Sunday, February 25, 2007

Clint Eastwood interview

Today's Observer runs an interview with Clint Eastwood (whose new film Letters from Iwo Jima is out now; I'll be seeing it next week) and the online transcript of it is here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

My week in film...

My journey into new Hammer horrors continues apace. Twins of Evil (1971) was an absolute delight, and showed me that I have underestimated Hammer's 1970s output. The photography was wonderful (cinematographer Dick Bush), and new director John Hough showed he could match the gothic atmosphere of the Studio's best work. It was certainly the finest of Hammer's Karnstein trilogy, a series based on the horror stories of Sheridan le Fanu, which opened splendidly with The Vampire Lovers (1970), plummeted severely with the dire Lust for a Vampire in 1971, and ended with this riveting and smartly crafted tale. Peter Cushing inspires both hatred in the early stages and sympathy later on: Despite his puritanical villainy, he seems to crumble before his wife, played by Kathleen Byron (of Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus).

Straight on Till Morning was made by Hammer in 1972, back-to-back with Fear in the Night. The director was the fairly unremarkable Peter Collinson, whose biggest hit was the uneven-if-entertaining The Italian Job in 1969. This is a far more interesting film than its pedestrian sister, however. There are no by-now-tired Sangsterian twists to elicit groans, but instead a fascinating pair of characters in Peter and Wendy, played by Shane Briant and Rita Tushingham. The film was slow in spots, but it had a pathos to it that doubtless will draw me back to it.

Johnson and I had a cinema trip on Saturday to see the very funny Hot Fuzz (Edgar Wright, 2007). In the post-Love Actually era, this kind of film gives me hope that the British comedy film is not destined to sink into a Richard-Curtis quagmire of triteness and manipulation. Not only was it funny, but it had a satirical edge that delivered a timely FU to the Daily Mail readers of Britain.

I also took in my first film by Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu, one of his more accessible films, a light comedy called Good Morning (1959). It was an amiable look at Japanese culture and family in the 1950s, and seemed to display many of the director's trademark habits, including the ubiquitous framing of shots through doorways and between pillars.

Also managed to catch Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle (1958) for the first time in several years, and it hasn't lost its brilliance a bit. So witty and insightful, with the clash of old and new, the worlds of Tati and his rich relatives, so deftly and charmingly realized in a uniquely cinematic way. I was torn between a 9 and 10 for the rating, with only the length (almost 2 hours) swaying me back towards a 9. I settled on a 10, however, because the film simply delights me.

And finally, I watched Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998). First off, I should say I have no problem with controversial issues being handled through humour. As far as I am concerned, nothing is sacred, and there is no topic that is off-limits for humour. I say that because Happiness is a very dark comedy that addresses very serious issues, namely paedophilia and child molestation. But I don't have a problem with that. My problem is that Solondz's film is so damned cynical. I couldn't detect anything redemptive in it. The film holds out no hope for its pathetic characters; I felt like I was simply being invited to sneer at them. And I really dislike movies with that kind of sensibility. It reminded me of Woody Allen's unpleasant 1995 comedy Deconstructing Harry: witty and impressive, but lacking in humanity, and displaying a positively cruel streak. I love irony and cynicism in films, but I think it must be tempered by humanity. I'm willing to concede I just didn't get Solondz: If that's the case, convince me.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Edgar Wright & Simon Pegg on Hot Fuzz

Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg talked last night at the NFT about their new film Hot Fuzz. There are only very mild spoilers and it's a nice appetitiser for the film.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Jodorowsky, Lynch, Bunuel, British war films and other news

Plenty of news and stuff to link you to so without further ado:

David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart) talked to Mark Kermode about his new film INLAND EMPIRE (to open in Britain in early March) at the NFT earlier this week.

Guillermo Del Toro is considering a new version of Tarzan as one of his next projects after Hellboy 2 and his Lovecraft adaptation At the Mountains of Madness, and he had this to say: "The idea is to try to do a version unlike any other, in the sense that Tarzan's formative years, growing through the jungle, are incredibly tough and brutal. There's always this idyllic sense of the jungle being like a Disney set and I want to portray how this guy becomes the toughest animal in the jungle".

Tartan are going to release two films by Alejandro Jodorowsky, El Topo and The Holy Mountain, individually and as a 6-disc set coupled with his debut Fando & Lis on the 14th of May.

The next two releases from Masters of Cinema will be Claude Lanzmann's 9 hour documentary, Shoah, about the holocaust in a director's approved boxset with a 185-page booklet on the 19th of February, and Orson Welles' F for Fake (will be interesting to see how the latter shapes up against the Criterion version).

Beaver have a comparison of all available DVDs of Bunuel's Belle De Jour (new Optimum R2 vs old Warner R2 vs old Miramax R1 vs old RusCico R0).

For Nicholas Roeg fans: Beaver has a review of his 1970 film Performance (new Warner R1, the R2 disc follows on the 5th of March); DVDTimes review The Man Who Fell To Earth, and Network have announced Region 2 releases for April of Bad Timing (a Region 1 DVD from Criterion is already available) and Insignificance.

Finally, a selection of reviews of Optimum's new discs for the following British war classics (sad to note that Optimum seem to have undertaken no effort whatsoever to present these films in a decent video transfer: all films score a disappointing 5 out of 10 for image. Given that the same applies to their Ealing reissues, we feel that Optimum could and should do better than that):

Ice Cold in Alex
The Colditz Story
The Dam Busters
The Cruel Sea

Monday, February 12, 2007

Two mediocre Hammer horrors: The Horror of Frankenstein (1970); Fear in the Night (1972)

I am anal when it comes to Hammer Studios; as far as my DVD collection is concerned, I am a completist. And so I added a handful to the list, including two later Hammers, both directed by Jimmy Sangster.

Jimmy Sangster was a talented writer and producer. He scripted several of the early Hammer gothics, including the fabulous Dracula in 1958, perhaps the finest of all the Studio's productions. He scripted and produced The Nanny in 1965, another example of Hammer's very high standards. In the 1970s, however, he turned his hand to direction, with decidedly poor results. The abysmal Lust for a Vampire (1970) is best forgotten.

The Horror of Frankenstein (1970) is The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) revamped as a camp black comedy. God help us. As critic David Pirie noted in 1973, the chief problem is that the original Frankenstein film (and the ensuing series) was already replete with irony; Sangster's heavy-handed attempt to make the humour overt completely misses the point, taking away the most splendid and brilliant element of the original films. The jokes fall flat. Despite being photographed by the talented Arthur Grant, it has nothing of the usual Hammer atmosphere. Malcolm Williamson's score is as lumbering and soulless as David Prowse's Creature.

Fear in the Night (1972) is more interesting in that it does have at least two effective sequences, namely the genuinely haunting bookends. The 80 minutes inbetween is sorely lacking in suspense and interest, however. The first half is excruciatingly dull, mainly consisting of banal dialogue between Ralph Bates and Judy Geeson. The presence of Peter Cushing comes as a huge relief, but he is given very little screen time. The second half picks up pace, but is mainly silly and predictable. It was obviously very cheaply made, as only four characters carry the majority of the movie; two carry the first half virtually on their own.

My ratings?

The Horror of Frankenstein 4/10
Fear in the Night 4/10

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Where did all the great movies go?

In The Guardian, Matthew Sweet reminisces fondly about the days when British terrestrial TV showed movie classics. He builds up a good case, demonstrating that the big networks just don't bother with old movies these days.
Twenty years ago this month, the film preview pages of the TV Times and Radio Times looked like a handout from the film studies department of the University of Sussex. ... On Saturday nights, the channel continued its stately progress through the entire canon of pre-Hammer horror pictures: the complete works of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, Carl Dreyer's Vampyr, pervy monochrome Hollywood oddities starring Lionel Atwill and George Zucco. And Sunday nights were devoted to satisfying students of British cinema in the 1960s: Poor Cow, Up the Junction, Petulia, The Knack ... and How to Get It, Alfie, Georgy Girl, Charlie Bubbles.
Ah, yes. I remember both those seasons well. It was in that '60s season that my lifelong obsession with Billy Liar (1963) began. And my horror obsession had its roots in Channel Four's late-night black-and-white movies. At the beginning of every week, I'd go through the Radio Times (or both the Radio Times and TV Times back when you had to buy two every week!) and circle the films I was going to watch. Why bother in these cinematically deprived days?

Full article here.

Links of the Day

Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) talks to Sandra Hebron of the NFT about his new film Science of Sleep (opening next Friday) and his collaborations with Charlie Kaufman.

Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Spaced) argues in the Guardian that British and American humour have more in common than we like to think (the trailers for Hot Fuzz are excellent).

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Links of the Day

Beaver's latest additions:

a comparison of Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel (new R1 Criterion vs new R2 Warner France vs. old R2 Carlton UK)

a review of Mikio Naruse's When A Woman Ascends The Stairs (new R1 Criterion)

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Links of the Day

Beaver has new comparisons onsite:

the Italian classic Bicycle Thieves (new Criterion R1 vs Arrow Films R2)

the British New Wave entry The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (new Warner R1 vs BFI R2)

and one of the earliest anti-war films, All Quiet on the Western Front (old Universal R1 vs old Universal R1/2)

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939)

This was the second and last of Twentieth Century Fox's Sherlock Holmes movies. The Hound of the Baskervilles the previous year was an entertaining yarn, but had too much of a glossy, Hollywoodish veneer, and was otherwise quite conventionally executed. I was delighted to see that this second film makes up for everything its forerunner lacked. It has all the ingredients of the perfect Holmes adventure.

It is based (apparently very loosely) on William Gillette's famous stage play, which pits the sleuth against Professor Moriarty. George Zucco, a stalwart of horror films in this era, is the Professor, and Basil Rathbone is of course Holmes himself. Nigel Bruce is endearing as Watson, and never lapses into blatant caricature, despite being the first actor to portray Watson as rather oafish and clumsy - "an incorrigible bungler", as Holmes tells him affectionately. He even gets one over on his detective friend at the end of the film, declaring triumphantly, "Elementary, my dear Holmes, elementary"!

Victorian London is portrayed with splendid gothic flourishes worthy of Universal, aglow with streetlamps, wrapped in fog and full of dark corners and shadows; the atmosphere is due in no small part to the work of cinematographer Leon Shamroy.

It's jolly exciting and pacey, as a Holmes thriller should be, and is executed with great style. I especially enjoyed the opening scenes contrasting Moriarty in his study and Holmes in his; the former moving creepily among his plants while a lone flautist plays mysteriously in the background, the latter playfully experimenting with fruit flies while plucking out staccato rhythms on the violin.

My rating? 9/10

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Nanny (1965)

Ten-year-old Joey Fane returns to his London home, two years after being sent to an institution following his younger sister's death, for which he was blamed. He refuses to get on with Nanny, however, whom he believes killed his sister and may try to poison him. Tensions come to a head when Joey is left in Nanny's care overnight. Who are we to trust - the nanny or the boy?

This has been a lifelong favourite for me, and it was exciting to view it in its original widescreen for the first time. In the Hammer horror canon, it tends to be underrated, or at best liked, but rarely discussed in detail. This is a shame, since it is one of the Studio's most refined and delicately crafted of the sixties. Seth Holt, a one-time editor who counted Ealing's The Ladykillers and Karel Riesz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning among his credits, directed his second psychological thriller for Hammer, the first being A Taste of Fear in 1961. Holt was to direct only once again for the company: 1971's Blood from the Mummy's Tomb, which he failed to complete due to his unexpected death (Studio chief Michael Carreras finished the film in his place).

The source for Jimmy Sangster's screenplay was the novel of the same name by Evelyn Piper, who also penned Bunny Lake Went Missing, adapted for the screen by Otto Preminger in the same year. Bette Davis was imported to take the title role, and although Holt apparently thought she overacted, in fact she delivers a remarkably restrained and suitably sinister performance. She could very easily have mimicked her outrageously camp performance from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962), the film which undoubtedly made her prime fodder for studios like Hammer, but she is subtle in the role at the right times. On this viewing, I even felt a good deal of sympathy for her.

There's solid support from James Villiers and Wendy Craig as Joey's parents, and Jill Bennett is likeable as the droll Aunt Penny, even if she is the most guilty of overacting. Top honours must go to the young William Dix, seen two years later alongside Rex Harrison in Doctor Dolittle, whose age does not seem to hinder his ability to give a relatively understated performance.

Between Holt and cinematographer Harry Waxman, the film is striking visually. The apartment setting is filmed from all kinds of angles, progressively unconventional as the film goes on. There's a definite noir element to the low-angle photography.

The Nanny is now available on R2 DVD from Optimum, priced £9.99 on average. It comes with a commentary featuring Hammer stalwart Jimmy Sangster, continuity girl Renee Glynne and Hammer authority Marcus Hearn.

My rating? 8/10

Mia Farrow interview and DVD news/review links

Mia Farrow (Rosemary's Baby, Hannah and her Sisters) is interviewed in today's Guardian here.

Last autumn, I wrote favourably about Jet Li's Fearless but pointed out that the Western release had footage from the original Asian cut missing. This appears to have been reinstated for a new Region 3 release on sale over yesasia, and it's been reviewed by DVDTimes' John White here.