Tuesday 4 December 2018

The Facebook Reviews! Part 3.

A round up of various reviews which have made it to my Facebook page, reproduced here for your endless delight.

The Bermuda Triangle (Mexico 1978: Dir Rene Cardona Jr) "Bermuda triangle, can you see it from my angle?" famously sang Barry Manilow, two years too late to feature on the soundtrack to Rene Cardona Jr's 1978 take on one of the great mysteries of the seventies. And loathsome though Baz's tune is, it would have perked up this pedestrian horror/fantasy/adventure minimum opus no end. A ship cruises into the Triangle region full of the type of characters found in disaster movies - washed up drunk ex surgeon, gruff captain, superstitious crew member, annoying kid, simpering mother etc - and the recovery of an antique doll from the sea which turns out to have supernatural powers presages a series of turbulent events affecting all those on board.Yes, Cardona's found the secret behind all the missing planes and ships lost within those mysterious waters; it's a doll.

The toy is adopted by annoying kid Diane, who starts going a bit Regan MacNeil and (accurately) predicting the cast's impending deaths, starting with Simon, the black cook who seems to be in the movie for comedy value - you know, like they did back in the 1930s. There's a lot of quite nicely done underwater footage which is pretty to look at but slows the film down; on board most of the action seems to take place around some strategically placed rattan chairs. I say 'action' but this is a Rene Cardona film, don't forget.

Cardona was no stranger to exploitation, a talent inherited from his dad, but Jr had a slightly softer edge to papa's more lurid offerings like Night of the Bloody Apes (1969) and Survive! (1975). A year earlier he'd made Jaws ripoff Tintorera! and this film is less horror than a kind of micro budget at sea disaster movie with spooky elements. Like many films from the same decade, it ends on a rather ambiguous note, and perhaps somewhat distastefully with a list of the actual vessels that have gone missing in the area. Oh and he's rather cheekily nicked bits of Bebe and Louis Barron's soundtrack to Forbidden Planet for the weird scenes. I hope he asked permission.

Freak Show (USA 2017: Dir Trudi Styler) Apparently Styler stepped in to helm Freak Show - she was already one of its producers - when the original director bowed out at the last minute (although I rather fear that Ms T barged her way to the front). This is Styler's first feature and boy does it show. I shouldn't perhaps be too hard on her but this is an often botched opportunity to tell the story of a young guy who doesn't as much come out in high school as arrive fully out and then get progressively more outrageous. Twenty two year old British born actor Alex (Ghost Stories, The Imitation Game) Lawther is a revelation as the complex Billy Bloom, who takes on his high school's strict (and straight) codes as he vies to run for homecoming queen. 

Kudos for failing to conform to standard teen movie feelgood moments (and for setting the film in a rather timeless John Hughes high school set up playing against the expectations of that kind of movie), but the film's humour generally falls flat, and Bloom's homecoming appearance fails to hit the mark as a set piece, despite its over the topness. Some of the supporting cast are also pretty poor (my guessing is that Styler isn't an actor's director) and without Lawther's assured but vulnerable performance, this would be a damper squib than it actually is.

The Fields (USA 2011: Dir Tom Mattera, David Mazzioni) Mattera and Mazzioni’s previous directing credit was the Lynchian but rather directionless The 4th Dimension back in 2006. The Fields has a great sense of scene - rural US in the early 1970s with a backdrop of the Charles Manson murders. It's a 'true' story in that it describes the writer's experiences growing up in a dysfunctional, possibly psychotic extended family who in turn live next door to some hippies who may be leftovers from the original Manson 'family'.

The child's POV makes the events feel very fractured and confused, which doesn't lend itself to easy or satisfying viewing. It's a frustrating watch - not helped by having visual trappings of horror without being a 'horror' film per se - but it does leave the viewer with a distinct sense of unease long after the film has finished, helped by the nightly newscasts offering reportage style accounts of the Manson murders. An atmospheric but by no means an essential film with some good underplaying by quality actors.

The Fall of the House of Usher (France 1928: Dir Jean Epstein) I had resisted seeing this film up to now - original title 'La Chute de la maison Usher' - because the only easily available sources were murky pixellated 'public domain' copies. Last night's screening of a restored 35 mm print at the NFT (courtesy of the Cinematheque royale de Belgique) was an opportunity to see Epstein's breathtaking movie on the big screen, complete with versatile musical accompaniment - and occasional moaning - from the BFI's own pianist-in-residence Stephen Horne.

Filmed in the last year before sound would replace silence in cinema (although purists would be right to point out that silent movies were never truly 'silent', as they were very often accompanied by music and indeed sound effects) Epstein's film uses fluid camerawork and surreal touches (an early signature of assistant director Luis Bunuel) to fashion a story which retains only traces of Poe's source text but captures the author's melancholic state better than pretty much every other screen adaptation of his work.

Epstein reduces the story's characters to Roderick Usher (Jean Debucourt), his wife Madeleine (Marguerite Gance, Abel Napoleon Gance's first wife), visitor Allan (Charles Gamy) and a doctor (Fournez-Goffard). Usher is possessed by the need to complete a painting of Madeleine, and as it comes to life (literally a breathing, blinking portrait), his wife fades, becoming incorporeal, eventually falling into a death state. But once interred in the family vault, Usher is panicked by the idea that he may have buried her alive. All this takes place in a single set designed by Pierre Kefer, which is so expansive and desolate that Tod Browning must have been taking notes, so much does it resemble the Count's Transylvanian home in his 1931 movie Dracula - and indeed Perry Ferguson's great hall at Xanadu for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941). Epstein throws in some seemingly random Poe references - a black cat is seen and a family tomb is inscribed 'Ligeia' - but this is a muse on the themes of Poe's work rather than a direct adaptation, and as such is incredibly unsettling.

The Phantom Baron (France 1943: Dir Serge de Poligny) I was very lucky to have seen a rare print of this movie at the NFT as part of the 2018 French 'Fantastique' season. Serge de Poligny's witty, mysterious film combines the gothic, comedy of manners plotting and some gorgeous magic realist touches, with dialogue by Cocteau (stylistically building on his 1932 film The Blood of a Poet and taking notes for his La Belle et La Bete three years after this movie) and clothes by Christian Dior.

Written off in many critical circles - even by some who have actually seen it - as an extended exercise in whimsy, it nevertheless effortlessly shifts moods from light to dark at a moment's notice, shamelessly borrowing from Nosferatu (a frenzied carriage drive towards a seemingly abandoned castle on a hill) and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (a somnambulist carrying off a sleeping woman) in its fairy-tale-esque story of two half sisters who take up residence in a crumbling castille which houses a secret behind its walls. Cocteau himself appears as the ghostly Count, disappearing into dust at the film's climax.

A beautiful film but the poor quality of the print shown, which broke down during screening, and the slightness of content suggests that, sadly, this one is unlikely to get the Criterion treatment any time soon.

Widows (UK/USA 2018: Dir Steve McQueen) I saw this last night at our fabulous new venue West Norwood Library & Picturehouse. It's slick and generally well acted, with echoes of Michael Mann in its balletic set pieces and Steven Soderbergh's sense of understated menace. The first half is arguably more absorbing than the more by the numbers second, with the motivations of and relationships between the characters being gradually developed, but there are some pacing issues; some parts feel ruminative, almost languorous, while others feel rushed. This can lead to a stop/start feel, and there are some plot reveals which come across a little clunky. 

Also I wasn't sold on the plot's political/personal economics connections (although there's an effective scene, shot from outside a moving vehicle, where the passing street views subtly change from wealthy town residences to the low rent city outskirts in a perfect visual explanation of the differences between the 'haves' and the have nots'). The relationship between lead widow Veronica (Viola Davis) and Harry (Liam Neeson), which is fundamental to the plot, doesn't really ring true, but despite the fact that McQueen is not really an actor's director - he's too in love with the interiors to notice the people - this is ok film-making; not a film of the year by any means, but reasonably diverting while it's playing.

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