Thursday 21 December 2023

The Ten Commandments (1923)

Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Writer: Jeanie Macpherson
Stars: Theodore Roberts, Richard Dix, Rod La Rocque, Charles de Roche, Robert Edeson, Leatrice Joy, Nita Naldi, Estelle Taylor, Edythe Chapman and Julia Faye

My final review of a 1923 film turns out to be the big one, the highest grossing picture of the year at the American box office. It’s also an unusual movie in a few ways.

For one, it was the product of a contest, in which the public suggested ideas for the next Cecil B. DeMille film. F. C. Nelson of Lansing, Michigan won with “You cannot break the Ten Commandments—they will break you.”

For another, it isn’t one story but two, told in uneven, almost jarring fashion, which is the reason why I’d actually forgotten what it was all about. I remembered the prologue, which is about three quarters of an hour long and was bulked up to become DeMille’s own remake in 1956. That’s the story we expect, of Moses and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt.

However, that surprisingly transforms into a contemporary melodrama for the remaining eighty minutes, as the four core characters, all of whom belong to a single family, see the Ten Commandments from different angles and so live their lives in very different ways.

Needless to say, the prologue is what counts here. It’s everything that we expect from Cecil B. DeMille, even if it feels a little compressed. It looks huge from the outset, with vast sets in Egypt which dwarf mere human beings, but it must be said that there aren’t many of them, just the Pharaoh’s palace and a growing line of sphinxes leading away from it.

Saturday 2 December 2023

Tiger Rose (1923)

Director: Sidney A. Franklin
Writer: David Belasco, based on the play by Willard Mack
Stars: Lenore Ulric, Forrest Stanley and Theodore von Eltz

Exotic lands back in 1923 weren’t only those far to the east, as the Canadian northwest also counted, with a whole slew of adventure yarns and romances set in those distant woods. Here is another one, based on a 1917 play by Willard Mack and starring its star, Lenore Ulric, as the titular character. Rose is French Canadian and fond of dark make-up, so Ulric comes across as a sort of local Pola Negri.

We’re in Wutchi Wyum, the northernmost trading post in the Loon River Valley, north of Edmonton, then in the Northwest Territories, and Rose is brought into town by Sgt. Michael Devlin of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, who found her in a river and had to dive in off a cliff to rescue her. They always get their man or, indeed, their woman, the two hitting it off wonderfully once she comes to.

Well, not always, as we’ll quickly learn when Bruce Norton shows up. Up until now, this has been a romance with a sense of adventure, as Rose and Michael look set for a happy life with plenty of background texture delivered by the supporting cast, like Fr. Thibault and Hector MacCollins, the latter of whom is so obviously Scottish that we can practically hear his broad accent even in a silent movie.

It’s an idyllic frontier landscape and all that we’re missing is a third wheel for an inevitable love triangle. Enter Bruce Norton, an engineer for the Canadian Northwest Railroad, which is coming through. Rose sees him surveying with his transit, which I now know is not the same thing as a theodolite—not a lesson I expected to learn watching Tiger Rose—and we think we know where we’re going next.

Friday 1 December 2023

The Wizard of Baghdad (1960)

Director: George Sherman
Writers: Jesse L. Lasky Jr. and Pat Silver, based on a story by Samuel Newman
Stars: Dick Shawn, Diane Baker and Barry Coe

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I’ve been lucky with my last few centennial reviews. I’d seen The Return of the Living Dead before and I was looking forward to seeing it afresh, but it was research that led me to The Man in the Glass Booth and The Glass Wall, two impactful features with impeccable lead performances that resonate through the years to be as important today as they were so long ago. Even The Siege of Sidney Street and Cell 2455, Death Row, which, to be fair, aren’t in the same league, are still fascinating. The Wizard of Baghdad, on the other hand, well, it isn’t any of those things. It probably wasn’t very good when it came out and it’s very much a product of its time. However, it’s also a glimpse at a new star in the making, who strides through the picture with such utter confidence that it’s easy to believe that he felt that he was about to be the biggest name in Hollywood. That star is Dick Shawn, who didn’t become the biggest name in Hollywood, but did foster a habit of stealing scenes from pretty much anyone, even in a film as star-studded as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

This wasn’t his first picture—he’d cameod in The Opposite Sex in 1956 and then co-starred with Ernie Kovacs in Wake Me When It’s Over—but it was his first stab at a lead role and he embraced it with abandon. The opening scene, against which the credits roll, is almost an audition to the audience. It’s Shawn in a genie outfit, down to the dinky gold slippers, flying through a sky murkier than Mumbai in pollution season, singing a song called Eni Menie Geni, which thanks to Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building, I now know is a patter song, because it’s a tongue twister of a song with fast paced rhythmic rhymes and plenty of alliteration. It takes a singer with impeccable enunciation to deliver a song like this and Shawn nails it what feels like a single take, though there is one cut to a close-up, so it could be two. It may not be quite as challenging as Pickwick Triplets or the most famous example of the form, namely Gilbert and Sullivan’s I am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General from The Pirates of Penzance, but it’s highly impressive nonetheless.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Die Straße (1923)

Director: Karl Grune
Writers: Karl Grune and Julius Urgiß
Stars: Eugen Klöpfer, Lucie Höflich, Anton Edthofer, Aud Egende-Nissen, Max Schreck and Leonhard Haskel

Long before La Strada, there was another big foreign language film called The Street, namely Die Straße, though “foreign language” might be a little misleading because it’s a notably silent silent film, with almost no intertitles, meaning that the storytelling is even more visual than would normally be the case in 1923.

Unfortunately, there don’t appear to be any restored versions of the film out there, so I’ve had to struggle through a terrible quality print that is, at least, ninety minutes long. Versions of higher quality run only seventy-four, which I believe is the American cut.

Whichever version we watch, there’s highly expressionistic shadowplay, with a fascinating use of light and images distorted like funhouse mirrors. It’s visually striking even before the story starts to focus. There’s even a wonderful shot of a man peeking round a corner at a lady whose face suddenly turns into a skull; when he leaves, it goes back to normal.

None of the characters are named but we do gradually figure out who we’re watching.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

The Return of the Living Dead (1985)

Director: Dan O’Bannon
Writer: Dan O’Bannon, based on a story by Rudy Ricci, John Russo and Russell Streiner
Stars: Clu Gulager, James Karen, Don Calfa, Thom Mathews, Miguel Nunez, Brian Peck, John Philbin, Linnea Quigley, Beverly Randolph, Jewel Shepard and Mark Venturini

Index: 2023 Centennials.

The Glass Wall isn’t the only picture featuring someone born on 28th November, 1923, but The Return of the Living Dead must be about as different a feature as is comfortably imaginable. It was released over thirty years later, in 1985, and everyone and everything in it is apparently true. Well, that’s what it says on screen, so it must be real, right? Of course, it isn’t, but it does have plenty of fun with the conceit that the events that took place in George A. Romero’s pioneering 1968 zombie movie, Night of the Living Dead, were based on real life events. There was a chemical spill at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh that released 2-4-5-Trioxin and it made corpses jump as if they were alive. Somehow Romero got wind of the story and built a script around it. Meanwhile, those corpses, stored carefully in barrels, made their way, through typical military transportation screw up, to the Uneeda Medical Supply warehouse in Louisville, Kentucky, where they’ve been stored in a basement because nobody bothered to call the military phone number on the barrels.

Now, there is another important connection to Night of the Living Dead, namely writer John Russo, who co-wrote both films. The first was with Romero, with whom he had an agreement that they could both effectively continue it into a series. Russo had the rights to the Living Dead part of the title ongoing, but Romero could make his own sequels to the story. So, while the latter went on to direct Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead and so on, Russo wrote a novelisation of Night of the Living Dead and then a sequel novel, Return of the Living Dead, upon which this was only theoretically based. It was enough for him to get a credit for original story, alongside Russell Streiner and Rudy Ricci, but the screenplay was written by Dan O’Bannon, who had also written Dark Star and Alien and was directing a movie for the first time, later suggesting that “I spent 37 years of my life not even being alive. Now I’m fulfilled.” Hilariously, when he did so, it was Russo who wrote the novelisation, meaning that he wrote two completely different books both called Return of the Living Dead.

The Glass Wall (1953)

Director: Maxwell Shane
Writers: Ivan Tors and Maxwell Shane
Stars: Vittorio Gassman, Gloria Grahame, with Alan Robinson, Douglas Spencer, Robin Raymond, Jerry Paris, featuring Jack Teagarden and Shorty Rogers and His Band

Index: 2023 Centennials.

I had plenty of choices to watch in honour of Gloria Grahame’s centennial, given that she was a pivotal actress in film noir, but I’m rather happy that I plucked this one out of the blue instead of any of the more famous films I’d already seen. That’s because classic film, so often fascinating for cinematic reasons, can be a real window onto a time and sometimes the light through that window is commentary on our own time. I wonder how The Glass Wall would be received were it to be made today. It seems to me that it could prompt calls for its cancellation from the sort of people who tend to rail against cancelling their particular brand of culture. That’s because it’s fundamentally about refugees, a big issue in 1953 with so many Jews and other oppressed minorities in Europe moving to the United States during and after World War II to claim refugee status. Somehow it’s only become a bigger issue in the decades since and almost everything that happens here seventy years ago could easily happen today.

The refugee at the heart of the story is Peter Kuban, who’s on board a ship sailing past the Statue of Liberty into the United States as the film begins. There are 1,322 other displaced persons on board, each rescued by the International Refugee Organisation of the United Nations. “Welcome to America!” say the other boats in New York Harbor in yet another reminder that times have changed. The catch is that, while Kuban is absolutely a displaced person, he’s also a stowaway. That means that, while the rest of the people seeking asylum, who have escaped war and concentration camps to start a new life in the New World, are processed and admitted, Kuban is interviewed, but he’ll be sent home again because he can’t back up anything with evidence. He was born in Hungary, but that doesn’t exist any more. He spent ten years in concentration camps, where he learned English from other prisoners. His family perished in the gas chambers. He’s missing a number of fingernails from Nazi torture. Crucially, he can’t tell them where Tom is.

Saturday 25 November 2023

Anna Christie (1923)

Director: John Griffith Wray under the personal supervision of Thomas H. Ince
Writer: Bradley King, based on the play by Eugene O’Neill
Stars: Blanche Sweet, William Russell, George F. Marion and Eugenie Besserer

In 1921, an original play called Anna Christie debuted on Broadway to much acclaim and, in 1922, it won Eugene O’Neill his second Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He still holds the record with four wins. In 1930, it became a sensation in the cinema, marketed as “Garbo Talks!” because it introduced the world to Greta Garbo’s voice.

However, it had been filmed before, in 1923, with Blanche Sweet as the title character, and it seems rather strange right now that I prefer it to its far more famous successor.

To be fair, it’s been a while since I watched all of Garbo’s sound films, but Anna Christie was easily my least favourite two of them, with the German language version faring a little better than the English one. I didn’t particularly like this either, but it was stunningly average for the time rather than annoyingly poor. Maybe I should revisit the Garbo versions.

What struck me watching this, so soon after Our Hospitality, is how fresh the Keaton picture is a century on while this feels utterly dated. It’s precisely the sort of silent melodrama that naysayers cite as the primary reason why they don’t like silent movies, with its exaggerated facial expressions, overt gesturing and drawn out scenes of overplayed drama.

Interestingly, the initial culprit for all those is George F. Marion, given that he doesn’t just play Chris Christopherson here, but originated the role on Broadway and reprised it in 1930, albeit only in the English version.

Thursday 23 November 2023

The Faithful Heart (1923)

Director: Jean Epstein
Writer: Jean and Marie Epstein
Stars: Léon Mathot and Gina Manès

A fresh face to French audiences in 1923 but known to them from a couple of books on film, Jean Epstein quickly directed three features: Pasteur, with Jean Benoît-Lévy, in celebration of the scientist’s centennial; The Red Inn, from the Honore de Balzac story; and The Faithful Heart, from an original script by Epstein and his sister Marie. This is the most noteworthy, because it’s the most ambitious, albeit only in one particular direction.

Those books were about film theory and it’s no shock to see Epstein trying out some of his ideas. The early scenes involve some rapid-fire editing, contrasting lingering shots of what a girl is doing with briefer shots of her face. This is montage work and it feels advanced, beyond the technology of the time to render as clean as he or we would like.

The girl is Marie, a foundling who’s taken in by a couple, M. and Mme Hochon, who run the tavern at which she works. Why Hochon, I’m not sure. It appears to mean “Nod” in French but “Compensation” in Japanese and the pair of meanings combine rather appropriately.

She works hard but the hardest part of her job is dealing with the unwanted attentions of Petit Paul, a shifty two bit crook who clearly scares her but seems to be on the right side of her parents, who almost throw her at him. She dreams instead of a dockworker called Jean, whom she sneaks out to meet. And...

Wednesday 22 November 2023

The Man in the Glass Booth (1975)

Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Edward Anhalt
Stars: Maximilian Schell, Lois Nettleton, Lawrence Pressman and Luther Adler

Index: 2023 Centennials.

It feels a little strange that I’m reviewing this picture to celebrate its director, Arthur Hiller, on his centennial, because it isn’t flash in any of the ways we might expect from an important director. Hiller made a lot of great decisions when making it but they were a lot more about not doing things than actually doing them; it was notable in 1975 for its script and its lead performance. Maximilian Schell is utterly spellbinding as Arthur Goldman, who may or may not be Arthur Goldman, and was fairly nominated for an Oscar in a tough year; he lost to Jack Nicholson for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Al Pacino was also unrewarded for Dog Day Afternoon. On the writing front, Edward Anhalt got all the credit, because Robert Shaw (yes, the actor), who wrote the source novel and play, had his name removed because he disagreed with Hiller’s choice to make the movie more emotional. After he actually saw it, he was so happy with the results that he asked for his name to be restored, but the prints had been completed so it was too late.

Arthur Goldman is a fascinating character today, though he would have been seen through a different lens in 1975. He’s clearly very rich, given that he lives in a penthouse overlooking Central Park in New York and keeps two million dollars in a box. He’s connected socially, given that he’s scheduled to escort the duchess tonight, though I don’t believe that we’re privy to which or where. He’s also a Jew and a survivor of the concentration camps, an indelible experience that he can’t escape even three decades on. His father was murdered at Auschwitz but he sees him through a telescope pushing a pretzel cart on 5th Avenue; when he looks afresh, it’s now in the hands of a Nazi officer in full uniform. In Schell’s hands, Goldman is initially hard to take. The people who work for him, such as Charlie and Jack, are played by actors who appear to be acting in a movie, as we might expect. Schell, however, performs like he’s in a play, monologuing to the cheap seats with theatrical abandon. He’s not used to conversation. He’s used to being listened to.

Sunday 19 November 2023

Our Hospitality (1923)

Directors: Buster Keaton and Jack Blystone
Writers: Jean Havez, Joe Mitchell and Clyde Bruckman
Stars: Buster Keaton and Natalie Talmadge

Buster Keaton’s second feature for 1923 was a very different film to the first. Three Ages was close to being a themed compilation of three comedy shorts, which merely happened to be new. Our Hospitality, however, is a fully fledged feature film, with a single coherent story and an elegant weaving of comedy into drama.

Keaton’s character even gets a name, that of Willie McKay, and, echoing his family’s former vaudeville act, the Three Keatons, this picture features Four Keatons, not only Buster as the lead character but his father, Joseph Keaton; his wife of two years, Natalie Talmadge; and their fourteen month old son, Buster Keaton, Jr., in his only film appearance. Technically, a fifth was present but not yet born.

Junior actually appears first as a baby Willie McKay, in a prologue that ably sets the stage for what’s to come, which is a time honoured feud. Remember the Hatfields and McCoys? Well, here are the Canfields and McKays.

It’s around 1810 when John McKay arrives home looking like Indiana Jones. Jim Canfield comes visiting as soon as he finds out McKay is back and they kill each other in a storm. Mrs. McKay is now a widow, little Willie is now the last living male in the McKay clan and Joseph Canfield, Jim’s brother, who tried to talk him out of it, now swears to continue the feud and teach his own sons accordingly.

Thursday 29 June 2023

Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991)

Director: Pete Hewitt
Writer: Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, William Sadler, Joss Ackland, Pam Grier and George Carlin

Index: The First Thirty.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure is one of my favourite movies. It holds an underlying truth even though it’s utterly ridiculous throughout and it’s pure unadulterated fun. I’ve gone back to it often since the eighties and it always hits the spot for me.

When I put together the list of Pam Grier’s First Thirty, I was surprised to find that a) she was even in that film’s sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, as I had zero recollection of her in it and b) that I haven’t gone back to it once since it came out. I was suddenly very worried about how it would hold up, not least because the much delayed third film in the series, Bill & Ted Face the Music, is truly awful, however amazing Brigette Lundy-Paine was as Ted’s daughter.

What I found was that it’s very much stuck between the two, not a patch on the original but much better than the third. It’s a triumph of the imagination, with most praise going to the writers, Chris Matheson & Ed Solomon, as they deconstruct and reconstruct not just the Bill & Ted mythos but cinematic history with The Seventh Seal a particularly key template.

They ratchet up the silliness even further and most of the best bits work simply because they went there, wherever there is from a list of “wouldn’t it be cool if” moments that I’d be shocked weren’t generated using recreational drugs. Eventually, however, the sheer weight of its cleverness prompts it to collapse in on itself, so I’m unlikely to go back to it again any time soon, but I’m happy to have acquired fresh memories of this bit and that one and especially the other bit over there.

For anyone who doesn’t know this trilogy, the idea is that the music of a pair of slacker nobodies in San Dimas, California, namely Bill S. Preston, Esq. and Ted “Theodore” Logan, is destined to turn the world into a utopia. The catch is that their band, Wyld Stallyns, sucks, because neither of them know how to play and they can’t be bothered to learn. So how does a band save the world with that attitude?

Monday 26 June 2023

Class of 1999 (1990)

Director: Mark L. Lester
Writer: C. Courtney Joyner
Stars: Bradley Gregg, Traci Lin, John P. Ryan, Pam Grier, Patrick Kilpatrick, Joshua Miller, Stacy Keach and Malcolm McDowell

Index: The First Thirty.

There are a lot of cult movies to be found in Pam Grier’s filmography, especially during the seventies when her forte was women in prison flicks and blaxploitation. I’d seen most of them before, but I hadn’t seen her later cult films, 1981’s Fort Apache, the Bronx and this 1990 gem.

I see the names on lists and I’m very happy that this project allowed me to catch up with them. Of all the films in the second half of her First Thirty, it’s these, and The Vindicator, that I enjoyed most and am most likely to revisit.

This is the second in a trilogy of Class films that are only loosely connected. The original was 1982’s Class of 1984, a cult film in its own right, then this and finally Class of 1999 II: The Substitute, which featured a few flashbacks to this film but was otherwise unrelated.

The common factor is that they’re all set in a dystopian near future. Mass shootings didn’t prompt police forces to emulate the military as they did in our world; instead they led to an abdication of effort. The Constitution has been abolished, private businesses are banned and control of cities has fallen to street gangs. Free fire zones now exist where the police have no jurisdiction and what little law enforcement happens is by the Department of Educational Defense, which is part of the C.I.A.

Kennedy High School in Seattle is located in the middle of a free fire zone and the D.E.D. is taking an innovative approach to martial law there. They’re partnering with Dr. Bob Forrest of MegaTech, who looks and sounds utterly off his rocker but clearly has the clout to make a heck of a difference with his secret program, XT6, to deal with disciplinary problems.

What’s XT6? Why, thank you for asking. It’s where MegaTech repurposes humanoid robots previously used by the military into teachers. What could possibly go wrong, as they say?

Friday 23 June 2023

The Package (1989)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writer: John Bishop
Stars: Gene Hackman, Joanna Cassidy, Tommy Lee Jones, Dennis Franz, Reni Santoni, Pam Grier, Chelcie Ross, Ron Dean, Kevin Crowley, Thalmus Rasulala, Marco St. John and John Heard

Index: The First Thirty.

While Steven Seagal would star in a second movie for director Andrew Davis, Under Siege in 1992, a host of other actors did that a little quicker, returning for his very next film, The Package. Pam Grier’s back. Chelcie Ross is back. Joe Greco’s back. Thalmus Rasulala is back. We soon recognise bit part actors so half the cast must be back.

This is a very different film to Above the Law though, starting out as a late Cold War thriller and growing into a sort of precursor to Davis’s best film, The Fugitive. And when I say late Cold War I do mean about as late as it gets. This is August 1989 and Americans and Russians are talking peace in East Berlin.

For something that sounds talky, it starts as pure testosterone. Lots of soldiers. Lots of VIPs with grey hair sitting around big tables. An agreement is reached, which will be signed at the United Nations ten days later. But there’s a group of rogue generals, from both sides, with zero interest in losing their nuclear shields, so they have a week and a half to do something to throw a spanner into the peace works.

Gene Hackman is there in East Berlin and he knows even more people than we do, but he’s merely a sergeant, Johnny Gallagher. He seems capable but he becomes an easy fall guy for an assassination, by a couple of fake hikers, of an American general who chooses not to be part of whatever nefarious plot is unfolding.

That lands him what seems to be a nothing job as punishment, that of escorting another Army sergeant back home for a court martial, as he’s acquired quite a habit of punching his superior officers. He’s the Package of the title.

Tuesday 20 June 2023

Above the Law (1988)

Director: Andrew Davis
Writers: Steven Pressfield, Ronald Shusett and Andrew Davis, from a story by Andrew Davis and Steven Seagal
Stars: Steven Seagal, Pam Grier, Sharon Stone, Daniel Faraldo, Ron Dean, Jack Wallace, Chelcie Ross, Joe V. Grieco and Henry Silva

Index: The First Thirty.

One of the influences for these First Thirty runthroughs was a set of three books edited by David C. Hayes, which covered everything that a trio of action legends did on screen (and, in a few instances, off it too). They’re anthologies, with many hands writing chapters, and three in Hard to Watch: The Films of Steven Seagal are mine, though not this one, which marked his debut as an actor rather than a stuntman.

In Hard to Watch, Joshua Knode treated it as a sort of introduction, highlighting something that became very obvious as that book ran on: that, at this point in his career, Seagal brought something new but it quickly got old. Here, he was a wish fulfilment action hero: handsome, incredibly fluid in his movements and able to solve any problem, however complex, with a mere punch to the face. Before long, however, he bloated up substantially, lost the ability to move and complicated his film’s issues with dubious morals and off screen baggage.

This isn’t his best film but it’s from his best period, when he was working with director Andrew Davis, also responsible for Under Siege, and actors of the calibre of Pam Grier (as his partner), Sharon Stone (as his wife) and Henry Silva (as the villain of the piece, just in case you were in any doubt there).

It’s a simple story and an ironic one, given the core theme that’s summed up in the quote abbreviated into the movie’s title: “No man is above the law and no man is below the law.”

Saturday 17 June 2023

The Allnighter (1987)

Director: Tamar Simon Hoffs
Writers: M. L. Kessler and Tamar S. Hoffs
Stars: Susanna Hoffs, Dedee Pfeiffer, Joan Cusack, James Anthony Shanta, John Terlesky, Pam Grier, Phil Brock, Kaaren Lee and Michael Ontkean

Index: The First Thirty.

From The Vindicator, far more fun than it has any right to be, to The Allnighter which, well, isn’t. That said, it has a certain charm to it that got me on board by the end. It’s not as bad as its 0% on the tomatometer might suggest.

For one thing, it feels like a Hollywood film that was just shot a little freer than usual, but it was an indie film that only cost a million to make. By comparison, Predator the same year allocated three and half just for Arnie’s salary.

Then again, the star here was Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles, who isn’t awful but does show why she’s known as a musician not an actor. Her character, Molly Morrison, is uncertain. How did she get through four years of college without a grand romance? What will she say in her valedictorian speech? Hoffs is uncertain about acting, so actor and character merge.

Molly rooms with Val, in the form of Dedee Pfeiffer, in the biggest role I’ve seen her have. However, this is an ensemble piece and there are a bunch of others ready to attempt to steal the movie, starting with Joan Cusack as Gina, their other roommate, who’s shooting a documentary about her last days at Pacifica.

She starts out with an observation—if you see this in twenty years, you’ll remember us this way—that works for The Allnighter too. It feels nostalgic and, as it was inspired by (not based on) co-writer/producer/director Tamar Simon Hoffs and her friends at Yale, it could be seen as a somewhat belated documentary that the real Gina never shot.

Wednesday 14 June 2023

On the Edge (1986)

Director: Rob Nilsson Writer: Rob Nilsson Stars: Bruce Dern, Pam Grier, Bill Bailey, Jim Haynie and John Marley

Index: The First Thirty.

This is a fantastic film for star Bruce Dern, a passion project that he worked for a deferred salary. It gave him opportunity to showcase what he can do as an actor and as a runner, as it takes a fictionalised look at a real race, the Dipsea Race in California, translated here into the Cielo-Sea race that’s about twice as long.

The Dipsea is a crosscountry trail race that’s been held almost every year since 1905, from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach. It’s seven and a half miles but they include a mountain, Mount Tamalpais, which means 2,200 feet up, in one section via 688 steps called Dipsea Trail Stairs, and 2,200 feet back down again. That’s tough.

And Bruce Dern, as a runner, ran the Dipsea in 1974. In fact, he apparently ran so regularly that he put in between 2,500 and 4,000 miles a year from the ages of 28 to 70. Clearly he was well cast for this movie, because most of the best parts are him running.

There is a story here that’s wrapped around the running, which ties to his character, Wes Holman, having been suspended from the race a couple of decades earlier. Apparently he tried to organise to legalise payments, in the form of airline tickets, to amateur athletes. It seems to be a detail of immense importance to the runners themselves, but not to the viewers who either don’t understand the importance of it or really don’t care. It’s a MacGuffin.

Sunday 11 June 2023

The Vindicator (1986)

Director: Jean-Claude Lord
Writers: Edith Rey and David Preston
Stars: Teri Austin, Richard Cox, Pam Grier, Maury Chaykin, Lynda Mason Green, Denis Simpson, Stephen Mendel, Larry Aubrey, Micki Moore, Catherine Disher and David McIlwraith

Index: The First Thirty.

The Vindicator is not a good movie. Let me get that out of the way right from the start. It deserves most of the jabs and criticisms hurled at it over the years. There are plenty of things objectively wrong with it. But, goddamn, it’s a heck of a lot of fun!

It’s as quintessentially eighties sci-fi schlock as the typeface used its the opening credits. I couldn’t remember its name so I googled “’80s computer font” and it was the first result. And, of course, it rolls onto the screen to the sound of a dot matrix printer but in the mainframe shade of green. Oh, and there’s a score that’s a clear knockoff of John Carpenter’s style.

What’s more, everything looks familiar and I don’t mean the movie. I think I recognise the car park and the glass architecture of the desk the receptionist sits behind. It’s that generic. It didn’t bode well but it picked up quickly.

We find ourselves in a clearly unethical lab with long suffering scientist types figuring out how to turn a mild mannered chimp into some sort of raging monster. Like you do. Of course, then the amoral lead scientist wanders in and promptly takes it too far so the chimp dies and he provides absolutely no emotional response.

He’s Alex Whyte, played to icy perfection by Richard Cox. Carl Lehman works for Alex and is wildly pissed at him for stealing his budget, his computer chips and his research. I wonder what might happen next, especially given that David McIlwraith got an “introducing” credit as Carl Lehman/Frankenstein. Take a wild stab in the dark. You’ll be on the right lines.

Thursday 8 June 2023

Badge of the Assassin (1985)

Director: Mel Damski
Writer: Lawrence Roman, from the book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg
Stars: James Woods, Yaphet Kotto, Alex Rocco, David Harris, Steven Keats, Larry Riley, Pam Grier, Rae Dawn Chong and Richard Bradford

Index: The First Thirty.

Pam Grier’s career began with the seventies, with 1970’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and it kept her busy until 1977 with women in prison movies and blaxploitation flicks bringing her a level of exploitation stardom. Transitioning to respectable cinema, though, was a struggle.

She made eighteen features in a mere eight years from 1970 to 1977, many as the lead. In the next eight years, she made only five, none as the star and only one with a sizeable role. It isn’t this one, because she’s firmly kept in the background, as support for a supporting actor.

This was a TV movie and, if I hadn’t told you that, you’d figure it out within a few minutes, because it looks and feels like a TV movie and it only gets more like a TV movie as it goes. It’s unmistakably a TV movie, for all the good and bad that might suggest.

It starts out rather like Fort Apache, the Bronx with a couple of cops being murdered by black folk, this time in Harlem, but this is different. It’s not a strung out hooker, it’s a black power terrorist group making a statement: the B.L.A., or Black Liberation Army, an offshoot of the Black Panthers. And so this isn’t framed like a mystery; it’s another story about race and, as you might imagine, given that it’s a TV movie, it’s also based on a true story.

Even though this was 1985, the real events took place in 1971 and were written up in the 1979 true crime book by Robert K. Tanenbaum and Philip Rosenberg. Tanenbaum’s the name we should focus on there, because he was the A.D.A. who prosecuted the case and he’s the lead character, in the form of James Woods.

Monday 5 June 2023

Stand Alone (1985)

Director: Alan Beattie
Writer: Roy Carlson
Stars: Charles Durning, Pam Grier, James Keach, Bert Remsen, Barbara Sammeth, Lu Leonard, Luis Contreras, Willard Pugh and Bob Tzudiker

Index: The First Thirty.

That’s such an eighties font on the opening credits and such eighties music behind them that we’re almost expecting Charles Durning to star in his very own eighties Arnie movie. That music has a patriotic bent to it and that matches the huge American flag on the poster. However, all these things are misleading.

This is a drama before it’s an action movie and the patriotic angle is never overplayed. It goes for character over setpiece and the hero is as scared as he is brave. Of course, if we’re true to definition, he’s a hero because he does what he needs to do even though he’s scared, not because he happens to be a U.S. army vet who killed five enemies in a cave back in 1943 with the bayonet they stabbed him with.

Also, while Arnie is doing some interesting action work now he’s in his seventies, Durning was never the muscleman and doesn’t try to be here, at the age of 62. He’s Louis Thibadeau, who merely wants to live a quiet life with his grandson, Gordie, and Gordie’s mum, Meg, so Louis’s daughter-in-law rather than daughter. That says something about his character right there and it’s an excellent way to start.

He lives in a small town, which initially feels like a nice place. He hangs out at the Virginia Cafe, which is run by an old army buddy called Paddie who constantly talks about the hero in their midst. There’s a parade every year and Gordie’s going to march with his trumpet this time out. Louie’s going to join him.

Of course, there’s a dark side, as there tends to be in small towns. You don’t need to listen to Jason Aldean songs to know that. One day, with Paddie in the back, a young man comes in and steals a couple of doughnuts. Louie tries to get him to do the right thing but a couple of others show up and shoot up the place, taking the thief down with extreme prejudice.

They’re memorable villains: sunglasses, gold teeth, tattoos on their hands. And very large weapons. Maybe this isn’t such a decent small town after all. This is gang territory and Louis escapes that skirmish with some shrapnel in his arm after diving into one of the booths.

Friday 2 June 2023

Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983)

Director: Jack Clayton
Writer: Ray Bradbury, based on his novel
Stars: Jason Robards, Jonathan Pryce, Diane Ladd, Royal Dano and introducing Vidal Peterson and Shawn Carson

Index: The First Thirty.

It’s been a long time since I watched this, a Disney feature made when I was a kid young enough to be under their spell and not yet old enough to know what damage they’d done to the public domain.

I was twelve when it was released so I may well have seen it on TV a few years later as a mid-teen. I don’t think it was the right time, because I was old enough to have graduated to bona fide horror movies and would have been disappointed that the something wicked didn’t come with more gratuitous gore.

Now I’m a grandfather who’s very aware of just how much Ray Bradbury did for fantasy, I can see this from a couple of angles. After all, it’s a story about kids, like so many others, and about the magic that they can still see in the world, but it’s also a story about a father (old enough to be a grandfather) who’s allowed his life to slip by unfulfilled and who finally finds his purpose and reason to truly live.

I’m surprised at how well it stands up today, but Ray Bradbury did adapt his own novel for the script and, while I didn’t know who he was when I first saw this, I certainly do now. Most of the best aspects of the film come from him and the way director Jack Clayton, a couple of decades on from The Innocents, brought power to his fictional small town.

It’s a town where everyone knows everyone and they all have eccentricities. Mr. Halloway never takes risks, he says, smoking a cigar; he has a bad heart and feels old. Mr. Tetley sells cigars and only cares for money, playing the numbers in search of riches. Mr. Crosetti, the barber, sells youth and dreams of women. Ed the bartender only has one leg and remembers his glory days on the football field.

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Tough Enough (1983)

Director: Richard Fleischer
Writer: John Leone
Stars: Dennis Quaid, Carlene Watkins, Stan Shaw, Pam Grier and Warren Oates

Index: The First Thirty.

I really wasn’t expecting to enjoy this quite so much. Sure, it’s a Pam Grier film, but she’s hardly in it, despite her fourth billing. It’s also a Dennis Quaid film and a Warren Oates film, a bizarre pairing I’m very happy to see. Wilfred Brimley and Bruce McGill help too, as does the director being Richard Fleischer.

Those are all plus points but the genre isn’t. If there’s anything I’m less likely to enjoy than a sports movie, it’s a romcom and this film is a sports romcom. If that wasn’t enough, it’s also a sports romcom about a country and western singer. In 1983. Well past the Every Which Way But Loose sell-by date.

Both the blurb and the torso on the poster opposite belong to Dennis Quaid’s character, Art Long, who is certainly not having the best time of it as the movie begins. He has a good crowd at the Pickin’ Parlour, where he sings country and plays guitar, but he also follows a wet T-shirt competition, so that crowd doesn’t want Art Long. One table starts to throw stuff at him, so he clambers off stage mid-song and punches all three of them out.

That actually plays out in his favour because his wife is fed up with him not making money with his music and that prompts him to enter a toughman competition, hence the title, for a potential $5,000 prize. And that competition is run by the same folk who were offering prizes for the wet T-shirt competition. They saw him throw those punches and they were impressed enough to want him on their roster. Suddenly, he’s the Country Western Warrior.

Saturday 27 May 2023

Fort Apache, The Bronx (1981)

Director: Daniel Petri
Writer: Heywood Gould, suggested by the experiences of Thomas Mulhearn and Pete Tessitore
Stars: Paul Newman, Edward Asner, Ken Wahl, Danny Aiello, Pam Grier, Rachel Ticotin and Kathleen Beller

Index: The First Thirty.

I’d heard good things about Fort Apache, the Bronx, which has become a cult film for a star as huge as Paul Newman, but I’d never seen it and I didn’t really know what it was.

Well, it’s a crime film that’s set in New York City, which aims not to tell a single coherent story but to give us a taste of a whole bunch of them, using a style we’re familiar with from Hill Street Blues and so many shows following in its wake. Fred Silverman, a network executive who developed Hill Street Blues, has said that his chief inspiration for it was this film, so it’s the beginning of that genre, something clearly not grasped at the time. You can’t measure the amount of influences something will generate from its opening weekend.

The leads are Paul Newman and Ken Wahl, as a pair of NYPD officers working at the 41st Precinct, nicknamed Fort Apache because it’s an ill-equipped and rundown outpost isolated in enemy territory, 70,000 of those enemies across four square blocks of city.

To add to their concerns, a single act at the start of the film, the cold blooded murder of a pair of rookie cops, grows out of proportion. A new captain, in the capable form of Ed Asner, has been shipped in and his responses inflame the situation, leading to rioting in the streets and an outright siege of the station.

Pam Grier doesn’t have a lot of screen time in this one, as was the case in Greased Lightning, but, boy, does she make it count this time! She plays a drug addicted hooker named Charlotte, who we might initially take for a party girl or a calculating murderess, given that she’s who shoots those two cops. She sets them up, takes them down and walks away. The locals fleece the corpses clean as effectively as Jawas.

Thursday 25 May 2023

Greased Lightning (1977)

Director: Michael Schultz
Writers: Kenneth Vose & Lawrence DuKore and Melvin Van Peebles and Leon Capetanos
Stars: Richard Pryor, Beau Bridges, Pam Grier, Cleavon Little, Vincent Gardenia, Richie Havens and Julian Bond

Index: The First Thirty.

Continuing her shift away from exploitation pictures, here’s something that’s a biopic just a little before it’s an action movie, albeit still with a focus on African Americans in America.

The subject is Wendell Scott, who became a stock car driver at a time when NASCAR was whites only. He drove in the Dixie Circuit, as the token black driver to draw black fans, with prejudiced drivers deliberately wrecking him as often as they could. He went on to become the first black driver to race and win at every level in NASCAR, eventually doing the same as a team owner.

He had a fascinating and action-filled life, a description that’s both accurate and too happy to gloss over the fact that much of that action was due to systematic racial discrimination. It was an obvious candidate to adapt to the big screen and the studio that did so was Warner Bros., who cast comedian Richard Pryor as the lead and tellingly gifted the project to a black director, Michael Schultz, and a set of writers who included Melvin van Peebles, who had set the blaxploitation genre into motion with his indie film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song six years earlier.

As tended to be the case with Hollywood, it turns out to be a loose adaptation of the truth, but not to play down the racial aspects, only to simplify them a little. And, while this is tame for Pryor, whose comedy routines were highly adult, it starts out as it means to go on with a boy who’s born to race. The first thing we see is a bunch of white kids challenging him to a bicycle race in the street. He wins and he does it by jumping some sort of roadwork that the rest don’t dare try. “You’re one crazy nigger,” says the leader of the white kids. I think it’s a form of respect.

Sunday 21 May 2023

Twilight of Love (1977)

Director: Luigi Scattini
Writers: Luigi Scattini, Vittorio Schiraldi, Giacomo Rossi Stuart and Claude Fournier, from a story by Luigi Scattini, freely based on the novel Il Corpo by Alfredo Todisco
Stars: Anthony Steel, Annie Belle, Pamela Grier, Hugo Pratt, Giacomo Rossi Stuart, Alain Montpetit and Gerardo Amato

Index: The First Thirty.

Completely unrelated to the Filipino horror movie, The Twilight People, released five years earlier, this Italian production is unrelated to anything else in Pam Grier’s filmography too.

In fact, that seems to be much of the point, as the first half of her First Thirty movies was taken up by variations on a theme, a bunch of exploitation movies, especially the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her famous; but the second half is a constant flow of fresh changes, every film being completely unlike the next.

And this one, as far as I can tell, is different from all of them, because it’s a very European “affair” movie. IMDb suggests that it’s drama and romance but the drama is forced and the romance is, well, not very romantic.

At least, as far as I can tell, which is a caveat I have to throw out here because the one and only copy of this film I could find is in Italian, which I don’t speak, and there are no subtitles to be found, even in the fan communities that exist for this sort of thing.

Thus I have little idea of what’s truly going on and everything I say here is shaped by my assumptions, which could well be faulty. Then again, this is an Italian film so it’s highly visual in outlook and, if it’s doing its job, it ought to be universally understandable, even to those of us who don’t know the language.

Thursday 18 May 2023

Drum (1976)

Director: Steve Carver
Writer: Norman Wexler, based on the novel by Kyle Onstott
Stars: Warren Oates, Isela Vega, Ken Norton, Pamela Grier, Yaphet Kotto, John Colicos and Brenda Sykes

Index: The First Thirty.

Friday Foster was Pam Grier’s fifteenth film, so I’m halfway into her First Thirty. It was also the end of her traditional exploitation output, the women in prison and blaxploitation flicks that made her such a cult figure. Drum is still an exploitation movie, even though it was a major studio film, and it’s still black focused, but it’s a very different picture.

It’s the lesser known sequel to Mandingo, an immensely successful novel written by Kyle Onstott in 1957 that became a play and then a film, with James Mason and Susan George. The book sold five million copies in the U.S. alone and spawned fourteen sequels, starting with Drum. The movie only spawned this one.

These are stories of the antebellum south, if we want to bowdlerise things. We should call them stories of sadistic slaveowners, because Onstott was inspired not only by the stories he grew up hearing, “bizarre legends” about slave breeding and abuse, but by research done by his adopted anthropologist son in Africa.

While we end up in the central location for the series, the Falconhurst plantation owned by Hammond Maxwell, it’s not where we start and he’s actually the nicest of the slaveowners we meet. Then again, there wasn’t much of a bar to top. He’s still a slaveowner with a crude nature, a bedwench and a willingness to whip and castrate and more.

But we start out in Havana, the heart of the slave trade, and quickly shift to New Orleans. Dona Marianna lived in the former but fell in love with a slave, Tempura, a king in his own land back in Africa. That got him strung up but she was pregnant and left for the latter to run a brothel in which her son, Drum, who’s unaware that she’s his mother, becomes the bartender. It’s fifteen years on from Mandingo and Drum is twenty years old.