(1956, Don Siegel)
“They’re here already! You’re next!”
Imagine if you will, an ordinary day, with an ordinary man, wandering through the streets as if everything is as ordinary as can be. But this ordinary man is not an ordinary man. He is something else. He is a facsimile of a man. A duplicate of a man who had his body snatched. What you are imagining is the scenario presented in Invasion of The Body Snatchers.
One of the most well-known, influential and well-respected movies of the 50s alien invasion b-movie canon, Invasion of The Body Snatchers stars Kevin McCarthy as Dr Miles Bennell, a doctor who has recently returned from a trip and finds his hometown acting a little strange. Numerous people are coming to him claiming that their relatives aren’t who they say they are, the normally buzzing diner is devoid of customers and a resident reports a mysterious body appearing on his pool table. Something fishy is going on in Santa Mira, and Miles intends to find out what.
Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is definitely a b-movie, although it is one with slightly better production values than the average alien invasion flick. That said, it’s still a very ropey and slightly cheesy movie that falls flat on an awful lot of things.
First of all, the acting. While certainly a step up from the acting you typically came across in 50s b-movies, it’s still shaky as hell at times. Characters often feel a little too stoic where they really should be shocked or scared, and the square-jawed emotionless hero kind of got a little silly after a while, especially as it began to become difficult to tell the difference between the emotionless clones and the hero. At least until the end when he starts freaking out.
Also, the plot is really not consistent. Certain things move too quickly, meaning there’s never really a strong sense of dread going on. Miles and his lady-friend wander through the town experiencing weird thing after weird thing, spending very little with each weird thing until eventually there’s a body on a table slowly growing features and I feel like I skipped a few pages of build-up.
And when it’s not doing that, the movie has an alarming tendency to over-explain itself. Quite often we’ll be told of extra weird things, or we’ll get frequent summaries of the movie so far. Very rarely does the movie just stop and let the tension build. And it definitely makes the experience feel weaker. There are also some logistic issues with the way the “body snatchers” operate. There are times when the clones are created separately from the original, but other times it feels like the original body is taken over, and there’s a constant clash on this front.
But that’s not to say Invasion Of The Body Snatchers is an inherently bad movie. Far from it, in fact. The central concept is definitely intriguing and it plays itself out nicely. We get reveals at appropriate times and despite the general lack of tension, there are scenes where tension does pop up briefly, and these are probably some of the stronger scenes in the movie. A scene late in the movie where the whole town moves in sync with one another is eerie and particularly notable.
The effects are also surprisingly good for an old sci-fi b-movie. Okay, admittedly this mostly stems from the pods and the resulting pod people, but these are still things that worked fantastically well. The pods looked creepy and organic, and the unfinished clones were creepy and unpleasant in all the right ways.
I think perhaps the monster being other people also worked in the movie’s favour as it allowed it to keep its effects minimal and create a sense of paranoia instead of the shock of seeing plastic flying saucers floating in on strings. It’s easy to see how the movie was taken as a McCarthyism allegory, since the fear of other people is strong here.
Overall, Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a ropey and somewhat shaky movie that tells an interesting story in a flawed way. It’s a low-budget sci-fi b-movie that sits firmly at the higher end of the quality scale for the genre. It’s clear why this has endured the way it is. It has moments of tension and action, while also remaining somewhat charmingly silly at the same time.
Starring Kevin McCarthy, Dana Wynter, Larry Gates, King Donovan & Carolyn Jones
Written by Jack Finney (novel) and Daniel Mainwaring
Produced by Walter Wanger
Music by Carmen Dragon
Cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks
Edited by Robert S. Eisen
Favourite Scene: The town moving in unison and preparing to deliver pods out of town is easily one of the more unnerving sights in cinema history.
Scene That Bugged Me: There was something very silly about the pod people casually explaining their whole plan and then gathering in a separate room expecting Miles to sit still.
Watch it if: You like cheesy 50s alien invasion movies, because this is one of the best
Avoid it if: You like your alien movies to be full of spaceships and little green men
(1946, Jean Cocteau)
“Belle, you mustn’t look into my eyes”
It’s a tale as old as time – a beautiful romantic tale about a young girl enslaved by a beast-man in his magical castle until she is able to turn him into a charming prince through her innocent nature. Wait, that doesn’t sound very romantic at all! Yes, it’s everybody’s favourite children’s story about Stockholm Syndrome, Beauty And The Beast.
However, this isn’t the famous Disney version, this is instead the original French adaptation, La Belle et la Bête. After a wealthy merchant loses his fortune through dealings with unscrupulous people, he finds himself lost in the forest. Upon finding a large castle, he picks a rose from the garden and is immediately caught by a fierce beast-man (Jean Marais), who sentences him to death. However, a deal is made, and he can be spared if he sends his daughter to take his place. And so, Belle (Josette Day) is sent to the castle, where she is imprisoned and must now live with the Beast, who appears to hide a soft side under his gruff exterior. Read the rest of this entry
(1976, John Cassavetes)
“I’ve got a golden life. Got the world by the balls”
I’ve encountered John Cassavetes exactly twice before on this blog in two films from 1968, one starring him and another directed by him. In Rosemary’s Baby, he had the dubious honour of casually announcing that he’d raped his wife in her sleep, and his movie Faces was a drab, meandering mess of a movie that said nothing and spent too long doing that. So my hopes aren’t exactly high for The Killing Of A Chinese Bookie, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt.
Ben Gazzara plays strip club owner Cosmo Vitelli, who goes out to celebrate being free of a mob debt and ironically ends up back in debt to the mob due to gambling too much of his money away. In order to pay his debt, the mob demands that Vitelli take on a hitman job, to kill a Chinese bookie who’s been causing problems for the mafia. Read the rest of this entry
(1987, Adrian Lyne)
“I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan!”
We’ve looked at a lot of movies recently that I’ve not been overly impressed with (Run Lola Run being an exception), and that’s a shame. It began to wear me down and start to lose my enthusiasm to watch new movies on the list. And then I watched Fatal Attraction.
Michael Douglas stars as Dan Gallagher, a successful New York attorney who meets a local magazine editor called Alex Forrest (Glenn Close). While Dan’s wife and daughter are away for the weekend visiting her parents, Dan has a one-night stand with Alex, which quickly turns out to have been a bad idea. Alex suddenly won’t stop calling, and begins to stalk Dan, which gradually escalates, putting his family in danger.
(1973, Sidney Lumet)
“The reality is that we do not wash our own laundry – it just gets dirtier”
Corruption in the police isn’t a novel concept in film, and despite the 1001 Movies book asserting that it was new at the time of this film’s making, it really wasn’t (film noir was already a thing, and covered this ground several times). But the fact that this is a true story exposing real corruption, that’s something that Serpico has going for it. As a result, I was very excited to see this. Did it live up to my expectations?
Al Pacino plays Frank Serpico, a police officer with good morals and ideals, with the desire to help people and achieve justice through his position. After excelling in uniform, Serpico is eventually raised through the ranks to plainclothes, and then it all goes wrong from there, as it slowly becomes apparent that his colleagues aren’t as honest as he is. And so begins an attempt to expose the corruption and improve standards in the force, at the expense of his own happiness and success.
Serpico opens dramatically, with the titular cop bleeding after being shot in the face and being rushed to hospital as various people are informed about the incident and there’s a general sense of foreboding and action and shouting down phones and it’s all very exciting.
Imagine my disappointment that this is about as interesting as the film gets for much of its running time. After this, the movie flashes back to his days in uniform, and begins to steadily take us through his career. The problem is, the movie seems unsure of how to shove several years into the space of an hour, so does do by rushing through what it feels to be key points. The problem is, it’s not always clear that scenes have gaps of months and even years between them, and sometimes it struggles to stay focused on things that are important to the central plot.
The point where I realised things were rushing and playing wildly with timeframes was a scene where Serpico is informed that he’ll get to work in plainclothes, and the very next scene having a character say to him, “you’ve been with us two years now” and making me wonder what the hell just happened.
As for the extraneous things that don’t help, there is a lot of focus on Serpico’s personal life, as he goes on dates with women. From what I can tell, these scenes were supposed to flesh out his character and make us aware of how much he identified with the 1960s counterculture, which helped fuel the conflict in his life, but generally, everything felt rushed and poorly constructed, leaving the viewer feeling like these scenes were a distraction. In fact, I only found out that Frank Serpico identified with the counterculture movement through independent research for this review, and only then realised that’s what the film was going for.
When the movie remembers what it’s about and maintains a focus on his drive to expose corruption, there’s quite a bit to like here, but it’s so bogged down in external stuff that sometimes it made me wonder why I was bothering watching. It felt like there was ambition to tell a story about Serpico, but it wasn’t sure what to focus on.
It also didn’t help that often the corrupt cops were more of a faceless mass as opposed to individual characters, presented as Serpico and Those Other Guys. This made it harder to connect with Serpico’s plight. This made it harder to understand the corruption. We know the cops are on the take, we know they’re using impounded drugs, but the extent of all of this feels vague and almost imagined in Serpico’s eyes. The other cops felt like pantomime villains, not real people, and this is where I had a problem.
In addition, while Al Pacino did a generally good job of portraying the lead character, there were times when he veered far too much into silliness, especially as he got angrier, and as the movie progressed, while I recognised his goals as noble, I could no longer connect with him as a character.
Basically, all of this can be summed up by me stating that Serpico was a massive disappointment. I expected more. I wanted an exciting cop drama. I wanted a tense thriller. I did not want a lumbering, confused mess of a movie that consistently forgot what it was trying to do.
Starring Al Pacino
Written by Peter Maas (book) and Waldo Salt & Norman Wexler
Produced by Dino De Laurentiis, Roger M. Rothstein & Martin Bregman
Music by Mikis Theodorakis & Giacomo Puccini
Cinematography by Arthur J. Ornitz
Edited by Dede Allen, Richard Marks, Ronald Roose & Angelo Corrao
Favourite Scene: Any time the movie actually got on with what it was supposed to be doing.
Scene That Bugged Me: Al Pacino slams a chair against the floor repeatedly in a rage. This was silly and unnecessary.
Watch it if: You like rambling stories about cops
Avoid it if: You want a clear account of Frank Serpico’s life
(1935, Alfred Hitchcock)
“I know what it is to feel lonely and helpless and to have the whole world against me, and those are things that no men or women ought to feel”
Hitchcock was an awesome director, as we’ve already established here on SvTM, but I find that much of his best work came during his later years as a filmmaker, and I’ve found it harder to get into some of his earlier British work. But I’m not giving up, as today we’ll be looking at another of his early British works and seeing how well it holds up today. Let’s examine The 39 Steps.
In typical Hitchcock style, The 39 Steps is about a man who ends up wrongfully accused of something he doesn’t fully understand. Richard Hannay (Robert Donat), a Canadian on holiday in London, attends a performance by Mr Memory, a performer who claims he can remember all manner of facts. During the performance, shots are fired, and Hannay finds himself trying to help a woman named Annabella Smith (Lucie Mannheim), who reveals herself to be a spy, prompting Hannay to end up in an adventure of espionage and mystery.
The 39 Steps is a movie from Britain made before 1990. As a result, it suffers the same problem as every other pre-1990 British movie suffers from – it’s incredibly stiff and awkward. Character interactions are persistently marred by an insistent politeness and an obsessive fear of showing any kind of emotion. This, of course, affects the film before it even begins. It’s most notable in Hannay’s rather flat response to a random woman following him home and announcing that she’s a spy, which feels like a big thing that would elicit more questions than he seems willing to ask.
Fortunately, Hitchcock managed to tap through it a little. Just a little, mind, but it’s something. Some of the dry wit does feel dry in a way that’s genuinely amusing, there’s a sense of attraction between Hannay and his unwitting partner, Pamela (Madeline Carroll), and there are plenty of action-packed moments to hold the film together.
That said, The 39 Steps is a confused movie. While it’s not hard to follow by any means, there’s a feeling that things don’t piece together nearly as well as they do in later Hitchcock movies. Pamela is introduced quite late in the movie, an encounter with a mysterious professor seems to happen too soon, and generally moving from one scene to another feels slightly haphazard, as if it was all made up on the fly.
I think part of the reason the movie flows as well as it does despite these issues is because Hannay is a likeable protagonist. A witty and sarcastic chap, Hannay faces up to a lot of the weirdness he ends up wrapped up in with humour and quips. He clearly isn’t too pleased by what’s happened, but he seems to take it in his stride, and the audience ends up coasting along with him. At times his reactions can feel a little unrealistic and silly, but he’s so likeable that you really don’t care.
I also felt that much of the movie’s set pieces were hugely entertaining, from Hannay sliding across a train carriage to escape pursuers to a scene where he’s forced to give a political speech because he ducked through the wrong door at the wrong time. The central mystery is also intriguing enough that it keeps the film moving even when the film seems determined to not give you a direct answer.
The conclusion was also immensely satisfying, bringing everything full circle and wrapping things up nicely enough, leaving some ambiguities to keep us thinking even after the credits have rolled. It doesn’t answer everything but it concludes things nicely enough.
Overall, The 39 Steps is a good movie, but suffers from British stiffness that prevents it from being a great one. Makes for a good career starter for Hitchcock though.
Starring Robert Donat, Madeline Carroll, Lucie Mannheim & Godfrey Tearle
Written by John Buchan (novel) and Charles Bennett & Ian Hay
Produced by Michael Balcon
Music by Jack Beaver & Louis Levy
Cinematography by Bernard Knowles
Edited by Derek N. Twist
Favourite Scene: The scene where Hannay finds himself mistaken for a political candidate is hugely entertaining.
Scene That Bugged Me: A gunshot being stopped by a book continues to be implausible.
Watch it if: You want to see some of Hitchcock’s history
Avoid it if: You need the title explained to you immediately
(1998, Tom Twyker)
“Everything else is pure theory”
Quite often I’ll find myself amusingly pointing out how 80s certain 80s movies are. This is not a bad thing. Back To The Future is an immensely 80s movie that is also great fun. But rarely do I apply this to 90s movies. It’s rare for me to point at a movie and say “this movie is so 90s”. Trainspotting and The Matrix are rare exceptions, as is Run Lola Run, which is possibly the most 90s movie ever made.
Run Lola Run is about a woman named Lola who runs a lot in the movie. There you go, there’s your plot. Oh, okay, here’s more. Lola (Franka Potente) receives a phone call from her boyfriend (Moritz Bleibtreu), who’s gotten himself involved in some unspecified criminal scheme and now owes some gang members a large sum of money that he left sitting on the subway. Lola now has twenty minutes in which to retrieve the money, or replace it, and so she races to help him. The movie shows three attempts at this, varying in Lola’s success.
So yeah, this is the most 90s movie ever made. It’s like Trainspotting switched its drug of choice to ecstasy and slept with The Matrix, resulting in this child. It messes around with styles and genres, it has a thumping club soundtrack, it features “cool” youth as its central protagonists and goes out of its way to make itself appear as stylish as humanly possible.
And you know what? It works! That thumping club soundtrack drives the film, injecting it with so much energy that you feel the pressure of Lola’s running. You almost feel like you’re running along with her, and this feels as tense and as exciting as you’d expect it to be. It works so well in the movie’s favour since, well, most of it is about Lola racing against the clock.
There’s also some stunning cinematography on show here. The movie employs a number of different filming styles to represent different things – Lola initially running out of her apartment building is animated, scenes involving Lola’s father and his mistress are filmed in a shaky handheld camera style, some scenes are long takes, while others are heavily cut as if it was an Edgar Wright movie. It’s easy to think that this mashing of styles could potentially lead to confusion and disorientation, but it doesn’t. It instead creates a dizzying thrill ride of a movie.
Story-wise, Run Lola Run is fascinating. We never know if the three attempts Lola makes are Groundhog Day style loops, if they’re alternate realities, or if they’re simply three versions of what could have happened. Cases can be made for Lola being both aware and unaware of the different attempts – Lola is inexperienced with a gun in the first run, but is mysteriously good with one in the second – and it leaves an awful lot of unanswered questions by its end. But they’re questions that are left open to interpretation, allowing the viewer to craft theories forever over the myriad possibilities.
This is both a good and a bad thing, however. While it’s certainly good because it gives value to repeated viewings, as you can attempt to figure out the mysteries, there’s still a sense of emptiness in regards to the whole movie. It asks a lot of questions, but does it mean to ask them or are they the result of plot holes papered over by the stylish exterior?
However, this is pretty much the only complaint I have about the movie, and even then it’s pretty vague as criticisms go. On the acting front, Lola is a very likeable character and Potente is fantastic at playing the huge array of rapid-fire emotions she goes through, and carries us through the film in the best way possible. And, what can I say, I guess I like super stylish 90s movies.
Run Lola Run is fantastic. After a few weeks of tearing apart films I simply couldn’t get into, it was refreshing to watch a film that felt exciting, tense and hugely entertaining from start to finish. If, like me, you love 90s cinema, this is one you can’t miss.
Starring Franka Potente & Moritz Bleibtreu
Written by Tom Twyker
Produced by Stefan Arndt
Music by Tom Twkyer, Johnny Klimek & Reinhold Heil
Cinematography by Frank Griebe
Edited by Mathilde Bonnefoy
Favourite Scene: Too difficult to pick a single scene, but possibly the wealthy banker’s car regularly crashing into some thugs, which amused me.
Scene That Bugged Me: The bed chat was a little bizarre and unexplained.
Watch it if: You like stylish 90s movies
Avoid it if: You don’t like pounding club soundtracks driving a movie
(1997, Abbas Kiarostami)
طعم گيلاس (Ta’m e guilass)
“You want to give up the taste of cherries?”
Last time we encountered critically acclaimed Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami here on SvTM, I wasn’t impressed and failed to see the critical acclaim. Maybe this time we’ll see something worth praising this time around, as we look at his later film Taste Of Cherry.
This is the story about a man known as Mr Badii (Homayon Ershadi), who drives around town looking for someone to help him. As the film progresses, we learn that he’s planning on killing himself, and is looking for someone to bury him in exchange for a fee. The film then focuses on the reactions from the various people he tries to get to help him.
So, this is a film about driving. Lots of driving. Shots of a car driving along winding mountain paths or through quarries or through crowds of people looking for labouring work. More car shots. Shots of a man driving the car. And so on. During all of this, people talk. They talk a lot. About nothing. Talking & Driving: The Movie. Hurray.
This is supposed to be a movie that reflects on the nature of depression and suicide but everything that might help achieve that goal has seemingly been thrown out of the window. We’re supposed to reflect on the nature of suicide through Mr Badii and yet we know absolutely nothing about this incredibly drab and boring man. He converses with at least three people in his attempt to find a gravedigger, but he says little to nothing about himself.
What’s more, we don’t know his background, we don’t know why he wants to kill himself, and we don’t know why he needs a complete stranger to bury him. We spend an hour and a half with this guy, and we end up learning exactly nothing about him. This is bad film-making and storytelling, pure and simple. How are we supposed to reflect on suicide if we don’t know the circumstances that led to it?
What’s more, the attempts to keep the viewer distant and objective really don’t help matters. I know I’ve complained about some movies, especially war movies, overdoing things for emotional manipulation, but this is way on the other end of the scale. The movie works so hard to remove all emotional attachment from the audience that the only thing the audience feels is boredom. This movie is boring. It bores you. It feels twice as long as it actually is.
This distance is clearly meant to represent some postmodern statement on the nature of film, where the director seems to openly laugh at anyone trying to find emotional attachment in a fictional character, to the point of failing to resolve the film at the end, instead panning over to the film crew to say “it’s a movie, you idiots! Stop caring!” The only problem is, this concept was done better in a 30-second advert. For furniture. That actually made us care about its central protagonist in the first place. Who was a friggin’ desk lamp.
And do you what makes this worse? The whole scheme, the central “driving point” of the plot, feels so at odds with how someone actually suffering from depression would act. Suicide is typically an act of desperation, decided on during a depressive episode and enacted with some degree of urgency. It’s not a meticulously-planned action that requires several days of preparation and assistance from others. I honestly felt like Kiarostami had never met someone suicidal before in his life.
This is backed up when the title reveals itself in a story told by one of Badii’s prospective gravediggers, where he states that he almost committed suicide himself once and then he tasted some mulberries and suddenly he felt better about himself and the world. This is not how depression works. This is not why people commit suicide. This is wrong, wrong, wrong! No one in the history of anything was ever “cured” of depression, least of all by fruit!
Ultimately, Taste Of Cherry is a waste of everybody’s time. It’s longer than it needs to be, it fails to understand depression and suicide, and never bothers to tell us anything about its central protagonist. It definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.
Starring Homayon Ershadi, Abdolrahman Bagheri, Afshin Khorshid Bakhtiari & Safar Ali Moradi
Written by Abbas Kiarostami
Produced by Abbas Kiarostami
Cinematography by Homayun Payvar
Edited by Abbas Kiarostami
Favourite Scene: There was nothing I particularly liked about this movie.
Scene That Bugged Me: While all of it was boring, the part where Badii gets out of his car to literally hang around the house was especially mind-numbing.
Watch it if: You need a sleep aid
Avoid it if: You’re looking for a movie that explores depression
(1986, Woody Allen)
“How can you act when there’s nothing inside to come out?”
So I never particularly liked the last Woody Allen movie I watched for this blog. However, I don’t exactly have high hopes for this one either, especially because Allen himself is in the movie, and everything I’ve seen of the guy himself just feels uncomfortably awkward and not actually all that funny. Does that view stick after watching Hannah And Her Sisters? Let’s take a look.
Hannah And Her Sisters is a movie with an ensemble cast, featuring the titular Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne West), all of whom have their own personal and professional dramas. Support characters include Hannah’s husband, Elliot (Michael Caine), who secretly has a thing for Lee, Lee’s much older partner, Frederick (Max Von Sydow), and Hannah’s neurotic ex-boyfriend Woody Allen who…is in the movie for some reason.
So, a movie with three plots all intertwining. Possible scandalous family drama. A rather splendid cast of top-notch actors. It’s a potential recipe for an awesome movie. Sadly, the movie fails to add up to the sum of its parts. And here are many reasons why.
First of all, the movie has a tendency to jump around a lot, struggling to stick with any character for any length of time. As a result, we never really learn much about anyone, and this of course leads to us not particularly caring about anyone. Everyone feels so distant from the audience, and since this is largely a character piece, that spoils the whole movie.
What’s more, what we do know about the cast does little to warm the audience to them. Much like The Big Chill, unless you’re a certain type of mid-1980s, middle-class, middle-aged, middle-of-the-road person, this film feels alien. Everyone talks big about art and literature and how oh-so-cultured they are, in a way that feels false and dull and pretentious. I feel like none of these people are people I’d spend any amount of time with, but the movie’s asking me to spend 2 hours with them.
Worst of all, Woody Allen gives himself way too much screen-time. His character doesn’t need to be there. His connection to the other characters is tenuous at best, and he’s so goddamn annoying. He’s a ball of neuroses and hypochondria and spends 99% of his time whining about how shitty life is to be a successful TV producer with a decently sized apartment in New York. Oh boo hoo for you, Woody. Boo fucking hoo.
And no, he wasn’t funny. Nor was anyone else in this hipster movie before hipsters were even much of a thing. This is supposed to be a comedy, but not once did I laugh. Not even a chuckle. Not even a smile. This isn’t comedy. This is Woody Allen farting out a script and then filming it, somehow convincing a bunch of decent actors to help him laugh at his own self-satisfied jokes.
There also isn’t really anything holding this movie together. Ostensibly, everything’s supposed to come back to Hannah in some way, but she gets barely any screen-time compared to the director. She’s often relegated to background character status and when she does become the focus she just comes across as bland and featureless, which seems to be a common thing for Woody Allen to do with Mia Farrow for some reason.
Oh, and the movie ultimately descends into everyone bitching at each other and failing to have any kind of proper adult discussion with each other. And any interaction between Allen and Farrow feels painfully uncomfortable considering the real life drama that transpired between them.
Hannah And Her Sisters is ultimately a pretentious waste of time on top of being a tremendous waste of talent with most of its cast. I have nothing positive to say about it.
Starring Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max Von Sydow, Dianne Wiest & Woody Allen
Written by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut
Cinematography by Carlo Di Palma
Edited by Susan E. Morse
Favourite Scene: None of it.
Scene That Bugged Me: All of it.
Watch it if: Seriously, don’t
Avoid it if: You’re not an aging hipster