Friday, October 29, 2010

Classic Scene #21

On a more genuinely scary note, here's another medium getting in contact with the dead, but we're a long way from dotty old Madame Acarti here. In this scene from superb Spanish chiller The Orphanage a paranormal investigation team led by the psychic Aurora (Geraldine Chaplin) attempt to make contact with the spirits of the old orphanage. There are no laughs in this one.

Classic Scene #20

To get everyone into the Halloween mood, a little seance with Madame Acarti. Mind you, Blithe Spirit being a Noel Coward play it's a very British kind of seance, played mainly for laughs. But atmospheric direction courtesy of David Lean and the wonderfully bonkers Margaret Rutherford as Madame Acarti eerily channeling a little girl's voice make it more than just a comic scene.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Last Five Films...#4

1. Dawn of the Dead (1979)

Shown in conjunction with A History of Horror, Mark Gatiss' excellent three-part series for BBC4, Dawn of the Dead is a classic despite its manifest flaws. The analogy I've come up with to explain this is the difference between Frank Sinatra's Songs For Swinging Lovers and Ramones by The Ramones. The first is the result of supremely talented people on the top of their game, Sinatra's voice and phrasing, Nelson Riddle's arrangements, the finest session musicians money could buy, not to mention The Great American Songbook of Cole Porter and George Gershwin. It's so evidently a high watermark of moden culture it doesn't need any special pleading.
The Ramones, on the other hand, the original three-cord punks, weren't even the best musicians in scummy New York dive CBGBs in 1975 (Television or Talking Heads if you're asking) and had only one basic idea, gonzo, speed-freak versions of 50s pop. But what an idea it was, especially when attacked with dumb-ass gusto on classics like Blitzkrieg Pop and Beat On The Brat.
The point is, taste and talent would never have given us this. Likewise, they would never have given us Dawn of the Dead. It took an instinctive amateur to go there. Romero's direction is borderline incompetent at times, especially with action sequences, and the actors are often all at sea, but there's no denying the moral intelligence behind it or the now-iconic images of zombies wandering through the shopping mall as cheery Muzak plays, filmmaking so savagely satirical and sweetly funny that no-one except maybe the Kubrick of Dr Strangelove would have dared go there.

2. The Quatermass Experiment (1955)

The Quatermass Experiment is a very effective early Hammer sci-fi/horror about a rocket ship returning to earth infected by a mysterious alien organism. Excellent location shooting and a haunting performance by Richard Wordsworth (as the only surviving astronaut slowly being taken over by this thing inside him), give this spin-off from a landmark TV series real bite. As maverick scientist Dr Quatermass, veteran American actor Brian Donlevy waltzes around 50s Britain like he owns it, ignoring or browbeating everyone from the military and the police to medical experts as if none of the rules apply to him (which may have been some kind of sly political statement of course).

3. Despicable Me (2010)

Another week another entertaining animated film. If only my kids realised what a golden age of childrens' cinema they're living through. Even sequel-fodder like Ice Age 3 offers more invention and wit than most adult films. In fact it's easy to take the visual flair and comic timing of a film like Despicable Me for granted. It may not be the latest ground-breaking animation from Pixar, criminal mastermind Gru may be a cross between Uncle Fester and Dr Evil, the plot a variation on The Grinch and the visual style half-inched from Henry Selick, but it doesn't matter. My kids loved it, the minions are funny and it manages the inevitable heartwarming ending with enough delicate skill to avoid mawkishness.

4. Army of Shadows (1969)

Superbly laconic account of the French Resistance showing how ordinary people became as ruthless as the enemy and as devious as criminals to survive the Occupation. There's an air of existential gloom over it all, from the closed, watchful faces, the dour overcast skies, the lonely sound of hard shoes on cobbled streets, the cowed eyes of men who know they're going to be killed. It's difficult to sympathise with anyone though, because the sense of honour and sacrifice is alien to us now, the idea of killing your own because they've betrayed you. It's hard to justify when they're just kids who made mistakes or women trying to protect their children. The film is unflinching in this and while the middle section in wartime London is a little unconvincing overall it's a compelling work.

5. Fool's Gold (2008)

I have a soft-spot for Matthew McConaughey (no not quicksand). I honestly think he could've been this generation's Errol Flynn if the roles had come his way. Only the enjoyable Sahara gave him a proper opportunity to show what a likeable wise-cracking hero he could be. Too often he's been tied down to lame rom-com plots opposite B-list actresses and Fool's Gold is no help; a half-baked treasure hunt plot shackled to contrived romantic fireworks opposite charisma-free Kate Hudson. Despite a few bright moments it doesn't work. And I really wanted to like it, I really did. But it just gets progressively worse as first Donald Sutherland and then Ray Winstone compete to see who can produce the worst accent in cinema history. Winstone wins by a nautical mile, his Southern-drawl-meets-East-London-snarl so toe-curlingly bad McConaughey should have taken it as a personal insult and challenged him to pistols at dawn and saved us all this witless waste of time.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Great Title Sequences #3

After the disastrous School Daze (1988) Spike Lee was under pressure to prove his break-out film She's Gotta Have It (1986) wasn't just a fluke. Many promising directors haven't recovered from similar missteps, self-doubt sending them in search of the temporary safety of formulaic studio work, from where they either disappear or become careerist hacks for hire.
So the title sequence to Do The Right Thing (1989), amongst other things, can be seen as a statement of intent, Lee coming out fighting, refusing to compromise, reasserting his right to be considered a true autuer and not just someone who got lucky once.
And what a statement it is, an incendiary way to start an incendiary film, a bombardment of expressionist colour, lighting and sound from the audacious camera dolley that starts it, to the in-your-face intensity of Rosie Perez's dancing, to the thrilling rap soundtrack of Public Enemy's epic Fight The Power.
Before you have any idea what this film is about you know it's about anger and heat and sex and the sensery overload of city life and a director saying, in no uncertain terms, bring it on.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Classic Scene #19

Tony Curtis was one of the most recognisable movie stars in the world, but his fame was built on only a few good movies. Naming six would be a challenge. Not surprisingly then, most of the focus after his death has been on Some Like It Hot and to a lesser extent Sweet Smell Of Success (both amazing films, unquestionably his best performances, so no complaints there). Still, I'd like to pay tribute to his passing with a scene from one of the others worth mentioning, Blake Edward's The Great Race (1965), a period farce in the style of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) or Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines (1965), reuniting Curtis with his Some Like It Hot co-star Jack Lemmon. The scene I've picked is the fantastic custard pie fight, arguably the finest in movie history. I like to imagine it's where Curtis is now, in that eternal custard pie fight in the sky with Lemmon at his daffy best and the divine Natalie Wood.