Monday, September 26, 2016

Top Ten Ralph Thomas-Betty Box Films

In no particular order
1) Doctor in the House (1954) -the first of the popular series and still charming
2) Doctor at Sea (1955) - sweet sequel which benefits from Brigitte Bardot in the cast
3) Doctor at Large (1956) - I'm being lazy with this list aren't I? But seriously the first three were the best
4) The Wind Cannot Read (1958) - David Lean was going to make this originally and would presumably have done a better job but this is still pretty good
5) Conspiracy of Hearts (1961) - genuinely very good film about nuns during World War Two
6) Appointment with Venus (1950) - guys on a mission film with a girl and the target is a cow - great fun
7) The High Bright Sun (1965) - fascinating thriller set during the British "troubles" in Cyprus
8) Deadlier Than the Male (1967) - Bond spoof which has proved surprisingly influential
9) A Tale of Two Cities (1958) - excellent version of the classic novel
10) No Love for Johnnie (1961) - perhaps Thomas' best film

Movie review - "Diane" (1956) **

Lana Turner's last film for MGM isn't that bad although it lost a lot of money at the box office. She's ideally cast as Diane du Poitiers. I admit my knowledge of this woman wasn't great beforehand - she was an influential mistress to the French King Henry II, apparently, and had a lot of power at court, and a rival to his wife, Catherine de Medici. This was presumably one reason why the movie wasn't that popular - these aren't that well known figures in the English speaking world.

There's no reason this film couldn't have changed that - I mean, who heard of El Cid outside of Spain before the movie was made about him? And these people did interesting things - Diane was beautiful and smart and posed nude; Henry (spoiler alert) died while jousting, which is cool. De Medici was a figure behind the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, where a whole bunch of protestants were killed by Catholics.

More problematic I feel was the lack of star power. Roger Moore is too young and callow - he had the voice but hadn't grown into his looks and can't carry off the part which really needed stay Stewart Granger; he and Turner have poor chemistry, which is important in a film about a couple who can't keep their hands off each other. Pedro Armendariz I guess is okay as his dad - he has charisma, but doesn't look related to Moore at all. Marisa Pavan is terrible as Catherine - it's hard to understand what she's saying. Far better are support players like Cedric Hardwicke, Torin Thatcher and Henry Daniell, plus Michael Ansara as a knight.

The film is also hurt by censorship issues. It could have done with some sex, nude picturing posing and religious hatred. Actually it could simply have done with decent drama - what's here is undercooked. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty going on but you don't care - you don't really get why Turner loves Moore or he loves her (she teaches him a little about politics and fencing but that's it), or are overly sympathetic to cuckolded wife Pavan. There are costumes and a variety of accents and some bad acting and some okay acting and it's mostly dull. All too typical of Dore Schary era "commercial" films at MGM - under his aegis the studio seemed to forget how to make costume crap well.

Movie review - "Le Casse" (1971) (aka "The Burglars") ***

Jean Paul Belmondo never really made a stab at English speaking stardom, but this feels very aimed at the international market - it's a heist thriller, with large slabs of non speaking sequences and two Hollywood co-stars, Omar Sharif and Dyan Cannon.

It's a film of set pieces - an opening 20 minute credit and burglar set piece (shades of Rififi), a 13 minute car chase sequence (shades of French Connection), 10 minutes of Belmondo visiting a cabaret with Dyan Cannon, a superb chase scene on board a bus, a final shoot out at the docks.

Belmondo is always good in these sort of roles (i.e. likeable thieves). Cannon's part is decorative and not much else; she is treacherous (surprise, not) and gets slapped around by Belmondo (surprise, not). Sharif was the revelation for me - excellent as a bastard of a cop, genuinely threatening. He should have played more villains.

The plot has a simple concept - corrupt cop tries to rob crooks - but it got better as it went along. I wish the action set pieces had been better motivated. It was shot partly on location in Athens which means it looks different.

Movie review - "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" (2016) **** (warning: spoilers)

This wasn't a box office hit which is a shame because there are so many good things about it: the script is bright, smart and funny; Tina Fey is very good and ideally cast in a role that pushes her; there's impressive production details; it has a fresh take on the war in Afghanistan.

The casting of some of the support roles jarred. Maybe in real life Martin Freeman is suave and charming but to me he came across as Martin Freeman wearing a beard and a fake Scottish accent trying to be suave and charming. Margot Robbie felt too young, too pretty and too fake-English-accent for her part (which really required someone who looked as though they'd Been Around). I really wish the parts played by Alfred Molina and Christopher Abbott had been played by real Afghanis. I know (or at least can guess) why they weren't, but for this film I wish things had seemed more authentic.

I had no problems with Billy Bob Thornton, or Steve Peacocke - my main gripe for the latter was the reveal that he was Canadian... but they don't follow it up (it felt as though it needed a few other lines or something).

Still, it was a first rate movie, another impressive effort from the teams of Fey-Robert Carlock and Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (who directed).

Troy Donahue Top Five

He didn't make enough movies for a top ten but there was enough for a top five so here we go, in no particular order
1) Imitation of Life (1959) - Donahue's role is only small but he's genuinely effective as a racist smacking his girlfriend around after finding out she's black
2) Godfather Part 2 (1974) - again Donahue's part is tiny but he is extremely well cast as Talia Shire's useless boyfriend and indicates that he might have had genuine success as a character actor had he gotten his act together in the 70s
3) A Summer Place (1959) - junky melodrama which has the courage of its convictions and remains watchable and Donahue teams well with Dee
4) Rome Adventure (1962) - sweet, undemanding romance which is more of a vehicle for Suzanne Pleshette but is fun to watch
5) Palm Springs Weekend (1963) - Donahue is too old for the film, but this is a likeable take off Where the Boys Are only set in the desert

Script review - "All the President's Men" by William Goldman

Just re-read this once more... such a fantastic script, getting through massive exposition with pace, humour and accessibility. Feels a little different in some key scenes to the final film but not massively so. I can't be bothered doing a serious comparison with the film... hopefully someone has. One of Goldman's masterpieces.

Book review - "The Roman Emperor Aurelian: Restorer of the World" by John F White (2011)

Aurelian is one of my favourite Roman Emperors - a brilliant fighter, and quite canny politician, who only reigned for a short time but won a swath of battles and reunited the Empire after the Crisis of the Third Century. A great "what if" of history is what if Aurelian had hung on another decade or so... would he have stabilised things more? Maybe not - any Empire run by dictators was inherently unstable. But, you never know...

Aurelian still packed in a lot during his life time. He may never have been Emperor had it not been for the early death of Claudius II (a decent emperor, with a short reign, completely overshadowed in public memory by Claudius I). Aurelian lost an early battle but then had a run of victories few other Emperors ever matched; his best known adversary was Queen Zenobia (a one time Roman ally). He died in an interesting way - a dodgy assistant worried he'd be killed told some officers that Aurelian wanted to kill them, so they offed him.

This is a very good book, accessible and well researched, and I hope White gets to write a bunch more like it.