Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Less about the mummy than the tits

Blood From The Mummy's Tomb (Seth Holt)

Certainly not Hammer's finest hour but neither is it the least. But with its utterly nonsensical plot and lack of any actual creepy bandaged mummies its surely a candidate for one of the most tedious. Add to this the cheap sets, flat cinematics and a distinctly rushed feeling, all shows up its second feature status most obviously (maybe it played second fiddle to a bandaged Christopher Lee??)
But to be fair, it's still occasionally camp fun - even the worst of Hammer will have that going for it! Namely, Valerie Leon (in an unnecessary wig) flouncing about in a series of revealing black or pink nighties, pouting excessively and rolling her heavily mascaraed eyes, killing off the rest of the (wasted) cast - seemingly armed with nothing more than a few Egyptian artifacts and her very ample, and admittedly quite impressive, cleavage.
Her nervous co-stars are a mixed bag of (mostly quality) character actors (supplementing their theatre work no doubt) wasted in thankless rolls: James Burden sweating to death - probably from wearing a worse wig than Leon's; Poor George Coulouris doing what is required - hamming maniacally and hysterically to death; Rosalie Crutchley being typically granite-faced to the end (maybe this was the look she gave to her agent?); And (poor man's Peter Cushing) Andrew Keir being... well, boring, bearded and bed-ridden. Only marvelous James Villiers comes out with any shred of dignity. But that's maybe more to do with his playing it suave and aloof.
Incidentally the ironic ending is, surprisingly, rather good and very nearly made the effort to get there bearable. Someone, with their tongue still wedged firmly in their cheek, is definitely teasing us for the disappointing sparsity of anything as thrilling as actual creepy bandaged mummies!

originally posted on Flixter April 12th 2010

Making it all worth while

The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick)

I have often wondered over the years if Malick is the laziest [genius?] film-maker on the planet. I have had a notion that he may not be worth my patience - this is only his fifth film in 38 years. I had an idea that The Thin Red Line, as great as it is, was not quite worth waiting 20 years for (I still think so). I have even had a thought that, as great as Days of Heaven and 'The Thin Red Line' are, that they don't quite come up to scratch when compared to Badlands (surely his debut is the one film of his that has influenced many of the very best film-makers working today). So I was a little off the radar when The New World was released (and I've still to rectify this criminal oversight). Now we have his fifth film. Seeing the trailer for 'The Tree of Life' reminded me a little of what was great about 'Badlands'. To say I was a little apprehensive would have been an understatement.

There was no need. It far exceeded my expectations.

Most film-makers know what donkeys we have become and they play the pre-publicity game to death - except the carrot is never quite in reach (doesn't anyone ever tire of the disappointment??) and is forever snatched away for the next big tease. Malick, in the meantime, has been cooking up an absolute feast to reward our patience and I for one thoroughly enjoyed the banquet (are we really gonna get dessert next year already?).

Part tone-poem, part contemplation on life, the universe and everything (yes, the reference is intentional) and part abstract meditation on [mostly] memories of childhood, rather than straight-forward piece of cinema - not only does it lack a narrative flow but much of the dialogue, whether spoken by the characters in context or narrated in voice-over, never actually carries a story as such. Dialogue is minimal and never more than incidental; scenes are random, fractured and often ambiguous in intent and the characters' voice-overs are more introspection [and prayer] rather than real thought processes. Much of the time we only have music and visuals (it really is almost a crime to even blink at such marvellous music and imagery), which all serves to add to the overall abstract feel. I will concede that the music [and sometimes even the imagery] is occasionally a little intrusive - loud, orchestral and choral sometimes felt too random and was not always appropriate. Any message or meaning is constantly in danger of being lost as we marvel at the glorious soundtrack.
If you like Terence Davies' early films you will certainly approve. Despite Malick's unique qualities, Davies is the most obvious comparison here and deserves a mention. Though the themes of the fall of the Garden of Eden (the telegram at the start of the film is a constant reminder that this perfect childhood of the 50s will give way to the harsh brutalities of the 60s), spirituality and a cruel [to be kind] mother nature (here most notably represented by the mother and father respectively) are all recognisably Malick. But the loose non-linear narrative, the use of carefully placed evocative music and sounds, also put me in mind of The Long Day Closes and Distant Voices, Still Lives.
I fear some will dismiss much of 'The Tree of Life' as pretentious and a bit of a head-scratcher. Maybe even a tad bored? (except for the closing moments, I wasn't for a single moment). And some may take umbrage at what could be perceived as two and a half hours of religious rumination (I'm agnostic so I get to take from it what I like!).
But what makes great cinema is somewhat twofold. It's partly about how much we take from it as an individual; how we interpret cinema's rich tapestry of imagery, music, themes and subtexts should be as much a personal thing for us as it is for the film-maker. Also the best kind of cinema stays with us not just because it throws up all the big questions but when we aren't given all the answers - better to have to find [and interpret] some ourselves. 'The Tree of Life' perfectly encapsulates all this like no other film I can think of.
In the closing moments things begin to unravel and the film begins to lose its way somewhat. I could have done without Penn, as the middle-aged Jack, on an immense beach and surrounded by what? Ghosts? Memories? Somnambulant extras?? Things teeter into mawkish navel-gazing. It was as if no-one knew how to end things (apart from the end of the everything of course). But, up until this final misstep, 'The Tree of Life' really is a magnificent piece of cinema and a true work of art.

By the way, you HAVE to see it on the big screen. I demand you do before it gets dwarfed onto a small screen.

originally posted on Flixter July 16th 2011

Duffle coat introspection

Submarine (Richard Ayoade)

In Richard Ayoade's assured debut feature he seems to be asserting his cinephile credentials by wearing his influences proudly on his sleeve. 'Submarine' most obviously evokes the Nouvelle Vague - especially Truffaut and Goddard - but there's a few surprising nods to 'Harold and Maude' and 'Don't Look Now'. But what lifts it all from slavish homage is the sheer joy and fun of it all. And the precocious leads are really great. Most especially Craig Roberts as Oliver - his dead-pan presence is like a warmer (less creepy?) Bud Cort as Harold (from 'Harold & Maude') - the duffle coat and lank mop are surely there to reinforce this. He hardly ever expresses more than a laboured grin and his downbeat monotone narration stops things getting too mushy (despite my irritation of most voice-overs). But his puppy-dog eyes encourages us to warm to him a little more than he sometimes deserves (he's not really grumpy, just a repressed intellectual) so that we forgive his pompous allusions & affectations and the rotten way he treats Jordana - as played by Yasmin Paige. She's good too - Jordana has a defiance of all things sentimental which is a perfect foil for Oliver's pretensions.
Unfortunately the grown-ups are given short shrift. Sally Hawkins manages to shine through with genuine warmth as Oliver's mother. But Noah Taylor's miserable 'dad-in-a-dressing-gown' and Paddy Considine's caricature of the 'other man' are somewhat one-dimensional and decidedly irritating. This is probably the intention - teenage coming of age tales usually have little time for the grown-ups and distance is often required when emphasising the isolation. But such scant regard for characterisation made it hard to empathise and so had me scratching my head wondering, not only why the parents would stay together but why this woman would even consider the phoney smarm of the alternative. It's only a minor quibble though. It's still a thoroughly entertaining little flic, with enough cinematic allusions and tricks to keep me interested in what Richard Ayoade may come up with next.

originally posted on Flixter May 25th 2011

Could even I be anticipating the The Avengers... not quite

Thor (Kenneth Branagh)

More comic-strip than comic-book - in other words fun, more than a bit camp and always unpretentious (which doesn't mean this is anything more than slightly akin to Joel Schumacher or Mike Hodges - though I'm sure the humourless won't agree with me).
The love interest is completely disposable and is far less important than the Shakespearean (ahem)/Greek tragedy (don't scoff)/soap-opera at the heart of 'Thor' - two brothers, only they're not (far be it from me to inject the queer reading here), one misunderstood, one 'different' (still not saying it's queer) slug it out for the approval of their father - and the throne. Or not.
Having the story (kind of) split in two, not only makes things feel a little like having two films for the price of one (epic fantasy and Superman type comic-strip) but also makes for a real lip-smacking sense of self-deprecation and is the film's biggest delight - the histrionic fantasy of the Gods clashing with Earth-bound mundanity is genuinely funny and also helps to create a warmth that is usually lacking in much of the more po-faced comic-book flics (usually about Knights who are a bit uptight or, more more apropriately, 'dark'). It's an 'in-joke' that never feels smug and knowing.
The visuals and the costumes are the right side of kitsch and are quite stunning - got to love the under-light bridge & 'disco-ball' gateway, complete with a gold larme'd bouncer (Idris Elba).
The story of the Gods is a bit simplistic but the villains are villainous and the characters are never less than likable (excepting that I'm ignoring the potential for queerness and prefer that Thor had taken a shine to spunky Darcy rather than winsome Jane).
What can I say? It's a lot of fun and It made me feel 12 again.
...those wetting themselves over the anticipation of 'The Avengers' flic don't need me to remind them to wait for the post-credits tease either. But if this is indicative of what's to come then I may be riding the wave myself (who am I kidding??)

originally posted on Flixter May 22nd 2011

Letting the Nazis in through the back door - definitely no pun intended

The 49th Parallel (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger)

I have a real soft spot for The 49th Parallel. It's certainly not held up by many as the best of Powell and Pressburger but it's one of those films I find myself drawn to again and again - P&P's warm and involving characterisation, the landscapes of Canada, Vaughn Williams' evocative score (given its due reverence as an 'honorary' character in the title sequence) are all scrumptious trimmings to a thoroughly exciting story.
Along with Hitchcock's WWII propaganda films Lifeboat and Foreign Correspondent and Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well?, it is the very best of its type - a call to arms that also happens to be cracking good cinema.
The cast list reads like a roll-call of all the great (mostly) British character actors of the day and, excepting the misfire of Olivier's phony accent, no-one puts a foot wrong. And how marvelous that Powell & Pressburger made such a successful piece of anti-Nazi propaganda and still managed to sneak in not just one of their trademark 'good' Germans but two - Anton Walbrook as Peter, the 'leader' of the (German!) Hutterite commune [his blistering speech is deeply moving and is certainly the heart of the film's message] and Niall McGinnis as Vogal, the German soldier who finds his conscience just a little too late - his demise being the quiet tragedy of a man who wanted a return to a simple life baking bread, instead of being an unthinking killer!

I've a feeling we're not in Holland Park anymore

Vinyan (Fabrice Du Welz)

Think Don't Look Now crossed with Lord of the Flies but with characters drawn with such extreme bourgeois naivety that it's impossible to elicit the slightest sympathy for (precursors to the punchable leads of von Trier's Antichrist for sure). The longueurs would be fine and cinematic if we liked or empathised with these people - I would have been quite thrilled by the slightly abstract, lingering close-ups of Sewell and Béart if the overwhelming urge wasn't to slap some sense into them.
However it's still a very intriguing tease that gets so under the skin that it's hard to shake off too thoroughly without shuddering. Seared with some genuinely sinister and gothic sequences - horrid dream sequences that blur the line between what's real and imagined/dreaded, a vile dirty jungle so reeking of death and decay that you wonder why anyone would think anything living could be found there - it's not till it's over that, apart from humans, you realise we haven't seen a single living beast or insect (though we always here them). It's nothing less than a descent into Hell of course.
And the totally over the top, completely bonkers finale suddenly makes things worth the effort. Horrific, beautiful, disgusting and disturbing all at once. I would have laughed my tits off at it's final shots if I wasn't more than a little terrified.

originally posted on Flixter September 26th 2010

The most misleading title in cinema?

Monsters (Gareth Edwards)

A genuinely moving story about two lonely people trying desperately to get home against seemingly impossible odds - the occasional giant squid-like alien being the biggest hurdle of course. Along the way they (very) gradually fall in love so that by the end of their journey they realise - too late - they don't want to go home anymore.
As a travelogue/road movie it's quite stunning - in spite of and because of it's premise, the jungles and sunsets of Mexico punctuated by the odd ancient pyramid as well as the huge man-made walls and fences (to keep the alien threat at bay) are breathtaking. And the two leads are very effective too - with minimal dialogue, we are given so much more with looks and quiet moments where the simple gesture of a hand on a shoulder tells us all we need to know. The film's finale is somewhat quietly devastating and its irony puts it on a par with the great cinematic love stories.
As it happens, the title is a bit of a red herring and many expecting the obvious will be sorely disappointed. However, I was pleasantly surprised

originally posted on Flixter December 5th 2010

A Lazy Update

Once again my rambling is much overdue - has it really been 10 months?? Shocking I know. I would like to say that I have been leading some hectic social life and been quite preoccupied. I would be lying of course. I'm just lazy.
So today I will be just as lazy and simply upload some of my cine-thoughts of the past 10 months that have appeared elsewhere