El liguero mágico (Mariano Ozores, Spain, 1980)

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The first thing that happens after the title card fades is a woman heaves her face into view and warbles incoherently into the camera. And, as the saying goes, “it doesn’t get any better”. Or to be fair, it doesn’t get any more lucid.

This is a gothic haunted house spoof from Spain. Our bumbling hero must deal with a magic garter (for which read jewel-encrusted suspender belt) containing a secret message that (as far as I can gather) can only be read by candlelight reflected off the underside of the breasts of the otherwise naked wearer. Expect more hazards of the genre such as a possible bleeding nun at the bedside, and a manic snub-nosed chambermaid who communicates in oinks and hand gestures (she’s my kind of girl).

Horror fans will spot more specific references. You will see El Hombre Lobo of legendary actor and director Paul Naschy, and best of all the Blind Dead rising from their tombs. Gothic Spanish horror was a lot more violent and unforgiving in spirit than its more famous Hammer contemporaries. It’s not widely seen outside cult circles; the best known example is probably Horror Express (1972), which though a muddle is sometimes shocking in its brutal vigour.

I wonder what those people who sneer at the Carry On films for their broad comedy would make of this flatulent Euro snigger-fest? Actually I can guess: they’d say it was a vibrant and life-affirming repudiation of the repression of the Franco years. Which shows exactly where those people are coming from.

No masterpiece, but recommended for its rapid pace, in-jokes, gorgeous photography and art direction, and last but not least an uncompromising attitude to nudity (bodily hair included).

El liguero mágico clip with Adriana Vega

Adriana Vega in El liguero mágico Adriana Vega in El liguero mágico Adriana Vega in El liguero mágico

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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House of Fools (TV series, UK, 2014)

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So Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s new sitcom has been and gone. Will there be a second series? Naturally it was a send-up of the sitcom genre, just as the riotous Shooting Stars was an ironic view of a panel game. It’s the cosy wisecracking American style of comedy that seems to be the target. Being a huge Vic & Bob devotee, but not a fan of Catterick at all, I was nervous how this would turn out. The establishing shot is of a grand block of Victorian apartments, but the set appears to be a small mews terrace. I hoped that wasn’t the Joke gone already. Characters introduce themselves in song: rambling tiddle-te-tum, sniff-of-me-bum type lyrics to the tune of Day Trip to Bangor (Remember Fiddler’s Dram? (Do you know what’s happening about the third album?)). Hmm.

The setup is archetypal. Bob plays the Householder, or Billpayer, continually vexed and perplexed by the irresponsible, selfish and downright ungrateful attitude of the junior members of the household. Traditionally it has been a generation gap at the root of the problem; here, as the title suggests, it’s more of an idiocy gap. First among the freeloaders is of course housemate Vic. These two’s usual prop-based front-desk banter from Smell of and the like is used as a sort of warm-up and transplants very well to the sitcom format.

Then there’s Vic’s brother Bosh (Dan “Angelos” Skinner), an ex-con and unwelcome lodger. A frequent (near permanent in fact) visitor is Beef (Matt “Vangelis” Berry), a ladies’ man who models himself on a ‘seventies Demis Roussos. Now let’s get the main problem with this show out of the way at once: these last two are a waste of space. However good they may have been in other roles, these characters are uninspired and have no funny lines. End of story.

Living locked away but occasionally creeping down the staircase is Erik, a badly-haircut young Norwegian and Bob’s son. A quiet but extraordinarily spiteful child he spends much of his on-screen time making dry-retching noises after discovering his father in compromising positions with other men. Daniel Simonsen plays him very well; you can almost see the mental cogs whirring behind his eyes as he calculates just how offensive he can get away with being to his long-suffering dad this time.

The shining star of the supporting cast is Morgana Robinson as Julie the nextdoor neighbour. She’s an airheaded ageing goodtime-girl, tall, broad-hipped and with an extraordinary stance. She walks like she’s carrying a wardrobe, and has a grimace where she seems to turn her face upside down. Incurably randy and given to unsubtle body language, her secret vice is taking snaps of her men-friends’ trouser packets. A great comic creation, you’d love to have her living next door, at the same time knowing she’d be an absolute nightmare.

There’s lots to like about the show. Traditional sitcom plotting is used to great effect. Example: Bob’s unwanted birthday coffin comes in handy in pretending to be dead to escape the boat-hook wielding mother of his child. There are occasionally wonderful surreal sketchlet cut-aways of what is going on in a character’s head. Long-time fans will recognise the unexpected hilarity resulting from simplemindedness such as Vic or Bob staggering around with ordinary household objects jammed on their heads. Some of the visual comedy set-pieces are truly inspired, such as Bob in a tin bath on the gas hob. Best of all was the arthritic rat that no one could catch. (I know it doesn’t sound very inspired, but you had to be there.) Oh, and Vic’s paintings.

Vic & Bob have never really settled in to a niche; Shooting Stars was the nearest they’ve come so far. I had one thing at the back of my mind watching this: Bottom. Richie and Eddie’s sitcom was surely a big influence. Consider the single large theatre-style set in front of a “live” audience, the slapstick humour, even some of the plotlines. They made a point of having the studio audience, but Fools seems dead compared to Bottom. It feels like the actual takes were filmed after the audience had gone home. Mayall and Edmondson spent a long time crafting their comedy, and ended up with a carefully polished gem. You could say Reeves and Mortimer did the same with the final series of Shooting Stars. But here they seem to have strung some left-over jokes together with some off-the-cuff gags that made the guys laugh in the canteen. Much of it is funny, but sometimes it’s almost cringe-making to watch. It certainly won’t gain them any new fans.

I could give a few tips for a second series: the frequent swearing and scat references don’t suit. Get rid of the jobs-for-the-boys casting, and with it the lazy if-in-doubt-say-something-rude scriptwriting. Oh, and did you know you can have several drafts of a script? But on the whole House of Fools cheered me up. Something good has been shown on the telly for once, but it’s still cheaper to buy only what you enjoy on DVD rather than pay the BBC licence fee. (About a hundred and thirty-five quid a year cheaper if my calculator doesn’t lie.)

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Memoria (Francisco Macián, Spain, 1974)

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Look to your left and you’ll see a remarkable prediction in this obscure ‘seventies sci-fi. Not the obvious one that in the future even the lowliest hospital porter would have a portable audio-visual communications device. Nor that such gizmos would display nothing but mindless pap – through choice. The clever bit was realising we would all walk around nerdishly hunched over these devices oblivious to everything else, including where we were pushing our trolleys. And considering he was right about the bad haircuts as well, the writer-director Francisco Macián is clearly a man to be listened to.

Unfortunately Macián died prematurely in 1976. He was primarily an animator, and could have gone on to better work. Memoria must have had a long gestation period as the dates on it range up to 1983. Mostly concerned with the dystopian fears over pollution and population growth commonplace at the time (Soylent Green, ZPG etc.), the visual aesthetic owes a lot to THX 1138.

The particular storyline concerns memory, specifically the transference of chief scientist Professor Ulop’s memories to a mentally vacant physical subject. Considering this is a banal idea, and more-or-less certain to go horribly wrong (the alternative atavistic title Beasts Shouldn’t Look in the Mirror hints how), the visuals had better be good if this story is to keep the audience’s interest. And against expectations they actually are.

The early scenes use familiar settings and imagery, with hints of sex and psychedelia to tease the viewer. But the later parts, in particular the explosive last 15 minutes or so, are something special. They are a vigorous montage of avant-garde dance and video pieces (albeit with a touch of the Derek Jarmans about them) well worth sitting through the rest of it to see.

 

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Los amantes frios (Julián Soler et al, Mexico, 1978)

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“Glassblower Loses Bottle” – that’s how The Sun might headline the story that forms the first part of this anthology from Mexico. I’m not quite sure of how this works, but it seems this artisan has run out of “puff”. One day he happens to notice that when his wife screams, he gets enough breath back to blow up any size of bottle he likes. Nothing if not an innovator he come up with increasingly inventive ways of either injuring or scaring the living daylights out of the poor woman (eg. venomous snake in toilet – see picture for effect). The resulting examples of local glassware go down a bomb in the marketplace, but what of his wretched wife? A lady can only run screaming through the house so many times before it begins to take its toll. And I know the hot climate means the much-abused spouse wears loose-fitting garments, but was she always properly underclothed? I worry about these things.

All three of these tales use very dark humour mixing sex and death. The morbid atmosphere and exquisitely framed cinematography are consistent throughout, which is surprising as they all have different directors. Tale number two tells of a recently widowed woman and the still-fresh corpse of her husband. For reasons too convoluted to fully divine this glamorous older lady buys a brand new gilded bed and entertains lovers upon it in the presence of the dear departed “stiff”. A sensual piece with much tantalising unfastening of feminine wearing apparel.

The final tale is lighter in atmosphere, and features another glamorous widow. It tells of a hold-up at a funeral when it is discovered the grave has not yet been dug, and of the intriguing discovery when a plot is hastily excavated. Overall this is a very fine anthology, amongst the best examples of blackly comic short stories I’ve seen. The satire is very reminiscent of Luis Alcoriza. It works better than that of Luis Buñuel, the gentle subversion being less revolutionary and thus hitting closer to home.

 

Los amantes frios clip with Aurora Clavel

Aurora Clavel in Los amantes frios Aurora Clavel in Los amantes frios Aurora Clavel in Los amantes frios

Los amantes frios clip with Pilar Pellicer

Pilar Pellicer in Los amantes frios Pilar Pellicer in Los amantes frios Pilar Pellicer in Los amantes frios

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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L’Alliance (Christian de Chalonge, France, 1971)

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The wedding of the title is so perfunctory you are left uncertain that such a thing has actually taken place. Was it even consummated? It’s not like a French film to leave you in the dark about something like that. Hugues had advertised for a bride via an agency. “Shy vet seeks young beauty with rambling old house containing mysterious locked room”, he wrote, “please send photo of mysterious locked room”. Or at least if he had done he would have saved me a certain amount of exposition.

The young beauty who answers in the positive is Jeanne (Anna Karina). Surely there must be a catch in this? The house is musty and decrepit as only a locked-up town house can be. Putting aside any nagging doubts he may have over what happened to all the other shy young men who went before him and what she did with the bones, Hugues sets about renovating the place and turning it into a modern veterinary surgery.

They make a very dull household; just husband, wife, and housekeeper – and little to look forward to at bedtime either. At first Jeanne seems to be the sinister presence, with her mysterious shopping expeditions, and the vanishing chemical supplies. “What’s happened to all my ether?” – not a question you ever want to ask of your wife. Eventually we suspect that Hugues may be the odd one.

Initially this film shares much of the same atmosphere of the contemporary Le seuil du vide. The black-clad greying old matrons who bring increasingly exotic pets in for consultation are a peculiarly French thing. But the sinister shadow of the past is slowly replaced with the menacing trappings of a scientific age as Hugues gradually installs modern lighting and decor; a research laboratory follows. The animals that inhabit the cages around the walls become more bizarre. Not exactly dangerous, but forbiddingly strange. The housekeeper is the first to crack: “J’ai peur des animaux” she says before leaving. But what of Jeanne?

An absorbing curiosity, a little pretentious maybe, but with an original atmosphere and a notably peculiar ending.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Duvidha (Mani Kaul, India, 1973)

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Few films can be as painterly as this piece of Rajasthani folklore, In Two Minds. The careful compositions suggest The Colour of Pomegranates (1968); visually it may be much less inventive in its animated tableaux, but the lighting here has more range and atmosphere. The background is filled with traditional music and song. Everything is about creating an ethereal sense of place and, not time, but timelessness. Mostly this is a world of veils and cloisters, the camera framing very tightly and reluctant to go outdoors and spread its field of view.

The story is simple. When a bride passes on her way home in an ox cart, a ghost in a banyan tree spies her and is jealous of the groom. As her husband must leave on business immediately after the wedding, the ghost takes his form and his place alongside the unwitting girl. When the man (little more than a boy) returns he appeals to the village elders to set a series of trials to banish the interloping spirit…

There’s little that can be usefully said about this piece without becoming pretentious; the beautiful visuals speak for themselves. But though a film must move slowly to build an atmosphere, at over eighty minutes to tell a simple story Duvidha drags on far too long and the pacing becomes self-defeating. It’s so long that I was sick of it by the end to be honest, and was magnifying its faults out of all proportion. It doesn’t help that the bride appears to be played by a man for example.

(The version I saw had been recorded off TV and before it even finished the announcer (UK Channel 4) spoke over it advertising the next programme, incidentally dropping into a “village idiot” accent as he did so. I just thought I’d mention as a postscript one of the reasons I don’t watch television any more.)

 

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 3/5

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Le seuil du vide (Jean-François Davy, France, 1972)

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What’s the single most boring way you can start a film? With an airliner taking off probably. (Remember the Jet Age?) That keynote of ‘sixties and ‘seventies glamour familiar from countless formulaic thrillers is enough to provoke a groan of despair. But the focus immediately pulls back to the foreground to show a young woman watching it depart. Short haired, handsome but a little gaunt, she seems to have been crying. Why has she been left behind? The cliché has worked for once; I want to know her story.

Putting aside her past for now, Wanda (Dominique Erlanger) on the spur of the moment takes a train to Paris. Already on the journey, independent and confident though she may be, she is feeling hints of alienation from the passengers packing her in to the threadbare compartment. Her most pressing worries are solved when a kindly old lady offers her a room; shabby it may be, but it’s cheap. Wanda, a painter, could be thirty but is part of the perpetual student class endemic to Paris. The black-clad old lady is a shadow of a bygone age. Nevertheless the two become close, the younger woman reminding her landlady of her youth. But she must promise to never, ever, no matter what, open the mysterious door in her room with the rusty lock. (Seriously folks, don’t open those kind of doors; you’ll have nothing but trouble.)

This is a story of a young woman’s alienation and breakdown, of shifting identities, of present times and lost times, and maybe of evil outside forces. This genre was especially common at the time, though of course can be traced back to The Yellow Wallpaper and beyond. The most obvious comparisons are from Roman Polanski (Repulsion (1965), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Tenant (1976)), amongst many others such as Larraz’s Symptoms (1974). Threshhold of the Void stands up quite strongly against them.

It picks up well on the particular loneliness of rooms at night in a strange city, the unfamiliar creaks from inside and the traffic noises from outside, the rare human voices becoming lost amongst them. The camera is used skillfully, and the art direction is sometimes uniquely beautiful and sinister. A weak point is a lack of range from the lead; she’s unconvincing once she has to go beyond the rather assured and distant persona of the earlier parts of the film. A good example of a rare genre, the French horror film.

 

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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Abigail’s Party (Mike Leigh, UK, 1977)

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This is a legendary TV play that seems as familiar as any other, but one I’ve never actually got around to seeing in full until now. For those in the same boat, it’s not actually about Abigail’s party at all – worth bearing in mind before opening your mouth and betraying your ignorance. The ghastly nasal-voiced hostess played by Alison Steadman is called Beverly. Abigail is fifteen, and her party is going on next door. This, on reflection, is very significant.

Beverly and her husband Laurence, a prosperous couple who aspire to belong to the middle class (and believe that they actually do), have invited their new neighbours around for drinks to get to know them. And at the same time no doubt establish their superior social standing. Sue, Abigail’s mother and hence refugee from the teenage party, is dropping by too. Mike Leigh’s play of suburban pretensions is remarkable primarily for what it doesn’t show. These characters are mostly hidden beneath the surface, and just like with real people it’s fascinating to speculate on the experiences that shaped them the way they are. Laurence the workaholic estate agent for instance. When he tries to run a business errand instead of getting ready Beverly chastens him like a naughty pup. His response is wheedling. Is he really so ambitious he puts his customers first, or just desperate to get away from this overbearing Juno-with-fag-in-gob matron?

Angela and Tony the new neighbours are about ten years younger, and evidently in a lower income bracket despite them both working. Angela is a nurse, Tony a ‘computer operator’, whatever that means (probably less than it sounds – changing the tape reels in those days maybe). You immediately get a sense of where things are heading from his demeanour. It’s sort of a military bearing, but not in a good way; rather it’s suggestive of an especially officious and disliked corporal. She has the complacent boastful manner of a child, thoughtlessly running off at the mouth with anything that seems to show her in a good light regardless of its effect on anybody else (“I helped take her to the toilet”). Not a terrible couple to be sure. You can’t help feeling protective towards Angie, and Tony’s extreme monosyllabic gruffness is the sort of thing many women go for; Beverly certainly does. But they are totally unsuited. How did they come to be together? You start to think of explanations, and they tend not to be happy ones.

Sue meanwhile, a genuine representative of the middle class of the previous generation, her natural diffidence exacerbated by a painful divorce, plainly would rather be somewhere else. Anywhere, even (perhaps especially) her daughter’s party. The guests have rather little to say to each other. Beverly unwittingly stirs the powder keg, her domineering nature forcing gin down Sue’s throat and making Angie start smoking after giving up. Any attempt at showing off superior cultural sophistication backfires as hollow pretension. Worries mount over the party next door. The men take a look on poor Sue’s behalf, and when they come back (separately) one is soaked in water. Whatever happened? Ominously it’s not explained. You come up with theories that are the stuff of nightmare.

The unseen Abigail’s Party of the title is intended to symbolise the parts of people’s lives hidden beneath the surface. Which, of course, is very clever. To rub it in, Sue’s closing phone call to Abigail is one of wordless horror. Less intellectually, the play is a slow-burning but sometimes hilarious mix of subtle observation and coarse physical comedy. Mike Leigh’s condescending attacks on the snobberies of the “little people” do make me a little uncomfortable however, especially in the light of the gloomy pretentiousness of his later works of the ‘nineties and beyond.

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 4/5

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A Mulher Sensual (Antônio Calmon, Brazil, 1981)

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There’s something very wrong with the cars in Latin America. At first you could mistake them for European models, but look closer and the styles are different. Just hideous ugly, like someone had put them through a crusher then had them fashioned back to shape again by a retarded panel-beater working from memory. The vintage roadster Helena Ramos drives to the TV studio in the opening of The Sensual Woman for instance. It reminds you of the really cool one driven by Camille Keaton in Madeleine, Study of a Nightmare. Except it’s not cool at all, it’s an embarrassment, practically in the jalopy class. Helena doesn’t drive it at all well either. She seems under-confident, and when she parks on the pavement looks sheepish, like she’d messed up the take. And surely in this cheapo psycho-drama from Brazil one take was all she had.

So Marina (for that is the name of the actress Helena is playing) bounces into make-up. Except she doesn’t bounce, she slips in shyly in glasses clutching her script to her chest, like she was a production assistant on her first day in the job rather than the star of a hot colonial era costume drama she is. This woman, struggling in her relationship with her TV executive lover, has become highly strung, withdrawn and almost frigid. Clearly something must be done.

The plot is very similar to Helena’s classic Mulher Objeto. They were apparently made around the same time, though it’s not clear which was first. But whereas Objeto has imaginative ideas, executed with great cinematic flair, this has clichéd plot devices wearily ground out in the tackiest ways. Some of the “erotic fantasies” look like the ones with Julie Andrews in S.O.B.. Bleurgh.

The saving grace of this production is Helena’s glasses. They make her look delectable. What a contrast to the ugly squat rectangles worn by women today. Now here’s a chance to do something about it; point to a picture of them – “look at those glasses, what a beautiful style, see how they suit her”, you can say, “why don’t you ask about having a pair made up like that?”.

Lots of dull things happen. Marina buys a place in the country; “New house, new life” she says (yes, I’ve watched so many of these things I’m actually starting to understand snatches of dialogue). The best episode is when Marina’s therapist (Monique Lafond) asks her to take her clothes off and pose for photographs. Not that it’s an original idea, or very well executed. It’s just that two women shyly taking snaps of each other in the nude is an archetypal plot device that can never be done wrong. Eventually Marina is caught by her lover being sodomised by a stranger while Bizet’s Carmen blares from the stereo. The sordid act is even reflected in the cuckolded guy’s cool shades, yet he turns away with only the sort of mildly embarrassed distaste usually reserved for those who insist on showing off their verrucas. Not recommended then, except naturally for those of us who prefer girls in glasses.



Clip: Helena Ramos shy nude photos (26.0MB)

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 1/5

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La Valise (Georges Lautner, France, 1973)

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Mireille Darc was almost as familiar a sight to late-night British TV viewers of the ‘eighties as she was to French cinema audiences of the ‘seventies, thanks to a preference of the minor channels for filling the late-night schedules with sexy comedies and lightweight thrillers usually, but not always, starring herself and Alain Delon. Sometimes she took her clothes off, usually not very many, and always in the best possible taste. She was the epitome of a particular sort of third-hand dark-at-the-roots blonde sophistication, coupled with a hint of girlish naïveté. Only the French could pull off a mixture like that.

In The Suitcase she plays Françoise, a conjuror’s assistant who somehow gets mixed up in a plot to smuggle a French agent out of Libya in the diplomatic bag, more specifically the unwieldly trunk of the title. This being a time of perpetual conflict in the Middle East many difficulties arise, and not just the fact that he’s one hell of a bloke to fit in a suitcase, even a big one like that.

Françoise has a secret weapon: she can make absolutely anyone fall in love with her. Effortlessly. Not just the obvious ones like the agent and his buddy, but random strangers in the middle of deserts. The ending is almost transcendent: she wins over the bad guy by smiling at him. A simple smile, without lip-gloss, confident with just a hint of vulnerability. It’s not the lure of the bedroom, more a promise from the school playground; not “Let’s make love” but “Will you be my friend?”. Completely irresistible. It’s an interesting concept to mull over afterwards: French tart as Ambassadress of World Peace. You never know, it might just work! Actually it might just have happened already!

As a whole this film is short of action and rather dated to be of much interest today. The opening scenes where a Western gunfight turns out to be playing out on a TV set whose aerial is being kicked over by the French agent on the roof seems unfunny and not a bit crass, but maybe it was fresh enough to make good comedy back then. No more than a diversion then, except for devotees of Mademoiselle Darc of course.



Clip: Mireille Darc nude at the window (12.0MB)

Rating:   ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥ 2/5

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