Tuesday 29 April 2008

The Wild Child (1970)

In 1798, the wild child of the title was discovered in a French forest living like an animal and was named the Wild Boy of Aveyron. He was captured and after a few initial adventures, was quickly brought to the National Institute of the Deaf where a young medical student called Jean Marc Gaspard Itard took on the case and attempted to raise him at his own home. It was Itard who wrote a book about the boy in 1806 and which François Truffaut used as the source material for his film, which he wrote, directed and starred in.

Unlike the various wild men of literature from Mowgli to Tarzan, the wild child, given the name of Victor, ran around naked as a jaybird and lived in a hole in the ground. He appeared to be deaf and mute, possibly retarded. He did not respond to language, he moved on all fours and foraged for food. He was also scarred many times and a modern surgeon, Serge Aroles, who has done a serious study of feral children throughout history suggests that most such cases are either frauds or misdiagnosed, and that in Victor's case his scars were probably the results of deliberate abuse rather than living wild in the forest.

There are two key questions raised and neither has been fully answered to this day. Firstly, was Victor a retarded child abandoned in the forest by his parents who quite possibly attempted to kill him in the process, or was he a perfectly normal child who merely did not develop certain skills because of his isolation during such a critical period of childhood. Secondly, if a child like Victor is normal but isolated during this crucial time, is it possible for him to learn those skills that he's been isolated from, such as speech and language?

Itard couldn't anwer the question in 1806 and Truffaut offers a very matter of fact translation to the screen that tells its story very well indeed but offers no answers whatsoever. It's fascinating viewing, especially through the admirable focus and lack of showboating from Truffaut, who deliberately lets his young lead take centre stage. Victor is played by Jean-Pierre Cargol, a thirteen year old who does his job so well that it's difficult to imagine that this is an actor. He only made one other film, the Alastair Maclean thriller Caravan to Vaccares, but this is enough to seal his reputation. This sort of role tends to either fail utterly for the actor or warrant Oscar attention. This is a rare exception of something in between, but then again it's a foreign language film.

La Roue (1923)

If J'Accuse wasn't long enough, Abel Gance's follow up film, La Roue or The Wheel, initially ran eight and a half hours long. Gance cut it down though to four and a half, but until now the version available was one cut even more drastically. Now restored to the four and a half hour length, with a new score by Robert Israel, it's being shown on TCM and will be released by Flicker Alley on DVD.

Our story begins with a train crash, a horrific one in which many die but further tragedy is avoided by swift work by railroad employees, including an engineer named Sisif. Sisif also rescues a little girl named Norma, apparently English and who has been orphaned by the crash. He has a son and he takes the initiative and brings Norma up like young Elie's sister. Fifteen years quickly pass. Elie grows up to become a violin maker and Norma grows up to a beautiful young lady.

The problem is that while Sisif and Norma are not blood relatives, for all intents and purposes they are and Sisif gradually falls for her. Knowing that he can't have her, his torment grows to epic proportions. Finally he confesses his love to De Hersan, for whom he's been doing some work, and De Hersan, who loves her too, is morally corrupt enough to use the confession as a means of getting what he wants. To make matters worse, when the truth finally comes out at home and Elie realises that Norma isn't really his sister, he becomes bitter because he loves her himself.

The wheel is everywhere in his film as a reoccurring theme, and it's always turning. An initial quote from Victor Hugo suggests that the wheel is creation, the wheel of life, but it applies just as much to many other things throughout the film, not least the wheels of the trains that are so lovingly shot early on and which carry us inexorably to the various conclusions. Sisif is an engineer and so controls the wheel of his train but not the wheel of his destiny. Gance never fails to put circles and wheels everywhere to remind us of the theme. It's also right there two and a half hours in when we reach the end of part one and switch locations for part two.

Sisif has engineered his own destruction with the rail company, but his many years of loyal service lead him at least to transferral instead of the sack. He's transferred to the funicular railway that travels up and down Mont Blanc, which is shown to us in gorgeous detail but which Sisif mostly misses out on because his eyes have been damaged in a steam accident. Elie is still with him and so is the name of Norma, not spoken aloud because it's forbidden, but in visions that nothing can blot out and, cleverly, in a word that Gance dangles between them in barely visible text.

Sisif is played by someone who is now a very familiar face to me, Séverin-Mars. Even though I've seen him now in two films, J'accuse and La Roue, their combined running time of nigh on seven and a half hours equates to five regular length movies. Elie is played by Gabriel de Gravone and Norma by the English actress Ivy Close. This is yet another benefit of silent movies, which really are cinema in its purest form, that actors from all across the world could appear together without the barrier of language getting in the way. Recently I saw the Hungarian film Mephisto, a superb work but one whose downside is the unavoidable dubbing of Hungarian and Czech actors into German. With silent movies, that problem completely fails to exist.

Ivy Close, incidentally, had a reasonably short career on screen: 23 films from 1912's Dream Paintings, written and directed by her future husband, Elwin Neame, to a couple of German films made after this one in 1927 and 1928. Yet she gave a lot more to film than the films she was in as an actress. She and Elwin began a cinematic dynasty. They had two sons: Ronald and Derek. Derek wrote a few films but Ronald Neame was truly versatile, gaining three Oscar nominations, two as a writer and one for special effects. Yet he was also an notable cinematographer, producer and director, helming such varied films as The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Tunes of Glory and The Poseidon Adventure. Ronald's son Christopher Neame was a production manager for Hammer Studios and produced various notable TV series including Soldier Soldier. Christopher's son Gareth Neame is a BBC producer, the fourth generation of his family to work in the industry. I wonder what he would think of La Roue.

I thought it was a powerful film. Like J'accuse it was carefully directed and compellingly acted, but unlike J'accuse, it didn't have a message to drive it on and the melodrama runs very long indeed. It's not boring, and the length does contain a huge amount of subtle character development, but there are long sections where I couldn't help but wonder what I would have missed had they been cut out entirely.

Monday 28 April 2008

Major Dundee (1965)

As the opening narration tells us, 'In the territory of New Mexico towards the end of the Civil War, an Indian, Sierra Charriba, and his Apache warriors raided, sacked and looted an area almost three times the size of Texas.' Our story begins with a bugler named Timothy Ryan, of the 5th US Cavalry. He was the only man to survive their massacre at the Rostes ranch in 1864, his diary providing the story of the massacre and the campaign that followed against the Indians.

Major Amos Dundee, arriving soon after with his company, is told that the Apaches tend to take young males alive to raise as warriors, thus leaving the suggestion that the three young Rostes boys are still alive. He assembles a select company of thieves, cutthroats and horse thieves to retrieve them from the Apaches, giving himself five days and fifty men to do the job. The fifty comprise Confederate prisoners from his post; coloured soldiers; the odd volunteer and cowboys, drunks or other lowlifes from the vicinity; even a priest who had married into the Rostes family. With these men he has to follow Sierra Charriba into Mexico with its resident army of 30,000 French soldiers.

Most prominent amongst them is a former colleague, Captain Benjamin Tyreen, played by a blistering Richard Harris and a blistering performance was needed to underpin that of Charlton Heston in the lead. I prefer Harris's performance but Heston does everything that's needed for his own. Backing them up are capable hands I know like James Coburn as an Indian scout working for Dundee and Warren Oates as a Confederate prone to desertion, with smaller parts for Slim Pickens and Ben Johnson. Names new to me that stood out include Jim Hutton as Major Dundee's lieutenant, Lt Graham, and Michael Anderson Jr as the bugler who effectively tells our story.

The film itself is a new Peckinpah on me and it says plenty, both in front of and behind the camera. Peckinpah is known for his stylised violence and this certainly has a lot more than Peckinpah's previous film, Ride the High Country which starred old time legends Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. Heston and Harris were a generation newer, having been born in 1924 and 1930 respectively, compared to 1898 and 1905 for Scott and McCrae, and the way the story is told feels like a generation newer too. Scott and McCrae feel like they fit in black and white without the very obvious red of blood that's shed here. Peckinpah was at home with that colour, which would become far more apparent in his later films.

I get the impression Peckinpah wanted to tell a lot of stories in this film and he set a lot of them up, but I get the feeling that he didn't know where to take them. It would be easy to blame the studio, as Peckinpah and others did, but I've just seen the extended version that is 136 minutes long, 13 more than the original studio version. Peckinpah's director's cut, which has never been released runs 152 minutes but I can't speak to whether it would have addressed any of these storylines.

The Dundee/Tyreen battle goes nowhere, unless you count what Tyreen does with the flag as satisfying Dundee's motives. Dundee himself is a man who doesn't know what life is unless there's a fight in it and we end leaving one. Conflict between the confederates and the yankees (or even the blacks) sort of fizzles out. The relatively few women in the film are fine but really only serve to set up a particular scene. Even in an extended version, this feels like it should have been far more than it actually is. Maybe Peckinpah was still finding his way to what would become his home turf four years later in The Wild Bunch.

J'Accuse (1919)

Talk about not having a clue! I've been thoroughly enjoying my journey through silent film, which has become something of a favourite of mine and I've learned a lot. Yet every now and again something comes along to make me unlearn and learn again properly. Based on the films I've seen 1920 is something of a watershed year, the year that the world worked out what worked and what didn't at a feature length. The Germans especially started to turn out classics like The Golem and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but they weren't alone. Yet before then were really only three things in the world of film.

There were early sparks of genius as the techniques of the medium were invented, especially by people like Georges Melies. There was a lot of floundering around by filmmakers around the world, during a time when film was not seen as a serious pursuit. And there was D W Griffith, who had single handedly established the feature length film with The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Beyond things like A Trip to the Moon, which in many ways is not really rateable, Griffith's Broken Blossoms is the only pre-1920 film I've rated as a classic in my rating system. I wouldn't have been surprised to rate the other films generally regarded as classics that way too, but I wouldn't have expected anyone else to have made that level.

However I didn't really know anything about Abel Gance, at least until now, and that's a serious gap. I knew that he was a French director best known today for his epic Napoleon, filmed so that it could be projected onto three screens instead of one but the usual reference of 'triptych' suggested to me something akin to the religious triptychs I've seen in art, that have a smaller frame at each side making the width of the three something like double the central one. However it turns out that I was hugely wrong. Napoleon was made in such a widescreen format that it dwarfs anything made today, having an aspect ratio of 4:1 rather than the 2.33:1 that comprises anamorphic widescreen.

He also invented a lot of techniques that have generally been credited to the Russians, especially Sergei Eisenstein in 1925's Battleship Potemkin. It seems that Gance was at least a decade ahead of any of his contemporaries, and in many ways half a century ahead. He didn't just create the concept of widescreen, but filmed some of Napoleon in 3D. He mounted cameras on dollies, ran them down ropes, even on the chest of their operators effectively inventing the hand held camera. He pioneered a new style of editing, including fast paced montage shots, some deliberately rhythmic in their intent. And here in J'Accuse, Gance filmed at the front, the real front at St Mihiel, during war itself. Many soldiers appearing in the March of the Dead sequences are real soldiers who would be killed during the next few weeks. Real letters from real soldiers are included as title cards.

Even the credits are impeccably put together. The title is comprised of many soldiers positioned together so that the shape of their combined into the letters that make up the word. We're introduced to our characters via the sort of credit sequence that Warner Brothers used all the time in the early thirties but with the addition of transformation so that actors become their characters or become dogs that symbolise their character. Gance was truly way ahead of his time and has been unjustly forgotten too long.

His story here is reasonably simple at heart, but full of nuance. It centres around three people in a love triangle. Jean Diaz is a peace loving poet who loves Edith, who loves him in return. However Edith has married tough and violent François Laurin, who loves her too in his own way. When war is declared, Laurin signs up immediately but Diaz only volunteers when Edith is captured in an enemy advance. Jean and François despise each other but gradually become very close, as they realise that they do what they do for love of the same woman.

The main parts are impeccably played. Romuald Joubé plays Jean Diaz with all the depth needed to play a pacifist poet fighting for his love in the trenches of World War I. Joubé had a long career in film, from 1910's Shylock to 1943's Le Brigand gentilhomme. As a contrast, Séverin-Mars who plays François Laurin only made 13 films, three for Gance including his last film, La Roue, which was released two years after his death in 1921. The woman that both their characters love is played wonderfully by Maryse Dauvray, who had appeared on screen as early as 1909 but who doesn't seem to have made a film after 1925, though IMDb has no details of her birth and death.

Gance apparently tended to shoot one take only, but he paid attention to those one takes. One scene that stood out to me was when a couple of characters walk into a building and a little cat follows them. I'm sure that wasn't planned but he takes the care and effort to let the cat get there. Lesser directors would have just cut it off halfway and as this film makes painfully obvious, Abel Gance was far from a lesser director.

He watches the little things in every way, not just additional components that may have crept into the frame. His films are long and full of nuance of character. He has no problem leaving the camera on a face or a frame for long seconds as we absorb their thoughts. We watch Jean reading one of his works because it's not the poem that means anything to us, it's what the poem means to him. We don't hear the words or see them on title cards, but Gance gives us their meaning through the poet's face and some intriguing and very effective visuals that combine live photography with static drawings. There's a lot of such innovation here and it works very well indeed.

There are three parts to the film: the first introduces us to the characters and the story and tells us plenty about both. It shows us who people are, how they change in times of great upheaval and why they change. Diaz becomes more like Laurin and Laurin becomes more like Diaz. Many films would have stopped there, but J'Accuse continues on. The second part brings everything back home. Diaz is discharged, Laurin on leave and Edith returned, but this just provides a realignment of the characters, the introduction of a key fourth and the setup for part three. Part three is the real point of the movie.

Gance had managed to secure active support from the French Army during wartime, on the basis of this being an important patriotic film. He shot much of the third part of it on the battleground of St Mihiel, in the villages of Hattonchatel, Seicheprey and Mosec, with the assistance of French and American troops, especially the US 28th Division. Only much later did they really understand what he was making. The accusation of the title, according to Gance himself, is against 'the war and it's stupidity'. He was a pacifist, very plainly in the film himself in the form of Jean Diaz. Where Diaz was a poet, Gance was a playwright, but the character is effectively the same. This film pulls no punches in pointing out the futility of war and it's this third part that hammers that home in no uncertain terms through the actions of a shell shocked man.

I'm not going to be the only one discovering Abel Gance today. His films were long forgotten and often long lost, until the critics turned directors of the French New Wave rediscovered his work in the sixties. Since then it's been predominantly unavailable again but film historian, archivist and restorer Kevin Brownlow has persevered for decades to reconstruct some of his greatest works from any available source. I'm seeing this version of J'Accuse courtesy of Turner Classic Movies who are showing it, along with a new version of La Roue and a 1968 documentary on Gance, in the process dedicating almost twelve hours to his work. Flicker Alley will be releasing them shortly on DVD. I'm sure that all these combined efforts will help to bring Gance's work back to the light of day.

Now I can only hope that the idiotic legal wrangles that are currently preventing the most complete version of Gance's Napoleon from release can be resolved. The fruit of decades of Brownlow's hard work, the 2002 version is apparently five and a half hours of lovingly restored footage from the best available prints, projected at the appropriate speed and with an updated and lengthened score by Carl Davis. However it is unreleasable at present because of legal threats from Francis Ford Coppola who pioneered the 1981 restoration which is an hour and a half shorter, constructed from lesser prints and with a score by his father. I doubt there could be anyone watching J'Accuse who could see this as remotely understandable.

Sunday 27 April 2008

Boxcar Bertha (1972)

Here's one I've been waiting to see for quite some time. It's a Roger Corman film, in the sense that he produced it and if I remember correctly, financed it, but it's the first full length film directed by Martin Scorsese. Everyone in the industry it seems started out with Corman, doing whatever needed doing at the time, and Scorsese was no exception. This one was probably supposed to be a quick and easy ripoff of Bonnie and Clyde, costing only $600,000 to make, but Scorsese chose to turn it into something a lot less exploitative. Sure it's got its fair share of sex and violence but the violence doesn't tend to be the glorifying kind.

It claims to be based on the autobiography of Boxcar Bertha Thompson, Sister of the Road, though she apparently turned out to be an invention of the author, Ben L Reitman, and Scorsese apparently took so many liberties with the storyline that it hardly bears much resemblance to the book. As portrayed by Barbara Hershey, she's a free spirit in the depression era American south whose father dies in a plane crash and she and her colleagues get caught up in violence almost by accident and become fugitives from justice. These colleagues include Big Bill Shelly, a high profile union activist; Rake Brown, a small town yankee gambler and coward; and Von Morton, a negro railroad worker with a harmonica.

First, Bertha shoots a gambler who is about to shoot Rake Brown, who he'd just caught cheating at cards. Then, everyone but her is jailed for riding the boxcars and she springs them from the chain gang. After that it's robbing trains or parties and kidnapping, all the while targetting the railroad against which Shelly has a personal vendetta.

Apparently Scorsese screened the film for fellow actor/director John Cassavetes who told them that he'd made a piece of garbage and that he should make a personal film instead. Scorsese took him at his word and promptly made Mean Streets, upon which his reputation started to build. However I never did like Mean Streets, which took me four attempts to get through and this one's an easier viewing for sure. It's a rough and ready production, that's for sure, but it's impressive for the budget and Hershey is very believable as Bertha.

Opposite her is David Carradine as Big Bill Shelly, playing for the third and last time in the same film as his father. He and Hershey were an item at the time, having something of a stormy relationship, and apparently the love scenes here were not faked. Carradine is often slated for not being much of an actor but I've always enjoyed his work and to my eyes he's fine here. Rake Brown is Barry Primus and Bernie Casey makes up the four top credits as Von Morton. All are fine but it's definitely Scorsese's show. I'm not a big Scorsese fan but he definitely does a lot more here than he had any rights to do given how much money he had to play with. There are some interesting visuals and set pieces and the film certainly makes its presence felt. There's also a solid use of old time blues, hardly surprising for Scorsese. It's a rough debut, but a good one.

Saturday 26 April 2008

Brannigan (1975)

In 2006 Sylvester Stallone made Rocky Balboa and people wondered if he could still do the job at 60 years of age. In 2008 he made Rambo and the same question got asked, with only the age being different. The question will be back again very shortly with Harrison Ford who will be 66 when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull comes out, but it isn't a new question. I'm sure people asked the same question when John Wayne made Brannigan in 1975. He was 67, in bad health and wearing a toupee but he enters the film by kicking down a door and playing hardball with a forger.

But he's still John Wayne and he's still the tough guy, even though the people behind the film are second generation: the executive producer is his eldest son, Michael Wayne, and the writer is Christopher Trumbo, son of Dalton Trumbo. The Duke only had two films left after this one, Rooster Cogburn and The Shootist, and he looked even older in both. As always he has a gun and a badge, but unlike those films he isn't in the old west, he's a Chicago cop in London.

He's there to pick up a mobster being extradited back to the States, one he's been chasing for a long time and who has put a contract on him. He's in the hands of Scotland Yard but after he's kidnapped, it's up to Brannigan and his English compatriots to find him again. Beyond the Duke, there are a number of other major names here to ensure that things are done right. Larkin the mobster is played by John Vernon, always excellent as a powerful but amoral thug, and Fields, his sleazy lawyer, is Mel Ferrer. Scotland Yard provide Richard Attenborough as Cmdr Sir Charles Swann and the always delightful Judy Geeson as Brannigan's caretaker.

In smaller roles are a number of people I recognise, most of whom I can immediately translate from faces into names: Lesley-Anne Down is the most obvious, but also Brian Glover, Don Henderson and Tony Robinson. I'm not convinced that I didn't see Patrick Malahide in a small cameo. It took me a while to place the kidnappers though, because I know faces but not names. One is Del Henney, who is probably best known from Straw Dogs but who I probably saw first on TV in Juliet Bravo or Doctor Who. Another is James Booth and I still can't work out where I know him, but it was probably from Minder.

The film itself is a solid one. I was expecting another variation on the theme of Dirty Harry, but this is something else. It's a solid attempt to tailor the tough '70s thriller with a decent attempt at highlighting the differences between English and American policework. Mostly that sort of thing comes off as insulting to one side of the other but this one does get away with it. My biggest problem had to do with the final action scene which is unfortunately way too Hollywood style over substance. The previous action scenes are solid and surprisingly effective.

Mephisto (1981)

A young and beautiful opera singer called Dora Martin who seems to have done a magnificent job elicits a standing ovation from the entire audience. Everyone is enthralled and happy except Hendrik Hoefgen, who has a fit about it. You see, they weren't clapping for him and that just isn't fair, you know? He's a provincial actor in Hamburg who doesn't even like his name (Heinz) yet loves himself over anyone and anything else. As portrayed by Klaus Maria Brandauer, he's always acting, even when he's not on stage. Brandauer is an actor playing an actor playing an actor, which gives the part a huge amount of depth and plenty of potential readings.

The historical background to the story gives it plenty more. Ostensibly a Hungarian film, Mephisto was made in 1981 as a West German, Hungarian and Austrian coproduction, but the source novel of the same name by Klaus Mann, son of Thomas Mann, was banned in Germany until the 21st century. Mann claims that the novel, written in 1936 after he had been exiled from Germany, is based on a particular type of person, while most critics believe it was a very deliberate and ony thinly veiled attempt to portray his brother-in-law, Gustaf Gründgens.

Like the alliterative Hendrik Hoefgen, the alliterative Gustaf Gründgens was a famous German actor (I've seen him in Fritz Lang's M). Both were most famous for their portrayal of Mephistopheles in Goethe's Faust, Gründgens being regarded by some as having given the greatest intepretation of all. Both were bisexual, though this is toned down in the film to Hoefgen having a notably limp handshake that a prominent Nazi general comments on a few times. Both were notable for having put their own self gain before everything else, in an era of extreme politics. Neither are Nazis but they shamelessly use the Nazis for their own ends and both are favourites of the Prime Minister, Hermann Göring.

Hoefgen's beliefs are more communist than National Socialist, having radical ideas of liberating theatre for the masses, but he has no real political beliefs. In early days in Hamburg he makes a point of not belonging to any party or having any political allegiance, he even speaks dismissively of the rising Nazis. After the Nazis rise to power and he returns to Berlin from a film shoot in Budapest, he hides a Jew in his house, he continues to sleep with a black woman and brings a fellow radical back from exile to appear in his company. Yet he turns people in to the Nazis, knowing or deliberately ignoring that they're going to be shot, follows all Nazi rulings and even participates in Nazi speechmaking.

The point, or the most obvious one, is one of perspective. Hoefgen isn't a hero for going back to Germany and doing these human things, he's a villain for being a deliberate and knowing part of the villainy. The depth comes from the characterisation, both as written and as acted, of why he chooses to do this. How much of it is deliberate fraternisation, how much is self delusion, how much is blind ambition, how much is egotism run rampant. Brandauer, who is by far the most dominant thing about this film, is astounding. Director István Szabó does an excellent job in bringing the story to the screen, leaving its complexity intact.

Mephisto won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 1982. I don't think I've seen any of its competitors, so have no clue whether it was deserved or not. However good this is, Das Boot was better and it was also released in 1981. However it's Oscar attention came in 1983 rather than 1982 and was in major categories like Best Director rather than being relegated to the Foreign Film category. Mephisto is a great film, but it suffers like many multinational European productions in that many of its actors are not fluent in the language that the film was made in. Brandauer is German and has no problem being effective in that language, but his costars aren't as fortunate. Many of the cast are Hungarian, including Ildikó Bánsági, Péter Andorai and György Cserhalmi. Krystyna Janda is Polish. Consequently many of the major actors in the film are dubbed and not particularly well, though that's very possibly the fault of the actors rather than the dubbers.

Friday 25 April 2008

Tight Spot (1955)

Phil Karlson is a name I've seen but knew nothing about. I may not even have noted that he was a director and I haven't seen a single one of his films but he seems to be one of the great names in B movie films noir. I'm catching up nicely on my noir and I have most of the classic A pictures under my belt now, but there are a lot of obscure classic B pictures well worth the effort of tracking them down and I'm still scratching that surface. I need James Ellroy to write a long article on the subject with a lot of namedropping of titles, directors, cinematographers, actors, the whole works.

Karlson's highest rated film at IMDb may be a Sidney Toler Charlie Chan called Dark Alibi, but he was known for his films noir like The Phenix City Story, Kansas City Confidential, Scandal Sheet and 99 River Street, made throughout a creative spurt in the fifties. He garnered a lot of acclaim in the B movie world but didn't make it rich until the Joe Don Baker version of Walking Tall in 1973, which he didn't just direct but had a solid and very astute financial stake in.

There are names here I do know though. The lead is Ginger Rogers, though she's getting on in years with a lot more pounds on her than when she did everything Fred Astaire did, in high heels and backwards. In fact she looks pretty scary from a lot of angles and while I'd like to believe that it was a deliberate attempt to look the part, that's just what I'd like to believe. What I really believe is that she tried to look as good as she could but couldn't do better than Jack Lemmon in drag or maybe Kathleen Turner trying to play Julie Andrews. She can still act though, and does her best with the material which is as stagebound as the you'd expect given that it's based on a play called Dead Pigeon.

She's Sherry Conley and it doesn't take long for her to be moved from prison, where she's serving a term for harbouring a criminal, to a hotel room, where the government can try to persuade her to assist them in a case they're prosecuting against a mafia kingpin called Ben Costain. The prosecuting attorney is Edward G Robinson; the mafia kingpin is Lorne Greene, of all people; and the cop assigned to protect her is Brian Keith. Those are pretty good names to have in a film and they do a fine job, but they're stuck with the material.

It isn't even bad material and unfolds pretty well all things told. The thing is that in the main it's about a woman stuck in a hotel room waiting, waiting, waiting. With lobster thermidor on the menu, it's a lot more appealing than prison but the doors are just as closed. Leonard Kantor, who wrote the source play, obviously tried to put everything he could into it but it's an uphill struggle given that it's like watching a couple of cops on stakeout with an odd shootout or terrible hillbilly song on the TV to break it all up. It inevitably ends up being all about the dialogue and how solidly the actors can use it to engage our interest.

The good news is that everyone does pretty well, the bad news is that they could have done with more moments to shine. Ginger Rogers doesn't really get any moments, so has to try to make the whole performance shine with hardboiled emphasis and tough sarcasm. Robinson gets less moments than he's used to but simply doesn't have a clue how not to be great. This may be one of the worst performances I've seen him give and he's still magnetic to the eyes. It's simply impossible not to watch him, even when he's simply standing by while other people shout at each other.

Brian Keith gets the best moments, with some awesomely dead pan sarcasm. The whole scene in the honeymooning couple's room is wonderful writing and Keith and the other cop, whoever played him, brought it to joyous life. Lorne Greene seethes and smarms his way through his role with a tough voice and dead eyes, half Al Pacino and half William Shatner. It's completely unlike what any Bonanza or Battlestar Galactica fan would expect.

Thursday 24 April 2008

Murder in the Private Car (1934)

Private cars were train carriages that were owned by individual people who used them when travelling by rail, so that they didn't have to mingle with the masses. They were usually luxurious affairs, sort of like the suites at Las Vegas casinos reserved for visiting VIPs, merely on wheels. Our murder may well take place on one but it takes its time, especially given that the film is a mere three minutes over an hour long.

First we get to meet Ruth Raymond played by Mary Carlisle. She's a switchboard operator who works with her friend Georgia, who's my main reason for watching, given that she's played by the always delightful character actress Una Merkel. Anyway it quickly becomes apparent that Ruth Raymond is also Ruth Carson, lost daughter of a millionaire father who has been seeking for over a decade, surely the dream of every theatregoer in depression era 1934. However being a newly found millionairess brings with it acute danger and she's the victim of an attempted kidnapping before we even get to the private car and the victim of an attempted murder soon after.

Naturally there's a large cast of potential crooks attempting such kidnappings and murders, beyond the escaped circus gorilla. Most of all there's Godfrey D Scott, a bumbling cross between idiot and genius, played by top credited Charlie Ruggles, who gets many of the best lines in the movie though as many miss as hit. Luckily there are plenty to choose from! He tells everyone that rather than being a detective who catches people who commit crimes, he's a deflector who deflects the crimes before they happen. That said, I don't know if this plot makes him good at that or truly awful.

There's Mary's boyfriend John Blake who alternates between playing tough and being an inconsequential waste of space. There's Alden Murray, who may or may not be acting for Ruth's father. There's Ruth's father himself, if he is such a thing. There's the master mind of the whole affair who may or may not be any of the above people. Oh, and there's the staff, most notably Fred Toones, credited again as Snowflake, playing Titus the stereotypically scared black car porter.

This film is complete nonsense, of course, but it's fun and throws a huge amount of the shenanigans you'd expect to hear on old time radio mystery programs: hidden panels, maniacal voices, runaway carriages laden with dynamite, you name it. If you're an old time train fan you'll enjoy the setting especially as there's more track switching going on than any other film I can think of. I enjoyed it for Ruggles and Una Merkel and the old time pulp mystery elements though. On that front and a couple of others it proved to be a successful slice of escapist idiocy, with a lot more fun than quality.

Tuesday 22 April 2008

Lilies of the Field (1963)

Having seen a whole slew of powerful Sidney Poitier performances in legendary films like The Defiant Ones, Blackboard Jungle, In the Heat of the Night, A Patch of Blue, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and To Sir, with Love, it seems almost criminal that he only won a single Oscar. Never mind those other classics, he won it for this one which I knew nothing about other than it's the film for which Sidney Poitier won his only Oscar, not counting the honorary one he picked up in 2002. In fact he was only nominated for one other, for The Defiant Ones, even though he got six nods at the English equivalent, the BAFTA Awards, one of which was a win.

I'm not sure what I expected Lilies of the Field to be, but it turns out to be Sidney Poitier and five German nuns in the middle of the Arizona desert. They're escapees from East Germany, who came over the wall to farm land left to their order, but it isn't good farming land. Poitier plays Homer Smith, who merely stops his car to top up on water but finds himself effectively hijacked by Mother Maria who believes that he was sent as a gift from God to build them a chapel. She doesn't use force, being a five foot tall German nun, but she uses everything else in the book and very effectively too, from guilt to pride to just plain ordering him about.

Because this film is about Sidney Poitier and a bunch of German nuns, you may be excused for not seeing much incentive to watch but the whole film is a joy. Best of all is the dialogue between Homer Smith and Mother Maria, played with relish by 67 year old Austrian Lilia Skala, a good deal of which isn't spoken. The way the Mexicans take over the building work is superb too and there are plenty of other magic moments to choose from. It's a joyous riot of a film and I'm still trying to work out how that can be the case given the subject matter.

Just like the chapel, the film itself seems to have been a labour of love. Director Ralph Nelson put his house up as collateral. Sidney Poitier agreed to make the film for less than his usual salary but with a percentage of the profits. It was shot in 14 days on location in Tucson for an estimated $240,000 but pulled in over $3,000,000 in its first year. That Oscar can't have hurt his feelings either, but I wonder what the cast and crew felt when the chapel was demolished after shooting finished because they'd constructed it on rented land.

Monday 21 April 2008

Max Takes a Picture (1913)

A year after Troubles of a Grasswidower, here's the dapper French silent comedian Max Linder again. This time he's at the beach and attempting to take a picture of a young lady who fancies herself a bathing beauty. This being 1913, she's hardly a beauty and her bathing suit is hardly flattering. Maybe she financed the film in order to merely be in it. Anyway she swims out into the sea while Max has his eyes covered and when he goes to take her picture she flounces about like she's auditioning for Busby Berkeley. By the time he gets round to taking the picture she's gone.

That's what gives this one a little more than the previous film. Mostly it has to do with the little minx diving under and sneaking out of the water without Max noticing. Thus he thinks she's drowned and bemoans his lot while trying to elicit help in rescuing her. That's a fine concept, though what laughs there are have far more to do with Max playing with his hat in a way very reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin who wouldn't make a film until a year after this. The problem is that the film is only thirteen minutes long and the first five are a complete waste of space. Again though, however mediocre this may appear to modern eyes, for pre-Chaplin work this is pretty astounding.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1912)

When investigating slapstick comedy, it became quickly apparent that 1914 was something of a dividing line. Not everything after it was of quality but it seemed that everything before it sucked. 1914 was when Charlie Chaplin arrived, and over the course of no less than 35 short films that first year made the transition from godawful to innovative and groundbreaking. Since then I've been even more fascinated with what came before the little tramp. What were Chaplin's influences or did he just invent decent slapstick on his own out of nowhere?

Well apparently one of his influences, at least to the degree that he closed his studio for a day when he found out that Linder had died, was Frenchman Max Linder. Like Chaplin, Linder was very much in charge of his films, to the degree that in this one there's almost no input from anyone else. He's the star here, for a start, and he's almost the only one in the film. There are two women in it too, but only briefly, with Max being solo for most of the ten minute running time.

He also wrote and directed the short, being the first actor to ever be credited as a director too. He had been around since 1905 and by the time he and his wife killed themselves in 1925 in a joint suicide pact, he had made over 400 films. He is also widely considered the first international movie star, as well as the first to provide a recurring character and he even wrote or at least provided notes for the music. It certainly sounds like Chaplin must have been paying attention.

If Linder was so great though, he doesn't show it here. Troubles of a Grasswidower is simply there and it does almost nothing to elicit laughter. Max is the grasswidower of the title, someone who is separated from their spouse for however short a time. Our film has him attempting to do all those traditionally female tasks: cleaning the dishes, cooking dinner, making the bed etc and I'm sure it will be no surprise to find that he's pretty bad at all of them. Unfortunately he's not comedically bad, as say Buster Keaton would be to sidesplitting results a decade later. The film isn't bad either, merely there with the last section the best, but maybe that's enough. Even at an OK level, this easily surpasses any other comedy of this age that I've seen.

Sunday 20 April 2008

Memories of Murder (2003)

A South Korean serial killer thriller, this one's apparently based on a true story. If it is, I'm a little scared about the state of law enforcement in South Korea. In 1986 a couple of country cops, Detectives Park and Cho, are investigating a couple of rape/murders and prove to be rather inept, in a way that is hardly comedic. They are unable to contain the scene of a crime, they plant evidence, they don't even know all the details of the crime. they even arrest a retarded burn victim with webbed fingers based on rumour heard third hand and force him into a confession. The icing on the cake is when Detective Park arrests a 'rapist' who turns out to be a visiting detective from Seoul, Inspector Suh, merely asking directions.

Thankfully this third detective has a little bit more of a clue about how to do the job, and once the inspector in charge is dismissed and replaced by a new one, he gets the chance to make his case. He's done his homework and not only does he see similarities that the others can't, that the victims were all beautiful girls murdered on rainy nights while wearing red. He also correctly works out from the missing persons file that there's been a third victim that they merely hadn't found yet and nails the area that she was dumped in too.

Detective Park is Song Kang-ho who was so good in JSA: Joint Security Area. He's awesome here too with plenty of opportunity to flesh out his character. While Inspector Suh is investigating instances of a particular song that was requested on a radio show only on the nights of the murders, Park is convinced that the murderer doesn't leave hair behind at the scene because he's shaved, so starts frequenting saunas to see if he can find him. He even visits a fortune teller at the suggestion of his girlfriend. There are plenty of opportunities for him to look like a complete idiot, but he manages to keep perspective on the role and avoid turning the character into a caricature. I'm looking forward to seeing him again in the Chan-wook Park film Lady Vengeance, once I can find a copy of Oldboy, the middle third of the trilogy.

I don't know the other cast members. Park's sidekick, Detective Cho, is played by Kim Roe-ha, who I don't recognise from his small part in H and because he appeared only in the one third of the Whispering Corridors trilogy that I haven't seen yet. He's waiting again on my DVR too though, in Save the Green Planet! Kim Sang-kyung, who plays Inspector Suh, has less of a filmography so this is the first time I've seen him. Probably the most memorable part goes to No-shik Park though, in his debut role, as the retarded Kwang-ho. He's made only three films since, though one is a reunion with Song Kang-ho and director Bong Joon-ho in the Korean monster movie The Host.

This is a powerfully honest film, full of nuance and subtle irony, though it doesn't flinch from showing what it needs to show. It also tells a lot of stories, more than just the central focus of the main plot, which at the end of the day isn't important. It tells about what drives a cop to be a cop, what is acceptable and unacceptable in the pursuit of justice, and how people are changed during the course of an investigation. Park becomes a better person for what happens, Suh a worse one.

The long running time (it's 130 minutes long) provides a good opportunity for Bong Joon-ho to make his point, which it seems from reading up on the film afterwards is a political one. The lead cops are parallels to a couple of presidents of Korea and the film's statement seems to be to do with how the political situation of the time affected the rest of the country. In a country in turmoil and with corrupt authorities, a serial killer could happily go about his business without being caught.

Not having much knowledge of Korean politics and culture at all, I don't know how clear this was or how well it was done. The final scene has a few potential readings and I'm not sure which (if only one) was intended. Maybe it's a 'we have met the enemy and the enemy is us' concept or maybe it was a look into the audience at the theatrical release to say that the kller could be the ordinary person sitting next to you. Yet another impressive Korean movie. I seem to be seeing a lot of these lately.

Three Men on a Horse (1936)

This has because almost the definition of what I want to record as a guilty pleasure. It's going to be awesome fun but probably completely nonsense and it'll yet brighten my day at the very start of it. Why? Because it's a 1930s Warner Bros picture starring Frank McHugh and Joan Blondell, with support from the like of Guy Kibbee and Allen Jenkins. How could it go wrong with that talent? There's even Edgar Kennedy and Harry Davenport and Sam Levene.

McHugh is Erwin Trowbridge who's a mild mannered greeting card writer who lives in Dobbins Drive (where all houses are alike). He has a nervous wife whose brother is the Dobbins who built them and who obviously has no confidence in him in the slightest. She's discovered his little black book and thinks he's cheating on her but all the girls names in there are really horses. He picks winners as a hobby and is amazingly good at it, even though he never actually puts any money down because as they aren't flush with cash, he seems it as immoral to bet money they don't have.

The plot comes from an argument between Erwin and Clarence Dobbins that leads Erwin to a bar instead of work. There he meets a bunch of low life hoodlum types who have been losing all their money on bad picks. The obvious next step is for them to use Erwin to pick their winners for them and make them huge amounts of money, and sure enough, that happens. The surprising side is that their leader, who has the awesome name of Patsy, has to start keeping Erwin happy in order to persuade him to keep picking horses, and that he actually starts caring about him in the process.

The dialogue is awesome, mostly because it's realistically common but it contains a whole bunch of lines that come out of nowhere and require double takes. In amongst the obvious stuff there are some really subtle peaches. They're interspersed between the cast too: an irascible Kibbee as Erwin's boss; Sam Levene as Patsy, an old school gentleman to new school hoods; outrageous Teddy Hart; Joan Blondell as the real brains behind the operation; seemingly everyone in the cast. Bizarrely the best lines are absolutely not the ones listed in the quotes section of the IMDb page.

It was as fun as I expected, but it was of a higher quality than I expected, certainly above the last couple that I saw with Frank McHugh in the lead. I'm certainly going to set this to record again next time it comes up. It's not Sh! The Octopus or The Merry Wives of Reno but it may just become another guilty pleasure favourite. Great escapist fun.

Thursday 17 April 2008

Danger Lights (1930)

This must have been quite some ambitious project back in 1930. It was very early days for sound, when actors were generally tied to very static positions because of the need to remain in close vicinity to the very large microphones. Yet here we seem to be mostly outdoors, in train yards or in the middle of the countryside. The sound is amazingly good given the circumstances but that doesn't mean it isn't muddy and needing a lot of careful attention to catch everything that's being said, especially with Louis Wolheim and his deep voice leading the cast.

He's Dan Thorn, the tough guy in charge of a tough railroad yard and the man who can get done whatever needs doing. While clearing the track after a rockfall, he puts the hobos to work and finds himself impressed by one of them. It turns out that he's a railroad engineer himself, who was fired for insubordination. He's Larry Doyle and Thorn puts him to work. The upside is that he gets a good man, against all the odds; the downside is that Doyle falls for Thorn's girl Mary, played by Jean Arthur.

It seems natural to think of this as earlier in her career, given that all the roles she's known for came in the sound era and notably later than this. It was really The Whole Town's Talking that made her name, and then a few Frank Capras and screwball comedies and on up the years to Shane. Yet I was surprised to find that over half of her 92 films were silent movies dating back as far as Cameo Kirby in 1923. On the flip side Louis Wolheim was best known for silents, partly because he was so recognisable and so good in them but partly because he died in 1931, only a year after this film's release. This was his first film after All Quiet on the Western Front and he only had three more after this one.

I know other names here too. Larry Doyle is played by Robert Armstrong, who I've only seen earlier than this once, in 1929's The Racketeer. He was still waiting to make his name but he'd only have three more years to wait before he'd be sailing to Skull Island to meet Kong. There's also comedian Hugh Herbert as a hobo called the Professor and he's at once completely recognisable and yet surprisingly shy of his trademark 'woo woo!' At least he gets half of one in towards the end of the film. Armstrong and Herbert are both fine, as are Arthur and especially Wolheim, but the rest of the cast isn't necessarily up to scratch.

There are some great shots here. A stern Dan Thorn coming out of the dark and the rain with anger in his eyes, a stolen kiss on a bridge with a train raging past, a head on battle between steam locomotives in a kind of reverse tug of war to push each other backwards on the track. I'd never even heard of this film but I'm really glad I recorded it. I'm no trainspotter but the trains sucked me in. The plot may has as many holes as a lump of Swiss cheese and a few actors can't keep up with the leads but it's a fascinating and very memorable film. It's good to see attention being given to the railway on film at a time when everyone seemed to be focused exclusively on the air.

Sunday 13 April 2008

The Quiet Man (1952)

The only Republic film ever to be nominated for an Oscar, you'd think teaming up John Ford, John Wayne, Maureen O'Hara, Barry Fitzgerald, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen would be a safe bet, but the studios didn't see it that way. Ford had tried to get this film made for a decade before the Duke persuaded Republic to bankroll it. Thank goodness he did because this one's as great as I was led to expect it was.

We're in rural Ireland, so Irish that as the train arrives at Castletown station, the station, the signs, the bridges and even the train carriages are green, let alone the lush countryside. On the train is Sean Thornton, and he's on his way to Innisfree where he was born with the aim of buying the cottage his family had lived in for generations. He's been Stateside for nigh on all his life and so doesn't have to pretend to be Irish which is a good job given that he's played by John Wayne.

That's a real plus for the film and another is that there are a slew of seriously good actors playing alongside him who are well suited to the material. There's Barry Fitzgerald, born and bred in Dublin and one of the greatest character actors of the era who could steal scenes from the best of them. There's Victor McLaglen, born in England of Scots blood but who had been playing Irishmen for decades including his other Oscar winning turn in The Informer. He's also one of the few actors of the day who could realistically get away with calling John Wayne 'Little Man', though at 6' 3" he was an inch shorter than the Duke. He had a heavier build though and was a carnival boxer, good enough to fight future world champions on occasion. There's Jack MacGowran, another Dubliner, so memorable in The Fearless Vampire Hunters and The Exorcist, but apparently best known for his work in plays by Samuel Bennett.

And then there's Maureen O'Hara, a fiery red headed Irishwoman who had the enviable talent of being able to look demure, beautiful and womanly when she chose, yet switch over at will to dangerous, physically imposing and full of powerful temper. She was playing opposite Wayne, a lifelong friend, for the second of five times and they were always a memorable couple, possibly never more so than here, especially as the central point of the film is a love story between the two.

In front of, behind and all around that love story is a comedy of Irish manners. Sean Thornton wants to marry Mary Kate Danaher and she wants to marry him, but they are prohibited by custom and law because her brother, the head of the house, Squire 'Red' Will Danaher won't allow it. However there's another traditional Irish custom of shenanigans and Irish tempers allow for some serious shenanigans to be going on. Needless to say Barry Fitzgerald is at the heart of all of it and he has a field day with the role. Luckily so does everyone else.

Saturday 12 April 2008

The Chubbchubbs Save Xmas (2005)

This was a clumsily put together short that really failed to deliver what its predecessor delivered, probably because both the things it did well aren't here. There are no pop culture references, beyond Father Christmas who gets to fracture his beard, thus leaving Meeper and the Chubbchubbs to save Christmas, I mean Xmas. I still have no clue how they save Christmas except apparently they do. There are no expectations to break either, unless telling us that the Chubbchubbs save Christmas counts on that front. Disappointing.

The Chubbchubbs! (2002)

I'd never heard of the Chubbchubbs but they apparently won an Academy Award. We're at a bar on an alien planet and the clumsy karaoke loving janitor is dreaming of being the singer. Outside the Chubbchubbs are coming and that spells serious danger. There's really not a lot here except two things: one is to play with our expectations and the other is to throw in a bunch of cool pop culture references. The Ale-E-Inn is full of them: Darth Vader and Yoda arm wrestling, ET escaping on a bicycle, Robbie the Robot and the Lost in Space robot dancing the robot, you get the picture. Jar Jar Binks even gets to forsake his accent.

I enjoyed the short but there's not really any substance. It was pretty obvious what was going to happen from moment one and sure enough, that's what happened. It's done very well and it's pleasing to the eye but I doubt I'll come back to it except to point out the Star Wars references to Michael the Star Wars nut.

Surf's Up (2007)

Having kids in the house gives me a great opportunity to watch some of the kids movies I've picked up on DVD. Surf's Up is an animated film released by Sony (read: not Disney and not Pixar) and made by Ash Brannon, who co-directed Toy Story 2 and Chris Buck who directed Pocahontas. It focuses on the annual Penguin World Surfing Championships at Pen Gu Island, the place where the legend of the sport, Big Z, died. Now we're on the tenth year of the contest for the Big Z Memorial trophy and Tank Evans, an up and comer when Big Z died is the new legend, with the last nine titles to his name.

In comes Cody Maverick, a young surfer eager to get out of Shiverpool, Antarctica, and he finds himself right in the heart of the action. Not only does he get in the face of Tank Evans and embarrass himself royally, he discovers that the local slacker witch doctor is really Big Z, and gets himself set up for a training regime a la the Karate Kid. In fact that's what this story really is, it's an animated penguin version of The Karate Kid, except with an added message that comes from the realisation that as much as this is a film full of animated penguins, it's really not a kids film and that really surprised me.

It's told like a documentary for a start, one that veers definitely into adult territory, and the message is effectively that what's cool isn't necessarily what everyone else thinks is cool. It's a slacker manifesto. Why care about winning when you can just ride the tube and come out the other side? Living is lying on your board with a margarita and a sunset. The entire character of Chicken Joe is genius and he sums it all up. As portrayed by Jon Heder, better known as Napoleon Dynamite, he's someone that kids can laugh at but means more and more the more you think about him. He's effectively a stoner who hasn't a clue where he is and that's why he's so good on the waves. Think about it too much and you'll lose it. The legend is Big Z and he's Jeff Daniels not far off the Big Lebowski. Not really kids stuff but they may enjoy anyway.

Your Friend the Rat (2007)

Unlike Lifted, a which accompanied Ratatouille's cinematic release, Your Friend the Rat is an educational short available on the Ratatouille DVD. What makes it special is not the characters, who are Remy and Emile from Ratatouille; not the story or the idea; certainly not the song. What makes it special is the styles that are used. It's all a mix of what seems like very animated style in the book, including silent movie, video game, 3D, stock footage, photos, you name it, even a cool messing around with disclaimers. There's no story and the history doesn't really surprise much but the style is intoxicating.

Lifted (2006)

While Pixar are great filmmakers, without a doubt, I find that I actually prefer their short films to their features. Geri's Game was genius, Tin Toy not far behind and Luxo Jr is posibly the most perfect animated short ever made. Lifted, released in theaters as a supporting short to Ratatouille, is a joyous little piece all of its own. A giant UFO arrives over a house in the middle of nowhere and pulls its sole sleeping occupant up to it via a tractor beam. And like every great short film, the story is entirely unlike what you'd expect, given that completely accurate setup. Very good indeed.

It was the first film ever directed by Gary Rydstrom, who none of us have ever heard of unless we're into sound design. He has no less than seven Academy Awards to his name and a further six nominations for sound work on such groundbreaking films as Backdraft, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Lifted is his first non-sound based nomination and it's not a surprising one. His next film should be interesting: it's a feature length Pixar film called newt due in 2011 after Toy Story 3.

Ratatouille (2007)

While I've eaten enough in Barcelona to doubt this, the best food in the world is apparently in France, the best food in France is in Paris and the best food in Paris is at the restaurant of Chef Auguste Gusteau. The restaurant is booked up for months in advance, he's a bestselling author and he's on the cover of all the best food magazines. Meanwhile in the French countryside without a mere semblance of a French accent, Remy the rat is unlike all his fellow rats. He doesn't like eating garbage because he has a seriously powerful sense of smell, and sneaks into the nearby house to watch Gusteau on the TV and to read his book, Anyone Can Cook. When he's finally discovered by the lady of the house and his colony is forced to evacuate, he finds that he can't leave without the book and so literally misses the boat.

He finds himself in Paris, led by the ghost of the newly deceased Gusteau to Gusteau's own kitchen where the new garbage boy is massacring the soup. He fixes it only for it to seriously impress a critic, thus leading Linguini the garbage boy to be hired as more than a garbage boy. When Linguini is tasked with killing Remy the rat, a friendship is born and their futures assured. Linguini doesn't have a clue how to cook but naturally Remy can't be seen dead in the kitchen, literally. The genius is in having Remy control Linguini's movements like a puppet master from the inside his tall chef's hat.

Ratatouille seems a little strange for a Pixar film. It's impeccably constructed, of course, and looks awesome. I especially adored the home of Anton Ego, vicious critic. He's a gothic dream, typing on a typewriter that looks suspiciously like a skeletal head in a huge coffin shaped room, underneath a gorgeous gothic portrait of himself. He's also awesomely voiced by Peter O'Toole. The story is tight and well told, with plenty for the kids and plenty for those of us a litle older and hopefully more mature. It's far from a bad film and it often reaches true heights of joy.

However Pixar films tend to be set almost entirely in separate worlds on the other side of a curtain from our own world, a world that the kids know exist but which we adults pooh pooh at. Of course toys have their own lives when we aren't watching. Of course monsters run a business centred around scaring us. Of course fish have their own lives in a world right next to our own. The Incredibles was something truly unique, but this one feels like a Disney film made by Pixar. The executon is all Pixar, but the story, all about talking animals not in their world but in ours, is all Disney. Some of it is wonderful, some of it is ludicrous, some of it is saccharine. I enjoyed the film but hope it doesn't set a new trend.

Thursday 10 April 2008

Wishing Stairs (2003)

Part three of a thematic trilogy, Wishing Stairs follows Whispering Corridors, which I still haven't seen, and Memento Mori, which I have. It was a confusing but interesting Korean horror movie set in a girls school with lots of characters. This one follows in the same tradition, but with even earlier and more overt lesbianism going on. So-hee an Jin-sung are a couple of ballerinas who are also a couple but they're not the only ones. There's even a characterful fat girl called Hae-ju with a crush on another girl. She doesn't stay fat for long though because of the supernatural element of the movie. After all you can't have a horror movie with a bunch of schoolgirl ballerinas alone.

Outside the school is a staircase known as the Fox's staircase. It has 28 steps, at least it has 28 steps most of the time. Sometimes it has 29 and if you make a wish when you tread on the 29th step that wish will come true. Needless to say the wishes don't quite come out as expected and tragedy strikes. Director Jae-yeon Yun keeps it slow and suspenseful, with lighter hearted moments to vary the tone. Lead actresses Ji-hyo Song and Han-byeol Park are fine but it's An Jo as Hae-ju who steals the show to my mind.

She gets plenty of screen time, is varying degrees of freaky from moment one, starting out as the token fat girl to to scary obsessive girl to dangerous girl with a temper to really out there possessed girl. She does a great job of appearing both fat and thin at different points of the movie and that ability to look convincingly different enables her to play with all sorts of emotions and looks and images. She's a really memorable psycho and it'll be fascinating to see what other roles she gets in other films. IMDb only lists five other credits for her: one earlier and four in succeeding years. They're a mixed bunch, it seems, both in ratings and genre, and she appears at varying points within the cast list. I hope she gets another role as interesting as this one though. It would be great to see her get the opportunity to shine in other ways.

Wednesday 9 April 2008

The Cabin in the Cotton (1932)

There can't be too many movies that start off letting us know that we're about to watch a bunch of cotton picking peckerwoods but that's what this one's about. They're the poor folks who labour in the fields to pick the crop for the rich folks (the planters) to benefit from. What ought to be surprising but isn't is that we see plenty of black cotton picking peckerwoods in the fields in stock footage but the characters we watch are white cotton picking peckerwoods on sets with rear projection. Even when exposing racist conditions Hollywood can't help but be racist in the process.

Lane Norwood owns the fields that our sets are supposed to be part of and he's not too fond of the current concept of poor people getting a chance at education. Tom and Lilly's kid (for want of a better term), Marvin is someone who's taking advantage of that, starting to go to school and learn how to read and write, but Lane Norwood wants him back in the fields as a cotton picking peckerwood. Given that Marvin is played by precode legend Richard Barthelmess, who played all sorts of roles that talked to social issues, you can be sure that he doesn't play ball, but he doesn't actually have to rebel because Norwood's daughter Madge talks him into letting him go back to school and letting him work in his store to boot.

Barthelmess was a huge star in 1932, one of the biggest, and his work stands up to modern viewing, but he's not the star to anyone watching from the perspective of over three quarters of a century on. Madge is played by an up and coming young actress by the name of Bette Davis, still only in her second year of films. She isn't the leading lady, that role going to Dorothy Jordan as Marvin's sweetheart Betty, but she certainly makes her presence known.

She doesn't have much of a role, merely a rich girl who enjoys playing with the help, but Barthelmess certainly does. After he gets his education Norwood sees him as a planter, almost his right hand man, and he wants him to investigate the peckerwoods who he believes are stealing his cotton. On the flipside, the peckerwoods, who include his family and everyone he grew up with, believe that Norwood is stealing the cotton from them and they want Norwood to represent them as their agent in Memphis. He's stuck between both sides, not really belonging to either and manipulated by both.

The problem is that the film can't take sides. It backs out of the whole concept at the very beginning with the introductory text talking about good and bad on both sides. Marvin Blake can't take sides either, and as the film progresses he finds less and less to like about either of them. This is a short film, only 78 minutes long, but it really should have been a short film with the cotton picking peckerwood leaving both sides about 20 minutes in to go find some real people. Maybe if the story allowed Barthelmess to actually do something other than dither around in every direction at once it would be a lot more palatable. Only towards the end when he leads a town hall meeting in which he has everyone by the balls does he actually get a chance to act. It seems almost criminal to have someone as talented as Richard Barthelmess wasted like this, especially in a precode!

Tuesday 8 April 2008

One Missed Call (2003)

Anything Takashi Miike makes is going to be interesting, though to find a horror film with his name on it that has already been remade in the west doesn't bode too well. The ratings suggest that the remake sucks, which is hardly surprising, but this one isn't too bad. It would seem to be pretty tame material for Miike, being yet another Japanese fear of technology horror movies, but he manages to sneak in some agreeably gruesome scenes. While I watch a lot of eastern horror movies, I've somehow managed to miss the famous ones: Ringu and Ju-On and so on, though I have them all sitting here on DVD ready to watch, so this seems a little fresher than perhaps it might.

It's one of those films where the point is the gimmick and the people in the film don't really matter, but we have a bunch of Japanese college students who spend their time texting each other and talking about potential dates rather than pay attention to the lectures they're in. Then they start receiving voicemails from their near future selves, effectively providing a premonition of their own death with an effective time and date. Naturally it doesn't have much effect to begin with until people begin to die. Yoko is the first to go, going through a metal fence to plummet down onto a moving train, then we discover that she wasn't the first. Then Kenji is dragged down an elevator shaft.

The girls somehow believe that a woman died full of hate and her vindictive spirit is travelling through the phone system, killing one person, then shifting on to another person whose number was in their phonebook. Naturally everyone starts freaking out, deleting their numbers from other people's phones and cancelling their phone contracts, and needless to say the horror doesn't stop quite that easily. It's up to Yuko to try to fathom it all out before she becomes the next victim.

This one starts pretty hokey and I could understand people not making it past the second death, but from there on it engages very nicely. The slightly pixellated look caused by the reduced bandwidth Cox digital cable provided to the Sundance Channel in my area combined with the often deliberately jerky camera movements suggest a low budget handheld straight to video release, though the last half hour is certainly very professionally done indeed. I was dropping into sleep halfway through for reasons entirely unrelated to this movie but it pulled me back awake and kept me that way for the duration. I don't get the end though.

Sunday 6 April 2008

War (2007)

As I explore through a century or so of cinema, I've discovered a number of people who contributed to the art of the medium, whether as actors or directors or writers or whatever. I'm keeping lists of their films, so that I can try to acquire the ones I haven't seen and keep track of the ones that I have. It's working really well but I've gradually started lists for some people who haven't been dead for fifty years and some of them are even still working in the industry today. Two of them star in this movie and they're people that I'm always eager to watch: Jet Li and Jason Statham, two very different action oriented actors. The catch is that every time I turn around there are a few more titles that I haven't added to my list yet because I hadn't heard of them.

This is hardly a subtly titled little number but it's appropriate. Statham plays Special Agent Jack Crawford, but not the one Dennis Farina plays in Manhunter. He works for the FBI and one case brings him into contact with a professional hitman whose work is legend. This hired killer nearly kills him but his partner apparently takes him out. Of course they can't find his body and it doesn't take long at all before he's back to kill his partner's entire family. Needless to say, Jet Li is this rogue and it isn't too surprising to find Statham back on his trail in San Francisco's Chinatown three years later. What follows is the war of the title, not just between the triads and the yakuza but between Special Agent Jack Crawford and a rogue hitman with no name.

In some ways Jet Li and Jason Statham are exactly the same. They both tend to play characters with serious balls, as they do here. Statham plays hardball with a police captain in a cop steakhouse. Li tips Statham off to come to him in a warehouse while he's unarmed knowing he can't do anything. It's why Li was perfect in Hero and how Statham was so great in films like Crank, and they're both well suited to the material here.

However they have differences, big ones. When it comes to fighting, Li is the real deal. He's a wushu legend who is quick, smooth and perfectly believable in odd encounters or intricately choreographed fight scenes, even when he's not doing much out and out martial arts fighting. Statham, on the other hand, looks what he used to be, a fashion model. However he knows how to move too, having been a world class diver and he was more than able to perform his own stunts in The Transporter. As The Transporter proved, Statham can be cool as ice but it's Li who gets that role here. Jack Crawford is an angry man and Statham's good at angry.

War isn't a bad film but it's certainly not a great one, though that fault doesn't lie with Li, Statham or various very capable and very watchable supporting actors like Kenneth Choi or Devon Aoki, who looks more like an Oriental Christina Ricci every day. The problem is that it could have been so much more, and in the hand of a John Woo or a Luc Besson is likely to have been something much less generic. Mostly this feels like a rehearsal or an expensive sales pitch to someone who could make something of it.

Perhaps the problem lies with director Philip G Atwell, whose resume comprises of second unit work on the National Treasure movies and a whole slew of rap videos for people like Eminem and 50 Cent. He obviously has a lot to learn about what makes a film like this work, which needs a lot more than casting and crazily expensive cars. The cinematographer is Pierre Morel who did far better work in The Transporter so I'm leaning far more towards Atwell and editor Scott Richter who came to film from the music video world too, having made videos for Britney Spears, Eminem and Disturbed. Writers Lee Anthony Smith and Gregory J Bradley didn't do a bad job on their first screenplay but I think they tried to be too clever here and overshot themselves. Watch it if you like Statham or Li, though this is far from the best work of either, and if you like watching quarter of a million dollar cars.

Outward Bound (1930)

I've seen and enjoyed Between Two Worlds, the 1944 version with such intriguing names as John Garfield, Paul Henreid, Sydney Greenstreet and Edmund Gwenn, so I know what to expect here. The play was first produced in 1923 and seems to have been rather popular, popular enough to attempt an ambitious early talkie version very early in the life of sound technology. It's a little creaky with the camera movements especially dubious on occasion, and a lot of awkward pauses between deliveries but there some intriguing names here too.

There's the ever ethereal Helen Chandler and Douglas Fairbanks Jr as a young couple who commit suicide and find themselves on some sort of mostly deserted cruise liner. They try to hide their sin from the rest of the passengers but soon realise that they're all in the same boat, pun very much intended. Leading the cast is Leslie Howard, thankfully not playing a nothing of a character for a change. I've seen a number of his films, but he's almost always a waste of space, not because he isn't a talented actor but because his characters were always wastes of space. It's always a pleasure and a surprise to see him playing someone of substance, even though he does an awful lot of what can only be called male histrionics, and it's surprising to find that this was his first American film.

I know who he is and what's going to happen to him, just as I do everyone else on the boat from the remake, so it gives me a good opportunity to see how a new (or old) set of actors interpret the roles. Dudley Digges is the Examiner, in a role that Sidney Greenstreet would reinterpret in the remake, just as he would reinterpret the role of Kasper Guttman that Digges originated on film a year after this in the first screen version of The Maltese Falcon. Given what else I've seen Digges do on film I'm hardly surprised that he's great here too. From The Invisible Man to The Emperor Jones, from The Hatchet Man to Mutiny on the Bounty, from China Seas to Raffles, he's always worth watching.

I've seen Montagu Love in huge amounts of films too but he's the worst offender on the paused delivery front here. He's very capable of being officious though. Alison Skipworth I don't know, but she's wonderful as the haughty Mrs Cliveden-Banks who looks down her nose at everyone even though they're worth far more than she is. Beryl Mercer is excellent as a common street woman, or so Mrs Cliveden-Banks sees her. Lyonel Watts is OK and Alec B Francis isn't bad either, but he isn't Edmund Gwenn, that's for sure. And then there's Helen Chandler and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Chandler is fine in a role very suited for her, though it's only at the end that she gets a real possibility to shine. Fairbanks is fine too but he's playing against type and he's far more memorable elsewhere.

I may be biased by having seen the remake first but this seems to be a more creaky version. It has much to offer but it's definitely inferior on the whole, despite the benefit of being outside the code and thus with a couple of snippets that help to give a little bit of understanding to the story that wasn't possible in the remake.

The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)

The opening sequence is fascinating but a little bizarre. We see a blatantly obvious toy tank with blatantly obvious flashing lights interspersed with what might just be a very large and very real tank running right over a whole slew of very large and very real cars. Is a little boy reconstructing real events, like a pubescent CSI tech or does he just have a truly disturbed imagination? Well this is a 1971 cult horror movie so that's an open question.

After the credits we watch a family on holiday in the Californian countryside and I was struck at how much a happy children's party in the early seventies looks like a vision of the future as painted by fifties futurists. Maybe they got it right after all and we just didn't notice. Except they only got it right with the fashions, they got it rong with all the domed glass buildings and flying cars. Well our family discovers a horrific car wreck by the side of the road and try to report it at the nearest town but instead meet a population hiding in their houses, a sheriff who rattles off questions as if they're guilty of something and then as the situation calms everyone comes out to party at the fact that it is over, whatever it is, until a man with an axe heads right for them. Needless to say they hit the road pretty quickly!

Of course they don't get too far. A little girl appears in the road, they crash and end up back at the same town again as guests until they can leave properly. They gradually discover just what's going on. A bunch of senior citizens who worship Satan and secretly run by the local doctor, played by Strother Martin, are renewing their youth and using the children to achieve their evil ends. In three days, 26 people have been slaughtered, six families wiped out and kids missing all over the place. The town seems to be locked down so that nobody can enter and nobody can leave, except for some reason this one family.

It's an interesting film, but not necessarily for many of the right reasons. The concept is cool but the realisation is a little lacking. Either it's bad, such as some outrageous overacting, especially by Strother Martin, and some really dumb cops, or it's great but wrong, such as the location for the final ceremony. It looks and sounds awesome but makes no sense at all. Why would such a coven create a huge fake spider web structure round their altar? Who came up with the satanic orchestra? It's as cool as it is out of place from reality, and that's where much of the film lies.

Tuesday 1 April 2008

Men are Such Fools (1938)

Priscilla Lane, one of the delightful Lane sisters, is a young secretary in the advertising business, working for Hugh Herbert, of all people. He's Harvey Bates who doesn't have much of a clue and she's Linda Lawrence who has plenty. She's got great plans to move up in the business, but this is 1938 so that doesn't work out too well and she ends up getting married to Jimmy Hall who spends the first half of the film pestering the crap out of her and any time a couple get on each other's nerves this much they're obviously destined to be more than just a couple. He's Wayne Morris and he's the leading man over someone a little bit better known today.

Third on the bill is a regular supporting actor trying to find his niche, and playing supporting roles in thirties comedies was one of the things he had to do to to get there. He's a minor little name called Humphrey Bogart who wouldn't remain a minor little name for long, though it wouldn't be roles like this that made the difference. He's far more comfortable as a confident and flirtatious advertising executive than he was a year earlier in the hillbilly musical wrestling comedy Swing Your Lady or a year later as a cross between Dr Strangelove and the Bride of Frankenstein in The Return of Doctor X.

The real peach of a supporting character is the one who's played by Mona Barrie though Hugh Herbert is fun too. She's memorably and delightfully acerbic and every word is a joy to hear. She's also surprisingly effective given that it's pretty obvious that she would have been a lot more if only this had been a precode. I've been watching so many of them lately that it actually seemed strange to see a newlywed couple in a black and white movie wake up in separate beds and the whole second half of the film seems all the more ludicrous when compared to what it would have been five years earlier. The hypocrisy and the sexism of it all is pretty painful and the ending worse.