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Posts Tagged ‘Awix’s picks’

As someone who had to wait to see the original Godzilla until Channel 4 showed it in the wee small hours of Christmas Morning 1999, it was a source of some irritation to me that my father would occasionally make casual reference to having seen the film when he was younger. This lasted until I took the trouble to actually enquire as to what he’d thought of the film. ‘Oh… well…’ he said, vaguely. ‘I think they caught a monster and put it on display, but they didn’t realise it was really a baby… and then Godzilla came to get it back… it was all right.’ The mystery was solved: he hadn’t actually seen Godzilla at all, but the 1961 British film Gorgo. I’m not sure this quite qualifies as an instance of the Mandela effect, but it’s a fairly understandable mistake for someone to make: it’s very tempting, and far from inaccurate to refer to Gorgo as the British Godzilla.

After a properly stirring set of titles, the film gets under way off the coast of Ireland, where a small freighter is going about its business. Captaining the vessel is Joe Ryan (William Travers), along with his business partner Sam Slade (William Sylvester). The duo are a pair of opportunistic salvagers, but their efforts are disrupted by an underwater volcanic eruption which causes a severe storm, damaging their ship. Needing repairs and supplies, they call in at nearby Nara Island, noting as they do some grotesque fish floating dead in the water.

The reception at Nara is not especially warm, except perhaps that of Sean (Vincent Winter), a young orphan who basically just follows Joe and Sam round for the rest of the movie (Social Services are not to be seen anywhere). It turns out the local harbour master is doing some illicit treasure hunting of his own and is keen to see the back of them, but since the storm there have been problems – one of his divers was fished out of the bay in a doornail-like condition, apparently scared to death, while another has disappeared entirely. The mystery is solved when the sea froths and the head of a sixty-foot-tall reptilian monster emerges!

Sean recognises it from local legends of immense sea beasts, but no-one listens to him much; instead, Joe and Sam bully the harbour master into paying them to get rid of the monster. A resourceful duo, they manage to ensnare it in a suitably large net and lash it to the deck of their boat – but now what? The University of Dublin is very interested in taking this unique scientific specimen from them, and a deal is struck for it to be delivered to the mainland. However, Joe is far from impressed with the money on offer and promptly reneges on this arrangement in order to sell the monster to a circus in central London. (One of the many unexpectedly satisfying things about Gorgo is the way in which it gradually reveals that its main human characters are actually quite unpleasant individuals.)

Having thus pulled a fast one on the Irish in the time-honoured English style, Joe and Sam deliver the monster, now christened Gorgo, to London where it is installed behind an electric fence. Astonished crowds are soon swirling around it (not much sign of Health and Safety, either). Some concerned boffins are soon on the scene, and eventually impart some worrying news to Joe and Sam (it’s not really clear why, given they’ve sold the monster by this point, but it certainly helps with the flow of the story) – their examinations have revealed that Gorgo is only a little baby monster, and the adult version will be vastly bigger and more powerful. Could this explain why all contact has been lost with everyone on Nara Island…?

Calling Gorgo ‘the British Godzilla‘ does have a degree of accuracy to it, as already noted, but things are actually a little more complicated than that. Gorgo‘s director was Eugene Lourie, who eight years earlier had been in charge of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, an American monster movie in which a dinosaur, resuscitated by an atom bomb, ends up running wild through New York. As is now quite well-known, this film was enthusiastically seized upon by a well-known Japanese film studio who did their own uncredited remake of it, which was of course Godzilla itself. So accusing Lourie of doing any sort of version of Godzilla seems to me to be very probably putting the cart before the horse. We should also consider the similarities between Gorgo and any main-sequence version of King Kong you care to mention – in both films, the monster is dragged unwillingly off to civilisation, and is basically sympathetic.

My point is that Gorgo isn’t as lazily derivative as it looks, for all that it concludes with a performer in a rubber monster suit lumbering through a model city – indeed, there are a couple of ways in which it anticipates the way this genre would end up going – firstly, it is one of the first colour English-language monster movies in this tradition, beating the first colour Godzilla film to the screen by a year. Secondly, and more importantly, it is the first notable movie where the monster wins, delivering an admonitory smack to human civilisation before returning from whence it came. It may not have the extraordinary bleak intensity of the original Godzilla, but this is still a film with a thought-through and serious message about the relationship between humans and the environment, and one which is still timely today – thoughtless exploitation is bound to end in disaster.

The fact that Gorgo’s script is so good – apart from the slow reveal of Joe and Sam’s real characters, it also manages the killer twist at the heart of the story with great aplomb – may explain why it was able to attract an equally good cast – William Travers was a bona fide film star at the time, being relatively fresh from the sentimental hammer-throwing melodrama Geordie. One suspects the American William Sylvester is mainly there to help sell the film in the States, though he is also an actor assured of a tiny piece of cinematic immortality, thanks to his role as Dr Floyd in 2001. Most of the rest of the cast are made up of the kind of distinguished British character actors who bring extra heft to whatever they appear in, including an uncredited Nigel Green – I have to say that this is a film very much of its time, with only one credited female performer (a stuntwoman) – there is, of course, one very crucial female character in the story, but she is three hundred feet tall and has no dialogue beyond roaring a lot.

If there is a department in which Gorgo falls down somewhat, it is of course the special effects: we are in the realm of suitamation and dodgy compositing, and this is before we even get onto the film’s voluminous use of stock footage (the US Marine Corps play a surprisingly large role in attempting to defend London from the looming threat of Ogra, Gorgo’s mum). But the film has picked up sufficient interest and charm for this not really to detract from the entertainment value of the climax, which is very impressively mounted, the population of London fleeing in panic and terror as Ogra tours various landmarks, demolishing each one in turn (the moment where Ogra tears down Big Ben is as iconic as any in the history of pulp British movies), the London underground collapsing and flooding, and so on. I would say this is as good as sequence as anything comparable in the genre.

‘Like nothing you’ve ever seen before!’ is the proud claim of the poster for Gorgo – well, even at the time that almost certainly wasn’t true. But Gorgo hits the sweet spot of genre film-making just about perfectly, balancing respect for the conventions of its genre with the need for intelligent innovation and a few genuine surprises. When this kind of film is made nowadays, it usually has impressive special effects and a script which is often only marginally coherent – Gorgo, on the other hand, may not have the greatest production values, but it does have a strong story with heart and something to say for itself – and I will choose that any day. A minor classic, as monster movies go, and a personal favourite of mine.

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The Phoenix (one of our local non-multiplexes) ran a short season of Stanley Kubrick films last summer, comprising (if memory serves) 2001, Dr Strangelove, Spartacus, Barry Lyndon and The Shining – a quintet which, for the most part, should remind any sensible viewer of just why Kubrick is revered as one of the greatest directors ever to fake the moon landings – sorry, I meant to say ‘draw breath’. That said, missing from the run (which otherwise included nearly every film Kubrick made between 1960 and 1980) was A Clockwork Orange, originally released in 1971.

I suppose this is not really surprising when one considers that this is a film with a history of not appearing, having been withdrawn from UK cinemas in 1973 and not issued for home entertainment purposes at Kubrick’s own request, after he received threats because of it. When I was at university in the mid 1990s it still had that cachet of being an illegal, transgressive piece of art: bootleg copies were on sale next to those of Reservoir Dogs (likewise unavailable on legitimate VHS at the time). I distinctly recall that even a TV documentary about A Clockwork Orange was subject to a legal challenge and withdrawn by the makers.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this very remarkable film is that it still retains most of its power to shock and disturb. It is back in UK cinemas at the moment and the screening I attended did not feature the usual card from the BBFC, presaging the start of the film. Instead, the crimson field of the opening titles smashed into view unheralded, accompanied by the disquieting radiophonic howl of the opening music. What follows the opening credits is one of the most vivid sequences in all of modern cinema, as we accompany teenager Alex (Malcolm McDowell) on a typical night out. That sounds fairly mundane, but in fact we are plunged into what is essentially a kind of bacchanal of violence: verbal, physical, sexual, motorised and musical. The near-future stylings of the film and the Russian-influenced argot of Alex and his droog gang-members are just alienating enough to make the film compellingly strange rather than repulsive, but it is a close thing, and there is something deeply unsettling about the way that Kubrick’s direction and McDowell’s charisma conspire to make Alex a borderline-attractive antihero rather than the vicious monster we should probably perceive him as.

Of course, there is also his love of classical music, especially Beethoven, which is about as close as Alex gets to having a redeeming feature. Ironically, it is this, coupled to his own arrogance, which leads to Alex’s comeuppance – such as it is. Turned on by his droogs and finally nabbed by the police, Alex is sent to prison. It is here, a few years into a long prison term, that he first hears of the Ludovico technique – a method of rehabilitating prisoners and turning them into model citizens. Eagerly he volunteers, not quite realising what he is letting himself in for…

Sitting by my desk at work is a small but chunky volume listing the 101 greatest science fiction films (or something like that), and, sure enough, A Clockwork Orange features in it. It always seems to me this is one of those films which only just scrapes over the line – it is arguably set in one of those ten-minutes-into-the-future dystopias, the awful fashions and calculatedly tasteless art instantly evoking an exaggerated version of the 1970s. But the Ludovico technique is certainly the stuff of science fiction, allowing the film to address big questions of what it means to truly be a human being. The film’s thesis has been much articulated, almost to the point of overfamiliarity: by removing a person’s ability to make genuine moral choices and compelling them to exist in a state of petrified timidity, have you honestly made them ‘good’? The film’s energy and technique keeps the question interesting, although it departs significantly from Anthony Burgess’ novel by omitting the epilogue, in which an older Alex reflects on the excesses of his youth. The book’s conclusion appears to be that young men are naturally and inherently prone to violent misbehaviour, but they eventually grow out of it. (One should point out that Kubrick claimed only to have read the American edition of the novel, from which the final chapter was cut on the grounds it was unconvincing and unrealistic.)

Kubrick, naturally, is also interested in the Ludovico technique as a comment on the nature of cinema itself: the treatment room looks very like a cinema itself, with Alex strapped into his seat, literally a captive audience, unable to look away as scenes of violence play out before him. Some of these bear a striking resemblance to scenes from the film itself, which has to be a consciously self-reflexive touch. Thanks to the treatment, Alex is ultimately repelled and literally nauseated by what he sees – perhaps Kubrick is challenging the audience to compare their own responses to the violence that permeates his film.

Apart from this one plot device and a few scenes at the beginning, A Clockwork Orange feels strikingly non-futuristic when one watches it now. This is not to say it is a realistic or naturalistic film, of course: it most closely resembles a kind of parable or twisted allegory. There is something undeniably grotesque and over-the-top about every major character and the way they are performed – apart from Alex himself, there is the probation officer Deltoid (Aubrey Morris), the chaplain (Godfrey Quigley), the chief guard (Michael Bates), the minister (Anthony Sharp) and the writer whom Alex brutalises (Patrick Magee). These latter two serve another aspect of the film, which is its commentary, and indeed satire, of social and political attitudes. This is not light or even particularly funny satire: it is as savage and scathing as anything else in the film. On the other hand, Kubrick is scrupulously even-handed, treating both the authoritarian government and the supposedly progressive liberals with equal contempt, one side being happy to dehumanise their own citizens in the pursuit of good publicity, the other showing no concern for human life, as long as they can gain political advantage. (No wonder senior politicians have always seemed to be a bit wary of A Clockwork Orange: when the shadow Home Secretary Ann Widdecombe was asked to contribute to a documentary about it, around the time of the film’s re-release in 2000, she agreed on the proviso that she didn’t actually have to watch it.)

Its depiction of useless, self-interested politicians and violent, knife-wielding youth gangs are only two of the ways in which A Clockwork Orange feels as relevant today as it doubtless did nearly fifty years ago. But then this is a film about the biggest and most important of ideas: how we want to live as a society, and treat one another; just what is involved in being a good citizen; what is the essential nature of a human being? And it manages to do so with unforgettable visual style and a memorable musical score. At this point in his career, Kubrick made making masterpieces look very easy indeed.

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I still remember the moment, about fifteen years ago, when I realised that – for the first time ever – I had seen every film up for that year’s Best Picture Oscar. It’s a little trickier these days, what with the shortlist having got longer and so on, but I usually do pretty well. The ultimate goal, I suppose, would be to watch every film nominated in every category at the Oscars, but as this would involve tracking down (for example) all the nominated short films, and also of course suggest that I felt the Oscars actually have some significance or artistic value, I am inclined not to bother.

To be honest, a quick skim through this year’s list reveals there are only a handful of nominees I didn’t see, anyway. In terms of feature films, there’s really just The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which I expect I’ll watch at some point, and At Eternity’s Gate, which I’m not sure is even going to get a UK release [Authoritative as ever: it came out the week after I wrote this. Hey ho – A] . Even in the perennially-obscure (not to mention patronising and Anglo-centric) world of the Best Foreign Language film, I see that I have already checked out Roma, Shoplifters, and Cold War – just leaving Never Look Away and Capernaum as the outliers. And, as chance would have it, Capernaum is showing at the Phoenix currently, even though nobody there seems to be entirely sure how to pronounce the film’s title.

The film is directed by Nadine Labaki and is set, though it takes a while for this to become clear, in the slums of Beirut in the present day. The style is initially oblique: we see a young boy receiving a medical examination, and a group of women who are in prison. Eventually it settles down to become a court-room drama, albeit a very unusual one in a number of ways. The boy, Zain (Zain Al Rafeea), is suing his parents (Kawthar Al Haddad and Fadi Kamel Youssef) for giving birth to him. He is currently in prison for assaulting someone with a deadly weapon, and the rest of the film is a series of flashbacks detailing what led up to his crime and subsequent arrest.

We are shown various scenes from the lives of Zain and his family: his parents, who are almost irredeemably worthless and contemptible low-lives, have no qualms about using their many children to assist in all manner of squalid scams, up to and including drug-dealing. Zain puts up with it all until the decision is made to effectively sell his eleven-year-old sister as a child bride to their landlord (if nothing else it should bring about some kind of rent rebate). Furious and disgusted, Zain runs away from home.

What’s happened so far is appalling enough, but – and you can take my word on this, although Capernaum is a film which you really should try to see – it manages to get worse, and worse, and worse. Zain ends up living with Rahil (Yordanos Shiferaw), an illegal immigrant from Ethiopia who works as a cleaner, and in return for his board he looks after her toddler son Yonas (Boluwatife Treasure Bankole). But then Rahil disappears without an explanation, and Zain is forced to take on the responsibility for feeding and caring for himself and Yonas on a full-time basis…

Have you ever noticed how the foreign movies that the Academy takes a shine to are never sparkling screwball comedies or heartwarming tales of, well, I don’t know, warmed hearts? Just this year alone, the Best Picture Not in the English Language category features films about child kidnapping, the Nazi eugenics programme, infant mortality, and a suicide pact – and that’s just a quick skim of the subject matter of these films. This is before we even get started on Capernaum.

I’ve been to see some depressing films in recent years – I don’t mean films which are dispiritingly inept in their conception and execution, none of your Holmes and Watsons or Peter Rabbits, but ones which seem to actively set out to make the viewer feel a profound sense of existential misery about the world around them (this kind of film is arguably surplus to requirements at the moment, as glancing at the news will have essentially the same effect on any sane person). Even within this somewhat niche category, Capernaum is rather exceptional.

This is not, by any conventional metric, a horror movie, but I can recall seeing few things at the cinema as genuinely horrible as the various tribulations suffered by Zain and the other main characters in the film. This is the kind of stuff that would not have made it past the editor of the Book of Job on the grounds of it being too extreme: it is probably even more bleak than Grave of the Fireflies, a film it occasionally has points of similarity to.

The film’s title apparently translates into English as Chaos, and this seems to me to be rather apt, for it depicts a world where the most basic social and moral principles have broken down: most centrally, parents abandon any responsibility for the welbeing of their children, and the world at large shows no sign of taking any interest in them as they slip through the cracks. Any sane, decent, empathetic person will be moved to profound anger and despair by this film.

I suspect I am not doing a great job of selling the film to you: who, after all, forks out their cash and gives up a couple of hours of their life simply to be bummed out? A fair point. Well, there are a few things that keep Capernaum from being quite as miserable an experience as I’m probably making it sound. Firstly, it is simply very capably directed and photographed: Labaki (who appears in the film in a small role) has worked some kind of miracle by filming on the streets of Beirut with non-professional child actors and still producing a film which feels totally authentic. The quality of the performance of Zain al Rafeea is also exceptional – this kid is built out of solid star quality, and you can’t help but care about him and want to see what happens to him. He’s playing a child who doesn’t have a chance to be a child, and al Rafeea gives us both the tough shell and the vulnerable kid within, often at the same time. One of the big moments of the film comes when he smiles, for what seems like the first time – suddenly he looks very young and innocent again, and I promise it will break your heart.

The film’s other miracle is that it is a movie about suffering children that manages never once to feel sentimental in any way: profoundly emotionally moving, yes, but there are no cheap tricks involved. It works for every second of its running time to earn the responses it gets. I find that I cannot praise this film enough, although I must confess I’m in no hurry to watch it again. If nothing else, it takes things which are profoundly ugly and from them produces something of almost transcendent beauty – and if that’s not genuine art, I don’t know what is.

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Once more unto the Ultimate Picture Palace (if this keeps up I shall have to consider buying yet another cinema membership card), where they are currently showing a season of classic westerns (and why not). To be honest with you, the collection of films on offer is a bit of a mixed bag – they have The Searchers, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Wild Bunch, which obviously all qualify, but also Rio Bravo – I mean, it’s okay, but I prefer the John Carpenter semi-remake – and The Last Movie, which in addition to being fairly obscure also features in a book entitled The Fifty Worst Films of All Time. Also on the list is George Roy Hill’s 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – now, this I would say was an indisputably classic movie, one of my personal favourites, but a classic western?

On paper it looks like a fairly standard example of the genre. The film is set, we are invited to infer, in the very last years of the 19th century, with the charming and ingenious Butch (Paul Newman) and the taciturn but deadly Kid (Robert Redford) well-established as outlaw robbers of banks and trains, and happily ensconced in a not-quite-love-triangle with schoolteacher Etta Place (Katharine Ross). They are local celebrities, sort of, generally trying to avoid hurting people in the pursuit of their activities. The sun shines, the scenery is beautiful; Butch and Sundance barely seem to have a care in the world.

But the wheels of progress crush everyone, and what the duo fail to fully appreciate until too late is that their world is vanishing. They are virtually the last of their kind, and one irate businessman determines to complete the eradication of the old-west outlaw by hiring a crack posse of expert hunters and killers to chase them down and finish their careers permanently. It’s a nasty shock for the carefree duo, who only manage to escape through a desperate gamble and sheer good fortune. Butch and Sundance resolve to take the heat off by travelling down to Bolivia, where there are still opportunities for the old-fashioned banditry they love, and better days return – but only for a while…

Well, it’s always a pleasure to see a film like this back on the big screen, especially given the thick-headed TV edit currently in circulation. It’s actually a little discombobulating to realise that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, for it feels as fresh and engaging as it ever did (I guess it must: the UPP is also currently showing The Old Man and the Gun, in which a rather more grizzled Redford bids his adieu to the screen playing a role not a million miles away from the Sundance Kid). I first saw this film at a very early age and have lost count of the number of times I’ve seen it since; my appreciation for it has done nothing but grow, and it is on the list of those films which seem to me to be virtually perfect.

But is it strictly speaking a classic western? It might sound like an absurd question. I suppose it boils down to how you define the western as a genre – if you consider it to be any film predominantly set on the American frontier in the nineteenth century, then naturally it qualifies. Some people would be more rigorous and suggest that a classic western must deal with themes of honour, loyalty, individualism, perhaps even rugged masculinity. These are the same people inclined to dismiss Sergio Leone’s films as superficial nihilism, for all their critical and commercial success.

Certainly you could argue that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid often feels much more like a comedy-drama buddy movie, as the title duo banter and squabble their way through the movie; part of its charm is that it is genuinely and consistently funny throughout. The soundtrack, provided by Burt Bacharach, is also hardly the stuff of a classic cowboy movie. Real purists might also take issue with the fact that the closing stretch of the film is set in South America, and the film did apparently struggle to get financed for a while as studio bosses objected to the fact that the heroes essentially spend much of the movie running away (‘John Wayne don’t run away,’ was the comment of one executive).

I think this is to miss the point of the film, which is essentially about the classic cowboy in retreat. It is, obviously, a deeply nostalgic film – there’s probably an interesting discussion to be had about the place of nostalgia within the western genre – fully aware of a world slipping away. The appearance of modern bank vaults and bicycles in the old west are just signs that things are changing on a deeper level, and there is no place for outlaws any more. The film is about the death of this romantic world, and due to the sheer charisma of Redford and Newman, you feel its loss keenly no matter how irrational this is.

One of the most impressive things about William Goldman’s script is the way in which the tone of the film gradually but imperceptibly grows darker as it progresses – Butch and Sundance are never short of a wisecrack or put-down, even in the midst of their final encounter with the Bolivian army, but their exploits become progressively grittier and more violent as the film approaches its end. As bandits, they are presented as committing almost victimless crimes – it is their attempt at going straight that leads to them becoming killers. You could probably view the whole movie as a metaphor for the western genre’s loss of innocence – it opens with footage from a silent movie from the genre, and grows progressively darker and more ‘realistic’, as I’ve mentioned. The bodies of the Bolivian bandits killed by the duo tumble in slow motion very much like something from a Sam Peckinpah film, which the film in some ways begins to resemble. Is it stretching a point to suggest that, by killing off the lead characters at the end, this film is an example of the western anticipating its own imminent demise, in its traditional form at least?

We should also perhaps remember that this film came out in 1969, and there are surely echoes of the sunlit days of the summer of love in the film’s lighter moments. Butch and Sundance are obviously anti-establishment figures, not actively seeking to harm anyone, just to carry on the relatively carefree existence they enjoy – they are rogues rather than villains. Perhaps by the very end of the 60s it was already becoming apparent that the dreams of the counter-culture were part of a world as doomed to pass as that of the two outlaws, and this is why young audiences responded so strongly to the bittersweet mood of the film and the poignancy of its conclusion: we are spared the gory details, left with an image of our heroes frozen in a sepia-toned past, drifting off into the distance. This film is a joy, while never forgetting that all things must pass – but so far, at least, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid itself seems to be timeless.

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I know there’s a sense in which this is comparing apples and oranges, but it is interesting to compare the audience size at the screening I attended of Mortal Engines (when the auditorium was mostly empty on the Friday night of its opening weekend) with that of the lunchtime screening of Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Free Solo I went to, which practically sold out a rather bigger venue.

Free Solo is a documentary, made under the auspices of National Geographic, and would therefore usually qualify as counter-programming, showing as it is in a small semi-independent cinema. Yet it manages to be funny, thrilling, thought-provoking and chilling in a way which few films of any stripe manage; no wonder the word of mouth on it is so good.

The subject of the film is Alex Honnold, a reasonably personable young man who has risen (literally) to a sort of celebrity status in the world of climbing. Alex’s speciality, as the title of the film suggests, is a style of ascent known as a free solo, where the climber is alone and unencumbered by all those tedious ropes, harnesses, and other pieces of safety equipment – it’s just hands, feet, and a bag of chalk against the mountain. The major hook of the documentary is that it promises to depict Alex’s attempt to become the first person to free solo a cliff face in Yosemite National Park known as El Capitan – a feat only previously attempted on film by William Shatner at the start of Star Trek V.

What makes this so exceptional is that El Capitan is basically 3200 feet of sheer, almost completely vertical rock. The idea of going up it without a safety rope may sound alarming to you or I, but hardened professional climbers, who fully understand the nature of the challenge, are left pale and shaken by the prospect. The film doesn’t attempt to minimise the dangers involved, observing that most of the world’s great free solo climbers are no longer with us, having met with abrupt vertical demises. Free soloing El Capitan, someone suggests, is an athletic feat of the sort which would normally win someone an Olympic gold medal – with the important addendum that in this case, if you take part in the event but don’t perform perfectly, the result is certain death.

Cracking stuff for a documentary, I think you will agree, and yet what makes Free Solo so utterly engrossing isn’t just the climb itself as its portrait of Alex Honnold and its attempt to discover just what in the world makes someone like him tick. For Alex it seems relatively simple: climbing high objects is what gives his life its greatest moments of pleasure. But it seems like more than that, and wondering if there might be something genuinely different about him, the film-makers send him off for a brain scan. It turns out the amygdala of his brain (basically, the fear centre) is less-than-normally responsive to external stimuli, meaning he just doesn’t get scared in the same way a normal person does.

More telling insights come from the film’s portrait of Alex’s relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, a life coach by profession (according to her website she helps people ‘stop making fear-based decisions’, which doesn’t strike me as a problem for Alex), and a young woman with seemingly almost superhuman reserves of restraint and forbearance – early on Alex says quite matter-of-factly that he would always choose climbing over a relationship, and makes it quite clear that any commitment he may make to a relationship will not make him feel obliged to do fewer insanely dangerous things. This intense level of focus (is monomania too strong a word?) and Alex’s lack of social intelligence makes the relationship challenging – there’s a charming and illuminating sequence where the couple go out to buy a fridge together, while when asked what it’s like to have Sanni visiting him in his van (despite being appreciably wealthy, Alex has lived out of a van for the last decade), he seems initially nonplussed, before offering that ‘she’s cute and small and she livens up the place’. A certain set of flags was already waving for me before the moment when Alex’s mother casually suggests that his late father had Asperger’s syndrome. No-one raises the possibility that Alex may have inherited more from his father than just his complexion, but it’s impossible not to at least consider drawing certain conclusions.

Some of Free Solo is a conventional documentary film, but much of it is not – the climbing sequences are captured by a mixture of drone cameras and cameras operated by professional climbers. This is a technical achievement in and of itself, but more interesting are the film-makers’ own concerns – they have been cautious about doing a film about free soloing in the past, and Chin himself appears on camera to express his worries that it may be the presence of a camera that causes Alex’s concentration to slip, with fatal consequences.

Preparations for the climb are lengthy and do not go smoothly – Alex falls and badly sprains an ankle (the next day he is tackling the climbing wall of a local gym while wearing an orthopaedic boot), and an initial attempt at El Capitan is called off on the grounds that he’s ‘just not feeling it today’. This comes almost as a relief to one of the crew, who suggests that it’s like learning that ‘Spock has nerves after all’ (those Star Trek connections just keep coming).

In the end, though, it’s all systems go for a final assault which Alex seems to thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end, even though some of the cameramen can hardly bear to watch. (Is it a spoiler to reveal that Alex Hannold does not plummet to a gory death at the climax of his own movie? I think you could probably have guessed as much.) I can sort of empathise as there are many, many moments and images in this film to churn the stomach and weaken the knees: the camera may be focused on Alex as he makes his way up the rock face, but your eyes are irresistibly drawn to the immensity of the drop beneath him. (There are also some lighter moments, such as a bizarre encounter with someone camped out on the cliff face in a unicorn costume.) It drives home the fact that the climactic ascent is as close to a superhuman achievement as any I can think of.

Yet the film works as well as it does because it never loses sight of Alex as a human being, albeit one who is wired up a bit differently to most people. He is someone lucky enough to have found that one thing which makes him utterly and perfectly happy – it’s just that this happens to be an insanely dangerous pursuit that kills most people who take it up. Should we envy him, pity him, or just see about getting him therapy? The film stays silent on the questions it raises, content to be a fascinating portrait of Alex and his life. Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan has been called one of the greatest achievements of human athleticism, and Free Solo does both him and it full justice. One of the best films of the year.

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There are some films which are timely, other films which are timeless; very few are consistently both. Like any other sane person, I was quite content for Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie Dr Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb to remain the latter, but – the world being what it is – some great cycle seems to be on the verge of completion and one watches it now with a queasy sense of recognition; the realisation that some things, perhaps, never really go away.

The movie starts innocuously enough, with RAF officer Lionel Mandrake (Peter Sellers), on secondment to Burpelson Air Force base, receiving some slightly eccentric orders from his commanding officer General Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden). It seems that Ripper has taken the concept of personal initiative a little too far and ordered the B-52s of the 843rd Bomb Wing to launch an unprovoked and unauthorised nuclear attack on the USSR.

Flying one of the planes is Major ‘King’ Kong (Slim Pickens), who is slightly surprised to be sent into action but determined to do his duty. (For latter-day audiences the scenes on the bomber are further distinguished by the fact that Kong’s crew includes the future voices of Scott Tracy of International Rescue and a Dark Lord of the Sith.) The bomber sets course for its target, with all appropriate counter-measures activated.

Needless to say, this is all the cause of some consternation in the Pentagon’s war room, where President Merkin Muffley (Sellers again) struggles to make sense of what is going on, trying to keep the Soviets from doing something intemperate in response, and attempting to keep his more excitably belligerent generals under control. As Ripper has predicted, the hawkish faction led by General Buck Turgidson (George C Scott) has worked out that the only way to avoid the devastation of America by a Soviet counter-attack is to support Ripper’s planes with a full-scale offensive.

Muffley isn’t having any of that, and attempts to keep things reasonable, while sending troops into Burpelson to capture Ripper and extract the code signal required to recall the B-52s. But matters are complicated by the revelation by the Soviet ambassador (Peter Bull) that the Russians have recently completed a ‘doomsday machine’ intended to obliterate all life on the surface of Earth should their country come under nuclear attack. Looking on the bright side throughout all of this is the President’s science advisor Dr Strangelove (Sellers yet again), who has his own ideas about how people might spend their time in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust…

We throw the word genius around with great abandon these days, but there is certainly a case to be made that Dr Strangelove is a demonstration of what can happen when two mighty talents collaborate in near-perfect harmony. Dr Strangelove is the blackest of black comedies, obviously, but as such it is fuelled by the contrast between the absurdity of its characters and the deadpan, near-documentary naturalism of the situations which it depicts. Much is always written about truly great movies such as this; it is quite well-known that Kubrick set out to make a ‘straight’ drama based on Peter George’s novel Red Alert, but found the scenario lent itself all too easily to dark comedy. (A sense of what the ‘straight’ version of Strangelove might have been like can be gained from the movie Fail-Safe, which tells a very similar story without humour, and came out a few months after Kubrick’s film – partly because Kubrick hit the rival production with an injunction in order to ensure his movie came out first.) I suppose we must be grateful to Columbia Pictures for taking a risk on what must have seemed like a very questionable proposition – the American President, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, and the presence in the US administration of former Nazis were not commonly the stuff of satire in the early 1960s.

Then again, it was apparently Columbia who specified that Kubrick cast Sellers in the movie, and in multiple roles, too. Reports suggest that Sellers was originally intended to play Kong as well, and possibly Turgidson too: whatever you think of this idea (and personally I find it hard to imagine anyone other than Pickens and Scott in those roles), we are certainly left with three brilliant comic creations – Mandrake, the out-of-his-depth RAF officer still talking about ‘prangs’ and fondly recalling his Spitfire; Muffley, the beautifully underplayed politician; and Strangelove himself – initially very much a background figure, until he develops into an extraordinary grotesque in the final moments of the film – other cast members can be seen visibly trying to suppress their own laughter as the doctor contends with his own body’s rebellious, fascist inclinations.

Sellers is assisted by a superb, brilliantly quotable script, stuffed with great lines – ‘You can’t fight in here! This is the war room!’, ‘You’re gonna have to answer to the Coca Cola company’, ‘A feller could have a pretty good weekend in Vegas with all that stuff,’ ‘One of our base commanders… he went and did a silly thing,’ and so on. Then there are the visual gags – American soldiers slaughtering each other in front of a sign saying PEACE IS OUR PROFESSION, and the surreal image of Kong, whooping and hollering as tumbles to his fate, nuclear warhead gripped between his thighs.

It’s one more piece of phallic symbolism in a film which functions, in a rather odd way, if not quite as a sex comedy then certainly a film about libidos running amok. It opens, after all, with a rather suggestive scene of planes refuelling in flight, set to the strains of ‘Try a little tenderness,’ General Ripper is obsessed with the purity of his bodily fluids (it is fairly clear which in particular concerns him), and even the Russians are impressed by Strangelove’s plan to survive the aftermath of armageddon through the creation of, basically, subterranean sex farms (‘You have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor’). There is, of course, only one woman in the cast, Turgidson’s secretary and mistress, played by Tracy Reed. Most of the rest of it is populated by unhinged alpha males.

‘I couldn’t help thinking about Donald Trump,’ said the woman next to me as Dr Strangelove concluded its latest revival screening (part of a run of most of Kubrick’s work from the 60s and 70s). I could really see her point. We are, as I type, hours away from a summit about the control of nuclear weapons, taking place between two men who at times seem more grotesque than any of the comic monsters in Kubrick’s film. And yet here we are again, over fifty years later, still miraculously un-nuked but with that possibility still very much on the table. almost feels like a timely movie again; I suppose there is some consolation in the fact that it is also such a timeless classic.

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I’m all for people getting a bit evangelical and sharing the things that they love, but even I have to admit there’s usually a time and a place. In recent years I have been regularly amused and bemused by the good folk at the Horror Channel’s attempts to bring Roger Corman’s 1964 version of The Masque of the Red Death to a new audience, mainly by screening it in wildly inappropriate time-slots: 11am during the school holidays, for instance, or eight o’clock on a Sunday morning. Prefacing the movie with the announcement that ‘this film contains scenes which may be unsuitable for younger children’ hardly gets them off the hook; there would be nothing more certain to make me settle down in front of the screen as a younger child than hearing such a disclaimer. (Though it is of course not just this film that gets eccentrically scheduled: The Devil Rides Out has turned up as the Monday matinee in the past, while Quatermass and the Pit was on in the Sunday teatime slot just the other week.)

I suppose you could argue that it’s the ideas, not the visuals, of The Masque of the Red Death that make it the film that it is, and that your average nine-year-old isn’t going to pay much attention to those – I first saw this film as a teenager, and while I was blown away by some of the more fantastical imagery, the film’s musings on good and evil and the fate of the world sort of went over my head. Even then, though, it clearly seemed to me to be by far the best of the Corman-Price cycle of Edgar Allen Poe adaptations, which it comes near the end of.

The film is set in late-mediaeval Italy, with the land ravaged by plague. Local despot Prince Prospero (Vincent Price, obviously), making one of his usual trips to terrorise the peasantry, is horrified to see that the dreaded red death has begun to spread amongst the villagers of his domain, and resolves to retire within his castle walls until the disease has run its course. Mainly to pass the time, he takes with him pious young peasant girl Francesca (an 18-year-old Jane Asher, in her pre-cakes Macca’s-girlfriend period); the prospect of destroying her faith in God amuses him (also he plans on having her boyfriend and father fight to the death for the entertainment of his cronies).

Prospero, as you may have been able to gather, is a toweringly nasty piece of work, but in his own way he is equally devout in his beliefs: it’s just that he is a devil-worshipper who believes that God is dead and Satan holds dominion over the world. Cruelty and viciousness are practically religious duties for Prospero, and he has done his best to encourage others in the faith – particularly his lover Juliana (Hazel Court), who is not best pleased when Prospero brings another woman home with him.

Well, Prospero sets about educating Francesca in what he sees as the deeper truths of existence, while at the same time planning for a grand masquerade ball to be held in the castle. Meanwhile, Francesca’s presence has made Juliana contemplate making a deeper commitment to Satanism, while another subplot concerns a dwarf acrobat planning a cunning revenge on another nobleman who has been cruel to his lover. Also occasionally glimpsed is a figure robed and cowled and cowled in crimson, who speaks somewhat cryptically of deliverance and fate. Could it be that Prospero’s dark master will be putting in an appearance at the masque? Or has he inadvertantly summoned up something even worse?

This movie was made in the UK, largely using home-grown talent (as well as Asher, stalwart character performers like Nigel Green, Robert Brown and Patrick Magee appear, with an uncredited John Westbrook doing really excellent work in the title role), which results in a well-played and very good-looking film, even if the slightly garish depiction of mediaeval life is a bit cod-Hollywood (the cinematography was the work of a fairly young Nicolas Roeg).

Historical realism is not really on the agenda, anyway, as this is a much more thoughtful, impressionistic kind of horror film. The slightly facile way to describe Masque of the Red Death is that it looks like the result of a torrid get-together between Ingmar Bergman and the people at Hammer Films (Corman repeatedly delayed production, as he was aware people would assume he was ripping off The Seventh Seal), but the truth is that this film is the product of a slightly different sensibility than the one at Hammer: Hammer were making classy costume dramas which they sold to a youthful audience by the inclusion of elements of gore and fantasy, but Corman mostly eschews fake blood and easy shocks.

Instead, the success of the film comes from a consistently-maintained atmosphere of moral and intellectual decadence, and a strong sense of impending doom as the red death draws closer and closer. Prospero isn’t just evil: he’s clearly having a whale of a time being evil, and it’s this which is as disturbing as anything which happens in the film (and some fairly serious stuff goes down, especially considering this movie was made in 1964).

Much of the work on the script was done by Charles Beaumont, although the illness that would eventually kill him meant he was unable to complete the project. Beaumont is probably best-known for his work as one of the three main writers on the original version of The Twilight Zone, and there’s a very real sense in which Masque of the Red Death almost feels like an extended episode of that series, made in lavish colour. Personifications of abstract ideas stalk the land, characters engage in lengthy discussions about good and evil, there is a killer twist ending. And the dialogue has an extraordinarily poetic quality to it – ‘I want to help save your soul, so you can join me in the glories of hell,’ Prospero tells Francesca, while Juliana later declares ‘I have tasted the beauties of terror.’

It may look a little iffy written down, but delivered by these actors it really sings, and no-one gives a more operatic performance than Vincent Price. No-one, I would say, could have been better suited to this depiction of playful, apparently civilised evil; and Price is a good enough technician to leave the tiniest cracks through which the remains of Prospero’s humanity can be glimpsed – he seems genuinely moved and unsettled by Francesca’s faith, and the film’s big pay-off comes in his great moment of pride and hubris, when he comes to realise there may be limits to his wisdom and understanding after all.

Most of the Corman-Price-Poe films are competent entertainments or amusing diversions, but this one takes the series to a higher level, filled with memorable imagery and striking ideas. In the first rank of Vincent Price’s horror film career, the fact is that I’ve never seen another film quite like this one: if The Masque of the Red Death doesn’t qualify as a classic horror movie, I don’t know what does.

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