Mystery of the Wax Museum

A wax figure melts in the flames

Screwball but not comedy, 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum is less well known than its remake, 1953’s House of Wax, but more fascinating in many respects, particularly in its portrayal of liberated young women making their way in the world. There’s sex and drugs too, though you wouldn’t bother with it for those. The Hays Code, which cleaned up American movies starting around 1934, wasn’t expressly designed to put women back in their box (discuss) but it did it anyway. The ostensible star of this pre-Code film is eminent stage actor Lionel Atwill, as the driven creator of wax effigies of great historical figures whose London museum burns down in the film’s … Read more

Rimini

Richie looks through some construction mesh

Cheers aren’t what you get in an Ulrich Seidl movie but let’s give one anyway for his return to fiction after a ten-year absence, with Rimini, a glisteningly dark, drily amusing character study of a man who’d be funny if he wasn’t so pitiful. Actually, he’s quite funny too. Looking not a million miles away from Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and sharing a few of his character traits, Michael Thomas plays Richie Bravo, a former pop singer in Austria who now lives in Rimini, where a shadowy vestige of his old life still plays out, albeit largely in Richie’s head. As Seidl’s film opens Richie is back home in Austria and re-connecting … Read more

100 Years of… Salomé

Salomé dances for Herod

Salomé, a notorious enterprise for the Russian-born, now-forgotten Hollywood great Alla Nazimova, its star, co-writer, co-director and producer, is the film that ruined her financially and brought an end to her time as a Hollywood player. It needs to be bad to justify the damage it caused to such a glittering career. It is. The original story is from the Bible, as retold by Oscar Wilde, then retold again by adapter Nazimova and co-writer Natacha Rambova (Rudolph Valentino’s wife and possibly Nazimova’s lover). But in spite of the reworkings it’s still the story we all know, of the young and beautiful Salomé demanding that Herod bring her the head of John the Baptist. … Read more

Infinity Pool

Alexander Skarsgård as James

What happens when the constraints of civilisation are loosened? It’s the sort of question Michael Haneke asks in a series of films, Funny Games and Time of the Wolf most obviously. In Infinity Pool Brandon Cronenberg attacks the same subject, except from a typically Cronenbergian direction, but comes to more or less the same grim and bloody conclusion as Haneke. Prepare, in other words, for a lack of laughs. Prepare also for another spectacular Mia Goth performance, current queen of letting it all hang out when it comes to horror. But first let’s meet James (Alexander Skarsgård) and wife Em (Cleopatra Coleman), a couple staying in a dangerous developing country where the wealthy … Read more

The American Friend

Dennis Hopper as Ripley in cowboy hat

Ever since Alfred Hitchcock adapted Strangers on a Train in 1951, the novels and short stories of Patricia Highsmith have been hotly pursued by film-makers. They have a plot, thrills, seedy glamour, black humour and the suggestion of transgressive sex, any element of which can be dialled up and down. As I write there have been approaching 40 film and TV adaptations, quite a few of which are famous – Hitchcock’s, of course, Plein Soleil (starring Alain Delon), Carol (Cate Blanchett) and The Talented Mr Ripley (Matt Damon and Jude Law). The American Friend (aka Der amerikanishe Freund) not so much. In the mid 1970s director Wim Wenders had plans to do a … Read more

Babylon

Nellie LaRoy rides the crowd at a party

Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a behemoth about Hollywood excess in the silent era, a feisty female ingenue’s rise and its biggest male star’s fall, and the arrival of the talkies and how that changed everything. It packs a lot in and moves at pace but whoah is it long. At three hours and a handful of minutes it covers more or less the same ground that Singin’ in the Rain or The Artist did with 90 minutes to spare. Chutzpah on Chazelle’s part, you could say, or a lack of discipline, maybe. It’s big and baggy and overegged yet undeniably glorious. The first two hours are brilliant and the last hour-and-a-bit brilliant too. … Read more

Crime Wave

Sterling Hayde as Detective Sims

A heist-gone-wrong movie that actually starts with a heist going wrong, 1953’s Crime Wave (aka The City Is Dark) is a B movie and so doesn’t have time to hang around. It’s got an absolutely classic setup – within a couple of minutes of opening a cop is dead, one of the bad guys is wounded with an urgent need of medical attention and the heisters are on the run with the cops on their tail. Meanwhile, across town another classic ingredient, the ex-con who’s trying to go straight but who will be dragged back towards crime, first by the wounded man arriving at his door, then by the bent doctor who arrives … Read more

Broker

Moon So-young, Dong-soo, Ha Sang-hyun and baby

On a filthy rainy South Korea night a young mother abandons her baby, leaving it in the “baby box” – designated for just this thing – attached to a church. The next day, having changed her mind, she heads back to the church, only to find that a pair of “baby brokers” got to the box before the church authorities. They have stolen her baby and intend to sell it on the adoption black market. Two cops saw all this. Clearly onto the brokers, they were watching from a stakeout vehicle as Moon So-young (Lee Ji-eun) left her baby and as Dong-soo (Gang Dong-won) filched it. As they watch and snack on instant noodles, gummi … Read more

Raw Deal

Joe with gun, and Ann and Pat on a staircase

Everyone gets a raw deal in Raw Deal, a taut and dark film noir from 1948, directed by Anthony Mann, lit by the great John Alton and so often overlooked when Greatest Noir lists are being compiled. Its characters all come with a tragic flaw which writers John Higgins and Leopold Atlas are eventually going to prise wide open but it’s the additional wallop of sheer bad luck that makes this unusual – that and the voiceover by one of its female characters, Pat Regan, played by Claire Trevor. Pat is in love with Joe (Dennis O’Keefe) but Joe is in prison doing a stretch as the fall guy for bigshot criminal Rick Coyle … Read more

Huesera: the Bone Woman

Valeria washing herself

Huesera: the Bone Woman opens and ends with spectacular images – of a gigantic golden Virgin Mary at a shrine to start, and of a writhing mass of naked zombie-like creatures to finish. In themselves they’re impressive but they also offer a distilled show-and-tell of the shift in tone Mexican director Michelle Garza Cervera has brought about over the 97 minutes’ running time of her movie. Things start out in the everyday, rational, workaday world of a young woman, Valeria (Natalia Solián) who wants to have a baby. At the shrine she is visiting largely to keep her supersitious mother happy she offers up a prayer to the Virgin. Otherwise Valeria is relying … Read more