Thursday, 19 November 2009

Filmathon - The Girl Who Knew Too Much, Unleashed, The Seventh Seal & Duck Soup

I've got a serious DVD shopping habit as you might have guessed and buy far more DVD's than I can watch, especially considering I work full time and live with my partner who doesn't totally share my taste in films.  One way I have of tackling this problem is by taking any rare free and lonely days that I get and turning them into a full on 'filmathon'.  This brief set of reviews charts my latest session.

I'm going to keep the reviews really short this time because I'm doing four films at once and I'm quite busy at the moment, so apologies for skimming over them a bit.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much

Year: 1963
Director: Mario Bava
Writers: Mario Bava, Enzo Corbucci, Enio De Concini, Eliana De Sabata, Mino Geurrini & Franco Prosperi
Starring: Leticia Roman, John Saxon, Valentia Cortese

The Girl Who Knew Too Much is often considered to be the first Giallo film and is a bit of a cult classic from the Godfather of Italian horror, Mario Bava.  How does it hold up today though?  Well, not too bad, but it's showing it's age.

The plot is full of twists and turns but basically an American tourist, Nora, comes to Rome to visit her mother's friend, who ends up dying (of natural causes) almost as soon as she gets there.  On the way to the hospital Nora gets mugged and knocked out cold.  When she comes to she hazily witnesses a murder before passing out again from the trauma.  Nobody believes her though as all traces are gone as she wakes up.  The film goes on to follow her quest to find the killer herself.

It's all very Hitchcockian as you can gather from the title (although it is called The Evil Eye in the US).  The plot and dark humour running through the film are all reminiscent of the master of suspense, but for me although it's an entertaining film, it doesn't reach the heights of say North by Northwest or Rear Window.  It has dated badly in terms of performance and dialogue.  A voiceover that runs throughout is painfully over the top in it's level of exposition, explaining exactly what Nora is thinking when we can clearly see or figure it out.

Where the film does succeed though is in it's various set-pieces and in it's style.  It's beautifully shot in black and white, using dramatic contrasts and lots of shadows to great effect.  The set-pieces really show off it's look and style, creating some incredibly tense and darkly beautiful scenes that make the film worth while.  A scene in an empty apartment where Nora can hear voices calling her is very effective in particular.

So it's a bit dated and cheesy at times, but it still succeeds in it's scenes of terror and is worth watching for these alone.



Year: 2005
Director: Louis Leterrier
Writer: Luc Besson
Starring: Jet Li, Morgan Freeman, Bob Hoskins, Kerry Condon

Unleashed (otherwise known as Danny the Dog) was a film I was desperate to see when it first got announced, placing martial arts movie legend Jet Li in a Hollywood film with a solid cast and a writer/producer (Luc Besson) that knew how to make a quality action film (Leon, Nikita etc.)  When it finally got released though it was hit with some quite lukewarm reviews and wasn't massively successful, so it seemed to pass me by somehow.  I finally decided to rectify things and sit down and watch it on DVD four years after it's release and I was pleasantly surprised.

Unleashed throws us into a seedy British underworld where debt collector Bart (Hoskins) has trained a semi-mute slave Danny (Li) to beat the living hell out of anyone he pleases by releasing a dog collar he uses to control him.  Danny eventually escapes his captor and ends up living with a kindly old blind piano tuner (Freeman) and his step-daughter (Condon).  This pair manage to open Danny up to become a real person and not an animal, until of course his demons come back to haunt him.

The film to me seemed to be aiming at replicating the success of Leon, in that it's at times a brutal, stylish action film but at others a touching drama.  Unleashed is not as successful at this it has to be said, but it still does pretty well.  The action scenes are bone-crunchingly brutal and are the strongest elements of the film, with some impressive choreography from the master himself, Yuen Wo Ping.  The scenes with his new family are not quite as impressive, but they're much better than I expected.  Jet Li delivers his finest English language performance, displaying an impressive range and delivery despite the language barrier.  Bob Hoskins makes a great villian and Morgan Freeman is solid as always, but doesn't fire on all cylinders.

It's not a perfectly balanced film and has it's silly and schmaltzy moments, but nonetheless it's an effectively entertaining and well made film that deserves more respect.


The Seventh Seal

Year: 1957
Director: Ingmar Bergman
Writer: Ingmar Bergman
Starring: Max Von Sydow, Gunnar Bjornstrand, Bibi Andersson, Nils Poppe, Bengt Ekerot

I've been living in fear of The Seventh Seal for a long time.  I've attempted to watch it on around four occasions and never got further than a minute or two into it before I've given up.  I think it didn't help that before recently I'd never seen an Ingmar Bergman film.  I'd always read so much about how serious and important his films were that I just didn't have the patience to sit through any of them, thinking I'd be bored to tears.  Finally, for who knows what reason I decided to watch The Virgin Spring and I loved it, which opened up the floodgates for me, prompting this review as my subsequent Bergman fix.  Speaking of which, reviewing this film is another fear I've had.  What am I, lover of trashy kung-fu films, going to say about one of the highest regarded art-house films ever made?

Lets start with the plot; The Seventh Seal is all about death.  The central element (and most famous) follows a knight returning from the crusades who is having a crisis of faith when he is confronted by Death himself, telling him his time is up.  The knight, who still wants answers on the existence of God before he dies, challenges Death to a game of chess for his life.  The rest of the film concerns the fears and turmoil surrounding a plague that is ravaging the country and casting the shadow of death over everyone and everything.

Well, after finally forcing myself to watch it I must say I was surprised.  Not surprised by how good it is (it is brilliant), but by how entertaining it was.  OK, it's certainly not a laugh-riot and it's a million miles away from the fun I get from a Jackie Chan film, but it's not the tedious, ponderous tosh that I originally expected.  It is about death and religion so is heavy going, but Bergman keeps the running time lean and doesn't waste time along the way.  There's even a bit of farce thrown in there too.  There are numerous main characters with very different outlooks on life which make it easy to find someone to relate to, although the film works best as a thought-provoking piece by displaying how all of these sides to the debate have a point and there are no easy answers.  It really is a fascinating film that probes the darkest but ever-present questions man has of life and death.

It's also a beautiful film, with some stunning use of lighting and locations.  Some of the imagery will stay with you forever, some of course is already so parodied that it's lost some of it's effect, but it still holds its own and the scenes with Death are among the most memorable moments despite bringing up thoughts of Bill and Ted.

The performances are fantastic too, especially Max Von Sydow, who is an awesome presence on screen.  I could go on, but I'm sure you've all read about how good the film is before, just let me tell you that it's not as dull as it sounds.  Be brave and give it a go, you won't regret it.


Duck Soup

Year: 1933
Director: Leo McCarey
Writers: Bert Kalmar, Harry Ruby, Arthur Sheekman, Nat Perrin
Starring: Groucho, Harpo, Chico & Zeppo Marx

Duck Soup was the final film the Marx Brothers produced for Paramount before moving over to the more restrictive hands of MGM.  For many it's the pinnacle of their career and I hadn't got round to watching until now, after already getting through most of their later films, which are fun, but a bit formulaic and over-stretched.  Duck Soup though was produced in the days before MGM reigned in the Marx Brothers' madness and it was worth the wait.

The story of course is pushed into the background, but concerns the small country of Freedonia, which is in financial crisis and is forced to borrow a huge sum of money from a wealthy widow (Marx Brothers favourite Margaret Dumont).  In exchange for the loan she insists that control of the state is given to the crazy Rufus T Firefly (Groucho), who through various mishaps ends up going to war with neighboring country, Sylvania.

The set-up allows the brothers to hit on plenty of satire in amongst the slapstick, although it's not as biting as modern offerings.  Nevertheless it's still hilarious and had me laughing out loud at points even though I was sat at home watching it alone.  The gags come thick and fast with Groucho's one-liners firing out like a machine gun, and some of the physical humour is spot on too.  The famous mirror scene in particular is immaculately performed.

As mentioned previously this was also the last film the brothers had maximum control over which means that Duck Soup is without any tacked on love story, without the usual piano and harp solos, and is totally bonkers.  The final war scenes are utter chaos and Groucho's constant costume changes during the battle had me in stitches.

There are still some flat and dated moments when the film tries to maintain it's 'story', but these are few and far between and whenever the Marx Brothers are on screen it is pure gold.



  1. I first watched Duck Soup a couple years ago and also found it to be amazingly funny. I actually assumed I would hate it because I figured it must be over hyped and well, a 75 year old comedy can't have aged well. But it was a rainy spring afternoon and it was coming on Showtime or something. So I sat down and watched it. I thought it was hilarious and I actually was impressed at how well the satire holds up still in some regards.

    I too was amazed that I was actually laughing though, somethign a lot of modern comedies don't ellicit from me alone in my room.

  2. Any way to reach you privately? An email address perhaps?

    Contact me at andrew AT