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Wild Things Run Fast
'Jekyll' moves more quickly than TV audiences have been taught to expect. It covers an astonishing amount of ground in the first couple of episodes, enough to sustain most British series through six episodes or more and some US series through an entire 22-episode season (I'm looking at you, 'Heroes'). Foreshadowing is foreshortened - climaxes come quicker than you expect. I thought the hide-the-family cat and mouse game would be the focus of the entire series, climaxing in the final episode with the standard family-in-peril scenario. The series gets past that point in the first episode, then goes back to the beginning at the start of the second episode and does something completely different. Every episode has a different feel to it - the first is domestic-Gothic, the second a paranoia thriller, the third one of those teasing formalist puzzles that writer Moffatt is so fond of, the fourth a romance inter-cut with a techno-thriller, the fifth a psychedelic ghost story in period costume, the sixth a gonzo action-movie parody.
Even as it slows down a little as it goes along, Moffatt never loses his delight in undermining expectations. The pivotal moment is the death of a major character in the third episode. They're the one character no other writer would kill off so quickly - but Moffatt does it casually, and you can almost taste the adrenaline as the series surges forwards, figuring out where to go from here. The other key transition comes in a fifth episode bait-and-switch twist which might make you punch the air - with one word ('suckers!') the entire nature of the series changes, and what seemed like an inevitable dramatic trajectory suddenly slingshots in a whole new direction.
The downside to this restlessness is that some characters get left by the side of the road. Miranda and Min (Meera Syal and Fenella Woolgar) get little to do after the first episode, when they should be getting their own series. Similarly, Katherine Reimer (Michelle Ryan), potentially the most interesting character in the series, gets lost in the background as Clair (Gina Bellman) and Syme (Denis Lawson) move centre stage in the second half of the series. But what a manoeuvre that turns out to be - Clair's transition from victim-wife cypher in the first episode to audience identification figure in the fourth is strangely exhilarating; the series suddenly finds a focus for its restless energy, and the couple's difficult, fragile relationship lends it an unexpectedly soft heart. It's a shame Moffatt can't quite sustain it to the end of the last episode - the 'emotional' climax feels oddly perfunctory. Perhaps I was just hoping for a less formulaic resolution to the Jekyll/Hyde split from such an unorthodox series - integration rather than sacrifice, perhaps?
The only other flaw in the series? The lions. It was never gonna work on a TV budget.
The Mighty Atom
Like almost all of Atom Egoyan's movies, 'Adoration' is self-consciously exploratory, gently tracing the boundaries and pressure points that exist between characters in a manner that asks resonant, sometimes troubling questions about wider political issues without needing to generalise from the specifics. Egoyan doesn't universalise, he doesn't simplify. He may be the least glib film-maker out there.
I was lucky enough to see him speak about this film after it screened at the London Film Festival. He was asked a question about the political content of the film; rather than claim that the film isn't political, as I have heard other artists do when confronted with this question about their work, he responded that the politics in the film are entirely located within the family - a refreshingly nuanced response.
He is also far more willing to risk losing an audience than almost any other director, pushing dramatic situations into absurdism or uncomfortable comedy, or outright confounding ambiguity, when it would be easier and more surefire to go for more conventional dramatic effects, like irony, or poignancy. For instance, the entire encounter between Arsinee Khanjian and Scott Speedman's characters, in which painful confession and angry confrontation are tempered by the awkward farce of the taxi-ride and invitation to lunch, the unsettling comedy of the confrontation with the taxi-driver, and, most opaquely, the utterly meaningless and consequence-free coincidence of Simon passing his uncle in a bus, and them failing to see each other.
Most impressive of all, I think, is the balance this film strikes between intellectual engagement and emotional detachment. After the screening, I told my partner that I'd found it moving, and he expressed surprise, as he valued the lack of sentimentality, almost the dispassion, of the film. Reflecting on it, I realised that when I used the word 'moved', I was using it to express a feeling separate from being emotionally invested in the characters in a film (as in, say, 'Mysterious Skin' or 'Magnolia', both of which sent me off into crying jags). Egoyan's films (with the exception of 'The Sweet Hereafter', which is heartbreaking and cathartic and, as it happens, my favourite film bar none) almost seem to displace my emotional investment into the structure of the movie, similar to the way music engages the listener - or, perhaps, more unusually, they displace it onto the ideas themselves; ideas like the psychology of martyrdom, the instant narrativisation of internet discourse and its consequences, the elusive boundaries of personal responsibility (a recurring concern in Egoyan's films), the conciliatory and revelatory aspects of art, and all the other stuff this movie left buzzing round in my head. If you'll bear with me, I think what I'm saying is that I feel a kind of emotional topography of ideas in Egoyan's movies, a recognition that intellectual frameworks and emotional responses aren't detached in people's lives; the characters, the structure and the brainfood are all connected, in sync; you aren't manipulated into crying, but you may just feel your heart aching all the same.
How to Marry a Millionaire (1953)
Ready, Willing and Grable
First, a warning. 'How to Marry a Millionaire' comes prefaced by an apparently random five minute orchestral performance of 'Street Scene', a Gershwin-lite piece treated with the full pomp and ceremony of, well, Gershwin. Sitting through it takes some patience. If you have the DVD, rest assured, you can skip forward. You won't miss anything.
The film itself is one of the perpetual disappointments of 50's Hollywood, a movie so bolstered by major star-power, opulent mise-en-scene and perfect high-concept that failure seems inconceivable. The title alone is perfect. Generation after generation, however, are forced to ask themselves - how is this so limp? The script is an albatross about the production's neck, a dead, smelling thing that chokes everything and everyone before they can really spark to life. There are no comic situations, just isolated moments that play for laughs. Whenever an actual comedy scene threatens to develop, the movie quickly moves on to other, less interesting things. A case in point - the scene where the three leading ladies each bring a date to the same fancy restaurant. One of them, short-sighted, refuses to wear her spectacles out of vanity. One of the dates is married. A classic Hollywood farce set-up, surely, complete with mistaken identity, angry wife, and probably a pie in the face for somebody? Well, no. Instead, we cut between the three dates as the ladies react 'comically' to things their partners say. Hit the punchline, and cut to the next limp joke. If in doubt, have Marilyn walk into a wall. Where's Billy Wilder when you need him?
The three stars are almost a perfect diagram of the life cycle of the classic Hollywood screen goddess. This was one of Marilyn Monroe's breakout films, and the camera just eats her up, even though the script gives her nothing to do. She's so luminescent she almost seems newly hatched. Lauren Bacall, on the other hand, had been a major star for nearly a full decade, and she knows how to dominate the screen even when in frame with Monroe. She gets the only thing passing for a real role, and delivers the few good lines with a cynical snap - given the right material, she could have brought this thing to life. She's a curiously ageless actress - when she lies about her age in the film and claims to be forty, it isn't instantly ridiculous - and far less girlish than her co-stars, giving her a convincing authority. Betty Grable was far from ageless, and had a good eight years on her co-stars, putting her near the end of her Hollywood career. There's an air of desperation about her at times, stranded on screen with nothing but a toothpaste smile and a few scraps of comic timing, unable to play her real age but fooling no-one as a contemporary of this new, sharper generation of actresses, relying on the same old schtick that had served her throughout her career (for Marilyn-doubters, seeing the two juxtaposed in this movie helps to throw Monroe's subtlety and - yes - intelligence into sharp relief). She's also lumbered with the dead wood in terms of male co-stars (although all of the men - even the great William Powell - are guilty of lazy performances); she's unable to strike any comic sparks off them. Better to have given her role to the under-utilised Monroe, who could be funny all by herself, and left Grable with the repetitive Mr. Magoo routine.
That the movie is as enjoyable as it is can be put down to the luscious Hollywood production, the sort that renders even the twee likes of 'By the Light of the Silvery Moon' watchable. But somewhere, buried beneath the flabby jokes and professionalism, lies the rough outline of a sharp, cynical comedy about the business of marriage that Bacall could have made sing - and new generations of movie viewers will sit down with 'How to Marry a Millionaire' in expectation of that movie, ready to be disappointed all over again.
Some films just don't have a prayer. Ranking somewhere below Chris Farley comedies, Stephen king adaptations and the work of Catherine Breillat in the seven circles of critical hell, third sequels in interminable slasher movie series are, bar pornography, pretty much the lowest of the low. 'Friday the 13th - The Final Chapter'? Yeesh.
And yet, down in the dark, wailing and gnashing its teeth, lies a film waiting a rescue that will probably never come. Imaginative, unpredictable and just a little insane, 'A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 - The Dream Master' is a near pop-classic. No, really - come back, I'm not crazy! Watch without prejudice and you might, just, see that I'm right.
Don't approach this film expecting to be scared. That isn't the point. Frankly, none of its predecessors were particularly frightening, and 'Dream master' throws aside all pretence at mere scariness. By the late eighties, the last thing the world needed was another boring stalk and slash picture milking familiar gory set-pieces. If that's your bag, run along to Jason Voorhees territory, and you're welcome to each other. Instead, 'Dream master' taps into the inherent empowerment narrative of the slasher film and amps it up several notches, filters it through an eighties dreamscape and rams it down the cult of Freddy's throat.
There's a genuine and curious sense of heritage running through the 'Elm Street' films, with each Final Girl passing on the baton to her successor - Nancy training Kristen to combat Freddy in the third film, then Kristen passing on her powers to Alice upon her death here. Whilst the deaths of the original final girls of the 'Halloween' and 'Friday the 13th' films feel like a victory for - perhaps even a vindication of - their antagonists, this is never the case in the 'Elm Street' films. Freddy, for all his indestructibility, is continually bested by a lineage of resourceful young women who share their knowledge and skills with one another. If he can never, finally, be defeated, neither can they ('Buffy the Vampire Slayer' owes this film a lot).
'Dream Master' recognises this and builds upon it, constructing Alice as an archetypal Final Girl, the equal and opposite of Freddy's evil. The film's master-stroke is her inheritance, upon their deaths, of her friends' abilities - Kristen's knowledge and resourcefulness, Sheila's intelligence, Rick's fighting skills, Debbie's strength and will power. With every killing, Freddy diminishes himself and strengthens his opponent.
The wilfully absurdist dream-murders aren't the vapid technical indulgences that more respectable commentators may have led you to believe, but imaginative commentaries on the characters carried off with style and energy rather than technical perfection. As soon as Debbie shows her fear of bugs you think you know how she'll die (covered in cockroaches!) - but the movie is one step ahead, constructing a wickedly funny Kafka homage that is the perfect nightmare for a body-conscious health freak. Even crueller is Kristen's death, ending up in Freddy's boiler thanks to some typically appalling Elm Street parenting (a neat swipe at parents who medicate their children rather than dealing with their problems).
The film, like its immediate predecessor, is unusually careful to give some shading to its characters - they may not be fully rounded, but they are oddly convincing as a friendship group, actually remembering to be upset by each other's deaths (another unusual feature of the 'Elm Street' series) and with difficult families that actually ring true by not being overplayed. It all helps balance out Englund's showboating. I've never understood the legions of fans who seem comfortable cheering on a child-molesting serial-killer - really, what's the appeal? His jokes aren't even funny. Wes Craven understood that it was all about the Final Girl, a figure who could survive the mean-spirited ending of the original film, pass on her knowledge, and finally, in this film, blossom into something much bigger than Freddy - a little man who is, after all, just a bad dream.
Alien: Resurrection (1997)
Some perspectives on Alien: Resurrection
The Auteurist Perspective - The most unorthodox way of viewing this picture is as a kind of formalist exercise. Jean-Pierre Jeunet has talked about his desire to make a film tailored exactly to the format of a Hollywood action movie, even going so far as to count the number of cuts and camera set-ups in the blockbusters he watched for research. Everything in the movie may be taking place within quotation marks, as in the melodramas of Douglas Sirk or, more obliquely, Gus van Sant's 'Psycho'. The film wants to be both an archetypal big sci-fi action movie whilst simultaneously a pastiche of the form. The gorgeously overblown shot of Ripley and Call standing amid the clouds at the film's close certainly suggests a playful tweaking of blockbuster bombast. However, the 'Alien' series may not be the most appropriate place for this experiment; the series is far more defined by spaces and silences than by frenetic action of the Bruckheimer variety. Even James Cameron's 'Aliens' is surprisingly slow in its build-up; by contrast, Resurrection's relentless pace becomes oddly monotonous and the film loses the distinctive texture Jeunet brings to it.
The Whedonite Perspective - The problems with the script are mostly additions or changes to Joss Whedon's original (which is available online). Whedon rightly made Ripley's resurrection the backbone for the story, finding new things to do with a character many believed had reached the end of her life, both literally and creatively. He also carefully fleshed out the supporting characters just enough to keep them interesting. There are small problems even in his original script - Purviss is sidelined when his predicament demands imaginative exploration, and the narrative is more linear than you'd expect from this writer. But it's the feeble alterations that damage the film - reducing characters like Hillard (in particular) to cyphers, changing the ending so the audience never gets to see earth (the only place, as Whedon instinctively understood, that the climax could possibly take place), and removing a lot of the texture of the setting, like the marijuana fields. 'I'm a stranger here myself' should have been one of the great closing lines in movie history, up there with 'Tomorrow is another day' and 'Shut up and deal', but the dialogue (Whedon's great strength) is mangled by a director working in his second language, and who seems to be paying more attention to the lighting anyway.
The Cynical Perspective - The 'Alien' series is, by this point, a cash cow that everyone involved wants to milk until it bleeds. 'Alien3' ended Ripley's story with an unflinching finality that 'Resurrection' can only cheapen, no matter how good it is. The hiring of a cult french director is a sop to the critics who lionise Scott and Fincher's contributions - and whilst prior instalments were filmed in England, this production was mounted in LA, for the convenience of everyone involved. It wouldn't do to make too much of an effort on what is, after all, the latest sausage on the string. The suits' only concern is the opening weekend; hence Winona, shoehorned in just in case Sigourney's box office draw is waning.
The Aesthetic Perspective - John Frizzell's score is the fourth classic in a row for the series; both lushly romantic and queasily menacing, it gives the film its own distinctive flavour. The production design is bold and distinctive, with perhaps a hint of playful parody (the sickly green light, the mad scientist outfits, the giant glass jars in the lab); the film looks like a comic strip version of its predecessors. Some of the direction is highly effective - the underwater sequence is devastatingly beautiful. The problem is the slightly over-ripe grotesquerie Jeunet brings out in the material, particularly in the way the cast is shot (Dominique Pinon looks like a malevolent garden gnome, Dan Hedaya resembles a sweaty gendarme). It sits uneasily with the straightforward disaster movie plot. The biggest miscalculation on the production front, however, is the Newborn. The thinking behind it - to give it an expressive face and thus complicate Ripley's (and our) emotional response to it - is sound enough, but it doesn't really come off in the finished creature, which looks like moldy old tissues clinging to a pipe-cleaner frame. Whedon's original conception of a white, red-veined alien of the traditional design might have worked more effectively, although even that might not have survived the aesthetic indignity of its impossible demise, getting sucked into space as a string of alien linguine.
Citizen Kane, or 'the surest test of the American heart.'
Conventional critical thinking holds that 'Shadow of a Doubt' was Hitchcock's first truly American film. After all, his first few projects in Hollywood consisted of two English Gothic mysteries with all-British casts, a romp through Europe with a token Joel McCrea, and an obscure screwball comedy that he did as a favour to a friend. How conveniently they pass over 'Saboteur', a rather clumsy piece of wartime propaganda with none of the critical standing of Hitchcock's subsequent masterpiece. The small town setting of 'Shadow of a Doubt' is warmly welcomed as authentic, if subversive, Americana. On the other hand 'Saboteur', the argument goes, is just a reworking of British classic 'The 39 Steps', with Hitchcock displaying a tourist's eye for landmarks like Radio City Music Hall and the Statue of Liberty.
Nuts to that.
'Saboteur' is as authentically American as anything Hitchcock would later achieve; if critics failed to recognise the United States he showed them, it may say more about their preconceptions of a meritocratic New World than any failure on his part. After all, this is an America where an honest working man, doing his part for the war effort, can find his life falling apart through the machinations of the rich and idle; where the overworked (the lorry driver), the disabled (Pat's uncle), and the outcast (the circus folk) know that they must help their fellow victims in the face of what seems like routine police harassment; and where the wealthy can make troublesome proles who gatecrash their charity benefits 'disappear'. The use of Romain's 'The Death of a Nobody' seems highly pointed. Soda City, meanwhile, is a ghost town haunted by the worst times American workers had known - the great depression (contemporary viewers could not have missed the significance of it having been abandoned at the end of the 1920's).
Meanwhile, the requisite patriotism for Hollywood films of this period is neatly pricked by Hitchcock and his writers. Whilst everyone insists on bleating on about the great American virtues, Pat's uncle and the circus folk quietly assert an alternative paradigm of American life. Pat herself - 'little Miss Liberty, carrying her torch' - only becomes the heroine once she learns to put aside her zealous urge to be a good citizen. In this context, the symbolism of the Statue of Liberty - as hope for the dispossessed, rather than an icon of patriotism - seems sharper than critics would allow.
The casting of Robert Cummings and Priscilla Lane as the leads, as opposed to the bigger names Hitchcock was growing accustomed to, seems rather apt in a film about little people caught up in the grinding wheels of war and espionage. Cummings' Barry Kane will never be anybody's favourite Hitchcock hero, and when the director brought him back for 'Dial M for Murder', there was a merciless irony imposed on the character. Lane is better, particularly as the film progresses, but she's solid rather than interesting; her character is just too nice. The villains are, however, fantastic, particularly Otto Kruger as the charmer who scarpers the country. His delight in both his granddaughter and his treachery are a joy to behold. There's a savage irony in that, of all the villains, it's only hired lackey Fry (the small variety, one presumes) who gets his comeuppance at the climax. As usual, the rich get clean away.
All the critical contortion to overlook this film is, perhaps, understandable. The writing is highly inconsistent, with exposition ladled all over the place and the propaganda elements laid on with a cement mixer, to the point that it suffocates some of the finer scenes, such as the encounter with the circus folk (compare with the relatively elegant 'Foreign Correspondent', or the dramatically tighter 'Lifeboat'). The set pieces at Tobin's ranch, Mrs Sutton's party, the Radio City Music Hall (with the uncannily inappropriate laughter of the audience at the violent on screen murder) and the Statue of Liberty (a reminder of the days when the French were seen as forerunners of American ideology, rather than cheese-eating surrender monkeys) are master classes, but a lot of the rest of the film seems poorly paced and indifferently acted.
But, oh, what a title sequence.
Bond on Blonde
The charge of misogyny is too often thrown in Hitchcock's direction - it's a lazy tag that refuses to engage with his admittedly complex and occasionally troubling perspective on and relationship with women. The irony is that he was probably responsible for the creation of more memorable, dynamic female characters in classic Hollywood (particularly the fifties) than almost any of his contemporaries (bar Billy Wilder, whose attitude towards women strikes me as equally problematic). However, with 'Marnie', the charges begin to stick. The power imbalance of the central relationship, the pathologising of the female, the sexual violence against women - it reads like a feminist film-theory tick-list.
It isn't as simple as that, of course, but there's a tendency for critics to be a little mealy-mouthed about what is going on in this film. Rape is made justifiable (although it isn't quite justified). The women are all damaged or perverse; Hitchcock claimed Connery's character is just as sick, but the film avoids pathologising him in the same way. There's a thread of something genuinely unpleasant in this film, and in fairness it wouldn't work if there wasn't. The rape scene is the most discomforting scene in all of Hitchcock's work, and my knee-jerk reaction is to wish it wasn't there. However, the way it conveys the horror of the violation without graphically depicting it (and thus turning it into a voyeuristic spectacle) may be the most impressive aspect of the film. This is the only 'classic' Hollywood film I can think of that treats rape seriously, as opposed to as a plot detail. The pity is that the film ultimately neglects the consequences beyond Marnie's immediate reaction.
The film certainly provokes wildly divergent responses, and some pretty complex readings. This isn't just a matter of viewer response - the film encourages it. The bad taste it leaves in many people's mouths (my own included) seems deliberate, and it is for that reason that I give it the benefit of the doubt.
The performances are more easily defensible. Despite a lot of criticism, Tippi Hedren gives a really potent performance as Marnie. At times she wavers, bordering on the hysterical or the arch, but then this a more challenging role than her debut in 'The Birds'. She nails the role in ninety percent of the scenes. Connery seems deliberately miscast, but he's rarely been this interesting since. Again, there are wobbles - he does better by Mark's dark sexuality than by his easy charm (which comes off as patronising) - but it remains a career high point. The scene stealer, though, is Diane Baker as Lil. I've never seen the actress this well cast before - she seems to have been underused all the way through her career. She has the unusual benefit of an actual character arc, rare among Hitchcock's minor characters, although it is rather muffled by her absence at the climax. In her final scenes, we can see her coming to comprehend the depths of Marnie's trauma, and anticipate a more supportive relationship between the two in future. Hitchcock, alas, has no interest in that. I'm always left wanting more of this elfin, mischievous character - and the actress who plays her.
There are some striking sequences in the film - particularly the opening shot - but the fake looking backdrops are a mistake. I've never heard a really good justification for them (you can evoke unreality or superficiality without making your film look so darned tacky). The montage of the horse crashing over the wall may be the single most risible moment in Hitchcock's prolific career.
Marnie is unquestionably successful in one respect - it gets under the viewer's skin like no other film of its period. I can't think of another film that provokes such queasy - yet rapt - attention. My own feelings about it are deeply ambivalent. I don't love it - or like it, really - and yet I can't dismiss it. My opinions about it shift with every viewing - and I keep going back to it.
Batman & Robin (1997)
Joel Schumacher's condition leaves him cold to your pleas of mercy...
Don't let this film deceive you. In the long, forgiving periods between viewings (should you be reckless enough to watch it more than once), this film may take on an aura of kitschy fun. You may remember the gaudy production design, the naff one-liners, the over-ripe performances, and assume that this film was a so-bad-it's-good classic. I know I made that mistake. Rewatching it was a sobering experience. I'd forgotten the one quality that is the kiss of death for kitsch - dullness. This is a shockingly boring film. By the climax, I was itching for it to be over, checking the clock with disbelief that Schumacher hadn't, in fact, imposed a Kenneth-Branagh's-Hamlet running time on this leaden production.
People blame camp for ruining this film, but let's be specific - this is mass camp, and bad mass camp at that. Real camp is concerned with performance, subtle double meanings, irony that doesn't force itself upon you. Tim Burton's Batman films used camp elements quite extensively, particularly in the stylised performances of his cast; Schumacher doesn't seem to be able to distinguish camp (Uma Thurman emerging from a gorilla suit, a la Marlene Dietrich) and kitsch (everything else, particularly the queasily-lit sets).
I have a feeling that, with better direction, Thurman might actually have been a lot of fun as Poison Ivy; unfortunately, Schumacher can only draw out the most grotesque elements of her performance, strangling some of her more finely done comic moments (and there are few enough of those). Clooney gives the most naturalistic performance, the only star whose acting could grace a better film, but unfortunately his easy charm is all wrong for the role. At least this film seemed to act as a kick up the backside for his career; his choices after this were much cannier. Michael Gough is as solid as always.
Everyone else is irredeemably awful. Alicia Silverstone and Chris O'Donnell are stuck with characters who feel like distractions; she seems shrill, he comes across as petulant. Their semi-romance is trite beyond belief. This film seriously hobbled both of their careers, which is more of a pity in the former case than the latter. Arnold Schwarzenegger has the physical presence for an imposing villain, and his make-up is actually a rare hit on the production side of things, but Mr. Freeze's dialogue defied belief even before it was put in the mouth of a comedy Austrian. As an actor, emotion isn't really Arnold's strength, so the tragic backstory of his character seems particularly misguided (although it provides one of the few memorable images in the film - the suspended body of Mrs. Fries, like a science fiction Sleeping Beauty).
The film seems misguided in lots of little ways, as well. Like 'X-Men 3', there are too many characters for them all to get the attention they require. It forgets, in that 'ironic' coda with the villains, that Ivy is as much a victim as Mr. Freeze - arguably more so (like 'Death Becomes Her', there's more than a whiff of misogyny in the way it lets the man off the hook whilst condemning the woman). It uses the comic character Bane in a manner so off-handedly banal that even non-comic fans would be offended if they knew (and wouldn't Bane have made a much better central villain? Even Arnold could have played him). Elle MacPherson's girlfriend character is made to seem so superficial that it makes Bruce Wayne look bad for dating her - would the man who was so fascinated by the kinks in Selina Kyle really settle for such a glitzy trophy?
Remember that it's garish, remember that it's stupid, remember that it nearly killed careers and a franchise - just remember, too, that it may be the most boring action film ever made.
The Wicker Man (2006)
Neil LaBute: Witchfinder General
Let's try and get through this review without even mentioning the original, shall we?
Neil LaBute really doesn't make things easy for himself, does he? Not only does he tackle a remake - never a popular decision - but he immediately reworks it into another of his gender-war pieces, with a dispassionate matriarchy destroying an innocent man for their own (lunatic) ends. He must thrive on the accusations of misogyny - this just smacks of deliberate provocation.
Whatever LaBute's motives, however, the decision to introduce the gender aspect was a canny one. Not only does it reinvigorate the well-trodden 'isolated community' storyline, it provides an opportunity to gather together a raft of America's finest character actresses in one place; it's still relatively rare for women to predominate a cast in a mainstream American film (no, really, think about it - how many films have more than three significant female characters? How many have more than two?). So make way for Ellen Burstyn, Frances Conroy, Molly Parker, Kate Beahan, Diane Delano and Leelee Sobieski; only Robert Altman and Pedro Almodovar have had more impressive female rosters.
Beahan's striking features, with her almost parodically large doe eyes, provide her with the perfect patina of Bambi-like innocence; her increasingly hesitant mannerisms are slyly pitched between ruthless manipulation and genuine distress. Sobieski seems underused, but the final shot of her, lip trembling, is unforgettable; it almost saves a totally botched final scene (the audience should feel the wheels of a ruthless mechanism beginning to turn again, but those cheesy bar-room guys seem too lightweight to suffer. A little less characterisation might have been more effective by keeping it in general terms). Delano is a memorable if unsubtle presence, although anyone who has seen the 'Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased)' episode 'O Happy Isle' might have a hard time taking her character seriously (in fact, the two productions are weirdly similar, even taking the influence of you-know-what on the episode into account). Conroy seems to be having fun as Dr. Moss, and she has a wonderful knack of seeming benign and sinister with the same facial expression. Best of all is the sublime Molly Parker, an extraordinary actress who deserves wider recognition (see, particularly, 'Kissed'). In this film, she barely seems human. Her schoolteacher is both rigid and playful, easily provoked and completely in control, the one woman on the island who seems to get a genuine malicious kick out of seeing their victim meet his fate. The sight of her in her bird-mask, cycling down a woodland lane, is enough to justify this film's existence.
I'm less certain about Burstyn's performance, although her low-key queen bee may well benefit from repeated viewings (although - I have to ask - why is her make-up so damned immaculate? I find it hard to see Sister Summersisle applying lipstick whilst looking in a compact). And last but not least, the main man of the piece, Nicolas Cage, gives a really solid performance, bar one line of overplaying (see if you can spot it). I'm coming to really admire Cage - he is never, ever anything less than fully 'on', committed to his performance whatever the film. I can't think of a single uninteresting Nicolas Cage performance, which is quite a lot more than I could say about almost any of his peers.
(footnote: after 'Ghost Rider', 'Next', 'Bangkok Dangerous', and 'Knowing' you might say my good will towards Cage has become a little tarnished since I posted this review...)
None of this really gets past the problem that the film is short on atmosphere, and the scares are, for the most part, cheap shocks. The bee imagery is fun, although those familiar with mid-period 'X-Files' may find it a little familiar. The film does tease the unknowing quite cleverly, however - those familiar with (sigh) the original might miss that LaBute sets the audience up for a 'Jacob's Ladder'- style twist that never comes (it starts with the hero rendered unconscious in a traumatic accident, he's plagued by visions of the deceased, there are non-sequiturs and surrealism - see also 'Carnival of Souls', 'Dead End', 'Soul Survivors', even 'The Wizard of Oz' for where this might seem to be going), allowing him to slip the real knife in without arousing suspicion.
Batman Returns (1992)
Smitten with a Whip
So what is 'Batman Returns', anyway?
It was marketed as an action film, and many people who've seen it seem to think that they've watched an action film - but really, there isn't that much action, and Tim Burton barely seems interested in it.
People often align it with the 'grittier' superhero comics of the late eighties, but honestly, if you've read 'The Dark Knight Returns', that seems just a little absurd; Burton's excessive imaginings have more in common with the day-glo sixties TV series (the Penguin drives around in a giant plastic duck, for goodness' sake).
Burton's style is often described as Gothic, and that's a little closer to what we see on screen; the Penguin - deformed, malign, with a tangled history and a subterranean lair - is a Gothic menace dressed up in more respectable Dickensian clothes - Udolfo masquerading as Uriah Heep.
But what of Catwoman? She may be raised from the dead, but that PVC catsuit is decidedly Twentieth Century, and her alter ego Selina Kyle's world is all boardrooms and apartments - reminiscent of a 1930s romantic comedy.
And then it clicks. The smart but downtrodden secretary romanced by a lonely millionaire? The ensuing complications caused by deception and disguise? 'Batman Returns' is, quite clearly, a romantic comedy in the old Hollywood style, filtered through Burton's S&M dungeon sensibilities. It has more in common with 'The Hudsucker Proxy' (including expressionist sets) than it does with other superhero films.
Like many a romantic comedy, it centres around the make-over of the heroine; not from ugly duckling to swan, but from doormat to dominatrix. Michelle Pfeiffer gives one of the performances of her (often remarkable) career; she's iconically sexy as Catwoman (poor Halle Berry never had a prayer), playful and vindictive, memorable because she knows how to act with her whole body. In retrospect, though, it's her scenes as Selina that impress; almost every one of them is a little comic gem, particularly the glimpse we get of her lonely home life. It's a delicately balanced tragicomic performance, and it's in these scenes that the film really sparks to life. Nothing moves me quite like Selina and Bruce Wayne dancing under the mistletoe to Siouxsie and the Banshees, a gun held between them, simultaneously empowered and trapped by their alter egos, doomed to conflict. Forget the easy sentimentality of 'Big Fish' or the gossamer emotions of 'Edward Scissorhands' - this is the most heartfelt scene in all of Burton's films. Love, revenge, fatalism, fetishism, insanity, self-loathing and not a little wit, all in a few short lines and absolutely nailed by the actors - particularly Pfeiffer.
Elsewhere, Danny de Vito almost matches her, finding the wounded dignity buried beneath those truly repellent long-johns. The upper-crust villain of the comics is revealed to be nothing more than a sham; Burton's Penguin is a feral creature subjected to his own, Eliza Doolittle-style make-over (almost literally an 'ugly duckling'). It's Burton's most radical - and funniest - reinvention. Christopher Walken's Max Schreck completes a perfect triptych of villains, sliding between casual charm and blank-eyed psychosis with unnerving ease (and is it just me, or does his company's logo bring to mind Mickey Mouse? Perhaps we should ask former Disney animator Burton).
Christopher Nolan's 'Batman Begins' - a real action film - has been much praised as the first film to do justice to Batman; I admire Nolan's film, but it would be a pity if it were allowed to overshadow this idiosyncratic gem.
Snakes on a Plane (2006)
Samuel L. Jackson in "Revenge of the Focus Group!"
This is not a film you can really analyse separately from it's production. The audience became the film-makers to an extent unprecedented in the history of the American film industry; we felt so involved that viewing it becomes like watching the work of a friend. How is it possible to be objective? This is our movie, isn't it? Or is it? There may be nothing more disingenuous than a film-maker who promotes himself as the audience's friend, giving them all the naughty treats that the nannyish critics would deny them. Just look at that prime self-publicist Eli Roth, promising gore-hounds all the viscera missing from literally gutless mainstream horror films, only to churn out a watered down and technically incompetent piece of work like 'Hostel'.
David R. Ellis may not have spawned the monster that was the internet response to his film, but he was, quite understandably, quick to engage with it. He took the carnival-huckster school of film-making to a new level, getting the fans to build what they would eventually buy. So many have enthused over this interactive, democratic approach to film-making that they seem to have missed the point - that this is the most cynical form of film-as-marketing. Nothing is included that the film-makers know the fans won't buy, and any old suggestion that will get bums on seats is incorporated. The fact that the pitch became the title tells you all you need to know.
Isn't this just the evolution of the focus group approach? Individual creativity, talent, craft, ideas, all are sacrificed before the inane chatter of the masses. It's a critical commonplace that focus groups and test screenings don't make for good movies - why should the preemptive intervention of internet enthusiasts be any different? Because we happen to be film fans? Well, thank god for us, because otherwise I might not have seen a topless woman get her nipple bitten by a snake.
So, yes, I had fun at the movie - a midnight showing, fresh from the pub and with a bucket of ice-cream - but it actually had relatively little to do with the film, and quite a lot to do with the atmosphere. Like Christmas, everyone seemed determined that they would have fun, no matter what. There was laughter, but I don't know if it was with the film, or at the film. With a film as calculated as this one, is that even a meaningful distinction? There are some genuinely good aspects to the film. Samuel L. Jackson gives a well-judged performance, pure self-parody but with a real sense of pleasure. Rachel Blanchard and Lin Shaye are decent in limited roles, and there are one or two inspired moments - the fate of the lap dog is genuinely funny black comedy that the rest of the film fails to emulate.
The stock characters are to be expected, but the total lack of suspense isn't. What's the point of a film that combines two great phobias if there's no creeping menace? There are several snake-jumps-out moments, but they're incredibly badly staged. Only the annoying British man gets a decent pulpy death scene - the other killings are oddly flat. The demise of the honeymoon couple, for instance, is shamefully botched. Most of the actors fail to make an impression; it's a shame that a charismatic actress like Julianna Margulies should seem so tired (when she tells two kids to close their eyes and pretend the turbulent flight is a roller-coaster, she could be talking to the audience - the film falls far short).
There are worse movies, but there are many, many better; another reviewer on this site compared this film with 'Lake Placid', and it's as apt a contrast as any I can think of. That film worked so magnificently because the performances were excellent, the jokes were funny, the suspense sequences were scary, and it wasn't devised by committee. That the characters had a little depth and shading was an unexpected bonus. I don't need a post-pub midnight showing to have a good time with that film.
This film will, in time, fade to become a mere footnote in film history. If it sets a precedent, however, I'm genuinely worried about what might be crossing our screens in a couple of years time. In all probability, nothing much will come of it. Perennial popcorn favourites - 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', 'Alien', 'Halloween' and of course, 'Star Wars' - just aren't produced by group-think.
In the mean time, I'll tell you what - I haven't half got a craving for some Ingmar Bergman.
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
Hitchcock! - The Musical
A film that tends to get buried under prejudice and preconception - It's a remake! Doris Day is in it! She sings! - Hitchcock's second crack at 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' is his most under-rated film, and arguably a fully fledged masterpiece in its own right.
This is, in more ways than one, Doris Day's film. Not only does she give the finest performance of her career, more than holding her own against James Stewart, but the whole film is subtly structured around her character rather than his. This is, after all, a film in which music is both motif and plot device. What better casting than the most popular singer of her generation? Consider: Day's Jo McKenna has given up her career on the stage in order to settle down with her husband and raise their son. This seems to be a mutual decision, and she doesn't appear to be unhappy. But look at the way Stewart teases her in the horse-drawn carriage over her concerns about Louis Bernard, implying that she is jealous that Bernard wasn't asking her any questions about her career. This is clearly a recurrent joke between them - she responds with a 'har-de-har-har' that denotes the familiarity of this gag, suggesting that she has a certain latent resentment about her confinement, and that they both realise it.
After their son has been kidnapped, Stewart insists on doping her before giving her the news. This is a cruel scene, brilliantly played by both actors, which illustrates the power imbalance in their marriage - he is seeking to control and subdue her reactions, in essence using his professional knowledge to suppress her voice in the marriage just as his medical career has suppressed her singing career.
The potency of that voice is demonstrated in the Ambrose Chapel sequence, when she has to reign in its highly trained clarity and volume to blend in with the congregation of female drudges - they almost act as a warning of what will become of her if she continues to suppress her talent. At the Albert Hall, it is her need to cry out, to exercise those impressive lungs, that saves a man's life, and in the Embassy finale, it is her talent and reputation that allows them to locate their son. By contrast, all of Stewart's masculine activity is counterproductive - his visit to the taxidermist is a dead end, he gets left behind at the church whilst everyone else moves on to the Albert Hall, and his efforts there only succeed in getting the assassin killed, thus depriving the Police of potentially useful information. It is only when his action is joined to his wife's voice, in the rescue of Hank from the embassy, that he actually succeeds in doing something useful.
Far from being forced into the film to give Day an opportunity to sing, 'Que Sera Sera' acts as the first musical device in the film, foreshadowing the nightmare that is about to engulf the McKennas; 'the future's not ours to see' indeed. It also neatly prepares the way for the finale, in which the close bond mother and son share through music will allow Doris to save the day.
The most famous sequence in the film makes music the central feature - the build up to the assassination attempt in the Albert Hall. This lengthy wordless sequence may be the single most extraordinary thing Hitchcock committed to film, the ultimate expression of his belief that films should be stories told visually. We see people conduct conversations in this sequence, but we never hear a word they say. We don't need to - the images say everything. It is also his most exquisite suspense sequence, with the pieces moving slowly into place as the music builds. The editing is incredibly tight, matched to the music perfectly. There isn't a frame out of place - anything that doesn't relate directly to the assassination is giving the viewer a sense of the environment, the geography in which all this is playing out. It builds slowly, but by the end the suspense is nearly unbearable. When Jo screams, it isn't just a relief for her, but for the audience.
The Ambrose Chapel sequence is witty, and particularly effective for anyone who has had to sit through a service at a particularly stick-in-the-mud Nonconformist church. The Embassy sequence seems a little flat after the Albert Hall one that preceded it on first viewing, but second time around actually seems more effective, with the final walk at gunpoint really benefiting from the gorgeous use of Day singing in the background, reminiscent of the music-as-ambient-noise in 'Rear Window'. The score as a whole is subtle, allowing the music from on-screen sources to be foregrounded effectively.
Bernard Miles is a low-key villain, a little banal, but with a dry wit. He's outshone by Brenda de Banzie as his wife, who walks a fine line between sinister and sympathetic. Just look at the way she smokes a cigarette whilst her husband preps the assassin - her stance is pure gangster's moll, belying the Middle-England exterior, but she clearly has a soft side, and possibly maternal feelings towards Hank.
Stewart is excellent, although if Hitchcock really did always cast him as 'Everyman', as the Director's daughter seems to think, then it confirms that Hitchcock had a cynical view of his audience. Stewart played a hypocritical intellectual who espoused fascist ideology in Rope, a voyeur who mistreated his girlfriend in Rear Window and an obsessive necrophiliac in Vertigo. Day is nothing short of phenomenal. Just look at her reaction to the news that her son has been kidnapped - she never overdoes anything, but neither does she sell it short. This is one of Hitchcock's most emotionally effective films. He never lets us forget what the stakes are for the McKennas; they feel the most fully human of all his central characters.
A Storm In A Teacup
There's a sequence early on in this family film that seems to encapsulate not only its own flaws but those of many UK films attempting to imitate more financially muscular Hollywood product. Ewan McGregor is speeding through the countryside in a sports car, unaware that fate is catching up with him in the shape of Damian Lewis dangling from a helicopter. He has just dispatched some deadly motorcyclists using the inevitable spy gadgetry. It should be glamorous, silly, exuberant, exciting, but instead it feels a little... perfunctory. Even a bit boring. The action beats are predictable, but the problem is that they don't have the lift to make them seem fun. They just feel stale, things we've seen thousands of times before but done infinitely better. Even the landscape, obviously overcast, is boring (finding a stretch of open road in the UK seems to have forced the crew into using the flattest, least interesting expanse of turf on this entire island). Bland and empty, it speaks volumes about this entire exercise - those American expanses we're all so familiar with never seem that lifeless.
It's difficult to know whether to blame this on the budget or the ineptness of the director. Considering the miracles that can be achieved on a shoestring, and casting a glimpse over Geoffrey Sax's back catalogue, I'm strongly tempted to plump for the latter. This is the man responsible for 'White Noise', after all. He was also responsible for the Americanisation of another British family favourite, 'Doctor Who', in 1996. Its subsequent revival by Russell T. Davies could have provided a model for how to handle 'Stormbreaker' - witty, energetic, irreverent, but unafraid to explore the genuinely dark places it wanders into. 'You're never too young to die' purrs villain Darrius Sayle, suggesting that the movie will confront death with a steadier gaze than most family films; but it pulls its punches almost from the start, cutting away from the moment before Alex Ryder receives the news of his uncle's death to the funeral, a trite piece of cinematic shorthand that negates the impact of what has occurred. I'm not asking that a family film should rub the younger viewers' noses in suffering, but neither should it dress up in clothes it isn't big enough to wear. Think 'Bambi', 'The Lion King', the fourth Harry Potter all family films that have let death retain its sting.
The expected American imports are all fine. Mickey Rourke hardly seems electrified by his role, but he carries with him an undeniably menacing edge. Better is Alicia Silverstone, on the stony path to career rehabilitation. She was a likeably sparky presence in the short lived series 'Miss Match', and she makes her purely reactive role more memorable than it deserves. Her one big moment is a comic smack-down with a terrifying Missi Pyle.
Ah, Missi Pyle. A strikingly if unconventionally beautiful and undeniably Amazonian actress who has courageously thrown dignity to the winds and created as fine a gallery of comic grotesques as exists in modern American cinema. Frankly, none of her male peers are fit to lick her stilettos, and I'm not sure she actually has any female peers (Jennifer Coolidge, perhaps?). It must be a tough vocation for an actress in Hollywood to continually submit herself to unflattering - nay, uglifying - make-up. Nobody else could stay the course. At times, directors overstep the mark, using her gameness against her - like Tim Burton did in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. When she turns to the camera and smiles, revealing candy smeared over her teeth, it feels like a cheap shot, both at the character (she's trying to be alluring at the time) and at the actress - he is degrading her. Mostly, though, her lack of vanity and comic élan allow her to walk off with any film she features in - 'Galaxy Quest', 'Bringing Down the House', 'Dodgeball'.
Pyle is, inevitably, the best thing in the film. Her outrageous Russian accent is a joy, yet she is physically imposing enough to seem genuinely menacing. She seems to inspire Sax to better things - an extreme close up on her face, panning up from the mouth to the eyes, is the best thing in the whole film, a rare moment of visual flair. Another is her cat-fight with Silverstone, inter-cut with rapidly changing television channels. It disrupts the effectiveness of the sequence, but gives it an extra comic bounce (the action on the TV mirrors the fight) that the rest of the film could sorely do with.
The next film will, apparently, not feature Pettyfer, already too old, but it's hard to shed tears over the fact. Pettyfer handles the physical aspect of the role well, and isn't bad as an actor, but the character is a little charmless, too much of a stroppy teen. He isn't helped by a script that fails to flesh him out or, more importantly, grant him a sense of humour that might get the audience on his side. His dismissal of prospective love interest Sabina with a curt 'whatever' is a little too on the nose. He's easily the least interesting thing in the film.
Of the rest of the British cast, only Bill Nighy's understated archness has much sparkle. Sophie Okonedo is arch in the wrong way, and Robbie Coltrane seems to be indulging in 'kid's TV' acting. McGregor is fine, but a little too seamlessly cast - you barely remember he was there. Damian Lewis is good as the mystery man responsible for his death, and the final scene between him and Pettyfer draws out the shades of grey that are lacking elsewhere in the script. It is an encouraging sign that the series may develop into something more than a slavish Bond imitation.
Love Me or Leave Me (1955)
Day's Long Journey Into Night
Some films, for all the critical praise they receive, simply pass underneath the popular radar. 'Love Me Or Leave Me', Charles Vidor's masterpiece, is one of those films. It is the greatest musical Doris Day was ever involved with, yet it doesn't seem to command the same devotion as 'Calamity Jane', an entertaining but unsatisfying comic romp, or even the lumpen 'Moonlight' movies. That's a great pity, because this film contains one of the two extraordinary dramatic performances Day delivered in the mid-fifties (the other was in 'The Man Who Knew Too Much'). In her earlier musicals, Day was an energising presence, but slightly overstated and eager as a comedienne. She was still the best thing on screen, but she lacked subtlety as an actress. Here, she's in a whole new league. Just look at the scene in which James Cagney tells her that she's going to be a Hollywood star. Her apathy is something unimaginable in Day previously, a weary cynicism expertly underplayed. Having seen this film, I don't think it's hyperbole to talk about her as being the equal of Judy Garland as an actress, if maybe not quite as a singer (although her expressive, surprisingly sensual voice makes all her other peers look suitably weak - particularly as most of them were being dubbed anyway).
She holds her own against a Cagney at full tilt, which is no mean feat (no other actor is so able to blow other stars off the screen, with the possible exception of Al Pacino). He plays Martin Snyder as a dynamic combination of ego and insecurity, all macho bluster and hair-trigger temper. He's a monster, yet one who becomes increasingly sympathetic as the nature of his failings becomes apparent. He's a man looking for self-respect, but he can't find any - he's ridden to success on the talents of Day's Ruth Etting - so he tries to demand it from everybody else. The film doesn't soft-peddle his repellent egotism - his behaviour at the Ziegfield theatre is both intimidating and pathetic - and for the most part the audience takes Etting's side. There's a great moment shortly after the characters arrive in LA and he's been throwing his weight around, when she punctures him mid-boast. 'Just who do you think you are?' she demands, pointing out how little he's achieved compared to those he tries to intimidate. He deflates, and it's so satisfying the audience wants to cheer. Yet the movie is too complex merely to point the finger - Etting does owe much of her success to him, for all his mistreatment (and, at times, mismanagement) of her, something she realises even as the audience urges her to leave him in her wake. There's another wonderful scene, towards the end, when Robert Keith's Loomis checks Snyder's fury and tells him to, essentially, get over his own fragile ego. Etting knows she owes him - now he has to be big enough to let her pay it back. Just for a moment, it seems as though he really will change, but the film is too canny for any sort of pat resolution. He remains an egotistical heel to the end.
The cinematography for this film is sublime, dark and rich in a way that's reminiscent of Vincente Minnelli. The film, however, is altogether less fatuous then that director's most famous works ('Meet Me In St. Louis' is visually beautiful but sentimental and patronising). A better comparison is George Cukor's 'A Star is Born', released the previous year, which matches the velvety style with dramatic teeth. The musical numbers are as good as those in any other musical of the period - particularly 'Chasin' the Blues Away' at the Ziegfield, and the final performance of 'Love Me or Leave Me'.
This isn't just Vidor's last great film, it's probably his greatest film (and yes, I do remember 'Gilda' - but even that film doesn't have such a satisfying dramatic shape). The open ending is a device that too few films of the period used, but the tension between resolution (Etting is paying off her debt to Snyder in preparation for a future without him) and unresolved questions (Will he go to prison? Will his club be a success?) is oddly satisfying - all biographical pictures should be as open about their inability to provide neat closure to a life. The final shot of Day, singing 'Love Me or Leave Me' as the camera draws back, is one of the Hollywood's (few) great endings.
Brighton Rock (1948)
Along with Ealing's 'Pink String and Sealing Wax', this film established Brighton as England's most Noirish location, a corrupt place full of tacky delights hiding violence and desperation (Blackpool occupies that place in British pop culture now - see particularly the TV series 'Funland'). It's hardly surprising that an island nation so frequently locates threatening forces at coastal locations - just look at the Whitby sections in 'Dracula', or Powell and Pressburger's 'The Spy in Black', for two of the more obvious examples.
This, the Boulting Brothers' masterpiece and arguably the greatest of all British Gangster films (a relatively select, prestigious genre until the rush prompted by 'Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels'), is also the closest thing to a proper British film noir. All the elements are in place - the seedy milieu, the violence, the pathological central character, the betrayed innocent, even the thread of Catholic imagery that is highly unusual in British film but fairly common in American crime dramas (other than Rose, I can't think of a single character in 1940's British cinema who owns a rosary - everyone tends to be very Church of England).
Although Attenborough's electrifying Pinkie is the centre of the film, the heart of the story seems to be the confrontation of Ida and Rose in his bedroom. Rose, naively, thinks she can change him. Ida knows better, and interestingly refutes the possibility of redemption, invoking the eponymous image of the Rock, stamped through with one word no matter where you cut it. In the context of the Catholic background of the characters, that's an incredibly bleak assessment, and the film supports her - Pinkie can't change, and doesn't even want to. The Nun at the end offers a more optimistic take on events, suggesting that the possibility of redemption can be found in all love - but Pinkie's love was a lie, and the cruel irony of the final moments is that Rose never discovers his true nature. She is not saved from her absurdly romanticised ideal of him (and it would be salvation, no matter how soul destroying; the film almost feels like a response to all those lovers-on-the-lam films from America, although it predates most of them, puncturing their romanticised depiction of the life of crime. 'They Live By Night' seems somewhat absurd after this).
Hermione Baddeley is brilliant as Ida; Nemesis reinvented as a raucous broad, her clattering laughter pursuing Pinkie like the rhythm of Poe's Tell-Tale Heart. She's the one character who won't compromise or be corrupted - she self-effacingly insists that she's 'just like everyone else' in believing that justice should be done, but no-one else in the film gives a damn about justice. She also believes in saving Rose from herself - when she announces herself as Rose's mother in order to gain access to her, in some ways she's not far off the truth. She's a mother figure for the desperate - Fred wants her to protect him, to be 'looked after'. She pursues the truth behind his death with a vigour normally associated in crime dramas with bereaved parents, but with the clarity of a Private Detective - she figures out Pinkie's motives with great acuity. Her transition from comic relief to dynamic moral compass is remarkable. There may be no more forceful female figure - certainly no more heroic one - in British cinema of the Forties.
William Hartnell is equally good as Dallow, Pinkie's quietly menacing right-hand man who reaches a line he finds he can't cross. There are great supporting turns from Harcourt Williams, as a dissolute lawyer alleviating his misery with Shakespearean quotation, and Wylie Watson, as an ageing gangster aware that he is running out of luck and favours. Charles Goldner is pretty good, unexpectedly restrained and business-like rather than menacing, as rival gangster Colleoni (tantalisingly close to Corleone), and Victoria Winter shines in her brief screen time as Dallow's girl Judy, both warm and down to earth.
The only problematic performance is Carol Marsh, as Rose. In fairness, she's a difficult character to play - how does she fall for a man who is so openly menacing, overtly threatening to cut up her face on their first date if she talks to the police? Marsh is good in the early scenes at the café, believably nervous but friendly, but she struggles to make Rose anything other than a laughably naive twerp once the romance with Pinkie gets underway. It isn't as though either script or actor plays him as irresistible charmer, or even deceiving lover. He threatens and neglects her, and she repays him with puppy-eyed love. It's hard to take, and yet... the simplicity of her performance may be the least awkward way through a script that refuses to explain what she's doing. A better actress might have hinted at or drawn something out, but it would always seem awkward. At least Marsh suggests total helplessness - if ever a performance was asking for the tag of 'lamb to the slaughter', this is it.
Boulting's direction is, for the most part, fabulous, although the ghost-train ride is a little overdone; on the other hand, the pursuit of Fred through the streets that precedes it is brilliant, dynamic in a way too few British pictures are, and the murder of Spicer is unforgettable - a great use of montage.
This film dates from slap bang in the middle of British cinema's golden age, which arguably began with Hitchcock's 'The Man Who Knew Too Much' in the mid thirties and ended with the last great Ealing Comedy, 'The Ladykillers', in 1955. After that, great films became very much rarer. In the midst of the strongest slate of films in British Cinema, however, 'Brighton Rock' still stands out. This was a career high for everyone involved - not least Attenborough.
Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945)
The Notorious Landlady
What is it about Brighton? It seems to have become the nexus of corruption, violence and crime in British film, and, with 'Brighton Rock' a year or so later, this film established the city as the home of British Noir.
It may be a slice of Victorian Sensation Fiction adapted for the screen, but the plot is pure Film Noir. Googie Withers is the Femme Fatale, luring a disillusioned young man into a plot to kill her husband, but ultimately undone by circumstance. Gordon Jackson is a more virtuous hero than either Fred MacMurray in 'Double Indemnity' or John Garfield in 'The Postman Always Rings Twice', unlike them innocent of his paramour's cold blooded scheming but like them crucially providing the key to Getting Away With It.
Quite obviously, this film isn't up to the standard of those two true Noirs, particularly Billy Wilder's classic; there's too many subplots fighting for attention - Jean Ireland's singing ambitions, Sally-Anne Howes' Animal Rights antics, Mervyn Johns' education in sensitivity - and they all ultimately fall by the wayside, payed nothing but lip service in the final scene. Unfortunately, they detract from the main plot enough to weaken it - it doesn't get enough screen time, and the resolution feels just a little too easy.
Googie Withers, however, is clearly having great fun as one of the British screen's few true Femme Fatales - her only real rivals are Joan Greenwood in 'Kind Hearts and Coronets' and the scenery chewing Margaret Lockwood in 'The Wicked Lady'. She has a remarkable face - sensual but not conventionally beautiful - and she was never more lovingly shot than she was here by Robert Hamer. She's one of the few British stars who could convincingly play a tough, working class landlady, trading insults and blows with her husband, but with the allure to fascinate both naive youths and seasoned womanisers (Greenwood would have been too refined, Lockwood too obviously a man-eater). She's so good that she unbalances the film - she has so much appeal that her defeat leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and so strong that we can't believe that she'd simply give in as she does. It's a common problem that the wicked women of the forties and fifties - and just as relevantly, of Victorian Melodrama - are so much more vital and entertaining than their patronising male victims or vapid female rivals that the endings seem too moralistic by half. I want them to win. The one flaw in 'Double Indemnity' is Barbara Stanwyck's final, fatal change of heart. Much better for her to have gone out like Jane Greer in 'Out of the Past', a trail of dead men in her wake.
Nobody else matches Withers, although Jean Ireland isn't as bland as the role she is playing, and Mervyn Johns is convincingly starchy as the tyrannical patriarch. Gordon Jackson is likable, particularly in his scenes of dissolution, but from whom did he inherit that Scottish accent? Sally-Anne Howes borders on the annoying, but that's the part she's playing. Mary Merrall is dignified as the mother, and good in her quiet confrontations with her husband, but she has little else to do. Catherine Lacey is superlative in the small but significant role of a 'respectable' barfly - she turns out to be more than just comic relief.
Hamer's direction is unshowy, but gets the most out of the period sets. If only he could have stripped down the script and adapted the film to respond more to Googie Withers' performance, this could have been a minor classic. As it is, it pales next to Ealing's comedies, but certainly has its moments. There's no other film quite like it.
The uncertain running order of this season masks the fact that this is essentially the first Tara King episode - one of three episodes shot whilst the production team were labouring under the misapprehension that Linda Thorson would look better Blonde (the others were 'The Great Great Britain Crime' and 'Invitation to a Killing'), it required less reshooting to salvage it once creative control was returned to Brian Clemens (the other episodes became 'Homicide and Old Lace' and 'Have Guns, Will Haggle').
The one thing that jumps out of this pretty awful episode is, appropriately, the bewigged Tara herself. She's arguably never this dynamic again, and that's some achievement, given that at this point everybody seems to be sabotaging Linda Thorson at every turn. Quite apart from the ridiculous hair, she was generally required to wear rather horrible and inappropriate clothes (reaching a nadir in the unflattering giant shorts and knee-length boots combo of 'Homicide and Old Lace') and suffered from hugely inconsistent characterisation, fluctuating from gauche novice to highly competent and deadly spy in the space of a single episode (see particularly 'The Forget-Me-Knot'). 'Invasion of the Earthmen' at least avoids the former problem by kitting Tara out in a rather fetching - and practical - brown leather outfit, the closest thing she ever got to Mrs. Gale's and Mrs. Peel's leather 'action suits'; unfortunately, it runs slap-bang into the second. Both the opening and the tag scene emphasise Tara's inexperience, having to practice self-defence - presumably, she has little combat experience. Yet, in between these scenes, Tara is a whirling dervish of violence, a veritable Tasmanian Devil more than capable of taking care of herself. She kicks a teenager in the face, she takes out the villain with a neat throw, she even deals with the Humpty-Dumpty astronaut with the kind of two-footed kick we wouldn't see again on the small screen until the heyday of 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer'. Mrs. Peel's fights were always rather balletic, and even Mrs. Gale in her prime wasn't this violent - neither, for the most part, is Tara, although she'd get to be just as dangerous in 'Noon-Doomsday', another episode with a Terry Nation script. Frankly, she's glorious; Linda Thorson would become more confident as an actress as the series progressed, but Tara would never again be quite so goddamn cool as she is here - even with the wig.
Barely anything else in this episode really works. The uniforms of the students are rather neat visual paraphrases of the Starfleet uniforms in 'Star Trek', and the villainous scheme is engagingly loony-tunes - talk about your long-term planning! - but it does raise the question of why there are no questions being asked about missing students. Don't their parents care that they've been put into deep freeze? The villain himself is rather nondescript, and the students aren't much better, but it is fun to see a young Warren Clarke chasing our heroes around. The threatening animals are all obviously fake - although better done, for the most part, than the ones in 'The Fear Merchants' - and the school grounds too obviously studio bound. The tunnel under the school is set up as a uniquely horrific experience, but turns out to be a series of the same old adventure story clichés common to Nation's work outside 'The Avengers'. There is the beginning of an interesting subplot, about two students battling it out in the Quarry, but it gets overtaken by the main plot and fizzles out.
Overall one of the weakest episodes of the series, although it isn't anywhere near as bad as 'Homicide and Old Lace' turned out. And at least there's no sign of Mother.
The Las Vegas Story (1952)
Small Time Crooks
The title suggests something nearly epic in its scope; a history of the gambling capital of the world, an iconic mix of organised crime and flaking glamour, bright lights and corruption - the 'Casino' of its day. The subsequent film is much more modest - a tale of petty opportunism and every day failure that, frankly, could be set almost anywhere in the world. Whatever Happy's opening voice-over tries to convince us of, this isn't the Las Vegas Story, or the Clark County one. Never mind - 'The Philadelphia Story' and 'The Palm Beach Story' had similarly grandiose titles with almost as little to back them up, although even their stories of marital strife weren't quite as modest as this one.
It's a trifle about a woman with a past, caught between a seemingly solid husband beginning to crack under financial difficulties and a bitter ex who refuses to forgive her for walking out on him. The catalyst for the plot is her diamond necklace, under observation by an insurance agent and desired by the new owner of the bar she used to work in - subtly named 'The Last Chance'. A later Russell film, 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes', would inform us that 'Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend' - here, they're her worst enemy, coming between her and all the men in her life. Jewellery was often used as a symbol of women's superficial allure and grasping nature in good old misogynistic Hollywood, but here it's the men who care about the ice. Russell suffers their loss with no great complaint.
For the most part, 'The Las Vegas Story' is no great shakes. Victor Mature gives a real teak-and-leather performance as the male lead; he looks a little like Jerry Orbach, but he has all the charisma of a side of sweaty beef, and hangs like a dead weight in all the scenes he's in, particularly those with Jane Russell. We can understand why she left him - he's an unappealing prospect. There's no real Vegas atmosphere to the film - although the hotel bathroom set is wonderful in its tacky opulence. Most of the direction is perfunctory, and the script isn't sharp enough - it clearly aspires to hard-boiled banter but doesn't give the actors anything to work with, and a subplot about underage newlyweds is truly trite, an example of Old Hollywood storytelling at its worst. Despite the script, Vincent Price is pretty good, segueing from cheerful husband to cold, desperate gambler effortlessly, but he seems to get lost halfway through the film.
Shining out amongst all this mediocrity is Jane Russell, probably the most wasted film actress of her time. She displayed natural charisma in front of the camera in her very first film, 'The Outlaw', and she visibly grew in confidence as an actress over her next few films, but she never really got to work in great films - with the arguable exception of 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes'. Here, she's sublime, despite working with third-rate material. Whilst the script leaves Mature somewhat stranded, unable to connect up the various lurches in disposition his character is required to make (he suddenly warms up to Russell again for no explicable reason), Russell handles these unlikely transitions much better, making them seem all of a piece. It's an effortless performance, a demonstration of pure film-star class, but just as in 'His Kind of Woman' she's neglected at the climax, left standing by as the men slug it out.
Fortunately, that climax is the salvation of the film. The preceding hour and ten minutes lack either suspense or the kind of brooding menace the Noirish plot seems to require. Once the fleeing villain drives his car into an abandoned Airforce base, however, the direction picks up considerably. The helicopter/car chase is really well done, with impressive stunt flying as the helicopter flies through an open hangar, Bond-style (it's so good they repeat the trick a minute later). Even better is the final foot chase around the deserted buildings, with brilliantly atmospheric use of the howling wind. Tellingly, this is all achieved wordlessly, and seems to come from some infinitely superior thriller (the purely visual storytelling is reminiscent of Hitchcock). Here, the film actually touches greatness, if only for a few minutes.
The other pleasures are incidental. Like many films of the period, it includes a couple of musical numbers, totally unnecessary but here rather well done (the first, as a piano tune triggers a memory in Russell of her time as a singer, actually has more emotional impact than any of the dialogue scenes). The murder mystery isn't that mysterious, but the solution is pleasingly unconventional (it's the opportunistic robbery that is always disproved early on in other whodunits), and the film wrong-foots the audience by not discounting Russell as a suspect.
Even among the relatively few films that Russell made, this is minor; nevertheless, it does confirm that she was a capable actress, not the inflatable doll some critics would like us to remember her as - and is worth seeing for that reason.
From Russia with Love (1963)
Bond in a Cold Climate
'From Russia With Love' is the second and last of the Bond films to be made without a rigid formula. With 'Goldfinger', the expected elements of the later films would all accrue in a single film, setting a template the series would struggle to escape from (and, for the most part, would not bother trying to). So, like 'Dr. No', there's only a single sex interest (let's not use the term 'love' too lightly), rather than the good-girl-survives, bad/tragic-girl-dies dichotomy that would later structure all the films (bar OHMSS and, interestingly, the Dalton films), and unlike 'Dr. No', the villainous plot is rather small beer and resolutely real-world - to steal a code machine and humiliate the British Intelligence community in the process. There's also no bombastic theme song, although Matt Monro provides an easy-listening version of the theme tune at the end (it's not half bad, actually, although Shirley Bassey's brassy 'Goldfinger' makes it seem antediluvian in comparison).
Effectively, this means that it's the last Bond film in which the makers were trying to make a film, not a Bond film. It didn't matter if the motifs were all there or not, it only mattered if it was a good film. Unsurprisingly, it has a good claim to being the best film of the series, and it's certainly the least self-conscious (compare with 'Thunderball', an artificial attempt to replicate 'Goldfinger' but making everything bigger).
So, Daniela Bianchi isn't really just the latest 'Bond Girl', but the character at the heart of this thriller - she pretty much is the story. Ursula Andress might have had an iconic entrance in 'Dr. No', but she was so much window-dressing, irrelevant to the plot, arriving late and with almost no agency in the events that unfold around her. By contrast, the crucial pivot of 'From Russia With Love' is whether Bianchi's Tanya will side with Bond or SMERSH - the age old 'love or duty' dilemma.
The film also takes time with detours that have little to do with the main plot - as in the sequence at the gypsy camp. There is a real feeling of a functioning world around Bond's escapades, rather than just colourful 'exotic' backdrops.
There also isn't an undue emphasis on big action set pieces - Bond's encounter with a helicopter (very 'North by Northwest' - in fact Hitchcock's influence is detectable throughout this film, from the Cathedral sequence, to the cool Blondeness of Bianchi, to the train setting of the second half) and the climactic speedboat chase are well-executed, but miniature next to those of later films. Tellingly, the best remembered action sequence is the fight between Connery and Robert Shaw on the train, and the series would never better this intimate, brutal struggle.
Shaw is by far the best of the series' bull-necked heavies - he's intelligent and charismatic as well as forceful, almost a Bond-equivalent. Lotte Lenya and Pedro Armendariz are both excellent in their supporting turns, reminders of a time when the series actually featured fully developed supporting characters, and Bianchi is good - she may lack the overt sex appeal of Andress, but she's a better actress, playing innocent without being either stupid or dull. Connery really grows into the role here, a long way from the pork-pie hatted clod he was in the first film but still untamed and prickly enough to be an exciting screen presence. It was a long slow decline from here to the tubby jobsworth of 'Diamonds Are Forever'.
The early Bond films often escape the critical gaze, and when they are subjected to it, it is usually through rose-tinted spectacles. 'Dr. No' is dull and poorly acted, 'Goldfinger' fun but rather shapeless, and 'Thunderball' just tries too hard altogether. 'From Russia With Love' is a polished little gem, a cold-war thriller done with great style, and a minor masterpiece, irrespective of the series around it.
How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?
Francis Ford Coppola once said that 'Apocalypse Now' wasn't just about Vietnam, is was Vietnam. In a similar way, 'Metropolis' isn't just about the Twentieth Century, it is the Twentieth Century. Almost every image in it reflects or, more often, predicts the realities of life in the West over the past hundred years in a way that is truly uncanny.
From small details - the traffic jams and blackouts that plague city dwellers - to major historical events - the climactic flood predicts every industrial disaster that has destroyed the lives of thousands of workers, from Chernobyl to the Bhopal disaster, whilst Fredersen's vision of workers being fed to Moloch can't help but bring to mind the holocaust - 'Metropolis' feels prescient in any number of ways. In the image of the Manhattan skyline, Lang really did find the perfect symbol of the coming century - progressive, new, faceless, oppressive.
This is far from the simple Marxist fable it is often taken for - although the Socialist message can hardly be ignored. It's also a Christian parable (Maria, flanked by crosses, is counterbalanced by the Machine, brought to life under a pentagram) informed by the book of Revelation; a retelling of the Orpheus myth, with Freder as Orpheus and Maria as Eurydice, lost in the underworld; and a Kafkaesque nightmare of depersonalisation (although the Gothic, expressionistic production design is a long way from Kafka's more sterile style).
It's also, lest we forget, a silly adventure-melodrama, with a mad scientist, an evil twin, a bad father with a noble son and an impossibly virtuous, idealised heroine. In many ways, it anticipates 'Star Wars' in dressing up mythic standards with Science Fiction tropes - with Fredersen as the misguided King, Freder as the handsome Prince, Maria the good-hearted peasant's daughter, Rotwang as a scheming sorcerer and the Machine as the wicked witch, appropriately burnt at the stake by the 'villagers'.
The Machine-'Man' (a confusing name for a construction so obviously feminine) is the single most indelible image of the film; the scene in which Rotwang brings her to life for the first time is a real moment of magic and awe, untarnished by eighty subsequent years of cinematic showmanship. Even better is the scene in which she becomes a duplicate of Maria - such an obvious influence on James Whale's 'Frankenstein' that it's hard not to shout out 'It's alive!'. The optical effects are years ahead of their time, certainly the best of their kind until the sixties (at least). It also marks the beginning of Brigitte Helm's truly extraordinary turn as the false Maria.
This is only the third silent film I've seen (after 'Nosferatu' and 'The Cabinet of Dr Caligari'), and it's taken me a while to acclimatise to the acting style, which can seem close to parody. What it really reminds me of, however, is modern dance, which similarly seeks to communicate with the audience visually, rather than verbally. 'Metropolis' encourages this comparison, with the highly choreographed movements of the workers operating the machinery. Bearing this in mind, Helm is hugely impressive in multiple roles. Maria could be a rather dull and virtuous heroine (she enters the film surrounded by poor children in rags) but Helm invests her with enormous energy and expressiveness. It helps that the script allows her to take an unusually proactive role for a female character, organising workers' meetings and racing to the rescue of the endangered children. However, it is her performance as bad Maria, vamping up a storm, that lingers in the memory - the twitching, jerking movements of her head and body, the Anne Robinson style half-wink that changes the shape of her face, that malicious little grin that makes it hard not to root for her mischief. The entirely weird 'erotic dance' that she performs isn't technically very good (or erotic), but it is utterly unforgettable. Subtextually, she's the Whore of Babylon.
The other performances are mainly very good, particularly Alfred Abel as Fredersen, proving that it is possible to underplay in a silent film. Only Rudolf Klein-Rogge hits any wrong notes - difficult as it undoubtedly must be to play a mad scientist in a silent film with subtlety, some of his more unrestrained gesticulations leave you worried about the safety of the other actors.
Ultimately though, it all inevitably comes back to the imagery. Lang's film remains unmatched even today. Pick a scene, any scene - the synchronised, shuffling crowds at the shift change; our first sighting of the Metropolis, all biplanes, skyscrapers and suspended motorways; the vision of Moloch; the Machine-Man awakening; Maria, pursued along a pitch-black tunnel by a beam of light; the statue of Death coming to life in the Cathedral; disembodied eyes, entranced by the twitching false Maria; the crowds swarming up the steps in the 'Tower of Babel' section; the lifts crashing down, one by one; desperate children crowding around Maria as the flood-waters close in; and, most of all, false Maria, laughing as she burns on her pyre, then transforming back to her metal visage. No film, before or since, matches this for spectacle. And if, in order to appreciate it, you have to swallow a little treacle about the heart being the mediator between head and hands... well, trust me, it's worth it.
Stage Fright (1950)
Deep down, this is a film about the way people use each other. Whereas many films present us with love triangles, 'Stage Fright' explores the sharp edges of a love pentagon, in which all five characters are engaged in subterfuge and manipulation. At the heart of it lies Richard Todd's Jonathon Cooper, ruthlessly playing on Eve's affection for him in order to protect both himself and the woman he really loves, Charlotte. However, actress Charlotte is using him just as he uses Eve, whilst behind his back she's involved with her manager Freddy. And sweet little Eve, actress in training, is far from innocent - she lies to the charming 'Ordinary' Smith whilst concealing the man she thinks she loves - Jonathon.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about 'Stage Fright' is that this daisy chain of betrayal is dismantled with barely a broken heart in sight. Unflinching insights into emotional cruelty and power imbalances in relationships are one of the most under-appreciated aspects of Hitchcock's films ('Rebecca', 'Notorious', 'Vertigo' and 'Marnie' in particular, although even the minor barbs James Stewart throws at Grace Kelly in 'Rear Window' hit the mark squarely), but here one of the most calculated betrayals in all of his work has absolutely no emotional resonance. Eve has already conveniently fallen into the arms of Smith, so there's no sting when she learns of Jonathon's deceit. Charlotte's betrayal of Jonathon carries no greater weight, because by this point the viewer has no empathy left for him. Only 'Ordinary' Smith's rather hurt reaction to learning the truth about Eve means anything, but it feels like a betrayal of a much slighter nature - she's a well-intentioned deceiver. Compare with the treachery of another Eve, in the similarly comic and 'lightweight' 'North by Northwest', and the sheer toothlessness of this film's emotional unravelling becomes apparent.
In fact, the only emotional impact made in the film's finale is by Marlene Dietrich's Charlotte Inwood, mulling over her actions in a beautifully shot scene. Dietrich's sheer luminosity can't help but draw the viewer in, and the direction certainly favours her here. The perversity of empathising with this great manipulator probably appealed to Hitchcock, who would later do the same with Robert Walker's Bruno Anthony and Anthony Perkins's Norman Bates, and I think it's possibly the one great scene in the film (if there's another, it would be Dietrich's self-choreographed rendition of 'The Laziest Gal in Town').
Mention of Walker and Perkins draws attention to the great failing of this film, which is the character of Jonathon Cooper. Richard Todd has been much criticised for his stiff portrayal, and I think it's fair to say he's rather a plodding performer, even if he's never truly bad - although his psychosis under the stage is tremendously effective. The real problem is the script, which denies the character a sense of humour. Almost all of Hitchcock's villains are witty and charming (certainly all his best ones are), but Jonathon is charmless. This is a real problem in a comedy thriller where almost every character has a comic appeal - even Kay Walsh's character has her own sour humour. By contrast, Jonathon seems repellent - he isn't entertaining in the way everyone else is, so we don't root for him. We should surely empathise with Eve's desperation to clear his name, but he doesn't seem worth the effort. Whilst Dietrich is appealing even at her most cruel (a true Hitchcockian villain), Todd is unappealing even in innocence.
The other performances range from the adequate (Wilding, just a little too lightweight as Smith) to the wonderful (Alistair Sim, it scarcely needs to be pointed out, shares the comic spoils with Dietrich, and both Sybil Thorndike and Kay Walsh do great things with limited roles. Joyce Grenfell, meanwhile, somehow turns an irrelevant bit of comic business into a transcendent piece of physical comedy). Jane Wyman seems a little uncertain in places, but funnily enough I think she's most effective in her 'Doris' guise, able to show off her comic skills, and sparking nicely with Dietrich.
The false flashback is a neat gambit, but unfortunately it unbalances the beginning of the film - Eve is sidelined for too long - and forces the script into some rather ugly expositional dialogue. However, the rising curtain is a lovely conceit.
Mission: Impossible III (2006)
Love Lies Bleeding
The smartest decision made in Hollywood in recent years (by Cruise?) has been the constant redefinition of Mission: Impossible as a series (lets not call it a franchise - an uglier term than which I don't know). First de Palma, then Woo, and now, improbably, Abrams. They almost seem to represent the three essences - mind, body, and spirit, in that order.
With de Palma, it was all coolly cerebral game playing, a blockbuster that made you work hard to untangle the plot and dispatched likable minor characters with the icy demeanour of a sniper. It had lengthy tracking shots, a camera that passed through walls, and three big set pieces that unspooled with clockwork precision.
With Woo, it was sensual - never mind the plot, feel the heat of the explosions, hear the growl of the engines, watch some of the most impossibly beautiful destruction ever filmed unfold like a painting in motion. The epic female vocals reinforced the point.
With Abrams, it's all about the emotions. He could no more treat his characters with De Palma's olympian disdain then he could slave them to Woo's visual flair. These characters bleed when they get hurt.
When, in the best action sequence of the film, a bridge comes under attack, the viewer isn't simply swept up in the excitement - in the back of the mind lingers the understanding that the balance of power is changing, that a character who was formerly safe is about to become a target - and that we've been told what will happen to her long in advance. An early sacrifice ensures that we're not certain that any character is safe - any of them could go, at any time. For once, we care enough for this to matter.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the best screen villain I've seen in a long time - he feels genuinely threatening; simply by uttering the hero's name he changes the entire tenor of the film, makes it queasy with unease.
Michelle Monaghan is great in what seems to be a small part; she gets to be the action girl at the end, which may feel a little unlikely but suits the film entirely (and it's nice to see Tom Cruise step aside a little to let his co-stars shine in moments like this - the unspeakably cool Maggie Q benefits in particular).
Other wonderful bits include Simon Pegg's scary-funny monologue, and Cruise's fake enthusiasm for traffic at the beginning - 'it's like a living organism!' He comes across like a real human being for the first time in a long time.
This has been the most under-rated, underestimated series in modern American cinema - by turns smart, overwhelming and now moving. The action film has long been a tired genre, but these three films have helped to wake it up just a little.
Father's Little Dividend (1951)
Little Dividend, Small Reward
I'll admit up front that I have serious reservations about some of Minelli's films, beautifully shot though they are. 'Meet Me In St. Louis', possibly the dreariest movie musical ever made and drowning in contrivance and sentiment, is a case in point. I saw 'Father's Little Dividend' without realising he was the director, and although there are obvious parallels - both family comedies set over a number of months -'Father's Little Dividend' lacks Minelli's great strength - the extraordinary beauty of his cinematography. Perhaps colour makes the difference. It also lacks the real saving grace of 'Meet Me In St. Louis', which was an extraordinarily potent central performance from Judy Garland - the scene in which she sings 'Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas', the one truly worthy song in the film (Don't talk to me about the Trolly Song...), justifies the entire film. Nobody in 'Father's Little Dividend' is really firing on all cylinders in that way.
What the film does have is Spencer Tracy's nicely dry performance as Stanley, a man having to adjust to the fact that both he and his daughter are getting older. Joan Bennett, a long way from 'Scarlet Street', is likable in the underwritten role of his wife, and a young Elizabeth Taylor is serviceable as his daughter. No one really shines, although Billie Burke, as the paternal grandmother, keeps threatening to burst out with a real comic performance. Her curtailed screen time prevents her.
None of the comic sequences really work, because they never build into anything. Bennett terrifying Tracy with a desperate drive across the city to the hospital (for the birth of their grandchild) comes closest to actually being funny, but there's no capper, no punchline, and Bennett's calmness doesn't seem comically incongruent, but merely inappropriate, as though she doesn't know what sequence they're filming. Only Tracy gets any laughs, and those are few enough (his frozen reaction to learning that he's going to be a grandfather is particularly good).
Funnily enough, the most effective sequence springs from the most tedious dramatic device - the apparent break up of Taylor and her husband. When he comes to get her from Stanley's house, she refuses and insists on staying in a room her father will make up for her. Accepting this, he proceeds to reel off to Stanley all the things she needs, both of them growing more and more tearful, until by the end he is helping her to remove her shoes whilst Stanley simply looks on. It's the best played scene in the film, tipping from comedy to genuinely heartfelt emotion (as opposed to Hollywood sentiment), although it's almost spoilt by the reconciliation, when they fall into a typical movie clinch.
Nothing else in the film really stays with you - it's pure filler, particularly the last minute he's-lost-the-baby gambit. It's a nice attempt to reflect on common experiences - just as 'Father of the Bride' was - and certainly some of the observations are accurate enough, but ultimately it's just a little bit too nice, too safe, too soft, and it isn't executed well enough to be memorable.
The Avengers: The Fear Merchants (1967)
Two episodes in, and 'The Avengers - in colour' looks like a programme already struggling to come up with new ideas. The glory of the previous, monochrome season is that anything could happen - the style ranged from po-faced thrillers to knock-about comedies, from the real world of insider trading to psychic plants from outer space. It observed no formula.
Maybe that splashy declaration of colour that now opened the series went to everybody's head, or maybe getting Philip Levene to write so many of the episodes in a short space of time strained his imaginative resources, but suddenly, 'The Avengers' was predictable. 'From Venus With Love' set the formula. A series of characters are killed in surreal fashion. The Avengers, investigating, manage to trace the connection, which leads them to the lair of the eccentric villain. Mrs Peel is captured, Steed arrives and rescues her, and there is a big final fight. It would serve the series again, with minor variations, in 'Escape in Time', 'The Winged Avenger', 'The Hidden Tiger', 'The Correct Way to Kill' and 'Something Nasty in the Nursery'.
'The Fear Merchants' is the worst of these, with only one slight originality to differentiate it - rather than killing their victims, the villains are driving them insane. Unfortunately, neither writer Philip Levene nor director Gordon Flemyng seem to have any idea how to present this plot in televisual terms. 'The Avengers' was one of the first series to tell stories visually, but this episode fails to do so almost completely.
The whole basis of this episode is that the characters are being literally scared out of their wits. The visual potential for this is extraordinary, yet neither Flemyng nor Levene do anything with it. The exception is the opening, as an agoraphobic man wakes up in a deserted football stadium, filled with the sound of an absent crowd. Nothing else lives up to this magnificently eerie sequence, mainly because the phobias exploited simply aren't visually interesting, but also because they don't convince as sufficiently terrifying to drive men into the asylum. So a man with a phobia of mice... finds one in his jacket. Just one. Similarly, a single spider is dangled over another character, and a third encounters a single bird. Didn't the budget stretch to multiple animals? The mouse, after all, doesn't do much but sit there, and the spider is obviously plastic. We're supposed to believe these rather gentle exposures are enough to drive even phobics crazy? At least the bird sequence is better directed - the bird is kept off screen and evoked through sound effects, and the room is kept dark.
It isn't really a case of realism, but visual power. We can accept that the agoraphobe is driven mad because that sequence convincingly evokes something overwhelming. None of the others do (the speed sequence has a better chance, but blows it through overacting, bland direction and obvious use of speeded up film). Why did Levene not utilise similar phobias that could be done more simply - such as claustrophobia or acrophobia (the fear of heights) - rather than this tiresome use of animals (he'll later use cats as weapons in 'The Hidden Tiger' to much greater effect, and the bird here sets up an odd avian motif that runs through the early part of the season - see also 'The Bird Who Knew Too Much' and 'The Winged Avenger')? Why didn't he trap Fox in a room full of mice, or cover Raven in spiders?
His rather off-hand approach to the apparent theme of this episode is confirmed when the villains attempt to bump off Steed by... luring him into a pit and dumping soil on him with a JCB. Which has what to do with fear, exactly? If it were a little more claustrophobic, it could have been turned into a nightmare of live burial, but the pit is practically a quarry. It's also obviously illogical - where does Steed hide that the bad guy can't see him? It's hard to surprise someone in a hole in the ground; this is a real stinker of a loophole because it is explicitly visual - we can see that Steed can't jump out of anywhere and surprise his attacker, and Flemyng does nothing to hide that.
The villains are maybe the only really successful bit of the episode, bar the opening. Patrick Cargill is, to a certain extent, repeating his politely lethal bad guy from 'The Murder Market' - but he's effective nonetheless. The moment when he threatens a seemingly fearless Mrs Peel with the ultimate fear - 'pain' - is the one moment when Levene's script actually seems to get to the heart of its own subject. Annette Carrell's Dr. Voss, with her sunglasses, white lab coat and ginger helmet of hair, is maybe the most visually striking thing in the episode, along with the bright, immaculately white lair she and Cargill inhabit - a set that actually serves as a neat clue to Cargill's own fear. It's also a nice twist on expectations that their concealed lie detector enables them to see through Steed's cover.
Other than the villains, there isn't a single memorable character in support. Raven comes close to being an interesting eccentric, but the actor is obviously miscast in the role of a young go-getter. All the others are mere fear-fodder, with good actors like Bernard Horsfall and Jeremy Burnham wasted in bland roles. Without interesting characters, all the viewer is left with to support the incredibly attenuated plot is a repetitious series of poorly realised 'phobia' sequences - although Flemyng manages one interesting moment when Steed visits Raven in the asylum. The extreme camera angles he uses aren't merely showily 'weird', but actually evoke Raven's alienation quite nicely.
This, at least, is the nadir of the Diana Rigg episodes. Although many other episodes would follow the formula, none would be quite as dull as this again.
Janet Leigh - Hiding In Plain Sight
There's very little to be said about this most analysed and rewatched of films that hasn't been said multiple times before, but I'd like to draw attention to a great performance that, I think, has been unjustly and perversely neglected. Whilst most commentators (rightly) praise Anthony Perkins for his astonishingly nuanced performance, many overlook the subtler, more measured work done by Janet Leigh.
At first, it seems paradoxical that Leigh could be overlooked in what is certainly her most famous role (one of the most famous roles in American cinema, in truth), but it is that very fame that causes people to overlook the actual quality of the work she is doing. After all, the part of Marion Crane is seen almost entirely in relation to the plot's structure - the heroine who is killed half way through the film, and leaves us and the camera somewhat stranded in the Bates Motel, where we begin to follow the story of Norman Bates. It doesn't help that her death scene is probably the most iconic film sequence yet recorded (the Odessa Steps sequence in 'Battleship Potempkin' doesn't have the pop culture cache, trust me). Who notices the actress when Hitchcock's structural and technical experimentation come together with such incendiary force? And yet Leigh is extraordinary, giving what might be the performance of her career. She'd proved herself a winning comedienne and musical star in the fifties, but often seemed to be left on the sidelines - as in the enjoyable 'Scaramouche' and the turgid, tacky 'Black Shield of Falworth' (which nevertheless shows her at her most beautiful - the improbably gorgeous black gown she wears in one scene is the epitome of 'devastating'). Of the three dark thrillers she made in the late fifties and early sixties, she would be excellent in what amounts to three scenes in 'The Manchurian Candidate', and had been perfectly cast but arguably peripheral to the story in 'Touch of Evil'. In 'Psycho', she disappears after forty minutes, but for once gets to hold the screen absolutely in the time she does have.
It's a precise performance that shows no strain. She's controlled, immaculate, yet also believably sexual. Mores were changing, and 'Psycho' was at the forefront. There's something oddly shocking about seeing Leigh in her underwear (it would have been taboo under the Hayes code only a short while before), let alone in the shower, but Leigh betrays no discomfort. It's all done so casually, it barely seems as though anything new is being done.
What's striking about 'Psycho' on repeat viewings is how melancholy it is. It may be the saddest film the Master ever made ('Vertigo' is bleak in a different way; it has the structure of Tragedy. 'The Wrong Man', meanwhile, has a forced happy ending). A large part of this is down to Leigh, who has to make us care about this woman in a short space of time. She succeeds, but she also succeeds in drawing out the kinkiness and oddness of Marion - the smile she gives when she imagines what is being said about her, for instance, before it gives way to worry and even fear (I've always thought that Leigh was rather wasted as good girls and would have made a great femme fatale - those big eyes and heart-shaped face are perfect - and as Marion she plays on a lot of the qualities that would have made her ideal).
A small word here for Vera Miles here, too. Her role is more restricted, but her brittle, guarded performance is another overlooked gem, probably because she isn't warm or sympathetic. Her character is flinty and highly competent, Marion's more respectable counterpart. Their performances resonate with each other astoundingly well given that they don't share any screen time - they really are believable sisters, despite not looking that much alike. Lila Crane is, in many ways, Hitchcock's most straightforward, unkinky heroine. She's also one of his most uncompromising, not brooking argument from Sam Loomis or the Sheriff. Only Arboghast ruffles her. She penetrates to the heart of the mystery with ruthless efficiency. And in a film well known for its ironic one liners, my favourite is Lila's 'I can handle a sick old woman', which works differently depending on whether you know the secret of the film or not (she can't handle that sick old woman - but actually, it isn't a sick old woman at all).