Friday, January 30, 2009

Blogger's commentary / preview of coming attractions

Work, as Oscar Wilde inimitably put it, is the curse of the drinking classes. It’s also a necessary evil for those of us who have a mortgage.

Mid last year, I jumped ship from a firm that was going rapidly downhill and, through an agency, landed a temp-to-perm position with a salary that would have cured my financials worries. At the end of the four weeks’ temp part of it – and just a week before my wedding – they decided the role wouldn’t go permanent after all and I was left with my you-know-what hanging in the wind.

Six months of temp positions followed, mostly data entry; repetitive, boring as hell. The last position was a reception/admin gig at a grim industrial unit. The firm provided training services to a rag-tag clientele including individuals referred over by the Probation service.

On the plus side, I was left alone in the office for most of the time and I had full internet access. Blogging a-go-go! On the minus side, there was insufficient training, no support and no security and I felt more than a little vulnerable.

Just under three weeks ago, when I was threatened with physical violence, I figured that an hourly rate less than 50 pence above minimum wage didn’t cover that kind of shit, and walked out.

Result: a week and a half without work. Pros: getting up late; lounging around the house; blogging a-go-go. Cons: no income; necessity of signing on. I’d just steeled myself to register a benefits claim when the temp agency I was registered with called me: an admin job, immediate start, decent rate of pay, placement until end March at least.

That was Monday afternoon. I’ve spent the rest of this week integrating myself into the new job (and, I must admit, quite enjoying it). Evenings have been spent working on the novel, which currently stands at 33,000 words (closing in on the halfway mark).

But The Agitation of the Mind has not been forgotten. In the last fortnight, I’ve seen ‘The Reader’ and ‘The Baader Meinhof Complex’ on the big screen. The latter got me thinking about how German cinema has developed a muscular and fearless capacity to re-examine its own dark history; and the latter has convinced me that mainstream cinema has identified this movement and decided to jump on the bandwagon.

Accordingly, February on The Agitation of the Mind is going to kick off with a German mini-season (including two personal faves), ending with an overview of how ‘The Reader’ exemplifies the current mainstream US/UK fascination with the holocaust. It won’t all be heavy sturm-und-drang film-making, as I’ll be throwing inspired high-concept satire ‘Good Bye Lenin!’ into the mix.

And once I’ve got the whole German thing out of my system, finished off the Becks Vier and got back to drinking Batemans and Newkie Brown, and ousted the bratwurst in favour of the Full English, I’ll be hosting a six-film Hitchcock-fest including another personal fave. Crop-dusting planes, mistaken identities, Mount Rushmore and Bernard Herrmann’s most memorable score will be high on the agenda.

Give me a week to finish getting to grips with the job and immerse myself in the DVD collection, and it’ll be business as usual.

See you next month.

Monday, January 26, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: The Straight Story

It was David Lynch week on Out 1 last week, an occasion fittingly marked by some of the best writing Out 1 have yet published. My commitments to the Diane-fest meant I couldn’t join in at the time; however, this week’s Personal Fave is a belated salute to Out 1’s assessment of American cinema’s most idiosyncratic of auteurs.

I’ve seen me some weird stuff in the oeuvre of David Lynch. I’ve seen dancing dwarves talking backwards. I’ve seen Dennis Hopper snorting oxygen and getting medieval on some guys ass the moment Roy Orbison comes on the radio. I’ve seen nightclub acts to slit your wrists to in the Club Silencio.

But I ain’t never seen anything as weird as the opening credits to ‘The Straight Story’:



Think about that for a while. Really think about it. As Lula observes to Sailor, “This whole world is wild at heart and crazy on top.”

‘The Straight Story’ is easily the most non-David-Lynch David Lynch film, and yet it’s quintessentially Lynch. No-one else could have put such a quirky and individualistic spin on the story.

Let’s start with the title. ‘The Straight Story’. It’s a statement of intent: the film is straight (ie. the narrative has a traditional beginning, middle and end – man needs to go on journey, goes on journey, arrives at destination), whereas Lynch normally employs fractured or curiously circular narratives (I’m convinced the true beginning of ‘Mulholland Drive’ is about twenty minutes before the end credits) … and that’s only when he can be bothered to pay lip-service to narrative.

It also tells a story – a true story. A huge departure for Lynch: everything from ‘Eraserhead’ to ‘Inland Empire’ by way of ‘Twin Peaks’ has played out within its own self-contained and nightmarishly internalised boundaries. Twin Peaks, for example, isn’t a place – not like the Iowa of ‘The Straight Story’ is a place – it’s a state of mind. Its director’s mind – and that’s a way scarier place to be than anywhere in the U S of A.

‘The Straight Story’ recounts the odyssey of 73-year old Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth) from Iowa to Wisconsin, desperate to mend bridges with his stroke-victim brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) before time runs out for either of them. Not in the best of health himself, and unable to drive a car, he opts to undertake the journey on a ride-on motor mower.

En route, he meets with bad weather, mechanical breakdowns, the kindness of strangers, memories of the past and reminds of his own mortality. Everyone he encounters is won over by his homespun wisdom and hard-earned experience.

I am soooo glad David Lynch directed this film. In the hands of almost any other director (except possibly Michael Bay, who would have made the lawnmower turn into a robot and blow shit up), ‘The Straight Story’ would have been two hours of saccharine whimsy. Imagine Spielberg calling the shots! Christ, being force-fed treacle for the entire running time would be less sickly!

Lynch channels the essential quirkiness of the story; his sense of the bizarre, coupled with Farnsworth’s perfectly nuanced, slightly irascible but ultimately dignified characterisation, are the reason ‘The Straight Story’ is such a gem of a movie. Take Alvin’s abortive first attempt, his ages-old Rehds mower conking out on him before he’s reached the next town. The mower roped down to the back of a pick-up truck, he’s unceremoniously driven home. Cut to: daughter Rose (Sissy Spacek) and next door neighbour Dorothy (Jane Galloway Heitz) sitting at the kitchen table. “A man in a pick-up brought my dad back,” Rose recounts. “What kind of pick-up?” Dorothy asks. Alvin comes limping through the kitchen, shotgun in hand, a perfectly deadpan man’s-gotta-do-what-a-man’s-gotta-do expression on his face. He heads for the screen door; goes outside. They watch him in silence. The door closes behind him. “A Ford,” Rose replies tonelessly, glancing through the window as Alvin raises the shotgun and fires both barrels into the mower.

(He buys a John Deere as replacement and it gets him to his brother’s. As ‘The Italian Job’ was the best advert the Mini ever had, so is ‘The Straight Story’ to the John Deere company.)

Or take Alvin’s encounter with the hapless motorist who, on an empty stretch of road with nary a sign of life to either side of it, manages to plough into a deer – “my thirteenth in seven weeks”. Alvin asks if there’s anything he can do. “There’s nothing anyone can do,” she wails. “I’ve tried driving with my lights on. I’ve tried sounding my horn. I scream out the window. I roll the window down and bang on the side of the door and play Public Enemy real loud ... and still every week I plow into at least one … And I love deer.” Hysterical, she stomps back to her car, slams the door and accelerates away. Cut to: Alvin roasting a chunk of deer meat over a campfire, any number of the deceased’s herd gathering accusingly behind him. (A pair of antlers decorate his trailer for the rest of the trip.)

There’s humour here, too, another unusual ingredient for Lynch. The screenplay (by John Roach and Mary Sweeney) is a masterwork of dryly-observed and absurdist wit. A scene in a hardware store – where Alvin haggles over a grabber the storekeeper doesn’t want to sell because it’ll take him weeks to get a replacement on order – plays out like Oscar Wilde gone rural and getting no further sartorially than a pair of dungarees.

The emotional core of the film, however – and I’m willing to stake a tenuous claim that in this respect Lynch channels the aesthetic of Sam Peckinpah – is its treatment of the protagonist as anachronism. A man out of time. Alvin is among the last of his generation. Indeed, many of his contemporaries died in World War II. In the film’s quietest – and most devastating – scene, Alvin and another old-timer share reminiscences of the war. Alvin recalls that he still sees “my buddies’ faces … they’re still young”. The longer he lives, the more acutely aware he is of how little time they had. And it’s not just his dead comrades he mourns. The loss of life transcended national boundaries. “By the end, we were shooting moon-faced boys,” he says of the supposed enemy. A dozen times or more I’ve seen this film, and that one line has me in tears.

But Lynch never milks it. “The worst thing about getting’ old is remembering when you were young,” Alvin muses at one point, and there’s nary a hint of the weeping violins that would swamp the soundtrack on a Spielberg or Zemeckis film. Here, it’s a statement of fact, delivered with the conviction of one who knows.

Richard Farnsworth was 80 when he played Alvin Straight. A stuntman for 40 years before becoming an actor, he was debilitated by arthritis and had been diagnosed with terminal cancer when ‘The Straight Story’ went before the cameras. And he gave a performance of such grace! Of such beautiful characterisation! His Best Actor nomination was well deserved (unfortunately he had uncharacteristically strong competition, including Russell Crowe for ‘The Insider’ and Kevin Spacey – the winner on the evening – for ‘American Beauty’).

Richard Farnsworth died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound (and I’ll step outside and raise fists with anyone who makes a judgemental comment about suicide) shortly after the film was completed. ‘The Straight Story’ stands, alongside Dirk Bogarde’s ‘These Foolish Things’ as perhaps the loveliest, most elegiac swansong any actor could hope for.

I’ve reached 1,250 words. Enough is enough, even though there are still so many things about the film to be said. I saw it at Nottingham’s Broadway cinema when it was first released in 1999 and loved it completely and wholeheartedly. I love it more every time I watch it. It’s David Lynch’s most open and emotionally perfect film as director. The more I think about it – and having now written so indulgently on it – the more I think ‘The Straight Story’ might just be my favourite film of all time.

Sunday, January 25, 2009


Discounting his 1976 short ‘Mr Smith’ and 1990’s ‘Jacob’s Ladder’ as exceptions to the rule, there’s a definite thematic through-line to Adrian Lyne’s work as a director. Here’s a list of his films, accompanied by a thumbnail synopsis and a brief encapsulation of the subtext:

‘Foxes’ – in which a group of teens experience growing pains/rites of passage/sexual maturity. Subtext: if it’s pleasurable, you pay for it.

‘Flashdance’ – in which a welder pursues a second career as an exotic dancer (occasioning the classic ‘Full Monty’ line “hope she dances better than she welds – them joints won’t hold fuck all”). Subtext: ‘woman in a man’s world’ as a cloak for sexual objectification a-go-go.

‘9½ Weeks’ – in which repressed woman meets shag-happy but dangerously unpredictable stranger. Subtext: if it’s pleasurable, you pay for it.

‘Fatal Attraction’ – in which a rumpled middle-aged bloke married to the eternally gorgeous Anne Archer inexplicably decides to indulge in a bit on the side with a demented bunny-boiler. Subtext: dumb bastard had it coming.

‘Indecent Proposal’ – in which a hard-up couple agree to a $1 million/one night/one off carnal agreement with a rumpled middle-aged über-rich bloke. Subtext: sleeping around isn’t good for your marriage.

‘Lolita’ – in which a rumpled middle-aged academic gets hot under the collar for a somewhat-under-the-age-of-consent nymphet. Subtext: this kind of behaviour is a really bad idea. Seriously. Don’t go there.

‘Unfaithful’ – in which the wife of a rumpled middle-aged boring corporate dude does the wild thing with a hunky Latino bookshop owner and all manner of complications ensue. Subtext: sleeping around isn’t good for your marriage.

So, in summation, the World According to Adrian Lyne operates on the fundamental principle that fornication is the venal curse of the human race and only regret, recrimination and disharmony can ever come of it.

Which should make Adrian Lyne the most presbyterian director in the history of cinema. Except that he revels in it. ‘9½ Weeks’ in particular comes across as little more than a Zalman King (who co-wrote ‘9½ Weeks’) or an A. Gregory Hippolyte production but with a bigger budget. A case could be made that King and Hippolyte are more honest in that they acknowledge the sexual content of their films as the raison d’être and – with the possible exception of Sherilyn Fenn’s weepily confused heroine in ‘Two Moon Junction’ – depict it as pleasurable.

There’s a whiff of hypocrisy to Lyne’s work. Whereas European directors depict sex as natural and erotic (Julio Medem’s hauntingly beautiful ‘Sex and Lucia’ is an ideal example), sometimes complicated and maybe destructive, but always pleasurable, Lyne wants to have his cake and eat it. Or rather have his soft focus trouser-arouser scenes and make his characters pay for them.

‘Unfaithful’ would be easy to dismiss but for Diane Lane. If she transcends the material in ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’, she positively reclaims it here.

The stand-out scene takes place before Constance (Lane) has even embarked on her affair with Paul (Oliver Martinez). So torn-up with guilt just for visiting him (even though nothing, at this point, happens between them), she goes to see her husband Ed (Richard Gere) at his office and takes him a gift she’s just bought. They talk but Ed breaks off to take a phone call, during the course of which he throws his toys out of the pram and harshly berates a flunkey. The reaffirmation Constance has been looking for crumbles as Ed shows his true colours. Lane communicates the emotional crux of the scene through her eyes and it’s a good, subtle piece of acting.

‘Unfaithful’ isn’t all that much of a film, nor is Lyne all that much of a director (he shoots everything in the bland tightly-framed style of a commercial for designer kitchens), but he fell on his feet with his leading lady.

Saturday, January 24, 2009


George Reeves has some notable credits on his filmography: ‘Gone With the Wind’ (the event movie of 1939), ‘Blood and Sand’ opposite Rita Hayworth, ‘The Fighting 69th’ and ‘From Here to Eternity’.

So you can understand why it was galling for him, returning from a wartime stint in the army and finding it difficult to resume his big-screen career, to don a padded suit and a pair of tights to play Superman in a popular TV series. That TV was, at that time, derided by film-makers and movie actors as a novelty at best and a bastardisation at worst, would only have added salt to the wound.

Reeves died on 16 June 1959, of a gunshot wound to the head. A verdict of suicide was arrived at, though controversy and unanswered questions continue to linger. Indeed, Reeves’s mother engaged the services of a private detective to look into the circumstances surrounding his death.

This fact provides the jumping-off point for Allen Coulter’s slow-burn drama ‘Hollywoodland’. The private eye here is a fictional character, Louis Simo (Adrien Brody), whose burgeoning obsession with the case is comparable to Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal)’s obsession with the Zodiac killer in David Fincher’s film.

Simo is two-bit operator, struggling to maintain a relationship with his troubled son and keep things civil with his ex-wife (Molly Parker). A recent case has gone pear-shaped, his client murdering the allegedly unfaithful spouse he’d hired Simo to follow – a woman Simo dug up no dirt on.

Hired by Reeves’s mother (Lois Smith), this new investigation gives him something to focus on; to delve into; to get too personally involved with. Simo’s sleuthing plays out in counterpoint to a series of flashbacks which chronicle Reeves (Ben Affleck)’s life, beginning with his chance encounter with Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), a woman a decade his senior who enjoys an open marriage to MGM troubleshooter Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins) – ie. they both consort with other partners and Eddie’s only going to get pissed off with you if you don’t treat his missus right.

Which makes Eddie a suspect when Reeves splits up with Toni the better to enjoy the attentions of younger society playgirl Leonore Lemmon (Robin Tunney), leaving his former – and eminently supportive and generous – mistress distraught. But as Simo comes to understand just how volatile Reeves’s relationship with Leonore was, he begins to wonder if the solution isn’t significantly closer to home …

Kudos to Coulter and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum: they don’t try to impose a solution on the film. ‘Hollywoodland’ is a mystery sans resolution, like the aforementioned ‘Zodiac’, or Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up’. In fact, like that latter film, it’s more a rumination on image and perception. At three key points, Simo finds himself drawn back the house Reeves died in, standing sepulchrally outside while a different possibl scenario plays itself out inside (ie. in Simo’s imagination).

Brody, playing very much against type as a wiseacre P.I., channels the likes of Jack Nicholson in ‘Chinatown’, before peeling back the layers and finding the lost soul within his character. Affleck does some of his best work onscreen, his matinee idol looks and slightly artificial air of suavity ideally suited to a 1950s leading man. Hoskins’s American accent wavers occasionally, but he’s suitably pugnacious as Eddie Mannix; you have no trouble believing that when this man deals with things, they stay dealt with.

The ladies of the cast excel: Lois Smith gives a potent performance as the grieving but irascible mother; Robin Tunney goes all out for white trash high camp as a floozy with a mouth as loose as her morals; and Diane Lane provides the human core of the film, a glamorous and intelligent woman just beginning to fear the future as she edges into middle age. Lane projects grace and dignity, which makes her profanity-spiked comment about Reeves’s new squeeze all the more shocking. It’s the best line in the film and it’ll make you wince. (It’s about smoke rings, by the way.)

Tomorrow: the Diane-fest concludes with 'Unfaithful'.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Big Town

To the best of my knowledge ‘The Big Town’ is the only feature film helmed by prolific TV director Ben Bolt. Which is a shame since it’s one of the better American movies of the ’80s, free of the artificial visual stylisations which render much of that decade’s filmic fare hideously outdated. To indulge in a sweeping generalisation, it was a decade marked by high-profile directors seeming hell-bent on generating indulgent and excessive throwbacks to the Hollywood of old – ‘The Cotton Club’, ‘One From the Heart’ and ‘Heaven’s Gate’ spring to mind – and ending up with costly flops that marred reputations and even bankrupted studios.

‘The Big Heat’ pays homage to old school Hollywood – the films noir of the ’40s – but manages to be small scale, reined-in and focussed on telling a pacy story. Bolt’s direction is clear-sighted and unpretentious. He loses no time in establishing character and location. The opening credits, playing out to Johnny Cash’s mournful rendition of ‘Home of the Blues’, sets up not-quite-hero-not-quite-anti-hero J.C. “Cully” Cullen (Matt Dillon) as a small-town boy from a farming community, holding down a grease-monkey job in an auto shop by day and proving himself a craps shooter extraordinaire by night.

Equally swiftly, Bolt and scripter Robert Roy Pool (adapting Clark Howard’s novel ‘The Arm’ have him blow Nowheresville for the big town (Chicago). Sponsored by hard-nosed businesswoman Ferguson Edwards (Lee Grant) – whose embittered husband, referred to only as Mr Edwards (Bruce Dern), was a renowned dice shooter until he was blinded in an acid attack by a vengeful opponent – Culley breaks every game in town, strikes up a non-committal romance with hometown girl Aggie (Suzy Amis), and enjoys the easy money, flashy clothes and the cachet that comes with the Edwards’s protection.

But it isn’t enough. Cleaning up with their money is one thing, but Culley wants to make a big score with his own stake. He hears tell of a game run by club-owner and mobster George Cole (Tommy Lee Jones). He attends, flashes his money around and wins big. In doing so, he rubs Cole up the wrong way. In a further complication to his continued personal safety, he falls hard for Cole’s exotic dancer mistress Lorry Dane (Diane Lane). They are soon conducting a full-blown affair.

With Cole out to bring Culley down a peg or two, and Lorry leading him a merry dance, into the picture comes Phil Carpenter (Tom Skerritt) who swiftly replaces the Edwards as a mentor of sorts. But is Carpenter the man Mr Edwards has been dreaming of revenge against all these years? And to what lengths will he go to get that revenge?

With its naïve but corruptible protagonist, duplicitous femme fatale, sardonic gangster, tangle of divided loyalties and milieu of back rooms, bars, shadowy streets and gaudy neon, ‘The Big Town’ is straight-up film noir. Perhaps only the ending, where Culley at least gets one of the girls (as well as the chance to resume his old life), hits a wrong note – the happy ending. The rest of it, though, is compellingly cynical, particularly when Culley realises just how thoroughly he’s been used.

Dillon captures both sides of Culley: the wide-eyed country boy suddenly exposed to a flashy, addictive lifestyle; and the inveterate money-grubber for whom materialism is everything. Jones, Skerritt and Dern are on top form. Suzy Amis, in only her second film appearance following a bit part in ‘Fandango’, is luminous as the romantic heroine with a chequered past.

And then there’s Ms Lane: seductive, smouldering, fantastically foxy in her show-stopping fan dance. In the pantheon of great burlesque routines in the movies – after singling out Rita Hayworth’s immortal “Put the Blame on Mame” turn in ‘Gilda’ for the number one spot – Lane’s fan dance is definitely Top Three material alongside Lolita Davidovich’s voluptuous bit of bump ‘n’ grind in ‘Blaze’*. She’s everything a femme fatale should be, viz. enough to make a priest kick a hole in a stained-glass window.

*Davidovich (billed as Lolita David) has a small role in ‘The Big Town’ as, presciently enough, a stripper.

Tomorrow on the Diane-fest: ‘Hollywoodland’.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun

As a non-fiction literary sub-genre, the moderately-successful-writer-buys-old-house-in-picturesque-European-village-befriends-the-locals-and-writes-bestseller-about-it is a fairly narrow field. Three titles pretty much define it: ‘A Year in Provençe’ by Peter Mayles, ‘A Valley in Italy’ by Lisa St Aubin de Teran, and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ by Frances Mayes.

There have been two attempts at capturing Mayles’ summery prose onscreen: the ill-advised BBC adaptation with John Thaw, and Ridley Scott’s ‘A Good Year’ starring Russell Crowe. I mean, come on – Russell Crowe as a fictionalised Peter Mayle! Lounging around in a vineyard! (“At my command … uncork another bottle.”)

St Aubin de Teran’s book, perhaps the most elegant literary work of the three, has yet to be subjected to the big screen treatment.

‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was filmed in 2003, writer-director Audrey Wells’ only film to date apart from 1999’s ‘Guinevere’, a decent enough rites-of-passage movie starring Sarah Polley. ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ is middlebrow, middle-of-the-road, inoffensive and somewhat pedestrian in its direction.

It would be so easy to criticise this movie. You could call it a chick flick (if you wanted to be really cruel, you could call it a middle-aged chick flick). You could call it chocolate box film-making (cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson’s camera positively bathes in the glorious scenery). You could accuse it of revelling in cliché (if you don’t see the last half dozen scenes coming like the QEII on a duckpond, you’re clinically dead). You could write off the last half hour as an excess of saccharine (seriously: the final reel isn’t just sugar-coated, it’s wound in clayfloss, dipped in whipped cream and drizzled with melted chocolate).

But I’ve got to admit … and it’s not just because of Diane Lane’s presence … I have a soft spot for ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’. And with my recent movie-viewing including ‘Che – Part One’, ‘Hell Drivers’ and ‘Emperor of the North’ – dark, intense films – ‘UTTS’ provides a pleasant change of pace: light-heartedness, sweeping sunny vistas, the laughter of friends, the flowing of wine and the transient joie de vivre of a May-to-September romance.

Having said that, the romantic subplot is probably the worst aspect of Wells’ fictionalisation of Mayes’ memoir, giving the film its clumsiest scenes and its single most awkward visual image.

On the whole, though, watching 'UTTS' it is like sinking into a bubble bath or getting that slight fuzzy feeling from your second or third glass of wine (or your second or third bottle, depending on your personal tolerance levels). It clears the palate before you reach for, say, ‘Unforgiven’ or ‘Deep Red’.

And to give the film its dues, it owns up to its clichés. My favourite scene comes fairly early on. Novelist Frances (Lane) has divorced her cheating bastard of a husband and moved into a gloomy apartment (“you’re a writer?” the realtor says; “you can help the others [tenants] write their suicide notes”); her best friend Patti (Sandra Oh) endeavours to cheer her up by treating her to a package tour of Tuscany. One of her fellow tourists, stumped at what to write on an obligatory postcard to his mother, calls upon Frances’ literary talents. She glances around the piazza, sees a gaggle of nuns eating ice cream, an expatriate British woman chatting with the locals, a small car weaving non-too-discreetly through a throng of pedestrians, a couple of bronzed and oleaginous types checking out women, people buying food and two small boys positively drooling over a gleaming red Ferrari. “It’s market day in Cortona,” she writes; “the piazza is an ongoing party and everyone is invited. Clichés converge at this navel of the world. You almost want to laugh, but you can’t help feeling these Italians know more about having fun than we do.”

It’s a nice moment, slightly self-deprecating. Much of the first half works on this level: a patchwork quilt of gently played-out scenes, such incident as there is deriving from character and observation without the need to force anything resembling a narrative arc on the proceedings … until, that is, the last forty minutes or so. Still, it’s just about forgivable. Wells might be a pedestrian film-maker, but her cast are perfect: Diane Lane transcends the material time after time, Sandra Oh makes an excellent foil and Lindsay Duncan is memorable as the expatriate British actress still living in a fantasy world of Rome à la Fellini. There’s a nod to ‘La Dolce Vita’ that could easily have been cringingly embarrassing, but comes off as curiously poignant.

My advice: crack a good bottle of Italian wine as the movie starts, enjoy a terrific first half with its celebration of female unity, then drink yourself into a pleasant stupor wherein the convergence of clichés no longer detract from the sheer gorgeousness of the Tuscan locations … and of the delectable Ms Lane.

Posted to coincide with Diane Lane’s 44th birthday. Up tomorrow on the Diane-fest: ‘The Big Town’.

Monday, January 19, 2009

A rare political interlude (2)

He cleared his desk ...

... and he fucked off.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Emperor of the North

Robert Aldrich was an action director with the soul of a nihilist. From his brutal mid-50s film noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’ to his big-star, big box office successes of the ’60s, ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen’, a streak of the cynical, the embittered, the pessimistic runs through all of his films. Imagine Bergman looking around the wintry Swedish landscape and going, “Fuck this, I need some hard-ass types with guns on a suicide mission; that or a fucking big plane”, and you’re half way there.

Aldrich entered the 1970s – his last fertile decade as a film-maker (he would direct just one movie in the very early ’80s before his death in 1983) – in typically cynical fashion with ‘Too Late the Hero’, ‘The Grissom Gang’ and ‘Ulzana’s Raid’, the middle part of that little triptych one of Aldrich’s darkest and most joyless enquiries into the ugliness of the human psyche.

Then he made ‘Emperor of the North’. Which is full-on, attitudinous and brutal – of course it is: this is Robert freakin’ Aldrich we’re talking about – but is also kind of fun.

Kind of.

(Regarding the title. It was originally released as ‘Emperor of the North Pole’ – a self-deprecating moniker used among the hobos to denote the most daring and legendary of their kind (an emperor of the North Pole would be an emperor of nothing) – then later re-released as ‘Emperor of the North’. It was under the latter title that I first saw it on TV as a kid (one of those rare movies dad would let me stay up to watch); likewise the DVD copy I now own. I understand that in America, it’s still more commonly known as ‘Emperor of the North Pole’. Sorry. What can I say? I’m a limey.)

‘Emperor of the North’ kicks off with grizzled, world-weary hobo A-Nº 1 (Lee Marvin) fending off an attempted robbery by Cigaret (Keith Carradine), a fellow transient who talks big but wouldn’t score highly in an arse/elbow differentiation test. Dealing peremptorily with him, A-Nº 1 hops a train only to find Cigaret following him and drawing the railroad guard’s attention to the freight car they’ve holed up in.

Which is bad news since this particular train is the Old 19 and the guard who presides over it is the sadistic Shack (Ernest Borgnine), a man whose dedication to keeping his train free of hobos is messaniac in its intensity. “I’m gonna show you what happens to people who ride on my train with a ticket,” he snarls at one point. He’s hefting a bloody great hammer as he says it.

Ernest Borgnine is splendidly over-the-top as Shack. And I mean over-the-top in a good way. He scowls, he growls, his face glows red and veins beat in his forehead and his eyes threaten to pop out of their sockets. He doesn’t just take professional pride in his work - he enjoys it. Sure, his mission statement is that nobody rides his train without a ticket. But he still wants them to try. Just for the sheer pleasure of beating the crap out of them or hurling them to their death.

The three-way battle of wills between A-Nº 1, Cigaret and Shack begins after A-Nº 1 sets fire to the freight car Shack has them trapped in, hurling himself through the charred timbers to make his escape. Separated, Cigaret talks up his encounter with Shack and boasts that he rode the Old 19 for free. A-Nº 1, incensed at this interloper’s bullshit braggadocio, determines to ride Shack’s train all the way and prove that he’s emperor of the North Pole, not Cigaret.

Naturally, Cigaret can’t leave be and A-Nº 1, boarding the Old 19 under a heavy blanket of fog, finds his antagonist sneaking onboard alongside him. This takes place about a third of the way into the film; the remainder of its running time, with the exception of two bits of comic relief along the way (one at a riverside baptism, one in a hobo camp), is given over to the tense and, finally, brutal train journey.

The simplicity of its narrative gives ‘Emperor of the North’ its power. There’s no backstory. We never learn why A-Nº 1, with his obvious smarts and wily determination, became a hobo. Nor is Shack’s sadistic hatred of hobos given any provenance. These two men simply do what they do and what it comes down to, in the edge-of-the-seat finale, is a no-punches-pulled slug-fest involving fists, chains, axes and lumps of wood.

The cast give it their all, Aldrich keeps the pace brisk and the cinematography (by Joseph Biroc – who notched up over 100 credits including ‘Blazing Saddles’ and – also for Aldrich – ‘The Flight of the Phoenix’, ‘The Grissom Gang’ and ‘Ulzana’s Raid’) is just glorious. Only Marty Robbins’s hideous theme song ‘A Man and a Train’ lets things down (“a man ain’t a train and a train ain’t a man” - no shit, Sherlock!), but you can always mute the opening credits and play some Wagner instead: ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ while A-Nº 1 rides the rails.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Hell Drivers

Psst! Wanna see a movie starring Number 6, 007, that stiff-upper-lip lieutenant out of ‘Zulu’, Dr Who, Inspector Clouseau’s boss out of the ‘Pink Panther’ films, “Bootsie” Bisley, George Cowley off ‘The Professionals’, one of the blokes in ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ and the guy with the dirtiest laugh in the ‘Carry On’ films?

“Yeah? You’re interested? Got just the thing for you, guv. The genuine article. Nice little 1957 British B-movie. Black-and-white and sharp as a knife. Pop in the back room and I’ll sort you out with copy. Cash only, like. Where did it come from? Fell off the back of a lorry, didn’t it?”

(Authorities arrive.)

(Trenchcoated, fedora-wearing spiv is carted off.)

(Normal service resumes at The Agitation of the Mind.)

But, to be fair, our newly nicked friend – presumably falling down some stairs at a nearby police station even as I type this article – has a point. Imagine it: a movie starring Patrick McGoohan, Sean Connery, Stanley Baker, William Hartnell, Herbert Lom, Alfie Bass, Gordon Jackson, David McCallum and Sid James.

An all-star cast, right?

Hmmmmm, sort of. An all-pre-star cast might be a better description. Connery was still five years away from his star-making turn in ‘Dr No’, Hartnell was six years away from being the first incarnation of a certain still-active time traveller, McGoohan and McCallum were seven years away from – respectively – ‘Danger Man’ and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ … and it would be another three years after that before McGoohan, who died two days ago at the age of 80, gave British television its finest hour (or rather its finest 13 hour-long episodes) with ‘The Prisoner’, a satirical, subversive, surreal, genre-defying and truly original masterpiece of the medium.

(Parenthetically, Jackson and James had probably had the most notable careers at that point, both starring in perennial Ealing favourites – ‘Whisky Galore’ and ‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ respectively – and James delivering a scene-stealing performance as Knucksie the barman in Powell & Pressburger’s ‘The Small Back Room’.)

Was it serendipity that brought all these soon-to-be-greats together for ‘Hell Drivers’, or did director Cy Endfield have a unique eye for talent? It really doesn’t matter. The point is, ‘Hell Drivers’ is a hard as nails, tough-talking, two-fisted, pedal-to-the-metal B-movie that breaks the mold. B-movies were often referred to as “the little picture”. Not this one. ‘Hell Drivers’ stands tall in post-war British cinema and throws a long and enduring shadow.

Although Stanley Baker is the headliner (he and director Cy Endfield went on to form a production company together to bring ‘Zulu’ to the screen), it’s Patrick McGoohan’s ballsy, menacing performance that defines ‘Hell Drivers’.

The plot, in a nutshell: recently released ex-con Tom Yately (Baker) goes to work for a two-bit trucking company managed by the irascible Cartley (Hartnell) and whose lead driver “Red” Redman (McGoohan) is a truculent bully forever brawling, chewing on a cigarette and downing Guinness at the wheel. Yately is still stewing over a road accident he caused, in which his younger brother Jimmy (McCallum) was injured. Discovering the corruption, swindling and dangerous driving conditions his fellow truckers are coerced into, Yately is compelled to make a stand.

It could almost be a western. And to be honest, the narrative doesn’t matter. It’s Endfield’s commitment to gritty realism that makes ‘Hell Drivers’ a bona fide classic. My father was starting out in the road haulage business in the late fifties and all of his recollections, as well as details he’s pointed out to me whilst watching the film, identify the film as being the real deal, with the (obligatory for the day) exception of the language being considerably toned down.

‘Hell Drivers’ inhabits a milieu of truck stops, digs and haulage yards. There is camaraderie, but also rivalry. The drivers – pulling in long hours and driving recklessly fast to make up their runs – live for booze, birds and brawling. Outside of the films of Sam Peckinpah, it’s one of the most nihilistically accurate portrayals of how men interact. Particularly when that interaction explodes into violence. The inevitable punch-up between Yately and Redman is brutal and intense, anticipating the visceral hand-to-hand of the Bourne films by fifty years.

Everyone wears their role like a threadbare donkey jacket. Endfield directs with the speed and velocity of one of the Dodge trucks. And Patrick McGoohan, a decade before he re-defined what the small screen was capable of, tears up the big screen like a man possessed.

i.m. Patrick McGoohan (19 March 1928 – 13 January 2009)

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Che - Part One

Q. When is a biopic not a biopic?

A. When it’s Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che – Part One’.

But before I get into the whole biopic discussion, some thoughts on the title. Early word, when Soderbergh premiered the film(s) at Cannes, was that he’d made two stand-alone but thematically connected films (shot in different aspect ratios) entitled ‘The Argentine’ and ‘Guerilla’. Then I heard that a limited American release offered film-goers the opportunity to experience the whole thing in a single four-and-a-half-hour sitting – a “roadshow” edition called ‘Che: A Revolutionary Life’. Now it shows up in the UK as ‘Che – Part One’ and, opening next month, ‘Che – Part Two’ – which, according to some of the American film sites I follow, are the titles of the two halves of the “roadshow” version.

So why, particularly when they’re being released a month apart, aren’t the UK showings going under the titles ‘The Argentine’ and ‘Guerilla’? With different aspect ratios, and occupying different timelines and geographies (the Cuban revolution of 1958-59 in the former; the failed Bolivian revolution of 1967 in the latter), it’s clearly only a film of two halves if seen in the “roadshow” format, nor does it seem quite as simple as saying one film is the sequel to the other.

But enough! Two paragraphs and 200 words on the title alone!?!

To business: ‘Che – Part One’ is not a biopic because it tells us absolutely sod bugger all about Che Guevara the man, apart from the fact that he trained as a doctor before becoming a revolutionary (which I already knew from ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’) and he suffered from asthma. Nothing else. His background – nada. His motivations – zilch. His personal life – a single line of dialogue mentions a wife and child in Mexico; nothing beyond that.

It would be easy to say, by this definition, that the film fails. But that’s not the case. Putting aside a disjointed first 15 minutes and some intrusive voiceover (specifically during the action scenes; voiceover should not be used during action scenes), it’s an emphatic success. And it’s a success as a biopic. It’s just not a biopic of Che Guevara (a performance of gravitas and control by Benicio del Toro).

‘Che – Part One’ is a biopic of a revolution. Soderbergh’s direction, as controlled and unflashy as his leading man’s performance, concentrates on minutiae; you could almost say this is a film about logistics. Recruiting men? Make sure they bring their own rifles. Half your fighting force illiterate? Establish a school within the camp. Anyone wounded? Establish a field hospital as well. Any renegades amongst your men, taking advantage of those same oppressed peasants you’re fighting for? Use discipline – execution if necessary.

Soderbergh and his cast (good naturalistic acting here) build up a wealth of detail, keeping you entrenched in the hills and forests with Guevara’s men for much of the running time, finally taking the revolution to the streets in a superbly orchestrated and sustained set-piece at the end.

Thus the film coheres: it’s not the story of a man – it’s the story of his actions.

Posted to coincide with Steven Soderbergh’s 46th birthday. Many happy returns, sir.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

From the mouths of babes

This from IMDb:

Screen siren Scarlett Johansson is eyeing a career switch as soon as she begins to wrinkle - she's preparing to become a director before movie bosses pass her up for another ingenue.

Johansson made her film debut at the age of nine in 1994's North, and already fears she'll be overlooked by the next budding beauty.

She tells America's Harper's Bazaar magazine, "It's hard to be a 24-year-old actor and not be typecast. A lot of roles are either for a sexy person or a Juno-type character.

"That ageism makes the actress fearful for her future, making her consider another path within the industry. There is some weird ageist quality in Hollywood, perhaps that's why I lean more toward directing and development.

"That's probably the direction I'll take; I can't keep up this face forever, you know."

Notwithstanding the fact that she’s only 24 (I’m 36, have yet to publish my first novel or direct anything beyond a shot-on-camcorder-edited-on-home-computer documentary about a local poetry society, but I’m nowhere near giving up hope), can I just add, for the defence, that an actress's best years are NOWHERE NEAR BEHIND HER AT EVEN TWICE THAT AGE.

Exhibit A: Diane Lane in ‘Unfaithful’ – age: 37; sex appeal: through the roof.

Exhibit B: Michelle Pfeiffer in ‘Stardust’ – age: 49; sex appeal: wowsers.

Exhibit C: Celia Imrie in ‘Calendar Girls’ – age: 51; sex appeal: the thinking man’s older woman.

Exhibit D: Helen Mirren in a random tabloid shot on some beach in a bikini – age: 63; sex appeal: timeless!

This post is dedicated to the natural beauty of older women everywhere. And to anyone who can’t see past their 20s … get a grip.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Golden Globe Awards

Congratulations to Kate Winslet for her double-whammy win at yesterday’s Golden Globe Awards, picking up Best Actress for ‘Revolutionary Road’ and Best Supporting Actress for ‘The Reader’. Both films are on my ‘must-see’ list.

Congratulations, too – and a respectful moment of silence – on Heath Ledger’s posthumous Best Supporting Actor win for his frankly awesome re-invention of The Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Charley Varrick

Don Siegel’s follow up to his nihilistic 1971 classic ‘Dirty Harry’ was a complete change of pace, and perhaps explains why it didn’t find the mainstream success its predecessor (or indeed any of his collaborations with Clint Eastwood) did.

‘Charley Varrick’ is a quirky crime caper which ambiguously trades on its star Walter Matthau’s affable comedic persona, but benefits from him playing straight. Which isn’t to say that it’s not noir to the nines when it wants to be.

Opening with Charley (Matthau) and his three-man crew pulling a slick bank robbery in sleepy Tres Cruces, Mexico, the plan goes awry when a local cop tumbles to the false plates on the station wagon driven by Charley’s wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), the gang’s getaway driver. The resulting shoot-out leaves Charley’s crew decimated, and he and headstrong young crim Harman Sullivan (Andy Robinson, best known as the Scorpio Killer in ‘Dirty Harry’) are lucky to get away with the money.

Charley realises his luck might be running out when the haul clocks in a three-quarters of a million, not the $20-$30,000 he was expecting. Quickly realising the bank was laundering Mob funds, he turns his attention to how to stay alive now that the cops are the least of his worries. Things are complicated by the increasingly unpredictable Harman’s intent to start flashing his share around and living the high life.

Ex-stunt pilot Charley leaves Harman holed up in a trailer park and approaches photographer Jewell Everett (Sheree North), who runs a profitable sideline in forged documents, for a couple of passports. Little does he know that bank executive Maynard Boyle (John Vernon), simpatico to the dirty dealings at the Tres Cruces branch, has engaged pipe-smoking and effeminately named hitman Molly (Joe Don Baker) to get the money back.

Nor does he know that Molly and Jewell are known to each other, nor that molly has already tracked Harman down and had a little chat with him. That’s ‘little chat’ as in the kind of little chat Mr Blonde has with Marvin the cop in ‘Reservoir Dogs’.

In fact, a closer point of comparison might be ‘No Country for Old Men’. Molly comes off as a precursor to Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh, a man similarly dispatched by underworld to types to recover a certain cache of cash and eliminate anyone who stands in the way. Both stride implacably through their respective films. Both take their work very seriously. Neither appreciative levity or smart comments (“I didn’t drive six hundred miles for the amusement of morons,” Molly growls when a gaggle of hookers find his name funny, the line delivered in the same granite tones as Chigurh’s stone cold “Call it, friendo” to an about-to-die gas station attendant). The only difference is that Molly is ineffably polite to the people he doesn’t have to kill and he smiles a lot more. Even though it’s the smile of a shark or a tiger. Joe Don Baker is on top form in the role; for my money it’s his best work on the big screen.

Matthau is terrific too, making his second appearance on the Personal Faves list in an uncharacteristically straight role (after ‘The Taking of Pelham One Two Three’), even if his rumpled, somewhat shambolic persona makes it a tad unlikely that he’d prove romantically irresistible to Boyle’s uber-prim secretary Sybil Bolt (Felicia Farr) in an extended scene near the end that’s pure plot device.

Still, that’s the only quibble I have against Charley Varrick. Siegel’s direction finds and maintains a spot-on balance of wry humour, pacy narrative and a handful of excellently staged and edited action scenes. Vernon is perfectly cast as the oily executive who gets a nicely ironic comeuppance. Robinson is also good. Scott, North and Farr add a touch of sassy Seventies glamour as well as being appealing in their roles. And Michael Butler’s cinematography is just glorious.

The denouement is highly memorable, all the pieces slyly put in place beforehand, and the switcheroo payoff arrived at via a standout car/biplane chase.

The crime caper was a staple of Seventies cinema – ‘Pelham’ and ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ are prime examples – and in my book the still underrated ‘Charley Varrick’ is the equal of either of them.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

12 Angry Men

Hitchcock famously said that it takes three things to make a great film: a great script, a great script and a great script. Other directors would no doubt champion mise-en-scene, or the ‘look’ of the film.

‘12 Angry Men’ has a good script. Not a great one, but a good one. The main … I won’t say ‘problem’, that would be unfair. The main niggle with Reginald Rose’s script is how laboured it becomes as Henry Fonda’s Everyman lights upon one inconsistency in the prosecution’s case after another. In the last 20 minutes or so, the script lurches towards contrivance with an overcooked bit of business about whether a key witness might have been wearing glasses or not. (Thinking back, I’m tempted to wonder if a crucial moment in ‘My Cousin Vinny’, which hinges on a similar premise, isn’t a very sneaky send-up.)

‘12 Angry Men’ doesn’t have any particularly ‘look’ to it either, other than Boris Kaufman’s sharp, realistic black and white cinematography. Apart from brief scenes at the beginning and end – one in court, the other on the courthouse steps – the whole 90-minutes play out in a cramped jury room. Nor is there mise-en-scene (oops, I’m using pretentious-speak; what I mean is ‘set-pieces’), unless you count someone jumping up from their chair, shouting a lot and brandishing a big pointing finger.

What makes ‘12 Angry Men’ a great film – riveting, tense and deserving of its status as an evergreen classic – is the acting. Every single role is perfectly cast (Fonda’s top-billing and producer credit notwithstanding, this is a 12-man ensemble piece).

Fonda’s man-of-integrity image arguably achieves its apogee here. He’s calm, dignified; but resolute. He doesn’t care whether the other jurors like him or not – several repeatedly try to browbeat him – and he doesn’t care how long the deliberations take or that the city is sweltering in a heatwave and the jury room fan is broken. He “just wants to talk” – mainly about whether an 18 year old will go to the chair or not as a result of their verdict – while the others want to hand down a guilty verdict and go home.

But Fonda’s performance, as with any actor’s in a chamber piece, is dependent upon the ensemble as a whole. Here we have Martin Balsom as the much put-upon jury foreman, Jack Klugman as a man whose wrong-side-of-the-tracks background gives him an empathy with the accused, Eg Begley as an obstreperous ‘hard justice’ type and – Fonda’s most vocal antagonist of all – Lee J Cobb, who tears up the screen in his portrayal of a father whose issues with his own son are alarmingly transferred to the youth in the dock.

Begley and Cobb get the show-stopping roles, personifying the uglier aspects of human nature just as Fonda epitomises the good, and they deliver the goods and then some! But kudos to the other performers – John Fiedler, E.G. Marshall (watch his face the moment he realises the youth might be innocent: it’s a brilliantly controlled piece of acting), Ed Binns, Jack Warden, Joseph Sweeney, George Voskovec and Robert Webber. Everyone nails their part precisely, and everyone has their moment.

There may be nothing overt about Sidney Lumet’s direction – nothing that shows the director’s hand – but the sheer quality of performance he draws from his actors, the accomplishment of taking the stagiest of material and making it gripping, are the highest testament to his skills as a film-maker.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Do you know how excited I was about ‘Grindhouse’? Imagine the adrenalin levels of a kid on Christmas Day, a fat kid in a sweetshop lockdown and no adults around to tell him not to, a pyromaniac in a fireworks factory, a dipsomaniac left in charge of a distillery, a voyeur given carte blanche to roam around the Playboy Mansion, and a member of the NRA at an arms bazaar. Now combine all those adrenalin levels, throw a few tequila slammers into the mix and shoot the whole thing full of heroin.

That’s how excited I was.

Tim at Antagony & Ecstacy reviewed it under the pullquote ‘The Movie I Was Put on This Earth to See’, and I was almost wetting myself.

And. Then. Something. Happened.

‘Grindhouse’ underperformed at the American box office. I started hearing dispiriting rumours: the film was being split in two for its European release; ‘Death Proof’ would come out first; there was no confirmed UK release date for ‘Planet Terror’. There was a big question mark over whether the spoof trailers would be released theatrically.

I. Was. Not. Happy.

I’ll admit it here and now: I was looking forward more to ‘Planet Terror’ than ‘Death Proof’, having been monstrously underwhelmed by ‘Kill Bill Vol. II’ (another Tarantino opus that got released in two parts, with a six month wait after the blistering first instalment with its iconic “House of Blue Leaves” set-piece).

Sure enough, the handful of lobby posters I’d seen for ‘Grindhouse’ quietly disappeared, to be replaced by ‘Death Proof’ posters. Frequent IMDb visits seemed to confirm that there was still no release date for ‘Planet Terror’. In the meantime, I’d tracked down the spoof trailers online and bookmarked them.

A week before ‘Death Proof’ opened, I got hold of ‘Planet Terror’ on Region 1 DVD, featuring the ‘Machete’ trailer (my personal favourite of the four spoofs). Me and Paula decided to have our own, cobbled together ‘Grindhouse’ experience: we watched ‘Planet Terror’ on DVD in the morning (including ‘Machete’), fired up the computer and watched the ‘Don’t’, ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’ trailers, then went to the cinema and watched ‘Death Proof’ on the big screen in the afternoon.

It doesn’t quite equate to taking your seat in the cinema, watching two 90-minuters (each complete with ‘missing reel’) back to back, interspersed with the spoof trailers – ie. three and a half hours of moviegoing designed as an affectionate, often ironic but ultimately down and dirty throwback to the grubby joys of the exploitation B-movie double bill.

The point of those 70s double-bills was that you saw them in a cinema. Usually a dingy fleapit where the seats were dimpled with cigarette burns, smoke was still hanging in the air courtesy of the audience at the earlier screening, your shoes adhered to the floor thanks to a combination of melted ice cream, popcorn and spilled Ki-ora, and the films were interrupted at least a couple of times during the screening due to technical problems with the projector.

In order to recreate the experience, ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’ – the former more authentically – are scratched and distressed and jump about a lot, simulating hamfisted splicing, and in the case of ‘Planet Terror’ the film seems to bubble up and burn into white nothingness.

Seen on DVD, you think “hmmm, that’s quite a convincing effect”. Seen on a computer, the spoof trailers are quite obviously that: spoofs. You find yourself picking hairs. Both ‘Thanksgiving’ and ‘Werewolf Women of the SS’, as sleazily inspired as they are, are billed as “a film by Eli Roth” and “a film by Rob Zombie” respectively, the latter trumpeting a big star name (Nicolas Cage) – but no zero-budgeted exploitation flick would be thus advertised. Edgar Wright’s ‘Don’t’ hits the mark as acutely as ‘Machete’, though, delivering a minute’s worth of stalk ‘n’ slash highlights while the voiceover drones monotonously “Don’t … don’t … don’t … don’t.”

Still, all of these component parts were meant to be taken together, as a three and a half hour whole … and were meant to be seen at the cinema. Instead, we got expanded cuts of ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’, the former now clocking in 1 hour 45 minutes, and Tarantino’s opus pushing the two hour mark, again pushing the films another step away from their original aesthetic.

The damage done to both films is that you view them as separate entities, which leads to pointless exercises in critical approach whereby you try to reconcile the more authentic ‘look’ of ‘Planet Terror’ with the post-modern ironic playfulness of ‘Death Proof’ instead of thinking “zombie movie – cool; car chase movie – cool”. Or ruminating on the promise of the erotic given the plethora of eye candy (two quartets of heroines in ‘Death Proof’; cleavages a-go-go courtesy of Rose McGowan, Marley Shelton and Stacy Ferguson in ‘Planet Terror') and the non-inclusion of actual nudity (want topless women? the ‘Machete’ trailer’s the only place you’ll find ’em) and coming to the conclusion that an implied salaciousness : disappointment ratio is par for the course in exploitation movies and Rodriguez and Tarantino have played on this most effectively … when you should, of course, be thinking “wow, hot chicks”.

Tim comments, in his brilliantly written review, “the structural vulernability of Grindhouse makes it the same as those things it mimics, even while the very soul of Grindhouse is that, as a mimic, it is not the same thing. Therefore, the film becomes both thesis and antithesis”, and he’s absolutely right. To discuss structure is perhaps the most intelligent way to approach ‘Grindhouse’ critically. Otherwise, as just as valid, you can simply kick back with a big tub of popcorn, turn off your critical faculties and let your mind go “zombies, cool … wow, Rose McGowan’s a fox … machine gun leg … shoot-outs, cool … stuff blowing up … fast cars, cool … wow, Vanessa Ferlito’s a fox … Kurt Russell being a badass, cool … wow, how long’s this car chase gone on for? …” and so on and so forth.

They’ve been constructed deliberately – and a lot more cleverly than a first viewing might lead you to believe – but the component parts of ‘Grindhouse’ are quite simply a hymn to the gleeful pleasures of moviegoing in an age where hot chicks, fast cars, cheesy special effects and 90-minutes of low-budget mayhem were their own raison d’etre.

Comparing and contrasting the films is a redundant exercise. The distributors, by splitting ‘Grindhouse’ in two, have left the likes of your humble blogger here with no choice other than to do just that. I was even tempted to use this post as a prologue to articles on ‘Planet Terror’ and ‘Death Proof’ over the next two evenings.

But I won’t because I’m convinced that if I ever get to see ‘Grindhouse’ in the format Messrs Rodriguez and Tarantino intended me to, then I’ll have seen a masterpiece of post-modern throwback indulgent irony. Yup, I know those last four words seem like a quadrille of contradiction but I reckon the movie that underperformed in America and never made it to the UK has what it takes to synthesise them; and until ‘Grindhouse’ gets released in this country in its original format (preferably in a theatrical run), or until I can get my hands on a Region 1 DVD, it will have to remain the best movie I’ve almost seen.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Peckinpah at the BFI

Between working commitments, my father’s birthday on the 9th of the month and the basic fact that I can’t afford it (one word: mortgage), I’m reluctantly* going have to give the BFI’s Sam Peckinpah retrospective a miss.

For those of you who can make it, click here for schedule and booking information, click here for Time Out’s very welcome corrective ‘The Softer Side of Sam Peckinpah’ and – if I may be permitted a blatant bit of self-promotion – click here to buy my book on Peckinpah from Amazon.

*That’s reluctantly as in ‘teeth-grindingly, fist-clenchingly, scowl-inducingly’.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

PERSONAL FAVES: Wallace & Gromit in Curse of the Were-Rabbit

A second viewing might alter my opinion, but I have to admit to a slight feeling of disappointment at Nick Park’s latest Wallace & Gromit animation, ‘A Matter of Loaf and Death’, screened on BBC1 on Christmas Day. An inspired title, but for the first time in their 19-year partnership, encompassing four shorts and one feature-length film, it seemed like Wallace & Gromit by-the-numbers.

Was it really 1989 that the incomparable duo – cheese-loving, mild-mannered eccentric inventor Wallace (voiced by ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ stalwart Peter Sallis) and his faithful, if much put-upon, pooch Gromit (voiced by no-one; a world of emotion is contained in the movement of his eyes) – were introduced in the offbeat ‘A Grand Day Out’? According to IMDb it was, and boy does that make me feel old!

It was 1993’s ‘The Wrong Trousers’, boasting superior production values, that fully realised Park’s 1950’s-tinged vision: the small-town Northern locale (not too dissimilar from the Holmfirth of ‘Summer Wine’); the genre-based storyline (the vaguely sci-fi musings of ‘A Grand Day Out’ here replaced by a heist caper); and a frenetic commitment to high-speed visual inventiveness (Gromit and the penguin’s lunatic and hilarious model railway chase).

Two years later came ‘A Close Shave’, arguably the best of the short films. Another crime plot (sheep rustling); Gromit set up to take the rap (a priceless in-joke has the incarcerated canine sitting morosely in his cell reading ‘Crime and Punishment’ by Fido Dogstoyevsky!); Wallace’s inventions taking on a ‘Thunderbirds’-style level of intricacy. Marvellous stuff.

But, for me at least, the high point was their triumphant transition to the big screen in 2005 with ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’, co-directed by Park and Steve Box. The narrative, entirely in keeping with Park’s nostalgic ’50s aesthetic, conjures up a plethora of cheesy horror genre B-movies.

Starting as it means to go on with deliberately lurid lettering for the title credit and ominous music, ‘C of the W-R’ sees the daring duo running a vegetable security firm called Anti-Pesto. Business is good and their clients sleep soundly knowing that their prize cucumbers and carrots and cauliflowers are being protected from a village-wide rabbit infestation. And with Lady Tottington’s Annual Vegetable Competition imminent, Wallace & Gromit’s very reputation is at stake should anything go wrong and the goods get gnawed or nibbled.

Something, of course, goes wrong. Summoned to Tottington Hall to rid the grounds of rapacious rabbits (note to self: enough with the alliteration already!), Wallace hits it off with Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter) who is particularly taken with his humane treatment of the captured bunnies: he houses them in the cellar of chez Wallace and feeds them while he puts the finishing touches to his mind-control device. In arguably the most imaginative send-up of ‘Frankenstein’ since Mel Brooks’ legendary spoof, Wallace hooks himself up to the machine, intent on brainwashing the rabbits into an aversion to all vegetables. More ominous music; flashes of lightning. The experiment goes horribly wrong. Wallace creates a monster.

A huge, bounding, almost criminally cute monster.

With said were-rabbit on the rampage, allotments attacked, vegetables violated and Anti-Pesto’s reputation ruined (seriously: enough with the alliteration, Neil!), Lady Tottington’s roundly rejected but pitifully persistent smug suitor Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) proffers the services of himself, his hunting rifle, and his borderline psychotic bulldog. And he doesn’t care if Wallace & Gromit get in the way …

‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’ spends a good half of its 90-minute running time setting out its stall: establishing characters, situations, locations, narrative and internal dynamics. Then Box and Park unleash a series of frenetic set-pieces culminating in a showdown at the vegetable competition which homages ‘Jaws’, ‘King Kong’ and – in the film’s standout mise-en-scene where Gromit and Quartermaine’s dog battle it out in model aeroplanes – ‘The Blue Max’.

The jokes come think and fast: “I think it’s a case of arson,” Peter Kay’s P.C. Mackintosh deliberates; “Arson?” someone echoes; “Aye, someone’s been arsin’ around.” There’s a “beware the moon” gag that’s worth the price of the DVD alone. Visual puns are everywhere, from Gromit’s graduation photograph (he went to Dogwart’s!) to a greenhouse being locked and alarmed by a keyfob as if it were a car.

There is something happening – some sly joke, or unexpected detail in the background – in every frame of ‘Curse of the Were-Rabbit’. I’ve seen it now, I think, half a dozen times and I’m still spotting things anew. It’s Wallace & Gromit at their finest and earned Park perhaps the most well-deserved Oscar the Academy has yet bestowed.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

New Year's resolutions

First and foremost, a Happy and Prosperous New Year to all.

Here’s to a 2009 that gives us better news (enough with the ‘credit crunch’ doom and gloom, already; I’m convinced this any-minute-now recession would evaporate and the economy take an upswing if only the media would shut the fuck up about it) and better movies.

Here on Planet Agitation, I think I’ve just about got myself into a writing discipline that balances work on my novel-in-progress (about 22,000 words completed thus far) with new material for the blog. And with a few dirt-cheap January sale DVD acquisitions, I won’t be short of things to write about.

My aim is to post at least two articles a week (although I’m giving another shout to anyone who wants to contribute anything: any and all cinema related musings to, please), with the weekend article given over to Personal Faves. Next up: cinema’s finest claymation double-act.

Later this month, on January 22nd to be exact, I’ll be celebrating the birthday of one of my favourite actresses – the oft underrated Diane Lane – by kicking off a three-day Diane-Fest (or a four-dayer if I can get hold of a copy of ‘The Big Town’ by then).

In February, the Second Annual Hitch-Fest will include ‘North By Northwest’ from the Personal Faves list. File under ‘fest’ during the following months these luminaries: Werner Herzog, Luis Bunuel and Pedro Almodovar; not to mention, during the latter stages of ’09 the obligatory Third Annual Dirk-Fest.

Just let me recover from this hangover and deal with going back to work tomorrow, then it’s back to business …