Saturday, February 29, 2020
The 1966 Hammer historical melodrama RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK contains one of Christopher Lee's greatest film performances. The movie makes its American Blu-ray debut courtesy of Shout Factory.
Production began on RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK literally days after DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS wrapped. RASPUTIN reunites four of the main actors from DPOD: Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer. (RASPUTIN is also a mini-reunion of THE GORGON cast, with Lee, Shelley, and Richard Pasco.) While the movie is a fantastic showcase for Lee, it fails to be very historical, or very Russian for that matter. The events that RASPUTIN barely covers need the sweep and the scope of a DOCTOR ZHIVAGO or NICHOLAS AND ALEXANDRA. This was far beyond the budgetary limitations of Hammer.
Nevertheless, RASPUTIN is worthy viewing due to the power of majesty of Lee. His mad monk is a larger-than-life grandiose character, ordering members of the upper class about as if they were peasants, and putting beautiful women under his sway. The scene where Rasputin seduces Barbara Shelley's Sonia, a lady-in-waiting to the Czarina, is one of the most passionate in all of Hammer's history. The best special effects in RASPUTIN are Lee's eyes--they burn out from his face like brilliant headlights, enabling him to put anyone under his spell (Lee has to by far hold the record for hypnotizing the most people on screen).
Lee is so overwhelming as Rasputin that the movie often fails to catch up with him. The mad monk's various debaucheries are mentioned, but we don't really get to see them, and while the conniving mystic is supposed to be a threat to the Russian empire, he only affects a small circle of people in the film. Director Don Sharp and cinematographer Michael Reed try hard to make this film appear far more expensive than it is, but their St. Petersburg just resembles another Hammer Eastern European village, with very English-acting Russian gentry.
The rest of the cast does their best to hold their own with Lee. Richard Pasco and Francis Matthews have their fleeting moments, while unfortunately Suzan Farmer's role is minuscule. Barbara Shelley proves once again she was Hammer's most accomplished female performer, matching Lee's intensity by ably showing that her upper-class Sonia is sexually aroused by being used and degraded by the coarse Rasputin. The movie also features Dinsdale Landen, the husband of two-time Hammer leading lady Jennifer Daniel.
Shout Factory provides two different aspect ratios of RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK on this Blu-ray--a 2.35:1 version and one at 2.55:1. Both prints look exemplary, but in my opinion the 2.55:1 appears brighter and more colorful. The disc has two commentaries, a new one with the now-expected Steve Haberman, Constantine Nasr, and Ted Newsom, and a vintage talk with Christopher Lee, Barbara Shelley, Francis Matthews, and Suzan Farmer.
The extras include a featurette on the making of RASPUTIN, and a program covering the novelizations of various Hammer films. There's two episodes of the good old "World of Hammer" series, dealing with Christopher Lee and the company's costume films. There's also a trailer, TV spots, and a still gallery which features some delectable photos of Barbara Shelley.
Wednesday, February 26, 2020
Britain's Hammer Films made a number of historical action-adventure pictures in the 1960s. Due to the company's typical low budgets, these films usually bit off more than they could chew, but for the most part they were decent entertainments.
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR (1965) is one of the least of Hammer's cut-rate epics. It tries to be a rousing tale of Imperial India, but it come off as rather desultory.
The movie is set in the Indian Northwest Frontier of 1850. Captain Robert Case (Ronald Lewis) returns to Ft. Kandahar from a scouting mission, alone, to report that the officer with him, a Capt. Connelly, was captured by bandits and probably killed. Case's commanding officer (Duncan Lamont) doubts his word and suspects him of cowardice. Case has two major strikes against him--he's half-Indian, and he's been having an affair with Connelly's wife (Catherine Woodville). Case is to be court martialed, but he escapes with the help of a native servant. The servant leads Case into the hands of bandit chief Eli Khan (Oliver Reed). Case joins up with Khan to strike back at the British, but the bandit's cruel ways are too much for the former military officer. Case is egged on against Khan by the bandit's sister, the sultry Ratina (Yvonne Romain).
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR was written and directed by John Gilling, who made some of Hammer's better films, such as THE REPTILE and THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. Here much use is made of stock footage battles from other movies, particularly a film called ZARAK. The footage sticks out like a sore thumb (especially if one views this movie in HD), and it is not integrated very well. But the bigger problem is Gilling's contradictory script. The story tries to be critical of British imperialism, but at the same time has all the native characters be little more than one-dimensional stereotypes.
The contradictory tone extends to the lead character as well. The viewer isn't introduced to Case until after he comes back from his ill-fated mission and is accused of cowardice. The audience doesn't get a chance to know the fellow--we only have his word on what happened, for all we know he could be a liar and a coward. It doesn't help that Ronald Lewis (who had worked for Hammer before) is not very charismatic, and spends most of the movie with a brooding look on his face. To be fair to the actor, the script does him no favors--Case seems to have a chip on his shoulder, he is fooling around with another officer's wife, and technically he is a traitor. Lewis isn't able to project such a weakly-written character into a heroic bandit-warrior that a viewer would be interested in. Oliver Reed, with his dangerous attitude and natural intensity, would have been much better cast as Case.
One wonders if Reed also felt he should have been given the lead role, for he hams it up mercilessly as Eli Khan. (Reed has been quoted as saying that THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR was his worst film--trust me, he made plenty lesser ones). Reed's Khan acts too silly to be believable as a cunning leader of cut-throats. Khan and Case engage in a underwhelming sword duel at the climax.
Ronald Lewis and Yvonne Romain in THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR
The most notable character is the delectable Yvonne Romain as Ratina. Romain has more sass and swagger than the rest of the cast combined. Her Ratina is plotting to take over the bandit tribe from her brother, and she uses Case to help her in this. Romain was able to make an impression without any dialogue in the beginning of THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, but I think her performance here really showed that she could do more than look gorgeous.
Longtime Hammer veteran Duncan Lamont gets a bigger role than usual as the cold-blooded British Colonel, but the many other supporting actors the company regularly used are missing here. Considering that this is a film set in India, one expects George Pastell and Marne Maitland to show up, and they don't.
THE BRIGAND OF KANDAHAR winds up being a very mediocre film. One can blame the fact that it was built around a lot of stock footage. Even so, it shouldn't have been that hard to create a rip-roaring tale with an exciting lead character, even with a low budget.
Saturday, February 22, 2020
X THE UNKNOWN (1957) was Hammer's first attempt to follow up on the success of their science fiction adaptation THE QUATERMASS XPERIMENT. It was also the debut screenplay of Jimmy Sangster, who would go on to write many of Hammer's most famous films. X THE UNKNOWN is not as beloved as the Hammer Quatermass series, but it is an effective, low budget sci-fi tale, and it has now been released on Region A Blu-ray by Shout Factory.
Somewhere in Scotland, a group of soldiers on maneuvers discover a strange source of radiation underground, a source that kills one man and badly burns others. A quirky scientist named Royston (Dean Jagger), who works at a nearby atomic research laboratory, is called in to investigate. Other victims of radiation poisoning begin to appear throughout the area. Royston theorizes that a being of pure energy has somehow worked its way from deep under the earth's crust, and is feeding on all nearby sources of radiation. Luckily it just so happens that Royston has been experimenting with ways to neutralize atomic blasts--but will he be able to find an answer in time before the energy creature devours the entire atomic facility??
X THE UNKNOWN may have been Jimmy Sangster's first attempt at a full-length screenplay, but it's actually one of his best. The basic premise may be quite fantastic, but the story moves along at such a rapid pace that one doesn't have the time to think too much about it. Everything is shown in a low-key, natural manner, but director Leslie Norman and cinematographer Gerald Gibbs inject a chilly tone to match the crisp black & white photography. There's plenty of suspenseful sequences, and the overall mood is enhanced by James Bernard's frantic, driving score.
What helps the film work is the lack of any time-filler elements--no romantic subplots (no major female characters at all, in fact), no ponderous explanations of any character's background, and no major comic relief (there is some dry humor in spots). Dean Jagger is very good in the lead role. His Royston doesn't make the same vivid impression as Brian Donlevy's Quatermass, but he does seem more like a "real" scientist. (Royston is also far more approachable--and calmer--than Donlevy's Quatermass.) The rest of the cast carries on in the same understated manner--even attention-getting actors such as Leo McKern and Michael Ripper.
X THE UNKNOWN also features some very gruesome makeup effects for the period, such as flesh melting from a victim's skull! The movie doesn't wallow in these effects--they are shown quickly at a few selected spots, for maximum impact. At the climax of the film, the energy creature (which has basically turned into a muddy radioactive goop) resembles a cross between the Blob and Caltiki the Immortal Monster.
I had not seen X THE UNKNOWN in years, and I had never actually owned it on home video. Viewing it on this Blu-Ray, I was struck at how well done the film was...it seemed much better than I had remembered it. It's kind of silly now to call any Hammer movie "underrated", but X THE UNKNOWN has not gotten a lot of attention over the years. It's not a Quatermass film, it's not in color, it doesn't have Cushing or Lee, and it doesn't have a Hammer Glamour girl in it. Whenever the movie is discussed, it usually centers around the fact that Joseph Losey was to have supposed to originally directed it. I wish film geeks would spend less time arguing over Losey's involvement in the movie, and spend more time focusing on the finished project, which is a very interesting and serious science-fiction thriller. Leslie Norman may not have endeared himself to the Hammer production family (according to the sources I have read), but he did a fine and atmospheric job with X THE UNKNOWN.
X THE UNKNOWN was one of the titles released as part of Anchor Bay's famed Hammer DVD series in the 1990s. This Blu-ray is another fantastic print of a Hammer film from Shout Factory, with razor sharp black & white visuals. The sound is excellent as well, and that's very important with this film, which has several audio effects. The back of the Blu-ray case states that the film has a 1.37:1 aspect ration, even though it appears to be 1.75:1 widescreen.
There's not a lot of extras for this Blu-ray. There's a new audio commentary by Ted Newsom, and a original trailer. There is also a brand new--and very welcome--series called "The Men Who Made Hammer", which will continue on future Shout Factory Hammer releases. Produced and directed by Constantine Nasr, the first entry in the series features recollections about Jimmy Sangster from Richard Klemensen, the editor and publisher of LITTLE SHOPPE OF HORRORS, the magazine dedicated to all things Hammer and English Gothic. Klemensen has a unique relationship to Hammer and the people who worked for the company. He was a longtime fan of their films, and through LSOH he got to know several of the company's most notable talents personally. His talk is natural and personable (Klemensen, who I know, is more of a regular Midwestern American than a factoid-obsessed film geek). I look forward to more entries in "The Men Who Made Hammer" series.
Thursday, February 20, 2020
One of the things that has been trending among movie buffs on Twitter recently is #PreMakeAMovie. The premise is simple: take a recent film (or a relatively modern one) and "premake" it--that is, pretend the movie had been made years before, with a cast and crew befitting the times.
It's a great and fun idea, and it gives film geeks like me a chance to let their imaginations run riot. I was so excited when planning this post that I decided to ask some of my friends (all hardcore film buffs) to come up with some premakes on their own. All the posters shown here were designed and created by Joshua Kennedy.
First up, a few premakes of my very own:
WONDER WOMAN (1968) From Amicus Productions. Martine Beswick as Diana, Robert Conrad as Steve Trevor. Directed by Freddie Francis.
TAKEN (1956) Robert Ryan, Natalie Wood (as the daughter in peril). Directed by Don Siegel.
AIR FORCE ONE (1963) James Stewart (as the President), Maureen O'Hara (as the First Lady), Eli Wallach (as the main villain). Directed by Anthony Mann.
HEAT (1954) Kirk Douglas as Lt. Hanna, Burt Lancaster as McCauley, Dan Duryea as Chris, Julie Adams as Charlene. Directed by Robert Wise.
DARKMAN (1928) Lon Chaney, Conrad Veidt (as Durant). Directed by Tod Browning.
1917 (1964) Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole. Directed by Val Guest.
THE LIGHTHOUSE (1946) Boris Karloff, Kent Smith. Produced by Val Lewton. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.
THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1937) William Powell, Carole Lombard. Directed by Howard Hughes.
My good buddy Tim Durbin (who has his own blog, viewingtheclassics.blogspot.com) has some intriguing entries:
A QUIET PLACE (1957) Richard Carlson, Mara Corday. Directed by Jack Arnold.
KNIVES OUT (1948) Van Johnson, Katy Jurado. Directed by John Huston.
MALEFICENT (1955) Bette Davis. Directed by Richard Fleischer.
AD ASTRA (1960) James Stewart. Directed by Michael Curtiz.
Multi-Rondo nominated independent filmmaker Joshua Kennedy (who made all these wonderful posters) unleashes his inventive talents with these productions:
KILL BILL (1977) Judy Geeson. Directed by Sidney Lumet & Cheh Chang
CAST AWAY (1944) Henry Fonda. Directed by John Ford.
BASIC INSTINCT (1951) Kirk Douglas, Faith Domergue. Directed by Howard Hawks.
JOKER (1963) Michael Gough. Directed by Billy Wilder.
AVATAR (1956) Kenneth Tobey, Yvonne de Carlo. Directed by Jack Arnold.
300 (1959) Charlton Heston. Directed by Cecil B. deMille.
THE AVENGERS (1920) Directed by Fritz Lang. (a lost film)
Writer and prolific audio commentator Troy Howarth goes really, really deep with his eye-opening choices:
CRIMSON PEAK (1965) Christopher Lee as Sir Thomas, Barbara Steele as Lady Lucille, Erika Blanc as Edith Cushing, Basil Rathbone as Carter Cushing. Directed by Mario Bava.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (1968) John Cassavetes as Pat, Barbara Boucet as Tiffany, Edward G. Robinson as Pat Sr., Thalmus Rasulala as Danny. Written by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond, directed by Billy Wilder.
BONE TOMAHAWK (1970) Gian Maria Volonte as Sheriff Franklin, Tomas Milian as Arthur, Jason Robards as Chicory, Klaus Kinski as John Brooder. Directed by Sergio Corbucci.
KNIVES OUT (1936) Melvyn Douglas as Det. Blanc, Myrna Loy as Marta, Gloria Stuart as Joni, Miriam Hopkins as Linda, Claude Rains as Walt, Randolph Scott as Ransom, Lionel Atwill as Morris, Lionel Barrymore as Harlan. Directed by James Whale.
How'd you like to watch a film festival made up of those titles??
I really enjoyed putting this post together, and I'm already thinking of writing a sequel to it. If you are one of my many film geek internet friends, and have some prequels of your own, please let me know about them...and even if I don't know you, and you are reading this and have some titles, leave a comment. Remember, when it comes to #PreMakeAMovie, the only rule is to use your imagination to the fullest!!!
*Many thanks to Tim, Joshua, and Troy for their participation in this project.
Sunday, February 16, 2020
Joan Collins appeared in a number of 1970s horror films: TALES FROM THE CRYPT, DARK PLACES, TALES THAT WITNESS MADNESS, EMPIRE OF THE ANTS....but the weirdest and worst of all has to be a 1975 British production that was known in America as THE DEVIL WITHIN HER.
Why is this one the weirdest and the worst? Let me describe the plot to you. It's about a woman named Lucy, played by Collins, who gives birth to a male baby possessed by evil because she was cursed by a lecherous dwarf while she was working as an exotic dancer.
Need I tell you more?? Don't worry, I'll tell you plenty. THE DEVIL WITHIN HER is just one title this movie is known by. The main British title was I DON'T WANT TO BE BORN, and it was also known as THE MONSTER. For some reason on IMDB the movie is listed as SHARON'S BABY--even though no one named Sharon has a baby in it!
Whatever you want to call it, the movie was directed by Hammer veteran Peter Sasdy, who helmed TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA and HANDS OF THE RIPPER. Sasdy tries hard to make things as realistic as possible here, which might have been the wrong approach, since it just makes the story feel even more ridiculous. It would have been interesting to see what a director like Robert Fuest or Ken Russell would have done with such material.
The movie begins with the birth of the child, and none other than Donald Pleasence is the presiding doctor. If you're thinking that means the doctor has something to do with the baby's evil ways, you're wrong--the man is a decent fellow, and Pleasence is quite restrained in the role. The baby is 12 pounds at birth, and (according to all the characters in the film) grows rapidly, even though the kid looks exactly the same throughout the story. The tot has great strength, and soon begins to bite and claw at people. The little fellow eventually moves up to horrible murders. The baby's nefarious acts are shot in such a way that the viewer never really gets to see him do much--it's the aftermath that is highlighted. It's still hard to think of the tyke as demonic, since every time he's shown, he has a bored expression on his face (maybe he was watching some of the rushes).
If the baby's situation is silly enough, the adult characters are even sillier. Joan Collins spends the film in her usual "angry and distraught" mode, and she doesn't gain much sympathy. Another Hammer veteran, Ralph Bates, plays her Italian husband Gino. Bates tries to affect an Italian accent, but he fails. ("He'sa bay-bee! A BAY-bee!!"). Why is Gino an Italian? So he can have a sister who just happens to be a nun, and who also happens to be able to perform the climatic exorcism.
There's plenty of other English Gothic notables here, such as the lovely Caroline Munro as Joan's best friend. Unfortunately she doesn't get much to do, and sadly, she's dubbed (as she would be far too many times in her movie career.) Caroline's character works at the same strip club that Joan's character used to, but don't get excited--she doesn't perform. Caroline does wear a bustier in one scene.
Janet Key (DRACULA A.D. 1972, AND NOW THE SCREAMING STARTS), plays a doomed nanny, and the nasty dwarf is played by George Claydon, who was the circus midget in BERSERK. Speaking of the dwarf, it's never explained why he has the power to curse a woman's future child--I was expecting to find out that he was a practitioner of the occult, or that he came from some notorious Eastern European family, but we get nothing. (If he does have such powers, why does he stay at his job of being a freakish mascot at a seedy strip joint??)
We do get to see the dwarf feel up Joan Collins, and we also get to see a sex scene between Joan and Ralph Bates (who is promptly killed off right after it). The movie actually could have used more such craziness, because it doesn't get truly bad enough to fit under the Ed Wood level. There's a lot of scenes filmed in actual London street locations--maybe Peter Sasdy was trying to inject some verisimilitude into such a fantastic tale, but I think he was just trying to pad out the running time. Ron Grainer's music score doesn't help things--it seems to have been written for an entirely different film.
It's hard to see how anyone--or anything--could have made THE DEVIL WITHIN HER a better movie. Which leads to the question...how in the heck did this film get made to begin with?? With all the talent involved in front of and behind the camera, didn't anyone connected to the production stop and think, "Hey, this isn't going to work"?? Obviously, this film was meant to take advantage of the success of ROSEMARY'S BABY and THE EXORCIST, but it winds up being one of the many genre titles of the Seventies that leaves the viewer in a state of puzzlement....as in "What the hell was that supposed to be??"
Saturday, February 15, 2020
THE VVITCH, which came out a couple years ago, was a film I made sure to see in the theater. It had plenty of eerie and uncanny moments, and its director, Robert Eggers, knew how to make use of stillness and sound.
Eggers' follow-up, THE LIGHTHOUSE, didn't even make it to any South Bend theaters in its original release. I finally caught up with at last night through Xfinity OnDemand.
THE LIGHTHOUSE tells the story of two men assigned to lighthouse duty on a desolate island off the east coast of America sometime in the late 1800s. The men, an old grizzled veteran (Willem Dafoe) and his younger associate (Robert Pattinson) are supposed to be on the island for only four weeks, but a major storm forces them to stay longer. Both men undergo a psychological breakdown during their time on the island, which may or may not be due to supernatural manifestations.
I was quite intrigued when I first heard about THE LIGHTHOUSE, particularly due to the fact that director Eggers (who also co-wrote the film) chose to make it in black & white, and use a non-widescreen aspect ratio. The story sets up all sorts of possibilities, which are never quite realized. Much of the film deals with what the two men do on the island day after day--Pattinson's time is filled with onerous duties, while Dafoe is obsessed with tending the beacon light. The two men engage in several weary dialogue exchanges, which give the actors a chance to ham it up (especially Dafoe).
At times the movie borders on parody, with Dafoe resembling the Old Sea Captain from THE SIMPSONS. There's plenty of symbolism and ambiguity, and I'm sure everything in the story was meant to have some sort of meaning. But interest starts to flag after awhile, and one gets tired watching two strange and unlikable characters shamble about.
THE LIGHTHOUSE has exemplary cinematography and sound design, and it has a doom-laden music score that fits the overall visual mood perfectly. It has some of the most atmospheric individual shots I've seen in a film recently. But I believe it would have worked better as a 60 minute B movie from the 1940s or 1950s, or as an episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE or THE OUTER LIMITS. 109 minutes is way too long for such slight material. I would rather look at individual stills from THE LIGHTHOUSE than watch the movie over again.
Monday, February 10, 2020
The latest issue of CINEMA RETRO (#46) contains an interview with actor John Richardson, who appeared in such noteworthy genre films as Mario Bava's BLACK SUNDAY (1960) and the Hammer Films version of SHE (1965). In the magazine Richardson mentions a 1967 Euro Western he starred in called JOHN THE BASTARD. Richardson co-starred in the film with Martine Beswicke (she was using the last name "Beswick" at the time). Richardson and Beswicke were involved in a relationship when the movie was being made (it was an Italian production filmed mostly in Spain).
Martine would appear in a later, more famous spaghetti western called A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL. I have that one on Blu-ray, but I had never even heard of JOHN THE BASTARD, let alone seen it. I did some checking and I discovered that it is available on the Tubi streaming channel.
JOHN THE BASTARD (original title JOHN IL BASTARDO) is a very weird film, even by Euro Western standards. The movie's story is inspired by the legendary character of Don Juan--but the main character here is not a romantic vagabond, he's more of a lecherous jerk.
John Richardson plays one John Donald, a man who figuratively and literally is a bastard. He's selfish, conniving, untrustworthy, and a liar. He also has a huge chip on his shoulder, due to the fact that he is the illegitimate son of a powerful Mexican land baron. John goes south of the border to claim what he considers his rightful inheritance, but he comes up against his vicious half-brother, who has no intention of being pushed aside. John decides to seduce and humiliate his half-brother's sultry wife (Martine Beswicke), an act which leads to his ironic end.
John Richardson's best attribute was his handsome looks rather than any sort of acting talent. Due to his low-key manner, Richardson would have been perfect as one of the typical taciturn loners that proliferated throughout the Euro Western genre. John Donald, however, is not a quiet gunslinger--he's someone that is supposed to charm the clothes off of everyone he meets (especially the ladies). John Donald does more talking than anything else, and that's not exactly Richardson's strength, when one considers that he was seemingly dubbed in every movie he ever made. John Donald does so many foul deeds throughout the story that I doubt that any actor could have made the character appealing, and Richardson certainly does not.
Spending 100 minutes with an unlikable, unappealing main character is not very entertaining, and director and co-writer Armando Crispino doesn't do much to maintain the viewer's interest. At times it appears the story is veering toward being a spoof, but it can't be when too much is made out of John Donald's dark obsession over his birth status. There's a subplot about a group of Mormons being discriminated against, but it feels like it comes from an entirely different film. The subplot does gives John the chance to seduce two Mormon women. It also introduces the story's most intriguing element--a black-clad, stone-faced Mormon assassin played by spaghetti western veteran Gordon Mitchell. One wishes that an entire film had been made about this character.
Martine Beswicke and John Richardson in JOHN THE BASTARD
Martine Beswicke doesn't get all that much to do, and she doesn't get a chance to use her natural vitality and physicality. There's a bevy of European beauties who play the various young women who John goes through like paper plates, but neither of them get much of a chance to make an impression either.
I must point out the the print of JOHN THE BASTARD that I viewed on Tubi was horrid--the aspect ratio appeared cropped, and it looked like it came from a cheap videotape. This version ran about 102 minutes, but I have a feeling it was not uncut, since there were several jarring edits.
If I had watched a pristine, remastered, uncut print of JOHN THE BASTARD, with the proper aspect ratio, would I have had a better appreciation of it?? Maybe, but I doubt it. The main character is too unsavory--and too uninteresting--for one to spend a lot of time watching. A movie doesn't have to always have noble and heroic main characters, but there's plenty of ways to present a story featuring a unpleasant character in an effective and interesting manner. JOHN THE BASTARD might attract those who want to try and watch every Euro Western they can, and it might get attention from Martine Beswicke fans--but they'll be disappointed by her boring role.
Sunday, February 9, 2020
The 1988 fantasy-adventure film WILLOW has been back in the news recently due to info that there may be plans for a TV sequel. I never saw WILLOW in the theater--I must have only seen it on either videotape or on cable. I only saw it once, and it didn't make too much of an impression on me.
I decided to watch it again, using my Disney+ service. How does it hold up now, some 30 years later?
The one thing that comes out very clearly when viewing WILLOW is how derivative it is. Its influences are many--fairy tales, the Bible, sword & sorcery sagas, Disney animated movies, classic literature, and yes, STAR WARS (which itself has been accused of being plenty derivative). All stories are derivative in some way or another, but with WILLOW it almost becomes a game of picking out what reference the movie is channeling at a particular moment.
WILLOW was George Lucas' venture into fantasy-fairy tale territory, and he executive produced the film and provided the original story. Lucas teamed up with Ron Howard, who directed, and the pairing made a lot of industry headlines, with some venturing the opinion that the Lucas/Howard combination could be as successful as Lucas' collaboration with Steven Spielberg on the Indiana Jones series.
WILLOW was not a major box office hit upon original release, but (unlike what many would want you to believe) it wasn't a major flop either. It's a nice film, but it doesn't leave the big footprint one would expect from a George Lucas/Ron Howard teaming.
What WILLOW does remind one of most of all is THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy--I remember some critics said that it felt like a lighthearted take on Tolkien's work. Of course Peter Jackson's cinematic adaptation of LOTR wouldn't happen till years later, but there are individual shots in WILLOW that look almost exactly to what Jackson would put on the screen later on. There was even some location shooting done in New Zealand for WILLOW (the country is now famed for being the home of the LOTR movies).
The title character of Willow Ufgood, played by Warwick Davis, is very much reminiscent of Bilbo or Frodo Baggins. Willow is a dwarf-like creature who lives a quiet existence in a pastoral village among others of his kind, until his is unexpectedly thrust into a larger-than-life adventure. He discovers a baby girl, who has been hidden from a wicked Queen named Bavmorda. The girl is fated to be the one to end the Queen's evil reign. Willow travels to the land of the Daikini (regular sized humans) to return the baby to its kind, and gets involved in various adventures.
Along the way Willow meets up with a brash, conniving warrior named Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), the Queen's daughter Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), who eventually becomes an allay, a pair of inches tall creatures who are called "brownies", and a good witch. All these characters wind up helping Willow in his quest.
As stated before, WILLOW is a nice film, but there's nothing particularly outstanding about it. It's well-made, with many picturesque locations that Ron Howard takes visual advantage of. The story is a bit predictable, and at two hours, there are times when the pace begins to sag (especially when compared to the ultra-kinetic fantasy film product made today).
The main characters are somewhat generic, with Warwick Davis' Willow being the most interesting (the actor definitely would have made an acceptable Bilbo or Frodo). The one different element about Willow is that he is married with two children, and he loves and wants to get back to his family. Most main characters in heroic quest tales are unattached, and want to get away from their normal situation.
Val Kilmer's Madmartigan is supposed to be a charming, rogue-like Errol Flynn type, but he seems annoying rather than charismatic. Madmartigan and Joanne Whalley's Sorsha wind up having a "they act like they hate each other but they really don't" romantic relationship, which tries to remind the viewer of other Lucasfilm couples such as Han & Leia and Indy & Marion. The problem is their attraction for each other feels contrived, and ironically Kilmer and Whalley--who would marry in real life--don't have a lot of chemistry here.
It must be noted that Whalley's Sorsha is a strong, independent woman who can ride and fight, and makes up her own mind by going against her mother. (I thought we've been told female characters like this didn't exist before 21st Century cinema????) Unfortunately her choices in romancing Madmartigan and betraying her mother are not explored enough, making them seem arbitrary.
Jean Marsh as the evil Queen doesn't get enough to do to make an impression, and toward the end she starts resembling Emperor Palpatine. Somehow by killing the baby girl in a special ceremony the Queen will gain even more power to rule over the entire realm, but this isn't explained enough in the story (at least it wasn't explained enough to me). In WILLOW "magic" is akin to the Force.
As with most George Lucas productions, the attempts at comedy come off as silly. The two brownies (played by Kevin Pollack and Rick Overton) are to WILLOW as Jar Jar Binks is to the Star Wars prequels.
WILLOW has plenty of action scenes, and they are staged well, if not exactly inventively. The ILM special effects crew contributed some very early CGI, which a big deal was made of at the time the movie was released. The major CGI sequence was a morphing effect, which appears elementary today. A fire-breathing two headed dragon makes an appearance, courtesy of some stop-motion animation, but the creature is so goofy looking it doesn't present much of a threat. One of the movie's biggest strengths is the epic music score by James Horner.
I hope I'm not giving the impression that I didn't enjoy WILLOW. There's nothing inherently bad or disappointing about it--but it lacks that certain spark, that certain something that would make it a truly great film. Nearly everything in it reminded me of better stories. At times it tries to be a enchanting kids movie, at other times it takes on a muddy, grungy EXCALIBUR-like tone (the climatic battle takes place in a driving rain). It does have a good message--that even diminutive, supposedly unimportant folk like Willow can be heroes if they believe in themselves. It is a fine film for children--but I have to wonder how bored the kids of today would be with it.
Tuesday, February 4, 2020
I finally watched JOKER last night. Boy, that was a film that I needed after a hard day at work (sarcasm).
As I'm sure everybody knows now, JOKER tells the story of Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), a mentally unstable, put-upon individual who lives a grim, bleak existence in what appears to be an early 1980s Gotham City.
JOKER is dark, despairing, and depressing...but it is supposed to be, so from that standpoint it works. Director and co-writer Todd Phillips uses plenty of sarcasm and irony to try and break up the misery, but most of these moments seem contrived.
Joaquin Phoenix does give an excellent, if at times exhausting, performance in the title role (he's always struck me as an actor who goes out of his way to show the audience how hard he's working). The film has impressive art direction and cinematography, but the story isn't as out-of-left field as some have said (it's very easy to predict what's going to happen during it).
I guess Todd Phillips should get credit for trying something different within the confines of the comic book movie. The thing is, I wouldn't really classify JOKER as a comic book movie, or even a DC Universe movie. Its links to the Batman comics saga are tenuous at best. The film is more of a political or social statement that happens to use the name of a famous super villain (how do we even know that Arthur Fleck is the "real" Joker at all?).
And that leads to this observation--what if the film had the same exact story, but without any DC Comics connections whatsoever? If it didn't have the Joker brand...would it have gotten the same amount of box office success, or critical acclaim?
What I'm trying to say is...if Arthur Fleck was just, Arthur Fleck, how many people would have been willing to spend two hours wallowing in his psychotic behavior?? Is he intriguing because of what happens to him, and how he responds to it....or because we are told he becomes the Joker??
Saturday, February 1, 2020
THE SPECIALISTS (1969) is one of Sergio Corbucci's lesser known Euro Westerns. It's not on the same level as the director's DJANGO or THE GREAT SILENCE, and it doesn't have any major spaghetti western or American stars. The main character is in fact played by a French pop star called Johnny Hallyday (the movie was in fact an Italian-French-German co-production).
It must be stated that Hallyday does look the part of taciturn loner and renowned gunman Hud Dixon. Hud rides into the town of Blackstone seeking revenge for the lynching of his brother, who was blamed for the theft of all the money in the town's bank. Hud finds out his brother was the victim of a grand conspiracy, and he has to navigate around several unsavory characters to get to the bottom of things. Just when Hud thinks he's gotten his final revenge on all of the townspeople who have set up his brother, he has to save them from a bizarre threat.
THE SPECIALISTS is a very strange film, even for Euro Western standards. For much of the story the movie plays out like a somewhat traditional Western. Hud spends most of his time having to deal with an upright sheriff (Gastone Moschin), and their relationship is similar to a subplot of Corbucci's RINGO AND HIS GOLDEN PISTOL. There's a number of quirky characters that are introduced, including a one-armed Mexican bandit (Mario Adorf), a sexy widow who runs the bank that was robbed (Francoise Fabian), and a quartet of young hippie-like vagabonds. These folks are treated in an almost lighthearted manner, which makes the climax of the film so jarring.
The last third of the film has such a different tone that it feels as if a different writer came out of nowhere and provided the scenes. (Corbucci is credited as co-writer as well as director.) The quirky characters all turn out to be vicious threats, and the violence is ramped up considerably. Not only are the citizens of Blackstone denied their money, they are put through a shameful collective embarrassment, courtesy of the now-brutal vagabonds. This last affront has to be seen to be believed--but even then one finds it hard to accept it.
The outdoor sequences of THE SPECIALISTS were not shot in Spain--they were instead filmed in the Dolomites, giving the movie a greener appearance then most Euro Westerns (Corbucci always tried to make his various westerns look distinct from one another). Cinematographer Dario Di Palma gives the film a fine visual quality, and A. F. Lavagnino provides an eclectic music score. As is customary with any Corbucci title, there's several tightly-edited and proficiently staged action scenes.
Kino presents THE SPECIALISTS in an excellent 2.35:1 transfer, with either Italian or French audio along with English subtitles. The movie on this disc is the original unedited version.
The main extra is an another audio commentary by director and spaghetti western fanatic Alex Cox. He gives all the pertinent details about the movie's production, and attempts to analyze why the supposed left-leaning Corbucci went out of his way to make the hippie-like characters in this film so unattractive. Cox's talk is worth listening to. A series of trailers for other Euro Westerns released by Kino are also included.
THE SPECIALISTS is a solidly made film from all technical aspects. It suffers, in my opinion, from a climax that feels like it comes from another movie altogether (others may find the ending diverting). It is worth owning for hardcore Euro Western buffs.