Tuesday 31 July 2007

Hot Fuzz (2007) Edgar Wright

Being a long time Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy fan, I took notice when some reviewer (David Wong at pointlesswasteoftime.com, I just checked) suggested that 'There was a movie that perfectly captured the Douglas Adams experience, the combination of bitter sarcasm and sharp imagination, the droll British wit and whale-exploding slapstick that infused his novels. And that movie was Shaun of the Dead.' I liked the version of The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy that finally got released, far more than I expected to, while acknowledging that it wasn't a patch on the original radio series, let alone the book or the TV series or the towel. Maybe I was just happy to see Douglas Adams's material on the big screen that I didn't pay as much attention to what had been done to it. I liked Shaun of the Dead too, but wasn't blown away by it while so many others were.

So here's another film by the same people: director and co-writer Edgar Wright, co-writer and lead actor Simon Pegg and co-star Nick Frost, and I thought it was better than Shaun of the Dead. To be honest, I thought it was quite wonderful but it was really two films not one and the first was so much better than the second.

Police Constable Nicholas Angel works for the SO19 special unit in the London Metropolitan Police. Apparently he rocks. Big time. His arrest record is 400% higher than anyone else, and so the force promotes him into the countryside so he can't show them up any more. Of course he's a complete fish out of water in the peaceful village of Sandford, where the police are rather lax as nothing much has happened in over twenty years. Something bizarre is definitely going on but only Angel believes so.

This film is all about dark satire and the longer it runs the darker it get. There's talk about 'the greater good' and its message could so easily be applied to nigh on everything that comes out of any politician's mouth nowadays on either side of the Atlantic. Replace it with 'think of the children' and you'll know what I'm talking about. It has been done before but possibly never as well as here. I was always a step ahead of where it wasa taking me but only one and I appreciated that.

Unfortunately at a very definable point (the graveyard scene, so as not to provide a spoiler), it becomes another film entirely: a spoof on Hollywood action films. It's done very well indeed and it's set up nicely but the transition is a little jarring and I couldn't help but want to get back to that first film. Simon Pegg is excellent and Nick Frost may even be better, without anywhere near as much screen attention. Support from people of the calibre of Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent and Timothy Dalton can't hurt, along with a few others that I ought to recognise from British TV but can't quite put my finger on yet. I completely didn't notice Edward Woodward.

Monday 30 July 2007

Washington Merry-Go-Round (1932) James Cruze

Before he went to Mexico and pissed on a passing military parade from a balcony, thus ending his career for MGM, Lee Tracy was one of the most promising actors to be found anywhere in the precodes. He was the epitome of the fast talking journalist, con man or both. By the time you realise what he'd actually said he'd said something else and you have to scramble to keep up. This one's a political film, as you'd expect from the title, and Tracy plays a new congressman, Button Gwinett Brown, in what could easily be called Mr Brown Goes to Washington.

He's nobody really, but he's descended from Button Gwinett, who six generations earlier signed the Declaration of Independence. Now he's been elected to Congress by the crooks who run much of the show and who expect him to do a lot of towing the line, but he has other ideas. Just after he gets to Washington he makes it very clear to everyone he talks to that he was elected by a crooked machine, but now he's in he's planning to double cross the crooks. In fact he doesn't just tell the man who got him into office, Honest John Kelleher, who is naturally about as honest as you'd expect, he tells half the Bonus Army. After five minutes of spouting complete honesty, it's amazing he doesn't get lynched.

There's a lot of upside here. Lee Tracy was always amazing to watch and here he gets a crusade to run. The man he is due to meet first in Washington commits suicide before he even gets there, but mails his suicide note to the new Congressman exposing the men behind the scams, starting with the powerful Senator Norton, whose gun he borrowed to end his life. Tracy is as magnetic as always and that's pretty damn magnetic. Watching him tread on all the dangerous toes in the nation's capital is dynamic stuff, because he's an absolute train wreck in motion and he's as wild as they come. Tracy never could shut up and thank goodness for that.

He's ably assisted by some superb supporting actors, especially the Wylies, both the elderly Senator, played by Walter Connolly, and his beautiful granddaughter Alice, played by Constance Cummings. Both are completely apart from the standard and they're both pleasures to watch. The Senator is slow but sharp, and he knows exactly how everything works. His granddaughter is far from just a love interest, she's bright and intelligent, knows exactly how everything works too, and promptly makes herself his secretary. She has as much to say to him as he has to say to Congress.

The only downside here has to be the horrendous rear projection. We get to see about every famous sight in Washington with Brown and his fellow characters in the foreground but it's amazingly obvious that none of them are really there. It's a real shame because it does spoil, just a little, a very powerful film indeed. In many ways Mr Brown Goes to Washington is harder hitting and more relevant to today than Mr Smith Goes to Washington. Whoever is responsible for the rear projection should have been sacked with extreme prejudice.

Central Airport (1933) William A Wellman

Amazing as it may seem, not every aviation film from the silent and precode eras was written by John Monk Saunders. In fact, a quick look at his credits shows only 18 films as a writer, (two of which are the same film) and one as a director, just before his suicide at 45. I don't know if that means that Saunders's films are the best or just the most shown.

Richard Barthelmess is back again and just like in The Last Flight, he's been grounded at the very start of the film. This time around though it isn't enemy aircraft shooting him down, it's a storm that his character Jim Blaine was fool enough to attempt to travel through and it causes him to crash land, breaking his arm in the process and ending any career he might have had in commercial flying. Now he's forced to sit back and watch his kid brother take over his skies, as a test pilot for Lockheed, which hurts of course as his heart is still in the air.

Then Jill Collins falls out of the sky to him, literally, as she's a carnival parachutist. Her brother's plane blows up about ten minutes later leaving her high and dry, so Jim Blaine gets the gig of taking her up for her jumps. They fall for each other but Blaine doesn't believe that flyers should ever get married, because of the danger of their work. I guess he's not paying much attention to what his girlfriend does. Naturally the moment the whole discussion comes up, kid brother Bud enters from stage right and immediately falls for her too. Next day Blaine has to deliberately crash his plane to stop a runaway and Bud suddenly has his job and his girl both.

Barthelmess is solid here, especially after he goes into intense mode complete with eyepatch. He's also helped by the difference in ages between him and his supposed brother, Ned, played by Tom Brown. Barthelmess was 38 and Brown was 20, making the love triangle a little kinky but hey, this was the precodes. You don't even have to pay that much attention to see a married couple sharing the same bed: the shame of it! Love interest Sally Eilers was 25 so she's believable both ways. In fact she and they are a lot more believable than the story, which forsakes Saunders's usual brand of psychological insight for airborne soap opera.

Sunday 29 July 2007

Pharaoh's Curse (1957) Lee Sholem

Here's one of those films that you know everything about before it even starts, just from the title. Given that it's directed by Lee 'Roll 'Em' Sholem, one of the most reliable of directors ever in the sense that he never went over budget or over schedule, you can be sure that it'll be, well, reliable but probably not very good.

We're in Cairo in 1902 and Captain Storm (yes really), has to escort Mrs Robert Quentin to her husband's secretive expedition in the Valley of the Kings. Of course soon a mysterious girl turns up with dark eyebrows, facial immobility and a terrible Egyptian accent. From that moment everything starts disappearing: the mules, the water, the medical kit just after a scorpion attack. Back in the Valley of the Kings, Robert Quentin is eagerly tearing into a new sarcophagus that carries the longest curse I've ever seen described by six hieroglyphics. No guesses what happens because of that act.

I didn't know any of the cast, and three of them starred: Mark Dana as Captain Storm, Diane Brewster as Sylvia Quentin or Ziva Shapir as Simira. Brewster was the most famous of the bunch, not for being Richard Kimball's murdered wife in The Fugitive but for being the grade school teacher in Leave It to Beaver. I know her best from The Invisible Boy, which is to say I don't remember her in the slightest as only Robby the Robot and the kid stayed on my memory. Shapir, better known as Ziva Rodann, was Palestinian and made a number of films but is probably best remembered to American audiences as Queen Nefertiti in the Adam West incarnation of Batman. As a scary comparison, Mark Dana is probably best known for this, which really doesn't say much for him at all.

There are other actors here, none of whom are quite as bad as Mark Dana, who has an obvious Charlton Heston complex, but they give it a go anyway. George N Neise plays Robert Quentin with a stunningly consistent vigour, regardless of what tone is really appropriate. The various other ethnic characters are pretty bad too. I found myself watching Terence de Marney most as Sgt Smolett, one of the random guards. I couldn't quite figure out whether he was truly awful or whether he was just having a little too much fun with his material.

The mummy is played by Alvaro Guillot whose only other screen credit was an episode of Sea Hunt, which is hardly surprising. We don't get to see the mummy until two thirds of the way through what is a pretty short film and he doesn't get to do much of anything except wander after a few people and attack them. Apparently he's a bloodsucking mummy which is cool but his background and story make no sense in the slightest. This ends up being just another mummy movie and a slow one at that.

I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger were always names I knew without ever knowing their work, highly regarded writers, producers and directors of some of the greatest films to come out of my home country. I knew the names of the greatest of them and now I've even seen them too: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes, classics all of them. I've even seen some of Michael Powell's solo work, both before Pressburger in The Edge of the World, and afterwards, with Peeping Tom. This one, though, I'd never even heard of, though it comes solidly in the middle of all those others.

It's pretty clear early on that it's way ahead of its time, in its portrayal of a heroine straight out of the eighties, someone who knows precisely what she wants and has no hesitation in going straight after it. In the able form of 33 year old Wendy Hiller, the 25 year old Joan Webster has landed the owner of the company she works for, Consolidated Chemical Industries. He's hugely rich, naturally, and rents his own island in the Hebrides. He's even been knighted, making him a prize catch, however old he might be. Naturally all doesn't go quite as expected, once her schedule is thrown off by a fog at Port Erraig, and Joan finds that for the first time in her life she doesn't know where she's going.

This film makes a huge amount of sense after having seen The Edge of the World, as this is probably the best and most natural glimpse into Scots island life since that film which focused on it. It looks great and feels very natural indeed. Hiller is excellent, though she's probably outshone by Roger Livesey as the Laird of Killoren who she naturally falls for, and perhaps even Pamela Brown, who gives a small but awesomely believeable and capable performance as Joan's forced host on Port Erraig. Michael Powell, who she ended up living with after Peeping Tom, described her as a witch, in a very favourable way, and I can see why from this performance.

All of them are outshone by Scotland though, as it infuses the whole picture. If Powell & Pressburger had chosen to film on a set it would have felt artificial, but they wisely chose to go right out to the places they were depicting and see the rain, wind and fog that we should see. It all throws in flavour, as do the locations: Jura, Mull and Scarba, all islands in the Hebrides. After we get to hear about the Gulf of Corryvreckan, we get to see the real Gulf of Corryvreckan, which is as violent a channel as the legends we hear about in the film.

This one may be a lot lesser known than much of the rest of Powell and Pressburger's output, but it's still a major film in its own right. It has an atmosphere and a flavour to it that are palpable and the story that unfolds is a strong one, subtle if not particularly unexpected, and with plenty of character.

Christmas in Connecticut (1945) Peter Godfrey

The war is over for at least a few sailors whose destroyer has been torpedoed. They've survived long enough on the open sea to be rescued and set up for recuperation in a naval hospital on Staten Island but all they seem to hear about is the most famous food writer in the country, Elizabeth Lane. Sailor Jefferson Jones plays up to his nurse in order to get fed, to the degree of suggesting marriage but he gets stuck when he tries to back out. Nurse Mary Lee believes that he's just restless because he's never known a good home, so she manages to arrange his visiting Miss Lane in her perfect Connecticut farm for Christmas, through the fact that she'd once nursed the granddaughter of the owner of Miss Lane's magazine through the measles.

The catch is of course that Miss Lane doesn't have a perfect Connecticut farm, let alone a husband or a baby, and in fact she's a complete fake. All her great recipes come from Felix Bassenak, a man she helped into business. She writes from a small apartment in New York and probably hasn't even seen Connecticut. Worst of all, she can't even cook and knows less about food than her publisher, hardly surprising given that her publisher is played by big Sydney Greenstreet. To crown it all he invites himself too.

If you need an actress to play a journalist who has to play a fraud in order to keep her job, Barbara Stanwyck has to be pretty high on the list of choices. She always did have an uncanny ability to play characters who could lie through their teeth. She does her job so well here that we continually have to work out how much her character is doing through actually wanting to do it and how much is for ulterior motives. Her supporting men are perfectly fine: big Syd, Dennis Morgan as Jeff Jones and Reginald Gardiner as the husband Elizabeth needs to acquire, architect John Sloan.

The real joy though is watching the interplay between S Z Sakall and Una O'Connor, both known to far more moviegoers than ever knew their names. Una O'Connor was the perennial shrieking woman in Universal horror movies but who lent her Irish charm to a truly diverse range of roles up to her last film, Witness for the Prosecution. Here she's Sloan's cook Norah, running the best kitchen in Connecticut. That doesn't impress Sakall's character, Felix Bassenak, who runs his own high class New York restaurant. Sakall would always be best known for his role in Casablanca where he ran Rick's Cafe Americain. Here he tries to take over Norah's kitchen and it's a shame that the pair of them didn't get to interact even more. He's the chief reason to watch this one, given that the story does a lot more than stretch the bounds of credulity.

The Last Flight (1931) William Dieterle

A year after The Dawn Patrol, Richard Barthelmess is back behind the controls of a plane fighting in World War I. It's another John Monk Saunders story, of course, this time directed by William Dieterle. The key point this time is that the war ends about two minutes into the film and so both lead characters find themselves completely out of place. The war has taken its toll on them: Cary Lockwood has burned hands and Shep Lambert has a spasmodic eye. They both have nervous problems caused from plummeting to ground in a burning plane and suddenly they're thrust into a world completely different to what they've become used to.

The point is made quickly. One moment their army doctor regrets that they're heading out to face life while their whole preparation was to face death, then the next moment they're eloquently described by a superior officer as spent bullets. They find themselves in Paris, getting drunk and traipsing around with a flapper called Nikki, as if they have no idea how to do anything else except exhibit the symptoms of their various psychological problems.

The acting is a little clunky on occasion but the story is well told and the key members of the cast are on fine form. Richard Barthelmess is quiet and subtle as Lockwood, probably a little too restrained, but David Manners is a little more lively as Lambert. I'd never have guessed that Manners would look like a thin Peter Sellers just by putting on a pair of glasses. There are others here like Elliott Nugent and Johnny Mack Brown to back them up, but it's Helen Chandler who steals the show beyond any shadow of a doubt.

As Nikki she's unlike any girl I can remember seeing on film. Beyond being pretty yet not too bright, I kept coming up with new words to describe her, like lost yet empowered, uninhibited yet innocent, elsewhere yet in control, childish yet insightful, fragile yet strong, accepting yet wilful. The best has to be ethereal though, as she seems to exist on a different plane to everyone else, perpetually half in a trance and accepting of any situation she happens to find herself in. It's a rivetting performance, never less than surprising.

I've seen Chandler before of course, not only along with Manners in Tod Browning's original Dracula, but in Daybreak, one of Jacques Feyder's few American films, and in Christopher Strong, behind both Katharine Hepburn and Billie Burke. She was never so eye catching as here though and unfortunately she made so few films for me to catch up with. She only made 27 films from 1927 to 1938 before addiction led her into a sanitarium. She didn't die until 1965 but, sadly, she never made another film.

This one's going to be well worth another look as I feel that it's going to continue to grow. Sure, it's old and on occasion a little creaky but it has depths to investigate, very possibly different depths for different people, depending on where life has taken them. Powerful stuff indeed.

Big Jake (1971) George Sherman

In the first few years of the 20th century, culture and science had found their way to the east coast of the United States, as highlighted very nicely in the opening sequences to accompany the credits. What's also nicely highlighted is just how little of that had managed to cross the continent to the west. The McCandles ranch was one of the few places to pay any attention at all. They had servants and furnishings and pianos for the young 'uns to learn on, and Martha McCandles doesn't really believe there are still rustlers in 1909, but they also had horses and guns and fighters, and those rustlers are real.

When the ruthless Fain gang comes along to kidnap Little Jake McCandles to ransom for one million dollars, it falls to Martha's estranged husband, Jacob McCandles, the Big Jake of the title, to do something about it. Given that the McCandles are populated by what seems like half the Wayne family, you can imagine that there's not going to be a lot of culture and science involved in the something.

Big Jake is of course John Wayne himself, old by this time but still in full possession of his powers as a screen tough guy. Playing his son James is his real son Patrick Wayne, who had sixteen films already behind him but most of which were John Wayne pictures. Playing his grandson, the kidnapped Little Jake, is his youngest son in real life, Ethan Wayne. It's completely obvious from the first moment two of them shared the same screen that they were all having a ball. There's a lot of chemistry there, which is completely understandable but very welcome nonetheless.

John Wayne is all over this film. Beyond three generations of his family on screen, along with Maureen O'Hara, who had memorably played his wife more than once before, the rest of the cast is populated by Wayne movie regulars and drinking buddies from Richard Boone to Harry Carey Jr. Completing the rescue party, for example, is another son of a famous father, Christopher Mitchum, Robert's son. The picture was produced by his son Michael Wayne, and given that director George Sherman wasn't well for most of the shoot, the Duke covered ended up doing much of the work himself.

It's also about the demise of the old west, something that Wayne, who made very few films out of the saddle, was very close to. Big Jake is the old timer, who doesn't fit well in the modern environment of a million dollar ranch; who sticks with horses, mules and rifles instead of newfangled automobiles, velocipedes and gas powered handguns; and who has both a healthy respect for the Indians and a lack of hesitation to kill the bad guys, whatever colour they happen to be. Unfortunately this is all a little hamfisted and a little early on and would have benefitted from being more subtle and more frequent.

Wayne is excellent, though as he's effectively playing himself, it would be hard not to be. It's surprising that the film is as violent as it is, but it works and after all, we're two years after The Wild Bunch. Patrick is surprisingly good, and even Christopher Mitchum has his moments, though it's also obvious that he ended up in low budget exploitation pictures for a reason. The film also has plenty to offer, depending on what you read into it. The Duke may be the big tough guy but I'd suggest that Maureen O'Hara is the toughest of them all in this one.

Saturday 28 July 2007

Pillow to Post (1945) Vincent Sherman

The Coast Oil Well Supply Company has run out of salesmen because the war is taking them all away. The only thing left to do is to employ the boss's daughter, Jean, to become the first saleslady they've ever had. The problem is that the first deal that she has the potential to land is in an Army town where the only way she can find a place to stay is to be married to a Army Lieutenant with no kids. So she has to hook herself a Lieutenant so she can get a room so she can be taken out to dinner by an oil well owner in order to land the sale. And naturally this doesn't all work out as she'd expect.

Jean Howard is played by Ida Lupino, who demonstrates as much of a talent for comedy as she did for everything else she did. As the only female director in Hollywood for decades, it was pretty obvious that she had something going for her, but the more I see her both on screen and behind it the more I realise that she had a heck of a lot of talents. Here she reminded me a lot of Jean Arthur, merely without the husky voice.

The Lieutenant she manages to hook as a temporary husband is William Prince who I've seen in a few things without noticing him. He's up to the task here but remains not particularly noticeable. I kept feeling like he should have been in a 60s sitcom, but apparently ended up mostly in soap operas. His commanding officer who manages to cause no end of chaos is Sydney Greenstreet who is as fun to watch as he always is.

There's also Ruth Donnelly, Johnny Mitchell, a guest appearance by Louis Armstrong and His Orchestra, and most notably of all, Willie Best as Lucille the Colonial Auto Court porter. Best was a highly underrated actor who suffered from the typical treatment black actors got in Hollywood for decades, but who had an unparallelled sense of timing, even when acting like the stereotypical idiot.

Hiding in uncredited roles are people like Dorothy Dandridge, duetting with Louis Armstrong; a young Robert Blake escaping from the Red Ryder westerns for a while as an obnoxious kid who keeps annoying Jean; and William Conrad as a motorcycle cop. The story they get to appear in is no classic but it's a pretty decent comedy with a lot of clever and thoughtful little touches that elevate it above the average.

Friday 27 July 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest (1952) Anthony Asquith

For purposes of complying with the moral code of late Victorian England, Jack Worthing leads a double life. In the country he is exactly that: Jack Worthing, a respectable gentleman who respectably takes care of his ward, young Cecily Cardew. In the city he is Jack's younger brother Earnest, something a little less than a gentleman. As Earnest he has a witty cad of a friend called Algernon and is head over heels in love with his cousin, Gwendolyn Fairfax, hardly surprising as she's played here by Joan Greenwood whose mere voice sends shivers down any red blooded spine and whose looks don't do much less.

There are problems, of course. Problem one is that Gwendolyn's mother, Lady Bracknell, isn't happy about this in the slightest, as he is an orphan and thus has no breeding whatsoever. In fact he was found a handbag in the cloakroom of Victoria station. Problem two is that Algernon finds his way to Jack's country estate to pose as Earnest and pursue Cecily.

This leads to the naturally untenable comedy of errors you can imagine, with two young ladies in love with young men named Earnest, neither of which are really called Earnest, and each of which are tied in responsibility to their counterpart's beloved. Given that the script comes from the play by Oscar Wilde, it is freely populated by the witticisms you'd expect and thus blissfully hilarious in exactly the opposite way to Merry Wives of Reno. I've read the play and realise that it's nigh on impossible to catch all the humour here in one viewing of the film version. It's one of the most skilful exercises of wit ever put onto paper and it translates pretty well.

The play can't fail to make any film version a success, but the cast is critical to how much of a success it will be. I've seen it on stage with a lesser cast and still loved it, and here the entire cast is stunning. Jack/Earnest is Michael Redgrave and his friend Algernon Moncrieff is Michael Denison, relishing his caddish role and giving an amazing interpretation of what Hugh Grant would have been had he been around in 1952 and without possession of a single expletive. Their respective young ladies are Joan Greenwood as Gwendolyn and Dorothy Tutin as Cecily, and both are superb, especially when fighting each other in the most genteel manner imaginable.

These four actors do an admirable job, especially given that they are forced to compete for screen attention with two of the greatest elderly scene stealers film has ever known.
Miss Prism, Cecily's tutor, is played by Margaret Rutherford, in fine form but a little more restrained than usual. However this time around she's trumped by the relation from Hell, Lady Bracknell, Gwendolyn's mother. She's played by the grandest dame of the English stage, Edith Evans, knighted in 1946 for her contributions to the theatre and only just finding her way back to film. After three films between 1915 and 1916, she didn't return to the medium until 1949. Apparently her greatest days were behind her and her three Oscar nominations were yet to come, but she's still powerful here indeed as the epitome of upper class dismissiveness.

Incidentally there's a strange Oscar Wilde connection to this film via the recent biopic Wilde, which includes among the cast Vanessa Redgrave, daughter of Michael Redgrave, and Jason Morell, son of Joan Greenwood. Another strange connection is that director Anthony Asquith is the son of politician H H Asquith, who as Home Secretary, ordered the arrest of Oscar Wilde for indecent behaviour. Perhaps it was Asquith's son's own homosexuality that drew him to the material.

Thursday 26 July 2007

Merry Wives of Reno (1934) H Bruce Humberstone

We open with Frank and Madge, a happy couple celebrating their first wedding anniversary. They're in the same bed, proving that we're in the precodes, and they're giving each other expensive coats as presents. Meanwhile next door, Tom and Lois are bickering. He's complaining about the cost of her coat and she's reading over his insurance policy. She's pointing out that he's able to commit suicide and he's asking her if she'll accept a divorce for $75 a week alimony. 'I've got to live too,' says Tom. 'Why?' says Lois.

You can tell from that and the title that this is hardly a serious film. Quickly we find more connections: Tom is cheating on his wife with young Bunny Fitch, who is trying to seduce Frank. Tom manages to chase Frank out of the window but then the real husband chases Tom out too. The real husband, Colonel Fitch is a forgetful sheep fancier who buys a ranch outside Reno and you can imagine much of the rest from there. Needless to say everything that could possibly escalate, escalates, and everyone ends up in Reno, including Eloise the sheep. Yes, it's a film like that.

The cast is superb and regardless how frivolous the material they're given, it's impossible not to be amused at the very least and nigh on impossible not to laugh out loud on a number of occasions. It's hardly high humour but it's hilarious. Frank and Madge are Donald Woods and Margaret Lindsay, both perfect pictures of innocence, even when he's lying through his teeth. Tom and Lois are a drunken king of liars Guy Kibbee and queen bitch Ruth Donnelly, who always reminds me of a transvestite who should be in a Marx Brothers movie. Kibbee has the lead, which in itself means that the movie is going to be both silly and fun, and he doesn't disappoint in the slightest.

Bunny and the Colonel are Glenda Farrell, doing her best Ginger Rogers meets Mae West impression, and Hugh Herbert, who is blissfully on a completely different planet to everyone else in the film. Add to that people like Frank McHugh as the hotel jack of all trades and master of all schemes, star stutterer Roscoe Ates and even uncredited talent like Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel, and you just can't go wrong. In fact the cast are obviously having such a great time that sometimes they end up unable to hide their own laughter. When that happens, you know the script is a peach.

No, this isn't the greatest film ever made, but I have a feeling it's going to become a favourite. I'm still laughing and it finished ten minutes ago. 'A mouse made me do it!'

Wednesday 25 July 2007

The Dawn Patrol (1930) Howard Hawks

The recent festival of aviation films on TCM included three precodes starring Richard Barthelmess, one of those names who had flown very high indeed but is hardly remembered today. Here's the earliest of them, screened as Flight Commander, but made as The Dawn Patrol, which is what the title remained for the remake in 1938.

There are other major aviation connections here. The story is by John Monk Saunders, writer of Wings and husband of Fay Wray, and his name seems to appear everywhere that planes do in the Hollywood of this era. Given that flying planes seemed to be a similar attraction to pulp audiences in the late twenties and early thirties like piloting spaceships would be a decade or two later, that's a major portion of a major market. This one won him an Oscar for his efforts, and it was that title under which it was remade eight years later. The director is Howard Hawks, who later made the wonderful Only Angels Have Wings, among his many classics.

We're in France early in the first world war, when French fliers were up against it fighting the Germans. The film starts as it means to go on with planes in the sky, dogfighting the enemy, from their base on the western front. As you'd expect, it's a tough fight from which some of those who go up don't come back, to the degree that it becomes a production line of death from which nobody can escape. Fresh face after fresh face comes in all raring to go one minute only to be lost in action the next.

The film powerfully explores the impact the knowledge of this has on the people who have to run the show, counting the planes back in, mourning those who don't return with a drink, wiping their names off the blackboard and knowing full well what will happen to the next ones they send out. It also transcends the whole point of the war to focus on the individual stories. At one point a German pilot is shot down and the airmen from each side drink together and share the evening, even though it's one of the allies who had shot him down and he'd shot down one of the allies. The universality of man is a constant here.

It's a powerful story and while the 1938 version is certainly greater as a whole, this one does have some things that weren't bettered, Barthelmess for one. Barthelmess was a major star in the silents, entering pictures in 1917 and starring in such classics as Broken Blossoms, Way Down East and Tol'able David. He did more than survive into the talkies, he became one of the most important names of the precodes, heartily lauded by Mick LaSalle in his excellent book Dangerous Men. In 1930, the year this film was made, he was also notable in Son of the Gods and The Lash. Unfortunately his brand of depth didn't survive the introduction of the Production Code and retired after the war to live off investments.

Here he shares the screen with Douglas Fairbanks Jr, where the remake would have Errol Flynn and David Niven. Both are excellent but unfortunately the rest mostly aren't up to the task. Neil Hamilton plays the tough role of the commanding officer, Major Brand, that was given to Basil Rathbone in the remake, and he's just awful. He isn't just not up to Rathbone's version, he doesn't deserve to be on the same screen as either of the co-stars, and the true subtlety of his role is completely lost in his outrageously overdone performance. Then again, given that the peak of his acting career was as Chief Gordon in the sixties TV version of Batman, that's not particularly surprising. As a lesser yet still notable example, Gardner James is amazingly inconsistent, as a pilot who loses his best friend. He has a couple of powerful grieving scenes, but most of them are painful to watch, they're so overdone.

One name that I was happy to see as a supporting actor was Frank McHugh, veteran of many a Cagney or Bogart movie. This, however, is his debut and he doesn't have much of a part. but it's interesting to see how he started.

Monday 23 July 2007

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) Edward L Cahn

Oh, this one reeked of outrageous B movie madness from the get go, but it disappointed even at that. Jan Peters is an all American girl but she grew up in the wilds of Africa and is now back for the first time in years. As the chauffeur drives her back to the house to see her droning crone of a great grandmother, he runs over an immobile seaweed covered zombie who was standing in the road, and Jan realises that nothing has changed since she was a kid.

Meanwhile on a boat offshore a gang of treasure hunters are planning what to do with the loot that they plan on retrieving from a local sunken ship called the Susan Bee and they're being plagued by the zombies too. Naturally it's the sailors from the Susan Bee who stole the jewels in the first place and quickly sunk to be cursed. Old great grandma is the widow of the captain.

I remember the stunning ineptitude of Uwe Boll's House of the Dead, which somehow managed to suggest that zombies are great swimmers but can't ever get off an island. At least this one starts out how it means to go on: these zombies swim and are great at pulling people off boats and breaking their necks. They're also great at keeping their clothes tucked in and completely undamaged after sixty years or however often they get shot; walking slowly and stupidly but with reflexes apparently quicker than mine; and even handling switchknives while flaring their eyes and bouncing candlesticks off their heads.

There are a couple of names here, though not very major ones and none of them are Gregg Palmer, the man at the top of the bill who made a lot of films, it seems mostly about the same quality as this. He's instantly forgettable, the only part of him of note being his hair which seems to have a life of its own. The leading lady isn't Jan Peters, played by Autumn Russell; it's Mona Harrison, played by Allison Hayes only a year before she became the 50 Foot Woman. She does sultry pretty well but doesn't have much more to work with beyond screaming on queue and bitching at the old lady, until she turns into a zombie, that is, but that's only because the wooden acting style works far better. The only other name I recognise is Ray Corrigan, another B movie veteran, of things like Crash of the Moons, and he's just a zombie crewman.

The sad thing about a film called Zombies of Mora Tau isn't that it's bad, because I was expecting it to be. It's that it's boring and that didn't have to be the case. I think there's definitely room for a swimming zombie film out there but House of the Dead wasn't it and neither was this. I did learn things like scattering something means dumping it all in the same place, and it's completely fine to forcibly carry someone off only to promise to bring them back later. Somehow they just don't cut it in a B movie world where Ed Wood logic is what's needed to make something bad and fun at the same time. This was just bad.

The saddest thing of all is that rating this only as low as Bad means that it's the best Edward L Cahn film I've rated, a whole point above such cinematic abortions as Invisible Invaders and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.

Saturday 21 July 2007

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) John McTiernan

As the Guys Nite Out song goes, there's no Alan and it ain't Christmas, but it's a Die Hard movie with Bruce Willis and there's much to suggests that it's the real sequel to the first one. Director John McTiernan is back in the saddle, for a start, John McClane is back in New York and the plot is revenge for film one. This time round the bad guy is Simon Gruber, brother of Hans Gruber, and who better to play Alan Rickman's brother than Jeremy Irons? He has a sense of humour too, starting off by blowing up a department store and promising to do the same again if Detective John McClane isn't dumped in the middle of Harlem in his underwear and a sandwich board reading 'I Hate Niggers'.

He just about manages to survive, with the aid of Samuel L Jackson, as the thoroughly decent, thoroughly black and thoroughly angry shop owner Zeus Carver, one of the most memorable roles he's ever played. Gruber proceeds to send the pair of them all over New York in a game of Simon Says through the public phone syste. The results are as tense as they are hilarious. There are explosions and carchases and stunts, but they don't seem overdone in the slightest. If anything this isn't anywhere near as action packed as you'd expect but it's still very tense.

Meanwhile Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis play very well off each other indeed and to be honest that's the most enjoyable component of the whole film. John McClane is rough and ready but he's an equal opportunity kind of rough and ready: he'll sass anyone, regardless of sex, colour or creed. Meanwhile Zeus Carver is a black racist. He's a good guy, for sure, and thoroughly decent deep down, but he's so bitter about Whitey that he can't help but jump to conclusions and believe that everything is about race. It's a very honest character, played by a respected black actor and all this put together is both surprising and admirable.

There are other actors who make their presence known too, especially Jeremy Irons who is a perfect successor to Alan Rickman. He does the same things just as well: the snide yet intelligent banter, the supreme calm under pressure and the same complete lack of morals. His accent isn't always as good as it could be but his demeanour is simply perfect. Native American (as in Canadian) Graham Greene is an excellent cop, Kevin Chamberlin is an even better bomb disposal expert in his debut movie and possibly most noticeable of all, award winning gospel singer Sam Phillips plays a silent but very striking terrorist.

It's a lot better than part two and more fun but not as groundbreaking as part one. The biggest flaw for me was use the use of When Johnny Comes Marching Home on the soundtrack, and to my mind after Dr Strangelove that tune should just have been marked off as done and never used in film again. However if that's the worst thing I can say about a movie, it can't have been that bad...

The Flying Fleet (1929) George Hill

Co-written by Lt Cmdr Frank Wead, USN, produced with the sanction of the US Navy and dedicated to to the officers and men of naval aviation, it would seem The Flying Fleet has the right grounding to succeed. It even starts at Annapolis with what looks like documentary footage of a graduating class. Then we head indoors to meet some of those graduating. It seems that they are allowed a period of liberty on the final day before they graduate but unfortunately most of them take the opportunity to get drunk and that gets one of them, appropriately called Dizzy, kicked out of the academy on his last day.

Soon of course they're out in the world, where they go their individual ways for the first year and then meet back up in San Diego for assignment. They also meet up with young Anita Hastings, played by the delightful Anita Page who unfortunately doesn't get to do much except be delightful, and immediately there's a rivalry between Tommy and Steve, the leading pair, played by Ramon Novarro and Ralph Graves. You might imagine that a mild love triangle and the gradual whittling down of the initial six midshipmen doesn't make for much of a plot, and you'd be right.

Beyond watching these actors strut their stuff (Graves looks and acts like an arrogant Burt Lancaster and Navarro varies between Richard Barthelmess, Harold Lloyd and himself, depending on how much of his head is covered), the film is blatantly and unashamedly a commercial for the air arm of the US Navy. Parts of it feel like a documentary and most of it feels like a recruitment video, especially with use of plenty of real planes, presumably the current cream of the crop, and the aircraft carrier, USS Langley. Even if you ignore the plot, there's plenty of historical value here.

Beyond just blind recruitment, it does fairly cover the likelihood of not succeeding (four out of the original six fail for one reason or another) but suggests that everyone should try anyway because even if you don't make it as a pilot, there are plenty of other jobs in the Navy. We focus mostly on the most prestigious ones though, the people flying the planes, and this film does give us something of the thrill of the being a pilot. The flying scenes are generally very good with admirable aerial photogaphy and only some poor model work letting the side down at a few points. All in all, it's perfectly watchable without ever really catching the interest unless you're a naval historian.

Friday 20 July 2007

The Sea of Grass (1947) Elia Kazan

Elia Kazan only directed 21 films between 1937 and 1976, but they include such luminaries as A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, A Streetcar Named Desire and East of Eden. His reputation must be one of the highest of any director in the book, and here he has the dynamic team of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn to play with. Yet Kazan, in his autobiography, said 'It's the only picture I've ever made that I'm ashamed of. Don't see it.' Well. How bad could it be?

We kick off In St Louis in 1880 with the dynamic duo about to get married. Hepburn is Lutie Cameron, obviously a woman of breeding with elegance and beauty, but Tracy is a cattle baron called Colonel James Brewton who almost everyone in Salt Fork, NM seems to despise, not least Brice Chamberlain, played ably by Melvyn Douglas. The weird thing is that initially Chamberlain comes across as a liberal dogooder and Brewton seems to be the diehard conservative tyrant but it isn't long before it becomes apparent that he's really an extreme conservationist. So the battle in hindsight isn't between left and right wing, it's between left and further left.

Brewton loves the sea of grass of the title, the wide expanse of plains that swept across much of the west of what would become the United States. Chamberlain wants to pass it over to the families who want to settle it, so he's a man of the people even though he thinks 160 acres isn't much for a homesteading. Nowadays he'd be building estates full of Legoland houses two feet apart and no green anywhere. Yet Brewton wants to leave it as it is, empty of people and pretty much anything else, just as nature built it. Back in 1880 he'd have been a stick in the mud, but now he'd be one of the more radical members of Greenpeace, along with those who'd like to kill off nine tenths of the population and get rid of the internal combustion engine. Times sure have changed.

Spencer Tracy was never a bad actor because he was such a natural that the worst he could ever be was unnoticed. Here he's obviously struggling to find what his character is all about and gets stuck with standing there like a lemon for much of the time waiting for whoever he's talking to to do their bit. Katharine Hepburn has more of a part but not much of it really makes any sense, and of course being who she is she was never any good at playing weak. Melvyn Douglas is fine as Col Brewton's enemy and the man that Lutie finds her way to, but he's too bitter to really survive as a character, especially when he's proved wrong.

That's much of what should have made the film: that there's a turnaround in what makes the good guy and the bad guy, but the good guy wasn't good for long and the bad guy gave up before he could become the good guy. He should have become a dynamic character to lead the righteous resistance but he just turns into nothing. It's as if the scriptwriter didn't really know who the good guys or bad guys were supposed to be. All the issues that the plot could have explored are pretty much ignored or just thrown across a front page or two.

The melodramatic situations the characters find themselves in and the dialogue the actors have to immerse themselves in doesn't help. I really don't see this as quite as bad as Kazan suggested, but it's no peach, that's for sure. It's not bad per se, it's just a huge waste. By the time the dynamic Robert Walker turns up as Lutie's grown up second child (and nobody else has aged a day), it's too far gone for him to even attempt to save. The last half hour went by in a blur of blah.

Wednesday 18 July 2007

This Night I'll Possess Your Corpse (1967) José Mojica Marins

Coffin Joe is back and he's carrying on precisely where he left off: philosophising about life, death and the innocence of childen; taking potshot after potshot at the the Roman Catholic Church and kidnapping women in order to propagate his bloodline. He's stolen six of them away in order to discover which should bear his son and, aided by his disfigured hunchback assistant Bruno, he promptly tests them with long and stunningly gratuitous scenes where they sleep through a plague of tarantulas let loose to climb all over them. He's testing their courage, and it isn't much of a leap to see José Mojica Marins testing their courage not just as an actor but as a director: it's hard not to see breath getting quicker when a tarantula crawls up someone's cleavage.

This is almost the definition of the diabolical evil genius movie. Just like in At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul, Coffin Joe is completely dominant throughout and he simply delights in being such. He has his outlandish appearance of top hat and cape, along with long curly fingernails and a ferocious unibrow. He has his schemes that go well beyond what most run of the mill villains would fnd acceptable. He revels in going that step or two over the edge: beyond mating with the one he picks of the six, he has to do so in front of the other five. Oh, and he's imprisoned them in a pit below his bedroom that he populates with snakes. And while they die, he eats grapes. Talk about sadistic! And yet, Coffin Joe movies are all about Coffin Joe so don't go looking for a hero. We're too busy admiring the size of his cojones to look for a hero anyway.

Of course everything else is pretty consistent with the first film also: the acting is terrible, the editing leaves much to be desired and the sound quality is abysmal. Yet somehow it's irresistible, probably because it's completely other: exotic, hallucinatory and just plain twisted. It's a psychedelic blasphemous fever dream that makes precisely no sense whatsoever. It isn't just that Marins doesn't attempt to explain away his gaping plotholes, it's that he paints over them with the broadest strokes and flaunts the fact.

The most obvious plothole is that this film even exists. He's left for dead at the end of the first after blatantly running roughshod over everyone and everything, killing, raping and torturing, yet somehow is nursed back to health here by those he tormented and found completely innocent of all crimes on the basis of lack of evidence. In other words, there's no plot writable that allows Coffin Joe to return to his old ways untouched, so Marins does precisely that and doesn't even pretend to notice. You truly have to watch to believe, especially the colour sequence set in Hell. It's not necessarily great but it's amazing stuff.

Tuesday 17 July 2007

Keeper of the Flame (1942) George Cukor

Robert Forrest is a national hero, it seems, both as a soldier and as a man, fronting an organisation called Forward America. His death at the beginning of the film is the catalyst for everything else that follows, after his car rushes off a bridge in a thunderstorm. Spencer Tracy plays Steve O'Malley, a writer reporting on the death and legacy of the hero and he soon finds out that it's not as straightforward as it might initially appear.

This was the second pairing of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, after the highly successful Woman of the Year, Hepburn's previous film. It also reunited her with director George Cukor who had made the two films before that, two of her very best films too, Holiday and The Philadelphia Story. This one was a different animal to be sure, a dark drama with only a little journalistic wit to lighten the mood, courtesy of Audrey Christie as a colleague of O'Malley's called Jane Harding. The script is clever, not just in the main thrust of the film but even in astute dialogue between O'Malley and secondary characters like the taxi driver Orion Peabody who is a joy to watch, courtesy of actor Percy Kilbride.

Anyway it's a Tracy/Hepburn movie, but it doesn't seem that way for a while because Kate doesn't appear for at least 25 minutes and even when she does, as a grieving widow, she really doesn't impress. Certainly Tracy stays dominant through her first scenes, even after he leaves the screen. She soon finds her usual power, in a much darker role than she usually played, but it remains secondary to Tracy's in this film. The only time she dominates him is when they're on horseback and he looks completely out of place while she makes it seem as natural as sitting down in her favourite armchair.

As much as it's a serious film and a dark one, it's one with secrets. There are plenty of layers here that O'Malley gets to unravel slowly but surely, and they provide an almost gothic flavour to the proceedings. There's a crazy old mother hidden away in another building, old Mrs Forrest, played with emphasis by Margaret Wycherly, who believes that her son was murdered, but talks to him anyway. She makes herself noticed here just like she did in White Heat, as Jimmy Cagney's mother ('I'm on top of the world, ma!'). There's a secretary who keeps trying to divert O'Malley's attention and a whole slew of mysterious documents that get burned before they can be read.

In other words there's something going on and O'Malley wants to know what. His journey of discovery is our story. It's a powerful one and very much a product of its time, 1942 being wartime even for Americans and starting, a few years after everyone else, to see the ugly truths being exposed in Europe and what they might mean for the rest of the world. I wonder how this film was received back on original release. I didn't buy much of the ending which turned into melodrama.

Monday 16 July 2007

Oliver! (1968) Carol Reed

Back in the days when I was a young 'un who naturally hated the sight of musicals, there were two that seemed to always count as exceptions to the rule: Paint Your Wagon and Oliver! Nowadays, I've seen a lot more and enjoyed a lot more but still hate the sight of most. Now TCM and the annoying Tom Kenny have given me a long overdue opportunity to revisit the film for the first time in probably 25 years. So what were my initial impressions?

The opening scenes in the workhouse remind very much of Pink Floyd's The Wall, which they probably seriously influenced. I'm thinking especially of the visuals but as the music continues that counts too. Roger Waters must have been paying a lot of attention indeed. It's overplayed for sure and very stagy, though it's equally sure that much of it was done for effect. I don't buy that it works entirely but it's consistent at least. I don't buy the genius of all the music (plenty, I'll admit, but not all) though the fact that I remember a surprising amount after a quarter of a century speaks volumes all on its own. For instance I could have done without Boy for Sale and Where is Love?, but Consider Yourself and You've Got to Pick a Pocket or Two are pretty hard to beat.

What I didn't remember was the cast, though I'm not sure why. Maybe I just didn't have a clue who Sir Harry Secombe was, not that he was a Sir this far back when Highway was a decade and a half away and he was best known for his revolutionary work as one of the Goons. I wouldn't have seen Leonard Rossiter before either, though I must have found Reggie Perrin soon afterwards. I wouldn't have known Ron Moody for a long while, as I'm only recently finding him becoming a favourite, but I doubt I even knew Oliver Reed drank. That's how green I must have been.

Now I know all of these people and more, though it became very obvious very quickly that I don't know Jack Wild nearly well enough and his Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the Artful Dodger was well deserved, as his first couple of scenes merely served to show up everyone who had appeared up until then. I think the film only survives for the first half hour and change because Mark Lester as the title character manages to keep up with him. Wild gives the impression of being the most natural child actor since probably Jackie Coogan almost half a century earlier. I might allow Shirley Temple too but that's a stretch.

Ron Moody was also nominated as Best Actor but he lost to Cliff Robertson in Charly, another peach of a role. His Fagin has a lot of depth, though is less overtly Jewish than Alec Guinness's version back in 1948 (Reviewing the Situation notwithstanding), thus avoiding a lot of unfair criticism. He's dominant and to be honest, anyone who can take a role previously played by Alec Guinness and make it his own deserves any praise offered. That achievement in itself says more than an Oscar because there's an Oscar dished out every year and this was something that nobody else has ever managed to do.

Beyond the pair of them, people like Oliver Reed (the director's nephew) and Shani Wallis do solid work, but I can't help but feel that they suffer from the film being too long and inflated and the fact that there gave better performances elsewhere. Reed is good here but his Bill Sikes isn't a patch on Robert Newton's reading of it or even on his own performances in things like The Devils. Director Carol Reed did far better work elsewhere, notably on The Third Man but even on something like Our Man in Havana. His film doesn't stand up like it used to when I didn't know better. It's a good film, no mistake, but it's no Oscar winner to beat 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly or The Producers. At least not in the world I live in. Apparently the Academy live somewhere else.

Sunday 15 July 2007

Quiz Show (1994) Robert Redford

Back in the fifties, Robert Redford was probably the age to be glued to the TV like everyone else to watch quiz shows. I grew up on the things but in England and thirty years later, and usually on the BBC where there were no commercials, let alone ones spoken out aloud by the quizmaster. They were a different beast in this era when televisions were social devices. The only time I've ever experienced that sort of thing was when The Simpsons was new and I was visiting a friend at university. His flat magically filled up the moment the show started, and that's how it must have been for Twenty One way back when.

The quizmaster was Jack Barry but the star was Herbert Stempel, a geeky Jew with glasses, bad teeth and a sissy voice, who just happened to be a natural contestant. The people in charge wanted him off the air but he just keeps on winning. Enter Charles Van Doren, a young man with a brain who just happened to have a lot more going for him than that: he was much more of the picture that the sponsors wanted to sell to America: a WASP professor with a winning smile who comes from a well to do family. He turns up at the studios hoping to try out for another quiz show, completely honestly, but the producers decide otherwise.

They put him on Twenty One, hired to win. They'll feed him the answers and he'll kick out the Jewish guy, who they pay to take a dive. The only catch is that Van Doren doesn't want to cheat, so they have to feed him a question they know he knows the answer to. Luckily for them, the feel of $20k in his pocket helps him to see things their way and he'll play ball from then on. From then on everyone wins, except Stempel of course, who is getting more and more upset about the fact that he can't get back on TV. There's a grand jury investigation into the quiz shows but it's as bogus as everything else and only one man on a congressional oversight committee takes the ball and runs with it.

This is simply an exellent film. It entertains but it does much more than that. It gives a glimpse of a different time, a very good glimpse at both what people saw and what they didn't see. It's both history and nostalgia, and so teaches us as much about the history of what really happened as much as what everyone remembers. The very apt tagline was 'Fifty million people watched, but no one saw a thing.' Given the competition, this film would have been refreshing just for attempting to do that much, but it works very subtly indeed.

The characters are superbly defined and they dance plenty of dubious moral lines, to the degree that this could be studied as a course on ethics all on its own. Stempel plays along with the fix for financial reasons, to get out from under his mother-in-law's thumb and he's bitter enough to bring everyone else down with him. Meanwhile Van Doren plays along for other reasons; he's more interested in how much he's helping to turn kids back onto intellectual pursuits. He's doing the wrong thing for the right reason, and so the bad guy's a good guy and the good guy's a bad guy.

In fact there's a lot of studying going on during the film itself. There are a number of scenes where investigator Dick Goodwin tries to understand these character motivations. He watches Van Doren and knows that he'd be a superb contestant on his own right: he simply doesn't need the help he's given. Yet he takes it anyway and that makes him a cheat. Much of the story has to do with Goodwin balancing two opposing and completely believable testimonies to find which one is true and then to try to learn why. It's also about what he learns about himself in the process and how easily it is to corrupt anyone without them necessarily realising it, at least until it's too late.

The leads are superb: John Turturro as Stempel, Ralph Fiennes as Van Doren and Rob Morrow from Numb3rs as Goodwin. They all lend much more than surface to their characterisations and they should all be proud. The clever script backs up everything they do and gives them plenty of opportunity to shine. Odd lines that seem like throwaways have huge impact. I'm sure a second viewing would be as impactful as the first: even though I'll know exactly where it's going I'll see more about how it's done.

Some of the support is of an amazing calibre. People like Allan Rich as the NBC president and David Paymer as the producer of Twenty One are superb, but director Martin Scorsese is beyond that as the sponsor and veteran Paul Scofield is impeccable as Van Doren's poet father. It's not surprising that he was Oscar nominated, along with the script, the director and the film itself. Somehow though, none of them won. While Scofield lost to Martin Landau's portrayal of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood, it's sad to see that everything else lost to Forrest Gump.

Saturday 14 July 2007

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1959)

If you hadn't noticed the name at the beginning of the credits, you'd probably realise that this was a Hammer film from the jarring style of the background music or the vivid colour. If not, the fact that it's a Sherlock Holmes story that begins with a man being thrown through a stained glass window then thrust into a fire, and follows up with a pack of hunting hounds being set free to chase his escaping daughter, would give it away. It's Sir Hugo Baskerville doing the chasing and he's being played by David Oxley, trying his best to be Raymond Massey. Soon of course Sir Hugo is soon chased himself and his death at the hands of the hound has passed into legend and become a curse on the Baskerville family.

Sherlock Holmes is brought in by Dr Richard Mortimer who believes that the legend is the cause of another Baskerville death, this one Sir Charles Baskerville whose heart apparently ceased to function while being chased across the moor at night. Being a Hammer film, and an early Hammer film at that, it features such staples of the studio as Peter Cushing, Andre Morell and Christopher Lee. Cushing is Holmes, of course, and he's a fine Holmes too, if not up to the calibre of Basil Rathbone. Morell is Watson, and again perfectly fine in the role without being Nigel Bruce. Lee is Sir Henry Baskerville, the last in the family line who is heading back home from Johannesburg and whose life is in apparent serious danger.

I know Cushing and Lee best from where I saw them first and most: Hammer horror films, which this really counts as even though it's a Sherlock Holmes detective story. This is the first that I've seen in quite a few years and it feels like coming home, playing very comfortably indeed. The acting is as great as the sets, as Hammer was always uncannily good at making them seem far more grandiose than they actually were, getting far more out of their films than they put in financially. The standout has to be Miles Malleson as the inebriate Bishop Frankland, a very characterful performance.

As for the story, it's Hammer level stuff which means it's great fun but with a whole bunch of holes. Don't watch the way too colourful blood and the little inconsistencies all over the place. It's fun, and more importantly it was something new because nobody else was doing anything this graphic at the time. Yes, this was considered graphic. Wander around online, starting at Wikipedia, and read the BBFC comments on the early Hammer films and be stunned. They thought that the material Hammer churned out from the late fifties onwards for a couple of decades was just beyond the pale, unredeemable obscenity. They considered banning them outright.

I look at this material and see something else. The films from their heyday, beginning with 1957's The Curse of Frankenstein and heading onwards for a decade or more, seem like good old fashioned family fun now, a newer take on the Universal horrors, more colourful in every meaning of that word, yet a long way short of the excesses of the modern day. Does every generation say this about the last one? Even some of the more truly excessive Hammer horrors of the seventies, like the Karnstein trilogy with all that naked skin and overt lesbianism, never felt dangerous or pornographic, just the dessert to the more mainstream main course, after the kids had gone to bed.

Tuesday 10 July 2007

China Clipper (1936) Ray Enright

'This photoplay is not historical in any sense,' we're told before we even see Pat O'Brien. He's Dave Logan and he's just got back to New York in time to see Lindbergh arrive back from his historic non stop flight across the Atlantic. He saw him land in Paris too and he's hooked. Unlike his boss at Ross Import/Export, he believes that planes are ready for the commercial sector and so quits to set up an airline. Unfortunately nobody else seems to buy the concept so the Washington to Philadelphia run ends not long after it starts. So Logan and his partners switch to a historic run taking the US mail from Key West to Havana.

The partners in Trans-Ocean Airways include Ross Alexander, who committed suicide a year later, and Henry B Walthall, who collapsed and died on the set of this film. Before too long they add in old war buddy Humphrey Bogart, who thankfully stayed alive and active in the movie business for a long time yet. They're all excellent, which is hardly surprising. Pat O'Brien is abrupt but powerful, hard and tough and blatant, and Bogie is young but solid, able to show us what he would become in only a few years. Ross Alexander reminds me of Franchot Tone and his career was cut tragically short after only 17 films in six years. Walthall reminds of an old Peter Cushing.

There are women in the film, not that they get to do much except turn the men into human beings. Beverly Roberts is Skippy, Logan's estranged wife, but I know Marie Wilson much better, as probably the most memorable ditz of the thirties. There's something of a plot and it drives forward so hard that it's hard not to be caught up in the maelstrom of it and so miss out on the fact that there's not actually much there. Logan has a lot of visions but most people think he's nuts at every stage. and he drives them all very hard indeed to prove his point. Pretty much everything else is bluster, just highly professional bluster.

I enjoyed the film but it left me completely dry. For most of the film I rode along with Pat O'Brien's charisma and wondered when I could next watch Only Angels Have Wings. That had charisma too but it had a heck of a lot more too. The only thing this one has extra to the bluster is the fact that it makes a round fifty Humphrey Bogart movies for me which also means I'm over two thirds of the way through his filmography.

Monday 9 July 2007

The Monster (1925) Roland West

This one took me entirely aback. It's a silent movie that stars Lon Chaney, is called The Monster and is directed by Roland West, who made such films as The Bat and one of my favourites, The Bat Whispers. Yet somehow it doesn't appear to be an early horror movie. Sure, we open with some character causing car accidents with a mirror while dressed up like one of the Norwegian Black Metal elite. Sure, Chaney holds court over a mysterious sanitarium populated by maniacs who wouldn't have been out of place in Haxan. Sure, there are mysterious hidden panels and passages and the like. Everything is accompanied by thunder and lightning. Yet it's a comedy.

That's right, a comedy. It's made obvious by the title cards, but the inclusion of Johnny Arthur as the nominal lead in Chaney's prolonged absence is something of a giveaway too. Arthur was a professional whiner, not in the paranoid style of a sound era Woody Allen, but in the only way anyone could whine in a silent film: physically. He's therefore the personification of the gay stereotype: nervous, highly strung and very affected. He's also very scared indeed. He may be studying to be an amateur detective, but he's scared almost to peeing himself by the slightest thing.

And that's what this film is about really: Johnny Arthur getting scared at things, and in a house full of mystery there's something around every corner and behind every false door to be scared of. Either that or to demonstrate the power of Dutch courage. Adding Lon Chaney to dynamically build the atmosphere and lend some serious credence to affairs just makes it even more akin to all those Abbott and Costello movies where Bud and Lou meet some famous Universal monster or other. Given that he appears here much like an unhinged Bela Lugosi, six years before anyone even knew who Lugosi was, that makes the parallel even more valid, as well as showing Chaney's influence a little more obviously than usual.

I'm guessing influence is important here. There's really not much else, given that Chaney gets very little to do and there's almost no plot. However the sanitarium is almost a textbook for horror B movies to come. Every component part from every single one of them seems to be present here, in 1925, when it just might have been new. Knowing what was still to come in The Bat Whispers five years later, I wonder just how much Roland West contributed to the genre from a mere fourteen movies as director. The more I see, the more it seems like a heck of a lot. He's presiding over little to no substance here, but a serious amount of coolness.

Sunday 8 July 2007

Die Hard 2 (1990) Renny Harlin

It's Christmas again and so John McClane is in trouble. Since the first film, he's moved to LA to be closer to his wife Holly, and so has transferred over to the LAPD. However for Christmas he's in Washington DC waiting for Holly's plane to arrive. Naturally the worst of his troubles are not the fact that his mother-in-law's car has been towed from in front of the airport or the difficulty in finding a phone to ring Holly's plane. There's something going on with General Ramon Esperanza, Latin American dictator and the world's biggest drug dealer. He's being kicked out of his country and will be arrested on arrival at Dulles by the feds. The bad guys are waiting for him too for reasons of their own and McClane is the only one who sees them doing anything suspicious.

Beyond John McClane always having a sucky Christmas and my seeing more of William Sadler than I'd really have liked, the first thing I noticed was that times have seriously changed since 1990. Back then old women could carry tazers on planes and people could smoke in airports. They could wander pretty easily into restricted areas too, with or without help. The bad guys have their token black guy too, even though they're a Latin American gang this time. It's also notable that most of the airlines are replaced with fake ones but British Airways and Kenwood get some very obvious plugs.

I also noticed that while this was surprisingly good for a sequel, especially a sequel to a really good first film that wasn't made by the same director, there was a really annoying number of conveniences included to make up for bad scriptwriting. The first fight at Dulles is fun, for instance, but it's way too convenient. The bad guys can't kill McClane in the first ten minutes, of course, but even when he's completely exposed, there's always something convenient in the way to hit instead of him, however well their military training was. When he gets caught on a hot gas pipe there's a solitary convenient baggage cart situated right underneath him. In fact I don't think there's anything in the entire fight that isn't just a little too convenient.

Soon enough McClane's warnings that have been powerfully ignored by security chief Captain Carmine Lorenzo, played excellently with a sassy foul mouth by Dennis Franz of NYPD Blue. His boss has a lot more trust but not much more control, and he's played by a TV cop show regular too: Fred Dalton Thompson from Law & Order. As much as they're annoying to watch, that is entirely the point and they do it very well indeed. In fact while it's easy to bitch about some glaring plotholes, bad choreography and inappropriate ineptitude, the acting is not a downpoint in the slightest.

When the small parts that don't even make the first page of cast members at IMDb are taken by people like Robert Patrick and John Leguizamo, then the acting isn't going to be much of an issue. Those on page one include not just Bruce Willis, excellent but not quite as busy as before; Bonnie Bedelia and Reginald VelJohnson from the first movie, in much smaller parts; and Sadler, Franz and Thompson already mentioned, but others with prominent opportunities that they take happily. There's John Amos as the leader of the military anti-terrorist unit, Franco Nero as General Esperanza and especially Tom Bower as Marvin the airport janitor who gives McClane more support than the rest of the staff. Bower makes up for a lot of it on his own.

Saturday 7 July 2007

A Lady of Chance (1928) Robert Z Leonard

Here's Norma Shearer's last silent film, not that it ended up that way. She's Dolly Morgan, aka Angel Face, a con artist who gets recognised pulling scams in a hotel by a couple of crooks who want her to work with them. One evening and ten thousand dollars later, she's back on the wanted list both by the cops and the crooks who try to swindle her but get swindled instead.

However she's long gone, at some cement convention trying to crack what would appear to be an easy mark but who turns out to be completely unlike she expected. He's Steve Crandall, played by Johnny Mack Brown, who has always seemed to me like the closest thing to Gary Cooper without actually being Gary Cooper. Back in the silent era, he was cast in women's pictures, with people like Greta Garbo, Mary Pickford and Norma Shearer, but soon he would find his way to westerns where he'd spend the rest of his long career.

Like Brown (and Cooper), Norma Shearer often tended to appear too serious, which got quickly boring and was a shame as she was very expressive when she chose to be. Here she gets to be extremely expressive, playing most scenes from a variety of temperaments depending on who the man in the scene was looking at. As possibly the ultimate example of what she could do, there's one extended closeup shot halfway through this film that is nothing but Shearer's face going through a multitude of emotions for almost forty seconds!

This is almost entirely Norma Shearer's show, unsurprisingly, but she has a little competition. Johnny Mack Brown's boyish charm is old but contagious and Brad, the lead crook, is played by silent regular Lowell Sherman who appears like half Bill Murray and half Edward Everett Horton. He and WAMPAS baby star Gwen Lee do a solid job of making their presence felt. The only downside is the overly sappy ending.

1928 was a strange time for movies, especially for MGM who hadn't bought into the whole concept of sound. Thus a whole bunch of pictures came out that were made as silents but had sound sequences added so as to not seem like throwbacks to a public very happy indeed at the arrival of the new technology. Those that I've seen seem like complete messes: half one thing, half another and wholly nothing at all. Lionel Barrymore's The Mysterious Island is a perfect example of how not to do it. I saw this as an entirely silent picture but it was another of those later messed around with by the studio. I'm glad I didn't see that version.

Friday 6 July 2007

The Velvet Touch (1948) John Gage

Rosalind Russell is Valerie Stanton and Valerie Stanton is a Broadway star. She doesn't just work for producer Gordon Dunning, she's his lover too but she's trying to leave him for Michael Morrell. Dunning is such a catch that he'll drive her into the dirt before he'll let her go but while browbeating her into staying she impulsively clocks him on the head with a Best Director award, accidentally killing him. Needless to say, she has the Best Actress award back at her own place to match it and that helps her to dwell on the last few months while fellow actress Marian Webster, played by the ever-excellent Claire Trevor, takes the fall.

Claire Trevor is quite possibly the most consistent supporting actress I've ever seen. Certainly the films I've seen her in so far have her playing backup roles to the supposed stars and somehow outshining them all without stealing their respective spotlights. That's a serious talent and not one to be sniffed at. Here she's aided by a slew of razor sharp lines which are a treat, helping her to be very bitter to her prima donna yet always composed. She can still burn with her eyes at fifty paces and her sarcasm drips from a lot more than just her words. 'One of the things I do best is wait,' she says, and it couldn't ring truer to her performance. She waits, patiently, but she seethes too with everything she's bottled up while she's waited.

There's something about Frank McHugh that makes me enjoy his performances even when there's no reason to do so, and he's fine here in a very small part, but Dan Tobin is a joy as a flaming queen of a gossip columnist, looking like nothing less than Clark Gable as a shrunken head on a stick. Leon Ames is Dunning, and he's as excellent at mixing a slimeball nature with sheer capability as his replacement, Leo Genn as Morell, is at mixing charm with chauvinistic confidence. Russell moves from one to the other quickly but believably. Half the time she appears like Joan Crawford, obviously acting her acting, but then the other half of the time the facade seems to slip and she shines.

Halfway through, after we are treated to a solid prelude detailing the events of the few days leading up to the death of Gordon Dunning, Sydney Greenstreet literally enters from the wings as Captain Danbury, in charge of the investigation. He's as charming and jovial as you'd expect, perhaps even more so than usual. He's cleverly subtle, of course, but he seems truly alive at the same time, with twinkling eyes and a frequent giggle as if he was floating on a narcotic high. He doesn't get the lines that Claire Trevor does, but he's still a highly memorable cop.

Rosalind Russell may have had four Oscar nominations, two in the years immediately before this, for Sister Kenny and Mourning Becomes Electra, but Claire Trevor actually won one. To my mind that's a fair edge she has and this is her film. Beyond her usual knack of somehow staying in the background she dominates every scene she's in here, and Russell can only flounder on the same screen, only finding moments to shine herself when Trevor's nowhere to be seen. The only real downside I could find is the terrible cardboard cityscape used as a backdrop.

Thursday 5 July 2007

A Bill of Divorcement (1932) George Cukor

Poor old Katharine Hepburn has to settle for third place on the bill here, behind not just John Barrymore but also Billie Burke, whose voice I'd listen to any day over Hepburn's. Then again it was Kate's first picture, and she did pretty damn well to be the big cheese by movie number two! We're in England on Christmas Eve at the Fairfields, and everyone is happy well beyond the time of year. Billie Burke is Meg Fairfield, who has got her divorce and will marry Paul Cavanagh's character, Gray Meredith, on New Year's Day. Kate is Meg's daughter Sydney, who is head over heels in love with Kit Humphreys, played by David Manners, and she's accepted his proposal too.

In fact everything looks perfect, but wherever everything looks perfect there's got to be a skeleton in the closet. Sure enough, there's one here in the able form of John Barrymore and he's Meg's husband Hilary, who has been locked up in an asylum for so long his daughter doesn't even know him. Only gloomy old Aunt Hester is still upset at the prospect of someone taking her brother's place but just at the most inopportune moment, he comes home, apparently wondrously improved but still pretty vacant, and proceeds to shake up everything.

The story here is melodramatic but decent and I can certainly see women weeping in their seats back in 1932. They always loved romantic John Barrymore and there's plenty of opportunity here for him to win over their sympathy. This was obviously custom written to wring every bit of heartbreak possible in a film that's only seventy minutes long, and noted women's director George Cukor is heavy on the soft focus and teary eyes so we get torn every which way but loose. Unfortunately he was still hampered by the constraints of early sound and so we have to endure Kate shouting her lines at about twice the volume of anyone else in the cast.

John Barrymore gets to slump a lot, exercise his confusion muscles and appear completely lost, while Billie Burke gets to dither and flounce like only she could. She had plenty of turmoil in her own life at the time, as her husband Florenz Ziegfeld died during production. The whole thing is overdone throughout but excusably so and it's easy to look past the theatrics and pretend that I'm watching all this melodrama unfold on a stage rather than a screen. What's most astounding is that there's no let up. After a brief introduction, it's relentless until the very end.

Tuesday 3 July 2007

Our Man in Havana (1960) Carol Reed

Set in Cuba before 'the recent revolution', it would appear from first glimpses that this just couldn't fail. Produced and directed by Carol Reed, with a screenplay by Graham Greene that was adapted from his own novel, and starring no less a Great British trio than Alec Guinness, Noel Coward and Ralph Richardson. Also credited before the title are Burl Ives, Ernie Kovacs and Maureen O'Hara, hardly minor names themselves. It's as great as it ought to be, but I was seriously surprised at the content. I thought it was a spy film, and it is, but it's also a comedy which I really wasn't expecting.

Greene introduces us to the characters through humour. Guinness is Jim Wormold, a mild mannered vacuum cleaner salesman and Coward is Hawthorne, a spymaster who comes to visit him with strange questions and an offer to meet him in the gents. What he's really doing is hiring him to work for the British secret service as the title character, part of his Caribbean network, and Wormold accepts so as to be able to finance his daughter Milly's expensive equestrian dreams. Ives is a friend of Wormold's, some sort of German doctor doing research into cheese or some such, and Kovacs is the Red Vulture, a notorious Cuban official with an interest in everything and everybody, most obviously Milly.

Guinness always had a joyously quiet talent for humour and he's hilarious here coming out with great lines, knowing grins and subtly hilarious changes of expression. His daughter Milly has him beat on the lines, pointing out about the Red Vulture that 'he tortures prisoners but he's always been nice with me', but the rest belongs to Guinness. Anyway, when trying to recruit agents, he ends up back with his friend Dr Hasselbacher, played by Ives, who points out that the best way to deal with secrets is to invent things.

Guinness subsequently invents a whole slew of agents and runs up a hugely inventive web of intrigue that has nothing remotely to do with reality. This works amazingly well, quickly turning him into the best agent in the western hemisphere, but his works of fiction also garner attention from Hawthorne, who sends him a secretary and a radio operator, which garners undue attention, and the whole mess of fabrications starts to take on unfortunate reality. Suddenly all the real people that he pretended were fake agents are in very real danger indeed and Wormold himself is pressed by the Red Vulture, Captain Segura into being a double agent.

I haven't read a lot of Graham Greene so I don't know how this fits in with the rest of his work. It certainly isn't anything like I expected, but my expectations weren't shot down in a bad way, I was merely pleasantly surprised at my lack of the remotest clue of what the film was about.

Sunday 1 July 2007

Fatty's Plucky Pup (1915) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

Fatty and Luke the Dog again, and it's Luke to the rescue. Fatty's girlfriend has been kidnapped by four bad men and only Luke can save her. That sounds like a promising film as described in the plot synopsis at IMDb, but to get to it we have to suffer through some really bad comedy that has Fatty as a complete moron burning. He burns down his bed and fights it with cups of water, then drops all the laundry in the mud and tries to fix the situation with a garden hose. You could write the script yourself from here and do as good a job. The funniest thing about this entire half of the film is a title card reading 'He meant well'.

Anyway, some interminable time later, Al St John and his fellow dog catcher try and eventually manage to catch Luke the Dog, thus causing a decent amount of fairly decent slapstick. After more water based inanity at home, Fatty falls for Edgar Kennedy's crooked shell game and only gets his money back with the use of a gun from a neighbouring shooting gallery. All the bad guys team up and kidnap Fatty's girlfriend, Lizzie, and we're at the decent part of the plot at last. They're going to kill her at three o'clock if she doesn't get rescued first.

As expected Luke is by far the best actor and the most sympathetic character here, and wow, that dog could move. He does all the work and is the real hero of the piece. I couldn't care less about Fatty, who is really not likeable in the least here. Lizzie is a fair damsel in distress, as played by Josephine Stevens, but then it's Fatty's mother and the Keystone Kops. This is hardly a good example of what Arbuckle could do, one stunt on a bicycle notwithstanding.

Fatty's Faithful Fido (1915) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

As you'd expect from the title, Fatty Arbuckle gets to co-star once more with probably my favourite Keystone actor, Luke the Dog. Unfortunately he doesn't get much to do early on, while Fatty and Al St John get to fight it out for the attentions of Minta Durfee outside One Lung's Chinese laundry. Fortunately for us though, the admirable acrobatic talents of Al St John are soon matched by the acrobatic talents of Luke the dog who gets to climb ladders and run along rooves to catch his man.

There's no story here at all, merely fourteen minutes of decent slapstick, with excellent stunts and plenty of people falling over or getting knocked over, or splashed or hit by bricks or chased up buildings and so on. A good deal of the running time is taken up by one fight or another, so if you're into physical humour there's no lack of it here to enjoy. There's not enough Luke the Dog but Fatty and Al St John are excellent, as are a whole slew of other actors, none of whom I recognise. The choreography is spot on and it all makes for a well above average barrel of laughs.

That Little Band of Gold (1915) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

After watching Mabel and Fatty's Married Life yesterday, now I get to see him propose to her in That Little Band of Gold. Both were released the same year, 1915, but I can't find a release date for yesterday's movie to see which came first. I'm sure there must have been many strange quirks like this back in the days when actors could churn out a film a week.

Anyway, Fatty proposes to then marries Mabel in no time flat, then proceeds to become an unworthy husband, staying out with his friends and getting drunk rather than spending time with her. Combine that with a stereotypically bitter mother-in-law and we're not watching domestic bliss. They manage to make it to the opera but soon the sheer uncouthness of Fatty and a friend of his in an opposite box takes over.

The story is a bitter one. Fatty gets married but promptly steals his friend's date, whereupon the friend squeals on him and you can imagine the rest. Now it may be a telling sign of the era that I didn't recognise all the actors but I did recognise the restaurant Fatty ends up in, leaving his family watching the opera: I've seen Chaplin get into trouble in this restaurant too.

There are name actors here though: beyond Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand, two of the big stars of the era, there are all the usual names from the Keystone studio, most of whom started out as Keystone Kops: Ford Sterling, Slim Summerville, Al St John and Edgar Kennedy. There's even Charley Chase working beyond the counter at the opera. Sterling is painful to watch here but everyone else keeps the side up and Fatty and Mabel are very watchable. This is possibly the best of his films I've seen, consistent throughout a 22 minute running time. It's not great, but it's an easy way to spend time.