Thursday, 28 December 2017

The Dark Knight trilogy

Casts: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Gary Oldman, Heath Ledger, and Anne Hathaway

Director: Christopher Nolan  

439 minutes (15) 2005/8/12
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner 4K Ultra HD

Rating: 10/10
Reviews by Christopher Geary

Comic-book fans might grumble about how much Batman Begins (2005), effectively a prequel to Warner’s existing franchise, as launched by Tim Burton’s monstrously flawed Batman (1989), draws upon Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns characterisation of the ‘caped crusader’, without crediting the authority of that revisionist version. However, I think the value of Miller’s influence upon this origin story has been grossly overstated. 

The only important screen credit that’s deserved by, and prominently given to, a writer not directly connected with this cinema offering is that of Bob Kane. Creativity is not the same thing as originality. Batman’s genre lineage has been traced elsewhere. I’d rather not get into nit-picking. The fact is that Christopher Nolan’s laudable, and exceptionally ‘practical’, action drama rejects the peculiar daftness that is more usually imposed upon superhero adventures (especially on media adaptations from the DC comics stable), and centres its generally downbeat narrative with a shrewd exploration of the psychological depths of its title character’s mortal fears, and lingering guilt (the young Bruce Wayne blames himself for the death of his parents), that’s twisted into an unhealthy obsession with revenge.

Christian Bale (American Psycho, Reign Of Fire, Equilibrium, The Machinist) brilliantly portrays the adult Bruce Wayne as a tragically haunted heir, embarking upon a fiercely existential journey into the mountains of China, after finding himself unable to remain in Gotham while burdened with painful memories. Bruce’s spiritual attempt to expose and fully comprehend the workings of the criminal psyche is a bitter struggle to understand his own nature, and find new purpose and meaning in life. Rarely have the motivations for a costumed crime-fighter to wear a disguise been examined so deeply or illustrated so well in a Hollywood product. Bravely, the director and star allow us to peer ‘behind the mask’ even while Batman’s wearing it. Batman Begins is an exemplary deconstruction of a vigilante crime-fighter in a master-class of superhero cinema that’s unmatched by the likes of The Punisher (either version), or the over-flashy Daredevil, and is certainly more illuminating, especially in terms of solid characterisation, than Sam Raimi’s over-praised Spider-Man movies.

Tutored in various martial arts by stony-faced guru Ducard (Liam Neeson - much better here, as a mentor figure, than in his Star Wars episode), but refusing to agree with the coldly extreme policy of elitism openly espoused by the well meaning but fascistic League of Shadows, Bruce confronts ninja death squads and strives to formulate his philosophy of justice as one suitable for maintaining order in the grimy hell of Gotham’s underworld. He’s aided by the righteous cop Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman, in a surprisingly restrained, yet nonetheless magnetic performance), obviously the beleaguered city’s future police commissioner, and the pioneering industrial scientist Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman, wry as ever), an admirably Q-like techie, while Bruce’s childhood sweetheart Rachel (Katie Holmes, who also played a Rachel in Disturbing Behaviour, 1998), now a district attorney in Gotham, tries to provide the disillusioned hero with moral guidance, and love interest.

Neeson brings a much needed weight to early scenes, as Nolan’s non-linear story-telling format (which worked so perfectly in Memento), switching between Bruce’s childhood traumas and mental vacuity as an adult, threatens to derail the main plot before the intriguing narrative takes hold. Michael Caine makes for a splendid butler, and his aged Alfred is one of the thespian highlights of this drama. The secondary villain of the piece is deranged headshrinker Dr Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy) who becomes the Scarecrow, armed with a potent hallucinogenic gas to confuse and terrify his opponents. Apart from Batman’s ninja tactics, The Scarecrow’s actions help to provide the mystery with its best, and most inspired, moments of eerie gothic horror, and yet even the movie’s shocks and frights are understated. This is in keeping with Nolan’s familiar directorial style, as used to good effect in his remake of mystery thriller 
Insomnia. Batman the caped superhero is presented as a nearly mythic symbol of fear who’s just as scary as the vicious gangsters, hoodlums, and psychos that he sets out to destroy. In the wretched slums and perilous alleyways of Gotham, the dark knight is out to make sure everyone is afraid of walking the streets at night.

Batman Begins remains one of the finest comic-book adaptations of the current century’s superhero cinema cycle, and it delivers exciting chases, impressive widescreen spectacle, and plenty of assured character development. If nothing else, when you see the rugged new bat-mobile hit the streets, you will chortle at Gordon’s reaction: “I gotta get me one of those!”

Like its predecessor, The Dark Knight (2008) has no intro credits, just the famous Bat symbol emerging from a blue firestorm and then it jumps into an action scene. The Joker unmasks himself, bringing an unpredictable end to a tightly choreographed bank robbery, declaring, “Whatever doesn’t kill you... makes you stranger.”

What can a billionaire-playboy turned night-stalker vigilante do when a radical psycho clown threatens people in the city that the protagonist has sworn to protect? Operating so far beyond any traditional criminal’s code of ‘honour’ that rationality seems just a lost memory in a world gone bonkers, the Joker aims to make Batman understand that any genuine victory against calculated wickedness is merely a wishful dream that vanishes in broad daylight.

In this engagingly revisionist big-screen adaptation of Batman comics, what else can the lone hero do except simply endure the worst excesses of brutal anarchy and nightmarish chaos, as perpetrated by his new archenemy the Joker? It’s possible that his dual role as Bruce Wayne and Batman is now a Hollywood career-defining one for Welsh-born star Christian Bale. But Australian actor Heath Ledger is certain of a place in the history of comic-book movies due to his tragic death, shortly after the filming of his remarkable scene-stealing turn as the Joker was completed. Oddly enough, there was nothing to be found in Ledger’s merely average co-starring appearance, opposite the typically wooden Matt Damon in Terry Gilliam’s unfortunately flawed The Brothers Grimm, to suggest that Ledger was even capable of such a powerfully dramatic and savagely comic profundity of thespian brilliance as demonstrated here.

With garish clown makeup concealing his ‘mask’ on the inside (we’re not given any facts about the Joker’s past, because he tells eerily disturbing lies about his - probably awful - life story), the Joker is obviously the dark side of an already sinister Batman. Perhaps Ledger’s characterisation was influenced by the similarly-scarred hit-man Kakihara in Takashi Miike’s extremely violent Ichi The Killer, more than the gypsy clown Gwynplaine in The Man Who Laughs (1928), reputedly the primary inspiration for the comic-book’s original Joker.

Furthermore, in the torture video played by Gotham TV news, Ledger’s quirkily amusing tone of voice (“Are you the real Batman?”), pays homage to Cesar Romero’s fondly remembered Joker - in the 1966 film and subsequent TV series. And yet, leaving no doubts about the impact of his definitive performance, and adding yet another layer of complexity to his role, Ledger turns the camcorder on himself, dragging attention back from nostalgic whimsy, now speaking directly to camera, ominously, “See, this is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham.” The Joker parodies the face of contemporary terrorism. He’s off-the-wall mad, typically bad, and extremely dangerous to know. He’s a mockingly defiant critical response to Batman’s crusade against mob rule.

Aaron Eckhart follows a string of solid but largely undistinguished roles - in murder mystery The Black Dahlia, the confusing Suspect Zero, and sci-fi chase thriller Paycheck - with a tour de force performance as Gotham city’s new district attorney, Harvey Dent, a legal ‘white knight’ eventually traumatised into becoming amoral gambler Two-Face, a bitterly vengeful, psychologically twisted combination of both Joker and Batman, who casually decides victims’ fates by the flip of a coin. It’s worth noting that our costumed hero’s moral confidence and combative superiority has advanced from Batman Begins, so that villain Dr Jonathan Crane, alias Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), who seemed a powerful menace for 2005’s Batman, is dealt with more easily here, and dismissed as a petty nuisance. Also returning to their supporting-cast roles in the previous movie, there is Michael Caine - as Wayne’s formidably deadpan butler and supportive confidant Alfred Pennyworth; Gary Oldman - admirably understated and quietly dignified again as a police lieutenant (soon-to-be commissioner) James Gordon; and Morgan Freeman - as Lucius Fox, serenely competent CEO of Wayne’s corporate and technical interests.

Setting new box-office records, and breaking the mould for any blockbuster sequel that astutely melds the fantastical antics of comic-book super-heroism with the gritty realism of mainstream action cinema, The Dark Knight is certainly one of this decade’s top ‘event’ movies. The success of Nolan’s classic as Hollywood product is hardly important, though. As the Joker asserts: “It’s not about the money, it’s about sending a message.” That message seems to be that a clever filmmaker really can have his cake and eat it. Nolan achieves varied technical and aesthetic ambitions, developing ‘Steadicam’ devices for hand-held usage of bulky IMAX equipment, which enables a dazzling and impressive picture to benefit from such detailed image capturing of key action scenes. Stunts are spectacular, and more convincing than in most comparable Hollywood thrillers. But how can the filmmakers top a lengthy road chase sequence, particularly one that’s climaxed by crashing a helicopter and flipping over a lorry? Well, how about demolishing an entire hospital block?

Although this epic sequel continues the narrative of Batman Begins, that movie’s superbly gothic visuals and architectural styling are abandoned in favour of Chicago locations, used here to create a more realistic universe for all the comic-book notions and tricks, much like Paul Verhoeven shot the ‘futuristic’ sky-line of Dallas to represent a re-developed Detroit for RoboCop (1987). Batman’s hi-tech gadgets aside, the jolting dynamic of action scenes in The Dark Knight has been accurately judged as equal to shoot-outs and chases and in Michael Mann’s powder-keg classic Heat (1995), where clashes between Al Pacino’s manic cop and Robert De Niro’s wily crook produced quite electrifying consequences of a similar nature.

The creative and precisely controlled use of sound cranks up tension and suspense during many confrontation scenes, which makes up for the cleverly hidden fact that Nolan has fashioned a terrifyingly sadistic crime thriller, oozing danger, dilemmas, and bone-crunching violence, yet distinctly lacking in bloody splatter. If compared to David Cronenberg’s gory Eastern Promises (another hard-hitting drama with a lone hero tackling a criminal conspiracy), it’s clear that, however bold its attempts to reformulate comic-book adventure in a down-to-earth manner, The Dark Knight inhabits a different universe to genre horror. As the Joker’s restless psychosis shifts into a fatally demented overdrive, it’s interesting to contrast his intimidating qualities with those of Dr Hannibal ‘the cannibal’ Lecter - one of the greatest screen villains of the previous decade. Despite Lecter’s penchant for meticulously planned outrage and eruptions of wild blood-lust, we are left feeling that Ledger’s ultimately chilling interpretation of the Joker as “an agent of chaos” has raised the bar for any such fascinatingly unpredictable murderous evil-doing in popular cinema, showing us a curious model of villainy that’s more astonishing than Lecter’s slasher antics because a troubling sense of peril, and our horrified reaction to it, is accomplished with keenly theatrical skill, without spraying pints of red stuff across the scenery.

But Nolan’s greatest achievement is the assured handling of ambivalent character developments in a cold light and a serious context, granting this peerless variation of Bob Kane’s now 70-year-old champion detective an immeasurably cool gravitas, one that blots out persistent memories of previous cinema or television adaptations, whether they were campy or not. The Dark Knight affirms its links to much original DC comics’ material, and skilfully integrates story-arcs and variant characters from Batman graphic novels in a uniquely persuasive and resonant manner where all the earlier works were comparatively unsuccessful or wholly inadequate in their attempts to realise a cinematic drama that clearly transcends the milieu’s inescapably juvenile origins.

For the greatest lone urban vigilante movie of 2012, in contrast to the heroic teamwork of Josh Whedon’s mega-hit Avengers Assemble, we need look no further than Nolan’s breathtaking The Dark Knight Rises. This hugely anticipated closer to the revisionist trilogy, pits a technologically futuristic protagonist against the super terrorist, Bane (Tom Hardy), who eventually turns out to be a brutish talking golem for the long-con vengeance plot that springs up from Wayne’s shadowy past. In his sheer physical strength, monstrous brawler Bane is a superior opponent for Batman. Bane is very different to the cult leadership of Ra’s al Ghul, the gothic insanities of Scarecrow, psycho anarchy of the Joker, or the homicidal gambling of Two-Face. Bane is more beastly and yet coldly dynamic. He strides or swaggers around Gotham city, much like Godzilla stomps over miniature Tokyo sets; his amplified voice like the giant lizard’s fiery roar. Bane’s animalistic cunning exposes all of Batman’s weaknesses, and his prowess in unarmed combat makes the fearsome ‘night hunter’ mere prey in chilling scenes of well orchestrated mayhem that unfold with militaristic precision. Once he acquires control of the fusion bomb, Bane blurs the lines between powerhouse mercenary and revolutionary.

In a wholly impressive story-arc, Nolan’s trilogy shifted from gothic fairytale, with its climactic assault on the symbolic citadel, to an expansive film noir, complicated by two femme fatales. If Batman Begins concerned reclamation of the night from evil, and The Dark Knight was more about losing the day (and so becoming an outlaw), this finale to the trilogy focuses upon a hero who fails in a battle, but then wins the war. It shows Bane’s emergence from a gloomy underground lair into daylight conquest, then has the broken hero re-enact the villain’s escape from a hell-hole into victory. Whereas Batman Begins showed how Bruce became adept at compassionate valour, trained by the far less chivalrous League of Shadows, he becomes the symbol of fear tarnished by failure in The Dark Knight, but that’s only as a prelude to crushing defeat when the seemingly unstoppable Bane trounces him, ushering in an ‘Occupational’ winter of discontent, before the dire situation goes nuclear with the returning hero’s desperate act of self–sacrifice.

Although it may be argued that a mid-air hijacking alludes to Bond stunts (specifically, the pre-credits sequence of my favourite 007 movie, Licence To Kill), this epic thriller offers more than just up-scale espionage thrills. There are greater mythic dimensions underlying the superhero and ultimate nemesis characterisations - as Wayne learns the difference between cliché aphorisms ‘suffering builds character’ and ‘poverty breeds criminals’ - plus a medley of themes covering war drama, edgily satirical political commentary, disaster movie, and romantic adventure, with gritty action again filmed in the glorious IMAX format.

Re-watching these fantastic movies, now released in a premier 4K Ultra HD edition, with the stunning picture quality of HDR, firmly establishes The Dark Knight Trilogy as the greatest achievement so far in superhero cinema for a singular character’s story-arc. Not even the franchised Iron Man or Captain America trilogies, from DC's rival stable Marvel, come close to matching the seriously imaginative verve of Nolan’s astonishingly exciting directorial vision.  

Monday, 25 December 2017

The Dark Tower

Cast: Idris Elba, Matthew McConaughey, Abbey Lee, Jackie Earle Haley, and Nicholas Hamilton

Director: Nikolaj Arcel

95 minutes (12) 2017
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Sony blu-ray region B

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

Noah Hawley’s new TV series Legion might have cornered the market in surrealistic sci-fi about superheroes with psychodrama, but this genre movie, about the parallel universes of Keystone Earth and Mid-World, neatly - if not always deftly - explores the dreams of a quasi-mythical apocalypse that trouble fatherless young psychic hero Jake (Tom Taylor). Driven by his grim visions to run away from home in New York, Jake discovers a portal to the weird western realm where a battle of ages - a war between haunted gunslinger Roland (Idris Elba), and a magic man-in-black Walter (Matthew McConaughey), threatens both worlds, sacrifices family ties, and risks the boy’s own sanity.

After a decade in development hell, derived from Stephen King’s book series, The Dark Tower owes much to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, and L. Frank Baum’s Oz, with apparent designs on the young adult market, and cross-genre appeal that, narrative wise and cinematically, borrows from The Matrix’s chosen oneness and a swaggering cowboy styling that evokes Sergio Leone’s spaghetti shoot ’em ups and John Woo’s bullet ballet actioners. The inter-dimensional quest, which forms like mental etchings from Jake’s dreams of doom, builds up a new screen brand of synthetic but compelling character-based mythology, notable for the diversity of its influences, that includes folklore, comic books, and genre movies, and also embracing aspects or motifs from King's own oeuvre.

The iconic gunslinger is a Jedi-like knight, but with pistols forged, reportedly, from the legendary Excalibur’s metal. The strange time-warped west world has dead technology reminiscent of Mad Max’s wastelands. Like the twin towers of Lord Of The Rings, this movie’s central image riffs on Norse mythology’s Yggdrasil, and, as previously seen in Thor movies, with their convergence of ‘heims. Tellingly, the brand of this franchise project delivers character actions that speak louder than words, and so its spectacular climax of fantastical mayhem, and spells, overwhelms more routine exposition.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

1990: The Complete Collection

Cast: Edward Woodward, Robert Lang, Tony Doyle, Barbara Kellerman, and Lisa Harrow

Creator: Wilfred Greatorex

880 minutes (15) 1977-8
Simply Media DVD Region 2

Rating: 7/10
Review by Steven Hampton

Between his career-defining roles in genre TV shows Callan (1967-72), and The Equalizer (1985-9), British actor Edward Woodward starred in dystopian show 1990, a speculative SF drama that nowadays seems more prescient than ever. It is a grimly prophetic tale of sinister government in Britain but, whereas the original classic novel 1984 (1949), and its screen adaptations, were about fascism, this Orwellian scenario warns of the danger to society of enforced socialism, and it’s especially observant and relevant today because of the brutal government’s blatant refusal to accept criticism. Here, the people are policed by a Public Control Department, staffed by bullies and supported by a tyranny rubber-stamped by secret deals.

The programme’s animated title sequence is particularly striking. Two people standing in a white room, and this shrinking space makes the pair of captives into obvious prisoners, forced together, under a tortuous confinement of extreme detention. All they have left is each other as the walls close in about them, and a crucible symbolism is a quite profound visual statement of the show’s basic themes.

The futurism is limited to Anglo-dollars, ID cards, and compulsory TV. Indie news-hound Jim Kyle (Woodward) routinely evades state surveillance because his job would be largely impossible, and his life endangered, if they always know exactly where he is, never mind what schemes he gets up to. ‘Faceless’ is Kyle’s own ‘Deep Throat’ informant with furtive meetings conducted usually while parked side-by-side in their cars. As Scarlet Pimpernel references abound, the nets tighten around Kyle when suspicion falls upon him, just as if steel chains are made from tangles of red tape.

Fascinatingly detailed, there’s a brain-drain crisis of illegal emigration (including 500 exit visa applications per week), an opposition party leader becoming a mere cheer-leader for cabinet policy, an underground press ‘Facts’ leaflet sheet’s outlawed and eagerly quashed by boots-on-the-ground, and could the new Inspectors of Culture actually be censors? In its scripting of cynical class-war attitudes in civil service corruption 1990 boasts wit sharp enough to stab hearts-of-gold through a knife-proof vest. Kyle’s dalliance with Mata Hari-ish femme fatale Delly (Barbara Kellerman) brings him as much grief as satisfaction. Kyle investigates the regional establishments of so-called ‘adult rehab centres’ (ARCs), where many activists, dissidents, and other rebellious souls are simply crushed by ECT or drugs into zombies, and even serial killers can be turned into dutiful servants.

Rounding off the first series, Kyle is stripped of identity cards, and his human rights, and then declared a non-citizen, just a nameless number. Down on the street with the down-and-outs, he’s down, but not out of the fight, and our hero returns to a prominent action with a clever blackmail plot against his enemy. The most notable guest stars include: Ed Bishop, Edward Judd, and John Rhys-Davies. Some type-casting in evident: Ray Smith is a union leader, replete with shop-floor accent; John Savident portrays an ebullient Home Secretary; and Graham Crowden excels as a foreign VIP academic.

For series two, Lisa Harrow replaces Kellerman as the show’s leading lady, practicing new charm offensives while prospects for a general election are worrying all concerned. Kyle’s insistence upon a non-violent campaign against the Public Control is threatened by a lone gunman. When his identity is revealed, Faceless turns out to look like a fusion of the two Ronnies into one. Black marketeers make a mockery of rationing. Private cops Careguard foresees today’s G4S security contractors. Ordeal By Small Brown Envelope concerns the systematic harassment by the state, aimed at crushing any civil resistance to new official policy. But it’s worse than postal threats when they send those special bailiffs round with keys to a downgrade a family’s home.

Some of the sting plots hatched by Kyle & Co, against the oppressive regime, are like the tactics and strategy of Eric Frank Russell’s novel Wasp (1957), an infamous book about a movement ranging from psychological warfare to guerrilla mayhem. Using indirect action, not just open defiance, the crusading heroes of Kyle’s plucky gang of radicals eventually turn the game tables on authoritarian power. Tony Doyle (Who Dares Wins) is good value throughout this show as Kyle’s bullish chum, import-export agent Dave, smuggling Brits to Europe and USA, here still bastions of freedom, and leading the charge when muscle is required to calm or conclude a tense situation.

You’ll Never Walk Alone is a crisply theatrical piece with a chess tournament’s mind-game overshadowed by a kidnapping plot against the black-hats’ own queen. The final episode reaches a wholly predictable climax after a solo protestor in Trafalgar Square disturbs the pigeons with a self-immolation stunt. Can this grim situation end in anything but violence with a bitter irony? Although parts of this - especially its modest technology - are tellingly dated, this drama is educational, and incisive about political criticism, so perhaps it ought to be shown in schools.

Presented in very good condition for a BBC programme of its era, this complete series of 16 x 55-minute episodes (previously available separately, as two seasons), is re-released on a DVD box-set of four discs.  

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Whisky Galore!

Cast: Gregor Fisher, Eddie Izzard, Naomi Battrick, Ellie Kendrick, and Kevin Guthrie

Director: Gillies MacKinnon

98 minutes (PG) 2016
Widescreen ratio 16:9
Arrow blu-ray region B
[released 6 November]

Rating: 10/10
Review by J.C. Hartley

If you’ve ever read one of my reviews before, and there are so many of them on VideoVista and its sister site The Zone that I would hope you have by now, then you will know that I’m no fan of remakes. Especially when the original is considered to be something of a ‘classic’. To be fair, although I’m more than familiar with the 1949 film made by Ealing, one of my favourite studios, I approached this new version with high hopes. I see in my 2011 review of the original I mentioned Ealing’s slyly subversive tone, at odds with the cosy ‘little England’ atmosphere thought by some to inhabit their films.  

In fact, while Ealing’s output was often anarchic and anti-establishment, the final reel tended to impose some form of belated moral censure. Hence Louis D’Ascoyne Mazzini, seemingly having got away with murder realises he has left a confessional memoir in his prison cell in Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949), the forces of law and order finally catch up with mild-mannered bank-robber ‘Dutch’ Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), and the gang in The Ladykillers (1955), having pulled off their heist, end up by murdering one another. Similarly, while the inhabitants of the Outer Hebridean island of Todday stave off the lack of uisge beatha ‘the water of life’ by salvaging ‘export only’ spirit from a sinking cargo ship in Whisky Galore (1949), by the end of the film the whisky drought is back in force. I was happy to see such nonsense was avoided in this remake, or ‘reimagining’ as the producers’ prefer.

The novel Whisky Galore (1947) by Compton Mackenzie, was based on the running aground of the S. S. Politician off Eriskay in 1941, while carrying 28,000 cases of malt whisky and a substantial volume of cash. In 1918, Mackenzie had been chosen as one of the promising ‘younger generation’ of novelists by Henry James in an essay J.B. Priestley described as, ‘a piece of literary criticism so involved, so inscrutable, that some of the writers it dealt with do not know to this day whether he was praising them or blaming them.’ Priestley went on to observe in 1928 that Mackenzie had not lived up to the promise of his early novels Carnival (1912), and Sinister Street (1914), and, ironically, he is probably best known now, if at all, for Whisky Galore. Mackenzie’s sequel to Sinister Street was filmed in 1935 as Sylvia Scarlett, starring Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

The plot to Whisky Galore is laughably simple. In the midst of World War Two, the island of Todday is suffering the dreaded whisky drought brought on by rationing. During a fog, a passing cargo vessel, the S.S. Cabinet Minister, runs aground on the notorious Skerry Dubh rocks and the crew abandon ship. Seeing this as the workings of providence the islanders prepare to salvage some of the 50,000 cases of whisky bound for the United States. Unfortunately, the ship has run aground on a Saturday and, as a flotilla sets out from the island, the church clock chimes for midnight and the start of the Sabbath, upon which no task of work may be undertaken. Despite the delay the islanders do indeed manage to liberate a substantial portion of the cargo before the vessel sinks. The local Home Guard commander Captain Waggett (Eddie Izzard) foolishly decides that protecting the cargo from looting comes within his remit, and sets out to confound the islanders’ salvage operation, and then catch them with their bounty when they outwit him. 

At the heart of the story is the local postmaster Macroon (Gregor Fisher), and his melancholy realisation that his two eligible daughters are about to take the first steps into matrimony which will deprive him of the solace of their company. Peggy (Naomi Battrick) is in love with local schoolmaster George (Kevin Guthrie), and seeks to extricate him from under the thumb of his domineering mother. Catriona (Ellie Kendrick) is in love with Sergeant Odd (Sean Bickerstaff) an El Alamein veteran, who has returned to the island to train the Home Guard, as second-in-command to Waggett. 

Macroon Sr. explains to Odd that for him to marry Catriona there must first be a prenuptial celebration without which the marriage cannot take place, and the celebration requires whisky. No whisky, no celebration; no celebration, no wedding. Odd defers to the obvious blackmail, and slated to guard the shoreline facing the sinking craft he allows the villagers to overpower him in their mission to salvage the booze. Having stowed the cases of scotch in a hidden cave, the islanders are betrayed by the local innkeeper who sees his livelihood at risk from the abundance of free whisky. Waggett calls in the Excise and a frantic operation is launched, first to hide the drink during a house-to house search, and then to spirit the spirits away from their hiding place.

A curious sub-plot concerns the presence on the island of the mysterious Mr Brown, posing as a tweed salesman. Macroon listens in on Brown’s telephone call to Waggett’s wife asking her to urge the Captain to secure a red attaché case from the wreck. Obviously, this would prove an impossible task for Waggett to perform and the message is wholly intended for the eavesdropping Macroon. The case proves to contain personal letters from the recently-abdicated Edward VIII to Mrs Simpson, and other correspondence hinted as relating to an interesting offer of royal reinstatement from a certain continental despot, the second such reference in the film. Brown is obviously some lackey of Whitehall, but why would the letters be going to America? The purpose of this sub-plot, beyond mere padding, is hard to ascertain, perhaps the writer is vehemently republican and wanted to avoid the film being chosen for a royal premiere?

The film ends with both pairs of lovers united in matrimony, and Waggett temporarily in disgrace after a case of ammunition he returned to the mainland was discovered to contain whisky, hidden there during the house-to-house. Macroon finally cracks a smile and the island gives itself up to drinking and dancing. To say I enjoyed this film while on the wagon (only two beers in five weeks), says much for the good-natured entertainment it provides, although, as I lay in bed waiting in vain for the oblivion of sleep, my mind did tend to linger on the three and a half bottles of whisky (and one whiskey) I had stowed in a downstairs cupboard.

The extras reel consists of interviews with the principal members of the cast. What comes across is a genuine affection for the material and an obvious enjoyment of the whole exercise. The younger members of the cast, that is Battrick, Kendrick, Guthrie and Bickerstaff, have nothing but good things to say about the experience of performing with Fisher and Izzard. Slainte.

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Fear In The Night

Cast: Judy Geeson, Ralph Bates, Peter Cushing, Joan Collins, and Gillian Lind

Director: Jimmy Sangster

94 minutes (12) 1972
Widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Studio Canal blu-ray region B

Rating: 6/10
Review by Steven Hampton  

This is a Hammer horror in hi-def just in time for happy Halloween. Peggy (Judy Geeson) is newlywed to Robert (Ralph Bates), an unhappy ‘teacher’ at a boarding school for boys. Peter Cushing portrays the kindly but decidedly odd headmaster, whose wife Molly (Joan Collins) is a scheming sculptress. Even before she leaves London, there is a scary trauma for the heroine when she’s attacked by a strange man with a prosthetic arm. Moving to a house in the school grounds, there’s plenty of creepy atmosphere and suspense unfolding to upset and threaten the heroine. After a second mysterious attack, Peggy is left alone in the cottage with a shotgun. Soon, her tormentors will be sorry they ever bothered her.

“Do you like tying knots in things?”    

Not so much a bloody shocker, in the traditional manner of classic Hammer productions, but a nonetheless effective chiller with modest ambitions as days of delirium follow nights of fear. Cleverly fusing odd elements from Clouzot’s masterpiece Les Diaboliques (1955), a subgenre defining thriller of French cinema, with obvious influences of Polanski’s classic Replusion (1965), that established the era’s trend for mystery drama centred on neurotic women, Fear In The Night pulls its varied aspects of predatory crime and psychological crisis into a meltdown of confusion and catatonia, under a gaslight plot that goes horribly wrong. The movie’s themes of stalking and isolation lead to disquieting revelations about a tragic history of the countryside location, and certain scenes here predate Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).  

In the final analysis, this is an understated, very British offering, coasting along through a story-line of increasing suspicions, buoyed by Geeson’s performance as the beleaguered heroine. It’s memorable for just a few iconic images, including the gloved hand clutching the victim’s neck, the curiously dream-like impact of shattered glass in the headmaster’s spectacles (see the DVD & Blu-ray cover artwork), and that particularly haunting first scene of the hanged man.     

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Zabriskie Point

Cast: Mark Frechette, Daria Halprin, Rod Taylor, Paul Fix, and Kathleen Cleaver

Director: Michelangelo Antonioni

120 minutes (15) 1970
Widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Warner DVD Region 2

Rating: 8/10
Review by Andrew Darlington

“When it gets down to it, you have to choose one side or the other,” says Mark.
“There’s a thousand sides. Not just heroes and villains,” counters Daria.
And that’s the dilemma Zabriskie Point poses. There’s restless dissatisfaction, streams of unease, wired strung-out times, something’s happening but you don’t know what it is, do you…? In the jargon of the time, be part of the problem, or be part of the cure. The soundtrack splices Pink Floyd with sampled media news-blurts. ‘Bullshit and jive’ Black Power agitators harangue a counter-culture student debate, exploiting white liberal guilt, “you keep getting busted for grass and that makes you a revolutionary.”

First time I caught this on the small-screen, it’s on a German-language DVD, adding an extra level of dislocation. A radical Angela Davis lookalike, who is actually Kathleen Cleaver – partner of Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver, sits immaculately aloof and argues articulately as they rant back-and-forth dialectic about Molotov cocktails, guerrilla confrontation, conspiring strike action to shut down the campus. “If the man’s language is the gun, talk to him with a gun.” It’s all done hidden-camera, documentary-style. What else can a poor boy do…? Mark calls their bluff, stands up and stalks out. Yes, he’s “willing to die, but not of boredom…”

Driving a dirty red pick-up truck past lurid sequences of street-scene hoardings, the real and the garish exhortation images fold in together, ‘federally inspected meats’ against startles of electronic music, proto-industrial machine-sounds, until it all blurs into flashing hidden-persuader shapes. There are ‘Sunny Dunes Development Co’ ad-clips with idealised plastic Barbie-people. “Forge a life of your own, like the pioneers who moulded the west,” with antiseptic hygienic modern-appliance ‘Sunny Dunes’ kitchens for moms. There’s soft-core muzak (Don’t Blame Me), a huge costing-office cactus and an American flag furling in the breeze outside the wall-window. A pop art collage of commercials, American Airlines, a huge wristwatch straddles the freeway. Freeze any frame and it’s a gallery-print. Jasper Johns or Warhol. A cut-up of radio-bursts, Vietnam news and student arrests. It’s the voice-over commentary that links one scene into the next.

Students picket with placards. Mark is tired of kids rapping about violence, and cops doing it, but he won’t commit. Police lock-up detained students, he’s hauled in for talking back. Sneerily gives his name as ‘Karl Marx’. “How do you spell it?” demands the cop deadpan, typing in ‘Marx, Carl’. Is it coincidence that Allen Ginsberg is ‘Carlo Marx’ in Kerouac’s Beat-generation mythology?

They buy guns in a store piled high with racks of artillery. The salesman is easily persuaded to waive the four-five days security check. He advises that “the law says you can protect your house. So if you shoot him in the backyard, be sure to drag him inside.” Mark conceals the handgun in his boot, shrugging his jeans down over it. Back at the campus riot, state troopers with visors-down, riot shields, and gas masks, beat students with night-sticks. Demonstrators line the block’s flat roof, hustled away in bloody bandages as siren howl. A cop lobs a tear-gas grenade into the occupied block, and a black student is shot as he emerges. Could that happen? It did, at the Kent State University. Four dead in Ohio, even as the movie was circulating…

Mark is about to draw his boot-pistol, but the cop responsible is shot down before he has chance to do it himself. Instead, he runs in confusion. Catches a coach out – seen in green. Later, he calls back from a store payphone. His roommate says he’s been caught on TV running away in a suspicious manner…

Mark watches a small plane fly over between ad-hoardings of happy smiling consumers. He strolls casually onto the Bates Aviation Inc strip, jacket slung over his shoulder. No particular place to go. Turbine sounds. The cockpit door of the small Cessna 210 ‘Lilly Seven’ is ajar, no-one’s watching. Why not? He bluffs a curious mechanic. Control Tower query-calls as he lifts off, up over parking lots, the houses of the Hawthorne suburbs in grid-straight line, over the highway interchange – higher than the rolling L.A. smog. Squint your eyes, Mark looks not unlike Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. ‘Mark’ is Mark Frechette, just as ‘Daria’ is Daria Halprin. They are real. They are not contrived.

Michelangelo Antonioni had filmed Blow-Up (1966), which most perfectly captures the pulse of 1960s’ London, and one of my favourite movies of all time. On an upward curve he relocates to California to catch the burgeoning underground insurgence happening there. Finding it more volatile, fractured with political and racial violence. The untried Mark and Daria are deliberately chosen reality-style. They’re not actors, they just look right. Representative. They have the street-itch of the moment. Although that means they lack the mesmerising screen charisma of David Hemmings and Vanessa Redgrave in the earlier film. Rod Taylor, as smoothly manipulative ‘Sunny Dunes’ bread-head ‘Lee Allen’ has the screen track-record (including the time-traveller in George Pal’s The Time Machine, 1960), but is under-used. It’s the casual, yet intense interaction between Mark and Daria that defines the narrative contour. On which it rises, or sometimes fails.

Once described as a ‘post-religious Marxist and existentialist intellectual’ Antonioni’s Italian films had already gone through a number of decisive phases before his influential L’avventura (1960), an art-house thriller without a formal resolution, was both booed and acclaimed. A prescient offbeat Marxist view of an emerging Italy, it helped him create a post-neorealist Italian cinema that first shocked Cannes, then brought him enduring international renown. It’s also the first of four seminal movies starring his lover and muse, the cool, morally challenging Monica Vitti, who plays a lower-middle-class girl on a Mediterranean yachting holiday with rich friends. The complex La Notte (1961), an erotic study of alienation, won immediate critical and public favour, placing Marcello Mastroianni opposite Jeanne Moreau as disillusioned novelist and embittered wife.

Those four major Italian films, all deal with loss, emptiness, despair and spiritual desolation. Until Antonioni felt the theme was exhausted and had, in turn, exhausted him. David Hemmings also believed that the director had a desire to be recognised internationally “the way Fellini was by this time, and that’s why he made the film outside Italy” (to Alexander Walker in Hollywood, England, Michael Joseph, 1974).

While in the States promoting Blow-Up, Antonioni noted a brief press feature about a young man shot to death after taking a joyride in a stolen aircraft. It proved a useful plot-thread hook, spun out into a rough screenplay. It’s enough. He sketched out ideas. Brought in playwright Sam Shepard for additional input – he’d been drummer with the Holy Modal Rounders and would be a future Patti Smith amore. Then previous collaborator Franco Rossetti, plus screenwriters Clare Peploe, and Tonino Guerra from Blow-Up. Intended as a major shot for the US counter-culture market, Rolling Stone (#28, 1 March 1969) trailers a cover-splash ‘Michelangelo Antonioni: An Interview And A Preview Of Zabriskie Point’, setting up expectations, which are not always exactly realised. Whereas Blow-Up uses original music by Herbie Hancock, as well as the incandescent Yardbirds live sequence, Zabriskie Point opts for the Easy Rider jukebox approach, producing a soundtrack album strongly featuring Pink Floyd, Jerry Garcia and Kaleidoscope, plus Americana-style tracks from John Fahey (Dance Of Death), Grateful Dead (Dark Star), old-timey Appalachian banjo-player Roscoe Holcomb (I Wish I Were A Single Girl Again) and the 1950s country-pop ‘Singing Rage’ Patti Page (Tennessee Waltz).

While Daria cruises the bright Desert Highway, out through the dunes in a 1950s Buick with white-wall tyres, eating a rosy-red apple. ‘You Are What You Eat. Try Our Salads. Save With Desert Springs Savings & Loans’ framed as a photo. She calls Lee Allen from a roadside bar, faulty neon burning. Their relationship is unspecified, employer and/ or lover? She says that while she’s heading for Phoenix she’s also looking out for “a fantastic place for meditation – Glenville or Valleyville?” A do-gooder James Pattison has been bringing ‘emotionally sick’ kids from L.A. Patti Page is on the jukebox. The bar has a plastic cow on the roof. Telegraph poles space the desert in receding rows. A rusting upturned auto-wreck is used as a bolthole by feral kids. The kids taunt and harass her, demanding “a piece of ass.” At first she jives “are you sure you’d know what to do with it?”, until she’s forced to escape their increasingly intrusive attentions.

And he’s flying over vast desert emptiness, his shadow a racing cross. He buzzes Daria as she stops to top up her radiator. Then chases her, flying low, then approaching head-on. The Youngbloods’ Sugar Babe (a Jesse Colin Young song from their Earth Music album, RCA, 1967) plays as she drives. She gets out and lies face-down in the sand. When he drops an orange T-shirt, she runs and catches it. He sets down beside the road. Drawn to each other by a planet-like gravitational pull, they meet. She’d heard on the radio about the stolen plane. “I needed to get off the ground,” he explains simply. She gives him a lift to buy gas for the grounded aircraft. They pause at the Zabriskie Point viewpoint overlooking a lakebed deposited ten-million years ago. Reading from the plaque she queries “…borates and gypsum?” “Two old prospectors who lost their way,” he jokes. Why did he quit college, she probes. “Extracurricular activities. Stealing hardcover books instead of paperbacks. Making phone-calls on chancellor’s stolen credit card number. Whistling in class. And bringing illegal things onto campus…”

She smokes a joint. He’s on “a reality trip,” and doesn’t turn on. She proposes they play the ‘death-game’. “I wonder what else is going on in the real world?” he muses. They hold hands, play and romp groovy stuff across the lunar landscape. Kiss. The razored dialogue runs on minimalist possibilities, free, no commitment. Don’t think twice, it’s alright. “Would you like to go with me?” asks Mark. “Where?” she says. “Wherever I’m going.” “Are you really asking?” “Is that your real answer?”

Into the first of the movie’s stunning awesome iconic sequences. He unfastens the buttons down the front of her short green dress. Her blue stone pendant. Figures naked in the sand, hazy in blowing dust. Not just two of them now, but multiple entwined couples, erotic, primal, multi-gendered copulating triads in oral orgy sex, group-grope, limbs in dusty entanglement. As though the arid landscape, dry riverbed, primeval earth has become animated, breathing out dust-figures. Does it have a literal meaning? Archetypal man-woman, multiple eternal lovers. The origins of the world. The end of the world. Or just a visually ravishing image? In the real-time world, the figures were members of the experimental Open Theatre Of Joseph Chaikin. A scene subsequently investigated to determine whether it violates the ‘Mann Act’, but as no actual penetrative sex takes place, and the participants had not crossed State lines, potential charges were dropped. “I always knew it would be like this,” he says. “Love?” she asks. No, ‘the desert.’ A stickered camper-van family find their abandoned car.

Then Mark hides behind the red porta-gents as a highway patrolman pauses. He draws his boot-gun. For the second time in the movie, he takes aim at a cop, as the patrolman talks to Daria. For the second time he fails to pull the trigger, the cop drives off. She asks him obliquely. “The guy who killed the cop?” He admits “No. I wanted to. But somebody else was there.” Random chance rather than lack of commitment.

They paint the plane in fantastical designs, assisted by an old garage-hand. ‘A strange prehistorical bird spotted over the Mohave Desert.’ Freecome. She He It. No War. Breasts daubed on the wings. He intends taking the plane back after this joyride, despite her persuasion about him perhaps cutting his hair and them driving to Phoenix together. He’s like Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road (1957), who steals cars, joyrides them, then takes them back.

She waves as he takes off. Don’t look back. Then she drives on, listening to radio-reports about the plane-theft, as the Rolling Stones play. Keith sings You Got The Silver off their Let It Bleed (December 1969) album, the group’s final track to feature Brian Jones. Cops, a news-copter, and press photographers, await his arrival at the airstrip. As he touches down, police cars circle the plane and pen him in. One nervous cop shoots. Mark is hit. She listens on the car radio amid tall cactus. An apparent hijacking attempt ends in a youth shot dead. She drives on to the desert spa resort where Lee is negotiating land-purchase options. Wind chimes tinkle. Water cascades, washing her tears.

She drives away, rejecting the world, the life and the materialistic values that Lee offers. A worn and stained National Geographic blows in the breeze. A cigarette burns in the ash-tray. The calm, rising into the movie’s second stunning awesome iconic sequence.
She fondles the T-shirt Mark parachuted down to her. Images of explosions smash inside her head. She stands watching it. Multiple explosions in mushroom clouds of debris, again and again, over and over, vivid gouges of lurid flame, storming hails of glass and consumer commodity. A TV detonates, in a flick-flick-flick trip-repetition. A fridge erupts in a shrapnel of cans, K-cornflakes, Wonder-Bread, a naked oven-ready chicken hurls through stunned air. An endless slow-motion auto-destruction art-dance of fragmentation choreographed to Pink Floyd. Shattering images of luxury living and all its accoutrements, a patio table with parasol, a suspended ballet of books and magazines. Sound peaks into piercing screams… It stops abruptly. She smiles. Walks away. Gets into the car and drives. Roy Orbison warbles So Young over the credits.

What does it mean? Does it mean anything in the literal sense? Or just an excuse for eye-raping shock-filmic images. That’s enough. Catching the rootless unconnected dissatisfaction of the times, the anti-materialist anti-capitalist vibe, the vague questing for a better otherness. Life can be what you dream it to be, what you convert it into. Like the trippy light fandango of an acid lyric, it’s essentially meaningless, yet strikes at submerged profundities more sensed than articulated. Realism, and super-realism. A mood of unpredictable change, awakening, resistance. And the lethal backlash. The uncertain kinetic poetry of movement. There’s a thousand sides. Not just heroes and villains. Yet you have to choose one side or the other.

If it’s a flawed movie, it’s a flawed masterpiece. His next film – The Passenger (1975), the third of a three-picture deal with Carlo Ponti and MGM, returns to reliable box-office names – Jack Nicholson, Maria Schneider, Steven Berkoff, and Ian Hendry in an identity-switch action thriller. Before Antonioni returns to making films centred more on the Italian market.

In a weird twist Mark and Daria’s real-life romantic entanglement saw them living together in the cult-like Boston ‘Fort Hill Community’ hippie commune. Afterwards, she was briefly married to Dennis Hopper, while Mark is jailed for his part in a 1973 bank robbery – as though he’d finally chosen one side over the other, and died in prison aged just 27. Neither of them appeared in any other films of note.