Tuesday 30 June 2009

Garden State (2004)

Director: Zach Braff
Stars: Zach Braff and Natalie Portman

Andrew Largeman would seem to be a strange man. He lies there in his white bed in his white room with white furnishings, well not very many of them but they're all white, and he ignores his father trying to talk to him on the phone. He's been dreaming about being the one calm thing on a panicked airplane preparing to crash, but his dad has real news: his handicapped mother drowned in her bathtub the night before. He lives in Los Angeles, working as a waiter in a Vietnamese restaurant while pretending to be an actor, but even though he's been gone for nine years he flies back to Newark for the funeral.

We know that this is all about Andrew Largeman because he's played by Zach Braff from Scrubs, who isn't just the star here but the writer and the director too, but he's not a conventional hero. He spends his time looking confused and looking out of place in whatever company he's in, and we wonder quite what our sympathies are supposed to be. He's a nice guy, we guess, but he doesn't exactly have anything going for him. We mostly feel for him because the closest thing to normal in the entire film, and no, I'm not kidding.

He bounces around like a tumbleweed between people that he knows, old friends or new friends, most of whom seem to fit the description of acquaintances far better than that of friends. Rather than hang out with them, he tends to just be there while they hang out with each other. He doesn't seem to have any real friends at all and he doesn't have any strong connection to family either, even though his dad is apparently his psychiatrist. Perhaps that's why he's so messed up, at least one reason. We find a better one during the film.

I think the point of the friends/acquaintances is to highlight how nobody has really grown up. Kenny is a cop because he can shout at people, though that's a step up from snorting coke off a urinal. Mark digs graves for a living, collects Desert Storm trading cards and berates his mother for trying to improve him. Whenever he needs money he goes to the local hardware store, picks things up off the shelves and promptly returns them before even buying them. Jesse made it rich by inventing a gadget like velcro that doesn't make a noise when you part it. He now lives in a huge empty mansion without furniture that he drives around in a golf cart.

In comparison Mark is pretty normal. He's in LA trying to be an actor, but he's been typecast after a success as a retarded quarterback on a TV show. He can't cry, even at his mother's funeral trying to think of the saddest things he's ever seen in movies. He's calmly flustered by the world and it's left him numb, the world or the pills. He's been medicated for years but left all his many pills back in LA, so has now come to the conclusion that he might actually not have anything wrong with him but he's been medicated so long that he can't ever know for sure.

Braff is solid in this role because he can sleepwalk through much of it (he's in every scene) yet still leap out of his shell when he needs to. I've never seen Scrubs and I'm not sure I've seen him in anything else (OK, I checked: I saw his debut, Woody Allen's Manhattan Murder Mystery, but don't remember his small part in the slightest), but he obviously has a talent. My question, starting out on his career here, is whether that talent is more in his subtle comedic timing (think Ashton Kutcher if he was actually funny and not a live action cartoon) or more in his writing. This is a quirky little gem and it's obvious that the main reason for the film's success is him, so I'd lean towards the latter. Then again, it's based very much on him. I wonder how successful he'd be if he wrote something else.

He's not the only reason, given that we have lot of recognisable faces here, up to and including Ian Holm, but the only actor who really gets the screen time that Braff does is Natalie Portman. I think the main reason Braff shines is his writing is because she steals the show on the acting front. It's really sad that half the world knows her for playing Princess Amidala in the abysmal Star Wars prequels because that was an utter waste of her talent. Watching her in films like this, or Léon or Heat or V for Vendetta makes that trilogy look like it was made with lego bricks as actors. And I haven't even seen Cold Mountain or Goya's Ghosts yet.

Portman plays Sam here, a young girl who meets our hero in a doctor's office. He's there because he gets split second headaches; she's there because she's an epileptic who wears a protective helmet to work in an office because they have great benefits. She's there to be his love interest but she gets an unprecedented amount of character time to really build our connection to her and her connection to him.

I'm not talking about the obvious things, like she used to be a figureskating gator and she has a knack for accidentally killing her pets, or that she instinctively tells lies but regrets them even as she's telling them. I'm talking about the way she can bond with Largeman as his friends/acquaintances dance a diversionary story around them. What she does subtly with those gaps is every bit as impressive as her fast talking and fast rambling monologues. She's definitely one of the leading ladies working in the industry today and Braff well knows it. Apparently she was his first choice for the role but he never thought he'd land her.

This film was an IMDb Top 250 film for a while. It isn't now and it wasn't when I grabbed my copy of it for my book back in 2004, possibly because I did so around the time this was released. It certainly isn't that good, but it's a quiet and memorable piece that is likely to resonate with a good many people. In many ways it's like Slacker with a clearer focus and everything about it feels right. I could easily see coming back to this every few years as a feelgood movie, while acknowledging that there are better films out there that I have no wish to ever watch again. This one's something to grow with.

Monday 29 June 2009

Spider Forest (2004)

Director: Song Il-gon
Stars: Kam Woo-seong and Jung Suh

It's been almost a month since I saw a Korean movie, which is a sad state of affairs indeed, and Sundance describe this one as Memento meets Jacob's Ladder. How freaky can this be? With that description I wouldn't even care if there there aren't any spiders in this forest, but fortunately there are. They go very well with fourteen day old corpses in horror stories, but this one's not just a horror movie: it's a drama, a mystery and a thriller, all wrapped in the same happy go lucky bundle.

We begin with a man waking up in the forest and walking back to the cabin nearby. There he finds one male corpse that he thinks looks like himself, stabbed over forty times. In the next room is his girlfriend, not quite dead yet but pretty close. She's only been stabbed three times so is still alive and talking of spiders while looking up at a hatchway. Our man hears something, so grabs a scythe, perhaps the murder weapon itself, and opens the hatch, only to find another man on the other side who he chases into the forest.

Unfortunately for him, the man he's chasing doubles back and knocks him senseless. This time when we wakes up he leaves the forest and finds his way into a road tunnel where he gets knocked senseless again by an SUV. He's left for dead, but rescued and operated on. After brain surgery he spends two weeks in a coma and only when he comes out of it can he notify the police of the atrocity at the cabin. The rest of the film lets us in on the mystery piece by piece, and like any jigsaw the pieces don't come in order. Part of the joy here is trying to figure it all out.

Let me tell you this much though. He's Kang Min, a producer at a TV station called IBS who works on a show called Mystery Theatre. The corpses are his fiancee Hwang Su-yeong, who is a reporter and presenter at the same station, and their boss, Choi Seong-hyeon. Choi sends him to the forest for his show, as it's apparently haunted, but he's also directed there by an unknown tipster on the phone, who sends him to the cabin itself to find his fiancee with another man. He recounts all this to a cop friend of his, who . I should add that Kang had a former wife, a choreographer who died in a plane crash, and we know that he saw her ghost at least once.

Spider Forest is well shot, but deceptively so. I didn't reel back in stunned amazement at any one scene, but I was solidly impressed throughout at the consistent beauty of the piece. It's content to do what it does very well indeed without needing to wheel out showy theatrics to wow us. Similarly the actors do precisely the jobs they're tasked with subtle panache and without ever trying to steal scenes from each other. It's the story that matters here, more than anything, and its way of dropping hints and wanting us to work it all out. I think I have most of it but there's definitely room for interpretation.

Put simply, there are three major traumas in this film for Kang, each with their respective resulting pain and confusion: a multiple murder when he's a child, the death of his wife in a plane crash and the double homicide that begins our film. The story is structured so cleverly that it's very possible that one or two of these traumas aren't even real and that the according chunk of the story takes place entirely within Kang's subconscious mind. As we watch we pick up on hints that speak to what may be real or fabrication, but we have to bear in mind that some of those hints may be fabrication also. There are certainly layers to this that may only come clearer with further viewing.

The man responsible is Song Il-gon, the writer and director, who has made seven films since 1997. To say that I'd certainly be interested in seeing more of his work is an understatement, if there's any potential for it to be as fascinating as this. He also works frequently with Jang Hyeong-seong, who plays Choi here. I haven't seen any of these actors before, but he's the next I'm likely to see again, having been more prolific than the others and more versatile too. He's made a number of horror movies, especially surrounding this one, films with generic names like The Legend of Evil Lake and Ghost House as well as a far more intriguing one called My Right to Ravage Myself. When it comes to films like this though, they're hard to categorise and they sit in the spaces between those titles that leap out. Sometimes those are the best of them all.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Day Watch (2006)

Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Konstantin Khabenskiy

The events of Night Watch are done and through the balance has shifted towards darkness. Anton's son Yegor has joined the Day Watch and has such power that he is no longer merely an Other but a Great Other. There are levels to this stuff apparently, though they're massively rare and setting a Great Other against a Great Other is insanely dangerous. Naturally the Night Watch have one too, at least one in training called Sveta. She's learning the ropes while Yegor has taken to draining the life of old women with a needle.

Of course this is utterly against the rules, and impulsive Sveta chases him into the second level Gloom. The Gloom is a sort of parallel reality that Others can travel through but second level Gloom is as dangerous as any of the other levels we're learning about here. And danger is the name of the game. It would seem that someone is inching the two sides of light and darkness towards that final battle and our cast of fascinating characters from the first film are back to be the chess pieces in the game.

Now, there's a little subplot that's pretty key here that dates back to the time of Tamerlane. Apparently he broke into a legendary maze using the sort of lateral thinking that enabled Alexander to untie the Gordian Knot. In the maze is the Chalk of Fate, a device of such power than it can change the fabric of reality and act as a celestial undo button, though only for your own choices and decisions, not those of others. Needless to say this would come in stunningly useful to everyone if only they can find it. Tamerlane used it for years but its location has been lost.

This is a little slower than the first, at least for a while, though the action sequences are a little quicker and everything goes utterly berserk by the end. There's some awesome driving going on here including what would appear to be some superbly executed stunt driving that turns into CGI without us noticing. And the CGI here is truly stunning. The style is turned up considerably, not across the board as most of our Others remain utterly down to earth. Zhanna Friske is the most obvious who doesn't, pimping it up like a Spice Girl and Michael Jackson put together as Alisa Donnikova. Sveta has a taste for flashy coats too and the longer the film runs the more outrageous the sets and costumes become.

What really works here is the fact that characters have far more opportunity to develop and the actors are generally more than up to the task. Konstantin Khabenskiy is a chameleon and he's a joy to watch. Mariya Poroshina is lovely and naive as Sveti, but she's outshone by Galina Tyunina as Olga, the sorceress who spent part of the first film as an owl. At one point Anton and Olga swap bodies and both Khabenskiy and Tyunina are more than up to playing another character of the opposite sex inhabiting their own bodies. In smaller roles Valeriy Zolotukhin and Nurzhuman Ikhtymbayev were very memorable though in very different ways, the former almost orclike and the latter serene.

I'm very happy to have watched this with Night Watch as a double bill. It really is one long story broken into half, the ending to part two really being the ending to what began at the beginning of part one. Apparently there are a number of novels in this series, written by Sergei Lukyanenko, and the stories that comprise the films Night Watch and Day Watch are all part of the first of the books, also titled Night Watch.

Presumably then any further sequels, which are likely as these films broke box office records in Russia, will start new stories. I'll keep my eyes open for them but I'm not sure if I'll really want to watch if I can't watch beginning and end together. I watched The Lord of the Rings films as they came out in theatres and it was painful having to wait for each episode. This would be even more painful because of how closely they tie together.

Night Watch (2004)

Director: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: Konstantin Khabenskiy

Like many, I've been fascinated by the supernatural and how it can interface with our reality of the present. In particular I've long wondered about how forces of light and darkness can war between themselves while we utterly fail to notice any of this happening around us. This Russian film, the highest grossing of all time at that point, identifies the supernatural among us as Others and splits them into Night Watch, the forces of light who keep watch on the night, and Day Watch, the forces of darkness who keep watch on the day. And then it weaves mythology around them.

This legend has it that one day these forces of light and dark met on a bridge and fought a bloody battle. Many died, from both sides, and only when Gesser, the Lord of the Night Watch, realised that the armies were equally matched and that if it continued as it was going they would all die to the last man, did he call a halt to proceedings. Gesser and Zavulon, his equivalent on the other side, agree to a truce, which has held ever since. Others can choose which side they want to fight for and both the light and the dark have to respect that. However there's a prophecy that calls for a last battle when key elements align, which time we naturally switch to.

It's now 1992 in Moscow and a man goes to a witch to get his wife back. He's Anton Gorodetsky and he'd been married for a whole two days before she left him for another man. The witch weaves some dark magic to win her back to him but points out that she's pregnant with another man's child and that it would only tear them apart again. She then explains that it can be terinated but there are consequences, and only because Anton doesn't believe any of it does he agree to take the sin of its death onto himself. What Anton doesn't realise is that he is an Other and as she starts the process and weird things begin to happen does he believe what she's talking about and ask for it all to stop.

Twelve years later, Anton is one of the Night Watch, a seer who has unpredictable visions of the future, and who plays his part in the ongoing standoff between light and darkness. We watch him as he tries to save a twelve year old boy from a couple of vampires, but this escalates into much more than just the life of one boy. Meanwhile a vortex has formed above a cursed woman that Anton meets on the subway, which is gradually engulfing the city. The repercussions of this are taxing the forces of light severely and the fate of one twelve year old boy would seem to be inconsequential, but I'm sure you can guess who the boy really is.

There's an fascinating amalgam of approaches here. The techniques are modern, fuelled by commercials and MTV and the ADHD generation. The action, and there is plenty of that, comes like a whirlwind but is controlled by speed set in post production rather than anything done by the actors in the real world. It's full of combinations of slow motion and sped up action, and is a perfect example of what can be done by visual technicians after the general crew have done their thing. One early fight scene between Anton and the pair of vampires must have looked like precisely nothing while it was shot, but after post production is stylish and bloody and highly memorable.

Beyond a clever story that transcends so much of what passes for modern horror without even trying, there's a lot to watch here that other films could learn lessons from. Unlike films like Underworld, Van Helsing or even The Matrix, there's no chic leather fetish gear here to turn the main players in this immortal battle into fashion divas. These folks wear tracksuits or shabby clothes or whatever seems to be close at hand. The costume department could have been supplied from charity. Nobody watching is going to try to copy their look, unless they're focusing on the Day Watch agent whose day job is a pop diva.

Our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, doesn't look much like a hero either. As played by Konstantin Khabenskiy, he looks different from scene to scene, depending on his condition at the time, and his condition changes frequently. It's a great performance because such variability remains utterly consistent to his flawed character. Unlike most heroes who have to look their best even when having the crap beaten out of them, Anton has an uphill struggle even finding his best, let alone staying there.

While he gets control over himself at times, he's more usually a complete mess, flickering in and out of the past, present and future trying to find a hold. He drinks blood to be able to hear the call being sent out by vampires to their victims, but this just makes him seem drunk and incapable. In this state, he shambles around, apparently unable to take care of his own physical wellbeing, seemingly unable to concentrate on basics like putting one foot in front of the other. He's more than a refreshing change.

His fellow cast members are refreshing too because none of them follow the standard look. I've never seen a set of supernatural beings who look so utterly normal. They could be the guys living next to you in apartment complexes and rundown tower blocks. They don't look remotely special. Only Zavulon tries a little style, as perhaps befits the leader of the Day Watch, but he doesn't overdo it either, merely ending up something like a Russian Rutger Hauer. All the cast members return for the sequel, suggesting that this whole film may really be an introduction to the characters, like say the first X-Men movie, but with an actual plot behind it to make it worthwhile.

There's also a highly innovative use of subtitles which exploits them as if they were an artform all their own. They're obviously designed into the film, which except for the introduction is entirely in Russian, rather than just being added in later for foreign audiences. They disappear and reappear behind things that we pan across. They appear in places on the screen we don't expect. They even dissipate away into blood, flicker and die or bounce out at us for emphasis. They're joyous to watch on their own.

The only problem with the film that I found was that it's such a blitzkrieg of imagery and mythological concepts that it's hard to settle back and concentrate on understanding what's really going on. Perhaps the ending, which is utterly appropriate, would have been transparent had we not been distracted by so much visual noise. And that's no complaint, just a comment that a second or third viewing is likely to settle it all down into something a little more coherent, though maybe it would just expose plot holes. Reading the source novels by Sergei Lukyanenko would probably help too. I wonder if they're available in translation.

Saturday 27 June 2009

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

Director: Jonathan Mostow
Star: Arnold Schwarzenegger

With Terminator Salvation in theatres and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles cancelled after two seasons, now would seem to be a good time to revisit Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. After all, I didn't watch T:TSCC (aren't we supposed to abbreviate such things nowadays?) for Sarah Connor, or even for John Connor for that matter. I watched it because Summer Glau was frickin' awesome as a terminator, and here's a whole film dedicated to a terminatrix. Instead of Summer Glau we have Kristanna Loken, best known for scifi TV series (Painkiller Jane and Mortal Kombat: Conquest) and Uwe Boll movies (BloodRayne and In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale). What's not to love?

This one starts as it means to go on. 'There is no future but what we make for ourselves,' says John Connor, as a city blows up. But he doubts this because the Judgment Day the first two movies told us about never came and maybe, just maybe, they've stopped it already. Just in case it's all real and it's still coming though, he lives off the grid with the weight of the future bearing down on him. Just in case. And of course, because we're watching a film called Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, that turns out to be a good call.

Sure enough, the next scene sees Kristanna Loken appearing naked in a cool effects ball in a shopfront fortunately located right across an empty street from one woman with a fast car and clothes in her size. And sure enough, right after the bad terminator (sorry, terminatrix) comes a good terminator in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. He gets his clothes from a bar, of course, but this one turns out to be a male strip joint waiting for a stripper. The Elton John glasses are a perfect spoof of the Bad to the Bone scene in Terminator 2.

Anyway, there's another character we should care about: she's called Kate Brewster, she's played by Claire Danes, she works at an animal hospital and she's tough enough to dump John Connor right into an animal cage thirty seconds after meeting him. Admittedly he's doped up on pain meds because he came off his bike at high speed, which is why he broke into the place to begin with, but the coincidences are scary. Beyond just taking advantage of him, she knows who he is because they went to school together and her dad is a big time military dude who runs a cool secret supercomputer project for the military called, erm, Skynet. Remember that?

And this sort of particularly sloppy plotting is precisely why this is the worst film in the series, though to be honest I haven't seen the new one yet. It doesn't help that John Connor is a complete wuss in this film and the Governator is getting old so his voice doesn't carry the impact it used to. What we have are explosions, fires and visual effects a go go, which is entirely the point. We're not here to watch Claire Danes act or Nick Stahl mangle the part of John Connor, we're here to watch two terminators try to mangle each other and to do so with some really big vehicles. There are scenes here so many cars die that it seems like the entire American auto industry could have survived by merely making another sequel.

I like the little touches. Loken grows a large number of breast sizes after she sees a Victoria's Secret billboard after a cop pulls her over. The way she turns round in a clinch during a fight sequence is somehow pornographic, at least to us nerds. Dr Silberman returns from the second film in a cool followup to his original story. Best of all to my thinking was the idea of the earliest terminator models of them all, because they don't come from the future, they're built right here and now in the present. They're kludgy things at best, some of them, not even up to the ED-109s in RoboCop, but that's all very cool from a tech perspective.

And at the end of the day, I'm a little torn. I like this film but I know it's bad. I like the ending, which is a lot better than what went before. I want to own the nuclear shelter. I like Kristanna Loken kicking Schwarzenegger's ass and only a moron could look at the terminator fights as condoning violence against women. Yes, I've heard that. But there's a lot to dislike here. Arnie is definitely too old, Nick Stahl isn't great and Claire Danes gets too little to do. Nobody really gets much to do except the visual effects techs.

I think what this boils down to is that ending is the worst thing that could have happened to the film, not because it's bad because it's a good ending but precisely because the intelligence put into it serves only to highlight how dumb and convenient everything was that went before it. Had the ending been as consistently dumb and convenient, then this would be a dumb but fun action flick. Because the ending is intelligent and poignant, the film becomes a hollow victory and the ending a reinforcement of what it could have been.

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Star: Ellen Burstyn

In between giving stunning performances in stunning films like The Exorcist in 1973 and Requiem for a Dream, no less than 27 years later, Ellen Burstyn seems to have picked her films. She was far from prolific but consistently kept working in films that don't have huge reputations, presumably because she wanted the roles. Certainly she had influence here, given that The Exorcist was such a hit, and apparently she chose not just the part but the director, Martin Scorsese. Perhaps because it's an Scorsese film, as much about women as Mean Streets was about men, the opening credits feel utterly like a woman's picture, either that or a John Waters film. It's hammering the point home before the film even starts.

Once it starts it hammers home the point of impermanency. We begin with a short prelude, all shot in dynamic red, of the young Alice in Monterey, CA, singing in a child's voice the song that backed the opening credits. Obviously though her family aren't interested in singing and apparently this is all a tribute to The Wizard of Oz, but then we quickly leap 27 years to Socorro, NM where Alice is a wife and a mother, at least for a little while. Her son Tommy is twelve year old Alfred Lutter, Ogilvie from The Bad News Bears, and her husband's an idiot. Alice's life in Socorro seems to be mediating between the two so that one doesn't kill the other. And not singing.

Then, when hubby gets himself killed in a car accident, it's just Alice and Tommy and they sell up and head back to Monterey. Without hubby in the way, the pair of them can bounce smart ass banter off each other very effectively but I couldn't help but notice the lack of seatbelts. Sure, this is 1974 but they'd just lost two thirds of the family in a car accident, after all. Unfortunately for Alice her bad judgement follows her all the way to Phoenix, AZ, where she works as a singer in a bar and ends up dating a married psychopath played by Harvey Keitel with his hair combed over like he's trying to be Crispin Glover. And then it's the road again.

Before we start wondering if we're going to bounce on down the road for the whole movie, at least those of us who didn't know this film turned into a long running TV series set in a greasy spoon cafe in Phoenix called Mel's Diner (which is real, by the way). Well here it's Mel and Ruby's Diner and it's in Tucson, but it's still a greasy spoon cafe that Alice ends up working at, alongside sassy foul mouthed Flo and slow Vera. These characters, along with Mel, who runs the place, all continued on to the show but in variations of what we see here. Or so I'm told; I grew up in England and never saw the thing, even though it ran to nine seasons, eleven if you count the spinoff series called Flo.

Before Ellen Burstyn picked Martin Scorsese to direct this picture, she watched Mean Streets and realised his talent but wondered if he could direct anything that wasn't all about men. She asked him what he knew about women and he answered, 'Nothing, but I'd like to learn.' Apparently the film is accordingly the result of close teamwork between the pair and first time screenwriter Robert Getchell. It plays a lot better than I ever expected it would, with a lot of the camerawork recognisable from Mean Streets. The dialogue is clever and well delivered.

The cast is interesting, well beyond Ellen Burstyn who is superb. She had a lot of competition that year for the Best Actress Oscar but she won the day. What's more surprising is that she only has one to her credit out of six nominations. The men in Alice's life are played by Billy Green Bush (her husband), Harvey Keitel (the nutjob in Phoenix) and Kris Kristofferson (a rancher in Tucson). All of them do a fine job, in very different ways. Alfred Lutter is excellent as Alice's son, Tommy, though to be fair he gets a lot more opportunity than Jodie Foster, who was half a year younger but looks a lot older in a small part as a friend of Tommy's in Tucson. Diane Ladd is memorable as Flo, and ended up in the series, not as Flo but as the Flo replacement when Flo got her own series.

At the end of the day though, this is supposed to be a picture about women, looking at the reality that they have to deal with on an ongoing basis. And this must work as a women's picture because my wife understands all sorts of stuff that I didn't even realise needed to understood. There's a scene where Alice shaves her legs in the sink of a Phoenix hotel room and talks about how she'll shaves her legs when her ship comes in. I thought it was just a scene to show how little money Alice had and how down to earth she was, but my wife was nodding along and agreeing out loud. I didn't even know there was anything to agree with.

The Passionate Friends (1949)

Director: David Lean
Stars: Ann Todd, Claude Rains and Trevor Howard

When Prof Steven Stratton of the Imperial College of Science in London arrives at the Hotel Splendide in Switzerland very late one evening after missing his connection, he isn't thinking about the woman in the adjoining room, who's lying in bed reading. In fact he doesn't even know she's there. She's doesn't know he's there either but she's thinking about him nonetheless. She's Mary Justin, who had only arrived that day herself, ahead of her husband who is held up in Germany on business. In a lesser film, this wouldn't have been a coincidence but here it's precisely that and it sets up our entire story. You see, Mrs Justin and Prof Stratton were lovers once, long ago, and they haven't ever forgotten each other.

We discover their back stories through a series of nested flashbacks, cleverly woven into each other to build up our perceptions of who they, and Mr Justin, really are and what they mean to each other. This isn't a simple melodrama for a number of reasons: it's acted well (Ann Todd, Claude Rains and Trevor Howard), written well (a screenplay by Eric Ambler based on a novel by H G Wells) and directed well (no less a name than David Lean). So often we get two of those three components but so rarely all three at the same time. The additional reason is that there really aren't any good guys or bad guys at all, making this a black and white film in which nothing is either black or white.

It would seem that Mary and Steven had loved each other for years, presumably long before she ever married Howard Justin, a rich and powerful banker. They have a deep and abiding love, the sort of love where they finish each other's thoughts and words and fall asleep thinking of each other. They gleam when they're around each other and have that sixth sense lovers have that lets them know when they're nearby, even if they're back to back with a hundred feet between them. However when marriage inevitably came up, Mary didn't accept Steven's proposal because of the depth of belonging that comes with such a marriage based entirely on love. She wanted to belong to herself.

Later, when the Justins are married, they meet again and embark on a passionate affair that Steven thinks will bring them together. It almost does too, but it ends up otherwise because the Justins aren't a fraud. Mary didn't just marry Howard because he was rich and could provide for her every need, though that was certainly a powerful factor. As Howard puts it to Steven, their relationship is built on a deep affection, not the romantic sort of love that he sees as dangerous, but a solid and dependable bond between two people who care about each other. It's certainly not deliberate but it does help that Mary's accent is such that 'Howard' often sounds like 'Heart'.

Before meeting by chance at the Hotel Splendide and spending an innocent if ill advised day together, it had been nine years since they'd even seen each other. It's in this flashback that we first meet Claude Rains, who tellingly opens his dialogue with the words, 'I thought I'd lost you.' He's an analytical soul, watching the revellers as they sing Auld Lang Syne and dance their way into 1939. Mary and Howard come down to dance too and he's dressed up in his cape and bow tie, but it's obvious that the Justins are only enjoying, if not merely tolerating, these events, while down in the streets, Prof Stratton and his girlfriend are revelling in them.

And this is all wonderfully subtle stuff. Given the different levels of affections involved in this story, in some ways Howard never had Mary and so could never really lose her, but that's a simpler story for a simpler movie. These characters are not static clumps of emotion; they're characters who grow over time, even if they don't know it themselves. Really the heart of this film, pun very truly intended, is that Mary can't see inside herself to see what she really wanted, not just what she thought she wanted. This story rooks her between the eyes until she has to comes to terms with who she is not who she thought she was and what she thought she'd lost.

This is an adaptation by Eric Ambler of a novel by H G Wells, which names utterly fail to suggest what this film is all about. Wells is fairly known today as a writer of science fiction but he's unfairly known as only a writer of science fiction. While he is so important to science fiction that he even invented and defined many of its standard subgenres, he was a prolific writer in many other genres too, not even all fiction. Ambler is known as a writer of spy novels but like Wells he was important enough defined some of its subgenres. Every story written about a jewel robbery, for instance, owes a lot to him. Only David Lean would appear to fit with this material, this being an effective follow up (a sort of thematic but otherwise unrelated sequel) to his 1945 film Brief Encounter, not coincidentally also starring Trevor Howard.

This isn't a perfect film, but it does come surprisingly close. I found I could look past the fact that the principal characters don't seem to age particularly even in the nine years between meetings, let alone the unspecified but large amount of additional years before that. Normally that sort of thing drives me nuts, but this story is so internal rather than external, the beautiful Swiss countryside notwithstanding, that it doesn't really matter. I can always look past the fact that Claude Rains seems to say 'Oh yes, of course.' in every film he's in, because he says it so damn well. And the fact that this is all I can come up with on the negative side speaks volumes.

In comparison there's so much on the positive side: a real romantic story that doesn't pander to any stock conventions. The end is a beginning, but it doesn't have to say so by slapping 'The Beginning' on the screen. There's an obvious but still strong use of camera angles to highlight when someone's thinking is askew because their emotions are reacting; we see it literally because the camera rotates a little. We also see what people are thinking, not just in the voiceovers of thought, but in little visions that are as extreme in moments of emotion as they should be, even if they're suppressed by more sane thought a microsecond later.

Best of all is what this fim doesn't do. There are so many opportunities here for it to suddenly take the easy road and become something lesser, something simple and conventional, something clichéd, but the filmmakers never choose that route. In fact the one time the story really changes, it's as if Claude Rains is so used to being in Hollywood movies that his character assumes that things have happened that would have happened in a Hollywood movie, and so acts upon his assumptions. Naturally he was wrong.

To highlight just one telling example, the filmmakers make us realise that every cable car to feature in a Hollywood film gets blown up by terrorists, has Nazis waiting for it at the top of the mountain or at least ends up stopped halfway up to dangle precariously, and they do it by simply not doing any of those things. Here the cable car simply takes people from the bottom of a mountain to the top. It does what it does because it's a cable car not a plot device. If only other films could think the same way.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Public Enemies (2009)

Director: Michael Mann
Stars: Johnny Depp and Christian Bale

The problem with Public Enemies is that it really doesn't know what it wants to be. The notes at the beginning and end of the film, along with the title itself, suggest that it aims to explore the phenomenon of public enemies generally during their golden age: who they were, what they did and how the forces of justice changed to be able to combat them. None of this is remotely surprising given that it's based on a non fiction work by Bryan Burrough called Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–34 and there are parts where this approach honestly seems to be the point. For most of the running time though, it forgets this utterly and becomes another John Dillinger biopic, apparently as a vehicle for Johnny Depp.

Now Depp is a peach of a choice for Dillinger, because he's managed to become the modern day epitome of the bad boy that the girls love, not just through his iconic Capt Jack Sparrow but through a string of morally dubious roles over many years in films often happily kept from undeserved obscurity because of his presence. Dillinger is a professional bank robber during the golden age of bank robbery who became a legend: 'public enemy number one' to some, a modern day Robin Hood to others. Needless to say Depp does a great job here and most of the film is happy to be there to give him the opportunity.

We begin in 1933, as Dillinger springs a number of his gang from the Indiana State Penitentiary in a daring escape plan that illustrates a number of key points right from the get go. Dillinger has only just been paroled from prison himself, eight weeks free after nine years in, and yet he's willing to jeopardise his freedom by committing a high profile crime breaking into the very same place he's just been released from. As the guards open fire on their escape, his cohorts run for cover while he stands there in the open defiantly holding his ground and firing back at them. He certainly has cojones, and while he doesn't want guards to die because they're just folks doing their job, he won't hesitate if he has to. And when one of his gang kills one for fun, he kicks him out of the car as they ride away.

As the film runs on and we see Dillinger and his gang in action in Chicago, we learn more about his character, which all comes down to 'tough but fair'. He gets the job done, whatever it takes. If that means killing people, so be it, but he leaves customers' money untouched during his robberies because he's there for the bank's money not theirs (incidentally a line repeated from Heat, an earlier film from director Michael Mann). He kidnaps people to aid his getaway but lets them go as soon as they're safe and clear, even leaving a young lady with his coat and hat to avoid the cold. Having Dillinger look like Johnny Depp can't hurt this public image, even with a notable scar on his cheek.

Now, as I mentioned, this isn't a Dillinger biopic, or at least its not supposed to be. It's about how the Bureau of Investigation became the Federal Bureau of Investigation and took on the public enemies and their habit of avoiding local law enforcement by crossing state lines in fast cars. Sure enough, we soon meet two key names in this organisation. One is the FBI's first director, J Edgar Hoover, played by Billy Crudup as a weasel of a man without any field experience and who becomes obsessed with the apprehension of John Dillinger. He's a thug, a driven man playing up to the press about a war on crime but willing to bend or break the law to get what he wants.

The other is Special Agent Melvin Purvis, who Hoover puts in charge of his Chicago office after he takes down Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd. In the hands of Christian Bale, he is a sure and capable agent and a decent man, far more decent than many of the orders coming down to him from above. The authorities are not generally seen in a good light here, but some agents are given our clear sympathy, Purvis chief amongst them. We see a lot more of Purvis than Hoover as he pursues Dillinger and apparently comes across other public enemies entirely by accident during this quest.

What we watch, though not enough, is a battle between two men. Purvis has the powers of the FBI to bring to bear, which may not be much in 1933 but still include some of the best scientific and forensic skills anywhere in law enforcement. He also has what is quoted as the strong leadership of J Edgar Hoover, but presumably translates to the fact that Hoover, at one point, devoted a third of the entire budget of the FBI to the hunt for Dillinger. On Dillinger's side, he has a keen mind, not just for bank robbery but also for publicity. He cares what the public thinks because he has to hide among them. He's careful who he picks for his team, never working with someone he doesn't know or who is too desperate.

All this makes for a memorable cat and mouse game, which mostly stays rooted in reality, or what is at least believable as a replacement, but sometimes goes well beyond. There's a very effective scene close to the end where Dillinger walks into the Chicago PD office, into the Dillinger Squad room itself. This plays well for tension, given that we all know how the film is about to end anyway, but it doesn't play well for realism. Then again maybe we don't all know the film is going to end: one girl in the audience cried out aloud when Dillinger was shot, as if there's somehow a rule of cinema that states that Johnny Depp can't be killed because that would burst too many young girl fantasies.

Dillinger also makes some very dubious decisions in this story, not least the one where the FBI's public enemy number one pursues a hat check girl called Billie Frechette, half French and half Menomenee Indian. He takes her to a restaurant where the snobs look down at her three dollar dress, and when she asks what he does tells her that he robs banks because he's John Dillinger. Perhaps he was just that sure, but it doesn't ring true. And there's so much in this film that plays loose with the truth that we start to question everything.

This isn't good. A biopic of Dillinger has enough truth to make a fascinating film, let alone the myth and the legend that could be addressed, and merely reading up on a few details highlights how many liberties were taken here. For instance, Purvis was appointed to the Chicago office by President Herbert Hoover not J Edgar Hoover, and not because he'd taken down Pretty Boy Floyd, because that came three months after Dillinger's death. The death of Floyd is surrounded in controversy with three apparent versions, none of which match the one we see here.

And for a film called Public Enemies, this didn't need to be just about Dillinger either. We get to see a little of Baby Face Nelson, enough for us to wish we could see a lot more, and not as a spinoff movie either. Stephen Graham is memorable in the role and he should have been given more to do. We see the death of Pretty Boy Floyd but nothing of his life and we don't get to see anything of other notorious public enemies like Ma Barker and her brood or Bonnie and Clyde. I can't help but feel that the direction of the film was skewed and against its own better judgement too.

This isn't to say the film is all bad. Depp is excellent and Bale perhaps better, though he gets less depth to play with. A few of the supporting cast resonate, not least Stephen Lang as Agent Winstead, the man who actually takes Dillinger down. He's firmly on the Purvis side of law enforcement, an honorable man, honest and modest. When Billie Frechette asks him if he's the man who shot Dillinger, he says yes, one of them. He's a good point to finish the film.

What really impressed me was the sound, the lighting and the colour. The sound is blistering, the gunfights so crisp and pure that we feel like we're in them. The light generated by the firing weapons looks utterly unlike Hollywood, way too bright, just as they'd be in real life if opened up all at once in a dark room. They blind us and the echoes are palpable. It feels wrong for a movie, not because it's inappropriate but because it isn't what we expect. We expect guns to generate just enough light to show us the faces of the men firing them, not to be deluged in a battle of confusion. Had the ceiling tiles at the Scottsdale Fashion Square 7 fallen down on the audience during such a gunfight instead of after one, there could have been heart attacks. The ghost of William Castle would have cried out in approval, even if it wasn't deliberate.

As for colour, this film is dark, not just in tone but in actual levels of saturation. It works in muted shades most of the way so dark colours like blues and blacks become shades of grey and even Billie's dark red coat loses most of its colour. At night this is almost a black and white movie, albeit in much higher resolution than anything we'd see on TCM, and most of the film is at night. There are only a few daylight scenes in the 140 minute running time. One comes late on with Dillinger wearing a straw hat and pastel shades of blue, utterly but deliberately wrong. He's a creature of darkness not light, and he looks like an idiot out of his element.

And yet these technical choices, which are as powerful as they are refreshing, are married to camerawork that drove me nuts. Even by the time Dillinger rides away from the Indiana State Pen at the beginning of the film with the memorable line, 'Let's go to Chicago and make some money,' we've already inflicted with a lot of shaky hand held camerawork. There are clunky camera movements everywhere, some of which feel like the camera literally fell back into place at the wrong moment. There's choppy editing, suggesting that we're watching a rehearsal or a rough cut, making the film highly schizophrenic.

The epitome comes about halfway through. There's a small town jail scene where Dillinger and Purvis first meet that seems utterly low budget: painfully plain sets, stark lighting, no soundtrack at all. It feels like it was shot on video and any cheap cash-in porn version could shoot such a scene exactly the same without any real outlay. And suddenly we hit Hollywood. In the very next scene Dillinger is flown to Indiana and we're caught up in a wave of crowds, press flashes and sweeping music. There's a fleet of expensive cars, a large plane and accomplished cinematography which hints at the style of stock footage as well as I think I've ever seen done.

And this is all very conflicting. Scenes of clunkiness are followed by scenes of power. Scenes apparently present only to set up jokes to be quoted in the movie trailer are followed by scenes of great suspense, masterfully done. Michael Mann is a schizophrenic filmmaker, having made some of the greatest films ever to grace the screen but also some of the most confusing and ill advised. As examples, watch Manhunter, then watch The Keep, both of which he wrote and directed. One is utter unsurpassed genius, the other a mess incoherent even to someone who read the source novel right before watching the movie. I often wonder going into a Michael Mann movie which side of this coin I'm going to see. For perhaps the first time, here I saw both at once.

That Uncertain Feeling (1941)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas

Men have been rightly called the masters of the world, says the introductory text, but there's one place they can never go: the ladies lounge. I'm sure political correctness has fixed this by now, because such a thing is probably deemed sexist, but it was still restricted in 1941. I'm not sure why this is important though, because it doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything. What we really care about here is the hiccups, because Mrs Jill Baker keeps getting them. Her friends send her to Dr Vengard who suggests that everything is her husband's fault.

So even though she's really happy, so happy that the magazines call her and her husband the Happy Bakers, she starts watching everything he does and like anyone under the magnifying glass he comes up wanting. For instance, he has the sheer audacity to sleep better than she does, to gargle in the morning and to poke her in the stomach and say 'Keeks!' There's no explanation for this either but he has to stop doing it because his wife is sensitive to everything now. Maybe if he'd kept it up it would have scared her hiccups away.

Instead he stops poking her in the stomach and she starts hanging out instead with Alexander Sebastian, who she meets at Dr Vengard's. He's a character, and in the hands of Burgess Meredith, he's a thorn in everyone's side. He's for nothing and against everything, he has an utter inability to be happy and he appears to have no sense of humour whatsoever, even though he's a dry riot to we, the audience. He introduces her to music and modern art and suddenly the Happy Bakers aren't so happy any more.

Burgess Meredith does not play a likeable character here in the slightest. In fact it's hard to imagine anyone wanting to hang around with him, let alone leave your husband for him, but he's nigh on impossible not to watch him for the first half of the film. He's a mystery on top of being the catalyst in this little story for Merle Oberon and Melvyn Douglas to act around, but they can't compete with him in the slightest. Then halfway through, the mystery is explained and he becomes vastly less watchable and more intensely annoying. From then on the characters mean less and the story means more, but the question is whether it means enough for us to care.

In fact the longer the film runs the less we care. At least for the first half we can sympathise with the Bakers, whose flaws merely make them human, but as time goes on we sympathise less and less because they do things that sympathetic people just don't do. They get petulant and childish and it's hard to either feel sorry for them or wish them any luck in their endeavours. We just want to slap them instead. There are a host of films that run through this sort of storyline but manage so much better with both the sympathy and the romantic comedy. Uncertain indeed.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

The Merry Widow (1934)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch
Stars: Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald

To make the most notable version of Franz Lehar's operetta, The Merry Widow, Ernst Lubitsch had to outdo no less a name than Erich von Stroheim, who had made it in 1925 but apparently he did, the IMDb rating notwithstanding. Then again silent musicals are a acquired taste, and no, I'm not kidding. There were such things. To replace Mae Murray and John Gilbert, MGM cast the dynamic double act of Maurice Chevalier and Jeanette MacDonald, who were always successful together, however much they despised each other in real life.

We're in the Kingdom of Marshovia in 1885, where almost everyone is a soldier, a pretty girl or a gypsy. Chevalier is a soldier called Count Danilo and MacDonald is a pretty girl who he has his eyes on, though she's also a widow, Madame Sonia, the richest such in the land. Because this is Marshovia, she dresses completely in black, all the way down to her veil and corset and her pet pug, and hides herself away in her mansion. Therefore the Count has to go to extraordinary lengths to meet her and proffer his love, even though he's apparently a legendary lothario that every other pretty girl in town dreams of (and probably remembers).

Now as any decent widow would, she ignores or shoots down all his advances, even the greatest one when he demands an answer that is either 'Yes' or 'When'. Count Danilo for his part behaves impeccably but when he doesn't get anywhere proclaims that the romance is over and dares her to forget him! The man has cojones. And of course, our widow finally has something to write about in her diary, a formerly busy book that has been neglected in the year since she was widowed. And soon she decides she's had enough of being a widow and off she trots to Paris.

This is a problem for Marshovia because she's so rich that she own half the country and everyone else lives off her taxes. With her in Paris and suitors lining up around the block, King Achmet II is panicked: the whole country could be bankrupted. So he tries to conjure up a suitor of his own, a Marshovian suitor who he can send on a secret mission to woo The Widow and bring her back home. He doesn't do too well until he discovers the man who has snuck in to see his good wife, the Queen, the moment he left.

Quelle surprise! It's Count Danilo! So off goes Danilo to Paris to win back The Widow, who pretends to him that she's someone else called Fifi. Naturally they're going to end up together because that what always happens in films like this, but we have a ride to get there and where it ends up is not quite where you might expect. First they have to fall utterly in love with each other, while sniping memorably at each other, but with Madame Sonia playing Fifi not herself, making life a little difficult when he has to get down to the task at hand.

What makes this one worth watching is the fact that there's much more than just songs in this one, though I should add that while these songs are not my sort of songs they are remembered fondly by those who like such things. Here there's story too, cleverly structured. There's capable cinematography and there are costumes, always costumes. The MGM costume department had a ball, even before we get to Paris and there they go hog wild at Maxim's where they dance the can can. Some of them are truly awful but they're never less than ostentatious, flamboyant and impossible to ignore.

The dialogue is especially great. The most obvious peach of a line has to be the Marshovian ambassador asking Danilo: 'Have you ever had diplomatic relations with a woman?' My favourite though is when the Count explains to Fifi about how forever is always a night, so she introduces a bevy of beauties as 'All your little tonights and not a tomorrow among them.' Even the lesser lines are rendered better by some great delivery by the excellent supporting cast: especially Una Merkel, Edward Everett Horton and Sterling Holloway, long before he'd become a Disney voice, most famous as Winnie the Pooh.

The Ernst Lubitsch touch is very much in effect, this being light and fluffy with a charm apparent throughout. The downside for me are the songs, which are to my personal taste a little pretentious; and, surprisingly as this is an MGM film, the sound mix. Given that Douglas Shearer's decades of work for MGM is unparalleled, I can only imagine that I was watching a less than superb print, this being a 1935 film after all. And then there are the leads. Maurice Chevalier is utterly charming but I don't see why a generation swooned at the sight of him. He's certainly not much to look at; maybe it's just the French accent. Jeanette MacDonald is lovely but she has a hint of that stern Irene Dunne look and it always looked as if she was coated in makeup. Regardless, they fit the material and they bring it to life magnificently.

Monday 22 June 2009

Mean Streets (1973)

Director: Martin Scorsese
Stars: Robert de Niro, Harvey Keitel, David Proval, Amy Robinson and Richard Romanus

I've seen Mean Streets before, though it took me about four attempts to get through the whole thing. It's one of those pivotal films that influenced everybody and which everyone raves about, but I just couldn't get it. It's powerfully shot, in a very independent way, and the acting is superb, but somehow it just runs and runs and runs and everything that happens just leaves me dry. I couldn't ever find the point, even though the point is narrated to us at the beginning of the film by Martin Scorsese himself: 'You don't make up for your sins in church. You do it in the streets. You do it at home. The rest is bullshit and you know it.'

What I seem to have been missing all along is two key things. The first is that director and co-writer Martin Scorsese was torn as a young man about whether to become a priest or a gangster, but failed as both, succeeding instead as a filmmaker. Therefore the lead character in Mean Streets is really Scorsese himself, even though he's called Charlie and he's played by Harvey Keitel. He's a made man, a minor player in New York organised crime and serious about his work, but he also has a need to be forgiven for what he does and doesn't understand how the church can keep forgiving him for the same acts that he continues to commit week after week.

The other has to do with the scene that happens quickly after Charlie leaves the church at the beginning of the film, wondering about how he can give a penance that means something. He goes to his friend Tony's bar, which is bathed in red light like a vision of Hell. As he sits there with his fellow mobsters, in walks Johnny Boy with a girl without a name on each shoulder. He's a wild and seemingly uncontrollable young colleague, perhaps even a protege, who owes everyone money and spends his time avoiding paying them. And the point I was missing is that Johnny Boy is Charlie's penance.

With this knowledge, the whole film makes a lot more sense. Instead of a mostly plotless collection of apparently random scenes, it becomes a slowly but surely fleshed out exposition of a theme. While it's hardly a story you could call enjoyable, this knowledge makes it a much easier film to watch and to appreciate. The fact that New York Italians can't do a single thing without arguing about it still drives me insane but I don't think this concept is anything I'm ever going to get past in a Scorsese film. At least people like Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel do it so much better than say Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.

This film is superbly acted in a very realistic way that utterly fits the guerrilla style filmmaking. Robert de Niro is suitably wild as Johnny Boy, looking like an English hooligan with an annoying grin an apparent dedication to the road to self destruction. He spends half his screen time making excuses and the rest doing dumb things like trying to shoot out the lights on the Empire State Building. Harvey Keitel is even better as Charlie, suitably torn between his work as a minor member of the mob, collecting debts and running numbers. He looks forward to taking over a restaurant as the owner can't pay what he owes. This pair have a number of dynamic scenes together and I wonder how much of them was improvised.

The film really belongs to Martin Scorsese though, as improvisation notwithstanding it's very much an extrapolation of himself. Even the soundtrack mostly comes from his own record collection. I think this knowledge will flavour every subsequent Scorsese film I see, just as I already know that New York is a character in each of them. It always helps to know something about a director while watching his work but it would seem to be a little more important in this case. Without it you may end up asleep during it just like I used to do so often.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Léolo (1992)

Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon
Stars: Ginette Reno, Pierre Bourgault, Maxime Collin and Giuditta del Vecchio

He lives in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Everyone thinks he's French Canadian but he refuses to acknowledge this. His favourite maxim seems to be: 'Because I dream, I'm not.' He uses this as a code to live by, thus avoiding a lot of what he calls 'other people's truth'. He even dreams that his father isn't his father because his real father is a Sicilian tomato. No, we're not getting entirely surreal here: this tomato had become wedged inside his obese mother after she falls onto a truck of tomatoes onto which a Sicilian farmer had masturbated three days earlier. At least so his dream goes.

His name is Leo Lozeau but he calls himself Léolo Lozone because he feels that Italy is too beautiful to be kept for the Italians and because of course he can change his own reality by dreaming. Given that his family is not altogether there, both individually and collectively, it's not surprising that he should choose to find escape, and this film speaks to how he manages to do that: if not to find a complete escape from his large, bizarre and dysfunctional family, at least to rework it into an insanity of his own making.

This lunatic asylum of personal history is comprised of memories and reminiscences, told less in accordance with chronology and more in accordance with theme. It doesn't have much in common with anything really, except perhaps Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, but that only in the quirkiness of human belief and the desire and will to be different. And on that front it's a fascinating glimpse into the human psyche, though a darker one that Jeunet conjured up.

Léolo lives in a freakshow, but as much as we can't help but gawp like tourists at this circus, we connect with the characters within with joy rather than cruelty. They're fleshed out and human in ways that most movies refuse to attempt. Unfortunately writer and director Jean-Claude Lauzon only made two feature films, the other being 1987's Night Zoo, before dying in a plane crash in 1997, so we don't have too much opportunity to revel in his talent. And that's a serious shame.

Léolo lives amongst a slew of family members, who each teeter on their own personal brink of madness. His father, who looks like a bizarre cross between Peter Lorre and Zelda Rubenstein, has a mantra, rigidly enforced, that a shit a day keeps the doctor away, but this doesn't seem to help the Lozeaus much because they all seem to cycle through the same places: hospitals and insane asylums. Maybe they should have stayed with the traditional apples instead of Friday night laxative shock treatments. We don't see too much of Nanette and Rita, his sisters, because they get quickly lost in that cycle, but we do get to see plenty of brother Fernand, literally.

He starts out as a wimpy kid who gets his nose broken by a twopenny alley thug, so takes up bodybuilding, with improvised weights and ends up as a young Lou Ferrigno type. This gets extreme, as he walks around with weights on his feet and pays Leo to sit on his shoulders as he does press ups. In short, he achieves his wish: to look like a threat. As Léolo discovers though, hulking up doesn't cure fear, which was Fernand's problem all along, and fear has to do with a lot of these stories.

It even affects Léolo's introduction to sex. We learn about this as he does, discovering the thing between his legs and realising it wasn't on the pictures in school that the teachers use to teach anatomy. We watch as he discovers masturbation, with a carefully cut slice of liver no less, all cleverly disguised from the camera so this doesn't become child pornography. And we watch him lust after his childhood crush, Bianca by name, who he watches service his grandfather, but not in ways you might expect. He pays her to show her breasts, wash his feet and bite off his toenails. Yet he has to watch her from afar because of fear.

At once though, Léolo is the most sane and the most imaginative of the bunch. He reads the one and only book in the house at night, by the light of the fridge, after wrapping himself up tight to avoid the cold. To afford a bike he dives for fishing lures in a polluted underwater junkyard. After one of the most stunning lines ever to grace a film, 'My grandfather was not a mean man but he'd already tried to kill me,' he turns a near death experience into an underwater treasure hunting expedition. Of course later he returns the murderous favour with disastrous results, ensuring that he ends up in the same ritual of hospital and madhouse that everyone else in the family seems to go through.

Except his mother that is, which is telling, because from what I can gather, the childhood of writer/director Jean-Claude Lauzon bears a lot of similarity to that of Léolo. Most of the members of his family spent time in asylums too, with the notable exception of his mother. Jeunet's Amelie is fiction but it incorporates many stories that he had collected throughout his life. I wonder if Léolo worked in a similar way for Lauzon. If so, it's amazing that he even survived long enough to make one movie, let alone two, and I'm not just talking about the rats and the turkey in the bathtub.

The key to the film is the maxim that is repeated throughout: 'Because I dream, I'm not,' but it doesn't unlock the answers to all our questions. In fact we're not even sure who's telling the story. It would initially appear to be Léolo himself as an old man, looking back on his life, but we're soon suggested away from that idea. There's a strange character woven into the framework of the story called the word tamer. He spends his time scrounging through other people's garbage to find their letters and photographs, which he commits to memory then burns so that their souls can be reborn.

It's unclear whether this hobby leads him to the Lozeaus or whether he was there all along, but he's certainly there, interacting with their lives and even changing the direction of them. He tells Léolo's story in narration through reading his journals, but we can't help wonder whether the word tamer is real, whether he's really Léolo or even God. In fact the entire film could be taken literally as the life of Léolo, or as his escape through dream. The word tamer could easily be a fiction in that dream, just as anything and everything else could be too.

Canada is a country that has produced some of the great names of cinema, from Edward Dmytryk to Norman Jewison, from Mack Sennett to David Cronenberg, but it hasn't had much luck in producing films of genius. Those great names tend to end up making their mark in the American system, not least the Canadian director James Cameron who made Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time. This film ranks high on the list of Canadian films, high enough to rate inclusion in a list of the hundred greatest films of all time published in Time magazine by Richards Schickel and Corliss.

While I've now seen it precisely once, with a number of notable interruptions, I can't elevate it that high myself but could easily imagine doing so in the future. This is heady and amazing stuff, more than worthy of further viewings. It feels like a film that would grow with such and elevate itself. I've seen a few of those this year and I need to ensure that I come back to them to see whether my feelings were right or not. I'd be surprised if this one doesn't offend and delight and shock as much on the second viewing and the third as on the first time out.

Technically it's superb, not just with obvious components like the way the camera moves and the angles it watches from, but in the way it uses colour and shade. The sets are stunning, possibly more stunning for their lack of traditional beauty, and the soundtrack is particularly eclectic and beautiful. Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones are the most recognisable names on it, but it's not a rock soundtrack. Most of it is focused on the voice, whether it be in choral music, opera or world music, weaving from Loreena McKennitt to Baaba Maal via the Tallis Scholars, even down to drone pieces that sound reminiscent of Philip Glass's work for Koyaanisqatsi but wouldn't be out of place in a horror film.

This a film that everyone should see, but it's certainly not a film for everyone. In fact it's not even a film for everyone willing to read subtitles, given that it's a Québécois film made in French. However it's certainly a film for anyone with an imagination, anyone who felt different or apart and anyone who really wants to delve into cinema, whatever it is and wherever it comes from, to find those gems that stand apart from the mass of movies to say something special.

Saturday 20 June 2009

Ned Kelly (1970)

Director: Tony Richardson
Star: Mick Jagger

Beginning at the end, (literally: it throws THE END up onto the screen for us, right after the title of the film), this unsurprisingly tells us the story of Ned Kelly, famous Australian horse thief. He's in jail where he's quickly married and then hanged, with a beard and a hood around his head that makes him look not unlike a Rastafarian. That's an intriguing image given that he's played by a minor musical name you may have heard of, Mick Jagger, but that's the end of the end and we switch back to the beginning.

The beginning sees Kelly heading home after three years in Beechworth Jail. We're in 1871 and the Kellys aren't particularly popular in the neighbourhood. They're Irish immigrants, as you'd expect from the surname, and they live their lives like wild Irish rovers. Ned was locked up for stealing a horse and serving time seems to be a family trait, his brothers following suit. What's more, the moment they get out, they have a habit of promptly pissing off the local landowners by collecting up their horses and livestock and taking them to the impound stockade.

I get the impression that the filmmakers were trying to persuade us that the Kellys aren't bad folk, just a little wild, but it doesn't work. They may not start bad, but they hardly the brightest bulbs in the pack, however much Ned Kelly reads poetry and writes letters to the newspapers. The police are no better, having more than a couple of bad apples and being more than willing to bend the letter of their own law to get their men.

And so the whole thing escalates through idiocy and sheer bloodymindedness, until we're not just talking about minor cases of mischief and resisting arrest, we're talking about causing the death of a handful of policemen doing their duty trying to arrest them. And by this point it really doesn't matter whose fault it was, it'll never calm back down again, so with a $2,000 bounty on his head, Ned Kelly takes on the role of folk hero, using a newly acquired sense for public relations.

I was looking forward to this film for a number of reasons. I've been thoroughly impressed with everything I've seen with Tony Richardson's name on it; I was intrigued to see how Mick Jagger would play an Australian outlaw; and I have a soft spot for Antipodean movies generally. Technically Ned Kelly is a British film but it was shot down under (though in New South Wales rather than Victoria) with a mostly native cast: even the American character is played by an Australian called Bruce.

Unfortunately, while it has its moments it just doesn't feel Australian, unlike another film about an Aussie outlaw, Mad Dog Morgan, made six years later with a similar story and at least one of the same cast members, probably more. There are a few obvious reasons for this, not least the soundtrack which is utterly inappropriate. It's not that people like Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson don't have fine voices and the songs that Shel Silverstein wrote for them are often pretty clever, but they're from a completely different culture. It all fits the subject matter about as well as if Snoop Dogg or Rob Zombie had done the work, and I kept half expecting the General Lee to leap over the hill with Roscoe P Coltrane in hot pursuit.

The other reason may not even be a good one and is very likely to be due more to my not knowing much about 19th century colonial history than in any lack of authenticity, but it doesn't feel that way. Having grown up during the '70s and '80s with the troubles in Northern Ireland never far from the front page of the papers and the results of them very apparent on the streets I walked to home and work, this feels like a deliberate translation of this English/Irish political war into a historical Australian setting. Sure, the English were running the show and there were Irish immigrants everywhere but surely the fight for Australian independence wasn't just run by Irish with a traditional hate for the English.

Mick Jagger's accent doesn't help much either, being less than consistent and not too authentic to boot. Apparently the choice to cast him as Ned Kelly was heavily controversial down under even before the film was made and I can't imagine the end result made them very happy either. I've seen Jagger act elsewhere and know he's not too shabby on that front, but I wouldn't have believed it had this been my first and only exposure to his acting. The various actors playing his family are more nondescript than bad, none of them really making anything of an impact.

Nondescript is a pretty good word for the film, really. There's some early promise but it doesn't go anywhere and the script is shabby enough to leave us wondering why the title character was even worthy of a film about his life. It can't just have been about the armour, however cinematic that was. A rock star in a suit of home made armour really isn't enough to constitute a worthwhile film, however famous he is and however white his teeth.

I wonder how much better Heath Ledger and Orlando Bloom managed to get in their version of the story in 2003. At least that seems to have looked at the story from both sides instead of just one, but it doesn't sound very authentic either. I also wonder why the Aussies haven't attempted a serious version of their own. Maybe they're happy with the fact that they had made one way back in the day: The Story of the Kelly Gang being not just the first Australian feature length film but the first from anywhere. Made in 1906, it ran a full hour long and was even banned more than once for supposedly glorifying criminals. Unfortunately only 17 minutes survives today. It's probably better than this.

Friday 19 June 2009

Phaedra (1962)

Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Melina Mercouri, Anthony Perkins and Raf Vallone

While Jules Dassin's very name sounds French and he is possibly best known for a truly awesome French film, Du rififi chez les hommes, which is known in the west simply as Rififi, he wasn't French. He was born in the States, as Julius Dassin, and made films there until he was blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. He then went to France, where he struggled but succeeded. Eventually though he died in Greece, the widow of a Greek actress, Melina Mercouri. They weren't married in 1962 when they made this Greek film together, but they'd known each other for years, and when they did marry in 1966 it was for life. I wonder what nationality he thought of himself as.

Our story is a classic one in the truest sense, based on a play written by the Greek tragedian Euripides in 428 BC, though he's not deemed important enough to gain a credit, probably because it's seriously updated to fit in the modern day. The first of the main characters we meet is the least of them. He's Thanos, a Greek shipping magnate, as rich and powerful as you might imagine for a Greek shipping magnate but probably a little better looking if you're thinking about someone like Aristotle Onassis. Now Thanos had married an Englishwoman but they're divorced. Both are remarried: she's in Hong Kong, married to a member of the diplomatic corps, and he's in Greece, married to Phaedra.

Phaedra is our focus, of course, in the lovely form of Melina Mercouri, Jules Dassin's future wife. As the wife of Thanos, Greek shipping magnate, it's pointed out by a jealous onlooker that she has everything. Given that he's launching the newest vessel in his fleet, named Phaedra, she may have a point, but we soon discover things that the onlooker never dreamed of. You see, there's a third wheel in our romance: Alexis, the son of Thanos and his English wife. She brought him up in England where he's trying to become a painter, but Thanos wants him back in Greece and he sends his wife to persuade him to come.

When they first meet, in the British Museum, he points out that she isn't pretty and he's right. She isn't pretty but she has that je ne se quoi that makes her magnetic and alive. And Alexis sees this too, because she persuades him and when they get back to Greece and his father/her husband promptly leaves for New York, they fall utterly in lust. Given that this is 1962, this is of course hardly surprising, given that Alexis is played by the charming Anthony Perkins and as we discovered two years earlier in Hitchcock's Psycho, he has a thing for mothers.

It doesn't take too long for them to consummate their mutual lust, in front of the fireplace no less. This might sound trite and clichéd but it's an amazing scene, set up through superb and subtle acting and then shot through clever cinematography to unite their passion with water and fire. It feels less a love scene and more a piece of art. The film follows the scene, definitely from the European art house mould rather than the Hollywood approach to tragedy. No wonder it was so popular in Europe and so slated in America. They probably didn't appreciate the wonderful soundtrack of Greek folk and jazz music by Mikis Theodorakis.

The film is consistently solid, except for unfortunate shots that didn't pan out and couldn't be shot again. Luckily these are few and far between. As an example, just compare the accident scene which is something of an anticlimax, with the scenes with the grieving widows which are not far off masterpieces. Whenever there's time to set up a shot and fix it if need be, the end results are joyous, with artistic lighting and composition of frame. Whenever that isn't possible, there are points where things slip.

The acting is universally excellent and we feel to different degrees for all the main characters, with the single exception of Phaedra's son. He's a spoilt brat with nothing going for him except his family and if we ever really find out quite how he fit into the picture I must have blinked and missed it. Sure, he's unwittingly the trigger for Phaedra to turn everything utterly pear shaped, but he doesn't really do anything else except annoy us and bring hope to his mother. Luckily we don't get to see too much of him and we can watch the leads do their work with power and effectiveness.

The Canterville Ghost (1944)

Director: Jules Dassin
Stars: Charles Laughton, Robert Young and Margaret O'Brien

Sir Simon de Canterville was killed in 1634 at the end of a bizarre affair that leaves him walled up in an alcove in Canterville Castle by his father for cowardice. You see, his brother Anthony marries Sir Valentine's fiancee and naturally Sir Valentine demands satisfaction. But Anthony substitutes his brother, Sir Simon, and Sir Valentine substitutes Bold Sir Guy and Bold Sir Guy is played by Tor Johnson, so Sir Simon runs away and hides. You can hardly blame him, but it's not something his honourable father can accept so Sir Simon ends up dead.

Fast forward three hundred years and he's now apparently one of the most fearsome of the famous ghosts of England, who emerges from his tomb every night on the stroke of midnight in search of a kinsman willing to perform a brave act on his behalf. He's also a theatrically cowardly soul with an outrageous moustache who Oscar Wilde didn't write specifically for Charles Laughton. However were the years right such a suggestion would ring true because this is casting at the most inspired level and the ghost may be the closest thing this film has to Wilde's original story.

We're quickly introduced to the modern day cast of characters. The family has moved out of Canterville Castle but lives nearby and in time of war has let the castle to a visiting troop of American soldiers. Needless to say they meet the ghost at midnight on their first night in residence and so get no sleep, but at the instigation of young Private Cuffy Williams they soon take their revenge and chase him up the chimney. After all, while he may be a fearful ghost, he's still a coward at heart. And it would hardly be a shock to reveal that Private Cuffy Williams is, unbenownst even to himself, a Canterville and the potential solution to everything.

The link between the two is the present day Lady Jessica de Canterville who is eager to fulfil her duty as a gracious host, even though she's only six years old. Now this isn't a tiny throwaway role for a cutesy six your old, it's a critical one and in the hands of Margaret O'Brien, the demands of the part are fulfilled joyously. In fact it's often hard to notice anyone else when she's taking over the screen, from the amazing dancing scene in which she simply lets her dancing partner dance around her to her recounting of family history with all its corpse snatchers, gibbering idiots and bloodsuckers. She was seven when she made this film but was already an experienced actress with eight previous films behind her including Jane Eyre.

With Laughton and Margaret O'Brien as two of the three leads, that leaves the third with a major task on his hands. Luckily he's played by Robert Young, best known today as TV's Marcus Welby, MD but a leading man of the thirties and forties. He's also tasked with fleshing out his character with the biggest depth of all of them. Sir Simon is a coward, pure and simple, just as Lady Jessica is brave. Yet Cuffy Williams begins brave, discovers his cowardice along with his ancestry, only to have to rediscover his bravery. With such potential for the part, Young isn't bad, but he can't keep up with his co-stars.

Unlike anything I've seen since perhaps Ray Dennis Steckler's Rat Pfink a Boo Boo, this is a film with a split personality. Apparently the original director Norman Z McLeod departed after 38 days, to be replaced by the credited director Jules Dassin. Now I have precisely no idea how long the shoot was and thus how much each director made and I have precisely no idea which director filmed which scenes, so I don't even know if this is the cause for the cinematic schizophrenia, especially as both directors were capable souls.

I've seen many of McLeod's movies, which tend to be OK to good with a couple above that like The Bachelor Father and After Office Hours, and even though his Strange Interlude is one of the worst films I've ever seen, that really wasn't his fault. I've seen a good deal of Dassin's too, which range from OK up to wonderful classics, like Rififi and The Naked City. It's really the writing that's the problem and there only seems to be one writer, Edwin Blum. Perhaps the good stuff is based closely on Wilde's story and the bad stuff is where it departs into Blum's imagination.

The film begins as a curiosity and progresses quickly into being a joy to behold. The first half stands up against any children's classic you could care to mention: it looks great in every regard, the acting is charismatic and the dialogue is blissful. I laughed aloud and wondered how I could have missed seeing such an amazing film when I was young. And then halfway through, it all falls apart. The tightly plotted and charactered setup is forgotten entirely, and the whole thing turns into a set of plot holes that just build onto each other until there's nothing left but plot hole.

To say that this is disappointing is an understatement. It's still worth watching for Laughton and O'Brien, but they get less to do and there's less and less point to what they do too. We focus more on Robert Young, who is less watchable anyway but gets thrown into completely idiotic situations where he has to forget about his character development and turn into a clown. From laughing aloud at how joyous the whole thing was, I started laughing aloud at how awful it was. The laws of physics and geography are torn up, wonderful character actors like Una O'Connor are ignored utterly and there's really nothing left for the second half except young Lady de Canterville kicking a Nazi bomb until it starts ticking. Given how much joy the first half of the film brought, that thought is painful.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Wild Boys of the Road (1933)

Director: William A Wellman
Stars: Frankie Darro, Edwin Phillips and Dorothy Coonan

William A Wellman was a major director of precodes, to the degree that TCM dedicated a whole box set to his films. Known as Wild Bill Wellman because of his larger than life personality and exploits, in film he spoke to social issues with a calmer and more incisive touch than most. His films from this period are fascinating stories that are at once very much dated to the times they're set in but still timeless enough to be thoroughly enjoyable today. I have problems with most of them, but that doesn't mean I haven't enjoyed them thoroughly.

This one follows a couple of high school sophomores at the heart of the depression. As we begin they're heading into the Sophomore Frolic (boys 75c, girls free) with their girls, but appear to be very different characters. Eddie Smith is the dynamic go getter type, quick and talented. He's engaged already even though he's still in high school and it's his car that they're travelling in, a wild vehicle called Leapin' Lena (with 'I ain't much but I'm paid for' on the back). In the hands of Frankie Darro, he reminds very much of Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy on more than a few occasions (another Wellman film, incidentally), though naturally nobody could ever match Cagney.

On the other hand Tommy Gordon is a pain in the ass. He can't pay his way into the dance so has to sneak in in his date's dress and hat. Even then he won't even dance with her, let alone play along with all her amorous advances in the back seat of Leapin' Lena. He seems to be a complainer and a follower and a complete waste of space, but before too long, we realise what's really going on. The thing is that Tommy is broke, not just to the degree that he doesn't have any money right now but utterly broke. His dad is dead, his mother has worked four days in the last five months and they're eating out of the community chest. In that context 75c for a dance is money that really doesn't need to be spent.

Being a doer, Eddie plans the solution. His dad has a good position at a cement company and he'll be able to take care of everything, right? Well, no, because this is the Great Depression and so by the time Eddie gets home, his dad is already out of a job too. Before long, the rent is two months in arrears, the bills are unpaid and debts are adding up. With Eddie's dad standing in line for food and Tommy's mother just about able to get along on her own with the money she gets from a roomer, the boys want to relieve their families of the burden of keeping them.

They've already sold Leapin' Lena for cash so they hop a freight and go looking for work in Chicago. Of course there aren't enough jobs for men in Chicago, let alone kids, and the authorities are waiting right there at the freight yards to pick them all up the moment they arrive. Luckily they've met up with a girl from Seattle who has the same plan and who's travelling incognito as a boy. She's Sally, played by Wellman's wife, Dorothy Coonan, and she has an aunt in Chicago that she can meet up with. So life is good again.

But this isn't meant to be a happy film, it's a social film whose point is to highlight how bad everything is but offer some hope as a way out. So Eddie and Tommy get run through no end of wringers. Right after they get there, Aunt Carrie gets raided by the police because she's running a brothel, so off they go again. They hop freight trains, they panhandle, they try to find work. They do whatever they can to get along and live wherever they must, whether that be Sewer Pipe City in Cleveland or the New York Municipal Garbage Dump.

And of course at the end of the day, they find their moment of hope only to have it dashed, then resurrected as a banner of hope. What Wellman did better than any of his peers was to make this sort of thing work without seeming trite or too unbelievable. Sure, Eddie is a victim of his hope so gets into trouble through naivete rather than real criminal intent, but he then digs a hole of his own making before finally allowing himself to come clean to the right people at the right time with just the right outburst and let the future open. Like many of Wellman's movies, it's a tragedy of progression with a glimmer of hope, and like many of his films it's recommended viewing without being an undying classic.

Wednesday 17 June 2009

The Loved One (1965)

Director: Tony Richardson
Stars: Robert Morse, Jonathan Winters and Anjanette Comer

I've generally seen most of the films on the cult lists but I hadn't even heard of this 1965 comedy from Tony Richardson and I'm not sure why. It's based on a novel by Evelyn Waugh, it's studded with stars and it subtly blisters as a satire not just on the funeral industry but on America too. We follow a young English poet there after he wins some sort of free ticket and decides to visit his uncle, Sir Francis Hinsley, who works at a movie studio as an artist and in bizarre odd jobs like teaching thick accented cowboy actors how to sound like James Bond. Then again he's played by Sir John Gielgud and if anyone could manage it, he could.

The poet is Dennis Barlow and in the hands of Robert Morse, he's an enthusiastic but inept young man who hasn't worked out what he wants to do in life yet. At least the land of opportunity ought to offer plenty of ideas on the front, but nothing quite works out for him. And then after his uncle gets fired from the studio, as a sort of afterthought after 31 years of service, and promptly hangs himself over his dilapidated swimming pool, young Barlow finds himself at Whispering Glades, a lunatic asylum of a funeral home and wedding parlour.

I should point out that the lunacy is utterly and blissfully dry, even when the casket salesman is played by Liberace, and that's what makes this genius stuff. Whispering Glades is apparently a dream, conjured out of the ether by the Blessed Reverend Dr Wilbur Glenworthy, and the people who work there treat it almost like a holy mission. They don't let the Jews in for a start, and they have a strong ethical code. However this is California, so nothing is remotely what it seems, and I don't just mean the fact that the Eternal Flame comes in both 'standard eternal' and 'perpetual eternal'.

Glenworthy propagates eternity throughout Whispering Glades, to the degree that it's guaranteed to last through fire, earthquake and nuclear fission, but it's all a front. He reports to the board of Glenworthy Enterprises that there's only enough room for another seven years, so then then they need to tear the whole thing down and make a 1200% profit by turning it into a retirement home with a swift turnover of clientele. If only he can find a way to disinter the bodies without, well, disintering them.

Glenworthy also secretly runs the Happy Hunting Grounds, a much seedier equivalent of Whispering Glades for pets. This is where he puts his twin brother to work after he gets fired from the same studio as Sir Francis, and this is where young Barlow finally finds a place that he can stay in a job. Unfortunately for him he falls for Aimee Thanatogenous, one of the cosmeticians at Whispering Glades, who can't even stand the thought of the Happy Hunting Grounds. However she's addicted to his poetry and doesn't have a clue about any of it. When he quotes, 'Shall I compare thee to a summer's day,' she replies, 'Did you just write that?'

He isn't just up against Aimee's adherence to the Blessed Reverend's concept of ethics and the fact that she hates the place at which he works, he has a rival for her affections. And in the most genius casting of this genius film, this rival is Rod Steiger, as an embalmer called Mr Joyboy. We first meet him in a joyous scene where he poses John Gielgud's facial features and I have no clue how many takes they must have taken before they managed it without splitting their sides. Mr Joyboy is certainly into girls but he appears to be a flagrant queen, wringing his hands and shivering at people.

And while this film is hardly a standard comedy in any sense, when Mr Joyboy finally takes Aimee home for dinner with his mother, we truly find ourselves in David Lynch territory a year before he made his first short film. Mr Joyboy's mother is stunningly obese and addicted to food commercials. She even knows precisely when to tune in to the King Chicken commercials and all the rest. And Mr Joyboy tells Aimee about his dream of food and mother that turns into a nightmare when the lobsters he's cooked for her come to life and attack her instead.

Now I realise why this is a cult film. It's totally out there, well beyond the point that mainstream audiences would probably want to go, but those who live beyond that point can't fail to love this. It's truly insane in all the best ways. There's Margaret Leighton as a rich woman traumatised by the death of her dog to the degree that she wants to kill her husband Milton Berle and herself. There's Lionel Stander as the Guru Brahmin, the agony aunt to whom Aimee entrusts all her most personal questions. There's even Paul Williams in his film debut as an egghead kid who pioneers sending corpses into space.

The biting satire is mostly aimed at Americans, well represented here by names like Dana Andrews as a general, James Coburn as an immigration official and Roddy McDowall as a Hollywood exec, but there's some reserved for the English too. Robert Morley has a blast as the ultra-English Sir Ambrose Ambercrombie. After all, the tagline for the film was: 'the motion picture with something to offend everyone!' Most amazingly, director Tony Richardson, along with writers Terry Southern and Christopher Isherwood, manages to keep this from turning into a madcap farce. It stays deliciously dry and appropriately paced all the way to the finish. What a stunning piece of work!