Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘comedy’

The other day I was a little surprised to discover I still had a checklist in my head of all those movies which the onset of lockdown back in March 2020 stopped me from seeing in a timely manner. Possibly the outstanding item on said list is a movie called Military Wives, which may sound like a niche magazine but is actually one of those uplifting true-life comedy dramas which almost invariably make me feel like opening a vein whenever I watch one. I got as far as watching the first half hour of that at the cinema before the building’s electrics blew and we were all sent home with the promise of a free ticket to a future showing. Five days later the cinemas all closed, and I’ve never heard anything about this movie since (I wasn’t actually enjoying it much so I’m not that bothered about seeing the rest of it).

Perhaps even more unlucky was Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, which had already suffered one delay to its release and came out just in time to play for less than a week. But at least The Hunt has resurfaced on one of the big streamers, where it doesn’t seem to have made a particular impression. Perhaps that’s because this is a movie which was the product of a very particular moment in American culture, which has now to some degree passed, or possibly it’s simply because it’s a rather odd film.

It opens with the audience being made privy to a chat exchange between a group of liberal friends, complaining about the latest outrages committed by (we are invited to assume) Donald Trump. (As we have noted, the film was due to come out in early 2020.) The friends console themselves by discussing an upcoming social occasion, when they will gather at the mansion home of one of them and then hunt and kill a dozen or so ‘deplorables’ – this being a rather loaded expression, derived from a disparaging comment about Republican voters made by Hillary Clinton.

A sequence set on the flight to the hunting grounds then follows, which mainly seems to be here for shock value and to pad out the film to a decent ninety-minute length: the first class passengers gang up to kill someone from cattle class who recovers from the sedative they’ve been given unexpectedly early. And from here we’re off into the hunt itself.

A dozen people wake up on the edge of woodland, close to a large wooden crate; they are all gagged. Inside the crate they find weapons of various kinds, before coming under fire from a hide nearby – several of them are gorily killed before the survivors flee into the woods, contending with booby traps (spike pits, land mines) along the way.

That’s basically all you need to know about the premise of the movie; there isn’t a great deal more to be said about it, to be honest, without getting into the realm of spoilers. There’s a weird diversion where it looks like a replica of rural Arkansas has been constructed in Bosnia to confuse the quarry in the hunt, but this once again feels a bit like diversionary filler – there’s a distinct smell around this film of it being a case of a strong premise that they really had trouble blowing up to feature length.

The idea of people hunting people isn’t an especially new one, after all – readers with serious psychiatric issues may recall that, after The Hunt had its theatrical run cancelled, I consoled myself by watching The Most Dangerous Game, another movie with a similar premise from the early 1930s. It crops up in various genre TV episodes as well – see The Snare, an episode of the Hulk TV show from the seventies. But one also gets the sense that this was conceived as a piece of satire as much as a thriller or a horror movie (it’s certainly gory enough to qualify as the latter).

Exactly which genre The Hunt falls into is a somewhat contentious issue, which has even earned its own Wikipedia footnote. I originally heard it advertised as a horror movie (not surprisingly, given it was produced by Blumhouse, the makers of the Paranormal Activity, Purge and Insidious franchises, as well as the (rather good) recent Halloween films). However, if you slap together any combination of the words horror, action, thriller, satire, and comedy, it is practically certain that someone will have described the film this way.

And the odd thing is that they all do describe the film: there’s more than enough gore for it to qualify as a horror, parts of it are very funny, and there’s at least one really well-staged action sequence. The problem is that, rather than blending all of these things into a single, coherent whole, The Hunt has a rather frenetic quality, hopping from sequence to sequence and topic to topic as if it’s afraid that if it lingers on any of them the audience will realise it’s actually a fairly insubstantial film. The irony is that if anything’s likely to create this impression it’s the fact the movie can’t keep still.

Wrong-footing the audience is often a good idea, and the film does have a go at this, being deliberately misleading about what exactly’s going on. It also attempts to do the old Psycho routine of introducing a character as, ostensibly, the lead, and then spectacularly killing them off relatively early in the film. This can work quite well – but The Hunt does the idea to death, repeatedly seeming to establish a protagonist only for them to meet a grisly fate a few minutes later. It gets a little bit wearisome, to be honest.

The scattershot approach of the film does occasionally pay off: there are some very funny moments, most of them satirical – the liberal elitists responsible for the carnage often pause in planning their mass slaughter to pick each other up for things like cultural appropriation and inappropriately gendered language. These scenes are so knowingly absurd that only an idiot could genuinely find The Hunt to be a provocative and dangerous incitement to division – it’s an exaggerated parody of the splits already existing in modern America.

Needless to say, Donald Trump weighed in and suggested an upcoming film was intended to ‘inflame and cause chaos’ (possibly that very stable genius was concerned about demarcation issues). To be honest, The Hunt is very small potatoes on that particular score, but the central idea – liberals hunting conservatives – was always going to be a bit controversial. The script does attempt to subvert audience expectations, by turning out to have as its main target the tendency of some people to believe anything they read on the internet, and the inflexible and nuance-free nature of so much modern political discourse. But this turns up rather late in the day, and feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Nevertheless, I did rather enjoy it: there are solid performances from what’s largely an ensemble cast (Hilary Swank, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts and Justin Hartley all get their moments of prominence) and the piece does have pace, energy, and a degree of wit about it. I’m not sure it hangs together as a coherent political thesis but there are certainly some very nice moments along the way.

Read Full Post »

1. A Tour Bus, en route to Cornwall, 2011. Possibly a Thursday.

JIM (James Purefoy) and his fellow singing Cornish fishermen are heading home at the end of a gruelling tour.

JIM: ‘Morning lads. Here we all are again. Seeing as how the last film did so well, they’ve got us all back again to do a follow-up.’

LEADVILLE TREBILCOCK (Dave Johns): ‘What, all of us, Jim?’

JIM: ‘Well, not quite all of us, Leadville (your name is completely ridiculous, by the way), as some of the younger actors from last time round either didn’t want to come back or wanted too much money. So their characters have gone off to Australia for a holiday which will conveniently last for the entire movie.’

FISHERMEN: ‘Arrr.’

JIM’S GHOSTLY DAD: ‘However, I will be appearing in this film, despite my death being a major plot point in the last one. I am proud to say I was both willing and cheap.’

JIM: ‘I’m quite sad about my dead dad, which could well turn out to be a plot point.’

LEADVILLE: ‘I have just outraged a metropolitan female journalist with my rough-hewn but authentic Cornish humour, which may also have some story potential. Let’s see how it turns out.’

SINGING CORNISH FISHERMEN: ‘We’ve made this film with care and skill, though there is a possibility / That you’ll notice problems that we had with cast availability.’

 

2. Record Company Offices, London, which is depicted as just as horrible as in the first one, though I bet the producers still love living there.

The president and various other executives sit around smugly.

PRESIDENT (Ferdy from This Life back in the 90s, but he seems to be turning into Alan Partridge): ‘Well, here we all are, doing our best to represent the metropolitan shallowness and insincerity which is the opposite of what those singing fishermen embody, just like last time.’

RECORD EXECUTIVE: ‘Weren’t you Noel Clarke last time around?’

There is a lengthy and awkward silence.

PRESIDENT: ‘Anyway. This film needs some conflict so I am going to decide that the singing fishermen are a bit of a liability due to their rough-around-the-edges authenticity.’

RECORD EXECUTIVE: ‘Won’t that just turn us into ridiculous stereotypes of mirthless politically correct killjoys out of touch with so-called normal people?’

PRESIDENT: ‘Yes, but it’s in the script.’

 

3. A house in Cornwall.

LEADVILLE: ‘Well, I’ve just been to the toilet during a conference call with hilarious results, not the least of which is that we’ve all had to do media training with an absurd straw-man caricature of a soulless feminist.’

JIM: ‘You’ve got a funny idea of what’s hilarious, Leadville. Thank God, however, the film seems to have abandoned the idea of being some kind of culture-war vehicle for an assault on political correctness and wokedom and whatever else the right-wing media will like to keep banging on about in the distant year of 2022.’

LEADVILLE: ‘So what is it going to be about this time?’

JIM: ‘Well, I’ve got a mysterious Irishwoman staying in my B&B who clearly has a bit of a past.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘I’ve been slung out by my partner over a misunderstanding about something that happened on the tour.’

LEADVILLE: ‘We need to find a replacement for your dead dad in the band, and it looks likely to be a Welsh farmer who you will hate for political reasons the script will avoid going into.’

JIM: ‘I’m still clearly grieving for my dead dad and drinking too much because of it.’

LEADVILLE: ‘It’s a bit all over the place this time around, isn’t it? It almost makes you wish for a trite and hackneyed tale of a metropolitan visitor discovering about The Important Things in Life.’

JIM: ‘What did you say? There’s a lot of stuff in this film I’m struggling to find rhymes for.’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘A film without much focus / Will now occur before your eyes. / With Cornish farmers getting stick / Because their trade is subsidised.’

JIM: ‘Also Welsh farmers who happen to live in Cornwall, of course.’

 

4. Another house in Cornwall.

JIM is talking to AUBREY (Imelda May), the mysterious Irishwoman.

JIM: ‘… and so now the film has turned out to be about me having a sort of personal crisis, hitting the bottle, falling out with the band, and neglecting my grand-daughter. If only there was someone around here who could teach me about the pitfalls of fame.’

AUBREY: ‘Well, as it happens, I am actually a reclusive ex-rock star who has been there and done that and has lots of quiet wisdom to share. Also, while I am still young enough to be attractive, I am old enough for the two of us to get it on and it not to seem icky or inappropriate.’

JIM: ‘Oh. Shall we get it on, then?’

AUBREY: ‘May as well.’

SINGING FISHERMEN (over scenic shots of Cornish coastline): ‘Now with her help our good friend Jim will climb back on the wagon / Just as soon as the pair of them are finished with their sha… ring of their emotional baggage.’

 

5. Yet another house in Cornwall.

JIM’S MUM (Maggie Steed): ‘All this emotional growth and late-life romance is all very well but it’s not helping us find a climax for the movie.’

LEADVILLE: ‘I think there was an implied climax in the last scene.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘Well, the band’s been dropped by the label due to Jim’s wild behaviour, will that help?’

JIM’S MUM: ‘Perhaps, if it turns out we can only persuade them to re-sign us by finding a way to play at Glastonbury.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘And maybe you and Jim’s grand-daughter can have a moment of personal jeopardy which brings everyone together and reminds Jim of what The Important Things in Life are.’

JIM’S MUM: ‘I’m game.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘And how about a trip down to London to sing for the record company executives on an almost wholly spurious pretext?’

LEADVILLE: ‘Sounds like pretty desperate padding to me, but if it’s all we’ve got…’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘We’ve got a pretty dodgy script / It’s hardly writ’ by Schiller / There really would be nothing left / If you took out all the filler.’

 

6. Glastonbury festival 2011, though nobody famous is ever visible.

JIM: ‘Well, here we are at the end of the film at last, about to perform at Glastonbury.’

LEADVILLE: ‘How come the film implies we’re performing in the afternoon, when actually we were the first band on in the morning?’

JIM: ‘Oh, I’ve given up worrying about this script, I get the impression the writers did too.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘So what moral premise and lesson has this film been attempting to impart? Something about the importance of authenticity and old-fashioned values in an over-sophisticated and over-sensitive world dominated by snowflakes?’

JIM: ‘No, thank God, though it seemed like a near thing for a bit.’

WELSH FARMER: ‘Something about the plight of the Cornish economy, particularly the fishing industry?

JIM: ‘Bit too political.’

YOUNG FISHERMAN: ‘Well, how about that you felt really sad when your dad died and struggled to cope, but thanks to your friends and family you eventually got through it?’

JIM: ‘I suppose that’ll have to do.’

LEADVILLE: ‘Pretty slim basis for a movie, though.’

ALL PRESENT: ‘Arrr.’

SINGING FISHERMEN: ‘The last film did extremely well, so they’ve gone and made a sequel / Here’s the main thing we have to tell: the quality is faecal!’

Fisherman’s Friends – One and All (dir. Nick Moorcroft and Meg Leonard) is, at the time of writing, still taking up perfectly good screens in cinemas all over the UK. Don’t go near it, you’ll only encourage them.

Read Full Post »

Sherlock Holmes purists are inevitably on a bit of a sticky wicket when it comes to movie adaptations of their hero’s exploits – the very first such movie, Sherlock Holmes Baffled from 1900, is a 35-second gimmick film, and you could argue that many more recent outings for the character (the Guy Ritchie films, for instance) were pretty gimmicky too. As well as Robert Downey Jr.’s Kung-Fu Sherlock, recent years have seen Old Sherlock (Ian McKellen in Mr Holmes), Anime Sherlock (The Empire of Corpses), Worthless Rubbish Sherlock (Will Ferrell in Holmes & Watson), and Garden Ornament Sherlock (Sherlock Gnomes).

When you look at it that way, the 1980s were actually a fairly strait-laced time for adaptations featuring the character – the original copyright still being in effect may have been a factor. There was, of course, the very impressive TV series with Jeremy Brett, and also Peter Cushing’s final outing as the character in The Masks of Death. Pushing the envelope a bit, on the other hand, were Rodent Sherlock (Basil the Great Mouse Detective) and Young Sherlock (er, Young Sherlock Holmes – a film which I’m actually really fond of). Mixed in with all of these, and perhaps most unlikely of all, is Stupid Sherlock, in Thom Eberhardt’s Without a Clue.

A brief glance at this film’s particulars indicates something a bit odd on the cards before we even get to the plot: it’s an ITC production, one of the very last of a line that included such schlocky fun as The Eagle Has Landed, The Medusa Touch, Saturn 3, Capricorn One, The Boys From Brazil and Hawk the Slayer, but directed by Eberhardt, whose highest-profile movie prior to this was the cult sci-fi semi-spoof Night of the Comet (aka Teenage Comet Zombies). The omens are curious and not entirely promising.

The movie opens with an attempted break-in at one of London’s foremost museums, but the robbery is foiled and the culprits apprehended after the intervention of Sherlock Holmes (Michael Caine) and his faithful assistant Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley). Holmes proudly declares the case closed, but when Scotland Yard and the press have all gone, Watson berates him furiously: ‘A case isn’t closed until I say it’s closed!’

The conceit of the film is this: Dr Watson is actually a brilliant detective, who for reasons of professional propriety found himself obliged to credit his successes to a fictional character, Sherlock Holmes. The public clamour to learn more about Holmes forced Watson to hire an actor to embody his creation – his eventual choice being one Reginald Kincaid, a lecherous, boozy, and generally slightly debauched idler.

Watson finally tires of Kincaid getting all the credit for his work, and generally being disparaged as a fool by everyone around him, and sacks him as Holmes, planning on a series of new stories focussing on himself as ‘the Crime Doctor’. But the Strand magazine just wants more Holmes stories and Watson is forced to take him back, especially when representatives of the government insist that only Sherlock Holmes can help them with the problem of some stolen printing plates which will allow the thief to destroy the economy of the Empire by producing a limitless quantity of dodgy fivers…

The thing about Without A Clue is that the central joke only really works if you’re already deeply familiar with the premise of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the characters in them: the very existence of the film is a testament to the deep penetration of Conan Doyle’s work into our culture. It’s not necessarily the kind of film – almost a spoof, not to put too fine a point upon it – which you would expect to be the work of dedicated Sherlockians, but apparently the writers really knew their stuff and the original script contained many more references to the canonical stories. Only a few of these remain: the fiendish Professor Moriarty (Paul Freeman) has in his employ one John Clay, and the opening robbery likewise seems to have been inspired by The Red-Headed League. The net seems to have been cast wider than the short stories, too – one plot element shows every sign of having been swiped wholesale from Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, and an offhand line about Holmes-Kincaid catching the Loch Ness Monster sounds very much like an in-jokey reference to that film.

Nevertheless, for all that it’s an out-and-out comedy, it does seem to have come from a genuine place of love for Sherlock Holmes, which is perhaps why it’s a much more likeable film than many supposedly serious efforts which show zero sensitivity to the actual tone and texture of the original stories (see, for example, the Asylum’s 2010 Sherlock Holmes, aka Sherlock Holmes Vs Dinosaurs).

There seems to have been a very definite effort to make the film appealing to as wide an audience as possible: most of the comedy is very broad indeed, and it’s by no means above employing slapstick pratfalls and corny sight-gags if the situation allows it. But it’s not just a gag dustbin – the running gags make sense, and a lot of the jokes inform one of the film’s main themes, namely Watson’s irritation at being overshadowed by his creation (there is, perhaps, a bit of a subtext where Watson is essentially a proxy for Conan Doyle, whose irritation with the popularity of his most famous creation and attempts to kill him off are well known). At least one gag has not aged well, to the point where some members of a modern audience might find it objectionable, but on the whole this remains a consistently funny and inventive film.

Much of this is thanks to a bravura comic turn from Michael Caine as Kincaid – not, perhaps, a natural choice to play Holmes (even at a slight remove), but well capable of leading a film like this one. Ben Kingsley is saddled with the role of straight man for much of the film, but manages to get some laughs out of Watson’s exasperated eye-rolling and sighing. The rest of the playing is competent and well-pitched; Paul Freeman plays Moriarty as a villain straight out of central casting, but then many supposedly serious Holmes films are guilty of doing exactly the same thing.

There’s a relentless jolliness about Without A Clue which I could imagine some people finding a bit wearing; it also resembles the kind of cut-price bonnet-opera which many studios ended up making in the 1980s. Nevertheless it does have a weird charm and energy to it; on top of which it’s genuinely amusing and, in its own way, respectful of the source material. The result is a Sherlock Holmes film which isn’t exactly great, but certainly entertaining and rather hard to dislike.

Read Full Post »

Is it my imagination or are we still seeing a dearth of really big popcorny movies at the moment? It might make sense: given the long lead-times involved in a really big film, the blockbusters of 2022 would probably have been in the works a couple of years ago, which was of course the height of the recent unpleasantness. Perhaps it’s telling that the biggest film of the year so far, the Top Gun sequel, was originally slated for a 2019 release and was made pre-virus. In any case, the result seems to be that more oddball movies are enjoying a high profile this year.

Such as David Leitch’s Bullet Train, which kind of resembles the kind of high-concept genre movie that usually surfaces in the spring or autumn. But here we are in August – this is probably due to the presence of some proper A-list stars and a director whose last few movies have all done rather well for themselves.

As the title might lead you to expect, the film is set in Japan, and mostly takes place on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto. Enjoying the sights of the capital at the start of the movie is a bucket-hatted dude who goes by the codename of Ladybug (he is played by Brad Pitt); Ladybug is a philosophically-inclined, firearm-averse freelance security operative, recently returned after taking some time out for personal reasons. (He is guided about his business by his handler-cum-life-coach, played by a mostly unseen Sandy Bullock.) Ladybug’s new assignment is to board the titular locomotive and steal a briefcase containing a large sum of money, ideally with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed. What could be simpler?

Well, quite a few things, as it turns out: the money is the recovered ransom fee for the recently-rescued son of a terrifying international crime lord (Michael Shannon), who is on the train and being babysat by an unlikely couple of brothers who go by the nicknames Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry); one of them happened to shoot Ladybug in a non-significant manner a few years earlier. Also on the train is a grief-stricken and vengeful Mexican gang leader known as the Wolf, a notorious poisoner codenamed the Hornet, a master-manipulator going by the title of Prince, and various other assassins and mercenaries all with their own conflicting agendas.

If that seems a fairly unlikely scenario to you, then I commend you for your astuteness; it’s fair to say we are not in the realm of the reality-adjacent action movie here. Bullet Train is the kind of fantastical beat-’em-up which is at least aware of its own unlikeliness, and indeed leans into it somewhat. But then the briefest glance at the CV of David Leitch could have told you as much – he co-directed the first John Wick, and went on to do Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw, none of which are films that anyone would describe as having a stranglehold on reality.

We’re not that far into the film before the first of Pitt’s fellow passengers tries to punch his ticket in a pretty terminal way, from which point the film progresses in frenetic style. There is something rather commendable about the intricate plotting of the story, absurd though it is: this is the action movie performed as farce, with set-piece fights and shoot-outs taking the place of the usual pratfalls and sight-gags. It’s also inventive enough to keep most of the major characters alive until the third act, which is no mean feat considering that nearly everyone’s main objective is to kill someone else (or, indeed, everyone else).

There is, as you’d expect, a significant level of violence and gore as the film progresses, though nothing too extreme (although by most people’s standards I have probably become quite desensitised to this sort of thing). Some of the visual stylings are a little bit hackneyed, and there’s an element of fetishisation as far as Japanese culture is concerned (mostly in a superficial way); this is all really just to say that the film functions in a kind of para-Tarantino manner, though it is thankfully free of pretensions to being high art; there, is, however, one extremely protracted running gag based on a fairly unlikely cultural reference – on one level, there is a kind of logic to a film set on a train including an extended allusion to Thomas the Tank Engine, but, on the other hand, if the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was still alive, the shock of having his creations co-opted by a film like this would most likely kill him.

The film does come across as frantic and colourful and more than a bit silly; I did actually find myself wondering what the point of it was while I was watching it. The closest it gets to having any kind of depth or underpinning comes by way of some rather laborious ruminations on the workings of fate and destiny – Ladybug is frequently bewailing his own consistently bad luck, Prince is quite smug about being blessed in quite the opposite manner, some of the other characters pause to reflect on the sheer unlikeliness of everything that is going on (the ridiculous coincidences more than anything else), and so on. It’s a pretty thin pretext for a serious movie.

Then again you could certainly argue that Bullet Train isn’t really a serious film, it’s too far-fetched and cartoony for that. This is not to say that most of the performances aren’t well-pitched and effective; Pitt and many of the other members of the cast certainly manage to lift the material. The production values are good, and I did find myself laughing a lot of the time. But on the other hand this doesn’t feel like a film with a burning need to exist – it’s a collection of ideas from films like Kill Bill, Train to Busan, and Free Fire all jumbled together and touched up in the hope that nobody will notice it’s actually quite a derivative piece of work. I can see why Bullet Train has struggled at the box office – it’s good as what it is, but as what it wants to be, it’s just not quite good enough.

Read Full Post »

There I was, relaxing in the beer garden of a popular local hostelry with the blog’s Anglo-Iranian Affairs correspondent, one of my wisest advisors. After the usual raking over of old work-related grievances, our attention turned to an imminent cinema trip.

‘This will be the first film we’ve actually seen in Persian,’ said Anglo-Iranian Affairs.

‘Yes. Well, except for that one about two people sitting in a car, which you said didn’t have a story.’

‘Oh, yeah. That one.’

‘Funnily enough,’ I said brightly, ‘the new film we’re going to see is directed by the son of the guy who made that one.’

‘Oh. That doesn’t really inspire much confidence,’ said Anglo-Iranian Affairs, looking a bit wary.

‘Well, the trailer was funny.’

‘What was in the trailer?’

‘Er… mainly just four people sitting in a car. So it should be at least twice as good as the film his dad made.’

Strangely enough, not long after we actually went to see Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road, I came across a piece which cogently argued that the People Sitting in a Car film is a distinctly and innately Iranian cinematic genre, in the same way that the Western is quintessentially American and the Bergfilm is inherently German. It’s quite distinct from the American road movie, which to some extent is all about revelling in the expansiveness and beauty of the wide open spaces of the continental landscape. Rather than being about space, Iranian Sitting in a Car films are all about the possibilities of enclosure – mainly the possibility of being able to make a film in the first place, without the government’s cultural watchdogs knowing what you’re up to. (Any history of modern Iranian cinema would not be complete without various hair-raising accounts of people being obliged to secretly make films in their own front rooms, or smuggle the finished movies out of the country on USB sticks hidden inside cakes, and so on.)

Hit the Road begins innocuously enough, seemingly without any elements that could frighten the horses (or indeed the cultural watchdogs). A family are on a road-trip together in a borrowed car: the father (Hassan Madjooni) has broken his leg and is confined to the back seat, along with his slightly hyper eight-year-old son (Rayan Sarlak). The mother (Pantea Panahiha) is in the passenger seat, constantly fretting, which does not help the mood of their elder son (Amin Simiar), who is doing the driving.

The characters, their relationships, and indeed the situation they are in all emerge gradually and naturally as the film continues. Father seems laid-back enough, though a bit irritated (as are the others) by his precocious younger child; the elder son is quiet and withdrawn; Mother gets more and more stressed about something. She nearly panics when it looks like the car is being followed, and is furious when it turns out her youngest has defied instructions and brought a mobile phone along for the trip. Clearly, whatever the purpose of their trip is, they have reason to be nervous about it. It isn’t until relatively late into the film that the truth finally becomes clear, by which point the film’s implacable shift from comedy into poignant drama and maybe even tragedy is almost complete. At the same time, it’s easy to understand why the Iranian state censors might get a bit prickly about this particular story.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling the film – people talk very casually about spoilers these days, usually referring to particular plot points or other discrete moments. ‘Patrick Stewart has a cameo’ is an example of that sort of spoiler. The thing about a film like Hit the Road is that it is fundamentally about the gradual excavation of layers of family trauma and the relationships that have been impacted by this. The slow and oblique (and, it must be said, far from complete) revelation of what’s actually going on is essential to the conception of the film, and so to casually reveal just where the family is going and why would be to fundamentally change the experience of watching Hit the Road.

I mean, it turns out that Hit the Road is a very politically conscious film, making a powerful (if oblique) criticism of the Iranian regime, but the fact that this element is largely left for the audience to work out for themselves really gives the film much of its power: it’s also a very effective and engaging family drama – the antics of the nameless child serving to lighten what could have been a fairly heavy experience and also provide a contrast which makes the more affecting elements of the story even more powerful.

The child acting is exceptionally good, but then so is all the acting, especially from the parents. (There’s also some impressive lip-synching in the various musical numbers which unexpectedly pop up now and then in the course of the film.) Perhaps there’s some truth to the suggestion that it’s always easier to be impressed by an actor who’s completely unknown to you, but the performances here are utterly persuasive – these do seem like real people, completely plausible and rather endearing.

It does feel like a film made with one eye on an audience outside Iran – the mixture of comedy, drama, and political commentary seems intended to produce a film that will appeal beyond the usual subtitled ghetto (Anglo-Iranian Affairs commented on how many people were at the screening we attended; we ended up in the very front row as all the good seats were gone). References to films by Christopher Nolan and Stanley Kubrick are just the most overt sign that the director has been influenced by popular western cinema.

Nevertheless, this isn’t quite the case of someone making a film in a foreign idiom simply to attract attention from the global critical establishment – there’s something serious and authentic about this film which it shares with the other Iranian films I’ve seen in recent years. And it does feel like a genuine film rather than a piece of agitprop: the story is essentially about Iran today, but it’s still a story for all of that, with well-drawn characters and a definite structure. We were both rather impressed by it. It didn’t turn out to be quite the film we were expecting, but as noted, finding out what kind of film Hit the Road is is part of the pleasure of watching it. Suffice to say it is a quietly very impressive one.

Read Full Post »

One of the life lessons I came though the late unpleasantness having learned was that it really isn’t necessary to go and see films you’re likely to violently dislike just because they look intriguingly awful, or out of a strange sense of masochistic duty: hence the fact that I have spared myself from seeing Peter Rabbit 2 and you have been spared reading my howls of outrage and despair about it. And yet, just recently I found myself invited to go and see Kyle Balda and Pierre Coffin’s Minions: The Rise of Gru and accepting said invitation with nary a pause. Then again, it was my old friend (and frequent presence on the blog) Olinka doing the inviting.

I don’t think the circumstances in which I ended up seeing the first Minions in 2015 have ever properly been recounted here on the blog. The conversation ran along the lines of ‘Let’s go to the pictures!’/’What’s on?’/’Terminator 5!’/’What else is on?’/’Err… Minions? But I want to see Terminator 5.’/’I don’t want to see Terminator 5. Let’s watch Minions.’/’I don’t want to watch Minions.’/’Well, let’s compromise then.’/ (some time later) ’Two tickets for Minions, please.’ However, I did have the last laugh as my then-partner agreed with me that Minions was mostly a load of old tat. Nevertheless, it made a billion dollars, which naturally spells one thing and one thing only: sequel! But how does it score on the whole load of old tat front?

Well. This time around we find ourselves in a rather peculiar version of the middle 1970s, in a world where supervillains are apparently ubiquitous but there seem to be no actual superheroes. Pre-pubescent miscreant Gru (Steve Carell, bravely hoiking his voice into a higher register) is seeking to establish himself as potential supervillain material, although whether the fact he is the master of the minions – a vast tribe of seemingly-indestructible little yellow morons – is a help or a hindrance to this end seems to be rather in the balance.

Nevertheless, he finds himself on the interview shortlist when leading villain team the Vicious Six have an internal squabble and a vacancy opens up. They have recently taken possession of an important plot-device amulet which they can potentially use to get up to all sorts of shenanigans. However, the important plot-device amulet gets stolen and misplaced several more times, becoming an object of desire for pretty much every major character, and putting Gru and the minions on course for a confrontation with their older, larger, and much more competent rivals…

I have to report that of our quartet who attended the movie (me, my co-spousal unit, Olinka, and her progenate Danya), I was the one who laughed least, by quite some way. But it is still a relief to be able to say that this is most likely a rather better movie than the first one; I may not have laughed a great deal, but it’s diverting and rather curious in places, and the 87 minutes or so I invested in it shimmied by mostly painlessly.

Should we address the whole I-didn’t-laugh-much issue? I expect so. Well, you know, what I can say; it’s not like I sat in stony-faced silence all the way through, I just found a lot of the jokes to be quite predictable, and the kind of slapstick which the movie frequently defaults to isn’t quite my thing. To be honest, I found some of the casting decisions to be much wittier and more impudent than anything in the script: there’s a French-accented supervillain called Jean-Clawed who’s played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a roller-blading Scandi villain named Svengeance who’s voiced by Dolph Lundgren. (The film’s inventiveness when it comes to ridiculous parody supervillains is admittedly very impressive – Lucy Lawless pops up as a habit-wearing, chain-stick wielding dominatrix calling herself Nun-Chuck.)

Actually, as an animated superhero movie, comedy spoof or not, this is technically extremely well done – as well as the designs of the various characters, the chases and fights are handled with real verve and inventiveness; they are entertaining in their own right and often quite exciting.

However, for me the most striking thing about the film was the element that wasn’t pitched at a very young audience. It’s customary in many of these films to include an element of some kind that will probably go sailing over the heads of the juvenile audience but nevertheless amuse and entertain the adult audience specifically: they’re the ones who are buying the tickets, after all.

The thing about how Minions 2 handles this is that most of the cultural references and parodies that it throws in for the adults are ones that the kids hopefully won’t get anyway: it’s the mid 1970s, so of course the characters go and see Jaws on the big screen. There are also allusions to blaxploitation movies, classic James Bond films, and martial arts films (the minions adopt Bruce Lee-style yellow jumpsuits for one sequence). As well as being a frantic, silly comedy, the film works on a whole other and entirely separate level as well, which is a rather curious achievement. (I should say that in an unexpected and most likely coincidental development, it also has a few points of connection with Everything Everywhere All At Once, most obviously a character played by Michelle Yeoh.)

I was trying to figure out just what Minions: Rise of Gru reminded me of when it came to me: this is like an animated version of an Austin Powers movie, only not as funny or inventive and with all the gross-out stuff and filthy jokes edited out. Whether that sounds appealing or not probably depends on your view of the Austin Powers franchise; personally I wouldn’t say I really missed it, but the first two films certainly had some very funny moments in them.

What this particular film lacks in consistency it certainly makes up for in sheer energy and work-rate; the pace never slackens and it never shows signs of running out of ideas. Most of it still occurs in the same register of manic stupidity, but it’s generally good-hearted. Rather to my surprise, I found it rather hard to dislike. Don’t necessarily put my name down for the next instalment yet, but don’t automatically write me off either.

Read Full Post »

Counterprogramming can take some very odd shapes, and none odder than Brian and Charles (directed by Jim Archer), which has somehow managed to weave a way through a crowded field (resurrected dinosaurs, the king of rock and roll, progressive Norse gods, etc) and find its way onto a few UK screens (apparently it had some sort of US release earlier in the summer).

Moving spirit behind this project, one suspects, is co-writer and star David Earl, who I must confess I wasn’t really aware of prior to seeing the trailer for this film. Nevertheless, he has been knocking about the middle-tiers of UK comedy for a while, from the look of his Wikipedia page, often in the vicinity of Ricky Gervais. Even if you hadn’t bothered to do the research, you might well have been able to work this out for yourself, given that Brian and Charles is framed as a fly-on-the-wall mockumentary with Earl playing its awkwardly self-conscious participant.

However, rather than The Office, this is more like The Cowshed: Earl plays Brian, apparently a variation on a long-established character of his. Brian lives in a farmhouse in a remote part of Wales, where – after a personal crisis of some sort – he has decided to reinvent himself as an inventor. Not an inventor of anything that you might actually want to own, of course – amongst the products of his fertile, or possible furtive, imagination are such things as the egg belt (a belt just for carrying eggs in) and the pine cone bag (it’s a bag with pine cones glued to it). There is pathos in abundance here, and that awkward sense of uncertainty as to whether we really want to be laughing and someone as clearly fragile as Brian.

However, one day things change: Brian hits upon the idea of building a robot to help out  around the house. So he retires to his inventing workshop (in the cowshed, of course), and emerges some time later having incorporated such available ephemera as a washing machine and a mannequin head into his latest masterpiece. When Brian eventually figures out how to switch it on, the robot (played by co-writer Chris Hayward) initially proves skittish, but eventually calms down, learns to make sense of the world around it (by reading the dictionary), and takes the name of Charles Petrescu.

Brian is bright enough to realise his eccentric and rather excitable creation will cause a stir should he take it down the village, where he is already having problems with a local bully (Jamie Michie), but making Charles understand that is hardly straightforward. On the other hand, Charles does sterling work in impelling Brian towards actually doing something about the not-quite-a-relationship he has with another local (Louise Brealey). But what will happen when someone learns that Charles exists?

As I suggested, this is really a very odd film – not necessarily in a bad way, because it has considerable charm and is strangely endearing, and there are some very funny moments in it. But it is composed of a very odd mixture of ingredients, that one really wouldn’t expect to work together. The fact that the film is as effective (and indeed as functional) as it is must therefore be some kind of achievement.

This is apparently an expanded version of a short film made by the same creators a few years ago – I haven’t seen it, but I feel I have a very good idea of exactly what it’s like: presumably it’s exactly the same as the feature film, but with all the elements of a (relatively) more dramatic plotline missing. I would imagine that as a result it’s a lot less tonally uneven – the full-length Brian and Charles often plays rather like a mash-up between the sitcom Metal Mickey and a heavyweight thriller like Dead Man’s Shoes (or maybe even a folk-horror movie).

Brian and Charles is silly. Lots of films these days are, of course, but Brian and Charles is silly in the same specific way as a lot of children’s TV is – it doesn’t even pretend to engage with the real world. It’s fantastical and illogical like that kind of juvenile story is – a man who is, on the face of it, really not very bright or skilled, manages to build a functioning, sentient robot in his shed. It’s a ludicrous idea, but one that the film never questions or even acknowledges the implausibility of. There are lots of other bits of silliness scattered throughout – Brian’s fixation on cabbages, for instance – and a general detachment from reality (no-one even suggests involving the police as the thriller storyline escalates).

And yet, as I say, there is also a genuine vein of darkness running through the film – not just in the plotline about Brian being menaced by the local hard-case, though of course there is tension and disquiet there. Even before this becomes prominent, there is a real sense of quiet desperation threaded through the film: lonely people living lives which were not the ones they would have chosen for themselves, scrabbling to make the best of what they have. It’s a strange, bittersweet atmosphere for a film about an absurd, unbelievable robot and its creator.

Brian and Charles has managed to land a PG certificate in the UK, which is pretty rare these days – virtually anything that isn’t a kids’ film or something very gentle indeed usually winds up with a 12. It just reinforces my impression that this film plays like something you could take your children to see with a fairly clear conscience. The story is simple and the only metaphor the co-spousal unit and I could find in it was a fairly obvious one about the perils and challenges of raising a child and then accepting when he or she eventually needs to be independent. Kids will probably enjoy the ridiculousness of Charles the robot and his domestic situation, and may even be gripped by the storyline – but the film’s mixture of darkness and mawkish whimsy is a very odd choice for a piece of family entertainment. Nevertheless, Brian and Charles doesn’t really make sense as anything else.

Read Full Post »

About ten years ago, I found myself unexpectedly required to accompany a fairly large contigent of teenagers from, shall we say, a Mediterranean nation, on an excursion around some of the more popular tourist sites in and near Salisbury. I was required to occasionally put a sort of pedagogical gloss on proceedings for contractual reasons. And so I found myself in the car park of a major neolithic monument, preparing to extemporise an educational lecture on what all the ragazzi – oops – were about to see. What to say? Well, it was obvious.

‘In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, lived a strange race of people, the Druids. No one knows who they were, or what they were doing, but their legacy remains – hewn into the living rock of Stonehenge.’

It went down rather well, actually, although this – and the fact no-one complained about me more than normal – is probably due to the fact that cult American comedy films of the 1980s have made little penetration into the cultural landscape of southern-European schoolteachers. For myself, I can only put my ability to recite at length from Rob Reiner’s This is Spinal Tap – for this is what we’re talking about – down to the fact that it has lodged itself deeply in pop culture, that I have a brain condition, and that it is simply so damn quotable.

‘You can’t really dust for vomit.’ ‘These go up to eleven.’ ‘There’s such a fine line between stupid and clever.’ ‘I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been, that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.’ And it goes on and on.

Despite all that, I’d barely heard of Reiner’s film before its British TV premiere on New Year’s Eve 1991, but it seems to have become something of a fixture since then: it was only a few months later that the Tap somehow landed a slot at the Freddie Mercury tribute concert at Wembley. ‘We would like to cut our set short tonight by about thirty-five songs… Freddie would have wanted it this way.’

For anyone still wondering, This is Spinal Tap purports to be a documentary film recording a not-untroubled American tour by the veteran British heavy metal band Spinal Tap. In addition to extensive footage of the band in concert, performing such immortal hits as ‘Big Bottom,’ ‘Sex Farm’, and ‘Hell Hole’, we are granted real insights into the relationships and creative process of band members such as David St Hubbins (Michael McKean), Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer). As the new album fails to sell and the record label (‘Polymer Records’, which of course is entirely different to Polydor Records, who actually distributed the film’s soundtrack) appears to lose confidence in the band, creative tensions within the group build up to a climax. Is a split on the cards, or can they keep things in perspective? (Probably too much perspective.)

Response to the film from people actually within the music industry seems to have fallen into two camps – some metal musicians not quite understanding what’s funny about the film, given how closely it tallies with their own experiences (research in the early 90s suggested that if the Tap are based on any particular real-life band, it’s the Barnsley rockers Saxon) – and others suggesting that it is, in fact, an uncannily accurate depiction of life on the road, and indeed the only rockumentary worth watching.

Saying that the actual accuracy or otherwise of the film is immaterial, and that it’s the fact it’s so consistently funny whch is important, is to rather miss the point – the film is so funny largely because it is so plausible and detailed. So much information is provided about the history of the band – their origins as a London skiffle group in the mid 1960s, a brief flirtation with psychedelia at the end of that decade, their changing line-up down the years (in terms just of keyboardists, we hear of Jan van der Kvelk, Dicky Laine, and Ross MacLochness, even though they don’t really appear in the film, while the group’s lengthy roll-call of deceased drummers has acquired an almost shorthand or folkloric quality) – that it’s not surprising that Spinal Tap seems to have taken on a life of its own. Despite starting off as a spoof, the Tap have released their own albums and played live shows. The band were so close to reality to begin with that it’s not surprising the line between fact and fiction ended up blurred.

The conceit is helped by the fact that the film doesn’t really feature any famous faces – when I saw it, probably the most familiar performer to me was Patrick Macnee, who briefly appears as the head of Polymer Records) – and while McKean in particular has gone on to have a fairly prominent career as an actor (a recurring role in The X Files, as well as being a regular on Better Call Saul), the lead actors are still weirdly not-recognisable in character even today.

Many of the jokes are indeed silly, and even bordering on the stupid: there’s something almost Pythonesque about the film’s willingness to mix the clever and the dumb. But somehow it never quite kicks you out of the story – the performances are that well-pitched. We should also bear in mind that, while the script is credited to Reiner and the three main band members, the whole thing was in fact improvised, and edited together out of dozens of hours of footage.

What puts the final gloss on the film is the way that a storyline ultimately emerges that is genuinely quite moving, in its own way – David and Nigel fall out as the film progresses, with Nigel temporarily leaving the band. Their eventual rapproachement – the realisation that, despite everything, playing music together is what they want to do – is a really touching moment, and ends the film on an emotional as well as comedic high. It’s things like this that make This is Spinal Tap a great film as well as a great comedy.

Read Full Post »

One of those words that we currently don’t have but really could have done with for several decades now is the name for that thing when – you know, when someone comes along and does something unusual and unexpected and it turns out to be rather successful and much acclaimed. So then they naturally leap to a slightly erroneous conclusion and do the same thing all over again as a follow-up, only much moreso, and this time the end result is just a bit too much to cope with. In the Bond franchise I would direct you to Moonraker, which has the fantasy and comedy elements of The Spy Who Loved Me dialled up to 11, and probably also SPECTRE, which likewise takes the distinctive things about Skyfall – the general glumness of tone and attempts at psychological complexity – and concentrates on them to the point where they start getting in the way of the fun of the movie.

I’m tempted to call one of these an exequel – a sort of portmanteau of excess and sequel, and you heard it here first, folks – and it’s a word which may well come up in our imminent discussion of the well-nigh-inescapable Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder. This is, as you have doubtless guessed, the latest Marvel Studios production – 29th of that ilk, should you be keeping count – and the fourth in the particular strand following the doings of Norse god Thor (Chris Hemsworth). (For the purposes of this movie’s plot the original clarification that Thor is not actually a divine being but a representative of a supremely advanced alien culture is quietly forgotten about.)

When we last saw Thor (and I hope you will indulge me in the ‘we’, given I know that there are people reading this who would more happily donate a major organ without anaesthetic than watch a Kevin Feige production), he was flying off into space with the Guardians of the Galaxy to try and find himself, following the deaths of pretty much his entire family and the destruction of his home realm. The new movie finds him still with them, along with his rock-like sidekick Korg (Waititi again).

However, a series of distress calls reveals that the galaxy is experiencing a sort of theological crisis, as somebody is hunting down and slaughtering the gods of every civilisation, leaving chaos and turmoil in their wake. (This turns out to be Christian Bale, playing a character called ‘Gorr the God Butcher’ whose name is certainly descriptive.) Thor leaves the Guardians to sort out the galaxy (off-screen) and heads back to his people’s enclave on Earth, which he has learned is next on the God Butcher’s hit list. However, a surprise awaits him here, as also helping in the defence of New Asgard is another hammer-wielding red-cloaked warrior – one who turns out to be his ex Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who now wields his old weapon Mjolnir and likes to go by the name of Mighty Thor. Can the two ex-lovers put their complicated baggage to one side, figure out just exactly what Gorr is up to, and find a way of stopping him?

Well, on one level this plays as another Marvel movie in the usual style – and if you look at it from a certain angle, the storyline is distinctly reminiscent of the one in the very last movie they released, in that the antagonist initially seems to be an alarming, horrific figure on a metaphysical quest, who eventually proves to be not entirely unsympathetic. And, you know, it’s a Marvel Studios production, so it’s breezily entertaining and colourful and the pace never drags; there may be the odd reference that goes soaring over the heads (or perhaps beneath the contempt) of any normal people who have wandered into the cinema by mistake, but that’s par for the course by now. You’re certainly never in any doubt as to what’s going on or who the bad guy really is.

On the other hand, partway through the film – during the bit where Russell Crowe comes on in a skirt and plays Zeus the King of the Gods with the same accent Harry Enfield used to employ as Stavros the kebab-shop man – I found myself compelled to lean over to my companion and say ‘This is the silliest film I have ever seen.’ That may not strictly be true, but it has a sort of pugnaciously daft quality; it’s not afraid to be stupid and often seems to be challenging the audience to actually complain about this. Waititi has talked about feeling the need to challenge himself and stay creatively invested in the project, and this seems to be code for including, amongst other things, more tongue-in-cheek cameos, screaming goats, semi-gratuitous male nudity, out-and-out surrealism, needily jealous sentient weapons, nostalgic hair metal, and much more – all played entirely for laughs. This is as openly a comedy film as anything else Marvel have ever released, and why I would suggest it is basically doing all the things that Ragnarok did, only even more extremely.

You might therefore think that it is an extremely dubious decision for Waititi to include some of the story elements he has gone for – a dead child prominently features in the plot, while another character is suffering from terminal cancer. This would usually be a very bad fit for a wacky comedic fantasy, but the slightly baffling thing is that Waititi somehow manages to get away with it – it doesn’t quite have the turn-on-a-dime quality that some Paul Verhoeven films, for instance, possess, but neither does it feel particularly choppy in terms of its tone. Much of the credit for this should probably go to the performers, who deliver deftly-pitched turns. The star attraction this time around is Christian Bale, who consistently comes up with surprising and engaging line-readings and never quite plays the God Butcher in the obvious way one might expect.

Still, the film is so self-conscious and arch that it never quite coheres into an entirely satisfying and involving story the way that Ragnarok or the other top-tier Marvel movies do. It may also be just a generational thing, but I found the film’s politics to be a bit too on-the-nose and laboured in places; turning Jane Foster into a Thor-equivalent, for instance, is a reasonable enough idea (although exactly what’s going on here is really skated over, to be honest), but quite why she’s so insistent on actually being called Mighty Thor is a bit baffling (beyond the fact that it’s a comics reference). She’s gained equivalent powers to Thor, she hasn’t actually stolen his identity.

The Marvel franchise may well have reached the point where one’s fond memories of the collective successes of all the previous films flow together and ensure that each individual new film can’t quite live up to expectations – or at least, makes doing that much more difficult (we’re back in Bond franchise territory again). Nevertheless, I would be lying if I said that there wasn’t a huge amount that I really enjoyed about Love and Thunder, and very little that I found outright objectionable. But if the trajectory of this series continues along the same lines, the next sequel will probably take place on ice, in Welsh, performed in semaphore.

Read Full Post »

Complaining that some of the final films of the great old horror legends are a bit unworthy of their presence almost feels like missing the point, given that (arguably) one of the reasons these actors are so celebrated is because they were performers of genuine charisma, talent, and technical virtuosity, who happily put all that to work in the service of rather variable, usually low-budget genre movies. Nevertheless, of all these performers – and I am thinking, of course, of Peter Cushing, Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and perhaps Donald Pleasence – only Lee lived long enough to see many directors who grew up on his films become successful figures, and reaped the benefit of numerous great roles in his final years as a result.

Nevertheless, when it comes to a movie like House of the Long Shadows, your expectations understandably become higher, as soon as you see the poster (or failing that the credits). Pete Walker’s film achieves the notable coup of assembling Cushing, Price and Lee, together with John Carradine. All the lines on the map of classic horror movie acting converge here, one way or another – the only other film to come close is Scream and Scream Again, which had Price, Lee, and Cushing in it, albeit never all in the same scene.

However, it soon becomes clear that the great men are all playing character roles: the lead character, Ken Magee, is played by Desi Arnaz Jr. Magee is an American novelist visiting London to see his publisher (another veteran actor, Richard Todd). After a disagreement over the value and quality of some of the great old classic novels, particularly Wuthering Heights, Magee and his publisher make a bet – if Magee can produce the completed manuscript of a publishable gothic novel in twenty-four hours, he’ll win $20,000. So he can work undisturbed, and perhaps soak up a little atmosphere, the publisher offers him the chance to work at a remote country house in Wales known as Baldpate Manor (the actual name being in Welsh and thus unpronounceable by anyone else). So off he trots.

(Quite apart from anything else, I feel obliged to raise an eyebrow over the whole writing-a-novel-in-24-hours stunt. How long’s a novel? NaNoWriMo suggest 50,000 words is a reasonable word-count, which is still on the short side compared to the average book. Now, on the most productive day of my life, I managed to write roughly 15,000 words in about ten hours. So the idea of writing a whole novel, of any real quality, in twenty-four-hours, is surely bunkum. But there’s a sense in which this is amongst the least of House of the Long Shadows‘ problems.)

Magee arrives at Baldpate and soon discovers he is not alone: there are a couple of creepy old caretakers (played by Carradine and Sheila Keith) and an attractive young woman (Julie Peasgood) who says she’s been sent to warn him he’s in danger and should leave. (Who is Sheila Keith, you ask, and how has she blagged a way into the distinguished company of the other character performers in this film? Well, apart from appearing in Crossroads and various comedy shows, she was a regular in Pete Walker’s other horror movies: House of Whipcord, Frightmare, and so on.) Magee rightly twigs that at least some of this is a distraction organised by his publisher to ensure he loses the bet.

But soon, and many would say none too soon, other eccentric characters start showing up at the manor: Cushing arrives, supposedly as a lost motorist, while Price makes a grand entrance as the heir to the property and Carradine’s son (the dates don’t really work, but go with it). Price manages to deliver a fairly indifferent first line – ‘I have returned’ – so it’s genuinely very funny, and suddenly the whole film seems to be lifted onto a higher level for a moment. Finally, Christopher Lee arrives as someone thinking of buying the house.

It turns out that Magee has arrived in time for the reunion of the Grisbane family, for the first time since 1939 – Cushing turns out to be Price’s younger brother. But it is a not entirely joyous occasion: the family have reassembled to release the youngest Grisbane brother, who has been locked up in the attic for forty-odd years since committing a terrible murder as a teenager. However, it seems that he has already escaped, and is on the loose in the vicinity, intent on vengeance against his brothers and father…

Well, quite apart from all the gothic tropes – which are quite cleverly woven into the script – House of the Long Shadows contains no fewer than three significant twists, of which two are infuriatingly risible and one is so obvious you will see it coming a mile off. This film has a terrible ending. In fact, it has several terrible endings in quick succession. But in a weird way, the rotten ending isn’t as much of a joy-killer as it could have been, because the rest of the film is pretty dreadful too.

I would have been prepared to suggest that the whole script was assembled just as a vehicle to get this particular group of actors together – but oddly enough that isn’t the case. This is just the most recent of many adaptations of the 1913 novel Seven Keys to Baldpate, which may explain why the film feels so old-fashioned and chintzy in its plot and structure. As we have already noted, the premise is hard to take seriously, and it doesn’t get any more plausible as it continues. It’s just possible that the film might have worked better if it had really tried to emphasise the campness and archness of the story; the big-name quartet certainly have the talent. But maybe the constraints of the film – it’s clearly been made on a very low budget, with a tiny cast – precluded even that.

There is undeniably some pleasure to be had in seeing Lee, Cushing and Price together on screen – but these are essentially supporting roles, in the end, and too much of the film is given to Arnaz Jr and Peasgood to carry. Occasional diversions into the gory territory of early-80s horror effects are also a bit of an issue. The film is ultimately depressing rather than funny or scary – there have been many disappointing low-budget horror movies, but few which have made such little use of such tremendous potential.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »