Villain (1971)

May 1, 2009

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“I don’t want a fertile imagination, I don’t want to know if society’s to blame, I just want to catch criminals”

The film opens with two heavies waiting in a London flat, as a car pulls up in the street below they wake Burton giving him time to wash his face and compose himself.  As he does so, the owner of the flat returns and they hold  him captive.  Fresh and alert, Burton enters the room and- with barely a word- begins to deliver a vicious beating and then takes out a cut-throat razor.  Our next sight of the victim is when Burton looks up from beside a drip of blood (having made a crass joke about pigeon droppings) and sees him tied to a chair hanging from a window horrifically lacerated.  On the other hand our next view of Burton sees him after he returns home and gently wakes his Mum with a cup of tea and offers to take her for a ride out to the coast.  Now THAT is how to start a film!

This is one of those films that you rarely hear about, almost a lost classic.  You’ll be discussing Get Carter or The Long Good Friday and someone will say ‘you should see Villain‘, only as no-one ever has the conversation moves on quickly.  It’s such a shame that this is forgotten and shite like The Business is relatively lauded.  Richard Burton plays Vic Dakin, the kind of character that in summary sounds implausible; he’s a gay, sadistic, sociopathic gangland boss who lives with his Mum and rules part of London through fear.  It sounds implausible except that there was a guy like that in the sixties called Ronnie (or maybe Reggie, I get them confused) Kray.  And, whether you find him plausible or not, the depth of characters like Dakin put this film streets ahead of most efforts in the genre.

It isn’t just about Burton- and he is compelling, just the right side of overdoing it- everyone on show here is a cut above.  Especially Ian McShane who, as Wolfie a small-time hustler and object of Dakin’s sadistic lust, has an even more compelling part and really makes the most of it.  Even some of the minor characters are fascinatingly written- Nigel Davenport’s dogged, determined and stoical policeman Matthews who appreciates the futility of his task but presses on anyway; Joss Ackland’s gangster who spends an entire hold-up chomping down hard-boiled eggs to ease his stomach ulcer; top-notch Irish character actor T.P.McKenna’s rival gangster who is far more businessman than criminal; and smarmy, velvet-purring Donald Sinden as a crooked, seedy MP.

In fact, it isn’t just the characters- the plot is formulaic but the dialogue is marvellous (“he’s a bit bent for a start. You know the type, thinks the world owes him something. A wanker“, “you festering pig“, “Stupid punters. Telly all the week, screw the wife Saturday“) especially when Dakin is upbraiding anyone who dares to even look at a woman (“sordid!“) or doesn’t wash their hands after taking a piss.  I also liked the underlying themes that crime is just a job, a means of employment on both sides of the law and that removing one criminal just creates an opportunity for another jobbing criminal.  The crime-as-a-business angle is never overplayed but the existence of a structure, hierarchy and protocol as a given is an important aspect to Villain.

I’d like to mention Christopher Challis’ excellent cinematography, not only does he handle the task of transmitting gritty realism with aplomb but he manages to capture an excellent car chase and also take very intimate and graphic shots of various fights including the main crime around which the film revolves.  Superb.  The soundtrack too (Jonathan Hodge) is excellent, switching from tinny funk to stabbing synthy strings to John Carpenter-like piano motifs; all of it is reminiscent of films that would follow but oddly Hodge himself would get very little more work, similarly the director (Michael Tuchner) did little else of note.  But at least they did this.  A proper British gangster thriller that I loved- they even found a space for a Michael Robbins cameo- 8/10.

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The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash (1978)

April 18, 2009

rutles-1“the whole thing is brilliantly authentic

This is a great film.  It works if you have a sketchy knowledge of The Beatles because it doesn’t rely on obscure references or in-jokes but equally if you do have a nerdy knowledge of the Fab Four (as I probably do) then it is never simplistic or inaccurate.  Knowing how possessive and geeky Beatles fans can be, that’s quite an achievement.

There are superb Beatles pastiche songs by Neil Innes from The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and hilarious cameos from George Harrison, Mick Jagger, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Michael Palin, Bianca Jagger, Roger McGough, Paul Simon and Ronnie Wood- some as themselves, some as minor characters.  There are superb one-liners from the pen of Monty Python’s Eric Idle (“Many fans burnt their albums, many more burnt their fingers attempting to burn their albums”, “He was supposed to have been killed in a flash fire at a waterbed shop”, “In the midst of all this public bickering, “Let it Rot” was released as a film, an album, and a lawsuit”) and the whole thing is brilliantly authentic.  The Beatles Anthology, the real documentary which followed probably twenty years later and is also exceptional viewing, can’t help but look like this and that’s a great testament to the direction of Eric Idle and Gary Weis.  The budget might have been miniscule (it certainly looks like it) but it hardly matters, there is enough invention and intelligence here to make it all worthwhile.

The only real negative is that the film, sadly, peters out.  The frantic pace of the gags in the first three quarters of the film appears unsustainable and it doesn’t help that they are parodying a relatively sad period and slower, more introspective songs.  It’s hard to write a pastiche of something that was fairly ridiculous to begin with and the Maharishi stuff, the Magical Mystery Tour and the slow-motion bust up are all tip-toed around in the least satisfying segment of the film.  Swapping references to late sixties drugs like LSD and marijuana for tea just isn’t very funny, is it?

But it’s still fantastic, second only to the mighty This Is Spinal Tap. 8/10

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The Wicker Man (1973)

April 6, 2009

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Possibly the greatest horror film ever made

As I was flicking through the TV channels I happened upon the opening credits for The Wicker Man.  This is simply an incredible movie, I’ve seen it often enough that I could recite the script along with the players and, for that reason, my notes about it will be pretty brief.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw this, it was long overdue and my very dear friend and Best Man Matt  brought it around with him for me to see.  I was struck then, as I’ve been struck ever since, by the creepy way that no-one on the island seems totally secure in their own skin.  Whether or not this is a happy accident like some of the lighting freaks in Easy Rider really isn’t of great significance to me.  It could just be that the actors are standing and listening intently for off-screen instructions or that they have been creatively and intelligently coached by the Robin Hardy (and isn’t it strange that he didn’t make his only other film thirteen years after this?).  The effect is simply unnerving, for the protagonist Sergeant Howie and for the viewer.

Woodward, who to me will always be The Equalizer, is marvellous here as the investigating policeman.  His grim determination to do his duty in the face of things he finds by turns repellent, compelling and baffling.  And, if you think about it, had he answered ‘the Siren’s call’ (as surely every male viewer would have expected him to) then the ending of the film would be redundant.

As an advert for celibacy, then, the film is a flop.  As a terrifying psychological horror, though, it is pretty much unsurpassable. 10/10

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Holiday on the Buses (1973)

March 8, 2009

This is the third On The Buses film, I got a bit confused after watching the first one (notes here) and should have been watching Mutiny On The Buses.  D’oh!  And of course you know what you’re getting when you put one of these movies on- bawdy humour, outrageous set-pieces and very dated attitudes.  It’s just disposable daftness, no reason to get excited.  In this film Blakey, Stan and Jack have all been sacked from the bus depot (by Grange Hill bastard/big-screen Hitler Mr Bronson no less!) and find employment on a holiday camp.  As soon as Stan’s family arrive to stay for a holiday the film continues in the usual vein, only in summer sunshine- that must be CGI surely!

The usual characters are augmented by a few seventies TV comedy stars (Wilfrid Bramble, Henry McGee, Arthur Mullard) and the change of scenery and fresh faces reinvigorate the format and make the film work pretty well for a while.  It’s unsustainable sadly, despite the film being less than an hour and a half long, and the film grows tired with the same jokes repeated as it limps towards the titles.

So, I enjoyed it- but I wouldn’t want anyone to know that this is my kind of film.  Especially as it features a shot of Olive’s bare arse!  4/10

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On The Buses (1971)

March 4, 2009

On The Buses was a popular and indeed populist British TV sitcom of the late 1960s/early 1970s and, as was common at the time, spawned a number of spin-off films which were either extensions of the premise or else rehashes with two or three episodes strung together and re-enacted as a film.  In the main, they were inferior to the original product- startlingly so in many cases- but On The Buses was actually a little better.

What distinguishes the film isn’t any greater sophistication, loftier ambition or production values- it is the budget.  For a programme about a bus driver and his conductor (and their bawdy shenanigans) being unable to stretch to many external shoots obviously prevented logistical and writing difficulties.  In the film, however, we see Stan crashing his bus into a phone box and a bus shelter.  We see him take a driving test on a skid pan, injuring Blakey in the process, and we get to see Stan and Jack trick several women drivers into driving their buses onto the motorway.  Hilarity prevails!  Okay, so I’m being a little facetious but it is still enjoyable in its own way.

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I had a really interesting conversation with a guy about British cinema in the 70s last year.  He completely wrote it off.  He pointed to the sex comedies and sit-com spin-offs and contrasted it to what was coming out of Hollywood at the time.  When a man says “while Michael was having Fredo whacked we were watching Robin Askwith hiding in wardrobes“, then you have to concede that he has a point.  But the argument was skewed, that was the best Hollywood would ever get and British cinema was in a rut but still produced the likes of Get Carter, The Go-Between, Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Wicker Man, Barry Lyndon, Paper Tiger and Don’t Look Now.  On top of this I argued, and still argue, that there is some merit in the likes of On The Buses.  Movies, it is sometimes forgotten, are made to entertain and this is an entertaining movie.  The characters, familiar from the TV show, are well-drawn (if a little one-dimensional) and played consummately- not least by the underrated Michael Robbins who plays Arthur.  The storyline, which was little more than an excuse to string together some gags and the action sequences above, is actually pretty interesting and resonant of the time.  Future historians would do well to dig out On The Buses and Carry On At Your Convenience if they want to learn all about Britain at the time.

The bus company, being understaffed are exploited by the drivers who do not have to fear the sack.  They choose to recruit women drivers and the men (portrayed as the heroes) try and force them out so that they can go back to their cushy, well-paid lifestyles.   In the meantime they are still successfully chatting up every attractive young girl in sight despite being middle-aged, out of shape and unattractive (Jack’s teeth!).  What makes it so resonant is the ‘battle of the sexes’ angle- more specifically the blatantly sexist way that it is portrayed.  It’s all done in good fun and there’s no malice to get offended about; if you believe anyone would take seriously a film that suggests all women are moaners who are afraid of spiders and have no road sense then you’ve got bigger problems than this cheeky number.

The point is that this is low and sometimes painfully telegraphed humour, but funny nonetheless.  Is it any less worthy than, say, the films of Mel Brooks?  5/10

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Network (1976)

February 26, 2009

I’m really in two minds about this.  It’s great- but not as great as I’d hoped.  The direction, cinematography and performances are all great.  What holds me back from loving this is the script- and I can see myself getting tied up in knots about this.  For a film from over thirty years ago, the film is remarkably prescient.  I don’t think that ratings chasing, dumbing down, callous corporate politics or exploitation were new concepts in 1976 by any means- but the exploitation of a mental breakdown, on-screen deaths or murderous political activitism would all follow in the years that followed Network.  I just feel that the way that these things unfold here is unrealistic- even when they have, in essence, come to pass.  This is the apex of melodrama.  And do ordinary people really decide upon a murder so calmly and certainly.

The other thing about the script which irked me was that every character in every scene no matter how animated or sullen or overwrought or in control or even psychotically deranged spoke in exactly the same polished and seamless voice.  They all had a fantastic range of vocabulary, never stumbling or searching for the right phrase or capable of being misinterpreted as if they all had thesauruses (thesaurii?) to hand.  Life isn’t like that and so real-life drama shouldn’t be like that.  It’s just a bug-bear of mine.  The dialogue is great and quotable, it is beautifully delivered and sticks in the memory but it’s never that easy to find the right… erm… you know, the right means of delivering an emotional message… articulating, that’s it- it’s never that easy articulating your thoughts off the cuff.

Aside from those gripes, this is first-rate movie making.  Peter Finch gives a great performance as the deranged Harry Beale (like the Fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear), William Holden is more understated but no less effective in the role which holds the whole piece together, Faye Dunaway delivers her usual performance of the era (usually very good, never excellent) and Ned Beatty with just one powerful scene in the whole film is mind-blowing.

Notwithstanding my reservations about the script (and it does make important comments about exploitation, dumbing-down and spoon-feeding) this is still a fine movie.  7/10 and I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.

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Death in Venice / Morte a Venezia (1971)

February 25, 2009

After a few popcorn movies in a row, I felt that I owed it to my brain to give it a little workout and Visconti’s meditation on mortality and beauty and decay is designed for exactly that purpose.  This film is beautifully shot and artfully constructed, languorous and melancholic- the deliberate pace compels the viewer to consider the subtext carefully.  The first five minutes, more or less, is dedicated to wordless shots of Dirk Bogarde sat uncomfortably and clearly troubled on a steamboat.  Five minutes!  It is a beautiful, elegiac composition and to see Bogarde in the condition that he is already opens up the suggestion of the withering influence of time.  My first thought upon seeing him looks more like Ronnie Corbett dressed as a rather shabby Hercule Poirot than the handsome movie star I’m accustomed to seeing.  The fact that, at this point, my only knowledge of the film was its title did serve to disconcert me a little- for all I knew I may be about to watch a broad farce in the vein of Without A Clue.  Of course, broad farces do not tend to begin with a contemplative stretches of silence and so the misapprehension was pretty swiftly dismissed.

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In fact, I worked through several theories during the watching of this film.  Following this opening, Bogarde is taken on to his final destination by a gondolier who refuses all requests and instructions to change course and is later described as a criminal who only goes one way.  Immediately I was put in mind of Charon, the mythological ferryman who transports the newly deceased from the world of the living unto the world of the dead (again, the title Death in Veniceis resonant here).  The film also appears to show Bogarde developing a homo-erotic infatuation with a pretty long-haired boy, Tadzio (Björn Andrésen), who is dressed throughout in sailor outfits or period- 1912- swimming outfits.  Through flashbacks we gradually learn of the circumstances leading to Bogarde’s arrival.  What I liked about this- and had never actually occurred to me until I considered it watching this film- is that the memories are haphazardly presented, jumbled in order almost non-sequiturs in themselves until the context is revealed during the course of the film.  Isn’t that exactly what memories are like?  Where else but in the movies do your inner reflections follow a chronological pattern?

And so we come to understand that Bogarde’s character Professor Gustav von Aschenbach (I’m not typing all that again!) arrives in Venice in failing health for rehabilitation.  He has been married with a child who died.  His reputation as a composer is tarnished by recent failings and his creative and personal standing is at a low ebb.  A broken man who appears lost in the world of his choosing as he questions the validity of his existence of his works.  He dissects his art and the nature of creativity (is beauty the result of labour or inspiration?  Is it discovered or developed?) without conclusion.  He seems unconvinced by his own assertion that “reality distracts and degrades us” and unconvinced by the counter-arguments in equal measure.

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With this in mind the film is revealed to not be about homo-erotic, generation-defying infatuation but about a deeper admiration for ,  actually an infatuation with, youth itself and with pure beauty.  And then I return to the idea of Charon the Ferryman, transferring the dead from the world of the living.  As Bogarde feels the crushing realisation that his vapid emotionless world of intellect is dead he moves on to a world of natural beauty which renders everything else contrived and worthless.  Bogarde’s infatuation is not so much with Tadzio himself but with that which he represents.  The inspired beauty that Bogarde longed to create but could not is natural and real, neither the product of inspiration nor perspiration.  Dirk Bogarde conveys this beautifully.  His performance, increasing in intensity and overt angst is measured and balanced.  His flappable frustration giving way to confusion, then to fear, then realisation and finally to impotent surrender are rendered with very few words and no grand physical gestures but with, for example, an expression of horror as he learns the truth about the cholera epidemic or the way in which he grabs his arms around himself to chastise himself for daring to smile as Tadzio.  Tremendous performance

Even more than Bogarde who dominates the film to the extent that he is in every scene and almost every shot, however, the film is a magnificent achievement by the director/cinematographer team of Luchino Visconti and Pasqualino De Santis.  The slow and largely wordless nature of the film place a heavy burden upon the pair.  The use of Mahler’s music (is there meant to be a link between Gustav Mahler and Gustav von Aschenbach?  I don’t know anything about the composer and may be clutching a very tenuous straw) beautifully complements the stunning visual feast of the film- and it is a feast.  One of the themes running through the film is of decay and the corrupting effect of time and this is beautifully demonstrated in a city which is presented as a deteriorating before our eyes.  The whole thing is quite stunning and nothing is left unsaid. 

This is a marvellous picture, high art indeed.  And, while I would prefer to watch Carry On Don’t Lose Your Head nine times out of ten, when I feel the need to challenge myself then Death In Venice would be an excellent choice.  9/10