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Sunday, 28 September 2008
The tragedy of the story comes with the choice of warrior to fight the spirits. Raiko, the local samurai leader, needs a warrior to rid him of the vengeful ghosts and he finds one called Gintoki of the Grove. Unfortunately before he was conscripted into war by being dragged out of his fields, Gintoki was the son of Yone and the husband of Shige. He finds them but proves unable to kill them because of who they once were. Similarly they find it impossible to kill him, but such an easy solution is too easy. There are consequences to every action and all the players in this game have vows and obligations to live up to.
This film looks awesome, containing some of the best and most expressionistic lighting I've seen in some time. Some of it is so focused that the rest of the scene fades into nothingness and the players move from spotlight to spotlight. As this would suggest, the whole thing feels like a play, which makes it unsurprising that the male lead, Nakamura Kinnosuke was apparently a noted kabuki actor. Much of the action and movement is very ritualistic, with frequent accompaniment of a sonorous drum and the slow and stylised dancing of the mother.
While many scenes are starkly and blissfully shot, not just the expressionistic lighting but the panoramic movements and the transitions that turn this into a ritual dance, there's also some terrible editing going on too. Quite a few times a beautiful and rhythmic scene gets ripped apart to be replaced by something else. It happens often enough that I can almost believe it's deliberate but it feels too awkward for that. It feels wrong and out of place in such a carefully construced kabuki piece.
Director Kaneto Shindô had quite a career of films like this, mixing samurai with ghosts. In fact the film acclaimed as the greatest such mixture, 1964's Onibaba, was made by Shindô with Nobuko Otowa in the lead, making this something of a reunion, as Otowa plays Yone, the mother ghost. Shige is played by Kiwako Taichi, who was reasonably new at this point, The Black Cat being only her second film. She made quite a few more but her most renowned performance seems to be in a Tora-San movie, the 17th of a film series that went on to no less than 48, making it until recently the longest series of all time. And we thought there were enough Friday the 13th and Police Academy movies!
I lost track of how many films I saw with that little Beetle with a will of its own but doing a quick bit of research suggests four of them, up to 1980's Herbie Goes Bananas. This one was the first, in which we, along with race car driver Jim Douglas, are introduced to Herbie, a white Volkswagen Beetle (or Bug in the US, hence the title). Douglas is racing in demolition derbys because he's crashed out a few too many in the big races, but he gets another chance with Herbie, against all his expectations. In fact he only acquires Herbie by accident and is the last person to realise just what he has.
It begins when he follows a pair of legs into a car showroom. The legs belong to Carole Bennett and the showroom belongs to her boss, Peter Thorndyke. Herbie doesn't have a name at this point but he's still a car and Douglas defends it when Thorndyke kicks it. It then follows him home and nearly gets him into trouble when the police think he stole it. Because Thorndyke wants rid of it and Douglas needs a car, Bennett mediates a solution: Douglas should buy the car at a good price in exchange for immunity from prosecution.
Soon of course he finds that far from being a hunk of metal, it's a peach of a race car. The only thing he doesn't realise is that it's Herbie winning the races not him, not that it would be a difficult realisation to come to. His friend Tennessee Steinmetz, who makes art out of auto parts, believes it and provides the name, and Carole who naturally leaves Thorndyke's establishment to back up Douglas's racing and become his girl in the process believes it too. Even Thorndyke believes it and tries all he can to reacquire the vehicle himself, not to race it but to destroy it.
As you'd expect for a film abut a car with its own personality, this is complete lunacy but we shouldn't care because it really boils down to being a live action episode of Wacky Races, complete with an excellent Dick Dastardly in the form of David Tomlinson as Peter Thorndyke. He isn't quite Terry-Thomas but he's as close as anyone else ever got, with a deliciously devilish performance throughout, pausing halfway through the El Dorado road race to sip chilled champagne. My favourite line: 'Honesty is a quality not necessarily to be despised.' Tomlinson dominates the cast, at least the human cast as Herbie naturally steals the film, and this may be his most memorable role, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks notwithstanding.
Jim Douglas is played by Disney regular Dean Jones, who began his long association with the company in That Darn Cat! in 1965. This would prove his best known role though, which he reprised in the second sequel, Herbie Rides Again, as well as the 1997 TV remake/sequel, also called The Love Bug, though this was a cameo appearance only with Bruce Campbell playing the lead. Carole Bennett is Michelle Lee, who did surprisingly little on film, concentrating on TV where she would became far more famous for Knots Landing. Tennessee Steinmetz, the other main character, gave another family friendly role to comedian Buddy Hackett.
The film is great fun, of course, but it carries a few surprises. There's a surprisingly saucy visual joke to introduce Jim to Carole and there are a couple of counterculture drug references too. This was 1968, so the treatment of the Chinese-American characters is terrible. Don't get me wrong: it's not all negative but, my goodness, it's cliched to a 2008 audience. The main Chinese-American character, Mr Wu, is a sharp wheeler dealer with no end of business enterprises across the country, but he still turns up to the police station when Herbie takes down a pole at the front of one of his corner stores. As he's played by Benson Fong, best known as number three son to Charlie Chan, he gets a bunch of 'Confucious say' type comments. Oh well.
Saturday, 27 September 2008
Apparently the John Paul Jones was sunk saving another carrier, so the Navy commissions another one and we watch it from the beginning of its life, from the first announcement of what the new ship is going to be once it's built. Running a good deal of the building is Steve Boleslavski, who we think initially is a welder who cares, but who turns out to be someone who served on the original John Paul Jones. He works hard to be assigned to the new one too, and manages it because the commander is someone who he'd previously worked with.
He becomes the new leading chief, replacing Mickey Donohue, who had the job for about half an hour, thus leading to plenty of clashes that end with their positions being swapped. The suggestion is that it's a different Navy with different equipment and different men and Boleslavski is seriously out of date. However that runs in two different ways. The ship fails its shakedown trials, becoming a joke, and many of the crew put in for transfers 'to a good ship'. Boleslavski however is proud of his ship and sticks with it regardless of what might go wrong. He also has the experience needed to make the difference in tight spots, whether he knows how to handle his men or not, and he knows his history too.
The best scene comes when he's been told by the medics to leave sea duty because of a lesion in his lung but when going for his kit he comes across the men trying to leave and gives them an impassioned speech. It's a great scene for more than just Edward G Robinson but he's the biggest part of it. He's Boleslavski and a young Glenn Ford is Donohue. Both are excellent, though I haven't seen Ford quite this sassy and obnoxious before. It seems somehow redundant saying that Robinson dominates and puts in a great performance because of all the actors I've ever seen, he seems to personify that concept. He's a lot better than the material here and so is Ford.
Backing them up are workhorses like Edgar Buchanan, Edward Brophy, Regis Toomey and Leo Gorcey. There's also yet another tiny speaking part for the young Lloyd Bridges: He must have paid more dues than anyone else in Hollywood. Given that the female lead goes to a US Navy destroyer, which may be cool but is hardly sexy, there's another young lady in the cast too. She's Marguerite Chapman, who plays a very self-assured Mary Boleslavski, a worthy foil to both Robinson as her father and Donohue as her husband. Like you didn't see that one coming. She does a memorable job here, more so than she did in Counter-Attack, which I saw a few days ago. Again she was the sole female presence in the film. Her performance here suggests that she should have been given a detective series to lead: she could easily have carried it.
Sometimes though they had no budget at all, and there were plenty of really awful films too. The Incredible Petrified World is the worst I've seen thus far, but there are a few others hot on its tail: Attack of the Crab Monsters, Zombies of Mora Tau, The Man Who Turned Stone. There's even Roger Corman's The Saga of the Viking Women and Their Voyage to the Waters of the Great Sea Serpent, which could never live up to such a title. The Giant Claw is better than these but not by much. In fact it's just as bad except for a higher calibre of acting and dialogue early on. The story is completely ludicrous.
It focuses on Mitch MacAfee, an electrical engineer and pilot, played by poor man's Cary Grant, Jeff Morrow, a scifi veteran after This Island Earth, The Creature Walks Among Us and Kronos, Destroyer of the Universe. He's working on the top of the world at an early warning radar installation doing calibration work when he sees a UFO flash past him. The generals think he's playing a prank, because for some reason they find nothing suspicious in the unexplained loss of one of the fighters scrambled to investigate. However planes keep going missing and MacAfee stays in the picture, working out the patterns and suggesting solutions.
As you'd expect from the title, the UFO is some sort of giant bird that flies in ever increasing circles picking off anything that crosses its path. It's extraterrestrial, of course, and it emits an anti-matter shield to block itself from radar, one that it can turn on and off at will to snatch terrestrial food from the air without exploding it on touch. It looks like some sort of mutant chicken or skeletal ostrich or bizarre pustulent version of Big Bird. It's so huge that its head is bigger than the planes that chase it.
Needless to say it's so dangerous that all the governments of the world team together and ban all transportation that isn't classified by the military as essential, which highlights the sort of insane logic that the film follows. It's the sort of film that talks about the urgency in the pilot's voice when reporting a UFO sighting, but we wouldn't know because all we could hear is the narrator. It's the sort of film that has an upside down business card pinned to a control board reading, 'NO1 BUTTON HOT PRESS FOR SCRAMBLE ONLY' in handwritten capitals. The generals fly the planes, the bird picks the United Nations building to chomp on and the electrical engineer wins the day.
What we have is Jeff Morrow and a number of others who had made other scifi/monster films before this one. His girlfriend and co-worker (she's a mathematician and systems analyst) is played by Mara Corday who was the leading lady in Tarantula and The Black Scorpion. The generals are Morris Ankrum and Robert Shayne, both of whom were also in Kronos. Ankrum specialised in westerns but found his way into the scifi genre with Rocketship X-M, then progressed to Flight to Mars, Red Planet Mars and Invaders from Mars. You can see the pattern. He was the US president (Grant) in From the Earth the Moon. Shayne found his way into Corman films like War of the Satellites and Teenage Cave Man.
There should have been Ray Harryhausen too, but apparently the producers couldn't afford him, thus prompting producer Sam Katzman to hire a cheap Mexican model maker to construct the frankly hilarious puppet ostrich thing. Audiences apparently laughed every time it was seen on screen at the premiere, and given that nobody in the cast knew what it looked like and the premiere was in Jeff Morrow's own home town, he had to sneak out halfway through in embarrassment just in case anyone recognised him. The bird was also nothing like the artwork on promotional posters because the artists weren't shown it either.
This is a surprising film to watch, for a lot of reasons. The most obvious strange quality comes from it being a French film shot in English. It's obviously French, set in a French orphange, made by a French writer/director and with an almost entirely French cast. Admittedly Dorina Lazar, who plays Helenka, is Romanian and Catriona MacColl, who plays the orphanage administrator, is English, but MacColl was used to starring in European horror films having made quite a few for Lucio Fulci back in the early eighties. Yet almost every word spoken is in English, removing much of the twisted Gallic charm of other continental horror films I've seen recently like Sheitan and Calvaire.
The other is that it looks really good but there's nothing to see. Technically this is an accomplished film, with a powerful sense of composition and lighting and movement. There are many stylish shots and it's certainly no hardship to watch something that look so great. Yet the film is empty of anything else. It seems to comment on something but I don't know what: maybe there's some sort of French national guilt trip over the treatment of orphans sent into the country at the end of the Second Wold War. If there is, I know nothing about it. If there isn't, I'm at a complete loss to work out what the point here is.
Perhaps this is really just a look at insanity. Judith obviously has mental issues, but maybe the point is that Anna does too. Maybe her wounds were self-inflicted, not caused by her sadistic previous employers, who maybe didn't get her pregnant. Maybe she finds empathy with Judith, holds back her pills to let her madness come to the fore and then rides that madness with her, turning it into something of her own that applies to her unwanted pregnancy. Call it codependent insanity or something.
Thursday, 25 September 2008
The title character is a New York obstetrician called Dr Monica Braden, though I'm surprised they didn't change the surname given that she's played by Wavishing Kay Fwancis. She's a busy doctor, so busy that she doesn't get to see her husband too often, a busy writer by the name of John. We first see them together at a party, which is the first time they've connected in two days. We quickly discover that John has been taking advantage of such lack of contact with his wife by cheating on her with a mutual acquaintance called Mary Hathaway, so it's hardly surprising they picked Warren William for the part.
He heads quickly and conveniently out of the picture on a six month trip to Europe, leaving Mary knocked up and trying to miscarry. The real bitch is that Monica is a baby doctor who can't have a baby of her own, something that she seriously yearns for. And naturally Monica takes care of Mary all the way through her pregnancy, only to accidentally discover who the father is about five minutes before the baby is born. Cue all sorts of romantic twist and turmoil, that would turn this into a soap opera if only it wasn't handled so well, at least by 1934 standards.
Given that it runs a scant 53 minutes in length (the original version may have included an extra eight minutes) that's not a lot of room to do much except define the framework and let the actors do their best to flesh out their characters. Kay Francis was a dab hand at this sort of tearjerker and she does a fine job here. Jean Muir is passable as Mary Hathaway, but best of all is Verree Teasdale as Anna Littlefield. She's there to provide not just the link between everyone else in the story but the backbone and the comic relief to the film. She has a very dry wit and she gets a couple of scenes to shine.
I was watching mostly for Warren William though and he precisely the right actor for a part like John Braden. It still stuns me how much he could go totally off the deep end as a cad and a bounder yet still retain some sort of sympathy on behalf of the viewer. I haven't found another actor from any era who could carry the sort of role he turned into a trademark during the precodes, but unfortunately he must have been well aware the ending of that era was going to mean that his brief dominance was about to end with it and so this is a highly restrained performance.
A week after the release of this film, there would be no more films like Skyscraper Souls, Beauty and the Boss or Employees' Entrance, all of which (and many more) gave William outrageous roles to relish. He was about to enter his next phase of roles, as detective heroes, following this one up with portrayals of Philo Vance in The Dragon Murder Case and as Perry Mason in The Case of the Howling Dog, setting him on the path to the Lone Wolf. This was definitely the end of an era, ushered out by the Production Code Administration trying to pull this film from theatres because it dared address issues like adultery, childbirth out of wedlock, forced miscarriages and suicide. All in 53 minutes. There's nothing like a precode, even one with a copout of an ending.
He parks in someone else's spot, then threatens to beat up the student who complains. He tries it on with the girlfriend of J I Coleridge, the president of the 'wheelers and dealers', the toughest clique in school, then tells him that he's taking over. He heads in to the principal's office to hand in his transfer papers (he's an orphan transferring in from Chicago), insults the secretary then kicks back in the office with a joint and a knife, both of which he points at the principal. Oh, and he's already been kicked out of the only class we've seen him in, for trying it on with the teacher, whose car he presumably sabotages so he can give her a lift home. Meanwhile he's building his connections in the drug trade.
This is an amazing film. That doesn't mean it's a great work of art, because it certainly isn't, but within its own parameters (firmly a B movie), it's fascinating, and proves to be a telling snapshot of a moment in time. The people who populate the cast are either seriously good actors or they're so iconic that they don't have to be. Tony Baker is played by Russ Tamblyn, after Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and Peyton Place but before Tom Thumb and West Side Story. The ultra-hip dialogue would have floored most people but he rides with it and actually carries the character. Most actors couldn't have done it. He's a good reason why this film works the way it does.
Backing him up on the acting front are people like Jackie Coogan as Mr A, the local drug lord and Jan Sterling, as the cute teacher he hits on, though she's capable of far better. On the iconic side of things, there's wild John Drew Barrymore (son of John, father of Drew) doing something close to an Elvis impersonation as J I Coleridge, and Mamie Van Doren, Universal's answer to Marilyn Monroe, as the aunt he stays with. The way she carries on around Tony is our first lead to what's really going on under the surface of the script. All is not as it would appear.
Intriguingly her real life husband of the time (the second of five), Ray Anthony, is also in the film. He looks like a cut price Cary Grant but he does his job well, surprisingly so for someone who was really a musician and only made seven films as an actor (over twice that as a performer). Other smaller supporting roles go to people like Charles Chaplin Jr; Michael Landon, early in his career, right after I Was a Teenage Werewolf; and Lyle Talbot, close to the end of his with only a year to go before Plan 9 from Outer Space.
The real star has to be Robert Blees, who wrote this thing, both as a story and a screenplay, along with a little help from Lewis Meltzer. It's a curious movie: part high school exploitation flick, part cautionary drug tale, with odd leanings towards the various youth subcultures of the time: drag racing, beatnik clubs and poetry recitals. Its biggest success is an unexpected one, as a glimpse into the mindset of late fifties America.
Partly it's the fact that all the schoolboys look like they're 25 and all the girls have conical bras. Mamie Van Doren looked like she was about to fall over more than once, and I'm not talking about her alcohol intake. Mostly it's about the drugs though. The way drugs are presented here is really no different to the way they were presented in the thirties in films like Reefer Madness, Marijuana or The Cocaine Fiends. The States seemingly hadn't progressed a step: marijuana was a dangerous addictive substance, an 'insidious menace to the schools of our country' and the youth of the day needed to learn to say no and stick to regular cigarettes instead.
Wednesday, 24 September 2008
Though only a few attempt to sound remotely believable, these Brits and Americans are playing Russians and they're going to turn the tide by building a bridge underwater, using the sense of touch alone. This way the bridge will be built, under the unseeing eyes of the enemy, and will sit there effectively invisible just below the surface, ready for Russian tanks to roll over along with the element of surprise when mounting their counter-attack. The big surprise here though is that we don't get to see much of this counter-attack at all because we end up stuck underground instead.
The star here is Paul Muni, playing a Russian sailor called Alexei Kulkov, and he really ought to sound authentic given that he was born in a town that is now part of the Ukraine (it was Austria-Hungary at the time). Kulkov and his colleagues were apparently sunk on day one of the war without knowing that the war had even begun. So they left the sea, became paratroopers and were dropped in to make the difference by building the underwater bridge. Kulkov misses out on all this because he's caught in an artillery barrage that buries him in the cellar of a building. He's a tough cookie, tough enough to keep a bunch of Germans prisoner who are buried along with him. At least they sound generally authentic.
He has a gun of course and the assistance of a young lady who was to act as their guide, but that's not the point. It's strength of will that does the job and he has the brains to do more than just keep them prisoner. While they're all apparently regular soldiers, with the highest rank being a corporal, Kulkov is convinced that one of them is really an officer so he uses psychological tactics to work out which one it is and to get information out of them. In other words this war film is really a detective film, the point merely being to find out something other than whodunit.
The setting is highly restricted so works well as a play, and it's hardly surprising to find that this was based on one. Surprisingly for an American film it's based on a Russian play, written by Mikhail Ruderman & Ilya Vershinin. Then again back in 1945, the Russians and Americans were on the same side, so the most surprising thing is that it's a war film about Russians and Germans without any Americans to leap in and save the day. Even the star is Ukrainian (or Austro-Hungarian, or whatever he was in 1942), but Paul Muni was never the standard Hollywood star anyway. He could act, for a start.
I'm nearly through the whole of Muni's career. Unlike most Hollywood actors of his era, he didn't make that many films, having only 22 of them to his name. This makes 15 for me, with only a handful to go. I've found that he spent most of his time playing other nationalities, often wildly so (such as Mexican in Juarez or Chinese in The Good Earth), but Russian fits him well. He was also able to wildly overact, such as in Black Fury, but he's restrained here as a careful man trying to keep his wits about him and not to fall asleep.
The rest of the cast are made up of character actors, most of whom I don't recognise. The sole female presence in the film is Marguerite Chapman as Lisa Elenko. I know her best from her last film appearance, top billed in Edgar Ulmer's The Amazing Transparent Man. She doesn't get too much to do, but then neither does anyone else really: these performances are measured in subtleties not flamboyance. Most obvious is Ludwig Donath as Prof Müller, one of the German soldiers. The only names I know are those of Larry Parks, George Macready and so far down the list that I didn't even notice him in the film, Darren McGavin. This one firmly belongs to Muni though.
Monday, 22 September 2008
We follow three French youths, far better behaved than any in Sheitan, on a trip through Georgia. They're there because one of them has inherited a derelict castle from her grandmother, but that's just the framework for the story that unfolds. Together with Nikolaï, their hired interpreter, they set off by bus to the castle but quickly get caught up in the story of a couple of their fellow passengers: a young man and his grandfather, travelling with a coffin. It would seem that the coffin is for the old man, who is sacrificing himself for his family to even the score and bring between two rival villages.
The Legacy is free from the degrees of suspense that permeated 13 Tzameti but it's full of colour and ethnic flavour. It's impossible to miss the music, the gorgeous Georgian landscapes and the fact that we experience almost everything through translation, but what we really see is a completely different way of life to what we know, more alien than most science fiction where the aliens are nothing but us in different coloured skin.
There's another great character on the bus: a mute who develops into something far more as the film moves on, growing with it. Everything about him helps to build our understanding of who these people are. These Georgians live by their own code of honour, time stretches because memories don't forget, and everything is bartered. The ending is powerful and very telling. Perspective is certainly everything, especially when dealing with that which is alien. The only thing more powerful than what is revealed after the main action of the film is the fact that those who were unwittingly involved don't understand a thing about it.
Sunday, 21 September 2008
Eve's place is large but not in the greatest shape, something I'd love to own. However it's also a pretty freaky place, partly because of the proliferation of dolls the belong to her father but mostly because of the people, especially Joseph. Joseph is the goatherder, shepherd or housekeeper or whatever, but he's played by Vincent Cassel so is completely out there with all the sort of psychotic charisma that you'd expect if you've ever seen him in anything at all, not least La Haine. He has plans, twisted ones for sure, but plans nonetheless and he's not someone you'd generally want to mess with.
He takes a fondness to Bart, for reasons that aren't what we initially suspect, and he's full blown psychotic enough to carry us wherever he feels like taking us. It's not a pretty ride though it ends in a freaky version of a happy ending. I don't know how much Cassel put into this film, beyond a powerful performance, but he was already a well established name by this time and he produced too. Writer and director Kim Chapiron, on the other hand, was pretty new, having only made one previous film, a short also starring Cassel and Olivier Bartélémy, who plays Bart here. It would seem that these people all know each other pretty well, especially as there's a credit: 'we thank particularly Monica Bellucci', Bellucci being Cassel's wife.
It's all done very well, the preponderence of French gangsta rap adding to the unnatural feel of the thing. It never plays the way we expect, it consistently seeming to be heading in the traditional slasher vein but never actually getting there. Cassel dominates but Bartélémy is solid too, playing a young asshole so well I'm not sure I'd ever actually want to meet him. He's probably the nicest guy on the planet and it would seem so wrong.
The multiethnic cast includes Nico Le Phat Tan, Leïla Bekhti and Ladj Ly, who look completely different yet merge together nicely as a clique. Eve is played well by Roxane Mesquida but her part is a lot subtler than anyone else's in a film that is full of far from subtle performances. She's like Marilyn in The Munsters, there to serve entirely as the normal one of the bunch, but she's also the reason that it can all happen. She's definitely Eve the temptress. Julie-Marie Parmentier gets a much wilder part as Jeanne and it would be fascinating to see her in something else just to see how different she could be.
What really resonates though is a line at the beginning of the movie before we see anything: 'Lord, do not forgive them for they know what they do.' It's easy to see Joseph and his family as the 'bad guys', if viewing with the classic Hollywood mindset of 'good guys' and 'bad guys', and they are, but that's a terrible way to read the film. These 'bad guys' are really the ones who care most. There also really are no 'good guys' in this movie, except maybe Jasmine who is literally discarded, sacrificed if you will, by her friends. Juggling around what each of these characters actually means is a telling thing.
This ghost train is a vehicle for Arthur Askey, playing himself, of course, though the character's name is Tommy Gander. Like Askey, he's a fast talking vaudeville comedian, full of quick witticisms and no end of fooling around. He's on his way by train to a regular slot on the stage in Newquay, but stops the train after he loses his hat out of the window. Initially that just serves to introduce him and cause annoyance to everyone on the train, but we soon discover it serves another purpose: the delay causes Gander and seven other passengers to get stranded at a remote station for the night because they've missed their connections.
As the title would suggest, there's a ghost story here, and sure enough the station is apparently haunted. Years ago, an old conductor died in the waiting room after failing to change the lines over. The ensuing special rushing through from Truro therefore takes the wrong track right into the river, killing all aboard. Apparently anyone who sees the ghost train is fated to die, and it would seem that the stationmaster who tells everyone the story does so, returning twenty minutes later to die himself. The tension builds as a young lady arrives with her brother in hot pursuit. He claims that she's delusional but she just has to see the ghost train.
As you might expect from classic English cinema, the cast are top notch even though I haven't heard of many of them. Askey appears alongside his long term radio and screen foil, Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch, who of course is as annoyed with him as the rest of the passengers. I've seen some of these actors elsewhere: the delusional young lady is Linden Travers, Mrs Todhunter from The Lady Vanishes, and her brother is Raymond Huntley, apparently the first actor to play Dracula on stage. I know him from more recent horror films, like Hammer's version of The Mummy. He was also a regular in many classic British comedies: Ealing comedies, Carry Ons and on to the St Trinian's movies.
Other passengers include a doctor played by Morland Graham; Betty Jardine and Stuart Latham as a young couple (who get some of the best subtle lines); Kathleen Harrison as a maiden aunt who gets her first taste of alcohol; and a pair of cousins played by Peter Murray-Hill and Carole Lynne. Lynne is probably the most famous member of the cast, beyond Askey himself, though not as a film actress as she only made one further film. She worked mostly on stage throughout the forties and fifties, but in 1946 she married Bernard (future Baron) Delfont, then a theatrical manager (and member of the Grade dynasty: Lew Grade was his brother and Michael Grade is his nephew). As Lady Delfont she did a lot of charitable work for various entertainment charities, including the Entertainment Artists Benevolent Fund, which she served as life governor.
The story is a solid one. While it's not difficult to see through the shenanigans (in many ways it really does play out like an episode of Scooby Doo), the suspense is kept pretty taut as ghost stories go. While most of it faded from my memory years ago, I still remembered this as a decent suspense film of the time and it still holds up today. Even Askey's antics are surprisingly palatable today, given that vaudeville is probably the the comedic form that has dated the most. Given the references to the war, I'm sure liberties were taken with the original play, but I wonder how this translated into Romanian, Hungarian or silent Austrian...
There's a 1995 TV made version of the same story with the same name; a second sequel called Beyond Witch Mountain, again made for TV, in 1982, that had a new Tony and Tia but brought back Eddie Albert; and a direct remake of the original film due next year called Race to Witch Mountain. The one that looked most intriguing though was this one, a 12 minute short called The Blair Witch Mountain Project, directed by the original Tony, Ike Eisenmann, and featuring a number of the original cast members in a blurring of reality spoof on The Blair Witch Project.
It's actually a pretty cool little film. Eisenmann, now known as Iake Eissinmann, moved behind the camera in the late eighties, forgoing acting for directing, producing, writing and voicework. He's made a couple of educational films that seem to be highly regarded, The Mystery of Shooting Stars and The Mystery of Gravity, done voicework on the American releases of some Miyazaki films, produced a slew of cartoon collections and other work too. He obviously has a sense of humour, as possibly best exercised here, as writer, director and one of the focuses of this film.
Hope Levy, best known as a voice actor herself, plays an amateur journalist and Witch Mountain fan, Blair Billingsley, who wants to find Tony and Tia to interview them, so works through a number of their former colleagues: actors from the first two films, fans, experts, you name it. Some of them are real, some fake, but that's the fun. While Blair initially just wants to interview Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, she gradually finds a belief that they're more than actors, they're really aliens just like Tony and Tia. The best fun here is watching Blair Billingsley lose it and try to emulate the characters she's seeking, by trying to open the locked gate to the Pasadena Rosebowl with the power of her mind.
It's fluff, it's only twelve minutes long and it's completely pointless for anyone who hasn't seen at least one of the Witch Mountain movies, preferably the first two, but it's very nicely done indeed. Not having grown up with Tony and Tia, I don't have the sort of yearning to know what they look like now, the way that many fans who fell for the characters do. But I probably appreciated this little slice of cinematic self referencing spoofery as much as I did the actual 1975 Disney film. And if anyone wants to see it, it's available for download at Kim Richards's website. The direct url is http://www.kimrichards.net/videos10.html.
They show their hand at the orphanage on day one, putting them at the top of the enemy list of Truck, the orphanage bully. Also, after watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on an orphanage trip, they save the life of a man about to get into a limo. Tia knows that something bad would happen if he got in, and sure enough as soon as he takes a walk instead a truck ploughs into the side of the limo. Unfortunately for them the man is played by Donald Pleasence, so you know something's going to come of it. He's Lucas Deranian and he works for Aristotle Bolt. Next thing you know he's providing the orphanage with forged papers to prove that he's their uncle and he's taking custody.
Bolt is a rich and powerful man, the sort whose only goal in life is to become more rich and more powerful. He's a one dimensional character for sure, but he's blustery and fun to watch in the hands of Ray Milland. With this attitude and with the fact that Milland got rather bloated as the years went on, he reminds me of the head alien in Bad Taste. Needless to say, given the title, the children escape and while being chased by Bolt and Deranian, they try to find their heritage: who they are, where they come from, why they are the way they are and how they can get back to Stony Creek and Misty Valley, which are named on a little map they discover inside Tia's star case.
In many ways this is a typical Disney live action movie, but it's different too and 'different' is the key word. This has a lot to say about being different. Tony and Tia are very much the lead characters here that we're supposed to sympathise with, but they're not even human. There are many other film characters like these, but they're rarely sympathetic. Even when they are, like say, the title character in Carrie, the focus is very different: everyone hates the freak and the freak gets revenge. Here the freaks are even more freakish because of the variety of powers they have, but their powers make them desirable rather than reviled.
Really this is a film about humanity that uses aliens to highlight that humanity. It reminded me of Zenna Henderson's People stories, just Disneyfied rather than merely gentle and telling. Eddie Albert's character, Jason O'Day, regains the humanity that he had cast away with the death of his wife. I also like the humour, which is a lot more subtle than I'm used to seeing in Disney family movies. A great example comes shortly after the kids arrive at Xanthus, the Bolt estate, and ask if there are any neighbours. They look out of the window and are told: 'Everything you can see is owned by Mr Bolt.' Tia's answer is simply, 'I can see the sky', which says so much: it's true, funny and very telling given what we come to discover both about Bolt's character and who Tia is.
Wednesday, 17 September 2008
York is a ne'er-do-well, that's for sure, but he's an all-American ne'er-do-well in the classic form. He certainly has all the credentials: he's big and handsome in a rugged backwoods way; he can fight at the drop of a hat, hit hard and enjoy the exercise; he can drink to never get sober and yet shoot straight as a die while drunk as a skunk; he can dig up the ground with just a mule and a hand held plough; he's as honest as the day is long; and he can fall in love at first sight. Of course he's also dumb as a cluck when it comes to women.
What's more, he can do anything he wants to if he only sets sight on it, and he does too, even when it's completely dumb. He misunderstands young Gracie Williams's reaction to his mangled proposal of marriage as a need for some bottom land. The York farm is on top land, which isn't as good. So he finds a piece of bottom land that's for sale and works night and day to raise the money, coming out only a few dollars short. He's given a few extra days and to raise the last amount he takes on the local beef shoot. As the prize bull goes in parts to the top five shots, he lands all five of them to win the whole bull and put it up for cash money.
Once he raises all the money that he finds out that the previous owner has gone back on his word and sold it to someone else. He gets all drunk in reaction and goes after that previous owner with murder in his mind that he gets hit by lightning and struck by religion all at once. And now that he's paying attention to the book, which firmly decrees that thou shalt not kill, that he becomes a pacifist and along comes the draft. The US has declared war on Germany and President Wilson has required all young men to register. He becomes a conscientious objector but they draft him anyway and his major introduces him to another book: The History of the United States.
Sergeant York is a true story, though given that this is a Hollywood movie from 1941 that would usually mean that Alvin York was real and he was in a war somewhere. As York is written though, Gary Cooper is the perfect man for the job: in fact he's so much the perfect man for the job that it was obviously written for him. Reading up on the history of the film, apparently the real Alvin York didn't want a film to be made about him at all, only relenting when World War II broke out and granting his consent only if Gary Cooper played him (and also that his share of the profits would be contributed to a Bible school and that only a decent actress could play his future wife). Cooper won the Best Actor Oscar for a powerful and resonant performance but he's playing himself as surely as anyone else ever did.
As a film it's folksy and hokey, full of all the sort of backwoods language you'd expect, and the details of the war scenes so conveniently mirror the lives and past events of the character back home that the scenes stretch credence to a huge degree. Then again the truest stories have to be the least believable and this one is apparently true, at least the most unbelievable part of it. Liberties were taken with York's life back in Tennessee, but during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France, he really did attack a machine gun nest, take down 32 machine guns, kill 28 of the enemy and capture 132 prisoners. He consequently won the Medal of Honor and a whole host of other medals from countries all across Europe.
The film did pretty well for itself with awards too. Cooper's Oscar was one of two, the other one going to William Holmes, the editor, but there were seven other nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director for Howard Hawks. Two other actors were nominated, for their supporting roles: Walter Brennan as Pastor Rosier Pile, who sees the goodness in York from moment one and has the patience to see him through; and Margaret Wycherly as York's mother. She's wonderful here, though she's more obvious in White Heat as another tough and famous Ma.
York's fiance is Joan Leslie, who gets very little to do but does it well, and there are the ever dependable likes of Ward Bond and Noah Beery Jr to help out too. I didn't recognise June Lockhart at all as York's younger sister Rosie, 24 years before she'd Lost in Space. His younger brother George is Dickie Moore, who made a career out of playing younger versions of leading characters in films. It's amazing how many famous actors his child characters grew up into.
What's most important to posterity though is how well this film captures a certain something. It's a film full of simplicity and goodness and the fact that there's a war in it really doesn't matter that much. York means something and stands for something, and that sort of thing is rarely handled with such simplicity today. There's a great scene soon after York finds religion that he seeks the forgiveness of a couple of people who he thought ill toward. Some could call them hokey or dumb, but when people look back and talk nostalgically about classic Hollywood and the simplicity of morals, this is precisely what they're talking about. I'm just surprised it was so low on the AFI's list of most inspirational American films: 57th, below such others as Pinocchio, Hoosiers and Star Wars.
Sunday, 14 September 2008
There's really very little story. Little Pascal finds a red balloon, a huge thing that with its string is about as tall as he is, and he runs around Paris with it, seeing what can be seen. It's like a friend, making this a buddy movie, and he protects his friend by sheltering it from the rain under peoples' umbrellas. When he gets home, and it gets thrown out of the window, it refuses to go away. He brings it back inside but lets it loose in the morning with the words that it should do as he commands, only to find that it apparently does. To others and to us it might seem like it has a mind of its own: it follows him, it waits for him, it even plays tricks on him and it keeps out of the reach of anyone else, including bullies.
It really is a textbook example of how to do a lot with very little. Beyond the sparse dialogue, the balloon really can't do anything except move but it generates such emotion because of what it does and what we perceive as why that I can't help but assume that John Lasseter was paying serious attention. It does precisely what he continually does with his Pixar animations, especially the shorts like Luxo Jr that anthropomorphise unexpected objects like lamps without the benefit of giving them voices.
What I've heard does hold true: this holds more delight in its 34 minutes than most films ten times its length. It isn't just joy, it's joy and pain and joy, just like a human life. We share with Pascal and his friend a whole host of emotions, not just joy at finding his friend, the red balloon, but loss and frustration as it's stolen away and killed. Its slow death is tortuous. But there's a happy ending in store for Pascal and for we the viewers. What a piece of cinematic magic, aided by the music of Maurice Le Roux, the innocence of the actors and the contrast apparent in the setting: the drab slums of the Ménilmontant district of Paris. What it's really alluding to is open to question. Capitalism? Christianity? Maybe. But whatever else it's about it's about the friendship, freedom and cinematic magic.
It's an unashamedly riotous bawdy romp, sometimes uncomfortably so. It sets its tone early on with a pregnant young lady set upon by her female detractors in a graveyard after church, the combatants stooping as far as to pick up bones as weapons. It soon progresses to a debauched dinner where the lack of table manners mirrors the pronouncements by Squire Western. Then there's the hunt, which is a blood sport in more than just catching and killing a deer. Western spurs his horse cruelly and the hunt takes out horses, riders and geese who just happened to be in the way.
I always thought Tom Jones was a paeon to a more earthy time, but in this form at least it's at least partially a damnation of it. The word 'abuse' has a lot of meanings, but this is one of the best examples of it in the form of 'abuse of power'. Squire Western is the most obvious example, but he's far from the only one. How he can talk so fondly of his mare and hounds yet treat everyone including his animals so cruelly, I don't know, but then that's the point.. I love his line when told that his beloved daughter is in love: 'In love? Without my consent? I'll disinherit her!'
Those who have far more manners are no less cruel or twisted. David Warner is suitably slimy and devious as Mr Blifil, Squire Allworthy's nephew. Jones's tutors, Mr Thwackum and Mr Square are appropriately played as money hungry blusterers by always bloated Peter Bull and John Moffatt. Julian Glover is a memorably twisted army lieutenant in his film debut, long before Walter Donovan in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Above all is Hugh Griffith as Squire Western, but these are just the characters we have names for. The implication is that all the gentry have very skewed perspectives of what counts as decency, well beyond what could have been expected from class differences of the early to mid 18th century.
Tom Jones himself in comparison is a rogue and a rascal but he's a decent sort. He has his faults, from a modern day perspective, but he's a gentleman and a scholar for the era in which he exists. As a bastard, he's higher in moral standing than anyone else in the cast. After all the poor don't count and the rest of the gentry are no comparison. Even Sophie Western, the object of Tom's love, not that he has a problem dallying with any or all young ladies who cross his path, is nothing much to speak of. She may not be cruel but she's not much of anything else either. Susannah York does a good job with the part and looks suitably offended on frequent occasion.
There are two other worthies. Miss Western, Sophie's aunt, is played with gusto by Dame Edith Evans, known as the greatest female presence on the English stage in the twentieth century, here establishing herself with no little expectation as a film presence of note. She persuades a highwayman to leave her be just through pure upper class contempt and we have no problem believing it. She breezes through everything and everyone because whether she's right, wrong or somewhere in between, she knows with the certainty of breeding that she's absolutely right beyond any question. The other is Joan Greenwood as 'the notorious Lady Bellaston', who connives and plots with aplomb. She looks a little less than usual when her hair is up and she's burdened down with layers of makeup but she sounds as awesome as ever. Nobody yet has equalled her honey drenched voice, not in the history of film.
There are also others of note. Diane Cilento appears in full on hussy mode as one of Tom Jones's early conquests. She was Sean Connery's wife at this point. David Tomlinson is a fumbling lord. Jack MacGowran plays the highwayman, though this is a far quieter role than those he played in The Exorcist or The Fearless Vampire Killers. There's even Tony Richardson's sister-in-law Lynn Redgrave and mother-in-law Rachel Kempson, though surprisingly not his wife Vanessa Redgrave.
Whether this should have won four Oscars is open to question. It does play with the cinematic form, with a few instances of direct interaction with the audience, some decent use of freeze frame, in one instance stepped forward and even a sped up sequence a la Benny Hill, which may well have influenced Kubrick for the similarly sped up though extended scene in A Clockwork Orange. It's a rollicking ride, for sure, but I could name at least five films of the same year better: Charade, The Great Escape, The Haunting, Lilies of the Field and Lord of the Flies.
Anna is there for her in the worst times, when she transforms, through Andersson's powerful performance and without any need for CGI, into a screaming ball of pain. In these moments they turn away, in revulsion at the transformation and through their own failings and fears. They simply can't leave who they are behind in order to do what they should, as human beings and as sisters. On the other hand, Anna, a mere maid, is full of the sort of selfless spirit that can give. Anna is played by Kari Sylwan, seemingly a novice in such company, but apparently comfortable in it. The scenes with the four together are very telling. As two characters come forward, the third holds back in deference. As two recoil, the third rushes forward. She's the one who really cares.
Anna is there for her in the worst times, when she transforms, through Andersson's powerful performance and without any need for CGI, into a screaming ball of pain. In these moments they turn away, in revulsion at the transformation and through their own failings and fears. They simply can't leave who they are behind in order to do what they should, as human beings and as sisters. On the other hand, Anna, a mere maid, is full of the sort of selfless spirit that can give. The scenes with the four together are very telling. As two come forward, the third holds back in deference. As two recoil, the third rushes forward. She's the one who really cares.
It's a simple story in itself, so simple that it can't really be called a plot. As with many of Bergman's films, it has to do with putting characters into a situation and letting them explore emotional depth. What I'm finding is that usually he stuns me in the process, like with The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries, The Virgin Spring and Smiles of a Summer Night, but sometimes he leaves me wondering just what he was intending, like with The Silence, which while it was obviously powerful filmmaking, I just didn't get.
This one falls in between because I get much of it but perhaps not all. Maybe I'm still too rooted in convention to appreciate something this pure, because while I'm sure I'm missing intentions and meanings in some scenes, perhaps I'm still looking for something that shouldn't even be here. It's certainly a powerful and meaningful piece of work, very cleverly done and with some great performances. As with other Bergman films, I'm looking at this one not just as a film that I'm watching now but as a film I'll watch again in the future with the expectation that I'll see more than I did this time.
This one thankfully is not. I knew precisely nothing about it but thought it was going to be some soppy overwrought chick flick drama. There's definitely some of that here but it's much lighter than I expected on the surface, without ever skimping on the depth beneath. It certainly doesn't hit you between the eyes with weight. What's also very surprising is that while there's almost no plot to think of, there's so much depth of character that the story tells itself in dialogue and characterisation. This makes it the sort of film that would fail notably if the actors weren't up to it.
Luckily the script is top notch and the actors are up to every word of it. The strange thing is that it doesn't seem strange that it was written by James L Brooks. I know Brooks like most today: as the co-creator, writer and producer of The Simpsons, but in 1983 he was best known for another TV show: The Mary Tyler Moore Show. I'm sure he surprised a lot of people when he went home with three Oscars for this film, making him still the only man to win for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay on his debut movie. He's reliant on many others for this success though: not least Larry McMurtry who wrote the source novel. This does play like an adaptation of a novel. There's a very solid cast though and two of them went home with well deserved Oscars too.
Terms of Endearment is about a mother and daughter and how their lives and experience shape them and each other. Aurora Greenway is a dream of a part, which Shirley MacLaine brings vividly to life. She's a strong Texas woman on the outside, set in her mind and unafraid to speak her mind any damn time she pleases. She's also a well to do widow, very proper and decent with a family Renoir and a well manicured garden. However she grows a lot during this film, finding that there are many parts to who she can be. As she remarks at one point, through a relationship with a retired astronaut she's been turned from moth to flame. Her Oscar was well deserved.
Her daughter is Emma Horton, played superbly by Debra Winger. In many ways she's her mother's child: very fiery and strong willed. However in many ways she's something completely different: free spirited and quite happy to wander around looking far less than pristine. She doesn't care what anyone else thinks about anything. Neither does her mother, but she wouldn't let you believe it and that's the difference. Winger is simply alive in this role (possibly because she was fighting a cocaine addiction while filming): her eyes keep gleaming and it's difficult not to believe that she's a real person rather an actress playing a character. She even gets Jeff Daniels, who plays her husband, to step up to the plate as an actor. I'm not a big Daniels fan because he so often seems to just sit there and let the film happen around him but he has scenes I can respect here.
The other Oscar winning actor was Jack Nicholson. He plays Garrett Breedlove, the former astronaut who moves in next door to Aurora and over a long period of time gradually becomes her lover. He's completely and flamboyantly different to her and they are hardly a conventional couple but each brings out the other magnificently. Breedlove is a fast driving fast living sort with an talent for the obnoxious and initially they rub each other up the wrong way entirely. Surprisingly, as he's such an integral part of this film he isn't in the original book.
The defining moment for his character comes early on when he's dropped off from an event at home by a couple of young ladies who don't fall into his bed at a glimpse of the Nicholson grin and drive away. They tell him how much they went to his event to see a hero but Breedlove is blissfully unconcerned that they didn't find one. What they find is something that always impresses me about Nicholson: while he can turn on the charm like the best of them, and frequently does, he is completely unafraid to look bad. Here we get plenty of the Nicholson with the bald spot, the receding hairline, the pot belly, the flyaway hair. We seem him drunk, wounded and idiotic, sometimes all three at once. Not many Hollywood stars can play real asses on screen without being real asses for the whole of the film. Nicholson is the biggest exception to me.
I mentioned that the film unfolds mostly through dialogue. Part of this is because much of that dialogue is between Aurora and Emma and they talk over the phone as Emma moves with her husband from Texas to Iowa at the beginning of the film. Part of it is because it's the middleground where Aurora and Garrett interact, the dialogue being an outward expression of how different they are. This is a very quotable film, with some memorable gems. 'Don't worship me until I've earned it.' 'He can't even do the simple things like fail locally.' 'That's the first time I stopped hugging first. I like that.' 'Imagine you having a date somewhere where it wasn't necessarily a felony.' 'How are you? It's not my fault, but I'm sorry.' 'Not much danger in that unless you curtsy on my face any time soon.' I could go on.
Naturally Donovan doesn't want them but the sheriff was in that poker game and holds him to his responsibilities. Naturally he does everything he possibly can to pawn them off on someone else but that doesn't pan out either. And because this is a Disney film, naturally what does pan out is the mine where a little quake enables the three little orphans to find a nugget of gold worth $87,000. Suddenly the town has completely different opinions on the kids and the two inept local gangsters want to get their hands on the nugget.
These two are Don Knotts and Tim Conway, well known American comedians to anyone who grew up on American network TV. However I didn't grow up on American network TV so I don't have the same background with them that my wife does, for instance. I've come across Don Knotts here and there in films like Pleasantville or It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World and by catching odd episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. However I haven't seen The Carol Burnett Show or McHale's Navy and I don't watch SpongeBob SquarePants, so I only know Tim Conway through stories.
They're the Hash Knife Outfit, after being kicked out of the Stilwell Gang for shooting Frank Stilwell in the leg. Stilwell turns up later, in the form of no less a presence than Slim Pickens in a leg brace. This level of comedic talent isn't enough for this film though: we're also blessed with Harry Morgan as Homer McCoy, the Quake City sheriff, justice of the peace, judge and barber, and he's the best thing about this film to my eyes. There's David Wayne as the eccentric owner of the Butterfly line and Bill Bixby and Susan Clark as the most prominent players, Donovan and Dusty Clydesdale, who drives the stage. The kids who comprise the Apple Dumpling gang are Stacy Manning, who did precisely nothing else; Clay O'Brien, who didn't do much; and Brad Savage who did quite a lot. He opened his career with this one and ended it with Red Dawn.
They're all players in the game though. What this is all about is the Disney family friendly formula done pretty well. I've seen a few of the live action Disney classics lately and they've often disappointed me a little because they sacrifice any semblance of reality or common sense to rely on their formula. I don't have a problem with stretching credence, especially as most of these films are fantasies anyway, but there's a difference between stretching credence and sacrificing reality.
This one very much follows the formula (kids winning out over adults, who are either too dumb to know better, too naive to notice or too unfocused to have a clue) but the only thing that really goes beyond credence stretching is the comedic double act of Knotts and Conway, and they're too endearing to get upset about. It's a wild fun ride and it's another part to the underline in my thought that the Disney live action films I've never heard of are usually better than the Disney live action films that I have.
Saturday, 13 September 2008
Naturally the pair of them clash, with ensuing comedy, but this really kicks in with the addition of a third wheel to the tiny apartment, when Rutland sublets his room out to an American architecture student in Tokyo for the Olympics, who is two days early too. He's Steve Davis, played by Jim Hutton, and Rutland quickly turns matchmaker, which takes less effort than you'd expect given that there's a complication: Easton is engaged to Julius P Haversack, the rather less polite Englishman at the British Embassy. The longer the film runs, the more clever Rutland's ploys become.
The story is complete lunacy but that's the charm of it. It takes about five minutes to realise that there's not a lot of reality here at all and as long as you're OK with that fact you should be able to settle back into a light and fluffy romantic comedy sixties style, as free of the sort of less savoury material that pervades modern comedy as it is of reality (and no, I'm no prude, but sometimes it's refreshing to imagine not to see or hear). If you're in the mood for a timeslip back half a century, this would be a good pick.
The whole Olympic scene is completely ridiculous, of course, but what really stands out for me is the dinner. Now it would be easy for many 2008 viewers to think of global security as something that only became an issue after 9/11, but this was set in 1964, only two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and security must have been as serious then as it is today. Yet we're expected to believe that it's quite possible for a group of athletes, seemingly one per country, to meet up in Tokyo for dinner and each dance their national dances to a female Japanese orchestra that looks like the one in the Star Wars cantina, only in pink. Yes, this is how dumb this film is.
We do get a little subplot through the friendship between Davis and a Russian athlete. The latter's government appointed guardian is an idiot and in his eagerness to discover some sort of inappropriate behaviour he ends up falling for a dumb concoction of spy nonsense and leading the entire cast to reassemble at the police station to be questioned by a police captain played by George Takei, Sulu from Star Trek. This leads to the inevitable final scenes, which are capped by the realisation that the very last scene, of Cary Grant in his car, is actually close to truth: this was his last film, as already 62 years old and on his fourth wife, he retired from the film industry to become a father.
Friday, 12 September 2008
Unfortunately a little slipup in the Archdeacon's office means that they don't hire the expected Revd John Smallwood, the son of someone that the Archdeacon knew at Oxford, and hire instead the Revd John Smallwood, prison chaplain. The prison is hardly unhappy to get rid of him and the high muckety mucks who make up the establishment and the sparse congregation at Holy Trinity in Orbiston Parva really don't know what's hit them. What we know but they don't is that Smallwood is played by Peter Sellers, at his driest and most infuriatingly calm, and so we can happily imagine how much chaos he's going to wreak.
He arrives at the vicarage in a rubbish lorry driven by Matthew Robinson, a black dustman played by Brock Peters, the unjustly accused in To Kill a Mockingbird. In his first few days he hires Robinson over the well established Major Fowler as his vicar's warden, he refuses Lady Despard's donation to the organ fund and moves the Smith family into the vicarage. They're a big family of squatters that the Despards have been trying to get rid of for ages, and they're played by exactly the right people: Eric Sykes and Irene Handl, plus eleven kids, along with Miriam Karlin as Smith's sister-in-law, with her three to boot.
In normal circumstances he'd be out on his ear, but he manages to sow a seed in the ear of Lady Despard about it being harder for the rich to enter Heaven and after a few days of thought she starts up the non-denominational Good Neighbour Fellowship to give away all the produce from her farms in the Church Hall and sell her half interest in Tranquilax. Before long all their good intentions turn the local economy upside down and before long there's hell to pay.
There's always been a lot of talent in classic English comedy but this one may just trump all the rest. Not only do we have Peter Sellers and Peters, Sykes, Handl and Karlin but a whole slew of others. When we first meet Revd Smallwood he's tied up in a prison cell where prisoner 181 has left him in hopes of escape in priestly garb, prisoner 181 being no less a comedic talent than Roy Kinnear. The intended Smallwood is Ian Carmichael; Major Fowler is the first Doctor Who, William Hartnell; and Lady Despard is played by Isabel Jeans. There's Miles Malleson, Cecil Parker and Ludovic Kennedy as himself; Thorley Walters, Derek Nimmo and Malcolm Muggeridge, who came up with the original idea for the story.
Most memorable to my eyes in supporting roles are Joan Hickson as a joyously hypocritical housewife and Bernard Miles as Lady Despard's butler. He has a major presence in this film for a lot of reasons and he makes a lot of difference to how the story ends up. He's a joy to watch, all hunched over and stumbling; and to listen to, with his awesomely broken voice. What's most ironic is that while he's playing a butler of long and loyal service to the Lords and Ladies Despard, he became one of the gentry himself, made Baron Miles of Blackfriars in 1979.
The other major names here are the Boulting brothers, John and Roy Boulting, who had a number of films of this sort of quality out there over the years: Carlton-Browne of the FO and I'm All Right Jack spring quickly to mind. There are big stories here to think about but there are little touches everywhere too, if only you're paying enough attention to see them. Sometimes they're piled on top of each other and it's hard to see all of them. Yet another gem from the days when all the very best in comedy was whatever came out of Shepperton or Ealing Studios.
On they run from the train to the car to the hotel to the casino to the studio and so on, escaping not just from their fans but from their manager and grandfather McCartney from them. Of course they all get up to hijinks wherever they go, though not all the jokes hit. However they're thrown out in such quantity that it's hard to keep up with all the good ones. Every time one comes along that's not quite up to snuff, there's a peach right behind it.
I think it reaches the point of genius about halfway through when the lads find their way to a TV studio. John gets into a surreal conversation with a woman who thinks that he looks just like him, which works on so many levels without ever actually saying anything. Then George Harrison gets mistaken for a youth to be interviewed about future trends by a clueless fashion guru. Nothing else holds up to those two scenes but they're pure genius.
There's a huge amount of talent backing them all up, not least Brambell who's highly memorable here, not least in his ravings to the police who he, as a Irish republican, thinks are thugs. The first character they meet on the train at the beginning is Richard Vernon, who looks scarily younger than he did as Slartibartfast in the original Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. There's Derek Nimmo, Robin Ray and Deryck Guyler, all in bit parts as odd characters here and there. Victor Spinetti is a memorable TV director.
There's even Phil Collins though I didn't couldn't find him even after due searching. He was only 13 years old, so probably still with hair, and he got a close up because his mother was responsible for hiring the extras for the concert scene. On a closer to reality front, there's real manager Brian Epstein and a few appearances from a young Pattie Boyd who would later become Mrs George Harrison (and future Mrs Eric Clapton, the girl that he wrote both Layla and Wonderful Tonight for). Apparently George met her while filming this movie. She and the supporting actors come and go as quickly as the gags, so many that Frank Thornton and Isla Blair got deleted.
There are also songs, of course, though only a few are played around with that much. The surrealism is reserved for the gaps in between them. We get the title track, of course, and a memorable She Loves You, complete with inevitable bevy of screaming girl fans. There's All My Loving and Can't Buy Me Love and then what I'd see as a bunch of filler, though Beatles fans would probably skin me alive as a heretic for saying that. And at the end of the day it's that bunch of songs framed within a fun, bubbly, fluffy romp but it's hardly the riot that Help! was.
Wednesday, 10 September 2008
This is a world where they've effectively replaced Mexicans in all the low paid jobs, though this is set in an alternate 1950s so there probably weren't that many back then anyway. Also because zombies are presumably completely unpaid, they get to do even less than low paid jobs, like standing next to town Welcome signs and waving. They walk dogs, pick up litter, hold up umbrellas, even lean over people like Mr Theopolis in short skirts so they look cool. They're all managed by Zomcon who have cornered the market on almost everything (not just the police force but milk delivery, gardening, paper delivery, you name it) and Johnny Bottoms, the new head of security at Zomcon, has just moved into Willard.
Willard is where young Timmy Robinson lives, with his parents and their new zombie that he calls Fido. Now this isn't a horror film, or even a spoof on fifties science fiction movies, it's a social commentary wrapped in a comedy. In this alternate universe having your own zombie is a status symbol. Sure, they're dumb and they have a lot of accidents, but Helen Robinson acquires Fido so that she doesn't have to tell Mrs Bottoms that they don't have a single zombie when the Bottoms have six. Fido, however, becomes Timmy's best friend and more. Given that Bill Robinson is hardly the best husband or father (not because he's actively bad but because he's never actively good), Fido becomes a surrogate for both.
This film is a joy to watch from beginning to end. It opens with an introductory Zomcon produced educational video shown to a school class, which is tone perfect. It runs through as much astute social commentary as Pleasantville, though in a very different way, and it has the benefit of a lot of very talented people on the screen: not just Carrie-Anne Moss (Trinity in The Matrix), Dylan Baker (Dr Connors in the Spider-Man movies) and Tim Blake Nelson (Delmar in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), but an almost unreconisable Billy Connolly as Fido. All of them shine (especially Nelson), along with many others such as K'Sun Ray as Timmy.
It's a unique picture, certainly very different to any other zombie film you've ever seen. There's a huge amount of zombie makeup but very little actual gore, and what it comments on goes well beyond what you'd expect. There's even a parallel in here to Lassie Come Home and I can't think of another zombie film that does anything like that. It's touching, telling and even quotable. The music is highly appropriate, the cinematography is good and even the colours are right. Anyone into classic cars would love it for that alone. This is the second independent Canadian film I've seen today and both are peaches.
This is a world where grandma pours tea for the gods every day and her family burns fake paper money for her after she dies. Naturally she could be reincarnated as Eve's goldfish. Her father has fingers that have gaps between them when he holds them up to the sun so he's unlucky. They eat long noodles for long life but when her mum cuts a tree down while pregnant she causes her future son to die. Goddesses come alive at night and dance until being frozen again until the next night.
The film is superbly done, well paced and fascinating throughout but what touched me most was the way the three central women in the story reacted to the collision of Christianity and Buddhism. Karena switches entirely to Christ and refuses to bow to her ancestors. She founds a club with her sister called the Girls of Perpetual Sorrow with all sorts of rules to help turn them into saints, such as 'a Girl of Perpetual Sorrow will watch all 14 hours of the Jerry Lewis telethon and give away all her birthday money'. However she still interprets the bible with a little flavour: if you touch the bible it can read all your thoughts; Hell is where you get burned alive in a giant wok; and 'Love thy neighbour' means shoot goodness at him through your eyes.
Eve finds the whole thing fascinating and just takes it in stride, but can't quite get into the intended spirit, continually embarrassing her sister and frustrating Sister Agnes who runs the Sunday School. When she asks for stories about miracles, she tells them about luck. She has fun moving with energy in the choir or finding the more exotic parts of the Song of Solomon and reading them to her fellow students. She finds her balance point between the two religions by talking with visions of the goddesses that dance at night. That makes for a surreal scene when Jesus is brought into the Engs' home and Eve gets to dance at night with Jesus and Buddha, but when she asks one goddess why they don't dance any more, she tells her that they walk carefully around Jesus because he thinks he's the only one there.
Meanwhile Mum, May Lin, is initially happy about the whole thing. She sees no problem having the two religions coexist their house because gods are gods and the Christian god is just another one: 'It's better that way. More protection.'she says. When Dad, Frank, comes back from burying Grandma in China he finds a changed family. Not only have the kids found Jesus, to differing degrees, but May Lin won't serve food that bleeds on the 1st and 15th of the month. It's as if their faith has rubbed off on her, not in its type but in its degree.
First time actress and British Columbia native Phoebe Jojo Kut is excellent as Eve, even though she was only 11 years old at the time. She's not done much since: a short film called Smile (also made by Julia Kwan) and a couple of episodes of a TV show called Godiva's. I hope she does much more. Hong Kong born Hollie Lo has the right melancholy as elder sister Karena and Vivian Wu is superb as May Lin in a role that calls for her to provide some of the key balance while keeping back enough to let the children take the focus. It's Julia Kwan's delicate but deep story and direction that holds the mind though. It's going to resonate.
Sunday, 7 September 2008
There's a robbery at Wing's Market and Mrs Wing is shot dead, apparently with deliberate intent not through any unforeseen circumstances cropping up. From the details at hand (sheepskin coat, Model A Ford, name of Eddie), Insp Mike Vido of the San Francisco Police department knows precisely who did the job: a man by the name of Eddie Pedak. He knows this because he's been after Pedak for a long time, ever since Pedak shot him in the gut during a robbery quite a few years earlier. He even has the bullet that came out of his gut and the rifling matches. The only catch is that Mr Wing got a very good look at his wife's killer and he says that Pedak isn't the man.
Nonetheless Pedak finds himself in an unenviable position. He's out of yet another job, after Vido picks him up from work, and he's just put money down on a boat, not to mention he has a wife and kid to look after. Vido is hounding him from the side of the law and his brother Walter is hounding him from the side of the crooks. While Pedak has apparently been clean for six years, he's also damn good thief and Walter wants him for a big job. It's also pretty obvious that both sides are playing him against the other. That means that whatever he chooses to do and whichever side he chooses to work with he has to be very careful indeed.
The cast is top notch. Eddie Pedak is played by Alain Delon, who was always superb at walking that line between the good and bad and ending up doing it precisely how he wanted to do it. Vido is an eager Van Heflin on the top of his game and Jack Palance plays Pedak's brother Walter. Only Ann-Margret lets the side down, overacting up a storm as Kristine Pedak. John Davis Chandler is the most memorable as Sargatanas, one of Walter's henchman who looks like an albino with eyes that hardly open. In a Coen Brothers version of this story, he would be played by Steve Buscemi.
The story is a solid one, with great characters for a bunch of actors to breathe life into and a whole slew of twists to keep us on our toes. It moves along very nicely indeed with aid from some decent cinematography and use of light and shadow. The ending is highly appropriate. Being 1965, the film noir genre was over as a key genre, but odd little gems kept appearing to keep it alive for generations to come. It's easy to see how this links the forties with today. It's a fascinating, well acted and clever story and Zekial Marko, the man who wrote it as a novel and a screenplay, put in his only acting role, ending as a suicide on the front page of the paper. That's immortality, film noir style.