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2011.57: It’s A Wonderful Life (1946) **** December 12, 2011

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Dir.Frank Capra, 130 mins, Blu-ray

If ever there was a movie that proved that films can transcend box-office failure, that films can be timeless works of art, that a film can have a life all its own beyond the lives of those that made it, then this it. It’s the very definition of the oft-used term ‘cinema classic’. A perennial Christmas favourite, this magical movie is a fairytale for adults and children alike, a funny, sad, thoughtful, fanciful dreamland. Did Bedford Falls, or a town anything like it, ever really exist in America? It reminds me so much of the mythical Greentown of Ray Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine- a perfect, idealised American God-fearing town of basic good, honest folk. It’s not America as it is, or even as it was, it seems more to be America as it wished to be during its more wistful daydreams.  Indeed, possibly even more than Field Of Dreams this is the closest film I have seen that captures the spirit of Ray Bradbury’s wonderful tales. As we progress in real life into an ever-more technological, cynical world, Bedford Falls slips further and further away, more dreamlike and distant, and more precious for it.

It’s also something of a marmite movie, in that while most people fall in love with it, others detest it with a passion. I guess you either buy into it’s dreamy neverland or you don’t. Call me a sucker, but I’ve loved this film for years.

The cast is terrific; Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore- each of them is note-perfect, their performances utterly sublime and charming (even Barrymore’s villainous Mr Potter). Likewise the supporting cast are wonderful. Stewart, though, is incredible here, his performance demonstrates a breathtaking range all within one movie- early on he’s full of wonderlust, a warm, charming, “aw, shucks” kind of all-American quiet hero, it’s heartbeaking to see his fall into the broken man ready to commit suicide. While it’s no doubt the archetypal heartwarming fantasy, It’s A Wonderful Life is nonetheless a very dark movie too, and I think that’s the real secret of the films enduring success.  

2011.56: Dracula (aka Horror Of Dracula) (1958) **** December 11, 2011

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Dir. Terence Fisher, 80 mins, VOD (Lovefilm)

Wow, I hadn’t seen this film in so many years. Probably not since the late 1970s showings on television in the old ATV days/Friday night horror film seasons. Honestly hadn’t realised it was so long until I thought about it. Watching it again made me realise just how good the film was- actually ahead of its time with it’s pacing, gore, and sexuality.

Loosely based on Stoker’s novel, the way the film adapts the story predates the pacing and sensitivities of modern films, baring the story down to an action-filled, fast-paced thriller that must have seemed a revelation back when it was originally released. Harker in this story arrives at Dracula’s castle employed as Dracula’s librarian, but Harker knows what Dracula is and is secretly intent on destroying him. His attempt fails and sets off a chain of events that sees Dracula menacing the dead Harker’s fiance, all the while being hunted by Harker’s colleague, Dr Van Helsing. Frankly, it’s a surprise no-one has taken this approach to more recent Dracula films, which instead have tended to be more faithful to the Stoker story. It occurs to me now that Buffy The Vampire Slayer actually owes a lot to Horror Of Dracula.

The real treat of this film though is of course the sight of Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in their prime, in their iconic roles of Dracula and Van Helsing. Lee’s Dracula here is a surprisingly restrained performance, with little dialogue, but plenty of feral menace- his Dracula would be more fleshed-out (sic) in the later films. Cushing is as wonderful as he always was in the Hammer horrors, the actor a British institution- his Van Helsing is the definitive one, confident, charming, graceful but ruthless. Cushing is my favourite Horror actor and I always think he was underrated and deserved more fame and credit than he received. Even in poor horror films he gave full-bloodied performances, and in this one he simply shines, at the top of his game.

The film looks wonderful considering it’s low, low budget- Terence Fisher’s eye really benefits the film, and set the style for so many Hammer films that followed. It may well be the definitive Dracula film, and certainly set the style for those Hammer sequels that would follow. It has a wonderful Gothic feel. The sexual tension of the scene in which Lucy opens her bedroom window, hides her crucifix away and lies in bed in anticipation of Dracula taking her, must have been quite daring back in 1958 (and would be further developed in later Hammer horrors) but the sexual undertones would haunt horror films for years after, right up to Alien’s phallic horror/vagina-like catacombs and beyond.

A few thoughts regards The Thing (2011)… December 4, 2011

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As a lover of both Carpenters film and the original, I won’t be watching this film at the cinema. Everything I have heard about it just feels wrong. A prequel set in the Norwegian camp isn’t a bad idea (it’s certainly preferable to an actual remake of the 1982 film) but in execution it seems to be just that, a remake (a Macready-clone American, complete with beard, playing the pilot? Like, what?). It should feel more like ‘Das Boot in the Ice’, you know? I mean, no offence to Mary Elizabeth Winstead or that American guy but a woman, and Americans in general, at the Norwegian base- as the saying goes, ‘you’ve got to be fucking kidding’.  It’s just wrong, wrong, wrong in my eyes. There should be people with placards protesting outside the cinemas.

I intend to vote with my wallet, at least for the cinema release. So maybe a rental, or cheap Blu-ray purchase next year from morbid curiosity. Same as that new Conan film, then. 1982 seems such a long way away….

2011.55: Caligula (1979) *

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Dir. Tinto Brass, 156 mins, Blu-ray rental

This must surely rank as one of the greatest of cinematic follies, an utterly oddball artistic disaster. Throughout I was shaking my head in utter disbelief, as if I was seeing a film from some other, alternate universe. How else to explain such a mad, insane mess of a film starring the likes of Malcolm McDowell, Helen Mirren, Peter O’Toole and Sir John Gielgud? How else to explain how an historical epic about the infamous Caligula, written by Gore Vidal no less, could turn out to be a plotless, stupid, unintentionally funny piece of unerotic porn? No matter how many mad, bad films you have ever seen, nothing can really prepare you for Caligula, and not many viewers will sit through it to its end. It’s bizarre, its terrible, it’s almost unwatchable. One of the very worst movies I have ever had the misfortune to watch.

I’ve been curious about the film for many years, as the Roman Empire, and it’s portrayal on film, has always been a source of fascination for me, from Ben-Hur to Spartacus, to Gladiator… it’s like science fiction in reverse. An alien world, strange and yet familiar, and the cinematic depiction of it as telling about the people and times of those that made the films as the world on screen. What Caligula might tell us about 1970s film-making is, frankly beyond me, to be honest.

Financed by Penthouse publisher Bob Guccione in a period when adult movies were trying to be taken seriously as an art-form, it must have seemed the ideal subject matter for a cross-over work, a mainstream/hardcore porn movie.  A serious historical epic, with great, A-list acting talent, about one of the most infamous rulers of Rome, a period of barbaric debauchery, depicted in brutal hardcore fashion as only underground, hardcore adult movie making could.

In a way, it’s a genius idea. How else to graphically depict what really happened back then? If done right, such an historical epic could have been riveting, fascinating, illuminating, disgusting like nothing before it. There’s a germ of a great, great film there, maybe not easy to watch, maybe even shocking, but a great piece of art. Unfortunately, in execution it all falls apart into a sprawling, mindless mess. There is no real plot, no drama, nothing to get the teeth into as a foundation for the hardcore excesses of porn and gore. The ’serious’ historical stuff is daft OTT insanity and the porn is the most cold, unerotic stuff you might ever see (I have no problem with the latter, as thats likely the ‘point’ of it anyway. It’s not meant to titillate, it’s meant to disgust, surely. Instead it just bores). It’s like some kind of mad cartoon, only all the more bewildering when the talent onscreen is considered. Did they do it for the money, or were they sold by the grand intentions of the piece before it collapsed around them? Well, I didn’t get as far as any illuminating commentary tracks, but if ever a book about the making of a film needed to be written, this is it. What a mad experience making this mess of a film must have been. Utterly mind-boggling stuff.   

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