No Country for Old Men

Format: Cinema

Release date: 18 January 2008

Venues: Vue West End (London) and nationwide

Distributor: Paramount

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Based on: the novel by Cormac McCarthy

Cast: Javier Bardem, Tommy Lee Jones, Josh Brolin, Woody Harrelson

US 2007

122 mins

Sacrilegious as this may seem, I’ve never been a fan of the Coen brothers. In part I’m sure this is due to only having seen certain films in their oeuvre, but having suffered through the unbearable screwball comedy of Raising Arizona and the insufferable Barton Fink I’d pretty much given up on them by the time The Big Lebowski hit the screens (‘You’ve never seen The Big Lebowski?’ No, I have never seen The Big Lebowski. ‘Officer, the handcuffs’.) I’ve since been tempted back into the cinema for The Man Who Wasn’t There (fantastically dull. Really.), rented Fargo (good, but what movie with Steve Buscemi’s hang-dog face isn’t?) and watched Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? on telly (I liked the songs) and my opinion has changed little. The Coen Brothers are competent filmmakers with a tragic disposition towards wackiness and pastiche that mars their every work, something akin to seeing Wes Anderson in double. I tell you this because there’s a tendency amongst film critics to praise the Coen Brothers’ work to high heaven regardless of its worth, and I want you to know that when I say their new film is very, very good, you can trust me.

No Country for Old Men is based upon Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, the brothers’ first straight book adaptation, and by all accounts the film adheres fairly strictly to the text. This leads to a peculiar moment later in the film when a central character dies, but more of that later. Until that point, from the opening credits and Tommy Lee Jones’ portentous voice-over as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, this is a tight, taut exercise in filmmaking, a relentlessly tense thriller that works on a purely visceral level but also deals in higher ideas of good and evil. Its backdrop is the imposing landscape of West Texas, sparse and arid, and it’s out here that Llewellyn Moss (Josh Brolin) stumbles across the gory aftermath of a drugs deal gone wrong. Among the dead and the dying Moss finds a briefcase stuffed full of banknotes and flees the scene.

By now we’ve been introduced to the murderous, enigmatic presence of Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem) who, despite a haircut that makes him look like a member of an especially groovy sixties garage band and a curious instrument of death constructed from a pressurized gas canister, has already killed twice in scenes of such extreme violence and cold-bloodedness that we are developing a sense of extreme foreboding over Moss’ decision to take the money. When Moss returns to the scene of the massacre he narrowly escapes being caught by the Mexicans and, packing his wife on a bus to her mother, goes on the run with the briefcase, with Chigurh in close pursuit. It’s hard to describe the degree of menace Bardem brings to this role. There are moments of what could be described as humour in his interactions with those he meets along the way, but they’re shot through with such terror and unease that you’re gripping your seat even while you’re laughing.

Chigurh seems to represent relentless, unstoppable evil; as unforgiving and harsh as the Texas countryside; as inexorable as the general decline in standards that the Sheriff complains bitterly about. There comes a point where we’re unsure if he’s a man or some kind of dark, avenging spirit. Part of what is disquieting about Chigurh is that he appears to live by some strict moral code, however twisted, and that his actions are in some way governed by this, as if he’s obliged to track down Moss not as a job, but in order to make him pay for his greed. The appearance of Woody Harrelson as Moss’ guardian cowboy angel, pleading with him to return the money, only adds to this impression, as do the Sheriff’s lugubrious pronouncements on the inevitable.

Approximately three-quarters of the way through the film one of the major characters dies off-screen, removing the possibility of the dramatic showdown that is high in the audience’s expectations. From this point onwards not everything that occurs is immediately clear and we lose the logic that has, until then, underpinned the narrative. The instant gratification of the obvious is snatched away from us and we’re left blindly searching for meaning in the void. Given my low opinion of the Coen brothers it was at this point I feared that No Country for Old Men had fallen foul of their contrived methods but, firstly, the brothers are doing nothing more than being true to the original text and, secondly, while what may work in print isn’t always what works in film, there is something pleasing in leaving a movie theatre still digesting what you have just seen on the screen. In this way the Coens score big over that other recent film set in the wide expanses of America, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which saw fit to telegraph every last emotion and plot detail by way of an intrusive voice-over, and instead invites comparison with that master of the unexplained, David Lynch.

Sean Price

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Sweeney Todd

Format: Cinema

Release date: 25 January 2008

Distributor: Warner Bros

Venues:Odeon Leicester Square and nationwide

Director: Tim Burton

Based on: the musical by Stephen Sondheim

Cast: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman

US/UK 2007

117 mins

There’s something both strange and familiar about Sweeney Todd. It is a tale that has been recounted on both the large and small screens several times over the last century and yet most people only know the broad strokes of the story – the serial killer who runs a barber’s shop that provides filling for the meat pies in the café below. This is mainly because, unlike the two other most famous Victorian serial killers – Jack the Ripper and Jeckyll/Hyde – Sweeney Todd isn’t based on a well-documented case or a famous novel but is a continuing game of Chinese whispers that began as a ‘penny dreadful’ around 1847. To this day there is a continuing debate regarding whether the folk tale is based on truth or not and each generation has added new details. Tim Burton’s new film version of the story, based on the Stephen Sondheim musical, includes Sweeney’s alter ego Benjamin Barker, who was only added to the mythos in the early 70s.

Familiarity also comes from the fact that this is almost the culmination of a life work’s for Burton – it is the third musical he has directed (following Corpse Bride and The Nightmare Before Christmas), the sixth film of his to feature Johnny Depp in the lead, the fifth with Helena Bonham Carter (the third that all three of them worked on together) and yet another love letter from the director to the Anglo-American school of gothic romance and horror. It combines the Grand Guignol of his earlier Sleepy Hollow with the razor-fingered melodrama of Edward Scissorhands to the extent that when Depp exclaims, ‘At last my hand is complete’, while holding a razor it feels like a prequel to Edward, albeit one with an 18 certificate.

For all its familiarity though, I imagine Tim Burton’s film will be the first full telling of the story that at least one generation has come across. A brilliant combination of vocals, victuals and Victorian horror, this is one of the finest musicals I’ve seen on screen in years.

Watching the badly weighted trailer and with the precedent of the ill-judged Mars Attacks in mind, I had worried in advance that the combination of murder, black comedy and musical might be a dreadful mismatch, but unlike Burton’s pointless remake of Planet of the Apes, Sweeney Todd is one revival perfectly matched to the director’s sensibilities. Though not as catchy as the first musical Burton plotted (Nightmare) and at times needing a little more tightening, Sweeney Todd could bring an entirely new audience to the musical genre with its combination of extreme horror and unexpectedly good vocal performances from all the leads. This is no glitzy melodrama designed to appeal to fans of Moulin Rouge or Evita but a potent horror film where the characters just happen to deliver their dialogue to music.

Johnny Depp is a brilliant character-actor (and now a bankable star on the back of Pirates of the Caribbean) and has always been at his best in Burton’s films. Here, he delivers a performance as memorable as Edward Scissorhands or Ed Wood, his mentor’s love of kitsch coming through via the white streak in Sweeney’s hair that seems borrowed from Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein. Bonham Carter is also on top form in another doomed romance that sees her mix a sickly pallor with a love of violence. In another strange echo, her final scene recalls her own role as the bride of Frankenstein in Kenneth Branagh’s risible Mary Shelley adaptation.

Depp and Bonham Carter already sang love duets from beyond the grave in the earlier Corpse Bride, but no one really noticed because the songs were delivered by their CGI avatars. Here, her unrequited love is surprisingly poignant even as she disposes of her man’s victims and makes cannibalism the latest diet on the streets of London. It’s a hard trick to make death beautiful, especially when it’s so bloody, but for every brutal throat-slashing in the movie there is an exquisite exsanguination – the severed jugular coating the throat in a scarlet damask or the outline of an angel appearing in rhesus negative on the floor. Elsewhere, the set design mixes the director’s continuing love of German Expressionism with the latest CGI, making the cobbled stones and soot-blackened bricks of nineteenth-century London spring as vividly to life as the consumptive pallor of its inhabitants.

As Burton brings another famous gothic tale of terror to the screen, the only real surprise (other than the amount of blood) is the lack of a horror icon in the cast – no contemporary of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee or Michael Gough here. However, the British character-actors Burton has assembled work wonders in their somewhat caricatured roles: Alan Rickman as the evil pantomime villain (following similar turns in Die Hard and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves) and Timothy Spall as his henchman. Unlike the rest of the world, I’m not a fan of Sacha Baron Cohen but here he is well cast as Sweeney’s absurd rival Pirelli, affecting an over-the-top Italian accent that segues into Cockney behind closed doors. Less successful are new comers Jamie Campbell Bower and Jayne Wisener as the young lovers Anthony and Johanna, both bland and twee in their parts – the former in particular, a younger, prettier Jonathan Rhys Meyers lookalike. The only other slight disappointment is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Anthony (Stewart) Head, which I hoped would lead to at least one musical number…

American critics, pondering the success of this movie, wondered whether the marketing campaign was based on what they call a ‘bait and switch’ strategy, where you tempt someone with something but swap it for an item less palatable at the last minute, to whit: it was marketed as a (comedy) horror film but what audiences get is in fact a musical. However, while the first grisly murder may take a little while coming, subsequent deaths follow in rapid succession with increasingly lurid amounts of claret filling the screen. So for anyone who didn’t know this came with lyrics, music and a book, rest assured it is a horror film as well as a musical, and a very successful example of both.

Alex Fitch

Beat Girl

Beat Girl
Beat Girl

Format: Cinema

Screening at: Barbican, London

Date: 23 January 2008

Director: Edmond T. Gréville

Writers: Dail Ambler, Edmond T. Gréville

Cast: Gillian Hills, Adam Faith, Christopher Lee

UK 1960

85 mins

On 23rd January the Barbican will be revealing the first of its collaborations with the Hammett Story Agency. Writers are commissioned to write a short story about a minor character in their favourite movie. The evening will feature a screening and a reading of the story by its author. The first film, selected by Cathi Unsworth, is Beat Girl, made in 1960 by Edmond T. Gréville and starring Gillian Hills, Adam Faith and Christopher Lee. Cathi Unsworth will read her story ‘Johnny Remember Me’ (the title of soap star John Leyton’s 1961 chart topper), a first-person account narrated by one of the anonymous backing musicians.

Beat Girl is set in that mythic milieu in pop culture history – Soho in the late 50s – the moment when England discovered ‘cool’, when wild young merchant seamen such as Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard went looking for kicks during shore time and accidentally imported an American music called rock’n’roll. In coffee bars, across the street from strip joints, the nation’s first ‘teenagers’, fuelled by double shots of espresso, went wild for this new music. Somewhere between child and adult, this new being began to create its own identity and its own language. When Jenny’s (Gillian Hills) father asks her what all the new words mean she replies, ‘It means us. Something that’s ours. We didn’t get it from our parents’. The film is peppered with so many ‘cool it daddios’ it seems almost too forced – the ‘square’ movie producers’ idea of what the kids sound like – but it may well be accurate.

Like other ‘fictional’ accounts of this era, The Tommy Steele Story and Espresso Bongo (which charts Cliff’s rise from coffee house bongoiste to becoming God’s own Elvis) the film depicts a world of crazy beatnik jazz and early rock’n’roll (as always the importance of skiffle is overlooked).

Espresso Bongo is released in the UK in a Dual Format DVD/BR edition on 25 May 2016 as part of BFI Flipside.

The jazz music (nothing like the bebop that Kerouac, Cassady and Co went wild for) is provided by the John Barry Seven (just a year before Bond theme mega-stardom) and the rock’n’roll by Barry’s protégé Adam Faith – who gets to perform two songs. The John Barry theme tune is quite something, maybe even better than his classic Bond theme. Thus it is that Beat Girl became the first British film to have a soundtrack LP release.

‘THIS COULD BE YOUR DAUGHTER’, the poster shrieks, and Beat Girl is undeniably an exploitation film, with the familiar mix of titillation (a lengthy strip scene was cut from the original UK release but is usually reinstated nowadays) and delinquency with a timely lesson in morality thrown in at the end. Unsurprisingly, it is a bit corny and a little clichéd but in all the right places. When Faith strums the battered old acoustic guitar he wears throughout the film he is suddenly backed by an invisible rock’n’roll band and his voice is drenched in Elvis Presley-style reverb. But Gillian Hills is excellent as the wild beat girl ignored by her architect father (obsessed with the creation of his sound-proofed utopia ‘City 2000′) and angry at his new 24-year-old French wife. She spends her time screaming hysterically in her bedroom or sneaking off from St Martin’s College to hang out and drink coffee with her friends and go dancing in cellars and caves ’til the early hours with a young Oliver Reed (now that is wild!). The film is always willing to show the seedier side of life. As in Jane Mansfield’s Soho-set movie Too Hot To Handle (1960), much of the action concerns the strip clubs and their managers (Christopher Lee in both cases) and of course the strippers.

Beat Girl remains an entertaining film and a great picture (lacking in some authenticity I’m sure) of that brief moment of British ‘cool’ before the entertainment industry stepped in and turned Cliff, Tommy et al into family entertainers. But while Cliff and Tommy got cleaned up, Soho’s reputation as London’s centre of sex, caffeine and rock’n’roll was made. In the 60s the R’n’B clubs gave the likes of Georgie Fame and The Yardbirds their start and even today coffee shops (mostly Starbucks, granted) exist alongside strip clubs and sex shops. And jazz can still be heard at the Pizza Express.

As for the Cathi Unsworth story I’m curious to find out. Will the musician follow John Barry to Hollywood and work on soundtracks? Does he think in hip-talk or just use it to act cool with his friends? Will he break the world drumming record? And are they really only drinking coffee?

Paul Huckerby

For details of the event click here.


Teenage Hooker Became A Killing Machine

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 December 2007

Distributor: Third Window

Director: Gee-woong Nam

Cast: Dae-tong Kim, So-yun Lee

Orginal title Daehakno-yeseo maechoon-hadaka tomaksalhae danghan yeogosaeng ajik Daehakno-ye Issda

Director: Yukihiko Tsutsumi

Cast: Maho Nonami, Eiko Koike

South Korea 2000

60 mins

Finally! Somebody in this stinkin’ world appreciates my superhuman ability to waste entire weeks of my life watching endless piles of B-Movies with stupid titles and has actually given me an opportunity to post my narrow-minded opinions on an otherwise respectable online magazine. So big up to the Electric Sheep gang for doing so… and on your heads be it.

The premise of Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine is essentially a cross between I Spit on Your Grave and Robocop. A street-walking-sailor-suited-schoolgirl is murdered when she becomes pregnant by her teacher, and is brought back to life Bionic Woman-style by some mysterious organisation. Reprogrammed as an emotionless assassin, complete with a fearsome flip-out crotch-cannon, she is unleashed on the city’s underworld, only to have her circuitry damaged (or to be more accurate, one of her robo-boobs memorably blown off) causing her to realise her true identity. Cue bloody and violent revenge upon her killers and so forth.

Sounds like I just described a generic exploitation action thriller, don’t it? I knew you were gonna get the wrong idea! At risk of sounding unsophisticated… I think this is really one of them artsy films in disguise… To get a better idea of the way things go down in the world of Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine, I’d like you to fetch a torch and hold it up to one of your eyes, as this will help more accurately emulate the experience.

You see, I had to take an unexpected trippy-trip out of my comfort zone for this film. As an avowed philistine, I was hoping for something kitschy and lowbrow, I mean, it’s got ‘Killing Machine’ in the title for gad’s sake. Instead I was faced with something darkly surreal and full of what I can only assume was symbolism. I’m not really an abstract type guy, and my knowledge of Asian cinema is basically limited to Godzilla so I had to really fish my brains for a decent reference point and I came up with… Tetsuo: The Iron Man! I know that one gets wheeled out a lot but it’s the only other film I can think of that has a similar mix of Lynchy obscurity and animé-informed cyberia. You can tell someone’s out of their depth when they resort to calling stuff ‘Lynchy’ but you know what I mean. It’s a world where people can transform into robots and shoot each other up, but it all happens in grimy hand-held slow motion with ‘experimental’ lighting and an opera soundtrack. Here’s a good example of what I’m talking about: rather than go for the obvious ‘scientists turn dead body into android in laboratory’ scene, Teenage Hooker gives us the world’s first ‘creepy old lady turns dead body into android with a Victorian sewing machine’ scene. That kind of thing.

So, yeah, contrary to my expectations, Teenage Hooker Became a Killing Machine is a little more in the arthouse than the grindhouse, and I’d recommend it to anyone who fancies spending an hour feeling shocked and confused. I’d buy it just for the title, it’s a real shelf-brightener.

Doc Horror


800 Bullets

Format: DVD

Release date: 26 December 2007

Distributor: Metrodome

Director: Alex de la Iglesia

Writers: Jorge Guerricaechevarrí­Â­a, Alex de la Iglesia

Original title 800 balas

Cast: Sancho Gracia, Carmen Maura, Luis Castro

Spain 2002

124 mins

Images of spinning tumbleweeds and drunken bar-room brawls set the scene for 800 Bullets, the latest offering from cult director Alex de la Iglesia, which finally sees a DVD release. Taking its cue from every Western you’ve ever seen, de la Iglesia presents us with the washed-up former stuntman Julií¡n Torralba, an eccentric who is desperately trying to keep his spirit alive by performing action shows on a crumbling Wild West film set in Spain, the very location of his prior glory. In his own words Torralba’s stunts captured the respect of the Western icon himself, Clint Eastwood, but the best he and his team can hope for now is a cluster of Japanese tourists that will secure the next month’s living expenses. He is also still coming to terms with the death of his son, who was killed on set in a stunt gone wrong, and the subsequent estrangement from his daughter-in-law and young grandson Carlos. When the young boy stumbles across relics that point to his grandfather’s legacy, he immediately becomes infatuated with the idea of escaping his seemingly idyllic life, and takes it upon himself to sign up to his class’ skiing trip, only to deviate from the group and set off on his own quest for adventure in search of Julií¡n.

De la Iglesia’s homage/satire/parody works best when taking risks. The funniest scene sees the young Carlos, having been initiated into his grandfather’s clan of Western-themed misfits, finding himself alone with a bra-less prostitute. In keeping with the liberal values of Julií¡n’s regime, she proceeds to give him a masterclass on breast fondling (‘no, not like you’re ringing a doorbell!’), only for the young boy to be phoned mid-session by his mother, eager to know how the skiing trip is going. In scenes like this you’re not sure whether to laugh or be worried about the social services bursting onto the set, but the film is all the better for it.

Unfortunately the script, written by de la Iglesia with Jorge Guerricaechevarrí­Â­a, is wildly inconsistent and at times veers towards the sentimental. Where 800 Bullets is centred on family values and reflects heavily upon the relationship between generations, it seems like an easy option to tie up strands of narrative with predictable feel-good schmaltz, especially as the strengths of the film lie in injecting the clichés of old Westerns with de la Iglesia’s trademark quirkiness. Adding to this is the fact that 800 Bullets looks and feels like a kid’s film. The cinematography is clean and bursting with colour, the dialogue (when not peppered with profanity) is frank, and much of the soundtrack could have been written by John Williams on a lazy day. While on the surface this sounds like an interesting idea, as much of the film is seen through the eyes of Carlos, it comes across less as a stylistic choice and more as an attempt to reach the crossover mainstream audience enjoyed by de la Iglesia’s Hispanic contemporaries Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo del Toro. This sadly compromises the more daring aspects of the film.

While excessive and over the top in parts, 800 Bullets comes across as more Shanghai Noon than El Topo. Despite intriguing ideas that could have been built upon, the film is just too safe in its journey to have any real merit and comes across as a generic Western spoof rather than the witty homage it could have been. Let’s hope that de la Iglesia’s first English-language offering The Oxford Murders can restore faith in his undeniable talent.

James Merchant