Saturday 31 May 2008

The Saint's Vacation (1941)

It always seemed a little unfair to me that George Sanders, the definitive screen Saint, would get lesser pictures to appear in as that character than the various others who took it on. He played Simon Templar four times and every single one of them was average, Sanders being by far the best thing about them. However he wasn't the first Saint and he wasn't the last. Louis Hayward played Templar before and after him, but Sanders's immediate successor was Hugh Sinclair. This one fills in a gap because this is the first Sinclair Saint and I'd only previously seen the second, The Saint Meets the Tiger. That one was pretty good, though I missed Sanders, and this one fits that bill too.

We open as the Saint and his friend Monty Hayward head out to the continent, apparently on holiday, avoiding newspaper reporters as they go. One of them, the highly persevering Mary Langdon follows them, and catches up just in time for the mystery to start. This wasn't a mystery they were looking for but they naturally found one anyway. Templar recognises a woman, who refuses to acknowledge she recognises him in return. He rescues someone from being attacked, but after taking him, still unconscious, back to his hotel room, the man gets murdered. It all seems to be about a mysterious music box.

Hugh Sinclair sounds great as the Saint and he moves pretty well too, though he's notably more energetic than we'd even been used to in the laid back Sanders era. The suave and debonair George Sanders would never have let his hair flounce around in action scenes like Sinclair's! Mary Langdon is played by Sally Gray, who was previously memorable as Templar's love interest in The Saint in London and who was a regular in British films of the thirties and forties. I've only seen one other, the fascinating Green for Danger, a Launder/Gilliat murder mystery that saw her credited above Trevor Howard and Alistair Sim.

Monty Hayward is very definitely a character there for comic relief in a very respectable English manner, and Arthur Macrae does a solid job on that front. It's the only time that Hayward, a recurring character in the Saint books, would appear in a Saint film, probably because author Leslie Charteris co-wrote the adaptation from his novel, Getaway. It's surprising that Arthur Macrae did not make more films as an actor but he seems to have been primarily a writer. Similarly, Leueen MacGrath had surprisingly few acting credits and was a writer too, having co-written the play Silk Stockings, a remake of Ninotchka, which was turned into a Fred Astaire musical by Rouben Mamoulian. The Ninotchka connection may or may not be why she reminds me of a very English Greta Garbo. She's the woman who accidentally on purpose fails to recognise the Saint, and of course is yet another seeker of the box.

The chief seeker is Cecil Parker, who had a long career in the movies, almost always playing characters who looked down their nose at people. He was usually some sort of authority figure, whether a headteacher or a military leader or just an establishment name. The earliest I've seen him was in one of my favourite Hitchcocks, The Lady Vanishes, in 1938, but he'd been in films for six years and continue on through films like this one to memorable comedy roles in films like The Ladykillers, The Admirable Crichton and The Pure Hell of St Trinian's.

Thursday 29 May 2008

Public Hero #1 (1935)

The Purple Gang is making the headlines, with all sorts of raids and killings and whatnot, terrorising the nation. In return, the nation demands that something be done about it all and so the cops oblige, arresting a whole slew of gangsters. One of them appears to be Chester Morris, but he's in the urgently overacting while in disguise mode that he used often as Boston Blackie. He's playing a tough first timer called Jeff Crane and unsurprisingly he's an undercover federal agent. We first meet him on his way into prison to spring a Purple Gang leader by the name of Sonny Black, better known as Dinkie.

Of course where there's Chester Morris, you shouldn't be too surprised to find George E Stone too, though this is six years before the first Boston Blackie movie. Usually he's Morris's sidekick, but here he's just a member of the Purple Gang with a debonair moustache. I thought I recognised Lloyd Corrigan too, who played Arthur Manleder in the Blackie films, but it turned out to be a lookalike instead. Anyway, the strange thing here is that they're all supporting players, even though it's all Chester Morris for the first half hour. We soon meet the real two leads though, and Morris does his best to warrant more than his third place billing.

During the escape Black catches a bullet, so off goes Crane to fetch Dr Josiah Glass, alcoholic physician, to attend his wounds. Glass is Lionel Barrymore, having a field day with the alcoholism. Even more memorable is the young lady Crane bumps into on the way and doesn't have much luck losing. She's Maria Theresa O'Reilly, she's Sonny Black's sister and she's played with a joyously sassy mouth by Jean Arthur. These weren't minor names in 1935, though Jean Arthur was very much on the up, with The Whole Town's Talking behind her but Mr Deeds Goes to Town and many other classics to come. Barrymore fitted it in between two Tod Browning films, Mark of the Vampire and The Devil Doll, but he'd been acting on film since 1908 and was a major star not long after.

The film itself isn't particularly memorable and does seem a little forced, but the cast are universally sound and on occasion impress. Lionel Barrymore chews up the scenery but has an awesomely fun time doing it. Morris is decent but not as memorable as usual because there's not much meat in the part. Joseph Calleia isn't bad as the bad guy, Sonny Black, even though he's lumbered with the nickname of Dinkie. Better still is Paul Kelly, as a tough fed in charge of the operation. Best of all though is Jean Arthur, who doesn't just get the best lines but the part with the most potential. She does a great job of it, coming across as a girl able to crack wise with the best of them but doing so over a sad soul.

Sugar Hill (1974)

When a movie begins with The Originals singing Supernatural Voodoo Woman you know you have to be onto a good thing. Then again, how can you go wrong with a blaxploitation zombie movie? How many blaxploitation zombie movies are there? Not enough, that's how many.

This one is an American International release starring the wonderfully named Marki Bey who has such exotic features that I'm surprised to find that she didn't make more than five films and a handful of TV episodes. Her biggest role was probably in a recurring role in Starsky and Hutch and that's unfortunate. She's certainly no great actor but she's very easy on the eye, even when she's overacting up a storm, and she looks like a whiter version of Pam Grier. She's the Diana 'Sugar' Hill of the title and she works at the Club Haiti because her boyfriend Langston owns it and because it gives us some nice easy voodoo scenes to back up the opening credits.

However Langston doesn't have much of a part. He gets killed pretty quickly by a bunch of traditionally outrageous blaxploitation bad guys (though some are white), who flounce into the club like they own the place then hide in the car park with see through nylon stockings over their heads but wearing the same instantly recognisable outfits. Not that anyone recognised them, of course. Anyway, Diana has plenty of hate in her heart for the killers, so she visits Mama Maitresse who is a scary white haired black voodoo queen played by the mother from The Jeffersons. Mama Maitresse conjures up Baron Samedi, who in the form of Don Pedro Colley would have looked pretty cool in the role had I not seen a few Coffin Joe movies in my time. In turn Baron Samedi conjures up an army of zombies and our film is rocking and rolling.

I'm spoiled for zombies too having watched a couple of Lucio Fulci classics recently, and while I can't really speak as to just how good Zombie 2 (aka Zombie Flesh Eaters) really is, given that I watched it with Dutch subtitles and no sound, but the zombies looked freaking awesome, especially compared with these ones with their eyes that look like steel balls. At least they all come out of the grave already equipped with machetes and coated in cobwebs so big bad boss man Morgan is in trouble. And he's played by Robert Quarry, Count Yorga himself! Hey, one of them even looks like Michael Jackson, ten years before Thriller.

This is great fun, though it's no great film. Then again you wouldn't expect great films to have walking severed chicken legs attacking people. This is the sort of film where people get killed by zombie masseuses or get fed to pigs or get locked into snake filled coffins. It's the sort of film where a branch of the Houston Public Library becomes the Voodoo Museum and Research Library, with its resident expert on all matters undead. It's the sort of film where the heroine is called Sugar and her ex-boyfriend is called Valentine. If that appeals, then you'll find an enjoyable exploitation flick with all its over the top dialogue and awesomely bad 70s dresses. If that doesn't appeal, then you'll think the whole thing is nuts. Me? I loved it though the score was pretty terrible, Supernatural Voodoo Woman excepted.

Monday 26 May 2008

Cathy Come Home (1966)

Not a commercially distributed film, this was very early in Ken Loach's career, back when his only credits were for television. He wouldn't make a feature film for another three years, but Kes was more than enough to build a solid career, especially coming after this one. Cathy Come Home was an episode of a BBC series called The Wednesday Play, which was one of a few opportunities at the time for young filmmakers to make anything they wanted, for a TV audience, something very admirable indeed that the BBC, partly through being state funded, was very good at.

I'm watching now on TCM, where it was picked for broadcast by guest presenter Tim Roth, and Robert Osborne had never seen it or even heard of it. I'd never seen it either, but I'd certainly heard of it. The film comes up a lot in any discussion of social realism in British cinema, because it effectively started something new. It took the kitchen sink dramas of the fifties, which were focused on gritty reality but were written by educated writers and acted by educated actors. Cathy Come Home broke that trend in a number of ways: by filming on the street, by taking serious pot shots at the system and by using a documentary style with overlaid narration containing statistics and apparently real life stories.

There's interesting cinematography from the very beginning. We watch Cathy's face from the other side of the street even though cars rush by in front of her, there's a shot of her inside a truck that has us focus on her eyes by cutting off the bottom half of her head, we see a long shot of an old man's trembling face as he's consigned to a home even though he isn't the one talking. There's a lot of handheld filmmaking, which I'm sure helped on from a budgetary standpoint, and I'm also convinced that most of the people in the film, behind leads Carol White and Ray Brooks, aren't even actors, though I recognised a few of people taking real roles, like Geoffrey Palmer. It can't have been an expensive production, though, that's for sure.

The story is really basic: we watch a young couple fall through all the cracks of society into homelessness. They start out happy and full of prospects, but life doesn't quite work out how they expect. They lose the posh house they took a mortgage out on, then get evicted time and time again, moving to worse and worse accommodation: moving in with parents, sharing rooms with other families, council houses, caravans, hostels. Many places won't take families or kids, and the hostels Cathy ends up in won't even take husbands, thus putting even greater strain on relationships and causing more trouble. It's easy to sympathise with the situation that Cathy and Reg find themselves stuck in, because Loach's adaptation of Jeremy Sandford's story is very cleverly done indeed. It succeeded in its goals too, because a lot of official policies in England changed after its release, but it's pure propaganda and very manipulative.

There are seemingly two lessons to take from the film and both are highly suspect: people in trouble are never to blame and authorities don't care. The latter of these is truly bizarre because from a socialist standpoint the state is everything. I'm sure Loach really meant the lesson as being authorities don't care right now, but with change that situation can be resolved. It's that change he calls for, but he has no suggestions as to how that can happen beyond misleading closing notes like 'West Germany has built twice as many houses as Britain since the war'. Naturally: they had a lot more to rebuild.

I'm English and what would be termed middle class but I live at present in the US which is generally far less socialist in outlook, looking more at personal responsibility than state intervention. My views on things rarely change, but while in England I felt I was right wing, here I feel much more left wing, purely on a relative basis. I'm not a socialist so don't buy into Loach's propaganda but I do see a solid role for the state in a number of things that to Americans seem socialist: universal healthcare and some state regulation, especially when done to keep competition alive in industries that rely on shared infrastructure.

What was striking to me here was how the many authorities were unable to help for many different reasons, but were always full of threats and condecension when relaying their inability. Their responses were much more 'we have the power to do much worse but' rather than 'we'd love to help you but'. They never offered change or a way out and Cathy and Reg either couldn't see or couldn't accept the ways out that were there. Many places wouldn't take kids but Cathy kept having them anyway because it's what she felt life was for, even though she couldn't take care of them. Money was always tight but that didn't stop Cathy and Reg spending it on cigarettes or alcohol. They made very little attempt to get on with Reg's mother who put them up for a while. It was perfectly acceptable for them to strike out at those they deem oppressive, even stooping on occasion to violence.

It's well known that bureaucracy lives in a world of its own and I'm sure that there were and are serious social issues in urgent need of attention in England, but I just couldn't buy most of what I saw here. I know from personal experience that it's amazing how easily many problems can be avoided. I worked for years in a very low paid job but found ways to supplement it to cover the bills. When work was short and we were forced onto part time hours, I refused to sign up on the dole and helped a friend of the family build a conservatory for a little bit of extra money. When I worked as a contractor and had periods without work, I found that honesty went a long way with landlords. I'm sure I was lucky in many respects, especially in that I had family who were more than willing to provide food for the odd week that I couldn't, but I had common sense on my side too. I didn't run a car because I didn't need to. I lived very nicely out of charity shops and handmedowns. If I didn't have money, I didn't go to the pub. Loach's propaganda doesn't seem to allow for that sort of thing.

Whatever I feel about the message, the film is powerfully made and still has an impact today, if not the stunning impact it had on release in 1966. Cathy Comes Home was watched by 12 million people, one in four of the British population at that time, so had an audience well above most movies. It may be coincidence that Reverend Bruce Kenrick founded Shelter, a charity aimed at relieving homelessness by providing advice and campaigning for reform, in December 1966, but I'm sure that he was one of those 12 million. When the BFI compiled a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes in 2000, Cathy Comes Home came second, behind only Fawlty Towers. The closest similar entry, as to type and age, was another entry in The Wednesday Play from a year earlier: The War Game. While it wasn't shown on the BBC at the time because of its controversial nature, it was widely viewed and I wonder if it wasn't a key influence on the way Loach made his film.

Death Line (1972)

I have really fond memories of this one (as Death Line: the American release was called Raw Meat), but like so many films nowadays it seems like forever since I've seen it. I'd even forgotten that Christopher Lee was in it, because my memories focus around Donald Pleasence being more believably drunk in one scene than anyone else I've ever seen anywhere else in the movies and the whole concept of cannibal throwbacks populating a disused London underground station. The rest had relegated itself to the back of my brain somewhere where I've lost the ability to retrieve.

Pleasence is always a joy to watch but he's even more magnetic here than usual as a Scotland Yard policeman called Inspector Calhoun. He has a cynically suspicious nature and a highly spirited disposition, which together with Pleasence's substantial skills as an actor mean that every conversation he has with anyone is one to pay attention to. The best ones are between him and his colleagues: Det Sgt Rogers, played by Norman Rossington, his secretary WPC Marshall, played by Heather Stoney, and Christopher Lee as a deliciously cheerful MI5 agent called Stratton-Villiers.

Calhoun and Stratton-Villiers cross swords on a strange missing persons case. James Manfred, OBE, goes missing from the Russell Square underground station after a night of visiting peepshows and porn shops. He was last seen in a state of collapse on a staircase by a couple of students who had caught the last train in, but when they brought the police back to see, he had vanished. There were no more trains and no other way out of the station, but he had vanished nonetheless, seemingly into nowhere.

Because Manfred was a VIP, Calhoun digs a little deeper than usual into the disappearance and before MI5 unceremoniously close the case, he discovers a string of other disappearances from the same station and from nearby Holborn. He also finds that between Russell Square and Holborn was a disused line, one abandoned by the company building the line after a serious cave in that left a number of workers, both male and female, stranded and unrescued because the company was going bankrupt. Soon enough Calhoun gets the chance to investigate further, because there are murders at Russell Square and more disappearances, with the bizarre news from the lab that someone else has been present at the scene, someone with septicaemic plague.

I'm not surprised that parts of this film had stayed with me while the bulk of it hadn't, because those parts are truly awesome and the rest is so so. Pleasence is by far the best reason to watch the film, as he gives a fascinating and very real character study of an beleaguered inspector. He's not stupid and he doesn't get entirely nowhere, but he gets to be at points drunk, exhausted, hungover, overruled and a whole host of other states of being that get entirely overlooked in movies. My impression is that he took what could easily have been a one dimensional character and run with it to such a degree that his portrayal stuck with me for decades.

The last remnant of an abandoned people is fascinating too. Hugh Armstrong plays a character credited only as 'The Man', and it's a bizarre role for an actor. Ragged, malnourished and riddled with plague, he's missing whole clumps of hair, eats raw meat, drools and has only one repeated line, which is only vaguely recognisable as 'Mind the doors'. Yet he brings not just savagery but tenderness to the part, which can't have been an easy task given the limitations. Given an obvious interest in quirky roles, it's surprising to see a very sparse filmography for Hugh Armstrong.

But beyond them, there isn't much. There are a couple of students who get integrally involved in the story. One is Sharon Gurney and the other is David Ladd, son of Alan Ladd and husband to Cheryl Ladd. Christopher Lee has a great cameo, which is unfortunately also a short one. Clive Swift, of Keeping Up Appearances, has another. And there are a number of long and voyeuristically slow pans over corpses. The horror is kept realistic and far from sensational, but somehow it doesn't engage as it probably should have. The admirable characterisation unfortunately means that the story suffers from being painted in very broad strokes indeed. Maybe the budget prohibited a larger exploration into the abandoned underground. Whatever it could have been though, it's still a quirky British horror film that still deserves attention 36 years after its original release.

Saturday 24 May 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

So I just about managed to watch the entire Indiana Jones trilogy again just in time for it to not be a trilogy any more. It's been a while and I haven't seen them all so close together before, but what I found was mostly not surprising. Raiders of the Lost Ark rocks. It really really rocks, and stands up awesomely given that it was made in 1981. It's probably the best cliffhanger action film ever made, and regardless what my stepson might think it has one of the best endings. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was a disappointment, as a sequel and as a part of the trilogy, but it really isn't that bad and compares well against other action films of the era. Short Round rocks. Spielberg married Kate Capshaw after working with her on this film but she annoyed the crap out of me. It also went way over the top on occasion. Part three, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade wasn't as good as I remembered it but it was still an excellent film, marred only by some glaringly out of place green screen work.

Now The Last Crusade isn't the last Indy film any more. No less than nineteen years later we have Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which somehow manages to keep true to the spirit of the films while simultaneously veering off further into the land of complete nonsense than The Temple of Doom ever managed. It may seem on the surface like a film that shouldn't get analysed too deeply but I have a feeling that its the analysis of it may show its true worth and its biggest flaws. There's a lot here and for a change the important things aren't on the screen. They're more to do with the choices made about what to put in the movie and what to leave out.

Thankfully, Prof Henry Jones Jr, better known to one and all as Indiana, is still played by Harrison Ford. It would have been so easy to cast someone else but director Steven Spielberg and writer/producer George Lucas stuck with Ford, even though he's now 66 years old, making him a little old and creaky. That's a good thing. They also brought back Karen Allen from Raiders of the Lost Ark, reprising her role as Marion Ravenwood. That's a good thing too, as the heated arguments between these two characters is close to being the best bit about the film.

What may be a bad thing is the addition of their son, as played by current hotshot Shia LaBeouf. And no, that's no spoiler, it's obvious from moment one. LaBeouf is not actively bad, the way I thought he probably would be, but he's still there. He may be less obnoxious than I expected, but he has all the charisma of a paper bag and about as much acting talent, or so it would seem from the basis of this film. Then again even Ford has moments here where he drifts over to autopilot and that's surprising. The potential worst thing of all is what his character may become. If he becomes the new Indiana Jones for future milkings of the cash cow, I don't want to watch. He has half the character already, though that's a stretch, but he doesn't have the other half and only the worst plot contrivances could provide it for any fifth film.

That's a potential worst thing though. The real worst thing is not clear because there are a few candidates. It could be the cute and cuddly gophers or groundhogs or whatever they are, but I'll reserve that judgement for the next viewing, if one comes. Right now they elicited an 'Oh God, did they really do that?' response but I have a feeling that next time through it'll be an active downer. What will probably beat that out now for the top spot on the worst thing front is the solid lean towards over the top George Lucas style contrived escapes.

Remember that leap out of a crashing plane on a life raft in The Temple of Doom that landed Indy and his friends on a mountain slope where they slid down to a waterfall? Yeah, that was painfully over the top but it doesn't hold a candle to the fridge scene here. I can see George Lucas thinking about what would be a cool escape scene in a film set in a definitively fifties America. I can see a light bulb going off above his head. And I can see him say, 'Hey, why not have him at ground zero for a nuclear explosion with four seconds to go and jump into a lead lined fridge that locks and gets hurled up into the air out of the danger zone and unlocks on landing'. No broken bones, easy to get rid of radiation, no worries. Yeah right.

This escape comes early on, after Indy has become the object of government suspicion after an encounter with a Russian commando squad at Area 51, the same military hangar that houses the Ark of the Covenant. He loses his job at the university because of commie paranoia, the whole reds under the beds thing, but never once does Indy mention that it was true! Did Spielberg and Lucas realise that they were pointing out that McCarthy was right? That kind of goes entirely against the whole anti-witchhunt mentality.

Anyway, there are lots of Russians wandering around on American soil, and it seems all the Russians that talk are played by Brits but all the ones that don't are played by Russians. In charge is Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett, who is the same sort of bad guy with a little good streak as Elsa Schneider in The Last Crusade. She's into the weird psychic remote viewing stuff that the Russians got into during the Cold War and is seeking alien bodies at Area 51. The crystal skull of the title ties to these aliens and their powers. The search for it takes Indy and his entourage into the South American jungle where Mutt Williams, aka Henry Jones III, discovers that he's not just a motorbike mechanic who wants to be James Dean, he's really Tarzan and can swing with the best CGI chimps in the business.

Yeah, this goes off in a number of bizarre and very unwanted directions that really help lead me to the conclusion that modern Hollywood is all about the ride. This isn't a film, it's a blueprint for the upcoming theme park ride. Take a seat, keep your hands and feet in the vehicle and we're off! Hey, there's Indiana Jones! The hat! The whip! The smile! Oh, and there are bad guys. Boo! hiss! Oh now we're moving to another continent. Watch out, the bad guys will be back... yep, there they are! Effects, effects, effects. A big drop to the finish and wham! It's over. Go pick up your picture on the way out.

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed this film, but very much as a ride. The more I think about it, the worse it gets. It isn't just the fridge and the Tarzan sequence. It isn't just the double standards. It's the fact that Indy is out of place and Harrison Ford obviously doesn't want to be there. It's about the fact that the Russians don't actually do anything, except continually miss a running man without any cover at point blank range with machine guns. It's about the gophers. Oh god, the gophers! It's about the fact that one key character turns out to be a double agent, but when he says he isn't, at the heart of such a paranoid time, everyone believes him just because. It's about the underlying fact that Lucas threw every single thing he could think about to do with the US in the fifties into the film, regardless whether they fit together or not. It's like a kid having a toybox that isn't big enough to contain all the toys. Things get crammed in way beyond comfort. It's about the realisation that this does not feel like a Spielberg film in the slightest. It screams Lucas, and that's not good.

The Cocaine Fiends (1935)

Exploitation films about drugs always had an educational case to them to get round the censors. This one, a remake of a 1928 film called The Pace That Kills, and originally using that name, uses Jane Bradford as its public information warning, the point being something like country folks are idiots and city folks are evil. Or something like that. Jane is an innocent young thing who is happy minding her business in a country hotel when Nick the drug pusher breezes in. He appears to be a cop hiding from the bad guys and she helps him out, even though she starts to doubt when the bad guys pop in for a beer and she has a feeling that they're really the cops and Nick is the bad guy. But hey, he's cute (apparently) and he says nice things and he has these headache powders that make her feel fine.

So before long, she runs away with him to the city (which naturally is deliberately just 'the city' for maximum empathy), leaving her mother nothing but a promise that she'll write. Of course time slips by without a letter and 14 months later Jane Bradford is looking notably worse for wear due to a heavy dependency on cocaine, erm headache powders, and the big boss puts her to work at the Dead Rat. We're told that the Dead Rat is the last thing before the slums but, name notwithstanding, seems to be a lot better than it would seem with intriguingly bad entertainment, most played by real entertainers as themselves (who interestingly never did so again in other movies). The wallpaper is awesome too.

However quickly thrown into the mix are a couple of other couples to liven up the story: Fanny and Eddie, and Dorothy and Dan. Fanny is a stop on Nick's pushing run and Eddie works with her. Eddie is also Jane's brother, who came to the city to look for her in his spare time. Dan is a detective who knows precisely what Nick is and Dorothy is his girlfriend. The actors, just like the two leads, are people we haven't heard of but in some instances that's a little surprising as they are often a lot better than the material.

Lois Lindsay in particular, who plays Dorothy, has a very watchable face, making me wonder why she didn't land supporting femme fatale roles in Warner Brothers movies of the era. Then again, looking at her filmography at IMDb, she tended to play uncredited chorus girls in those movies, so maybe she just shines in this company. She certainly had a means to be noticed in Hollywood, given that she was a dancing instructor for Shirley Temple.

Another Lois, Lois January, plays Jane Bradford and Noel Madison plays Nick the pusher. January, apparently her real name, made a bunch of films but may have been most noticed as 'Woman Holding Cat in Emerald City' in The Wizard of Oz. Madison was another Warner Brothers regular but a long way down the credits. I was surprised to find I'd seen his first five films, including Sinners' Holiday, in which his debut as Buck Rogers (no, not that one) was more than a little overshadowed by someone else debuting in the same film: James Cagney.

The Cocaine Fiends aka The Pace That Kills is a melodrama of course, but it has some interest on a human front, probably more because of actors like Lois Lindsay and Sheila Manners/Bromley, who plays Fanny, than because of the talent of the filmmakers. What it doesn't have is the edge that someone like Dwain Esper brought to proceedings. Esper wasn't a good filmmaker, probably not even as good as William A O'Connor, who debuted with the original version of this, and went on to a long career as assistant director on B movie westerns. However Esper understood exploitation and that knowledge transcended skill to make films that were bizarrely watchable. O'Connor didn't have that, the last ten minutes notwithstanding, so while this is a better film than Maniac or Marihuana, it's nowhere near as watchable.

Thursday 22 May 2008

13 Tzameti (2005)

As if to prove that not all Hollywood films nowadays are based on films from Japan and Korea, the 2008 film 13 will be based on this one from Georgia. Not the US state of Georgia, the former Soviet republic of Georgia, though it's partly shot in French and German as well as Georgian. It's also shot in black and white and manages to feel timeless. Like a select few of the Japanese horror remakes, 13 is being made by its original director, Géla Babluani, so it has potential.

It has an intriguing plot. Jean-François Godon is a man of mystery. He's in really bad shape, collapsing a few times in the opening sequences, and he has secrets. He's pretty broke, to the degree that he only has an advance for the workman on his roof and no actual wages, but he tells a friend that he has a way to make a lot of money. It'll only take a day and he may not live through it. It's not drugs but it's something dubious. Even his wife doesn't know, though she's intrigued and finds a letter to him that has just been delivered containing a train ticket and a prepaid hotel reservation. Someone else is watching from the street and taking pictures. But before we find out anything of substance, Jean-François Godon dies.

The house goes to his sister, so Sébastien, the workman, won't get paid, but Sébastien has the letter and he decides to use it. He catches the train, he stays at the hotel and, pretending to be M Godon, he follows the cryptic instructions phoned to the room, leading him on a wild adventure, all the more wild for the fact that he doesn't have the faintest clue what he's getting himself into. Sébastien knows as much as we do, which is to say precisely nothing, and finds himself moving from hotel to train to taxi to dilapidated farm in the middle of nowhere where strange men half strip him and break the heels off his shoes.

This story is magnetic. Usually when we don't know what's happening in the slightest, there are two ways the film can go: either we get quickly confused, bored and then switch off, or we get quickly hooked and stay there. 13 Tzameti is a perfect example of the latter. We can't stop watching, because we just have to see what's going to come next. When we find out, we are seriously shocked, but like a train wreck we can't ignore it. We have to keep watching and can't stop even as writer/director Géla Babluani increases the level of the shock again and again until it's almost unbearable.

13 Tzameti is a work of twisted genius. It's obviously low budget but it's high enough to matter. It doesn't look shoddy and it has more tension than anything else I've seen in years. Babluani constructs his film masterfully. There are many, many people and the screen is often full of them, but they're always framed exactly as they should be. The faces are memorable, and the black and white stock makes me remember old silent or early sound films that found joy in memorable faces: Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc and Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible spring quickly to mind. The pressure the characters are under is blistering and it only adds to how memorable those faces are.

Sébastien is presumably played by a relation of the director: he's Giorgi Babluani. The Babluanis are obviously a cinematic bunch as Géla's next film, L'Héritage was cowritten and codirected by Temur Babluani and Giorgi is in that one too. And after this film, I'll be looking out for it hard. What young Sébastien finds at the end of his blind journey is a real slap in the face. What Babluani gives us with his film is no different. What an amazing piece of cinema. The human dynamic side of the story is reasonably predictable but the shocks aren't. Wow.

Corpse Bride (2005)

I so wanted to fall in love with The Nightmare Before Christmas. I kept my Corpse Bride DVD on the shelf until I could see it so that I'd see the things in order. And I was sorely disappointed. I enjoyed it but was completely not blown away, possibly in part because it was not at all what I expected. As I wrote in my review, 'maybe I was expecting something darker, something more topical and less abstract, something that wasn't a musical.' It was a fun kids film with Tim Burton touches but that was it. I'm happy to say that Corpse Bride, while still a musical, is a lot closer to what I was hoping to see.

Victor Van Dort is the son of a nouveau riche family who plan to marry him off to Victoria Everglot, daughter of a family of class. The Everglots are horrified at their daughter marrying so low but they're broke and the Van Dorts have a rather healthy bank balance. However after making a great impression on young Emily, he makes a complete pig's ear out of the rehearsal and trying to get his vows right in the middle of the forest, he accidentally proposes to a tree, who turns out to be the Corpse Bride of the title. Suddenly young Victor finds himself married to a corpse who whisks him off to a delightfully surreal afterlife, from which he tries to find a way out of to get back to his Victoria.

Surreal is definitely the word of the day. Tim Burton has a dark and very surreal imagination and he lets rip with it here in precisely the same way he didn't in The Nightmare Before Christmas. The imagery is straight out of Terry Gilliam, if he'd have animated for Burton instead of Monty Python. The story is touching and beautiful to a gothic mindset. It's deliciously dark in a very old school way, befitting the Victorian English setting, and the actors are almost entirely English so the accents work a treat. And what a cast!

Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter play the leads, with Emily Watson as Victoria. Tracey Ullman is both Victor's mother and Victoria's nurse. Paul Whitehouse, from Depp's favourite TV programme, The Fast Show, plays no less than three very different characters. The Everglots are Joanna Lumley and Albert Finney. There's Richard E Grant, Christopher Lee sounding rather like Karloff the Uncanny and Jane Horrocks. There's a memorable Michael Gough who has a wonderful character design as a hunchbacked skeleton with a beard as long as he is.

Like The Nightmare Before Christmas, it's also full of detail and points of reference. I loved the Harryhausen piano, and the maggot that lives behind the Corpse Bride's eyeball who sounds like Peter Lorre and is a joyous riot. He should have his own TV series. I loved the expressionistic Busby Berkeley number with skeletons, sung by Danny Elfman like a cross between Louis Prima and Tom Waits. The Gone with the Wind and Enter the Dragon references would be lost on the youth of today but they're both peaches. And so is the film. This is what I wanted The Nightmare Before Christmas to be. If the musical side of things, which is kept reasonably minimal, stands up as I think it will it'll be even better.

Sunday 18 May 2008

The Iron Horse (1924)

John Ford's first silent epic, The Iron Horse set the stage for more than just Ford as a great film director. It dealt with the opening up of the west, bringing civilisation to the savages and introducing us to legends of the west. Lincoln is here, but so is Buffalo Bill and Wild Bill Hickok. Our initial hero is Davy Brandon, who heads west with his son from Springfield, IL. Three months later they're in the Cheyenne mountains and Brandon is killed and scalped by a white man with a malformed hand pretending to be an Indian. Davy Brandon Jr survives and is rescued by trappers.

A few years later, in 1862, Congress authorises two railroads: the Union Pacific to go west and the Central Pacific to go east, between them spanning the continent from sea to sea. Lincoln signs the bill against opposition on the grounds that the money is needed for war. He sees it as something needed after the war is over, because he was there when Davy Brandon and his son set off and understood their dream. He was right too, because only a few years later after his assassination, the Union Pacific crews building the track are made up chiefly of surviving soldiers from both armies, the north and the south.

And on the story runs in dramatised documentary style, the title cards setting us up for the next stage, which then unfolds dramatically for us. There's plenty of dramatic scenes for us, with seemingly no end of Indian attacks, buffalo herds and natural obstacles. Even at such an epic scale, the film seems rushed, especially the first half. It's two hours and thirteen minutes long, but could easily have been twice or three times that. Given the length of the Abel Gance silent movies I've seen recently, a mere two hours seems like nothing.

In such a testosterone filled film, there has to be some female presence, and here it's Madge Bellamy playing Miriam Marsh, who was also there when Davy Brandon set off. Now she's the daughter of the chief engineer on the Union Pacific. There are plenty of women in Judge Heller's combined courtroom and saloon, nicknamed Hell on Wheels. Chief amongst them is Ruby, played by Gladys Hulette, who I've seen as far back as 1909 in the trick film Princess Nicotine. She doesn't look any older here, fifteen years later, and she's suitably talented to be used by unscrupulous landowners to block the railroad's progress in ways best suited to women.

Ruby gets the task of seducing Jesson, Miriam's fiance, just around the time that Miriam gets to meet up with her young Davy again, now a Pony Express rider. Given that the ruthless landowner in those parts just happens to be the fake Indian who killed Davy's dad, you can see where our grand finale is going to end up an hour or so later. Before we get there though, there's plenty more little touches to make the film memorable.

In fact that's probably the most memorable thing about it. We don't see enough of each of the characters to care hugely for them, and the epic scope dwarfs the story. While the macro scale is memorable mostly because of its sheer size, the micro scale gives us human touches: the towns that flourish overnight then disappear as the Union Pacific headquarters shifts on a ways, burying the dead after the last night before moving, quick marriages on board mobile courtroom saloons that need annulling at the next stop, tough soldiers cum track layers who are scared of the dentist, a bartender taking down the mirror behind the bar when they know a fight is coming, the barroom fight itself where we rarely get to see the actual combatants.

The Rainmaker (1956)

The rainmaker of the title is a conman played by Burt Lancaster. He takes many names: Bill Starbuck, Bill Smith, Bill Harley, Tornado Johnson, whatever does the trick. He travels the country selling tornado rods that unsuspecting folks buy from him to stick in their roof and protect themselves when the tornadoes that never come through town come through town. He gets run out of the first town we see him in but he soon ends up in Three Point, a southern town afflicted by severe drought.

Three Point is also home to the Curry family. Pop is H C Curry, played by Cameron Prud'homme, but the rest are recognisable. Daughter Lizzie is played by Katharine Hepburn and she's plain and getting a little old and the family have shipped her off to Uncle Ned's to see if one of his kids would marry her. Next in line is Noah, played by Lloyd Bridges who has the gall to get upset when she comes back without a promise of marriage. The most striking line in the film comes when he tells her, 'If we put money in a heifer and she don't turn out, we got to ask questions'. What surprises most is that Kate doesn't turn round and belt him one. Younger brother Jim is Earl Holliman, who would go on a couple to decades later to renown as Angie Dickinson's lieutenant in Police Woman.

And into the Curry family comes Starbuck, where he proceeds to turn everything upside down. Everyone except Jim knows he's a conman but they go along with his claims of rainmaking power for different reasons. Soon Jim's out banging a drum, Pa's painting a big arrow away from the house to keep the lightning away and Noah's tying the hind legs of a mule together. Starbuck's inside stirring up the emotions of Lizzie, the only one left and the smartest one of the bunch.

This is a strange film. It's obviously based on a play because it has that constrained stagebound feel with lots of speeches that sound like they should be delivered to a live audience. It has an extravagant over-the-top feel too, even though it's set in a drought ridden farm and populated by major stars. Burt Lancaster is forgiveable because he's playing a conman and it's appropriate for him to be deliberately larger than life. Lloyd Bridges is forgiveable too because he's deliberately throwing lines out to get a reaction. Unfortunately I couldn't buy Kate Hepburn, because she was such a powerful presence, as actor and woman, that the one thing she couldn't play was a weak woman, full of indecision and lack of self confidence. She doesn't do a bad job, she simply looks like Kate Hepburn pretending to be weak and the concept is almost laughable.

The Battle of the River Plate (1956)

I've watched a lot of films where the key actors aren't necessarily actors; they're trains or buildings or spaceships. This is possibly the first film I've seen where these other key actors are credited just like they were human beings. Because this is a war film set at sea, these actors are military vessels, including the US Heavy Cruiser 'Salem' as the German pocket battleship 'Admiral Graf Spee'. The others are British or Commonwealth vessels: HMS Sheffield as HMS Ajax, HMS Jamaica as HMS Exeter and HMS Cumberland and the renamed and reassigned HMNZS Achilles as themselves. They take billing above all but five of the cast.

The film is The Battle of the River Plate, released in the US as The Pursuit of the Graf Spee. It's a true story, set two months into World War II and made with as much realistic detail as was possible given the circumstances. In fact the list of naval advisors, technical advisors and naval authorities who consulted on the film or provided assistance in one way or another is so large that it runs behind the credits for what seems like forever. It remnds of the long lists of those who never came home, and provides the same impact of something huge an epic.

The Admiral Graf Spee was a German battleship, a surface raider, who sneaked over to the South Atlantic without anyone noticing before war was declared. It then spent its time sinking whatever she could, mostly vessels bringing much needed supplies back to England. If the supplies don't get through, England starves, and Germany gains the edge. We open with the sinking of the MS Africa Shell, a merchant vessel, and the taking prisoner of its officers. The German in command of the Graf Spee, Capt Langsdorff, seems to be a decent enough fellow and one very good at his job, mking him a dangerous adversary indeed. He's played by Peter Finch, one of the most notable of a consistently notable cast, and he very helpfully explains to Capt Dove of the MS Africa Shell just what he's doing and how he's doing it.

As the Graf Spee has finished a three month tour of duty, MS Africa Shell was its last victim of the tour and it picks up other captured officers from their supply ship (one of whom is the real Capt Dove playing someone else) and head off for home. However three Allied cruisers (the Ajax, the Exeter and the Achilles) are in the vicinity and Cdre Harwood of the Ajax has a hunch as to where it will go next. Before too long, the four tussle in the first major naval battle of the war, the Battle of the River Plate.

The cast is large and consistent, with many recognisable names, especially to English eyes. The other leads are John Gregson, Anthony Quayle, Ian Hunter, Jack Gwillim and Bernard Lee. Gregson is probably best known for very different means of transport in Genevieve and The Titfield Thunderbolt, as well as for other comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob and Whisky Galore! On the other hand, Quayle, an army Major during the war, played a lot of military roles, after this one, including Ice-Cold in Alex, The Guns of Navarone, HMS Defiant and Lawrence of Arabia. Hunter's roles date back as early as the silent era, where he appeared in a number of early Hitchcocks like The Ring, Downhill and Easy Virtue. He may be best known for playing King Richard the Lionheart in the Errol Flynn version of The Adventures of Robin Hood. Gwillim was a Navy man, serving as a Commander in the Royal Navy for twenty years before becoming an actor. This was his first film but unsurprisingly he would go on to play a lot more military roles, including Sink the Bismarck!, North West Frontier and Lawrence of Arabia. Bernard Lee is certainly best known for his portrayal of M in the Bond films, which he played no less than 12 times. Backing them up are recognisable names like Christopher Lee (looking more like Nicolas Cage as a Uruguayan cafe owner) and John Schlesinger, as well as John Le Mesurier (of Dad's Army), Patrick Macnee (of The Avengers) and Roger Delgado (the first Master in Doctor Who).

Because the script follows the real story as much as is humanly possible, there's not much opportunity for these actors to showboat and shine in themselves. What they do is provide solid characterisations that help the film to remain as consistent and believable as possible, and they do that very well indeed. There's none of the usual melodramatics: no blind heroism, no rampant cowardice. These men are simply there to do a job, they know what that job is and they get that job done, regardless of what happens while they're doing it. That may equate to heroism nowadays when signing up confers automatic hero status, but to these men it was just a job that they knew they needed to do right.

That admirable lack of scenestealing impresses but what impresses even more is the lack of traditional cinematics in death scenes. There's no Wilhelm screams, no leaping backwards after being hit, no floundering around in pain. People are injured or killed generally without even knowing that it's happened. While orchestrating his half of the battle from the deck, a medic attends Cdre Harwood's wounded leg. When the medic asks for the other leg, he finds that it was wounded also without him even noticing. Crews lose members without any obvious sign. They're dead because they suddenly stop answering or collapse when touched.

I'm no naval historian, but I'm sure they would be rivetted to this film. What I found most fascinating was the politics going on while the Graf Spee was in dock in Montevideo harbour. There are rules governing everything in war and Uruguay was neutral territory. Obviously it's prohibited for warships to fight each other in a neutral harbour, but it goes well beyond that. Warships are allowed to repair themselves in order to make themselves seaworthy but are not allowed to restore fighting capability. There's a 24 hour rule that prohibits enemy warships following merchant vessels out of harbour. All of these and others, become the rulebook that shapes how the game is played. Also, everything in Montevideo was relayed live on radio from cafes on the beach, one of the first such events to receive that treatment. A fascinating film, even for someone who is not a military historian.

Saturday 17 May 2008

The Great American Snuff Film (2003)

Another independent horror film purporting to base itself on a true story, this one follows a serial killer named William Allen Grone, apparently convicted in 1998 of rape, torture and murder. He also apparently shot some footage of what he did with a Super 8 camera and wrote a journal. He called his footage The Great American Snuff Film, so it becomes our title too. The big selling point isn't that the film is a dramatisation of what William Allen Grone got up to, but that the two and a half minutes of his actual footage is actually included at the end of the DVD.

William Allen Grone isn't alone in his actions. He met Roy at a porn shop and the man with the widest collection of illegal material in the state and the man who shoots material of his own soon become friends and collaborators. The pair of them have a great location to use for their combined deeds, such as kidnapping, torturing and murdering a pair of young ladies and their boyfriend, as Roy runs a junkyard in the middle of the Arizona desert. They thus have plenty of time and space available and a lack of anyone to get in their way. All this sort of thing helps the independent filmmaker because he can do his thing with a tiny cast, no interference and a solid amount of control.

Of course that doesn't just apply to Super 8 filmmaker William Allen Grone, but to the director of our film, Sean Tretta. Tretta is an independent filmmaker, making his debut feature and it shows. He has some good ideas, he has some interesting shots and there are quite a few very cool touches indeed. He's made a film that he should be able to build nicely on and the female victims (Melinda Lorenz and Holi Tavernier) are very effective. However the sound is terrible, the lighting poor and the pacing inconsistent. It also generally seems as if he's trying too hard to make something deliberately hard to watch.

There's no real plot, merely a bunch of variations on a theme, the theme being power and control. The bad guys (you can't call them antiheroes) are in charge and there's nobody to stop them. Nobody stumbles onto the junkyard and hears their moans, nobody investigates their disappearance and follows their trail, there's literally nobody around for miles. The victims keep starting the process of escape, finding ways to get the duct tape off their mouths, but they never get anywhere. This is all great, for a while, as it plays with our expectations, but when we realise that it's not going to do anything else for the entire 87 minute running time it gets a little tedious. Mike Marsh's monotone narration fits the same logic: it's very apt in the short term but completely tedious in the long term.

What that boils down to is that this would have made a far better short film than a full length movie. Given that the most professional thing about the whole production is the soundtrack by Hardwire, it could even have been a long music video (Tretta's previous video for Hardwire's Flesh is included on the DVD). The reviews at IMDb are almost entirely massively negative and the film is nowhere near as bad as they'd make it. Make no mistake though, it's still a heavily flawed picture. It's merely one that has reward for those open minded enough to see it. It also has promise for the future, so I'll certainly watch any future Sean Tretta movies, of which are there are currently two: 2007's Death of a Ghost Hunter and 2008's Death Factory: Bloodletting. Both also feature Mike Marsh, who plays William Allen Grone here and co-wrote both subsequent films. It'll be interesting to see how different he appears in them.

The Ice Pirates (1984)

In a galaxy far, far away... well, no this isn't that cliched but it's still a great huge fun spoof on the science fiction genre. It's dumb reality, made with outrageous recklessness, more Dark Star than Star Wars, filmed on Star Trek level sets, but very meaningful to fans of the genre nonetheless. If you enjoyed films like Galaxina, you'll find plenty to enjoy here. As a long standing fan of Ron Goulart's fiction, I especially loved how robots and electronic equipment were depicted here, all malfunctions and ineptitude.

We're in space and we're in the future. There have been intergalactic wars and what's left afterward are evil Templars from the planet Mithra. They hoard the galaxy's supply of water, which is rare and valuable, thus prompting rebel pirates to swash and buckle their way on board Templar vessels to steal the ice. The first raid we see nets them not just millions of gallons of precious water but Princess Karina of Argon to boot. Jason, the pirate leader, steals her for himself, the Templars steal her back only for her to turn out to be something other than what anyone expects and spark a quest for the legendary seventh world with its equally legendary ample supply of water. Guess which one that is.

The opening music sets the pace for the entire tone of the film. Bruce Broughton wrote it and either he's a talentless TV background music scoring workman or he's a complete genius because this is possibly the most appropriate music for a film that I've heard in what seems like forever. The key name behind the screen though is Stewart Raffill, who co-wrote and directed, so I assume much of this is due to what goes on inside his brain.

The cast are way better than the material but they play along with it, even though most are not known best for their film work. Some are TV actors, like the lead, Robert Urich from Spenser: For Hire. Some are sports stars, like John Matuszak who apparently played American football, but I guess that counts. Some are even TV stars with celebrity connections, like Mary Crosby, daughter of Bing and the lady who shot JR on Dallas. Even those known for film work are often way past their prime, such as John Carradine who had been rotting in B movies for a couple of decades by 1984. That leaves the major names as people like Anjelica Huston, looking very slim and fit in her revealing pirate outfit, and Ron Perlman, one of my favourite modern day actors, perhaps because he's one of the least conventional in every way. This was also his first film after his debut, Quest for Fire, so it's really early days for him.

There are so many reasons to hate this movie and so many reasons for it to become a cult hit. It's loud, it's vulgar and unkempt; it's gaudy, outrageous and disrespectful. The robots may just personify the whole thing in every way. If you can see the serious underlying scientific understanding behind the ship garbage robot having a tongue, you'll love this film. If not, this is absolutely not the movie for you and you shouldn't even think about watching it. The hooker robot is mere icing on the cake. A creature called a space herpie and what look like the gophers from Caddyshack pay testament to some of the other subtlety in play.

The Scapegoat (1959)

Here's one I couldn't pass up: a film reuniting Alec Guinness, at the heart of his acclaim, two years after his Oscar for The Bridge on the River Kwai and right in between Our Man in Havana and Tunes of Glory, with writer and director Robert Hamer, for whom he had appeared no less than eight times in probably the driest and most delicious black comedy ever made, Kind Hearts and Coronets. He's only in a dual role here, as a depressed English professor called John Barratt who travels to France to find some purpose in a seemingly empty life, and as Jacques De Gue, a French count who has too much of everything including a wife he doesn't want.

Our story, based on a novel by Daphne du Maurier, author of a famous trio of novels that became Hitchcock films (Jamaica Inn, Rebecca and The Birds), has to do with the one taking advantage of the other. De Gue sees a way out of his mess by swapping places with Barratt, setting him up as a schizophrenic and promptly plotting the death of his wife, to naturally blame on his conveniently schizophrenic double. Beyond Guinness (both of him), Hamer and Du Maurier, there's another major name here: Bette Davis, sharing the screen with Guinness for the only time.

She's not playing his wife, even though she was only three days shy of six years older than him. She takes a far more memorable role that she plays with relish, that of his bedridden morphine-addicted mother, the Countess. While Guinness was riding high in 1959 she was not far from the end of her long dry spell, that pretty much lasted a decade and a half with that one very notable exception of All About Eve, which one day I'll finally be able to see. Other names include Pamela Brown, director Michael Powell's wife; Geoffrey Keen, the Minister of Defence in quite a few Bond films; and Peter Bull, the Russian ambassador from Dr Strangelove. There's Peter Sallis long before Last of the Summer Wine. And off screen there's Gore Vidal adapting Daphne du Maurier's novel and du Maurier herself as a producer.

Spelling the word 'marriage' wrong is hardly an important thing when put up against the depth of Daphne du Maurier's story and of Alec Guinness's dual portrayal. Not to denigrate his huge skill, but in Kind Hearts and Coronets he had various tools of the trade to assist him in forging recognisably different characters: make up, screen time and even, in one instance, drag. Here he has nothing to help him except his talent, which is more than up to the job. He has to play two characters who look exactly alike but who are otherwise completely different. Merely through mannerisms, his tone of voice and the way he combs his hair, he does everything that's needed to utterly distinguish them, making it seem such a simple task that anyone could do it. Quite patently, they couldn't. The way the scenes with the two characters together is filmed is equally admirable.

The story is tight and well shot. However it does pay a lot more attention to details and subtleties than most modern viewers would appreciate. Beyond their merely not liking a film without the requisite level of explosions and CGI, it would probably send them to sleep. I adore details and subtleties and am quite happy with films free of explosions and CGI but it ran slow for me too. Perhaps that was partly late night viewing and the fact that I ended up watching it in two halves with a few days in between, but it didn't engage quite as much as I would have hoped given Kind Hearts and Coronets as a predecessor. However it's still a clever and fascinating film.

Fairy Tales (1979)

I've spent many years getting as many people as I can to see Peter Jackson's debut film, Bad Taste. It's my favourite film of all time, the only seen I've seen over fifty times and probably the only film I've seen over ten. It's not a great movie, though it's astounding in many ways, but favourite movies are not always great movies and they don't have to be. A good case in point is Cinderella, which is to my wife's ex husband what Bad Taste is to me. We discovered Fairy Tales via Cinderella, as it's another soft porn comedy musical that shares the same subject matter and quite a few of the same cast and crew.

This time out the prince has turned 21 and three kooky doctors serenade him with a ballad designed to instigate him into providing an heir. He'll inherit the kingdom if only he can produce one by Thursday. The only catch is that he doesn't get turned on by beautiful naked women willing to do anything he wants, even when they're Little Bo Peep wearing nothing but her cute little bonnet. So off he goes on a quest to find the princess of his dreams who was lost years ago, because he's the only one who he'll be able to get it up for.

Because this film is called Fairy Tales instead of just Cinderella, it would hardly be surprising to find that he gets to meet a lot more famous fairytale characters thn just one. The old woman who lives in a shoe does live in a shoe but it's a brothel, featuring such clients as Snow White and her seven dwarfs and Scheherezade. Jill wants to do Jack but Jack's gay. Old King Cole is a lecherous old soul who employs Tommy Tucker, who's an old time gangland enforcer. And the ones we don't meet become subjects for jokes, and the most surprising thing is that some of the jokes are surprising.

Sy Richardson is back, with a better costume this time, as Sirus. He's the pimp for Gussie Gander, who is the old woman who lives in a shoe. He's great fun, as are some of the others. Martha Reeves of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas is one of the few women in the film who don't get naked, and it's hardly surprising that her song as voodoo queen Aunt La Voh is the best actual song in the film. However it's not the most fun: that honour has to go to 'Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar' performed as an Andrews Sisters spoof in an S&M chamber by some masked naked women including Pat Morita's future wife, Evelyn Guerrero.

There are other notable people here too. Sleeping Beauty is Linnea Quigley, shortly before becoming one of the most memorable 80s scream queens. Robert Staats has a double role and provides most of the laughs. There's also 2' 11' Angelo Rossitto, who amazingly doesn't play one of Snow White's seven dwarfs, though he did in Cinderella 2000 (not the same Cinderella that preceded this film). He was one of the founders of the Little People of America, was discovered by John Gilbert and his films ranged from the silent era up to the late 80s. The earliest I've seen him was 1927 in Old San Francisco and the latest was in 1985's Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. In between he appeared in everything on the quality scale from Freaks to Mesa of Lost Women. This is far from the worst film on his filmography.

The songs aren't as memorable as they were in Cinderella but the jokes are funnier, more frequent and more consistent. Even the plot is based on a joke, that we only see as the tagline of the movie: 'Some day your prince will come'. The story is more consistent too and it just feels more natural and seems to have a better heart to it. Ultimately it may or may not be as good as its predecessor but it's a worthy other half if you're in the right sort of mood for a soft porn comedy musical double feature.

Monday 12 May 2008

Marihuana (1936)

While I've long been an exploitation film fan, one of the most glaring omissions in my cinematic background is Reefer Madness, an unintentionally hilarious cult classic that takes a high handed waltz through many of the high entries on the moral class's hate list: not least drugs and jazz. Reefer Madness (originally Tell Your Children and also known as Dope Addict, Doped Youth, Love Madness and The Burning Question) was directed by Louis J Gasnier, but this was the only such entry in his filmography, which was coming to an end after a career that dated back to Max Linder comedies in 1905.

The biggest name associated with such exploitation films was producer and director Dwain Esper, and while this one was made the same year as Reefer Madness in 1936, it wasn't his first take on the subject. His nine films as a director began in 1932 with The Seventh Commandment, whose tagline was 'A Warning to the Younger Generation!' and progressed through Narcotic in 1933 to Modern Motherhood, How to Undress in Front of Your Husband and Sex Madness. The only one I'd seen before this was the astounding Maniac, which is a bizarre peach of a precode exploitation film.

While Maniac is a stunningly bad film it was also a stunningly interesting one, full of fascinating acting, writing and expressionistic filmmaking, Marihuana begins as a bore but soon finds its way into full out exploitation mode where it's anything but. It's not as interesting as Maniac but it's still magnetic viewing, all for the wrong reasons. The key character is Burma Roberts, who appears to be a good girl with a fiance, even though she's apparently in high school, but she gets caught up in a downward spiral after unwittingly going to a party designed to get people hooked on dope. This is the sort of dope that instantly turns Burma's friends into giggling and squealing young fillies who strip naked and flounce around in the sea, where one drowns, and Burma into a sex maniac who promptly gets pregnant on the beach.

Burma has an argument with her parents who favour her sister, tells her fiance about her pregnancy to force him into an early marriage, but it forces him instead into a job for a drug dealer and an early grave courtesy of a police bullet during a raid. With Dick gone, she ends up working for the same gangster as a drug pusher. Eager to prove her worth by becoming richer than her sister, who has married into high society, she becomes the cool as ice Blondie who uses marihuana as a gateway drug to boost sales of cocaine and heroin, and quickly progresses into kidnapping her sister's kid for ransom.

The film is hilarious for a number of reasons: a gangster with a lampshade on his head prancing around to entertain his kidnap victim, young ladies looking pristine moments after their wild naked and drug induced romp through the sea, a hilariously bad police torture scene, the way Burma's morals leap around like a jack rabbit and for an amazing final death scene choreographed like an opera. There are also reasons that don't tie to what we see on the screen.

Esper's chief collaborator on these movies was his wife, credited as Hildegarde Stadie, who wrote five of the nine films he directed. I find it hilarious that their own lives were examples that went against what their films preached. Their movies made their money by telling the public that things like drugs were evils that would inevitably lead to catastrophe which they happily displayed on screen. The 'educational' purpose of these films was the Esper's schtick and they milked it for all it was worth on the carnival circuit, exhibiting their movies in tents for a couple of days before skipping town before the state censorship boards turned up.

Watch Esper's movies like this one and you'll learn that one try at marihuana means you'll quickly become a drug pushing kidnapper with a heart of ice and a short life long enough only to take those of others first. Marihuana isn't really the point, it's merely another launching point, just like other 'social evils' like premarital sex which naturally leads to syphilis or the white slave trade. Yet if smoking one joint can cause all this, what would happen if your pre-teen years were spent on public stages, fully naked and draped in a python, all to sell snake oil called Tiger Fat for your uncle?

It sounds precisely like something the Espers would put in one of their films, and they may well have done in Narcotic which I haven't seen, but it's actually what Hildegarde Stadie did in real life. So what downward spiral did she end up in? A happy and wholesome life, a 62 year marriage and two children. Not much seems to be known about the Espers after they retired from the movie business but I'd be fascinated to read a biography. What snippets I can find tend to disagree with each other and do little but boost my interest in a couple whose work is as fascinating as it's unique.

Sunday 11 May 2008

To Please a Lady (1950)

Regina Forbes is 'America's Leading Woman Columnist' and she's watching a TV clip about motor racing that's either obscene journalism or a lush and exploitative classic, depending on your perspective. It's part shameless advertising, part mondo documentary, part celebrity exploitation. The celebrity is Mike Brannan, a former war hero who is now a ruthless and successful racecar driver. Forbes doesn't care about racing, but is interested purely because Brannan was a hero who's now a villain.

She heads down to the track to see him race and he wins, but at the expense of the death of a fellow racer. She, along with the crowd, sees him as a murderer, guiding him into a wreck ahead. He sees the situation as just one of those things and that the other driver should have had the skill to get out of it the way he did. However she's the one with the highly read column and she crucifies him. It doesn't take long for him to be completely out of the business.

The business is midget racing that looks more like four wheeled speedway and the racing scenes are well shot with some of the most believable 'Hollywood star in a vehicle' shots I've seen from this era. Usually the rear projection work is painfully obvious but it isn't here. I'm guessing that isn't Gable racing one of these things but it sure looks like it in almost every shot. He's a tough guy, which is hardly surprising, but he has some other scenes that stretch the image a lot more. There's a touching vulnerable shot as he's forced to sell his midget racer and there's a joyous scene as he buys a full size racer in which he's nigh on giddy as a schoolgirl.

Stanwyck is great. My favourite scene must be the one where someone else she's blistered down into nothing is trying to threaten her and blister her back, but she concentrates instead on the shoes she's trying on. As you'd expect, given that this is 1950, her tough girl columnist persona crumbles not just whenever she's in the arms of Gable but as the film goes on, whenever she gets to watch him or talk to him or think about him. Stanwyck and Gable do this whole thing very well, partly because of their talent and partly because they'd both been doing precisely the same thing for decades, but it's impossible to watch with a precode background and not wish for other things.

Adolphe Menjou is the third and only other major name on the credits and he's completely wasted. This is a film about three things: Gable, Stanwyck and racing. Menjou, such a talented actor, gets nothing to do as Regina Forbes's producer (or some such) beyond being a minor league doomsayer whenever there's a hint of danger in the air. That's sad and it doesn't help the film. At the end of the day it's not a bad movie and it's always good to see Gable, especially when he's an ageing Gable for whom the studio was still trying to find roles.

Saturday 10 May 2008

What is It? (2005)

We've spent a lot of enjoyable evenings at Chandler Cinemas, watching both great cinema and truly atrocious cinema. From Blazing Saddles to Hollywood High is about as big a difference in quality as you could possibly imagine. Yet there hasn't been an evening like the Crispin Glover experience here before and the Midnite Movie Mamacita will have to work hard to come up with one that matches it. It was more eyeopening than the Russ Meyer double bill with the amazingly frank and lovable Kitten Natividad in person. It was more memorable than the Saturday night with roller derby girls, in your face wrestling and the El Santo movie done MST3K style by a local improv troupe. It was more surreal than watching Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters without sound but with Dutch subtitles.

We didn't know what to expect and we deliberately didn't set any expectations. We'd seen the trailer for What Is It? online and knew we wouldn't know what it was until the night anyway, so we waited for the event to let us into the secret. A lack of expectations seemed like a good idea and they would have been broken on the night, though surprisingly more for Crispin Glover himself than his film. He's fostered quite a reputation for being unpredictable, perhaps even unstable, but he turned out to be a calm and collected, intelligent man who cares very deeply about certain things that he does.

What is It? is his reaction to what he terms commercially funded and distributed films. In fact I should put that into capitalised text and turn it into a TLA (three letter acronym), because Glover threw it out there in his Q and A session like a mantra: Commercially Funded and Distributed films (CFDs). What he's talking about is the vast bulk of moviemaking today, which is deliberately safe moviemaking, the sort of thing that is not only calculated to appeal to the largest possible percentage of the active moviegoing public, but that is also calculated to not prompt court cases from the parents of kids who accidentally walk into something they shouldn't at a multiplex. What doesn't get made any more is adult filmmaking, where adult doesn't mean porn but something that is aimed at more mature viewers than those who generally turn out to see the latest CFD.

A lot of what he talked about sounded very familiar to me and followed very similar directions of thought to mine over the last few years as I've delved into classic cinema. In particular Glover proved very aware of the production code. He fumbled around some of the details but he knew exactly what it meant to what could appear on the screen and what couldn't and how that drove a few fundamental changes in the moviemaking world. I know a lot about that era and it's done a lot to shape my understanding and reading of classic Hollywood films but I hadn't put as much thought as Glover has into the very different things that are having precisely the same effect today.

He talked about the last 25 years, but really what he was referencing was the changes that have happened in the movie industry since the release and unforseeable success of Jaws in 1975. I know about what blockbusters have done and the financial side of things that has become possible in their wake, but what Glover brought fresh to me was the theatrical distribution side and how the rise of the multiplex and the legal and commercial aspects of such things affect production. He answered questions for two hours and while he talks slowly and carefully and rambles often, he was a fascinating speaker who, almost uniquely, fundamentally cares about what his audience think.

The evening opened with what he calls his Big Slide Show, which is a spoken word performance art piece to the accompaniment of a slide show of some of his books. These books, not all commercially available, are much older public domain works that he has altered by editing into something entirely new. This approach seems juvenile and pathetic for about five minutes, at which point the cleverness kicks in and I got hooked. Maybe it didn't help that the first book of the eight he read from was probably the least interesting. Rat Catching was joyous and it wasn't the only one. I bought all three that he had for sale and I've since downloaded the original of Henry C Barkley's Studies in the Art of Rat Catching from Google.

Then came the movie, What is It?, which may just be the most appropriate film title in history. There is a story, but the whole point of the film is to goad viewers into questioning just what they're seeing on screen. Glover gleefully breaks all sorts of taboos, in order to get us to question why those taboos exist and whether they're appropriate or not. Such questioning is always good and while I can't say I'm happy that I can't buy What is It? on DVD, it probably isn't releasable in that form and the perspectives that come with the subsequent Q and A session really are indispensable.

Ostensibly the story seems to be about a young man who commits an act of violence, then retreats from it into his own mind in order to find some sort of meaning that he can apply to live with it. From there, everything goes wild. The young man, like almost every member of the cast, is played by an actor with Downs Syndrome (Michael Blevis), though, as Glover makes very clear in the Q and A session, while the actor has Downs Syndrome he's playing a character who does not. That shouldn't seem offensive in itself but many seem to find that concept very uncomfortable indeed. These actors with Downs Syndrome also indulge in violent and sexual behaviour. Two actors perform a fully clothed yet somehow graphic sex scene in a graveyard, which seems strange and new, but it's patently obvious that the two are very much in love and the Q and A session explained that they are a couple in real life who almost married.

Probably the most striking part of the film for me was the scene that introduced us to actor Steven C Stewart. Stewart appears inside a clamshell just like Botticelli's Birth of Venus and he's just as naked, but he seems to be suffering from severe mental retardation and an inability to move. When large breasted black women climb out of volcanos on the surrounding floor and one, naked except for a monkey mask, proceeds to explicitly masturbate him, I felt very uncomfortable indeed. The obvious thought is one of exploitation: what was Crispin Glover doing and how did he get away with it? The film moves on into other taboo areas that seem less uncomfortable, but only the Q and A session pointed out that Stewart was not retarded, but suffered from serious cerebral palsy. Completely normal on a mental level, Stewart wrote the second film in the trilogy to which this was the first part. Perhaps the only exploitation going on was in how a man with cerebral palsy could create a situation in which a voluptuous lady would commit sexual acts on him.

There are also graphic scenes of animal abuse, but the animals being killed are not fluffy bunny rabbits or any of the other creatures who would usually generate concern from an audience. They are snails, and quite a few die by virtue of being drenched in salt, decapitated by a razor blade or smashed against a tank. It's that action that sparks the storyline and the very human screams of the surviving snail inside the tank are powerful and telling. They were performed by Fairuza Balk and are viciously realistic.

Just in case you were about to come up with a taboo that hadn't been addressed, I should add that there's focus on Nazis and Shirley Temple, both inspired by a piece of art Glover discovered with Temple, naked but for Iron Cross and Nazi cap, standing before a large swastika with a leather riding crop slid between her labia. It's about the most striking poster I've ever seen and I have no idea how I'm going to find a wall to mount my autographed copy on. Against these images, the deliberately cruel speech Glover gives to one of two girlfriends sitting on his knees seems almost tame.

There's also an amazing soundtrack, including Charlie Manson and Family, organ music by Anton La Vey, pre-Church of Satan, and a stunning segregationist country song from the sixties by Johnny Rebel called Some Niggers Never Die, They Just Smell That Way. I'd never heard the song before but found that I had a copy from a white power torrent I downloaded, so as to provide me a decent copy of The Eternal Jew, which I've long wanted to see as a manipulative propaganda piece that portrayed clips of Peter Lorre in M as evidence of the degenerate nature of the Jewish race, along with the infamous Jews as rats scene. Glover also uses classical music such as Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries in his soundtrack, but has them slowed down to about half normal speed. Such manipulation, where a mere alteration of speed turns something into something completely different, fascinates me and I'm very happy I got to discuss things like 9 Beet Stretch with Glover at the end of the evening. I wrote about such manipulation of music in Musica Extremis - Time Experiments.

However you interpret these ramblings, the key outcome should be that the film and its accompanying experience is highly thought provoking. Whether Glover has created a masterpiece of cinema or an abomination of filmmaking really isn't important, he's undeniably created something that prompts people to ask the question the title suggests: what is it? If he can get people to truly ask that question of themselves, whatever answers they come up with are good ones. I think the film falls short of masterpiece but is still an superb achievement. I've already recommended it to others and I'll recommend it to anyone reading here. If you get the chance to go see it live, grab that chance. It's an experience.