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Wednesday, 31 December 2008

One Missed Call 2 (2005)

The original One Missed Call was a Takashi Miike movie, though it didn't feel like it for most of the film. It was made in 2003 though, so J-Horror had already become the in thing. Sure enough, it only took two years for a sequel to come along, with another year before the third. All three were directed by different people, which is never a good sign. Then there was a 2005 TV series based on the trilogy and a manga too. The US remake came out in 2008.

We start out with some basic ghost stuff, focused around Miss Kyoko Okudera, a daycare worker, who is talked into ditching her usual study session by her friend and co-worker in favour of going out for a meal at the restaurant her boyfriend Naoto works at. However this plunges her right into the middle of the cellphone chain of death. The owner, Mr Wang, receives a weird phone call from his daughter, which is even more weird given that it's his daughter's phone that he answers. Sure enough, it's a call from the future with an exact foretelling of his imminent demise, and sure enough the ringtone of death spreads among the circle of friends.

Quickly on the scene to investigate are a cop and a journalist who can't fail to see the parallels to the string of 'murders' in the first film, even if the ringtone of death hadn't made it totally obvious. They were centered around a young girl called Mimiko, a creepy little dead girl who was born the product of rape; and the journalist, Takako Nozoe, discovers a link to Taiwan through Mimiko's grandfather who moved there after being released from jail where he served time for killing the lunatic intruder who raped his daughter. By this time the circle of friends is diecreasing Madoka is dead and Kyoko would appear to have only a few days to live.

This is not exactly the greatest sequel in the world; in fact it's pretty poor even as horror sequels go. There are some agreeably freaky scenes, like the one with the briefcase under the bed, but generally the scare factor is down on the usual J-Horror movie. There's also a surprisingly low body count. The gimmick isn't new at all, of course, and the differences aren't enough to matter. Urban legends continually come out of nowhere because they have to, right? Really there's nothing new here at all and what's worse, there's no real attempt to make it all anything less than clumsy. Mimura, the actress who plays Kyoko doesn't get to do a heck of a lot either, though she does buck up about halfway through when she decides to go to Taiwan to find out what's really going on. Naturally she was picked for a reason.

This doesn't make it entirely unwatchable though, even though it keeps veering off in a new directions every five minutes and all these revelations mean that what seems like the whole film is told in explanation dialogue. There's no suspense here, just a vague interest in seeing where director Renpei Tsukamoto (no relation to Shinya that I can tell) takes it. Mostly I think I made it through only because Takako Nozoe is played by Yu Yoshizawa, who is something like the epitome of the professional modern Japanese woman, and I could sit through three hours of Yu Yoshizawa doing nothing but look at the camera. in comparison an hour and a half of her trying to find out just what the heck the film she's in is all about seems like child's play.

Clay Pigeons (1998)

Joaquin Phoenix has played a lot of characters who found themselves in a lot of awkward situations, but this one may just take the biscuit. He's Clay Bidwell and as we start the film, he's a small town mechanic in rural Montana shooting bottles in the hills with his best friend, Earl. Life would seem to be pretty good but it only takes a few minutes for everything to turn to utter crap. Earl points a gun at him, threatens to kill him because he knows he's been sleeping with his wife Amanda, then shoots himself. What's more, he's carefully set it all up so that Clay takes the fall.

Now Clay's biggest mistake of all is to tell Amanda what happened. She's a real bitch and refuses to tell her part in the story, so Clay has to find a way out of it all on his own. Then she refuses to leave him alone, even though he wants nothing more to do with her. When he picks up someone else, Amanda turns up and shoots her dead. However, though he doesn't realise it, his biggest problem comes in the form of Lester Long, apparently just some guy he befriends in a bar to play pool and go fishing with, but who doesn't seem to ever go away. And wherever he does go really bad things happen.

This is a Scott Free production, which means that Tony Scott is a co-executive producer and Ridley Scott is a co-producer. I'm sure they lent the production some credence on a grand scale but I don't know if they had any real input on a day to day basis. The key names seem to be new ones. Matt Healy is the writer and he seems to have done precisely nothing else, which is surprising. The director is David Dobkin, who has: he went on to Shanghai Knights, Wedding Crashers and Fred Claus, the latter two of which feature Vince Vaughn, who plays Lester Long here, or the character that uses that pseudonym. He turns on the charm like Brad Pitt as a highly personable serial killer with a unique laugh.

The third name at the top of the credits belongs to Janeane Garofalo, who plays the FBI agent investigating the string of murders, and she's always highly watchable. She doesn't enter the film until halfway through, she doesn't get the sort of flashy scene that tends to go to characters like this. We don't get huge insight into her background or motivations, though there are hints. What we get most is what may just be the real thing: an intelligent woman with a dedication to and a talent for her job, but who doesn't necessarily get those lucky breaks that FBI agents get in the movies, or when she does they don't necessarily pan out the way you might expect. She's very believable indeed and the portrayal is refreshing.

The film itself is refreshing too, for a serial killer movie: it's very laid back and doesn't focus on the technical aspects, instead providing a framework for the actors to flesh out with their characterisation skills. There's no real impact from the crimes, but I don't think that was ever the point. It's the mood that resonates, similarly to something like Tremors. Part of that mood may come from the settings: I'm not used to watching serial killer movies and imagining myself living in such beautiful surroundings, but I felt that in Tremors and I felt it here too. Interesting stuff, though not really what I expected.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Buddy Boy (1999)

The Buddy Boy of the title is Francis and he's something of an introvert: certainly shy around girls. He works in some sort of photo lab but mostly spends his time at home caring for his invalid mother, who cannot walk, making models and apparently masturbating a lot. That isn't enough for confession though, as Francis's priest works under the logic that everyone should go to confession and have something to confess. In other words, the important thing is to rack up a list of bad things so that you can confess about them. Whether this is the key driver for subsequent actions, or whether they're just a happy accident, Francis notices a girl living on the other side of the street and becomes an avid voyeur.

This started out intriguingly (after all how many films dare to begin with the hero masturbating to porn mags?), but I got diverted into wondering about Susan Tyrrell. She plays Sal, Francis's wild and raucous mother, and she has what seem to be amputated legs, thus making her a stay at home invalid reliant on her son to move her around. The thing is that this is a 1999 film, released on 24th March 2000. From what I read, Susan Tyrrell contracted a rare blood disease called essential thrombocythemia in April 2000 that led to her having both legs amputated below the knee. I can't help wondering whether the dates I'm reading are wrong or whether she was already suffering and chose to soldier through. That certainly fits who she is: a character and a trooper.

Anyway, while she's always fascinating to watch and she's an inveterate scene stealer, she's not supposed to be the focus of our film. Francis is and to keep our eyes on him, writer/director Mark Hanlon keeps the camera on him for quite a while. We watch him watching the French girl over the street, then we watch him get thrown weirdly into what are presumably his fantasies. Walking home he intervenes in a mugging: his French girl is fighting off an attacker and he helps her out. She's Gloria and she invites him home for dinner. After a few successful attempts to reject even this semblance of closeness, he turns up and a few nights in they end up in bed together.

Now you'd think that this would be some kind of heaven to a grown up virgin voyeur but it brings its challenges. Beyond his obvious nervousness when talking to the opposite sex, so much so that he stutters, he's unable to quite stop watching her from across the way and he continues doing so long enough to see things that don't quite add up. There are all sorts of subtle nods to David Lynch throughout, not least the apparent discovery of a missing person in one of the photos he's processing at work, but strangest of all is that while Gloria professes to be a strict and passionate Vegan, Francis appears to discover through his voyeurism that she's really a cannibal in private.

I say 'appears' because this film doesn't take any easy ways out to tell us exactly what's happening, it drops hints and expects us to make our own judgement calls. The most obvious interpretation is that Francis is merely going insane, but even if we take that as given, it's still not quite that simple. What caused it? Is any of what he sees real? How much of what we've watched was only inside the head of the lead character? I juggled a lot of answers to those questions. I'm not sure quite how the Catholic imagery and commentary tie in, unless its loosely set up as the cause. There's a lot here about the nature of God and the impact of guilt. Even at the finale we're only given a fresh question.

Whatever it is, it's a powerful film let down only by some inconsistent sound, or so it seemed on the IFC screening I watched. Susan Tyrrell gives a tour de force performance, even for her: there's one scene in particular that will just amaze. Mark Boone Jr is excellent as the building supervisor that seems to move in. Emmanuelle Seigneur is subdued as Gloria but effective. Most notable for me though is Aidan Gillen, probably because I know full well how awesome an actress Tyrrell is so wasn't surprised to find her being awesome here. Gillen, however, was new to me and his performance is resonant in its quietness. He has manic scenes but most are subtle and quiet and stand out as such. Here he's like John Cusack would be if John Cusack was genetically engineered to be in a David Lynch movie.

What's most surprising is that Mark Hanlon, who wrote and directed as well as doing other work behind the scenes, hasn't done a lot else. Beyond this one notable film he has a credit as the writer of Ghost Ship and that's it. I wonder why. I wonder if he's going to crop up at a festival sometime in the near future with a masterpiece that he's spent a decade perfecting. I'd like to know that someone with such obvious talent doesn't have more to his name.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis (2006)

Jack Smith is precisely the sort of person I want to see a documentary about. He's an underground filmmaker, apparently a pivotal figure, massively influential and cited by people I know about, but he's so underground that I haven't even heard of him. Usually such people are so far underground because they did precisely what they wanted to do, without any nods to compromise or commercial success. Nowadays the internet is a gift for people like this, but if they worked their particular brand of magic before the internet came along, they're usually forgotten names except to small groups of the faithful.

All this makes Jack Smith a complete discovery to me and Mary Jordan's documentary makes him one fascinating enough to follow up on. Of course because I know nothing whatsoever about him I have no way of knowing whether it's accurate or not, but it was fascinating enough that I want to find that out for myself. I discovered something else too. The imagery in Smith's early photos and film clips reminded me very much of the exotica of the twenties and thirties, all eastern mystics and Rudolph Valentino and Universal horror, with a healthy dose of Robert E Howard pulp fantasy. However there's another important name who comprises the link in the chain between them and Smith and that's Maria Montez.

Montez was an exotic actress from the Dominican Republic who starred in a batch of eastern adventure movies in the forties, generally B movies for Universal like White Savage, Cobra Woman or Gypsy Wildcat. What else she became was a catalyst as she's really the icon from which all high camp culture spun. She's the missing link that when merged with performance art and gay culture, transvestite culture and fetish culture gives us everything from Pink Flamingos to the Rio de Janeiro carnival to Andy Warhol's Factory (Warhol was a collaborator and follower of Jack Smith and seems to have stolen his entire repertoire from him). And the point at which all this began seems to be when Jack Smith did what he did in the sixties, with photography and performance and film, and with the furore that sparked over his 1963 film Flaming Creatures, banned in 22 states and 4 countries.

The deliberate avoidance of commerciality, which became something of a manifesto for Smith, is one reason why his work is so obscure today, but it's only one. As this documentary progressed, the more I saw similarities with Derailroaded, Josh Rubin's documentary on Wild Man Fischer, in that like Fischer, Smith was really his own worst enemy. In his aim of attaining complete purity as an artist, in his obvious hatred of capitalism and in some sort of rebellion against the easy way ever being a good one, he seems to have deliberately sabotaged his own career. What's more he seems to have known he was doing it and chosen the reasons why. Flaming Creatures was his last completed film, because he deliberately chose to leave everything that followed unfinished, because 'they' can't ban something that isn't finished.

I don't know whether it was mental illness, personality quirks or just the logical extension of certain personal beliefs that led Smith down the roads that he took, but he certainly appeared aware and unapologetic of what he was doing. Though he died in 1989 he lives on today through whole genres that emerged through his challenging of cultural barriers and especially in a number of other people.

There's certainly a huge amount of Jack Smith in Crispin Glover, down to his vocal style and handwriting, let alone whole swathes of What Is It? He's obviously a major influence on the cinematic philosophies of Alejandro Jodorowsky, John Waters and David Lynch, thus making him in one sense the grandfather of the midnight movie. Had it been made a decade later, something like Flaming Creatures would have fallen into that category too. I can see his influence in Fellini's Satyricon and apparently it's even more apparent in Juliet of the Spirits. And that's just the film influences. I'm far less able to speak to his influences in music, photography and performing arts, but they're apparently as widespread and pervasive. Fascinating.

Blood Freak (1972)

This 1972 film has been made available by Something Weird Video, which should suggest just how strange it really is. It's a safe bet that anything that they release that you have the remotest chance of seeing anywhere else is going to be very strange indeed and this is one is certainly pretty unique. Sure, it's a bad film in so many ways it's almost unreal, but it's pretty unique as bad films go. Ed Wood is the obvious comparison for a few reasons: partly because the ideas far outreach the talents of those involved, not to mention the budget, but also partly because of the quality but partly because of the narration. Periodically the film is interrupted to allow co-director Brad Grinter to read us some commentary off the papers on his desk. I'm so used to Plan 9 from Outer Space by now that I subconsciously translated his words into the intonations of Criswell. It would have been an improvement.

The other co-director is Steve Hawkes, who also plays the lead role of Herschell. In fact he's so important that the opening credits mention that he's the star both before and after all the other credits. He's a big guy who looks like a cross between Hugh Jackman and Alvin Stardust with a large quiff and what looks like a pretty nasty burn on his arms. We first see him heading down the Florida Turnpike on his bike, in footage that's as jerky as Cloverfield ever was. Obviously Hawkes and Grinter couldn't afford a steadicam and didn't have the talent to build one the way Peter Jackson did for Bad Taste.

Anyway, he helps out a young lady who's wearing a short skirt and having car trouble. She's Angel and she invites him home in thanks, but she's not the sort of character you'd think. This may be how porn films start but this is far from a porn film and Angel is far from the sort of character you'd find in one. She's a bible basher and so offers Herschell a place to stay out of the goodness of her heart. Unfortunately she's also offered a place to her sister Ann and seemingly no end of her friends, all of whom seem to be professional drug dealers. Herschell's a good guy too but I don't know how he could have made it this far given that all it takes to persuade him to smoke something is to call him a coward. So in no time flat, good guy Herschell is a drug addict boffing Ann.

He still has Angel to help him out though and joining her at some sort of impromptu bible study session lands him a job. He's hired by the owner of the Midway Turkey Farm and Hatchery, which means he gets one day of solid work throwing turkeys around and then he starts getting used as a guinea pig in supposedly routine human food experiments. Given that I'm sure you're wondering by now why the film is called Blood Freak, I should explain that one day of eating experimental turkey at the turkey farm turns him into one. He jiggles about for a while in a field like Elvis having an epileptic fit, then heads home to show Ann that he's mutated from Herschell into Herschell with a bizarre turkey mask over his head.

The logic of this story is such that Ann doesn't have a problem with him being a turkey. OK, she's known him for a whole two days at this point and she does initially faint in shock at the sight but it takes her a whole thirty seconds to progress to the point where she calmly wonders aloud about where their relationship will lead and what their future children are going to look like. After all she doesn't actually have to look at him. Yeah, the logic is quite astounding. You won't be too surprised to find that while she's dreaming about Herschell and being unwittingly traded for drugs, Herschell is out searching the town for people doing drugs, hanging them upside down, slitting their throats and drinking their drug altered blood.

There are other twists here This is an amazing film. No, that doesn't mean good in any way, shape or form, but it's certainly amazing. It's a film to watch and ask just what the filmmakers were thinking. They certainly had a point to make here and they had all sorts of ideas, both philosophical and cinematic, to expound. Yet the question remains: what were they thinking. Did they honestly think that the sort of filmgoers who would turn out to see Blood Freak would watch this and be persuaded to give up hard drugs or turn to Jesus?

That certainly appears to be the moral tone: if you're a good Christian you don't even really need to be in the film much, just turn up at the beginning and end of the film to be a catalyst for change. Meanwhile everyone else suffers through panic, depression, addiction, hallucination, death or strange mutation into weird turkey headed monsters killing to feed an unavoidable urge to drink the blood of drug addicts. The irony is that the narrator is throwing all this moral high ground at us while choking on a cigarette. The production obviously didn't have enough funds to take a second shot of that scene. So this could be an attempt to convert us all out of fear to the teachings of Jesus, or it could be a social comment on the American presence in Vietnam. Maybe it's just a straight anti-drug film. Whatever it is, it's amazing and the most amazing thing is that somebody would make it.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Halloween (2007)

This one's been on my must see list for a while, though I wasn't sure how it was going to turn out. I've heard good things about it and I've heard bad things about it. Reading between the lines, it seemed that it was likely to be a pretty good film as long as you weren't expecting something like the original John Carpenter version from 1978. And it became pretty obvious from moment one that it wasn't going to be the same film and it wasn't going to have the same tone. This is definitely an update for a different generation.

For a start one of the freakiest things about the original Halloween was that we had no clue that the murderer at the beginning, Michael Myers, was a kid until he walks outside and his parents turn up. Here we get the whole background as to what may have driven him to do some of what he did. His mother seems to care but she's an exotic dancer whose new husband or boyfriend is a drunken abusive mess of a man. Life at home sucks but life at school isn't any better. He gets picked on, partly because he looks like a girl and partly because of who his family are.

So one day, which is Halloween, naturally, he flips out big time, killing more than just the topless babysitter. For a start he beats to death one of his bullies in the woods. Then he comes home, slitting the father figure's throat, beating the babysitter's boyfriend to death with a baseball bat and finally knifing the babysitter. It's all totally brutal, which fits the aim of a splat pack director like Rob Zombie. However while Zombie doesn't appear to care about the suspenseful tone of the original (the second half of this film is a rush through pretty much the whole of the original), he's obviously a huge fan of the material and chose to delve pretty deep into the psychology of it, along with the gore. After all, while Carpenter's version is undeniably a suspense classic, it really doesn't have a heck of a lot going on in it.

That original kicked in pretty quickly. Carpenter gave us the murder scene, then the escape scene and we're into the horror film we know and love. He doesn't mess around: scene one tells us Michael Myers is a dangerous psychopathic murderer, scene two tells us that he's back out in the public, then we have the rest of the film to get scared. Here we have background at home, background at school, background in Smith's Grove Sanitarium, background as we jump forward fifteen years, background even as Michael Myers escapes. How much of this background really makes any difference is really up for question but some of it is certainly interesting and some of it is certainly freaky. I liked Danny Trejo's character and how he played out.

And here's the chief reason to watch this version of Halloween: the people Rob Zombie got to play the roles. As a film it's actually pretty decent, obviously made with respect. While it's not Carpenter's Halloween by a long chalk, he has a good stab at it. But where Carpenter had Jamie Lee Curtis and Donald Pleasence, Zombie has half the icons of horror cinema to play with and he has fun doing so. Even before he escapes from the sanitarium, Michael kills off not just Trejo but Sybil Danning too. On the way back to Haddonfield he takes out Ken Foree, from the original Dawn of the Dead. Not there any more is Dr Sam Loomis, a part owned by Donald Pleasance but done justice to here by Malcolm McDowell.

And once he's out, we meet plenty more names. Running the sanatarium are people like Udo Kier and Clint Howard. The Haddonfield sheriff is Brad Dourif, Chucky himself, though I know him from so much more than that role. The groundskeeper at the cemetery is Zombie regular, Sid Haig. The adoptive mother of Laurie, the baby sister that Michael goes back to Haddonfield to find, is Dee Wallace Stone, from Cujo. Even the gun store clerk is Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees, of all people.

And of course none of these are the leads, McDowell the notable exception. Scout Taylor-Compton is a worthy successor to Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode, though the pretty accurate cultural updates make me yearn for the 1970s. She's obviously pushing for a career as a remake scream queen because beyond this 2007 appearance, she also had a lead role in the 2008 remake of April Fool's Day and auditioned for the 2009 remake of Friday the 13th. As Zombie restructured the film, there's plenty of Michael Myers as a ten year old and a grown up. 6' 10" Tyler Mane, probably best known as Sabretooth from the X-Men films, is the adult Michael and he did some serious studying for the part. I really admired the quizzical turns of his head as he calmly studies the chaos he wreaks.

Most fascinating though is the young Michael: he's Daeg Faerch, who is an angelic girlish little kid, but who can turn on the evil with a glance. Loomis is able to talk about the eyes of Michael Myers so effectively because of what Faerch does in these early scenes. He's also a rather talented young man, or so it would seem. Still very much a child actor, he's already prolific, not just in major Hollywood films like this or Hancock, but in seriously deep things like Marat/Sade and Waiting for Godot on stage. Amazingly he's also a scriptwriter and director, from the age of eight, no less. Something tells me we're going to see a lot of this guy in the future.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Return from Witch Mountain (1978)

Escape to Witch Mountain was enough of a kit for Disney to come back for a sequel, and they had both the good sense to keep the same child actors as the first film and also bring in a couple of name stars to back them up. That means Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann as Tia and Tony, with no lesser names than Bette Davis and Christopher Lee as the villains of the piece, Letha Wedge and Victor Gammon. It doesn't take too long for them to tangle either because while these kids are aliens with superpowers, whose race is trying to hide from the rest of the world, they all suck at hiding anything.

They probably inherit that from Uncle Bene, played by a returning Denver Pyle, who drops the kids off in his flying saucer right on the 50 yard line of the Pasadena Rose Bowl, which has to be the single dumbest place anyone can pick if they're trying to hide from the rest of the world, even if it's off season. So Tia and Tony head off to experience the big city, but on a slight pause because the taxi runs out of gas they both end up in precisely the wrong company.

Tony 'sees' a man about to fall off a roof so goes to save him, not paying any attention to the villains of the piece who were standing in the otherwise deserted street trying to mind control him. Naturally the next step is to mind control Tony for nefarious ends. First up is an attempt to rob the museum of $3m in gold bars, in broad daylight, by wreaking bizarre chaos in front of all and sundry. Tia tries to come to the rescue but ends up in the middle of a suspiciously multiracial kiddie gang fight and wins the day for the Earthquake gang by levitating garbage cans up in the air and dropping on the heads of the opposing gang. So Rocky, Muscles, Dazzler and Crusher get to become her inept backup.

You can see part of the problem already, I'm sure. This is really dumb I mean really dumb. Tony and Tia don't do a bad job at all, especially given the material, but to even suggest the main stars are working more than a little beneath their level is a horrendous understatement. For someone of the calibre of Bette Davis to be reduced to spouting inane drivel like this is more than a mild insult. It doesn't help that she looks like a dwarf next to Christopher Lee. Now Lee has made a career habit of alternating great classics with utter garbage. This is far closer to the latter, and his role is as stereotypical a one dimensional megalomaniac as you've seen in a low budget Bond rip off. Bette Davis doesn't even get that much to play with.

And they're the big stars. There are others slumming it further down the cast list, like Anthony James, always a talented and sleazy henchman but just a moron here. On the other hand, the kids playing the Earthquake gang belong in something like this. The Earthquake gang are something like a Z-grade version of The Goonies. When it comes to a choice between Poindexter or the Feldmeister, there isn't even a contest. Don't get me started on a Jeffrey Jacquet against Jonathan Ke Quan battle. The best of the bunch is the little guy from The Apple Dumpling Gang and that doesn't say much.

There are so many holes in the story it's unreal but don't get me wrong, this may well be awesomely scary and suspenseful to an eight year old. I could imagine the chase scene especially being very effective to young audiences, and much of the rest of the film too. The catch is that anyone over the age of eight will think it's incredibly dumb and the older they are, the more dumb it will become. It's definitely one to watch young and keep fond memories of without ever actually watching it again.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Adventure (1945)

It smacks of a little arrogance to call a film something as generic as Adventure. It can't help but suggest that it's the definitive adventure film of all time and with an implied boast like that it's doomed to failure. Sure enough, even with a decent cast it quickly falls apart at the seams and makes next to no sense whatsoever. The title also makes it harder to find given that any search for it brings up half the other films ever made too. As such it's my 60th Clark Gable, putting me three quarters of the way through his filmography.

Gable is Harry Patterson, a bo'sun in the Merchant Marines whose ship is promptly torpedoed not far out of Chile and not far into the movie. He's one of five sailors who survive on a makeshift raft and are rescued after five days, but by that time Harry's friend Mudgin has promised God everything under the sun: he won't drink, he won't play with girls, he won't pull a knife in a fight and he'll give his life's savings to the church. Of course back on land in San Francisco, he breaks all four of his promises on day one, though one was accidental, and so he witnesses his immortal soul leaving his body.

And so off goes Mudgin to find some sort of redemption, with Harry in tow to help him, and they end up in a library talking to Emily Sears. Mudgin is played by Thomas Mitchell, so is as sincere and heartfelt as you could imagine, but Harry and Emily are so much at loggerheads that you can almost see steam coming out of the ears when they're talking to each other. Gable didn't tend to play the most sophisticated characters but this one blisters into Emily's life like an uncouth tornado who not only can't whisper, he can't talk either: he spends the entire film barking out whatever he feels like and he doesn't hold back with his cynicism.

Emily hates everything he stands for, which may not have been much of a stretch for Greer Garson, who apparently didn't like Gable at all. So naturally it takes about a week for them to get married, even though Harry is chasing after her roommate Helen Melohn, played with no end of full on snorting, pouting and wide eyed gaping by Joan Blondell. No, this doesn't make a whole heck of a lot of sense. I'm not sure how or why the filmmakers ever thought it did. Gable and Garson don't work well as a pair, though there are two pairs here that do: Gable and Blondell spark well off each other, though both are overacting shamelessly; and Garson and Mitchell have some great scenes together.

Unfortunately there's not a lot here at the end of the day. Mitchell steals the show, as he was wont to do, though there's decent support from the other sailors: Tom Tully, John Qualen and Richard Haydn. But with the quality of the cast, it really surprises how painful and embarrassing the film gets. There are odd points at which the story says something profound and the actors fall in line with it and it works. And then two minutes later it's all over and the rest of the film pales into comparison. It plays like a waste of a lot of powerful talent and it deserves to be hard to find amongst all the other films with Adventure in the title.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Reunion in France (1942)

This one looked so odd that I couldn't resist it: a Jules Dassin movie, made Stateside but set in France, starring Joan Crawford and with John Wayne in a supporting role. Here's why it sounds so ridiculous. Dassin was a major directorial name in the States with films like Night and the City, Brute Force and The Naked City, but he was blacklisted for refusing to testify before the House on Un-American Activities about his past involvement with the Communists so he moved to France. There he made the films that made him famous, not least Rififi, the granddaddy of all heist movies. This one is a patriotic film, made in the country that kicked him out but set in the country that took him in.

Crawford makes sense as a lead actress in a Hollywood film but she's playing a spoiled and selfish brat of a woman. Given that Crawford could very easily be described as a spoiled and selfish brat of a woman, she would appear to be playing herself and it's impossible to see the character without seeing the actress. Wayne was almost never a supporting actor, so much so that he holds the record for the most leading roles in films at 142. There are apparently only 11 films that have him as a supporting actor and this may well be my first. So this becomes a telling film for Dassin and Crawford and a rare one for Wayne.

We're in Paris in 1940. It's the ninth of May and the war is 'too uneventful to be taken seriously and too far away to worry about'. The speech being broadcast on the radio tells the people that the Germans are stuck helpless behind the Maginot line and France is as safe as could be. So Michelle de la Becque ignores the war utterly with a haughty shake of her head and takes the train to Biarritz. Her fiance, Robert Cortot, is on the committee for the industrial defence of the nation, so remains behind in Paris.

Of course this was all complete nonsense. The Germans ignore the Maginot Line as surely as Michelle ignored the Germans. They attack Biarritz just like everywhere else and Michelle gets a well deserved wake up call, as the bullets dance around her and prams roll away from dead mothers. Dassin must have been watching Battleship Potemkin. When Michelle gets back to Paris, it's a completely different place, with swastikas draped down the train station she left from and Germans running parts of the war from her confiscated house. Worst of all, her fiance is doing part of that himself and on her first day back he introduces her to people like Ulrich Windler, head of the Gestapo in Paris.

This is not a great film but it's fascinating to watch Crawford. The question is of course is what Crawford would do in the same situations her character finds herself in. I've never been a huge Crawford fan, partly because I first heard about her along with all the Bette Davis rivalry, and it's quite plain that Davis was a far better actress. However she's opened my eyes a few times and she did so here too. Michelle de la Becque populates this film with so many left handed compliments it's unreal, often to the most inappropriate people in the most inappropriate circumstances, and it's not difficult to believe that Crawford herself would have said the same things. There's no doubt that she had balls.

Wayne is more than a little out of place but he has fun with the role. Naturally it's hardly surprising to see him in a patriotic film but it's hardly a John Wayne film. Dassin throws in some interesting shots and setups here and there but it's hardly an essential Dassin film either. It's really a Crawford film, with solid performances from Philip Dorn as Robert Cortot and John Carradine, who plays the head of the Gestapo with relish. I also particularly liked the black American band singing in English about how bad Hitler is because the German tourists avidly listening don't speak English.

Friday, 19 December 2008

The Law vs Billy the Kid (1954)

William Bonney is good at getting into trouble. On the way back from the fields to Parson's Farm to get paid, he antagonises a co-worker by drinking his bottle down. When he finds that he gets paid half what everyone else gets he steals the other half, killing a man who comes after him. Naturally he's as quick on the draw as anyone around him. After crossing the line into Lincoln County, he lassos and kills a steer to eat, only to find that the ranch owner, John Tunstall, is getting plagued by rustlers and thinks the worst. Then when that's sorted out and Bonney and his friend Garrett are sat down to dinner with their host, he falls for Tunstall's niece and makes an enemy of his foreman, Bob Ollinger.

Of course William Bonney is better known as Billy the Kid. Scott Brady is a wooden chiselled serial hero version of Billy and he certainly isn't a kid, being 29 years old when he made this film and looking a few years older (the real Billy died at 21). Of course his friend Garrett is Pat Garrett, here played by James Griffith and just as calm and firm as he should be. The tension between them builds when the crooked sheriff and his posse kill Tunstall in cold blood. Billy takes it personally and goes gunning for the whole posse. Garrett, on the other hand, is appointed sheriff by the governor, and so his first job is to bring in his friend.

Brady reminds me of a cross between Chester Morris and Laurence Tierney, though Brady pales in comparison. He stands and moves like Morris but can't match his character and humour and he looks and sounds like Tierney but he can't reach his menace and machismo. I'm not too surprised to find that I've seen him in but not remembered him from a number of other films, from Undertow in 1949 to Gremlins in 1984, by way of Johnny Guitar and Wicked, Wicked. However I was far more surprised than I should have been to find that the similarity to Tierney is completely understandable: he's Tierney's younger brother, the middle one of three acting brothers and the one who didn't continually get into trouble.

Griffith is much better as Pat Garrett, and while there are too many plot holes and leaps for him to act around, he comes off solidly as the sort of capable and trustworthy character who would be respected quickly and strongly by everyone around him. Griffith is by far the best thing about this film. Once a musician in the band of Spike Jones, he became an actor who specialised in westerns, though I've mostly seen him in low budget horror movies and in supporting roles in major star vehicles. It's easy to see why he played in so many westerns as he was a great fit for that sort of role.

Backing them up are a solid Paul Cavanagh as Tunstall, an Englishman in the old west; a wasted Betta St John as Nita, Tunstall's niece and Billy the Kid's love interest; and Alan Hale Jr as the villainous Bob Ollinger. However the name I recorded this film for is the director, William Castle. I'm trying to catch all the Castles I can to see how his career evolved. This comes towards the end of his mid period, after the the crime series but before the gimmick horror films. It's certainly a capable film, from a directorial standpoint: the problems come from the quality of the acting, the equipment or the script. However there's nothing to really make it stand out. It's not a patch on Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid but it's much better than the Howard Hughes version, The Outlaw. Perhaps I'd rank it just a little lower than Young Guns.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979)

Major Gaskill runs Fort Concho in Indian country but wagons full of rifles and other weapons keep going missing in the territory he's sworn to protect. It's being blamed on Indians but it's pretty obvious that there's something more sinister going on. And into this territory ride Amos and Theodore, the walking disaster zones from the first film. They're the only two characters to return from The Apple Dumpling Gang because Disney realised that they were the main reason why people enjoyed it, not the plot and not the kids.

Amos and Theodore are the dumb pair of crooks from the first film, played by Tim Conway and Don Knotts, and they're just as dumb here, even though there are no kids to outwit them. There's a cursory mention at the beginning of why nobody else is here from film one but nobody really cares, not least the Apple Dumpling Gang themselves. This is entirely about how much chaos Amos and Theodore can wreak, even when attempting to go straight, regardless of whatever other plot elements get thrown in there, like the undercover work to track down who's really been stealing the army's guns and the love story between Private Reed and the Major's daughter.

To gauge the sort of thing they get up to without even trying, they even try to open a bank account but the Junction City Bank is being robbed and so they give their money directly to the robbers. As the only folks in the bank at the time, they accidentally get the drop on Marshal Woolly Bill Hitchcock, the fastest gun in the west, and so become the primary suspects in the case. Hitchcock, played with serial villain relish by Kenneth Mars, is an over the top fine figure of a man beloved by everyone except Old Tough Kate, who's blind as a bat but sees through him without any worries.

They escape from Junction City in the back of a wagon but end up instead drunk as skunks inside Gaskill's fort. They get pressganged into service, promptly burn the place to the ground, get shipped off to prison and yet still manage to win the day. There have been a lot of films with heroes that are totally clueless and these two can't match someone like say, Inspector Clouseau, but they do give it a mighty fine try. Given that there's next to nothing else here, even with such names as Jack Elam, Harry Morgan, Audrey Totter and Tim Matheson lending a hand, that's a good job.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Red Shoes (2005)

It doesn't bode well that the red shoes of the title aren't red, they're as pink as pink could be, but they're freaky nonetheless. They appear mysteriously on an almost deserted rail platform, even there's only one girl there. Naturally she wanders over to take a look when she sees them neatly placed at the edge of the platform and tries them on, but another girl appears as mysteriously as the shoes and attacks her for them. That didn't turn out to be a great idea because this is a horror movie and so shortly afterwards this new girl loses the shoes along with the feet she'd put in them, all in the sort of freakily edited weird movements you might expect from an eastern movie.

Fast forward a little way and a young lady by the name of Sun-jae finds the same pair of shoes on a train carriage. She's a troubled character, rejected from all sides: her husband's sleeping with someone else and her daughter is her daddy's girl. She finds her way out of the marriage at least, moving to a new place with her daughter and starting up a new eye clinic, or some such. But the shoes bring new troubles: it seems that they provoke intense desire on the part of anyone who sees them, thus prompting battles between mother and daughter, and the bizarre death of a friend who borrows/steals them. It would seem that people who steal the shoes come to a quick and grisly end with their feet severed.

The other lead character is an interior decorator who Sun-jae hires to design her new clinic. He's pleasantly strange and direct: he moves into the clinic and waits for his vibe to come before beginning work. They begin a relationship and he helps her find the history of the curse. There is a curse, of course, through a connection to the past. Wearing the shoes and looking into the mirror brings vision into past events and helps bring some insight and resolution. However there's more going on than just the story behind the red shoes.

I'm still finding Korean cinema fascinating, even though I'm seeing more and more films that are not not necessarily great. This one has plenty going for it but it falls short. It has a solid premise behind it, tying the old Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale into a modern curse story. It has some excellent acting, especially from Kim Hye-su as Sun-jae and Park Yeon-ah as her daughter Tae-su (in her only film to date). The cinematography is often subtle and powerful, with some great location scouting that leads to quite a few scenes appearing notably freaky even though they're technically completely commonplace. I love the trick in the end credits too.

Yet it's also disjointed, with the writing notably inconsistent. Reality and dream often blur a little too closely, some characters change character dramatically just because there's been a twist or a disclosure and the last twenty minutes really doesn't feel like it belongs in the same film: it explains much but opens as many plotholes as it closes. The Red Shoes runs 103 minutes long, 109 minutes in the uncut Korean version, but it feels like it would have been much more successful as, say a 70 minute film with the ending removed and the script tightened accordingly.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Tower of Evil (1972)

We're in coastal England and the tower of the title is a lighthouse, so my lass is in hog heaven from moment one. It's a rundown gothic sort of place so it looks even more cool even though the sets don't always live up to the exterior shots. Of course, as the title would suggest, it's a place of evil too, and the fishermen who arrive there at the opening of the film on the Sea Ghost find four tourists not quite having the time of their lives touring Europe. Three are dead: decapitated, speared to the wall or just left outside on the rocks. Three are naked, including the one live one, a young lady hiding in a cupboard who promptly wipes out one of the fishermen before being brought back to a psychiatric hospital.

She's Penelope Reed and the police are naturally convinced she's the murderer, but just as naturally her parents aren't so they hire a private investigator called Brent to look into it. He hitches a lift to the island with a bunch of archaeologists, who are keen on investigating it for their own reasons. You see, the spear that speared the young man to the wall was a solid gold ceremonial Phoenician spear, of the sort that is generally buried with a Phoenician chief along with the rest of his treasure and a golden bust of the god Baal. It's all valuable both financially and archeologically and they're very keen on finding it, but there are a lot of hidden motives too.

What else there's plenty of are bitchy lines. There's more cutting dialogue here than in anything else I can think of off hand, all delivered by women, and if you added the word 'meow' as a response to each bitchy line it would be the most used word in the film. You see, beyond being intelligent and educated, there's a lot of entangled back history here. There are four archaeologists: Rose, Adam, Nora and Dan; and while Dan's married to Nora but he's sleeping with Rose, who was formerly engaged to Adam. This leads to some notable sexual tension, especially in scenes with both Nora and Rose, with actresses Anna Palk and Jill Haworth able to act with their eyes as well as their bodies and with excellent inflection.

Both were seasoned horror veterans. Palk worked mostly in TV, especially a long run in The Main Chance, but her film credits incude The Skull, The Earth Dies Screaming and The Nightcomers, along with a co-lead in The Frozen Dead. Haworth was a big star, having originated the role of Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway, and played in a number of Otto Preminger movies. However she ended up in horror movies, this one coming after It! and The Haunted House of Horror, and before The Mutations. Naturally all of them have numerous alternative titles, so I could have listed Curse of the Golem, The Dark, Horror of Snape Island and The Freakmaker instead, but they're all the same films.

While I'd be more than happy to see either or both of these actresses again, especially in outfits like these, I recognise others. Dan is Derek Fowlds, who I remember well from TV in Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, and he's still going strong in Heartbeat after 16 years. He isn't known for the horror genre beyond a part in Hammer's Frankenstein Created Woman. One of the tourists, the one who gets speared to the wall, is Robin Askwith, from the Confessions films among many others, as well as Horror Hospital. And then there's Dennis Price, who appeared in no end of horror movies after his heyday in films like Kind Hearts and Coronets, including many of those mentioned above. He only has a small part here though, like George Coulouris who gets killed off pretty quickly.

The film itself, written and directed by Jim O'Connolly from a novel by George Baxt, is a curiosity. It has a really good go at being effective, with some solid atmosphere and effective shocks, as well as the expected early 70s nudity. It has a solid place in a few different subgenres of British horror but really stands alone because of the unique directions it takes. However those directions are far from explored to their fullest, and there's much that's disappointing, though that's generally because it's missing rather than because it's there. It also falls prey to many of the usual downfals of genre film: the women don't get to do too much, people wander off on their own all the time and professionals don't tend to act professionally. It's definitely worth a look though.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Swiss Family Robinson (1960)

I think I read Swiss Family Robinson when I was a kid, but if I did I can't remember just how it all played out. I certainly don't remember it having exactly the same story as Old Yeller, but hey, this was Disney so naturally Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran are there to play the same kids that they always played, with more dogs to take in and more big animals to get into trouble with. The basic story is, well, pretty basic: the Robinson family get shipwrecked in a storm and have to find a way to survive on a desert island. They have the remnants of the ship, given that the crew abandoned it and them in the storm, which means lots of wood, livestock, guns and other useful stuff. They even have a working organ.

Filmed on location on the island of Tobago, it looks good and the cast aren't afraid to play things at least a little realistically which makes for a decent opening with everyone getting thoroughly soaked. I also didnt see a single rear projection shot, so all the boatwork and stunts look real. Of course nobody has anything remotely close to a Swiss accent and everything white stays remarkably white, but for a while it does look like the Robinsons are working hard to stay alive and safe on an island populated by tigers and monitor lizards and whatnot. The filmmakers are careful not to tell us how long it takes to build that legendary treehouse but it's fascinating to watch all the ingenuity at work and it's impossible not to want to live there, at least for a little while.

Naturally, this being a family friendly Disney film, we see the happy side of being shipwrecked, which truth be told can't have a heck of a lot of happy side to it. Most shipwreck victims don't have awesome treehouses, water parks complete with ropes and water slides, and even when the dangerous side of things comes along, in the form of tigers, pirates or giant snakes, the danger plays second fiddle to the sheer adventure of it. Again, the realism is there: I'm pretty sure that wasn't a hi-tech animatronic snake that Fritz wrestles with in the water, but but it didn't look fake. Could it have been real? Disney certainly had a lot of well trained animals to hand, and the fight between the tiger and two great danes is stunning.

Beyond the lack of Swiss accents, the actors know precisely what they're doing and they're all very good indeed. Nobody is coarse and generic like in Treasure Island a decade earlier. John Mills is an effective father (again: no name) and James MacArthur, the future Danno from Hawaii Five-O is an effective eldest son. Dorothy McGuire is as great a matriarch as you'd expect, given that she played no end of great matriarchs. Similarly the other kids are the kids they always played: Tommy Kirk and Kevin Corcoran made six films together and were brothers in five of them. This was the third and they must have known precisely how to play best off each other by this time. Corcoran especially is annoying in all the best ways.

Given that the Robinsons only had sons, there had to be a girl involved at some point and it turns out to be Janet Munro, playing Roberta. She was prepared for this one too, having previously played opposite James MacArthur in another Disney film a year earlier, Third Man on the Mountain. The other name involved is a surprising but welcome one. The pirates are your standard dumb pirates there to be knocked down and blown up and wiped out in all manner of ways, yet still get back up for more. Their leader, Kuala by name, is no less an actor than Sessue Hayakawa, a silent screen star to rival Valentino and Gilbert.

I've seen some of his silents like The Cheat and The Dragon Painter and been very impressed with his work, but only one of his early sound films. He had a very thick accent and could no longer play the sort of role he was used to. Luckily by this time there were parts that fit his talents again, albeit very different ones. Three years earlier he'd even won an Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai. His role here is hardly substantial enough to warrant even thinking about another one but he has some fun with Kuala. I ony wish there had been more of him.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Treasure Island (1950)

Long before the Walt Disney company made the interesting though massively flawed animated feature Treasure Planet, the first of many of Disney's live action films back in 1950 was based on the same source material, Treasure Island. It's a children's classic in its own stead, mostly but not entirely due to the work of Robert Newton as a memorable Long John Silver. It's very much worth watching but it's status as an all time classic may just be due to the fact that it was made at the right time by the right people and is probably better known than any other version.

You all know the story. On the treacherous west coast of England in 1765 is a pub called the Admiral Benbow, which is run by young Jim Hawkins's mother. Into the pub comes Black Dog, a man with a serious scar across his face, and he's seeking Capt William Bones, Billy Bones to his friends. Soon after comes a blind man, Blind Pew, to hand him the black spot, and the captain knows that the one legged man won't be far behind them. He's there but he's hiding, with his 'rightful owned property', the treasure map to Capt Flint's pirate treasure, all 700,000 pounds of it.

So Squire Trelawney charters a boat to head out from Bristol to retrieve the treasure, and picks all the wrong people to crew it. Not least of his mistakes is to hire a cook by the name of Long John Silver, the very one legged man that Billy Bones was so afraid of seeing again. And while Trelawney thinks he's in charge, via the loyal Capt Smollett, Long John Silver is really running the show, manoeuvering behind the scenes until the time is ripe to strike. His task is to keep the crew behaved until then, and he uses young Jack Hawkins as part of his plan.

This was an old classic long before Disney ever got his hands on it. Robert Louis Stevenson's novel first saw book form in 1883 and had been serialised before then. It's a peach, needless to say, and every kid should read it. Beyond being a great ripping yarn full of adventure, it's a a great coming of age story and the biggest influence on the culture of pirates ever written. Everything you think about when you think of pirate stories started here: buried treasure on tropical islands, maps where X marks the spot, the dead man's chest, peg legged villains with parrots on their shoulders. Sure enough, there's some Yo Ho Ho'ing too, and plenty of bottles of rum.

This wasn't the first version made for the screen. J Searle Dawley made a short version as far back in 1912, two years after making an interesting version of Frankenstein. What seems like every decade saw more versions and even the Russians beat Disney to it by 13 years. There have been over 50 versions made thus far, but this does remain one of the most definitive. From the hindsight of over half a century, Bobby Driscoll is pretty annoying as Jim Hawkins, though he was acclaimed at the time, a year after winning a special Oscar for his work in other films. His accent is most annoying but that's Disney's fault; though his performance is lacking in passion too.

Robert Newton is the standout. His work is very much deserving of the memory and he stands head and shoulders above everyone else in every respect. He's as great here as he was as Bill Sikes two years earlier in Oliver Twist, and he'd go on to reprise his role in the sequel which carried the name of his character, Long John Silver. People like Basil Sydney, Walter Fitzgerald, Denis O'Dea, Ralph Truman and Geoffrey Wilkinson are just like the film itself: they all give solid performances that you can't help but enjoy watching, but through coarse acting that's pretty generic. This is a film well worth watching more than once but if you analyse it, there's not that much here that didn't come from Robert Louis Stevenson or Robert Newton.

The Maid (2005)

Once you start delving into Asian horror there seems to be no end to the places that get in the act. Beyond Japan and Hong Kong, there's plenty from Korea, then Thailand, Vietnam, Pakistan and now Singapore. I haven't seen a Singaporean horror movie before, but that's hardly surprising because this was apparently the first one ever made. It's not entirely effective but it's certainly capable and it's a worthy first start to a new genre for the country. Maybe the first couple of attempts to build suspense were deliberately clumsy so that the first real ones would carry even more impact. There are many such effective shocks, not all of which are expected.

We follow Rosa Dimaano, the eighteen year old maid of the title, who has travelled from the Philippines to Singapore to become a maid for the Teo family. She arrives during the Chinese seventh month. According to Chinese tradition, once a year during the seventh month, the gates of hell will open and the ghosts are hungry for revenge and justice, hence the colloquial term of 'hungry ghost month'. The locals offer meat and burn money in respect to their ancestors but unfortunately Rosa doesn't know the rules. So she tries to sweep up the ashes of the burned money outside the house and she sits in the front row at the local Chinese Opera production. Both are no nos, the ashes and the seats being reserved for the ghosts.

The shocks are plentiful and they don't take long in coming. Rosa starts dreaming about ghosts and seeing them in her waking hours too. Initialy it's hard to tell, but the Teo's retarded son Ah Song sees them too. The question we have to ask and that Rosa starts asking too is what purpose they have. Are they trying to punish her for offending their memory, albeit inadvertently, or are they trying to tell her something. Soon we realise that there's another maid of the title too, by the name of Esther Santos and by that point the questions multiply.

Being my first Singaporean film, let alone Singaporean horror film, I don't know any of the names involved. Writer and director Kelvin Tong had made a couple of movies before this one and he followed it up with a few more, including another ghost film, Men in White, which seems to be a lot less well received than this one. The actors are decent, especially as they have to act in a few different languages. The film switches between English, Filipino, Tagalog and Teochew, which is a Chinese dialect so poorly represented in film that I've now seen 14% of them all. That's one out of seven.

The lead actress, playing a Filipino character in Singapore, is actually English and, just to confuse things even more, she has an Italian name: Alessandra de Rossi. Apparently her mother was Filipina and her father was Italian. Whatever her heritage she's an interesting actress: professional and experienced (she now has 21 films to her name) but very natural in her performance. Backing her up are Huifang Hong and Shucheng Chen as the Teos, with Benny Soh as their retarded son Ah Soon. He does a great job, so much so that I wonder if his sole screen credit means that he wasn't doing too much acting. It's a good film, though it's not a great one.

Gentleman's Fate (1931)

John Gilbert was one of the highest profile failures of the transition to sound, but while most failed because of pretty good reasons: most were great actors physically but couldn't act with their voices. Gilbert's co-star here, Louis Wolheim, had the best of all reasons: he died in 1931. But John Gilbert was a special case: he failed because Louis B Mayer wanted him to fail and Mayer could make it happen.

Mayer, of course, was all-powerful, the head of the biggest studio of them all and he had Gilbert under contract, which in those days meant that he effectively owned him. The problem was that Gilbert had literally hit him, knocking him down in public, in response to a snide remark that Mayer made at Gilbert's wedding to Greta Garbo, which in the end didn't happen because she got cold feet and didn't show up. Mayer never forgot and vindictively ruined Gilbert's career, most notoriously having the pitch of his voice raised to a ridiculous level for His Glorious Night.

The truth was that there was nothing wrong with his voice. Film historians have often mentioned that it didn't match what the public expected and that his career was mostly crippled by the choice of films Mayer put him in, but I'm not sure I buy that quite as given. His voice never surprised me, admittedly from the perspective of three quarters of a century on, and there are plenty of actors who did consistently superb work in films not worthy of them. So the more I see of Gilbert's sound work the more I wonder about a third possibility: maybe his time had simply come.

I wasn't there so I can't know what it felt like to be a moviegoer during the transition to sound, but I wonder if the upheavals in the industry along with the upheavals in real life just hastened the death of a type of film and the actors who were most closely related to it died along with it. Gilbert was a romantic matinee idol, along with people like Valentino, Novarro and Garbo. I think they were so massively associated with that type of role that audiences couldn't see them in anything else. Valentino was already dead; Garbo continued on for a while but retired within a decade; Novarro lasted longest but as a shadow of what he was to the silent screen. Gilbert tried (or was forced into) a number of different types of roles. To my 21st century eyes he does fine. To the eyes of his fans, he was someone else.

This is not a great film, with only a couple of great scenes that stand out above the rest (the best by far is the peace banquet), but it's a pretty good part for Gilbert and he does pretty well with it. He thinks he's a gentleman called Jack Thomas because he always has been, and as the film opens he's prancing around like a giddy schoolboy because he's in love with Marjorie Channing, who is about to marry him. He tells Marjorie that his parents are dead, because he didn't know any different. But as he quickly finds out, he's really Giacomo Tomasulo, son of a notorious racketeer working mostly in bootlegged liquor who is on his deathbed and wants to see him. He has a brother too, Frank, and a whole new life dragging him in, one that doesn't seem to be compatible in the least with his life as a gentleman.

Gilbert wasn't going to win any Oscars here, but he does a good job with the material he's given. He has a good drunk scene, though the lines are terrible, as is much of the dialogue in this film. Louis Wolheim is fine too as Frank, though he's a little slower and more deliberate than he probably should have been. I like Wolheim: he didn't look like a movie star and he didn't act like one, but he was a powerful force on the screen. I've seen a number of his silents as well as his most famous film, All Quiet on the Western Front, and I'm a confirmed fan. People like John Miljan, Ralph Ince and Paul Porcasi can't match them from their supporting roles. I preferred George Cooper as a stooge called Mike.

The real supporting actors here are women and there are three whose names made their way onto the screen with the title. Leila Hyams is Marjorie, the woman who Jack loves, who naturally leaves as soon as she finds out what's going on. Her place is eventually taken by Anita Page, as Ruth Corrigan, who comes into the story as part of a subplot between the Tomasulo gang and their rivals, the Florio gang. Best of all is Marie Prevost in a smaller role as a Tomasulo gang moll called Mabel. She played a lot of memorable small roles throughout the thirties and this is no exception.

Monday, 8 December 2008

The World's Greatest Sinner (1962)

I think it was Stanley Kubrick's The Killing when I noticed Timothy Carey. I think everyone who explores cinema notices him at some point or another and that just happened to be my point. You'll have seen him before: he's the actor you looked at in black and white films and said, 'Hey, that guy looks just like Nicolas Cage!' Well he has a lot more talent than Nicolas Cage and he's a lot more interesting. He was notable in both The Killing and Paths of Glory for Kubrick, but then I started seeing him in odd stuff: beach movies with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello; the Monkees' movie, Head; part of Lee Marvin's gang in The Wild One; John Cassavetes indies like The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. He certainly got around.

But at the end of the day, this is the most Timothy Carey film there is, because he isn't just an actor in it: he's the lead actor, the writer, the producer, the director, the distributor and probably every other function to boot, all the way down to financing the thing with whatever money he could raise (it cost him $100,000 in the end). It's completely his vision, and given that he was notoriousy eccentric, it's hardly surprising to find that it's a mightily eccentric vision.

Carey plays an insurance salesman called Clarence Hilliard but he comes to the realisation that he's bored and disheartened by the whole thing and wants something more. He wants to make something of himself and he wants to put something back into life. All understandable thus far, but how to do it? 'Why can't I be a God?' he asks himself so he goes about it by founding a political party/religion called the Eternal Man's party, renaming himself God Hilliard and telling everyone that he can make them superhuman beings who can live forever. And then he runs for president.

It's a bold film, make no mistake about it, focused on nothing smaller than the relationship between man and God, without holding back in any way. Blasphemous, sacrilegious and blatant, the approach and the intent reminds of films like What Is It?, Crispin Glover's attempt to shock us into thought. Yet even while Glover had to overcome many obstacles to make his film, he had it easy compared to Carey, whose film is fundamentally hindered by aims much higher than the budget could allow. He is at least imaginative about how to add in stock footage and other tricks to make it appear more expensive than it was. However there are other hindrances beyond money and the inevitability of it being rough around the edges.

Most of the actors (read: what seems like everyone except Carey) appear to be amateurs and many are very amateur indeed. The editing is terrible with lots of abruptness between scenes or even during them. There obviously weren't many opportunities for retakes: you can tell that by the number of scenes that have flies landing inconveniently on people's foreheads. Most of all, the film took four years to shoot, with filming taking place sporadically between 1958 and 1961 whenever funds were available. This leaves actors, not least Carey himself, varying in appearance as time goes on. At points he appears to be stoned out of his brain with his eyeballs unable even to focus. The fact that he even finished the film is impressive. Then again, how he plays his character is up for debate. I think his intent was to be deliberately ridiculous as God Hilliard but in situations that aren't, so that we would look at similar situations in real life and see the ridiculous in people trying very hard not to be.

And it does stand out as a statement. Totally independent at a time when it wasn't easy to to make an independent film and never released commercially, its reputation hasn't faded in over forty years. People paid attention to it, to the degree that Elvis even asked Carey for a copy which he naturally declined, being the awkward so and so that he was. This film is ambitious and powerful and it prompts us to ask a lot of questions, and for those reasons it's a success. As a technical piece, it's a dismal failure. As a piece of art, it's fascinating, but it sure isn't for everyone. It screams independent, cult, fringe, whatever description you want to tag it with to put a brave face on the fact that most people wouldn't even be able to make it through the film.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Dead of Night (1945)

One of the earliest classic horror anthologies, this film has a pretty solid reputation. It's an Ealing film, far from their traditional comedies, but just as literate and well constructed as you'd expect, with the linking story being the key rather than just a loose afterthought. It's also full of names: four directors, four writers and eight featured stars, along with many others. They're not minor names either: just to mention a couple of each, there's Charles Crichton and Robert Hamer; H G Wells and E F Benson; and Mervyn Johns and Michael Redgrave.

Johns is the first person we meet. He's Walter Craig, an architect visiting an farmhouse in the country that's in need of an expansion. He's never been there before or anywhere near it, but he knows the place well and all the people who meet him there: all six of them, even though one hasn't even arrived yet. He knows it all from a recurring dream, which becomes a nightmare, something that doesn't bode well for the evening. He lets the others know, of course, and they're fascinated. Most of them believe him, but one of the other guests is a psychiatrist who wants to rationalise it away.

Gradually the things he mentions that haven't happened yet come to pass, without any easy explanation, firming up everyone else's belief in Craig's story. And they tell their own stories, all with a touch of the supernatural, to back up why they believe. Some are simple, like Hugh Grainger's story of a near death experience that follows a near death experience or young Sally O'Hara's ghost story at a party. Others have more depth, like Joan and Peter Cortland's experiences with a haunted mirror.

This segment is a peach, well set up and well executed, growing in intensity joyously with excellent performances from Ralph Michael and the delightful Googie Withers. The only real surprise is that this isn't the Wells story, but then next one fits Wells even more. It's Eliot Foley's story, a surreal haunting tale that is in its way a very British comedy of manners, decidedly Victorian and decidedly delightful. It sees two best friends, played by Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne (in many way reprising their roles from The Lady Vanishes), who are addicted both to the game of golf and to the same woman. They decide to play a round for her, with the winner winning her hand and the loser going away for ever, but naturally things don't turn out quite as you'd expect.

All the stories are good, up to the last and strangest, which is Dr van Straaten's own story that has to do with a ventriloquist's dummy. It's Michael Redgrave that takes this role and he does a solid job, ending with a highly memorable few fractured words in a padded cell. And then comes the nightmarish finale, which wraps everything up neatly in the framing story. It really is the defining framework story because while offhand I can't think of another that had any depth at all, here it's the entire point. In fact the way it's set up inspired cosmologists including Fred Hoyle to develop the steady state theory of the universe. Talk about influence.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

The Front Page (1974)

Third time would normally be the charm for anything if Billy Wilder directed it, especially with a cast like the one he has here. However even Wilder's up against it with this version of this Ben Hecht/Charles MacArthur play, given the two classic versions that predate it. The original was one of the great precodes and one of the great early talkies, directed by Lewis Milestone and starring Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien. The remake was a Howard Hawks film and one of the best comedies Hollywood ever made, His Girl Friday with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. There were other versions in between, even one with Sid James, but they don't matter too much. It's testament to the power of His Girl Friday and the original The Front Page that even this one can't stand up to them.

The story is like an old friend now. Hildy Johnson is a reporter and a damn fine one, but he's quitting the business to get married to a beautiful girl called Peggy Grant whose father is going to give him a position in his advertising agency. His boss at the Examiner, Walter Burns, doesn't want him to quit and does everything he can to keep him on the staff, stooping as low as visiting Peggy in the guise of Hildy's 'parole officer', all so that he can cover the Williams hanging, the biggest story in town. Earl Williams is a cop killer, though about as sympathetic as a cop killer could be, being manhandled through the judicial process by a corrupt sheriff and an even more corrupt mayor.

Billy Wilder put a stunning cast together for his version, led by Jack Lemmon as Hildy Johnson and Walter Matthau as Walter Burns. They're both excellent (Matthau is better but Lemmon gets by far the most screen time), but they're aided no end by a serious set of supporting actors, especially Johnson's fellow journalists in the press room at the criminal court, hardly surprising as Hecht and MacArthur were newspapermen themselves. Like all journalists in the picture they're each gifted with wonderful dialogue, but they're good enough to make it sparkle: Charles Durning, David Wayne, Dick O'Neill and the rest.

In comparison Susan Sarandon gets very little opportunity to do anything as Peggy and Jon Korkes is annoying as the newbie Burns chooses to replace Johnson in the press room, well, to annoy him. Vincent Gardenia is memorable as the sleazy and incompetent sheriff, 'Honest' Pete Hartman, who put Johnson through a couple of appeals just so he could hang him right before election day, running on a law and order ticket, sinking as low as to send the man who arrives with a reprieve from the governor to a cathouse so they can hang Williams anyway. The other gem in the supporting cast is Austin Pendleton as Earl Williams. He doesn't get a lot of dialogue but he carries it all off very well indeed, even though this is very early in his career.

Also in the film, right at the very end, is a short appearance by Allen Jenkins, who appeared in the original run of The Front Page on Broadway, with Lee Tracy. Why he wasn't in the 1931 film I don't know, especially as his frequent cinematic partner in crime, Frank McHugh, was. I can only assume that he was very new to Hollywood at the time, with only one screen credit in 1931, his first year of many in the business. I first experienced his work as Officer Dibble in the Top Cat cartoons without having a clue who he was, only later becoming a big fan of his Warner Brothers work in the thirties and onward. When he made this film, he was 74 years old and this was his first appearance on screen in seven years. He died 11 days later.

It Happened in Hollywood (1937)

Here's an interesting concept: a film about the transition of Hollywood from silent films to the sound era, made only a decade after Al Jolson told us that 'You ain't heard nothing yet'. We open in 1928, as cowboy star Tim Bart is touring hospitals and orphanages to meet some of his biggest fans, children, and he's pretty believable in the form of cowboy star Richard Dix (of whom I'm no big fan but he's excellent here). However he's called back to Perfect Pictures because the first talkie has been a success and the studios are panicked about how their silent icons are going to cope. The news for Bart isn't good.

His delightful co-star Gloria Gay, played by Dix's delightful co-star Fay Wray, is panicked herself because she thinks she'll be out of a job in no time flat. However she's a sensation and it's Bart that finds himself obsolete, firmly stuck in the previous era with the parts he played. Horses don't do well in front rooms and the microphones don't move. Bart is a great silent cowboy hero but he's terrible at dialogue and hardly believable in any role that takes him out of the saddle. The only thing he has going for him now is the fact that people like him, not least Gloria who has clout and wants him working.

This is a fascinating film, watching a man spiralling downward through no fault of his own. One minute he's a huge star with his name above the title and a 19 room ranch almost paid off, the next he's out of work without much hope of anything. It must be a devastating experience, even without a sick kid getting well just so he can come out to see Bart and lay on the guilt so he won't send him back. Bart doesn't have the clout he had so he throws a party at his old ranch house, which is on the market, with a cast of Hollywood doubles. This film is versatile to play as a comedy and a tragedy and a drama all in one and there's certainly plenty of each.

It's not a great film, with more ups and downs than a rollercoaster, but it's a fascinating one because of what it says and when it said it. Only ten years after Jolson, eight after the first huge Hollywood year of sound, seven after the silents were effectively dead and gone, here's a film about that massive paradigm shift in the movies that made many actors into huge stars and threw just as many out on the sidewalk. It may not seem it today, seventy years on, but this was made at a time when many silent stars had became nobodies, maybe bit players if they were lucky, often unemployed, some driven to desperate measures as Tim Bart is here, some even more so to the point of suicide.

After all this was only a year after John Gilbert died of a heart attack following overuse of alcohol. Garbo had only three pictures left, Ramon Novarro managed a few more but his stardom was over, and these are only three of the legends. Lesser names to today's eyes disappeared even quicker, especially those with accents that were either extreme or just not what the fans expected: Lili Damita, Nils Asther, Dolores Costello. Tim Bart's character may be sympathetically written and played but it's a safely tragic version of a fate that befell many who would often have been suffering or dreaming back at the past in 1937.

Monday, 1 December 2008

Storm Center (1956)

When it comes to defending freedom of speech and protecting the library system from censorship, Bette Davis would seem to be pretty high up on the list of people to do the job. She's up against it here though. She's Alicia Hull, who got the free public library built in this unnamed small town 25 years ago, still runs it today and is something of a pillar of the community. She's in the process of pushing for an expansion, a children's wing, which the local council are happy to finance. However they have something they want her to do in return. On the shelves of her library is a book called The Communist Dream, which is pure red propaganda and not very palatable, and they want it removed.

Hull agrees initially, as a sort of trade off given that she's going to get a children's wing out of it, but she spends the rest of the day thinking about it, about the question, 'How do you get rid of a book?' She's never had to do it before and, put simply, the concept hurts. She has strong principles and she's more than willing to stick to them, asking the council a lot of valid questions about what happens when you break them. They want this one book removed from the shelves, but what about the rest of the shelves full of political theory? What about Mein Kampf? Hull doesn't agree with the contents of that book either but she sees the very presence of it on her shelves as part of the fight against what it stands for.

So out she goes. She makes it very clear that the council has the power to remove the book and to remove her and the one would mean the other. However, one member of the council takes it a little further and rakes up her past memberships in wartime organisations that turned out to be communist in nature. It doesn't matter that she resigned from them as soon as that became apparent and it doesn't matter that she leaves without a fuss, it all ends up on the front page of the paper anyway. And once someone's stirred up the bee's nest, it doesn't matter how calm the beekeeper is, the bees are stirred.

The film unfolds reasonably well but the character of Alicia Hull isn't played right at all. She isn't a quitter and should never have been shown that way. While I buy her motivations for not bringing anyone else into it, I don't buy her motivations in keeping quiet entirely. I especially don't buy her sitting back while the children turn their backs. She's not stupid and there are points where she makes it clear she knows what's going on, but she still sits back and lets it happen. Her replacement also isn't stupid but she makes out that way and I don't buy her ostrich act, while being engaged to the councilman who was happily building his political career on this fake victory. Most of all I don't buy the reactions of the town: if Hull was as well loved and respected as would seem to be the case and if she has the ardent support of many of its occupants, whether shouted from the rooftops or not, I don't buy how quickly she could become a pariah.

The performances are decent throughout but they don't feel right. I thought about how I would have seen this had I not known who Bette Davis was, and came to the conclusion that she didn't give a bad performance. It merely isn't what she could have done with the part had the part been written properly. I know who she is and I know what she's capable of, and the way the part was written removed most of her opportunity. I think that goes for other members of the cast too, especially Brian Keith and Kim Hunter. Only Joe Mantell as the pig ignorant father of a key child character in the story really gets an opportunity and he does fine with it, as painful as it is to listen to his lines.

Most painful though is watching books burn. This is one of the most painful things for me to watch because I know it's real and I know what it means. I also know when I watch murders and rapes and all sorts of horrific violence that it's just happening on screen, it's acting and makeup and special effects. However when books burn on screen, that isn't a special effect, it's real and it hurts. It doesn't matter if there's a point behind it, it still hurts. Be warned: this film has one of the most protracted book burning scenes I've ever seen and it's hard to get through.

At the end of the day, the message is a good one and it must have been a daring one in 1956, something that must also have flavoured how those characters were written. I can appreciate what writer/director Daniel Taradash had to say in a time when this could easily have caused problems for him and for members of his cast and crew. Communism is just the MacGuffin here: there's no communism in the film whatsoever and not one of the characters is a communist, but it's the most important thing in it. It was apparently the first anti-McCarthyism film made in Hollywood: no wonder the Legion of Decency didn't like it and no wonder Taradash never directed another film, though he continued as a screenwriter.