Category Archives: Drama

#147 – Is This Love?

(1996, US, 121 min) Dir Charles V. Holden Cast Halle Berry, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Chris Tucker, Vivica A. Fox.

An R&B version of A Star is Born with Halle Berry as the Whitney Houstonesque singer Pamela Brown who catches the eye of Vondie Curtis-Hall’s music mogul Eric Hitz. He coaches her to success with the help of dance instructor Ice (Chris Tucker in his usual role of ‘comic relief’) and singing coach Alicia (a cameoing Aretha Franklin whose acting is shaky but still has the voice). Needless to say she becomes a star and she and Hitz become a couple despite the dire warnings of his ex, who is herself a fading star. Unlike A Star is Born this ends on a real bum note that could be seen coming a mile off – Brown’s star goes into descent and she soon finds that Hitz is seeing one of her backing singers (Fox) who he leaves Brown for and then coaches to success as well. At the end Halle Berry’s nursing a big ol’ bottle of vodka and watching Fox picking up some award while blowing kisses to her new husband, the bastard Eric Hitz. Despite a strong, vulnerable performance from Berry the film is let down by pedestrian direction, a predictable plot and, worst of all, an unmemorable soundtrack.

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#145 – Operation Reptile

(1988, Fr/US, 130 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Christopher Lambert, Antonio Banderas, Fernando Rey.

Tense Day of the Jackal style thriller based on true life events surrounding the assassination of former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle while he was living in exile in Alfredo Stroessner’s Paraguay. The guts of the film detail the lead up to the act itself – how the team entered the country, how they were armed, the months of meticulous monitoring of Debayle’s movements. The scene of the assassination itself is suspense brought to the point of dread perfection – as if the lead up to Debayle’s car being stopped in the road wasn’t bad enough the rocket launcher that is to deliver the killing blow suddenly stops working and Banderas’ character has mere seconds to act. I could feel everyone in the cinema leaning into the screen at that moment and could hear the sound of gripped armrests creaking under the stress. Everything works here from the unshowy performances to the matter of fact photography to the clear, propulsive editing. This is the film that set Sacher back on the straight and narrow after a string of flops and misfires, setting him up nicely for his streak of classics through the nineties.

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#143 – Oeil Intérieur de L’Esprit, L’ (Eye Inside the Mind, The)

(1983, Fr, 101 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Alain Delon, Philippe Léotard, Claude Jade.

Based on his controversial memoir, L’Oeil Intérieur de L’Esprit tells the story of Paul Dumas, an ex-soldier who claimed to work for the French Army as part of a psychic cell in North Africa and French Indochina, a little like The Men Who Stare at Goats but even less funny. The film begins in 1970 and Dumas is working as a vegetable delivery man with no recollection of his top-secret army service. An accident when he’s unloading his truck causes a knock on the head from a crate of cabbages and suddenly it all comes back. His wife Anne (Jade) doesn’t know what to do but call his old army buddy Pip (Léotard) who talks him through his memories of pinpointing terrorist cells with the power of his mind and prognosticating enemy attacks. At this point the film departs from Dumas’ book, dramatizing the process of writing the book itself and his disastrous television appearances to publicise it, including his infamous appearance on TV ’73 with Serge Gainsbourg who mocked him, saying “If you’re such a good psychic then why did we lose both wars you fought in?” The film tries to have its cake and eat it too – it obviously doubts Dumas’ story but still insists on framing him by the end as some sort of hero. The effects at youngifying Delon for the flashbacks are distractingly bad too. Sacher’s first film after the debacle of The Pass to Heaven’s Arms, it would be another couple of films before he got back into his stride.

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#142 – Loneliness of the Long Distance Lorry Driver, The

(1970, GB, 100 min) Dir Joseph P Pritchard. Cast Harry H Corbett, Hans Pickert, Melanie Marie.

It’s no Convoy and despite its jokey title it’s no comedy either – the title was pasted on by the producers who also furnished the film with posters that suited both their new title and leading man’s Steptoe persona but didn’t spend any money in recutting the film, perhaps surmising that no amount of editing could transform what they had into something more amusing. It’s hard to disagree with them on that point though they seem to have missed the gem of a film they had too. Corbett – a Shakespearian actor once dubbed “the English Marlon Brando” but forever typecast by Steptoe & Son – plays the transcontinental lorry driver Oliver Brady, a man who lives in the perpetual grip of existential woe writ large across his doleful features. No matter that he traverses epic vistas in the shape of the snow-capped Alps, the vast Bavarian forests and so on, his face betrays no joy in any of this splendour. It seems his only relief is in people watching at the various truck stops along the way, particularly the prostitutes that work the drivers but don’t talk to him. It seems as though at some point something’s might give… A quiet, low-key film that shares its namesakes documentary realism and Corbett’s a fine lead too, effortlessly suggesting the great depths of feeling that run inside this lonely man. Unfortunately the film was unloved by comedy fans for not being a comedy and serious film aficionados were put off by how it was presented. Both sides lost out on a true classic.

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#133 – Roi Du Canard, Le (King of the Ducks, The)

(1954, Fr, 65 min, b/w) Dir Albert. Cast Albert, Romy Pice, Joseph M.

A young man (deadpan director/performer Albert) is found in his pyjamas on the early morning streets of Paris, walking to and fro with his hands behind his back, stopping occasionally to bob his head. A passing milkman stops to ask if he is okay but in response the man just quacks. The milkman eventually takes him to a nearby police station where he is jokingly named Donald by the officers. A massive campaign to identify him is launched with no luck but in the meantime a local doctor offers to take Donald in where he befriends the doctor’s daughter. All is well until a mix up with the shifty groundskeeper one night leads to the young man being incarcerated in a local asylum where, during a midnight ceremony, he is crowned the King of the Ducks by his fellow inmates, complete with cardboard crown. The film ends with the downcast Donald sitting on the grass outside wearing his crown, looking up and smiling at a V of ducks passing overhead and off into the distance, calling after them with proud quacks of his own. Though it starts as a comedy it ends firmly in the realm of the classic weepy and any public screening I’ve attended has been awash in hot salty tears by the end.

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#127 – Hombre Discoteca (Disco Man)‏

(1981, Mex, 89 min) Dir Alfonso Salles. Cast Hector Mendez, Sally del Toro, Eva.

I don’t know whether it’s the ubiquitous soundtrack or the fact that all anyone really remembers of the film is its dance floor scenes but people tend to forget how depressing Saturday Night Fever really is. This isn’t really a problem with Alfonso Salles’ unofficial remake Disco Man which ups the fantasy atmosphere of the nightclub scenes and really digs in with the squalor of the rest of the movie with graphic shotgun assisted suicide and not one but two dogs getting kicked to death particular highlights. Much like the original this isn’t a film about the transformative or restorative powers of dance and escapism and all of that but it makes more of the idea that the leads turning away from reality for the discotheque fantasy of the weekends is in some way a denial of that reality and that at some point it’s going to come back to bite you. Don’t mess with reality, basically. Star Mendez, who displays more grace and swagger than Travolta himself (and has a huge moustache too), also directed the film’s sequel, Disco Man 2, which was of course in turn an unofficial remake of Stayin’ Alive.

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#121 – Love in the Shadows

(1920, US, 72 min, b/w) Dir Pit Piabro. Cast Francis de Pascal, Olivia Bead.

It can be hard looking back to fathom the appeal of what was popular in the past. The short-lived ‘Bowler Cat’ fad of the 1890’s, for example, where ladies of good breeding would keep a live kitten in their bonnets, seems from this remove unnecessarily cruel to the kittens (which so frequently fell from their mistresses’ headgear) and without sufficient reward for difficulty involved. Cinema is no different either, with the big hitters of yesteryear enjoying their moment in the sun before the public tires of them and we’re left looking back over the years wondering what people were thinking at the time. Burt Reynolds, perhaps, or Ryan O’Neal. All of this is a roundabout way of bringing your attention to Francis de Pascal and Love in the Shadows, his first English language film which was shot when he was a mere week off the boat from France. It’s the usual forgettable, melodramatic stuff but it catapulted de Pascal to a position just below Valentino in the viewers hearts for the next handful of years. Unlike Valentino though his name would nowadays be recognised by none but a few diehard film aficionados (of which I count myself one). But does his popularity now baffle, almost a century later? Is he the ‘Bowler Cat’ craze of 1920’s cinema? I’m relieved to say no – he was a fine actor and a magnetic presence on the screen but the one thing he was missing  at this point in his career was the right vehicle. Enter Hans Bismark…

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#120 – Cuisine du Diable, La (Devil’s Kitchen, The)

(1918, Fr, 68 min, b/w) Dir B.F. Lebo. Cast Monica Lozange, Frederico de Pascal, Andreas Levant.

A pretty standard potboiler set in the fictional Parisian district of the title and about the people who call it home, The Devil’s Kitchen would be of little interest today as a film were it not for its historical import as the first feature of future star Frederico Francis St. Stephen de Pascal Paolo, AKA Francis de Pascal, who was popularly known in his heyday as the French Firebomb. He’s got a mid-level role in this as the dashing cad who lures Monica Lozange to the titular disreputable arrondissement where her innocence can be abused by its shady residents. Her beau, played by Andreas Levant in his usual white knight role, soon springs to her rescue and comeuppance is duly dealt out. The Devil’s Kitchen was a modest hit at the time but it got de Pascal noticed and it took only two further features before his name was changed and the film industry of France had become too small for him – Hollywood beckoned with his breakout role in the 1920 epic Love in the Shadows.

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#119 – Ich Bin Ein Bastard

(1985, US, 120 min) Dir Rachael Gaudi. Cast Kyle MacLachlan, Sissy Spacek, John Goodman.

Hot off I Love Japanese Punks Rachael Gaudi threw herself immediately into Ich Bin Ein Bastard after she read Michael Tool’s script on the flight home from Tokyo. “I knew I had to make it,” she said years later, “I had to because I loved it and it spoke to me, I think, about not knowing who I was but also because they hadn’t released Japanese Punks yet and I didn’t know if I was going to get the chance to direct anything even again! I didn’t know how right I would be!” Kyle MacLachlan is John F Lewis, hitching his way across the United States to Virginia in the middle of winter when he’s picked up by the Illinois roadside by Sissy Spacek’s fleeing housewife Pam. He tells Pam that he’s just found out from his dying mother that he’s the product of a one night stand with then president John F Kennedy and is travelling to Arlington Cemetery to see his supposed father’s grave. Mostly a two-hander between the two actors (with a mid-film interruption by John Goodman’s hectoring but big-hearted tyre salesman) it’s sensitively handled despite the shock-effect title and beautifully shot by Sandy Pattern.

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#117 – Pass into Heaven’s Arms, The

(1976, WGer, 100 min) Dir Roland Sacher. Cast Harvey Keitel, Isabelle Adjani.

Tough American mountaineer Jack Maggit (Keitel) has secured permission to enter China to search the Himalayan Mountains for the fabled valley of Pannak Coor, the mystical opening into the earth that eluded his famed explorer father, eventually driving him mad. Maggit sees this as his last best chance of wresting his family’s name from his father and securing himself a lasting legacy. Desperate to claim the glory for himself alone he permits only his wife Alison (Adjani) to come with him and document the trip. This set up takes all of five minutes at the film’s head with lots of methody shouting in a New York apartment before they leave, slamming the door and the film cuts to the Tibetan plateau where the echo of the slamming door melts into the sound of the wind as the two distant specks that are Jack and Alison are dwarfed by the mountains around them. It’s odd though, for Sacher, as the start of the film is much more like what one would expect from the director – enclosed spaces and lots of acting – and the rest of the film is altogether more sweeping, epic and visual than is common in his oeuvre. That’s not to say that it doesn’t work and that there aren’t a couple of scenes of intense emotion (and shouting) to be had either because it does work and there are plenty of acting moments for Keitel to chew on too. The film’s ending is another story completely, turning from a David Lean film into a Alejandro Jodorowski one when the valley is found and visions of inverted rainbows and glowing green spider webs that bind the world start flying about.

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