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These are films I like but have not so-far reviewed at length. They are mostly a bit obscure, but well worth looking out for. I have included links to the relevant pages at The Internet Movie Database, but in some cases there is very little information at that source. I think these are all truly memorable, and under-rated. I don't think you will be disappointed.

Carnival of Souls
Herk Harvey 1962 US B&W 84 mins

Unmentioned until recently in most of the major film information publications (Halliwells, Variety etc.) this almost amateur film has long been a cult favourite amongst the small band of people who saw it in the cinema the first time around.

One of the creepiest movies ever made, in my opinion, it concerns the lone female survivor of a car accident, who goes to work as a church organist in a small coastal town and lives alone in a rooming-house. As she tries to settle down and to cope with the forceful attentions of one of the local young men, she begins to have hallucinations and moments of detachment from reality in which she is haunted by the face of a man she does not know, and strangely drawn to a disused fun-fair on a crumbling pier outside of town.

The plot is not specially ingenious or unusual but the atmosphere of the piece, achieved with the aid of quite primitive special effects, is genuinely unnerving. I was an adolescent when I first saw it and it gave me actual nightmares for a long time afterwards.

Not to be confused with a dreadful 1998 Wes Craven movie that stole the name and some of the ideas. Sacrilege!

1984 Pat O'Connor UK Colour 102 minutes John Lynch, Helen Mirren, John Kavanagh, Ray McAnally.

An underrated, rather dark little drama about a teenager getting caught-up in the IRA violence in Northern Ireland. He becomes a terrorist because that's what everyone of his age does, drives the car for a sectarian killing incident in which a policeman is shot, and then falls in love with the local librarian who turns out to be the (Protestant) policeman's Catholic wife. There is no way out of the IRA and Cal's situation becomes worse and worse as he flounders about in the abyss of Armalite politics.

I was brought up in Belfast myself and the fascination of this film is its absolute uncompromising realism, leading to its ultimate pessimism.

The rank-and-file IRA footsoldiers are not hardened political fanatics, they are confused, weak-willed, ill-educated teenagers under the influence of cynical and sophisticated thugs who use them to do their dirty work and to keep their own hands clean. Political terrorism is not something you decide to get involved in, it's something you drift into because all your friends are involved in it, because it's the cool thing to do. And the usual result is tragedy.

"You're in now, Cal. You can't get out just like that, you know."

The thought of myself staying on in Belfast and turning out just like Cal is enough to make my flesh creep. Thank God I got out in time. Spare a little pity for the ones who didn't.

Joe Hill (or The Ballad of Joe Hill)
Bo Wilderberg - Sweden 1971 Colour 117 mins. Tommy Berggsen, Anja Schmidt.

Joe Hill, born Joe Hillstrom, was a Swedish immigrant to America around the turn of the century. He founded the Industrial Workers of the World, which came to be known as the Wobblies. This film, by the director of Elvira Madigan , presents a fictional account of his life from his arrival at Ellis Island to his execution on trumped-up charges of murder in Utah. Old-fashioned socialism that stops just short of sentimentalism, superbly well acted and well directed. A simple story, simply told, of a man with his heart in exactly the right place (with a target pinned over it). Joan Baez sings the theme-song. If this one doesn't make you cry ...... well, you're probably just a bit less romantic about the workers than I am. Reminiscent of some of Ken Loach's absolute best films (e.g. Land and Freedom ). I saw it again lately on TV and I don't think it has lost anything with the passage of the years. Sad, but at its core life-affirming and optimistic. That's the way I like 'em!

Words to the Ballad of Joe Hill

Mother Night
Keith Gordon US 1996 Colour + B&W 114 mins. Nick Nolte, Sheryl Lee.

If you love an author, as I do Kurt Vonnegut, it's easy to find fault with attempts to film his/her work, but the two film's that have been made of Vonnegut's work, this and Slaughterhouse Five , are both very close to their source novels and are sensitive and imaginative adaptations.

Mother Night is probably the darkest and I think the best of Vonnegut's work, and if you haven't time to read the book you'll catch most of the atmosphere and the thought behind it from the film.

It is the story of an American playright who lived in Germany during the Second World War and allowed himself to be recruited as a propagandist on German radio, while in reality he was making use of his radio broadcasts to transmit vital information to partisans and freedom-fighters in occupied Europe. After the war he is hunted down by the Israeli Secret Service and taken to an Israeli jail to await trial for his war-crimes.

The film is in fact a drama of the human conscience: is it acceptable to preach murder and race-hatred in order that you can provide some assistance to the people who are fighting exactly these things? Or does the effect of your words on the weak-minded outweigh any incidental good that you might achieve? Is the power of the eloquent lie greater than any practical, military benefit that the old Lord Haw-Haw figure was able to bring about?

It is unusual and stimulating to find a film that deals seriously and thoughtfully with a genuine moral dilemma and its effect on people's lives. Sophie's Choice is I suppose another example, as is Music Box. But I think Vonnegut manages to set up a more morally ambiguius situation than either of these, and to take us deeper inside the mind of his protagonist. The power of the piece is in the script, its presentation (though not ground-breaking) is competent and workmanlike, its conclusion chilling: be careful who you pretend to be, because that is who you are going to become.

The Company of Strangers (also known as Strangers in Good Company)
1991 National Film Board of Canada 97 min.
Cynthia Scott (Director), Alice Diabo, Constance Garneau, Winifred Holden, Cissy Meddings, Mary Meigs, Catherine Roche, Michelle Sweeny, Beth Webber.

An amazing find. One of those low-key, unassuming films that stays with you forever after one viewing. Seven elderly women, and one younger one, who are on a bus journey across rural Ontario, become stranded in an abandoned farmhouse with no food and little hope of rescue, and are thrown back on their own (considerable) inner resources in the matter of survival. The film, whose script is largely improvised by the women taking part, deals with the development of the relationships between them and gives us glimpses of their younger lives by way of their conversations, occasionally interspersed with photographs of how they used to be. They are a diverse group: there is a nun, a former belly-dancer, a Native American, a woman who spent more than sixty years of her life hiding the fact that she was a lesbian. We learn about them as they learn about one another, and through this process we come to understand something of what matters in life when all the posturing and play-acting is put to one side. Something, in fact, of the meaning of human dignity. This is not a film for women or for old people or for young people or for gay people. It is a film for people. Congratulations to the National Film Board of Canada for having the imagination to fund it.

Directed by Bob Fosse 1972 USA Colour 124 minutes
Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey.

In this the darkest of musicals, set against the backdrop of 1930s Berlin where the Nazi Party is ascending from obscurity to a position of power and "respectability", Joel Grey's sinister and knowing Master of Ceremonies urges us to forget our troubles, forget what is going on around us, don't worry about politics, just "Come to the Cabaret".

The Kit-Kat Club and its clientele inhabit a moral vacuum where self-indulgence and self-gratification have replaced every civilised behavioural norm. Sally Bowles, the quintessential ambitious young "actress" looks out for No.1, like everybody else around her. She will sleep her way to the top, marry her way to the top, even, it would seem, sacrifice her one shot at happiness in favour of "success". Every song that she sings on the stage of the Kit Kat Club is a commentary on something that is going on in her own life or the lives of the people around her or the putrefying community beyond.

Superbly acted by a fresh young Lisa Minnelli, Sally is both an irresistible and an appalling portrait of a young girl who has lost her sense of direction and become hypnotised by an imagined vision of greatness. In this she is a metaphor for the Europe that she inhabits.

A triumph of direction and musical choreography, "Cabaret" maintains the lightest of touches, everything is delicately understated, a momentary flash of a swastika in the audience is as much as we need to be given to make us aware of the direction in which Berlin society is moving. The story is told in a mood of semi-seriousness, its central characters distanced from reality, insulated from the disintegrating society around them, inward-looking, chillingly naive and unperceptive.

The songs do not intrude or break up the action as is inevitable in so many musicals, but find a natural setting as stage numbers at the Kit-Kat Club, where Sally is struggling to launch her "international career". All of the songs, that is, except one, which is an impromptu offering from a group of German youths drinking in the biergarten of a country inn. Not so much show-stopping as heart-stopping: one of the most powerful moments in Cabaret, perhaps in all cinema. The blond, handsome, radiant boy stands up to sing his favourite song and invites the customers to join in, and we slowly realize what it is that he's singing about...

STREAMING MP3 Tomorrow Belongs to Me

You can view a video clip from the film of the 'Tomorrow' song here:

Video Clip of 'Tomorrow'

Nero, it is said, fiddled while Rome burned. Edmund Burke, writing in an era before the feminist movement had democratised our language, told us that: "In order for evil to triumph all that is necessary is that good men should do nothing". Cabaret presents us with a portrait of the ruling-class of one of the world's most cultured, highly-educated and politically advanced nations who watched dancing-girls while Hitler laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.

1971 / Color / 167 min. / Russian with subtitles
Andrei Tarkovsky (Director)
From the novel by Stanislaw Lem
Donatas Banionis, Natalya Bondarchuk, Anatoly Solonitsin, Yuri Jarvet, Sos Sarkissian.

There was no greater fan of Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke's 2001 - A Space Odyssey than myself: I hitch-hiked from Belfast to Dublin, a distance of some 110 miles, to see it when it first came out, and I was not disappointed. Then, two years later came the film that everyone said was Russia's "answer" to the West's dazzling glimpse into the dawning Space Age: Andrei Tarkovsky's haunting, poetic and slow-paced Solaris. Suddenly, Kubrick and Clarke's offering seemed to pale slightly and to look almost lightweight by comparison.

Bach's Choral Prelude in F Major playing over the opening credits sets the mood for this thoroughly un-Western masterpiece, at heart a meditation on mankind's place in creation. Tarkovsky's delivery is unhurried and reflective, many of his longer shots seeming to reach for a meaning beyond mere narrative, revealing the unity and coherence that lies beneath apparent chaos and diversity. This film is deeply contemplative, deeply philosophical, deeply Russian. Before a Westerner can enjoy it a certain adjustment in mental attitude is required, but the effort involved is richly rewarded.

Solaris is a planet covered by a mysterious, possibly sentient ocean. The ocean has been the subject of study for many years from an orbital space station, and the scientific staff, unable to make sense of their findings, are becoming jaded and disillusioned with the lack of progress. After a number of bizarre happenings on the station, Kris, a sort of space-travelling psychiatrist, is sent to investigate. He finds that one of the last three residents has just committed suicide, and the other two are acting very curiously. He begins to catch glimpses of others on board, but when he asks his colleagues about them, they feign ignorance. Before long he encounters the "ghost" of his former wife, Hari, who has committed suicide several years before. Now the others explain to him that they too have been experiencing "visitors" for some time. Physically, Hari is clearly not human, but she does seem to have human emotions and feelings, and Kris must decide how to treat her: in effect he must make a judgement as to what it is to be human.

Before very long, we come to realize that the "space" that is being explored in Solaris is the inner space of the human psyche. Slowly, both for Kris and for the audience, a coherent picture seems to emerge as to what is going on on the space station and on the planet beneath it, the snag being that it is almost certainly a different picture that emerges for each one of us.

The film's ending is one of the most powerful, enigmatic and gripping that I have ever experienced. It will live with you for a very long time. True to national character, it seems, America has given us what is probably the most glossy, technologically impressive and glitzy science fiction film of all time in 2001. In Solaris, however, Russia has given us the most intelligent.


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