Archive for The Avengers

Spouse Invaders

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2014 by dcairns

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THE NIGHT CALLER

I wasn’t aware of UNEARTHLY STRANGER (1964) but I had seen THE NIGHT CALLER made the following year. Both are British sci-fi movies, both feature stand-out turns from Warren Mitchell, and both are weirdly, creepily misogynistic.

MARS NEEDS DUMB WOMEN

Briefly, in THE NIGHT CALLER, someone is advertising for models and when the swinging London dolly-birds turn up to audition, they get disappeared. A female scientist investigates, using herself as bait, and is murdered. Finally, the intrepid John Saxon confronts the extraterrestrial responsible, who confesses that his dying planet, devastated by war, desperately needs nubile young women, so he’s been advertising for them and whisking them off to Mars or wherever. He also reveals that Martian men are hideously disfigured by radiation but that using mind control he can prevent the dolly birds from realizing this. Saxon and the rest of the representatives of Earth are touched by his plight and agree that what he’s been doing is basically fine. Then they remember about the murder and ask about that. “She was a threat to us — she was too intelligent!” says the space chappie, and everybody agrees that, though it’s of course regrettable that she had to die, it was probably for the best. Too intelligent. Can’t have that.

Very disturbing viewing, and a commercially released genre picture, albeit a low-budget one. John Gilling of Hammer fame directed it. It’s actually like a film made by the warped-by-aliens men in Joe Dante’s alarming Masters of Horror episode, The Screwfly Solution.

Warren Mitchell, famous as TV’s Alf Garnett (comedy sitcom bigot, prototype of Archie Bunker), has a moving bit as father of one of the missing girls — so real and human he blows the doors off the film, and all the more disturbing when it gets to the end and his loss is swept under the rug.

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SEX IS A VIRUS FROM OUTER SPACE

Now. UNEARTHLY STRANGER, like TNC, starts smoothly and doesn’t reveal its bizarre sexual politics until quite late, but when it does the effect is striking.

Good cast! John Neville, who was about to be Sherlock Holmes in A STUDY IN TERROR, and would play Baron Munchausen for Terry Gilliam and have another run-in with aliens in The X-Files as The Well-Manicured Man, is a scientist working on a scheme of astral projection to enable mankind to travel into space by will alone. Philip Stone, the sinister waiter in THE SHINING, is his head of department. (Oddly, THE NIGHT VISITOR features two Kubrick stars too, Marianne Stone who dances with Peter Sellers in LOLITA, and Aubrey Morris, the camp social worker in CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I really do think Kubrick did all his casting from British B-movies.) And Patrick Newell, Mother in The Avengers, plays the security man whose job is to find out why Britain’s top scientists keep having their brains incinerated from within.

(“The brain drain” — a newspaper scare story about British talent being stolen away by countries with higher salaries and lower tax, was very much in the media at this time.)

(The movie is produced by Avengers head man Albert Fennell and directed by documentarist John Krish who also filmed that show’s credits.)

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Suspicion eventually falls on Neville’s wife, “an alien” — meaning she’s Swiss — or is she? Sympathetically played by Gabriella Licudi, she sometime forgets to blink, takes the casserole out the oven without gloves, has no pulse, and weeps acid tears. It seems the aliens have invented astral projection first, and they’re here. And they’re all women.

Nicely shot but confined to a couple of offices, the Neville family home, and a car — apart from an effective bit of Licudi wandering suburban streets and upsetting the children she meets, who all instinctively know she’s Not Right — the film suffers from an excess of wordiness and a lack of action and visual variety. But it’s short and somewhat original. Then the big reveal happens, and the further twist comes that secretary Miss Ballard (Jean Marsh) is also an alien. A struggle ensues with Neville and Stone trying to chloroform her — like the vampire-stakings in Hammer flicks, it’s filmed like a rape. She goes out the window, but by the time our panting heroes have descended the loooong flight of stairs, she’s vanished like Michael Myers. But just to drive its non-point home, onlookers start turning to the camera. Women onlookers. Staring with sinister womanly eyes. You’re next! You’re next! Watch the skies. God help us in the future.

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MOTHER, JEEVES AND BOSIE

Where does this fear and loathing come from? Sexual liberation may have stirred up some anxieties, I guess. The makers of The Avengers were an odd lot — celebrating kinks and campery, but treating Linda Thorson shabbily and establishing a “no-blacks” rule because “the show has got to have class.” A good part of UNEARTHLY STRANGER’s unease feels curiously homonormative (now there’s a word you really don’t get to use much). All the women are aliens and all the men are a bit fruity. Warren Mitchell’s cameo involves a PERFECT Scottish accent, the kind of posh one that’s slightly camp. John Neville had been Bosey to  Robert Morley’s OSCAR WILDE, and has a neurasthenic, dandified quality that’s pleasantly un-macho. “Mother” describes himself as a confirmed bachelor and is of course camp as knickers: this may be the best movie role he ever had, and he chews it up greedily, joyously. And Philip Stone, with his prissily plummy, theatrical diction… well, he doesn’t conform to any notion of sexuality, really: his characters always seem scarily inward. He’s magnificent, though: one can see why Kubrick loved using him. With Neville he forms a kind of cut-rate Richardson/Gielgud double-act. I wish they’d done a whole series of movies together.

Check it!

what’s inside a girl? from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I told you: this movie is just bizarre about sexual relations and society and everything.

The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset

Webb Head

Posted in Comics, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 1, 2012 by dcairns

THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN — enough has been said about whether this was an absurdly rapid reboot (I’d say so), about whether there are too many superhero movies (I’d say so) or about whether making every superhero film an origin story betrays a lack of imagination (it does)  — having caught the film at last, I want to say that it’s pretty good, for a superhero movie.

It’s really two movies. Director Marc Webb must’ve been hired partly for his name, and partly to bring the characters to something like three-dimensional life. This, he succeeds in. The film is actually emotional, the leads are appealing and convincing, and everything involving Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Martin Sheen, Sally Fields and Denis Leary is good, human drama. The filming is a little ordinary, to the point where you can barely even tell it’s in 3D for the first ten minutes or so.

Then there’s the action side. This is kinetic and packs plenty of visual oomph. We’re used to big movies being kind of patchworks, with the visual effects and second unit guys handling everything that doesn’t involve standing still and emoting, but the result is particularly striking in this case. On the other hand, the dialogue in the scenes involving Spidey and the Lizard, his hulking foe, is pretty pitiable, a collection of clichés and disconnected one-liners. I’m guessing that two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent (PAPER MOON, STRAIGHT TIME) didn’t write those bits.

As well-staged as it is, the monster-fighting doesn’t offer much we haven’t seen before, although the web-slinging and city-swinging is MUCH more convincing here than it was in Sam Raimi’s cartoony pastel Manhattan. And the film’s villain, Rhys Ifans / the Lizard, isn’t very well integrated into the other storylines. Ifans, maybe the film’s best actor (see his AMAZING turn as Peter Cook in Not Only But Always), gives probably its weakest central performance. I don’t think anybody involved was really enthusiastic about, or believed in, the mad scientist transformation stuff.

Here’s where the origins story thing hurts the movie: it’s actually sort of interesting, in a nerdy formulist way, to watch Spider-man’s origin get re-told, exactly the same key story points expressed in different ways, but like the first Raimi film, the movie takes an age to get going because we also have to see the villain’s origin. And Raimi did this in EVERY ONE of his Spider-man movies (and in DARKMAN). How much more interesting (and speedy!) it would be to have the monster already at large and have the hero uncover the secrets of its existence and motivation. The only recent movie I can think of that does anything like this is THE AVENGERS. Which is part of why I respect THE AVENGERS.

Then we ran (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, Webb’s previous effort, and it was so much better than THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN that I did kind of wonder — has Webb wasted several years of his life? He could clearly have made two movies like (500) in the time it took him to make the blockbuster, and for that money he could have made (50). Of course, the economics of the film biz doesn’t work that way. But I’m hoping that the bigger movie will allow him to make more smaller movies.

(The harsh version: John Cassavetes to Martin Scorsese, after the latter had made BOXCAR BERTHA. “You just wasted a year of your life.”)

Webb has a real gift, clearly, for casting handsome couples — Joseph Gordon Levitt and Zooey Deschanel go great together. And the playful narrative choices (think ANNIE HALL’s splitscreen, animation and subtitles) and non-linear structure via first-time screenwriters Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber keep the thing constantly on its toes. The pity of it is that a super-hero blockbuster COULD have precisely those virtues — the nasty but very funny KICK ASS practically does. (KICK ASS also has a more convincing sense of the modern world, with its hero becoming a YouTube sensation. In AS-M, a giant lizard rampages across the Williamsburg Bridge and nobody shoots it on their phone, leading the cops to dismiss it as a fantasy.)

There’s also emotional depth — you may tear up, and you certainly may recognize bits of your own life, sharply observed. The film is so much fun that it could coast by on charm alone, but it chooses to get into real heartbreak, which is what separates the truly romantic from the mere romcom. And this comes out even in the ludic filmmaking choices — a splitscreen comparison of expectation versus reality late in the show creates a genuinely anxious, sinking feeling in the stomach.

I carry in my mind the idea that we’ve lost the ability, for some reason, to do good romantic comedies, but while I stand by the idea that it used to be somehow easy and natural to do those films well and now it seems to be hard, there have been some really good funny romances in the last twenty years. It’s just that, from GROSS POINTE BLANK to SCOTT PILGRIM VERSUS THE WORLD to (500) DAYS OF SUMMER, they more often seem to be predominantly from the male perspective. Am I wrong, or why is that?

Exposition

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 29, 2009 by dcairns

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Looking at Hitchcock’s THE LADY VANISHES reminded me that there was another version of the story idea — SO LONG AT THE FAIR, directed by Antony Darnorough and Terence Fisher.

Terrific thriller! It’s based on a sort of urban legend, about a couple (in the story it’s a mother and daughter, in the film it’s a brother and sister) who travel to the World’s Fair (but which one? the filmmakers wisely plump for the Paris Explosition of 1896, with the Eiffel Tower), where one of them promptly vanishes. Everybody at the hotel denies that the vanished relative ever existed.

This is one case where I’m not going to get into spoilers, although if you’ve read Hitchcock-Truffaut, you’ve read the solution. It works pretty well in the movie, and Hitchcock later recycled it for a TV episode.

Two things are striking about the film –

1) It’s successfully starry: Jean Simmons as the frightened heroine, who feels she’s losing her mind as reality is rewritten by conspiracy around her; Dirk Bogarde as the artist/swain who eventually comes to her aid; also, as if that weren’t enough, Honor Blackman; and David Tomlinson as the vanishee.

2) It’s from that period where British cinema was apparently bent on suicide, eradicating anything of interest domestically (Powell & Pressburger), while hemorrhaging talent abroad, and yet it’s a convincing film, compelling and exciting and stylish — but the talents were instantly dispersed to prevent the experiment being repeated.

Fisher of course boomeranged off to Hammer films, where he was productive and successful within that niche/ghetto of the genre sausage-factory. Darnorough, who had just collaborated with Fisher on a Noel Coward adaptation, THE ASTONISHED HEART, plunged into producing for a few years, before abandoning the industry. Jean fled to America and the waiting fingernails of Howard Hughes, Dirk fled to Europe and an amazing reinvention as art-house star. Honor became the first woman to do King-Fu in leather on telly in The Avengers, and Tomlinson was scooped up by Disney. And the writers, Hugh Mills and Anthony Thorne, who did an incredible job escalating the suspense and creating endearing protags, were allowed to slip out of the industry, despite a collaboration with Rene Clement on MONSIEUR RIPOIS for Mills.

For this one brief moment, they’re all together, producing a great entertainment. Simmons and Bogarde are great together. When he volunteers to rob a hotel safe to verify her story, she gasps, “Will it be dangerous?” “Goodness, I hope not, why?” asks Dirk, genuinely surprised. What a lovable chap!

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I don’t know how the co-directing worked. Fisher had already helmed a few little movies at this point, so presumably didn’t need help. A few suspense sequences have real panache, popping out from the rest — Fisher’s work? The production design is impressive, with flags waving from special-effects towers at the Exposition, and a fatal balloon ascension, and madly cluttered Victorian rooms. Cathleen Nesbitt (THE PASSING OF THE THIRD FLOOR BACK begins to seem like a central hub of British film), as the steely hotel-keeper, is so convincingly French she convinced the French. The wrapping-up at the end is satisfactory, especially as the film is a new romance, weaving an elaborate thriller plot just to bring together a charming young couple.

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