Saturday, 30 January 2010


Culp and Greenwood

Roger Donaldson's THIRTEEN DAYS is a totally engrossing account of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Although, thank God, we all - at least those of us who were around at the time - lived to know the outcome, the film loses none of its suspense showing the closest we ever came to atomic conflict. Kevin Costner produces and takes the roll of John F.Kennedy's closest aide but in terms of acting the great plus of the movie are the performances of, respectively, Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp as John and Robert Kennedy. Culp strikes just the right note as Bobby while Greenwood superbly portrays Jack Kennedy's quiet strength and humanity - especially in scenes with his military men who seem all to eager to plunge the world into a nuclear war. Kennedy, fifty years later, is rightly remembered as a great President (while only twelve months after leaving office, George W.Bush is judged by most of the world as a buffoon). There truly were giants in those days. On a lesser note there are striking similarities with IN THE LOOP (the phrase is actually used in the film) but, of course, without the laughs. Rating ***

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Rise in glory ?

I hate to be the bearer of potentially bad news but it has just been announced that AVATAR star Sam Worthington will be the latest of a long line of actors to play Bram Stoker's Count Dracula. Why bad news? Well, look at the guy! What is more worrying is that the film, which is to be directed by Alex Proyas - who brought us DARK CITY and I AM LEGEND - and which will be called DRACULA YEAR ZERO refers to Dracula in the press release as a "romantic anti-hero". I'll repeat that, "A ROMANTIC ANTI-HERO" which rather tends to tell you where this film is going. Romantic? Well, there is often a tendency to emphasise romance of sorts in vampire films and I'm sure that it is no coincidence that this film comes along at the height of the TWILIGHT frenzy but I have a yearning for the the path rarely taken where vampires belong to the Max Schreck fan club and have bad breath and rat-like qualities - think of the wonderful Radu in the SUBSPECIES series. We've had romance before and it was done fairly well in both the Langella and Oldman interpretations but let's either get back to basics or...and here's a thought...why not get Frank Langella back to play the Count as written by Stoker? I suspect that Proyas is going back to Vlad the Impaler and the origins of Dracula and that may be a good thing. We'll see.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010


Once Upon a begins Tom Twyker's film based on Patrick Suskind's novel "Das Parfum" but we are not in Hans Anderson territory here. The Brothers Grimm were a darker shade but this film goes to a very dark place indeed. Within seconds of the film beginning I found myself thinking "Oh, no, let's not go there!" But we do, again and again. I genuinely felt uncomfortable with this film. Set in 18th Century France it tells the story of Jean-Baptiste, born quite literally in filth who grows up with an almost supernatural sense of smell and becomes obsessed with creating the perfect perfume. Sounds romantic? No, this is a horror film far more horrible and disturbing than any more obvious genre piece produced in tinsel town. Twyker has no mercy on his audience, our expectaions are shattered, our stomach's tested. There is no relief for the characters either as one by one there closeness to Jean-Baptiste decides their fate - one character achieves his moment of complete happiness only to have his house collapse on him!The tone of the film is set b John Hurt's off-screen narration and the unhurried pace that Twyker allows himself to unfold his tale. The film's three central performances are superb from Tom Whishaw's Jean-Baptiste - totally devoid of any human emotion and dedicated to his exceedingly unpleasant quest, to Dustin Hoffman's wonderful Perfumier and Alan Rickman's voice of reason. The climax of the film took an unexpected turn that I certainly didn't see coming and was unsure about but oddly it works. The great Luis Bunuel would have adored the final reel (and, no doubt the whole film). Great photograph, locations, set design, music etc all add to the final result. Others may not go as far but I think it one of the best films I've seen for a long time. Rating ****
Actor Pernell Roberts, fondly remembered as the oldest of the Cartwright Brothers in the classic television Western series BONANZA has died, age 81. Roberts went on to star in the series TRAPPER JOHN M.D. He was the last of the BONANZA cast to day, having been proceeded by Dan Blocker, Michael Landon and Lorne Greene.

Monday, 25 January 2010

And as WILD BILL HICKOK we present...

James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok has been played on the screen by lots of actors - some as unlikely as Howard Keel, Guy Madison, Forrest Tucker and Charles Bronson. Sam Elliott was a better choice in BUFFALO GIRLS and Keith Carradine was pretty good (although I have reservations) in the television show DEADWOOD. But for me the best of the lot was Jeff Bridges in the film WILD BILL. The movie was halfway to being a great Western (the first half) but the performance by Bridges was inspired. Here's Wild Bill himself.....

.....and here is Jeff Bridges in the role.

Convincing? I'll leave you to decide.


Looks like the stories of the Coen Brothers remaking TRUE GRIT are true. That is good news and bad. Good because it is the Coens, good because Rooster Cogburn is to be played by Jeff Bridges and good because I love the original book so my interest is aroused. Bad because this looks like another example of Hollywood's remake frenzy and bad because the only piece of total shit that the Coens ever made was a remake of THE LADY KILLERS. Be careful boys...

Sunday, 24 January 2010


This film is often seen as a low point in Bela Lugosi's career but the truth is far from that. More accurately it should be seen as the pinnacle of Arthur Lucan's career.He was not encumbered by Mrs.Lucan (the awful Kitty McShane) who couldn't deliver a line if she's been a Postman, and, for once Lucan has a decent director at the helm in the late John Gilling who was always capable of telling a story. Lugosi is on top form and seems to be enjoying himself with such lines as "Am I going mad? Is this a nightmare" - no Bela it's just Old Mother Riley. Lucan, although his style of comedy probably died with the Music Halls, shows his accomplished timing with both dialogue and slapstick. The supporting cast is a total joy with such familiar faces as Dora Bryan, Hattie Jaques,Dandy Nicholls, Graham Moffatt, Judith Furse, Charles Lloyd Pack, George Benson and John Le Mesurier. Dandy and Hattie get to back Lucan in a musical number and it is pure joy to see these much loved actresses so early in their careers. Dora is excellent as the confused maid being wooed by policeman Richard Wattis. And for those into genealogy there is Charles Lloyd Pack, father of Roger and grandfather of Emily. Rating ***

Saturday, 23 January 2010


Willie Best

Another vintage old dark house mystery surfaces thanks to the kindness of friends. This one is pretty obscure - so much so that I couldn't find a still on Google. The film, directed by Ben Stoloff, certainly brings noting new to the genre. It has an escaped lunatic, a creepy old house, trap doors, secret passages, several murders, a Will and greedy relatives - all standard but enjoyable ingredients of this kind of film. Where it scores is in the more than competent cast. Headed by a very young Craig Stevens and featuring the ever excellent Willie Best but the real gem in the cast is Roland Drew as the wonderfully crazy Walter. THE HIDDEN HAND is nothing special but it wastes not one second of its 63 minutes. Rating **

JEAN SIMMONS 1929 - 2010


Monday, 18 January 2010

And as CHARLES STEWART PARNELL we present...

Films about political figures are fairly popular now but one wonders what made MGM think that a film about Irish politician Charles Stewart Parnell might be good box-office back in 1937. The answer was in the casting. This is a photo of Mr.Parnell.

So who did MGM decide to cast as Parnell. It is obvious that casting was done more with an eye on the box-office rather than on authenticity. Yep! it was super star Clark Gable. Reportedly Clark didn't like the project or the director (John Stahl) and things were not helped by his refusal to extend his facial hair beyond his famous moustache. The film, perhaps not unexpectedy, bombed.

Convincing ? I'll leave you to decide.

Saturday, 16 January 2010


My mother was a great fan of Gerard Philipe - which is odd because she rarely watched foreign language films. She thought he was one of the most handsome men she'd ever seen. I' ve seen few of his films and he is certainly handsome and a fine actor and it is easy to see why he became a huge star in France - his reputation enhanced even more by his early death in 1959. I've waited something like fifty years to see FAN FAN LE TULIPE which is regarded as among his best films and is certainly one of his most famous. It is an old fashioned swashbauckler with lots of sword fights, seductions, robberies, coach chases, battles etc with Philippe as the ever optimistic hero and the young Gina Lollobrigida as the beautiful gypsy girl who falls in love with him. It's pretty much critic proof fun along the same lines as the Gene Kelly version of THE THREE MUSKETEERS or PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN and directed with an agreeably light touch by Christian-Jacque. The DVD I rented contained the original bla ck and white film and a colourised print. I pretty much opposed to the colourisation of old movies so I watched the b/w version to see the film as made but, I have to say, I was impressed by the technical excellence of the coloured version nonetheless. Rating ****

Thursday, 14 January 2010

IN THE LOOP (2009)

As I write we have an inquiry into the Iraq War taking place. Scrap it I say and just watch this film - it's probably the closest we are going to get to the truth. For followers of the television series THE THICK OF IT the character of press secretary Malcolm Tucker (played with frightening conviction by Peter Capaldi) is the real centre of this film. Oddly, and I certainly found it disconcerting, virtually the entire cast of the television show are in the movie but playing different people, albeit their characters are the same. There seems to be little reason for this given the rapid reshuffle culture of goverment and civil service circles. Tucker is the Prime Minister's rottweiller (as in the tv show the Prime Minister is never seen - likewise the US President) taking on the his American opposites in Washington and at the UN, trying to come up with intelligence that will give the excuse to invade an unnamed country when no such intelligence exists while at the same time dealing with a totally incompetent British minister who is systematically ignored by his American counterparts. To pick out funny scenes is pointless really as there are no unfanny ones but I loved Tucker's visit to The White House and his encounter with a presidential aide who appears to be about 13 yrs old. Directed by Armando Ianucci, featuring the cast of THE THICK OF IT, James Gandolfini and David Rasche. I'm still laughing. Rating ****

Sunday, 10 January 2010


An early film by the very talented Thorold Dickinson who would later make such memorable films as GASLIGHT and THE QUEEN OF SPADES. I grew up about three miles away from The Arsenal Stadium at Highbury, London, but I confess that I've never been in the stadium and have only ever seen it in the distance from the top deck of a bus, further I've never seen a football/soccer match live. Having no particular interest in the sport this film has minimal attraction for me and that is only historical. Arsenal were Britain's premier football club before the Second World War and this film must have done fantastic business in north London when released. The film is a rather routine effort enlivened only by the performance of Leslie Banks (Count Zaroff himself) as an eccentric detective. Anthony Bushell who is mudered early in the film later went on to co-direct Olivier's RICHARD III and Hammer's TERROR OF THE TONGS. Very much of its time and rather dull unless you are a soccer or Leslie Banks fan or like policemen in ballet dresses. Rating **

Saturday, 9 January 2010

I'M NOT THERE (2007)

Cate Blanchett as Bob Dylan? You've got to be freakin' joking! Okay Cate Blanchett as His bobness's doppelganger Jude Quinn. Batman Bale as Bob and Joker Ledger as Bob and a seven year old black kid as Bob/Woody Guthrie, or maybe nobody is Bob because as the title tells us he ain't there. No conventional biopic like WALK THE LINE or RAY is going to pin down the enigmatic Mister Zimmerman and Todd Haynes fascinating film has more in common with WALK HARD : THE DEWEY COX STORY then it does with conventional rock 'n' roll biopics but then, come to think of it, Bob probably has more to do with Dewey than any real contemporary singer/songwriter. With a narration (of which I have no recollection) by Kris Kristofferson, a one-time ageing Billy the Kid, the film features Richard Gere with a yellow dog called Henry as another ageing Billy the Kid (at one point he is greeted as Mr.McCarty - the Kid's real name) riding to another confrontation with his old nemesis Pat Garrett in a town called Riddle while Bob/Cate romps with fab four and sees no direction home. To try and decipher I'M NOT THERE is to do it as much of a disservice as trying to decipher one of Dylan's apocalyptic songs (not that it will stop anybody including myself from doing it).I'm not sure what non-Dylan fans will make of it but then will they bother to watch it? Rating ****

Friday, 8 January 2010


In his introduction to the film on the current DVD critic and historian Leonard Maltin quite rightly says that DARK PASSAGE is not a great film, just a good solid one. In all technical departments the film is indeed first class, it looks good and it is superbly cast and has some excellent dialogue and atmosphere. What lets it down is a plot that is so full of unlikely coincidences that however generous you want to be to the film one starts to disbelieve. Without giving away the story too much, what are the chances that a convicted killer on the run just happens to get in a cab with a driver who not only recognizes him but is sympathetic enough to take him to a friendly plastic surgeon that he just happens to know? The film is full of unlikely events like this. But, that said, it is Bogart and Bacall and some great character actors in a moody film noir that is very well directed by Delmer Daves so there is a lot to enjoy if you can get past the plot weaknesses. The studio had severe reservations about the use of the first person camera in the first third of the film - Bogart's face not being seen until well into the movie - but, although not a fan of this gimmick, I thought it worked very well here, much better than in Robert Montgomery's THE LADY IN THE LAKE. I loved the final wordless reunion of Bogart and Bacall - romantic indeed! Rating : a generous ***

Wednesday, 6 January 2010


John Milius's THE WIND AND THE LION (1975) is a great favourite of mine. Based on a true incident when an American teacher (female in the film but male in reality) was kidnapped by a Berber chief causing an international incident Milius follows his oft quoted dictum "If this is not how it was it is how it should have been" and offers up a strong no holds barred piece of action adventure. The Berber Chief, Mulay Ahmed el Raisuli was a real person and here is his picture.

But this is John Milius and Hollywood, so who gets cast in the role ?

0f course, it is obvious, Sean Connery, the world's only Berber with a Scottish accent. Convincing? I'll leave you to decide.


Like THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, another John Wayne aviation drama made the following year, ISLAND IN THE SKY languished in the vaults at Batjac for many years despite much pleading from fans for its release on DVD. It finally appeared a couple of years ago backed up by some nice extras and an introduction by Leonard Maltin. Considering that the plot concerns civilian airman working for the USAF during WW2 who crash land in the frozen north of Canada and have to fight for survival against the elements while their comrades fly search missions to rescue them, I, perhaps chose the wrong time to watch it as a blizzard raged outside and snow piled up at the door. It's a gripping film which, like THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY, was based on a novel by writer/aviator Ernest Gann. Wayne is excellent as the experienced pilot trying to keep his panicky younger crew focused on survival and the film is packed with casting goodies for the film fan. This is almost certainly the only film where rotund Andy Divine appears in a pair of swimming shorts and makes a very creditable dive into a pool - surely worth the price of the DVD for that alone. There are also excellent performances from Lloyd Nolan, a very young James Arness, Harry Carey Jr, Walter Abel, Carl Switzer, Paul Fix, Bob Steele, Dwayne Hickman, Sean McClory, Mike Connors and an uncredired Fess Parker. Tensely directed with some excellent flying scenes by William Wellman. Rating ****


Every time I watch a film directed by Gillian Armstrong I find that at the end of it I just want to shrug and say, is that it? DEATH DEFYING ACTS is no exception. Although, seemingly, aimed at cinema audiences (despite being co-financed by the BBC) this Australian production has the rather bland feel of a made-for-television feature. The story involves an Edinburgh music hall performer (Catherine Zeta Jones) who tries to con Harry Houdini out of $30,000 when he visits the city but instead ends up having an affair with him. None of it is very convincing with CZJ coming off worse that Guy Pearce who nevertheless is pretty unbelievable as Houdini (although you have to give him credit for that haircut). The interior scenes look pretty good but the exteriors suffer from the same problem as many of the cheaper historical dramas that take a few old buildings and film scenes from different angles - thus the slum where CZJ lives early in the film is actually the basement of a more up market building with a few washing lines as set dressing. The film has a touch of the supernatural thrown in but this seemed quite confused to my poor brain as the rest of the film never really decides what it wants to be and doesn't convince on any level. Best Performace comes from the ever reliable Timothy Spall as Houdini's manager. Rating *

Friday, 1 January 2010

And as RUTH ETTING AND MARTY SNYDER we present.....

I have long been fascinated at the way real people (not necessarily famous) are depicted in the movies. Sometimes the casting is uncannily accurate in terms of physicality, sometimes the impersonation can be done with just a gesture or a voice. When I heard that Geoffrey Rush was to play Peter Sellers in a biopic I couldn't see anyway it would work but it did and Rush, fine actor that he is, managed to bring Sellers back to life. When Joaquin Phoenix was cast as Johnny Cash I thought it was a wonderful choice but despite the rave reviews I never felt that he was able to capture the essence of Cash, unlike Jamie Foxx who was quite amazing as Ray Charles. Of course, I appreciate that a lot depends on how we personally see the person being depicted on the screen. In this occasional series I'm going to show some photographs of real people who have been depicted on the screen alongside pictures of the people who have portrayed them. First off the starting block is chanteuse Ruth Etting and her mobster husband, Marty Snyder.

Etting and Snyder had the story of their turbulent relationship told in the excellent 1956 musical drama LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME which featured powerful performinces by Doris Day and James Cagney as the couple.

Accurate ? I leave you to decide.