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A good heist movie
Heist movies are an interesting sub genre of the crime drama. They can either be played for laughs, like 'The Lavender Hill Mob' (1951), or they can be exercises in visceral violence, like 'Reservoir Dogs' (1992). This film concerns a group of career criminals led by Frank (Vincent Cassel) who plan to steal a very valuable painting by Goya from a London auction house. They have the help of Simon,(James McAvoy), an inside man working for the auctioneers, but in the end the plan goes terribly wrong, as they generally do in heist movies.
The leading members of the cast are all excellent in their roles. In addition to the above mentioned McAvoy and Cassel, Rosario Dawson is very impressive in the role of Elizabeth Lamb, a hypnotherapist, who becomes involved in the plot when Frank and his friends need to find an imaginative cure for Simon's amnesia. The film is helmed with assurance by the director, Danny Boyle, and it makes full use of the fast editing techniques and effective use of contemporary music on the score that have distinguished previous Boyle films like 'Slumdog Millionaire'. The film's plot is rather convoluted, but this is nothing new for a crime drama. John Huston's 1941 film of Dashiell Hammett's novel, 'The Maltese Falcon', had a story line of labyrinthine complexity. So, in conclusion this is a well acted and enjoyable movie. It certainly provided a good evening's entertainment for my Saturday night trip to the cinema.
The Curse of the Werewolf (1961)
Slow paced but absorbing Hammer horror
'The Curse of the Werewolf' was I think the only werewolf movie made by Hammer Film Productions. The main drawback is the slow pace of the script, written by producer Anthony Hinds using the pen name of John Elder. We have to sit through almost half an hour of screen time before we even get to the birth of Leon, the main character, and almost an hour passes before we see some real werewolf action.
However, the film does have a lot of good points. Oliver Reed brings a brooding intensity to the role of Leon, and Clifford Evans is very good as Alfredo, Leon's adopted father. There are several well handled sequences, such as the werewolf attacks and the final chase scene. The film's director, Terence Fisher, tended to place great stress on the romantic subplots of his Hammer films around the time this movie was made, as in 'The Gorgon' (1964) and 'Frankenstein created woman' (1967). It also the case here with quite a lot of screen time given to the doomed romance between Leon (Reed) and Cristina, played by the sympathetic and attractive Catherine Feller.
As usual with a Hammer film, the movie boasts good production values, thanks to the excellent set designs of the redoubtable Bernard Robinson, and the cinematography skills of the talented Arthur Grant. All in all, this is not the best film made by Hammer, but it is still a good example of their work.
The Curse of Frankenstein (1957)
Hammer's first venture into Gothic Horror
'The Curse of Frankenstein' was Hammer Film's first venture into Gothic horror territory, and followed on from their successful attempt at science fiction/horror with 'The Quatermass Xperiment' in 1955.
Peter Cushing is excellent as Baron Victor Frankenstein, a man so devoted to scientific experimentation that he will stop at nothing, not even murder, to achieve his ends. Cushing conveys the character's obsession very vividly. Christopher Lee plays the creature. He has no dialogue and limited screen time, but it is still a stand out performance, combining both menace and pathos.
The film starts conventionally with Peter Cushing's baron telling his story in flashback to a visiting priest, but the film itself broke new ground for horror films upon its first showing in 1957. The best scene is the one in which we see the creature take a direct shot in the eye, with the blood gushing out of the wound in streams of vivid red.
Behind the scenes, James Bernard's music, Bernard Robinson's production design and Jack Asher's photography considerably enhance the impact of this film, and the whole thing is overseen with great assurance by the director Terence Fisher. All in all, this is a true cinema classic.
A better than average sequel
I rather like 'Dracula has risen from the grave'. Admittedly it is not as good as Hammer's original 1958 Dracula movie, but it is still, in my opinion, one of the studio's better Dracula sequels. The director, Freddie Francis, began his career as a cinematographer, and so it was probably his decision to make the interesting use of colour filters, which helps to enhance the film's atmosphere. The production designer on this film is Hammer regular Bernard Robinson, and his work here includes some very impressive sets, such as the exterior of Dracula's castle and the village church.
The cast includes several members of Hammer's unofficial repertory company. Christopher Lee has relatively little screen time in his role as the eponymous vampire count, but he is still very effective when he does appear. Veronica Carlson does her best with the part of Maria. This is an underwritten role in my view, but Veronica succeeds in making the character sympathetic and believable. Best of all there is Michael Ripper, who is excellent in the role of Max, the genial inn keeper. The script, written by Anthony Hinds using the pen name of John Elder, will not win any prizes for the inventiveness of its plotting, but it is still a serviceable piece of writing.
In conclusion this film may not be as good as earlier Hammer triumphs like 'Curse of Frankenstein' (1957) and 'Dracula' (1958), but it is a lot better than later Hammer films such as 'Scars of Dracula' (1970).
Lady Chatterley (1993)
A good version of D.H. Lawrence's novel
It is interesting to compare this British television mini-series based on D.H. Lawrence's novel with the 2006 French film version. Both are quite faithful to the book, the main differences are that this version replaces the books indeterminate ending, which is retained in the French film, with a happy ending, and in the French version, Sir Clifford Chatterley is snobbish and condescending, whereas in this British version he is downright arrogant and nasty.
The main plus points for this production are the performances of the leading players and the excellent production design. Joely Richardson is very good as Constance Chatterley and Sean Bean is excellent as Oliver Mellors, and James Merifield's production design is a great asset to this mini-series. Merifield is a very talented production designer. His other credits include the 2008 BBC1 'Sense and Sensibility', one of my favourite Jane Austen dramatisations.
Ken Russell has also directed film versions of 'Women in Love' and 'The Rainbow', so he is clearly a great admirer of D.H. Lawrence. I think D.H. Lawrence was well served by this dramatisation of his most famous novel.
Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966)
Christopher Lee returns as the vampire count
In 1966 'Dracula, Prince of Darkness' marked Christopher Lee's return to the role of Count Dracula for the first time since his debut in the part in Hammer's 1958 Dracula film. Mr Lee's performance is full of menace, and the count's resurrection scene is an undoubted high point of the movie. However, Christopher Lee's return as Dracula is somewhat diminished by the character's limited screen time and the fact that he does not speak a line of dialogue throughout the whole film.
There is a lot to admire in this film. The director Terence Fisher handles the suspense well, Bernard Robinson's set designs are as usual outstanding, and there are some good performances from the supporting cast. The admirable Barbara Shelley is excellent as Helen and Philip Latham is very good as Dracula's sinister man servant Klove. The character of Renfield was omitted from Hammer's first Dracula film in 1958, so it is good to see Hammer regular Thorley Walters giving a striking performance as Ludwig, a part clearly modelled on Renfield in Bram Stoker's 1897 novel.
However, it has to be said that Peter Cushing's Van Helsing is very much conspicuous by his absence. The part of the vampire hunter is supplied by Andrew Keir's character Father Sandor. Andrew Keir is a good actor, and he is good in this film, but he just doesn't have the same charisma and screen presence as Peter Cushing.
So, on the whole this is a good example of Hammer Gothic, but not up to the heights of a solid gold Hammer classic like 'Horror of Dracula' or 'Revenge of Frankenstein.'
X rated Hammer version
In 1951 the British Board of Film Censors introduced the X certificate, which restricted admission to the designated films to people over the age of sixteen. Most British film makers tended to shun X certificate material, but Hammer Films bucked this trend when they achieved considerable box office success with two X certificate films, namely 'The Quatermass Experiment' (1955) and 'The Curse of Frankenstein' (1957). After Hammer's success with their adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, in 1958 they decided to tackle the other great nineteenth century horror classic, Bram Stoker's 'Dracula'. The X certificate classification allowed the director Terence Fisher the freedom to film scenes in which stakes are plunged into the hearts of vampires, and the vampires themselves bare their fangs whilst looming their victims' necks.
Jimmy Sangster's screenplay is true to the spirit, if not the letter of Bram Stoker's novel. In the book, Jonathan Harker is an estate agent who visits Castle Dracula to sell a London property to the count. It takes Harker quite a while in the novel to discover the truth about his host. Since the movie has a relatively short running time of 81 minutes, in order to speed up the development of the plot Harker is a vampire hunter in the film. He takes a job as a librarian at Castle Dracula in order to hunt down and kill the count. Other changes to the book are less easy to explain. In the novel, Lucy is engaged to Arthur Holmwood, but in this film version Lucy is Arthur's sister.
The music score composed by James Bernard and the cinematography of Jack Asher help to create the film's suspense and underscore the moments of terror. Of particular note is Dracula's first appearance in dark shadow at the top of a flight of stairs. Christopher Lee has genuine screen presence as the count, and he successfully combines menace and sexual allure. As Dr Van Helsing, Peter Cushing is outstanding. He conveys an air of calm authority in scenes like the one in which he questions the innkeeper about the whereabouts of Jonathan Harker, but he is also able to show intense emotion, as in the reaction shot of him looking at the death of Dracula. In conclusion, this is not only a classic of horror cinema, it is a true cinema classic.
Screen Two: Northanger Abbey (1987)
Georgian romance and Gothic horror
The team of producer Louise Marks and director Giles Foster enjoyed considerable success with their dramatisation of George Eliot's novel 'Silas Marner', which was first broadcast by BBC television on 30th December 1985. After this, they decided to make another television film based on a classic of English literature. This time they chose to adapt Jane Austen's novel 'Northanger Abbey' for the small screen. This considerably less successful adaptation was first transmitted by the BBC on 15th February 1987.
Marks and Foster had written the screenplay for 'Silas Marner' themselves, but for their 'Northanger Abbey' adaptation they entrusted the script to Maggie Wadey, who later dramatised 'Mansfield Park' for ITV1 in 2007. This television film by its very nature lacks the narrator's ironic commentary on the events of the novel, which is one of the best features of the book, and dispenses with the bravura opening chapter about the protagonist's early years, but by and large it remains faithful to the story as related in the book, although I did not like the inclusion of a character not included in the novel, namely the Marchioness played by Elaine Ives-Cameron.
This dramatisation of 'Northanger Abbey' benefits from the fact that they did a lot of the location filming in Bath, unlike in the 2007 ITV1 version of the same novel in which the city scenes were filmed in Dublin. Bath has a number of prominent landmarks such as the Abbey and the Royal Crescent, which are very recognisable. Both feature in this TV film, but are conspicuous by their absence in the 2007 version. Of the performances, Katherine Schlesinger was well cast as Catherine, and Jonathan Coy was convincing as John Thorpe. On the other hand, Robert Hardy was better suited to the role of Sir John Middleton, which he played in the 1995 film version of 'Sense and Sensibility', than he was to the role of General Tilney, which he took in this dramatisation. Maggie Wadey's decision to dramatise Catherine Morland's addiction to Gothic horror novels through the inclusion of fantasy sequences in which Catherine imagines herself as the heroine of her own Gothic romance clearly influenced Andrew Davies, who used the same device in his own screenplay for the 2007 film of 'Northanger Abbey.'
The Brides of Dracula (1960)
The Return of Van Helsing
Hammer Films' production of 'Dracula', sometimes known by its American title 'Horror of Dracula', was a great success in 1958. In 1960 the film studio reunited director Terence Fisher with screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and cinematographer Jack Asher to make a follow up. Although the title of the film is 'The Brides of Dracula', the count does not feature in this film, which concerns itself with one of Dracula's fellow vampires, Baron Meinster. Despite the absence of Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing does reprise his role of Van Helsing, and this is very much his film. Peter Cushing demonstrates his acting range in this film, from his gentle, compassionate treatment of Marianne when he rescues her in the forest, to his energetic and fearless confrontation with Baron Meinster towards the end.
The supporting cast includes some excellent acting from Martita Hunt, who plays the Baroness. She is perhaps best known for her memorable performance as Miss Havisham in the 1946 film of 'Great Expectations', but she is equally good here. Mile Malleson provides some amusing comic relief as a country doctor. The film includes a number of striking scenes. The scene in which the padlocks securing a coffin are sprung off one by one is a clear homage to a similar scene in the M.R. James short story, 'Count Magnus'. And then there is the scene in which Van Helsing, bitten by a vampire, slams a red hot poker on the wound and then douses it with holy water. If you like Hammer horror, I think you will like this movie.
A journey through three national parks
Julia Bradbury had already tackled ten walks from Alfred Wainwright's 'Pictorial Guides to the Lakeland Fells' for the 'Wainwright Walks' series in 2007. Here she takes on the late AW's most famous challenge, to walk across the North of England from the Irish Sea coast at St Bee's Head to the North Sea coast at Robin Hood's Bay. Along the way she crosses three English National Parks; the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North York Moors. The series was recorded in September 2008, after one of the wettest Augusts on record. Julia encounters some driving rain in the Lake District section, and the conditions are particularly boggy when she traverses the Pennines in Episode 3. However, she takes on the walking challenge with her customary high spirits, despite the adverse weather, and fortunately the weather does improve during the second half of the walk. By the time she gets to Richmond, it is even quite sunny. The series features some beautiful aerial photography of the Lakeland fells and Swaledale, and also includes clips from an earlier television series in which Alfred Wainwright revisited the coast to coast walk in the company of Eric Robson.