The Reptile (1966)

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Half woman – half snake! England in the early twentieth century. Harry Spalding (Ray Barrett) inherits his brother Charles’s cottage in Clagmoor Heath following the man’s mysterious death. He moves in with his new wife Valerie (Jennifer Daniel). They are not welcomed by any of the locals save for the publican Tom Bailey (Michael Ripper) who tells him Charles died of the Black Death. The local crazy Mad Peter (John Laurie) may be the only person who knows what’s going on:  a Malayan curse has turned the daughter Anna (Jacqueline Pearce) of Dr Franklyn (Noel Willman) into a snake woman… You’re like your brother – obstinate! With a screenplay by Anthony Hinds (as John Elder), this was filmed by director John Gilling back-to-back with The Plague of the Zombies for Hammer and it shares its elegance and controlled atmosphere (and some of its major cast and sets) but let’s face it, it’s fairly silly. The actors are splendid – particularly Pearce as Cobra Girl and Laurie as Mad Peter, with Ripper great as ever – and there’s a flavourful score by Don Banks, making this a most enjoyable excursion into mind control with some terrific set pieces. This was cut to avoid an ‘X’ rating and was then passed in full in 1994.  If you take my advice you won’t live there

 

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The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944)

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Listen, Zipper-puss! Some day they’re just gonna find your hair ribbon and an axe someplace. Nothing else! The Mystery of Morgan’s Creek! Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton) is a small-town girl with a soft spot for soldiers. She wakes up one morning after a wild farewell party for a group of them  departing for service to find that while drunk the night before, she married a soldier whose name she can’t remember, except that “it had a z in it. Like Ratzkywatzky … or was it Zitzkywitzky?” She thinks they both used fake names and she doesn’t know how to get in touch with him or even what he looks like. The matter is complicated when she learns that she became pregnant that night as well. Hapless Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken), a local who’s been classified 4-F [unfit for active military service] who has been in love with Trudy for years, steps in to help out, but her over-protective policeman father (William Demarest) gets involved and complicates matters. Before long, Norval is arrested on 19 different charges, and then he finds himself on the run as an escaped prisoner. All seems lost until Trudy gives birth to sextuplets. At that point Governor McGinty (Brian Donlevy) and The Boss (Akim Tamiroff) step in:  cue the happy ending! … The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to woman. If it wasn’t for her, marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he’s forced to. It’s up to the woman to knock him down, hogtie him, and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner. Anytime after that is too late. Reuniting most of the cast of Preston Sturges’ 1940 outing The Great McGinty (Diana Lynn, William Demarest, Porter Hall, Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff) in the same roles, this was shot in 1942 but not released by Paramount for another two years:  sensitivities were high when the US joined in the war effort and the War Dept didn’t want people to think badly of departing soldiers; plus the studio was trying to keep the auteur’s output on a leash because he shot so many films. And then there were the censorship problems which left Sturges with just ten pages of script going into production because of fears that Trudy’s situation might be likened to the Virgin Birth of religious lore. Sturges defended the text because he said it was intended to “show what happens to young girls who disregard their parents’ advice and who confuse patriotism with promiscuity.” It’s a breathtaking farce, played with astonishing energy and commanded by Sturges like a steam train driving through contemporary mores and family values. This is one of the reasons I was disappointed not to see inside his writing room at Paramount on the studio tour! Wildly funny, brilliant and daring, it’s a bona fide classic.

The Killing of Sister George (1968)

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I’m writing something very obscene about the British Broadcasting Corporation.  June (Beryl Reid) is an actress who portrays the popular Sister George, a district nurse in a popular BBC soap opera. The actress spends her time drinking and engaging in Lesbian sex with her much younger live-in lover, factory worker Alice also called Childie (Susannah York) due to her penchant for baby doll dresses and her devotion to her collection of dolls. A television executive, Mercy Croft (Coral Browne) decides she likes Alice and wants to write Sister George off the show after she’s molested two nuns in the back of a taxi, two Irish Catholic novitiates just off the boat. June watches as her behavior and insecurity and bullying drive Alice away and into the arms of Mercy.  George discovers the only job she is likely to be offered is that of a cow’s voice on a kids’ show … I can hardly put through to the Controller your allegation that you may have been bitten by two nuns. Robert Aldrich and screenwriter Lukas Heller broke new ground with this, made directly after The Dirty Dozen. Aldrich’s regular collaborator, Heller added a sex scene between Childie and Mrs Croft to Frank Marcus’ 1964 play which was responsible for the film’s X rating under the newly instituted censorship system in the US. There were also censorship problems in the UK (the BBFC website states that this has by far the largest file of any film submitted with the sex scene “by far the most explicit scene of lesbian physical love that has ever been submitted [for classification].” ). This was also the first film to show the inside of a Lesbian nightclub.   It fits into the rather cynical ‘hag’ template the pair pioneered with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?  and Hush … Hush Sweet Charlotte. Beryl Reid’s butch persona (well known from The Belles of St Trinian’s) adds a new twist to the format, with her tweedy randy predator meeting her match in Mrs Croft. Reid had played the role on stage and had its energy and complexity down to a T. This is a confrontational film about ageing, femininity, relationships and career and how they can all converge into a crisis at the whim of an executive’s pen. Fascinating on so many levels, with the central story’s blackly comic claustrophobia expressed through excellent design, this is great entertainment. What’s one looking for then, love and affection?

Anatomy of a Murder (1959)

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You save that jiggle for your husband.  Semi-retired Michigan lawyer Paul Biegler (James Stewart) takes the case of Army Lt. Frederick Manion (Ben Gazzara), who murdered local innkeeper Barney Quill after his wife Laura (Lee Remick) claimed that he raped and beat her.  However a police surgeon finds no evidence of rape.  Over the course of a big trial, Biegler is the smalltown lawyer (and recently deposed District Attorney) who must parry with the new DA Lodwick (Brooks West) and out-of-town prosecutor Claude Dancer (George C. Scott) to set his client free, but his case rests on the victim’s mysterious business partner Mary Pilant (Kathryn Grant), who’s hiding a dark secret.  Biegler has to prove Manion was suffering temporary insanity but will the jury buy it after Biegler discovers he’s a violent and jealous husband and he knows in his heart he’s got a very weak defence? … Producer/director Otto Preminger spent most of the 1950s baiting the censor with material for adults and this long engrossing account of a true crime is no different. Wendell Mayes adapted Robert Traver’s (aka John D. Voelker) novel based on his own experiences on a 1952 case in the state of Michigan.The matter of fact handling of the explicit physical details in the courtroom confirms that this is a film that has no cinematic tricks. It’s shot wide and flat in black and white with the only camouflage or disguise in the personalities presenting themselves. That applies to the legal team too:  Parnell Emmett McCarthy (Arthur O’Connell) has to swear off the booze for the duration to assist Biegler;  Laura must drop the tight pedal pushers, don skirts and hide her wonderful hair;  Biegler’s bonhomie hides a finagling mind that doesn’t express great surprise at anything anyone says or conceals.   There’s a strand of humour running through both dialogue and characterisation that raises the game: the lightness of Remick as the bruised flirtatious beauty, with her wonderful companion dog Muff (Snuffy) who gets to provide his own witness statement in court, alongside Stewart’s jolly and wryly witty performance, makes this more pleasurable than the subject matter suggests. In fact the whole film avoids melodramatic excess and has a devious sinuousness that leads from Stewart. His banter with Joseph N. Welch [chief counsel for the US Army when it was being investigated for UnAmerican Activities in the McCarthy Hearings] about fishing provides a lot of enjoyment; Eve Arden as the reliable and seen-it-all secretary Maida Rutledge offers her typical scepticism in a film constructed from the cynic’s playbook. There are no histrionics or crazy closing arguments, just practice, rationale  and evidence (of witness-coaching). Now, Mr  Dancer, get off the panties – you’ve done enough damage.  Duke Ellington provides the film’s notable score and he appears uncredited as pianist Pie Eye and enjoys an exchange with Stewart. The great titles are by Saul Bass. This is elegant filmmaking, wonderfully crafted, telling a difficult story in the procedural vernacular very stylishly.  How can a jury disregard what it’s already heard?

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017)

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Are you normal?  What is normal?  Harvard psychologist and inventor Dr. William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans) has the good fortune of having two women in his life – his eventual wife and colleague Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) who is denied her PhD because of her gender and their mutual lover, student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote) the niece of the birth control activist, Margaret Sanger, whose feminist mother Ethel, Sanger’s sister, abandoned her to the care of nuns. Marston creates the DISC theory of Dominance, Inducement, Submission and Compliance which he lectures on to besotted female students.  In addition to helping him perfect the lie detector test, they form a ménage à trois which leads to the academics being fired from their University jobs and moving to the burbs where the two women inspire him to create one of the greatest female superheroes of all time, beloved comic book character Wonder Woman as their unconventional lifestyle and penchant for S&M causes problems for the legitimate and illegitimate children they raise together…  This sly old dissertation on American values is told in a series of flashbacks as Marston is forced to defend his comic book’s content to Josette Frank (Connie Britton) inquisitor in chief at the Child Study Association of America in the post-war era as comic books were literally burned, Hitler style, in the streets. No fool she as she knows all the moves, BDSM or no.  It’s amusing to see the trio’s relationship revealed first with the lie detector machine and then in the den of iniquity lorded over by Charles Guyette, the G-string king (JJ Feild) while outwardly life in the burbs goes on as per usual. This is an origins story with a difference and if it plays rather fast and loose (or restrained, whichever you’d prefer) with the lasso of truth, then it’s fun and imaginative and very well performed – interpreted, written and directed by Angela Robinson. Produced by Amy Redford.

The Square (2017)

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The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.  Christian (Claes Bang) the curator of a Swedish museum hires a PR team to create hype for a challenging new exhibition with explosive results after he responds with a poorly thought-out social media post when his smartphone is stolen … Written and directed by Ruben Östlund, this part-satire, part-horror utilises its international cast well in what is an overlong and episodic narrative:  Elisabeth Moss plays Anne, the journalist who winds up having a complicated one-night stand with Christian; while Dominic West essays a PJ-clad parody of Julian Schnabel; and Terry Notary is Oleg, after Oleg Kulik, a performance artist who reputedly acted like a dog and attacked people at an exhibition in Stockholm (Notary does an ape impression here). Bang is terrific in quite a complex and contradictory role in which all his pretensions are challenged. There is a dinner party from hell which is a film in and of itself.  This is a largely successful tract using issues of class, race, sex and society in a witty treatise on what could be summed up in two words:  culture shock. Like most modern art, better seen and experienced than read about. Winner of the 2017 Palme d’Or at Cannes.

78/52 Hitchcock’s Shower Scene (2017)

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The movie is about fragmentation. It IS fragmentation.  Seventy-eight camera setups and fifty-two cuts. Alexandre O. Philippe’s documentary about the most famous scene of all time in movies is a crowdpleaser – its subject is familiar to everyone. Starting with a ‘remake’ of Janet Leigh’s rainy drive to the infamous Bates Motel it settles into a series of interviews with a diverse range of commentators – from Eli Wood to Eli Roth, Walter Murch to Peter Bogdanovich, Danny Elfman to Guillermo del Toro, Stephen Rebello to Marli Renfro, Leigh’s body double, who offers intriguing insights into the week-long filming process.  The archive footage includes other Hitchcock films as well as TV interviews and excerpts from The Alfred Hitchcock Hour.  The contemporary interviews place the film in the vanguard of the culture and as part of a lifelong battle Hitchcock had with the censors – it’s pointed out that his previous film, North By Northwest, concludes in a phallic train entering a tunnel;  Psycho commences with a post-coital look between Leigh and John Gavin. It is also part of a disorienting cinematic process about space invasion and lack of safety, a film that literally changed how we watched films, and not just because by showing a toilet flush for the first time on the Hollywood screen Hitchcock wanted to remind us how our lives can just randomly go down the drain. Providing deft visual analysis (with great insights into the use of the jump cut), production information and ideas about the score, this is intensely interesting for the buff, the geek, the movie freak and even the seven year old daughter of one of the interviewees who has never seen the film but likes to make the knife action while imitating Bernard Hermann’s shrieking violins. That’s how influential this is. It’s obvious that Janet Leigh has to survive!

Donnie Darko (2001)

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This came out right after 9/11 which was its misfortune. It has a rather extraordinary plane crash and it wasn’t that that made me relate to it entirely but it was a factor – one of my most vivid and disturbing dreams concerned a crash in my neighbourhood but that was in the aftermath of the Avianca crash on Long Island in 1990 and I remember afterwards reading in a column that nobody should eat bluefish for rather obvious reasons…. I digress. This begins with one of two songs by two of my favourite bands because there are two versions of the edit. So you see Jake Gyllenhaal cycling through his suburban neighbourhood either to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon or INXS’s Never Tear Us Apart:  both forever songs, in my book. He’s a teen who’s off his meds and talks to Frank, a man dressed as a  giant rabbit in the bathroom mirror. Problem is, the rabbit can control him and as he searches for the meaning of life and his big sister (Maggie Gyllenhaal) bugs him and his little sister pursues her dancing ambition and everyone quarrels about voting for Michael Dukakis (because it’s 1988), he starts tampering with the water main flooding his school, a plane crashes into their house and he resents the motivational speaker (Patrick Swayze) who enters the students’ lives while the inspiring Graham Greene story The Destructors is being censored by the PTA.  He burns down the man’s house and the police find a stash of kiddie porn and arrest him. Donnie’s interest in time travel leads him to the former science teacher (Patience Cleveland) aka Grandma Death but his friendship with her leads the school bullies to follow him and she is run down – by Frank. Donnie shoots him.  When he returns to his house a vortex is forming and a plane is overhead and things go into reverse … and Donnie is in bed, just as he was 28 days earlier, when the story starts … Extraordinary, complex, nostalgic, blackly funny and startlingly true to teenage behaviour and perception and life in the burbs, I know there are websites dedicated to explaining this but I don’t care about that. Just watch it. And wonder how Richard Kelly could possibly make anything this good again. Stunning.

Psycho (1998)

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The Hitchcock film is so ingrained in the collective psyche it was some kind of madness to remake it shot for shot (almost – there are some surreal inserts.) When Gus Van Sant’s name was attached it didn’t even make lunatic sense. Nor the fact that some cast members (I mean you, Anne Heche) didn’t even seem to know the original. The cinematographer (Chris Doyle) didn’t even understand the point of some shots, it appears. If you can get past the fact that this is sacrilege; that paradoxically Pat Hitchcock O’Connell, the keeper of her father’s flame, approved it; and that huge dead-eyed Vince Vaughn was selected to play the delicate bird-like Norman Bates (okay, Vaughn is truer to Bloch’s image, but who but the indelible Anthony Perkins is Norman?!), this can be viewed as an interesting homage to the most important film in (some people’s) living memory. It is about identity and its negation;  the camera articulates vision and perception (just look! A crane shot introduces Marion Crane! And the final shot of her eye is the single most important image in cinema); and Anne Heche’s underwear is kinda wonderful – the whole first section of the film is all about the colour orange. It’s about a man in a dress pretending to be his dead mother, whose rotting corpse is in the fruit cellar. The original film was censor-bait – when Janet Leigh flushed her calculations down the toilet censorship was literally flushed away in American cinema: that doesn’t even register nowadays. It is a reverie about a kingdom of death, as Donald Spoto has it. Joseph Stefano’s screenplay (he had a lot of help from Mrs Hitchcock) is shot word for word;  and Bernard Herrmann’s score is reworked by Danny Elfman. So this is an empty act of nostalgia and avant-gardism inasmuch as it is doing a Warhol to something that effectively belongs to everyone. But it is Hitchcock. Not to be reproduced. Like I said, sacrilege.

9 1/2 Weeks (1986)

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Yes, I’m going there. It’s Friday after all. This was the secret shame of myself and several of my college mates courtesy of a guy who had it on VHS back in the day. We watched it regularly in a darkened room, as you do. Lunchtimes have never been the same since. I think this is how cults begin, isn’t it?! It was a notorious bomb on release and it’s not difficult to see why – how to explain an S&M memoir on date night?! 960 people stormed out of the preview audience of 1,000! One can only hazard a guess at what the remainers were doing. Really, it’s a home movie in every sense!  Ingeborg Day nee Seiler (daughter of an Austrian SS officer) wrote for feminist mag Ms. as Ingeborg Bachmann in the Seventies and documented this stage of her life pseudonymously in 1978 as ‘Elizabeth McNeill’. She had a breakdown afterwards. Gallerist Elizabeth embarks on an intense affair with Wall Street broker John who takes her places she’s never been … in her own body. The fact that she is played by the stunning Kim Basinger and he is the then-beautiful Mickey Rourke just makes it all the more, uh, pleasurable. In fact it’s their characterisation that makes this erotica work. Screenwriters Zalman King and Patricia Louisanna Knop (and Sarah Kernochan) turned soft porn into their avocation, while underrated director Adrian Lyne just makes everything appear lovely and astonishing as you’d expect from someone who helped change the look of cinema:  you’ll never look at the contents of your refrigerator the same way again. Seriously sexy and the soundtrack is great!