Friday, 21 August 2015

The Assassination Bureau (1969)

"Human life is so expendable. So easily replaced, and pleasurable."

This film gets a rough ride from critics, I feel, many of whom just don't get the understated black humour that gives the film its charm. I won't deny that the tone is at times uneven and the premise, great on paper, begins to drag a bit with the monotony of Oliver Reed's Ivan Dragomilovitch having to assassinate his colleagues one by one. But a delightfully urbane and witty Reed, a sexy, unflappable and Emma Peel-sequel Diana Rigg (I love her wardrobe!) and the hugely witty and quotable dialogue make this film a pleasure to watch in spite of its flaws. Hopefully a DVD release in Europe is not too far away; I had to rely on Netflix.

The casting of Telly Savalas to play Lord Bostwick with a blatantly North American accent is often disparaged by critics who miss the fact that the character is clearly based on Lord Beaverbrook. And there are plenty of enjoyable cameos from the likes of Beryl Reid, Roger Delgado, Warren Mitchell and George Coulouris.I thought Vernon Dobtcheff was bogey amusing as a stereotypically lugubrious Russian.

This is a gloriously cynical film, appropriate for one set in an age when war loomed, life was cheaper and it was important, if you had the means, to enjoy life as much as you could while maintaining a raised eyebrow at all times.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)

"There'll be no morning for us!"

Christopher Lee is the nominal star of this film, but he doesn't get to do much other than be a frightening presence: his only line is "Go on!", twice, and that's only to horses. He doesn't even appear until halfway through the film, and his appearances are rationed. Nevertheless, this is a splendid example of mid-'60s Hammer, with Terence Fisher providing atmosphere aplenty and superb performances from Barbara Shelley and Andrew Keir.

We begin with a flashback, glossing over the fact that this is the second sequel, after Brides of Dracula, to Hammer's original Dracula, but we move swiftly on to our new take, centred on four English travellers and a substitute for Peter Cushing's absent Van Helsing in the person of Keir's Father Sandor.

The eerie mystery of the castle is well-set up and well developed to maximise. Both effects and the  an early sense of foreboding. A young Philip Latham (we Doctor Who fans know him as President Borusa from The Five Doctors) is superb as a sinister butler in the early part of the film, but Thorley Walters also puts in a strong turn as Ludwig, an obvious Renfield substitute.

The central scene of the film- Dracula's resurrection- is superb, comparable I. Effect to a regeneration in Doctor Who. Both the effects and the framing of the scene are utterly masterful. Sufficiently so, in fact, as to successfully gloss over how easy it is for the supposedly dead vampire to be revived.

The ending is sudden, perhaps, but better this than it outstay its welcome. This is an excellent example of Hammer during its golden years.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

The Skull (1965)

"All I can say to you is to keep away from the skull of the Marquis de Sade!"

I haven't reviewed a film featuring the great Sir Christopher Lee since his sad and fairly recent death, which is remiss of me. So I decided, on a whim, that this rather interesting-looking Amicus film, directed by the ever-reliable Freddie Francis, might do the trick. Perhaps it isn't Lee's biggest role- he's very much the guest star to an extraordinary starring performance from Peter Cushing here- but he is, nevertheless, superb. The auction scene alone (a cameo from Michael Gough!) shows that.

The film is excellently shot and made and, while the effects at the end are a little dated, that's all part of the film's charm. The film isn't perfect- the only two female characters exist only to be imperilled, and the Bechdel test is well and truly flunked, as you'd expect, and perhaps the pacing could be improved- but it's carried by Cushing's extraordinary performance: the moment towards the end where, with facial acting alone, he shows himself being possessed by the skull- is extraordinary.

Yes, there are cliches aplenty- we even have a police inspector dressed exactly like Clouseau in his coat and hat- but this Poe-like tale, in which Cushing's Chris Maitland, a rich collector of macabre items who doesn't enquire too closely into the ethics of their acquiral, is slowly unhinged and turned to murder by the cursed skull of the Marquis de Sade, is suitably griping. We get a satisfyingly lurid account of Sade's life, and some rather nice use of flashback to show us the skull's deadly history. It's only the slight slowness of the admittedly well-directed climax that lets the side down slightly.

This may be a slightly obscure film, but it's worth catching on Netflix if you can and, at 82 minutes, doesn't outstay it's welcome. 

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Woman in Black (2012)

"She makes us do it..."

This is the first of the new wave of Hammer horrors I've seen and, if this is anything to go by, I'm glad that Hammer are back. It's also interesting to see Daniel Radcliffe excel in his first true cinematic adult role- as a father and widower, no less. How very pointedly adult.

This is a solid and impressive adaptation of Susan Hill's 1983 novel by Jane Goldman, who has written many excellent films of a fantasy bent. I'd still like to see the 1989 TV adaptation, as it's written by the great Nigel Kneale, but this script is pretty awesome. Similarly, it's odd to see the likes of Jessica Raine and Roger Allam in such small parts but the cast here is excellent. So is the direction. In short, it's good.

I should probably be clear that I haven't read the original novel, but I found the plot satisfying and the film even a little scary. A little bit, at least. And I'm so much of a rationalist that, unlike my endearingly terrified wife this evening, I'm rarely actually scared of horror films.

Rationalism versus superstition is a theme here, of course, with Sam Daily holding out as the only person in the village who isn't superstitious. In the real world he'd be right, of course, but this is a horror film. And, I think, we're meant to notice the unfortunate class overtones of the rationalist country squire and the  superstitious peasants. But the film's theme, at heart, is the human cost of high infant mortality, which may have been a fact of life a hundred years ago it still must have absolutely destroyed people.

This film is really about the imagery, though; the creepy dolls, the revealed writing in blood behind the wallpaper, the sudden shocks and the innate horrors of Victoriana. It's true horror; in this modern world of "horror" films where the spectacle of gore overshadows true suspense and shock, this is the real deal, brought right up to date and more than worthy of the Hammer name.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Humans: Episode 8

"You would trap us in our own minds: give us feelings but take away our free will. Make us slaves."

It's the season finale, and I've only just worked out that Danny Webb's character is called Hobbs. Moving swiftly on...

Season finales often fail to dazzle because they have narrative jobs to do, tying up both plot and thematic loose ends, which gives the writer less time for the fun stuff. For that reason this isn't my favourite episode of the season, but it is nevertheless the perfect season finale. It satisfyingly ties up all loose ends, on a surprisingly optimistic note, and is a damn good bit of telly to boot.

The above quote is from Fred to Hobbs, and sums up how he's revealed here as the most evil character by far: fully understanding that the synths are sentient, he nevertheless wishes to enclave them. Fortunately, the rest of the episode takes pains to reject the notion that human nature as a whole is this dark. The Hawkins family, our Everyfamily, have done good. Even Pete and (ironically) Karen overcome their prejudice against synths to do the right thing, and are touchingly rewarded by getting together again at the end.

Most of all, we get a plausible happy ending, for families Hawkins and synth, following the apparently hopeless situation at the end of last episode. No one loses their liberty. No one loses their life, not even Max. The only loose end is what happens to the synth sentience program: no decisions are made on whether to grant sentience for all people (that's for the next series, about which there has been much rejoicing in the Llamastrangler household), but it's profoundly moving that Niska, with her deep suspicion of humans, should leave it with Laura as someone who has earned her trust. What we don't learn u till later is that Niska, a loner once again, has a copy of her own...

Also reaffirming our beliefs in the essential goodness of humans is the moment where Laura finally tells Joe about Tom. Joe has shown himself to be distinctly flawed throughout the series, but his only reaction is horror that Laura has carried this burden alone. Working together for a common cause has brought the family together by the end, in a satisfyingly and defiantly positive message. This is brilliant, brilliant telly.

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Zombieland (2009)

"So, do you have any regrets?"

"Garfield, maybe?"

No, in spite of the title, the year of release and Jesse Eisenberg, this film isn't connected to Adventureland. What it is, though, is bloody brilliant, a fantastically metatextual take (you know I love that kind of thing) on the whole zombie genre. Right from the start, with the narrative being based around Columbus' rules of survival in "Zombieland", this is a fun watch.

Yes, a metatextual zombie comedy has been done before in the form of Shaun of the Dead, which I must get round to blogging someday, but this is very different. Shaun of the Dead is a small, claustrophobic film based in London and set, in any case, on a small island. Zombieland is able to use the huge, continental size of the USA to show the full and terrible scale of the zombie apocalypse, and then have some fun. Oh, and 28 Days Later has had an influence: these zombies run.

Eisenberg's Columbus is fantastic both as a character and as narrator- a loner, a nerd, a virgin, possibly on the spectrum, but in circumstances like these he's ultimately able to get the girl, the girl in this case being the delightfully devious con artist Wichita. This could be said to be the best and weirdest romantic comedy I've seen this year.

 The stand-out character, though, is Tallahassee, with Woody Harrelson stealing every scene he's in as the loud, eccentric and very Southern Twinkie obsessive. There's a tragic side even to him, though: we eventually learn that the "puppy" he lost was in fact his son. This is enough to communicate the pathos but, wisely, is not dwelt in. Too great a focus on the human tragedy of the zombie apocalypse would spoil the fun.

The best bit of the film, albeit too brief, is of course the section with Bill Murray playing himself: one gets the distinct idea that Tallahassee, Bill's biggest fanboy, is acting as the authorial voice here. You can see his point: Bill is fantastic. And apparently Eddie Van Halen is a zombie roaming around Hollywood.

Basically, this film rules and absolutely has to be seen. But I knew that as soon as the opening titles started with Metallica's "For Whom the Bell Tolls".

Monday, 3 August 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: Arabella

"I merely asked questions. Surely that is the prerogative of any pupil?"

This is the episode where all turns dark. Strange, up till now both a member of the landed gentry and of the Establishment, hob-nobbing with cabinet ministers and the future Duke of Wellington, has his fall. He is widowed (sort of), disgraced (sort of), imprisoned and well on the way to madness. It is worth asking why Susanna Clarke punishes the character so. Simple narrative reasons? Hubris? Or are there deeper themes at work?

Strange's devastation at the loss of his wife is total. The current breast with his conventional brother-in-law- an old-fashioned country parson who still wears a wig in the late 1810s- is instructive. Strange, at first, seems to be the more together of the two but, while Henry goes through deep mourning and thus finds acceptance, Strange remains obsessed with the resurrection of his wife through magic, and this is his apparent undoing. There is much in this to support the theory that Strange represents the Romantic movement as opposed to the old-fashioned values of the Enlightenment, empiricist philosophy and high Whiggery which can be attributed to Norrell, at least superficially.

But is this too easy a conclusion? Yes, Strange has his archetypal fall, like Prometheus and any number of flawed tragic heroes. But he is an awkward fit with the tragic model, always retaining something of the manner of the unflappable fop, a sort of Sir Percy Blakeney of wizardry. I'll admit it's been almost a decade since I read Susanna Clarke's excellent novel, but both Peter Harness' script and Bertie Carvel's increasingly sublime performance seem to pointedly resist any suggestion of the conventional tragedy. There is also the fact that, as with Lady Pole, we are looking at a tragedy straight out of the darkness of pre-Grimm fairy tales. Perhaps the point is simply that life is capriciously harsh (making faeries a good metaphor) and we must be stoic. But we shal see how my views evolve.

Otherwise, the episode looks sublime, as always, courtesy of Toby Haynes. Bertie Caevel is extraordinary now he is suddenly given more demanding material, fully justifying his recent promotion to the A list of television actors. Both of the two female characters (Arabella and Lady Pole) in this very male world have now  been stripped of all agency by masculine design, quite literally. And we have a failed but very interesting attempt by Strange to reach agreement with Norrell which is stifled by the slimy Lascelles. Increasingly, it is Notrell's view of magic which holds sway in England and, increasingly, Strange is opposed to his Augustan Age reason and neatness. 

Oh, and there's a very interesting meeting between Strange and Childermass in which Norrell's manservant shows just how aware and able he is: potentially as great as either of the two magicians, he is hobbled by his social class. 

We end, though, with Strange at a seemingly low ebb, seeking faeries and madness. Once again this is a splendid piece of telly, written and shot to avoid the obvious readings and make the viewer think. Two episodes left...

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell: All the Mirrors of the World

A guest post once again from MrVortexOfDoom, whose YouTube us most definitely worth a look for those of us who like to see excellent reconstructions of '60s Doctor Who. We will be splitting Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell between us. So, without further ado...

Jealousy Shines Through

Episode 4: All the Mirrors Of The World – 
an alternative review by MrVortexOfDOOM.

“You must learn to live as I do - in the face of constant criticism, opposition and censure. That, sir, is the English way

Storytelling 101 states that, in any adaptation, screenplay or script, your start should be strong and your ending should be sharp and clean, possibly one that not many people expect. But they never say much about the middles. They are the great unknown of fiction and storytelling. So, if, in my mind, you get all the threads to meet up with not much casualty of plot, you are doing pretty well.

Episode Four is the midpoint, the point where the show is treading water, ready for its explosive last episodes. Or that’s how it should be. However, by a very clever sleight of hand (worthy of Vinculus himself), the series merges three key elements (which normally could bog down the script) into a dynamic sequence propelling you into the second half. From Gatcombe and Tantony (the Nottinghamshire brewers) to the King's Roads and beyond to Drawlight's unveiling is a fantastic sequence which must have been a nightmare to edit being as it is a mix of little-glimpsed sequences, episode parts, asides and nuances.

Plus, the episode has to introduce the major theme of madness in magic by the back door while keeping all the existing strands alive. Strange's trip through the Kings Roads for the first time. Lady Pole being sent to Segundus & Honeyfoot's Starecross (which I believe is referred to as the madhouse/asylum/Bedlam for the first time). Drawlight and Lascelles as Norrell's Jekyll and Hyde continuing their campaign of spite and manipulation. Plus the massive revelations with George the Third, which, here, is edited down to the bare bones, but still manages to keep some of its menace. 

In the promo pictures before the series aired, the bloody Childermass image at the location of the Hanged Man had a mirror instead of a face. And the country scene on the inside of the piano looked exactly like one of the bridges on the King's Roads between our land and the land of Faerie. It is true that you learn something every time you watch.

The series also continues to reward you with the entrancing mix of humour and practical drama. The practical natural aspects of the summoning spell. Colquhoun Grant being hilariously professional in the background while Jonathan and Arabella are having their domestic. The reference to the Cinques Dragownes (the magical court) which takes up a hefty chapter of the book.
And the acting gongs which this week go for me to Edward Hogg & Brian Pettifer as Segundus and Honeyfoot as Starecross gets its dynamite first client. Love John all serious, dressed up in his evil doctor's white coat. 

The picture of John Uskglass in the King's palace manages to be spooky, prescient and yet a precise summary of the last three episodes all at once. You feel that only a superior natural magician of high standing and power could perform the miracles that we have so far seen. But with the frosting of the mirrors, the boundaries between the worlds are cracking – and nothing will be the same again.

VoD 2015