Saturday, 7 September 2013

The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)

*NOTE: I have not written for this site in a while, so bare with me.*


"LOCK YOUR DOORS! IT"S JOHN WAYNE, AND HE'S......A DIPLOMAT!"

 In 1957, John Huston was fresh off Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and Moby Dick, two films both shot and filmed in extreme and exotic locations. It was also the year that his great friend and collaborator Humphrey Bogart passed away. In short, he wanted to get away. His next two films, The Barbarian and the Geisha and The Roots of Heaven would be filmed in two very far and very remote areas. The first, Japan, and the second the jungles of Africa. While Africa would prove to be the most troubling, Japan was perhaps more dangerous. The Japanese society was still in the process of rebuilding itself after it's massive defeat in World War II, and a new generation of filmmakers were slowly taking away the old guard.

Huston's idea for the film was to shoot it like an authentic Japanese film, in the style of Ozu. However, that never came to fruition after the film was taken out of his hands by the studio, while he was shooting in Africa. While shooting on location, the film suffered many challenges. For one, it was hard to find a Japanese actress who would appeal to American audiences, and the lead actor, John Wayne felt wrong in the part and was constantly at odds with Huston (they even got into a fistfight at one point, which Huston lost). Finally, while shooting a scene with fire, the flames spread and caused the town they were shooting in to almost evict them.

In short, it was chaotic at least. The Barbarian and the Geisha is the story of Townsend Harris, an American diplomat sent to Japan in the 1850s to broker a treaty between the two nations. While in Japan, he apparently fell in love with a young Geisha girl. While the film was based off of a true story, you could tell it was heavily adjusted.

And now to the movie. Well in short, it wasn't supposed to be very good. I wasn't expecting it to be very good. And it wasn't very good. But it was somehow better than I thought it would be. Sure, John Wayne is every bit as miscast as I thought he would be, and the plot is as boring as I thought it would be. But the racism isn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be, and the film itself isn't as boring as I thought it would be. And, surprisingly, some parts are actually quite beautiful. The small, cozy Japanese town is very picturesque, and produces some gorgeous vistas. And the story is actually somewhat interesting, and I wasn't nearly as bored as I thought I would be.

The acting, however, is pretty moronic. John Wayne is incredibly boring in his role. It seems like he's one word away from ripping on a cowboy hat, jumping on a horse and riding off into the desert. He seems so uneasy in his role, that even you feel awkward when he says something longer than a couple sentences. It's kind of embarrassing, and even more so establishes Wayne as a pretty one note actor. Eiko Ando, as Wayne's love interest looks very nice, but her chemistry with Wayne is so low that every scene they have together seems false. Her accent is inexplicably less in her voice over than in her onscreen performance. Was she dubbed or something? I need answers! Sam Jaffe, Huston's long time friend, shows up in a boring role that gives him nothing to do and even less to show. So Yamamura, as the Governor of the village gives probably the best performance in the film, even if it is overwrought.

The script reads like cliche after cliche, but the strangest thing is that there are flashes of a much superior film hidden inside of this movie. There are moments where you can almost swear that there is something worth watching within the movie, and then it vanishes as quickly as it came. Whether those are bits of Huston's original cut or just random pieces, they make the viewing experience endurable. However, the film's undeniable strength lies in it's cinematography. Simply put, it looks great. There are bits and pieces that just stick out in your mind, and some shots that just look wonderful. It saves the film from sheer awfulness, and actually makes it watchable. The score is interesting, using plenty of authentic Japanese instruments, and enhances the film slightly.

It may not be very good, but there are some parts that are really intriguing. It makes me wonder what exactly Huston's vision looked like. Perhaps he included more scenes among the Japanese, or perhaps his style was different. I guess we'll never know, but it's interesting. As it is, the direction is one of the film's stronger points. There is a scene near the end of the film that is very well directed. Shadows are cast perfectly and silence creeps up upon the scene nicely. But the whole effect is ruined when Wayne barges out of his room and begins to talk. Damn it John!

The Barbarian and the Geisha,
1958,
Starring: John Wayne, Eiko Ando and Sam Jaffe,
Directed by John Huston.
5.5/10 (D).

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana

8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison
19. Victory
20. The List of Adrian Messenger
21. Annie
22. Prizzi's Honor

23. The Barbarian and the Geisha
24. The MacKintosh Man
25. Sinful Davey
26. In This Our Life
27. We Were Strangers
28. The Bible: In The Beginning...
29. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror  

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Bible: In The Beginning... (1966)

 ...AND GOD SAID: "I HEREBY DECLARE THIS TO BE ONE OF THE MOST BORING FILMS IN EXISTENCE." AND SO IT WAS.

I cannot review this film without offending someone. You see, I am not a religious person, so in order to review a movie about the Bible, I really can't quite sympathize with those who, what's the word...associate closely towards the stories in the book. I don't want this review to be all about religion, so I guess I'll just address it here. I will try to focus on the aspects of the film and not on the source material, but if I have to I will voice my opinion on the issue.

That aside, this film kind of sucks. The main problem I had with the film is such, it's incredibly boring. Similarly to most other biblical epics, the pace is languid, the film wooden and the length overlong. This film tells four stories. First is Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve frolic in the garden of Eden for a while, but then Eve eats a magic fruit and god gets pretty mad because he told her not to. As a result, he banishes Eve and Adam from the garden and they form their own life. They have two sons, Cain and Abel. One day, Cain kills Abel and then god banishes him. Next is the story of Noah and his big ark where he takes a bunch of animals and rides out god's giant flood which destroys everything else on earth.

Noah builds a giant ark after god asks him to, because god wants to kill everyone else. Then Noah and his family take many animals and ride out the storm. This lasts for about forty minutes. Then it gets really boring. God sends Abraham into the desert with his family and stuff, and Abraham establishes a colony there. God speaks to Abraham and gives him advice, gets his wife pregnant, after god advised him to sleep with his maid instead, and then sends three angels to destroy the nearby city of Sodom. Then god gets Abraham to almost kill his son, but then he doesn't.

Okay. Where do I start? Perhaps a little history would be helpful. This film was started with Robert Bresson directing, but then Dino De Laurentiis, the producer, got fed up with Bresson's original and artistic style. He replaced him with John Huston, an atheist, and Huston took the job. For the money, of course. Huston also played Noah, and the narrator, and at points, god. I'll get to the acting in a minute, but first I just want to say one thing. This film may be among the few films I have ever had the violent urge to yell at the screen "get on with it!".

Anyways, the acting. The film has a lot of great actors, and a lot of unknowns. They all share one common thread, they suck. I don't want to seem harsh, but oh my, are they bad. Their dialogue is taken directly from the bible, and thus it feels wooden and forced coming out of their mouths. The only actor who seems at ease with it is George C. Scott, who goes completely method in the role of Abraham, in a way that seems incredibly fake. I'll do a list here: Michael Parks as Adam+ Ulla Bergryd as Eve= wooden, forced, completely naked for the first half of the film. Richard Harris as Cain= over the top, wooden, over dramatic. John Huston as Noah and God= good voice, bad acting, seems incredibly bored, says lines in a mocking and uninterested tone. George C. Scott as Abraham+ Ava Gardener as Sarah = one is too much, one is too little, one seems to young, one seems too old, one is not bad, the other isn't good at all. Peter O'Toole as The Three Angels = easily the best performance in the film, he is actually not that bad, but he does blow up a building by staring at it furiously. Final Verdict= pretty bad acting, most of the cast doesn't establish their characters in any way that makes us care for them at all.

Well, there you go. The acting is pretty bad. But one can put the majority of the blame of the screenplay. Christopher Fry is a well regarded playwright of the time, but you couldn't tell by this film. His dialogue is stodgy and old fashioned. He never develops the characters in anyway, and his view point is incredibly one sided. He just transfers the bible to the screen, there is no innovation here at all. He never put his own spin on it, or tried to make the material more viewable, he just wrote it, in a very boring way actually. This is the root of all the film's problems. If the screenplay had been just the tiniest bit innovative or creative, than perhaps the film might have been better than the final result.

The cinematography looks appropriately epic, but I never really got anything from this film in terms of scope. I just couldn't feel it, I couldn't feel that quality that makes or breaks this kind of film. That isn't due mainly to the cinematography, but it wasn't quite as creative as I had hoped. The film certainly looks good, but it does not feel "good". It just lacks that quality that makes this film a success. The film's failure does not have to do with the cinematography, but it certainly has to do with a few other major things.

The score, in all it's bombastic "epic" glory, is perhaps one of the most annoying parts of this film. It never gives the film an edge at all. It just plays out with little to no innovation, and all it's musicality in itself is also kind of boring. It just chugs along, never feeling quite that special or interesting at all. The sets are quite nice, they give the film a false sense of grandeur, but it certainly makes things look good to the eyes.

This brings me to another subject, and perhaps the most interesting one to me. Huston's direction, in itself I find it a really intriguing idea. An atheist directing a movie on the bible. Was Huston going to add something, or try to approach the subject matter in a way that expresses skepticism? Unfortunately, the answer is no. Huston did something worse here than giving the film his point of view, he gave the film his sense of boredom. It increasingly appears that Huston just took the job for the money, and like Annie, invested it with empty promises. The scope and spectacle is all here, but where is the heart of this film? To be honest, it doesn't have any. For all it's preaching and showcasing of god's magical abilities, this film ultimately has nothing to say, and even less to show.

It's just there.

The Bible: In The Beginning...
1966,
Starring: John Huston, George C. Scott and Peter O'Toole,
Directed by John Huston,
4.5/10 (F)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana

8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. Victory
20. The List of Adrian Messenger
21. Annie
22. Prizzi's Honor

23. The MacKintosh Man
24. Sinful Davey
25. In This Our Life
26. We Were Strangers
27. The Bible: In The Beginning...
27. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror 

Friday, 3 May 2013

In This Our Life (1942)

NOTE TO VIEWERS: Cinema Stripped Down will now only show the sections "The Plot" and "The Film" when the author deems that these sections are relevant enough to be featured. If the film has a boring, or uninteresting history, THE FILM will not be featured.

WELL, THAT WAS MELODRAMATIC 

There we go. There's that word: melodrama. Hold on, let me say it again: melodrama. Has it sunk in again? Well I really can't stress it enough, this film is so melodramatic. I mean, I can handle melodrama as much as the next man, but this is just too much. This is pretty much the definition of melodrama, there's fighting, drama, cheating, romance, crying, insanity, murder, heat and a southern Gothic sense to it. And what makes In This Our Life bad? The fact that at every moment of plot you almost want to roll your eyes, and that some of the things that happen make you want to heckle the characters into oblivion.

What can the actors do? Well, pretty much nothing. Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland were unfortunately bestowed with the ability to overact in increasingly melodramatic ways. Here, that point is proven. Katharine Hepburn once said of Meryl Streep, " Click, click, click," while referring to the wheels turning inside Streep's head. She meant to say that Streep never inhibits a character, just acts. Here, I believe that quote would be much better bestowed upon Bette Davis. Yep, it's that bad. Sometimes I can tolerate, and even enjoy Davis. But here, she goes way too far.

Her character is that of a woman who ditches her fiancee for her sister's husband and then wants her fiancee back again. She inhibits this shallow, over the top caricature with more over the top. She really overdoes it, and leaves the audience really despise her. Not the character, but Davis. When Davis "acts", she makes the audience really hate her for putting us through this shameful display of pure insanity. That sounds harsh, but I really can't express how I am feeling in any other way. I just got incredibly fed up while watching this film, and Davis was part of that. I'm not saving that Davis was bad, some would say she is amazing, but her style is just not for me, and this film is a great example of why.

Olivia De Havilland also got on my nerves. She just seems to play the same character in everything. She plays the fragile woman who can be counted on roughing it out when it counts. In Gone With The Wind she does this, in The Snake Pit she does this, and in In This Our Life she does this. What I find aggravating about the whole thing is that she recognizes this, but she keeps doing it! Was she typecasted in this role, or was this just who she was? I know for sure that she was not such a saint, so perhaps this is all she was thought to do. I am sure she had great versatility, but here it just isn't recognized.

In the supporting roles,George Brent and Dennis Morgan play two men who were in love with both lead actresses at one point. While both their portrayals were soapy and over the top, I did really reel that Morgan was the best part of the film. His portrayal actually felt more than slightly realistic.  He offered up a believable performance in a very unbelievable film. He seems like a desperate soul, a lost person who can't quite find his place, and also misses his chance when he does strike something goal. Though he has limited screen time, I would have most definitely rather seen more of him than anyone else.

The film also has a subplot involving racism (Slight Spoilers Follow). Bette Davis hits and kills a little girl with her car and then blames it on the black family friend. He goes to jail, and the people are very prejudiced against him, and only our heroic team of Olivia De Havilland and George Brent can save him from Davis's careless accusation. This part of the film is actually handled quite well, and Huston treats the subject with grace, something I've never called him before. Indeed, it's heavy handed, but compared to the rest of the film it's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Although the actors really make this a complete and utter melodrama, they wouldn't be able to do anything without a truly terrible script. And boy do they get one. Every plot point is handled clumsily, and it makes the whole thing feel like a huge soap opera. This film is so over the top that it's one technicolour camera away from Sirkian heights of melodrama. Indeed, the script gives the film some pure and utter soap. It's not even funny, it's barely enjoyable (yes, I can easily see how one can enjoy a soap opera). A lot of this is mainly due to the script.
And oh god the score! It is so anonymous and uninteresting. It is almost as if someone held a jam session with a string quartet used to playing on "As The World Turns". It could have been worse, but if there is one thing I've picked up from Huston, it's that almost none of his films feature a good score. The cinematography is also quite anonymous. Unlike Huston's previous effort, which was full of great shots, In This Our Life is content with a couple close ups, but mainly just relies on a master for the whole film. It is the very definition of substance over style.

And now when I get to talk about Huston. In his sophomore film, John Huston turns 180 degrees away from his first film: "The Maltese Falcon". That film was interesting, and created a mood unlike anything seen here. Oh sure, this film has a mood, the kind of mood you expect to see on daytime television. The only two main reasons Huston made it was to help his friend Howard Koch, as this was one of his first screenplays (and then he wrote Casablanca), and to keep close to Olivia de Havilland, whom he was entangled with romantically at the time, and whom he later beat up Errol Flynn on the behalf of.

Overall, what is this film? Well, to tell you the truth, it's pretty bad. It has it's moments, and for that it isn't terrible. But still, it's pretty bad.

In This Our Life,
1942,
Starring: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland and Dennis Morgan
Directed by John Huston
5.5/10 (D+)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana

8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. Victory
20. The List of Adrian Messenger
21. Annie
22. Prizzi's Honor

23. The MacKintosh Man
24. Sinful Davey
25. In This Our Life
26. We Were Strangers
27. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror 

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Sinful Davey (1969)

THE FILM:
Sinful Davey would mark the beginning of John Huston's so called "dry" period. This period, which in Huston's eyes, would last from 1969 to 1975. He made many of his worst films during this area, and he blamed his decline on this film. It was basically forgotten after release, spending only a week in theaters. I had a devil of a time locating this film, eventually finding it on a limited release bare bones edition by MGM. The package it came in is so amateurish, I though in the beginning I was being duped. Anyways, there is a reason this film is little known. It was released six years after Tom Jones, and was generally thought to be a "rip-off" of that film.

The film cast a young John Hurt, ten years before he would break through in Alien and The Elephant Man, as the lead. The cast was filled out by a couple promising young actors and actresses, and Robert Morley, whom Huston had worked with on Beat the Devil and The African Queen. Huston had originally wanted to cast his daughter Anjelica in the lead female role. The producer disagreed, as Anjelica had only appeared in Huston's A Walk With Love and Death up until this point. Huston eventually agreed on Pamela Franklin, but this caused a rift between producer and director, a rift that widened even more when Huston refused to re-edit the film.

Today, where does this film stand? It has a 5.8 on IMDb (that's bad), and 33% on Rotten Tomatoes (also quite bad), and it is barely remembered, if at all. It is one of Huston's most forgotten films, and there's a reason for that....

THE PLOT:
Davey Haggart is a drummer in the British Army. One day, he deserts the army, and begins a life of crime. Davey is inspired by a man who may or may not be his father, an infamous criminal. Davey sets out to up his father, by committing the exact same crimes as him. He does this by dressing up as a Duke, and integrating himself into high society, while conspiring with a fellow pickpocket to rob the same Duke his father robbed. A small wrench is thrown into Davey's plans when Annie, a girl whom he befriended in his youth, is dead set on reforming Davey.

Annie also harbors a great love for Davey, an affection he does not return to her. While Davey seems to end up in bed with every girl he meets, he is still completely ignorant to Annie's love. Can Annie reform Davey before he suffers the same fate as his father, death by hanging?

THE CRITICISM:
....It's not very interesting. It's just an average film, through and through. There's nothing really special going on here, just your typical adventure film. The performances, direction, script, all are perfectly average, and they never excel beyond expectations. This isn't a bad film, but it isn't very good either. As Huston stated himself, it feels very dry. Some parts are exciting, and entertaining enough to light a smile on your face, but nothing here indicates any kind of genius whatsoever.

The best part is easily John Hurt. Hurt is a great actor, and he proves here that he charisma to spare, and was a great lead actor all the same. It's the kind of part that requires little acting, but heaps of presence. Despite being virtually unknown at the time, Hurt acts like he owns the place, and as a result totally owns the character of Davey Haggart. With a better script and director, this could have easily been awesome. However, we do get a glimpse of what could have been through Hurt. Despite the film itself, he excels. I could have easily watched just Hurt going around the country robbing people. That would have been a movie.

The rest of the cast is uniformly blah. We never really care for many of the characters, and the film's light tone makes it hard for us to really feel any stakes towards Davey's fate. Pamela Franklin is the wide-eyed do-gooder who tries to save Davey's soul. Every time she's on screen I checked my watch. She's just not that interesting, and her character's mission doesn't make much sense. I watched the film an hour ago, and she's already began to fade from memory. The rest of the cast, Robert Morley, Nigel Davenport and Ronald Fraser make little impact on the viewer and are easily forgotten, as is most of the movie.

I can't really offer any suggestions as to what would have made the casting better, but I can definitely describe what could have been done to improve the script. Make. It. Darker. I understand why the film wanted to be "light", it appeals to more people. But there is just no sense of danger here at all. Davey's escapades are very entertaining, but with a little malice, or stakes, they could have been much more interesting than what they are. The film feels very "cute", it never really wants to be more than it is. It is in that respect, one of Huston's most sincere films. However, sincerity doesn't equal a good film this time around.

The cinematography is certainly very pretty to look at, although the transfer to home video is very poor, rendering everything looking mute and dull. The film's locations are very nice indeed, and some of the scenes of John Hurt robbing people at a ball are very inventive and help to further the comedy of the situation. the score is rather unremarkable but it, along with the opening song are still quite effective within the movie itself, often helping with the light tone.

The direction is quite typical of Huston, it feels relaxed as if he is just letting the story take place at it's own pace.  It does help that the film has a relatively short running time. At 95 minutes, it certainly does not feel overlong. It could have benefited from a director who was more in tune with what he wanted from the film, but I can't bash Huston's direction completely, as there is nothing that really stands out as awful. There is also, however, nothing that stands out as good either, quite indicative of the film itself.

Overall, is Sinful Davey bad? No. Is it good? Not really. What it is is an hour and a half of John Hurt running around Scotland. You could do worse.

Sinful Davey,
1969,
Starring: John Hurt, Pamela Franklin and Robert Morley,
Directed by John Huston.
6/10 (C-)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. Victory
20. The List of Adrian Messenger
21. Annie
22. Prizzi's Honor

23. The MacKintosh Man
24. Sinful Davey
24. We Were Strangers
25. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Victory (1981)

THE FILM:
John Huston was nearing the end of his life. Having just finished the under seen, horrifically bad Phobia, he set his eyes on a project that looked incredibly commercial. It was the story of an allied soccer team who played Germany to escape. Having originally been written as a drama, the project Huston overtook was fluff. However, it was commercial fluff, and Huston was short on cash. The film was to star Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Brazilian soccer player Pele.

As soon as filming began, it became clear that Stallone had the biggest ego on set, through his insistence that he score a goal, despite being the goalkeeper (that's impossible in soccer). The film went on to become a modest hit, grossing close to $11 million, and it soon disappeared. Today the film is mostly found in bargain bins and double disks with similar films. It has a 6.4 on IMDb, and a 67% on Rotten Tomatoes. It is essentially a product of it's time, but that doesn't mean it is without perks.

THE PLOT:
We are introduced to Captain Robert Hatch and Captain John Colby, an American and a British officer stuck in a German prison camp in World War II. Colby was once a famous football (soccer) star back before the war. He holds a mutual admiration for Major Karl von Steiner, a former player, and now a German officer. Steiner sees a possible propaganda victory in a soccer team run by Colby, and challenges him to a friendly match. Colby agrees, while the officers around him try and convince him to escape sometime during the game.

It is after Hatch escapes and returns with the knowledge of a way out of the change room during halftime, Colby agrees to get him, and his ragtag team of soccer stars, out. But can they leave victorious as well...

THE CRITICISM:
My first thought when I heard of Victory was, "Wow, that sounds campy." After I saw it, I though "Wow, that was campy." As soon as you see Michael Caine and Max von Sydow as two former soccer stars, you can pretty much give up all hope for a serious film. Although that doesn't mean Huston doesn't try. Or at least he appears to try. Everyone involved takes it so seriously, it's actually kind of funny. There are points where you just start laughing at the absolute absurdity of the situation.

I mean really...a soccer game? The fate of World War Two depends on a soccer game? Well, according to this film it does. And the soccer game is so bad, it's actually entertaining. Don't get me wrong, I am not a huge fan of soccer, but I know that no soccer game can have as many absurd kicks and slow motion goalkeeping while someone yells "Victory!" in the background. The soccer game is so cheesy, that it instantly becomes memorable. That is not to say that the film proceeding it hasn't the same absurd perks.

The opening hour is pretty much just a setup for the big game, with Michael Caine doing a lot of running and shouting while Sylvester Stallone breaks out of prison from the shower. I mean, really... And I'm not even going to mention the ending, which is so implausible that even a six year old could have said "That's impossible!" Stallone could be considered to be the main character, I guess (he is billed first). He does an adequate job, but I have trouble believing that the bulky Stallone and the potbellied Caine are starving POW's. Stallone gets the bulk of the film's most dramatic scenes, which isn't a bad decision, but this is an action film.

At times it appears that Stallone is having a hard time deciding what his character is all about, while reading his lines in the same tone. He can really dive for a ball in slow motion though... Caine, when contrasted with Stallone seems like he's doing Shakespeare. He gives the best performance of the film (meaning he doesn't suck), while actually giving, gasp!, depth to his performance. Caine has always been a great actor, but he still didn't catch onto the campiness of the film, so he plays it straight. This makes it even cheesier, thus making it more entertaining.

There is another actor involved who gives an average performance, Max von Sydow. Von Sydow has always been a great actor, and he may have been the only actor in on the joke. He also portrays the nicest doggone Nazi I've ever seen. He just isn't threatening, but he is entertaining. After Pele gives a slow motion bicycle kick, he stands up and claps with absolute reverence. Oh, and Pele plays for the opposite team than the one he is supposed to cheer for. Just thinking about that moment has me in stitches.

Speaking of Pele, most of the cast is made up of famous soccer players. Besides Pele, who is largely considered one of the greatest soccer players of all time, the film also features Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles and so on. They all perform greatly on the field, as they do a lot of kicking, and yelling at Germans. The script is an absolute mess, yet it is such an entertaining mess! It walks the thin line between bad and average skillfully.

The cinematography is nothing to write home about, but I must pay tribute to Bill Conti's bombastic score. It is overly patriotic in the best way possible, in someways foreshadowing his terrific score to The Right Stuff. Also bombastic are the sets, particularly the stadium where the pivotal game is played, and contribute to the over the top nature of the film.

And that about brings me to Huston's direction. I know that he was nearing the end of his life, but this film is so lifeless, so devoid of direction, that you could have literally changed the directorial credit to anyone else, and I would have believed it. I do not mean to harp on the same point in every one of these reviews, but it is so frustrating that the film is so languid and relaxed direction wise, it gets me every time. Overall, this film is so bad, it is incredibly entertaining. In a campy sort of way, you could call it a success, but as a film it is definitely lacking.

Oh, and by the way, at one point Sylvester Stallone speaks french. Just thought I'd leave you with that thought.

Victory,
1981,
Starring: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Max von Sydow,
Directed by John Huston,
6.5/10 (C+)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. Victory
20. The List of Adrian Messenger
21. Annie
22. Prizzi's Honor

23. The MacKintosh Man
24. We Were Strangers
25. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror
 


Saturday, 16 March 2013

We Were Strangers (1949)

THE FILM:
Huston was back. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was a success, and the war was over. He was back in the game, so he felt the urge to make another film. His next project marked the beginning of a short lived partnership with Sam Spiegel. It was called We Were Strangers. The film was partially adapted from the novel "Rough Sketch", and Huston wrote the script with future collaborator Peter Viertel. They wrote a whole section of the script while staying with Ernest Hemingway, and Hemingway's suggested ending was dropped for being too bleak.

Huston had originally wanted to cast unknown Marilyn Monroe in the lead role, but Spiegel did not want to pay for a screen test. They went with Jennifer Jones and John Garfield in the leads, after getting them on loan from their retrospective studios. Today the film is virtually unknown, it has a 6.6 on IMDb and no score at all on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps the future Cuban Revolution made this film seem stale, and that helps explain it's descent into obscurity. Or perhaps it's just a bad film.

THE PLOT:
China is a bank teller living in Cuba in 1933. Her brother is working with a group of revolutionaries who are trying to depose the government. Her brother is caught handing out leaflets for their cause, and he is shot and killed. China grows upset (understandably) and joins the revolutionaries herself. She meets an American named Tony Fenner and he comes up with the plan  to blow up all of the heads of government. To do this, they will use China's house as a base. They will tunnel under the ground to a nearby cemetery. Then they will kill a prominent politician and blow everyone at his funeral up.

The plan gets complicated when the man who murdered China's brother finds China and begins to suspect she is doing something shady. Also, China and Tony begin to fall for each other, all the while Cuba descends into a totalitarian state.

THE CRITICISM:
It is hard to watch this film without taking into account the revolution in Cuba in the late 1950s and early 1960s. That revolution, which put Castro into power, makes this film seem very outdated. Even though it is set in 1933, this film still feels heavily dated and unrealistic. That is not the only problem. This film tries to achieve two objectives, to be a political thriller and a romantic drama, and it fails on both accounts. It appears that Huston just couldn't direct a thriller. Both The MacKintosh Man and The List of Adrian Messanger were spectacularly thrill less.

It is not as if the film is a mess, but it just had no sense of direction. With a better director, someone who cared more, this could have been a pretty good thriller. But Huston's tepid direction is nothing short of boring. Even the veteran actors on display could not save the film. Jennifer Jones is a great actress, but here she is not good. Her role is so poorly written that it just screams cliche. Her Cuban accent is rough and unbelievable. Her line deliveries are stodgy, and her character is just boring. The revenge plot device runs out of steam quickly, and we are left with people digging a tunnel for an hour.

John Garfield is a good actor when given good material, which he is not here. His character is from average
from the get go, and it hurts his performance dearly. He is not accomplishing anything new in this film, and his persona wears thin quickly. The one standout in the cast is Pedro Armendariz. His character's scenes are few, but he has one standout scene which he excels in. That scene is also the highlight of the film, due much to Armendariz's talent.

The script seems to never know what it wants. It jumps back and forth between political thriller and romance. The romance seems forced, and the political side seems dated. And of course, the thrills are non-existent. The script however could have been improved, and it could have made for a good film. That, unfortunately, was not the case.

The cinematography is actually quite good. It is shot like a film Noir, with terrific lighting. However, Huston's camera refuses to be original or move much. It stays completely still, bringing an air of stuffiness to the screen. The score is good enough to listen to, but you forget about it completely after the film ends. It is just like the film, unmemorable.

I have talked often about Huston's laid back style of direction.  It can definitely work for some kinds of films, but you can not direct in a thriller in a relaxed fashion! The whole point of a thriller is to thrill, not to just show stuff that can be considered thrilling. You have to put your camera into the scene, you have to make audiences feel the stakes. This film does none of that. And of course, the film is so anticlimactic. **SPOILER ALERT** Just after they kill a politician and are having the bomb made, they find out that the funeral is being held somewhere else. All the work they did was for nothing, and that's it. That's the end. Then there is a shootout and the revolutionaries win! **SPOILER ALERT**

It feels so false, that it becomes hard to take the film seriously. Perhaps I am bashing this film too hard, but I can't help it. This kind of boring, thrill less exercise feels like a waste of my time. It is not that bad of a film, but it is definitely not as good as it could have been. It left me just as quickly as it came to me, and it is one film I do not think I will see ever again.

We Were Strangers,
1949,
Starring: Jennifer Jones, John Garfield and Pedro Armendariz,
Directed by John Huston,
5/10 (D-)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. The List of Adrian Messenger
20. Annie
21. Prizzi's Honor

22. The MacKintosh Man
23. We Were Strangers
23. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror
 



Sunday, 3 March 2013

The MacKintosh Man (1973)

THE FILM:
Paul Newman and John Huston had a blast filming The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. They had so much fun on that film, that they instantly tried to duplicate it. The result was not only unsatisfying, it also marked the end of Huston and Newman's short partnership. The film was The MacKintosh Man, and it was a middling failure. It failed to ignite the box office on fire, and it has been virtually forgotten. It's not even Huston's most famous spy thriller. 

There really is not much to discuss about the film. It was the last Huston made in his beloved Ireland, just before he left. It boasted Dominique Sanda's first English turn, and a villain portrayed by the terrific James Mason. It also contained a screenplay by Walter Hill, who would go on to do much better things. It was Huston's last film in his self proclaimed dry period (which lasted from Sinful Davey to this film). It was by all counts, a failure.

THE PLOT:
James Reardon is a member of British Intelligence that is called by his boss MacKintosh, to infiltrate a spy organization. To do so, he puts on an Australian accent and robs a postman. He is convicted and sent to jail. There he is approached by a man who offers to help him escape, claiming to be part of an organization. He is helped, but at the same time he is distrusted. Back in London, MacKintosh is trying to tie a prominent London politician into the Soviet(?) scandal. 

However, MacKintosh gets too close and is assassinated. Reardon too is in danger. MacKintosh's secretary and daughter (once again?) flies up to Ireland and together they track Soviet spies, but their own lives are at risk.  Can they make it?

THE CRITICISM: 
This is the film's tagline: "Only MacKintosh can save them now. And MacKintosh is dead!". Wow...when I first heard that tagline I doubled over laughing. Which is precisely one more laugh  than I got from this film. There are so many things wrong without this film, I could make a list....hey I've got enough time! Paul Newman plays a British man playing an Australian, sounding like an American. It is hard to understand what Dominique Sanda is saying, and her line delivery can be awful (ex."No, he was my father".). MacKintosh is in the title, and he is in the film for...five minutes. The plot is deliberately confusing. I had no idea what was going on until I looked it up later. Even then, it made no sense. James Mason's villain is paper thin, and the whole Soviet subplot is just a mess.

However, the whole thing manages to break even.  It is not the worst film Huston made (ahem, I'm looking at you Phobia), but it is far from his best. The whole cast seems incredibly bored, but no one is more bored than Paul Newman. This may very well be the worst performance I have ever seen Newman give. His rendition is so blank and oh so very boring, that at points you want to scream at him to show some of that famous Newman charm. Perhaps he was all charmed out, he made The Sting the same year. Still, he is one of the most dull and lifeless protagonists I've seen in a long time.

However he does not give the worst performance of the film. That honour goes to Dominique Sanda. I loved her in Il Conformista, but her performance her has me doubting my initial affection.  She too manages to be effortlessly wooden, but with a French accent! Harry Andrews, who plays MacKintosh is charming, but he gives no idea why anyone would have a whole plot revolve around him. Perhaps the one saving grace here is James Mason, he is good. My god, how I longed for some kind of charm! His character is poorly written, yet he manages to be...average!

The script is entirely pointless. It makes no sense, and is unnecessarily confusing.  It is fulled with pointless exchanges, and scenes were literally nothing important happens. There is a five minute sequence were Sanda and Newman talk, while they tan. That's it. But perhaps the greatest example of shoddy scripting occurs during the climax.  Ahem, **SPOILER ALERT**. Sanda has been kidnapped, and Newman must save her from Mason's evil claws, because....he has to save her. So he goes onto a boat and knocks a sailor on the head, and demands to be taken to her, and then...he is. No chase sequence or exchange of dialogue, that's..it. Then the sailor takes him to Sanda, and he talks to James Mason for a while, about...nothing. I'm pretty sure they bring up chess at one point. **END SPOILERS**

Correct me if I am wrong, but aren't thrillers supposed to...thrill? If they are, than this is most certainly not a thriller. It may seem as if I am bashing the film relentlessly (I am), but the film is not without it's good points. It has some beautiful cinematography. The chase(?) scene through the foggy Irish lowlands is beautiful, even if it is more landscape than cinematography. The score by Maurice Jarre is also very good. It is cheerful and fun, something that Huston should have payed more attention to during the making of the film.

Speaking of Huston, he directed this? After all it contains no directorial input, it could have shot itself. It is so boring and uninterestingly shot, it seemed like Huston just gave directing and let the story play itself out. Bad move. It's plot isn't very remarkable, but it could have been at least a little bit thrilling. Huston said himself that he hated the film, and it isn't hard to see why. It is a tepid, middling entry in Huston's filmography, and one I hope to never revisit again.

 The MacKintosh Man,
1973,
Starring: Paul Newman, Dominique Sanda and James Mason,
Directed by John Huston,
6/10 (C-)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. The List of Adrian Messenger
20. Annie
21. Prizzi's Honor

22. The MacKintosh Man
23. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror
 

Sunday, 24 February 2013

The List Of Adrian Messenger (1963)

THE FILM:
Having just completed the exhausting film that was to become Freud, John Huston set his sights on a new project, The List of Adrian Messenger. The script had been written by Tony Veiller, whom Huston had worked with before. It was a little thriller, set mostly on an estate in Ireland, a favourite place of Huston's. It also involved a climax taking place during a foxhunt, one of Huston's favourite activities. It also seemed like the kind of slight thriller he could make quickly and with little expense.

He cast the American George C. Scott as the British Anthony Gethryn, the film's lead. As a marketing gimmick, he cast many famous actors in cameo, under heavy disguise. At the end of the film, each actor reveals themselves. The film was made quickly, and cheaply. It didn't set the box office on fire, however, and by then Huston was in Mexico shooting The Night Of The Iguana. Today, the film is barely remembered, and when it is, it is often the central gimmick remembered, not the film itself.

THE PLOT:
Anthony Gethryn is enjoying a weekend in the country with an old flame, Lady Jocelyn, and her cousin Adrian Messenger. Then, after a foxhunt, Anthony is pulled aside by Adrian, and Adrian gives him a list of names. He tells Anthony to look into their names, but doesn't give any reason why. Adrian then leaves for America, but en route his airplane explodes, and he dies. Anthony begins to look into the names, before realizing that most of them are dead.

He then meets with a man who tells him Adrian's last words. Suddenly, he begins to realize that someone wanted him dead, and everyone on his list as well. Along with Jocelyn and a man named Raoul, Anthony slowly begins to realize that a massive conspiracy is underway, but it is too late?

THE CRITICISM:
In order to make a good thriller, one must have three components. A plot that contains an amount of mystery, a lead with whom you can cheer for, and a feeling of palpable dread. The List of Adrian Messenger has none of the above. Does that make it a bad movie? No, but it certainly doesn't make it a good thriller. It appears to be Huston just sitting back and resting. Indeed, when I read the plot summary, I thought the premise was very good indeed. It sounded exactly like the stuff good thrillers were made of.

Of course, it wasn't. Huston wasn't nearly involved enough to give the film any edge whatsoever. The entire affair felt as if Huston was just going through the motions. Despite the outstanding cast, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Dana Wynter, and George C. Scott, only Scott, Wynter and Douglas are on screen for any measure of time. In fact, most of the film rests on the shoulders of Scott.

George C. Scott is an outstanding actor, but here, despite the initial shock of "it's George C. Scott with a mustache!" he doesn't really do much with the character. The British accent is admirable, but even it soon wears thin (along with the mustache), and in fact his character is surprisingly dull. It doesn't help that he is given some really bad lines ("This is not the work of many men, but one man who is many men!"), but a veteran actor like Scott should have been able to flush out his performance.

Dana Wynter was perfectly suited to be furniture, and her performance is wooden as a board, but not because of her. It isn't fault that her character is perfectly useless. There is a connection between her and Scott's character mentioned, but it is dropped after a few lines. Jacques Roux, who plays Scott's sidekick also suffers from having nothing to do. The juiciest part of the film goes to Kirk Douglas, as the man who is many men, and he is good. The thing is, he isn't given enough time to show his evilness, and the film's lightweight tone doesn't help him either.

The celebrity cameos never elevate above gimmick, and the film doesn't showcase the cameos enough for the audience members to guess who is who. The script had promise, but under Huston's monotonous direction, the plot never really excites. In fact the film's tone is so light, one could mistake it for a satire, similar in tone to Beat the Devil. The first half really makes this seem as if it was actually what Huston wanted. However, when the second half begin, it is made clear that this is not a comedy, much to the film's detriment.

The makeup used to hide the celebrities is actually not half bad, but it makes the skin of the mask look very old, and plastic like. Still, it is convincing enough to hide many celebrities, and it makes for an interesting enough ending. The film's sets are really basic, and even the climax is kind of boring. The plane crash scene looks intensely amateurish, especially when compared to a similar scene in Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent in 1940.

The cinematography is one note, and never becomes that interesting. The foxhunting scenes are the best shot scenes of the film, but the sport itself is rather confusing to me. Which brings me to the direction by Huston. Lax doesn't describe it. Anyone could have shot this film, and none of Huston's usual trademarks can be seen. It is a very boring exercise, only because no one seemed interested in the film, except Kirk Douglas. And even Douglas wasn't allowed to do much because Huston wasn't doing much.

In short, what could have been a great thriller falls short of it's target. It still manages to entertain, but not nearly as much as it could have.

The List of Adrian Messenger,
1963,
Starring: George C. Scott, Kirk Douglas and Dana Wynter,
Directed by John Huston,
6/10 (C-)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. The List of Adrian Messenger
20. Annie
21. Prizzi's Honor
22. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Key Largo (1948)

THE FILM:
After World War II, John Huston was eager to get back into the business. After The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston came upon Maxwell Anderson's play Key Largo. He decided to do it, but only after completely rewriting the entire play. After completing the script, he went to the studio and, contrasting with Sierra Madre, he shot it entirely within the studio.  The film featured a cast of Hollywood heavyweights, including Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore.

Despite the fact that it was well received, the film has faded into relative obscurity. It won an Oscar for Claire Trevor, but that was the extent of it's awards. This is really quite sad, as it is excellent.

THE PLOT:
Ex-Army Major Frank McCloud travels down to Key Largo, in order to pay his respects to the family of one of his fallen comrades. When he gets there, the hotel they run is being inhabited by city men of the shady kind. He gets a drink from a woman at the bar, and then goes out to meet the family. At the same time, the hotel receives a storm warning, a hurricane is on the way. They shut up the hotel, and then it is revealed that the shady men are working for Johnny Rocco.

Rocco was a Prohibition era gangster, and he is in Key Largo to collect a payment. As the hurricane comes and the characters are all trapped under the same roof, danger ensues.

THE CRITICISM:
If Hollywood was good for one thing in the 1940s, it was making films like this. This kind of adventure film speaks to the masses, while still managing to entertain. This was the kind of action film you got back then, except less action and more buildup and talking. This is the kind of film they don't make anymore, and the kind I wish they did. A film like this doesn't need a good director, or a good plot, just good actors and great dialogue. This film has all of the above.

The acting is consistently excellent. Humphrey Bogart plays his typical stoic hero, but that's okay because the part never gets old. Lauren Bacall does good work as the widow of Bogart's old army buddy, but her part is the most cliched and uninteresting. Still, she holds her own against the rest of the cast. Lionel Barrymore is also quite good, a contrast to his despicable character in It's A Wonderful Life the year before.

However the two standouts among the cast are Edward G. Robinson and Claire Trevor. Robinson gives a performance that acts like a swansong to the gangster characters he cut his teeth on in the 1930s. He is crass, rude and evil, yet he has a bit of heart. You don't cheer for him, but you do feel sorry for him. However the pity you feel towards Robinson is nothing compared to that of which you feel towards Claire Trevor.

While Trevor mainly stays in the background for the film, she does come out in one terrific scene that definitely justifies her Oscar win. In the scene, she sings one of her old songs so that Robinson will give her a drink. Trevor makes the best of the scene and her rendition is pitiful. Robinson won't give her the drink, but Bogart gives it to her anyways. It's one of the film's best scenes.

While the performances are quite good, they wouldn't work if it were not for the great dialogue by Huston and Richard Brooks. While not endlessly quotable like Casablanca, their writing does give the story it's edge, and it works perfectly, although there is one line that comes out of nowhere that doesn't quite fit. The last scene, borrowed from To Have and Have Not, is a thrilling end to the story, and although it may be called cheesy by some, I believe that it was the perfect way to end such a film.

The cinematography is rather simple, but for a stage bound film like this, it is perfectly adequate.  The score is unmemorable, or maybe there was no score. If there was it was too boring to remember. The hurricane scenes are surprisingly well done, and the sets are well built and convinces. For a studio production, it sure tries hard to make it look realistic.

Now to Huston's direction. While this story really carries no directorial trademark, it is still very well done and thrilling. Huston keeps an iron grip over the story, and though his direction is lax, it still accomplishes what it needs to.

Overall, I found this film to be a nifty little thriller. It is very entertaining and still contains enough to think about afterwards. Definitely one I'd watch again.

Key Largo,
1948,
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall,
Directed by John Huston,
8.5/10 (A)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. Key Largo
9. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
10. The Misfits

11. Beat the Devil

12. Reflections in a Golden Eye
13. Fat City
14. Wise Blood
15. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
16. The Unforgiven
17. Under The Volcano
18. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

19. Annie
20. Prizzi's Honor
21. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror


Friday, 15 February 2013

The Night Of The Iguana (1964)

THE FILM:
In the early 60s, Tennessee Williams's new play was a big hit on Broadway. This success got John Huston interested in the subject. The setting, Mexico, only excited him more. He bought the rights, and decided to shoot it. For the cast, he choose a group of veteran actors and one new hot prospect to flesh out the roles. The lead was to be played by Richard Burton, who had gathered quite an entourage by this point due to his affair with Elizabeth Taylor.

Huston thought that problems should be avoided at all cost, so he equipped all cast members with 6 guns, and 6 bullets with the names of all the other members of the cast on it. There were no problems during shooting. Williams's himself came down to Mexico during the shoot to watch over Huston's direction. In the end, the film was made quickly and efficiently. It grossed a healthy budget, and everyone walked off satisfied.

As did I.

THE PLOT:
Reverend Shannon is a defrocked priest. He roams the wilderness of Mexico as a tour guide for a cheap bus company. He is a drunkard, and in his party he contains a bunch of baptist teachers from Texas. One girl in his party, Charlotte has a crush on Shannon. Her guardian is deeply suspicious, and Shannon tries to ward off her advances, but he is unsuccessful. He is caught, and when threatened by Charlotte's guardian the fear of losing his job becomes too much. He drives his party to an old hotel in the middle of the jungle, to meet Maxine, and old friend.

He keeps the tour group in the hotel until he can change their minds, and possibly save his job. At the same time, an old poet and his granddaughter also arrive in the hotel, and then day fades into night...

THE CRITICISM:
I do not like Tennessee Williams. I've seen A Streetcar Named Desire, Suddenly Last Summer and this film. While Streetcar is very overrated, it at least had great performances, and some kind of cohesive plot. Suddenly Last Summer is a plot less mess, and only Katherine Hepburn's performance made it bearable. However, this film is an exception. I genuinely enjoyed it, even on my second viewing.

The performance's are excellent, for the most part. Richard Burton gives his character a crazed energy that showcases exactly how good an actor he was. The material is putty in his hands, and he morphs it into a man whom could be deemed disgusting, and who becomes quite relatable. His character is pitiful yet entertaining at the same time, thanks to Burton's talent. Ava Gardener, whom one could deem as past her prime in this film, sparkles with a repressed sadness.

Gardner may have been popular in the 40s and 50s, but here she truly shows that she can act. Her Maxine is similar to Burton's character, she contains a repressed sadness that only bubbles out in the end. However, the true delight of the film for me was Deborah Kerr. I've always thought that Kerr was immensely talented, but here she shows exactly how talented. She never succumbs to being over the top, and dominating the film. Instead the exact opposite occurs. It is only later, when one reflects on the film that Kerr's true brilliance is revealed.

For example, there is one monologue that she gives that takes up about five minutes, but I never got bored. I did not because I kept watching Kerr's face and admiring her talent. it is only on re watching the film that I truly understand what drew me to Kerr's portrayal in the beginning. Sheer brilliance. Also excellent is Grayson Hall as the cloying chaperone, and Cyril Delevanti as the world's oldest poet. However, if there is a weak link in the cast, it is certainly Sue Lyon.

Fresh off her debut in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Lyon here does a lot of pouting. And flirting woodenly. Don't get me wrong, she certainly looks the part, but she doesn't act it well. Her line deliveries come off as flat, and uninteresting. She was good in Lolita, but perhaps it was the director that shaped her performance in that film. Here, she is the most boring character, instead of one of the most interesting.

While I do not like Tennessee Williams as a writer, he could certainly write great parts for actors. He was also a quick thinker, apparently. In Huston's autobiography, he states that a scene in the film was coming off flat, and then Williams told him to have Burton knock over a glass bottle, and have him walk over. That little thing immensely helps the film.

The writing is good for the most part, but the story is kind of soapy. Still, if you go with the flow, the end result is quite entertaining. The cinematography is vibrant and although the film feels stagey in some parts, the cinematography elevates it from the stage, and into the jungle's of Mexico. The score is also quite good, especially for a Huston film.

Speaking of Huston, his direction here is vibrant and it feels alive. It feels as if he just recharged his batteries and came out of the gates running. To be fair, it does appear as if Huston directed the film in his normal style, but I can't help feeling entertained. His relaxed direction is confident and it works well. While Huston mainly directed novels, after this film, I'd love to see him do another play.

While, it may be outdated and stagey, this film is still incredibly entertaining and the cast is uniformly terrific.

The Night Of The Iguana,
1964,
Starring: Richard Burton, Ava Gardener and Deborah Kerr,
Directed by John Huston,
8.5/10 (A)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Night Of The Iguana
8. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
9. The Misfits
10. Beat the Devil

11. Reflections in a Golden Eye
12. Fat City
13. Wise Blood
14. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
15. The Unforgiven
16. Under The Volcano
17. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

18. Annie
19. Prizzi's Honor
20. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror 

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)

THE FILM:
Carson McCullers's novel Reflections In A Golden Eye had a tough time making it to the big screen. The main subject, homosexuality, was a big no no for studios during the 1940s, 50s and 60s. So when John Huston and Elizabeth Taylor struck out to make the film, they knew they were in for a tough time. Taylor's longtime friend, Montgomery Clift was initially set to play the lead, but he died before the script was finished. Taylor then set her eyes to Marlon Brando, and despite his initial resistance, he eventually took on the part.

Huston originally wanted McCullers to write the script, but her illness made that impossible. Huston and McCullers became friends, Huston even invited the ailing author to his Ireland home, soon before she died. Huston managed to get most of his original version onto the screen, but not everything, He originally planned to have the film tinted so it all became a muted gold colour. Unfortunately the tinting confused audiences, and it was pulled from theatres.

The film bombed on release, and faded into relative obscurity, despite the high profile stars on display. Today it held in rather low regard. It has a 6.8 on IMDb, and a 57% on Rotten Tomatoes (that qualifies as Rotten). Which I find hard to believe, as the film is actually quite good.

THE PLOT:
Major Penderton is a closeted homosexual living in a southern Army base. His wife, Leonora, is repressed and lashes out on him by having an affair with their neighbor, whose wife is mentally disturbed. One day, Penderton sees a young private, and he becomes infatuated with him. The same private becomes infatuated with Leonora, and begins to break into the Penderton house at night just to look at her. In the meantime, Lt. Colonel Langdon, the man whom Leonara is having an affair with, begins to grow worried with his wife.

Earlier she had an attack, and did something odd to herself with a pair of garden shears. Now, with her suspicion about her husband growing, she begins to get closer and closer to another attack. She and her manservant and confidant, Anacleto, begin  to make plans to leave. Meanwhile, Major Penderton's infatuation with the soldier becomes more and more intense, bringing them all towards the brink of madness...

THE CRITICISM:
I have never found Huston's films to show subtlety in any way, shape or form. So, when I heard he directed a film about a closeted homosexual, warning signs began to flare up all around me. I was worried that Huston would treat the subject tactlessly, and that perhaps Huston would show Penderton as a "bad" person for his sexuality. I did not think, however, who would be playing Penderton. Marlon Brando. 

My fears, however, were not verified. Huston not only treats the subject with tact, he allows Brando to give one of his most interesting performances. By giving Brando most of the weight of the role, he allows Brando to not portray the character as an innocent, or a bad guy. His character finds the moral grey area, and jumps straight in. Brando portrays a man who is disgusted by his very core, but one whom cannot resist his primal urge. Also, he totally nailed the southern accent, and even added his own mumble in the mix, to really make the character stand out.

Marlon Brando was one of the best actors of all time, and his portrayal is absolutely excellent. That is not to say, however, that he was the only one who gave a good performance. Elizabeth Taylor's floozy wife, is the exact opposite of Brando's introverted character. She is extroverted, unabashed and she speaks her mind. She seems like the perfect party girl, yet her moral core is even worse than Brando's. She doesn't care who she hurts, just as long as she gets what she wants.

Taylor worked a long time to get the film made, and you can tell she was made for the part. Also excellent is the always underrated Julie Harris. She seems to be a heartbeat from collapse in each scene, yet she strings herself along. Brian Keith is very good, but his part is the most underwritten. Although he says barely nothing, Robert Forster as the object of Brando's desire is a mystery. Why does he break into the Penderton house just to go through Leonora's things? Why does he always ride his horse naked, at the exact same time each day?

This mystery propels the current of foreboding that weaves itself through the storyline. I suppose this film could technically be called a mystery, the opening of the film features a quote from the novel it is based on. The quote states that there was a murder in the south. But who was murdered, and who was the murderer? The writing manages to propel this undercurrent in a way that is admirable. The pace is slow, but not languid, and the last few scenes rack up the tension, even though you have no reason to feel tension.

Reflections in a Golden Eye has been called a mixture of camp and mystery. While I cannot deny that the film does not contain camp, it actually works for the film. The film does not create a world that feels realistic. Rather, in the tradition of many Southern Gothic films, it creates a fantasy world that feels detached from reality. The cinematography does nothing but help this effect. From the opening shot, the film feels like a dream. Golden hues trickle down from the sky, and it is clear that at least some of Huston's tinting made it through to the final print.

While this dreamy effect is nice at the beginning, it slowly becomes more and more sinister. By the end, the golden hue has been replaced by jagged lightning. The effect works well. The score, is yet another weak link. It has moments where it is good, but in others it sounds over the top for such a film.

However, this does not mean the film is flawless. The price of originality is that it can become tiring at times, and this film is no exception. As well, the last shot is really cheesy, and it made me burst out laughing, when I probably shouldn't have. As well, the character Anacleto, Julie Harris's servant, is kind of annoying. Risking criticism,  he seems to be the other end of the spectrum from Brando, meaning flamboyant as opposed to introverted.

Going back to the good points, Huston's direction is quite good. Instead of smashing the audience with a blunt instrument, his film does contain subtlety. By the end, it feels like a sick joke. That is in fact quite good. There is a deep, black satire embedded deep in the film, and it only makes the film more interesting. Huston's use of colour is also striking, and the horseback scenes are thrilling. Despite the implied animal cruelty displayed near the middle of the film.

Overall this film, while flawed, is still one of Huston's most interesting films. Thanks to the great performances by Taylor and Brando, the film manages to not dumb down the issue of homosexuality, but also not to treat it in a negative light. Homosexuality is not what dooms Penderton, but in fact it is his inability to accept who he is that dooms him right from the start.

Reflections in a Golden Eye,
1967,
Starring: Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor and Julie Harris.
Directed by John Huston.
7.5/10 (B+).

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
8. The Misfits
9. Beat the Devil

10. Reflections in a Golden Eye
11. Fat City
12. Wise Blood
13. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
14. The Unforgiven
15. Under The Volcano
16. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

17. Annie
18. Prizzi's Honor
19. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror 


Monday, 4 February 2013

The Red Badge Of Courage (1951)

THE FILM:
In 1950, John Huston happened to read Stephan Crane's famous Civil War novel, The Red Badge Of Courage. He immediately thought it would make a great movie, and brought it to Louis B. Mayor, head of M.G.M. Mayer rejected it on the grounds that it was not commercial, there were no female leads and therefore no love interests (a problem Huston would encounter again when making Moby Dick). However Huston persisted, and this resulted in a bitter power struggle at the studio.

In the end the film was made, but only after Mayer was removed as head of studio. The film was made using mainly unknown actors, including Audie Murphy, the most decorated war hero in American history. It was completed and Huston himself called it his greatest film. He left to Africa shortly after to make The African Queen. However, while Huston was abroad, the studio premiered the film in front of a test audience. They hated it, and the picture was soon in jeopardy.

As Huston was abroad, and the producer was the lone voice that spoke for the film. The studio mercilessly gutted the film, stripping it bare. The running time was slashed in half, and Huston's film was released halfheartedly and forgotten. Huston and Murphy both tried to buy the rights, but the studio said no, and the full version has never been released.

Which is really quite sad, as the film could have very well been Huston's masterpiece.

THE PLOT:
A young Union soldier in the Civil War is getting tired of endless drilling. Finally he gets his wish, as their regiment is told that they are to be shipped out to battle soon. However, the news troubles him. He is afraid that during the fighting he will become scared and run away. He shares his fears with his cocky comrades, but they do little to quell his ever increasing doubts. Finally the next day comes when they all leave for teh battle field.

As they march towards their destiny, the young soldier sees multiple bodies. He finally gets to the battle field, and he doesn't lose his cool during their first skirmish, but when the second wave comes he loses it and runs. Feeling guilty and saddened, he wanders throughout the forest aimlessly, witnessing first hand the gruesome truth of war.

THE CRITICISM:
This film would have been absolutely amazing. If it was it's original length. When I finished the film, I was fuming. Not because I didn't like the film,  but because it was a butchered masterpiece. The studio mercilessly slaughtered the film, with no thought to it's creative integrity. The film lost so much continuity, that they had someone read quotes from the book to maintain some kind of balance. It makes it hard to review this film, not for what is there, but for what could have been. Perhaps someday someone will take control of the film and restore it to greatness (ahem, Criterion).

As it is, I'll focus on reviewing the film as it is. Simply speaking it is one of the best civil war movies of all time. The battle scenes are taught and suspenseful, the acting is top notch and the direction may be some of Huston's best. For starters, Audie Murphy gives a genius performance as the Young Soldier. Having been a war hero himself, Murphy completely immerses himself in the film, and the result is genius. In the earlier parts of the film, his vulnerability is outstanding, and in the later parts of  the film when he rages across a bloody battlefield, the fierce determination in his eyes is stunning.

By casting unknowns, Huston allowed his film to be not distracted by star-power, and relying on performance only. As the Loud Soldier, Bill Mauldin displays the same vulnerability as Murphy, only on the outside, rather than in a contained fury like Murphy. All the actors give a great semblance of realism to the film, something quite striking for a film of the period. I wish to bring up one scene at this moment, the scene in which the Young Soldier meets an older comrade, who is wounded and dying. The scene where he dies is so aesthetically different from the rest of Huston's oeuvre that I found it hard to believe this film was  made by the same man who would later make something so tonally different as The African Queen.

I have not read the novel by Stephen Crane (though I probably should), but from what I've seen I can see why the novel is famous. The screenplay, or what's left of it, is brilliant, and manages to be simplistic while still invigorating. The quality of the version I saw was not the best, but I saw enough of the film to be able to say that the cinematography is amazing. The black and white images contrast the bloodshed in the foreground against the clear gray sky in the background. This sharp, crisp, realistic images are incredibly detailed, especially for the period.

The way the film is shot reminds me of some period war films, and as Huston shot three I can see where the inspiration came from. The battle scenes are, as I said above, simply amazing. They show a brutal reality that few war films dare to attempt. The brutal combat, with an enemy that is never fully shown. Men die right next to you, and yet you carry on, oblivious to why you're fighting, and what you're fighting for. All of this against the clear American sky. It's not hard to see why the film bombed at the box office; it cut to close to the bone.

The score is good, but it can become a bit over the top at times. However, the scenes using traditional music fits perfectly and only enhances the films attitude. This brings me to Huston's direction. Despite my constant criticism's that Huston is lazy, and that he doesn't spend much time on his film's outcome, I have to say that here I am proven incorrect. Huston obviously cared for this film, and he knew it would be special. His meticulous craftsmanship is most easily noticed during the battle scenes.

They resonate with a power no "lazy" director could accomplish. Despite the choppy nature of the 69 minute cut, Huston's calm direction is a constant guiding line throughout. No studio could fumble badly enough to lose the spark that the film contains. This brings me to my problem with the film. It feels incomplete, as if someone took scissors and cut out a bunch of random parts. To make matters worse, the opening narration explaining who Stephen Crane is seems like an attempt to elongate the film.

The running narration throughout is exasperating, as at many points the narrator will interrupt the flow of the film to quote Stephen Crane, while saying something that does absolutely nothing to help the viewer. This is distracting, and with the fact that the film is only 69 minutes makes the film end way too early, and you are left feeling shortchanged.

Overall, this film could have been amazing. As it is, it is only great. It is my hope that someday a restored version will be released, similar to Metropolis. However, as it stands, this is still one of Huston's best, no matter how many people tamper with it.

The Red Badge Of Courage,
1951,
Starring: Audie Murphy, Bill Mauldin and Arthur Hunnicutt,
Directed by John Huston,
8.5/10 (A-)

RANKED:
1. The African Queen
2. The Dead
3. The Man Who Would Be King
4. Moby Dick
5. The Asphalt Jungle

6. The Red Badge Of Courage
7. The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean
8. The Misfits
9. Beat the Devil
10. Fat City
11. Wise Blood
12. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
13. The Unforgiven
14. Under The Volcano
15. Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison

16. Annie
17. Prizzi's Honor
18. Phobia: A Descent Into Terror