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Young Sherlock Holmes

Holmes In A Harry!
Three teenagers, two boys and a girl, based at a fusty old English boarding school in the dead of winter, solve mysteries and fight supernatural forces. The leader of the three has a keen intelligence as well as a native ingenuity to get him and his pals out of the tightest of tight spots and even has a snotty rival in class, determined to bring him down. Their real protagonist though is one of the school masters while elsewhere there's a proliferation of eccentric older characters who interact with the youngsters. Sound familiar...?

But Holy Hogwarts, this isn't the long-lost prequel to the Harry Potter blockbuster series, or maybe it is...

What it is instead, is an imagined first adventure of the young Holmes and Watson, who we see meeting as schoolmates at Brompton School where Holmes's credentials as a young smart-aleck and Watson as his plodding but not always dumb sidekick are established.almost immediately. Add in the pretty young female niece of an eccentric old science teacher who sidelines by creating flying contraptions, mix in some murders caused by a hallucinogenic drug administered by the blow-dart of a cloaked female figure, top off with a ritualistic sect determined to sacrifice the young girl and you have an enjoyable and exciting boys-own family-entertainment sumptuously created by Spielberg's Amblin Productions, as written by Christopher Columbus and directed by Barry Levinson.

Cleverly inserting most of the familiar tropes we associate with the adult Holmes and Watson, including sayings, clothing and mannerisms, it's a rollicking ride from start to finish notably including an early example of the potential of Pixar productions in one of the animated sequences.

Nicely acted by the no-doubt carefully cast youngsters, with good adult support too, backed by a suitably florid John Williams orchestral soundtrack, the whole film is easy on the eye and ear. I remember watching it on first release and being disappointed, then as now, that it wasn't successful enough at the box-office to generate the obviously anticipated sequel.

All it seems that was missing from the winning formula was a little magic...

Dirty Harry

Police Harrys-ment
A new kind of cop for a new decade. With "Dirty Harry" Siegel and Eastwood created one of cinema's most enigmatic figures in Inspector Harry Callahan, a monosyllabic, no-nonsense cop, based in San Francisco, who freely uses his Magnum 357 gun like it's an extension to his right hand and is very much of the "shoot first, ask questions later" school of policing.

Nicknamed "Dirty Harry" because he always gets the dirty jobs other cops won't touch, we first see him single-handedly take down a gang robbing a bank which culminates in round one of his classic "Do you feel lucky, punk?" confrontations, staring down the barrel of his gun, daring said punk to go for his nearby gun and then using a similarly unconventional "I dare you..." interview technique to talk down a potential suicide jumper. Not a by-the-book copper then, he prefers to work alone and little cares for the politicking and compromising of his bosses, who he tolerates just so long as they don't interfere with his individual modus operandum.

So here's a cop with no hinterland, we never see where we lives and just about glean that his wife died in an undetermined past and that he appears to have no kids. Married to the job, he lives for the next dirty case to fall into his lap and sure enough, along comes a sniper-killer, shooting innocent people with his long-range rifle, demanding a ransom from the city mayor to stop his promised one-a-day murdering spree.

Harry's pursuit of the self-named "Scorpio" killer soon becomes personal between the two of them and ebbs and flows through a tense pursuit in a football stadium then a legal stand-off which sees the killer freed and finally an inevitable reckoning between the two after Scorpio has hijacked and threatened to kill a school bus containing young children.

"Dirty Harry" set the bar for violent, uncompromising police thrillers and Eastwood proved the perfect medium for the iconic title role, in so doing, updating and adapting his earlier "Man with no name" characterisation from the Leone westerns to the present day. I don't think the film works completely, for one thing believing that Scorpio's character could have been built up more while some of the plotting and supporting characterisations seem somewhat haphazard and sketchy, not to mention exhibiting a little decidedly "of its time" casual racism and sexism. I'd also question having Harry recite again the "Go for your gun" ultimatum at the end as an unnecessary repetition of what was a brilliant stand-alone scene from earlier in the film, but there's no doubt with its extensive use of fluid camera-work, location photography, realistic, pared-down dialogue and explosive set-pieces, Siegel and Eastwood had happened on a dynamic template for much of what would follow in the New Hollywood of the next decade and beyond, not least a slew of its own sequels, none of which however, bettered the original.

One, Two, Three

1-2-3 Red Light
This manic madcap comedy is well-known as being the one which effectively burned out James Cagney, who, no doubt fried from delivering such rapid-fire dialogue, promptly retired from movies for more than twenty years. To be fair, he does pretty well to keep up with the mayhem occurring all around him in Billy Wilder's contemporary Cold War comedy set in Berlin, but even he can't save this one.

In a plot which would be a dream for today's product placement movie departments, Cagney is the manager of the Berlin branch of Coca-Cola's European division. He however has eyes on the plumb London job, especially after being passed over previously and sees tying up the untapped Russian market as key to securing the post. While he has an attractive wife his own age, Arlene Francis and noticeably young children, that doesn't stop him having a pretty young chick on the side, in the shape of his blonde secretary, played by Liselotte Pulver.

All his plans are turned upside down though, when his big boss in the States foists on him his wild 17 year-old daughter, Pamela Tiffin to babysit her for this part of her European tour. True to form, the young girl promptly gets pregnant to and marries a handsome young card-carrying Communist, Horst Bucholz. Cagney's character, we've already observed, is a master-fixer but can even he turn things around when the girl's parents suddenly announce that they're flying into Berlin to reunite with their sweet and innocent little girl?

There's no doubting the energy of the direction, writing and performances, but in trying to mix sex, politics and business and then cloaking them with topicality and farce, it's really not surprising that even the maestro Wilder can't keep all his plates spinning at one time. The humour, although there are some pithy one-liners, seems too forced at times, with unfunny running gags (all that heel-clicking and the office staff forever standing to attention) and in-jokes (one minor character effects a 30's Cagney impression while at another point, the man himself threateningly holds a grapefruit inches from Bucholz's face, evoking "The Public Enemy") but the characters are just not funny enough to shake off their stereotypical personae or general unlikeability and the women especially are treated as bimbos, sexpots or the simpering little lady indoors, all running around in thrall to the less-than-inspiring men in their lives. In particular, there's a painfully obvious and unfunny drag sequence which only shows that you can't reheat a (some like it) hot soufflé.

It's not altogether surprising either that truth overtook fiction with the soon-afterwards building of the Berlin Wall rendering obsolete at a stroke, much of the underlying politics of the piece, just before the film was actually released, although Wilder was prescient about the Russian locating bombs in Cuba..

I usually love Wilder's work, but this one was a little too fast and spurious for my taste.


Tie Die
Hitchcock's second-last feature saw him make a much-heralded return to his home ground of London with an all-British cast in an attempt to stay relevant with this time an English psychopath on the loose, raping and then strangling women to death before leaving at the scene as his calling-card the neck-tie he uses to kill them.

After an initial half-an-hour McGuffining the identity of the "Necktie Killer", he then reveals the real murderer to the audience so removing any question of this being a whodunit, by which time we're of course back in the familiar Hitchcock territory of an innocent man trying to clear his name with the evidence stacked against him.

The modernising methods mentioned earlier are apparent not only in the graphic depiction of the first murder and indeed the final victim, but also in the use of more vulgar language and female nudity. There are also some distinctly off-colour remarks made which go beyond mere sexism as the film amply justifies its X-rating of the time. And yet for all of its director's attempts to catch up with the young bucks of the New Hollywood, it's slowed down in other ways with misjudged scenes and characterisations throughout. The running joke about the pursuing police detective having to eat his wife's inedible attempts at nouvelle cuisine quickly runs out of steam while the extended scene when the murderer has to retrieve an incriminating piece of evidence from his rigorised victim's naked corpse which he's previously dumped in a potato truck is a laboured and overlong attempt, I presume, at black humour.

There are still signs of genius scattered throughout the film, none more so than the silent depiction of the second murder in contrast with the over-the-top graphic violence of the first killing and there is a neatly turned closing line too from the master of the final shot.

There is good acting all round from the non-starry cast and at last, after years of criticism of his process shots, an enjoyable use of location shooting in and around London's docklands and fruit-market. Even so, you sense the great director is trying a little too hard to be relevant in the new world of "Dirty Harry" or "A Clockwork Orange", leaving an effect rather like your dad crashing his teenage offspring's party while wearing an earring.

The Killing

Bookie, Bookie, Lend Me Your Tomb...
I'm no great fan of Kubrick, I didn't get "2001" or "Dr Strangelove" but I am a massive film noir fan and there's no question he earns his stripes here. It has its flaws but "The Killing" is a compelling, if bleak and violent thriller which packs a lot into its scarce 84 minutes.

Sterling Hayden is the ex-con mastermind behind a carefully planned racecourse heist which should net him a cool $2 million but which to succeed needs the participation of five component hirelings, being a hen-pecked cashier at the course, a sharpshooter, a rugged old East European wrestler, a bent cop with an invalid wife and a crooked bartender. But we all know what happens to the best laid plans and how a chain is only as strong as its weakest link and sure enough, before any more metaphors can be mixed, the whole plan goes spectacularly awry, with one last twist in the tale as Hayden and his girl try to literally take flight, only for their hopes to blow away in the wind due to the intervention of a pesky little dog.

Kubrick plays about with the structure and timings of the film action, going back and forth repeatedly as scenes overlap each other, which has the effect of keeping the viewer repeatedly on their toes. There's just enough characterisation included, sufficient to inform the motives of individuals which guide the resulting action, in particular the love triangle connecting put-upon Elisha Cook Jr's course-cashier and his ambitious, two-timing wife Marie Windsor and her handsome, small-time gangster lover played by Vince Edwards.

When the violence comes, it fairly erupts and literally shoots holes in the hopes and dreams of all the cogs in Hayden's not so well-oiled machine but even more memorable is the closing scene where you expect Hayden to blast his way out of his tight corner and instead resigns himself to his fate. When your luck's out, it's out and there's no point trying to fight fate if it's turned against you.

I was impressed by the ensemble cast, especially Hayden, Cook and Windsor, although elsewhere I have to admit I didn't appreciate the stentorian narration, neither could I decipher the swarthy wrestler's dialogue and I also wish the screenplay could have found a better way for the gunman to dismiss the well-meaning black car-park attendant.

Even so, this is a top-rank noir, obviously announcing a major directorial talent, although personally I'm not sure If many of his highly-regarded subsequent features are actually better than this.

Portrait d'un homme 'à 60% parfait': Billy Wilder

Wilder Untamed
Cards on the table, Billy Wilder is definitely in my top 5, probably top 3 film directors. He's made many of my all-time favourite movies including "Ball Of Fire" (as co-writer), "Double Indemnity", "Sunset Boulevard", "Some Like It Hot", "The Apartment" and my personal favourite of his, "Ace In The Hole". Here, he's an amiable interviewee of a slightly starchy French reporter who asks him a series of reasonably interesting if not always essential questions about his life and work to date (the programme was shot in 1984).

One is struck immediately with the relatively modest surroundings Wilder inhabits. We first see him in his small, cluttered office. There's no P. A. in sight as Wilder responds frankly and pithily to his mild interrogation. Later we see him in his Malibu beach home and are guided through his priceless modern art collection, featuring works by Picasso, Chagall and Renoir, amongst others and finally he's giving his answers from a hammock in his garden.

His accent is still very thick Eastern European, drawing a parodic impersonation from Jack Lemmon, who chips in with the odd anecdote alongside his cinematic Siamese twin Walter Matthau, but Wilder is more interesting on his own. The one hour, location-switching format rather than a straight face to face encounter means that valuable time is lost as Wilder offers hospitality or small-talk to his guest but it was nice to see how hospitable he was, with no auteur hang-ups on display here.

There were insights into fascinating stars with whom he'd worked like Monroe, Laughton and Dietrich, but not a word about Bogart, Garbo or Swanson. Some films were barely touched upon, like "Sabrina", "Stalag 17" and "Irma La Douce" but what should you expect in in such an abbreviated programme.

Anyway, I saw enough to convince me that Wilder would have been great company, wise, amusing, friendly and generous. A must-see for fans of the great man.

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice

Looking For Linda
I'm not a fan of Linda Ronstadt's music. Any of it. Also, she never achieved any great popularity here in the U. K. even during her most successful years in the States (roughly between 1974 - 1979). However, I have been listening to and reviewing some of her music in recent weeks but still didn't find much to really warm to in any of her very disparate catalogue.

I was intrigued however to learn something of her current state of health, given that my own father is living with the same condition (which I hope isn't overly morbid reason for watching!) and so most appreciated the brief parts when she honestly opens up about her incurable Parkinson's Disease debilitation. She disarmingly just drops this fact about her health into her story which rather shows up in poor relief all the other lovey, big-name eulogies to her trotted out by past friends, collaborators and admirers.

Once the prologue reaches the point of her confession, this documentary goes the traditional route of telling the viewer the subject's story from birth to the present day. It seems everybody loves Linda, with no-one having a bad word to say against her, with the likes of Dolly Parton. Jackson Browne, Cameron Crowe and many others lining up to sing her praises.

Sorry, but I just don't like her voice. For me it has a foghorn-like quality to it which too often reduces to rubble any song bearing traces of delicacy or sensitivity. I don't care if Don Henley, Bonnie Raitt or Emmylou Harris's opinions are ranged against me, I just can't hear it.

Of course Ronstadt didn't write any of her own songs either which meant she had to rely on her own instincts to unearth recordable material. Much is made of her chameleon-like musical changes as she goes from folk to country rock, to rock, to new wave (this less successful phase barely mentioned in fact) to operetta, to big band, to Mexican mariachi back to country, but I was never convinced for a second that she was comparable in that regard to, say an artist like Bowie.

From all the fawning tributes paid to her here, I get that she seems to be a nice person, was, indeed still is, highly regarded by her musical peers and I'm sure, a large part of her devoted U. S. / Mexican fan-base. It was genuinely sad to hear her painfully try to hold a note right at the end of the film in a little close-family trio and even if nothing here will change my appreciation or lack of same for her music, I did come away from it with some admiration for her honesty and bravery in facing a terrible disease, especially so, I would imagine being a singer.

Just as a postscript I'd also just like to register my irritation that there was no crediting of the contribution of the talented late Andrew Gold as the guitarist and often musical arranger in her breakthrough band. He it was who crafted the Beatlesque guitar break which really made memorable her first big solo hit "You're No Good" and you see him frequently in clips of her early years but I didn't hear his name once, indeed, it's her record-producer Peter Asher who tries to take the credit for that game-changing segment of the song. Shame on you, Asher.


Kane Mutiny
It seems ironic that in trying to bolster the claim of maverick Hollywood screenwriter Herman J Mankiewicz, the "Mank" of the title, to sole authorship of the screenplay of arguably the best and most famous (or infamous) movie in Hollywood history, "Citizen Kane", David Fincher's film should meet similar claims of duplicity and distortion.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that in conceiving, directing and acting in the finished film, Welles wouldn't have contributed majorly to the screenplay, especially given the evidence of his future movies. One need look no further than his later acknowledged, uncredited input to Carol Reed's brilliant "The Third Man", the memorable "cuckoo clocks" speech. Moreover, early in this film, Welles's Mercury Productions associate, John Houseman, pointedly encourages Mankiewicz to push for even a shared writing credit which it seems he wasn't about to get at all or even expect, which of course he did receive in the end.

Does it really matter then whether he did or didn't write the whole screenplay? To film buffs and historians, the answer is probably yes, but it does tend to over-dominate the rest of this fascinating man's chequered life. I'm fine with Fincher's attempt to at least reclaim Mankiewicz's subsequently diminished claim to the Oscar, especially as it's the only one he ever won, although the same could be said for Welles too. The thought occurred to me however whether two such rebellious anti-establishment figures as these would even care about baubles such as the Oscars, but then again I'm not in movies.

Fincher certainly presents a beautifully realised pastiche of the era with stunning monochrome cinematography and witty dialogue, both often containing insider nods to "Kane", no doubt for avids like me. The now disputed attribution of Mankiewicz's motivation in turning against his former friend, William Randolph Hearst and by association his mistress Marion Davies, with whom Mankiewicz appeared to have a special bond, to Hearst's part in engineering the defeat of writer and socialist activist Upton Sinclair's 1934 bid for the California governorship does again seem a bit of a stretch. This especially when one learns that the depicted suicide of the director of the phony newsreel clips allegedly commissioned by Hearst which Sinclair attributed to his defeat from the jaws of victory, was itself a complete fabrication by Fincher and his writers. Which I have to say is where it gets murky for me and in fact I believe does a disservice to Mankiewicz's memory.

Viewed as a behind-the-scenes insight into Golden Age Hollywood film-making, "Mank" is a joy and is helped in this by fine performances at its heart by Gary Oldman as Mank, even if he seems old for the part (unlike Amanda Seyfreid who by contrast seems way too young to play Davies) and Tom Pelphrey as his also gifted brother, the writer and future producer / director Joseph Mankiewicz, but in the end, when its central attempt to add a full stop to the whole "Who wrote 'Kane'" debate leaves instead, at least a semi-colon, if not a question-mark, for me, it rather undermines the point of the whole movie.

Valley of the Dolls

Take Three Girls
I haven't and nor am I ever likely to read the source Jacqueline Susann novel but it was a best seller in its day and inevitably soon afterwards spun off this Hollywood adaptation. I'm aware of the reputation of both in fact as being trashy and over-the-top but being interested In 60's pop culture and also by the film's so-bad-it's-good legend, I wanted to see it.

The story of three young girls trying in different ways to get on in show-business, it offers an interesting if highly sensationalised insight to Hollywood film-making of the time in its treatment of women, drugs, relationships and above all the entertainment industry itself as each of the three leads develops an attachment to pills or "dolls" as they're called, with different outcomes for each girl.

There are too many plot-lines at play to describe as the focus shifts from girl to girl and their encounters with men, success (and failure) and their own addictions to booze and drugs. None of them makes it through unscathed but the film is probably more remembered for individual scenes than anything so important as character development or intricate plotting. Now recognised for their trash aesthetics some of these scenes appear to be in questionable taste such as when Neely, the singer turned alcoholic, sings a duet, if that's the correct word, with the husband of her porn star / art-movie actress friend Jennifer, who is in the same sanitarium, as he experiences a brief remission from the debilitating Huntington's Chorea which has put him there. Then there's Jennifer's own goodbye to the world, believing she'll not have any kind of career after she has a necessary mastectomy and no other means to pay her husband's medical bills or her grasping off-screen mother's weekly demands for money. And don't forget straight-laced theatrical legal assistant Anne who when she can't find true love instead runs into the arms of her old aunt signifying her release from care as she too exits the industry.

But the best-remembered one is probably the behind-the-scenes cat-fight between Neely and the middle-aged musical star Helen Lawson played by Susan Hayward in a part originally lined up for Judy Garland. Lawson had tried to block her career at the outset by throwing the debuting Neely off a show where she as the big star had cast approval. This is the one where Hayward literally loses her wig and gets it flushed down the toilet in an all-too-obvious metaphor fir her new doomed show before she gets it thrown back at her feet,

Anyway, even as I looked on sometimes disbelievingly at the uneven acting, haphazard plotting and shallow, sometimes gimmicky direction, I never felt less than entertained. The best-selling source novel I doubt will be sitting today on many shelves and yet the film's status as a camp classic appears to be growing with the passing years perhaps reflecting the rise in the women's and gay movements in the intervening years.

A film with no style but yet a style all of its own, I'd recommend watching it once, Any more than that and you might become dangerously addicted.

Baptiste: Episode #2.6
Episode 6, Season 2

Hungarian Ghoulish
My wife and I watched this recently aired second series on the French detective Jean Baptiste after watching on catch-up and largely enjoying the first series from a few years back. This six-part second run was, however, a big disappointment for many reasons.

Most obviously, the story lacked credibility, was poorly structured, several of the lead characters lacked definition and there were just too many plot holes and plot jumps to blow away any pretence at realism. The contrived story centred on the middle-aged female British ambassador to Hungary, based in Budapest, played by Fiona Shaw, who you'd have to say, at least where her family is concerned, that if it wasn't for bad luck, she would have no luck at all. Firstly her daughter is stabbed to death by an Asian immigrant drug addict she disturbs in the act of breaking into the family home. The much-loved young girl sadly dies under the gaze of her parents and significantly her two late-teenage brothers. Indeed, the younger of these two promptly withdraws into himself and stops speaking out loud to anyone, including his parents and brother. Later, while on a family hotel break, the two boys mysteriously get up at the crack of dawn to leave for a secret rendezvous. However, their dad also wakens up early, sees them in the distance and follows them only to find his boys confronted with a gunman and in the ensuing stand-off the father is shot and killed. Both boys then disappear with the gunman which is when Baptiste joins the investigation, offering his services to the local female police detective and indeed the now wheelchair-bound Shaw.

From there the main focus of the story is on attitudes to racism and in particular on two racially-motivated attacks carried out in Hungary by a virulently anti-immigration pressure group under the command of its unknown leader who goes under the name Gomorrah. Baptiste, does what he does, helping Shaw track down her two boys and at the same time uncovers two murderous plots designed to kill scores of immigrants and finally unmask Gomorrah.

Making use throughout of an ever-more irritating parallel time-line, we also learn that Baptiste's ex-addict daughter has died of an overdose for which he feels responsible and which has finally caused him to separate from his long-suffering English wife. We see him wearing a Revenant-type beard and living like a slob, when Shaw comes back into his life with a hostage, to reopen the case. I just couldn't accept all the plot points being thrown at me. They really are too numerous to mention but the fulcrum I just couldn't swallow was that two young English boys could so easily be radicalised as to become murderers by the man who shot dead in front of them their own father and then being so prominently used by him in the two planned massacres. It all ends up with a brutal beating handed out by Gomorrah to the youngest boy, which he miraculously survives and a no-holds barred fight between Gomorrah and Baptiste which Baptiste somehow wins, even as we see his life apparently flashing before him, implying that he is about to die. Next time you see him however, he's hale and hearty, meeting up with Shaw again and even reuniting with his estranged wife, who, in truth, he's treated really selfishly and shabbily.

I was nonplussed by the acting too. Shaw, in the main part opposite Baptiste, has a much vaunted reputation apparently but for me, was awful throughout, her anxious expression unchanging throughout, garnering no sympathy from me for her plight throughout. I found her characterisation an unhappy and und unconvincing combination of overwrought and one-dimensional. As indicated, Baptiste's treatment of his wife is heartless and insupportable making him too an unsympathetic figure and that's before you get to the young son who gets to speak whole tracts of racist invective, betray his own mother and still slavishly obey his dad's killer, a known mass-murderer.

No, this was very unpalatable, unedifying entertainment with very few, if any redeeming features. Trite, clichéd and featuring as usual too many of Baptiste's from-nowhere Eureka moments, this second series was a failure and marked a big fall-off in quality from that encouraging first series.

The Poseidon Adventure

Flat Liner
I came to this film after recently watching two great movies starring Gene Hackman, "The French Connection" and "The Conversation" but in between the two, he starred in this, the biggest-grossing film of 1972. In the jet-stream of "Airport", multi-starring "disaster" movies were in vogue and in quick succession there appeared other big-budget features taking in infernos, earthquakes and airships. Much later, of course, James Cameron added his own exclamation mark to the whole sub-genre with "Titanic".

So why were these movies so popular? Certainly, audiences were attracted to features boasting many well-known faces as opposed to the usual one-or-two starring leads, there were the special effects of course, but most of all, I think it was the "there but for the grace of God" feeling they invoked in the viewer who could easily imagine themselves in similarly traumatic situations. Money-spinners they usually were, but they were often criticised for being trite, clichéd, over-the-top and generally lacking in artistic merit.

Well, let me tell you that "The Poseidon Adventure" certainly isn't about to buck that trend. The "Poseidon" is a past-its-best old-time luxury liner, on its last Atlantic crossing before it's broken up for scrap. Naturally, every second counts getting this last journey over and done and sure enough the old commerce-versus-customer-care chestnut raises its head with the anonymous, besuited representative of the shipping company clashing with the conscientious captain, exhorting him to go "full steam ahead" and hang the consequences. Unfortunately, instead there's a full storm ahead and before you know it, the old boat has been flipped over (is that even possible?), eventually leaving a small band of passengers in a race for the top (which is actually the bottom!), as they attempt to escape.

Hackman, with a fine new head-of-hair it has to be said, is the thundering latter-day preacher who, Moses-like, leads his motley flock through the decks of the stricken ship, amongst them loud-mouthed ex-cop Ernest Borgnine and his ex-prostitute wife Stella Stevens, who gamely keeps her high-heels on through hell and high-water, a loving old Jewish husband and wife, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters, the ship's cowardly-lion steward, Red Buttons who earns his stripes by taking in hand the wonderfully-named young female singer, Nonny, played Carol Lynley, who wouldn't you know it, can't swim, sort of making her a Hey-Nonny-No, I guess you'd say. There also a young adult female and her smart-alick kid brother to make up the numbers. Oh, almost forgot Roddy McDowall although it's no great spoiler alert to reveal they kill off him off early which in truth is fair exchange for him doing the same to his attempted Scottish accent.

They must have all feasted on ham at the ship's banquet which would explain the ensemble acting quality, the dialogue is banal throughout, none-more so than Hackman's last dialogue with God, while Ms Winters' "I can do this, I'm a champion swimmer" spiel before she plunges into the depths was an instantly-mocked camp classic. There's even the odd sight of Leslie Nielsen warming up for "Airplane" duty, as the crusty old captain.

Someone said to me once that I should make a point of occasionally reviewing bad films and I guess I knew what I was taking on when I boarded this particular accident waiting-to-happen sea-cruise. All I can say in that regard is, that unlike the ship itself, it didn't let me down.

Top Gun

High Fliers
For years, practically everyone on my wife's side of the family has been chiding me for never watching "Top Gun". They've all watched it loads of times and can sing every song and quite whole lines of dialogue from it, but I hated "You Take My Breath Away" when it topped the charts and never understood the references to having a "wing man" made by guys as they ventured into town on a Saturday night, or even the wearing of patched leather jackets at the time. Well, finally my wife won me round and set up a Friday night movie experience to watch it, with nachos, hot dogs and cokes, although I think it's really just that she's always fancied Tom Cruise...

And make no mistake, this film is all about Tom. Even before he got his teeth fixed, that famous smile is never far away while the scene where he's effectively standing around in his underwear in the men's room while his chief is giving him a pep-talk had me wondering what was the female equivalent term for chauvinistic.

The plot is just what I'd expect, right from the opening credits, a clichéd, idealised picture of handsome, young gung-ho American airmen (and noticeably no women) being put through their paces at a sort of finishing school for pilots under the tough-love tutelage of grizzled veteran C. O,'s Tom Skerrit and Michael Ironside. Into this hothouse environment cruises Tom's Maverick character and his lifetime buddy, navigator co-pilot Goose. Straight away Mav's in competition with Val Kilmer's Ice for the Top Gun prize as well as chasing Kelly McGillis's glamorous flight instructor and trying to either live down or live up to whatever mysterious mission claimed the life of his adored jet-fighter dad who died in action in the 60's.

What follows are numerous exciting flying sequences, while on the ground, there's romance, tragedy and eventually redemption for the blue-eyed boy, all to a soundtrack sometimes as loud as a jet engine passing overhead.

I'm not going to say this was a deep or emotional viewing experience, but I can definitely see why my in-laws like it so much and in the wider picture also why the film was such a huge commercial success, even to the extent of eventually engendering a soon-come follow-up some 35 years later.

Still hate that Berlin song though....

9/11: Inside the President's War Room

The Day The World Fell Down...
As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, I'm sure there will be a glut of films and documentaries re-examining the events of that awful day. This ninety-minute fly-on-the-wall documentary took us through the fateful 24 hours from the collective point of view of the American Executive and in particular President George W Bush as he and the rest of his team watch and somehow have to react disbelievingly to the events as they occur. There's notably no comment on how the aftermath played out subsequently with the U. S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which is ironic of course given current events as we now see the seismic impact of the controversial U. S. and U. K. withdrawals of their armed forces from Afghanistan. This documentary then focuses exclusively on how Bush and his senior aides coped on a day when all their nightmares came true and while the rest of us could only watch in horror, he and they had to make instant decisions to both protect and pacify the rest of their country and indeed the rest of the world.

I remember at the time there was some satirical jibing on U. K. TV about Bush's befuddled initial reaction on being told, while attending a children's primary school, that America was under attack, but while I'm no great admirer of the president's time in office, I can't imagine any human being reacting very differently to such shocking news. It has to be said however, that with the active participation of the president and his staff in this film, there was never going to be much critical comment on their actions here, so we hear nothing about the failures in U. S. Intelligence which failed to anticipate the attacks and instead we end up with a lionising tribute to the President by all and sundry when to be honest, he reacted pretty much as you'd expect him to.

I was amazed at the televisual access on the day to Bush in particular but also the Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior government officials, with it seems video or still photographic depictions of their almost every move in reaction to the chaotic events. There were some interesting reveals along the way, such as Condoleeza Rice's briefing of Russian President Putin or the mistaken belief that the President's jet Air Force One was itself under attack. While there was little room for the background stories of the slain or the heroism of the rescue services, there was the sad retelling of the death of the wife of the U. S. Attorney General who was actually on board one of the four planes used in the attacks, who the night before had left a touching birthday note on her husband's pillow as he slept.

There possibly is a more critical programme to be made on how the events of 9/11 could conceivably have been prevented in the first place or the unforeseen consequences right up to the present day of Bush's self-justified gung-ho reaction to events but there was certainly never any chance that he was going to regret, at least on camera, any of his subsequent decisions. However, critical as I may be of him in other ways, I'm going to cut the man some slack on what was a cataclysmic day. As he says himself at the close, his ends justified the means as there have been no further atrocities carried out in mainland America since then.

That said, he may yet live to rue those words if a Taliban-run Afghanistan does indeed become, as is now feared, a future breeding ground for American-targeted terrorist attacks in the future...

The Long Good Friday

Friday, I'm in Blood
Another of the films my old dad has been on at me to watch for years. His tips are normally accurate and I did indeed enjoy this gritty contemporary U. K.-made crime-drama.

Bob Hoskins' Harold Shand character is the London gangster who's comfortably presided over his patch of the capital for ten years. He's surrounded by an entourage of seemingly compliant henchmen and has local police inspectors and councillors on his payroll, as well a good-looking, intelligent girl-friend, played by Helen Mirren.

As we join the action, he's just about to climb into bed with the American Mafia, who have sent two representatives to check out Shand's operation and in particular the viability of sharing a lucrative property deal Shand has swung with his contacts. But then things start to go wrong for him. Firstly, there's a bombing attempt on his mother's life, his top lieutenant, who has an eye for a pretty boy, is honey-trapped into a brutal murder at a swimming pool and when the restaurant where Shand is looking to seal the deal is blown up just as they're arriving, the Yanks, understanda spooked, give Shand a 24-hour deadline, which falls on Good Friday, to clean up his own backyard or the whole get-mega-rich-quick deal is off.

The realistic portrayal of characters and depictions of extreme violence set in authentic London locations is bolstered with topical references to matters like police corruption and the malign influence of the IRA. Shand is shown as a man out of time who's become complacent after years of easy success. He fights back the only way he knows how, with thuggish interrogations of suspects and instinctive over-reactions to events which are spiralling out of his control. It all leads up to a final reckoning for Shand in a well-conceived climax which will determine his final fate.

Hoskins is on good form with his foghorn-like Cockney accent calling the shots while coincidentally physically resembling Al Capone. The young Mirren shines too as his kittenish but savvy moll. The hit programme on TV at the time was the tough cop series "The Sweeney" and this is like that with X-rated blood and gore.

It's not perfect, there's mixed quality in some of the acting the further down the credits you go, the plot strains a little for credibility at times, some of the dialogue is a bit clunky and there's a rather obsolete-sounding synthesiser-driven soundtrack which dates it badly, but it's the set-piece scenes you tend to remember, like the abbatoir interrogation of Shand's local rivals, the torturing of a police informant and especially Shand's final, passive acceptance of his fate.

Okay dad, what's the next one...?

Baptiste: Into the Sand
Episode 6, Season 1

Baptiste Of Fire
I'm using this episode to back-review the whole of Series One of this programme. I hadn't watched the original series from which this detective drama spun off but this seemed pretty much like a stand-alone show from where I was sitting.

Julian Baptiste is a veteran French ex-police detective, now living with his wife in Amsterdam. He walks with a slight limp, is given to uttering Confucius-like philosophical sayings from time to time and uses his considerable experience and dogged determination to follow his usually unerring investigative instincts to see a complex case through.

This particular case starts as one of "follow the money". A ruthless Romanian gang which specialises in the trafficking of young girls has lost 1000000 Euros in cash, stolen by one of their victims and the local gang-leader responsible for its loss is desperate to get it back before his big boss gets wind of it. And when I say desperate, I mean desperate, like cutting off someone's dad's head in retribution, desperate.

From there the story stretches out in a variety of ways, but centres around Amsterdam and for the first few episodes, its red-light district, with Baptiste entering proceedings not only as a go-between for the money and the Englishman with the now headless dad the gang believes he knows where it is, but also as a special assistant to the local police, where, wouldn't you know it, he has a personal history with the soon-to-retire female police chief. Also in the mix is a retired leader of the Romanian gang, who besides going the transgender route from male to female, has also changed her identity and is now actively trying to help the young girls she once kidnapped and used for criminal ends. Also in the mix are the young woman who stole the money, a snotty, officious, but certainly single-minded English woman from Interpol determined to bust the gang, the son of the afore-mentioned police chief, who coincidentally is now a top-ranking detective and if you think that sounds like running in the family, wait till you learn the big reveal as to who his dad is.

The series makes good use of the Amsterdam streets, although it must have cost a few guilders to recreate the grubby storefront windows where the prostitutes ply their trade. There were more than a few grisly deaths, a frantic daylight foot-chase and a tense late-night car-chase but it's usually Baptiste who Eurekas his way to the end of the bloody trail, with one last twist as to the police informant saved until the end.

While the multi-layered plot had some strands which unravelled on closer inspection, I rather liked old Jean and his instinctive and humane methodology as well as the gritty milieu in which he works. Sort of like Morse crossed with Wallander, it seems like a British-made attempt at Scandi-noir and is largely convincing in its conception.

On the strength of this, I'll certainly be travelling back to the series which introduced the character and forward to the recently-aired second series in his own name, especially as I see they are all by the same writing and production team.

Cold Lazarus

Erasing the Dead
I remember first watching this series back in 1996 and immediately being struck by the originality of Dennis Potter's idea about raiding a person's memory and using it as the ultimate form of television entertainment. Now, rewatching it 25 years later, I can't help but think that if Mr Potter were only alive today to see today's ever-growing fascination with reality TV, he could justifiably say "I told you so".

It can't be stressed enough that viewers to this four-part series really must watch its predecessor "Karaoke", set in the present-day and establishing the central character of Albert Finney's troubled Daniel Feeld, a writer suffering with health problems. As he approaches his end, we learn that he has devoted a large portion of his personal fortune to a medical organisation specialising in cryogenics. At the time, that minor detail just seemed like an oddity, but it becomes in this series the fulcrum of the succeeding story as we see his disembodied head still functioning neurologically in a cryolab sone 400 years later. A small team of scientists led by Frances De La Tour's Professor Purlock and prominently including a rebellious Slav doctor played by Ciaran Hinds have found the means to unlock and indeed visualise Feeld's old memories but given that the work is funded by a harridan megalomaniac Martina Masdon, played by Diane Ladd, who watches every penny spent by the lab, at least when she's not indulging her sexual needs with dimwitted scantily-dressed young hunks, the question arises as to whether she will continue to bankroll their expensive research.

Also interested in Feeld's memories is sleazy American media-baron, the appropriately-named David Siltz, played with grubby elan by Tony Goodman, who sees the commercial possibilities in packaging Feeld's subconscious recollections into TV entertainment and will stop at nothing to get his way. So we see him schmooze Masdon, bribe Purlock with the promise of unlimited funding and personal gain for her and her team, use his influence with the head of police and even torture one of Purlock's team to procure an "inside man", all in the name of TV ratings.

It becomes clear that Feeld's memories reveal a deeply disturbed childhood involving a lurid episode of child abuse. We then get glimpses of happier episodes in the growing Feeld's life including a romantic episode with a pretty young Welsh girl while at college, but most of the memories take us back to key moments in the "Karaoke" series which serve to both signpost and inform this later narrative. This is all played out to a background of (sorry, couldn't help using the word) a dystopian world where a protest group called Reality or Nothing is using guerrilla tactics to try to roll back the creep of computerisation overtaking humanity.

Potter perhaps uses a big hammer at times to chip away at his chosen targets like medical ethics, the dehumanisation of daily life and of course exploitation TV but the central story of the battle for Daniel Feeld's soul drives the work and makes for a compelling sci-fi thriller. Considering the obvious budget restrictions of British TV, I think the future-age production is well realised. I liked the way that Feeld's memories are shown as being almost dream-like and there were nice predictors of the future too in terms of communication, food-production and transport devices, where it looks to me like Potter anticipated satellite navigation for one thing.

I did perhaps feel that the characterisation of such obvious monsters as Masdon and Siltz fell too often into caricaturisation but came away from my combined eight-hours of viewing the life and afterlife of Daniel Feeld over these two well-directed and well-acted series with a still higher appreciation of the talent of Dennis Potter and a kind of satisfaction that unlike say, Dickens or F Scott Fitzgerald, he managed to complete his final work before his death.


Swan Song
The first of two linked four-part series written by Dennis Potter for a joint BBC / Channel 4 production. It's well-known that Potter knew of his own terminal illness at the time of writing them and that he was racing against the clock to complete both works. I'll next move on to watch the succeeding four-parter, the more futuristic, science-fictiony, at least as I remember it, "Cold Lazarus" but have to say that even if Potter had left only this drama as his last statement, it would have made for a fine epitaph.

The premise is immediately intriguing. A wealthy, veteran writer, Daniel Feeld, played by Albert Finney, much-indulged by his alliterative-spoonerism quoting agent Roy Hudd and bend-over-backwards producer Anna Chancellor, is bedevilled by health problems which cause him excruciating internal pain and to occasionally black out. He tries to forget the pain with drink and cigarettes, but his main motivation is to complete his new work "Karaoke", the plot of which centres around a pretty young girl Sandra, played by Saffron Burrows, who works as a hostess in a sleazy karaoke bar run by its even sleazier boss, Hywel Bennett's Arthur "Pig" Malian. It turns out to be no accident that the young woman works for him as she has identified him as the selfish, cruel individual who years before got her mum pregnant, disfigured her in a drunken rage and abandoned the physically and mentally scarred woman to bring up her little girl alone. Sandra very much has the pig in her sights... Then, one night, at a posh restaurant, discussing the work with his publisher, Feeld thinks he hears his dialogue being spoken word for word by another young actress and her controlling boy-friend. Turns out Daniel has been having similar experiences of late and starts to think the unthinkable, that life is imitating his art and that the fateful ending of his fictional work will actually come to pass.

In an important sub-plot, the anxious director of the "Karaoke" production, Richard E Grant, along with his young Scottish editor, is trying to complete the programme, preferably without boozy old Daniel's interference. Married to money, he's been having an affair with the actress we saw earlier, Keeley Hawes, coincidentally in the actual employ of Pig Malian. Naturally this leads to blackmail as Malian has incriminating video evidence of the director's dalliance although the girl protests her complicity to Grant. These two stories come together and move apart under Potter's skilful exposition.

It's impossible not to perceive the valedictory tone to "Karaoke", with its references to sex, violence, death and music prevalent to Potter's work. It's no coincidence that Feeld gets to sing "Pennies From Heaven" perfectly in the karaoke bar just before the climax, "Pennies From Heaven" being the title of the successful BBC drama which really brought him to notice in the 70's. Then there's the mysterious old man played by Ian McDiarmid who almost exactly resembles the real-life Potter who we see in the background, observing the action.

Finney is brilliant as the tortured writer, who sees in Sandra an echo of his own young, thwarted love and determines to save her from the fate he thinks he's already written for her. Roy Hudd, perhaps better known as a comedian is good value as Feeld's put-upon manager, even if his verbal slips start to grate after a while, although I'm not quite sure what he ever did to deserve such a harpy of a mother, played by Liz Fraser, as he gets here. Then there's Sandra's mother, played by Alison Steadman, another near-grotesque with her disfigurement and psychologically disturbed persona.

Potter brilliantly interweaves the real and unreal as he moves inevitably towards his well-imagined climax, artfully setting up the cryogenic angle which will fuel the succeeding "Cold Lazarus". Even though it was made in the 90's I think it's one of the most imaginative and thought-provoking dramas I've seen on the small screen and only hope that "Cold Lazarus" is of the same high standard.


Dead Pool
I've never read a Harlan Coben novel, but I've now watched two or three TV adaptations of his and think I'm getting used to his style. The action starts off with a death, on this occasion, the drowning of an attitudinal schoolboy at a late night party being held at the swankiest house with its own pool in a small gated community the spoilt daughter of her shady dad and docile mum. Then dial in about a bazillion potential suspects, cross reference with another bazillion sub-plots, stir, throwing in another murder and finish it off with a highly unlikely twist you couldn't have predicted if it was coming straight at you and had "Big twist coming" tattooed on its forehead.

You want sub-plots, I'll give you subplots. A teenage girl, the girlfriend of the dead boy goes missing. Her dad, a local surgeon nurtured feelings of guilt because he was starting an affair with a neighbour while his terminally ill wife was breathing her last. Said neighbour just happens to be the lead detective on the murder trail. She's being assisted by a zealous young female cop who is both pregnant and a "widow", her cop boyfriend having been killed in the line of duty. She's transferred back to this small town to hook up with her dad who abandoned her at birth but who's since come out as gay and is the best pal of the doctor above. Not forgetting that the dead boy's mother is being blackmailed for having sex with one of her underage pupils.

What it all really boils down too of course in true Coben style is a dark secret in the distant which comes to light in the present day disrupting the lives of most of the folk we've encountered in the town. Told over eight 45-minute episodes, the story went up down and around the town before all was revealed in the final episode.

Naturally, it was all totally unbelievable but somehow managed to follow its crazy quilt narrative all the way to its frankly incredible final revelation at the very end.

This ITV mini-series was plain silly most of the time and isn't helped either by some distinctly soap-opera quality acting but it somehow got there in the end. Efficient and engaging enough, with the occasional good performance, or snappy line of dialogue or camera-shot, this was like a cake with just too many ingredients and in the end, proved a bit too much to digest.


The Wrecking Crew

Matt Finished
An interesting, behind-the-scenes movie about the crack 60's session musicians who played on all those wonderful Phil Spector and Brian Wilson productions...I wish! Nah, it's just another kitschy, sexist, chauvinistic outing for Dean Martin's spoof James Bond secret agent Matt Helm. The year before, in "You Only Live Twice" 007 ended up on location in the Far East, but here the obviously dwindling budget for the Helm franchise takes ICE's finest no further than Denmark. It turned out to be the last in the four-film series before the pre-planned sequel announced over the end-titles as "The Ravagers" (the mind boggles!) was made.

I only watched this movie with some reluctance, having previously viewed through my fingers the first of the set "The Silencers", after it was referenced in Tarantino's "Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood". Indeed Tarantino got to include a few scenes from it into his own film for the segment where Sharon Tate drives into L. A. for a happy interlude and pops into a local cinema to watch herself in this movie, obviously made poignant as we know it's the last film she made before her pregnancy and subsequent brutal murder by Manson's crazed minions.

As for the actual movie itself, it's less of the same old formula. To a "swinging" soundtrack of sub Pearl and Dean-type background Muzak, interspersed with Martin crooning suggestive lyrics to some old standards, Matt saves the world yet again by recovering the billion dollar bullion which has been stolen by Nigel Green's Count Contini and his buxom mistress, played by Elke Sommer.

So it's Matt to the rescue again, with naturally a bevy of beautiful women waiting and willing to pucker up and lay down with the old roué as he goes about his world-saving business. Which means we get more formulaic, innuendo-laden dialogue (cue Dino gratefully rolling his eyes heavenward as yet another mini-skirted beauty succumbs to his questionable charms), powderpuff fight scenes and way too many shots of women's behinds in a very set-bound production all to a cheesy soundtrack which I'm sorry to say includes an awful theme song somehow credited to Mac David obviously moonlighting at the time from Burt Bacharach.

Martin, I swear, is sozzled in every scene while the only person who adds any kind of freshness and energy to her part is the late Miss Tait, although that's after she undergoes the indignity of her opening scene where she has to splay her mini-skirted legs in a crude pratfall in front of a gawping Martin.

The tendency now is to use the condescending phrase "it was of its time" to excuse this lazy, slipshod, male-pandering nonsense, although at least with this episode, I'm glad to say old Matt's time was finally up.

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Un-hippie Ending
Tarantino delves into the Manson murders in the summer of '69 and reimagines the gory events we all know about via the imaginary characters of fading leading man Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his not very similar-looking stuntman, DIY guy and buddy-buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It turns out that Rick lives one door down from the infamous house rented out that summer by Roman Polanski and his heavily pregnant wife Sharon Tate and the one to which Charles Manson ordered his blindly obedient followers to slaughter the inhabitants.

Yes, Tarantino gets to write his own ending which unsurprisingly offers up its own share of blood and gore (and flames!), but the film is a long time getting there and in truth is much more about his trying to evoke the period and lifestyles of the characters at his disposal, mixing in the real with the imaginary. So we get vignettes of stars around at the time, some unflattering, like Bruce Lee, acting the big boss, boasting about his martial arts abilities until Pitt's Cliff puts him on his behind and the radiant Miss Tate enjoying a day out in L. A. where she takes in her own movie, the very leery-looking Dean Martin Matt Helm vehicle "The Wrecking Crew". There are also cameo appearances by the likes of Steve McQueen and Roman Polanski, both of whom had connections to the real-life victims that terrible night.

However, it's through the invented characters of DiCaprio and Pitt that Tarantino really drives the story and gets to indulge his fascination with the era. We see DiCaprio's Dalton struggling to stop his career slide by taking parts as the "heavy" in a new TV western series and beefcake roles in cheap Italian movies, arranged for him by his florid new manager played by Al Pacino. Nevertheless, until his dramatic pyrotechnic entry at the climax, his character doesn't directly impact on the events leading up to the attack.

That's left to Pitt's likeable sidekick character who picks up a young Manson follower and drives her back to Spohn's farm, a one-time movie-lot where the now ancient owner has let Manson and his disciples take over the place in exchange for sexual favours from one of their number. In probably the best scenes of the film, we see Pitt confronted by the zombie-like gang as he checks up on the old man in a clear harbinger of things to come.

It goes without saying that Tarantino nails the reproduction of the period, with the cars, fashions, boulevards, buildings, music and in particular the pastiches of film and TV shows of the time. Rare to see a movie though, centring on the Manson Family, with nothing on the soundtrack by the Beatles, nor come to that Dylan, The Doors or Hendrix while the only Stones song inexplicably played was the then four year old "Out Of Time", especially when you consider that the group was well into its Satanic period by this time. Mind you, I am partial to a little Paul Revere and the Raiders from time to time.

So, for me, a curate's egg of a movie. I felt it was too long, self-indulgent and over-the-top especially at the finish but the acting and cinematography was good throughout, even if I didn't detect much of the sharp dialogue I'd normally expect from Tarantino.

I'll close by stating the obvious, that I do wish this alternative history was a true one...

Suddenly, Last Summer

Cannibal Spectre
In my youth, I went through a phase of reading heavy-duty mid-century theatrical works by esteemed U.

S. playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, Arthur Miller and of course, Tennessee Williams, which is where I encountered this very odd play with its amazing ending. Rather like the spontaneous combustion scene in Dickens' "Bleak House", you just have to suspend disbelief at the eventual fate of the central, but practically invisible throughout character of Sebastian Venable at its shocking climax and attribute to it some symbolic significance of the writer's.

Never seen fully-faced at any stage, Sebastian's presence permeates the action here like a ghost. You feel you can almost scent a putrid odour in the atmosphere, akin to that you'd find in the bizarre, hot-house, interior tropical garden in which we first encounter his eccentric millionaire aunt Violet, played by Katharine Hepburn. She certainly makes an entrance, dropping down literally in her automated elevator-chair from the floor above to meet young neurologist Dr Cukrowicz, played by Montgomery Clift. She has a shocking proposition for him and his fellow doctor and business partner; she'll build them the brand-new state-of-the-art hospital which Cukrowicz craves, if he'll do her the favour of lobotomising her niece, Catherine, played by Elizabeth Taylor..

Catherine is already being kept in a sanatorium having suffered a breakdown after witnessing first-hand Sebastian's sudden, shocking demise last summer in Italy. Will the humane, good doctor carry out the brain surgery on the poor young girl under pressure from Aunt Violet and just what was it she saw anyway which has so traumatised her that her aunt wishes to expunge it from her memory? Gradually a picture emerges of golden-boy Sebastian's true way of life, building up inexorably to an ending which you'll either eat up or throw up at.

The play / film touches on more taboo subjects than you'll find in the average censor's little black book, ranging from the practice of lobotomising mental health patients, to pimping for sex, homosexuality, incest and errr...cannibalism as the, if you'll pardon the expression, coup-de-grace.

It's all heady, hedonistic stuff with more than its share of disturbing, indeed distasteful subjects like the now discredited procedure of lobotomy itself and indeed the depiction of Catherine's fellow-patients as zombie-like creatures in Bedlam-like captivity. Hepburn was stepping up to play heavyweight roles at this time which would reach its apogee for her in O'Neill's "Long Day's Journey Into Night" and is suitably repellent as the not-so-giddy aunt using her wealth and influence to ruthlessly rewrite her own family history, while Taylor, in her second Williams-inspired movie after "Cat On A Hot Tin Roof", again demonstrates her aptness for one of the writer's high-pitched female roles. Both were Oscar-nominated for their parts, although both I think overact their roles at times. It's well-known that Taylor used her star-power to get Clift his leading role in the production, but I'm doubtful he fully repays her as he seems too underpowered and passive throughout. Director Mankiewicz was well-used to purveying boundary-pushing material like this but I found his work here to be mixed in quality and don't think he quite got on top of this admittedly difficult piece.

Still, this was fairly ground-breaking in its day, if not for all the right reasons, with its enigmatic ending no doubt the subject of student theses even today. But rather like overripe fruit, I did find it difficult to digest at times.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

North By Budapest
As a film, this makes for a great poster. Director Anderson's picaresque caper centres on Ralph Fiennes as the all-powerful hotel manager M. Gustave, who runs the Grand Hotel Budapest in the between the wars period with a forensic eye for detail and a metronomic precision for timing.

We're introduced to him by the rather unnecessary framing device of a present-day (well, the 60's anyway) meeting at the now run-down old hotel between the mysterious current owner, who's popped back to look in on the old place, but who back in the 30's was a lowly trainee lobby boy whose given name Zero added up to his total credentials for the job in the hotel granted to him by Gustave, and a curious, if stuffy newspaper columnist, played by Jude Law.

So we enter into a flashback sequence which runs pretty much to the end of the movie as M Gustave takes centre-stage. He is the quintessential concierge-cum-maitre D and master of all he surveys at the hotel, given to outbursts of loquacious poetry while at other times he can organise his staff with a brief word or gesture, while, when under pressure he breaks into expletive-littered utterances. On the side, M Gustave cultivates relationships with elderly blonde widows with considerable means, even to the extent of bedding them, eyeing as he does so a future payday when they duly expire and invariably find a place in their wills for him, much to the chagrin of the disappointed and surprised family members.

The plot here concerns one especially wealthy duchess played by Tilda Swindon, who leaves a priceless painting to him in a deathbed codicil to her will. Uncertain if he'll be allowed to ever receive it, Gustave decides to attend the wake and simply walk off with the painting soon after the reading of the will and try to take it by train back to the hotel, with young Zero in tow as his accomplice and gopher.

The inclusion of the words Grand and Hotel in the title can't be coincidence, with the film also set at almost the exact year of release of the vintage classic Hollywood le-ronde 1932 movie starring Garbo, Barrymore, Crawford et. Al. Thus we see several big-names sprinkled throughout the cast in unusual roles like Willem Defoe as a psychopathic, motorbiking hit-man after Gustave, Jeff Goldblum as the Duchess's executor who loses both his cat and four of his fingers in the pursuit of his duties and Adrien Brody as the Duchess's aggrieved moustachioed son who leads the chasing pack against Gustave. Elsewhere Bill Murray, Edward Norton and Harvey Keitel amongst others pop up too.

It's all very absurd and farcical with Anderson's remarkable eye for colour and design obvious in almost every shot. As frantically paced as a vintage Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd comedy, every scene gives the eye something to marvel at although those of us who appreciate continuity, character development and a less frenetic pacing might suffer in the search.

Fiennes is terrific as the great if greedy M Gustave and shows fine comic timing throughout while young Revolori shines as his indispensable errand boy. The set design throughout is a joy to behold while there's a fun, simpatico soundtrack which helps to keep the action moving frantically along and if I didn't quite succumb to the scatterbrain, all-points-west narrative or see any great moral point behind all the flashiness and high-jinks, that's probably down to my middle-aged stuffiness.

Definitely one to see at the cinema for the large-screen experience, I almost guarantee you'll feel like you've been stuck in the hotel's revolving doors after viewing it.


Seventh Hell
David Fincher's searing, cop v serial killer thriller ushered in a slew of movies with themed killers and their grisly doings, variations on which are still being produced today. The original is undoubtedly the best however, helped by the imaginative plotting, fine lead acting and most of all taut direction here, as the John Doe killer, the now-disgraced Kevin Spacey, works his way through the seven deadly sins, inveigling into his nefarious plans the two detectives on his trail, leading to a fittingly shocking and heart-pounding climax.

The two detectives are old-hand Morgan Freeman, in his last week of active duty and Brad Pitt as the brash new 'tec on the block. You can be forgiven for thinking that early on, director Fincher is padding out his story with clichéd buddy-stuff between them, especially when Pitt's wife Paltrow comes into the picture but his methodology becomes clear as he leads us inexorably to the intense conclusion.

Notable for the gruesome detail of the murders depicted, a great on-foot chase through the rain-soaked city streets between Pitt and Spacey and of course the "what's in the box" culmination in the middle of nowhere, filmed in a dark, rainy greyish colour scheme, up until the broad daylight ending that is, with a brooding soundtrack and camera-work which mixes up extreme close-ups, vivid hand-held shots, urban detail and pre-drone landscape shooting, it's close to a masterclass in creating suspense and excitement.

Straw Dogs

Siege Mentality
There are three well-known films of around this era whose reputations have precluded me from ever wanting to see them, "Rosemary's Baby", "A Clockwork Orange" and this. However, I've just read a book analysing and assessing Peckinpah's work and relented enough to finally view it.

While I have to concede I'm watching it some 50 years later, inevitably in a revisionist way, I still find myself repulsed at some of the loathsome misogynistic content presented here by the director. Of course, I'm referring to the two (actually two and a half) rapes of Susan George's character. I understand that shock and horror can make a victim passive with fear but Peckinpah seems to me to cross the line by showing her almost pleasurable engagement with her initial attacker, even if he is an ex-boyfriend. To follow this up immediately afterwards with a brutal, sodomising attack by a second perpetrator while the first attacker looks on, only compounds the outrageous insensitivity to women demonstrated here, Yes, I know it's only acting but I certainly felt a lot of sympathy for Miss George having to play out these scenes, even in simulation.

Presumably out of shock or victim-shame she then doesn't confide in her husband (or anyone) or call the police and indeed then attends a church fete with her two attackers in attendance.

All of this is too far over the top of over the top for me and no amount of cod psychology about the film examining the breaking points of individuals or the beast in man can convince me otherwise. That the husband and wife in the end only seem to achieve redemption by killing between them the mob besieging their house also makes for far too pat a resolution even if there is a justified element of just desserts in the fates of the attackers.

I actually struggle to see the first rape sequence as integral to the plot anyway. By not telling her husband, he is deprived of perhaps the one overriding motivation which could justify his Rambo-esque actions at the climax when the film descends to a sort of gory "Home Alone", just to mix my movie metaphors.

Anyway I've now seen it and probably will watch the other films of Peckinpah I've not yet caught, knowing he didn't make that many. I may even watch my two other "unwatchables" too. I just hope they treat any women in them better than I saw here.


Don't Stop The Dance
The latest film from a list given to me of must-watch Spanish language movies recommended by my Spanish neighbours and like all the rest, so far, very enjoyable.

Now that I live in Spain, I have watched ladies here dancing the flamenco and frankly found it just a little boring with all its stamping and posturing, but here, as the backdrop to this Carlos Saura movie and with male dancers featuring just as prominently, it's something altogether different. It's vibrant, sexy and involving as a flamenco version of the famous Bizet tragic opera is staged by middle-aged director and choreographer, Antonio played by Antonio Gades. As the film begins he's still not found his leading lady, until dark-haired beauty Laura Del Sol turns up Vivien Leigh-style to win the part.

The ideas of life imitating art, backstage drama and staging a play within a play (or movie) aren't new but under Saura's assured, if stylised direction, the film tellingly uses extended dance sequences to carry the story, interspersed with naturalistic acting, particularly by the two leads. You don't even need to know much about the opera itself to guess that this one will end in tears.

Gades has an expressive face, with especially tired-looking eyes and a steely determined look when he's driving his troupe to their limits. Del Sol has an allure and air of wantoness which makes her right for the role in Gades' production but wrong as his lover. Sure enough, after sleeping with him and professing her devotion to him, we next see her having a fumble in her dressing-room with a fellow-dancer and not even a particularly attractive one at that.

Gades' obsession only grows as he realises she is too important to fire her but can't stop his obsessive, possessive feelings for her resulting in the dramatic climax, which is cleverly and effectively shot partly off-stage with the camera then panning across the rest of the completely disinterested company sat only yards away.

I'm no opera buff, but almost all of Bizet's original music here is familiar to me and while I may not fully appreciate the cultural significance of flamenco in Spain, its use here in unspokenly expressing emotion as well as a dance spectacle, I found very appealing and interesting.

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