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Ghost Ousters, 27 October 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This was a lovely ghost film from Hollywood's Golden Age, with an impeccable lustrous production from Paramount and an excellent array of actors to put the hokum across. And it is hokum – there's nothing wrong with that at all, and usually I prefer it that way; usually it's much better than being considered capital letter Art.

An erudite brother and sister are smitten by and decide to buy a windswept quaint house on the Cornish coast which although it was signalled to them in various ways prior to purchase, turned out to have a houseful of secrets. After a degree of ghostly detective work the Past (a mere 17 years previous) gave up a torrid love affair, an illegitimate baby, murder, lesbians, a seance and above all a seemingly malevolent ghost – or two. And by the end the portly Ray Milland was going to shack up with a young Gail Russell, while his sister Ruth Hussey was being sized up by the always avuncular looking Alan Napier. Yes, it's a post-Rebecca woman's picture par excellence, novel written by Dorothy Macardle. In civilised Western society the ladies rightly or wrongly are perceived to always speak from a position of Belief in the Afterlife, the gentlemen always from a position of Scoffing. Although main man Milland initially frivolously vacillates overall this film is in no Doubt: ghosts exist as surely as there has to be a point in living. It's all done very well with a spooky atmosphere you could cut with a knife. And dim or dark rooms or passages, creepy studio sets and a flowery romantic script acted with dignity and straight faces and with some classic crackpot wispy dialogue that might make the ladies nod their heads sagely and the gentlemen guffaw loudly. In that sense it's probably more comparable to Now Voyager than to The Innocents. It has a rushed ending that doesn't invite scrutiny, but it certainly doesn't outstay its invitation.

I still love this wonderful film even though I can be even more frivolous - but hopefully more consistent - than Ray Milland! Except, I too believe in ghosts…

Three parts Art, one part Corn, 25 October 2014

One of the pinnacles of world cinema, after all these years Mother India still has the power to put you through an emotional mangle showing the relentless battle against poverty of all kinds. But if Nargis hadn't been the star what then? It was her performance in here that was so spellbinding, usually sublime occasionally melodramatic but always riveting. I don't think anyone else could have made Mehboob's expert quasi-Soviet propagandising so palatable either. It was a seminal film, a nowhere near perfect roller-coaster that emotionally engages the viewer immediately to the bittersweet end.

In flashback the story is family take a loan from a moneylender to pay for a wedding and stay in debt for decades simply repaying the interest and not even touching the principal. The literally grinding poverty is passed down to the children who do their best but gradually question the original deal. As the good times and the tragedies go by it's all performed in a glorious colour, with some glorious photography full of national or emotional symbolism and some seemingly effortless glorious songs from Naushad & Badayuni. Although I last saw it decades ago in black & white it still looked good. Even if it's Nargis's film there's still some fine acting from Raaj Kumar (whether living or from the beyond), Rajendra Kumar and the manic Sunil Dutt.

As the point behind the film is not entirely lost on me in that the bitterness of the hopeless past was to be replaced with the optimism of the future India, proud of its tradition but full of the vim needed to be a world power may I sorrowfully point out: British rule certainly did the Indian peasant no favours, but the Indian capitalist class simply continues with that policy against worker and peasant alike. Godless Profit will destroy Tradition every time; also going to Mars means more to the present Indian government than feeding the starving. Mehboob preferred indigenous usurers and parasites taking apparent control of their collective destiny; I'd be interested in seeing his 1940 film Aurat which supposedly was the original of Mother India, made when it was still British India. "If Life is poison we must drink it" Lata sings as admonition to the peasants to work till they drop and are finally happy - but Life is seldom poison to the carefree few who own the land and means of production. And many iconic images and framings reinforce the view that we're all in it together even when as ever we're not. On the other hand when Nargis later became a politician she was right to criticise the film director Satyajit Ray and his muddy Pather Panchali as one-sided – there not only has to be an invisible Sun, there always is – love, hope and health are also there together with blood, sweat and tears.

When Nargis says "Won't you come to see your grandson?" it's just about the last tearjerking straw, an unparallelled poignant moment out of so much in here that's memorable for one reason or another. That one astounding line is worth the waiting for. It doesn't seem too long to me (and Bir Ju's story in full could've added hours to it), but beauty is in the eyes – and ears – of the beholder; a wonderful tale, keep right on to the end of the road.

Incisive and memorable, 22 October 2014

Since when has an adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula ever stayed faithful to the original book and not adapted it? I've lost count of the number of altered versions I've seen of the story over the decades, so many so in fact that they've all got mixed up now into a grisly potpourri sprinkled with a little garlic and blood. But as I considered the novel boring, clumsily plotted and a pain in the neck the watching of this once sensational gloriously hackneyed film is far more preferable. And, debatably, this is the best version of the tale too, including the tale.

Jonathan Harker is a guest in Count Christopher Dracula's castle, then unearthly things happen, Doctor Peter Van Cushing arrives too late to be any use to him - and a few other poor unfortunates too – and the film resolves itself into Dracula on the prowl for prey or on the run from predators. It was a big success for Hammer in the horror world, or what passed as horror before all discipline was abandoned and it's delightful to watch them all finding their feet. All the old friends were in place: the production team, actors, the interior and exterior sets, all bathed in a garish Technicolor. And everything we came to love is in here: the unfriendly innkeeper, garlic, stakes, castle crypts, fang marks, the kitchen sink, savagery in colour, sexual frisson - however Dracula doing over Harker was passed over. Missed Michael Ripper though. The servant woman Gerda was a bit of a tool. John Van Eyssen and Michael Van Gough were impossibly 1950's clipped and wooden (mind you, nothing wrong with that – although both of them sounded like they may have been more comfortable narrating a documentary on the history of the Post Office in Croydon), and the gruesome twosome of Cushing and Lee over-hammed it – something they at least would bring under control as continued to plough this charming genre.

To me horror stories whether in print or on film are better when about wild imagination and creepy atmosphere with a soupçon of sex and gore – this seminal Dracula and many subsequent Hammer films more than met those criteria. If Saw or Human Centipede is your bag you'll probably scratch your head in baffled horror at this, but to me and many others it was all delicious and wonderful, and something to really sink your teeth into.

There just has to be a future in time travel, 19 October 2014

Back in the day I often wished that I could travel back in time, especially to around the first time I saw this movie in the mid-'60's – carefree days only in retrospect, probably only full of worry concerning schooltime though. Finally seeing a HD copy tonight helps recall but unfortunately it can't help remove the age patina from over the retina – this was an entertaining family film that is set in the amber of its time - permissiveness, cynicism and cgi have ruined us all for all time.

Rod Taylor handsomely plays a far too clever chap with plenty of time on his hands who invents a rather static time machine because he's disgruntled with the world of 1899 that he lives in; he wants to find some kind of Utopia in the future. After all, it's probably much easier than co-operating with other people to try to create a Utopia in the present. He ends up 800,000 years in the future on the side of a wimpy acquiescent race of blondes up against some big ugly cannibal blondes with no thumbs. The delicious bookend scenes at the beginning and end of the film at his house chatting with his dense incredulous guests remain and will remain into the foreseeable future some of my all-time comfort scenes – I never cared about the sometimes laughable special effects or any of the many errors in the film. If the guests left the house on New Years Eve at 6pm to a noonday Sun, so what? I even find it incredible that I checked some of the goofs listed on IMDb frame by frame for accuracy without worrying that it would spoil the film for me – it wouldn't. It's an engrossing hoary piece of middle-brow hokum that has stood the test of time: people still watch it and appreciate it with all its faults, and will do so well into the future. I wonder if it was ever remade, but then again who cares… To come clean: it maybe helps that I never cared too much for H. G. Wells, I think I enjoyed reading Tono-Bungay more than any other of his novels. His Time Machine was much worthier than this film of course, far more thoughtful and logical but also dour and polemical, and ultimately less entertaining. Also any human being who supports a vast legal slaughter of various working class people of various capitalist countries on various battlefields for their various Masters is not someone I could ever let myself admire.

One big sign of a film I enjoy is that its running time whizzes by without my looking - in fact time flies - this is one film I can watch time and time again without loss of enjoyment, and do. George Pal made the film for his audiences of 1960 and H. George Wells wrote the book for his audiences of 1895, in that sense nothing and nothing only is timeless. We're all prisoners of our own times: you may have your comfort films, this is definitely one of mine.

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The Never Ending Story, 18 October 2014

The clue is in the title: Age; that's how long it is. I had some problems getting this one for my daughter's partner and inadvertently - and regrettably - saw enough of it to form an opinion. Basically it's not for me, being an old codger and having never seen anything of Transformers, ever, I came at this totally cold and that's how it's left me, totally cold.

One bunch of big robots is up against another, bashing smashing and mashing with and without human interference. A friend called it breathtaking, I see now what he meant – it almost took my breath away with its ghastly tedious turgidity. I realise of course I know nothing of the History or the World of this little lot, that I'm definitely in an incorrect demographic, and that it was a very, very well made well photographed and produced live action cgi cartoon that has more than recouped the utter fortune spent on it but! It's relentless – I'm not sure it'll ever finish, I think I can still hear Kelsey Grammar gutturally growling about something somewhere. Did I just see an entire season? I would say the kids will love it, but they'll come away from it as young adults. And only eight minutes of end credits after all that went before... The metallic characters are so laughable and the non-metallic so wooden and non-engaging as to make you root for nothing but a holocaust. Tears For Fears' Mad World gets ripped off a couple of times too but that's kinda apt. Mark Wahlberg playing a protective father was first cute then creepy then plain irritating, Stanley Tucci as initially a main baddie was almost impressive to begin with but became almost slapstick as the hours went by. There were many robot verbal witticisms throughout, even some I could laugh at but everything is forgotten in the lengthy noisy rambling mess.

The movie kept a lot of skillful people in a lot of jobs and kept a lot of intelligent people happy watching it but to me it's way too much of a crap thing and probably just to be added to Optimus Prime's mysteries to the Universe why so many people enjoyed it.

The Secret Of Convincing Narrative, 18 October 2014

I first saw this peak time one Saturday night on UK ITV in the '70's and it's always stuck with me. It's a B+ Western with a good story and production, good acting and photography, and the very definition of Simple Yet Effective.

Six convicts on the run from a posse in blizzardy California in 1871, become five and then apparently stumble across a small settlement solely er manned by women. It turns out that their menfolk are away on some premise but on their way back while the good convict handsome Glenn Ford was waiting for one of them to return so he could kill him for revenge. Slimy Zachary Scott played the main bad convict manically convinced there was a fortune to be stolen somewhere. The women were in the main only lonely but the bad men were hogged up and dangerous even when not armed, and confirmed main old dame Ethel Barrymore's concern that they were wild bears and not men. The characters were all strong and strongly delineated, if made today the sex would probably be literally in your face but there'd also be a much greater sublety in everything as films are taken more leisurely nowadays. Everyone followed their correct moral paths right down to the morally ambiguous ending – however I suppose Glenn Ford should really have owned up to save the moral dilemma he put both the townsfolk and the majority of us viewers through who think it a good ending to a good little film.

Cynical farce, 12 October 2014

As far as the olde Hollywood screwball comedies go I've always considered this as one of the best but not as good as the best, ie films such as Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. It's a joy to behold, but only as long as your vein of cynicism is deeper than your belief in human integrity. I suppose using a terminal illness as a vehicle could be called Production For Use in defence though.

Young woman Carole Lombard in Warsaw, Vt is (mis)diagnosed with terminal radium poisoning and is brought to New York, NY by Morning Star ace reporter Frederic March, to be feted until her (un)timely end. Everyone is wracked with one emotion or another, even after the revealing of the truth, the fun is in the sensationalist sentimentalism, the slick manipulation of the public's - and our - emotions, and how on Earth it can all be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Serial cynic Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay up to his usual throwaway witty style, Wellman directed it er well if with a few odd obscuring touches, the cast were excellent especially the 50 year old ferris wheel and werewolf Walter Connelly. In real life it turned out he had only three years left to live and Lombard five. Unfortunately from the copy I've got the colour looks a little washed out now, I can only hope Disney's remaster has done it justice.

It's an entertaining movie, my only problem with it was the lack of basic personal honour shown by all was also shown to be rewarded – lying and cynicism from the first to the last minute is all that is required from people to get by. If Hecht was living in these days of newspaper hacking of dead children's mobile phones he would have seen for himself, and who knows maybe even to his disgust just how far the amusing ethos of "nothing is sacred" has come.

The Last Laugh And Testament of Jean Cocteau, 5 October 2014

Ever since I first saw Orphee decades ago I thought it one of world cinema's Greats, a work of Art and underplayed panache that literally transcends Time. That was Part 2 of Jean Cocteau's Orpheus cycle in 1949 – in 1932 Part 1 Le Sang D'un Poete set the scene in a whimsical primitive way, and Testament was the convoluted Part 3 which became his final film released in 1960. First thing – if you enjoyed Orphee I recommend not watching this immediately afterwards, it's a contrast between gold and brass. Second thing - if you don't like pretentious art films this is a special case, it's still by far the best pretentious film I've ever seen and worth watching for its self-confidence. If you do like pretentious art films then to come clean I'm one of the denser people so disparaged by the previous exalted commenter therefore I have nothing I can impart to you. I've always considered this only as Cocteau's Testament – it's all about him and his thoughts of posterity at 70.

Cocteau as film maker and poet stands between two worlds accused of being guilty of Innocence and is condemned to Life while his last film makes itself around him. There's a lot more to it, involving going backwards forwards and sideways in Time and Timelessness with or without trick photography, all of the cast large or small spouting cod-heavy aphorisms with gossamer realism or relevance. It gave him a chance to revisit the subject, and as he admitted at the end of the film to give some of his old friends (Casares, Perier, Dermithe etc) a job in the revisiting – after all, he was by now to use his own words from Orphee now "rotten with success" and could get away with murder. He died twice in here – even the Motorcyclists Of Death only wanted his autograph - and he lived and died to tell the tale. I can see where Banksy got his inspiration for his recent Mobile Phone Lovers from. I take away the image of Cegeste's image being saved from backward burning only for the image to be torn to pieces, that cerebral scene was worth the eighty minutes! The twenty minute wordy trial scene gets tiresome as you gradually realise its pointlessness apart from the padding out of the temporal running time. But there's plenty of tremendous imagery and heavy moralising throughout; Cocteau was incredibly talented, big on surrealism the occult and symbolism of all kinds, all more or less intellectual dead ends and as with many other big thinkers full of mumbo jumbo before and since he agonised over the merits and demerits of the Catholic Church, another dead end. Whereas with Orphee he made a film that could be enjoyed over the generations by all kinds of people with various levels of brainpower he created here a film so obscure it only plays like an in-joke raspberry to the world of the end of his life.

So there you are – I do quite like Le Testament D'Orphee so hopefully Cocteau won't be sad wherever he is, it's just I'm not a poet and have an old nose for Art and Artifice. No matter how unique or interesting this film is to me or even for that matter to those of a higher intellect, he was simply having a laugh.

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We Gotta Get Out Of This Place, 28 September 2014

In this English Civil War action drama the one thing more incongruous during the opening sequence than Ronnie Hilton crooning a 1950's style ballad is the sight of George Baker in costume galloping about on horseback. Get over that and it's plane sailing and you can believe anything. Well I enjoyed it anyway, it was a period of English history that has been relatively neglected, much like the film itself.

It's the tale of Lord Protector Cromwell briefly played by John Le Mesurier and his army searching high and low for (prospective King) Charles Stuart, who is being protected by the Moonraker, a Loyalist Royalist played by the indefatigable Baker who is trying to get him safely to France. Was a time when brother was against brother over politics and religion, and rabidly too - in fact not like nowadays at all! Careless talk cost lives and no one was to be trusted, a rule not well adhered to in here though. Posh-speaking Baker falls gallantly in love with puritan Sylvia Sims; with the young and healthy as usual the rule is love conquers all. The production values and colour are excellent, the acting OK, the fight scenes bearable when not risible, the soundtrack music occasionally wobbles on the copy I've got but not too distracting and overall 'tis a very pleasant little tale well told, albeit on a low budget. Additionally there's a seemingly endless procession of British "faces" padding out the cast – Peter Arne, George Woodbridge, Marius Goring to name but a few.

If possible though because much stamina is required of the viewer what I would really recommend is to first watch the much applauded 2013 British film A Field In England which also has the English Civil War as its backdrop and then compare it to this. The more artistic and worthy film should hopefully be obvious and put this earlier British effort firmly into context. This is (literally) escapist entertainment which admirably helps keep the real world at bay for ninety minutes.

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Life's a Lubitsch, 27 September 2014

When I first saw this masterpiece on UK BBC2 on 2nd February 1972 being more literal-minded at age 12 I was left completely puzzled by the Devil's ability to spend so much time listening to Van Cleve's life story. Or I thought, if Time does not exist Down There how could they explain and we understand a story with a beginning middle and end? I mean, at that leisurely rate most of the queue waiting to enter in 1942 must still be waiting. However, the film has stood the test of Time, and though not perfect is still beautiful to watch.

Dead man Van Cleve played by Don Ameche is ushered into the presence of the august Satan played by Laird Cregar, to recount the terrible details of his awful life and accept his punishment. Then begins a film-long sentimental even schmaltzy flashback, hinging on his happy marriage to Gene Tierney and the procession of the generations through the years. The soap is applied liberally, it's a tender nostalgic look at life and mores in New York from 1872 to 1942, similar to the equally magnificent Meet Me In St. Louis and Life With Father, except in this the lead character has already gone ahead. Cregar had another marvellous role as the grinning Excellency but proving the Devil-May-Care after all! Ameche and Tierney were pretty bland, perfect for the characters and the story though. Although sophisticated and witty throughout in the best Ernst Lubitsch tradition my favourite bit was ardent but patient Allen Joslyn's exquisite description of himself to Tierney on the stairs in the Strable house and her concurrence of it – I always imagined her laughing out loud at the end of the scene. What a shame Charles Coburn and Eugene Palette couldn't have had a couple of scenes together! The TCF production values were sky-high, the sumptuous sets shown in sumptuous Technicolor, but not too many as originally a stage play. It also occasionally displays a regrettably neutral chauvinist attitude to women, but wasn't that also realistic of the time?

To make films as seemingly effortlessly charming and as lovely to look at as Heaven Can Wait is now a dead art; what cinema has become over the years might have them all turning over in their graves.

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