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Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

I forget precisely where it was that I first read the suggestion that the cultural influence of gothic literature has been greater than one would expect, given how little-read some of the actual books involved are. I’ve recently started a new role-playing game, with a group of people who are all pretty literate, especially when it comes to the SF, fantasy and horror genres: one of the major reference points for the new game is the original novel of Dracula, and people admitting that they haven’t actually read it has become something of a running joke – one person admitted to attempting it on more than one occasion, and simply ‘bouncing off’ what’s an imposingly big and dense text. (I ploughed through it when I was thirteen, but then I’ve always been quite weird.)

Nevertheless, everyone knows Dracula, or thinks they do, and the same is true for gothic horror’s other big hitter, Frankenstein, as written by Mary Shelley in fairly celebrated circumstances. The storm-enshrouded castle! The obsessive baron! The hideous monstrosity, stitched together from purloined cadaver parts! The mob of angry villagers wielding their blazing torches!

We’re at a point where I think it would be disingenuous to suggest that all of these are not now part of the common conception of Frankenstein – they have become mythemes, to adopt a neologism invented by structuralists – but this tells us much more about the power of the mass media than anything connected to Shelley or her novel, because (of course) the castle, the baron, the patchwork man and the angry mob are all completely absent from the book. We only associate them with Frankenstein because they’re in James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, and this film has achieved an extraordinary prominence, largely eclipsing the source text. When someone announces they are doing a ‘faithful’ adaptation of Shelley – as was somewhat the case with the Kenneth Branagh-directed Frankenstein of the mid-1990s – this is basically code, warning the audience they are going to see something that won’t necessarily meet their expectations of the story.

It’s startling how little of the novel actually makes it into Whale’s film. It opens, ominously, with a funeral in progress somewhere that looks bleak and would probably be windswept were it not a studio soundstage. Not far off, Henry Frankenstein (Colin Clive) and his hunchbacked assistant Fritz (Dwight Frye) are taking a professional interest… sure enough, once the funeral party leaves, the duo help themselves to the coffin and drag it back to the tower where Frankenstein is about his experiments. It’s not quite that he’s a self-made man, of course, but he does seem to enjoy making men himself.

Yes, Frankenstein has become obsessed with the twin mysteries of life and death, and – apparently in an attempt to comprehend the power of God – has assembled his own constructed person, whom he intends to animate, not with lightning but with a ray from beyond the ultraviolet portion of the spectrum (or something). Basically, don’t try this at home, kids. There is the slight problem that the creature’s brain is not the perfect speciment Frankenstein stipulated, but that of a diseased criminal (Fritz got a bit flustered), but nobody’s perfect…

Anyway, despite the concerns of Frankenstein’s sweetheart, Elizabeth, his father the old Baron, and his friend Victor (yeah, there’s something a bit you-what? about that, this being the main character’s name in the novel), his experiments come to a successful conclusion – for a given value of successful, anyway. The result is a towering, flat-topped creature, of seemingly limited mental capacity, but with an utterly human sensitivity. Boris Karloff plays the Creature, obviously. Bela Lugosi, who’d just played Dracula for the same company, turned the part down – apparently because at that point, the script had Frankenstein’s creation be just a frenzied monster driven to kill. Karloff, naturally, finds immensely more to do with the part, despite having no actual dialogue: this is a justly celebrated performance.

Before too long, Frankenstein’s desire to repent of his hubristic, sacrilegious offences comes to naught, as the Creature rebels against his cruel treatment at the hands of his creator’s associates and runs loose, crashing Frankenstein’s wedding preparations and inspiring that angry, torch-wielding mob to rise up. Which of them will get the justice they deserve?

As noted, it’s kind of fatuous to judge Frankenstein as an adaptation of the novel, because virtually none of the original story beyond the most basic premise makes it to the screen. Viewed solely as a piece of visual entertainment, however, it still stands up astonishingly well for a film now entering its tenth decade – it’s far better than Dracula, made in the same year by the same studio. It’s a piece about image and sensation above all else – characterisation is minimal, handled with the broadest of brushes – there’s none of the delving into Frankenstein’s personality and motivation that the Branagh version takes pains over. But the images themselves are fantastic: extraordinary, towering sets, and fluid direction by Whale. This is before we even get to the iconic realisation of the Creature himself.

On the other hand – and there really has to be another hand, no matter how legendary and influential the movie may be – one has to wonder about the extent to which this actually qualifies as an adaptation of Frankenstein, for it seems to me that the soul of the novel is absent. This is due to one key decision: rendering the Creature mute. Admittedly, Shelley’s handling of the Creature’s self-realisation and education is rather corny and implausible, but it does enable the central discourse of the story to take place: the discussion between Frankenstein and the Creature of what their responsibilities towards each other are. Frankenstein assumes the power of God, but is reluctant to take on the duties that go with it; the Creature’s resentment of what he sees as Frankenstein’s neglect is really justified. Karloff does a lot to make the Creature sympathetic, but in the second half of the movie Clive goes from being an imposingly unhinged presence (I think his performance in the opening section of the film is really underrated) to a much blander and more anonymous romantic lead. The climax of the film makes it initially seem quite ambiguous as to whether Frankenstein lives or dies: and, oddly, the scene which ends the film on a (supposedly) upbeat note barely features him. Perhaps the makers had already clocked that there was only one real star of this film, and it was the British guy in all the make-up.

The thing about Frankenstein the movie being such a massive popular success, and so iconic, is that the result is that there are essentially two rival versions of this story fighting for dominance in the public eye: Shelley’s and Whale’s. Every subsequent version of this story has riffed on or derived from one or the other of them – and, the vast majority of the time, it is Whale’s which has won out. You may find this regrettable (and it certainly means that a wholly satisfying film version of this story arguably doesn’t exist). Whale’s movie may be assembled out of images and ideas from many different sources, few of them having much real connection to Shelley, but this shouldn’t detract from the artistic success of the venture.

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My parents, like many others, were quite cautious about letting me watch horror films when I was a child – I don’t feel that I properly started my education in this area until I was just into my teens, with the BBC’s wonderful season commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the first colour Hammer horror film. Nevertheless, as a child you do see things that scare and disturb you – when I was quite young, I remember having several supposedly-educational books which had pages I always avoided looking at – one depicting some creepy deep-sea creatures, the others… I think it was something to do with either organ transplants or prosthetic body parts (possibly both). These things do stay with you.

And then there was the day, when I think I would have been about nine, when my class at school all trooped downstairs to find a screen and a projector had been set up in one of the spare rooms. We were going to see a film! Hurrah! Our excitement was only leavened by the fact that this was surely going to turn out to be something educational. And so it proved – but as well as being educational, the short film in question arguably qualifies as the first horror film I ever saw. I still remember the sense of dread and discomfort I felt while watching it: to say it made an impression on me is an understatement.

The film in question is entitled Building Sites Bite, made in 1978 and written and directed by David Hughes. The object of the piece is to raise the young audience’s awareness of the dangers involved in trespassing on building sites, but the approach is not notably dry or fussy. A rather snooty woman (a young-ish Stephanie Cole), her somewhat-spoilt son Ronald (Nigel Rhodes), and their dog (a dog named Snoopy, playing him or herself) visit their relatives, a distinctly lower-middle-class bunch. To say the atmosphere is throbbing with class-related tension is an understatement. The son of the household, Paul (Terry Russell), is not nearly as impressed with his cousin as Auntie is, and (in his interior monologue) is rather scornful of his ambition to be a surveyor or architect. Is young Ronald even aware of basic health and safety principles?

Well, Paul fantasises that he and his sister Jane are in control of a super-high-tech testing programme with Ronald as the subject of their investigations. Through the miracle of a TARDIS-like teleporting shed, Ronald is transported to the edge of a building site, and told they want him to find Snoopy who has wandered somewhere inside. So in Ronald goes, finding the dog in a trench, which then collapses on him, smothering him to death. Snoopy mysteriously escapes, presumably so as not to upset the audience.

Frankly, I remember being pretty upset at this point anyway, given the hard-hitting depiction of Ronald’s demise, and quite glad the film was surely over. But no! Paul and Jane have the power to resurrect Ronald, luckily enough. Or perhaps not: because they proceed to teleport him to a series of other building sites. He is electrocuted! He is crushed by an industrial vehicle! He smashes his head open on a piece of pipe! He is killed when a stack of bricks collapse on him! He drowns! (Snoopy always scampers away without a scratch.) Educational films like this were outside the remit of the BBFC, and so there are levels of gore and general nastiness far beyond what children would be allowed to see in a film.

I was never a particularly outdoorsy or adventurous child, and so they needn’t have really shown me this film. But they did. Watching it again recently was a rather less traumatic experience than back in the eighties. What really struck me was the subtext of the film, though – most of it takes place in Paul’s head, and he seems to be a genuinely disturbed child, taking great pleasure in imagining his cousin’s death in great detail. This seems to be largely motivated by class resentment – Ronald and his mum are both much posher than Paul and his family, with Ronald wearing a cravat throughout his various misadventures. All of this went over my head at the time, which is probably just as well.

Of course, this was by no means the only film along these lines made in the 1970s, and Building Sites Bite doesn’t have quite the degree of notoriety enjoyed by some of the others. There were lots of other potentially lethal places around back then, and John Krish’s The Finishing Line (1977) looks at another one, the railway line.

Again we are privy to the imaginings of a (presumably quite disturbed) young lad, who – after an unseen headmaster declares that ‘the railway line is not a place for playing’ – imagines a school sports day taking place by the side of railway line, complete with brass band and refreshments. Various events take place: Fence-breaking, Stone-throwing, Last One Across (the line, with a train oncoming), and the Great Tunnel Walk. Needless to say, all of these result in horrific injuries and death amongst the competitors, with an astonishing shot from near the end of the film depicting dozens of bloodied child corpses laid out on the lines, while more of the walking wounded stumble out of the tunnel.

John Krish was an experienced film and TV director – responsible for Unearthly Stranger, and various episodes of The Saint and The Avengers – which explains the deftness with which he creates an atmosphere like that of a surreal, deadpan black comedy throughout The Finishing Line. The conceit is carried through quite rigorously, with umpires and other officials carefully checking and reporting the gory results of the different events, apparently with complete indifference to people staggering around with blood gushing from their injuries. (One familiar actor appearing here is Jeremy Wilkin, who also provided the voice of Virgil Tracy in later instalments of Thunderbirds.)

The question, of course, becomes one of just how disturbing and upsetting one of these films should be. The Finishing Line certainly has a cinematic quality to it, which only adds to its impact. It’s presumably because of this that the film was withdrawn after a couple of years, simply because it was so graphically effective.

Horror-movie style poster promoting the DVD release of Apaches.

Less grisly, but possibly even more memorable, is Apaches, also from 1977, directed by John Mackenzie (later to do The Long Good Friday, The Fourth Protocol, and Ruby, amongst others). The venue for slaughter this time is the British countryside, where we find six young children playing (mostly) cowboys and indians in and around a farm, while elsewhere adults are preparing for a mysterious party.

Well, you can probably guess what happens next: as part of their games, one of the children clambers onto and then falls off a moving trailer and is crushed under the wheels, then a second falls into a slurry pit while playing hide and seek and drowns, and so on. Weed-killer, lethal machinery, heavy and precariously-balanced objects – the film does a sensational job of implying that the average farm is a complete deathtrap; one wonders how The Archers or Emmerdale has lasted this long. (I should say that this does seem to be a fairly poorly-run farm, with the children still allowed to run wild even as the death-toll racks up.)

Then again, the thing about Apaches in particular is that it really does feel like an actual horror movie (albeit a short one): there is that same sense of tension throughout, the knowledge that something grim is inevitably around the corner all the time, and a willingness to stretch plausibility to generate its effects. Moments in Apaches are genuinely disturbing and horrible, and once again the effectiveness of the film is reinforced by the director’s skill. The child acting is actually not too bad (much better than in Building Sites Bite), and Mackenzie understands the power of moments of stillness and quiet. There is an understated realism to the film that meshes surprisingly well with its clear intention to make an impression on its young audience: I watched it for the first time recently, and had to take a break partway through, it was that gruelling an experience.

Any discussion of the public information film as quasi-horror would not be complete, of course, without a mention of perhaps the most famous exponent of the form: Lonely Water, directed by Jeff Grant and made in 1973. This one is much shorter than the other films mentioned here, but punches above its weight due to the way it intentionally adopts the conventions of a horror movie, up to and including casting the great Donald Pleasence.

‘I am the spirit of dark and lonely water,’ whispers Pleasence’s voice-over, as the camera shows a mist-wreathed swamp, in which a dark, cowled figure appears to stand on the water. (Many aspects of this film seem to me to have been nicked from The Masque of the Red Death, particularly the appearance of the spirit.) ‘Ready to trap the show-off, the unwary, the fool…’

Various scenes of young children getting into difficulty in or near water quickly follow, always with the figure of the spirit looming, sometimes almost subliminally, in the background. (One of the children featured is Terry Sue-Patt, later of Grange Hill, who later recalled just having fun on the river-bank while making the film – seeing the finished version was apparently an enormous shock for him.) Eventually, one drowning child is helped to safety by two of his wiser peers. (‘Sensible children!’ snarls Pleasence. ‘I have no power over them!’) With the spirit thus exorcised, its robes are thrown in the river, though it still gets to make its famous, echoing promise – ‘I’ll be back!’

Even the director was astonished by how full-on the horror elements of the Lonely Water script were, and the execution of the film does nothing to tone them down (Pleasence is not pulling his punches in the voice-over, either). This film has become something of a legend amongst those who saw it when it was new. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, that Lonely Water didn’t just reduce the number of accidental deaths by drowning, it actually made some children reluctant to go swimming at all, no matter in what situation. Whether that counts as the film just being too effective at its job, I don’t know: but even today it’s still remarkably accomplished artistically for what’s basically just a public information film.

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There’s a school of thought which suggests that the western genre was essentially a wholesome, thoughtful and sincere vehicle for examining the nature of the American national psyche, until Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood came along and perverted it into something cynical, nihilistic and obsessed with hollow slaughter. I think this is overly simplistic: darkness crept into the West years before the spaghetti western came into vogue, allowed in by some of the genre’s most celebrated home-grown exponents.

John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance opens with Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) and his wife Hallie (Vera Miles) arriving by train in the town of Shinbone, presumably some time around the turn of the century (the film is deliberately coy about the times and places involved, for this is in a sense the story of the entirety of the American frontier). Stoddard is one of America’s leading politicians and a very significant figure; his unexpected arrival causes a stir. What has brought him back to the town where he first became famous?

Journalists gather, but Stoddard and Hallie are more interested in catching up with old acquaintances: retired marshal Link Appleyard (Andy Devine) and lowly ranch-hand Pompey (Woody Strode) chief amongst them. There is an air of inescapable melancholy and regret in the air, of things long-buried being uncovered, all connected to the reason for the Stoddards’ visit: to attend the funeral of washed-up town drunk Tom Doniphon (who, when he eventually appears in the flashback which makes up the bulk of the film, is played by John Wayne). But why?

Stoddard, with the air of a man finally getting something off his chest, tells the tale. The scene changes to many years earlier: Stoddard is travelling to Shinbone by stagecoach, a freshly-qualified lawyer. However, the coach is ambushed by the notorious local bandit Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin) and his men, and Stoddard is badly beaten when he resists. What’s left of him is hauled into town by Doniphon and his servant Pompey, and he’s taken in by the family running the local saloon. He’s nursed back to health by their daughter, Hallie, which Doniphon is a bit disgruntled about (he has plans of the marryin’ kind which involve her).

Stoddard is determined to see Valance brought to justice, which Doniphon roundly ridicules him for: law books mean nothing here, compared to the authority of a gun barrel. If Stoddard wants to stop Valance, he’s going to have to kill him, law or no law. Stoddard is appalled by the prospect (to say nothing of the fact he’s useless with a gun). Meanwhile, tensions are growing between Doniphon and the lawyer, as Stoddard grows closer to Hallie, teaching her to read and write in his capacity as the town’s new schoolteacher.

The lack of law and order in Shinbone is partly due to the territory not having been given statehood yet, which Stoddard and the town dignitaries would like to see happen – but the powerful local cattle barons want to see things stay as they are, and retain Valance to ensure this happens. Stoddard finds himself inevitably heading for a confrontation with the gunman – but, even with Doniphon’s tuition, can he possibly have a chance?

There’s certainly more of a drama than a traditional western about The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and perhaps a fair bit of a romance, too: a big portion of the plot revolves around the love triangle between Doniphon, Hallie and Stoddard. The fashion in which this resolves is one of the bittersweet elements which runs through the movie; there is something profoundly melancholy and wistful about the framing scenes that bookend it. The Stoddards reflect on the changes that the railroad and modern technology have brought to the town, rather ambivalently. ‘The desert’s still the same,’ offers Appleyard, rather dismally.

Perhaps, then, this is the story of how the west was lost – or, at least, tamed, if that isn’t the same thing. It’s about the creation of civilisation and society about of anarchy, on one level, a place where men like Stoddard can prosper, but not – it’s implied – ones like Tom Doniphon or Liberty Valance himself.  What’s telling is that it’s suggested that Doniphon has much more more in common with Valance than with Stoddard – neither man has much time for rules or finer points of behaviour, being ferocious individualists, and if Doniphon is a ‘better’ man than Valance, that’s simply due to his essential character rather than any kind of sense of moral obligation.

That this is put across so effectively is mainly due to Ford’s casting, which is both brilliant and obvious: Wayne is playing his usual monolithic rugged individualist, verging on self-parody by this point: by his own admission, a very tough, unreconstructed alpha male. You can’t imagine him playing Stoddard any more than James Stewart playing Doniphon: like Hitchcock and many other directors, Ford recognised Stewart’s genius for playing flawed, human heroes, and that’s what he does here. (We should probably note the irony that in real life, Stewart was a decorated war veteran, while Wayne was acutely self-conscious about his own lack of military service.) In many ways the film is much more about the conflict between Doniphon and Stoddard than either man’s clash with Valance himself (and, as noted, Doniphon and Valance are in many respects mirrors of each other).

In the end, of course, Valance is shot and a bright future for the west is assured – but this, like most of the film, is couched in numerous levels of irony and ambiguity. The film does romanticise the old west, but not without qualification; it suggests that the old west, with its heroes in white hats and virtue always naturally triumphant, is a myth, with little grounding in truth – in this respect it to some extent anticipates Unforgiven, and many other revisionist westerns. But it also suggests the myth is a necessary one for America’s sense of itself to endure. In this respect The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is a surprisingly dark and complex film – amongst other things, suggesting that dark and ruthless acts, carried out in secret, are necessary for civilisation to thrive – but it is also a touching and surprisingly moving portrait of the central characters and their relationship. A serious film about complicated ideas, and real emotions; one of the great American westerns, I think, and a harbinger of the genre’s future.

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Were you aware they’d done a remake of Point Break? I’m guessing it’s really not a very good movie, seeing as it’s so obscure. When I first became aware of it the other day, my immediate thought was ‘that’s a pretty new movie to be getting a remake’ – but then, of course, I thought about it and realised that Point Break – the Kathryn Bigelow version, that is – is thirty years old this year. Thirty! I can scarcely believe it.

On the other hand, while all great movies have a timeless quality, that doesn’t preclude them from also being essentially of the time they were made, either, and there is something quintessentially early-90s about Point Break: it’s not brash and excessive like an 80s movie, but neither does it have that slightly chilly slickness you get in a lot of films from the following decade. The sense of a changing of the guard is only emphasised by the presence of iconic 80s heart-throb Patrick Swayze (in a very questionable but also authentic hair-style) and also Keanu Reeves, a man for whom the 90s were a defining decade.

The film opens with scenes of Swayze hanging ten and catching waves (etc), and looking majestic doing so, while Reeves struts his stuff on the FBI academy firing range. Keanu is playing football-star-turned-rookie-FBI-agent Johnny (made-up name) Utah, whose first assignment sees him join the bank robbery section in Los Angeles. Utah is a bit buttoned-down, but not yet a fully-fledged pen-pusher like his boss. He is partnered with a world-weary veteran named Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey) who has become a laughing-stock around the office: charged with catching an elite gang of robbers nicknamed the Dead Presidents, Pappas has become convinced that they are surfers, based on their schedule (they’re only active in summer, California’s surf season) and a few shreds of forensic evidence. Someone needs to go undercover on the beach and see what’s going down…

Well, it’s obviously not going to be Busey, so Keanu buys a board and is soon getting surfing lessons from a nice young woman named Tyler (Lori Petty). Through her he has his doors of perception well and truly opened up when he meets top surfer, free spirit, and near-as-dammit spiritual guru Bodhi (Swayze) and his gang of followers. Not only that, his buttons are loosened, his screws are undone and he takes to wandering about inside the FBI building carrying his board. He even turns up late for a raid after some night-surfing (and a spot of the old whoa-ho with Petty) takes the place of the recommended early night. But could Bodhi and his pals be getting up to more than some extreme sports?

It sounds rather generic when you write it down that way, and indeed one of the things that makes Point Break such an intriguing movie is the fact that it has almost exactly the same basic plot trajectory as the original The Fast and the Furious film while still feeling like a stylish and classy film for grown-ups, right down to the central character dynamic. One plot summary I’ve seen of this movie suggests that Keanu finds his mission complicated when he falls in love with Swayze’s ex-girlfriend. The film itself is rather more ambiguous on whom the exact object of Keanu’s affection is, something which Hot Fuzz recognised with typically forensic accuracy when one character summarised a key sequence: ‘Patrick Swayze has just robbed this bank, and Keanu Reeves is chasin’ him through peoples’ gardens, and then he goes to shoot Swayze but he can’t because he loves him so much and he’s firin’ his gun up in the air and he’s like ‘ahhh!” It’s all very subtextual, naturally, but Swayze is very sinewy and macho and Keanu is still at that point where he’s often sort of blankly bovine and – there’s not really another mot juste in this case – pretty.

Nevertheless, Keanu is showing signs of improvement, and this is surely the first film to establish his potential as a genuine action movie star: he runs and fights and chucks himself about with great aplomb. And he always has that same Reevesian charisma – he is a still point of total calm on the screen, which you somehow cannot help but fill with your affection for the lad. At one point in Point Break, the film (which has hitherto been relatively restrained and naturalistic) requires Keanu to hurl himself out of a plane in flight, without a parachute, and apprehend his quarry in free-fall. Even at the height of Bondian absurdity, Roger Moore was excused this sort of thing, but Keanu – well, he doesn’t exactly sell the bit outright, but he makes you indulge the film in it.

Of course, if we’re talking about pretty – and yes, this is a fairly shallow and spurious bit of linking – then we should also mention that Lori Petty is in this movie too. She always struck me as someone extremely smart and watchable, but – on the face of things, at least – the failure of Tank Girl dealt her career as someone who could lead a movie a mortal blow. Here, you just wish she was given a bit more to do than be a plot device: as noted, the central relationship in the movie is between Reeves and Swayze, so she ends up sidelined and barely appears in the third act of the movie.

Most of this is chasing and shooting, which Bigelow handles with her characteristic muscular efficiency: she’s had a distinguished career, but one where good films just haven’t had the success which they deserved, with some quite substantial gaps in her filmography as a result. On one level Point Break feels like it occupies some peculiar narrative space between The Lost Boys and The Fast and the Furious – Patrick Swayze (who surely gives the best performance of his career here) as the somewhat unlikely missing link between Kiefer Sutherland and Vin Diesel – but at the same time the film has a class and a quality which elevates it above the level of simply being a popcorn genre movie. I’m not sure it has any genuine depth to it, but it certainly gives that impression. A great thriller, deserving of its cult status.

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There are some films which have a particular significance in my memory – not necessarily because they are especially good, or poor, or interesting, but just because they came along at a particular time in my life and burned their way into my memory. For instance, there was once a time when I did not – mutatis mutandis – go to the cinema once or twice a week. I went along now and then, when there was a film that looked particularly interesting, but I didn’t actively seek out things to go and watch. (I suppose this is how normal people approach going to the cinema.)  This didn’t change overnight, but there were a number of times when I recall it dawning on me that going to see a film I didn’t know much about could actually be a really great and rewarding trip out.

I feel obliged to make clear that Brian De Palma’s Mission: Impossible is not such a film. Well, not exactly. Here’s what was happening: it was the summer of 1996, and relations between your correspondent and the people he was living with were at a bit of a nadir. I had taken to going out of the house very early and staying out all day, simply to avoid them, until the university term ended and they all left. Friday, the day before the great departure, finally rolled around, and unable to face another marathon stint in the library or the bar I went to into town and decided to go to the cinema. I’d always enjoyed the legerdemaine in the plotting of the old Mission: Impossible TV show, and I expect I would have seen it eventually, but as it happened it had just opened that day: seeing a film on its day of release was a new experience for me then, but one which seemed rather agreeable.

De Palma’s film opens with a deliberately misleading set of titles, evoking the style of the TV show very nicely (needless to say, Lalo Schifrin’s immortal theme blasts out too). We encounter Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), head of the CIA’s Impossible Mission clever-tricks squad, receiving an exploding cassette on a plane. It seems that a rogue CIA agent is about to steal a very important Maguffin from the US embassy in Prague, and Phelps and his team are to nab the miscreant in the act.

Phelps’ team includes his wife Claire (Emmanuelle Beart), technical bod Jack (an uncredited Emilio Estevez), posh Brit Sarah (Kristin Scott Thomas), a slightly nondescript character played by Ingeborg Dapkunaite, and (in the old Martin Landau master-of-disguise role) Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise). There is a lot of sneaking into the embassy, wearing of rubber masks, the deployment of clever gadgets, and – rather subtly – establishing the rapport between the various members of team.

This is significant, because after a smooth start, the mission begins to go pear-shaped in a very terminal way: one by one, the Impossible Missionaries are crushed, shot, stabbed and blown up. The important Maguffin is nicked, and the only survivors of the carnage, it would seem, are Hunt and Claire Phelps. It transpires the whole mission was part of a bigger, more devious scheme: CIA director Kittridge (Henry Czerny) believes there is a traitor in the IMF, and all that has gone before has been an attempt to flush out the mole. As Hunt seems to be the last man standing, he looks somewhat compromised.

However, this is not the kind of thing Hunt is wont to take lying down, and – for the first time, but absolutely not the last – he goes on the run from his own people in an attempt to identify who the traitor who killed his friends is. Some slightly knotty exposition ensues (well-handled by the script and direction), with the following results: he does a deal with arms dealer Max (Vanessa Redgrave), whereby she will manufacture a meeting with the mole, in exchange for him breaking into CIA headquarters and stealing another copy of the same Maguffin as earlier.

This all enables a rather pleasing structure to the film, which is essentially built around three big set-pieces done in the style of the original TV show – the initial shenanigans at the embassy, the raid on the CIA, and finally some fairly unlikely goings-on in and around the Channel Tunnel as Hunt finally confronts the bad guys. The second of these provides the film’s most iconic image – after scrambling through the (surprisingly capacious) air vents at the CIA with Jean Reno, Cruise ends up operating a computer workstation while dangling on a wire from the ceiling – while the third sends the film for the first time off into more generic Hollywood action movie territory – Reno ends up flying a helicopter down the (equally surprisingly capacious) Channel Tunnel, with Cruise hanging off one of the skids.

I think it gets the balance between being like the TV show and being cinematic just about spot-on, although others had a different opinion: amongst them Peter Graves and the other original members of the TV show cast, who were invited back (to get killed off). I suppose I can understand the source of their chagrin – in the end, it’s hardly reverent towards the characterisation of the source material, even if it gets the substance pretty much right.

Yet it also felt very contemporary back in 1996. Nowadays, it’s not exactly dated, but the film’s near-fixation with computer hacking and the internet does feel very much of its time. It also serves fairly well as a snapshot of actors who had recently made an impression in other successful films – Reno was fresh off Leon, Scott Thomas had recently done Four Weddings and a Funeral, and Ving Rhames (who’s gone on to appear opposite Cruise in all the subsequent films in the franchise) had played a key role in Pulp Fiction.

In the end I think this is an extremely efficient and polished movie, rather than a truly great one: it has that slickness one often finds in Tom Cruise projects, and Brian De Palma seems relatively restrained: there are hardly any of the bravura touches or outrageous bits of showing-off that sometimes characterises his work. And yet I remain extremely fond of it – I saw it twice more that summer, and remember listening to the soundtrack endlessly, as well. I suppose I remember it so warmly because it marked a point, more or less, at which things lightened up for me – and also because, immediately afterwards, I was in such a good mood I hung around in town and saw Wayne Wang’s Smoke, one of my first real art-house experiences (or so I recall, anyway). Another time, another life – but still pleasant to recall.

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How about this for a Christmas movie? It is almost instantly apparent that Jeffrey Mandel’s 1989 movie Elves is not one which is troubled with more money than it knows what to do with. The cheapo titles, synth soundtrack, and generally cruddy production values all instantly send a message that this is a movie which can only aspire to the bargain basement. A great cinematic experience this is not.

It would take an astonishingly witty, inventive and engaging narrative to distract the viewer from the effects of the micro-budget. This is what you get: three young women head into the woods, apparently intent on performing some kind of pagan ritual as a protest against the commercialisation of Christmas (I really wouldn’t bother trying to follow the logic of this). None of them actually seem like the kind of person who would actually be interested in paganism, as they are simply horror-movie-stock-girls, interested in shopping and boys. But there you go. Anyway, main character Kirsten (Julie Austin) cuts her hand by accident while doing the ritual, shortly after which they all go home. But something unearthly (not to mention rubbery and somewhat cheap looking) is stirring where her blood fell to the ground. Yes – it’s an elf!

(I must qualify this by saying that most of the characters describe it as looking like a troll, rather than an elf, and I have to say ‘elf’ is not the word that springs most readily to mind whenever the monster comes on. It’s probably also worth pointing out that for a movie called Elves, there’s only actually one elf in it. On the other hand, the elf – which appears to be some kind of puppet – is not as bad as you might expect, by which I mean it is just very bad rather than actually appalling.)

Anyway, the elf has homicidal tendencies and follows Kirsten home, where it attacks her, scratching her before running off. Her callous mother (Deanna Lund from Land of the Giants) has none of this, and blames Kirsten’s cat (this sets up another winning moment when Lund attempts to flush the live cat down the toilet). Her wheelchair-bound, thickly-accented grandfather (Borah Silver) perhaps knows more about what’s happening than he’s letting on, though…

Well, it’s back to the old routine for Kirsten and her friends, which mainly involves working and hanging out at the local mall (which is very tiny and dimly lit). Needless to say the homicidal elf turns up here as well, and when the mall Santa Claus tries it on with Kirsten, the elf takes exception to this behaviour. The lubricious Santa is ambushed backstage and fatally stabbed in the crotch. (Am I giving you enough of a sense of what a really classy film this is?)

Well, they need a replacement Santa now, obviously, and the job goes to a character who’s an alcoholic former cop who’s down on his luck, played by Dan Haggerty. Haggerty is best remembered for playing kind-hearted mountain-man Grizzly Adams for many years, so at least he has the right kind of beard for the role. The new Santa is soon in post, taking the opportunity to sleep on the premises (which saves on rent).

So Santa is in the building when the three girls decide to get together with their boyfriends at the mall one night. Unfortunately, the boyfriends never turn up, for they are ambushed and dealt with by a squad of neo-Nazi agents who have come in search of the elf and the young women responsible for summoning it up.

There follows a protracted and surprisingly leisurely sequence in which there is a gun battle in the (small, dimly lit) mall between Santa and the neo-Nazis, while the rubber puppet elf menaces the young women. This does seem to go on forever and the most frightening moment in my viewing of the film came during it, when I looked at my watch and realised the film still had another forty-five minutes or so to run.

Well, anyway, Santa and Kirsty manage to escape the neo-Nazis and the elf, and the plot, such as it is, becomes clearer. This is all part of a long-in-the-works Nazi plan, which Kirsty’s grandfather is a part of, to create a true master race of beings who are part-human, part-rubber elf. Kirsty, apparently, is the last pure-blooded Aryan maiden the Nazis are aware of (this has involved a spot of inbreeding in her family tree, something the film casually drops in because… well, by this point, why not?). If the elf can get it together with Kirsty on Christmas Eve (again, such a classy and well-thought-through plot), nothing can stop the spawning of a world-conquering race of Nazi monsters…

So, just to recap: you’ve got pagan rituals, rubber elves, a gun-toting Santa, and a secret Nazi plan to conquer the world using hybrid monsters. And yet for some reason, people still go on about It’s a Wonderful Life as the archetypal Christmas film. That said, the Christmas-themed horror movie has a bit of a pedigree – the tradition includes Black Christmas, after all. ‘Pedigree’ is not a word you’d probably choose to describe Elves. It is more of an ugly mongrel.

It’s a bit like a slasher film and a bit like a monster movie and a bit like an exploitation film; if they’d actually had a decent budget this would either have ended up as something ridiculously camp and knowing or simply very nasty and unpleasant indeed. As it is, while the film often seems to be trying to play the knowingly-ironic card, it’s simply not accomplished enough on any level to make this work: it’s just too primitive and crude to play those kinds of games with the audience. Pretty much the only element of it which does not seem to be challenging the viewer to switch off with its sheer badness is Dan Haggerty’s performance, which is… well, the guy has presence, and seems to be taking it all much more seriously than it deserves.

In the end Elves has a sort-of coherent story (though the climax is confusing), even though the tone of the thing is wildly variable and never particularly convincing. When it comes to this kind of film, I feel that I’m not so much giving a review as issuing a warning: this is another case of a film which sounds like it might be mad, campy fun. It’s not. It’s just grim and crude and mean-spirited – nasty, brutish, and not nearly short enough. Happy holidays.

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It’s always a lovely moment when the first big superhero movie of the summer comes along. Of course, 2020 being a hideous brute of a year, it only really qualifies as such if you live in the southern hemisphere, but this sort of thing shouldn’t surprise us any more.

Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman 1984 was one of the films still being advertised the day before the first lockdown was announced back in March, theoretically as ‘Coming Soon’. With Warner Brothers having announced simultaneous cinema and streaming releases for all their films next year, I suppose we should be grateful for the chance to see it on the big screen at all – and I feel obliged to point out that while the DC movie franchise tends to get some flak, at least they haven’t battened down the hatches like Marvel or the makers of the Bond franchise. I just hope people respond appropriately and (where safe to do so) take the chance to see a proper, accessible blockbuster at the cinema.

If we’re going to be quibblesome about these things, this movie has a bit of a fridge title, as the lead character is never actually referred to as Wonder Woman and the 1984 setting barely informs the plot – it’s just there to enable a bit of shallow nostalgia and easy jokes about legwarmers and bad fashion, as well as providing a bit of cognitive distance for the film’s more satirical elements to function in (we shall return to this in due course).

The film opens with a rather stirring and well-mounted scene depicting one of she-who-will-never-be-referred-to-as-Wonder-Woman-on-screen’s youthful adventures, during which Hans Zimmer’s score keeps promising to erupt into the full, thrillingly berserk Wonder Woman theme. (But it doesn’t, for a good long while.) As noted, it’s a nice little vignette, which sort of relates tangentially to the resolution of the plot – but I sort of suspect it’s just there because Robin Wright and Connie Nielson were still under contract and they couldn’t think of another way to get them in the movie.

Anyway, the story moves on to the mid-1980s, where Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) is working as a cultural anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institute, as well as doing a little discreet day-saving when duty calls (well, as discreet as one can manage when leaping around in red and blue armour lashing a glowing golden rope at people). One of the robberies she foils is that of a mysterious and ancient stone of obscure provenance, allegedly with the power to grant wishes.

Well, something like that can’t possibly be real, so Diana indulges herself in just a little wish. Her new colleague Barbara Minerva (Kristen Wiig), who hero-worships her, has a go at wishing too. But it turns out the person the stone is intended for is ambitious would-be tycoon Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal). Lord seems harmless enough, until Diana finds herself reunited with the spirit of her dead boyfriend Steve (Chris Pine) – rather than actually coming back from the dead, he just possesses the body of some poor schmo, a fact which everyone concerned with the film handwaves away just a bit too easily. Diana’s wish has come true – so what about everyone else’s…?

Saying that Wonder Woman 1984 easily qualifies as one of the year’s top two big summer movies doesn’t really mean a great deal, and probably qualifies as too faint praise – it may not seem as fresh and exciting as the 2017 movie, and none of its moments land quite as impressively as the big ones from first time around, but it’s still an efficient and sharply-made movie, with a reasonably coherent plot and some well-written characters.

That said, I’m not sure it really needs to be two and a half hours long (there’s a fair deal of faffing about, mostly concerned with flying around – sometimes in the Invisible Plane, which presumably the Comic-con crowd really wanted to see, or not), and it also falls into the trap of giving the villains all the most interesting things to do: Wonder Woman herself mainly just wanders around in pursuit of exposition. Gal Gadot inhabits the role charismatically, but she’s mostly stuck sharing the screen with Chris Pine, who as usual is – to paraphrase Stephen King – an agreeable-looking absence of hiatus. And while the film hits all the usual notes concerning empowerment and the toxic nature of sexual harassment, its feminist credentials struck me as a little wobbly: the plot is to some extent set in motion by the fact that the biggest personal issue Wonder Woman has to address is feeling a bit sad that she doesn’t have a boyfriend. The same is really true of Barbara Minerva – this is a big, meaty role, which Wiig really does good work with, but on the other hand the character’s major issue is being a bit of a klutz who feels jealous of glamorous women who can walk in heels. I’m not sure this is what Hannah Arendt meant when she spoke about the banality of evil.

Considerably more interesting is the main villain, whom Pedro Pascal likewise does some very good work with. To briefly venture down the rabbit hole, in the comics Maxwell Lord is a second- or third-string villain or supporting character (he also turns up as a substitute Lex Luthor in the Supergirl TV series), sometimes with mind-control powers. Jenkins and her fellow writers do something rather more provocative with him: here, he is a failed businessman, minor TV personality and con man, much given to shouting things like ‘I am not a loser!’ The power he acquires from the wishing-stone isn’t explained especially clearly, but suffice to say it permits him to erect vast (and politically provocative) walls in the twinkling of an eye, and steal the power of the presidency of the United States – one set-piece has Wonder Woman attempting to apprehend him within the corridors of the White House itself. (Playing, by implication, Ronald Reagan is an actor named Stuart Milligan – who ten years ago was playing Richard Nixon in another over-the-top fantasy: there’s a pub fact you can have for free.)

Jenkins has said, apparently with a straight face, that the Lord character as depicted here is not based on any real-life businessmen with dubious tax affairs and TV careers who may have found themselves in the White House. (And if you believe that, she would probably like to sell you a bridge in New York.) To be fair, the film probably does just enough in the way of camouflaging its subtext to keep the cute-red-baseball-cap brigade from getting all huffy and boycotting the movie (the eighties setting obviously helps a lot with this), but it’s still hard to see the film’s subtext as being anything other than a both-barrels takedown of you-know-who.

It’s interesting and rather enjoyable to see a blockbuster with such an unashamedly partisan edge to it, even if that edge is heavily disguised. Of course, events mean that the film is coming out after a certain election, rather than in the run-up to it, so thankfully real-world events have already been resolved without Wonder Woman having to get involved. Still – and this applies to the whole movie, which is a very engaging piece of entertainment – better late than never.

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There’s a danger that the general comprehensive grimness of much of this year will end up eclipsing the fact that there have been positive glimmerings of different kinds, as well. But neither should we let the disaster of the pandemic obscure other regrettable events that we might ordinarily have paid more attention to. Of course, our culture operating in the way that it does, we are approaching the time of year where tributes to some of the people we have lost make convenient and popular material to fill airtime. They showed Brian De Palma’s 1987 film The Untouchables the other night, primarily as a tribute to Sean Connery, but of course it works just as well as a reminder of the gifts of Ennio Morricone.

This is one of those movies I originally ended up watching quite without meaning to. The film got its UK TV premiere back in 1991, when my sister – I hope she will forgive me for revealing this – had a bit of an adolescent crush on Kevin Costner. You can be silly when you’re young, and the fact that she wanted to tape The Untouchables (despite being a few years too young to watch it, strictly speaking) was enough to put me off the idea of seeing it. And yet, for whatever reason, I ended up watching the very beginning of the film, fully intending to switch off.

I learned a couple of important lessons that night: the most obvious one, that it’s possible for people you may have differences of opinion with to still like great movies, but also about the power of a great film soundtrack. Something about the main theme, with its drivingly urgent percussion and strings, hooked me instantly, and gave me the strongest impression that this was a movie made by people who really knew their craft.

Thankfully, the rest of the movie did nothing to dispel this impression. The story takes place in 1930, and concerns itself with the consequences of prohibition: specifically the rise of immensely wealthy and powerful gangsters, and the rise in violent crime accompanying this. One of these men, Al Capone (Robert De Niro) has reached the point where he has essentially become the unelected mayor of Chicago. However, Capone’s organisation is responsible for one atrocity too many and the government appoints Eliot Ness (Costner), an earnest and idealistic young agent of the Treasury, to bring the bootleggers to justice.

However, Ness’ initial operations end farcically, and it soon becomes apparent that the Chicago police department is as corrupt and compromised as the rest of the city’s establishment – well, almost. A disconsolate Ness encounters veteran beat cop Malone (Connery), who does seem – to coin a cliche – like the one honest policeman in the city. Against his better judgment, Malone helps Ness assemble a team including sharpshooting young cop George Stone (Andy Garcia) and accountancy expert Oscar Wallace (Charles Martin Smith), and they set about finding a way to bring Capone down…

This is, of course, the film that Sean Connery won an Oscar for. Some would say ‘finally’, although this rather depends on whether you’re of the school of thought that Academy Awards should genuinely reward the best pieces of film acting in a given year, or go to people with lengthy careers and impressive bodies of work as movie stars. I’ve often been quite lukewarm about Connery and his acting – there’s a good deal of potboiling dross on the Connery CV, alongside the undeniable classics – and the baffling accent he deploys as the supposedly Irish-American cop Malone is distracting, to say the least. In theory Connery is doing the same kind of thing as in Highlander a year or two earlier: he’s the wise old mentor, imparting his wisdom to a slightly dull and callow lead before obligingly letting himself be killed off in the second act, in order to allow the hero to have the spotlight to himself for the climax to the film. In Highlander it’s just a big character turn, with Connery at his twinkliest – but here, he manages to bring the film heft and depth, as well as humour. This is certainly one of Connery’s best films outside of the early Bonds, and it’s largely as good as it is because of his performance.

Nevertheless, a classic movie is rarely a one-man-show, and even before Connery appears and after he departs, the rest of the movie is slick and effective: it’s true that Costner initially comes across as a rather bland and insipid hero, but that’s almost the point – the journey here is of a man being blooded, only achieving success at the cost of losing some of his innocence. This finds its apotheosis in the moment when Ness finds Capone’s chief enforcer, the man who has killed many innocents and two of Ness’ friends, and has him at his mercy. The camera does an enormous zoom into mega-close-up on Costner’s eyes, and you can see the conflict in them as he contemplates simply killing the man out of hand: one of Costner’s finest moments, I would say.

Of course, the zoom and the mega-close-up are very obvious directorial effects, but then this is a Brian De Palma film and a degree of show-offishness comes with the territory: this is one of Tarantino’s favourite film-makers, after all. De Palma has lots of fun with long fancy shots and other tricks in the course of the film, but this never becomes downright irritating. He also manages to pull off the bravura sequence with the gunfight on the train-station steps and the lengthy build-up to it: it would almost seem pretentious to drop such an obvious homage to Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin into what is, after all, a studio gangster movie, were it not that De Palma manages to make it work so well.

Understated restraint isn’t really De Palma’s thing, and the way the film ping-pongs between bloody violence and some quite sentimental scenes would usually be tricky to pull off. However, he has Morricone in his corner, and the composer supplies a score which draws the viewer in and manages to smooth the various transitions, as well as being lush and beautiful to listen to. It’s not quite the case that the soundtrack makes the movie, but once again it makes a significant contribution to it.

Film-making is a collaborative exercise, in the end, and the quality of this film is another reminder of that. On paper, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special – maybe even a bit hackneyed and predictable. But the contributions of De Palma, Morricone, writer David Mamet, Connery, Costner, and the rest of the cast crew result in something which is entertaining, powerful, and even oddly poetic and beautiful in places. This is the kind of film anyone would be happy to be remembered for.

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‘We saw this film and thought of you. We figured you’d appreciate it,’ said a friend of mine, perhaps conscious of the fact that it’s been tricky to track down and watch interesting movies recently. This, of course, is the sort of moment which reveals all sorts of profound things: what someone’s assessment of you is like, as well as what their true character is (perhaps). It’s probably just as well that he took pains to explain just how he came across such a deservedly obscure oddity as Burgess Meredith’s The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go (he’s been reading Meredith’s autobiography), and probably equally fortunate that he didn’t go into too much detail as to why it put them in mind of your correspondent.

The background to this movie is probably more interesting (and certainly more coherent) than the story itself, but let’s get the plot synopsis out of the way first, as it should give you a flavour of just how weird this movie is. It opens with Burgess Meredith performing acupuncture on James Mason, while the two of them spout cod-thriller dialogue at each other (apparently someone has paid Meredith to conspire in Mason’s murder, and now he wants Mason to pay him even more not to, or something). After a few minutes you realise that both of them are actually supposed to be Chinese, not that either of them is doing much more than wearing Chinese-style clothing (either that or the dreadful film quality doesn’t show the yellowface make-up).

With this out of the way, we get the opening credits and a prefatory voice-over delivered (and here a degree of self-bracing would be advisable) by Buddha. Yes, that Buddha. Apparently every fifty years the Buddha likes to amuse himself by using the power of his third eye to reverse the essential character of a human being (which means we must be due another one of these, and let’s face it – we’re not short of promising subjects at the moment).

For the time being, though, James Mason’s Mr Yin Yang Go is just another Asiatic supervillain – although the script does make it clear that he is actually Chinese-Mexican, which Mason subtly indicates by playing him with the same British accent he brought to pretty much every film he ever made. Based in Hong Kong, Mr Go is trying to get the plans for a new missile system out of captured American scientist Bannister (Peter Lind Hayes), and when just bribing him doesn’t work, he is forced to find a new approach.

This involves recruiting American draft-dodger and aspiring writer Nero Finnegan (Jeff Bridges), and paying him a large sum of money to engage in some rather surprising and intimate activities on film with Bannister, so Bannister can be blackmailed by Go. But CIA agent Leo Zimmerman (Jack MacGowran) is looking for Bannister and Mr Go as well, and – pretending to be a publisher with a James Joyce fixation – takes Finnegan out on the town in the hope of finding some clues. Things proceed in this vein – Zimmerman chasing Go, with Finnegan and his girlfriend (Irene Tsu) caught in the middle – for quite some time, until Go and Finnegan find themselves fleeing the CIA in a helicopter.

At this point the Buddha unleashes the power of his third eye on Mr Go (I am honestly not making this up), and rather than a callous power-broker, Go becomes a philanthropist, determined to help the world. He fakes his own death, puts on a ridiculous disguise, and sets about becoming a force for good…

As noted, the background to this movie is pertinent and, to say the least, curious: a product of the fag-end of the sixties, it was filmed on location in Hong Kong, directed by Burgess Meredith from a script he wrote himself. If nothing else Meredith proved himself to be an astute spotter of talent, or at least very lucky, by casting a young Bridges (credited as ‘Jeffrey Bridges’) in one of his earliest roles. They, together with nominal star James Mason, apparently had a (literally) high old time while making the film, partaking liberally of the local herbal tobacco, especially during the lengthy breaks in filming occasioned whenever the budget ran out.

Eventually – if you believe some of the folklore surrounding this film, anyway – the producer literally stole the footage of the incomplete film and decamped to America, leaving a disconsolate Meredith to pay everybody’s hotel and bar bills. According to Jeff Bridges, at least, most of the participants assumed the film was lost, until Bridges came across it listed in a directory of films available to hire fifteen or twenty years later: the producer had shot some linking footage with Broderick Crawford – who, in the time-honoured fashion, does not share the screen with any of the main actors – and cobbled something together out of the rushes. Bridges and Burgess apparently watched the resultant monstrosity together with a mixture of disbelief and hilarity.

Knowing all of the foregoing does not make The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go any more coherent or less exasperating to watch, but I can promise you that all of the behind-the-scenes shenanigans clearly inform what ended up on screen. The film’s poster (which, by the way, actually manages to get the name of it wrong) promises that it ‘will make you think of Dr No‘. I can reveal that it did not make me think of Dr No. It did, however, give me a very good idea of what it must be like to accidentally take mind-altering drugs while in the mid of a flu-induced fever dream. The rambling, disconnected narrative – what look like important scenes of exposition play out with the actors muted and sub-Bacharach easy listening tunes blasting out, presumably because someone lost the actual soundtrack – is coupled to the most primitive production values imaginable: on some level this is technically an exploitation film (there’s enough gratuitous nudity from the female extras), but the utter shoddiness of the filming and sound make the experience of watching this feel rather like watching (or so I would imagine) pornography with all the sex edited out.

I know I am on record as actually quite liking weird and obscure old films, especially one which may be a bit questionable by conventional critical standards. But the thing about most of these odd old films is that they are at least marginally functional in a couple of departments – they have competent cameramen and sound recordists, and the plot makes a vague sort of sense. None of this is true of The Yin and the Yang of Mr Go. People on YouTube make more competent films than this nowadays using a phone. It has a certain gobsmack value – every time you think it can’t get any stranger, it reliably does – but beyond that it’s really hard work. (And I realise I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Meredith and Mason are both playing Chinese characters. This film has much more serious problems than that, believe it or not.)

I have long enjoyed Burgess Meredith’s work as an actor, in Batman and The Twilight Zone, Rocky and Torture Garden, and in many other venues. He is never less than very watchable in any of them. But as a writer and director, on this evidence he almost makes Madonna look like Leni Riefenstahl. Watching it was an eye-opening and possibly mind-expanding experience, but not exactly pleasurable in the sense it is generally understood. Feel free to check it out for yourself (it’s available to view for free in at least two dark nooks of the internet) but bear in mind that no-one will give you a medal for watching it, no matter how much you may feel you deserve one.

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Just when season six of The Avengers was showing signs of settling down, along comes what I can only really describe as a bit of a dud: Tony Williamson’s Whoever Shot Poor George Oblique Stroke XR40? (which is apparently the second longest episode title in the series’ history). It opens at a top-secret government computer and cybernetics installation, where the technicians are concerned – George, one of their best brains, is showing signs of distress. While they are worrying about this, a bad guy (dressed, for no especially convincing reason, as a gamekeeper) sneaks into the place and puts both barrels of his shotgun into his target. It looks like poor George is doomed – but, ha ha, the twist is that George is a computer! But why would someone want to ‘kill’ a machine? Could it have something to do with its funny turn?

Well, needless to say Steed and Tara are soon on the scene (Tara was on her way to a fancy dress party, which is why she spends the start of the episode in a Catwoman outfit) and trying work out what’s happened. The damaged computer is spitting out messages suggesting it was on the verge of identifying a traitor in the department, based on information in the last set of equations fed into it. Suspicion falls upon its creator (Clifford Evans, third appearance of three), who is acting very strangely and drinking heavily, but how to introduce an agent into his household without arousing counter-suspicion? It just happens to be the case that he has a young niece in her twenties whom he hasn’t seen in absolutely ages…

This one has a rather good cast (Dennis Price plays yet another quirky Avengers butler, while the magnificent Valerie Leon is almost unnoticeable in a bottom-of-the-bill part) but it’s essentially a fairly dull story about a VIP being held hostage in his house by agents of the Other Side, given obligatory whimsicality by the subplot about Tara impersonating the niece, and – more gratingly – a conceit where ‘George’ the computer is treated like a human being: apart from the name, it requires an operation, which is done by a ‘cybernetic surgeon’ wearing a surgical mask, etc etc. If it’s aiming for off-beat, it just ends up hitting ‘twee’. Half-a-point added back on for a scene where Steed intimidates a petrol-soaked bad guy into surrendering by threatening him with a cigarette lighter, but this is still quite hard work.

Things improve a bit in Jeremy Burnham’s False Witness, which opens with a couple of agents carrying out a spot of breaking-and-entering: one goes in, while the other keeps watch. A bad guy approaches, but the look-out assures his colleague that the coast is still clear. Sure enough, the other man is shot and wounded, but (trope time) manages to stagger off across London to Steed’s flat to get the plot under way.

It turns out that the two agents were involved in trying to get evidence on Lord Edgefield (William Job, second of two), a Milverton-like blackmailer and general cad. In the absence of the evidence they were looking for, the department will have to rely on a witness’ testimony – but when they take him to the office of the prosecuting lawyer (Tony Steedman, second of two), he abruptly reverses his position. Is Edgefield leaning on everyone? Or is something else responsible for this surge in deceitfulness and general lack of integrity?

Well, obviously, the answer is ‘evil milkmen’. This is one of a number of episodes about unlikely psychedelic drugs (the show is a product of the late 60s, after all), in this case one which causes people to say the exact opposite of what they mean: a sort of anti-truth drug. This seems biochemically improbable, to say the least, to say nothing of what happens if the target doesn’t drink milk, but so it goes. John Bennett (second of two) plays the head of the dairy, and he at least has the ability to give lines like ‘Special delivery: two pints, immediately,’ and ‘Put her in the butter machine’ an unlikely air of silky menace.

I still don’t think it entirely makes sense (the episode is inconsistent about whether people affected by the drug are aware of what they’re saying and doing) and there’s another sort of tonal mismatch between the blackmailing plot and the gimmick with the drug (to say nothing of Tara getting encased in a giant block of butter), but there are quite a few redeeming features and some good gags. (Mother’s HQ is on the top deck of a bus (one wonders how he gets up the stairs), which just put me in mind of Monty Python – the two shows do occasionally resemble each other to a surprising degree.) There’s another glimpse of old-style Steed when he suspects a colleague has betrayed him: he cooly marches the suspect off into the woods and slugs him without warning, before pinning him up against a tree and demanding answers. A pretty entertaining episode all told.

The upward trend definitely continues with All Done With Mirrors, the sole contribution to the show by Leigh Vance (a not especially well-known writer and producer, mostly of US shows: the usual reference websites can’t even decide on what sex Vance was, but he was apparently married to Eunice Gayson in the fifties, which is a bit of a giveaway). The episode opens with an agent discovering secrets being leaked to the Other Side – apparently by an invisible man – before he is shot.

Said secrets are from the Carmadoc solar energy research centre, which Steed recently visited (off-screen). As a result he is a suspect, and Mother is forced to put him under close arrest. This involves he and Mother being ensconced in and around a swimming pool with a bevy of swim-suited beauties and a bar. ‘I’m innocent!’ Steed declares when Tara learns of his situation. Yes, but probably not for much longer, Tara says. In the circumstances, Tara has to investigate Carmadoc herself, assisted by another agent, the keen but not very sharp Watney (Dinsdale Landen).

Yes, it’s another holiday episode for Patrick Macnee, but in some ways a definite cut above most of the Blackman and Rigg holiday shows – it’s not about the female lead being lured off somewhere to be menaced by a lunatic, but about Tara basically having her own solo adventure, investigating and cracking the case herself. And it’s a clever episode with a good gimmick, and a few less-well-known Avengers tropes being dusted off – as well as the research centre under threat, we have yet another instance of people being replaced by impostors working for the other side. (Playing yet another villain in his sixth and final appearance on the show is Edwin Richfield.)

Perhaps the absence of Steed except for a few bookending scenes (he doesn’t turn up to save the day, which is refreshing) means it doesn’t really feel like a genuine Avengers episode, but his absence really does allow Linda Thorson to shine: she carries the episode really well, and gets some belting fight scenes before everything is resolved. I almost can’t believe I’m going to say this, but – on this occasion at least – Thorson sells these better than Diana Rigg usually did. A really strong, if somewhat atypical episode, which almost feels like the backdoor pilot for The Adventures of Tara King – a show which, on the strength of this, I would certainly have watched.

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