Friday 31 August 2007

Coney Island (1917) Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle

Made in 1917, this was Buster Keaton's fifth film with Fatty Arbuckle and his fifth film full stop. He was therefore nigh on unknown at this point and he gets accordingly little screen time, though he's fine when he's in front of the camera. However while Fatty is certainly the star here, he doesn't hog the limelight, letting others strut their stuff too.

We're at Coney Island, as you'd expect from the title, the amusement park which we first see at night in archive footage. Fatty escapes his wife, played by Agnes Neilson, so that he can enjoy a little of Coney Island with a young lady. There's a comedy of errors with Al St John stealing Buster Keaton's girl, only for her to be stolen again by Fatty Arbuckle. To get away with it and because it's the only disguise available, Fatty dresses up as a rather large girl in a swimsuit, leading to further confusion when Al St John decides he likes the look of the large lady and tries it on with her, only for Keaton to turn up as a lifeguard and expose the charade.

There's plenty here to enjoy, in what must have been one of the quickest, most action packed shorts Arbuckle ever put together. It's completely insane slapstick, but it's fast and furious and fun. Beyond the cross dressing disguise, Fatty gets to fight underwater, lock his wife up in jail and even ask the cameraman to pan up while he gets changed. It's inventive and anarchic and one of the best Fatty Arbuckles I've seen thus far.

Character Studies (1927) Anon

This is a fascinating little piece, though hardly a real film as we would usually see it today. It's a six minute fake impressionist piece, made by mimic Carter DeHaven for a party hosted by Hollywood's greatest couple of the time, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. Apparently through application of costume and makeup, though naturally through the magic of cinema and a little bit of clever editing, DeHaven transforms himself into a number of what are credited as the world's greatest screen stars. Given who he chooses, I have no argument with that.

He progresses through Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Fatty Arbuckle (during his period of forced screen absence), Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks himself and finally Jackie Coogan, all 13 years of him, which would be no small feat bu There's not much here for the average viewer, except six minutes easily spent on a curiosity. Nowadays it would be a YouTube video constructed by someone with a talent for mashups. Back in 1925 when it was made (1927 was its commercial release), it's easy to see it being a riot at that party.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966)

There were strange musicals before Paint Your Wagon and this one was obviously going to be one of them, just from the title. It's a comedy musical set way back in the degenerate days of Rome and you know exactly the sort of humour from the people who are in it. The stars are Zero Mostel and Phil Silvers, and that's a stunning double bill in itself, but backing them up is Buster Keaton along with people like Michael Hordern, Michael Crawford and someone called Jack Gilford, who I imagine is much better known to an American audience.

Mostel is Pseudolus, a wily slave belonging to Senex, a henpecked nobleman with a wife with delusions of grandeur. He lives in one of three houses in a fashionable suburb of Rome, and the other two are populated by ancient and senile Erronius and and Marcus Lycus, who runs a house of pleasure. Erronius is played by Buster Keaton, and he's on a decades long search to find his children, who were abducted as infants. Lycus is played by Phil Silvers, who could almost have swapped roles with Zero Mostel. Almost but not quite.

The intracacies of the plot are as joyously complex, nonsensical and hilarious as they are plentiful. Young Hero, son of Senex, is dim but in love with Philia, one of the courtesans at the house of Lycus. Unfortunately she's already been sold to a virile and egotistical captain called Miles Gloriosus, so Pseudolus helps Hero to get her in exchange for his freedom. Naturally nothing works out as expected. Everyone gets into trouble, usually while hiding something from someone else who is trying to hide something from them, and usually

It would be stupid to go into details because you ought to see it yourself and enjoy the insanity of it. Mostel is hilarious, Silvers and Keaton are excellent though there isn't enough of either of them and I ought to find out more about Jack Gilford. Michael Horden is wonderful, as is Patricia Jessel as his wife. Leon Greene was obviously fighting the fact that Zero Mostel was making everyone on the entire set laugh like crazy, but he makes us believe in the size of his ego. Michael Crawford shows us just why he was so good in Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em. Backing them up are people of the calibre of Annette Andre, Roy Kinnear and Peter Butterworth and the delectable Inga Neilsen.

Given that it's a musical, I really ought to comment on the songs. Anyone who's read any of my reviews of musicals know that I generally really don't like the things. I tend to either fail to get the stories or love the stories and just wish they'd shut up singing and dancing and get on with the plot. This one is such a riot that the songs merely carry on the inanity and they're good ones too, courtesy of Stephen Sondheim. They're cleverly written and generally not performed by people who are particular trained singers, but people like Zero Mostel who embue them with character and fun. Here's a musical I can enjoy, very much so.

Wednesday 29 August 2007

Employees' Entrance (1933) Roy Del Ruth

We're at Franklin Monroe & Co, est 1878, a large department store. Apparently it's doing very well indeed with sales figures going from $10m to $100m in less than a decade, though trusted gentleman employees have gradually been sloughed away. The politeness of the past has gone, replaced by the brutal efficiency of General Manager Kurt Anderson, who is the key reason for the success. His code is 'smash or be smashed', and he's a man of his word. We first meet him making a power play to the board and he's obviously the only man at any level of power who has a clue. He has the guts and the balls to do anything needed; and to say anything to anyone, regardless of the consequences or the hurt feelings.

In fact he's precisely the sort of character you'd expect to be played by Warren William, especially as this is a precode so the writers don't have to hold back. Fortunately for us, that's precisely who got the part, and he's as dynamic, deep and versatile as you'd expect. It's perhaps a little stagy but it's almost impossible to notice when William's in his stride. He grabs our attention by sheer force of personality. He isn't loved but he's respected, because above anyone else, he gets the job done and with the depression starting to hit, who else could fill his boots?

Well there's one man, Martin West, played by Wallace Ford, who might just be able to do it, with time and training, and Kurt Anderson has had his eye on him long enough to hire him as his assistant. The problem is that he wants West to be available 24/7, though West has just got married secretly to Madeleine Walters who works at Monroe's as a model. Beyond the obvious difficulty in juggling schedules and finding nonexistent free time, Anderson had hired young and almost destitute Madeleine in the first place and took full advantage of the fact in the process.

There's a huge amount of truth here. The board are as out of touch as they could be, with members living on their yachts, spending their time welcoming visiting dignitaries and sending the same telegrams to the staff. The executive vice president who tries to keep his eyes on Anderson gets distracted by a fluffy model hired specifically to be that distraction. Anderson is great as his job but he's not great as a human being. He is sleazy enough to take advantage of Madeleine again, and while he doesn't know she's married we're left with the suggestion that he wouldn't have done anything different even if he had. He stoops to some seriously underhanded behaviour to get what he wants and in the hands of Warren William, it's all completely believable and while it's very precode, it could easily be shot precisely the same way today, just in colour.

William is awesome, as always. He was unbeatable in the precodes and while this isn't his greatest, it's still great. He's vicious here but never evil. He relishes in immoral behaviour but there's always a logical reason behind it, and he's not afraid to change his opinion or continue it in bizarre directions as long as that logic is there. He ruins one man and his business because of it but later makes something of the same man for precisely the same reason. He's consistent and powerful because of it.

I'm not a big fan of Wallace Ford, who plays Martin West, but this has to be the best I've seen him. Loretta Young is fine as Madeleine though to my mind she's outshone by Alice White as the fluffy golddigger Polly Dale. There are other names here, from a surprisingly quiet and not particularly ascerbic Ruth Donnelly to an uncredited Allen Jenkins as the store detective who costs Monroe's a concert grand piano. My only regret is that before long I'll have run out of Warren William precodes to watch.

Tuesday 28 August 2007

The Black Knight (1954) Tay Garnett

One year after Shane, Alan Ladd went from mysterious stranger in a western to mysterious stranger in a mediaeval vigilante film, for want of a better description. I don't know what he was thinking, especially as his accent would have been entirely inappropriate even if everyone else in the cast wasn't actually English, but that fact really makes it obvious. I'll grant that it may not have seemed really weird to hire Fred Williamson as a make up artist because it's 1954 and blaxploitation hadn't come along yet, but Ladd was horrendously miscast and a complete and embarrassing waste of space.

We're in the age of Arthur, but we don't start out at Camelot. We're at the Earl of Yeonil's castle and the wildly melodramatic music highlights the sort of melodramatic story we're in for. The Earl is a fair man, so won't punish swordmaker John for happening to be in love with his daughter and she with him. Instead he sends him away, as a friend, and Sir Ontzlake allows him the prize sword he had been fashioning. Sir Ontzlake's concept is that while some men are born knights, others become them by virtue of fighting for what they believe.

Naturally the moment he heads out, fake Viking raiders with rubber swords, led by the villainous Saracen Sir Palamides, wipe out the castle and the half dozen people who seem to live there, and he's not soon enough back to help. However he can follow them to Camelot and attack them in open court, to find that the man he heard laugh is apparently a mute, and it's only the feast of Pentecost that allows him a three month chance to prove his case or die for the insult. Naturally he becomes the mysterious Black Knight of the title, even though he couldn't swash a buckle in Errol Flynn's company, let alone that of Douglas Fairbanks.

This is a bad film, make no mistake, and Alan Ladd is far from the only reason for it. Even such luminaries as Andre Morell, Patrick Troughton and Peter Cushing can't save the ludicrous material, and with a few notable exceptions I see more authentic costumes every time I go to a Renaissance Festival. I've seen worse fighting scenes, but I've also seen a heck of a lot better, and it's rather obvious that Alan Ladd wasn't involved in any of them. Even in the training scenes, it's unmistakeable that he's only there against rear projection shots with his helmet off, while it's someone else fighting with the helmet down.

The biggest problem is that the film takes forty minutes to set up and there's only as much left to get on with it and come to some sort of conclusion. Ladd is awful, obviously suffering from his own personal demons, but to be fair he has nothing to work with. He has half a film to build up the case for revenge, but then only five minutes to change from nothing but a swordmaker to a skilled warrior, literally one scene building up a reputation and then the last half waiting around for his moment. He also has to be the Black Knight, man of mystery who nobody can identify, even though he's the only man in the kingdom with an American accent. It's all completely ludicrous, and that's before the whole Stonehenge thing, which is beyond painful.

Sunday 26 August 2007

Humanoids from the Deep (1980) Barbara Peters

There were a few surprises here but not many. It was surprising to see a sex and violence horror movie from 1980 directed by a woman, but then the gratuitous nudity shots were added after she wrapped. It was surprising to see a Native American territorial theme in something this dumb, but it doesn't go much further than providing an excuse for some basic racism. Mostly it was just surprising to see a girl's bikini top turn inside out between shots and to hear a DJ in a fishing town pronounce the L in 'salmon'.

The story is pretty basic and pretty obvious. We're in Noyo Harbor, which is an old fashioned salmon fishing town whose traditional livelihood is being threatened by a new cannery. The local Native American is upset about it but nobody else really gives much of a crap. Soon enough it's the last thing on anyone's mind as bad things are happening. Boats explode, people get eaten in the water, one night everyone's dogs turn up dead. Soon it escalates to the point where the population starts getting depleted and lead star Doug McClure has to go and investigate.

He manages to find some humanoids from the deep, who are now enjoying the treats to be found on land too. He does so with the help of the lead scientist from the cannery company, who also shows him video footage of how they came to be. Apparently it's all because some scientific experiment to increase the salmon population went wrong, so injecting salmon with DNA is a bad thing, especially when the salmon grow heads. Anyway they end up as seven foot tall Creature from the Black Lagoon type monsters with heads like the Ghoulies and the moment Doug McClure dumps a dead one on the pier at the town festival, a whole army of the things break through underneath and start a murderous rampage. You have to love the timing armies of monsters always have.

It's hard to describe how bad this film is. Admittedly some of it is funny and some of what's funny is deliberately funny. Some of the shock shots are pretty shocking too. However most of it is awesomely stupid. Yes, I remember how dumb eighties horror movies usually were, but this is worse, and I'm not just talking about the blatant continuity errors where bikini tops appear and disappear just like the sun in this film.

The acting isn't much better. Doug McClure was never a particularly great actor but he's possibly the best one in this film. Vic Morrow isn't great and he's the only other name I know, but Ann Turkel is truly awful. Somehow she got nominated for a Golden Globe for something made earlier than this, which meant that she must have been sleeping with someone. Oh, she was: she married the lead star of that film, Richard Harris, that same year. Amazingly enough she didn't marry Doug McClure after this one.

At the end of the day, Roger Corman's decision to add in more nudity and gore may have spoilt the continuity of the whole thing but his additions are about the only things worth watching. Those and the ventriloquist's dummy.

Saturday 25 August 2007

Shane (1953) George Stevens

It's hard to say how much I really don't like watching Tom Kenny present films on TCM. I'm completely aware that many of the regulars probably thought the same about Rob Zombie, but it's only Kenny that annoys the crap out of me. However at least here he let us in on some interesting material, such as reminding me about Alan Ladd's height. He was only 5' 5" tall, thus requiring director George Stevens and the people who worked with him on Shane to play all sorts of tricks to make him look bigger, not that they managed particularly, but that doesn't matter.

We start off in a beautiful landscape. The landscape is beautiful, and could easily be called idyllic. There's plenty of water and greenery before a mountainous background. There are white clouds and blue sky and deer and only a single homestead run by Joe Starrett. While I'd probably seen it many times before, I really learned about one of the key themes of westerns in The Sea of Grass: the battle between ranchers and homesteaders, and it's made very apparent early on that it's the theme here.

Ranchers, who after all were there first, felt the open country should remain open, for cattle to roam free on, at least until they rounded them up and turned them into beefsteak. To them, homesteaders were nothing more than squatters, putting down fences and getting in the way. On the flip side, the homesteaders felt that the old way was gone and that too much land was used for too little result. So they staked their claims, built their fences, raised their few cattle and got hassled by the ranchers. Shane is so archetypal that the very first words tell us that whole story on a macro scale before focusing in on the micro scale. Joe Starrett's son Joey tells him 'Someone's coming, pa,' and he answers 'Well let him come.' That's what the whole picture is about.

The battle here is between seven or eight homesteaders, ostensibly led by Starrett, and a rancher by the name of Rufus Ryker. The 'someone' is Shane, a weary gunfighter who finds his way to Starrett's and enjoys the welcome. Starrett is Van Heflin, in probably the best role he ever played. Certainly it's far more appropriate than Lord Gaythorne, the character he played in his debut film, A Woman Rebels, opposite Kate Hepburn. Ryker is Emile Meyer, who I don't know anywhere nearly as well as people like Elisha Cook, Ben Johnson and Edgar Buchanan.

As you can expect, Ryker is trying to drive out the homesteaders and he's winning the battle. However the presence of Shane changes everything. One of Ryker's men tries it on with him and Shane lets him, but the return match escalates into a full blown bar brawl in which Starrett and Shane take on Ryker and his men. They win too, but of course that just escalates it another level. Ryker sends for the man who makes this film a success far more than Alan Ladd did, though Ladd is superb and that diminutive stature helps him get away with lines like the one he delivers after Joey shows him his rifle and asks him if he can shoot. 'A little bit', he says.

Alan Ladd is excellent at being quiet and reserved, yet still being a man of action. He fits very well on the screen with Van Heflin and Jean Arthur, who plays his wife as a quiet yet tough woman. She looks good in soft focus, and of course sounds great, as she always did. It was her last film, five years after her previous one, A Foreign Affair, though even over fifty she looked younger than Emile Meyer as Rufus Ryker, who was ten years younger. Eleven year old Brandon de Wilde is hardly a great actor, but he does fine in his second film and he's absolutely perfect for the part as a hero worshipping little kid. He's a mirror for everyone else's emotions and he's spot on. His Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor was for the casting as much as for the acting.

The man we're waiting to see though is Jack Wilson, gunfighter by profession and so tough that even the dog on the floor of the deserted bar gets the heck out of his way. He's as archetypal as Shane, Ryker, the themes, the settings and everything, and he's played to such perfection that he's one of the greatest bad guys the screen ever saw. Jack Wilson is played by a man who had as many names as Shane didn't. He was born Volodymyr Palahnyuk and he fought as a professional boxer under the name of Jack Brazzo. Here he's credited as Walter Jack Palance, but he'd soon drop the Walter. His Oscar didn't come until City Slickers in 1992, when he memorably accepted it while doing one handed pressups at the age of 73. He was only nominated for this one, but he made his presence emphatically known for a notably short number of screen minutes, even if he never says 'Pick up the gun'.

What's most astounding here is how veteran director George Stevens got this film made. It was supposed to be made with Montgomery Clift as Shane and William Holden as Starrett, but both ended up on other films. Jean Arthur was effectively retired. The film was nearly abandoned or sold to a different studio because of the cost. Alan Ladd, beyond being only 5' 5" tall, couldn't shoot, thus the rock shooting scene with little Joey took 119 takes. Jack Palance couldn't ride a horse, though he practiced incessantly and managed to get one good mount on film. Screenwriter A B Guthrie didn't even know what a screenplay looked like when he started work. Stevens had to import cattle that didn't look so well fed and even dress a man up in a bear costume to scare them during one of the fight scenes. None of that boded well for Shane in the slightest, but Stevens made it, spent a couple of years editing it and it ended up as great as it could be.

Thursday 23 August 2007

All My Sons (1948) Irving Reis

If you're going to have a tragic mind churner it's no bad thing to have Edward G Robinson in the lead. Here he's Joe Keller, a factory owner, who has Burt Lancaster for a son called Chris. The immediate drama is that Chris wants to marry Annie but Annie is his brother Larry's girl, and it's a tossup between whether his brother is missing or dead. Fast forward and Chris is back with Annie to stir everything up again. Mom is still holding out hope that Larry will one day come home, so all his shoes are kept polished and his clothes kept in the closet and the piano that he played kept closed. She's even got the neighbour to do a horoscope for him to prove that he couldn't have been killed on his favourable day.

We soon find out the rest, namely that there are some serious skeletons in the closet. Annie is the daughter of Joe's partner, who is serving a long term in prison and Joe himself is accused of being a murderer by a drunken woman who used to work in his factory during the war. The pair of them were apparently tried for knowingly supplying defective parts to the air force and thus causing the deaths of 21 pilots in Australia, and quite possibly Larry. Annie's father was convicted and the word is that Joe knew about it.

The story is melodrama but it's reasonably tight melodrama, based on a play by Arthur Miller. There's a huge grey area between right and wrong here, intention and circumstance and consequence. What makes it even more interesting is that it isn't necessary the original actions that have the biggest impact but those that came later. Gradually these things come out, as they must, stirred up by characters coming back from the past and bringing it back to life again. The story is half of it and the acting is the rest.

Without the right performances, this would have fallen flat, but I discovered a while ago that Edward G Robinson just didn't give bad ones and the more I see of him the more I believe that he simply didn't know how to give anything but a great one. He's great here, two films after The Stranger and one before Key Largo, as the good guy, the bad guy and the somewhere in between guy all wrapped into one. His face carries every emotion required and he's thoroughly believable at every step. Mady Christians is fine as his wife Kate and Lancaster is decent too though he's notably wooden compared to Eddie G. Then again his part doesn't have the depth that Robinson's had.

To talk more about it would be to analyse the ethics and that would spoil it. You need to work through them yourself, and you should certainly take the opportunity if it makes itself apparent.

Wednesday 22 August 2007

Topaze (1933) D'Abbadie D'Arrast

The Topaze of the title is Professor August Topaze, played by John Barrymore. He's a characterful teacher at the Stegg Academy, who has rated young Charlemagne de la Tour with a long string of zeros, something that the Baroness Hortense de la Tour is more than a little unhappy about. She and her husband, the Baron, are just as unhappy about the Professor's political views, which go beyond anti-capitalism to nigh on communism.

The class we are treated to watch is fascinating but bizarre. Topaze is sincere and idealistic but misguided and a strange choice to teach a class on ethics, especially one that contains such students in his class. However he soon loses his position, courtesy of the Baroness's intervention, with dishonour because honesty is hardly the best policy in the real world of the precodes, and he's forced to join the real world for which he is woefully unprepared for.

Strangely he ends up hired by the Baron de la Tour as a research chemist, rewarded still further by the use of his name a sparkling water of no merit. He has absolutely no clue about anything, from the blatant exploitation of his name to the Baron's adultery. As Myrna Loy's character points out, he's deaf, dumb and blind. She's astute and honest in her own way, but she's wasted on such a mediocre character.

John Barrymore has great fun with his character, a blissfully ignorant man with a blissfully ignorant take on everything. The precodes were a fascinating period for him and I've now seen almost all of his work from that era. While the films themselves aren't always great, he was always powerful in roles from Arsene Lupin to Svengali, from the Baron in Grand Hotel to Larry Renault in Dinner at Eight. Professor Topaze is a worthy addition to that repertoire, but he's about the only fascinating thing about this stage adaptation, with the possible exception of Luis Alberni's outrageous accent.

It's not a great film and there's little to it outside of Topaze himself, but fortunately he learns from the situations he is thrust into and adapts them to suit his own purposes. As the second half of the film progresses, he captures our sympathies and rides them to a decent finale. It's fluff but it's fluff with John Barrymore. That's never a bad thing, however much this one tries.

Bagdad (1949) Charles Lamont

Bagdad in 1949 was a very different place to the Baghdad of 2007. The key thinking here is made aware to us via the opening narration: it's the point between the civilised west and the savage east and in Bagdad all unbelievable things are possible. The narration comes to us courtesy of the rather recognisable voice of Vincent Price, who plays a Turkish military governor. He's welcoming Maureen O'Hara to Bagdad and she's apparently a princess of the Aramlak, merely one who has spent almost her entire life in England. The glorious technicolor merely enables that fact to become even more fantastic.

Anyway Princess Marjan returns just in time to find out that her father, the Sheikh, is dead and his tribe destroyed. Given that the princess is a headstrong young so and so, she does her best to do something about it, by singing at the Cafe Efrangi. Another person who spent many years in Europe is also fighting the black robed Bedouin and that turns out to be Prince Ahmed, the very man who's head she wants in return for her father's, hiding as Hassan the camel driver. Naturally romance ensues, though surprisingly little.

Price is great fun as a military pasha and he gets to strike a number of suitably diabolical villainous poses and look notably upset. His lazy eye is unexplained but fascinating. Maureen O'Hara is a nonsensical choice to play a Bedouin princess, with her red hair, ruby lips and horrendously dubbed soprano voice, but she looks great in the glorious technicolor and she's as believable in indignant and dedicated vengeance here as she was in Big Jake. Her eyes were always powerful. Paul Hubschmid (credited as Paul Christian) tries to turn his role into an Errol Flynn/Douglas Fairbanks Jr swashbuckler but isn't dashing enough. What he excels at is dialogue.

This dialogue is one of the true pleasures here: watching Price and Hubschmid battle with rapier sharp politeness is at once joyous and hilarious. They get some great lines and they execute them with precise skill. However for all the clever dialogue, the story is stunningly dumb. My favourite inanity is when aged bodyguards leap headlong into rooms they want to check for danger before drawing their swords. One is quick to wonder how such bodyguards became aged in the first place. However that's one of many. when Princess Marjan wants to infiltrate a camp, she's careful to disguise herself in new clothing but completely misses out on the fact that she's the only woman in the entire country to have flowing red hair. She also happily makes her exclamations in an Islamic manner, while just as happily not wearing a veil or praying at the appointed times or even looking towards Mecca.

Surprisingly inept as the Princess's father's right hand man, Mohammed Jao, is Jeff Corey, one of the most acclaimed acting teachers in Hollywood. He's wooden here, though far less out of place than most of the leads, but apparently he trained everyone from Jack Nicholson to Cher, from Robert Blake to Robin Williams, from James Dean to Leonard Nimoy. At least his costume is more believable than anyone else's, these being the brightest and cleanest clothes I've ever seen on desert warriors. Corey is bad but he's still one of the better things about the film. That really says plenty in itself.

Monday 20 August 2007

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) George Roy Hill

It's been a little while since I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five, but it impressed me and I wonder how it could be filmed. It's one of the least categorisable stories I know. It's a time travel, space travel science fiction story, but it's also a war film and a drama and a comedy and a satire and pretty much any other genre you can come up with. It's about the firebombing in Dresden but more than anything it's an exploration of human nature in the face of absurdity.

Billy Pilgrim is the hero, in as much as there is such a thing. We first meet him as he composes a letter to the Ilium, that details how he keeps slipping through time. He leaps back and forth and here and there without any control over the process. One minute he's home in a huge house writing his letter, the next he's behind enemy lines in the Second World War and then he's on the planet Tralfamadore with Valerie Perrine in a skimpy negligee. You can imagine the problems hop, skip and jumping from one to the next.

There's an interesting cast: Dr Stephen Falken from Wargames, Boss Hogg from The Dukes of Hazzard, even Queequeg from Moby Dick who I seem to be seeing in everything nowadays. Michael Sacks is the lead and he's excellent, seeming both believable yet completely out of place wherever he happens to be at the time. He reminds a little of William Hurt but as even more of an everyman. Ron Leibman excels as an obnoxious American soldier called Paul Lazzaro and he gets the most memorable lines, with the possible exception of Sharon Gans as Billy's wife Valencia promising to lose weight every time she's happy.

Most memorable of all though are the scenarios that Vonnegut conjures up: Billy's wife driving the wrong way through a group of Hell's Angels, the Brits welcoming the American prisoners of war, Billy's family reacting to Valerie Perrine stripping on screen at a drive in, the night canopy, the grandfather clock, the little statue. And yet, after all the absurd situations the inevitable one we constantly build towards is the firebombing of Dresden. Like Pilgrim talking to Wild Bob Cody, who was writing his own biased history of the event, Vonnegut was there and knew exactly what it was like.

It was his use of the event in his novel Slaughterhouse-Five that made many people aware of it and raised the discussion of it as a war crime. I certainly feel that while nobody's ever going to convince people that Auschwitz or Belsen was good ideas, people looking back from the perspectives of a few hundred years in the future aren't going to look too kindly on Dresden or Hiroshima (or Coventry) either. Then again, Vonnegut explores the Tralfamadorian concept of fatalism, where all time exists at once and we can revisit any point whenever we want to. Suddenly life and death are merely points in time.

Sunday 19 August 2007

Clean (2004) Olivier Assayas

This one was always going to be interesting. I firmly believe that Maggie Cheung is one of the most powerfully versatile actresses working in the industry today. I could reel off a slew of films in which I felt her performance deserved the highest accolades, and while she's won no end of top flight awards in the east from the Golden Horse Awards or the Hong Kong Film Awards, it took this long in her career to gain real notice in the west. She won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for this one.

She made this for her ex-husband, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas. Now I've seen a couple of his films and I'm really interested to see how this one turns out from his perspective too. Irma Vep was made before they were married and it was a fascinating film, though not all it could be. Demonlover was made after they divorced, and while it had eastern connections Cheung wasn't involved. It appears on the list of 100 great French films compiled by The Times, but I thought it was highly disappointing and didn't make sense. This one has garnered huge acclaim all round and it's shot in three languages: English, French and Cantonese. It should be very interesting indeed.

Maggie plays Emily Wang, the wife of aging rocker Lee Hauser, played by James Johnston from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. She appears to be something of Yoko Ono, bringing her husband down, but it's deeper than that. It looks like really everyone was bringing everyone down, including Hauser himself, and she merely didn't help any with her drug problem. Anyway, Hauser overdoses on heroin in a motel room and she is sent up for six months. She's put on methadone to help her off her own addiction but has a long struggle to get clean, moving from Canada to Paris, where she used to host a cable show.

Also in Canada is her son Jay, who has been brought up by his grandparents, Lee's parents, while Lee and Emily travel around trying to rekindle his career and unable to function as parents in the slightest. Emily wants to be with her son and gradually comes to the realisation that she has to be completely clean and get her life in shape first. We follow her through that journey until she can work with father-in-law Albrecht, played by Nick Nolte, who is a grizzled old Canadian with plenty of insight and decency.

Everything I didn't like about Demonlover is gone here. It all makes sense, very clear sense and it's focused without ever being obvious. Assayas keeps us thinking all the way through, wondering where it's going and where it will end up. Cheung is brilliant, as I'd expect, and with huge depth to her role. but Nolte surprised me with how powerful his sensitivity is. I've seen him in enough movies as a believable tough guy and he's tough here too but in a very different way. He's a good and caring man, though he's no saint, and he's surprisingly believable.

It's the script that surprised me most though. In Demonlover Olivier Assayas didn't make sense to me at all. I felt that he was trying to be extreme and abstract at the same time but didn't have the material to back any of it up. It ended up in my eyes as a mess that didn't make sense. Here he shines, both as a writer and as a director. His script is deep, really deep, but works on the surface too. His direction is deliberately paced and restrained but always interesting. Like a few films I've seen lately, this is one to come back to, but not to find an understanding or just to see if it holds up on a second viewing, more to peel back another couple of layers and immerse myself in it. Very impressive indeed.

Saturday 18 August 2007

El Topo (1970) Alejandro Jodorowsky

I've waited a long, long time to see this film, which has been kept from release by issues between the man who made it it, director Alejandro Jodorowsky, and the owner of the rights, Allen Klein who was John Lennon's manager. Finally they have come to an agreement and it, along with The Holy Mountain and others have been released in a powerful box set. My wait is over. So, having read so much about this film, I finally get to see it. What's it about? Well, from what I've read that will be the applicable question when I finish it too.

We open with a rite of passage. El Topo has ridden into the desert with his seven year old son, so that he can become a man by burying his first toy and his mother's picture. He's clad all in leather and wouldn't seem out of place in a spaghetti western, while his son is naked. They then discover a village where everything and everyone has been massacred, from the people to the horses, leaving a river of blood down the main street. Back in the desert, they come across a trio of sexual deviants busy practicing their respective fetishes and they're fool enough to try El Topo on. He's a gunfighter and a very quick one, it seems, though he seems to speak in one word sentences.

There's a lot of mysticism, ritual and symbolism in this film though I certainly don't recognise the meaning of all of it. Some of it is blatantly obvious, such as one of the remainder of the men responsible for the massacre blowing his nose on pages from the bible at the Franciscan mission, or the perverse suggestivity of bandits thrusting lizards between their legs. Much of it may just be plain bizarre, with what seems like no regard for taboos or restraint, though it's often far from inappropriate. Scenes like the one where a bandit walks alongside a long line of prisoners facing away from him towards a wall and shoots them at random without even looking at them are sadly and shockingly believable.

Just as with Santa Sangre, there are things here that you've never seen before. In how many films can you see naked monks being ridden like dogs and whipped with cacti? How many have armless men carrying legless men on their backs, working symbiotically to climb ladders and braid ponytails? How many have mystical gunfights within a corral full of dead bunnies? How many have the lead character comatose for years while cared for by incestuous crippled dwarves? How many have a rape scene where the perpetrators are six scary old women and the victim a young virile black guy? How many have boxing matches with barbed wire wrapped gloves? How many have religious services that involve russian roulette and end with dead children? That's not to mention the skinned and crucified goat, bareback lesbian whipping and the hallucinogenic dead insect sucking. And everything else.

What surprised me most was how this is so ostensibly a mystical film set in a western framework, yet it adheres far more closely to the eastern format. Picture the powerful fighter learning first that there are masters beyond his ken and then learning their skills from them through hardship and dedication. That sounds far more like a kung fu film than a western, but it fits here with guns and the desert and violent bloody altercations.

It's also a metaphor for cinema itself, especially the rivalry between independent cinema and the mainstream. The very title and name of the main character, El Topo, fits that: the mole tunnelling out of the darkness and into the sunlight, if only for a short time where it is blinded. I'm sure the whole scene with the elderly women and the black guy could be seen as an attack on the treatment of minorities by Hollywood during its golden age. Simultaneously they as the Women's Decency League or whatever it's called could equate to the Production Code. Or maybe I'm just reading far too much into it, but this film really invites that sort of thing.

I'll really need to watch this with the commentary on. This is entirely Jodorowsky's vision, both as writer, director and lead actor: he plays El Topo and puts himself through no end of torment in the process, including shaving himself bald. Obviously this meant a huge amount to him, and it shows on the screen. I don't understand all of this and may never understand all of it, even after the commentary, but I'm not sure that matters. This is a visual masterpiece, completely unique. To still stand that way after a further 37 years is pretty astounding.

A Farewell to Arms (1932) Frank Borzage

As I'm sure I've detailed somewhere in some review or other, I haven't read a lot of American classic literature. I haven't really read that much English classic literature, at least compared to how much of it there is, but I'm way ahead on percentages compared to its American equivalent. I've read and enjoyed Hawthorne and Poe and Conrad, but haven't found my way to Ernest Hemingway yet. Like Steinbeck, Faulkner and Melville, I've never really had any desire to. Yet all three are massively important names and while I'm not reading their books yet, I'm seeing the films that were based on them.

A Farewell to Arms was a semi-autobiographical novel that followed the relationship of Lt Frederic Henry, an American serving during World War I as an ambulance driver in the Italian army, and Catherine Barkley, working as a nurse. The novel threads along through five books to detail how they meet, fall in love, part, reunite and finally have their child. Hardly inspiring stuff, it would seem, but it's been filmed twice with a third film based on it to a serious degree.

Frederic and Catherine meet towards the start of the film during an air raid, but are soon introduced by a mutual friend, an Italian soldier called Major Rinaldi. They fall for each other just like that, which stretches belief a little, even given the circumstances, but the acting makes up for it. Having the parts played by actors of the calibre of Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes lends plenty of credence that possibly shouldn't be there. Both are superb, the subtlety and sincerity of both and the discomfort that Cooper was always so good at showing working very much to the advantage of the whole thing.

Anyway, Lt Henry gets injured in the course of duty and ends up in the hospital where Catherine works, and they love each other, she gets pregnant against all rules, but he's sent out and has to escape his erstwhile captors by leaping into a river. They send each other a lot of letters, none of which arrive, and by the time Lt Henry finds out that she's now in Switzerland and as he rows over to find her she's busy giving birth while the enemy surrender, but this is a tragedy and the ending is as powerful as it is unfortunate.

Beyond Cooper and Hayes, there are few people of note here, but the story doesn't have much room for anyone else, especially as this is presumably a long book that's been condensed into only eighty minutes. Given that the finale steals probably a quarter of that, you can see how rushed everything else had to be to get to that point early enough. It's really Hayes and Cooper and very little else, only Adolphe Menjou being memorable as Major Rinaldi, but it's more than a little offputting that he keeps calling Gary Cooper 'baby'.

Lost Highway (1997) David Lynch

I've seen a lot of David Lynch movies, from Eraserhead to Dune, from Blue Velvet to Wild at Heart, from The Elephant Man to The Straight Story, and I enjoy his sense of the bizarre, whether he's really turning it on or not. Yet somehow I've never seen Twin Peaks, which possibly explains why I didn't even finish Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, and I've never seen this one.

Bill Pullman is Fred Madison, a jazz saxophonist married to Renee, played by Patricia Arquette, who looks good but strange in auburn hair and black clothes. They obviously care for each other but something isn't quite right because they hardly talk, their monotone voices are obviously deliberate and after they make love she gives him an OK pat on the back. What else isn't quite right is that an unknown someone starts leaving videotapes on their steps that contain deeper and deeper intrusions into their private lives. The first is just the exterior of their house but the second is from inside and shows them sleeping.

Madison meets a bizarre looking Robert Blake, credited simply as Mystery Man, at a party. They have a very surreal yet deliberate conversation in which this particular Mystery Man seems to be both with Madison at the party and at Madison's house at the same time. Next thing we know, Renee is dead and Fred has apparently killed her in cold blood, having been caught on tape in the process, while police watched their house at their own request.

Now this is strange, but it's hardly David Lynch level bizarre, at least not for a while. But then it takes the sort of turn that you'd expect in one of his films. Fred Madison is convicted of first degree murder and incarcerated but then starts suffering severe headaches, and sure enough one night he inexplicably becomes someone else entirely: a mechanic named Peter Raymond Dayton. Dayton doesn't even particularly look like Pullman and indeed is played by someone else entirely: Balthazar Getty. There are similarities though, not least that Dayton also finds someone in his life played by Patricia Arquette, this time a blonde white clothes wearing character called Alice Wakefield. There are also crossovers between people they each know that grow as the film goes on, and there's a lot of blurriness that the two of them share but they're emphatically not the same person. Except...

On the face of it none of this makes sense in the slightest and it's just some sort of weird trip that isn't going to be explainable. Then about three quarters of the way in, my lass and I figured out a key point that is pretty crucial to any understanding of the film, and which relies on David Lynch pulling a fast one over us. Suddenly much of it was clear, except then it became apparent that it wasn't. In the end we're forced into realising that this isn't reality, it's perception of reality and these people are not necessarily who we initially think they are.

Seeing Madison and Dayton as the same person and Renee and Alice as the same person doesn't work on a reality level because there are too many plot holes for that to work, and David Lynch is not someone to slip a whole slew of plot holes into one of his films without having a damn good reason for it. However seeing these different people as the same person on the basis of the film being the rationalising of one of them for what he has done starts to make everything fit. I think. More viewings needed.

Arquette is excellent here, further reducing the gap in my esteem between her and her elder sister, Rosanna, who I still feel is one of the most underrated actors of her era. Pullman and Getty are fine but they're both subservient to Arquette. Robert Blake is freaky wicked cool as Mystery Man, who it would seem is really Death. There are cameos from people like Gary Busey, Richard Pryor and Marilyn Manson, all short but notable. Robert Loggia is stunning as a tough gangster of some description, as we really don't know exactly what he does, other than it's something bad. His tailgating scene is pure Tarantino and it's hilarious.

The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) Michael Curtiz

Talk about mixed feelings going in. This is a film from 1939, Hollywood's golden year in which no end of great films were edged entirely out of getting any Oscar nominations because of sheer competition, yet this one was nominated for five Oscars. Admittedly none were in the major categories but five nominations are five nominations. It's an early Technicolor film, visually lash, and it was made at the hands of one of the greatest directors of the era, Michael Curtiz. It also features names as massive as those of Bette Davis and Errol Flynn in the leads, not to mention Donald Crisp, Alan Hale, Henry Daniell, Olivia de Havilland, Leo G Carroll, Henry Stephenson and some newcomer called Vincent Price.

However it's also a historical drama made in the golden age of Hollywood, which doesn't bode well for historic accuracy in the slightest and of course, as the title suggests, it's not likely to even remotely attempt it either, settling instead for gossip and melodrama. It's based on a play by Maxwell Anderson, who also wrote another play featuring Elizabeth I that was filmed as the often painful Mary of Scotland. That film made Elizabeth a villain and Mary a heroine, which doesn't bode well for this one.

We open in 1596 and the Earl of Essex marches to greet his queen, Queen Elizabeth I, after defeating the Spanish at Cadiz. He's popular with the masses but not with his queen who loves him but realises his danger and his ambition. Rather than shower him with praise, she castigates him for not returning with a promised treasure, which instead was sunk in Cadiz harbour by the Spanish, and sends him away, only to bring him back, keep him safe nearby, fail to keep him nearby, send him off to ruin in Ireland. Things don't go well for the lovers.

As expected, there's much good and much bad here and I'm surprised at some of it while not at most. Best of all is Bette Davis as Queen Elizabeth I, a role she reprised 16 years later in The Virgin Queen. She is blistering here, after seriously doing her homework. She's 31 but playing 66 and while 66 isn't believable in the slightest, she doesn't look particularly like herself under such pancake makeup. She is believable in her role beyond anyone else in the film and it's it's impossible not to watch her. I'm learning how powerful an actress she was, but it's patently obvious here that she's a couple of levels above everyone else in the film. She's blustery but simultaneously subtle, so that there's a huge amount of depth to her performance and every word she speaks is spoken exactly as it should have been. She was well and truly Oscar worthy here but she was nominated instead for Dark Victory.

Olivia de Havilland is fine playing against type as a petty and foolish lady in waiting who has a crush on Essex and who ends up causing no end of chaos for the title characters. Donald Crisp, Henry Stephenson and Henry Daniell are all fine, but they're basically playing the characters they always play rather than playing Francis Bacon, Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil respectively. Alan Hale doesn't arrive until late in the film and he's particularly good as the Irish rebel Tyrone, but he doesn't get anywhere near the screen time he deserves.

Flynn is mostly terrible but he has does have a few powerful scenes, such as when insulting Vincent Price or laughing kindly at Olivia de Havilland. In other words he sucks at being serious but excels at being flippant, which really doesn't surprise much when you look at the roles he excelled in over the years. He was great as Robin Hood and Captain Blood, accent notwithstanding, but those parts were all about romantic swashing of buckles rather than serious history. The direction is fine and deeper than it would seem on first glance, with the exception of the battle scenes in Ireland which are nothing but embarrassing: Tyrone's men fight in what seem to be costumes left over from The Adventures of Robin Hood the year before.

Worst of all though is the story, which is horrendous. Reading up on Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Maxwell Anderson, I'm not yet convinced it was his fault as I've only seen the films made of his work rather than read the plays themselves, but it does appear that way at first glance. Mary of Scotland wasn't just bad because of Katharine Hepburn being about the worst possible choice for Mary, Queen of Scots, it was bad because it threw over history for unashamed melodrama that made Queen Elizabeth I the villain of the piece. Here she has a better role but it still isn't right and now Walter Raleigh of all people is the villain. Like Mary of Scotland, this goes far beyond the shameless massacre of historical fact. It doesn't bend truth for cinematic effect, it takes all the characters and incidents involved and shuffles them up like a game of cards, fabricating from the ether whatever doesn't seem to work.

I don't know if Maxwell Anderson was racist against the English or either ignorant or uncaring of historical fact. Then again, those screenplays he contributed to personally include some favourites of mine, such as Washington Merry-Go-Round, Death Takes a Holiday and All Quiet on the Western Front. Maybe he wrote great and accurate plays that were just massacred in transition to the screen. Whatever, when history is portrayed as romantic melodrama and the writers can't even work out who the good guys and bad guys are, let alone those who are both, the story is always going to fail.

I found this very hard to rate, because of the diversity of quality. I ended up going OK on that being the general level of everything, but lowered it substantially for the story and raised it back up again for Bette Davis.

Friday 17 August 2007

Pray (2005) Yuichi Sato

I'm a big fan of Japanese film, from chambara to daikaiju to anime: swordplay movies, giant monster movies and animated film. I've especially enjoyed a lot of the strange and extreme films that Japan tends to produce, from Audition and Ichi the Killer to Battle Royale and The Story of Ricky to the Tetsuo and Guinea Pig films. Lately the trend has been towards modern horror and it, along with the late silent films that lasted well into the thirties in Japan, is where I'm most in need of catching up. I now have the opportunity with Ringu and Tomei box sets and films like the original version of Ju-On, remade in the west as The Grudge sitting in one of my DVD drommes ready to go. Now I realise that the Sundance Channel is showing a huge amount of them, I have even more opportunity to catch up.

This one is a Yuichi Sato film which doesn't help too much as one of only two that he's made, the other being something called Simsons. He's made a few TV series, but that's about it. The writer is Tomoko Ogawa, who hasn't many films behind her either: one as an actress, two as an assistant director and eight as a writer. even The lead actors have more credits to their name but still not too many. Mitsuru and Maki are played by Tetsuji Tamayama and Asami Mizukawa, and between them I've only heard of one film in their careers: Dark Water in which Mizukawa played a sixteen year old girl. I don't know if all this means that I merely picked a bad start to my J-horror blitz or that the genre is so powerful right now in Japan that everyone's jumping on the bandwagon. Maybe both.

Mitsuru and Maki need 50 million yen to pay a drug debt, so they kidnap a young girl called Ai Shinohara, sedate her and hide out at the abandoned Fukayama Elementary School, which Mitsuru went to in years gone by. About five minutes in we discover the catch. When they ring her parents to demand a ransom, they're told that their daughter has been dead for a full year to the day. Soon we realise that she's technically only missing but her mother does firmly believe that she's dead.

Something is obviously very wrong and the first ten minutes or so of bad acting gives way to a very creepy little film, simply but very effectively shot and with an intriguing little soundtrack. The little girl disappears and reappears, Mitsuru has flashbacks and three of his friends turn up to mix it up even more. There are a lot of surprises, the story being highly unpredictable but still very solid. The only bit I don't get is the very last line of the film. It's not great but creepy and unpredictable are great adjectives in my book.

Thursday 16 August 2007

House of Dark Shadows (1970) Dan Curtis

As resurrected from my notes of October 2006...

I never saw the Dark Shadows TV series (unlike my wife who chased home from grade school every day to watch it), but I did see the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, with Kate Jackson. This was the first, and it features many of the key cast from the series including Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, something that the second film couldn't claim. Nowadays we're used to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and all the supernatural series that followed in its wake, but back in 1966, Dark Shadows originated the concept. It was a gothic soap opera, highly unlike any other soap opera out there as lead character Barnabas was a vampire, and the rest of the cast were ghosts, werewolves, reincarnations or whatnot. All very strange stuff for a soap opera, but very popular indeed.

This film, made towards the end of the series, opens with some idiot called Willie Loomis who works for the Collins family discovering where the long lost family jewels are. He does indeed find them but also finds in the process the vampire Barnabas Collins who has been buried for a couple of hundred years in a chained coffin. Naturally he takes this opportunity to escape and nothing remains the same after that. He pretends to be a long lost relative from England, though of course he's the spitting image of the painting of his supposed ancestor that hangs in the house, and he moves into the old house at Collinswood.

The cast is a serious one. Jonathan Frid never did much else except play Barnabas, but names like Joan Bennett and Grayson Hall aren't minor figures in Hollywood. Some of the others though are obviously TV actors who are so wooden that they remind me of George Gaynes's character in Tootsie, but then again that was all about a television soap too. The story is cleverly done and there are some clever scares but all it appears very seventies indeed: the colour balance, the supposedly ethereal music, the blunt editing, the predictable camerawork that becomes very shaky when on the move.

At least this time my DVR recording from TCM didn't screw up two thirds of the way through, but I guess I don't have any more notes to make anyway. Suffice it to say that it apparently isn't that respectful to the threads of the TV series and so character motivations are changed to the degree of doing things that would never have been done. In other words, heresy. I don't know about any of that so it just seemed like an OK seventies vampire film. Nothing special. Move along.

Wednesday 15 August 2007

Tower of London (1962) Roger Corman

If you search IMDb for Tower of London you'll find two films sporting that title, both featuring Vincent Price and both playing merry havoc with the princes in the tower. The first was made in 1939 with a killer cast in every sense of the word, led by the hunchback Richard of Gloucester, who so wants to be Richard III and so bumps off all those pesky kids ahead of him to gain the throne. In 1939 that was Basil Rathbone with his younger and kinder brother Clarence played by Vincent Price, in only his third film role. In 1962 in the hands of Roger Corman, who had already cast him in three recent films, Price becomes Richard.

The story is simple, but Corman has fun with it. In fact he has a little too much fun, imbuing it with no end of ghosts, supernatural trickery and horrendous overacting. Edward IV is dying, so Richard of Gloucester kills his way to the throne, starting with his brother who promptly returns as a ghost to point out that Richard will die himself at the hand of one already dead. Unfortunately Vincent Price leads the overacting race in this movie, with not a hint at the cast of the original and far superior version. Beyond Rathbone and Price, that film had a memorable Boris Karloff, plus Ian Hunter, Leo G Carroll and others, while this one has, well, others.

Working through Vincent Price's career it's pretty obvious that he was both a skilled and sophisticated actor and a shameless ham. In some films, it's the skill and sophistication that comes through, making many of his performances joys to watch. He certainly had his own feel that riddled stories through. Yet in others he does nothing but ham it up, shamelessly overacting every line and every movement. He turns this one into an embarrassingly bad attempt at Shakespearean tragedy and it's an utter failure. Certainly it's the worst of his films that I've seen thus far, and the worst from Roger Corman too.

The Born Losers (1967) Tom Laughlin

One film that my wife knows well but that I don't know at all is Billy Jack, starring and directed by Tom Laughlin. I'd heard of it and knew there were sequels but both of us were surprised to find that it was actually a sequel itself, to 1967's The Born Losers. It's a counterculture film made in the Summer of Love. It's a biker film made a year after The Wild Angels and the same year as Hells Angels on Wheels and for American International no less, but with bikers very much as the bad guys. Not least it's one of a number of underground films released that really hammered the nails in the coffin of the newly dead Production Code, killed off the very same year.

Laughlin plays Billy Jack, a half Indian Green Beret back from Vietnam, and out of place a full fifteen years before John Rambo in First Blood. He finds himself in a small town where a gang of bikers are having their fun with a young local idiot. He helps out and saves the guy, but at the cost of a thousand dollar fine or 120 days inside. The bikers themselves are given the choice of only $150 or 30 days, for assault. So much for helping people. Of course the bikers carry on terrorising the town and it's up to Billy Jack to do something about it. That puts him well ahead of the urban vigilante films too.

Beyond the mild stuff, Danny and his bikers are getting heavily into gang rape. They've taken four young ladies, three of them locals and the fourth a visitor to town called Vicky Barrington, and had their wicked way with them. As you'd expect from brutal rape victims, especially young ones, they don't want to testify, and just to make sure the bikers are doing everything possible to ensure that they don't, not stopping short of repeating the job.

Billy Jack is calm and composed and polite. If it wasn't for the level of calm and composed that he exudes, he'd be pretty inconsequential, which is exactly what he's looking for. He takes care of Vicky, who believes she's a coward but is actually pretty tough and heroic in her own way, and does what he can to take care of the biker menace in the absence of any viable response from the authorities. Billy Jack may be a hero or a vigilante or a tough guy or plenty of other cliched terms that really don't mean much any more, but more than anything he's a refreshing voice of sanity, both against the 'good guys' and the 'bad guys'. He's an early seventies anti-hero.

Tom Laughlin is restrained as a director and he's pretty restrained as an actor. He lets the bikers strut their stuff and hog the limelight. He even lets Vicky's toughness shine through and make itself worth far more because of that. Beyond Laughlin himself, the acting is interesting if not always great. Some of the actors in smaller parts are simply terrible, and that's not just the young girls either. Jeremy Slate is memorable as the lead biker, Danny, with his bizarre white sunglasses. There's also a peaceful William Wellman Jr, son of the famous director, bitch mom Anne Bellamy and even Jane Russell, looking a little worse for wear. Best of all tough is Elizabeth James as Vicky Barrington. She may not be a great actress but she was very believable indeed.

At the end of the day, the film still seems very much out of place in any of those categories I came up with, because it's tough but also sensitive in ways that you don't expect this sort of film to be. Of course, the problem there is the definition of 'this sort of film'. Like its lead character, it walks its own path and as much as it deals with things like gang rape, it's the most respectful of women that I've ever seen a vigilante film or a biker film or action film or whatever you want to call it. Very impressive indeed. Now I need to see Billy Jack and the further sequels to see how they hold up.

Tuesday 14 August 2007

Marty (1955) Delbert Mann

When I think of Ernest Borgnine I think of Airwolf, which is understandable as I grew up watching him in it every week, but somewhat limiting when it comes to what had already been a long and celebrated career. I'd seen him before in The Dirty Dozen and Escape from New York but more recently I've been seeing him in films that haven't just stood the test of time but gone down in cinematic legend: From Here to Eternity, Johnny Guitar and Bad Day at Black Rock for a start. Suddenly I started to see him in a slightly different light, and this is the one that won him an Oscar.

He's the Marty of the title, Marty Piletti, a butcher and a good man but a lonely one. The very beginning of the film points out that he has a huge family, all of which seem to have spent much of their time getting married. All his customers keep telling him that he ought to be ashamed of himself for still being unmarried, especially as he's older than most of them and he still lives with his mother. All his friends want to go out and pick up girls, but he's fed up of the search.

Eventually his mother persuades him to go to the Stardust Ballroom where he has just as bad luck as usual, because he's not looking for the same things everyone else is. Purely by chance he ends up meeting a young lady who is in a similar plight. She's a quiet teacher called Clara Snyder, she's been badgered into going herself, she's used to being a wallflower, she lives with her father... lots and lots of similarities and so after being thrown together through the power of coincidence suddenly the wallflowers find themselves wallflowers no longer.

They haven't the faintest idea what they're doing, of course, and their first date, not that you could call it a date, is what most people would see as a complete disaster. They weren't looking for the same things everyone else was looking for, and they don't recognise what they find because they weren't expecting to find it. Yet because of who they are they really make an impression on each other and the future is suddenly full of possibility and giddiness too.

There are lessons here, both human ones and cinematic ones. Cinematically, it's far from the standard love story and far from the standard lovers, which is more than refreshing to my eyes. They're real people, they're good people and they deserve their happiness. I'd rather watch Marty and Clara talking to each other in a luncheonette anytime than a couple of lowlifes like Rhett and Scarlett screwing up each others lives anyday. A good deal of that is due to the story by Paddy Chayefsky, adapted to film from his own live TV show presentation, but leads Ernest Borgnine and Betsy Blair are absolutely perfect in their parts and Esther Minciotti and Augusta Ciolli are hilarious as two old Italian women bitching at each other.

On a human level, it isn't particularly surprising to me as I remember some of this from my own background, and I didn't have the added disadvantages of having a large and extended New York Italian family to bitch at me. I saw plenty of sheep in my own life who did things just because people told them to: get drunk, get laid get married. And most of those people who apparently fit wonderfully into society turned out to be not very happy about it, once they grew old enough to realise who they were. People like me who ignored most of that because we were annoyingly awkward and individual, grew up to find the people who mattered to us. Just like Marty and Clara, we started late but ended up happy, while pretty much everyone else we know started early and ended up in a complete mess.

Monday 13 August 2007

Lonelyhearts (1958) Vincent J Donehue

Myrna Loy looks amazingly old in this film, but then of the 41 films I've seen her in, 40 of them came over a decade before this one, only Midnight Lace coming afterwards. She's Florence Shrike, unhappy and unforgiven old woman, and she's married to Robert Ryan, playing the intellectually sadistic William Shrike, feature editor of the Chronicle. Young Adam White wants to work for him, finds his way to him via his wife at a pub near the paper and aces a little test Shrike puts him through. Shrike makes him Miss Lonelyhearts and while he doesn't want the job to start with he ends up taking it very seriously indeed.

Adam White is the lead, of course, and is played by Montgomery Clift, powerful young actor who was amazingly already over halfway through his career. Coming to this film from such major films as From Here to Eternity and Raintree County, he looks like a young man with an old Cary Grant head on his body. He's powerful though, as I'm coming to learn that he always was, but he's far from alone in that in this film. He looks wrong though, like he has too much head and too little body, just like Bogart did when his body started wasting away. Maybe it's just a perspective thing but I couldn't get that thought out of my mind.

Robert Ryan is a powerful scene stealer here, playing an alcoholic serial cheat with a talent for seriously left handed compliments. He's bitter and has the will and the cynical wit to make it bite into everyone else. Myrna Loy is playing heavily against type as his wife who has cheated on him in return while drunk. It seems strange seeing her as neither wholesome American housewife or exotic precode beauty, and it's hard not to watch her purely on those merits. Adding to the mix is the man who wanted the Lonelyhearts column: Ned Gates, played by an old and balding (but not bald) Jackie Coogan, who never failed to be magnetic on screen.

Of all these names, it's Maureen Stapleton as a fake lonelyheart who got the nominations, both for an Oscar and for a Golden Globe. She's good here, definitely, but I'm amazed that she got the nod over especially Robert Ryan and Montgomery Clift. Clift is probably too powerful, his presence overpowering the age he appears to be, but Ryan is spot on. I spent the whole film waiting for someone to clock him one because he certainly deserved it, to the degree that I wouldn't have been unduly surprised if it had been the hand of Myrna Loy.

The story deserves notice too, being tough and clever and deliberate. It's based on a play by Howard Teichmann, and was adapted by Dore Schary, neither of them names I know but obviously major talents nonetheless. I know very little about modern theatre, 'modern' meaning probably anything written in at least the second half of the twentieth century and maybe a little earlier, but there are obviously seriously good writers hiding in there behind all those names I know but have never paid much attention to. Given the right people to bring the stories to life, something special happens and we can't stop watching. I can't say that I enjoyed this because it's hardly the sort of story to enjoy, but I couldn't stop watching.

Sunday 12 August 2007

Master of the World (1961) William Witney

I'm a sucker for those old Jules Verne scientific romances that, along with those of H G Wells, provided the foundation for science fiction, but the films made of them have been, shall we say, somewhat inconsistent. Certainly the obvious painted backdrops, rear projection shots and dubious models of the first ten minutes suggest that this will be far closer to the worst than the best. At least to counter the quality of the production, it also has what seems to be a completely bizarre pairing of lead actors: Vincent Price and Charles Bronson. Then again, as Charles Buchinsky, the latter provided an interesting performance in the former's first horror film, House of Wax, so this was a reunion for them.

Here Bronson is John Strock, a government agent tasked with investigating a mysterious mountain called the Great Eyrie, outside of Morgantown, PA. It's 1848 and so the locals really weren't expecting it to bellow forth with quotes from scripture and cause earthquakes in the process. Strock enlists the help of the Weldon Balloon Society in Philadelphia to fly over the crater to see what's really what, but they're shot down by missiles and find themselves captives on a mysterious and garish flying machine called the Albatross that functions far beyond their wildest dreams.

The thrust of the story is that great wish of many people, that with the world heading in the wrong direction on whatever issue happens to be of personal importance, one man can use superior technology to stand alone above everyone and everything else and discipline the world like it was a five year old child. Verne obviously thought this often, as it's the theme in many of his novels, not least 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It's been a while since I read the Robur books but I remember them being a lot more serious than this adaptation and I don't remember Robur declaring war upon war, fundamental to this adaptation.

I'd like to see a decent version of the original source novels, Robur the Conqueror (aka The Clipper of the Clouds) and its sequel, Master of the World, but this isn't it. Even though the two were combined by scriptwriter Richard Matheson, hardly a lightweight name in the fantasy genre, I felt that this was a huge disappointment. Price is fine as Robur and it was fun to watch him dominate Prudent, the rich American arms manufacturer played by a blustering Henry Hull, and his daughter's fiancee, a young upstart named Philip Evans. Only John Strock really has a brain but he's played very quietly by Bronson, who is firmly defiant and surprisingly good. Prudent's daughter Dorothy, engaged to Evans, is fine but almost as inconsequential as her fledgeling romance with Strock.

It isn't the story that disappoints most, though. It's consistent, at least, and poor rather than awful, and the cast do it as much justice as possible, but they're stuck with a production designer who deserved to be on something like Gilligan's Island, which is where the cook would soon find himself for four episodes. In fact the cook and the production design fight it out here to determine who or which is most embarrassing. It isn't the heightmeter and the speedmeter particularly, but the props, sets and costumes that look like they belong in a Dr Seuss adaptation. Even the usually reliable Les Baxter's score is poorly overdone but it still sounds much better than the film looks. It really looks terrible, embarrassingly bad, and it's an insult to the talents of those involved. Certainly the worst Vincent Price film I've yet seen.

The Tingler (1959) William Castle

I recently got to see a couple of movies at a local IMAX, not the regular documentary fare but feature films projected onto the biggest of big screens. What surprised me most was the introductory passage by an unknown voice that explained how the size of the screen and the reality of the action might make some of us believe we were actually in the film and anyone unable to cope with it should close their eyes or leave the theatre. It sounded to me very much like the sort of thing that William Castle used to come up with half a entury ago, and here, finally, I get to see one of his most notorious attractions.

Sure enough, he's here at the beginning to introduce The Tingler, and to point out that for once the feelings experienced by the characters on the screen will also be experienced by certain selected members of the audience, and the only way to relieve that tension is to scream. Using a system Castle called Percepto, he planted vibrating buzzers under selected seats in the theatres and planted shills too to make sure there were screams and indeed people fainting. The foyer was populated by nurses to ensure that such people were taken care of. Watching at home on TV on a Sunday afternoon just doesn't match the experience.

Price is Dr Warren Chapin, a pathologist who is fascinated by the process of fear. He believes that there is a palpable force that grows within us when we are frightened, something powerful enough to shatter vertebrae and which can only be relieved by a specific release mechanism, such as screaming, for instance. We come into his story at the point when he is given a name for the force, the Tingler, and meets a young lady who has no release mechanism, being a deaf mute. If you can't scream, how can you relieve your fear?

In fact everyone here seems to be a solid character, 2D characters mostly and hardly explored to the depth of a serious novel but amazingly well nonetheless for a blatant exploitation flick only an hour and 22 minutes long. Chapin is a dedicated scientist, who works according to the scientific method but with a little manipulation of scruples. He even moves behind a screen when he takes X-rays of people. How's that for realism in an exploitation film? Well there's plenty of bad science along with the good, especially the light speed autopsies and, well, the whole Tingler thing. And yes, it's a pretty bad monster.

Anyway, Chapin resorts to experimenting on himself, hardly subjective or safe, given that he injects himself with a large dose of LSD. The resulting trip, the first such ever seen on film, is a perfect opportunity for Price to strut his stuff and combine what he does on screen with what he does on radio. He's married to Isabel, an heiress he suspects of murdering her father for his money and who lives it up around time, blatantly cheating on her husband. Her sister Lucy is as good as she is bad and she's engaged to Chapin's assistant David Morris (played by real life fiancees Pamela Lincoln and Darryl Hickman), always a good way to help reduce the number of cast members. This film really only has six, with a few others wandering past the camera at points, which gives everyone more screen time.

The remaining two are Ollie and Martha Higgins who run a silent cinema. Martha is a deaf mute with more issues than that: she's an obsessive compulsive as well, but with all her characteristics sympathetically shown. She gets some awesome scenes herself, with some powerful use of colour in a black and white film. She's played by Judith Evelyn, who gave another powerful performance without using her voice as Miss Lonelyheart in Rear Window. Unfortunately this was her last of only nine films. She does an awesome job here but it's hard to outdo Price and in this instance, William Castle. I won't spoil what the pair of them get up to but I will say that I'm not surprised that this one was notorious for its audience manipulation.

The Mad Magician (1954) John Brahm

If you're going to make a movie in 1954 about a tortured artist screwed over by life, who could you possibly cast in the lead but Vincent Price? He's Don Gallico, known as Gallico the Great, but only recently as he's previously been a designer of illusions for other magicians, working for a company called Illusions, Inc. Unfortunately he's an artist, a genius even, but he's hardly a businessman. As his first show is closed down by court injunction by Ross Ormond, his own employer at Illusions, inc, he discovers that Ormond owns him and everything he creates, even when designed and made in his own time. Not much has changed in the entertainment business over the last fifty years, it seems.

Price is great here as the artist driven mad by those who seek only to exploit his genius, but then that's hardly surprising to us looking back because it's precisely what we see him as. In 1954 when this was a brand new 3D movie (and it later became the first 3D movie to be shown on television), Price was still new in the horror game. He had plenty of solid credits behind him but the first horror picture was only a year earlier in 1953. Given that it was the massively successful House of Wax about, yes, an artist driven mad, this one must have been a decent consolidation of his new reputation as a master of the macabre, and we know how that built.

He works his way through the whole gamut of character steps here: the meek employee stepping out own his own; the jealous man whose wife was also stolen by his employer; the violent man who, when pushed too far, becomes a murderer; the good man who regrets what he's done; the bad man who takes advantage of it; the crazy man who takes the inevitable steps when he's found out. Vincent Price was always best with that unsure look of internal torment with all its many facets and he gets to show it a few times here.

The film isn't long, only an hour and twelve minutes, but it's paced well and there's able support. I last saw Mary Murphy in The Desperate Hours, Humphrey Bogart's last gangster movie, playing the daughter of a terrorised family, but she's most remembered for her part opposite Marlon Brando in The Wild One. She was fine there but to my mind fits best here as Karen Lee: as a beautiful young ingenue who unfortunately doesn't have much to do other than be an ingenue.

Eva Gabor has a small part as the former wife of both Gallico and Ormond, who has been spending most of her time running around Europe spending money. She's good but then it can't have been much of a stretch. Patrick O'Neal is a policeman friend of Karen Lee's who ends up investigating the murders and he's believable both as a good and sympathetic man and a tenacious detective. Possibly best of all is Lenita Lane as Alice Prentiss, a mystery writer who lets a room in which one murder is committed and who lends her amateur talents to the investigation. Interestingly while she made very few films after 1942, the last two were with Vincent Price: this one and The Bat, made five years later. The connection really isn't Price though but Crane Wilbur, who was Lane's husband and who either directed or wrote (as here) all her later films.

At the end of the day, this could easily be described as a run of the mill Vincent Price yarn and there's some validity to that, especially given that all the 3D scenes look completely stupid without the knowledge that they would be far better in the proper environment. It has a charm though that survives to this day and while it's hardly one of his undying classics, it stands as a worthy successor to House of Wax.

I'm just amazed that it took another four years for him to return to the genre with The Fly, which was what really made him the horror star he would become almost entirely known as. From that point most of his film roles were horror stories: from The Fly to House on Haunted Hill to The Tingler to Return of the Fly to The Bat to House of Usher and onwards, with only one circus movie (with Peter Lorre) in between them.

Saturday 11 August 2007

Bubba Ho-Tep (2002) Don Coscarelli

After working through all three Evil Dead movies this week, it seemed appropriate to dig up Bubba Ho-Tep again. I haven't seen this since my first time through back in 2005 but I'm still talking about it. It seemed completely other than anything else I'd ever seen and it would be interesting to see if it would work as well on a second time through. It's crude and irreverent but funny as hell and it's one of those films you watch while wondering just what the hell you're watching.

I've seen a lot of horror movies that start out with old newsreel footage of ancient Eygptian discoveries, but this is the only one that continues with Bruce Campbell as an old and bloated Elvis Presley in a Texas old folks home wondering about the growth on his pecker. We're never really sure whether he really is Elvis or just someone who thinks he's Elvis, but after all the conspiracy theories out there about the King the explanation of this one isn't so far fetched. Then again his sidekick turns out to be Ossie Davis who plays JFK as an old black man with a bag of sand replacing part of his brain. Anyway Elvis and JFK team up to fight a resurrected ancient evil that's stalking the care home.

An old woman with a cane steals the glasses of another old woman in an iron lung so we're not too upset when she turns out to be victim number one, but that in itself is so telling that the whole mummy angle is hardly important in the grand scheme of things. This is a horror movie, but it's far more important as insight into questions like fame, time, age and identity.

This Elvis is apparently Sebastian Haff, a former Elvis impersonator, but he claims that he's the real Elvis who traded his identity with Haff to get away from the spotlight. Naturally the people he tells can't believe that anyone would voluntarily give up all that fame, money and celebrity status, but of course that's precisely the point. As he reflects, why doesn't fame hold off age or death? When you're old, everything you do is either worthless or sadly amusing. It's only when something finally sparks his interest that life starts kicking back into gear.

Having almost everyone in the film be old, incapable, crazy or all three is a real departure for modern cinema. That's surprising enough, but having that be true for a modern genre film is even more amazing. You just don't see this stuff. And behind all the crudity and ancient Egyptian mummies, there's so many questions. Why are souls smaller in a rest home? Why do people care about their parents enough to check them into a facility but not care enough to go and visit them? On the flipside why do parents care about their kids but never be there for them?

Here we see even the helpless preying on the helpless in a world apart from the one we're comfortable in, and everyone exposed for who they really are, and every single one of us when we dig deep has a lot that we're proud of and a lot that we'd be happy to hide. Maybe a film dealing with such blatant realities beyond our comfort levels should be crude and irreverent. It's ferociously original and it's powerfully true. In fact for such an outrageously fantastic story, it's actually truer than most films.

Army of Darkness (1992) Sam Raimi

Neatly reshooting a few minutes of footage so as to both introduce film three and help us not notice how a direct sequel ignores completely how the film it's a sequel to ended. We now find that as expected from Evil Dead II, Ash is sent back to 1300 AD but everything else changes, including his girlfriend, now played by Bridget Fonda. Rather than immediately demonstrating hiss superior firepower he gets to be a slave first, so that he can prove himself in the pit and be recognised as the Promised One.

Before long he escapes, beats up some zombies with the chainsaw attached to his wrist, kills a possessed witch with a shotgun, gets himself a cool metal mechanical hand, heads out on a journey to retrieve the Necronomicon from a haunted graveyard, but ends up instead in some sort of nightmare where he fights miniature versions of himself, an evil twin and flying books with teeth. When he fumbles the recitation of the necessary incantantion to obtain the book, he inadvertently resurrects an army of the dead skeletons. In the process he provides us with many memorable lines, again many of which make no sense.

In other words this doesn't make sense. It doesn't pretend to make sense. It's pure, undistilled fun and it doesn't have any high fallutin' airs and graces about being anything else. In many ways it's exactly what Sam Raimi had been working towards for his entire career, finally having the finance, the cast and the industry recognition to be able to do it. It's not even a horror film: it's an action comedy, sword and sorcery film, tribute to everything from the Three Stooges to martial arts films to war epics to the entire Ray Harryhausen era of stop motion animation.

The sheer range of the influences does make this somewhat unique and finding them is half the fun. It really does play like a sinbad movie as made by Larry, Moe and Curly, but with more than a nod to the masks and effects of eighties horror. And yes, there's The Day the Earth Stood Still and Xena, Warrior Princess, National Lampoon's Animal House and even The A-Team. It's all complete utter nonsese that somehow remains awesome fun, probably because of the unique factor and the fact that everyone involved, not least Bruce Campbell himself, was obviously having the most fun imaginable. This wasn't work, it was being paid to have fun and it means that Army of Darkness is at once by far the worst in the trilogy but the most quotable, the most imitable and the biggest riot. Give me some sugar, baby!

Thursday 9 August 2007

The Shootist (1976) Don Siegel

The introduction starts in 1871, then moves on to 1880, 1889 and onwards, and shows us lots of clips from John Wayne movies of years past. This is completely deliberate because John Bernard Books the character and John Wayne the actor are not particularly far away from each other: they're both legends of the Old West who have outlived their environment and are about to die. Books discovers he's dying of cancer and he's come to Carson City, NV, in January, 1901, to get a second opinion from his old friend Dr E W Hostetler. Playing the part in 1976, Wayne was dying of cancer himself, making the pain in old friend Jimmy Stewart's eyes as he gives him exactly the second opinion you'd expect very real.

He isn't the only old friend here who's come to see off the Duke in style. After he gets the bad news from Stewart, he takes a room with Lauren Bacall. He hides who he is, given that he's possibly the last notorious gunman in the west, but Bacall's son Ron Howard finds out from the name on his saddle at the same time as liveryman Scatman Crothers. Howard tells his ma and she calls in the local marshal, Harry Morgan, who's more than happy to find out he's going to be in the land of the living much longer. Soon he meets up with local pain in the ass old relic Richard Boone and it won't be long before he'll be visiting undertaker John Carradine.

You'd expect a story like this to be all about this but it's completely inescapable. It literally counts the days from his arrival, knowing full well that it's a countdown to his death. How many days will it take? Death is obvious from moment one when the first news we hear when Books arrives in Carson City is the death of Queen Victoria, far more than just an obituary but the end of a whole chapter in history. The point of this film is to do the same to the west. It's a pretty simple story but it says a lot.

It isn't just the gunmen and the wild lawlessness that supposedly vanished with the advent of civilisation, it's the legends and what they mean to people. John Bernard Books is a pretty simple man who's always been consistent in his beliefs and his actions, but he has become and will still become a lot of things to a lot of people. Some want to be near him, some want to be far away from him; some help him out of goodness, some don't help because of morals; some judge him, plenty misjudge him; generally people see him not for who he is but who they think he is. It's what he represents that matters most, far more than what he is, and what he represents is a passing era.

It's very well and very believably told. It was obviously a lot more than a film to a lot of the people in it and that's hardly surprising. Some of them may have done it out of perceived duty and others as a farewell or a tribute, but they did it for reasons that mattered to them. It's also pretty obvious that the biggest reason belonged to John Wayne himself. Harry Morgan may have been hilarious and very memorable, but this is the Wayne's movie from moment one and it's a great and highly appropriate last film for the Duke.

Wednesday 8 August 2007

The VIPs (1963) Anthony Asquith

The last time I watched an Anthony Asquith movie, it was The Importance of Being Earnest, based on the play by Oscar Wilde. This one was written for the screen by a modern playwright, Terence Rattigan and boasts a full complement of major stars. There's Elizabeth Taylor, leaving her gorgeous period and starting to look scary; forceful and intense Richard Burton, as powerful and magnetic as his future wife; international playboy Louis Jordain; Elsa Martinelli, flighty and continental European actress; Oscar winning Margaret Rutherford, both as dotty and as joyous as usual; Maggie Smith, prim, proper and very capable; rugged Aussie businessman Rod Taylor; and last, but not least, outrageous and bloated Orson Welles.

Welles gets the most telling role, but then again he always was best when making fun of himself. He's a film director called Max Buda who claims to not concern himself with money while being mortally afraid of the taxman, with Martinelli as Gloria Gritti, his current prima donna. Money is a key factor in most of these stories and love is the other one, but as you'd expect from a bunch of characters in the VIP lounge at Heathrow it's often hard to tell the difference. That's half the story, or half of each of the stories, as there are many interconnecting a la Grand Hotel, all concerning passengers to New York.

Liz Taylor was a year away from her first marriage to Richard Burton but her character Frances has been married to his billionaire tycoon Paul Andros for thirteen years. Now she's eloping with gigolo Marc Champselle, played by Louis Jourdan, but she's the one with the money. Margaret Rutherford is the dotty Duchess of Brighton who's taking a job in the States to keep her stately home going. Rod Taylor is an Aussie businessman called Les Mangrum who has built his little tractor company into something huge and Maggie Smith as Miss Mead is his capable assistant who is obviously head over heels in love with him.

The other half of the various stories comes in when fog rolls in and the plane to New York is delayed. Max Buda has to be out of the country by midnight or he'll lose a million dollars to the taxman. Mangrum has to get to New York to persuade a banker to cover his cheque to save his company from a hostile takeover. Frances Andros wants to be gone with her new beau before her letter to her husband is read and he gets the chance to powerfully react.

There's a major epilogue to each of the stories to demonstrate the results that has come to pass by the time the plane is finally about to leave. The strange thing is that the big stories disappoint but the little stories elevate. I felt that the Liz Taylor/Richard Burton/Louis Jourdan story was pure melodrama and beneath the talents of the actors playing the parts. The same applies to the Orson Welles story, and these two seemed to be the major ones. However by contrast I thought that Margaret Rutherford's little additional piece was a treat and the subplot with Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith was worth far more than it was obviously intended to be.

Tuesday 7 August 2007

Tombstone (1983) George P Cosmatos

George P Cosmatos would seem a strange choice to direct Tombstone, a highly prominent western. He was born in Italy, spoke fluent Greek and died in Canada. He only directed ten films, from 1970's The Beloved to 1997's Shadow Conspiracy, hardly a prolific output, and most of them are war movies or war oriented action films. This one would seem to be a major departure but he demonstrates a vivid understanding of the dynamic of the western, from Powers Boothe's ruthless attack on a Mexican wedding party in the opening scenes on out.

Boothe is the first of a long string of stars that don't ever seem to end, even though he's desperately trying to be Lee Marvin. Not only does Cosmatos do his job right, he's aided by what seems like every western star in the business. To be honest, it starts with the opening narration, provided by no less a star than Robert Mitchum, who was relegated to the role after damaging his back on day one of his shoot as Old Man Clanton. When people like Harry Carey Jr, Billy Zane, Jason Priestley, Joanna Pacula, Michael Biehn and Terry O'Quinn play the small parts, you know you have some talent in the big ones.

And yes, the key names are big stars. Wyatt Earp is a heavily moustachioed Kurt Russell, who completely looks the part. He quickly meets up with his brothers, Virgil and Morgan, here played by the excellent Sam Elliott with his perfect voice and Bill Paxton. Best of all though is Doc Holliday, played by Val Kilmer looking at once very much like Val Kilmer and yet somehow nothing like him, even before his tuberculosis starts to make itself obvious. Most of the rest are recognisable before we even see them, from Billy Bob Thornton to Michael Rooker, Thomas Haden Church to Charlton Heston.

What is so priceless here is that the certain things make themselves very apparent. Firstly, the characters who stamped their indelible mark on the real west very believably and effectively stamp their indelible mark on this film. Billy Bob Thornton is a tough guy until he meets Kurt Russell, at which point he becomes nothing and nobody. Russell is that emphatic and he damned well ought to have been. What impresses most was that when he meets Val Kilmer they're both that emphatic at each other, in the most restrained and polite manner possible. It's joyous to watch.

Secondly, these major names, along with most of the other gunfighters in the state, all know each other, by name, by reputation and by sight. The egos are huge, the bravado palpable and the showdowns somehow both believable and exactly the sort of things legends are made of. It isn't just Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday, it's Earp and Johnny Tyler, Holliday and the Ringo Kid, Virgil Earp and Ike Clanton, Holliday and Billy Clanton. They seem endless but always memorable.

In many ways, the story is the sum of these legends, rather than being any particularly limiting plot. We quickly find ourselves in Tombstone, AZ, which has become a boomtown because of a powerful silver strike. Holliday and the Earps are far from the only people moving in, as the people already there fully expect it to grow beyond the size and influence of San Francisco within a few years. Inside the town, certain people are becoming very rich but outside, the large gang of outlaws known as the Cowboys are running the townsfolk ragged. While Wyatt doesn't want to get involved, his brothers get involved for him, becoming marshals after the existing one is shot dead by the Clanton gang. Naturally things don't go quite as expected after that.

The countryside around Tombstone looks right, as well it should given that the film was shot in Arizona, partly at Old Tucson before it burned down and partly in the countryside around. The colours are solid, where everything looks right and nothing looks too right, from the new building signs to the never too clean clothes to the way Wyatt Earp has to adjust his gait after getting down from a long horseride. The reality even extends to the amount of spitting going on and the fact that Cosmatos cast a relative of the real Wyatt Earp, also named Wyatt Earp, in a small role.

Clint Eastwood did the cinematic world a service when he made Unforgiven in 1992 and resurrected a dead genre. Tombstone may well be the best western made since then, however inaccurate many of the details are, and when I finally get to see Unforgiven I'll see how it matches up. Certainly I'm not expecting to much appreciate Kevin Costner's taken on the role of Wyatt Earp a year later in a film named after the character. Kurt Russell is going to be very difficult to follow indeed.