; they have that distinctive snout and beady black eyes. There's really not a lot of mistaking a shrew.

These, on the other hand, sure as hell ain't shrews...

But they do give a fair idea of what to expect from bargain basement nadir The Killer Shrews. A film that's pretty much ensured a position amongst the lowlights of this year-long odyssey.

James Best (the future Rosco P. Coltrane in The Dukes of Hazard as well as Quentin Tarantino's acting teacher) stars as Thorne Sherman, the captain of a supply ship making deliveries to a research group on a remote island. When they greet him brandishing a rifle it's obvious something's awry, but with a hurricane approaching he's obliged to seek refuge at their house overnight, while his first mate Griswold stays with the boat.

The scientists, led by the wonderfully named Dr. Marlowe Cragis (Baruch Lumet), explain to the bemused Thorne that they're conducting experiments in restricting growth with a view to ending world hunger. Quite why they decided to test their theories with shrews, an animal that needs to eat every 2-3 hours, isn't entirely clear but something has gone wrong and a rogue batch of oversized shrews have escaped and set about eating everything on the island.

Thorne also finds he's made an enemy of Jerry (Ken Curtis), the estranged fiance of Marlowe's daughter Ann (Ingrid Goude) and the culprit for the killer shrews' escape. Given that Ann latches onto Thorne with the unnatural alacrity Jerry's jealousy is hardly surprising, but at least it adds to the frisson.

Meanwhile outside the 'shrews' - or rather dogs with furry rugs strapped on their backs - begin making a nuisance of themselves and devour the hapless Griswold (he's black, and therefore expendable) before setting their sights on the house. They break into the basement and dispatch assistant Mario (Hispanic, also expendable) courtesy of their venomous bite, the potency of which is greatly increased in their enlarged form.

Before long the shrews (depicted in close-ups with some less than sophisticated puppetry) have started burrowing through the walls and Thorne must lead the survivors (minus Jerry, who ought to have realised having a chip on his shoulder didn't do much for  his chances of making it to the end of the picture) off the island to safety. You'll wish he hadn't.

Inevitably such a lamentable production has become a cult classic; there's even a sequel in the works in which the 85 year-old Best will reprise his role as Thorne. Ironically, for a film that quite literally scrapes the barrel (see the end to understand my meaning) it was produced by renowned broadcaster and entrepeneur Gordon McLendon, who a few years later would be a major shareholder in Columbia Pictures.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

AFED #33: Number Seventeen (UK, 1932); Dir. Alfred Hitchcock

The general consensus is that Alfred Hitchcock's earlier films are something of a mixed bag.

After The Lodger's triumph in 1926 came a spell in which Hitch appeared to be finding his feet as a director, trying different genres and approaches without the elan which would later characterise his work. Some, such as boxing melodrama The Ring (1927), have received positive reappraisal in recent years and it leaves you wondering whether they've been the victim of critical prejudice towards the definitively 'Hitchcockian'.

Blackmail (1929), British cinema's first sound film, is considered his next watershed but again the view is it was followed by a fallow spell before his breakthrough with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). Sandwiched roughly halfway through this period is a minor suspense called Number Seventeen, that may be the most unloved work of his entire career.

Given that Hitchcock, in his conversations with Francois Truffaut, referred to the film as "a disaster" perhaps it's not surprising. But I've always been of the view that some of the most interesting and enjoyable films are glorious messes, where misguided ambition leads to curious and unexpected results. And for that reason Number Seventeen may just be one of my favourite Hitchcock films.

Hitchcock's company had, for reasons lost in the mists of time, acquired the rights to a stage play by Jefferson Farjeon. It was a fairly routine mystery in the "old dark house" tradition of the hugely poplular The Cat and the Canary, yet one for which Hitchcock had little liking. He decided to rewrite it as a comedy and didn't care much for the result of that either but, presumably under pressure to get something into production, opted to go ahead and shoot it anyway.

A synopsis of the convoluted plot will probably double the length of this review, but I notice even Wikipedia doesn't record it correctly so I'll try to outline the essentials...

Late one night a man (who we later known as Gilbert, and played by John Stuart) notices lights inside a empty house and decides to investigate, whereupon he encounters a stranger upstairs standing beside a body. The stranger, comedy prole 'Ben', protests his innocence and after searching the body they discover a gun and handcuffs.

After hearing a disturbance the pair are abruptly joined by a young woman who falls through the roof who lives next door and claims to be be looking for her father, who in turn was staking out the house in connection with the theft of a diamond necklace. It seems the house is some kind of rendevous point for a criminal gathering, and three more characters persons promptly turn up at the door. Meanwhile, the body has inconveniently disappeared.

Feeling threatened, Ben decides to point the gun at the newcomers but the tables get turned fairly abruptly and our three original characters are searched and questioned. Then, a man claiming to be the criminal gangleader, Sheldrake, turns up. Only he isn't; he's actually the body from earlier on and also the man who'd been watching the house. The real Sheldrake has been hiding in the bathroom all along! After some more scuffling the tables are turned again and the criminals begin their escape for a train that's heading to the continent via ferry.

Oh, I should have mentioned that by this point it's clear that nobody knows who anybody else is.

Our 'heroes' head off in pursuit of the train, but the criminals prevent Gilbert from getting on board. He gets around this problem by hijacking a bus, while onboard the locomotive Ben scuffles with the criminals, who are now fighting amongst themselves and also manage to shoot the train driver. Much of this sequence seems to be a pretext for Hitchcock to play around with a model train set.

Predictably the train crashes. Gilbert, it turns out, was a detective all along and the necklace (made from 24-carat MacGuffin) is rescued.

Had it been made sixty years later then Number Seventeen might have been considered postmodern. Not only does it toy with the conventions of the genre, piling up twists and intrigue to the point of incoherence, but there's a slyly self-reflexive element at work too.

"It's like the pictures, isn't it?" suggests the girl when she and Gilbert are tied up. The characters seem to treat each new development like a game, smirking and joking with each other regardless of which side they're on. The fights seem more like playground scraps and nobody is taking anything too seriously.

Looked at in hindsight you soon realise that elements which apparently made sense at the end in fact render a complete nonsense of earlier scenes. Logic is reconstituted with each new plot twist. In the case of one character - an apparently deaf and dumb woman who arrived with the criminals but later aids Gilbert... and isn't deaf or dumb - no explanation is provided as to what exactly she was doing there.

Perhaps I'm just perverse and like confusion for it's own sake, but there's a surreal absurdity to Number Seventeen that anticipates The Lady Vanishes six years later and which is nearly as devious as Hitchcock's classic suspenses. It probably won't win any more acolytes on the basis of my recommendation but it's by no means without merit.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

AFED #32: Banshun [Late Spring] (Japan, 1949); Dir. Yasujiro Ozu

I'm starting to wonder why I'm doing this. Every day I'm putting myself through the wringer to watch films and write some very average material, and while I'm grateful to anybody who does take the time to read it I'm not sure I would in the same position.

Depression takes a hell of a lot out of you, all the best laid plans and ambitions feel like pissing in the wind and the world feels so cheap and tawdry. You want to believe it's a good place but down here in the foothills (or is it the gutter?) it's difficult to see very much.

Then there's my choice of films, as the point has been made to me that I could attract a lot more visitors and general interest in what I'm doing if I reviewed more mainstream material; the kind of stuff the average moviegoer is interested in. Yet aren't there thousands of other sites and blogs doing exactly the same thing? What does it profit a man if he gains more visitors but loses his soul?

No, better to plough a lonely furrow than be a cog in a marketing machine. It's not that I won't do the commercial, contemporary films occasionally, but there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Hollywood's philosophy.

Things like the work of Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, whose Tokyo Story I've long counted amongst my favourite films. For whatever reason I've never attempted to watch any more of his canon until now, which is my loss because Late Spring is a sublime meditation on love and duty.

It's the first of what would be called Ozu's 'Noriko Trilogy', all of which star enigmatic actress Setsuko Hara as three different characters named Noriko.

In this Noriko is the devoted daughter to widowed father Shukichi (Chishu Ryu). Noriko has thus far resisted marriage but pressure is growing from Shukichi's sister to find her a husband. When it seems that Shukichi himself may be about to remarry, Noriko feels she has no alternative but to enter into an effectively arranged marriage.

Ozu's work has a tranquility that would be entirely incomprehensible to most modern cinema patrons. His scenes are generally long with minimal editing and usually driven by dialogue rather than action. It would be quite possible to tell Late Spring's story in a quarter of the time and still retain some of the languor. Quite the opposite of pretentious, Ozu's approach has a meditative naturalism that absorbs us into the scene instead of merely presenting it to us.

The finest, and much acclaimed example of this comes when Noriko and her father attend a Noh performance. In this eight minute scene - delivered with no dialogue and accompanied by the dirge of the Noh performers - Noriko's mood is transformed from enjoyment to bitterness when she notices her Shukichi gesture to the woman he's been romantically linked with.

Hara is a remarkable actress with a gift for drawing you in to her characters' torments. Noriko's absolute adoration of her father and reluctance to be parted from him borders on the neurotic but that doesn't prevent us from sharing the pain. Chishu Ryu's more placid presence is the perfect foil and it's unsurprising Ozu used them in together in multiple films.

Ozu had the good fortune to be at the height of his powers when Japan was undergoing enormous transformation; the traditional values being supplanted by those of a de facto western nation. A few years later Noriko's recalcitrance towards marriage would not seem quite so strange while conversely her selfless devotion would perhaps seem conservative. The idea of arranged marriages may seem archaic to us now, but as the account of married life Shukichi relates to his daughter illustrates, it encouraged a more pragmatic attitude than exists today.

Now we live in a world where cheap thrills and immediate gratification are what seem to matter. It's not a place where Ozu's work sits comfortably and that's a great loss.