Suspiria: Dario Argento’s intense horror is unlike any other

A young American dancer travels to Europe to join a famous ballet school. As she arrives, the camera turns to another young woman, who appears to be fleeing from the school. She returns to her apartment where she is gruesomely murdered by a hideous creature. Meanwhile, the young American is trying to settle in at the ballet school, but hears strange noises and is troubled by bizarre occurrences. She eventually discovers that the school is merely a front for a much more sinister organization.

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1977 horror Suspiria is, quite simply, stunning. Dario Argento puts his bloodstained cards on the table right from the film’s gory get-go. In the middle of the night in a raging storm a young woman runs screaming from an exclusive Frieberg ballet school. We see her hurtling, screaming through the woods, illuminated by lightning.

After she arrives at a friend’s apartment she peers through a window into the tumult only for an arm to smash through one window pane and, in a loving, extended shot, suffocate her against the other. While her friend drums hysterically against the locked door the gloved hand repeatedly stabs the girl. In the next shot the stabbing continues, this time in full close up as the fiend winds a rope around the shrieking victim’s legs. And in the piece de resistance, we cut to the friend running into the lobby of the apartment building for help. As she looks up towards a stained glass ceiling, the victim’s head crashes through it in a hail of glass shards followed by her body. We cut to the blood drenched corpse, suspended by the rope dripping blood onto the floor, finally Argento pans the camera to reveal his next horror. The falling glass has pinned the friend to the ground crucifix like, the largest sliver having split her face in half.

We are now 13 minutes into the movie, and if the poster tagline — “The only thing more terrifying than the first 80 minutes of Suspiria… is the last 10″ — has any truth in it we’re in for a deeply unnerving experience. Argento, often called the Italian Hitchcock (it’s a misnomer, the only things the two actually share are grandiose misogyny and a liking for sustained sequences) is arguably Italy’s foremost horror director and Suspiria is his finest movie to date. It’s difficult to give a flavour of its unique, surreal, hyper-intense mood by simply describing it. It’s not all that helpful to outline the plot, since there’s very little of it, and what there is doesn’t make much sense.    An American goes to a Frieberg dance academy, finds that people have a habit of vanishing or getting killed in unusual circumstances, discovers it’s all down to an ancient coven of witches and burns the place to the ground. And there you have it.

But in fact the plot, such as it is, is just a device to link a series of gloriously realised set-pieces. Argento is a maestro of sustained horror sequences. In one a blind man is suddenly set upon by his own guide-dog — the scene is shot audaciously in either extreme long shot (a kind of pigeon’s eye view) or extreme close ups of the hound tearing horribly realistic chunks out of the unfortunate man’s neck. A young dancer is combing her hair at night only to find a maggot in it. And then another. As she looks up she discovers the whole ceiling is crawling with them and they begin to rain down on her. In one of the most gleefully sadistic sequences ever put on film a scantily clad co-ed tumbles into a barbed wire filled pit. The camera looks on, unmoving, as she struggles, working herself deeper and deeper into the seemingly endless barbs. It’s possibly the clearest expression of the director’s embedded hatred of women, or at least his desire to see them tortured and mutilated. He remains unrepentant about it. “A woman in peril is emotionally affecting,” he told Empire back in 1997. “A man simply isn’t.”

And then there’s Argento’s masterful use of deep primary colours — the sets are bathed in garish red and green light (he acquired 1950s Technicolor stock to get the effect) giving the whole film a hallucinatory intensity. The score, composed by Argento and performed by his frequent collaborators, rock band Goblin, sounds as though Hell’s demons rented a studio and decided to jam. Screams, wailings, hissing steam and some kind of diabolical digeridoo are punctuated with the occasional distorted shriek of “Witch!”. It’s enough to loosen the bowels on its own.

Argento, who started out in gialli (pulp thrillers) has never really delivered on the promise, in horror terms at least, he showed with Suspiria. There was a disappointing sequel, Inferno in 1980, which despite a couple of the trademark set-pieces failed to attain the demented heights of its inspiration. Creepers (aka Phenomena, 1984) had B-movie stalwart Donald Pleasance battling “moths” while The Stendhal Syndrome (1996) was simply a step too far even for Argento fans with its graphic rape sequence, particularly tasteless since its victim was played by Argento’s daughter Asia.

In spite of his recent shortcomings, as an appetizer to the thoroughly bizarre world of Italian horror, Suspiria is the perfect antipasto.

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Remembering Stanley Kubrick (Part 2)

Today is the second (and final) day of MovieReviewsByMatt’s chronicle of Stanley Kubrick’s cinematic genius…

 

Barry Lyndon was based on the 1844 novel The Luck Of Barry Lyndon by William Makepeace Thackeray. Young Irish rogue Redmond Barry, a relentless social climber determined to join the aristocracy, joins the British army. Over 25 years, he goes from spy to con-artist to snaring rich widow Lady Lyndon, and finally taking his place at the top table. But with it come the seeds of his downfall.

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Shot over two years with the kind of obsessive detail only Kubrick could muster up from his typically unbreakable research, this costume drama is so stately it appears to be operating under a spell.

The great director was adapting Thackeray’s fairly disregarded debut novel, a picaresque centring on a selfish prig who saunters through 19th century European history, but, as ever, his focus is the ritualised behaviours that dehumanise us and push us toward solitude. Indeed, the book is filleted to a spare series of events, then spread over three sumptuous hours of decoration and absolute poise. Reputedly there is one line in his script that translated to ten minutes of screen time.

Thus his actors become pieces in a chess game, beautiful philosophical constructs to be moved hither and thither, more automatons than humans. Still, there’s no doubting the quality of Kubrick’s eyes; Ryan O’Neal and former model Marisa Berenson were technically the most beautiful people on the planet at the time. Their performances feel more like echoes.

Their tableau, haunted by the lush paintings of Constable and Watteau, is so richly decorated it almost becomes static. It is a world that functions almost subliminally as if you are absorbing the images rather than simply seeing them. Kubrick borrowed a satellite camera from NASA, possessing the world’s largest aperture, to capture the natural light of a thousand candles. With barely perceptible zooms it takes in this place of order and design, a history, for all its duels, betrayals, and loveless manipulations, built on conformity. The individual is a sham, a selfish mask, who will be engulfed by the system.

It is also a film so divorced from easy emotion, hard to measure on any kind of entertainment scale. This may be the landscape of the swashbuckler, but it is bathed in deep melancholy. The result is pure art, that all but locks the watcher out.

Kubrick’s superb version of Thackery’s novel is meticulous and philosophically stimulating but it can leave some audiences unmoved on an emotional level.

Based on Gustav Hasford’s 1979 novel The Short-Timers, Full Metal Jacket tells the story of one Private “Joker” Davis (Matthew Modine), through the gruelling training regime to be a Marine, fraught with its own psychological damage, to Vietnam itself. Here, as a war correspondent, he covers the Tet offensive.

Divided like a rift into two distinct halves, Kubrick’s examination of the Vietnam conflict found him on unusually inconsistent form; the film is both powerful and frustratingly unengaged. In the first section, the boot camp, the great intellectual exalts in the dehumanising process of turning greenhorn boys into killing machines.

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R Lee Ermey’s staggering performance as a drill sergeant pounds into these young men like a bulldozer, and in the case of Private “Gomer” (Vincent D’Onfrio — fat, dangerous, a walking powder keg), the pressure will become too much. These barrages of abusive language and intimidation are supposed to burn survival into these empty vessels, but Kubrick is divulging a process of brutality to match the moral objections of the conflict itself. In Gomer’s self-destruction, the seething necessities of war are barbarities in themselves — conform or die.

Once away from the bullying of training and into the fragged cities and casual death of Vietnam itself, stunningly envisioned at an old gasworks in London’s East End, Kubrick seems bereft of purpose. He’s made his chilling point, that a solider must shed his humanity and become a machine, and now Modine’s wide-eyed thinker contends with the battlefield itself and the film sinks into a guarded examination of muddy methodology. Is it that the state of this war is too politically messy for Kubrick’s contemplative gaze? Joker has too astute a mind to be an innocent, and his cumbersome narration covers Kubrick’s highly designed — it is bloody and beautiful but never surreal or horrifying — but strangely empty variation on this “phony war”.

A hardy Kubrikian effort that warms on you with repeated viewings – that is, if you love Kubrick.

1999’s Eyes Wide Shut was the Kubrick’s last completed work. (A.I. Artificial Intelligence would be realised by Steven Spielberg, and released in 2001.) The film was based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1926 novella Dream Story, to which Kubrick obtained the rights in the 1960s, considering it the perfect novel to adapt as a film about sexual relations. The project was only revived in the 1990s, when the director hired writer Frederic Raphael to help him with the adaptation. The film spent a long time in production, and holds the Guinness World Record for the longest continuous film shoot period, at 400 days. Kubrick died six days after showing his final cut to Warner Bros. and never got to see the picture’s theatrical release.

Doctor Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) appears to have the perfect marriage with his wife Alice (Nicole Kidman). When she admits that she has been tempted to cheat on him, he is left reeling from shock, and goes out into the Manhattan night where he meets strange characters and sees another side of life.

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As an epilogue to the career of Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Shut is just about perfect in that it is definitely, unmistakably Kubrickian. Some will take that ‘correctly’ to mean it is intellectually intent, fastidiously crafted, directorially commanding and endlessly intriguing. Others, just as correctly, can read that as maddeningly portentous, laborious and remote.

The film was poorly served by advance speculation (most of the widely reported plot titbits prove wrong) and the overexposure of the juicy Tom and Nicole snog clip, an outrageous bit of trailer foreplay unconsummated in the event and giving the entirely erroneous impression that this film is a non-stop bonkfest. Naturally audiences obligingly stampeded first showings in the USA. Just as naturally, the box office tailed off noticeably as soon as word got round that Cruise doesn’t actually get his kit off (although Kidman does, often), in what is not so much an erotic drama as a psychological probing of marriage, desire, jealousy and sexual paranoia. Adapted from Schnitzler’s heavy novella, this is about the reality of sexual love versus its illusions.

Harford is a successful Manhattan doctor with a swank apartment, wealthy, demanding patients (including Sydney Pollack), and a lovely wife and child. Wife Alice ran an art gallery that went broke, leaving her too much time to get tipsy at parties, high on recreational pot and petulantly confrontational about a marriage that looks pretty enviable to mortal couples.

Aggrieved at being taken for granted, she picks a fight with her confident, comfortable husband, dropping a bombshell that rattles his security and sends him off into the night. In his subsequent dreamlike odyssey, he encounters a patient’s daughter with a sad fixation to confide, a jazz musician with a bizarre story to tell, a costume hire shop where absurd nastiness goes on behind the racks, a streetwalker with whom he is at a loss… All these things persuade Harford that everyone is having it off except him, while he’s haunted by graphic images of his wife in flagrante.

The central set piece in his dissociative wanderings through this sinister world of secrets and sexual tension – where every location is ironically set off by a garish Christmas tree – is a mysterious, ritualistic gathering of masked swingers. The orgying (childishly ‘digitally amended’ in the USA to obscure close encounters of the pelvic kind) is explicit, but more theatrical than kinky, and in keeping with Schnitzler’s perception of sexual adventure as a melancholy, hollow experience. The ‘party’ is both pretentiously bizarre and the single most striking sequence in the entire film, simultaneously evoking dream, pretence and illusion as remarkably vivid.

Cruise, as usual, was grossly underestimated in the early American reviews, with honours going to Kidman, whose character’s disaffection gives her the opportunity for some showy rants. But it is Cruise, who is in virtually every scene, who lends the film an essential humanity. His palpably wounded male pride, pain and vulnerable bewilderment keep you connected to what is otherwise a cold, humourless, despairingly cynical (and thus typically Kubrickian) observation of human relationships.

While this is obviously a must-see for Kubrick acolytes, those with less lofty expectations should be prepared for an overblown effort, imbued with Kubrick’s uncomfortable personal vision conveyed with distinctive and stunning style.

With my journey through some of the cinematic achievements of Stanley Kubrick at an end, it seems only appropriate that the final words should be that of the great man himself, with a statement that provides a wonderful summation of cinema itself:

 

“The screen is a magic medium. It has such power that it can retain interest as it conveys emotions and moods that no other art form can hope to tackle.

 

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Remembering Stanley Kubrick (Part 1)

Stanley Kubrick would have been 86 today if he was still with us. Sadly, the great man passed away on March 7 1999, at the age of 70.

One of the greatest filmmakers of all time, Kubrick was part of the New Hollywood wave. His films, typically adaptations of novels or short stories, are noted for their dazzling and unique cinematography, attention to detail in the service of realism, and the evocative use of music. His films covered a variety of genres, including war, crime, literary adaptations, romantic and black comedies, horror, epic and science fiction. He was also known for being a demanding perfectionist, using painstaking care with scene staging, camerawork and co-ordinating extremely closely both with his actors and his collaborators behind the camera.

Starting out as a photographer in New York City, Kubrick taught himself all aspects of production and directing after graduating from high school. His earliest films were made on a shoestring budget, until the Hollywood blockbuster Spartacus, after which he spent most of the rest of his career living and filming in the UK. His home at Childwickbury Manor in Hertfordshire (north of and near to London) became his workplace where he did his writing, research, editing and management of production details. This allowed him to have almost complete artistic control, but with the rare advantage of having financial support from major Hollywood studios.

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Many of Kubrick’s films broke new ground in cinematography, including 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the sci-fi classic which Steven Spielberg called his generation’s “big bang.” For Barry Lyndon (1975), Kubrick obtained lenses developed by Zeiss for NASA in order to film scenes under natural candlelight, while The Shining (1980) was among the first feature films to make use of Steadicam for stabilised and fluid tracking shots. As with his earlier shorts, he was the cinematographer and editor on the first two of his thirteen features; he also directed, produced and wrote all or part of the screenplays for the majority of his pictures.

While some of Kubrick’s films were controversial with mixed reviews, such as Paths Of Glory (1957), Lolita (1962) and A Clockwork Orange (1971), most of his films were nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and/or BAFTAs. Film historian Michel Ciment considers his films to be “among the most important contributions to world cinema in the twentieth century,” while director Norman Jewison called him one of the “great masters” that America has produced.

 

In memory of one of the truly great cinematic auteurs of all time, today and tomorrow MovieReviewsByMatt will be looking at some of Kubrick’s unforgettable movies…

 

Called Kubrick’s only picture as a ‘director-for-hire,’ Spartacus (1960) saw the great man take the helm after star Kirk Douglas’ Bryna Pictures production company removed original director Anthony Mann after the first week of shooting. It would be the only picture over which Kubrick did not have creative control.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo was blacklisted at the time as one of the Hollywood Ten. Douglas publicly announced that Trumbo was the screenwriter of Spartacus, and President John F. Kennedy crossed picket lines to see the film, helping to end blacklisting. The author of the novel on which it is based, Howard Fast, was also blacklisted, and originally had to self-publish it.

The film became the biggest moneymaker in Universal Studios’ history, until it was surpassed by Airport (1970).

Spartacus, a Thracian slave, refuses to allow himself to become the animal the Roman civilization would have him be. His love for Varinia, a slave girl, coupled with his revulsion at the crushing treatment and callous murders of his fellow slaves, ignite in his breast a passion for freedom. They escape and joined by more runaways, swell to become a vast army. Contrasted with their impassioned plans for open rebellion are the cool, calculating minds of their Roman adversaries.

Spartacus

The Thracian slave Spartacus, thought to have been a deserter from the Roman army, was sold to a school for gladiators at Capua but never got to the arena, leading a slave revolt in 73 BC and devastating Southern Italy with an army of former slaves and gladiators. He was defeated in battle in 71 BC by Marcus Crassus, probably dying on the field of combat rather than surviving (as in the movie) to be crucified. Crassus, with Pompey and Julius Caesar, formed the first Triumvirate of Rome, precursor to the Emperorship of the Caesars, but came to a bad end in 53 BC when he was himself killed in a war he had started.

In the film, Crassus (Laurence Olivier) remarks, “This campaign is not done to kill Spartacus, it is to kill the legend of Spartacus.” The real rebel was a ruthless plunderer who had 300 captives put to death to avenge the killing of his best friend Crixus (the part played by John Ireland) and once, before a battle, crucified a captured Roman soldier in front of his own men to show them what would happen if they lost to the legions.    But the legend of Spartacus stands for resistance to tyranny. In the 20th century, a German socialist faction called themselves the Spartacists, and communist Fast’s Spartacus depicted the slave revolt in Marxist terms. Fellow blacklistee Trumbo hewed a screenplay from Fast’s novel, relishing the scene in which Crassus delivers straight McCarthyist rhetoric (“The enemies of the state are known, arrests are in progress, the prisons begin to fill. In every city and province, lists of the disloyal have been compiled”). Trumbo stirred in incidents from Arthur Koestler’s novel The Gladiators, which might have been a Yul Brynner movie if producer-star Douglas hadn’t made sure his rival project was so much bigger.

Excepting a stint on Marlon Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which the star ended up directing himself, Spartacus was Stanley Kubrick’s only film as a for-hire director. He was brought in when Douglas fell out with original helmer Mann — director of great Westerns in the 1950s, who shot the opening Libyan mine sequence — and never quite got up to speed on the picture. Still, many scenes and ideas in Spartacus are completely Kubrickian: he returned almost obsessively to brutal training regimes that turn men into machines in A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) and staged another huge historical battle in Barry Lyndon (1975). But the director is clearly much happier with Spartacus the Legend and the power struggle between Patrician Crassus and Plebean Gracchus than he is in scenes that try to show Spartacus the Man: pining for peace, loving his wife (Jean Simmons) and palling around with his men.

The gladiator training sequence and its pay-off in the “matched pairs” fight bests in forty minutes the whole length of Gladiator (2000). We see the raw slaves drilled and pounded until they are perfect killing machines, with the unforgettable image of the trainer daubing Douglas’ naked torso with different coloured paints to illustrate the varieties of wounds (“always go for the quick kill.”) The two duels, one seen only through the slats of the pen as Spartacus and Draba (Woody Strode) wait their turn, and one between sword and trident staged in the sandy arena, are both a backdrop to a bit of intrigue between Crassus and his dim supporter Glabrus (John Ball), and a perverse distraction for ladies Helena (Nina Foch) and Claudia (Joanna Barnes).

The women are more interested in how few clothes the well-muscled fighters are wearing than in their lives and deaths. In a neat bit of plotting, Crassus’ casual insistence on a minor fight to the death triggers the revolt, started not by the defeated Spartacus but by the victorious Draba, who dies trying to attack the audience (Olivier sneers superbly as he stabs Strode in the neck, blood splashing his face). Too intent on scheming against Gracchus, Crassus doesn’t even consider that the slaves could cause him any trouble.

Douglas was always great in movies that required suffering, and he often played roles that involved extreme mortification or even mutilation (no other Van Gogh hacked off his own ear with such conviction). Here he is at his best under the lash or up on the cross, almost relishing his own agony and burning with righteous fury. The irony is that even as a free man, Spartacus is a slave. He serves Crassus’ interests by riling the people of Rome to the point where they are forced to call on his military genius, transforming him into a virtual dictator to save them from an enemy who only wants to go home.

Spartacus’ merry rabble swarms across country to face a Roman army that, seen from a distance, resembles either a group of ants moving in perfect formation or living chessboard squares marching in order — an unbeatable, fascist machine. It’s a breathtaking moment, which forces you to realise that Kubrick (before CGI) had to command extras as rigidly as Crassus runs Rome, and it takes Douglas’ death on the cross to trump it.

Although many claim that this could have been directed by anyone, the greatness of Spartacus is in the stretches everyone remembers.

Loosely based on Peter George’s Cold War thriller Red Alert (also known as Two Hours To Doom), 1964’s Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb satirised the nuclear scare.

U.S. Air Force Colonel Jack Ripper goes completely mad and launches a nuclear attack on the USSR. Since the Soviets previously announced a “Failsafe” device that will launch all their missiles if there’s an attack on their soil, this could mean that World War III will kick off. The U.S. President and his generals try to stop the bomb.

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If any other director had optioned Red Alert, the 1958 novel about inadvertent nuclear conflict, it would doubtless have become an earnest Cold War thriller, wagging a sober finger at the folly of war. In fact, that was Kubrick’s original plan, but halfway through a draft he called The Edge Of Doom, the lightbulb popped over his head: a system so inflexible that one mistake could bring on Armageddon wasn’t just horrifying – it was blackly hilarious. Exit The Edge Of Doom. Enter Dr. Strangelove.

Kubrick once claimed he scrapped his original ending, in which the War Room degenerates into a piefight, because “it was farce and not consistent with the satiric tone”, but that doesn’t ring true. This gleefully lewd film is a satire and a farce. The whole plot is set in motion because Sterling Hayden’s deranged general thinks Soviet agents are to blame for his impotence. From the opening footage of a B-52 refuelling to the strains of Try A Little Tenderness, to the climactic shot of Major Kong astride his nuke, it’s stuffed with innuendo, mostly thanks to co-writer Terry Southern.

On set, meanwhile, Kubrick coaxed George C. Scott into some delirious overacting (much to the actor’s annoyance) and gave Peter Sellers, in three key roles, free rein. Nobody’s trousers actually fall down, but they wouldn’t be out of place if they did. Even fifty years on, you have to admire the boldness of Dr. Strangelove’s bad taste. Kubrick found the apocalyptic logic of nuclear deterrence absurd and offensive, and he gave it the film it deserved.

The collapse of the Cold War may have left Kubrick’s satire on mutually assured destruction less relevant than it was, but it still features Peter Sellers’ finest three performances as well as proving that the supposedly humourless Kubrick was up for a laugh.

A Clockwork Orange was set in a futuristic Britain, where a gang of thugs (droogs) controlled by one young man, Alex DeLarge, run rampant – perpetrating rape, muggings, beatings galore. Eventually Alex is captured, subjected to experimental treatment to cure him of his anti-social tendencies, and released back into society…

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From the controversy surrounding Kubrick’s adaptation of Anthony Burgess’ dystopian novel, you’d think the film was like, say, Romper Stomper (1992): a glamorisation of the violent lifestyle of its teenage protagonist, with a hypocritical gloss of condemnation to mask delight in rape and ultra-violence. Actually, it is resoundingly both fable-like and abstract.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell), juvenile delinquent of the future, gets a brief twenty-minute anarchic rampage before his apprehension by brutal authorities, whereupon he changes from defiant thug into cringing boot-licker, volunteering for a behaviourist experiment that removes his capacity to do evil. The “cured” Alex finds he has made sadistic monsters of his former victims, and is paid back in full. Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee), the last decent man in a corrupt world, is transformed by Alex’s assault on his home into a freak, toted about in a wheelchair by Dave Prowse (speaking with his own Bristol voice, for a change). Even more appalling is the realisation that Alex’s old “droogs” have gone straight by joining the police, channelling brutishness into the service of the state.

It’s all stylised, from Burgess’ invented pidgin Russian to 2001-style slow tracks, through sculpturally-perfect sets (like many Kubrick movies, the story could be told through decor alone) and exaggerated, grotesque performances (on a par with those of Dr. Strangelove). Made in 1971, based on a novel from 1962, A Clockwork Orange resonates across the years. Its future is quaint now, with Alexander pecking out “subversive literature” on a giant IBM typewriter, “lovely, lovely Ludwig Van” on vinyl, and Alex stranded alone in a vast and empty National Health hospital ward. However, the world of “Municipal Flat Block 18A, Linear North” is very much with us: a housing estate where classical murals are obscenely vandalised, passersby are rare and yobs loll about with nothing better to do than hurt people.

A much-maligned and misunderstood classic, this is one of Kubrick’s finest movies.

Day Two of MovieReviewsByMatt’s journey through Stanley Kubrick’s legacy is less than 24 hours away…

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Hercules: Ratner and The Rock show Harlin and Lutz how it should be done

After the endurance test that was Renny Harlin’s The Legend Of Hercules earlier this year, Brett Ratner’s take on Radical Comics’ Hercules: The Thracian Wars could only be better. After all, it has as its star the über-charismatic Dwayne Johnson, the former WWE headliner whose movies grossed more than any other star last year (at a cool $1.3 billion). The former Rock demonstrated his commitment to the role by undertaking a gruelling training regime: “I trained and worked harder than ever for 8 months for this role. Lived alone and locked myself away (like a moody 260-lb. monk) in Budapest for 6 months while filming. Goal was to completely transform into this character. Disappear in the role. Press journalist asked me today, with the mental & physical toll the role had on me, would I do it again? Not only would I do it again.. I’d do it fucking twice.”

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Having completed his legendary twelve labours, Greek demigod Hercules has his life as a sword-for-hire tested when Cotys of Thrace and his daughter seek his aid in defeating a tyrannical warlord.

The end result of everyone’s toil is an engagingly preposterous movie, one whose overriding philosophy is perfectly expressed by Rufus Sewell’s Autolycus, when he shouts at no-one in particular: “Don’t just stand there, kill someone!”

Most swords and sandals epics have occasional battle scenes interspersed with long periods in which the characters gossip, carouse, have love affairs and plot against each other. Hercules reverses the formula; almost the entire film is taken up with fighting. Ratner allows only the briefest time outs between battles to explain exactly what is being fought over.

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Hercules himself looks disconcertingly like Davy Crockett in the early scenes in which he wears a hat made out of a lion’s head. That aside, Ratner tantalises us by refusing to reveal whether our hero is a god (“the son of Zeus…the Zeus!”) or simply a buffed up man in high quality armour.

In a brilliantly clunky flashback sequence we learn that he only ever wanted to be a “good husband and father” but that his wife and children died in suspicious circumstances in the court of King Eursytheus (played by Jospeh Fiennes in a purring way that rekindles memories of Kenneth Williams in Carry On Cleo). Hercules therefore turned mercenary. Lord Cotys (John Hurt) offers him his weight in gold and more to defeat the rebel army led by Rhesus (Tobias Santelmann).

There is a self-mocking quality to much of the dialogue. “If only your manhood was as long as your tongue,” one warrior is taunted by a woman. “What a load of crap!” someone exclaims after hearing the legend of Hercules and his twelve tasks. In fact, the performances all appear to be tongue-in-cheek – which is no bad thing, under the circumstances.

Ian McShane is particularly funny as Amphiaraus, one of Hercules’ followers who has the gift of second sight and yet never quite knows what is going to happen next. Peter Mullan scowls and growls to fine effect as Hurt’s bad-tempered General, Sitacles, while Hurt himself brings a Quentin Crisp-like mischief to his role as the Machiavellian leader of the Thracians.

The battle scenes are staged with commendable vigour. Ratner throws in Ben-Hur-like chariot chases, some nifty archery by the Amazonian Atlanta (Ingrid Bolso Berdal) and plentiful moments in which Hercules clubs his various enemies to death, fights off fiery animals by ripping open their jaws and knocks down statues of Hera. The big man even gets to make an Agincourt-style speech and to show his mastery of war craft.

Throughout, Ratner refuses to reveal whether this is a full-on spoof or whether he is actually making the film in deadly earnest. Whatever the case, this is fine, switch-your-brain-off, leave-your-disbelief-at-the-door matinee entertainment.

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The Recruit: Pacino and Farrell make a dynamite pairing in a safely mainstream thriller

At first glance, James Clayton doesn’t look like perfect material for the CIA. Agency veteran Walter Burke disagrees, and smooth-talks the computer whizz-kid into signing up for rigorous training. Just remember, though: in the CIA, ‘Nothing is what it seems’…

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Post 9/11, intelligence has become the world’s first-line defence against terrorist attacks. The CIA’s reputation was tarnished by the Twin Towers atrocities, prompting James Clayton – Colin Farrell’s character in The Recruit (2003) – to refer to the Agency as ‘old white men’ who let the country down in its time of need.

Hence this rather sanitised advert for America’s spooks. We’re never really sure what jobs Clayton and his fellow trainees will carry out once they’ve graduated, but it’s something vague about keeping the world safe.

Roger Donaldson’s Agency is unrelated to the CIA as Oliver Stone might recognise it: you know, the one that destabilises foreign governments. It’s left to Al Pacino to voice the film’s political conscience: ‘We believe in good and evil… We believe in right and wrong… Our cause is just.’

The result is a safely mainstream thriller that plays out in its own sealed world. The emphasis is on twists and turns as they happen, not on any global consequences should the movie’s CIA mole succeed in getting his or her hands on a secret computer programme. As such, it’s not up to the standards of Donaldson’s best work: less politically tense than Thirteen Days, less teasingly deceptive than No Way Out.

That said, it does bring together, in the shape of Pacino and Farrell, an exciting, potentially explosive, across-the-generations pairing. Donaldson taps into Pacino’s confident screen charisma to make Burke an irresistibly seductive recruiter, while the unshaven, rumpled Farrell has enough budding star power to cover the transparencies in the plot.

It’s their dynamic that holds it all together and keeps the audience hooked, although the surrogate father-son espionage bond was examined at a deeper, more complex level by Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game. By the way, try not to laugh when the camera pans past a sign at CIA headquarters that reads, ‘The George Bush Center For Intelligence’.

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Righteous Kill: De Niro and Pacino reunite…but this is no Heat

Long-time partners Turk (Robert De Niro) and Rooster (Al Pacino) begin an investigation into a serial killer who’s targeting scumbags. But as the evidence begins to mount up, it becomes clear that the killer is not only a cop, but might be closer to home than anyone realises…

RK

This is it, folks – the film that everyone was talking about prior to its September 2008 release. The one that reunited two of the biggest names in movies. After all, the last on-screen, same-frame pairing of Pacino and De Niro came in Michael Mann’s classic crime epic, Heat. If that was the cinematic equivalent of the Big Bang, Righteous Kill is a Large Hadron Collider, trying desperately to recreate that seminal spark. I’ll spoil the suspense: it doesn’t.

Where Heat had sprawl and ambition and was about so much more than cops ’n’ robbers, Righteous Kill is a rote and lumbering thriller that forgets to supply any thrills, and which hangs on the revelation of a twist so obvious that tension dissipates long before the so-called big reveal. And Jon Avnet, simply put, is no Michael Mann.

There’s not a single memorable shot in the entire film, not one moment when convention doesn’t crash into cliché. If, for example, you thought the old trick where someone says, “Oh, it’s you” to an unknown assailant before being bulleted to bits had long since died, it makes an unwelcome and unwise comeback here. About three times.

Credit where it’s due, though – Avnet makes sure his cracking cast deliver, with Carla Gugino’s slinky CSI the pick of the supporting players. But this is The Al And Bobby Show, and if neither screen legend particularly stretches himself here, it’s a joy to watch two masters interact over the course of a movie instead of a one-scene blow-out.

Russell Gewirtz’ script has many flaws, but its principal strength is a constant flow of wiseass dialogue for Pacino’s whip-smart Rooster and De Niro’s more stoic Turk – and, especially in the early scenes, the duo appear to be having enormous fun with pop-culture banter about The Brady Bunch and ’70s cartoon Underdog, or effortlessly conveying a lifetime of friendship wordlessly. It’s a shame, in fact, that the rest of the movie can’t match their class. Righteous Kill isn’t so much Heat as Lukewarm.

It’s a sad indictment of the lack of good scripts out there with lead roles for screen veterans that Pacino and De Niro had to spoil their scorecard with this workaday nonsense.

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In Bruges: Colin Farrell returns to form in a hilariously rude yet moving piece

Despite appearing in films by some heavy-hitters (Terrence Malick, Michael Mann, Woody Allen) Colin Farrell had been off-radar for a bit by the time the wrappers were taken off the 2008 calendars, and the celeb-o-meter was cooling, as the world’s media adopted James McAvoy as their new celluloid golden boy. Fortunately, then, Farrell brought his A-game to cracking comedy-noir In Bruges, written and directed by Martin McDonagh. He is absolutely superb: moody and funny, lethally sexy, sometimes heartbreakingly sad and vulnerable like a little boy. He radiates the star-quality that once made him the world’s It Boy.

IB

He and Brendan Gleeson, who is also excellent, play Ray and Ken, a couple of Dublin hitmen who have been ordered by their paymaster Harry (Ralph Fiennes) to lie low and await instructions – in Bruges. Their orders are simply to wander around and admire the lovely medieval architecture – in Bruges.

Instead of a flashy hotel, they have been booked into one twin room in a chintzy B&B – in Bruges. For quite a lot of the time, the film shows these two moody tough guys having to mill aimlessly about, stupefied and exasperated beyond endurance by the simple, appalling fact that they are in Bruges. The city itself becomes a continuous, mute running gag, and as Ray and Ken snap at each other, McDonagh’s whip-smart dialogue hints at Beckett, Tarantino, even Greene. It soon becomes clear that their presence in this epicentre of northern European dullness has something to do with an earlier, catastrophically botched job and a terrible anguish that Ray is carrying in his heart.

McDonagh, an Oscar-winner for his short film Six-Shooter and already an accomplished and acclaimed stage dramatist with plays such as The Lieutenant of Inishmore, makes it all look very easy. Just by resentfully mooching about, his leading males are hilarious, tense, scary. And when the eruptions come, they are stunningly plausible. Farrell’s tension and paranoia finally uncoil when an American-sounding man complains about cigarette smoke coming from his table at a restaurant. The ensuing punch-up actually gives a clue as to why a screenwriter should want to set a film in Bruges. It’s because Belgium is one of those rare countries where smoking is still not banned in public places.

Theatre audiences have long relished McDonagh’s brilliant combinations of the bizarre, macabre and tragicomic and it is exhilarating to see him transfer this talent to the screen, providing lip-smackingly satisfying roles for his actors. When Ray and Ken finally conclude that Bruges is not a shithole, after all, but a lovely city, secluded and unspoilt because it is marooned in the shithole country of Belgium, this mournful epiphany is hilariously rude and yet strangely moving.

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