strange_complex: (Saturnalian Santa)
I saw this last year at the Cottage Road cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and other chums, and came away feeling distinctly conflicted about it. They showed it again this Thursday, and my opinion hasn't changed much.

I do like parts of it. Jimmy Stewart is fab (especially his accent); I love the high school graduation ball where everyone dances the Charleston and ends up leaping into the under-floor swimming pool; Henry Travers as Clarence Odbody is wonderfully sweet and bumbling; and this time I managed to get slightly more into the spirit of the final scene where everyone piles in to save George Bailey from financial disaster (i.e. I cried).

I also noticed some of its clever little filmic devices more now that I know the plot. For example, the very first shot of the movie itself is of the town notice saying "You are now in Bedford Falls" - a lovely signal of transportation into the world of the story, much like a fairy-tale beginning with the words "Once upon a time, in a far-away land..." And indeed the whole first half of the film casts us as the audience in the role of Clarence Odbody with the angel Joseph, looking down on George Bailey's life as though they too were watching a film-reel. Very meta.

But even if you can swallow the idealisation of small-town America, there are scenes in this film that I just can't forgive. Like the way Harry, George's younger brother, thinks it's absolutely fine to slap Annie, the family's black maid-servant, on the bottom. And even worse the scene after the high-school graduation dance where George and Mary walk home in borrowed clothing after their tumble into the swimming-pool. The moon is out, they've had a fantastic evening together, and they are both flirting and teasing one another, laughing, playing and working up the courage to declare their romantic intentions. But when they get distracted by an old man shouting at them from his porch, George accidentally steps on the belt of Mary's robe as she is trying to run off, and she ends up naked and hiding in a hydrangea bush. This is how the dialogue between them then proceeds, taken from this transcript site:
MARY: Give me my robe!

GEORGE: I've read about things like this, but I never...

MARY: Shame on you! I'm going to tell your mother on you!

GEORGE: Oh, my mother's way up on the corner over there.

MARY: I'll call the police!

GEORGE: They're way downtown. They'd be on my side, too.

MARY: Then, then, then I'm going to scream!

GEORGE: Maybe I could sell tickets. Let's see. No, no, the point is, in order to get this robe... I've got it. I'll make a deal with you, Mary.
At that point, the entire scene is interrupted by a car pulling up to tell George his father has died. But what we've just seen is a fully clothed man telling a naked woman that she is entirely in his power, that the rest of society including the police would entirely condone that situation, and that he now intends to exploit it. Except that it's all meant to be a hilarious joke, because we, and she, understand that he 'merely' intends to ask her to marry him, and she has already made it clear that she will consent to that. That is, raw male privilege and power is actually quite funny because it can sometimes be put to 'honourable' ends. So that's all right, then.

I get that times change, and that this dialogue might have seemed like acceptably harmless flirty banter at the time when the film was released. But it makes me unhappy that it ever did - like ripples on a pond, the knock-on effects of those sorts of attitudes are still very much with us. I'm not even convinced they've softened out very much at all. And meanwhile, I am watching the film in the early 21st century, in a world where (a current TV advert for the DVD informs me) this is "the most loved Christmas film of all time". I don't love this dialogue, and I don't think there is enough else of unproblematic magic and wonder in the rest of the film to compensate for it and make me love the film as a whole in spite of it.

Will I go along again if they show this film at the Cottage next year, given my ambiguity about it? Actually, I probably will. It's become like a sore tooth now - something I feel I have to keep worrying at until I get why so many people seem to find it simply magical, rather than a bizarre mixture of the syrupy and the downright unsettling. Maybe the answer is simply "Jimmy Stewart"?

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strange_complex: (Me Huginn beak kiss)
And this one I saw a fortnight ago, again with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, but this time at the Media Museum in Bradford. It's actually a documentary, charting the history of the Alternative Miss World contest - a sort of bohemian art event that the sculptor Andrew Logan has been running since the early seventies. I hadn't heard of it before, but it looks amazing - all about encouraging unbridled, experimental creativity, including challenging gender boundaries, mainstream fashion paradigms and so forth. It reminded me rather a lot of some of the masked balls I've been to, but on a far grander and crazier scale.

The structure of the documentary splices the long-term history of Andrew Logan as an artist and the contest since 1972 with a shorter-scale micro-history of his preparations for the most recent event in 2009. He comes across as a lovely guy - very passionate about his work, keen to share it with as many people as possible, and with a great sense of humour about the contest, including its trials and tribulations. There was absolutely no pretentiousness about him, but just the very Britishness of the title - tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation about the whole process, but coupled with an underlying steely dedication to putting on the best contest yet.

The visual style of the documentary really did its subject justice, too. The early contests in particular are only preserved via a few fairly grainy photos, but the design made a virtue of this by using a scrap-booking aesthetic, with lots of collage-style images made up of still photos, decorative images and some animation, all inter-spliced with the standard documentary-style footage of the preparations for the 2009 contest. We all agreed afterwards that it was very much like Terry Gilliam's contributions to the Monty Python experience, complete with the same aura of British surrealist humour.

I don't know how widely this is showing, but I imagine it will crop up on late-night Channel 4 at some stage. If you like watching people pushing the boundaries of costume, fashion and identity, it's worth checking out.

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strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
I saw this a few weeks ago at the Cottage Road cinema with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy. As usual, the evening began with a selection of vintage adverts and a short Pathé news-reel feature - this time dedicated to 'The Fascinating Art of the Yo-Yo', and including a demonstration from Art Pickles, 1954 World Yo-Yo Champion! Art could apparently strike a match using a yo-yo, and also operate two of them at once.

The film itself was a bit of an odd one. It stars James Stewart, of It's a Wonderful Life fame, and shares with the earlier film both an interest in celebrating the virtues of wholesome small-town family life, and an element of magical realism. Stewart's character this time is Elwood P. Dowd - a nice but eccentric fellow in his mid-forties, who embarrasses his sister and niece by behaving as though he has a giant invisible rabbit named Harvey as a friend. On one level, the narrative arc of the story is sweet and optimistic. Gradually, we are given to understand that Harvey is real, and is a manifestation of a benevolent fairy creature known as a Pooka who has been looking after Harvey for some years. We as the audience never see him, but other apparently sane characters do - although usually at moments when they are stressed or anxious themselves. Meanwhile, Elwood wins everyone over by being kind and charming and generous, and they all learn to love him and to live with his little eccentricity after all.

The film seemed to conceive itself, then, as a parable about accepting people's foibles, and becoming better and happier for it. But (again rather as with It's a Wonderful Life), I found I felt uncomfortable about swallowing it wholesale. This time, I think the main barrier was actually the suggestion that Harvey was real all along. It's not that I usually mind magical realism per se - in fact, like most fantastical story devices, I generally love it. But in this particular case the problem was that it got in the way of the metaphor about acceptance. For the other characters, discovering that Harvey was real was a major step towards their acceptance of Elwood - but that also meant that they didn't so much learn to understand his strangeness, as to recategorise him as 'normal' after all. Meanwhile, it was all too clear that had they not done so, Elwood would have been committed to a sanatorium, subjected to hydrotherapy and injected with a serum that (according to a taxi-driver) would turn him from a calm and happy man into a miserable, tense one. To me, it just felt inappropriate to skip lightly over these subjects, or indeed over Elwood's obviously all-too-real alcoholism, with the suggestion that they didn't really matter, since Harvey was real after all.

Still, James Stewart is awfully easy on the eye, and he got to deliver some great lines - like, "I'd just put Ed Hickey into a taxi. Ed had been mixing his rye with his gin, and I just felt that he needed conveying." So by no means a wasted evening, and it still had that Cottage Classic magic - but just with a slightly weird edge.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I watched this last Wednesday with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy after a lovely dinner of sausages and tomatoey potato gratin. It's not immediately obvious from the generic '60s get-em-in-the-doors horror title, but this is actually a telling of the Burke and Hare story - and a jolly good one at that.

I'm no expert on the real Burke and Hare, but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan is, and she confirmed that the film was pretty true to the historical record. Apparently, the only major change was that Doctor Knox, who bought all their corpses, had a touching scene of personal redemption at the end, regretted what he had done, and recovered his reputation, instead of being increasingly shunned by Edinburgh society and having to move away to London as in reality.

More importantly, we all agreed that it was really well-scripted, acted and shot. Obviously, it's a low-budget early '60s horror film, and that does show - for example in the unconvincing painting of a distant Edinburgh castle used to indicate the setting, or in some crashingly-bad Scottish accents. But it had some really funny lines in it, a few good dramatic camera-angles, and some nice editing which brought out the horror of the grisly moments by setting them off against innocent or idyllic scenes. And although the plot wasn't predictable (at least for me, who didn't already know it), the characters were all so well-defined that everything they did seemed as it happened to be entirely plausible, with each action leading tragically and inevitably on to the next like a series of well-placed dominoes.

With Peter Cushing putting in a wonderfully steely Doctor Knox, and Donald Pleasence a suitably loathsome William Hare on top of all that, you could hardly ask for more, really. Definitely a very well-spent evening.

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
This weekend saw horror film fans from across the country gathering in Bradford for the 10th annual Fantastic Films Weekend. I didn't see quite as many fantastic films, or indeed little-known TV gems or enthralling interviews, as I'd originally planned, because I've been trying to be a little more sensible about not over-doing things since making myself ill that way in late April / early May. I realised that the important thing was to enjoy myself and feel relaxed and happy, rather than to approach the weekend as though it were a competition to see how many films I could possibly fit into the time available. So I missed the Friday altogether in favour of getting really on top of my work, and then took the Saturday and Sunday nice and easy, enjoying a good lie-in each morning and then just trundling over to Bradford for the things I really felt I couldn't miss. The result was that I only saw two actual films stricto sensu over the course of the weekend - but also two excellent interviews (one live, one recorded), and two rather unforgettable TV dramatisations.

8. Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), dir. John D. Hancock )

Sinister Image (1988): Vincent Price in conversation with David Del Valle )

An Evening of Edgar Allan Poe (1972), dir. Kenneth Johnson )

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strange_complex: (Claudia Cardinale car)
I spent a lovely girly evening with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan last night. First, we went to Jino's for delicious Thai food and a good natter, and then we proceeded to the Cottage Road cinema for the latest in their series of classic film evenings.

As usual, we started with some pre-film vintage goodies. The Cottage must have bought in a job lot of Rowntree's chocolate adverts, as they were pretty high in the mix. We were tempted by the likes of Black Magic, Kitkat, Matchmakers and Smarties - and I'm afraid I shattered [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan's childhood illusions by informing her that the latter no longer come in cylindrical packets topped by a brightly-coloured plastic cap with a letter of the alphabet on it. We also saw an advert for Nimble, one of the world's first really successful diet foods - in this case, a bread whose lightness was demonstrated by a lady floating off in a hot-air balloon.

Best of all, though, was a late '60s advert for an Italian sparkling wine called Gancia. When the in-laws come round, the advert advised us, "Try to afford Gancia!". Apparently, it cost £1/6/3 at the time, which judging by this inflation converter means it would now cost about £18.00 (depending on exactly when in the late '60s the advert was made). Can we afford that, people? We'll try our best, anyway.

To round things off, we then had a Pathé news reel, featuring a youthful Prince Philip on a visit to Hollywood. He seemed not to be doing anything too embarrassing, but [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan did wince when we saw him being given a commemorative Wesson rifle! Luckily, no-one seemed to have lost any limbs as a result.

I didn't think I'd seen the film itself before, but it turned out I had seen at least the first part on TV. I was just confused by the fact that it is in colour - still pretty unusual in 1953, and the reason I'd assumed that the film which I remembered couldn't have been the same one. The producers were clearly making the most of the opportunities offered, too, as we were treated to lots of brightly-coloured clothes, make-up and indeed one bright yellow vintage car. It is well worth watching for those aspects alone, actually - although [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I differed as to whether we preferred Dinah Sheridan's large circle skirts (me) or Kay Kendall's pencil-skirted suits (her).

The main plot concerns two couples participating in the annual London-Brighton vintage car rally. One pair are a respectable married couple, and the other a loveable rake and his latest beau, with much of the plot concerned with playing their rather different lifestyles off against one another. Each couple has its own tensions, but they also end up sucked into a greater rivalry - the urge to beat the other couple in a race back from Brighton to London. Cue all sorts of adventures and scrapes (some of them rather literal) as they run their ancient and eccentric cars as hard as they can manage, getting into trouble with the police, herds of sheep and angry fellow-drivers along the way.

[livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and I were quite surprised to find pre-marital sex being referenced at one point, when the husband from the married couple began getting all jealous about the prospect that his wife might have been 'involved' with the loveable rake before they were married, and she retorted that surely he wouldn't have wanted to marry a woman with absolutely no experience! But it was also made fairly clear that she was really just trying to wind him up to serve him right for being jealous, though, so perhaps that was enough to make the reference acceptable. Other than that, though, the main tone was light-hearted comedy, revolving around slapstick antics with the cars, the ladies' exasperation with their male companions' car geekery, and the perils of the Worst Hotel in Brighton - run by a fantastically prim and pernickety Joyce Grenfell.

Touching, funny and replete with 1950s goodness, you can hardly go wrong with this film. Definitely another winner from the Cottage.

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strange_complex: (Leptis Magna theatre)
A couple of years ago I watched and blogged the 1957 lost-in-the-desert adventure Legend of the Lost, mainly because a lot of it was filmed in the ruins of Roman Leptis Magna. In a comment, [livejournal.com profile] swisstone recommended this film to me as another very similar example of the same thing - so I added it to my Lovefilm list, and have at last got round to watching it.

The main story in this film involves a British army officer fighting in Libya in the second World War, who gets wounded and separated from his division. He gets taken in by a Bedouin tribe, whose leader lives in the black tent of the title, and (inevitably) falls in love with the sheikh's daughter who nurses him back to health. Since the British have been pushed out of the part of Libya where he is located, and the area is crawling with German patrols, he accepts the sheikh's offer to protect him, and hides out with the tribe, eventually marrying the daughter. But news soon comes of a British resurgence, and he hatches a plan to rejoin his troops - promising his distraught new wife that he will soon return. Instead, he gets killed saving the sheikh's life while they try to ambush a German convoy together. Years later, his brother arrives in the desert, trying to find out what had happened to the army officer, and meets the same Bedouin tribe, complete with a blond-haired child who is the deceased officer's son. The sheikh turns out to be concealing a page from the officer's diary showing that he had left all his property to the child - which the sheikh doesn't want him to take up, as it will mean the child leaving the tribe. The officer's brother is happy to go along with it, despite the fact that he has inherited the property in the meantime. But the child (rather hokily and implausibly) decides he doesn't want it anyway, as he'd rather stay in the desert with his people. And that's the end of the film.

Hardly the sort of story I'd bother to watch normally - but it was considerably livened up by the presence of the theatre at Sabratha, playing an un-named ruin near to where the tribe have their tents. As [livejournal.com profile] swisstone said, this is very much the same trick as is played with Leptis Magna in Legend of the Lost, since it's made pretty clear that the Bedouin tribe's lands are deep in the Libyan interior, even though the real Sabratha is right by the sea - and the camera angles were obviously managed quite carefully to conceal this. Unlike in Legend of the Lost, though, the dialogue in this film doesn't attempt to provide any plausible name for its desert ruins. The European characters clearly know that the theatre they are seeing is Roman, but it is largely just accepted as a local curiosity, and no-one ever shows any interest in how or why it was built there.

In plot terms, in fact, the Roman ruins are not really necessary in this film. In Legend of the Lost, the ruined city is the destination which the main characters set out across the desert to find, and it houses a lost treasure which we are meant to imagine is the last legacy of a romantic lost civilisation. But in The Black Tent, the theatre simply serves as a place for the army officer to hide in while German troops check for any surviving British soldiers in the Bedouin camp. A clump of palm trees, a rock formation or a watering-hole would have served just as well. It's tempting to speculate that the Libyan government was at this point deliberately encouraging European and American film companies to feature the local Roman remains heavily in their desert-based stories, so that they would become better known abroad and thus attract lots of tourists.

Still, since it's there, the theatre does manage to add a modicum of symbolic resonance to the story. As a remnant of a fallen empire, it is perhaps appropriate that it helps to shelter the British officer, whose empire (as it would have been clear by 1956) was also on the decline. Meanwhile, the German officers who are hunting for the British hero also interact with it. But while the British character admires the theatre and is clearly in harmony with it, the German officers mainly just seem interested in taking turns to pose on the stage and take each other's pictures. Are they, then, in the cultural role of the Arab invaders at the fall of the Roman empire, conquering the land and turning its assets to their own pleasure? It's probably not a very deep metaphor, but it's nice to see the contemporary WWII story picking up just a few historical resonances from its Roman setting, anyway.

In summary - nice for a bit of Roman architecture porn, but otherwise probably not worth watching unless it's a rainy bank holiday afternoon.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I taped this film off of t'telly-box in my early teens, and remember thinking it was fantastic stuff at the time. Of course, not everything one likes at that age still appeals twenty years later - but I had fond enough memories of its Seventies charm and surprisingly sympathetic main 'monster' character to upgrade recently to a DVD copy. So when [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan invited me round recently for one of our Sunday afternoon horror film sessions, I took it along, and offered it up as a suitably silly bit of enjoyment.

By the end of the film, though, we all agreed that I'd done it an injustice. Sure, it's low-budget - but my teenage self had been right to think it was something a bit special. Like The Wicker Man or Witchfinder General, it is one of those films which gloriously transcends its own limitations. Certainly a cut above the standard cheesy, inept and formulaic horror flick which we were expecting anyway.

The plot explores the final tragic consequences of a roof-fall during the construction of a new London Underground station in the 1890s. It takes a while before the full story is revealed, but eventually we learn that a group of workers - both male and female - had become trapped when a tunnel collapsed, the company building responsible went bankrupt, and they were given up for dead. In fact, though, enough of them survived to develop their own culture deep underground - at first staying alive by eating their own dead companions, but eventually breaking through the roof-fall and preying instead on stray Underground passengers.

The story of the film begins in the (1970s) present day, by which time only two survivors are left - a man and a heavily-pregnant woman, both covered in sores and riddled with disease. She lies dying in their underground lair, while he desperately tries to keep her alive by capturing new victims and feeding her their blood. In most films, he would be straightforward scream-fodder. But although he is physically repulsive and capable of hideous violence, he is also portrayed as a very human character - ultimately the last victim of the tunnelling company's negligence, and profoundly affected by fear and grief as the woman who had been carrying his child finally dies.

One of the greatest strengths of the film is the attention paid to the fine details of the tunnel-dwellers' society. We see things like the care with which the man pours himself some lamp-oil from a storage tank, complete with a bowl placed carefully under the tap to catch and conserve every last drop. Or the funerary chamber where he lays out his now-dead companion, lined with row upon row of decaying corpses - a striking visual record of the previous generations who have lived and died in the tunnels since the original roof-fall. And, most touching of all, the way that he communicates only in grunts and cries - except for one single phrase which he has picked up, and imitates plaintively without knowing what it means: "Mind the doors!"

Meanwhile, up on the surface, all of this comes gradually to the attention of Donald Pleasence's character - an absolutely brilliant Sweeney-style cockney police inspector with a great line in sarky banter and an intellectually-challenged detective sergeant to vent it on. Since one of the victims who has gone missing from the tube is a government minister, he finds himself up against the condescending and obstructive forces of MI5, personified in the form of Christopher Lee, who orders Pleasence to keep his nose out. It sits very nicely alongside the story of the train company's abandonment of their workers back in the 1890s as another example of the establishment over-riding the interests of ordinary people - but this time, Pleasence's character won't let himself be shoved aside.

[livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan was quite right to point out afterwards that by comparison with Pleasence's character, the young couple whose main function in the film is to fall victim to the tunnel-dwelling cannibal have pretty lame dialogue, and generally aren't anything like such well-developed characters. But still, even they are a little more than your standard cardboard cut-out hero and heroine. In fact, they break up part-way through the film because she gets so annoyed at his callous reaction to what appeared to be a dying man lying in an Underground station - not the usual trajectory for a romantic couple in a Seventies horror film. And besides, she has an awesome patchwork Afghan coat and yellow platform boots that I will forgive almost anything for!

There must be more films like this - little-known, under-rated numbers from the late '60s and early '70s which deliver far more than their budgets should have allowed them to. In fact, I guess tracking them down is what going to the Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend is all about. And if you see a few cheesy formula-flicks while finding your way to the hidden gems, then what have you lost? :-)

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I saw this film this evening with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy at the Cottage Road cinema. It was actually being shown as part of the Headingley Literary Festival (oh yes - we have one!), on the grounds that it is based on this short story (thanks to [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan for the link!) written by an author who grew up here: William Fryer Harvey.

The evening began with a short talk by a local lady who is researching Harvey and his family. She told us all about the house where he grew up, and his Quaker up-bringing, during which he was never punished, but if he cried he had to collect his tears in a jar so that the quantity could be measured. Apparently, he also read prodigious quantities of Edgar Allan Poe and prayed every night that he would never see a ghost - which probably explains quite a lot about his later output as an author.

The film seems to be pretty different in both tone and detail from the story (though I've only skimmed the latter briefly), but it is a great piece of cinema in its own right. The print we saw wasn't brilliant quality, but it clearly had the slick, stylish aesthetic that you expect from a 1940s black and white Hollywood movie. There were some really nicely-composed shots, and good use had been made of the light and shade - lots of flickering lights, faces distorted by shadows, people coming out of the darkness and that sort of thing. The special effects were extremely impressive for the time, too. Given that much of the story revolves around a severed hand which is scuttling about the place murdering people, it could all have gone rather horribly wrong if it hadn't looked convincing. But it really did - much more so than its 1965 equivalent in Dr. Terror's House of Horrors, anyway.

The suspense was built up really well, so that some parts were genuinely scary even to a cynical modern viewer. And yet there was time for little touches of detail to lighten the mood - like the cigar-smoking local Commissario handing his cigar to a waiting police-man as he enters a morgue in the course of his investigations, and calmly and smoothly collecting it back again afterwards. Like all the best ghost stories, we remain unsure for a long time about whether the severed hand is really alive or not, and whether Peter Lorre's character is an innocent victim or a terrifying psychopath. (I won't spoil it for you by giving away the answer.) And he really adds to that uncertainty by serving up a particularly enjoyable mixture of fantastic creepiness tempered by occasional moments of pathos and outbursts of petulant temper.

There was only one female role with more than a few lines - Andrea King as Julie Holden, the former nurse-maid of the disabled concert-pianist whose severed hand is at the centre of the mystery. But she was far from being a mere passive foil for the male characters' interests and desires, actually. At one point, left alone in the house with Peter Lorre, she first challenged him about his exact role in all the murders which had been going on, and then managed to fight him off all by herself when he responded by attacking her. Shortly afterwards, finding herself locked in a room with him approaching her with a knife, she manages to persuade him that he should really be off somewhere else looking for the severed hand - thus saving herself for a second time. And at the end of the film, she makes an entirely independent decision about what she wants to do with the rest of her life, and goes off and does it, with the male lead trailing vaguely along behind her. So I was pretty impressed by her - not to mention the fact that (as [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan pointed out as we left), she really did wear some very nice frocks.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I saw this at the weekend with the lovely [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy. It's an Amicus werewolf film complete with Peter Cushing, Charles Gray, a youthful Michael Gambon, an alsatian wrapped in a rug, some extremely spangly shirts and a soundtrack full of wacka-wacka guitar music. In other words, lots of silly '70s fun. And just to make the atmosphere complete, [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan had used some brand new skull-shaped silicon cake cases which she got for Christmas to bake spongy pink brain-cakes with a delicious layer of boiled eye-balls (aka cherries) to eat while we watched.

The USP of this particular film is that it is (meant to be) as much a detective film as a horror film, with the viewer invited to work out the identity of the werewolf amongst a party of guests at a millionaire's isolated high-security mansion. We were instructed by a voice-over to be on the look-out for clues from the start of the film, and towards the end the narrative stopped for a 'werewolf break', during which we were shown pictures of the surviving guests, and then given thirty seconds to figure out which was the werewolf.

We did managed to narrow it down correctly to two possible suspects out of six, but most of the clues were pretty ham-fisted, and I'm still not convinced we'd actually been given enough information to identify the correct individual. And, disappointingly, there was no Sherlock or Poirot figure within the narrative to explain in detail how we should have been able to work out which character was the werewolf. The identity was revealed, but not the reasoning. Also, the narrative which we had been given up to that point didn't exactly match up with the parameters we were being asked to subscribe to anyway. The millionaire who had assembled the guests kept stating very confidently that he knew ONE of his guests was a werewolf - and indeed this turned out to have been true. But he also gave reasons for suspecting each and every one of them of being a werewolf, and it was never clear why he felt so sure that only one of them actually was, but still couldn't tell which.

Also interesting was the fact that the main character - the millionaire who had invited everyone to his mansion, and who got by far the most screen-time in the film - was black. In fact, so was his wife, which meant that the film passed the ethnic minority version of the Bechdel test - there were several scenes in which the two of them discussed their own goals and motivations with each other, without any particular reference to any of their white guests. That's extremely rare for a '70s British horror flick - but you still couldn't exactly call it a positive portrayal. This character is stereotyped into something of a Blaxploitation role, running about the place a lot in shiny PVC shirts and wielding enormous guns. He also plays right into the age-old trope of the nouveau riche social climber with more money than sense - he's shown as a slightly unhinged play-boy, spending thousands on his obsessive hunt to find a werewolf, and getting several people killed in the process. So, yeah.

And, for a film with such a stellar cast, it doesn't half waste them. Michael Gambon is all right, although he doesn't have terribly much to do except sit around looking a bit sulky. But Peter Cushing gets precious little screen-time; most of his dialogue is incredibly hokey and utterly boring faux-science; and he's obviously been asked to lay aside his trademark crisp English enunciation in favour of an annoying and completely unconvincing foreign accent. As for Charles Gray - to be honest, he was basically phoning it in.

So, not exactly what you'd call a masterpiece, but fun for an afternoon's entertainment. And it's hugely whetted our appetites for more of the same at this year's Bradford Fantastic Film Weekend, too. :-)

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strange_complex: (Miss Pettigrew)
I saw this on Monday night with [livejournal.com profile] ms_siobhan and [livejournal.com profile] planet_andy, in a packed-out Cottage Road cinema where we were very lucky to be able to nab our favourite pullman seats with extra leg-room in a special segregated row.

It's definitely good stuff - packed full of cracking performances by our best British talents; nicely scripted with lots of great lines, and very beautifully shot. I particularly liked the rather muted colour-palette which was used throughout, and which I realised towards the end was probably deliberately designed to recall the tones of tinted colour pictures from the period.

At the heart of the drama is the contrast, tension and eventual resolution between a royal personage and a commoner: actually a very old story, which may be found in The Prince and the Pauper or Roman Holiday, for example, and is also the essence of Mrs. Brown. It's a fantastic trope, of course, with all sorts of scope for asking questions about whether royal status is a blessing or curse, and suggesting that most of what makes a king or queen different from anyone else is really just so much illusion and artifice. It's no surprise that it goes down so well, especially in a mature constitutional monarchy like ours.

In this particular film, we see a George VI who is incredibly privileged on the face of it, but gets frustrated at the absence of any real control over his own life, and the conventions and expectations which he has to abide by. We learn about his rather loveless relationship with his father and his unworldly perspective, while of course his stammer is the entirely human failing which brings him down to the level of an awkward school-boy, and makes him need the help of an Ozzie immigrant to do something which most of us find easy.

Unlike the king, the speech-therapist, Lionel Logue, has a loving relationship with his family, and is refreshingly unfazed by authority. It's especially fun to see him challenging and poking fun at the king in the course of their sessions, as he gradually breaks down the icy royal façade to get at the man with the stammer behind it. But the story would feel unbalanced if Logue was entirely perfect. We also learn that he's a failed actor and a rogue practitioner with no real qualifications, and it is mainly him who precipitates the inevitable temporary falling-out in their relationship by trying to steer 'Bertie' (as he still is at that stage) too heavy-handedly towards wanting to take over from his older brother as king.

So that's all very neat, and as I say it's very well done. But it did sometimes feel as though it were doling out the moral lessons about how We Are All The Same Really a bit too heavy-handedly for me. It's not a new idea, and no matter how well it is executed, it can't really qualify as challenging or exciting in this day and age.

Other random notes - I'd hoped for some good-quality Art Deco porn, given the 1930s setting, and was quite excited by the opening scenes in the BBC, which delivered just that. But of course it is in the nature of our royal family to hang around in ageing ancestral homes, so there wasn't actually terribly much in the way of fashionable contemporary architecture for the rest of the film. Also, after being pleasantly surprised to find that I could really believe in Helena Bonham-Carter as the character of Bellatrix LeStrange when I saw her recently in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was right back to being completely unable to think of her as anyone other than herself in this film. So I guess she needs roles which are really quite caricaturish and mad to escape from that effect.

Finally, if you've seen the film, you'll probably enjoy this archive recording of the climactic speech. I'd heard it before, as most of us probably have, but it does acquire an extra layer of interest and emotional resonance after an insight into the story behind it.

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strange_complex: (Snape sneer)
'Kay, so.... like three days ago I wrote up a post about the books, films and TV which I had read or seen in 2010, noted that I had yet to review seven of them, and resolved to spend January writing those reviews up "while doing my utmost to avoid accruing any more". Only then I realised that, actually, I was going to have to break that rule for the new Harry Potter film, because if I didn't get on and see it now, then I would miss my chance to catch it in the cinema. I've managed to see all of them on the big screen so far, and I don't want to break that now when we're so near to the end of the franchise!

So yesterday afternoon I skived off work a little early, popped into Next and Marks & Spencers to spend my Christmas vouchers, and then settled down in the cinema with a lovely big bucket of popcorn and the tinkle, swoop and build of the familiar theme music. I think I was probably only just in time, too, as there were all of about twenty people in there with me.

My expectations weren't that high. I found many of the performances in the last film passionless, although I liked some of them - particularly Jim Broadbent and Tom Felton. But while this film still wasn't a patch on Prisoner of Azkaban, I was pleasantly impressed.

Of the performances, Tom Felton remains strong, and I was also quite taken with Helena Bonham-Carter as Bellatrix Lestrange. For a lot of the time I managed to forget that she was Helena Bonham-Carter, and to believe entirely in her as the character of Bellatrix - something which I find I can almost never do with H B-C, no matter what type of character she is playing. And of course Alan Rickman was as marvellous as we've come to expect. There wasn't all that much of Snape in this film (there never seems to be enough!), but what there was was fantastic. His materialisation at the Malfoy Manor and masterful sweeping stride straight through the wrought-iron gate certainly made me sit up in my seat. :-)

Most impressive of all for me this time, though, was Emma Watson as Hermione. Given that she actively annoyed me in Order of the Phoenix, this is quite a turnaround. She seems to have really grown into herself in the role, to have dropped the rather over-mannered pauses and dramatic intakes of breath, and generally acquired a sense of quiet confidence and control which really captured my attention throughout the entire film. Hermione does a lot to drive this story, of course, while Ron and Harry flounder around rather like wet blankets - and I felt that Emma Watson carried this really well. Suddenly I wonder whether she won't be the one who can boast of the best post-Harry Potter career in a decade or two's time, rather than either of the boys.

I liked the visual design, too. I was struck from the very beginning by how most of the 'good' characters appeared ground-down and glamour-less, with red-rimmed, dark-shadowed eyes to convey what they have already suffered and what they know lies ahead. And I loved the way that this also extended to giving us a nervous, unshaven Lucius Malfoy - so very different now that he has fallen from the Dark Lord's favour to the arrogant, cock-sure figure of the earlier films. And David Yates' muted colour palettes seemed to work much better here than in the previous film, creating a convincingly sombre mood to suit the dark events of the story, and the autumn and winter timescale of the action.

When reading the book I was rather disappointed by JKR's decision to set most of the action outside Hogwarts, and indeed wanted to hear more about what had been going on there while the trio were busy hiding in tents. But watching the film, I found that I didn't miss Hogwarts at all. The settings of desolate forests, mountain tops and beaches worked much better for the sort of story which was being told here - mainly one of Harry, Ron and Hermione working out their personal issues with each other and learning to manage without the guidance of the adults who have so far protected them all their lives. In fact, this felt like the most genuinely emotive and grown up film in the franchise to date - which obviously isn't to say it is suddenly a cinematic masterpiece which transcends its origins in rather pedestrian children's literature, but does help to make it feel as though the franchise itself has grown and matured a little over the past decade of film production.

The pacing did still feel wrong, though, just as it did in the book. There is just no reasonable explanation for why it is that Harry, Ron and Hermione set out to find the horcruxes - but then end up spending months at a time hanging round in tents, not even discussing where the remaining horcruxes might be, let alone looking for them in any likely places. And when I got home, I was surprised to note that this film had covered approximately 2/3 of the book, leaving much less than half for the final instalment. I can see how that might work - there is still quite a lot of backstory about Dumbledore and Snape which can be lingered over, as well as scenes such as the final battle at Hogwarts, the Kings Cross scene and the epilogue which can all be made into epic set-pieces. But I might have preferred the first half to be just a little shorter, all the same.

Finally, [livejournal.com profile] glitzfrau was right to say that the visual highlight of the film was the animation that accompanies Xenophilus Lovegood's telling of the Tale of the Three Brothers. And a thought occurred to me which never did when I read the book - how clever of JKR to insert within her own story something which appears at first to be a simple tale from a children's book, but is then proven to be 'true' by the existence of the elder wand and the invisibility cloak. What a lovely way of enhancing the pretence that her own story, too, may be based on real events! And how even cleverer to then follow up by producing a real-life hand-written collectible edition of that very story-book, which is, as Amazon say, "an artifact pulled straight out of a novel". Surely, then, Harry Potter too must really exist, just out of sight down a mysterious alley-way?

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