Wolves at the Door (2017)

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Some years ago an older friend of mine who is a psychiatrist said that showing another friend A Short Film About Killing had altered that man’s opinion about the death penalty with which he had previously agreedThe story of the film is about a passenger who randomly and brutally murders a taxi driver and is then sentenced to an equally violent death. Apparently this third party now agreed with my psychiatrist friend that the death penalty is wrong. My psychiatrist friend thought I would agree. I didn’t. I argued for my part that it was precisely the callous random nature of the act – a total stranger being murdered for pure pleasure, presumed sexual excitement and on a whim – that justified the punishment. A life for a life, if you will. My psychiatrist friend was duly horrified by my reaction. Nowadays I believe in life imprisonment. And I mean life. Which is all by means of introducing this re-staging of the horrifying so-called Manson Family murders 8th August 1969 of the beyond beautiful actress Sharon Tate (Katie Cassidy), her unborn son Paul Polanski, her best friend Abigail Folger (Elizabeth Henstridge), Tate’s ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Miles Fisher),  Folger’s boyfriend Wojciech Frykowski (Adam Campbell), and Steven Parent (Lucas Adams), who wasn’t in the Cielo Drive house but met his end at the gates. If there is a text here that is worth discussion beyond the psychotic violence at the core of this exploitation film, it is about carelessness. How careless people are about their own safety, their presumption of civilised behaviour from others and the means by which a gap between our experiences and our expectations can be filled by the utterly inexplicable hate-filled rage of people we don’t even know, exiled from normalcy, refugees from society, indecent and obscene. There’s a reason we are hard-wired to have a circle of 150 family, friends and acquaintances – survival.It’s why kids are taught as soon as they speak, Stranger Danger. Some of this is expressed in the portrayal of William Garretson (Spencer Daniels) the so-called caretaker on the Polanski property who is portrayed here as a witless drug user with earphones clamped to his brain-dead head throughout. He finally died in 2016. Some of the perpetrators are still breathing. There are some episodes that do not require gruesome and explicit re-enactments. This vile explosion of depraved horror lingers in the communal memory for a reason. It fundamentally altered most people’s view of the death penalty which Manson and his smirking wenches escaped by the pure fluke of timing, unlike their wretched and helpless victims. One of them even got away to live her life in exchange for bearing witness. Other than that, I have nothing to add. Written by Gary Dauberman and directed by John R. Leonetti. Ghastly, tasteless and misjudged, in the truest sense.

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To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

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You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it. Six-year old Scout Finch (Mary Badham) and her older brother Jem (Phillip Alford) live in sleepy smalltown Maycomb, Alabama during the Depression, spending their time with their friend Dill (John Megna) who visits every summer, spying on their reclusive and mysterious neighbour the mentally defective Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). When Atticus (Gregory Peck) their widowed father and a respected lawyer, defends a black man named Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) against fabricated rape charges by a redneck white girl Mayella Violet Ewell (Collin Wilcox) whose own father Bob (James Anderson) has attacked her, the trial and surrounding issues expose the children to evils of racism and stereotyping and the accuser’s father has a bone to pick with Finch and his children … This feels like it has always been here:  the gracious Peck in the role with which he would come to be identified and young Scout’s view of unfolding events, the most violent of which are all offscreen. Horton Foote’s careful adaptation of Harper Lee’s instant classic and Pulitzer Prize-winner (with Dill a stand-in for her own childhood friend, Truman Capote) both heightens and elevates the issue of white supremacy in some of the shot set-ups by director Robert Mulligan, never mind the text in which the innocent victim of white justice is mysteriously shot by the police while allegedly escaping. Perhaps that’s the quibble of someone viewing it in retrospect twice over – the 1960s take on a 30s point of view. The sense of place and period ambiance is impeccable and the playing of the motherless girl by Badham (sister of director John) is hugely influential in its insistence on how we see things are – or were, perhaps, with no distractions or subplots to take from this essential drama of the rights of the vulnerable with the odd scene properly essaying the effect of horror films, just as a child experiences life. Each of the children makes a lasting impression. The courtroom scene is classic and the quiet dignity of the black community rising to their feet as Atticus leaves the legendary trial sequence is very moving. Quite monumental.

Cleopatra (1963)

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Nothing like this has come into Rome since Romulus and Remus. The Seventh Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) manipulates and falls in love with both Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Marc Antony (Richard Burton) in her ill-fated attempt to save the Egyptian empire from a takeover by the Roman Empire. This love triangle is one of the most famous ever to be captured on film, with betrayal by trusted Octavian (Roddy McDowall), the murder of Caesar, the escape of Cleopatra who has borne Caesar’s son and the final, terrible defeat at Actium in Greece … What gets lost in the palaver about this truly epic historical saga which ruined Twentieth Century Fox for a while is just how good it is:  how it measures the scale of the action to the depth of performance. Elizabeth Taylor is imperious, vulnerable, scathing, dictatorial, brilliant and moving: What can I do? Where can I go in a world suddenly without you? You believe her. And she is matched by the acerbic Harrison, the slyly snide McDowall (we’re a long way from Lassie!), loyal Rufio (Martin Landau) and what about the very sad end of Burton whose line to Octavian makes you gulp with emotion:  Is there nobody who would grant Antony an honourable way to die? Oh! Based on The Life and Times of Cleopatra by C.M. Franzero and the histories by Plutarch, Appian and Suetonius the much-laboured upon screenplay is by Ranald MacDougall and Sidney Buchman, and director Joseph Mankiewicz who certainly suffered for everybody’s art as the man to take over the botched first attempt aborted in London and relaunched at Cinecitta in Rome. As legendary as this is for its effect on Hollywood, what shouldn’t be forgotten is what a brilliant spectacle it is. It’s quite breathtaking.

Carry On Cleo (1964)

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I came. I saw. I conked out. Julius Caesar (Kenneth Williams) is invading Britain. Mark Antony (Sid James) has to lead the army through horrible weather. Cavemen Horsa (Jim Dale) and Hengist Pod (Kenneth Connor) try to warn Queen Boudicea but they are taken captive. Horsa is sold as a slave by Marcus et Spencius. Nobody wants Hengist so he’s going to be thrown to the lions – but they both escape and hide in the Temple of Vesta when Caesar arrives for a consultation with the Vestal Virgins but an attempt is made on his life by his bodyguard Bilius (David Davenport). In the ensuing action Horsa kills Bilius and escapes leaving Hengist to take the credit for saving Caesar’s life and to be made his new bodyguard. In Egypt a power struggle leads Caesar to send Mark Antony to force the abdication of Cleopatra (Amanda Barrie) in order for Ptolemy to succeed – but he falls in love with her and kills Ptolemy instead! Then she persuades him to kill Caesar so he can take over Rome himself and they can rule the entire region together … – I’ve got a poisonous asp. – It’s not that bad. Probably the greatest in the Carry On series (although my own favourite is Carry On Screaming) this is simply laugh out loud hilarious from start to finish, with lines you’ll wish you’d written yourself. Infamy, infamy. They’ve all got it in for me!  Using the sets from the abandoned first attempt to film the juggernaut that was Cleopatra at Pinewood, the crazy gang went in and made a meal of everything past and present even giving James’ and Connor’s own What a Carve Up! a shout out while making a complete mockery of Cleopatra itself. Sublimely funny. Written by Talbot Rothwell, produced by Peter Rogers and directed by Gerald Thomas. Blimus!

 

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)

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This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) attends the funeral of a man named Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in a small Western town. Flashing back 25 years, we learn Doniphon saved Stoddard, then a lawyer, when he was roughed up by a gang of outlaws led by Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). As the territory’s safety hung in the balance, Doniphon and Stoddard, two of the only people standing up to him, proved to be very important, but different, foes to Valance. Stoddard opened a law office over the offices of the Shinbone Star, the newspaper which is run by a steadfast editor determined to expose the reality of the violence terrorising the territory and preserve the freedom of the press. Both Doniphon and Stoddard are in love with the same woman, Hallie (Vera Miles) who cooks in her immigrant parents’ restaurant and whom Stoddard teaches to read and write. When the newspaper prints a (mis-spelled) headline declaring Valance is defeated, he takes revenge – and then the peace-loving Stoddard takes up a gun … This is a film of polarities, exemplified by the civilising influence of Ransom opposed to Valance and Doniphon’s own belief in the power of the gun (which ironically opens up the possibility for bringing law and order to the place). Vera Miles is splendid as the illiterate love of both men:  What good has reading and writing done you? Look at you – in an apron!  An eloquent essay on the genre itself, this was not received warmly upon release. And yet its entire narrative provides the content for soon to be popular structuralist analysis of the western:  the East versus the West, old versus new, the wilderness versus civilisation, violence versus law and order, reality versus myth, the desert versus the garden. Never was a cactus rose deployed to such symbolic effect! John Ford made one of the great films but it took the rest of the world a little longer to catch up. Adapted from Dorothy Johnson’s short story by producer Willis Goldbeck and James Warner Bellah .

Union Pacific (1939)

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First time I’ve discarded aces for a queen! President Lincoln signed off on the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act to authorise pushing the Union Pacific Railroad west across the wilderness toward California. However now that Lincoln is dead financial opportunist Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker) hopes to profit from obstructing it. Chief troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea) has his hands full fighting Barrows’ agent the gambler Sid Campeau (the wonderfully devilish Brian Donlevy). Campeau’s partner veteran Dick Allen (Robert Preston) is Jeff’s war buddy and rival suitor for Irish rail engineer’s daughter Molly Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck). Who will survive the effort to push the railroad through at any cost? And who will win Molly? Cecil B. DeMille’s rousing, sprawling western was in the vanguard of historical tales bringing together the rival attempts at forming a national history – and this all culminates at Promontory Point Utah when Leland Stanford drove a ceremonial spike to unite this with the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869. Filled with great starry performances this is history on a human scale. Despite Stanwyck’s typical luminosity and McCrea’s decency and likeability,  it’s probably Preston who comes off best, even photographically, in his showy role. Filled with fighting, shooting, murder, building and dismantling, Indian attacks, drinking, gambling, love and death, with one killing from the window of a train that is shocking to this day, this is truly a film for the ages. A splendid, zesty example of the power of classical Hollywood. Written by Walter DeLeon, Jack Cunningham and C. Gardner Sullivan, adapting Ernest Haycox’ novel Troubleshooter. This is the first ever winner of the Palme d’Or at Cannes – awarded in 2002 due to the debut Festival’s cancellation following the outbreak of WW2!

The Great Wall (2016)

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I’ve been a fool, I’m done with it. Two European mercenaries (Matt Damon and Pedro Pascal) searching for black powder become embroiled in the defence of the Great Wall of China against a horde of Tao Tien or monstrous creatures. Matt Damon versus giant lizards. Or, in the immortal words of Jimmy Kimmel on Oscars night, A Chinese Ponytail Movie. Mercifully short at 89 minutes, this is dire in that special way reserved for Asian films translated into English – except this was actually written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy from a story by Max Brooks, Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskowitz. Directed by the artist FKA Zhang Yimou. Bananas.

Esther Waters (1948)

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Esther Waters (Kathleen Ryan) is the maid at a big house where she is seduced by handsome footman William Latch (Dirk Bogarde) – but when he disappears with another woman Esther finds herself pregnant. She leaves for home but her mother is dead and she gives birth alone in a workhouse in Lambeth. Returning to service her childminder offers to kill her baby boy Jackie for a fiver. A kindly policeman helps her and then she meets a nice vicar, Fred (Cyril Cusack) who romances her. When William spots her on a tram however she allows him see her now six-year old son.  He’s a bookmaker with his ex long gone after his forays in Europe. Fred wants to marry her but she protests I’m a woman too and we know her sexual desire for William is overwhelming. It’s quite a moment in a British film of the era. She and William marry and she has to get over her disdain for his profession of gambling – until he falls mortally ill and she must enter the world of risk. The first section of the story is quite visually inventive with a particularly nice moment happening in silhouette. Bogarde is an excellent and louche romantic lead in his first such role. Then it descends into a social problem tract as Esther gets the Dickensian treatment in the city after her abandonment. Their reunion is as a fairly average married couple when he purveys his business – until medical issues twist everything … So the film both in terms of content and style works naturalism and melodrama into the fashion of the post-war period.  Ryan is very good in a complex role, never turning on the tears despite her desperation but it really works best when that attractive man Bogarde is front and centre. There’s a terrific climax at the Derby.  Adapted from George Moore’s novel by Michael Gordon and William Rose with additional dialogue by Gerard Tyrrell. Directed by Ian Dalyrymple and Peter Proud.

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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William Kienzle once wrote that nothing beats religion, sex and murder. This almost-true (ish) story of Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a literate slave and preacher in antebellum Virginia has all of the above plus a sense of righteousness that along with Twelve Years a Slave risks a new era of blaxploitation with rather different text than in the Seventies.  We are dealing with archetypes rather than real characters despite its biographical origins. Year in year out, another brutal beating, unwatchable torture and horrible violence. From his childhood to his inevitable death by hanging after taking revenge on the supposedly kindly owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) who betrays him after persuading him to suppress rebellion through religion we are not remotely surprised by any of the narrative turns. Worthy but not really memorable, from the quadruple threat Parker – who directs and produces as well as co-writing with Jean McGianni Celestin.

The Real Glory (1939)

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I can start a fire by rubbing two boy scouts together. This loose reworking of Lives of a Bengal Lancer reunites that film’s director Henry Hathaway with star Gary Cooper, transposing the action to the Philippines mid-uprising by the Moro (Moslem) guerillas. Colonel Hatch (Roy Gordon) is ordered to withdraw his troops from their island station.  There’s an insurgent army threatening the Filipinos so he lines up some of his best men to train the locals – military doctor Bill Canavan (Cooper),  along with McCool (David Niven) and Larson (Broderick Crawford), who make a lively pair of heroes.  When Linda (Andrea Leeds) the daughter of Captain Steve Hartley (Reginald Owen) enters the fray there are the usual romantic complications but these are second to the action which is at times horribly violent but excellently handled by Hathaway who was by now an expert at the genre and made a total of seven films with Cooper. (He had also previously made another Philippines-set film, Come On Marines!). When Hatch is killed by the guerillas Manning (Russell Hicks) takes over and after the local river is dammed there’s a cholera outbreak. Canavan befriends ‘Mike’ and infiltrates a Moro camp. Lines get crossed and a rescue attempt turns into an ambush …  Hartley meanwhile is going blind and doesn’t want to admit it. Who will blow up the dam? Jo Swerling and Robert Presnell Sr. adapted the novel by Charles L. Clifford which dealt with the real rebellion during US occupation at the beginning of the last century. Niven isn’t used remotely often enough in this Samuel Goldwyn Production but Leeds makes a very good impression as an atypical romantic lead. This was her third last film before her marriage into the Howard family who bred racehorses – including that little fella that could, Seabiscuit.