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Richard Bowden "The Film Flaneur" (UK)

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Hammer Film Noir Collector's Set 2: 4-7 [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Hammer Film Noir Collector's Set 2: 4-7 [DVD] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: £15.72

27 of 31 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A mixed bag - might be better trying the discs separately, 17 May 2009
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This is the second, bumper survey of a group of British films which have until now, remained largely unknown. Taking advantage of arrangements favoured by the UK's Eady levy (a state film subsidy established after the war) in 1950, American producer Robert Lippert formed a business alliance with Hammer studios. Under the agreement, Lippert would provide American acting talent - frequently shop-worn stars or just supporting actors who fancied a profitable trip out of the country - while Hammer would supply the rest of the cast and the production facilities. Together they would split the profits. Famous for his concern with the bottom line, Lippert produced over 140 films between 1946 and 1955, characteristically genre pieces such as I Shot Jesse James or Rocketship XM. For the British deal, most of the films were noir-ish thrillers. None were entirely of the first rank, but of the selection so far released under the collection title Hammer Film Noir, they remain never less than entertaining.

Hammer's principal reputation today rests upon its series of colour horrors. In The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957), and Dracula (1958), part of the interest lay in how the British studio reworked and re-imagined familiar fictional characters and their respective mythologies. With the earlier noirs there's similar interest and Terence Fisher, one of the directorial mainstays of the gothic cycle, also helmed some of the thrillers. But the transformation was not so distinctive here, and the clipped accents of some of the supporting actors and occasional drawing-room setting sit oddly with notions of fatalism, persecution and moral corruption. But there's still fascination at seeing an American genre transported to British locations and watching well known British acting talent alongside the Hollywood imports.

Box two of Hammer Film Noir begins with Terror Street (aka: 36 Hours, 1953), directed by Montgomery Tully and starring noir icon, Dan Duryea. In fact, the American is the best thing in this film, at its strongest in the first half. He plays Major Rogers, a flyer smuggled into the country to discover what his wife has been up to during his absence away on duty. Shortly after he catches up with her, she is dead, leaving the stunned Rogers waking up next to her body with just a few hours to prove his innocence. Duryea's opening scenes, mostly played solo as he explores his wife's apartment piecing together her new relationships, are the essence of noir - an alienated man, lost in an environment where moral certitudes are missing. Unfortunately the script by Steve Miller (responsible for earlier classics such as Dead Reckoning, and Lady In The Lake) grows less interesting as it proceeds, and the final complexities are forced and unconvincing. Along the way, Duryea brings life to his relationship with Jenny (Ann Gudrin), equally as good as the unfussy woman who believes his story. Kenneth Griffith also makes impact as the weasely Slosson - a character which, on a different continent, would no doubt been of attraction to Elisha Cook Jr.

On the same disc is Wings Of Danger (1952), Terence Fisher's first contribution to this box. Zachary Scott does a professional enough job as a pilot who faces disaster through suffering unpredictable blackouts. To add to his woes, when his girlfriend's brother appears lost in a cargo plane accident, he falls into a police investigation over blackmail, counterfeiting and smuggling. Robert Beatty and Kay Kendall support in a solid tale never less than watchable, even if not ultimately memorable. Light tramlines from the source print are evident at some points - unusual for a set with generally good picture quality. Kendall seems out of place as a minor femme fatale, too nice to communicate the double-crossing her character demands. Scott's most important noir roles previously were probably Ulmer's Ruthless and Mildred Pierce; here the actor is not helped by fairly anonymous art direction and by a story never really bringing out his internal conflicts.

Dane Clark appeared twice in the first box, but makes his most successful entry here with Paid To Kill (aka: Five Days, 1954) as a man in a jam, with a plan, and a dame. Possessing a characteristic persecuted look, Clark is eminently suited to the role of businessman James Nevill who - fearing that a big deal has gone sour - pays a friend to kill him, to secure insurance money for his unsuspecting wife. Nevill abruptly needs to change his murderous instructions when matters change for the better, but cannot find his unreliable friend. He finds the repeated attempts on his life - whoever it is making them - too close for comfort. Says a business acquaintance of Nevill's business style that: "it's okay for cutthroat and adventure - but not for the City of London." Such a contrast exists elsewhere in a film containing one or two jarring, humorous scenes, featuring Charles Hawtrey (a non-speaking part) partnering Nevill's troublesome, truculent investor. Away from these distractions the film is much stronger, notably in the understated love for Nevill shown by his secretary Joan (Cecile Chavreau), which is played subtly. Although for many the film's final twist is telegraphed someway in advance, Paid To Kill is reasonably suspenseful and largely successful on its own terms, efficiently directed once again by Tully.

Tully was also in charge of The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage, 1955), one of the Hammer Noir series' must-sees. Noir narratives set in and around carnivals have a small but proud heritage, stretching back to Nightmare Alley and beyond. They frequently juxtapose deformed outcasts of the sideshow with the twisted psychology on show elsewhere. The Glass Tomb concerns Pal Pelham (John Ireland), and his forthcoming attraction Sapolio 'The Starving Man', whose act is to go foodless for 70 days whilst locked, David Blaine-like, in a glass booth. "I like being my own boss. I like freaks," says Pal at one point, clearly preferring the company of his performers to some others around him. When big-hearted bookie Tony Lewis (Sidney James, in a characteristic performance) asks Pal to speak to a woman who has been blackmailing him, she shortly ends up dead, and the killer thinks Sapolio can identify him. Pal, who previously knew the victim, needs to solve the case. Geoffrey Keen, much more familiar to British cinemagoers from numerous stolid establishment roles, gets to play an unsympathetic role as Stanton the murderer.

What's interesting about The Glass Tomb is that it is built almost entirely around recurring displays of appetite and denial. Whether it's Sapolio, greedy at home, finally poisoned by strychnine-covered ham, the fridge raid of Pelham's young son, the ticket-booth man secretly coveting his bottle of booze, or those who eat so unconcernedly in front of the incarcerated Starving Man, it's a world clearly defined. At a necessarily less explicit level there's also the carnal desire of Stanton and Lewis for the girl - Stanton's two hours alone with her corpse, for instance, is never explained. Tully manages some striking scenes on a budget, notably the freaks' party, held while the body of the freshly killed girl lays undiscovered upstairs in her squalid room. The Glass Tomb has its weaknesses - it could have done with a few more freaks - but is baroque and perverse enough to be better known. It's also one of the few films in the set to have its own audio commentary. Ireland gives an adequate performance, and Honor Blackman, in a demure role, plays his wife. Some will also notice Arthur Howard, the brother of Leslie, later to appear in the minor British nudie cult item Paradisio (1961) in a small part. There is some damage to the print, but not enough to be a problem.

The presence of Alex Nichol and the trumpet playing of Kenny Baker somewhat compensate for weaknesses elsewhere in The Black Glove (aka: Face The Music, 1953) another Terence Fisher contribution, a thriller set in a London world of basement jazz clubs, recording studios and dingy flats. The genial Nichol, perhaps best remembered today for his role as the rancher's crazed son in The Man From Laramie (1955), plays hero James Bradley, a musician who picks up a singer after a London concert, only for her to be murdered shortly after. Following the familiar pattern, Bradley has to discover the real killer and clear himself of suspicion. Nichol gives a likeable performance as the trumpet player in a film that includes an archetypal noir voiceover as well as Kenny Ball's frequently soulful contribution on brass, which both add a good deal to the atmosphere. The opening, mutual attraction between Bradley and victim Maxine, played out over music, is especially fine. The intensity between kindred spirits recalls the first meeting in Gun Crazy (1950) while their later scenes just after, expressing their growing romance in cynical rhyming couplets ("Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, show me a woman a man can trust," etc), is also memorable. Bradley's continuous, professed lack of sleep adds to the dream-like mood of the piece. Maxine's sister Barbara works in Soho's Underground Club - "the sort of place you live horizontally or not at all" and most of the clues are found in and around the music produced there. The end of the film is more disappointing, a curious throwback to traditional whodunits, with principal suspects and interested police gathered together in a single room, so that the killer can be progressively unmasked. It's a clumsy and unconvincing narrative device.

Lloyd Bridges is the imported star of The Deadly Game (aka: Third Party Risk, 1954), a forgettable thriller featuring him as Phil Graham, song-writing American vacationing in Spain. When at short notice an ex-air force friend, now society photographer, asks him to drive a car to London and deliver a mysterious envelope, he reluctantly agrees. Soon his friend is dead, shot on the floor of his own darkroom, and Graham is drawn into a web of blackmail and industrial espionage. Sometimes playing out like a weak episode of TV's The Saint, The Deadly Game runs for little over an hour and remains uninvolving for much of its length, with little noir resonance. Bridges' unconvincing romancing of the signoretta he meets, all the shenanigans around a stolen formula for antibiotics, as well as a substandard fistfight in a burning theatrical warehouse, fail to generate much tension in a sluggish plot. The best thing here is Maureen Swanson's allure as the temptress Marina. Her presence back in England only serves to emphasise how artificial and insipid is the studio and stock footage-created Spain to which Graham returns when resolving the mystery. Finlay Currie, affecting a curious accent, appears as a menacing sub-Sydney Greenstreet character, Darius.

The Unholy Four (aka: A Stranger Came Home, 1954) co-stars Paulette Goddard as Angie, the wife of Vickers (William Sylvester) who returns home unexpectedly after four years. Vickers had previously disappeared in Portugal on a fishing cruise and has been presumed dead, his face scarred with an attack by an unknown assailant, leaving Vickers with temporary amnesia. As with several of these Hammer co-productions, the best part of The Unholy Four occurs at the beginning, as a stony faced Vickers appears unannounced at midnight. He ominously confronts his acquaintances in the middle of their party - including series' regular Bill (Paul Carpenter), who admits "I don't like people - even the people I like." Vickers, Bill, and the others, are naturally all suspects in the first killing shortly afterwards. After this, even with director Fisher's efforts, the tension slumps with too much talk, despite a couple of murders and a short-lived sub plot involving blackmail. The film might just as well have been called 'The Country House Murders' for, apart from a flashback sequence and Vickers' mental confusion about his past, the noir enthusiast will find little to detain him in a mystery set mainly in a large house and grounds, well away from the urban jungle. Russell Napier (familiar from his very similar roles in TV's contemporaneous Scotland Yard) plays the cop on the case, at one point gathering his suspects in the drawing room to state his suspicions. Goddard adds a touch of class to proceedings but, surprisingly, plays second fiddle to Sylvester, and displays little of the sexual allure the poster promises. The source novel for the film, incidentally, was penned by one George Sanders.

The final film in this set is yet another Terence Fisher-directed effort: Race For Life (aka: Mask Of Dust, 1954), a straightforward racing drama more than anything else. Richard Conte stars as Wells, the driver who - predictably enough - feels he might have lost his nerve whilst being saddled with blonde wife Patricia (Mari Aldon), who wants him to retire. When a fellow driver suffers a bad accident Wells feels he owes it to him, and to himself, to prove he still has it, one last time. Wells was formerly in the air force where, apparently, "he used to fly his plane the way he'd drive" so his courage is never in doubt - even if, as we see him nudge his smoking, oil-filled car round the track at the last, we feel his judgment may need inspection. The chief attraction in a film built around two big racing sequences is the location footage and the appearance of some real racing names, such as Stirling Moss, as supporting colour. Off the track the plot is less eventful, as even the potential rivalry between Wells as another driver is resolved without so much as a fist fight by the end. Tough guy Conte's story lacks enough conflict, leaving the actor little to do. This is the only film in this set presented in a 1.66:1 ratio, which to these eyes looked masked and there is an accompanying interview with Richard Gordon.

Films in this set are accompanied by occasional audio commentaries, career profiles, some picture galleries and trailers. It's an interesting set, although purchasers can be more readily directed to the stronger titles rather than perhaps buying the whole lot.
Comment Comments (7) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 17, 2012 11:04 AM BST


Hammer Film Noir 5 [DVD] [1955] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Hammer Film Noir 5 [DVD] [1955] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

4.0 out of 5 stars Best of the second Hammer Box by far, 17 May 2009
Dane Clark makes his most successful entry here in the Hammer Noir series with Paid To Kill (aka: Five Days, 1954) as a man in a jam, with a plan, and a dame. Possessing a characteristic persecuted look, Clark is eminently suited to the role of businessman James Nevill who - fearing that a big deal has gone sour - pays a friend to kill him, to secure insurance money for his unsuspecting wife. Nevill abruptly needs to change his murderous instructions when matters change for the better, but cannot find his unreliable friend. He finds the repeated attempts on his life - whoever it is making them - too close for comfort. Says a business acquaintance of Nevill's business style that: "it's okay for cutthroat and adventure - but not for the City of London." Such a contrast exists elsewhere in a film containing one or two jarring, humorous scenes, featuring Charles Hawtrey (a non-speaking part) partnering Nevill's troublesome, truculent investor. Away from these distractions the film is much stronger, notably in the understated love for Nevill shown by his secretary Joan (Cecile Chavreau), which is played subtly. Although for many the film's final twist is telegraphed someway in advance, Paid To Kill is reasonably suspenseful and largely successful on its own terms, efficiently directed once again by Tully.

Tully was also in charge of The Glass Tomb (aka The Glass Cage, 1955), one of the Hammer Noir series' must-sees. Noir narratives set in and around carnivals have a small but proud heritage, stretching back to Nightmare Alley and beyond. They frequently juxtapose deformed outcasts of the sideshow with the twisted psychology on show elsewhere. The Glass Tomb concerns Pal Pelham (John Ireland), and his forthcoming attraction Sapolio 'The Starving Man', whose act is to go foodless for 70 days whilst locked, David Blaine-like, in a glass booth. "I like being my own boss. I like freaks," says Pal at one point, clearly preferring the company of his performers to some others around him. When big-hearted bookie Tony Lewis (Sidney James, in a characteristic performance) asks Pal to speak to a woman who has been blackmailing him, she shortly ends up dead, and the killer thinks Sapolio can identify him. Pal, who previously knew the victim, needs to solve the case. Geoffrey Keen, much more familiar to British cinemagoers from numerous stolid establishment roles, gets to play an unsympathetic role as Stanton the murderer.

What's interesting about The Glass Tomb is that it is built almost entirely around recurring displays of appetite and denial. Whether it's Sapolio, greedy at home, and finally poisoned by strychnine-covered ham, the fridge raid of Pelham's young son, the ticket-booth man secretly coveting his bottle of booze, or just those who eat so unconcernedly in front of the incarcerated Starving Man, it's a world clearly defined. At a necessarily less explicit level there's also the carnal desire of Stanton and Lewis for the girl - Stanton's two hours alone with her corpse, for instance, is never explained. Tully manages some striking scenes on a budget, notably the performer's party, held while the body of the freshly killed girl lays undiscovered upstairs in her squalid room. The Glass Tomb has its weaknesses - it could have done with a few more freaks - but is baroque and perverse enough to be better known. It's also one of the few films in the set honoured with its own audio commentary. Ireland gives an adequate performance, and Honor Blackman, in a demure role, plays his wife. Some will also notice Arthur Howard, the brother of Leslie, later to appear in the minor British nudie cult item Paradisio (1961) in a small part. There is some damage to the print, but not enough to be a problem.


The President's Last Bang [2005] [DVD]
The President's Last Bang [2005] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Im Sang-soo
Offered by The World Cinema Store
Price: £3.99

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Bang but no real blast, 22 April 2009
The original, translated name of Geuddae geusaramdeul (aka: The President's Last Bang) is 'the people of that time' or more concisely 'those people, then.' The change, made for the English language market, unfortunately replaces a title significant as the name of a particular song, played that fateful night by a singer invited to entertain the doomed presidential dinner party. The flippancy of the substitution is perhaps one reason why western critics have pointed up the black humour of Im Sang-soo's film so consistently. Formerly best known for light sex dramas such as Chunyudleui jeonyuksiksah (aka: Girl's Night Out, 1998) and Nunmul (aka: Tears, 2000), The President's Last Bang is the second in a trilogy of films dealing with the situation of South Korea from the 1970s to today and has proved to be, at least at home, the most controversial of Sang-soo's work. Apparently descendants and supporters of the dead president's party took exception to some documentary elements contained within the movie, which were duly cut from the initial Korean release as well as for some exports. (The UK version is complete.) Ironically, the director was also attacked by left wingers for creating a too-favourable portrait of a despised dictator. To such an extent, as the director attests in the interview which accompanies Last Bang on disc, that he was given a personal bodyguard after the premiere.

Assuming much of the political background to Im Sang-soo's drama will be relatively new to them, UK viewers will find much less to get worked up about, and the film contains none of the censorable material which has occupied the BBFC in the films of Korean directors such as, say, Kim Ki-Duk. Having said that, whether its the presidential bodyguards coming without bullets, the KCIA chief dozing with a hole in his sock or the two noodle eaters overhearing the President's autopsy with open mouths, there's no denying the elements of black humour in Last Bang, even if such moments should not be made too much of. Ultimately it's a political drama we have here, the staging of which the director sees as influenced by such mafia-grounded Hollywood titles as Goodfellas and The Godfather. At the same time, as the director says, it attempts to "analyse the psychological burden" of the dark years of tyranny as well as "provide a funeral for the president and all he left behind."

Chauvinistic and fascist, the memories of Chin-Lee's regime still pervade South Korea today. The director was able to base a good deal of his film on the notes of the detailed official enquiry following the incident at the Blue House. For other elements he used his imagination. He and his art director for instance did not hesitate to jettison the idea of an accurate representation of the Blue House as it was, in favour of something more aesthetically appealing. From this point of view Last Bang differs in its documentary feel from such related films as Downfall, a film where the claustrophobic, last days of a regime are also examined. But while President Chin-Lee is the centre of attention of the Korean film, his character and psychology is not explored in depth, apart from a revealing discussion over the weaknesses of western notions of democracy. Instead, Sang-Soo focuses a good deal on the KCIA chief and his main agent, and one is never quite sure between them where fact ends and director's fancy begins.

Therein lies the film's weakness. Its in the lack of a convincing documentary feel, allied to characters at the drama's centre who may have been historically present and participant in unfolding events, but at best struggle to rise about the whimsical elements of their portraits (Ju's compulsive gum chewing for instance). At worst, the writing suggests little of the angst such a plot surely engendered - something which the recent Valkyrie managed for instance, with all its faults. Last Bang ends with a dispassionate voiceover, wrapping up the fate of those involved and some shots of the state funeral. At the end of Downfall, although we know or can guess the fate of many, we are critically involved learning what became of those present. Last Bang's closing narrative, curiously uninformative, leaves us mildly disinterested, even given our lack of local political knowledge.

Having said that, Im Sang-Soo's film is reasonably absorbing throughout, and it pulls off some noteworthy moments - such as the Da Palma-esque ceiling-high tracking shot, which travels slowly above rooms and various corpses. There's another long tracking shot, this time a horizontal flow through the Blue House, which arguably shows one influence of Goodfellas.

The DVD includes a host of trailers from the same source as well as a relatively brief, if interesting, interview with the director. A brief historical note or two, putting events in context - democracy in South Korea was not restored until after a further massacre and another spell of dictatorship - would be useful for the casual viewer.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 21, 2010 7:07 PM GMT


Faintheart [DVD] [2008]
Faintheart [DVD] [2008]
Dvd ~ Eddie Marsan
Offered by rsdvd
Price: £2.05

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Faintheart aint bad, 28 Mar. 2009
This review is from: Faintheart [DVD] [2008] (DVD)
Faintheart is something of an innovation in that it claims to be the first 'user-generated feature' being cast, co-scripted and produced by the members of a social networking website. The aspect of novelty ends right there though, as the film is as cosy and traditional in tone as any Ealing comedy from yesteryear. It's an example of that characteristic British home-grown cinema where ordinary people fight through adversity to find true love and the inevitable reassurances of their own social grouping, a comfy ride filmed on a small scale. That's not to say that the journey isn't enjoyable (and in fact I had a smile on my face during most of it) but those who shy away from the cinematic world of, say Gregory's Girl or Brassed Off, and any of those UK movies which show aspirations born of national and personal idiosyncrasies, had better turn elsewhere.

For the rest of us director Vito Rocco provides a steady pair of hands in what is a charming tale set amidst the oddballs and associates of the 'Bloody Broadswords', a battle re-enactment society. At the centre of Faintheart are three relationships. Firstly, that of Richard (Eddie Marsan) and his determination to regain the love of his wife; she's understandably estranged after what proved to be the last straw: his belated appearance at her father's funeral, dressed in battle gear of the Norsemen. Richard's passion for re-enactment - part of an attempt, we suspect, to escape his mundane existence as a browbeaten worker in a DIY store - exasperates his wife (Jessica Hynes) almost as much as it embarrasses his young son. Meanwhile, Richard's friend Julien (Ewen Bremmer), a committed Trekkie, has a quest of his own: to find and retain a woman of his own and finally move out of his mother's place. Finally there's the growing friendship of Richard's son with a girl from his school, someone who recognises that to be different from the crowd is not necessarily a bad thing. In this she suggests an antidote to the disillusionment of Richard's wife as well as the unstinting fan-hood of Julien.

Shot around Worcester and Ludlow Castle, Rocco's film begins especially well with some mock heroic images of putative resistance to the Norman conquest, scenes incidentally anticipating the impact of the more serious 1066, expected next year. His confidence in his material and actors extends though the film, which uses its (surprising for a budget) 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen ratio effectively in a familiar working class landscape of bars, homes and playing fields. Delivered deadpan, and in typically understated fashion, the acting by all concerned is right on the mark. Especially noteworthy is Paul Nicholls as Richard, diehard of the small re-enactment fraternity, whose private life is a much as a struggle as are the heroic events he recreates in costume. The film makes plainly effective, if obvious, parallels between the two worlds he inhabits. They best comes together perhaps with the mock Arthurian moment as he retrieves his recently discarded swords from the rubbish tip.

It's fair to say that the main crisis in Richard's life is when, ultimately he has to decide between real life and pretence, a moment signified by him shaving off his trademark moustache and cutting back his hair. This is also an important moment too as it marks the point where the viewer stops seeing Richard's world, as it were, from the viewpoint of his historical fantasies looking in, and instead sees the real world as now acting upon the fantasies. To a certain extent the film suffers a little after this sea change. Richard's new, sensible look and manner makes the rest of it slightly more serious in a way which is not always to its advantage.

As with a lot of films of this sort a good deal of the pleasure lays in the incidental details fleshing out the relationships and motivations between the principal characters. Julien's goofy sex talk in Klingon for instance, Richard's painstaking, inept recreation of his first date with his wife or, in one Pythonesque moment, the off-hand admission of one of the burly bewhiskered members of the Bloody Broadswords that he "was a woman once." There's nothing in Faintheart which will get them rolling in the aisles, but there's nothing that is intended to. Rocco's movie is an amiable slice of life told with affection, more broadsword than the broad humour expected by some critics. There's enough to embody some truths about the national identity which one can recognise. Like Brassed Off, or the imminent Derek Jacobi movie Morris: A Life With Bells On, Faintheart paints its portrait of a society of social eccentrics facing the world on their own terms, an echo of the national epic, writ small. Eventual success of course is understood from the start, but whether such apolitical 'doing your own thing' is more than wishful thinking, particularly in today's downturn, such films leave others to decide. In the meantime Rocco manages a good deal of empathy with his cast which communicates well, and his movie can be judged a success.

The DVD includes the director's original 'MySpace' pitch but oddly enough no proper trailer for his film. There are also casting videos, on-set diaries, information about the re-enactors behind the story as well as Katie Melua recording her song for the movie.


Memories Of Matsuko [DVD]
Memories Of Matsuko [DVD]
Dvd ~ Miki Nakatani
Offered by The World Cinema Store
Price: £6.99

20 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars half kitschy, half moving, trashy and yet poetic, 28 Feb. 2009
This review is from: Memories Of Matsuko [DVD] (DVD)
Memories Of Matsuko (aka: Kiraware Matsuko no isshô) is the sort of film that only Asian cinema seems to come up with: half kitschy, half moving, trashy and yet poetic, you just won't discover this sort of eccentric product often on the Hollywood roster. A companion piece and successor to the same director's equally recommendable Kamikaze Girls, Memories Of Matsuko is the life story of a murdered recluse as discovered retrospectively by her nephew, charged by his disinterested father with cleaning up the dead woman's apartment. As he investigates his aunt's existence further he gradually discovers that life can have value after all, even when there seems none. The audience discovers how vivid personal fantasy can colour the most disagreeable world. Japanese cinema does a fine line in feminist tragedies, with an honourable line of such stretching back to Mizoguchi and beyond, films where the female centre of a movie suffers nobly within a male-centred culture. Matsuko Kawajiri is one from that same tradition, a sacrificial existence albeit filtered by a garish post modernistic pop culture. She's a female whose life when revealed, Citizen Kane-like, to the audience shows a character whose existence brings its own reward in our eyes, revealed with a nobility that only the audience ever sees completely.

Condescendingly dismissed, by one critic, as being like a "collaboration between Robert Bresson and Andy Warhol," a good deal of Memories Of Matsuko's richness lies in its heady counter-play between visual style and story. It frequently gives Matsuko's life meaning and context, by externalising her own fantasies in adversity through a riot of colours, staging and decor. Nakashima's innovative playful approach ranges from Sirkian opening credits through to bright colour and expressionist sets, Disneyesque animated birds and even musical production numbers. Fantastic and feminist in a manner familiar from Kamikaze Girls, as a 'fairytale tragedy' Memories Of Mastsuko echoes that earlier production in its sense of fun and irony. But this is darker parody than that, drawn at a much more ambitious level, with an undercurrent of emotion largely missing before. Whereas Kamikaze Girls is rooted in a rural world of daydreams, rococo ornament and girl gangs, Memories Of Matsuko takes place in an urban setting amidst yakuza, porn stars and pop, and with no happy ending for the main character.

Its energy and wit reflects something of the determination of Matsuko, a woman constantly looking for her ideal companion in life, only to be disappointed either through circumstance or bad judgement. But no sooner does she make another wrong choice, feeling thereafter that her life is over, than she reinvents herself and ploughs on into a new episode, as full of shallow optimism as the musical pastiche regularly surrounding her wayward progress. As the put upon Matsuko Kawajiri, actress Miki Nakatani is outstanding (and in fact she won a Japanese academy award). The memories of Matsuko are less the remembrances of others as much as the character's recollection of herself, particularly as often she seems to narrate her heartfelt story authoritatively from beyond the grave. From here her perspective invites judgement, and so her story becomes about not just how she was seen, but how then in turn she's seen others. It's a technique which considerably broadens the focus of the film, and allows for several excellent supporting roles. But even when others relate their experiences with her, she still dominates the movie, right up until her final appearance as an overweight, smelly frump, living in a garbage filled hovel, obsessed with a boy band.

At this point the film's erstwhile moral, about the importance of giving than receiving throughout life, is made plain. But, especially in the light of Matsuko's sacrifices during a film which frequently says one thing while implying another, we wonder how much this is to be taken without question. Some critics have criticised Nakatani dragging in the New Testament to make glib conclusion to all we have seen. Serious consolations of theology or not, Matsuko has clearly deserved better than she got. And there lays the film's achievement. Not in making the various memories of its central character unforgettable, but ensuring that our impression of Matsuko herself, who has suffered behind the veneer of cheerfulness so much, is by the end indelible.

Whether teacher, yakuza moll, sister, porn star, estranged sibling or murderess, Matsuko's experiences in life follow each other in colourful sequences, and it's a spiral that is slowly but inevitably stretching downwards. And if during her life there is an overarching regret, as part of her constant search for love and companionship, it is that she does not relate to her family as she might. Whether in pleasing her father - who comes to disown her - or being reconciled to the love of her sister, Matsuko's happiness is continually denied, at least until the end of the film where a transfiguration ensures she rests easier. It is easy to see that the distortion of her face at moments of crisis is self defining, a corrupted smile made aptly by the heroine when true joy is ever denied.

Memories Of Matsuko can be seen as both a deconstruction of the noble, self-sacrificing Japanese woman as well as restatement of serious themes through the filter of gone Hollywood and musical kitsch. Either way, there's a tension between what we are seeing, and what we understand, which gives the film interest. It's rare that one can recommend something to admirers alike of such diverse movies The Life Of Oharu, Amélie or the ironies of Douglas Sirk, but this is one such occasion.

On DVD the film comes relatively unadorned with just a 'making of' extra as well several trailers, not for Matsuko oddly, but including one for Kamikaze Girls. Another case of the UK market being short changed, one imagines, as elsewhere viewers can enjoy a two-disc presentation.
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 17, 2011 3:24 PM GMT


Hair High [DVD]
Hair High [DVD]
Dvd ~ Eric Gilliland
Offered by DaaVeeDee-uk
Price: £25.59

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hooray for Hair High, 1 Feb. 2009
This review is from: Hair High [DVD] (DVD)
One of the most easily recognisable auteurs working in animation, Bill
Plympton has produced a succession of animated features and shorts over
the last few years which delight with their unique style and
idiosyncratic world view. His is a bizarre world which, unusually for
such hand drawn work, normally assumes the presence of an adult
audience and where the exaggerations of sex can be sniggered over for
all the right reasons. HAIR HIGH is no exception, and continues the
animator's regular obsessions with the strained relationships between
sexually optimistic men and women, detailed with black humour all the
while laced with some side swipes at the ironies of romance. There's
also plenty of hair spray, horny chickens, a good soundtrack, smoking,
and the genital stimulation of frogs. Rudeness, surreality and extremes
of physical contortion appear again as part and parcel of the
plymptonesque world - which this time includes nods to such disparate
films as REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and THE CASTLE OF
CAGLIOSTRO. HAIR HIGH is voiced by such talent as Keith and David
Carradine, Ed Begley Jnr and Matt Groening. Ostensibly a moralistic
tale of 50's high school love that ends in comi-tragedy, HAIR HIGH
actually engages as a characteristic free wheeling fantasy, allowing
the animator to indulge in all sorts of off the wall scenes and images
propelling the narrative forward. For those better used to the tight
pencil work and plot construction of more regularly exposed animation
studios Plympton's work, which leaps more immediately from the artist's
bizarre subconscious, often comes as a wake up call. In its attempt to
drag cartoons out of the juvenile closet Plympton's longer work has
been blazing a trail for years. With not a cuddly, wise-cracking animal
in sight and a hands-off view with regards to any computer generated
figures, HAIR HIGH is a must for admirers of Plympton. Since this film
Plympton has completed two other features, including SHUT EYE HOTEL
and, most intriguingly, TOKYO ONLYMPIC, which at 137 mins is slated at
his longest yet, double that of the present title.


Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins
Why There Almost Certainly Is a God: Doubting Dawkins
by Keith Ward
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

20 of 39 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Another Christian apologist apropos Dawkins, 10 Nov. 2008
In this post-Dawkian world of militant, bulldog Atheism, we've seen a whole host of Christian apologists spring up with varying degrees of success, trying to claw back some of the authoratitive ground they once so fondly held. Ward's book attempts to find answer to just the philosophical arguments contained within THE GOD DELUSION (chapters 2 - 4) and therein lays both its strength and weakness.

WHY THERE ALMOST CERTAINLY IS A GOD shows less of the certainty of faith, at least in its title, than was possible before the arrival of the intellectually pugnacious Dawkins - although by the end Ward, who remembered initially "how important it is to be critical of all our beliefs" at least has the graciousness to admit that finally, what he's just toured the patient reader through "must seem like a wish-fulfilling fantasy ... (which is) not just a question of evidence ... (but of) basic forms of perception and action". The trouble is, for this reader at least, is that a good deal of Ward's "perception", being necessarily of the philosophical variety, comes across unduly complex and wishy-washy at the same time. It consists neither of Dawkins' wide appeal for the common reader, gained through a wide marshalling of arguments which give the impression of overwhelming probability in his favour, nor the arch atheist's clear and hard-hitting prose style. For Dawkins, evolution provides an excellent escalator of natural events which necessarily precludes the 'sky hook' offered by one's Invisible Magic Friend. It's an independent process which leads to increasing complexity. Whether or not he accepts the imperatives of evolutionary biology, Ward falls into the believer's habit of offering up that old stand by, faith, by way of alternative, suggesting that because something can't be proved not to be, so it really *has* to be as he thinks so. The result is a lot of wishful thinking, dressed up splendidly in verbiage.

For instance his insistance that mind can exist entirely outside of mechanical process: "This may seem rather odd, but it seems to be a possibility. There could be minds without matter.." so consciousness *might* be achieved by, er, well nothing tangible really as it happens... If I am simplfying Ward then that's because, stripped down to essentials, it's the same old special pleading for something unproveable. And of course he being a professional philosopher, he must know what he is talking about .. even though there's no independent verification of anything he hopes is the case.

Incidentally Ward does not discuss exactly just how it is pure mind can create matter or thought from nothing - indeed the exact connection between the two is one of his book's more fuzzy moments. Just because we have obviously thought and feelings, it seems, this is an argument for God who can also exist 'separately' from physicality - a dubious idea, given the necessarily mechanistic origin of those thoughts and feelings in the first place. But anything else it seems, is consciousness "explained away".

In short, this fairly short book is full of academic special pleading within a very short range. The denseness of argument here certainly proves that a. Dawkins is no professional philosopher in TGD ... but also shows b. that that wide-ranging book, though not without faults, has enough impact to remain impressive. Dawkin's broad assault on belief, built on the foundation strictures of evolutionary biology, creates an overwhelming sense of probability of world reality, one which makes Ward's necessarily narrow attack seem little more than more wishful thinking from an academic, and with none of the same impact.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 22, 2009 10:27 PM GMT


Colossus - The Forbin Project [1970] [DVD]
Colossus - The Forbin Project [1970] [DVD]
Dvd ~ Eric Braeden
Price: £4.90

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars There is another system, 16 Oct. 2008
Joseph Sargent directed this, still one of the few films to make computer science exciting, as well as another notable film The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974) before disappearing off into television. By all accounts The Forbin Project, intended in some way to capitalise on the recent success of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), was not a success at the box office - due perhaps to the bleak ending, as well as the plot's relatively cerebral nature. Like Kubrick's masterpiece, Sargant's film also features a deadly computer, and is ultimately concerned with what makes men, men. However unlike HAL, Colossus is not malfunctioning; it is programmed to end war and to make its own exponential judgements to further that aim, being "self-sufficient, self protecting, self-generating", a mechanical genius which "no human can touch." What Colossus offers mankind has none of HAL's self-centredness, more a ruthless determination to make us do what is better for all whether we like it or not. And where Kubrick's film suggests the reformation of a species though mind-blowing optics and some enigmatic symbolism, Forbin's project is one where ultimately it is one man who is 'reworked,' not all - though the fate of millions remains in the balance.

As Forbin emerges from the tomb-like Colossus processing installation within the Rockies, (scenes vaguely reminiscent of the final sealing of the pyramid in Hawk's Land Of The Pharaohs, 1955) we feel that he has leaving a part of himself behind. And as we learn more about our central character, it is clear that in fact he lacks a good deal - most specifically any sign of real emotion. Forbin, "world expert on computer systems," is as cold and as calm as the machines he idolises, a characteristic emphasised by the excellent performance of Braeden. This aloofness is emphasised by the actor's slight German accent, helped incidentally by the fact that he was obliged to re-dub his part after shooting had finished. By the end of the film he will be transformed by events he has initiated, and Forbin's impending change gives the film added interest.

Colossus' startling announcement that "There is another system" is what precipitates the main crisis, a bald statement open to a number of intriguing interpretations. First and foremost, the participants take it literally as the discovery of Guardian, Colossus' Soviet equivalent. This film was made at the height of the Cold War, which makes the relatively liberal treatment of the Russians struggling with their own dilemma, as well as the cordial nature between the two heads of state, slightly surprising. Apart from the abrupt elimination of their chief scientist (and this ordered by Guardian) the Russians emerge just as perplexed, honest and concerned as the Americans. This reminds us that the 'other system' can also be taken as political rather than mechanical. It's the abrupt reminder of another social order, announced aptly in midst of a smug Presidential reference to Roosevelt. Finally, and most intriguing, is what the Colossus' announcement slyly suggests in personal terms. As previously observed, Forbin's own emotional 'system' is essentially passionless (his surname even suggests that of Fortran, a genuine computer language). By the end of the film, the two super computers will have united, using their own newly developed machine language to communicate. Moreover the world will be (presumably) united too by the dire threat facing it. And, dominated by his creation, Forbin will have rejoined humanity, a process indicated through his increasing displays of belated emotion.

Once Colossus and Guardian have joined forces, they soon start making demands of the world, enforcing orders by punitive missile launches. Mankind is forced to comply. Forbin, as creator of Colossus, is granted a unique status by the machine, liaising between it and the world. But Colossus fears he may conspire, so in scenes that recall those in Demon Seed (1977), the doctor is placed under 24/7 surveillance, leading to the most interesting part of the film. For Forbin decides to convince the machine that he needs all human comforts to function properly - including time alone with a newly invented mistress, fellow scientist Doctor Cleo Markham (Susan Clarke). The plan is then to utilise their time together to plot. Forbin's sheepish admittal to the machine that he needs sex four times a week, as well as his inevitable romance with his 'mistress' are the first real sign of his humanity. More amusingly, the following dialogue ensues as the two are tucked up in bed together, Dr Markham making her initial report, the air filled with sexual static: "The hardware problem is negative... (we) are still studying a way to get into the thing." In a film singularly bereft of real humour, this double entendre is particularly striking - and is in stark contrast to Forbin's previous concern to get his language exactly accurate for communicating with his machine properly. Meanwhile, Colossus has become the "first electronic peeping tom," seemingly just as concerned with the love life of its creator as in world domination. Until Forbin's final, shocking outburst of "You Bastard!" so is the viewer. This is when, after bedding Dr Markham for real, he throws a stool at a computer screen in a rage at Colossus' repressive agenda. It's confirmed then that he's finally rejoined the (doomed?) human race with a vengeance, and has acquired traits of stubbornness and yes, perhaps heroism along the way.

The Forbin Project benefits greatly from a suitably cool style and restrained performances - entirely apt given the subject matter. It also has a standout score, one that frequently mimics the clatter of electronic activity, adding greatly to the atmosphere. As one would expect, the computer hardware on show is dated, (no doubt most of Colossus' vaunted brain would fit in a hatbox these days), but modern viewers, used to the concepts of 'cross-platforming', the Internet and so on, will find interesting echoes of these developments here. Add in an unfashionably downbeat ending, as well as the working out of Forbin's folly, and it emerges as considerably more than the SF curio one might expect.


Chase A Crooked Shadow [DVD] [1958]
Chase A Crooked Shadow [DVD] [1958]
Dvd ~ Richard Todd
Price: £9.50

17 of 24 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Twisty tale handicapped by casting, 16 Oct. 2008
An early film by the director of Logan's Run and Around the World in 60 Days, this one's main strength is its plot, which spins a fairly gripping early variation on the are-they aren't-they mad scenario which proved such a fruitful ground for British suspense films of the next decade. Those familiar with Taste of Fear (1961) Paranoiac (1963), etc will know how it goes: an isolated victim in peril from immediate family; lingering doubts of the identity of those closest to her; suggestions of beckoning insanity, overtones of incestuousness, obligatory last minute revelations, and so on.

At the heart of the film is heiress Kimberley Prescott (Anne Baxter), startled to be confronted by Williams (Richard Todd), purporting to be her late brother Ward, a man favoured with eerily accurate knowledge of their lives together. 'Ward' promptly installs himself in her Greek chateau along with his helper and butler, while Kimberley desperately tries to enlist the help of sympathetic local policemen Vargas (Herbert Lom). Soon it is clear that 'Ward' is interested in learning more about the diamonds missing from her late husbands business, and she grows more and more threatened..

At the the beginning of the film we see Williams and his associate Elaine (Faith Brook) running through the last few details of their unspecified deception. Arguably this could have been profitably omitted, as these opening moments remove any real doubts as to the nature of Ward's character. Without the prologue, far more emphasis would have been placed on Kimberley's suspect state of mind, the true nature of the ambiguous imposter's intentions would be far more intriguing, and the resulting psychological drama greatly heightened. As it is, the present film is closer to, say, To Catch a Thief (1955) than Suspicion (1941), with correspondingly less psychological complexity.

A talky film like this, with a small number of principals and some exotic location exteriors, stands or falls on the relative few elements of staging. Unfortunately, while blessed with an excellent script, Chase a Crooked Shadow is somewhat handicapped by the two leads. As the interloper 'Wade', the upright Todd is simply too stiff an actor to suggest the subtle menace the part requires, although his withdrawn manner does generate some suspense. The lack of any serious doubt about his intention to deceive never makes of his a particularly sympathetic character, although the extent of his intimate family knowledge is provoking (if never really explained). Straight backed, perfectly tailored, Todd's clipped delivery does induces some suspense as if by default, but the actor never unbends enough to add a necessary third dimension to his characterisation.

The other main problem is with Baxter. While sympathetic enough as the put-upon, shrinking heroine in the first part of the film, as events unfold and more elements of her character emerge, she finds it harder to convey the harder edge subsequent revelations demand. The end of the film, while offering an effective last minute twist, simply demands more than the actress can provide. Her final wilting, and lack of larcenous guile, has the effect of making the efforts of law enforcement appear cruel and heavy handed. Morally speaking, they appear to be taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. In contrast Herbert Lom does his usual excellent job in a supporting role, fleshing out the unspoken concerns of Vargas as best he can.

Anderson's film makes little use of the gothic possibilities of the setting, setting a fair number of scenes in well lit rooms or during daylight. Only towards the end, as Kimberley's anxieties reach a peak, does the director seek to trap her more within the shadows and decorative grills of her environment : having the heroine back nervously into a niche for instance ,while her tormentors pass her by; or her firing a spear gun into the threatening darkness of the boathouse (a place at the heart of her secret in more than one sense).

The final twist is a celebrated one and is as little telegraphed as one might wish. Anderson's chief achievement here is running the whole narrative so smoothly, and on such a small scale, before springing the final surprise on the audience. If a lot of the result is fairly static, then this can be put down to the casting as well as the characteristics of the script. His next film was to be the far more dynamic Cagney vehicle, Shake Hands With the Devil (1959).
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 17, 2010 9:04 PM BST


Scooby-Doo: Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
Scooby-Doo: Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island
Dvd ~ Jim Stenstrum
Price: £3.30

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Scooby rebooted, 11 Oct. 2008
`The ghost is here and its always a fake/Crooks in a suit protecting something/Oh give us the truth/- It's a fake..'

The refrain, from one of the songs from Hanna-Barbera's enjoyably revisionist cartoon feature, gives the game away as much does a false hand or mask: that this is growing up time for those who watched the series before, as much as it is for the fictional characters. Scoobie-Doo, Daphne, Fred, Shaggy and Velma, the members of `Mystery Inc.', were fixtures of children's television during the 70's. (So much that some cultural historians have referred to that age group of viewers as the `Scooby-Doo generation'.) Their show presented an unvarying formula of mild scares, broad comedy and a reassuring resolution.

In `Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island' the intrepid teenage investigators are revealed once again pursued by a monster who, once again, allows Shaggy and Scooby their so-frightened-its-funny routine. And when the monster is felled, and its mask is removed, it is naturally revealed to be none other than the real estate agent Mr Beeman, whose final words are said in time honoured fashion: `..and I would have got away with it too, if it wasn't for that dog and you meddling kids'.

The `meddling kids' however, have grown up, along with their audience. Far from being a closing sequence, Beeman's downfall is shown at the start of this film, as Daphne Blake, now a reporter with her own show `Coast to Coast', replays an earlier adventure of the team on a chat show. An Oprah-like hostess elicits the truth. Since the old days, it turns out that Daphne is not the only one who has gone her own way. Fred (still with the boyish good looks) is the producer on her show, Velma has opened `Dankley's Mystery Bookstore' whilst, in a ludicrous twist, Shaggy and Scooby have become contraband sniffers for customs. The team in short, has broken up, their independence an indication of distancing and maturity.

Daphne's desire to find genuine spooky occurrences for her show's second season is the motivation for the famous team to reform. Their Mystery Machine now a source of nostalgia. But there's an awareness that all of the past `hauntings' have been fakes, which brings an air of frustrated realism. Fred is the cynic, saying that `there's always a logical explanation for these things'. And remembering 300-odd shows that have been before, the viewer must perforce agree with him. There's a symbol of this new mood of disillusionment, in the box of Scooby Snacks given by Velma to Scooby and Shaggy just before they set out. The biscuits are stale.

Speeding to New Orleans, the rest of Mystery, Inc. find Fred's rational view to be correct. Every ghost, it seems, is fake. Daphne is left to gloomily contemplate the lack of any real supernatural encounters. As she admits, all they have found so far have been `guys in masks, mechanical claws and hologram projections', `Just like the good old days' adds Velma ironically. The group's precipitous meeting with the mysterious Lena then, who promises them a real haunted house, is a turning point.

At first, their investigation of Simone and Lena's haunted house seems to be following the same path. Scooby-Doo discovers cats to chase, and he and Shaggy find food to scoff (including some Cajun peppers - literally `hard to swallow'!) But there's a suspicion of romance between Freddy and Lena, and change creeps still further over the film as ghastly events, connected with the pirate Morgan Moonscare, defy rational explanation vexing Velma. For once, the suspicion is that Scooby-Doo and the gang are up against the genuine article. Freddy is at the heart of much of this. (A subtle indication of his new role is when, getting dressed, he impulsively discards his trademark Ascot.) From sceptic, he is forced to believe - an intellectual process central to the success of many adult horror films.

At the heart of `Zombie Island' there's a remarkable scene which epitomises the film's new world-view. The group succeed in discovering the recumbent body of a zombie. Ready for the all-important `unmasking the janitor' scene Freddy tries to pull off the supposed mask. Yanking at the head, he ritualises the process of exposure with suggestions of who the zombie will prove to be, itemising the suspicious characters they have encountered: `.. it's the gardner. It's the fisherman. Maybe the ferryman. Maybe animatronic.. ' Alas for Freddy, the zombie's entire head comes off, and then is promptly reattached as the creature wakes. For once they are faced with the genuine article - a seismic shift in their ghoul-chasing careers.

In previous Scooby-Doo outings, the viewer is reassured by assuming that the evil will be explained away. On Zombie Island this safety net is suddenly removed, and the adventure approaches a level of supernatural unease that the television series failed to achieve - leaving the Scooby-Doo fan in new territory.

The following zombie attack and the discovery of the voodoo cat-cult provide an exciting enough conclusion. In accord with the general air of rediscovery, Scooby and all find that, this time, `the zombies are the good guys'. There's a new song played too, reflecting with some justice that `It's terror time again' as events proceed.

All in all this is a pleasant surprise, the film reflecting a timely and refreshing reinterpretation of the Scooby-Doo franchise by Hanna-Barbera. The films which followed: ` Scooby-Doo and The Witches Ghost' (1999), `The Alien Invasion' (2000), `Cyber Chase' (2001) continue this change, but `Zombie Island' was the creative breakthrough. Values are higher than the TV series, as one might expect given the higher budget and the involvement of a Japanese animation team. A must for fans!


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