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Electra (I) (1962)
A magnificent film
1 September 2003
I have just seen this film again via DVD after first seeing it in a cinema 40 years ago, and it remains in my view a staggering masterpiece of world cinema. It is a film that should be compulsory viewing by all aspiring film-makers since it is, unlike so many of today's movies which really are over influenced by television, so cinematic it makes one positively nostalgic for concepts like film grammar and form. Cunningly, it is almost a silent movie with a wonderful soundtrack, and the acting, (outstanding by all concerned), shows the great value of body language, and how good film editing, the use of a superb musical score, and excellent black and white cinematography can convey such powerful and poignant emotions. The play on which it is based has of course the soundest of psychological under-pinnings; guilt is an emotion and state of mind that can ONLY be experienced once one has done something horrendous enough to make it possess you. It cannot be imagined or anticipated, and, even when "rational" thought seems to justify the act, as Elektra and Orestes find to their cost, this evaporates instantly once that rage has been quenched. The final sequence of this film, after the mother has been murdered, and when these realisations manifest themselves is so overwhelming and powerful that only the hardest of heart could not be profoundly moved. But, like all good psycho-therapy, it is ultimately sanctifying, even if at the same time it is heart-breaking and almost unbearably poignant. Certainly one of the best films I have ever seen in my life, and every department deserves the highest praise and congratulations. One of the very few films to which I have awarded a 10/10 vote.
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Do we learn from the past?
3 July 2003
Film is the closest to a time-machine that we yet know, and this remarkable compilation of authentic newsreels from the Vichy period, (and let's not forget, the Vichy regime was officially recognised as the legitimate government of France by the USA, the USSR and the Vatican), are particularly chilling since so much of what the politicians and official spokesmen of those times said is unsettlingly close to much of today's political rhetoric. We hear of a United States of Europe, "a New World Order" that is "all" Hitler is seeking to achieve, and how `patriotism' is always free of dissent or criticism. That people constantly fall for this jingoistic rubbish is a cause for mourning rather than celebration, and these films clearly illustrate the overlooked historic fact that France was not `occupied' but had reached an armistice with Germany under the terms of which Germans were allowed to operate in the Northern sector of France. It also shows that Vichy needed no prompting from the Nazis to implement anti-Jewish legislation and eventual persecution and relied on good old French anti-Semitism to get away with it. This film also makes one wonder just how France was deemed `qualified' to administer a zone in post-war Germany, and how truly dangerous it was to be heroic enough to be a member of the Resistance. History is always written by the victors, but the uncomfortable gaps in their given version are exposed when you can see these shadows from the frontline experience. A vital and exceptionally important document.
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Jane Eyre (1943)
A masterpiece!
18 May 2003
Magnificent is the only word that can be applied to this remarkable film. It represents Hollywood's ability to make the occasional brilliant movie when all aspects of the film-making craft come together in such talented union. JANE EYRE can hardly be faulted in any single department; the outstanding acting performances; not only of the principle characters, but right down the line to even the smallest part; the superlative score by Bernard Herrmann; splendid photography and art direction; but above all, a script that sparkles with literate dialogue and which unfolds the narrative with such consummate skill. I first saw this film as a very young child, and it gripped and enthralled me then as it still does all these years later. Romantic, gothic and mesmerising, it is as near faultless as it is possible for any movie to be.
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Play for Today: Spend Spend Spend (1977)
Season 7, Episode 12
A remarkable glimpse of working-class reality
11 January 2003
It is perhaps surprising that a drama based on true facts, and which therefore can hardly be manipulated to make didactic points, should in effect prove to be so powerful, so convincing and so heart- breaking.

This story of a working-class British couple's win on the football pools, is in effect one of the most political films I have ever seen in my life, and goes to the very heart of the rotten malaise that festers within British life; the class system. Adapted from Viv Nicholson's own autobiographical account, Jack Rosenthal has fashioned a script that is almost awe inspiring in its ability to capture the nuances, petty meannesses, and grinding, soul destroying poverty that was the lot of working-class people in Britain in the 50s. The constant struggle to make a shilling do the work of a pound; the puny pleasures which were the only thing on offer; and an all powerful dominant ideology that made sure these same people were brain washed into accepting and never questioning the same phoney sham of the class structure. The alternatives were the status quo, or the authoritarian horrors of state Communism as represented by the USSR. Small wonder people settled for what they knew, and that was how the powers retained their power. I sometimes wonder if the USSR wasn't created purposely to sustain Capitalism in the West.

The late Susan Littler and John Duttine both give brilliant, first rate performances as Viv and her husband Keith, as this unexpected fortune, because they have had no training or experience in handling real money, in effect ruins their lives. Prior to the win, they are desperately poor but vibrant personalities, but, cast adrift with great wealth, they are shell-shocked and troubled, and whilst they still remain in love with each other, tragedy plays a part in their destiny as if to punish them for their `effrontery' in trying to rise above their station, and eventually Viv ends up flat broke.

It is a film that makes one seethe with anger at the perpetual social injustice there is the world over, and makes one yearn for just ONE film, one day, maybe, in which working-class people win and come out on top.
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Twist (1992)
Entertaining and valuable
23 December 2002
Not only is TWIST a remarkable documentary film, it is also an invaluable social document, charting not only the various dance crazes that swept the USA in the 60s, but reflecting too the social attitudes of the dominant ideology of those times.

As a European, it is amazing to me that on a cultural level, white and black American seemed in those days to inhabit two separate planets, and equally amazing that when white folks finally came to embrace `Rock 'n' Roll', so few of them were aware that this indigenous music of black America had been on their doorsteps, (those of the back porch, sadly) for many years already, only it was known as `Rhythm & Blues'.

To some extent, this documentary goes some way in redressing this cultural injustice, and had more footage of R&B performers been made at the time, no doubt they could have done it even more cogently. But time and again, this documentary shows that white folks repeatedly appropriated black culture as if it were their own invention, and even to the bitter end of the era, seemed to prefer the diluted over the authentic and the real. This was well demonstrated by the well chosen recordings used which were performed by black artists - not only were the rhythmic patterns more complex, seductive and compelling, but the sheer musicality was nearly always vastly superior to the ersatz white versions.

Apart from illustrative clips of the many dances that first sprang from the streets and then from the executive offices (which of course spelt the beginning of the end), the comments from those who lived to dance and who made the records, are always revealing and lucid. Although these dances were called decadent and immoral, towards the end of the film we see glimpses of Nixon, Kruschev, missile launches and other decadent and immoral items, until finally we see the ultimate appropriation and theft of black American musical culture, the British musical invasion.

Although in the main the film is a glorious celebration of dance culture, it also left me saddened, because beneath the smooth surface of American Bandstand and The Peppermint Lounge, it seemed to suggest that no matter what black folks do in America, they're never going to get the real credit all the while others can leach off their creativity and musical genius. For revealing this truth alone, this film deserves the highest possible praise. And to this day, what a great record The Marvelettes' `Please, Mr. Postman' is!
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Boring and pretentious
15 December 2002
I'd be hard pressed to cite a more achingly boring and pretentious movie that this one, and for the life of me, I fail to see how or why Miike Takashi seems to have garnered such a cult reputation in some quarters. Full of ponderous longeurs which no doubt are meant to register as pregnant with meaning; characters that are maudlin when they are not just plain wooden, and the constant use of `symbolism' that is about as subtle as a sledge-hammer blow to the head, it is one of those films that has you asking yourself `when will it ever end?'.

No doubt the `heroes' in these films are the macho role-models that armchair nerds wish they had become, which perhaps gives a clue as to why these films seem to appeal to the `intelligentsia', but suffice to say when these guys aren't setting their faces into masks of grimness or wallowing in self-pitying nostalgia, they just strut around wearing shades, and walking as if they have pin cushions in their underpants.

Mercifully, apart from a very brief glimpse of necrophilia, this film is, in the main, bereft of the cruelty and calculated shock values of Takashi's other movies, so hopefully he has by now perhaps exhausted this apparent obsession with continually upping the stakes and `going further than any film-maker before has dared to go', although advance reports of his latest film would perhaps suggest otherwise.

Overall, this film has all the intense, eager, over-earnestness, (and yes, calculated `naughtiness'), of something made on a Boy Scouts' camp as part of a vocational work project. Witless, charmless and pretentious nonsense, masquerading as quality, heavy-weight, head stuff.
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Fedora (1978)
Unjustly overlooked
22 September 2002
It puzzles me why this film appears to have been so forgotten and neglected because I find it richly entertaining and, like so much of Wilder's work, it shows an abiding, (although not uncritical), love / hate of Hollywood and all it represented. Wilder has no illusions about the Monster Hollywood could be in its heyday when it created an almost parallel universe which consisted of those on the inside the industry, and the rest of us who paid homage at the box-office. Both parties were almost entirely oblivious of the reality of life as experienced by each other.

FEDORA is much more bitter-sweet than SUNSET BLVD., (his other film with which it is natural to compare it, and of course the presence of William Holden in both makes this even more compelling), but here we see people who, having made a pact with the devil of Hollywood fame and fortune, find it is a two edged sword that keeps them in the service of its mores and values forever, even though the effort of doing so nearly makes them die from exhaustion. Death or permanent seclusion is the only way to preserve a legend's immortality.

Beautifully structured, and with some excellent dialogue, all the cast acquit themselves with credit, and I find it a fascinating and valuable glimpse into a world that has now gone forever and which is never, ever likely to return. Perhaps more reflective and introspective than we expect a Billy Wilder film to be, but all the more richly satisfying for it. Highly recommended.
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Bullfight (1951)
How the "Lords of Creation" amuse themselves
18 May 2002
In some ways it is useful that films like this exist, as repellent as they are, since in time I am sure people will look back with horror and alarm to think such vile "pastimes" and "entertainments" as bull-fighting were ever allowed, much less supported, but alas, they do still exist in some parts of the world. However, this documentary is quite rightly dispassionate. You don't know where the film-maker quite stands on the issue, and this perhaps is a good thing since you are presented with the "spectacle" and left to draw your own conclusions about its ethics.

Not only are bulls seen to be tormented and tortured as they are goaded to frenzy by the matadors, but you also see how the horses in the ring are also gored and injured. You don't however see the behind the scene methods and "tricks of the trade" employed to ensure that danger to the matadors is always minimized. There is also a strange sort of macho primping and posturing to be seen in the behaviour of the men who participate, and who presumably think that by doing so they somehow augment their own sense of masculinity. Removed from the blood stained arena, their theatrics are as camp as all hell.

It was indeed a black day for mankind when the Princes of the Church decided that animals do not have souls, thus condemning them to centuries of use and abuse, and for those who feel a flush of self-righteous pomposity about this theological confirmation of their superiority, it is well to remember that at that same Council, it was also debated as to whether or not women had souls, and that decision was affirmed only by the slenderest of majorities!

This film does serve another purpose however - it proves that cruelty depraves and corrupts, which was evidenced by the fact that even I almost stood on my seat and cheered with Sadean frenzy when a bull's horn managed to lance a matador through the thigh, and then ran pell-mell around the arena for several minutes with his body hanging free as if wearing a crazy bonnet! (The impulse I felt was wrong, but, nobody's perfect!).

It is also valuable to demonstrate mankind's fatal propensity for having to constantly "prove" they are The Lords of Creation" by treating practically every other creature that lives and breathes as if it were made solely for their use and pleasure. Count me out on that one, because if animals ain't got souls, then I don't want one neither!
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Dobermann (1997)
Next time, astonish us!
10 May 2002
It's hard to know just what one is supposed to make of DOBERMANN. An exercise in studied and self-conscious decadence might be the best way to describe it, because boy, does this film want to SHOCK! But, alas, each excess and the subsequent glorification of brutality becomes so boringly repetitive when you not only have psychotic crooks, but also a psychotic police force to combat them! Everyone is nuts, so what does the outcome of it all really matter?

Quirky eccentricity (so beloved of French movies) hits us at about 80 miles per hour and 40 years out of date, and the narrative, such as it is, stretches all credulity when the police actually take a baby along with them on a stakeout of a low-life dive!

Cool, cute, laid-back and slick, the criminal fraternity are shown as misunderstood but intensely `real' people just `doing their thing'; the sort of vicarious turn-on tailor-made to delight wet-liberals and self-styled intellectuals. Why, even when one of them defecates in the street, he searches around for paper, and lo!, there's a discarded copy of the ultra-posh `Cahiers du cinéma' in the gutter from which he can tear a page to use..!

And so it goes relentlessly on and on, with trendy little touches slipping in here and there, and everything coolly calculated to evoke a response of `Formidable!' from French teen audiences. Alas, it just doesn't cut the mustard despite all the super-human frenzy that appears to have gone into its making, and when the final credits roll, one is left with the empty feeling of `So what?'.
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Man Bites Dog (1992)
Oh yeah?
23 April 2002
One thing I really resent about this noxious film is the element of justification it purports to carry which is little more than intellectual blackmail, and which some commentators have alluded to. Because I paid money to see this film, (solely because of the reviews it got), I resent then the implication that by doing so I am either a voyeur or a fellow-traveller in the violence and cruelty depicted. Had I got up and walked out, no doubt I'd have been called a "prude" or my exit regarded as "moral panic", and, by not having seen the whole film to the end it would be argued (with reason) that I would therefore be unqualified to comment... the no-win situation so beloved of those who have an answer for everything! Certainly, there is no question of banning this film for adults, in fact it is a useful artifact to show just how desensitized and decadent Western culture has become in part. And yet, that same society (in Britain at least) bans the depiction on television of abortion procedures, and carefully filters out graphic scenes of real carnage. But when it is claimed to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem, then I have to dissent from the mainstream opinion regarding this movie, and take issue with such arrogrance. What is "funny" about seeing a child murdered, or a woman raped and then disembowelled? Isn't this reaction precisely the mind-set that perpetrates so many war time atrocities? That rather than allow ourselves to be swamped with revulsion and self-loathing at our propensity for barbarism, we have to transmogrify it into some sort of "giggle" - a lark, a bit of fun, or, god help us, sport? If this odious and squalid little piece of artistic pretension HADN'T revolted and nauseated me, then I'd be truly worried. As it is, it has a kind of schoolboyish feverishness about it, like trying to see who can next come up with the most shocking anecdote, or see who can pee the highest up the wall. Crude and cruel, it at least parades its scabs with some sort of attitude. And possibly that's what worries me most. However, just to try and be truly balanced, maybe, just maybe, the film-makers were in fact creating a double bluff just to test and examine how far a parade of unremittingly cruel images might find intellectual champions in today's society! Remember, the "film as auteur" concept originated as a scam!
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The real start of "animal liberation"
27 March 2002
This remarkable short documentary stands like a monumental judgement on the human race, and how we, as the supposedly superior species are, at heart, cold and indifferent to the suffering and fate of other sentient beings with whom we share the planet. Franju, with detached simplicity, makes us look at what most of us prefer to either not see or even think about - the precise process by which living animals are converted into food for us to eat. Not only does the film show the plight of creatures, but it also shows the dehumanising effect this work has on the slaughterers for whom slitting the throat of a sheep, or shooting a captive bolt pistol into the forehead of a magnificent horse, has become a routine assignment of little consequence or gravity. I first saw this film in 1952, and went in a carnivore, and came out a vegetarian, and have remained one ever since because of it. Such is the power of this objective and powerful documentary. All too often in life we depend upon others to do our dirty work for us so that we can remain "pure souled" and unsullied by such barbaric degradation, but we cannot look away forever, and whilst Franju doesn't preach, (there is very little commentary, and what there is merely explains what's happening), he makes us see with our own eyes the endless convey-belt parade of slaughter and accompanying horror. Didactic cinema at its most dynamic and memorable, and the true precursor of "animal liberation".
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East of Eden (1955)
Good, but not quite good enough
25 March 2002
There are certain films you go to see because you feel sure you are going to enjoy them. EAST OF EDEN had a director I greatly admire, a cast of significance, literary credentials (although I have never read the book so my comments must be based solely on the film as seen), and yet... I found the end result vaguely unsatisfactory. Mainly I think because as presented via the screenplay, I found the story somewhat thin. Many potentially interesting situations were hinted at and never followed through; Aaron's reluctance to support the jingoism of the USA's involvement in WW1 - why was this? Pacifism? Cowardice? The bravery of being a dissenting voice in a sea of hysteria? A parallel with the Biblical Abel's refusal to make animal sacrifices as Cain did? The Mexican girl with whom Cal appeared to have some sort of relationship was marginalised into almost total insignificance. The film also cried out for a more Mahleresque musical score from someone of the calibre of Alex North or Kenyon Hopkins to emphasise and intensify the strong emotions which from time to time had to surface. Technical credits were all first rate. Acting uniformly superb (it is worth noting that it was Julie Harris' name that was at the top of the credits), and yet it didn't give me goosebumps. And it should have. Compared to films like A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING, THE FUGITIVE KIND or even, BABY DOLL, this film seemed desperately striving to deliver a powerful emotional punch but for me at least, it didn't cut the mustard as it should have done.
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Miss Julie (1951)
An immaculate and definitive screen adaptation
22 March 2002
Some films are so utterly faultless and brilliantly made that one is almost at a loss to find enough superlatives with which to praise them, and yet, at the same time keep it credible. MISS JULIE is one such film, and it seems entirely fitting that one of the greatest Swedish films ever made should be based on the work of one of Sweden's greatest writers. Every single aspect of this film is perfect; the black and white photography, the wonderful musical score by Dag Wiren, the acting from all the cast, but in particular from Anita Bjork who sets a standard in playing Miss Julie that could hardly be bettered. The play which provides the screenplay is of course devastating with the inexorable interplay between class and rank, and human desire and lust overlapping and intertwining, and too, the now almost forgotten concept of "duty" and "honour". If you like movies that make you think, eat away at your heart and memory long after you have seen them, then I cannot recommend MISS JULIE more highly. In the fifty years since it was made, its brilliance has not diminished one jot. A masterpiece and a film to truly treasure.
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Brilliantly filmed story of infinite compassion
7 March 2002
There is no doubt about it, but when Hollywood decides to make a cinematic masterpiece, and at the same time draws upon indigenous American social and cultural mores, as exemplified by a writer of the talent of Carson McCullers, the result can be both breath-taking and almost overwhelming. It is partly their very `Americaness' that makes films like THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER so unique and special to someone like myself who is not American. And this film in particular shows a side of the American psyche which is all too often neglected and unacknowledged in movies. The novel on which it is based is, sadly perhaps, too complex and long to adapt to the screen without sacrificing some aspect of the many subplots it contains, and although I regret the loss of the radical political dimension, the subtle and heart-wrenching way loneliness, racism, impoverishment, snobbery, and disadvantage are conveyed are so powerfully treated that the end result is a film of almost unbearable sadness and melancholy... and yet... And yet there is an element of tremendous hope also at work; of the human spirit overcoming huge odds and learning life's lessons as the various characters go along and work out their individual destinies. Superb ensemble acting from all concerned, and technical credits of the highest order make this one of the most deeply satisfying films I have ever seen in my life. A masterpiece, and one that could only have been made in the USA.
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A tale of mystery and imagination
19 January 2002
Well, what a stimulating surprise! David Lynch back on form with an endlessly fascinating movie that takes you by the hand and leads you down the darkest alley-ways of human trauma and psychosis, and yet, at the same time, manages to evoke an overwhelming sense of compassion and sadness.

Refreshingly too, a film that is actually filmic and which understands the grammar and language of cinema, and, (as is always the case with David Lynch), one that knows how to use the soundtrack as an artistic adjunct rather than merely as a means of carrying dialogue and playing music.

I have always yearned to see a film that captures the truly dark, downside of Hollywood and this is almost it, but how stunningly it reminds us that this City of Angels has probably broken far more hearts than it has ever made happy.

To have set it all in the 50s (that most under-rated of decades which in many ways, was far more revolutionary and potentially subversive than any subsequent ones) was a master-stroke - from the adroit, neat, sexy skill of the opening jitterbug dancers to the rag-doll parody of a Mick Jagger in less than two decades - the road map is all here; in heart-breaking Technicolor and bright Max Factor lipstick and nail varnish.
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Suspiria (1977)
Over long and over rated
6 January 2002
It's difficult to know quite what to make of SUSPIRIA, a film that meanders all over the place as it tries to emulate Hitchcock's skill at creating suspenseful situations. Trouble is, the whole thing is over-egged. A relentlessly monotonous six-note musical soundtrack by The Goblins, plus unremitting screaming from various females, might well give some the creeps, but in between, there are longeurs of endless creeping down corridors, the usual lights suddenly failing in frequent thunderstorms, and of course the majority of exterior scenes are accompanied by torrential downpours of rain. A few set pieces are well done, (for those who have a taste for gruesome mutilations), and it must be said that Jessica Harper acquits herself well as the American student forever glancing around to see what mischief is likely to befall next, but poor Joan Bennett I'm afraid comes across as a role-model for Divine, and Alida Valli seems to think she's really on the set of ILSA, SHE-WOLF OF THE S. S. I don't know if it was intentional, or if it was meant to be read the way I read it, but in the final shot as the Academy is consumed by flames and Jessica Harper walks away to safety, a smile of deepest satisfaction appears on her face which at the same time also seems to be a smirk of profound relief that at last it's all over. I felt much the same way.
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Rape Me (2000)
Amateur night with the camcorder
29 September 2001
At one point in this slovenly film one of the female protagonists says, `We have no imagination', and this sadly, sums up this entire production which comes across as amateur night with the camcorder, and calculatedly designed to shock the pants off bourgeois society. But, bourgeois society is by now quite unshockable, having seen just about every permutation of human degradation, cruelty and trauma presented on screen many times over already. In any case, although films like FUCK ME, (and let's not be coy about the English translation of the title, otherwise we merely have a form of censorship based on social class), appear on the surface to be `rebellious' and `underground', it's the bourgeois society they pretend to attack and despise that bank-rolls them!

I'd eagerly welcome a movie that shocked me with its radicalism and ideas, but take away the studied and carefully stage-managed attempts to `outrage' us, and one is left with... what? Vacuous nonsense about two dysfunctional misfits who don't even have enough wit or soul to strike up a lesbian relationship to fill their otherwise empty and boring hours.

A trivial, pretentious and quite unimportant film which has aspirations way, way above the capabilities of the directors and script-writers. It is perhaps worth noting in passing that although the British film censors insisted on just one brief cut of a shot of an erect penis entering a vagina, they allowed a scene in which a revolver is placed in a man's anus and fired. There must be something we can learn from this telling fact, and this at least provided me with the only `idea' this film conveyed to me!
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L.A. Takedown (1989 TV Movie)
An intelligent and gutsy movie
8 July 2001
L. A. TAKEDOWN is an extremely watchable film, and has a script that is permeated by a kind of grim intelligence. The characters, far from being plastic stereotypes, actually engage on a psychological level. Michael Mann directs with considerable skill, and most tellingly, knows how to use music to maximum effect. In this respect, his ability at times almost reaches the genius level of the Italian director Gillo Pontecorvo. But main honours in this film must go to Alex McArthur who gives an amazing performance of such skill and power that he actually conveys the very thoughts and feelings of his character through body language or facial expression. The scene where the two protagonists (the hoodlum and the cop) have coffee together is almost faultless in conveying the powerful emotions and tensions that are at work between them, as well as the mind-set which motivates each of the characters, and, for once, the various love scenes are convincing and important to the development of the narrative. Interestingly too, (although it perhaps happened by default since it was a film made for television), the actual violence that is a necessary part of the story is rendered perhaps even more powerfully by NOT being shown, or by happening off-camera. But to my mind, the film belongs to Alex McArthur who turns in one of the best acting performances I have seen in a very long time, which is able to make you both loathe and feel pity for his character at one and the same time. No mean feat!
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A film light years ahead of its time
25 April 2001
An amazing roller-coaster ride through the full range of human emotions, THE SAVAGE EYE is just as remarkable today as when it was first made, and the title is so apt and pertinent. Didactic and profound, it comes across almost as a warning or an alert to human society showing us the high price paid by our psyches for the "joys" of civilisation. The things we really need we ignore and despise, and instead pursue an empty materialism that leaves our "souls" impoverished and starved; not because we choose to do so, but because we mindlessly drift along with whatever the dominant ideology of the day tells us we should want. Brilliantly assembled and conceived, it is one of those films that once seen will linger deep in your subconscious forever.
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Pecker (1998)
Been there, seen it all before...
6 April 2001
This film can not even be said to be bad for it is sadly, just painfully mediocre. Lacking any real wit or imagination, a thin plot is stretched to the absolute limit and the `jokes' (which are predictable and threadbare) are spun out to such inordinate length that boredom and yawns quickly overtake the viewer. Another notch to mark the sad decline of John Waters and a reminder that what `shocked' or amused us 30 years ago doesn't work quite the same way now. We've seen it all before, and it no longer breaks any taboos because they have long since evaporated. A major miss.
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Volga - Volga (1938)
The most patronising film ever made?
25 January 2001
One can well understand why this nonsensical film was alleged to have been Stalin's favourite. The working-class people in it are depicted as simple-minded yokels; up from the country and gob-smacked at the wondrous technology and luxury of the Big City. (The scene where, like naughty school children they explore a cabin on a luxury liner, complete with white telephone, beggars belief, and I'm surprised that Soviet people didn't pelt the screen whenever it was shown, but no doubt that would have landed them in a gulag). Based around a song writing competition held in Moscow, we see a group of factory workers on leave in order to take part. One of their number has composed a song and hopes to enter it. After various capers around the city, a gust of wind carries off his precious song, and so, dejected and forlorn, our gang turn up to watch the contest, crest-fallen that they are no longer participants. But hey, what's this? The winning song is announced, but nobody knows who wrote it because it was found in the street, and... yes, you can guess the rest. As if this stomach-churning kitsch were not enough, (although it was nice to see them win after traipsing around Moscow all day like slavish imbeciles going ga-ga at every new innovation they stumble across, although none of them thought to ask why they haven't got all these luxurious life enhancements in their neck of the woods), there is a tagged on reprise to what you think is the film's finale when the ensemble cast all come back on screen again in a chorus line, and remind us that it's great to have a laugh and a joke, but tomorrow we will all have to be back at our jobs, toiling away to help build the New Jerusalem!! The sheer condescension of this movie's whole premise makes a mockery of working people, and shows perhaps more than many others, (albeit on a subconscious level), how well and truly betrayed the revolution was, and how well and truly shafted Soviet working-class people were to think that they were going to be allowed to inherit their own earth. How strange that this rubbish should have emanated from a country that allegedly put the interests of working people first, and a powerful film that did do just that, 'Salt of the Earth', should have emanated from the bastion of Capitalism. Makes you think.
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An inept waste of time and money
24 January 2001
When one considers that Carson McCullers is one of the foremost literary figures of the 20th century, it seems that it needs a very great lack of talent to be able to ruin one of her stories, but this movie shows it can be done! How do actors ingratiate their way to becoming directors? Wooden, unatmospheric, unsympathetic, totally out of sync with the poetic compassion of McCullers' writing, my jaw dropped with horror and disbelief that such a mish-mash of a movie could ever have found finance and backers. The only redeeming features are some moderately good acting, (although that said, Vanessa Redgrave seems to permanently render much the same performance whatever character she plays), and some good cinematography in places, but otherwise it is a bitter, bitter disappointment, and it could, and indeed should, have been a contemporary masterpiece. Simon Callow should hang his head in shame and stick to acting!
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Horror as a casual, everyday manifestation
17 January 2001
There is, beneath the surface of this film, a very potent anti-vivisectionist message: the endless search to put right that which has gone grievously wrong, and how, in pursuit of this seemingly noble and altruistic end, mankind is prepared to tolerate unspeakable cruelties and atrocities. The final scene, in which the animal victims of the experimenter's lab are released into freedom by the very person who had most to gain from work inflicted on them, is a powerful and potent symbol. As Bernard Shaw once said, "The arguments used to justify vivisection are those which could be used to justify any atrocity", and Franju seems to want to bring this message home through this truly atmospheric and moving film. It should perhaps also be remembered that Franju made an earlier documentary, 'The Blood of Beasts' which simply confronted us, without comment or judgement, with what exactly goes on before flesh food reaches our tables. 'Eyes Without A Face' is a film that has many parables in it, and is a valuable and worthy addition to French cinema history.
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`A forgotten masterpiece'
11 January 2001
Even by today's standards, this is still a film masterpiece, but, when one considers when it was made it is even more stunning, for it is so innovative and original that it is a tragedy that it is not more widely known. Seeing it with contemporary eyes and ears, it is easy to forget that sound film was then still new and in its infancy, and yet Otsep and Karol Rathaus (given his first opportunity to compose for a film), immediately grasped the fundamental potential music could play in propelling dramatic narrative. To his eternal credit, the late, great Bernard Herrmann in a published interview, cited this film as the one he most admired for its creative use of a musical score.

The frantic coach ride, when Karamazov pursues Grushenka when she has abandoned him, must rank, even today, as one of the most dynamic scenes in world cinema. With its rapid cross cutting and editing, allied with Rathaus' incredible score, which uses frantic drumming, Chinese blocks and assorted percussion instruments, it perfectly conveys the desperation and mad love we are confronted with, and, although probably only lasting less than a minute in screen time, leaves one stunned and breathless with excitement.

Then, when Karamazov arrives at the bordello to which Grushenka has fled, can you believe, in a film shot in 1930, (when sound cameras weighed a ton), Otsep introduces an uninterrupted tracking shot, as Karmazov wanders from room to room, trailed and proceeded by the camera in real time, as he seeks to find her, which is every bit as dynamic and fascinating as the opening shot of `A Touch of Evil'?

I am convinced that Orson Welles had already seen this film before setting out to make `Citizen Kane', since so many of the innovations in that for which he was hailed, actually first appeared in Otsep's film. It is a perfect marriage of silent film montage and editing, with all the new potential that sound unleashed fully realised, and Otsep combines the two with incredible skill and mastery.

Full of atmosphere and a Slavonic expressionistic fatalism, it is in many ways much more of a `Russian' film than a German one, (it is interesting to note that a French speaking version was simultaneously filmed alongside this). Although there is a slight narrative blurring and overlap between Dostoyevsky's `Karamazov' and Tolstoy's `Resurrection', (both often filmed in any case), this does at least provide the ending of the film with a slight modicum of hope.

Set within baroque interiors which hardly ever leave any surface uncovered, unpatterned, or not seducing the eye to gain its attention, and contrasted with bleak and hostile exteriors, the inner and outer worlds of human experience are constantly juxtaposed and shown to be in perpetual conflict. If only modern film-makers would study and learn from the sheer economy of space and time used in pre-50s cinema!

As befits writers of the calibre of Dostoyevsky, (and, perhaps even more so, the borrowing from Tolstoy), a wild anarchic spirit animates the characters as they act out their fatalistic drama, (the amour fou that Otsep was later to explore in `Amok'), but, all through, and in part heightened by Rathaus' music, there is a fearful melancholy that pervades it all; a sense of impending doom. These are what we would today call dysfunctional characters, but they are imprisoned in the manners and mores of their time; trying to claw some small space in which they can be free, but in their innermost heart of hearts knowing that it is unlikely to be.

When Grushenka decides to join Karamazov in his exile in Siberia, the train which takes them away, (that constant and valuable cinematic metaphor of inevitability and mechanistic fatalism, and with hindsight, so similar to the transportations used by the Nazis ten years later), is seen vanishing into oblivion, with the camera astride the track, against which backdrop Rathaus added a musical chord sequence that borders on heartbreak, poignancy and pain.

A masterpiece of world cinema that must one day be rediscovered and given its rightful respect and critical admiration.

(A sinister footnote should perhaps mention that out-of-context sequences from this film were strung together as part of the Nazi anti-Semitic film `Der Ewige Jude', (together with scenes similarly lifted from Fritz Lang's `M'), to illustrate what were termed `degenerate Jewish influences in German cinema'. It is fortunate that Otsep and his wife were able to leave Paris where they were then living, just days before the Germans arrived during WW2, since they immediately closed all cinemas and then, after a week or so, allowed a few to re-open which were forced to show `Der Ewige Jude'. Unfortunately, Otsep's career was never able to recover and find the opportunities through which to re-establish himself as a master film craftsman in the USA, and he died in 1949).
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Darker and more sinister than is generally reckoned
17 September 2000
It would take a braver person than me to delineate what LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD is `about', but as it is such an entirely thought provoking film, perhaps some sort of `meaning' can come from sharing these thoughts about it. Many people define it as cerebral and classical, but to me it is romantic and gothic. What is remarkable about the setting and the characters is that they are all so wealthy that they can rise above the concerns of ordinary mortals, only to find that this advantaged life brings other problems - of identity, purpose and values. They are strangely existentialist - the existentialism of great wealth - their small talk is intelligent, informed and stilted; they are all beautiful in the sense that money can partly buy beauty, and yet, in the process, they have lost human warmth, real sexual desire, and any purpose in life other than to drift on in their station in life. But desire is a respecter of nobody, and it is this element of human nature that haunts the corridors of the hotel like an invisible mist, and subconsciously their acutely civilised life-style which has bereaved them of something they no longer acknowledge or recognise and have deeply repressed - only to find it lingers on the fringes, confusing and disturbing them - spoiling everything; a depressive dissatisfaction. There is no joy, no enjoyment. The gardens become symbols of this desire to enslave, conquer and exile nature - formal, rigid and planned, and yet within the hotel, all around are decorative symbols of the chaotic and random aspects of nature. Everything appears to carry a symbol that needs to be interpreted - if it is there, it must have meaning, and if the Man says that they had arranged to elope together when they were at Marienbad, (or was it Marienbad, or elsewhere, and what does it matter?), how can the Woman be sure that this is not a ruse, made up to give immediate warning that we exile our emotions at our peril? That to acknowledge this for one second risks opening floodgates which will overwhelm and destroy? Or, that the ultimate expression of desire is death itself, as the film's closing line hints when the Man's voice speaks, over the night time silhouette of the hotel, of, `You.. and me.. together.. always.. in the night'. And it is an eternal night that we all subconsciously know lays in wait for us. The Great Leveller indeed! A remarkable film by any standards, and one which for me at least, is much darker and more sinister than has generally been recognised. But maybe it is just a springboard from which we can all set off on a journey guided by our own subconscious longings and dreads?
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