Apocalypse Later Empire



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Also announcing the 2nd annual Apocalypse Later International Fantastic Film Festival!
Filmmakers, submissions for horror and sci-fi shorts are open through Film Freeway.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Subject Two (2006)

Director: Philip Chidel
Stars: Christian Oliver and Dean Stapleton

Adam Schmidt is a student working in some sort of scientific or medical field, but he's apparently not a good student. This doesn't have much to do with his skill or knowledge, more with his attitude. He has difficulty in focusing, possibly due to chronic migraines. He also writes a blog called 'Meditating for a New Medicine', which doesn't impress his teachers, but does impress a mysterious stranger, who invites him via e-mail to work for him. This stranger is Dr Franklin Vick, and after Adam treks up to the 12,000 foot mark in remote Colorado to meet him, he promptly strangles him to death.

The point is that Dr Vick's work is in resurrection. He talks about cryonics and nanotechnology but he's working on ways to resurrect people who have died. And to put his theories into practice he kills Adam, who he calls Subject Two, over and over again, always bringing him back. The catch, as there's always a catch, is the fact that there are side effects. Slowly but surely, we progress through his methods without ever really being given much of a clue as to what he's doing. We get plenty of buzzwords and technical terms but they don't appear to add up to a full story. But the cycle continues: Adam dies, Adam comes back to life, Adam feels awesome, Adam hurts, Adam dies.

This is a strange film to watch, but the strangest thing is that the strangeness isn't due to the strange subject matter. Most of it is shot right up there in the Colorado mountains in the depth of winter, so the scenery is awesome and palpably cold. It's also far from anything else, so for almost the entire film we see only two people: one of whom is a gradually deteriorating and gradually changing specimen of humanity and the other of whom is a scarily accurate double of early Jack Nicholson right down to the One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest beanie.

Christian Oliver is Subject Two and he brings an intriguing detachment to the role, one that I believe was necessary for the film to succeed as much as it does. Even when we get bored with the repetitiveness and gradual disconnection of the story, he's always there with an intriguing new reason for us to watch him. Those freaky contact lenses are part of it but far from all of it. Dean Stapleton is Dr Vick and he's obviously studied, deliberately studied, Jack Nicholson, not just his roles but his mannerisms and his smile and his everything. It's more than a little offputting.

There's a twist, which is actually pretty appropriate and I won't spoil, but as much as it's appreciated the film has already lost enough steam that it can't save it. The problem here is that there isn't anything definitive to say against the film: it's set in a gorgeous location with a decent script and solid acting. It looks good but somehow it doesn't feel good. It feels like it should have been so much more and I can't put my finger on why. That Jack Nicholson problem is unavoidable though.

No Such Thing (2001)

Director: Hal Hartley
Stars: Sarah Polley, Robert John Burke and Helen Mirren

There's a rule in monster movies that you don't show the monster until you've built up all the suspense and sown all the doubt you need. This one ignores that and begins with the monster, recording his thoughts into a microphone. 'I'm not the monster I used to be,' he tells us, after explaining why he's killed an American television news crew sent to investigate rumours of his existence in an abandoned US missile silo in a remote northern part of Iceland. He's incredibly strong, he breathes fire and he has horns; he also acts like a petty hooligan, partly because he's an alcoholic insomniac but mostly because he's ostensibly immortal without a purpose in life.

He sends his recording back to WRQE in New York and it ends up in the hands of Beatrice, the young lady who despite talent and education makes the coffee every morning. Beatrice is also the fiancée of Jim the cameraman, who was among the crew sent to Iceland. WRQE are a cynical news organisation run, it would seem, by a particularly cynical Helen Mirren, whose character is only named The Boss. 'It's got to be somebody's fault', she says when Flight 167 crashes in the North Sea. On that plane is Beatrice, who managed to persuade The Boss to send her to Iceland, but by some sort of miracle she survives.

She has a weird mix of incredible luck and incredible bad luck, and bounces between these extremes. It takes her forever to get to the plane, for instance, because the way is blocked to her by circumstance wherever she goes: whether it be by terrorists, extreme activists or drug addicts. Yet she makes it through because of sheer luck, only to get dumped in the sea when the plane goes down. She's the sole survivor, but is paralysed and crippled and damaged to no small degree. The hospital in Iceland manages to fix her up through innovative surgery and six months later she's heading on out to find Jim, in the helpful company of Dr Anna for the beginning of the journey. Dr Anna is played by Julie Christie, another major name in this quirky film to play a small role.

It's a strange tale, with obvious similarities to the Beauty and the Beast myth, but with more angles than that to bring to bear. Beatrice is no dumb Beauty and the Monster is not your run of the mill misunderstood creature either. However they definitely change each other's perspectives on life and death and everything in between. Beatrice is blissfully free of the standard nonsense that plagues most of the rest of humankind, much closer to the true human spirit of raw honesty. The Monster is a lonely creature, not because he's shunned by the rest of the world but because he's the only one of his kind, everyone else pisses him off and he can't even kill himself to put himself out of his misery.

It's also not restricted to an insular mansion. Once Beatrice finally finds her way to the Monster's island, not quite how she expects either, she doesn't stay there. Instead of killing her or falling in love with her or all the usual expected outcomes, he explains that he wants to die. He needs her to to find a doctor called Artaud, a scientist who's as crazy as a loon, who can make it happen, but she refuses unless he comes with her. So off they jet to New York, where nothing goes remotely how they expect.

This is a highly touching film, though bizarrely it's the human connections that elicit the most response rather than those involving the Monster. Perhaps his situation is just too alien for us to really grasp. To me, it's most special in the way that Beatrice connects to everyone around her, as her sheer unrestrained humanity makes her as alien from most people in the film as the Monster is. The magic is in the way Dr Anna becomes utterly supportive, even though the story is free from the usual Hollywood sentimentality; it's in the way that the kids wait outside the hospital to witness their miracle; it's in the way that she floats through life dismissive and forgiving of anyone who wishes her harm.

It's amazingly well cast. Sarah Polley is simply perfect as Beatrice and Robert John Burke is amazing as the Monster. He is uncannily good at portraying emotion, even though he spends the entire film stuck under a large amount of makeup, very much up there with people like Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta or Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings, who thrived rather than suffered under similar hindrances. Neither Helen Mirren, Julie Christie or the many unknown and mostly Icelandic actors, steal the show, but what seems like everyone in the cast make their presence known.

It's also a very quotable film, written very cleverly and with the good fortune to have actors capable enough of delivering their lines with the right attitude behind them. Lines like 'She was spirited away by the ingenue', 'We'll call the network; they'll threaten someone' or 'Nobody's scared of me any more' seem like nothing written on the page here but are utterly appropriate in their context and delivered with panache so that they feel like genius. This is definitely a quirky film that people will happily quote around others who won't have the slightest idea what they're talking about. Oh, and we definitely need monsters.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Goth Cruise (2008)

Director: Jeanie Finlay

Most people spend their life trying to be just like everyone else, but I love those people who choose to be themselves, to find their true being or to just invent one. I've found that often the strangest people are the most tolerant and I simply adore the concept of addressing convention by simply being who you are where other people are. This film follows the fifth annual goth cruise, where 150 goths do precisely that by doing something ostensibly un-goth like going on a five day Caribbean cruise from New Jersey to Bermuda and back. Priceless.

Best of all, this is the 4th annual Goth Cruise. It isn't new, it's established and it obviously worked so well that it's continuing onward and upward. Beyond the 150 goths, there are 2,500 other folks, ostensibly normal people, who provide some great reactions to this bunch of freaks in their midst. There are preconceived notions, of course, but it's the double glances that really made me laugh, those and the odd comments and phrases here and there. 'Comfort the disturbed. Disturb the comfortable.' 'Rocky Horror is a gateway drug to having a social life.' 'We only wear black until they invent a darker colour.' All very cool, even if I've heard some of them before.

The worst part of the film is that there isn't more of this sort of thing. When it's there it's fascinating, when it isn't there it's notable by its absence. Luckily it returns big time towards the end of the film for a sort of costume party, though there's not enough time spent watching the reactions to Lobster dressed up as Satan, painted all red and wearing many horns; or especially to Storm, the six and half foot tall black crossdresser whose mother is a pentecostal pastor. The other approach that should have been more focused on is the fact that everyone here seems to have spent their time wanting to be away from where they were but somehow always end up back there.

The other downside here is that most of these 'goths' aren't goths, though that is acknowledged and there is an attempt to address just why it's the case. They're certainly other than the norm in some way, even though they're often the most stable and professional members of society and the film focuses on a variety of them. However none of them would seem to be true goths, most of which tend to keep tantalisingly wandering past in the background. The film focuses on a variety of them: a couple with a young son from Wrexham, a honeymooning couple from New Jersey, a single father from Oregon, a musician and writer called Voltaire.

What they are is a good question: there are fetishists, punks, crossdressers; most are extroverts, at least the ones we focus on, but then that has to come with the territory. There's no real attempt beyond a couple of lines spoken by some of these characters to address how these different subcultures can all coexist happily together in a confined space for a five day cruise. The points at which subcultures cross is fascinating territory but you'll have write your own commentary on that for this film.

This is a worthy documentary and I enjoyed the film, as did my wife and stepson, but it's very much a missed opportunity, perhaps a glimpse into something but not much more than a glimpse. I spent a lot of time wondering what the earlier goth cruises were like: were they full of real goths? I guess we'll never know.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Cherry 2000 (1987)

Director: Steve De Jarnatt
Stars: Melanie Griffith, David Andrews, Ben Johnson, Tim Thomerson and Brion James

Everything looks very romantic at the beginning of Cherry 2000, so romantic that it feels like a setup for soft porn. It's all pink light and female flesh, candles and red roses, steamy make out sessions in a kitchen flooded with bubbles. However Cherry, the young blonde lady in the equation, isn't a human being. She's a robot, albeit a very realistic one, and she malfunctions right there in the bubbles. Unfortunately the hardware is fried and apparently can't be repaired, though her memory chip is intact. Because owner/boyfriend Sam Treadwell is rather attached to his Cherry, he wants her back and heads out to do whatever it takes. His only option is to find a tracker called Johnson, working out of the Glory Hole Hotel, to head out into zone seven to find a replacement Cherry 2000 from the robot graveyard there to plug his Cherry's chip into.

Yes, this is the future, and it looks awesome. This film was made in 1987 and it's all glorious retro tech, even for then, mixed with a very intriguing take on futurism: some of is is notably ahead of its time, some of it is wildly fantastic or wildly wrong (civilisation falls when gas prices hit $2.11 a gallon?). The attention to detail is superb and everything is joyously analogue with not a drop of CGI to be found. Think Star Wars Episode IV not Episode III. The look and feel of the film is the primary appeal here, with lots of new wave fashion, huge industrial installations and post apocalyptic culture run amok.

The cast is impeccable, especially to those who follow cult cinema. There's Tim Thomerson as Lester, whose gang runs zone seven, thus making him a whacked out judge, jury and executioner. There's Brion James as a sneaky thug of a tracker called Stacy. Laurence Fishburne is a lawyer at a bar back in Anaheim. Johnson's uncle, a legendary tracker called Six Finger Jake, is no less a name than Ben Johnson. Fellow western legend Harry Carey Jr plays Snappy Tom who runs Last Chance Brothel and Gas. Unfortunately all these great character actors have far too little to do and are mostly there to support Melanie Griffith and David Andrews. Griffith is the tracker, Edith Johnson, and Andrews is Sam Treadwell, who reminds very much of Emilio Estevez in Repo Man, looking far too young for the part.

There are also a lot of innovative takes on social customs that are thrown out there like scattershot. I love environments that feature people with wildly disparate looks and the only thing better is when they live in highly individual expressions of their inner selves that feel like they're built out of salvage from the greatest junk in the world. I loved Las Vegas half buried in sand, the Last Chance Brothel and Gas, and the Glory Hole Hotel, a wild place. Yep, there's plenty to look at here and it's all good, right down to Melanie Griffith's bright red hair that looks like she scalped Molly Ringwald and made a wig out of her prize.

There's been some sort of war or breakdown in authority or something. the US has split up into areas that are supposedly civilised and areas that are pure anarchy. California is civilisation and the Nevada border is the wildlands. Las Vegas is deserted (except for basements full of inactivated robots) and half buried in sand. In California everything is either illegal and obtained entirely under the counter or negotiated beforehand with lawyers and contracts, right down to sex with strangers you meet in bars. And of course, people with money like Sam get to live with robots that substitute for humans in every way. In Nevada, everything's real, utterly real from the pain to the pleasure, from the best people to the worst. As Lester points out to his men, 'Remember gentlemen, life is adventure.'

The general approach of course is that in travelling into the wilds, the guy from civilisation finds that civilisation isn't really that civilised and he has to go all the way to this utter anarchy to find what being human is really all about, not just in his choice of women but in himself too. The difference is most obvious when he finds his Cherry 2000 who proves utterly useless in a gun battle in the ruins of a Las Vegas casino. 'Honey,' she says, 'I'd rather be watching this on television'. She's a ditz, the epitome of Californian plastic beauty with literally no brain.

All of this is really cool, but the logistics of how we get there don't make a heck of a lot of sense. There are lot of scenes that defy logic, emotion and reality, from the slew of missiles managing to completely miss a sitting target (a car lifted up into the air by a giant magnet), Sam's sudden transition into action star, the fact that dead robots keep breathing and a whole lot more. If you're looking for plot holes you're certainly going to find them. In fact you're going to find them even if you don't want to go looking for them. As a story, this film has huge promise but completely fails to deliver. However, somehow it's still a joy to watch: I guess that makes it a definitive guilty pleasure. Maybe it's because it looks so utterly cool. Unfortunately director Steve De Jarnatt only made one more film, Miracle Mile, before switching entirely to TV.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Pocketful of Miracles (1961)

Director: Frank Capra
Stars: Glenn Ford, Bette Davis, Hope Lange and Arthur O'Connell

This one was always going to be interesting. It's Frank Capra's last film, after a long career full of classics. Surprisingly it's a remake and even more surprisingly it's a remake of one of his own films: Lady for a Day, made 28 years earlier in 1933. Now remakes generally suck. After all if a story is watch watching again it's really worth watching first time round, and the originals are often so defining that anything copying becomes just that: a poor copy. Any remake of something as powerful as Lady for a Day would seem to be a pretty bad idea, given that May Robson and Warren William were the original stars. Who could Capra find to follow them in 1961?

And while you're thinking about it, realise that May Robson wasn't just good as Apple Annie, the old lady who sells lucky apples on the streets of New York, she was simply perfect. As Dave the Dude, the powerful gangster who has a superstition of always buying one of Annie's apples a day (and happily paying over the odds for it), Capra originally had Warren William in the part. Now, for those of you who don't know who Warren William was, he was the epitome of the precodes and the only actor to ever better a part that he played was Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.

Given that this was 1961, Bette Davis may have been the only actress who could have even attempted both halves of this character, which makes it a good job that Capra hired her for the part. She's pretty decent too, though there's a little too much makeup in play. It's certainly not her best role, and there isn't enough of her, but she's excellent. But Glenn Ford as Dave the Dude? That didn't sound like a good idea, though given that Glenn Ford was co-producing, even Capra himself didn't argue, even when he wanted his girlfriend Hope Lange cast as his on screen sweetheart, and he got the top credit too over Bette Davis!

To be fair, Ford does a pretty good job. He patently isn't Warren William, but then nobody was. He may not be great but he's better than I expected and he provides a decent point for the many joyous character actors in support roles to act around. Unfortunately he's also apparently the reason why Frank Capra retired from the movie business: they clashed on everything.

The story is pretty basic. Apple Annie is a lady of the streets: she lives in a run down basement, drunk on gin most of the time, and she's hardly a major name in any circle except the panhandlers of Brooklyn. However she has a daughter in Barcelona who thinks she's the rich and established Mrs E Worthington-Manville, because Annie has been sending her mail on purloined stationery from the Hotel Marberry and exaggerated everything she could to hide who she really is. She's even been sending her money, year after year, but everything's safe at such a distance. The problem comes when Louise, her daughter, replies to say that she's going to marry a Count and they're heading to New York to see her.

It's the support that does the best job here. Apple Annie and Dave the Dude are the pivots around everyone else acts and they're played by a lot of people who are more than happy to steal every scene they can. Peter Falk is great as a thirties style hood called Joyboy, Dave the Dude's right hand man. Mickey Shaughnessy as Junior, the Dude's dumb sidekick, is very reminiscent of the old days of Frank McHugh and Allen Jenkins. While they're playing thirties characters in the sixties, many of the rest were playing thirties characters in the thirties. Capra certainly assembled a gift of a cast. He even introduces Ann-Margret in her first role as Annie's daughter.

Edward Everett Horton may be the best of the bunch as an elderly but characterful butler, though as with the others he looks scarily old here given that I'm used to seeing him a couple of decades younger. Thomas Mitchell could be the biggest natural scene stealer the cinema ever saw, and here he's the judge and pool shark who Annie picks to be her 'husband'. There's Barton MacLane as a police commissioner, Jack Elam as a hood, John Litel as a police inspector. There's even Snub Pollard, proving that Capra certainly went back a way to select his actors. I just wish I could have found George E Stone. I'm pretty sure he's the blind panhandler but I never got the shot I wanted to clinch it.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

You, John Jones! (1943)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Stars: James Cagney, Ann Sothern and Margaret O'Brien

Having worked my way through most of the career of James Cagney, I was almost surprised to find this film that I hadn't even heard of. It's a short, a so-called wartime short because, well that's pretty obvious. When the US joined the war, Hollywood joined in too, with stars working war bond drives and directors making documentaries and shorts like these. This one's a pretty hard hitting one, to really highlight to Americans that while there may not seem to be much happening back home, that certainly wasn't the case elsewhere in the world.

Cagney is the John Jones of the title, of course, and he's an air raid warden, number 18787. He's obviously serious about his job but out on a blue alert, presumably some sort of practice run for the wardens, he talks to God and thanks him for the fact that it's not a real air raid. God responds and gives him a pretty vicious slice of reality to underline that while he may well mean what he says he doesn't really understand the true depth of the words he used.

So while there's no air raid happening in the US on John Jones's watch, meaning that his daughter is happy and safe at home, practising the Gettysburg Address for an elocution contest at school the next day, other children are not so lucky. God treats him to tableaux of other children in other countries fighting the same enemy, all in the image of his own, whether they be left screaming in bombed out houses in England, hobbling around with blown off feet in Greece, living in the gutter on thrown away melon in China and on out. God even brings in Lidice, completely missing the point but he did only have a few seconds to work with.

Of course the end comes when God points out that he's on John Jones's side, the side of the United States of America. While the film is only ten minutes long, it carries serious impact to the degree that it's only an hour later that obvious questions leap out like 'Why would God need to take sides when taking sides would imply involvement and if he was going to be involved then why didn't just use his omnipotency to win before atrocities like Lidice could take place?' Such dilemmas have plagued the theologians for years. Who'd have thought they'd plague Jimmy Cagney?

Friday, 16 January 2009

Downstairs (1932)

Director: Monta Bell
Stars: John Gilbert and Paul Lukas

Life at the von Burgen castle seems to be pretty happy, so much so that 'blissful' would appear to be a better word. We open with Albert and Anna getting married, a wedding thrown by the Baron and Baroness for their servants. Albert is their butler and head servant, his family has served succeeding barons for generations and the von Burgens are obviously very thankful. Anna also works for the family, serving the Baroness. Everyone seems to be happy and what's more everyone seems to trust everyone, the servants downstairs following a code and the family upstairs treating them well. Even the actors playing these characters are reliable names: Paul Lukas as Albert, Reginald Owen and Olga Baclanova as the Baron and Baroness, Virginia Bruce as Anna.

And into this bliss comes a new chauffeur, Karl Schneider, to turn everything upside down. He's played by John Gilbert and this is unmistakably his film, not just because he's the lead character and the catalyst for everything that happens but because he wrote the story too. While it's no spectacular success, none of it is bad but the strange thing is that this is 1932 and it's hard to see the motivations of the studio. Why would the biggest studio of them all, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, whose chief, Louis B Mayer, the most important man in Hollywood, was apparently bent on destroying Gilbert's career, allow him to star in a pretty decent film that he wrote? It doesn't add up but then there are a lot of contradictions in the John Gilbert story.

Gilbert was the most obvious casualty of the sound age and history hasn't treated him well, but now that we have the luxury of seeing these old films we can see how unfair that was. He was no small talent, taking over the heartthrob slot left vacant by the death of Rudolph Valentino and running with it, becoming one of the biggest names of the silent era and was commanding a quarter of a million dollars a film by the end of the twenties. Yet his last picture came as early as 1934 and two years after that he was dead, of a heart attack brought on by serious alcoholism.

Many stories have circulated with reasons for this massive decline, but the one that rings truest speaks to sabotage. Gilbert had almost married frequent co-star Greta Garbo but she left him standing at the altar and when Mayer made an unwelcome comment at that event Gilbert knocked him down, effectively committing career suicide in an era where everyone was stuck inside a contract. In return for such an affront Mayer had his stories sabotaged, his films re-edited and the pitch of his voice altered so that audiences would laugh when he spoke to young ladies of love. They laughed at him in His Glorious Night, which is rarely seen today except in the take on it in Singin' in the Rain. The more Gilbert films I see, the more I want to see this one.

By 1932 he was so desperate to have this film made that he sold his script to MGM for a single dollar and for some reason they let him make it. Maybe they felt that it would go precisely nowhere, given the circumstances. After all, it's a period piece set in an undisclosed European country at the height of the precode era when audiences were happy watching gangsters, gold diggers and prostitutes in the modern day. It also sees Gilbert playing very much against type: he's no great lover here, he's the slimeball that tries to screw everything he can out of everyone he can.

That he sounds fine and does a solid job, both as an actor and a writer, is hardly surprising, as I've seen a number of his sound films and fully realise that he was a talented man. Maybe this was just so much the wrong thing at the wrong time that it became simply another nail in his career coffin. He only had three more films in him, and even the superb Queen Christina couldn't reverse the decline. At least he got one thing out of this film: wife number four. His character may not have stolen away Virginia Bruce's in the film but they were married shortly after shooting wrapped, though the marriage only lasted two of the four years he had left.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The Dark Past (1948)

Remakes are just a curse of the modern era, they've been around as long as there have been films and sometimes it takes the passage of time to see where the differences and similarities in old time remakes worked and which didn't. This one appeared to be a gimme, given that it's a Rudolph Maté film starring William Holden, Nina Foch and Lee J Cobb, but then I saw the original, 1939's Blind Alley and I started having reservations. The 1939 version with Chester Morris, Ann Dvorak and Ralph Bellamy was really impressive, with both Morris and Bellamy excelling against type. I didn't doubt that Nina Foch was more than up to playing Dvorak's role, but what about Cobb and Holden?

What I found was that there's much here that improves on the original, but not all of it. The story is essentially the same: we have a professor of psychiatry (Dr Andrew Collins here instead of Dr Anthony Shelby) being held hostage in his own home by an escaped convict (Al Walker instead of Hal Wilson), one who has already killed a number of men. Walker is waiting for a boat which doesn't turn up and doesn't turn up, so keeps the Collins and his family and friends hostage while he waits. For his part, while the professor waits he psychoanalyses Walker and his dreams to find a way out of the situation alive.

The story is basically the same but it's hung better. Some scenes are staged better than the original and there are some better ones added tot he mix. There's a little more depth but mostly the success is in the linking. Scenes are linked together much better so that motivations are more believable and more consistent. There's also a framing story here that's new. This professor becomes a police psychiatrist and our story is one long flashback provided as an explanation to an arresting officer with a bandage on his head why he wants to help the eighteen year old delinquent who caused the need for the bandage.

The acting is where things fall down a little. Nina Foch is superb, which doesn't surprise me in the slightest, balancing care with suspicion and looking like a less iconic Marlene Dietrich. She always looked awesome in a trenchcoat. Lee J Cobb is decent as Dr Collins. Perhaps he's a little too serious at points but then at points he raises his voice in just the right manner and it makes it all right again. He does a good job but I can't say it's a better one than Bellamy did or not. I think sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.

As I suspected after seeing Blind Alley, William Holden is wrong for the part of Walker, though he's hobbled by a few unfortunate facts that are entirely not his fault. He doesn't look right, for a start: he's too young, as if he hasn't grown into his face yet. If this was his last film, that wouldn't be a problem, but this is William Holden with a memorable career ahead of him. He'd done his supporting slots and was progressing through the lead roles at this point in time. It would be two more years before Sunset Boulevard and the big time.

The language he has to work with isn't right either: it's 30s language full of screwballs and kitchen jockeys, which fits Chester Morris but not William Holden. The last fault is the only one that's really his: he's trying too hard, so that it's obvious that he's acting. Cobb and Foch are natural in their roles but Holden is just too conscious of what he's doing: he says the right things and moves the right moves but he's doing it as precision stuff rather than just rolling with it.

As a film, this has plenty that's better than the original but as a whole it doesn't match it. Maybe remakes worked the same way in decades past, things like The Maltese Falcon notwithstanding.

Time (2006)

Kim Ki-duk has one of the most interesting and distinctive voices in Korean cinema, though his work seems to be better received in the west. I've found him an intriguing filmmaker, even though it's pretty obvious to me that I'm not catching all the nuance and symbolism that he throws into his stories. That does't stop me coming back for more though. This one has to do with perception and identity and follows a young lady called Seh-hee, who given the circumstances of the film is played by two different actresses.

Initially she's played by Park Ji-yeon and she's the jealous girlfriend of Ji-woo. She's crazy about him (that word is used more than once) and is highly jealous of any attention other women may throw his way. There seems to be quite a lot of this because he obviously has charisma to spare, but whether this goes beyond basic chemistry is a question that isn't answerered. My impression is that Ji-woo isn't cheating with anyone at all but is happy to look at these lovely young ladies to appreciate the scenery, as after all he's a photographer by vocation who must look at the world with a photographer's eye.

However Seh-hee wants to do something about it. This sort of thing drives her nuts because she's seriously in love with him and wants him all to herself. So she gets abusive to women who look at him or talk to him and even persuades him to pretend that she's someone else in bed, anything so that he doesn't have to concentrate on what she calls her 'same boring face'. Of course her face isn't boring at all and it's pretty apparent that it's not him she's worried about but her own lack of self esteem making her think that he'll leave her for someone else.

So Seh-hee thinks back to an incident at the very beginning of the film, when she bumps into a lady leaving an 'aesthetic clinic' that carries a sign reading 'Do you want a new life?' She moves out of her apartment without providing a forwarding address, discontinues her phone service and becomes completely unfindable to Ji-woo. To all intents and purposes she's dropped off the face of the plant. Really she goes back to the clinic to get plastic surgery to become a new woman, then 'meets' and pursues Ji-woo from her new job as a waitress at the Room & Rumour cafe he frequents.

Quite what she wants to accomplish is a good question, because the chaotic emotional situations she finds herself in are hardly surprising. Does she really want Ji-woo to wait six months for her to come back from her self-imposed exile, but then fall in love with her all over again with her new face? How could she think anything with such mutually exclusive goals could all end up happily? Of course while most of the film isn't surprising in the slightest, Kim Ki-duk has more to say than just the obvious. There's a pretty vicious change of direction that is as surprising as it's completely appropriate, and once we get to that point we can't help but ask ourselves what he's leaving for the end: is this going to be a happy story or something disastrous?

The story is tight, the direction good and the cinematography excellent. Kim Ki-duk has a photographer's eye himself and his films are never free of some wonderful imagery. It's the acting that really carries this one though, because the two leads are both amazing. Ji-woo is played by Ha Jung-woo, who carries every aspect of a pretty deep role superbly. While Park Ji-Yeon is decent as the former Seh-heh, Seong Hyeon-a is even better as the new Seh-heh, or See-hee as she calls herself. I haven't seen Ha before but Seong is the young lady who impressed me hugely in a Korean horror film called Cello. This is my first chance to see her act in something else and she's even better here than there and more desirable to boot. Unfortunately if IMDb can be believed (and it can't always when it comes to foreign films) this seems to be her last film appearance to date. At least there are seven previous roles for me to track down though.

And as for all that obscure symbolism that Kim Ki-duk is renowned for, it's far less obscure here. Unlike something like The Bow, which is a cinematic painting that invites us to work out what it all means, or even Samaritan Girl which got pretty cryptic on occasion, this one's pretty straight forward. He even drops major hints about the theme, in dialogue or in the choice of karaoke song that Ji-woo selects at a party, a month after she's left: 'If time never stops running, can I forget you like a dream?' This isn't a forgettable movie; it's powerful and effective. It may even be my favourite Kim Ki-duk out of the four I've seen thus far, but somehow I'm still seeing The Bow in my mind's eye. That film is deeply resonant, and I doubt this one will resonate anywhere near as much, Seong Hyeon-a or not.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Mister Roberts (1955)

Now if a movie with names attached to it like those attached to this one went wrong it would end up as a disaster of scary proportions. The names here are huge names and there are a lot of them: Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon in a John Ford film. I don't want to know what those wage packets added up to! And yet it nearly went pear shaped: Ford left the production after getting into a fistfight with Fonda about how he should play the title character. As Fonda had originated the role on Broadway and played it for two years, he won out and Ford was replaced by Mervyn LeRoy, hardly a minor name himself.

All these stars live on a US Navy cargo ship called the Reluctant, though it's known more colloquially to the folks who serve on her as the Bucket. They're somewhere in the South Pacific towards the end of World War II and they've been at sea for a year, so tempers are getting frayed. That's not a good thing given that James Cagney is the captain, Capt Morton, and he's is a strict taskmaster and a contrary soul, putting people on report because they don't wear shirts on deck and pulling privileges because leave cigarette butts in the bucket that holds his palm tree. While he can certainly bluster and rant, he doesn't actually seem to do much else except piss people off.

And while he blusters and rants, the Mister Roberts of the title really runs the show. He's Lt Doug Roberts, in the capable hands of Henry Fonda, who is extraordinarily efficient running a cargo ship but who really just wants to get into the war, so writes continual letters requesting reassignment to an active combat role. The film starts off capably but slow and it's when the two of these men finally clash that it really sparks into action and laugh out loud comedy. Adding to the mix are Ford regular Ward Bond as Chief Petty Officer Dowdy, who helps to keep the peace; William Powell as the savvy but laid back ship's doctor; and not least Jack Lemmon as Ensign Frank Pulver who won an Oscar for his work.

Pulver is the officer in charge of laundry and morale but he spends most of his time staying his cabin, or at least keeping well away from the captain. He manages it pretty well too. As if the first real face off between Cagney and Fonda wasn't a gem of a scene that most films are dying for, it gets bolstered with another one right afterwards: Ensign Pulver running right into the captain who doesn't even recognise him. Morton asks him how long he's been on the ship and Pulver has to answer '14 months'. Apparently Cagney rehearsed with Lemmon at length so that he wouldn't crack up when it came time to shoot the scene for real and he only just kept his face straight. Not far away, Fonda obviously couldn't manage that much.

As a comedy this has some awesome moments but is no laugh a minute romp. It has its serious moments and plenty of them, especially in the how the title character's psychology is addressed, but it's definitely a serious film with a light heart. Everyone has fun with their roles, especially Cagney who gets more and more iconic as the film progresses. Fonda brings all the depth needed to his role, and the pair of them are a riot when locked up in a room together, playing off each other joyously. It's also a sentimental film all about camaraderie, devotion and loyalty, nicely played so that it's touching without ever becoming overdone.

Powell is excellent in what would turn out to be his last film, after debuting on screen 33 years earlier in 1922. This is hardly his most memorable performance but it's a worthy last bow and I enjoyed it immensely. While Jack Lemmon is excellent, his performance didn't scream out at me as an Oscar winner. He did a great job and it's certainly the most flamboyant role of the film, but I've enjoyed other flamboyant Jack Lemmon roles more. He has a knack of being memorable in anything he does and he's memorable here but he's been just as memorable, if not more so elsewhere. In fact I enjoyed Cagney and Ward Bond even more and I'll take Lemmon in other films like The Apartment any day.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Blind Alley (1939)

Sometimes it seems surprising that there are still films released in 1939 that I haven't seen. However it wasn't just Hollywood's greatest year in quality, it was a pretty prolific year too. And here's one that's pretty interesting for a couple of reasons: Chester Morris is playing a bad guy and Ralph Bellamy doesn't lose the girl. In fact Bellamy is already happily married from the beginning of the film, making this a pretty strange but welcome film. He's a college professor, Dr Anthony Shelby, who specialises in psychology and has a habit of psychoanalysing everything around him. Morris, however, is a gangster, killer and escaped convict called Hal Wilson.

The two meet at Shelby's house, which is on a lake. Wilson plans to hide out there for an hour or two until some partners in crime pick him up by boat. He's already taken three lives since breaking out of prison: two guards and the warden, who he first used as a hostage to get out. Now he has plenty more targets, because while he was just expecting the three Shelbys (the doctor, his wife and their young son), he finds instead a bunch more because they're having a party: a few friends and some help. Of course Wilson and his cohorts take everyone hostage and he kills a young student who arrives late, but the boat stubbornly doesn't arrive, so Shelby attempts to seize the advantage by psychoanalysing Wilson.

And here's where our story really lies. Sure, there are some little scenes here and there that build some background and sure, there are some other people in here that you may have heard of, not least Ann Dvorak, but the heart and soul of this film is in the interaction between Shelby and Wilson. Morris plays Wilson as a jittery and troubled soul, angry and frustrated, full of bad dreams and fear of the unknown. Shelby, to him, is infuriatingly calm, though he gradually finds respect for him as a belief grows on him that he's somehow stumbled onto the one person who can help him.

It's great to see Ralph Bellamy play something other than a Ralph Bellamy role, and indeed it won't spoil the film to say that it ends with him in his wife's arms. It's also great to see Chester Morris, one of the great pulp film heroes, as a bad guy. No, he wasn't the greatest actor that Hollywood ever saw but he was a solid and dependable actor who was always a joy to watch. The two of them work off each other well, with a decent story as the framework. This film doesn't feel like 1939 and that's a compliment.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Seven Days to Noon (1950)

Superintendent Folland of the Special Branch gets an interesting problem dumped into his lap one morning. What would appear at first glance to be a hoax letter has been posted to the Prime Minister at No 10, but it's not something that can safely be ignored. It's from Prof John Willingdon, a major scientist, a senior research fellow at a governnment research laboratory working on atomic weapons. He's apparently rather concerned about the use to which his work is being put, so much so that he steals a UR12 atomic bomb and through the letter threatens to detonate it in the middle of London in a week's time if the British government doesn't announce the end of its atomic weapons research programme.

Of course it isn't a hoax. Willingdon is deadly serious, as deadly serious as he is apparently mad, and Folland has a serious search on his hands. He also has a very tight seven days to find Willingdon, who in London is a very small needle in a very big haystack, but he does have some powerful resources to draw on: not just the support of the police and the armed forces and the full backing of the prime minister, but also more personal help from Steve Lane, Willingdon's assistant at the research lab at Wallingford.

When I first saw a brief synopsis for this film I expected a dry comedy, because it's an English film from the middle of the last century directed by the Boulting Brothers, Roy and John, makers of classic comedies like Carlton-Browne of the FO, I'm All Right Jack and Heavens Above! There is some dark humour here but it's no comedy, instead a highly effective thriller. It's underacted by the leads (especially Barry Jones as Willingdon and André Morell as Folland), presumably deliberately so in order to aid the tension and some memorable supporting performances by Joan Hickson and Olive Sloane.

And that tension is palpable as the search escalates and Willingdon, evades his pursuers, sometimes by luck and sometimes by judgement. He may be mad but he isn't stupid, and the near misses are more believable than any I've seen elsewhere. The story is very dry, and while there's much to appreciate from a cinematic standpoint, it's hardly a laugh a minute. There are no Hollywood heroics here, no great fight scenes, no stunts. It's dry and serious and thoughtful, driven by character and detail, and it's as thorough as the search it contains, performed by capable people who want to get do their jobs, do them right and get the hell out of there. Don't get me wrong: they're not perfect and some are more than happy to take advantage in a time of crisis, but they're utterly believable given the circumstances.

And all of this just adds to the sheer unadulterated tension. I watched this late at night which may not have been the greatest idea in the world as my body sorely wanted to fall asleep, aided no doubt by the sombre nature of the film and its accompanying score, especially as the endgame approaches and the lead characters are stuck waiting and hoping. my brain wouldn't let go and my eyes couldn't leave the screen. This is real edge of the seat, nail biting, hold your breath stuff, not punctuated by much at all: not a lot of relief or dry English wit, though I particularly liked the reply that Steve Lane, gives to the prime minister when asked what Willingdon's politics are: he says that generally they were to keep away from politicians.

There are a few details worthy of mention. Olive Sloane is astounding but Joan Hickson is excellent too, in a far smaller role. I first saw Hickson as Miss Marple on BBC TV, where she became in the eyes of many the truest Miss Marple of them all. It was obvious that she was a good actress, but only more recently have I started to realise just how good she was: every part I see her play seems to be very different from any other, yet still done very believably indeed.

Ronald Adam was doing an obvious Churchill impersonation as the Hon Arthur Lytton, the Prime Minister. Churchill had already served one term as PM, the most crucial term of all, during the Second World War, and he would return to the position in 1951, a year after this film. There's even a surprising use of the old Dragnet one liner: 'just the facts, ma'am, just the facts.' OK, it wasn't 'ma'am', but otherwise it was spot on and Dragnet didn't come along for another year. Given that this film got American exposure, to the degree of winning the Oscar for best screenplay, it would appear that Jack Webb stole that line from the Brits!

The Crowd (1928)

It's the 4th of July, 1900: America is 124 years old and young Johnny Sims is born. As a child of the century, Mr Sims wants his son to be somebody big and sets him on the path for success. Of course, the path is just the start and Johnny has to follow it himself, which he has every intentions of doing, being an earnest young thing. The defining line of the film comes when he's a 21 year old looking down from the top of a double decker bus at the people of New York City: he tells his date, 'Look at that crowd! The poor boobs... all in the same rut!' What he doesn't see is that he's already one of them.

One of the most acclaimed silent films of all time, I was underwhelmed when I saw this in 2005 and wanted to give it another shot. I think it was the story that did it, which seemed like a pretty basic runthrough of a couple's rise and fall compared to the obvious artistry that had gone into the film. 1928, right at the end of the silent era, was a great time for artistry in film and this one has some of the most quoted imagery of the era, including two masterpiece shots that were highly influential and often seen.

The first comes when Johnny is a kid and his father comes home on a stretcher, dead. The camera is static and positioned at the top of the stairs looking down at the bustle of official folks carrying the stretcher in. As they pass we see the emptiness of the stairway and the crowd at the bottom, then up comes young Johnny, slowly climbing the stairs, knowing the worst but hoping for something much better. It's an astounding shot that really leaves the heart in the mouth and the acting on the face of the young actor playing Johnny.

The second comes in New York City when he's 21 and working for a living. After wandering round New York for a little while to show us how big it is and how many people are teeming around it, the camera heads up the Atlas Insurance Company building from the bottom, angling in to one window, entering to show us a huge floor full of desks laid out at regular intervals and zooming in to the desk where Johnny Sims works. There is a cut between the outside and the inside, but this is 1928 and it's a superb shot nonetheless, created through imagination and artistry rather than reliance on CGI.

What's most surprising is that there is CGI here or the analogue technology that equated to it in 1928, which is pretty impressive. The best is some superimposition work that I presume involved reusing the same film with masks in different places. However it was done it looked very good indeed for 1928. Some people can't reach that quality today with all the digital tools that can be brought to bear. The camera also really moves around in this film in many different ways. Some of the more ambitious shots involved heading round New York on the top of a double decker bus or heading down a slide ahead of a foursome out on the town.

James Murray is solid as Johnny, but Eleanor Boardman is even better as his wife. She's present throughout here, as we progress through the years in scenes that represent defining moments. She's luminous on their honeymoon at Niagara Falls, forgiving during Christmas with Johnny disappointing the in laws, believable during a big fight in April and a making up in October, frustrated during a disastrous picnic at the beach five years on, griefstrick through the death of their daughter and on. Throughout all this she's the lynchpin as Johnny waits: for his big promotion, his pay raise, his ship to come in, all of which stubbornly refuse to actually turn up. It's a rollercoaster ride for them, but it's a pretty believable one.

The real name behind the success of the film is King Vidor though: it's definitely his film, it says something that he obviously very much wanted to say and it says it very definably. I'm a lot more impressed this time out than last. I can't call it a favourite and I'm not blown away but it's certainly a powerful piece of filmmaking that was certainly ahead of his time.

Battle Circus (1953)

From a Bogart I'd seen before to a Bogart I haven't, this 1952 film begins just like an episode of M*A*S*H, with a helicopter bringing in wounded to a Mobile Army Service Hospital not far from the action in the Korean war. It's only the fact that this is in black and white and there's Suicide is Painless to back it all up that tells me I'm not going to see Alan Alda and Harry Morgan any moment. Sure enough, it's Humphrey Bogart and Keenan Wynn instead, but the action is roughly the same, with just a little less comedy. In fact it was even going to be called MASH, but the director and studio both thought the title would be misleading to viewers. So it goes.

There's so much here that is reminiscent of what would come a couple of decades later that it's impossible that this wasn't treated as primary influence source material for the writers of MASH and M*A*S*H. The original book that MASH was based on was written by a Korean War veteran under a pseudonym. This film was written for the screen by professional scriptwriters, but it was made during the war itself so the material was fresh. From what I've read about the response to the film from people who were there in the field, they got it pretty accurate. The film certainly closes with a note that it was made with the cooperation of the Department of Defense and the US Army.

Bogart is Maj Jed Webbe, second in command of the MASH unit 8666 to Lt Col Walters. Webbe is a surgeon and a good one at that. He's capable enough to deal with the pressures of a hospital unit that has to work under far less than optimal conditions, with too many patients, too little equipment and a propensity to move at the drop of a hat. He's tough enough to keep working in surgery when prisoner enters the operating room with a hand grenade. He's also something of a wolf but not a one dimensional one.

In short, he's a believable character in a believable drama, even though much of the light relief is hung on something as potentially flimsy as a relationship between a major/surgeon and a lieutenant/nurse. The mix of serious and tough drama with comedy and light heartedness is why Bogart took the part in the first place, at a point in time where he could choose what he wanted, two films in from an Oscar win for The African Queen. It's also one of the key reasons why the film works, and for that matter why MASH and M*A*S*H worked too, decades later.

Those later versions are far better known, of course, but this came first, and it set the tone. I'm sure a lot of that tone comes from director and co-writer Richard Brooks, who was once a reporter in New York with Sam Fuller. He was never a prolific director (it took him 35 years to make 24 films) but those films included peaches like Blackboard Jungle, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and In Cold Blood. Like Fuller, he's one of those directors who I respect more and more with every one of their films I see. Unlike Fuller, he worked a lot more within the system, which got his work more widely seen but with less of an individual touch.

The nurse is Lt Ruth McGara, a good nurse but a rookie in the field who arrives in Korea without any conception of how to keep her head down. She's played by June Allyson and she does a very good job indeed. She's believable not just as a nurse, which many actresses could play well, but as a romantic interest for Bogie. It's well known that he didn't get along with a number of his leading ladies and that often shows on screen. He seems to have got on very well with Allyson because their scenes together just flow.

There are other people here too, though I don't recognise most of them. The colonel is Robert Keith, who finds the right balance of tough and fair. Needless to say he gets injured and Bogie has to take over. My favourite character is the ever ingenious Sgt Orvil Statt, a former Barnum & Bailey worker who runs the slick process of pulling the unit down and bringing it back up somewhere else, is Keenan Wynn. He gets a lot of scenes, though is rarely a focus of them, and he shines throughout. He's solid as both the tough sergeant and the tender heart who takes special care of a young Korean boy who dies for a few seconds on the operating table. I've always been a fan of Keenan Wynn and this is an early but very memorable performance.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Swing Your Lady (1938)

Humphrey Bogart looks chipper when he bounces out of the car and into the hotel in Mussel City, MO. Frank McHugh, Allen Jenkins and Nat Pendleton don't look too happy though, following on behind, and Bogie was hiding plenty. He saw this as the worst film he ever made, which it isn't (watch The Return of Doctor X for something notably worse), but it's the least Bogart of all the Bogart films I've seen, and I'm most of the way through them. It may not be a casting disaster on the scale of John Wayne as Genghis Khan or Kate Hepburn as Mary, Queen of Scots but it's certainly not one of the department's proudest moments. While the role of Ed Hatch really should have been played by someone like Lee Tracy, there's a far better candidate than Bogart in the same film: Frank McHugh would have done a much better job.

I'm pretty sure Bogie knew that too and was cursing every line he had to say. It wouldn't surprise me if they put an extra camera behind him so that if he hated it too much they could show the other view instead and forget about take 27. Lines like 'Joe Skopopolous, the ponderous pachyderm of grunt and groan, the Wrestling Hercules, is the next heavyweight champion of the world,' are bad enough, but the ultimate embarrassing Bogart moment of all time is when he gets pinned to the ground by Louise Fazenda who won't let him up until he says, 'Hootie Owl'. He probably spent the rest of his life clocking anyone who muttered those words in his presence.

Anyway, Ed Hatch is a promoter and Joe 'Hercules' Skopapoulos is the wrestler he's promoting throughout the little towns of Missouri. He ends up looking for an opponent in Plunkett City, population 749, most of whom seem to be sat on the porch outside the hardware store playing hillbilly music. And this is hillbilly music like you haven't seen on film before. It's so down home they don't even have duelling banjos, they have duelling saw players, along with every other strange instrument you can think of that could remotely join in a hillbilly song without it sounding like it should be on the Dr Demento show. Then again, with the unique instruments, fiddlers fiddling their beards and songs like Hillbilly from 10th Avenue, maybe they should.

Of course the opponent he finds isn't quite the opponent he expects. This one's a blacksmith, but she's also a girl called Sadie Horn. He discovers her by accident when his car gets stuck in a mudhole and she lifts it out without any help and realises he's been gifted with a spectacle. While he hides the choice of opponent from Joe, because he's a dumb cluck who can't understand words when they're spelled out aloud and he's liable to do something stupid, Joe has already met Sadie and he's already fallen for her too, one night when he takes refuge from the rain inside her blacksmith's forge.

She's a big girl, admittedly, one played by veteran actress Louise Fazenda, and she steals the whole show here. She had a habit of doing that, as far back as 1913 when she was playing in slapstick comedies, one reel westerns and even things like Poor Jake's Demise with Lon Chaney, which I'm going to have to search out now that it's no longer lost. Watching her be the prize in a wrestling match between Nat Pendleton in full on dumb mode and a wild hillbilly played by Daniel Boone Savage may seem like a bizarre situation to us, but probably not to her given her long and varied career. She has a ball with the hillbilly dialect, throwing out epithets like 'well, shuck my corn', 'chisel my tombstone' and 'I'll snatch you bald headed' seemingly at least twice per line of dialogue.

Make no mistake, this is not a good film. It's a cheap piece of exploitation garbage aimed firmly at the hillbilly market, based on a play (featuring Frank McHugh's brother, among others) but with breaks for old time country good time songs and associated shenanigans, and a guest spot as Ed Hatch's dumb girlfriend for Penny Singleton, who is fine really in her singing and dancing though she's as out of place in this film as Bogie is. It's a jigsaw box with a collection of jigsaw pieces from different jigsaws with different pictures on them, and no matter how you work it the pieces aren't going to fit with each other. This even continued to the screening: who could have honestly thought this would work as the other half of a double bill with Boris Karloff's The Invisible Menace?

What saves it from being completely worthless is the fact that it has an enviable cast who know it's nonsense, and with the exception of Bogart, have fun with it. Fazenda is wonderful, but Frank McHugh is fun too. Allen Jenkins doesn't have enough to do. Nat Pendleton played every level of dumb in his long career, but this one went a little too over the top. He does get to show his wrestling chops, which are admirable but hardly surprising since he was an Olympic silver medal winner. Penny Singleton is still annoying but a little less so than she was last time I saw this film in 2005. It made enough of an impact on me then as a unique bit of film that I wrote about it here: http://www.dawtrina.com/personal/film/reviews/swing.html. This time out it still has impact, admittedly for all the wrong reasons, so I wrote about it again.

The Blot (1921)

Written and directed by Lois Weber, this film proudly proclaims early on. Yes, Lois Weber was female, making this a film of significant historical value even if it doesn't turn out to be any good. Hollywood was a boys club for decades, if it isn't still, and it's a rare woman who broke through the door to make movies herself. In fact she was very possibly the first to direct a full length feature, The Merchant of Venice, in 1914. Weber, who also wrote, produced and acted in a long list of films dating back to 1911, is mostly unknown today because few of her films have survived, yet in 1920 signed a contract with Paramount that made the most highly paid director in Hollywood. Note: that's 'director', not 'woman director'.

And it's not an uninteresting film, even were it made by someone less interesting than Lois Weber. It's a social study, a little preachy in nature, that looks at a perceived imbalance between income and class, as highlighted by a couple of families who live next to each other. On one side are the Griggs, led by Andrew Theodore Griggs, a college professor of long and distinguished service who makes so little money that his family are barely getting by. On the other are the Olsens, led by Hans Olsen is a cobbler. OK, he makes high priced shoes for a high priced clientele and they make the Olsens a lot of money, but they're still shoes.

This leads to a combination of 1920s attitudes that would seem surprising today: Mrs Griggs looks down on the Olsens because of their profession and woudn't stoop low enough to socialise with them, but she apparently has no problem stooping so low as to scavenge from their garbage in order to feed her cats. In return, Mrs Olsen looks down on the stuck up Mrs Griggs because she's poor and has outdated notions of importance. The drama that writer/director Lois Weber weaves is full of such 1920s attitudes, making this film a fascinating historical artifact and in its way as alien as anything seen on Star Trek.

There's also a romance involved, in fact a complex web of romance. Prof Griggs has a lovely daughter by the name of Amelia, who works at the public library and is much admired by a number of young men: Peter Olsen, the neighbour's son; the local priest, the Revd Gates, who is also poor; and Phil West, a rich student of her father's who also happens to be the son of the wealthiest of the college trustees. And while West chases after Amelia, Juanita Claredon chases after him. Of course, class never leaves the picture: even West isn't immune, because however rich he is, Grandma Griggs still looks down on his habits of smoking while conversing and not removing his hat.

Even had I not known that The Blot was written, produced and directed by a woman, it would have been impossible to miss the woman's touch that runs throughout. The entire thing is driven by characterisation, with most of those characters being women, who drive much of the film. Mrs Griggs gets an especially huge amount of screen time, tortured by the fact that her neighbours have so much but need so little and the additional unspoken caveat that they don't deserve it as much as her own family because the Olsens are lower class. There's also a pivotal scene revolving around the temptation she feels to steal a chicken from out of the Olsen's window, which sets up a good deal of the plot from then on. The sheer presence of so much of Mrs Griggs, let alone the other women focused on throughout, suggests a woman's hand is at work, though to label it simply a women's picture would be highly unfair.

There's also a highly utopian outlook that would lean towards a feminine touch. Weber has a real point to get across and she makes absolutely sure that it can't be missed, though if truth be told, it could have been a lot more preachy. She then weaves a drama around how she addresses that point and carefully knits all the various subplots together neatly. My only real complaint is how perfectly it knits. The last ten minutes doesn't just see the salary of Prof Griggs addressed, which is optimistic on its own, but the leading man also gets the girl and all his challengers seem at least decent at losing out; the leading girl gets well and happy; the students who don't bother to work get an successful education; and all these people who don't like other people for reasons of class or income suddenly get on fine. In fact it all ends up so happy that it's almost surprising not to find cats sleeping with dogs and the whole Depression fixed in a jiffy.

This is a powerful film though, regardless of its faults and totally regardless of the sex of the person who made it. I'm still in two minds as to whether the message is overdone or not, but it's certainly an effective drama full of detail and nuance and it really stands out over other films I've seen from this era. While it certainly doesn't carry the sheer genius of something like The Kid, it has more depth of character than anything else I've seen that's comparable. In fact that puts it in a slightly strange position: some of the critics of the time didn't appreciate that detail and wished that all that pointless exploration of the minor characters would just vanish, something that seems strange today: it's this very attempt at an appropriately fleshed out story that doesn't just focus on a couple of leads that makes it so interesting. Yet it's a silent film with silent film acting styles, maybe more realistic than was usual but still very melodramatic, making it seem dated to the average viewer today, as dated as Mrs Griggs's horror at buying something on credit. It's sad that this means that it'll only find an audience among silent film afficionados.

Beyond the story, there's also some solid cinematic imagination in play, such as a transition between a pencil drawing of the head of Amelia Griggs and the real thing, in the same exact profile. One title card is shown with a corner cut out to show a scene containing the character it refers to. The various plot triggers are handled very nicely indeed, often with subtle impact, like the youngest Olsen playing in the mud with a pair of shoes that would have fed the neighbours for a month. Either the Olsens don't realise the full value of Hans's products or they simply don't care. There's much to set up comparisons in our minds, subtlety that's as surprising as it is welcome.

While Lois Weber may be mostly forgotten today, that can't be said for the leading actor. That isn't Prof Griggs, who really has very little to do, it's Phil West, played by a 26 year old Louis Calhern. Calhern, while never a huge star, was instantly recognisable to a couple of generations for a long and distinguished string of high profile performances, playing opposite everyone from the Marx Brothers to Marlon Brando. This film is ten years older than anything else I've seen him in, making him seem unbelievably young. He always looked so old and distinguished that it's surprising to suddenly realise that he was once a young man.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Sonny Boy (1989)

Director: Robert Martin Carroll
Stars: David Carradine, Paul L Smith, Brad Dourif and Michael Griffin

Here's another movie I remember from years gone by, from its screening on BBC's Moviedrome, courtesy of the always fascinating Alex Cox. However it's also another film that I haven't seen since, so have happily raved about it to people without ever having the opportunity to show it to them. Finally it crops up on TCM Underground, which is a fair place for it, being a rather strange cult film. It doesn't hurt to have three cult figures in the main roles: David Carradine, Paul L Smith and Brad Dourif, along with a newcomer in the title role, Michael Boston, going under the name of Michael Griffin. It certainly doesn't hurt to have it so quirky that Carradine plays Smith's 'wife'.

It's 1970 and we're in Harmony, a small New Mexico town on the Californian and Mexican borders, and Dourif's character is aptly named Weasel. He's a small time thug who kills a man checking into a hotel and steals his car, so as to pass it over to Slue to dispose of. Slue is the local kingpin, who effectively runs the town and the cops who work it, though he's hardly your regular sort of kingpin. He's played by Paul L Smith, so is a huge bulk of a man who has no restraint and no pity, and has no hesitation to take out anyone who opposes him, not least a newbie cop who comes around asking questions and who ends up on the wrong end of a cannon.

Slue lives in a farmhouse out in the desert with his 'wife' Pearl where he raises hogs, paints surreal art and, well, blows things up with his cannon, when not busy running all the local crime. Pearl, in the most bizarre casting of the film, is played by David Carradine, who obviously had a major input into the film given that beyond his highly unconventional role he also sings the theme tune. What's most amazing is that there's absolutely no mention given to why a male actor, let alone a famous male actor, is playing a woman, or even if Pearl is supposed to be a woman or a transvestite. It is simply not deemed worthy of mention because the questions are the answers.

And with Weasel's delivery of a stolen car, the family becomes three. Completely unbeknownst to Weasel, there's a little baby in the back of the car. Pearl demands to keep him but loses the fight for dominance soon enough and Slue gets to do what he wants with the boy. That means cutting out his tongue out on his sixth birthday and keeping him chained up inside a water tower, where he feeds him live chickens and effectively trains him to be his human attack dog. Eventually Sonny Boy escapes and turns the whole town upside down in more ways than one.

All told this is a pretty amazing piece of cinema. It certainly isn't like anything you've seen before, even if it doesn't quite stand up to my memory of it. There are certainly flaws and consistency errors that I doubt I noticed first time around, but it remains a highly powerful film, aided rather than hindered by some powerful overacting and a rather melodramatic soundtrack. This all makes it a brutally honest film, with characters so extrapolated that it's impossible to avoid what they mean.

There are many films that cover the same basic ground but not one of them is remotely this honest. Look at something like Road House as a good Hollywood equivalent. This is the same story, but it has raw violence instead of kung fu action scenes, a couple of bikers screwing in a dump of a hideout instead of Patrick Swayze's butt, beat up cars instead of monster trucks and of course David Carradine in drag instead of blonde bimbos. There are no cocaine parties and there's no Jeff Healey Band. Instead there's Paul L Smith as a huge, callous and tough as nails bad guy and Carradine as his wife. Both are excellent, as are Dourif as the sleazy Weasel and Sydney Lassick as another collaborator without any real allegiance.

In a very unique way, the film speaks to evil and what it can achieve when people look the other way. The key line here belongs to a drunken town doctor who comments on the town's complaints after Sonny Boy gets loose. He says, 'You're the monsters. You let it happen. Now you'll have to pay the price.' It also speaks to the power of humanity, suggesting that even under the worst circumstances a child could be brought up under, they're still a human being with an innate and underlying sense of humanity. Michael Griffin is superb in his debut, looking precisely right as a dangerous but pitiful abused boy.

What's most important is that it speaks: you watch Road House (and many other more traditionally classic films with the same concept) for the ride, you watch this because it's way out there but you leave with the message. Possibly the best comparison in style is Lars von Trier's Dogville, which achieves the same end by avoiding the standard approach: it exposes small town evil by deliberately removing almost everything from the set and relying on the story and the acting to get its story across. Sonny Boy does it through a refusal to pander to any traditional Hollywood concepts and by extrapolating everything until you can't ignore it.

This also falls into a happily decreasing category of film: those that have a small but dedicated audience who are vocal about not being able to watch them because they're not commercially available. You can tell these by reading the comments section at IMDb and noting the preponderance of 'how can I see this film?' posts. There are probably a bunch of these out there, but in order to find them you have to know about them and the problem is that by definition not many people know about them.

I've not posted anything at IMDb about it myself, but I'm one of these people, having raved about it to many over the years, and it seems that it's getting harder and harder to find. It would certainly seem that the only print available to TCM was a VHS tape because it was shown in a pretty poor transfer without the proper aspect ratio, missing a lot of film on either side of the screen and confusing a few scenes when the person talking has been cut out of the frame. Normally I wouldn't want to watch something in this sort of format but there's not really much of a choice, is there?

Until someone can arrange for a decent official release, which may of course never happen, the film lives on by word of mouth and illegal filesharing, whether that be via peer to peer or selling DVD-Rs on eBay. Sixty years ago this would quickly become a lost film, which is scary to think about, given that the current push on copyright would help that rather than hinder it. It's also scary to think about what films were made back then that are lost and forgotten now. Nowadays it's the sort of film that will reappear after an article sparks awareness and the copyright owners find out that they don't have a copy, so appeal to the public with a copyright infringement waiver if only they'll make their illegal copy available to restore. Here's to hoping that won't be needed here.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Dead and Deader (2006)

So I noticed that there's a new channel available on my Cox digital cable called Chiller, that shows a bunch of horror TV shows and a bunch of modern movies I haven't seen. The movies mostly look as fascinating as they do awful: of the 24 movies they're showing in January, no less than three of them are in the bottom 100 at IMDb, but they also include John Schlesinger's The Believers, along with films featuring what seems like half the cast of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Charisma Carpenter, Julie Benz and Armin Shimerman, plus other TV names (and former TV names) like John de Lancie, Bruce Boxleitner, Renee O'Connor, Yancy Butler and Dean Cain. More importantly, there are also names I pay serious attention to: John Billingsley and Jeffrey Combs.

This one combines all three categories: starring Dean Cain but also featuring John Billingsley and Armin Shimerman. Unfortunately there's nowhere enough of either, because we concentrate far more on Dean Cain, who spends half the film dressed like Don Johnson, Guy Torry as a wisecracking black cook entirely there for comic relief and TV soap girl Susan Ward as a tough film geek bartender girl. If you're expecting anything remotely serious, you're definitely looking at the wrong movie.

We begin in Cambodia where a US army special forces unit heads in to a 'humanitarian medical relief' hut that broke off communication two days earlier, only to find it full of zombies and scorpions. Soon they're all toast and Lt Robert Quinn comes home in a body bag. The catch is that he wakes up back at Fort Preston, CA right as the coroner begins his autopsy. He has no vital signs, heightened strength, enhanced senses, an ability to heal in no time flat and a thirst for red meat. Yep, he's a zombie.

However, while he certainly appears to be dead he isn't completely zombified, unlike his fellow soldiers who are full on eat people's throats out zombies, probably because unlike them, he cut the scorpion out of his arm and smashed it with a board. So Dean Cain gets to kick lots of ass, the military police get to not believe a word he says and he gets to escape with the black cook to fill up the last hour of the film with virus blocking, ass kicking, zombie killing comedy.

This is not a good movie, make no mistake about it. In fact it's a terrible movie.. However it knows full well that it's a terrible movie and runs with it. In fact it's a fine ride and is a peach of a candidate for a late night beer session. Definitely the more the merrier, and I mean beer as well as drinkers. In fact it would probably get better with each viewing, because of the amazingly high quotability factor, with a room full of drunkards laughing their asses off at all the pop culture references. There are many of them, some are funny and many require a large alcohol intake to avoid being painful.

This is definitely a film that wants to be hip, from the wise cracking black sidekick picking a Thriller era Michael Jackson jacket as a disguise to a mortuary attendant who embalms corpses to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath's You Sold My Soul to Rock 'n' Roll. And you just can't go wrong with a midget zombie castrating a redneck with his teeth. Watch it for any other reason other than late night drunken fun and you're not likely to find it much good at all. You may not throw up your hands in disgust (but you might), but you're certainly not going to rave about it to anyone.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Sanshiro Sugata II (1945)

We've moved on to 1887 in Yokohama and all the propaganda that wasn't in the first film is present in the first five minutes of the sequel. A young rickshaw driver is a little overeager in speeding his fare into town and that fare takes it personally. Because that fare is an American sailor, he's petty and cruel and so starts beating the rickshaw driver, at least until he's stopped by our hero, Sanshiro Sugata, and thrown into the sea. Sugata is now something of a celebrity, having beaten Hansuke Murai in the demonstration match we saw in the first film. There's even a song that children sing about him, and this latest exploit just brings him even more celebrity.

You see, the Americans are all over the place and a noted American boxer wants to fight a ju jitsu wrestler at the American Embassy, with Sugata being asked to fill that spot. He declines, because he doesn't want to fight for entertainment. He turns up to watch though, to see what boxing actually looks like, and in this film it's a disgusting spectacle with brutal fighters destroying each other for the enjoyment of bloodthirsty savages watching. It doesn't even bear mentioning in the same breath as the sacred martial arts of Japan. Yes, this is a powerful and not particularly subtle piece of propaganda, but then it was 1945 and the Americans were the enemy.

This film surprised me and not just because of the blatant propaganda. While the first film was full of little Kurosawa touches, this one just doesn't feel like his work, even though he wrote and directed and it's nicely done. The first Sanshiro Sugata film was set mostly outdoors with frequent use of clouds and wind, transition effects including wipes and a fluid camera that impressed with its motion. There were also a couple of very nice symbolic scenes to signify passage of time and comparative mental states. Here all of those elements I mentioned are notably absent. Almost everything is indoors with no connection to nature, there are no wipes or symbolic transitions and the camera hardly moves. When it does venture outdoors, such as for the final fight in the snow, it pales in comparison with its equivalent fight in the field in the first film.

However just because it doesn't stylistically match the original doesn't mean it isn't worth anything. The story is much clearer and better defined, while still leaving certain deliberate ambiguities, and it's a much smoother ride. Susumu Fujita is one of many actors who returned to reprise their roles (such as Deniiro Okochi as Sugata's sensei Shogoro Yano, Yukiko Todoroki as his girlfriend Sayo, and Ryunosuke Tsukigata in a double role), and it's much easier to get into his characterisations here. Sugata is a much stronger person, still troubled but much more human. The fights are better, with the exception of the final one which is terribly staged and quickly becomes pantomime.

There are also a couple of memorable villains, who feel like they should be in a colour exploitation film from the seventies, especially the androgynous and insane Genzaburo Higaki, played by the Akitake Kono. He was in the first film, playing a different character, but he looked very different. He has a presence to him here that seems very familiar, even though I don't remember his parts in Sansho the Bailiff and one of the Zatoichi movies. I'll be watching out for him in the future though, and because he seems so appropriate for horror, I think I'll have to seek out The Temptress and the Monk. His last appearance was in a Crimson Bat movie in 1969. I wonder why he didn't continue longer. IMDb doesn't carry birth or death dates but I would assume deliberate retirement or early death.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Them! (1954)

The state police are looking for something out in the deserts of New Mexico when they find a little girl walking out of the desert in utter shock. They find her trailer just up the road mysteriously torn to pieces from the inside out and as the medics turn up they hear weird noises. They head over to the general store to see if the proprietor knew anything and find that torn up too, along with its owner. They can safely rule out robbery because money was left at both locations, but given that the only thing taken seems to be sugar, what do they rule in?

Well, this was 1954 and world cinema was beginning to pay attention to the fact that it was the atomic age. This one came out in June, five months before the granddaddy of all atomic age monster movies, Gojira, making it something of an original. Of course, as any classic movie monster buff knows, this one doesn't have a giant monster lizard, it has a whole bunch of giant monster ants. What's hard to really get to grips with is that in 1954 everyone knew that there were atomic tests going on in the deserts of the southwestern US, but nobody knew that things like this weren't going to be the results of those tests.

This one took advantage of that knowledge. It's set right in the location where the first atomic bomb was exploded, the Trinity test at what is now the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. That was in July 1945, a few weeks before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, thus providing only nine years for the residual radiation to die down. Even now, sixty years afterwards, that's ten times more the normal. I don't know what it was in 1954 but I'm sure it was pretty high. And that's about all that your average American knew at the time. No wonder this film scared so many.

It doesn't hurt that this is an archetype: it has everything you could expect from a monster movie. There's a giant mutated menace that doesn't get too much screen time and doesn't get shown right off the bat. There are capable local cops who are out of their depth plus an FBI agent specially flown in. There are a couple of scientists: one elder man with an eccentric personality and his beautiful daughter. There's plenty of science, some politics and even a dab of religion too. We get a little film presentation by the scientist that ends with dire threats about the extinction of the human race. We even get two separate trips into giant ant nests, one with flamethrowers and the other with the army.

What we get that we don't expect from a monster movie is a bunch of decent acting, but the names here aren't your average B movie regulars. James Arness, who seems to have spent most of the film standing in trenches, did make something of an impact as the title role in The Thing from Another World, but was far better known for his westerns, including a very long run as Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. Dr Harold Medford is played by Edmund Gwenn, who had won an Oscar six years earlier for playing Father Christmas in The Miracle on 34th Street.

His daughter is played by Joan Weldon, who was a little disappointed that her beautiful scientist role wouldn't get a romance but that's another of the plus points here. She brings the glamour but she's no dumb blonde. She's there to be a scientist because the ants are the stars. There are also name like Fess Parker and even Leonard Nimoy, who both like Arness would soon become famous on TV. All these talents lend a credence to the story, which started out high up on the ranks of monster movies because there weren't many but remains there sixty years later when there are far too many. It doesn't hold up quite as well as I remembered it from years ago but it's still effective today.

Sanshiro Sugata (1943)

The biggest problem I have with traditional martial arts films is that the whole basic concept of whether this style is better than that style is completely pointless. If it was truly that simple then everyone would have forgotten about every style other than the best one and there would be no more martial arts films. In this 1943 Japanese film, we're watching judo rather than kung fu but we're mostly watching the same old story: one style against another, one school constantly challenging another school, that constant struggle to prove superiority over someone else, when there are so many other factors in play.

In keeping with that theme of purity, the usual revenge story fades in the background here behind a theme of personal discovery, though this is kept reasonably vague as such things go and happens pretty quickly, possibly because this was a wartime film and while it was deemed a safe subject, that doesn't mean that other elements would have made it in from the source novel by Tsuneo Tomita had it been made at any other time. There are a five subsequent versions of the story, and the last three are based directly on the book rather than this screenplay. I wonder how much they differed from this version.

The title character, Sanshiro Sugata, is apparently some sort of hoodlum at the beginning of the film, but really that just translates to him being unfocused. He comes to the city to learn ju jitsu but falls in with the thugs of Shimmei School, and on night one he witnesses one master, Shogoro Yano, of the Shudokan School, dispose of them all into the river, one at a time. So he decides to study under Yano and learn the form of ju jitsu that he practises, called judo. In doing so, he finds that he learns just as much about himself, finding calm and focus in the gentle way or way of softness. There's also a mild romance thrown in there too.

It's a period piece, set in 1882, and the martial art of choice is judo, so it all looks a little strange, something aided by the fact that it's directed by no less a filmmaker than Akira Kurosawa. This was his first film as a solo director after a few years of second unit work for others, so nobody associated him with samurai at this point. However the fight scenes, especially early on, are often highly reminiscent of much later samurai battles. The problem is that judo doesn't look violent enough, and I say that as a former student of judo myself, because the moves are all based around holds and throws rather than strikes. There are no weapons to flail around or slash with and no hitting or punching at all, removing all possibility of a punch of death or some such device. Yet we have matches to the death to deal with.

Kurosawa's name resonates through this film. While there's much in common with later samurai films it doesn't feel like a standard martial arts film of the kung fu or karate varieties. One of the key reasons may be because while this is no masterpiece, Kurosawa had already developed an eye for visuals, hardly surprising given that he was a trained painter who storyboards his films as large paintings. There are many shots here that would have appeared ambitious for a first time director, such as the opening point of view tracking shot, or which presage later work. He would return for a sequel, Sanshiro Sugata II, two years later.

The man playing the lead role would also return for the sequel. He's Susumu Fujita and he'd become a Kurosawa regular, making nine films for him across the two decades to High and Low in 1963. I've seen him a few times without recognising him, which is surprising as he so often looked just like a Japanese Glenn Ford in this film. I did recognise another Kurosawa regular though: Takashi Shimura, who made more films for Kurosawa than even Toshiro Mifune. None of the actors really get to do much though, which is a little disappointing.

The Return of a Man Called Horse (1976)

A Man Called Horse was something of a triumph for Richard Harris in 1970, so the only surprise here is how long it took him to make a sequel. Six years later he returns as the man named Horse: Lord John Morgan back in England but Shunkawakan to the Yellow Hand tribe, a branch of the Sioux. He had originally travelled to the wild west on a hunting expedition to find himself. He did find himself, though not in any way he would ever have dreamed of: his party killed, himself enslaved by the Sioux as a beast of burden, then becoming Sioux himself.

This film opens with a brief synopsis of the last, adding that after five years of 'fulfillment in their tribal and spiritual life' he then took that fulfillment back to England only to find that the spirit he'd found was lost. He spends three years in England, obviously now out of place and yearning for his previous life across the pond, and finally gives in to what must have been painfully obvious all along: to go back to the Yellow Hands. Unfortunately by the time he gets there, they've been attacked and driven from their sacred land by a man called Zenas who runs a trading post. Most were killed, some enslaved by the Rickaree trappers, the rest hide out waiting for the great evil spirit to free them.

So it falls to the man called Horse to get them back onto what he sees as the right path and fight to get their sacred land back, which means a new spirit vision and a new Vow to the Sun ceremony, though, like the film, it's a pale imitation of its predecessor. In fact that may be a little unfair. It really isn't an imitation at all: it's a different film with a different tone and telling a different sort of story, only a sequel in name and recurring use of characters. And in fact this becomes really telling, because of how and why the director did what he did and what the consequences of those decisions were.

The director is Irvin Kershner, a capable director, who had made films as far back as the impressive Stakeout on Dope Street in 1958. What he did here, to my eyes, was to make a compromised film. It certainly doesn't tell a story as bleak, impactful and uncompromising as A Man Called Horse. Most of that film was entirely Sioux, with mostly authentic actors, dialogue, language and culture. Harris was naked for a good part of it and went through obvious hardship in making the film, naturally not so much as his character but some nonetheless.

By comparison this one felt comfortable, with many concessions to Hollywood. The tough scenes are not as tough, the use of the Sioux language is subtitled and much of the dialogue is in English, even though it shouldn't be. Far fewer of the actors look authentic, though Gale Sondergaard is surprisingly effective. Not least, the story isn't simply a voyage of personal discovery but something far closer to a Hollywood western. Yet George Lucas, whom Kershner had taught in film school, was knocked out by it. He saw it as superior to the original and on that basis hired Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back. When Kershner later asked him about his choice, he said this: 'Well, because you know everything a Hollywood director is supposed to know, but you're not Hollywood.'

Now I like Kershner and I like the way he had a talent for instilling the basic essence of humanity into so many of his scenes, but these are telling comparisons. A Man Called Horse carried an impact, through its blistering honesty and lack of moral judgement and felt like a piece of art. The Return of a Man Called Horse feels like compromised Hollywood product, albeit effective compromised Hollywood product made by a talented director. It's full of Hollywood morality and cutaways from the more salacious aspects of truth. It's superior as a saleable product but it certainly isn't superior as a work of art. If anything could sum up Lucas better as a superlative businessman but someone who doesn't understand cinematic art, I don't know what that could be.