Original cinema poster

A good example of a flat, stoic, buttoned-up film noir, Pitfall is as minimal and undemonstrative as they come, depending on how you view sex and death. The stars are Dick Powell, deadpan Dick as usual, while Lizabeth Scott is the femme fatale, a model (and so an independent woman) who’s not so much bad as just plain elementally disruptive. There are three key men in this film – Powell as the everyday happily married insurance man John Forbes, Raymond Burr as “Mac” MacDonald, the shifty private investigator Forbes sometimes uses in murky cases, and Byron Barr as Smiley, a crook now doing time for a bent insurance claim. All have lost or … Read more

19 November 2012-11-19

Arthur Christmas and Grandsanta

Out in the UK this week Arthur Christmas (Sony, cert U, Blu-ray/DVD) After some awful homegrown CGI animations – anyone remember Valiant? –  the Brits have made a comic adventure about Santa Claus and family that’s witty, gutsy, insightful and entirely entertaining. A new Christmas classic, surely. Arthur Christmas – Watch it/buy it at Amazon Two Years at Sea (Soda, cert E, DVD) Hungarian miserabilist Béla Tarr is clearly a heavy influence on this artfully artless documentary following a hippie/hermit as he serenely goes about his hardscrabble life. For stressed-out, always-on screen-jockeys this could be the ideal therapy. Two Years at Sea – Watch it/buy it at Amazon Big Boys Gone Bananas (Dogwoof, cert E, … Read more

One Second

The fugitive and the orphan

If your only exposure to Zhang Yimou is The Great Wall, the Hollywoodised epic starring Matt Damon, which, like its namesake, goes on and on, One Second might come as a bit of a surprise. It’s Zhang back on form, the guy who made Raise the Red Lantern and House of Spinning Daggers, spinning a simple yet never obvious story of a man, a woman and a can of film into a stirring anthem to the power of cinema itself. Heroic cinema! Heroic cinemagoers! In the eye-catching opening moments we meet a man walking over desert sands to see a film screening at a remote cinema. It’s 1965 and Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution … Read more


A plague victim dies

Towards the end of Lars Von Trier’s second film, Epidemic, a film producer is handed a “finished” screenplay by Von Trier. It is only 12 pages long. “Is that it?” the producer asks, a hint of exasperation flickering across his face. Viewers of Epidemic may feel his pain. To explain: in meta-film-making style, Epidemic is both the story of a doctor (played by Lars Von Trier) going against the wishes of the medical establishment and heading out into the world to fight a deadly epidemic, only to find that he himself is what’s spreading the disease. And it’s the story of the writing of the film itself – how two guys called Lars … Read more

I’m Totally Fine

Vanessa and Jillian talk

Grief exploited for laughs. It’s not something you see every day but it works in I’m Totally Fine, the sort of film Frank Capra would recognise – funny, big-hearted, soft-centred and focused on a love between two people that’s not got even the tiniest shred of the sexual about it. In fact I’m Totally Fine pauses on two or three occasions, turns (metaphorically) to the audience and says it again, loud and clear – these two are friends. F.R.I.E.N.D.S – got it? It’s a two hander – give or take the odd intrusion by forces off to remind us of the non-sexual nature of their relationship – with Jillian Bell starring as Vanessa, a … Read more

Spider Baby

Jill Banner as Elizabeth

Spider Baby was exploitation director Jack Hill’s first solo feature (Blood Bath was a collaboration) but didn’t get released until after what’s often listed as his first film, but isn’t, 1966’s Mondo Keyhole. Ah, Mondo – does that make Hill one of those directors who knock out trashy, sex-drenched, shock-filed schlock for the drive-in crowd? Yes and no, but much more specifically no in the case of Spider Baby, whose alternative titles – The Liver Eaters, Attack of the Liver Eaters and Cannibal Orgy – might suggest otherwise. This is a good-looking, sharply shot, well acted movie with good production values and a keen sense of craft – the continuity works! Rather than … Read more

Notre Dame on Fire

A wooden gargoyle lit up by flames

On Easter Monday 2019, at 18:17hrs, a smoke alarm goes off in the small room occupied by a security guard working at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris. He calls the relevant functionary, who zips up to the roof to see if anything up there is burning. Nothing. The system’s always doing this, the guard is told, playing up. It’s old, it needs replacing. With the alarm still squawking, the guard calls his superior. Turn off the alarm he’s instructed. He does what he’s told. It’s his first day in a new job. So begins Notre Dame on Fire, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film about the day when Paris’s 850-year-old cathedral caught fire and burned almost to … Read more

Big Deal on Madonna Street

The crooks prepare for the job

Working a gag a thousand times and in a thousand different ways, Big Deal on Madonna Street, aka Persons Unknown (a translation of its Italian title, I Soliti Ignoti) pours good-natured scorn all over the heist movie. The heist movie traditionally goes like this – a target is identified, a team is assembled and a plot is meticulously masterminded, there’s a dry run and then, finally, in the film’s big centrepiece, the heist itself, which goes like clockwork, apart from one tiny moment, when something freakish happens – a screwdriver slips, a guard varies his routine – and the entire operation is suddenly hanging by a thread. Writers Agenore Incrocci and Furio Scarpelli (known … Read more

Soft & Quiet

The Daughters for Aryan Unity meet

How to discuss Soft & Quiet without saying too much about Soft & Quiet? There is one left-field blindsiding moment early on that changes the entire complexion of the film and which goes on to drive everything that happens in the increasingly fraught and, dare I say it, hysterical second half. Much screaming, much very bad behaviour. And it all starts so nicely. With Emily (Stefanie Estes), a kindergarten teacher of butter-wouldn’t-melt blandness who has organised a meeting of fellow concerned women in the white-picket US town where she lives. At this inaugural meeting, Emily writes the club name, the Daughters for Aryan Unity, up on the whiteboard, before adding underneath, “Feminine not … Read more

Family Plot

Bruce Dern at a graveside

If you were idly flicking through the TV channels on a wet afternoon and hit upon Family Plot, chances are you wouldn’t immediately think it was a Hitchcock movie – it looks more like an episode of Columbo. That bright TV lighting, those mid-range actors who look like they’re trying not to be fingered as this week’s criminal, one who’s once again not as smart as the man in the mac. I’ve looked up Bruce Dern, Karen Black, Barbara Harris and William Devane and not one of them ever did make an appearance on Columbo but they don’t quite fit the standard Hitchcock bill either, or not the bill containing Cary Grant, Grace Kelly, … Read more