Saturday 30 August 2008

Auntie Mame (1958)

In the mood for something funny that isn't likely to make me think too much, I wandered down the AFI's 100 Years... 100 Laughs list to see what I hadn't seen. This one leapt out, given that I'd recently seen Rosalind Russell in a flamboyant role in Picnic. This, from all accounts, was her flamboyant role of roles and naturally she's the Auntie Mame of the title. It won her an Oscar nomination, among others, and the film was nominated for Best Picture. Six nominations equated to zero wins though.

Russell is Mame Dennis, Auntie Mame to young Patrick, the only son of her brother Edwin. Even though he's in the best of health Edwin writes his will, just in time for him to unexpectedly kick the bucket. He leaves everything to Patrick, of course, but as he thinks his only relative is a crazy eccentric loon he only leaves her Patrick's custody. The executor of the will, the ultra-conservative Mr Babcock of the Knickerbocker Bank, gets all the trump cards so that Patrick can get a stable upbringing, and it doesn't take long before he packs him off to boarding school.

As we're in 1928 it also doesn't take long before the stock market crashes and Auntie Mame's net worth crashes with it, so off she goes to find work with the inevitable consequences for someone who's a crazy eccentric loon. Up until this point, I enjoyed the film but wasn't particularly knocked out. The whole thing was very stagy, as emphasised by the memorably lighted transitions, and populated mostly by risque jokes that are funny only through the afterthoughts of those that speak them, given that they're spoken in the presence of young Patrick.

In fact I was initially more impressed by the acting of Jan Handzlik (now a prominent lawyer) in his first and only film role, as one dimensional as it is, than I was with Rosalind Russell. I could say the same for Coral Browne, as Mame's drunk actress friend Vera Charles and Connie Gilchrist as her Irish housekeeper, all because Russell seemed to be so prominently acting rather than being Auntie Mame. Once Mame hits the stage though as a bit part in one of Vera's plays, Russell gets into the full swing of it and establishes that Auntie Mame spends most of her time acting anyway.

By the time we pick up love interest Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside, played by Forrest Tucker, and we switch from Manhattan to the Peckerwood Plantation in Georgia, everyone is acting their socks off playing characters who overact their socks off. There's what can only be can be described as a duel between Auntie Mame and Brook Byron as the jealous Sally Cato MacDougall, fought with wits, bravado and sheer flamboyance, which is hilarious but so overacted its unreal.

Much of the reason is that this screwball comedy, fifties style, is based on a successful stage play and seems to be indecently happy to revel in that fact. There are some rear projection shots here that are so bad that they couldn't be accidental. I can only assume that they were deliberately done that way to remind us of stage backdrops. The play starred Rosalind Russell, who reprised her role here, and also featured the other frequent award nominee for this film: Peggy Cass. She played Agnes Gooch on both stage and screen and she's certainly memorable, not only for her unique rasp or her, shall we say, transformation.

By the time the film is over, it's easy to see what makes Rosalind Russell's performance so lauded. In a film where almost every single actor is out to steal every scene they're in, she battles them all and wins out in style. It's all complete lunacy, of course. It makes next to no sense whatsoever and there are so many conveniences that you wouldn't be able to count them, but it's all done with panache and power. What's more, it's a comedy that slaps you between the eyes and bludgeons you over the head without ever resorting to a fart joke. That's refreshing, but I'd love to see this on stage.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

Contempt (1963)

A film within a film within a film, ad infinitum, this is a fascinating piece of work by French New Wave legend Jean-Luc Godard, which is largely autobiographical. The film is ostensibly about another film, a modern version of the Odyssey, which is in turmoil. It's being made in Italy with American money and a German director and it would seem that the cultures clash, most obviously between the American producer Jeremy Prokosch, played by Jack Palance, and the German director Fritz Lang, played by, well, Fritz Lang.

The biggest problem is that while Prokosch and Lang agree on what the script says, they disagree on how it appears on the screen. It's the classic cinematic conflict: films are made by companies to make money but they're also made by people to make art. Lang explains that what's on the screen is naturally different from what's on the pages of the script, because one is words and the other is pictures and they're inherently different. Lang's artistic vision doesn't appeal to Prokosch, who despises art films and looks down on his public, so he hires a new writer, Paul Javal, to spice it all up and make it more commercial and here's where the real story kicks in.

Javal, played by French actor Michel Piccoli, is really Godard, just as Godard is also the director of this film within a film. Contempt was apparently Godard's first and last time making a film that he couldn't control the way he was used to. His early films like Breathless, The Little Soldier or The Riflemen were notable for their guerrilla filmmaking style, made independently on the streets with relatively or entirely unknown actors. This was his first big budget production, during which he struggled to keep his artistic integrity in the face of other people with equal or even larger say in the proceedings. To confuse matters even more, what we see today isn't quite what Godard intended. His producers wanted it spiced up with nudity and commercialism.

Like Godard, Paul Javal also has a beautiful wife. Godard's was Danish born actress Anna Karina who he had married in 1960 and by 1963 had already directed twice; Javal's is Camille Javal, played by no less a sex symbol than Brigitte Bardot and she provides that nudity in scenes filmed after Godard's original cut was complete. After Paul's initial meeting with Prokosch and Lang, he introduces them to his wife and lets her ride with Prokosch to his villa, while he himself takes a taxi. This act resonates and causes serious trauma to their relationship, as depicted in the long scene at the heart of the movie in their apartment.

There are so many layers here, it's hard to keep up with what Godard was trying to do. Some are obvious, but some are more subtle. Godard can be seen in Paul Javal, Fritz Lang, in Godard himself as Lang's assistant director, and in Ulysses; just as Karina is Camille and Penelope. I presume Prokosch is Carlo Ponti, but I don't know enough about him to say for sure. Maybe he's also Homer. All these stories intertwine, presumably suggesting that they never really change. What was true in ancient Greek times remains true today, if only we understand the stories properly.

Most fascinating for me was the character of Francesca Vanini, Prokosch's assistant. While this film was made in English, she still acts as interpreter. Whatever Prokosch says, she immediately rewords it for his audience, and whatever they say in return, she rewords again for him. I'm sure this works on a number of levels too: not least the producer being deliberately abstracted from reality. However like the film itself, I may understand a lot about Francesca but I'm just as sure I don't understand everything, and also like the film itself, she's fascinating but ultimately unsatisfying.

Millennium Mambo (2001)

Vicky, as played by Qi Shu, is a young lady in Hong Kong, who at least at the beginning of the film seems to be happy and full of life. However we soon discover that she's happy because she's not with her boyfriend, as she continues to be every time she's not with him. He's called Hao-Hao and the opening narration explains that they have a love/hate relationship, not that we see much of the former side. She keeps leaving him but he keeps tracking her down and she always goes back to him.

He hasn't much going for him and she knows it, because all he does is sit at home playing video games, doing drugs or playing around with a DJ deck, yet something makes her stay. Hao-Hao describes them as coming from different worlds, that she came down to his and so doesn't understand it. This is highlighted when we first meet him: with her dressed all in red and him in dark blue and black, with the demon on his Gene Simmons shirt glaring out, but he compensates for his lack of much of anything by ensuring that she's stuck at his level.

He does this through controlling behaviour. He checks her bags to see if she'd spent money on things. He checks the phone bill to see if she'd made a long call. You can imagine what happens if he finds anything to be suspicious about. He attacks a man in a bar at one point just because someone else says that he'd like to be with Vicky. He even checks her out when she's been out to see if she's done anything he wouldn't want. Once he deliberately didn't wake her for her final school exam, so she didn't graduate. If she graduated, maybe she'd have left.

I have a feeling that Millennium Mambo is one of those films that appears on the surface to be nothing much of anything, without any real plot or purpose, but under that surface there's a huge amount of social comment. The catch is that I've a feeling I'm trying to see it from a completely different culture and not understanding the references. I saw some things early on though. At a party when someone sets off a Chinese party popper that doesn't have much pop, they describe it as a great thing with not much inside, and we're not sure if they're talking about the popper or China itself. The entertainment is a magician who talks about an international magic contest in China and the fact that his certificate of entry is in English because it has more class.

However many of the cultural references I don't get though, the theme is universal and I know far too many people who are stuck in exactly the same situation: people who get into, stay in and even go back to destructive relationships. They do so because of lack of self worth or self confidence, because at least it's an environment they know or because, as the tagline suggests, they can excuse the bad through a moment of good: 'the moment that I am loved will become everything to me'. I wonder what they people I know would think watching this from a third person perspective and seeing their own lives. Probably they'd make the same excuses that Vicky does. Maybe that's the point of the film: it may be a brand new millennium but nothing much has changed.

In a strange touch, the cast almost entirely play characters with their own names, Vicky being about the only exception. She's Qi Shu, who I've seen a few times and been impressed with but without ever having her stamped on my brain as someone to watch out for. This film comes after The Storm Riders but before The Eye 2 and The Transporter, probably the most memorable I've seen her. Amazingly she had Zhang Ziyi's role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon but was pulled out by her manager to make a commercial instead. Needless to say the manager was soon fired.

I don't know the other actors at all. Jack Kao, who plays Jack, I've seen precisely once, in a small role in Jackie Chan's The Prisoner. Chun-hao Tuan, who plays Hao-Hao, I've never seen before. Like the film itself he appears to be doing nothing but he reminds me of so many people I know that either he really is playing himself (I truly hope not) or he's nailed the part superbly. Elsewhere there's Jun Takeuchi who is mostly known as a video game producer. Millennium Mambo is an interesting film that somehow resonates more than perhaps it should.

Monday 25 August 2008

Ten Cents a Dance (1931)

Cinematic purists today often gleefully complain about movies based on comic books, video games or theme park rides, and to large degree they have a point. However while such media may be new, the concept certainly isn't. Back in 1931, they based movies on things like 'the popular song by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers' and the people doing it were people like Lionel Barrymore, who directs here. He wasn't a minor name in 1931, to say the least, and it's interesting comment on the time that he would make a film on such material.

Ten Cents a Dance was a 1930 song about a taxi dancer, a curious profession that flourished in the depression era and still persists to this day on a much smaller scale. Taxi dancers would spend hours a night on the dance floor dancing with paying customers, at ten cents a dance. In the 1931 film version, the taxi dancer is Barbara O'Neill, played by Barbara Stanwyck, still new to the industry at this point. This was only her sixth film but she'd become the lead on her second time out. Here she plays opposite Ricardo Cortez, as she did on her previous outing, Illicit. He was far more established, having being the romantic lead opposite Garbo back in 1926, but it would be Stanwyck that became the real star.

As a taxi dancer, Barbara O'Neill has one huge fan. He's Bradley Carlton, a rich and important executive who does things like throw a $100 bill her way because he likes her company. However Barbara has eyes for someone else: an educated young man called Eddie Miller who rooms in the same apartment building. Soon enough they're married, but Eddie soon finds that having a wife of Barbara's class isn't quite what he's comfortable with. He meets up with friends from college who get him hooked on bridge games and the stock markets, and next thing you know he's $5,000 in the hole. Barbara knows she can always go to Carlton, but unfortunately he's the one that Eddie has embezzled the money from to cover his debts.

Stanwyck is solid here, as she always was. She had a way of suggesting things with her voice that instantly made her believable in the precodes, but she could play tough or tender, arrogant or humble, outrageous or virtuous. Unlike most lead actresses, she could be both the wonderful girl next door that you'd marry or the most blatant gold digger that you'd involve yourself with at your peril. Here she's the honest young lady who props up her idiot husband and she's the sort who any husband would be grateful for.

That husband is played by Monroe Owsley, who begins as a blank space on legs in the Leslie Howard manner, but turns into a complete cad. The sort of characters that Howard played may have been nothings but they were rarely cads, and while I could never raise enough enthusiasm to root for them I couldn't find any other emotion either. Owsley's character here is truly loathsome and despicable and he plays that pretty well, if a little over the top. However he's completely overshadowed here, both as an actor and a character.

Ricardo Cortez does a superb job of playing a sympathetic rich guy. It would have been so easy to become manipulative, the way that Warren William would soon be playing many of his precode parts, but he resists that urge and leads us gently along to a happy 1931 ending. There aren't many sympathetic leads like this in the precodes and its the sympathetic leads that make this story. It's a simple one without any real depth or character development, but its effective in the hands of Stanwyck and Cortez.

Sunday 24 August 2008

Black Cat, White Cat (1998)

Matko Destanov is a few sandwiches short of a picnic. He's a small scale hustler, living in a rundown wooden shack on the banks of the Danube with his son, Zare. We first meet him lying in a hammock playing cards against himself while a rat powers a huge fan above him via some cleverly contrived contraption. What's most amazing is that the insane lunacy that surrounds these scenes doesn't dissipate as the film progresses. Writer/director Emir Kustarica has a talent for the quirky, the bizarre and the eye opening and he knows how to fashion it all into a story.

Destanov believes that he's onto some infallible deal involving a train full of petrol that will net him a serious amount of money, but like all the deals he gets involved with, it doesn't turn out quite how he expects and he gets ripped off royally by a friend and collaborator. He's been given a large sum of money from Grga Pitic, a gangster friend of his father, but he gets the rest from another gangster, a coke snorting poser and apparently a war criminal called Dadan Karambolo, who's the one he gets ripped off by.

You wouldn't guess from the above paragraph that this is a comedy but it's riotous one that only partially relies on characters like Black Obelisk, a statuesque singer whose party trick is to pull nails out of a plank of wood using only her ass. What would surprise even further is that this is really a love story, in fact a few love stories all mixed up together. We have a pair of young lovers: Zare and Ida, the granddaughter of the local innkeeper, who share memorable romance scenes in the middle of huge fields of sunflowers or in tubes in the river Danube, but they're not the ones getting married.

The whole train ripoff was set up purely so that Destanov could be forced to marry Zare off to Karambolo's short sister, Afrodita. Zare or Ida don't want this, of course, but neither does Afrodita, as she's waiting for her true love. Also waiting for his true love is Grga Pitic's grandson, who Pitic wants to find a wife. He's inspired by his grandfather whose true love was his midget fifth wife. You can see where this really should be going, but there's a major problem. Destanov's father and Grga Pitic could fix everything, but he can't allow them to meet because he's told each of them that the other is dead.

This whole film is hilarious and, to my eyes unlike anything I've ever seen before. There are bad teeth, geese and bizarre contraptions everywhere. The only thing more prominent is the gypsy music, lots of accordions and horns, drums and violins, and plenty of jew's harp. The characters are all vivid and wild and there isn't a dull moment. In fact almost every frame has a lot more going on in it than what's intended as its focus, suggesting that I'd be finding new details on my fifth viewing.

Everyone here is awesome, even if some of them, like Salija Ibraimova who plays Afrodita, seem a little out of their depth. Bajram Serverdzan plays Matko Destanov like a weasel, in both looks and temperament. Srdan Todorovic fits a few different parodies into Dadan Karambolo, sniffing cocaine from every conceivable surface and dancing around like a Liverpudlian gigolo. Branka Katic is a delight as the young Ida. Everyone is highly memorable but Sabri Sulejmani stood out for me. He's simply awesome as Grga Pitic, rich enough and powerful enough to do anything he wants. He also has Clark Gable's eyes which is truly surreal on an old Yugoslavian with terrible teeth.

Sulejmani, Jasar Destani who plays his grandson, Ibraimova, Florijan Ajdini who plays Zare and others don't seem to have appeared in anything else, which is a shame. Even many of the leads have short filmographies: this was Severdzan's second film of four. Only Katic and Todorovic have what look like careers, along with the biggest name of the bunch, writer/director Emir Kusturica. This film is rated highly but it doesn't appear to be his best and that speaks very highly for whatever could be better than this. Amazing and very colourful filmmaking from Yugoslavia.

The Mercenary (1968)

There was no way this one wasn't going to be great fun. It's a spaghetti western, directed by the second name in that genre, Sergio Corbucci, who was more prolific than his namesake Sergio Leone. The music is by Ennio Morricone, the premiere name in the genre. The three lead actors are Franco Nero, Jack Palance and Tony Musante, with Giovanni Ralli as the wild and exotic lady who has to be present to add a little sex into the violence. Corbucci, a masterful director, knows exactly what to do with them too.

The macguffin that they all initially revolve around is seven tons of silver, which we never see. It comes out of a Mexican silver mine and the mercenary of the title called Sergei Kowalski is paid to transport it into the United States. He's known as the Polack and he's played by Franco Nero with his blue eyes wonderfully highlighted, often in extreme closeup. Here he comes off as half Robert Redford and half Viggo Mortensen. He has great fun with the role, as much as Kowalski has being the Polack, and he affects a habit of striking a match on whatever is to hand: the boot of a hanged man, the girdle of a prostitute, the teeth of a man with a gun to his head, the shirt of the man who hires him...

That man is Paco Roman, a peon who worked at the silver mine before mounting a revolt and hanging all his bosses. The silver has been buried at this point by dynamite and Paco has to escape the regulars outside. The Polack helps him to escape, notably bargaining price at every step of the way. Paco means well and he certainly has balls but he doesn't have much of a clue, so he hires the Polack to effectively run the show. As he explains to someone, 'He's one of my employees: he tells me what to do.'

Palance is Curly, because of his shock of curly black hair that makes him look somewhat like John Vernon. He's after the silver too and is quite happy to kill whoever needs be killed so that he can get to it. By the time he realises that the silver isn't there for the taking, his men are dead and hes stripped naked and sent packing. Therefore he stays in the game for revenge, siding with the regulars so that he can get to Paco and the Polack. His hair is just wrong but I'm sure the ladies watching appreciated his bare butt.

This actually has quite a lot to say about what revolutions really are. Corbucci was a communist so you can imagine where many of his sympathies lie, but it isn't all as clear cut as that. The hero here, an anti hero as always for a spaghetti western, is really the Polack because whatever excesses he gets up to, he's always honest about what he does and why. However it plays out even better as a riotous exploitation film. Only a couple of scenes, like the grenade in the mouth shot, come off leaving a bad taste in the mouth. Most of it is just spaghetti western bliss.

Corbucci's direction and the cinematography by Alejandro Ulloa are just wonderful. The composition of frame, the colour balances, the way things like gun barrels move into view is top notch, as are the various twists and turns of the plot. The music is just as superb, with Morricone on top form. Corbucci and Morricone turn the rout of a town and its command post into an opera. Best of all is the humour. There's too much that's serious here to make it a straight comedy but there's a huge amount of humour in it. I laughed as much here as I sat back in admiration at the way the film was shot.

I am the Law (1938)

The benefits of TCM's Summer Under the Stars are much the same as its drawbacks. Every day in August is dedicated to one star, which is a great concept. It's a great way to catch up on the work of that star, but it's not a lot of use when you've already done a lot of catching up. After a few years of doing exactly that, it's become a mixed bag. I find myself waiting to see who's going to get picked, then switch quickly from joy to annoyance: joy when I see names like Peter Lorre and Edward G Robinson, then annoyance when I realise that I've seen almost all the films that have been selected for broadcast.

I got one Lorre and three Robinsons out of this year's Summer Under the Stars, and the Lorre didn't even record because my DVR screwed up. However three Edward G Robinson films is nothing to sniff at. Even if they're not great films, as they may well not be, Robinson himself is almost guaranteed to be a joy to watch. This one makes 38 of his films for me and he hasn't done anything less than shine in every single one of them. Luckily I have 57 more of them to find and maybe next year's Summer Under the Stars will net me more than just there.

The title notwithstanding, he doesn't play Judge Dredd here, though that would have be an interesting casting. He's John Lindsay, a law professor about to start on a year's sabbatical, which seems to be the standard thing every seventh year, but Lindsay doesn't have a clue how to do anything else. He's dedicated to his work, he appears to be very good at it and he thinks the only time a man should begin a leave of absence is after rigor mortis sets in, but his wife is set on a long awaited holiday. Lindsay would do anything to avoid it and find something to do and it lands right in his lap. His town is full of corruption, run by gangsters and nobody will do anything about it. Lindsay takes the job.

Robinson was awesome in Little Caesar, one of the key early gangster movies, and so was an obvious and easy candidate for typecasting, something that he tried his utmost to avoid. He managed to cleverly appear in a number of gangster films that went completely against that typecasting and this fits in that category well. He's a lawyer and he's on the other side to the gangsters, but he proves himself as tough as they are. There's a great scene here where he decides to emasculate the mystique of the gangster as tough guy by fighting three of them, one after another, in his own living room, with journalists and photographers there to capture it all for the front page.

There are subplots and twists and all the usual here, as Lindsay struggles to get his campaign against crime moving and the decent citizens on his side as active participants, and the leads flesh all this out well. The only real catch is that Robinson excluded, everyone plays the sort of role we always expect them to play. Lindsay's assistant Paul Ferguson, a hotshot lawyer that he graduated, is played by John Beal; his father Eugene, the real man behind the rackets, is ever suave but sinister Otto Kruger; and his supportive wife is Barbara O'Neil.

Most impressive of the supporting cast is Wendy Barrie as the femme fatale of the show, a former newspaper reporter who found her way into the rackets and who Eugene Ferguson sends to manipulate Lindsay. However even she doesn't have a particularly deep role to play, depth not being the point here. It's a thoroughly enjoyable film while being no great classic, and beyond Robinson's excellent performance, it's worth watching for his dancing scene. Unlike the other great screen gangster of the era, Jimmy Cagney, Eddie G is a fish out of water on the dancefloor but he acquits himself surprisingly well doing the big apple.

Saturday 23 August 2008

The Princess and the Warrior (2000)

Sissi Schmidt works at the Klinikum Birkenhof, a psychiatric hospital, and we see a letter on its way to her even before we meet her suggesting the importance of the letter. Meike's mother has died and left her something (we and she know not what) but while she's too far away to be able to pick it up, Sissi isn't. Sissi is a nurse, one who seems to be devoted to her patients, perhaps a little overly devoted, but that's not where our story lies. As she takes a blind patient for a walk, she gets hit by a truck and ends up stuck underneath the truck, paralysed and unable to breathe. She's rescued by a young man called Bodo, a former soldier, who cuts a nick in her throat, inserts a straw and helps her breathe. Put simply, he saves her life.

What she doesn't know at this point in time is that he's the one who caused the accident in the first place. The implication is that he's robbed a gas station but what we know for sure is that he's chased down the streets of the city and after nearly causing a few accidents running in front of moving vehicles, he does cause one by hanging onto the back of a truck and distracting the driver. It's this truck that hits and ends up on top of Sissi. It's very possible that given his complex escape route, he doesn't even realise that he caused the very situation that he helped to fix.

So it's 53 days of hospital stay before she can reply to Meike's letter, and even once she's out, she has other things to do first, such as tracking down the man who saved her life. She realises that her life has changed and she doesn't understand why or what comes next. Bodo has his own problems. He's mourning the death of his wife, how long ago we aren't told, and his own inability to help her. He finds himself entering trance states where he believes he's being comforted by his wife but in reality is just hugging a hot stove. To try and fix this situation, he and his brother plan a bank heist to finance their escape fom problems by moving to Australia.

Sissi is played by a wonderful Franka Potente, reuniting her with both director Tom Tykwer and co-star Benno Fürmann. She was Lola in Tykwer's Run, Lola, Run, which broke both their names worldwide, and she made a second film the same year as this one with Fürmann: a horror movie called Anatomy that I picked up a while ago on DVD and haven't got round to watching yet. Given how different Potente is here, though just as watchable, it's about time I found the time. She has that knack that Scandinavian actresses seem to have of simultaneously being a mature and intelligent woman yet also an innocent child.

Fürmann is impressive here too, fitting the part magnificently, but the role does call for a mostly wooden, trancelike performance, along with a talent for crying while somehow still looking dangerous. He's made the transition from German star to international star, which is where I saw him first: in the Heath Ledger religious horror movie, The Order. Lately he's found his way into films like Speed Racer and The Mutant Chronicles, which while not greatly received, appear to be interesting films that may resonate in years to come.

The film itself is very different to Run, Lola, Run. Most obviously there are no cinematic gimmicks here, beyond some clever use of symbolic light and a few scenes where people prominently appear twice. It's just a powerful, involving and unconventional drama about love and escape. Apparently over half an hour was cut from the movie, even though it still runs well over two hours in its released version, and it would be interesting to pick up a DVD to watch the many deleted scenes, which presumably fill in back stories. There's certainly enough depth here to provide for them. The story does hinge on a few convenient coincidences, but they seem somehow forgiveable.

Nightmare (1956)

The early sequences fit the title well. The credits unfold over swirling psychedelia, which looks even more surreal in black and white than it would have done in conventional colour. Then it's disembodied heads and mirrored rooms and Stan Grayson murdering someone in some sort of out of body experience, ripping a button off his suit and locking him in a closet. The soundtrack is jazz and it aids the mood no end. Naturally it's all a nightmare and he wakes up safe and well in his hotel room, but just as naturally he finds the button and the key and the blood on his wrist and he realises it's all real.

Kevin McCarthy, the same year as Invasion of the Body Snatchers, plays Stan Grayson like Bruce Campbell would play him, and I don't just mean his big chin. The role is initially silent but with his thoughts audible via narration, a device that I never liked but which works a lot better here than in, say, Strange Interlude. He's seriously rattled, as you can imagine, and can't work out what's going on, so he rambles round New Orleans for a day and goes to see his brother-in-law, Rene Bressard. And that's where Edward G Robinson comes in, and Rene Bressard is a cop, though one who initially believes that the nightmare is just that, a nightmare.

Robinson literally couldn't give anything less than a superb performance and McCarthy is solid. Beyond them and a quality supporting cast that includes Virginia Christine, Gage Clarke and Marian Carr (surprisingly in her last film) there's a highly appropriate soundtrack. The story is set in New Orleans, for a start, so the city is a character all on its own: having travelled through thirty states plus DC, I've found three cities that feel like people and N'awlins is one of them, one that is never quiet. Grayson is a musician and there's music everywhere here, both on screen and off.

Stan plays in Billy May's Orchestra, for whom his girlfriend Gina sings, and Billy May is played by himself. Gina herself is played by a real singer, Connie Russell. Stan has a musical theme stuck in his head from the nightmare and when he asks his fellow musicians all along Bourbon Street what it is, some of those musicians, such as Meade 'Lux' Lewis, are real. The musical accompaniment decreases as the film goes on, which is a little disappointing but perhaps appropriate if it's meant as a parallel to Grayson's disassociation from his reality. Even the one musical number late on doesn't quite work as it should, because Grayson has changed.

The story is intriguing, as it should be given that it's based on a novel by Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich was a major crime writer, whose work was adapted by a number of major film directors, not least Alfred Hitchcock and Francois Truffaut. Rear Window, one of the greatest films of all time, was based on a Woolrich story. Even lesser films like this one and my last Woolrich, Witness to Murder, are fascinating and involving. It's been said that his was the fourth name in American crime fiction, behind Hammett, Chandler and Erle Stanley Gardner. While films like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep can't be ignored, neither can Rear Window and Woolrich is certainly better represented in film than either Hammett or Chandler, at least by numbers.

This is my fourth film called Nightmare and it's the best and earliest of them. Romano Scavolini's 1981 version, better known as Nightmare in a Damaged Brain is a sleazy slasher that has a few high points but doesn't live up to its reputation as a notorious video nasty; Ahn Byeong-ki's 2000 horror movie was one of the lesser Korean films I've seen lately; and Brent Nowak's 2007 short was an intriguing little film with an amazing depth for its quarter of an hour running time. This though is the best yet with, according to IMDb, only another 23 more Nightmares to go.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Plague Town (2008)

Director: David Gregory

14 years ago in Ireland, Mrs Flynn gives birth to something that even the local priest doesn't think is one of God's creatures. He plans to kill it, as he has presumably killed others before it, but the Flynns want no more of it and they take him out instead. A golf club to the back of a priest's head and an axe to the front is a pretty solid way to make an impact at the beginning of a horror story, that's for sure. Back in the present, the Monahans, an American family, arrive to revisit their roots and bond as a family unit. It would appear that they're in serious need of bonding because they're a dysfunctional bunch, though dysfunctional in a very believable way.

Dr Jerry Monahan seems to be pretty stable, though not always prone to the best decisions in the world. There's no Mrs Monahan, though there's a Mrs Monahan to be, Annette Rothman, and she's the real reason for the bonding concept. Jerry wants everyone to get to know each other, away from the distractions of modern city life. He has two daughters, Jessica and Molly, and they really don't get on. Molly seems to be trying but she's not just fighting her loathing of her sister, she also has chemical imbalances. Jessica is a prize bitch, who did her bit to spoil the whole trip by fetching along some English guy that she met on the way. He's Robin, and he has plenty to say about how dumb the Americans are.

It doesn't take long before they start arguing and it doesn't take long before they get lost, after missing the last bus back to town. They're stuck in the countryside and all the people meet don't seem quite right. They look normal enough but there's something not quite right about any of them. They stand in the middle of fields as if waiting for something, they have a strange way of suggesting concern while implying some far more sinister and they refer to outsiders as seeds. And yet these are completely sane and normal people compared with the other folks in the neighbourhood that the Monahans are soon to discover.

This is a seriously good horror movie made by someone who would seem to know precisely what he's doing. David Gregory has no less than 91 directorial credits at IMDb, but only two appear to be feature films: the first, Scathed, back in 1994, and this one, due for release next year. All the rest are documentary shorts or featurettes, mostly on names associated with the exploitation genres. The subjects literally comprise a Who's Who of the exploitation industry and he's obviously picked up a few pointers here and there. This one plays out like Deliverance meets Death Line meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I'm reminded also of an eighties Guy N Smith horror novel called Cannibals, but that one was set in Scotland not Ireland.

Most notably Gregory manages to find that ever elusive balance point so he can provide a subtle film that contains scenes of extreme gore. That's not an easy task, in fact it's probably the most difficult task any horror director can set himself. I'm not saying that this one's perfect, because it isn't, but it comes a lot closer than anything else I can remember in a long while. He's aided by some very cool character designs, that are simple but massively effective, and a very good set of performances by actors who have either done nothing before this or close to nothing. This is an awesome independent film that I hope makes it to the big time.Director: David Gregory

14 years ago in Ireland, Mrs Flynn gives birth to something that even the local priest doesn't think is one of God's creatures. He plans to kill it, as he has presumably killed others before it, but the Flynns want no more of it and they take him out instead. A golf club to the back of a priest's head and an axe to the front is a pretty solid way to make an impact at the beginning of a horror story, that's for sure. Back in the present, the Monahans, an American family, arrive to revisit their roots and bond as a family unit. It would appear that they're in serious need of bonding because they're a dysfunctional bunch, though dysfunctional in a very believable way.

Dr Jerry Monahan seems to be pretty stable, though not always prone to the best decisions in the world. There's no Mrs Monahan, though there's a Mrs Monahan to be, Annette Rothman, and she's the real reason for the bonding concept. Jerry wants everyone to get to know each other, away from the distractions of modern city life. He has two daughters, Jessica and Molly, and they really don't get on. Molly seems to be trying but she's not just fighting her loathing of her sister, she also has chemical imbalances. Jessica is a prize bitch, who did her bit to spoil the whole trip by fetching along some English guy that she met on the way. He's Robin, and he has plenty to say about how dumb the Americans are.

It doesn't take long before they start arguing and it doesn't take long before they get lost, after missing the last bus back to town. They're stuck in the countryside and all the people meet don't seem quite right. They look normal enough but there's something not quite right about any of them. They stand in the middle of fields as if waiting for something, they have a strange way of suggesting concern while implying some far more sinister and they refer to outsiders as seeds. And yet these are completely sane and normal people compared with the other folks in the neighbourhood that the Monahans are soon to discover.

This is a seriously good horror movie made by someone who would seem to know precisely what he's doing. David Gregory has no less than 91 directorial credits at IMDb, but only two appear to be feature films: the first, Scathed, back in 1994, and this one, due for release next year. All the rest are documentary shorts or featurettes, mostly on names associated with the exploitation genres. The subjects literally comprise a Who's Who of the exploitation industry and he's obviously picked up a few pointers here and there. This one plays out like Deliverance meets Death Line meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I'm reminded also of an eighties Guy N Smith horror novel called Cannibals, but that one was set in Scotland not Ireland.

Most notably Gregory manages to find that ever elusive balance point so he can provide a subtle film that contains scenes of extreme gore. That's not an easy task, in fact it's probably the most difficult task any horror director can set himself. I'm not saying that this one's perfect, because it isn't, but it comes a lot closer than anything else I can remember in a long while. He's aided by some very cool character designs, that are simple but massively effective, and a very good set of performances by actors who have either done nothing before this or close to nothing. This is an awesome independent film that I hope makes it to the big time.

Monday 18 August 2008

Samaritan Girl (2004)

Jae-yeong and Yeo-jin are a couple of Korean schoolgirls who want to go to Europe, but they have a rather unique way of earning the money. Jae-young whores herself out and Yeo-jin acts as her pimp, organising the meetups and taking the money. While they're best friends, they're very different people. Jae-yeong enjoys what she does, she gets to know the men who pay her for sex and enjoys it all as much as they do. However Yeo-jin thinks that these clients are filthy men and really feels bad about being involved with them, even though she isn't the one sleeping with them.

While she doesn't really approve, she does understand why Jae-yeong is having sex with them. What she doesn't understand is why she would care about them. When she suggests going for a drink with one of them afterwards, she's horrified and berates her friend for even thinking about doing such a thing. Then Jae-yeong gets trapped inside a motel room when the cops raid it, and she jumps. She survives, though not for long but she was smiling when she jumped. Before she dies, she asks Yeo-jin to bring her one of her clients to see her.

She even dies with a smile on her face, a variance on that impish sort of smile that Audrey Tautou is so awesome at and Han Yeo-reum is good at it too. This was her debut on the big screen, her second being another Kim Ki-duk film, The Bow, which I saw last night. So Yeo-jin becomes even more confused than she was already and intrigued about who her friend was and what she did. So she takes on the same role in reverse, hunting down the same men to sleep with them and return their money. She's looking for understanding most of all, but maybe also to undo what has been done and to close the book on the affair, literally as the names and details of these men are in Jae-yeong's diary.

This isn't an easy part to play and it falls to Ji-min Kwak to do what she can with it. It's a big opportunity for her too, given that it was only her second film after Wishing Stairs, the third Whispering Corridors film, in which she was just another schoolgirl in the cast. There are so many things that could be driving her that it's hard to see which ones really are. She never finds the same smile that Jae-yeong found so naturally. What's more her dad, who is a cop, stumbles upon some of what's happening but doesn't understand and starts to react violently to those he sees as involved.

As always with Kim Ki-duk, I'm finding, there are a lot of questions here, that have to start with the obvious one: what's it all about? I think I understand the main track here, which is all about the transition to adulthood and I caught some dialogue with clever double meanings, but what was the dream sequence all about? Why didn't Yeo-jin's dad ever confront her about what he knew? Was there a subplot beginning about a serial killer of prostitutes that got written out? I was waiting for one character we meet early on to fit that role.

Maybe I'm just thinking too literally though. Kim Ki-duk's films are all about symbolism, so maybe I should be delving deeper into the religious parallels and what can be drawn from the title. While the film is Korean, the religious stories (and the title itself) all tie to Christianity. Is this about Yeo-jin finding a way to forgive Jae-yeong and the people she initially saw as filthy, after coming to an understanding of their respective motives? If so then it's also about her father finding a way to forgive both his daughter and those he saw as paedophiles, after also coming to an understanding of especially her motives. Still many questions though. Hopefully some college student will write a thesis on the symbolism of Kim Ki-duk and I'll see how close I get on each of his films...

Sunday 17 August 2008

The Slender Thread (1965)

Sidney Poitier was 38 in 1965, which makes him just older than me, but in The Slender Thread he's playing a student in Seattle called Alan Newell. There doesn't seem to be much attempt to pretend that he's in his late teens so I hope that he's supposed to be a mature student. It really doesn't matter though as this isn't a school drama and Newell starts the film by cycling away from his college at the end of the day. What really matters is that he's also a volunteer at a crisis clinic and tonight he has to handle a call from a suicidal woman who claims that she's already taken an overdose of barbiturates.

She's Inga Dyson, she's played by Anne Bancroft and it's her story that provides our story, told in flashback as Newell gets her to talk about herself. This is partly to understand her reasons and partly to keep her on the line until a trace can be made on the line, and it's the heart of the film. What makes this most powerful is that Newell may mean well but he's no expert. He flounders around trying to find what will get Inga to open up to him, sometimes saying the right thing but sometimes the wrong thing, making a difference but making mistakes. And all the time, time is running out.

This is a tight little story, unique in that the two lead characters, who spend much of the film talking to each other, never appear together in person. There can't be too many instances like that in cinematic history, only films with DJs and switchboard operators and long distance romances. Anyway Poitier and Bancroft had an important meeting only a couple of years earlier when she presented him with the first Oscar given to a black man, for his performance in Lilies of the Field. The connection between them in this film is solid though, as hits home hard when the phone line between them drops. Suddenly we realise that we've been hanging on the phone with Inga Dyson just as Newell has.

It was written by Stirling Silliphant, as suggested by a presumably factual article in Life magazine by Shana Alexander. I'm guessing that the prominent sign on the wall in the crisis centre is a focus of the article: 'Every two minutes someone attempts suicide in the USA'. It's directed by Sydney Pollack, who hadn't yet won his two Oscars for Out of Africa because this was his first feature as a director. He had been making episodes of TV shows for a few years and obviously had ideas building up in his brain because there are a few scenes here that feel like a debut director doing it how it should be done. The lighting at the end of the disco scene is a great example and presages MTV by a good couple of decades.

There's able support from people like Telly Savalas and Steven Hill, but only two people really have substantial screen time and both Poitier and Bancroft are excellent. It's good to see Poitier in something other than a race drama: the fact that he's black has precisely nothing to do with his part here. Bancroft spends the entire film in various stages of fragility but never overdoes it. She also talks, especially early on, with a detached clarity that reminds me of HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

HAL cropped up a little later as another obvious comparison when the phone company try to trace her call and the tech walks up and down the many huge banks of switches at the exchange. I've worked in phone company buildings that have more modern remnants of these things, which are now of course obsolete, and these rooms always give an impression of scale. I wonder if Kubrick had the same thought when he put together his film about scale only a few years later. And talking of obsolescence, it's fascinating to see how long it takes to trace the call. With modern technology, this film would be a short.

The Bow (2005)

I've been getting seriously into Korean cinema lately. While I had almost no knowledge of it at all until recently, I had seen the odd thing in the past and the oldest of them was a Kim Ki-duk film, a monster movie from 1967 called Yonggary, Monster from the Deep. This film, along with a few others being marketed in the west by Tartan Video and shown on the Sundance channel as part of their Extreme Asia series, is also a Kim Ki-duk film. What I didn't realise until now is that these are two different Kim Ki-duks and they're not related. This one was only born in 1960, making him only seven when Yonggary came out. I wonder if seeing his name up there on the big screen was why he was drawn to the industry.

This more recent Kim Ki-duk has a penchant for more artistic films than monster movies and has gathered some notable acclaim for his work, not least for Samaritan Girl and Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter... and Spring. While I have Samaritan Girl and Time on my DVR and The Coast Guard coming soon, this is only my second of his films after Bad Guy. That was hardly a conventional film and neither is this. Neither one of them are easy to read.

We're on a fishing boat out in the sea, far enough out so that land is not visible. Living on the boat are two people who have no names and who almost never speak. One is a 60 year old man and the other is a 16 year old girl, but she's not his granddaughter, she's his fiancee. Apparently he found her when she was six years old, though we're not told how, and they're supposed to marry on her 17th birthday. The inference is that she's never left the boat at all during those ten years, though she's met plenty of people, given that the old man brings them on board on paid fishing expeditions.

Initially life seems to be good, even blissful. They spend their time swinging off the side of the boat, practicing archery and playing a stringed instrument built out of the same bow used to shoot with. In the various interactions with the visiting fisherman, it's obvious that the old man is jealous of anyone who gets close to her but that she cares for him. He's also been building up her wedding accoutrements for some time and is getting more and more impatient for their wedding day, manipulating the time through use of a calendar.

Then, a young student gets thrown into the mix. He's a visiting fisherman, brought by his dad, and there's an immediate connection between him and the girl. While his jealousy continues, her looks to him change considerably. The student sees it as his duty to seek out her happiness, by taking her away from her kidnapper and seeking out the parents who are still looking for her. Now everything changes: the way the girl sees things and the way her keeper/protector/kidnapper treats her.

This was an intriguing film, hypnotically told and it makes very good use of the deliberately limited cast and locations. There's a lot of symbolism here, meanings not just laid out for all to see. We don't see land at any point in this film: just the boat the two leads live on and the smaller boat that the old man uses to ferry fisherman to and fro. To the young girl the boat and the water is her entire world. There's hardly any dialogue in the film, which tells its story through imagery and symbolism. While it sounds strange to say it, this is a very cinematic film. Too many films nowadays would work just as well if you turned the visuals off and experienced them like a radio play. This one is all about the visuals. None of the characters have names.

The most obvious symbolism ties to the bow of the title, which has many meanings: not least as weapon and as art. It protects both the old man and the young girl, but it also provides much of their entertainment. It also plays a major part in the dangerous fortunes that the old man tells for people: he fires arrows at the Buddhist painting on the side of the boat, in front of which the young girl is swinging, presumably the placement of the arrows providing the fortune. The soundtrack is almost entirely string based and there's a quote at the end that ties to a direction for life and could easily be seen as a mirror of the life of the two lead characters on the boat and how the change is both good and bad.

Like Bad Guy, it didn't knock me out but it did make me more and more interested in the work of this filmmaker, who wrote and directed here. It prompts a lot of questions and that's usually a good sign. One interpretation offered in the comments at IMDb by a poster called Horia sees the film as an metaphor for the quest for spiritual enlightenment. Everyone is a symbol: the old man is the ego, the girl the soul, the fisherman the thoughts, the bow consciousness and the young man enlightenment. I have no idea if this is what Kim Ki-duk intended but it does make sense. More questions...

Saturday 16 August 2008

Background to Danger (1943)

One year after Casablanca and two after The Maltese Falcon, Warner Brothers were keen to put Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre back together again. So in 1943 came Background to Danger. Even though this knock off of Casablanca completely failed to replicate the success of its two predecessors, the pairing was still so powerful that 1944 saw no less than three Lorre/Greenstreet pictures: Passage to Marseille, The Mask of Dimitrios and The Conspirators.

We're in Ankara, the capital of Turkey, which in 1942 is the most important neutral country in Europe. The Germans want to bring Turkey into the war and try at the beginning of the film with an assassination attempt on their own ambassador which they plan to blame on the Russians. They fail but there will always be another plan. After all they tried the assassination on what is known as the street of a thousand plots. As the name would suggest, what appears to be every foreigner in Ankara is a spy, an agent, a provocateur. They certainly make up almost all of our cast.

The lead actor is George Raft, because this film didn't have a budget big enough to cast Humphrey Bogart. Raft is an American agent called Joe Barton who's pretending to be an oil machinery salesman. Whatever his real intentions in Turkey, he gets caught up in intrigue before he even gets to Ankara. On the train in he shares a carriage with a young lady calling herself Ana Remzi. As she's being followed, she persuades Barton to carry into Ankara an envelope containing something important. Quite what it is is open to question but it's important and it's the macguffin around which everyone in our story revolves, and there's so much revolving that it's easy to get dizzy.

What's difficult is watching Raft without hearing Bogart. Raft turned down the part of Rick in Casablanca because he felt too important for such a B picture, but if you've ever wondered what it would have become in his hands, you should watch this. Raft is believably tough but he's pretty wooden, with none of the charisma that Bogie exuded without even trying. He sits in the middle of this film just like the macguffin as the rest of the cast act their parts out around him.

This woodenness is a real downfall especially when playing opposite Sydney Greenstreet, who acted mostly with his voice. Greenstreet sounds awesome here as a Nazi colonel masterminding the chaos, both in English and German, but he doesn't move much, which makes their biggest scene together not far off being a photograph with sound. Much better are the scenes with Lorre, who is a delight as a Russian agent called Zaleshoff. The biggest problem with the film is that there's too much Raft and not enough Lorre. I wonder what the film would have looked like had the Americans had swapped places with the Russians so Lorre could be the lead and Raft a supporting actor.

Other problems are that Brenda Marshall has very little to do as Lorre's sister (not that Lorre had enough to do himself), the car chase is sped up way too fast for the laws of physics to apply and there's nowhere enough ties built between the various characters. On the good side, there's so much intrigue and so little screen time (this is only an 80 minute movie) that there's hardly time to breathe, which is how such a story should be shown. It's notably flawed but definitely worth watching, especially for Greenstreet and Lorre, who are both excellent if not excellent together, as they rarely appear in the same scenes.

Thursday 14 August 2008

Kontroll (2003)

We're in the Budapest underground system in this Hungarian film, and it's as intriguing a location for a movie as the Paris Metro and I'm pretty sure first time writer/director Nimród Antal has seen Subway. Quite a lot of the film is shot at night within the system after it's shut down and that really helps the otherworldly atmosphere generated. We never see the surface and it's not difficult to believe that some of the central characters never do either. Our lead, Bulcsú, even sleeps on an underground platform, though we get hints midway through the film that he had a very successful life on the surface at some point in the past that he's trying to escape from.

Our heroes are the ticket inspectors, the Kontroll of the title, who are far from the stereotypical On the Buses sort of inspectors. These are hard living loveable misfit types who look like hard living loveable misfit types. They dress like regular folks and only put on their armbands when they board a train and start checking tickets, which on the Budapest underground system is not the simple job you'd expect it to be.

It can't hurt that we follow what appears to be the runt crew of the litter, as they patrol the south line. Bulcsú seems to be the leader of the crew as he seems to be the leader of anything, not through choice but just by default. There's an air of mystery that hangs over him like a cloak. His crew is small: there's just five of them. There's the large and lumbering Muki, who is angry and narcoleptic; and the quiet, perpetually restrained Professor who nothing seems to faze. There's also Tibi, the new and pretty clueless guy, two weeks in to the job, and a fifth member whose name I perpetually seemed to miss.

They have a hell of a time of it. Just checking tickets on one train they run into no end of trouble customers: a paranoid schizophrenic, a large flamboyant and very fresh gay, a pimp with a couple of girls from his stable, an unmuzzled and loud dog, even a girl in a pear shaped bear suit. Some customers stutter, some have no voice at all. Some threaten with needles, some with words. Some have become legend, like a young punk called Bootsie, who the inspectors have been after for a long time but who continually seems to get through and past them. There's even a huge hooded guy who pushes people under trains.

The film runs through a lot of emotions. It seems strange to use words like 'rich' and 'sumptuous' when describing a dirty underground world where the lights keep flickering in and out of life, but those are the ones that spring to mind when describing the story. It's a ride, but not it's a ride where you check your brain at the gate and just experience; it's a ride that floods over you in fascinating waves, throwing little stories at you from every direction but so cleverly that they all form a coherent and fascinating whole.

It's a tough but tender film, surreal and symbolic but also firmly rooted in reality. Bulcsú and his crew go through a heck of a lot in what is just short of a couple of hours for us but still only a few days for them. Yet in that time, if I'm reading the subtext right, Bulcsú fights not just thugs and a rival crew run by the asskissing Gonzó, but his own inner demons, and finds romance too, in the form of the mysterious girl in the bear suit who is the daughter of a colourful train driver.

Bulcsú even plays Gonzó at a dangerous game called railing, in which they run along the track behind the last passenger train of the night, hopefully dodging the live rails and the various cables and conduits, while hopefully completing the run quick enough to not get wiped out by the Midnight Special following on behind without ever stopping at a station. It could easily be inferred that this entire film, Bulcsú's underground life, could be seen as a longer, less focused version of the same game. What a fascinating, quirky and delightful film, made by and with absolutely nobody I've heard of, though some of these people are cool enough to have double umlaut names.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Kiss Me, Stupid (1964)

Forget all those other names people throw out there as the greatest American director of all time: Martin Scorsese, John Ford, even Orson Welles. I'm starting to realise that the most consistent and versatile of them may just be Billy Wilder. He didn't make a huge amount of films, by most standards, just 27 of them as a director from 1934 to 1981, and this one makes two thirds of them for me. That's 18 films and all of them are great to some degree or other. In my rating scheme, I rated 11 of them as classics. I'm getting to the point where I'm already finding films of his that I'd never even heard of and enjoying the heck out of them. This one is a great example: it's a riot!

Orville Spooner lives in the small town of Climax, NV, and is played with complete relish by Ray Walston, everyone's favourite Martian. He's a piano teacher who gives lessons for a buck and a quarter an hour, but in his spare time he composes songs, to which Barney Millsap, the local gas station owner, writes the lyrics. Spooner is awesomely and hilariously paranoid, to the degree that he thinks that when he sends his songs off to the famous artists of the day, they just steal the stamps off the return envelopes. He's also convinced his wife is cheating on him (which she isn't), so much so that he even chases his fourteen year old student out of the house because he brought her flowers.

Orville and Barney are destined to get precisely nowhere, with songs like I Left My Heart in San Diego and Two Coins in the Fountain. Their latest is called I'm a Poached Egg. However suddenly their opportunity lands right in their lap when Las Vegas show legend Dino, on his way to a TV special in Hollywood, gets detoured through Climax and stops at Barney's gas station. Barney is good at grabbing opportunities so subtly sabotages Dino's car and puts him up in Orville's house so that Orville can play and thus sell their songs.

And from there this gets seriously twisted, but in a screwball comedy way. Dino is played by none other than Dean Martin, who obviously relished the chance to send up his own personality and reputation. He's basically playing himself, except a lot more so. This Dino is so addicted to the ladies that he falls in lust with Orville's wife just by seeing the shape of her dressmaker's dummy in the sewing room. Needless to say, paranoid Orville notices this and realises that to reach for the American Dream, he only has to throw his wife at Dino the nymphomaniac. What would you do for the American Dream? That's the question!

Orville won't give up his wife (especially as she's been crazy about Dino since she was sixteen) but, with prompting from Barney, he will give up a fake wife. So he upsets her enough to get her out of the house on their fifth wedding anniversary, then hires a waitress from a dive called the Belly Button (drop in and get lost) to pretend to be his wife so that he can throw her at Dino. It doesn't work out the way you'd expect but the way it does work out is even worse, at least from the perspective of the Catholic Legion of Decency, who were seriously upset about it. There's synchronicity in what happens and it's masterfully set up but wow.

There are lessons to be learned here and answers to be found to hard morality questions, but they aren't the answers you'd expect from a Hollywood movie made under the Production Code. What would you do to be rich and famous, to have a star sing one of your songs on air, to sell a million records, to appear on the Ed Sullivan show? Would you whore out your wife? If not, would you whore out someone else? Would you whore out yourself to make it yourself or to help someone else make it? And the biggest question of all is this: if the American Dream is so wholesome and above board, why are even asking all these other questions?

The stars of the show are Dean Martin and Kim Novak, though the real focus is on Ray Walston and both Felicia Farr and Cliff Osmond are perfect in their roles. Novak plays Polly the Pistol, the waitress from the Belly Button, and it's patently obvious that it was written for Marilyn Monroe. I'm guessing the last scenes were shot first because Novak is most reminiscent of Marilyn in them, but finds her own niche elsewhere in the movie. Walston's part was intended for Peter Sellers, who actually began filming but had to leave the production after suffering a heart attack. And as a Peter Sellers fan, I don't know how he could better what Walston gave us here. He does this sort of thing perfectly.

I didn't know Farr or Osmond, but I certainly do now. Felicia Farr made a string of movies in the fifties, mostly westerns, but tailed off in later years. This came four years after her previous film, Hell Bent for Leather and it would be another seven before her next film, Kotch. I saw her recently in the original 3:10 to Yuma and I've also seen her in The Venetian Affair with Boris Karloff, but it's here that I'll remember her most. She's probably best known though for being Mrs Jack Lemmon, which she was for almost 40 years until his death in 2001. He credited her with every good business decision in his life. Given that they married only two years before this film, questions must be asked!

Osmond appeared a few times for Billy Wilder. This was his second, after the previous year's Irma La Douce, and he'd follow it up with The Fortune Cookie and The Front Page. In between, he made things like She Devils in Chains and Invasion of the Bee Girls, proving that he didn't have Felicia Farr to make his business decisions for him. However they now sound like even more of a guilty pleasure than they would have been anyway. While he didn't write songs in real life, he did write and there's a film called The Penitent with his name on it as both writer and director which sounds intriguing. Given that this didn't happen until 1988, I wonder who he had to whore out to get that chance.

Incidentally, there are jokes everywhere, even in places I don't notice and need my wife to explain, such as with Zelda's parents. Mr Pettibone is played by Howard McNear, better known as Floyd the Barber from The Andy Griffith Show, the one who never shut up. Here he cant get a word in edgeways because his wife won't shut up. My favourite though has to be this line: 'The miserable liar! He was telling the truth!'

Picnic (1955)

William Holden plays a drifter who arrives in a small Kansas town called Salinson on Labor Day and shakes the whole place up. Mostly this takes place at the annual picnic of the title at Riverside Park but it starts off in the morning as he finds some work at Mrs Potts's house. Next door are no less than four ladies (and no man of the house), none of whom can fail to notice the stud next door working in the yard with no shirt on. Given that this is the midwest, it's all down home and countrified and none of these ladies are quite sure how to react to someone like this. He's Hal Carter and he wants to be someone in this world but he never stays anywhere long enough to get there, presumably quitting whenever someone sees through his facade.

This dissatisfaction with who they are is the theme here. Working up in age order there's Minnie who wants to be a grownup but doesn't want to stop being a child. She's the bright one of the family, already working through the college reading list, but all she can see is that her sister is more beautiful than her and so she gets the attention. That sister, Madge, has the opposite problem. She's certainly beautiful but she wants to be known for something other than her looks. Flo, their mother, wants to be young again but obviously can't be so she's trying to do it all over again through Madge.

Finally, there's Rosemary, a school teacher who rents a room from them. She keeps talking about men who want to marry her, but somehow she never got married. She doesn't think she can really be happy so she spends her time insulting and causing trouble for those who just might be. The other key player is Alan Benson, who had roomed with Carter in college, and whose dad owns a large grain operation. That's why Carter is here, so he can scrounge a job, but it won't come as much of a surprise to find that Madge is Alan's girl.

Throwing Hal Carter, and a little whiskey, into the mix in such a lively festival atmosphere is asking for trouble and everyone, including him, gets a good firm glance at who they really are. It's not that they've been lying to each other, it's that they've been lying to themselves and maybe not quite saying everything they feel. By the time morning comes everyone's had a solid dose of honesty and their respective worlds are different ones from the night before. Nothing will be the same again for any of them.

The script is a good one but it's the actors who bring it to life and they do a very good job indeed. Holden is decent, playing his role with broad strokes. He overacts a lot of scenes but then he's playing a character who's acting as much as Holden is. He's also too old for the role, something that he knew full well. He's completely overshadowed, as he often seemed to be, this time by two actresses. There's Kim Novak, looking a lot younger and softer as Madge than she did only three years later in Vertigo, and there's Rosalind Russell stealing every scene she's in as Rosemary. Apparently she would have been Oscar nominated but she declined the honour because it would have marked her as a supporting actress.

The rest of them don't disappoint either: Susan Strasberg as Millie, Cliff Robertson as Alan Benson, Betty Field as Flo. Better than these though to my mind were Verna Felton as Mrs Potts and Arthur O'Connell as Howard, Rosalind's 'man'. Felton was a Disney regular, playing elephants and queens, and she has a delicious and memorable voice. She has a very quiet part here, but she plays it very well indeed. O'Connell plays Howard like he's been hit by a truck but it's completely fitting: Rosemary dominates him completely, except when it comes down to it and Howard takes over for the few moments it matters.

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975)

After the intriguing but flawed cult movie The Cars That Ate Paris, Peter Weir made Picnic at Hanging Rock, quite possibly Australia's first big international hit. Often incorrectly regarded as a true story, it's really based on a 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay. The novel was originally approved by the author to be adapted onto film by a fourteen year old filmmaker called Tony Ingram, but once the film rights were officially bought, that version never got past about ten minutes of footage. It would be really interesting to see what a fourteen year old could do with material like this, but I guess we'll never know.

This version could easily be seen an excuse to watch young girls clad in white Victorian outfits string up each other's corsets and take off their stockings in soft focus for 115 minutes (cut down to 107 for the director's cut in a strange change from the usual trend). I'm sure there's a fetish that covers this sort of thing, but there's much more here than just fetish material. Like L'Avventura there's a mystery that is both the focus of everything in the film and completely meaningless in itself. What matters really isn't the disappearance of three schoolgirls and a teacher in rural Australia but the reactions that people take to that disappearance.

They're from Appleyard College, a private finishing school for young ladies, run by Rachel Roberts as Mrs Appleyard, looking a lot older and sterner in her black dress and large bun than she did in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. We're about as early in the twentieth century as you can get, being 1900 and it's St Valentine's Day, which prompts all the girls to create cards and dream of romance. After breakfast, all except one who has to stay behind and learn to recite poetry, travel by carriage to Hanging Rock, a volcanic formation only a million years old, in rural Victoria.

While they're supposed to stay in the picnic area and not actually go to the rock itself, four of them get permission from the French teacher supervising them to go and take measurements: Irma and Marion, dumpy and complaining Edith Horton and Miranda, a Botticelli angel, or so saith the French teacher. Needless to say they don't stop at the base, as they'd promised, they take off their shoes, climb higher and fall asleep in the sun. They appear to wake in some sort of trance state and disappear higher still, while one of them runs back to the camp in screaming hysterics. By the time she reaches the rest of the party she's lost her memory, later remembering only that as she descended from the rock, she saw a red cloud and Miss McCraw heading up without her skirt. Other than that, nobody knows anything.

There's a lot of atmosphere here, built in large part through isolation and a hypnotic soundtrack, full of drone and flute and soft sounds that retreat into the back of the brain to swim through. Nobody mentions this in the film but Hanging Rock appears to be some sort of mystical place. It wouldn't be surprising to find it to be a sacred place to the Aborigines or even tie into the Cthulhu mythos, which often talks of great cyclopean cities of stone rising out of the ground at bizarre angles. Some of the rocks even look like faces, great stone faces sleeping their way into mythology, making us wonder how the story would have turned out if this was a Norwegian fairy tale.

As I mentioned above, the story is really in the reactions. Mrs Appleyard sees the disappearance as something of an affront and is concerned more about the impact of the ongoing publicity to the enrollments at her school. Mlle de Poitiers, the French teacher, is deeply caring but unable to do much beyond. Miss Lumley, closest to the headmistress, is probably the best example of what such a school would turn out: prim, proper and utterly unprepared for reality.

The police investigate and search but to no avail. Only a young Englishman living nearby, who saw the girls go up the rock, has any success at all and that through dogged determination at the expense of his own health. Initially he appears to be guilty of something but he becomes the hero of the hour, finding Irma alive but weak high up on Hanging Rock. The girls themselves resent Irma for coming back without the others. Only Sarah, a young orphan girl stuck in a Dickensian subplot of class persecution, seems to have any key to the mystery but it isn't forthcoming.

And that's the point. We open with mystery and we end with mystery. The film isn't here to give us resolution, it's here to make us ask questions and it isn't crystal clear what the questions should be. That's why Picnic at Hanging Rock resonated and people are still talking about it over 30 years later. What it means depends on what the viewer brings to it and that makes it fascinating. It'll be interesting to see it again in a few years time and see how different it might seem. I bet it isn't like Mrs Appleyard's Bournemouth: blissfully unchanging.

Cello (2005)

Hyeon-a Seong is the most striking lead I've seen in an Asian horror movie in some time. She's absolutely gorgeous, which is hardly surprising, but not in the standard way. She's older than the usual schoolgirl lead, less conventional in her looks and she dresses nicely but hardly flashily. Yet she seems so real, right down to the slight hunch and the mole on the bridge of her nose, unusually and refreshingly real. She can act too, subly so, and I'll be very interested to see her other films to see how versatile she is.

She's Hong Mi-ju, a part time cello teacher who seems to be doing very well for herself. She has a husband who's obviously making a decent living, judging from the size and quality of their house and its contents; she has a notable talent and the means to enjoy it and she has a family who obviously cares about her. However she's also got plenty of problems in her life. Her eldest daughter, Yoon-Jin, has some sort of developmental problems, while her youngest is merely precocious. Her sister-in-law, who lives with them, is distraught and Mi-Ju is being tormented by a student who holds a grudge for a bad grade she gave her.

She also has three deep scars in her wrist from a past that she's not telling about and she's having some bizarre hallucinations. These aren't just minor little nightmares either: they're dangerous hallucinations that are causing people to die and are putting her into serious danger. It all seems to tie to this mysterious past which is only gradually revealed. There's also a new housekeeper, who her husband has hired as a favour: she was struck dumb after drinking acid in a suicide attempt after losing her entire family in a car accident. How she ties into Mi-ju's past isn't particularly clear, but there are many twists to come. This is a tight plot, with nothing wasted, and there's a lot in there to pay attention to.

This Korean horror film plays less on the effects such movies tend to rely on, so is notably less horrific than its fellow genre entries, focusing instead more on the psychological aspects of Mi-Ju's story. Her character is vastly deep and it unfolds slowly and gradually in layers. Some of it is reasonably obvious, though it's played out very nicely indeed, while other strands are less expected and thrown at us with blistering effect. All this plays out to a delightful soundtrack, mostly played on the cello, as you can expect from the title. Even Yoon-Jin's amateur and dissonant attempts to play the cello are somehow pleasing to the ear and Hyeon-a Seong's melodious voice matches the cello material nicely. I was seriously impressed with this one: it isn't perfect, but it's a peach of a resonant shocker.

Sunday 10 August 2008

Ab-Normal Beauty (2004)

Jiney, in the hands of Race Wong, is a talented but unsatisfied arts student. As she tellingly explains to a fellow student, just because she wins awards with hr photographs doesn't mean she's necessarily satisfied with the results. She witnesses a fatal car accident but while she's initially shocked and horrified, she finds herself drawn to photograph the victim. From then on she finds herself seeing a darker side to the art she creates, which makes for disturbing viewing, not just for us but for the characters in the story.

First it's just painting a line of blood delicately wending its way down a nude model, then its paying a street vendor to butcher chickens for her camera. Soon she's photographing every dead animal she can find and she's seeing the photos in her dark room literally drip blood. Vegetarians would not find this comfortable viewing, that's for sure! She develops a death obsession, only partially because of the similarities between photography and death. It doesn't take long for her to dance around on the wrong side of the rail ten floors up screaming into the night. Her girlfriend Jas, bizarrely played by Race Wong's real life sister Rosanne, is understandably upset about the whole thing.

As always, Oxide Pang provides a visually powerful film. Through the eyes of his character, he demonstrates how good a photographer he would be. He has a highly astute sense for composition of frame, something that seems to be apparent both in still and moving pictures. However there's still quite a bit of the stylised jerkiness that he seems so fond of and which I'm enjoying less and less with each of his films. As always though, the concept of movement is well addressed. I have no conception what cultural phenomenon makes Asian cinema able to treat movement with such consistent innovation, when nobody else sems to have a clue.

Especially after dealing with a fellow student who has a serious crush on her, Jiney gradually realises how far she's getting to the edge and so, with the help ofJas, pulls way back. But if you think everything's suddenly going to be sunlight and roses then you haven't seen much extreme Asian cinema. Next thing she knows she's receiving photos and video footage of what appears to be a deliberate murder for art, and the only person who might conceivably know enough and care enough to want to fake a snuff film to impress her doesn't seem to be responsible.

The final scenes are violent and relentless, but they seemed ineffective to me, certainly when compared to the initial ride that Jiney took herself through. I felt that Oxide Pang handled that buildup superbly, full of psychological depth and symbolism. So much had to do with the detachment of being behind a camera, so much had to do with keeping that detachment intact. Yet the real wake up call felt like a tacked on Hollywood serial killer story. We can understand the motivations but really don't care and the accoutrements seem artificial. The very end is disappointing too. Watch this for the visuals and the psychology of the first hour, but not if you're a vegetarian...

Roma (1972)

Fellini is never the easiest filmmaker to fathom, but this is apparently a looser, less traditional film, even for him. In fact it has no plot to speak of, so it's difficult to compare it to anything. He doesn't give us a story beyond the story of the city itself, but even that only in impressions. Fellini shows us in broad strokes what the city was when he first experienced it in the early forties, and what it is now, now being the early seventies. In doing so, he also shows us what it has been, throughout its long history, again in both reality and impression, how it has changed and how it is likely to change further. As such this is far more of a painting than a film.

Fellini can be found on screen in this film as himself in the 1972 documentary sections of the film, though he's mostly portrayed as an 18 year old by Peter Gonzales Falcon, new to Rome from rural Italy in the early years of the Second World War. The film divides out into rough sections but there are themes that run throughout. Much of the fun here is identifying what Fellini is making comparisons between. He's obviously comparing the way he arrived in Rome by train to the way people arrive in modern days via motorway and he's obviously highlighting the importance of food to Romans throughout, but what else?

The film is broken down into sequences, with a deliberate shakeup of timelines. One sequence looks at how the Varieties worked during early wartime, complete with hecklers, tap dancing electricians, fights and interruptions for war bulletins. One heckler throws a dead cat onto the stage. A mother gets her young son to empty his bladder in the aisles. It all ends abruptly with an air forcing everyone into a shelter, where the young Federico ends up with a German singer. However this is less about the Varieties per se and more about what a typical night out in Rome was thirty years earlier. The comparison is to the demonstrations and police brutality we see in the seventies, where the youth hang around the fountains and the steps and get into trouble even when they're not getting into trouble.

Back in the forties there's sexual exploration via prostitution, but instead of actual sexual encounters, Fellini shows us the crowds waiting for the hookers to be free and take their clients on up the stairs to bed. We see the low class cheaper end of things where this is something of a cattle market and we see the higher class end where everything is more polite and every now and then there are interruptions while an unknown VIP takes the lot. It's very voyeuristic so the comparison here is presumably to the surreal and grotesque fashion show that Fellini provides using the bizarre theme of ecclesiastical garb. Quite what it means I'm not sure but it's certainly striking.

Fellini was always a master of surreal visuals and this fashion show is only the most obvious. More subtly, there are recurring visuals throughout. I especially noticed children doing bizarre things with their tongues and very large people. They are everywhere here, from the large to the truly Rubenesque and on up to those who wouldn't seem out of place in a circus sideshow. One looks suspiciously like Tor Johnson. There's so much else here that I have a feeling that each viewing would highlight different visuals, but this time through I especially appreciated the rush to gain newly freed up seats at the cinema, the men playing cards in the back of a removals truck and young Federico's first house in Rome where there are new people everywhere he looks.

I also loved the use of colour, again something Fellini has proved time and time again that he is highly inventive with. One long scene uses the red lights of emergency vehicles to highlight a wide variety of car passengers stuck in a motorway traffic jam in the dark and in the rain. Another has an antiques dealer working on a large piece of furniture outside his store, in an alley lit up orange by a kid playing with a bonfire. Possibly the best has the blue light of a welding torch light up a recently deserted city street at night, with magical shadows.

There's great use of shadows in a tunnel in the early morning sunlight too, and in the long scenes underground looking with a documentary eye at the work being done to dig subway tunnels. These link the present with the far past in a fascinating and unconventional way. Not everything is so successfuly though, as some of the documentary style footage leaves much to be desired, or so I feel after just a single viewing. It's always dangerous to comment on Fellini after only one viewing. After one viewing I didn't appreciate the full majesty of La Strada, let alone something as unconventional as this. Gore Vidal appears as himself in street footage that may or may not have him sitting next to a young Cassandra Petersen (long before her Elvira days), but I have no conception what these scenes mean or how they contribute to the picture. For now this is the least of the eight Fellinis I've seen, but however much it's overshadowed by his other work, it still has much to offer.

The Flower of My Secret (1995)

The first time I saw a Pedro Almodovar film it was one of his earlier comedies, a highly unusual one but a comedy nonetheless. I saw a couple more of these, quickly became a fan, and then discovered a far more serious side of Almodovar in films like Talk to Her and All About My Mother. So when this film opens with a couple of doctors trying to persuade a mother that her son Juan is dead, I'm not surprised. He's only 16 years old and he's on an artificial respirator so he appears to be breathing even though his brain no longer functions. The doctors are trying to find a way to ask her to donate his organs to save other patients.

However Almodovar is never obvious, so it's not too surprising to find that none of this is real. The 'mother' is a nurse and she's acting out the role to doctors training to be part of an organ donation plan. Our main story intersects with this one but how is not obvious for quite some time. The real focus is on Leo Macías, a professional writer of romance novels who has been hidden under the pseudonym of Amanda Gris for a couple of decades. However while she's highly successful she's certainly got problems.

She has problems with her husband, who is an army officer who is away in Brussels for very long periods at a time tied up with the war in Bosnia. He was in the ministry of defense but volunteered for the peacekeeping force which she sees as a deliberate effort to keep away from her. She has problems with her family too, as her mother and sister can't talk to each other without everything becoming a drama. This would seem to be at least one of the key reasons why she has problems with her work. She's contracted to five romance novels a year for three years, but now she's having trouble writing them because everything she writes pink turns out black. She's writing grim reality and her romance publisher is more than a little upset.

In accordance with what she's writing, she gets hired into the literature department of El Pais, a major newspaper. This puts her into the bizarre position of writing a scathing attack on her pseudonym, under another pseudonym, while her employer writes the flipside complimentary piece, not knowing who she really is. Yes, this is Almodovar alright, whether it's light hearted comedy or deep and meaningful social commentary, and this turns out to be both, a dangerous tightrope that he seems to be able to walk without any worries. Most modern directors would fall off before they ever got up the ladder.

This one was engrossing but not quite as powerfully memorable as either Talk to Her or All About My Mother; it was also amusing but not as funny as Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown or What Have I Done to Deserve This? It would seem to be a logical midpoint though between old school Almodovar and new school Almodovar, say between Kika and All About My Mother. The change in Almodovar's own writing doesn't quite mirror the change in that of Leo Macías. The only other film that fits in this slot would be Live Flesh, but I haven't seen that one yet.

Even if it's not Almodovar's greatest, it's still a fascinating film and there's much that impresses. As always almost all the key characters are women with depth and the cast are well up to the challenge, especially Marisa Paredes in the lead as Leo Macías aka Amanda Gris. She's an Almodovar regular, as are so many of his actresses, dating back to Dark Habits in 1983. He doesn't provide easy roles but he has a knack of either picking actresses who can fulfil them properly or of wringing great performances out of them. There's only one male role of substance here too, for Juan Echanove as Ángel but that's one out of probably seven or eight substantial roles in this film. Almodovar himself has said of Hollywood that 'the studios have forgotten that women are fascinating'. He certainly hasn't.

The story is engrossing, but the other thing that leaps out here to the senses is the way in which everything is designed. There's a serious care given to the way rooms and houses are decorated, not just the colours but the placing and the space. I'm not going to suddenly redesign my own house to match but I was impressed with the effort given and the depth and fulfilment of that effort. This is yet another great Almodovar. One day I may get to see one of his films that isn't, but it hasn't happened yet.

A Man Called Horse (1970)

John Morgan is an English nobleman who has spent the last five years looking for something to do. He's resigned from his honorary position in the Guards and travelled halfway around the world on a hunting expedition in the west of the United States. Given that this is the 1820s, this west is still wild and sure enough, Morgan's party is attacked by a Sioux raiding party and killed. Morgan is the only one that they don't kill because they see his strength and so drag him naked back to their camp and give him to an old Sioux woman as a beast of burden, hence the title of the film.

This was 1970 and American westerns were generally all about Americans kicking the ass of either the heathen Indians or the heathen Mexicans, even when they were made in Italy. Only the East Germans, who had a very deliberate political axe to wield, told anything different. While there was a growth of insight into history over the many decades of American westerns, there really hadn't been anything that attempted to do what this film did. It's a pretty groundbreaking film in a lot of ways.

After the initial scenes in which Morgan's American hunting party is killed, everyone here is an Indian, beyond John Morgan himself and another captive, the tolerated Batise who is of French origin. Everything we see is Sioux: their camp, their people, their customs, shot with the assistance of the Rosebud Sioux of South Dakota. We see their side of the story and it isn't shown from the perspective of some sort of early political correctness concept. These Sioux are savage and cruel, though what they do they do for very good reasons. They're just not the reasons that the rest of us follow for doing anything. The obvious comparison is Kevin Costner's Oscar-laden Dances with Wolves, which is a longer, more politically correct, version of the same thing, something not lost on Richard Harris who fully realised that Costner stole whole scenes from this movie.

As you can expect, given that he's played by hard boiled, hard living Richard Harris, John Morgan is no wimp. He tries escape a few times to no avail so bides his time and learns what he can. When opportunity presents itself he kills a couple of Shoshone warriors, bringing back their scalps and their horses to trade with his original captor, Yellow Hand, for his sister as a wife. The key is that this is all done to get that little bit closer to escape and return to England, yet the longer he lives among the Sioux the more he finds what he had been looking for all along.

It's all done very nicely indeed, but it's not without flaws. The biggest one for me was the casting of Corinna Tsopei as Running Deer, Yellow Hand's sister. She's fine as an actress but she doesn't look Indian enough. Her real name is Kiriaki Tsopei, she's Greek by birth and was presumably cast because she was a relatively recent Miss Universe. Much more appropriate is the casting of Manu Tupou as Yellow Hand, but unfortunately he reminds so much of James Earl Jones as Thulsa Doom in Conan the Barbarian.

The most surprising casting has to be Dame Judith Anderson, highly talented and regarded Australian actress as Buffalo Cow Head, the old Sioux woman who initially owns the man called Horse. While she can't quite mask the facial characteristics of her race, she does a far better job than most have done in situations like this and she speaks Sioux throughout. She had a habit of picking quirky roles and would follow this up a couple of films later with a spot as Spock's mother in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. She won awards for this role and it isn't surprising. She gets a few great scenes here with some surprising sutbtlety and she shines more than her role was designed to let her. The shot where she realises she's lost her pack animal is a peach.

There is subtlety here, though you wouldn't see it if you're only looking at the powerful savagery. The centrepiece of the film, the transition of John Morgan into Sioux, comes through a ceremony called the Vow to the Sun, and it's not a pretty picture. It involves a lot of protracted pain and it's not surprising that the US government banned it in the late 1800s. It makes for a highly memorable few scenes for Harris, to go along with the early scenes in which he was mostly naked. You can't say the man didn't put himself into his roles.