The End Of The World (1931)
So: long story short.
Abel Gance’s first sound film was an adaptation of the novel, La Fin du Monde, by the French astronomer and author, Camille Flammarion (which was translated in English in 1894 as Omega: The Last Days Of The World). But while Flammarion’s book considers in serious, science-fiction terms the long-term consequences of a comet striking the Earth, Gance turned the comet into a metaphor for the war-clouds that were already gathering again over Europe.
Gance was (as always) aiming at a three-hour-plus epic; but his producers lost patience and took the film away from him, slashing it into a 105-minute version that leaves large stretches of the plot almost incomprehensible; although it does preserve the 15-minute-long climactic special-effects sequence of destruction and hysteria. This version of the film still exists, but as far as I know it has never been released commercially.
In America, Gance’s film fared even worse—albeit that this is the version that today is easiest to see. It was cut down to about 50 minutes of actual film, which was left in French and translated via a mixture of intertitles and subtitles, and which made no mention in its credits of Abel Gance. An awkward “introduction” from Dr Clyde Fisher, then the curator of astronomy at the American Museum of Natural History, was tacked on at the beginning—and then the film was released under the absurd, come-on title of Paris After Dark. (I bet audiences were disappointed…) Thankfully, the title has since been changed to The End Of The World; but there’s nothing anyone can do about the rest. In this format, most of Gance’s politics have been cut away, and the results play like a forerunner to When Worlds Collide, only no-one’s trying to leave the planet. Nobel Prize-winning scientist, Martial Novalic (Victor Francen), observes a gigantic comet on a collision-course with Earth; he summons colleagues from all around the world to confirm his findings before making an announcement. At first the matter is treated like a hoax: Novalic is accused of starting a worldwide panic so that, in the confusion, he and his fellow-scientists can seize power; but soon the comet, as predicted, becomes visible to the naked eye…
The 105-minute French version of La Fin du Monde is, as I say, very difficult to see; but there is a 90-minute version online—a Spanish-subtitled copy of an Italian subtitled copy of a French print…with the Spanish titles mostly imposed over the Italian ones. (Pity: I’m better at Italian than Spanish.) In this format, much of the character-focused melodrama is hard to follow, though I gather it has to do with greedy capitalists carrying on regardless. However, even through the language-barrier we can judge that this version restores much of Gance’s original vision—and that includes himself, co-starring as poet / mad prophet, Jean Novalic (and as Someone Else: see the link below). Jean and his brother Martial, between them, try to warn the world of its imminent destruction, but their pleas for universal co-operation fall upon deaf ears. Jean ends up in a mental hospital and Martial is accused of treason—and though I guffawed involuntarily at the moment in the American version in which Martial and his followers are accused of trying to achieve “world domination by an International Society of Scientists”, this turns out to be pretty much the case! – though, too, we get the preceding accusation that Martial is creating a false panic for his own financial and political gain, which here is knowingly done by his enemies; and in both versions we get Martial’s instinctive response to learning he is to be arrested: a plea to his scientist-collaborators that, at all cost, and no matter what happens to him, they keep their data safe. In handing control over to the scientists, Gance apparently had a Star Trek-ian vision of a single co-operative world replacing separate warring nations; but when he came to working out that vision in his film, something went wrong; and frankly, we fear for the surviving world (if any) under the governance of Gance’s “elite”. What is interesting though, is the similarity between what we get here and what film-goers were confronted with five years later, in Things To Come.
(More on this film in Moments)
King Of The Wild (1931, 12 chapters)
Amused by the resemblance between himself and a young American engineer, Robert Grant (Walter Miller), the Rajah of Rampur befriends him. While out hunting, the Rajah is fatally wounded by a tiger: he begs Grant to impersonate him until his brother and heir can arrive. However, Harris (Tom Santschi), an animal-trapper tasked with carrying the Rajah’s last letter, sells him out to his villainous cousin, Prince Dakka (Mischa Auer): the two men write out an agreement on the back of the letter, in what Harris does not realise is disappearing ink. Dakka’s plan to seize power is thwarted, but Grant is accused of the Rajah’s murder and imprisoned. He manages to escape, hunting Harris across Africa. In a coastal port, Harris conspires with an Arab, Mustapha (Boris Karloff), against a young American, Tom Armitage (Carroll Nye), who has discovered a rich diamond deposit. Mustapha hires the adventuress, Mrs LaSalle (Dorothy Christy), to vamp Tom, but things go wrong between them and Tom is shot. Believing she has killed him, Mrs LaSalle flees by ocean liner, leaving Mustapha the chance to smuggle the young man away. Confusion results in Tom’s sister, Muriel (Nora Lane), Harris and Robert Grant – who is disguised as an Arab – all heading for the boat as well—where Mrs LaSalle is mysteriously murdered, just before a mid-ocean collision results in the liner beginning to sink… As this synopsis makes clear, you can’t accuse King Of The Wild of being dull; in fact, there’s about another forty subplots unfolding around the two central ones of Grant trying acquire the letter that can prove his innocence and Tom and Muriel being persecuted for their knowledge of the diamonds. Yet for all this frantic activity, there’s something lacking here: a spark, perhaps; that sense of fun that makes a serial truly engaging. The villainy is all terribly matter-of-fact; and while Boris keeps things moving as Mustapha, with his constant double-crossing of his co-conspirators, he’s also doing that awful, all-purpose “exotic” accent of his, which is a bit teeth-clenching; as indeed is the raft of racial and other impersonations here, which serve chiefly to make the main characters seem blind and/or stupid. However, all this pales in comparison with the serial’s handling of its “African tribe”, which is enough to make your hair stand on end—because the tribe isn’t just a minor detail here, as is usually the case, but a full-on part of the plot; and the combination of inappropriate stock footage and ooga-booga acting is just horrifying. Meanwhile, Harris has an “ape-man” or “missing-link”, or something, in his employ; while the characters are constantly being attacked by big cats that invariably end up dead. (Though I will say this for King Of The Wild: it’s one of the very few serials that bothers explaining why there’s a tiger in Africa.) All in all, then, this doesn’t work as well as could or should have done; though there are enough plot-twists and weird details to keep you going—and if all else fails, you can at least make a drinking-game out of the number of times one character or another is accused of murder…
Wings In The Dark (1935)
Though she is as skilled a pilot as any of her male colleagues, her sex relegates Sheila Mason (Myrna Loy) to the dangerous fringes of aviation, where she supports herself as a barnstormer and movie stunt-flyer. Sheila feels unbounded admiration for Ken Gordon (Cary Grant), who has distinguished himself in the past flying dangerous rescue and relief missions, but whose current focus is upon developing instrumentation that will allow pilots to “fly blind” in any conditions. After he pulls off a perfect blind landing in front of government aviation official, Top Harmon (Dean Jagger), Ken applies for permission to test out his equipment during a long-distance flight. However, due to a publicity storm stirred up by Sheila’s manager, Nick Williams (Roscoe Karns), in a mistaken attempt to be helpful, Ken’s permit is refused. It is Sheila who convinces Ken that his work is too important to be held up by “a piece of paper”. But as Ken, his engineer, Mac (Hobart Cavanaugh), and Sheila make rapid preparations for the secret test-flight, an explosion leaves Ken injured and blind: uncertain whether he will ever see again, let alone fly… Wings In The Dark is one of a seemingly endless parade of aviation films produced during the 1930s, and though it exhibits most of the usual genre flaws – including a nose-dive into outright melodrama – it also has few points that separate it from the pack—not least the first co-casting of Myrna Loy and Cary Grant. Furthermore, the subplot dealing with Ken’s blinding was shaped to educate audiences about the various supports available to the blind, including seeing-eye dogs; and while this aspect of the film was somewhat toned down by its nervous producers, already worried about a disabled hero, there are still several scenes of Ken working with his dog, Lightning. From an aviation point of view, Wings In The Dark is not only built around the development of the kind of instrumentation that today is the bedrock of commercial flight, but the film strikes a straight-faced blow for female flyers: Ken has nothing but contempt for barnstormers, until Sheila points out wryly that, as a woman, she is banned from all “respectable” flying—for the airlines, the army and the government. This situation becomes the crux of the film’s second act, with Sheila and Mac conspiring to keep Ken in ignorance of his parlous financial state, and Sheila taking on increasingly dangerous stunt-flights in order to go on secretly funding his research: she’s paid best when she is literally risking her life. When the opportunity for a big pay-off comes, in the form of a non-stop flight from Moscow to New York, Sheila is determined to take the risk; but when conditions during the flight become untenable, Ken’s auto-pilot system may be her only hope…
(More on this film in Moments)
Doomed To Die (1940)
A fire mid-ocean destroys a liner and kills 400 of those on board. Though an insurance inquiry exonerates the shipping firm, its head, Cyrus Wentworth (Melvin Lang), is wracked with guilt—some of it over the Chinese bonds he agreed to smuggle into the country: though the individual responsible for them was one of the survivors, he has since disappeared. However, the disaster does nothing to spark Wentworth’s interest in a merger with a rival firm owned by Paul Fleming (Guy Usher); in fact, the only thing that makes Wentworth angrier is that Fleming’s son, Dick (William Stelling), wants to marry his daughter, Cynthia (Catherine Craig). Though his father tries to dissuade him, Dick insists upon speaking frankly to Wentworth about the matter. Their meeting ends in a violent quarrel, overheard in the outer office. Then comes a shot… Captain Bill Street (Grant Withers) has no doubt of Dick Fleming’s guilt and promptly arrests him; but when Cynthia pours out her troubles to her friend, reporter Bobbie Logan (Majorie Reynolds), she calls in James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff)… This was the fifth Mr Wong film, the last to star Boris Karloff, and a sadly threadbare piece of work it is. The rather feeble plot revolves around the missing Chinese bonds on one hand, and Bobbie’s efforts to prove Dick Fleming’s innocence on the other—not least because of Street’s promise to eat his hat if she can. While the central players lurk around making themselves look as guilty as possible, Mr Wong’s Chinatown connections put him on the right track; though he is too late to prevent the attempted destruction of a key document. This sets up the film’s one genuinely interesting scene, as Wong resorts to SCIENCE!! – or at least, infra-red photography – to try to bring up the writing in some recovered pieces of ash; a scene which also finds Bill Street getting off a rare zinger (Street: “Fascinating.” Bobbie: “Who, me?” Street: “No, the other negative.”). Otherwise, this is a limp production with limited sets and characters, reused footage from the earlier films (alas, chiefly to negate the need to hire Asian bit-players, it would seem), and an uninteresting supporting cast; although that said, an unbilled Angelo Rossitto appears briefly as a news vendor.
Fire Monsters Against The Son Of Hercules (1962)
Original title: Maciste contro i mostri (Maciste Against The Monsters); also known as: Colossus Of The Stone Age. Driven south by the coming of the Ice Age, the tribe of sun worshippers led by Dorak (Rocco Spataro) settles in a valley and builds a new village. As Idar (Luciano Marin), the son of Dorak, and Rhia (Andrea Aureli) are deciding to get married, they are menaced by a monster from the lake. They are saved when the monster is killed by Maxus (Reg Lewis), the son of Hercules. He refuses Idar’s offer of a place of power within the tribe, explaining that his destiny is to be a solitary adventurer. Idar and Rhia marry, but the ceremony is interrupted by a band of marauders led by Fuwan (Nello Pazzafini), chief of the cave-dwelling Moon People. Many of the men are killed, including Dorak; the women are captured; and the tribe’s sacred flame is extinguished. Idar rounds up a band to pursue Fuwan and his captives back to their caves, but also sends some men to seek out Maxus… This is one of the most tedious pepla I’ve ever watched; I suppose you can still call it a “peplum” when it’s set during the Ice Age? Anyway, if you’re thinking of watching this for its “fire monsters”, don’t: the film does offer the lake-monster, another with multiple heads encountered underwater, a third blocking a cave exit, and a cutaway lizard; but none of them breathe fire—or have anything to do fire besides one having a lit torch shoved down its throat. Moreover, even by the undemanding standards of this sort of thing (and this sort of viewer), the beasties are completely unconvincing; their appearances are disappointingly brief; and Maxus kills them with little effort. (Winning no-one’s admiration in the process; particularly not when he disposes of the lake-monster via, sigh, a spear in the eye…) The rest of the film consists of poorly staged fight scenes that go on forever, and people either wandering back and forth across the valley or sneaking around in caves. The dubbing is just awful; everyone involved sounds bored; and huge stretches of the soundtrack consist of either the captured women screaming and/or lamenting or the bad guys mwoo-ha-ha-ing. The only amusing touch here is that when they were shoehorning “the Son of Hercules” in after “Maxus”, they hired someone with a noticeably higher-pitched voice to say those words. There’s also an eyebrow-raising moment when the nasty Fuwan starts pushing the captive women at his men…apparently forgetting that they were intended as “virgin sacrifices”. Euro-babe Margaret Lee appears as Moah, deposed leader of the Moon People, but otherwise the cast is uninteresting. Reg Lewis looks a bit lost as Maxus, which perhaps isn’t surprising given that this film was directed by Guido Malatesta of Colossus And The Headhunters anti-fame. Like the previously considered The Devil Of The Desert Against The Son Of Hercules, this Yugoslavian-shot production formed part of the “Sons of Hercules” TV package, but after the boppy opening theme-song, it’s downhill all the way. I should mention that recently, prints of Fire Monsters Against The Son Of Hercules in the proper aspect ratio have been released; though whether the improved visuals make up for the rest, I highly doubt.
Nurse On Wheels (1963)
After – eventually – passing her driving test, Joanna Jones (Juliet Mills) wins an appointment as a district nurse. As she and her mother (Esma Cannon) move into the cottage that comes with the job, Joanna begins her work. Her first days on the job are dismaying, as patient after patient bemoans the retirement of her predecessor, Nurse Merrick (Barbara Everest); but she is reassured by a visit from Miss Merrick herself, who tells her that she went through exactly the same thing some twenty-seven years before. Before long, Joanna’s brisk competence and tart tongue win over the villagers—as well as attracting the interest of local gentleman-farmer, Henry Edwards (Ronald Lewis)… I was disappointed in Nurse On Wheels; though given it was produced by the “Carry On” people, it could have been a lot worse. Ultimately, despite the list of qualifications that Joanna reels off early in the film, in response to an unimpressed patient, this is a typical romantic comedy in that it is not nearly so interested in Joanna’s professional efforts as it is in getting her married off as quickly as possible. (So much for all those years spent qualifying…) There are a few sporadic attempts at more serious story-telling: the vicar, Mr Walcott (Raymond Huntley), has withdrawn from his flock, unable to accept his wife’s sudden death; while Joanna and Edwards have a falling out over his refusal to allow a broke young couple (Jim Dale, Amanda Reiss) to camp temporarily on his land; but these sit oddly beside regular outbreaks of fairly broad, slapstick humour. Furthermore, the scenes involving the scatty Mrs Jones grow increasingly tiresome (that is, Esma Cannon was going for “scatty”: at times her character suggests advanced dementia); and the film shows its age with an overextended “woman driver” joke (or woman driver “joke”). However, Noel Purcell and Norman Rossington lend good support as, respectively, the local shopkeeper and jack-of-all-trades; while the cast also includes Joan Sims as Joanna’s accidental romantic rival; Athene Seyler as a suspicious patient; and Joan Hickson as a nosy neighbour.
Fear In The Night (1972)
As newlywed Peggy Heller (Judy Geeson) is packing to leave her London apartment, prior to joining her schoolteacher husband, Robert (Ralph Bates), she is attacked by a figure in black. As she falls to the ground, so too does her attacker’s prosthetic arm… Peggy recovers consciousness in the care of her landlady, Mrs Beamish (Gillian Lind), and a doctor (James Cossins), neither of whom seems to believe her story. When Peggy insists upon calling the police, Mrs Beamish makes ominous reference to the nervous breakdown she suffered some six months earlier… Peggy tries to put the incident behind her and to focus upon her new life. She is delighted with the cottage in the grounds of the school where Robert is employed; he tells her that the headmaster, Michael Carmichael (Peter Cushing), actually owns the school and the extensive grounds in which it stands. As it is out of term-time, when Robert is away Peggy is able to look around inside the school. At one point she thinks she hears boys’ voices, but can find no-one until she has a sudden encounter with Carmichael, who shifts between a declaration of fervid love for his profession and what seems to Peggy too close an interest in her. Shortly after she returns to the cottage, Peggy is again attacked by a figure in black: as she grabs at her assailant’s arm, she realises it is a prosthesis… Directed and co-written by Jimmy Sangster, Fear In The Night is one of Hammer’s numerous psycho-thrillers from this period, and not one of the better ones—the presence of Peter Cushing notwithstanding. For the most part the film joins its genre dots a little too easily, from its mentally fragile heroine who may or may not be imagining things, to the seemingly innocuous neighbour who may be more of a threat than he appears. Ultimately it’s all a bit obvious, beyond the eternal question of whether the film’s beleaguered heroine will collapse under the increasing strain of fear and the disbelief of others, or whether she will be able to hold herself together in the face of her escalating peril. Perversely, the film is actually better after its “shock” reveal—because while Peggy’s behaviour has been predictable enough up to that point, suddenly it isn’t at all… Given that Peter Cushing really only has a glorified cameo here, the weight of Fear In The Night falls upon Judy Geeson and Ralph Bates. Geeson does her best with the rather mechanical script, but Bates is dull as Robert – whose main task is to disbelieve everything his new bride tells him – while the two have little chemistry together. On the other hand, Joan Collins makes an impact with a brief appearance as Carmichael’s cold artist-wife. Pay attention to the opening credit sequence; it is best appreciated after the event…
(Trigger warning #1: this film includes a nasty bit of business with a rabbit.)
The Big Fix (1978)
Based upon the novel by Roger L. Simon. Ten years on from his days as a campus radical, Moses Wine (Richard Dreyfuss) is a small-time private investigator, struggling to support his kids and to stay on terms with Suzanne (Bonnie Bedelia), his ex-wife. Things pick up when Moses reconnects with his college flame, Lila Shea (Susan Anspach), who – somewhat to his dismay – is working for conservative gubernatorial candidate, Miles Hawthorne (John Cunningham). From Hawthorne’s campaign manager, Sam Sebastian (John Lithgow), Moses learns that phony flyers have been distributed claiming that Hawthorne is being “endorsed” by Howard Eppis (F. Murray Abraham), an extreme 60s radical who has been on the run since being tried and convicted in absentia. As Moses begins his search for someone who can lead him to the elusive Eppis, he is forced to confront his drift away from his own political roots. More encouragingly, his relationship with Lila begins to reignite—until a murder and a kidnapping plunge him into a dark conspiracy that puts his own life in danger… The Big Fix was a failure at the time of its release—possibly because it is highly critical of the very society it was released to, possibly also because it seems to have been sold more or less as a comedy which, despite a generally light-hearted opening phase, it definitely is not. In fact, there are a few lurching tone-shifts here, as humour gives way to familiar “private eye” touches like car chases, or Moses solemnly cleaning his usually dismantled gun, and as the search for a missing man becomes a race to prevent a terrible act of domestic terrorism. But in spite of its detective-story framework, The Big Fix is chiefly concerned with its country’s decade-long slide from activism to materialism. The screenplay by Roger L. Simon is clear-eyed enough about the more extreme manifestations of radicalism; but at the same time, it saves its bitterest criticisms for the manipulators and the graspers – and politicians who grease their wheels – and for that mindset which equates exchanging ideals for selfishness with “growing up”. As Moses pursues his increasingly dangerous case, inevitably he begins measuring himself against those who sold out and those who gave up—and those who are still fighting the good fight. The plot of The Big Fix is complicated and occasionally hard to follow, but the performances are generally fine, with the role of Moses offering Richard Dreyfuss the chance to show his range. However, the film is almost stolen by two of its smaller performances: those from Rita Karin as Moses’ feisty, still-radicalised Aunt Sonya (“Come on, children, I’ll read you a story about the Albanian labour party…”), and F. Murray Abraham as Howard Eppis…who turns out to have been hiding in plain sight. Look quickly for Mandy Patinkin as a bearded pool-guy (!).
Quote: “You know why no-one lasts as a revolutionary in this country? It’s like being a spoilsport at an orgy. All those goodies spread out before you…and you feel like a shit when you say ‘no’.”
David Copperfield (1999)
I have long held that The Barchester Chronicles has the greatest cast ever assembled for a TV drama (it has, in any event, two huge unfair advantages), but it is at the very least given a run for its money by this adaptation of Charles Dickens’ famous semi-autobiographical novel. I mean, seriously: Maggie Smith as Betsey Trotwood; Bob Hoskins as Mr Micawber; Imelda Staunton as Mrs Micawber; Emilia Fox as Mrs Copperfield; Pauline Quirke as Peggotty; Trevor Eve as Mr Murdstone; Zoë Wanamaker as Miss Murdstone; Ian McKellen as Mr Creakle; Ian McNeice as Mr Dick; Nicholas Lyndhurst as Uriah Heep; Michael Elphick as Barkis; Alun Armstrong as Dan Peggotty; Cherie Lunghi as Mrs Steerforth; Dawn French as Mrs Crupp; and perhaps most famously these days, a nine-year-old Daniel Radcliffe in his first important role as young David. And if, after all that, you need more persuasion to watch it, this adaptation also has the grace to follow the book. (It is, in other words, a Kate Harwood production, not an Andrew Davies; I apologise for the absence of shoe-horned-in sex scenes.) Of course, this very accuracy means that the narrative suffers from the same major flaw as the novel, that is, it is inherently less interesting once David (Ciarán McMenamin) has grown up into a rather self-absorbed young man with rotten taste in women. In that respect, this version is much kinder to Dora than the novel, and shies away from dwelling too closely upon the painful details of the David-Dora marriage. (It also finds a different context for Agnes’ famous point upwards.) The only subplot of note missing altogether is that involving the secret in Miss Trotwood’s past. Other than that, everything is just as it should be, from the location shooting in Dover and Canterbury, to the fine detail in the production and costume design.
Quote: “Never be mean in anything. Never be false. Never be cruel. Avoid these three vices, and I can always be hopeful of you.”
Lethal Vows (1999)
This made-for-TV drama opens with those most ominous of words, Based on a true story, and proceeds to mix some of the truth with a good deal of fudging—probably for reasons of legal safety. This is a re-telling of the case of Richard K. Overton, who in 1995 was convicted of the poisoning murder of his wife, Janet, and whose ex-wife, Dorothy Boyer, became the chief witness against him, after discovering that her own chronic health problems – which began shortly after her divorce from Overton – were also the result of poisoning. Here, the central character is Ellen Farris (Marg Helgenberger), who struggles with health issues including sudden, unexplained pains, lethargy and lapses of memory. Her chronic illness all but took over her life after it first manifested, and led to the end of her marriage to Dr David Farris (John Ritter), a mathematician and university lecturer. While Ellen retained the family home and custody of their two daughters, Sarah (Jessica Bowman) and Danielle (Madeline Zima), David quickly re-married. Fourteen years later, Ellen has a civilised relationship with David, although she is bothered by his failure to pay child support and his habit of wandering into her house without notice; however, she has learned to like his second wife, Lorraine (Megan Gallagher), and has a real affection for his young son, Graham (Miko Hughes). Shortly after Lorraine is triumphantly elected to local council, she begins to suffer a mysterious illness that bears a striking resemblance to Ellen’s. Ellen, meanwhile, is consulting yet another doctor—and this one is finally able to diagnose her symptoms as toxic metal poisoning of unknown origin. But even as Ellen comes to terms with this, Lorraine collapses and dies. When David swiftly has her cremated – and then announces his intention to remarry – Ellen must face a terrible truth… Lethal Vows is a low-key, rather drawn-out telling of its story—the latter flaw resulting from a clear desire to allow John Ritter to dominate the second half of the film, as the legal machinery begins to close in on the arrogant and self-centred Farris. A secondary problem is the twisting of the material to place Ellen Farris in the position of “heroine”, which requires the filmmakers to ignore various dubious issues in Dorothy Boyer’s own story—including the fact that she discovered that Overton had been poisoning her well before the death of Janet Overton, and effectively condoned it. However, this film has a few good points, including the weirdly pleasant relations between the two Farris families, with each parent looking out for all of the kids, the half-siblings getting along, and Ellen nursing Lorraine when she begins to fall ill; though of course, at the centre of this web of friendly relations lurks a serial wife-killer—and three children who must face a terrible truth about their father. On the other hand, there are a couple of absurdly exaggerated touches here, too, such as Farris poisoning his own attorney when he resists putting his client on the stand, and his lashing out at Ellen via a salmonella-laced chicken, an act which strikes down Danielle. There are also a few details that remind us just when this story is unfolding: Ellen explaining to David that her illness has finally been diagnosed as selenium poisoning because, “We have the internet now!”, and David thinking that his secret computer journal is gone for good just because he wiped his hard drive…
Married Life (2007)
Based upon the novel Five Roundabouts To Heaven by John Bingham. Fifty-ish businessman, Harry Allen (Chris Cooper), confides to his best friend, Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan), that he has fallen in love with young war-widow, Kay Nesbitt (Rachel McAdams). Richard is startled because, though an habitual philanderer himself, he has always looked upon Harry’s marriage to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) as the best one he knows; though that said, he has no opinion of the institution. Harry then surprises him even more by revealing that Pat considers love and sex the same thing—and that he wants more than that; much more. When he meets Kay, Richard begins to understand; indeed, he begins to fall for her himself… At home, Harry tries hesitantly and indirectly to broach the subject of divorce, but even this oblique approach provokes Pat into a severe attack, for which a doctor must be summoned. Determined to be with Kay, yet now convinced that Pat literally cannot live without him, Harry begins to contemplate murder… Married Life is one of a number of neo-noirs produced around this time, casting an occasionally nostalgic but mostly jaundiced eye back at the social mores of the mid-20th century (it is set in 1949); and while it has several things going for it including its cast, it is ultimately something of a failure—chiefly because it never seems to decide what kind of film it wants to be. Taking as its thesis the depressing assertion that one person can never really know another, not even the one they consider themselves closest to, Married Life spins a tale of dissatisfaction and deceit, with its central quartet at constant cross-purposes. The problem is, the resulting story kind of just sits there. This isn’t a genuinely biting noir – of the kind that was actually being made in 1949 – and nor is it an attempt at a Hitchcockian suspense-film, though it builds to a climax that would have allowed for it. Nor, though there are some moments of black humour, is it witty enough to excuse the genuinely unpleasant behaviour of all four of the central characters. Another problem is that the viewer is never really allowed inside the minds of the female characters – certainly not Pat’s – and can only try to read their motives through the intervening male narratives: something complicated by a half-hearted attempt to position Richard as an unreliable narrator. I may say, too, that I resented the clear suggestion that the viewer should sympathise with Harry, even when he starts plotting what he views less as murder than as euthanasia…not least because (trigger warning #2) he uses the family pet for a dry run. All this said, the film isn’t without its virtues. The performances are good, and the late-40s milieu is well-evoked. However, we’re left with a distinct feeling of something lacking.
(Exactly how Hitchcockian this could have been is highlighted by the fact that John Bingham’s novel was adapted for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour in 1962.)
Lake Mungo (2008)
So after threatening this forever, I’ve finally promoted a film from Et Al. to full review.
I’m going to be brief here, because the more I think about this low-key Australian horror film, the more I think it deserves a much more in-depth examination. Filmed mockumentary-style (although saying that possibly gives a wrong impression of it), this is the story of the Palmer family and how their private tragedy became public property. Sixteen-year-old Alice Palmer (Talia Zucker) disappears while swimming during a family outing. Some days later, police divers find her body…and a few weeks after that, Alice begins haunting her family—or so it seems… As a horror film, Lake Mungo is generally unsettling rather than frightening; although it does have a few moments that are genuinely chilling; while its overall tone is one of mingled sadness and dread. There is substance behind the creepy overlay, with the film functioning as a study of the grieving process, and how different individuals deal differently with a devastating loss. The screenplay (by director Joel Anderson, who also plays the offscreen interviewer) is more layered than we might expect, several times leading the viewer down a certain path and then abruptly switching gears—and calling into question everything we thought we knew. The performances from the small cast are pretty well pitch-perfect, particularly that from David Pledger as bereaved father, Russell Palmer.
Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day (2008)
Though her poverty requires her to support herself, the inability of middle-aged, straitlaced vicar’s daughter, Guinevere Pettigrew (Frances McDormand), to refrain from showing her disapproval of her employers’ behaviour sees her abruptly dismissed from her position. Homeless and without personal resources, Miss Pettigrew must spend a night on the streets before she can appeal to her employment agency—whose manager refuses to have anything more to do with her. In desperation, Miss Pettigrew steals an agency notification, and presents herself to singer and aspiring actress, Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams), as her new social secretary. Her duties are hardly what she expects, however, as she finds herself turning one man, foolish young would-be producer, Phil Goldman (Tom Payne), out of both Delysia’s bed and the apartment, while hiding any evidence of his presence from nightclub owner, Nick Calderelli (Mark Strong), who is “keeping” Delysia. Miss Pettigrew’s attempts to express moral outrage and to resign fall upon deaf ears; and to her own bemusement, she finds herself being swept up into Delysia’s frantic world: partly because of her reluctant pleasure in her first taste of luxury, however immoral its origins; partly because of Delysia’s real need of her; but mostly because of the young woman’s genuine kindness to her—and it is such a long time since anyone was kind to Guinevere Pettigrew… Based upon the novel by Winifred Watson and directed by Bharat Nalluri, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is a bittersweet Cinderella story whose prickly, judgemental, almost-anti-heroine grows increasingly appealing. While the film explicitly evokes the screwball comedies of the 1930s, and eventually does quite a good job of it, it doesn’t immediately hit the right notes: the first scenes between Miss Pettigrew and Delysia overdo things and are rather too frantic and strident in their efforts to present the minute-to-minute craziness of the latter’s existence. Once through this sequence, however, the narrative hits its stride. Though overtly about Delysia’s juggling of three very different men – Goldman, Calderelli and her accompanist, Michael Pardue (Lee Pace) – Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day is really the story of the blossoming of both its heroines, each of whom brings out the best in the other. The friendship that develops between this unlikely pair is entirely convincing, thanks to the chemistry between Frances McDormand and Amy Adams; and it is very refreshing to watch a comedy built upon its characters’ fundamental niceness. When the dowdy Miss Pettigrew undergoes her inevitable makeover at Delysia’s generous hands, the film has more sense than to glam her up too much, merely turning her back into what she always was, behind the grim façade left behind by poverty, hard labour and a lack of appreciation: a lady. But as with all Cinderella stories, Miss Pettigrew knows that the midnight chimes, too, are inevitable—both with respect to Delyisia’s need to make an immediate decision about her future, and as war again becomes imminent…
Sea Beast (2008)
Also known as: Troglodyte. While he and his fishing-boat crew are battling a tremendous storm, Will McKenna (Corin Nemec) sees something rise up from the water. The next moment, as a wave crashes across the bow, one of his men is gone… Back in dock, Will must face the failure of this latest fishing-trip as well as the loss of his crewman. He sets his younger hands, Danny (Daniel Wisler) and Drew (Brandon Jay McLaren), to making repairs. Will is haunted by what he glimpsed in the sea; he tries to talk to Ben (Brent Stait), another fisherman, who the previous year likewise lost a crewman and brought home a strange story, but Ben has retreated into the bottle. Meanwhile, without her father’s knowledge, Carly McKenna (Miriam McDonald) has lifted the keys to his speedboat: she, Danny, Drew and the latter’s girlfriend, Erin (Christie Laing), plan to spend the night on an island in the bay. However, Drew is forced to stay behind; he promises the others to join them in the morning. As he works on the docks, Drew is startled by a strange movement nearby. Suddenly, something spits a sticky substance at him. He collapses, incapacitated, as a terrifying creature materialises before his eyes… Hmm. So apparently Paul Ziller got drunk one night while watching Predator and consequently thought to himself, “That’s what Beyond Loch Ness needed!” The result was Sea Beast, which is the same film all over again to an embarrassing degree, except that this time the monster has the unexplained ability effectively to become invisible while stalking its prey—and “unexplained” all the more when we consider both the film’s working-title (!) and its eventual tagging of its monster as a deep-sea creature related to the angler fish (!!). If the latter, it sure does spend a lot of time bounding around and climbing trees and hunting human prey…while its evident need for a nesting-site on land likewise remains unexplicated. Otherwise, this film offers exactly the same positives and negatives as its forerunner—which is to say, while we do get a swarm of adorable little hatchlings – who do like eating people alive – far too much of it is devoted to the beasties being killed. There are a good number of gruesome human deaths, too, and though these don’t always work out as we expect, that’s not necessarily a good thing: the film declines to dwell on the earned demise of town asshole, Roy (Roman Podhora), while the killing of harbourmaster Barbara (Gwynyth Walsh) seems unnecessarily mean-spirited. A few amusing moments are provided by Ben, who sobers up long enough to morph into the film’s Quint-figure, with inevitable results. While Danny and Carly – not so much Erin, ahem – are besieged on the island, back in town the mockery of Will’s story is interrupted by a rash of bloody local deaths. These prompt the sheriff, Jay McKenna (Gary Hudson), to lead a hunting-party into the woods; while Will teams up with Arden (Camille Sullivan), a marine biologist whose deductions about the creatures point to a new danger…
This Sci-Fi original (my favourite oxymoron) is something of a landmark production, inasmuch as it is the first of numerous killer animal films produced by the Halmis (Robert Sr and Jr) to bother explaining how their killer animals ended up where they did. On the other hand – unless I phased out, and I can’t swear I didn’t – I don’t believe Vipers ever really explains why the EEEE-vil—military? capitalist?—bastards were making genetically modified horned vipers; though I’m sure you won’t be astonished to learn that the process that results in higher venom production has the side-effect of making the snakes much more aggressive; not to mention giving them a few new dietary quirks… Be all that as it may, the experimental snakes developed by scientist Dr Vera Collins (Jessica Stein) with the aim of using their venom to treat cancer escape to Eden Island off the coast of Washington State, where the locals spend much of their time failing to sort out their messy love-lives—until the mysterious but bloody slaughter of a newly-engaged holidaying couple gives them something else to think about. Meanwhile, ex-Marine medic, Cal Taylor (Jonathan Scarfe), arrives on the island with a view to possibly taking over the practice of the soon-to-be-retired Dr Silverton (Don S. Davis). A violent confrontation between garden-centre owner Nicky Swift (Tara Reid) and Ellie Martin (Claire Rankin) over the latter’s rebellious teenage daughter, Maggie (Genevieve Buechner), getting into Nicky’s home-grown pot supply is interrupted when a small boy is bitten by a snake. Cal and Dr Silverton manage to save his life, but what they initially regard as a rare incident is merely the forerunner to an escalating snake invasion… Yeah, okay: this is basically Deep Blue Sea with snakes, only smaller, dumber (if you can imagine that) and without the female scientist being responsible for the resulting mayhem; or indeed doing anything much but try and disassociate herself from her culpable bosses. Furthermore, the film has much, much, much too much “human interest” [sic.], having the nerve to serve up what (after counting on my fingers) may well have be a love-heptagon. The snakes are absurd from conception to execution, no longer content just to bite but instead eating their victims like their genetic modification made them part-hyena—which is to say, by ripping people to pieces and devouring them bones and all (!!). And yeah, I gotta ask: why the hell would you choose an equatorial, desert-dwelling species in a film set in Washington State!? Even more infuriating, the film tacitly acknowledges the effect cold ought to be having on the snakes, with characters using fire-extinguishers against them, without the ambient temperatures bothering them one little bit. Anyway, there are plenty of gross attack scenes, and the film isn’t shy about whacking its central characters – or dwelling on it when it does – so it has that going for it. Meanwhile, Tara Reid is Tara Reid; Jonathan Scarfe’s Joker-esque grin gets more and more annoying; Corbin Bernsen picks up a paycheque as the head of “Universal Bio Tech” (another division of Generica, Inc.); and Don S. Davis doesn’t die for once, so there’s that, too.
In a Pennsylvania trainyard, a hostler called Dewey (Ethan Suplee) realises that a switch has not been thrown in front of the train he is moving. Against protocol, he sets his train in ‘idle’ and leaves the cabin, intending to run ahead, throw the switch, then climb back on. However, a jolt alters the throttle setting; and when Dewey is unable to catch the train, it moves on down the track unattended—not coasting as is initially believed, but under full power… Will Colson (Chris Pine), a four-month rookie, is teamed up with veteran engineer, Frank Barnes (Denzel Washington), on a locomotive pulling out of Stanton, Pennsylvania. Both men have their problems: Frank is being forced into early retirement as a cost-cutting measure; while Will is involved in a messy situation with his estranged wife, Darcy (Jessy Schram). Meanwhile, against the advice of yardmaster, Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson), an attempt is made to slow the runaway train by braking an engine in front of it, but it ends in disaster with the engineer killed. Learning that they are on the same track, Frank and Will barely manage to manoeuvre their own train into is siding to avoid the runaway. As the other train passes, Frank sees that it has an open coupler at the back: he proposes that he and Will cut their own engine loose, pursue the train, and brake it from behind… Well, this could have been a disaster movie; but it’s a Tony Scott, so we ended up with an action-movie-cum-buddy-picture instead. Based with (I gather) a reasonable amount of accuracy upon the “Crazy Eights” incident of 2001, but with its action shifted from Ohio to Pennsylvania – possibly just for filming purposes, perhaps to set up a series of different dangers – this is an effective if completely obvious thriller, full of big machines and insanely dangerous stunt-sequences. The characterisations are shallower than a wading-pool, and the surrounding plot, such as it is, written in the broadest of strokes (while head office counts beans, the working joes get the job done) and rather too familiar, with Frank, Will and Connie managing the situation by radio, à la Die Hard. (And of course there’s a late film ‘recognition’ scene.) However, the action sequences are well-executed and the performances satisfactory—though I must admit, I was genuinely horrified to find Denzel in the “grumpy old man” role. Will and Frank having to pull off their heroics while surrounded by a literal flock of news helicopters is beyond absurd (and before you ask: no, no subsidiary helicopter disaster; though the Marine being dangled by one is roughly treated); while on a personal note, I was driven rather crazy by the script’s insistence upon treating the phenol on board the runaway train as predominantly a fire hazard. The supporting cast finds Kevin Dunn playing yet another weasel, in this case Oscar Galvin, Connie’s soon-to-be ex-boss; while Kevin Corrigan and Lew Temple are amusing as, respectively, Scott Werner, an FRA official who comes to give a talk to some schoolkids and stays to manage the phenol, and Ned Oldham, a lead welder turned media darling.
Kaitangata Twitch (2011)
Also known as: The Twitch. This movie is actually cut-together episodes of the TV series based upon Margaret Mahy’s young-adult novel of the same name. Filmed in and around Mahy’s own home of Governors Bay, south of Christchurch, on one level this is a familiar enough coming-of-age story, with Meredith Gallagher (Te Waimarie Kessell) dealing with turning thirteen, the threatened commercial development of her isolated coastal home, and having a crush on her sister’s boyfriend. Increasingly, however, Meredith begins to slip into an alternate world of dreams and fantasy: something which coincides with an incidence of the so-called “Kaitangata Twitch”, a rare earthquake with its epicentre on the nearby island of Kaitangata, which Māori legend associates with the spirit of an ancient cannibal chief. Meredith is unnerved when she learns that the girl she has been seeing in her dreams is a real girl, Shelly Gentry (Eliza Mackay), who disappeared during a picnic on Kaitangata some fifty years before: the last time the island “twitched”. As her family, particularly her father, Carey (Charles Mesure), and her sister, Kate (Kerry-Lee Dewing), become more deeply involved with protesting efforts to mine and develop the area, Meredith begins spending time with Lee Kaa (George Henare), the local “crazy drunk”…who reveals to the girl that, for the last fifty years, he has been the guardian of Kaitangata, tasked with caring for the island and holding in check the violent spirit of its inhabiting chief…and that it may be her destiny to succeed him… Given its origins, it is not surprising that Kaitangata Twitch comes across as a story written in over-broad strokes: it is likely that its more subtle moments were lost in the editing process. Yet as it stands, we can see that for all the overt familiarity of its narrative, it is smarter than is often the case. For one thing, Sebastian Cardwell (Blair Strang), the Evil Capitalist Bastard who wants to bring mining and casinos to the pristine coastal area, is both a local and a Māori—and is in a position to do what he is doing because he is one of the traditional owners of the land. On the other hand, though the audience is expected to sympathise with the protesters, Kate’s increasingly violent acts of vandalism – and her own pleasure in them – are disturbing. Perhaps the most interesting detail here, however, is Meredith’s ambivalence about her heritage: she starts off insisting to Lee Kaa that she, “Doesn’t speak Māori”, but she clearly speaks it well enough to understand him when she needs to; when she is prepared to listen to what he has to say. Her eventual acceptance of the role of guardian finds Meredith mastering the songs and rituals with which she must control the violent spirit that inhabits Kaitangata, but which become a weapon when – as Lee Kaa did some fifty years before – she allows her increasing anger to control her, and turns on Sebastian Cardwell… Kaitangata Twitch rests upon the shoulders of young actress, Te Waimarie Kessell, who does a good job conveying Meredith’s conflict; while the rest of the cast is an effective blend of familiar faces and newcomers. The CGI effects that bring the island to life work fairly well considering what the budget must have been, and the location filming provides the necessary grounding for the increasingly fantastic tale. The underlying environmental message isn’t exactly subtle—but then again, when you’re dealing with people who won’t listen, sometimes all you can do is shout.
Dangerous Intuition (2013)
Also known as: Deadly Visions. As she struggles with depression and anxiety following her divorce, Kate Aldrich (Tricia Helfer) begins to suffer from recurrent dreams in which her young daughter, Izzy (Genea Charpentier), is in danger. Kate’s therapist, Dr Ellis (John Innes), prescribes new medication for her. Recklessly, she takes the pills with alcohol in an attempt to quell her bad dreams, but things only get worse as she begins to experience visions of a terrified Izzy. Kate allows Izzy to spend a weekend away with her ex-husband, Dan Beckman (David Cubitt), and his new wife, Laura (Estella Warren). When Izzy returns she tells Kate she had a good time, but also suggests that she may have been left unsupervised and at risk. In her fury, Kate confronts Laura and verbally attacks her. This leads to Dan confronting Kate in turn, and telling her that between her long work hours and her unstable behaviour, he believes that he and Laura can provide Izzy with a more stable home environment; he sues for full custody. In desperation, Kate turns to her former mother-in-law, Barbara (Linda Sorensen), confiding in her about her visions and her growing belief that Izzy in in danger from Laura. However, Barbara betrays her confidence, telling Dan so that he can use this as evidence of Kate’s instability. Later, Barbara feels guilty and begins to look into Laura’s past, making a discovery that prompts a hasty phone-message to Kate—but by the time Kate returns it, Barbara is dead, apparently drowned in the backyard pool… Well—I can’t exactly say, “How the mighty have fallen”, but I’ll admit to snickering when I saw Roger Christian’s directorial credit at the beginning of Dangerous Intuition. I’ve watched some shockers amongst this ongoing roster of Lifetime movies, but this is close to the worst of the lot. Not one person in this ridiculous story behaves in any recognisably normal way, and the tone for this is set by our Designated Heroine©. The film chooses to vindicate Kate Aldrich, but the fact is, the woman is completely whackadoodle—to the point that you could flip this on its head and make a second Lifetime movie about a man and his new wife being tormented by his psycho ex. The viewer, however, is supposed to take Kate’s premonitions of Izzy’s danger at face value, and to sympathise with her tantrums and hysteria—and her attempt to kidnap her daughter. (Who knew Canadian border guards were such badasses?) Meanwhile, the script of Dangerous Intuition is so busy throwing red herrings at the viewer, it never stops to think about the implications of them, nor to answer any of the questions they raise. As with the same year’s Hunt For The Labyrinth Killer, this focus on twist piled upon twist is finally both annoying and laughable. The acting in Dangerous Intuition is pretty bad across the board, but I did get a few moments of amusement out of Linda Sorensen’s bitchy characterisation of Barbara, who seems to enjoy having two daughters-in-law to torment…
(Trigger warning #3: Izzy has a pet rabbit. How do you suppose that detail works out in a film like this?)
Before I Go To Sleep (2014)
Based upon the novel by S. J. Watson. A woman (Nicole Kidman) wakes up next to a man she does not know. She slips away to the bathroom, only to be confronted by a collage of photographs of the two of them together—including wedding photographs. When she returns to the bedroom, the man (Colin Firth) explains to her patiently that she is Christine Lucas; that he is her husband, Ben; that she was in a bad accident that left her with a brain injury which affects her ability to retain memories; that each morning, she wakes up with the previous day’s events wiped from her mind… After showing Christine a wall-map of the information she may need for the day, Ben leaves for work. Shortly afterwards, there is a phone-call from a man who tells Christine that he is Dr John Nasch (Mark Strong), who is working with her to try and recover her memory. He directs her to a digital camera hidden in a wardrobe, which each day she uses to record a video diary; warning her that it is a secret from Ben and must remain so. As Christine fights to recover her memory, she begins to experience “flashes” of her past—but these become more and more frightening, when they do not align with what either of the men caring for her have told her… It does this thriller no favours that its – or rather, presumably, S. J. Watson’s – premise was stolen by The Hazing Secret, which managed to get itself released the same month as Before I Go To Sleep: if you’ve seen the former, it is impossible to take the latter at all seriously; indeed, it is only thanks to the sterling efforts of its small cast that Before I Go To Sleep manages to lift itself up and out of the realms of the Lifetime movie. Naturally, most of the weight falls upon Nicole Kidman, who remains at all times the focus as Christine fights through her memory issues to discover the truth and who, if anyone, she can trust. As twist follows twist, it becomes harder and harder not to feel that director / co-writer Rowan Joffe erred on the side of over-solemnity—failing either to acknowledge the inherent absurdity of the situation, or conversely to exploit its more lurid possibilities. There is certainly some black humour (perhaps unintentional) in the realisation that poor Ben has had to start every day for years with the same speech about who they are and what happened, and by flipping through their wedding album while he reassures Christine about how much the two of them love each other; no wonder he seems so physically and emotionally drained. (Blessings upon the AV Club, who described this film as, “Finding the horror at the heart of every Nicholas Sparks novel.”) But on the other hand, though it does finally venture into some dark territory, Before I Go To Sleep shies away from fully engaging with its ultimate horror: imagine being an abusive male involved with a woman who, a few hours later, does not remember what you did to her… As it stands, the most disturbing thing here is the inescapable implication of the fallout from Christine’s own behaviour. Ultimately, then, this is an unsatisfactory film, though watchable enough at the time. It is let down not only by Joffe’s low-key approach, but by the delivery of the cast, with too much whispering and mumbling, and by the rather dreary production design which, among other things, causes some confusion by failing to distinguish visually between the past and the present.
The Girl In The Fog (2017)
Original title: La Ragazza nella Nebbia. In the isolated Italian mountain village of Avechot, sixteen-year-old Anna Lou Kastner (Ekaterina Buscemi) vanishes on an evening shortly before Christmas after setting out to attend a fellowship meeting. When Inspector Vogel (Toni Servillo) arrives, it is quickly evident to him that he is not investigating a missing-persons case, but one of abduction—and not stranger abduction. Lacking both witnesses and suspects, Vogel does everything he can to spread awareness of the situation and to stir up the wary villagers, including doing a deal with the devil in the form of cynical TV reporter, Stella Honer (Galatea Ranzi). During a candlelight vigil organised by Anna Lou’s distraught parents, the suspicious behaviour of a teenage boy, Mattia (Jacopo Olmo Antinori), catches the attention of the local investigator, Inspector Mayer (Michela Cescon). Vogel discovers that Mattia was obsessed with Anna Lou, to the point of secretly filming her; but what his films reveal is that someone else was apparently following the girl during the days before her disappearance… The hue and cry for the car in the videos brings a tidal-wave of suspicion crashing down upon schoolteacher, Loris Martini (Alessio Boni), who has no alibi. Martini quickly finds himself tried and convicted by the media—but is he the guilty man…? Directed by Donato Carrisi from his own novel, The Girl In The Fog is an interesting if flawed psychological thriller. Its main strength is the way in which it challenges the viewer’s expectations of this genre. Vogel’s swift acceptance of Anna Lou’s abduction and his shrewd manipulation of the media to raise awareness of the case initially put us on his side; but before long we learn that the inspector has played this game before—with disastrous consequences. Bit by bit we hear of an earlier case in which Vogel’s tactics led to the arrest of a suspect in a bombing-case, who was acquitted at trial—but not before every aspect of his life had been ruined. When the media spotlight, guided by Vogel, trains itself upon Loris Martini, we are uncertain whether the schoolteacher is guilty, or whether the ruthless police detective is throwing another innocent man to the wolves… The Girl In The Fog is a long film for this genre; indeed, finally overlong—chiefly because it suffers from an affliction that here, we see, strikes serious studio productions quite as much as their low-budget TV knock-offs: a determination to cram as many twists into its third act as possible. There are also some time shifts that aren’t immediately obvious: the story is told in flashback as Vogel talks to psychiatrist, Dr Flores (Jean Reno), but the resumption of “the present” is not always immediately evident. However, the cast is uniformly strong; while the evocation of the lonely, tourist-deserted village and the film’s sometimes creepy use of its alpine locations are both excellent.