Sunday, January 31, 2016
I had been hearing a lot in recent weeks about THE ASSASSIN, a film from Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien. The movie is set in ancient China and concerns a young woman raised and trained to kill on command. Being a huge fan of titles such as CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, I decided to see myself what all the fuss was about--some on the internet were even going so far to say that THE ASSASSIN was the best movie of 2015. My verdict is that while THE ASSASSIN looks spectacular, it certainly isn't a movie for everyone.
The first thing one notices while watching THE ASSASSIN is that it was shot in what is called "Academy Ratio"--the old-fashioned square 1.37:1. In a world where almost everyone has wide-screen monitors, and even the lowliest TV show is presented in widescreen, this is somewhat jarring. It doesn't take away from the film's beauty, but I couldn't help but wonder how much more stupendous the images would have seemed if the story was in widescreen. Perhaps the simple screen ratio befits the rather simple plot. The young assassin Ninniang (played by Shu Qi) is sent back to her home province to kill her cousin, a powerful warlord. Ninniang and her cousin were betrothed to one another as children, which obviously complicates matters. If that makes you visualize a slam-bang action epic of Chinese martial arts mastery, get that out of your head. There are very few action scenes in this feature, and they are short & compact.
What you do get in THE ASSASSIN is a series of rapturous pictures, presented in a slow, stately manner. The director eschews showy camerawork, CGI, and rapid-fire editing and instead accentuates the natural light & sounds of the Chinese countryside. The lack of camera movement, combined with the slow pace and retro screen ratio, makes one feel that this movie could have been made in the 1930s or 1940s. (Considering that there is very little dialogue, THE ASSASSIN could have easily come from the 1920s and been a silent movie.)
The result is that THE ASSASSIN is a hard movie to get into, especially upon the first viewing. The characters barely speak to one another, and even though Ninniang is the title character, there are long stretches where she isn't even on screen. There is a sub-plot concerning Chinese court intrigue that will leave many of those who choose to watch the film confused. If you are someone who needs everything spelled out for you, I would advise you not to see this picture.
For those that are willing to look beyond the generic conventions of Hollywood cinema, THE ASSASSIN does offer some highlights. Shu Qi brings a lot of screen presence to the role of Ninniang, and that's a good thing, because we learn very little about this woman. The black-garbed stoic assassin is reminiscent of a typical leading role in a Spaghetti Western, and I really wish that the movie had showcased her more. The cinematography, credited to Ping Bin-Lee, is breathtaking--several times the director just allows a certain scene to play on, as if to give the audience a chance to take in the expansive scenery. The costume & production design, credited to Wen-Ying Huang, deserves high praise as well.
I really wish I could say that I appreciated THE ASSASSIN more than I did. From a visual standpoint the film is unlike anything made in an English-speaking country. But there is a remoteness to the story and the characters that puts the viewer at a distance. Perhaps a working-class American like myself isn't intelligent enough to fully embrace it. I wouldn't steer anyone away from THE ASSASSIN, but be advised that this is more of a tone poem instead of a kung fu showcase.
Saturday, January 23, 2016
Many of you know that Boris Karloff and Mae Clarke co-starred together in Universal's legendary 1931 version of FRANKENSTEIN. But what some of you may not know is that the two performers appeared in another Universal film the next year. NIGHT WORLD (1932), as far as I can tell, is unavailable on American home video, but recently I was able to view it due to the wonders of YouTube.
The story of NIGHT WORLD takes place during one hectic New York City evening. The movie starts out with an expressionistic look at the various urban nighttime goings-on, such as a woman putting on a garter, a young boy praying before going to bed, and a man being shot in an alley. The kaleidoscopic editing and roving camerawork of this opening sequence gets the audience's attention, and soon we are at a nightclub run by Happy MacDonald (Boris Karloff). The rest of the movie is set in Happy's place, as we observe the numerous mini-dramas that play out.
At first it is a bit disconcerting to see Boris Karloff dressed in a tuxedo and lording it over a nightclub, but he handles himself rather well. Happy may have got his name because of his ever-present grin, but one can't help but detect a bit of sarcasm behind Boris' smile. Happy has a habit of addressing nearly everyone who comes into his place as "Big Shot", and one feels that also is more pointed than authentic. Karloff shows that Happy is most assuredly someone who can take care of himself--just watch how he handles the club's dance director after he finds him fooling around with Mrs. Mac. It is the missus that is the eventual cause of Happy's downfall--not only does she flirt with just about anyone in the club wearing pants, she also makes sure to take the bullets out of Happy's gun before he goes out to confront a threatening bootlegger.
Mae Clarke and Lew Ayres portray the love interest of NIGHT WORLD. Hoofer Clarke feels sorry for Ayres--the young man's jealous mother killed his father, and the story became a big-time scandal. The story bogs down a bit when it focuses solely on Clarke and Ayres, but once again I couldn't help but be impressed by Clarke's versatile acting ability. Those who only know Clarke only from FRANKENSTEIN will be in for a treat watching NIGHT WORLD, because the actress gets to both dance and sing. Clarke spent most of the 1920s as an actual New York chorus girl (dancing alongside her friend Barbara Stanwyck), so this role was tailor-made for her. The dancing sequences were staged by none other than Busby Berkeley, and while they are far from the spectacular level of his later musical work at Warner Bros. and MGM, they give the movie an extra lift.
There's no doubt that NIGHT WORLD was made during the Pre-Code era. Despite the fact that Prohibition is still in effect, every character in the story gets a drink pretty easily--one of the minor roles (played by Bert Roach) is that of a man who spends the entire movie wandering around the club tanked. Of course there are scenes in the chorus girls' dressing room, where we see most of the dancers in states of undress. There's gangster activity, infidelity, an Irish cop, and there's even a "pansy" character. To top it all off George Raft himself has a small role, as a supposedly tough sharpie who winds up being knocked out by Lew Ayres! With all these ingredients NIGHT WORLD feels more like something Warner Bros. made instead of Universal.
NIGHT WORLD was directed by one Hobart Henley. According to IMDB, this movie was his next-to-last directorial credit. The IMDB site also shows that Henley had a long career in the silents as an actor. None of the other titles credited to Henley as director got my attention, but I will say judging from NIGHT WORLD Henley knew what he was doing. The film's photography is credited to Merritt Gerstad. NIGHT WORLD is filled with a number of impressive set-ups, and one has to wonder whether Gerstad deserves the accolades for the look of the production instead of Henley. The IMDB site reveals that Gerstad did the photography for a number of titles directed by Tod Browning.
NIGHT WORLD clocks in at a very fast-paced 58 minutes. The movie's plot--various people interacting with one another in a public place over a short period of time--is reminiscent of other features made during the same period, such as UNION DEPOT and GRAND HOTEL. Universal may have been trying to emulate those other films. Movie buffs will certainly want to check this one out--but I would advise seeing it as soon as possible, because I'm sure it won't be too long before it gets taken off of YouTube. Why Universal has not released this officially on home video--even as a DVD-R--is a mystery. You would think a movie that has a combination of ingredients such as Boris Karloff, Pre-Code, and Busby Berkeley might attract some interest. The novelty of "The Monster" and "Elizabeth" being reunited in Depression-era America alone should be enough to draw viewers to NIGHT WORLD.
Mae Clarke (in the center) and chorus girls from NIGHT WORLD
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
Barbara Stanwyck is one of my favorite movie stars of all time. I happen to believe that the lady was the greatest all-around actress in cinema history. The film which is the subject of this blogathon post, UNION PACIFIC, more than proves my point.
UNION PACIFIC is a "Super Western" produced & directed by the estimable Cecil B. DeMille. As befitting a DeMille production, the movie has just about everything and the kitchen sink--gunfights, chases on horseback, an Indian attack, two different train crashes, brawls, and hundreds of extras. However, out of all that, there is only one major female role: Molly Monahan, the more Irish than Irish daughter of a Union Pacific engineer who acts as the "postmistress" for the workers building the trans-continental railroad out West during the late 1860s.
Barbara Stanwyck as Molly Monahan
Barbara Stanwyck could (and did) play just about any type of woman, but it seems that she is best known for her heavy dramatic portrayals and her many tough wise-cracking dames. What I enjoy most about her turn in UNION PACIFIC is that the spunky-but-sweet Molly shows Stanwyck at her most appealing. Molly is a bit of a tomboy, and she can certainly handle herself, but she's nice. I'm sure that when Stanwyck took on this role she was excited to work with DeMille, but I can't help but feel that she enjoyed playing a character who didn't have huge temper tantrums and hang-ups. Molly goes through a lot of personal trauma in UNION PACIFIC, but she never loses her gentle Irish spirit. Barbara Stanwyck doesn't get to wear any fancy gowns as Molly, but I have to say that, in this film, I find her personally more attractive than most of her other films where she is made up to be glamorous.
With the Union Pacific falling behind in the company's race to the American West Coast, a new "trouble-shooter" is hired to keep the workers on schedule. This man's name is Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), and as soon as he arrives, sparks fly between him and Molly. Jeff has his hands full with the machinations of the dastardly Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy), who has been hired to make sure the workers on the line are too distracted to get the work done. Campeau does this by running a literal "hell on wheels", a disreputable saloon that follows the progress of the Union Pacific line. Campeau's main helpmate is Dick Allen (Robert Preston), a lovable rogue who not only is an old friend of Jeff's, but an old friend of Molly's as well.
Of course a romantic triangle is set up between Jeff, Molly, and Dick. Molly falls for Jeff right away, while trying to fend off Dick. (The lovesick looks that Molly constantly gives Jeff would melt anyone's heart.) Dick steals the badly-needed Union Pacific payroll, but Molly convinces him to give it back by promising she'll marry him if he does. Dick does give it back (claiming he found it abandoned by the "thief"), and the marriage happens--but Jeff has the evidence to prove Dick is guilty. Molly allows Dick to escape, but all three wind up on a wrecked train, fighting off a horde of Indians, in the film's best sequence.
UNION PACIFIC runs over two hours, which is unusual for a film of its time--but it is never boring. DeMille mixes in one situation after another, including several scenes showing the building of the railroad (this part of the film had to have been a huge influence on Sergio Leone when he made ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST). The expansive cast features such fine character actors as Akim Tamiroff, Lynne Overman, Robert Barrat, Anthony Quinn, and J. M. Kerrigan as Molly's engine-driving father. (Lon Chaney Jr. is supposed to have a small role in this movie, but whenever I watch it, I can never find him.) Like a lot of other DeMille films, UNION PACIFIC has historical figures alongside the fictional ones--here it's General Dodge and Ulysses S. Grant. DeMille also recreates the meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines at Promontory Point.
Joel McCrea makes a very stalwart hero, but even he would probably admit that Robert Preston wound up with the best role. Preston's smooth-talking con man makes the biggest impression. Even though THE MUSIC MAN would be far in the future of Preston's career, you can't help but feel that there's a lot of Henry Hill in Dick Allen.
In the end, it is Barbara Stanwyck as Molly who holds UNION PACIFIC together. In this big, sprawling Western, she's the heart and soul of it. Molly Monahan is the main constant on the line--she even tells Jeff that she's never laid down on a bed that didn't have wheels under it. Some viewers today might consider Molly too good to be true, or they might find fault with Stanwyck's Irish brogue (I believe that Barbara's accent here is very cute, and perfectly reflects her character's attitude). Stanwyck is so earnest in her portrayal of Molly that even the most cynical among us will be won over by her. If you are a Stanwyck fan and you have never seen UNION PACIFIC, you are in for a treat. Molly Monahan may be the kindest person Stanwyck ever played. The role is another testament to the versatility of one of the greatest American film performers. Barbara Stanwyck may have played more memorable, and more complex, characterizations, but what I love about her as Molly is that it is one of her most likable characterizations.
Joel McCrea, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Preston
For a while now, my friend Paul G. Lyzun and I have discussed recording a Hitless Wonder Movie Podcast. (Paul, by the way, is the director of the acclaimed documentary WITHOUT CHARITY.) Last Saturday, we finally did it. We actually spent an hour rambling on, with no discernible rhyme or reason. Our inaugural podcast is now on YouTube, and here's the link to it:
It's rather disconcerting listening to your own self having a lengthy conversation--I can't decide whether I sound half-witted, drunk, or both. But all you good people out there can decide for yourselves. Any feedback on the podcast would be greatly appreciated. Should we do more of these? Does anyone have any suggestions for any topics that we might talk about? Should we never ever speak into a microphone again??
Sunday, January 10, 2016
Kino Lorber keeps churning out Blu-ray releases of cult films from the 1960s. One of their latest, through their Scorpion label, is a 1966 science-fiction/horror movie from American-International, QUEEN OF BLOOD.
QUEEN OF BLOOD began with low-budget maestro Roger Corman's acquisition of various Russian science-fiction productions. Corman planned to have entirely new features built around the special effects scenes from the Russian titles. Corman hired Curtis Harrington to write and direct one of these "new" thrillers, and the result is a strange but memorable concoction.
Set in the far-off year of 1990, QUEEN OF BLOOD presents an Earth where an international Space Institute has established bases on the Moon (How come in the 21st Century, we are so far behind what all those 50s and 60s sci-fi flicks predicted?). The Space Institute has received transmissions from an alien source detailing that a spaceship will be sent to Earth in order to make contact with the human race. The spaceship crashes on Mars, however, and a Earth ship is sent on a rescue mission. The rescue ship finds the crash site, with no survivors. Another Earth ship, however, finds one lone survivor on one of Mars' moons....and the astronauts make the mistake of trying to bring the alien "Queen" back home.
Take away the Russian footage, and it looks as if QUEEN OF BLOOD had a smaller budget than the average original "Star Trek" TV episodes being produced at the same time. You have to give credit to Curtis Harrington, though, for making the most out of some limiting circumstances. The writer/director cleverly integrated the Russian footage with a brand new story that took advantage of the unique Soviet special effects. According to Wikipedia, effects footage was lifted from the films MECHTE NAVSTRECHU and NEHO ZOVYOT. The effects are unlike anything that were created for any American science-fiction movies of the same period, and they have a haunting, expressionistic quality to them.
The first part of QUEEN OF BLOOD, which uses most of the Russian footage, is more concerned with adventure and exploration. Once the Earth astronauts find the alien "Queen", the story takes a sharp turn toward horror, with the "Queen" becoming a stalking vampire and the Earth spaceship the equivalent of a haunted house. The whole visual aspect of the "Queen", portrayed by Florence Marly, is noteworthy, Green-skinned and silent, with a hairstyle that makes her appear as if she is wearing a giant onion on her head, the "Queen" is one of the creepiest figures in the history of low-budget sci-fi. Marly's unnerving grin and cold stare make her far more threatening than several more elaborate movie threats. It is Florence Marly that really gives QUEEN OF BLOOD whatever legacy it has today.
Florence Marly as the QUEEN OF BLOOD
Despite its bargain-basement atmosphere, QUEEN OF BLOOD has a very impressive cast. Basil Rathbone plays the head of the Space Institute, and John Saxon and Dennis Hopper play two of the main astronauts. Judi Meredith plays another astronaut who is the love interest for John Saxon, and unusually for this type of film her character is more than a typical scream queen. Original Fanboy Forrest J. Ackerman has a cameo role.
The QUEEN OF BLOOD Blu-ray is probably the best-looking presentation this film is going to get. It is rather easy to spot the Russian effects sequences--those look darker than the rest of the film, and their color is not as vibrant. The extra detail on this Blu-ray allows the viewer to clearly see the Russian "Red Star" on some of the spaceships and "CCCP" on some shots of the astronauts. That being said, the detail also allows one to notice just how hard Curtis Harrington worked to get his new footage to match. The spacesuits created for the new footage almost match exactly the suits in the Russian scenes. One has to remember that when QUEEN OF BLOOD first came out in 1966, nobody at American-International was too concerned whether anyone noticed that parts of a totally different movie were used. This was a low-budget exploitation film aimed at drive-in type audiences--no one involved in its production could have predicted that some day people would be watching the movie on high-def monitors, and having the ability to pick out every detail.
The two main extras on this Blu-ray are a couple of interviews. One is with fantastic film expert Robert Skotak, who gives a very thorough examination of the making of the movie in the short time he is allowed (one wishes that Skotak got the chance to do a full-length audio commentary on this title). Skotak gives the viewer an appreciation for all the difficulties Curtis Harrington had to deal with, and he reveals that among those who worked behind the camera on this film were future director Stephanie Rothman and Gary Kurtz, who went on to produce STAR WARS and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. The second interview is a very short but informative talk with Roger Corman. A trailer for QUEEN OF BLOOD is also included.
QUEEN OF BLOOD was released a few years ago on DVD-R by MGM. This Blu-ray is certainly an upgrade, especially with the Robert Skotak interview. I still can't get rid of my old DVD-R copy, because I had it autographed by John Saxon (see picture below).
Saturday, January 9, 2016
It's time for another personal favorite list. This one is on my favorite movie characters of all time. To pick ten from the millions of available choices wasn't easy, but if you have read my blog post on my ten all-time favorite films you'll probably figure out most of my choices.
Remember that this list is made up of characters, not performers. If there is one particular performance of a certain character that I love more than others, I will specify that. The only limit I put on this list is that the character must have been in a theatrical feature film. The character doesn't need to have been created just for a film--the character can come from any other medium, just as long as it has been in a film. I'm also going to limit myself to one character per film--if I didn't do that, the entire list would be about the cast of the Star Wars films.
1. DARTH VADER (as portrayed by Dave Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones)
Is Darth Vader the greatest bad guy in cinema history? Maybe not, but he might be the most popular. Kids (such as myself) were absolutely fascinated by him in the Summer of '77. Vader's "look" has never been bettered, although it has been ripped off plenty of times. How powerful is the Dark Lord of the Sith? Despite Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen, he's still the ultimate geek icon.
2. THE MAN WITH NO NAME (as portrayed by Clint Eastwood)
Contrary to popular belief, in every one of the Sergio Leone "Dollars" films, someone does call Clint Eastwood's stoic bounty hunter a name.....but that doesn't matter. Eastwood and Leone changed cinema for ever after, and to this day male leads in an action film have to live up to the standard the Man With No Name set. Who hasn't wanted to handle things in their everyday lives the way Eastwood did?
3. DR. VAN HELSING (as portrayed by Peter Cushing)
Peter Cushing was the greatest monster fighter in movie history, and Dr. Van Helsing was the actor's greatest monster fighting role. Several other performers have played Bram Stoker's vampire hunter over the years, but none of them brought the intensity and sincerity to the role that Peter Cushing did. If you don't think of Cushing as a "tough guy", consider this....the man fought vampires in hand-to-hand combat.
4. JAMES BOND (as portrayed by Sean Connery, David Niven, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan, and Daniel Craig)
The greatest action hero character of all time. 007 has been indestructible at the box office for over fifty years. The Bond actors, and the Bond movies, have gone up and down in quality, but there's still no feeling like sitting in a theater and seeing the gun barrel opening to a Bond film.
5. JEFFERSON SMITH (as portrayed by James Stewart)
He's naive, humble, earnest, sincere, and an ordinary American....and those values are considered politically incorrect in these times. But wouldn't the world be a better place if we had more Jefferson Smiths? Director Frank Capra provided James Stewart with his greatest role in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON.
6. THE FALSE MARIA (as portrayed by Brigitte Helm)
In Fritz Lang's legendary METROPOLIS, newcomer Brigitte Helm actually played two roles--the sweet & noble Maria, and her evil robotic twin. The "False Maria" steals the show with her uninhibited outlandish behavior. Today we live in an era of supposed sexy bad girls, but Helm outshines them all. A fascinating character from a fascinating silent epic.
7. MOE, LARRY, & CURLY (as portrayed by Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Jerry Howard)
In just about every film the Three Stooges appeared in, they played characters named "Moe", "Larry", and "Curly"--so that's why I'm including them on this list. I've watched these guys since I was a little kid, and they always make me laugh, no matter what the circumstances.
8. THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (as portrayed by Lon Chaney)
Erik the Phantom isn't just a horror movie icon--in my opinion, he's one of the greatest romantic characters of all time. A brilliant and devious multi-talented artist, the Phantom risks his life for a sliver of a chance at true love. The Phantom, created by writer Gaston Leroux, is one of the first super-villains of popular culture. Lon Chaney gave the definitive portrayal of the Phantom in the 1925 film adaptation of Leroux's novel. Chaney makes the Phantom a larger-than-life figure, dangerous and obsessive. Anyone who has suffered through unrequited love can appreciate Chaney's Phantom.
9. BEATRIX KIDDO (as portrayed by Uma Thurman)
Better known as "The Bride", Beatrix Kiddo is the heroine of Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL films. In those two films, Beatrix goes through more difficulties than most characters do in a dozen films or books. It is to Uma Thurman's credit that the character is believable as a strong, accomplished action figure, while still being a sensitive woman.
10. BO ("THE BANDIT") DARVILLE (as portrayed by Burt Reynolds)
There was another film character that American kids loved in the summer of 1977--the gear-jammer known as the Bandit. Snicker if you want, but Burt Reynolds was the man back in the late 70s. In SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT he got to drive around in a cool Firebird, he got to hang out with Sally Field, and he caused police officers to wreck into one another. Maybe it's an American thing, but plenty of people wanted to be the Bandit.
Looking over this list I realize that the ten choices on it all have something in common--they each have a strong visual identity. In other words, if you were shown a picture of each of these characters, most everyone could identify them right away. Certainly how a character is written is very important, but what a character looks like--what a character wears, or how that character presents his or herself--is even more important....especially in a visual medium such as film.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
Believe it or not, there are plenty of "old" movies that I have not seen. For some reason or another certain films never get shown on TV, or they do not have a high profile on home video. The 1965 epic LORD JIM is one of those films, at least in my experience. I had never seen this film before until I recently purchased it on DVD from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers (for only $6). The film is an adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novel (which I have not read), and it was produced, written, and directed by Richard Brooks.
LORD JIM, starring Peter O'Toole in the title role, is a meditation on the true definition of courage and the measure of a man. That description could also fit for many other movies directed by Richard Brooks (such as THE BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, ELMER GANTRY, and THE PROFESSIONALS). The character of Jim (we never really find out his last name) starts out as an idealistic young officer in the British Merchant Marine during the late 19th Century. Jim 's career is going along well until he suffers an injury and, after his rehabilitation, signs on to a disreputable freighter. During a storm Jim is convinced that the ship is going to sink, and he and the rest of the crew abandon ship, leaving all the passengers on board. The ship does not sink, however, and Jim turns himself in to a board of inquiry. His future as a Merchant Officer now ruined, Jim takes any job he can get in the South Seas. The disgraced man finds a chance to redeem himself by helping the population of a small Southeast Asian village defend themselves against a warlord and pirates.
When Peter O'Toole passed away in 2013, I wrote a tribute post to him in which I said that O'Toole usually played "...powerfully charismatic men, men who have a bit of mystery about them, and seem bent on a path of self-destruction." Lord Jim is certainly one of those men. Watching this movie I couldn't help but be reminded of O'Toole's performance as Lawrence of Arabia. One main reason is that O'Toole as Jim sports the same blond hairstyle the actor had as Lawrence. Jim and Lawrence have a lot of similarities to each other--both are English outcasts who hide away from the world that they supposedly belong to, and both men find their true selves by coming to the aid of natives fighting oppression in a far-away land. Both men are also so remote that the audience never really feels that they get to know them. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA is of course one of the most famous movies ever made, and the actual man that the movie is based on was mysterious, so the remoteness is part of the story. In LORD JIM, however, not having a connection with the main character I feel hurts the story. LORD JIM, while a very well-made film, doesn't have the scope and majesty of LAWRENCE--I never felt as if I had an emotional attachment to Jim or his fate.
LORD JIM clocks in at two and a half hours long, and the film is more brooding than exciting. I would call it a "thinking man's" epic. Most of the action happens in the middle part of the film, when Jim leads the natives in revolt against a tyrannical self-styled General played by Eli Wallach. (Wallach is fine as usual but I have to admit thinking that he was channeling his Mexican bandit persona from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN). After the General and his small army are defeated, Jim has to defend the village from pirates who are after the General's treasure. The pirates are led by none other than James Mason as Captain "Gentleman" Brown. Mason's philosophical brigand makes a huge impression, and seeing O'Toole and Mason verbally spar with one another may be the highlight of the film. The scenes with Mason gave O'Toole some much-needed verve--he spends most of the story with an anguished expression on his face. That being said, Jim is a character who is guilt-ridden and conflicted--and that may be the type of person one finds hard to watch for two and a half hours.
LORD JIM may not be the most exciting film in the world, but it is very well put together. Richard Brooks was an accomplished filmmaker, and he made the most out of the Cambodian locations used during the filming. Famed cinematographer Freddie Young contributes a number of striking images--this movie deserves to be released on Blu-ray. The supporting cast is filled with legendary names--Jack Hawkins, Curt Jurgens, Paul Lukas, Akim Tamiroff--and Hammer fans will appreciate that this movie features Andrew Keir and Marne Maitland. The only major female role is played by the astonishingly lovely Daliah Lavi, who portrays the native girl Jim falls for. Lavi is so good she almost steals the film (no mean feat considering her cast mates), but she might be a bit too attractive looking for someone living in a poor, backwater part of the world.
LORD JIM is very much the type of "important" epic film one rarely sees anymore. It is a combination of a respected director, famous novel, major cast, and breathtaking locations. It may be too thoughtful and stately for some, but it is worth seeking out.
Saturday, January 2, 2016
Quentin Tarantino's THE HATEFUL EIGHT is overlong, wildly uneven, and incredibly indulgent. It's a Tarantino movie on steroids. Those who believe that Tarantino is a genius will be fascinated by it, while those who are inclined to find the filmmaker's signature style annoying will consider sitting through the nearly three hour-long movie to be excruciating.
The thin plot revolves around a legendary bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) attempting to bring in a woman wanted for murder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in post-Civil War Wyoming. A blizzard forces captor and captive to stop at a way-station before they can get to their destination, and they meet up with several mysterious characters. Each of these characters harbor secrets, and a bizarre cat-and-mouse game begins as all assembled wait for the storm to subside.
Being that this is a Tarantino movie, the "Eight" of THE HATEFUL EIGHT are as eccentric and quirky as possible. Each line of dialogue is loaded with various meanings, and every look or glance may have a bearing on the story. If this movie were 90 minutes or so long, the "Tarantino-speak" would accentuate the tension, but after almost three hours, it becomes tiresome. It doesn't help that all the major characters are unlikable, and the audience spends most of the time waiting for the inevitable bloodbath (and when said bloodbath comes, it is laid on with a trowel).
I'm a fan of Tarantino's work, and I knew coming into this film that it would have moments of sadism and shock. But in THE HATEFUL EIGHT, the writer/director seems more than usual to want to tick off people. There's a point in about the middle of the film, during a flashback, that a cringe-inducing moment is shown (I'm not going to describe it--you'll know it if you see the film). This moment is so blatantly over-the-top that it takes you not only out of the time period the story is supposed to be set in, it takes you out of the main story, period.
I've read in a number of reviews for THE HATEFUL EIGHT that the movie is supposed to be "political"--that somehow it is a parable for America's history of racism, or America's history of misogyny, or America's love of guns. I don't buy any of those theories--I think those writers are giving the movie way too much credit. Tarantino has taken a simple story and blown it so far out of proportion that it's hard to figure out what he was trying to do with it.
It's kind of a waste that the movie just doesn't come together, because there are some good (if florid) performances in it by almost the entire cast. One thing you cannot deny about Tarantino is that he always goes out of his way to showcase his performers. Robert Richardson's cinematography is exquisite, and the movie's biggest highlight may be the original music score by the Maestro himself, Ennio Morricone.
But I have to say that I found this movie to be something of a disappointment. Maybe THE HATEFUL EIGHT was just too much to take in at first--this may be a title that demands multiple viewings. I must point out that I did not see the 70mm "Road Show" version of the film, which apparently is a different cut than the "regular" version.
Quentin Tarantino is one of the most interesting writer/directors making films in this day and age, and I at least have to give him credit in creating something other than the typical superhero-type action flick. But I think he went way overboard with this project. I can imagine someone like Budd Boetticher taking this same story, filming it as a 1950s B Western, cutting out all the bloody extremism and bad language, and coming up with a far better product.