Thursday 28 February 2008

The Calcium Kid (2004)

Boxer Jose Mendez, the undefeated world middleweight champion, is up against Pete Wright, the undefeated British champion in a major world championship fight in south east London. Never mind the Rumble in the Jungle, here's the Melee on the Tele. Sebastian Gore-Brown is a bad documentary maker (Lawn Bowls: The Real Story) and he's there to document Pete Wright's battle for the title. Unfortunately milkman Jimmy Connolly, acting as a sparring partner seven days before the fight, accidentally breaks Wright's hand with his head and ends up taking his spot, with precisely no fights behind him at all, let alone any wins.

I'd never even heard of this film and yet I found it hilarious. I spent the entire film with a grin on my face laughing out loud and I can't remember the last time I did that to a movie that was intentionally a comedy. Much of it is to do with Orlando Bloom as Jimmy Connolly, and he looks incredibly young given that this is 2004 and he already had all three Lord of the Rings movies and one Pirates of the Caribbean behind him. He's almost unrecognisable, completely unlike Legolas or Will Turner, totally hesitant and out of his element, but somehow surviving through everything and gaining the eye of Angel, Miss Lambeth in the process. Beyond just being a milkman with no fight record, he's saddled with the documentary film crew 24 hours a day, a father in prison for attempted murder, a prostitute mother, an incompetent promoter, an Irish drunkard trainer, an idiot best friend/motivator and, scariest of all, a boy band with their own version of God Save the Queen.

Just as hilarious as the promoter, Herbie Bush, is Omid Djalili, the only Iranian stand up comedian in England. He's simply perfect as a truly inept wide boy with delusions of grandeur and an eternal optimism. After the boy band, his crowning achievement must be the press conference where he manages to put the thoroughly decent milkman over as a racist thug, so that Jimmy ends up getting followed everywhere by a bunch of skinheads. He reminds me of Alexei Sayle and he cries like a seal. He's awesome.

Also notable are Michael Pena as the precious Jose Mendez, Michael Lerner as high powered American promoter Artie Cohen, Lyndsey Marshal as obsessive fan Mags Livingston, David Kelly as trainer Paddy O'Flannagan and Rafe Spall as enthusiastic idiot best friend Stan Parlour. Frank Bruno and Chris Eubank have memorable cameos too. The fake directors get beaten up as often as we wish they would on any mockumentary. The direction and editing are great but best of all is the script by Derek Boyle and first time director Alex De Rakoff. I laughed so much I nearly choked.

Wednesday 27 February 2008

Mutiny on the Bounty (1962)

Here's yet another version of the oft-filmed story of the mutiny on the Bounty, but a notable one. It's an epic version for sure, at three hours in length and in Panavision, with Lewis Milestone in the director's chair. He's someone I'd only heard of for a while as the man who made All Quiet on the Western Front, but I've been discovering lately that he was a highly versatile and very talented director. This was his last film. We have Marlon Brando, not as Captain Bligh but as Fletcher Christian, a rather foppish Christian at that coming on board with posh young ladies in tow. Bligh is Trevor Howard, tough but with deliberate intent to instil fear in his crew for the purpose of discipline. The third lead is Richard Harris, a common seaman who makes himself very obvious from moment one.

We kick off in Portsmouth in December of 1787 as the Bounty prepares for a long voyage to Tahiti to collect breadfruit to take to Jamaica to feed the slaves. The hope is that it would become a new cheap staple in a similar way to the potato, and there's a botanist included on the voyage from Kew Gardens to lend his expertise. Early on, Bligh calls him the most important man on board and he narrates our story. He also advises that breadfruit seems to have a dormant period, so eager to get there before this starts, Bligh chooses to go round Cape Horn instead of the Cape of Good Hope in order to stave five months off the voyage, leading to plenty of tension.

Brando is awesome. He starts out appearing to be horrendously overdone, certainly compared with Clark Gable's version in 1935, though with a better yet not entirely authentic English accent. However I'm discovering that that's a common problem with Brando performances as we get to grips with the approach he takes to his character. He soon establishes himself here as a firm and solid presence as a midpoint between Bligh and the crew. Bligh takes his orders very seriously and appears to see the concept of keeping speed and gaining distance more important than the lives of his men. Christian has a more concerned outlook and follows orders with a compassionate hand, giving himself a lot of room for flexibility.

Howard had an uphill struggle from moment one to match Charles Laughton's performance but he does a solid job. Brando though does better. He manages to stay honourable as an officer while keeping arrogant, obsequious and powerfully sarcastic as a man, and endows plenty of scenes depth just by being there. One in particular sees him merely waking up as Bligh talks to two crewmen and he turns it into a powerful scene without words until a final line of summation.

The visuals live up to the task. In fact they look as impressive in Panavision on a big screen TV as many modern films with a big budget for CGI, except of course there isn't any CGI involved here. The Bounty itself really becomes a major character of its own and the voyage round Cape Horn is truly intense. The scenes in Tahiti are, for Hollywood, incredibly believable because they're actually shot in Tahiti with real Tahitians speaking real Polynesian. One especially memorable scene has a long string of women blockading an entire bay while their men come towards them in canoes beating the sea to send the fish towards them to be corralled into spears and onto nets. This is the sort of thing that film and especially colour Panavision is for.

One of those Tahitians is Terita whose character Maimiti, the king's daughter, quickly becomes Fletcher Christian's love interest. She has amazingly flexible dancing hips even for a Tahitian and unsurprisingly soon became Brando's third wife. As if to suggest that he had some sort of obsession, his second wife was Movita who played the equivalent role in the 1935 version of the story and his son from his first wife was called Christian.

The last third or maybe two fifths of the film, after the intermission, doesn't quite hold up to what came before but it's still a powerful film. It's more accurate than the 1935 version, though there are still both major and minor discrepancies, especially at the end. Apparently the 1984 version, known as The Bounty is the definitive one as far as accuracy goes. It'll be hard to beat this one for visuals though, even though the ship thankfully survived its apparent burning and went on to appear in the last two Pirates of the Caribbean movies and even Spongebob Squarepants: The Movie.

Sunday 24 February 2008

Atlantic City (1980)

Susan Sarandon listening to opera and rubbing lemon juice over her breasts while Burt Lancaster watches through two sets of windows from next door seems like a pretty good way to attract our attention at the start of a movie. No, it's not as lurid as it sounds but that's what's happening nonetheless. It's a Louis Malle film, made while he was dating Sarandon, and he keeps on grabbing our attention. Next a drifter intercepts a drop of drugs in a phone booth and he and his pregnant hippie girlfriend in a patchwork coat hightail it to Atlantic City. As they arrive we see a huge building being demolished. It's definitely an opening to remember.

The girlfriend is Chrissie and the drifter is Dave Matthews. No, not that one. The connection is that Dave is the brother of Sarandon's character Sally, and Chrissie is Sally's sister. The weirdest thing is that as soon as they reach Atlantic City they head straight to the hotel casino where she works, like she'd really want to see them or something. It doesn't take too long for Dave to meet his maker but he lives long enough to bring an ageing gangster called Lou Pascal into the scene in a very non-traceable way and he's where our real story lies.

The beauty of it is that it would seem that it would be how Lou influences Sally that gives us our plot but it's really the other way round. She's a trainee croupier with high hopes and Lou, having been around as long as Atlantic City, or so it would seem, is a good bet to make the difference. However it's Sally, or the image of her that Lou has in his mind, that changes him into what he's always dreamed of being. Dave's drugs are the beginning but it's Sally that's the impetus and Lou that becomes changed.

Lou is a peach of a character. He sees himself as an old time gangster but never really was, even when it was the old time and he was a gangster. He lives the life, still running numbers even though the casinos have pretty much replaced the numbers racket. He doesn't pay income tax, he doesn't even have a social security number, yet he's still nobody. He helps out an old lady neighbour who was married to a real gangster, and it's never clear if he puts up with her abuse because he really loves her or because she's a real link to that gangster past.

What he really is is a relic and relics of the old Atlantic City are either dead or long faded, like an old friend Lou runs into who's now running a shoeshine stall in a restroom. They're as out of place in the modern Atlantic City as the building Lou and Sally live in, which is due for demolition so it can be turned into a casino. Our story is about how Lou finds his way back to relevance, at least to his way of thinking, and about his way of thinking in the first place. It's a great opportunity and it earned Burt Lancaster a well deserved Oscar nomination.

There are some truly great scenes here, beyond the opening. There's Dave being killed during a cool fight on a vertical car park that should have inspired a video game. There's Sally trying to call Dave's parents from the hospital while Robert Goulet serenades her through the phone booth window during a promotional shot. There's Lou failing to protect Sally when he first needs to and then succeeding to protect her the next time around. There's the toll booth scene. There's Lou watching the news. There's the panic in Grace's voice when she's told about reincarnation. There are lines like 'I don't wear seatbelts. I don't believe in gravity.' At the end of the day though, it's about Lou, and what he means.

Kes (1969)

Nowadays in Phoenix, AZ, it seems that kids spend half their time at school watching movies. I think I saw a grand total of one during all the years I was in school back in England and that one was to back up a Shakespeare play that we also read. We never saw Kes, but we did read the source novel, A Kestrel for a Knave by Barry Hines, though I don't remember much past the working class setting and the abuse. In my day it was books not movies in school because it was considered far more important to know how to read than to recognise Brad Pitt. Then again, if they have it easy today compared to what I went through, I had it easy compared to what Billy Casper goes through during this story.

He's a young boy, played perfectly by sixteen year old David Bradley, living a rough life on a rough council estate in Barnsley, in the heart of working class northern England, with his mother and brother. They're a working family but still poor. His brother Jud, who shares the same bed as Billy, works down the pit and is a royal pain in the back end. Their mother is fed up both with Jud and being a single mum and yet drinks at the same place as him, presumably a working men's club.

Billy's one joy in life, beyond calling his brother rude names while he's in a drunken stupor, is a surprising one: falconry. When he gets the chance, after school and his paper round, he heads out to a local farm where he's discovered a kestrel nest hidden on a high rickety wall. When the kestrel gives birth he takes one of the babies and trains it, to a large degree learning how to read in the process in order to know what to do. Other than that, it's Desperate Dan in The Dandy, halfway through his round sitting on a hillside overlooking the pit.

The football match at school is my favourite part of the movie. It brings back plenty of memories, even though my teachers weren't hypocrites, sadists and cheats like Mr Sugden, played by Brian Glover who knew his stuff. Not only was he a teacher before becoming a wrestler and eventually an actor and writer, but he grew up in Barnsley where he became a teacher at the same school he had attended as a pupil. This was Barnsley School, the same school used in the film and at which Barry Hines, the writer of the novel and co-writer of the screenplay, was also a teacher. Kes was his first memorable film of many memorable films and it's amazing that such a career began just because he worked at the same school as the writer of the story.

There's plenty to admire here. Ken Loach, perennial documenter of working class English life, does a great job directing the film. It's tough but completely believable and while Billy is hardly a paragon of virtue, it's hard not to feel for his situation. Many directors could have given us that but Loach adds in a whole slew of detail, that you don't have to notice to get the plot but that add to it hugely.

That story itself belongs to Barry Hines, who doesn't just deserve credit for writing it but for turning down an offer from Disney who wanted to change it into something you'd expect Disney to make. They'd have paid him well, I'm sure, but artistic integrity won the day and I'm thankful for that and very respectful of Hines's decision. The ending is heartbreaking but it needs to be there. There's plenty to read into the film beyond the basic plot too, as pertaining to social issues in northern England and the likelihood of someone of Billy's class and location ending up anywhere else but down the pit.

The acting is top notch, led by David Bradley, only sixteen years old but simply perfect as young Billy. This was the first film he made, with only four more to come, but it's a stunning performance. He really nails both the natural victim and the kid who's found a vocation. Freddie Fletcher is suitably nasty as Jud, Brian Glover is awesome, Bob Bowes is a tough headmaster and Colin Welland is a believably decent teacher, the only one of the bunch, it would seem. In fact there's nothing much to find fault with. No wonder it's on the top ten of the British Film Institute's 100 Best British Films.

Friday 22 February 2008

Two Women (1960)

Vittorio De Sica was a major European director, but known today mostly for his apparent classic The Bicycle Thief, or Ladri di Biciclette in its native Italian, which is on all the best foreign film lists and has a solid spot on the IMDb Top 250. I haven't caught up with that one yet, but have seen a variety of De Sica films, which are all interesting in different ways.

The first I saw was After the Fox, an English language film with Peter Sellers in one of his many frenetic disguise films, and proved to have been far better in my memory of it from childhood than when rewatching as an adult. 1952's Umberto D, on the other hand, was a quiet classic, understated but awesome and truly touching. Indiscretion of an American Wife was really hard to judge because it's an American release of an Italian film, Stazione Termini, shorn of nearly a third of its length and apparently with its entire angle altered. Two Women is something else again, a 1960 release that brought Sophia Loren the first Best Actress Oscar ever given to a performance in a foreign language film.

She does give an amazing performance, full of depth and power for someone known at the time as nothing but another elegant European actress. Her eyes especially are alive and expressive and tell plenty of stories on their own. She plays Cesira, who apparently married the first person who could get her to Rome where she now runs a store. However now she's willing to do almost anything to get out of Rome, because it's wartime and so not a particularly safe place to be. The people don't just have to deal with Mussolini's fascists and the Nazis who are prevalent in Italy but also the bombing done by the Allies.

So Cesira finds her way away from the city with her daughter Rosetta, played by Eleanora Brown, who looks older than her twelve years and is Italian regardless of her Anglo-sounding name. The story is partly about their journey through 1943 Italy as the Allies invade and Mussolini is jailed, but mostly about the reality of what that really meant. Everything here has to do with perspectives, with the story built around the little conflicts between those perspectives, all of which add up to the big story.

Like many characters in the film Cesira hates the war, but has no real hate for any of the sides involved. She sees the Germans she meets as decent folks yet helps out English soldiers who need food. She hangs out with Michele, played by Jean Paul Belmondo, because he has access to things she needs, but he's an idealist and she doesn't understand or appreciate much of what he talks about. They find their way to some of his family who are forced to host a German officer who seems to care more about Italian peasants than they do.

That doesn't make him a good person, it just plays with our notions of stereotypes. There are two real approaches to the logic: either nobody's either good or bad but rather a combination of both, or sheer concepts like good and bad are completely meaningless until they affect people directly. In many ways, therefore, this becomes almost the polar opposite of something like Commandos Strike at Dawn. It's reality to counter story, brutality to counter timidity, perspective to counter propaganda.

And it's very, very powerful, both in the telling of it and in who does the work. Cesare Zavattini adapted a novel by Alberto Moravia, Gábor Pogány was the cinematographer and Vittorio De Sica directed. I don't know who deserves most credit but all and more would seem to qualify. At the heart of it all though are the performances of the two women of the title: Sophia Loren as Cesira and Eleanora Brown as Rosetta. Both are nothing short of amazing and after a brutal scene with a gang of Moroccan rapists it's impossible not to watch them. Stunning work.

Commandos Strike at Dawn (1942)

The opening of this film reads: 'Dedicated to the officers and men of the armed forces of Canada, Great Britain and Fighting Norway who participated in the filming of this picture.' They weren't kidding either, given that Flying Officer Robert Coote, RCAF shares the credits on the title screen with such luminaries as Paul Muni and Lillian Gish.

The Norway of 1939 looks precisely how we expect to see it today: beautiful countryside, strong men working hard and young ladies looking gorgeous. We also get a traditional wedding within the first ten minutes, making this a true picture postcard, the only things missing being the cold and the Norwegian black metal elite. Given that this is 1939 though, there's one further component missing but due any minute: the Nazis. They arrived on 9th April, 1940, in a surprise attack that flouted Norwegian claims of neutrality and they're the cue for our story.

Paul Muni is Erik Toresen, some sort of scientist, working in a fishing village on things like weather and the migration patterns of salmon. He keeps himself to himself, though he's sociable and has a young daughter from a wife who died giving birth to her. He's also falling hard for the daughter of a visiting English admiral, and it appears she for him. She's Judith Bowen, as played delectably by Anna Lee, and she seems to have truly astounding timing. Not only does she leave with her father for England before the Nazis arrive but then, while writing a letter to Erik, she switches on her radio and hears the famous declaration that England and Germany are at war.

The Nazis are exactly as you'd expect, especially as this film was made in 1942 and so was really propaganda, if made by the right side. They move in as if they own the place, confiscating radios, burning books, stealing blankets, prohibiting this and that, imposing their own concepts of morality on everyone from the schoolkids on up. They go unopposed for a short while but soon Toresen prompts them into action and they start mounting covert activities against their oppressors: blowing things up, harrassing the enemy, even killing Germans. Lloyd Bridges has a tiny uncredited role as a lost German, who is given deliberately bad directions by a local that lead to him driving right off a cliff.

Eventually Toresen kills the Nazi colonel in charge of operations in the village and so must escape. There are plenty of little touches throughout to wrench at our heartstrings and add to the tension, but much of it is by the numbers because there's so much convenience going on. The screenplay was written by Irwin Shaw from a story by C S Forester, and both of them are worthy of better material. So are the cast, especially Lillian Gish who is given next to nothing to do as the wife of a man tortured by the Nazis for his beliefs.

What's most surprising is that given a title like Commandos Strike at Dawn, there's really not a lot of commandos striking at dawn. We get there in the end, but what this is really about is the buildup to that point rather than the commandos themselves. The buildup is long and touching and meaningful, and must have had major resonance in 1942. It all highlights a particular problem and the commandos who do their striking in the finale are presented as the solution. To my non-military eyes the whole thing looks pretty clumsy and, well non-military, but it's dramatic for sure. Also if it isn't propaganda I don't know what is, but as propaganda it's fine stuff. As a story seen with the hindsight of over sixty years though, it has holes and conveniences and naturally shies away from real nastiness and embraces sentimentality where it doesn't always belong.

There's a really interesting post at IMDb by blainefielding that talks about Ann Carter's recollections of the film. She was the child actor who played Solveig, Toresen's daughter. It suggests that Muni was in a bad mood for much of the film, partly because he was going blind and partly because he was in conflict with the director, presumably about his character or the way the film was being made. If so, I wonder if his ideas would have made for a film more believable and less based on propaganda. Ann Carter, by the way, was the young girl in The Curse of the Cat People and she had a notable career throughout the forties, retiring in 1952 at the age of 16.

Sunday 17 February 2008

Marianne (1929)

It's hard to imagine what filmmakers in 1929 must have been thinking about sound. Sure, the studios were gambling by shelling out on an unknown factor, against some of their heartfelt judgements, but what did the actual filmmakers think about sound? Well, the fact that so many films of that year seem to be musicals could be a suggestion that if they're going to have sound they might as well go hog wild and throw music and songs and everything they can think of into the mix too.

We're in Bienville, France, in 1914 and off go the boys to war, including André, the sweetheart of the titular heroine. 33 seconds later (I counted them), it's 1918 and the war is over. Bienville looks a little different, of course, and in march the Americans to camp in Marianne's farm and steal her pig. She's not far off the only person left in the town, with the exception of a bunch of war orphans she looks after and she spends her time being frazzled, defending her honour in a superb mangled English in a French accent. She's played by Marion Davies, who always had a talent for accents and this one is a far more consistent French accent than the Irish one she put on for Peg o' My Heart.

A few of the soldiers spend their time wooing her, and a couple in earnest who become bitter rivals. These two are Lawrence Gray as Private Stagg, serenading her with song, and Scott Kolk as an MP called Lt Frane. The only one I recognise is Cliff Edwards, in his film debut, long before achieving immortality as the voice of Jiminy Cricket, but because this is a musical his ukelele is put to good use. To be honest, the character who deserves to have received co-star status is Anatol the pig, because of both the amount of screen time he gets and his importance to the plot direction.

As always though, it's Marion Davies who steals the show. Not only does she put on a pretty fine French accent but she gets to impersonate a male French officer, complete with bad moustache, and then sing under the personas of Maurice Chevalier and Sarah Bernhardt. Her films are often not that great, but she's always very watchable indeed. This one fits both those descriptions.

Peg o' My Heart (1933)

Off the west coast of Ireland, Peg O'Connell works the fishing docks with her father Pat. Soon though Sir Gerald Markham arrives with the news that an entire two million pound inheritance has fallen to Peg, if only the terms of the will are adhered to. She must spend three years in England with Mrs Chichester learning how to be a lady and she must cut ties with her father completely, as he is excluded from any part of the will. A few melodramatic but honest scenes later, she's in England being the third wheel in every possible situation.

Of course, as Peg quickly points out she's a sow's ear and she can't see how they could turn her into a silk purse, however much they try and they don't seem to do a lot of that. Her bright and cheery down to earth nature clashes completely with the fake upper class pretensions of the Chichesters, and it's Marion Davies's honest portrayal of Peg that keeps the film moving. Honesty is what it's all about, as Peg doesn't care what people think or say, because she only ever sees and hears truth.

Marion Davies is a joy to watch, even though her usually impeccable accent occasionally seems a little too earnest, and she's by far the best thing about the film, which doesn't have any real surprises outside her. Certainly the plot, from the play by J Hartley Manners, isn't surprising in the slightest, however much it may be to Peg at the time. I wonder how much the people responsible for the film really expected it to be otherwise.

As for the other people in the cast, Onslow Stevens is fine as Sir Gerald, though he fades into the background a little too easily. Irene Brown is suitably annoying as Mrs Chichester, and Juliette Compton similarly as her daughter Ethel. Most annoying of all, but in a far more endearing way, is Tyrell Davis as Alaric Chichester. He's a stereotypical upper class English twit but he becomes the only real friend Peg has in England, beyond Sir Gerald, who everyone calls Jerry except Peg who calls him 'Your Honour'. J Farrell MacDonald is a suitably caring father and Alan Mowbray is a powerful heel. At the end of the day it's Marion Davies's show, though, as always.

The Emperor Jones (1933)

When I watched James Whale's 1935 film version of Show Boat, the most obvious thing to my ears was that the white folks sounded terrible and the black folks rocked. Of course nobody was supposed to notice that, it being 1935 and all, but for God's sake, how can you have Paul Robeson and Hattie McDaniel singing and then pretend that Irene Dunne and Helen Morgan sound great? It just doesn't make sense. Here we open with tribal African drumming then switch to a black baptist church somewhere and Robeson gets to sing some more. In fact there's music everywhere for a while and there are no white folks anywhere to be found.

Brutus Jones, the Emperor of the title, is a tour de force role for Robeson. The part comes from a fictional play, The Emperor Jones, which launched the career of Eugene O'Neill, but O'Neill seemingly based is it mostly on Henri Christophe, who arrived in Haiti as a slave but became president and then king, reigning for almost a decade. However there are other influences too including The Man Who Would Be King, a Kipling story filmed by John Huston.

Robeson, who had played the role on stage, apparently regretted the fact that the story deviated from the play by adding huge amounts of back story, but he's still a power to be reckoned with. He begins as a black man about to become a pullman porter, but he gradually rises up through the ranks by guts and dirty dealing. However he kills a man and finds himself on the chain gang, then escapes to become a slave on Haiti, owned by a white trader called Smithers. Before long he's worked his way up to be a partner, and pretty soon he's emperor of the whole place, with a courtroom full of mirrors and an invented nobility. He looks awesome at every point, a little stagy to today's mindset, but resonating nonetheless.

It's very much a product of the time, uncomfortable viewing to anyone who can't watch political incorrectness The n word comes up a lot, both spoken by whites and blacks, and there's more than a little crap shooting and pretty much any other racial stereotype you can think of. The quality of the filmmaking lags behind Robeson, and even behind Dudley Digges, who plays Smithers very aptly indeed. Robeson is the chief reason to watch, with the parallels to racial treatment in America the other.

West Point (1928)

With all the gays in the military hype, it does seem rather strange that of all the actors who could make a habit out of starring in military films made with the sanction of the various military authorities, it would be William Haines who got the job. Haines was a huge star in the second half of the twenties, usually playing cocky young men who get their comeuppance by the end of the film, but was flamboyantly gay and by 1934 would be firmly retired from acting and doing very well indeed in his new career as interior designer to the stars.

West Point was 'produced by permission of The War Department and with the co-operation of The United States Military Academy', it's dedicated to the United States Corps of Cadets and it was shot on location at West Point itself. That makes it pretty official. We begin in late June when candidates arrive. Billy Haines gets there by boat and causes trouble before the boat even docks. He's rich young man Brice Wayne, (Brice, not Bruce), and in about ten minutes he manages to wind up all his fellow new cadets and meet, fall for and upset Betty Channing, played by a 23 year old Joan Crawford.

This is of course entirely consistent with Haines's other similar films, such as Tell It to the Marines and The Marines are Coming, and in fact anything else he did that that had nothing to do with the military. The only difference here is that Joan Crawford doesn't have a father who turns out to be Haines's future general, she has a mother who turns out to run the West Point Hotel. Of course by the time he actually gets inside West Point, he's upset people, knocked out people and caused no end of chaos, bucking orders, setting his own schedule and every other antic that would have had real senior officers laughing their asses off.

Of course the other consistency is that as much as he's an annoying and arrogant pain in the ass, he's also a good guy at heart and comes around by the end of the film. Billy Haines was perfect for this sort of role and maybe those high ups wanted him in the film so they could split their sides for three quarters of the film and then either leave or gloss over the fact that the gay guy made good, because the fact that he made good is because of their own system, making him the proof that it works.

Saturday 16 February 2008

Indiscretion of an American Wife (1953)

It was surprising to see that this was a Selznick release, given that almost everything about it is Italian. Sure, the stars are Jennifer Jones and Montgomery Clift but the director is Vittorio De Sica. Beyond Dick Beymer as Jones's nephew and Truman Capote who wrote the dialogue, every other name on the cast and crew seems to be Italian. We even start in Rome where Jones, as Mary Forbes, the American wife of the title, has fallen head over heels for a local man named Giovanni Doria, son of an Italian father and American mother and played well by Clift, with only a hint of an Italian accent.

Of course the Selznick release is only the American version, probably only released because Jennifer Jones was his wife. The original was Stazione Termini, 87 minutes long compared to the 63 minutes of the American release that I saw and even though this version is so short, it's notably packed full of life. Almost all of it is set in the Rome train station, which becomes a character of its own, and for the most part there are crowds, but distinguishable ones. Here's a group of priests, there a troop of schoolkids spitting on their hands to clean their faces, here a row of porters with carts, there a group of soldiers marching towards the train, here a man pushing trees on a cart, there one carrying flags. Many of them sing though we have no idea what they're singing and it's hardly a musical. The songs are there as life punctuating the overblown romantic soundtrack.

The plot is simple: Mary is trying to leave Giovanni for her husband, which sounds deliberately bizarre, but Giovanni doesn't want to let her. The characters connect and flare with passion, then disconnect, just as passionately, and the plot bounces around with their indecision. It's like a tortured version of Brief Encounter, one with British reserve replaced by Italian passion. It looks amazing and like any passionate encounter, feels just like a whirlwind.

The director's cut is apparently far darker and it would be fascinating now to see what his vision really was. I'm used to seeing originals first and then seeing the heresy done by people remaking them or just reworking them into something else. This time I see the reworked version first, and so it seems powerful without seeming heretical. Experience tells me it probably is.

Friday 15 February 2008

Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl (1998)

For some reason I associated Tadanobu Asano far more with the OCD suicidal librarian from the Thai movie Last Life in the Universe than I did with the over the top sadomasochistic Kakihara in Takashi Miike's Ichi the Killer. Maybe it's the hair: it's dark, and it's dark in both the films I got to see on the big screen via projected DVD and courtesy of Midnite Movie Mamacita. Both were astounding, though completely different, and I'll certainly be buying both for future viewing and tracking down anything else featuring the man who must be Japan's hippest actor working today.

Contrary to expectations, Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl is not a bizarre superhero movie and it's a far cry from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl. It's based on a Minetaro Mochizuki manga and written for the screen by debut director Katsuhito Ishii. Anyone watching in a vacuum would see something stunning, but anyone versed in the work of the various hip directors of the world, from Tarantino to Besson, Jeunet to Aranofsky, John Woo to Wong Kar Wai, will see plenty of influence. Ishii has created something new though, because he's given life to a large and well defined set of characters and will now fit into that pool himself for the next director to be influenced by.

Shark Skin Man is Samehada, a yakuza who has ripped off a large sum of money from his employers and is now on the run for his life from the ruthless Tanuki and his assortment of talented but quirky henchmen. Peach Hip Girl is Toshiko, a young girl who has had enough with working in her uncle's hotel and has run away. Her uncle is the epitome of freakishness in Japanese culture and hires a strange man to bring her back. If you hadn't noticed everyone in this film is strange and that's cool even when some of the characters are not cool. The uncle is certainly not cool and Yamada, the man he hires, is about as unhip as anyone could possibly be, yet Tatsuya Gashuin's portrayal is awesomely cool.

The whole thing works very well, and there are some loops in plot that connect various characters to each other in various ways. The endings are revealing yet vague enough to suggest volumes two through whatever of the manga, and so a potential sequel. The dialogue is Tarantino hip, and in fact more believable here than in some of Tarantino's originals. The cinematography and visual effects are awesome, and often very freaky indeed. The way that scenes are sped up for effect often almost but not quite matches what we'd expect for sped up film, like additional frames were removed just to be random. Very cool.

I'd rave about the actors but I can't remember who played who. Tadanobu Asano is Samehada and Sie Kohinata is Toshiko, but I'd have to cross reference the cool opening credits that name the actors in a modern hip version of the old Warner Brothers openings to find out. The head yakuza is Ittoku Kishibe, who turns into a bird in the second half of this double bill, Survive Style 5+, and who reappears yet again with Asano in Vital, a Shinya Tsukamoto film sitting on my DVR and waiting for my big screen TV so my better half can read the subtitles. They obviously work a lot together and a quick IMDb lookup gives me seven titles. Tatsuya Gashuin is unforgettable as Yamada, half truly inept and half amazingly professional. Everyone else will have to wait for the DVD.

Thursday 14 February 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Unless the new one disappoints in ways that I don't think anyone really expects, this will always be labelled 'the worst Indiana Jones movie', which is really unfair because it wouldn't have been as bad had been a standalone movie. Sure, Kate Capshaw really can't sing in Cantonese and the opening scene of dialogue seems a little too close to Han Solo in the cantina for comfort, but the whole thing isn't that bad. After all the club is named Club Obi Wan, so I wonder how much was really deliberate. There are certainly other rip off/tribute scenes if you watch for them too. And if you want comparison's, the film isn't just better than The Phantom Menace, it's better than The Revenge of the Sith. That's not to say it's particularly great though.

If you really analyse it, Raiders of the Lost Ark was pretty far fetched, but it doesn't seem that way while you're watching it. It feels real and urgent and damn fine. This first sequel (really a prequel because we're set a year earlier) doesn't play like that at all. It plays like George Lucas decided to throw in everything he possibly could, even though it all fits somewhere between vaguely unlikely and stunningly unbelievable, and Steven Spielberg let him. That really isn't one of Spielberg's better moves, for sure, making the result fun but notably inconsequential.

It plays far closer to the adventure serial roots of the series than the others in the series in that there's just too much of everything. There isn't a night sky without a shooting star, there isn't a ride without a crash and there isn't a joke without six punchlines. Talk about labouring the point! Oh, and Short Round so completely should have been the Jar Jar Binks character of the series but he rocked and I thought young Jonathan Ke Quan was awesome. That role falls to Kate Capshaw, who is admittedly deliberately annoying but that's still annoying.

Anyway, we start in Shanghai in 1935 but soon finds his way to India, where Indiana Jones, in the company of his young assistant Short Round and a nightclub singer called Willie Scott, saves a village whose children have been stolen by the forces of evil along with a sacred stone that provides life to their fields. They run into a resurgence of the thuggee cult and seemingly no end of gross out moments, from necklaces of fingers to eyeball soup to corridors filled with bugs.

Indy is of course once again played impeccably by Harrison Ford, who didn't need to stamp any more authority on the role but did so anyway. There are scenes here that only he could play. Surely Capshaw screams more than she speaks, but it worked for Spielberg as he promptly married her. There's also able support from people like Roy Chiao, Roshan Seth and Amrish Puri, people you won't know by name but you would by sight. Puri looks like a demented Mel Gibson crossed with Boris Karloff. Interesting when viewed in the middle of the trilogy but not much else.

Monday 11 February 2008

The Black Camel (1931)

While I've caught up with so many detective films from detective series that I've even discovered new detectives, one of the most prolific series has mostly eluded me. To date there have been no less than 48 Charlie Chan movies, quite possibly more than any other recurring character except Sherlock Holmes, yet I've rated precisely three, all late Monogram entries with Sidney Toler in the lead. He apparently wasn't the worst Chan but he wasn't great, that's for sure. Much better, at least my childhood memory tells me, was Warner Oland who made 16 films as Chan before Toler made the first of his 22.

From what I've read, The Black Camel may be the best of the bunch and I've looked forward to it for quite some time. Luckily a bunch of box sets going cheaply just before Christmas at Fry's Electronics mean that I have it on DVD and a whole lot more sitting by to follow. Not only is it a Warner Oland Chan but he investigates with the assistance of Bela Lugosi, the same year as Dracula, and whose accent works perfectly as a Hollywood mystic to the stars called Tarneverro.

Lugosi takes the third credit behind Sally Eilers, a popular leading lady of the time who I know best as the love interest in Central Airport. There's even a Robert Young, living up to his name at 24 years of age and earning his first credited role, movie director Hamilton MacFadden playing a movie director and Lugosi's memorable co-star in Dracula, Dwight Frye. The story is even based on a novel by Earl Derr Biggers rather than merely on characters he created.

We're in Honolulu, where Chan is an inspector of police, and our murder victim is Shelah Fane, a Hollywood starlet who's there to act in a film but spends her time instead getting secretly engaged to Alan Jaynes who she met on the boat. Unlike the later Toler Chans who all had a single obvious candidate for the murderer, there are a slew of possibles here. Jealous ex-husband Robert Fyfe fits the bill, as does Jaynes who may have known she wasn't going to marry him after all. There's a mysterious painter camping outside on the beach and Fane's maid who discovered that she murdered a fellow actor three years earlier. Then there's the rest of the film crew, plus Tarneverro and Jimmy Bradshaw and who knows who else.

There's much to recommend here, though there are creaks. There's a good story, some good acting and some great dialogue. In the Toler era, Chan's famous aphorisms are generally flat cliches, but he has a bunch of joyous lines here. There are plenty choose from but my favourite must be the one that follows the suggestion that he bring in a lie detector that can tell when anyone is lying. He replies that he already has a wife. There's even the admirable fact that while Warner Oland was a Swede pretending to be Chinese, the rest of his ample family are really Chinese.

Oh and by the way, the title comes from the proverb that death is a black camel who kneels at every gate. It adds a little poetic touch to a pretty decent mystery. I don't know yet if it's the best Chan but it's a league above the Toler Chans I've seen.

The Prestige (2006)

We open with a guide to the disappearing magic trick known as the Transported Man. Apparently it consists, like all magic tricks, of three parts: the pledge, the turn and the prestige. The pledge is when the magician shows the audience something ordinary (like a man), the turn is when he makes it become something extraordinary (like a man disappearing from a cage being battered by lightning from a tesla coil) and the pledge is when he successfully concludes it all (like by bringing the man back). In the example we watch while this is being explained to us, the magician and transported man is Robert Angier, who quickly dies in a huge tank of water underneath the stage.

Our guide unsurprisingly given the voice turns out to be Michael Caine, a theatrical producer and constructor of magic tricks by the name of John Cutter, and he's explaining not just to us but to a jury at the trial of Alfred Borden, played by Christian Bale. He's a magician accused by Cutter of murdering Angier, played by Hugh Jackman. Everything points to his guilt. He was there watching the man die, he had reason and even the choice of method is appropriate. The two magicians have a rivalry, all sparked by the death of Angier's wife through, you guessed it, drowning in a huge tank of water. At this point Borden and Angier were partners, working on the same tricks but a disagreement on which knot to use leads to her death and the two fall out with a vengeance. The rivalry is bitter and dangerous.

Watching the IMDb Top 250 list has taught me that many recent films appear there but quickly disappear. The ones that arrive but don't depart either tend to have a good reason to stay there or are subject to dubious abiding publicity and will take a lot longer to fade from memory. I'm not too surprised from director Christopher Nolan's previous work that this one fits in the former category. Following and Memento were unique films, in an age when there's no such thing any more, and this fits pretty well in that category too.

It's also based on a novel by Christopher Priest, a science fiction writer of renown and that's refreshing. I've long wondered why cinema, an obvious platform for far more than sixties monster movies, doesn't do that more often. There's almost nothing out there in the modern science fiction genre on film that isn't based on something by Philip K Dick and that's a crime. I grew up on serious science fiction and there are so many stories out there that deserve cinematic treatment. The optimist in me sees that the success of this one prompts a reevaluation of that concept but the pessimist in me doesn't believe that there are enough serious filmmakers interested in it. At least Christopher Nolan makes one.

And that's just the people behind the screen. The ones in front of it are impeccable too. The names are well known ones: backing up Caine, Bale and Jackman are people as lauded as Scarlett Johansson, Andy Serkis and David Bowie, who does an awesome job as Nikola Tesla, who is treated with respect due. Those I didn't know are as good: people like Rebecca Hall, who has plenty of acting heritage through her parents. These actors have a difficult task in a film like this, where the point is the story, which mirrors the guide we're given to begin. Yet they universally do their job very very well indeed. The only thing wrong with the film is that I figured out whodunit, but there was still more to come that I hadn't seen and I'm still filled with admiration.

Sunday 10 February 2008

The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Very much a Tim Burton film even though he didn't direct, this is a feast for the eyes, and while it's a musical at least the songs are better than they were in Sweeney Todd, especially Oogie Boogie's song as sung by Ken Page and anything with the backing band that reminds of the Tiger Lillies. Actually they should have scored this film! That would be a memorable thing for sure. Maybe we'll get there one day with an animated opera version of Shockheaded Peter.

The story is a dark one, as you'd expect, but it's hardly inappropriate for the youngsters, because there's humour even in the depths of the monster filled Halloweentown where we begin. Jack Skellington is the Pumpkin King of Halloweentown, as played by Chris Sarandon when speaking and long time Burton composer Danny Elfman when singing. There are many familiar names here, including William Hickey, Catherine O'Hara, Glenn Shadix and Paul Reubens, though I managed to completely miss him. It was also written by Michael McDowell, the man behind Beetlejuice.

Jack is apparently awesome at his job but he's bored out of his brain doing the same thing year after year, so after yet another successful Hallowe'en he takes off in depression and ends up in a forest glade where every tree leads to another town. Next thing he knows he's through the door to Christmas Town and finds a new purpose. He introduces the concepts of Christmas to his own people and decides to take over the holiday with his own sense of style. He has Santa Claus kidnapped and takes his place: sleigh, costume and all.

I wasn't sure what I was expecting here but this wasn't it. Maybe I was expecting something darker, something more topical and less abstract, something that wasn't a musical. The sweep of the film is fine and it's certainly cool to imagine the man behind an entire holiday going through a midlife crisis but it's a lot more forgettable than it really ought to be, given how awesome it looks. It's the details that worked best for me and there are many of them, awesome little touches that could easily go unnoticed: the three kids who behave like the Three Stooges, the mayor of Halloweentown having two faces and whole new meaning to rolling the bones and cutting the cards.

The Squall (1929)

Josef and Maria Lajos have a farm in Hungary that's been 'crowned with prosperity and content'. Life certainly appears to be joyous in a picture postcard way, with everyone doing their bit to bring in the harvest. They all have smiles on their faces, from the young to the old, and given that it's the the Lajos's anniversary, they'll all be treated to a free night at the local inn. Nobody has a Hungarian accent, of course, but they do have voices because this is a 'First National Vitaphone Picture' and it's 1929 when that was a big deal. It certainly didn't start that way because we have title cards just as if this was to be a silent picture.

I can't remember the last time I saw a film from 1929 that was shot outside, because of the sheer difficulty of recording the sound, but soon we're indoors and it isn't difficult to work out that the sound outside was recorded inside. The cast is a good one, especially given the time, but some of the stars weren't really stars yet. Zasu Pitts had a serious background in the silents, not least in Greed and The Wedding March for Erich von Stroheim, and leading lady Alice Joyce almost had two hundred screen credits to her name.

Yet Loretta Young was only sixteen and in her second year of credited roles and Myrna Loy was finding her way from bit parts in silents to her exotic period. It would be a few years before The Thin Man helped her to become a serious actress. She's a wild gypsy girl called Nubi and she steals the show from the real leads, Alice Joyce and Richard Tucker, as Josef and Maria Lajos, though both are fine. She's hugely dynamic, amazing for Loy who always acted far more with her face and voice than with her body, and looks stunning, like a cross between Nina Hagen and Bonnie Tyler. No wonder it takes no time flat for her to stir up the passions of every male in the household.

There's the son of the household, Paul, played by Carroll Nye, who a decade later would play Scarlett O'Hara's second husband. He's in love with and engaged to Loretta Young's character Irma, but he's also in lust with Nubi. He's also the weak acting link in the chain, coming across very wooden and amateur. There's Harry Cording as Peter, the stableman who's saving to marry Lena the cook, Zasu Pitts's character. There's even Josef Lajos himself.

This is surprisingly good for a 1929 film, though the limitations inherent in the output of that year are still apparent. This was obviously meant to be a silent but switched to sound as the tide turned towards it. The voices, accents excepted, are all fine for the sound era, but everyone speaks slowly and deliberately so as to ensure that their words remain clear. It's also stagy, but again understandably so.
The melodrama is over the top, but again it fits the time. And that's the key thing at the end of the day: if you can forgive the problems inherent with pretty much every 1929 movie, you might enjoy it, especially for Myrna Loy.

Teacher's Pet (1958)

Barney Kovac works at the paper for which Jim Gannon is the city editor, and Mrs Kovac hijacks a tour of the office to come and talk with him. She wants him to fire Barney because she wants him to go back to school to get a real education, but Gannon believes that the only way to learn the newspaper business is to work in the newspaper business. Unfortunately for him he's forced into accepting a guest spot at a college course on journalism, after he's already turned it down in a letter full of vitriol aimed at the whole concept of the class.

He shows up, only to sit down unannounced and hear the lecturer, Erica Stone, read his letter aloud to the class, prompting him to quietly escape as unannounced as he arrived. After a week of giving hell to his staff he realises that his anger would be better spent attending the class under a false name and showing it up for the farce it obviously is. Naturally, it doesn't quite end up that way or we wouldn't have a plot. Gannon, under the name of Jim Gallagher, finds that Stone gives him quite an education and he alternates between loving her for it and hating her for it.

Clark Gable is Jim Gannon, which is hardly surprising, given that he was a newspaperman pretty often in his career and he always did a good job of it. Mostly though it was in the early days in a very old school way and he has no end of fun here playing the old school journalist in a new school world. Half the time he's completely out of touch and irrelevant, and the other half he's dominant and masculine in precisely the way that Gable always defined.

When I got to Gone with the Wind for my IMDb Project, I realised with shame that I hadn't seen a single Clark Gable movie. Less than four years on, this is my 56th and I'm fascinated with him. In many ways he's a success more as a success than as an actor. He got to the top through guts, enthusiasm and luck, only to discover that he had enough talent to have made it anyway. I wonder who got the biggest shock out of that: him, his colleagues or his public.

It's generally said that all the great Gable movies came early on when he was the King of Hollywood but I'm discovering that he imbued many of the later ones that I'd never even heard of with a lot of depth that may have been unfairly glossed over because he wasn't the King any more. Yet this is where his best acting is. In the thirties, he could get away with playing every character as Clark Gable but by the fifties that sort of thing was seriously on the way out, to the degree that he had to keep finding twists on the concept of playing himself. I think he did a generally understated but very successful job of it.

The names he's up against here aren't minor ones but they're ones that came along long after Gable and I don't know that much about. I always thought Doris Day was one of those fluffy inconsequential pinup girls that popped up, did their thing and promptly disappeared again. She may have had a longer run but that's not the point. Yet I'm quickly discovering that that's far from the truth. I've only seen a couple of her films but she's rapidly impressing me as an actress and through the fact that I haven't yet seen her in pinup mode.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

Park Row (1952)

Sam Fuller was one of the greatest independent filmmakers America ever produced and I'm eagerly watching every one I can find. I loved Run of the Arrow and Pickup on South Street and I've enjoyed everything else of his I've seen. He was a really honest filmmaker, who made films on his own terms and told the stories he wanted to tell, regardless of what the current trend was. He played in many genres and always managed to stamp his voice on them in no uncertain terms. He does a blistering job here from moment one with some stunning dialogue and an ever moving camera. This film is the cinematic equivalent of a slap in the face and it's impossible not to pay attention.

We're on a huge set that encompasses half of Park Row, the home of newspapers in New York, and which took most of the $200,000 of his own money Sam Fuller invested in the film to make it his way. It's 1886 and Phineas Mitchell gets fired from the Star because a man he believes is innocent was effectively tried by the paper and hanged on the result. Talking into his beer once more about what he'd do if he had his own paper, but now without a job, another drinker takes him up on his word. Charles Leach has a press and a few hours later he has a paper: The Globe, with Mitchell as editor and a fascinating bunch of character actors as his workforce.

We quickly learn more in a partly fictional story than we do in most documentaries, and the story doesn't play second fiddle. The plot is written so well and so sparsely that not a single word is wasted and in fact Fuller manages to cram plot into the gaps between them. We learn about the big names who made Park Row what it was and stand guard over it from statuary, about what makes a newspaperman and a newspaper, about what it means to crusade. We learn about the Statue of Liberty, about the hell box, type lights and the printer's devil, about where 'off the cuff' came from and what '30' means at the end of a story. If that wasn't enough, there are stories here in people's eyes.

If this sounds dry and dusty it isn't in the slightest. It's a riot and it's impossible not to respond aloud to what it says, with laughs and cries and enthusiasm. There's genius everywhere here, from typesetters who can't read to people who jump off the Brooklyn Bridge to get in a newspaper to the 'births, marriages, deaths, bills' hooks. The camera is never still and I'm truly awed at how Fuller managed to move it in some of the cramped conditions he had to work in. There are also precisely no stars here but everyone does their job impeccably. I didn't know people like Gene Evans or Mary Welch, let alone Bela Kovacs, Herbert Heyes, Forrest Taylor, Don Orlando or Dee Pollock.

Evans plays Mitchell like Clark Gable but looks more like Stacy Keach. The honesty he permeates here is blistering. The story talks about there being one great newspaperman per generation and Gene Evans makes us believe that he's that man. It's stunning that this was Mary Welch's only film appearance, especially given that she acquits herself admirably in three languages here. She died six years later giving birth to a son. Her husband was David White (Larry Tate in Bewitched) and that son died on Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie. Her blood had its own stories to tell, that's for sure.

I've watched two films tonight and I was expecting to enjoy both of them. I was not expecting to be truly stunned by either of them, let alone both, but there you have it. Killer of Sheep and Park Row are two of the best and most important films I've seen in a long time. What a night!

Killer of Sheep (1977)

Of all the films to make 'most important film lists', on the face of it this one wouldn't seem to be an obvious choice. It was made by Charles Burnett, a film student at UCLA who was there only because it only cost $25 to get in. This was his thesis film and it cost $5,000 to make, shot in black and white and featuring low budget or amateur actors including Burnett's own daughter. He didn't have permits and I'm sure he didn't pay soundtrack royalties. As Burnett describes it, he made it as an anti-Hollywood film, something that depicted the reality of the black neighborhood that he lived in without ever being blaxploitation.

It really does show something different, especially though the documentary style that he chose isn't far off the reality style that's oversaturated the marketplace today. The characters don't look like movie stars, they don't act like movie stars and they do completely believable things in completely believable ways. It's the little things that impress here, like the sounds outside the room we're watching of a dog barking or a car having trouble starting. The people we see pay only token attention and do real things instead like yawning. One of them even picks his nose. How many times do you see that in a movie?

My favourite is when a man sitting in the front seat of a car reaches through what we expect to be a windscreen to retrieve a can of beer. There's no glass and nobody notices or cares. It's just the way it is. There are many such examples because Burnett has a talent for showing them without ever seeming to try. If anything that's the biggest success of the film: it says so much without saying anything. There's no narration and there's no linear plot, but we learn all about a whole slew of people, from a bunch of kids to the killer of sheep of the title whose name is Stan, and who is impeccably played by Henry Gayle Sanders.

There are stereotypes here like the couple of youths who steal a TV set, the boys throwing rocks at the passing Southern Pacific or grown men sneaking into a house to shoot craps, but while stereotypes are unfair exaggerations they all come from some nugget of truth and truth is what Burnett was going for here. The people in this film, from the lead on down, are real people with plenty of depth and if any of them do stereotypical things at any point, it's because that's part of being real people. No wonder that this film was put on the Library of Congress preservation list because it tells a lot of stories that capture a slice of time amazingly well. My wife grew up in this era, and while she was hardly in this sort of neighborhood so much of it still brought back memories.

The film looks cheap and many of the actors obviously have no clue what they're doing, but it really doesn't matter. While he was still a student at the time, Burnett knows exactly what he wants to see on film and he takes his camera into precisely the right places to get precisely the right shots, whether they be quick shots from below of kids jumping from building to building or long romantic scenes shot to the accompaniment of a presumably stolen soundtrack song, whether it be sheep carcasses bobbing a hook or a wife gazing with tears as her daughter massages her husband's shoulders. The overall effect is to laugh at the cheapness for a couple of minutes but be inevitably and very quickly drawn in to a work of genius. Amazing stuff. 83 minutes of no budget filmmaking and all human life is here.

Sunday 3 February 2008

The Outrage (1964)

Now here's one I've been waiting for for a long while and it quickly proves to be as interesting as I'd hoped, with some striking black and white cinematography, courtesy of veteran James Wong Howe. Is it as good as is it interesting? Well there's the rub. We discover the cast as they appear, as there are no names opening the film, just a title. We don't even know that we're in Silver Gulch until it's pointed out to us, at a train station in the rain where people are waiting to leave.

First we see the dour preacher played by William Shatner in full stage mode, decrying the lack of impact he's had on his congregation in a voice that sounds like he's reading aloud. You know the one, the one that he used when he 'sang' Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. There's a lucid conman played by an old and bearded Edward G Robinson in full faculty of his powers, as he pretty much always was. Every time I review one of his movies I end up saying the same thing: how did the Academy pass him over yet again for at least a nomination. Then there's an old prospector played by Howard Da Silva. He's the one that finds the body.

The body belongs to Colonel Wakefield, a gentleman who travels through the border country with his beautiful wife, played by Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom respectively. They fall prey to a notorious Mexican bandit, Juan Corrasco, who suckers them into a trap and has his way with them. Corrasco is portrayed by Paul Newman, and the only thing more amazing than his playing a Mexican bandit is that he does a really good job. He's a better Mexican than Charlton Heston ever was, that's for sure.

Luckily this film was made in 1964 so the whole message of the film isn't just mangled beyond all recognition. It fits alongside things like High Noon and The Ox-Bow Incident that tell a much more human story than the average western. There are some telling lines that point in the right direction. When Carrasco is chained to a post being tried, we hear 'justice doesn't need a courthouse or trappings of any kind, only order and truth.' When Nina Wakefield testifies, the judge says 'nothing matters but the truth'. As anyone who's seen Rashomon could tell you, the question is: 'what is truth?' We watch four versions of the story and we're still left to make up our own minds as to what the real story was.

You can tell from the direction that Kurosawa didn't translate his own film for the American audience. It's by far the weakest part of this version. There are too many shots that do precisely nothing and at one point Claire Bloom even bumps into the camera. Yet given the competition he set himself up against, he was almost doomed to failure from moment one. This year came out in 1964, the same year that Sergio Leone turned Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars, and four years earlier John Sturges had made The Magnificent Seven out of The Seven Samurai. That's some powerful company, and while this one doesn't reach the same heights it is still a powerful remake, due primarily to the visuals and the acting of the whole ensemble cast.

The Red Pony (1949)

Republic Studios were home to no end of low budget pictures and I know them well from their horror/sci-fi/detective films of the thirties and forties. Yet here they are with a western. They made many of these too, similarly low budget westerns with singing cowboys like Gene Autry, but this one's of a higher level. It's directed by no less a name than Lewis Milestone and starring no lesser actors than Myrna Loy, Robert Mitchum, Louis Calhern and Margaret Hamilton. While we're talking names we should also mention the source material, which is a novel by John Steinbeck and indeed Steinbeck also wrote the screenplay. From a 2008 perspective it begins hokily with overly vivid technicolor but soon settles in.

We're out west on a homestead and there's a ranchhand called Shane that the young boy of the household idolises. Actually, there's nobody here called Shane but there sure seems like there is. Robert Mitchum plays Billy Buck, a very Shane-like ranchhand who's quiet, capable and omnipresent, and young Mr Big Britches, more formally Tom Tiflin, thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, even though there's no actual tension to work with. This is the one and only homestead in the west that doesn't have to worry about anyone or anything except those inside it. Tom's parents, Alice and Fred, played capably by Myrna Loy and Shepperd Strudwick, really aren't that important in the grand scheme of things to the pair of them. Our story revolves around the fantasies conjured up within young Tom's imagination.

Depending on how you look at it, this is either a really focused slice of period life, with all its high and low points, or there's very little here. It feels like the sort of film you could settle down and live with, and watch over and over again, getting on good terms with. The characterisations all ring very true and I'd guess that there's probably a good deal of depth that could resonate more over the years with every increase in background knowledge of the history of the era.

The nostalgia isn't just going to be to the time in which the film is set but in the previous generation also. There's a lot of interplay between three generations: the current one is Alice, Fred and Billy Buck; the coming one is Tom and his friends who get very little screen time; and there's a previous one too in the form of Louis Calhern, who I didn't recognise at all under those big whiskers. He's full of stories about travelling across the plains and fighting Indians and runs through the same old stories over and over. Fred especially doesn't want to hear another one but of course young Tom is all ears.

Outside of characterisations and interest in nostalgia, anyone who might just be looking for a story isn't going to find much at all. Tom wants a pony, Tom gets a pony, Tom loses a pony, Tom gets another pony. The plot is really nothing, it's all about what it all means to Tom and how it contributes to his coming of age. No wonder one of the recommended films at the bottom of the page on IMDb is A Christmas Story. It's the same film really, in a completely different setting, with the red pony taking the place of the BB gun.

Beau Brummel (1924)

During the reign of George III lived the man who has been called the greatest dandy of all time, Beau Brummell. While not born to wealth or status, under the protection of the Prince of Wales, he lived as if he had been and became the arbiter of all taste in the regency era. He introduced many costume conventions that still resonate down to us today, most notably the suit and tie. This screen adaptation of his life, bizarrely changes the spelling of his surname and turns the whole dandyism concept into a game, played in revenge against an entire social class.

We begin with the reason with this revenge. It's 1795 and the greatest personages of the era are gathered together for the wedding of a trademan's daughter. They're there for the bridegroom, Lord Alvanley, Colonel of the Tenth Hussars, a man with position and status. The bride to be, however, would rather she wasn't there. She loves another, namely a captain in Alvanley's regiment, George Bryan Brummel, who is a 'man of no importance' so of course he doesn't win the girl. Bitter for revenge, he manages to manoeuvre himself into the graces of the Prince of Wales by virtue of blind cheek and insolence.

Soon he's firmly established in a London residence from which he sets the fashions and trends that everyone else follows, leaving the Prince of Wales to foot the bill. However he still has plenty to juggle: women falling for him, husbands being jealous of him, the capriciousness of the Prince of Wales and his potential replacement, the Duchess of York. Floating behind all this intrigue is his love, now Lady Margery Alvanley.

Brummell, erm Brummel, is John Barrymore, one of the great Barrymore dynasty and one of the biggest names in acting, whether on stage or screen. In fact in many ways it was the Barrymores who helped legitimise screen acting at a time when it was regarded as a lesser companion to the real work being done on the stage. He was known as the Great Profile and indeed the film opens with a portrait of him in profile. He was a young 42 at the time though his leading lady, Mary Astor as Lady Margery, was yet to turn 18.

She looks awesome here: young, beautiful and with highly expressive doe eyes and striking eyebrows. Her facial antics could easily be seen as overacting to a modern palate but it's really superb silent film technique that maybe becomes a little enthusiastic on occasion. It really highlights why she was so important in the silent era and why she would be back playing opposite Barrymore two years later in Don Juan.

It's the earliest I've seen her, though I've seen Barrymore earlier in his notable version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1920. It's a notable downside that she has so little screen time here. Given the melodrama of the story, the pair of them are by far the best reason to watch this. For his part, Barrymore is believable as the dandy Beau Brummell but far better in his later years in a French asylum, where he died insane from syphilis, not that that was specifically mentioned in our movie, naturally! Barrymore was always great at these twisted characters, which is why he was so memorable in things like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Svengali.

Saturday 2 February 2008

Five Easy Pieces (1970)

The turn of the sixties into the seventies in American cinema is a real blank spot for me, not just because I haven't seen many of the key films but because there never seemed to be anything to connect them. If I looked at the thirties, I saw gangster movies and horror movies and screwball comedies. If I looked at the forties I saw film noir, but when I looked at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, I just saw important films with no common denominators. I hadn't even heard of many of those key names: of films, directors, actors, you name it.

Now I realise what the connection is: freedom. In 1967 the production code ceased to be and gradually key filmmakers realised just what that meant and they caught on a lot quicker than the studio execs whose gradual realisation was that they didn't have a clue any more. One of the things that started to appear in film was honest depictions of reality, and from completely different perspectives. Hollywood had always been great at the glamour business and any films that had social import tended to come from major playwrights, not apparent nobodies like Jack Nicholson or Dennis Hopper who made something of a splash with Easy Rider a year before this.

This isn't a road movie, or at least it's mostly not a road movie, but it has similarities. It deals with the sort of everyday people that Hollywood often ignored, deals with deliberate rejection of the norm by people embracing counterculture and even has some of the same actors. The middle of the film is spent in a car and three of the four people in it were also in Easy Rider: Jack Nicholson, gaining his first Best Actor nomination as Bobby Dupea, Karen Black as his girlfriend Rayette and Toni Basil as one of a pair of young ladies they give a lift to after their car wrecks.

The real question here is whether an analysis of the two ends up concluding that they're about the same thing or whether they're polar opposites. The answer is all about perspective. Are they about why it's a good idea to drop out from everything we're supposed to do or why it's a bad idea? In Easy Rider, the main characters experience the freedom of the road but they end up dead. In Five Easy Pieces, the main character leaves behind the life of privilege that he was born into but doesn't seem to end up any happier.

For a while we see him as a standard American nobody: working odd jobs at oil wells, spending his time drinking, bowling, gambling, cheating on his waitress girlfriend, not really going anywhere. Yet he has more depth than that. Our first realisation of something else comes during a traffic jam on the interstate when he gets fed up of sitting in the car and climbs up onto the truck in front to play the piano on the back. All we know about his musical interests up until that point are that he hates Tammy Wynette. Soon we discover that he's a talented pianist from a musical family but that he chose to leave all of that behind. The film has to do with his reasons why.

I've read a lot about how great this movie is and I still don't see it. It certainly let me with a whole bunch of questions and it would be a great candidate for discussion, and that's all to the good. It's done very well indeed, for what it is, and both the big picture and some of the little scenes suggest that they'll be memorable, but what is it really about? Maybe all that discussion ends up with the fact that we're watching a film about someone who doesn't know what he wants and can't ever make up his mind. Is that the point?