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Live alternately in Sunderland and Cambridge (am at University there, in my third year of an English degree).
"We don't need freaks like you telling ghost stories" - Jackson justifies the Weird
From the three Michael Jackson related 'films' I have watched today (the others being "Thriller" and "Captain EO"), this contains the man's best acting and dancing.
The concept is simple, but in a good way; children and adults find themselves in a ghostly, haunted manor house upon a dark evening. Their cynical Mayor takes against the house's proprietor, the Maestro (Michael Jackson). The Maestro summons up a horde of ghosts, in an attempt to both scare and entertain the assembled people. Predictably enough, the children love it and the Mayor hates it, berating the Maestro as a 'freak', who would be better off in the circus.
There is some sense of Jackson playing on themes from "The Elephant Man", one of his favourite films - playing an outsider, hated by many in adult society. Magic and oddity are seen to win out, with the Mayor confounded at every turn and indeed inhabited by MJ's spirit at one point and even doing the Moonwalk in a memorably amusing sequence. The ghosts work well in tandem and individually - we are treated to Elizabethan ruff wearers, arch Gothic ladies and a rather sinister zombie-jester.
The music contains some of the better 1990s Michael Jackson numbers: 'Is It Scary' and '2 Bad' are not classics but are well used; 'Ghosts' is a cracking song given its perfect visual accompaniment here. Some of the ghosts' dance routines are superbly realised, and it is notable just how at home Jackson is with these spectral figures around him. Compare with his uncomfortable attempt at R&B normality in the 'You Rock My World' video, where he achieved no chemistry whatsoever with the lady he is supposed to be romancing.
"Ghosts" truly shows a Michael Jackson in his element, a weird man in weird surroundings, putting on an unusually entertaining horror show.
Captain EO (1986)
Rather ghastly corporate farrago
Do not get me wrong: Jackson did produce some excellent short-films in his career, and possessed a strong sense of what would work visually - of what would be unique and strange. I would advise film-goers and pop fans to seek out "Thriller" and "Ghosts" to see his artistry well conveyed on film.
This, however, is less a short-film than a piece of corporate propaganda: for Jackson as 'The King of Pop', for Disney, for George Lucas and even for US consumer capitalist culture as a whole. Rock 'n' roll, dance and 'cute' anthropomorphised animals will win the day, inevitably, against the 'evil aliens' as led by Anjelica Huston's Supreme Leader. The scenario is sketchy, and relies on special effects, choreography and artless noise to keep the audience engaged.
Jackson is painted as the humane dictator, appealing to the SL's better nature or her 'beautiful side', and then in effect crushing her and her people when they refuse to yield. Her forces become EO's due to a spot of magic; she is eventually transformed into a human, which, surprise surprise makes for the sort of Happy Ending that Ronald Ray-Gun would have adored.
This whole venture can be summed up as efficient propaganda for the American way of life and globalisation more broadly.
Michael Jackson: Thriller (1983)
An expansion which serves the song well
This is a music-video turned short-film, very well directed by John Landi - using some of the same trickery and style adopted for his 1981 comedy-horror classic, "An American Werewolf in London".
Beautifully shot by Robert Paynter, a veteran British cinematographer who learnt his trade photographing British Transport Films back in the 1950s; he captures some vividly dark blues, purples and reds throughout.
There are film-within-a-film games going on here, plus a surprisingly overt story about burgeoning sexuality, with Jackson's girl clearly more frightened of what is potentially to come in the bedroom than what she is seeing on the cinema screen. Then the actual music part, with the werewolf Jackson leading her astray, backed up by a gang of "Dawn of the Dead" style zombies and ghouls. Vincent Price's voice-over makes a lot more sense in the context of this film than in the song as it appears on "Thriller". The film's final shot is rightly famous, and I can well imagine it scaring quite a few children. Interesting to ponder whether Jackson was entirely conscious of the sexual subtext, or not.
Overall, a fine little piece of film-making to support a phenomenally successful album, which turned Jackson into a 'mega-star'. Here, he seems very much in touch with his music and with his horror lore.
"Why do we torture ourselves trying to find out what's good and evil?"
Well-acted and neatly translated to the screen, "The Strange Affair of Uncle Harry" is an enjoyable and at times intriguing Universal picture, something of a mix between woman's picture, crime narrative and familial melodrama.
As another IMDb reviewer says, this could have made excellent material for Hitchcock to work with; whilst Siodmak's handling is lacking in the sort of tension and suspense old Alf would have brought, he does create a memorable melodrama with reflective moments.
Sanders is excellent as the 'good guy' lead, playing a thoughtful and rather hidebound man looking to break away from his somewhat stifling New Hampshire small-town life. The Quincy family, including the possessive Lettie (Geraldine Fitzgerald), are thrown into sharp contrast by the outgoing urban girl, Deborah Brown - played with an easy-going warmth by Ella Raines. Lettie and Deborah embody the contrasting options that Harry has open to him in life: stifling, picturesque seclusion, the country versus sensual adventurousness, the city. Miss Brown with her New York city flat and 'library of detective stories' is an immensely attractive figure, and it is testament to Sanders' acting ability that he conveys the depth of tradition and family ties that make it a more complicated 'choice'.
Overall, a very satisfactory New England melodrama that does not outstay its welcome at a lean 77 minutes, and provides excellent work for Sanders, Raines and Fitzgerald.
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
Moore takes on his largest target yet, and exposes some cracks in the edifice
"Is this the United States Congress, or the Board of Directors of Goldman Sachs!?"
Perhaps this subject is too big for one film to encapsulate, but Moore has a jolly good go. He is really taking on neo-liberalism rather than capitalism itself, as he continually advocates that America should follow the European and Japanese examples of more moderate, mixed-economy capitalism.
He misses the point entirely if he characterises these economies as fundamentally 'socialist', when they are merely more successful capitalist societies that integrate bits of socialism in order to keep the majority happier. They are not countries which guarantee full employment or affordable homes for all, as any British or Japanese citizen would be able to tell you.
However, Moore does capture some of the core injustices inherent in capitalism and particularly the neo-liberal economic model; he rightly dates the advance of this model to Reagan, though concedes that FDR's dream never comes to pass. The clip of FDR, outlining his never legislated 'Second Bill of Rights' is well selected and opens up some tantalising 'what-ifs', though clearly American individualism was always going to be too strong to succumb to his moderately socialist aims. Moore covers the causes of the economic crisis adequately and graphically shows how people lost their homes and jobs so that the bankers could continue to receive bonuses once their supposedly 'free market' businesses had been bailed out by the state.
The film is very insightful on how embedded Wall Street and the stock market are in terms of the running of the government; this 'elite' being disdainfully wary of the 'peasants' who could potentially overthrow them. Moore is not critical enough of the Democrats, however; excusing their eventual caving in and support for the bail-out of the banks, and implying that the mere election of the Obama is itself reason for believing that things will change. Whilst 33% of young people did indeed express faith in socialist ideas (only 4% less than backed capitalist ones), there is only one elected socialist senator, Bernie Sanders, whom Moore interviews. He undercuts his own 'hope' message by making the relevant observation that Tim Geithner was appointed by Obama after a failed stint as regulator within the Federal Reserve. Moore exposes the back-room deals and does concede some disillusionment with most of the elected politicians (Christopher Dodd, for example, is singled out). He makes the valid point that direct action from the people is the only way to establish any gains - giving some concrete examples where unionisation or occupation of foreclosed homes, has led to some redress against the capitalist system.
It is arguable whether the planet can afford for all to reap the benefits of FDR's dream; if it is ever to be enacted, consumerism itself must be drastically cut back. It is a self-evident truth that free market capitalism has failed not just the USA but the world, but it is far from clear that a rehashed Keynesian social democrat approach is a viable alternative.
Moore should have spent more time honing his central argument regarding alternatives instead of the toothless attempts to make citizens arrests of the bailed-out bankers; he could have made the point that these are in effect robbers of tax-payers' money much more succinctly.
BBC documentary maker Adam Curtis has perhaps been the best at capturing the gaping void at the heart of neo-liberalism, in series such as "The Century of the Self", "The Power of Nightmares" and "The Trap". With this film, Moore has a reasonable stab at nailing it, though occasionally undermines his own case by inconsistencies and inadequately checked facts. Same as ever then, but it is still good to see somebody at least trying to tackle the elephant in the room that is global capitalism and the stock market. When he is providing good evidence it is a scatching indictment of the capitalist virus.
A Time to Kill (1955)
"The pretty little Miss Cole, dead, sir!"
This is a 'quota quickie' which at least has brevity on its side: clocking in at under 62 minutes, it has enough pace to avoid boring the audience.
We are presented with the curious spectacle of John Horsley, later famous as Doc Morrissey in "The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin", cast as a man of action, possibly the hero, possibly the criminal. He is given lines like "I'll be there or bust!" - and one can obviously only think of We have female parts barely sketched in by the screenwriter, Doreen Montgomery; Rona Anderson as the bland romantic lead Sallie and Mary Jones does a lot of sub-Celia Johnson lower-lip trembling as Florence Cole. Kenneth Kent treats it as if a pantomime and why not, frankly? Dialogue such as "Have a care my dear! Indiscriminate tippling can lead to alcoholism. So unattractive, especially in women" and "Put these effusions in the fire" really do beg to be delivered with a certain ripe pomposity and KK certainly delivers.
John Le Mesurier's puritan father is a nice decoy within the context of the film's Whodunnit nature; blundering into the courtroom declaiming "I am the father of the unhappy Madeline Tilliard!" as if he was in a Victorian theatrical melodrama. It is a shame we don't get to hear that much more from this character, speaking of "the devil's brew" and his sinful daughter, associated with "furtive meetings, whisperings in the dark and heedless laughter..." "A Time to Kill" is frankly routine, often humdrum fare, but still remains infinitely more watchable than many current Hollywood products of double, even triple, its length. We get to hear good old English phrases like "who is this preposterous man!?" "good hunting!" "rigmarole" "oh, what 'ave I said..." and "he's a fiend for fresh air, Mr 'Astings!" Which is all preferable to a punch on the nose, or an hour's daytime television.
Mary Poppins (1964)
Rich, ripe musical with a heart
'A British bank is run with precision!'
"Mary Poppins" is a lively family musical that fashions an inviting fantasy world out of Edwardian London. It is a rare film that successfully incorporates potshots at fox-hunting, accessible song craft and an exploration of parenting.
Before the arrival of Mary 'practically perfect in every way' Poppins, we are introduced to the children's parents - too busy with their various concerns to truly give their children any time. Mrs Banks (Glynis Johns) is a skittish campaigner for women's suffrage; Mr Banks (David Tomlinson) is a patriarch of the old-school, a moralising leftover from the Victorian era. A Galsworthian man of property, business and propriety.
Disney's view of London has a strange charm all of its own: a delusional old sea captain and 'crew' presiding over a mock-ship in the sky; sooty chimney-sweeps engaging in elaborate rooftop choreography; an absurdly penny-pinching banking business located in a grandiose building of Neo-Classical proportions, propped up by Athenian columns. A police constable (Arthur Treacher) every bit as reassuring as old George Dixon of Dock Green himself. One gets a sense of the London of E. Nesbit; the progressive middle-classes influenced by Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, captured in novels like "The Story of the Treasure Seekers" (1898). There is social change, yet there are still advertisements for nannies placed in The Times; still straight-faced claims that 'the British pound is the admiration of the world'.
The dialogue and song lyrics are crafted with a good deal of wit and lightness of touch: from the famously long nonsense word I needn't reproduce, to odd mentions of 'rum punch', to 'Chim Chim Cheree' to the stately vocabulary afforded Mr Banks in speech and song, it is a film that takes joyous liberty with language. Some of the lyrics match W.S. Gilbert in their satirical capturing of the English gentleman.
Julie Andrews? Well, she is perfectly cast as the utterly strait-laced lady of misrule, Mary Poppins. The chaos she creates is controlled, and with a decided point: to educate both children and parents, coating some unpalatable truths in sugar. Bert and Poppins work to bring the family together, helping the children to understand their father, and vice versa. As with so many family films, there is explicit criticism of capitalist greed and an assertion that people will see the error of their ways and behave better: the bankers forgive Mr Banks and he is accepted back into the fold.
As David Thomson argues in his seminal Biographical Dictionary of Film, Julie Andrews only really made sense in films of this particular time; her Poppins is redolent of an era marked by its security, despite JFK's assassination and the Cuban Missile Crisis. She captures a pre-Beatles practicality; an Englishness of controlled amusement but little time for 'frivolity'. A cheeriness underpinned by responsibility, only the coyest hints of sexuality permitted (in a brief moment with Van Dyke in the painting sequence). P.L. Travers, the author of the original novels, thought that her Poppins was diluted, made rather too palatable. It is interesting to speculate what a Glenda Jackson or Diana Rigg could have made of the role.
Of course, the Van Dyke accent is awful, wandering between stage cockney and his own, and I do confess to some irritation at his incessant, Donald O'Connor-in-your-face performance, but it fits within the context of what is a stylised fantasy London; indeed, an American imagining of it. It will be interesting to compare with the same year's "My Fair Lady".
David Tomlinson is perhaps the unsung hero of the film, indeed its heart; his Mr Banks is an utterly convincing archetypal traditionalist who gradually opens up, becoming a man who can relish his own absurdity; who learns to live anew. His songs are my favourites of the film - particularly the late, reflective one ('A man has dreams'). The child actors somehow manage the feat of being enthusiastic without being cloying. It is a limitation, however, that Glynis Johns is not given more to do; her character undergoes little development in comparison with her husband.
Whilst there are minor reservations and gripes to be found, the life-affirming qualities of this film cannot be denied. It is an achievement - a monument even - that Disney has not been able to surpass; offering something for everyone, child and adult alike. Bankers and fox-hunters not withstanding.
Day of the Dead (1985)
Brisk, enjoyable elaboration of the zombie series
This third instalment in Romero's series of zombie films is a mixture of the thoughtful, the satirical and the downright gory.
The zombies are generally more of a sideshow in the early part of the film, with more emphasis on the semi-military group dynamics of the humans under siege. Romero expands upon this theme, by contrasting the 'egghead' Dr Logan (Richard Liberty) with the twisted, action hero-gone-wrong Captain Rhodes (Joseph Pilato). Both are anti-heroes in their different ways, fitting in with the 'Dead' series' clever refusal to countenance good and evil. Logan represents a fascinating, if potentially deluded and irrelevant academia; Rhodes a stunted, shoot-first, ask-questions-later militarism. Both are dismembered, neither approach shown to be 'right' or effective in the face of the undead onslaught.
Again, the zombies are wonderfully crafted, though there is less poetry and surrealism in their depiction than in the magisterial "Dawn of the Dead". Barring perhaps the pivotal scenes of Dr Logan, with his application of behaviourist theory in training a lone zombie in his lab. These experimentation sequences have the sort of evocative use of sound that runs throughout the earlier film: the same sense of melancholy and dislocation, and Romero clearly relishes elaborating the 1978 film's core theme of the zombie regressing to previous learnt behaviour. There is a woozy, ambient calm to the scene where he tries to instill in the zombie a liking for Beethoven through textbook behaviourism. Otherwise, the music tends a bit towards the post-Carpenter 1980s norm.
Performances are excellent, make-up and assorted guts present and suitably incorrect. However, whilst Lori Cardille is excellent, she could have been given more to do, and the progression towards the resolution is rather more contrived than in the previous two films. There are stretches towards the end where it gets close to standard action territory, and several characters are barely developed.
This hasn't quite got the style and engagement of the previous films, but works on the level of a satirical exposure of mainstream action films and of dry academic theory. "Day of the Dead" is an admirably cynical and at times thoughtful piece of entertainment, always holding the interest.
The National Health (1973)
'There should be clinics where one could get one's death like a library book' - interesting, flawed 'film'
"The National Health" falls into the trap of so many British films: that of staying faithful to its previous incarnation in another medium. This is a stage-play only nominally opened up, made cinematic. I suppose this makes a marginally refreshing change from 1970s British cinema's more common ploy of barely adapting television sitcoms to the big-screen. Marginally.
It attempts allegory through the use of irony; counter-posing scenes of idealised US television depictions of hospital life with the 'reality' of NHS life in grimmer 1970s Britain. The film certainly captures some of the loss of faith in the Welfare State that was occurring, and eventually led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the 'New Right', who looked to reform state services. It should be noted, however, that the NHS was not privatised by Thatcher, and remains, broadly speaking, a public health provider with care free at the point of use (despite the experience of greater marketisation that staff have had, behind the scenes).
It seems curious that this 1973 film barely expresses any faith in public health provision, considering that in 2010 the NHS remains a loved British institution. Nichols clearly saw himself as 'saying the unsay-able' at a time when social democratic politics seemed thoroughly embedded in almost all aspects of British life. The script gestures towards this with one hospital ward named after Sir Stafford Cripps, one of the Labour politicians responsible for the post-WW2 welfare settlement. Nichols sets out to critique socialism, basically saying that socialism had not truly arrived in Britain, with lazy staff and bickering patients. The system is seen as part of the usual British 'muddling along', rather than fulfilling the humanist efficiency foreseen by NHS founder, Aneurin Bevan.
There are jibes at the coarsening of British life: 'We want to rise, not sink in the bog', Clive Swift lamenting the reduction of English, 'the most beautiful language in the world' into 'a string of obscenities' by 'most people' you meet. There is the sense of a Britain having lost its old certainties; the 'simple dignity' and stoicism of WW2, with people now expecting a lot more from life and the reality often falling short. This is stated - with sledgehammer subtlety - through the idealised US hospital scenes. Perhaps making the point that media images and advertising have given people false idols to worship; antiseptic product and the unobtainable romance of Mills and Boon.
Hollywood did hospital satire rather better two years previously with "The Hospital", a coruscating drama that captures the conflicted nature of public service in modern consumer society rather more bitingly. That film is often just as verbose, but has a magnetic central performance from George C. Scott to anchor the whole thing. This has a fine ensemble, but a lack of dramatic tension or direction. It tends to meander, with its scatter-shot potshots at the mores of Blighty.
The acting is, naturally, faultless; from the fine character actor Clive Swift, to a well-cast Jim Dale - making a conscious link to the "Carry Ons" - to Bob Hoskins (playing the socialist Foster, the one character unreservedly defending 1970s Britain) and to Colin Blakely as the laconic, archetypal gloomy Loach. Oh, and the presence of the striking, mellifluous Eleanor Bron is recommendation enough for any film.
This film clearly has a lot to say about the state of the nation, but, in contrast to that other 1973 film "O Lucky Man!" it does not work as cinema and ironically comes across as much more long-winded than Anderson's flawed masterpiece, despite being about half its length.
Incense for the Damned (1970)
A perfunctory horror, containing flashes of what might have been
Yes, "Incense for the Damned" is a rather shoddy piece of work; you can tell that right from the off with the ludicrous choice of yellow lettering against a grey background for the title sequence.
However, there are hints of what might have been; as David Pirie in the "Time Out" Film Guide and other commentators here have argued, a Roman Polanski or Mario Bava could have done great things with the basic material and with more adept use of a budget. Robert Hartford-Davis (who went on to disown this film) does not marshal whatever meagre resources were available to him with any panache. In fact, technically it is a mix of the ludicrous and laughable: the aforementioned titles, endless half-hearted scenes of fisticuffs and one of the most inane voice-overs in the history of cinema, dispensing exposition with all the perfunctory baldness of Iain Duncan Smith on auto-pilot. "Sunset Boulevard" and William Holden this is most definitely not! It is a shame that so much is bungled and botched; there was scope for an enjoyable occult romp, and potential even for an edgier exploration of vampirism and sexuality. The all-too-brief scene with 'guest star' Edward Woodward hints at a much more interesting film, with his straight-faced thoughts on the links between vampires and masochism: 'Sado-masochism, my dear man, is no joke [...] Some get their excitement from statues, what we call the Pygmalion syndrome. Other men can only make love in a coffin..." There is nothing as interesting in the way the narrative is developed, with Imogen Hassall's voluptuous Chriseis entirely uncharacterised, and the enigma of Patrick Mower's protagonist Richard Fountain untapped.
The premise has promise: young Oxford undergraduate cannot cope with the expectations and restrictions of university life and turns to the dark arts, in a bid to get revenge against Cushing's provost (who is again an under-developed character with little screen time) and the system. This theme only comes into focus with Fountain's outburst at the University 'formal', and then the effect is bewildering rather than illuminating, as one might expect it to be in Simon Raven's original novel. Mower is given poetic, pithy lines about the dons - "smooth deceivers in scarlet gowns" - but the source of his anger is barely addressed. Little is done with the classical allusions that are occasionally shoe-horned in. We are told that Patrick Macnee's character 'was fond of Greece', but this never comes across in the actual script: another case of Hartford-Davis's "Tell Not Show" approach.
The dialogue provided in Julian More's script is a mixture of the sharp and ridiculous, suggesting an imperfect adaptation of the novel, capturing some but far from much of its style. There are hints of a satirical approach not taken up - Cushing's "Bloody socialist ministers" jibe at the then-Labour government. The dialogue is far from the worst problem with the film, however, as many scenes retain an amusement value due to an absurd melodrama inherent in the dialogue; for example: 'You've got your witches' covens in Mayfair, voodoo in Soho! How do you explain that? Logic!? Science!?' No excuse, however, for hoary old chestnuts of hokum like these: "Suppose it was murder..." "I think I'll just go for a walk..." Too often, the film mutates into a tourist video for its Greek settings, and it wastes time on the most tedious 'orgy' you will ever see in 60s/70s British cinema and the many inexcusably risible fight and pursuit scenes. With such a cast and potentially potent elements - sexual deviance, Oxbridge, vampires, anti-establishment - it is ultimately very disappointing. Hartford-Davis was right to disown it, as surely he recognised how much better it should have been. "Show not tell" should have been the watchword. Having said all of that, this film remains watchable; its saving grace being that it is only 79 minutes long, and it does gradually get less boring after the desultory titles and voice-over, with one starting to appreciate that wasted promise.