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Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Personal Property (1937)

While it's always great to notch off another entry on a favourite filmography, the inevitable downside is that there's less left to find. This is the only Jean Harlow film I had missing from The Beast of the City in 1932 to the sadly early end of her career in Saratoga in 1937. At least I still have Platinum Blonde to look forward to. She plays a young and wealthy widow called Crystal Wetherby who is engaged to Claude Dabney, who really just wants her money. The twist is that she's engaged to him for precisely the same reason.

Unfortunately for Claude, his brother Raymond has just got out of prison after receiving what is apparently a hard deal. Raymond is Robert Taylor, romantic lead of the era and real life husband to Barbara Stanwyck. He's as calm as his brother and father, in the respective forms of Reginald Owen and E E Clive, are not. Owen in particular overacts to the point of apoplexy. They want to send him to another country and are quite happy to pay for it but Raymond doesn't want to leave London. Naturally he soon bumps into Crystal and falls in love with her though she has a terribly inconsistent accent that isn't sure what nationality or class it belongs to. Maybe he falls in love with her because of it.

The key part of the plot is that in pursuing her he manages to become a sheriff's officer acting for a bailiff to whom she owes a large sum of money, and thus gets to stay on the premises until the bill is paid in full. It's an intriguing law that may or may not be real but certainly sets the scene for an intriguing love story. What's most intriguing though is the humour. For twenty minutes or so the humour is as inconsistent as Crystal's accent and just as annoying. There are moments of genius, then nothing, then moments of genius again.

However once that long introduction is over, everything picks up. Harlow finds her way into the part and settles in nicely, proving as she did in many of her later films that she was becoming something of an actress. She certainly wasn't a natural and she was far from good in her first few roles, but through hard work and perseverance she became a joy to watch far beyond just her looks. The jokes pick up along with her performance and there are a bunch of classic lines that often slip by so easily that it takes a moment to realise how great they were. If only they weren't buried in so much clumsiness.

Taylor is deliciously calm and, posing as Crystal's butler, proves that William Powell wasn't the only good American butler in comedies, and the rest of the cast assist ably though completely stereotypically. Cora Witherspoon plays the dedicated socialite, Marla Shelton her nymphomaniac daughter, Lionel Braham as a forgetful lord and Barnett Parker as a snooty Englishman with an unfathomable accent. Luckily there's Una O'Connor as the one real servant Crystal has left. She doesn't get much of a part but she could always wring something out of nothing.

Tuesday, 29 January 2008

Calling Bulldog Drummond (1951)

A ruthless and seemingly highly coordinated gang of robbers in very cool masks is succeeding in their business all over London. Three times they've struck and three times they've succeeded. Every little detail is accounted for with the greatest of care and so Scotland Yard have almost nothing to go on. To take a stab at the 'almost' part of it, they call on Captain Hugh 'Bulldog' Drummond to go undercover, even though he's been happily retired for some years to focus on breeding pigs.

In fact he's been retired so long that he's no longer the familiar John Howard who played Drummond seven times, including in three out of the four I've seen thus far. This time out he's Walter Pidgeon who only got one shot at the role. He teams up with Margaret Leighton as a undercover policewoman called Sgt Helen Smith, very able but still a woman, which the highly sexist Drummond can't help but focus on.

There's a lot of thought put into the story, the machinations and counter-machinations, and I was highly impressed, but there are still points at which I couldn't help but throw my hands up in the air in exasperation. For instance Drummond leaves various things in his apartment to reinforce the fact that he's really Joe Crandall, and it works. The bad guys break in and check, which is all very well, but then he shouts out that it worked, gleefully ignoring any surveillance of the apartment or even that a bad guy might still be there.

That's but one example of a few, and really if you're going to go into such admirable detail you may as well be a little more consistent.

Monday, 28 January 2008

Death to the Tinman (2007)

This 12 minute short is apparently based on the L Frank Baum Oz novel The Tinwoodman of Oz, but 'the names have been changed to protect the innocent.' Intriguing. Of course not having read the thing, I have no clue how this resembles it in the slightest but that's probably not the point.

What we have here is a bizarre story of a volunteer firefighter who puts everyone else to shame and who suffers both their bizarre vengeance and an even more bizarre miracle. I'd describe the process but it would spoil the film entirely and I don't want to do that. I was rivetted if that isn't a horrendous pun. This is certainly something to experience, but I'd be lying if I said I had a clue what it really meant.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

The Sea Hawk (1924)

As I only discovered yesterday that there's a location in Phoenix that shows regular silent features (regular unfortunately being only every couple of months), I missed out on today's True Heart Susie, a D W Griffith film with the immortal Lillian Gish. I'll certainly be at the next one, which looks like Wings, the winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture and the most famous air story written by Fay Wray's husband, John Monk Saunders. I've been waiting a long while for that one!

So in the meantime, I have The Sea Hawk on my DVR. It's not the Errol Flynn vehicle from 1940, this is the 1924 version 'personally supervised and directed' by Frank Lloyd and starring Milton Sills. He was a former professor of psychology and philosophy who found a place in silent film as far more than a swashbuckler, exhibiting talent in a variety of roles. He was also one of the founders of the Academy. Here he's Sir Oliver Tressilian, a veteran of the wars with Spain who had helped sweep the Armada from the sea.

As we kick off, Sir Oliver is relaxing at Penarrow Hall in his Elizabethan ruff and doublet. He's waiting for Rosamund Godolphin to be his wife, something that upsets her brother because after all, Sir Oliver is a pirate. Relations between the two families become even more strained when Sir Oliver's half brother Lionel kills Peter but rumour puts the blame on Sir Oliver himself. Lionel wants Rosamund for his own so pays the unscrupulous Captain Jasper Leigh to kidnap him and sell him to the Moors. Leigh is the biggest name in the film, Wallace Beery, who had a habit of cropping up in all the great American silents as a supporting actor.

Of course nothing works out as intended. Leigh wants to milk Sir Oliver for enough to free him, but then they all get captured by the Spanish. After six months working the oars on a Spanish galleon, he's captured again, this time by the Moors and he through connections with a fellow prisoner, rises quickly to captain his own ship, becoming known as Sakr-el-Bahr, the Sea Hawk. All the while, of course, he wants to return to his love, the fair Rosamund, who is played by Enid Bennett, no relation to Constance, Joan and Barbara, instead an Australian actress sister to Marjorie and Catherine. Her key relation was her husband, Hollywood director Fred Niblo.

Bennett and her moon face are fine here, and she has a powerful gaze of indignation. Milton Sills is good too, though he's no Errol Flynn, let alone a Douglas Fairbanks. Wallace Beery shines though, cowardly at one turn, strutting in power the next, reminding of no less than Macho Man Randy Savage with maybe a little Peter Jackson thrown in for good measure. I hadn't realised that the Macho Man had taken most of his look from a 1924 silent movie, but here he is in Elizabethan garb. Then again, one of the musical themes here is straight out of Knight Rider, but that's not original music, naturally.

As to the film itself, it runs on nicely though there's to much melodrama and not even action for my liking, even though some of the battle scenes were stolen to splice into the 1940 version. This one apparently keeps far closer to Rafael Sabatini's original novel, but then I haven't read it yet so wouldn't have been able to tell. I just prefer it, truth be told. As much as I enjoyed this though, the best Sabatini adaptation thus far for me has to be the 1935 Michael Curtiz version of Captain Blood, which is one of the great swashbucklers, starring Errol Flynn, Basil Rathbone, Olivia de Havilland and others.

Strange Cargo (1940)

The opening reads: 'Deep in the Guianas... a penal colony for men set aside to be forgotten by the world they lived in - for men to whom the present, the future and the past are one... for men without hope.' It doesn't say so but this is Devil's Island, obviously a popular place for film in 1940 as Karloff had made a film with that explicit name only a year before. It's a grim place and sure enough, the next thing we see a bearded and filthy Clark Gable being released after thirty days in solitary confinement. He's André Verne and he's obviously not happy where he is. We're given a list of his achievements: 90 lashes, 16 months in solitary, 7 months in the bear pit, 5 attempts to escape in 3 years.

He looks surprisingly good for such treatment but then this is 1940 after all, and to make matters even more strange, those in charge decide to put him out on the wharf, confident that there's no way that he could possibly escape. These are the jungles of Guiana, after all, and they get to a man. On the wharf he quickly becomes aware of a number of the other major players in our story, including Joan Crawford as a saloon singer called Julie, Peter Lorre as the slimy Monsieur Cochon ('The Pig'), Paul Lukas as a particularly nasty prisoner called Hessler and Ian Hunter as another called Cambreau with spiritual strength and a mystery behind him. The other major name is Albert Dekker as a tough prisoner named Moll who masterminds an escape. This was his last film before Dr Cyclops, shot in colour and from which I knew him best.

On the wharf we also become aware that pretty much everyone's supposedly French, though nobody remotely tries to be. It's about as authentic in that regard as the supposedly German but completely American soldiers in All's Quiet on the Western Front, with only Peter Lorre and Paul Lukas coming remotely close, and even they not by design. Hunter of course is English and Dekker is apparently an Aussie. Nobody's French.

There are good things here, but mostly they have to do with the major names increasing their presence in our minds, just building our impressions of them within the context of their respectively bodies of work. In most respects they just play the same characters they usually played, merely in a new location: Gable is tough and manly, Crawford the tough as nails dame in tough circumstances, Lorre the slimy and sinister supporting character with depth. There's some really cool dialogue with Gable in particular getting a couple of great ones in early, both aimed at Crawford: 'Keep a light in the window and a couple more in your eyes' and 'You've got class, baby, or is it because I haven't seen any women lately?'

Unfortunately that 'baby' is used in what seems like every single line that Gable throws Crawford's way. It's one of the most annoying things about this movie, even more annoying than the accents. Others include the staccato camerawork when switching between the two halves of a conversation, some atrocious soundtrack music and the ease at which everyone and their dog seems to be able to escape at will from somewhere as notorious as Devil's Island. There's also a notable contrast between what is obviously location work somewhere and blatant set work, but some of the location shots are gorgeous, yet another contrast in this movie. It's like there were two cinematographers or the one was schizophrenic.

Gable and Crawford made eight films together, nine if you count Erich von Stroheim's The Merry Widow in 1925 when both were just extras. They were always good opposite one another, and this one works as well as the rest on that front. Lorre isn't on screen long and Dekker and Lukas are archetypes. The key player here is really Ian Hunter, as while this pretends to be an action film, it's really a spiritual epic with Hunter playing Jesus Christ himself, the real strength and soul of everyone in the story. He can see everything that's to come, good and bad, and he's the one to whom everyone turns when they're about to die, to give solace and meaning to their lives. What a strange film.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Nightfall (1957)

Aldo Ray is not a name I know too well. I've seen him in a few films but he's never really registered with me, just another supporting actor while I'm paying far more attention to someone else. Here he's the lead, appearing above Brian Keith and Anne Bancroft, and he's playing a character with a hidden past. He's Art Rayburn, who we first meet hiding under the name of James Vanning because he seems to have lost $350,000 of someone else's money, Brian Keith being the someone else.

He looks pretty good in the role, world weary with a little huskiness in his voice and completely believable as a real person in a film noir. Characters like the ones Anne Bancroft, Brian Keith and James Gregory play are archetypes, deliberately fashioned in particular ways to progress the plot, but Ray's is just real. He doesn't even look like a star and in some ways that's really refreshing. On the flipside it helps the story to become a little forgettable. As a character he's bright but not too bright, tough but not too tough, charming but not too charming. He's not too anything.

The story is a simple one. Rayburn/Vanning had a large sum of money but he lost it. Both the good guys and the bad guys want to recover it and he's the only lead they have. Naturally none of them believe him, but they have no other way of tracking the money without following him around and hoping. The bad guys are John and Red, played by Brian Keith and his thuggish sidekick Rudy Bond. The good guy is Ben Fraser, an insurance agent who's been shadowing him for three months, played by James Gregory. His goodness is highlighted by scenes at home with his wife, played by Jocelyn Brando.

The film is dark, way beyond the dark required for a film noir which generally plays around with the contrast between light and dark. This is just dark, hard to see what's going on half the time. It isn't just the outdoor scenes either, like the one where John and Red kidnap Rayburn and take him to some industrial plant to threaten him, it's the inside ones too. The scene after that has Ben Fraser talking with his wife and they don't even seem to have the lights on. Only when we get to Wyoming in flashbacks do we really see any light, so maybe it was a conscious decision: back before anything went wrong there was light, but no more.

Wyoming is where we find the background to the story and I really enjoyed this part of it. Jim Vanning is real in many ways and his part in all this comes through real things like accidents and mistakes. It also explains why he has to keep running but can't go to the police. He's camping out with a friend when a car crashes not far from them. It's a couple of bank robbers with $350,000 of loot. They kill the friend, whose wife has written him indiscreet letters, and set it all up as if Vanning did it. They think they kill him too, but he's still alive. They leave but take the wrong bag, leaving Vanning with the money and he loses it in the snow. It's one of those stories so stupid it has to be real.

Friday, 25 January 2008

What Waits Below (1984)

This was a strange one. I have a copy on region 2 DVD but Midnite Movie Mamacita put it up on the big screen in 35mm so I paid the money and enjoyed. Unfortunately it was so bad and there were so many comedians in the audience that I couldn't hear half of the atrocious dialogue and that was far from the only atrocious thing about the movie.

We kick off in Nicaragua where a very smug and somehow very gay Robert Powell is playing some game with people with guns that is nothing but an excuse for a lot of bullets and a big chase. Anyway, we soon switch to Belize, where the US army want his character, Rupert 'Wolf' Wolfsen, to lend his speliological talents to a project they have in progress. They've discovered some really big caves and want to use them to host some sort of navigational transmitter. I have no idea why it needs to be in a cave which would seem to be a little counter intuitive but there you have it.

Beyond Powell and the officious US army types led by Timothy Bottoms as Major Stevens, there's a group of anthropologists in the area too, including an obvious love interest played by Lisa Blount, so maybe Powell's character is bisexual instead of gay. Anyway the anthropologists have discovered a way into this new cave system and they all head on down to explore. Given that this is a horror movie, it's not particularly surprising that the caves are full of what the end credits call Lemurians.

They're big albinos with strange voices, sensitive hearing and a bizarre fashion sense for haircuts and outfits. They're great warriors, except when up against our hero of course, even though they have nobody to fight. They have looms to make their clothes out of hair but nothing else, it seems, except some huge collection of technology that doesn't even have an attempt at explanation. It just sits there, completely out of place, just like the Lemurians themselves who the audience laughed their heads off at.

Beyond the bad Lemurians and the bad dialogue, there's plenty of other bad to comment about and precious little good. Powell is a good actor and he has a knack of appearing comfortable in any situation, however unlikely and outrageous. Yet he's completely self satisfied and egotistical here and comes off as completely gay. It feels strange to bring this up because I have no problem with gays, but generally someone gay in a film is gay because they're gay. The weird thing here is that from what I can tell Wolfsen isn't supposed to be gay yet Powell imbues the character with gayness every which way but loose. Every scene seems to have an adoring gaze at another man or a stray hand landing on another man's shoulder. I wonder if it was deliberate on Powell's part.

Lisa Blount is fine eye candy as anthropologist Leslie Peterson, but she has nothing to do except figure in cliched and forced parts of the plot. Much of this seems very forced and clumsy and at any point throughout you could easily write the next five minutes of storyline. Timothy Bottoms is an annoying army major, with a voice that doesn't do much except shout and his part was so one dimensional that it really highlighted just how much he looks like George W Bush. I wasn't surprised to find that he's played him three times since. It's uncanny how the beady little eyes and confusion in almost any circumstance nails the president precisely.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

My Dad is 100 Years Old (2005)

This is a fascinating little 17 minute short, directed by Guy Maddin but really the work of Isabella Rossellini, writing about her father, the director Roberto Rossellini. It begins with anecdotes but quickly turns into an intellectual discussion about the purpose of film in which she plays every character, many of which we know well. Not only does she play her father's voice, but her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and a whole host of other names, depicted in appropriate ways.

She only plays her father's voice but she plays her mother in body too, on the screen. She's also Alfred Hitchcock from a distance and in silhouette, David O Selznick behind smoke, Charlie Chaplin speaking via title cards and Federico Fellini as, well, Federico Fellini. She even talks to the cameraman during the film to frame the picture in ways he would have felt appropriate.

It's an interesting little vignette, worth a repeat viewing for sure. It doesn't talk details, it talks impressions, and I wonder how long these ones will stay impressed.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Play It Again, Sam (1972)

One thing I've always wondered about is whether Woody Allen could act/be funny/whatever if he isn't talking. A good indication is that he can comes as the opening credits roll. He's watching Casablanca and gazes gape jawed at his idol, Humphrey Bogart through the whole of the ending sequence. He's Allan Felix, a film critic, and his wife has just left him, so he's trying to work out how to deal with life and move forward. He ends up getting most of his advice from Bogart's ghost, as a sort of alter ego. Given that we're talking about Woody Allen, you can imagine how well that goes. Is there much of a more polar opposite to Bogart's persona than Woody Allen?

He also gets help from a couple who try to set him up with whoever they can find. Given that they're played by Tony Roberts and Diane Keaton, it's hardly surprising that he ends up spending most of his time with Keaton's character, Linda Christie, while her husband Dick works all hours God sends. Before long they're into an extramarital affair, with the angel and devil on Felix's shoulders effectively played by his ex-wife and Humphrey Bogart. That makes for an interesting play on things, and play is the key word.

While Woody Allen didn't direct this one, he wrote the screenplay from his own original play and it's immediately obvious that it's his material. How much director Herbert Ross really put into it is open for question but my guess is probably not much. It's easy to see this on stage and that it still works on screen says much for the material. What the film version adds is the ability for Woody Allen and others, especially Tony Roberts, to act out imaginary scenes in various movie styles: not just the Bogart film noir style but Italian melodrama, high English class material, European spy thriller, you name it. It's not surprising they would become regular collaborators.

Cinderella (1977)

Director: Michael Pataki
Star: Cheryl Smith
This one has a history in the family I married into. My better half's former other half is addicted to it and everyone else gets to catch up on it at some point, regardless of which generation they belong to. Now it's my turn, but to be honest a camp 70s comedy musical softcore porn movie based on a classic fairy tale isn't something I would really have much of a problem sitting through. Everyone else puts up resistance but I'm all for it. I don't know many of the names but shrug. I knew a few of them at least.

We all know the story, so there's not a lot of point going through that again. Cinderella is Cheryl Smith, though why she would forsake her usual name of Rainbeaux, I don't know. Maybe she thought this was more serious art than the HOTS films or Massacre at Central High. She's the usual Cinderella, except her outfits have built in wardrobe malfunctions (as of course do everyone else's too). Amazingly she keeps disappearing from the story, so we can watch the King's Chamberlain go round watching young lesbians everywhere while attempting to keep his outrageous moustache consistently applied.

We meet the ugly sisters early on and they're truly ugly, though I get the impression that the actresses aren't in real life. One is ugly enough to look like Sarah Jessica Parker auditioning for a Twisted Sister tribute band and the other isn't far off Tim Curry as Frank N Furter. Needless to say they cause lots of trouble for their beautiful young sister but this time round, that includes making her work her spinning wheel, which isn't there to spin corn, but to be a Rube Goldberg machine that powers corn cob vibrators for her sisters. It's softcore though, so we get plenty of full frontal female nudity and lesbian writhing around but no actual sex on screen.

The songs are fun, and actually have some clever lyrics given the material. Given that this is 1977 I'm only surprised that much of it follows more traditional lines for a musical than just slip entirely into disco. They're written by Lew Arries to music by Andrew Belling. Frank Ray Perilli wrote the film, and he does have a sense of humour that goes well beyond writing the fairy godmother as a fairy in the gay sense rather than the small winged sense. Michael Pataki directed the film though I know him much better as an actor, and that Albert and Charles Band of Full Moon Entertainment produced. It's the songs that are most likely to stay with me here, and it seems pretty sad to say the songs were more enjoyable than the soft porn.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

The Secret Bride (1934)

'This picture approved by the production code administration of the motion picture producers & distributors of America' says 'certificate no 384', which unfortunately means that this is 1934 and the precodes are gone. That's bad, especially as the two lead stars here were two of the leading stars of the precodes and one of them wouldn't really make it out. Warren William simply couldn't exist properly under the code so faded away into detective B movies and whatever he could get. He remained stunning but he wasn't allowed to shine the way he was made. Barbara Stanwyck could adapt though and found her way to different roles and shine she did just as William couldn't.

A few months earlier they probably wouldn't have been married, but we see the ceremony at the beginning of the film. He's a state attorney general, Robert Sheldon, and she's Ruth Vincent, daughter of Walter Vincent, the governor of a neighbouring state. Unfortunately before they can tell anyone, the very same governor gets caught up in a bribery case. The secretary of a convicted embezzler that he pardoned is caught red handed putting ten thousand dollars into his personal bank account. While the House of Representatives investigates Vincent, Sheldon investigates the embezzler, John F Holdstock, but he has to do so while keeping the wedding a secret.

This may be a code film but there's plenty of dubious practices going on. Sheldon is definitely one of the good guys, but he investigates without making pretty crucial knowledge public, uncovers the best proof against the governor but hands it over to his wife to confront her father with, even hides his wife from an investigation she becomes a witness to a murder. When Ruth visits Holdstock's secretary at work and finds that he's home sick, the firm just hands over his home address. All this is precode stuff, so I guess the early films under the code took a while to adjust.

There's a lot of cool stuff going on here. There's some early CSI type procedural material, matching notes to typewriters, checking the rifling on bullets and means of anonymous voting within a jury. Stanwyck is the star, and she's good, but it's William who shines brightest, with his secretary running a close second. She's Glenda Farrell, four years before Torchy Blane, but then I've been discovering how great she was way before then in films like Merry Wives of Reno and in more famous fare like Lady for a Day, Mystery of the Wax Museum or I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang.

Even the court scenes were well done, with plenty of electricity. William Davidson is a solid interrogator and Grant Mitchell isn't bad at all as a nervous employee drawn into far more than he ever wanted. The mystery is decent, but the film is over too quickly, probably because I'm sure there are a whole slew of plot holes if only the speed hadn't effectively covered them all up. One thing I really enjoyed was pretty minor, all things considering, but still worthy of note. Newspapers fly at the screen as you'd expect, but these are fully set except for headlines which animate into place. I don't think I've seen this before, but certainly haven't this early on.

Tout va bien (1972)

Emphatic and memorable titles unfold in the red, white and blue of the tricolor, while an unseen director calls for takes. When the visuals start, they're in the form of cheques that quickly add up the cost of some movie called Tout va bien, amazingly enough the title of our movie too. It's a dissection of what makes a movie, from the very basics on up, and it focuses on Her and Him, deliberately generic for a while, played by French legend Yves Montand and Jane Fonda, who was already established as a major actress in 1972 but was more important at the time as Hanoi Jane. She was in France in 1971 because of her anti-war work and her notorious trip to Vietnam came the same year as this film, 1972.

Montand is Jacques, who seems to be a director of TV commercials, and Fonda is Susan Dewitt, a journalist working for the American Broadcasting System. The pair of them end up locked inside the manager's office at the Salumi factory, with the manager, hostages of the workers who are on strike. Everyone seems to have grievances, but they disagree with each other's grievances and are as upset with the union as they are with management.

Jean-Luc Godard and co-director Jean-Pierre Gorin play a lot of tricks on us here that are fascinating to watch. I particularly enjoyed the set which is a cross section of a building where we see what everyone inside is doing through the mere absence of an entire wall and long scenes take place within that set, moving smoothly from room to room without the need for cuts. I'm sure Lars von Trier was paying attention, and probably many others too. My impressions are that this isn't a great film in itself but it's a hugely important on e that probably fits pivotally into timelines of technique.

Our perspectives keep changing. We are thrown into the story then yanked back out again. We see characters become actors and then become characters again. We see long static monologues that really don't seem to have much of anything to do with anything. I blurred out what some of them were actually saying while focusing on the people in the background who just stood there and looked uncomfortable. Then we switch to Jane Fonda who sits there doing nothing while the story unfolds in sound. Whole scenes unfold around the manager's inability to find a bathroom.

To be honest, the strangest thing about this movie is that as scenes kept going without any real reason to watch them, my eyelids kept drooping only for my eyes to open again and catch back up with the plot, and at one point they drooped on a domestic dispute and reopened on a black and white picture of a man's erect penis, spanning the entire screen. Needless to say they didn't droop again for a little while. They started again on the long scene in the supermarket though which looked stunning in its use of choreography and crowd dynamics.

Without much of a story or a point that I could determine, this is hardly a film to sit down and bubblegum through, but it does very much seem like a film to sit down and analyse scenes. It's almost perfect made for class material. I wonder if that was the point.

Slaughter Hotel (1971)

Oh my goodness, this was bad. I mean, really bad. Midnite Movie Mamacita has found a few really atrociously awful movies, but this one takes the cake. It's MST3K bad except the fact that what must be half of it is softcore porn would preclude it from being screenable. One thing I've discovered in my travels through cinema is that the great film themes don't really change that much. A great film now may be similar in many ways to a great film from the twenties, and the greatness is in how it's done and who's doing it and the way everything clicks together, often to move the cinematic arts forward.

Yet when you look at the truly bad films, there are trends every which way you look. In the thirties it's historicals and women's pictures, in the fifties it's scifi and horror, in the seventies low budget sleaze. There are blips for particular styles as they rise and wane, things like blaxploitation, ninja films, beach movies, whatever happened to be in fleeting vogue at the time, even when you're not dealing with Italians whose cinema lives and breathe by saturating the market with whatever the current thing is. When it comes to writing a history of the trends, it's the bad movies you need to look at not the good ones.

What makes a movie truly awful is for it to have any potential for being anything other than awful ripped out of it by the basic premise. It's the Snakes on a Plane concept: just sitting down to watch it means that you have to suspend every bit of disbelief in the book and try to enjoy it on some other plane than reality. This one works around a lunatic asylum, erm rest home, where beautiful rich women go to find their way back to full health. However the treatment seems to involve nothing but sitting around drinking and smoking, with the only rule being that nobody leaves the grounds. The staff don't do anything remotely medical and the only reason for them to even be there is to sleep with the patients.

Most bizarrely of all, the asylum is full of weapons and torture devices of all descriptions, simply hanging on the walls in full reach of everyone and nobody seems to blink that it might not be a good idea to have suicidal and homicidal women roaming around freely with so many opportunities literally dangling in front of their eyes. One arrives in a car that she's tried to crash on the way, attempts to brain one of the 'guards' (what else are they, really?) even before she gets to her room, yet nobody cares about the ready availability of axes, four foot swords, maces, crossbows and even iron maidens!

Slaughter Hotel is one version of this movie, and it seems that while it's not the most cut version (that seems to be Asylum Erotica), it's far from complete. I'm therefore reviewing two thirds of a movie with some entire themes that must have meant something to the director completely gone. Apparently there's a lot of masturbation in this movie, but I didn't see any. I can see the slice marks where some of those scenes were removed but not many. No wonder there are so many bizarre flashback scenes: they had to fill the time back up that they cut out.

Looking the film up beforehand, I saw it was a Klaus Kinski movie, Kinski being the most intense actor in history and one who often starred in films with no cinematic merit whatsoever yet somehow elevated them at least a little by his magnetic presence. Here, he's just there. I honestly don't think he had a clue why he was there, what his part was for or why anything really mattered at all. There are other men in the film too but none of them do anything either, except the killer who has some scenes at the end that don't really fit with any that precedes them.

What this film is really about is the opportunity for various young ladies, who often look very nice indeed, to strip off and strut their stuff. There may be depth in the chicken dances and the grim reaper obsession and the preponderance of juicy buttocks, but somehow I doubt it. It's about women who strip off, writhe around and apparently masturbate a lot. I just didn't see that version of the film, so I just got the stripping and the writhing. And the weapons. Amazing and not in a good way.

Friday, 18 January 2008

Ricco (1973) Tulio Demicheli

This Midnite Movie Mamacita screening was advertised as Mean Machine and shown as The Dirty Mob, but on looking it up at IMDb I see it's really called Ricco with a video release as The Cauldron of Death. It seems to be known as Gangland too, along with a whole slew of foreign titles which are appropriate given that this is really an Italian/Spanish coproduction, even though it stars Robert Mitchum's prettier but far less talented son Christopher who was pretty good in Big Jake but doesn't impress here.

He's the son of a mob boss who gets killed at the beginning of the movie. Ricco gets sent to prison for a couple of years but is now out and looking for revenge. What makes this somewhat unique is that none of the usual cliches are there but it's still not a good movie. Usually the revenge artist is either angry or blisteringly calm, but Christopher Mitchum is just there. He strolls into the film with a laugh and that cheeky grin, then works his way through the plot like he's on autopilot and we never get a single impression that he really cares about what he's doing, even when the rest of his family get shot.

Arthur Kennedy isn't bad as the bad guy, even though he's called Don Vito. Really beyond the story though, which like Mitchum is just there, it's about the girls. Sure, they're not really important in the grand scheme of things and are there as little more than eye candy, but the way it's done seems to merit attention. Barbara Bouchet is bubbly and sassy and girly and powerful all at once, and the first time we meet her she's working a forged currency scam on the streets in an awesome dress. She also gets a bizarre scene that can only be compared to the sort of thing Tawny Kitaen used to get up to in Whitesnake videos.

Targets (1968) Peter Bogdanovich

Peter Bogdanovich, like every major name in film from the mid sixties until at least the end of the eighties, started out working for Roger Corman. For his first film, Corman allowed him the freedom to make whatever he wanted but with a couple of conditions attached. Firstly, he must use stock footage from Corman's film The Terror, which is obvious from moment one, and secondly he must cast Boris Karloff to whom he owed a couple of days work.

Karloff plays a very Karloffian actor, Byron Orlok, who retires from the industry at the beginning of the film, in cleverly written scene that references Bela Lugosi more than once without ever seeming to do so at all. He stays in the picture though, embuing the film with a sense of quality. The lines he's given are worthy and he gets to really act, even though for a good part of the film he can't be far off playing himself. That's got to be a strange situation to find yourself in, especially when it certainly isn't autobiographical.

The other key actor is Tim O'Kelly, who plays a Vietnam veteran called Bobby Thompson. He's polite, well mannered and decent, but he obviously came home with some major issues. He might fold his clothes and call his dad 'sir', but he also kills his wife and mother then goes out with his new sniper rifle to play target practice on the highway. These scenes are not comfortable ones to say the least, even though it's nearly 40 years before the real life sniper I read about in the news. Then again he wasn't the first.

The two end up in the same place, needless to say. Karloff, I mean Orlok, ends up making one last scheduled public performance at the Reseda drive in theatre, and Thompson finds his way there too to keep away from the cops. Naturally the opportunity of so many people seemingly waiting for his bullets like sitting ducks is too much to overlook, so target practice it becomes. And it's all down to Orlok to save the day and those scenes are gems.

'All the good movies have been made,' says Peter Bogdanovich, a first time film director playing a film director Sammy Michaels, who gets a great drunk scene trying to persuade Orlok to star in his latest script. He must have had a great time, not just as an actor here but especially as a scriptwriter (though he did so in collaboration with his wife, Polly Platt, and with uncredited help from no less than Sam Fuller).

Those Lugosi digs are far from the only ones to classic horror, or film generally. We see clips from old Karloff films, beyond just The Terror, of which we see plenty; and there are other references to many well known film names, from Howard Hawks to Vincent Price. I particularly liked little touches like the projectionist not actually watching the movie but reading a book in between the change of reels. In short it's a solid job for a first time filmmaker, especially one juggling direction, scriptwriting and acting all at once. There are slow scenes and clumsy scenes but some really powerful ones too. Bogdanovich proved that he was certainly a talent to watch out for, especially given the tight budget and shooting schedule.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

The Miracle of Morgan's Creek (1944) Preston Sturges

While I've been doing some solid catching up on Frank Capra, I've found it hard to track down the other name usually mentioned in the same breath: Preston Sturges. The Miracle of Morgan's Creek is one of the films I've seen mentioned a lot, while I know precisely nothing about it. When TCM finally added it to their schedule, I leapt at the chance to see it.

Behind the credits, the editor of the Bugle rings Governor Brian Donlevy about the town of Morgan's Creek, which he's never heard of even though it's in his state. The world seems to be descending on the town and he wants state police and the rest of it to avoid complete chaos. Our film is the discovery of just what they're talking about and it doesn't take long to we discover the source of the chaos is Trudy Kockenlocker, daughter of the town cop. Trudy herself is Betty Hutton, who comes off here like a cheap version of Ginger Rogers but delights nonetheless.

While Constable Kockenlocker won't let her go, Trudy so wants to send off the boys to war in a good mood that she sneaks her way out to their last night dance. She needs devoted and lovestruck young Norval Jones to help her out and he gets to spend the night sitting outside the movie theatre waiting for her while she paints the town red, finally arriving back at eight o'clock in the morning worse the wear for drink, with a lack of memory of the previous night and, it soon becomes apparent, married. Worse than that, it doesn't take long to discover that she's pregnant to boot.

Luckily her precocious young sister finds a way out for her: keep her mouth shut and marry Norval. However she finds she can't quite do it and falls for him while turning him down. So they have to find some way to get round the problem and decide to marry under false names in order to use the certificate to... well, I never did work out quite how that part of things work but it's as believable as it doesn't seem to make any sense. Naturally the plan goes south and everything escalates into a cause celebre.

I'd heard that this film was funny, but it's completely hilarious. It's quick and witty, both in subtle ways and uproarious ones. Sturges was Oscar nominated for the script and that's completely justified. What's most cool is that one of Sturges's competitors was himself: he had two of the five nominations, though both lost. Talk about splitting the vote. His direction is fine but it's his script that really shines, with no greater tribute to his talent than the fact that the code didn't stop him. And the joyful comedy is so good that I had tears running down my face.

Best of all are a whole bunch of irascible old men. There's Alan Bridge as the first lawyer I think I've ever enjoyed seeing, and the most obviously truly dishonestly honest. There's Emory Parnell as Mr Tuerk, Norval's boss. There's Donlevy as the governor and Akim Tamaroff There's William Demarest, who my wife knows best as Uncle Charley from My Three Sons but I know from thirties and forties cinema, including every single one of the Preston Sturges movies I've seen thus far. He seems to have been a regular, appearing in eight out of thirteen of the films Sturges directed, and he's awesome here: honest, athletic and quick to anger. He's just like Darren McGavin in A Christmas Story.

The leads are interesting too, as much as I'm watching Demarest over everyone else. I'm really not a fan of the sort of actor Eddie Bracken seems to be, but he's perfect for the role. He reminds me very much of someone and as soon as I paste this into this blog without remembering, I'll remember, making it the best way forward, I'm sure. He's annoyingly nervous, with a believable stutter under pressure, and that's precisely what he needed to be. Hutton is annoyingly dumb, but again precisely right for the part. Diana Lynn is excellent as her precocious young sister. In fact everyone is exactly what they need to be, in a perfectly cast movie. And I'm going to shut up now because I'm just raving.

Monday, 14 January 2008

Shopworn (1932) Nicholas Grinde

Another Barbara Stanwyck precode is always a good thing and this one doesn't disappoint for a few reasons. One is Barbara herself, which is hardly surprising as she was a peach in the precodes. She's Kitty Lane here, who starts the film living in a construction camp with her father who promptly gets himself buried under a stunning controlled explosion for 1932. So off she goes to her aunt and uncle to work as a waitress, where she meets rich student Dr David Livingston (not that one, this one doesn't have a trailing 'e') and they promptly fall hard for each other to the point that David proposes.

Their problem is Mrs Livingston, a bitter hypochondriac nightmare of a mother played by Clara Blandick, best known as good old Auntie Em from The Wizard of Oz. She's a piece of work who can't bear the concept of Kitty as a daughter-in-law and has the able assistance of Judge Forbes, who doesn't shy away from getting her set up with ninety days in the State Home for the Regeneration of Females. Once she gets out she heads off in a different direction and finds her way onto the stage. Six years later she has her own company and back into her life comes David.

He's my real surprise here. Stanwyck was always great, and even more so in the precodes. I'm used to Blandick as a nice old lady but I'm not surprised that she's just as effective as a twisted old woman. The third actress high up th credits is Zasu Pitts as Kitty's Aunt Dot and she's as great as her part is beneath her talents. But David is Regis Toomey, who impressed me here. I'm used to him playing nobodies, supposedly decent but really just there. Here he's still a waste of space but he has some integrity at least and does a surprisingly solid job of rising above, even though his vocal delivery is still far too deliberate.

As a film though, it blisters through the plot like it's playing on double speed, and it's way too quick. Even Barbara Stanwyck can only cram in so much in so short a running time. If anything the speed escalates as time runs out and the ending becomes just a couple of predictable sap scenes.

Rollerball (1975) Norman Jewison

I remember Rollerball from my schooldays. It came onto TV and all the kids in my class (4A, I believe: it's amazing what details certain things dredge up) were talking about it. It was like forbidden fruit. I didn't get to see it then, but saw it later and enjoyed. By then I'd read William Harrison's short story that it was based on. Now, it's many years on and times have changed. I wonder if kids today talk about the 2002 remake like it was forbidden fruit. Somehow I doubt it. I saw the remake a few years ago and while it wasn't a patch on the original it wasn't as bad as people claimed. It didn't scream forbidden fruit though.

Now I also have a little more pertinent background too, and that's well beyond just having a clue who Norman Jewison is. I haven't been to a roller derby match (game?) yet but I have met some of the girls and, let me tell you, they're not the little sissies that I had some vague uneducated idea that they were. Those are some tough ladies for sure and I could easily believe them playing rollerball at professional level.

Rollerball is a violent hybrid game: the players hurtle round an angled track but some are on skates and some are on motorbikes. They wear armour and spiked gloves and violence is expected. The ultimate aim is to throw a metal ball into the opposing team's goal. The sport is a serious one, so there's a serious attempt to make it believable by having what must be fifteen minutes of gameplay right off the bat. It's well designed and looks good, however unscarred the players might be. Then, after some introduction to plot concepts, we get into a training session for new recruits and find out some strategy.

What's really interesting to me, as it is with most old science fiction films that have an level of seriousness, is how accurate it got its futuristic thinking, especially from a standpoint of 33 years down the road. It gets certain things right here. Everything is corporate run, after the Corporate Wars, including the game and even the cities. James Caan plays Jonathan E, the biggest star of the biggest team, Houston, and they're owned by the Energy Corporation. They even play the corporate hymn before the games rather than a national anthem. Much of the plot here has to do with what corporations are going to do, and how they dominate and abuse their power, especially given that nobody knows who the executive directorate really are. It all rings scarily true and that doesn't bode well for our real future. Even the concept of burning trees as a playful game for the rich has intriguing connotations.

There's plenty that looks bad though, not least the dated 'futuristic' font used everywhere, as it was in every other science fiction show of the era. You know the one. The computer systems are horrendously pessimistic, of course, and were outstripped within a few years of the film's release, though Zero is intriguing. The TVs look happily big, though not quite big enough, but computer terminals look tiny and primitive. There's the idea that the TV of the future, multivision, takes ten years for the biggest star in the game to get his own retrospective show, and we're even told that it's the first time it's ever happened for a rollerball player. In an age of reality TV and multiple dedicated sports channels, that's just ludicrous.

Nearly as ludicrous is the idea that what seems to be an American sport is played at the highest levels by non-American teams. Ever since day one, American sports are rarely played by other countries who can rarely compete with their American opponents. Japan and Cuba may be getting there in baseball, the old USSR had regular Olympic battles at ice hockey, but who can really compete in basketball or American football. Nobody. And if rollerball is American, nobody else would be any good and they wouldn't care. If it's not, then the Americans wouldn't be any good. That's what the last half century has taught us.

The real plot starts to unfold a third of the way in. The executives at Energy want Jonathan E to retire. He doesn't want to and starts to rock the boat, which isn't a good idea given that executives are used to getting what they want. They designed the game to ensure that nobody becomes a star at the level that Jonathan has achieved. The violence is there to stop anyone surviving that long. They even stole away Jonathan's wife, which he hasn't forgiven yet. Women seem to be nothing but corporate whores here, given to men like assignments. The executives are definitely the puppeteers and the players the puppets. When Jonathan E bucks them they pull their strings.

And after all that I've hardly mentioned the actors. James Caan is Jonathan E and he's solid, both as a violent sports star and an unlikely rebel. I remembered Moonpie, his friend and Houston teammate, played equally by John Beck and his huge chin. Jonathan's wife Ella is played by Maud Adams, who doesn't get a huge amount of screen time but is decent. There are others I recognise, including Robert Ito (Sam from Quincy, ME), Burt Kwouk (Kato from the Pink Panther movies) and an excellent Ralph Richardson as a librarian in Geneva.

Most obvious though, after Caan and Beck's chin, is John Houseman as Bartholomew, the executive we see most of. He's excellent at being a concerned and congratulatory boss to the team but doesn't care a whit about any of it because it's all about power. Houseman co-founded the Mercury Players with Orson Welles so it's hardly surprising he knew something about arrogance. Most memorable of all though is the game itself, which is brutal enough to earn the ratings it received around the world. Director Norman Jewison made it from an anti-violent perspective and was horrified to find that after its release people wanted to actually play it.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Detroit Unleaded (2007) Rola Nashef

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

The longest film in the collection, Detroit Unleaded is a 19 minute piece about a young man going to work on the night shift at a gas station. Think Clerks but with the jokes being there as jokes rather than the entire point of the movie. There's meaning behind the humour and while it has a light heart, it's still impressive from a serious standpoint.

Super Sam (2005) Brent Triplett

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

Now this one was funny. In fact it was so funny that I looked for it after getting back home and downloaded it along with a few other Brent Triplett shorts that I'm starting to work through. It deals with the superhero of the title, played by Triplett himself, talking to a crowd of people after saving someone's life.

The story hasn't got anything to do with the lifesaving, it has to do with the metaphysics of superheroes. The old superheroes need supervillains concept has been done before, notably in Unbreakable, but I particularly enjoyed the additional insight here into superheroes having their own supervillains, the archenemy thing being a connection to treasure. The opening of the movie is a Dear John letter, from Super Sam's archenemy Cold Killer who chooses to leave their relationship to be an archenemy to someone else.

Also, Super Sam grew up with someone who became a supervillain, but their relationship as kids completely trumps the fact that one is a good guy and one a bad guy. They're technically enemies but being an archenemy is a monogamous kind of thing, so they keep their fighting exclusive. This unnamed supervillain is Captain Courage's archenemy, so he only fights Captain Courage and Captain Courage only fights him. It's like a statement of honesty that's been a bone of contention with me with classic American comics for years.

Oh, and the ending is joyous.

Simon and Manuel (?) Karl Newman

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

This one's a real microshort: ony two minutes long and with no dialogue. It's about two gay guys meeting, and that's it. It's sensitive and touching, and it's very well shot, but it's ultimately nothing more than a blip, the sort of scene that you'd remember from a full movie but which doesn't do much on its own.

Melima (?) Konstantinos Fragoulis

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

A Greek short that splits its three minutes into three parts, all of which are striking to different degrees but none of which seem to have anything remotely to do with the others. It's nice to look at but ultimately disappointing.

Alma (2007) Yuri Makino

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

A 14 minute slice of what is intended to be a full length feature film, this deals with a girl who is an illegal immigrant but doesn't know it. The most obvious drama comes with her running into the police, while they arrest another illegal immigrant who she happens to know. She stands up for him, not realising what danger she's putting herself into. However the most touching impact to me came through her relationship with her parents and how they treat her.

As a slice of a story it's enjoyable but not as special as it probably expects to be. It does have high aspirations and they can't ever be fulfilled in just a slice. However if expanded properly it could become real cultural insight. I'll watch out for the completed film.

Opening the Doors (?) Mark Wilson

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

As if to prove how completely diverse this selection of shorts was, this one is a documentary. It's about an elderly lady going into care, but it's very much different from what you might expect. The focus isn't on who the lady is, it's about the transition between what she was to what she will become. As a packrat, the biggest change is going from somewhere full of stuff to somewhere not big enough to have much of anything at all.

It's a little vicious in place and a little judgemental, and I don't buy into all the judgements, but it's a very honest, touching and revealing story.

Judgment Day (?) Matt Gismondi

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

Judgment Day was a surprise. It's a very simple concept, but elegantly and memorably executed in a mere three minutes. Two men sit at tables, waiting, and they spend their time wondering about each other. Almost all the dialogue is unspoken, heard through their thoughts. It's profane, it's profound and the ending is a real peach. The bulk of the story comes in our own minds after the three minute running time is over.

Movil (?) David Branch

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

Here's something bizarre. From the perspective of only two weeks on, I can't remember what this one was about, except there was some cool animated word thing going on. I think everyone in the audience, myself included, was still in shock at Step 2, in the best possible way.

When I remember what it was about, I'll write something further.

Step 2 (?) Allen Menasco

Watched as part of the 'Selection from the Collection Part 5' at the Phoenix Art Museum courtesy of No Festival Required.

This was a very powerful short film, only three minutes long but with more of an impact than almost any film I've ever seen. It was a heck of a way to start a collection of shorts, that's for sure, especially when the director, Allen Menasco, was in the audience watching along with us. It's a real talkabout movie but one so heartfelt that it would be really difficult to walk up to Menasco and ask him the obvious questions: 'Is this real? Did this happen to you?'

The story is simple, as you'd expect from a three minute film. Menasco himself videos himself talking about a friend who has committed suicide. The video is obviously to be shown at the funeral and begins the standard way with Menasco saying the standard things, as you'd expect. After all they're as much ritual as anything else in a service and they rarely have meaning, full of fake platitudes and people saying something nice just to get on film.

This however is the most honest such video ever, because it's full of something else. Menasco quickly tires of being fake and saying 'thank you' to someone who wrenched themselves out of his life in the worst way and turns to sheer brutal honesty with the 'thank you' becoming 'fuck you'.

I couldn't find this film or anything much about it online, which is a shame. It's not something easily forgotten and that's a good thing.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Fool's Luck (1926) William Goodrich

Star Lupino Lane was apparently the uncle of Ida Lupino, who would go on to be a far bigger star than him and a great director too. However he was far from without talent himself and comes off like a cross between Buster Keaton and Edward Everett Horton. He's living the highlife at the expense of his uncle, but then he receives a telegram to point out that no more money will be forthcoming. Suddenly he's forced to move very quickly indeed and get to his girl and her father's money.

This was the fourth short TCM showed as part of their tribute to Roscoe Arbuckle's directorial career and it's by far the best, but it's also far from original. The obvious influence is to Buster Keaton, hardly surprising given that Keaton started out working for Arbuckle a decade before this film. However some of the gags here, which are well managed, are complete steals from his material. In particular the whole gag on the train tracks is stolen directly from Keaton's masterpiece One Week, made six years earlier. It makes me wonder whether the other decent gags here were stolen too: the grand piano fall, the solitaire in the bathtub etc.

I'm intrigued by Lupino Lane. He doesn't have the charisma of a Chaplin, Keaton or Lloyd, but he certainly has something. I'll look out for him now and see if he becomes a new favourite like Larry Semon or just another interesting character with moments of genius like Charley Chase.

My Stars (1926) William Goodrich

The third of four collaborations between Roscoe Arbuckle (as William Goodrich) and actor Johnny Arthur, this one pokes mild fun at Hollywood like both the previous Arbuckle-directed films I've seen. Our hero loves a well to do young lady but she's a movie nut who would much rather gaze doe eyed at signed photos of her favourite stars than look at our boy. 'If only you could make love like him', she tells him referring to Milton Sills. So he dresses up in full Arab costume, fashioned from whatever he can find. Of course by the time he gets back, she's switched to a new photo and that's most of the fun.

We see Johnny Arthur as Milton Sills dressed as a sheikh, Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood guise and eventually Harold Lloyd. The story is ludicrous of course, reliant on a single repeated gag and Arthur's ability to pull off the characterisations. There's plenty of very obvious wirework too but it's joyfully dynamic and doesn't let up for a second. Johnny Arthur carries his role well and while leading lady Virginia Vance doesn't do much, she fits the part. I think my biggest problem with the film is that it felt like a live action cartoon which would have worked well with Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.

The Movies (1925) William Goodrich

Roscoe Arbuckle really wasn't a minor actor. He was the first person to sign a multi-year/multi-million dollar deal with a studio. Yet only seven years later he was effectively blacklisted by the industry, unjustly it seems today. So he wrote and directed films under a pseudonym, William Goodrich (Buster Keaton suggested Will B Good), though apparently Louise Brooks suggested that he really didn't do much active direction, just sitting there and letting everything happen.

This one is a Lloyd Hamilton film, Lloyd Hamilton being an actor I don't know who walks like he has constipation and has a face coated in makeup that looks more like one made for radio. He's a country boy here who gets into no end of trouble in the big city (which is actually a couple of blocks away), unable to cross a road without causing trouble and getting on the bad side of the villain of the piece. He finds his way to the Cafe Montmartre, which is attended by no end of actors in costume: presidents, indians, Romans, you name it. Eventually in comes Lloyd Hamilton, who apparently has hurt his leg, and of course Lloyd Hamilton looks precisely like Lloyd Hamilton, so he get hired as his body double.

Hamilton doesn't look much like a star actor but he was one and he was certainly talented, as an actor and a slapstick acrobat. He ends up being fun to watch. Marcella Daly looks far more like an actress with delightful eyes and smile, not that she has much of a part. The villain is Arthur Thalasso, who had a far longer career than either of them. The movie itself though isn't much more than there. It's mildly amusing but too short and certainly dated.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Blood Car (2007) Alex Orr

Now this was a surprise. I turned up to the Arizona premiere at the wonderful Chandler Cinemas, shown courtesy of Midnite Movie Mamacita and No Festival Required. I'd looked it up at IMDb so knew that it was a film featuring the chick who played opposite Macauley Culkin in My Girl, and a bunch of nobodies. I knew it was set in the near future when gas prices are way out of control and it costs hundreds of dollars to fill up a tank. I also knew that one school teacher tries to find a way to run his car on wheatgrass but accidentally cuts himself, only to find that the blood works a treat. Cue the rest of the plot.

So I envisaged a modern horror film, with the teacher playing some sort of rampant slasher and maybe some tacky dialogue. I was rather far from the truth. This is a comedy, a really dark one that goes many steps beyond what most would find acceptable, but a funny one regardless. Look at it this way. Could you potentially see the humour in a mild mannered Vegan schoolteacher shooting a little dog because he needs its blood to power his car, but having no end of trouble because his BB gun isn't powerful enough to do the job in less than about twenty shots? If not, you so, so, so need to avoid this film. If so, you might just be in for a treat.

There's actually a lot more sexual content here than violence, if you can believe that. Our teacher, Archie Andrews, gets his wheatgrass from a stall at a deserted playground that's run by geeky vegetarian girl Lorraine, played by Anna Chlomsky, all grown up since My Girl. She has the hots for him but he doesn't notice, not that he notices the hot slut at the next door meat stall either, who almost has to force herself onto him. She's Denise, played by Katie Rowlett, and she gets plenty of outrageous lines.

The best goes to Archie though. Someone really needs to register youkilledthatgirlwithpuppies.com. And no, I won't explain it: you'll need to see the film for yourself. If you pay attention you'll also notice some film references, from Brain Dead to Last Tango in Paris. That one was a little surprising. It fits with the tone of the film, which is very outrageous low budget B movie. It doesn't hold back and there are grossouts for sure, but there's still a happy feel to it all. Very cool indeed.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque (2004) Jacques Richard

Three things dominate this film, a documentary about the achievement of Henri Langlois. The first is the unique atmosphere of the Cinémathèque Française that had an influence on people that has not and really now cannot be matched. The second is the importance he and it have had on the preservation of film and the lengths that Langlois in particular went to ensure this, even during such trying times as the Nazi occupation and the Vichy government. The third are the names, which are neverending, but give the impression that it would be nigh on impossible to talk about the Cinémathèque without dropping names.

There's substance here for sure but the stories are irresistable for their own sakes. We hear about the scenes Jean Vigo cut from L'Atalante for the sake of simplicity that Langlois put back in to make his own copy. We hear about him trading a documentary on the Maginot Lane with a Nazi officer for a copy of The Blue Angel that Hitler wanted to destroy. Simone Signoret walks past Nazis with underground film reels in her pram. No end of future famous New Wave filmmakers crowd the front rows at film showings so people like Truffaut were forced to lie on the floor and 'eat the screen'. When he presented Hitchcock with the Legion d'Honneur, Hitch responded by presenting it back to Langlois for his unparalleled work.

There are lessons for today, in a world so obsessed with intellectual property and digital piracy equated with global terrorism. Much of the huge stock of 50,000 plus films that comprised the Cinémathèque's collection were stolen from the rightful owners who were busy trying to destroy them. Now in retrospect, the man is a hero, responsible for the existence of key early films. Even Jack Valenti, former head of the MPAA, talks about how massively important the man is. I can't help but feel that the equivalent today are the fan subbers, the people who host torrents of silent movies, the people who the industry wants to kill off.

The real deluge of names comes in 1967 when the French state ousted Langlois from his position at the Cinémathèque. This seriously needs to be made into a drama: the world of culture vs the world of politics, the state imposing its will while those who really know rise up in protest. The response to this insult was huge, with filmmakers from around the world like Josef von Sternberg, Orson Welles and Carl Theodor Dreyer writing to General de Gaulle threatening to withdraw their films from the Cinémathèque if he wasn't reinstated.

More dynamically, the filmmakers who effectively learned their business by watching the films Langlois programmed at the Cinémathèque protesting in the streets, to the opposition of the police who went as far as clubbing Jean-Luc Godard. I don't think I've ever seen such a demonstration of people who simply know they're right. There's no religious devotion in what people like Truffaut say, just the unflappable knowledge that Langlois was the Cinémathèque and it was simply insane to remove him. Langlois won.

This is a magnetic documentary about a magnetic man. Just as people in the film described Langlois's museum of film as a place that made people want to watch films, seeing this makes me want to read up further on his work. Incredible stuff.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Curses! (1925) William Goodrich

In 1925, Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle was William Goodrich, as he'd been arrested in a rape case, tried and found innocent (in a 10-2 mistrial), tried and found guilty (in another 10-2 mistrial) and condemned by the press and public and so couldn't appear as himself any more. He wrote and directed this one as Goodrich and obviously had a penchant for alliteration at the time. Buckwheat Ben has the purloined papers, but cunningly concealed bold, bad, bloodthirsty bandit Buttonshoe Bill wants them. As the film progresses, he becomes a freak-footed flapjack felon with a gang of fiendish footpads at the Frazer Mill. I wonder how long it took Fatty to come up with this stuff.

Anyway, Buttonshoe Bill is Al St John, Arbuckle's nephew and future perennial B movie western sidekick, and he's up against Rodney Hemingway, inept but persevering hero, along with Buckwheat Ben and his his innocent childlike Little Nell, who naturally gets kidnapped very early on indeed. It's up to the handsome Hemingway to save her. The story is structured as a spoof of early silent pitfall serials, like The Perils of Pauline, merely compressed into only 18 minutes. It comes complete with individual chapters, each with its own hook and catchy title.

It's actually quite a fun little film that manages to cram into that tiny running time no end of gimmicks. My favourite has to be the one where the bad guys tie Hemingway to a tree and blow snuff into his face so that he sneezes and sets into motion a huge rock to crush him, thus causing his own demise ('Will the relentless rolling rock ruin Rodney?'). There's quite a bit of interesting inventiveness here along with the generic early silent slapstick. The scene that has inept villains with rocks attempting to besiege Buckwheat Bill's shack is certainly nicely done. Naturally every time they're foiled, the generic 'Curses!' is heard, giving us our title.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

The Florodora Girl (1930) Harry Beaumont

Luckily this is one of the comedies Marion Davies managed to make while her long term boyfriend William Randolph Hearst pushed her towards period dramas, in which she was far less effective. We're at the Hotel Florodora watching the six Florodora Girls dance, and Daisy Dell is one of them. She's also the only one who can't land a rich beau, which is more than just a little ironic given the circumstances.

'I don't want to marry a man just for his money,' she says, while Marion Davies was seen in real life as the most successful golddigger of her era, something merely cemented later by Citizen Kane. In reality that was hardly fair and a more telling line comes a little later. 'I'd like him if he had nothing,' she says, and that may have been highlighted best in real life when she saved Hearst's bacon at one point by selling some of her property and giving him a million dollar cheque.

Anyway the girls teach Daisy how to acquire herself a a rich one and she promptly acquires Jack Vibart, society gentleman. Unfortunately she hasn't the faintest clue how to play the game and so things hardly go the way the girls intend, or rather it does but for all the wrong reasons. She gives up on trying to fascinate a rich man and wins him through sheer honesty. In fact he has to work to keep her because of family influence.

The story here is really not very substantial and with anyone else in the lead it would probably have vanished for good reason. It's a gift for Davies though, who is more than the star of the show, she's almost the only thing really worth watching. The film highlights just how much she was unique in her era: she was a massively talented clown, probably the first real screwball comedienne and someone surprisingly excellent with accents given that she stuttered in real life.

To me it also backs up my belief that while she was a gorgeous young leading lady, she was also the only one of her time that was willing to show herself looking terrible too. In fact it happens so often in her films that there must be some psychological reason for it. There are quite a lot of such scenes here, most obviously the ones after she fakes drowning and is rescued by Jack. We see her dragged over a 'barrel', turned upside down and everything else you can imagine. Later at a society ball, she makes her way through the whole thing with her dress continually unbuttoning.

It's certainly not the best Marion Davies film out there, but it's far from the worst and she's a joy to watch. There's even a two strip technicolor sequence at the end to relish. Two strip was far from full colour and this is very red two strip, but when it's all we have, I for one won't complain.

The Nitwits (1935) George Stevens

I like the credits, that unroll on a player piano roll, angled and dotted like a really long cross stitch work scrolling down the screen. In fact the film looks pretty good generally, courtesy of director George Stevens who would quickly go onto far better material than this and cinematographer Edward Cronjager. Even the editor wakes up partway through, going from static predictability to frenetic transitions in the first dance scene, but then he goes back to sleep again. Maybe there were more than one editor or maybe the one was schizophrenic.

We're both at and outside the Lake Publishing Company which publishes songs. Inside, we have Hale Hamilton as the owner, Winfield Lake, and Betty Grable as his delightful secretary, Mary Roberts, so delightful that the married Lake can't keep his roaming hands away from her. Outside we have Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey as the nitwits of the title. They run a tobacconist stall together and Woolsey invents on the side, coming up with an electric chair device that forces people to tell the truth. Wheeler is also engaged to Mary Roberts and only needs money to get married, the hope is that he can earn enough by writing a song to sell to Lake.

Amazingly the song is a good one, especially as we first hear it sung by Woolsey. In fact it's the only song in the three Wheeler & Woolsey movies I've seen thus far that is actually enjoyable. It's a murder ballad called 'The Black Widow's Gonna Get You If You Don't Watch Out', and is sung in a Cab Calloway sort of style. Unfortunately the inspiration for it is a real criminal who is trying to extort money from Lake and murders him, just as circumstances suggest to Woolsey that Wheeler is about to do it and to the cops that Mary did it.

Much of the comedy is as dumb as you'd expect from this pair, but some is surprisingly funny and the story is a whole lot better than the last couple I've seen. The murder and the consequences are mildly ingenious, though there's plenty of stereotypical setup and it's really not difficult to work out whodunit.

The stereotypes run deep though, with Willie Best in the cast, at least credited under his real name this time instead of Sleep 'n' Eat. However the moment he arrives, he's cheating at dice and that sort of cringeworthy behaviour returns late in the film. It's one thing to know that Hollywood was racist in the thirties but it's another to have that reinforced to the nth by seeing films where black men literally do nothing but laze around, play craps and get scared by anything and everything.

Look Back in Anger (1958) Tony Richardson

I'm not sure I ever expected to see Richard Burton as a blistering jazz trumpeter but that's where he is at the beginning of this film, in a smoky jazz club. This is one of those kitchen sink dramas that my mother used to hate so much and I heard about but never read or saw, a film adaptation of the play by John Osborne. In fact this was the very play, first staged two years earlier in 1956, that gave rise to the term 'angry young men' that came to define a generation of English writers.

It could easily have defined the characters too, though that was never the intent. Burton's character, Jimmy Porter, certainly seems to be raging from moment one, angry as soon as he leaves the stage. He's mad at his wife for vague and undefined reasons (she's pusillanimous), he's mad at the council official (played by a very young Donald Pleasence) who monitors the market where he runs a sweet stall, hes even mad at the church bells ringing outside. He seems to be devoted to his mother though, which could explain plenty from a psychological standpoint. It certainly explains the real issue at hand: class.

Jimmy's mother is a decent sort but she's decidedly lower class, as much as she pronounces her T's. His wife, Alison, as played by Mary Ure who reprises her role from the original play, is upper middle class, a notable difference in the England of the fifties. He loves her very much, or at least desires her completely even after a couple of years of marriage, but he seems to hate everything she stands for. This naturally extends to despising himself for loving her, and of course self-loathing was something that Richard Burton seemed to do better than anyone else. He seethes awesomely here, but my mother's point, and mine too to a degree, is why anyone would want to watch it.

There are three other main players in the thing. Claire Bloom is a actress friend of Alison's, who inevitably looks far more like Elizabeth Taylor than she should, given that Taylor didn't come into the picture for quite a few years yet. She comes to stay for a couple of weeks, as she's acting nearby and Alison needs a female friend to talk to, given that she's become pregnant but can't find a suitable opportunity to tell her husband (or he won't provide her with one). The character keeping the peace between them all is Cliff Lewis, a young Welshman (the irony!) who both lodges with them and co-runs the sweet stall. He's played by Gary Raymond, who I've never heard of but does very well indeed in such exalted company.

The film is depressing and very dark, not just in theme but in colour, some scenes in the dim and dingy lodging house being almost impenetrable. Tony Richardson directs with style, and justifies his inclusion in the list of notable English directors of the era though I'm not sure why the writers got to be 'angry young men' but the directors just got to be 'new wave'. He's the husband of Vanessa Redgrave and father of Natasha and Joely Richardson. Interestingly, while three Tony Richardson movies made the BFI's list of the top 100 British films, this wasn't one of them. What the combination of Richardson, Osborne and screenwriter Nigel Kneale (of Quatermass fame) do here reminds much more of A Streetcar Named Desire than This Sporting Life. Like the latter it's very English but more in theme than setting. Like the former it's stagy, literate and detached.

It would be easy to see this film as nothing but a bunch of shouting. I never did understand all the shouting in these stories, given that people can be thoroughly unpleasant without it, especially when they're as intelligent as the characters that Burton tended to play. Maybe it's just an excuse for people to come back to later and pretend they didn't mean it. Under it though is a real story about class, and other social issues that were only starting to see mention in film: racism, abortion, divorce, extra-marital affairs. They're kept down at the subplot level, but are handled very well. What we're really watching is powerful stage acting, from all three of the lead actors, in a groundbreaking and influential play from John Osborne. The fact that it's on film really doesn't matter that much.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Devotion (1946) Curtis Bernhardt

We're back in Yorkshire and back with Sydney Greenstreet for a typically Hollywood romanticised version of the life of the Brontë sisters, three famous English writers who had already provided the material for a number of classic films, not least 1939's Wuthering Heights and 1944's Jane Eyre. Luckily we have some serious talent on hand to provide the characterisations and Hollywood did at least keep all three sisters in the story, without making them six or two or casting someone like John Wayne as Branwell.

Emily is Ida Lupino, herself a major force in being a powerful and influential woman long before that was deemed appropriate; Charlotte is Olivia de Havilland, who had more great films behind her by 1946 than most would ever have on their filmographies; and Anne is Nancy Coleman, who I don't know at all. They're all as emotional and melodramatic as you'd expect for a Hollywood film about three women in 1946, with Emily the strong woman grounded in reality, Charlotte the dreamer and Anne somewhere in between.

As we begin, Charlotte and Anne are preparing to become governesses in order to experience life and to finance their brother Branwell's passage to London to find his place in the world, while Emily and Branwell bicker and fight. Admittedly this is because Arthur Kennedy plays Branwell as a flamboyant, petty and foolish drunk, meaning that Emily has to be mother as much as sister, though misunderstood as both. Montagu Love, in his last of 179 films, plays their father, the Revd Brontë, and Paul Henreid the curate who comes to assist him and eventually marry Charlotte even though Emily is the one in love with him first. Details like this are apparently why some critics have referred to as Distortion instead of Devotion.

There are other names here to resonate: Dame May Whitty and Sydney Greenstreet, chief over them. Dame May only made 32 films, of which this is my eighth and while she shines in each, was massively memorable in at least two: The Lady Vanishes and Mrs Miniver. Here she's Lady Thornton, before whom Branwell manages to disgrace himself. Greenstreet is William Makepeace Thackeray, renowned novelist, and he's just perfect. He looked and sounded like he came out of the era anyway, but fits the part also. With the possible exception of his hair, I could imagine him arriving, acting and leaving in the costume. He also imbues the part with a sense of humour, and has a moment in this film where he merely looks downward and I split my sides laughing.

If Sydney Greenstreet had had a larger part, he might just have stolen the film from Ida Lupino, but there's just not enough of him (did I really say that?) to warrant it. Lupino is stunning as Emily, far outshining her sisters and of course having the depth needed to carry such a deep role, having her heart broken at every step by the blissful blind ignorance of her sister. Olivia de Havilland does a great job too but is hampered by playing someone so shallow. Nancy Coleman is good too but keeps disappearing from the film, so that it's really hard to tell how good she was. In fact both de Havilland and Coleman play second fiddle to Arthur Kennedy and Paul Henreid though, and that doesn't seem right.

Reading up on the film, people talk enthusiastically about the score and the cinematography but I was underwhelmed, the sky behind Emily's dream sequences being the only real standout. Much of the rest looked very set bound and predictable, even the moors looking up at Wuthering Heights.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

The Woman in White (1948) Peter Godfrey

Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White in 1859 and given its popularity you can be sure that 1948 didn't see the first film adaptation. In fact there were four versions in the silent era alone plus an English sound film loosely based on the novel. However it was only in 1948 when some genius casting director decided to pair Sydney Greenstreet and Agnes Moorehead up as a married couple.

We're in England in 1851, in the town of Limmeridge. Gig Young is the lead, as a painter called Walter Hartright, and he's visiting Limmeridge House to be a tutor to Frederick Fairlie's niece. On arrival in the town he walks to the house and encounters on the way a mysterious young lady, all dressed in white, for whom people seem to be searching. Greenstreet is one of them, as Count Fosco, an Italian critic and scientist, but he's not the only one. When Hartright meets young Laura Fairlie and is struck by the resemblance between her and the woman in white, mistaking them for one and the same.

The mystery deepens, as various relationships complicate things. Hartright falls for Laura and she apparently for him, but she's about to be married to someone else whom she does not love. Laura's cousin, Marian, falls for Hartright too but of course doesn't get anywhere. The woman in white herself is apparently some sort of relation too, one who had been institutionalised but escaped and has all sorts of stories to tell. Meanwhile the master of the house is a bizarre sort of weak hypochondriac easily dominated, thus becoming the weak link in the chain.

Then we jump forward a year and everything has become completely bizarre, to Marian's shock and horror. All the servants have been replaced, Laura has married the moneygrabbing Sir Percival Glyde and the submissive Countess Fosco has arrived. Nothing seems to make any sense any more, except that it has now become aboundingly obvious that a fiendish plot is in effect and Count Fosco is behind it all. Greenstreet excels here in a gift of a part where he can throw his weight about, dominate people and cast his shifty hypnotic eyes about. The other dream role goes to John Abbott as Frederick Fairlie who has little of substance to do but shines doing it.

There's some overacting here and some perpetually static camerawork, but it's a powerful film. It's a solid gothic tale with Greenstreet, Abbott and some great use of shadows dominating over the leads. Gig Young, Alexis Smith and Eleanor Parker are all fine but outshone to no small degree. Agnes Moorehead as Countess Fosco is excellent but on screen for far too short a time.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Consolation Marriage (1931) Paul Sloane

Steve Porter sails all the way to England to be with the love of his life, Elaine, only to find out that she's just got married. He therefore hits the pubs with a vengeance. Meanwhile Mary Brown loves Aubrey who has been her childhood sweetheart but he's about to get married to another woman, even though he doesn't seem to want to. Maybe it's all about the money. Anyway she's as floored as Steve is and as the film is called Consolation Marriage it really doesn't take a huge amount of imagination to see where the story is going to go from there.

Unfortunately that's where the believability stops for me, for a couple of very good reasons. Elaine is played by Myrna Loy, who was gorgeous in 1931 even when she wasn't playing exotic roles, but Mary is played by Irene Dunne, who looks far too much like Leslie Howard to me to warrant a second glance. She gets to sing too and I try to avoid her singing as much as I possibly can. I haven't yet seen a performance of hers that I've enjoyed and this makes no exception. If I was Steve, I'd stay inside a bottle dreaming about Myrna Loy.

Unfortunately Loy doesn't get much of a part and Dunne does. Pat O'Brien, who plays Steve Porter, is fine but he doesn't get a lot to work with here, pillow fights or no. The real story has to do with the fact that Steve and Mary get married purely because it seems like a fine idea at the time, with no love or romance involved. Yet before long both Elaine and Aubrey are back in the picture, missing their old sweethearts terribly. Of course by that time Mary's pregnant and everything's wonderfully mixed up.

This one was hard to work through. Myrna Loy got saddled with some terrible material in 1931. The silents I've seen her in were fine, though she didn't have much of a part in any of them, and she was great once the material improved in say, 1932 or 1933. This one fits very well with The Naughty Flirt and Arrowsmith: a third substandard film from 1931. Irene Dunne's films tend to be pretty good but in spite of her rather than because of her, and any success this one has follows the same trend. The women may have been wailing in their seats but I was just bored.

The Parole Officer (2001) John Duigan

Steve Coogan plays Simon Garden, a parole officer annoying enough to warrant a petition from his co-workers to have him moved elsewhere and inept enough that only 3 of the 1000+ released prisoners he's responsible for have gone straight. He shifts north to Manchester where I recognise most of the scenery and quickly stumbles upon corrupt cops stealing drugs from teenage carjackers and even committing a murder. The only way out for him to avoid being framed for the murder himself is to retrieve the closed circuit security tapes of the incident which have been locked up in a bank vault. Now he must enlist his three successes to help him rob the bank.

There's a lot of unconventional humour here, but somehow Steve Coogan manages to make us laugh while we're cringing. You'll see Coogan vomit on a troop of schoolkids from the front seat of a rollercoaster, break the large wooden penis off of a fertility symbol in a museum exhibit and even have a wasp fly up his nose. You'll also see a young girl accomplice accidentally throw a dog over a fence into a greenhouse after fighting with it over a severed head. None of these should be funny in the slightest but they are indeed. Coogan's pause after the word 'buggered' in this film made me laugh louder than anything I can remember in quite some time, and he does things with a stapler that really resonate.

Coogan is by far the star of this show, but his assistants all have plenty moments of their own. They're as unconventional a mix as could be, including Om Puri as a serial Pakistani bigamist and Emma Williams as a teenage carjacker. There are also cameos from people of the calibre of Simon Pegg, Jenny Agutter and Omar Sharif. Some of the film is predictable and not all the jokes work but it's still a very pleasant change from the typical modern comedy.

It doesn't hurt that Emma Nichols is a Halifax girl and the filming locations included Saddleworth Moor where I've taken photos of some of the very things that I saw on screen. It's always good to recognise locations in films and TV shows, but it's special to know them when they're really not well known places that I've lived in or visited, especially when I'm not there any more.

Earth (1930) Alexander Dovzhenko

We're in the Ukraine and some old farmer thinks he's dying. He's Simon and he's apparently been farming for 75 years. His friend Peter wants to know whether he's going to heaven or hell and what it's like there. It's all very civilised, at least until the wailing starts in earnest. He's one of the poor farmers, for this is propaganda and the view of propaganda was simple: in the Russia of 1930 there were poor but honest peasants and rich capitalist kulaks, and the kulaks always win.

Until that is the people and the great Soviet government kick off the concept of collectivisation where privately owed farms are merged into collectives for the benefit of all. It was a very Stalinist concept, though rooted in traditional Russian methods, and one that notably didn't work. The concept, combined with other factors, especially the resistance of the kulaks, caused famine and death on a grand scale. Here in 1930 though it was still the way forward and Earth is very deliberate propaganda to aid the transition, though Stalin apparently felt it too vague and that it didn't quite tow the line.

I'm still reasonably new to early Soviet cinema, or any Soviet cinema for that matter, but I have a number of key Eisensteins under my belt. One thing I discovered in his work, especially in the first Ivan the Terrible film, is that faces are very important indeed and the same seems to be apparent here. We're treated to a huge amount of closeups, where the screen is filled with someone's face, and these faces are distinctive and memorable.

There's very little plot here. Vasili Opanas, transliterated in the subtitles to Basil, who is Simon's grandson, leads the charge to collectivise the village's fields and become a farm collective. However the kulaks fight back and murder him. Plot though wasn't what Dozhenko was really looking for. He was working in 1930 when Russia had not yet adopted sound technology and film was high art that dealt with high themes and emotions. It's paced not according to story but like a symphony, full of peaks and swells.

Visually the film has many sections that are just stunning, whether calm or frenetic. The peaceful scenes are often of people, still and poetic or kicking up dust in the deserted village streets, but there are landscape shots also of mist over water or menacing clouds that are magnetic. The frenetic ones tend towards montages of mechanism, especially a long section that encompasses everything from the tractor pulling the wheat out ofthe ground all the way to it becoming loaves of bread. These feel awesomely ahead of their time for 1930 and are amazing to watch.