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jeremy corbett UK
Jennifer Eight (1992)
"..I Remember Red.."
Interesting but flawed entry in the Se7en and Silence of the Lambs-inspired serial killer cycle of the early to mid 90s, blending police procedural with uncatchable killer.
Recommended reading to anyone who wants an insight into the troubled history of this film, 'Smoking In Bed - Conversations with Bruce Robinson', edited by Alistair Owen (Bloomsbury, 2000).
In it, the writer/director candidly spills the beans about his experiences of pitching a mainstream project to several Hollywood studio bosses 'by mistake', and then battling to deliver a movie against all the odds, while secretly regretting all of it. The chapter '6 - Spewing at the speedometer' explains in detail Robinson's research with the LAPD, the back-story of the John Berlin character (a back-story not really developed once Andy Garcia was cast), working with actors Garcia, Thurman and Malkovich, the production difficulties faced by Robinson handling his US producers and crew, and why the film's climactic third act is as confusing and unsatisfying as it is.
According to Robinson, "I Remember Red" is Thurman's last line from the (now) end of the picture which he considered as an early title for the film, and the actual long-shot used of Thurman and Garcia together down a lane was just filmed on the fly by Conrad Hall during a quiet break between set-ups. Just goes to show how these 'accidents' can sometimes work!
The book also covers all the film and writing projects that Bruce Robinson has been involved with, including 'Withnail & I'.
Naissance des pieuvres (2007)
Languid and heartfelt, but ultimately disappointing
Score of 7/10 is for the great sound and cinematography in this movie, and for the casting the three girl leads. I also loved the Parisian suburb settings, which seemed as fresh to this casual viewer as they are in all probability dull and claustrophobic to their actual residents. The floaty and unreal feeling of a summer vacation from school is also nicely evoked. These are all high points in a film which is thematically about the confused and confusing desires and adolescent resentments of young girls on the cusp of sexual ripeness.
The unfamiliar milieu of synchronised swimming is used well for the first 30 minutes, as the film introduces intense Marie's head-over-heels infatuation at the sight of a swim-suited blonde Floriane, and then follows her attempts to get closer to the object of her desire by joining the girls team. Marie gets to watch them practice from underwater, holding her breath to see their legs thrashing wildly in unison, and this sequence, followed by her gasping and breathless shower scene immediately afterward are both memorable. Unfortunately, the story becomes something of a 'love' triangle, played out between brooding Marie, lissom and desirable Floriane, and jejune Anne, who is the most introspective but curiously the most interesting character. Good but never exceptional acting from all three young actresses makes the film much more engaging than it has any right to be, as do the scenes of adolescent ennui around the Parisian estate where the girls all live.
But the sum of all this is ultimately disappointing and like a few of the previous contributors, I detected in proceedings the hand of the writer / director, reaching for profundity. In telling her story, Sciamma reduces the boys to casual ciphers, inexplicably under-uses all the other girls in the swimming team, and sadly, when Marie breaks her (prodigious) silences, we hear the cynical words of an adult, not those of a confused and inexperienced adolescent.
But I would recommend a watch, I just can't promise that your life will be different for doing so.
The Day of the Triffids (2009)
BBC stinker should be left on the compost heap
Truly atrocious adaptation of John Wyndham's killer plant and the end-of-civilised-society-as-we-know-it story.
Ah, the BBC.. where has it all gone wrong? Seduced by their generally well-received rebooting of 'Doctor Who', the commissioning geniuses over at Broadcasting House seem to have it in their heads that we lap up this kind of nonsense, but cynically time it to air when most of us are bloated and catatonic with booze and calories (i.e. Christmas Day). I can't be alone in resenting this kind of script-writing 101 for the terminally thick, how did it ever get commissioned? As each tinker-toy contrivance clunked into place, the so-called 'story arc' nose-dived into a preposterous mess and sank there. Dramatically this was as threadbare and as implausible and as daft as they come. Those poor misunderstood Triffids ought to sue for defamation as this 'reimagining' is so totally wide of the mark, it almost defies serious critique. Avoid.
Quatermass and the Pit (1967)
Dated, but gives some genuine creeps
Opinion seems divided on this movie, and I guess most contributors seem to think it belongs firmly with other Hammer misfires rather than up with the contemporary super smart Sci-Fi flick we all seem to think is being made these days, inevitably a franchise or comic-book adaptation.
What's to like? First off, if horrible things are lurking in Olde London Town, where else would they go but the creaky Underground? Classic location for creepy goings-on, and a realistic evocation of Sixties London; not in the least 'swinging', but knackered and still on its knees after the war and the on-going hardships of peacetime.
Secondly, and for my money the best reason to see this movie, is Nigel Kneale's central idea that the lone Martian craft has been down there for millions of years, somehow infecting the location, and giving rise to occult rumours of hauntings throughout history. I love the idea that the street name 'Hob's Lane' has been replaced with the more mundane 'Hobbs Lane' ("Like the Cricketer" - referring to Jack Hobbs), obscuring the warning from our recent past of the sinister nature of the area, and providing a real clue that Mankind's history and that of the Martians is inextricably linked.
So 'Hob' is the colloquial name for the Devil, and when you mention the Devil, up He pops! It's when this film escalates into its 'running and screaming' final act that it loses most of the inherent creepiness that the story has worked hard to achieve, but it's a great fun flick, with lots of memorable ideas, and a perfectly acceptable cast saying perfectly unreasonable things. As for the denouement, see Tobe Hooper's bonkers 'Lifeforce' for the full-blown 1980's attempt to do what Hammer did for a fraction of the budget.
Zey belong 'ere Mozambique
From the 1970s, a decade in which the industry changed forever, CE3K is a great example of what studio-backed 'auteur' film-making delivers - a personal film with the volume turned up to 11. From a story point of view, writer-director Spielberg presents material which won't win any prizes for originality, but his direction creates an impressive feeling that something big is happening, and his cast delivers something of the right emotional punch. It's also true the film's pacing is leisurely, but is punctuated by some impressive moments of tension such as the Air Traffic control sequence and Gary's abduction. Unfortunately unlike the near-perfect 'Jaws', this movie relies heavily on effects rather than interplay between characters. CE3K's somewhat episodic structure gives its ambitiously broad story chance to widen out away from the main characters and go for a truly global scope, but this contributes to weakening the emotional weight of the key players.
As it stands, I agree the movie is strongest in the first two acts, but everyone remembers the light-show climax when humans come face to face with the visiting extraterrestrials, due maybe to 1980's ill-advised 'Special Edition'.
A challenging, evocative score from John Williams and some really innovative pre-CGI technical aspects lift this movie head and shoulders above the contemporary fare of the period, but somehow history ensured that 'Star Wars' became the most popular film of the 70's. Seen 30 years later, CE3K has matured along with its audience, but it is what it is, a kid's movie for grown ups.
The Collectors Edition DVD has a very informative making-of documentary covering the entire production, which all the key personnel contribute to. Highly recommended.
Soylent Green (1973)
Big Ideas rather than production values in this 70s dystopia
NYC, 2022: The Greenhouse effect, vanished oceans, grinding unemployment and scarcity of water, power and food.. and New York's population has topped 40 million. This is a little gem of a picture, not least because a resource-depleted future is a reality for us 21st Century citizens.
The low-budget opening titles of this movie are great: set to music, a low-tech 'tape-slide' sequence composed entirely of archive stills from the dawn of photography right up to 1973, depicts an unspoiled American pastoral developing into a polluted and crowded Hell in less than 2 minutes. Succinct and unambiguous, it's truly memorable. Budget limitations are also behind rather unimaginative cinematography and other constraints, at odds with the story's brilliant premise. The police station sequences are like an episode of some 70's TV detective show, and the other interior sets look basic at best. The budget probably all went on trying to 'futurise' the Soylent Executive's 'Chelsea West' apartment with state-of-the art goodies, meaning the other costumes are perfunctory, some establishing shots are bizarrely underpopulated and the daytime exteriors seemingly all shot through a smoke filter.
The memorable scene where Sol and Thorn (Charlton Heston) share a meal of expensive and rare food neatly summarises their society: They enjoy real bourbon, lettuce, celery, tomato, apple, and beef, and we really sense their lip-smacking appreciation of someone else's wealthy privileges.
Robinson's pivotal death scene, in which his character is willingly euthenased at a place called 'Home', depicts him immersed in images of the world's once-beautiful flora and fauna as he remembered them, beautifully contrasted with the jaundiced Thorn's dawning realization that the future has been bankrupted, among other horrors.
This is one smart film, and its core message is as pertinent today as it was in the early 70s. Yes, I know we're not eating the dead yet, but with our resource-sapping longevity, spiraling poverty gap, corporate global capitalism and unchecked habitat destruction leading to climate change, the lasting prediction of 'Soylent Green' may come to pass.
The Black Dahlia (2006)
Crazy - and not in a good way
Wasn't author James Ellroy obsessed by the lurid Black Dahlia case for years before he wrote his book? I haven't had the pleasure of reading the novel, but this expensively-mounted DePalma flick is ultimately pointless in every sense, and gives little hint that anyone involved cared one iota.
With 'Mission to Mars' the story was to say the least, a little lacking, and with this, DePalma opts not to connect with the 'Black Dahlia' murder on any meaningful level, and instead makes the regrettable decision to film a script which begins with a pointless preamble, and inexplicably veers into an irrelevant, distracting and convoluted series of sub-plots which finally add up to so little it's actually embarrassing: 'She looks just like that dead girl' indeed.
Once again DePalma has been a magpie with other movies and there's nothing implicitly wrong with that, but here he's fashioned an overlong and unfocused mess from his borrowings: 'LA Confidential' it is not. This doesn't amount to a Noir picture just because it features a femme-fatale and a hard-boiled voice over. As it happens, no 'Noir' device is left untouched, but it's all too artful and knowing to be considered representative of the genre.
My advice is keep your expectations low. Imagine 'Sin City' meets '1941', such is the level of miscalculation on the the film-makers' part. 'Chinatown'? You actually believed Los Angeles was corrupt in that picture, so convincing was its evocation of time and place, but this turkey has you racking your brains to decide which decade it's meant to be set in. The film is constantly undermined by baffling anachronisms, as if the writer deliberately chose to ignore the period: The wholly unbelievable milieu of racy Hollywood lesbians and wealthy perverts rings so false that when k.d. lang pops up, you know that the problem is DePalma.
The two male leads (ahem, Fire and Ice!)are entirely unconvincing as detectives; DePalma's gallery of grotesque characters may all be in authentic wardrobe, but not one of them has a good reason for delivering such bizarrely over-the-top screen performances. This theatricality may be intentional, but it needs a robust story to withstand an interpretation of this sort, and the story at the centre of DePalma's film is weak, weak, weak. Scarlett Johansson's performance is so poorly directed, she should sue. Her verdict is that she was not right 'physically' for the role, whatever that means.
Doubtless we're failing to recognise a classic of the future. If ever DePalma gets the status afforded to Hitchcock in later years, then this film could become his 'Vertigo', as there are some moments of pure cinema where DePalma finally gets around to moving his camera to create some tension in the story. From the perspective of 2007 though, it looks like another disappointing misfire which doesn't have that much to say. Sorry, Brian; Compare 'Carlito's Way' and despair.
The Devil Wears Prada (2006)
great title, but there's nothing here - Avoid
Sorry fans, but this movie is terrible. It insults your intelligence at every turn, lacks any real bite or insight, and, I assure you, flash clothes aside, this movie will ruin your evening. The production is slick, the editing pointlessly rapid, the cast yawningly toothsome, but where it really lets itself down is the plotting. Was this movie REALLY based on a book? Where's the story? The New York 'fashion scene' is so toadily portrayed and offers so little critique, I wondered just which fashion bigshot it was that the film-makers were going out of their way to avoid offending. But it's when the plot finally creaks and flops into Paris, in what passes for a 3rd act attending - ahem - "Fashion Week" that this movie just falls apart.
Why does aspiring serious 'writer' Andy, with her cool Bo-Ho credentials, stick around in the nauseating world of 'Runway' for so long? Okay, so she landed the job that 'a million girls would kill for', but the inevitable moral crisis for someone as principled as Andy is never satisfactorily explored. She's blatantly seduced by it, but we never get to understand any of the tension her character feels, or why she's the one we're meant to root for. Okay, I get that it's a comedy, but does Andy have to be such a vacuum? Oooh, nice freebies, and shooze!! Her cypher boyfriend seems to be there to continually remind us what we should all be thinking about her. Anyway, she chucks it all in on a whim at the end, seemingly to keep her lug of a boyfriend (to whom she has just been spectacularly unfaithful) happy.. ah, the fate of modern girls in modern cinema, doomed never to be truly free of a man's control.
Its (trite, superficial) 'fashion' appeal, and (relentlessly charmless) cast has garnered it some wincingly favourable reviews in the Fash Mags, but great title and the casting against type of Meryl Streep aside, this undercooked movie deserves to be quietly forgotten. Truly Awful.
P'tang, Yang, Kipperbang. (1982)
1948: The best year of their lives?
What makes this film worth a watch is the considerably effective evocation of a nation in transformation, and of the smaller human story at its heart. A plummy Home Service voice-over from cricket commentator John Arlott describes the turbulent inner emotions of Alan 'Quack-Quack' Duckworth as he makes the fraught transition from childhood to post-war adolescence.
One of the film's pleasures is it's comforting nostalgia for times past. Traffic-free Suburban streets, roses in the front gardens, the pervading smell of creosote and carbolic is well suggested here, and there are some great observations on the passing of the old order (The School Headmaster laments on his war-time romance with English teacher Miss Land, consigned to history now that there are younger men back from the war) and a knowing mockery of Quack-Quack's naive belief in post-War Festival of Britain-era optimism, with its United Nations, Teas-Maids, Esperanto and Cricket.
The school setting is a big plus for all viewers of a certain age; the cruelties of children, the awakening sexual urges, life's great mysteries and the ennui of a summer term in a losing battle with the approaching holidays. The adult world, as observed by writer Jack Rosenthal, is represented by either up-tight pedants and martinets, for example Miss Land, or as weak hypocrites, like Tommy, Alan's hero of such theatres of human conflict as Dunkirk, El Alamein, The Battle of the Bulge and Burma, who turns out to be a deserter. The climactic end-of-term play is one of the most banal ever, rightly jeered by the schoolkids, but the adult world they're aping is banal too, as Alan belatedly comes to realise.
Daydreamer Alan's infatuation with Ann and his thwarted attempts to secure a kiss is easy and enjoyable to identify with, but generally the girls come off rather badly: Ann rejects her conservative suitor and is herself rejected by the object of her curiosity, Alan. Miss Land is freed from one complication, only to be (we are led to believe) doomed to repeat it because of her unchecked sexual appetites.
The writing is engaging, the direction assured, and while the acting is a little TV-drama standard, the stand-outs are Alison Steadman's prim but voracious Estelle Land and Alan's schoolmates, Abbo and Shaz. My favourite line comes during a canalside game of cricket, when an over-excited Quack-Quack enthusiastically hits the ball for six to the watery boundary and a collective groan goes up from the outfielders. Abbo dryly observes 'We're going to have to move that canal'. Sublime.
A Canterbury Tale (1944)
'What I wouldn't give to grow old in a place like this'
England, 1944: After 5 long years of blitz, black-out, rationing and requisitioning, the World War hit hard on the Home Front. 'A Canterbury Tale' is a British wartime film appealing directly to the newly-arrived American allies to regard the sight of an English Cathedral spire, an old pilgrim road or clear skies over chalky uplands as worth fighting to preserve. A victory for our enemies, it seems to say, would mean an end to this spiritual continuity, and the heavy burden of defending it had fallen to us and our Comrades. Thus the film can be taken on one level as a straight-forward flag-waver.
But it is clearly more than this. The opening of the film, quoting loosely from Geoffrey Chaucer, depicts a medieval pilgrimage, the old Canterbury Pilgrims journeying to receive blessings or do penance. Fast-forward to wartime, and a different kind of pilgrim walks the way. Our boys are massing in the South to embark on the great mechanized Crusade that will determine the future of England and all that it stands for. Their task is an onerous one. But what's this? Girls out with soldiers in rural Kent get glue poured in their hair at night. What can it mean?
Powell and Pressburger take their time in spinning their story, but it's time we don't mind spending in Chillingbourne, wending our way with Alison and the farm cart, blackberrying on the Weald with Peter and Bob, chewing the fat with the locals, getting to know our pilgrims' histories and ultimately solving the Glue Man crimes. There are many meandering diversions along this particular road, and some bits of business are downright peculiar (the silhouetted village idiot scene and the young boys' play-fight spring to mind). But by degrees, the film's narrative themes begin to coalesce, and slowly we are taken somewhere very special indeed.
It's true, Thomas Colpeper - gentleman farmer and magistrate - is something of an oddity, but no small town is complete without its eccentric. There's a magnetic and sympathetic quality about him, too, as we see when Alison bitterly comments on her prospective In-Laws' refusal to accept she's good enough for their son: 'It would take an earthquake' she says, to which Colpeper calmly replies, 'We're having one.' As played by Eric Portman, he is at once coolly beguiling and strangely malevolent. His unmasking by our protagonists as the 'Glue Man' comes as no real surprise, but seemingly his motivation is only about assuring our connection with the land and its history, despite being himself irredeemably misogynistic to our modern eyes.
The final act, as the foursome complete their pilgrimages to Canterbury on the iron road, is a revelation; As they, and we, are propelled closer to the imposing Cathedral, the characters' stories are completed: Colpeper is set to do penance by turning himself in to the Police, Peter is told he was the instrument for this but instead gets a blessing of his own, Bob finally receives his girl's letters, (posted from Australia, "She's joined the WACs!"), and Alison is similarly blessed. Her scene in Mr Portal's Garage is especially moving, as the burden she carries is the hardest - the presumed death of her airman fiancé. Her barely-audible 'Why?' whispered in disbelief when told Master Geoffrey's father has waited with news for her for two weeks delivers a moving emotional payoff. Sheila Sim - now Lady Attenborough - gives a memorably natural performance throughout.
The film's luminous black and white photography is strong as is the location work in and around the recently-bombed Canterbury, and the use of music throughout adds a spiritual element to the visuals. My Favourite scene? The steam-hauled commuter train bearing our pilgrims from Chillingbourne pulls into Canterbury station, and Peter stands in the compartment to adjust his uniform collar. Apparently he's been the unwitting but skeptical instrument of Colpeper's penance, and his line 'I'll believe that when I see a halo around my head,' comes as the carriage window behind him is suddenly bathed in blinding morning sunlight. Brilliant.