Monthly Archives: October 2011

DVD Review: Voice Over (1983)

Voice Over

Does the fact that a film is about a misogynist make it a misogynistic film? That’s the question that plagued Voice Over director, Christopher Monger, on the film’s initial release and which helped hasten its relegation to relative obscurity.

Ian McNeice stars as “Fats” Bannerman, the writer of a radio drama for women set in the 19th Century which has attracted a loyal following, much to everyone’s amusement.

When he’s faced with some home truths about his show by a local journalist, before being taunted by two women whom he meets in a bar, Fats’ career starts to take a new direction. Then he stumbles upon one of the women in an alley, bloodied and bruised, and things go into freefall.

Shot on a miniscule budget in less than a month, Voice Over is a rough and ready piece of filmmaking with a terrific central performance from McNeice as a man with a seemingly violent past.

Voice OverBemused by the opposite sex, Fats’ discovery of “Bitch” (Bish Nethercote) is never adequately explained, the viewer left to wonder if he did indeed find her post-attack or if he carried it out himself.

Not having a reliable central character to relate to does leave the viewer detached from his plight, though that’s no slight on McNeice. In fact, Fats is the warmest character in a cast of vaguely sketched characters, his radio station colleagues required to do little more than react to situations.

The central “relationship” between Fats and Bitch is one of the oddest to be put on film, her silence juxtaposed by his inability to shut up. Fats’ decision to take on the role of guardian angel can equally be said to be an act of extreme cruelty towards a clearly damaged individual, but the film doesn’t make excuses for him and his descent is fascinating to watch, though hardly comfortable viewing.

Thirty years on from the controversies which dogged Voice Over’s Edinburgh International Film Festival debut, detailed at length in the liner notes, the film’s stance on misogyny can hopefully be put into perspective while the central drama still remains potent.

The transfer on this new Dual Format release may not be perfect but it’s the best we’re going to get thanks to issues with the original prints. Extras include two other Christopher Monger films, including 1976’s film noir homage, Repeater.

★★★★★

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DVD Review: Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs (1974)

Recent years may have seen John Hurt take his place as one of the elder statesmen of British cinema, but back in the 1970s he was still best known for his television and stage work, the latter seeing him cast as the eponymous character of Little Malcolm and His Struggles Against the Eunuchs at London’s Garrick Theatre.

That was in 1965 but it would take a further nine years for David Halliwell’s play to make it to the big screen, mainly thanks to the efforts of George Harrison who saw merit in the political and sexual intricacies of the script.

Hurt returned as Malcolm Scrawdyke, recently made an “ex-student” having been booted out of art college and left to wallow in his room. Initially depicted as something of an Everyman contemplating getting out of bed on a bleak winter’s day, Malcolm soon mutates into something far less likeable as his political leanings are brought to the fore when his sexual prowess is thrown into doubt.

Surrounded by lackeys who aren’t entirely sure why they’re agreeing to join his newly formed Party of Dynamic Erection, a fascistic organisation whose ideals are made up to suit any given situation, Malcolm has an opportunity to divert his energy into a relationship with Anne (Rosalind Ayres), but he instead veers off into more dangerous territory.

Hurt is a powerful presence as the repressed Malcolm, his speeches to both his followers and to himself showing how easy it is to convince oneself that wrong is right, but there’s equally strong support from John McEnery, Raymond Platt and David Warner as Dennis Nipple.

Describing Little Malcolm as “Last of the Summer Wine meets Downfall” may not be completely accurate, but a sequence involving the Erectionists plotting a kidnap while wearing old vests over their heads, which segues into a frighteningly believable interrogation of McEnery’s Wick, encapsulates the humour and the horror that director Stuart Cooper manages to balance.

Mention must also go to Ayres, whose character weaves in and out of the story before becoming a key part of the shocking climax.

Little Malcolm is an odd little film which manages to both mock and highlight the dangers of disaffected youth, something as relevant today as it was almost 40 years ago.

Winning the Silver Bear at Berlin in 1975, Little Malcolm subsequently fell out of sight, meaning the BFI Flipside’s decision to issue it on DVD and Blu-ray is a welcome one. Restored from the original negative, the film looks and sounds as good as new, with two short films, Put Yourself in My Place (1974) and The Contraption (1977) offered as extras.

★★★★

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #4: Love and Marriage

Buster Keaton in Day Dreams

Buster Keaton in Daydreams

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ve been following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog.

This final Holyrood or Bust(er) post takes many liberties with the TCM schedule and I’ve decided to end my personal Buster marathon with 1925’s Seven Chances.

Seven Chances (1925)

Seven Chances is a film which Buster had little interest in making and that I find hard to label top level Keaton, even if he doesn’t falter for a moment.

Opening with a clever gag involving the passage of time that sets up Buster’s ineffectual character perfectly, here he’s a young bachelor who inherits money, a cool seven million dollars, from his grandfather. The only catch is that he must be married by his 27th birthday, which happens to be that day. Cue Buster and his cronies trying to come up with the goods, namely a viable wife, before 7pm.

For many of Buster’s contemporaries the story that follows would make a fine film, but for Keaton it’s not particularly inspired. Trying to get both Buster and a girl to the alter results in a number of fun sequences, but it’s the chase towards the climax that has endured more than anything else here.

It begins with hundreds of potential brides-to-be chasing Buster through the streets and climaxes with him being “chased” down a hill by dozens of boulders, the little man dodging them as best he can. On a TV set it’s impressive but it deserves to be watched on a cinema screen, particularly the bit where he’s whacked by a giant boulder.

If you haven’t seen the film I won’t spoil things by saying whether or not he does get himself a wife, hopefully you’ll enjoy finding out.

In conclusion

Spending many of my October evenings in the company of Buster Keaton provided me with some of the finest viewing experiences I’ve had for a long time. I hadn’t seen all of the films before, meaning some of those 85-year-old misadventures were as fresh as they were to the original audiences, even if my sitting room and TV aren’t quite as impressive as the cinemas and big screen that they witnessed his antics in and on.

What has hopefully become obvious in these brief write-ups is that Buster’s work was endlessly inventive and pretty much timeless. I suspect that if I can still enjoy a silent black and white film almost 100 years after they were made, in another 100 years the basic idea of a man taking on the world and winning (in one way or another) will still be funny.

It’s also become obvious that while modes of transport and communication have changed radically, human relationships haven’t. It’s still about boy meeting girl. There are still men who’ll fight for no apparent reason and little guys who have to fight back. We still want to improve ourselves and we still have to bounce back when things go wrong.

Buster Keaton may be shy, romantic, hopeful, happy, sad and determined but so are we. Buster takes things to the next level and often stretches credibility, but most of his films are based in some sort of recognisable reality and audiences want him to succeed, just as they try to in their own lives.

I’ve still got more Buster to watch, and I may blog about them at some point, but for now I salute Turner Classic Movies for taking the time to screen such a wealth of material and apologise I didn’t manage to write about every film. As long as I showed that Buster is still relevant to film fans and the world all these years later, and perhaps inspire one of them to check out a film on DVD, at a film festival or on YouTube, I’ll be smiling as much as Buster is behind that old stone face.

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DVD Review: New York Confidential (1955)

An ageing New York mob boss receives constant grief from his employees, family and doctor. The mother of said mob boss is still a major part of his life, imparting wisdom that he fails to heed. Corruption and double-crossing are a way of life.

The above may read like a synopsis for 1990s TV drama, The Sopranos, but rewind 40-or-so years and you’ve got the set-up to Russell Rouse’s long lost 1955 noir, New York Confidential, a film based on the book by Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer which goes beyond the standard scenario of tough guys and their molls so beloved of the genre.

A sonorous voiceover and shots of the New York sky line introduce us to The Syndicate, a crime organisation headed up by Charlie Lupo (Broderick Crawford). A member of Lupo’s business empire has performed an illegal hit on a rival, resulting in him signing his own death warrant as Nick Magellan (Richard Conte) is flown in from Chicago by Lupo and his number two, Ben Dagajanian (J Carroll Naish).

Eager to please and comfortable doling out violence as required, Magellan seems the perfect addition to Lupo’s organisation, at least until the latter’s beautiful-yet-troubled daughter, Kathy (Anne Bancroft), is introduced and Magellan’s relatively straightforward job starts to get complicated.

New York Confidential

Restricted somewhat by the production code, which meant that some of the more violent sequences had to be implied rather than seen by impressionable viewers who may go out and organise a mob hit of their own, New York Confidential still manages to pack more than a few punches.

Watching the great Mike Mazurki follow his prey into a bedroom, we see him beat him up a little before the camera cuts away and returns as he’s folding up his pocket knife. No blood is seen, but we know the result of his handywork.

Crawford’s fast-talking and hilariously no-nonsense Lupo is tired of being surrounded by incompetents (to him, everyone is a pig or illiterate) and sees his operation as merely the lower rung of an America that is inherantly corrupt and corruptable. When his daughter argues that she lives on blood money, Lupo’s response is that she’s “spoiled”, not that he’s done any real wrong.

The view of the USA’s political ecosystem is one which still resonates today, and it’s hard not to empathise with Lupo, even if gunning down the opposition hasn’t quite become a way of life for politicians (that we know of).

While Crawford is a hugely entertaining presence, it’s the pairing of Conte and Bancroft that is the most interesting aspect of the film. Magellan knows he needs to avoid getting romantically involved with his boss’ self-destructing daughter, but it’s not easy. The pair should be a couple but we know that if they do it would mean trouble for everyone.

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Holyrood or Bust gains a back catalogue

For the last few years I’ve been writing about film for my local newspaper, the Edinburgh Evening News, who trust me to jot down my thoughts each week in a column entitled Reel Time.

The column also has an associated blog which has allowed me to expand on the 300 words allowed in the print version, also allowing me to publish more reviews and opinions of the sort of things I plan to cover on this blog.

With the newspaper about to gain a new look and a new behind-the-scenes system, the current blogger system is being phased out, meaning most of my writing will be lost forever…until I discovered I could export the .xml file and import it to this site.

What this means is that there’s now lots more for people to read, should they (that’s you) feel the need. There are various reviews, interviews, thought pieces and other odds and ends that relate to classic cinema, with the odd post that I’ll need to delete as it refers to modern films, whatever they are…

I do feel like I’ve cheated a bit as this was a newly minted blog, but hopefully you’ll forgive me as my Holyrood or Bust(er) month is going to prevent me writing too much else on here.

Please feel free to comment on any of the posts, it’ll be nice to have some company around here!

Holyrood or Bust(er) #3: Detectives, Cameramen and Charlie Chaplin

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jnr

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ll be following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog.

This second Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover many of the films being screened on TCM on Sunday 9 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of An Artist at Work: Sherlock, Jr, Good Night Nurse, Steamboat Bill, Jr, The Cameraman, Coney Island, Back Stage, Limelight, The Bell Boy, She Went to the Races, The Haunted House and Hard Luck.

Sherlock, Jr (1924), Good Night Nurse (1918) and Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928)

Week two of this Buster-a-thon has started slightly later than planned but Sherlock, Jr isn’t a bad place to do so.

A recurring idea in Buster’s films is the dream sequence, something which allowed him to come up with even more outlandish ideas than his films set in “reality” would allow.

Here, Buster is a cinema projectionist who wants to be a great detective, but who is destined to pine after Kathryn McGuire while Ward Crane’s nasty piece of work con man tries to get her first. The opening minutes, as Buster goes about his duties at the cinema, may be more leisurely compared to what comes later, but anyone who manages to get that much humour out of sweeping some trash clearly knows what he’s doing.

The major dream sequence of the film, which sees Buster enter the cinema screen to interact with the locations being screened, is one of the most impressive moments in any of his films, and with Buster Keaton that’s saying something.

As ever, he’s not content to go for the simple gag, instead lining up each scene change seamlessly so that the joke is flawless. We’re an audience who are watching an audience watch Buster and it’s hard to imagine quite how audiences in 1924 would have reacted to something so unique.

But that’s Buster all over, always trying something new and experimenting with the medium he’s working in, while other performers were happy to work within the constraints.

That’s certainly the case with 1918’s Good Night Nurse, a Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle picture featuring Buster in a supporting role.

The pair were good friends and it shows here, Buster seemingly having a good time – he even smiles a few times! – and going with the flow as Fatty indulges in the bizarre routines that made him so popular. Fatty’s tendency towards cross-dressing mixed with a man-child type persona make him an acquired taste today, though Good Night Nurse is by no means a bad film. It just isn’t a proper Keaton film, which is the real problem.

We’re back on track for 1928’s Steamboat Bill, Jr, a wonderful slice of Buster which casts him as the estranged son of an old sailor who comes to work with his dad, only for the latter to worry that his boy is too soft to do anything much.

I love watching this film, particularly the sequence in the jailhouse, when Buster arrives with a loaf of bread that has clearly fallen into the tool chest…ahem. The entire 10 minutes is a joy and it could have been a film in itself, Buster’s expressions and hand movements as he tries to convince his father to take the bread. Bliss.

The infamous stunt involving a house falling on Buster can be found here (he’d done it before, but never on this scale), and it still shocks 80 years on. Considered to be one of Buster’s last great films, it’s a joy from start to finish (a phrase I may have used before in these blog posts, but there are only so many ways to describe the man’s work).

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #2: Trains, boats and air balloons

To celebrate TCM’s month-long screening of Buster Keaton films every Sunday in October, I’ll be following along from the UK through the week with the aid of various DVDs, Twitter and this blog. This post will remain at the top of the blog until the next Sunday.

This first Holyrood or Bust(er) post will cover the initial 14 films being screened on TCM on Sunday 2 October 2011, all grouped under the banner of A Genius on the Move: The General, Cops, Our Hospitality, The Love Nest, The Navigator, The Boat and The Goat, The Play House, The Scarecrow, The Electric House, The Balloonatic, The Paleface, Convict 13 and Speak Easily.

The General (1927)

Across the pond they’ll be settling down to The General on TV on Sunday evening at 8pm. Here in Edinburgh I had to go for an early start thanks to other commitments tonight, and if I did try to match the outpouring on Twitter at 8pm US time it would be around 4am in the morning here. I’m devoted but not that devoted.

I’m using the 2005 Cinema Club edition of The General, a two disc set stuffed with extras and offering two scores for the film, a 1995 Robert Israel version and a more recent Joe Hisaishi track, which I went for (listen to an excerpt here).

Written and directed by Clyde Bruckman, The General takes us back to 1861 and casts Buster as locomotive driver (The General of the title), Johnnie Gray, heading to see his sweetheart, Annabelle Lee (Marion Mack), in Georgia. Sporting longer hair than we’re used to in his earlier films (it suits him), Buster is soon caught up in the events of the Civil War, as Annabelle’s brother decides to enlist with the Confederate Army and Johnnie is expected to follow suit.

Although he’s not a coward, there’s no real sign that Johnnie wants to fight and potentially die for his country, preferring to spend his time with his beloved Annabelle and his train. Aware that not enlisting won’t be popular with his girl but being too important to the Confederate railway, Johnnie finds himself shunned and left to continue his work minus Annabelle.

It’s here that the plot really kicks in (well, just after a lovely scene of Buster sitting on the side of the train and being taken away down the tracks) as we skip forward 12 months, discover that Union soldiers are planning to play dirty and watch as Johnnie becomes the perfect anti-hero.

For anyone used to seeing Buster in his short films, finding him in a feature film, on location in the woods of Oregon and taking control of a full size locomotive can be a shock to the system. Of course it’s only right that he’s given such a broad canvas to work against, the expanded running time reflecting the actor’s increased status in the silent film arena.

With a hefty budget of $400,000, there was almost nothing Buster’s imagination couldn’t afford and the action sequences prove that he was revelling in the freedom. It seems that audiences and critics of the period weren’t quite as ready as Buster for The General and its poor performance at the box office proved he was ahead of his time once again.

Thankfully Buster and Bruckman left us with a film that is both epic and small-scale. Epic in that the various explosions, action sequences and train wrecks work perfectly on the big screen but small-scale in that close-ups of Buster’s facial expressions (don’t believe the Old Stoneface moniker) and glances (check out the scene beside the cannon near the end when Buster looks around him trying to work out how the soldiers are being shot) keeping the viewer emotionally invested in Johnnie’s plight.

An excellent start to this month’s Buster-fest, the smaller scale Cops from 1922 is up next.

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Holyrood or Bust(er) #1: celebrating Buster Keaton with TCM

Buster Keaton on TCM

Buster Keaton on TCM

There’s good and bad news for Buster Keaton fans this month. The good news is that a major TV station, TCM, has named him their Star of the Month, screening Buster’s films every Sunday in October. The bad news is that TCM is for US residents only.

Born on 4 October 1895 as Joseph Frank Keaton, the young son of vaudeville performer Joe Keaton was nicknamed “Buster” after being thrown around the stage once too often. Clever, athletic and determined, Buster worked his way up through the ranks of the entertainment world to make himself one of the greatest silent film stars alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

I’m something of a recent convert to Buster, discovering his work properly around 2006 on DVD. I was soon hooked, something about his lack of sentimentality and willingness to innovate meaning that every picture was like an experiment with the medium that we were priviliged to see.

For those of us not in America it’s hard to imagine quite how huge TCM is over there. I was introduced to the channel, and its many fans, in April when I flew to Hollywood for the second annual TCM Classic Film Festival, a chance for classic movie lovers to gather and watch fantastic films in legendary surroundings.

Buster flyer at the Egyptian

Buster flyer at the Egyptian

Buster was celebrated with a screening of The Cameraman at The Egyptian Theatre, where the film was accompanied by New York band, Vince Giordano and His Nighthawks. I was in the audience for the event and, even though I’ve watched the film many times, I noticed things I hadn’t seen before as the packed auditorium shook with the laughter of the crowd. A truly wonderful evening that was worth the air fare alone.

On leaving The Egyptian I noticed a programme promoting screenings at LA cinemas [see image on right], including a weekend of Buster’s films at the Aero Theatre. Film fans have it easy in that city.

While I can’t sit and enjoy TCM’s Buster screenings, as a huge fan of the actor (I rate him above Chaplin and Lloyd in case you hadn’t guessed) I intend to follow proceedings with the aid of my various DVD sets, the TCM Twitter feed and this blog.

I’ll provide some commentary on my rewatch of the majority of the features and shorts that the US audience will be seeing and I’d recommend anyone with a Buster Keaton set on the shelf dusts it off as well, or order Masters of Cinema’s stunning boxset as soon as you can.

I’ve also got Edward McPherson’s 2004 Buster biography, Tempest in a Flat Hat, to read this month, and some compilation DVDs, Keaton Plus and Industrial Strength Keaton, which I keep meaning to watch.

You’ll also find a lot of Buster love over on film blog The Kitty Packard Pictorial, where Carley Johnson is hosting a month-long celebration.

Here’s TCM’s Scott McGee discussing the season on the latest TCM video podcast:

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Happy Birthday Pinewood Studios!

Aerial shot of the old Pinewood Studios

Yesterday, 30 September 2011, saw Pinewood Studios, the British studio best known as the home of the James Bond movies, celebrate its 75th anniversary.

Established by Sheffield building tycoon Sir Charles Boot, Lady Henrietta Yule and flour magnate J Arthur Rank, Pinewood has hosted the production of films such as the Carry On series, The Red Shoes, Bugsy Malone and Superman.

Bond fans will be used to seeing the massive 007 stage on numerous documentaries over the years, with the most recent instalment, Quantum of Solace, also being filmed at the studios.

The BBC marked the anniversary with a photo slideshow while The Guardian devoted a blog post to the event, including some archive features from the newspaper.

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Another classic film blog?

Hollywood, April 2011

Hollywood, April 2011

To blog or not to blog, that is the question. In a world stuffed full of film blogs, does it really need another, this time based in Edinburgh, Scotland and focusing on classic movies from through the ages?

I think so.

I’ve been writing about film in various places for the last few years, discussing the latest Hollywood output in the pages of a local newspaper, the Edinburgh Evening News, or happenings around Scotland as part of ReelScotland, but time and again I find myself returning to the topic of old movies, mostly those made before I was born.

Convinced that to ignore our shared cinematic heritage is a Very Bad Idea, the joy of discovering a film that was made in the 1920s is, for me, exactly the same as heading to the local multiplex and stumbling upon something great made this year.

Following a trip to Los Angeles in early 2011, where I attended the second TCM Classic Film Festival, I’ve realised that I need an outlet to discuss the type of films I’m willing to travel thousands of miles to watch in a darkened room. Speaking to actors such as The Trouble with Harry’s Jerry Mathers, it seemed I wasn’t alone in having a fondness for classic cinema.

TCM also confirmed my suspicions that classic movie fans are some of the nicest and smartest people around, equipped with the sort of knowledge about films made decades before they were born that tends to make me feel (slightly) better educated when I have a chat with them in person or online.

I’ll look back at cinema from all countries and eras, with a heavy focus on Hollywood’s Golden Age, from the 1920s to the 1960s. I’ll try to cover the very best films, actors, writers, producers, foley artists, gaffers and whoever else deserves a mention, along the way.

With the wealth of titles now available on DVD, Blu-ray and online, I’ll never be short of things to discuss, and I’ll also mention screenings of some of these films on the big screen, where they really belong. Add to that reviews of new books and special events plus the occasional interview, and there should be something here for most classic movie fans.

As for the blog’s title, Holyrood is a part of Scotland’s capital city which has little relevance to cinema apart from the fact that it sounds a bit like Hollywood. Simple really.

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