strange_complex: (Penny Dreadful)
So, catching up on some film reviews, then, plus a little bonus "wot I did for NYE", since that's when I watched both of the two I'm about to write up.

I spent New Year's Eve, as I often do, at the home of the lovely [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy. Upon my arrival, chief cocktail-maker-in-residence [ profile] planet_andy fixed me a Vampire, while [ profile] ms_siobhan stuffed some innocent field mushrooms with a mixture of leek, onions, breadcrumbs and stilton. She was nervous about how this would turn out, but she needn't have been - it was delicious, as was the dessert of torn-up panettone, cherries soaked in kirsch, and brandy cream which followed. It was all very festive, and washed down very nicely with port served in shot glasses shaped like two back-to-back skulls - a sort of Gothic version of Janus, the evening's presiding deity.

Once we had eaten, we got down to the serious business of watching vintage horror films, timing the evening to perfection so that we could fit in one before midnight and one afterwards. We began with George A. Romero's Martin, which is essentially a vampire film, but works as a deconstruction of the genre, and in my view does that really really well. The central conceit is that we never know whether the main character, Martin, is a 'real' vampire or not )

Yet of course at the same time the very mythology vs. reality dichotomy which the film is setting up around Martin is quite deliberately false anyway. We all know perfectly well as we watch it that vampires aren't real, so by deconstructing traditional vampire mythology even while claiming to tell the story of a 'real' vampire, the film becomes meta-referential, signalling its own identity as a narrative and forcing us to think about how films work and what 'reality' even means in this context anyway. That is powerful stuff, and I think is what has made me keep returning to the film on a regular basis ever since I first watched it as a teenager. In a way, it means that Martin can't exactly be called 'a very good vampire film', because the meta-referentiality takes it out of that category, turning it into a commentary on vampire films (and wider mythology) instead. But it is certainly a very good film - though one which other horror film fans seem to know of or talk about much less than I think it deserves.

It also uses Martin's condition, and his family's reaction to it, as a metaphor for family responses to various types of more prosaic misfits )

Meanwhile, the film is also a very beautiful portrait of a depressed American industrial town in the late '70s )

I don't normally subscribe to the notion that knowing the plot of a film before you see it 'spoils' it, but for once the ending of this one is which is very much worth experiencing unspoiled if you can, because it carries a shock effect which works very well as a troubling climax to the whole set of questions that the film has been exploring about fantastical vampire mythology at one end of the reality spectrum and mental illness and family relations at the other. So stop reading now if you haven't seen this film and ever plan to )

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strange_complex: (Vampira)
I spent Sunday in Birmingham having a late, time-shifted family Christmas. It went well - we enjoyed a nice lamb dinner, of which Dad was able to eat a modest but reasonable portion, gazed adoringly at Eloise, who played in the middle of the floor like a little angel, and exchanged various well-received presents. Amongst these in my case were all of the Hammer Dracula films which I didn't already have on DVD, and since I knew in advance that Santa had these up his sleeve, I have been deliberately putting off my final remaining re-watch (of Dracula A.D. 1972) until I got the DVD. So on Christmas afternoon, when I had eaten my roast duck and fancied indulging in some Gothic horror until it was time for Doctor Who, I curled up instead in front of an earlier generation's telling of the Dracula story - the famous original screen production from Universal starring Bela Lugosi. Partly I wanted to see where the Hammer series was coming from - where were they following in Universal's footsteps, and where were they innovating? But also I have only seen this film once before anyway, and that seemed a bit neglectful. I've seen Nosferatu (1922) on the big screen more often than that, for heaven's sake! So I also wanted to re-visit it for its own sake - especially now that I have spent so much time in the Cottage Road cinema watching other films of this vintage, and can therefore perhaps understand it better in its original context.

Expressionism )

Relationship to Stoker's novel )

But it is Dracula that I'm really here for, so let's talk about him. First of all let's be honest and say that Bela Lugosi can't really win with me. My first experience of Dracula was Christopher Lee's portrayal for Hammer, and for all that I read the book soon afterwards, have since read up about the real Vlad Drăculea, and recognise Lugosi's iconic status as the first proper screen Dracula and his influence on subsequent portrayals (including Lee's), Lee still remains the definitive Dracula for me - and more importantly my favourite. This means that all poor Bela can really do in my eyes is not be enough like Christopher Lee. It doesn't even matter how well he interprets Stoker's character. Lee gets a free pass on that in my book, because I like his Dracula better than Stoker's. But Lugosi doesn't, so he's liable to criticism from me for both a) not playing Stoker's Dracula accurately enough and b) still not being the Dracula I really want to see anyway, even if he plays Stoker's character to perfection. Totes unfair, huh? But there it is - I'm making no pretensions to objectivity here. Nonetheless, let's take Lugosi's Dracula apart to see what makes him tick, and how he compares to both Stoker's character and Lee's interpretation.

As I've said repeatedly in my Hammer reviews, I like Lee's Dracula best when he hits three notes within the same film - icily aristocratic )

Darkly sexual )

And violently monsterish )

Two further notes also need discussing - perhaps we could call them harmonics to the main chord - malice and pathos )

So, yeah, six paragraphs supposedly about Bela Lugosi's Dracula which are really all about why he's not as good as Christopher Lee's. I told you I wasn't approaching this issue with an entirely open mind. I do see that Lugosi's interpretation has a magnetism and a mystique of its own which worked well on screen and was well suited to the tastes of the 1930s, and fully appreciate the contribution which he made to the ongoing evolution of the character. Lee couldn't have done what he did if Lugosi hadn't gone before him. But I know what I prefer.

Meanwhile, beyond the performances of the main actor, these are some of the other specific connections I can see between Universal's Dracula and the Hammer franchise:
  • Dracula's opera cloak and ring have their origins here (on screen, anyway - still photos show they originated in the stage production), though Lugosi wears the collar of his cloak up while Lee wore it down, and Hammer did not import his white tie and tails. For their first film in particular, Hammer stick closer to the book, since Stoker's Dracula was dressed entirely in black, though from Prince onwards he has a red lining to his cloak.
  • Lugosi also gives us for the first time Dracula's habit of using said opera cloak to envelop his victims as he bites them, like the wings of a bat, which Christopher Lee also does in his earlier films - e.g. with Lucy in Dracula (1958) and Helen in Prince (1966).
  • Universal's general policy was clearly never to show us any actual biting, which would presumably have been too risqué, but instead to cut away or have Dracula and his victim move out of sight at the crucial moment, and this is more or less where Hammer start too, although we already see a little more even in the first film. But Hammer's biting scenes inevitably get progressively more explicit as censorship rules relax and they need to outdo their own previous efforts.
  • At Castle Dracula, Lugosi appears for the first time at the head of a flight of steps, coming down them to greet his visitor. This is definitely a filmic innovation, since in the book Dracula greets Harker at the castle door. Dracula (1958) also employs Universal's flight of steps device - and to excellent effect.
  • Dracula's castle is a semi-ruin with some rooms in good condition, as is also the case in Scars of Dracula (1970). Again, this isn't a case of both films drawing independently from the book, because Dracula's castle is perfectly sound in the book, if dusty and unoccupied in parts, except for the chapel which is in ruins.
  • A large and obviously fake rubber bat hangs about the castle doing Dracula's bidding. Hammer's immediate response to this was to avoid bats altogether, but by Scars they had thrown caution to the wind and were just going for it anyway. The effect is very much akin to Dracula (1931).
  • All scary, predatory close-ups of Lugosi feature a strong line of light across his eyes while the rest of his face remains in shadow. This is used in the first Hammer film too, when Dracula appears on the terrace outside Lucy's bedroom window, and also crops up repeatedly in Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), as I noted when I reviewed it.
  • We never see Lugosi getting out of his coffin - only the lid moving, his hand appearing through the opening, and then a cut to a scene of him standing beside it. On one of the commentary tracks for the Hammer series (I think for Dracula, Prince of Darkness), Christopher Lee notes that this was also a conscious directorial decision for the Hammer series, on the grounds that the clambering required would make Dracula look too awkward and prosaic.
  • Universal use an assistant at Seward's asylum named Martin as a comic relief character. Hammer do much the same with an undertaker and a customs official in Dracula (1958), and with similar characters in their later films. I think there may be a few comic policemen etc. in Stoker's novel, though, and in any case it is a well-recognised literary device for leavening dark or horrific stories, so this one may not be a case of direct emulation.
  • When Van Helsing brandishes a crucifix at Lugosi's Dracula, he reacts with a hiss and a sweep of his cloak, both of which very much became part of Christopher Lee's repertoire in similar circumstances.
  • Dracula twice lurks beneath the trees in Seward's garden - once to communicate with Renfield and then later again to draw Mina to him and enfold her in his cloak. He does this pretty much constantly throughout Taste the Blood, too.
  • Dracula sweeps off, carrying Mina in his arms, to hide her away in Carfax Abbey, just as Christopher Lee also does repeatedly with a series of girls in Dracula, Prince, Scars and probably others.
  • After Dracula has been defeated and Mina and Jon(athan) walk out of Carfax Abbey together, we hear the sound of church bells - just as we do in this equivalent scene for both Dracula and Risen from the Grave (and quite probably several other entries in the Hammer franchise, too).
So there is definitely a lot of inter-textuality. Obviously Universal and Hammer were working from the same source material, and there are certain expected motifs which were bound to crop up in both of their films. But there are enough direct resemblances which don't have anything to do with the book to suggest that the Hammer team took quite a few cues from the 1931 film over the course of their own adaptations - especially the more obviously filmic aspects like strip-lighting across Dracula's eyes, the decision not to show him getting out of his coffin and the use of church bells to signal the destruction of his demonic influence. The fact is that the Hammer films I love so much couldn't have happened without Universal and Bela Lugosi, and for that I'm very grateful.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
I went to see this this morning amongst one of the fullest houses I have ever seen at the Cottage Road cinema. I've watched and reviewed it twice before in this journal: once in 2010, when I found James Stewart's profile pleasing, but just couldn't buy into the sentimentality or the idealisation of small-town America and its reactionary values, and again in 2011, when I had moved on to considering James Stewart 'fab' and noticing the meta-referentiality of the first half of the film, but also expounded further on the racism and sexism - especially the scene where we are supposed to find the spectacle of a young George Bailey pressing his advantage on Mary while she hides naked in a hydrangea bush romantic and funny.

This time... I don't know. Maybe now that I've articulated how I feel about both the sentimentality and the various -isms embedded into or even celebrated by the story, it's easier for me to separate those out, treat the film like the curate's egg it is and enjoy those parts of it that are excellent? Or maybe it was just the large audience in a festive mood, who laughed along appreciatively to what are actually a lot of very funny lines - not to mention the mince pie and mulled wine which I bought during the intermission. It being my third time round I also spotted various small things which I don't think I've noticed before, like the large bust of Napoleon on the windowsill in Mr. Potter's office, which nicely symbolises his aggressively imperialising approach to business. That kind of attention to detail always helps me to warm towards a film.

I also thought properly for the first time about why The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is so important to the story that the angel, Clarence Odbody, goes round clutching it throughout the entire film, and then gives it to George as a Christmas gift at the end. In part it must be because the book puts such emphasis on the friendship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which fits nicely with Clarence's inscription on the front page at the end of the film: "no man is a failure who has friends." But (having just re-checked the plot on Wikipedia), I can see now that more important is probably the episode in which Tom, Huck and their friend Joe run away for a while to an island in the Mississippi, and have a wonderful time until they realise that their families back home think they have all drowned in the river. That resonates with two key notes in It's a Wonderful Life - not prioritising your own desire for adventure over other people's happiness, and (because Tom secretly observes how his family are responding to his absence) getting to see what the world would be like if you weren't in it. So, yes, I see how that's an important inter-text.

One more thing - it occurred to me this time that since the angel Clarence watches the first two-thirds of the film from heaven as though on a film-reel before he goes down to Earth and meets George Bailey, he should have seen exactly what happened to the $8000 dollars which Uncle Billy misplaced, and have been able to tell George where it was and who had it. Obviously, that would have scotched the sentimental ending in which everyone chips in to help George cover the loss, and as it has taken me three viewings to even notice it, I guess it isn't really a problem, plot-wise. Plus Clarence is characterised early on as a bit dim, so maybe he just didn't even realise himself that it might be helpful to explain to George what had happened. But still, it would have been nice at least to know whether Mr. Potter ever got his comeuppance for keeping it.

I probably wouldn't ever bother to watch this film again in my life if it weren't a regular fixture on the Cottage Road cinema's Christmas programme. Indeed, that was already true after only one viewing of it. But since it's there, and since after three viewings now it has effectively become a Christmas tradition for me, and since James Stewart... I guess I won't go out of my way to avoid future viewings in the same setting.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Right then - it's time for some more Draculising! I watched this one a week ago with the ever-patient and accommodating [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy, after an absolutely delicious dinner of corned beef hash made by the former, and 'poshed up' via the use of sweet potatoes, mustard and sun-dried tomatoes. Yum! We had to watch it on one of my old-school video tapes, because it sadly isn't available at the moment on a region 2 DVD, which is frankly criminal if you ask me. I'm not saying it's the best Dracula film ever made, but if the whole series could be made available on matching video-cassettes in the 1980s, surely it isn't asking too much to expect the same on DVD now? I demand a boxed set, dammit!

Anyway. The series had made the leap to the 1970s with the previous instalment, Dracula AD 1972, which is one of my absolute favourites, and which for that reason I am saving until last in this run of re-watches. This film stays in the same era and indeed carries over not only Dracula himself but three other characters from the previous film (Lorrimer Van Helsing, Jessica Van Helsing and Inspector Murray) in what must be the most concerted attempt at continuity the series had ever made. But at the same time the secondary genre (as in the one being paired with Gothic horror to lend the franchise a fresh edge and appeal to new audiences) has completely changed. Where AD 1972 was a youth-focused comedy with a dark edge, Satanic Rites is a Srs Bsns Crime Thriller )

Character continuity and the possibilities for further unmade sequels )

Jessica Van Helsing - a half-cocked attempt at an empowered woman )

Dracula - hatches epic plans of pure evil, but can't walk round a hawthorn bush )

Rampant over-interpretation of the fact that Dracula has the reclining river-god Ilissos from the west Parthenon pediment on display in the foyer of his London office block )

As I say, I am vastly over-interpreting and I know I am, but that is half the fun of these films for me - the space which they leave for embroidering the stories to suit my own personal taste. I swear that wouldn't be as much fun if the original fabric wasn't so shot full of holes and rife with embarrassing thread-bare patches that simply cry out for my attentions.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
So, I did actually spend last Friday to Tuesday inclusive at my parents' house, sorting out stuff for Mum and visiting Dad in hospital. I'll probably write about that properly at some point, but the short version is that things are basically fine there at the moment, though they certainly do (and will continue to) need a lot of monitoring from me and my sister. Right now, though, I have a precious weekend to myself, and what I feel like doing with that time is writing about Dracula films. So here we go.

This is one of the entries in Hammer's Dracula series I've seen least frequently. I mean, we're still talking a good 5-6 times, but that is peanuts next to how often I've watched my favourites in the series (more like 10-20 times each). I had mentally filed this one alongside Scars of Dracula as being essentially a pastiche of the earlier sequels, but without their deliciously dark atmosphere or charming characters (for all that I kinda like Scars anyway). But having rewatched Taste the Blood now for the first time in probably about ten years, I think I have been unjust to it. It doesn't really belong in my 'pastiche' category for these sequels at all - rather, it is what I would call a 'straight' sequel, as in it is genuinely trying to be a good film in the spirit of the original, and is not markedly dependent on re-hashing elements from earlier films. OK, so it's one of the weaker entries in that category, but it's still more worth watching than I'd assumed.

That said, it certainly isn't perfect )

On the positive side, though, this film benefits from including a major plot theme which doesn't simply stem from Dracula and his predation, though it does end up linking in with it. This is something I noted as a strength for the previous film in the sequence, Risen from the Grave, where the theme in question was about faith vs. atheism. Here, it is about domestic abuse, and actually adds up to a pretty strong parable about emancipating women from the control of domineering men who don't have their interests at heart )

Also in line with Risen from the Grave is the portrayal of Dracula and his modus operandi )

Finally, I like to say a little in each of these reviews about how the film I'm dealing with develops the Hammer Dracula franchise )

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strange_complex: (Penny Bazaar)
It now looks like I will be going down to Birmingham tomorrow morning to take over primary duties on the parent front, but since I was still in Leeds last night I seized my chance to go along and see this at the Cottage Road cinema, along with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] big_daz.

It is basically a typical romance story of the Hollywood Golden Era, in which the primary plot-line is all about how the lead couple will negotiate the various obstacles in their path and get together, and the final scene is them kissing. But that's fine by me - especially when the lead gentleman is James Stewart. This is the fourth classic film I've seen him in now (the others being Destry Rides Again (1939), It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and Harvey (1950)), and since a major part of his characterisation in this one is that he looks immaculately turned-out throughout, I must say it is possibly his most visually-appealing role so far. :-)

In this particular film, the plot is a lot like The Piña Colada Song, in which a couple who have grown bored of each other both think they are cheating on each other with an exciting-sounding new flame from the personal ads who likes Piña Coladas and getting caught in the rain, except that when they finally meet up, it turns out they were corresponding with each other all along. In The Shop Around the Corner, the main romantic couple aren't already dating - instead, they work in a fancy goods shop together, think each other rude and interested only in commerce, and consequently bicker all the time. And all the time they are corresponding anonymously about romance and Victor Hugo, rather than Piña Coladas. But the basic point that we craft or project different personalities in different contexts, and yet don't usually bother to probe behind other people's projections and discover what else might be hiding there, is the same in both. It is based on a Hungarian play called Parfumerie, which was apparently also reworked for the modern age as You've Got Mail, but I haven't seen that so can't comment on the similarities.

In The Piña Colada Song, though, both members of the couple discover that their anonymous correspondent is actually their current lover at exactly the same time, whereas in The Shop Around the Corner, James Stewart's character (Alfred Kralik) discovers Margaret Sullavan (Klara Novak)'s secret half-way through the film, while she doesn't discover the truth until the final scene. This means a significant power imbalance, along predictably gendered lines, in that he can 'work' on her throughout the second half of the film, gradually eroding her romantic illusions about the letter-writer and engineering things so that she will come to see the real him as something more that the 'insignificant little clerk' she once thought instead. That grated a little as I watched, but then again it did mean some quite rich character moments for him towards the end of the film, because as he pointed out to Klara that her beloved letter-writer was (for example) stealing all his romantic lines from great works of literature, he was of course also deconstructing his own carefully-crafted façade personality. A story in which two people find out the identities of their romanticised anonymous ideal lovers simultaneously doesn't quite allow space for watching either of them go through this process of self-deconstruction, so that their 'stage' and work-a-day personalities can gradually converge, and I guess in retrospect that is an interesting psychological process to explore.

Meanwhile, there is all sorts of other stuff going on around the core romance plot. The shop in which they work is owned by Mr. Matuschek, played by none other than Frank Morgan, much better-known to me (and I'm sure most people) as the Wizard of Oz. I don't think I've actually ever seen him in any other role, so that was fun - though he is playing a very similar character here, full of bluster but with a warm heart. A total of seven staff work under him, and there is lots of comedy around their day-to-day interactions which had us roaring with laughter. Apparently, Are You Being Served? took this film as part of its inspiration, although because the film was made in 1940 and not the 1970s there are no double-entendres, and the character who looked to us at first sight like a screaming Queen was evidently meant to be read more as a gigolo, since it turned out that he was having an affair with Mr. Matuschek's wife. There is a rather sombre sub-plot around this, in which Alfred Kralik at first finds himself getting fired by Mr. Matuschek without understanding that it is because he has been (wrongly) suspected of being his wife's lover, Matuschek himself attempts suicide, and then gradually the truth comes out and Kralik gets his revenge on the gigolo character, all of which felt a bit out of place in a romantic comedy. But otherwise it is generally a film full of well-delineated characters, whom it is a pleasure to see interacting with one another.

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strange_complex: (Cyberman from beneath)
I saw this on Wednesday with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy at the Cottage Road cinema. Like Back to the Future a couple of months ago, although it was a classic film shown at the Cottage, it wasn't strictly a Cottage Classic (that was Destry Rides Again this month), but instead part of the Leeds Back In The Day series. I don't think I've ever seen it on the big screen before, as I would only have been eight when it came out, but I had certainly done so (presumably on video) by the age of about 12, as I remember doing a parody sketch scene based on it with school friends around then as part of some kind of class performance.

I enjoyed it a lot, but wasn't perhaps quite as blown away as by Back to the Future. It relies a little bit too much on standard-issue corny lines, like the goofy character who has just been in a massive explosion and is staggering around semi-consciously going "A little help, here?" The race and gender politics are also pretty appalling. All the clever sciency guys in the Ghostbusters team are white; there is a black team member, but he's the dogsbody they hire because they have too much work on, not a brainiac or a charm-merchant like the rest; and of course the women are all there to play victims, secretaries and love-interests.

That said, it does have a lot of genuinely funny situations and dialogue as well as the standard-issue corniness - like the Sedgewick Hotel staff desperately trying to cover up the fact that there's a violent ghost-hunt going on in their ballroom to their guests, or the interactions between the Ghostbusters and their crowds of adoring fans. Plus it offers some good oblique commentary on scam business practices (essentially what the Ghostbusters are engaged in, though with the twist that their ghosts are real), blinkered bloody-minded bureaucracy (total chaos caused by a city official who insists on closing down the power supply to the ghost containment unit without understanding the consequences of his actions), mass hysteria, public spectacle, celebrity culture and consumerism.

It was also nice to recognise locations which I've been to from my trip to New York - especially the New York Public Library and its Rose Reading Room, where I sat and absorbed plays and newspaper articles about Augustus from the 1930s just this April. And I could relate to the team of academics (who go on to become the Ghostbusters) getting unceremoniously kicked out of their University at the start of the film in a way I couldn't have done when I first saw it. Plus it pulled in a good audience, with several people dressing up for the occasion (one Ghostbuster on the door and two Mr. Stay Pufts wandering about the place), which is always pleasing. I definitely have a very strong interest in the ongoing success of a cinema only ten minutes' walk from my house which regularly screens classic films like this one.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Right then - time for my next Dracula sequels review. I may seem to be watching them in a completely random order, but in fact it is determined by a complex algorithm which takes into account a precisely-balanced combination of how long ago it is since I last saw each one, and how much I remember liking it. On that basis, Prince of Darkness is up next. I watched it only three years ago with [ profile] ms_siobhan, so won't repeat what I said last time about the awesomeness of Klove, vampire!Helen (Barbara Shelley)'s lesbitious dialogue, or the canny use of bits of Stoker's novel which they hadn't bothered with in the first film. But there are plenty of other things to talk about, don't worry! (As if anyone was.)

Prince vs. Risen )

Prince's strengths )

Sexual morality )

Ludwig the book-binder )

Finally, I was thrilled and delighted yet again to discover that the DVD edition of this film includes another commentary track with Sir Christopher Lee, this time in conversation with fellow-stars Barbara Shelley (Helen), Suzan Farmer (Diana) and Francis Matthews (Charles). It's much the same as the one on Scars, really, in that no-one except Christopher Lee gets much chance to talk (especially Suzan Farmer, who barely says anything), and we mainly get him rambling on at length about his memories of promoting the first film, working on this one, and whether everyone he's ever met is now alive or dead. But Barbara Shelley does get a few anecdotes in, such as one about accidentally swallowing a fang during her staking scene (and drinking salt water afterwards in order to bring it back up), and she also very rightly points out how effective the lighting is for adding depth, atmosphere and realism to the sets (in stark contrast to Scars). And it's nice to hear Christopher Lee, too, clearly remembering the film quite fondly and having nice things to say about some of the plot details and the effects. These commentary tracks are definitely a good reason to replace my old VHS copies, as if I didn't have enough motivation from the picture quality and aspect ratio issues alone.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
This was a Cottage Classic, of course, seen with redoubtable picture-going chums [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy. Beforehand, we were 'treated', if that's the right word, to a 20-minute short called The Specialist, which was made in 1966 but set in the 1920s or '30s, and was all about a carpenter who decided to specialise in making outdoor privies. We saw him going about his daily business and serving a range of comic rural customers, while he went on at length about where a privy should best be placed, all the different designs he could offer for the light-hole in the door (moon, star, heart), and the advantages of beams over joists to support the seat. I think it was probably supposed to be a surreal / nostalgic comedy, but it left us all feeling very bemused.

The main feature was a western, which is not a genre I would normally pay money to see, but this one had both James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich in it, which makes rather a difference. Marlene was amazing as 'Frenchy', the sassy, sexy saloon entertainer who has cat-fights with wronged local wives and is in cahoots with the local criminal gang, but (inevitably) falls for the hero and dies to save him at the end (because obviously she is a bit naughty and independent, so can't possibly survive the film). But even she could not compete in the eye-candy stakes with the loveliness of James Stewart in his prime. I found myself declaring to [ profile] ms_siobhan as we walked out of the cinema that if all men looked like him, I would be totally straight.

The story is not entirely that of your typical western, either. James Stewart's character, the eponymous Destry, plays an apparently very mild-mannered man, who is drafted in to become the town's deputy sheriff. For all that the title makes the film sound as though it might be a sequel, there is no previous film called Destry. Rather, we learn that he is the son of a previous sheriff, whose posthumous reputation has him as the great man who once kept the town in order. The son, though, likes to carve wooden napkin-rings, rambles when he talks and generally acts very much like Stewart's characters in both It's A Wonderful Life (1946) and Harvey (1950). In a town where violence and corruption rule, this soon makes him a laughing-stock, and a terrible disappointment to those who hoped he would be like his father, returned once more.

Destry Junior demonstrates pretty early on that he is in fact extremely good with a gun, but for normal business he refuses to wear one. Instead, he declares that he intends to stick to the letter of the law, locking criminals up and seeing that they are put on trial instead of dealing with them via shoot-outs. So it's basically a parable about what happens if you put an icon of the organised, consensus-based society into a wild and uncivilised context. Needless to say, after a few crises and resolutions, his way wins out in the end - but not before the town's leading criminal elements have staged a climactic shoot-out and paid the price for their own violence.

The race and gender politics are very much of their time - see my summary of Frenchy's narrative arc for an example of that. But, in fairness, the climatic shoot-out scene at the end of the film does get disrupted by an all-female pitch-fork mob, who have basically decided that they've had enough of violence and damned well aren't going to stand by and let their men shoot each other up any more. Ultimately, they aren't really demonstrating agency of their own, so much as symbolising that Destry has won them over with his case for law and order - and the fact that it's the women who take this position while the men are still slinging guns is rampant gender stereotyping of the 'fairer sex' school. But still! An all-female pitch-fork mob. You don't see that every day.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Scars wine)
After a wonderfully Whovian weekend, it's time to get back to some film reviews. Not least because I'm already three behind, and am going to the cinema again tomorrow.

So, having watched Cracks and sent it back to Lovefilm, I've progressed onwards to borrowing some of the Hammer Dracula sequels from them on DVD. I still want my own copies for Christmas as well, but am not going to muck about making myself wait until then, when I know very well that December is going to be an utterly miserable month for me thanks to family health issues. My policy is to get some nice indulgence under my belt now, while I still can. I chose to rent this one first because, like Risen from the Grave, I haven't seen it for a fair while, and as an added bonus it has Patrick Troughton in it!

It's the fifth in the series (sixth if you count Brides of Dracula), and by more or less any standard, it is a bit rubbish )

BUT! All that aside, I still kinda like this film. For a start, it has Patrick Troughton in it - and his character, Klove is easily the best-developed secondary role in the entire film. He has a dilemma! Should he serve the needs of his master, or turn against him to help the pretty girl whose photograph he has found in the pocket of the unfortunate Paul? His vacillations on this issue drive much of the plot, and needless to say The Trout plays it all very convincingly. So, of course, does Christopher Lee his Dracula, who remains as dignified, imposing, erotic, violent, sadistic, and yet strangely sympathetic as ever. You've got to hand it to Sir Lee for his sheer professionalism, here as in every film he has ever made, which has rescued many a second-rate production from otherwise-deserved third-ratedom.

Above all, though, what I really like about Scars, I think, is that it has absolutely loads of what I call 'castle business' - that is, scenes of Dracula mooching around in (what remains of his half-burnt) castle, welcoming guests and offering them wine in a slightly creepy way (see icon for details). I love this stuff, because it recalls the early scenes with Jonathan Harker from the first film, bringing back Dracula the icily-polite and oddly-disconcerting host, whom we haven't really seen since then. It adds so much to his character for me - in particular strengthening his identity as the faded aristocrat, rather than just the evil Satanic monster. Here, it is also used to good effect in evoking sympathy for him, as he refers with obvious anguish to the losses caused by the burning of his castle - and establishing that connection with the audience really helps to make his sadistic / violent scenes a hundred times more effective.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of nice details to note about how this film develops Hammer's Dracula 'mythos' )

Finally, to my utter delight and complete amazement, I was astonished to find a commentary track on this DVD featuring none other than the great Sir Christopher Lee )

Weird, but nice, and it's even made me feel warm towards him again in a way I haven't really managed since I got banned from his web community. For that, I am grateful, because he was such a childhood icon to me. I still think he's arrogant and inconsistent and basically self-serving - but if he can say a few good words about Scars of Dracula, even if only to contradict them again a few moments later, then he's good with me.

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strange_complex: (Girly love Tadé Styka)
This is one from my Lovefilm list, which various people (can't remember who now) recommended to me because I like Eva Green. It's basically a lesbian love-triangle story set in a private girls' school in the 1930s, which sounded incredibly promising. Unfortunately, though, Eva Green's character is gradually revealed to be self-deluded, neurotic, a rapist and finally a murderer, so it didn't quite deliver the crush-fodder I'd been hoping for.

Long plot summary )

It's an OK film, I guess, and certainly has psychological plausibility and a clear moral compass. The performances are all good, there are some beautifully evocative shots of the girls diving like birds in flight against the sun, and Eva Green looks absolutely smoking hot in her 1930s glamour make-up and wide-leg pants (even if her character does belong more in a prison uniform). But still something about the film as a whole felt a bit thin and flimsy.

Maybe I've seen too many homoerotic boarding-school dramas? Though it is certainly unusual for them to be about women, somehow that very departure from tradition only seemed in this case to show up the limitations of the genre, rather than refresh it. Like, if we're going to drop the highly mythologised and intensely privileged all-male setting, why only go as far as replacing it with a highly mythologised and intensely privileged all-female setting? The traditional dynamics of the set-up aren't really subverted at all by the gender-switch - just shown up - and you end up feeling unsatisfied as a result.

Also, although we do get a few glimpses into Miss G's back-story, I think her character needed a little more unfolding and development before she went completely off the rails. I think for the story to be really effective, we ought to have fallen just a little bit in love with her ourselves before the cracks start showing, or at least to have seen something relatable and human which helped to explain the extent of her self-delusions and the intensity of her emotions. As it is, she just comes across as an unhinged caricature - perhaps precisely because of the unreal setting. If I never really felt any great sympathy for her, despite watching with the primary intention of drooling over her character, then the film is definitely mis-firing somewhere.

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strange_complex: (Dracula Risen hearse smile)
Having rediscovered the joys of Hammer's Dracula on our recent trip to Manchester, it seemed like time to revisit some of the sequels. I picked this one first because it is my favourite of what you might call the 'straight' sequels - that is, the ones in which they were playing the story fairly seriously, rather than as a pastiche or a parody. I also hadn't seen it for a while. Checking back through the films I have watched since starting to review them all here systematically in 2007, I can find a viewing of Prince of Darkness from 2010, and one of AD 1972 from 2012 (by far my favourite of the non-straight sequels), but not this one. So it was time.

As I watched, I tried to put my finger on what it is about this one that I like so much. I forged my opinion of it in my mid-teens, so that it is difficult now to reassess it fairly through the weight of my own nostalgia, but I think in the end that my teenage judgement was fairly sound. A big factor is that the characters are so great )

Meanwhile, the dark Gothic atmosphere is ramped up to the max )

In short, then, a great rediscovery, and I stick by my fondness for this particular sequel. But watching it did make me realise that I am going to have to up-grade some beloved but ancient possessions. See, I think of myself as already owning all eight of the Hammer Dracula films. Indeed, here they are:

Dracula videos crop Dracula box set crop

(Obviously Carry on Cleo isn't part of the series - it was just recorded on the same tape as The Brides of Dracula). We recorded Dracula off the telly in about 1985 (I believe), following it up with some of the sequels as they too were broadcast. I got the box set for Christmas from my Dad in the year it came out, which copyright notices on the backs of the individual boxes tells me was 1988, meaning I would have been 12. Obviously, according to the certificates on the boxes I should not really have been watching these films at such a tender age, and nor should my Dad have been buying them for me, but I'd already seen the first one at 9 and been entranced rather than terrified, so I think he judged correctly that I would be fine with them. (It's perhaps worth adding that neither 12 nor 12A certificates existed at that time, and that some of these films have since been reclassified downwards.) I bought the other two commercial tapes soon afterwards with either Christmas or birthday money, and distinctly remember having to ask some random guy in HMV to purchase at least one of them for me, because I couldn't yet pass for 18.

In other words, I have owned this lot for at least 25 years, some of it longer. I've watched them all dozens of times, and they have been through multiple house-moves with me. But although I carefully bought a combi video-DVD player eight years ago, in order to ensure that my existing video collection would not become obsolete, the truth is that in practice I don't watch any of my old video cassettes very often these days, and in particular have barely done so since buying my wide-screen telly three years ago. And watching this film made me realise why not. Fuzzy picture-quality I can cope with, but having two blank rectangles on either side of the screen where the picture has been cut off to fit a 4:3 aspect ratio, when you know there could perfectly well be extra picture there instead is more than I can stand. So it's time to retire those old video-cassettes, and get some shiny new DVDs instead. That's my Christmas-list sorted, then.

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strange_complex: (Lee as M.R. James)
This was the second film we saw at the Manchester double-bill evening, following after Dracula. It was a good pairing, actually. I hadn't realised until I looked it up just now how close together the two films were made (just a year apart, with this one the earlier), and the difference in style really brings home how innovative Hammer's films were in this period in a way that might otherwise be difficult to notice from a distance of fifty-five years.

While Hammer embraced full technicolor, building a rich world of draperies, gowns and Kensington gore, Night of the Demon is in black and white. It's crisp, beautiful black and white, making enviable use of shadows, contrasts and highlights, but it means that visually it looks more as though it should sit alongside Universal's horror output from the 1930s - and the effect is highlighted by having an American as the central character. Though it is based on an M.R. James story first published in 1911, and could thus very legitimately have made use of a period setting, the film is actually set in the present day - again a characteristic of pre-war American horror adaptations (Universal's Dracula and Frankenstein are both set in 1931), which Hammer was just at this moment definitively rejecting in favour of an almost fairy-tale style Gothic aesthetic.

I don't mean to criticise Night of the Demon for any of this. Horror movies were changing, and I suspect it would have looked pretty dated already within about five years of its release in a way that Dracula did not. But it's nonetheless a very compelling story, with some beautiful visuals and some great scary moments. I particularly enjoyed the violent wind-storm which Karswell (the black magician who is the villain of the piece) calls up in order to demonstrate his power to Holden (the American scientifically-minded psychiatrist who becomes his antagonist), as well as a scene in which Karswell's cat turns into a much bigger animal and attacks Holden after he has broken into his house at night. The horror of the latter is all suggested by half-seen close-ups and big shadows, and reminded me strongly of The Cat People - as well it might, given that it is by the same director.

Rather less subtle is the titular demon, which the lore has it Tourneur did not wish to depict literally on screen, but was inserted nevertheless in full-blown animatronic form at the insistence of the producer, Hal E. Chester. Aesthetically, I think Tourneur was right about that, and, as the scene with the cat shows, he certainly had the necessary skills to suggest the demon effectively without ever showing it. Probably the best approach would have been to show a half-formed shadowy face in the smoke (easily done using hand-drawn animation) - enough to show that the demon was real, but not enough to reveal it as a model. But I also think Chester probably had a good sense of what audiences of the day demanded, and again the pairing of this film with Hammer's Dracula helps to make it clear. Hammer was putting dripping fangs and disintegrating vampires right there on the screen, and others needed to compete.

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strange_complex: (Dracula 1958 cloak)
This was the first film of a double-bill which I went to see a couple of weekends ago in Manchester with [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy. Since I have watched it in some form or another about a gazillion times, including seeing the BFI's restored print on the big screen in 2008, and watching the newly-released version complete with once-censored footage on DVD only this May, I blithely assumed in the car on the way across the Pennines that this one would be a bit of a formality. You know, the pretty-enjoyable-but-not-that-exciting film which I would sit through while we waited for the second half of the screening: Night of the Demon, which I hadn't seen before but had always wanted to.

WRONG! Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong.

Honestly, how had I managed to forget just how blown away I was by the restored big-screen experience of this film at Bradford only five years ago? Or how iconic just about every single scene within the darned film is; or how beautifully it is shot; or how powerful and atmospheric the music is; or how utterly amazing Christopher Lee is as at once the most dignified, intelligent, enigmatic, dangerous, darkly sexual, frighteningly otherworldly and yet still somehow strangely sympathy-inducing Count Dracula ever to grace our screens? Oh, foolish child I was that ever I could err so.

Besides, this screening was not just of the restored print which I already saw on the big screen in 2008. It included the newly-replaced censored scenes as well, so it had something to offer me which I had seen only once before in any form, and never at all on the big screen. Only a few precious seconds of footage, but as I said in relation to the DVD version in May, they do make quite a difference to the film. In fact, of course, they constitute a small but significant increase in the proportion of screen-time which Christopher Lee gets, since it was inevitably his most Draculaesque scenes which attracted the censor's attentions in the first place. Given that, if I could make one complaint about this film, it would be that Dracula doesn't get enough screen-time (even though I appreciate he would quickly lose his mystique if he did), that's quite an important factor for me.

Meanwhile, because I have seen this film so many times, I have flagrantly over-thought almost every possible aspect of its plot, characterisation and world-building, so that every time I watch it now, a familiar list of nagging questions present themselves in my mind. Last time, the one that nagged the loudest was "who the actual fuck is Tania?" (real-world answer, probably scripted at one point as Arthur and Mina's child and at another point as Gerda's, without the clash between the two ever being entirely resolved; in-story answer, either Gerda's child but treated like part of Arthur and Mina's family or perhaps someone's secret love-child whose status genuinely is as ambiguous as the script suggests). This time, it was What is Dracula's real motive in inviting Jonathan Harker to his castle? )

As for those other questions regarding why he wants his library sorted out, and how he went about hiring Harker, those go beyond what the film as screened can tell us, and I would have to start writing back-story type fanfiction if I really wanted to answer them. Though I have dabbled with drabble in the past, long-form fanfiction belongs on my list of things which are doubtless pleasant but which life is too short to do (though I'll often while away the time on bus journeys or while drifting off to sleep telling similar stories to myself, which provides the requisite satisfaction without the tedious trouble of having to write anything down). I have found the time since watching this film, though, to indulge over the course of a few evenings in front of the telly in another fannish activity - the making of new livejournal icons. One, taken directly from this film, makes its first appearance at the head of this post. The others will follow as I review some of the sequels which watching this film has prompted me to revisit since.

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strange_complex: (La Dolce Vita Trevi)
Still catching up with film reviews here... don't mind me. This was the last Cottage Classic, seen in the company of [ profile] big_daz, [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy, and with an audience unusually full of youngish types who don't normally come along to these showings. Good news for the future viability of the Cottage Road Cinema.

I think this was only the second time I have seen the whole film, and the first was an awfully long time ago now (at least 15 years, possibly more), so I had forgotten a lot of the details. But of course you do not forget either the iconic shower scene or the twist ending, so I still had the pleasure of watching how the film was building up to each of those. I am also rather more aware now than I was last time of the techniques of a good director, so enjoyed noting the markers of Hitchcock's craft along the way - like the shots looking upwards into the shower head during the aforementioned iconic scene, so that as a viewer you feel immersed in what is going on as though you were there under the water yourself.

As usual the showing was preceded by various vintage adverts, and also trailers for a couple of contemporary horror films - including William Castle's 13 Ghosts, filmed in 'Illusion-O'. Probably because of this, I found myself wondering as I watched the main feature whether or not Psycho itself is a horror film. It has nothing supernatural in it, but then plenty of horror films don't. Indeed, serial killers and an unhealthy obsession with the dead are well-established staples of the horror genre, and Psycho certainly has both of those (embodied in a single character), not to mention a classic scary old house and abundant thunder-storms to boot. Hitchcock also does a great deal through the use of music, careful camera-work and dramatic irony to build up suspense and deliver scares - including the classic 'shock' scares of the horror genre, as for example when Norman Bates' mother's chair revolves around to reveal the true nature of its occupant. But then again, it could equally be called a crime thriller or a psychological drama.

It doesn't matter really, of course. Genre classifications are only convenient labels to help people identify films which they might enjoy, and like all categories they break down and prove over-simplistic when examined too closely. Besides which an individual film can easily straddle more than one genre without the characteristics of one disqualifying it from belonging to the other. Many horror films are also romances, comedies, period dramas, fantasy or sci-fi (e.g. Alien); hell some are musicals (e.g. Sweeney Todd (2007), which was of course also crap). Somehow the genre of horror seems to cause more controversy than most, with more people willing to dismiss films out of hand if they belong to it than they would for e.g. romances or crime thrillers, while also willing to insist that films which they consider 'good' cannot possibly be horror. But Psycho does seem to me like a pretty solid case for inclusion in the genre (though it certainly spans others as well) - and as such perhaps a good example to bring up when next faced with a horror-dismisser.

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strange_complex: (Wicker Man sunset)
This was my third viewing of The Wicker Man this year (previous iterations reviewed here), my fourth on the big screen (one previous experience here; the other two were in Oxford before I had a livejournal), and my goodness-only-knows-how-manyth all told. But given that this is its anniversary year, that it's supposedly been restored to its 'original' form, that a bunch of lovely friends were going along to see it too, that the showing was followed by a Q&A session with none other than the director Robin Hardy, and that it all took place in this building...

The Stockport Plaza

...I was hardly going to miss out on the chance.

The showing was part of this year's Grimmfest, and constituted the northern premiere of the newly-restored, re-released version of the film. Despite the best advance efforts of a Facebook page to imply that this would include the lost cutting-room footage allegedly buried beneath the M4, what it actually is is a cleaned-up print of the so-called 'middle version' - that is, the version put together from an early preview copy sent to Roger Corman, and released in America in 1977 (there's a full explanation of all the different available versions here). So we got to see footage which I have never seen on the big screen before, or indeed at all in such a good-quality print, like the 'Gently Johnny' sequence, and that was good. Call me a curmudgeonly old grump, though, but as far as I'm concerned this is not the 'final cut' of the film )

Afterwards, Robin Hardy was ushered onto the stage as promised for the Q&A session )

I haven't yet bought the DVD of the restored version, and indeed am not sure I ever will given that the box set of the long and short versions which I already have includes every single second of footage it contains, albeit not always in such high quality. What I would buy is what I'll call the 'ultimate mash-up' version of the film - that is, all of the high-quality footage from this middle version, but supplemented with everything it doesn't include from the long version, and with the watering graves footage restored to its rightful context in the scene when Howie digs up Rowan's grave, rather than amongst the night-time orgy scenes which he sees during his first night on the island. That version could presumably be thrown together quite easily now by anyone with a bit of decent processing-power and some editing software (perhaps even including me if I could be bothered), so I am hoping it is only a matter of time before it becomes available. Then, then will I finally be satisfied... well, at least until any of that genuinely-missing cutting-room floor footage actually does turn up (I can dream!).

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strange_complex: (Mariko Mori crystal ball)
I saw this about a month ago with [ profile] big_daz, [ profile] nigelmouse and his chum called Andy (I think), and hugely enjoyed rediscovering what a classic it is. It isn't just that it has all the standard elements of a good film (plotting, direction, acting, character, dialogue, setting and that little bit of magic which makes them all work together). It has an energy and freshness which has stood the test of time really well, and packs huge riches of detail and ideas into its two short hours.

I think it has gained something with the passage of time, too. Watching it in 2013 inevitably means approaching the film itself as a form of 'time travel' back to the 1980s )

Lots could be said about all sorts of elements within the story, but I am sure they have already been written about on the internet somewhere, so I will focus on just two particular things which occurred to me on this viewing, but which I had never really thought about before.

One is the portrayal of the black character, Goldie Wilson )

My other line of thought was to wonder more generally what we should make of a story in which the 1980s try to fix their problems by going back in time to rewrite the 1950s )

Anyway, like many an SF or fantasy classic, I think there are good reasons why this film has become something of an icon over the years. It's fun, yes, but has some surprisingly good thinky mileage in it to boot. Here's looking forward to its thirtieth anniversary in another two years' time, when we really will stand in exactly the same relation to 1985 as the film did to 1955.

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strange_complex: (Nennig musicians)
On Wednesday I went to the Cottage Road Cinema with [ profile] ms_siobhan, [ profile] planet_andy and [ profile] big_daz. As usual, the main feature was preceded by appropriate vintage shorts, and this time we had a special treat - a silent film with piano accompaniment.

11a. Big Business (1929), dir. James W. Horne and Leo McCarey

It was a Laurel and Hardy number, and as I wasn't much bowled over by the L&H film we saw at the Cottage last year, I wasn't expecting much. But I enjoyed this one rather more than last year's. It is basically structured around an escalating absurdity gag. Laurel and Hardy are driving round a residential neighbourhood in their van, trying to sell Christmas trees. After a couple of (unsuccessful) attempts, they get drawn into a protracted row with one potential customer. It starts off with them annoying him accidentally, through incompetence rather than malice, but the gloves come off when he responds by chopping their Christmas tree in half with a pair of shears. After that, it is full-scale war on both sides, as they retaliate by ripping bits off his house while he does the same to their van. A crowd gathers to watch the fun, a police-man intervenes, and it all ends in classic fashion with the police-man chasing the two of them away up the road into the sunset. Lots of good laughs, plenty of shots of shocked and / or furious people, and generally a nice way to start the evening.

11b. A Night at the Opera (1935), dir. Sam Wood

This was the first time I'd really sat down and watched a Marx Brothers film properly. If you'd asked me whether I expected to like it, I'd probably have demurred politely, troubled by unsettling visions of goofy one-liners and slap-stick gags which are not really my scene. Sadly, the reality of the film didn't do much to change my mind. Maybe I just wasn't in the right mood because I was worried about my Dad, but for me some of the jokes were overdone, and many of them just weren't that funny. Plus Groucho Marx's smart-alec style of delivery, where more or less every line was spoken with a distinct self-satisfied swagger about how funny it was didn't appeal to me at all.

That said, it was a film from the 1930s, which meant some very lovely outfits, especially on the leading lady. The three brothers also travel from what I suppose is Italy (it's never made very clear) to New York on an ocean liner during the film, so that there are some nice on-board-ship scenes, including a fun song-and-dance number on the third-class deck. And at least I have seen a Marx Brothers film properly now, so can tick off a major cultural landmark in my personal journey through this strange old world we live in. It's just that it is one which I have no particular desire to re-visit.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
A few days ago, [ profile] nigelmouse asked on Facebook whether anyone else fancied going along to see this film, and I did. So last night off we went.

I'm not going to write a long review of it, because trying to explain exactly why a good character-based comedy is funny is unlikely to do it or me any favours. Basically, if Alan Partridge's previous outings have made you laugh (even while cringing), this one will too.

There is a standard-format trailer available, but to be honest having just watched it now after seeing the film, it isn't very good. Maybe the whole point of Alan Partridge is that his individual lines are only funny in the context of the character, so the very short clips of dialogue which you typically get in a trailer don't work - you need a continuous scene to enjoy the full range of his ineptitude, insensitivity, narcissism and self-delusion. On that basis, this clip which the lovely [ profile] firefish shared on Facebook this morning will do much better:

There's part of me which still longs slightly for a return to the spoof TV chat-show format used in Knowing Me, Knowing You... with Alan Partridge. Part of the joke there was that Alan's interviews were far more about himself than his guests, but because we didn't actually see his day to day life, the character didn't need to be consistent in the way he did once we moved to seeing both his radio show and his personal life around it in I'm Alan Partridge. But that format worked better for me in this film, perhaps because the longer narrative allowed more room for the character to breathe than the half-hour TV episodes.

Anyway, definitely worth seeing, and I imagine especially so if you are in, from or love Norfolk.

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strange_complex: (ITV digital Monkey popcorn)
Now that the Great Work of painting my lounge is complete, I have the time to catch up on a few reviews. I saw this film a month ago at the Cottage Road cinema with [ profile] big_daz, [ profile] ms_siobhan and [ profile] planet_andy, and was very impressed. Although I'm aware that it is a reworking of The Seven Samurai, I haven't seen that, so can't comment on the relationship between them. But this film certainly works in its own right. It has some cracking dialogue, a really strong cast, and a level of characterisation which goes well beyond what you would normally expect from a shoot 'em up Western. Three things in particular struck me about it as I was watching.

Firstly, the unusual prominence of issues of imperialism, interventionism and race. Obviously all Westerns are about the colonisation of wild landscapes, but this film seemed more interested than most in complicating the picture. This starts with the opening scene, in which Yul Brynner's character and a friend ensure that a native American Indian is able to be given a proper burial, as the local townsfolk wish him to, in spite of an armed gang trying to stop the undertaker from doing his job. This is still an essentially racist narrative of Good White Guys vs. Bad White Guys to which non-white people are largely incidental (in this case, literally dead), but at least it acknowledges race as a contested issue which has victims.

The theme is then continued by the fact that the village which the seven gunmen go to defend against bandits is in Mexico (rather than Texas or Arizona). This means that they don't have any social ties to anyone in the village when they agree to go and help, as it is explicitly positioned outside their culture, and huge play is also made of the fact that the villagers have almost nothing at all to offer in payment. The gunmen go partly because they enjoy fighting, but also because they want to protect the honest efforts of the villagers to build a life for themselves by cultivating the land against the dishonest attacks of the bandit Calvera and his gang.

The resulting story of brave, noble, technologically advanced Americans intervening to protect timid, primitive Mexicans is quite racist and / or culturally imperialistic, too, but again it is deliberately complicated. Four of the seven gunmen die in the ensuing battle, leaving Yul Brynner's character to observe that in the end it is only ever the farmers who win, while men like him always lose. So interventionism looks pretty unattractive and futile by the end of it all, and good honest productive labour a rather better prospect.

The second, smaller thing to strike me was how similar the scenes of the seven gunmen training up the villagers to use weapons and defend themselves were to the scenes of experienced gladiators training up runaway slaves in Spartacus (1960). Indeed, the whole stories of the two films are quite comparable, revolving as they do around the efforts of good but powerless people to free themselves from the burdens imposed by malicious powerful ones - though the attempt is more successful in The Magnificent Seven than it is in Spartacus. When I looked up the release dates of the two films to help understand the relationship between them, I found that Spartacus came out just a few weeks after The Magnificent Seven, so I suppose that both the training scenes and the overall narratives of each must reflect shared audience demands and shared production processes in the film industry as a whole at the time. It is yet more support for [ profile] swisstone's argument that what Classicists think of as 'Classical' films are not really viewed as a distinct genre by the people who make or watch them.

Finally, as tends to happen more or less every time I see a Western (which isn't actually very often), I found myself coming out of the cinema fascinated once again by how it is that this genre could have almost entirely dominated the film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s, but then dropped so thoroughly out of favour. I can understand why it was popular in the first place, as the central theme of building new civilisations in the wilderness is clearly pretty close to American hearts. Westerns of course they also offer plenty of opportunities for chases and gunfights, which always seem to be popular. I also understand how, with the advent of exciting special effects in particular, audiences switched their allegiance to things like SF and horror films, and indeed that in some ways the Western never really went away at all but was subsumed into those genres (see e.g. Firefly / Serenity for a particularly clear example).

But there must be more to explain their total reversal of fortunes, mustn't there? Changing gender roles eroding the appeal of the macho cowboy? Increased discomfort with the ideology of colonialism and imperialism at the heart of the stories? Shaken confidence in the American dream after the combined experiences of the Korean and Vietnam wars? The rise of the cold war making gun-fights on horseback look rather old-fashioned? Or, of course, a fatal combination of all of those, and more.

Let me know if you have any theories of your own.

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strange_complex: (Default)

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