Berserk, 1967

 

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A British thriller set in a circus, which has traces of gialli, Berserk is far more tame than both the title and the setting promise. Joan Crawford stars as Monica Rivers, the owner and ringmistress of a travelling circus in England. Micheal Gough plays Dorando, the co-owner and business manager of the circus. Other stars include Diana Dors as one half of a magic act, and Judy Geeson as Rivers’ daughter, Angela.

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The circus’s tightrope walker, Gaspard the Great, falls to his death but it appears to be more than an unfortunate accident. Frank Hawkins, played by Ty Hardin, joins the circus as the new high-walker. After this, murder plagues the circus. At first, Rivers mines the deaths, knowing they’ll draw in more crowds, but eventually even she is disturbed by the gruesome murders.

The biggest issue with Berserk seems to be that it doesn’t know what kind of film it is. Yes, it’s certainly a thriller but the moodiness and grim deaths interspersed by dancing elephants, prancing poodles and an awkward, bizarre song make it tonally inconsistent.

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This is not necessarily a bad thing, in fact tonal shifts can heighten discomfort in this sort of film, but the circus performances go on for too long (not to mention being uncomfortable to watch for someone who hates animal circuses), though they are beautifully photographed and the song gave me too much secondhand embarrassment (but it’s strangeness fits far better with the film than the glossy performances). It feels a little too mish-mash-y.

The killer’s reveal is also quite anticlimactic, which is always disappointing in a murder mystery type story.

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But Joan Crawford is fabulous and looks amazing in her Ringmistress getup. She, unsurprisingly, carries the film with a commanding performance that elevates this above the hammy mess* it could’ve been without her. That’s not to say her performance is restrained but she has the acting chops to make the role believable.

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It has its merits, and it’s not the worst way to spend 90 or so minutes, but it could have been so much more!

 

 

*Though I do love me a hammy mess!

TV Tuesday: The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Today I’m debuting a new feature post series: TV Tuesdays. I love TV as much as I love cinema, though my taste in television is far more narrow than it is in movies. I’m going to use this feature to look at different aspects of shows: a particular episode I love, a miniseries, maybe a summary of a whole show, a tribute to a particular character, looking at the design and what-not. Anything that takes my fancy, really. Today, it’s more of a general look.

For the inaugural post I’m going to focus on a ’60s show, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., to go along with my Sixties September challenge.

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This is actually my third time trying to watch The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (MFU). The first time I got through one and a half seasons but lost steam and then forgot everything I watched. So, I tried again and didn’t get very far. About a month ago, I became determined to finally get through it. (Since starting this post I’ve strayed back to murder mysteries as I was feeling quite tired and MFU requires a lot more energy/concentration).

It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed it  – quite the contrary – but ’60s shows (aside from Star Trek and comedies) seem a lot more difficult for me to watch. I think this is largely because, at least in the case of MFU, there’s not as much dialogue and so I have to pay more attention than I normally do with modern shows. A lot happens through action, which I love, but it means re-training myself to leave my phone alone and watch the TV. But MFU is worth it.

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This show has nearly everything I could want: witty banter, handsome men, cute frocks, strong, interesting women, wacky escapades, diabolical schemes and, of course, charming, entertaining spies. Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are just great characters that I love spending timing with.

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I’d forgotten in the intervening years since first watching this, is how funny it is. Robert Vaughn and David McCallum have great comic timing – they also, naturally, have great chemistry, which has been one of the enduring appeals of the show.

One of the other most appealing features, and likely one of the reasons there’s such a large female fanbase, is the way everyday women are often part of the story. They’re brought in by our favourite agents, who show a lot of faith in their ability to help. Using everyday people – both men and women – as guest characters was a clever way to get people watching at home involved in the show. They could, and we still can, imagine themselves in their places – that they, too, could help Agents Solo and Kuryakin save the world! And still get to go home at the end of the day.

I also really like how the fight scenes are choreographed. They’re a little more rough and tumble than I’m used to in older stuff. Sure, the stunt doubles are laughingly easy to spot but it’s part of the charm and the fights themselves fit the tone of the show.

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It’s fun seeing guest stars who would go on to become famous for their own shows or movies (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, a very young Kurt Russell, Tura Satana in a fabulous cow-print coat) but even those I didn’t recognise have been great to watch. (Actually I’ve had quite a lot of fun spotting ‘crossover’ (guest) actors between this and Star Trek, including James Doohan aka Scotty, Ricardo Montalban aka Khan, and Jill Ireland, McCallum’s wife, who was Leila in the TOS episode “This Side of Paradise”).

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So far, this time through, my favourite episodes are: “The Dove Affair”, “The Finny Foot Affair”, “The Project Strigas Affair” (Shatner! Nimoy!) and maybe “The Quadripartite Affair”. But they’re all great. This show is full of fun romps, sarcastic quips, swanky soirees and sparkling gowns, and courageous capers. What could be better than that? I’m looking forward to delving back into more episodes and, hopefully, finally finishing the show.

60 from the 60s

Although I’ve seen more 60s movies than I have films from most other decades, I recently decided I needed to see more of them. So I made myself a challenge list over on letterboxd for 60 films from the 60s I hadn’t seen. I compiled it by browsing the films page for each year of the 60s and picking the top 6 most popular from each year, from 1960 to 1969, I hadn’t seen. I don’t know that I’ll write about each of them on here but, like my 52 Films by Women challenge, I will attempt to write at least a sentence or two over on letterboxd. I might include my progress in my monthly roundups, too.

I did have some caveats for my challenge. No films longer than 120 minutes (or thereabouts) unless I already had a copy or desperately wanted to see the film. This is because my attention span these days is…well, it’s not great and I knew I’d likely never get around to anything longer. Another was no more than one film per director in a year.

I’ve started lists for other decades, too, but I’ll wait until I get through a fair chunk of this before I start publishing them.

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So far, I’ve only watched The Magnificent Seven (pictured above) from the list (and Sebastian, from my own watchlist of movies I have but haven’t yet watched). I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would – I’m still in the process of writing up my review for letterboxd, and I may do a post on it here, if I get around to polishing it up.

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The movies I’m looking forward to the most in the challenge are probably: Eyes Without a Face; Cleo from 5 to 7; Doctor Zhivago (pictured above); Belle de Jour and The Odd Couple (pictured below).

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I’m thinking of making this September, Sixties September which will mean, aside from new releases or festival screenings, only watching and re-watching sixties films for the month, using the challenge list as a guideline. Does anyone else like setting challenges like this for themselves? Does it make the film viewing experience better, harder or doesn’t affect it for you at all?

Top 10 1960s | 1960s favourites

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Top 5 | Comic Book Movies

It’s been a while since I’ve posted a top 5 post so, keeping in theme with my last movie review, here’s my top 5 (live action) comic book movies! (Keeping in mind these are personal favourites, rather than necessarily the ‘best’ I’ve seen).

Barbarella directed by Roger Vadim, 1968

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An angel does not make love, an angel is love.

Like Barabarella would not be in my top 5. It’s nearly everything I could want in a film. The lush colour and dreamy soundtrack! The ridiculous number of costume changes! Jane Fonda’s magnificent hair! Kitschy and/or camp films are basically my favourites, and there’s something very appealing about ’60s science fiction costumes and sets, which all adds up to I love Barbarella. Plus there’s a lot to be said for Fonda’s comic timing/delivery.

Favourite moment: so hard to pick one! I do like the whole exchange with Barbarella and Dildano (David Hemmings) quite a lot.

Ghost World directed by Terry Zwigoff, 2001

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This is so bad it’s gone past good and back to bad again.

Ah, Ghost World. Does it make me a bit of a cliche to love this so much? Do I really care? I saw it at the cinema when I was 15 (with my one and only ever boyfriend). I had no idea what it was about before going in (I’m pretty certain I thought it was a paranormal film about actual ghosts) but I know 15 year old me fell in love with it straight away. A lot of people consider Enid to be a fairly awful person, now, but I still relate to her in a lot of ways. I think that’s not something I should admit as an adult, but I do. I could write a whole post on it (and I probably will, one day) but it made a huge impact on me. And with the sarcasm and deadpan humour, it still appeals. Plus, it lead to me reading Ghost World (which was one of the first graphic novels I ever went and bought for myself so yay for that.)

Favourite moment: Mirror, Father, Mirror.

Batman Returns directed by Tim Burton, 1992

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As I was saying, I’m a woman and can’t be taken for granted. Life’s a bitch, now so am I.

It was difficult to choose between this or the ’60s Batman movie but Tim Burton wins out by virtue of being the Batman of my childhood. Plus Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman?! She’s magnificent. Although Adam West is my favourite Batman, Batman Returns is my favourite Batman film, and I think it’s probably the best (live action, anyway). Burton’s unique visual style fits the characters of Batman and Gotham perfectly and Michael Keaton is so great, isn’t he?

Favourite moment: The scene where Bruce and Selina each realise who the other is? My god, it tears my heart out. And, of course, Catwoman’s simple, deadpan ‘meow?’ before the department store explodes. Ugh. Fantastic!

Flash Gordon directed by Mike Hodges, 1980

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I knew you were up to something, though I’ll confess I hadn’t thought of necrophilia?

One of the most visually appealing films I’ve seen in my life. The costumes and sets are gorgeous (and, well, Timothy Dalton in tights isn’t exactly difficult to look at). Plus, the score by Queen is hardly a detriment. The Orientalism is rather on the nose and is probably the only thing about the film I don’t like. Remember when I mentioned the lush colours in Barbarella? This definitely gives them a run for their money, so to speak.

Favourite moment: I’m kind of stuck on Timothy Dalton in tights.

OK, they're not exactly tights but close enough!

OK, they’re not exactly tights but close enough!

Josie and the Pussycats directed by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan, 2001

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Dujour means crash positions!

Words cannot express how much I love this film. I have watched it so many times. Not surprisingly, this was another film I connected with a lot as a teen. And I still find it very enjoyable as well as quite clever (if a little obvious in its satire). I’m actually planning on writing a post about satire in movies aimed at teen girls, one day, so I’ll leave most of my thoughts on this film for then. But this film is absurd and funny and heartwarming and I really enjoy the soundtrack. In fact, I am listening to it, as I type! It’s definitely one of my ‘comfort movies’. And any film with Parker Posey and Alan Cumming is ace in my book!

An honourable mention must go to The Shadow – I wasn’t sure whether to include it as The Shadow originated in pulp novels before migrating to other media. But if we count it as a comic book movie then my top 5 would be The Shadow five times because I love it so much. And the first version of this list had Superman II and Dick Tracy (that gorgeous pallette) but Josie and the Pussycats and Barbarella replaced them (originally it was Tank Girl and Barbarella, but then I remembered Josie and the Pussycats).

After I finished this I thought of a bunch more films that were based off of comic book characters so I made a more extensive list here.

Smashing Time, 1967

I’m more than a little bit fond of the pop culture of the 1960s. But I always feel like the ’60s is one of my least-watched decades for cinema so I’m always seeking out more to watch. I am especially keen on seeing more British films of this era, and one that has been on my to-watch list for a few years now is Smashing Time from 1967.

Smashing Time stars Rita Tushingham and Lynn Redgrave, two of the finest acting talents to emerge from that decade, as Brenda and Yvonne, young women from the North of England who come to London to become famous. Yvonne is colourfully dressed, vain (which is a quality generally shown to be bad, but I don’t think it is necessarily so) and dreams of being a model or just famous in any way she can. Brenda is demurely dressed, pessimistic and equally as annoying as Yvonne. But Swinging London isn’t all that they’ve thought it would be and they go through a lot of ups and downs (and messy food/paint fights that result in some very silly, but charmingly so, scenes) and squabble a heck of a lot before the end of the film.

Much of the squabbling between the two comes from their personality clashes as well as Brenda’s attraction to and interest in Tom Wabe (Michael York), the photographer who embarrassed Yvonne by taking a photo of her for the paper only to make fun of her (as pictured below). But the plot isn’t necessarily that important as the film is episodic in nature…

As stated in the wikipedia article it is clearly a satire of the aforementioned Swinging London created/influenced by the media and pokes fun at models and photographers (like Michael York’s Tom Wabe who wears a wig for some inexplicable reason) and pop singers (as Yvonne records the hit song ‘I Can’t Sing But I’m Young’) and everything associated with that scene.

Michael York as Tom Wabe photographing a model on Carnaby Street.

The two girls go through a number of jobs from nightclub hostesses (pictured below) to working in themed pie shops and secondhand clothing stores to rising to fame as a pop star (Yvonne) and model (Brenda). Yvonne buys her way into show business, Brenda makes her way into it due to her relationship with Tom Wabe.

Yvonne’s ever inflating ego can be seen reflected in her clothes such as the black, red and white striped dress she wears in the recording studio with her name written across it (I’d happily wear one with my name!) and her more outlandish outfits and wigs as money from her successful pop career (her singing is awful in the recording studio but the song played back sounds remarkably better, hinting already at fixing singer’s voices in-studio).

Brenda is a little more down to earth but seen as no less silly than Yvonne; I wonder if the development of her character’s storyline is a comment on how the ‘natural’ look of certain ’60s stars and models (and photo shoots, etc.) was just as constructed as the very obviously constructed ones.

One of my favourite features of the film is the number of songs inserted at various points, all sung by Redgrave and Tushingham. The first is the title song but my favourite is one in which Tushingham’s character, Brenda, sings about feeling great in her new (though secondhand) clothes. Unfortunately, I can’t find it on YouTube. The sequence that the song plays over shows Brenda passing a number of reflective surfaces and preening and staring at herself in each one.

While I feel like this is maybe making fun of her character I love the way it taps in to how new clothes, even if it’s a secondhand nightie and bed jacket, can make you walk differently, with more confidence. And this sequence tapped into my interest in self-portraits using mirrors. It’s also an interesting counterpart to her uncertainty looking at the mirror in the shop and her initial reluctance to wear a bed jacket and nightie on the street (it was hinted that the nightie belonged to royalty, which swayed her). The mirror scenes in the shop also show off Tushingham’s skill with physical comedy. Indeed, exaggerated facial expressions are used by her and Redgrave throughout the film (though Tushingham’s to more comic effect).

The opening titles, created by someone (or more than one person?) credited only as ‘Trog’ show a series of brilliantly drawn caricatures of the two main characters taken from different scenes throughout the film whilst the title song plays over them.

There are so many things that happen in this film, that it is difficult to sum it up properly in one post without going into rambling territory. It’s rather episodic and films like that are always difficult to summarise, anyway. I don’t like to use the word ‘dated’ because it’s generally used in a negative way. ‘Of its time’ sounds much nicer and is very apt for this film. Does that mean it can’t be enjoyed now? I don’t think so, but if you don’t know anything at all about the ‘swinging London’ scene of the 1960s you may struggle a little. But it’s a great watch if you feel like something that’s easy to laugh at, lighthearted and fun. I was gasping for breath at some points during the film, though others may very well not find it funny at all. Regardless, it is a nice little film that I think is quite underrated when it comes to talk of 1960s cinema.