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Film7070 Week 7: 2004

2004: Brotherhood

Brotherhood is an epic Korean war movie in the same mould as Saving Private Ryan. Like Spielberg’s film it features some shockingly brutal battle scenes but it also suffers from Ryan‘s biggest failing – an overly sentimental story.

The tale of two brothers who are pressed into the service of the South when it goes to war with North Korea is overly melodramatic. Before the war they’re living a poor but idilic life, one of the brothers is getting an education while the elder helps pay for said education by doing shoe repairs. War shatters their plans but the elder brother makes a deal with his commanding officer – if he gets a medal his younger brother will be allowed to return home. Thus big brother becomes a super soldier, singlehandedly wiping out half the North Korean army. What makes this cloying sentimentality bearable is the realistic battle scenes, there’s a randomness to the battlefield that really puts you in the thick of things.

Sadly the story takes a contrived twist towards the end that sees the two brothers fighting on opposite sides. It’s at this point the film lost me and any interest I had in the resolution of the siblings story evaporated.

Brotherhood is half a great war movie but it falls down with it’s central characters and thus the viewers emotional involvement. It also makes no effort to explore the politics of the conflict – Communists are bad is about as deep as it gets, although in fairness it does show that atrocities were perpetrated on both sides.

Just a final note on the Saving Private Ryan parallels, both films feature scenes set in modern times with Brotherhood bookended with the surviving brother being contacted by the army when they uncover the remains of those who died during the films climactic battle scene. This adds nothing to the film though other than an extra dose of sentimentality.
[rating:3]

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Film7070 Week 6: 1961 & 1990

1961: Tierra Brutal aka The Savage Guns

I had high hopes for Tierra Brutal. It’s a film that’s not easy to find, but, being a fan of Richard Basehart since watching him as Admiral Nelson in Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea as a boy, the prospect of seeing him take the lead in what I’d heard described as a proto-spaghetti western (it was filmed in Spain) was hard to resist. So perhaps my expectation were a little high when I finally tracked it down. I was hoping to unearth a hidden gem, what I got was a fairly standard B western that has little of the style of the spaghetti westerns that were to come a few short years later.

Perhaps this lack of continental flavour shouldn’t have come as a surprise, the film was directed by an Englishman, Michael Carreras, a name that’s more familiar to horror fans than western aficionados. Michael was a producer and director with Hammer Films and the son of the studios founder Sir James Carreras. Not the sort of background you’d expect for a western movie director but he does a competent, if decidedly unspectacular, job.

Basehart does well as the gunfighter who’s looking for a place to hang up his guns (yes that old chestnut) but finds it’s never that easy to escape your past. The rest of the cast is made up of minor American actors, attractive Spanish ladies and a presumably hard up Fernando Rey. All of which leads to a frankly rather dull 90 minutes.
[rating:2]

1990: The Reflecting Skin

Philip Ridley is a director who divides audiences, is he pretentious and deliberately obscure or a visionary filmmaker who gives us a quirky, and often bleak, view of the world? After watching The Passion of Darkly Noon I was leaning more towards visionary than pretentious and The Reflecting Skin has pushed me further that way.

Told from a child’s perspective but with little of the happy nostalgia such films usually foster, this is a bleak look at depression era rural America. The film lacks any characters you can really identify with, everyone is a little weird, not least our central character, ten year old Seth Dove, and they’re not very sympathetic either. The film has a very dark tone and yet it’s also strangely beautiful, there’s some gorgeous cinematography.

It isn’t without it’s weak points – Jeremy Cooper, making his screen debut as Seth, isn’t a strong enough actor to carry the film and the pace at times is too slow, although whenever you feel your attention starting to wander the film throws another level of weirdness at you that pulls you back in.

I don’t want to give too much away, I knew very little about the film going in and I think that worked in its favour. It’s a hypnotic, at times deeply disturbing drama with some strong supporting performances, Duncan Fraser as Seth’s Father being worthy of special mention, as is Sheila Moore as his tyrannical and mentally unstable Mum. It’s not a film that’s quickly forgotten, there is at least one truly horrifying moment and enough disturbing images for a few nightmares but there’s also the question of what Ridley was trying to say with his portrait of this truly dysfunctional family. Ridley’s view of childhood certainly isn’t the rose coloured golden years that the movies often promote it as. The superficial beauty of the setting contrasting with the dark secrets that all the characters have.
[rating:3.5]

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Film7070 Week 5: 1957

1957: The Tall T

I’ve often heard the classic westerns produced by Director Budd Boetticher and star Randolph Scott spoken of with a reverence reserved for the likes of the Mann/Stewart and Ford/Wayne partnerships but until watching The Tall T my only experience of the pairs output was the superior revenge western 7 Men from Now. It’s fair to say that after watching The Tall T I’m now a fan and you’ll probably see a couple more of their films popping up in Film7070 in the coming weeks.

Several things set the The Tall T apart from the crowd of low budget westerns of the period, for starters there’s the script from Burt Kennedy. The first twenty minutes or so are spent establishing Scott’s character Pat Brennan, and it’s twenty minutes full of information – he’s a rancher, he works alone, he quit his previous job as a foreman on a larger spread to try his luck on his own, he’s unmarried and he’s not adverse to a gamble, the latter fact leaving him afoot when he wagers his horse against a prize bull. The result of all this is that we feel like we know Brennan in a short space of time, and we like him, he’s a happy-go-lucky kind of guy who takes the rough with the smooth and doesn’t bear a grudge, although he’s not one to be laughed at. The beauty of Kennedy’s script is that we get all this information from a few exchanges that never feel anything but natural, there’s no sense of forced exposition. This deftness of touch is apparent throughout the film as we are introduced to other characters.

The film also features two fine performances, firstly from Scott and also from Richard Boone as the films main villain Frank Usher. Scott’s an actor I’ve grown to appreciate more as I’ve got older, growing up I always found him wooden and unconvincing. It took Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country to convince me there was more to Scott than I’d originally thought and I think he’s certainly an actor who improved with age. Here he’s given a wonderfully rounded character to play, and he exudes rough charm and ready wit as Brennan.

It’s rare for a western villain to be as fleshed out a Boone’s Usher. He’s far more than the usual ‘black hat’ for the hero to face. He’s charming, funny and, were it not for some of the acts he’s instigated, he’d be a likeable guy. There’s a sense that, under different circumstances, he could have been living Brennan’s life, the two characters being similar in many respects. I may not have cared for Scott as I was growing up but Boone is an actor I’ve always admired. I’m too young to remember his most famous roll as Paladin in Have Gun Will Travel but I remember watching Hec Ramsey, which started in the early seventies when I was about seven or eight. The Tall T came out the same year Have Gun Will Travel debuted on TV and it’s easy to see how he made the leap from supporting actor to TV star.

Boetticher weaves these elements together to create a tense little film that’s low on gun play but high on character, but when the lead does start flying he handles the action with as much aplomb as the psychological thrills that have gone before. He even manages to make you wonder if things will follow their usual path for a low budget oater i.e. the villains lying dead in the dirt while the hero rides off with the girl, although in this case the girl, Maureen O’Sullivan, most famous (to me at least) as Jane to Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan, hadn’t been a ‘girl’ for some time. It’s one more thing that sets Boetticher’s film apart, it’s not just the maturity with which the film is handled, it’s the maturity of the characters themselves.

I think I’ll stop now as this is coming dangerously close to a full review, something that was never the plan for Film7070 posts, but I will leave you with this – if you are a fan of the western genre then you owe it to yourself to seek out The Tall T. Trust me you won’t regret it.
[rating:4]

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Film7070 Week 4: 2007

2007: Hot Fuzz

Well if the idea behind Film7070 was to see how films have influenced each other over the years then I doubt I’ll find a film where the influences are easier to spot than Hot Fuzz. There’s no subtlety to Hot Fuzz’s filmic referencing, the characters talk about then, we see the videos on display and, just in case you’re a complete novice when it comes to the action movie genre, we even get clips from a couple (Point Break and Bad Boys II). It’s this OTT action movie lovefest that sets the film apart from the same creative teams superior Shaun of the Dead.

Shaun payed tribute to it’s zombie forbears with a nod and a wink, and if you missed it in didn’t matter, the film worked perfectly well without. Shaun was a horror comedy while Hot Fuzz is a spoof, and as a spoof it requires you know what’s being spoofed, because if you don’t the film doesn’t work. This may sound like a complaint, and to some degree it is, but a good spoof can still be an entertaining film, just look at Airplane or Blazing Saddles. It’s also something that’s very hard to do well, just look at…well pretty much every other spoof.

Hot Fuzz does it well, it hits the target far more than it misses and even scores a couple of bulls-eyes. It’s not as well written and it’s characters aren’t as believable as those in Shaun of the Dead; who do you relate to more, Pegg’s supercop or Shaun who works in a shop, has trouble with his girlfriend and likes a drink down the pub? That was a rhetorical question by the way, unless John McClane’s reading this. It’s our identification with the characters that makes Shaun such a joy to watch, with Hot Fuzz it’s the situations that elicit the humour.

I guess what it comes down to is I’d rather watch a comedy than a spoof, but if I’ve got to watch something being lampooned then I hope it’s as entertainingly done as Hot Fuzz.
[rating:3.5]

Next up some classic western action from 1957 with Randolph Scott in The Tall T.

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Film7070 Week 3: 1970

1970: The Dunwich Horror

This early attempt to bring the work of H.P. Lovecraft to the screen owes as much to Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby as it does to the master of cosmic horror. There’s little of the Old Ones here, the focus of the movie is Wilbur Whateley’s attempt to seduce innocent Nancy Wagner (Sandra Dee) over to the dark side and in so doing put a devilish bum in her virgin oven.

Producer Roger Corman may have been the antecedent of Asylum, modern purveyors of direct-to-dvd knock-off trash, but at least when Corman did it he did it with class. He also knew talent when he saw it, with many great filmmakers getting their start with him and The Dunwich Horror features an early screen credit (as writer) for future Oscar winner Curtis Hanson.

The Dunwich Horror is no classic, but it does have some things to enjoy. Dean Stockwell’s creepy Wilbur (could there be a less menacing name for a villain?) ranks at the top. There’s a perverse malevolence to Stockwell’s performance and he’s always good value for money in villainous roles.

Another plus is the films restraint when it comes to showing Wilbur’s monstrous sibling. Rather than show the obligatory craptastic monster, it keeps it hidden, either offscreen or behind a very sixties psychedelic light show, making the viewer add the details from their own imagination. Whether this is down to a stylistic choice by the filmmakers or to the fact the monster was so bad they dare not show it I don’t know but it definitely works in the films favour.

I can’t say I’d recommend The Dunwich Horror to any but the most diehard horror fan, there have been far better Lovecraft adaptations since (Re-Animator, From Beyond, Shatterbrain and Dagon come to mind) but there are far worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
[rating:2.5]

For more Film7070 check out Jordan McGrath’s review of the classic 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident

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Film7070 Week 2: 1978

1978: The Shout

What to make of The Shout? Well this late seventies attempt at art house horror was, for me at least, a disappointing failure. It doesn’t lack for quality acting talent, Alan Bates is as broodingly demonic as only Bates can be, while John Hurt does a decent job as the philandering husband who’s household Bates insinuates himself into, although sadly the late Susannah York’s talents are underused, she’s little more than a symbol for the two men’s power struggle and not a fully fleshed out character. The concept is also not uninteresting, Bates character utilising mystical powers he’s learned while living with the Aborigines in the Australian outback to exert his influence over York and Hurt.

Or does he? The structure of the film leaves you wondering just how much of what you’re seeing is actually real, the film being told by Bates while an inmate in an asylum. This too works in the films favour, giving it an element of mystery that means you’re never sure where the film is heading, always a plus in this age of by the numbers plotting.

No, what ultimately disappointed me was the films climax, for it felt as if not only did the viewer not know where the film was heading but neither did the director. After a slow and purposeful buildup the film hurries headlong into a frenetic, madcap and, frankly, downright silly final ten minutes. It felt as if all concerned had grown bored with the films concept and decided to wrap things up as quickly as possible. While there were certainly things I enjoyed about The Shout, ultimately it’s the feeling of dissatisfaction the ending engendered that has stayed with me and it’s left me with little desire to seek out any of Jerzy Skolimowski’s other films.
[rating:2.5]

I’m already behind on these write-ups having just started week 4′s viewing, so I’ll try and get week 3 done this week as well, which will feature the rather less highbrow Roger Corman production of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror.

For more Film7070 check out EatSleepLiveFilm.com and Movie Waffle

KISS ME DEADLY

Film7070 Week 1: 1955 & 1965

What, you may be asking yourself, is Film7070? It started off as a challenge Dan Auty (aka MondoDan) set himself for 2011 – watch 70 films, one from each year from 1940 to 2009. There are a few rules – you can’t have seen the films before, you have to watch at least one film from every continent (with the exception of Antarctica), you can’t go back to a year until you’ve completed all seventy…you get the idea.

Word spread on Twitter and others took up the challenge – eatsleepjordan, gilesedwards, MrWengWeng, KYUSS123, emilybwebb, moviedan to name just a few. Some set up their own additional rules – doing the films in chronological order in eatsleepjordan and moviedan’s case.

Always up for a movie watching challenge I jumped in too, like most of the Film7070 crew I saw it as an opportunity to fill in some gaps in my cinematic education, watch some neglected classics that have been sitting on a shelf gathering dust and, at least in my case, spread my horizons a little further afield than my regular viewing, for example I’ve got some Czechoslovakian SF lined up for 1963. Which brings us to this post. Rather than just watch the films and tweet about them after I decided I wanted to write a little more, not a full review but more than the 140 characters Twitter allows, so this is the first of my weekly Film7070 journals where I’ll express my feelings about the films I’ve watched that week.

1955: Kiss Me Deadly

The first film I plucked from where it sat, unloved, on my shelf was Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly.

I don’t know what I expected from Kiss Me Deadly. My vision of Mickey Spillane’s PI Mike Hammer was coloured by Stacy Keach on TV and by Armand Assante in I, the Jury (one of my guilty pleasures). Ralph Meeker is something else again.

Meeker’s Hammer isn’t afraid of a little violence, in fact I think it’s fair to say he positively enjoys it. The film features a couple of fight scenes between Hammer and hired goons Jack Lambert and Jack Elam but it’s his encounter with little Percy Helton that stuck in my mind. Helton’s morgue attendant makes the mistake of trying to extort money from Hammer but soon learns the error of his ways when he gets his fingers trapped in a desk drawer. What struck me about the scene wasn’t the level of violence, you don’t really see anything, it was the look of pleasure on Hammer’s face as he tortures the diminutive doctor. It just serves to reinforce the notion that, while Hammer is the film’s lead character, he’s no hero.

Robert Aldrich isn’t a new director to me, I’ve seen a fair few of his films. He’s a director that can’t be pigeonholed, he directed the action classic The Dirty Dozen but could also turn his hand to disturbing psychological thrillers like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. So the fact that Kiss Me Deadly was so well crafted came as little surprise. What did surprise me was how influential the film feels. Surely this must be a favourite film of David Lynch, there’s a sense of almost Lynchian weirdness to much of the film and characters, Percy Helton’s previously mentioned morgue attendant for one and Gaby Rodgers waif-like but deadly femme fatale for another.

But it’s not just Lynch’s imagination that must have been fired by Aldrich’s hardboiled classic. The films glowing ‘great whats-it’ was surely the spark that ignited the radiant car-boot/case/ark in…well you dont need me to tell that you I’m sure. It’s that sense of filmmakers feeding off each other that was one of the things I was hoping to discover with Film7070 and for that aspect alone Kiss Me Deadly would have been a great first film but it’s also a first rate thriller in its own right.
[rating:4]

1965: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

Like Aldrich, Martin Ritt wasn’t a name unfamiliar to me, his work with Paul Newman on Hud and Hombre being particular favourites. He seemed an odd choice to helm an adaptation of a John le Carrè cold war thriller though, as I associated him with hot American deserts not drab English and German streets.

How wrong I was! He captures the gritty realism of the spy game just as well as the arid landscapes of the West. Shooting in black and white was a master stroke, everything seems so much more oppressive.

I used to think of Harry Palmer as the antithesis of James Bond, but Richard Burton’s Alec Leamas makes Palmer seem positively whimsical by comparison. Burton’s performance as the broken down, alcoholic spy sent on one last mission behind the Iron Curtain is the heart of the film. That grim black and white cinematography is how Burton’s character views the world, drab and pointless. Only his relationship with an idealistic young woman gives him any respite from the dirty, backstabbing world of espionage and yet he’d rather face death on the job than suffer the slow death of a desk job.

The film isn’t without it’s flaws – a final act that feels rushed, a wayward accent from Sam Wanamaker – but Burton makes it worth seeing. There are also excellent, if a little too brief, turns from Cyril Cusack as spymaster Control and Michael Hordern and Robert Hardy as communist spys.

Like Kiss Me Deadly, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold feels influential, but this time that influence has been felt more on the small screen, from the obvious Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People (both adapted from le Carrè novels and featuring the character George Smiley who makes an appearance in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) as well as Callan in the sixties and The Sandbagers in the seventies and even Spooks now.
[rating:3.5]

So that’s Film7070 week one done and two years, and two very enjoyable films down, sixty-eight to go!

For more on Film7070 check out eatsleeplivefilm.com

And don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten that promised top ten, that’ll be coming very soon.

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The Weekend Western: A Bullet for the General

This is an overtly political spaghetti western from Damiano Damiani and, with its anti-American intervention message, it’s still very relevant today. The story deals with an American who falls in with a group of Mexican bandits in order to get close to a revolutionary General, and forms a mutual friendship with their leader, El Chucho.

The film is a feast for the eyes as well as the brain, with Antonio Secchi’s cinematography making the most of the Spanish locations, but it’s the script by Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas that puts this among the best of the Italian westerns. The characters are well rounded and develop over the course of the film, there’s plenty of humour to balance the action, and it builds to an impressively restrained yet emotionally powerful climax.

Gian Maria Volontè, a familiar face to anyone who’s seen A Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More, plays El Chucho. The character develops from a loud, greedy and somewhat obnoxious killer into a fledgling revolutionary, a true man of the people and Volontè brilliantly portrays that transformation, turning in a performance that is far more complex than your standard western, be it Italian or American.

By contrast, Lou Castel, as the American Tate, is restrained and emotionless. It’s a performace that may not be to everyone’s taste but for me it served as a nice counterpoint to Volontè, American reserve paired with Latin fire. Tate isn’t explored anywhere near as much as Chucho, his motivation is money, but his chalk-and-cheese friendship with the bandit adds some colour to the character.

Also making an impression is Klaus Kinski as Chucho’s brother, El Santo, a crazy religious fanatic who believes his brother is selflessly aiding the revolutionaries. Kinski has a face that’s worth a thousand words and Damiani makes the most of it, Santo is the only truly selfless character in the film.

Luis Enríquez Bacalov is credited with the score but Ennio Morricone receives a supervisor credit and the spaghetti maestro certainly left his mark on the finished film. Morricone often wrote music he didn’t receive full credit for (due to contractual issues) and it wouldn’t surprise me if this was such a case.

Damiano Damiani’s film is up there with those of the Sergio’s (Leone, Corbucci and Sollima) and it’s a shame he didn’t make more westerns, only making one more (and that almost ten years later) the comedy A Genius, Two Partners and A Dupe. If your only experience of Italian westerns is through Clint Eastwood then you should give this a try, it’ll show you that there’s far more to them than you probably realised.

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Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting: The Street Fighter’s Last Revenge

This third outing for Sonny Chiba’s Takuma Tsurugi comes as something of a letdown. Gone are the insanely gory deaths of the first two films, replaced by a lot of ridiculous leaping about. The fight scenes feel watered down too, with director Teruo Ishii more intent of finding interesting angels to shoot from than actually making the fights exciting.

Shigehiro Ozawa, who directed the first two films, seemed to take great delight in making Tsurugi a character who was hard to like, but Ishii wants to turn him into some kind of Japanese James Bond, rather than the cold blooded mercenary we’ve come to know. He even gives us a totally bizarre bad guy who dresses like a Mexican bandit and fires laser beams.

A sad end to what had been an enjoyable series.

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The Friday Night Fright: The House of Whipcord

This sleazy little film was a lot more enjoyable than I was expecting. Director Pete Walker generates a fair amount of tension early on, and populates the film with some entertainingly bonkers characters, plus plenty of naked female flesh.

When the appropriately named Mark E. Desade picks up a young French model, Ann-Marie (played, with a surprisingly decent French accent, by Penny Irving) he soon displays a perchance for the perverse but it’s only when takes her home to meet his mum and dad that things really get interesting. Dad’s a demented old judge and mum’s a sadistic ex-prison warden and they’ve set up there own correctional facility for wayward young ladies, where even the simplest crime results in the ultimate penalty. The prison is staffed by a pair of matrons, one a butch older woman with lesbian tendencies, the other getting her pleasure from torturing the inmates.

It’s more thoughtful than you might think though, David McGillivray’s script portraying the would-be defenders of morality as the real perverts. Most of the torture isn’t explicitly shown and while early on some of the nudity is pure titillation, there’s little to get you excited once the story moves to the prison (unless of course you’re as twisted as the people who run it). It also displays a ruthless efficiency with its characters, leaving you wondering if anyone will survive to see the credits.