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Babylon 5: In the Beginning (1998)
A superb prequel which ties together the events of the series very effectively
Produced between the fourth and fifth seasons of "Babylon 5", this is a superb prequel which ties together the events of the series very effectively. It tells the story of the Earth-Minbari War (2245-2248), a major part of the series' backstory which is explored in numerous episodes, as is its legacy and aftermath. In the style of classic war films such as "The Longest Day" and "A Bridge Too Far", the events of the war are told from multiple perspectives on both sides so as to give us a complete picture of the conflict.
The wonderful script was written by the series' creator, executive producer and showrunner, the all-round creative genius J. Michael Straczynski (JMS), who wrote no less than 92 out of its 110 episodes. Michael Vejar handles the material with style. It is a credit to both JMS and Vejar that the film is able to maintain such a high degree of tension and, particularly in its last 20 minutes, evoke such a strong emotional response in spite of the fact that many (though certainly not all) of the events depicted would have already been familiar to fans of the series. It never seems like a rehash of things that viewers already knew, which it could very easily have done with poor writing. The series occasionally flashbacked to the war and several clips from the relevant episodes are reused but they fit seamlessly into the narrative.
The frame story takes place in 2278, sixteen years after the events of Season Five, on a devastated Centauri Prime and ties into the future sequences of the Season Three episode "War Without End, Part Two". Londo Mollari, the elderly Emperor of the Centauri Republic who is rapidly approaching his prophesied death, tells the story of the war to two young children, Luc and Lyssa Deradi, and their nanny. Played to perfection by Peter Jurasik, Londo is the most important and compelling character in the series as far as I'm concerned. In many respects, the story of "Babylon 5" is the story of Londo Mollari so it is appropriate that he is the one recounting this particular tale. Londo is an enormously tragic figure who is haunted by innumerable bad choices and poor decisions that he has made during his life, most of which were fuelled by his vaulting ambition and misguided sense of patriotism. He feels great remorse for them but can do nothing to change them. He is the Emperor but the Emperor of a civilisation in ruins. In theory, he has enormous power but little way to exercise it meaningfully. He is desperately lonely and miserable. The presence of children in his throne room is clearly a breath of fresh air in his otherwise bleak existence.
In the flashbacks to 2245, however, Londo is a different kettle of fish. Relatively young, he is serving as the Centauri liaison to the Earth Alliance. The position was probably not taken too seriously by the Centauri since humans were then quite a minor player in galactic affairs but it was nowhere near as big a joke as his subsequent position of the Centauri ambassador to Babylon 5 in its early days. As such, at this point, Londo perhaps still thought that his career had some upward mobility so he was not yet the drunken buffoon that he was in "The Gathering" and most of Season One who gambled away his money, passed out on tables and was probably the butt of every other joke in the Centauri royal court. At a meeting with senior Earth officials, Londo is asked to provide Centauri intelligence on a species with whom humans seek to make contact: the Minbari. He attempts to persuade them not to send an expedition to Minbari space. However, his warning falls on deaf ears and the Earth Alliance President orders the expedition to proceed. As historical parallels are common in JMS' writing, I imagine that this example of gunboat diplomacy was inspired by U.S. President Millard Fillmore sending the Perry Expedition to Japan in 1853/4 with orders to force an end to the Japanese isolation from world affairs.
The Earth-Minbari War began due to a tragic misunderstanding. The hot-headed Captain Jankowski of the EAS Prometheus ordered his crew to open fire when a Minbari vessel approached it with its gun ports open. Although it was intended as a gesture of respect, it was interpreted as a threat. In the Prometheus' attack, the venerated Minbari leader Dukhat, the head of their ruling body the Grey Council, is killed. In response, the Minbari declare a holy war against Earth and plan to wipe out every human man, woman and child in retribution. Since their ships are considerably more advanced and more powerful than those of the Earth Alliance, Earth does not stand a chance against them. The film does an excellent job of depicting humanity's desperation at their plight. They are faced not only with the prospect of defeat but extinction. Surrender is preferable but the Minbari refuse to even respond to humanity's attempt to surrender. However, as Londo says in his beautifully written and moving speech towards the end of the film, the humans made the Minbari fight for every inch of space and faced their fate with bravery and dignity.
Mira Furlan, who probably has the most screen time overall, is as excellent as ever as Delenn, a member of the Grey Council and the future ambassador to Babylon 5. In her grief and rage at Dukhat's death, she cries out "No mercy!" and orders the counterattack on the Prometheus. However, she comes to deeply regret this decision and feels that there is nothing to be gained by wiping out the humans. Delenn is a wise and compassionate character and this comes through in spades in the depiction of her painful inner conflict as the war progresses and nears its (seemingly) inevitable conclusion. Bruce Boxleitner is likewise very strong as her future husband, the brave, loyal and level-headed Lt. Commander John Sheridan, the first officer of the Lexington who scores humanity's only significant victory against the Minbari when he destroys their flagship, the Black Star. Boxleitner does an impressive job at differentiating between the younger Sheridan and the older one who would take command of Babylon 5 in 2259. When he first appears in the film, Sheridan does not yet have the forceful presence that is so integral to the character, something which he develops almost as soon as he assumes command of the Lexington after Captain Sterns' death.
Andreas Katsulas excels as G'Kar as always. His performance signifies how much the character changes over the course of the series. He is very much the insidious, scheming, untrustworthy Narn hellbent on revenge against the Centauri whom we met in "The Gathering" as opposed to the wise, dignified holy man that he eventually became. As Dr. Stephen Franklin, Richard Biggs does not have as big a challenge in portraying the younger version of his character since Stephen did not change anywhere near as significantly as others but nevertheless plays the role with his usual skill. Claudia Christian has a brief cameo as a teenage Susan Ivanova who wishes her beloved older brother Ganya good luck before he goes on the mission from which he would not return. Although he receives "Special Appearance By" credit, the series' original leading man Michael O'Hare only appears in archive footage from the Season One episode "And the Sky Full of Stars". This was a very important early episode which shed some light on the 24 hours missing from Jeffrey Sinclair's memory during the final battle of the war, the Battle of the Line, which ended with the astonishing surrender of the Minbari.
The great character actor Theodore Bikel, who previously played Rabbi Yossel Koslov in the dreadful Season One episode "TKO", is wonderful as the Minbari Lenonn, the leader of the Anla'Shok (otherwise known as the Rangers). Convinced that Valen's prophecy about the Shadows returning to their homeworld of Z'ha'dum in preparation for another great war is coming true, he attempts to convince the Grey Council to lend the Rangers further support. Dukhat mounts an expedition to Z'ha'dum to confirm Lenonn's theory, which leads to the fateful encounter with the Prometheus. Lenonn is a good, dignified and perceptive man who laments the outbreak of war not only because of the severe loss of life but because another of Valen's prophecies states the humans will play a vital role in the coming war. The appearance of two Vorlons, Kosh and Ulkesh, is a powerful indication that Lenonn's fears are well founded.
Reiner Schöne portrays Dukhat as a man of great wisdom, strength and intelligence, which gives his death meaning for the viewer and makes it easy to understand why he was much loved by the Minbari. Robin Sachs is excellent as Coplann, a member of the Grey Council who is dubious of Lenonn's claims that the Shadows are returning. Robin Atkin Downes (who later played the deeply unpopular character Byron in Season Five) is very good as Morann, another warrior caste representative on the Grey Council who enthusiastically supports the holy war against Earth at its outset. However, both Coplann and Morann eventually grow weary at the ceaseless death and destruction as the war draws to a close. Tricia O'Neil is simply marvellous in the two scene role of the Earth Alliance President, delivering her character's wonderful and inspiring speech before the Battle of the Line with great pathos. The film also features strong performances in roles of varying size from J. Patrick McCormack as General Lefcourt, the uncredited Lane Davies as Callier, James Patrick Stuart as the presidential aide and Jacob Chase as Luc Deradi.
Overall, this is an excellent film which, in many ways, is a pure distillation of the "Babylon 5" universe. Even so, I would advise anyone planning on checking out the series not to watch this film first as it takes for granted that the viewers were already familiar with "Babylon 5" and therefore features "spoilers" concerning many important revelations during its first four seasons.
An Englishman's Castle (1978)
A superb and thought-provoking alternate history
Set in a world in which Nazi Germany won the Second World War, this is a superb and thought-provoking alternate history. A Nazi victory is one of the best known and most frequently utilised alternate history concepts, one which was already decades old in 1978. It has produced some of the best stories in the history of the genre as well as some of the worst. This three part serial approached the concept through the lens of television as it concerns the production of a soap opera entitled "An Englishman's Castle" which takes place in London in 1940 during the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of the UK. The serial is brilliantly written by Philip Mackie whose script hits all of the right notes and skilfully directed by Paul Ciappessoni, both BBC stalwarts.
The serial stars Kenneth More in a wonderful performance as Peter Ingram, the 58-year-old creator, writer and producer of "An Englishman's Castle". Ingram fought in the war and joined the resistance after the occupation. He hid out in the hills with his comrades for months - comparing the situation to that of the ancient Britons, who had themselves been faced with numerous Roman invasions - until the German occupiers announced an amnesty for all resistance fighters. The Nazis still have a tight grip on the UK in 1978. However, the British government of Quislings maintains a façade of normal life. To that end, not a single swastika is seen. Discounting a fictional Nazi named Heinz in the soap who is intended to be likeable, the only German seen is a beautiful young woman named Anya. Her appearance and demeanour do not exactly scream "oppressor." For his part, Ingram turns a blind eye to the realities of Nazi rule in Britain, which includes a police force which appears civilised but is in actuality every bit as brutal and sadistic as the Gestapo.
Over the course of its three year existence, the soap has become not only the most popular show on British television but a huge success in German-dominated Europe, being broadcast in 15 countries altogether. The main characters of the soap are Mr. and Mrs. Worth, their sons Frank and Bert and the latter's one-time fiancée Sally. In a typical soap opera twist, Sally and Frank have fallen madly in love, which Sally chooses to reveal to Bert the night before Frank leaves to fight the German invasion. Mrs. Worth is oblivious to this and seats Sally between the two brothers, an obvious piece of writing of Ingram's part.
The soap plays a vital role in perpetuating the collaborationist government's myth that the Nazis really aren't all that bad and that all right thinking people should want peace and comfortable lives at all costs. Fortunately, Mackie is nowhere near the obvious writer and "terrible crap merchant" that Ingram is as this point nicely illustrates that period dramas often say as much or sometimes even more about the time that they were made as the time in which they are based. The soap does involve a storyline in which Bert joins the resistance after Frank is killed and another in which their father suffers a heart attack after listening to news on the progress of the invasion on the radio. However, these elements are designed to remind the British people that they put up a fight before Germany achieved victory so they don't feel bad about themselves. It's really just another way of keeping the population docile.
Ingram is perfectly willing to keep his head down and go along with the status quo until the programme controller Harmer, played by a suitably slimy and intimidating Anthony Bate in an extraordinarily effective performance, objects to a character being given the name of Rosenthal. Ingram tells him that the character is drawn from life, a tribute to a Jewish friend of his who was later killed in a concentration camp. For perhaps the first time in years, Ingram begins to question the role that he is playing in his society.
Ingram, who is married with two grown sons, has a history of taking young actresses to his bed and Jill Freeman, who plays Sally, is the latest recipient of that dubious honour. Jill, played in an excellent performance by Ilsa Blair, makes no secret of the fact that she has no great love for either her part or the soap. However, for reasons of her own safety, she does keep two other pieces of information secret: her Jewish heritage and her membership of the underground resistance. She tells Ingram that she was ordered to get close to him so that she could recruit him and have him include the code phrase for the long-planned uprising in the soap. Ingram's relationship with Jill serves to reawaken the romantic part of his nature, which had been dormant since 1940. He is also faced with challenges in his family life as his radical youngest son Mark, played by a very young Nigel Havers, hates him for his role in perpetuating the aforementioned myths of 1940 and is arrested as a terrorist. Conversely, his elder son Henry, played by David Meyer, is a floor manager on the soap who later becomes one of its directors, though not before he proves himself to be politically reliable.
The serial also features strong performances from Kathleen Byron, Noel Dyson, Peter Hughes, Philip Bond, Frederick Treves and Anthony Stafford. I'm not sure whether it is a coincidence or a casting in-joke but, like her character, Dyson is best known for playing a woman with two grown sons in a hugely popular soap opera, having played Ida Barlow in the early days of "Coronation Street".
Ingram notes that both Frank and Bert are representations of idealised parts of his own nature. Mackie may have similarly been inspired by his own experiences since he worked for the Ministry of Information Films Division making propaganda films, albeit of a very different kind, during the war.
Overall, this is a first rate alternate history which raises many interesting questions about acquiescence to authority and the ways in which fiction can shape hearts and minds.
An excellent examination of the dynamics of a cult
This is an excellent examination of the dynamics of a cult. I loved that it initially seems like nothing more than an ordinary, benign farming community and was gradually revealed to be a very controlled society run by an anti-technology zealot who was willing to let people die for her theories. Alixus is a great character with a very forceful personality. She has brainwashed her followers so thoroughly that none of them openly object to her resorting to torture in placing first Stephen and then Sisko in what O'Brien very accurately describes as a hell box. Alixus' actually quite frightening speech after Joseph defends O'Brien's attempts to contact the runabout to access the medkit and immediately before she puts Sisko in the box very effectively demonstrates both this brainwashing and her zealotry:
"Thank you, Joseph. I knew you would feel that way and I'm glad you said it, so that all of us could see the true danger these two represent. Our very own Joseph defending what he knows is wrong. He knows that if we had spent our energy all these years trying to escape, we'd all be dead today. This is good. This is a test of our convictions, and we will survive."
Another more subtle moment which demonstrates her controlling attitude and her attempt to break Sisko comes when she says, "Oh, will you be able to work your regular shift in the field today?" The use of the word "regular" in particular struck a chord with me. Sisko had only worked one such shift but Alixus' very deliberate choice of that word was meant to serve as a stark reminder that he would be there for the duration and that he would eventually fall under her control. Thankfully, he proved her wrong on both counts.
Rewatching DS9 has given me a new appreciation for Avery Brooks, who has always been my least favourite captain, in his quiet moments as Sisko. However, I still hate his shouty ones, I'm afraid. The scene in which Sisko silently returns to the box is a masterclass of subtle acting on Brooks' part and is easily my favourite Sisko scene so far. It is also an extremely well written scene which says a great deal without dialogue.
Alixus' Luddite views are interesting and a very small part of me thinks that she may be right when she says that humanity has lost something because of its reliance on technology. However, a far greater part of me – about 99% — thinks that those sacrifices were worth it because of the great strides, particularly in the field of medicine, that were made in the 20th Century and have already been made in the 21st. Like everyone else, I have ancestors and other relatives who died young whose deaths could have been avoided just a few decades later. If this episode had not touched upon that issue with Meg and the mention of the other three people who died of the same illness, it would have been a major oversight so I am very glad that it did. Funnily enough, I had two power cuts in the space of three days the week that I watched this episode so I was thinking more about my own reliance on technology that I might have been otherwise.
The ending is nicely ambiguous as it is not clear whether Joseph and the others want to continue the community because they think that hard work is good for the soul or because they have been so thoroughly brainwashed over the course of the last ten years. I loved that Alixus did not realise what she had done was wrong because she was so fanatical in her beliefs that it would not have rung true.
Finally, I did quite like Gail Strickland's performance as Alixus but I was not too enamoured of it. She is certainly charismatic but not as charismatic as I would have liked. I'd have preferred if someone like the always wonderful Tovah Feldshuh had played the role.
Pretty decent but far from exceptional
This "Doctor Who" spin-off was pretty decent overall but far from exceptional. None of the episodes stood out as being particularly bad but none of them stood out as being particularly good either. It often felt like it was trying (perhaps a little too hard...) to be "Buffy" but it lacked the razor sharp dialogue, superlative characterisation and strong plots, to put it mildly. When it comes to genre shows which are centred around schools (at least initially), "Buffy" is on another level to "Smallville" but "Smallville" is on another level to "Class", I'm afraid.
Taking itself far less seriously would have probably helped matters. It really overdid the whole "tragic backstory" malarkey. Giving a character a tragic backstory does not automatically make them interesting nor, for that matter, does a character need one to be interesting. April's backstory was the worst of the bunch. It was obviously intended to provoke sympathy but the strongest reaction that it provoked in me was, "Christ, not another sob story!"
Charlie, Miss Quill and Dorothea Ames are quite interesting characters but the only human Coal Hill student that I actually liked was Matteusz. His family problems were certainly the best realised but there wasn't much competition in that regard. Charlie and Matteusz's relationship was very well handled and well acted by Greg Austin and Jordan Renzo. It was the only element of characterisation on the series with which I was entirely satisfied, quite frankly.
The other characters were kind of...flat. Even with all of the stuff with Corakinus and her father, April was pretty much a non-entity. So was Tanya. Fady Elsayed was utterly dreadful as Ram, which is a shame because his PTSD in "The Coach with the Dragon Tattoo" after witnessing Rachel's death in "For Tonight We Might Die" had the potential to be a very interesting story arc. Then he got over it ridiculously quickly when he started his utterly unconvincing (and almost as uninteresting) relationship with April. Oh well.
"Co-Owner of a Lonely Heart" - a title which I love, incidentally - and "Brave-ish Heart" had the most in the way of flashes of brilliance but almost all of them were contained in the B-story. The stuff with April and Ram in the A-story was a real chore to get through as was the stuff with her father. That said, April's relationship with her mum is sweet and at times quite touching. A greater focus on that would have been appreciated. The Shadow Kin were somewhat ineffectual as the series' main alien menace. I found it very hard to get excited about them, really. When it comes to the B-story, the killer petals were a very cool and creepy threat and easily my favourite sci-fi aspect of the series. I could well imagine the killer petals fitting into "Torchwood" extremely well. Charlie's moral dilemma about using the Cabinet of Souls was well done to boot.
As it stands, the series represents a missed opportunity. There are quite a few good ideas but the execution is sorely lacking when it comes to most of them.
Sadie's Last Days on Earth (2016)
An excellent and extremely funny exploration of anxiety
Inspired by the 2012 phenomenon, this is an excellent and extremely funny exploration of anxiety. The first rate script by Michael Seater (who conceived the idea for the story with Lauren Collins) hits all of the right notes. It considers the issue of anxiety through the prism of a teenage girl who fears that the end of the world is imminent. The apocalypse is a fantastic allegory for the pressures that teenagers face in their everyday lives, pressures which are often unfairly dismissed by older people. That said, there is much in the film's insightful, well-observed and respectful treatment of its subject matter to which people who have left their teenage years behind would be able to relate. While said treatment is certainly the strongest aspect of the film, the witty, enjoyably self-aware script is full to brim with very funny lines. The deft comic touch ensures that the potentially very depressing issues that the film considers never overwhelm it. Seater directs the material with a great sense of style and flair, striking a perfect balance between the two strands.
The film stars Morgan Taylor Campbell in a truly wonderful performance as Sadie Mitchell, a 16-year-old high school student who has always been, in her own words, "air quotes prone to anxiety." For most of her life, this tendency has manifested itself in normal ways such as being afraid of getting into trouble with her parents or of embarrassing herself in front of her fellow high school students. However, Sadie's anxiety reaches a whole other level when she does a class project on national disasters. After researching the subject in-depth, she comes to the conclusion that the apocalypse is approaching.
In order to survive the impending destruction of human civilisation, Sadie has turned her bedroom into a bunker which is equipped with practically every piece of survivalist paraphernalia in existence. With only a month to go, she has written a list of things that she would like to accomplish before the apocalypse. She distinguishes it from a bucket list in that a list of things that she wants to do before everyone else dies. What a cheery thought. Her goals range from learning how to knit and cook to increase her chances of survival to things that previously terrified her such as skipping a class and getting detention to more personal things such as attending a high school party, kissing a boy and, most importantly, getting her best friend Brennan back. While the earlier entries on the list do not prove much of a challenge, the same cannot be said for the later ones.
Sadie and the considerably more adventurous Brennan, played very well by Clark Backo, thought that they would always be BFFs. However, the two of them drifted apart when Sadie's obsession with the end of the world began to overshadow everything else in her life. This is the perfect illustration of Sadie's description of anxiety as "a vicious, festering cycle" since it caused her to inadvertently push away one of the most important people in her life. The situation also wasn't helped when Brennan became a part of the popular clique at school.
Sadie gains an ally when she befriends the popular and outgoing Jack Diaz, played in an excellent performance by Ricardo Hoyos, who agrees to help her to get Brennan back on her side. While it appears that Jack has it all, he likewise suffers from anxiety, albeit a far less severe form. His father places a great deal of pressure on him to succeed in every aspect of his life. Nevertheless, Jack differs from Sadie as he finds the idea of the apocalypse oddly liberating as it means that he does not have to worry about anything else. Over the course of several weeks, Sadie and Jack become closer and closer to the point where it begins to threaten Sadie's chance of restoring her friendship with Brennan.
Before Jack's overture of friendship, the closest thing that Sadie had to a friend her own age was Teddy, played well by Munro Chambers, whose main passion in life is the Mod scene of 1960s England. Although he is an outcast himself in that he has no friends at school, Teddy frequently throws killer parties which are well attended by his classmates. I was initially worried that Teddy was a bit of a stereotype but my concerns were in vain as it was eventually revealed that there was another side to him, one which I did not expect.
Sadie is also good friends with her teacher Connie Nichol, played very well by Seater's production partner Paula Brancati. Given that she arguably has more problems than Sadie, she is perhaps not ideal mentor material. However, she is a kind, caring woman who is very fond of Sadie and tells her that she is much stronger than she thinks. Connie is another character who suffers badly from anxiety, particularly over her recent breakup with her fiancé Calvin, played by Seater in a brief cameo. In many respects, she is the woman that Sadie will become if she does not overcome her anxiety.
The film also features strong appearances from Peter Keleghan and Hélène Joy as Sadie's relatively well-meaning but gormless parents Roger and Hope, George Stroumboulopoulos as Sadie's fellow survivalist Gord and John Ralston as the time travel enthusiast Burt.
Overall, this is a superb film which manages to be both funny and thought-provoking. I have been a fan of Seater since he starred in "The Zack Files" in the early 2000s. After watching his debut film "People Hold On", I was convinced that he had a very bright future ahead of him as a writer-director. After watching this film, I am even more convinced of it.
Sing Street (2016)
An absolutely brilliant coming of age film which is at turns hilarious, life-affirming and thought-provoking
Taking place in Dublin in 1985, this is an absolutely brilliant coming of age film which is at turns hilarious, life-affirming and thought-provoking. It has a superb script by John Carney which hits all of the right notes and his direction is certainly up to the task. The film has an excellent soundtrack featuring various styles of music from the period such as the Cure, the Clash, A-ha, Duran Duran, the Jam, Spandau Ballet and Joe Jackson as well as original compositions written by Carney, Gary Clark, Glen Hansard and others. However, in spite of the fact that it was likewise written for the film, "Go Now" by Adam Levine seemed like a somewhat awkward fit as it sounded more 2010s than 1980s. The film paints a convincing portrait of dysfunctional families, some of which are considerably more dysfunctional than others. It perfectly captures the essence of 1980s Ireland, which was not exactly a land of opportunity. Actually, Ireland has never been a land of opportunity.
The film stars Ferdia Walsh-Peelo in a very good performance as Conor Lalor, a 15-year-old boy who is pulled out of his posh, fee paying Jesuit run school (presumably either Belvedere or Gonzaga) and forced to attend the rough innercity school Synge Street CBS due to the fact that his family is having serious financial problems. Walsh-Peelo is very impressive in his first film role, let alone his first leading role, but he is an even better musician. Incidentally, his elder brother Tadhg was in my year in law at UCD. I don't recall ever actually speaking to him but he always seemed like a nice guy. As Conor's parents Robert and Penny's marriage is rapidly deteriorating, his home life is far from ideal. He finds comfort in his love of music. Considering that his new school has a very different atmosphere from his old one, it is not a smooth transition. In his first week, he is targeted by both the school bully Barry Bray and the sadistic headmaster Brother Baxter, who objects to the fact that he is wearing brown shoes in contravention of the strict black shoe policy. After he meets a 16-year-old model named Raphina, Conor tells her that he just so happens to be looking for a model to be in his band's first music video. The only problem is that he does not really have a band. Thankfully, Conor has made his first friend at the school in the form of a budding entrepreneur named Darren Mulvey, who agrees to manage the band and introduces him to the eccentric rabbit enthusiast Eamon who can reportedly "play every instrument known to mankind."
Lucy Boynton is extremely strong as Raphina, a seemingly strong, confident girl who uses her air of mystery and sophistication to mask her vulnerability and inner pain. The band's first original song "The Riddle of the Model" concerns the perception that people become less interesting the more that you learn about them as anything is initially possible (at least in your head). However, Raphina becomes more and more interesting as we learn more about her. She is without a doubt the film's strongest and most memorable character. Raphina dreams of moving to London to start her career as a model, in large part because she desperately wants to escape her often traumatic life in Ireland. Her mother is a manic depressive who is in and out of hospital while her father, a drunkard, was killed in a car accident a few years earlier. In the film's most heart-breaking, gut-wrenching moment, Raphina tells Conor – albeit not in so many words – that her father sexually abused her. As a result, he gains a new insight into not only Raphina but his own situation as he realises that his home life is nowhere near as bad as it could be. In comparison to many other teen films, Conor and Raphina's relationship is unusual in that it never goes beyond kissing. In that sense, it is very pure and sweet and, as such, it serves as an effective contrast to Raphina's serious personal problems. I think that Conor means so much to Raphina in part because he is one of the few people in her life who has not taken advantage of her, one way or another.
Conor's extremely close relationship with his elder brother Brendan, played very well by Jack Reynor, is just as important to the storyline as his relationship with Raphina. Brendan offers a great deal of valuable advice on both musical and romantic matters. A college dropout, he initially appears to be the stereotypical Generation X stoner and pop philosopher but Carney expertly deconstructs the stereotype by revealing that he regrets his wasted potential. As much as he loves Conor, he is clearly envious of him to some degree as he is the golden boy in the family but he eventually gets over it. Ben Carolan is an absolute laugh riot as Darren, who gets all of the funniest lines and delivers them impeccably. There is an inspired comic moment when he suggests getting Ngig, the school's sole black student, to join the band for the sole reason that it would look cool to have a black guy in the line-up. Mark McKenna is very good as Eamon, Conor's writing partner who becomes his best friend. Aidan Gillen, the best known actor in the film in or out of Ireland, and Maria Doyle Kennedy are excellent as Conor's parents Robert and Penny. The same is true of Don Wycherly as the film's main antagonist Brother Baxter, who physically assaults Conor in a very powerful scene. Ian Kenny is perfectly cast as Barry who, like Raphina, Brendan and Penny, is a far more complicated character than he appears at first glance.
Overall, this is an excellent film which is just as effective in its character development as in its treatment of music.
Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)
A dreadfully unfunny comedy
A tribute to late-night TV channel surfing, this is a dreadfully unfunny comedy. I was expecting it to be similar to the other sketch / anthology films that I have seen: occasionally excellent and occasionally very bad but generally good overall. Unfortunately, the writers Michael Barrie and Jim Mulholland left out the good and excellent parts and overdid the very bad ones. The film has five directors: Joe Dante, Cart Gottlieb (the only one of whom I never previously heard), Peter Horton, John Landis and Robert K. Weiss. That said, I only know Horton as an actor and Weiss as the co-creator of "Sliders".
I am a fan of both Dante and Landis' films (including "Twilight Zone: The Movie", another anthology film on which they collaborated) so my hopes were high. They were dashed pretty quickly but I soldiered on, both because I promised myself that I would always finish every film and because I figured that there would be at least one brilliant sketch by the law of averages, if nothing else. Well, this film broke the law of averages so that's something at least. I understand that it is a spiritual successor to "The Kentucky Fried Movie", which was likewise directed by Landis. I haven't seen that film but the fact that it was written by Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker means that I am willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that it is funnier than this film. It pretty much has to be, really.
According to the opening credits, the film stars "lots of actors" – when one of the best jokes in the film comes in the opening credits and it is not even terribly funny, you know you're in trouble – but none of them are used well. They include Steve Forrest, Steve Guttenberg, Steve Allen and other people not named Steve such as Horton, his then wife Michelle Pfeiffer, Ed Begley, Jr., Ralph Bellamy, Carrie Fisher, Rosanna Arquette, Henry Silva, Robert Picardo, William Marshall, Marc McClure, Arsenio Hall, Lou Jacobi and David Alan Grier. I don't think that I have ever seen a worse film with a better cast, frankly. Dante's "mascot" Dick Miller appeared in a scene that was cut. I hope that he realised how lucky he was.
The major problem with the film is not that the ideas for the sketches were unfunny – quite the opposite, in many cases – but that they are almost all executed terribly. The jokes miss their target with about as often as the Stormtroopers from "Star Wars". The 1950s sci-fi film parody which gave the film its title could have been hilarious but it didn't even raise a smile. The Universal Monsters parody "Son of the Invisible Man" could have been hilarious but it barely raised a smile. The "Roast Your Loved Ones" segment could have been hilarious if they had hired better comedians. Steve Allen was the only one worth mentioning, let alone watching. At about eight minutes, that is one of the longest sketches and it sure as Hell feels like it.
Even some of the sketches which were less funny in their concept – such as "Murray in Videoland" in which a man is zapped into his television, "Two I.D.s" in which a young man's lack of consideration for the women that he dates is exposed by a compatibility analyser and "Titan Man" in which an embarrassed 17-year-old boy tries to buy condoms from his local pharmacy – could have provided a few good laughs but no such luck. It was not exactly up against stiff competition but my favourite sketch was the "Ripley's Believe It or Not" / "In Search of..." parody "Bullshit or Not?" presented by Silva (playing himself) in which it was theorised that the Loch Ness Monster was in fact Jack the Ripper. I laughed out loud for the only time in the entire 84 minutes when I saw Nessie dressed as a Victorian gentleman and hiring the services of a prostitute before promptly murdering her. The film could have done with at least 20 more moments like that. "Blacks Without Soul" was probably the second most successful sketch, for what it's worth.
On the bright side, I did like the design of the film in several segments such as the pitch perfect recreation of the disparate styles of 1930s social guidance films, 1930s/40s horror films and 1950s sci-fi films. As you would expect, many films are parodied or at least referenced in some way: "The Invisible Man", "Forbidden Planet", "Destination Moon", "King Kong", "Back to the Future", "Sophie's Choice", "Out of Africa", "Gandhi", "Ghostbusters", "Iceman", etc. That was probably a mistake since it is not a very good idea to remind people of good or downright brilliant films when they're watching your very, very bad one. I'd even take some of the bad ones that it references as they are probably more enjoyable than this.
Overall, this is a terrible waste of both comic potential and talent.
A very funny Irish independent film about the education system
Graham Jones' directorial debut, this is a very funny Irish independent film about the education system. The Leaving Cert is a state examination that approximately 55-60,000 students in Ireland - and in one Libyan school, for some reason... - take at the end of secondary school in June every year. The 2016 exam session began last Wednesday, hence why I watched the film. University placements are allocated according to the number of points students get in the exams with the maximum number being 600. I did the Leaving Cert twice, in 2006 and 2007, so I have a better idea than most of how little fun it is. I would rather walk - no, crawl - across hot coals than do it a third time (which thankfully wasn't necessary). I have been in university at undergraduate or postgraduate level continuously since 2007 and, except for a few weeks towards the end of my final year as an undergrad, it was never as stressful as the Leaving Cert. At the time of its release, the Junior Minister for Education Willie O'Dea condemned the film (in spite of the fact that he had not seen it) as he was concerned that it would serve as an instruction manual on how to cheat. O'Dea has never been one of the guiding lights of Irish politics (insofar as there are any) but he is likable, mostly harmless and always good for a laugh, sometimes even intentionally.
It has a very good script by Jones (who was only 22 when it was made), Tadhg O'Higgins and Aislinn O'Loughlin which argues convincingly that there are different types of intelligence and the Leaving Cert only caters to one. It is far from a perfect method of examination as it relies heavily on learning by rote and predicting what will come up in the various exams based on trends in previous years. The humour in the film is more witty than laugh out loud funny, though they are quite a few such moments, and Jones directed it very well. The decision to shoot in black and white was probably taken more for financial than artistic reasons but it nevertheless works in the film's favour as it is evocative of the great heist films of days gone by. Although I have worked within the system for longer than most, the concept of taking on the system appealed to the Devil May Care aspect of my personality and I very much enjoyed it on that level. The script does a great job at expressing the frustrations that many students experience while doing the Leaving Cert, which takes two years of preparation, so that was very relatable. When the beginning of the exams is depicted, it brought back the feelings of tension and stress in a way that I didn't expect at all so that was interesting in a very unpleasant flashback sequence sort of way. As such, I have a renewed sympathy for the students doing it at the moment!
The film's strength lies in its writing as opposed to the acting of the stars, which runs the gamut from pretty mediocre to pretty good without ever being exceptional. This is the only film that most of them ever made, actually. It stars Garret Baker as Fionn, a sixth year student in the highly prestigious (and highly fictional) James Joyce Secondary School in Dublin. He decides to find a way to cheat in the Leaving Cert because his best friend Cian committed suicide after he is himself caught cheating in the exam and was banned from taking it again for another three years. By achieving 600 points through cheating, Fionn hopes to expose the Leaving Cert as an inherently flawed system for determining intelligence and future success in life. In the great tradition of heist films, he assembles a crack team to support him in his scheme to give the middle finger to the education system: Cara, played by Aileen O'Connor who gives the best performance out of all the schemers, who dropped out of school at 16 and wants to expose the system more than anyone else; the aspiring journalist and legend in his own mind Murphy, played by Philip Bredin; the electronics expert Elli, played by Alison Coffey; the apprentice locksmith Gary, played by John Wright; and Elli's straitlaced, 600 points achieving cousin Una, played by Tara Ford. It is eventually decided that they will steal the papers from a Department of Education warehouse in Athlone, County Westmeath (which is where I went to school) as it is the least risky of the various options open to them.
The film has a much stronger supporting cast of well-known Irish actors (well known in Ireland, anyway): Eamon Morrissey as the principal Mr. Fornson (who tells the students that the doors of success will be closed to them for life if they fail, a speech which every principal in Ireland gives at least twice a year), Mary McEvoy as the well- meaning but inattentive and irresponsible school guidance counsellor Charlie McDaid (who was still better than mine), Mick Lally as the Chief Examiner, Bosco Hogan as a newsreader and Maureen Potter as Una's mother. In a pretty odd move, Jones also cast several well-known figures from outside of acting in small roles: the independent senator Feargal Quinn as Fionn's father, the ever present radio presenter Joe Duffy as an invigilator and the singer Chris de Burgh as a petrol pumper. Sure, why not?
Overall, this is a very enjoyable indictment of the Irish education system. That said, I am glad that I didn't watch it while I was doing the Leaving Cert as I really might have had to do it a third time! Since I don't watch many Irish films or non-current affairs TV shows, it was a little bizarre to see places in Dublin on screen that I had passed by only a few hours earlier.
People Hold On (2015)
An excellent, often moving and sometimes extremely funny comedy-drama
Michael Seater's feature film directorial debut, this is an excellent, often moving and sometimes extremely funny comedy-drama. The plot concerns six 27-year-old high school friends reuniting for their ninth annual weekend of booze, drugs and nostalgia in the Canadian countryside. On this occasion, they are joined by two "outsiders." In some respects, it reminded me of "Peter's Friends" (albeit for a slightly younger set) but it was far, far less depressing than that film. The script by Seater and Paula Brancati is extremely well written and represents a very interesting exploration of group dynamics. I think the film's message is basically that relationships - platonic or romantic, between men or women - are inherently complicated. Tensions and old resentments have a nasty habit of rising to the surface and that is certainly seen here. While the characters could have easily been walking clichés, they always seem like real people. The dialogue has a very naturalistic quality to it and there is a great deal of raw emotion involved and I think that the film really speaks to the twentysomething generation. None of the characters are given surnames and I took this as being representative of the fact that everyone can relate to one or more of them to some degree.
With the exception of one development towards the end which seems a little contrived, there is not a false note in the extremely well- observed script. One of my favourite lines is, "30 is when you figure it out that you're never going to figure it out." Neither Seater nor Brancati have reached that milestone yet but they clearly have figured that out already. Personally speaking, I just turned 29 last week and I am not expecting a "Logan's Run"-esque red light in my palm to start flashing on my 30th birthday and provide me with all the answers (or inform the Sandmen that my time is up, for that matter). As a director, Seater handles the material with a great deal of skill and flare.
The film features a cast of only eight (thankfully very good) actors but it nevertheless says a great deal about human nature. Brancati herself probably gives the best performance as Robin, who is still struggling to come to terms with her breakup with her longtime boyfriend Dan, played by Ali Mukadam, two years earlier. Dan is another member of the old high school gang and, since she skipped the last get-together, this is the first time that they have seen each other since she rejected his proposal, though they speak via social media every so often. As you can imagine, the situation is awkward for all considered. It is not helped by the fact that Dan has brought along a cool, confident 19-year-old installation artist named Marley, played by Chloe Rose, whom he has only been dating for two weeks. However, Robin has her own ideas about why he has brought Marley. Crucially, Brancati and Mukadam have great chemistry and their scenes together are suitably tense and occasionally even gut-wrenching since Dan and Robin are essentially star-crossed lovers.
Ashley Leggat is very strong as the kind, confident Julia who is enjoying great success as a newscaster and has recently gotten engaged to Darren. Her fiancé, played by Mazin Elsadig, is a very straitlaced, conservative 33-year-old who is pretty shocked to learn of Julia's adventurous, experimental past. Katie Boland excels as the deeply insecure Alycia who is not happy with her life in large part because she judges it according to other people's standards. As such, she is very resentful of Julia's success and subjects her to numerous dirty looks and bitchy comments over the course of the weekend. Alycia's Grade 9 boyfriend Freddy, played by Jonathan Malen, is sweet and fairly level-headed. However, he is quite insecure himself, albeit not to the same extent as Alycia with whom he has been madly in love since they were young teenagers. Robin serves as a confidant for both of her female friends but she never chooses sides or insults one when speaking to the other.
Noah Reid is excellent as Matthew, the joker in the pack who does not take life seriously, even when he should. In many respects, he is lagging behind his friends as he has not really grown up since high school. He drifts through life, going from one unfulfilling, deathly boring job to another with no plan of any kind. Matt and Julia likewise dated in high school but there was no drama after they broke up and their relationship has since evolved into more of a sibling bond. Since this is arguably the most straightforward relationship in the film, it is not given a huge amount of screen time but it is very sweet. The quality of the acting and the writing means that even the relationships which are not explored in as much detail as the others seem real as opposed to merely being an afterthought, which might have been the case in a lesser film.
Overall, this is a first rate debut film for BrancSeater Productions. I have been a fan of Seater's acting since he starred in "The Zack Files" 15 years ago and I think that he has a very bright future ahead of him as a writer-director. I am already looking forward to his and Brancati's next film "Sadie's Last Days on Earth". I hope that Seater eventually appears in one of his own films because he's a very talented, charismatic actor.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
As brilliantly made as it is incredibly racist
Based on the 1905 novel "The Clansman" by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr., this silent film epic is as brilliantly made as it is incredibly racist. It has often been hailed as one of the most important films in cinematic history because of the techniques that its director D. W. Griffith, a master of his craft, pioneered while working on it. Many of the techniques that audiences now take for granted such as long shots, pan shots and frequent use of intercutting made their first appearance here. The battle scenes are thrilling, beautifully staged and surprisingly violent for the time. The script by Griffith and Frank E. Woods is very well structured and, while it inspired many feelings in me, boredom was not one of them.
The film depicts a version of the United States, North and South, and its people, black and white, which only ever existed in the minds of bitter Southerners. Its warped, ahistorical treatment of race relations led to widespread protests by the NAACP, riots in several major cities and, according to one report, the murder of a black teenager by a white man as a direct result of the latter watching the film (though the evidence is less than conclusive). The film has also been blamed for contributing to the revival of the Ku Klux Klan, which had essentially ceased to exist in the 1870s but returned with a vengeance over the course of the next few years.
The storyline follows two families, the Northern Stonemans and the Southern Camerons, who are acquainted as a result of the fact that the eldest sons attended boarding school together. The film's first half concerns the prelude to the Civil War and the war itself while the second concerns Reconstruction. Austin Stoneman, played by Ralph Lewis, is the Speaker of the House of Representatives and a thinly veiled version of the Radical Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, even possessing a club foot. Like Stevens, Stoneman is not only an abolitionist but believes that blacks and whites are equal. As such, he is one of the major villains of the piece. The other major villain, his biracial protégé Silas Lynch, does not appear until the second half but he is depicted as being a truly evil, venomous character who seeks to create a Black Empire in the South with himself as its king. The only other African-American shown to have any real intelligence is Stoneman's housekeeper Lydia Brown, who is likewise biracial. Based on Stevens' housekeeper and alleged lover Lydia Hamilton Smith, she only appears briefly but she is clearly intended as a Lady Macbeth type who manipulates Stoneman into going along with her ideas of equality.
Most of the other black characters are depicted as being ultra- violent, cruel, detestable and sometimes little more than animals. In one particularly disturbing scene, a black renegade named Gus - played by Walter Long in blackface - attempts to rape the fragile waif Flora Cameron, ultimately driving her to commit suicide. The implication of this scene is clear: black men will rape and kill every white Southern woman unless the KKK does something about them. It's one of the most sickening sequences in a film which has no shortage of them, particularly in its second half. The only black characters portrayed in a sympathetic light are the Camerons' "faithful souls" - perfect illustrations of the Mammy and Uncle stereotypes - and various slaves who were much happier before they were freed. The majority of the black characters are played by white actors in blackface but there are many black extras in the background. They were probably glad to get some work but I have to wonder what they thought of the film, especially Madame Sul-Te-Wan whose parents were freed slaves.
Although the film is perhaps best remembered for its glorification of the KKK, they do not actually appear until 2 hours and 5 minutes into the 3 hour and 13 minute running time but they certainly make their presence felt after that. They are described as "the organisation that saved the South from the anarchy of black rule" and that really says it all when it comes to the film's attitude towards them. They are depicted performing several supposedly heroic feats such as hanging Gus, dumping his corpse on Lynch's doorstep and rescuing the bound and gagged Elsie Stoneman before she can be forced into marrying Lynch. The Klan's founder is Elsie's lover Ben Cameron, otherwise known as "the Little Colonel."
One thing that surprised me was the fact that Abraham Lincoln was treated very positively with Dr. Cameron even describing him as "our best friend" when it comes to Reconstruction. There are some moments that seemed genuine such as Phil Stoneman and Margaret Cameron's shy interaction when they first meet and Elsie putting on a brave face as her three brothers leave for war before bursting into tears the moment that they leave. It's a lovely little moment which is wonderfully acted by Lillian Gish. Although most of the characters are misconceived to some degree, the film nevertheless has a very strong cast: Miriam Cooper as Margaret, Henry B. Walthall as Colonel Cameron, Mary Alden as Lydia Brown, Ralph Lewis as Stoneman, Elmer Clifton as Phil, Spottiswoode Aitken as Dr. Cameron and Josephine Crowell as Mrs. Cameron.
Overall, neither the importance of the film nor its racism have been exaggerated. I think Roger Ebert said it best: "Like Riefenstahl's 'The Triumph of the Will', it is a great film that argues for evil. To understand how it does so is to learn a great deal about film, and even something about evil."
I'm sort of torn about how to rate this film. In terms of quality, I'd give it 10/10. If I were to rate it in terms of morality (something that I have never done before and may never do again), I'd give it 0/10.
A delightful light-hearted fantasy film
Suggested by H. T. Kavanagh's Darby O'Gill stories, this is a delightful light-hearted fantasy film. Taking place in the late 19th or early 20th Century, it depicts a version of Ireland where figures from Irish folklore such as leprechauns and banshees exist and interact with a select few. The film has a strong script by Leonard Edward Watkin. I don't know whether it was taken from the stories or Watkin's personal knowledge but it does a good job at capturing some of the colloquialisms of Irish English. Robert Stevenson, who directed most live action Disney films worth mentioning from the 1950s to the mid 1970s, handles the film with skill and flair. I was hugely impressed by the special effects, even when compared to the similar ones used in "The Incredible Shrinking Man" which I watched only two days ago. The banshee scared the bejesus out of me when I was little! There is no getting around the fact that the film is a very stereotypical portrayal of Ireland but it is silly, good-natured fun which this Irishman found both harmless and very enjoyable. There is nothing even remotely offensive about it. It is far better than most other Hollywood expeditions into Paddywhackery. Speaking of Irish legends, one has grown up that the actor Cyril Cusack and the High Court judge Cearbhall Ó Dálaigh, who later moved up in the world when he became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the fifth President of Ireland, picketed the film when it was first shown in Dublin. However, this has about as much basis in fact as stories about leprechauns, not least because senior judges do not picket films or anything else for that matter.
The film stars Albert Sharpe in an enchanting performance as Darby O'Gill, an elderly caretaker / labourer who lives in the little village of Rathcullen and spends much of his time spinning yarns about the leprechauns who lived in the nearby fairy mountain Knocknasheega. At least everyone in Rathcullen thinks that they are yarns. It turns out that Darby is quite well acquainted with the leprechauns' king Brian Connors, played by the great Jimmy O'Dea. After he is relieved of his duties as caretaker by the local Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Fitzpatrick, the leprechauns capture Darby and tell him that he can live with them in the mountain. However, Darby is not too pleased about this as it means that he will never be able to return to the human world or see his daughter Katie again. Darby manages to outwit King Brian by getting him very drunk on poitín and trapping him in his house until sunrise so that he can get three wishes out of him. His first wish is that King Brian will remain with him for two weeks until he has made his other two wishes. Sharpe is extremely effective and very endearing as the wily Darby, who engages in a great battle of wits with King Brian. O'Dea, a well known stage actor who became a regular face on Irish television in the early 1960s, is brilliant as the even more wily king of the leprechauns. The two of them make a great double act and the film would have been significantly less entertaining if lesser actors had been cast.
Janet Munro is very good as the strong-willed, wholesome and compassionate pretty Irish girl Katie, who adores her father as much as he adores her but does not allow him to get away with anything. Munro, who sadly died at only 38, was English in real life but she makes a decent stab at an Irish accent. It is never entirely convincing but it is never over the top or distractingly bad either, which means that it has a major advantage over most Irish accents in Hollywood films. Sean Connery, the last surviving credited cast member, is perfectly fine as Michael McBride but he would mature into a far better actor as time passed. Reportedly, it was his performance in this film that led Cubby Broccoli to cast him as James Bond. I'm certainly glad that Broccoli saw something in him that I didn't! My fellow UCD alumnus Kieron Moore, the most prominent Irish cast member after Sharpe and O'Dea, is suitably slimy and antagonistic as Pony Sugrue, who has his eyes set on both Katie and Darby's job. Speaking of UCD, O'Dea's great-nephew was one of my lecturers there for a while but he was considerably less entertaining. Estelle Winwood, who lived to be 101 on the bright side, is excellent as Pony's conniving mother, the Widow Sugrue. It also features good performances from Walter Fitzgerald as Lord Fitzpatrick and Denis O'Dea (no relation to Jimmy) as Father Murphy.
Overall, this is a very entertaining, old fashioned fantasy film.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
An excellent film which skillfully combines science fiction spectacle and well-observed social commentary
Based on the 1956 novel "The Shrinking Man" by Richard Matheson who adapted it for the screen, this is an excellent film which skillfully combines science fiction spectacle and well-observed social commentary. In many respects, it is like a feature length episode of "The Twilight Zone", which it predates by two years. This is not surprising considering that Matheson wrote 16 episodes of the series. The first rate script explores feelings of alienation and isolation and the desire for conformity in 1950s America through the allegorical prism of a man who is gradually becoming smaller and smaller. Not only that but it is a great looking film. The special effects are phenomenal for their time and generally hold up very well but I was much more impressed with the set pieces. The sheer attention to detail when it comes to things such as paint cans, crates, matchboxes, the imperfections in the wood and the tiny - to most people! - cracks in the wall really sells the idea that we are seeing our world from a very different perspective. The film's strength lies in its script and design as opposed to the direction by Jack Arnold or the acting, both of which are decent but not exceptional. It fits a great deal into its 80 minute running time.
The film stars Grant Williams in a rather good performance as Robert Scott Carey, a 6'1" everyman who finds that he is shrinking exponentially as a result of his exposure to a radioactive mist six months earlier and an insecticide several months after that. Williams is admittedly not the most charismatic leading man in the annals of cinema but he is perfectly fine in the role, even if his narration is a bit monotone in the first half. Scott first notices that he is getting smaller when his trousers are too big for him but his wife Louise simply attributes this to his having lost some weight. His doctor is likewise dismissive of his claims to be losing height but he eventually realises the truth of the situation after comparing X-rays taken several days apart which indicate a marked diminution. After being reduced to about three foot, Scott is no longer able to work. He sells his story to the press on the advice of his brother, which serves to make him a celebrity the world over. While it takes care of his financial woes, it does nothing to help his mood. He is humiliated by his condition and questions his manhood. He is experiencing an existential crisis and develops a strong sense of self-loathing as the film progresses. Scott has a tendency to take his anger out on the extremely supportive Louise, played very well by Randy Stuart in the film's best performance. Louise goes above and beyond the call of duty and tries her best to treat Scott in the same manner as she always did. The problem is not that she sees him differently but that he sees himself differently. Even though he is an ass to Louise on more than one occasion, Scott is nevertheless still a very sympathetic character as I think that most people would react the same way under such severe stress and I'm including myself in that. Williams and Stuart are the only actors who have significant screen time but I was also impressed by William Schallert (who sadly died earlier this month) as Dr. Arthur Bramson, Raymond Bailey as Dr. Thomas Silver and April Kent as Clarice.
Things take a turn for the worse when the Careys' cat Butch clandestinely enters the house. By this time, Scott is only about a few inches inches tall and has consequently been forced to relocate to a dollhouse. He has become so despondent that he contemplates suicide on a daily basis. While sniffing around the dollhouse, Butch - played by Orangey of "Rhubarb" and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" fame - gets his scent and proceeds to try and kill him. The battle with the cat is a fantastic sequence and one of my favourite scenes in the entire film. The close-ups of the cat screaming and Scott's terrified reaction are particularly effective, in no small part - no pun intended! - because I have never been a big fan of cats myself. This would not be the last time that Orangey would harass smaller humans as he played the giant cat in "Village of the Giants". He probably should have tried harder to avoid being typecast.
The basement sequences are likewise extraordinarily effective as Scott must come to terms with his new situation and become a hunter and a fighter in a huge universe of the kind that can be found in many homes. At one point, he fights a house spider - yeah, it's really a tarantula but it's supposed to be a house spider! - and prevails as he still has his superior human intelligence. These sequences were probably inspired by some of Gulliver's misfortunes in Brobdingnag, particularly his encounter with the giant monkey. While in the basement, Scott has an epiphany of sorts and comes to realise that he is still a man irrespective of his size. Although he knows that he will eventually shrink to the size of an atom, he accepts that he still has a place in the universe as "in God's eyes, there is no zero." The film takes quite a metaphysical tack towards the end.
Overall, this is an extremely effective film which has more interesting things than many other films of the era about radiation causing things to change in size. This was easily the biggest remaining gap in my 1950s sci-fi film knowledge so it was nice to finally fill it.
The One That Got Away (1957)
A rather mediocre and pedestrian World War II film
Based on the 1956 book of the same name by Kendal Burt and James Leasor, this is a rather mediocre and pedestrian World War II film. It tells the story of Oberleutnant Franz von Werra, a Luftwaffe pilot who was shot down during the Battle of Britain and secured himself a place in history by becoming the only German POW captured by the British who escaped to Germany. After his first three escapes failed, he was sent to Canada and from there managed to cross the American border before making his way to Mexico. He eventually returned to his native country in April 1941 but did not live to see the end of the war or even the year as he was killed in a plane crash the following October. Von Werra's escape is a great story with which I was somewhat familiar before watching the film. However, the script by Howard Clewes does not do it justice even though I think that it is generally historically accurate. The various escape attempts should be very exciting but they aren't, in large part because the script is not very well structured. Roy Ward Baker is a very talented director and does the best that it can with the material but it's not his best work, I'm afraid.
The film stars Hardy Krüger in a great performance as the supremely self-confident von Werra. He brings a great deal of intelligence and charisma to the role but von Werra comes across as rather two- dimensional. He doesn't have much of a personality beyond being clever and self-confident. The only things that we learn about his personal life is that he owns a lion cub named Simba and he seemingly has a girlfriend or fiancée since he carries a photograph of a young women with him. This is nevertheless the closest thing that anyone gets to character development in the film. Otherwise, I would think that Clewes was worried about presenting a German pilot in too positive a light a mere 12 years after the war ended. There is certainly a sense of mutual respect between von Werra and some of the British officers but this is a something that I have seen done much more effectively in other films.
Krüger himself could probably relate to von Werra quite a bit. In December 1944, he was drafted into the Wehrmacht at the age of 16 before being drafted into the 38th SS Division Nibelungen the following March. He was captured by the American forces at the end of the war and made three escape attempts himself. On the last occasion, his efforts met with success. However, Krüger always hated the Nazis. During the filming of "A Bridge Too Far", he wore a top coat over his SS costume between takes so as not to remind himself of either his childhood or his experiences in the war. As such, I imagine that it was a source of frustration to him that he was typically cast as Nazis in the English speaking film world. The fact that he was tall and handsome with blond hair and blue eyes was perhaps more of a hindrance rather than a help in this respect.
The film is not without its problems but it has a very good supporting cast (in roles of varying size) including Michael Goodliffe, Colin Gordon, Jack Gwillim, the future Labour MP Andrew Faulds, Colin Gordon, Alec McCowen, Terence Alexander, John Van Eyssen, Glyn Houston, Stratford Johns, Cyril Chamberlain and Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper.
Overall, this is by no means a bad film but it is a pretty forgettable and disappointing one. Krüger's performance is certainly the best thing about it.
Whistle Down the Wind (1961)
An excellent film concerning faith and childhood innocence
Based on the 1959 novel of the same name by Mary Hayley Bell, this is an excellent film concerning faith and childhood innocence. As the storyline concerns a group of children mistaking a fugitive for Jesus Christ, religious faith is definitely to the fore. However, it also deals with children's faith in the basic goodness of people, something which unfortunately proved to be misplaced in this instance, and this is very effectively contrasted with the more cynical, suspicious attitude of adults when it comes to such matters. The film has a first rate script by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hill which hits all of the right notes. It does a very job of balancing the more naturalistic elements with the fact that the film is, at its heart, an allegorical parable about Christianity. The most obvious of these allegories is the fact that the faux Jesus has twelve disciples and a young boy is forced to deny three times that he has seen him. Although it is quite a serious film, there is nevertheless a great deal of humour on display and this is executed in a very natural manner when it could have easily felt forced. The script deals with its themes respectfully and sensitively without really getting preachy, which is a major accomplishment in and of itself. In his directorial debut, Bryan Forbes handles the material very effectively and makes great use of the locations.
The film stars the author's daughter Hayley Mills in a terrific performance as Kathy Bostock, the eldest child in a Lancastrian farming family who discovers the escaped murderer Arthur Alan Blakey in her family's barn. She mistakes his exhausted and surprised exertion of "Jesus Christ!" for a statement for his identity, which is helped by the fact that the young, tall, handsome and bearded Blakey resembles the typical depiction of Christ. However, all that glisters is not gold. Mills is of course well known for her (very) Received Pronunciation accent and, in spite of her best efforts at a Lancashire accent, her natural one is in evidence for much of the film. However, the one that she uses is perfectly fine and, in any event, it may have been for the best that she did not go over the top with it as such things can easily become distracting at best and laughable at worst. At 14, she was perhaps two or three years too old to be entirely believable as someone who would mistake a stranger for Jesus but it still manages to work in the context of the film. Kathy is a very kind, clever and compassionate young girl who finds great comfort in her faith. While it is not specifically stated, I imagine that is partly due to the fact that her mother is dead. However, on this occasion, she allows her faith to blind her to the harsh realities of the world. She places her trust in Blakey and, when she finally realises his identity, she is let down badly. Kathy seemingly becomes more world weary as a result but she remains as convinced as ever that Jesus will return.
In his first major role, Alan Bates is very good as Blakey, who is astonished when he learns who the children think he is but, understandably under the circumstances, does nothing to disabuse them of that notion. He is most certainly not a good man but he develops an odd rapport with Kathy as the film progresses. By the end of the film, he begins to feel guilt over his crime and this was clearly influenced by his interaction with the children, who have a rather higher opinion of him than is warranted. Blakey is seemingly not a religious man as he discards the Bible at one point but I think that all the talk of Heaven has made him wonder if he will end up in Hell. Be that as it may, he will probably end up being hanged in the not too distant future. Bernard Lee is excellent in the role of Kathy's loving father and is able to convey a great deal of quiet dignity in his performance. While he is most certainly a good man, the children view him and the rest of the adults as being essentially the Romans and are concerned that things will turn out just as badly as they did the first time. This attitude is accidentally encouraged by the Sunday school teacher Miss Lodge, who tells them that they would have to protect Jesus from the bad people in the world if he were to return.
Alan Barnes steals the show with his hilarious performance as Kathy's younger brother Charlie, who is the first of the children to realise that Blakey is not the real deal. He made only one other film, "The Victors", after this, which is a terrible shame as he is a natural actor. In her only acting role, Diana Holgate is not on quite the same level as Nan but I would have still welcomed seeing her in other films. The film also features strong performances from Roy Holder as Jackie Greenwood (who thinks that Jesus would be surprised by "Wagon Train" and the Cup Final if the Second Coming were to happen sometime soon), Norman Bird as Eddie, Hamilton Dyce as the well meaning but somewhat clueless Reverend Reeves and Elsie Wagstaff as the Bostock children's cold and unfeeling Auntie Dorothy. One sure sign of Richard Attenborough's behind the scenes involvement is the presence of his brother-in-law Gerald Sim in the small role of Detective Frank Wilcox. He later cast him in seven of the films that he directed (from "Oh! What a Lovely War" to "Shadowlands") and, while he never had a big part, they were all at least bigger than this!
Overall, this is a simple and occasionally beautiful film on the subject of faith, whether in God or in people, and growing up.
Zero Recognition (2014)
A very funny, self-referential short film on the particularly fickle nature of recognisability as opposed to fame
Basically an exercise in breaking the fourth wall, this is a very funny, self-referential short film on the particularly fickle nature of recognisability as opposed to fame. It has a sharp, well observed script by Lauren Collins and Ben Lewis and is well directed by the latter in his debut. It is less than ten minutes long but it's a bright and breezy satire on our social media obsessed culture and the difficulty that certain kinds of reasonably well known people have adjusting to normal life when their 15 minutes are up.
The film stars Collins in a great performance as Demi, a 28-year-old actress who formerly starred in a "moderately successful Canadian teen soap." Considering that Collins is best known for her role as the high school mean girl Paige Michalchuk in "Degrassi: The Next Generation" (which I love in spite of the fact that I am about twice the age of its target audience!), there is certainly a sense of art imitating life. While Demi is seemingly not Lauren Collins by any other name, the short film was inspired by her real life experiences. Demi is a nice, likable, somewhat neurotic character who is trying to find her place in the world. She does not allow her recognisability to go to her head in an arrogant or conceited manner but it occupies the forefront of her thoughts. Although she frequently claims in her internal monologue and little asides to the camera that being recognised is a source of anxiety to her, it is clear that she likes it on one level. It's hard to blame her for that, really. Demi certainly means well but her situation is not helped by the fact that she can talk of little outside of her starring role on "that show" to the point that she almost seems to define herself by it.
After dipping her toe in the tricky world of online dating for the first time, Demi meets a ridiculously nice, earnest, down-to-earth doctor named Alan Bauer, played very well by Lewis who is another "Degrassi" alum appropriately enough. He is a paediatrics resident at the Hospital for Sick Children (otherwise known as "SickKids") in Toronto and Demi almost insults him when she tells him that she has always thought that "SickKids" sounds like a made-up name. Alan's dedication to his job means that he has little time to watch television and he consequently has never heard of "that show." This is a slight source of disappointment to Demi. I have to admit that I would probably feel the same way in her place! During their date, Demi proceeds to embarrass herself by assuming that one of the café patrons is a fan of hers when he is actually the uncle of one of Alan's previous patients, a young boy with asthma. Dan is also a little taken back when she tells him that (a) she has an "online stalker" who retweets everything that she says and (b) she understands what is like to have asthma as her character had an asthmatic attack in the season finale of Season Six. There is a very effective contrast between Demi, who doesn't really live in the real world, and Dan, who most certainly does.
There was nice "Degrassi" in-jokes throughout but my favourite was one of Demi's co-stars being described as "that rap guy." This is a reference to the fact that Drake (then going by his real name Aubrey Graham) got his start on the series and was one of its main stars for its first seven seasons. He'll always be Jimmy Brooks to me, not least because I hate rap with a passion. I imagine that "Degrassi" actors are asked, "Do you know Drake?" pretty regularly!
Overall, this is a very enjoyable satirical swipe at modern culture but a (purposefully) well-intentioned one.
Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing
The most recent of the many screen versions of the Scottish Play, this is a truly abysmal adaptation of one of Shakespeare's finest works. Justin Kurzel's direction is appalling. He seems to be more interested in artistic gimmicks such as the pointless and distracting slow motion in the first battle scene and in showing blood and guts than in the raw emotion and psychology of the play. It is an exercise in flash over substance, which comes across as pretentious. It is as if he is trying to convince us that he is a great filmmaker. Well, he succeeded in convincing me of quite the opposite, I'm afraid. Not only that but the film looks cheap. At one point, I was worried that there was something wrong with the DVD as the camera work was so shoddy. Sadly, there wasn't. I could not help comparing the would-be affecting battle scenes to the powerful and gritty ones seen in Kenneth Branagh's version of "Henry V" and I could also not help finding them wanting. All I kept thinking was that it would have been considerably better if Branagh, my favourite living director, had been given the job. Rumour has it that he is considering his own version and I really hope that that's true.
The shots of Scottish scenery are nice but so what? I could easily just go back to Scotland (where I lived for a year) and see them in person without suffering through this. Kurzel's direction is utterly lacking in energy, style or flair and, if he understands the play, there's not much indication of it on screen. Although if you like fog, you're in luck. Presumably this was intended to make the film moody and atmospheric but it is merely another entry in its litany of failures. This is the 24th Shakespearean adaptation that I have watched since January 2015 so I am a bit of an aficionado of the Bard's work. I am afraid that this is the worst Shakespearean adaptation that I have ever seen. I was not enamoured of either Orson Welles' lacklustre 1948 version or Roman Polanski's creepy and off-putting 1971 version but I preferred both of them to this. "Macbeth" is one of my favourite Shakespearean plays but I have yet to see a screen version that does it justice. I'd sell my soul to be able to see Laurence Olivier's unmade 1950s version which would have starred himself and his then wife Vivien Leigh. Richard Burton and Sean Connery's unmade versions would have probably been worthwhile as well. This version, however, is a masterclass in how not to make Shakespeare for the screen. I can't remember the last time that I was so utterly and bitterly disappointed by a film.
Shakespearean adaptations live or die on the strength of their cast and this one suffers from poor performances from otherwise good actors. The film stars Michael Fassbender in an atypically bad performance as the Thane of Glamis and later of Cawdor whose vaulting ambition propels him onto the throne of Scotland. Fassbender makes for an extremely uninvolving Macbeth and he often seems more bored than anything. He is completely unable to convey the character's inner conflict, self- doubt or lack of strength and is particularly weak during the crucial "Dagger of the mind" and "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" soliloquies. I would have much preferred to see his "X-Men" co-star James McAvoy in the role and not just because he is actually Scottish. Marion Cotillard is better but only marginally so since Lady Macbeth is nowhere near as compelling or even interesting a character in the film as she is in the play.
The supporting cast includes Paddy Considine, David Hayman, David Thewlis, Sean Harris, Maurice Roëves and Jack Reynor but only Hayman and Harris are particularly impressive or even memorable and then only in small doses. Seylan Baxter, Lynn Kennedy, Kayla Fallon and Amber Rissmann play the Witches but you would not know that there was anything the least bit supernatural about them in spite of the fact that was rather what Shakespeare was going for. Presumably at the (poor) direction of Kurzel, most of the actors mumble their lines rather than enunciate clearly. Another bad idea poorly executed. I will say this about Kurzel though: at least he's consistent.
Overall, this is a simply deplorable version of a fantastic play. If I were Shakespeare, I would want my name taken off it. After Duncan's murder, Lady Macbeth says what's done cannot be undone. Well, I wish that I could find a way to undo watching this travesty. There's an old saying in Hollywood: "You can make a bad film out of a good script but you can't make a good film out of a bad script." This may not be a Hollywood film but it is a textbook example of the first part of that aphorism. This will undoubtedly be one of my Bottom Five of 2016. At the moment, it is No. 2 after the Chinese film "Pingguo", which was unleashed on the unsuspecting English speaking world as "Lost in Beijing". Hopefully, unlike Duncan and later the title character himself, the film "Macbeth" will not be usurped.
An excellent, thought-provoking and poignant depiction of autism
Based on the writer-director Adam Goldhammer's experiences with his sister Ilana to whom it is dedicated, this short film is an excellent, thought-provoking and poignant depiction of autism. The script is beautifully and very sensitively written by someone who has more insight into the subject matter than most. As Goldhammer was quick to point out in an online article, the storyline is not intended to be representative of everyone with autism as it is a spectrum. I particularly enjoyed it as it is a very effective treatment of a topic about which I know fairly little and, to that end, I certainly found it educational.
The film stars Hannah Anderson in an excellent performance as Kelly Turner, a 22-year-old who is forced to become the caregiver of her severely autistic elder brother Jesse after the death of their parents in a car accident several months earlier. It is clear from their interaction that Kelly loves her brother deeply. However, it is equally clear that she resents him to some degree as she wants to lead her own life and have fun like anyone else her age but the responsibility of taking care of him makes that incredibly difficult, if not impossible. Under the circumstances, however, these feelings are both natural and understandable so I couldn't really judge Kelly negatively on that basis. This attitude is best illustrated when she brings Jesse to the birthday party of her co- worker Colin, on whom she has a crush. The party atmosphere is probably unlike anything else that Jesse has experienced in his life and he becomes extremely agitated to the point that he inadvertently hurts Kelly. After this, Kelly realises that she has been unfair to him and apologises for dragging him along. The implication is that she will take her responsibilities towards her brother more seriously in future and that she will approach them with a less resentful attitude. In a lovely moment, in the final scene, the two of them repeatedly say "Whassup?" in imitation of the Budweiser ads from their childhood.
As strong as Anderson's performance is, it is Jake Epstein who steals the show as Jesse. I have been a big fan of Epstein, probably best known for playing the bipolar abuse victim / aspiring musician Craig Manning in "Degrassi: The Next Generation", since he starred in the Canadian paranormal kids' show "The Zack Files" in the early 2000s and this is some of his best on screen work. In recent years, he has found stage success both on and off Broadway and long may it continue since he's a wonderful and very natural actor. Epstein is absolutely pitch perfect as Jesse, an extremely endearing character who cannot understand, let alone come to terms with, the sudden absence of his parents. He clearly adores Kelly and wants to spend every minute with her and doesn't understand that she feels differently.
Overall, this is a very moving short film which does not offer any easy answers or tie up all the loose ends because life isn't like that. In any event, we are only getting a snapshot of Kelly and Jesse's lives since it takes place over the course of a single day.
Manhattan Melodrama (1934)
A fairly entertaining, if overblown, tale
A very aptly named film, this is a fairly entertaining, if overblown, tale. The script, written by Oliver H.P. Garrett and Joseph L. Mankiewicz based on a story by Arthur Caesar, tells the familiar story of two childhood friends, one of whom grows up to be a respectable citizen who attains high political office (two things which are often mutually exclusive in real life) and one of whom grows up to be a career criminal. Admittedly, it was far less familiar in 1934 than it is today. The film is rather well directed by W.S. Van Dyke but it's not on the same level as in the "Thin Man" films. The film earned a special place in history as, after John Dillinger attended a screening of it in Chicago on July 22, 1934, he was gunned down by the FBI.
The film stars Clark Gable and William Powell as the gangster and illegal casino owner Edward J. "Blackie" Gallagher and William Powell as the Manhattan District Attorney turned Governor of New York James W. "Jim" Wade respectively. Oddly enough, Powell was Carole Lombard's first husband while Gable later became her second. Both performances are good but neither is on the same level as their best work. Having been orphaned in the General Slocum disaster on June 15, 1904, Jim took the younger Blackie under his wing and attempted to keep him on the straight and narrow. Needless to say, his efforts did not meet with much success. In spite of the fact that he commits murder to ensure Jim's election to the governorship, Blackie is a rather likable character. His eternal loyalty to Jim is quite touching. It does not really ring true but then again I don't think that the developments in any film which actually includes the word "melodrama" in the title are intended to be realistic! A bigger problem is that said developments are not executed as entertainingly as they could have been.
Myrna Loy is strong as Eleanor Parker, who starts off as Blackie's girlfriend but later starts a relationship with Jim and eventually marries him. If I were her, I'd have probably made the same choice. At the risk of repeating myself, Loy was likewise better in other films. While she and Gable do not have much in the way of chemistry, her more light-hearted early scenes with Powell are electrifying. This was their first of 14 films together over the course of the next 13 years, most notably in the "Thin Man" film series. They worked so well together that many people though that they were married in real life. Nat Pendleton, another "Thin Man" alumnus, provides much of the comic relief as Blackie's dimwitted henchman Spud while the 14-year-old Mickey Rooney makes an early appearance as the young Blackie.
Overall, this is quite a fun film. I hope Dillinger enjoyed it, though it certainly isn't worth dying for. He probably did not have the time to appreciate the irony of the last film that he watched involving the death of a famous gangster, what with the bullets flying around him and all. It's the sort of thing that I would find far-fetched if it happened in fiction, frankly.
The Wicker Man (1973)
An absolute masterpiece from beginning to end
Loosely based on the 1967 novel "Ritual" by David Pinner, this is an absolute masterpiece from beginning to end. The superb and extremely clever script by Anthony Shaffer is pitch perfect in every respect. Robin Hardy directs the material with such skill and energy that it is hard to believe that this was not only his directorial debut but that he only directed two other films, though a third is reportedly on the way. It has an atmosphere quite unlike any other that I have seen. I have seldom come across a soundtrack that adds so much to a film as the compositions by Paul Giovanni - and the accompanying ritual dances - really sell the idea that we are being confronted with a cult that has had little contact with the outside world for decades.
I am most certainly a connoisseur of horror films and this is my clear favourite. While they are some very frightening and highly memorable visuals, the thing that I adore most about the film is that it concerns the evil that men do as opposed to vampires, werewolves, (on screen) gods and monsters. In this sense, it is a fascinating and thought-provoking exploration of the darker side of humanity, the mob mentality engendered by cults and the extremes to which people will go in the name of their religious beliefs. These issues are examined through the prism of paganism but it could really apply to any religion since, throughout recorded history and probably well before that, people have justified killing their enemies and committing other heinous crimes on the grounds that it is what their god or gods wanted. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to change any time soon. This film secured a place in my Top 20 when I first saw it a little over a year ago. While it is still a member of that select group, it has received a very slight demotion from 14th to 16th place. As such, it has gone from being my favourite 1970s film to my second favourite after "A Bridge Too Far". However, considering that the 1970s is one of my favourite film decades, that's still pretty good.
The film stars Edward Woodward in one of his best performances as Sgt. Neil Howie, a devoutly Christian police officer who ventures to the remote island of Summerisle off the western coast of Scotland on April 29, 1973, two days before May Day. Having received a letter addressed to him personally, Howie has come to Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl named Rowan Morrison, who has not been seen for months. He is greatly disturbed by the fact that the inhabitants of Summerisle worship the ancient Celtic gods and get up to all sorts of degeneracy, debauchery and deviancy. He is particularly disgusted by the schoolteacher Miss Rose teaching her class of young girls that the maypole is a phallic symbol. However, a more serious concern is the conspiracy of silence that pervades Summerisle since everyone on the island, including her mother, initially denies that Rowan existed. Miss Rose later claims that she and the others were telling the truth, after a fashion, since they believe that a person's soul returns to nature "when the human life is over." As such, they do not recognise death in the same manner as other, more...mainstream religions and the civil authorities. In the course of his investigation, however, Howie comes to suspect that Rowan is still alive and the islanders' celebration of May Day will not be as innocent as those which take place on the mainland. Howie's puritanical beliefs are a crucial aspect of both his character and the film itself. Woodward does an excellent job at conveying Howie's religious fervour and the sheer revulsion that he feels at the behaviour and warped sensibilities of the islanders.
Although he is far less screen time that Woodward, Christopher Lee nevertheless steals the show as Lord Summerisle, the island's fiercely intelligent, very charismatic and frightening leader. His Lordship's grandfather was an agronomist who, in 1868, discovered the island's unique properties when it came to the growing of, by the British Isles' standards, exotic fruit. More to the point, the earlier Lord Summerisle fostered the belief in the islanders that the old gods would bless Summerisle with prosperity if the strains were successful. His son and grandson continued this policy to great and terrifying effect. Lee is one of my absolute favourite actors and he brings all of the considerable talent at his disposal to the role of Lord Summerisle. He loved the script so much that he agreed to do the film for the free and often described it as the best film that he made in a career that included more than 200 projects over the course of seven decades.
Britt Ekland is dubbed by Annie Ross for her memorable role as the landlord's daughter Willow MacGregor, not the kind of girl that you'd bring home to your mother, but that's okay since she was never much of an actress. Anyway, I have a sneaking suspicion that she may have been hired with the very sexy yet very strange nude dancing scene in mind! Diane Cilento, who later married Shaffer incidentally, is excellent as Miss Rose, one of the more unorthodox teachers to ever grace the silver screen. The film also features strong performances from Ingrid Pitt as the rather incongruously Polish accented librarian, Aubrey Morris as the incredibly creepy gravedigger, Lindsay Kemp as the only slightly less creepy Alder MacGregor and Irene Sunter as Rowan's mother May Morrison.
Overall, this is an absolutely wonderful film with some very interesting things to say about human nature. This is the sort of the film that never really leaves you once you've seen it.
An extremely witty and relentlessly entertaining Western comedy-drama
Inspired by the illegal escapades of the two most famous members of the Wild Bunch, this is an extremely witty and relentlessly entertaining Western comedy-drama. The superb script by William Goldman is full of marvellous dialogue and deservedly won him the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. As strong as it is, however, I think that the first half is marginally better than the second. The director George Roy Hill handles the material with a huge amount of energy and flair and he made wonderful use of the locations offered by Utah, Mexico and New Mexico. It is a beautiful looking, stylish film with great cinematography by Conrad Hall. Although the film is based on fact to some degree, it is fictionalised in many places and I am sure that the real Butch and Sundance had quite a few more rough edges than their counterparts. However, any and all liberties that Goldman took with the facts worked in the context of the film. I loved the decision to begin the film with an imitation of silent Westerns while the sepia-tinged opening scene was another great tribute to the filmmaking techniques of days gone by. With the exception of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, there is comparatively little music in the film, which was an interesting choice but one that worked well.
The film stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a pair of wonderful and effortlessly charismatic performances as the titular outlaws. Their chemistry is electrifying and it is a terrible shame that they only made one more film together, namely the even better "The Sting" which was likewise directed by Hill, as I have seldom seen an on- screen duo who worked better together. I don't know how well they knew each other when they made this film but they click so perfectly that it would be difficult to imagine it working, at least to the same extent, if one or both of them had not been cast. They have a great deal of charm and, even if you're an actor, that is difficult to fake. Of the two, Newman is perhaps the stronger but that may be because he has a marginally more interesting role. Butch, whose real name was the less catchy Robert LeRoy Parker, is depicted as being a warm, affable, eternally optimistic and fiercely intelligent smooth operator with a tendency to plan at least two or three moves ahead. Conversely, Sundance - whose real name of Harry Longabaugh would later be used by Goldman as a pen name - is considerably more laconic, pessimistic and openly cynical than his partner in crime. They have a very interesting relationship as they often snipe at each other but their bickering has a solid foundation in friendship. Each will always have the other's back. In fact, each is probably the best friend that the other ever had. There are times when Sundance looks like he wants to shoot Butch but there is a real sense that he would follow him to Hell and back. Speaking of Sundance, Goldman was not the only one to use his name in later life as Redford founded the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in 1978.
The scenes depicting Butch and Sundance's attempt to evade the six man posse are some of the very best in large part because the focus is squarely on the two male leads, giving them a great opportunity to exhibit their easy chemistry. In fact, if the writing had been of the same standard, I'd have been perfectly happy for the remaining hour of the film to consist entirely of nothing but Newman and Redford's banter, though immediately that would not have been very cinematic. The finale in which they are cornered by the Bolivian Army is another highlight. I particularly loved the moment when Butch tells Sundance that they should relocate to Australia in order to continue their criminal careers even though it is obvious that neither of them have much chance of making it nine feet, let alone 9,000 miles. As the exact circumstances of Butch and Sundance's deaths have never been definitively established, an urban legend has arisen that the two men survived and returned to the United States. In an episode of "In Search Of..." in 1978, the former's much younger sister Lula Parker Bettenson claimed that he came home to Utah and eventually died in 1937 but she refused to disclose where he had been buried. Nothing of this sort has come to light concerning Sundance's supposed later life but, in any event, the evidence of either man surviving that fateful day in Bolivia in 1908 is less than conclusive, to put it mildly.
The female lead Katherine Ross is rather boring as Sundance's long- time girlfriend Etta Place but that's okay since, in spite the fact that she is the third most important cast member, her role is not all that crucial to the film. One of Etta's most interesting moments is when she wonders in a wistful tone whether she would have gotten together with Butch if she had met him before Sundance. This suggests that she may have feelings for him but that she remains with Sundance either out of loyalty or because her feelings for him are simply stronger than her ones for Butch. Strother Martin has barely five minute screen time but he is probably the third most entertaining cast member as the self-described "colourful" mine boss Percy Garris, who gives Butch and Sundance a job when they try to go straight. The film also features nice appearances from Jeff Corey, George Furth, Cloris Leachman, Don Keefer, Kenneth Mars and Ted Cassidy in a rare role outside of the sci-fi, horror and fantasy genres.
Overall, this is a hugely entertaining, thrilling film which has given me the impetus to check out more Westerns, which is certainly the Hollywood genre with which I am least familiar.
Marathon Man (1976)
An engrossing and often very frightening thriller
Based on the 1974 novel of the same name by William Goldman who adapted it for the screen, this is an engrossing and often very frightening thriller. The labyrinthine plot holds together surprisingly well, even if they were a few moments here and there where I found it slightly difficult to suspend my disbelief. While the writing is certainly strong, I don't think that it is of the same very high standard that Goldman set for himself in other films. John Schlesinger's direction is generally very good when it comes to maintaining a high level of tension but there are some rather silly and over the top bits which I found difficult to take seriously.
The film stars Dustin Hoffman in an excellent performance as Thomas Babington "Babe" Levy, a history PhD student at Columbia University. Babe is a very damaged soul whose dissertation concerns tyranny in American political life. Not so coincidentally, his father H.P. Levy was a renowned historian who was hounded out of academia because of allegations that he was a Communist during the McCarthy era. The terrible stress that he was under led him to start drinking heavily and ultimately to commit suicide. In large part because Babe was the one who found his father's body 20 years earlier, he has never truly come to terms with what happened. As such, his dissertation runs the risk of being a personal crusade against McCarthyism as opposed to a detached contribution to the field of 20th Century American history. Babe is training himself to run in a marathon, hence the film's title, and I took this as being representative of the fact that he is trying to run away from his real life by dwelling on the past and not in the way that an historian should. Babe has quite a chip on his shoulder and, in spite of the fact that he is a good, decent man, he seems as if he is not always the easiest person in the world to get along with. However, I think that his experiences in the film help him to grow as a person.
Although he probably only appears on screen for a quarter of the running time at most, Laurence Olivier nevertheless steals the show with his wonderful performance as the infamous Nazi doctor Christian Szell, who was reported dead in May 1945 but has been in hiding in Uruguay for more than three decades. A thinly veiled version of Josef Mengele, Szell is a dentist who was responsible for removing gold from the prisoners' teeth in Auschwitz as well as for subjecting them to various other forms of torture. Due to his all- white hair, he received the nickname of der weiße Engel, meaning "the white angel" (of death, presumably). During the war, he instituted a scheme in which he promised to help wealthy Jews escape from Auschwitz in exchange for their diamonds. Since then, he has been able to live in luxury by selling the diamonds, which are kept in a safe deposit box in New York. He has one of the keys whereas his brother Klaus has the other. However, Klaus - played by Hindenburg disaster survivor Ben Dova - is killed in a road rage incident in Manhattan. This means that Szell must take the major risk of travelling to New York himself in order to continue living in the manner to which he has become accustomed. In the extraordinarily effective "Is it safe?" scene, Szell tortures Babe by using a dental probe on his cavity in an attempt to find out whether it is safe for him to retrieve the diamonds. Olivier casts a terrifying shadow as Szell, never making the mistake of overplaying the role. In fact, the reason that he is so frightening is that he remains outwardly calm for much of the film, particularly during the torture scenes. He and Hoffman make an unlikely duo but they work extremely well together. Olivier received his only nomination for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar but lost to Jason Robards for his decidedly mediocre, boring performance as Ben Bradlee in "All the President's Men", another film starring Hoffman and written by Goldman.
I had a few problems with the character of Henry "Doc" Levy, Babe's older brother who is one of the many couriers responsible for transporting the diamonds to Szell. Although he plays the role of an oil executive, Doc is in actuality an agent for the Division, an organisation which handles the matters that the CIA does not want to get involved in. The Division collaborates with Szell in his diamond scheme in exchange for information on other and probably less important Nazi fugitives. Roy Scheider is a very good actor and he has always had a likable screen presence but that's part of the problem, really. Doc should be a much darker or at least morally ambiguous character than he is but he comes across as a comparatively nice guy in spite of his involvement with an infamous Nazi, an approach which I did not think worked very well. In contrast, his superior Peter Janeway, played very well by William Devane, is very slimy and I would have preferred if the same was true of Doc. It is not often that I accuse a film of being too subtle but this is definitely the exception. Marthe Keller is quite strong as Elsa Opal, Babe's seemingly Swiss new girlfriend who is not entirely honest with him. Marc Lawrence and Richard Bright barely say a word but they are extremely intimidating as Szell's henchmen Karl and Erhardt. The film also features strong appearances in small roles from the great character actor Fritz Weaver as Professor Biesenthal and Jacques Marin as LeClerc.
Overall, this is an extremely effective thriller but it could have been an even better one with slightly stronger writing and direction.
A truly abysmal film. This review may contain spoilers but it sure as Hell doesn't contain compliments
Unleashed on the unsuspecting English speaking world under the title "Lost in Beijing", this is a truly abysmal film. I really hated it. No, I didn't just hate. I utterly despised it. This is the first film that I have seen in Mandarin and the first entirely in a non-European language so that was interesting, which is certainly a great deal more than can be said for the film itself. The film's co-writer and director Li Yu is one of the few women to perform either function in the Chinese film industry. That's quite impressive. However, I would have been significantly more impressed with that accomplishment if she had any talent. I'm a big believer in assigning blame where blame is due so I should say that Fang Li was the other person responsible - and I use that word deliberately - for this blight on cinema. The "script" is absolutely appalling and not one moment of it comes close to resembling reality.
The numerous sex scenes and its pronounced anti-government tone ran afoul of the Chinese censors which led to the film being banned in its native country, albeit after it had already been released in a heavily edited fashion. I'm very much against banning films or any other work in principle but I could have lived with having never seen this film. I found parts of it very offensive, not the aforementioned sex scenes but the often incredibly tasteless treatment of the subject matter. Other parts of it seemed like they had been written by a 15-year-old boy who had seen one too many pornos. If cinema were food, this film would be food poisoning. I assume that the Mandarin dialogue was translated accurately, even if it wasn't transcribed accurately since the person who wrote the English subtitles had clearly never heard of a full stop. The dialogue was pathetic but I would not be surprised if it gained something in translation. I would certainly not be averse to watching another film in Mandarin. This film showed me that making absolutely dreadful films is not the soul purview of the English speaking world. That's something, I suppose.
The film stars Fan Bingbing in a mediocre but...well, no mediocre performance as Liu Pingguo, a young woman from a poor province who has migrated to Beijing with her idiot husband An Kun, played badly by Tong Dawei. She works as a foot masseuse at the massage parlour Golden Basin. One night after a party, she is raped by her boss Lin Dong, played in a rather good performance by Tony Leung Ka-fai. By an astonishing coincidence, at that exact moment, An Kun just so happens to be washing that exact window and witnesses the rape. That night, he has sex with Pingguo while saying, "Did he ¤¤¤¤ you like this?" Irrespective of how it was intended, it came across as marital rape. An Kun then decides to blackmail Lin Dong for 20,000 yuan. He later visits the rapist's wife Wang Lei, played by Elaine Jin in the film's best performance, and she suggests that they have sex to even the score. She takes the fact that her husband is a rapist in her stride, expressing no shock or sympathy for his victim. The plot, such as it is, is a powerful repellent against logic, common sense and common decency.
This unconvincing and sordid melodrama gets even more complicated when Pingguo learns that she is pregnant and that either Lin Dong or An Kun could be the father. Given that Wang Lei is infertile, the two couples come to an arrangement: Lin Dong will give Pingguo and An Kun 100,000 yuan if the baby is his whereas they will receive nothing if the baby is An Kun's. This part of the film devolves into what I assume was intended to be funny. This part of the film was basically a black comedy involving a rapist, his victim and their respective spouses who are having an affair to make up for the rape. Classy. As it turns out, An Kun is the father but he bribes the doctor into falsifying the blood test results so that Lin Dong thinks that the child is his. Pingguo and An Kun move in with Lin Dong and An Kun with Pingguo pretending to be her son's nanny. In an entirely unbelievable development, Pingguo becomes quite fond of Lin Dong. Eventually, he discovers that he is not the child's father and he breaks down crying while sad music plays in the background. Boo bloody hoo. It boggles the mind that this scene, the worst of a very bad bunch, was included. I was infuriated, disgusted and offended that I or anyone else was expected to feel sympathy for a rapist because the woman that he raped had a child that wasn't his. It's contemptible. Even thinking about the scene makes my skin crawl.
Overall, I was not a fan of this film. If this does not turn out to be my least favourite film of 2016, I may give up on films altogether. Actually, I may give up on humanity altogether, move into the mountains and spend the rest of my hopefully very long life communing with nature. I only finished watching it because I made myself a promise that I would finish each and every film no matter what and there was certainly a lot of "what" on this occasion. Or maybe it was because I practiced self- flagellation in a previous life. As I was loaned a copy of the film on DVD, I didn't have to pay a cent for it but I still feel like asking for my money back. I would rather have dysentery than watch this again.
The Dock Brief (1962)
A chronically unfunny and remarkably insubstantial satire of the British legal system
Based on the 1957 BBC Radio play of the same name by John Mortimer, this is a chronically unfunny and remarkably insubstantial satire of the British legal system. The screenplay by Pierre Rouve is so lacklustre and slowly paced that it makes a tortoise look like Usain Bolt or maybe even Barry Allen. In this respect, it may have lost something in its translation to the silver screen since Mortimer was a generally excellent writer. However, this is my first (and very probably last) exposure to this particular work so I can't be sure. The director James Hill does the best that he can but his efforts are largely in vain. Given the talent associated with the film and my legal background, I was very much looking forward to it but it turned out to be a bitterly disappointing experience.
The film stars Peter Sellers in an atypically mediocre performance as Wilfred Morgenhall, an incompetent barrister in his 60s whose career is distinguished only by its lack of distinction. He is delighted when he receives a dock brief to defend the quiet, meek Herbert Fowle - played quite well by Richard Attenborough, albeit in a distractingly false nose - who has been accused of murdering his wife Doris. Fowle is a bird seed salesman and, unfortunately, his side-splittingly hilarious name is as witty as the film gets. We are subjected to a series of flashbacks, each more uninteresting than the last, in which Fowle's motive for the crime is revealed. He disliked Doris' penchant for telling poor jokes and cackling like a hyena every three seconds and tried to set her up with their similarly irritating and obnoxious lodger Frank Bateson so she would leave him and he could get some peace and quiet at long last. However, she instead kicked Bateson out for being too familiar and Fowle killed her because she would not leave him. If I were a member of the jury, I would have been inclined to vote "not guilty," frankly. This is a funny idea but the execution fails to deliver so much as a single laugh, unless you count laughs of derision. At one point while ruminating on his disastrous attempt to defend Fowle, Morgenhall reflects that he should have asked the jury if any of them longed for a quiet life without jokes of any sort. If they do, I would recommend this film to them. Personally, I abide by the maxim that a day without laughter is a day wasted so I won't be watching it again.
Overall, this isn't an absolutely terrible film but it is such a forgettable, insubstantial one that I found it difficult to even work up the energy to criticise it. When you never laugh (at least in a non-derisive manner...) or even smile once during a comedy, you know that you're in trouble. This is my one of least favourite films of the year so far, I'm afraid. I really, really hope that it will end up as one of my Bottom Five of 2016 or I'll be in even more trouble. It's kinda odd since I think of Attenborough as being my good luck charm as far as films are concerned. He directed and/or appeared in four films in my Top Five of 2015!
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991)
A most non-heinous sequel
The second but seemingly not the last entry in my second favourite time travel comedy film series, this is a most non-heinous sequel. It is not on quite the same level as the first film but the script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon is nevertheless very funny and it is well directed by Peter Hewitt in his feature film debut. The second half is generally stronger than the first. I loved many of the designs in the film such as the Devil, Station (the two little ones more so than the one big one), the Easter Bunny, the Good Robot Usses, Heaven (clearly inspired by "A Matter of Life and Death") and Hell. The film's original title was "Bill & Ted Go to Hell" but it was changed at the insistence of the studio because of the (over)sensitivity concerning the use of the word "hell." However, I think that they made the right decision for the wrong reason as the film's actual title is catchier and more descriptive. Besides which, I don't think that they spend enough time in Hell to justify the original title.
Five years (relatively speaking) after their jaunt through time to pass history, the lovable metalheads Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan have moved away from home and are gainfully employed at Pretzels and Cheese but their band Wyld Stallyns has yet to become to the musical force that will bring the world into perfect harmony. That said, they are poised for fame as they hired to play at the 4th Annual San Dimas Battle of the Bands. However, things are afoot in the future. In 2691, the decidedly fascist ex- gym teacher - is there any other kind? - De Nomolos has built evil robot versions of Bill and Ted and sends them back in time to the late 20th Century to kill our heroes. They are most triumphant in their mission and the dearly departed Bill and Ted spend some time as ghosts before being exorcised straight to Hell by Missy, the former's ex-stepmother and the latter's new stepmother. The boys must make their way through the afterlife and back to the temporal plane in order to prevent their fiancées - the Princess Babes Joanna and Elizabeth from Medieval England, which isn't really in Iowa - from being killed. Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are once again very entertaining as Bill and Ted. They also get some great material as the Evil Robot Usses who, since they have much the same personalities as the original versions, are oddly likable as murderous robots from the future go. While I was watching the film, it occurred to me that Evil Robot Usses would be a great name for a band. Someone obviously agreed with me as there is already a band with that every name on Facebook. Winter also plays Hell's manifestation of Bill's rather frightening looking grandmother Granny S. Preston, Esq.
William Sadler is hilarious as the put-upon Death, who is astonished when he loses to the duo in a game for their immortal souls. Losing to Bill and Ted can't have done much for his self-esteem. Although he is initially not too pleased at the thought of being their lackey, he gradually grows rather fond of them and willingly helps them in their mission to defeat the Evil Robot Usses. Not many people can say that they have literally laughed in the face of Death but Bill and Ted do it several times. That's certainly something to boast about! One of my favourite little moments is when Death apologises to God for inflicting Bill and Ted on him. One would think that God would be a little aggrieved that they mugged three people in Heaven itself but he seems pretty cool with it, actually. Sadler also has a cameo as the Englishman who is seen watching Wyld Stallyn's first TV appearance with his wife and daughter, played by his actual wife and daughter.
Joss Ackland, who later admitted that he thought the film was pretty rubbish, is good as the vaguely German-accented De Nomolos but he has barely ten minutes screen time even though he is technically the main villain. Still, he has more than George Carlin, who appears in a mere two scenes as Rufus but is nevertheless great in the role. Pam Grier has a fun cameo as Ms. Wardroe. The film also features nice appearances from Hal Lindon, Jr. as Captain Theodore Logan and Amy Stock-Poynton as Missy and makes excellent use of the considerable vocal talents of Frank Welker as the Devil, Station and the Easter Bunny. However, I have always thought that Matheson and Solomon missed a trick in the Heaven scenes in not briefly reuniting Bill and Ted with one of the personages of historical significance from the first film such as Socrates, Lincoln or Joan of Arc. The film's original ending, which was unfortunately not used, would have featured De Nomolos spending eternity in Hell with the Evil Robot Usses, whom he despises as he did too good a job in recreating Bill and Ted's personalities.
Overall, this is a very enjoyable sequel. I am really looking forward to the recently (re-)announced "Bill & Ted 3", which has been in development hell for five or six years now but will hopefully see the light of day in 2017/8.
A most triumphant sci-fi comedy
While not the first work of fiction to feature a time travelling phone box, this is a most triumphant sci-fi comedy. The film has a very strong script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. Like the two central characters, the jokes may not be the cleverest but they're extremely funny. The cleverest moment in the film is the inspired use of time travel to rescue the personages of historical significance. Stephen Herek does a very good job at directing the film, bringing a huge amount of flair and energy to the proceedings. At only 86 minutes, excluding the credits, it rollicks along at a great pace and manages to fit quite a bit into its short running time.
The film stars Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as the Two Great Ones Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan, a pair of well meaning, gormless high school age slackers living in San Dimas, California in 1988. Although they don't even know how to play their instruments yet, the music of their garage band Wyld Stallyns - which, as they say at every opportunity, rule - will eventually form the basis for all human society. Sure, why not? Humanity could do an awful lot worse than to live by Bill and Ted's maxim of "Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes!" However, all is not well. In order to ensure that this utopia comes about, Rufus is sent from the year 2688 to help the boys pass their history class and prevent Ted from being sent to an Alaskan military school. Much of the credit for the film's success has to go to Winter and Reeves, who have a very likable screen presence, great comic timing and terrific chemistry. It is very easy to accept them as best friends from the moment that they are introduced. Although Reeves has had the more successful career, to put it mildly, I think that Winter is the more talented of the two. Actually, the only Keanu Reeves performances that I have ever actually liked are contained in this film and "Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey". He does vacant very well, in fairness to him. George Carlin's appearances as the time travelling benefactor Rufus are little more than an extended cameo but he certainly makes a big impression. In a temporal paradox that was probably unintentional, Rufus never actually introduces himself to Bill and Ted. They learn his name from their future selves.
On their trip through time, Bill and Ted pick up a variety of famous historical figures. Terry Camilleri does not have as much screen time as most of the others but he is a laugh riot as the "short dead dude" Napoleon, who develops an affinity for San Dimas in the late 20th Century particularly the water park Waterloo. I hope that he remembers that name as it may come back to haunt him. Unlike most other time travel films, this one actually addresses the language issue as the only historical figure from a non-English speaking country who can speak English is the polyglot Sigmund Freud. I think that the only English word that Socrates speaks is "geek," which he learns at the mall in 1988. Nevertheless, Tony Steedman is likewise hilarious as the ancient philosopher, who takes everything in his stride. He and the underrated Dan Shor, who plays Billy the Kid, are a great double act. I have to admit that I first heard of Socrates from this film when I was a child and, as such, "So Crates!" pops into my head every time that I hear his name to this day. My knowledge of him and his many accomplishments has increased in the meantime, I hasten to add.
Rod Loomis is great as Freud and Robert V. Barron is perfectly cast as Abraham Lincoln. I loved the fact that all of the historical figures were ready, willing and able to go along with Bill and Ted's plan to show them off at their final history report, though it was hinted that Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc (who was not Noah's wife, by the way) only had the vaguest idea of what was going on. Oddly enough, this is one of three films or TV shows that I am aware of in which Lincoln and Genghis Khan have run into each other, the others being the "Star Trek" episode "The Savage Curtain" and "Clone High". They're not exactly the most obvious historical duo! I also loved the little moments such as Billy the Kid and Socrates playing with a ball, Billy the Kid clearly being smitten with Joan of Arc - played by Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go's, which is suitably random - and Napoleon attempting to make his moves on Missy, Bill's very young stepmother to whom both he and Ted are attracted. Hal Landon, Jr. and Bernie Casey are great straight men as Ted's hardass father Captain John Logan and the firm but fair history teacher Mr. Ryan, who are probably the two most believable characters in the film.
Overall, this is a bodacious time travel film. When I wasn't laughing, I was grinning from ear to ear.