Thursday, September 30, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: documentaries / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 85 of 100

How to tell if people have too much free time on their hands: they make models constructed entirely of matchsticks; they can recite painstakingly memorized screeds of useless information; they write letters of complaint, usually to do with the disgraceful, decadent, wouldn’t-have-happened-in-my-day standards of film, TV and music. They count the expletives in movies.

Seriously: when was the last time you had a pad and pencil on your knee during a Scorsese DVD marathon, keeping score? You’d wear the pencil sharpener out during ‘Casino’!

‘Casino’, according to this page on Wikipedia, has 435 uses of the word fuck or a derivative thereof, leaving its perfume-mouthed-by-comparison precursor ‘Goodfellas’ lagging way behind with 300 and ‘The Boondock Saints’, a film by this reckoning so clean in its dialogue it could be programmed for children’s TV, even further behind with 239. ‘Bad Santa’ ain’t so bad at all with just 173, while ‘The Blair Witch Project’ has 154, most of them apropos of losing the fucking map. ‘In Bruges’ uses fuck a paltry 126 times, but wins out in the cunt stakes. ‘Swingers’ only just scrapes the three figures, proving that being the money don’t mean shit when it comes to saying fuck.

But, dear readers, the fuck-laden swear-fest that is ‘Casino’ is by no means the sweariest film of all time. In fact, it’s number three on the Wikepedia list. Number two is Gary Oldman’s chuckle-free directorial debut ‘Nil By Mouth’ with 470 fucks, but since it’s Ray Winstone who says most of them it’s actually pronounced “faack”, not that I’ve got a problem with that, not at all, this is Ray faackin’ Winstone and he can pronounce fuck any faackin’ way he faackin’ wants. Innit?

Number one with a bullet, though, is Steve Anderson’s documentary ‘Fuck’, a film that uses the word fuck so many times, it’s even in the title. Fuck, it is the title! ‘Fuck’ uses fuck 824 times. That’s a fuckload.

Anderson’s film, while stylistically bland (a succession of talking heads against a black backdrop punctuated by occasional bits of animation), engages in a genial way with its subject. The contributors basically fall into one of two camps: pro-fuck or anti-fuck. The pro-fuck brigade include porn stars Ron Jeremy and Tera Patrick, who talk a lot more sense than the self-appointed moralists in the other camp, gonzo journalist-cum-demented-prophet Hunter S. Thompson, and comedians Bill Maher, Drew Carey, Janeane Garofalo and the Big Yin himself Billy Connolly (without whom no documentary on swearing would be complete). Here’s Connolly on the universality of the expression “fuck off”:

“ ‘Fuck off’. It’s such a lovely pair of words. And it’s international. I don't care where you are - if somebody’s fucking with your bags in Lhasa Airport in Tibet and he’s got a shaven head and saffron clothes on and you say ‘Hey, fuck off’, he knows exactly what you mean. Exactly! He will fuck off. Off he will fuck.”

The anti-fuck faction includes conservative statesman Alan Keyes (the words “conservative” and “statesman” should tip you off), self-styled “Miss Manners” Judith Martin (a woman who looks like Mrs Bates resurrected and given a bad haircut), and whiter-than-white 50’s poster boy Pat Boone (and when I say whiter-than-white, that’s just his teeth!) who advocates without a trace element of irony that swearing is indicative of sub-literacy and that there’s no reason to tell someone to go fuck themselves when you could just as easily invite them to “impregnate yourself on the way to the door”.

Stop and think about that for a moment. What Boone is essentially saying is that it’s perfectly fine to reach a point where you no longer wish to debate intelligently with someone, where you reach for an insult, a kiss-off or a term of offence, where you make the decision to put together a sentence designed to show your contempt for the other person, to leave them stung and offended … and that it’s okay to do this just as long as you don’t use the word fuck. To my way of thinking, that’s the stuff of hypocrisy and moral cowardice. And besides, if everybody stopped saying “go fuck yourself” and started saying “go impregnate yourself” instead, “impregnate” would eventually take on the force and offensiveness of “fuck”. Why? Because they’re both words. Fuck, screw and shag have the same colloquial meaning. The only difference is that some arbitrator of moral decency decided, seemingly at random, that fuck was deeply and unutterably offensive while the other two were merely slang. They’re all just words, put together with the building blocks of letters. The only power they have is the power we give them.

Neither for nor against, expert witnesses Geoffrey Nunberg and Rheinhold Aman (both linguists) provide important testimony. Aman is the unsung hero of the film, discussing the etymology of vulgarity with academic gusto (on the myth that fuck is an acronym for Fornication Under Command of the King: “that’s 100% bullshit”) and even widening the remit to the non-verbal usage of fuck. Here’s Aman on what it truly means to flip someone the bird:

“This gesture … means ‘I’m going to fuck you in the ass’, which literally means ‘I’m going to make a woman out of you’.”

(Tomorrow, when that asshole in the 4x4 cuts you up as you’re driving to work and you give him the finger, that’s what you’re telling him. Fucking awesome!)

If I wanted to be critical, I could say that Anderson gives the pro-fuck fellas and the neutrals a fairer hearing than the anti-cuss-word camp, but to be honest the moralists make asses of themselves quite effectively enough without Anderson needing to resort to cheap editing tricks. It’s never as one-sided as ‘Religulous’, though, and Anderson is wise enough not to get hung up on a “to swear or not to swear” debate. ‘Fuck’ goes on to consider the word historically, its place in the changing social and political tides of the 70s, its use by protestors, its increasing proliferation in movies and music (did you know that NWA’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ prompted the FBI to write to the band denouncing their music, the first time the Bureau has publically taken a stance on a creative work?), and the issue of censorship. Particularly in America. Particularly the FCC. This organization has the power to fine broadcasters up to $325,000 per incidence of obscenity. As the film approaches its end credits, Anderson notes that there have been over 800 uses of fuck in ‘Fuck’, meaning that if it were aired on public television and fined per incidence, the total fine would be in the region of $260,000,000. (By way of comparison, there are 48 fucks in this article which means that if it were read out on a public broadcast station in America, they’d be hit with a fine of over fifteen and a half million dollars.)

Anderson really comes out of the pro-fuck closet here, choosing this note to end the film on and Steve Earle’s magnificently rallying ‘F the CC’ (chorus: “fuck the FCC / fuck the FBI / fuck the CIA / living in the motherfucking USA”) as his end-credits ride-out. And it’s hard not to raise a glass at the fact that this 93-minute film achieves a celebration of two so frequently overlooked things: common sense and freedom of speech.

After all, it’s just a word.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

North Face

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Germany) / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 84 of 100

As part of my month-long Clint Eastwood fest in May I reviewed ‘The Eiger Sanction’, concluding that “for all of its earlier deficiencies, the last half hour is jaw-droppingly impressive, every frame of it shot for real. No matte backgrounds, no studio mock-ups, no compositing or special effects or trick photography. Bruce Surtees, Eastwood’s regular lensman, captures the vertiginous dangers of the Eiger, his camera appraising the treacherous slopes with an all-too-believable wariness … ‘The Eiger Sanction’ is solely about visual spectacle. And when Eastwood breaks out the pitons and the guide rope and starts climbing, the film delivers.”

I hadn’t seen ‘North Face’ when I wrote that.

The climbing sequences in ‘The Eiger Sanction’ are still pretty impressive but sweet Jesus, ‘North Face’ takes it to another level. It’s like watching ‘Cop’, a perfectly good James Ellroy adaptation with James Woods on form and a memorably blunt ending, then sliding ‘L.A. Confidential’ into the DVD player.

My interest in ‘North Face’ was piqued when I discovered that director Philipp Stölzl had made the video for Rammstein’s 1998 cover of Depeche Mode’s ‘Stripped’ – a video, compromising footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Olympus’, that was banned following accusations that it was little more than Nazi propaganda. I’d always interpreted Stölzl’s aesthetic choices as an ironic commentary on the nature of propaganda and the manipulation of the image, particularly in the way the lyric “let me hear you make decisions / without your televisions” is married to incredibly heavy-handed fascistic imagery.

Fast-forward a decade and here’s Stölzl making a film about an attempt to conquer the north face of the Eiger under the edict of the Führer. Interesting, I thought; a man once accused of Nazi propaganda making a film with a backdrop of, well, Nazi propaganda. I missed ‘North Face’ on the big screen (it played for a couple of nights at a local arthouse cinema), but picked up the DVD for £4 last week. Best £4 I’ve spent in ages!

The only character in the film who has any vaguely National Socialist leanings is newspaperman Henry Arau (Ulrich Tukur) and that’s mainly because he’s just received instructions from the press office that he needs to run a big feature on the triumph of Aryan fortitude yada yada yada in conquering the north face of the Eiger because this will be seen as an exemplar of the indefatigable German athlete yada yada yada yeah whatever at the forthcoming Olympic games.

Arau, conscious that the news of Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmayer’s fatal attempt at finding a route to the summit, is still a part of the public consciousness (their bodies, at this point, have not been recovered) latches onto his secretary Luise Fellner (Johanna Wokalek)’s recollections of growing up in Berchtesgaden with talented climbers Toni Kurz (Benno Fürmann) and Andreas Hinterstoisser (Florian Lukas). Arau, encouraging Luise’s ambitions towards photojournalism, despatches her to seek out Kurz and Hinterstoisser (currently serving in the army) and sound them out on whether they’re ready to tackle the Eiger for the greater glory of the Fatherland.

Ah, this’ll be where the Stölzl propaganda controversy comes marching in, then? Not so. Stölzl cuts to a chocolate box scene of Alpine perfection, all brightly painted buildings and cozy chalets. Nazi troops are marching in precise formation in front of a barracks. But before you can hum two bars of ‘Deutschland, Deutschland über alles’, Stölzl cuts to our heroes, on latrine duty, scrubbing out the piss-stained channel of a urinal. Their punishment, apparently, for ignoring curfew to go off for a bit of extra-curricular mountain climbing. Not that it deters them. Next pass they get, they’re off again. Cycling out of the barracks, the sentries snap the Nazi salute and chorus “Heil Hitler”; Kurz and Hinterstoisser chorus “Auf wiedersehen” by way of response.

Propaganda? None here, freunde.

Although Kurz and Hinterstoisser agreed, after some prevarication on Kurz’s part, to undertake the attempt on the Eiger, they do it for themselves not for the Party. They even quit the army in order to do so. From this point on, the Nazi propaganda background is purely that: background. As soon as our heroes start to scale the north face, all considerations of politics, history and national identity are firmly backgrounded while a tense and vertiginous drama of man vs. the elements – which segues into a drama of desperate survival when the elements very quickly prove the victor in said contest – unfolds, Stölzl documenting every harrowing moment with chilling realism.

Moreover, he reduces Arau’s sloganeering to so many pathetically empty words, cutting from Kurz and Hinterstoisser’s ordeal on the Eiger, to a bow-tied and verbose Arau holding court in the restaurant of the plush hotel he and Luise are booked into. Wine flows and fine meals are consumed, the contrast with the climbers’ meager rations as harsh and immediate as a slap in the face.

Stölzl is absolutely in control of his material. He structures the film effectively, the cuts back to the hotel always demonstrating a purpose – whether a juxtaposition or a subtle reminder, during Arau’s conversations with a pensive Austrian businessman, that events are playing out as Nazi Germany maneuvers Austria into annexation – and the battle for survival on the mountain depicted without recourse to histrionics or false heroics; depicted, authentically, as an ordeal.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sally Menke

Actor/director relationships are often celebrated. Director/editor relationships less so. But would Scorsese’s films be quite so unique, so immediate, without the contribution of Thelma Schoonmaker? Or Tarantino’s without Sally Menke?

In the saddest newest since Natasha Richardson’s death, it’s been reported that Sally Menke was found dead today in Beachwood Canyon, California where she had been hiking. Cause of death has yet to be confirmed.

Sally Menke edited all of Tarantino’s movies. She was 56.

There’s a poignant tribute on the Film Experience Blog which expresses all the sentiments I’m feeling at the moment.


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: biopics / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 83 of 100

Brian Gilbert’s handsomely produced biopic of poet, novelist, playwright, wit, raconteur and all-round genius Oscar Wilde has a lot going for it. The period recreation is convincing without ever suffocating the viewer in the manner of, say, a BBC Sunday night costume drama. The script, by Julian Mitchell from Richard Ellman’s biography, is literate and witty. The performances are excellent across the board, with Stephen Fry perfectly cast in the title role. If anyone deserves the sobriquet “an Oscar Wilde for our times”, it is probably Stephen Fry.

With one caveat (and it’s an unfortunately significant one), I enjoyed ‘Wilde’ very much. And yet it falls prey to the inherent problem of virtually all biopics: it is, by its very nature, episodic. Opening in 1882 with Wilde fetching up in Colorado as part of his grand tour (Gilbert plays the opening credits sequence, in terms of its imagery and music, like a western), the film then packs the incidents of almost two decades into less than two hours.

Thus, in short order, Wilde returns to Britain, marries Constance Lloyd (Jennifer Ehle), makes his mark in society, fathers two children, meets Robbie Ross (Michael Sheen), has his first homosexual experience, writes ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, enjoys huge success with ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’, meets Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (Jude Law) and the two of them embark on a rocky and ultimately destructive relationship.

This is the point at which the film’s pace slows and, for a while, it becomes something of a two-hander, scene after scene depicting Wilde’s almost hopeless infatuation in the face of Bosie’s increasingly callous and selfish behaviour. Their relationship is tempestuous (seriously, these guys were more on-off than Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood) and Bosie’s mood swings are exacerbated by the influence of his father, the Marquess of Queensbury (Tom Wilkinson), a bullish no-son-of-mine type who decries Wilde as a pervert.

When Bosie’s brother (also gay) commits suicide rather than face his father’s wrath, Bosie seizes the opportunity of the Marquess making defamatory comments about Wilde in writing to convince Wilde to launch a libel action. Ross begs him not to but Wilde, committed to stand up against the hypocrisies of society, goes ahead. Minor problem: the defamatory comment in question (“posing sodomite”) is, although hateful, not without basis in fact. Therefore Wilde is forced to perjure himself. With the defence ready to call rent boys with whom Wilde had dallied, Wilde drops the prosecution against Queensbury, leaving himself (a) bankrupt after being obliged to settle the defendant’s legal fees and (b) facing charges from the Crown of gross indecency.

The sheer god-awfulness of British society’s attitudes to homosexuality at that time (and, from the experience of some of my gay friends, it seems to be an inculcated prejudice that’s still a long way from being eradicated) are effectively highlighted. Fry’s performance is exemplary, infusing Wilde with a dignity and a vulnerability beneath the flamboyance and flippant witticisms.

A basic knowledge of Oscar Wilde’s life and work, while not essential to an appreciation of Gilbert’s film, helps contextualise the references and quotes as well as clarifying the chronology. Although I’m confused as to when the film actually ends. The final scenes (SPOILER ALERT) are of Wilde visiting Constance’s grave; Wilde reminiscing with Ross; and Wilde, having travelled abroad, reuniting (albeit briefly) with Bosie. Yet Wilde and Bosie’s final period of time together was in 1897 whereas Constance died in 1898. An earlier scene has Constance visit Wilde in gaol (old spelling used by way of homage to his epic poem ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ – my favourite work by Oscar Wilde) and assure him she won’t divorce him and that he can return to his family as long as he never sees Bosie again. Later, Wilde tells Ross that now he’s lost his wife and is disallowed to see his children, he may as well see Bosie again. (SPOILERS END)

It grates that the filmmakers, after demonstrating so much commitment to their subject, blithely fuck with historical accuracy for no other reason I can discern than creating a Hollywood-style “happy” ending with Wilde and Bosie locked in each other’s embrace. Oscar Wilde was a literary genius, but like anyone of great creative capacity he was a flawed and deeply complex individual. ‘Wilde’ is almost a great movie, but misses out on greatness because, in the final analysis, it avoids its subject’s complexities and tries to iron out the flaws by sanctifying him.

Monday, September 27, 2010

10 Things I Hate About You

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: films with numbers in the title / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 82 of 100

Kicking off in the mid-90s with ‘Clueless’, there was a short-lived trend for literary adaptations updated to a modern high-school setting (‘Clueless’ was based on Jane Austen’s ‘Emma’). The whole thing fizzled out in 2001 with ‘O’, an oh-so-serious attempt at ‘Othello’ centred around a high school basketball team. (Although I guess you could argue Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’, not a specific adaptation but an homage to the tradition of hard-boiled private eye fiction, as the last – and certainly the best – entry in the cycle.)

‘10 Things I Hate About You’, made in 1999, updates Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ although its title and its pivotal (if cringingly embarrassing) scene refer to an inversion of Sonnet 141. The basic set-up is: Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the new kid at Padua High School, immediately smitten with Ivy League princess Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) despite his new buddy Michael (David Krumholtz)’s advice that he doesn’t stand a chance. Cameron and Bianca seem to hit it off, but there are two obstacles: one is narcissistic jock Joey (Andrew Keegan), keen on bedding Bianca himself, and the other is Bianca’s father Walter (Larry Miller). You see, Walt’s a gynaecologist (“up to my elbows in placenta all day long”) and many of his clients are teenage girls. Hence he’s a teensy-weensy bit over-protective.

Walter: This morning I delivered a set of twins to a fifteen year old girl. You know what she said to me?
Bianca: “I’m a crack whore who should have made my skeazy boyfriend wear a condom”?
Walter: Close, but no. She said “I should have listened to my father”.
Bianca: She did not.
Walter: Well, that’s what she would have said if she hadn’t been so doped up.

Walter doesn’t worry so much about his elder daughter Kat (Julia Stiles), mainly because she’s a proto-feminist agitator more concerned with reading Sylvia Plath, arguing the toss with teachers and basically encapsulating herself in the kind of don’t-fuck-with-me vibe that could easily create seismic activity. As evidenced by Kat’s little chat with school counsellor Ms Perky (a scene-stealing Allison Janney):

Ms Perky: I hear you were terrorizing Mr Morgan’s class again.
Kat: Expressing my opinion is not a terrorist action.
Ms Perky: The way you expressed your opinion to Bobby Ridgeway? By the way, his testicle retrieval operation went quite well in case you’re interested.
Kat: I still maintain that he kicked himself in the balls.

Given Kat’s least-likely-to status in the dating game (let alone the possibility of getting knocked up), Walter declares that Bianca can only start dating when Kat does. Thus it is that Cameron and Michael set out to find someone brave or foolhardy enough to put the moves on Kat. When all of their potential candidates bottle out (one of them citing that he’d only date Kat “if we were the last two people on earth and there were no sheep left”), they set their sights on mysterious bad-boy and downright anti-social type Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) only to realise they going to have to pay him. So they manipulate Joey, exploiting his designs on Bianca, into ponying up the moolah.

‘10 Things I Hate About You’ remains arguably more faithful to its source material than ‘Clueless’ or ‘O’, navigating a maze of narrative contrivances thanks to an irreverent script and good performances from its cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Heath Ledger both demonstrate why they later graduated to working for Christopher Nolan, Julia Stiles does sparky and attitudinous like no-one else (seriously, you wouldn’t spill her pint), Larisa Oleynik pulls off an amusing combination of girl-next-door and ditzy blonde, Larry Miller is a hoot (particularly when he tries to communicate with Bianca in what he imagines his her argot: “I'm down, I've got the 411, and you are not going out and getting jiggy with some boy, I don't care how dope his ride is”) and Allison Janney all but waltzes off with the film as the school counselor who really can’t be bothered with the kids and just wants to finish writing her erotic novel.

For the most part, the humour is a tad saltier than your average high school comedy, pace the scene where Ms Perky berates Patrick for exposing himself in the cafeteria. He responds that he was only “joking with the lunch lady. It was a bratwurst.” Ms Perky coolly arches an eyelid: “A bratwurst. Aren’t we the optimist?”

Unfortunately, things ebb towards the end. Patrick turns out to be a mostly okay dude, Kat bonds with her sister, Walter comes through for his daughters, etc, etc, ad nausem. ‘10 Things I Hate About You’ falls victim to too many formulaic and utterly predictable moments in its third act; and while it remains a cut above the likes of ‘A Cinderella Story’ or ‘Wild Child’, this late-in-the-game quality control dip means that it doesn’t quite get the same grades as ‘Heathers’ or ‘Mean Girls’ in the all-too-small pantheon of genuinely good high school movies.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dead Snow

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Norway) / In category: 8 of 10 / Overall: 81 of 100

With neighbouring Sweden quick to declare neutrality, Norway suffered the brunt of Nazi oppression as brutally as any other occupied country. The Norwegian Resistance remain one of World War II’s least celebrated underground movements, certainly in terms of cinematic representation. I can think of only two: Sunday afternoon favourite ‘Heroes of Telemark’ (an overly Hollywoodized account of the sabotage of a heavy water plant) and ‘Max Manus’ (aka ‘Man of War’), which I’ve not seen but apparently stirred up controversy in Norway, some reviewers accusing it of glorifying Resistance acts which resulted in harsh reprisals against Norwegian citizens.

One day, someone will make the definitive Norwegian Resistance movie. A movie that celebrates the heroism of the underground fighters and is honest about the hardships they endured. A movie that is brave enough to tackle the moral complexities and grey areas of the subject and doesn’t just simply paint the German characters as a batch of straight-out-of-central-casting rent-a-Hun type.

In the meantime, though, there’s ‘Dead Snow’.

Which is about Nazi zombies. In Norway.

It’s a strange quirk of cinema that there are more Nazi zombie movies than there are movies about the Norwegian Resistance. It’s perhaps less surprising that most of them are truly dreadful. Jean Rollin’s ‘Zombie Lake’ – whose production values were so bargain basement it should have been retitled ‘Swimming Pool of the Zombies’ – springs to mind.

‘Dead Snow’ is easily the best Nazi zombie movie I’ve seen. That in itself isn’t saying much. Although it’s entertaining, properly gory, often darkly funny and all done in the worst possible taste (the shithouse sex scene with the finger-sucking: eeeeeeeewww), it’s hard to escape the feeling that you’ve seen it all before.

Let’s take a whistlestop tour through the delights of ‘Dead Snow’ with parenthetical observations where similar tropes have previously been employed: a group of students (pick your favourite 80s stalk ‘n’ slash franchise) repair to a remote cabin in the wilds (let’s just go with ‘Cabin Fever’ and leave it at that, the article will get too long otherwise) for the purposes of drinking, shagging (pick your favourite 80s stalk ‘n’ slash franchise) and extreme sports (‘High Lane’). During the first evening there, a vaguely creepy old guy turns up and tells them of the horror that happened there many years ago (‘The Fog’).

The students discover some hidden treasure which is connected with the macabre events (‘The Fog’) and decide to divvy it up. Bad decision. In short order, several of their number are decimated by zombies (anything with ‘Dead’ in the title) while the others try to barricade the cabin against the flesh-eating hordes (‘Night of the Living Dead’) who turn out to be an undead Nazi platoon (‘Zombie Lake’, ‘Shock Waves’). When an attempt to fight them off goes tits up and the survivors almost immolate themselves in an accidental fire (‘Night of the Living Dead’), they decide to make a run for it.

There’s more: two characters take on a bunch of zombies using some things they find in a shed (‘Shaun of the Dead’); a second wave of zombies appear towards the end, rising from beneath the ground, decomposing hands reaching upwards (‘Carrie’); a scene of gruesome black comedy is wrought from someone’s intestines spilling out (‘Dog Soldiers’); likewise from a makeshift chainsaw arm amputation (‘Evil Dead 2’); there’s some derring-do off a precipitous ledge (‘Where Eagles Dare’); and a character tries to assuage the zombies, late in the game, by giving the gold back (‘The Fog’ again).

‘Dead Snow’ doesn’t have a single original idea. And while this is forgivable in many films – particularly trashily entertaining horrors – much of the fun in recycling tropes and trading in clichés and stereotypes comes from how imaginatively filmmakers can subvert or satirize them. The only subversiveness going on in ‘Dead Snow’ is that – for a Norwegian film – it happily lets loose the Nazi horror on the fjords all over again and cheerfully watches its hapless protagonists get killed off by them.

The biggest disappointment, though, not just with ‘Dead Snow’ but with the small handful of other Nazi zombie titles I’ve seen, is that it takes an awesome concept – Nazi zombies!! fuckin’ zombies who are Nazis!!! – and does absolutely nothing with it. At the end of the day, it’s just the same zombie movie you’ve seen before, whether it was made it Pittsburgh or London, except the zombies are wearing uniforms. Maybe one day someone will make the definitive Nazi zombie movie, where the threat becomes so widespread that a band of desperate citizens form an underground resistance movement …

The Double Life of Veronique

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: Eurovisions (Poland) / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 80 of 100

Made just prior to his swansong ‘Three Colours’ trilogy, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s ‘The Double Life of Veronique’ is an autumnal work: elliptical, enigmatic and sublimely beautiful. The film won the International Critic’s Jury Prize for Best Film at Cannes, as well as Best Actress for Irene Jacob – to whom the epithet “enigmatic and sublimely beautiful” also applies.

Opening with vignettes depicting two identical young girls – one Polish, one French – experiencing a small moment of childhood wonder, Kieslowski spends the next half hour charting the life of the Polish girl, Veronika, now in her mid twenties, as she progresses from talented music student to trained soprano about to make her professional debut. Then the unexpected happens and, in France, Veronique’s love-making with her well-meaning but bland boyfriend is interrupted as a feeling of intense melancholy afflicts her.

Veronique, also a singer, decides to abandon her vocation. She ekes out a living as a music teacher. One day, classes finish early and the kids are entertained by a marionette show. The puppeteer, also a children’s author with ambitions of writing “a novel, a real book”, catches Veronique’s eye. Later, she receives cryptic gifts in the mail and finds herself inexplicably drawn to this quiet, intense stranger.

As the title intimates, ‘The Double Life of Veronique’ is about duality. About mirrored lives. Kieslowski subtly integrates this theme into the fabric of the film. His heroines are often captured in reflection: in mirrors, or in the windows of trains, buses or shops. Elsewhere, images, perceptions and POVs are refracted or distorted: through lenses, through marbles, through stained glass.

Parallels exist through incidents in Veronika and Veronique’s lives. Both have a childhood injury. Both have close relationships with their doting fathers. Both bear witness to old women struggling through the day (a reminder, perhaps, of their absent mothers?). Veronika worries about the legal matters her elderly aunt is consulting a lawyer about; Veronique agrees to lie in court to expedite a friend’s divorce proceedings.

Kieslowski never forces these points of comparison. Nor does he provide any explanation of what connects Veronika and Veronique – although a momentary glance as a tourist coach passes through Krakow provides Veronika with the knowledge that she has a double – but leaves it up to the viewer to tease out the connections and interrelationships from the web of ambiguity, suggestion and poetic images that he weaves with the elegance and assurance of a mature and accomplished artist.

European double bill

Two very different European films coming up today, yet both - in their own way - touching on concerns of national identity, cultural differences and the mysterious psychological imports which define the individual.

Oh, who the fuck am I kidding? One's a Kieslowski film that pretty much ticks all the art movie boxes, and the other's got Nazi zombies in it.

Stay tuned ...

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: biopics / In category: 5 of 10 / Overall: 79 of 100

For anyone who’s not familiar with it, ‘Ludwig’ is Luchino Visconti’s epic account of the eccentric life and mysterious death of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. It stars, in the title role, that monarch of the two-by-four timber yard school of acting, Helmut Berger. It’s glacially paced. Whole scenes play out as dialogue-heavy tableaux. It runs nearly four hours.

Even by Visconti’s standards, it’s a long haul. In the time it would take to watch ‘Death in Venice’ (two hours five minutes), Ludwig has just got started building the elaborate fairytale castles that would bankrupt his kingdom. By the time the sweeping saga that is ‘The Leopard’ (two hours forty minutes*) would be ending, Ludwig hasn’t even got round to his little homo-erotic interlude in a log cabin with a bunch of strapping young men, some of whom engage in a little knee-slapping morris dancing (I am not making this up). There’s still his removal from the throne, incarceration and unexplained death to come.

Nonetheless ‘Ludwig’ exerts a strange fascination. It’s as if, in Visconti’s obsession with painting the screen with the tiniest of historical details, a form of hypnosis is taking place. “Painting” is an apposite description. Visconti and his cinematographer Armando Nannuzzi treat each frame of celluloid as a Rennaissance artist would a vast canvas. Even at its most static, ‘Ludwig’ is a work of exceptional visual beauty.

It’s a shame, though, that so much of the film is static. As Visconti proved with ‘Death in Venice’, made a year before ‘Ludwig’ in 1971, the movement of a character through a milieu that defines or destroys them (as in von Aschenbach’s melancholy peregrinations through Venice) can say so much more than screeds of expository dialogue. There is a superb, wordless sequence in ‘Ludwig’ following the resignation of a member of the monarch’s cabinet over the grotesque misspending on the ornate, ostentatious and unoccupied castles. The individual in question fires off a report to Ludwig’s cousin, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Romy Schneider), before he steps down. Elisabeth, perturbed, decides to visit one of the castles for herself. A beautiful, somewhat imperious woman, bedecked in finery and attended by a lady-in-waiting, she is dwarfed by the opulence of Ludwig’s chosen style of architecture; rendered almost insignificant by the grand baroque folly of room after cavernous room. Her reaction slowly ebbs from childish delight to a wordless realization of the extent of her cousin’s obsession.

Romy Schneider offers arguably the most memorable performance in the film, even though she was initially reluctant to participate. She had already played Elisabeth between 1955 and 1957 in Ernst Marischka’s trilogy ‘Sissi’, ‘Sissi: The Young Empress’ and ‘Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress’ – if you’ve never seen them, or the single-film English-dubbed edit ‘Forever My Love’, then imagine a chocolate box morphing into several reels of film and you’re halfway there – and struggled to prove herself a serious actress as a result. Fortunately, Visconti persuaded her and the result is a flintier and more penetrating interpretation of Elisabeth, the luminous Schneider reclaiming in fine style the role that almost typecast her.

Hers is not the only commendable performance. Gert Frobe (of ‘Goldfinger’ fame) does fine work as Father Hoffmann, the priest who tries to inspire Ludwig to lead his people rather than succumb to his own personal predilections. Trevor Howard is excellent as Wagner, likewise Silvana Mangano as Cosima von Bulow (later to be Mrs Wagner). Visconti includes – with no narrative reason but reveling in the sheer loveliness of the moment – Wagner’s Christmas gift of the newly composed ‘Siegfried-Idyll’ to Cosima, musicians lining the stairs and hallway of their house to serenade her as she emerges from her boudoir.

Berger’s performance might have proved the film’s Achille’s heel, but while his line readings are sometimes the stuff of amateur dramatics, he embodies Ludwig’s emotional anguish, sexual ambiguity and mental fragility to surprisingly impressive effect.

Overall, ‘Ludwig’ contains much of what usually leaves me cold about biopics, including its superannuated running time. In the hands of a journeyman director and without the stellar supporting performances, ‘Ludwig’ would be a drag. As it is, it demands enough from the viewer that you can’t just watch it casually. Visconti is one of those deeply committed, profoundly intelligent directors for whom the medium is an art form; his work sorts out the cineastes from the film fans.

*I’m basing this on the UK release most commonly shown on British TV. To the best of my knowledge, there are at least half a dozen versions of ‘The Leopard’ of vastly different running times. Visconti’s original cut clocked in at three hours and twenty five minutes – which is still shorter than ‘Ludwig’.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 7 of 10 / Overall: 78 of 100

Following his acclaimed short film ‘Voices of a Distant Star’ in 2002, Makoto Shinkai released his debut feature ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ two years later. Picking up Best Animated Film at the Mainichi Film Awards and a Technical Excellence Award at the Tokyo International Anime Fair, the buzz was enough to earn him the sobriquet “the new Miyazaki”.

I almost feel sorry for him. You don’t inherit a mantle like that without having to brace yourself against an inevitable backlash. Imagine being called the new Scorsese, the new Cartier-Bresson, the new Iain Banks, the new [insert name of favourite artist in any medium] … you’re being asked to fill some pretty big shoes, as well as being freighted with the weight of an unreasonable expectation.

So how does ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ measure up? Well, there’s a hint of Miyazaki in Shinkai’s obvious love of flight. There’s even, in the broadest strokes, an evocation of Miyazaki’s environmental concerns (although in Shinkai’s film the threat to the planet comes from something very different than the ravages mankind is inflicting on it). None of Miyazaki’s feminist sensibilities are in evidence, even though the heroine plays a major part. Another point of departure is Shinkai’s leaning towards sci-fi tropes whereas Miyazaki tends to embrace a more outright fantasy-based milieu.

There’s enough evidence, then, to make the comparison, but just as much to argue for an appraisal of Shinkai as an artist in his own right. And, with the caveat that the narrative doesn’t quite benefit from as much attention as the aesthetics and the structure is a tad fussy, it has to be said that ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ is an assured, impressive and often achingly beautiful film.

Shinkai spends the first twenty minutes or so establishing the location, the characters and the backdrop of increasingly fraught international politics against which the rest of the film will play out. The setting is a divided Japan. The border between the Union and the Alliance (their political differences and the history and extent of the schism are somewhat foggy) falls near the Hokkaido (now renamed Eko) province. Our two protagonists, soon to be equally divided, are Hiroki and Takuya. Precociously talented students, they are obsessed with a nearby tower on the Union side: needle thin and seeming to reach the clouds, its purpose is a mystery. Hiroki and Takuya combine their technical knowledge, resources and funds and attempt to build a light aircraft which will carry them to the tower.

Given the natural order of things, you can’t be that age, that inseparable and that fixated on a project like building your own plane without a girl coming between you. Cue sensitive, violin-playing Sayuri who kindles romantic feelings in Hiroki but seems to form a platonic attachment to both of them. The boys get part-time work for a defence contractor whose business is increasing as political tensions mount. The US, frustrated in their attempts to inspect the mysterious tower, applies increasing pressure.

Thus far, Shinkai paints a poignant and slightly melancholy portrait of young adulthood poised on the loss of innocence and gives his protagonists the space to develop. Suddenly, though, the story leaps ahead three years and without a whisper of exposition we’re plunged into Takuya’s new lifestyle working as a military researcher trying to establish the role of the tower in the integration of a parallel universe into our world, matter from the parallel universe gradually expanding to “overwrite” the Earth. This sci-fi element is so abruptly incorporated that you almost seem to be watching a different film.

Meanwhile, Hiroki has moved to Tokyo to complete his education. Armed patrols are on the streets, tanks and materiel being moved on trains. Despondent and alone, he dreams of Saruyi. Then he discovers that, soon after he and Takuya parted company – leaving the aircraft unfinished – Sayuri fell into a coma which is in some way connected with the tower and the parallel universe; she is now being kept under observation at a military facility. Meanwhile Okabe, the boys’ old boss at the munitions factory, has joined an underground movement who plan to destroy the tower.

After the lethargically paced, character-driven first twenty minutes, it’s as if the narrative engages warp drive. The story breathlessly races from Eko to Toyko and back again, by way Sayuri’s dream world. The tone veers from downbeat romantic drama to high-concept sci-fi to resistance-themed war movie a la ‘Heroes of Telemark’. The climax, as the boys’ finally completed aircraft circles the tower on a life-or-death, everything-in-the-balance mission, comes on like ‘Porco Rosso’ reimagined by Douglas Sirk.

In many a movie, this degree of aesthetic schizophrenia would prove insurmountable. Yet somehow – somehow – Shinkai brings it all together. There are flaws, but overall the filmmakers’ vision is so persuasive and the quality of the animation so breathtakingly gorgeous that it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘The Place Promised in Our Early Days’ is a film to revisit, not for the characters or the story, but just to gaze at.

SOMETHING FOR THE WEEKEND: Barbara Bouchet in Don't Torture a Duckling

Friday, September 24, 2010

Normal service is resumed

After a fortnight of hijacking friends' computers, I am finally solvent again, my debt to T-Mobile has been settled and once again I have internet access at home.

Which means that my hit-and-run reviewing schedule designed to complete Operation 101010 by 10.10.10 is looking more or less feasible. Stay tuned for a cavalcade of posts over the next fortnight.

Stay tuned, as well, for the resumption of all things sultry, slinky and seductive as Something For The Weekend makes its triumphant return, a little after midnight, with the downright delectable Miss B— … ah, but that would be telling.

See you on the wrong side of the witching hour …

Grave of the Fireflies

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: anime / In category: 6 of 10 / Overall: 77 of 100

Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy undertook a complete retrospective of Studio Ghibli earlier this year. Click here for his review of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’. It describes an almost identical emotional response to the film as that which I had. It does so more eloquently than I could hope to.

Read Tim’s review, then – if you feel there’s anything more that needs to be said – pop back here and read my thoughts.

As a recent convert to anime, I’ve already experienced what long-term anime fans must have put up with for years on end to the point at which they’re probably ready to throttle the next person who says it to them. The scenario: you’re talking to someone who’s never seen an anime. They’re not entirely sure what the word even means. You elucidate. You mention some of your favourite titles. You pick something by way of recommendation that is easily accessible: a good anime starter kit (I normally tip a nod to ‘Kiki’s Delivery Service’ or ‘Spirited Away’, the non-anime aficionado at least standing a chance of having heard of the latter due to the Oscar). They listen politely, a frown slowly sketching its way across their brow. You finish talking. They give you a sideways glance, pause for a moment as if debating whether to give voice to it or not, then say, “But they’re, like, cartoons right?”

I now have a response to this. I will simply lend my copy of ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ to anyone who says that, or any variation of it, from now on. When they return it, I’ll ask whether they cried. Anyone who says no is either clinically dead or a liar.

A brief digression: I never used to cry much at films. Even as a kid, seeing ‘E.T.’ at the age of seven or eight, sitting in an auditorium full of children of a similar age all of whom had been reduced to lumps of blubbering jelly, I remained resolutely dry-eyed. ‘Titanic’? I felt like crying – but only at the waste of five quid and three hours of my life I’d never have again. I didn’t even blub at the end of ‘Toy Story 3’. But … I fucking blubbed ten minutes into ‘Up’, oh hell yeah. Big style at the end of ‘Shadowlands’; I remember exiting the Showcase, stumbling across the car park and sitting in my car for a good ten minutes before I was in an appropriate state to drive. The “it’s not your fault” scene in ‘Good Will Hunting’? Pass the Kleenex. ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – first scene and last scene, every damn time.

It’s a funny thing. Some movies just hit me. Others try to and I resent that their directors are so blatantly trying to manipulate me. One of the great masters of emotional manipulation – to such a degree, in my opinion, that it borders on emotional pornography – is Steven Spielberg. I didn’t cry at ‘Schindler’s List’. In fact I got annoyed at it.

Which means I can’t take the easy route and call ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ the ‘Schindler’s List’ of anime. To do so would be a disservice. Apart from a late-in-the-game use of Amelita Galli-Curci’s syrupy rendition of ‘There’s No Place Like Home’ on the soundtrack (this in a film whose protagonists’ home is destroyed about five minutes in), writer/director Isao Takahata doesn’t put a foot wrong or try to sugar-coat the grimness of his material with a coating of sentimentality.

This isn’t to say, however, that he doesn’t find moments of genuine beauty, poignancy and humanity amidst the suffering. How much suffering? Well, the story starts with teenage Seito and his younger sister Sesuko surviving an air raid over rural Japan that destroys their home. Finding their way to a makeshift hospital in the grounds of a school, Seito discovers his mother, hideously injured and almost mummified in bandages. He’s old enough and savvy enough to know that she stands no chance of recovery, but elects not to tell Sesuko.

Fetching up at the home of their aunt, a staunch patriot who berates Seito for not “serving his country” (never mind that Seito’s father is an admiral in the navy) and whose snide, petty judgementalism finally drives Seito and Sesuko out of her house and into the woods where they establish a makeshift home in an old shelter that no-one else uses and do their best to fend for themselves.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ – and if you’re wondering about the significance of the title, it’s explained in a scene which is truly heartbreaking – can best be described as being about the resilience (not the triumph, it’s too honest a movie to fob you off with that) of the human spirit. It’s about how – in the midst of conflict, uncertainty and sudden death – a slender thread of humanity can spin itself out even as hunger and deprivation deplete the body and hope threatens to ebb from the soul.

I really don’t want to say too much about this film. I don’t want to describe its narrative beyond the broad strokes I’ve already given. I don’t want to discuss how poignant the framing device is. I don’t want to reveal why it’ll break your heart, open your tear ducts and leave you feeling like you’ve been through everything its painfully young heroes endure – just that it will.

‘Grave of the Fireflies’ is a work of terrible beauty, as quietly poetic as it is overwhelmingly intense. It is at once a celebration and a lament, a hymn and a howl of outrage. It treats its material more effectively and with more emotional responsibility than most live action films of a similar ilk. I still have many more anime titles to discover, explore and appreciate, but I’m already confident that this will prove itself one of the most important.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: gialli / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 76 of 100

The third of Dario Argento’s so called "animal trilogy", ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ has virtually bugger all to do with its predecessors except for sharing a bit of wonky science with ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’. Even calling it the "animal trilogy" is a misnomer: ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’ and ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ reference birds and insects respectively, while a line of Karl Malden’s dialogue pinpoints the title of ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’ as "the old naval whip".

The divergence of ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ from Argento’s first two films is important. In ‘The Bird with the Crystal Plumage’, Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is powerless to prevent a murder and haunted by the certainty that he saw something important, some clue, something he can’t quite put his finger on. In ‘Cat o’ Nine Tails’, Franco Arno (Karl Malden) overhears someone talking about blackmail – and possibly murder – but Franco is blind and, unable to identify them, relies on the assistance of reporter Carlo Giordani (James Franciscus).

Dalmas and Arno are bystanders who turn amateur sleuth when they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time and the police prove incompetent. Such tropes are staples of gialli. Roberto Tobias (Michael Brandon) in ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’, however, doesn’t conform to the archetype. As Maitland McDonagh puts in it ‘Broken Mirrors, Broken Minds’, "he’s a transitional protagonist who bridges the gap between the relative innocents – Dalmas, Arno, Giordani – and the relatively guilty – Marc Daly in ‘Deep Red’ and, most spectacularly, Peter Neal in ‘Tenebrae’."

Also, ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ is that rare example of a giallo where the police – incompetent or not – are entirely absent. Tobias has good reason not to turn to them. The drummer in a pretty average rock band, Tobias gets the feeling he’s being followed. In short order, he goes from paranoid to just plain annoyed. Turning the tables by following the follower, Tobias confronts the man in a deserted theatre. A knife is pulled. They struggle. The man plunges from the stage. As Tobias, confused and scared, stands holding the bloody knife, the beam of a stage light hits him and a masked figure in one of the balconies raises a camera and snaps a series of incriminating pictures.

Pictures which turn up in the mail. Pictures which are left at Tobias’s house after a party. It’s as if, he confides to his drop-out friend Godfrey (Bud Spencer), he’s being blackmailed. Yet there are no demands for money. When his tormentor breaks into the drummer’s house one night and gets the drop on him, Tobias intuits a darker motive: the masked man wants to kill him. Here ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ makes another departure from the giallo rulebook: Tobias doesn’t play amateur sleuth in order to unravel the mystery; nor is he left to puzzle the meaning of an important but hitherto overlooked clue. The only thing Tobias fixates on is a recurring dream about someone getting beheaded.

Godfrey (God for short) recommends a private eye, the camp and generally incompetent Arrosio (Jean-Pierre Marielle), a man who has yet to solve a single case but is convinced that, by the law of averages, he’s bound to solve this one. It’s Arrosio who does all of the sleuthing in ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’, and he only enters the proceedings round about the halfway mark. So what does Tobias do during all of this? He sends his highly strung wife Nina (Mimsy Farmer) away, dallies with her foxy cousin Dalia (Francine Racette), ignores all suggestions that he leave town or tell the police everything and, finally, sits it out in his apartment, gun in hand, waiting for his nemesis to turn up.

All told, Tobias is a pretty shabby hero, and the people who surround him are no less so. His relationship with Nina is falling apart. He seems distant from his bandmates. His only real friends are vagrants. His housekeeper figures out early on who’s behind the mask but rather than take the information to Tobias or to the police enacts a blackmail scam which brutally backfires. Neither Tobias’s victim or his assailant are what they seem. Gender concepts are skewered. An element of troilism both sexual and psychological is at work.

‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ is one of Argento’s least seen works, thanks to its long-standing unavailability. I first saw it as a horrible, washed-out, panned-and-scanned pirate video. A few years ago I stumped up for a German DVD on import; the assemblage was a complete version, but taken from two sources which accounted for intermittent blips in quality. It’s dark and murky film even in a decent print, with arguably its creepiest sequence – the housekeeper waiting for the blackmail money in a gradually emptying public park as dusk draws on – played out as a symphony of shadows.

Many of the key scenes take place at night or in low-lit places – the confrontation in the theatre; Tobias menaced in his own home; Dalia hiding from an unseen intruder; Tobias’s stand-off with the killer; the abrupt and ironic coda on which the film closes – with only Tobias’s recurring dream of the beheading providing a hard glare of light.

Even the occasional touches of humour are cynical and nasty: Tobias surreptitiously meeting Godfrey at an undertakers’ convention; Arrosio, the butt of homophobic stereotyping from the outset, finally cracking a case when it’s too late to savour his victory; the Tobias’s dream/killer’s fate juxtaposition which ladles on the tombstone humour with a gravedigger’s shovel. McDonagh’s right – Tobias provides a link from the beleaguered heroes of the first two films to the compromised and complicit protagonists of Argento’s later work – but in its concept and structure (if not quite achieving the same bravura aestheric) ‘Four Flies on Grey Velvet’ is every bit as cynical and gut-wrenching as ‘Deep Red’ or ‘Tenebrae’.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

It Happened One Night

Posted as part of Operation 101010
Category: comedies / In category: 9 of 10 / Overall: 75 of 100

Frank Capra’s 1934 Oscar-grabber (four gongs: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress) pretty much sets the standard for romantic comedies. It’s also a pretty good road movie. Made now, and with the main characters and narrative tropes intact – mismatched couple; bullish rich father; truculent newspaper editor; gabby wiseass with an angle to play; poor little rich girl culture clash set-pieces; a running joke about sleeping arrangements; a final obstacle that almost puts the kibosh on the burgeoning romance; a runaway bride denouement – the content would seem clichéd, but that’s only because Capra marshals his material with such aplomb, creating a sparky and quick-witted classic, that Hollywood has spent seven and a half decades tirelessly cribbing from it.

Do I need to recap the plot? Probably not, but this’d be a damn short review otherwise so here goes. Socialite Ellie Andrews (Claudette Colbert) escapes house arrest – or rather yacht arrest – and goes on the run from her father (Walter Connolly) who is aghast at her impulsive marriage to the ridiculously named King Westley (Jameson Thomas) and is determined to keep her under lock and key while his lawyers have the union nullified. While Andrews hires private detectives and manipulates the media in order to find his daughter, Ellie meets rumpled and recently fired journalist Peter Warnes (Clark Gable). When Peter finds out who Ellie is, he sees her as his meal ticket back into a job: the inside story on a media brouhaha that – during their four days on the road – sweeps America. Ellie, bristling at Peter’s commonness, nonetheless realises she needs him to get to New York and Westley.

Capra, intuitive enough to know that between Robert Riskin’s script (from a story by Samuel Hopkins Adams) and his stars’ chemistry he didn’t need to impose any directorial stylisations on the proceedings, keeps things moving along at a fair pace but otherwise lets the zinging dialogue and the Gable/Colbert double act speak for itself.

The road movie element of ‘It Happened One Night’ has a real sense of movement and distance being covered, whether by bus (until a washed out bridge halts progress), hitch-hiking, wading barefoot across rivers or the rickety and undependable progress of a less-than-legally acquired jalopy ("How did you get the car?" "I traded him a black eye for and left him tied to a tree").

The romantic comedy element consists almost entirely of Ellie and Peter bickering, usually about their differences in perception, experience and social background. The techniques of hitching; the art of dunking doughnuts in coffee; whose father gave the best piggyback ride when they were kids – there’s nothing these two won’t argue about. And the more absurd their disagreements, the funnier.

Capra has fun puncturing Peter’s salt of the earth/man of the people persona: he calls Ellie "brat" for most of the movie and talks himself up as Mr Capable, but half the time he’s lovably incompetent (check out the classic hitch-hiking scene where Peter works through a repertoire of thumbing to avail and Ellie stops her car on her first attempt by flashing an expanse of bare leg) while elsewhere, despite his veil of cynicism, he’s a perfect gentleman. His warning off of the predatory Shapeley (Roscoe Karns), who has also recognised Ellie and figures he can make some easy money, is one of many inspired set-pieces and an early indicator that his own motivations are starting to crumble under a genuine protectiveness towards Ellie.

Examples of Capra’s trademark feelgood aesthetic abound – Ellie giving their remaining money to a distraught young boy; a rousing singalong which unites the disparate passengers on a long and tedious bus journey; Ellie’s father coming through for her in fine style at the end – yet ‘It Happened One Night’ isn’t as swamped in sentimentality as many of his other films. There’s a bit of bite and attitude to it. Some of the social mores and colloquialisms are dated, but it remains remarkably fresh and energetic; 76 years down the line, there’s still a swagger in its step and a glint in its eye.