The Mission 1986 *****

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The last time I saw the late Jake Eberts, he was struggling to get distributors to look at a fresh cut of an expensive film. ‘They think they’ve seen it already,’ he whispered to me with his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone, then shrugged; he seemed to sense that he was on a hiding to nothing. And yet Eberts was a truly great producer whose films gained 66 Oscar nominations, including nine for best picture. The Mission was another notable setback for Eberts and Goldcrest films, a big-budget prestige picture that failed to connect to a substantial audience, and which, along with Revolution and Absolute Beginners, almost bankrupted Goldcrest Films. Viewed in 70mm in 1986, it seemed like a secret success, a beautifully mounted and thoughtful film out of step with commercial dictates; re-watched in 2019, The Mission is a film that swells to fill the gap left by its lack of reputation; it’s a really great movie that deserves to be praised, recommended and shared.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a missionary who travels to a remote South American community, who he charms with music; Ennio Morricone’s score, ingeniously integrated into the diegetic music featured, is one of the best of his storied career. Back in the 1740’s, the slave-trade was rife, and scoundrels like Roderigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) took full advantage; Mendoza operates in a moral vacuum until he kills his own brother in an act of rage, and joins Gabriel’s group as part of his penance. When the Portuguese and Spanish decide to take the land from the indigenous tribes, Gabriel refuses to take up arms, but Mendoza uses his knowledge of combat to lead a spirited defence, although neither tactic slows the invading forces down for long.

The Mission is a powerful film about religion, and comes recommended by the Vatican and the Church Times; the central themes about the on-going conflict between might and love are admirably caught in Robert Bolt’s script, and yet unlike A Man for All Seasons, piety is mixed with explosive action scenes, brilliantly lensed by Chris Menges. The result won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and the mix of thoughtful rumination on the place of religion and defiant action is still stirring to watch.

Perhaps you feel that you’ve seen The Mission already. But the content was way ahead of it’s time, a contemplation of man’s inhumanity to man, the exploitation of indigenous people and the way that democratic and religious institutions have, deliberately or not, supported that process. Roland Joffe’s film always looked and sounded great, but it’s never been so topical as it is now; the final post-credits stinger, as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray Mcinally) looks questioning to the camera, still invites us to think and act on the on-going tragedy of  man’s inhumanity to man. ‘Thus have we made the world…’ says Altamirano, and that deep sense of responsibility pervades this laudable film.

 

Incense for the Damned 1970 ***

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Aka Bloodsuckers aka Freedom Seekers. Another titling disaster, Robert Hartford-Davis’s obscure horror film doesn’t seem to know how to describe itself; none of these titles work better than the name of the book that provided the inspiration here, Simon Raven’s Doctors Wear Scarlet. That’s not a great title either, although it does slip in as a line of dialogue here, as Richard Fountain (Patrick Mower) prepares to address an Oxford college dinner. There is some kind of critique going on of establishment corruption, but Incense for the Damned is so scrambled, it’s a constant battle to get a handle on what’s happening.

Raven’s substantial body of work seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history, but his narrative here seems to have borrowed heavily from the adventure stories of Dennis Wheatley. Fountain is a talented young man who has gone off the rails with drugs while ‘searching for his manhood’ in Greece; a group of friends enlist the help of a resourceful British consul (Patrick Mcnee) to rescue him, only to find that dark forces are at work. It’s a haggard structure that recalls The Devil Rides Out, but retooled with 1970’s hippy trappings.

It’s understood that the film has been re-edited and re-worked to the point the director disowned it; there’s plenty of evidence of two different films happening here, and neither of them working. Fortunately Edward Woodward turns up to deliver a half-time pep-talk about how ‘vampirism is a sexual perversion’ in a desperate attempt to connect the two separate narratives. Woodward’s character also jabbers on about men who can only make love with statues, which he says is called Pygmalion Syndrome, so it’s hard to know if he can be trusted or not.

The perennially august Peter Cushing turns up for a few scenes, but he’s literally in the wrong movie here; if Cushing thought the Blood Beast Terror was his worst movie, then one presumes he didn’t see this one because it’s absolutely awful, one that gets it’s seven-minute psychedelic orgy scene in early to fend of unwary viewers. And yet the influences (John Fowles’ The Magus), the photography of the Greek island of Hydra, and the subversive intent are all in place; there’s a decent film buried somewhere in there for genre specialists to exhume.

 

 

 

The Blood Beast Terror 1968 ***

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Also known as The Vampire Beast Craves Blood, Blood Beast From Hell and Deathshead Vampire, Vernon Sewell’s horror/thriller really couldn’t find the right title for this novel twist on traditional themes. But any film that features both Peter Cushing and special effects by a pre-Alien Roger Dicken deserves a fresh appraisal, and there’s quite a lot to suggest that Sewell’s film is a neglected genre piece.

This is a Tony Tenser/Tigon production, made during the peak of Hammer’s success, and it’s clear that they hoped to find a few franchise-friendly monsters to rival the other studio. So what is the blood beast? Well, it’s a kind of moth, or perhaps a were-moth might be more accurate, since it can take human form; Curse of the Were-Moth presumably tested badly, so Blood Beast Terror it was.

Tigon also took cues from Hammer in terms of casting and approach. Peter Cushing is a name that will always draw genre fans. He was a distinguished and gentle soul who seems to glide around in these films, always polite, even when playing madmen; during the heat-wave scenes here, he never loosens his cravat. He’s ideally suited to Sewell’s production, which is big on drawing room conversations, entomology lectures and the details of coach and horse travel; the setting is the 19th century, but it could easily be the 14th. Cushing plays Detective Inspector Quennell of Scotland Yard, who is trying to solve the murders of several young men. Could Carl Mallinger (Robert Flemyng) and his daughter hold the secret?

There’s some British comedy stalwarts in supporting roles, including Minder’s Glynn Edwards as a cop and Roy Hudd re-invigorating the cliché of the post-mortem medic who loves to eat on the job. An additional point of interest in the female were-moth, played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s mother, Wanda Ventham. It’s not easy for an actress playing a were-moth, but she gives it a good shot.

Cushing reputedly wasn’t wowed by the result, but there’s quite a lot of fun here, notably the beast in a chrysalis form thanks to Dicken. And there’s also an extended theatre-play within a film that features medical students performing a version of Burke and Hare. It seems pointedly aimed at making fun of the Hammer brand, and stops the action in its tracks for a good ten minutes. But the cardboard set, unconscious humour and stilted acting are all on-message with The Blood Beast Terror’s playful genre reconstruction; its another nice find on the impressive Flick Vault channel.

The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins 1971 ***

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British comedy is well represented in Graham Stark’s debut film as director, a portmanteau of comedy sketches which fuse the old-school comedy of the early sixties with the surreal edge of the late sixties; it’s not exactly consistent, but it is interesting because of the talent involved. Original Goons Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe are here, although working separately, Monty Python’s Graham Chapman contributes two sketches, but with Barry Cryer as his writing partner rather than John Cleese, and there’s three Bond girls to add glamour. Add cod-Python animated inserts, plus a role call of comedy names from Bruce Forsyth to Leslie Phillips, and you’ve got an interesting evening viewing, even if there’s precious few actual laughs.

Starting with the good stuff, Spike Milligan’s brand of humour did not translate to the big screen in the way that fellow Goon Peter Sellers did; The Great McGonagall, Puckoon and The Bed Sitting Room are all hard going and for completists only. But his short on the subject of Sloth is pretty good, and has the crazy energy of his written successes; it’s really just a series of silent jokes, with director Graham Stark in a bathtub, lots of discussion of walnuts, and a genuine anarchic tone. It’s worth seeking out, even if the rest of the sins leave you cold.

Elsewhere, there’s Harry Secombe in blackface, which is something of a low-point in a silly story about house Envy, while for Lust, Harry H Corbett does a strange melancholy routine about trying to chat up ‘dolly birds’ in subway stations; Marty Feldman is a credited writer here. And say what you want about Bruce Forsyth’s efforts to rescue a 50p coin from a drain in the Avarice sketch, it’s a sketch that sticks in your mind despite being, well, not particularly funny.

With Bob Guccione, Roy Hudd, Ronnie Barker, June Whitfield, Julie Ege, Ian Carmichael, Alfie Bass, Bill Pertwee and more making appearances, The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins should have been a comedy monument; instead, it’s an oddity, but one that’s fun in terms of spotting cameos and reflecting on a way of life in 1971 that seems like a long time ago; the 5p Subway-ticket vending machines and the tiny packets of crisps may interest future cultural anthropologists.

Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion 1997 ****

romyPower sucks, or certainly the abuse of it does; whether convictions are the result of the on-going MeToo revolution or not, it’s to be hoped that the film industry will no longer be a place where one man can successfully blacklist a wronged woman. Mira Sorvino has made accusations of exactly that nature, and it’s pretty much apparent that her career took a nose-dive from Oscar winner for Mighty Aphrodite to Hallmark tv movie queen. Two years after her Academy Award, she did some of her best work in this delightfully feather-weight Touchstone Pictures comedy which pairs her with Friends star Lisa Kudrow. While everything from Bill and Ted to Dumb and Dumber gets prequels, sequels and reboots, Romy and Michelle has been left on the shelf, and that’s a real shame, because it’s a funny, likable film with strong female characters.

The point of origin is a play, Ladies Room by Robin Shiff; one that gave birth to the characters of Romy and Michelle, played by Sorvino and Kudrow respectively. The tagline, The Blonde leading the Blonde, reflects the fun that’s had with the heroines being somewhat gauche; the gag is that Romy and Michelle are losers, but they resolve to fake it until they make it, specifically because they’re headed home from LA for a high-school reunion which they hope won’t reflect their penury. A chance encounter with Heather Mooney (Janeanne Garofalo) in a Jaguar repair-shop inspires the girls to deceive their old friends and foes alike by pretending to have invented Post-It stickers and other white lies. Of course, the internet hasn’t happened yet, so it’s quite possible to get away with such untruths, since fact-checking seems to have been an unknown art in 1997.

There’s lots of fun to be with David Mirkin’s film; early roles for Justin Theroux and Alan Cumming, who has a wild dance scene set to Cyndi Lauper’s Time After Time in the film’s celebratory climax. But Sorvino and Kudrow are a revelation, with great comic timing, just enough pathos, and two characters who should have spawned a franchise for sure. And this is a story where the girls kick ass, take on the bullies and braggarts, and win in a most satisfactory way. There’s no way to accurately assess the injustice done to actresses like Sorvino, but giving Romy and Michelle a dust down, or even a sequel, might be a tiny step in the right direction.

Hussy 1980 ****

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Post Star Wars, there was a brief period where there remained a vogue for adult film; not pornography, but serious-minded dramas which reflected the seedy side of life. Saint Jack, Atlantic City, Tales of Ordinary Madness are all quality films that followed on from the mainstream success of Emmanuelle, and reflected a desire to see believable characters on the screen depicted with a new sexual frankness. Matthew Chapman’s debut film Hussy, like most of the above mentioned films, was rapidly forgotten about post 1980, but now resurfaces to demonstrate that it’s something of a neglected classic, not least because it features brilliant performances, not just from Helen Mirren in the titular role, but from the whole ensemble cast.

Mirren plays Beaty Simons, a call girl who hangs around a bin-juice encrusted urban nightclub with other prostitutes, oblivious to regular, grand performances by disco pioneer Patti Boulaye, who seems to be previewing material for the Royal Variety Performance. Beaty has a past and a child, but still finds idealism enough to fall for chauffeur Emory (John Shea), who seeks to take her away from the squalor she lives in and share the similar squalor that he lives in. After some fairly raunchy sex scenes, the plot takes over as Emory fends off Max (Murray Salem) an outrageous gay criminal with a plan, while she bristles at the intrusion of her old pimp Alex (Paul Angelis) who moves in with them. Both Salem and Angelis give extraordinary, larger-than-life performances here, barely giving the leads any space to work. Indeed, the second half of the film hardly features Mirren at all, but focuses on a deal gone wrong that leads Max and Alex into a bloody mess.

Hussy is something of a blot in Mirren’s esteemed copybook, regarded by many as a crummy sex-movie that’s borderline exploitation. And yet, if you’re broadminded enough, it’s also a very good film indeed, and catching Chapman on his way up (a descendent of Charles Darwin, he later wrote Color of Night and Runaway Jury) while also giving Salem something substantial to do; he later wrote the screenplay for Kindergarten Cop. Shea has proved to be a dependable actor as well, making Hussy something of a hothouse for talent. If you can ignore the hideous 70’s décor, music and attitudes, it’s a powerful little B movie that’s worth braving the ignominy of having Hussy on your search history.

Avengers: Endgame 2019 ***

avengers-endgame-robert-downey-jr-chris-evans_0My regular reader will know I’m not a fan of comic books; I was when I was a kid, but grew out of them around the age of 11, and never imagined for a second that they’d come to dominate our screens decades later. Past-masters Scorsese, Friedkin and Coppola may not consider these films to be cinema, but they are box-office and they are loved. With this in mind, it’s with a mixture of interest and duty that, (as I began a six-hour shift of waiting for the boiler-repair man to come), I cracked open the blu-ray of what is now the biggest film ever, as provided by Disney’s tireless press department.

Not being invested enough to venture to the cinema to see this, or even take a look during a much ballyhooed home entertainment release, it’s perhaps no surprise that I wasn’t wowed by Avengers: Endgame. Firstly, it feels like half a movie because it is, planned at a brief and wayward time when splitting up movies into bits was considered the way forward. Engame’s appeal depends on memories of previous entry Avengers: Infinity War, memories which are less than vivid in my mind. A big-faced being called Thanos has snapped his fingers because he has a glove made up of magical jewels, and lots of people vanished, although who or what was missing is not described here. Those left behind, led by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) take revenge on Thanos, but then decide to go back in time to stop any of this malarkey from happening in the first place.

There’s a lot of pseudo-science in these films, and a lot of pop-culture references, and the concept of time travel attracts much discussion in both realms; ’It’s not like in Back to the Future’, someone says, but to the untrained eye, it’s exactly the same schtick, but with added quantum tunnels. If you’ve seen one interstellar vortex, you’ve seen them all, and Avengers: Endgame looks like pretty much every other movie in the genre in this respect. The climactic fight looks and feels like a day-glo wood-chopping competition, with no tension, no stakes, and endless noise, bluster and back-slapping.

On the plus side, there’s an extraordinary group of talents gathered here; whoever cast the 22 Marvel movies really did their job because pretty much every choice stuck. And there’s a welcome leavening of humour that makes all the series entries watchable, right from the get-go as Stark amusingly compares whatever that little Starfox thing is to a Build-A-Bear product. But such verbal sparring soon takes second place to the cod-Shakespearean pomp that afflicts the franchise; listening to the endless arguments of Thanos’s children, a blue-faced woman and two green-faced girls, would send anyone to sleep, if they’re not already choking on the unearned sentiment that’s ladled over proceedings.

Cinema is not a club, and Martin Scorsese is not the arbiter of taste who decides who gets in or not. Such open film-snobbery isn’t a welcome development, and Marvel movies presumably work well enough for children. But there’s a growing desire for those who consume such childish things to these same things to be taken seriously, the same people who acclaim Joker as a masterpiece without actually suggesting any reasons why anyone else should feel the same. Marvel movies belong in a long tradition, of lightweight, disposable blockbusters, and are no better or worse than their predecessors. They’re bright, they’re shiny, they’re not without wit, but there’s no reason for anyone older that 12 to fall in love with them. We live in an adult world, and if we see things only through the eyes of a child, we’re missing the light and darkness, the simplicity and the complexity, and the size and scope of the world around us.