Monday, May 30, 2011

Coming attractions / Shots on the Blog is back

Next month, all month: Shots on the Blog, The Agitation of the Mind's annual stroll down the mean streets of crime cinema. The above should give you a few pointers as to what to look forward to. Additionally, there'll be a Jean-Pierre Melville mini-retrospective, plus I'll be getting to grips with the compromised morality and stylish nastiness of Park Chan-Wook's 'Vengeance' trilogy.

Shots on the Blog: breaking out of the joint on Wednesday.

Sunday, May 29, 2011


Tonino Valerii’s ‘My Dear Killer’ opens with something that I can honestly say I’ve never seen before in all my misspent years of watching gialli: death by digger bucket. The poor unfortunate who gets his bonce brutalized between the blades is one Vincenzo Paradisi (Franceso di Federico). The investigation is headed up by Inspector Luca Peretti (George Hilton), who begins his enquiries at the firm who hired out the equipment. The trail leads to the first of several corpses: that of Mario Ansuini (Remo De Angelis), the driver who was booked to operate the digger on the day in question. Everything points towards Ansuini committing suicide, but Peretti suspects otherwise.

Peretti isn’t your typical giallo cop. He’s attentive to detail, intuitive, tenacious and definitely not there for comic relief. In fact, with the exception of the snivelling cop-hating rag-and-bone man Mattio Guardapelle (Dante Maggio), there are no characters who provide comic relief. ‘My Dear Killer’ is populated with as sleazy, cynical and black-hearted a group of characters as you could ever hope not to meet. At least two of them – moist-lipped sculptor Beniamino (Alfredo Mayo) and trucking company boss Giorgio Canavese (William Berger) – are paedophiles, while the various members of the Moroni family are dysfunctional plus VAT.

The Moronis are a moneyed but jealousy-ridden bunch, also the victims of a high-profile kidnapping – their young daughter. The payoff went south, the girl was found dead at an abandoned shack and one of their members died in an attempt to follow the kidnappers. I’m keeping the details of the kidnapping and the Moroni family infrastructure deliberately vague; Valerii dedicates the mid-section of the film to carefully establishing the whys and wherefores. It’s during this section that ‘My Dead Killer’ could almost pass for a Sunday evening BBC television whodunit – and, to his credit, Valerii makes Peretti’s painstaking attempts to connect the clues quietly watchable.

Elsewhere, however, it’s business as usual for this genre. ‘My Dear Killer’ emerges as something of a precursor to ‘Deep Red’, with a child’s drawing providing a crucial clue, while Peretti races from clue to clue, witness to witness, only to find, as the bodies pile up, that the killer is always one step ahead of him. (If Argento and his ‘Deep Red’ co-writer Bernardino Zapponi did rip off ‘My Dear Killer’, all I can say is power to them: they took some elements from a middling giallo and amalgamated them into one of the genre’s bona fide masterworks. Also, ‘Deep Red’ has an ending that functions like a blow to the solar plexus, while ‘My Dear Killer’ winds up in Agatha Christie fashion with Peretti arraying the suspects in a sitting room and delivering a five-minute monologue.)

The death scenes are properly gruesome, involving bludgeoning, strangulation, hanging and the improper use of power tools. Rooftop chases and bottles of J&B are, however, sadly lacking. And the presence of a naked pre-pubescent child at Beniamino’s studio is just plain unnecessary. Worse is the blithely unconcerned way in which Valerii presents the scene. It’s a slap in the face to the viewer’s sensibilities. The filmmakers demonstrate an equal lack of concern with this subject matter in a subsequent scene where Peretti braces Canavese, reminding him that “you were caught in a brothel with a twelve year old” and promising to quash the prosecution if Canavese co-operates!!!

Maybe that’s the essential problem with ‘My Dear Killer’: it goes for the gore as nastily as anything by Fulci with its power tool set-piece, and it baits controversy with the aforementioned imagery, but ultimately it’s slow-burn procedural with a yawn-fest denouement that, for all Peretti’s loquacity, leaves several plot points unanswered. I used the word “watchable” a couple of paragraphs ago: it’s a good epitaph for this film. ‘My Dear Killer’ is consistently watchable, and even delivers a couple of scenes that are genuinely gripping; but it’s memorable for the wrong reasons.

Saturday, May 28, 2011


Beware the impulse buy. Last year, browsing DVDs while we were supposed to be doing a food shop, I was chuckling over the tagline to ‘Burning Bright’ (“true tiger terror”) when Paula found something even more awe-inspiringly awful. It was called ‘Army of the Dead’, the cover image was of skeletal hordes advancing menacingly in Conquistador uniforms but clutching modern day hardware, and the tagline was a masterpiece of stand-up-and-applaud cheesy audacity: “never trust a skeleton with a shotgun”. Needless to say, we bought the motherfucker. Two days later we took the motherfucker back, lied and said it wouldn’t play, and got a refund.

It was bad. Reeeeaaaaal bad. To call it a piece of shit would be an insult to excrement, a slur on the good name of steaming piles of turd.

So we should have known better when, doing a post-payday food shop at our local supermarket on Wednesday evening, we came across a DVD with this cover image:

We hesitated. We looked at each. “It’s going to be crap, isn’t it?” Paula said, a lone voice of reason. “But it’s called ‘Sharktopus’,” I replied, a sure-fire argument-winner if ever there was one. “How can you not want to watch a movie called ‘Sharktopus’?” In the shopping trolley it went. At the check-out, the bored and (I suspect) slightly stoned young man on the till looked at us (both straight from the office in rather formal attire) and looked back at our viewing choice in a slack-jawed double-take I wish I could have captured on my camera phone; on YouTube, it would have gone viral.

Last night, having returned from a book launch at the University of Nottingham’s Archaeology Museum of a title on Roman Nottinghamshire, I sat down to watch ‘Sharktopus’ (a Roger Corman production). It was an evening of contrasts.

To be fair, ‘Sharktopus’ wasn’t as bad as ‘Army of the Dead’ (elements of it even suggest that – a few films down the line and with a better budget – there might be a possibility of director Declan O’Brien achieving basic filmmaking competence). But that’s kind of like saying the smelly old guy playing the spoons in the town square is demonstrating better musicianship than Justin Bieber. It’s an inarguable fact, but … y’know …

‘Sharktopus’ starts with Nathan Sands (Eric Roberts) – the head honcho of a marine-biology outfit called Blue Water – demonstrating for the benefit of hardnosed Navy dude Commander Cox (Calvin Persson) the operational capacity of their new development: the S-11. In other words, our titular and tentacled friend the Sharktopus. Outfitted with a gizmo type thing that controls it means of electrical impulses, with Sands’s brainy and standoffish yet still kinda cute bio-geneticist boffin daughter Nicole (Sara Malakul Lane) at the controls (it functions a bit like a radio-control boat … one bigger … and, uh, with teeth … and, y’know, tentacles), things go tits up when it gets walloped by a passing boat, the electro-pulsar-control device thingy malfunctions and the Sharktopus heads down Mexico way to terrorize, terrify and chow down on anyone and everyone.

For “anyone and everyone” read “nubile girls in bikinis”. For its first half hour ‘Sharktopus’ consists of little more than bits of incoherent exposition being partitioned out amongst endless shots of nubile girls in bikinis. There’s the nubile girl in a bikini who goes running into the ocean for the obligatory ‘Jaws’ homage at the start of the movie …

… the nubile girl in a bikini with a metal detector who would have been better off with a Sharktopus detector …

… the nubile girl in a bikini one-piece with a cleavage-revealing slit down the front who inadvisably does a bungee-jump just as the Sharktopus is looking for a light snack …

… the half-dozen or so nubile girls in bikinis who plunge into the sea for no other reason than to frolic in the surf and bump up the bikini/nubile-girl count that bit further …

… and the nubile girl in a bikini who co-presents a pirate radio show hosted by the boorish Captain Jack (Ralph Garman).

The sudden outburst of hybrid aquamarine attacks on perfectly innocent bikini-clad nubiles comes to the attention of local reporter Stacy Everheart (Liv Boughn). Stacy kind of breaks the mould in not wearing a bikini, but she does model a nice line in midriff-baring tops as well as demonstrating a marked disinclination to fastening the top button of her denim mini-skirt.

While Stacy and her ever-nervous and spectacularly ill-named cameraman Bones (Hector Jiminez) track down Sharktopus-attack witness Pez (Blake Lindsey) – a lecherous, alcoholic fisherman – Sands sets out to bring the Sharktopus back alive (after all, a lot of tax dollars and a potentially lucrative defence contract at stake). To this end, Sands reluctantly enlists the aid of cocksure shark-hunter Andy Flynn (Kerim Bursin). Andy is introduced in a scene where he tries to put the moves on two nubile girls in bikinis.

Andy has previously worked for Blue Water and is at loggerheads with Sands. There also seems to be some unresolved tension between Andy and Nicole. All put their differences aside – intermittently, anyway – to go hunting the snark shark. This is achieved by means of Andy and his best bud Santos (Julian Gonzalez Esparza) zipping around in speed boats looking moody …

… while Nicole and Pops exchange portentous and expository dialogue during split screen cellphone conversations:

Subject of Andy looking moody, the dude’s man-pout is astounding to behold. This guy’s pout puts anyone in ‘Twilight’ to shame.

(Interrupting this Agitation of the Mind review, we go live to WWE for tonight’s Pout Bout. First round, Andy the shark-hunting dude versus sulky emo chick:

Boo-yah! Unsmiling bint goes down!

Round two: Andy the shark-hunting dude versus sulky vampire dude:

Boo-yah! Slaphead neck-biter goes down! We now return you to The Agitation of the Mind.)

Eventually the endless montages of pretty people admiring the local colour at seaside resorts, where every establishing shot features the pert derriere of a nubile girl in a bikini sashaying into the frame, must end. And they end in blood. The Sharktopus, not content to keep it real in da water …

… decides to come ashore and walk around on its tentacles and start some shit with the now gun-toting Andy:

Call me unimaginative, but my suspension of disbelief began to experience serious challenges to its equanimity round about this point (in much the same way that the world count facility on my laptop is frankly aghast that I’ve already expended 1,100 words on this cinematic pile of poo).

In short, it all ends the only way this kind of movie can: man and shark resolve their differences, become friends, and fight for the common goal of world peace and environmental concerns, revealing ‘Sharktopus’ in its closing scenes as a poignant and powerful work of cinema by a soon-to-be major talent.

Nah, only kidding.

Friday, May 27, 2011

THE SILLITOE PROJECT: news and events

Cracking new poster for the Alan Sillitoe Statue Fund event Friday next week (kudos to James K Walker): a screening of 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning' starring the incomparable Albert Finney. It's showing at Antenna, Beck Street, Nottingham; event starts at 7.30pm. The film will be introduced by David Sillitoe, in conversation with award-winning novelist Nicola Monaghan ('The Killing Jar'), there'll be live music from local band Blue Yonder, and - oh yes - there's a bar.

If you're in Nottingham next Friday, please come along. Click the poster to make it bigger, or email if you have any queries.

Other news: the Alan Sillitoe Website is now up and running: Please pop over and check out the content we've already got online. The plan is to develop and expand the site and build it into a major resource on Alan's life and work.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Shutter Island

Ever had a movie spoiled for you? I mean the ending completely and utterly blown?

In descending order of both recency and annoyance, I present three examples:

3) Twenty years ago, my aunt was watching ‘Dances With Wolves’ when some stumbling inebriate came lurching into the cinema, a good hour and a half into the film, and stood swaying in the aisle, blinking myopically as he focussed on the screen. “Oh yeah,” he slurred, “seen this. Wolf gets shot.” And blundered back out.

2) Ten years ago, a mate of mine was driving to the cinema to see ‘The Sixth Sense’ – actually frickin’ en route – and listening to the car radio when a blabbermouth DJ gave the ending away.

1) Last year, the day before I was planning to go and see ‘Shutter Island’, I read an online review whose author didn’t have the common decency to throw up a spoiler alert. Moreover, the way this doofus painted the ending, it sounded like the kind of movie I’d feel conned by and get annoyed at. So I stayed away. There’s something downright fucking unholy about being made to feel that you need to stay away from a Martin Scorsese film.

A few weeks ago, I felt that enough time had passed and added it to my rental list. The DVD turned up over the weekend. On Monday evening, fortified by half a bottle of wine, I sat down to watch it.

Damn, I wish I’d seen it at the cinema!

Granted, ‘Shutter Island’ isn’t perfect – at nearly two and a half hours it’s overlong and its revelatory final act threatens to drown the drama in exposition – but as an exercise in one of the modern masters of mainstream cinema basically fucking with the audience, it’s as audacious as it is pulpy. Even if Scorsese hadn’t namechecked Val Lewton as an influence, there’d be no doubt that ‘Shutter Island’ is his second sortie into schlock, his biggest and boldest battering at the barricades of the B-movie since Max Cady strode tattooed and unreformed from jail in ‘Cape Fear’ and promised that “you will learn about loss”.

In ‘Shutter Island’, US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) learns about –

And here, ladies and gentlemen, is as good a place as any to ensure I don’t do unto others as was done unto me. In other words: SPOILER ALERT. I say again: SPOILER ALERT. And for a third time, just to make sure nobody holds anything against me: SPOILER ALERT.

In ‘Shutter Island’, US Marshal Teddy Daniels (Leonardo diCaprio) learns about himself. About his past. About why his dreams are rendered into nightmare by memories of his dead wife Dolores (Michelle Williams). He learns why he doesn’t really know anything about his new partner Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) prior to their assignation to track down an escaped mental patient on the Alcatraz-like clinical facility of the title. He learns why his painful memories of the liberation of Auschwitz and inextricably bound up with the present, why he is so fixated on the whereabouts of deranged arsonist Andrew Laeddis (Elias Koteas), and what the cryptic note left by the enigmatic Rachel Solando (played in two incarnations by Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson) truly means.

The dual casting of Mortimer and Clarkson is genius. Both have a fragile beauty, a visceral intelligence and a quixotic combination of vulnerability and steely resolve. The two Rachels, for me, are the key to the film. ‘Shutter Island’ is a study in duality. In Teddy’s mind, the facility gets mixed up with the death camps; his wife with one of the inmates; the head of security with a Nazi officer. The facility’s senior management seems to exist under a similar schism. Who is really in charge, the suave but persuasive Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) or the authoritarian Dr Naehring (Max von Sydow)? Teddy’s dreams – vividly depicted in some of the film’s most challenging visual tableaux – centre around fire and ash, yet his fear of water is what opens the floodgates (pardon the pun) to the narrative’s nastiest resolution.

Having seen the film only in the context of knowing its ending, I’d like to hazard a guess that like, say, Dario Argento’s ‘Deep Red’, it’s a work that becomes infinitely more rewarding – certainly a film that reveals itself as subversively multi-faceted – once you know what to look for. The opening scene, depicting Teddy and Chuck’s ferry crossing to the island, initially comes across as shoddily edited, all weird cuts, spatial dislocations and shots that clearly don’t match. In hindsight, it’s cinematic sleight of hand, a woozy syncopation that throws the viewer out of normalcy and into a state of mind.

Scorsese perpetuates the tactic right up until the final act: gothic imagery abounds, apocalyptic storms lash the island, the agonies of Mahler are seared into the soundtrack, paranoia bleeds into the fabric of the film, conspiracies ooze out of the woodwork and the stone walls, identities are incrementally challenged, reality and madness dance a dizzying pas de deux around each other, and the lunatics – in more than one chillingly effective set-piece – seem ready to take over the asylum.

In one respect, ‘Shutter Island’ is an almost-masterpiece of psychological portraiture; in another its pure shlock. The viewer willing to let go and just experience the head-fuck will find something reasonably close to the best of both worlds. For a work of such aesthetic artifice, ‘Shutter Island’ is pure cinema. It embodies a dichotomy and damn near resolves it.

To the doofus whose review I mentioned earlier, thank you for giving me the tools by which to fully appreciate ‘Shutter Island’ on first viewing. And screw you that I didn’t go see it on the big screen.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Hello, boys, I'm baaa-aaaccck!

I've been paid, the money-grubbing bastards who provide my internet connection have had their pound of flesh, I'm back online, and there's a slew of reviews in the pipeline, including a trashy Roger Corman cheapie, something dark and nasty from one of Korea's leading lights, another Giallo Sunday offering, and a double helping of Asia Argento.

Tomorrow, though, it's gothic drama a-go-go with Martin Scorsese. Book your tickets for the ferry crossing - we're off to Shutter Island.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Buddy, can you spare an extended line of credit?

A difference of opinion took place between myself and my internet service provider earlier today.

It went like this:

THEM: You owe us two months.

ME: I don't have any money right now. I'll get paid again on Wednesday.

THEM: You'll have to make a grace payment at the very least today, otherwise your account will be frozen and services suspended.

ME: I don't have any money right now. I'll get paid again on Wednesday.

THEM: We have frozen your account and services are suspended.

ME: You big meanies.

(Okay, it was more like "well to hell with you then, knobhead".)

In short, I'm posting this over at my mate Viv's and I'll be offlined till mid-next week. Feel free to write your own Giallo Sunday review: 'Seven Blood-Red Bludgeonings to the Head of a Telecommunications Operative'.

See you next Wednesday!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ooooh, don't mention the war!

What do the following have in common?

Clue: they’re not intended to be taken seriously.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Who are your favourite big screen tough guys? Bogart? Cagney? Eastwood? Maybe the muscle men action hero types: Stallone, Schwarzenegger, van Damme? The martial arts brigade, perhaps: Lee, Li, Chan? How about heroic bloodshed poster boy Chow Yuen Fat? Takeshi Kitano?

No doubt all of them would stake their claim to the title. So let’s leave them queuing up outside the Movie Tough Guy Club while Liam Neeson strolls right in with a VIP pass, a fucking big gun, a thousand-yard stare and a palpable disinclination to put up with anybody’s shit.

On the basis of ‘Taken’ alone – although there are plentiful indicators in his back catalogue, from ‘Darkman’ to ‘Batman Begins’ – Liam Neeson is the big screen tough guy I’d want in my corner if the chips were down and the bullets were flying.

‘Taken’ – directed by Pierre Morel from a script by co-written by Gaellic genre factory Luc Besson – gives us Neeson as Bryan Mills, a former secret service operative estranged from his high-maintenance wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and doing his best to be there for his seventeen year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and resenting the pull on her affections exerted by millionaire step-father Stuart (Xander Berkeley).

When Kim decides she wants to travel to Paris with her school friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) – a trip devoid of adult supervision – Stuart and Lenore blithely okay it. Mills, however, is dubious. Lenore and Kim pressure him and reluctantly he consents to the trip. His worst fears are confirmed during Kim’s first night on French soil when she and Amanda are abducted by Albanian gangster types who supply brothels with doped up American girls and auction off the better looking abductees to Arab sheikhs. (And, yes, the depiction of said foreign nationals is every bit as stereotyped as that last sentence implies.)

Mills is on the phone to Kim when the Albanians come calling and the connection remains unbroken long enough for him to deliver this little homily: “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.”

This is the point at which Liam Neeson becomes the Angel of fuckin’ Vengenace. There’s a lot of actors who would have made a meal of that monologue; delivered it through clenched teeth. Neeson delivers it with the cool deadly formality of someone who would rip your heart out and serve it to you on a skewer rammed into your scrotum rather than look at you. Someone would won’t break a sweat at doing such a thing, nor consider it particularly excessive. Remember that line Michael Caine has in ‘Get Carter’ before he decks the fat bloke: “You’re a big man, but you’re out of shape. With me, it’s a full-time job.” Liam Neeson plays Bryan Mills as the kind of guy for whom it’s a full-time job.

‘Taken’ unfolds with all the grim determination of its protagonist. Such criticisms as can be levelled – twenty-somethings Grace and Cassidy don’t quite convince as na├»ve teenagers; Holly Valance is bland in a supporting role; the bad guys are one-dimensional – are hardly valid when ‘Taken’ not only achieves exactly what it sets out to do (ie. serve as a delivery system for action scenes), but does so with such honesty, immediacy and lack of pretentiousness that its plethora of chases (vehicular and pedestrian), shoot-outs and hand-to-hand smack-downs add up to a full-throttle action/revenge movie that make most examples of its ilk look tired and anaemic by comparison. ‘Taken’ is about as good as this kind of movie gets.

Sunday, May 15, 2011


Umberto Lenzi’s psychological thriller starts with two effective rug-pulls. In the pre-credits scene, a young couple race down to the beach in the moonlight; stopping in the lee of a deserted beach house, they start making out. Lenzi’s camera frames the dangling feet of a hanged body behind them. A scream rings out as the girl turns and catches sight of it. The mood soured, they go to investigate. It’s a mannequin. An engine revs and a car roars off.

Post credits, Christian (Robert Hoffmann) and his on-off artist girlfriend Xenia (Maria Pia Conte) are walking along a beach when they spot a body lying face down. Xenia is horrified and hangs back; Christian goes to investigate. The body turns out to be very much alive; a victim of sunstroke who had momentarily passed out. She introduces herself as Barbara (Suzy Kendall) and Christian offers to fetch a flask of whisky from his car to help revive her. Barbara disappears, however, leaving behind an item by which Christian tracks her to a yacht owned by Barbara’s moneyed and much older boyfriend Alex (Mario Erpichini).

These sequences bookend two minutes of credits interspersed with rapid, disorientating cuts to a series of mannequins in macabre and sexualized tableaux. Their relevance is something that Lenzi doesn’t reveal until the very last scene; a nasty, morbid coda to an hour and a half of not-what-it-seems plotting.

Christian becomes obsessed with Barbara and poor old Xenia is unceremoniously sidelined. Gate-crashing a party at Alex’s yacht (or should that be “gangplank-crashing”?), Christian and Barbara lose no time in stealing away to a motel. Barbara insists that Christian shave off his distinctive beard before they get it on – a request that seems to have greater motive than simple comfort on Barbara’s part, particularly when Christian’s clean-shaven industrialist brother Fritz (Ivan Rassimov) comes into the picture – and while Christian is busying himself in the bathroom with scissors and electric razor, he is attacked by gun-toting thug Tatum (Adolfo Lastretti). During the struggle, the gun discharges and Christian is left with a body, his prints on the gun and Alex outside wanting Barbara back and Christian out of the picture.

Returning to the motel after a heated discussion with Barbara and Alex back at the yacht, Christian is disturbed to find the body missing. Meanwhile, more mannequins in death poses are turning up. Barbara flees Alex’s possessive influence and holes up with Christian in a holiday home she claims belongs to a friend of hers but is being occupied by the saturnine Malcolm (Guido Alberti) and his much younger consort Clorinda (Monica Monet). Christian comes to believe that he’s met Clorinda before and that she has something to do with his brother. As a plethora of unsettling events play out, Christian tries to hang on to his sanity while dealing with Alex’s benign influence and the possibility that the psychotic Tatum might not be dead after all.

‘Spasmo’ – a compellingly blunt title – plays out as utterly baffling for its first hour. Nothing quite connects; there seems to be little or no logic to narrative developments. Character dynamics are curious. Who exactly is the catalyst for the weird shit that happens: Barbara or Christian? Why does the mysterious Malcolm take such an interest? What’s the deal with Clorinda and Christian’s brother?

Things start clicking into place after an assassination attempt that plays out unexpectedly, sending Christian on a desperate chase to piece the remaining clues together. Everything is explained by the end credits, but Lenzi seems hellbent – right up to the end – to monkey with audience expectations. His determinism in this respect is entirely commendable, although it does make ‘Spasmo’ something of a hard slog in places, certainly in the middle section where the accretion of elliptical and seemingly uncontextualized incidents threaten to become infuriating.

The final third of the film more than compensates, however. The performances are uniformly good, with Kendall in particular taking a character who could have been unbearably histrionic and instead honing the characterization beyond what the often utilitarian script gives her to work with. It’s stylishly shot by Guglielmo Mancori, who makes excellent use of locations varying from swanky yachts and beach houses to abandoned quarries and industrial works. And those mannequins – carrying on a giallo tradition established by Mario Bava’s ‘Blood and Black Lace’ – bring a creepy visual element that’s all their own.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Although well-received in some quarters (“Sillitoe scores a hat trick” - Punch), ‘The General’ confounded many people. Highly anticipated after the one-two of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ and ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, here was a curious fable, miles removed from the back-streets of Nottingham, its twin protagonists the titular military type and a standoffish orchestra conductor who ends up as his prisoner. A fable, moreover, that occurs in a fictitious country, during a period of time that’s deliberately out of time, and loaded with philosophically charged and decidedly non-naturalistic dialogue.

Kind of like Shane Meadows following up ‘Small Time’ and ‘TwentyFourSeven’ with ‘Ivan’s Childhood’.

With an author’s note that “East and West in this novel bear no relation to the east and west of modern times”, it’s clear from the outset that ‘The General’ is 160 pages of allegory. The country in which the story takes place is never named, the General himself remains anonymous beyond his rank, the army he commands are only ever referred to as “the Gorsheks”, and the members of orchestra who become his prisoners have names like Evart, Starnberg and Armgardson – suggesting some shared European (possibly East European) heritage, but remaining frustratingly elusive.

The story itself is pure simplicity: the General puts the orchestra into captivity after their special train finds itself behind the lines. High command order him to execute them. The General doesn’t want to, and they an extension of their lives with an impromptu concert. Yet Sillitoe never seems to milk the inherent tension, instead structuring the novel as a philosophical enquiry into various states of mind, most prominently those of the General and Evart, the conductor.

As a result, characters fling entire pages of cerebral dialogue at each other. Sillitoe’s admittedly excellent descriptive writing slows down every moment of the orchestra’s potential death sentence; in some scenes, ‘The General’ seems to be a precursor of Ian McEwan’s precise and formalist style, wherein every moment is considered intrinsically. In others, it presupposes Iain Banks’s ‘A Song of Stone’ in its quixotic and melancholy approach to its subject matter.

It’s the first of a couple of oddities in Sillitoe’s bibliography, but demonstrates that he was a writer unafraid to test himself, experiment, push back the boundaries and side-step the easy categorisation that many critics would rather he be slotted into. It would be ten years later, with ‘Travels in Nihilon’, that Sillitoe wrote a novel as boldly experiment and critically baffling as ‘The General’.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Albert Finney

Albert Finney, the man who brought the brawling and boozing Arthur Seaton definitively to life in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ …

Albert Finney, the man who – thirty years later – was just as bad-ass, belligerent and not-to-be-fucked-with in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ …

Albert Finney, the man who turned down a CBE in 1980 and a knighthood in 2000 on the grounds that “they perpetuate snobbery” …

Albert Finney is 75 today and both cinema and stage are a hell of a lot better for the ass-kicking he gave them. The dude has talent, integrity, and a fuckload of great movies on his CV. Happy birthday, my man. There’ll be a fair few glasses raised at chez Agitation tonight.

Wo’k termorra? Bogger it!

Friday, May 06, 2011

George Clooney

Those who know me well will know that not only do I have an epic man-crush on George Clooney, but I am completely comfortable with it. Gorgeous George is 50 today, a glass of beer is being raised, and the doors to Fulwood Towers are open on the off-chance he's in the area!

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Zebraman (guest review by Aaron)

Thanks once again to my buddy Aaron of The Death Rattle for another killer guest review.

The city of Yokohama is in the midst of its biggest crimewave in history. Could it have anything to do with the sudden emergence of aliens who crash-landed in Japan back in the '70s and have been in hibernation ever since? Yes. That being said, Yokohama needs a hero, and you can take a wild guess who that would be.

The lead character in this Takashi Miike-directed character study is a timid schoolteacher named Shinichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa, who also starred in Miike's GOZU - the polar opposite of this somewhat endearing tale of an everyman-turned-superhero). To escape the harsh realities of his daily life, he obsesses over the titular Zebraman - a superhero from a failed television show in the '70s which was canceled after a couple of episodes. Shinichi even dresses up in his bedroom in a homemade Zebraman outfit and fantasizes about fighting bad guys.

As far as the aforementioned "harsh realities" that he deals with: his wife cheats on him, his teen daughter dates sleazy older men, and his son is bullied in school. So, instead of confronting his problems, he hides from them while dressing up like a superhero (a superhero modeled after a Zebra no less). In my book, this makes him a coward and a shitty father, but yet we're supposed to feel sorry for this loser? Whatever.

Shinichi meets a fellow Zebraman fan in the form of a physically handicapped student who just enrolled in the school he teaches at, putting to rest any speculations of a complete lack of Zebraman fans other than himself. Together, they drop various pieces of trivia on each other, but it's mostly Shinichi being enlightened by his student, who learned all about the obscure superhero through the internet. Hoping to impress the young boy, Shinichi sneaks out of his house one night in full Zebraman get-up and dodges people on the streets out of sheer embarrassment by hiding in alleyways, hoping to ultimately make it to the boy's house where he can proudly display his neat-o costume. Things take a turn when Shinichi finds himself in a back alley confrontation with a notorious pervert who wears a ridiculous crab mask. Suddenly, without any explanation, Shinichi discovers that he's gained superhuman fighting abilities and quickly disables the pervert.

Meanwhile, a bunch of suits are monitoring alien activity as part of some secret squirrel operation. The extraterrestrial mayhem eventually spills over into Shinichi's personal life, causing him to don the costume on a regular basis and assume the role of Zebraman in attempt to act as a defender of the city, or something like that. It's later revealed that the Zebraman television show actually tied into the "real-life" alien conspiracies and attempted to expose the various government cover-ups through each episode while disguising itself as a work of fiction. But, since the show was canceled, it goes without saying that its attempt at doing so was a failure, and thus the aliens were able to exist under the radar. There's also a sub-plot involving Shinichi and the mother of the crippled boy becoming romantically involved.

If someone were to stumble upon this film for whatever reason, oblivious to who the director was, they'd probably be utterly disappointed with it, for the simple fact that it's not your typical superhero film. On the other hand, anyone who seeks this out will more than likely find that it's everything they expected. This isn't one of Miike's more well-known films, nor is it a film that comes up when cinephiles talk about their favorite unconventional superhero movies, so I'm assuming that anyone outside of Japan would have to do a little bit of digging in order to learn about it. What ZEBRAMAN partly does is satirize superheroes and comic book characters, and in that respect it's OK at best. As far as the film's flaws, aside from the mostly sluggish pacing and the lengthy running time (nearly two hours), the lead character is a hard one to care about or sympathize with; not necessarily because he's a flawed person, but mostly because he's dull and kinda pathetic. The cast shines, however, despite them not being given much to work with.