Friday, 11 April 2014

Scarface



Based on a 1929 novel and inspired by real events, 1932’s Scarface was one of a series of pre-code gangster pictures which shocked and enthralled its viewers. Opening with a written disclaimer, damming the government for their lack of action regarding the threat that modern gangsters pose, the film nonetheless glamorises the life of crime while shaking a stick in its vague direction. It follows the ascent of young arrogant Italian immigrant Tony Camonte (Paul Muni) as he rises through the Chicago underworld by bumping off bosses and rivals who stand in his way and intimidating speakeasy proprietors into taking his booze. Aided by his right hand man, the quiet coin flicking Guino Rinaldo (George Raft), Tony reaches the heights of underworld overlord but finds that being at the top is even more dangerous than the climb to the summit.

Arriving two years before the Hays Office began imposing much stricter censorship on Hollywood; Scarface was able to get away with a lot more than many films which followed it. Inside its ninety minutes you’ll find brutal murders, gunplay and revealing costumes worn by the female characters, things which just wouldn’t be permissible from 1934 onwards. Even still, the film troubled the censors and the ending was changed to suit their tastes. Overall the movie contains a ‘crime doesn’t pay’ theme, something which you expect from the opening credits disclaimer but it’s slow in coming. For the most part, the theme appears to be ‘crime gets you everything you want’ and it’s this which the censors must have taken issue with. The glorification of the central character is also something which the Hays Office was unhappy with. This is something which film makers and censors would lock horns over for the next forty years.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Out of the Past



1947’s Out of the Past is widely considered to be one of the greatest examples of 1940s film noir. Set around a convoluted plot, the film twists and turns through double, triple and quadruple crosses, landing surprise blows on its dumbstruck and occasionally confused audience. Based on the novel Build My Gallows High and originally released in the UK under the same title, the picture stars Robert Mitchum as freelance Private Detective Jeff Bailey. He’s hired by rich and shady businessman Whit Sterling (Kirk Douglas) to track down a dame, Kathie Moffat (Jane Greer) who Stirling alleges has disappeared with $40,000 of his money. Told partly in flashback and with a voiceover to match that of Sunset Boulevard’s, the film twists and turns like a twisty-turny thing, through several cities, two nations and a long, albeit undisclosed, period of time.

It took me a little while to get into Out of the Past but when I did, I enjoyed it greatly. Unfortunately my patience wore off towards the end thanks to the elaborate nature of the narrative. This isn’t a film I’d suggest watching after a long day at the office and a couple of martinis inside your stomach. Although a large part of the movie’s charm is its strong story, the frequent double crossing did begin to confuse me as we crossed the hour mark. This isn’t entirely a bad thing however as half the fun is in guessing who has the upper hand and who will strike next.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms



Predating the more famous Godzilla by a year and being a major influence on that movie, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is a 1953 creature feature that is home to a series of firsts. It was the first movie in history to feature a monster awakened by a nuclear blast and also contains Ray Harryhausen’s first solo special effects work. It spawned a plethora of imitations and ushered the dawn of a golden age for monster movies.

The plot sets a pattern which will sound familiar to anyone who’s seen a creature feature before. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, a team of scientists and military personnel are carrying out a nuclear test. While out collecting samples soon after, physicist Thomas Nesbitt (Paul Christian) is shocked to eye a giant beast, lurking in the icy gloom. Back in New York City no one believes the young scientist but when strange tales come down the Atlantic seaboard towards Gotham, others begin to treat Nesbitt’s claims seriously. Unfortunately they’re too late and the beast makes devastating landfall in the city itself.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier



Captain America (Chris Evans) returns in his second solo outing to sniff out the rotten core at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D. When an attempt is made on the life of a senior S.H.I.E.L.D executive, Captain Steve Rodgers finds himself on the outside of a conspiracy and on the run. With the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomer to the series, Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Cap’ must hunt down those who have sworn to protect and comes across a figure from his past in the process.

When the first Captain America movie came out in 2011, I expected it to be the Marvel film that I’d enjoy most. I’m a lover of history and am fascinated by the 1940s, especially the Second World War. It was surprising then that I enjoyed it far less than any other of the Marvel films to that date. I’m glad to say that Winter Soldier is an improvement on the original but still lags some way behind the likes of Thor and Iron Man for me.

I’ll start with what I enjoyed about the movie as that will take less time. I think that the themes are strong and well realised. By turning S.H.I.E.L.D, or at least elements of it, into the bad guys, the film holds a mirror up to the intelligence community. After years of reports about NSA bugs, CIA phone tapping and MI5 interference, the writers pick up a strong idea and run with it. By putting those who are meant to protect us under the spotlight, we get a glimpse into a shady and easily corruptible world. The positioning of S.H.I.E.L.D’s headquarters, high above the Washington skyline, is also a strong visual metaphor. The movie asks us, who is really in charge? What are their powers and if they’re watching us, who’s watching them?

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Double Indemnity



I had only been a few months since the last time I saw Double Indemnity but today’s watch of the noir inflected The Lost Weekend made me want to step back a year earlier to revisit Billy Wilder at the height of the genre. Double Indemnity could be described as the archetypical film noir. Although the genre stretches back further than the film’s 1944 release, it was Double Indemnity which provided the blue prints from which later titles took their queues. Famous today for its voice-over, use of venetian blind lighting and provocative femme fatale, at the 17th Academy Awards the picture was nominated for seven Oscars. Although it ultimately left that ceremony empty handed, the movie’s reputation has gone from strength to strength and it currently sits inside the top thirty on the AFI’s poll of 20th Century movies.

The film is told in flashback and voiceover by Walter Neff (Fred MacMurray). Neff is a talented insurance salesman who becomes an active participant in a murder plot following a chance meeting with the seductive Phyllis Dietrichson (Barbara Stanwyck). Neff is at the Dietrichson household with the hope of persuading Mr. Dietrichson to renew his motor insurance when he’s presented with the beguiling temptress that is the lady of the house. Blinded by love or at the very least passion, Neff agrees to help the lady to murder her husband and share in the insurance pay out. Having constructed an elaborate murder plot, Neff’s firm and in particular the capable Barton Keys (Edward G. Robinson) are charged with working out how the supposed accidental death of Mr. Dietrichson occurred.

The Lost Weekend



Billy Wilder’s multi award winning The Lost Weekend was one of the first movies to tackle the pull of alcohol head on. The fantastic script details four days in the life of long time alcoholic Don Birnam (Ray Milland) who despite his best intentions to stay sober, ends up down an ever spiralling path of addiction. The winner of four Oscars and nominated for three more on top, The Lost Weekend was one of Wilder’s most lauded films and has lost little of its potency in the near seventy years since its release. Opening in the apartment which Birnam shares with his long suffering and devoted bother, Wick Birnam (Phillip Terry) is attempting to get his brother out of the city and away from the temptation of liquor for a few days. He hopes that the cold turkey approach will aid in his brother’s recovery and allow him the time and clear head to write – a career which Don attributes to himself with little evidence of success.

This first scene displays Don’s dependency through the use of the first of several hidden bottles of rye. Whilst packing, Don tries to slip into his case a bottle which he has attached to a rope swinging outside his window. This, unlike many other bottles is soon discovered but Don still manages to wriggle out of the booze free break and instead settles in for a weekend of petty criminality and hard drinking. Don’s first act of cruelty in the pursuit of his fix is to steal the $10 which his brother has left for the housekeeper. He lies to her that the money (her wage) isn’t waiting for her and purchases two bottles before heading to the bar for a drink. The look on Don’s face when he is presented with the short glass of light brown liquid tells us all we need to know about his addition. He’s like a child of Christmas Day, eager, excited, unable to wait. The first drink is downed and swiftly followed by several more.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Double



Richard Ayoade’s second film and follow up to 2010’s critically acclaimed Submarine is The Double, a dark comedy based on Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s satirical novella of the same name. Set in a subterranean hinterland of unknowable time and location, the film follows the life of lonely, ignored and unseen data imputer Simon James (Jesse Eisenberg). Simon floats through life unnoticed by those around him, stating that he feels as though people could almost reach through him as though he wasn’t there. When a new co-worker is introduced, Simon is shocked to discover that he looks and sounds exactly like himself. His doppelgänger though is everything he is not; cocky, outgoing and highly visible.

The Double could easily have been a film that was known for its story. Based on the work of one of the literary greats of the nineteenth century, the film has the narrative already safely mapped out and it indeed delivers an interesting and complex story. In the hands of Ayoade though, this film will be remembered for more; chiefly its design and sound. Richard Ayoade has constructed a magnificent film that evokes so much but remains unique. It’s beautiful and funny, grim and depressing all in equal measure.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Pain & Gain



I watched Pain & Gain. I don’t know why I watched Pain & Gain but I did. I watched Pain & Gain. My favourite critic, Mark Kermode, ranked it as his least favourite film of 2013 and I dislike the entire back catalogue of director Michael Bay. But still I watched Pain & Gain. And do you know what? It isn’t the worst film ever made. I don’t even think it’s the worst film of 2013. It isn’t however a very good film. It’s Pain & Gain. Michael Bay’s Pain & Gain.

Based on true events, something which the film ‘amusingly’ reminds the audience of after a particularly unbelievable scene, Pain & Gain is the story of body building jackass personal trainer Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who in 1994-5 along with two accomplices, successfully kidnapped and extorted a Miami based businessman, taking all his money and possessions. After months of living the high life, the trio decided to try their hand at a second kidnapping but by this time the police were on their trail.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Escape Plan



It was only natural that I became curious when I heard of a forthcoming film featuring the two super-heavyweights of 80s action. As any man who grew up in the 90s can attest to, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone are part of my childhood. VHS copies of Commando or Cliffhanger might have been some of the first we owned and while most of their output has aged even worse than the actors themselves, I still get a little tingle at the thought of seeing them on screen. Escape Plan marks the pair’s first appearance as co-stars although they were seen on screen together in Stallone’s The Expendables. The pairing might have come twenty years later than most fans would have liked but it certainly draws more attention to this movie than it would have if only one man had featured. Joining Arnie and Sly are the likes of Vinnie Jones and 50 Cent so Citizen Kane, watch out!

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a man who is paid by the US Government to break out of maximum security prisons; a job he excels at. The movie opens with a long, dull sequence in which the audience discovers just how good he is. He’s very good. He gets out. Although he barely has time to change out of his prison jumpsuit, he’s offered double his normal fee to break out of an undercover, off the grid, top, neigh, super-duper top secret facility. He literally grunts at the chance and is soon back inside. Immediately Breslin discovers that this is unlike any other jail he’s seen before and when his emergency escape code is laughed off, he realises he’s going to need all his skills (as well as fellow convict Emil Rottmayer – Schwarzenegger) if he’s going to escape. Breslin develops a plan – an Escape Plan.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Under the Skin



It’s been ten years since Jonathan Glazer’s last film and nearly a decade and a half since his wonderful screen dĂ©but Sexy Beast. His third film, Under the Skin, is a dark and chilling science fiction horror, loosely based on Michael Faber’s 2000 novel of the same name. It stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien who preys on men, using her siren like looks and charm to pull them towards the rocks and to their demise. The movie is incredible, at times getting close to the best I’ve seen in cinema. It veers wildly though towards the opposite extreme with passages of nothingness which reminded me of the torrid time I had while watching Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Extremes exist elsewhere too with sequences which wouldn’t look out of place in an art gallery side by side with almost documentary style shooting, filmed with hidden cameras.

The film opens with an abstract scene, perhaps the formation of an eye or the creation of a being. It signals birth or re-birth and sets us up for what is to come. From the very first moments we know this is going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before and it doesn’t disappoint in that regard. The opening establishes the link between the known and unknown, creating tantalising glimpses into who or what we are about to be confronted with before concluding on the recognisable image of an eye, at first still, then moving, depicting consciousness. Although it – or she – may well be aware of her surroundings, the alien shows no emotion regarding what she sees. She’s a cold machine, showing not even contempt for her victims. She’s focussed and has a singular task. In one of the film’s most horrifying scenes, a baby is left stranded on a beach. Though screeching for help, she’s ignored by the strange visitor who acts coldly, even blindly to the presence of the child. As humans we want to protect and mother the infant but to the alien, its screams don’t even register. It’s a scene that sent chills down my spine.