Friday, April 27, 2018
A full decade of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has led up to this. After years of being teased about Thanos and the Infinity Stones, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR lets them both loose against nearly every Marvel superhero character that has appeared in a live-action theatrical film (with a few notable exceptions--such as the X-Men, of course).
It seems that almost every month a new superhero/comic book film comes out, and the storyline deals with a situation that threatens the entire world. AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR ups the ante by dealing with a threat to the entire universe. This is an MCU movie that resides on a different level than the rest. From the very first scenes, the Russo Brothers (directors of my favorite MCU entry, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER) make very clear that the stakes are much higher, and no character is safe. There's a fair amount of humor in this film, especially in the sarcastic exchanges among the many heroes--but don't let that fool you. This is the darkest Marvel production yet--a sense of doom pervades throughout.
When I first saw the teaser trailer for AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR, I thought the promotion of Thanos to a major role would be a disappointment. Another larger-than-life CGI-realized villain with supposed unlimited capabilities??? I have to say that Thanos didn't turn out as bad as I thought he would. He's given more of a background than the usual comic book movie bad guy, and he's allowed to be more articulate. The script goes out of its way to try and explain his motivations to the audience. Due to Thanos' alien origins, AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has a very cosmic influence to it--the major Earthbound element in the picture is a fantastic battle sequence set in Black Panther's homeland of Wakanda.
Also adding to the cosmic vibe is the highlighting of the Guardians of the Galaxy gang, who play a far bigger role in the story than I would have expected. (They play so much of a role that at times one wonders if the movie should have been called GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY 3.) I assume that the characters who didn't get all that much screen time here--such as Captain America and Black Widow--will get more of a showcase in the next Avengers film, which will directly continue on from this one. Truthfully though all the various superheroes get a chance at the spotlight, and the Russos (and their editors) did a superlative job keeping things in sync while juggling all sorts of plot points.
If there's one thing in the film that might be a problem, it's the ending. I'm certainly not going to discuss it here in detail....but it is a climax that will either shock you, anger you, or cause you to say, "Is all of this just a cheat??" However you feel about it, it's a hell of a cliffhanger.
AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR had a lot to live up to, and from my perspective it did. It's a true kick-ass franchise blockbuster--entertaining, exciting, and surprising. I plan on seeing it multiple times.
Thursday, April 26, 2018
Steven Spielberg has spent most of the 21st Century making respectable historical dramas, but with READY PLAYER ONE he returns to his popcorn movie roots. The film is based on the best-selling novel by Ernest Cline (who is credited as co-screenwriter on the production).
My brother Robert lent me his copy of the READY PLAYER ONE novel, and I finished it last week before I saw the film version today. I thought the book was fascinating--like all great science-fiction, it isn't really about the future, it's about what is going on in society today. The story is set in 2045, where the world has basically fallen apart, and ordinary citizens spend most of their time hooked into a virtual reality world known as the OASIS--a program that can best be described as the internet on steroids. The OASIS was created by the late reclusive genius James Halliday, and the man's last will & testament set up a giant video game inside the program. Whoever can decipher Halliday's clues and win the "game" will gain control of the OASIS and its creator's billions.
What intrigued me the most about Cline's tale was how it mirrored today's world. Nearly everyone now would rather go on social media and spend time wallowing in retro pop-culture nostalgia--why do you think I'm writing this blog?? The character of James Halliday was obsessed with 1980s culture, and those who wish to partake in the quest for OASIS have to geek out on the geek, so to speak.
In all honesty, reading a novel and then almost immediately seeing the film adaptation of it is probably not the best thing to do--while watching the READY PLAYER ONE movie I kept getting distracted by the differences between book & film. But for the most part the main story is about 85% there--I wouldn't call the movie version a major overhaul of the novel.
The major difference between the book and the film is how the three "keys" are accumulated. (The "keys" are like trophies in a video game, and gathering them allows a player to get closer to winning the overall prize.) Getting the "keys" in the movie involves 1980s pop cultures references, like in the book--but the cinematic version key sequences seem to be shaped for a more mainstream audience. There's still plenty of throwback cameos here from all sorts of movies, music, and TV shows--this movie will be perfect for home video, since a person will need rewind and freeze-frame capabilities to catch them all. It goes without saying that the entire film is somewhat of an Easter egg. (One of the major geek references that is carried over from the book is a certain robotic kaiju.)
Tye Sheridan is Wade, who, while in the OASIS, poses as an avatar named Parzival. Wade is an ordinary young guy, an orphan, living an unrewarding life, who is destined for grander things (you can't help but think of Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and dozens of other classic heroic characters when observing Wade). Wade's life changes abruptly when he becomes the first person to obtain the first key in Halliday's game, and he joins with his "friends", people he knows as only fellow avatars, to stop the omnipotent IOI corporation from winning the game and taking control of OASIS. The main villain representing IOI is one Nolan Sorrento, who is described in the film as a "dickweed". If there's any actor working today who is absolutely the perfect person to play a dickweed, it's Ben Mendelsohn. (I hope folks reading this realize that's meant to be a compliment on Mendelsohn's talent.)
Tye Sheridan is okay, but just like in the novel his avatar is far more interesting than his human side. More impressive are Olivia Cooke and Lena Waithe as the human versions of Wade's closest companions. Mark Rylance, who is Spielberg's latest actor crush, plays James Halliday as something of a Wizard of Oz--Willy Wonka type figure. (From my perspective, both THE WIZARD OF OZ and WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY have major influences on the plot of READY PLAYER ONE.)
Obviously this film has a ton of CGI in it--but at least this time there is a legitimate reason for it. The entire story is right up Spielberg's alley--especially the idea of a group of likable youngsters involved in a dangerous quest. The movie does carry over one of the main themes of the novel--that no matter how cool the virtual world may be, it can't replace real life. (Truth be told, though, I wouldn't mind spending most of my time in the OASIS.)
I wouldn't put READY PLAYER ONE on the same level as, say, JURASSIC PARK when it comes to Steven Spielberg's catalog, but it is a fun, entertaining film. You don't have to read the novel to enjoy it--but I believe that those who are fans of the novel will appreciate this adaptation.
Tuesday, April 24, 2018
CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD is a 1964 German-Yugoslavian co-production and black & white vampire tale. The movie is also known as NIGHT OF THE VAMPIRES, and its original German title is DER FLUCH DER GRUNEN AUGEN. My buddy Tim Durbin covered the film not that long ago on his blog viewingtheclassics.blogspot.com, which inspired me to seek it out. CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD is also featured in Jonathan Rigby's wonderful book EURO GOTHIC.
CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD (which is set in contemporary times) stars out in a krimi-like manner. A guy in a seedy bar is checking out the ladies, while mediocre lounge music plays in the background. The gentleman's night out is disturbed by a couple of rough-looking fellows, who, we discover, are actually police officials. The guy is one Inspector Doren (Adrian Hoven), and he's sent to a small European village to investigate the recent murders of six young women. (The movie--or at least the print that I viewed--doesn't really explain where the story is taking place.) Each murder has been accompanied by a mysterious power outage, which not only affects the electricity in the village but any automobiles nearby as well. The Inspector's car goes dead just as he reaches the village, and sure enough, another murder has been committed. The Inspector's investigations lead him to a number of weird characters, and a mysterious Professor (Wolfgang Preiss) who is researching human blood (obvious plot point). It all leads to a climax located in the grotto connected to the castle the Professor is staying in--the literal cave of the living dead.
The version of this film that I viewed has producer Richard Gordon listed as "presenter"--in the 1960s Gordon brought over a number of Euro Gothics and had them re-dubbed for English-speaking audiences. (Many of the voices used in CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD I recognize from other English-dubbed horror and krimi movies from this period.) The movie was directed by Hungarian Akos Von Ratony, who also produced and co-scripted it. Von Ratony gives the story plenty of atmosphere, and at times the black & white photography (credited to Hrvaj Saric) is magnificently expressionistic. The film, however, spends too much time dealing with the Inspector and his attempts to figure out what is going on (anyone watching this will be way ahead of him). The Inspector has plenty of red herrings to deal with--a witch-like old crone, a doctor who constantly denies all the overwhelming evidence of vampirism, and a shabby Dwight Frye-like fellow who happens to be deaf. There's also the Professor's manservant (played by John Kitzmiller, who was Quarrell in DR. NO) who seems to be on the side of good, but is seen suspiciously skulking about. The Inspector also goes out of his way to romance the Professor's lovely blonde assistant Karin (Karin Schumann). The assistant provides some titillation at one point by stripping down to her undies and putting on a flimsy nightgown. (This is a Euro Gothic film, so you know somebody's gonna put on a nightgown at some point.)
All things considered, there isn't all that much actual vampiric activity in this film. Erika Remberg (who was in CIRCUS OF HORRORS) gets a few nice scenes as a shadowy undead menace, but the vampires here are more discussed than experienced. Krimi icon Wolfgang Preiss doesn't get much of a chance to shine as the main threat. The version of the film that I watched was 86 minutes, and this is one time when a Euro Gothic might have worked better in a shorter version. The most impressive thing in the picture is the magnificent grotto set.
CAVE OF THE LIVING DEAD is an okay vampire tale, heavy on style but light on specific undead action. It's another obscure chiller that could use a high-end Blu-ray release.
Sunday, April 22, 2018
Last night Svengoolie presented the 1959 Three Stooges film HAVE ROCKET, WILL TRAVEL. The movie was made after the Stooges gained newfound popularity with the release of their many short subjects to television. During the years in which the Stooges toiled at Columbia Studios, particularly when Curly Howard was part of the team, they very rarely had a chance to show off their comedic talents in a feature-length film--a situation which very much annoyed Moe Howard. Columbia gave the Stooges supporting roles in TIME OUT FOR RHYTHM, and they had a cameo in MY SISTER EILEEN. The studio also gave them starring roles in ROCKIN' IN THE ROCKIES, but for whatever reason, the boys played parts other than their usual personas.
Apparently the Stooges during this period were not allowed to appear in films for studios other than Columbia. This was a shame, because the Curly Era is considered the "Golden Age" of Stoogedom. One can only imagine what slapstick highlights there could have been from having Curly in his prime perform in bigger budgeted features alongside bigger stars. Columbia missed a huge opportunity in not making as full use of the Stooges as they could have. (Was the studio afraid that if the Stooges became feature film stars, like Abbott & Costello, they'd have to pay them more money??)
A curious exception in the Stooges' career during the Curly Era is the 1946 musical SWING PARADE OF 1946, released by Monogram, of all places. I tried to find information on the internet and the books I own on the Stooges why they were allowed to appear in the film, but no one seems to have an answer. Maybe Columbia figured that the Stooges being in a picture at a very low-budget studio wasn't that big of a deal. SWING PARADE OF 1946 is rather obscure, even among Stooge buffs, but the film is readily available on YouTube.
The movie is very much a B picture typical of the period. Gale Storm is Carol, a young singer desperate for work, and she finds it at a nightclub run by Danny (Phil Regan). Danny's father is against his son being in show business (this kind of plot already had holes in it from being used so much by movie musicals in the 1930s), and various complications ensue until all turns out right in the end. The Stooges work in the nightclub, and do their best (worst?) to help out Carol and Danny, who, as to be expected, are attracted to each other.
The Three Stooges don't have a lot to do in SWING PARADE OF 1946, but it is refreshing to see them outside of their usual Columbia backlot surroundings. Director Phil Karlson let the Stooges be themselves--most of the gags the boys do will be familiar to fans. The usual Vernon Dent-type character who bosses the Stooges around is played here by Ed Brophy, and he even gets to deliver the famed triple-slap upon the boys. The Stooges even get to do a variation on the "using too many pipes to stop one leak" routine from their Columbia short A PLUMBING WE WILL GO.
What is really interesting here is the performance of Curly Howard. In the very last Columbia shorts Curly appeared in, it's very obvious his health was failing. In SWING PARADE OF 1946, Curly looks a bit thinner, and he's not as outlandish as usual, but he doesn't seem to be greatly effected by his illness yet.
Unfortunately SWING PARADE OF 1946 does not showcase the Stooges as much as it could have. (You would think that a minor company like Monogram, given the chance to use an act like the Three Stooges, would have built the entire film around them.) The real stars of the picture are Gale Storm and Phil Regan. Gale is cute, and she and Regan are capable singers...but whenever they were on screen I just wanted the Stooges to show up. Being that this is a Monogram picture, one should not expect a spectacular musical extravaganza. The nightclub set is very nice (it must have been one of the most expensive things ever built for a Monogram film), and there's even a group of chorus girls. I wouldn't call this a very "swinging" picture....most of the musical numbers are actually romantic ballads. The best song performances are done by Louis Jordan and his band. The climatic number is okay, and it has the Stooges, all decked out in top hats and tails, involved...but the boys don't wind up ruining the number.
SWING PARADE OF 1946 is definitely a must-see for hardcore Three Stooges fans, and for those who would like to see the boys away from their typical Columbia environment. It's also a reminder that during the prime of their careers the most popular incarnation of the Stooges never got the chance to star in a big-budget feature film built entirely around them.
Sunday, April 15, 2018
THE PSYCHOPATH (1966) is one of the lesser-known films from Milton Subotsky and Max J. Rosenberg's Amicus Productions. The movie isn't one of the company's many anthology films, and it doesn't feature any big-time genre names such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. THE PSYCHOPATH does have some impressive behind-the-camera credits--it was directed by Freddie Francis and it was written by Robert Bloch. The film gets its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Lorber.
THE PSYCHOPATH, set in England, concerns a series of murders among a group of men who were responsible for indicting a German industrialist named Von Sturm as a war criminal after WWII. At the scene of each killing a replica of the victim, in the shape of a doll, is left behind. A determined police inspector named Holloway (Patrick Wymark) is led to Von Sturm's bizarre widow (Margaret Johnston) and her equally unusual son (John Standing).
There isn't all that much plot to THE PSYCHOPATH, and the script cannot be counted among Robert Bloch's best work. Freddie Francis and cinematographer John Wilcox do, however, go out of their way to bring some flair to the proceedings, with superb use of color and widescreen Techniscope. Francis also lets the many fine English characters cast here shine, particularly Patrick Wymark. Usually the police inspector role in a British horror film of this period is a thankless one, but Wymark makes the man interesting. On his audio commentary for this disc, Troy Howarth compares Wymark's Holloway to Peter Falk's Columbo, and there are many similarities--both men favor rumpled raincoats, they each manage to drop in on suspects at the most inopportune times, and they both have a disarming nature about them. Margaret Johnston is very effective as the creepy Mrs. Sturm, and Hammer fans will appreciate Thorley Walters as one of the murder victims and a very brief appearance by Caron Gardner, who is known for her cameo in THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Troy Howarth also compares THE PSYCHOPATH to Mario Bava's Italian giallo thriller BLOOD AND BLACK LACE. The movie does share some elements of the giallo--an unseen killer who wears black gloves and wields a knife, stylish color photography, and the stalking of a beautiful young fashionable woman. I would also mention that Mrs. Von Sturm, and her houseful of unsettling dolls, reminded me of Baroness Graps in Bava's KILL, BABY...KILL! Despite its title, THE PSYCHOPATH is nowhere near as tawdry or as violent as most giallo entries. One can't help but think of PSYCHO when discussing Robert Bloch (he was the author of the original novel)....and Mrs. Von Sturm and her son do bring back memories of the Bates family. There's also a very Hitchcockian (and very well staged) confrontation between Inspector Holloway and the young Von Sturm set in a boathouse during the middle of the night. Elisabeth Lutyens contributes a very atmospheric music score.
Kino presents THE PSYCHOPATH in anamorphic 2.35:1 widescreen. For about the first twenty minutes of the film, the print has some damage--a couple of scratch lines run down the screen, and they are a bit distracting. For the rest of the film the print looks fine, and the colors are much more distinct. I'm not going to be too hard on Kino for this, considering that the movie has never been released on home video in widescreen before and this may have been the only print available.
The only real extra is Troy Howarth's commentary, and it is an informative and enthusiastic one. I've already mentioned a couple of his points. Troy also discusses the issue of how much post-production tinkering was done on the film--your stance on that will depend on whether you believe Milton Subotsky's opinions or those of Freddie Francis. An original trailer for THE PSYCHOPATH is included, and the case cover is double-sided, with different ad art for the film on each.
I wouldn't call THE PSYCHOPATH spectacular, but it is a very good thriller, worthy of discovery. Thanks to Kino's excellent presentation of this title, one can finally get the chance to see it the way it was meant to.
Saturday, April 14, 2018
In this day and age a title like THE GAY BRIDE brings up all sorts of ideas on what the movie might be about. For audiences back in 1934, when the film was originally released, the title probably made them assume that they would be seeing a typical "woman's picture". In reality the movie is a strange mixture of gangster antics and light comedy--by far the best reason for seeing it is the presence of its leading lady, Carole Lombard. THE GAY BRIDE makes its home video debut on a made-on-demand DVD courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.
Carole Lombard plays ambitious Mary, a showgirl (by far the most common professional occupation for 1930s American female movie characters). The gorgeous Mary attracts the eye of none-too-bright gangster "Shoots" Magiz (Nat Pendleton). Despite protestations from her best friend (Zasu Pitts), Mary encourages Shoots--she's not all that attracted to him, but she figures if she marries him, the poor sap won't last too long due to the nature of his business, and she'll get all his money. Mary does become Shoots' bride, and he does get bumped off--but due to the repeal of Prohibition, the widow finds out to her dismay that her husband had no money left. Mary gets involved with Shoots' devious associates (Sam Hardy, Leo Carillo), but it's Shoots' bodyguard (Chester Morris) who winds up getting the girl out of the rackets.
THE GAY BRIDE was the only film Carole Lombard made for MGM. Considering the reputation of the studio, Lombard had high hopes for it, but the results left her disappointed. Most of the books written about the actress look upon it as one of her most mediocre films. It certainly isn't terrible--but it doesn't do much to highlight Lombard's talents, other than make her look as ravishing as possible by providing her with a number of fashionable costumes. The movie has a in-between quality to it--it's not funny enough to be an out-and-out farce, and it's not dramatic enough to be a gangster melodrama.
MGM may have been the wrong studio for this type of material. A company like Warner Bros. would have taken the script and made it as wild and wacky as possible. Lombard seems a bit too refined to be a hard-edged golddigger--it's the type of part that would have been perfect for, say, Joan Blondell or Ann Southern. In the first part of the film the gangsters are portrayed as basically dopes--so when later on they are supposed to be a viable threat to Mary, the tension just isn't there. Chester Morris (his character is referred to in the film as "Office Boy") and Lombard spend most of the movie sniping at one another--which, by the "old movie rules" means that they are really in love. Every time I have seen Chester Morris in a film, he comes off to me as sulky and unlikable, and he did nothing to change my mind here. Morris seems far more comfortable insulting Carole than he does when he has to woo her. (The script goes out of its way to tell the audience that Office Boy is just a bodyguard, and does not take part in any illegal activities, in order to make the character seem a "proper" match for Mary.)
Zasu Pitts doesn't get much to do here as the obligatory best friend (she does get to recite a few "Oh Dears"). In the last part of the film, her character disappears, which makes me wonder if there was some editing done to the story. Another reason I think there was some studio tinkering is that all of Mary's financial and legal problems--which are considerable--are explained away with dialogue literally at the very end of the picture. MGM veteran Jack Conway directs the film in a low-key, practical manner.
The print used for this DVD of THE GAY BRIDE has a lot of scratches on it, and the image quality is not very sharp. There are no extras.
Carole Lombard is my favorite movie actress of all time, so of course I'm going to take advantage of the opportunity to buy a film of hers that I had never seen. But in all honesty she's the only reason to watch THE GAY BRIDE.
Thursday, April 12, 2018
This list is a spinoff of my favorite and least favorite casting decisions lists. For me a great movie cast ensemble has to be more than just a bunch of big names thrown together. All the members of a great movie cast ensemble should have interesting and important roles to play (and this doesn't necessarily mean big roles). Many historical epic films stuffed their cast lists with famous stars, but wound up offering the talent involved nothing more than cameo appearances. THE LONGEST DAY is one of my favorite WWII movies of all time, but I wouldn't count it as a great ensemble cast, because most of the stars packed into it don't have all that much to do. THE LONGEST DAY is an event movie, not an actor's showcase.
Films from the Golden Age of Hollywood have a leg up on the competition for this list due to the fact that even the mediocre ones made during the period feature wonderful character actors, even in the smallest of roles. There's a number of times I'll be sitting around the house and I'll start watching a movie on TCM that isn't all that famous--or all that good--simply because of the acting talent in the cast.
Making out this list reminded me of how particular directors feature greater overall casts in their films than others. Frank Capra, in my opinion, was the master at putting together great ensemble casts--in his films there's no such thing as a throwaway role. John Ford of course had his famous stock company, and even though he doesn't get a lot of credit for doing so, John Sturges filled his movies with exceptional performers. I could have listed several films from each of those three directors.
I know some might complain about the lack of modern films here. I will mention that Martin Scorsese always has great ensemble casts. And no, I don't list any of the now many superhero movies that feature multiple comic book characters, because in my mind the fictional heroes in them are more important than the actors wearing the suits.
Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, David Prowse
THE MALTESE FALCON (1941 version)
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Ward Bond, Gladys George, Lee Patrick, Barton MacLane, Elisha Cook Jr., Jerome Cowan
Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet, Dooley Wilson, S. Z. Sakall
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE
James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Frank Faylen, Ward Bond, Gloria Grahame, H. B. Warner, Frank Albertson, Samuel S. Hinds
LAWRENCE OF ARABIA
Peter O'Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Jack Hawkins, Omar Sharif, Claude Rains, Anthony Quayle, Arthur Kennedy, Jose Ferrer
TUNES OF GLORY
Alec Guinness, John Mills, Dennis Price, John Fraser, Gordon Jackson, Susannah York, Kay Walsh
Kevin Costner, Gary Oldman, Tommy Lee Jones, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, Joe Pesci, Donald Sutherland, Jack Lemmon
THE WILD BUNCH
William Holden, Ernest Borgnine, Robert Ryan, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson, Jaime Sanchez, Strother Martin, L. Q. Jones
THE LAST HURRAH
Spencer Tracy, Jeffrey Hunter, Dianne Foster, Basil Rathbone, Pat O'Brien, Donald Crisp, James Gleason, Ed Brophy, John Carradine, Ricardo Cortez, Frank McHugh, Anna Lee
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, David McCallum, Donald Pleasence, James Donald, Gordon Jackson, Nigel Stock
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974 version)
Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Martin Balsam, Ingrid Bergman, Jacqueline Bisset, Sean Connery, John Gielgud, Wendy Hiller, Anthony Perkins, Vanessa Redgrave, Rachel Roberts, Richard Widmark, Michael York
Monday, April 9, 2018
And now it's time for a Least Favorite Casting Decisions list. This one was actually harder to put together than the Favorite Casting list. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of entries to choose from...it's just that if I don't like a certain movie or a certain performer I'm not going to spend time watching them. I'm far more knowledgeable about films and actors I like than ones I don't, therefore it is easier for me to write about them.
I must also point out that I'm not going to go down the politically incorrect route. Almost all the historical and biblical epics made in the 1950s-60s featured white English-speaking performers as the main stars. To go through all of those movies and chastise those casting decisions now, in my opinion, doesn't really accomplish much. Technically one could say that 90% of all casting decisions made during the Golden Age of Hollywood were politically incorrect. If you can't put a older film in the context of the time it was made, you're going to have to severely limit your viewing choices.
I'll try not to be too snarky during this list, but I make no promises.
Marlon Brando in JULIUS CAESAR
I might as well admit now that I've never been all that much of Brando fan. His "revolutionary" style of acting looks to me now as contrived and indulgent. I'm sure having the young Marlon alongside classical artists such as John Gielgud and James Mason in a film adaptation of Shakespeare's play was a high concept idea back in 1953, but Brando here seems to be off in his own world.
Ben Affleck in THE SUM OF ALL FEARS
Honestly I could say that casting Affleck in any movie would be a bad idea....but trying to have him portray Tom Clancy's main hero Jack Ryan was particularly egregious.
Arnold Schwarzenegger in BATMAN AND ROBIN
This is a prime example of gimmick casting. "Hey! Let's have Arnold play Mr. Freeze!! It'll be great!!" Well, it wasn't....but, truth be told, it didn't matter who would have played this role, the movie still would have been terrible.
Anthony Perkins in FEAR STRIKES OUT
In this film Perkins plays Major League baseball player Jimmy Piersall in a film that details the man's struggle with emotional and mental issues. Perkins was a fine choice when it came to emotionally troubled characters...but it's fairly obvious here that Perkins didn't have much experience baseball-wise. He doesn't even look comfortable while wearing a baseball uniform.
Clark Gable in PARNELL
For some reason someone at MGM thought it was a good idea for the rugged King of Hollywood to play a 19th Century Irish statesman. Was this an early example of Oscar bait?
Grace Jones in A VIEW TO A KILL
The folks who ran the James Bond franchise tried to go the trendy route by casting Jones, who had a certain notoriety in the mid 1980s, as the main henchman in this lousy 007 outing. Ironically, due to a recent documentary, Jones is back in the spotlight again...which proves that if you just wait long enough, just about anything will come back in style.
Sunday, April 8, 2018
The idea for this post comes from my brother Robert.
When it comes to discussing great movie casting decisions, one has to be careful not to veer into "Hindsight is 20/20" territory. Just about any movie that is critically or financially successful will be credited for having great casting. Most popular movie character portrayals are so iconic that it's almost impossible to imagine another performer essaying the role. Is having Clint Eastwood play The Man With No Name or Dirty Harry an example of great casting...or is it a choice that was just patently obvious?
If you are a fan of a certain actor, you'll mostly think that anything they appeared in was a great casting decision. For those performers you don't like, you'll think the opposite is true.
One also has to take into account that how we perceive certain movies--and certain performances--changes over time. For years, George Lazenby as James Bond in ON HER MAJESTY'S SECRET SERVICE was considered one of the ultimate examples of miscasting--but now the film, and Lazenby's version of 007 is looked upon more fondly. I have a feeling that many of the comic book films--and the casting in them--that saturate the market and the public's attention these days may not hold up too well a few decades from now.
The reason I titled this post "Some of my favorite movie performances" is that there's no way I can pick all the ones I feel that are notable throughout the entire history of cinema in just one list. For this one I'm going to try and pick those decisions that had some doubt or unusual aspect to them. If you have some great casting decisions of your own, please feel free to leave a comment here or on The Hitless Wonder Movie Page.
James Stewart in BROKEN ARROW
I could have easily chosen Stewart's role in WINCHESTER '73, but BROKEN ARROW was filmed first (even though it was released later). Both films established Stewart as a tough, rugged, and complicated Western hero, and the actor's later portrayals in the genre established his post-WWII image. How many people back in 1949 would have imagined Stewart as a Western star?
Harrison Ford in STAR WARS and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK
There's all sorts of urban legends about the different actors supposedly "considered" for the role of Han Solo in the original STAR WARS. Most of these legends are just cheap clickbait, but the fact is George Lucas took a chance on picking Ford. I'd say it worked out pretty well. As for RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, most people know that Tom Selleck was going to play Indiana Jones, but decided to star in the MAGNUM P.I. TV show instead. I know there's going to be a younger Han coming out soon, and there's already been younger Indiana's, but Harrison Ford is the real Han and Indy.
Brigitte Helm in METROPOLIS
What exactly did Fritz Lang see in a unknown teenage girl who had no acting experience whatsoever?? Whatever it was, it enabled him to allow Helm the opportunity to give one of the most iconic performances in cinema history.
John Wayne in SHE WORE A YELLOW RIBBON
In essaying the role of Capt. Nathan Brittles, Wayne was essentially playing a man roughly 20 years older than himself--and he did it brilliantly. It is said that John Ford cast Wayne in the role after being impressed by the Duke in RED RIVER, but if Ford wasn't confident in the actor's abilities he wouldn't have used him at all to begin with.
Peter Cushing in HORROR OF DRACULA
If you go by how Dr. Van Helsing was portrayed in Bram Stoker's novel, having Cushing play the character would not be a good choice. Cushing was much younger, and much more typically English than Stoker's Van Helsing. But Cushing's Van Helsing is now the standard by which all movie monster fighters are compared to.
Errol Flynn in THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD
Warner Brothers was seriously considering James Cagney, of all people, for the role of Robin. That would have been...unique, but honestly, how could you have not cast an in-his-prime Errol Flynn?
Boris Karloff in FRANKENSTEIN (1931)
Universal was planning to use Bela Lugosi as the Frankenstein Monster, due to his success as the Count in the '31 DRACULA. There's a number of stories on how Boris Karloff was finally cast, but no matter which one you believe, it was a fantastic decision that had major ramifications for fantastic cinema. Karloff went on to become the greatest all-around actor in classic horror film history.
Other Notable Examples: Steve McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE, Barbara Steele in BLACK SUNDAY, Christopher Reeve in SUPERMAN--THE MOVIE, Hugh Jackman in X-MEN, Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE
In upcoming posts I will discuss some casting choices that were not my favorites, and some of my favorite ensemble movie casts of all time.
Saturday, April 7, 2018
KILLER FORCE (aka THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES) is a 1975 caper-adventure film starring a cast that could only have been put together in the Seventies--Peter Fonda, Telly Savalas, Christopher Lee, Hugh O'Brian, Maude Adams, and....O.J. Simpson. The movie was co-written and directed by the highly competent Val Guest (THE QUATERMASS EXPERIMENT, HELL IS A CITY). Sounds like it should be quite impressive, right? Well, the final results are not all that spectacular...but hey, I got the Kino DVD of this from Edward R. Hamilton Booksellers for $4, so I think I made out okay.
Peter Fonda plays Bradley, a security officer at a large diamond mine located in South Africa. Bradley's job isn't made any easier by the diamond syndicate's head of security, Webb (Telly Savalas). Webb is a paranoid fellow who's convinced that a major smuggling operation is going on right under the company's nose. Bradley is convinced by a company official to act as if he is actually part of the operation, so as to ferret out those who are really running things. Bradley goes on the run and encounters a group of mercenaries who need his help to steal a huge haul of diamonds from the mine....but which side is Bradley truly on? And can he escape the determined Webb's clutches regardless?
KILLER FORCE is one of those "impossible mission" movies, where a disparate group of characters get together and try to penetrate an impenetrable fortress, or undertake a deadly task with all the odds stacked against them. Usually in these types of films, some of the characters are portrayed in a way that makes the audience interested in their plight, or the story is set in a situation like World War II, where one at least gets the chance to root for the achievement of the goal. KILLER FORCE doesn't use any of these conventions--the characters are not particularly likable or engaging, and the goal of stealing a bunch of diamonds is based on just flat out greed. The movie might have been better served if a more hard-edged traditional action star had been made the lead. Not only does Peter Fonda seem miscast, there are times where he appears bored by all the proceedings. It doesn't help that Fonda's role is not set up consistently--at one point he chastises the mercenaries for their brutal methods, yet he winds up killing plenty of people along the way himself. Telly Savalas is a portent force as Webb, but the script doesn't explain why the guy is so obsessed at catching diamond thieves (Webb even goes out of his way to tell off and bully his superiors in the company).
Hugh O'Brian is the leader of the mercenaries, and among the group are Christopher Lee and O.J. Simpson. Lee would have been much better served playing O'Brian's role. As the deadly Major Chilton, Lee doesn't get to do as much as he should, but he does enough to make the character more than just the usual minor bad guy role. Lee's Chilton displays proper manners which belie the man's nasty streak. O.J. Simpson appearing in any movie viewed from today's perspective becomes a major distraction, especially in an action flick such as this. Every scene that involves Simpson's character could easily become the subject of sick jokes. (If you've ever wanted to see a film which has Christopher Lee and O.J. Simpson in a car together, this is it.)
Val Guest helmed a number of important genre films in the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1970s his choice of titles was somewhat perplexing. (Was that due to the then-weakness of the British film industry?) Guest does do an above average job here, making good use of the desert-like African locations and handling the action scenes very well. (One thing that needs to be said about the action sequences is that in this movie, all one has to do is basically nudge a helicopter or a Land Rover and it will blow up.) In the end I think Guest made the movie more entertaining that it probably should have been.
The Kino DVD of KILLER FORCE presents a very sharp 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen print of the film. The print actually has the on-screen title THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES, which also adorns one of the two trailers provided. THE DIAMOND MERCENARIES titles and trailer (which is narrated by Patrick Allen) give Christopher Lee third billing. A sequence of alternate KILLER FORCE main titles are included, along with an alternate ending. The alternate ending, which might be looked at as a "downer" is much better than what appears in the film. The original ending is incredibly anti-climatic...it's one of those endings that make you say "That's all there is???"
KILLER FORCE has a number of problems when it comes to the plot and the characters, but it does fit the bill if all you want is a cheesy action flick that has a lot of gunfights, explosions, and interesting actors.
Wednesday, April 4, 2018
Universal's 1930 big-budget musical revue KING OF JAZZ was recently restored, and the results have been released on Blu-ray by Criterion. It's one of the most unique productions I have ever seen, and Criterion has supplied a wealth of supplementary material to go along with it.
KING OF JAZZ was Universal's attempt to hop on the early-sound musical bandwagon. By the time it was finally released, nearly every other major Hollywood studio had already come out with their own musical revues, and audiences were tired of the genre. KING OF JAZZ fell into obscurity, and whenever it was mentioned, it was looked upon as a quaint curio. The movie isn't perfect, but as a film buff I found it fascinating.
The supposed King of Jazz the title refers to is bandleader Paul Whiteman. It's hard to believe now, but the portly Whiteman, who resembled Oliver Hardy, was one of the most popular American entertainers in the 1920s. Whiteman's band played a form of music that is far different from the accepted definition of Jazz that we know today. Despite this Whiteman and the musicians who played with him had a huge influence on the Jazz format (this is extensively discussed on all the various extras featured on this Blu-ray). George Gershwin's legendary "Rhapsody in Blue" was first recorded by Whiteman's band, and the song is a major highlight of KING OF JAZZ. I honestly knew basically nothing about Whiteman before buying this disc, but the extras on it give all the background and information one needs to know about the bandleader.
KING OF JAZZ was filmed in an early two-strip Technicolor format, which accentuated the colors red and green. For a modern viewer this visual scheme might take some getting used to, but for me some of the restored scenes on this disc look breathtaking. In KING OF JAZZ the two-strip Technicolor was not just used for its own sake--the sets and costumes were designed to make the best use of the process, and the cinematography goes out of its way to use the available colors as creatively as possible. Some of the scenes have a Expressionistic quality to them.
Some of the acts featured in KING OF JAZZ are better than others--the comic "blackouts" in between acts have a seedy Pre-Code aspect to them. The movie has a little bit of everything--there's even a animated sequence, the very first of its kind in Technicolor, done by Walter Lantz and Bill Nolan. Bing Crosby is here, making his film debut, along with early Universal stars Laura La Plante and John Boles. A young Walter Brennan is here too (he still looks middle-aged). Among the other talents presented are the Russell Market Girls, who were the precursors of the Rockettes.
The performers that impressed me the most from this film were the Sisters G, a German-born dancing pair of lithe Louise Brooks lookalikes. In my opinion, they should have had a lot more screen time.
The Sisters G
My favorite sequences in the film were the "Rhapsody in Blue" number (which, due to the two-strip process, comes off looking like "Rhapsody in Teal") and "Happy Feet". There are a few times when the musical numbers feel a bit stagey (the director of this film was Broadway impresario John Murray Anderson), but there's also several moments that disprove the legend that all the great film musical innovations were invented by Busby Berkeley. Universal spent a small fortune on this production, and it certainly shows on screen.
As I have mentioned, the extras here are extensive. There's interviews and presentations from Gary Giddins, Michael Feinstein, James Layton, and David Pierce, and they all fully analyze the making of the film, and give background on the performers featured in it. An audio commentary has Gary Giddins, Gene Seymour, and jazz artist Vince Giordano. It's a fine one, but it is focused mostly on the musical aspects of KING OF JAZZ. The Blu-ray includes an extensively illustrated booklet that has an informative essay on the film by Farran Smith Nehme.
For anyone who has a major interest in classic Hollywood, this Blu-ray is a must buy. I have to point out that it will also be of interest to those who have a love for the music and fashions of the late 20s--early 30s. The extras are some of the best that have ever been presented on any Criterion disc, and the restored film looks spectacular. I can easily predict that the KING OF JAZZ Blu-ray will be on my top five discs of 2018 list.