Hell or High Water

A small town bank in West Texas is robbed. Two gunmen, only taking low denomination bills from the cash drawers. Then another bank, the same modus operandi. A third. The robbers taking only several thousand dollars each time, but leaving no evidence, no trail. On their trail, two lawmen, tracking them across the desert.

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The Fall [Series 1 & 2]

The-Fall12The Fall is a show that focuses on a serial killer who is committing sexually violent murders in Belfast. When he’s not killing young women he is a bereavement counselor, a husband, and a father.  Metro Police Superintendent Stella Gibson is a senior investigating officer who is sent to assist the Belfast police department as they’ve been unable to solve the case.  Being an outsider Stella faces a lot of hostility from the local detectives but she knows serials killers and is good at her job. The show essentially consists of the two hunting each other which makes for an interesting dynamic.

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The Bird With the Crystal Plummage [Blu-Ray]

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Dario Argento is a towering figure in both genre and Italian cinema. But back in 1970 he had yet to direct a feature film solo and his first outing as writer/director would be a giallo. This sub-genre of potboiler thriller is so named because they are in the style of old pulp novels that almost invariably had yellow covers in Italy.

The Bird With The Crystal Plumage would turn out to not only be an exceptional giallo, but would also launch Argento into being arguably the pre-eminent auteur of the genre. He would subsequently branch out into horror and gain international acclaim, but it was in the murky world of serial killers and whodunnits that he made his name.

The plot here does have the familiar elements of a black-gloved killer of beautiful women, but it is a step above most in its style and pacing. Sam Dalmas (Tony Musante) is an American writer relocated to the quiet of Italy in order to work better. Now, as his return home is imminent, he sees a knife attack on a woman in an art gallery. The police, believing this part of a run of serial murders, refuse to let him leave the country due to his status as a witness.

Sam finds himself a target of the killer, apparently convinced Sam saw enough to be a threat. The only option Sam has to protect himself and his Italian model girlfriend (Suzy Kendall) is to try and track down the killer, his only clue being his memory of that night.

The script is a bit infantile at times and contains some wild stretches of logic, but it sweep along with a broad sense of humour and is punctuated by the real strength of Argento – the set-pieces.

These are not as stylish as his later work would become, but there are the first signs here. The attack Sam witnesses takes place in a pure white gallery, with Sam trapped between glass walls, unable to intervene, framed against the black night. Elsewhere, an extended foot chase through darkened city streets and a bus yard is superbly staged.

Some more dubious Argento elements also emerge. One of the murders is sexualised – the victim changes for bed into a diaphanous piece of lingerie that would only be considered sleepwear in adult entertainment immediately prior to being stabbed to death. Sam’s girlfriend Judith is a simpering damsel-in-distress throughout and the female roles in general are underwritten to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, this is a superior giallo that never flags in pace. The importance of The Bird With The Crystal Plumage in film history may rest primarily with its status as the launchpad for Dario Argento, but it remains an effective thriller in its own right.

Extras:

Trailers.

God Bless America

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Frank Murdoch (Joel Murray) is a sad, divorced insurance salesman. By night he struggles against insomnia brought on by headaches and his loud mindless neighbours, escaping either into violent fantasies or the sewer of popular television. By day he works with people who are obsessed with the TV he hates, and have no other interests at all. When a misguided attempt at being nice gets him fired, and he finds out from his doctor that his headaches are the result of brain cancer, Frank decides to act out his fantasies for the betterment of the world at large.

How much you enjoy God Bless America from this point on is going to depend entirely on how much you agree with Bobcat Goldthwait. The film is best understood as a raw scream of rage at the cultural and political forces he considers to be rotting America from the inside out – primarily petty selfishness and an obsession with the cruelest and shallowest forms of celebrity on offer.

Frank and his sidekick Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr) sometimes seem less like characters than direct stand-ins for Goldthwait. They make speeches which simply lay out the film’s manifesto, and pick their targets from an incredibly thinly-veiled list of real-world people and groups including most notably American Idol, Glenn Beck, My Super-Sweet Sixteen and the notorious Westboro Baptist Church (they also find room for people who double-park and talk during movies).

If you agree with Bobcat Goldthwait that all these shows, people and organisations are a blight on society (and you’re OK with watching them obliterated in a crudely cathartic splatter of rage) then you’ll probably enjoy this movie. If you disagree with Goldthwait’s targets, or feel uneasy about heroising characters who are essentially spree killers then it’s probably not for you.

Nightcrawler [Blu-Ray]

NightcrawlerThe opening shot of Nightcrawler is of a blank Los Angeles billboard. It is the perfect metaphor for the message of the film, a vacuum existing just to sell to people. A gaudy, dominating monument to marketing.

This is the world of Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Bloom wants success. Success as Western capitalism teaches it. He’s not interested in improving the world, family or helping people. He wants career goals and money. He is modern ambition incarnate. A void of humanity, brought up on inspirational messages and business acumen one-liners.

We first see Bloom as a petty thief, but when he witnesses a video cameraman (Bill Paxton) filming the aftermath of a car accident to sell the footage to local television news, he believes he has found his calling.

Another theft gets him enough cash to buy a camera and a police scanner and he is off and running. Part of an underground of cameraman hunting news stories in the dead of the Los Angeles night, flocking to crime scenes like vultures. Bloom quickly learns that his lack of caring for ethics, people or their feelings makes him ideally suited to the work…and so his meteoric rise begins.

Nightcrawler is the directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and it is a spectacular debut. Gilroy’s previous screenwriting credits are underwhelming (the likes of Freejack, Real Steel and The Fall hardly boasted top tier scripts), but this is a superb piece of work.

The satire as vicious and the whole is reminiscent of Martin Scorcese. The dark streets, the vitriol directed at American capitalism of Wolf of Wall Street, the Taxi Driver-esque anti-hero in Lou Bloom.

But the true cunning of Nightcrawler is how it makes you root for Bloom. Part of this is down to the script, part down to the tense filming and part down to the clever score by James Newton Howard that provides revelatory, heroic tones even when Bloom is carrying out the most deplorable acts.

Gilroy pulls few punches with his attacks. Bloom spouts cheerful platitudes like, “a friend is a gift you give yourself” in between quoting self-improvement lines. Local TV news director Nina Romina (Rene Russo) tramples over broadcasting standards in the rush for ratings, explaining to Bloom that what really sells is minorities committing crimes against whites in affluent neighbourhoods. There is no interest, she explains, in the poor preying on the poor.

All of this social commentary would be wasted if the film failed to engage – but boy, does it. Bloom’s escalations from indiscretions (moving a corpse at an accident into better light) through to orchestrating violence for his camera are riveting. All are shot beautifully and edited superbly, culminating in a high-speed car chase the equal of any action film.

Towering over it all is Gyllenhaal. As Bloom, he never convinces as an actual human being, but that is not his goal. His performance is hugely charismatic, his Bloom reptilian and ever-grinning with a smile that never touches his eyes. Gyllenhaal lost 28 pounds for the role and the result is a gaunt, skull-like figure that bristles with energy and barely-contained menace.

A terrific film that delivers on all fronts, Nightcrawler is a modern urban masterpiece. Unmissable.

Extras:

The extras include some interviews with Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and Russo, plus a fluff featurette mixing those interviews with footage from the film. A second featurette is a little more candid, but also quite superficial and brief.

The main addition on board is a commentary track. This is a breezy and highly-informative track featuring writer/director Dan Gilroy, his brother Tony (producer) and his other brother John (editor). As brothers, they are at ease throughout and discuss a wide-range of topics from the shooting style to the casting of Gyllenhaal through to their use of technical advisors for both the late-night camera operators (known as “Nightcrawlers” or, more common, “Stringers”) and the police in order to lend as much authenticity to the film as possible.

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman Entertainment.

Deadlier Than the Male / Some Girls Do

Deadlier-MaleThe huge commercial success of Goldfinger in 1964 not only saw Ian Fleming’s fictional super-spy James Bond become a genuine international cultural phenomenon, but helped usher in the era of the Bond clones and parodies, with studios eager to carve out a slice of the box-office pie with a 007 of their own. As a result, the remainder of the 1960s gave us such cinematic super-sleuths as Derek Flint (James Coburn) and Matt Helm (Dean Martin), not to mention episodic series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Get Smart and Honey West on television.

Created (under the penname ‘Sapper‘) in 1920 by Herman Cyril McNeile, Bulldog Drummond had his origins in the decidedly grim, black & white world of the classic detective pulp magazines and early film noir, and had already been featured in nearly twenty films dating back to 1923 when veteran Hammer screenwriter Jimmy Sangster and director Ralph Thomas decided to update the character and drop him squarely into the coolly pulsating, pop-art world of the Swinging Sixties. Ironically, Bulldog Drummond had been one of the biggest influences on Fleming when he created Bond, and now he was trying to walk in the footsteps of his infinitely more popular illegitimate son.

Based on an original story (rather than one of McNeile’s existing novels), Deadlier than the Male casts Richard Johnson as the suitably debonair and sophisticated insurance investigator Bulldog Drummond, hired after a private jet carrying a powerful oil magnate suspiciously blows-up while in flight. Aided by his eager but somewhat naïve American cousin (and budding playboy) Robert (Steve Carlson), and in between bouts of womanising, Drummond eventually uncovers a plot by a mysterious villain to destabilize the oil industry and throw it into chaos, which he aims to achieve by hiring two gorgeous female assassins (Elke Sommer and Sylva Koscina) to kill off key oil figureheads in various creative ways.

Any resemblance between Deadlier than the Male and vintage Bulldog Drummond begins and ends with the lead character having the same name (and even then he is rarely referred to as ‘Bulldog’). This is pure sixties cinema pulp influenced directly by the Bond movies – and for what it is, it is quite superb. Director Thomas (perhaps best known for helming the popular series of Doctor comedy films) keeps the proceedings moving along at a cracking pace, ensuring the film doesn’t lose its steam by the third act (a problem which hindered several of the Bond parodies). The art direction by Alex Vetchinsky is fantastic, particularly the giant automated chessboard which features prominently in the climax, and the exotic Mediterranean locales are captured to full advantage by cinematographer Ernest Stewart. The soundtrack is suitably nightclub cool, and makes great use of the Walker Brothers’ hit title song over the opening credits. Richard Johnson makes a smooth, laid-back and confident hero, but he is rather overshadowed by Nigel Green as the deliciously Blofeld-like evil villain, Carl Peterson. Elke Sommer and the late Sylva Koscina are also hypnotic to watch, using their charm, their firepower and their curves to get what they want.

Whether emerging from the ocean clad in bikinis and clutching spear guns or glammed-up in the latest European fashions, Sommer and Koscina dominate virtually every frame of film they are in, and have a nice onscreen chemistry. They would have been great in a spin-off movie together. Other cast members of interest include Milton Reid (who went on to an official Bond film in 1977s The Spy Who Loved Me), Suzanna Leigh (The Deadly Bees) and the lovely Virginia North (who gained a minor cult following amongst horror fans for her role in The Abominable Dr. Phibes).

Three years after Deadlier than the Male, Johnson was back as Drummond for the second – and final – time in Some Girls Do. Ralph Thomas also returned to the director’s chair, and the film really amped-up the sci-fi and fantasy elements, as Drummond once again faces off against his old foe Carl Peterson (played here by James Villiers), whom this time around is using a harem of beautiful, scantily-clad robotic women to help him sabotage the launch of a new British supersonic airliner jet (there is little doubt that these two 1960s Drummond films were a major influence on Mike Myers’ Austin Powers trilogy).

Although it features many of the same elements as its predecessor, they don’t all gel as well as they did the first time around. The screenplay is lacking Jimmy Sangster’s input, and the villains aren’t as memorable as they were in Deadlier than the Male (as Peterson, James Villiers is a poor substitute for Nigel Green). The film is also a victim of its own timing, as by 1969 the initial wave of the James Bond craze was starting to die down, and the Bond films themselves were starting to become overblown parodies. Still, there is plenty to admire and enjoy here, not least of which is the appearance by lovely blonde Swede Yutte Stensgaard (from Hammer’s Lust for a Vampire) as one of the sexy robot drones. Also appearing are Virginia North (playing a different character from the first film), an uncredited Joanna Lumley (who was filming On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – also at Pinewood Studios – at the same time) and the portly Robert Morley, who tries to unsuccessfully add a bit of annoying comic relief and is thankfully killed off before too long.

Madman have done a suitably groovy job with their double-disc release of these two films. The 16:9 anamorphic widescreen print of Deadlier than the Male looks stunning – it’s crisp and sharp and literally pops with colour and depth. Unfortunately the 4:3 print of Some Girls Do is a letdown by comparison, giving the film a less spectacular TV movie feel, though the actual quality of the print is again superb. Extras on each disc include the original trailers and very extensive (and impressive) stills galleries for each film, while Deadlier than the Male also include some nice vintage on-set reports and cast interviews, filmed in black & white and no doubt intended to help promote the movie in cinemas and on television. Also included are two postcards featuring original promotional art for both movies, which gives the set a nice added visual appeal.

If you are a fan of vintage spy flicks, or just someone who loves everything that was silly, sexy and swinging about the sixties, this set deserves to be on your shelf.

Extras:
  • Vintage Cast Interviews
  • Vintage On Set Reports
  • Image Galleries
  • Theatrical Trailers

Available on R4 DVD from Madman Entertainment.

Life of Crime

Life-CrimeLouis (John Hawkes) and Ordell (Yasiin Bey – probably better known as Mos Def) are a pair of petty crooks whose biggest achievement to date is running a pimp over with a van in order to steal his wallet-cash and his hat – but they have big plans. They’ve found out that a local businessman named Frank (Tim Robbins) has been using his various construction projects to siphon off millions of dollars and stashing the money in offshore accounts. If Louis and Ordell kidnap Frank’s wife Mickey (Jennifer Aniston) the pair reason he’ll have no choice but to pay a million-dollar ransom as he won’t be able to go to the police. Unfortunately, what neither Mickey nor her would-be kidnappers realise is that Frank is just about to divorce his wife so that he can live with his mistress Melanie (Isla Fisher) and isn’t too keen on paying to get her back.

Life Of Crime is an adaptation of Elmore Leonard‘s 1978 book The Switch and is the last adaptation of one of his books that Leonard was personally involved with before his death in 2013. In a film-trivia twist, this makes Life of Crime a sort-of-prequel to Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown because Rum Punch (the novel Jackie Brown is based on) follows on from The Switch and features the later career of Ordell (meaning that Mos Def ages into Samuel L Jackson circa 1997).

Life Of Crime is more Coen brothers than Tarantino – the plot is driven by bad people making bad decisions for bad reasons, rather than stylish action and slick pop-culture dialogue. Louis and Ordell’s plan (Frank’s intransigence aside) is critically handicapped by their reliance on a mentally-unstable neo-Nazi called Richard (Mark Boone Junior) to provide them with guns and a hideout. Mickey’s prospective lover Marshall (Will Forte) witnesses the crime (because he was trying to seduce Mickey when she was kidnapped) but is too worried about his wife finding out to actually do anything to help. Meanwhile, Frank (drunk and boasting about how clever he is) spills the details of his embezzlement plan to Melanie, who decides to play the femme fatale to try and profit off both sides (despite, for her part, being much less clever than she thinks she is). The sole point of innocence here is Mickey, who had naively believed everything that Frank told her and is utterly blindsided by the revelation that he refuses to pay her ransom. I admit I have a soft spot for “people being bad at crime” movies, but the assorted convolutions and incompetencies here are nicely put together.

Jennifer Aniston is excellent, and Mickey is a really unusual and interesting character in that she’s naive but also really smart and resourceful – adapting quickly to her new circumstances and trying to figure out ways to help herself out of her situation.

Unfortunately, for all that good stuff, Life Of Crime feels just slightly lacking in something. The whole film has this odd slightly tacky over-bright TV set look, which is probably a deliberate reflection of the characters’ low-rent conspiracies buts robs everything of the edge it would need to be fully engaging. It’s good, but stops short of quite being as great as it could be.

Extras:

  • “Making of” featurette
  •  Theatrical trailer
  • “Madman propaganda” (trailers)

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman Entertainment.

Scum

Scum-DVDOriginally made for an episode of the BBC’s television play series, Play for Today, but swiftly banned before airing, Scum was later remade as a feature film without any of TV’s restrictions.

It follows Carlin (played to the hilt by a young Ray Winstone), an inmate being transferred to a borstal for assaulting a screw at his last reformatory. After settling in and adjusting to the punishing military-style regime, Carlin quickly sets about securing the position of “Daddy”. This involves a couple of well-placed snooker balls and a sock.

As Daddy, Carlin runs shit and the screws turn a blind eye. During his reign he encounters various characters such as Archer, the facility’s elder intellectual oddball who uses minor acts of civil disobedience to fuck with the wardens (and himself simultaneously), such as refusing to wear shoes. And Davis, the institutional victim who commits suicide after being nastily gang-raped, which triggers the riotous finale.

Scum has a long history of controversy and notoriety. Its VHS artwork and poster campaigns sell it as a shocking exposé uncovering the harsh conditions inside a British borstal. Yet, graphic story aside, it also works to present an unflinching condemnation of the penal system and its complete lack of rehabilitation. Brutality breeds brutality in here.

The gritty documentary style used by Alan Clarke fits the subject matter perfectly. A colourless, grim environment is captured via slow tracking shots and long uncomfortable takes, refusing to turn away when things get too real. This is Clarke’s protest against the inhumanity of the borstal system at the time, as he forces others to look.

The performances here are impressive in their realism – the young cast exude a naturalistic and raw adolescent rage that boils over in stages, while Winstone commands with an unstable intensity.

Despite perhaps originally being viewed as an exploitative video nasty, Scum has now earned its name as a classic of British kitchen sink cinema. Can’t recommend it enough, along with the rest of Alan Clarke’s oeuvre.

Available on R4 DVD and Blu-Ray from Shock.