The Wolf Hour 2019 ****

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I used to read scripts at a company that had a first look with a major studio; one story that we saw over and over again, as drama, comedy or thriller, was a film in which an agoraphobic woman struggled to leave her house. Usually tailored for a Sandra Bullock or a Meg Ryan, we took these scripts seriously; it felt like one day there would be a great film on this subject.

The Wolf Hour isn’t that film, but it’s better than the disparaging reviews it’s had since a Sundance selection in 2019. Writer/director Alistair Banks Griffin’s drama/thriller is set in the hot summer of 1977, and the infamous New York blackout plays a key role. But this is, topically enough, a story about self-isolation, and as such, has a certain topicality. Naomi Watts plays June E Leigh, a gifted writer given a record-breaking advance to write a follow-up to a successful novel. She repairs to her grandmothers apartment in the South Bronx to write, and when the story starts proper, she’s years past her deadline and her writing isn’t going anywhere good. Instead she’s alone and obsessed with the constant threatening buzzing of her intercom, but the police don’t take her seriously and accuse her of crying wolf.

There’s a latent threat here, but where from? The delivery man, who has strange wounds he washes in June’s sink? The cop, who seems unnaturally aggressive and suspicious of June’s claims? A one-night stand that June orders from a phone service? The gangs of youths who seem to congregate at her door? Or perhaps the visitor who seems to be supportive but June has her suspicions about? Of course, there’s a serial killer on the loose too, this is the Summer of Sam. The Wolf Hour turns over and examines each card in turn, and although the resolution isn’t blinding, there’s still plenty of enjoyment in the scenario. Watts, who also executive produces, is pretty good here, shredding her good looks in a Kidman/Destroyer way and managing to suggest how June can be both smart, literate and self-aware while unable to overcome her fear of leaving her house; there’s echoes of Mulholland Drive as she blankly stares down the bland facia of the intercom.

The Wolf Hour also does well to restrict the action to June’s POV, with views out of the window and an otherwise tight focus on what she sees. There’s a touch of Repulsion here, but it’s worth revealing that this isn’t a film about sexual threat, more about an individual’s fear of the outside world. With much of the world’s population going stir crazy due to lockdown restrictions at the time of writing, The Wolf Hour’s timely insight into a specific mental condition is probably a healthy shot of cinematic drama for us all; it’s an absorbing little mystery B-movie that deals with isolation is a sensitive way.

The Wolf Hour hits UK streaming on March 23 2020 and can be rented or downloaded via the link below.

Basil the Great Mouse Detective 1986 ****

basilPerhaps it’s due to the deep dive into the Finnish suicide/BDSM scene that my reviewing duties led me to yesterday, but this seemed like a good time to enter a more familiar world and that world, dear reader, is the world of mice detectives. Sure, Stuart Little always had some problems to solve, and I was impressed by meeting of minds featured in Tom and Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes, but ultimately the greatest mouse detective is Basil, and a opening trial offer on Disney + provided this critic with a welcome opportunity to examine this seminal story in the annals of the shrew shamus.

Disney’s financial and creative issues are well documented in the 1980’s, and the failure of The Black Cauldron to revive the studio’s animation fortunes is often seen as the end of a chapter that re-opens with The Little Mermaid. But Basil The Great Mouse Detective was something of a hit, not enough to revitalise the studio, but certainly identifiable as a turning point in retrospect. The John Musker and Ron Clements team that worked on Mermaid and Aladdin found their feet here, and the lively style that suffused these films starts here.

Based on Evie Tutus and Paul Galcone’s book Basil of Baker Street, this is the story of Basil (Barrie Ingham), a mouse detective who lives in 221b Baker Street, and emulates the more famous denizen of the property; he has his own Watson, freshly returned from a mouse war in Afghanistan, and his own mystery to solve, a kidnapped mouse who may have fallen foul of Professor Ratigan (Vincent Price). Those wags who like to question the details of fictional world will have a ball with Basil’s London; there are mouse speak-easys, mouse prostitutes, a sexy mouse song sung by Melissa Manchester (Let Me Be Good to You) and mouse drugs; Watson is knocked for six by a solution put in his beer while he and Holmes are tracking down Rattigan. Their investigation leads them to their foe, and there’s an elaborate and highly impressive climax involving airships and a fight in and around the face of Big Ben. But the scenes before, with Basil taking control of an android mouse Queen of England to give Ratigan a public spanking, are as funny as the climax is thrilling.

Basil is never less than enjoyable, but there’s a few narrative flourishes, like the wonderfully elaborate manner of execution prepared for Holmes, that look forwards to the best comic exaggerations of the later Disney style. And in Ratigan’s batty assistant Fidget, there’s a truly iconic foe; wonderfully characterised, Fidget feels like the fore-runner of Iago and Abu in Aladdin, a side-kick whose expressiveness doubles-down on the main emotion of the scene, and he also feels like an ancestor of Bartok the bat in Don Bluth’s Anastasia.

This is arguably the most underrated Disney film, a secret success, sewing the seeds for a revitalisation of a creative identity that leads directly to the Disney+ brand. And no film that features Vincent Price as an evil villain can be dismissed; his saturnine voice works wonders here, and the scene in which he announces his tax plans for the country’s future at the expense of the weak and elderly is a neat indication of the moral folly of rampant capitalism, exactly the kind of trenchant political satire the kids today need to hear.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants 2019 ****

dogsdontIn a week that we’d hoped to get a look at the new James Bond film, it feels like a change of pace to be reviewing a drama about a grieving surgeon who seeks solace in the world of extreme BDSM. But home streaming is where we are in March 2020, and writer and director J.-P. Valkeapää’s drama went straight into Curzon’s top five most streamed films this week, as well as getting picked up by Film 4 for terrestrial broadcast. A pick up via 2019’s Cannes, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is a fairly gruelling affair, but like other material on the Anti-Worlds imprint, is rewarding enough to recommend.

Somewhat bafflingly reviewed as ‘hardcore’ by one British broadsheet keen to establish their lack of credentials, this is a seriously-minded exploration of grief. Tom of Finland star Pekka Strang plays Juha, a gifted and respected surgeon who is mourning his wife; any film that opens with a title card superimposed over a graphic image of surgery sets out a stall to shock. Juha doesn’t object when his teenage daughter announces she wants a tongue-stud for her birthday; a colleague warns that he is suppressing her natural teenage desire to rebel. But Juha’s mind is elsewhere, and he finds himself hunting down the service of a dominatrix Mona (Blade Runner 2049’s Krista Kosonen). Their relationship goes beyond customer and client, but Juha’s work demeanour changes from having a spring in his step to becoming a dishevelled mess. A collegue wants Juha to get a psychological evaluation to make sure that ‘all the Moomins are in the valley’, but Juha has a death wish in the worst way and only Mona can help.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants is certainly uncomfortable to watch in the BDSM scenes, but otherwise inhabits a ground not dissimilar to The Killing Of A Sacred Deer or even Altered States. Both Strang and Kosonen do well to make their characters real, although he’s got a lot more to go on in terms of dialogue, and the final scenes land with some impact.

Bafflingly released on horror imprint Shudder in the U.S., Dogs Don’t Wear Pants won’t be for everyone, and isn’t trying to be mainstream entertainment, but neither is it a sex film; it’s a well-intentioned drama about a relationship forged on the edge of what society allows. Kink is a part of life, and this Finish drama is worth a look for consenting adults in their own homes, which is where practically everyone is right now.

https://www.curzoncinemas.com/film-info/dogs-dont-wear-pants

White Zombie 1932 ***

whitezombie1932A withering indictment of the gig economy and zero hour contracts in the Haitian workforce circa 1932, White Zombie is a horror movie with a sociological point. This is not White Zombie the band, but the 1932 film, coming in at a hefty 25 quid on blu-ray, but a reasonable £2.50 on Amazon Prime. Victor Halperin’s horror feature is a fairly primitive affair, even for 1932, but it’s got a certain something about it that has reserved a special place in cinematic depictions of hell on earth. So just to be clear; this doesn’t match up to modern cinematic standards, unless you enjoy stilted dialogue, over-ripe performances and unknown actors speaking extremely slowly. But if you’re prepared to overlook the faults, there’s something bubbling up rather nicely here.

These aren’t just any zombies, they’re cheap labour organised by Murder Lengendre, whose name sounds like he might be a rapper but is in fact performed by Bela Lugosi in a performance so ripe that even he must have wondered if he should tone it down a notch. Murder controls the zombie workforce by holding his hands together in the zombie grip; in this method, he runs his Haitian sugar cane plantation without any interference from health and safety jobsworths. Along come couple Madeleine and Neil (Madge Bellamy and John Harron), looking to get married, but the local boss Charles Beaumont (Ronald W Frazer) has designs on Madeleine and wants her for himself. So Beaumont consults with Murder, and decides that he’ll turn Madeleine into a zombie and get control of her in this unconventional method.

This is, in itself, a neat story idea; Murder uses his supernatural power for an economic gain, but wires are crossed when the same techniques are used for personal or sexual motives. You can insert your own capitalism metaphor here, but there’s a reason by Tobe Hooper wanted to remake this film, and it’s because there’s a genuine potency in the idea. It’s true that things get a bit bogged down here before a cliff-top climax where the characters fling themselves onto the rocks with gleeful abandon as the co-incidences and contrivances pile up. And while White Zombie is inferior to seminal works by Val Lewton or Carl Dreyer, it successfully evokes a similar primitive, haunting feel; the sound of the drums and the images of tortured souls have gained resonance over the years.

Even the most subtle of Lugosi’s acting techniques can still be seen from space, and yet his big performance is the heart of the film. Halperin even experiments with a couple of camera moves and some strange visual juxtapositions; there’s a brilliant use of silhouettes in a key dramatic scene. So while White Zombie works as a horror comedy, since there’s many unintentional laughs, it’s also something of a key text for horror fans, one that uncovers ideas about male control/economic mastery that still resonate today.

Slaughterhouse-Five 1972 *****

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE-POSTER_final-Art_Lucas-Peverill_20The moment that I gave up on terrestrial broadcasting of feature films was at some point during a BBC broadcast of George Roy Hill’s 1972 adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Slaughterhouse-Five Or The Children’s Crusade. Edited for content, with sweary dialogue, plot-driven nudity and whole scenes missing, then finally panned and scanned in a way that rendered the compositions meaningless, seeing this film cut to ribbons made a decision for me; no more trusting the authorities when it came to providing cinematic content.

Watching Slaughterhouse-Five now is something of a revelation. George Roy Hill’s 70’s output needs no excuses; post Butch Cassidy, he followed up with great star vehicles The Sting, The Great Waldo Pepper, Slapshot. But for the key role of Billy Pilgrim, a metaphorical time traveller, he went with Michael Sachs, an unknown who won a Golden Globe nomination here for a strong, subtle performance. Sachs plays Billy Pilgrim, a man who, not unlike a literary Doctor Who, finds himself unstuck and moving back and forward in time. Slaughterhouse-Five isn’t really sci-fi; the action moves, briefly, to an alien planet where Billy is put in an alien zoo and encouraged to mate with Playboy Playmate Valerie Perrine, but that’s essentially the last ten minutes. Otherwise, this film is largely a historical and personal meditation on the firebombing of Dresden during WWII, evoked using real, sobering footage here.

Seen in HD, Slaughterhouse-Five has a crisp, clean look by the wizardly Miroslav Ondricek, with technical specs through the roof; The great Dede Allen (Reds, The Breakfast Club) edits, with smash cuts back and forward in a fragmented timeline. Glenn Gould provides a remarkable soundtrack that, together with an imaginative sound-editing palate, makes Roy Hill’s film more like playing an album that watching the movie. And the digressions are intense as a 70’s movie might promise; a scene in which Billy’s wife crashes her car, dislodges her exhaust, and dies of carbon monoxide poisoning after driving the wrong way down a freeway is crazily downbeat, not least because the previous scene shows how joyful she was when Billy gifted her the same car. There’s all kinds of pleasures here, not least in the acting, with Ron Liebman and Eugene Roche particularly strong as the two experienced soldiers that Billy bounces between morally, Platoon-style, and John Wood as a British officer with a practical, worldly view that Billy finds hard to understand. And a final scene, as Dresden is looted and Billy finds himself trapped beneath a stolen clock, perfectly encapsulates the idea that although Billy moves freely in his mind, the physical world can still trap him in a moment in time.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a brilliant adaptation that even the author was delighted with; it distils key moments from a sprawling text, and creates something cinematic that is probably easier for us to get our heads round in 2020 than in 1972. A Cannes winner of the time, Slaughterhouse–Five is one of the best grown-up movies you’ve never seen, a wise, satirical and important story that sees several great talents realise a difficult text. And if you’ve only ever seen it on tv, it’s worth taking another look. So it goes.

Beowulf & Grendel 2005 ****

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Didn’t I review Beowulf a few weeks ago? Aha, well spotted, but that that was Beowulf, and this is Beowulf & Grendel; yes, as you survey months ahead without a single cinema release circa 2020, over a decade ago there was such a glut of cinema around that there were competing films based around Old English epic poetry. Millennials might find it hard to believe but there was a worldwide mania for Old English epic poetry in the first years of this century; you couldn’t sit down in a Seattle coffee shop for grungy West Saxon scholars. Alas, Robert Zemekis’s Beowulf was not a hit, and neither was Sturla Gunnarsson’s earlier effort as viewed here, and the focus moved to Marvel now that the vogue for Hrothgar interpretation has faded.

Critic Nathan Rabin, always a good canary-in-the-coalmine when it comes to this kind of film, described it as going ‘entertainingly awry’, but while the director admitted that pretty much every aspect of this film went ‘awry’ in a feature length documentary Wrath of Gods (2006), the result is defiantly entertaining. Firstly, it’s got a much better Beowulf in Gerry Butler, freshly graduated from Strathclyde University’s law department and in his absolute prime here. The warrior fights the monster Grendel, and his mother, but strangely the events that provide the inciting incident for Zemekis’s film are the climax here, with ensuing pacing issues. In fact, Beowulf and Grendel has quite a different take on the source material, humanising Grendel, who we see playing 10-pin bowling with human heads and passing the time before revenging the death of his father. Much more is made of the tribal issues that Beowulf, pumped-up on herring and egg, solves, notably Eddie Marsan as a religious leader. ‘Christ? I’ve heard of him,’ muses an unconverted heathen. ‘Did you ever have much luck with trolls?’ Such anachronistic dialogue promises and delivers laughs for sure, but it’s clear that everyone is in one the joke; everyone mumbles about ‘f**king trolls’ and Stellan Skarsgaard’s boozy king curses ‘No-one eve tells me anything!’ He’s a king who bemoans ‘I’m a king whose balls are ground up on Instagram’ although I may have mis-transcribed that line; no subtitles were available.

‘Where there is superstition, there is practice,’ is a more stimulating line that sticks in the mind here, suggestive of the film’s demythologising of the subject without removing the magic; this Beowulf isn’t given to CGI, but stunningly shot locations in and around which tiny figures run, a unique look that, from all accounts, exhausted cast and crew. More information on the trials and tribulations of the shoot can be gleaned from the detailed EPK interview with Butler on the last day on the shoot, sitting in his Winnebago in full costume looking like every inch a football star giving a post-match interview.

Beowulf & Grendel made $100,000 on a sixteen million dollar budget, quite a feat, and yet it is, by Rabin’s terminology, a secret success. It has a unique, authentic look, a striking take on superstition and religion as non-exclusive, and big, big performances from Butler and Sarah Polley, red of hair, lustrous of make-up and relishing every second as an Irish soothsayer. It’s no surprise this whole enterprise was caviar to the general; the two box quotes on the DVD offer the faintest of faint praise ‘Gerald Butler is perfectly cast,’ gushes cinematical.com while reel.com dishes out the superlatives with ‘the movie is better than the book’. Neither cinematical.com or reel.com exist now, even if they existed back then, so questions might be asked about the authenticity of these pull quotes; bizarrely, it’s easier to trace Old Norse epics than identifying reviewing websites of 15 years ago. Beowulf & Grendel is a knowing, underrated, revisionist take on a legend that comes up fresh, funny and far better than it’s reputation suggests. Much like the title character.

99p on Amazon Prime in the UK, go on, you know you want to…

Frightmare 1974 ***

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More Tony Tenser movies on Flick Vault, the HD You Tube channel for off-the-wall movies; this one is from Pete Walker, the British film-maker who single-handedly created his own distinct horror imprint in the 1970’s. Frightmare has probably never looked as good as this; a tricky little tale of cannibals at work in the SW10 area of London, Frightmare is worth a look for genre aficionados by dint of a patient script and a remarkably over-qualified cast.

A mom-and–pop cannibal couple go to jail in 1957 for unspeakable acts; in 1974, Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy (Sheila Keith) may well be up to their old tricks now that they’ve done their time. Edmund’s daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax) suspects that her dad isn’t keeping to a strict vegan diet and smuggles animal brains to them, pretending to be feeding their cannibal impulse. Jackie’s step-sister Debbie (Kim Butcher) is a rebellious teen pushing to get out from under her wing, while psychologist Graham (Paul Greenwood) in romantically interested in Jackie, but realises that there’s something strange in her family life.

For British movie fans, there’s more than a few attractive names here; Rupert Davies was known for his Inspector Maigret, while Paul Greenwood was a household name in the early eighties for his portrayal of whimsical copper Rosie. Keith was also a regular in Walker’s films, and the level of acting seen here is impressive, particularly given the potential for low-brow sleaze in the subject matter. There’s a couple of excellent scenes, notably a tense tarot card reading during which Graham’s attempt to deceive the suspicious Dorothy begins to fragment under pressure. Oscar nominee Leo Genn also has a role, although the square stylings of Graham’s old man specs and retro sports–jacket combination are the real stars here.

Walker’s films have been somewhat neglected by tv programmers, but have gained a cult following, and Frightmare is a prime facie example of why is work is worth exhuming. Sure, some of the detail is rather nasty, but this kind of realistic horror was non-recurring phenomenon, and horror completists will want to seek out and savour this pungent sample of British kitchen-sink gruesomeness.

Amber and Me 2020 ****

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In an alternate universe 2020, perhaps a lot more attention would have been given to  World Down Syndrome day (March 21st), and to the release of Ian Davies’ documentary Amber and Me; events worldwide may mute the media attention garnered, but that’s not to say that the film’s impact will be negated in the long-term. Like children, films grow and thrive, often against adversity; Amber and Me will hopefully be around long after the current crisis has been averted.

A note accompanying the film highlights that at least 15 per cent of children have special needs or a disability; Amber is growing up with Down’s, but she also has an advantage that many children do not, a loving twin sister called Olivia, who takes part in her games, chums her along the road to school, and generally looks out for her sister. Being different from her peers is sometimes a heavy burden for Amber to bear, but Olivia does her best to make sure that Amber’s experience does not cause her to withdraw from a world she finds difficult to understand.

Amber and Me is not the kind of documentary that relies on talking heads or statistic-spouting experts; instead it offers the kind of tender, gently fragmented experience of growing up, filmed over a four year period. Admirers of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, or Nicholas Philibert’s Etre et Avoir, may find something they recognise in the lack of contrivance shown here, with Amber allowed to express herself to camera, overcharging customers in her shop, not always able to articulate her feelings directly. Over time, Amber and Olivia begin to realise their potential; at 59 minutes, there’s room for the film to be expanded on, but it’s an effective primer in what it might feel like to grow up with Down’s, or to care for someone who does.

Amber and Me makes a strong case for the need for inclusiveness in how children are taught; as we watch Amber and Olivia play out the special moments of their childhood, the film should spark memories of our own development, and remind us, as the current virus outbreak does, that the mark of a caring society is how we treat those who need our attention the most.

UK release from March 2020

@amberandmefilm

Blockers 2018 ***

blockersAnother decent revival for Netflix, Kay Cannon’s Blockers is a low-brow comedy which was something of a secret success on initial cinema release; without making too many headlines, this Seth Rogen-produced romp made nearly $100 million worldwide on what looks like a fairly frugal budget. Rogen’s influence is apparent in the way the film quickly lapses into sophomoric humour, but there’s also traces of his Rabelaisian wit and deft approach to coming-of age. And what’s specifically interesting about Blockers is that it’s a sex comedy that focuses on the parents who want to stop their children having sex after their prom night; sympathies have turned upside down since the sex comedies of the 80’s (Porky’s, Ricky Business).

Leslie Mann is Lisa Decker, a mother horrified when she realises that her daughter has a pact with two other friends to lose her virginity. Lisa pals up with Mitchel (John Cena) and Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), a comic who looks like a Mark Wahlberg that’s been left out in the rain, and who projects an ideally dishevelled persona for this kind of hi-jinks. If Superbad was about how difficult it is to cause mischief, Blockers is much more interested in the suppressive efforts of the parents than the teenagers themselves; cinema in 2018 is more about re-enforcing the status quo than challenging authority.

Blockers is carefully gender balanced, but that doesn’t stop Mann and Cena giving stand-out star performances, the best in their careers to date.  And while Rogen has been accused of falling back on cameos rather than jokes, as many comics do when the ideas run thin, the cameos from Gary Cole and Gina Gershon hit the right, dirty tone. Blockers is a easy watch, full of crude slapstick, but with it’s heart in the right place. Cannon graduates from the 30 Rock/Pitch Perfect universe with some skill here; Rogen’s trio-adventure format may be wearing thin, but Cannon deserves credit for managing to casually tap into the comedy audience that the far more accomplished Booksmart failed to capture.

The Satan Bug 1965 ***

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Let’s be glad that the coronavirus shows no signs of developing into the kind of bio-warfare shown in John Sturges’ surprisingly-on-the-money-for-1965 tech-talk thriller. The virus shown here arrests the subject within seconds; collected in a number of glass containers, they’re the deadly Macguffin that The Satan Bug revolves around.

Alistair MacLean’s reputation as a storyteller was cemented by Ice Station Zebra; he published The Satan Bug under the name Ian Stuart to see if he could still hit big without drawing on his growing reputation. He was right; The Satan Bug film features an adaptation by a young James Clavell that carries forward many of the novel’s key points. George Maharis plays Lee Barrett, a security office brought in by the government after a deadly toxin is stolen from a desert facility. Barrett is, like many of MacLean’s heroes, a journeyman of exceptional ability, and there’s a zinger of an introduction aboard his yacht where he sniffs out a government test of his corrupt-ability. Barrett heads to the Station Three facility in Southern California, where he figures out how the theft was completed in old-school, Hercule Poirot style; the deductions seem credible and establish Barrett as a no-nonsense type. There’s a dalliance with Anne Francis, some hard talk with a general (Dana Andrews) and a patient build up to an extended chase, during which the fate of the world depends on the delivery of the glass-flasks intact.

The Satan Bug has an exciting title that doesn’t quite get visualised here; there’s no sign of giant bugs or indeed of Satan himself. There’s also no sign of the kind of teaser disasters that one expects of a disaster movie; we’re told through dialogue that hundreds have died in a preliminary skirmish in Florida, but there’s no visual information about this at all. That’s par for the course for the mid-60’s, but Sturges does manages to whip up impressive tension in a baseball stadium/helicopter action scene for the finale.

The Satan Bug is dated, for sure, but there’s also a modern film fighting to get out; Maharis does well as the proto-Bond hero, and some of the location work is ahead of its time. And what Sturges manages to convey is fear; with just a few glass flasks and a serious tone, he conjures up a grounded sci-fi drama that works well for patient viewers.