The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful

Format: Cinema

Venue: BFI Southbank

Director: Vincente Minelli

Writers: Charles Schnee, George Bradshaw

Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon

USA 1952

118 mins

Vincente Minnelli’s insider look at the golden age of Hollywood is sly and slickly entertaining, with Kirk Douglas as the unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields adding a tough edge to the black and white melodrama. Told in three long flashbacks, it recounts the relationships of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and the luminous Lana Turner, who plays the actress Georgia Lorrison, to the ambitious Shields. Shields woos them, puts a magical gloss on their burgeoning talent, and then carelessly, casually ditches them when they’ve outlived their usefulness to him.

Charles Schnee’s whip-smart script, packed with sharp one-liners and passionate dialogue is a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the noir-ish look of Robert Surtees’s cinematography. There’s an extra layer of knowingness to the whole production too: shadows, odd staircases, extravagant stage sets and behind the scenes shots are nods to the mechanics of filmmaking, while in-jokes about directors and actors add an extra frisson to this gripping tale of Hollywood hubris.

Director Amiel is the first one to dish the dirt on Shields. A paid mourner at the funeral of Shields’s father, he insults the dead producer: ‘one of the mad men who almost wrecked it, a butcher who sold everything but the pig’s whistle’, unaware that he’s standing next to his son. He apologises and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. The duo learn their craft on the B-movie production lot, their biggest success ‘The Doom of the Cat Men’, where the laughable, ill-fitting cat costumes are abandoned for the shadowy allure of silhouettes: ‘Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark all sorts of things come alive.’ Soon after, darkness enters their relationship too, as Shields’s ruthless disloyalty becomes evident.

Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison is next in line for the Shields treatment. Drunk, and crushed by the weight of the legacy of her actor father, she is rescued by the charismatic Shields from playing ‘the doomed daughter of the great man’. Shields coaches her, stops her drinking, makes her believe that he’s in love with her. Lana’s all aglow, like a damaged angel, tender and trembling and determined to do her best. Until fear overcomes her on the night before filming her first important role and she goes on a bender. Shields drops her in a swimming pool to sober her up, and sets her on the path to being a star. And then along comes the celebratory party where Georgia is feted and Jonathan is missing. Heading to his house wrapped in a white mink, and with her heart on her glittery sleeve, she’s determined to celebrate with him. But instead of a celebration, Georgia is faced with the heart-breaking realisation of Shields’s betrayal.

James Lee Bartlow seems the most likely candidate to resist the allure of the film world. A pipe-smoking Southern writer, with a delightful wife - Gloria Grahame, blonde and blithe and funny, with the catch phrase: ‘You’re a very naughty man, I’m happy to say’ - he nonetheless succumbs: ‘I’m flattered that you want me and bitter you got me.’ Jonathan and James go to work on the script, with constant interruptions from charming Rosemary Bartlow, until Shields, unbeknownst to James Lee, arranges a distraction with fatal consequences. It’s the end of another relationship, a definitive severing of all ties, like those with Amiel and Georgia.

But this is Hollywood, and in the final scene the three protagonists are clustered around a phone, listening to the scintillating, despicable Shields pitching them a new project. Until the very end we wonder if they will be sucked in again by his treacherous charm.

Part two of the Vincente Minelli retrospective runs until 26 June 2012 at BFI Southbank.

Eithne Farry

Breaker Morant

Breaker Morant

Format: DVD

Release date: 1 September 2001

Distributor: Stax Entertainment

Director: Bruce Beresford

Writers: Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce Beresford, Kit Denton

Based on the play by: Kenneth G. Ross

Cast: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters

Australia 1980

107 mins

A palpable, and justifiable, air of anger, bewilderment and injustice permeates Bruce Beresford’s Boer War drama, a major entry of the Australian New Wave of the late 70s and early 80s. With an Academy Award-nominated screenplay co-written by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a never better Edward Woodward in the title role, and an all-Australian supporting cast including Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Breaker Morant recreates the damning true-life tale of a court martial where military chicanery and international diplomacy doomed the accused before proceedings had even started.

A lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Boer War in South Africa, the Anglo-Australian Morant, now a folk hero to many in Australia, was arrested, along with lieutenants Peter Handcock (Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and charged with the murders of six Boer prisoners. Morant and Handcock were also charged with the murder of a German missionary, who witnessed the killings and may, or may not, have been siding with the Boers. Acting under long-standing orders to take no prisoners and also to seek vengeance for the killing and mutilation of their ranking officer Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), Morant, Handcock and Witton would end up as sacrificial lambs for the greater good of the British Empire. Used as scapegoats to appease the South African and German governments after news of the summary executions by firing squad spread, and to keep the planned peace talks on track, the accused claimed that they were following the direct orders of their superiors, including Lord Kitchener, but their assertions held no sway in what was, ironically, little more than a kangaroo court. Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad, and Witton, the youngest of the three, was sentenced to life with hard labour.

The larrikinism, earthy mordant humour and loyalty of the trio stand in direct opposition to the handlebar moustaches, repressed emotions, deceitfulness, clipped accents and air of privileged arrogance evinced by the British military leadership throughout Beresford’s expert retelling of the story. Morant, a renaissance man known for his great skill with horses, ballad writing and poetry, Handcock, a simple, working-class soldier and Witton, a naí¯ve, idealistic young man, were thrown to the wolves by the army they had volunteered to join. Presented in a non-linear, episodic fashion, reflective of the disjointed (and patently false) narrative that the British army forced onto the incident, Breaker Morant, shot entirely on location in South Australia, is awash with cutting dialogue, memorable performances and striking imagery.

The winner in 10 categories at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, and including a performance by Thompson as the accused’s lawyer, Major J.F. Thomas, that won him the Best Supporting Actor Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Beresford’s take on the 1978 stage production Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts by Kenneth G. Ross is an enduring reminder of a shameful act of betrayal, not just of individuals and colleagues, but of the colonial bonds between Britain and Australia. Morant’s bitingly sarcastic comment that ‘It is customary during a time of war to kill as many of the enemy as possible’ lays bare the hypocrisy, pig-headedness and callous indifference of his superior officers. Thompson indelibly captures the frustration, stoicism and professionalism shown by Thomas in fighting a battle that was already lost, and the climactic hilltop execution of Morant and Handcock, filmed at sunrise in a coincidental but notable reversal of the sunset sacrifice of Woodward’s Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man, is both gut-wrenching and visually breath-taking. As with much of Breaker Morant, the eschewing of a musical score in the climactic scenes enhances the grip of the emotionally engaging material. Everything you need to see and feel is up there on the screen without the need for aural manipulation.

The corrupting influence of war on all those involved and the heavy price paid by some for their blind allegiance to a cause, the flag they fought for and those in charge of espousing its virtues is thrown into stark relief in Beresford’s anti-war classic. Specific though the narrative may be, it attains a timeless quality made abundantly clear by the contemporary horrors of Abu Ghraib and the distance the US military’s chain of command put between itself and the perpetrators of those crimes committed in the name of the War on Terror.

Neil Mitchell

The Raid

The Raid

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 18 May 2012

Venues: Nationwide

Distributor: Momentum

Director: Gareth Evans

Writer: Gareth Evans

Original title: Serbuan maut

Cast: Iko Uwais, Ananda George, Ray Sahetapy

Indonesia/USA 2011

101 mins

Asian action cinema, and in particular Asian martial arts films, has been on something of a downward turn of late. Maybe it’s because the old stars are, well, getting older - Jackie Chan has just hit 58 this year, even Donnie Yen is nearing 50 - and the void has not really been satisfactorily filled. Tony Jaa was the great big hope, but we all know what happened to him - one only hopes that his reunion with Prachya Pinkaew (Ong-bak [2003], Warrior King [2005]) on Warrior King 2 will serve as his redemption. The scene, bar a few outstanding films such as Ip Man 1 (2008) and 2 (2010), has been somewhat lacklustre of late, with action roles falling to Asian pop stars seeking a film career rather than talented martial artists.

So thank heavens for writer-director Gareth Evans and new shining light Iko Uwais, who between them have created two beacons in an otherwise faltering genre. Their first collaboration, Merantau (aka Merantau Warrior, 2009), is a highly enjoyable action flick that introduced the world to the formidable talents of Uwais and his preferred martial art, Silat, an Indonesian form that had never really been showcased on film before. It’s a simple coming-of-age set-up: a young boy (Uwais) leaves his remote village to become a man and must face the hardships that come with growing up in an unrepentant and crime-ridden city (in many ways, it’s similar to Ong-bak). While not altogether ground-breaking, there’s enough raw energy, passion and style on show to suggest that a more accomplished film would come.

The Raid is the film that delivers on that promise. Having already stunned festival-goers around the world, The Raid is now set to take the UK by storm. And that’s exactly what it is, an unbridled storm, a thunderous lightning bolt of action cinema that will sweep you up and blow you away.

Once again, the set-up is simple. There’s a murderous crime boss, Tama (Sahetapy), living on the top floor of a tower block, a high-rise concrete maze that he’s populated with seemingly every hardcore villain and violent madman in Jakarta. A team of crack special forces cops is sent in to take him down, quietly and with no fuss. But, as in all good action films, there’s a dirty cop on Tama’s payroll and soon the spec ops team have been betrayed, and, cut off from the outside world, they are facing certain annihilation. Fortunately, one loyal cop, Rama (Uwais), has eaten his Shredded Wheat for breakfast and sets about cleaning shop in the most brutal way possible.

Watch a clip.

Like Merantau, The Raid starts with Uwais warming up, stretching his muscles and practising his martial arts skills - the quiet before the storm. But when the action hits, it’s relentless. Each breathtaking set piece is perfectly orchestrated, from Uwais’s intricate skill set through to Evans’s peerless and pacy direction. The fights are artfully done, played out like ballets of destruction, culminating in a final three-way fight that is stunning in its execution: I can’t recall any other action film finishing with a fight between hero and villain where the latter is the one who is outnumbered (two vs one) but is so talented in his art that the heroes are the clear underdogs.

Uwais is certainly the star of the film, mixing the charisma of Tony Jaa with the hand speed of Bruce Lee, but the performer who really captures the eye is Yayan Ruhian as one of Tama’s psychotic henchmen, the appropriately named Mad Dog, who delights in causing pain. Slight in build, Ruhian, who served as the film’s fight choreographer with Uwais (a role the pair also filled on Merantau), is a lithe, lightning-fast bundle of muscle and sinew whose performance as Mad Dog is set to make it one of the genre’s most memorable villains ever.

As a full-on martial arts action film, The Raid wears its influences on its sleeve, taking the very best traits from the cream of Hong Kong cinema, in particular John Woo’s classic heroic bloodshed movies of the 80s and 90s, such as Hard Boiled (1992) and A Better Tomorrow (1986). Even Oldboy (2003) gets a nod with what has become a de rigueur scene for Asian action cinema - a fight in a corridor. But with the director being Welsh (yes, we don’t really get how that happened either), it also has smatterings of Western cinema too, such as Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) and Die Hard (1988). Indeed, one scene, where Rama tries to hide an injured fellow officer in a wall crawlspace as one of the villains systematically stabs through the plasterwork with a machete, is so nerve-twitchingly intense it would be more at home in a horror film than an action flick.

Overall, The Raid is hard to fault. OK, it’s not breaking any new ground, more so reinvigorating it, and the action dominates character development (although there’s just enough to make you care what happens to Rama et al). Equally, some of the more visceral violence will put off a few, and even have hardcore fans wincing, but, as a whole, The Raid is such a refreshing take on the action film it makes you realise just what you have missed from the genre for the past few years. It’s been a long time since I’ve left a cinema so pumped with energy that I just wanted to watch the film again immediately, and I can’t wait to get it on DVD so I can watch in more detail the blistering fight action.

It’s early days yet, and there are still some excellent films to come, but already I think I’ve found my film of the year. Bring on Evans/Uwais collaboration number three.

Toby Weidmann

The Plague of the Zombies

Two years before Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, Hammer Studios produced this socially conscious zombie thriller set in Cornwall and directed by John Gilling. The Plague of the Zombies (1966) is released on double play by Studiocanal on 7 May and screens in selected cities across the UK on 12 June 2012.

The screening is part of the Made in Britain season organised by Studiocanal and the ICO in celebration of classic British cinema between the Jubilee Bank Holiday weekend and the Olympics. The other films in the season are Passport to Pimlico (5 June), The Man Who Fell to Earth (19 June), Hobson’s Choice (26 June) and Quatermass and the Pit (3 July). For more information, please go to the ICO website.

Comic Strip Review by Chris Doherty
For more information on Chris Doherty, go to bittersweetfatkid.

True Love

True Love

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 4 May 2012

Venue: BFI Southbank


1-7 May 2012

Director: Enrico Clarico Nasino

Writers: Fabio Resinaro, Fabio Guaglione

Alternative title: Y/N: You Lie, You Die

Cast: Jay Harrington, Ellen Hollman, Clare Carey

USA/Italy 2012

100 mins

For low-budget filmmakers, having a tiny cast and only one or two locations is a huge bonus in keeping costs down. This has led to a number of films based on ‘locked room’ scenarios over the last decade and a half. Cube (1997) was an excellent, genre-defining example of this and in subsequent years, Maléfique (2002), Ryûhei Kitamura’s Alive (2002), Saw (2004), Fermat’s Room (2007) and Exam (2009) have explored horror and science fiction variations on the theme. Many of these have screened at SCI-FI-LONDON or FrightFest in the past so this is starting to become a well-worn theme for fans of the genre and regular genre festival attendees.

Enrico Clerico Nasino’s True Love, which screens at SCI-FI-LONDON this month, is another example, but unfortunately, it adds little that hasn’t been seen before. The central premise of a young married couple, kept in separate, futuristic cells and made to answer difficult questions about how much they trust each other under the threat of water, sleep or mobility being removed is strong enough. As a film made by Italians with an American cast and setting, this could have resulted in an interesting exploration of Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo Bay-style interrogation techniques on middle-class suburbanites who experienced the ‘war on terror’ as a mild diversion through their televisions, but disappointingly, this aspect is barely hinted at.

Instead, the writers and directors have reality dating shows and the Milgram experiment in their sights as the subjects they’re giving an SF twist to. Even then, the science-fictional aspect of the film is minimal, apart from a final scene that adds an eye-catching set piece of gravity working differently in opposite ends of the prison-like environment. [SPOILER WARNING] But this is undermined by a ‘was it all a dream?’ ending, and the nature of the lies they have told each other - adultery, financial trouble - is more suited to romantic melodrama than a death trap thriller. [END OF SPOILERS]

Neither the two main actors or the parts they’re playing are particularly engaging, meaning that the film’s main attraction lies in the more technical aspects of the production. True Love‘s direction, editing, cinematography and sound design are all solid, and for these qualities alone, those involved behind the scenes deserve to work on bigger and better things, but the film overall suffers of a lack of ambition and originality. While True Love isn’t by any means a particularly bad film, for audiences to get the most out of its narrative and visual twists and turns, they’ll need to be unfamiliar with similar narratives that have dealt with these tropes better and with more imagination.

SCI-FI-LONDON opens on May 1 and runs until May 7 at various venues across London.

Alex Fitch



Format: Cinema

Screening date: 2 + 4 May 2012

Venue: Apollo, London


1-7 May 2012

Director: Nir Paniry

Writers: Nir Paniry, Gabriel Cowan, John Suits

Cast: Sasha Roiz, Jenny Mollen, Dominic Bogart

USA 2012

90 mins

An excellent science-fiction thriller that, while reminiscent of a number of other films, including The Cell (2000), Identity (2003), Timecrimes (2007) and Inception (2010), improves on all its predecessors by having tight direction, characters the viewer can relate to and a brisk running time that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

US genre TV star Sasha Roiz, reminiscent of a laid-back young Jeff Goldblum, plays an inventor whose device allows a person to experience their own or other people’s memories as an interactive virtual reality environment. To get funding for this, he unwittingly does a deal with a law enforcement agency, who want to use it to investigate whether a supposed killer has committed a murder he claims no memory of. Roiz rushes to get the prototype finished for this initial demonstration. It works well enough in letting him enter the killer’s mind but malfunctions when he attempts to leave, putting his own body into a coma and trapping his consciousness in the killer’s mind for the next four years.

The script explores the morality of the device and the truths and fictions we tell ourselves. While tense and gripping when needs be, the film refreshingly doesn’t feel the audience has to be kept on the edge of their seats throughout, giving the human drama space to breathe. Since the budget doesn’t allow for the eye-boggling visuals of The Cell or Inception, it also avoids the over-familiarity of blockbuster set pieces that its predecessors got bogged down in. And despite the potentially labyrinthine possibilities of the scenario, it tells the tale in a straightforward manner that doesn’t require a scientist with a blackboard to explain the narrative to viewers without a Ph.D.

Indie actor Dominic Bogart portrays a sympathetic junkie and potential killer very well, experiencing his own incarceration in jail while he has another person trapped inside his head, and through the recreation and repetition of his memories, we learn how he has been betrayed and manipulated by the people he loves, throughout his life.

The story includes a twist that makes us doubt the central premise and leaves the plot open for a welcome sequel. This leads to some minor problems I have with the script, in particular: for a film that relies on a certain amount of real-life science, it seems strange that the filmmakers don’t acknowledge until the very end the well-established fact that each time a person remembers something, the memory changes slightly - a fact Roiz’s character seems incredulously unaware of.

Overall, though, a top-notch indie thriller and one that will hopefully find a distributor and a larger audience as soon as possible. Extracted is certainly the best film I’ve seen so far at this year’s SCI-FI-LONDON and its second screening on May 4 deserves to be sold out.

SCI-FI-LONDON runs from May 1 to 7 at various venues across London.

Alex Fitch

Le quai des brumes

Le Quai des Brumes

Format: Cinema

Screening date: 4 May 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI

Director: Marcel Carné

Writer: Jacques Prévert

Based on the novel by: Pierre Dumarchais

Cast: Jean Gabin, Michel Simon, Michèle Morgan

France 1938

91 mins

The label ‘poetic realism’ was applied to a whole range of films made in France throughout the 1930s, from the beautifully shot atmospheric stories of working-class life in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) to Julien Duvivier’s Casbah-set crime caper Pepe le Moko (1937) as well as to much of Jean Renoir’s 1930s output. However, the term was never more perfectly used than in describing two films made by Marcel Carné at the end of the decade: Le Jour se Lève (1939) and Le Quai des Brumes (1938).

The latter stars Jean Gabin as an army deserter arriving in the French port of Le Havre looking to flee the country. He meets a girl (Michèle Morgan) and falls in love. The simplicity of this is explained by some wonderful dialogue by the poet-cum-screenwriter Jacques Prévert: ‘It’s like in a film,’ Gabin’s character claims, ‘I see you and I like you. It’s love at first sight’. Gabin’s world-weary yet romantic tough guy prefigures Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca and many a film noir hero. Yet, despite his masculinity and self-confidence, he is unlike his Hollywood counterpart in that he is never really the instigator of the plot, but merely its doomed hero. The strong hand of fate rules the narrative - even the moments of good fortune, such as when Jean finds civvies to change into, complete with shoes the right size, simply serve to remind us that it’s the whim of fortune that is in the driving seat, not the protagonist. Such tragically doomed love stories were typical of the poetic realist style - apologies if this is a spoiler but to those in the know, merely the name Jean Gabin above the titles generally guarantees an unhappy ending (even the trailer gives away the end). It is not so much a question of will he make it - will he escape to Venezuela with his dog and his girl? - but how will he fail. It was this stoic, perhaps defeatist, attitude that led to someone in the Vichy Government to claim: ‘If we have lost the war, it is because of Le Quai des Brumes.’ Carné’s response was to ask, ‘Does one blame the weather on the barometer?’

What is surprising for such a key poetic realist film is that, despite focusing on working-class characters and being set in an industrial port, it eschews much of what we now consider ‘realist’ filmmaking. There are no naturalistic non-professional actors but big box office stars (Gabin) and great film character actors (Michel Simon). There are no handheld cameras and natural lighting: Carné’s films are studio films of the highest artifice, created by highly skilled artists and technicians. Although a few location shots are used, the ‘real’ world of industrial ports, dilapidated bars and rain-soaked streets is largely carefully recreated and artfully shot on a soundstage.

Made years before French critics had even considered the idea of cinematic authorship, Le Quai des Brumes stands as an example of collaborative filmmaking of the highest order. With the near collapse of the French studio system (Gaumont, Pathé withdrawing from film production in the mid-30s) newly formed film companies in France seemed to last as long as the governments of the time (months or even weeks). Yet, despite this, an all-star production team was assembled. The sets were designed by Alexandre Trauner, whose stylised recreations of the world of working people in the industrial port town work to heighten and skew the reality. Panama’s ramshackle bar by the sea seems almost dreamlike. Screenwriter Jacques Prévert’s dialogue combines the melodramatic, the poetic and street slang. His characters - although almost types (the petty gangster, the drunk, evil stepfather) - all have their little idiosyncrasies. Eugen Schüfftan, who went on to shoot the phantasmagoric Les yeux sans visage (Eyes without a Face, 1960), provides the expressionist shadowy cinematography that was to influence film noir a few years later. And also deserving a special mention is Maurice Jaubert’s score and Coco Chanel’s iconic transparent plastic raincoat for Michèle Morgan.

What is often forgotten when discussing poetic realism is how entertaining the films are, and none is more so than Le Quai des Brumes. Many of these films were box-office smashes in France at the time and Jean Gabin was a major star. This film shows why: he dominates the film even though he is surrounded by such odd and colourful characters, and despite (or because of) his minimal acting, he has a unique screen presence.

Paul Huckerby