The Man Who Played God (1932)
World-renowned pianist, Montgomery Royle (George Arliss), is playing privately for a foreign monarch when a bomb blast from an attempted assassination renders him deaf. Shut out from the music he worships, Royle grows bitter, even suicidal, until he finds a new interest through his ability to lip-read. Using powerful binoculars, he begins “eavesdropping” on conversations in the park below his apartment building, and then intervening in the lives revealed to him; and at length, what began as an amusement becomes the passion of his life… Based upon a short story from 1912 and its stage adaptation from 1914, and having already been filmed once in 1922 (also with George Arliss), this is the first sound version of a story better known – or at least, more notorious – as the basis of the jaw-dropping Liberace vehicle, Sincerely Yours. Probably unavoidably, given the nature of the material, this 1932 version is also extremely flawed, with its religious component about as subtle as the plot-point bomb, and most of the acting veering between histrionic and wooden; yet from time to time, it unexpectedly rewards the viewer with a scene rather beautifully underplayed; and, overall, manages to avoid the worst of the pitfalls into which the later version plunges. For example, there is congenital hearing-loss in the Royle family, and Monty is already at risk at the time of his accident; while the nature of his deafness offers no hope of a convenient cure. Meanwhile, though Beethoven is, inevitably, name-checked here, Royle is not a composer, but merely a passionate music-lover, who plays music to hear music—and thus his loss is total and irreparable. The romantic relationship at the heart of this version is also far more credible – granted, it could hardly be less! – with Royle and his protégé, Grace Blair (Bette Davis), coming together over their mutual love of music, and her hero-worship turning into infatuation; and with Royle himself, though drawn to Grace, remaining painfully conscious of the age difference between them. These days, this subplot is where the main interest of The Man Who Played God lies: not for its dramatic qualities, but for the opportunity to see Bette Davis in what would prove to be a critical early role (her performance won her a contract at Warners). Arliss hand-picked Davis for the role of Grace, almost literally from obscurity, yet even he was startled by what the young actress produced; while she, in turn, always spoke afterwards of her great debt to Arliss, and her gratitude for his kindness and guidance. This background gives their scenes together, as established star and aspiring ingenue, an amusing meta-quality. Of the rest of the cast, Louise Closser Hale stands out as Royle’s affectionate but critical sister-secretary, Florence; while Ivan F. Simpson as Battle, Royle’s manservant, and Violet Heming as Mildred Miller, his age-appropriate alternative love-interest, set the end-points of the histrionic-to-wooden scale.
Tarzan’s Revenge (1938)
As the wealthy Reed family travels by paddle-steamer into the Congo, daughter Eleanor (Eleanor Holdman) catches the eye of despot Ben Alleu Bey (C. Henry Gordon). When she both spurns his gift of a ruby and angrily intervenes when she finds him beating a servant, Bey decides he will have her for his harem whether she likes it or not. To this end, Bey bribes safari leader Olaf Punch (Joe Sawyer) to the guide the Reeds towards his palace deep in the jungle. Eleanor and her father, Roger (George Barbier), who is hoping to catch rare animals for a zoo, enjoy the adventure of their safari, unlike Mrs Reed (Hedda Hopper); while Eleanor’s fiancé, Nevin Potter (George Meeker), exasperates everyone by shooting indiscriminately at any animal he sees. While Eleanor and Nevin are exploring, she falls into a boggy river. Instead of trying to pull her out – and possibly falling in himself – Nevin goes to get help. Suddenly, Eleanor finds herself confronted by a strange man who drops from the trees… Stock footage rules in this cheapie entry in the Tarzan franchise, which exhausted its imagination in the co-stunt-casting of decathlete Glenn Morris and swimming star Eleanor Holdman. Morris looks the part, and Holdman is given plenty of opportunities to dive and cavort in the water—although that said, she’s not going to make anyone forget a skinny-dipping Maureen O’Sullivan any time soon—but otherwise, this as an embarrassingly threadbare production, whose only entertainment value lies in its extraneous details…such is how a distinctly white rajah-type came to be ruling over a Congolese population apparently consisting entirely of dancing-girls and leopard-skin-clad natives. When Tarzan carries Eleanor off, she soon gets over her initially fright and enthusiastically embraces a life of swimming, vine-swinging and open-air sleeping; but when Ben Alleu Bey does it, well, that’s a different story—and it’s Tarzan to the (not very difficult) rescue! Given how hidebound by the Production Code this film is – at one point we find Bey being “entertained” by a dancing-girl who is not allowed to (i) show her naval, or (ii) move her hips – it is amusing to note that they did manage to get some crap past the radar: we learn in passing that after Tarzan carries Eleanor off, it is one full day and, more to the point, two whole nights before her people find her again; while in context, the ending of Tarzan’s Revenge is daring in the extreme. What will they say back in Evansville…?
The Big Street (1942)
Hardworking busboy Augustus Pinkerton II (Henry Fonda), known as “Little Pinks”, becomes obsessed with nightclub singer Gloria Lyons (Lucille Ball), who allows herself to be kept by club owner and gang boss Case Ables (Barton MacLane) while she tries to catch a man with much more money than sense. When Ables hits Gloria and knocks her downstairs, the fall leaves her unable to walk. Her former friends promptly vanish from her life, leaving Pinks and Gloria’s maid, Ruby (Louise Beavers), to look out for her. By pawning Gloria’s jewellery, they manage for a time to pay her medical expenses, but when the money runs out Gloria is left with no choice but to accept Pinks’ offer to share his modest boarding-house room. Bitter about her circumstances and ungrateful for Pinks’ sacrifices, Gloria convinces herself that she can be well again if only she could get to Florida, and demands that Pinks take her there—even if he has to push her there in her wheelchair… The Big Street was produced by Damon Runyan and based upon one of his stories, but the film’s literally Runyan-esque humour sits uneasily beside what we can only call the sado-masochistic relationship at its centre, with the self-absorbed, gold-digging Gloria finding new depths of selfishness in the wake of her accident, and perfect schmuck Pinks allowing her demands to devour every aspect of his life, not expecting (nor receiving) so much as a ‘thank you’ for his efforts. By the time we find Pinks pushing Gloria from New York to Florida, both these delusional characters are beyond our sympathy—and it has the opposite from the intended effect when the plot finally tries to manufacture a genuine romance between them, even a happy ending of sorts. The only relief to be found in the film comes amongst the supporting cast, with nice performances from Ray Collins and Sam Levene, and Agnes Moorehead and Eugene Palette stealing the show as unlikely lovers Violette Shumberg and Nicely Nicely Johnson (a character who also appears in Guys And Dolls), who find each other at an eating contest. It was courageous of Lucille Ball to take on such an unsympathetic role so early in her career (and she doesn’t hold back as Gloria), but the film was an understandable failure, which contributed to her being dropped by RKO: a blessing in disguise, as it turned out, since she soon found a real home and stardom at MGM.
Easy Living (1949)
Star quarterback Pete Wilson (Victor Mature) enjoys professional success and the good life without worrying about the future, secure that he will be offered a lucrative coaching position when he decides it’s time to quit. Liza Wilson (Lizabeth Scott), too, basks in her husband’s reflected glory, and parlays her position of celebrity wife into a high-priced interior decoration business, though she does not have the talent to back it up. But when Pete secretly consults a doctor about worrying symptoms, he learns that he has a heart condition that could kill him if he goes on playing. This blow is followed by another, when Pete’s friend and teammate, Tim McCarr (Sonny Tufts), is offered the coaching position he was banking on. Unable to confide in Liza, whose scorn for “has-beens” and “little men” is open and unapologetic, and refusing McCarr’s offer of an assistant coach’s job for the same reason, Pete goes on playing—but his consciousness of his situation leads to a series of increasingly poor performances that see him benched, and could end his career… Somewhat unexpectedly directed by Jacques Tourneur, Easy Living is an uncomfortable but gripping drama that offers a fascinating glimpse of professional American football in the 1940s. However, the film is undermined by its central casting, with neither Victor Mature nor Lizabeth Scott altogether convincing in their role, and particularly not in their scenes together. That said, it’s a courageous offering from Scott in a totally unsympathetic part, with her character an interesting forerunner of today’s “famous for being famous” pseudo-celebrities. This does, however, have the unfortunate side-effect of setting up the film’s sourly misjudged ending, which leaves a very bad taste behind. Overall, Easy Living ‘s real strengths are found amongst its supporting performances, in particular those from Lloyd Nolan as the Chiefs’ coach, Lenahan; Lucille Ball as Anne, the team’s secretary (and Lenahan’s widowed daughter-in-law), who falls for Pete; and, surprisingly, from Sonny Tufts, who has some good moments as the second-string quarterback who has spent his career in his best friend’s shadow. Meanwhile, there is an added historical interest to this film in that the contemporary LA Rams team appears as “the Chiefs”, including a fleeting appearance from Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, who gets a name-check in passing. I would also like to know whether the one black team-member was a real player, or if this is another example of premature Hollywood desegregation—does anyone know? Otherwise, the one thing here that really made me raise my eyebrows was the plot-point which sees Tim hired as coach rather than Pete because the latter “doesn’t have the right kind of wife”: I wasn’t aware before that being the wife of a State University football coach is a more demanding position than being First Lady!
Morning Departure (1950)
Also known as Operation Disaster. The submarine HMS Trojan sets out early one morning on a routine mission to test a new snorkel mast, only to encounter a derelict mine. The subsequent explosion ruptures both stern and bow, killing fifty-three of the sixty-five man crew, and sending the submarine to the bottom of the harbour. Quick sealing of the watertight doors around the bridge saves the lives of the remaining twelve men, including Lieutenant-Commander Peter Armstrong (John Mills), who orders a release of oil to mark the submarine’s position. However, some hours pass before anyone on the surface realises that there is a problem… As the survivors wait, they make plans to send a number of the men to the surface: four of them escape via standard manoeuvres, though this means that the rest can only leave the submarine using breathing apparatus—of which there are only four undamaged units among the eight men. Announcing that he will stay behind, Armstrong gives his men a deck of cards by which to draw lots: the other three destined to stay are Lieutenant Manson (Nigel Patrick), Able Seaman Higgins (James Hayter) and Stoker Snipe (Richard Attenborough). Snipe is overcome by an hysterical panic attack; and finally Engine Room Artificer Marks (George Cole) agrees to stay behind in his place. As the time to leave draws near, however, Snipe claims to have injured his arm and gives up his place to Marks. The four selected men make their exit; the other four sit down to wait, and hope, for rescue… As I have said many times before—the one place in the world where you be less likely to find me than in a helicopter is in a submarine, and this film is an excellent illustration of why. Morning Departure was based upon a popular play by Kenneth Woollard, and had twice been performed for live television when it was optioned for screen adaptation. In a piece of appallingly bad timing, only weeks before the film’s scheduled release the real submarine, HMS Truculent, was lost when it collided with a freighter in the Thames estuary. The producers hesitated, but then went ahead with the release; prints of the film carry a title card acknowledging the Truculent and paying tribute to the men who were lost. The film itself is a typical British drama of the era: not exactly a war drama, but with the same low-key approach, and stiff upper lips as far as the eye can see; and with much of the internal drama revolving around Snipes’ efforts to overcome his terror and be a useful member of the trapped quartet. Filming allows the action of the play to be opened up to show the home lives of some of the men, Armstrong and Snipes in particular: the latter only does submarine duty for its higher pay, by which he hopes to hold his selfish, grasping wife; while the former, now that he and his own wife have a baby, is reluctantly contemplating retiring from the navy and accepting a long-standing job offer from his father-in-law. (In others words—it’s all his fault.) The other change is a new focus upon a rescue efforts being launched up above: an addition that adds a whole new nerve-shredding aspect to the story, as the audience is made privy to exactly how great the odds are against the trapped men… Morning Departure was directed by Roy Ward Baker, and its success in America (where it carried its alternative title) led to a Hollywood contract; while the screenplay was co-written by Kenneth Woollard and W. E. C. Fairchild. Like so many British productions, the film has a ridiculously good ensemble cast, including in addition to those already mentioned Kenneth More, Bernard Lee and Victor Maddern, and with Helen Cherry and Lana Morris as the wives. Meanwhile, the production’s fifteen-year-old on-set tea-boy was one Maurice Micklewhite…
Duel In The Jungle (1954)
When businessman and adventurer, Perry Henderson (David Farrar), is reported dead, swept off the deck of a ship travelling up the east coast of Africa, insurance investigator Scott Walters (Dana Andrews) launches an inquiry. Walters has another reason to be interested in Henderson’s fate: he has fallen for the missing man’s fiancée, Marian Taylor (Jeanne Crain). Following Henderson’s trail, Walters finds himself in danger of his life, which strengthens his suspicion that Henderson has faked his own death with assistance from some of his company’s employees; while his suspicions embrace Marian, who he finds is also travelling to Africa—she says, at an invitation from Henderson’s mother; but when Walters arranges to meet the eccentric Mrs Henderson (Mary Merrall), it is clear she knows nothing of it. When Henderson’s people lead Marian deep into the wilderness of northern Zimbabwe, Walters hires a guide and follows her; finally managing to join her party. At the end of the journey he finds Perry Henderson alive and well, as he anticipated—but soon realises that Henderson has no intention of giving him a chance to tell what he knows… This independently-produced thriller was partly shot on location in South Africa and “Rhodesia”, and finally manages some decent action sequences (even allowing for the inevitable back-projection issues), but is almost entirely scuppered by an annoyingly slow set-up and, in particular, its three central characters. As was, sadly, often the case at this point in his career, Dana Andrews is completely obnoxious as the film’s “romantic lead”, stalker-creepy in his pursuit of Marian; while Jeanne Crain in turn fails to make Marian’s involvement with either Henderson or Walters credible—though to be fair, it’s hard to know what any actress could have done with a character who is, as written, astonishingly stupid. As Perry Henderson, David Farrar manages the remarkable task of being the most unlikeable of the three; although there is some amusement to be had in the way Henderson escalates from mere insurance fraud to full-on Colonel Kurtz in the blink of an eye. The film’s one really interesting character is Vincent, played by Michael Mataka: Vincent is Henderson’s “head boy”, and follows his orders up to a point—but there’s a line he won’t cross. Walters, Marian and Vincent end up being hunted through the countryside by Henderson and his men, and to the film’s credit Vincent is treated entirely as an equal during this sequence, with the three working together, and Vincent, though wounded, not giving his life to save the white people – hallelujah! – while they in turn refuse to go on without him. Director George Marshall praised Michael Mataka highly both for his performance and his assistance with the local extras, but as it turned out this was his only screen role—for good reason. Mataka was a member of the Rhodesian police force, becoming the first native African to rise to the rank of Assistant Commissioner, and was later appointed the first Commissioner of Police in Zambia, upon the country achieving independence.
Lawrence Of Arabia (1962)
While arguments have raged from the moment of its first release over the historical accuracy, or otherwise, of David Lean’s biopic about WWI officer-adventurer Thomas Edward Lawrence, as a piece of epic film-making, it’s hard to beat. The narrative follows Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) from his first posting in Cairo where, over-educated, ill-disciplined and self-satisfied, he is already something of a thorn in his superiors’ sides—but a man with an unusual understanding of Bedouin affairs. Although the British already have a liaison officer in place, Colonel Brighton (Anthony Quayle), with the connivance of Mr Dryden (Claude Rains) of the Arab Bureau, Lawrence is sent into the desert to locate and observe Prince Feisal (Alec Guinness), who is commanding the Arab revolt against the Turks. Lawrence undertakes the mission eagerly, anticipating “fun”; what he finds is a cause which will unite the traditionally hostile desert tribes but tear his own life and psyche into pieces… As a motion picture, Lawrence Of Arabia is almost overwhelming, from its sheer length, to the staggering location cinematography of Freddie Young, to the now-iconic score by Maurice Jarre; and while this was not in fact Peter O’Toole’s first important role in spite of his “…and introducing” credit, the film understandably made him an international star. It is not hard to see why the depiction of Lawrence remains controversial: the messianic presentation of the character, the increasing weight given to the narcissism of his actions, the eventual suggestions of psychological and emotional breakdown and his culpability in the matter of the Tafas Massacre all invite debate, to put it no more strongly. Dramatically, the screenplay goes out of its way (including via more tampering with historical fact) to emphasise Lawrence’s increasing isolation and his irreconcilably torn loyalties as he is caught between the Arab forces he has learned to admire and the British army he has sworn to serve; between his own dream of “Arabia for the Arabs”, and the Allies’ plans for a post-war carve-up of the territory, with “the wogs” swept aside once they’ve served their purpose. The performances in Lawrence Of Arabia are excellent, although the casting inevitably asks us to accept non-Middle Eastern actors in all the major Arab roles but one, with Omar Sharif starring as Lawrence’s comrade and admirer, Sherif Ali (a fictional, or at least composite, character). Anthony Quinn co-stars as Auda Abu Tay, the leader of the Howeitat tribe; José Ferrer almost steals the film in five notorious minutes as the Turkish Bey whose brutal treatment lies behind Lawrence’s increasingly erratic behaviour; while Arthur Kennedy plays Jackson Bentley, the American reporter who learns to despise Lawrence even while turning him into an international hero.
Peter McDermott (Rod Taylor), the manager of the St Gregory Hotel in New Orleans, is dragging the establishment back from the brink while introducing necessary changes to its operation almost in the teeth of the hotel’s owner, Warren Trent (Melvyn Douglas), who occupies its penthouse. However, the financial situation of the St Gregory is too parlous, leaving Trent with three options: to give up and sell to a real estate firm that wants to demolish it and build an office tower; to allow a takeover by the O’Keefe chain, which will update the old-fashioned establishment in the worst way; or to enter into a deal with a union representative from Washington, an arrangement favoured and brokered by McDermott. As negotiations proceed between McDermott and the union on one hand, and Trent tries to hold off the crass and hypocritical Curtis O’Keefe (Keven McCarthy), who holds prayer sessions in between dallying with his mistress, Jeanne de Rochefort (Catherine Spaak), the St Gregory is beset with a series of problems including a malfunctioning elevator, a hotel thief on the prowl, and the efforts of its most prestigious guests, the Duke and Duchess of Lanbourne (Michael Rennie, Merle Oberon), to avoid the consequences of a fatal hit-and-run… Based on Arthur Hailey’s novel of the same same, Hotel is the expected mixture of intersecting story-lines and superficial melodrama, chiefly held together by Rod Taylor’s effortless charm but with enough additional star-power to maintain interest—granting that by 1967, most of those stars would have been considered “has-beens” by a system undergoing convulsions of change. The one surprise here is the point on which the plot pivots: the St Gregory’s rejection of a black couple as guests, all observed and recorded by a photographer, and enforced by Warren Trent. It is this, rightly, that brings about the demise of the St Gregory: though the incident turns out to be a set-up arranged by O’Keefe for the benefit of the Washington newspapers, the result is the withdrawal of the union offer, leaving Trent to face the consequences of his own stubborn bigotry. In addition to those mentioned, Hotel stars Karl Maldern as “Keycase”, the hotel thief and Richard Conte as a corrupt house detective. Special mention must also be made of jazz singer Carmen McCrae, who appears as the St Gregory’s resident entertainment. Even the appalling O’Keefe, with his passion for characterless, plastic “modernisation”, wants to keep her.
The Night Of The Generals (1967)
In Warsaw, in 1942, a prostitute is butchered by her client. Through a crack in a door, another occupant of the victim’s building sees enough to inform him that the killer is not only a German officer, but a general. The dead woman was a German agent, a fact which brings intelligence officer, Major Grau (Omar Sharif), to the scene. His subsequent investigation establishes that three generals have no alibi for the night in question: General von Seidlitz-Gabler (Charles Gray), a womanising, ineffective fence-sitter, who owes his seniority to his wife’s connections; General Kahlenberge (Donald Pleasence), whose shrewd manoeuvring and seeming compliance hide his involvement in dangerous political plots; and General Tanz (Peter O’Toole), whose absolute dedication to the Nazi cause is in no way hindered by his crumbling sanity… All three generals avoid Grau, whose determination to solve the murder only grows as the obstacles in his path become greater—until his involvement in the case is terminated by his abrupt promotion and transfer. He does not forget, however; and when an identical murder occurs two years later in Paris – where all three generals are stationed – Grau resumes his hunt for a psychopath… The Night Of The Generals is interesting but deeply flawed, being overlong, poorly paced and awkwardly structured. It is also curiously muted, making little out of the sheer perverseness of Grau’s murder investigation – which coincides with the implementation of various “solutions” by the Nazis – nor the larger ironies involved in attempting to enforce civil law in the midst of mass slaughter. However, as with many of the “big” productions that marked the death-throes of the studios during the late sixties, this is a film you can watch simply for its extraordinary cast. Neither Peter O’Toole nor Omar Sharif wanted to make the film; both, however, were won over by feelings of obligation to Sam Spiegel, who also produced Lawrence Of Arabia, and both give fine performances (though Sharif is not exactly convincing as a German officer). Meanwhile, in addition to Charles Gray and Donald Pleasence, there are strong supporting performances from Tom Courtney as accidental hero Corporal Hartmann, Philippe Noiret as resistance fighter turned Interpol officer Inspector Morand, and John Gregson as Colonel Sandauer, Tanz’s frightened subordinate; and appearances by Coral Browne, Joanna Pettet, Juliette Gréco, and Gordon Jackson—and Christopher Plummer, who cameos as Rommel.
Also known as Saigon. At the height of the Vietnam War, joint service Criminal Investigation Division agents Buck McGriff (Willem Dafoe) and Albaby Perkins (Gregory Hines) investigate the murder of a prostitute, found shot dead within that section of the city off-limits to military personnel. Nevertheless, evidence emerges that the killer is not just an American serviceman, but a high-ranking officer. Their investigation leads McGriff and Perkins to novice nun, Sister Nicole (Amanda Pays), who does social work amongst the prostitutes. They discover from her that this latest killing is one of a series, in each case the victim being the mother of a child with an American father; they also learn that an earlier investigation into the murders was quashed from up the chain of command. Speaking to their frightened predecessor, McGriff and Perkins obtain the names of six ranking officers who were in Saigon at the times of the murders—but they may not live to identify the guilty one… One of life’s little viewing coincidences. Off-Limits is basically an unacknowledged remake of The Night Of The Generals, but does a better job with its “insanity of war” aspects, making more effective use of the irreconcilable contradictions of trying to enforce civil law in the middle of a war-zone, and in tracking down a single killer amongst those whose business it is to kill. The film stumbles somewhat in taking a bit too much pleasure in the agents’ defiance of the Vietnamese authorities (as personified by Lim Kay Tong as “Lime Green”), but otherwise it maintains the necessary ironic detachment as McGriff and Perkins plunge ever-deeper into a conspiracy so dangerous, the original agent on the case had himself transferred to Khe Sahn to get away from it, and which they solve only with the assistance of a woman who has since joined the Viet Cong, but whose hatred of her sister’s killer is even more profound than her hatred of Americans generally. Dafoe and Hines are solid as the investigators (although the latter’s ceaseless F-bombs grow very tiresome), whose determination to unmask the murderer holds firm in the face of both the carrot of a transfer home to the US, and the stick of a series of attempts on their lives; but the film’s strength is its supporting performances. Amanda Pays is effective as Sister Nicole, with whom McGriff becomes infatuated, and who responds by taking him to a Saigon sex-show (also, refreshingly, she neither jumps into bed with McGriff, nor turns from her vocation because of him; ah, movie nuns!); Scott Glenn steals the film in a brief appearance as prime suspect, Colonel Dexter Armstrong, who makes Colonel Kurtz look like a poster-boy for mental health; and Fred Ward provides the necessary ballast to the escalating emotionality of McGriff and Perkins as their NCO, Master Sergeant Dix, who sums up the fundamental madness of the agents’ quest via one of my favourite movie quotes (albeit it’s not one I get to use much in general conversation, for obvious reasons):
“You’re floating in a big sea of shit and instead of just staying in the boat, no, you reach out and you pick up this one little turd, and you say, ‘This turd, well, THIS turd pisses me off. I’m gonna do something about THIS turd!'”
Henry & June (1990)
(In)famous as the first film to score the self-defeating and now-defunct NC-17 rating, this film seems like much ado about nothing—but then, non-violent sex doesn’t seem to raise too many hackles here: Henry & June was released to cinemas under an M-rating, and now plays cable with an MA, which seems about right. Adapted from the diaries of Anaïs Nin (Maria de Medeiros) and directed by Philip Kaufman, this drama tells of Nin’s encounter with Henry Miller (Fred Ward) and his wife, June (Uma Thurman); her affairs with both; and the impact of their sexual exploration upon the writing of Nin and Miller. The sex and nudity, as promised, are plentiful, although I frequently found myself wondering how any of the parties involved had either the time or the energy for writing; but the film fails to make convincing the connection between all this sexual energy and the writing that supposedly emanates from it. “Art” is a notoriously difficult thing to convey onscreen, of course, and despite all the mutual admiration flying around we get no real sense of process. (One nice, if teeth-clenching, moment: apparently it a woman’s role to praise a man’s writing, while it is a man’s role to criticise a woman’s writing…) The other frustration here is the depiction of the enigmatic June, who never comes into focus. To an extent this is clearly intentional – June is positioned as a blank screen, upon which both Miller and Nin project their fantasies; she complains constantly that neither captures the “real” her in their writing – but given her importance to the story being told, she shouldn’t be that to the viewer. The central three hold nothing back, however, and we should note Maria de Medeiros’s success in projecting a perverse air of innocence, as Nin throws herself into her sexual exploration. Interesting supporting performances are offered by Richard E. Grant as Hugo, Nin’s wilfully blind and/or limitlessly understanding husband, and Kevin Spacey as Osborn, the wannabe-writer convinced that everyone keeps stealing his ideas… Whatever its dramatic failures, Henry & June is a complete success on the level of design, with a wonderful soundtrack and amazing art direction that turns the admittedly Bohemian Paris of the 1930s into an artistic Never-Never Land.
White Tiger (1996)
The meeting of Victor Chow (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and drug lord Tang (Max Kirishima) is the target of a planned DEA bust, but when the meeting itself turns out to be an ambush sprung on Tang, everything goes horrible wrong—and leaves DEA agent John Grogan (Matt Cutler) dead. Mike Ryan (Gary Daniels), Grogan’s partner and best friend, swears bloody vengeance against Victor Chow, but he will have to fight his way through both Chow’s goons and corrupt elements of law enforcement to get to him… This actioner starring British kick-boxing champion, Gary Daniels, is an acceptable time-waster: nothing you haven’t seen before, but sufficiently well-executed—except that it pulls that stunt where, whenever the hero is cornered and outnumbered, the bad guys always put their guns down and fight him mano-a-mano. Convenient. Ryan, meanwhile, is the type who, when he gets the drop on Chow the first time, can’t bring himself to pull the trigger because, “I’m a cop, not an assassin”—but will happily kill about a hundred other people in an effort to get a drop on Chow a second time. Without much of a plan to speak of, Ryan wanders around Chinatown, not quite getting himself killed, until he falls into the hands of the enigmatic Jade (Julia Nickson, who I tend to remember best from Amityville VII, but that’s probably just me). The viewer is made aware that Jade is somehow connected to Victor Chow; but Ryan is not the only person in for a rude shock where she is concerned… The film’s climax, or at least the beginning of its climax, finds Ryan and Jade fighting side-by-side, much to their mutual astonishment—which leads them to a hold a Meaningful Look so long, one of Chow’s goons is able to sneak up on them and kick them both in the head. And rightly so. After that, there are fights, shootings, explosions—and more head-kicking. This is my first Gary Daniels film, and I was somewhat bemused to note that, with his effort to disguise his British accent and sound American, he more than once came out of it sounding Australian. Very disconcerting.
In The Eye Of The Snake (1990)
Despite its various advertising, this is neither a killer animal film nor an erotic thriller—though the latter is what is is striving to be, albeit unavailingly. (An erotic thriller without any sex or nudity; yeah…) This Swiss-American co-production, filmed on location in Burundi and Geneva, sort-of tells the story of snake expert Marc Anzer (Jason Cairns), who gets drawn into the mutually abusive relationship between herpetologist Professor Baldwin (Malcolm McDowell) and his beautiful young assistant, Malika (Sydney Penny). Freudianism runs rampant here, with Baldwin progressively revealed as (i) terrified of snakes, and (ii) impotent; while the film’s suggestion that Marc should abandon his snakes in favour of a “normal” relationship just paints him as an irresponsible prat—as if we didn’t know that from his side hobby: snake smuggling—with his pursuit of Malika leading him to hand one rare specimen over to Baldwin’s tender mercies and to cause the death of the python that, until a g-i-r-l intruded, was his best friend. Despite the latter, there’s no suggestion any snake was really killed, though quite a number are roughly handled, particularly during the film’s opening snake-catching scenes. Conversely, the film’s only real attraction is the number and variety of snakes it produces for our edification, including a green mamba (although one of the dark olive-green variety, not the bright grass-green type). On the human side, Sydney Penny is certainly pretty enough, but the film never really bothers to explain how she got herself in such a mess with Baldwin; Jason Cairns seems to have been cast more for his willingness to get up close and personal with snakes than for his acting ability; and poor Malcolm McDowell is just embarrassing. Lois Chiles plays Marc’s mother (she likes to communicate by leaving messages on the screen of her “cutting-edge” word processor), while Howard Vernon, of all people, shows up as a professional snake-hunter during the Burundi scenes. In The Eye Of the Snake thinks that it’s saying lots of profound things about human nature and relationships, but really, it’s all nonsense. Just watch it for the snakes.
(It was surprising enough to me that anyone bothered to put this thing out on DVD; turns out it was once released on laser disc!?)
Fen Shou Zhi Du (2002)
Also known as Snake Charmer. Dead bodies are turning up with strange wounds and showing signs of a rare poison. The trail leads homicide cop Man Chi-Wei (“Kenny” in the awful dubbed version; Jackie Lui Chung-Yin) to a nightclub-bar called Medusa, where his suspicion focuses upon one of the four lovely young bartender-dancers, Melissa (Marsha Yuen Chi-Wai), who has been seen with each of the victims shortly before his death. Man is attracted to Melissa in spite of this—and in spite of her collection of snakes, which terrify him—and he must struggle with his feelings even as his own surveillance of her puts her on the scene of another death. The investigation finally leads to a snake-dealer supplying drugs on the side, whose effects prove that he has been stalking Melissa; but even as the authorities relax, another man last seen with Melissa turns up dead… Ophidiophobic cop meets ophidiophile suspect in this terrible if not entirely unamusing Hong Kong actioner, which starts out looking like a supernatural thriller about a were-snake before degenerating into an ever-more ridiculous psycho-thriller that rips off everything from Basic Instinct to Coyote Ugly. The film is full of wrong-headed choices at every turn, from its lethargic pace to its non sequitur-stuffed script to its incessant use of whip-pans to a soundtrack that keeps trying to break out into The Pet-Shop Boys’ version of “You Were Always On My Mind” but doesn’t quite dare. It also features one of my least favourite cinematic conventions, namely, a killer who can function perfectly well as a normal human being until exposed, and who then instantly transmogrifies into a full-on raving psychopath. Meanwhile, the were-snake business turns out to be the side-effect of a rare South American hallucinogen…although why it should cause everyone who ingests it to hallucinate about giant snakes rendered via dreadful CGI is never explained. However—Snake Charmer does have one great attraction, and that is the myriad of real snakes (and the occasional lizard) that turn up over the course of its action. At first I was extremely wary about this aspect of the film, knowing how animals are sometimes treated in Asian cinema, but it does not appear that any reptilian cast were harmed, thankfully. Melissa herself keeps snakes, she visits a pet-shop specialising in reptiles, someone keeps sending her snakes as a gift—none of which, as it turns out, has anything to do with anything; although in a desperate attempt to link the two halves of the film, the snake-sender of course turns out to be the killer (hence the accompanying Bible verses). So as with the earlier In The Eye Of The Snake—ignore the film proper; just watch it for the snakes. But even if snakes don’t do it for you, do stick around for the hilariously po-faced anti-drug message at the end, and Snake Charmer‘s solemn assertion that it is intended as a cautionary tale about the perils of drug abuse…even though not one person in-film takes drugs voluntarily. (Remember, kids: rare and expensive South American hallucinogens smuggled into the country by snake-dealers-cum-stalkers—not even once!)
Frozen Impact (2003)
Aspiring young magician Jason Blanchard (Myles Jeffrey) longs to perform at the annual community carnival / car auction hosted by local businessman, Pete Crane (Stacy Keach). However, Jason is in fragile health, awaiting a liver transport, and his doctor-mother, Christy (Linda Purl), forbids him to participate. Dan Blanchard (Ted McGinley), an emergency services expert, feels that Christy is over-anxious where Jason is concerned, and secretly drops him off at the carnival on his way to work, instructing his teenage daughter, Marie (Nicole Paggi), to stay to keep an eye on her brother—but no sooner has Dan left than Marie ditches Jason to go rock-climbing with her friends. Nearby, a light plane carrying a transplant liver is struck by enormous hailstones and crashes. Dan is first on the scene, where he finds the pilot dead and the organ transporter severely injured—and learns that the liver in question is meant for Jason. As he begins a desperate race against time to get the liver to the hospital while it is still viable, Dan must manoeuvre through a series of dangerous hailstorms while collecting Marie, performing rescues, and trying to extricate Jason and Pete Crane from a collapsed building. Meanwhile, Christy learns to her horror that all planes have now been grounded and the transplant surgeon cannot come, and that if Jason is to have his operation she will have to perform it herself… In the previous Et Al. update, I admitted to being pleasantly disappointed by 2005’s Landslide, and this earlier effort by the same team is even better—or do I mean worse? As I have commented elsewhere, many disaster films fail because they can’t figure out what to do with their second act, while the really successful ones find a way of keeping the disaster happening from start to finish. Frozen Impact involves a series of vicious spot-hailstorms, which can hit anytime and anywhere—and thus set up a whole new subplot whenever the last one starts to drag. Granted, the enormous “hailstones” are clearly styrofoam in most scenes and, when they have to interact with the cast, I’m pretty sure they’re cotton wool, but that’s a minor consideration in the context of a disaster movie that grows ever more hilariously complicated as it rolls along. Yet it is on the level of character that this film scores its greatest triumph. I find few things more unendurable that the Whiny Teen stereotype so prevalent in genre films, and with Marie Blanchard we seem at first to have it in spades—so you may imagine my astonishment when it turns out that crisis brings out the very best in Marie; that, in fact, it would not be going too far to call her the film’s hero! (There’s also an actual reason why she’s whiny!) Otherwise, Linda Purl, Ted McGinley and Jeffrey Myles are all adequate in their roles; Bridget White is (inadvertently?) a scream as the tight-assed bean-counter who just wants to go on counting beans no matter what magnitude of catastrophe is overwhelming her hospital, or what personal tragedy is confronting her staff; and “name guest star” Stacy Keach gets to utter the line, “You can trust me, I’m a used car salesman” with a straight face.
Ghost Son (2007)
Stacey (Laura Harring) is caught up in a whirlwind courtship and marriage to a horse breeder who has a property in an isolated part of South Africa, but her new happiness is shattered when her husband is fatally injured in a car accident. As Mark (John Hannah) lies dying in her arms, Stacey tells him passionately that she won’t go on living without him… Left alone in Mark’s house, Stacey begins to fall apart: she drinks, and has visions of Mark; even attempts suicide. Her life gains new meaning, however, when an examination by the local doctor (Pete Postlethwaite) reveals that she is pregnant. Stacey pulls herself together, even making a success of Mark’s farm; but things go wrong again after the baby is born. A series of strange events leave Stacey convinced that Mark is haunting her; even using their son to get to her… Ha! I knew nothing about Ghost Son when I sat down to watch it, and was just thinking how nice it was to see Italian names on a genre film again when the “directed by Lamberto Bava” credit popped up. And a very Italianate offering this is, too, toggling from creepy to icky to ludicrous and back again, without ever seeming to realise that there’s been a shift in tone. More to the point, however— We may be in Africa, and surrounded by “superstitious natives” (who are invariably right about everything, of course), but this fails to disguise the fact that Ghost Son is effectively a re-make of 1977’s Shock, Mario Bava’s last film, which he co-directed with his son; even to the point of stealing some of its, uh, shock-moments. Once again a widow fears that her son has been possessed by the spirit of his father; only instead of a young boy behaving in an inappropriately sexual manner towards his mother, this time around it’s a baby. No, really. The Exorcist meets It’s Alive as the infant sets about terrorising and occasionally molesting his mother, presumably at the behest of his dead father, who seems determined that Stacey will keep her promise not to live without him—whether she wants to or not. Meanwhile, everyone else sees Stacey as a threat to the child, not the other way around… Thought about squarely, this is a terribly depressing film, one carrying the twin morals that (i) it’s best to forget your dead loved ones ASAP, and (ii) after they die, nice people tend to become complete bastards. More superficially, too, there’s the inability of new mother Stacey to get anyone to help her—or even to listen to her. But the sheer ridiculousness of many of the film’s moments counterbalance this somewhat, with the baby talking in John Hannah’s unmistakeable voice and doing things it shouldn’t via animatronics and CGI. The three main cast members play it all amazingly straight, to their credit. However, the best actor here is the baby who plays Martin, who looks hilariously pleased with himself all the way through—and never more so than after drenching his mother in a projectile vomit bigger than he is.
Plane Dead (2007)
Also known as Flight Of The Living Dead. Scientists Dr Bennett (Erick Avari), Dr Thorp (Dale Midkiff) and Dr Sebastian (Cliff Weisman) manoeuvre their secret project into the cargo hold of a commercial airliner bound for Paris. The plane must fly through violent storms, and the turbulence and lightning strikes interrupt the storage of the cargo. Dazed and in pain, a woman crawls out of the storage container, begging for help from her haz-mat suited guard, who responds with a burst of automatic-weapon fire. The woman goes down—but she does not stay down, and soon the airliner is overrun with the throat-ripping undead. Meanwhile, at the Pentagon, a decision is taken to shoot the plane down… Walking the line between “mindless bloody fun” and “flawed to the point of annoyance”, Plane Dead is more likely to please the zombie crowd than the science-fiction crowd, despite its amusing premise of rogue scientists using a rare strain of the, ahem, “malaria virus” to raise the dead. The opening of the film is rather confusing, inasmuch as the scientists are rogue indeed, on the run from the US government—so how exactly do they manage to get their “top-secret” cargo on the plane in the first place? And why, having done so, do they put a stupid, stupid person in charge of it? More problematically still, far too much time is given over to setting up the film’s “characters”, given that, self-evidently, 90% or better are simply there as zombie-chow: we might smile at the airline captain on his last flight before retirement, but why do we have to sit through endless scenes of couples in “romantic” relationships being utterly hateful to one another? Plane Dead also falls into the its-just-a-movie credibility gap, asking us not merely to accept its zombies (which we can do with ease), but an airline that – in 2007! – allows onto one of its planes canisters of liquid nitrogen, endless aerosols and civilians carrying automatic weapons; not to mention that the plane itself is full of ducts and crawl-spaces, and has a cargo-hold in which nothing is secured and a fuselage that stays intact despite gunfire, explosions and a crash landing, but floors so flimsy that zombies can stick their arms straight through them. It’s also rather noticeable that there are about four times as many zombies on board as there were passengers in the first place—which at least ensures an impressive body-count. As throats are ripped and blood sprays the living are whittled down to air-marshal Paul Judd (Richard Tyson), rookie flight attendant Megan (Kristen Kerr), cop Truman Burrows (David Chisum) and his prisoner Frank Strathmore (Kevin J. O’Connor), who just happens to know how to fly a plane—if, that is, he can make it alive from the tail to the cockpit… Overall, Plane Dead offers copious if not exactly convincing violence, a little mad science, and a couple of amusing moments (like a gummy zombie, and another who can’t get his seatbelt undone); but these positives are almost lost in an oversized serving of the stupids, plus an ending that makes the “heroes” seem rather like a bunch of selfish dicks.
Soon-to-be-divorced couple Amy (Kate Beckinsale) and David Fox (Luke Wilson) get lost on their drive home from a family party, after David tries to find a shortcut. When their car breaks down, they are forced to walk back to the isolated service station where a mechanic (Ethan Embry) tried – but evidently failed – to fix their burgeoning engine problem. Reluctantly accepting that they are stranded, Amy and David register at the deserted motel adjoining the service station, where the obstinately unhelpful attitude of the manager, Mason (Frank Whaley), and the grime and ugliness of their room, comprise the final straw for Amy. David tries to divert his thoughts – and prevent conversation – by examining a pile of video tapes left in the room, watching what he takes to be a low-budget horror movie—at least until he realises that the “movie” was filmed in the very room that he and Amy are occupying… Thematically, Vacancy is an interesting film, simultaneously a throwback to the back-roads horrors of the 80s, films like Tourist Trap and Motel Hell, and an early example of the “masked intruders” subgenre that has emerged in recent years. However, the execution (pardon the expression) is distinctly lacking. The film manages a good “slow burn” when Amy and David are first startled and angered by someone they initially assume to be a rude and/or drunken guest in the room next door; the moment when David realises what he’s actually watching is well-handled; and some real tension is generated after the couple accepts they must fight back in order to prevent themselves from becoming the latest involuntary stars of the snuff films being made at and distributed from the lonely motel; but nearly everything surrounding these scenes is a letdown. Vacancy is only a short film, yet it takes forever to get its central couple settled at the motel, dwelling instead on unnecessarily lengthy scenes of Amy and David verbally sniping and slashing at each other. (Their kid died, and now their marriage is falling apart; we’ve seen it before, get on with it.) Throughout the siege sequences, Amy’s passivity becomes increasingly exasperating, as she simply cringes back and allows David to do all the dirty work instead of standing shoulder to shoulder with him. (The film is well aware of this, too, resorting to having her pop a pre-bed pill in an effort to excuse her lack of agency). Even when she is finally forced to fight back against her assailants, her success is an accident; and so too is the incident that later puts a weapon in her hands. However, the single most striking thing about Vacancy is its squeamishness: there is an almost comical lack of bloodshed in this story about people being trapped and gruesomely murdered; even the resulting snuff films are shot and edited so that you don’t see anything untoward! If this was indeed intended as a kind of tribute to 80s horror, it entirely fails to live up to its models. Finally, the ending is a real cop-out—although I admit to being pleasantly surprised by the lack of a kicker.
Wind Chill (2007)
Needing to get from university to her Delaware home for the Christmas break, a young female student arranges for a shared ride rather than taking the bus—but soon becomes suspicious of her driver’s motives. Incidents reveal to her that he is not from Delaware at all, as he claimed; but even as her panic grows, the two of them are involved in an accident on an isolated stretch of road, which leaves them injured, stranded in the snowy wilderness—and beset by dark forces… Wind Chill is a peculiar shocker, one that seems to change its mind two or three times about what kind of film it actually is. With its refusal to name its characters (Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes are billed simply as “Girl” and Guy”), its portentous discussion of life-after-death, and Girl’s strange experiences at a service station, it seems to be setting itself up for a riff on Carnival Of Souls before morphing into a more traditional ghost story. However, neither of these situations is as unnerving as what the film’s opening stages hint at. This may be a female reaction, but the thought of being stranded in the middle of nowhere with someone who may or may not be your stalker, who may or may not have engineered the situation, is much scarier than any ghost. Be that as it may, a ghost story is what we’re finally left with, with Girl and Guy discovering that they have wandered into the path of a recurrent horror: a cyclic haunting involving the spirit of a corrupt and homicidal highway patrolman, who in life preyed upon any driver unfortunate enough to end up on the same isolated stretch of road that Guy chose as “the scenic route”. But the ghost-cop is not the only spirit wandering the snowy wilderness… Wind Chill has a few creepy moments, and the interaction between Girl and Guy evolves in quite an interesting way, but the film finally fails for a number of reasons: the confusion of its set-up; too many things occurring as “visions” (or whatever) rather than actually happening, including an unnecessarily protracted explanation of the haunting; and the characters’ production of expert knowledge whenever needed (Guy just happens to have a plug-in phone with him, and Girl just happens to know how to jack it into a telephone-pole junction box). However, Emily Blunt and Ashton Holmes both give solid performances in what is essentially a duologue, with Blunt unafraid to make her character quite abrasive. Martin Donovan as the ghost-cop has Wind Chill‘s only other important role. The film was directed by long-time producer Gregory Jacobs, which accounts for the involvement of Steven Soderbergh and George Clooney as executive producers.
Ba’al: The Storm God (2008)
A break-in at a museum nets the thieves a set of priceless Sumerian scrolls, while leaving three people dead, one crushed beneath a statue of the god, Ba’al… Archaeologist Dr Lee Helm (Jeremy London) and ancient language expert Dr Carol Gage (Stefanie von Pfetten) travel to the Arctic, where Dr Owen Stanford (Scott Hylands) has “gone rogue”. Helm is appalled when he realises that Stanford was involved in the robbery, and dismayed to learn that Stanford is terminally ill. However, his professional imagination is fired by his colleague’s discoveries. Stanford claims that the god Ba’al was stripped of his power to control the weather by his father, El; El further divided that power into four amulets, each representing an element of nature, which were hidden all over the world by Sumerian priests. He has found one amulet, the Earth amulet, hidden in the Arctic ice, but needs Carol’s help to know where to look for the next. As the first amulet is freed, a huge column of light leaps from it into the sky, where an evil, red-eyed face is briefly glimpsed before a huge, destructive storm erupts… This Sci-Fi Original production is (as I’m sure you’ll be astonished to learn) a very cheap and silly film, with some of the most ineffectual “heroes” I’ve come across in some time, and bad guys whose plans make no damn sense. Meanwhile, people babble about Ba’al (without ever settling on a pronunciation, although most of them favour Bal), pull serious faces, stare intently at computer monitors, and outrun unconvincing CGI storms—or not, as the case may be. The non-adventures of the archaeologists (who don’t seem to consider it anything more than a coincidence when a second devastating storm accompanies their unearthing of the second amulet) is inter-cut with the non-adventures of the staff of the US Air Force Weather Agency (I think), who are forced into partnership with rogue meteorologist, Dr Marta Pena (Lexa Doig), who has been playing Cassandra to the Air Force’s Trojans for some time (and hacking their systems, which is apparently only a minor infraction). Dr Pena concludes that the only way to dissipate the potentially world-devastating storm that is building is to sever its connection with the Van Allen Belt, from which it seems to be drawing its power. (The Van Allen Belt? Really? The Simpsons didn’t kill that off as a plot-point?) The only mildly interesting thing about Ba’al is that it is the meteorologist who wants to nuke the storm, while the military are skittish about the idea. Their race-against-time efforts to work out how to stop the storm without simply causing a different catastrophe run parallel with the similar efforts of Helm and Carol, first to stop Stanford invoking Ba’al—and then via their retaliatory invoking of El…