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

Bodies Bodies Bodies

Maria Bakalova, Amandla Stenberg, Myha'la Herrold, Rachel Sennott

The thing about those murder mysteries full of celebrity names, where Faye Dunaway or Lauren Bacall swan about among fellow stars until they either wind up dead or are revealed as the killer, is that everyone on the train or in the country house deserves what’s coming to them. There’s an uber-entitlement payback thing going on. Bodies Bodies Bodies understands that dynamic and mints it anew, with a privilege-unchecked gang of nicely rich bright young things, who convene at the big old house owned by the absent dad of one of their number, take drugs, drink, cavort and finally decide to play a game. What I’d call Murder in the Dark they call … Read more

Ministry of Fear

Marjorie Reynolds as Carla, with a swastika projected over her

A Hitchcock film that Hitchcock didn’t make, Ministry of Fear has the innocent man on the run, the dangerous/vulnerable blonde and a shadowy organisation pulling the levers in the background. Fritz Lang directed it, in mid 1943, but it took until mid 1944 before it was shown in cinemas (and even then it only happened piecemeal). Considering it’s about Nazis, a dangerous conspiracy and life during wartime, that’s a long time for a film to be sitting on the shelf. Fritz Lang didn’t like it, nor did Graham Greene, who wrote the book it was based on, but Lang was forced to work with the adaptation written by Seton Miller, who was the … Read more

The Velvet Underground

Lou Reed on the guitar

A stark, bare-bones title for a documentary about a stark, bare-bones band, The Velvet Underground sees superfan director Todd Haynes using his own celebrity to gain access to talking heads who might not otherwise talk – the film’s coups are having a warm, chatty John Cale and a voluble and twinkly Moe Tucker on board to deliver the “I was there” bona fides from founder members. The Velvet Underground are the template for every art-rock or avant-garde rock band ever since. In their jangling, discordant, off-key, unschooled way they burned bright and short, and the cliché runs that though not many people ever saw them, everyone who did so formed their own band. … Read more

War and Peace Part I

A lone horse and rider on a hill

So here’s the most expensive film ever made in the USSR, or a quarter of it. War and Peace Part I finally arrived in 1966 after years in the making, a rebuke to the massive 1956 US version starring Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda. Here’s how you do Tolstoy, the Soviets are saying, at five and half hours long, with a cast of thousands, no expense spared, big sets, huge battle scenes, and so on. It was released in four big chunks originally, too, and it’s best watched that way, in instalments. It’s impressive, certainly, shot on 70mm film for that widescreen epic look – though on muddy Soviet film stock – but … Read more