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

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.

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.

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.

Holiday 2018 ****

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Some films are more challenging to viewers than others; Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday is one that has to be approached with real caution. It’s a film suffused with mood, and dread, and the oppressive quality makes it one to avoid for the delicate of disposition. Male sexual violence is the subject, and for some, just that choice of focus will be enough to dissuade; reaching past the obvious provisos, Eklöf’s film manages to justify the contentious images on-screen, but it’s a close run thing at times.

Holiday takes a familiar location; the high-life of low-life crims in the Mediterranean sunshine. We’ve been here before, in Sweeney 2 or Sexy Beast, and Holiday has a similarly dark feel to Jonathan Glazer’s celebrated Pinter-riff. But there’s little comfort here; Victoria Carmen Sonne plays Sascha, a young woman who is the voluntary plaything of the violent Michael (Lai Yde). Michael deals drugs, and his social events are ones to avoid. Thomas (Thjis Romer) unwisely gets involved with the couple, and things end violently, although not quite as might be expected.

Holiday deals with events which shock; there’s a lengthy sexual assault scene that’s absolutely pivotal to the story, but even knowing the director’s intent, is still almost impossible to sit through. To what extent should we accept this as shining a light of a real social problem, or does the explicit quality of the scene push too far? Certainly, the comments on the imdb reviews board (never a great gauge of anything) suggest that few viewers were able to read the scenes as un-simulated, and that’s part of the film’s hard edge. This isn’t the kind of vapid exploitation that made, say Donkey Punch so revolting; Holiday’s sleek photography and natural acting palate disguise something more in the vein of a Lars Von Trier movie, specifically The Idiots or Breaking the Waves.

Provocation has become a bad word of late, and Holiday didn’t get the kind of free publicity that tabloids use to dish out. This release, on the Anti-Worlds banner of extreme art-hour releases, should do something to secure it’s on-going reputation. There’s more than a touch of Brett Eason Ellis’s trademark nihilism here, probably more realised than in the American author’s own films. For those who have the stomach for it, and this critic really had to wrestle with the off switch at times, this is a rewardingly tough drama with a hard feminist edge.

Holiday is released by Anti-Worlds from Feb 2020, and links for disc and blu-ray releases are supplied below.

 

Restoration 1995 ****

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The title has several meanings; this is a period piece, set in the 17th century, at the time of the restoration, the King (Sam Neill) is back on the English throne and Oliver Cromwell’s Puritanism is on the retreat. But this is a story of a personal restoration, that of Robert Merivel (Robert Downey Jr), a young medical student who is enlisted by the king to take care of his ailing dog. Merivel excels, and the King sees him as a cure-all for a number of personal maladies, not least, a romantic life that requires some unravelling. Merivel plays along, but it’s soon obvious that the King uses and abuses those he enlists, and Restoration’s action moves away from the royal court to a Quaker sanatorium, where Merivel falls for Katherine (Meg Ryan).

Rose Tremain’s novel is, inevitably, given something of a truncated treatment by Michael Hoffman’s film, which does a stunning job in terms of costumes and sets, but bites off more than anyone could chew in terms of her characters and plot. Nevertheless, Restoration is still a good deal smarter than most period films, taking a picaresque journey with Merivel as he falls out of favour with the King, but discovers a richer kind of lifestyle than he ever imagined.

Robert Downey Jr was always a natural performer, and does a great job in conveying Merivel’s youthful arrogance; he’s aided by a strong cast including David Thewlis has a fellow medic, Ian McKellern as his sidekick, and Hugh Grant as a rather pompous painter who Merivel has genuine contempt for. In fact, there’s a spikey-ness to all the characterisations that makes Restoration something of a pleasure; it may not match up with Tremain’s book, but Merivel’s observation of the corrupt world around him is refreshingly bitter.

Restoration won Oscars for set and costume design, but it’s no slouch when it comes to acting or plot; with a great cast, many of whom would go onto become household names, it’s an accessible period film that deserves to be exhumed; while not perfect, it restores the parts that other period drams simply can’t reach.

 

Not Now Darling 1973 NA (no award)

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Without fail, the least poplar items on this blog are the assessments of withered 1970’s sexless British sex comedies; no matter how many customers show on the previous day, my readership can be reduced to a trickle by writing about some tatty, end-of-the-pier innuendo-laden sexist tat, from That’s My Funeral to The Magnificent Seven Deadly Sins. What can I say in my defence? These films used to be part of the BBC’s film package when I was growing up, and were as much a part of a daily diet of cinema as Truffaut or Peckinpah. And now, viewed from the opposite end of the time-telescope, they still exert a certain power to horrify and yet amuse by their wrong-headed presumption.

Not Now, Darling was adapted by playwright Ray Cooney from his own hugely popular farce, and must have seemed like something of a sure-fire hit. Co-written by John Champman, another graduate of the august ‘Whoops Vicar, where’s my trousers?’ school of comic confusion, Not Now Darling is primarily a vehicle for the robust talents of Leslie Phillips, who went on to co-star with Angelina Jolie in the Tomb Raider films. Phillips plays Gilbert Bodley, a lothario-about-town who concocts a confusing scheme in which he sells a fur coat to his mistress’s husband Harry (Derren Nisbet) to make some easy cash. The story unfolds almost entirely on one stagey-set, the shop of Arnold Crouch (Cooney himself), where moll Janine (Julie Ege) is caught in various stages of undress.

Sex is an odd thing in British comedies; to be desired, certainly, but also a prospect which makes men go weak at the knees and generally collapse into some kind of moral panic. There’s more nudity in a perfume advert that 90 minutes of Not Now Darling, but there are occasional glimpses of the quick-fire verbal gags which must have wowed stage audiences. Barbara Windsor appears to double-down on the ditz, while old stagers Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert wander around the set in a reasonably spry fashion. They were pretty much the Kardashians ie celebrity couple of the 1930’s, and at least are treated with some dignity here.

As a sex-comedy, Not Now Darling is something of a farce, remarkable for it’s tameness and a dry, interior quality. A sequel, Not Now Comrade, followed in 1976, but by then, sex had found more direct routes onto the screen, and the idea of a woman hiding in a closet wearing nothing but a fur coat was no longer considered the ultimate in outre behaviour. Guilty of reflecting sexist, out-of-date tropes, films like Not Now Darling have gained in interest over the decades by becoming museum pieces of what audiences once found funny, but is now more peculiar than ha-ha.

 

The Collection 1976 ****

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Harold Pinter’s 1962 play is one of his best, a subtle yet dramatic slice of adultery in the upper-middle classes, observed with the playwright’s usual ear of language and fascination for discomfort. This 1976 filming was part of ITV’s big push to rival the BBC, and was created under the grand-sounding label Laurence Olivier Presents for Granada television. The Beeb’s Play for Today was something of an institution at the time, but The Collection was a heavy-hitter, bringing together top talent for a run-through of one of Pinter’s tightest efforts, with Michael Apted directing.

Harry (Olivier) and Bill (Malcolm McDowell) live together in an ambiguous relationship; Bill is something of a ladies man, and may or may not have had a hotel-room tryst with Stella (Helen Mirren), much to the chagrin of her husband James (Alan Bates). But when James confronts Bill, the accusation doesn’t land easily, and Bill seems defiant. Is there an attraction between the two men, or is Bill just deliberately confusing the issue? And did anything actually happen at all? (this is Pinter, after all, so don’t expect a big reveal).

The Collection is firmly made for TV; despite the big names, the canvas is small. But as a record of some great acting, Apted’s adaptation really works, with Olivier enjoying a small but weighty role, and McDowell really laying it on thick as the preening, aggressive Bill, taunting James and forcing him into a confrontation without the information he needs to be confident.

The Collection has been released as part of a boxed-set on DVD, but isn’t one that’s been repeated on tv, and remains something of a collector’s item. But at 63 minutes in length, it gives a flavour of Pinter in a darkly playful mode, without the slick gimmick of Betrayal, but with the same relentless probing of the characters and their motives. And yes, there are silences; Pinter says more with a suppressed line than most writers can do with a twenty page monologue.

The Lighthouse 2019 ****

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There was always something cinematic about WW Gibson’s poem Flannan Isle, which was based on true events. The three man crew of a remote lighthouse, mysteriously vanished, a Marie Celeste on dry land. The sight of three birds in the distance, suggesting some supernatural force at work; it’s an ancient touch-stone that’s simply begging for a fully-developed narrative. That didn’t happen in 2019’s risible The Vanishing/Keepers, in which Gerry Butler chewed his beard to no effect in a dull story of rivalry and mercury poisoning. As his follow-up to The Witch, writer/director Robert Eggers takes a far more daring and cinematic approach that mixes semen and sea-monsters to both comic and alarming effect.

Shot in black-and-white, and with set-ups that recall early silent and sound films, The Lighthouse might seem like a pastiche, but it plays out without a wink to the audience. Wickie Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) is joined by newbie Epharim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) on the remote lighthouse he maintains; the young man doesn’t share his penchant for booze and sea-shanties, but the two of them make a decent fist of holding things together. Winslow seems obsessed with fingering a figurine of a mermaid that he discovers inside the stuffing of his mattress, and the younger man’s sexual desires seem to set him up as a target for the older man’s derision.

The Witch seemed to take an eternity to get to a supernatural punch-line; The Lighthouse is more subtle in the mechanism by which it delivers chills, mainly through the dreams and hallucinations of the two men. The games are multi-layered; at times, Pattinson and Dafoe are seen doing actors exercises together, and Eggers seems to be playing on audiences awareness of the actors and the type of genre film he’s subverting. This is horror here, but it’s something more insidous than just jump-scares.

The Lighthouse is a cheeky provocation, cleverly made and making great use of two deservedly popular actors. Pattison makes something other-worldly of Winslow, while Dafoe’s monolithic monologues are something to behold in the style of Melville’s Moby Dick. The Lighthouse will have some frustrated customers; this isn’t the unvieling of a new horror talent as it is a black-comedy merchant, but  Eggers’s film has a playfulness that makes it a must see, even if there’s certain images you’ll be keen to unsee afterwards.

Car Trouble 1986 NA (no award)

car troubleConnoisseurs of utter tat will be drawn to FlickVaults’s recent revival of David Green’s Car Trouble, a British film from 1986 which offers all the crudeness of a Confessions of a Window Cleaner film but without any of the voyeuristic attractions. This is an entire feature film based around one unfunny joke; how it got made, with a reputable cast, is anyone’s guess, but after a spotty history on VHS and DVD, Car Trouble pops up on YouTube to horrify the unwary.

Taking the key role of Gerald Spong, Ian Charleston of Chariots of Fire fame is matched up with Jacqueline Spong (a post Educating Rita Julie Walters) as a British couple who seem to be in the throes of a loveless marriage. He thumbs through copies of Razzle (50p each) and fantasises about owning an E-Type Jaguar, while she fancies the salesman who is keen to sell it to him. Spong has got a 2CV which he sells to a crooked mechanic (Stratford Johns); money isn’t really an issue, since Spong has a job as an air-traffic controller at the fictional Stanwick Airport, but he’s also something of a tight-fisted miser. To add insult to injury, Jacqueline borrows his prize Jag and gets stuck inside during the act of coitus with her foreign lover, and local police/ fire-fighters have to carve them out.

And that, indeed, is the action of Car Trouble, which seems to be an unwanted vehicle for John Cleese; Spong is all moustache and marital angst, while another scene sees a car attacked with a tree-branch as in Fawlty Towers. Such eighties ephemera such as Jacqueline’s Relax T-shirt and the use of Billy Idol’s Mony Mony on the soundtrack date the film specifically, as do barely single entendres such as ‘It’s only an old knob’, uttered when part of Spong’s car falls off.

A final scene in which, vague spoilers, Spong engineers for his wife’s holiday to be ruined by arranging for the jet to collide with another plane, with up to 1000 casualties, suggests that black humour was the intention here, but since practically none of the jokes land, it’s hard to tell. This is Michael Winner-level British comedy, where the entertainment value lies in viewing the whole topsy-turvy enterprise and wondering how this, or indeed any film could be this awful.