COLD FEVER (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson, 1994)

A very 90s kind of road movie, with a young Japanese businessman reluctantly traveling across Iceland for a traditional mourning ritual, encountering local and foreign eccentrics (including Lili Taylor as one half of an obnoxious American couple), and not making too big a song and dance of his emotional journey. One of those films that I wish I had more to say about beyond kinda liking it, but since nobody’s paying me, I’m allowed to leave it at that.

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CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (Joe Johnston, 2011)

As the notional “youth” would notionally “have it”, Marvel have Owned this summer, a summer of low expectations that only Thor, X-Men: First Class and now Captain America have surpassed. That this one actually ends (not a spoiler, really) with a literal trailer for The Avengers as its obligatory post-credits Easter egg may be considered pretty brazen, but I’m in the “well-founded confidence” camp; these characters, and their world(s), are in good hands.

Not that you’d think so if applying the only-as-good-as-your-last-movie rule to director Joe Johnston’s last movie, The Wolfman. But twenty years ago, Johnston directed another Indiana Jones-inspired wartime comic-book romp, The Rocketeer, to which this is a true spiritual follow-up. Like First Class, it returns its heroes to their original 20th-century contexts for a spot of alt-history fun and games (first person to mention the moon landings/Chernobyl stuff in Transformers 3 gets an incoherent, hyperactive CGI blur intended to represent an awesomely violent metal-machine beatdown). The setting is 1942, but the heart’s about as close to 1991 as anywhere else.

That was also the year of Terminator 2, the film that put CGI on the map, and it roughly represents the tail end of first-generation blockbuster cinema, before it all got quite so antiseptic (among other things). Observing Robert Zemeckis’s dictum that you can get away with scene-setting for 20-odd minutes if you win the viewer’s confidence that something will happen around that point, Johnston takes his time establishing valiant but ineffectual patriotic weakling Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), desperate to enlist but classed 4A at every turn. Until he volunteers to guinea-pig a new super-soldier serum, emerging ripped and ready for action.

Which is where the WW2 setting really comes into its own, addressing an ongoing comic-book bugbear. See, serious-minded folk have long suggested an uncomfortable parallel between the beyond-human superheroics of our funny-papers favourites and the pernicious, half-baked Nietzsche-for-dummies that informed Hitler’s Aryan-superman ideal. So Captain America’s opposite number Red Skull (Hugo Weaving), a high-ranking Nazi official until they expel him mid-film for being too villainous, has been enhanced by the same steroidal stew.

Ample opportunity to go through the whole “we are very much alike, you and I” duality bit, but professor Stanley Tucci is on hand to explain the difference; as (I think) William Golding said about success, so too the serum doesn’t alter so much as magnify the subject’s existing characteristics. Good becomes great, bad becomes worse; the subjectivity of which (not to get too relativist on y’all) brings forth the other, closely related elephant in the room. That being our literally star-spangled hero and the way the last dozen years (at least) have made that traditional conflation of truth, justice and the American way a somewhat tougher sell, internationally, that it used to be.

WW2 to the rescue again, modern history’s most unambiguous clash of good and evil; but with an earnest, lantern-jawed pulp decency befitting its hero, Captain America rises above the “we beat Hitler single-handed and saved all your sorry butts” petty jingoism that’s too often prevailed, explicitly or implicitly, elsewhere. (Though is a historically improbable task force that includes soldiers of Afro-American, Asian and English origin a triumph of diplomacy, or just Benetton-tokenistic?)

I’m neglecting the hefty fun factor. So, special mention: Tommy Lee Jones essaying yet another gruff commander hardly set the pulse racing on paper, but unexpectedly given some decent lines and a reasonable chunk of screen time, he’s at his funniest. More broadly, this is as proudly pop-art as Spider-Man 1 and 2, but goes at its period setting and narrative with a dignity and attention to detail that’s altogether Raiders-worthy. A hugely satisfying pillar of the comic-world community.

(A version of this review appeared in last Saturday’s Cumberland & Westmorland Herald.)

HORRIBLE BOSSES (Seth Gordon, 2011)

A post-Hangover asshole comedy that throws that film into some relief; not content with being equally crass, boorish and unfunny, it also expects us to sympathise with its central trio of entitled morons who resolve to murder their horrible bosses (which title makes me wanna buy Bill Hicks an Orange Drink). Tall order when Chevy Chase surrogate Jason Sedeikis’s character is first seen telling a woman that she’s “way too cute to be a Fed-Ex girl”; the movie compounds things by asking us to believe that she’s flattered by this presumptuous, condescending come-on. Rob Lowe surrogate Jason Bateman, and Pesci/Galifianakis third wheel Charlie Day, make up the numbers, but the movie doesn’t quite score with its notional gambit of three relatively obscure leads and a knockout support cast.

That’s the real selling point, and you can at least see the against-type appeal for Jennifer Aniston (as the nymphomaniac dentist whose unwelcome predatory advances threaten to derail Day’s engagement to some adorably unthreatening bubblehead, because nothing says barrel-of-laughs quite like sexual harassment in the workplace) and Colin Farrell (actually quite funny as a balding cokehead). Otherwise, Kevin Spacey plays the hits (“this one’s called Swimming with Sharks!”), Jamie Foxx gets a predictable extended cameo as a “murder consultant”, and don’t ask me why Donald Sutherland bothered to turn up.

RAPT (Lucas Belvaux, 2009)

The French film industry’s response to the economic crisis? €50 million by Friday or the fat-cat gets it. With obligatory finger-lopping included in the wish-fulfilment package, it seems odd that Rapt’s prevailing tone is so sober; as if Belvaux (of 2002’s acclaimed Trilogy) wished to imply that multi-millionaire bankers, living an adulterous, decadent, high-flying lifestyle on other people’s dime, were people too? (Wifey even excuses his affairs on the basis that he’s got a lot on his mind, or something.)

But hey, we get it. Cover story. Under the radar. Nice one, Luke. With you all the way!

CARS 2 (John Lasseter, 2011); ARIETTY (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)

Seriously? Having wrapped up the Toy Story trilogy in grand style, Cars is the movie Pixar just had to sequelize next? I know it was Lasseter’s pet project and all, but to stake his studio’s rep, its winning streak and our hard-won faith on a follow-up to the movie widely and justifiably considered the black sheep of the canon… well, you couldn’t accuse him of playing safe, anyway.

But you’d think he’d come prepared. Okay, so Cars 2 isn’t exactly a retread; where that one saw Owen Wilson’s egocentric racer Lightning McQueen redeemed by folksy small-town values, this one puts him on the backburner to drag buck-“toothed” hayseed buddy Mater (voiced by someone calling himself “Larry the Cable Guy”, apparently) into a mistaken-identity spy comedy.

What this doesn’t change is a fictional world that’s just been conceptually ill-conceived from the get-go. To wit: when referring to a racer and his hick buddy, we’re not talking about a racing-car driver and a slow-witted guy in dungarees. We’re talking an actual racing car and a tow-truck. They talk. They feel. When you cut them, they… leak motor oil. Geddit? They exist in a human-free world of anthropomorphized motor vehicles. That’s the hook. That’s the gag. And the Pixar of Wall-E (their crowning jewel) could perhaps have done something audacious, unprecedented, even Ballard-worthy with it.

As it is, we get stuck with formula storylines and toilet jokes. Which we’d expect from a poor imitation like Robots or Shark Tale, but coming from the House of Lightyear, this isn’t nearly good enough.

For its part, Arrietty risks dismissal as minor Studio Ghibli fare just for not being one of Miyazaki’s, but this animated take on The Borrowers has wonder to spare; just look at how a nighttime kitchen, seen and heard from the vantage point of the little people who live under the floorboards, becomes a daunting exploratory frontier. Speaking as a confirmed non-fan of twee English-country-garden fairytales, this sense of a new  perspective on the familiar was very much the attraction throughout.

MEANTIME (Mike Leigh, 1983); TRACKING DOWN MAGGIE (Nick Broomfield, 1994)

Anyone else think Meryl may’ve bitten off more than even she can chew this time? Nothing about The Iron Lady’s trailer suggests that anyone’s thinking beyond the trivially “iconic”; there’s no apparent awareness that as icons go, the handbag-happy steel-eyed Priminatrix was and remains a tad more divisive than, say, Coco Chanel.

Oh, and “You’ve got it in you to go the whole distance” suggests rather a tin ear for pre-’79 UK idioms, to boot. Did anyone involved in the production actually live through Thatcher’s Britain? Well, probably. Were any of them living like the characters of Meantime? I’d be amazed. Mike Leigh’s TV drama reflects a truth made explicit by T-Mag’s regime; that the 60s revolution was largely in the heads of a relatively affluent metropolitan minority. Everyone else was either on the outside looking in or else not even looking, just dolorously grinding on, making do and mending like the war never ended. Rock’n’roll? Just something on telly Thursday nights.

But get me, born a year before her premiership, pretending I know jack shit about life prior to it. What can I say? The movies taught me everything. And Leigh’s Thatcher’s Britain is 50s-level grim, two school-leavers (Phil Daniels, Tim Roth) suffocating in their parents’ council flat. I’ve often found Leigh’s work too archly theatrical to believe in as “social realism”, and Gary Oldman’s dumb skinhead does edge towards Young Ones caricature. But I’ll go with it on this occasion, because Meantime really does create/reflect a world so desolate, so lacking in opportunity or inspiration that there’s just no incentive not to while away your afternoons climbing inside a dustbin and banging the walls with a hammer.

With its cast of then-unknown future names, this would end up being just a little iconic itself; Roth even invented Graham Coxon, all thick-rimmed specs and green anorak. His helpless Colin, a literal mouth-breather, possibly autistic or just, as uncle Alfred Molina more indelicately has it, “retarded”, makes for a very British – bleak, sceptical – twist on the familiar revenge-of-the-nerds narrative (you arguably had to wait until last year’s The Social Network for a Hollywood equivalent). When this worm turns, it’s alarmingly anti-heroic and most likely destined to go out with the tide. And that’s the best-case scenario (hint: Roth would next be seen in Alan Clarke’s brilliant Made in Britain).

In other coming-soon news, I’m not yet aware if Nick Broomfield’s managed to score actual face-time with Sarah Palin, the subject of his first documentary since 2006. From Eugene Terre’blanche to Courtney Love, his track record bodes ill: and in Tracking Down Maggie he once again wastes 81 minutes of our time failing to secure an interview with the now ex-premier on her trans-Atlantic book tour. He persists as the doors keep closing, explaining that they’d invested too much time and money in the film to back out. (Is that our problem? Then why’re we here?)

Still, it’s probably naive to split hairs about Broomfield’s shortcomings as a journalist, instead of giving due props to his canny self-marketing as the bumbling Frank Spencer of non-fiction cinema; there’s a reason why the DVD packaging has NICK BROOMFIELD: DOCUMENTING ICONS above the title. Unable to Get The Story, he duly became the story, and… well, do we need to use the “i”-word again? Let’s just say that after the Cobain flick, he was sufficiently high-profile to front an ad campaign. Fair play, I guess, but when he can’t remember his own contact details during a crucial phone negotiation here, you can hardly blame Thatcher’s PA for hanging up on him.

A vampiric weekend

‘Twas the weekend that the fearsome Classic Horror Campaign descended upon Manchester, to defile the sainted Lass O’Gowrie with ancient evils and wyckd talessss…

I’m a traditionalist when it comes to horror, chiefly because I don’t actually enjoy being scared; those old dark houses are a comfort zone nowadays, and that’s where I spent Saturday and Sunday evening, with vintage double bills from RKO and Hammer. Here’s how they stacked up:

Saturday

NIGHT OF THE DEMON (Jacques Tourneur, 1957). Fear from a more civilized age, as when Niall MacGinnis’s avuncular villain finds our cursed hero (Dana Andrews) breaking and entering his mansion, expresses no surprise, and calmly watches him leave by the same window he came in. Call the police? What a vulgar thought. As for the demon itself, well, fine – laugh it up, futureboy. No, it probably didn’t give Kong nightmares even at the time, and there’s an argument that it should’ve remained unseen throughout, thereby preserving the ambiguity of the story as well as its fear-of-the-unseen suspense. But me, well, I said I wasn’t here to be scared, and there’s a genuine savage beauty, somewhere outside of realism, to the stop-motion creature whose two appearances bookend the film.

VAMPIRE CIRCUS (Robert Young, 1971). Fear from a kinkier age, what with its floggings, dwarf abuse and sexy Drac-analog Count, staked in the prologue by nineteenth-century villagers, ripe for resurrection by the titular circus that visits the now plague-quarantined burgh fifteen years later. As in Tod Browning’s decades-earlier Freaks, decent God-fearing citizens’ indulgence of a good show can turn swiftly to violence when these disreputable carnies appear to be up to no good, with no apologies forthcoming when mitigating evidence comes to light. (Well, sure, they ultimately were up to no good. But you didn’t know that, peasants! What we have here’s a chicken-or-egg question, and don’t anybody ask Olga Baclanova.) If you’ve ever been lured by the elegant carnality of vampirism, then like the village’s more nubile inhabitants, you’re willing this circus to run away with you.

Interlude I had the pleasure of conversing with our host, the estimable Mr Cyberschizoid, between screenings. The aforementioned Classic Horror Campaign was his brainchild, and this primarily London and Brighton-based operation’s Manchester visit, with (I think) mention of a Birmingham trip in the pipeline, prompted my half-jest that it might yet become the real-life vampire circus. So keep an eye out for these fiends if they do invade your town, and do please sign their petition to reinstate vintage frightflix to the BBC. I mean, what’ve I been talking about lately? Heritage, people. Buried treasure! With a multitude of digital and online options available, there’s no excuse for fobbing us off with wall-to-wall Geordie Shore, right? Now, on with the show.

Sunday

CAT PEOPLE (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Back in civilization again, but that was always a facade for horror to lurk behind. And not just horror; Cat People, being the drama of an unconsummated marriage as much as (or indeed inasmuch as) it is the vengeful panther inside Simone Simon, sprays psychoerotic tension around like the perfume she’s so fond of. While keeping a wary eye on that fancy shrink, of course; as with the Rhesus-negative ringmistress we heard from earlier, horror so often defines itself when play-fighting with its own baser impulses. It’s all about sex with you people, isn’t it?

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (Gordon Hessler, 1970). A gloriously improbable bringing together of three seemingly unrelated story threads (yep, it’s Hammer’s own Magnolia). A heart-attack victim wakes up in what appears to be a hospital bed, but the uncommunicative nurse leaves him none the wiser as to why it was necessary to amputate his leg… Cutbacks to his predicament form the missing link between Kafka and a sketch show – every time he wakes up, another limb gone. Meanwhile, Scotland Yard are hunting an apparently superhuman serial killer. And meanwhile, somewhere in the Soviet Union, a rogue Comrade climbs the promotion ladder by subjecting every interfering superior to what a layman like me is happy to be corrected for describing as a Vulcan death grip. Within its own deranged parameters, all eventually becomes clear.

I want more. So do you. So sign the petition and let’s get haunted, ok? Tim Burton can’t do everything himself.