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Maniac

In deep, deep, deep homage to 1980s horror, here’s a pungent, standout film that’s entirely enjoyable as long as you love seeing women’s scalps being removed – a quick razor to the forehead and they peel straight off, it seems. A remake of William Lustig’s 1980 film of the same name, 2013’s Maniac makes one crucial and utterly transformative change – the point of view is through the eyes of a seriously disturbed serial killer (is there any other type?). Directors and stars are what reviews usually concentrate on but the key players here are writers Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, whose Switchblade Romance in 2003 proved to the world that the French … Read more
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Casablanca

Exhortations to go and see this timeless film are usually based on its treasure chest of quotable lines. “Round up the usual suspects”, “We’ll always have Paris”, “Play it, Sam”, “Here’s looking at you, kid” and so on. But there’s more to it than that. It’s the one where the guy doesn’t get the gal, discovers his soul and wanders off into the gloom with a Nazi-sympathising police chief who may have just had a similar epiphany. Modern Hollywood films often generate a similar tension – can Spider-Man nobly save a cable-car of terrified schoolkids about to hurtle to their death or will he selfishly save his girlfriend instead? And modern Hollywood films … Read more
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Greed

Hollywood’s first wave of film makers were the real deal – egomaniacs, showmen and charlatans. The director of Greed was all of those. Erich Von Stroheim was born plain Erich Oswald Stroheim in Vienna but by the time he got to Hollywood in 1914 he’d become Count Erich Oswald Hans Carl Maria Von Stroheim Und Nordenwall. Learning film-making on the grandest scale from D.W. Griffith, Stroheim first made his name as an actor playing “the man you love to hate”, notably throwing a baby out of a window in The Heart of Humanity. He then bought a riding crop, donned leather boots and a monocle and moved on to directing. 1924’s Greed was … Read more
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The Beat That My Heart Skipped

Now here is a thing – a film that starts out as a sort of French Mean Streets but ends up in quite different territory. Romain Duris is the young Robert De Niro in question, a thug, we learn early on, with a heart of pure coal and with a surprising gift. He plays the piano like a maestro. Or used to. The film’s narrative tension springs from this internal split – is he going to carry on throwing squatters out onto the streets and smashing up their apartments so the developers can move in? Or is he going to return to the relaxed, elegant world of the piano? The masculine world of … Read more
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21 January 2013-01-21

Out in the UK this week American Mary (Universal, cert 18, Blu-ray/DVD) On their way to crafting a true horror classic the rather weird Soska twins (of Dead Hooker in a Trunk fame) come up with a cracking revenger almost as surgically nasty as The Human Centipede, as gleefully over the top as Dario Argento in his pomp, with hints of 1940s noir and even a bit of Dr Phibes (or was I imagining that?). Front and centre is a great performance by Katharine Isabelle as a sexy-as-hell, cool-as-death med student out for payback. Trash hounds and body modders (they feature in the plot too) will watch this till it wears out. American … Read more
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Hidden aka Caché

Everyone loves a form/content double whammy, when a film’s story and its method of telling correspond. It’s why Memento succeeds so well, for example, a tale about an amnesiac told in partial and unreliable flashback. How much craftier is Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller Hidden. Georges (Daniel Auteuil) and Anne (Juliette Binoche) are media professionals, members of the Parisian chattering classes, liberal right down in their DNA. What could people of such good intent have to do with the rising tide of Islamism, anti-westernism, terrorism? Why are they being blackmailed by an increasingly incriminating series of videotapes? Are they guilty of something, or innocent, as the film seems to proclaim? Haneke’s double whammy is … Read more
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The General

Buster Keaton’s favourite of his own films got off to a poor start in 1927. A flop at the box office and poorly received by critics (“the fun is not exactly plentiful” said the New York Times), it’s now considered to be one of the greatest films ever made. Is this high ranking down more to nostalgia for a simpler time or campaigns mounted by lovers of the hair shirt? Possibly a bit of both. But strip away the nonsense and you’re still left with something remarkable. The gags, for the most part revolve around The General, the steam locomotive of which Keaton is the engineer. The most famous of these is the … Read more
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Meet Me in St Louis

“Clang clang clang went the trolley” and ring ring ring went the tills in every box office all over America when Meet Me in St Louis arrived in 1944. Made when the war in the Pacific was at its height, it was a chocolate-boxy feast of nostalgia even then, a story about a decent paterfamilias (Leon Ames) considering uprooting his family and moving them from cosy St Louis to New York. What could be more appropriate in wartime than a film about a lifestyle under threat? Poor Esther (Judy Garland), the second oldest daughter. How is she ever going to croon and spoon with “The Boy Next Door”? Poor Tootie (an Oscar to … Read more
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The Wizard of Oz

Made in 1939, Hollywood’s annus mirabilis – yes, it was a long time ago – The Wizard of Oz is one of the highest achievments of “glorious Technicolor”. A finicky, expensive and slow process, Technicolor’s three-strip system, as the name suggests, used three separate, differently filtered, film negatives in its giant cameras to produce a single finished image of exceptional depth of colour, especially at the red end of the spectrum – hence “ruby” slippers. Now, thanks to a new digital print restored from those original three negatives – Technicolor is incredibly durable too – audiences can recreate the moment when Depression-era filmgoers were first transported from dull, sepia-toned Kansas, over the rainbow … Read more
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Manhattan

Woody Allen’s 1979 magnum opus starts famously with a long montage which appears to suggest that New York is to the modern world what Paris was in the early half of the 20th century – the home of romance, intellectualism, art, sex and impossible glamour. To the sinuous jazz of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, Allen treats us to a sequence of lush black and white images such as Robert Doisneau or Henri Cartier-Bresson might have taken. And then, in the filmic equivalent of dragging the needle off the record, he appears to say ‘Hang on – the French may be mature, worldly and philosophical. But New Yorkers?’ The next 90 minutes play out … Read more
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14 January 2013-01-14

Out in the UK This Week Tabu (New Wave, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD) From Miguel Gomes, director of the unique, genre-confounding Our Beloved Month of August, another amazingly original work – a story of forbidden love set in colonial Africa that looks and feels like an archive photograph of the “dark continent” come to life. Give it half an hour for its odd magic to start working, and for the strange use of sound (no dialogue, just background atmospherics) to start making sense. Tabu – at Amazon Shadow Dancer (Paramount, cert 15, Blu-ray/DVD) ITN reporter Tom Bradby adapts his own book for the screen and brings first-hand knowledge to a gripping, dirty, tamped-down drama … Read more
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Alice

Jan Svankmajer is hardly a household name, yet he is one of the most influential animators ever. He’s not Walt Disney, maybe, but you can see his stamp in the work of Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam and even, through squinted eyes, Nick (Wallace and Gromit) Park. His live-action/stop-frame adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is a prime example of what he does – a darkly surreal, loud, clanking, gothic distillation of Poe, De Sade, Kafka (a fellow Czech). It’s also about the best film adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much abused work. Uncle Walt chose to play cute with the story, but Svankmajer goes the other way – a white rabbit that bleeds sawdust, for … Read more

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