Arabian Nights 1974 ***

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The least played blu-ray in my collection is Pier Paulo Pasolini’s 1974 version of Arabian Nights. That’s because, on getting a blu-ray player, the first films that I thought of that I wanted to see cleaned up and pristine are those within the famous Trilogy of Life that starts with The Decameron and The Canterbury Tales. Both films have a wonderfully gauche sense of story about them, using a strange mix of Italian thespians, untrained toothless locals and British tv actors; Robin Asquith and Nicholas Grace from Are You Being Served? feature, as does peak Dr Who Tom Baker, seen enthusiastically soaping his own knob. In their own strange fashion, they’re arguably the best version of Boccaccio and Chaucer respectively, so why doesn’t Arabian Nights have the same charm?

On the third attempt, and after a bit of research, I finally got the hang of Pasolini’s Arabian Nights, but it’s no easy text. Another reviewer compared it to The Sargasso Manuscript, and that’s about the best steer you could get. Instead of telling each story one after another, Pasolini mixes things up by having the tales intersect and diverge without warning; not easy on a first or even a second watch. That said, there’s plenty of pleasure watching regular Pasolini stars like Franco Citti or Ninetto Davoli give their usual lip-smacking performances, and the Iranian locations are absolutely stunning. Production designer Dante Ferretti does his usual top-notch job, and Ennio Morricone conjured us an untypical soundtrack.

Arabian Nights is a curiosity piece now, mainly because such texts have become sanitised; Pasolini, as always, can’t wait to get to the lusty punch-lines, and his version features a veritable forest of gnarly genitals and unkempt pubic hair. But there’s also a drive towards story, and to bringing classic texts to life, that makes Arabian Nights absorbing even as the runt of the litter; it doesn’t offer the conventional excitements of the other two films, but it does offer something else that’s well worth attempting, even if it’ll tax the patience of most viewers. Pasolini, of course, denounced the whole trilogy shortly before he was murdered, but the quality and the ambition he fought for live on.

The Tingler 1959 ***

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William Castle is a somewhat neglected figure, perhaps because he staked his reputation on novelties, some would say gimmicks, which were dated from the moment they appeared. Such felicities as having a skeleton appear above a cinema screen seem rather old fashioned in the shadow of IMAX 4DX. So it’s rather nice to see The Tingler appear on Amazon Prime is a natty new print that makes it ripe for rediscovery.

What’s surprising here, given Castle’s reputation, is the ingenious nature of the whole conceit. The Tingler is a horror film, but one that operates in a specific and rather post-modern way. Vincent Price plays Warren Chapin, a scientist who has been working to isolate the Tingler, a creature that feeds on fear; it appears inside the human body, often at the instant of death, and Chapin is keen to isolate it. Many boffins might have been tempted to use illegal means to pursue this goal, but fortunately LSD was legal in the US at the time, and The Tingler features the spectacle of Price and other cast-members cheerfully blowing their own minds and (pretending to) trip on acid.

This in itself is odd enough, but things get weirder when Chapin meets a woman who is a deaf mute and is unable to express herself; she’s got a lifetime of fear bottled up inside her and is ready to blow like a bottle of champagne, releasing a mega-tingler. Her husband owns a silent-movie theatre which appears to be showing 1921’s Tol’able David in a permanent loop, and when The Tingler escapes, it escapes into the theatre and begins tingling the occupants of the seats.

This leads to a quite wonderful sequence in which you, the viewer, find yourself watching the same silent movie, with Vincent Price on the soundtrack warning you about dangerous creatures on the loose and potentially assaulting your backside. It places the audience in the movie in an absurd and yet ingenuous way; there’s also a brilliant scare involving a splash of blood-red in an otherwise black and white movie. With a frank view of drugs, plus some meta-narrative twists, The Tinger is a great way to waste 80 minutes, and shows that 1959’s cinema showmen had plenty of ingenuity as the on-going battle with tv hotted up.

Flashback 1990 ****

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“Wait till you see the 90’s, they’re going to make the 70’s look like the 50’s!’ says hippie Huey Walker (Dennis Hopper) in Flashback, a comedy-thriller that’s refreshing in the way it puts politics centre-stage. Walker is an Abbie Hoffman-style prankster who has been missing since he decoupled Spiro Agnew’s train as an anti-war protest; when he resurfaces in 1990, he anticipates that social norms about to get a lot stricter, and in hindsight, he was right.

Walker has a strong piece of evidence in his nemesis, FBI agent John Buckner, played by Kiefer Sutherland. Buckner wears a suit, carries a gun, and couldn’t be further from the ideals Walker espouses; ‘I wanted to be the opposite of what my parents wanted’ Bucker explains, and he’s delivered on that promise. Buckner is deputised to take Walker on a long cross-country journey by train in order to stand trial, but his captive escapes, and the two men end up going on the run together as dark forces close in on Huey.

Flashback was directed by Franco Amurri, who directed the original version of Big, and there’s a body swap element here too, even if it’s played without the magic. Walker convinces Buckner than he’s spiked his drink with acid, gets him drunk, then steals his gun and clothes; clean shaven, he becomes a fun-house mirror-image of himself, with the exact opposite in political ideals. Walker is also able to put Buckner back in contact with his own idealistic youth, via an ex girlfriend Maggie (Carol Kane) who still carries a torch for Walker and the flower-power movement. While both men seem entrenched in their own political views, they manage to reverse their instant judgements of each other and form some kind of alliance.

The plotting gets a little murky in the final act of Flashback, with the chase elements overwhelming the sharper observations of the script, although the climax is pretty sharp. Hopper, discussing the impact of Easy Rider, makes a number of post-modern jokes about his own reputation, with Born to Be Wild part of the eclectic soundtrack choices. The perennially underrated Sutherland does a great job of suggesting the spectrum of opinions possible within one man; the scene where Buckner cries to see his childhood self in a home movie is brilliantly played.

It would be untrue to suggest Flachback has a bad reputation; it’s got no reputation at all, and surfaces on Amazon Prime like a Flashback to when a populist American film might seek to create political unity. It’s no masterpiece, but it’s a good –humoured and knowing film that might just find a few new converts with a fresh new print and two great stars to pull them in.

Last Christmas 2019 NA (no award)

lastLast Christmas is the big entry in the 2019 festive movie stakes; the twinkling eyes of the stars stare out from bus shelters and intrusive online ads, promising early holiday-season cheer and hoping to generate positive word of mouth, but the reality of Paul Feig’s gift-wrapped product is rather different from the simple feel-good fare that might have been anticipated. With a story and script credit, plus a central performance all from Emma Thompson, it’s a film that will attract interest by virtue of heavy marketing, but plays considerably worse with audiences than the film-makers might have hoped.

Spoilers are required here, although the much discussed ‘twist’ of Last Christmas is in the trailer and shouldn’t be much of surprise to anyone. In the words of the George Michael song ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…’ Someone, somewhere, presumably Thompson thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if that meant actually donating a heart?’ because this absurdly literal reading of the song is the crux of matters here. Emelia Clarke plays Kate, a young woman working as an elf in a grotto run by Santa (Michelle Yeoh). Kate is a sexually active young woman, so, of course, there must be something wrong with her, and we get early dialogue clues that she’s been ‘sick’ and required a heart transplant, which is quite ‘sick’ in most people’s books. She’s obsessed with George Michael, and his songs play over her activities in ways that defy logic ; ‘Everything She Wants’ as she eats a burger alone on a bench, or an innocuous ice-skating practice is accompanied by Michael warbling portentously about “God not keeping score.’ It’s all a selling point, presumably. Do you miss George Michael? Then surely you’ll want to hear George Michael’s music reduced to an anonymous temp score that doesn’t fit the action at all?

Kate begins a relationship with a mysterious stranger called Tom (Henry Goulding) who may or may not be connected to her heart transplant; is he a doctor? An angel? Whatever he is, we can tell Tom is a good man because he works in a homeless shelter and doesn’t want to sleep with her. Tom is here to tell Kate how to live her life, and excuse my sarcasm here, that’s obviously what most women badly need, a man to tell them exactly how they should behave, so Kate quickly falls for him.

Tom wants Kate to live her life to the full, and that means reconciling with her Croatian mother, played by Emma Thompson because there are literally no Croatian women who could have played this role. We see Thompson watching Brexit news on television and screaming ‘It’s because they hate us’, a scene that might have had some political resonance if Thompson wasn’t so clearly a super-affluent Hampstead home-owner and hardly qualified to speak for the average Croatian. If people like Thompson ever shut up, Croatians might, one day, get the chance to speak for themselves. This kind of ethnic insensitivity is 2019’s version of blackface, an all-singing, all-stereotyped shrill caricature that is slowly being eradicated from cinema but not fast enough to save this silly yet depressing film.

It’s hard to know what to say about a film that hears ‘Last Christmas, I gave you my heart…’ and constructs a drama about heart transplants. How about Don’t Stop Believing?, a Paul Schrader drama about a religious pastor who faces a crisis of confidence? Or I Left My Heart in San Francisco, with Nicolas Cage as a hospital intern who forgets a vital organ on a trip to the Bay area? Such conceits work as jokes, and jokes only; they reduce the meaning of the song to absurdity, and that’s exactly what Last Christmas does. The rom here isn’t romantic at all, and the com is non-existent; a throwaway line about ‘lesbian pudding’ is the one single moment that raised a laugh at my screening. Similarly, there’s some beyond limp cameos from the likes of Sue Perkins, and even the great Peter Serafinowicz looks mortified as he offers up his Christmas cracker ‘elf and safety’ joke and shuffles off.

With an underwhelming musical number as a climax, Last Christmas is a blot on the resumes of all concerned; like The Holiday, it’s a festive ghost that will haunt and diminish the stars, returning every year to remind us of their desperation to grab audience’s cash from them. Clarke has noted that she won’t be reading the reviews for this one, presumably with the notion that if she doesn’t know that people hate this film, then that hatred isn’t happening. If she ever changes her mind, she should know that the audience, baited, switched and heading for the exists before the credits started to roll, were happy to escape the living nightmare that Last Christmas becomes.

The Man Who Loved Women 1983 ***

man who lovedA big studio flop back in the day, The Man Who Loved Women is a problematic film today, and there’s good reasons why Blake Edwards’ vehicle for Burt Reynolds is rarely seen or discussed. Few things date more quickly than sexual mores, and it’s arguable that Francois Truffaut’s original 1977 film was already obsolete by the time this remake occurred. Yet Reynolds and Edwards were coming off hot streaks, 10 was Edwards’ last big hit, and The Man Who Loved Women fails because of the unthinking hubris of the film’s makers.

The film opens, as no comedy ever should, with the funeral of the main character; literally hundreds of women rampage through the graveyard, attesting to the sexual prowess of LA sculptor David Fowler (Reynolds). We then flash back to see exactly what kind of love we’re talking about; Fowler loves legs, he loves bodies, he loves faces, so he’s a real lover of women, right? Well, actually, not; Fowler now seems like a real problem, a leech, a stalker, a man who has a juvenile view of life, and the film doesn’t do much to question that lifestyle. Instead, Edwards seems more intent on celebrating Fowler, with a slew of beautiful women (Taxi’s Marilu Henner, Kim Basinger as an insatiable Texan wife, Julia Andrews as a psychiatrist, Denise Crosby as his assistant) throwing themselves at his feet.

10 mixed middle-aged melancholy with Pink Panther-type sight-gags and pratfalls, but that formula wears thin here, as attempts at serious sexual commentary interspersed with laboured slapstick, notably Fowler gluing himself to a dog. Even worse, Fowler isn’t likeable when he talks about an ‘enduring appreciation for the women of the street’, in fact, he’s straight up repugnant in his comfortable chauvinism. The Man Who Loved Women is an interesting footnote for several big Hollywood talents, an over-ambitious folly that reveals the flaws in both men’s psyches; Edwards co-write this with his psychiatrist, while Reynolds seems to have acted several scenes in his own persona rather than his characters. This kind of self-analysis could have paid dividends, but a painful lack of self-awareness makes this a curiosity piece only.

 

 

The Diamond Mercenaries aka Killer Force 1975 ***

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‘They’re mercenaries, not idiots’ is a telling line from The Diamond Mercenaries, but the matter is very much up for discussion. Sure, if your idea of a good Saturday night romp is watching the late Peter Fonda suffering an intrusive rectal examination, then Val Guest’s 1975 thriller is likely to be just what you’re looking for. But Fonda’s indignities are only a small part of what’s on offer here, from Telly Savalas’s turtle-neck wardrobe to Christopher Lee in khaki; if you miss the simple virtues of a 1970’s potboiler, the Force assembled here is all Killer and no filler.

Savalas is Harry Webb, the head of security at the “Syndicated Diamond Corporation’ which sounds like a trip-hop band and that vibe seems to have influenced Savalas to play Webb like a night-club owner complete with a garish wardrobe. The random picks for the opposition include OJ Simpson, Christopher Lee and Hugh O’Brian, while Bond girl Maud Adams slinks about on the side-lines as a glamorous tv reporter. Fonda was coming to the end of his leading-man status, his bankability drained by the vogue for anti-heroes having ebbed by the mid70’s, and he gives a strange performance behind a Seth Rogen beard and mega-shades.

Having excoriated Amazon Prime for some of their awful prints, I should note that The Diamond Mercenaries looks crisp and the desert scenes are rather beautiful. As are, in a different way, the 1976 interiors, which have a luridness worth catching. And it’s worth appreciating that the South African setting allows for a certain largess in terms of action, which many bullets and explosions in a frantic half hour.

For Guest, late in his career and sandwiched between Confessions of a Window Cleaner and Cannon and Ball vehicle The Boys in Blue, this is a surprisingly zestful actioneer in a sub-Alistair Maclean style. The bright yellow jeeps may well be the most memorable thing here, but streaming is probably the best shot that this forgotten movie has of any kind of redemption.

Gwen 2018 ****

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Comparisons to Rober Egger’s The Witch are inevitable for Gwen, an effective little indie film about a young girl’s hard-scrabble existence in the desolate mining areas of North Wales. That’s not ideal given that William McGregor’s drama is hardly a conventional horror film, although there are strong supernatural elements. Like The Witch, it’s a slow burn that gets to a fever pitch in the last act, but it’s notably different in that the pay-off is a different kind of horror from most supernatural genre fare.

The big draw here is Maxine Peake, who has a substantial reputation as one of today’s best performers; her Hamlet was certainly as good as any man’s. She plays Elen, a young mother whose ageing rapidly as the difficulties of raising her family increase. Elen’s single-mother existence is complicated by her difficult relationship with her daughter Gwen (Eleanor Wothington Cox), who lacks her mother’s fiery temper. Elen responds instinctively and protectively, sometimes violently, and is nursing a potentially life-threatening illness. And the very land that Elen and Gwen live on hides a secret that makes their situation all the more precarious.

William Oldroy’s 2016 film Lady Macbeth might be a better point of comparison; this is a well-acted, visually austere drama in which the central theme is man’s inhumanity to man. Elen’s supernatural beliefs are very old-school, but Gwen’s investigations of the world around her seem to back up many of her mother’s fears, irrational or not. The cost and difficulty of sourcing medicine to treat her mother makes for a depressing spiral of events, but Gwen, the film and the character, never stops for pathos or contrivance; McGregor maintains a hard edge throughout.

Gwen just about fits in on the fringes of the growing ‘folk horror’ genre, but don’t be expecting devils, demons and talking goats. There are jump-scares, however, and a feeling of dread and foreboding that’s justified in the final scenes. And McGregor also does well with a cast who are not overshadowed by Peake’s powerhouse performance; Gwen transcends genre expectations to offer a potent, difficult but rewardingly tough drama.