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Sep 28, 2007

Wednesday at MUFF

Wednesday night I did the annual pilgrimmage to MUFF - the Melbourne Underground Film Festival. The usual group of MUFFers was attenuated because my wife Sally was ill as was Matt, the other regular. (Matt chose the MUFF movie we saw last year and it was a piece of shit, DOGME 95, John Cassevetes wannabe turd in the punch bowl piece of urban realism which was about as realistic as an episode of Neighbours. Matt doesn't get to choose the movie again until Lindsay Lohan dies of old age.)

So it was down to Alicia and I. We dined on the $10 steak night fare at the British Crown pub in Smith Street, Collingwood, where I lost a screw from my spectacles and was unable to find it on the floor, which while it wasn't as bad as the sticky carpet of the Espy, needed a touch of the mop. Wearing my prescription shades I managed to make it to a 7-11 for a MacGyver moment. I tied the lens into the frame using dental floss in place of the missing screw and Alicia and I headed down to The Toff In Town on Swanston Street for the session of MUFFage. The two movies we saw were Jason Turley's Welcome Stranger and Stuart Simpson's Demonsamongus with two of Stuart's short films Sickie and Greedy Guts.

MUFF can be a bit hit or miss. It's a festival of guerilla film making. Micro-budget films usually shot on high-def video with casts and crew who are the fringe-dwellers of the local film industry. Not that these are bad things, but we aren't talking about the kind of festival where David and Margaret are going to chat about Cate Blanchett giving a golden pot-plant award to Baz Luhrmann. But it is a lot of fun, the venues are non-traditional (last year the Spanish Club in Fitzroy, this year an art-deco-ey bar with a view over twenty five Thai Restaurants and Pho cafes on the uphill bit of Swanston Street) and the film makers talk about their work afterwards.

Welcome Stranger was good. A feature film about an 18 year old guy's potentially life changing weekend in the Western Suburbs of Melbourne, it was filmed on a $500 budget. It may sound dull but it isn't. Jason Turley's script is well-observed and the characterisations crisp in spite of the mostly non-professional cast. A few seasoned professional character actors like John Brumpton and John Flaus (who gets a Ben Johnson in The Last Picture Show moment of zen)work well with their less experience colleagues. Among the non-pros, Suzanne Barr was great as Sandra, the mother of the old school friend that Christian Poppi's Adam visits.

The two shorts were hilarious. Sickie being about a woman who calls in sick for work and quickly deteriorates from there. The punchline is silly but amusing. Greedy Guts shows the downside of trendy tattoos, especially when the tattooist and his female assistant look like they've been dead for a week. Again, the budgets were tiny but the effect and effects made them worthy of better exposure than they'll probably get.

Demonsamongus was an Australian zombie movie that owed a fair bit to the works of George Romero, Sam Raimi, Peter Jackson and the Wodonga Abbatoir. It does overdose a little on the kooky camera effects and annoys when it tries to induce a feeling of disorientation, but I've seen many worse horror movies in the uptown cinemas and it didn't decide to go the route of modern American fare (and Wolf Creek) into the realms of Torture Porn. But it too was fun. Alicia and I skipped the Q & A session in the bar because the clock was heading toward midnight midweek, but both of us were satisfied with the quality of all four films and spending only $20 to see them.

Sep 23, 2007

The Podcast Has Landed

The first Paleo-Cinema podcast is ready for download. Click on the title for the Podbean site or click on the player below to listen here.

Podcast #1 -
The introduction.
The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)
The Creation of the Humanoids (1962)
I Spy Series 1 Box Set (1965)
The end bit.

Sep 16, 2007

Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957)

Starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas

I love a good blokey movie sometimes. This one starts great. Frankie Laine sings the theme song to Dimitri Tiomkin’s bombastic score as three cowboys ride across a prairie and the titles come up. Lots of good character actors here. Frank Faylen, Earl Holliman, Dennis Hopper, Whit Bissell…DeForest Kelley! Kenneth Tobey, Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam. Wow. Leon Uris (the guy who wrote Exodus) penned the script and John Sturges directed. The horsemen ride past Boot Hill, which is a recurring motif in the movie.

The trio, lead by Van Cleef, enter a bar and ask the owner where Doc Holliday is. The barman has them check their guns in and we cut to an ageing dance hall girl Kate (Jo Van Fleet who’d just won a supporting actress Oscar for East of Eden) sitting in a hotel room with Holliday (Douglas) who is drunk and throwing knives into the door of the room. They argue until she tells him that he’s no better than her since the Civil War wiped out his family fortune. He throws a knife into the wall beside her head, she grabs it and tries to stab him… which she doesn’t as he grabs her by the head and tells her not to mention her family again. They kiss and make up. She wants to go to Laramie until his tubercular cough clears up, but he’s going to meet the three gunmen instead. This is Douglas at his melodramatic best. He was doing treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen before there was a name for it.

After dropping in to see the ageing sheriff of the town (Frank Fayden), Wyatt Earp (Lancaster) goes into the bar to get information on the Clanton Gang who passed through town recently. He sees the three and heads back to talk with Holliday to tell him that Van Cleef has a derringer in his left boot. Holliday has a chip on his shoulder the size of a redwood and refuses to answer when Earp asks him where Clanton was going. In the bar, Holliday kills the gunman by pulling a knife from inside the back of his shirt collar and nailing him with it before he can get to the derringer. Sturges uses this trick again in the Magnificent Seven where Britt (James Coburn) is called by a cowhand.

Earp helps Holliday escape from a lynch mob and they meet up again in Dodge City. Doc gets Earp to stake him for a poker game. Their friendship grows as they track down bank robbers and get involved with a female poker player (Rhonda Fleming). All this leads up to the titular gunfight with the Clantons.

For a guy who’s supposed to be tubercular, Kirk Douglas makes a pretty active Doc Holliday. He can’t seem to rein-in his natural athleticism. It’s as if he’s trying to compete with Lancaster, who with Nick Cravat was a professional acrobat. When he confronts Ringo (John Ireland), Kate’s new boyfriend, the repressed energy is palpable. Holliday has promised Earp he wouldn’t start a fight, and so he backs down on the confrontation. It’s hard to think of a modern actor who does rage better than Kirk Douglas. Tom Cruise does intensity, but there’s always an undercurrent of frat-boy whininess to him. He acts as if the World is being mean and it shouldn’t. Douglas’ anger is combined with a physical confidence and a worldliness that makes him unique in cinema. His son Michael is at least as good an actor, but his cinematic persona is a different one. Like Kirk, he plays bad and flawed characters very well, but he could never carry off a movie like this one. You need actors who are larger than life to play iconic heroes. That’s why Troy never worked as a movie. The actors playing Greek heroes were, in spite of the script’s attempts to pump them up, no more than human sized. The new movie 300 has the right idea, play them big and intense and don’t be scared to go over the top.

This iconic largeness is helped by the motif of having Frankie Laine sing during the transitions from one place and another. A balladeer doesn’t croon about ordinary people. Earp and Holliday go to Tombstone, where one if his brothers, Morgan is played by DeForrest Kelley. Kelley had a good character actor career in the 40s and 50s. He did westerns and film noir until fate hit him with a phaser and everyone started thinking that his career started in 1966 with Shatner and Nimoy.

Lancaster’s Earp is a solid, stolid presence. His intensity is pulled in, encased, until violence breaks out. “Next time you ride in armed, you ride out feet first!” is the kind of line only an actor like Lancaster can say without sounding ridiculous. Where Douglas’ Holliday is cracked wide with flaws and illnesses, Lancaster’s Earp is a coiled spring. He picks up Dennis Hopper, playing the youngest Clanton and slings him over his shoulder as he would an overcoat. That man was strong.

The original gunfight on the 29th of October 1881 took thirty seconds with 34 shots fired and three men dead. In the movie it took them four days to shoot and five minutes of screen time. It still makes exciting cinema. Sturges uses the dust, the fence rails, wagons, adobe walls, gullies and rough footbridges to give the action a good physical structure. He elaborated on this approach with The Magnificent Seven, but you can see it developing here. There’s a great moment when Burt Lancaster runs at full pelt, then does a shoulder roll into cover.

The historical accuracy of the movie is a little shaky, but this is 1950s Hollywood we are talking about. Entertainment was the name of the game and this one delivers. A little psychodrama but not too much, fight scenes at regular intervals and some good acting. (I think the Rhonda Fleming character is just there to make Earp look heterosexual.) Just the film for a blokey night of barbecuing and beer.


Producer Hal Wallis originally wanted Humphrey Bogart to play Doc Holliday. Unfortunately, Bogie was dying of lung cancer at the time. Yeah, it might have added versimilitude to the role but it didn’t happen.

According to Douglas in his autobiography “The Ragman’s Son” Jo Van Fleet insisted that he slap her quite hard and repeatedly before takes of their climactic confrontation that triggers a severe tubercular attack in Holliday.

Twenty years later, here’s what Burt Lancaster said about the movie: “ I didn’t want to do the picture at first. It was too much of a talkie! Too much dialogue in the script. The picture is about two men of action, Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Men of few words, men who wouldn’t have gone around intellectuallizing about their lives.”

But it’s a western that delivers.

Night of the Demon (1957)

Based on Casting The Runes by M. R. James
Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

This movie begins with daylight shots of Stonehenge as a stentorious voice tells us that the builders of the monument understood the nature of good and evil and that certain symbols could conjure evil.

Professor Harrington (Maurice Denham) makes a hurried night-time car trip to Lufford Hall, the home of an Aleister Crowley-like sorcerer called Julian Karswell. Upon arriving, he begs Karswell to lift a curse, even offering a public recantation of his public utterances that have brought some notoriety to Karswell and his followers. While urbanely playing with a deck of cards, Karswell responds with, “You said do your worst and that’s precisely what I did.”

He sends Harrington home with a promise to do all he can, but as Harrington locks his garage at home, he’s attacked by a smoking winged ‘fire demon’ the size of a two storey building. At home Karswell burns a newspaper with a headline reading “Karswell Devil Cult Expose Promised at Scientists’ Convention”. The sorcerer had given Harrington a parchment with runic symbols on it: a magical death sentence.

Doctor John Holden (Dana Andrews), an eminent American psychologist and skeptic flies from the USA to London for the Convention. He finds that Harrington is dead and the only witness to any of Karswell’s cult activities is a catatonic farmer called Rand Hobart. He receives a threatening call from Karswell, suggesting that he butts out of Hobart and Karswell’s business. The next day, he bumps into Karswell at the British Museum library. The sorcerer offers him the use of a rare tome on magic and invites him to Lufford Hall. While picking up a dropped file, Karswell slips a parchment of runes into it, which he hands to Holden.

The Professor’s niece, Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins) meets Holden and suggests that he drop the investigation. She has her uncle’s diary and they discover that Harrington himself had been slipped a parchment by Karswell at a concert in Albert Hall. Holden, the rationalist, explains away the coincidence. He and Joanna visit Lufford Hall where Karswell, in a tramp costume and clown makeup is performing magic tricks for the local children at his annual Halloween party. Karswell confesses to having once made his living as a stage magician. While watching children play snakes and ladders, Karswell says that he always preferred sliding down the snakes to climbing the ladders.

Karswell: You’re a doctor of psychology. You ought to know the answer to that.

Holden: Maybe you’re a good loser.

Karswell: I’m not, you know. Not a bit…


Karswell: You don’t believe in witchcraft.

Holden: Do you?

Karswell: Do I believe in witchcraft? What kind of witchcraft? The legendary witch that rides on the imaginary broom? The hex that tortures the thoughts of the victim? Pins stuck in the image that wastes away the mind and the body?

Holden: Also imaginary.

Karswell: But where does imagination end and reality begin? What is this twilight? This half-world of the mind that you profess to know so much about? How can we differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind?

To prove his point, Karswell conjures a fierce windstorm with a moment’s concentration. The clown-magician has become the egotistical but powerful wizard who sends chairs and children scattering to the four winds. Inside the house, Karswell predicts that Holden will die three days hence, at 10 pm. After Holden and Joanna leave, Karswell explains to his mother that prices must be paid for his wealth and power. Either the lives of others, or his own.

Holden is a skeptic, but to his own detriment. Even when evidence manifests itself, he stays true to his rationalism until there is nowhere else to go except to accept a different kind of logic -- that the rune is a death warrant and that he needs to be smarter than Karswell to avoid being ripped apart.

His encounter with Karswell’s familiar, Grimalkin, during a break-in at Lufford Hall is a classic piece of Tourneur movie making. A cat transforms into a leopard with nothing more than subtle editing, perfect lighting and suggestion.

Jacques Tourneur was a master of black and white horror. Suggestion, sound effects, surprises and misdirection are familiar tools that he used as a master craftsman of horror. Working on small budgets for RKO in the 40s with producer Val Lewton, he created Cat People and I Walked With A Zombie, two of the best horror films of that, or any subsequent decade. These days, movie-makers network banks of PCs to create their monsters. In lieu of that, Tourneur harnessed the imaginations of the audience. Suggest rather than show, imply rather than state, a moving shadow is scarier than a clearly seen threat. Tourneur had the skill of drawing the audience into the world of his movies. His way of doing this was by making that world an interesting place, populated by people we also find interesting. When Holden visits Stonehenge and finds the runes on his paper inscribed on the stones, there’s an iconic feeling to it. A modern man threatened by the looming mysteries of a past age.

In this film, created over a decade after Tourneur’s RKO days and on another continent, his skills are undiminished. The demon itself, which the studio insisted be shown, is somewhat puppet-like but for me, it doesn’t spoil the film. Dana Andrews, never a subtle actor, has the staunchness needed for Holden’s pragmatism, but it’s Niall MacGinnis who steals the show. His Karswell is softly spoken, a stocky, balding man who lives with his mother but possesses and is possessed by, immense power. He’s oddly likeable and charismatic. At times like a naughty boy, at others a schoolmaster lecturing a student.

Sep 12, 2007

Q Planes (1939)

Starring Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Valerie Hobson.
Written by Jack Whittingham, Brock Williams, Arthur Wimperis and Ian Dalrymple.
Directed by Tim Whelan
Genres: Action, Spy, Comedy.

Action films and in particular, action spy movies have come a long way in the 120 year history of cinema, but there's a kind of continuity to them. Each generation builds on the previous one. The burglary scene in the first Mission Impossible movie built on the MI TV series, which owed a debt to Jules Dassin's Topkapi, which built on Dassin's own Rififi. Caper movies beget more elaborate caper movies. Spy movies, starting with Fritz Lang's Spione have their own tropes, riffs and memes.

Q Planes starts with a bunch of Bobbies busting into an apartment to the accompaniment of dramatic orchestral music. "Sergeant, there's a body in here," says a cop. The sergeant finds Ralph Richardson snoozing on a divan with his trilby hat over his eyes and his brolly leaning against the backrest. They wake him "What is it, what's the matter? Tell her I'll ring her back in five minutes… (He wakes a little bit…) I say, this is a bit thick, a bit thick. Prancing without a word of warning into a man's private bedroom. (The cop tells him it's not a bedroom) The significance of that uniform doesn't escape me… oh, I see your point. (He forgets his own name, still waking up.) Am I Smith, am I Jones, I can't be Goldberg…"

The cops take him down to Scotland Yard. En route, he buys a newspaper from a kid and asks him what won the two o'clock horse race. He gets hustled to Inspector Hammond at the Air Ministry, DI5. Still reading the paper, he gives a significant look to Hammond's assistant and the cops leave. Turns out that he is Inspector Hammond and he's been faking comic amnesia to get out of the building without foreign spies seeing him. He immediately calls his girlfriend Daphne to apologize for missing afternoon tea with her. (This becomes a running gag throughout the movie.) Daphne has something veddy veddy important to tell him. He puts her off.

It seems that around the World, test aircraft are disappearing. No wreckage is ever found and all of the planes are carrying secret electronic equipment. Only Hammond, an American agent and an Italian policeman think there is more than coincidence to these vanishings. Hammond decides to investigate an aircraft manufacturing company where the latest test aircraft are being built.

One of the test pilots is Tony McVane (a young and dashing Larry Olivier) who asks his boss if he can take the next test flight. He's knocked back (the crew are chosen by lot), just as the Air Ministry plane lands and Hammond slips out in coveralls (still wearing the trilby). He asks a passing mechanic for a cigarette, then when he gets it, unfurls a secret typewritten message hidden inside. The airplane's supercharger is the enemy's objective.

McVane banters with the new girl at the plant canteen Kay Lawrence (Valerie Hobson) who is smart, sassy and beautiful.

McVane's not chosen for the flight, which disappears over the Atlantic after flying over a mysterious freighter, the S.S. Viking, which is carrying a secret weapon, a ray gun, which zaps the engine and electronics of the aircraft. Think of a projectable electro-magnetic pulse weapon and you have the idea. The plane ditches in the sea near the Viking, which uses a steam-derrick to haul the plane aboard. The crew disembark surrounded by sailors with tommy-guns.

Search aircraft fly over the Viking, which reports that they saw nothing. The authorities are baffled. But Inspector Hammond has had the supercharger removed from the plane to foil the enemy agents. The sassy canteen girl turns out to be a reporter, of course. McVane finds out and gets angry at her. The baddies are miffed because the supercharger wasn't onboard the flight. They're about to do a hit-and-run on their inside man Jenkins, when Inspector Hammond hauls him out of harms way with the hook of his brolly. He interrogates him very swiftly, then when Jenkins is shot in a drive-by, Hammond immediately grabs the telephone… to call Daphne again.

McVane meets Hammond and discovers that Kay is the latter's sister. They flirt a bit until his sexist ideas about female journalists put a chill on things for all of thirty seconds.

Eventually the missing plane is found 'washed up' in Cornwall. Hammond goes down to investigate the wreckage and discovers that the plane's engine was cut loose of the fuselage. Meanwhile McVane is the next victim of the S.S. Viking. He and the flight crews stage a breakout and using a gatling gun, wipe out half the crew and lock up the rest. Meanwhile Hammond is chasing the Viking in a naval destroyer… and the good guys win… and Daphne eloped with someone else.

If this sounds at all familiar, it's happened in five or six James Bond films over the years. Q Planes is the prototype for this kind of action movie, predating Sean Connery's first sojourn in Jamaica by twenty two years and the first James Bond novel by thirteen. One of the writers of Q Planes was Jack Whittingham. In the '60s he wrote a couple of episodes of Danger Man, and also helped Ian Fleming with the story treatment for a James Bond television series that was to become the Bond novel Thunderball.

The 1939 date on the movie tags it as a propaganda piece. Storm clouds were hovering over Europe. The foreigners lose, and eccentric gentlemen with trilbies and brollies, or leather flying jackets save the day. The secret weapon aboard the Viking looks great, with the clean slightly art-deco lines reminiscent of the futuristic scenes in William Cameron Menzies' Things To Come. The actors are all amusing, including Gus McNaughton as Blenkinsop, Hammond's butler. ("Come and meet Blenkinsop," Hammond says to McVane. "He's a perfect swine.")

According to some sources much of the banter was improvised by the actors and the American director, Tim Whelan encouraged it. (Whelan was also one of the directors on Alexander Korda's Thief of Baghdad a year later.) The pacing of this film is great, Richardson has some hilarious bits of business and while this isn't a classic in any sense, it is amusing, entertaining and memorable.

The Man From Hong Kong (1975)

Starring Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Sammo Hung and Roger Ward.
Written and Directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith.

This movie and I have a history. I first saw it at the Rapallo Cinema in Pitt Street, Sydney where it had premiered a week before. In those days I was big into kung fu. I dabbled in jeet kune do training with a friend, I had seen the Bruce Lee movies in Chinatown cinemas before they hit the big time fleapits and I could swing nunchaku without giving myself a subdural haematoma. My Asian obsession also went to cuisine. I was also almost living on packet noodles from a Chinese supermarket on the corners of Hay and Pitt Streets, but that’s another story.

Made for $A450,000, TMFHK was a co-production between the Shaw Brothers’ Golden Harvest company in Hong Kong and The Movie Company in Australia. Kung Fu movies had hit the West like a spinning back kick and even the death of Bruce Lee didn’t slow it down for a long time. The press gave this film a lot of free publicity too. Australian films had just left the Menzies/Gorton/McMahon era doldrums when the Whitlam government got in and any co-production was big news, especially given that there were some spectacular stunts above the city.

TMFHK starts with Australia’s biggest geographical icon, Uluru. A drug deal between a rodent-like Australian and a Chinese tourist Win Chan (Sammo Hung – who was also the fight choreographer for the movie) is sussed out by Bob Taylor (Roger Ward) and Morrie Grosse (Hugh Keays-Byrne) two Federal Drug Enforcement cops. Taylor chases Sammo up the side of the inselberg and they have a stoush complete with flying kicks and enough biff to keep the discerning punter happy. Eventually Taylor drags Sammo off the rock and arrests him.

Inspector Fang Sing Leng of the Hong Kong police is brought in to interrogate Win Chan (don’t ask why Australia doesn’t have Cantonese translators) and he turns out to be a loose cannon. Taylor and Grosse spend a lot of the film explaining that you can't beat up suspects, smash assassins through the fish tank in a restaurant or go totally Mad Max on the highways of New South Wales. Fang beats Win Chan up in his cell while trying to get information out of him and when Win Chan is shot dead by an assassin in Taylor Square, he chases the killer (Grant Page) through the back streets of Darlinghurst before beating him (and a Chinese restaurant) to death. Fang is gravely injured while taking on an entire kung fu school run by the bad guy and rescued by Angelica (Rebecca Gilling) who with the help of her veterinarian father, patches him up. On their way back to the city from a country idyll, Angelica is killed by the endless flunkies of Jack Wilton (George Lazenby) and his off-sider Willard (Frank Thring). Wilton is (of course) a kung fu expert who likes to shoot apples off the head of his girlfriend at harbourside cocktail parties for the amusement of trendies and sycophants. In best wuxia style, Fang Sing Leng fights his way to Wilton. He, kills a couple of busloads of thugs and henchmen (some of which were played by the movie’s executives and director) until finally landing on the roof of Wilton’s penthouse under a hang-glider, he abseils down to his window in a move late emulated by Bruce Willis in “Die Hard”. Feng then kills Wilton in a manner that would be considered overkill by any reasonable person.

TMFHK was Brian Trenchard-Smith’s second feature film, the first being a kinda documentary on VD called “The Love Epidemic” which I saw at the time. It showed amongst other things, Grant Page squeezing pus out of his dick in the shower, which really grossed me out when I saw it at the tender age of 18. Trenchard-Smith has since become an unashamed schlockmeister as his IMDB filmography demonstrates. Just titles like “Atomic Dog”, “Leprechaun 4: In Space”, “The Paradise Virus” and “Dangerfreaks” give a bit of an idea of his ouevre. On the DVD release of TMFHK, his commentary track is amusing, self-critical and perceptive. Scorcese he ain’t, but he is the kind of film-maker who kept cars lined up outside drive-ins until the gates opened. He even directed Nicole Kidman once… in BMX Bandits.

Jimmy Wang Yu (or just Wang Yu) was a big star in Hong Kong. His One-Armed Swordsman movies were incredibly popular in Asia. The Australian PR for TMFKH called him “Hong Kong’s Steve McQueen”, an appellation that seems incredibly dated now for several reasons. (Maybe we could call George Clooney America’s Stephen Chow …) Sammo Hung has since become internationally known as both Jackie Chan’s sidekick and the star of Martial Law. He gets an extra bit of admiration for wearing a long-sleeved black skivvy while running up the side of Ayres Rock, even if he did lose the fight.

As an action film of the 1970s, TMFHK had it all on what was even then, a frugal budget. Car chases and crashes, explosions on the top floors of buildings in North Sydney, a nude scene by Rebecca Gilling , hang-gliding, stunts galore, and very little moral ambiguity. But for me, the coolest aspect of it was that I knew where a lot of the scenes were filmed. At the time I spent a lot of time wandering the inner city, so Taylor Square, North Sydney and Darlinghurst were all familiar to me. I even knew the alley beside the State Theatre where the ten-storey drain-pipe climb into the kung fu studio was done. Australians weren’t then accustomed to seeing their own country in the cinema. Movies like TMFHK and Stone (which also starred Hugh Keays-Byrne) were given an added verisimilitude by the fact that you could walk out of the cinema and be on one of the film’s locations in less than five minutes.

I have a great fondness for this movie. It is silly, sexist, slightly racist, illogical and replete with continuity errors and plot holes, but it is a part of Australian film history and a viewing of it gives a taste of what Australia has gained and lost since 1975.

Batman Begins (2005)

Hmm, first Batman Begins, then Superman Returns, what next? The Flash Flashes?

But seriously after viewing this flick, only an idiot or Adam West's stalker could doubt that this is the best Batman movie ever.

Christopher Nolan, who blew me away with Memento has done something that nobody (except maybe Alan Moore) has ever done with Batman. He (and his co-scriptwriter David Goyer) took the guy in the cowl seriously. They thought it through and looked at the concept of a costumed vigilante with more than a few issues, without flinching from the darker implications.

This Batman isn't a paragon of virtue. On his path from angry orphan to warrior for justice, he does some dumb things. (Getting locked in an Asian prison so you can rumble with some hard-arsed crims isn't the kind of thing one does in a moment of mental clarity.) And the conceit that the Dark Knight got most of his training from terrorist ninjas is an interesting one, too.

The scene where Batman furiously interrogates the corrupt cop Flass (Mark Boone Jr.) while dangling him like a fat pinata over a tenement alley was shocking. Batman's not supposed to lose his cool! But in the World that Nolan and Goyer create, that terrifying anger is right for Batman. Christian Bale has the perfect intensity for the role. Michael Caine's Alfred is the strong moral core of the movie-- in spite of some attempts by the script to thrust that task onto Katie Holmes' deputy DA character. (I'll make no comments about other recent attempts to place Ms. Holmes into a role for which she's not suited.) Gary Oldman is the perfect Lieutenant Jim Gordon. He looks right and he has mixture of compassion and street smarts for the future commissioner of police. Liam Neeson as Ducard, trains Bruce Wayne in a much more interesting way than he did Ewan McGregor in that execrable fourth Star Wars movie. Morgan Freeman plays Morgan Freeman as usual and Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane a.k.a. Scarecrow has a gaunt, blue-eyed intensity that captures the right insanity for a great Bat-villain.

I like this film a lot. An action film that doesn't assume that I'm a dribbling moron is a balmy breeze for a movie buff like me. Seeing this one in Gold Class with a foccacia, coffee, ice-cream, popcorn and a drink delivered to my seat just made the experience as good a cinematic event as I can remember having. See this, if you haven't already. It's the real deal.

(Originally posted Saturday, July 02, 2005)

Superman Returns (2006)

Well, I caught SR at the local ten cinema complex after a delicious home-cooked dinner and a glass of Hanwood Estate verdelho, so I was feeling mellow and ready to let a blockbuster movie wash over me. The fact that 90% of it was filmed in my home town didn't hurt, either.

Bryan Singer is the go-to director if you want to do a superhero movie. He paid his dues with X-Men, jumpstarting the subgenre in tandem with Sam Raimi's Spiderman, and consolidated his reputation with X-Men 2. But those films were ensemble-hero flicks. The focus was scattered among eight or nine characters. In SR, there's only the Kryptonian, the chick and the bald guy and that gives Singer the space to look into the idea of a single person with the powers of a god.

Brandon Routh does well as Kal-El. Superman is an iconic character. Strong, ethical, loyal, truthful (probably because if you're as powerful as he is, there's nothing you need to bullshit about) and good. Less is more in playing this character. The theatrics come from saving both a space shuttle and a 777 aircraft, doing damage control on an entire city as it suffers an earthquake and hurling a very large island into space. Routh does essay the controlled emotions of the character as he goes through some severe life changes. (Superman almost always has to keep his cool. If he gets miffed, really bad things can happen.)

Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor is of its' nature, a comic book turn. If you're a nutcase who wants to use Kryptonian technology to grow a new continent in the Atlantic, there's nowhere really to go with that except over the top. But he does it well, making the character larger than life and a creature of purest ego. Parker Posey as his girlfriend does have some slyly witty lines, but she's there as a foil for Luthor, someone for him to rant at. She steals some scenes, enough of them to make me wish she was in more of them. Kal Penn and Ian Roberts as his henchmen get little to do, though Penn is an engaging and funny actor as Harold and Kumar Go To White Castle showed. Here, he's used as a spear-carrier, so I hope he got well paid for the gig.

Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane is problematic. The actress is 23, way too young for the role, and too young to have a five year old kid (spoiler) to Superman unless he bonked her when she was in high school. She does okay, but maybe a more mature actress would have worked better, though Routh is 27 which doesn't make them a bad match age-wise.

In spite of these caveats, the film is a good summer blockbuster action flick. With the aid of some well used CGI, the movie carries off some audacious stunts. Even secondary characters are served well. Frank Langella is a great Perry White, taking the character from the apoplectic and bombastic shouter to a 21st Century hard but intelligent newspaper editor. James Marsden's Richard White (Lois' current partner) also gets to be more than a potential cuckold. There's been a lot of solid thought put into this one, and it was nice to see Noel Neill and Jack Larsen in cameos. Larsen as the bartender in the pub inside the daily planet building is a wry and likeable presence.

See this one on the big screen. It isn't perfect but it could have been a lot worse, as indeed the last two Christopher Reeve Superman movies were.
(Originally posted Saturday, July 01, 2006)

Thunder Road (1958)

There was no actor remotely like Robert Mitchum. He took cool to a level that Elvis never visited, he made James Dean look like a nerdish nebbish, he was even cooler than Sinatra, who needed an entourage to get his kicks.

Thunder Road is one of the coolest of the cool Mitchum flicks. The late 1950s was a time when studio contracts for stars were on the way out and a lot of major actors were creating their own production companies. John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster each began their own film businesses. Thunder Road was made by DRM Productions. The D was Dorothy, his wife, the RM was Robert Mitchum. He financed, wrote and produced this flick himself. He even wrote the theme song.

The story is about Lucas Doolin, a war veteran who comes home to the mountains of Tennessee and continues the family trade of moonshine running. His father makes illegal liquor in the hills and Luke takes it to distributors in fast cars where the boot has been replaced by a 250 gallon tank for the moonshine. His younger brother Robin is the mechanic. Robin is played by Mitchum's son Jim. It looks like nepotism but the physical resemblance between father and son works to carry the relationship in a way that two non-related actors would not.

Luke finds himself as the meat in the sandwich between the government revenuers lead by Troy Barratt (Gene Barry) and the criminals lead by the corpulent Carl Kogan (Jacques Aubuchon) who want to incorporate Doolin and his friends into his syndicate of drivers and moonshiners. Drivers are being killed by Kogan's gang or captured by Barratt.

So basically the movie is fast cars, guns, nightclub singers (Keely Smith who sings well but acts less so) and a community of hillbillies who have been making whiskey their own way for around 250 years and see it as a basic human right.

Mitchum filmed Thunder Road partly on location in Tennessee, using real moonrunner cars that he bought from actual moonshiners so that they could buy newer and faster wheels. It's not a perfect movie production-wise -- some of the studio shots are a bit too obviously indoors, but overall it does have a keen authenticity, enhanced by Mitchum's acting. He plays Luke as an intelligent, sophisticated individual who is very aware of the pros and cons of what he's doing but is partly doing it as a way of supporting an economically depressed community and also as a means to live life on his own terms.

Yes, this is very much a bloke's movie, but it's a good one. It's still a cult flick in the Southern United States, where it's seen as having a subtext of southern independence, and a must have for any good DVD collection.

(Originally posted Saturday, February 26, 2005)

The Final Cut (2004)

Robin Williams is doing some interesting films these days. Insomnia, One Hour Photo and this one, Omar Naim's The Final Cut. In it he plays Alan Hackman, a "cutter". In his world, the Zoe Implant has permitted the recording of a person's entire life from before birth to death. These memory recordings are used at death for Rememory services where highlights of the person's life are edited into a film-like presentation for the bereaved friends and relatives. Of course the conceit has its' logical flaws - why bother recording an entirely life if it's only going to be used as a show reel when you take your dirt-nap?

"Cutters" are the editors who find the footage during the life that most reassures the relatives and friends, then compile them into the Rememory Service. They cannot due to the nature of their work, can't be people with Zoe Implants. Too many secrets are held in a cutter's memory to permit them the Rememory. Williams' Hackman (yes, the name is deliberate)is tortured by a memory of a childhood tragedy which we view at the start of the film. He is withdrawn, polite and yet Williams portrays him as someone holding too many secrets for his equanimity to long endure.

He is given a commission to edit the Rememory of Charles Bannister, a lawyer who works for the company that created the Zoe Implant. (The Lady From Shanghai also has a lawyer called Bannister in it). Bannister's secrets are of a particularly dark and disgusting nature. Meanwhile, an ex-friend of Hackman's, a retired cutter called Fletcher (Jim Caviezel) heads an anti-Zoe Implant group and wants Bannister's implants for his own reasons.

This is a good SF movie. It looks at the way that a new technology influences individuals and a society. It also says something about the way our society whitewashes the deeds and character of the revered and famous dead. At the moment I'm reading Lee Server's warts-and-all biography of Robert Mitchum "Baby, I Don't Care", which I heartily recommend. The truth makes Mitchum a much more interesting person to read about than would a careful version of his life. That's one of the things that this movie doesn't address but it does touch on the possibility of perpetual surveillance It's also interesting that this breakthrough technology only enhances death and grief rather than life. All the participants at a Rememory know that it's a glossy, tabloid view of a life, and all seem to leave it vaguely guilty and dissatisfied. The denoument of the film is in the best tradition of film noir. Mira Sorvino plays Hackman's girlfriend but is crucial to both the understanding of Hackman's character and performs an act which is essential to the plot, but Williams is the heart of the movie. A good man, stifled and twisted by a trauma who eventually comes to terms with his past. Forget the next facile, flashy and phony Hollywood action-fest masquerading as science fiction. Use the same part of your lifespan to view a move like this, even if you don't have a Zoe Implant.

(Originally posted Sunday, February 20, 2005)

The Mind Benders (1962)

No, I'm not talking about the band who did "Groovy Kinda Love" well before Phil Collins butchered it. This film is one of the creepiest and most interesting small Brit films of the 1960s. While not perfect and marred a little by the melodrama of the climax, it's incredibly well acted, unflinching in its exploration of sensory deprivation experiments and incredibly watchable.

Professor Sharpey, a scientist working on "isolation" experiments at Oxford throws himself from a train heading for London. A thousand pounds in banknotes are found in his case and the Intelligence Officer who has been tailing him, suspects that he's been giving secrets to the Russians. This officer, Major Hal (John Clements) goes to Oxford and finds that Sharpey's experiments in sensory deprivation may have made him unnaturally susceptible to suggestion. He recruits Doctors Tate (Michael Bryant) and Longman (Dirk Bogarde) to find out whether sensory deprivation can cause someone to be brainwashed out of their most cherished beliefs. Longman is already shaky from his previous sessions in the sensory deprivation tank, hiding at home with his wife Oonagh (Mary Ure) and their four children. In spite of this constant nervousness, Longman agrees to re-enter the tank to help Hall understand Sharpey's sudden change from slightly bolshie scientist to traitor.

During the harrowing eight hours in the tank, Longman goes through a wild range of emotional states, anger, boredom, erotic reverie and screaming hysteria. When fished out he's disoriented and Tate, at Hall's suggestion, attempts to usurp Longman's love of his wife. Longman's most strongly held belief is his love of her, hence if it can be broken, then Sharpey's traitorious actions can be explained.

The acting here is incredibly good. Bogarde in particular has to range between loving husband and father to whimpering wreck to an arrogant and sadistically cruel husband. Mary Ure's Oonagh has a couple of good solid moments, particularly in confronting Tate with his previously unrealised personal agenda and Clements' Hall is the kind of spy who would not be out of place in a John Le Carre novel. Of the two climactic moments in the movie, the first where Longman is given evidence of his brainwashing is the better, but in some ways the cinema of the time required the second, happier climax.

This film also shows Bogarde' transition from light leading man roles to deeper character parts. Two years before this film he'd done Victim for the same director as The Mind Benders, Basil Dearden, and also in 1963, The Servant with Joseph Losey. The Mind Benders sits well with those two more famous roles. It's out on DVD now, so give it a go.

The Man In The White Suit (1951)

In some ways this 1951 Ealing comedy is the first movie about nanotechnology. Sidney Stretton (Alec Guinness) is a genius. He keeps getting thrown out of his jobs in textile mills because he secretly uses their research labs in his great quest. He wants to create cloth that can't be cut, can't be soiled and will last forever. The cloth will be a single molecule, woven into fabric: a 1950s nanotechnology.

After being caught out at the Cortland Mills, run by Michael Cortland (Michael Gough who later played Alfred to Michael Keaton's Batman), he gets a job at the Birnley Mills run by Cecil Parker, whose dishy daughter Daphne is played by Joan Greenwood. Here, by accidentally pretending to be an electron microscope technician, Sidney has his breakthrough and, with Birnley's assistance, creates a white suit of his miracle cloth.

The local mill owners, lead by the fiendish and incredibly ancient Sir John Kierlaw (Ernest Thesiger who could well have been the role model for Montgomery Burns), try to buy Sidney out to suppress his invention, which will put them out of business. The mill workers unions want to do the same for the same reason. The mill owners, while Birnley is on the phone, hire Daphne to seduce Sidney into complying. She, of course, helps Sidney escape from these fiendish industrialists. He is promptly captured by the union and escapes with the help of a deadpan little girl, only to have both sides chase him through the mill town. This chase is expedited by the fact that the suit is slightly luminous. They finally capture Sidney and...

Anyway, this movie is firstly a delightful comedy. Guinness' Sidney is charmingly gormless, endearingly sneaky and relentless in his pursuit of his goal. Joan Greenwood (who was chosen by Empire magazine as number 63 of the 100 Sexiest Stars in film history) is lovely as Daphne, a woman with a mind of her own and a forthright sexiness that communicates well over the half century since this movie was made. Cecil Parker's windbag mill owner is firstly delighted by then bemused by Sidney's discovery and Thesiger is great as the ancient vulture-like capitalist Kierlaw.

On another level, the movie satirises the dynamic between management and workers. Sidney and Daphne are the only unselfish main characters in the movie.Everyone else wants to maintain the status quo. It's also good science fiction, so what more can one want?

(Originally posted Wednesday, February 02, 2005)

Sep 10, 2007

Iron Man Trailer Is Up And It Looks Gooood

Click the link above. This movie looks like a lot of fun. I've been an Iron Man fan since the 1960s tv cartoon days and this looks like it has the chops.

Sep 9, 2007

The Bazura Project Guys Sing The History of Film in 3.5 Minutes

Lee Zachariah and Shannon Marinko are, putting it simply, the new David and Margaret, except neither of them looks like Judy Dench playing an Elf in a Tolkien epic.

Ocean's Twelve (2004)

I love caper films. Topkapi, Gambit, Rififi, The Italian Job, The Biggest Bundle Of Them All. There’s something in me that gets sucked in by cool people stealing large amounts of money or priceless artefacts from utter bastards. These movies demonstrate the Universe as we want it to be. We want pricks to never prosper.

The remake of Ocean’s Eleven was intelligent, witty, stylish and the caper had a few nice twists in the execution. The one downside was that Julia Roberts – never one of my favourite actresses—was in a bummer of a role. This time around, her contribution is a lot more fun, weaving a conceit of cinema into an important plot point.

The plot, as much as it matters, is about the revenge of Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia), the Bellagio casino owner whom the Eleven robbed in the first movie. He has found Ocean’s Eleven and wants his money back even if the insurance did pay out. This gives the movie the chance to see what the characters have been doing since the big score at the Bellagio. In order to pay Benedict back, the team needs a big score. They’re too hot to work in the USA so they hit Europe. After a caper in Amsterdam they find that there’s a third player in the game – Le Renaud de la Nuit – the Night Fox who claims to be the best thief in the World. Add a Europol agent (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who has a history with Rusty (Brad Pitt) and a competition to steal a Faberge Coronation Egg and the game is on. Interesting actors have smaller roles in the movie -- Robbie Coltrane, Bruce Willis, Eddie Izzard, Cherry Jones, Vincent Cassel and Albert Finney.

Ocean’s Twelve brings back the spirit of the 1960s caper film. The plot twists are very cool, the European locations are wonderfully photographed, the soundtrack is extremely well thought out, avoiding the easy option of using familiar music to evoke mood. It uses European artists including Piero Umiliani and Roland Vincent as well as Dave Grusin.

This isn’t deep and meaningful movie making but it is intelligent, smart and very entertaining.

(Originally posted Sunday, January 16, 2005)

Billion Dollar Brain (1967)

The Harry Palmer movies were an interesting 1960s movie phenomenon. They came out during the time when James Bond was the pop cultural phenomenon of the age. In a sense these movies, based on Len Deighton's novels were a backlash against Bond's upper class sophistication. Deighton never gave his protagonist a name but the protagonist was a rain-coat wearing working class spy in National Health Service glasses who worked for public servant salaries.

The about the movies is that, like the Bond films, they were produced by Harry Saltzman.

BDB is the third in the series. It was directed by Ken Russell and Russell runs full tilt with the opportunity. Palmer has quit the spy business and is working as a down at heels private eye. He sleeps in his office, his sink is full of dishes and there are unpaid bills. He's visited by his ex-boss Colonel Ross (Australian actor Guy Doleman) who has a job for him. Harry declines and then receives a parcel in the mail and a phone call from what we 21st Century cybersophisticates realise is a computerised voice. Take this key, open a locker at the airport and take the contents to Helsinki. There's two hundred quid in it if you do.

Harry does, but not before finding out that his parcel contains eggs. In Helsinki he links up with Leo Newbigen (Karl Malden) an old and unreliable colleague, Leo's lover Anya (Françoise Dorléac) and a scam Leo has in Latvia to ostensibly cause a revolution there on behalf of a crazed Texan billionaire General Midwinter (Ed Begley).

Here's Midwinter ranting on his crusade. He sounds like Dubya on amphetamine at times.

General Midwinter: No, you don't understand the kind of love I have for this great country of ours. Love's not built that way, my way, any more. These days love is marriage, and the compensation is alimony; love these days is bravery under fire, and the compensation is medals; love is a donation of party funds, and the compensation is a political plum; love is some lady you left back in St. Louis, or a fast haul in the back seat of an automobile. My love is nothing like that. My love is this great company of brave young men, who are proud to make their country strong!

Of course, Harry's old opposition, Colonel Stok of the KGB (Oskar Homolka) shows up and gently guides Harry out of harms way. In spite of supposedly being on opposite sides, Harry and Stok have a good rapport:

Col.Stok: I suppose a young man like you wouldn't know the pleasure of removing a tight collar.

Harry Palmer: I thought Lenin called such comforts 'momentary interest'.

Col.Stok: Don't tell me what Lenin said. I touched Lenin. I stood by him in Ruzheinaya Square in July, nineteen hundred and twenty; the second congress. I touched him. Those are the words he used to describe the comforts and pleasures with which the proletariat are diverted from their more important historic mission. But they are not being diverted. Well, are you going to offer me another drink?

Harry Palmer: In England Colonel, the historic mission of the proletariat consists almost entirely of momentary interest.

It turns out that Leo has been deceiving Midwinter into financing non-existant revolutionaries in Latvia by programming false data into his billion dollar brain, a massive complex of 1960s Honeywell computers the grunt of which would now fit into a laptop. Midwinter goes ahead with his plan to take his private army across the frozen ice between Finland and Latvia and things get interesting.

Ken Russell's direction is terrific here. The viewer is kept off balance, as indeed is Harry Palmer for most of the movie. I asked myself three or four times, why is that person doing this? only to find out minutes later that there is a very cool reason for them to do so. Richard Rodney Bennett's music for the film is great too. I'd love to get a soundtrack for this one. It's easily on par with his later work on Murder On The Orient Express and comes close to being perfect 1960s spy movie music. The titles of the film are interesting too, having been done by Maurice Binder, who did the titles for all the early Bond films. Check it out.

(Originally posted Saturday, January 22, 2005)

State and Main (2000)

I like David Mamet's movies. When a local department store was selling a copy of his House of Games for eight bucks, I bought it even while I was appalled at how cheaply such a great flick could be acquired. It's the same feeling I had when I got The Third Man for ten bucks.
(Pause while blogger goes to the kitchen for a glass of Bombay Sapphire Gin over ice. Gotta love summer time.)

State and Main is in some ways an atypical Mamet film. The only crime in it is one that neither the victim nor the perp are particularly concerned about. For the drunk driving movie star it's a hobby, for the teenaged girl, it is a potential way out of the backwards Norman Rockwell town. The town is Waterford, Vermont where a film crew arrive to make a period movie called "The Old Mill". The writer, Joseph Turner White (Phillip Seymour Hoffman)is enchanted with the place, and particularly its' book store owner Ann Black, (Rebecca Pidgeon) who to him is a voice of clear sanity contrasting with the self-serving rapaciousness of the director Walt Price (William H. Macy) who's motto is "Shoot First And Ask Questions Later", the egocentric faux-vulnerable manipulations of the starring actress Claire Wellesley (Sarah Jessica Parker), the wolverine stylings of the producer Marty Rossen (David Paymer) and the lazy studliness of movie star Bob Barrenger (Alec Baldwin) of whom the following is said:

Walt Price: What does he like?
Bill Smith: 14-year-old girls.
Walt Price: Well, get him something else. We want to get out of this town alive. Get him half a 28-year-old girl. How's my math?

Bob's liaison with a local girl (Julia Stiles), Claire's reluctance to do a topless scene for less than an extra $800,000, Joseph's dual dilemmas of of how to write a movie called "The Old Mill" when the mill burnt down during an arson spree in 1960 and his increasing attraction to Ann, all churned together with Mamet's sharp dialogue make for an amusing comedy.

I'm a sucker for movies about movie making, and this one does it neatly. How does Joseph keep honest in a millieu where the only morality is to get the movie made? How does Ann's ex-fiance Doug Mackenzie get his chance to run for public office? How does Bob avoid gaol and Claire avoid getting kicked off the movie for not showing her tits when she's contractually obligated to? All the questions are answered, but not in a linear way.

There are some nice jokes here. The mayor (Charles Durning) is named George Bailey, just like Jimmy Stewart's character in "It's A Wonderful Life". This is not a world shattering movie, but one that's full of unexpected twists and interesting characters.

(Originally posted aturday, January 08, 2005)

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

I'm not sure why I hadn't seen this movie until now. Charlie Kaufman is one of the two or three most inventive scriptwriters on the planet, even if he did once write episodes of Ned and Stacey. Michel Gondry is a wizardly director. Maybe it's Jim Carrey who put me off. He's an actor who did brilliant work in The Truman Show, then pissed away the credibility with annoying performances in things like The Grinch and Bruce Almighty. The guy has the acting chops to be anything he wants but sooner or later his mugging gets in the way.

That having been said, Carrey's acting in Eternal Sunshine is superb. This film is also one of the best science fiction movies of all time. Good SF is about the effects of technology or other changes upon human beings, and that is at the heart of Eternal Sunshine. Not just of Joel (Carrey) and Clementine (Kate Winslet) who undergo memory erasure after their relationship breaks up, but everyone whom this technology touches. There are some dark places that this movie explores that are unexpected and very scary.

Eternal Sunshine is also a high wire act. The structure is non-linear, about half of the movie takes place in the mind of a sleeping man and with a little less art, the love story here could be too cute to carry off the pathos. But there is a verisimilitude in the characters that makes it all work.

The supporting cast is uniformly good. Tom Wilkinson as the doctor who can Forget It For You Wholesale, Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood as his lab technicians and Kirsten Dunst as his receptionist. Even David Cross as Joel's friend has a nice cameo which is more serious than most of his work.

Very few films make CGI work to support the story rather than be the story. There are some incredibly disconcerting pieces of visual magic here. A bookshop where the covers of the volumes are becoming blank as the memory of the encounter is being erased. A row of shops that seems to be in a space warp. A house that collapses in on itself as the memory of it is destroyed. All strong visual metaphors for the firecracker chain of erasure that is occurring as Joel tries to retain memories of Clementine whom he loved and lost.

If you've not seen this one yet, lucky you. You're in for a touching, profound treat.

(Originally posted Monday, January 03, 2005)

Wild Palms (1993)

Remember the early 1990s? Virtual Reality was hot shit, cognitive enhancers (smart drugs) were the chemicals-de-jour, everyone was reading William Gibson and nobody knew who Ben Affleck or Jennifer Lopez were. Golden days indeed.

Wild Palms, the five part mini-series that appeared in 1993 had its finger on the pulse of the 90s zeitgeist. Written by Bruce Wagner (whose book Force Majeure is in some ways the ultimate Hollywood noir novel).

Set in the far off future of 2007, it features James Belushi as Harry Wyckoff, a lawyer who meets Senator Anton Kreutzer (Robert Loggia), a former science fiction writer who creates a religion -- The Church of Synthiotics. Kreutzer has a television network, Channel 3 which he links with mimecom, a new holographic television system and mimezine, a drug which convinces the user that the holograms are real. Kreutzer is also the leader of The Fathers, an authoritarian secret organisation which has been kidnapping the children of its' political enemies since the 1960s. Fighting The Fathers are The Brothers, a group of libertarians. Their leader, Eli Levitt (David Warner) is in a State Perceptory (i.e. mental hospital)... Wild Palms is a hybrid of soap opera, conspiracy theories, science fiction and political horror story. The dialogue is witty and quotable and the five episode names "Everything Must Go", "The Floating World", "Rising Sons", "Hungry Ghosts" and "Hello, I Must Be Going" are woven with multiple meanings in the narrative. Character names are wonderful, too. Paige Katz -- the femme fatale played by Kim Catrall, Josie Ito (Angie Dickenson) -- the ultimate dragon lady, Chap Starfall (Robert Morse) the creepy Synthiotics zealot lounge singer, Chickie Levitt (Brad Dourif)-- the crippled genius hacker and Tully Wowoide (Nick Mancuso) the tragic artist whose eyes Josie plucks out of his head. Meaning is layered in this series. One scene is an hommage to The Bad Seed, using the same dialogue in a similar context. Conversations are peppered with observations like this:

"A small case of mood poisoning -- must be something I hate"
"We will storm the memory palace"
"I like to listen to the radio -- it's safer than the damned television"
"We're the shock troops of reality".

In some ways Wild Palms is eerily prophetic. In its' world, a nuclear explosion in Boca Raton and a deep financial recession in the late 1990s precipitate a crack down on civil liberties and a return to conservative values. This is reflected in the male fashion for high Edwardian collars and suits, a trope which slides the viewer into the fictional universe very easily, as does the use of retro cars and poodle-skirted female fashion, some of which wouldn't be out of place in Funny Face.

Wild Palms is about a war for control of reality itself. Synthiotics has a buzz-phrase "New Reality". Given the utterances from the Bush junta on the "reality-based community" Wild Palms begins to take on a scary context.

This series has been compared to Twin Peaks. It does have a Lynchean use of old songs in new contexts: everything from Hello, I Must Be Going by Groucho Marx to Wedding-Bell Blues, On The Street of Dreams, All of You and a version of Brian Wilson's In My Room which foreshadows the kind of World that The Brothers are planning for humanity.

WP is out on DVD in Australia at the moment. While it isn't perfect (Belushi is miscast) it is an interesting piece of science fiction which is refreshing compared to the modern CGI-fests that act on the producers' belief that SF is all about eye-candy and action sequences. Buy it or borrow it but definitely watch it.

(Originally posted Wednesday, December 29, 2004)

Mon Oncle (1958)

This is how I saw my first Jacques Tati movie. I'd heard about them, read a few reviews on the web and I was intrigued. I made a mental tick next to his name and when, in March 2004, Sally and I found ourselves at the Virgin Megastore on Boulevarde Poissonieres in Paris, I went hunting for them. I found M. Hulot's Holiday, or more correctly Les Vacances de M. Hulot. In spite of locating this gem of French cinema, the selection at Virgin was disappointing. Too much Hollywood, not enough Studio Canal or Pathe.

Zip-pan back to Australia where I work my way through the carry-on bag of DVDs we had acquired in our pan-planetary travels and I watched M. Hulot for the first time. It took me about twenty minutes to slip into the relaxed pace and whimsical headspace of Tati's comedy but after that, I was hooked.

Two days ago, I got a copy of Mon Oncle. This time I was ready for Hulot from the word go and this film is currently on my list of all time favourites.

It starts with a scene of small, scampering dogs roaming the streets of an old vilage in France, rummaging in garbage bins, playing in the gutters, pissing on park benches and in general, having a great time. The dogs serve an important purpose. Their instinctive randomness and curiosity highlight the futuristic sterility of the town nearby where M. Hulot's sister, brother-in-law (Mr and Mrs Arpel) and nephew Gerard live. One of the roaming dogs, an adventurous dachshund, belongs to the family. Instinctively shunning the modern town, it chooses to wander with the mutts in the old town where a horse and cart pick up junk, the street sweeper always seems to have a neat pile of litter in front of him and the bistro looks like the kind of place anyone would love to spend a few hours playing pool and sipping cognac.

Hulot is unemployed and aimless, living in a garret apartment from which he seems content to wander the town, pick up Gerard from the hideously sterile school he attends and observe the World. His sister (Adrienne Servantie) decides that Hulot should work in the plastic-tubing factory that her husband manages. This of course doesn't work and Hulot manages to manufacture pipes that look like sausage links. She's also trying to matchmake him with her neighbour, a Hedda Hopper look-alike who has nothing in common with Hulot. A garden party (held in the Arpels' outrageously silly, hideous, minimalist, human hostile garden) turns into disaster as Hulot innocently punctures the pipeline to the fountain, amputates a climbing vine and looks more bemused than usual. One of Tati's keen observations here is that the attendees of the party interact more genuinely when things go wrong than they had before Hulot arrived.

But the plot isn't essential. The heart of this movie is the interaction between Hulot and the World. The whimsical village life where a potential punch-up evolves into a friendly ride on the junk cart after a sojourn in the cafe, the way the little dogs always seem to know where Hulot is and are drawn to him as a kindred soul and most central, how Gerard understands Hulot the way that adults rarely can are the aspects that turn the mundane into the magical. Charming isn't a word I use often, but I keep thinking of it when I remember this film. This is a film to treasure.

(Originally posted Wednesday, December 15, 2004)

Sep 8, 2007

The Naked Jungle (1954)

I only ever met one person who didn't like movies. I think that she was either looking for a big bright way to assert her individuality or had some kind of fundy religious thing that forbade her from sitting in large darkened rooms with strangers. Either way, she wasn't a lot of fun to be with.

The point is that an overwhelming majority of people like movies. Whether you're an aboriginal kid in Wilcannia grokking Jackie Chan flicks, an intelligensiac communing with Trois Couleurs: Bleu or a life-long cinema junkie like me who would have to toss a coin to choose between seeing Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew or Fellini's La Dolce Vita.

That, in html, is what this blog is about. Watching flicks.

The Naked Jungle is one of those Saturday afternoon matinee flicks that all good cinema junkies have seen on tv at some stage. (It's not to be confused with Naked Jungle which was an action-oriented game show for nudists.)

It stars Charlton Heston, Eleanor Parker, William Conrad, a bunch of extras pretending to be Jivaros and ten square miles of soldier ants that try to do to Chuck what Michael Moore dismally failed at. The Naked Jungle is one of only three or four Heston movies I like, the others being Will Penny, The Omega Man and Ben-Hur (although I always want Stephen Boyd to win the chariot race). Chuck plays Christopher Leiningen, a cocoa plantation owner on the Rio Negro who has sent away to New Orleans for a mail-order bride. He lucks out and gets Eleanor Parker whom William Conrad as the pith-helmeted District Commissioner escorts up the river on a boat made by the same people who built The African Queen.

The first half of the movie is basically the two main protagonists falling in love. He has never slept with a woman, not even the cute village chicks as he self-righteously tells his bride. She was married to a witty charming alcoholic who died in New Orleans. He gets pissed off that she's been married before, but as she tells him, pianos sound better when they've been played a little.

Things get a bit worse after that. Jungle drums start some staccato riffs, monkeys and birds leave their native habitats and William Conrad is sent back upstream to find out what the hell is going on. He overacts just well enough to be a lot of fun as he, Leiningen and the wife who is on her way back to the Big Easy go upstream and find out that a mass of soldier ants the half the size of Manhattan is heading for Chuck's chocolate plantation. Chuck being Chuck decides to stand and fight the mosh-pit of marabunta. William Conrad rightly tells him that he's a few betel nuts short of a basket. This gives Conrad a chance to get the best lines in the movie. He tells Chuck that the ants actually think and calls them ten square miles of agonising death.

Eleanor Parker tells Chuck that all his native workers will leave if she does, so she stays and helps everyone else clear-fell the jungle to build a big bonfire around the farm compound. This devastated biomass is set alight to keep the marabunta away. It works until they run out of furniture to burn, then Chuck looks at a map and decides that he has to dynamite the dam holding the waters back from the plantation. The downside to this is that the dam is miles away and I have to assume that he wishes he had thought of this before the ants ate the fat borracho he had minding the dam. So being the only white guy left on the Rio Negro, Chuck has to play dodge the ants, light the dynamite with a pistol shot and get the hell out before he becomes a part of a very big bowl of chocolate flavoured ant-soup.

When I was a kid, Chuck's cross-country run to the dam was the cool sequence that justified sitting through all the mooshy kissy-kissy stuff. These days I enjoy both aspects of the movie. Yes the jungle is obviously a studio backlot, yes the special effects of ants defoliating western Brazil looks less impressive in these CG-afflicted days, yes if Chuck's acting had been any stiffer he would have been replaced by a Gerry Anderson puppet, but it kicks arse. Forget the fact that the hero has spent seventeen years ruining as much of the Amazon Basin as he could slash and burn, those bloody ants were eating as many character actors as they could get their mandibles on. Their arses needed kicking! Chuck was making the world safe for chocolate producers -- a quest any kid could get behind, even if Chuck did do kissy face with the redhead at the end of the movie.

This one's out on DVD now and is well worth buying with some of that money that elderly relatives are going to put in your Christmas card.

(Originally posted Sunday, December 12, 2004)

Moving My Reviews To Paleo-Cinema

Hi guys, I'm transposing, editing and reblogging some movie reviews I did a while back in another blog of mine. The idea is to get everything in one place and accessible. The next few posts are reprints in a sense, but somewhat tweaked to improve them. Enjoy!

Dark Soap -Samuel Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1964)

Any movie that starts with a shaved-bald hooker beating up an abusive, drunken pimp with a shoe then robbing him only for the amount she’s owed, is off to a good start.

Good, thinks the discerning viewer, lots of 1960s sleaze ahead! But Fuller then cuts to the credits where the afforementioned member of the demimondane (in soft focus) slips her wig back on and applies her makeup while syrupy soundtrack music reminiscent of a Douglas Sirk melodrama plays. The discerning viewer is confused. Is this flick going to be film noir ala Ida Lupino's 1950s directorial works or are Rock Hudson and Jane Wyman going to appear and shock their New England neighbours by canoodling by a fireplace? Hmmm, the flick is in black and white, so there's not much
chance that it's going to be a sequel to All That Heaven Allows.

Cut to two years later. Griff (Anthony Eisley) the town police chief of Grantsville is talking with the guy who runs the bus station as a bus pulls up and the prostitute Kelly (Constance Towers) steps off it. Griff knows she's a hooker straight away. She claims to be a travelling saleswoman flogging a brand of champagne called Angel Foam. Griff sleeps with her then tells her to leave because “this town is clean”. (You've got to love early 1960s American sexual hypocrisy.) He acts tough because he's watched Lee Marvin in a lot of episodes of M Squad. But
Kelly isn't just a run-of-the-bordello hooker, she's educated, intelligent and worldly. She gives as good as she gets in the dialogue department. Griff tries to tell her where the local ‘salon’ is but instead she rents a room in a local home and gets a job as a nurse’s aid in the local hospital for handicapped children. She uses the tough-love approach on the kids and is incredibly successful at helping them overcome their disabilities by having everyone pretend they're pirates.
(None of this is made up, I swear.)

She meets the town big-shot, Grant (Michael Dante) who charms her and asks her to marry him, but here the soap opera becomes shadowy and malevolent after the sickly wish-fulfilment courtship. Kelly beats Grant to death with a telephone and is charged with murder. I won't give away why she does it. I'll just sa that flick deals with issues that mainstream US cinema didn't touch for another thirty years.

On one level The Naked Kiss is a soap opera. There are moments of incredible saccharinity but those moments recurve to take on a much darker tone later in the film. On another level it's also a feminist parable about strength and independence. Fuller has always denied that The Naked Kiss is film noir, but I disagree. In traditional noir, a male protagonist with a shady past tries to find redemption only to be brought down by fate or circumstance. The only difference here is that the protagonist is female.

I also have to mention Paul Dunlap's music, which subversively emphasises the mid-20th Century wholesomeness of the town in the daytime scenes in the town square, slightly overdoing the cutesy music to highlight the falsenss of the image.

Samuel Fuller didn’t make movies to win awards. He told stories he wanted to tell and to hell with anyone else. He made movies that are unlike any others. Along with Shock Corridor (1963), The Naked Kiss charts Fuller's cynicism and disillusionment with America as he saw it. Makes you wonder what his spin would be on the post-millennial USA.

(Originally posted Saturday, December 11, 2004)