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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]

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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Literally Speaking: Winter People

I’m a bit of a Kurt Russell fan, in fact I get a bit of ribbing by family members over how big a Kurt fan I am. That’s not to say I think he’s the greatest actor to walk the earth, far from it, but he is consistently entertaining. In fact he’s been entertaining me since his Disney days (Now You See Him, Now You Don’t) and I have fond memories of his one season wonder western series The Quest (anyone else remember that?). He’s one of those actors, and there aren’t that many, who can be equally convincing as a regular guy (Unlawful Entry, Breakdown) and a tough as nails, cold hearted killer (Escape from New York). Plus he starred in one of my all-time favourite films, John Carpenter’s The Thing.

One thing Mr Russell can’t do though is make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Winter People feels like one of those Hallmark Channel TV movies, set in the ‘30s it features rugged environments that somehow still manage to look like greetings card pictures and beautiful people made up to look like they work outdoors, who look just that – like beautiful people made up to look like that work outdoors.

Russell plays Wayland Jackson, a widower who sets out for pastures new with his young daughter. When their van gets stuck crossing a river the pair set of on foot is search of help, what they find is single mom Collie Wright, played by Kelly McGillis. As you’ve probably guessed the pair fall in love and Russell helps mend the rift between her and members of her family caused by her getting knocked up out of wedlock and refusing to reveal the father’s name. Ultimately he also brings an end to the feud between the Wright’s and another local family, the Campbell’s.

It’s all very predictable and frankly pretty dull. Ted Kotcheff, the man who gave us First Blood, directs seemingly without much enthusiasm for the film. Russell gives us one of his everyman turns as Jackson, a clockmaker by profession, and he’s good, the problem is he never really does very much. McGillis does a decent Carolina accent but she’s a little to old for the spirited country girl part. It’s nice to see Lloyd Bridges though, even if all he’s playing is a fairly stereotypical patriarch.

This is a minor entry on Kurt Russell’s resume, and one of Kelly McGillis’ last stops on the road to direct-to-video hell. Worth seeking out only if you’re a very big fan of either star or maybe if you enjoyed John Ehle’s source novel.

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Literally Speaking: To Kill a Mockingbird

Films that give us a child’s view of the world often seem to touch something in the audience, a little glimmer of the child that dwells within each of us I suppose. That innocent perspective often shows the so called ‘grown ups’ to be more thoughtless and uncaring as any child, they just have bigger feet to stomp when things don’t go their way. While it’s no guarantee of success, the idea of telling an adult story through the eyes of children has produced some classics, with both The Night of the Hunter and Stand by Me making the IMDb Top 250 (at 156 and 160 respectively). Also making that list (at 45) is To Kill a Mockingbird, a film which has some things in common with those already mentioned, namely it was based on a book and all features strong performances from the pint-sized cast members.

As Jem, Phillip Alford is at the point where he craves the freedom of adulthood but still has a boy’s sense of fun and adventure. He’ll question his father’s rules (he thinks he old enough to have a gun, Dad doesn’t agree) but he respects him. That Alford captures that so well is a big part of the films success.

But if Jem is good, Scout is even better. Mary Badham’s portrayal of the quintessential tomboy is a joy. She’ll make you laugh, whether scrapping in the school yard or attending a fancy dress party dressed as a ham, but she’s more than just comic relief, she’s the eyes through which we see the events of the film. Joy, sadness and terror are what little Miss Badham is called upon to display and she doesn’t miss a note. It’s little wonder she was Oscar nominated, the surprise is she didn’t win.

At the heart of the film is Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, single parent and small town lawyer. Has there ever been an actor better suited to a role? It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part; Peck just seems to embody the character completely. Finch is the ideal father (and perhaps author Harper Lee’s idealised vision of her own dad) patient, loving and with strong moral convictions. He’s a man who will take on the whole town for what he believes in. There are touching moments with the children and showy legal speeches of the kind actors love but the most valuable thing Peck brings to the part is an indelible sense of decency.

While those are the films central performers there are others who make an impression – Frank Overton as the town sheriff and Brock Peters as the Black man accused of something he didn’t do both make an impression, with Overton’s speech at the end of the film showing that Finch is far from the only decent man in town.

Director Robert Mulligan keeps it simple, focusing on the actors and generating a strong sense of period. His unfussy style suits the film and he clearly had a knack for getting performances out of his child stars.

To call To Kill a Mockingbird a legal drama would be like calling Schindler’s List a war movie, it’s not completely untrue but it does miss the point somewhat. It’s a film about life, about the innocence of youth, about making a stand against injustice, and about the good and bad that everyone has the potential for. There are downbeat moments to be sure but this is a life affirming film at heart.

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I Spy: Syriana

Not really a spy movie as such, Syriana does feature a spy as one of its central characters. Bob Barnes, played by a bearded and slightly podgy George Clooney, is an aging C.I.A. operative with knowledge of Middle East affairs. When an assassination attempt on an Arab Prince goes awry Barnes is tortured, and when he’s turned loose he’s used as a scapegoat by the C.I.A. for the botched mission.

Now that may sound like a regular spy story but it’s just one strand of Syriana’s web of intrigue, that encompasses big business, terrorism and the Middle Eastern way of life. It’s a film packed full of political ideas, perhaps too full, there are so many strands here that it’s at times hard to keep track of them all. There are moments when you’re left a little bemused as to how such-and-such got to so-and-so and while it’s nice to have a film that doesn’t baby it’s audience, filling in everything they could possibly need to know about a character, the film jumps around so much that you may miss important information as you try and get your bearings.

Writer/director Stephen Gaghan won an Oscar for his Traffic script which had a similar multi-character storyline but for me it worked far better in the earlier film. Syriana feels far preachier than Traffic, concentrating as much on the message as on the story, rather than let one flow from the other. It’s a film that for all its depth still has clearly defined bad guys – the American oil companies, the C.I.A. (who, as one character observes, is just another multi-billion dollar business).

The cast all acquit themselves well, Clooney is an obvious standout as is Christopher Plummer as a scheming businessman, in fact Plummer seems to get better the older he gets. Matt Damon’s character get’s the most Hollywood-style story arc, even down to a happy ending, but he does a good job with what is the least interesting of the main characters.

I was a little disappointed by Syriana but still found it a thought provoking film. It’s the sort of movie that may well improve with each viewing. Time will tell.

Literally Speaking: What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?

There isn’t really a lot to What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, two ageing sisters, a crippled former Hollywood icon, Blanche Hudson, and a child star gone to seed, ‘Baby’ Jane, live together in a rundown house. ‘Baby’ Jane is slowly going off her rocker and when she learns of Blanche’s plans to sell the house and put her into care her mental breakdown goes into overdrive with disastrous results.

What makes the film work isn’t the plot but the performances, with the inspired casting of fading stars Joan Crawford as Blanche and Bette Davis as the grotesquely comical ‘Baby’ Jane giving the film a far greater resonance than it would otherwise have. The two stars detested each other in real life and, while that must have made director Robert Aldrich’s task far from easy, it adds greatly to the performances, particularly Davis’s.

Davis’s ‘Baby’ Jane is a childlike version of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, resentful of time and an industry that thrives on youth and the presence of her invalid, and vastly more talented,  sister gives her someone to take out that resentment on. Davis it seems decided on the method approach for the scene where she brutally kicks Blanche unconscious, actually landing a kick to Crawford’s head that required stitches (Crawford allegedly retaliated by putting weights in her pockets for the scene where Davis drags her across the floor).

This isn’t a film to watch for the story, its potboiler plot holds few surprises, but rather for perhaps the last great turns from two of Hollywood’s grand dames. There are few actresses who would take on such unglamorous and in the case of ‘Baby’ Jane downright ugly, parts but it paid of,  both for the film and the stars concerned (both received award nominations and more work off the back of the film)

And Davis’s make-up is as scary as any William Shatner Halloween mask.

Watching the Detectives: Sean Connery is William of Baskerville in The Name of the Rose

Sean Connery gets the abbey habit as the very Holmesian William of Baskerville (even his name is a nod to the greatest of fictional detectives) in Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film about murder in a Fourteenth Century monastery, based on the novel by Umberto Eco.

Rarely has history seemed as grim as it does here, this isn’t the fairytale history of Arthurian-style movies, this is a cold, dirty place that’s about as welcoming as a sleepover at the Texas Chainsaw Massacre family home. Some of the residents could give Leatherface a run for his money as well, with the flagellating monk who looks like a fat sweaty version of Uncle Fester topping the list, along with the always welcome Ron Perlman as the loopy hunchback, Salvatore.

Yet for such an outwardly bleak film its script has a wonderfully playful sense of humour. “That’s elementary, my dear Adso” states Connery early on, in another reference to Doyle’s famous sleuth, and he gets some great dialogue with his apprentice Adso (a youthful stand-in for Dr. Watson, played with admirable restraint by a very young Christian Slater ) including a Bond-like quip when one of the brothers turns up dead, stuffed headfirst in a barrel.

Connery may be the main focus but there’s hardly any member of the cast that doesn’t seem perfectly suited for the part. Perlman steals every scene he’s in, and that’s saying something when you’re up against an old pro like Sean, while F. Murray Abraham is hissably bad as Bernardo Gui the Inquisition’s answer to Moriarty.

Brilliantly cast, impeccably designed, beautifully paced, Annaud’s film is a classic that deserves more widespread acclaim. Connery has rarely been this good, and if he’d received more parts like this instead of the likes of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen perhaps he wouldn’t have such an aversion to making films today.

Literally Speaking: The Four Feathers (2002)

Given the tragic death of Heath Ledger last week this film sort of picked itself out of the pile of DVDs I‘ve got lined up for this series. I can’t say I’m a huge fan of Ledger’s work, of the seventeen films he made (eighteen with The Dark Knight) I’ve only seen eight and, while he was certainly a good actor, he was often overshadowed by his co-stars – Mel Gibson in The Patriot, Billy Bob Thornton in Monster’s Ball and Paul Bettany in A Knight’s Tale – but I’ve yet to see his most acclaimed performance in Brokeback Mountain.

A.E.W. Mason’s novel has been filmed no less than seven times but I’d only seen the classic 1939 version with Ralph Richardson and John Clements prior to watching this. Given that the film has an Indian director in Shekhar Kapur it would be fair to expect a slightly different take on this tale of love and daring-do in the days of the British Empire than previous versions, and, in that regard, the film doesn’t disappoint.

While it shares the central love triangle with previous takes, this isn’t a film about heroics but rather the horrors of war, with the British no better than The Mahdi and his followers, and certainly more arrogant. Rather than being about Harry Faversham’s quest to regain his honour after his friends brand him a coward, the film uses that as a devise to show the suffering war brings and how it brings out the worst in men.

Given the horror it shows us, the film still manages to look beautiful, with Oliver Stone’s cinematographer of choice, Robert Richardson, doing a fine job capturing the spectacle of the battles and the majesty of the desert. It’ll make you thirsty just watching it.

Of the three leads Ledger shines the brightest, with Wes Bentley giving a restrained performance as befits the stiff-upper- lip part he’s playing, while Kate Hudson doesn’t have to do much more than look pretty in period costume (she puts on a decent accent though). It’s Ledger who carries the film, getting stuck in during the battle scenes and showing what a capable horseman he was. His friendship with native Abou Fatma, played by Djimon Hounsou, is far more interesting than his bond with his English cronies and the film contrasts the judgmental nature of his so called civilised friends with the honest comradeship of this Black man.

The film doesn’t really work as a love story, there’s no real chemistry between the leads but the big problem is that the tale it’s telling doesn’t really fit the message it wants to get across. Kapur would have been far better served by an original story set in the period than trying to mould this tale of honour and redemption to fit his needs. History even gets a rewrite, with the outcome of the battle of Abu Klea revised so the British get a pasting.

Not a bad film, but one that’s aspirations are never fully realised, The Four Feathers won’t be the film Heath Ledger is remembered for, even though he’s the best thing about it.

SF & Fantasy Sunday: The Big Empty

Aiming for the cool indie weirdness of Repo Man, The Big Empty comes up way short. Its title is half right though, the film isn’t big but it certainly is empty.

To go into the details of the plot would be pointless, it’s both convoluted and at the same time vacuous. It feels like writer/director Steve Anderson woke up one morning and decided to write the most outlandish tale he could just for the sake of it. The film is populated by oddball characters from an FBI agent/frustrated actor to a cowboy clad serial killer but none of it has any real point.

Some of the performances aren’t bad, Kelsey Grammer has fun playing it straight as the FBI man and Sean Bean gets a dry run for The Hitcher as an English cowboy nutjob. But it’s all just wasted effort in a film as pointless as this.

The best thing about the film (by a long, long way) is the soundtrack, with both the songs (from Lazy Lester and John Lee Hooker amongst others) and Brian Tyler’s score providing more pleasure than anything in the film. This is one DVD that should have had a music only track.

Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting: Zatoichi’s Vengeance

It’s been a while since I’ve watched any of the Zatoichi films and with half the series still waiting to be discovered I though it was about time to renew my acquaintance with the blind swordsman.

This is the thirteenth in the series and features everything I’ve come to expect – a beautiful woman fallen on hard times, a masterless samurai, an evil Yakuza boss with a seemingly endless supply of henchmen, superb swordplay (with a trick or two from Zatoichi) and plenty of eating and drinking. If there’s one thing our blind masseur enjoys it’s filling his belly.

They say it a fine line between comedy and tragedy and Shintaro Katsu straddles it brilliantly in these films. He’ll make you laugh one minute and bring you close to tears the next, not to mention displaying his own unique sword fighting style.

While Ichi leaves a trail of dead and wounded in his wake the fight scenes are oddly bloodless. This film features a rare (at least up to this point in the series) glimpse of the red stuff, not as you might expect, as Zatoichi slices and dices his way through the bad guys, but from a nose bleed he suffers while taking a beating.

While the films may be as formulaic as the Bond movies in the west, they are always watchable thanks to Katsu as the downtrodden blind man who always wins the fights but can never seem to find happiness.