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How else can you start a film about a tough boxing champion than with a theme song sung by Perry Como? Yeah. Well this is 1956 and we're in New York and it's black and white so it fits. As soon as we see people though, we see toughness. In a little room, a boxer has his little kid in gloves, punching through his pathetic defences and making fun of him. Needless to say the kid isn't happy about it and runs off down the street. Many years later the kid is Paul Newman but he's still running. He's a street hood, along with Sal Mineo, stealing wheels and fishing off rooftops.
The film looks awesome from moment one. It's gorgeously shot and framed and staged. The only negative point is really the fact that Newman is 31 years old and he's pretending to play something like 16. I buy that about as much as I buy Judy Garland in the Wizard of Oz and Mary Pickford in Sparrows. Outside of that though, Newman is superb and it's easy to believe his idiot tough kid routine. Anyway after a bunch of years in Riker's and a short period of being drafted his age becomes a little more believable. He escapes but after a few bouts in the ring for little cash he gets caught up with and thrown into Leavenworth.
I've seen a lot of stories where the idiot kid gets a wake up call and comes good, but this one has more of the idiot kid than I've ever seen before. How Rocky Barbella stayed alive long enough to turn into Rocky Graziano, I really don't know, but it would be even harder to believe that he made all of this complete stupidity up and threw it into his autobiography just for the heck of it.
The more I watch Robert Wise the more impressed I get, and the more I watch Paul Newman the more impressed I get too. This is still very early in his career and he certainly got better as the years went by, but he was pretty damn good to start with. There are also bit parts for Steve McQueen, who I recognised, and Robert Loggia, who I didn't. It was Loggia's debut and McQueen's second film, two years before The Blob.
Here's Norma Shearer in a double role with Joan Crawford doubling for her in scenes that feature both characters. I recognise a few names here but not from the cast. Adela Rogers St Johns wrote the story and she wrote a lot of them, from the silent days into the sound era. Monta Bell is the director and his name also appeared on things as high up as Greta Garbo's Torrent. Cedric Gibbons is there of course but as this is 1925 his name appears alone because he didn't have help. Yet I don't know any of the cast except Norma (and the uncredited Joan who nobody could possibly recognise because we only ever see her from behind).
At the beginning of the film two young girls are born: one to a woman and her husband who is on his way to jail and the other to a judge and his wife. The former is Molly and the latter is Florence, but they're both going to be played eighteen years later by Norma Shearer. We first see them graduating: Florence from the Girls' Select School, all frills and gaiety, and Molly from the Girls' Reform School without a lot of hope. They go on to fall in love with the same man, the only real thing that connects them, as they never recognise how much alike they actually look.
Norma Shearer does an excellent job in the double role, appearing quite different in each part: the virtuous young lady and the Boy George lookalike with the outrageous hat. The leading man is decent but inconsequential. He is Malcolm MacGregor and as his film roles disappeared at exactly the same time sound came along, I presume that's an outrageous Scots accent we're not hearing. Then again he was born in New Jersey, so maybe it's a rather different outrageous accent that he couldn't use in sound films. The other love interest is George K Arthur, who is pretty good as a wussy figure on the fringes of the underworld. It's Shearer's show through and through and however good she was, the film is rather slow and ponderous. It looks good but it doesn't really go anywhere other than a rather blatant message that women can be noble, whoever they're born to. Interesting but hardly essential.
I really love the old Lon Chaneys, especially his twisted collaborations with Tod Browning, and this one was a film I'd looked forward to for years before finally catching it last year. Well, it's on TCM again and there's no way I'm going to miss a showing, so here I am reviewing it. It co-stars Norman Kerry and Joan Crawford, proving just how far she'd come in the two years since Lady of the Night. Then again this looks like film 17. They really didn't hang around in those days! Here she is opposite possibly the greatest screen actor of his generation or even any generation, Lon Chaney.
He's Alonzo the Armless, a gypsy circus performer who has no arms but still shoots and throws knives and all sorts of cool tricks. He loves Nanon, his beautiful assistant and she hates the touch of men's hands, so he has a pretty good chance of getting her. However she really likes the jovial strongman, Malabar, who loves her even though she hates his hands. He has his arms cut off so that she can love him without them but of course this is a Chaney film and so he does so at exactly the wrong time and things don't work out how he expects.
There are a few scenes where we watch Nanon through some sort of gauze and the whole thing looks like some magical painting. It's almost as magical as Lon Chaney's face. He was known as the Man with a Thousand Faces for a reason and he works through a whole bunch of them when Nanon breaks the happy news to him of her impending marriage. It's a sheer joy to see what he could do and I so want to see more and more and more Chaney. I haven't worked through all those thousand faces yet.
Crawford is excellent as Nanon and she actually looks far better than any other film I've yet seen her in. Norman Kerry doesn't have a huge amount to do except be a soft tough guy but he does that really well. He bounces around effortlessly exactly like some of the gentle giants I used to watch on The World's Strongest Man. But this is Chaney's show, like every Chaney film.
Here's a rarity. Chaney and Browning again, and 1927 again, but this is a lost movie. Or at least mostly lost. All existing stills have been compiled into the closest thing to the film that currently exists, working in conjunction with the existing shooting script that provides the title cards, and with a new music score by Robert Israel. It's a vampire story, made in the US four years before Browning made Dracula and changed the face of the horror film forever.
I've seen stills of Chaney's makeup and costume for this film and wasn't impressed. Denis Gifford didn't have a lot to say in his book on the horror film and he wasn't alone. It's pretty obvious that the makeup job isn't up to Chaney's usual standard, which wasn't just high but notably above that of everyone else. This stills reconstruction brings in many photos that I've never seen before and it backs that up, but there's also some great makeup working going on to age Chaney for shots that don't touch on the vampire with the weird gait and the animal teeth and the top hat.
The film was apparently quite a success for Chaney but I'm not sure how much that was really warranted. Not that we can really tell from a stills reconstruction, as thankful as I am to see at least this much. There's certainly a lot of what could easily be powerful filmmaking, especially in the hands of someone as talented as Tod Browning. The house looks awesome and many of the interior stills look like theywould serve to build atmosphere wonderfully. Then again the bug eyes of many of the cast would seem to fit better in one of those haunted house spoofs that every comic and his dog seemed to churn out in the forties. Let's just hope and pray that a copy comes to light.
That may serve to explain the bizarre holes in the plot. There's a lot I don't get, not least the need for the vampires, but then I've watched a stills reconstruction that is hardly the best choice for viewing.
I've seen one Gillo Pontecorvo film before this one, the superb and memorable The Battle of Algiers, a film about the fight against terrorism and civil war. This one has bombs too but that's about the only thing that their plots have in common. This one follows Squarcio, a fisherman whose method to get round the scarcity of fish off his island home in Italy is to use illegal explosives. The two friends he grew up with followed other paths: Salvatore is a fisherman, using traditional and legal methods and the other became the town cop.
I know nothing of course about Sicilian fishing but the whole thing felt believable to me. The acting, the story and the environment felt natural and relaxed, down to the common decency that the fishermen show even in the face of opposition. Yves Montand is the only name I know and he's excellent, but I was probably most impressed by Francisco Rabal as the fisherman friend he grew up with. Most surprisingly, the kids were natural and entirely believable, including Giancarlo Soblone and the very young Ronaldino Bonacchi, and they both have pretty substantial roles. The story (it's much more of a story than a plot) goes exactly where it should as the ending is inevitable. However it's just as well handled as the rest, leaving the entire film highly memorable. It's one of this films that seems so simple that it could have just been thrown together, but yet works so well that it patently wasn't.
I'm not sure how much can be said for a film that contains a whole bunch of effects work and spooky music before we even get to see any people, but hey, this one's supposed to be pretty solid. Donald Sutherland gets a great entrance as a inspector for the Department of Health investigating bad hygeine in restaurant kitchens. Soon that hardly matters any more. His young and beautiful assistant, who may or may not be something more than a young and beautiful assistant, tells him about her husband who has become someone else on the inside. Then a guy at his local Chinese laundry tells him the same thing about his wife. She notices people all over the place acting very strangely, congregating but never speaking, merely handing some object between each other. The body snatchers have arrived, as everyone who saw the original knew already.
The star is Donald Sutherland, who of course is solid in that slightly subversive way you'd expect Donald Sutherland to be. His assistant is Brooke Adams, who is the only one of the main cast I don't know, though she was the lead opposite Richard Gere in Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven the same year and I'm seriously looking forward to that. Then there's a young Jeff Goldblum who looks more than a little like Freddie Mercury, a young Veronica Cartwright who looks notably younger than she did a year later in Alien, and a not so young Leonard Nimoy who is notable as a psychiatrist friend of Sutherland's. And yes, there's Kevin McCarthy and Don Siegel from the original to lend it a little credence.
I'm not a fan of remakes though I do acknowledge that some of them can be just as or even more powerful than the originals, usually if they don't follow the carbon copy approach. This one stays true to the original but it's an obviously seventies version that brings a lot of tension and a skilful directorial approach to the mix. Some of the cinematography is excellent and none of it is bad. Even though I knew the story I was still drawn into the reinvention of it. To my mind it's not as powerful as the original but it's a worthy remake. And I don't say that much too often.
Anyone who has been to Barcelona can't help but notice the work of Antonio Gaudi. I honestly can't think of another artist who has so stamped his presence on a city. I honestly don't know how much of his work is hidden behind closed doors in private homes or workplaces, but there is certainly a huge amount right there on the street, from the always in-progress Sagrada Familia to the Parc Guell and the many other buildings fashioned from his unique vision. I've visited many of them and I was only in Barcelona for a few days.
Here though is a film that concentrates almost entirely on his work, without the accompaniment of much documentary voiceovers. Like Koyaanisqatsi, which must be its closest comparison, it concentrates entirely on the visuals with only the musical score and our imaginations to explain them. The music is interesting, though it sometimes gets a little obvious. The camera movements are a little too obtrusive. None of that is major though. My problem with the film is that it really isn't much more than a book whose pages turn at a speed we can't change and with zoom facility that we can't control. In that respect the book I bought on his life and work at the Sagrada is far superior, and it could easily be argued that my set of Gaudi playing cards are also superior on the basis that they introduce an element of surprise.
X-Men was not a Top 250 movie when I grabbed the list in 2004 and as far as I'm aware never has been. However for all its positive side, it has almost no plot whatsoever and thus fails to a large degree when viewed as a standalone movie. However it works wonderfully as an introduction to X2, so that the sequel can reasonably safely assume a level of prior knowledge and thus be able to get on with its own story.
Uhoh. Bryan Singer couldn't make the third X-Men movie, which naturally has to do everything the others did, just more so. Unfortunately in his stead came Brett Ratner, who made such a complete pig's ear out of making Red Dragon, which didn't need remaking in the first place. Surprisingly the first half of the film works pretty well but then it all goes completely pear shaped. It's fun, it's spectacular, it's definitely a ride but it makes less and less sense the more you think about it.
The plot has to do with a cure for the mutants, the sort of cure that the previous film pointed out couldn't exist because the mutations these mutants have isn't a disease. Well now it's a disease, so the humans come up with a cure. And rather than just slip it into the water supply and get it all taken care of before anyone knows it even exists, the humans announce it to the whole world but point out that it's only voluntary. Ten minutes later they've shot Mystique using the guns that secretly held cure-ridden bullets so the war's on. Of course the company's lab is in somewhere corporate like Alcatraz Island, so Magneto, bad guy mutant leader slips in nice and quiet by ripping up the Golden Gate bridge and landing the other end on the island. With his army of mutants. Who don't bother to use their mutant powers because it's far more fun to fight with their fists.
Welcome to Plothole City, where Brett Ratner conjures up a piece of fluff that looks awesome but has so little substance it's unreal.
A few years after cutting his teeth on Corman's Voyage to the Planet of the Prehistoric Women and the Boris Karloff movie Targets, Peter Bogdanovich hit the seventies running with an intriguing black and white film called The Last Picture Show. I hadn't seen that until recently and it wasn't really what I expected, but I was seriously impressed. Then it was What's Up Doc? with Ryan O'Neal and Madeline Kahn, both of whom returned for Paper Moon, making three important modern American films in as many years. Bogdanovich had arrived.
Unfortunately for Ryan, this one also introduced his nine year old daughter Tatum O'Neal as the precocious little sourpuss Addie Loggins. He does a pretty solid job as a con man bible salesman called Moses Pray who lives up to his name by preying on recent widows, but she acts the socks off him like you wouldn't believe and fifteen minutes in it was pretty obvious that she won an Oscar that year fair and square, but I'm not sure how she could honestly be described as a Supporting Actress. It's pretty amazing that she still only had twelve more film appearances after this one in 34 years. Pray acquires her at a funeral under the heavy suggestion that she's his daughter but she proves to be better at everything than him.
Not only does Tatum O'Neal outshine her dad but she even outshines Madeline Kahn and that's no easy feat, especially when she's playing a harem slave dancing girl called Trixie Delight. It's the sort of role that Kahn could eat up and spit out in her sleep and yes, she's awesome. There's also Randy Quaid as a hillbilly, which makes a lot of sense, and John Hillerman in a double role. That's Higgins from Magnum, for all of you who know the name but can't remember why. Now I really need to find What's Up Doc? to see what other wonders Bogdanovich turned out in the early seventies because that's two peaches so far.
The Transporter was one of the best action films of the new millennium and star Jason Statham is rapidly proving himself to be one of the best action heroes. He's no muscleman and he hardly fits the standard genre stereotypes but he's just so much fun to watch. He is the true inheritor of the cool factor so well owned by Steve McQueen and nobody else really comes close.
This one has a few stunts that don't just stretch credence, they are patently ridiculous and they're not the only thing, but this is a ride that really doesn't pretend to be much more than a ride. Unlike X-Men: The Last Stand which pretends to be much more it knows exactly what it is and delivers on that basis. It's also immense fun to watch the French have so much fun at the expense of the Americans, and not just Americans but the Miami police. As someone who has come to despise everything that CSI: Miami stands for, this is a wonderful antidote.
The plot, such as it is, has our hero moonlighting as a chauffeur for the kid of a rich couple. Naturally he's working when the kid gets kidnapped and he takes it all a little personally. He goes in pursuit and that pursuit is rather spectacular, to say the least. Statham is awesome and Amber Valletta is pretty fine too. Matthew Modine is an annoying little prick but then he's trying to be. Kate Nauta has a Brigitte Nielsen complex going on. Most fun of all though is the French cop, Fran�ois Berl�and.
A perfect example of complete nonsense being a huge amount of fun.
The world is full of terrorists placing bombs on planes and trains, hijackers are taking over aircraft at gunpoint and birds seem to be committing suicide for some reason or other. Naturally, nobody is safe. No, this isn't Washington, DC in 2006, it's Tokyo in 1968 and it's a movie with the wonderful B-movie title of Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell. In reality it's more of a Twilight Zone kind of thing, with a plane travelling through a sky like a lake of blood. The crew receive word that they're going to be attacked by a terrorist, only to be hijacked by someone else entirely, then encounter a UFO and crash land in the middle of nowhere. And only then do we get the credits! Yes, there's plenty going on here from moment one.
It doesn't stop there either, as we quickly discover the original terrorist, experience an avalanche and then get picked off by a space blob infested vampiric entity. Of course these passengers are naturally a varied bunch: a psychiatrist, a researcher in space biology, the owner of an arms company and his wife, who he has given as a bribe to a powerful politician, also present, an American blonde and of course a couple of completely unrelated terrorists.
Apparently this is a Tarantino favourite which would usually mean that it would become a favourite of mine, but this time I'm a little less impressed than usual. The acting is pretty terrible (especially the American), the plot complete nonsense and the direction not particularly stylish (with the exception of the red sky and the still photo flashbacks). However there's just so much weirdness in here that I can't ignore it. It's as if the scriptwriter had compiled a list of all the bizarre things he wanted to see in a movie and then found some way to cram them all into the same one. The material holding all this weirdness together is littered with holes but it's a fascinating effort, nonetheless.
At the beginning of the month I saw Somebody Up There Likes Me which for some bizarre reason had a theme song by Perry Como. It was completely out of place with the tone of the movie and so was the Paul Anka title track here. Paul Anka just isn't who I expect to accompany violent war footage but hey, Sam Fuller had a reason for everything so he must have had a reason for that. I just haven't a clue what it was.
He also had a reason to cast James Best in the lead, which may seem a bizarre choice for anyone who grew up watching him as Sheriff Roscoe P Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. I've seen him in films too, but only one other time in a major role. He was in Winchester '73, Forbidden Planet and The Caine Mutiny but usually without even a credit let alone a sizeable part. The one lead I saw him play was in the film after this, but as you can guess from the title, The Killer Shrews wasn't much to write home about. Fuller must have been happy about his performance here because he used him again four years later in Shock Corridor. Apparently he was excellent in that one and I'm planning to watch it very soon indeed. Here he's solid and comes off as a sort of goofy version of Fred MacMurray.
He plays Sgt Brent, an American soldier fighting the Nazis within Germany at the very end of the war but he falls for a young German lady played by Susan Cummings. Even after the war he stays in Rothbach and marries her, and ends up in no end of trouble helping her out. Frauleins are verboten to most and he only gets round that by becoming a civilian and working for the American Military Government. I have Susan Cummings's debut film, Swamp Women for Roger Corman, but haven't seen it yet. I wonder why she only made eight films in eleven years, but ran up quite a resume on TV.
The film works mainly because Fuller fought himself and really knew his material. He makes us believe everything he puts on the screen and from what I've read that's likely because he got it all spot on. He didn't fall prey to the temptation to play fast and loose with reality for the sake of cinematic style. The only real downside is the frequent use of stock footage, which is all completely appropriate but of an obviously different grain and thus looks a little out of place. Of course the upside is that Fuller never shrank back from showing what needed to be shown, so it's a lot more realistic and powerful than most other similar films of the same era. Brent himself gets shot in the ass, hardly something that most stars would let happen to themselves, and there are all sorts of other harsh but real touches too, right up to the Nuremberg Tribunals themselves. The ending is a little quick and it's not as consistent as the other Sam Fullers I've seen, but it's still a good one.
There never was anyone better Warren William to play a rich man who enjoys being inappropriate to what is expected of him. He's getting married to a much younger nightclub singer so fetches his oldest friend in from the sticks to be his best man. This is the pigheaded Gene Lockhart rapidly acquires the impression that the girl and her family are just after William's money and he puts the cat among the pigeons like you wouldn't believe.
The film is based on a George M Cohan play, so I'll have to watch out for it next time I watch Yankee Doodle Dandy. Gene Lockhart has a knack for scene stealing and he does a great job of it here, over Warren William of all people, but William's butler and wrestling partner Barton MacLane has a good try too. I'm pretty sure that William and MacLane were actually wrestling and believably too, but when Lockhart got involved he was really obviously doubled. It's a hokey piece of fluff but fun courtesy of a great Gene Lockhart performance.
The title comes from the chain of five and ten stores run by John Rarick, the largest such chain in the country. Rarick is interviewing for his biography but he's so focused on work that he almost forgets that he has a wife and a couple of children. His wife has found herself a younger man, his son works for the business but hates every moment of it and his hairbrained daughter is trying to win a place in society by falling for an engaged man. They're all falling apart as a family but he doesn't notice and can't even be told about it.
The star is Marion Davies who plays the daughter and it's great to see her comic timing again because she was just so good at that. Unfortunately there's not much opportunity for her to do that and very little else for her to sink her teeth into here. There's also Leslie Howard as an egotistical young architect who Davies has set her sights on, and he's a little more active than usual, but it's her father and brother who shine most. The father is Richard Bennett and the brother is Kent Douglass. I don't recognise either but it seems that I've seen both before: Bennett at the end of his career in The Magnificent Ambersons and Journey into Fear, two Orson Welles movies; and Douglass at the beginning of his in Paid and Daybreak. In fact this makes his first three films for me and the least of them. It's one of those films that doesn't really have anything obvious wrong with it but not a lot right either. Stunningly OK.
Here's a film by Andrzej Wajda, who I know nothing at all about, based on a novel by Jerzy Andrzejewski, who I have at least heard of. It stars Zbigniew Cybulski, apparently known as the James Dean of Poland. He looks more like a cross between Johnny Depp and Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane, but he certainly has a presence and an attitude to him. He plays Maciek, a young man who starts out the film assassinating the wrong man. He was aiming at a local communist leader called Szczuka, played by Waclaw Zastrzezynski , but he and his cohorts got the wrong guy. As he tries to manouevre himself into place for a second attempt, he falls for a delectable barmaid, played by Ewa Krzyzewska in her debut film, and reevaluates everything that his life has come to.
Reading up, it seems that it's a highly regarded movie. It's even in Movieline's Top 100 Foreign Films list, which is hardly a meaningless accolade. Like other films in there like Rules of the Game or La Dolce Vita, it's obviously something that would benefit from a second viewing. It's obviously an excellent film that has much depth, some superb acting and most notably for me, some incredible uses of light in staging scenes. There are probably five or six stunning sequences that I'll relish seeing again: the flaming glasses, the fire extinguisher, the last dance, the fireworks, the crypt. Next time round I'm sure I'll pick up further depth that I didn't find on the first viewing and I'm definitely looking forward to it. Whether it'll become a favourite or not I don't know, but I know it's going to be worth it.
TCM Underground is a new weekly slot on Turner Classic Movies to showcase cult film and the host is the knowledgeable Rob Zombie, completely unlikely as a TCM host but the logical choice for this sort of thing. He knows his stuff and he kicked off the thing with, what else, an Ed Wood double bill: Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster. Oh yes, it's time for this!
Plan 9 is of course often cited as the worst film of all time, which it patently isn't. I still haven't seen Manos, the Hands of Fate, but there's no doubt that as bad as this is, it's on a completely different scale to The Beast from Yucca Flats, also featuring Tor Johnson. Tor talks in this one, which is difficult for him because he obviously isn't a native English speaker. At least he moves better than he did on Yucca Flats: that was embarrassing! There's also Bela Lugosi, who Ed Wood still managed to sneak in even though he died a number of years before they started shooting. He's doubled for most of the film by his girlfriend's chiropractor who holds a cape up against his face. Vampira didn't appear for long and refused a speaking part, Bunny Breckinridge is so Bill Murray-ish as the leader of the alien graverobbers that I guess Tim Burton really didn't have any other choice when he cast him in the part in Ed Wood.
Sure, this is truly inept, but as Rob Zombie pointed out in his introduction, it's impossible not to enjoy Wood's enthusiasm. He may not have had much of a clue but he was so sincere. He had a vision and just didn't care about such minor things about strings holding up flying saucers or scenes that continually change from day to night or Tor Johnson's accent or Tom Keene's cape antics or the firecracker explosions or Criswell's nonsense introduction or the lack of background sets or the melodramatic narration.
I've always had a bit of a soft spot for Bride of the Monster. Sure, it's typical nonsense about a Russian scientist living in the swamp with a killer octopus for a pet and a henchman to fetch him unwilling human subjects for his experiments in turning people into supermen. The thing is that while it's unashamed nonsense, it's done on a completely different scale to something like Plan 9 from Outer Space. Whatever you look at, the quality is much higher.
The acting is much better, even with Lugosi hamming it up. He was obviously enthusiastic about being back on camera and his enthusiasm is infectious. Tor Johnson is playing the sort of character that he was born to play, a dumb but sympathetic henchman with much more need for muscles than brain. In Plan 9 he was a police inspector trying to make his thick Swedish accent intelligible. The police chief here is fun with his little pet bird and his staff are fun and the fiery female journalist is fun. There are points where conversations have pauses but then Wood did make the film in three days so to be honest it's far better than it ought to be rather than far worse. Even the supporting actors seem to be able to string sentences together with intonation and intent and they have much more material to work with.
The sets look like real sets, far beyond anything Plan 9 could dream of. In Plan 9 the alien spaceship control room had a table with a couple of bits of unidentified equipment on it. The mansion in Bride of the Monster looks just like one of the similar mansions in the old forties horror flicks that Wood was aiming at. It's big, it has a lot of rooms filled with the sorts of things you'd expect and moving panels that actually move. The police station looks like a police station with people waiting on benches in the corridor behind windows. The file room is full of filing cabinets and papers, not just one sitting in a corner as I'm sure it would have been had Wood needed such a thing in Plan 9. There are even signs on things!
To be honest, while Bride of the Monster isn't that great it's actually superior to many of the thirties and forties B-movies that Wood used as inspiration. It's even superior to many of those films that Bela Lugosi appeared in himself. Watch The Invisible Ray, The Corpse Vanishes or The Ape Man and then tell me that they're better than this one. As bad as the octopus is here, with its need for its victim to flail around pretending that they're being attacked, it's still not really any worse than a lot of those guys in gorilla costumes like in The Ape Man!
Paul Muni and Bette Davis are the names before the title card but look at the next one: Brian Aherne, Claude Rains, John Garfield and Donald Crisp! That's not a minor supporting cast. And there's Gale Sondergaard and Henry O'Neill too. Some of these were still to make their names, but make them they did. One of those future names is John Huston, who co-wrote the screenplay. Hiding beneath the list of credited names are people like Louis Calhern, Montagu Love and a favourite of mine, Harry Davenport.
The Juarez of the title is Benito Juarez, president of the Republic of Mexico, naturally played by a heavily made up and statuesque Paul Muni. Rather than the active man I'm used to seeing, he's still and quiet and looks more like a cross between Marlon Brando and Charles Bronson. His voice is thankfully far better than some of the dubious accents he put on for other movies: he was a great actor, no question, but his accents have annoyed the crap out of me on more than one occasion. He's president in name only because while the States are fighting each other, he's busy fighting Louis Napoleon (Napoleon III), played by a man with a strange moustache and beard but with the unmistakable voice of Claude Rains. He's the right size for Napoleon and can handle the demeanour in his sleep. This was Rains at arguably the height of his powers: it's a year after Robin Hood and the same year as They Made Me a Criminal and Mr Smith Goes to Washington.
Knowing that without the help of the losing Confederacy he can't win the war, Louis Napoleon decides instead to appoint Maximilian von Hapsburg as a puppet monarch. He's the regal Brian Aherne and he brings with him his wife, soon to be Empress Carlotta, played by the even more regal Bette Davis. She was at the peak of her powers too, not that she ever lost them: 1939 was also the year of Dark Victory and The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. A few days ago I saw an interview she gave on The Dick Cavett Show and she spoke of how Claude Rains scared the crap out of her in an early shot as he was so in character that she thought he hated her! Bette had endured a decade of sub-standard material, in her eyes, and had only recently begun to land the serious roles she wished for.
Most surprising is just how good John Garfield is, given that this is so early in his career. This is only his fourth film and the third of those four that I've seen. His first two films were also with Claude Rains: Four Daughters and They Made Me a Criminal. This one has more depth of course and, while he was excellent in both those films, there's much more acting required for him to play a Mexican general than an American criminal on the run. Anyway, the cast is incredible. Paul Muni isn't called upon to be much more than an honourable waxwork but Bette Davis and especially Brian Aherne get plenty of opportunity to shine and John Garfield, Donald Crisp and Joseph Calleia support well indeed.
Director William Dieterle had recently worked on Muni's previous film, the classic story of The Life of Emile Zola and he was certainly up to the task of this one, spanning international intrigue, war, politics and all manners of truth and honour. One of the key points of the film is that the Emperor and the President agree on every front except one, democracy. They are two good solid people who care about the people they serve, but they differ on fundamentals. Dieterle and his screenwriters make a good deal of this and everything else they have to work with. It's a really solid film, working according to the ideals of Hollywood at the time. That of course means that there are built in flaws such as an overt sense of melodrama but thankfully the filmmakers don't fall prey to the usual terminal flaw of glossing over history for the sake of a new cinematic reality. I'm no expert on this era of history but apparently this is a rare example of historical accuracy in Hollywood.
Like nobody else since the days of Ed Wood, John Waters has built up the most fascinating regular ensemble casts in the movies. Johnny Depp plays the title character, really early on in his career and he has the sort of fun you'd expect as a fifties bad boy whose claim to fame is the ability to shed a single tear. He's accompanied by all sorts of interesting characters: Ricki Lake as his incredibly fat and pregnant sister, Traci Lords and Kim McGuire as the Cry Baby Girls. He's being brought up by Susan Tyrrell and Iggy Pop, which probably explains much of it.
The actual plot has to do with his drape falling for a square, played by Amy Locane, but that's hardly important in the great scheme of things. This is John Waters having a huge amount of fun with the era that he was brought up in. It's the first time he had a real budget and a real studio to work for and serious time to do postproduction and it works. He even had real actors like Willem Dafoe.
I'm no expert on the era but it has everything you can imagine and more. It's also hilarious. The whole alphabet bomber speech has to be one of the funniest things I've ever heard and the Creature from the Black Lagoon sequence isn't far off. And Iggy Pop in a giant rabbit outfit is all the excuse you need to watch a movie anyway. It's a comedy, a drama, a social commentary, an Elvis Presley-esque musical. I dunno, it's pretty much everything it could be. I've been a confirmed Waters fan for years and I'm not sure why this one's always eluded me when I've seen all the obscure stuff, but I'm glad to finally catch up with it.
Much of it is complete nonsense but it's subversive fun like only John Waters can turn out. It's a shame that he's only made ten films as a director. It's also a shame that I can't see the John Waters Presents Movies That Will Corrupt You series that aired on the here! gay channel because Cox don't carry it.
A year before he won an Academy Award for playing an alcoholic, Ray Milland was vacationing on the Cornish coast in The Uninvited with his sister Ruth Hussey when their dog chases a squirrel into a deserted house and they fall in love with it. They buy it for a song but of course there's a catch, namely that the house is haunted. Luckily it's handled properly, as it should in 1944, with no Bob Hope, no Abbott & Costello and no Dead End Kids. The atmosphere builds slowly and subtly, and very nicely indeed. There are only so many films that cover this sort of territory with restraint and they're worth all the more for the lack of a proliferation. Of course I ought to be surprised that the script was cowritten by Dodie Smith, better known for the novel 101 Dalmations.
Milland and Hussey are solid and believable, without being a showoff in the slightest. Donald Crisp is as good as you'd expect as the Commander who sells them the house. It's his daughter that died there, and his granddaughter who catches Milland's interest. She's the new girl in the film, Gail Russell, in only her second appearance. Another four years and eleven films and she'd be appearing in Wake of the Red Witch, alongside that octopus that Ed Wood and his cohorts apparently stole for Bride of the Monster. The only downside to the film has nothing to do with the film itself: the genre has been so turned into a clich� for kids that it's hard to buy into a real story. It must have had a real kick in 1944 that isn't there now, through no fault of its own. That it doesn't fall apart from the perspective of sixty years on and it still has a tight and fascinating plot speaks volumes. Definitely one to come back to.
A Goldwyn picture, way before Metro Goldwyn and Mayer ever merged, this was the film that really launched Lon Chaney to stardom. I can still remember the scene from the Cagney biopic Man of a Thousand Faces. Seriously injured as a child in a traffic accident, a quack doctor amputates both his legs above the knee. 27 years later he becomes Blizzard, master of the San Francisco underworld, as played by the remarkable Chaney. The police send in a key agent to infiltrate his organisation but his plans are strange and not immediately obvious.
What surprised me here was how well this film was directed. It's 1920 and that era isn't known for solid filmmaking. Sure, there were things like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem that did new things, but they were made a long way away in Germany where the expressionists were on the rise. The only American films I've seen this good before 1922 (and every year at this point counts like a decade) is The Kid, made a year later. Everything about this one suggests that it's at least five years ahead of its time and Chaney must be a huge part of that. Most of the rest of the cast really can't even approach his standards but to their credit they don't even try. Instead they just do their job and let him do his. The story is consistent and well drawn out and the ending is a surprising one.
And Chaney is stunning. As good as the film is, there's simply no way anyone is going to talk about it without talking about him. To play a double amputee, he strapped his legs behind him with belts, attached stumps and walked around with shortened crutches. While in this thoroughly painful gear, he jumps off tables and chairs, climbs walls and drops down poles. The dedication this man had to play his part is incredible, and of course we know from history that that was far from a one time thing. He proceeded to expand on this for the entire decade and we can praise our favourite deities that many of these films are becoming available to us. Sadly almost everything beforehand is lost.
Based on a Ladislaus Fodor play called Church Mouse, this is a pre-code Warren William where he appears behind not one but two fellow cast members, Marian Marsh and David Manners. We see him first though, flying around internationally on business. He's Baron Josef von Ullrich, obviously someone important in financial circles and he brushes past everyone else with the sort of dynamics that you'd expect from Warren William. He never stops and of course we're very thankful for that, especially when he's doing things like discharging and then romancing a lovely young stenographer like Mary Doran, all in the same scene.
In her stead comes leading lady Marian Marsh, who was herself very lovely but supposedly hides it well enough to become a nervous plain Jane so as to get the job. She gains entry to William's office by subterfuge and manages to impress him against his wildest expectations, quickly taking over everything. Her lines are often a little strange but the banter is joyous, even more so when Charles Butterworth joins in. David Manners will always be known as Jonathan Harker from the original Dracula, but I'm gradually catching up with his other roles. I'm discovering that he's always capable but I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that there isn't a better part hiding in his career than that one. He's fine here as the Baron's brother but stunningly outshone by all three of the other leads.
A lot of the low budget pre-code Warner Brothers films don't have a lot of substance but get by on solid, if not stunning, scripts and great character actors. Bette Davis hated the ones she appeared in but I enjoy them very much in the main. This one is no exception and I laughed more at the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) humour than at most of the deliberate comedies of the last few decades.
Clark Gable plays Colonel Lee Johnson, a surgeon who has it all and doesn't really care too much about anything else. He's Head of Surgery at a major hospital, he's married to Anne Baxter and he likes to dance and socialise. He doesn't have time for Chester Village and its malaria outbreak that one of his friends and colleagues is trying to solicit his support for. Luckily this friend and colleague, Dr Bob Sunday, gives him a good telling to just before Johnson leaves for the war. After all the country's been attacked, which of course in Sunday's view it was years ago by the enemies of disease, malnutrition and neglect.
MGM knew what they were doing well before 1948 and could do this sort of thing in their sleep. Gable and Baxter are solid, especially Gable who has to act a little less heroic than usual for quite a while. They're both outshone by Hodiak though who actually has a part to play. Then Gable gets to be a Major and finds even the training something of a wake up call. However the Major remains a major ass for quite some time, even when he gets paired up with the thoroughly decent Lt Snapshot McCall, played by Lana Turner who is everything he isn't. The war would change anyone but it's Snapshot who changes him most.
I wonder how much Gable enjoyed playing this sort of part given that he'd been there and done that, unlike many of his Hollywood colleagues. It can't be easy playing someone you must really despise, however well they turn out in the end. He and Turner do excellent work together and they really are better for each other's presence. Baxter suddenly seems the odd man out, which of course she is at the end. Definitely better than it really had any right to be and much better than the last time I saw Gable as a doctor, in 1934's Men in White.
I never saw the Dark Shadows TV series (unlike my wife who chased home from grade school every day to watch it), but I did see the second film, Night of Dark Shadows, with Kate Jackson. This is the first, and it features all the key cast from the series including Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, something that the second film couldn't claim. Dark Shadows was a gothic soap opera, highly unlike any other soap opera out there as lead character Barnabas was a vampire, and the rest of the cast were ghosts, werewolves, reincarnations or whatnot. All very strange stuff for a soap opera.
This film opens with some idiot who works for the family who believes he's discovered where the long lost family jewels are. He does indeed find them but finds in the process Barnabas who has been buried for a couple of hundred years in a chained coffin. Naturally he takes this opportunity to escape and nothing remains the same after that. He pretends to be a long lost relative from England though of course he's the spitting image of the painting of his supposed ancestor that hangs in the house.
The cast is a serious one. Frid didn't do much else, but names like Joan Bennett and Grayson Hall aren't minor figures in Hollywood. Some of the others though are obviously TV actors who are so wooden that they remind me of George Gaynes's character in Tootsie. The story is cleverly done and there are some clever scares but all it appears very seventies indeed: the colour balance, the supposedly ethereal music, the blunt editing, the predictable camerawork that becomes very shaky when on the move.
Unfortunately my recording screwed up two thirds of the way through so I'll have to catch it again some other time. Grrr.
There's just no way that any movie starring both Johnny Depp and Christopher Walken could suck. The pair of them could make an awful film into an awful film with two people worth watching. Luckily this one isn't an awful film. Depp plays Gene Watson, a mild mannered accountant who takes the train into LA with his daughter. He's stopped at the station by Mr Smith and Ms Jones, Christopher Walken and Roma Maffia. They kidnap his daughter, give him a gun and tell him that they'll kill her if he doesn't kill the Governor of California within an hour and a half. The real catch is that the Governor's security seems to be involved so who can he trust?
It's a cleverly done film with some intriguing little sections. I think the scriptwriters are seriously twisted because they keep throwing horrendous plot holes at us and then neatly fill them in. Time is fundamental to everything and we're reminded of it constantly just like in High Noon. Because this is 1995 though we see our reminders not just on clocks but on camera timers, multiple time zone displays, gone to lunch signs, car radios and in all sorts of clever ways.
Depp is heroic without being tough in any conventional Hollywood way. Walken's character is dominant over him not just through blackmail but through physical violence, which is natural for him given his general choice of roles. Depp though and the way his character is structured is highly refreshing. I also love one line in particular. Depp asks Walken if he's out of his mind and Walken replies, 'What's your point?' That sums up so much of Walken's career in three words. In much smaller support roles, Marsha Mason and Charles S Dutton shine as the governor and a disabled veteran working as a shoeshine boy respectively. Maffia doesn't get much to do as Walken's sidekick and neither does Peter Strauss as the governor's husband. That doesn't matter much in the great scheme of things though. It's Depp and Walken and a script.
Wes Craven didn't just rejuvenate the slasher genre in the nineties with Scream, he did the same thing in the eighties with A Nightmare on Elm Street. I've seen this and many, though not all, of the sequels. Back in the day, we hated all the sequelitis going on even as we watched them all. I came in at the point where the thinking was that the first one and the third one rocked, the second one sucked and we'll find out about the new ones as they arrive. I think I even saw number four or five on the big screen. They were OK, I guess, but merely revisited the same old territory for the diehards. Film one was still pretty fresh.
Watching it from the perspective of over twenty years on, as I haven't seen it in years, I notice different things. Now I realise that it's a John Saxon film and I'm a confirmed fan. Fifteen plus years ago I don't think I even knew who he was. It also proudly sports 'introducing Johnny Depp' as if he was going to be a big star or something. Well, it's good to see they get that sort of thing right sometimes. He's a baby here in his first screen appearance, even younger than in Private Resort or Cry-Baby. I have Platoon ready to go on DVD so it's just Slow Burn left from the early days before Edward Scissorhands when he really became the star he is. We're so early in the legend that the credits list 'Robert Englund as Fred Krueger'. No Freddy yet.
Whether he's Fred or Freddy, he's still a dead serial child murderer who is visiting revenge on the children of the lynch mob that took him down. Because he's dead he has to get to them through their dreams and the requisite effects are up to the task. Freddy also has the coolest horror accessories of anyone until Hellraiser's Pinhead, namely metal knives on his fingers that enable him to really slash. He's also notably demonic in this one, more of an unrestrained psycho than the cardboard cutout versions in the sequels and a far cry from the friendly alien I personally know him best as from V.
Not all of it makes sense. Heck, not much of it makes sense when you really come to think about it, but most of it is pretty consistent at least. It's certainly more memorable than Friday the 13th, but it's no Halloween, Evil Dead or Hellraiser.
This was a pretty cool film, I thought when I watched it in year one of release. But the greatest opening weekend money spinner of all time? I didn't get that and I still don't. For some reason enough people really care about Spider-Man to want to go to see this, to the degree that they didn't for Superman or X-Men or, cough, Captain America. It does have a huge amount going for it, at least. Sam Raimi is a wonderful director with a sense of fascination that didn't die with his first decent budget and he strives to make a comic book superhero story into a believable entity. Tobey Maguire is the perfect oppressed geek who could still remain believable when he becomes Spider-Man, and Kirsten Dunst is the most beautiful girl in the world who could still remain believable as the girl next door. And the romance between them makes a whole lot more sense than the Superman/Lois Lane thing.
You all know the plot. Peter Parker is a nerdy kid with the hots for his next door neighbour, Mary Jane but can't ever find a way to do anything about it. On a school trip he gets bitten by a genetically modified spider and discovers he has suddenly acquired a host of powers. He tries to raise money by fighting Macho Man Randy Savage but ends up with a huge amount of saving the innocent instead. Eventually Parker hits on finally making some money as a photographer by selling action pictures of Spiderman. Soon he has to face the father of his best friend who has lost it and become the Green Goblin.
Maguire and Dunst are awesome. Everyone else is pretty good too, especially Cliff Robertson as Parker's uncle and J K Simmons as the hard boiled newspaper editor who buys Parker's photographs. There's also the standard Sam Raimi cameo roster of Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi and Lucy Lawless, of course. Willem Dafoe is suitably psychotic as the Green Goblin. The real star though is the director and what he conjures up on the screen. It's pretty obvious to anyone who knows anything about Raimi that he probably mapped out all the stunning effects shots in his head. And they really are stunning. Anyone nowdays, it seems, can play with the techniques perfected in TV shows like CSI but it takes a visionary to put them to the right use. Raimi is definitely one of those visionaries. And unlike X-Men which was nothing at all more than an introduction, this works not just on that level but on its own front too. It's superhero done right.
Cassavetes, one of the true independents of the American movie industry, made one indie movie (Shadows) and then two studio pictures before turning his back on the studios entirely to make his own films his own way and, inevitably, with his own money. Faces was the first of these completely Cassavetes films and to be honest it looks that way from moment one.
It's grainy and occasionally blurry, the camerawork is shaky and obviously often handheld, the editing is not always entirely seamless and it's pretty obvious that not a lot of effort was spent on things like makeup and hairdressing. What it is is natural. The entire section immediately after the title (and that's all the credits we get, the title) has a couple of drunks go home with a prostitute and it's about as realistic and as far from cinematic as you could imagine. When it turns ugly, it's done so masterfully that it's hard to remember the reality behind the filmmaking. We're drawn in, pure and simple, budget or no budget, studio or no studio.
There's also much truth here. Cassavetes goes in for long takes with long looks at people, hence one meaning of the title. Often the camera looks not at the action but at someone watching the action and their face reveals to us the truth of what's actually going on. The story has to do with a couple whose marriage is falling apart. Richard leaves to go home with a prostitute and Maria ends up with a young man from a club. In what happens they discover more about life.
That sort of summary usually makes me avoid movies. What's the plot? Oh, these characters discover more about life. Who cares? Usually such characters aren't particularly likeable so that I really don't give a damn and find myself wondering why I'm even watching. Faces is different though. The whole point is that the characters are realistic, so they have all sorts of positive and negative facets to their characters. They're good guys, sympathetic, helpful, generous; yet they're bad guys, noncommital, selfish, uncaring. Often, like real people, they display two polarised versions of the same emotion.
And for all that we spend half the film with a prostitute, we see no sex, very little violence and none of that of the standard Hollywood kind, and not even any bad language. There's evil intent in words but no real foul language. This is a film that the Mormons could watch unedited, not that they'd approve of much that goes on, but still. I'm not sure what I was really expecting from John Cassavetes but I don't think this was it. And this I enjoyed.
As for the actors, Seymour Cassel won an Oscar nomination, but I thought Gena Rowlands as Jeannie the prostitute and both John Marley as Richard and Lynn Carlin as Maria were especially superb.
Here's another German prisoner of war camp movie, based on the story Fellow Prisoners by Sir Philip Gibbs. This sounds official at least and the movie does start off authentically by having the Germans actually speak German. Even when they speak English, most of them do so with broken English. Hardly a leap I know, but it's what I really found lacking in All Quiet on the Western Front. The captain among them is Leslie Howard and he takes responsibility for the rest of the men as long as they're given reasonable conditions to live under. He's in a bit of a spot because he met his future wife, married her, bought and moved into a house and then left for the front all within six days. He's been gone over two years but hasn't heard from his wife in some time even though the guards pass on mail.
Then his oldest and best friend Digby arrives, played by Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and we soon find out what Captain Allison doesn't, namely that in the two years that have passed his wife has fallen in love with Digby instead. Digby escapes successfully but the same night the one woman who any of them have seen in years is raped and murdered.
Anyway it's melodramatic and overacted by most of the cast. What makes it watching most is the truly bizarre nature of much of it, at least to our modern eyes. The commandant, played well by Paul Lukas, asks Allison to put his signature to the request for his extradition from British Headquarters to stand trial. When he discovers the truth about him and his wife he accedes to the request. The British hand him over in a surreal scene between the trenches and then the melodrama kicks back in.
The same year as Son of Frankenstein and with the same director and two of the stars, Boris Karloff and Basil Rathbone, the only man missing is Bela Lugosi. Then again I'm not sure how he would have fit into an English historical drama that really isn't a horror film. Basil is the star with not just a bald headed Karloff but also Vincent Price in support. How's that for a dream team?
We see Karloff first, with a bald head, a tunic and a notable clubfoot. He's the executioner for Richard, Duke of Gloucester and obviously relishes his work. Then we meet Miles Mander as the usurped and quite obviously slightly mad former King of England, Henry VI; Leo G Carroll who must have looked old the day he was born; and Vincent Price as the weak and nervous Duke of Clarence. When we first see Rathbone, we still don't really see him. He's inside all sorts of protective clothing fighting the current king with pikes. Given his prowess with a sword, that probably really is Rathbone as Richard. He's the most powerful presence even when he's not leading the scene. Only Karloff can compete for most of the film but he's generally playing subservient.
Given that this is a rather murderous period of history (it covers rise of King Richard III) there's plenty of subterfuge and backstabbing going on, sometimes literally. Director Rowland V Lee and his scriptwriter brother Robert N Lee made the most of it and while we hurtle through the film at speed it never bores for a second. And the acting is a lot of it. Rathbone, Karloff and Price in the same film should be enough but all three obviously have a great time. Vincent Price has a couple of joyous scenes and he certainly makes the most of them. The scenes with the whole trio are wonderful.
There's plenty here within the first twenty seconds or so that signifies a progression from Faces. We're six years on and Cassavetes is now working with colour, there's a musical score that isn't provided by the cast themselves as part of the script and there are even actor's names appearing before the title: Peter Falk and Cassavetes' wife Gena Rowlands who are a married Italian couple. There are similarities though too, especially the way Cassavetes treats faces, keeps an intensity to the screen even when people aren't doing much and lets the camera roll on while his characters walk across streets or round rooms. It's a lot of this sort of thing that makes his work so special and so real.
Gena's character is obviously on the edge, right from the start of the film. Sending her kids to her mother's for the night so she can spend a day with her devoted husband is a huge drama to her. When he can't make it because a water main has burst and his crew have to deal with it she has no way of dealing with it other than finding her way to a bottle. She struggles to be part of everything around her but it's a real struggle. Her memory doesn't work that well, she has a talent for being inappropriate and she seems to go up and down emotionally within minutes, veering from antagonistic to vulnerable and back. And she is awesome. I'm amazed at how much she can keep up such intensity without us getting burned out on it. The Oscar nomination was well deserved. Peter Falk does his best to keep up the intensity and he is excellent but it's obviously her show.
Here's Cassavetes directing for a major studio, United Artists, before the two indie films of his that I've seen. Rather than being family affairs made over many years as finances became available, with family and friends, it was made on a far more traditional standing with far more traditional stars like Burt Lancaster and Judy Garland, for instance. However this obviously isn't a standard Hollywood film, as evidenced by the opening sequence where Lancaster entices a stubborn boy out of a car so that his father can drive off in it.
When the title sequence hits, and yes we have a title sequence, and we see that there's technical assistance provided by State of California Department of Mental Hygiene and Pacific State Hospital, it begins to fit a little more comfortably with what we might expect. Cassavetes's wife Gena Rowlands is in there, of course, along with other names I know like Lawrence Tierney and Billy Mumy, the kid from Lost in Space. And then there are a whole bunch of kids, some of whom are merely different, often unintelligible, but some of which are obviously suffering from Downs Syndrome or some form of mental handicap.
Burt Lancaster is in charge of some sort of school for these kids and Judy Garland has come to work there. Naturally it's not quite what she expects. She becomes attached to one child in particular, the one from the opening sequence, and tries to help. She also clashes considerably with Lancaster in the process. We see not only how she does so but how he came to be like he is. All the reasons for children to end up with these difficulties and all the ways to address them seems like a heck of a lot to cover in an hour and a half and that's the biggest failing of the film by far. However it's worth a lot when dealing with just one.
The more I see her the more I realise Garland is one of those people who ought to have died young because she was gorgeous and yet aged terribly. She looks like the Bride of Frankenstein without the hair. Lancaster always looks a little too big in all directions, which is a strange description but the only one I can manage. It's the kids that make this one though rather than the stars. Their sincerity drives through and that's what brings the emotion.
Jim Jarmusch is one of the most fascinating directors I've encountered lately. He made one of the greatest films of the 90s, Dead Man; another 90s classic, Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai; and the variable but never uninteresting Coffee and Cigarettes. And here he is making a documentary, a rockumentary, that shows the highs and lows of Neil Young and Crazy Horse on tour. It covers interviews, strange documentary footage and of course live music.
It's unashamedly shot in Super 8 and other generally long disregarded formats to help bring a realism to it and it works. I've seen footage like this on bootlegs and old videotapes and somehow it seems highly appropriate to apply to someone like Neil Young who is not just one of those old dinosaurs who thankfully refuses to die but one who sticks to a lot of old technology himself. It's not always pretty but hey, it's rock 'n' roll.
It suffers from the inevitable problems that plague anything like this. It's impossible to capture the energy of a live performance on film, however good you are; and it's impossible, as is pointed out a few times during the film, to capture thirty years of music in a couple of hours. These are inherent issues though, rather than problems with this film. As far as this goes, it's one of the best such things I've seen.
We're in 1941 a few months before Pearl Harbor and Clark Gable is a war correspondent. He works for the New York Chronicle whose editor is sure that the peace treaties are as good as signed. Gable is just back from Germany and knows the truth, so finagles a way to get his real story printed, thus changing the Chronicle's policy in one fell swoop. But the whole war correspondent angle is hardly important. What this is really about is a love triangle between young couple Robert Sterling and Lana Turner and third wheel Gable, who happens to be Sterling's elder brother and fellow war correspondent.
Gable and Turner were hot stuff given their big hit Honky Tonk from a year earlier. I really liked that one, being one of my favourite Gables and possibly my favourite Frank Morgan. I don't remember too much about Lana Turner in that one, possibly because I didn't really know who she was at the time. Now I've seen a few, including the other Gable/Turner collaborations and I can see what all the fuss was about. They made four films together and this completes them for me, the other three being Honky Tonk, Homecoming and Betrayed. Robert Sterling really can't compete with the pair of them. He's the good catch of the brothers but of course she falls more for Gable.
As much as Gable and Turner are great together and Sterling is decent support, the film doesn't really have a clue what it wants to be. There are comedic sections, romantic sections, dramatic sections, war sections, detective sections and all sorts of different takes on everything. It ends as a patriotic cheer. Most of the chaos is due to the script but there were also problems with the stars. Lana Turner was fired but rehired because of a dubious and unsanctioned marriage and Gable was stunned by the death of his wife Carole Lombard during filming. None of these things could have helped so maybe it's just a conglomeration of a lot of issues.
Incidentally, hiding in the uncredited section are Miles Mander (the mad King Henry VI from last night's Tower of London), Keye Luke (Charlie Chan's Number One Son/Master Po in Kung Fu), Van Johnson and Keenan Wynn. Reginald Owen is credited, as is the excellent Lee Patrick, who as a stocking model is possibly the most memorable thing about the film. All in all it was an unfortunate choice for my fiftieth Clark Gable. It's one of his worst, not that much of it was his fault.
Oh, this is a favourite. Possibly the best Danny Elfman score ever, great effects by Stan Winston, an awesome cameo for Vincent Price and a defining moment for both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. Of course there's the delightful Winona Ryder at the peak of her teenage years. It even has people of the calibre of Dianne Wiest and Alan Arkin as supporting cast members. We have an awesome pastel vision of suburbia, complete with Wiest as the resident Avon Lady, all hovering under an awesome creepy mansion on a creepy hill that happens to have the greatest topiary ever seen in film and one of the greatest staircases. It's all fairy tale stuff but done better than anything else that's trod the same ground.
Wiest is down on her luck so tries the creepy mansion and finds Depp as the created boy with scissors instead of hands. And this has to be Depp's best entrance still, even though this is sixteen years old right now. Inventor Vincent Price made him but died before he could finish him, leaving him with those scissors. Wiest takes him home and he becomes the resident everything: source of gossip, topic of conversation, topiarist, hairdresser, lockpicker, freak, demon, saviour, everything.
There's so much that could be said. Whole theses could be written about the deep and meaningful commentary on suburban life and the whole outsider culture. But I can't be bothered. I just watched. And loved it. Again.
Surprisingly not in any of the top 100 lists I'm keeping track of, this nonetheless came very highly recommended by anyone I've found who mentions it. It's a Toho film, home of both Kurosawa and Godzilla, and it's very Japanese from moment one with its imagery of ink floating in water accompanied by minimalistic bells. It's an anthology of four stories by Lafcadio Hearn, who I've read and appreciated, both in fiction and non fiction. The stories are Black Hair; The Woman of the Snow; Hoichi, the Earless; and In a Cup of Tea. The actors are different from story to story but the direction is consistent throughout, by Masaki Kobayashi.
It's slow and spooky from the outset of Black Hair. The camera moves slowly but surely, just as the sounds come slowly too. When we meet people they do the same, with patience and reverence. I've seen quite a few slow samurai dramas and I've really come to appreciate this lack of pace, which contrasts magnificently and effortlessly with the non stop attention deficit films of today. When they're done right, I don't get bored at all; I merely get drawn in deeper, and this one has nigh on three hours of running time to do the drawing.
Black Hair has a samurai leaving a wife that he loves for a new wife who can bring him wealth and position, but as much as he gets what he wishes for he knows how much he's left behind. He soon becomes haunted by her memory and after many years decides to return to make amends for his rash choice. The Woman of the Snow deals with a couple of woodcutters are caught in a storm. The lady of the title steals the life of the elder but spares the younger and falls in love with him. He promises her never to tell of that night but many years later breaks his promise in the most unfortunate way. Hoichi, the Earless is about a historic naval battle with fighting spears that takes place on very cool skiffs, and the young blind priest who is summoned to give a command performance of the ballads about it to the dead themselves. Finally, In a Cup of Tea deals with a writer writing a story about a samurai who stubbornly drinks down someone else's soul after ignoring the uncanny reflection.
What strikes most, other than the pace is the composition. Every shot looks stunning: framed perfectly, composed perfectly and often with enough subtle alteration to subvert our expectations. In Black Hair, the camera angles change and roll; in The Woman of the Snow the trees writhe in the wind just a little too slowly. The colours are also marvellously yet subtly used as are the stylised painted skies and even the lighting. A number of times in The Woman of the Snow, the entire scene is changed through simple use of light. I had never seen a realistic depiction of water running thick with blood until I saw Hoichi, the Earless. While I have no list, this surely must be up there in the top ten most visually gorgeous films I've ever seen.
The sound matches. We have a minimalist avant garde score that is at once otherworldly and entirely appropriate, especially when accompanying the woman of the snow, for instance. There are points where the sound disappears and we watch but don't hear. That they must be the loudest sections is massively important: they are battles, leaps into insanity, storms. Most of Hoichi, the Earless is like a silent film with a sung narration. Very very cool indeed.
As much as it's great fun to see a cult icon like Rob Zombie introduce cult movies on TCM, it's even more fun really to see Robert Osborne, about as far from a cult icon as you could get, introduce something like Creature with the Atom Brain. Sure, it's a Columbia picture, but it starts Richard Denning (from Creature from the Black Lagoon) and it's written by Curt Siodmak (wrote the novel Donovan's Brain and the screenplays for The Wolfman and I Walked with a Zombie, and also directed Bride of the Gorilla). Definitely cult material.
And there's plenty to see. The plot description at IMDb reads: 'an ex-Nazi mad scientist uses radio-controlled atomic-powered zombies in his quest to help an exiled American gangster return to power.' All in 69 minutes! It doesn't let up for a second and the mix of serious science fiction and way out there scifi is extreme enough to become a joy to behold. I almost always prefer one or the other, and the only time they should mix is when it's done on such a scale as this. Siodmak's influence makes it great fun indeed.
We kick off with a large man committing a murder, by bending iron bars, breaking a window, taking a number of shots to the back and escaping. The cops soon discover that his fingerprints are radioactive, his blood isn't blood and he's actually been dead for some time. What we see is that he has a different man's voice and he's being managed by remote control. When the murders start adding up the cop in charge has to follow bizarre lines of investigation to track down the perpetrators and the people behind them.
This was really ahead of its time in a number of ways: squibs to simulate real bullet wounds, a film within a film, military and police zombies, lots of cool stuff. While it is of course largely nonsense throughout, the first two thirds is at least stunningly consistent for something like this and it's thoroughly enjoyable. Only the last third starts veering into the level of complete dumbness that its competitors worked out constantly.
Like Kwaidan last night Leaves from Satan's Book is an anthology of four stories, based on a novel by Marie Corelli. The theme is the works of Satan, or to our modern minds, evil incarnate, so we are treated to four passages of history in which evil played a serious role. It's also the earliest I've seen of Dreyer's work, being made between 1918 and 1921.
The first section has to do with the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, and it's pretty boring because we all know the story anyway and there's nothing new in Dreyer's vision of it. Jacob Texiere has the most notable part, as Judas and he does a fair job of being a sneaky yet sometimes unwilling rat. The only real interest is the idea that far from Satan's benefitting from his works, he actually loses out. God has sent the fallen angel into torment with the task of turning men to evil, and for every man who succumbs to his temptation he adds another hundred years to his own torment. Only when a man resists him does he get a thousand years knocked off his time. You'd think he'd do his job badly, but no, he's far too successful at it.
The second section is a Spanish Inquisition piece. The monk Don Fernandez has joined the Holy Inquisition to get away from the temptation of a young lady he is teaching, only to find that her and her father are his first trial as an Inquisitor. This is more interesting than the first section but mostly only because Helge Nissen, Satan in different form in each of the stories, often appears somewhat like Bela Lugosi in his interpretation of the Grand Inquisitor. There are glimmers of Dreyer's genius though at odd points throughout. Sometimes it's the way a scene is framed, sometimes a closeup of the Grand Inquisitor, sometimes a quick shot at a bunch of hooded monks glancing away in multiple directions.
The third section is the longest and starts out talking about the death of Marie Antoinette, played by the statuesque Tenna Kraft. However there's a second story that has to do with the escape of the Countess of Chambord and her daughter, newly threatened by the guillotine, and that's the main focus. The stories seem at once similar yet unlinked but there's a common factor that comes into play later. It has all the layered depth and directorial skill behind it for it to become a true film rather than a mere tableau.
The last section brings us up to the modern day, Finland in 1918 as the Russians invade. We're in the small town of Hirola where a man blackmails a married woman to either be his or be betrayed. Satan becomes a Russian monk this time round, somewhat reminiscent to us of Rasputin, again contemporary to Dreyer. There's something of a secondary plot here but it's minor compared to that in the French section.
It works out at an Average, with the French section an Excellent, the Finnish an Average, the Spanish a poor and the opening a Bad.
I'm really enjoying myself lately. Not only did TCM's Robert Osborne have to introduce Creature with the Atom Brain, but also The X from Outer Space, a truly ludicrous kaiju movie starring a half lizard, half chicken alien monster. Because this is a TCM Import brought to the States by Janus Films, it's widescreen and subtitled, exactly how I'd like to see the rest of the kaiju movies, not least the Godzilla films. As many of them were altered by the Americans to include name actors like Raymond Burr, cut sequences and add others, it's easy to see something like Godzilla, King of the Monsters but not see Gojira itself. And I wanna! Instead we have the refreshing experience of American actors like Peggy Neal dubbed into Japanese.
This isn't a Toho film, rather a Shochiku movie, the oldest Japanese studio that dates back to 1895, who also produced Goke, Body Snatcher from Hell that I watched recently, but also serious work by Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi and others. The Japanese are heading for Mars but something keeps stopping them. Now they have a nuclear powered rocket they try again but encounter a UFO which selectively cripples them. They finally return home but bring with them some great luminous attachment that on entry into our atmosphere turns out to be Guilala the monster who naturally goes Tokyo-stomping.
It starts off with a bizarrely Japanese theme song and continues with a highly sixties camp score, as well as some bizarrely stylised graphic design and highly kaiju miniature modelling, an interracial love triangle, an irresponsible scientist called Dr Stein who doesn't want to go to Mars, some gratuitous bouncing up and down in the Moon's low gravity, an asteroid puncture and repair during flight, tractor beams, some stunning pseudoscientific nonsence and of course the giant radioactive dinosaur chicken monster who doesn't even appear until two thirds of the way through the movie. Awesome. And yes, it's as bad as it sounds, but there's a lot worse out there.
We open with a still shot of a pair of huge skyscrapers, obvious phallic symbols if I've ever seen them, and of course the Flatiron Building is bigger than the brand new tallest building the world Empire State Building. Then we meet a young lech trying it on with all the girls he literally bumps into in the lobby of one of them. Soon he tries it on Maureen O'Sullivan. Tarzan wouldn't approve! Then there's a bunch more leches (and at least one decent guy) and some girls who know exactly how to get what they want, and yet still no Warren William. He's the star but it takes a long while for him to make his appearance. When he does appear he stamps his presence on the screen.
He's a builder who has put fifty million of his own dollars into the Flatiron Building, but still owes thirty more. He unashamedly manoeuvres his partners and everyone else, trying to find money to cover his loan extension, down to running a stock market scam to grab the stock. He happily cheats on his wife with his secretary and then even cheats on his secretary with her secretary. I honestly don't know another actor who can play high powered businessmen with a combination of business sense and sex appeal and manage to end up so dishonestly appealing, as an actor even when not as a character.
The script is scrupulously honest about everything, not just William's character but everyone else. Even when the leches lie through their teeth to the ladies, the script makes them stunningly honest to us. There are inappropriate yet thoroughly real lines everywhere, and while most of them come from men there are plenty from women too. The whole film is refreshingly precode to its very soul. While women can get what they want, so can the men and they go about it without any qualms: lying, cheating, screwing people over royally.
The entire cast are spot on, especially William, O'Sullivan, Verree Teasdale and Anita Page. There's even Hedda Hopper as his bitchy wife and how you can get anyone better than Hedda Hopper to play a bitch? It also has one of the most annoying romantic leads of all time in Norman Foster, an coincidental choice of name for a film about an architect. I even noticed an uncredited Edward Brophy in an elevator sequence which would have made me happy had I not been so happy anyway. Precodes rock.
The biggest problem with watching so many Myrna Loy movies in so little time has been that the flow of new ones for me has slowed to a crawl. This one has her third on the bill behind headliners Ann Harding and Leslie Howard. I've seen a lot of Howard too lately, and I can't say that I'm a fan. His brand of quiet decency was a marketable commodity back in the thirties but it's dated terribly to being often nothing more than effete and inconsequential. He's a little firmer here than usual, thankfully.
He plays Tom Collier, who runs a fine printing firm called Bantam Press. He's half of a solid couple in everything with Daisy Sage, played by Ann Harding, but he's about to marry Cee Henry instead, who is naturally Myrna Loy, though she is surprisingly not an exotic character given that it's 1932. Before he can tell Daisy about Cee, which he has every intention of doing, she asks him to marry him. He's honest and wants to continue being friends with her but it proves a little different. Because this is a precode we get a decent treatment of serious adult themes rather than an emasculated waste of time. The outcome is never in doubt but I enjoyed the way we were taken to it.
Loy is great, though she's still doing the wooden thing with her body when she's standing still. She always seemed to act far more with her face than with her body. Howard is something of an ass as always but this is probably the best I've seen him. I preferred Ann Harding in this film, surprisingly as I'm a confirmed Myrna Loy fan, both as a character and as an actress. I felt she really put over the character well, faults and all. And that's another thoroughly precode thing about the movie. Everyone in it has their faults but some have redeeming features. It makes them human.
Here's one I've wanted to see for a while. I have two Eisensteins under my belt: the first two parts of the Ivan the Terrible trilogy (the third was never made), but this one is apparently secondary only to his masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin which I have still to find. It's also on the Top 100 thirties films that I'm getting close to completing. Now I'm looking forward to Potemkin even more because it's a silent film, and the parts I like least of all the Eisensteins I've seen so far is the singing. Ivan the Terrible Part Two became almost a musical at points, and there are points in Alexander Nevsky where background is provided by a sung accompaniment.
We're in the 13th century and Teutonic knights have invaded Mother Russia (just as they were doing in 1939, courtesy of that short Austrian painter guy). The Mongol Horde come to pester Russians on Pleshcheevo Lake because their prince, Alexander Nevsky, has won a great battle against the Swedes on the Neva river. It's good to see Mongols played by actors who look like Mongols. In Hollywood they'd have been played by people like Boris Karloff, Warner Oland or Peter Lorre, all of whom I respect massively but don't believe in the slightest as Orientals. Nevsky of course is played by Eisenstein regular Nikolai Cherkasov who played Ivan the Terrible so wonderfully. He's far more restrained here but is no less effective.
The Teutonic knights look scary, as well they should, with their white capes and bucket like helmets with crossed openings. We first see them against blazing fires and bound prisoners in devastated Pskov. They're also busy doing things like throwing babies into bonfires, those wacky Germans. After Pskov comes Novgorod and the people of Novgorod come to join in the call for help from Prince Alexander. By the time the Teutons come, Alexander is there with them fighting. It's the fighting that works best here. Eisenstein brought in many men from the Red Army to play soldiers and once we get to 5th April 1242 halfway through the film he puts them to good use.
Up until then I wasn't as impressed as I expected. The editing is terrible, for a start. As propaganda, which it surely is, it isn't a patch on the work Leni Riefenstahl was putting out for the other side. Alexander Nevsky vs Triumph of the Will is a no contest, for instance. There are scenes here of great imagery but they pale against say the opening sequences of Ivan the Terrible Part One when Ivan is crowned. Eisenstein does succeed notably with faces though: I'm fascinated the faces that he puts on his screen. He's secondary to perhaps only Carl Theodor Dreyer in his ability to locate unique and fascinating faces to populate his vision. The battle is powerful, even at such length and even though he doesn't seem to be allowed to actually cut anyone with an axe or a sword. The sheer numbers of men thrown together appear as chaotic as they really would have been, like swarming rats or a really wild mosh pit. The aftermath of the battle is superb also, with the bodies on the ice, and is handled as tenderly as the fighting was vicious.
The acting is almost secondary because it's what the Russians do as a people that matters not what Nevsky alone does. Cherkasov is good but he was far better as Ivan the Terrible. Of the rest only the armourer, played by Dmitri Orlov stands out. There's also very little plot: the Russians call on Nevsky, Nevsky leads them to victory in battle and that's about it. The whole point is propaganda. Initially put into production as a propaganda tool, then sidelined after the signing of a non aggression pact, it was finally forced into every Russian movie house by Stalin after war broke out for real.
I'm not sure how a 1975 documentary can realistically be turned into a Broadway musical, but they've done it. It looks like they're making a fictional version on film next year with Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. I'm not sure how they can do that either but they're going to. It's a cult documentary about the aunt and cousin of Jackie Onassis, both named Edith Bouvier Beale and who live in a dilapidated mansion on Long Island called Grey Gardens. They share the house with a menagerie of cats and possums and other animals (including fleas), and so it is hardly clean, thus leading to the 1972 incident where the city of Easthampton nearly evicted them for breaking almost every health code in the book. Jackie O came in to clean up but of course by 1975 we're back to normal.
The Edies, Big Edie and Little Edie, are fascinating. It appears that Big Edie had her daughter completely under her thumb when she was young, but by this time the tables were turning somewhat. Certainly after Big Edie died, she continued on for many years on her own without any apparent trouble so she was certainly completely able. Big Edie was a singer and still had a good voice in her seventies; she obviously did things her own way, completely uncaring about what the rest of the world felt. Her daughter looked a little more worried about impressions and I wonder if that's why she kept her hair hidden under no end of different coverings. She certainly didn't seem to worry about covering anything else! I think she was in awe of her mother and full of regrets that she couldn't be just like her. I'm not sure whether her mother wanted her to match her or not.
It's a fascinating documentary. I've read plenty about people who have watched it multiple times and find something new each time. Now I've seen it once I can believe it. Let's see what I think next time around.
It's dark and a woman in a black PVC raincoat is driving to the river or canal or what have you to dump a body into the water. Professeur G�nessier identifies the corpse as his missing daughter who suffered horrific injuries in a car accident, but he knows it isn't true. His daughter Christiane is alive and has, as you'd expect from the title, intact eyes but a missing face. As a noted transplant surgeon, he's busy trying to master the process of transplanting another face onto her skin. Until then she must hold up the appearance of being dead and wear a face hugging mask to hide her injuries, and his secretary Louise must find fresh material for him to work with.
This is a French film from the era when they were seemingly turning out a number of great horror/suspense films. Hitchcock's Psycho famously came about as a response to the low budget masterpiece Les Diaboliques, which I've still yet to catch. This is another of those French black and white classics, directed by the man behind Blood of the Beasts, one of the most notorious documentaries of the first half of the century.
It's a creepy little film for sure. There's a quiet but persistent matter of factness of Le Professeur and his secretary when going about their nefarious deeds that unnerves far more than if they were raving lunatics. Actors Pierre Brasseur and The Third Man's Anita Valli are just ever so subtly off normal, suggesting that something's definitely up but not enough for the characters to work out quite what that could be. The persistent baying of hounds at Le Professeur's chateau jars in comparison with the chirpy yet eerie theme music. And Christiane herself wanders around with a mask for a face that is so well done that it seems like her real face, merely one that is paralysed from movement. She floats along like she was a fragile china doll, like an insubstantial Mia Farrow. All of this makes the film really creepy.
The reason that the film was banned outright in many countries on release must surely be because of the initial face peeling scene. While it's pretty obvious to a modern audience just how it was done, and can't compare to similar such processes on almost every crime scene tv show nowadays, it's still managed so well that we feel the power of it today and gape at how it must have seemed in 1960.
We're in San Stefano, Italy, fifty years ago (plus the sixty that have passed since the film was released). Also in San Stefano are Francis Ingram, who is both an invalid and a pianist of some renown, his young and almost beautiful nurse Julie Holden and his secretary, Hilary Cummins. Ingram is obviously affected by the fact that he can now only play the piano with one hand, but is judged of sound mind when he asks them, and his friend, the somewhat dubious hero of our story, Bruce Conrad, to witness his will. That night he heads down the stairs in his wheelchair to his death.
He leaves everything to his nurse, but his loathsome American relatives who are out for all they can get naturally contest the will. Ingram's lawyer is easily though not cheaply bought but is murdered himself before he can help them. The murders continue and the obvious culprit is Ingram's disembodied good hand.
I've read the source material for this but haven't before seen the movie. It's a renowned horror film featuring the magnificent Peter Lorre, though he's technically not the lead. He plays Hilary Cummins, the banished secretary, with that wondrous face that ripples with emotion and that voice that always sounds so rich yet soothing. Ingram is played by Victor Francen, who presumably knew Lorre well from such other films as Passage to Marseille and The Mask of Dimitrios. I don't know Andrea King at all, who plays Julie the nurse, or Robert Alda, who plays Conrad. I know his son of course, Alan Alda, but hadn't realised until now where the surname came from. Robert Alda's real name was Alphonso Giuseppe Giovanni Roberto D'Abruzzo, and he fashioned his professional surname from the first two letters of his Christian name and surname respectively.
Outside of Lorre, the names I know are J Carroll Naish and Charles Dingle. Naish is a regular in the more low budget Hollywood horrors. Here he's the local commissioner of police who appears somewhat like an elderly Charlie Chaplin, moustachioed and full of life and a little mischief. Dingle is Ingram's sanctimonious relative who is the epitome of slimy greed. I saw him recently in the Gable film Somewhere I'll Find You and appreciated him there too. I say appreciated because it's hard to enjoy his roles as he's so good at playing thoroughly despicable characters. Francen is solid for the short time he's in the film and Alda is a slick and efficient lead. The film belongs to Lorre though and the excellent Naish, who is far more memorable than usual. And it would be a great Peter Lorre double bill with Mad Love. Oh yes!
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