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Thursday, 31 May 2007
Of course he's playing a Burmese man because it's the 1918 re-release, and the nationality was changed after a protest from the Japanese Association of Southern California. In the original 1915 version he was Japanese and called Hishuru Tori, but in silent movies you could change entire characters just by rewriting title cards. This is very early in Hayakawa's career, especially when you realise that the highlight of it came no less than 43 years later when he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and he's by far the best thing about it.
Fannie Ward is the most important character though. She's Edith Hardy, the wife of a Wall Street investor played by Jack Dean who gets to foot all the bills that she's been racking up for expensive dresses. She's even been using the maid's wages for her extravagances and she ends up losing ten grand in a completely stupid investment. To make matters worse she's the treasurer of the Red Cross fund and two guesses where the money came from. Ward does a pretty good job of the acting, given that it's 1915 and nobody was subtle in 1915, but her scene of shock and fainting is pretty awful. She makes up for it in her court scene when she flounces around looking like a cross between Lillian Gish and Stevie Nicks.
De Mille does an imaginative job here, with a clever use of split screen for the era, showing Fannie and her seeming saviour, Arakau, on the left, and the potential newspaper front page on the right. Very nicely done indeed. Of course Arakau isn't giving his money away for nothing and we can well imagine the sort of conditions he places on the secret loan. The branding scene is particularly powerful! Of course it all ends in tears and Richard Hardy, Edith's husband gets to show that he's the only decent character in the entire picture.
It's definitely a product of its time but it's surprisingly well acted for 1915. Ward may be the star but it's Hayakawa who impresses most. I really need to find some of the 68 other movies in between The Cheat and The Bridge on the River Kwai that also feature his talents. One of them is Forfaiture, a French movie directed by Marcel L'Herbier based on Le Forfaiture, an opera by Camille Erlanger which happens to be the first opera ever based on a movie rather than the other way round. Hayakawa reprised his role in Forfaiture, 22 years after his original portrayal.
Wednesday, 30 May 2007
There's a story in here that unfolds slowly but surely. Katie Elder was well respected by all and sundry, so respected that she comes across as some sort of saint, but it's done so sincerely that we can't help but believe everyone. In fact she's one of the most powerful movie characters we never get to see. However she lost her ranch and her 1,200 acres and everything else, even her husband who was shot in the back the night he was swindled out of it, apparently in a card game. All she had left at the end was a rocking chair and a couple of bucks owed her for teaching guitar lessons. There's a story with a lot of questions and not a lot of answers, leaving the four brothers to poke their noses in where it obviously isn't wanted.
John Wayne is exactly as you'd expect John Wayne to be, especially in a real 'man's gotta do what a man's gotta do' role, but there are others here that surprise a little. Dean Martin plays very much in the background for fully half the film before getting a showpiece scene in a bar running a con to turn a fake glass eye into a fake glass eye with money on the side for drink. My good lass knows James Gregory well, here as Morgan Hastings, the man who swindled Katie Elder and her husband, because he was a regular on Barney Miller, but I know his son a lot better. Nervous young upstart Dave Hastings is played by young upstart Dennis Hopper, right between career highlights Tarzan and Jane Regained... Sort Of and Queen of Blood. By 1967 though it was The Trip and Cool Hand Luke and on the way to Hang 'Em High, Easy Rider and True Grit and a real name for himself. Here he looks tiny compared to the Duke and comes across as nothing less than a paranoid Sean Penn.
I've heard of most of the later John Wayne movies but that doesn't mean I've seen them. I haven't seen most of them, though I'm catching up for sure. Here's another non-John Ford that I prefer above most of the John Fords; it's a Henry Hathaway film, and Hathaway would go on to film Wayne again more than once, most notably in True Grit. Every one of these John Wayne westerns not directed by John Ford that I see, the more I so need to see The Searchers.
Tuesday, 29 May 2007
Back in the sixties what seems like every future luminary in Hollywood was making movies for Roger Corman. Francis Ford Coppola was just Francis Coppola at the time and he was assisting Corman on The Young Racers as second unit director. When he asked for permission to direct a movie of his own on the same set and with the same cast, Corman agreed on the single condition that he not impact his own shooting schedule. So, here are William Campbell and Luana Anders and Patrick Magee, making a second movie back to back with the official Corman film.
Coppola directed the film and also co-wrote it with Jack Hill, exploitation maestro of the seventies. It's interesting to see the early talent of a man who only nine years and four films later had become the man behind The Godfather, still currently the greatest film of all time according to IMDb voters. It's slow but has some atmosphere to it, as Louise tries all she can to convince her mother-in-law that she's some sort of kindred spirit, attuned to the ghost of young Kathleen. It also gradually draws us in to a large degree.
As much as Louise is the focus early on, it's Patrick Magee's character that dominates later. He's the family doctor who doesn't hold back from telling anyone whatever he wants to tell them. He's also fascinated by what's been tormenting the family over the last number of years and has a grand old time blurting and suggesting and gently teasing truth out of them. The end doesn't come as a huge surprise but it's an interesting ride to get there, and to be fair the slasher film was not exactly well defined in 1963, making this a very early example of the genre. It certainly highlighted Coppola as someone to watch, but who would have guessed just how far he would climb.
You know something's seriously wrong when the studio can't even make up its mind on what the film's called. Originally titled Highlander II: The Quickening, that made no sense whatsoever since the first film made us very aware that The Quickening is what arrives when an immortal kills another immortal and by the end of the film there was only one left. So, it's been rereleased in a special edition as Highlander 2, or at least that's what the box says, while the screen title keeps Highlander II but drops the subtitle. Reading up online I find that there's also a Renegade Version that director Russell Mulcahy put together in despair at being locked out of production.
To add to it all, the effects have been completely redone as per George Lucas's messing around with the original Star Wars trilogy, adding in all sorts of scenes where they weren't welcome. So much for consistency, but then consistency was not something that this film was any good at. After all it decided that killing off Sean Connery's character in the first movie was a bad call so just resurrected him without any explanation whatsoever for the sequel. All the explanation we get is when Connor Macleod points out to Ramirez that he's been dead for five hundred years and Sean Connery says 'So?'
It's now 2024 and the ozone layer is gone, leaving the planet protected only by an artificial electromagnetic shield that's been there since 1999. Some believe that it's all sorted and the shield is no longer required, while others aren't so optimistic. Connor Macleod is old now, having gained the ability to age along with The Prize. He's at the opera and then all sorts of weird things start happening. What is real and what's just fantasy brought on by being asleep throughout the first half of Gotterdammerung is up for grabs, and I don't think theat the scriptwriters really had any clue either. The cast certainly didn't.
Suffice it to say that Michael Ironside is around so at least there's someone fun to watch as the evil General Katana, and given that the only depth to his character is by having it named after a sword, Ironside makes up for it by overdoing everything possible to an amazing degree. The only thing more amazing is that the people who made the film obviously thought he was character acting. Oh and Virginia Madsen is in there too which can't hurt, except that she gets to be another throwaway character. Now if you're going to have a throwaway character you need to cast some teenybopper singer or such to keep the kids interested, but they chose Virginia Madsen, a serious actress with powerful skills to bring to bear. Of course, when there's nothing of substance for them to save, it's not too surprising to find that neither of them can save it.
As an IMDb reviewer, Bothan, pointed out in his or her excellent review, 'there should have been only one!' I couldn't agree more. Reading further I find out stuff about Planet Zeist and five hundred years in the past and the fact that, as Bothan aptly quotes, the key line appears to be one of Virginia Madsen's: 'You're mortal there, but you're immortal here, until you kill all the guys from there who have come here, and then you're mortal here. Unless, you go back there, or some more guys from there come here, in which case you become immortal here, again.'
Erm. Yeah. Erm.
With a complete absence of any sort of clarity in the movie, let me be absolutely clear here. There's a tie for the worst science fiction movie of the last fifty years: there's Battlefield Earth and there's this one. Nothing else comes close.
Beyond the abysmal script, the dialogue is jawdroppingly awful, the effects either suck royally or are completely out of place, the technology is badly extrapolated and inconsistent, the characters are embarrassing and annoying, the fights are dumb and boring, the acting is terrible because the cast haven't a clue what's going on, the humour is misplaced and frankly unfunny (hell, the serious bits are funnier than the funny bits), the romantic angle is instant and unexplained and there's nothing on the positive side to offset any of the negative. The best bits are Sean Connery getting fitted for a suit and Michael Ironside falling through a train roof, hardly what you'd call highlights anywhere else. Indescribably bad.
Charlie is fresh out of jail, literally closing the prison gates, when he's accosted by a bible thumper in a terrible fake beard who apparently wants to help him go straight. Of course he's really a pickpocket out for anything he can get and Charlie, so recently Convict 999, has to chase him down. Ben Turpin is here again too and I wonder if he ever played a part in a film that involved him not wearing a scary false beard. Here he's obviously some sort of Jewish flophouse owner but he ends up looking more like Groucho Marx in disguise.
Soon Charlie hooks up with his former cell mate, played by future director Wesley Ruggles who would end up being unjustly nominated for an Oscar for the pitiful early western Cimarron. They break into Edna Purviance's house, leaving a cold cocked cop out front. Charlie is as inept a crook as you'd expect him to be, breaking into pianos and stealing flowers. Edna is the star here really, as the Girl of the House, keeping the pair of them busy until the cops get there.
Of course the cops are as inept as the crooks and even slower. I couldn't help but guess that if this had been made today, 90 years on, it wouldn't be a twenty minute comedy short, it would be a reality TV show on MTV.
He also ends up on stage more than once and proves to be funnier than the acts, such as La Bell Wienerwurst, the fat belly dancer, and I hope the name was meant to be a joke. Again, there's humour here but all too often the acts are obviously designed to take advantage of where Charlie happens to be at any given moment rather than any form of logic known to man. The snake charmer has to be the most sued snake charmer in history, for instance, and yet everyone carries on watching anyway.
A Night in the Show is unashamedly dumb but somehow it has charm, and while I really didn't want to like Charlie, the obnoxious patron of the arts and Ben Turpin, the badly moustachioed drunk in the balcony who hits Professor Nix the fire eater with the full power of a fire hose, I couldn't help laughing aloud by the end. Maybe that's true talent: making me laugh even when I don't want to.
Monday, 28 May 2007
David Niven is David Merlin, son of the Merlin who runs the company (who is Charles Coburn) and he gets another decent role in the same year that brought him Raffles and Wuthering Heights. He tries to help the apparent mother in distress by rehiring her, extending her contract and giving her a raise. The baby also becomes her Christmas present, all in good faith of course but hardly appropriate. Hilarity naturally ensues.
Actually, hilarity may be overdoing it a little but I'm not being as sarcastic as I would usually be. Ginger Rogers is known as a great dancer, but she was an awesome comedienne and she gets plenty of opportunity to shine here as the baby gets bounced around between her and the young Merlin, not literally thank goodness but very effectively nonetheless. Even perennial butler E E Clive ends up on the action. There are great scenes between Parrish and Merlin, especially when David Niven gets flustered, something he hardly ever did.
The downside is that this is yet another remake of a foreign movie, proving once more that nothing is new in Hollywood. It was originally Kleine Mutti, a Austrian/Hungarian production from 1935, starring a whole bunch of people I've never heard of, including Franciska Gaal in the lead who had starred in The Buccaneer a year earlier than this film for Cecil B De Mille and The Girl Downstairs for Norman Taurog. This year, 1939, she was appearing opposite Bing Crosby in Paris Honeymoon. I wonder why they didn't cast her in the role she'd created. Presumably the studio system.
The upside is that Rogers and Niven work well together and the romantic comedy side of this film is highly enjoyable, however contrived it may be. I've learned that as great as Ginger Rogers was with Fred Astaire, and vice versa, the stories they worked together in were pretty poor and usually served to do little more than provide a place for the pair of them to strut their stuff. It's sad to say but Astaire could have played Niven's role here superbly and they could have made this just as good a film without all the dance numbers.
Marlon Brando is the star but the man who wants to marry a Japanese girl from the very outset is Red Buttons, a comedian doing an awesome job in his first dramatic role, as Airman Joe Kelly, which won him a well deserved Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. He's been fighting as hard as he could to marry her but has to go all the way up to his congressman to get permission. He flies over to Kobe to get married and takes Major Lloyd Gruver with him, who is being reassigned. Gruver is Brando, of course, and he's engaged to General Webster's daughter, Eileen, who is also flying out to be with him.
What it all boils down to, as we soon discover from Brando's choice of words to Kelly and the treatment quickly dished out to James Garner's character when he tries to bring a famous Japanese dancer into the officer's club, is that there's a racism inherent in the system. It's understandable to a degree but it's racism nonetheless and, worse, it encourages prejudice against those who decide not to be prejudiced.
What makes it even more of a double standard is that Eileen and her family are some of the most prejudiced of all, but seem to surround themselves with Japanese culture. Eileen takes Lloyd to a kabuki play, which she seems to be fascinated by; and her parents live in a notably Japanese home, full of screens and cushions covered in oriental art. Eileen is overjoyed to meet the lead kabuki actor, but she couldn't dream of fraternising with the Japanese. Even though that's precisely what she does, more and more as the film runs on. Wow.
Of course it doesn't take long before Lloyd gets himself in trouble, by acting as best man for Kelly, even though he opposed the marriage. It doesn't take long after that for him to become bewitched by a Japanese actress called Hana-ogi and so start taking an interest in the culture and the language himself in order to get her to pay attention to him. It's funny to hear him attempt to say 'Ohayo gozaimasu' in a southern American accent, but it's also somehow amusing to see his wooing technique which is something akin to stalking. Then again this was 1957 and while things had progressed to the level where institutionalised racism could be raised but sexism still wasn't on the agenda, for either Americans or Japanese.
It's also intriguing that while the Japanese women are played by Japanese women, Oscar winning Miyoshi Umeki in her English language debut and Miiko Taka (even though she was born Betty Ishimoto in Seattle, WA), the only notable male Japanese character in the film is played by Ricardo Montalban, of all people, who is about as Japanese as I am. At least he isn't playing an American Indian for a change, but presumably there was some reason why Japanese actors were still restricted to playing Number One Son in 1957. Talk about institutionalised prejudice.
What interested me most here was how much I was watching Marlon Brando. I've heard huge amounts about how he was the greatest American actor of them all and really haven't been able to see it. In A Streetcar Named Desire I was found that I was watching Vivian Leigh and in On the Waterfront I was watching Rod Steiger, Karl Malden and Lee J Cobb. I don't know who or what I was watching in Last Tango in Paris. In The Wild One I was watching Brando but I wasn't seeing the magic everyone talked about. In Superman and Apocalypse Now and some of the later films he wasn't on screen long enough for me to watch him. Here was the first time I really found myself seeing a real talent, yet this is far from the top of the list when people rave about Brando's performances. I wonder what I'm seeing here that they aren't and what I'm not seeing elsewhere that they are.
Sunday, 27 May 2007
What we have here is rock video elevated to action movie. There's no band, there's no dancing but there's a killer soundtrack by Queen and there's everything else that every director of today has ever learned from watching MTV. Russell Mulcahy, who directed this film, had made films before, notably the powerful Aussie horror movie Razorback, but he was far better known as a music video maker, with videos to his credit for a wide range of new wave bands from Duran Duran to the Human League to Spandau Ballet. He was the man behind Video Killed the Radio Star by Buggles, making him a fine choice to make this.
The film has aged. I can see things now that I didn't see in 1988 or whenever it was that I first saw it. Even on the 'deluxe collector's edition' issued on DVD for the tenth anniversary, it's acquired a graininess that makes me wonder if some scenes were shot on handheld video. There are plotholes that seem obvious now but that I completely overlooked way back when. How did Nash and his opponent smuggle their million dollar swords through the security at the Garden. How did the enemy clan know who Connor was in his debut battle to avoid fighting him? How did Brenda find the Toledo Salamanca in about five seconds flat even though every other cop in the city had beaten her to the scene by quite some time? Why does Macleod bitch at Brenda for following him after asking to walk her home in the first place? And hey, that must be the most flimsy stone Scots castle that Ramirez and the Kurgan destroy in their swordfight together.
At the end of the day it doesn't matter, because this was something new. It's a science fiction movie, a love story, a historical drama and an action film, all rolled into one. You could almost call it an art film too, however commercial it might be, just an art film firmly from the rock video age. It has no end of catchy one liners for the attention deficit age, beginning but not ending with 'There can be only one!' It launched Christopher Lambert into stardom, even though he'd already played Tarzan in Greystoke and a wonderfully quirky thief in the excellent Subway. It also gave Sean Connery arguably his most notable character since Zardoz over a decade earlier and definitely one of his best movie entrances. There's good cinematic use of both awesome highland landscapes and the very different urban cityscapes of eighties New York City, with some great camera sweeps.
I also found a lot of enjoyment wandering around IMDb and discovering things about the cast that I never knew. After all, I know this story almost by heart and it was easy to multitask and not miss anything. So, here are some interesting side facts. The first victim, Aman Fasil, is played by Peter Diamond, one of the great stuntmen of British film who must be one of only a few people to appear in all three Star Wars movies (all uncredited bit parts, needless to say). In fact in Star Wars, he played four different uncredited bit parts and I found it interesting that of his eleven Doctor Who appearances, two were in The Highlanders. Beatie Edney, who plays Connor's wife Heather, is the daughter of Sylvia Sims, though I don't believe I've seen her in anything else.
Clancy Brown, so memorable as the Kurgan, is probably best known nowadays for his voicework in a seemingly unending sequence of children's animation series. It's just going to be a little difficult for me to think of him as Lex Luther in Justice League or Mr Krabs in Spongebob Squarepants or Ratso in Jackie Chan Adventures. I'll look forward to seeing him in Carnivàle though, which is high on my list of TV shows to catch up with. James Cosmo, who plays Connor's huge clan brother Angus has also played Father Christmas twice: in Santa/Claws and in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Alan North is excellent as the cop in charge of the headhunter case, but of course he was the perfect choice for the captain in Police Squad. Most surprising of all though was the discovery that the old man in the car, whose wife the Kurgan takes for a scary ride, is Frank Dux, he who was played in Bloodsport by Jean-Claude Van Damme.
As for Highlander, it's not the classic it once was, but it's a great look at how the medium of film changed in the eighties and what our expectations were of our environment. It's a whole bunch of supernatural mumbo jumbo turned into something unique and, however many holes I can now see in it, it's still a huge amount of fun. How high to rate the later entries in what became something of a major franchise is another question.
While this is far from the first version of the film, even though it dates from as long ago as 1922, Emil Jannings stamps authority on the role. He is a believable Moor, the son of an Egyptian prince and Spanish princess, though the dark makeup doesn't always stretch as far down his neck as it should. Jannings was a heavyweight actor of the time with forty films behind him in only eight years, films that included parts like Henry VIII, Louis XV and Dimitri Karamazov, along with other generals, pharaohs and double roles. He was also the first actor to win an Oscar, for The Way of All Flesh and The Last Command, highly interesting given that he was a Swiss actor known primarily for German films. This one was even directed by a Russian expatriate, Dimitri Buchowetzki, so the international flavor continues.
His love, Desdemona, who he marries early in the film and of whom Iago plots to make him acutely jealous, is payed by the Hungaran actress Ica von Lenkeffy, and she's duly lovely though hardly interesting, this being a man's play about men. Iago is Werner Krauss, who unfortunately postures around like an early silent screen villain, all dressed up in tight fitting black clothes, overdone makeup and a terrible moustache, though that's understandable as in this instance he is an early silent scren villain. Cassio and Iago's friend and co-conspirator Rodrigo, posture abominably too, in the forms of Theodor Loos and Ferdinand von Alten respectively.
These aren't unimportant actors either. Krauss was already notable, having played Dr Caligari a couple of years earlier in the groundbreaking The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Loos had been prominent in the early German science fiction/horror genre in the serial Homunculus and would soon become a Fritz Lang regular, with roles in both parts of Die Nibelungen along with Metropolis and M. Von Alten would soon have a prime role in The Student of Prague, along with Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss, though he would die in 1933 of the flu.
That's an insight into the era as great as these silent movies themselves, medical care not being anywhere near as advanced as it is today. Another actor here, Lya de Putti, who plays Iago's wife Emilia, and who would soon play a prominent role in F W Murnau's Phantom, was the daughter of a baron and a countess, yet died at 32 of pneumonia following an operation to remove a chicken bone from her throat.
None of which gives any insight to this film. It has power though it's overplayed to a large degree. Grand acting is very much the order of the day, which works in the main part for Jannings and surprisingly Krauss during the second half of the film, but not so much for everyone else. Nothing else really shines either, though it's far from a bad movie.
Saturday, 26 May 2007
We begin in Tibet in 1943 outside the Temple of Sublime Truth and Chow Yun Fat is pole fighting his master on a rope bridge above a chasm. The wirework is very over the top and very obvious, and he wins the fight. It's all a test, the final test and now that he's passed he can inherit the mantle from the previous grand master of the temple and be entrusted to look after a scroll that provides amazing powers, including the ability to never age. Unfortunately it's 1943 and the Nazis are outside and soon Chow is the only monk left alive.
Sixty years later he's in New York or whichever very urban American city it's supposed to be where he meets up with Seann William Scott. Scott is Kar, an accomplished pickpocket getting himself in trouble by picking the pocket of a cop. However he gets chased by the cop's backup at exactly the same time and in exactly the same place that Chow is getting chased by persons unknown, and together they rescue a young girl from being run over by a train. Chow sees that he's a decent troublemaker and can't help but remember himself sixty years earlier.
Scott is one of the greatest professional pissants in the movie business and he does an excellent job here, reminding me of Ryan Reynolds in Blade Trinity, notably smaller and less powerful than his opponents but always ready with a quick comeback, not just in the words he uses, but also in his face and body language. Chow is known for his action roles but he's a good comedian, as I recall from Tiger on the Beat and God of Gamblers. Given that the action is completely over the top comic book stuff, Chow's comedy does make up for a lot of it and the young Russian lady called Jade is intriguing too.
Unfortunately it doesn't make up for Mister Funktastic and a lot of the other smaller roles including for too many blatant stereotypes, from the heartless Nazi in a wheelchair with a torture chamber to his beautiful and strictly blonde beautiful granddaughter and the big, bald mercenaries with curly wired earpieces. Of course everyone seems to be a martial arts expert, even when there's no viable reason for them to be, and even Mako's part sucks, though he's about as good as anyone could expect to be playing it. There's some cool stuff here, and that goes beyond the cool aging makeup, but there's also far too much complete nonsense.
Thursday, 24 May 2007
Tom Conway, brother of the original Falcon, George Sanders, ended up making ten Falcon movies, far more than his brother. Until now, I've only seen the one they shared, The Falcon's Brother, but this one's notably fun with the mystery being pretty decent to boot. Something is definitely afoot at Bluecrest, whatever it might be, and quite a few people are caught up in it, almost all of which were, like Conway, regulars in Val Lewton movies. In fact there's obviously a huge amount of something going on behind the scenes, as Jean Brooks, who plays the gaunt yet beautiful drama teacher, was in not only three Val Lewton movies but six of the Tom Conway Falcons, in a different part each time, building them up from uncredited Spanish Girl in The Falcon Strikes Back to Baroness Lena in The Falcon's Alibi.
Most enjoyable are the three Ughs, the caretaker's young and precocious daughters: Juanita Alvarez, Ruth Alvarez and Nancy McCollum. Amazingly enough for such promising talents who could each have taken Bonita Granville's role as Nancy Drew, Nancy didn't appear in another movie and Ruth only returned for The Falcon in Mexico, though Juanita (later Nita) would find herself in ten movies: two Falcons and two Val Lewtons. Unfortunately they don't get anywhere near the size of parts they deserve. Conway is solid, Brooks is good and only George Givot's accent is really annoying. It doesn't feel the same without George Sanders, but it feels a heck of a lot better than I expected!
Wednesday, 23 May 2007
The plot is pretty strange, all told. These three find their way to Welcome, AZ to take advantage of the name and rob the bank. They make it off into the desert but not very well, with a bullet in the kid's arm and another in their water pouch. Because they're pretty dumb and the local marshal isn't, he knows who they are and is more than happy to put catching them high up on his agenda. Ward Bond plays him very nicely indeed, about as well as I've seen him play anyone.
There are other names I know here, plenty of them, including Guy Kibbee in a small but very noticeable role as a judge holding court from behind a bar. It's his last of 111 films, one after Fort Apache, also with Wayne and for Ford, and the more of them I see the more I enjoy his work. There's Mae Marsh, as the marshal's wife, who would also finish up her career in a John Ford western, Cheyenne Autumn, and Jane Darwell and Ben Johnson and many faces I know but can't put names to yet. With her background in westerns my wife knows plenty more than I do but I'm catching her up slowly.
Of course none of this explains where the title came from. Well in their quest to find water, Hightower and his boys head for Apache Wells but the marshal beats them to it, so they outguess him and double back to Terrapin Wells where they find everything but water. There's a wagon heading in to Welcome carrying a couple of the marshal's relatives from New Jerusalem but the idiot driver blows up the water tower, chases his horses out into the desert to die and leaves his heavily pregnant wife all alone in the wagon. Pretty quickly the baby becomes Robert William Pedro Hightower and he has three godfathers to flounder around trying to work out how to care for him.
I hadn't heard of this one before, partly due to my lack of background in the fundamental Fords but partly due to it being a little lesser known than some of its less worthy compatriots, in my book. It's a western, certainly, but it's far more than that. It has comedy, drama, heartbreak and plenty of all of them. It also turns about half way through into a religious epic, with a whole slew of allusions and parallels, some obvious and others less so. There's even a strange little ghost story in there too. It really counts as one of the most memorable westerns I've ever seen, John Ford or John Wayne or no.
Tuesday, 22 May 2007
Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, originally played by Jason Robards but replaced by the almost inevitable Klaus Kinski, is an opera nut. At the beginning of the film he has travelled twelve hundred miles from Iquitos to Manaus to see and hear Enrico Caruso just once in his life. After all the greatest singer of them all just doesn't perform in Peru every day of the week! He gets there in time to see the great man die right at the end of the opera, but it's enough to believe that he pointed right at him.
Now Fitzgerald, known in Peru as Fitzcarraldo because it's easier for them to pronounce, is a dreamer. He's been working on the trans-Andean railway but that fell through, so he switched to producing ice in the middle of the jungle. Now he has a new dream, to build an grand opera house in Iquitos for Caruso and Sarah Bernhardt to open. He's certainly a dreamer, and one who doesn't let the opinions of others, including Mother Nature herself, stand in his way. Molly, his companion on the quest upriver to the opera, runs a high class brothel; he lives down by the river with his parrot, captivating a bunch of native children and a racing pig with 78s of Caruso.
In both his previous films for Herzog, Nosferatu and Woyzeck, Klaus Kinski seemed completely detached from life and reality. In Nosferatu he was Count Dracula, centuries old and with powers beyond our understanding, and in Woyzeck he was an abused and tormented soldier, but the result is detachment whichever way. Here he's full of life and culture and even more drive than any of the other characters in the film, who for a change are far less connected to what we know as life than Kinski's character.
To bring his culture to the jungle, he needs finance. The local money is in rubber but the nouveau riche rubber barons are more interested in feeding thousand dollar bills to fish than bringing opera to anyone, let alone bare asses. So with Madam Molly's money, he buys the exploitation rights to a large square of completely inaccessible land and a broken down steamship. He's worked out that this land is only inaccessible by standard means and has a plan to bypass standard means entirely.
And here's where reality and fiction blur. To make a film about a half lunatic dreamer who decides to drag a 340 ton steamship over a mountain, from one river to another, without the benefit of modern technology, Werner Herzog, who could well be described as a half lunatic dreamer himself, brings his cameras to the Amazon basin and drags a 340 ton steamship over a mountain, from one river to another, without the benefit of modern technology. Talk about realism.
The middle third of the movie is the best part, a real Heart of Darkness trip, with the steamship Maria Aida heading up the Pachitea river with native drumming all around them but no natives in sight. The Jivaro indians here have been apparently wandering the area for ten generations waiting for a white god in a white vessel, and Fitzcarraldo in his white suit and white skin and white hat fits the bill. Of course what they want isn't clear and it's not likely to be anything like what he wants, but they agree to help him out anyway.
The film is two hours and thirty eight minutes long, which is too many minutes, and in fact Roger Ebert apparently described the film like this: 'It may be overlong and meandering, but I wouldn't ever have missed seeing it.' He's right. There is serious magic here, along with the flaws, as far as cinematography, atmosphere, music, acting, you name it. There are some wonderful characters for a start.
Fitzcarraldo revisits his old railway site to reuse the iron track but discovers one employee bizarrely still there after six years and no pay, keeping everything in the condition he feels it deserves. He's played by Grande Othelo and he's a joy. The fat bloated rubber baron known as Don Aquilino reminds me in his way of a Britney Spears or a Paris Hilton, rich beyond all reason and without the mind to be able to deal with that fact. He's José Lewgoy and he's about as believable as any character with more money than sense. He inflicts a spy called Cholo, completely openly, on Fitzcarraldo to find out what he's up to, but Cholo switches allegiances at the point where he realises how insane his new boss must be. He's Miguel Ángel Fuentes, who has been in other films I know, and his next movie, to leap from one end of the scale to the other, was Frankenstein's Great Aunt Tillie.
The visuals are often awesome too, from the opening impressionism to huge trees tumbling into the river behind what seems like the entire Jivaro tribe. The inevitable great moment is when the the Maria Aida starts moving up the hill, with the strength of Cholo and the Jivaro indians and a little bit of technical innovation, and it is an awe inspiring sight, especially when accompanied by Caruso, a powerful score by Popul Vuh and some native music to boot. What happens after that is just as awe inspiring because we know that someone like Werner Herzog isn't messing around with tiny little models or CGI, and instead decided to send a bloody great steamship into the powerful hands of Mother Nature and cause more than a little physical damage to those members of the cast and crew that joined on him on the journey.
That sort of dedication is why this is worth watching. Kinski is the bonus, especially when he was so out of control in the way that only Kinski could be and the Jivaro indians observed it, talked to Herzog and offered quietly to kill him. Amazing.
Monday, 21 May 2007
Based on a J M Barrie novel, this one is about as Scots as you can get. It's 1840 and we're in Thrums, a small weaving town in Scotland, with tam o' shanters, skinflints and hard drinking; and men being able to order women about along with every other stereotype you can imagine. Life is simple, it says, but the lead is Katharine Hepburn and nothing was ever simple when she was around. She's an Egyptian, or what we would know as a gypsy, Babbie by name, and she stirs everything up for the new minister in town, both by enticing him into falling in love with her and by leading him into all sorts of trouble.
The minister, the little minister of the title is Gavin Dishart, played by John Beal, who has a far more believable Scots accent than Kate's which is truly awful. He impresses his congregation from moment one through berating a big drunkard from the pulpit, no small task given that he's played by Alan Hale looking more like Wallace Beery for a change. It doesn't hurt that he's unmarried and so all the spinsters are all fussing around him, but he's a dizzy sort that falls for all of Kate's wiles. Naturally there's more to the plot than that and she has a lot more depth than we initially expect, but she's still complete wrong for the part, however well she can flit through the woods or wave a lantern about.
Apparently she only took it because Margaret Sullavan wanted it badly. If only she hadn't been so bloody contrary about such things, I wouldn't be having to sit through it now because I'm not trying to catch up on Margaret Sullavan's career. Alan Hale is far better than he ought to be as the ne'erdowell Rob Dow, Donald Crisp is, well, Donald Crisp as the local doctor and there are smaller part for Reginald Denny and Lumsden Hare. Unfortunately they aren't anywhere near enough to make up for the accents, some of which are terrible, and the melodrama, which is even worse.
What amazes me is how Katharine Hepburn came to be box office poison in the late thirties when she was giving superb performances, yet was a major star in the early thirties when the films, like mostly sucked royally and she was often not particularly good either. There's a long string of great films from Stage Door in 1937 to at least Woman of the Year in 1942 that are all joys, including Holiday, which may just be my favourite of her films thus far, and two IMDb Top 250 movies, Bringing Up Baby and The Philadelphia Story. Yet what was there any earlier, other than Little Women? This is terrible, worse than Alice Adams but not quite as horrendous as Spitfire. Even lauded films like Sylvia Scarlett disappointed me and even if she gave a solid performance, like in A Woman Rebels, the film itself let her down. The very point at which she became box office poison was the point at which she should have ceased to be such!
Sunday, 20 May 2007
Star: Tatyana Samojlova
I've downloaded a lot of the Russian silent movies that were so important to the cinema of the time and have now entered the public domain. There are a lot of names, different filmmakers contributing to the body of work of a much larger movement. Yet when looking at anything from the sound era, it seems to be Eisenstein, Eisenstein and more Eisenstein, when he was allowed to make films, and then later some Tarkovsky. There just had to be someone else in there making movies. Well in 1957 Stalin had been dead for four years and Khruschchev was a little more open to the idea of film. After all in Russia, writing was always treated as the greatest art, or perhaps classical music. Film was always a second or third class citizen, even with some of the great names of the silent era working out of Russia.
Here is the film that changed so much of that, making it possible to be a filmmaker and an artist and all the rest of it. Director Mikheil Kaltozishvili and cinematographer Sergei Urusevsky had been paying attention to everything that had gone before them, especially from Germany, and while the story was establishing itself, I was enjoying the camera positions, motions and angles and the shafts of light. It turns out that Kalotozishvili directed 21 films and this was the 18th, so he'd persevered throughout the years when it was difficult to do so.
Boris and Veronica are very much in love, which is completely obvious, but World War II is just around the corner. He volunteers and is sent to the Russian front, hardly the safest place for a soldier at the begin of the Second World War, leaving his little Squirrel behind. I loved the scene, as short as it was, when she tried to get to see him before he left, fighting through crowds and playing live action Frogger to get through the tanks to cross the road. The crowd scenes are just wonderful, as the camera pans slowly through a mass of people, following one but showing us many stories on the way.
Tatyana Samojlova is great as Veronica. She's no great beauty but she has an innocence and a charm that reminds me of Audrey Hepburn with more than a hint of Bjork. She's certainly the life in this film, even when she's not the focus, which she is for much of the time. She's expressive enough to carry scenes when the soundtrack disappears for effect to highlight the silence. Sound is very important here and she has the looks to complement startling scenes like the one where Boris's cousin Mark, looking after her in his absence, tries to drown out an air raid with his piano playing, unsuccessfully of course.
Also of course, Boris doesn't last forever on the Russian front to be able to come to his beloved Squirrel. By this point she's married Mark, after being badgered into it by his persistence, but is still waiting for that letter that wouldn't ever come. She knows Boris is missing but won't give up hope, and she changes notably as the film progresses and her guilt kicks in. She gets some more incredible scenes as that guilt is hammered home much later on and she chooses to commit suicide but fails spectacularly by being distracted into saving a young child's life, a young child coincidentally called Boris.
This film reminded me of Howard Hawks's famous definition of a good film as having three great scenes and no bad ones. There are no bad scenes here in the slightest but there a whole slew of great ones, especially those in crowds where Sergei Urusevsky's hand held camerawork is almost beyond compare. The story courtesy of Viktor Rozov, who adapted his own play, is massively touching, but the cast and crew tell it so well. It sweeps through the whole of the Second World War, from start to finish, and ends with a powerful message to boot. Astounding cinema.
Saturday, 19 May 2007
However it's more than Kinski just being right for the part. Herzog took advantage of his exhaustion after Nosferatu by starting filming on Woyzeck only a week after he'd finished the previous film, completing the entire thing in eighteen days and shooting it like a play. There are only 27 cuts in 82 minutes, just over one every three minutes, which is almost unheard of. Then again, the approach makes sense as the story is from a play by Georg Büchner.
Kinski is marvellous here, clinging to fragments of sanity under both mental and physical abuse, though for some bizarre reason it's Eva Mattes who won an award for the film: Best Actress at Cannes. She plays Woyzeck's wife who nonetheless cheats on him regularly and even calls herself a whore. She has doubts about what she does and provides herself with plenty of inner torment, but it's all her own doing. Woyzeck is abused by his drill sergeant, insulted by his captain and maltreated by a doctor played by an actor who reminds me of Roman Polanski but has the wonderful name of Willy Semmelrogge.
The doctor has been performing medical experiments on him. He's fed him only peas for a year, doing who knows what to his chemical balance, yet throws cats out of windows at him and berates him for answering the call of nature. Woyzeck doesn't really know if he's coming or going, seemingly distracted most of the time yet snapping to attention whenever he's shouted at. He raves on about things and enters and leaves scenes as if at random.
Like he did in Nosferatu, he doesn't seem to be inhabiting the same film as everyone else, but he does so in a different way. In Nosferatu he had a sort of elegaic sorrow to reflect his character's centuries of isolation but here he's just a victim, not really having a clue what happens around him, and he looks both ill and tortured at the same time. There are scenes, like the one after the murder, where he does almost nothing for what seems like forever but he's just mesmerising. I'm at a loss to explain the point of it all, but Kinski is enough to watch it for. I'll watch it again just to see if I was dreaming.
Anyway, she's called Scarface because of a scar on her face, not any perceived similarity in career progression to that of Paul Muni's Scarface in the film of the same name. As the film opens she's disguised as a cleaning lady to break into a safe belonging to Pierce, Abel and Pierce in the Chicago Security Building. She's known as Slade and she and her gang get away with $10,000. However the cops are on the trail of the money as it follows them to New York City and they get caught up in confusion over mixed identities trying to spring the trap. They also, naturally for 1941, don't have a clue that they're really looking for a woman.
Judith Anderson is only part of the switcharound in expectations here, though she's the most important part. As a gang leader, she's firm and tough, and enough of an actress as against a star to appear with a nasty scar on her face for the entire film. The reporter who does the best investigation and who ends up winning the day is also female, though the cops who aren't stupid but are lacking enough in ability to flounder around trying to do their job are all male. In fact if you count up all the women in the film, important or not, they all rank above the men in brain matter. The men should all be seriously embarrassed!
Then we get introduced to everyone else in the story, cleverly with dialogue and character insight and intriguing camera movements. Calif McKinney is the new kid in town, not that there's much of a town because we're mostly way out in the countryside. He's on his way from Michigan to California but ends up in Spooner, Missouri meets up with Maggie Marie, played by the unique Princess Livingston, her two daughters, the nymphomaniac Clara Belle and the deaf, dumb and not altogether there Eula, and their hired hand, Injoys. They shake his world up but point him towards a job, working at the Wade farm, and given that it's 1933 and the heart of the depression, he needs the money. Uncle Lute Wade runs the place, in the able form of Stuart Lancaster who would return the same year for Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!
Then there's Sidney and Hannah Brenshaw. Hannah is a good girl, but a victim in denial at the hands of Sidney, about whom nothing good to be said. He spends his life drinking, abusing people and screwing around with any of the buxom young ladies that tend to populate Russ Meyer movies. 'Mudhoney... leaves a taste of evil!' reads the title screen. Hal Hopper is that evil as Sidney Brenshaw, an abusive husband just waiting for his wife's uncle to die so he can take over the farm, but everyone else is as morally undefinable as only Russ Meyer was willing to write them back in 1965.
Maggie Marie seems to be a friendly character but she's busy whoring out her two daughters and brewing the local moonshine even though it's 1933 and prohibition is in effect. Calif is certainly the hero, but he's only recently been released from a five year stretch in jail. Eula is the strangest character morally because her lack of mind has left her without any morals. She loves everything and everybody, from her little kitten up to Sidney Brenshaw. The man of the lord in Spooner is Brother Hanson but he's the most intolerant of the bunch, deceived by Sidney into turning the town against Calif and Hannah. In contrast, Uncle Lute is completely forgiving of Calif and the fact that he'd been locked up for manslaughter, but in trying to save his niece, actively encourages her in adultery.
What this all adds up to, with all its amazingly rough edges, is about the most honest look at the dark reality of rurul America during the twin blights of depression and prohibition. As Uncle Lute points out to Calif, the town of Spooner, which isn't unlike any other rural town of the time, is suffering under the times and has to find something to hate. The hate can be channelled but it's always there. As the sheriff points out later on, they're good people but when they get something stuck in their head it's hard to get out. There's real truth in here, real honest truth, and the film is powerful way way way beyond it's budget and the limited acting ability of its cast, many of whom never appeared in another film.
Friday, 18 May 2007
Actor Max Shreck, the first man to play a version of Count Dracula on screen, was so memorable in the title role of Nosferatu that rumours circulated for decades that he was a real vampire, not an actor after all. An excellent movie, Shadow of the Vampire, explored this very territory as fiction. But if Shreck was unique, how much more difficult it must have been to find an actor to reprise his role in this remake of sorts? Well in 1979, only Klaus Kinski could fit the bill. Unique is a word that describes him well. Given that this is also a Werner Herzog film puts the casting selection entirely beyond doubt. This was the second of five memorable films they made together, the first, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, being a unique, spectacular and truly awesome collaboration itself.
We all know the plot, because it's been told so many times before. The bizarre Renfield enlists Jonathan Harker to travel to Transylvania to close a deal with Count Dracula to buy property back in the west. He finds much more than he bargained for, because Dracula is a vampire and he visits terror and death on everyone he meets. As you can expect from the title, this is a remake of F W Murnau's Nosferatu: A Symphony of Terror rather than the Dracula story as such, but as Nosferatu was an unauthorised version of Dracula anyway, with only a few changes, it remains pretty close. Because by 1979 Bram Stoker's novel had entered the public domain, Herzog restored the names of the characters but as he was remaking Nosferatu, left the setting as Wismar rather than Whitby.
Renfield is always the character most obvious in any Dracula film, beyond the Count himself, and I always look for who played Renfield before any other character. Here it's Roland Topor, writer of The Tenant, which was later filmed by Roman Polanski, and he's a suitably memorable Renfield. He giggles distractingly when enlisting Harker, a giggle which apparently caused his casting when Herzog heard it on a French TV show. Later in the film after being institutionalised, he gibbers where he used to merely giggle. He's certainly a worthy addition to the Renfield canon that includes such other luminaries as Dwight Frye and Tom Waits.
He's far from the only actor of note here though. Lucy is played by Isabelle Adjani, who appears to be overacting terribly with very few words, but I came to realise that she was deliberately playing her part more like a silent actress and found her portrayal intriguing. Jonathan Harker is more obvious here than in any other Dracula film I've ever seen, partly because of the way Herzog handled the story but also because he's played by a young Bruno Ganz who does a fine job, while remaining completely unrecognisable to me as I know him only as a much older man. He degenerates well as the story progresses.
It's Kinski's show though, absolutely. Kinski, the most intense and wildly insane actor that any of us have ever heard of, is a marvel. He's so calm and gentle, even when sucking out someone's life blood, but he's also bizarre and unnerving: bald, corpse white and attentive in all the wrong ways. He's unearthly down to his weirdly long fingernails, pointed rat teeth and prosthetic ears that helped to require him to spend four hours a day being made up. He doesn't read or breathe or move like the rest of us and he truly exudes menace. It's astounding how he can keep his face completely immobile and act with his fingernails. He's the centrepiece of the entire film, but he is also somehow completely detached from everything around him. It seems almost unreal when he interacts with anyone, like time is unfolding for him at a different speed to both the other characters and us watching. It's a spectacular performance, fully up to his previous and similarly amazing role for Herzog as Aguirre.
Herzog infuses plenty of ethnic realism into his film. The locals look and sound like locals, probably because they were locals. Similarly the Carpathians look just like the Carpathians because they probably were. Herzog was always one to literally go that extra mile for realism in setting. Just like in Aguirre, he gives us a real flavour of things, even making Harker's journey through the Borgo Pass taken an interminably long time because after all it was. Nobody would lend or even sell him a horse so he had to walk most of the way. Of course it took time! Probably more so than any other director since perhaps Leni Riefenstahl, Herzog also knows precisely how to depict scale, showing us the majesty of creation and how it completely dwarfs us. His choices of music really help too.
The film is notably slow but hallucinatory in its slowness. The pace, or the lack of it, merely aids the unearthly feeling that accompanies the story. It's also memorable in its slowness. The boat docking itself with nothing but a dead captain lashed to the wheel is powerful indeed. Just as the Carpathians recall the Andes in Aguirre, the rats recall the monkeys on his raft. They may be small and insignificant compared to man, but the world belongs to them. There are awesome scenes here: the rats flooding the dock, a room being deserted as the plague is mentioned, the processions of coffins through Wismar Square. I also noted that the most lively scenes, with the most accompanying noise, are shown silent, more like dream sequences, with unaccompanied choral music as a background.
I've seen this before, but many years ago when I was young and didn't see many of the things I saw this time around. I didn't get it then and found it a long, slow and boring film, certainly nothing that could compare to the other Dracula I was watching so much of at the time, Christopher Lee in the Hammer horrors. However now I'm much older, and with hopefully much more insight. I still think that this is long and slow but it isn't boring in the slightest. It's long and slow for a reason and a good one, and if you've got to the same level of insight or beyond, you'll be rewarded amply for your troubles.
Incidentally, I technically didn't watch Nosferatu the Vampyre but Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht, the German version with English subtitles. The film was shot simultaneously in both languages but I'd heartily recommend the German version.
Thursday, 17 May 2007
It's a comedy that opens with Guinness's execution by firing squad in some exotic country, so you know you're in for a dry treat. He's Captain Henry St James and he has spent his life in search of the perfect happiness, that paradise on earth, and he's found it. You wouldn't expect him to have found it captaining the Golden Fleece, a ferry that hops the Mediterranean from Gibraltar to Kalik in northern Africa and back, but that's exactly where he found it. What it is is where the dryness of the humour comes in.
The part is a gift for Guinness's chameleon like powers. He speaks whatever language seems appropriate at any given moment and his character shifts with the language. On board ship, he's a decent yet solid captain, discussing esoteric subjects with men at dinner. He's interesting yet without much excitement. In north Africa he comes alive, changing suit, demeanour and even stance, living it up with an exotic young lady played by the powerfully sultry Yvonne de Carlo who looks more like Ava Gardner here. He's equally adept slapping her rear in her hotel room or dancing the mambo with her in public, as indeed he should be, being her husband.
Yet moments after we see their undying love for each other, he's back on the Rock where his Spanish crew can't follow him. This time he's just as happy but firmly uniformed and official and very much married to devoted housewife Celia Johnson. Here's his paradise: married to two halves of the perfect woman. He buys the one flowers and the other a vacuum cleaner; the one gives herself in return, the other gives him handmade socks; for the one it's exotic food, music and dancing, for the other it's a pipe, the paper and home cooking; for the one it's late nights and living it up, for the other it's early to bed, asleep by ten on military time.
Of course, nothing stays as planned. Through a mixup in presents, his wild untamed girl gets an apron and his domesticated wife gets a bikini. Soon the one wants to cook and be homely and the other wants to live it up, flying over to Kalik at the drop of a hat and naturally to meet the one. These changes are handled very well indeed, as you can expect from two actresses as talented as Yvonne de Carlo, later Lily Munster, and Celia Johnson, from Brief Encounter. They manage to believably change into each other, while losing the need for the one person who had moulded them in the first place. The best scene though has to be the almost discovery scene, when the two ladies meet in Kalik, which is masterfully constructed, hovering continually on the brink of disaster yet somehow never quite falling over.
As you can imagine, the Hays Office didn't take too kindly to the hero of the film being a bigamist, let alone an unrepentant one, so with typical heavyhandedness they required the entire point of the film to be changed. The ending is subverted into something completely meaningless, there's a disclaimer beforehand to hammer home that this is fantasy not reality, and exotic Nita goes from being wife to merely girlfriend. Apparently cheating on one's wife is not deemed as unacceptable as bigamy. No wonder the sitcom became such an American staple and no wonder modern American comedies are a competition in dumbness: they missed out entirely on an entire generation of clever dry humour, because clever dry humour under the code is somehow offensive. Go figure.
Wednesday, 16 May 2007
Very subtly, it becomes obvious that he's been researching using guerilla tactics, nobody has a clue about anything that he's doing and they're all eager to blame someone else and shift the responsibility for doing anything about it. Guinness merely stands about observing but not saying a word, keeping as far away from any of their activity as possible. It's obvious that he's something special but we don't know what, because next thing we know he's out on his ear. All we find out is that he's a fish out of water wherever he goes. The left wing instinctively believes that he's a victim of the system, before stopping for tea. After all, they had to fight for it. The technical bods don't know how their expensive equipment works, so sees him as the expert they really need. The people in charge don't have a clue who he is, what he does or where he came from.
Guinness is Stratton and Stratton is like a ghost, flitting around unnoticed or misunderstood by everyone and that's precisely how he likes it. It frees him up to do his thing with polymerising the amino acid residue, or whatever it is in technical jargon. The only person who pays any attention is Daphne Birnley, the daughter of the owner of , Birnley's, the second mill we see him working for. What he really is is an idealist and so is she. He discovers a means of manufacturing a fabric that doesn't wrinkle or stain and effectively lasts forever.
Guinness is wonderful as the young idealist and Joan Greenwood, who also worked with him in Kind Hearts and Coronets, another great Ealing comedy. I firmly believe that she has the greatest, most seductive voice in film history, and this film doesn't just benefit from that but also the most awesome wheeze of a laugh ever, courtesy of an old and shrivelled Ernest Thesiger, sixteen years after his last instantly memorable characterisation, Dr Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein.
Thesiger is Sir John Kierlaw, leader of half of the campaign to stop Stratton. This campaign is what else beyond Guinness's genius, Greenwood's voice and Thesiger's laugh makes this film, because it's about the only time you'll ever see a teaming up of everyone against one man. It's a bizarre unity between the industrial power elite, who want to stop Stratton to protect their infrastructure and their income, and the unions, who want to stop him to protect their job. How this is portrayed is spot on and it's not surprising that this is one of the British Film Institute's Top 100 British Films. It's the only one of the great four Ealing comedies that starred Alec Guinness that I'd never managed to see, but I'm very glad to finally catch up with it. It's as great as everyone said it was.
Tuesday, 15 May 2007
There are other names here beyond the regular star, Warner Baxter, who returns here for the tenth and final time as the Crime Doctor. Stephen Dunne is fine as Steve Carter, but he's probably best known for playing Sam Spade on radio. He's hardly a household name, unlike Lois Maxwell or Robert Armstrong. Maxwell plays Jane Darrin, the daughter of the man who owns the company Carter was convicted of burning down, and she has a serious thing for him. Thirteen years later she became the most famous secretary on the planet, Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond series. Armstrong is the competitor, a gangster by the name of Goldie Harrigan, and he looks seriously old given that his most famous role came sixteen years before this film, as moviemaker Carl Denham in the original version of King Kong.
The man that matters most though is George Meeker as Carl Anson. He's the man who Carter suspects really did the job, along with taking both his position and his girl after he's locked up, and he turns up murdered in the company office right after Carter is seen walking in. The man who sees him is Pete Bellem, the owner's brother who is a little on the dim side but records his own music and has had runins with Anson himself.
This one was the tenth of ten Crime Doctor movies and the eighth that I've seen and it's up there with the best. No, I'm not surprised to find that Steve Carter was innocent all along and it's Ordway that proves it, and you wouldn't be either, but other than that it's a decent detective story. Given that the last couple were pretty disappointing, that's a pleasant surprise for the last one in the series. The acting was notably better than it has been for the whole of the series, Lois Maxwell especially impressing but Warner Baxter being much more fluid than usual too. There's an old entertainment industry maxim that says to 'always leave them wanting more'. Two films earlier and I was only wondering how bad it was going to get, but this one made me wonder what an eleventh instalment would have been like.
At the dinner to celebrate his 25th anniversary, his reasonably elderly boss leaves with a pretty young lady who obviously isn't his daughter, and that gets Chris thinking. He's stuck in a loveless marriage with a complete bitch of a wife and he doesn't even remember young ladies looking at him like this one did to his boss when he was young himself. On his way home he rescues another pretty young lady from what appears to be a mugger or a thief. He wouldn't think himself a hero as he cringes away from his own attack but he knocks the guy down and he runs away before Chris can fetch the police, so a hero he must be.
The conjunction of those two key events means that he's more than happy to spend a little more time with this particular pretty young damsel in distress, whose name is Kitty March, and it doesn't hurt that she looks like Joan Bennett. He guesses wrongly that she's an actress and she guesses that he's an artist because he rescued her in Greenwich Village. Technically he is a painter and not a bad one either, but only on an enthusiastic amateur footing. However the conversation leads her to believe that he's wealthy and when he starts writing to her to rekindle his own youth, her fiancee starts hatching plans to relieve him of his money. As smitten as he is and as skilfully as they play him, he soon gets caught up in their schemes.
Edward G Robinson is fine here, not that he ever wasn't. This was my 31st Eddie G movie and he hasn't been less than at least very good indeed in any of them. Here he brings subtle nuances to his performances that you wouldn't expect if the last film of his you saw was Little Caesar. Dan Duryea is suitably phony as Kitty's boyfriend Johnny, quick with his fists and frittering away all the money she manages to wheedle out of Chris Cross. He's almost the perfect screen definition of slime, very easy to love to hate. It's Joan Bennett who shines brightest though, certainly for the first two thirds of the film until Robinson stops hogging the background. She's keeping a double life: as Kitty March, she's sweet and sensitive when Chris is around but lazy, angry and duplicitous when he isn't. She depicts both sides of the coin superbly.
The plot goes places you don't quite expect, but always believably. There are plot twists and plot twists on the plot twists that Hitchcock would have been proud of. He'd also have been proud of the way that minor league shenanigans escalate through circumstance into madness and murder. This isn't just film noir, it's superb thriller material and it's in the hands of masters: Fritz Lang and Edward G Robinson especially. After shining so brightly in the thirties by dominating every scene he was in, regardless of the competition, Robinson found much better parts in the forties but less often, and he also found a way to not blind us to the other folks on the screen. Scarlet Street came a year after his stunning turn in Double Indemnity, and a year later he'd be stunning again opposite no less a talent than Orson Welles in The Stranger. For a lesser decade, that's pretty astounding stuff.
Monday, 14 May 2007
He gets his foot in the door by taking over one square block of territory that the Italians really don't care for. He's soon wandering around stamping his authority on things, with black henchmen, white lawyers and ladies of both colours. He has ambition, this young man, and he has able assistance from his very bright brother Joe. He sets his sights on a lot of targets and that cop that broke his leg, who is now Captain McKinney, in charge of one of the biggest precincts in New York, is high up on the list. He's played by the wonderfully sleazy Art Lund who knows every racial epithet in the book and would have been lynched if he set foot in any cinema showing this on initial release.
I'm not surprised in the slightest that this one appears on the Blaxploitation.com list of the top thirty blaxploitation flicks of all time, right up there with other 1973 films like Coffy, The Mack and Cleopatra Jones. This one, in the hands of exploitation maestro Larry Cohen, who wrote and directed, is carefully designed to have the maximum possible effect on its target audience: the very definition of exploitation, after all. More than any other blaxploitation film I've ever seen, this one seems perfectly tailored to have its black audience shouting at the screen. Every white guy is a racist, an overt one at that, and yet Fred the Hammer and his brethren successfully rise above all of it. The crowds would have hurled abuse at every racial slur and laughed at every excuse.
In truth the Sicilian stereotypes are terrible but who cares? This is about the Man doing it to the black man and he's a big bad mother who deserves all that Fred Williamson can dish out. Williamson is great here, even though it's early in his career when he still looked like a young OJ Simpson and he looked better with age. This was only his fifth film and he had a long career of highs and lows still ahead of him. Well, more lows than highs and Fist of Fear, Touch of Death counts as a whole handful of lows. It takes a lot more than one From Dusk Till Dawn to make up for that one.
This one has more obvious comparisons though. It does for the blaxploitation genre exactly what films like The Public Enemy, Little Caesar and especially Scarface did for the old gangster genre in the thirties. Still more appropriate is the Al Pacino remake of Scarface, which was far more lurid and out of control but less believable and less enjoyable to my mind. Sure, upstanding citizens hate Tommy Gibbs, the Black Caesar, but he's still the hero and he has a definable shared enemy, the system with the white man in charge and the corrupt cops doing his bidding. In that sense, Williamson can't lose but he does a fine job anyway.
I know some of the other cast members but mostly by name since it's a while since I delved decently into the genre: D'Urville Martin, Julius Harris and Don Pedro Colley, for instance. I'll see two of those three again in the sequel, Hell Up in Harlem, which was made two years later by the same people. Larry Cohen was never a consistent director, but thre are some cult classics in his resume for sure, from It's Alive to Q: The Winged Serpent. This one's early in his directorial career, but he'd been around for decades as a writer, especially for television. It's rough around the edges and that's an understatement, with continuity errors galore, but it's powerful nonetheless and it has some truly great street scenes that were presumably shot guerrilla style given that some of the passers by seem a little too interested in what's going on. Far better than it ought to have been.
Saturday, 12 May 2007
The story is cool. There's a very cool looking building at the Fairfield Hospital Sanitarium that has a legacy. Johnny Charles Bartlett massacred twelve people at the Sanitarium, one more than Charles Starkweather, and the film opens with some weird phenomena taking place there with what were probably state of the art special effects at the time but many of which have now aged notably. Peter Jackson stamps his mark on it very quickly because when the carpet monster starts eating someone, Granny takes its head off with a shotgun, something completely consistent with his other horror movies. Dr Lucy Lynskey is newly aware of all of this because she visits and finds Bartlett's girlfriend living there. She was implicated in the crimes, locked up but later released to the custody of her scary grandmother.
In what seems to be but of course isn't a separate plotline, some mystery heart condition has killed the newest of thirty plus victims over a number of years. Frank Bannister, Psychic Investigator, turns up for the funeral to distribute his cards and on his way out he crashes into what turns out to be Lynskey's front lawn. Because he infested them on the sly with ghosts working for him, the Lynskeys have to call him back in that night to address their new poltergeist problem. Bannister is Michael J Fox, looking about as old as I've ever seen him, even though that still isn't anywhere near as old as he must have been by 1996, the Lynskeys are Trini Alvarado and Peter Dobson, and they're about the only actors in this film that aren't from some cult horror movie or other.
Bannister's pet ghosts that keep his business running are headed by the Judge, played by John Astin from The Addams Family, Bartlett's girlfriend is Dee Wallace Stone from Cujo and most notably there's Jeffrey Combs from Reanimator (and what seems like every other H P Lovecraft film) in there too. He's the most bizarre FBI agent specialising in the paranormal that you've ever seen and he's hilarious. Part Jim Carrey, part Bruce Campbell, part Johnny Depp, completely out there, he's hilarious to watch. There's R Lee Ermey pretty much reprising his role from Full Metal Jacket, if that counts, except that he's dead this time and can materialise large machine guns. Even the minor players like Troy Evans who plays the local sheriff I probably saw first in films like Teen Wolf, Near Dark and Halloween 5.
The names continue from the cast to the crew: Rick Baker, the special effects wizard behind An American Werewolf in London and many others and Danny Elfman, the composer behind almost all Tim Burton's movies, including Beetlejuice, probably the closest companion piece to this film, which probably includes a bit of the TV comedy show Rentaghost too. It's certainly from the right era but I don't know if it made it to New Zealand. There's also editor Jamie Selkirk and co-writer (and wife) Fran Walsh, who have been with Peter Jackson ever since the beginning, and Robert Zemeckis, major Hollywood director (though here as producer) who had vaguely visited this sort of ballpark before with Death Becomes Her.
From a fan's perspective (and that's a fan from before this film let alone before The Lord of the Rings), this is obviously a Peter Jackson film, even though there's none of the gore that Bad Taste and Brain Dead were so notable for. He wrote and directed and his sense of humour is all over the screen, very apparent for a few reasons. Frank Bannister doesn't just see and talk with ghosts like say, the chick in Ghost Whisperer; he interacts with them completely and is quite happy to ignore them whenever it seems appropriate and elbow them out of the way if that's the only way to shut them up. His own accomplice ghosts include a dog happy to eat his fellow ghosts' jawbones and a black guy with an afro who died in the seventies. Beyond what just fits with his humour, there are mummified Sumatran rat monkeys in the museum (from Brain Dead) and even Jackson himself in the street as the shortest of his early performances. I even see recognisable Jackson touches in the way he pans quickly to roadsigns. The chief villain's most common appearance also looks scarily like a ringwraith, but this one was first!
Naturally Alice Adams is the heroine and is played by Katharine Hepburn. She first appears to be exactly the sort of character Kate plays best: an intelligent realist unafraid to be happy and able to see through any of her mother's bitching at her father. Then it soon becomes readily apparent that she's a addicted social climber, eager to put on all sorts of artificial airs and graces to hang out with a artificial bunch of snobs, even though she's really a complete fish out of water in every sense and has to fib her way into or out of every situation. Now I'm all for improving one's self, but only to places that would honestly count as improvements. Kate is admittedly superb but it's nigh on impossible to feel any sympathy for her character who's so real yet desperately trying to be so plastic.
The best invented stories, or in other words the biggest whoppers, are for the benefit of the young and dashing Fred MacMurray, playing Arthur Russell who's engaged to one of the snobs but somehow falls for Alice anyway. How she truly expects to get anywhere with him while telling such horrendous fibs I really don't know, but maybe in her heart of hearts she doesn't believe it'll do her any good and she can at least live in the moment. Her worst behaviour in general is reserved for her brother Walter, who is played by Frank Albertson and is happily as common as muck.
He's a little abrasive, talking like a Warner Brothers gangster, but is something of a diamond in the rough. He doesn't want to take his sister to the Palmer party that occupies much of the first half of the film, but does anyway because she's set on going and doesn't have anyone else to take her. That's pretty good behaviour given that she's the only kid who ever gets anything. Alice spends her days flitting around doing nothing except chat up someone else's fiancee, and has attention and what little money there is lavished on her, while he gets to work for a living and provide for himself.
The only person he recognises at the Palmer party is the bandleader, Skinny Sam of Skinny Sam and His Hot Shot Stooges and he spends his time, once she dismisses him, throwing dice in the cloakroom. He's hardly the real focus of the film, but he's a real person with real concerns and he's worth a hundred Alices because of it. So is Virgil Adams, Alice's father, who has worked for the same firm for decades and who both respects his boss and is respected by him in return. He's played by Fred Stone, who is as solid at keeping out of the background as Albertson.
That leaves Alice's mother, Mildred, very well played by Evelyn Venable but rather than the doting mother she's supposed to be, she's really the villain of the piece. She's the cause of Alice's delusions of grandeur, the impetus for a rift between Virgil and his boss and I honestly can't see anything good in her character at all. Even Alice has some hidden depths, not that they count for much, but her mother's completely worthless.
What a strange film! The acting is solid throughout and includes some truly great performances, but it's a complete waste. Katharine Hepburn is superb and so is Hattie McDaniel in a reasonably short supporting role as the cook that Mildred and Alice hire to make and serve a ridiculously out of place grand dinner when Arthur comes to visit, but their great talents on show don't make for a good film. I despised it and everything it seemed to stand for. I wouldn't want to have anything to do with a real Alice Adams, which really doesn't make her much fo a heroine, and the world would be a better place without her mother. Even the apparently whiter than white boyfriend, Arthur, is a complete waste. He doesn't do, say or mean anything of note and just seems to be.
To my way of thinking, I could watch this to enjoy Kate and Hattie McDaniel ably demonstrating their huge talents, but as for story I only cared for the background bits about Walter and Virgil and Mr Lamb. They weren't the focus, they weren't fully fleshed out and didn't get the time and attention they deserved. Instead we had to watch all these nothings. What a waste.
Friday, 11 May 2007
The tiny duchy of Grand Fenwick, nestled somewhere in the middle of Europe, now needs indoor plumbing because hereditary prime minister Rupert Mountjoy wants hot baths, but of course it has no money to pay for it. Even their one single export, a particular wine, is failing to travel properly and turns instead into an dangerous explosive mixture. So he decides to pretend to enter the space race in order to obtain money from both the Americans and the Russians, who can't pretend that there even is such a thing as a space race and certainly can't afford to appear to be against an international space coalition.
As a comedy, you simply can't fail with people like Margaret Rutherford, David Kossoff, Bernard Cribbins, Terry-Thomas, John Le Mesurier, Peter Sallis and Clive Dunn in the film. Rutherford is the suitably dotty Grand Duchess; Ron Moody is the sneaky prime minister; and David Kossoff, the only actor returning from the first film, plays the same character too. He's Professor Kokinz, atomic scientist, and he's one of only a few people to take all of it seriously. While the prime minister is only after his new plumbing, Kokinz is busy making it all completely viable. His only compatriot in crime is the prime minister's son, Vincent, played by Bernard Cribbins, who has always dreamt of being an astronaut.
As a political satire, it deconstructs the space race both astutely and hilariously at the same time. Novelist Leonard Wibberley really has a solid grasp of international relations, based mostly on the fact that in a race the Americans and Russians are, for international purposes, exactly the same thing with exactly the same motivations. This is demonstrated superbly in the film by conversations in American being followed by precisely the same conversations in Russian, which is completely obvious even without any subtitles; and by completely parallel plans by both sides to catch up the Grand Fenwick ship on the way and then by both sides to return.
As a demonstration of technical detail and understanding of international accents, it's of course a complete failure but in a film like this really who gives a monkey's? Terry-Thomas is perfect as a bumbling English spy but the so called Americans are terrible as Americans and who thought up Peter Sallis as a Russian? No wonder he didn't say much except 'Da!' It's simply a perfect example of comedy from the days when filmmakers had progressed to colour but not so far as the time when every comedy had to do nothing except swear a lot and offend anyone possible. Ron Moody is marvellous and David Kossoff isn't far behind, the former as a dynamo whose every plan is perfectly set but goes haywire anyway, and the latter as the infuriatingly patient and perennially right scientist, even when he sounds insane. It isn't up to the original film because some of the jokes are dumb, however funny they are, but it isn't far behind.
Keaton's timing here is impeccable, even before his own heyday as a star. This was so obviously supposed to be a Fatty Arbuckle short with Buster Keaton backing him up, or to be honest, two Fatty Arbuckle shorts sewn loosely together: one set in the garage and the other in the firehouse which the garage doubles as. However Buster steals every scene he's in and that's most of them. When he isn't on screen, we're waiting for him to return, because compared to Keaton, Arbuckle can't even fall over properly.
His direction isn't great either. There are some great pratfalls here with some clever choreography, and much of it is funny, but as a film it's something of a mess. There's no structure, characters appear and disappear and the whole thing is just a string of gags without much consistency or continuity. Buster is hilarious, especially dancing around in a paper kilt and Fatty has his moments but it's the moments we're watching, not the film as a whole.
To be fair I missed the last five minutes first time round so watched it again and it played better on the second viewing. However I also noticed the dubious nature of some of the jokes given later knowledge of the scandal Mr Arbuckle got himself into, such as the maidenhead joke and the gag where the ardent suitor won't give up trying to get to his girlfriend, stooping as far as a blowtorch to take out the lock on the inside of her door.