Apocalypse Later Empire



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Wednesday, 28 February 2007

A River Runs Through It (1992)

In Missoula, MT, back at the turn of the century, the Revd Maclean was a mild mannered but very firm Presbyterian minister who spent as much time fly fishing as teaching the word of God, and he took both equally seriously. To him both are truth and art and serious stuff. He also brings up two sons in the early part of the century, Norman and Paul. Norman tells our story, which is a simply told autobiographical one, and he's played as an adult by Craig Sheffer who is technically the lead. His wild younger brother is a young Brad Pitt, making himself noticed but still not yet famous.

The film looks gorgeous, as it should having won the Oscar for Best Cinematography, and it sounds good too, as it should given that it was nominated for Best Music too. However what really matters is the story and the simplicity with which it's told. It seems to carry an honest authenticity and my impression is that anyone born in a similar place at a similar time will feel a major kinship with it. Of course I wasn't born anywhere near Montana or anywhen near the depression era and so I don't feel any kinship at all. I couldn't find any way to empathise with the characters so I was restricted into merely enjoying watching them.

They play their parts well, not just Sheffer and Pitt but Tom Skerritt as the minister and Brenda Blethyn as his wife. Nobody else really gets a look in except the Big Blackfoot river and the fly fishing lines, until Emily Lloyd shows up and she's fine too. They look good and they're believable, but how much do I care? I'm sure I'd enjoy sitting out on a big river bank and enjoy communing with nature, just as I know I do elsewhere, but I don't grok the concept of fishing, especially as a metaphor for life. Perhaps because of the lack of connection, none of it really means anything so it becomes a means to pass time.

There are similarities to Legends of the Fall: a family out in the gorgeous wild Montana countryside, way back when, with a respectable brother and a wild brother played by Brad Pitt. Yet while there wasn't particularly anything for me to empathise with their either, it engaged me. This one felt dry and passive in comparison. There's probably absolutely nothing wrong with it, but I ended up bored anyway. It's a very subtle autobiographical story, but 'very subtle' could easily equate to less positive adjectives.

There's a great scene late on where Brad Pitt catches a large fish in spectacular manner. It's so obviously a setpiece and it's just as obviously a pinnacle, yet to me it's just a guy catching a fish. Very nicely, I'll grant you, but it's just a guy catching a fish. And to me, so's the film.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

The Last Angry Man (1959)

Paul Muni only made 22 films over a 30 year period and this makes half of them for me. It's also his last movie, made eight years after the previous one, Stranger on the Prowl. He still has plenty of power as an older actor though, as evidenced early on when he shows Lando Calrissian how tough he isn't. Billy Dee Williams is 22 years old here, playing an eighteen year old street punk like he was auditioning for West Side Story, but tough 68 year old Jewish doctor Sam Abelman from Brooklyn toughs him out of his knife, beats him at arm wrestling and gets him to shut the hell up and get examined, all in about five minutes.

Unbeknownst to him, TV producer Woodrow Wilson Thrasher is watching on, and he's hooked. He's turned up at the doctor's house to persuade him to be the focus of a show he's pitching, based on a newspaper article by the doctor's nephew. Of course Abelman doesn't want anything to do with it, so it's up to Thrasher and young Myron Malkin to persuade him, with the help of Abelman's friend and fellow doctor Max Vogel, who has his friend to look out for and who is sharper even than the producer himself.

Muni is superb here. He was Oscar nominated for the first time in 22 years and it's as well deserved as last time for The Life of Emile Zola in 1937. Certainly he's far better than his abysmally overblown showing in Black Fury for which he was nominated two years before that. David Wayne is solid as Thrasher the producer, but he's trumped by Luther Adler as Vogel, partly because Adler and Muni were real life friends going back forty years. The script is excellent, especially in the ways in which everyone sets up everyone else, but it veers off into sentimentality too often. The setups are subtle and masterful though, whether they be Thrasher persuading his boss or his boss persuading his boss or even Vogel persuading Abelman to appear on the show. It's a very clever script with some very astute performances.

It's well ahead of its time, given that the focus is really a reality tv show, as portrayed in 1959. We get to see how it's devised, how it's all set up, how it's made and how it's exploited. It also gets to tell a timely story, namely a doctor of the old school who believes in the Hippocratic Oath he took and heads out on a moment's notice to treat people just because they're his patients, even if they can't pay or won't pay or don't even want his treatment. He's absolutely the good guy, and he's a great character in the process.

However all his spiel about crooks in the industry pushing drugs for diseases that don't exist yet goes completely contrary to everything the network wants, as all the executives pushing adverts are obviously the bad guys and they can't possibly say anything that might make the sponsor look bad. That's a really refreshing view to hear in an era where the advertising executive was the American Dream and the hero on every TV sitcom. As Abelman says, 'it's the age of the galoots'. He's right and he's one of Muni's finest portrayals.

Sunday, 25 February 2007

The Whole Town's Talking (1935)

While there are certainly exceptions, I'm actually finding myself more partial to the non-westerns that John Ford made throughout the thirties than the westerns he's famed for. Here he gets a head start by having no less a star than Edward G Robinson in not one but two lead roles. He's Arthur Ferguson Jones, a mild mannered clerk at the J G Carpenter Corporation, highly cultured and the one and only employee who's never been late. Of course the one day the boss leaves orders to raise Jones's salary and fire the next person to be late he's the next person. He's also 'Killer' Mannion, a dangerous gangster who has just escaped from prison and is now public enemy number one. It's a true joy to watch mild mannered Eddie G try to imitate the famous snarl of gangster Eddie G, especially with Donald Meek looking on.

Meek sees Mannion's picture in the paper and so calls the cops on Jones, and it takes plenty of work to make them believe that he's not the gangster. However once the real Mannion robs a bank and identifies himself in the process, it becomes obvious that Jones is really Jones. He has a terrible time being harrassed by the police, while Miss Clark, a co-worker who was having lunch with him, has the time of her life. She's the object of his passions, up till now restricted to anonymous poems, but it's this mix-up that really makes her notice his existence. She's also Jean Arthur, making a serious name for herself and she's great fun to watch.

John Ford has fun with this one, as displayed in certain powerful scenes like the early one where Jones gets flustered by photographers' lights, which is delightfully claustrophobic. However it's Robinson who has the most fun. Jones starts out merely annoying, a complete wuss but then he has to be because Eddie G proved from his very first screen appearance that all he had to do to dominate a scene was to walk in front of the camera. He had to seriously work at making Jones invisible and how well he manages it is made obvious when Jones faces Mannion in a scene together. In fact he doesn't just play Jones and Mannion, he plays Jones playing Mannion and he plays Mannion playing Jones.

Robinson is superb and he gets a serious proportion of the screen time. He's the lead throughout and is rarely off the screen, but he's also the co-lead and there are a lot of scenes where he's both characters. Jean Arthur is superb too but she gets far too little time to strut her stuff. She's the sassy newspaper girl type who became a stereotype through the screwball era, with regular examples from people like Carole Lombard, Barbara Stanwyck and Katharine Hepburn. I don't believe this is the first such appearance but it's definitely early and done very well indeed. Other regular supporting actors like Donald Meek, Edward Brophy and Etienne Girardot are fine but they get almost nothing to do and there's very little here that doesn't belong to Robinson.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Lost Horizon (1937)

Every time a film turns up from the Home Theater Forum's Top 100 Films of the 1930s list that I haven't seen, I make sure I record it. I'm further through that list than any other, even genres like horror and science fiction that I've known well for years. This has a few added bonuses, in that it's also something of a sf film in itself, a Frank Capra movie (my fifteenth) and beyond the star Ronald Colman, it also features favourites of mine like Edward Everett Horton, Sam Jaffe, H B Warner and Thomas Mitchell.

It's 1935 and some place in far eastern China called Baskul, is in turmoil. Some new war is sparking off and daring Robert Conway, England's 'man in the east', is evacuating ninety English citizens before they're all massacred. The last plane is sparsely and intriguingly populated, just like Ford's Stagecoach two years later and with one man in common: Thomas Mitchell as Henry Barnard. There's also Conway and his brother George, a paleontologist called Alexander P Lovett and what appears to be a barroom floozy. They're all taken for a ride by a mysterious pilot who holds a gun on them and takes them west instead of east. The mystery builds when they take on fuel somewhere on the border of Tibet, but eventually the propellors freeze up and they crash in a snowbound wasteland in the middle of nowhere.

Robert Conway is of course Ronald Colman, so tailor made for the part that he hardly even had to change his name: he's half thirties style action hero and half dreamy pacifist, with great potential to become the next Foreign Secretary. Thomas Mitchell looks strange in the character building glasses he wears but he sounds just like Thomas Mitchell, and he's a more restrained version of a number of similar characters he'd play in the year to come, including in Stagecoach. Edward Everett Horton plays the paleontologist exactly as you'd expect Edward Everett Horton to play anyone: intelligent, but flustered, dithering and touchy. The two of them work wonderfully against each other, Mitchell's blind optimism and Horton's paranoid pessimism. John Howard is something of a waste of space as George, but Isabel Jewell is fun as Gloria Stone. She's already living on borrowed time. The doctors gave her six months to live a full year ago but she's still going pretty strong, a brief period of hysteria on the plane notwithstanding.

Anyway, they crash in the middle of nowhere and the pilot dies on impact. As they decide what to do about it, they are amazingly rescued by a bunch of locals, the leader of which speaks English. He's Chang, played by the wonderful H B Warner with his subtle facial expressions and dancing eyes, who welcomes them all to Shangri-La, a cultured paradise nestled in the midst of shrieking winds and snowy mountains. The plane crash looks great, especially for 1937, but Shangri-La looks better, sumptuous and utopian. Warner appears very similar to the character he played a year later in The Adventures of Marco Polo, the only decent thing about that film.

The only down side is the lack of a complete print but the AFI did a great job of ensuring that we can see as much of the film as possible. It originally ran 132 minutes long, but was soon chopped down to 118 for general release and even to 95 minutes for television. The acetates that constitute the extra footage, which would restore the film to what we would nowadays call a director's cut, was destroyed, though a full copy of the score survived, so the AFI had to check the rest of the world's archives to find replacement footage. There are now only seven minutes of visuals missing and there are stills to punctuate the gaps.

The film is intelligent but doesn't feel the need to be blatant about it. The whole concept of Shangri-La comes with a lot of questions, that are asked not just by the characters thrown into it, especially Bob Conway, but also by us, the viewers. We consistently wonder about how real any of this is, whether we should take it at face value or whether it's all a dream by the dying Conway or even whether it's some sort of fractured Philip K Dick reality. Everything we learn merely leads us to new questions. It may not be the undying classic I'd been led to expect, but it's certainly an excellent and thought provoking film.

Thursday, 22 February 2007

Backdraft (1991)

It's 1971 Chicago and we're watching fireman Kurt Russell rescue babies from a fire at the cost of his own life, just the sort of overblown and sentimental heroics you'd expect to see in a Ron Howard movie, especially as Kurt's young'un Brian is standing down below watching. It gets him the Pulitzer prize winning cover of Life magazine but that's hardly much of a consolation prize. Fast forward twenty years and Brian has grown up to become a firefighter himself, newly graduated, and played by William Baldwin.

He's been away for six years so most people have either written him off or forgotten about him. Life has completely moved on and he missed all of it, but thinks he can just pick it up where he left off. He even tries to bribe the station master to assign him somewhere on the other side of town to his brother Stephen, the serious 'born to be a firefighter' type, but his brother bribes bigger! Stephen is nicknamed Bull and is played by Kurt Russell and is obviously the man who can within the Fighting 17th, and we get plenty of tension with Brian and Bull on the same crew.

The first fire they fight together sets the pace for me. Whoever is manipulating the fire is doing an incredible job because it certainly doesn't look like CGI and it does a lot of very cool things. However the fire choreography isn't matched by the more traditional choreography as I didn't get much of an image of what anything except the fire was doing. There was no tension and more than a couple of painful cliches under supposed pressure. The fire was definitely the star of the show, as Jennifer Jason Leigh pointed out after reading the script. She wished she could play the fire because it had the best part.

The cliches don't let up either. Somehow I knew there was going to be a point where a black woman jumps in front of the camera shouting 'My baby! My baby!' and sure enough, there she was. Kurt Russell gets to be as heroic as he was born to be and Billy Baldwin is as annoying as you'd expect from a Baldwin. Rebecca de Mornay is as drop dead sexy as she was almost ten years earlier in One from the Heart and Risky Business, even when she's not trying to be, though Jennifer Jason Leigh looks pretty awful. For all the fun of the cameraderie on the force, this entire thing is worthless, but for the fire which deserves the Oscar nomination for best visual effects. The effects throughout are awesome, they're just directed with sheer ineptitude.

Fortunately for us there's another plot going on too with a lot more substance to it, though it takes most of an hour to even get going and gets ignored far too often. Robert de Niro, tougher than he was in Mad Dog and Glory but still calm compared to his traditional power roles, is a severely burned arson investigator called Shadow. He's working a case of serial arson that is proving to be a tough one to crack, that provides the title of the film. These backdrafts are set to kill particular people but in such a way to ensure that the fire blows itself out, hardly standard operating procedure for anyone. Shadow is doing his job but being pestered by an ambitious alderman played by a wonderfully sleazy J T Walsh, and to make it even more interesting, we get to meet Donald Sutherland, a diehard and half sane convicted arsonist who was the cause of Shadow's burns in the first place. He's an obvious Hannibal Lecter substitute, the same year as The Silence of the Lambs, but he's Donald Sutherland so he's a damn fine obvious substitute.

I wish I'd have fast forwarded through the rest of the film to the Bobby de Niro scenes. Other than those, the best thing I can say about Backdraft is that the city of Chicago got four restored fire engines out of the production company after shooting had finished. That, right there, achieves far more than the film does. Hell, Ron Howard's so on the ball that with Kurt Russell and Rebecca de Mornay in the cast, he gives us instead a sex scene between Billy Baldwin and scary Jennifer Jason Leigh. Good grief.

Tuesday, 20 February 2007

Silkwood (1983)

Here's an interesting mix of good and bad, and entirely not in the ways I expected. The good is the acting, especially by Meryl Streep. She plays Karen Silkwood, a menial worker at a nuclear plant, who spends her time blending plutonium and uranium into fuel pellets within protective tanks behind protective gloves and protective suits. She seems to treat it all as a social thing, the way I remember data processing, where most of the people who did it were married women earning second incomes. They turned up to get out of the house and socialise with people, and if it earned a little bit of money then all to the good. It certainly wasn't a vocation for them and it obviously isn't for Karen Silkwood.

Not knowing much about the subject matter, I always thought Silkwood was some heroic activist who paid a huge price for doing the right thing. The longer this film ran on the less I realised that was true. She's a bored and not very nice woman who doesn't seem to have much of a clue about anything. Early on she goes to visit her children, at which point we realise that she's such a great mother that the father has custody. When she gets back to the plant her colleagues tell her about a contamination leak that closed down the plant for the weekend and it's obvious that they all believe that she did it in order to get the weekend off. She raves about colleagues getting cancer yet we hardly see her without a cigarette in her mouth, even while getting changed or eating lunch at work. She can't even quit when going to sleep.

Streep is superb, as always. I've seen her play a very wide range of characters over the years and she's never been less than excellent, regardless what sort of part she has. She's excellent here, even though I really don't care for the character, and she's ably assisted by young looking boyfriend Kurt Russell (though still after Escape from New York and The Thing) and roommate and wannabe girlfriend Cher who really doesn't get much to do here, not even sing as all the vocals are done by Meryl Streep. Cher is fine but I don't get her Oscar nomination at all, or any of the others, such as Mike Nichols for Best Director and the script by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen.

On the bad side, the film is really boring. There's slow and subtle, gradually building into something of serious substance, and there's just plain boring. If all this was shown to help build our sympathies for Karen Silkwood as a character, it didn't work on me. It's pretty obvious that this plant was criminally lax on a number of fronts, but I don't get these people's thinking. Silkwood finally looks everything up in safety documentation that she hadn't previously read and bitches about the bad safety practices, only to bitch even more when they transfer her to another department and she loses out on her overtime. In other words, let me out, but once you've let me out, let me back in again.

She ends up working to keep a union, sleeping around on her boyfriend with a union rep in Washington DC, who's so concerned about the possibility of deliberately defective fuel rods that he suggests they can use the proof to renegotiate contracts. They don't care about anyone or anything any more than the operators of the nuclear plant. And of course, while they rant about how they disagree with government designated safe levels of plutonium exposure, and how it causes cancer, Karen is chain smoking through the whole thing. I'm sorry, but none of this makes sense to me. This film is nothing more than a bunch of highly dubious characters bitching and moaning about another bunch of dubious characters, led by a drug addicted, chain smoking serial philanderer who cares more about her overtime than her safety, all done in a slow and tedious manner. Even Fred Ward and Bruce McGill can't save it and that's sad.

Monday, 19 February 2007

Black Orpheus (1959)

There's music everywhere here, and thankfully it's provided by someone with the talents of Antonio Carlos Jobim. We're in Rio de Janeiro and it's time for Carnaval so everybody is singing or dancing or playing a musical instrument. The whole city is alive, the way I remember it was in New Orleans last time I was there, except more so. There's one point early on where I wondered what director Marcel Camus was showing me until I realised he was showing me how empty the rest of the city is where the carnival isn't.

As you'd expect from the title, the film is a translation of the old myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but in a different location with a different ethnic group, and dripping with musical flavour, exotic samba rhythms and rich colour. It's a joyous thing, because everyone is so alive. It's hard not to tap your feet and bob your head and smile, if not laugh outright in happiness at the world, especially when kids are telling roosters to hush so that they can hear Orpheus play Manha da Carnaval on his guitar. I've loved that for years but never realised it came from a film, let alone this one.

He's a tram driver, obviously a ladies man of long standing but who's about to get married to Mira who is beautiful yet remarkably full of herself. However Orpheus soon meets Eurydice, a young lady who has run away from home because she believes that a mysterious man is trying to kill her. He invites her to the Carnaval rehearsal, even though he's there with his fiancee who's playing the Queen of Day, but this mysterious man turns up to chase her and Orpheus gets to save her bacon. Next thing we know they're sharing the night and she's taking her cousin's place in the carnival as the veiled Queen of Night.

The actors are primarily new to film and I get the impression that they weren't even professionals, at least at this point in their careers. Yet they feel so natural that any lack of finesse isn't just acceptable but beneficial. Footballer Breno Mello debuts in film as Orpheus and he went on to make only six films over four decades. He's so natural it's almost impossible to imagine him not smiling. It's 47 years since Black Orpheus was released and I'd believe it if he was still dancing today. It's notable that when he stops dancing here is when Orpheus becomes lost.

Dancer Marpessa Dawn, the director's wife, is excellent as Mira. She had appeared in two films before this one but only as things like 'native girl sacrifice'. Better than either are Lourdes de Oliviera, perfect as Mira in the first of only two films she ever made, and Léa Garcia who lights up the screen as Eurydice's cousin Serafina, who alone of these actors seems to have turned her debut here into a career, if a slow one until the new century. Even the young Jorge Dos Santos is excellent and he's only a small boy here.

Really not much happens here. Orpheus falls for Eurydice but Death claims her. Orpheus wants her back. However the plot is nothing but a framework for Camus to build his rich exploration of a fresh ethnic world onto, and there's as much depth as you want to look for. I particularly liked the staircase that doubles for the descent into Hell, but that's just one of many such examples. I'm also sure there are others I didn't catch on first viewing because this feels like one of those films to come back to again and again. Another worthy early winner of the Best Foreign Film Oscar!

Sunday, 18 February 2007

Poltergeist (1982)

Another of those many eighties movies to quietly rage against suburbia, this is a slice of early eighties pop culture if ever I've seen one and it's possible I haven't seen it since that decade. Within the first third of the start, we've worked through BMX bikes, remote control cars, duelling TV remote controls, white noise, superhero comics, Star Wars bedcovers, bent spoons, you name it. There's even recreational drug taking by suburban married couples, flushing dead birds down the toilet and kids staying on the phone all night. It's also one of those films that looks like it's riddled with cliches but really isn't because it's the one that got there first: trees, clowns, white noise, the rest of it.

The focus of the story is little Carol Ann Freeling, who is a five year old girl who lives with her family in happy suburbia. Her father Steve works for the company who built the estate and so he's a little surprised when his house gets caught up in what seems to be a 6.4 magnitude earthquake. His wife Diane gets surprised a little more when the chairs in kitchen start moving of their own accord. Carol Ann knows exactly what's going on because she can talk to 'the TV people', who appear to her in the white noise that appears on the TV screen when regular programming is over, thus giving this possibly more instances of the Star Spangled Banner than any other movie.

It's a scary little movie, given that it's a family entertainment type thing, originally to be made by Steven Spielberg before he ended up on ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, but still written and produced by him. The general target is that everything going on is as normal as possible but then outrageously bizarre things break into that normality and throw it way out of whack. When the tree outside reaches in to steal young Robbie Freeling and Carol Ann gets sucked inside the TV, it's pretty obvious that it's got really serious. So the Freelings call in paranormal investigators who are stunned by the whole thing.

One of the many magic moments have to do with reactions: ours when the energy explodes from the TV screen, Steve Freeling when the paranormal investigators boast about having filmed a toy car moving across a room so slowly that you can only see it without time lapse photography, and the investigators themselves when he opens the door to the haunted bedroom and shows them what this house has to offer. There are many others too, all of which are joyous. The effects are variable: some are seamless but others obviously constructed from old technology, but the story gets by fine anyway, as the Spielberg touch is definitely all over it.

The cast are solid, entirely fresh to viewers to avoid familiarity breeding disbelief: Craig T Nelson and future TV movie veteran JoBeth Williams are the parents, and they're entirely believable as a suburban couple. Dominique Dunne, the first victim of the so-called Poltergeist Curse, is the eldest child, with Oliver Robins and a thoroughly memorable Heather O'Rourke as the others. O'Rourke would be the second victim of the curse. Beatrice Straight is a fine psychic investigator, shaken almost to pieces to blatant examples of the phenomena that she's tried so much to experience. The peach of the bunch though is Zelda Rubenstein, the plump 4'3" psychic who brings Carol Ann back.

It does stand up today. That surprised me a little but in a pleasant way. While half the other horror movies from the eighties stole plenty from it, there aren't too many bits that don't work through having become cliches. The acting works and the cast are still fresh to me as they're either dead or only working in TV movies on the Lifetime channel. The story makes sense and raises a smile, in enjoyment as much as nostalgia. Definitely a fun movie and better looking back at than something like Friday the 13th.

Zorba the Greek (1964)

Alan Bates plays Basil, who is half English and half Greek and who is heading to the island of Crete to claim his inheritance from his Greek father. The inheritance is land that contains a mine and so Basil ends up hiring Alexis Zorba, a strange man who laughs a lot who he meets while waiting for the rain to stop and his boat to sail. Basil is officially a writer of poetry and essays but who really doesn't do much of anything. He continues to do not much of anything in his newly adopted village on Crete, though he is the catalyst for plenty of events, not just good ones that come from his reopening the mine.

A lot of this plays like a silent movie. One scene in particular where Irene Papas comes looking for her goat doesn't have many words and really doesn't need them. It's dynamic and engaging and tells a number of stories in a completely visual manner. It would have worked just as well with a title card in the middle and there are a whole slew of other scenes to which exactly the same would apply, most but not all of which focus around Papas, who hardly speaks a word in the entire movie. Words often aren't important here, for as much as Zorba keeps distilling unconventional nuggets of wisdom purely in conversation.

Anthony Quinn is a joyous riot in this film. I've seen many different faces of Anthony Quinn, from the early days as a Mexican heel in Carole Lombard comedies or Bulldog Drummond movies, to the power of Fellini's La Strada, and on to the feature length Hercules episodes in the nineties when he played Zeus. Here's a new one though: a wild free spirit, Alexis Zorba, who has strange thoughts because, as he says, his brain is not the right weight. More than anything, he is alive, very alive, and he has advice on that as much as everything else. 'Life is trouble,' he says, 'Only death is not. To be alive is to undo your belt and look for trouble.'

Co-star Alan Bates is by necessity no competition whatsoever. Basil is as restrained as Zorba is unrestrained, as still and tied to the ground as Zorba is restless and unfettered. However there is a character that can compete with Zorba the Greek on his own terms: the aging diva Madame Hortense, for the portrayal of which Lila Kedrova won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year, outdoing in that respect even Anthony Quinn himself. She's a highly emotional woman, four times married, who is an amazing mixture that is half grotesque Baby Jane and half childishly beautiful. She's one of those truly unforgettable characters, so memorable for not really doing much other than be, in her own idiosyncratic way.

Some of what goes on is stunning, literally, because it's part of alien culture that I don't understand in the slightest. I don't want to issue spoilers, because this is so strange, but there are two separate incidents that seem irreconcilaby foreign and both have to do with death. Both also make for amazing pieces of cinema, which this is in entirety. It stands out because it's something other than anything I've previously seen.

Legends of the Fall (1994) Edward Zwick

It's obvious within about ten seconds of this film that the Oscar it won for cinematography was justified. It looks gorgeous, a masterpiece of composition and John Toll should be proud of his achievement. However there's much more here. It's a western that follows the lives of Colonel William Ludlow and his sons. Tristran is the wild one, played by Brad Pitt launching his career into the stratosphere after Johnny Depp turned the part down. Aidan Quinn plays Alfred, the one with, as is mentioned, more breeding, who lives with them in Montana. The third is Samuel, played by Henry Thomas, who arrives from civilisation with his fiancee Susannah who is the catalyst for the entire plot as all three of them fall for her. As she's ably portrayed by Julia Ormond, who is no great beauty but has a serious beauty within her, that's hardly surprising.

Mother, a long way away back in England, is Christina Pickles, and father is no less a talent than Sir Anthony Hopkins, from the period of time when he was in full possession of his considerable powers but didn't deliberately flaunt them unashamedly. These are happily still the days of The Silence of the Lambs, not Hannibal. He is excellent and gets plenty of opportunities to show it.

Brad Pitt is also excellent. He's rough and ready, long haired, happy to fight and not afraid to get himself either dirty or not clean again. His manners are not good and he both knows it and doesn't particularly care. While the others talk of world affairs, he's the one who understands how the world works, or at least his small part of it. He's not uneducated, he's certainly not stupid and in many ways he sees things better than they do: he just has his feet planted firmer on the ground. However as is made very obvious this is the point at which the world is changing, not just back in Europe where the Germans are stirring everything up, but even here in Montana. When they pick up Julia from the train, they head back to the farm in a mixture of cars and horses. They talk of culture while Tristran meets them with a dead deer over his other horse. It's a very changing world.

All three get to see this changing world, when Alfred and Samuel head off to fight in the First World War, and Tristran goes with them, not for any sense of duty like the others, but to keep his brothers safe. He gets the great showstopping scenes as he becomes something that his colleagues and his family don't understand. In many ways he goes native but it takes strange forms as he quests around the world to find his way back. The story is superb and the film continues to look gorgeous throughout, but the sweeping and majestic music by James Horner is astoundingly overdone, to my tastes, and it unfairly diminishes the visuals. If I watch it again, I may just turn the sound off. It was that annoying.

I had other problems with it too. Everyone gets older as the years pass, especially and memorably Anthony Hopkins and young Isabel Two, who grows up from a child to an adult, but Brad Pitt never seems to age. He grows hair on his head and his face but never his chest, wherever he happens to be in the world, and stays as young as he was to start with. Maybe that's a deliberate thing to highlight how much he's a legend, as legends don't grow old. The introduction points out that: 'Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness and they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy, or they become legends.' It's talking about Tristran and we get to make our minds up which he becomes as the film rolls on. That's the chief triumph of many.

None But the Lonely Heart (1944) Clifford Odets

Here's the film that finally won Miss Ethel Barrymore a long overdue Oscar. In fact up until this point she hadn't even been nominated, though she would be three times more in the future. The main reason for this is because, unlike her brothers, she mostly stayed on the stage. None But the Lonely Heart came out in 1944 but it was Barrymore's first film since 1933 and only one of four since 1919. That's hardly a prolific output, even if you don't compare it to that of brother Lionel.

She plays Ma Mott, mother to Ernie Mott, who is something of a wanderer. He's played by Cary Grant as a free spirit who doesn't want to be fettered by anything, so off he goes around the country with his dog doing odd jobs for people. As he says, he has nowhere to go and he's going there tomorrow. However he does have ties: as much as he argues with his mother, he cares deeply for her, and he's just been advised that she's dying of cancer. There's a lovely local girl called Aggie Hunter, a musician, who plays him the Russian cello piece that gives the film its title, and it's pretty obvious from moment one that she's long made her intentions clear and has been waiting or a long time for him to settle down. There's also Ada, another lovely local girl, that falls for him and this time he falls for her too. However there are major complications that aren't going to be easy to resolve.

The strange thing here is that Cary Grant does a great enough job that we're thoroughly drawn into his character whatever he does and wherever he goes. He interacts with a wide range of people and remains completely in charge of the situation throughout. Yet in his scenes with his ma, it looks like he's acting while she's as natural as could be, even though she's playing a part very different from any other I've seen her play. The same applies a couple of times in scenes with Barry Fitzgerald, who can be as subtle a character actor as I've ever seen.

The cast are superb, especially Barrymore and Fitzgerald, but also Grant and the two women who love him: June Duprez as Ada and Jane Wyatt as Aggie. George Coulouris is a notable villain, sleazy as all get out but respectable on the surface. The real star though is the script. This is precisely the sort of film that I don't tend to go for: it's a character development piece whose plot isn't particularly important for its own sake but rather for where it takes its characters. It's the sort of thing that in the book world would have 'A Novel' thrown on the cover to point out that its fiction but we should take it seriously. You don't see that on pulp material or genre material or any other material that attempts to have some fun.

Yet there's definitely fun here, if not in the standard sense. The script is subtle yet engaging and full of quirky lines that demonstrate that it was written by someone with a deep love of language. No, it's not particularly realistic, but I can still buy into it. The fun isn't the danger or the action, it's the language used by the people involved and the fathoming out of the reasons behind who, what and why. The ending is a particularly subtle thing that is more of a beginning. It's definitely a film to think about and to watch again and savour.

Saturday, 17 February 2007

Coquette (1929) Sam Taylor

Someone's sitting outside Dr J M Besant's house at the opening of this film, singing Liza Jane, and that seemed a little strange given that Coquette stars Mary Pickford and thus really ought to be a silent film. She made 248 movies and this is perhaps the first of only five that have sound. It's good to hear her voice and it's not too surprising that she sounds more than a little like Billie Burke without quite so much wavering. Anyway, it's 1929, so the sound is awful and the action static. It took another year or two for this new technology to mature enough to be viable at more than very close range.

Pickford had played fourteen year olds for years but realised that at 38 there was no way she could get away with it in a sound film. So she picked this one, where she plays the coquette of the title, Norma Besant, happily chasing after about anything that has two legs to twist them all around her little finger. Pickford won an Oscar for her work and that's hard to justify on anything other than the basis of career recognition or sheer nepotism, as this was only the second year of Academy Awards and she was married to the former president of the Academy, Douglas Fairbanks. I haven't seen any of the films that provided her competition, but this was the 1928-9 awards and thus the previous year's Victor Sjöström film The Wind was eligible. I wasn't as impressed with that film as I expected to be but Lillian Gish was as awesome as I'm discovering she always was. Pickford isn't as bad as I've read but she seriously pales in comparison.

The male lead is future western star Johnny Mack Brown, playing Michael Jeffery, who Norma goes moon faced over. He's no southern gentleman, so her father wants him to never see her again but that's quite probably why she wants him so much in the first place. He half accedes to her dad's demands, disappearing off into the mountains or somewhere for six months, only to turn back up and carry on being as annoying as he was to start with. Unfortunately he's as much a waste of space as almost everyone else in the cast, both in acting performances and as characters. He's bad but John St Polis and William Janney are both truly awful, as Norma's father and brother respectively. The only exception to this rule is Louise Beavers, who didn't know how to be anything less than fine, but of course she's not given anything of substance to do because she was a black woman and it's 1929.

All in all, this is another perfect example of how Hollywood really struggled to cope with sound. The entire history of film can be summed up reasonably simply: it began with a few notable pioneers, matured in multiple locations in 1920, grew throughout the decade until the great years of 1927 and 1928, floundered around in 1929 with the advent of sound, started to get it 1930 by transcribing some decent stagebound work, hired new faces for 1931, ran riot throughout the innovative precode era, got safe in 1934 but still blossomed into the classic Hollywood we know and love, and on from there. This is 1929, so it's painfully overacted second rate stage material, with a silent star on the way out, a bunch of stage actors who should have stayed on stage, and only sound going for it. To be fair, it seems worse now than it probaby was at the time, as what appear as cliches now weren't cliches at the time, but that doesn't help much.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) James Whale

It's 1939, the greatest year of Hollywood, but it's also 1638, in the Royal Palace of Louis XIII of France. His wife, Queen Anne, has given birth to twin sons, but more than one Dauphin of France would apparently lead to civil war, so he has to send the younger away with his friend D'Artagnan, to raise as his own. Unfortunately twenty years later the first born, now King Louis IV, has become a cruel and twisted spendthrift. With the assistance of the greedy Minister of Finance, Fouquet, who is one of only four people alive who know about son number two, he causes no end of trouble for the people in his realm.

Most notably, and at the instigation of Fouquet, he tries it on with D'Artagnan and the king's unknown younger brother, by revoking Louis XIII's gift to them of a tax free town. Even though the famous three musketeers, Porthos, Athos and Aramis, are there at the time of the arrest, they manage to arrest them with the powerful help of overwhelming odds, but we get some good old fashioned swashbuckling in the process, with the film sped up just a little to highlight the lack of real fencing ability.

This is very much a Hollywood production, so there's absolutely no pretense to sound remotely French. Even in the early scenes, people like Albert Dekker and Warren William sound exactly as you'd expect them to sound. Nobody in the entire picture sounds anything but American and it's also amazing how much solid oak furniture and heavy iron carriages can bend and move under the slightest strain. These are not solid sets, that's for sure. The acting is unremarkable for the most part too, even though here are a lot of names here. Warren William is good, though this is hardly a role of precode depth, and Joseph Schildkraut makes a superb Fouquet, the man behind the throne, but it's Louis Hayward who really shines in the dual role of both the twin boys: the arrogant King Louis XIV and the dashing Philippe of Gascony.

Given that the director is James Whale, it's hardly surprising to see many thirties horror regulars here: D'Arcy Corrigan was in Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Invisible Man and Bride of Frankenstein, and there are also more recognisable names like Albert Dekker, Dr Cyclops himself, and Dwight Frye, the best Renfield ever. The most surprising horror regular though is Peter Cushing, here as the King's messenger in his debut role on film. I had to rewind bck to certain sections to find Cushing: it wasn't a very big part. Either that, or the fact that he's listed in IMDb as 'King's messenger' but in the credits as 'Second officer'. He's really the officer with the feather in his hat at the forefront of the attack to arrest the musketeers early on.

Also unfortunately, there's not a lot of swashbuckling going on here. There's a lot of romance and a good deal of fun political shenanigans, but not much swordfighting, and that's rather an untenable position for a film that features not just D'Artagnan, but also Porthos, Athos and Aramis. James Whale was a genius at making horror movies, and he loved his musicals, but he doesn't seem to have anwhere near as much understanding of what makes an action film. This is fun but doesn't make it much above average, which makes it pretty awful for 1939!

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Philadelphia (1993) Jonathan Demme

Philadelphia, quite apart from winning a major Oscar and another one that nobody really cares about, came with the reputation of being a serious weepie. It follows the story of Andrew Beckett from being promoted to being a senior associate at work to being fired for being a gay man with AIDS. He's obviously not well from moment one and he knows it, as even ten minutes into the film he's lying to avoid answering questions about blemishes, applying cosmetics to cover up skin coloration problems and undergoing painful procedures like colonoscopies. Yes, everything points towards a major weepie with a very topical 90s twist, especially when within a very short while Beckett suddenly has a shaven head, a beard and a growing collection of open wounds on his head.

I have two main problems with this film, that are pretty hard to overcome. Firstly, that major Oscar was won by Tom Hanks as Beckett, setting into play a whole new trend of comedians pretending to be serious actors. To be fair, some of them are damn fine at it, and I'm not going to say that Hanks isn't one of them, but I still have trouble seeing him as anything other than the perfect candidate to play the lead in Big. I grew up watching Hanks play comedy and play it very well indeed and that's ingrained enough that I have problems not laughing every time I see him. I realise that I'm not supposed to do that when he's trying not to lose it because he's been fired from his important well paying job and he's about to die of a horrible debilitating disease, but it's difficult, damn it!

My other problem is that I'm suppose to feel sorry for him for all that he's going through, and that's difficult to avoid given the circumstances. Almost every time we see Beckett, he looks worse. His face gets thinner, his eyelids get redder, his cough gets louder and he's obviously weaker with every month that goes by. However he's a lawyer who works for a high powered law firm, hardly a job that has any great sympathy in my book. Worse yet he's a lawyer who handles copyright law and while I don't wish a single person on the planet death from AIDS or anything else, I don't see many groups of people lower as human beings than high powered copyright lawyers. Certainly it's not a job that's likely to pick up any sympathy from me.

So through my own personal prejudices, I have problems with the film from a sympathetic angle. I have no problem with gay men or black men, I just despise lawyers, especially copyright lawyers, so this isn't a great weepie for me. I got more emotion out of the aria and that really wasn't the point. However as a film I can appreciate that Philadelphia is very well constructed indeed. I wasn't even that bored during the extended legal sequences which tend to send me to sleep. A lot of that is due to the performance, not of Tom Hanks, but of his legal counsel played by Denzel Washington. Counsellor Joe Miller isn't as prejudiced as many, even many in this film, but he does have problems with gays. He flares up when a young black man tries to pick him up in a drugstore and he's forced to reexamine his own fears and prejudices as he defends his gay client. He's superb and to my mind much better than Hanks.

The senior partner at Beckett's former law firm is also superb. He's Charles Wheeler, played by veteran actor Jason Robards, who has more than one great performance behind him, not least a wonderful showing as Al Capone in Roger Corman's The St Valentine's Day Massacre. This is one of the best though, powerful and controlled, and it's hard to notice anyone else when he's on the screen. There are other names here that are notable, not least Roger Corman himself, in a small role as someone Beckett won a case for but who is being obviously coached by the opposition. Another surprising name for me to see here in a film about dying gay men with AIDS is Charles Napier, who I remember from Russ Meyer movies like Supervixens and Cherry, Harry and Raquel that are about very lively heterosexual women with huge knockers, possibly the most diametrically opposed subject matter possible.

Mary Steenburgen looks amazingly young to me as one of the opposition lawyers and she speaks wonderfully. She and a number of her colleagues do a great job of forwarding their case while inwardly resenting what they're doing. Antonio Banderas is many a woman's dream date but he's Beckett's boyfriend here, Miguel Alvarez. He doesn't get to do much at all except be a little bitchy on occasion, but I guess that's understandable. He isn't the focus of the show, after all. Unfortunately Beckett isn't to me either. Oscar or no Oscar, this film belongs to Denzel Washington and Jason Robards, both of whom already had Oscars of their own by this time. I'm surprised that neither were even nominated here. I'd have voted for both of them over Hanks.

Monday, 12 February 2007

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954) Richard Fleischer

Back in the days when Disney knew how to make seriously good family entertainment, instead of politically correct garbage, they put out this version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, the greatest of many versions of the classic Jules Verne novel. Verne has been filmed often, because his stories of scientific romance and adventure combined accurate extrapolations with plenty of action and suspense. They, together with certain novels by H G Wells, provide the foundation of modern science fiction, and they can't be ignored. They're also damn fine reads. This is certainly one of the best adaptations of his work, and it's hard to think of another this good. The Adventures of Michael Strogoff maybe.

The story has the world of 1868 fired up by stories of a great sea monster that has been sinking ships in the Pacific shipping lanes. The trade routes from the west coast of the States to the far east are in dire peril so the US government sends out a warship to investigate. Naturally it gets sunk too, leaving only three survivors. There's Ned Land, a lively grinning master harpoonist played by Kirk Douglas, who had enough clout in 1954 to claim the lead; and there's Professor Arronax, a respectable yet open minded French scientist, played by Paul Lukas, and his apprentice, Conseil, played by the wonderful Peter Lorre who for some reason sleepwalks through a good deal of this. Then again he claimed that the giant squid got the part usually reserved for him. The last of the four stars credited on the title card is the man behind the monster, which as we all know is the submarine known as the Nautilus. He is Captain Nemo, 'nobody' in Latin, and he's ably played by James Mason, full of disdain and barely restrained madness. All four of them are obviously enjoying themselves and their enthusiasm is infectious.

The last real star, for there is another (and more yet if you count Esmeralda the seal and the giant squid), is the Nautilus itself. I look at this, a Disney concoction from the fifties, and can't help but compare it to the huge and unwieldy version seen in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film that was magic for half an hour, due mostly to the imagination of writer Alan Moore, and dire for the rest, courtesy of Sean Connery and the rest of the people behind the film who didn't get what any of it was really about, and decided to turn it into nothing more than yet another blockbuster with big budget CGI. All the powerful computer graphics provided was a means to ignore the meaning of the word 'restraint'. This is an ornate Nautilus but one that looks exactly as it should, both as far as functionality and ostentatiousness.

There's a lot of depth in the source novel that unfortunately doesn't get far beyond Nemo here. He's an outcast from society, imprisoned and enslaved by a country questing after his scientific secrets who went on to torture and kill his wife and child and send him a little over the edge. Now he lives almost entirely off the sea, harvesting food from the ocean floor and turning it into gourmet delicacies. Nemo doesn't just eat sea snake and sea cucumber, he makes cigars out of seaweed. Yet he does what he can to limit the warfaring capability of the nations by sinking ships leaving islands laden with the raw materials from which to make munitions. It's a thin line at the best of times, killing x number of men to save ten times x, and one that Nemo crosses willingly. One can only admire his conviction while decrying his lack of appreciation of the sanctity of human life. Nowadays he'd be called a terrorist, but that's a fine line in itself. Anyway, the moral ambiguity is bungled more than a little here, but the adventure is still there.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

In the Line of Fire (1993) Wolfgang Petersen

Clint Eastwood got more and more powerful as an actor as time went by, and this one came right after Unforgiven, which won him an Oscar for Best Director and a nomination for Best Actor. He plays a Secret Service agent called Frank Horrigan who has a lot of experience behind him. He had Kennedy's ear, apparently, but didn't have much luck saving him on the grassy knoll. Now he has another chance to save a president, because there's some nutjob getting ready to have a go at the new one, thirty years later. He calls himself Booth, for obvious reasons, and takes a personal interest in needling Horrigan while he prepares for his day in the sun.

Booth isn't his real name, of course. He's Mitch Leary, ably portrayed by a freaky John Malkovich, who works his way through a whole slew of disguises and who took the job, so unlike his usual roles, just so that he could work with Eastwood. The character did precisely the same, as he has no real political reason to assassinate the top man in the States. He's just a former CIA assassin keen to play the game with the one agent left with a dead president on his conscience. Malkovich is as great as you'd expect, juggling different images and mixing sheer talent at his job with a notable lack of passion.

Also prominent is Rene Russo as a female agent called Lilly Raines. She's just a little young to be working a romantic angle with Eastwood, but then most actresses around 63 years of age haven't tended to age quite so well as he has. Russo was only 39. What surprised me most about Russo is how few films she's made, given that I seem to have seen so many of them. She's made only twenty films in almost as many years, and always seems to make her mark in them. That's less evident here, as the whole thing is about the game between Leary and Horrigan, but she certainly has nothing to be ashamed of.

The other star is the story. As much as this is Hollywood product, and thus hardly realistic, this plays rather believably for its genre. The dialogue feels right, though about half the profanity seems forced and unrealistic. There's a tense rooftop case that ends in a bizarre WWE style ending: when there are two people with the opportunity to kill the other, naturally it's a third that gets it. Even the technical side rings true, with the many extreme preparations needed to clear a hotel room for a presidential visit fascinating. Definitely a good entry in the secret service thriller category, though I'm not sure the three Oscar nominations were really justified.

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) Stanley Kramer

This one was always going to be interesting, especially to me because it contains in its cast almost every single comedian in the United States who was still alive at the time. I know many of these names, but I recognise almost none of them, even with IMDb in front of me to tell me who's who. And that's what it is: a Who's Who of American comedy: Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Buddy Hackett, Ethel Merman and her huge mouth and so on. I know some of them well: Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, and even Dick Shawn from The Producers.

Further down in the supporting cast are Joe E Brown, William Demarest, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Leo Gorcey, Sterling Holloway, Edward Everett Horton, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Mike Mazurki, Zasu Pitts, Carl Reiner and the Three Stooges. People like Jack Benny, Minta Durfee, Allen Jenkins and Jerry Lewis don't even get credited, there are so many names in the cast! There's even Terry-Thomas, about as far from an American as you could imagine, and over all of them is no less a leading man than Spencer Tracy.

It starts with a big stunt but then takes a while to get moving. Jimmy Durante is chasing around winding roads at high speed but ends up flying out into the desert. Men from each of the four cars he's just overtaken head on down to see if he's OK and find that he's at death's door with every bone in his body broken, but he finds the time to explain that there's a huge amount of money buried underneath a big W in Santa Rosita State Park. Durante is Smiler Grogan, a thief, and now his loot, from a job fifteen years earlier is up for grabs. The eight occupants of the four cars can't come to an agreement on how to split the loot so it becomes a race with every man for himself.

Tracy is a cop, a police captain no less, and while he only had one more film left in him, you wouldn't have believed it from his performance here. He's a dynamo, pure and simple, as Capt Culpepper, who can't stop the racers until he finds out where the money is. He's by far the most fun thing about the film, except watching for all those cameo appearances, because all the leads are presumably just playing their traditional comedic personas. Naturally, not being either American or alive when this came out, I don't recognise any of these so all I see is a bunch of comedians I don't recognise overacting more than a little.

There are magic moments here that I'm sure are priceless to the target American audience. One example is when the camera pans across three firemen who are instantly recognisable to one and all as the Three Stooges: we laugh even though absolutely nothing happens because we could see the next ten minutes of plot that could have been. I get the impression that there are a whole bunch of these magic moments even though I hardly recognise any of them. Another is the Jack Benny cameo which obviously means something but I don't know what. Maybe the American audience who laugh themselves silly at this film would be just as confused about something very English like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, while I'd be in stitches. What this one can say for itself is that it's presumably the first in a trend that led to many other such race films including that one and The Great Race, on to The Cannonball Run and even the far more recent Rat Race.

It's a long film that seems far too long to me. It even admits it, to my thinking, when Spencer Tracy has to sum up everyone's positions in the race after the intermission and entr'acte. It also feels dated to my English palate, as do most of the other films I've just mentioned, to be fair, but while they've aged well this one hasn't.

Kapò (1959) Gillo Pontecorvo

We're back in Nazi persecution of the Jews territory again, but this time around it's an Italian film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo who also made the stunning The Battle of Algiers, seven years after this one. Pontecorvo was a Jew himself, and was involved in resistance work during the war, so he knew what he was talking about when he co-wrote this with Franco Solinas. Unlike The Shop on Main Street though, this one takes us beyond the town boundaries, so we see where the Jews go after being packed onto the trains.

Our heroine is Edith, played by the young Susan Strasberg. She's a fourteen year old pianist, who is shipped off to the camps with her family, but she quickly escapes from her block to trade places with a dead criminal, with the aid of a doctor who is a political prisoner. This way she avoids the gas chamber for a work camp.

The film is obviously far more brutal than The Shop on Main Street, and the dark black and white photography is suitably oppressive. It's awful, literally, as it well should be. Pontecorvo shows us images that aren't easily forgotten, but never dwells on them for supposed cinematic effect: children are packed into bunks like battery hens, endless groups of people are run naked into gas chambers and people who drop dead are thrown into mass graves. None of this is pretty, which of course it shouldn't be, but it's starkly so.

The brutality sets the scene, but it doesn't pervade the film. After all, two hours of that would be nigh on unbearable. It merely defines how pointless it is for the women, who comprise most of the main cast, to resist the situation they've been thrown into. The lesson is to survive, at almost any cost, until it's all over and the Red Army arrives to save the day. It doesn't take long for Edith, hiding under the name of Nicole, to find out how best to survive. She becomes a whore for the guards and soon a kapo, the guard for her block.

The problem with the film is that some of the cast, Susan Strasberg included, seem to rise above their situations a little too blatantly. Strasberg in particular looks way too clean and pretty in the camp, and even too happy given her situation. After all, she's a kapo by necessity of circumstance, not because she wants to. There are points when she seems tortured by her conscience but not often, even while planning escape. She can do the horrified look with wide eyes and tears, and gets the opportunity, but it doesn't come often. She can really do the lost and frightened look. What she can't do is the cold dark nothingness look and that's really what's needed most in this story. That omission hits the believability of the whole thing. It's a powerful movie but it comes up short, even with its superb finale.

The Shop on Main Street (1965) Ján Kadár & Elmar Klos

On the last day of 1941 in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, the Czechs are watching trains again. Even the station looks similar to that in Closely Watched Trains, the other film from the Czech New Wave to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, which it did two years after this one woke the world up to such a thing. It only took me another forty years to catch up but I think I can be excused because I wasn't even born in 1965.

The lead character is Tono, who in the tradition of the Czech New Wave doesn't do a heck of a lot. He's a carpenter who makes troughs and gates, it seems, for a little money but ends up taking payment in pigeons. He enjoys simple pleasures like walking his dog and playing hopscotch on the street, soaking his feet in water and chatting with the locals. However he can't stand his brother in law who is the local Nazi commander. This seems to be mutual but Tono is still gifted with the administration of a local Jewish store that has been appropriated by the Nazis.

Tono is played by Jozef Króner, who is wonderful. He was a real actor, unlike many who played parts in Czech New Wave films, and his range of emotions is joyous to see. He can go from bitter and drunkenly shouting to wry smiles and obvious depth in seconds and still be believable throughout. He quickly discovers that Mrs Lautmann who runs this shop on Main Street is half blind, mostly deaf, quite possibly senile to boot, and has almost nothing left to sell, living on alms that the rest of the Jewish community raise for her. In short, he's been given a lemon by his brother-in-law after the real Nazis have divided up all the profitable places between themselves.

He ends up helping her out without her even understanding that he's really in charge, becoming something akin to friends with her in the process. He fixes up the woodwork on her broken down furniture and she gives him clothes that belonged to her dead husband, though of course he has to hide all of this from his wife and especially from her Nazi brother. These joyous double acts are the heart of the film, with Mrs Lautmann's blissful ignorance of everything going on being a close second. She's played by Ida Kaminska, a hugely influential Jewish actress who is stunning here, and was even nominated for an Oscar for her work, something almost unheard of in 1965 for a foreign language performance.

There's a tone to The Shop on Main Street that fits with the other couple of Czech New Wave pictures that I've seen, and it's joyous. It's no comedy, that's for sure, but it treats serious subjects with a light heart and such films enrich the soul. There's plenty of seriousness here: we work through the period when the Jews are gradually dispossessed, then marked, then shipped off to camps. In many ways Tono is as oblivious to what's going on as Mrs Lautmann: he understands some of it but gradually comes to realise just what the Nazis are up to. The ending is a peach and reminds me in one way of Brazil: hardly a standard happy ending.

The music helps too. I've always had a passion for Eastern European music, classical or folk, with an abundance of fiddles and power, and there's plenty here to have kept me happy even had the story not kept up with it, which it surely does. Some of the solo violin work is truly creepy, and the main themes powerful. This one's a gem, even more so than Closely Watched Trains, which is another great Czech film from this era. I really need to start checking out what else the Czech New Wave did and how I can get to see more of the films that comprised it. I'm three for three right now.

Charly (1968) Ralph Nelson

While the opening credits roll we watch a man, presumably Charly, play with kids in a playground. He's having a great time but he hardly seems to be all there. Next thing we see he's watching intellectuals arguing about something important but without having any obvious fun. The suggestion is obvious: Charly may not have much in the way of brain power but he's enjoying life. He's fully functional and has a great character, able to hold down a job but unable to hold a grudge against those who make fun of him. He ends up laughing along with those co-workers who play tricks on him rather than getting upset.

What makes this story special is that scientists have worked out how to successfully perform an operation on mice to increase their IQ and they believe that they're now ready to try to the same thing on a human being. Naturally, Charly gets to be the guinea pig, but the results are both good and bad. Now he's able to learn and function at a much higher level, more and more all the time, but he's also able to see how he's been exploited and be aware of the negative. His intellectual progress also far outstrips his emotional progress but of course he's in uncharted territory.

Cliff Robertson won an Oscar for playing Charly, and that's not surprising in the slightest. It's a gift of a part, one that the Academy would always take notice of. Charly is disabled, not physically but mentally, and any story of struggle to overcome disability is always going to be noticed. Robertson does a superb job making us believe him as a mentally retarded adult, but he doesn't drop the ball when he becomes more intelligent than those around him. There's always something 'other' there to highlight how he's never really just like anyone else, yet in many ways he's always a little more than us in some direction or other. The revelations of the last third of the film grant him even more opportunity to shine and he lives up to all of it.

Outside of Robertson, there's the story, which was a classic in literature before it ever reached film. The story, and then the debut novel, both by Daniel Keyes, were both called Flowers for Algernon, Algernon being the test mouse that the retarded Charly races through identical mazes, Algernon physically and Charly on paper. Both were hugely successful, the novel even winning the Hugo Award, but Keyes turned out to be far from prolific. The filmmaking is interesting, with some very sixties split screen work and psychedelia. The rest of the cast though are entirely support and don't get any real opportunity to do much more, even Claire Bloom who is still well worth watching.

I'm pretty sure I've read the book, though a long while ago. My lass remembers it well and much prefers it to the film, which by necessity misses a lot of it out. Most importantly she says that the film doesn't have the passion of the book.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

Jerry Maguire (1996) Cameron Crowe

Jerry Maguire is a sports agent, so all the crap at the beginning about America setting the tone for the world makes sense. Sure, I can buy the concept of seeing that little girl diver in the next Olympics but I also know that she'll get her ass handed to her by the Chinese. There are precisely three countries in the world who play baseball and only one who plays American Football, so American dominance there is a given. Basketball, I'll grant you: the rest of the world would love to play basketball like Americans and the only way we can do it is to go to the States, but that's only one sport out of four mentioned. The sport America dominates in most, even above basketball, is publicity. It knows exactly how to lie to people because that's what advertising is and that's what corporate America does. It's great at putting a nice shiny surface onto a pile of crap and making people believe whatever it wants.

That's what Jerry Maguire does, but he discovers that he hates who he has become. He works for Sports Management International and represents a ton of sports stars but flips out one night and writes a mission statement called 'The Things We Think But Do Not Say'. It really impresses Dorothy McGuire, who works in his office, but also gets him fired, so he has to start over again. She goes with him but the only star that follows suit is football player Rod Tidwell, played by Oscar winning Cuba Gooding Jr. So he gets to put his money where his mouth is and represent one person full time.

Tom Cruise is Jerry Maguire, not just because he's the actor playing the part but because he's the perfect man for the job. In many ways he really is Jerry Maguire, a piece of plastic that lives on falsehoods, and the insincerity oozes off him in swathes. Here he's telling people things they want to hear and landing them contracts so that they can tell other people things they don't want to hear, and he does it for a living. In real life he bounces up and down on Oprah's couch and sells Scientology to the masses. There really isn't anyone else who could play Maguire like this, except perhaps John Travolta, who isn't far off being the same person. Maybe one day we'll find out that neither of them really exist and they're just CGI ahead of its time.

This is possibly the truest role he's had since Risky Business, and yet he still comes close to having the show stolen out from underneath him by Jonathan Lipnicki as Dorothy's son, in his film debut at the age of six. Cuba Gooding Jr is absolutely spot on as the up and coming football player from Arizona trying to make it, and this film justifiably made his career, even though he'd already had some great roles. Renee Zellweger also made her career here and she's an excellent counter to Cruise, but she came to this role from one that really should have won her an Oscar of her own, The Whole Wide World, which stunned me. This is just where the rest of the world caught up.

As for the film itself, I haven't bought into the Cameron Crowe legend, but I also haven't seen Almost Famous yet. There's magic here but I think it may need a couple of viewings to see the real power. What I'm seeing is the performances, not the filmmaking. Is that a sign that the director's done his job really right or that he hasn't done it as well as the actors have done theirs? Maybe I'll know that after a couple more of his films. Oh, and the lines that became huge here, including 'Show me the money!' and 'You had me at 'Hello'!', don't compare in my book with another one that I hadn't even heard before: 'That's not a dress. That's an Audrey Hepburn movie.' Maybe it's just too subtle to be a catchphrase but it's still a peach.

Sleeper (1973) Woody Allen

Miles Monroe plays the clarinet with the Ragtime Rascals and he owns half a health food restaurant in Greenwich Village. He's also, at the start of the movie, being woken up after 200 years in cryogenic storage, the sleeper of the title. As Monroe is played by Woody Allen and the film was made in 1973, still pre-Annie Hall, we're treated to a whole slew of sight gags before he even gets the opportunity to open his mouth. Soon he discovers that he's been brought back because the America of 2173 is controlled by a dictatorial regime and the underground needs someone unidentifiable in a world where everyone is numbered and categorised. Woody Allen naturally wouldn't have been most people's first choice as hero, making this something of a futuristic Bananas.

The obvious point of the film is of course to comment on twentieth century culture from the safe perspective of 200 years into the future, which Allen has a field day with: everyone from Norman Mailer to the Pope is fair game and this is the only science fiction film I've ever seen that doesn't believe in science. Some of the commentary is surprisingly prophetic, given my perspective of a further thirty years, but it's mostly just there for the gags, which abound.

The other point is to provide Allen with the chance to play around with slapstick. Huge parts of the film are devoted entirely to slapstick comedy, often silent, with Allen taking on various obvious personas. Buster Keaton is the most frequent inspiration, but when Monroe is dressed up as a household robot he looks more than a little like Harold Lloyd and one of the rehabilitation scenes is obviously tailored after Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times. There's also plenty of Marx Brothers inspiration here, and they were slapstick comedians outside the slapstick era.

I'd heard plenty about this one and it's resonated down the years, but I have to say I was a little disappointed. It's not as consistently funny as Bananas or as out there as Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask, which were his previous two films. It fits much better to my thinking with his next, Love and Death, which like this had moments of genius and moments of blah. It isn't enough to have a gag a second, they've all got to connect, and unless I'm just too much from a different time and place to get all of this one, more than a few didn't connect.

Alibi (1929) Roland West

I seem to be watching a lot of old prison movies lately, but none quite so old as this. Anyway, it only starts in prison because we're watching star Chester Morris get released as Chick Williams, prisoner no 1065. These scenes play just like a silent movie, which apparently Alibi also was. This was 1929, after all, and thus soon after the advent of sound yet before the arrival in Hollywood of many of the next generation of stars in 1930 and 1931. Whole sections are very quiet because the technicians hadn't quite worked out how everything worked yet, songs are dubbed because the singers can't sing and yet, like Fritz Lang's M, there are scenes driven by sound, not whistling this time but the tapping in code of policemen's nightsticks, from which the title of the source play, Nightstick, was derived.

Williams may be an ex-con but he marries a police sergeant's daughter, much to the anger of her father, played by a painfully overacting Purnell Pratt. He tries to pin a murder on him, a cop who was killed during a robbery, but his own daughter provides the alibi as they were at a theatre at the time the murder was committed. However he's still the man behind the job and he unwittingly hires an undercover cop to provide the alibi for the five minutes the two of them weren't together.

Much of it looks highly impressive, courtesy of Roland West's direction, which was always underrated, and the work of other major names that I'm starting to recognise, such as art direction by William Cameron Menzies, who went on to become the industry's first credited production designer for Gone with the Wind, and cinematography by Ray June, three times Oscar nominated. West, June and Morris would return for the wonderful film The Bat Whispers only one year later, which looked just as great. There are some superb uses of shadows, unusual camera angles, some fluid camerawork early on, even a few point of view shots from theatre boxes or the insides of cars. However there are other scenes where the camera does nothing at all, probably because the limitations of sound technology at the time meant that they couldn't move it around too much.

These are the biggest downsides. There are some very talky (yet quiet) scenes that really don't gel at all with the effective visuals and innovative use of sound. The silent scenes are great, but the talky scenes seriously boring and often very stagy too. When watching examples like this, I wonder how the industry managed to make a success out of the whole sound concept!

Also, Purnell Pratt isn't the ony actor seriously chewing up the scenery. Regis Toomey must make the worst fake drunk I think I've ever seen in my life, and he has the most overblown death scene in history that wasn't intended to be for laughs. He has an inane grin that makes him look like a retarded and shrunken Art Garfunkel, or maybe a moronic Peter MacNicol. Harry Stubbs is monotonal and sleep inducing, and Irma Harrison isn't far behind. I could act better than them and I know I can't act. Even Mae Busch is dire. Of all the actors, only Chester Morris is acceptable, with a few great scenes and a couple of bad ones, but even then this is probably the worst I've seen him out of nine films.

Friday, 9 February 2007

The Hurricane (1937) John Ford

This is a sound film made before Stagecoach, so it's not a John Ford western. It also doesn't have a star, which seems very strange for Ford movies, given that most of them star John Wayne, the most freqent leading man in cinematic history. What it does have is a lot of great names in supporting roles, including Thomas Mitchell who was Oscar nominated for his work. Out of eight actors on the first screen there are only two I don't recognise: Jon Hall and Jerome Cowan. Maybe I'll recognise them instead. The rest are all great resonating names: Dorothy Lamour, John Carradine and C Aubrey Smith, along with three actors reuniting from the same year's The Prisoner of Zenda: Mary Astor, Thomas Mitchell and Raymond Massey.

It doesn't start that well, with all the standard romantic stuff to accompany the marriage of Turangi and Marama, played by Hall and Lamour respectively. Fortunately it gets quickly better. We're on the island of Manikoora, somewhere in the South Seas. Turangi is a sailor and on his first voyage after his wedding he gets locked up on Tahiti, six hundred miles away, sentenced to six months for striking a white man who hit him first and for no good reason. He escapes, again and again, only to be recaptured and his sentence increased until it reaches sixteen years! In the meantime the French colonial governor of Manikoora refuses to intervene or take Turangi under into his own custody, much to the annoyance of everyone else on the island, from the governor's wife on down.

By the time he finally makes it out successfully, to be rescued off Manikoora by the local priest, we're not far off the wind that overturns the world, the hurricane of the title, which is awesome for 1937, a couple of terrible rear projection shots notwithstanding. Father Paul, the priest, is C Aubrey Smith, hardly a stretch for him as he'd played such before, as far back as 1920 even, and would again. I wonder if he ever played a character in his life who wasn't in a position of authority. Somehow it doesn't seem likely. The rest of the cast play exactly the sort of roles you'd expect too.

Thomas Mitchell is a drunken doctor, just like in Stagecoach and probably a bunch of other films too. John Carradine is the sadistic warden, similar to almost every bit part he played all the way down into the abysmal Z-grade days in the decades to come. Raymond Massey is the half paranoid Governor De Laage, with the crooked sneer he somehow always got to show off in the thirties in perennial haughty and tyrannical bad guy roles. He's as inflexible a lawman here as Judge Dredd. Mary Astor is his decent wife who probably gets more to do than most women under the code, not that it still amounts to much. She'd done plenty in the precodes and it was only five years before The Maltese Falcon and a rebirth in film noir.

None of them are surprising in their roles, which they could each have played in their sleep, and that doesn't help the film. Turangi is so dynamic I'm surprised Jon Hall never ended up donning Tarzan's loincloth for a movie or three, and his wife is suitably beautiful in a never ending wardrobe of sarongs and the like. Then again Dorothy Lamour is far better looking when drenched with water during the hurricane, while strapped to a tree. 1937 was just as bad as 1927 for cinematic makeup, just in a completely different direction of overkill. All in all, another good John Ford movie that doesn't quite leap any higher than that.

Thursday, 8 February 2007

The Criminal Code (1931) Howard Hawks

It's always good to see the early Boris Karloff and luckily it's not too hard, given that TCM plays a lot of precodes and he was always a busy man back then. He made no less than seventeen films in 1931 and this is my sixth of them. The one that matters most, of course, not just for 1931 but for his entire career, is Frankenstein, but that came at the end of the year and made him box office dynamite for 1932. Here he's fourth on the bill, the highest name not to make the title card, and he gets plenty of opportunity to show us just why he got picked to play the Monster not too long afterwards.

Walter Huston is the lead, as he so often was back then and justifiably too. He's Martin Brady, who starts out as a tough and fast talking District Attorney, and the Criminal Code of the title is his bible. He obviously cares about what he does, and what he does here is get a young man locked up for ten years for second degree murder even though he had no intent to kill and he was really drunk at the time. We leap forward six years and find him sharing a cell with an oldtimer planning an escape and Karloff's character, Galloway, planning an appointment with the squealer who sent him back inside. Galloway been let out on parole but one drink in a speakeasy got him sent back for parole violation by the man who now works as his Yard Captain. Karloff makes the best of his moments in the spotlight and they're powerfully memorable.

The young boy is Robert Graham, played by someone called Phillips Holmes, who I've never even heard of but who does a solid job. It's far more deep and meaningful than the standard pretty boy role, almost broken after six years of his sentence but revitalised by three months as the new Warden's driver, and Holmes does it all justice, even if he does try a little too hard at points. He seems to have made a decent amount of films but died in a plane collision in 1942. The new warden of course is Martin Brady, the same DA Brady that got him convicted, and he gets most of the rest of the great scenes. Huston is superb here, as I'm discovering he usually was. He was one of the most believable actors ever at displaying both sheer decent integrity and characters with balls the size of dump trucks, often at the same time.

The plot here isn't particularly original, even for early 1931, but it's done far better than many similar films could manage ten, twenty or more years later. Huston and Karloff are great, and Phillips Holmes isn't bad at all, even though he's very much in their shadows. What's most important, though, is that none of the three characters are black and white, no pun intended: all of them have depths and complexities to their personas that makes us think. Warden Brady is the good guy but he's no hero; Galloway is far more heroic but he's a murderer; and Graham starts out an accidental killer but learns to find integrity in the code of his fellow inmates. Another good one from 1931.

Monday, 5 February 2007

Cain and Mabel (1936) Lloyd Bacon

Warner Brothers present a Cosmopolitan Production, with Marion Davies credited above Clark Gable, a major feat for 1936, and a surprising one given that Davies only had one film left in her after this one. She's the Mabel of the title, Mabel O'Dare, a waitress who loses her job due to fast talking Roscoe Karns who tries to make up by making her a Broadway star. Through misadventure rather than talent, he manages it and she has to work up until the last minute to get her routines down pat. Unfortunately Larry Cain is in the room one floor up in the hotel, and he's trying to sleep before his world title fight at Madison Square Garden the next day.

Why the hotel would give precedence to a Broadway showgirl who hadn't even appeared on stage yet over a heavyweight contender I really don't know, but there's not a lot of realism here. The other half of the story has Cain not earning any money because of poor gate receipts, even after he works his way back up to the top and wins the championship. So their respective managers decide to join forces and build both their reputations by throwing in a non-existent romance, without either of them initially knowing about it and then without their approval.

It turns out that there are two reasons why Davies is credited above Gable. The first is that there's a lot more of her than him and the second is that she's a far better comedian. My experience so far, and this is my eighth Marion Davies picture, is that as long as it's a comedy she's probably going to be fine; the more dramatic the film, the less worthy it's likely to be. However this one falls down not for not being a comedy, just for not being a funny one. It really doesn't bring many laughs and that's mostly the fault of the material.

It was more fun watching the extras: Allen Jenkins is third on the credit list but doesn't get much of a part as Gable's trainer; Roscoe Karns is fourth as Davies's manager, but he doesn't get much to do either. Ruth Donnelly is in there too to offer a few wisecracks, and I don't think she knew how not to be funny. There's even a tiny bit of E E Clive, better known as Bulldog Drummond's man Tenny. He gets nothing to do here either, which seems to be a common theme for everyone below leading status. If only it didn't really count for the leads too, the film might have been salvageable, but unfortunately it just ends up as another film without anything to say for it.

Sunday, 4 February 2007

Die! Die! My Darling! (1965) Silvio Narizzano

The mid sixties seem to have been a fine time for the return of great Hollywood leading ladies in grand grimoire horror movies, and this one is a solid entry in that canon by virtue of a decent script by genre legend Richard Matheson and a powerful lead performance from Tallulah Bankhead. Made as Fanatic, it was distributed in the US as Die! Die! My Darling!, presumably to capitalise on the similarly phrased Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte, released the previous year with Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland. 1965 saw Hammer release both this and Davis in the The Nanny, a solidly star studded year for them.

Stefanie Powers is the nominal lead, a young American lady called Patricia Carroll who is visiting England to get married. However before she does she wants to put to rest one of the ghosts of her past, by visiting her dead former fiance's mother. Unfortunately this is Tallulah Bankhead's character, Mrs Trefoile, a religious maniac who dominates the story. She's banned from her house meat, condiments, mirrors, make up, the colour red, you name it, and now considers it her duty to imprison Pat until she saves her soul by converting her to the path of righteousness.

She's assisted in her work by a number of characters, including her servants, a married couple played by Peter Vaughan and Yootha Joyce, both of whom I know from British television: Vaughan from Porridge and Joyce from George and Mildred. They're both excellent, each with their own motivations that they depict well. There's also an almost unrecognisable Donald Sutherland as a mentally retarded handyman, again believable through its very strangeness. It's undeniably Bankhead's show, partly because she could dominate anyone in her sleep but partly because she isn't afraid to become her character, just as Bette Davis did in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? only two years earlier and Gloria Swanson did in Sunset Boulevard, to possibly spark such things in the first place.

I wonder why this one had eluded me for so long. While I had missed some of the American gothic horrors until recently, I thought I'd seen most of the British ones. This is certainly a major exception though. Not only does it stand tall in such notable company but it seems to have plenty of movie references, both ones that it took from others such as the swinging lightbulb from Psycho and the small store that surely must have influenced Peter Jackson for Braindead. This one may have an outrageous B movie title, but it's definitely A list material.

Funny Face (1957) Stanley Donen

At the beginning of the film Miss Maggie Prescott, editor of Quality magazine, is bored with what she has for the current issue and so decides off the cuff that suddenly everything is boring and to fix the situation everything instead needs to be pink. Unfortunately from moment one this just reinforced my perspective on high fashion as being completely irrelevant, insubstantial and pointless. 'Think Pink', says Miss Prescott, and 'you've got to switch' say the lyrics to the song she sings. Of course, I don't buy that in the slightest, and thus I find myself all set against the entire point of the film after having seen only five minutes of it.

Soon Fred Astaire turns up to offer some substance to proceedings, as photographer Dick Avery, but all he does is conjure up the concept of invading a perfectly respectable bookstore to shoot their spread, throwing out the bookdealer Audrey Hepburn in the process. If anything else could be done to turn this film against me before it even started, this was it. OK, Hepburn's character is far too stereotypically boring an emotionless nerd to be remotely real, but she's still the only human being in a room otherwise populated by a domineering and inhuman magazine editor who should have been shot for the benefit of mankind, a photographer who should have been locked up, a supermodel with no brain who should have been kept well away and a bevy of pointless morons in pink who should have been smothered at birth. They breeze in, take over, kick out Audrey Hepburn, abuse the entire store and its contents, and then breeze back out again as if nothing had happened.

To add insult to injury the rest of the movie has the stains on the face of the globe converting the only worthwhile human being in the film into something like themselves, and having the gall to suggest that it was an improvement. They begin by trying to literally force her into it, which is horrendously offensive and a close thing in my book to rape. I remember the fuss about people complaining about the brutality in revenge for rape films like I Spit on Your Grave or Irreversible, but if anything this is more offensive because it dares to suggest that after being raped, maybe the victim should feel better for the experience, thank the unapologetic rapist and even apologise herself for even doubting how great it would be.

Cinematically the film has much in its favour, but that's not enough. Audrey Hepburn is as great as I'm learning she usually is, being as radiant as ever and easily believable as the only human character in the film. Fred Astaire can't turn his character into a pleasant person but he's good enough himself for him to be very watchable at least, which is really what an actor is supposed to do. Even Kay Thompson plays Miss Prescott well even though she's a loathsome waste of space. The songs by no lesser talents than George and Ira Gershwin are good ones, especially 'How Long Has This Been Going On?' The film looks gorgeous, courtesy of director Stanley Donen and cinematographer Ray June, who was Oscar nominated for his work. As cinematic art, it's a fine picture; as a story, message or not, it's obscene.

A Passage to India (1984) David Lean

A quick glance at the British Film Institute's list of the greatest hundred British films of all time shows the dominance of David Lean as he directed three of the top five films on the list: Brief Encounter, Lawrence of Arabia and Great Expectations. Not far behind is The Bridge on the River Kwai and the list also contains Doctor Zhivago and Oliver Twist. A more in depth look shows that some of his other films are also important, including his first, In Which We Serve, of which I've now seen half. David Lean is a huge part of British film history, and this was his last opportunity to show us what he could do.

We open to see Miss Adela Quested heading out of England for the first time, on the Peninsular & Oriental, now of course just known as P&O. She's bound for Bombay on a steam ship and just happens to have picked the same voyage as the Viceroy of India. Thus we're instantly greeted with pomp and pageantry and no end of grand scale, as you'd expect from the director of all those epics like Lawrence of Arabia. However as they all transfer from the boat to the train for the thousand mile journey to Chandrapore, we're also afforded glimpses into the inner characters of the people we meet, as you'd also expect from the director of less epic pictures like Brief Encounter.

David Lean makes sure that it's immediately obvious that there are two Indias: one for the native Indians and one for the colonial British. As the Viceroy's wife points out on the train, 'East is east and west is west,' with the unspoken ending to the phrase, 'and never the twain shall meet.' The Indian side is the poverty of masses sleeping in tiny spaces and the chaos of the marketplaces, while the British side is the artificial civility of planned streets, postboxes and cucumber sandwiches. Even the signposts highlight the difference. Indian ones list Indian names, yet the English ones only mention well known London names transferred overseas.

When Adela asks her friend, and almost fiance, Ronny, the local magistrate about the local hill caves, which are soon to become so crucial to the plot, it's obvious that he's never been there. His life revolves about the few truly British institutions there are in Chandrapore: his work at the court, his house and, above all, the club. The rest of it may as well be on the other side of the globe, especially as we soon discover that Indians are not even allowed into the club, making it almost foreign soil. It's very similar to the insanity of the American civil rights situation in the 1960s, only nearly half a century earlier and in the suppressed race's own country. Adela soon realises that while trying to see 'the real India', she's hardly met a real Indian.

However, her companion Mrs Moore, who is Ronny's mother, has. Dame Peggy Ashcroft, who it seems won every award in the book, including an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award, for her performance, doesn't buy into the 'never the twain shall meet' concept either. The first time we see her on her own she visits a mosque at night, aware of and abiding by the local customs and is more than respectful of the doctor who is also visiting, played by Victor Banerjee. She has an open and tolerant mind far too early for its time. She sees the Indians as people, pure and simple, and is fascinated by their culture.

The doctor she meets, Dr Aziz, is the personification of the 'never the twain shall meet', an educated Indian who speaks English but who is a second class citizen in his own country. For most of the film he is almost always hesitant, whether among his English acquaintances who fail to understand the Indians or among his fellow Indians who fail to understand the English. Banerjee is superb, as are Judy Davis and Peggy Ashcroft in the most obvious two roles. There's even Alec Guinness as an acceptable orthodox Sikh, but his voice is just too hard to hide to make it a great role for him. I know many of these actors, including Nigel Havers as Ronny, James Fox as the local professor, Richard Wilson as the Viceroy and others like Art Malik, Saeed Jaffrey and Clive Swift, many from English television.

A Passge to India is a peach of a film, that doesn't feel like it's nearly three hours long, looks wonderful and has plenty of depth into a country divided by design. There's also an admirable restraint, that avoids any of this becoming racist, even while it's depicting a racist society. Just because the British Raj was racist against the Indians doesn't mean that every white man living in India followed suit, and after the crucial turn of affairs halfway through the film that shakes up everything, we see racism on the Indian side, however justified they may have felt about it. Dr Aziz once more is the key character, changing his views as life changes him. Everything about Banerjee's performance is spot on and for me, I'll remember his work here as much as that of Peggy Ashcroft.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

The Monster That Challenged the World (1957) Arnold Laven

Some sailor parachutes into the Salton Sea in California and promptly disappears. The two sailors who go to pick him up are soon dead, one of sheer terror and the other completely drained of blood and water with his skin turned to leather. Soon there are other victims too, a local couple out swimming even though the Navy has put all the beaches into quarantine. The scientists investigating find plenty of evidence of radioactivity and so send down divers, but one of those is killed by a huge caterpillar monster in a deep ravine that they weren't previously aware of.

This isn't a particularly great monster movie but it isn't bad either, just a run of the mill exploration of the genre. What makes it at least a little special is its cast. The lead scientist, Dr Jess Rogers, is played by Hans Conreid, a veteran actor whose work spanned almost every genre. He played the title character in the Dr Seuss extravaganza The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T along with completely different appearance in films like Hitler's Children or Journey into Fear, bit parts in Capra movies and a voice acting stint as Wally Walrus, suggesting a serious versatility. The leading lady is Audrey Dalton but she does nothing more than show up and look pretty, like most leading ladies in monster movies. There's a scream or two as well, naturally.

The lead is the man who also played the lead in Hitler's Children with Conreid: Tim Holt, best known for being the third man in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre alongside heavyweights Humphrey Bogart and Walter Huston. Unfortunately Holt obviously doesn't want to be there and does little more than stand on camera and speak his lines. There's no acting at all, just presence and even then not one he wanted anyone to notice. I honestly don't believe that he could seriously hide all emotion accidentally when being menaced by a completely unexpected giant caterpillar monster looming ominously over the side of his boat. I think he just didn't care and made it very obvious. Maybe we should too.