Sunday 30 September 2007

Flight (1929) Frank R Capra

It's the big New Years Day football game and they bring on Lefty Phelps to stir everything up. He does so by running the wrong way and scoring a winning touchdown for the other team, which means that everywhere he goes everyone laughs at him. The first person he meets that doesn't (or rather does, but takes it back) is a marine corps flight instructor, Panama Williams, and so Lefty signs up for the marines. From then on, we get the same old marine story that we've seen many times before, with most of the same twists and very few differences. There's hope, there's failure, there's adventure, there's redemption, there's a love triangle. What there isn't is anything new.

The last one of these I saw was The Flying Fleet, also from 1929, which is an obvious comparison as it isn't far off being exactly the same film. The chief difference is that The Flying Fleet was made with the sanction of the US Navy, making it a lot more authentic if a little more like a hiring commercial. It also provided a lot more planes and a lot more aviation sequences, which can hardly hurt a film like this. There was also a major star, Ramon Novarro, along with Anita Page as the love interest and a young man called Ralph Graves.

In Flight we have Ralph Graves too, as the main character Lefty Phelps, and he co-wrote the story too. Given that The Flying Fleet came out in January and Flight in December, it would appear that Graves merely rewrote the script from the earlier film to make his own, the only real addition being the whole Wrong Way Corrigan bit. This was actually inspired by a college football player Roy Riegels, whose own famous wrong way run was in the 1929 Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, meaning that Graves wasn't even subtle enough to vary the details. Given that Corrigan's famous flight was in 1938, when he flew from New York to Ireland instead of Long Beach, maybe he took inspiration from this film! Certainly it would appear that his wrong way flight was deliberate, whatever he might have said officially.

The most obvious thing about this film is that it would have made a much better silent film than a sound film, hardly something unusual in 1929 when the studios were getting used to the new technology. Both the leads had long careers in the silents (Holt was even one of the founders of the Academy), but those careers foundered in the sound era because neither of them were any good with their voices. They looked the part all right but sounded all wrong: not just their tones but their inflections and everything else. They would have sucked royally on radio and they couldn't survive long in sound film. Both of them would be back in planes again, and zeppelins too, for Capra's Dirigible in 1931, but that had a different plot at least and is far superior. I haven't yet caught Submarine, the first of the three films they all made together (Graves, Holt and Capra) but it would be interesting at least as it's a silent.

Anyway Lefty fails miserably as a student pilot, but stays in the marines through Panama's influence and becomes his mechanic. They go off to Nicaragua to fight the rebels, and of course Elinor Murray, the girl they both love, finds her way there too as a nurse, meaning that the whole love triangle gets a chance to come to a head. No, this one is not particularly subtle in the slightest, and in fact gets embarrassingly unsubtle more than a few times. You could write the rest of the story yourself. If I hadn't seen The Flying Fleet, I'd have thought a lot more of this one, though a lot more still doesn't mean much in this instance.

Saturday 29 September 2007

Dangerous Mission (1954) Louis King

Produced by disaster maestro Irwin Allen and directed by Louis King, who I know from the Bulldog Drummond films, this one hasn't built up much of a reputation. It starts promisingly though, with a nicely shot mob hit in that muted fifties colour that I love so much. Louise Graham witnesses the shooting and runs, a long way too, all the way from New York City into Glacier National Park on the Canadian border. She works now in the gift shop at a hotel and feels pretty safe, but of course the mob send their men after her anyway.

Ex-marine Matt Hallett is looking for her for one. He's Victor Mature, and he looks here like he always does: a caricature of a film star in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. It's not his acting, though that backs it up, it's how he's made, as if he was never born but moulded in a factory like a GI Joe action figure. Vincent Price is all over her too, as a photographer called Paul Adams, and he gets to dress in all sorts of outfits that you would never have believed you'd ever see Vincent Price in. Watch Vincent Price as Gene Autry at a hoedown, watch Vincent Price dressed up like Bing Crosby, watch Vincent Price obviously seek to do something very different from his previous film, the career defining House of Wax.

There are other people here too of note. The chief ranger is William Bendix, the lead is Piper Laurie, there's an early Dennis Weaver two years into his film career, as a clerk, there's even a couple of Native Americans played very obviously by non-Native Americans. Mary Tiller is Betta St John, blue eyed and beautiful in a very wholesome non-Native American way, and her father Katoonai, being sought for murder, is played by Steve Darrell.

The story is pretty nonsensical and it's as much fun laughing at the plot holes as actually enjoying the plot. Vincent Price is fun being someone other than Vincent Price, but acting is not one of the reasons to watch this movie. In fact there really aren't any reasons to watch the movie. It's one of those films that's just there: it fills in a spot on a filmography but that's about it. It isn't awful but it's certainly not good.

On Golden Pond (1981) Mark Rydell

It's quite scary to think that Jane Fonda won more Oscars than her father, and it's even scarier to think that she won them both before he got his turn in the limelight. Henry Fonda appears here for the last time, after a career that included such classics as Jezebel, The Grapes of Wrath, The Lady Eve, The Ox-Bow Incident, The Longest Day and Once Upon a Time in the West. Then there was that little film 12 Angry Men, which still resonates with me as one of the greatest American films of all time and in which he dominated proceedings. Yet none of those got him up onto the stage to pick up an Oscar. This one did, or at least it should have done. Daughter Jane had to deliver it to him.

He's Norman Thayer Jr, a retired professor, and as the film starts he's back at his summer cottage on Golden Pond, with his wife Ethel, played by Katharine Hepburn who apparently he had never even met up until his very last film. He's obviously suffering from age: loud, irascible and forgetful, which naturally gives him plenty of charm. Ethel is far more dynamic, which is hardly surprising for Hepburn, but she's also supposedly ten years younger than him: seventy or so instead of eighty or so, even though she considers herself middle aged.

Kate Hepburn had proved herself solid a few times in later years opposite long established leading men towards the end of their career: Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen and John Wayne in Rooster Cogburn especially. I've seen almost all her early films, the first half of them, and she suffered in my eyes from horrific miscasting, bad material and all sorts of craziness up until 1938 when suddenly she had a string of classics on her hands. Then came the Spencer Tracy era, which was fascinating even though some of their pairings on screen didn't live up to their performances. Finally there was the elderly period when to my mind she really came into her prime. This one brought her an unprecedented Oscar number four, even though she's obviously playing second fiddle to Fonda when they're on screen together. That says plenty all on its own.

Anyway, after a little while Jane Fonda turns up for Norman's eightieth birthday party. Just as she's Henry Fonda's daughter in real life, she's Norman Thayer's daughter here, Chelsea. She brings along Bill Ray, a bearded dentist played by Dabney Coleman like a cross between Robin Williams and Richard Dreyfuss. He's apparently a nice guy, we're told, but he doesn't seem to be much of a catch for various reasons, just like Chelsea herself.

Chelsea and Bill are planning to head out to Europe for a month or so, but want to leave Billy Ray, Bill's thirteen year son, with the parents. Given that he seems to have only just got him back from his mother, that seems to be a little callous. He's also scared of the wildlife on Golden Pond and Chelsea looks good but would look a lot better if she'd quit bitching and forget the makeup and the outrageous glasses. I'd take the parents any day, regardless of or perhaps entirely because of their characters.

Boston Blackie's Chinese Venture (1949) Seymour Friedman

With a title like this in 1949, it's pretty likely that we're not going to be heading overseas, and sure enough we kick off at Charley Wu's Chinese Laundry. Boston Blackie about ten seconds before old Charley is found murdered, so naturally Inspector Farraday hauls Blackie in for the job. Just as naturally, he didn't do it but goes investigating and outdoes Farraday at his own game.

Fourteen films is pretty long for a detective series to last and as you'd expect the quality declines somewhat as the series progresses. The excellent ones came very early on (two and five) and the last good one was number six out of fourteen. Chester Morris is a point of consistency throughout, though he's a lot older and chubbier here in 1949 than he was eight years earlier when the series started. He had a lot of fun with the role, but much of that fun got repetitious. Richard Lane was the only other point of consistency, playing Inspector Farraday in every episode. There's no Arthur here: he's long gone, but we do have the Runt and Detective Mathews at least. Mathews is Frank Sully, as he was for the last seven films, but George E Stone missed the first and last, so the Runt is Sid Tomack here, and he really doesn't fit.

What surprised most here was that while the most prominent lady, Red the Bar Girl, is far from Chinese (she's played by Joan Woodbury who is about as oriental as she sounds), many of the rest of the cast are. Of course they're all in tiny roles, except for Maylia who plays Mei Ling, but that's not the point. There's a cool joke on a fake tour through the seedier parts of Chinatown where the gullible get to look at five Oriental men playing fan tan, but once the door is closed they switch back to English accents and bridge. OK, bridge only has four players and the next three jokes are essentially the same, but throughout the people we're looking at are at least of the right ethnicity.

It's actually not a bad film, thus ending the series on a note that at least isn't disappointing, but it's far from a good one. I'm just thankful that it didn't get continued on with gradually lesser and lesser actors, progressing down the chain to Monogram and someone like a hopped up Bela Lugosi for the lead.

Dead Reckoning (1947) John Cromwell

It's early Sunday morning and Bogie is on the run from the police, but he finds a priest who was in the service and tells him (and us) his story. He's very much in private dick mode, and nobody was ever better than Bogie as a private dick, though he's only investigating through circumstance here, not by profession. He's Captain Rip Murdock, a paratrooper whose fellow serviceman runs away because he's about to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Murdock follows him but finds only his
trail and his background.

Sgt Drake was really Johnny Preston, who had signed up early by faking his birth certificate. Mere months before that he'd even involved in a murder case, as the bad guy, and yet those who testified against him seem to be his best friends. These friends also become Murdock's friends in finding out why his colleague quickly ended up burnt to a crisp on a morgue slab, but they start turning up dead themselves.

This is a good film, no mistake about it, with Bogie on top form as investigating Captain Rip, but there are downsides and they're very apparent. Being a film noir, we have a femme fatale, this time called Dusty Chandler and played by Lizabeth Scott. She does exactly what she should but the problem is that she was obviously hired because she's Lauren Bacall with a different nose and an overbite, more like an animated Bacall action figure than a different actress. I wonder how deep and husky her voice really was, because I haven't seen her in much else and don't remember. Morris Carnovsky is fine as the bad guy, Martinelli, but it's hard to watch him without picturing him played by someone like Paul Henreid.

It's Bogart's show though, because at this point in time he could do nothing remotely wrong. Beyond him, it's the story that shines brightest, if that isn't a really bad choice of simile for a film noir. It's clever and told well, but it's laid on a little thick. I don't know the names responsible, though I've seen a number of films they've written. It's amazing just how much great writing went on in Hollywood in the forties while noir was the in style, and just how much everyone seemed to forget how it worked. This one's strong and it's acted well, not just by Bogart and Scott and Carnovsky, but by an excellent supporting cast that includes Charles Cane and Marvin Miller.

Freaky Friday (1976) Gary Nelson

Back in 1976 Jodie Foster was 14 and having a stunning year: Echoes of a Summer, Taxi Driver, Bugsy Malone, Freaky Friday and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane. She looked 14 but sounded twice that, which made her a perfect candidate for this film, the old chestnut where a child and an adult swap places. Here she's the child and Barbara Harris is the adult and when they both wish the same thing at the exact same moment on a Friday 13th, it happens, and suddenly Annabel is Mrs Ellen Andrews, and vice versa. To be honest, Barbara Harris is a perfect choice for the part too and they both have great fun with their roles.

It's all overdone nonsense of course, as you'd expect from Disney, but it's done with verve and passion and it's impossible not to enjoy it anyway, regardless of the ludicrous situations and outrageous overacting from many of the cast, especially the hockey coaches. It's naturally the worst possible day for the changeover for either of them: Mrs Andrews has every workman in town coming over, and Annabel has term papers due, typing tests to take, marching band practice and an important hockey game to boot in which she's the star. Just as naturally, both of them fail outrageously but still manage to come good by the end of the day. We're not messing with the formula here, that's for sure, just adding horrific CGI and rear projection work.

I've appreciated Jodie Foster's talent for years but haven't really paid that much attention to Barbara Harris. I've seen her in quite a few of her 19 films, from Nashville to Nice Girls Don't Explode, from Grosse Pointe Blank to Family Plot, and always enjoyed her work, but this has to be the best I've seen her. Now I need to look for some of other work. I hadn't even heard of films like Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, The Manchu Eagle Murder Caper Mystery or Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama's Hung You in the Closet and I'm Feeling So Sad, but they're intriguing titles for sure. They certainly sound more attractive than something like Movie Movie, which I hadn't heard of either, even though the ratings would suggest the exact opposite.

There are plenty of other names I know here, even though I don't tend to know most names in seventies Hollywood comedies. Most obviously there's John Astin, TV's Gomez Addams, here playing Annabel's dad, but there's also Boss Hogg himself, Sorrell Booke; Marty McFly's brother in the Back to the Future films, Marc McClure; plus Patsy Kelly, Dick Van Patten and others.

Thursday 27 September 2007

Private Detective 62 (1933) Michael Curtiz

Michael Curtiz, best known for later work in the thirties and forties like The Adventures of Robin Hood, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Casablanca, turned out great material in the precodes. Doctor X is one of my favourite early horrors and The Kennel Murder Case still impresses the heck out of me as an early precursor to shows like CSI. This one looks really cheesy from the title, but it's a William Powell movie, with such quality backup as Margaret Lindsay and Ruth Donnelly to boot.

We kick off in the Rue Coligny in Paris, and Donald Free is getting himself arrested for some deliberate reason or other. At least it certainly appears like there's a plot afoot, but it really just gets him deported as an undesirable alien. Back in the states, he can't get work in the service, the police force or even as a store detective, but he does manage to con his way into the Peerless Detective Agency as a partner. The proprietor, Dan Hogan, is rather inept but obviously well connected because a high powered gangster called Tony Bandor helps him move up from 23rd St to Fifth Avenue.

The catch is that while Hogan is happy to do plenty of dirty work for his gangster buddy, that all has to be kept from Free because he has ethics. He can be as underhanded as the best (worst) of them when it's called for, but he doesn't like it and he always does the right thing to get out of it. Here he takes the job of watching a young lady who is winning remarkably often at roulette, but naturally just as he falls head over heels for her, she finds out what he is. There are a bunch of plot twists after that, more than you'd expect for a film only 67 minutes long and none of it feels rushed or forced.

Beyond Curtiz, who did quite a lot of awesome work in the early thirties, William Powell is spot on here. He'd played a detective before, most notably as Philo Vance in a number of murder cases from 1929 on, and of course a year later he would become Nick Charles for the first time in the first Thin Man movie. He's better as the society sleuth than the hard boiled noir type, but he's still excellent here as half and half.

Margaret Lindsay is especially memorable as the tough and powerfully sure young lady who wins big against Tony Bandor, who naturally doesn't want to pay her winnings. She always played second fiddle, unfortunately, but it's good to see her in a larger role than usual. I last saw her in Merry Wives of Reno, which was a peach, and it also featured Ruth Donnelly, who was never less than memorable herself. This isn't The Kennel Murder Case, by all means, but it's a solid quickie that doesn't disappoint in the slightest.

Wednesday 26 September 2007

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974) Joseph Sargent

Pelham One Two Three is a train in New York City subway system and we first see it as it gets hijacked by a crew led by Robert Shaw. He's Mr Blue and his outfit also comprises Mr Green, Mr Gray and Mr Brown, meaning that it doesn't take a genius to see how much Quentin Tarantino loved the movie. The real challenge here is how Mr Blue and his men can hold a subway car full of passengers against a million dollar ransom and expect not just to get away with it, but to get away period. But then that's the point. They're underground, in a tunnel and surround How are they going to do it?

One reviewer at IMDb described it as a 'film student's action picture', and I find that a perfect description. It's a lean, mean thriller without a scrap of fat. We're kept rivetted to the screen from the moment the film starts to the moment it ends. The story is detail oriented and the details are good. They make sense in precisely the same way that most details in most action films don't. Nothing is dumbed down and, even more surprising, much of it is clever without ever crossing the line from intellectual curiosity to chess game.

It's just real, thoroughly believably real, from the hostages who don't speak English to the mayor of New York City who has the flu. Stacks of bank notes fall over, people go to sleep, cars park in bad places. There are points in time where precisely nothing happens. There are no action heroes at all: nobody with rippling muscles, nobody who knows kung fu, nobody even like John McClane. What we have are real people like Walter Matthau as the transit cop, Lt Zachary Garber, versus real people like Robert Shaw or Martin Balsam. In fact they're so real that I know almost everyone in the cast without recognising almost anyone.

Most impressively, the dialogue is continually believable from all the many different characters. One of my pet peeves in Hollywood films that cast an Englishman as the bad guy is that they don't speak English. They talk about soccer instead of football or other such cultural differences. Here, Robert Shaw starts 'lieutenant' with 'left' instead of 'loo', and talks about torches while the NYC cops talk about flashlights. It's great to hear the crushing of pet peeves.

What astounds me most is that this film was not recognised more than it was at the time. Peter Stone's awesome screenplay, based on the novel by John Godey, was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award in 1975 but lost to The Godfather Part II. A year later it was nominated for a BAFTA award, bizarrely for the music and for Martin Balsam as a supporting actor. It does seem apparent that 1974 was a peach of a year, the point in which some semblance of sanity had been restored to film after decades under the restrictive Production Code and most of a decade in glorious artistic insanity. Like all the peaches of years, the sheer quality of the competition means that a lot of great films missed out.

Monday 24 September 2007

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) Ernst Lubitsch

If you couldn't tell that Old Heidelberg was Germanic from the name, you'd soon work it out from the beer steins. We don't find our way there until later though. We start in Karlsburg where everyone is awaiting their Crown Prince, Karl Heinrich, a young boy who who arrives in his prissy sailor suit and lipstick to much fanfare. Of course everyone wants to be him, while in turn he just wants to be everyone else, the palace of King Karl VII being little more than a prison to him, even with Jean Hersholt as a tutor. He grows up into Ramon Novarro and after passing his exams, he and his tutor, Dr Jüttner, head off to Heidelberg to university.

Naturally, after such a sheltered and cloistered upbringing, he falls in love with the first woman he meets, namely a barmaid called Kathi, played by Norma Shearer, even though he's naturally shocked to see her drink beer. She falls for him too, though she's technically engaged. To complicate matters King Karl selects a consort for his son, Princess Ilse of Altenberg, and promptly dies before he can defy him. Karl Heinrich is summoned back home to assume the reins of government while his father is seriously ill, and then on his death remains to take over his role as king. Meanwhile he pines and Kathi waits.

I've come to really enjoy Ramon Novarro's work, especially as a silent star but even into the sound era, though his films weren't always up to the standards of his performances. This one falls within one of his best periods, soon after Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ and soon before Across to Singapore, my two favourites of the nine Novarros I've seen thus far. He's not as great here, probably because there's precious little for him to do. I always preferred Shearer in the silents too, though I've only seen one silent film of hers to match A Free Soul and The Women: the Lon Chaney vehicle, He Who Gets Slapped.

Director Ernst Lubitsch though I much prefer after the advent of sound, films like The Shop Around the Corner, Ninotchka and To Be or Not to Be being a few classes above something like The Eyes of the Mummy. Maybe as I catch more of his work from the 1920s I'll change that opinion, but for now it's definitely sound Lubitsch over silent Lubitsch.

Both Novarro and Shearer are fine here, but the happy couple seem a little overhappy. Giddy is the word, I believe, but consistently in-the-moment giddy for entire scenes, which is not that believable. Even less believable are the long moon face scenes which seem to take up half the film. There's so much palpable emotion that you can just see the women sitting in theatres in 1927 bawling their eyes out. However on the flip side, what's really believable is the atmosphere at Heidelberg, which involves students getting drunk and flirting with barmaids, which of course hasn't changed an iota in the intervening eighty years. As for Lubitsch this is a capable movie, for sure, but given that 1927 was the year of such stunning visual films as Sunrise and Metropolis, this falls a long way short.

The Missouri Breaks (1976) Arthur Penn

Presented as a revisionist western, this isn't one of those German films that just reverses everything so that the Indians are the good guys being persecuted by the bad guy Americans. It's something entirely different, so much so that people are still arguing about it today, over thirty years after its initial release. It had a killer cast, not just the two leads who appeared together for the first and only time, at a major point in both their careers.

Marlon Brando had just mounted a successful comeback in 1972 with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris, and this was his next film. Nicholson was still finding his way out of the underground in 1972. However, he'd made Chinatown in 1974 and his last film before this one was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest the previous year. Backing them up are character actors like Randy Quaid, Harry Dean Stanton and Frederick Forrest. The director is Arthur Penn, a long while after Bonnie and Clyde, but a year after Night Moves.

The big man at the beginning of the film is David Braxton, played by John McLiam just like he was Ben Gazzara. He's a successful rancher with a lot of money and a lot of horses, but he's continually plagued by rustlers who take a substantial percentage of his stock every year, a full seven per cent. Jack Nicholson is the chief rustler, Tom Logan, and he has quite a band of men, but he loses one right at the start of the film to Braxton's noose.

The Missouri Breaks is slow and wandering and doesn't seem to have a lot of point to anything. There's no focus, it seems. The hope of course while watching is that each of the scenes will eventually fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces and give us a bigger picture, and that question runs for a long time. There are great scenes on the way though, such as the botched train job and the trial of the Lonesome Kid. Eventually we meet Marlon Brando, and then all bets are off. Brando plays Robert E Lee Clayton like a lunatic and his first scene leaves us wondering just what the heck we saw.

He's a regulator, one with a serious reputation and a large wardrobe, let alone a bizarre collection of accents. Braxton hires him because the rustlers cut down the thief he hanged and hung up Braxton's foreman in his place, but soon comes to regret bringing in such a seemingly unstable character. Quite what we should make of Brando's performance is open to debate but it's one that invites it. It's hardly a quiet background performance and that's obviously deliberate. If Arthur Penn was trying to get us to question just what the western was really all about, Brando was trying to get us to question just what makes a hero in one. At least I think he was. The part certainly wasn't played as scripted as Penn apparently gave up on trying to direct him and let him do whatever he wanted. Maybe Brando was just playing a joke on us.

Sunday 23 September 2007

The Long Voyage Home (1940) John Ford

We know that John Wayne made a lot of movies for John Ford, but after the success of 1939's Stagecoach, they obviously wanted to work together again quickly. That or the box office receipts made it a necessity. It's far from a western though, being based on four sea plays by Eugene O'Neill. Beyond Ford's direction, there's also another major name in the crew: cinematographer Gregg Toland, master of the techniques of deep focus, who a year later would bring it so memorably to Citizen Kane.

We're on the SS Glencairn out of London, it's somewhere in the West Indies with natives singing like they did in King Kong, and Thomas Mitchell is getting into trouble as always. He's Aloysius Driscoll and he's been sneaking onto shore to knock out local cops and find some way to smuggle rum and native girls on board. Mitchell is far from the only major name in the cast though. John Wayne is Ole Olsen, though his Swedish accent is atrocious. Ward Bond plays an American sailor who blows smoke rings. Ian Hunter is the new man in the crew, who joined up in South Africa. The manic steward, Cocky, is Barry Fitzgerald, making two future Oscar winners in the cast, with Mitchell already a winner.

The boat is a regular tramp steamer, not a military vessel, but it's wartime and the Captain is being asked to transport high explosives back home to help with the war effort. That's the main story but there are smaller stories throughout. Everyone seems agreed that Olsen needs to go home to help his mother, but if he doesn't go the next time they hit port he never will. Bond's character, known only as Yank, gets a long and lingering death scene. Smitty, Hunter's character, is fleeing from someone or something. There's a subplot about potential spies and one about being attacked by an enemy plane.

The weird thing is that while John Wayne is the star, he doesn't get to do much here. This is a Thomas Mitchell film really, and while Wayne was launched to stardom in Stagecoach, it was Mitchell that won the Oscar for it. Mitchell is also only third credited here, behind Barry Fitzgerald, who also gives a fine performance here and gets more screen time than Wayne. Sure, his lines are mostly one word ones but they're long words and they're said with passion, whereas Wayne's are simple and spoken in a terrible accent. To be fair, I've heard worse, but I've heard a lot better too.

Saturday 22 September 2007

Guys and Dolls (1955) Joseph L Mankiewicz

The opening scenes are startling but as stylised as could be. Everything's very cool, in a very fifties sense, and it describes well just how New York city street life works. However it's really annoying and it's a good thing that it soon quits and we get to pay attention to Jean Simmons, as a Salvation Army sergeant trying to preach about the evils of drink and gambling. Nobody pays attention, not even a chubby Stubby Kaye. He's Nicely Nicely Johnson and, together with other colourfully named friends, he works for high powered crap game host Nathan Detroit, played by no less a talent than Frank Sinatra. After all, if you're going to cast a major musical, Sinatra would be a pretty solid name to choose to appear in it!

He isn't even the star though, being third credited behind Jean Simmons and Marlon Brando, which he apparently really wasn't happy about. Brando was obviously exploring his range as an actor. He'd done the serious thing in a couple of massively acclaimed films, A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront, and his next film would be The Teahouse of the August Moon, in which he played a native Okinawan in what played like a sitcom pilot. He'd done Viva Zapata!, Julius Caesar and The Wild One, yet this was only film number eight for him. A musical fits in with those films about as well as they fit in with each other, but maybe that's why he made such a name for himself: avoiding typecasting.

Brando is Sky Masterson, the highest of high powered gamblers, and he's in town tonight when Nathan Detroit's floating crap game is at risk of being shut down by Lt Brannigan. Putting Brando on the other side of a table from Sinatra is pretty high powered stuff right there, but for some reason writer/director Mankiewicz forces his actors, from Brando and Sinatra on down, to speak some highly deliberate, pronounced, emphasised and annoyingly artificial dialogue.

Behind the annoying dialogue, Detroit ends up pressing Masterson into a sucker bet. He's going to Havana on the morrow and he bets for a thousand dollars that he can take any girl with him that Detroit can name. Detroit names Sister Sarah Brown, who is naturally not going to be an easy target to convince, but the first great scenes are the ones where he tries to do the convincing. Brando and Simmons work well together, which has a lot more to do with them than the situations, but the situations really help too. Getting an abolitionist drunk in Cuba is a gift of a situation to be in, and they make the most of it.

Sinatra has his own story too, given that he's been engaged to a club singer called Miss Adelaide for fourteen years, and yet only now discovers that she's already told her mother in letters over the years that they're already married and now have five kids. She wants him to quit the gambling game yet he ends up getting married only to keep the floating crap game alive under Lt Brannigan's nose. Vivian Blaine brings an acute accent to Miss Adelaide but I was surprised to see Sinatra so far back in the mix. He doesn't really dominate any scenes that he's in, which I'm used to seeing him do.

Brando is the one dominating here, seeming natural throughout the film and even passing muster in the singing and dancing stakes, though he admittedly doesn't do a lot of either and it apparently took a lot of takes to get things right. Jean Simmons is great as Sister Sarah and she's great both as the sincere sergeant in the Sally Band and as the much looser and lively young lady who's been fed a string of rum and milks. She reminds me in many ways of Ruby Keeler, but a Ruby Keeler that I'd actually want to watch. I could see myself watching films to see Jean Simmons rather than taking advantage of Keeler scenes to hit the bathroom.

Corruption (1968) Robert Hartford-Davis

Peter Cushing is Sir John Rowan, famous knighted surgeon, and he has a gorgeous young fiancee to boot, Lynn Nolan, played by Sue Lloyd. Unfortunately she takes him to a hip young party held by a fashion photographer who seems to have been a major influence on Austin Powers. In this company Rowan is as out of place as you could possibly imagine and he ends up in an altercation that leads to a photographic lamp falling onto his fiancee's face. She is of course horrifically scarred, and Rowan has to fall back to experimental work to try to save her looks.

This is an old chestnut of a plot that we've been through many times before, but Cushing was always good at breathing new life into old material: just look at his roles in the Hammer horrors, very few of which were actually new stories. Here he combines old Egyptian knowledge with state of the art technology, including computer controlled lasers. And swabs, lots of swabs. He finds a way to force new tissue to grow, through use of the pituitary glands of corpses, but naturally any success is temporary and he has to find a consistent source of pituitary glands to use. As that's not something easily found you can imagine the lengths that he has to go to and the depths to which he has to stoop.

Cushing is great, as he always was, but he's more manic here than usual, playing to the madness that the conflicts of the character calls for. Sue Lyon is fine as Lynn, though it's hard to see why Rowan would be so obsessed by such a vain little bitch and why he would see her past his better looking and more interesting sister Val, played by Kate O'Mara. Val assists Rowan in his work early on, to aid her sister, and however callous it might be, it would have made much more sense for him to have just switched to Val's affections instead.

The whole point of the story has to do with medical ethics and the boundaries that seem so easy and justified to cross have reasons for being boundaries, but while Cushing tries to put some of that depth in, it ends up being a reasonably crude attempt to bring an old story that worked so well in the thirties and the fifties into the new lurid colour generation. There are some good scenes though, and the ending is pretty cool. Otherwise, stick to Mad Love and Eyes Without a Face.

The City Slicker (1918) Gilbert Pratt

'A roller-towel hotel in a saw-mill town', it says, and everyone looks suitably like backwoods hicks. It's the Punkville Hotel and the beards aren't the usual fake ones, they're more like auditions for ZZ Top. In comes a stranger who suggests that they all get slicked up by someone from the city, and so they put an ad in the paper and in comes the city slicker himself, Harold Lloyd, who is so cool that he lights his cigarettes with gunfire to calm down annoying guests. He takes over the running of the hotel and introduces all sorts of new gadgets.

As I'm already starting to expect for a Harold Lloyd movie, it's populated by a very familiar cast. Bebe Daniels is a tired society belle that Harold falls for and Harry 'Snub' Pollard is the porter and cook. There's some inventive design going on, but the obvious comparison is to Buster Keaton shorts like The Electric House and One Week, which while they benefit from a further couple of years, are in a completely different class. They ought to have given Harold Lloyd something to work with but the film just ends as he gets started.

Apparently that's not just my recording, it's where the existing print ends, which is really unfortunate because what it leaves us with is just an introduction to a potential movie that we can't see. The whole film is only twelve minutes long so we don't miss much from the minute count but effectively we miss almost everything and that's a real shame.

Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) Robert Stevenson

I had the Mary Norton source novel for this film on my shelf as a kid and I'm pretty sure I read it but I don't remember. A lot of these children's books and subsequent films merged together in my mind and only recently have I really managed to start distinguishing them.

We're in August 1940 in Pepperinge Eye, not far away from the White Cliffs of Dover. The government is evacuating children from London and three Cockney kids get dumped on Miss Price, who is an apprentice witch just receiving her first broomstick and learning to fly the night her three new wards arrive. She's also Angela Lansbury, well on the way in 1971 to become the Angela Lansbury of Murder, She Wrote rather than the Angela Lansbury of say, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, thus not as annoying as she'd become but still as accomplished an actress.

The film is fun, and the source material is great, but it's a mixed bag. The countryside is gorgeous, but it's also definitely gorgeous painted back sets rather than real gorgeous countryside. The kids are great, all three of them, even though only Cindy O'Callaghan went on to appear in absolutely anything else. The effects are very late sixties, all LSD trip colours and negative/positive switches, and superimposed line drawings. They're horrendously dated but still fun. Cosmic Creepers, the cat, is awesome.

Unfortunately though, the film is a musical and it's as cheesy a musical as you'd expect from the Walt Disney Corporation. The songs aren't bad, but they're not great, and certainly I prefer 'Who Do You Think You Are Kidding, Mr Hitler?' from Dad's Army to the Home Guard song here. The cultural chaos in the Portobello Road number is a joy though, however much it's complete nonsense. The rubber man is certainly more entertaining than Michael Jackson. I'd like to see him do 'Thriller'.
The animated sequences on the Isle of Naboomba are great fun also, especially the Briny Boys and their band, but hey this is Disney and that's what they do, especially as most of the character designs are recycled from The Jungle Book.

It's a riot seeing Bruce Forsyth as a spiv with a horrendous orange tie, and he works for Sam Jaffe, as a gloriously hirsute Bookman. They're also looking for the same thing Miss Price is, a particular spell that might aid them to defeat the imminent Nazis, though we don't see any outside of the intriguing mock Bayeux Tapestry intro. On the search, she takes along the three Rawlins kids and Professor Emelius Browne, the cheap conman whose fake spells she can use for real. He's played ably by David Tomlinson, England's answer to William Powell.

And while the film hardly makes the remotest bit of sense for the entire running time, it does head off into complete lunacy for the finale. Maybe I shouldn't complain about things like logic and the laws of physics when we're dealing with a movie about witchcraft, but there are ways that things should be done and ways that are just dumb, and naturally that's what we end up with. It's a shame and it doesn't take all the fun out of it, but it could have been much more.

Are Crooks Dishonest? (1918) Gilbert Pratt

Bebe Daniels was a star long before she ever met Harold Lloyd and it looks like they co-starred in no end of movies in the late teens. IMDb lists 148 collaborations, though a few of them are compilations or featured footage in later documentaries. I've seen one f her first performances, as Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, made as far back as 1910, though unfortunately it wasn't very good.

She's Miss Goulash here, a fake medium working at Professor Goulash's Mystic Temple, and she has a convenient array of costumes, props and secret passages at her beck and call. Enter Harold and Snub, played by Harold Lloyd and Harry 'Snub' Pollard, who are cheap con men making money out of some gag persuading morons to buy mysteriously discovered cheap rings from them. Miss Goulash bests them and even enlists the aid of a cop to take their loot.

Making their escape, they naturally end up taking refuge at Professor Goulash's Mystic Temple and while they try to play her, she gets to have far more fun playing them. Daniels shines but everyone does their job and it's good to see a film where crooks get to out-crook crooks. The production code, that fortunately wouldn't be in effect for over a decade, required that crooks get their comeuppance on screen. How would it have treated this one, where some of them did, but at the hands of other crooks that didn't? Anyway, the con stuff is fun but the slapstick was lacking. It's nearly as short as the last one and that remains too short. I could give you a long list of worse ways to spend thirteen minutes though.

All Aboard (1917) Alfred J Goulding

Harold Lloyd actually started out in film earlier than Charlie Chaplin, his first uncredited performances being in 1913. He didn't do much until after Chaplin had redefined comedy though, becoming Lonesome Luke in 1915 for a whole slew of movies. I haven't seen any of these yet, my earliest Lloyd film being Billy Blazes, Esq, for Hal Roach in 1919. Now, courtesy of a cheap and very welcome box set from Passport Video, I'm able to catch some of his 1917 and 1918 movies, this one being the earliest.

It's relatively unsophisticated slapstick with fake beards, shaking fists and stuck out tongues; mud throwing and policemen's hats being knocked off, but it's staged well. There are some interesting tricks played on reality too, such as when Lloyd cries down the phone and then blows the tears down the phone line to drench the despotic father of his beloved. We don't find out character names, but it's Harold Lloyd and Bebe Daniels, his regular co-star in the Lonesome Luke films, in love but being kept apart. She's from a family with delusions of grandeur who want her to marry 'the barren', while he's hiding his social standing inside a posh suit.

When she gets whisked off to Bermuda, which they never reach, he stows away in a conveniently empty trunk and we end up with as much slapstick as the cast and crew can possibly cram into a film only nine minutes long. The set piece is a slapstick fight in a cramped room on board ship and it's hard to keep a smile from creeping out, because it's handled well if at breakneck speed. Up till then most of the shipboard action is intriguingly spent on a set that rocks back and forth, which makes for an interesting experience too. Definitely an interesting film for 1917 and I'm well overdue for the Lonesome Lukes, if they're still available.

Illegal (1932) William McGann

It's good to see a precode once in a while that contains precisely nobody I recognise (though I've seen the lead before in a few films without really noticing who she is). This one looked like about as precode as precodes got on the face of it, and I was surprised to find that it's actually English. It's a Warner Brothers/First National production, made at Teddington Studios, and it does show a markedly different attitude to vaguely similar American productions of the era.

We have a female lead, Isobel Elsom, who plays Mrs Evelyn Dean. She doesn't take any nonsense and we meet her as she's kicking out her second husband who is notably troublesome. She spends the rest of her own money to pay off his gambling debts, buy him a passage to Cape Town and put ten pounds in his pocket to make sure he leaves. Then with the financial assistance from a lucky windfall and opportune assistance from a decent neighbour, she opens up the Scarecrow Club to make money off drink and gambling, precisely the things that have brought her such bad luck.

We run forward in time pretty quickly, given that we have at least a decade to pass while Mrs Dean's two young daughters grow up and reap the benefits of their mother's profits to gain a top notch education. Unfortunately ten years also brings the eventual attention of the law and Mrs Dean gets to spend three months at His Majesty's pleasure in Holloway.

This is a strange picture. It plays out nicely for a while, obviously written for the screen rather than for a play and with plenty of heartstring pulling at the right points, and both Isobel Elsom and Ivor Barnard are decent as the main couple of characters. However, the kids are very forced, as played by Margot Grahame and Moira Lynd, both of whom would have been a little less wooden as shop mannequins. They get to take opposite angles in helping keep the Scarecrow Club alive, by running it themselves. Ann inherits her mother's industrious attitude and runs the show properly and well, but Dorothy is the glamorous one who sings in the club and falls for her returning stepfather's shenanigans.

Perhaps Grahame was named England's answer to Jean Harlow, the Aluminium Blonde, aptly because Harlow couldn't act for quite a while either, even though she got there in the end. Harlow always played fun characters who were always fun to watch, because they were always good characters, however common or out of place they were; but Dorothy is a brat, pure and simple, and it's nigh on impossible to like her. Then again, next to her stepfather, she's an angel. Miscredited D A Clarke-Smith plays a true cad, and he's damn good at it.

Unfortunately the film as a whole was far more enjoyable than it was good. Part of the problem is that the film is so short that some of the numerous actors have no time to instil life into their parts, and there are certainly a whole slew of other questions that don't get answered but really ought to be. It speeds by way too quickly and many of the little subplots just disappear without explanation or satisfactory conclusion.

Thursday 20 September 2007

Memento Mori (1999) Tae-Yong Kim & Kyu-Dong Min

Asian horror films set in all girl schools are about as good as it gets in my book, so this one from Korea looked promising from the outset. It's a sequel, to a film called Whispering Corridors, made by director Ki-hyeong Park and which I haven't seen, so can't really say how well it follows it. We jump around a lot, that's for certain, and we follow quite a few characters, so it's not always easy to follow what's going on.

There are two girls, Shi-eun and Hyo-shin, who seem to be lovers and have a long standing strange connection, even though they haven't seen each other in some time. Shi-eun is almost deaf, it seems, but is telepathic, and Hyo-shin is the only one who can communicate back. Unfortunately for Shi-eun, Hyo-shin takes a suicidal dive off the top of one of the school buildings and dies, possibly pregnant by one of the teachers to boot.

There's Min-ah, who finds a mysterious diary that seems to invoke hallucinations or visions or memories, and is apparently the shared diary of Shi-eun and Hyo-shin. She starts to see the past history of the pair and their motivations, becoming involved in the saga herself. There are also a few other troublemakers who continually mess around and get into trouble, and the three main characters intertwine with these as the narrative gradually becomes clearer.

I really mean gradually. This is confusing for quite a while and only gradually do things start to gel together into one story that makes sense. There's still room for interpretation though and it's definitely one to rewatch at a later date. Interesting viewing though.

Wednesday 19 September 2007

Calvaire (2004) Fabrice du Welz

Marc Stevens is some sort of cabaret singer, but he's singing at a Christmas party for a bunch of old folks in sort of a home. He leaves but his van breaks down in the middle of nowhere, where all the best horror films take place, but this middle of nowhere is in Belgium. Just to add insult to injury it's also dark, there's snow on the ground and it starts raining torrentially. Luckily he runs into a strange man looking for a dog, who guides him to a local inn run by a man named Paul Bartel, who helpfully tows his van and seems a friendly and happy sort.

No prizes for guessing that he's a lot more than friendly and happy. His wife has left him, it seems, and while he thinks only his enthusiasm has gone, it's really his mind. Soon our singer finds himself staying at the Bartel Inn for a lot longer than he ever expected, and not as a standard guest either. Before long he's half shaved, dressed up as woman and nailed to a post, which are only some of his troubles. Calvaire translates to The Ordeal, so that may give you something of an idea as to what the film is going to end up as.

It was described in the Sundance programme guide as a Belgian cross between Deliverance and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but there are other films to think of here too, like Straw Dogs, Misery and probably Vase de Noces, once I finally get to see it. There's some startling originality too though, as evidenced by the dance scene in the bar, which is one of the freakiest things I've seen on film. I'm not even going to attempt to describe it because I couldn't do it justice. It's a scene that has to be seen to be believed.

The biggest question of all in my mind has to do with the village. Early on Bartel advises Stevens to avoid the village, almost tearfully, as if the warning carried massive impact, but after discovering what the singer gets to experience outside the village, wondering what might be there is a nailbiter. Maybe that's where the bar is. Maybe it's somewhere else and we never get there. I have my own ideas, based on certain observations, but I have no way knowing if I'm right or not. Oh well, those sorts of films are always the best: we get to make half of them in our heads.

The film is beautifully shot, though beautiful seems a very strange word to use given the contents. The countryside is bleak and what goes on is hardly something beautiful. I was surprised to find I knew one of the actors: Brigitte Lahaie, who gets a small part at the beginning. She certainly looks a lot older than I last saw her. Laurent Lucas is astounding in the lead role and he certainly gets to go through an ordeal and a half. Jackie Berroyer is perfectly and scarily believable as Bartel, but I have no clue who most of the other equally scarily believable actors are as I don't believe we ever hear many of their names. I wonder what they all thought of the film. Anyone looking beyond the quality of the production, which belies its low budget, must be a little strange.

Tuesday 18 September 2007

Last Life in the Universe (2003) Pen-Ek Ratanaruang

Kenji is suicidal, but not for the same reasons as everyone else, or so he thinks. He's also a complete neat freak, an obsessive compulsive who even precisely stacks the books he's going to jump off to hang himself. He's a Japanese librarian, working in Thailand, and as exact in his work as at home, and about as interesting a character to know as you'd expect. However he's calm, methodical and with hidden depths and interests that keep him from actually carrying out his intentions.

However his life really changes in a single day with two separate incidents. Firstly, while crouched on a bridge rail contemplating a leap off into the water, a young Thai waitress notices him and gets hit by a car, leaving Kenji to comfort her sister Noi whose car she splattered against. Then, back at his neat freak apartment, his yakuza brother is shot dead by a colleague and, even though he was about to shoot himself with his brother's gun, Kenji kills the gangster instead and cleans up the mess.

This is a strange film in many ways, but the strangest thing is that we don't see the title of the film until 32 minutes in. It arrives as Kenji and Noi connect, and Kenji discovers from the state of Noi's beach house that she is the opposite of him in many ways. She's entirely not a neat freak, with as much chaos in her environment as Kenji has order. It's also strange to hear their conversations, which are conducted in a mix of English, Japanese and Thai. It's fun to hear them switch languages without the subtitles changing.

The film is slow and thoughtful, with as much care devoted to the spaces between things as the things themselves, hardly surprising given that the cinematographer was Christopher Doyle, the man behind the look of Hero and no end of Wong Kar Wai movies. This one reminds of Days of Being Wild. It's a very calm and peaceful film too, regardless of the subject matter, so it seems a little strange to see the director and writer of Ichi the Killer here as yakuza. Kenji is Tadanobu Asano, who is perfect for the role and who reminds somewhat of an Oriental version of John Cusack, though last time I saw him he was playing the lead role in Ichi the Killer, looking and acting completely different. Talk about versatility! Noi is Sinitta Boonyasak, the real life sister of Laila who plays her screen sister Nid here. She's excellently cast here too, because she's beautiful but very real, and untidy but believably so.

The filmmaking is clever and subtle. The obvious standout piece is a trip when Noi floats through what seems like some magical realignment of her beach house, in reality Kenji cleaning up. However there are other scenes where what we should watch is something far less obvious: when characters are looking in different directions, what's real and what's a dream sequence or the meaning of a full back tattoo on a Japanese man. What we're watching is two people find peace and commonality, and that's hardly an easy task to achieve, let alone this minimalistically. Kenji finds chaos and Noi finds order.

I can't remember the last time that I saw a Thai film, if indeed I've ever seen a Thai film. I've seen Japanese cinema, of course, and Korean and Chinese. I've even seen Indonesian and Filipino films, but usually bizarre low budget B-movies like The Warrior and the Blind Swordsman or The Impossible Kid. Something strangely elegant like this seems out of place and I'm now really looking forward to seeing more, especially from director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, who now makes my must look out for list. What a fascinating film!

Monday 17 September 2007

Neighbors (1920) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox are neighbors and very much in love, but their families don't like the idea. Think of Romeo and Juliet but we're hardly in Venice. We're in the back yards of a couple of tenements, with shared washing lines and a dividing fence with a convenient hole in it for love notes. Keaton is on top physical form here, flying from one house to another on wires, getting pegged upside down on the washing line or hiding high up on a telegraph pole. It's like he can't keep still for more than a minute or so, leaping onto or over something or other.

We get a lot of coloured humour here too, with Keaton black, then white, then half and half. Much of this is predictable but it's very well stage managed, just like much of the physical humour. For instance, Keaton hooks a hinged plank to the top of the fence and ends up involving not just his neighbors but half the police force too. As always he ends up getting straight into trouble and pretty quickly back out of it again. It's so well done though that we can't help laughing through all of it and there are enough surprises to keep it fresh, even though the jokes are 86 years old and counting.

There's a peach of a scene with Keaton carrying off his bride from an upstairs window while standing on the shoulders of someone standing on the shoulders of someone. These guys must have been professional acrobats and even so it's hugely impressive. Joe Roberts is the huge father-in-law-to-be, and he was a highly recognisable sort, also a regular in Keaton's films: he was the piano delivery man in One Week, for instance. Co-director Edward F Cline, credited, as usual, as Eddie Cline, is one of the cops.

I'm fast discovering that 1920 wasn't just the year when everything started to come together for all sorts of people working in the silent film industry, it was the year when Keaton well and truly arrived. He'd been working for Fatty Arbuckle up until 1919's The Garage and 1920's One Week firmly launched himself into solo stardom. I haven't seen all his films from that year yet but Convict 13 and this one are great if not awesome and One Week and The Scarecrow are simply classics of the genre. Keaton seemed unstoppable in 1920 and yet most of the famous films are yet to come. To be honest, I prefer these.

One Week (1920) Buster Keaton

It's Buster Keaton's first solo film after a long apprenticeship under Fatty Arbuckle and he starts off on the right foot: he gets married and Uncle Mike gives the happy couple a house and lot at 99 Apple Street as a wedding present. Naturally not everything goes as planned: the house is a DIY job that arrives in boxes and his delightful wife, played by Sybil Seely, has a former lover intent on sabotaging the construction effort.

I've seen a few of Keaton's films with Fatty Arbuckle and while there's some of the Keaton genius already apparent they're not classics by any stretch of the imagination. However imagination is a very apt word to use here, with Keaton apparently throwing in a whole slew of ideas that he'd been cooking up for some time and now had the status and the budget to use. Quite a few look familiar but from later films, suggesting that this may be the original. The one exception was the helpful cameraman's hand to prevent us from seeing Sybil get out of the bath, obviously inspired by a similar scene in an Arbuckle and Keaton short from three years earlier called Coney Island.

Many are classic physical gags, and often large ones too, including the famous side of a building falling onto Keaton, repeated of course in Steamboat Bill, Jr. It isn't just Keaton that moves here, his house moves too, and often it's both of them together, in amazing synchronisation. It's truly amazing just how great Keaton's timing was. The Electric House owes much to this one, but One Week is hard to beat for sheer insane stuntwork. To release it and The Scarecrow in the same year is astounding.

Sunday 16 September 2007

Radio Days (1987) Woody Allen

Woody Allen pretty much always wrote stories about himself, though he tweaked the truth so none are actually autobiographies. This one is about him as a young Jewish kid in Rockaway when the radio was on all day every day and all he ever wanted was a Masked Avenger ring with a secret compartment. He's played by someone you wouldn't expect on the face of it to be believable as a young Woody Allen, here called Joe, let alone appear in a Woody Allen film, but Seth Green does a solid job. He's really young here, long before Buffy the Vampire Slayer let alone Robot Chicken, but he looks exactly like a really young Seth Green.

The script is really nothing but a dramatised collection of reminiscences, and as you'd expect from such a setup some are better than others. The biggest challenge of all is to make it hold together as a single entity. It works best as a box of treats to dip into whenever we feel like it, so unlike most films, catching five minutes here and there while channel surfing roughly equates to watching it in an 85 minute stretch. You could probably even watch it backwards, scene by scene, and it would still make about as much sense.

The first reminiscence is a peach and sets the stage very nicely for all the rest. It has two crooks breaking into a house when the phone rings. They answer it to avoid waking everyone up and end up winning the grand prize on a game show called Guess That Tune. Mr and Mrs Needleman arrive home the next morning to find their home robbed but no end of goodies arriving in the place of their own stuff. It's hilarious but ludicrous at the same time, and quite a few of the other reminiscences fit the same bill. There's a sports story show that involves a baseball pitcher with heart, even though he loses a leg, an arm and his sight. There's even a radio ventriloquist.

As you'd expect, many of the reminiscences have to do with famous radio moments. Aunt Bea, in the form of the wonderful Dianne Wiest, is about to get some in a car sneakily 'broken down' by her date, when Orson Welles's War of the Worlds comes on and he runs away in terror. Sally the cigarette girl, played by the inevitable but always welcome Mia Farrow, is about to get her big break on the show when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and Chekov just doesn't matter any more because the country is at war. Even Polly Phelps gets in on the act. She was the original girl down the well, and here spares Joe from a hiding for contaminating his mother's prize coat in a chemistry experiment.

There are people here beyond Farrow that are always welcome friends. The Masked Avenger has the incomparable voice of Wallace Shawn and Joe's mother has an even more unmistakable voice, courtesy of Julie Kavner who will always be Marge Simpson, whatever else she might choose to do. Danny Aiello is a hitman who needs to kill Mia Farrow, but ends up getting her onto the air instead. There are quick parts for people like Jeff Daniels, Tito Puente (and chihuahua) and Diane Keaton (who sings in the New Year). In many ways spotting them is half the fun, because everyone here is really in a bit part. Even the leads get what must be the shortest amount of screen time any leads ever got.

The Teahouse of the August Moon (1956) Daniel Mann

Talk about misconceptions. I thought this was a serious film, something like Sayonara, also with Marlon Brando, but it took about two seconds to realise that it's nothing of the sort. It's a comedy for a start, and it plays like the pilot for a sitcom, just one with a ridiculously talented cast. The war is over and Okinawa has been conquered again, this time not by Japanese warlords or English missionaries but by American marines. Brando plays our host, a native Okinawan named Sakini who is the camp's interpreter, and he explains to us how the Americans are bringing them democracy, which process is as inept as inept could be.

After attempting to learn about the career of Marlon Brando, often described as the greatest American actor of them all, by watching films like A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront and The Godfather, seeing him play Sakini seems utterly ludicrous. He plays the part as if he was Charles Bronson attempting to be Charlie Chan's Number One Son, and that's as bizarre as it sounds. The portrayal ought to be completely racist but it isn't because Sakini is the brains behind everything, even while appearing to be subservient in every way. Think of him like Colonel Hogan or Sergeant Bilko, both highly appropriate for the type of material.

It's also highly appropriate, given much of the cast. Sakini works for Colonel Wainwright Purdy III, played by Paul Ford, most famous for his role as Colonel Hall in The Phil Silvers Show. Purdy's assistant is Sergeant Gregovich, played by Harry Morgan, who was hilarious opposite John Wayne in The Shootist, but will always be remembered as Colonel Potter in M*A*S*H. The other leads are major names in film though, much as Brando was himself.

Sakini is hoisted onto Captain Fisby, newly transferred in from psychological warfare after being requested to request a transfer for his bad luck and complete ineptitude. Fisby is sent to Tobiki to bring them democracy by building a pentagon shaped school and organising a ladies league for democratic action, and ends up starting geisha classes and building a teahouse. Glenn Ford plays Captain Fisby like you'd expect Fred MacMurray, and he receives a host of gifts from the villagers. Beyond the cricket cages and chopsticks, the most obvious gift is a geisha girl called Lotus Blossom, played by no less a talent than Machiko Kyo, who I hadn't realised had appeared in western film at all.

Casting Glenn Ford and Machiko Kyo in what plays like a pantomimed sitcom pilot is either as ludicrous or as genius as casting Brando, and which it is can only be determined by how successful it is. When I catch the last five minutes, which got dropped off the end of my recording, I'll let you know. Right now, on viewing one, I thought it was surprisingly cool.

Saturday 15 September 2007

The Ambassador's Daughter (1956) Norman Krasna

'A mythical city... in the spring', reads the introduction. Well, the mythical city is Paris, and it's where Senator Cartwright has come to make it a no go area for American GIs. He believes that while they may be great soldiers on the battlefield who are willing to lay down their lives for their country, they're nothing more than an uncontrolled danger around young French ladies. He and his wife are played by old timers (for 1956, at least) Adolphe Menjou and Myrna Loy. This far along, they aren't even the leads, taking something of a back seat to Olivia de Havilland and John Forsythe.

De Havilland plays the title character, Joan Fisk, who is bored to tears with entertaining the wives of visiting dignitaries, people like Mrs Cartwright, even though she's rather good at it. While modelling at a Red Cross charity dinner, she rescues John Forsythe's character, Danny, after he blags his way in to look at the models and ends up falling for her, not having a clue that she's the ambassador's daughter. He's an American GI, of course, and due to a difference of opinion about his potential character between the Senator and a visiting US general, she takes him up on his offer of a date, and of course romance, along with a little comedy, ensues, beginning when he mistakes her for a pickpocket.

This film surprised me somewhat. It's not a great film by any means, even though the cast is impeccable. I've never really been much of a Olivia de Havilland fan, even though I've seen films of hers over thirty years, from 1935 to 1965. I've tended to see her as a perennial supporting actress, not doing that much either as she usually played characters that were often just wastes of space. Here she's a joy, bubbly and full of life but also intelligent and insightful. The more I see American films from the fifties the more that combination surprises me. There were few enough intelligent female characters in this era, outside femmes fatales in films noir at least, but the general rule seems to be that the more bubbles the less intelligence. Joan Fisk is a great character and de Havilland does her great and joyous justice. It's by far the best I've ever seen her.

John Forsythe I don't know well, but I don't tend to think of him as a young man. I never saw Dynasty, but I know he was one of the key actors in it. I saw Charlie's Angels every once in a while but of course he was just a voice in that. I guess I always saw him as an old man, and yet here he's 38 and plays the role as if he was Humphrey Bogart, and not badly either. He does a good job, not as well as his co-star but easily good enough. Menjou, Loy and others like Edward Arnold as Ambassador Fisk don't disappoint either.

The story of course is ludicrous. My granddad was a special constable in London during the Blitz and I've heard many times about how half his work was pulling bodies out of buildings and the other half was breaking up fights between American servicemen. I can't believe that their behaviour improved any over a further decade and a bit and without buying into that, there's nothing left to buy into. We just have to pretend to suspend our disbelief and roll with the comedy of errors and the romance, which isn't bad at all. Best for me was when Loy and Menjou play Forsythe ruthlessly and hilariously from both sides of their argument.

Thursday 13 September 2007

The Unsuspected (1947) Michael Curtiz

A young lady is murdered in neatly atmospheric noir shadows while she's on the phone. She's the secretary of Victor Grandison, a radio personality who presents a mystery series, The Unsuspected, in which he recounts tales of amateur detection. The voice is unmistakably that of Claude Rains, who of course made us aware of his voice before his face in The Invisible Man, and he as a good voice for radio as well as for film.

A week later a young man visits Grandison's house during his birthday party, and he claims to be the husband of Grandison's ward, Matilda Frazier, who apparently died only a month earlier at sea. It isn't surprising that nobody knows him, as they apparently married only three days before her death. It's more surprising that he doesn't want any of the large estate she left behind, only a large portrait of her that hangs above the fire. However what's most surprising is that when she reappears alive and well she apparently doesn't know him either.

The direction here is courtesy of Michael Curtiz, who was always capable and often great. It looks wonderful though sometimes the grand camera movements are, well, a little too grand and obvious. The noir elements are spot on though, and make us wonder why he didn't direct more films noir. There are some of note, like Mildred Pierce, lurking in his filmography, but precious few all told. The script is by Bess Meredyth, based on a novel by Charlotte Armstrong, and I've never heard of either though IMDb lists a whole slew of films I've seen with Meredyth's name on. She was even one of the founders of the Academy, hardly a minor name.

It's the acting that shines brightest though, because while the story starts off stunning, it fades over the length of the film. It keeps us gripped until we realise just who's been doing what to who but then fails to keep us in suspense as the story plays out. Rains is great, but I've never seen him otherwise, being one of the most consistently watchable actors Hollywood ever gave us. He has been better though.

However the lead is Joan Caulfield, apparently Joss Whedon's favourite actress. She's certainly notable as Grandison's ward, the obvious centerpiece of all the schemes, but reading up on her suggests that this is her most notable role and it doesn't stand out quite as much as I'd expect it to. Audrey Totter is outstanding as Grandison's bitchy niece and she gets some great costumes to wear, and Constance Bennett, Hurd Hatfield and Ted North live up to their parts, if they don't breathe as much life into them as they could have done.

Many of the films I've been seeing lately have given me the impression that they would improve over time and further viewings. This one wasn't bad but it certainly isn't going to get any better and I have the feeling that a second time through would lessen the good points and expose the bad.

Wednesday 12 September 2007

The Chase (1966) Arthur Penn

Talk about an all-star cast! Marlon Brando is the lead but we meet Robert Redford first. He's an escaped convict on the run called Bubber, but he's obviously not too bright. He only has a few months left on his sentence but he jeopardises his future by escaping, only the first of his dumb mistakes. We meet him trying to obtain transport, but rather than just knocking the driver on the head and stealing his car, Bubber's fellow convict kills the driver and runs off with the car leaving him alone and with blood literally on his hands. Then he jumps a train but ends up in a freezer car going the wrong way and so he ends up home, where everyone seems to have a good reason to dislike him.

His mother, played by Miriam Hopkins, she regrets ever having him and revels in her guilt, but she knows he's no murderer and she'll do what she must to help him. His wife Anna, played early in her career by Jane Fonda, doesn't want him back, though she's one of the few who don't see him as some sort of bogeyman. Jake Rogers, son of the town's industry leader Val Rogers, is afraid of him because he's been cheating on his own wife with Bubber's, and they obviously mean a lot to each other. He's James Fox and his father is played by E G Marshall, both powerful enemies.

Even Robert Duvall, playing a henpecked husband, is scared stiff of Bubber's return because he helped get him into trouble in the very first place, way back when they were kids together. Now he's Edwin Stewart, vice president for Val Rogers, and he's married to Emily, played superbly as a complete bitch by Janice Rule. Emily is cheating on Edwin with Damon Fuller, the other vice president and, it would seem, the town bully. Pretty much everyone seems to be cheating on everyone, which doesn't make for a happy town.

Sheriff Calder, no less a talent than Marlon Brando himself, finds himself stuck in the middle of it all. He wants to keep his town quiet and send Bubber back to the pen safe and sound, but the rest of the town don't. Calder has to keep Bubber from the townsfolk, and the drunken townsfolk from Bubber. They're the real story here to me: the chase is fine, the cheating is fine, the background stories are fine, but Bubber is just a MacGuffin and it's the town that engraves itself onto the memory.

These are not nice people, and they're even less nice when they have large quantities of alcohol inside them and guns in their pockets. They even stoop beyond the standard sixties racism to some despicable acts that are a little hard to watch, and the ending is as inevitable as it is completely dumb. It's embarrassingly real and carries a huge kick. In its way it turns this initially quiet and apparently decent Texas town exhibits as much backwoods inbred hick stupidity as a bucket full of Deliverance. Think Dogville as a modern comparison.

The cast are great, especially Brando, which surprised me as I'm still trying to understand his talent, and the direction seems as good. My only complaint is that TCM, for reasons unknown, chose to show this in a fullscreen print, instead of its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It's a bizarre aberration for them but a notably bad one.

Tuesday 11 September 2007

Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion (1945)

Wilfred Kittridge, New and Used Books, are hosting their annual auction of rare books, but Mr Kittridge is being urged by his doctor to take a complete rest and miss the thing. Arthur Manleder has just bought the store outright and needs him to host the auction, so Boston Blackie takes the opportunity to impersonate him for the occasion. Unfortunately for everyone involved, the prize exhibit, an inscribed first edition of Dickens's Pickwick Papers, turns out to be counterfeit.

With Inspector Farraday completely unaware of Blackie's false identity and in the firm belief that he's the crook, Blackie has to double as the bookseller while investigating the real crook. He also has to battle the twin misfortunes of having a beautiful fifth column inside his own circle of confidantes and being a little clumsy, given that this is film number eight in the series and the directorial helm has passed on to Arthur Dreifuss, who would make the (previous) worst of the bunch in number nine, Boston Blackie's Rendezvous.

It gets a little tiring and repetitive to point out that Chester Morris, George E Stone and Lloyd Corrigan are as great fun as always as Blackie, the Runt and Arthur, though the latter pair have very little screen time.. Richard Lane flusters around as well as always as Farraday and the headlines in the paper advertising police incompetence never cease to tire. What's new here is Lynn Merrick, playing the cool as ice femme fatale Gloria Mannard. She looks good in the role and she carries it well, though she has unfortunately little to do. Just as unfortunately she's all that's new.

The story though is pretty poor, after a promising start, and I honestly lost track of what the middle third of the movie was about. I've also seen enough Boston Blackie movies to recognise not just scenes and escape routines but even fire escapes. This one is an early example of just how much Hollywood recycled material. You could almost call it a mashup of other Boston Blackie movies. This is the new low of the series, in my opinion, and I've now seen eleven out of fourteen of them. I'll also keep well away from director Arthur Dreifuss, who made over fifty movies, at least until I start deliberately looking at the worst films rather than the best.

Marebito (2004) Takashi Shimizu

The shaky hand held voyeuristic camerawork and security camera footage that this film starts out with belies the fact that we're dealing with two major Japanese genre directors: one. Takashi Shimizu directs and he's the man behind both the Japanese and the American versions of The Grudge, seven films in all now. The lead actor is Shinya Tsukamoto, who as a director made a number of pioneering films, not least Tetsuo and Tetsuo II: Body Hammer.

He's a filmmaker here too, Masuoka by name, who is obsessed with terror, especially the terror he recorded on one man's face as he commits suicide by thrusting a knife into his eye. The obsession isn't minor, as he even quits taking prozac to control his serotonin level. He wants to feel the same level of terror, so that he can see what others in similar situations see. Unable to replicate the feeling through standard means, he ventures deep underground into the subway tunnels beneath Tokyo.

Soon we find ourselves wandering with Masuoka through a whole host of Forteana, guided by the dead Furoki. We work through Blavatsky and Shaver to the Hollow Earth theory and the city of Shamballa and on to Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness, blurring fiction and fact and the intriguing concept of fiction that became fact over time. Then there are the mysterious Deros who are dangerous powers in the underworld. Naked fanged Japanese girls chained in underground caves can hardly be a bad thing, though the bruises and bizarre skin tones aid the freaky feel of the film.

Masuoka rescues this particular fanged naked girl and takes care of her in his apartment, monitoring her via a petcam he can access through his mobile phone. He christens her F, and finds that she doesn't talk and she doesn't eat or drink except blood. Soon he receives a mysterious phone call from someone who claims that while he thinks he's saving her, he's actually killing her. Tomomi Miyashita is a very weird, very freaky and very believable vampire slave girl, and she adds as much to this film as Tsukamoto's bland yet bizarre unassumingness. Nothing seems to affect him hugely and when something does we're completely shocked.

There aren't a lot of scary moments in this film, which really doesn't count as a horror film per se. However there are some shocks and it's very creepy and freaky indeed, the more so for being based fundamentally in reality rather than fantasy. It's also absolutely gripping, as we continually question just what it is that we're seeing, where it's going and what it all really means. As with many Asian horror titles nowadays, there are still questions even after the credits roll, as to which interpretation is the real one. This one is very cool.

Monday 10 September 2007

A Place of One's Own (1945) Bernard Knowles

Belingham House, Newborough was apparently a desirable residence once, but it's fallen on bad times. It's 1900 now and the young lady of the house died some forty years earlier, but nobody has occupied it ever since. Now it's been cleaned up and sold to Mr and Mrs Henry Smedhurst, who want to retire there for the peace and quiet and don't pay much attention to the apparent ghost they've acquired along with the property. They even hire a companion, young Annette Allenby, who seems to unwillingly channel the ghost.

There are major British names here. The story is based on the novel by Osbert Sitwell, one of the aristocratic family of writers that acquired some controversy as well as acclaim. The cast is led, to modern eyes, by James Mason, here playing well beyond his 36 years as an old man retired after decades in industry in Leeds. He's a little too dynamic, shambling around like Paul Muni under similar makeup but just as irrascibly watchable. His wife is played by American-born Barbara Mullen, no small name in the industry herself, though known principally for her role in the long-running Dr Finlay's Casebook.

At the time, though, the major name was Margaret Lockwood, playing the companion. Today she seems to be forever tied to Joan Greenwood in remembrance, even though they appeared together only once. They were both memorable and beautiful leading ladies from a particular era of English cinema that explored class and manners and subtlety, and they knew each other well. Now I've seen a lot more Joan Greenwood than Margaret Lockwood and it wasn't Lockwood I was watching in The Lady Vanishes anyway, but while I prefer Greenwood by far, Lockwood does a solid job here.

Backing them up is Dennis Price, still early in his career in only his third film, so he's still elegant and unbloated, along with people like Dulcie Gray, Moore Marriott and Helen Haye. Most notable is probably Edie Martin, as an birdlike yet ascerbic cook. Martin started her acting career on the stage at the ripe old age of six, playing Alice. That was in 1886 and she kept working until the 1960s, finding her way into many of the great Ealing comedies. There's even good old Dr Pretorius himself, Ernest Thesiger, playing an old doctor, though not for long.

It's the story that carries it though, along with the atmosphere which is eerie yet never really out there. It doesn't play like a genre film at all, but it's a little more sinister than you'd expect a sedate English period film. Putting it halfway between the two means that it has a little place all of its own.

Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) Robert Wise

Legendary producer Val Lewton made a huge impact on the horror genre, and he did so with only fourteen films to his credit. Nine of them are well known and reasonably easy to find horror films, from Cat People to Bedlam via The Leopard Man and I Walked with a Zombie. The other five are more obscure and it's taken a while to track some of them down. I haven't found the final three yet, but I wasn't impressed in the slightest by the teen exploitation drama Youth Runs Wild. Fortunately this one is far better and fits much more appropriately within the body of work of Val Lewton, Robert Wise and Simone Simon.

In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, a coach travels across the snow from French territory to Prussian, carrying a collection of important people: a count and countess, a priest, manufacturers and so on. Most of them are rather embarrassed to be sharing their trip with a mere laundress. As the trip progresses, it becomes apparent that she is not just the only one with forethought enough to pack food for the journey but the only real patriot among them. While the rest of the passengers merely complain about the bad manners of the Germans, it turns out that the laundress has consistently refused to have anything to do with them.

Unfortunately the Mademoiselle Fifi of the title, hardly a fluffy young girl but a sadistic Prussian officer, holds them up at an inn on the road, for that very reason. He requests that she dine with him but she refuses, and so in turn he refuses to let the horses be harnessed to the coach. They're all therefore stuck partway unless she caves, and while they initially back her refusal soon find that inconvenience trumps any honour they might have between them.

Classic French writer Guy de Maupassant had a point to make, and if this adaptation is even close to the original pair of short stories, he wasn't particularly subtle about it. The Germans may be the bad guys, but there are levels of decency among Frenchmen, the most decent among this particular group being the one the rest would think the least. There's an obvious comparison and given that this was made in 1944, Stagecoach was only five years old. Apparently the comparison is even more fair as the two films were based on the same story, and while Simone Simon's laundress is even lower down the social scale in aristocratic France than Claire Trevor's prostitute in Stagecoach, she was apparently a prostitute in the original story. Whatever she was, she has more decency, honour and self-sacrifice, let alone manners, than anyone else.

Simone Simon is charming here and she dominates quietly through sheer force of personality. The other standouts are John Emery as the political radical Jean Cornudet, trying desperately to be John Barrymore; and Kurt Kreuger, harsh, haughty and manipulative as the title character. Each of the actors makes their presence felt though, making this a highly consistent piece. As with many of Val Lewton's films, its biggest failing is that it is so short.

The Chance of a Lifetime (1943) William Castle

There were fourteen Boston Blackie films, all told, and I've seen nine of them. I'm very thankful that TCM is going to give me the opportunity over the next month or two to catch up with the other five. The Chance of a Lifetime was the sixth in the series, just after one of the best, After Midnight with Boston Blackie. All the regulars are here: Chester Morris as Blackie, George E Stone as the Runt and Richard Lane as Inspector Farraday. It's also the last appearance of Walter Sande as Detective Mathews (Frank Sully took the role for the last seven instalments) and the last but one for Lloyd Corrigan as Blackie's rich friend Arthur (he'd take a break for the next one, before returning for one final showing in Boston Blackie Booked on Suspicion).

Blackie gets booked on suspicion here too. It's wartime and he's managed to persuade the powers that be to release a bunch of convicts into his care, so that they can work in Arthur Manleder's factory to help the war effort. One of them lets the side down by going to fetch the $60,000 he stashed from the job that sent him up in the first place. In trying to resist the other two crooks involved, he accidentally shoots one dead, with Blackie moments away and Farraday moments away from him! Blackie ostensibly takes the rap, to save the programme, while escaping to track down the third crook.

There's really not much of a plot here, merely a string of opportunities for Blackie and the Runt to concoct ways to make Farraday look like a fool, and even a couple for Farraday to almost do the same in reverse. It's definitely great fun but far more on the basis of the comedy than the action. There are a few good setups though to keep us paying attention and a decent ending, but it's far from the best in the series, merely a good fun way to spend an hour and a bit in the company of two men who aren't afraid to dress up as cleaning women and rob the stolen property safe in police headquarters.

Sunday 9 September 2007

Flamingo Road (1949) Michael Curtiz

There's a Flamingo Road in every town, apparently: it's the road to which everyone aspires, or so tells the introduction. We begin in Boldon City, which is no exception to the rule, and Sheriff Titus Semple has a very solid spot on Flamingo Road. He's a corrupt soul and he has his eyes set on the Coyne Carnival which owes money and is about to skip town. Of course it skips in time, before deputy sheriff Fielding Carlisle gets there to serve papers, and he's on his way to Flamingo Road courtesy of his boss and the future wife his boss has picked out for him. However the carnival leaves behind Lane Bellamy, lately a Sultan's dancer, and who catches Field's eye from moment one.

Lane is played by Joan Crawford, who I'm not sure I believe as a dancing girl but she's fine as everything else here. The deputy is Zachary Scott, who is thoroughly decent at being decent while surrounded by corruption, and his boss is no less a body than Sidney Greenstreet. Big Sid ought to have got far more roles like this because he's simply perfect as the disapproving, quietly seething power behind the throne. Unfortunately he only had one more film in him, 1950's Malaya, leaving us only 22 films to remember him by. However, given that those include such select titles as The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca, he remains inherently memorable. I've been catching up on his less famous roles and this one is one of the better ones for sure. He's slime but very very believable slime.

The story itself is a little beyond credibility, mostly because Joan Crawford seems to be someone that everyone and their dog fall for the moment they meet her. She looked good but she was rarely the best looking girl in any of the films she was in, this one included. She had her talents, for sure, and she has plenty of them on show here, most notably a powerful sarcasm at the right moments, but she wasn't the best eye candy. Virginia Huston is loathsome as a society girl with the screwed morals and expectations that come with that status, but she looks a lot better than Joan Crawford. There's also Gladys George as the owner of a roadhouse called Lute Mae's.

Lane Bellamy falls for Field Carlisle when he falls for her, but he follows the high road to the Senate and marries a proper girl. Sheriff Semple arranges for Lane to be locked up for a while to keep her out of the way, but she ends up getting out, working at Lute Mae's and eventually marrying one of chief political opponents, Dan Reynolds. The scene is set for a political showdown with Lane the key player right in the middle of all of it. As I mentioned, it's more than a little unbelievable but the actors, led by Sidney Greenstreet, carry it a lot further than it probably ought to have gone. They, along with the powerful direction of Michael Curtiz, even make it rivetting viewing.

La Jetée (1962) Chris Marker

I've seen La Jetée before, though it's the only one of Chris Marker's films that I have seen. Apparently he's known for his unorthodox filmmaking, this being no exception. It's told entirely in black and white still photographs, many without any accompaniment except a choral soundtrack. What's left is either entirely silent or backed by an explanatory narration. It's a fascinating film, impossible not to watch, even when we know what happens.

The film begins and ends at Orly, just before the war, at a particular pier (la jetée) where the incident the man almost remembers took place. In between is a story that would be familiar to anyone who's seen Terry Gilliam's wonderful film, Twelve Monkeys. The story tells of a post apocalyptic future, where Paris (and everything else) has been destroyed during World War III.

Survivors living in catacombs below the city are aware that they need help and that without it the human race is doomed. The surface is a radioactive ruin, completely off limits, so the only option left is to seek help through time rather than space. They begin experimenting on human subjects and eventually find the man who may just be able to do it. He has a strong memory from before the war, though he doesn't know what it means, and it may be the focus the experimenters need to succeed in getting their message through. Of course, not everything is as it seems.

There are links between three films here. Chris Marker, a French filmmaker, even though the name wouldn't suggest it, made La Jetée in 1962 after being inspired by a scene in Hitchcock's Vertigo, the one with the tree of rings. Gilliam was inspired by this film, but aware of Marker's own inspiration, wove Vertigo references into his own film also. All three films stand alone, but watching all three, especially this one and Twelve Monkeys together is a great insight into the power of influence. Very powerful filmmaking and astounding for its time.

King Solomon's Mines (1950) Compton Bennett & Andrew Marton

This one opens with one of the strangest titles I think I've ever seen: 'King Solomon's Mines' are the first words we see and they run slowly from right to left before any other words appear. It's 1897 and we're in Africa, which is pretty obvious from the gazelles and elephants and such. Allan Quatermain is there, working as a hunting guide, taking rich white men out on safari to shoot things, but he's fed up with the lifestyle. He's obviously worth much more than that, and he ends up being hired to find a man he'd already turned down.

Apparently Henry Curtis believed he knew the location of King Solomon's fabled mines, a long way into the unexplored interior of the contnent, but when he tried to hire Quatermain he was rebuffed. Quatermain felt it was a fool's mission, working from a map worth no more than any other fabrication promising untold riches peddled across the world. Now Quatermain finds that Curtis went without him, is now lost and is sought by his husband who is willing to pay handsomely to retain him as her guide.

The film was shot entirely on location in Africa and it shows. The wildlife is plentiful, and close too: not just friendly critters like giraffes, but lions and rhinos and crocodiles. The soundtrack is authentic because it's sung by real African tribesmen who know precisely how it ought to sound. There's no Les Baxter exotica here, that's for sure. The only real drawback is that this is 1950 and we're unfortunately constrained by a 1:37 aspect ratio. While I'm aware that I'm seeing everything that was ever projected onto the big screen but my brain can't help but feel that there's so much on the left and right that would have been visible if only they'd filmed in Cinerama or VistaVision or something else widescreen.

As for the acting, Stewart Granger may have been too young to play Allan Quatermain but he carries it off well with the aid of a little greyness to his hair. He's certainly better in the role than Sean Connery was in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The young lady he escorts through the jungle to find her husband is a fine match for him, and they do attack each other frequently with words and attitude. She's Deborah Kerr, never one to kowtow to anyone, let alone someone who doesn't have the faith in her that she herself has. Of course each being as stubborn as each other, they're a perfect match.

King Solomon's Mines isn't as gripping as it really should be, given the tensions of the environment and the calibre of the storytelling. This is one of the original ripping yarns, after all. However there are certainly some thrilling cliffhanger scenes for sure: the stampede especially, but some of the native village scenes too. Others, like the cave scene are just over too quickly and easily to really carry any real danger. That's a shame. Partly that may be due to the exhaustion of the director, Compton Bennett, and his replacement by second unit director Andrew Marton. Partly it may be the traditional English reserve robbing us of panic moments. Mostly I think it was just that the filmmakers didn't have what it took, though Granger and Kerr do their very best to make up for it.

Saturday 8 September 2007

March of the Penguins (2005) Luc Jacquet

While it's very easy to think of documentaries as a forgotten art, there are quite a number of them of late that seem to have acquired both critical acclaim and commercial popularity. This one won the Oscar for Best Documentary, and actually outgrossed all the films in the running for Best Picture. It isn't too hard to see why it was so popular, because the bleak Antarctic landscapes of Terre Adélie look stunning even before the first emperor penguin leaps out of the icy water and onto the ice. Soon he's joined by another and another and eventually thousands upon thousands of other penguins, all set on their long march many miles inland to mate. It works on a serious front but on a fluffy front too.

The cinematography is superb, even before you factor in how difficult it must have been to film in such a location; the soundtrack is perfect, aptly highlighting the storyline, as much as there is one, all along; and the narration, performed in the English version by Morgan Freeman, is informative yet drily witty. There are different versions of this film, throughout the world, and it seems they fall into two categories. The original French version, along with the German and Japanese versions, along with possibly others, has three voices, one each for a mother, father and baby. The rest have the single narration. Also the US version has a different soundtrack to what looks like all the others, by Alex Wurman instead of Emilie Simon. It's a very different approach, from what I read, but it does work. I'd be really interested to hear the original though.

The real stars of the show though are the penguins, as emperor penguins are full of character, their heads bobbing around as their legs waddle. They are also fascinating creatures: birds that can't fly, that live in the sea but walk or slide on their bellies inland to mate; whose females give birth but whose males take care of the eggs while the females walk another 70 miles or more to find food; who are fierce when needed but who cooperate completely as a colony when it's 80 degrees below, with an additional 100 mph wind chill factor, to keep each and every one of them warm by taking turns in the centre of a huddled mass.

The film works its way through a whole cycle, taking a full year, and it shows us everything of the cycle of life. It works from life to death, showing us the baby penguins who made it and those that didn't. We run the gamut from hope to despair, from love to loss, from teamwork to selfishness. What gives the film its added edge is that anyone who isn't interested in the cycle of life and the extremes to which these creatures go to ensure their survival always has the benefit of looking at the baby penguins, which are damnably cute. They may not be as cute as kittens, but they're pretty close, and it would take a hard heart not to flutter at more than a few points.