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I know that some people have occasionally accused me of being unreasonably inflexible and rigid in my attitudes and principles. Well, maybe so; everyone’s got to have their red lines, after all. But in my defence, I would like to offer proof that a man can change. For quite a long time in the early and middle 2000s I was a definite cheerleader for the career of Gerard Butler, always lamenting his poor film choices and bad luck and hoping he would rise to become a genuine leading man. However, for the last couple of years I have quietly been hoping he would pack it all in and slope off back to obscurity.

What changed? Well, when Butler actually became a star he ended up making films like Geostorm, Hunter Killer, and especially London Has Fallen, and frankly I can only take so much of that kind of thing (some of the personal grooming commercials he’s been doing have been difficult to stomach as well). If it hadn’t been for the current blight in interesting mainstream films I suspect I would have given his new one, Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen, a very clear miss. But, you know – maybe I do have some residual affection for the lad.

The movie opens with moody scenes of men in combat gear, flames, and helicopters. They are clearly big manly men, carrying big gunly guns, but keeping well clear of the big flamey flames. (Sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.) It turns out this lot are all after heroic swivel-eyed psycho Mike Banning (GERARD! BUTLER!), only not really, as anyone with a switched-on brain will quickly realise. This fake man-hunt is just a device to allow the movie to open with some running around and shooting as well as foreshadowing what is to follow when the movie properly gets going (basically, more running around and shooting).

Well, with that out of the way, they have to lay in some plot, which involves Banning’s old mate Jennings (Danny Huston), a mercenary who’s feeling the pinch, and the decision of the President (Morgan Freeman) not to use private security firms to execute American foreign policy. There is also a plotline about Banning knocking on a bit, suffering from insomnia and concussion and a dodgy neck, and dreading the prospect of the desk job which is being floated before him.

All this done, it’s off to the races as someone unknown (but really very obvious) attempts to kill the President while he’s fishing, using killer drones. This is one of the movie’s big set pieces and it is certainly fairly impressive, although the fact that this is the third film this year alone to incorporate killer drones as a plot device inevitably lessens the impact. Everyone dies but Banning and the Prez (who is left in a coma), and evidence surfaces suggesting that Banning has been colluding with the Russians against the best interests of the American people. With the administration in turmoil and the threat of war looming (as usual, this is an abstract, off-screen sort of looming, an attempt to raise the stakes more than anything else), it’s up to Banning to go on the run from the FBI in an attempt to clear his name and save the nation…

So: a few changes from the last …Has Fallen movie, most visibly the disappearance of Aaron Eckhart as the President and the promotion of Morgan Freeman to the top job. You can understand why Eckhart must have found this a fairly unfulfilling gig, as all it involved was looking weak and needing to be rescued all the time, and Freeman got to make all the big speeches anyway. It is odd to realise this is only the second film where Morgan Freeman plays the US President, it feels like it’s been a plank of his career for ages (even though the first time was in a film where basically half the world blew up, not the most reassuring track record). Banning’s wife has also been recast, not that it matters very much.

Less visibly, but perhaps more importantly, this is a less ugly and offensive film than London Has Fallen, although it is still a very mechanical chase-thriller with lengthy action sequences undistinguished by any real flair or energy. It doesn’t relish gratuitous sadism in the same way the previous film did, nor does it treat serious real-world issues in quite such an offensively glib manner. So it is on some level an improvement.

However, London Has Fallen was such a bad film that being better than it doesn’t mean Angel Has Fallen is actually what you’d call a good one. It is, as noted, mechanical, and also quite predictable – it’s crystal-clear right from the start that Danny Huston is going to turn out to be the bad guy, for instance. (Not quite entirely predictable, though: a couple of characters get the chop who you wouldn’t necessarily expect.) Much of it is quite humourless, soundtracked primarily by Butler shouting profanities and grunting a lot.

On the other hand, when they do try to lighten up, the results are mixed at best. Banning attempts to go to ground with his estranged father, played by Nick Nolte. It turns out that Pops Banning is also a swivel-eyed psycho, but he is presented as the comic relief character: when he blows dozen of bad guys away or stabs them to death it is usually the set-up to a punchline of some description. (When Mrs Banning meets her father-in-law for the first time, the very first thing he does is knife two guys to death in her presence – and she still has doubts that he’s related to her husband! Has she not been paying attention for the last two movies?) This also occasions an attempt at some added depth, as Pops Banning is another army veteran left traumatised by his experiences. Not that the film is really about this or attempts to deal with it in any depth. It just sort of prods the notion in an attempt to generate some pathos and then moves on to the next scene.

The movie is of course afflicted by the same problem that has troubled any recent attempt to portray goings on at the top end of the US government. In the past the answer has always been to create a sort of roman-a-clef effect, to some degree or other – so we had heroic, charming POTUSes in films during the Clinton years, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx in the Oval Office during the Obama administration, and so on. But what are you supposed to do at the moment? Hire the Jim Henson Company? In the end the film parts company with reality entirely, which is kind of ironic as the current US administration did that quite some time ago.

You do actually get a sense of a film not quite hedging its bets completely in this area: if anything, this is a movie pitching to an old, white, male, blue-collar crowd, more likely than not to be wearing one of those red baseball caps with the cute slogan on it. Heroic Banning, after all, is framed for colluding with the Russians and wrongfully persecuted by the FBI as a result – although there is a passing reference to Russian tampering in US elections which someone has slipped in, in an attempt at balance. There is also a scene in which a defenceless African-American woman is shot in the face by a white middle-aged man, which I would imagining playing quite well with a certain constituency of the current president’s base.

However, lest you come away with the impression that this is just empty carnage, questionable comic relief and dubious political subtext, I should mention that there is also a theme about the deep bond and fellow-feeling that exists between former brothers-in-arms Banning and Jennings. Truly they understand and care for each other, although this doesn’t stop Jennings trying to frame his buddy or have his family kidnapped. The final tussle between them is thus an oddly affectionate one and even somewhat tender, as they grapple sweatily together, holding one another tightly and gasping for breath (both have been doing a lot of running, and Banning has just copped a grenade at point-blank range), before Banning brings things to a climax and slips it in (his dagger, I mean). ‘I’m glad it was you!’ whispers Danny Huston, before flopping down to bleed out in a pool of his own bodily fluids. You almost feel like you’re intruding on them by watching this stuff.

Or possibly I’m reading too much into all of this. I suspect it is actually impossible to read too little into it, for this is ultimately formulaic entertainment, the hard lines of plot barely garnished by the odd moment purporting to bring character or depth to it. That said, Danny Huston is clearly having fun, and there’s something about Morgan Freeman that can’t help but bring a touch of class to whatever he does. The film also scores points for improving on London Has Fallen. But on the whole this is insignificant stuff. My advice to Gerard Butler now? Take the desk job, the next time they offer it.

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Maybe I’m just a victim of my own self-imposed strictures, but the thin patch this summer seems to be dragging on forever, with the cinemas stuffed with remade regal cats, God-awful life-affirming quasi-musicals, and offerings from middle-aged wunderkind who’ve been pushing the same thing all their career. Seriously, you could have been reading another review looking at Hobbs & Shaw in more detail.

Instead, I found myself making a rare visit to Oxford’s plushest but most expensive cinema in search of something else: which turned out to be Christian Petzold’s Transit, a German film from last year now getting a limited cinema showing in addition to being available as view-on-demand. The film is based on Anna Seghers’ 1942 novel of the same name, which leads to some curious effects, as we shall see.

The protagonist is Georg (Franz Rogowski), a young German man who is in Paris as the film opens – but seriously considering his exit strategy, as the city is occupied and sealed, with many people living in desperate fear of their lives as paramilitary forces round up enemies of the new regime. The disconcerting thing is that we are not in 1940 – this looks very much like the present day, or perhaps the near future.

There is some close order plotting in the early stages of the film: in order to have a chance of escape, Georg agrees to deliver some letters to another refugee, a writer named Weidel. But Weidel has already surrendered to despair and committed suicide, and Georg keeps his personal effects. He seizes on another escape route, travelling in a goods train to Marseilles with an injured man, who dies on the way.

Once in Marseilles, he has to break the sad news to his former companion’s widow and son, and finds himself reluctantly drawn into their struggle for existence. He is also distracted by a mysterious woman (Paula Beer) who keeps approaching him, seeming to know him, only to withdraw. None of it seems to mean much, for there is no way out of the city, and whatever catastrophe is engulfing Europe will reach Marseilles soon as well. It is only when Georg visits the Mexican Consulate to return some of Weidel’s papers that there is a glimmer of hope – the authorities there assume that Georg himself is Weidel, who has already been offered a safe haven in Mexico, assuming he can secure the necessary transit visas from Spain and the USA.

Quite understandably, Georg instantly assumes Weidel’s identity and goes about getting the necessary paperwork to allow him onto the boat. But there is yet another wrinkle. Georg finally gets to know Marie, the mystery woman he keeps seeing, and a tentative sort of romance springs up between them, despite all the various hazards which surround them. She can accompany him on his fake Weidel-visa, but she refuses to contemplate leaving, insisting on waiting for her estranged husband to arrive. Which would be straightforward enough, but then she reveals to Georg her husband’s name…

The most obviously distinctive thing about Transit is that it is a novel about life in Nazi-occupied France which someone has updated to the present day. It’s a little difficult to tell whether Christian Petzold is doing this to make some kind of weighty allegorical point, or simply because the funding wasn’t there to do this as a full-blown costume drama. Certainly, this tale of migrants desperately fleeing Europe does feel uncomfortably topical, and perhaps the idea is to achieve the same kind of effect that Russell T Davies achieved in his TV drama Years and Years recently: compelling the viewer to identify with a refugee and come to understand why they do the desperate things that they do. Nevertheless, the conceit is a qualified success at best – the film has a slightly stylised quality, and awkward questions about why airlines are no longer operating and how Georg is able to pass himself off as an apparently quite famous writer are hand-waved away somewhat.

It’s not as if the film ever really escapes the shadow of its wartime origins – ‘Casablanca as written by Kafka’ is a quote on one of the posters for it, which is a not unreasonable description: there is a lot of fuss about visas and travel papers, riches-to-rags refugees living in fraught desperation, and a strange love triangle at the heart of the story. On the other hand, there are other resonances, too – it’s hard to watch this film and not think of Antonioni’s The Passenger, another tale of a man seeking to obliterate himself by swapping identities with a corpse.

It has to be said that while the film looks quite reserved and conventional, it is shot through with darkness and coloured by the gnawing anxiety felt by the characters as the unarticulated doom that is seemingly overtaking Europe closes in. In a sense, this is a film which is absolutely about the death of the self, whether that be figurative or literal: there is more than one suicide, and it could be argued that all the characters have been torn from their former lives and are existing in a state of limbo, awaiting their eventual fates.

Not the lightest of films, then (indeed, this is the main thing that sets it apart from Casablanca), but it remains a very watchable one, mainly due to a strong set of performances. Transit doesn’t work too hard at putting across a message or allegorical point, which gives some elements of the conclusion a slightly oblique quality – some elements of the story are left up to the viewer to interpret as they see fit. After functioning as a fairly conventional drama, almost a thriller, for most of its length, the ambiguous ending may not be for everyone, but it does suit the film. There is something very thoughtful about this film, and quietly very sad, too. It’s a strange thing to say, but I did find it very engrossing and almost enjoyable to watch, although whether it is a warning from history or a portent of the future is something we will have to find out in the fulness of time.

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You know, sometimes I take no pleasure in doing this. I hear the response, so why do you bother? Well, as I think I said, it’s pathological. Really, though, sometimes I turn up to a movie which is obviously gunning to touch upon some serious emotional issues, and take a stand against bigotry and prejudice, and leave the audience uplifted and positive, but as much as I’d like to say positive things about it, I just find myself bitterly regretting the fact that the re-release of Apocalypse Now was on too late for me to see it on a work night, and that one can only go and see Hobbs & Shaw so many times before it starts to look weird.

The film that has me thinking this way is Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, a bildungsroman with music, and a film which seems specifically designed to put you in mind of other films you may have enjoyed in the past. Viveik Kalra plays British Asian teenager Javed, living in Luton in 1987 (he is basically a fictionalised version of Sarfraz Manzoor, one of the co-writers). Many films have been made about the travails of growing up as a second-generation immigrant in a fiercely traditional, patriarchal family, and we are surely overdue for one which approaches this whole topic in a wholly fresh and innovative way. Unfortunately, Blinded by the Light is not that movie, and we just get all the usual bits and pieces, from the strict, conservative father (Kulvinder Ghir) on down.

Well, Javed goes off to Sixth Form College where his inspiring English lit teacher (Hayley Atwell) soon spots he is a frustrated poet, but one with little chance of ever properly expressing himself given the way everything is in his life. It just gets worse as his father loses his job and the National Front seem to be on the advance. It all comes to a head on the night of the Great Storm of 1987, when he finally gets around to playing some cassette tapes a friend has lent him – they are, of course, two Bruce Springsteen albums, and Javed’s life is utterly transformed. Well, a bit transformed. Eventually.

I could go into more detail but the film adheres to the standard script-writing structure with grim fidelity: there’s a succession of alternately sad and uplifting bits, building up the stakes, then a really downbeat bit at the end of the second act, followed by a life-affirming climax where the protagonist gets a chance to show everything that they’ve learned about The Important Things in Life. In this respect, like many others, it does sort of bear a close resemblance to Yesterday, another film looking to deliver a feel-good experience powered by some familiar tunes. Neither of them really had that effect on me, though, although I must say that Blinded by the Light manages to make Yesterday look much slicker and better assembled than it does in isolation.

There is just something very odd and not-quite-right about this film.  It’s supposed to be a paean to the power of the music of Bruce Springsteen… which is why the opening section is soundtracked by the Pet Shop Boys, a-Ha and Level 42. (I suppose the film-makers will say they’re holding back the Boss for the revelatory moment of Javed’s first hearing him.) But is it even that? (The paean, I mean.) At times the film resembles a bizarre mash-up of a jukebox musical using Springsteen songs and yet another comedy-drama about the Pakistani immigrant experience. This is an odd fit, to say the least: I know Bruce Springsteen has received many accolades, but I wasn’t aware he was acclaimed as the great interpreter of the British Asian experience in the late Eighties. Maybe the suggestion is supposed to be that his music has that kind of universal power and appeal – well, maybe so, but it still seems a very strangely specific take on this idea.

This is before we even get onto how the film handles its Springsteen tunes. When they do eventually arrive, they are initially accompanied by the words of the lyrics dancing around Javed’s head as he listens to his Walkman, which I suppose is just about acceptable. However, the writers soon decide they want to get some of the fun and energy of the non-diegetic musical into their film, so they break out a few big set-pieces. There are always choices with this sort of thing – you can keep the original Springsteen vocal and have the cast lip-synch to it. Or, you can re-record the song with the actors singing it (or attempting to sing it, if you’ve hired Pierce Brosnan) and use that. Or you can do what happens here, which is to play the original version and have the actors singing along over the top of it (not especially well).

If the singing is not exactly easy on the ear, it is at least better than the film’s attempts at dance routines. I would say these looked under-rehearsed, if I was certain they were rehearsed at all. The result has a sort of desperate earnestness to it which I tried hard to find charming, but I’m afraid I just couldn’t manage it. Something about the film’s biggest musical sequence (a version of ‘Born to Run’ performed in Luton High Street and just off the A505) not only managed to banish most of the vestigial goodwill I still retained for the movie, I’m also pretty sure I could feel it trying to suck out my soul and devour it. I’m not a particular Bruce Springsteen fan, but I can still appreciate the power and passion of his music – however, this film came alarmingly close to making me like his stuff a bit less. (A slightly bemused-looking Boss turns up during the closing credits, having his picture taken with various people involved with the production – one wonders if he was actually aware of who they were.)

That said, often enough they play Springsteen’s stuff without mucking it about or singing over the top of it, and this at least means you are listening to some great songs. This is better than the alternative, which is watching and listening to the scenes telling the story of the movie. These are – well, trite is one word that springs to mind. (‘Blinded by the Trite’ wouldn’t be a bad title for the movie.) None of the characters really behaves like a recognisable human being – they are all stock types living in a dress-up cartoon version of the 1980s, communicating largely in platitudes. Hayley Atwell plays the inspiring teacher, whose functions are to be inspiring and operate a few plot devices. Rob Brydon (wearing a truly shocking wig) plays a comedy relief old rocker, whose function is solely to be the comedy relief. It’s like the guts of the movie are on display throughout – it just doesn’t have the artifice or self-awareness to appear anything other than clumsily manipulative. (It could stand to lose about a quarter of an hour, as well.)

Of course, it does take a stand against racism, which of course is a good and laudable thing to do; and it does make some points about self-expression and being true to yourself and following your dreams, which are all perfectly good and admirable goals in life. Having good intentions doesn’t excuse the numerous narrative and artistic shortfalls of the movie, though. This just about functions as a story and as a musical, but it’s laboured and clumsy and trite throughout: all in all, rather more loss than Boss.

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One major religion tells us that when we die, we are summoned before a senior spiritual personage and asked to justify our existence – what did we contribute to the common good? Did we leave the world a better place than we found it? The cynical suggest that this is just a myth made up to encourage the oppressed and down-trodden to lead lives of dubious virtue, keeping their noses clean and generally being obedient in the hope of receiving a reward in the next life.

The question, of course, is one of how you justify your existence, and surely this doesn’t just apply to people. The simple and reductive answer, as far as films go anyway, is to say that a film’s purpose is to make money for its producers. I’m not so sure about that. Possibly my prejudices are showing but I don’t think the fact that the various Transformers films have added umpty-tump million dollars to the bank accounts of their makers comes close to making up for all the misery and horror they are responsible for. Conversely, though – could it be possible for a film not to do all that well at the box office yet still have made a worthwhile contribution to the sum total of human happiness, irrespective of how good it is?

Which basically brings us to John McTiernan’s 1986 film Nomads, one which seems to be promising a lot but ends up delivering… Well. The film is set in Los Angeles, where we initially encounter young ER doctor Eileen Flax (Lesley-Ann Down), recently moved to the city. In the ward one night she meets another new arrival, Jean-Charles Pommier (Pierce Brosnan), although this is not immediately apparent, mainly because Pommier is a frothing, raving nutcase, who whispers in a mysteriously French manner in her ear before trying to bite her and then dropping dead. Zut alors.

Well, Flax is bemused by Pommier’s case, learning he was a distinguished and much-travelled anthropologist who recently settled in LA to teach in a university there. So what’s he doing turning up in ER, off his head and about to cark it? The answers, when they come, mainly take the form of strange visions which afflict Flax, allowing her to relive Pommier’s last few days and the strange mystery he uncovered that ultimately led to his death.

As everyone knows, you can’t trust estate agents and the house Pommier and his wife (Anna-Maria Monticelli) have bought was previously the scene of a horrific murder. As a result it seems to have become something of a magnet for the local weirdos, who dress like punks and goths and drive around in a big black van, never stopping anywhere for long. (One of them is played by Adam Ant, another by the cult actress Mary Woronov.) In the flashback, Pommier becomes fascinated by them (not, it must be said, for any particularly compelling reason) and ends up following them around the city. He witnesses them casually committing a murder and various other antisocial acts, and is disturbed to discover they don’t show up on film when he attempts to photograph them.

The answer is logical and obvious – it’s the 80s! They’re punks! They drive around in a van! They don’t photograph! They’re obviously vampires! Reader, mais non. (Although this might have been a better film were the answer mais oui.) Pommier eventually figures out, with the aid of a handy exposition-nun, that the gang of weirdos are actually evil Eskimo desert-spirits, infesting Los Angeles. Well, of course they are. It turns out you can have an Eskimo desert-spirit, you just have to be a bit flexible with your definition of a desert. And a spirit. And possibly an Eskimo.

The problem is that Pommier has now attracted the attention of the evil spirits (known as Einwetok, apparently), they are keen to claim his soul in order to maintain the secret of their existence. Can he and his wife escape them? (Anyone who’s been paying attention should already know the answer.) And will Flax’s own investigation imperil her life?

Nomads is, it must be said, a not especially good and honestly rather silly film, but it is clearly a second cousin to rather more impressive fare – it’s not a million miles away from other 80s fantasy-horror films, especially those with a James Cameron connection. There are various elements of this film which do recall The Terminator and especially Near Dark, even though it’s not anywhere close to the same standard. Elsewhere, it does incorporate all the things you would associate with a certain kind of laboriously stylish 80s movie – heavy use of drum machines and synth music, and indiscriminate slo-mo when you’re not expecting it.

All this, of course, is less noticeable to the average viewer than the fact that the film stars a fairly young Pierce Brosnan (this was his first lead movie role), playing a Frenchman. It is not entirely clear why McTiernan decided to make his protagonist French, but it certainly gives Brosnan a chance to have a go at an allo-mon-amee-ah-am-from-Paree accent. Now, I like Pierce Brosnan a lot; he was a very good James Bond and I find him to be a very likeable screen presence in general. But he does a convincing French accent about as well as he can sing. (And one has to wonder why the two French characters appear to spend most of their time speaking English to each other.) It is quite hard to get past the accent and assess the rest of the performance (one notes Brosnan was still young and keen enough to say yes to a nude scene, though it is tactfully lit and framed).

He kind of drops out of sight in the closing stages of the film, anyway, as the focus of the story switches more to Flax and Pommier’s widow. Again, one has to wonder what the merit is of the rather complicated flashback structure which McTiernan has opted to give the film – it doesn’t seem to be contributing much, cluttering the narrative rather than deepening it. I suppose it does enable the final twist of the movie (although this is using the word ‘twist’ very generously), but I’m not sure this is enough.

Nomads starts off showing signs of promise but unravels into incoherent silliness long before the end. You have to admire its attempts to be a gore-free piece of stylish, atmospheric horror-fantasy, but it just ends up being bemusing; it’s certainly not frightening in any way. Nor is it quite bad enough to be a fun slice of shock. However – it got Pierce Brosnan started in movies, and that’s no bad thing, and apparently Arnie was sufficiently impressed by it to hire John McTiernan to  direct Predator (which in turn led to him doing Die Hard and other rather distinguished films). So while this may be a bad movie, it did eventually lead to some rather good ones.

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Until a very short time ago I would have sworn to you that the five Fu Manchu movies Christopher Lee made in the late 1960s were products of his relationship with Hammer films. They have the same kind of period setting which gives so many Hammer horrors their atmosphere, they have the same mixture of pulp and class, and, well, they have Christopher Lee in them.

Apparently not: these films were made by the British producer Harry Alan Towers, and while they still look a lot like Hammer films, they generally tend much more towards the pulp adventure genre than actual horror per se. This is not to say that elements of these films are not shocking, just that this is probably not in the places intended by the film-makers themselves.

1966’s The Brides of Fu Manchu is the second of these films, following the previous year’s The Face of Fu Manchu. Face is rather stolid; Brides is much more confident, colourful and preposterous. For a film ostensibly about a Chinese supervillain, it opens in a surprisingly Egyptian-styled lair (possibly Towers just bought a lot of second-hand Egyptian props off the set of Carry On Cleo). A sequence briskly unfolds involving various nubile damsels in distressed clothing, a snake pit, and death by haircut, which sets the tone of the film quite nicely. We meet Professor Merlin, a French scientist, played by Rupert Davies (Davies opts for the inevitable allo-mah-Briteesh-chooms accent, but we are in for a feast of dubious accentry as the film continues). Merlin’s daughter has been kidnapped by the evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, of course) and Merlin is coerced into helping him conquer the world.

How is he going to do this? Well, Fu Manchu has a death ray, but as this is the 1920s he needs a set of relay stations to transmit the ray to wherever it needs to go. Hence all the kidnapped young women: their fathers have been busily building relay towers all over Europe (without anyone taking much notice, it would seem).

Next on the list for a kidnapping is Marie Lentz, daughter of a German scientist (Marie is also German for the first twenty minutes, then reverts to using the natural French accent of Marie Versini, who plays her. This is that sort of film). The first intimation that Fu Manchu may not be the machiavellian genius everyone says he is comes when it is revealed that his preferred kidnapping technique is for his dacoit henchmen to jump out on people from behind cars and other everyday objects and try to overpower them by brute force. This goes somewhat amiss as Marie’s companion Franz (Heinz Drache) drives about four dacoits off single-handed and beats one of them to death in the process. Franz is not a heavyweight boxer or commando, by the way, he is a research chemist. (The reason why there are so many German characters in this film is because it was a co-production with a West German company.)

The dead dacoit in London is enough to put Fu Manchu’s dogged nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), on the trail, accompanied by the faithful Dr Petrie (there is a very obvious Sherlock Holmes vibe going on here, only added to by the fact that Wilmer played Holmes on TV the previous year). Can Nayland Smith and his associates figure out what Fu Manchu is up to before he takes over the world?

There are things which are non-ironically good about The Brides of Fu Manchu, principally some of the production values – the recreation of 1920s London is handsomely done, incorporating many vintage cars, decent numbers of extras, and even a biplane for one sequence. (I should also say that there are also quite a few rather duff props and sets on display, with some distinctly wobbly death ray transmitters turning up before the end). Don Sharp’s direction is pacy and energetic, giving the film something of the feel of a Bond film with a period setting.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the various absurdities of the script, which above all else is heavily reliant on some outrageous plot devices to function. Most glaring of these is a character called Abdul (played by Salman Peerzada), one of the hospitality staff in Fu Manchu’s lair who decides to betray him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Nayland Smith may march around a lot looking dour and determined, but it’s Abdul who does most of the donkey work of helping the hostages escape before the end of the film. Other delights include lookalikes who bear no resemblance to the person they’re supposed to be, and an uproarious truth-drug sequence.

One comes away with the impression that Fu Manchu would have got away with it all, if not for some very bad recruitment decisions. Quite apart from hiring Abdul to do the catering, he is also saddled with a chief technician named Feng (Burt Kwouk), who has the bad manners to have a nervous breakdown and collapse onto the big red self-destruct lever in the secret lair (the fixtures in the secret lair have a lovely steampunky charm to them). His henchmen also leave a lot to be desired – German research chemists are quite capable of beating them up in droves, and at one point there’s a massed brawl between the dacoits and the escaping young women in which the guards seem to be distinctly hard pressed. Ancient Chinese saying, Fu Manchu: you just can’t get the staff.

It is, as you may have guessed, impossibly to take remotely seriously, but still hugely entertaining if you’re in the right sort of mood. That said, I fully expect that many people will be shaking their heads and sucking their teeth at the very idea of enjoying a Fu Manchu movie in our enlightened present-day society. Sax Rohmer’s original novels were allegedly directly inspired by a racist agenda, after all. (My mother was in the room while we were watching this and complained that she couldn’t tell the good and bad guys apart. ‘Anyone Chinese is a bad guy,’ I said, which is not strictly true (Nayland Smith’s house-girl seems to be on the level) but a good rule of thumb.) There’s also the fact that this racist stereotype Chinese supervillain is portrayed by a notably un-Chinese looking actor in yellowface make-up. (Students of pop culture will enjoy spotting several familiar actually Chinese actors in minor roles: apart from Burt Kwouk, these include the ubiquitous Vincent Wong and a young (ahem) Ric Young, of Transporter fame.)

Well, I’m going to do my usual thing and say that it is entirely possible to take a film like this too seriously. If it was a serious, well-written, thoughtful drama, it would certainly be unacceptably racist. But it’s none of those things – it’s an absurd knockabout pulp action movie. If you come away from it genuinely convinced that Chinese people represent a menace and want to take over the world, well – you’re so suggestibly gullible you probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies at all. Obviously you couldn’t make a film remotely like this one nowadays. But it’s still a mistake to judge old films by modern standards. Even if The Brides of Fu Manchu was intended as a piece of bigoted propaganda, we should also remember it was also probably meant to be a serious thriller. The fact is that it succeeds at being neither, but as an absurd unintended comedy it is immensely entertaining.

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It is surely very heartening to see that, even in times as dark as the present, society still offers a chance for success to people who are clearly a little bit weird (especially heartening for those of us who are weird ourselves). Currently I am thinking of Peter Strickland, whom I may be jumping to conclusions about. Never having met the gentleman, I may be taking liberties by labelling him as weird, but the two films of his that I’ve seen have both been, well, weird. Weird in a very interesting and entertaining way, I hasten to add. But they’re still weird.

I saw Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio towards the end of 2012 and came out feeling rather well-disposed towards it (certainly more so than the gentleman who stood up at the end of the screening and shouted ‘Utter rubbish!’ to no-one in particular). His follow-up, The Duke of Burgundy, didn’t trouble the cinemas around here so far as I can recall, but his latest film did – albeit not in a very conspicuous way. Another victim of the great Disney squeeze, one might suggest.

The new movie is In Fabric, which is a fairly odd title and thus rather undersells the film, which is extremely eccentric, to say the least. The setting is the UK in what looks like the late 1970s or possibly early 80s (one character has a misleadingly contemporary hairstyle, but it soon becomes obvious that email and mobile phones don’t exist yet). Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Sheila, a recently-separated bank clerk with a teenage son who is a bit thrown to discover that her ex-husband has already found himself a new girlfriend. As an odd form of passive-aggressive retaliation, she decides to join a lonely hearts dating service, but only after refreshing her look a bit. And so she goes out and buys a new dress.

This proves to be a choice of questionable merit, as the department store she visits is a rather unusual one which appears to be run by witches, or possibly devil-worshippers. Even the sales assistants are rather peculiar, such as the one she encounters (an uproarious turn from Fatma Mohamed). However, the ‘artery red’ dress she ends up buying is something else again, as it is apparently cursed and possessed of a malevolent sentience, and is determined to do her ill. This initially just takes the form of giving her a nasty rash and destroying her washing machine (the dress doesn’t like being machine-washed), but soon its activities become absolutely murderous…

There is a camp ridiculousness to the premise of In Fabric which clearly owes a debt to some of the sillier horror movie premises of years gone by – I’m thinking of the homicidal vine from Dr Terror’s House of Horrors or the man-eating furniture in Death Bed – although, come to think of it, Stephen King did a book about a haunted car and no-one called that silly. Certainly this resonance doesn’t seem to be a matter of chance, for the film also has a quasi-portmanteau structure which inevitably recalls Dr Terror and the various other portmanteau horrors of decades ago.

It isn’t quite as simple as this film simply being a spoof of that particular genre, though. Strickland’s fondness for Italian giallo horror was evident in Berbarian Sound Studio and this film has that same kind of visual artfulness and richness. The combination of arty continental horror stylings and everyday naturalism which  makes In Fabric so distinctive is almost enough to make one suggest that this is what it would look like if Dario Argento and Mike Leigh ever worked together on a project (or if such a project were lovingly pastiched by the League of Gentlemen).

The most impressive thing about In Fabric is the way in which it takes such a richly over-the-top premise, and such a seemingly-incongruous set of clashing influences, and still manages to be a coherent and cohesive movie rather than a mess of clashing styles and tones. This, it seems to me, is the sign of a very fine film-maker – the ability to turn a film on a dime and shift between tones so effortlessly is exceptionally difficult. And there are lots of different things going on here. As I said, this isn’t exactly a horror parody – it is knowing and tongue-in-cheek, and the audience is expected to recognise this, but at the same time it is a genuine horror film, intent on unnerving and rattling its audience. It is attempting to be weird and creepy rather than actually scary, and there are some extremely odd and rather graphic sequences that certainly won’t be to everyone’s cup of tea.

And then Strickland will smoothly go into another encounter with the bizarre shopworker Miss Luckmoore and her preposterous turn of phrase (this is a woman who says ‘I have reached the dimension of regret’ when she means ‘I’m sorry’), or a scene where one of the characters is dragged in for a nightmarish encounter with Julian Barratt and Steve Oram’s useless managers, or even a genuinely moving scene filled with real pathos. It shouldn’t work; it certainly shouldn’t look as easy as Strickland manages to make it appear.

I shouldn’t neglect to say that this is a genuinely funny film, albeit often in a highly surreal way (at one point Barratt and Oram are reduced to a priapic stupor by someone describing washing-machine faults to them). You find yourself wondering if you’re actually supposed to be laughing at this or if you haven’t quite understood what kind of film you’re watching. In the end I did conclude that very little in this movie has been left to chance.

For all that it is an unusual and rather intoxicating concoction, I would still say In Fabric has the odd flaw – primarily that the opening segment of the film is stronger than the rest, which is unfortunate if nothing else. Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s performance is a bit more rounded than those of Leo Bill and Hayley Squires, who carry the later parts of the movie. I might even suggest that the portmanteau structure of the story isn’t signposted at all and is a bit wrong-footing when it manifests itself.

Nevertheless, this is a film made with obvious confidence and skill and a definite sense of visual style (the soundtrack, from the splendidly-named combo Cavern of Anti-Matter, only adds to the hypnotic effect). It is distinctive and highly unusual (and probably not very mainstream, to be perfectly honest), but also very funny and always interesting. I liked it very much.

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In the early 70s the Japanese film industry was feeling the pinch, with collapsing audience figures, not least due to the increased popularity of television. This included the kind of genre movie that Toho and others had been making so successfully for nearly two decades – even here, the impact of TV was felt, mainly due to the appearance of shows like Ultraman. There was a certain irony to the fact that Ultraman was the work of a company created by Eiji Tsubaraya, the master special effects artist who had overseen many of the most celebrated Toho monster and SF movies.

The monster movies Toho was making in the early 1970s clearly show the influence of TV shows from the period. The Godzilla movies of the time are notably more juvenile, with weirder, more colourful adversaries. 1973’s Godzilla Vs Megalon includes a robot character named Jet Jaguar who bears a suspicious resemblance to Ultraman himself.

A year earlier, things had got even more confused with Toho distributing a movie directed by Toshihiro Iijima for Eiji Tsubaraya Productions (the great man himself had passed away a couple of years earlier). This movie, the title of which roughly translates as Tough Monster Battle – Daigoro Vs Goliath! does look rather like the monster movies Toho was making at the time – but there’s another sense in which it looks unlike anything other than the product of the most lurid cheese-spawned dream.

It’s a little while before it becomes clear what the hell is actually going on in the movie, which opens with a contest to find an exciting new invention, the most notable entry to which is a flying bicycle known as the Aerobike, created by an absurd Heath-Robinson-ish inventor. It turns out he’s doing this so he can give the prize money to a fund seeking to buy food for Daigoro.

But who or what is Daigoro? Here we enter marginally more familiar territory as some back-story is laid in. Some time earlier, apparently, an atomic accident at sea revived an enormous, destructive monster. So far, so formulaic – but, in a possibly unique occurrence in the annals of the JSDF, the military shoot the monster in the head with a missile and kill it. All seems well, until a search of the rampage zone reveals the monster was female and gave birth shortly before she was killed. The baby monster is christened Daigoro and placed in the care of some scientists and a zoo-keeper.

The problem is that Daigoro, being a giant monster, has a bit of an appetite, much more than the budget of the group charged with looking after him can cope with. The upshot is that Daigoro is hungry and miserable all the time, and (it is implied) has had so little to eat he has had no cause to use the monster-sized privy installed on his island. Yes, there really is a giant monster-sized privy in the film, and it says something about the general tone of Daigoro Vs Goliath that it does not feel at all out of place. The authorities are considering dosing Daigoro with a drug called Anti-Grow which will hopefully limit his future appetite, rather to the outraged despair of his keeper (this film is so obscure I have struggled to find out the names of any of the actors involved).

Hence the army of youthful Daigoro fans determined to raise money to feed the unfortunate monster, assisted by the useless inventor, and also by an alcoholic carpenter named Kumagoro. As mentioned, I don’t know the names of most of the performers in this film, but I am quite certain that the actor playing Kumagoro delivers one of the broadest comic turns I have ever seen from a professional thespian. Various whimsically comic scenes ensue, until the appearance of a second monster, which has apparently come to Earth in a meteorite. Conventional weapons prove useless against the newcomer (those tropes just keep on coming), who is initially known as the Great Stellar Monster and then as Goliath. Inevitably someone realises that Daigoro could potentially be sent into battle against Goliath, even though he is a young, inexperienced and undernourished monster. Can he be persuaded to play ball? One thing is certain: he’ll need a good feed first.

I suppose you could argue that where Japanese monster movies are concerned, there’s a spectrum, with more serious, mature, dark films like the original Godzilla and Gamera: Incomplete Struggle at one end and whimsical fantasies made for a younger audience at the other. Well, if so, the whimsical end of the spectrum stretches off much further than I had anticipated, extending off into the distance solely to accommodate the gentle silliness of Daigoro Vs Goliath. Quite apart from the joke about the giant monster privy, the sheer sight of the Daigoro suit is gobsmacking: it looks like a sleepy bulldog, even down to having whiskers, and appears to have been designed by a six-year-old. The panel in the back admitting the suit actor is clearly visible. The limbs appear to operate on the concertina principle. It is a ridiculous suit for a ridiculous movie.

The actual clash between Daigoro and Goliath hardly troubles the script much. Most of the first half of the film is taken up with a succession of roaringly overacted slapstick sketches concerning the inventor, the alcoholic carpenter, the squabbling between Daigoro’s keeper and his boss over what to do with him, and so on. The regular appearance of droves of cute Japanese kids waving ‘Save Daigoro’ signs make it pretty clear that this was intended as a children’s film, although I have to say it’s an extremely weird one even by Japanese standards – I’m assuming that all the profanity in the subtitles is just down to dodgy translation, but there are still a lot of jokes about beer for a kids’ movie.

It isn’t even as if this is actually spoofing the giant monster movie genre – it’s just using the tropes of the form in a slightly different way. My minimal research even suggests this actually started life as a movie entitled Godzilla Vs Redmoon, although it’s hard to see how Godzilla would actually fit into this plot. It’s not all that far from the tone of the original Gamera movies, based on what I’ve seen of those. Nor is it a million miles away from the previous year’s Godzilla movie, notable for its environmental message – there’s one of those here, too, and remarkably coherent it is. Society’s disregard for Daigoro mirrors the lack of consideration shown the natural world, which inevitably leads to problems, of course. The message is clear: look after the environment and take good care of your monsters, as they are not just decorative. To back this up there is a montage of clips of crabs, insects, flowers and horses.

The temptation is to say that Daigoro Vs Goliath is simply a terrible, weird old film made by people who all seem to have been off their heads on acid when they were making it. It is primitive in many ways, but there is an intentionality to it which is unmistakable – it’s deliberately whimsical, cutesy and comical. Being sophisticated, gritty and credible was never on the agenda for the film-makers. And I would be lying if I said it is totally lacking in a certain bonkers charm. Not a film to show someone you’re trying to persuade of the merits of tokusatsu movies, more one for when you’re trying to see just how deep the genre rabbit-hole goes – it is awful, but also somehow quite likeable. It is, as they say, a funny old world.

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