Friday, 20 July 2018

Punch-Drunk Love

Year of Release:  2002
Director:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Screenplay:  Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring:  Adam Sandler, Emily Watson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Luis Guzman, Mary Lynn Rajskub
Running Time:  95 minutes
Genre: Romantic comedy 

Los Angeles:  Barry Egan (Sandler) is a lonely entrepreneur who owns a company which sells toilet plungers and other, similar novelty items.  He suffers from severe social awkwardness which is exacerbated by his seven sisters who ridicule and humiliate him constantly.  To make matters worse, he is given to bursts of violence when he is really upset or stressed.  Barry also collects large quantities of puddings for a frequent flier air miles promotion. 
After meeting and falling for shy Lena Leonard (Watson), Barry has a new purpose to life, but things become complicated when the operator of a phone sex line he called tries to extort money from him.    

This strange film is a very offbeat romantic comedy.  Although it adheres to the general boy meets girl formula, in terms of approach it is very different.  Adam Sandler contributes a striking performance, toning down his usual comic persona, and making it somehow darker, closer to the more realistic "cringe comedy" of someone like Ricky Gervais, but making his sudden bursts of violence even more disturbing.  Emily Watson's character is more if an enigma, which nevertheless hints at hidden depths.  The world of Punch-Drunk Love is a deeply strange one.  In each of Paul Thomas Anderson's carefully composed shots there is the hint of things happening in the background.  The whole thing has a dreamlike feel to it with love the thing that provides hope in a nightmare world.
Incidentally, any Murderinos may recognise the voice of Karen Kilgariff as one of Barry's sisters. 

Emily Watson and Adam Sandler in Punch-Drunk Love 

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Nowhere Boy

Year of Release:  2009
Director:  Sam Taylor-Wood
Screenplay:  Matt Greenhalgh, based on the book Imagine This:  Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon by Julia Baird
Starring:  Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff, Kristen Scott Thomas, David Threlfall, Thomas Sangster, David Morrissey
Running Time:  97 minutes
Genre:  Biography, drama 

Liverpool, the late 1950s:  Rebellious, charismatic teenager John Lennon (Johnson) lives with his strict aunt Mimi (Thomas), who has raised him since the age of five.  At the funeral of his beloved Uncle George (Threlfall), John gets back in contact with his mother, Julia (Duff).  Around the same time, John becomes obsessed with rock 'n' roll music, and decides to start a band with some of his friends from school, including Paul McCartney (Sangster) and George Harrison (Sam Bell).  As John becomes increasingly preoccupied with music, his behaviour worsens and a bitter conflict brews between himself, Julia and Mimi.

This isn't a film about the Beatles, although Paul McCartney and George Harrison do feature, the focus is entirely on Lennon and it ends just as the newly formed Beatles are about to set off for Hamburg.  Also, although Lennon's love of music plays a huge part in the film, it's not really about the music or about Lennon as a musician.  It's an entertaining and  intriguing 1950s family drama, anchored by some great performances from Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff and Kristen Scott Thomas.  This was the feature debut from fine art photographer Sam Taylor-Wood and she does a good job.  If you are expecting a comprehensive biopic of John Lennon or a film about the Beatles and their music, than you might be disappointed, but if you are looking for an affecting drama, then this is well worth checking out.

Aaron Johnson as John Lennon in Nowhere Boy     

Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders

Year of Release:  1970
Director:  Jaromil Jires
Screenplay:  Jaromil Jires, Ester Krumbachova and Jiri Musil, based on the novel Valerie and Her Week of Wonders by Vitezslav Nezval
Starring:  Jaroslava Schallerova, Helena Anyzova, Karel Engel, Jan Klusak, Petr Kopriva
Running Time:  73 minutes
Genre:  Surrealism, horror, fantasy

This virtually plotless film centres around 13 year old Valerie (Schallerova) and her surreal dreamlike adventures involving vampires, predatory priests and her mysterious family.

This is a beautiful film featuring a succession of stunning images.  Virtually unclassifiable,  it has elements of horror, fantasy, fairy-tales, however it makes a kind of dreamlike sense, you can see it as a girl's fears of and attraction to the adult world filtered through her subconscious, as she enters puberty.  Sensual, and ethereal, it's a unique film and one that you really have to experience for yourself.  It's a world where horror and beauty coexist and is full of life and energy.  It's a film that some will find pretentious and wilfully obscure, but others will find it mesmerising. 

    Jaroslava Schallerova in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Yellow Submarine

Year of Release:  1968
Director:  George Dunning.  Animation Directors:  Robert Balser and Jack Stokes.  Live-action Directors:  Dennis Abey and Al Brodax
Screenplay: Lee Minoff, Al Brodax, Jack Mendelsohn, Erich Segal and Roger McGough (uncredited) from a story by Lee Minoff, based on the song Yellow Submarine by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Starring: Paul Angelis, John Clive, Dick Emery, Geoff Hughes, Lance Percival, Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison
Running Time:  87 minutes
Genre:  Animation,  Fantasy,  Comedy, Musical

The colourful, magical world of Pepperland lies deep beneath the sea.  A cheerful, music-loving paradise, it's very existence enrages the music-hating Blue Meanies who live in the mountains just outside Pepperland and decide to take it over, paralysing the inhabitants and draining them and their land of colour, joy and hope, as well as forbidding all music and encasing Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in a music-proof bubble.  Just before his capture, Pepperland's Mayor sends Old Frank (Percival) to the surface to get help.  Arriving in Liverpool, Old Frank recruits the help of the Beatles, and they set off on a surreal, music-filled journey save Pepperland.

This is still an astonishing film, colourful, joyfully strange and psychedelic, and filled with many classic Beatles songs.  The story is pretty basic, but it's not about the story, it's about the music and the visuals.  The script however is very funny and smart, full of jokes, puns and clever wordplay.  The film is packed with invention throughout, from the cast of weird and wonderful characters and creatures, including the strange but lovable Nowhere Man, to the imaginative background design, utilising a variety of animation styles and techniques.   Although this is technically a Beatles film, the Fab Four themselves had very little to do with it, aside from contributing the songs, they do not voice their animated characters, although they do appear as themselves in a brief live-action sequence at the end of the film.
If you're a fan of the Beatles, of course you won't want to miss it, but it is also a colourful, imaginative, hilarious, joyful and surprisingly sweet adventure for young and old alike.  It really hasn't dated much either.  Cleaned up and restored for it's 50th anniversary, it still feels as fresh and fun as ever.

   
"It's all in the mind, y'know":  Yellow Submarine

A Clockwork Orange

Year of Release:  1971
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Screenplay:  Stanley Kubrick, based on the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Starring:  Malcolm McDowell, Patrick Magee, Adrienne Corri, Miriam Karlin
Running Time:  136 minutes
Genre:  Science-fiction, crime

Near future England:  Teenage gang leader Alex (McDowell) leads his three friends (or "droogs") on nightly rampages of theft and savage violence against whoever is unlucky enough to encounter them.  Tiring of Alex's arrogance, his friends set him up to be arrested after their latest attack goes fatally wrong.  Alex is convicted and sentenced to fourteen years in prison.  After two years inside, Alex is submitted to an experimental treatment called the "Ludovico Technique" which is intended to cure criminality by making the subject unable to act violently.  Alex is released after the treatment and soon finds that where he was once the predator, he is now the prey.

This is hugely controversial film which is now acclaimed as a modern classic.  It is still a shocking film, in fact I would say that it would probably not get made today. because it would just be too problematic, with the way sexual violence is presented.  Not necessarily because of the on-screen violence, which is heavily stylised and more shadowplay than graphic blood and gore, but because we are invited to like and sympathise with a  brutal, unrepentant rapist and murderer.  The entire film is shown through Alex's eyes, and he breaks the fourth wall with his voice-over narration (addressing the audience directly as "my brothers and only friends").  The first part of the film, depicting Alex's crimes is heavily stylised, whereas the latter part of the film, where Alex becomes the victim, the violence is much more realistically depicted thereby inviting the audience to enjoy Alex's rampages at a distance, but to sympathise with his own sufferings.  Which is, of course, how Alex would see it.  Also there is the towering performance of Malcolm McDowell as Alex, alternately threatening and innocent, fearsome and funny, it is a career best performance, and he is in pretty much every scene of the film.  No-one else really gets to make much of an impact in the film, or even get a lot of screen time.
The film is relatively faithful to the novel, although it discards the final chapter of the original, British version of the book.  There are some odd elements in regards to the book, in which Alex's age is stated as being fourteen.  Malcolm McDowell was in his late twenties when he made the film, and yet he is constantly referred to as a child, despite being clearly an adult.
The film depicts a very seventies future, and it really is a product of it's time and place, it feels more like an alternate early seventies than a futuristic piece.  The novel was written in an invented slang called "Nadsat" and this is memorably retained in the film, although toned down.  Burgess invented nadsat because he felt that if he wrote it in then-current slang then novel would feel dated as soon as it was published, and he was right.
Alex has a deep love of classical music (especially Beethoven) and music is used throughout the film, often contrasting with the images on screen.  One of the film's most notorious scenes has McDowell singing "Singin' in the Rain" while he brutally attacks a husband and wife (Patrick Magee and Adrienne Corri).
The film was famously withdrawn from release in Britain by Kubrick himself and was not legally available there until after his death.


Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Sometimes They Come Back

Year of Release:  1991
Director:  Tom McLoughlin
Screenplay:  Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal, based on the short story Sometimes They Come Back by Stephen King
Starring:  Tim Matheson, Brooke Adams, Robert Hy Gorman, Chris Demetral, Robert Rusler, Nicholas Sadler, Bentley Mitchum, William Sanderson
Running Time:  98 minutes
Genre:  Horror

In 1990, high school history teacher Jim Norman (Matheson) returns to his childhood home town for the first time in 27 years, with his wife Sally (Adams) and young son Scott (Gorman).
In 1963, nine year old Jim (Zachary Ball) and his fifteen year old brother Wayne (Demetral) are walking through a railway tunnel on the way to the library when they are set upon by a gang of teenage greasers who kill Wayne, but are themselves almost immediately killed by a train.
Despite still being haunted by nightmares of his brother's death, Jim and his family settle in, and he starts teaching at the local high school, bonding with some students and making enemies of others.  However, the students who Jim gets close to start dying in apparent suicides, and are replaced in class by students who look suspiciously like the gang who murdered Wayne.
Jim realises that the spirits of the dead gang members have returned and are set on revenge.

This film was originally made for TV and was first broadcast in 1991.  Based on a 1974 short story by Stephen King, it's a pretty by the numbers horror film, that features plenty of King tropes.  Made on a low budget without particular style or flair, with a cast of solid performers, including veteran William Sanderson, who all try their best with stodgy material (pity Brooke Adams, who really has nothing to do here at all except be alternately supportive and scared).  The story is not one of Stephen King's best and the screenwriters have trouble punching it up to feature length.  The film is at it's best when the focus is on the ghoulish greasers who (as played by Robert Rusler, Bentley Mitchum and Nicholas Sadler) are ominous and threatening, although we never find out enough about them, they have no backgrounds or personalities, and are portrayed as pack animals (they growl, bray and howl like wolves).
Probably due to the limits of television in 1991, the film is light on blood and gore.  At times it seems more like a supernatural drama about coming to terms with grief, than it is about shocks and scares, and the two sides don't gel together.  The biggest problem that the film has is that it offers nothing new.  Really, if you're interested at all in horror, than you've seen it all before.
Followed by two direct-to-video sequels: Sometimes They Come Back... Again (1996) and Sometimes They Come Back... for More (1998) .

Robert Rusler, Bentley Mitchum, Nicholas Sadler and Don Ruffin in Sometimes They Come Back


Sunday, 17 June 2018

Hereditary

Year of Release:  2018
Director:  Ari Aster
Screenplay:  Ari Aster
Starring:  Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, Milly Shapiro, Ann Dowd, Gabriel Byrne
Running Time:  128 minutes
Genre:  Horror

Annie Graham (Collette) is a miniaturist artist who lives with her husband, Steve (Byrne), their 13 year old daughter Charlie (Shapiro) and teenage son Peter (Wolff).  Following the death of Annie's reclusive mother, with whom she had a very troubled relationship, the family become haunted by mysterious, malevolent forces.

To say too much about this film would be to spoil it.  This is a quiet, unsettling, serious horror film, which, while referencing classics such as Rosemary's Baby (1968), is very much it's own thing.  It's worth pointing out that this film does demand patience.  It's long for a horror film and quite slow, building up atmosphere and suspense, but there are some shocking plot developments and towards the end it really kicks into high gear.  The acting is superb, especially from Toni Collette who really carries the film, although she is very well supported, particularly by Alex Wolff and Milly Shapiro as the two kids.  It's very well made with effective sound design, a lot of the film takes place in complete silence, with subtle sounds emerging suggesting dark forces.  The film is largely free of graphic violence, although there are some disturbing images.

Family matters:  Toni Collette in Hereditary