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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Kung Fu Panda (2008)

February 17, 2009

I’ve decided to reward myself for surviving a terrible day at work with an evening of Kung Fu.  I had no real thought of watching Kung Fu Panda before a friend lent it to me, but it seems like a suitably low key entreé and so I whacked it in the player.  And you know what?  It starts brilliantly.  It’s a bit obvious and blockbustery- well it would be- with the unfunny comedy actor Jack Black giving it all of that “in a time long forgotten” shit that every trailer for every expensive movie ever made has, but the animation is excellent.  It looks amazing, stylish and bold and distinctive.  I wasn’t expecting much at all and then suddenly I was sat there in awe thinking that I could be about to get one of those once-in-a-blue-moon happy accidents that can only happen when my expectations are near zero for something which breathtaking.  I’d even forgotten that Jack Black was in it.  Just consider for a moment how great it looks:

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And then this turns out to be a dream sequence and the film switches to that impressive and hyper-detailed but oh-so-fucking boring and lifeless computer generated 3-D bollocks that all Pixar films are made with these days.  I nearly turned off there and then.  But I didn’t, I pressed on regardless.  I hoped that there would be some kind of interesting story.  There isn’t- unlikely hero overcomes self-doubt and an unconquerable enemy to save the village/world/universe may well have been done better elsewhere.  I was hoping for some wit or a film that was clever enough for adults and cute enough for kids.  It isn’t, though it’s certainly cute enough for kids.  If I want to watch an hour of fat jokes and someone looking gormless, I’ll get a Chubby Brown video out (obviously I won’t really- I’d rather watch a puddle evaporate).  And that’s all there is- Po the Panda is fat and clumsy and eats a lot and isn’t very graceful and smashes, rips or breaks everything.  There was probably a fart joke in there too but I can’t remember it.  All of which leaves the film to be rescued by the performances of its stars- and it is certainly a power cast:  Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen and- sticking out like an underpaid English sore thumb- Ian ‘Lovejoy’ McShane.  And, maybe because he’s the only one who has to justify his presence, Lovejoy is the only one who actually shows any dexterity or interest or engagement in the role.  Then again his character the evil Kung Fu expert leopard Tai Lung does have the showiest role and the best dramatic lines, so that’s probably why.

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The biggest disappointment of all is Dustin Hoffman.  His performance is so insipid and stilted that you wonder if the script had any direction at all.  Hoffman is another of the De Niro/Pacino mould, resting on his laurels and content to sleepwalk and pick up a paycheck (as I believe that they’re called in the US.  When was the last time he really tried?  Even as far back as Rain Man he was obvious rather than inspired.  Is there anything more tragic than wasted talent?

I’m done.  The title sequence is the great.  Turn it off after that because it’s professional and polished and wank.  1/10