Friday, April 30, 2010

Notable birthdays

As regular readers of this blog will be aware, I share a birthday with Kirsten Dunst. Now, I don't know what Ms Dunst's plans for the day are, but I've had a pretty damn good time so far - it's involved a day off work, being taken out for a meal, a trip to the cinema and several beers - and the night ain't over yet.

To mark the occasion, and allowing for the fact that Kirsten Dunst beats me hands down in the photogenic department, I'm eschewing birthday cake for cheesecake - specifically, the ten images that follow.

I'll be back tomorrow for the start of Clint Eastwood month on Agitation (hangover permitting).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

PERSONAL FAVES: Saturday Night and Sunday Morning

Alan Sillitoe burst onto the literary scene in the late 50s with the dynamic one-two of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, both of which earned him lifelong membership-by-default of the “angry young man” school of writing. That both were made into landmark British films also bracketed in the “angry young man” movement kind of sealed the deal.

Sillitoe always denied that he was part of any movement, and that’s true. His breadth of work proved diverse enough that trying to pigeonhole him is redundant. Novels, short stories, plays, poetry, non-fiction, autobiography, travel writing. His subjects ranged from tense adventure stories (‘The Lost Flying Boat’, ‘The German Numbers Woman’) to political satire (‘Travels in Nihilon’) by way of broad, laddish comedy (‘A Start in Life’, ‘Life Goes On’) and the kind of punchy working class dramas that made his name in the first place. His stylistic approaches include what I can only describe as pre-meta-fiction (‘The Storyteller’ – an horrifically compelling investigation into the mentality and dangers of the writer’s profession) and feminist sensibility (‘Her Victory’).

Truly, he was a man of many facets, many voices and – with over fifty publications to his name – almost inextinguishable literary capacity. Inextinguishable, that is, until two days ago when Alan Sillitoe – one of my home town’s triumvirate of literary heroes (the other two being Lord Byron and D.H. Lawrence) – passed away at the age of 82.

He may not have been a fully paid up member of the angry young men, but Sillitoe was definitely a rebel with a cause. And his cause was the common man. In Richard Bradford’s obituary in The Guardian, there’s a wonderful anecdote about the teenage Sillitoe that made me smile through the sadness and lift a glass to the man’s indomitable spirit as well as his artistic legacy:

As a 14-year-old factory worker during the war, he was informed by the shop steward that union membership was compulsory, that it was for his own good and that fees would be deducted from his wages. Sillitoe returned to his bench after urging the official to "fuck off and get dive-bombed".

This is the Alan Sillitoe of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’, and you can imagine Arthur Seaton, the belligerent protagonist of that novel, coming out with something equally defiant and attitudinous while marking time on the job, waiting for his shift to end and the pubs to open. Played with bullish immediacy and roguish charm by Albert Finney in Karel Reisz’s film, Seaton is one of British cinema’s most enduring (and, perversely, endearing) anti-heroes. Imagine Mick Travis in ‘If…’ removed from the boarding school environment, a failed 11-plus behind him and nothing in front of him but forty years of drudgery at a lathe. Imagine Alex the Droog in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ with a penchant for a pint of bitter instead of the old moloko, greasy overalls instead of the boilersuit and no fuckin’ intention whatsoever of wearing anything as poncy as false eyelashes.

Reisz nails the daily grind of working class life (the opening scene has Seaton repetition turning metal parts on his lathe: “nine hundred and fifty four,” he grunts as he chucks another component on the pile; “nine hundred and fifty bloody five” as yet another one follows it), the no-bullshit camaraderie and hard-drinking catharsis of the working man (“I’m out for a good time – all the rest is propaganda”), and the smoke-wreathed pubs Seaton does his boozing, proselytizing and womanizing in.

(One of my favourite bits of dialogue has Seaton’s Aunt Ada and her consort Bert reminiscing about a night of free boozing down their local:

Ada: Our Ethel clipped with a bloke and he brought us drinks all round, whole gang of us.
Bert: Must have got through a good five quid, the soft bastard. Still, he had a car so a I suppose he could afford it.

If that doesn’t scream 1950s, I don’t know what does.)

‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is authentic to the nines. Your average bit of Mike Leigh or Ken Loach kitch-sinkery comes off as wishy-washy by comparison. Alan Sillitoe’s novel is one of the great works of post-war realism, Karel Reisz’s adaptation translates its source material brilliantly, and Finney’s characterisation justifiably made him an icon.

The literary world is poorer this month for Sillitoe’s death. If you’ve never read it, go buy a copy of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’; if you’ve never seen it, or if you’ve just not seen it for a while, add the film to your rental list. They complement each other perfectly. ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ is British literature and British cinema the way it should be.

i.m. Alan Sillitoe, 4 March 1928 – 25 April 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Boobquake at the movies

Celebrating the female form and the absence of earthquakes on
The Agitation of the Mind.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Of boobs and earthquakes

According to an Iranian cleric named Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, “Many women who do not dress modestly ... lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which increases earthquakes.”

Quite apart from the fact that this kind of unscientific and utterly nonsensical assertion has as much place in our modern age as a satnav returning the message “here be monsters” should a location more than fifty miles outside of Central London be programmed into it, it has to be said that the only thing that has ever led a young man astray is his own libido. Also, Friday or Saturday night in my home town of Nottingham, it’s cleavage central in virtually any city centre pub or club and to the best of my knowledge there has been precisely one earthquake in Nottingham in recent years … and it was probably nought point something on the Richter scale. Seriously, I had a full glass of water on my bedside table the night it happened and the fucker didn’t even spill.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that there is no scientific correlation between breasts and earthquakes. In fact, earthquakes are caused by seismic waves. And unless seismic waves are caused by legions of young and suddenly corrupted Iranian males feverishly jerking off at the very thought of half-exposed breasts, then the evidence is less in favour of women wrapping themselves in shapeless clothing that only show the eyes, than of Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi being a misogynistic twat who desperately needs to shut the fuck up and stop blaming all the bad stuff on women.

Seriously. Let me say that again. SHUT THE FUCK UP AND STOP BLAMING ALL THE BAD STUFF ON WOMEN. This is the point, ordinarily, in which I’d go on a rant as to why, in the twenty-first century – 92 years after women in the UK got the right to vote, and 43 years after the law against gay men was repealed – blatantly misogynistic and homophobic views are allowed not only to be held and disseminated by certain groups, but are actively protected because “it’s their religion”. If the BNP were a religious organization instead of a political one, would xenophobia and neo-Nazi-ism be acceptable? Would Nick Griffin be allowed to hide behind a veil of cleric-hood? I do believe the answer, to both questions, would be a big fat no.

But said rant is probably not called for. In an entry on her blog that swings a wrecking ball against Sedighi’s nonsensical claim, Jen McCreight* declares that it’s “time for a boobquake”. Her manifesto:

“On Monday, April 26th, I will wear the most cleavage-showing shirt I own. Yes, the one usually reserved for a night on the town. I encourage other female skeptics to join me and embrace the supposed supernatural power of their breasts. Or short shorts, if that's your preferred form of immodesty. With the power of our scandalous bodies combined, we should surely produce an earthquake. If not, I'm sure Sedighi can come up with a rational explanation for why the ground didn't rumble. And if we really get through to him, maybe it'll be one involving plate tectonics.”

The only drawback with this marvellous response is that is doesn’t give me, as a guy, the opportunity to participate. So I’m taking the de facto route and giving over tomorrow on The Agitation of the Mind to a celebration of cleavage in the movies. I am confident that no earthquake activity in Nottingham will ensue. I implore all my fellow male bloggers to join the cause.

Here’s a picture of Jane Russell in ‘The Outlaw’ to get things started.

*Who describes herself as “a liberal, geeky, nerdy, scientific, perverted atheist feminist”. I am down with all of the above.

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: Indira Varma in 'Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love'

Friday, April 23, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedy / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 26 of 100

The brilliance of ‘Kick-Ass’: where to begin?

Do I talk about Matthew Vaughn’s diversity as a director, how he makes it three in a row after ‘Layer Cake’ (one of the few bona fide standouts in the slew of post-‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’ Brit-crime movies) and ‘Stardust’ (an exuberant take on Neil Gaiman’s novel boasting Robert de Niro’s best turn in ages as a cross-dressing sky pirate)?

Do I talk about the cluster of terrific supporting performances, including Mark Strong, Dexter Fletcher and Robert Flemyng (who are rapdly shaping up as the Matthew Vaughn Regulars), as well as featuring a hallelujah-praise-the-lord-he’s-back-on-form Nicolas Cage?

Do I talk about how the film simultaneously celebrates and satirises the comic-book superhero genre, effortlessly walking a high wire between funny-as-fuck set-pieces and darker, more brutal moments?

Or do I just mention Hit-Girl?

As played by Chloe Moretz (twelve at the time of shooting), Hit-Girl is American cinema’s newest icon. Simple as that. The movie might be called ‘Kick-Ass’, after the alter ego of high school nobody and wannabe hero Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson), but it’s Hit-Girl’s show all the way. And how could it not be? When you’ve got a twelve year-old assassin who casually drops the C-word before launching into some John Woo-style balletic action and taking down a room full of bad guys, it’s kind of hard to top.

Which isn’t to denigrate Johnson’s portrayal of Dave/Kick-Ass. Channelling nerdish delusion, heroic stupidity and hangdog melancholy in roughly equal measure, the only reason he never quite defines the movie is the sheer weight of expectation. Like I said, the very title is ‘Kick-Ass’, and yet the character – deliberately so – is reactive rather than proactive. Kick-Ass desperately wants to be pro-active; wants to be a superhero; wants to stop crime and win the girl and make the world a better place. It’s when he finds himself entangled with the considerably more disciplined, experienced and unflinchingly hardcore team of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl that (a) the reality of his ineffectiveness comes home to him; and (b) he inadvertently exacerbates an already hyper-tense situation.

The precise mechanics of the plot require little discussion. Narratively, ‘Kick-Ass’ doesn’t break any new ground or pull off any surprises. The late-in-the-game introduction of Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s strutting, show-offy Red Mist pans out so predictably you can almost chart it on a graph, peaking with the glaringly obvious and sequel-baiting last frame.

I’m noticing a trend on the internet to negative reviews of ‘Kick-Ass’, the most commonly cited criticism being that it never gets as down and dirty and subversive as the graphic novel its based on. In particular, the mainstream reviewers’ assertion that Vaughn’s film is a faithful adaptation of said source material has come in for a specific hammering, with many bloggers pointing up the differences. From what I understand, though, graphic novel and film were being developed in tandem – akin to Arthur C. Clarke’s ‘2001: A Space Odyseey’ and Stanley Kubrick’s film version – and therefore both versions diverge in some places and demonstrated complete fidelity in others. Ultimately, again like Clarke and Kubrick’s sci-fi opus, Matthew Vaughn’s film and Mark Millar’s comic book are two takes on a shared vision; they differ, but complement each other.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Baba Yaga

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Catgeory: gialli / In category: 4 of 10 / Overall: 25 of 100

Corrado Farina’s ‘Baba Yaga’ is one of those films I’d been vaguely aware of without knowing anything much about it. I came across it having fed “giallo” into the search facility while updating my rental list recently. But is it a giallo? The first time I ever wrote about gialli on this blog, I prefaced the review with a brief checklist: a guide to recognising your giallo. It tapped out at ten items:

1. Black gloves. The must-have fashion accessory for the killer-about-town.

2. An amateur sleuth, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who decides to launch their own investigation after witnessing a murder or attempted murder.

3. Totally ineffectual police officers.

4. Extended, operatic death scenes which present as a hybrid of the traditional whodunit and the visceral stalk ‘n’ slash flick.

5. Staircases, often spiral. Likewise, killers and victims alike tend to plunge from high places or down elevator shafts.

6. J&B. Product placement as blatant as Aston Martins in Bond movies.

7. Famous mainstream actors at the start or later on in their careers.

8. Gratuitous nudity. (Well, black gloves and bottles of J&B can only generate so many ticket sales.)

9. Edwige Fenech.

10. Distinctive titles, often featuring an animal (‘Don’t Torture a Duckling’), a colour (‘Deep Red’), a number (‘Five Dolls for an August Moon’), or sometimes a combination of all three (‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’).

Add to this an occasional tendency to incorporate supernatural elements, and let’s run ‘Baba Yaga’ against the checklist. It scores a big fat no on points 1, 5, 9 and 10. Point 2 is a maybe – the main character, adrift in a welter of weird shit, latches onto a hitherto overlooked detail (a quintessential giallo trope) which helps her unravel things. Likewise point 3 – some cops turn up at the end and do precisely fuck all, but their abortive attempts at sleuthing are never established in counterpoint to the amateur detective’s efforts as in the best gialli.

Point 4, half and half – there are some extended, operative (hell, positively grand guignol) dream sequences that presage a couple of swiftly portrayed, almost throwaway death scenes.

As for the rest of them: point 6 (didn’t notice, and the supremely authoritative Atrocity Nights J&B in the movies page doesn’t list ‘Baba Yaga’, so I’m guessing not); point 7 (check: Carroll Baker); and point 8 (very little nudity per se, but sleaze aplenty).

So it’s a very shallow case for ‘Baba Yaga’ as a giallo. But fuck it, it’s my blog and I’ve still got 75 movies to get through to finish this Operation 101010 project so I’m taking the minority view and deciding to allow it.

The film centres around photographer Valentina (Isabelle de Funes). When we first meet her she’s attending some kind of weird performance theatre piece in a graveyard. The police break it up and she adjourns to a society party. Later she hangs out with some sexy Marxists who talk up revolution. In the course of the film she gets involved with director Arno Treves (George Eastman); one moment he’s making a documentary attacking capitalists, the next he’s shooting a commercial for washing powder. The politics of ‘Baba Yaga’ are, to put it mildly, slightly confused.

Treves’s washing powder commercial, incidentally, is horribly racist. It anthropomorphosises a black man in a black suit as a stain and a white man in a white suit as the detergent. Whether Farina meant this ironically, I’m not sure. But it’s something of a slap in the face to the viewer. It doesn’t help, either, that an air of homophobia permeates ‘Baba Yaga’, in the shape of its eponymous anti-heroine.

Baba Yaga is a witch and a lesbian. Farina seems to have less of an issue with the whole witch aspect. Long story short: B.Y. almost runs Valentina over as she walks home from the society party, offers her a lift, and tells her they were destined to meet. She takes a clip from Valentina’s garter and promises to drop by to see her the next day. Valentina flees to her apartment where she has the first of several surreal dreams that, depending on how your look at it, (a) tap into her sexual repression, (b) feature fetishistic use of German uniforms (from both wars), (c) make no fucking sense, or (d) all of the above.

B.Y. comes calling, as promised, the next day and puts a spell on Valentina’s camera. Doing an erotic shoot with a model dressed in a revealing cowgirl outfit, the poor unfortunate collapses as if shot by the very replica pistol she’s holding.

Later, Valentina photographs a protestor at a demonstration and the guy drops dead. Valentina hits upon a self-evident solution: use a different camera. This doesn’t, however, stop her from visiting B.Y. on the pretext of using her decrepit old house as a backdrop to a photoshoot. B.Y. gives her a doll called Annette. The doll is done up in bondage gear.

At another erotic shoot, the model is stabbed during a power cut and later dies. Valentina and Treves develop the film from the possessed camera and the resultant pictures indicate that Annette (Ely Galleani) has come to life and offed said model.

(I am not making this up.)

Annette appears to Valentina, almost seduces her, then departs.

A phone call summons her to chez B.Y. Now completely under the witch’s spell, she goes. After ten minutes’ worth of kink (bondage, whipping and a quick grope), Treves turns up to save her from the proverbial fate worse than death.

Which is where I have issues with the film. Farina obviously revels in the faux sapphic imagery and yet comes across as puritanical in his denunciation of Baba Yaga as a manipulative and evil seductress. However, all of the dream sequences seem to indicate that Valentina is drawn to B.Y. I can’t help thinking that a more interesting (and certainly more erotic) film could have been wrought from the concept of Baba Yaga as Valentina’s liberator. Likewise, I’m also stumped as to why the supposedly omnipotent B.Y. wastes so much time and effort on the androgynous and unresponsive Valentina when she has the voluptuous and sexed-up Annette at her disposal. Without wishing to veer into the realms of chauvinism, laddishness and objectification, let me put it this way – Valentina or Annette, your choice:

Ahem. Moving swiftly on:

‘Baba Yaga’ is homophobic, racist and deeply confused in roughly equal measures. And it’s probably not even a giallo. The Shameless DVD release that I watched purports to be Farina’s final cut, restored from the butchering the erstwhile distributors enforced upon it. I’ve never seen said bastardised version, but if the director’s cut is this schizophrenic, I’d hate to imagine how fucked up the theatrical release was.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: Diane Lane in 'The Big Town'

Introducing a new series on The Agitation of the Mind: an early hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning celebration of all that's sultry, sensuous and seductive in cinema. And who better to start with than the incomparable Diane Lane in 'The Big Town'?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Oxford Murders

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: impulse buys / In category: 3 of 10 / Overall: 24 of 100

Why buy?

It was £3.00 (about $4.85).


I’d enjoyed Guillermo Martinez’s novel – a short, highly readable and cleverly constructed mystery.


A good cast, including the voluptuously appealing Leonor Watling.

The expectation

A cerebral murder mystery enlivened by a darkly European aesthetic and some classy performances.

The actuality

On paper, this had real potential: an intellectual murder mystery predicated on logic puzzles and the question of whether an absolute truth can ever be established; a shoal of red herrings; a double-bluff finale; an appealing young American actor paired up with a heavyweight British thesp; and a director (Alex de la Iglesia) who’s proved himself in diverse genres (horror, comedy, drama) and can generally be relied on to bring a touch of the macabre to the proceedings.

The end product, though, is infuriating. Nothing quite gels. Whereas Elijah Wood turns in a thoughtful, often understated performance as Martin, an earnest young student hoping to gain the mentorship of respected academic Arthur Seldom (John Hurt), and Leonor Watling proves luscious and sparky as Lorna, the nurse he gets involved with, the other acting performances are all over the place.

John Hurt lightly seasons the scenery and proceeds to chew with relish. Jim Carter, sporting a Colonel Blimp style moustache, hams it up as a police inspector so dim-witted he makes your average giallo copper look like Sherlock Holmes. A bizarrely cast Dominique Pinon seems to be in another film entirely, Anna Massey veers into Mrs Rochester territory and Burn Gorman, as a fellow student in competition with Martin, plays all his scenes as if locked into a stare-it-out contest.

Then there’s the demented cameo by Alex Cox. Yes, that Alex Cox. His character is an obsessive researcher who stumbles on a pattern of answers to logic problems given by educationally substandard test subjects. Realising upon interviewing them that their decidedly left-of-centre reasoning demonstrates an internal logic equal to that of a conventional or even intellectually brilliant response, his determination to further his studies in this area – to unearth some new and radical perspective on the human mind – leads him to the company of the insane and irreparable damage to his own capacity for reason.

It’s a powerhouse sequence: Cox gives it his all, while de la Iglesia, for the first and only time in the movie, really cuts loose in terms of imagery, immediacy and intensity. The pisser is, it turns out to be one of an inordinate number of red herrings. Granted, red herrings are part and parcel of the traditional murder mystery, but here they’re packed in like, er, sardines. Often inelegantly. Example: a scene in which a police psychologist speculates that the murderer is a repressed homosexual cuts to a scene where a minor character, drunk and with a chip on his shoulder, starts shouting, “I’m going to come out of the closet and arse-fuck the lot of you.” Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

Indeed, with the film’s reliance on many archetypes of the genre (something the novel uses well, because it riffs on the literary form of the whodunnit in a way that’s pretty much impossible to translate to film), its pretentions to intellectualism and the Oxford setting, it’s hard not to imagine the ghost of Inspector Morse floating around in the background. And once that thought’s in your head, it’s hard to shake the notion that watching an episode of ‘Morse’ would constitute two hours better spent.

Still, ‘The Oxford Murders’ emerges as reasonably entertaining, the lovely Leonor is easy on the eye and there’s a sting in the tale that ensures the dreaming spires don’t get too dreamy. It’s average enough that there’s nothing to get excited about, yet accomplished enough that a harsher review would be bad sportsmanship.

Good buy/bad buy?

There’s probably another viewing in it, but ultimately this should have been a rental, not a purchase.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

HELLRAISERS: The Three Musketeers

In an embarrassing example of Well Known Film Facts Totally Passing Me By, I had no idea, when I added Richard Lester’s ‘The Three Musketeers’ to the rental list, that its sequel (the cunningly titled ‘Four Musketeers’) actually compromised the second part of Dumas’s novel instead of being the rushed-into-production quick cash-in that I’d assumed it was.

Turns out, too, that both films were shot at the same time – indeed, the cast thought they were just making one (fairly long) film. When producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind released the thing in two halves, to not inconsiderable box office, the main cast united in apposite “all for one, one for all” stylee and brought a court action against the filmmakers.

Watching ‘The Three Musketeers’ over the bank holiday weekend, I had the schizophrenic experience of finding the behind-the-scenes battle more interesting than any of the swordplay on offer (don’t get me wrong: it’s excitingly done and Oliver Reed, to use the vernacular, proper goes for it; there’s just too damn much – it’s swords drawn every five minutes or so and after the fifth or sixth bout a sense of repetition sets in) and yet, as the end credits – with their little teaser for ‘The Four Musketeers’ – rolled, I was cursing that I hadn’t added that title to the rental list while I was at it.

Schizophrenic is a good description of the film overall. Oliver Reed brings real gravitas to the role of Athos, likewise Christopher Lee to the role of Rochefort, yet the presence of comic stalwarts Roy Kinnear and Spike Milligan, coupled with Frank Finlay’s buffoonish portrayal of Porthos and a general tendency by Lester to play entire sequences as exercises in broad physical comedy, gives the film an air of ‘Carry On D’Artagnan’.

Speaking of D’Artagnan, the casting of Michael York (along with that of Richard Chamberlain as Aramis) turns half of the Musketeers into pretty boys, and while the shirtless York demonstrates a buffed-up muscularity, his screen presence is at odds to Reed’s brooding intensity.

Then again, the cast as a whole is something of a pick ‘n’ mix bag: where else would you find Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welsh, Charlton Heston, Joss Ackland, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Simon Ward, Geraldine Chaplin, ‘Likely Lads’ star Rodney Bewes and (I kid you not!) Sybil Danning rubbing shoulders in the same movie?

Perhaps the unlikeliest candidate emerges as most appealing: Raquel Welsh’s aptitude for deadpan comedy is priceless, her portrayal of Constance de Bonacieux as a coquettish clutz both satirises her sex symbol status and turns what could have been a mere set-dressing role into a scene-stealing success. Roy Kinnear, too, deserves a ‘man of the match’ award for two bits of inspired silliness: his attack on Rochefort with an uprooted sapling, and his twatting of a court guard while dressed as a bear.

The pacing is uneven – because of the high-end frequency of the sword fights, the moment the film pauses to deal with court intrigue or flesh out a character, inertia sets in – and some of the acting is just plain wooden, but for all the tomfoolery George Macdonald Fraser’s script retains a commendable fidelity to the novel and at 103 minutes it’s an entertaining timewaster that doesn’t waste too much of your time. Damned if I haven’t added the follow-up to my rental list.