Movie of the Week: Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

Don Chaffey directs Todd Armstrong, Honor Blackman and Nancy Kovack in this fantasy adventure where an exiled prince begins a quest across creation with the help of the Greek gods.

The stuff that dreams are made of. Expansive epic storytelling and groundbreaking Harryhausen effects. Everyone remembers The Children of Hydra’s Teeth – a finale so show stopping the film literally shuts down immediately after it, loose ends flapping in the wind and all. Yet I really was drawn to Talos, the gargantuan statue who comes to life and terrorises the crew as a pissed off 80 foot security guard. He patrols so patiently and destructively you are kinda sorry to see his weakness exploited. Top tea time thrills.

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Kika (1993)

Pedro Almodóvar directs Verónica Forqué, Rossy de Palma and Victoria Abril in this farce where a sweet, naive make-up artist finds herself desired by nearly every man who sees her.

I think this is the first Almodóvar I saw as a teen, I found it annoying and often incomprehensible. The sex comedy is both distastefully brash and laugh light. And then there’s the protracted rape played for laughs at its centre. Kika has dated very poorly, some game pantomime acting and outlandish Jean-Paul Gaultier costumes are all that is now of note.

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The Deep Blue Sea (2011)

Terence Davies directs Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale in this adaptation of a Terrence Rattigan play where a lady leaves her titled husband to live with a selfish younger man.

Golden to look at and well acted. Yet the coldly written characters struggle to convince and the chopped up timeline is a distraction rather than a boon.

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Joker (2019)

Todd Phillips directs Joaquin Phoenix, Frances Conroy and Robert DeNiro in this comic book origin story for the clown prince of crime; positioning him as a mentally fragile innocent corrupted by urban malaise.

Come watch the dancing sad man become a glancing madman. Clearly one of the year’s biggest releases, not just in box office take but in that everyone currently has an opinion on it. It left me cold. A lot of craft has gone into visually gift wrapping the iconography of The Joker with the cinematic language of an early Scorsese. Phillips has produced a convincing looking pastiche of Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, King of Comedy and After Hours. All superior films but why not steal from the best? This is New York as a hostile environment, where dirty colour is a lure to a predatory trap and the only condolence shown to others is not to be openly, wantonly cruel. Nihilistic, bleak, sleazy. But in a borrowed way. This isn’t real world isolation and madness… this is a brutal celebration of proactive pessimism. Misery parody. Popcorn desolation. Do I – a grumpy, hard thinking, Bukowski reading, The Wire-loving, humanity distrusting man- care that this is all so unrelentingly dark? No. Does seeing a mass market descent into Dostoevsky fan art appeal? Not really. This is ennui as window dressing, hell as a marketing tool. It doesn’t intellectually convince, nor say anything deeper than “People Ain’t No Good”. Nick Cave did that, he has a compelling naturally stiff baritone. You can’t fake that sadness and make it an event. It didn’t work for me, didn’t emotionally convince. I got bored wallowing in the artifice. You know where this purposeful train wreck is headed from the first 15 minutes and it never derails or deviates from that course. Yes I saw that twist coming and… yeah… that twist too. The child abuse stuff, less so. Surprise child abuse as a narrative garnish… yum! Phillips isn’t a disruptive visionary, he’s a hack wearing the trappings of a great. He couldn’t make War Dogs into a New Goodfellas, he couldn’t make Due Date into a Nu-Midnight Run. His best film is Old School. Old School still rocks the cock. Now if Scorsese made a Joker film I’d be all fucking eyes. But the director of Road Trip pretending to be Marty… I’ll keep my reservations, they feel pretty firmly founded. That’s not to say this is a bad film, just not the controversial masterpiece we are supposed to be worshipping. Phoenix goes all in. He has no other setting. I love him for this. His twisted soul is all sinew and jerking dead eyed outbursts. I liked it. I liked the self contained terror of him dropping his gun in the children’s hospital. I liked the couple of bigger, blockbuster-y moments that seemed to suggest he had transcended the chaos of this hateful city and could glide between the violence like a savant walking between the raindrops. That’s a nice take on the Joker. I enjoyed that. The impressive support cast is solid. Joker looks and sounds superb. I’d watch it again. But a masterpiece? A classic? Nah… this is World Book Day fancy dress up for a school shooter who’ll never have the nerve. About as emotionally true and cinematically daring as a nerf bullet in a Happy Meal. I’ll get my misanthropy from the geeks and losers, bums and burnouts, thank you very much. It really doesn’t belong on 1000 seater IMAX screens.

6

Clash of the Titans (1981)

Desmond Davis directs Harry Hamlin, Judi Bowker and Laurence Olivier in this fantasy adventure where the Greek Gods watch Perseus track down Medusa to stop the Kraken from devouring his paramour.

Like Star Wars or Flash Gordon, this was a mainstay of my Hanwell childhood. A VHS perennial that exists better in my memory than as a revisit. What this viewing was missing was the shit brown corduroy sofa that stiffly sat in my parents’ first house, an orange Club bar wrapped in foil. It is very slow, in no rush to start the action. 40 minutes of dawdling set-up. Which is a shame as the eventual creature design is excellent and abundant. The plot essentially (after a lot of humming and ha-ing) is a join the dots exercise, the dots being another new hideous beast to meet and survive. Calibos is a brutal warped devil. His pitiful expressions and snarling anger, his pathetic lust and domineering control. I forgot what a petulantly effective villain he was… they should have seeded him throughout the narrative more. The blind Stygian Witches are played for laughs but their cannibal cauldron and all seeing crystal were formative movie horror imagery for young Bob Carroll. Medusa is a top tier fearful foe, that Harryhausen claymation reaching its evil pinnacle. The unsettling rattle of her tail, the glowing radioactive green of her eyes. Perseus entering her lair is one of the finest protracted suspense sequences ever committed to screen. It makes up for all the first act hamming and exposition. She is a devastating threat and we are on her home turf surrounded by the statues of fallen heroes who thought they could slay her. Massive scorpions. Race on Pegasus to beat the Kraken. Medusa’s horrifying final gaze. Green lasers bursting out at us. Titans is creaky, dated and wobbly. The acting is wooden and non-committal. It cannot hold a candle to predecessor Jason and the Argonauts. Yet it is embedded deep in my blockbuster primordial ooze. A yardstick from which all summer releases are measured.

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Plein Soleil (1960)

René Clément directs Alain Delon, Marie Laforêt and Maurice Ronet in this early adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s identity thief thriller: The Talented Mr Ripley.

The best version of this crime classic in that the identity theft actually convinces here. There are hectic set pieces as Ripley evades the authorities and reality through boat and rooftop. And the final reveal is delightfully Hitchcockian. The Italian location work is second to none, we’d all kill for this La Dolce Vita.

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The Kitchen (2019)

Andrea Berloff directs Melissa McCarthy, Tiffany Haddish and Elisabeth Moss in this crime thriller where three housewives take on the protection rackets in Hell’s Kitchen of the early Eighties.

There’s a better film struggling to get out here. You see it peeking through the often trite and short-sighted storytelling choices. On the poorer side, we have a fantasy New York where business owners seemingly want to pay extortion with smiles on their faces, where a well concealed twist then has no further consequences and it all builds to quite the anti-climax where girl power somehow supersedes betrayal and violence. On the plus side though, Domnhall Gleeson makes for a very unusual object of attraction, Bill Camp has fun as a pragmatic mob boss and the colourful visual framing perfectly captures the feel of a 4 issue Vertigo comic book run. I read a Sight and Sound review that said this was ‘incomprehensible’ but then revealed various misinterpretations of the plot that showed the writer hadn’t given the film their full attention. It really isn’t as bad as the critics make out, but equally not strong enough an entertainment to die on a hill for.

5

100 Rifles (1969)

Tom Gries directs Raquel Welch, Jim Brown and Burt Reynolds in this western where a voluptuous Mexican freedom fighter distracts a bandit and his arresting officer from getting back across the border.

A lot of this is dull filler tosh but there are spikes of interest. Welch takes a wet t-shirt shower by a railway siding. The black lead gets the girl. A raid on a train has true epic sweep. A celebration in a fort turns into unbridled carnage – this throwaway scene has a really, really strange Manson-esque / Season of the Witch carnality. Also of note… producer Marvin Schwarz… The inspiration behind Tarantino’s 1969 Western making, mover and shaker in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?

5

The Wandering Earth (2019)

Frant Gwo directs Qu Chuxaio, Angel Zhao and Ng Man-Tat in this sci-fi epic where to save the Earth from a dying sun, humanity has moved underground and the planet has turned into an organic rocket ship propelling itself to a new solar system.

This is one of the most financially successful releases of the year at the global box office, 98% of that haul coming from China. In essence it is an ensemble global apocalypse disaster epic. Like Michael Bay or Rolland Emmerich used to make two decades ago, a mixed bag of plucky but reluctant survivors try to exploit a flaw to subdue a genocidal scenario. The expansive FX work is good, there’s some decent peril and very broad farce humour. The vision of technology saving humanity is terrifying – I think we are supposed to marvel at the hellscape presented of bunkers of people divided by social caste and an entire planet so raped of her resources she now entirely resembles an inhospitable mining pit. The politics are offensive… one character is referred to as a half breed. This wouldn’t past muster during Independence Day or Armageddon, China has had 20 years to catch-up. They clearly give absolutely zero shits about racism or the environment going by their popular entertainments. Watchable but drags more than a little. The sheer abandonment of scientific logic alone will make your mind boggle.

5

Kiss of Death (1947)

Henry Hathaway directs Victor Mature, Coleen Gray and Richard Widmark in this noir where an imprisoned heist man turns informant when his wife sticks her head in the oven and his angelic kids are sent to the orphanage.

Victor Mature is a big clunky screen presence, he looks like a hand drawn caricature of Dean Martin or Robert Mitchum. He’s terrorised by Richard Widmark’s giggling killer. The Joker in all but face paint; he pushes old ladies down flights of stairs and blathers nonsense to anyone who listens. Coleen Gray is beautiful as the shimmering ray of hope who swoops in to turn Mature good when his wife offs herself. Domestic opportunists never looked so pretty and wholesome.

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