Archive for February, 2009

Billy Liar

1963, UK, Directed by John Schlesinger

Black & White, Running Time: 98 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R1, Criterion; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Mono

The original novel of Billy Liar, written by Keith Waterhouse, earned notable critical commendation on its release in 1959 prior to its adaptation as a stage play (co-written between the book’s author and Willis Hall). During its initial West End run it was Albert Finney who played the lead role Billy Fisher, bringing a wider audience to the production as Saturday Night And Sunday Morning became a big hit, but his departure opened up a slot in the play for Tom Courtenay, an actor who would attract some acclaim for his part in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner before securing himself the part of Billy again for the movie adaptation of Billy Liar. The film’s narrative wasn’t too far removed from its literary counterpart: Fisher works in an administrative capacity at a funeral parlour dreaming of greater things, particularly becoming an author of either comedy scripts or novels, whilst allowing his love life to become an increasingly tangled mess. He also has a tendency to fabricate the truth to others as his imagination runs largely unrestrained in addition to the apparent ongoing requirement for such manipulation to cover up his proclivity towards laziness and almost accidental dishonesty, for example his failure to post a batch of calendars on behalf of his employers leading to the absorption of the postal money into his own pocket. The story effectively snapshots one day in his life as he awakens one morning before work (his parents having great difficulty actually getting him up and on his way), endures the short working day before handing in his notice to take up the script-writing job that hasn’t quite made it to reality, tries to sort out the periodic incidents with his multiple girlfriends, goes to a dancehall in the evening where a number of problems inconveniently collide, and makes a decision to head off to London with his favoured woman, Liz, at the end of the day after his gran dies.

Julie Christie and Tom Courtenay

There are a fantastic array of characters that either get in Billy’s way throughout, or become antagonised by his inconsistent ability to be honest: his mother and father for starters, the latter almost constantly shouting at the lad or doubting his ability to do anything, something which might have instigated Billy’s all thought and no action approach to life. At work we then meet his best mate, Arthur Crabtree (Rodney Bewes), who Billy ends up arguing with after telling a lie to Arthur’s mom, and beyond that there is Barbara, Rita, and Liz (Julie Christie), Billy’s three antithetical girlfriends. Barbara is an uptight virgin who won’t let Billy even touch her until they’re married, Rita is the promiscuous tart who’s relentlessly squawking and nagging him, primarily about the engagement ring that she doesn’t know is actually on Barbara’s finger, and finally Liz is the girl who likes to drift between towns, refusing to pin herself down to a place she cannot identify with. In most respects Liz is the girl most suited to Billy’s unpredictable strategy for dealing with life’s more mundane details, someone who similarly uses her imagination to free herself from the constraints of a humdrum existence. One crucial difference manifests itself as the separating factor between Billy and Liz however, and that’s the fact that Liz acts on her impulses while Billy doesn’t, and it’s that issue that will ultimately determine the outcome of their relationship - at least on the day focused on by the story. Billy’s daydreams are given life by cinema: reality is punctuated by episodes of mental wanderings as Billy imagines himself in a plethora of situations adopting roles preferable to that which he has to endure on a daily basis, from a surviving war veteran, to a reformed prisoner-cum-successful author, with the inhabitants of his ‘real’ life often making an appearance somewhere (spot Liz alongside him in one of his early fantasies before we’ve even met her, suggesting that she has a relevant part to play in his ideologies). These episodes don’t tend to be my favourite pieces in the film, however. What rises the film to a higher plane is the ongoing complexity of Billy’s relationships, these giving rise to beautiful moments of drama. The characters throughout appear to have their own agenda, merely getting caught up in Billy’s confused world where fact and fiction aren’t mutually exclusive concepts, and most of these characters are granted life by the astounding talents of a well selected cast. While this film would most likely be categorised as a ‘drama’ it’s not without its frequent moments of amusement as Billy progresses from one awkward situation to the next and even when his gran dies the film refuses to get bogged down too much in melancholy. Hence Billy Liar remains an uplifting experience every time, featuring people whose actions can be scrutinised, dialogue that is fascinating despite familiarity granted over repeat viewings, and a gorgeous Northern ‘kitchen-sink’ appeal throughout. Stripped of glamour, but not beauty, Billy Liar is one of the greatest triumphs of sixties British cinema, and almost certainly one of the greatest irrespective of era or geographical origin.

 

Stamping on the old pan & scan video cassettes and TV broadcasts that we had to put up with in the distant past, Criterion’s DVD presented the film accurately representing its CinemaScope ratio (the 4:3 transfers were simply awful). It’s a decent looking image that could be improved slightly I suspect, but is satisfying nonetheless. An informative commentary from the director, Courtenay and Christie accompanies a 15 minute TV featurette that focused on Billy Liar and another of Schlesinger’s earlier films, A Kind of Loving. Hardly in-depth but the package is rounded out by excellent liner notes by Bruce Goldstein, the founder of the company (Rialto) that rescued Billy Liar to provide a theatrical re-release 35 years after it was made. The British DVD lost the majority of the bonuses but obviously came in a lot cheaper. This disc/film remains one of the most valued entities of my movie shelves.

Posted on 19th February 2009
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Till Death

1974, US, Directed by Walter Stocker

Colour, Running Time: 71 minutes

Review Source: VHS, PAL, VideoForm; Video: 1.33:1, Audio: Mono

Wet rag Paul has dreams of driving along at night and spotting a woman in white near the roadside. Parking up to catch up with her he’s led to a tomb where he finds what may have been the woman lying in an open coffin, at which point the rotting corpse awakens to grab him. Back in reality Paul is getting married to a similarly soppy woman and the two of them set off in his car for a horny honeymoon, the comprising activities of which would make conventional sex addicts everywhere transform to dark matter in an instant. After hours of driving the dazed man almost hits a truck, swaying off the road in a horrific crash. While he sustains minimal injuries his new wife is killed instantly. Weeks or months of rehabilitation pass before Paul manages to build the strength of mind not only to leave the hospital but to visit his wife’s burial place. Arriving at the lonely cemetery he’s told by the caretaker that they close up in 36 minutes so he should be out of the crypt by then, at which point the grief-stricken man heads down into the deathly room to mourn. Upon believing that he can hear a woman - his wife? - crying he collapses and knocks himself unconscious. The caretakers arrive some time later and, thinking he’s left the place to desertion, they lock up the crypt for the night before heading off home. When Paul awakens it’s a stormy night and he realises he’s stuck down there, but perhaps not alone! Certain that he can hear his wife moaning from behind the stone block between them, he grabs a pick axe and smashes it open where his wife appears to be alive…

A highly obscure, super low-budget American film shot in the early seventies, this is something built out of modest film-making skills and ambitions that don’t step too far outside of the available finances. Because of the crew’s lack of experience there is a certain naivety about the production whereby conventions are inadvertently lost in the attempt to construct their own little chiller, for example the odd manner in which the opening credits suddenly appear around 10 minutes into the film (against the soundtrack of a depressing country tune). The many scenes that take place early on in Paul’s car are merely filmed against a black background with fog drifting across the shot - the film itself probably cost more to process than paying for what’s actually captured by the camera. Mundane thespian abilities aside, once Paul gets himself locked in the strange little crypt he spends the rest of the film there - an unusual plot device, but one which builds a noticeable degree of creepiness as the storm outside kicks in and you realise that the main man really isn’t going anywhere for the duration of the night. An obvious ambiguity lies in the arrival of his ‘dead’ wife - is she a ghost, a reanimated corpse, or something inside his crazy brain? He did after all knock himself unconscious and has also been through a life-altering trauma, both of which could explain hallucination or unhinged thinking. Explanations are sensibly kept to a minimum, providing the story with a level of mystery that keep it riding along in the manner of a Twilight Zone episode. Despite the clear limitations of the resources available at the time, Stocker managed to create a moody piece that, had he persevered, almost could have dragged him out of the first-time director pit (he never directed another film).

So obscure is this that I’m certain it’s never even received a legitimate DVD release anywhere. The review was taken from a pre-certificate videotape released in Britain some time around the early eighties and, image-wise, is a mass of speckles and scratches throughout, this somehow adding to its curiosity value. If this ever makes it to High Definition I’ll eat my hat, and my missus’ bra too (actually that last bit sounds quite appealing…).

Posted on 11th February 2009
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Nightmare City

1980, Italy/Spain, Directed by Umberto Lenzi

Colour, Running Time: 92 minutes

Review Source: DVD, R2, Anchor Bay; Video: Anamorphic 2.35:1, Audio: DD Stereo

Ace Reporter Dean Miller is sent on an assignment to interview an influential politician on the important man’s arrival at the airport. Miller is immediately aware of a ‘situation’ unfolding as he arrives with his fearless cameraman - there is indeed a plane soaring in to land, but it’s not responding to communication of any kind and, possibly worse, it’s an unmarked military aircraft. The army are called in due to the potential security issue and everyone gathers there waiting - machine guns or cameras at hand - as the plane comes to a halt on the runway. Minutes pass with no sign of activity, until the door opens and out pour a horde of crazed disfigured men - and armed to the hilt to boot. All hell breaks loose as they go about slaughtering virtually everyone in the vicinity - army gunfire proves useless and before long there are scores of bloody, motionless bodies littering the runway. Miller manages to get out alive and head for the TV station with the intention of alerting the public to avoid any lethal delays. Interrupting an important dance show that’s being aired (‘It’s All Music’!) he bags himself about a minute of airtime before the boss realises his schedule has gone to pot, and switches him off. His efforts were in vain either way as there is a sudden disturbance down on the dance floor - the mutants have invaded the building, ripping apart the dancers (at last granting them a modicum of dignity…) leaving Miller to escape once again as the army try to regain control of the situation - the massacre would appear to be progressing across the city as the horde of creatures show no mercy in their unstoppable motiveless destruction.

Don't mess up the lipstick!!!

People think that the Running Dead phenomenon started with the likes of 28 Days Later or Dawn of the Dead 04, but it started right here back in 1980 with a vengeance. This film makes up its own rules from the beginning and, despite being influenced heavily by Romero’s second Dead outing, it adds its own spin on the proceedings to craft something that continues to stand out from the rest of the Italian zombie movies that spewed forth from around 1979 onwards. These indestructible monsters have absolutely zero motive, other than to perhaps drink blood but that seems almost like a footnote in the wake of the surrounding madness. The creatures are downright ugly with their rotting faces and strange camera poses, but they stop at nothing in the onslaught - all humans can do is fight and die, or retreat. Miller (Mexican actor Hugo Stiglitz) manages to get away from the airport (his assistant stands there shooting film, blissfully ignorant to the threat) and subsequently the TV station to collect his wife so they can leave the city behind as civilisation crumbles. This movie is an almighty ‘fu*k you’ to critics as it obstinately lies beyond conventional criticism - you can sit there pointlessly outlining its abundant cinematic problems, or you can sit there and have a great time wallowing in the insanity that simply jumps off the screen. In that sense, it’s not a ‘good’ film, but you almost can’t help but have a good time as you witness the spectacle: that gob-smackingly ridiculous It’s All Music dance show that has to be seen to be believed (where the cameramen have stone faces and laboratory coats); the female dancers when attacked routinely ending up with their breasts exposed; the doctor who greets an intruder to his surgery not with questions, but by throwing his scalpel across the room into the poor man’s body; the army colonel delivering his rather non-specific militaristic instructions (Plan H, Plan B, etc.); the list goes on and on. The TV station was probably only written in because Romero had done the same a couple of years earlier, and the conclusion would have been a cliché in any other film, but the sheer audacity somehow gets Lenzi and co. off the hook. Miller and his wife’s journey turns out to be pretty cool, while the final sequence depicting them on the run before climbing a roller coaster structure to get away from hordes of creatures is actually rousing. Taken on its own unbelievably unhinged terms, Nightmare City is a bit of a winner. Groovy electronic music score too.

 

Anchor Bay’s UK DVD was a blessing for fans such as myself. Previously I’d only seen Incubo Sulla Città Contaminata (or City of The Walking Dead) on video cassette. VTC released it in the early eighties; good looking for video but cropped at the sides and censored to hell. There have since been a number of uncut DVDs released around the world: for example, EC Entertainment (non-anamorphic 2.35:1, with trailers, stills gallery), Italian Shock (containing gallery, trailer, interview, commentary, plus the entire soundtrack as a separate entity), a rough one from Laser Paradise (with non-removable Japanese subtitles!), and a US Anchor Bay disc that’s virtually identical to the British release. As far as extras are concerned the Italian Shock disc wins out, but transfer-wise the Anchor Bay discs are probably the victors. The film is generally dubbed in English but this seems to suit the oddball nature of the production, adding to the enjoyment somewhat. Check it out if you’re feeling brave, but switch off the synapses and get the beers in for maximum effect.

Posted on 3rd February 2009
Under: Horror | 2 Comments »

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