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Capsule Reviews (August 2006)

Young Guns II (1988) Geoff Murphy

Sure, the music was better and Jon Bon Jovi gets killed as Pit Inmate Shot Back into Pit, but what else did Young Guns II have to offer that its predecessor couldn't? Well there's Emilio Estevez as an incredibly old man trying to sound hoarse and there's Christian Slater to add to the bratpackers that lived through the first one. There's William Petersen as Pat Garrett and as always he is great, even though he wears scary whiskers for half the film and looks like Billy Crystal for the other half. There's even James Coburn as John Chisum, a glimpse of Ginger Lynn Allen, a young and sneering Viggo Mortensen and of all people, Cameron from Ferris Buehller. There's a Lady Godiva ride. There's even a new director who may not make Oscar worthy material but who is nonetheless perfectly capable of making solid films much unlike the director of the first one.

Emilio Estevez was by far the best thing about Young Guns and he's by far the best thing about this one too, even though he's entirely unbelievable as anyone from 18anything. He just plays the greatest pissants in film and Billy the Kid was above all a pissant who shot a bunch of people. Most of the rest of the cast and indeed the rest of the film is far more believable as a western not a film obviously made in the 1980s. In fact everything about this film is superior to its predecessor, from the movement of the camera to the dialogue to the soundtrack to the extras to the blatant theft from Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid to possibly the finest use of the word 'Uhoh' in a motion picture. Definitely a step up.

Dark Tales of Japan (2004) Yoshihiro Nakamura et al

Here's an interesting little horror anthology that it took a long while to find in IMDb but my wife could find in a discount bin at Wal*Mart. It's one of at least eight titles distributed in the US by Genius Entertainment and I now have two of them. There are five stories in this one, each directed by a different director.

Yoshihiro Nakamura's The Spiderwoman is fun fluff with a serious message. It follows a couple of reporters researching urban legends, who discover the myth growing with every word they print. Nobody has seen this strange woman with eight legs but they take I tmore and more seriously. The visualisations of the stories the reporters hear are hilarious and the story itself really resonates given the current crop of Hollywood horror films.

Crevices is a freaky little film made by Norio Tsuruta. A man disappears after taping up every crevice in his flat with red tape. His friend investigates along with the manager of the complex but then the manager disappears. It's short and it's sweet but it's very very freaky. And I like that. Horror films nowadays are things to laugh at and drink beer to and get shocked once in a while. This is what a horror film should be: something that could give you nightmares!

The Sacrifice is pretty basic and straightforward, as is Blonde Kwaidan. The best thing about that one is the jokes that the Japanese man on a business trip to LA makes about all those Hollywood remakes of Japanese horror films. And then there's Masayuki Ochiai's Presentiment, which is a little longer and has a very cool take on death. Some of it was obvious but not all of it and it pans out rather nicely indeed.

Individually, these would work out as a good, an excellent, a couple of poor and an excellent.

Frisco Kid (1935) Lloyd Bacon

We're in the Barbary Coast, the most dangerous three blocks of the San Francisco of 1854. It's so dangerous that no less a Warner Brothers tough guy like James Cagney can get shanghaied and lose his money belt and possessions. Of course being Cagney, he gets away, shanghaies a shanghaier and start marking a name for himself. Backing him up is the decent owner of a second hand store, played by George E Stone doing his best Peter Lorre impression, though to be fair Lorre was only just making a name for himself in the western world. He starts out working for Ricardo Cortez, who played the first Sam Spade in 1931. He falls for the delectable Margaret Lindsay, who paired with Cagney in four films.

There are some cool fires in this one but not a huge amount else. It started well but went downhill and despite some fair performances it ended badly. Maybe the biggest problem is the scope it tries to reach while being merely an hour and eighteen minutes long.

The Spirit of the Beehive (1973) Victor Erice

Almost ten years after the release of Frankenstein, James Whale's masterpiece of horror, the film makes its way to rural Spain where it is shown in the town hall to a village that seems to be predominantly women and children, because it's wartime. Two young girls are so taken by the film that the monster becomes part of their lives and their growth as people.

It's so obviously told from the children's point of view that the title credits are accompanied by the sort of colourful attempts at art that schoolchildren draw and introduced with the words, 'once upon a time...'. The two young children that the film focuses on are wonderful: Isobel Telleria who would not act in another film and Ana Torrent, seven years old and already magnificent, who went on to make many more films and to be nominated for a Goya for Best Actress in 1997. The rest of the cast backs up them up superbly but it's deliberately their show and rightly so. The film is about childhood and it depicts it wonderfully. In fact I can't think of another film that captures so well the magic of childhood and that's entirely apart from my feeling more at home with this one than Stand By Me, for instance, even though I'm not female, am forty years younger than these characters and haven't spent more than three days in Spain in my life.

The film is slowly and beautifully shot, obviously by someone who knows exactly what he wants to show and what he doesn't. There are a lot of instances where we see the effect of something rather than the thing itself. Also the colours are awesome: they're the slightly faded colours of old masters and a lot of the staging of scenes reminded me of classic art too. There's a lot of use of light and shadow and of texture. There are whole swathes of texture in this film that are palpable and some gorgeously framed sequences that are stunning.

And above all it's going to stay with me. I need to pick this up on DVD and rewatch every couple of years because I think it's going to grow.

J Horror Anthology: Legends (2003) Kiyomi Yada et al

Here's another anthology of Japanese horror stories made for television, presumably under the name of Kadakawa Horror Cinema and presented by some guy that waffles on about nothing. In fact the way the DVD starts off, it's even more obviously television material than the previous disc. The Peony Lamp is an old Japanese ghost story, but here it becomes a clumsy tale with some seriously bad daytime soap opera acting going on. The story isn't bad but the acting kills it dead. Imagine Shakespeare done by teenagers in a school play. That's the level of this one. And the dialogue is terrible: "I have to say goodbye to him once, for the last time." Cringe. Bad.

Then there's She Bear about a freaky old woman who carries a teddy bear and collects severed fingers. She chases two school girls in classic bad horror movie style: when she's close to them she moves really slowly but when she's not she can shift like lightning. It starts with a suggestion of urban legend but very quickly becomes nothing but a chase. It's like the last ten minutes of a terrible slasher movie. Even worse than bad, this one's an abysmal.

And so it continues. Yomamba has a couple of reporters investigating a mountain god but getting a little closer to the legend than they expected. It's not as badly acted as the previous storiesbut it does contain about every horror movie clich� in the book. Another bad.

The fourth story concerns a little boy and a strange poltergeist with a weird head who looks a bit like the Cat in the Hat. Definitely an improvement: at least as far as poor. Then there's Heartbroken Trip, which improves things again. It's not great and the twist was entirely predictable, but it was well enough done and nicely freaky. Definitely OK. The last is a freaky little restaurant story, based around the concept that if someone tells you not to look, could you resist the urge? OK again.

The Last Remake of Beau Geste (1977) Marty Feldman

I hadn't realised that Marty Feldman, so notable in Mel Brooks's masterpiece Young Frankenstein, had directed a film of his own. Well he did, and unsurprisingly it's very much in the Mel Brooks tradition with a good dollop of Monty Python and a set of the great comedians of British film, such as Spike Milligan, Terry-Thomas, Peter Ustinov, Roy Kinnear and even Burt Kwouk, Kato from the Pink Panther films.

Sir Hector Geste is seriously upset when his wife dies giving birth to a daughter and so has to go on the adoption trail. He ends up with the perfect heroic son, played as an adult by Michael York but also gets lumped with his not so identical twin brother, played of course by Feldman himself. There's also Ann-Margret, James Earl Jones the same year he gave a voice to Darth Vader, Trevor Howard, Ted Cassidy aka Lurch from the original Addams Family series and even Henry Gibson who never fails to be memorable.

In fact they're all memorable: sadistic sergeant Peter Ustinov with a metal leg and both a horse and a teddy bear with an equally metal leg; Burt Kwouk who sings in an Irish accent, a blind Ted Cassidy with a nude drawing done in braille, a creaky Spike Milligan deluged by calendar days. There's also a really cool silent slapstick section where Marty Feldman escapes from jail with a large amount of help that he doesn't notice, a second hand camel commercial and guest appearances, Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid style, from Gary Cooper and Rudolph Valentino.

The jokes are solid and there are many of them. What I found striking was that this is 1977, after all the great Mel Brooks movies but before all the lesser ones. Brooks couldn't do it any more but I guess Feldman could. Now I really want to see In God We Tru$t, his other directorial effort, from three years later. A mere two years after that he was dead.

The Balloonatic (1923) Buster Keaton & Eddie Cline

This time out Buster starts out at the amusement park and the House of Trouble is far from the only such that he'll get into. He ends up accidentally adrift by balloon and so The Balloonatic turns into a outdoor woodsman thing. He sets fire to his canoe, nearly drowns when he dams up a river to catch fish, gets chased by a bear, you can imagine the sort of thing. Luckily for him Phyllis Haver is around to save him, as much as he tries to save her. She's far more capable than he is though she has her fair share of ineptitude.

There's even less dialogue than usual and, surprisingly, a more appropriate selection of inappropriate music to work as the soundtrack. The gags are funny but there are so many of them and they're so loosely connected that it seems strange to call it a single film. As a set of gags it's funny, as a film it makes no sense.

They Drive By Night (1940) Raoul Walsh

Humphrey Bogart's last time outside the lead but at least he makes the first page of credits. He's fourth on the bill behind George Raft, Ann Sheridan and Ida Lupino. Amazingly enough given this cast, it's no gangster thriller but a truck driving film. Raft and Bogart are the Fabrini brothers who are honest but hard done by, working hard for the wrong people.

They work well together on screen, surprisingly well given that it didn't happen again. They did two films together, this one and Invisible Stripes a year earlier, but then Raft started turning down all the wrong roles: High Sierra (that made Bogie a lead), The Maltese Falcon (that made Bogie a star), Casablanca (that made Bogie immortal) and then Double Indemnity, all within four years. It's like George Raft is the John Travolta of the forties and Bogart is the Richard Gere who got famous on all the parts he shouldn't ever have had. Of course Bogie went on to be one of the greatest of all time and Richard Gere pretty much disappeared, but the parallel is there up till then. And a sad footnote is that George Raft's last film appearance was in a film called The Man With Bogart's Face that I have on video and will have to move up the priority list.

Anyway, they take turns driving their truck and are along when one of their colleagues crashes and burns after falling asleep at the wheel. Also along is Ann Sheridan, a cute waitress who wants out because her boss is too happy with the hands. There's also a wildly lively Alan Hale who runs a trucking company and he wants to hire the Fabrinis and a blistering Ida Lupino as his bitchy and unhappy wife who has the hots for Raft. There's lots of opportunity for drama here and director Raoul Walsh makes the most of it.

So does Lupino, who has a field day with this material. She literally shakes with anger and her eyes are piercing and she turns completely hatstand.

Racket Busters (1938) Lloyd Bacon

Here's Bogie again with another trucking yarn, but this one's a little different. In 1940 he was the good guy who ends up with one arm for his troubles, but two years earlier he was the mob boss moving in on the trucking business. The good guy is George Brent, who resists the takeover along with his partner and the rest of the outfit he works for. There's also a crusading district attorney played by Walter Abel who's fighting a losing battle trying to get the truckers to tell what's what.

It always felt strange to me that films from the thirties were so consistently decent and that even the run of the mill movies weren't really that bad. Unfortunately this is another one of those run of the mill pictures. Bogart may be the lead but he doesn't get much to do; Brent did well in a wide range of quality films but he's too bland for this sort of thing, as it's painfully obvious that the role was designed for someone dynamic like Jimmy Cagney. Abel tries a little too hard to be William Powell; and leading lady Gloria Dickson is just another blonde who doesn't get to do much. Only Allen Jenkins is anything of note and that's mostly because he has a bigger part than usual. I just wish it had been bigger still.

It's also notable that attitudes have changed. Back in 1938 Bogart the mobster was the bad guy and that still stands, but Abel the prosecutor is another matter. He's based on Thomas Dewey, a prosecutor of note in the thirties who ended up being a close thing for President. He must have been popular. But he's a lawyer who tries to take down the bad guys by criminalising the good guys. The other heroes are union men who resist the mob and it's hard to see lawyers and shop stewards being the heroes nowadays.

Across the Pacific (1942) John Huston

Obviously trying to repeat the success of The Maltese Falcon, here John Huston uses the same cast and the same crew, pretty much. Only Peter Lorre of the key performers is missing, which is a major omission, but there's still Bogart, Astor and Greenstreet and that's no minor cast list. It's also the last of the six Bogart/Huston collaborations that I've managed to see, and given that I see four of the other five (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo and The African Queen) and the fifth (Beat the Devil) as still quite excellent, this has a lot to live up to.

Of all things we start off with Bogart as Captain Rick Leland being found guilty of something pretty important by a military court and dishonourably dismissed from the service. Maybe that's how he turned up as another Rick in Casablanca in his next film with such a bitter outlook on life! He gets quickly turned down for service by the Canadians (after all who wants to hire a dishonourably discharged soldier?) and ends up on a Japanese boat across the Atlantic. Given that this was filmed in 1941, you know how it ended up. In fact it started out as a film about a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but then of course the Japanese did attack Pearl Harbor. I wonder if Roosevelt called Huston in for questioning.

Among the other few passengers, there's Mary Astor playing someone called Marlowe, which may well have been deliberate, and Sydney Greenstreet with his Japanese servant. As can be expected, the banter is top notch and all these are excellent. It's also good to see Charles Halton, one of those actors who I've technically seen many many times but who I just haven't really noticed until now. In They Drive By Night he was the insurance agent trying to repossess Raft and Bogart's truck. Here he's very much on Bogie's side in a small but notable role. All in all it's a pretty tight story, though much of it was expected, the title makes no sense and the ending was a little disappointing (not directed by Huston at all). And the models suck.

The Millionaire (1931) John G Adolfi

I'm watching The Millionaire for the presence of one James Cagney but I'm not expecting to see a lot of him as he's fifth on the cast list, hardly the featured star. Then again this is 1932 and while he had certainly arrived he wasn't the sheer force that he would become. This is a George Arliss film, and Arliss is a distinguished old gentleman a mere 64 years young. He plays James Arden of James Arden Engineering, but while work is everything to him he is forced to quit by his doctor on health grounds. He's half Leo G Carroll and half an elder Peter Cushing and he has a wonderful sarcastic wit that is hilarious and scathing at the same time. What's most impressive is that it isn't just the words but the delivery, the intonation and the facial movements. He can wither with his eyes or his eyebrows even!

Next on the cast list is his wife playing his wife, so that can't have been much of a stretch. Then there's David Manners, who came to the part fresh from his success in Dracula and Cagney fresh from his first taste of stardom in The Public Enemy. He plays an insurance agent keen on acquiring Arden as a client and he's the dynamo you'd expect him to be. He also doesn't wear as much make up as usual which is refreshing. He's having fun and obviously so and it's also pretty obvious that Arliss enjoyed it just as much as Cagney and us.

Cagney suggests that he quit being bored and get involved in some sort of business opportunity rather than wait around for the undertaker, so he does. He buys a half interest in a gas station and works there on the sly, quickly taking on the crooks who sold the place to him knowing that the location was about to become obsolete. Naturally he has the time of his life and so do we because he is a sheer delight. He's a mischievous little 64 year old imp and I so want to see everything else he did.

Arliss was a major stage actor and he only made 25 films but just reading through his list of credits shows that he worked a lot of serious roles, including an Oscar winning performance as Benjamin Disraeli. He played Disraeli twice and also James Arden twice, as this is a sound remake of the 1922 silent original, The Ruling Passion. He also played rajahs, sultans, prime ministers, lords, Rothschilds, presidents, kings and even Cardinal Richelieu and the Duke of Wellington. I now want to see all of them. I haven't laughed this hard in years!

Hard to Handle (1933) Mervyn LeRoy

Cagney back on top of the credits, above the title where he belongs. He's a small time con artist that starts out running a dance marathon. We don't see him to start with, naturally, but we do get Allen Jenkins as the radio announcer, which is always a good thing. From there we follow Cagney from scam to scam, getting rich, getting into trouble, getting out of trouble. It's not bad at all but it's far from a notable spot in Cagney's career. It's just that an average Cagney is still better than an average anything else.

It's much more fun watching his girlfriend's mother's antics, which are completely overblown but fun nonetheless. Mary Brian is the girlfriend and her crazy mother who would happily changes her entire outlook on life for anyone with money is Ruth Donnelly. She's awesomely outrageous and has no shame whatsoever in knowing it. There's also Claire Dodd and Frank McHugh's brother Matt, who I'm noticing more and more lately.

Lady Killer (1933) Roy Del Ruth

I'm not sure what this one was all about. It starts off as a typical Cagney conman film, like Hard to Handle or however many others, but then it turns into a nastier crime film where Cagney and his gang have to go running off around the country to avoid the cops. He ends up in Los Angeles going nowhere fast but then gets picked up by a film director looking for rough types for a movie. It isn't long before he becomes a star dating another star, but of course then the old cronies turn back up looking to score off his success.

It's going to be notable for all the wrong reasons: Cagney dressed up as an Indian chief, complete with pigtails; Cagney dressed up as an Italian rake, complete with cane and garlic; Cagney the movie star playing a movie star, complete with Clark Gable moustache. It's pretty embarrassing, to be honest, and it's about six films in one that isn't even that long to start with. The best bits are those where we cheer at the Edward G Robinson poster, the 'gay film party robbed' newspaper headline or Cagney's trademark moves like the face push and the hand wave.

It's notable that while I've given very few Cagney films low ratings, it's generally those directed by Roy Del Ruth: Taxi!, Winner Take All and this one. I only gave one Del Ruth/Cagney collaboration more than an OK and that was a good for Blonde Crazy. This is the worst of the bunch and probably the worst Cagney film I've seen out of 46. That's not good.

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) Stephen Zaillian

By the end of the credits Bobby Fischer, greatest of all American chess players, has disappeared, but Josh Waitzkin has arrived. He's a seven year old kid, son of a journalist, and he intuitively learns the game of chess by watching hustlers play in the park. His competitive dad, after having his ass kicked, suddenly has a mission. Before long the trophies are mounting up.

I've read one of Fred Waitzkin's books, about the best chess player of all time, Garry Kasparov, but he had to mention his son Josh often. There was a lot of insight in what he wrote and it was interesting to see a film based on his son's life. I haven't read the book that it's based on but I'm guessing that it follows it pretty closely because it doesn't work like a Hollywood story, it works like reality. Most noticeably, while this is a story by Fred Waitzkin who obviously has a vested interest in making his kid look awesome, he's not afraid to show his own weaknesses as well as his son's strengths. It plays honestly and it's all the more powerful because of it.

The performances are as solid as the screenplay, and that had to be for it to work. The central character is a seven year old boy and newcomer Max Pomeranc, who was admittedly nine years old at the time, is up to the task. If he hadn't been great the film would have suffered massively, but fortunately he's wonderful. Ben Kingsley is gaunt and looks far more like Jeremy Irons than himself but he's also powerful in his underacting. Laurence Fishburne is a drug addict hustler with a lot of insight playing in the park and he's excellent. Joan Allen is quiet but very memorable as Josh's mother, very different to her awesome performance in Manhunter. Most notable of all may be Joe Mantegna who seems like he isn't acting but is really doing a pretty solid job.

There are also some stunning scenes. My favourite has to be when at Josh's first tournament the organiser talks to the parents like they are kids, but the kids like adults. Soon he kicks all the adults out and locks them up behind a caged door so that the kids can concentrate without their influence. The kids spontaneously applaud and that really means something. A lot of this film is really about the parents, not the prodigies.

Rooster Cogburn (1975) Stuart Millar

A few scenes in and an old judge tells John Wayne that 'the west is changing and you aren't changing with it.' Given that this is 1975 he has a point. He strips Wayne of his US marshal's badge but that doesn't last long. He soon needs him to find and bring back a man named Hawk who has ambushed an army group carrying nitro so that he can rob a bank with it.

John Wayne was 68 when he made Rooster Cogburn, as was his co-star Katharine Hepburn. People talk about how this pairing seems strange and how they were surprised when it worked, but I'm not surprised at all. Exploring the movies has taught me that these two were the best of all actors at playing stubborn mules of characters in the history of American film. John Wayne, crusty old one eyed US marshal, is exactly what you'd expect John Wayne to be. He overacts a little making him seem somewhat like Wallace Beery. Kate Hepburn (in real life the daughter of a suffragette) is a preaching woman whose mission to the Indians is interrupted by the bad guys and so ends up riding with Wayne. In many ways her character is a reprise of Rose Sayer from The African Queen.

My wife who grew up in Arizona with an oil painting of John Wayne on the wall knows a lot more about westerns than I do. She quickly recognises people like Richard Zerbe who I've never even heard of, and Strother Martin who I have. Apparently Zerbe was a major name in the TV series The Young Riders. I have seen Richard Jordan before but he's more notable here than I've seen elsewhere. Unfortunately the name I'd have recognised most quickly (outside the leads) is Richard Farnsworth, whose scenes were deleted. He was so great in The Straight Story that I'd really like to catch a younger Farnsworth.

There's also a major flaw in the film. Without trying to give anything away, this has to be the safest nitro glycerin anyone ever saw.

Christopher Strong (1933) Dorothy Arzner

Kate Hepburn must have had a major impact on Hollywood when she arrived. Here in 1933 she appears proudly above the title as the lead actor in only her second picture. Then again she won an Oscar for her third. She's paired again with Billie Burke who was also in A Bill of Divorcement, her debut movie. There are also names all over the place that I know from Universal horrors: here there's Colin Clive halfway between his two appearances as Dr Frankenstein and Helen Chandler two years after her memorable role as Mina Harker in the original Dracula. Her husband in that film, David Manners, was in A Bill of Divorcement.

While Hepburn has the lead, as a daring female aviator, Clive plays the title character who is some sort of political bigwig and, while he is married to Billie Burke, the two of them naturally fall in love. Being honourable people, they decide never to see each other again, but there's a complication in that Clive's daughter Helen Chandler is one of Hepburn's friends.

It's pretty obvious that Hepburn is trying to be Greta Garbo. She often wears the same sort of outfits including some sort of hat that looks very like a beret, poses in similar ways and gets into the same sort of melodrama, so that sometimes it's almost hard to tell the difference. Maybe the similarity shouldn't be surprising. After all, Hepburn got into all sorts of trouble for doing such unladylike things as wearing slacks, but before her Garbo spent much of her time trying to play women pretending to be men so she could do exactly the same sort of thing. And to keep up the female power thing, the film is directed by the first woman to join the Directors Guild of America, Dorothy Arzner who set the standard for people like Ida Lupino a generation later and on to the many female filmmakers of today.

And yes, this is another precode that could never have been made after 1934.

Pretty Maids All in a Row (1971) Roger Vadim

OK, there was no way I could pass this one up. On the face of it it looked truly bizarre and the more I looked into it the more bizarre it got. It's a Roger Vadim movie, for a start, so we can get a good idea of what it's going to be like. It'll have plenty to do with sex for a start, but, oh hey, it's written and produced by Gene Roddenberry. Gene Roddenberry writing a sex comedy? OK. So who's in it? Well the star is noted homosexual Rock Hudson, so things ought to get confusing. There's Angie Dickinson, which makes sense, and Telly Savalas which really doesn't. Then there's the co-stars: Roddy McDowell and Keenan Wynn. Oh, and James Doohan's in there somewhere. Beam me up, Scotty! And music from the Osmonds. What the heck was this going to be like?

The hero of the story is some guy called John David Carson with constant erections who plays someone called Ponce de Leon Harper. Where do they get these names? Anyway, he gets rather excited when his new substitute teacher turns out to be Angie Dickinson, so he gets excused to hit the bathroom. Unfortunately it's already been hit by a dead cheerleader slumped over one of the toilets. He runs to get dumb principal Roddy McDowall who calls in dumb cop Keenan Wynn who calls in far from dumb police captain Telly Savalas. In the meantime macho football coach Rock Hudson is screwing one of his students. The setup is a cult film in the offing.

It's interesting that all three of the leads (outside John David Carson) went on to soon become television cops: Hudson became McMillan of McMillan and Wife the same year this film came out; two years later Savalas became Kojak and a year after that Dickinson became Police Woman.

Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) Stanley Donen

It's supposedly the Oregon Territory, 1850, but it's really the MGM backlot (and a little bit of Utah). I know what the Oregon territory really looks like because I saw it last night masquerading as Oklahoma in Rooster Cogburn. So it goes. Anyway Howard Keel has trekked into town and somewhere on his shopping list is a wife, because he and his six brothers out in the back woods don't know how to cook or clean.

I know Howard Keel from Callaway Went Thataway or The Day of the Triffids, hardly where most people know him from, I'm sure. As his IMDb biography lists it, he was the John Wayne, Errol Flynn and Clark Gable of movie musicals and I can believe it. He certainly looks the part. His leading lady is Jane Powell who I don't know from anything but is apparently one of those highly loved actresses who people still rave about fifty years on. Maybe now I'll start to learn why here.

Looking down the cast list I recognise a couple of names, like Russ Tamblyn, Ian Wolfe and Julie Newmar (as Julie Newmeyer), but mostly they're still blanks to me. I guess I still have a serious amount of work to do to learn about musicals. One name I do know though is Johnny Mercer who I am fully aware is one of the most skilful songwriters America ever had to offer. I was also really interested to see Stanley Donen as the director, because he also made Singin' in the Rain, the first musical that I really enjoyed as much as a musical as a film. Maybe he could do the double act and pull that feat off again.

I can see Howard Keel's appeal to many but and I thought that Jane Powell was awesome as an actress but I hated both of them singing. They didn't sound anything like a backwoodsman or a backwoodsman's wife! Until then they were entirely believable and thoroughly entertaining. I can certainly see why Powell is so fondly remembered. The rest of the brothers and their brides to be are pretty cool but of course none of them get a lot of screen time because there's so many of them.

The high points are the story, the consistently excellent acting and Johnny Mercer's lyrics. The low points are the terrible backdrops and all that bloody singing. I just hope I'll be able to see Jane Powell in something without it.

Key to the City (1950) George Sidney

It's the bookends of Clark Gable's career that I'm missing: the silent films at the beginning and the fifties movies at the end, especially those that came after his unceremonious departure from MGM in 1953. This is still part of his MGM career but it's a late one that sees him alongside Loretta Young for the first time since 1935's Call of the Wild, another one I haven't seen yet. I have seen her before a number of times but this is only the second time (the other being The Bishop's Wife) that I've seen anything of hers more recent than about 1932. It's good to see more of her much later in her career as she obviously had much to contribute to film.

Here she's the mayor of Winona, ME, who is in San Francisco for a convention of mayors. She's expecting to work hard and honestly for her people but she meets up with Gable, a former longshoreman who ended up as mayor of Puget City. He's honest too but he isn't really much interested in work when he can party it up with champagne and atom dancers and get caught up in fights in places like the Blue Duck restaurant and strip club. Naturally romance ensues, just as it had the first time they'd appeared in film together which in real life led to her daughter who Gable knew about but could never publicly acknowledge.

Outside of Gable and Young there's Frank Morgan in his last film role as fire chief and Gable's sidekick, police sergeant James Gleason and even hatchet man Raymond Burr. There's also Lewis Stone looking very old indeed as Young's uncle Silas and honourable judge of Winona, ME. While he always looked older than his years, he wasn't young when he was playing opposite Garbo twenty years earlier or even as King Rudolf in The Prisoner of Zenda nearly thirty year earlier!

As romance or politics, it's complete nonsense, but it's great fun and it's great to see Gable back in the sort of light hearted role he played in the thirties.

Following (1998) Christopher Nolan

Given that this is the debut feature length film from the director of Memento, it's not surprising that it has a disjointed narrative about curiosity. We follow a young writer who follows others to find something out about who they are. Apparently it gives him ideas for his characters. Soon though he follows a thief who catches him out and he soon gets caught up in his activities. The thief doesn't do things the standard way either: he burgles places not to steal things to get rich but to interrupt the lives of his victims. The process of breaking and entering and looking around someone else's stuff gives him an insight into who they are.

It's an interesting film and I wonder how much of this translates into discovering who Christopher Nolan is inside his skull. After all watching one film by someone doesn't tell us much but watching forty tells us plenty. This makes all four of Nolan's movies for me, but he has two more on the go. Maybe when he's made forty of them and I've seen all of them I'll have a decent insight into who he is. Right now he's just cool.

As for the film, it's highly intriguing and contains a number of twists that work very well indeed. It sets the stage very nicely for Memento which I'll need to rewatch soon. There was much that reminded me of Man Bites Dog, which I remember as being rather stunning, but it moves off into different territory. The only downside is the production quality which is rough and unpolished. Then again, is that a bad thing?

The Hoodlum Saint (1946) Norman Taurog

It's been far too long since I've seen a William Powell movie and it's about time to remedy that. Here he's returning from the First World War but his old position as a journalist has gone. His old friends are still in town, characters with strange names like Fishface and Three Finger and Eel who are played by favourites like Frank McHugh and James Gleason. They are seedy characters who avoided the war to run small businesses that the police like to arrest them for. Times are obviously not good all around.

Wherever there's William Powell, there's a female lead. Cagney and Robinson had them too, but they didn't always do anything. In Powell movies they tend to have much more notable roles and here they're two love interests taken by Esther Williams and a young Angela Lansbury. That means some serious age difference. Powell was 54 and Williams was only 24. Then again Lansbury was only 21 but always able to appear older than her years when the occasion called for it. I've enjoyed early Lansbury a few times but Williams is a surprise. I've seen her in one of her swimming films and she was OK but she's great here with no sign of water anywhere.

I'm really looking forward to a couple of films on TCM next month that have Frank McHugh as the lead not just some supporting actor. I've always felt that he was wasted in supporting roles, this being a great example. He has almost nothing to do, but at least James Gleason has a cool role as a hood who ends up with religion in an interesting way. In fact as the film pans out he's the best character in the film.

Woman of the Year (1942) George Stevens

World War II is on and Tess Harding is the star reporter who seems to be everywhere and know everything. Sam Craig is a sports reporter and couldn't really care less until he hears her spout such heresy over the airwaves as suggesting that baseball should be stopped for the duration of the war because it's a complete waste of time. Naturally, and especially as Harding is played by Katharine Hepburn and Craig is played by Spencer Tracy, there's soon a new war. And then he takes her to a baseball game and she nearly sparks another one and we're only ten minutes in. Naturally things don't end up that way but it's as much fun as you can imagine these two getting up to going from one to the other.

If I'm seeing things right, this is the first of eight films that Tracy and Hepburn made together so this must be where the chemistry kicked in. And it does kick in, big time. It's palpable, not just in the passionate scenes but in the gaps between them too. They are so obviously entirely comfortable with each other that they could sit and look at each other for an hour and a half and it would be electrifying. It's also obvious that George Stevens worked this out quickly enough that he played up on it no end. There really isn't that much of a plot, for all the namedropping and suggestions of importance.

Hepburn is great, Fay Bainter is greater as her aunt and Tracy is greatest of all in a role that sees him do very little indeed except emote. It's the opposite of the flashy sort of roles that win Oscars but it's a masterclass performance nonetheless. There is some of the best situation comedy I've ever seen, there's sadness and joy and passion and maybe a few bits that don't go where they could.

Force of Evil (1948) Abraham Polonsky

Frequently acclaimed as one of the greatest film noirs of them all, this is notable for other reasons too. Abraham Polonsky, the director, soon became one of the most obvious casualties of the communist witchhunts of the fifties, yet another sad moment in the history of the United States. The history of film has been strongly affected by the US government over the years, from the hiring of all the great Europeans in the twenties to the imposition of the production code in 1934 to the blacklisting of many of the great names of the industry. For good or bad that influence has been there for a long time.

The star is John Garfield, a supercilious mob lawyer who has his fingers in a lot of pies. He's also cooked up a scheme to bankrupt the numbers banks who finance the underground betting industry. One bank is run by his brother and he does what he can to help him out, though of course he has ulterior motives, just as he has for 'helping' anyone out. Garfield is wonderful and does possibly the best job I've ever seen anyone do of looking exactly like someone your mother would approve of while really being complete slime. His brother is Thomas Gomez and he's seriously good too. He's an honest man who can't be honest. There's a lot of similar depth throughout the characters who are some of the best defined I've seen, and a whole bunch of people I don't recognise act their socks off. They're all perfectly cast: Roy Roberts as the rock of a gangster, his wife Marie Windsor as the femme fatale, newcomer Beatrice Pearson as the good girl who gets caught up in everything, Howland Chamberlain the snitch, the cops, the opposition, the other workers, everyone.

There's also a lot of serious depth to the plot. One comment, almost thrown away halfway through the movie runs as follows: 'What do you mean 'gangsters'? This is business'. That sums up a huge part of the story but there's so much else here too. 'A man could spend the rest of his life wondering what he shouldn't have said.' This is one of those scripts that could be analysed and discussed and have theses written about it. It feels almost wrong to review it or rate it based on one viewing. It demands repeat viewings.

They Made Me A Criminal (1939) Busby Berkeley

This one looks highly interesting. John Garfield, the king of film noir in his second movie, shares top billing with the Dead End Kids in a film directed by musical maestro Busby Berkeley. He's a boxer, a newly crowned world champion no less, and obviously a good guy from the first few minutes. Or is he? Nuh huh. And of course when he lets his real side loose under the influence of the bottle it's in front of a reporter who his manager promptly clocks with a bottle and accidentally kills. Naturally good guy Garfield gets the blame but it appears that he dies in a car blaze so the case is closed. Only one detective, suffering years of disgrace for sending the wrong man to the chair after a previously sterling career.

Backing up such luminaries are names like Claude Rains, Ann Sheridan and May Robson, but things end up rather strange. Rains looks much shiftier than I've seen him before and he's notably overacting; as the film rolls on Garfield turns more and more into one of the Dead End Kids; Ann Sheridan gets killed off in no time flat and the real leading lady is Gloria Dickson. She does an admirable job but obviously wasn't as much of a name. Interestingly both she and Garfield died young, at 29 and 39 respectively, in a house fire and from coronary thrombosis.

There's a lot of formula in this one but there's plenty that's new too and it's certainly done well enough to be an intriguing little curiosity.

The Public Defender (1931) J Walter Ruben

Richard Dix and Boris Karloff together in a movie? Well this is 1931 before Frankenstein and so Karloff is eighth on the list of players right behind such massive household names as Edmund Greese and Purnell Pratt, even though he does have quite a substantial role. I've only heard of one cast member outside of Dix himself and that's Ruth Weston, hardly a major name herself. I do recognise a couple of others from looking at them.

I'd assumed that a film with such a title must see Dix as a district attorney or some such. In reality though he's a rich playboy, formerly of the intelligence service though outwardly of little brain, who takes it upon himself to fight crime as The Reckoner. He's aided in his task by Karloff, the cultured brains of the bunch and Paul Hurst, the muscle, who appeared in over 300 films including bit parts in many I've seen. Both of them are excellent and, to be honest, probably better than Dix who I've long felt consistently overacted in everything he did. He had a great face for pictures but not a lot else.

It was interesting to hear The Reckoner described as the boy wonder, nine years before the first appearance of Robin, and there are a number of similarities to the Batman. There are no costumes though and while Paul Hurst often appears very Kato-ish, there's not really any massive influence apparent. Maybe it was just one small part of a growing number of pulp films and pulp stories that fed the imaginations of people like Bob Kane. It's not

These Wilder Years (1956) Roy Rowland

Here's James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck with Walter Pidgeon and a bunch of other people I don't know because the fifties have become one of my biggest gaps at present. We're at the Bradford Steel Corp, which I don't remember when I worked in Bradford, and Bradford himself is not happy. That's Cagney, the older Cagney who I'm discovering lately because I've seen most of the early Cagneys. He's going to head off on a trip even though the timing is terrible because he has unfinished business and he won't tell anyone what it is. It turns out to be a search for his son who he put up for adoption twenty years earlier.

Both Jimmy Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck are notably older, but in very different ways. Maybe it's most easily summed up in their movements: Cagney moves just as much as he always did, just more creakily, but Stanwyck turned from an illicit girlfriend into a respectable mother. It's a major change, that's for sure. Anyway, the two of them fall for each other, naturally, but they clash big time too.

Cagney comes across as sincere. That's what is most noticeable about this film. Some of the lines he comes out with would so easily have been hokey out of a lesser actor's mouth, but not out of Cagney's. I don't know if this is territory he ever came across in real life or not, but he is entirely believable in his portrayal. He's a good man who's done bad things and knows it and who will still do bad things to get where he needs to be but regret them even while he's doing them. It's never easy to play two sides of a coin but Cagney does it and does it very well indeed. Stanwyck is good too and she softened a little. She always was tough as nails but she learned to hide it behind a much softer exterior when appropriate. This was definitely one of those times.

There are other people here but most of them don't really matter in the grand scheme of things. Needless to say, Walter Pidgeon and Don Dubbins do what they need to and more. The only one who really has a presence beyond the leads is a young lady named Betty Lou Keim. She's a young lady, only sixteen but pregnant and soon to be forced to give up her baby for adoption. Keim didn't do much in film but she had nothing to prove after this.

Swing High, Swing Low (1937) Mitchell Leisen

Co-written by Oscar Hammerstein II and directed by Mitchell Leisen, this is obviously going to be a musical, but thankfully there don't seem to be a lot of song and dance routines.

We're back in the Canal Zone but this time round Sidney Greenstreet isn't up to mischief working for the Japanese, it's five years earlier and the States doesn't care about the possibility of war. The print is really dark and in need of restoration, but somewhere in there is Carole Lombard working for flamboyantly gay hairdresser Franklin Pangborn and Fred MacMurray on patrol on his last day in the army.

Carole Lombard day on TCM could almost be described as Fred MacMurray day too as they seemed to costar together a lot. Hopefully this will help me catch up to the standard view of him as I discovered him playing all those bad guy roles that he took to break his good guy image. Unfortunately now I see him with a bad guy image and even though he's a good guy here, starting fights with Anthony Quinn or getting caught up in Dorothy Lamour's games can't hurt the bad guy side of things.

Every film of hers I see leads me to see Carole Lombard the same way most people see her, as the greatest screwball comedy actress of them all and a sheer delight. I can quite easily see her becoming one of my favourite actresses because she doesn't just act with her voice like many of her peers, but with turns of her head and flashes of her eyes and wrinkles of her nose and that cute little giggle and that stream of consciousness way she speaks. I can certainly see why Clark Gable was so smitten. Who wouldn't be? I wasn't too keen on her singing but luckily there wasn't a lot of that. In fact it's lucky that there's a serious lack of musical numbers in this musical.

The trumpet playing is cool, it's the songs that suck along with much of the second half of the film. Lombard is great and MacMurray is great, as much as he looks like Bruce Dern when he's down and out. Unfortunately the story doesn't back them up too well. Maybe the next couple of collaborations will be better...

The Racketeer (1929) Howard Higgin

The lead here is Robert Armstrong, before King Kong, with Carole Lombard appearing without the E at the end of her first name for the last time. There's Paul Hurst again and Hedda Hopper quite a way down the cast list, but other than that I don't recognise a single name. However that's not too surprising as this is 1929, Hollywood's lost year, for an early stab at the crime films that Warner Brothers monopolised in the decade to come. At least that's what it suggests at. It turns out to be much more of a romance than a crime drama.

Armstrong is a crime boss who effectively runs New York. He's a tough guy and he makes it known but he certainly has a heart too, helping out drunks in the street and donating to the policeman's ball. He ends up falling for a society girl down on her luck, helping her cheat at cards so that she can at least have some money to live on.

The whole thing is clumsily done but that's 1929 all through. The filmmakers were restricted from moving the camera around because of static cameras so it feels even more stagy than all those thirties movies based on plays. Another result is that the actors don't get to move around much, or at least certainly not while they're talking. Such restrictions obviously affect the performances of people like Armstrong and Lombard who are way above this sort of thing, and really dubious hairstyles and overacting with pauses in inappropriate places don't help either. Paul Hurst is good though and I'm really starting to notice him as his appearances mount up.

Island of Lost Souls (1933) Erle C Kenton

I've waited a long while to see this one. Banned in England for many years (before I was born, to be fair), this is Paramount's 1933 version of H G Wells's classic The Island of Dr Moreau, which may well be the first movie version of the story. Charles Laughton is the lead, a year after The Old Dark House and two years before Mutiny on the Bounty. He's absolutely wonderful here, sanctimonious and wicked, in a role that he based on his dentist but looks more like a cross between Oliver Hardy and Peter Ustinov, but one more film into his career and he'd have an Oscar to his name. I'm not sure anyone would be allowed to win an Oscar for material like this or for a part that involves such strange facial hair.

Bela Lugosi has a wild explosion of facial hair himself and makes his presence felt as the Sayer of the Law, a small part but a recognisable one. He was still in possession of his full powers in 1933, after classic roles in Dracula, Murders in the Rue Morgue and White Zombie, but was always open to appear in small parts too for the paycheck. This was a good one but there would seen be many far lesser ones. Also on the title card are Richard Arlen, Leila Hyams (Venus from Freaks) and 'The Panther Woman' (actually Kathleen Burke, an unknown dentist's assistant in her first acting role). Outside the leads, there's Paul Hurst who is fast becoming conspicious in almost every film I watch nowadays and, as uncredited and unnamed beasts, such future stars as Buster Crabbe, Alan Ladd and Randolph Scott.

The story is a classic for the early horror era and it still carries a major kick to it today. Richard Arlen is shipwrecked and rescued only to become the unwilling and unwelcome guest of Dr Moreau. Moreau is a scientist busy working mysterious experiments in evolution that turn humans into animals. The creatures are really well done with stunning makeup for the time. They are people simply but highly efficiently changed, appearing functional yet disfunctional, like people with mental retardation. Of course they're supposedly animals progressed through artificial evolution to be closer to human and that's almost believable. What's also believable is the menace and sense of danger, which was wonderfully upheld throughout.

You'll Find Out (1940) David Butler

Knowing in advance only that this was a Lugosi, Karloff and Lorre film, I was a little intrigued to find Kay Kyser (and His College of Musical Knowledge) as the only name above the title. Bela and Peter made it to the next five, Boris being a noted afterthought. And it's obviously some sort of musical comedy, where Kay Kyser is a the sort of radio host for which the word 'wacky' was invented. He tap dances! He cracks awful jokes! He does vocal acrobatics! Eek. How did these great names get suckered into appearing in something like this?

Well it's a very forties phenomenon, that could be described nowadays as the Scooby Doo concept. Throw a comedy talent into a mystery film, add a bunch of genre stars, sprinkle with cracks of thunder and flashes of lightning and serve in a haunted house full of bizarre decorations and even more bizarre inhabitants. The Ghost Breakers worked very well with Bob Hope, things like Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein fairly well and seemingly no end of other Bela Lugosi guest performances in films starring the Bowery Boys or such. This one has Kay Kyser and could really have done without Ish Kabibble and his dodgy haircut. He looks like he should have been a member of the Monkees.

Peter Lorre gets a great entrance and he has great fun in his role as a fake professor who exposes fake psychics. Karloff has a little fun too as a fake judge and Lugosi gets plenty of opportunity to shine as the fake psychic that Lorre is supposedly exposing. All three of them are wonderful but do they make up for Kay Kyser and Ish Kabibble? I don't think so. I think it's more of a counterbalance.

The Thirteenth Chair (1929) Tod Browning

In the horror paperback genre of the late twentieth century, there were a number of novels set in the British Raj, usually about the thuggee cult. However I can't think of any modern equivalents in the film world. There were a few back in the pulp era, and this one skirts around it. Spencer Lee is dead and a lot of people are highly intrigued as to who did it. Being 1929, Edward Wales calls in a medium to hold a seance to shed light on the matter. Margaret Wycherly is a wonderful medium, both as an actress and as the character of Madame Rosalie La Grange, as whom she is honest about all the tricks of the trade to build her credibility as a medium. Just as she disposes of the jokey atmosphere and settles down to expose a killer, Wales is killed, and so in comes a CID inspector to investigate. This inspector is Bela Lugosi, coincidentally a fake clairvoyant in the last movie I saw.

1929 was Hollywood's lost year when the industry was struggling with sound and the new technologies it brought, so it's stagy with some poor voice acting, but The Thirteenth Chair is also a Tod Browning film so it's likely to be pretty solid at the very least. He made a lot of great silent films with Lon Chaney and kept his quality up through to the early sound era and the wonderful Freaks which unfortunately killed his career. Here in 1929 he has the balls to give us a seance scene without light and so rely on the sound and dialogue that was still so new. He also gives us some notable camera movements, which of course had to come outside the scenes of spoken dialogue because of the fixed and hidden microphone issue.

The story is clever with a lot of leading questions and traps, though many of them are delivered with the sort of overacting that comes from being used to the silent era. There's plenty of that, but that's to be expected, I suppose. It's what brings the film down most, along with some dubious editing, while the story and Wycherly bring it back up.

The Lady Vanishes (1938) Alfred Hitchcock

After blitzing through most of Hitchcock's work, this ended up being one of my favourites. However my good wife, a Hitchcock fan of long standing hasn't seen it, so we decided to do a double bill with The 39 Steps, which she's seenand I haven't.

It's 1939 and Europe is at the brink of war. A diverse group of people are packed into a rural hotel somewhere on the continent after an avalanche prevents the train from leaving. A few of them are English: something of a cricket obsessed double act, Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford, who went on to become exactly that on radio; Dame May Whitty, a governess and music teacher; Cecil Parker travelling illicitly with his mistress; and a trio of delectable young ladies led by Margaret Lockwood who is going home to be married. There's also Michael Redgrave, a cad of a musicologist, a maid with a lecherous grin but no English and an unknown murderer. Of course, as this is a Hitchcock film, we don't know who it could be but it becomes rather important when the tracks are cleared and most of them leave on the train in the morning.

The characterisations are impeccable and that's what makes this film so special. Everyone is so well defined, courtesy not just of Mr Hitchcock but the venerable writing team of Launder & Gilliat. We are treated to myriad snippets of many lives and it makes them all seem so much more real. Add to that the gorgeous scenery of tall snow capped mountains and high bridges, the snappy yet incisive dialogue and the tense situation that Hitchcock builds and you're going to be in for a real treat. This tension comes when Lockwood wakes up on the train after a sleep, induced by a flowerpot being dropped on her head, to find that Dame May has vanished and nobody else seems to believe she exists.

This may well be my favourite of all Hitchcock's films and it's just as much of a treat this time round as the last. It really is a joy. It says so much about the English character with so many little touches of genius.

Hard, Fast and Beautiful (1951) Ida Lupino

Here's one of those films that my lass is likely to see far more than I will, because it's all about feminine wiles and how women can twist everything round their little finger. I can see plenty though. I can even see star Claire Trevor and director Ida Lupino sitting round talking about what else she could tease into the role. She reminds me of Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom but a few decades earlier, of course. She's an ambitious career mom whose every move is calculated to push her daughter's potential career as a tennis player further forward and consequently her own career as a social climber forward in the process.

This daughter is Sally Forrest and she shows a lot of talent both as an actress and as a tennis player. I have no real clue whether she's any good on the grass courts but she certainly appears to be, just as many of her opponents certain appear not to be. I don't know much about tennis but I know that much. There are male characters in there somewhere too but none of them really matter, being merely means to slightly change the direction of the story or to provide a male equivalent to Trevor's conniving.

I've seen Forrest before without really knowing who she was: later in the decade she had a decent part in Fritz Lang's While the City Sleeps and was the female lead in Son of Sinbad opposite Dale Robertson. Claire Trevor I've seen a few times now and it didn't take long for me to see her stealing a whole lot of shows. Most of all though I'm more and more impressed with Ida Lupino, as an actor but even more as a director. She was the only female director in Hollywood for years and given the obvious talent she displayed I'm amazed nobody else managed to follow in her footsteps.

Braindead (1992) Peter Jackson

After the stunning achievement of Bad Taste, which suffered from the inevitable problems of a budget not far above zero, Peter Jackson made an adult puppet movie and then returned to the horror genre with Braindead, released in a cut form in the US as Dead Alive. He has a real budget this time, not a huge one by any means but Jackson knows how to make any amount of money appear like ten times more. He also starts out how he means to go on, with a New Zealand zoologist trying to escape from Skull Island (yes, that Skull Island, didn't you know he was a King Kong fan?) with a Sumatran rat monkey. The local savages (the Fijian national rugby team) don't like this idea and even his own crew decide that they have to chop off any bit of him that gets bitten by the thing.

Somehow the rat monkey makes it back to New Zealand where it bites the domineering mother of Lionel Cosgrove, played by a real actor, Timothy Balme who looks somewhat like Crispin Glover. She turns into some sort of zombie and he has to lock her up away from not just his new girlfriend Paquita of whom she doesn't approve, but the rest of the family and the rest of the world too. Naturally being a zombie movie things don't quite go as planned.

It is a really great zombie movie because it combines Jackson's sense of humour with some excellent effects and an outragously huge amount of blood. I remember it well but it's great to see it again and recite all my favourite lines along with it, even though I haven't seen it for years. This is still probably the most expensive film I ever bought, as I shelled out no less than �20 for an ex-rental copy in London because I couldn't wait for the real video release. Now I'm watching it on DVD and enjoying the increased quality no end. I miss the trailer though!

It's also very obvious looking back that Jackson was learning his trade at every step. He's experimenting with camera angles and movements and all sorts of cinematic stuff, not just in the many wonderful gore scenes but throughout the rest of the film too. He was doing it in Bad Taste but it's more apparent here and seeing how he continued to progress with every film since, it's fascinating to watchthe development.

Going My Way (1944) Leo McCarey

Going My Way came my way because it won a whole slew of Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, beating out such minor league throwaway movies like, erm, Double Indemnity. Wow. While it was Bing Crosby who landed Best Actor, it was Barry Fitzgerald who won everyone's hearts and he's the other reason I really needed to see the film. He ended up with the distinctive honour of being nominated as both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. Needless to say he won the latter and the rules were quickly changed to avoid a recurrence.

Fitzgerald is the old and crusty Father Fitzgibbon of St Dominic's, a parish deep in debt and seemingly unable to free itself. Crosby is the young and dynamic Father O'Malley who is sent in to fix the situation, without letting Fitzgibbon in on who would actually be running things. Proving that all good things come in threes, there's also Frank McHugh as Father O'Dowd, an old schoolfriend of O'Malley's.

It's a feelgood film that is actually the sequel to The Bells of St Mary's, even though that film came out a year later. In fact this film was written using the same characters purely so that RKO could borrow the talents of Bing Crosby! Well Crosby isn't bad but I was never a huge fan, either of his acting or his singing and he gets to do quite a bit of both. Anyway he's not bad at all, but Barry Fitzgerald steals every scene he's in and Frank McHugh and Ris� Stevens are wonderful every moment we see them. I've become a huge fan of McHugh but I've never even heard of Stevens before. Apparently she really was one of the great stars of the Metropolitan Opera and I can believe it, but I felt she was just as good when she wasn't singing. And that's not just because she has a gorgeous smile either!

There's also Gene Lockhart; a delectable Jean Heather who I'd never heard of either; an uncredited William Frawley; and to make my wife's day, Alfalfa from The Little Rascals getting slapped silly. All of them earn their paychecks and the film itself is definitely a solid feel good picture, but I can't see how it beat out Double Indemnity.

Here Comes the Navy (1934) Lloyd Bacon

Here's a film of notable historic value and no documentary: it's a James Cagney/Pat O'Brien double act movie. It was made to show how the modern navy of 1934 ran and it covers a lot of ground that wasn't there for long. The ship scenes are filmed on board the USS Arizona which didn't stay afloat for long, being notably sunk at Pearl Harbor. There's also the USS Macon, the last of the navy's dirigibles that lasted only another year, presumably going down with many of the crew seen here onboard. There's also the strange note that leading lady Gloria Stuart obviously didn't have much luck with boats, or to be more exact she had the luck and the boats didn't. Apart from featuring in this movie filmed on Pearl Harbor's most notable casualty, she's also memorable as the old Rose in James Cameron's Titanic and look what happened to that one!

All that came as the film progressed. What was immediately obvious was the strange idea of the screenwriters to name the lead characters Chesty, Biff and Droopy! James Cagney was many things, but he was hardly a Chesty! Then comes the even more strange idea of the screenwriters to have Cagney join the navy so that he could end up on one particular boat to start a fight with an officer who'd pissed him off. Cagney movies were never about logic but this one stretches the issue way too far.

How to rate it? For the chemistry between Cagney and O'Brien, excellent as always: this is the first of nine films they did together and the one with maybe the most vehement bantering. For the rest of the lead acting, good to excellent: Frank McHugh is always fun and Gloria Stuart does a pretty good job. For the historical value? Priceless. For the story? Eek. I have to go bad. There's more convenient coincidence in this film than any other I can think of right now. Put it together? I guess I'll have to go OK.

Love Before Breakfast (1936) Walter Lang

It's 1936 and therefore the days when someone was someone depending who who they associated with. Carole Lombard plays Miss Kay Colby but she's only important because Cesar Romero is engaged to her. Preston Foster buys the oil company Romero works for so that he can send him into exile in Japan in the first few minutes of the picture, thus leaving the road open for himself. Of course he tells her this so naturally she wants nothing to do with him but circumstances, perseverence and a scheming mama have their own effects.

Lombard is great but I'm quickly discovering that she rarely isn't. Leading man Preston Foster is a true pain in the neck and I don't know how or why anyone would ever fall in love with him. If I were Lombard's character I'd have belted him one. I'd have got a restraining order against him or hired a hitman or done whatever possible to avoid him. Lombard tries but she doesn't try hard enough and of course succumbs in the end. Preston Foster has the unfortunate talent of playing his part too well and thus becomes incredibly annoying. Romero is good but he's missing for three quarters of the film and ends up passed out or bedridden for much of the rest of it. Mom is Janet Beecher and she's annoying too and even Lombard ends up as a stubborn spoilt little brat by the end of the film.

In fact this has to be one of the most annoying bunch of characters I've seen in a long while. Luckily the cast are more than up to the task and watching them do their jobs is precisely the pleasure that knowing such characters for real wouldn't be.

Operation Petticoat (1959) Blake Edwards

It's good to see this one again. It's the only Cary Grant movie that I saw before starting my explorations into classic cinema back in late 2004. Grant is the captain of the USS Sea Tiger, a submarine that gets sunk in 1941 before it gets to do anything whatsoever in the war. He manages to get it back up and running via some serious jury rigging but he ends up lumbered with supply officer Tony Curtis (the same year as Some Like It Hot), a bevy of army nurses and a pink paint job. The cast is an interesting one. The requisitions officer is the captain of The Love Boat. One of the ensigns is also one of the Darrens from Bewitched. One of the RNs is Norman Bates's mother from Psycho and another is Richie's mother from Happy Days.

The scavenging is vintage Blake Edwards as is the biting sarcasm. Tony Curtis's Lt Holden is both the logical 50s/60s extension of the fast talkers of the precodes as epitomised by Lee Tracy and Warren William and the prototype for Dirk Benedict's Faceman in the A Team. Blake Edwards was never that consistent as a director but when he got things right he got them very right and this one is up there with the best of the Pink Panther movies. Grant is excellent, Curtis is almost as good and the rest of the cast do a great job with their limited screen time, as after all there are a lot of them and only a couple of hours running time. This has to be the best war picture set at sea where nobody ever sinks anything.

We're Not Dressing (1934) Norman Taurog

One of many versions of J M Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, this one turns it into a Hollywood musical comedy on water with Bing Crosby, Carole Lombard, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Ethel Merman, Leon Errol, a couple of vocal groups and a roller skating bear. I've just seen the Bingle, as TCM's Robert Osborne keeps calling him, eight years later when he was the biggest star of them all. Here he was just one of them, though his star was definitely rising. Ray Milland's star was yet to rise and in fact he was still Raymond Milland at the moment.

The musical numbers are reasonably insane which would normally be more of a recommendation to me but they don't do much and there's a lot of them. Bing Crosby and Carole Lombard look terrible! He has more make up on than she does and she can't escape from either an awful hairdo or the material she's forced to work with. She does try though, and one scene in particular is hilarious. Bing sits next to her and sings and she continually switches between a dreamy face when he isn't looking at her and a blank face when he is.

Ethel Merman is annoying but then she's trying to be. Milland and Jay Henry play a couple of princes competing for Lombard's rich girl but they're just annoying wastes of space too. Gracie Allen is scary but then that's what she did. Droopy the bear is the most entertaining of the bunch especially when it looks like she's trying to rape Bing Crosby. Now there's a film we should see! It would also be fair treatment given the crap she gets put through in this one. This one is pretty awful and I hope J M Barrie never saw it because he would have had to disown it if he had. I've seen the play and it was rather excellent. I don't remember Bing Crosby, Gracie Allen and a roller skating bear. I also don't remember an hour and a half lasting twice that long.

Ecstasy (1933) Gustav Machaty

It's 1933 and 20 year old Hedy Kiesler had the guts to head on out to Czechoslovakia and make a film that featured her in both topless and nude scenes, though even in the nude scenes certain parts of her body were artistically concealed. It made her a star, naturally, and soon she was working in Hollywood under the name of Hedy Lamarr. It starts out like a sitcom with bright fluffy music and a newlywed carrying his wife over the threshold. Now this newlywed, notably older than his young bride, looks like he's in ecstasy taking off his shoes, but he soon proves to have very little in the way of passion to offer her, even on their wedding night. He's far more absorbed with his OCD issues of place and order, even seeming to ignore her most of the time, and so young Hedy inevitably ends up looking elsewhere, starting with a nude outdoor swim.

This upset the Vatican, naturally, who somehow found the authority to have all prints sent Stateside censored. Bear in mind that 1933 was the peak of the precode era when Hollywood films were getting away with all sorts of mayhem looked down upon by self appointed moral leaders, so it's surprising to see this not being welcomed by Hollywood Babylon. Of course they welcomed her instead. Even with the degrees that the precodes went to, this may well be the first time I've seen a naked leading lady, as well as the first mention of divorce (surely not, but I can't think of anything earlier) and the first instance of obsessive compulsive disorder.

I was surprised to see that this is in the main a silent movie, shot a full two years after Chaplin's City Lights, often seen as the final curtain on the American silent era. Yet there are scenes where the leads speak, though only a little and not very often. In fact there are only a couple of scenes where anyone has a monologue that lasts more than a single word. It concentrates instead on composition and emotion, with whole scenes where nothing happens that isn't visible on Hedy Lamarr's face. There were parts where I thought I was watching an F W Murnau movie. Then there's the symbolism which is readily apparent. I'd have believed Sigmund Freud as a screenwriter the amount of Freudian symbols we get to see, from huge trees to rampant horses to locomotive engines.

What was strangest was the ending, which didn't seem to make a lot of sense. While I got some of it, I also fail to understand much of the last ten minutes which doesn't gel too well with the rest of the film. It contained some of the most stunning visuals of the entire movie (especially the camera moving with the pickaxes and the view up from the bottom of a bucket full of clear water waiting for a drip) but that didn't stop it feeling like it was tacked on.

Lady By Choice (1934) David Burton

May Robson is in fine drunken form at the start of Lady By Choice, hissing at a club singer, starting a fight and getting hauled up in front of a judge in a hat with a dead bird hanging off the side. Also up in front of Judge Daly is Georgia Lee, better known as Alabam, the Human Heat Wave, who is facing a charge of breaching morals codes with her racy fan dancing. And you can guess what sort of movie it's going to be when the tough judge presiding over these cases (played by Walter Connolly) has his name on the title screen!

A year earlier May Robson was Apple Annie in Capra's wonderful Lady for a Day where she got transformed from a street woman into a lady. Here she's Patsy Patterson and the principle of the thing is just a little different: just when we think exactly the same thing is going to happen again because Carole Lombard as Georgia Lee gets persuaded by her PR guy to adopt her as a fake mother, she cleans up her act and tries to transform Lombard! The other name on the title screen is that of Roger Pryor who is a rich lawyer who helps out Patsy because she meant something to his father and ends up falling for Georgia Lee.

After We're Not Dressing, Carole Lombard could stand on her head for an hour and a half and it would be an improvement, but thankfully there's a lot more than that. This is my fourteenth May Robson and she's been nothing less than great in any of them. She's the greatest cantankerous old firefly of a lady film has ever seen. Jessica Tandy was great but May Robson was greater. She also works wonderfully with Lombard and I'm guessing they got on off screen like a house on fire. Roger Pryor is good too and I don't recall ever seeing him before. Apparently the studios treated him like a second rate Clark Gable and he didn't think he was very good himself. He looks a little strange and he's a little wooden but here he's honest and believable and even though his character is a really nothing more than a prop for the two leading ladies that honesty makes it memorable. And while the film is no classic, it's just as memorable.

The Princess Comes Across (1936) William K Howard

Watch any screwball comedy with Carole Lombard and you know where her skills lie. She was the greatest of all screwball actresses to such a degree that she was the only one who really counts in hindsight. However I've seen a few of her lesser straight roles and noticed a similarity in many posed closeups to Greta Garbo. I wonder how deliberate that was but it's blatantly obvious here. She plays an American actress playing a Swedish princess heading to Hollywood or at least pretends to be. She does it well too.

Her co-star is Fred MacMurray, who I last saw in Swing High, Swing Low playing a musician opposite Carole Lombard. This time he's playing a musician opposite Carole Lombard, so there's not much new there. At least the instrument is different: last time it was a trumpet but now it's a concertina and he's a bandleader to boot. There are also a slew of international detectives supposedly on holiday but still trying to track down a murderer. They are well played to comedic effect by people like Mischa Auer, Douglas Dumbrille and Tetsu Komai.

They Call Me MISTER Tibbs (1970) Gordon Douglas

It's San Francisco this time round, not Sparta, Mississippi, and it's obviously 1970 not 1967 but it's still Virgil Tibbs, homicide detective. He's investigating the murder of a hooker in her psychedelic apartment, as discovered by a janitor who looks like a seventy year old Ice T, and the chief suspect is a liberal preacher friend of his, played by Martin Landau. The credits run like a TV series, which of course it soon became and it plays like a TV movie, albeit a seedy one. Many of the actors are the sort of old guys who take comfortable recurring roles in TV series and I wonder how many of them ended up in the series. Without a southern fried bigot as a counterfoil, Tibbs has to be a little tougher to compensate but he really ain't no John Shaft, brother. It tries but it's not tougher and it's not grittier, it's just seedier.

It's strange to see Tibbs with a wife and kids of school age, as he pointed out three years earlier that he didn't have either. It's strange to see him dealing with them at home because they really have nothing to do with anything. A lot of the film is pretty strange, but the core is solid. The plot sends us in a few directions all of which make sense, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter. How much is the fact that it's nothing compared to its predecessor and how much is that it's just not that great anyway I don't know, but it's just not that great.

Mr Vampire (1985) Ricky Lau

You really can't get much more fun than kung fu vampire comedy. Honestly! And Mr Vampire may well be the pinnacle of the genre. Produced by the legendary Sammo Hung and starring the man behind the fight choreography of many classic martial arts movies from Enter the Dragon on down, this has everything you could want from such a film. We get a man masquerading as a vampire, a mass vampire attack, defence through martial arts and Taoist magic and even vampires with dentures... all in the first five minutes.

Now if you haven't seen one of these films before, you're going to be a little shellshocked. Chinese vampires aren't like western vampires who are all capes, bats, stakes and drinking blood. Here the rules are completely different. Chinese vampires attack but only in the modern era do they drink blood. These ones have fangs and you don't want them attacking you. So when they hop your way (yes, I said hop) in their Mandarin costumes, you need to affix a spell scroll to their forehead so that they can't move. You could hold a piece of string covered in ink in their path because it gives them an electric shock. Or alternately you could stop breathing because that's how they track you.

Here we have a Taoist priest played by a unibrowed Lam Ching Ying who is unfortunately saddled with two inept assistants, one who soon gets bitten by a vampire and the other who gets possessed by a ghost. Oh, and of course this is a Chinese ghost which is much more like the lamia of western legend, as played gorgeously by Pauline Wong. The inept assistants are Siu-Hou Chin and Ricky Hui and both of them have huge fun with the sort of situation comedy that Jackie Chan got up to with Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.

The whole thing is hilarious, if you can get into the very strange mindset of Chinese pantomime comedy, let alone the even stranger Taoist belief system. However it's also full of action with some great stuntwork and even scary on occasion. Give it a try. If it's your cup of tea you'll love it.


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