Thursday, 17 October 2019

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (the 1974 version directed by Joseph Sargent not the remake) is a good lesson in what film-making is all about. You don’t need an original idea. It’s the execution that matters. And this is a superbly executed suspense thriller movie.

The basic plot is a stock-standard hijack/hostage suspense thriller but it’s made a lot more interesting by having a New York City subway train rather an aircraft as the hijackers’ target.

Four men calling themselves Mr Blue, Mr Green, Mr Brown and Mr Grey hijack the subway train that leaves Pelham at 1.23pm, hence the film’s title. They demand one million dollars to be paid within one hour. If the money is not paid they will start killing the seventeen hostages one by one. Dealing with a hostage situation is difficult enough at the best of times but when it’s a subway car stopped in a tunnel it’s almost impossible. There is no way of approaching the car without being seen and no way for snipers to get clear shots to pick off the hijackers.

The city bows to the inevitable and agrees to pay the money. But Mr Blue has given them just one hour to make the decision and deliver the money which sets up a thrilling race against time.

The man who has to deal with this mess is Lieutenant Zachary Garber of the Transit Police. It’s not the sort of situation a transit cop expects to have to face. Garber is no super-cop and he makes a few mistakes but he’s unflappable and he’s dogged.

Garber’s immediate problem is to save the hostages but even if the money gets paid he still also has to catch the bad guys. To do that he has to figure out what their escape plan is. Escaping from a subway car in a tunnel seems impossible but the gang must have such an escape plan and since everything the gang has done has been planned and carried out with precision it’s reasonable to assume that the escape plan is just as well planned. Garber doesn’t do anything particularly brilliant. He just follows things to logical conclusions.

There’s actually not a huge amount of violence in this movie which makes the violent moments all the more effective.

This is a very very New York movie. This is new York in the 70s, for better or worse. But it feels very very real.

Peter Stone’s excellent screenplay throws in some good twists at the end but mostly the tension comes from the reactions of the characters to the stresses they’re under.

Director Joseph Sargent worked mainly in television and on TV movies. He made a few feature films including the brilliant science fiction thriller Colossus: The Forbin Project. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a suspense film rather than an action film, and the suspense is maintained at the highest pitch throughout. Sargent is in complete control.

Special mention must be made of Owen Roizman’s gritty cinematography (he also did the cinematography for The French Connection so he certainly knew how to get a New York feel).

The casting is nothing short of inspired. Everything about this movie is so New York that it was a very nice touch to have the chief villain be an Englishman played by an English actor. Robert Shaw plays Mr Blue as a man who seems to have everything, including his emotions, under tight control but there’s obviously a lot of rage bubbling just under the surface and liable to break out at any moment.

Casting Walter Matthau as Garber was a masterstroke. He’s the last guy you’d expect to find playing a cop which is why his performance works. He seems like a real workaday cop rather than a movie cop.

Hector Elizondo is nicely chilling as Mr Grey, a guy who is just a bit too eager to kill people. Martin Balsam is solid as Mr Brown, a subway train driver fired by the Transit Authority who is basically a defeated little man who thinks he’s finally going to make it big.

There’s a lot of humour mixed in with the suspense. Much of it would be considered very political incorrect today but actually it’s quite good-natured, and it’s funny. It’s kept within limits, the emphasis being on the suspense thriller elements.

The Blu-Ray release is bare-bones but looks great.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a meticulously crafted and very effective thriller with a clever low-key battle of wits, and nerves, between Lieutenant Garber and Mr Blue being a major bonus. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Ghost in the Shell (1995)

Ghost in the Shell is a 1995 science fiction anime movie that is very much in the cyberpunk mould. You can think of it perhaps as a Japanese Blade Runner, with the same obsession about what it means to be human in a near-future society in which the lines between people and machines have become very blurred indeed. It has to be said that this movie is quite cerebral. If you’re expecting a straightforward science fiction action movie then this ain’t it. This is high-concept ideas-based science fiction with a goodly amount of philosophical speculation, although there is plenty of action and plenty of violence as well. It’s the sort of combination that scares Hollywood to death but doesn’t faze the Japanese at all.

The story of the Ghost in the Shell franchise is a bit complicated. It started as a manga by Masamune Shirow. The original Ghost in the Shell movie (which is what this review is about) followed in 1995. It was directed by Mamoru Oshii and written by Kazunori Itô. A few years later this was followed by the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex TV series. The TV series does not follow on directly from the movie however and appears to take place in a different timeline. Then there was a second series of the TV series, and then the Solid State Society movie. Then in 2004 Mamoru Oshii made a sequel to the original movie, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence. And I think there are some other iterations as well that I’ve overlooked.

The central character of the movie is Major Motoko Kusanagi. She works for Section 9, a kind of counter-terrorism counter-intelligence agency. When the government wants something done that can’t be done by strictly legal means and they want plausible deniability they call on Section 9.

Major Kusanagi is not exactly human. She’s a cyborg. In the Ghost in the Shell universe a cyborg is a human whose brain has been enhanced. The cyberbrain is partly human and partly computer. In many cases cyborgs have bodies that are also artificial. These cyborgs are not machines as such but the extent to which they are still human is perhaps debatable. That’s particularly so in Major Kusanagi’s case. She was once entirely human but now there’s nothing human left of her but her ghost. The ghost is not quite a soul but it is the product of a person’s memories and experiences. It’s what makes a human being a human being. You can call it a soul. Major Kusanagi still has that.

The ghost is what makes one human. Everything else is referred to as the shell.

In a world of cyborgs and cyberbrains there are going to be people who are going to try to hack into people’s cyberbrains. They may even implant false memories. So even a person’s ghost may not be as secure as one might like it to be.

The world of Ghost in the Shell is a troubled place. Terrorism is an ever-present threat. Espionage and white-collar crime are very high-tech enterprises. In the movie the Japanese Government has a problem with its relation to a certain foreign government, part of the problem being that the foreign country in question now has a new government and the leader of the old government wants political asylum in Japan. And there’s the problem of the Puppet Master, a kind of super-hacker. He’s gained that name because when he hacks someone’s cyberbrain they really do become nothing more than puppets.

More worrying is that escaped shell. It’s just a shell. There’s no ghost. Or is there? If there is a ghost in the shell where did it come from?

Section 9’s problem is how to proceed. They’re not sure they can trust Section 6. Or the diplomats. They’re not sure they can trust anybody. And Motoko Kusanagi is behaving strangely. It’s as if she’s not sure how real she is. Or how human. And she seems dangerously obsessed with the idea of the ghost in that shell.

This is a Japanese movie with a distinctively different approach to action scenes compared to American movies. The action sequences are not merely stylised but rather poetic, and at the same time often extremely violent.

The cyberpunk aesthetic is very strong. This movie though is closer to literary cyberpunk than to American movies with a cyberpunk influence. Can a machine be alive? Can a cyborg remain human? These issues are complex and they’re treated as complex issues without easy answers. These are also issues that other anime productions have grappled with, the most notable being the extraordinary and superb TV series Serial Experiments Lain.

The animation is what you expect from a big-budget 1990s Japanese production. Very stylish and with a heady mix of poetry and violence.

Ghost in the Shell is intelligent thoughtful science fiction, in fact one of the very best science fiction movies of the 90s. Very highly recommended.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Carry On Cruising (1962)

Carry On Cruising was the sixth of the Carry On movies and the first to be shot in colour. A couple of regular Carry On cast members are missing from this one. Charles Hawtrey had demanded top billing and dropped out of the production when producer Peter Rogers refused his request. The official explanation for the absence of Joan Sims was that she was ill but in fact it seems there was a minor scandal over her personal life and she was dropped from the cast.

Which left Sid James, Kenneth Williams and Kenneth Connor as the only Carry On regulars in the film. Lance Percival took over Charles Hawtrey’s rôle while Dilys Lane replaced Joan Sims as ditzy blonde bombshell Flo Castle. Look out for Willoughby Goddard, Ed Deveraux, Ronnie Stevens and Anton Rogers in smaller parts, plus Liz Fraser as Flo’s friend Glad Trimble and Esma Cannon as the dotty Bridget Madderley.

They almost had to do without Kenneth Williams as well but he was persuaded to sign on by the promise of location shooting in exotic locales and a luxury cruise. In fact the only location shooting was done at Tilbury Docks and everything else was shot in the studio (although some footage of the P&O-Orient liner Oronsay was also used).

The basic premise is that Captain Wellington Crowther (Sid James), master of the cruise ship  Happy Wanderer, is appalled to find new faces among his crew. This upsets him a good deal. He is not a man who approves of change. He is convinced that the newcomers will be nothing but trouble, and of course he’s quite correct.

The newcomers to the crew, First Officer Marjoribanks (Kenneth Williams), Ship’s Surgeon Dr Bin (Kenneth Connor), chef Wilfred Hales (Lance Percival), steward Tom Tree (Cyril Chamberlain) and barman Sam Turner (Jimmy Thompson) go out of their way to impress the captain, with predictably disastrous results.

Flo Castle’s hunt for a husband causes further chaos.

Sid James plays it surprisingly straight as the captain which works since Captain Crowther is the one man who actually knows what he’s doing and is surrounded by well-meaning bunglers.

For a movie made entirely on a sound stage and on a modest budget Carry On Cruising looks quite impressive. The sets are extremely good. It doesn’t actually look cheap.

There’s no real effort to convince the viewer that the ship is actually moving and afloat (and there’s actually a gag about this in the movie) but that really doesn’t matter.

This was 1962 so the sexual innuendos, although plentiful, are somewhat restrained compared to later films in the series. There’s also not quite as much visual humour as in the later films. Fortunately the verbal humour is sharp and it’s more than sufficient.

This was Normal Hudis’s last Carry On screenplay before Talbot Rothwell took over the writing duties.

There’s a remarkably good-natured feel to this movie. Some of the characters may be bumbling incompetents but they’re very likeable. While Captain Crowther likes to give the impression of being a martinet he’s really quite amiable underneath. He doesn’t hate his crew, he just wants the cruise to go off smoothly and the passengers to stay happy. He actually likes the passengers.

The ITV Studios DVD (part of their Carry On Ultimate Collection boxed set) offers a reasonably good letterboxed transfer. The extras include an excellent audio commentary featuring Dilys Laye and Lance Percival.

Carry On Cruising is harmless fun and it’s recommended.

Monday, 16 September 2019

The Psycho Lover (1970)

The Psycho Lover comes to us from Something Weird Video (on a double-feature DVD that also includes Heat of Madness which I haven’t yet had time to watch) so we’re probably expecting a rather scuzzy sexploitation flick. Which it is and it isn’t. It is a sexploitation movie and it does feature quite a bit of nudity and some pretty intense violence. But of course the great thing about sexploitation films was that as long as you included those commercially necessary elements you could pretty much do whatever you wanted. And what writer-director-producer Robert Vincent O'Neil apparently wanted to do was to make a tense serious psycho-sexual thriller. He didn’t entirely succeed but it’s not a bad attempt.

Dr Kenneth Alden (Lawrence Montaigne) is a psychiatrist and he’s been called in by Homicide cop Lieutenant Morlock (John Vincent) to see if he can make sense of a rather frustrating case involving a series of brutal rape-murders. They have a suspect, a young man named Marco (Frank Cuva), and the suspect has confessed but then later he repudiated the confession. He now claims that he merely dreamt about the murders. The police have no physical evidence to link Marco with the murders, and worse still Marco has alibis for a couple of the slayings and at least one of the alibis seems solid.

What’s really frustrating abut the case is that Morlock is convinced Marco is guilty. His confessions revealed knowledge of the circumstances of the murders that he could not have had without being involved.

Dr Alden not only interviews Marco, he takes him on as a patient. And having done this he then decides that he is constrained by the ethical rules of doctor-patient confidentiality. So while Dr Alden finds out a lot more about what’s going on in Marco’s obviously disturbed mind he doesn’t feel obliged to pass on such information to the cops. Marco tells the good doctor all about his dreams and all about the voice he hears in his dreams, the voice that tells him to kill women. Marco is sure that these are just dreams. Dr Alden has his own views on that subject.

Dr Alden’s own private life is causing him a bit of stress. He has a hot young girlfriend named Stacy (Elizabeth Plumb) and he and Stacy are madly in love. That’s all good. Unfortunately Dr Aden also has a wife. That’s not so good. Mrs Alden (Joanne Meredith) knows all about her husband and his girlfriend. She’s not happy about it but the one thing she is determined on is that she is not going to give her husband the divorce he wants.

The murders continue. Marco’s therapy continues. And Kenneth Alden’s affair with Stacy continues as well. Stacy watches a lot of movies on late-night TV. She tells Kenneth about a really great movie she just saw. It was called The Manchurian Candidate. Kenneth looks very thoughtful. By this stage you should have a pretty fair idea what’s going to happen next.

Unfortunately the unfolding of the plot is interrupted by romantic interludes between Stacy and Dr Alden. They’re the sorts of romantic interludes you tend to get in movies of this era (and not just low-budget or exploitation movies) - the two of them wandering hand-in-hand through fields of flowers accompanied by some incredibly soppy and cringe-inducing soft rock music, that sort of thing.

The build-up to the climax is done reasonably well and while you’re going to be pretty sure you know how it’s going to play out there is one weird little twist you might not see coming.

This is a movie very much in the giallo mould. It even has the bold use of colour that you get in giallos. While it’s not in the same league as the best movies in that genre it compares not unfavourably with many of the second-rank giallos. If only Robert Vincent O’Neil had had the foresight to make this movie under an Italian pseudonym it would now have a cult following. The psychedelic dream sequences include a couple of effectively disturbing images.

In fact there are quite a few disturbing moments in this film. Despite the absence of any actual gore the murders are quite confronting and uncomfortably intense. And they’re shot with a certain degree of skill.

The chief problem with this movie is one that afflicts a lot of low-budget movies - the pacing. Apart from that and those embarrassing romantic interludes it’s a surprisingly well-constructed and well-executed thriller.

Mention must be made of Dr Alden’s car - it looks like something out of a 50s sci-fi movie. I have no idea why he drives such an insane car but it does give the movie another touch of interesting oddness.

As so often Something Weird have managed to come up with a remarkably good transfer of a very obscure movie. It’s full frame but that appears to be the correct aspect ratio. The colours look vibrant which is fortunate since it’s a movie that uses colour quite flamboyantly to create mood.

The Psycho Lover should appeal to fans of both sexploitation roughies and giallos. It’s one of those pleasant surprises that Something Weird occasionally comes up with. Highly recommended.

Monday, 9 September 2019

Mission: Impossible (1996)

I've posted a review of Brian de Palma's unexpectedly good 1996 Mission: Impossible movie over on Cult TV Lounge. The most surprising and pleasing thing about it is that it retains at least some of the flavour of the original 1960s television series.

Of course it helps if you like Tom Cruise (and I personally find him to be just about the least objectionable of modern Hollywood stars).

Here's the link to the review of the movie.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

Die Another Day (2002)

Die Another Day was the last of the Pierce Brosnan Bond movies and the first 21st century Bond movie. You might think it would be impossible to make a Bond movie in the 21st century. Watching this movie would strongly suggest that you’re right.

Interestingly enough in this movie the pre-credits sequence in which Bond is causing mayhem in North Korea is actually part of the main plot, or at least it is an important prologue to the main plot. Bond is captured and spends fourteen months in a North Korean prison. When he is released he finds that MI6 no longer trusts him and no longer wants him. He isn’t pleased about this and he goes rogue. He is convinced that he was betrayed by a mole inside MI6 and he wants revenge. The trail initially leads him to Havana, to a secret medical clinic. He encounters Kickass Action Heroine Jinx (Halle Berry). But to track down the mole he will have to go to to London. There he runs into the villain of the piece, supercilious upper-class business tycoon Gustave Grimes, and he will follow him to his ice palace in Iceland. Lots of action ensues.

It’s probably fair to deal with the film’s strengths first. The action scenes are spectacular. Some are a bit silly but a touch of self-parody in the action scenes has been par for the course in Bond movies since the 70s so that’s no great problem. The highlight of the movie is the sword-fighting scene between Bond and the villain. Sword-fights are the oldest of all action movie clichés but this one has an extraordinary intensity and physicality that makes the cliché seem fresh. The hovercraft battle is original and exciting.

There are enough explosions and gun battles to satisfy any reasonable person.

Some of the gadgets are also on the slightly silly side, like the camouflaged Aston Martin, but again it’s no problem since this is expected in a Bond film.

The sets, by Peter Lamont, are generally superb. Any Bond Villain worth his salt has to have a cool secret headquarters and the ice palace qualifies nicely (and it’s used to excellent effect). The mysterious clinic and the secret MI6 headquarters are terrific as well.

Gustav Grimes is a very serviceable Bond Villain. Toby Stephens plays him as an arrogant public school bully and he puts plenty of enthusiasm into his performance. John Cleese is fun as Q.

They’re the good things in Die Another Day.

Now we come to the problems. Firstly, the CGI effects are not good. The scenes on the aircraft at the end could have been fun but they look very very fake. The space scenes look cheap and fake. The disappearing Aston Martin provokes laughter rather than wonder.

Not one but two Kickass Action Heroines have been added to assist Bond, champion fencer and MI6 agent Miranda Frost and Jinx. Jinx threatens to take over the film. Now the essence of the Bond character is that he’s a loner. He works alone because nobody can work with him. He’s not a team player. He’s a loose cannon. MI6 tolerates him, reluctantly, because he gets results.

There is a standard Bond formula. We know who the villain is right from the start. MI6 knows as well. Bond’s invariable approach is to get close to the villain (whether the villain likes it or not) and get right up his nose. Put as much pressure on the villain as possible and sooner or later he’ll make a mistake and Bond will destroy him. To do all this Bond neither needs nor wants a sidekick. All the Jinx character manages to do is distract us from the plot, slow things down (and it’s a movie that is already way too long) and shift the focus away from Bond. She’s a completely unnecessary character and she serves no plot purpose whatsoever.

It doesn’t help that Halle Berry and Rosamund Pike (as Miranda) are rather dull and their characters are uninteresting. Actually that’s probably just as well since Pierce Brosnan’s performance is bland and colourless. His Bond seems old and tired. Brosnan was nearly 50 when he made this movie. Of course Roger Moore was much older (and fatter) when he was still playing Bond but Moore had style and charisma and an unparalleled ability to make dialogue sparkle. Brosnan sadly lacks these qualities.

One thing that’s amusing is that this is a movie that is trying desperately hard to be feminist but it’s actually the most sexist Bond movie I’ve ever seen. There’s not a single female character in the film. The ostensible female characters (Miranda, Jinx and M) are simply male characters who happen to be played by actresses. If you replaced Halle Berry, Rosamund Pike and Judi Dench with male actors you wouldn’t need to make any changes to the dialogue or the plot or the characterisations. All you’d have to do is eliminate the very unconvincing love scenes that seem out of place anyway. The message of the film seems to be that women are awesome as long as they behave exactly like men.

The movie’s political stance is interesting. The Chinese and the Cubans are the good guys. The American contempt for the British is startling. It’s made very clear that M takes her orders from Washington, not London. In fact from watching this movie you wouldn’t know that Britain had a government. MI6 is a provincial branch office of the CIA. Of course even in Ian Fleming’s 1950s Bond novels there’s a good deal of resentment towards the Americans and bitterness at Britain’s irrelevance in the postwar world but you don’t expect quite so much anti-Americanism in a 2002 Bond movie.

The big problem is that in this movie James Bond is no longer James Bond. The character has been watered down to the point where there’s nothing left. He’s been made safe and innocuous and inoffensive. He could be an accountant enjoying a holiday in exotic climes, or be working behind the counter at a chemist’s shop in the High Street. He doesn’t seem the least bit dangerous. You could take him home to meet your Mum. This is Bond made politically correct. And a politically correct Bond is not Bond.

Die Another Day is not in any way, shape or form a Bond movie.

Friday, 2 August 2019

They Live (1988)

John Carpenter’s They Live came out in 1988 and it’s an odd mixture of political satire, action movie and 1950-style monster movie.

It’s also a classic paranoia movie.

We start with an ordinary working class guy named Nada who is down on his luck. He’s desperate to get a job and he gets one, on a construction site. He also finds a place to live, in a shanty town in Los Angeles. The early part of the movie is extremely interesting. There’s a very strong sense of unease. We also get the feeling that this is not quite our world. There’s an incredible gulf between rich and poor. There’s massive unemployment and poverty and there’s homelessness on an enormous scale. The police behave more like an occupying army than a police force.

Television is everywhere. Even in the shanty town there are TV sets. TV programs focus on the lifestyles of the rich and on conspicuous and extravagant consumption. The shanty town dwellers have nothing but they watch TV shows about people who have everything.

There’s a lowly building atmosphere of unease. Something is wrong. People know that something has gone wrong but they have no idea what it is.

The unease gradually changes to outright menace. The church across the road from the shanty town is raided by the police who start shooting people and then demolish the shanty town. The police have lots of helicopters. They watch everything.

Nada was already rather curious about that church. For one thing he’s puzzled that any church would be hosting choir practice at 4 o’clock in the morning. He decides to take a look around. lt turns out that there’s no choir practice going on - that’s just a tape that’s playing. Then he finds a hidden compartment behind a wall, filled with boxes. Nada is no thief but his curiosity is not going to let him leave without taking one of the boxes with them. When he opens the box he’s disappointed that it contains nothing but sunglasses. Then he puts one of the pairs of sunglasses on and everything changes for him. And the movie changes gears dramatically. They’re not ordinary sunglasses. They allow the wearer to see reality. What everyone is seeing is not reality but a kind of hypnotically induced dream state. Reality is very different.

The advertising posters don’t actually advertise anything. They carry messages and the messages are relentless - obey, consume, keep sleeping, conform. Even worse, the people of L.A. aren’t all humans. Many are monsters, clearly aliens. The rich people are mostly aliens. The poor people are all humans. Earth has been occupied by invaders from outer space. Their intention does not appear to be to massacre us but to exploit us for profit.

Nada and Frank intend to fight back. They find a resistance group but the aliens know all about it.

Having started as a fascinating mix of science fiction and politics it becomes an action movie. Which was deliberate - Carpenter understands that if you’re going to deal with such subjects you’d be well advised to wrap it up in an entertaining package.

They Live is based on a short story by Ray Nelson, Eight o’clock in the morning.

Carpenter rather boldly cast professional wrestler Roddy Piper as his hero Nada. The casting works. Piper can't act but he looks right - he looks like a really ordinary working-class guy- and he has the right persona. And he knows how to deliver one-liners. He wrote much of his own dialogue, including some of the movie’s best lines. As is made clear in the 2013 interview with Carpenter included in the DVD he made a deliberate and conscious choice to tell the story from the point of view of the working class, and to have a hero who is very much working class.

Keith David is equally good as Frank. Meg Foster as Holly, a woman Nada is determined to save, has an odd screen presence but in a movie like this it works.

Carpenter was notorious for his absolute insistence on retaining creative control, even if it meant making low budget movies. They Live is certainly a low budget movie but Carpenter is a master at stretching a limited budget and making cheap movies that look great.

The movie was intended as a response to the 80s in general and to Reagan’s economic policies in particular. Despite this it’s a movie that doesn’t seem dated. It’s possibly more relevant today than it was in 1988. As Carpenter puts it in the accompanying interview, in many ways the 80s never ended. Consumerism and social control are arguably much bigger problems today than in 1988.

The aliens obviously represent the ruling class, interested in ordinary people solely as a source of profit. There’s nothing subtle about the satire here. It’s delivered with a sledge hammer.

Among other things They Live is famous for the epic fight scene between Nada and Frank. Piper had told Carpenter that if he wanted a really really good fight scene then it was going to need to be intricately choreographed and rehearsed. It was going to take a long time. Carpenter adjusted his shooting schedule to make sure that the time was available, and it pays off.

The influence of the classic 1956 Invasion of the Body Snatchers is obvious. That film remains the greatest of all paranoia movies but They Live is a pretty respectable paranoia flick in its own right. As far as its politics is concerned it absolutely nails its colours to the mast. It’s an interesting movie that mostly works. Highly recommended.