Demon Seed 1977 ***

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With the world moving towards an as-yet-undefined period of self-loathing circa March 2020, it’s worth looking back to another cultural and social crisis point, 1977. Star Wars was round the corner, and a new era of family-friendly fare was about to dawn, but in 1977, things were tough all over. Attendances were down, terrorism was on the up, oil prices were rising, governments were failing, dystopian sci-fi, horror and pornography were the hot subjects of the day, and in an alternate universe, Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed would have been the movie that caught and reflected the bleakness of the time.

The Exorcist has married old-school fire and brimstone with new-fangled medical detail, and Demon Seed takes energy from that, as well as science-gone-wrong entries like Colossus: The Forbin Project and Hal in Kubrick’s 2001. Filmed in Germany, it’s the story of an artificial intelligence called Proteus who turns on his creator Dr Alex Harris (Fritz Weaver) and incubates a child via his wife Susan (Julie Christie). The method of Proteus’s take-over was tricky to understand in 1977, but makes more sense in 2020. The Harris house-hold is supervised by a voice-activated computer (think Siri or Alexa), and Proteus takes over the home by supplanting the existing program, trapping Susan.

Demon Seed has a few wild stabs at visualising this; unfortunately these involve a wheelchair with a metal arm attached, which looks easy to resist. More effective is the sight of Proteus forming itself in an elemental way, a kind of Rubic’s snake which coils around and then decapitates a suspicious scientist. And oddly, Proteus speaks with the silky, saturnine tones of Robert Vaughn, rarely betraying anything but omnipotent power. With the action largely confined to one location, Demon Seed needs a good actress for the central role, and in Julie Christie, it gets a great actress, with Christie remaining empathetic through some difficult narrative transformations.

The kind of movie that the BBC used to show as a prime-time, 9pm, Saturday night treat in the early 80’s, Demon Seed is dark, unpleasant and eventually psychedelic, as might be expected from the visionary behind Performance. Horror would seem a reasonable reaction, and yet Cammell, a Scotsman raised with an interest in Aleister Crowley, seems to be clinically interested rather than repulsed by this formation of a new being that fuses flesh and metal. The final scenes involve a baby with a metal shell which Alex and Susan gingerly remove; after a series of bombastic light-show effects, the effect is strangely tender.

Demon Seed is a pretty horrid film, but it’s a way-ahead-of-it’s time entry in the sci-fi stakes; this was the third time I’ve seen it, but the first with proper framing, and it really makes a difference. What seemed murky and undefined in pan-and-scan seems more precise in widescreen; Cammell was a genuine talent and visionary, even if what he saw was disturbing and hard to fathom.

Death Train 1993 ***

deathThe Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable until the internet came along and offered salvation. The YouTube copy of Death Train under review has a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80 million opening, bigger than Bad Boys for Life or any 2020 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Detonator.

A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.

The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are Boys Own stuff.

Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff. It just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. And the title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.

Jojo Rabbit 2019 *****

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Taika Waititi bears the burden well, but it can’t be easy being the funniest man in the world. The New Zealander has risen through Eagle Vs Shark, Boy and The Hunt for the Wilderpeople as the great white hope-shark of comedy as we move into the 2020’s; he writes, he directs, he performs and his work is suffused with worldly humour; ‘We are like sheep trapped in a maze designed by wolves,’ is how the minister explains life to a boy in Wilderpeople, and Waititi’s ability to carve comedy out of real tragedy is what marks him out as a special talent.

Based on the book Caging Skies by Christine Leunens, JoJo Rabbit sees Waititi travel down a familiar yet treacherous route; poking fun at Hitler, Nazi Germany and, by association, the Holocaust. It worked for Chaplin, Mel Brooks and Roberto Benigni, less so for Jerry Lewis; Waititi plays Hitler, springing through the air, mimicking the gestures of the 20th century’s most notable failure of humanity. But there’s no better target for humour that the Nazi party; it just raises the bar for getting the jokes right. Waititi does go for slapstick, but he undercuts it with bitter-sweet pathos; a child follows a butterfly to a gallows in one of the film’s most striking sequences.

Otherwise, like Judith Kerr’s book When Hitler Stoke Pink Rabbit, this is a helpful way of getting young people up to speed on one of history’s darkest periods. Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) and his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) suffer from an absent father-figure, and the boy has an imaginary friend in Hitler. A trip to a Hitler Youth camp results in the boy being blown-up by a grenade, which leaves him with scars. Stuck at home, Jojo begins a friendship with a Jewish girl Elsa (Thomasin Mackenzie) who Rosie has agreed to hide from the authorities.

There’s echoes of The Tin Drum here, and even David Bowie’s turn in Just a Gigolo; Nazis are played for laughs, with Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Stephen Merchant all contributing comic turns, and yet all have more depth than might initially be expected. The specific target here is not so much Hitler, but those who chose to follow him, and why.

Jojo Rabbit will divide critics and audiences, even as it picks up awards nominations. For some, the subject matter cannot be laughed about, even if the film’s heart seems to be in the right place. Waititi takes a traditional mentor trope and turns it on its head here; what if you choose the wrong heroes to follow? There will be many who will scurry back to such fantasies as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, or prefer for reasons of taste the public hand-wringing that David Mamet described as ‘Mandingo for Jews’. Everyone has the right to grieve in his or her own way.

But like it or hate it, and whether you think it’s funny or not, Jojo Rabbit is an essential and important film for 2020; the rise of despotism and the one-man-state was, until recently, thought inconceivable in the West, and right now, the threat is sudden and real, and whatever lessons we learned in 1945 will have to be remembered and heeded again. Jojo Rabbit is a comedy with a point, and Waititi’s timing is right on the money.

 

The Good Liar 2019 ****

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It’s nice to see Helen Mirren and Ian McKellern back on screen; he’s 80, she’s in her 70’s, and at that age, wizards, crones, vampire queens and alien rulers are the kinds of parts that seem to land with a thud on their agent’s desks. So modest crime-drama The Good Liar marks something of a change of pace from the sillier Hollywood work, central roles in a two-hander con-job film that’s dialogue and character based; the source is a novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher.

Bill Condon is writer/producer here, always with a waspish sense of dark humour; Roy (McKellern) is a con-man, who creates elaborate financial scams with his partner (Jim Carter) in London over a decade ago; the mobile phones and occasional period cars get the idea across. Roy is romantic but alone, and gets involved in an online dating site, which puts him in contact with Betty (Mirren), a retired history professor. Her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) is suspicious of Roy’s motives, but who is Roy, and what does he really want from Betty?

Any story about con men (and women) should have the audience searching for possible marks, and The Good Liar’s title suggests that none of the information we get should be taken as read; a neat opening shows Roy and Betty completing their dating profiles, ticking the boxes for no smoking or drinking while they enjoy their vices. But Condon’s film aims to go deeper that petty personal hypocrisies, with atrocities committed during the Nazi Germany regime relevant to the narrative plot twists.

The Good Liar has reputedly, made $30 million on a budget of a third of that; a little sleeper for Warner Brothers that could probably use some awards traction to cement success. The spy quality of the story doesn’t quite fit the traditionally turgid nature of awards-season dramas; The Good Liar aims to keep us guessing, and just about makes it to the conclusion without any let-up in tension. McKellern revels in a character who fakes ill-health, only to spring into action as he enters a sleazy strip-club. Mirren, meanwhile, appears to be a soft touch, but seems to physically change when she begins to realise the truth of her situation. And there’s an edge to proceedings, with a couple of shockingly violent scenes that keep the stakes high.

Entertainment isn’t usually high on the list of qualities that awards-voters seek, and The Good Liar risks getting swept away amongst more ballyhooed work. But it’s a smart, well performed drama that perhaps goes over the score in the final scene; nevertheless, fans will enjoy a couple of vintage performances for the most respected of actors.

The Red Queen Kills Seven Times 1972 ****

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‘Even the police know I’m an incredible nymphomaniac!’ is a good sample line from Emilio Miraglia’s wonderfully overcooked giallo, which keeps one guessing by being so nutty that placing a bet on who-dunnit is all but impossible. Barbara Bouchet is Kitty, one of two sisters (Marina Malfatti is the other, Franziska) who have been brought up to fear a family curse that may lead to murder; a flashback reveals that Kitty already has reasons to feel guilt. The death of their grandfather promises a liquidation of finances and potential windfalls for all of the Wildenbrück family, but his will proves inconclusive. The action shifts to a successful fashion house which seems to be called Springe; Kitty is having an affair with the company’s boss Martin (Ugo Pagliali) whose wife is mentally ill. With various murders taking place, could the supernatural Red Queen be taking her revenge on the family, or is the solution something more practical? The real solution is so complicated that even several readings of the Wikipedia page fail to clarify exactly what happened, but it’s fun getting there; the costumes and décor are super-stylish, as are the Bavarian locations. This is a lively giallo, full of twists and turns, never boring and often intriguing; the great Sybill Danning also appears as a windfall bonus.

Suspiria 2018 ***

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Not exactly here in terms of merit as a good film, Suspiria is at least a memorable piece of horror cinema. Dario Argento’s original film is stylish but stabby and incoherent; Luca Guadagnino’s much anticipated remake seems intent on turning the original film inside out, and as an act of deconstruction, it’s not without interest. Dakota Fanning arrives at Tilda Swinton’s dance school, only to find a coven of witches are using it was a front. The punch-line of Argento’s film becomes the jumping off point for Guadagnino, but nearly two and a half hours later, not much of any value has been added to the pot. There’s extreme gore (the final orgy features volcanic blood and bile vomited from innards as heads snap back like Pez dispensers), some political allusions (from Baadar-Meinhoff terrorists to WWII concentration camps) which don’t really help, and a smattering of indelible images, like the table of aging witches at the back of a restaurant, or the execution by dance of one of the pupils. Its hard to know what those unaware of the original film will make of this; Argento purists probably deserve to be annoyed, but at least this Suspiria isn’t some bland PG 13 remake for teens; in fact, it really is quite horrible to watch, and presumably that’s the intention.

One, Two, Three 1961 ****

Billy Wilder’s touch came and went; not all of his comedies sit well today, as only the best in humour stands the test of time. One, Two, Three was a flop in 1961, out of step with public interest, but it’s now clear that it’s Wilder at his best. James Cagney plays C.R. MacNamara, the manager of the US Coca-Cola operation in Berlin, a city still divided into East and West. When his boss sends his daughter over for a few months, MacNamara rises to the challenge of keeping the girl out of trouble, but the day before his boss arrives to collect her, the girl vanishes, only to reappear married and pregnant.  Despite a two-hour plus running time, One Two Three plays as a farce at breakneck speed, with Cagney ripping through his dialogue with real verve. There’s wonderful touches, like the secretary performing as a dancing girl to charm Russian businessmen, the vibrations of her dancing on the table causing a huge Communist portrait to fall off the wall, the photo of Khrushchev revealed to be plastered over an image of Stalin. References to John F Kennedy and the pop-music of the day are knowing but not overplayed. There’s a reason why Billy Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond are regarded as all-time greats when it comes to wit; there’s an edge to the jokes about Germany’s past which, given that Wilder would later flirt with making Schindler’s List, indicate a pointed and political political point of view. Music by Andre Pervin.

https://archive.org/details/OneTwoThree1961

Victoria 2015 *****

victoriaAnyone who ever feels bored with cinema should give Victoria a look; it’s an adrenalin shot of a kind that’s never been achieved before. Sebastian Schipper’s film was shot in one take, and lasts over two and a half hours. It’s not an art movie but a heist story in a Michael Mann vein; Victoria (Laia Costa) falls in with a group of local criminals after a night out, and gets involved in a robbery that goes wrong with deadly consequences. The gang’s leader, Sonne, is played by Frederick Lau with a Brando-esque intensity that should break him as an international star. Schipper keeps the action moving after a slow start, and Victoria somehow manages to be more than the sum of its parts. The sheer rush of watching the actors play out the drama in real time matches the desperate energy of the heist, and the result is a hyper-real thriller that leaves you shattered and moved. A one-off, Victoria is the kind of film that it’s a pleasure to stumble upon; it’s recommended viewing for anyone open to the possibilities of cinema at its best.

Jesus Christ Savior 2008 ***

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Klaus Kinski was, without much doubt, a genuinely unhinged individual, capable of brilliant on-screen performances and with a somewhat dubious off-screen life that’s been well documented in several books. This documentary is a record of a live 1970’s stage performance given by Kinski in a packed theatre where he gives an astonishing, ranting performance that quickly turns into a screaming match between him and the audience. A spoken word piece from the point of view was always going to be controversial, but Peter Geyer’s assembly of archive footage depicts a man at the end of his tether, a horrifying but hypnotic document of Kinski at his best and worst.

 

Mephisto 1981 ***

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Hungarian director Istvan Szabo won an Oscar for this mesmerizing drama from 1981, powered by an extraordinary performance by Klaus Maria Brandauer as Hendrick, a German actor playing the role of Faust in the period between the wars. Such success at a time of historical change involves a deal with the devil, and Szabo’s adaptation of Klaus Mann’s 1936 novel captures the moral torment of a performer who realizes that his success is at the expense of his own sense of self. Mephisto has the same sense of divine decadence as Cabaret, and explores the contradictions of on and off-stage performance with real gravity. Topped with a breath-taking final shot, Mephisto is one of the greatest unseen films; a curious footnote is that, like Hendrick, Brandauer’s career peaked earlier than he would have liked.