Saturday, February 25, 2017

Play review - "Phaedera" by Seneca

Phaedera was a woman from Greek mythology who married a king but fell for her step son. Rejected, she seeks revenge, he dies... but she goes on to die. At least that's Seneca's take. I'd never read an Ancient Rome play before - lots of people standing around talking about their feelings/what's happened as opposed to being things dramatised, but there is some action. But it was more enjoyable than I thought it'd be.

Movie review - "Summer of the Seventeenth Doll" (1959) **

Ray Lawler's play was a first rate piece of theatre - I've read it, seen it on stage, and it always works a treat, with finely drawn characters, a decent story and a powerful ending. You can understand the excitement in the late 50s when it was announced that Hecht Hill Lancaster bought the film rights - they didn't turn out schlock, they were known for prestige product like Marty and The Sweet Smell of Success.

But the result is a mess. It simply doesn't work. It never feels real - the setting, the characters - despite the fact it was shot in Australia. It's frustrating to watch accordingly - but also, it's fascinating because the basic stories and characters are still there... it's just that it was all tweaked enough to be ruined.

I don't mind the action was changed from Carlton to Sydney. If they went all that way to Sydney you can't be surprised they wanted to shoot a few scenes on the harbour, and at the beach and Luna Park. Sometimes the choreography is a little odd (getting the ferry to Bondi(. You do wonder why they didn't go the whole hog and shoot it in colour - I guess they picked black and white it is a gritty drama - in which case you wonder why they wanted the production values of Sydney... but anyway, it's not a major issue.

More problematic is cast. You've got English John Mills and Angela Lansbury and American Ernest Borgnine being American and American Anne Baxter being kind of cockney. All these people can act, they're very good actors. But you don't believe Borgnine and Mills as friends, or Borgnine and Baxter as lovers. The dialogue varies from Australian to cockney to Americanisms. At the risk of sounding overly nationalistic, Vincent Ball - in quite a large role as the up and coming cutter - isn't very good either.

In fairness, I wonder who else they could've cast. Burt Lancaster would've been great - of course Deborah Kerr and Robert Mitchum, later so impressive in The Sundowners, would've been ideal. Real movie stars with top charisma would've helped - as Oz Movies pointed out, with this four you've got the second eleven. If you can't be a star, be a character actor, that's fine... but at least be authentic, be moving, be something.

Did director Leslie Norman ever consider Peter Finch, with whom he'd just made The Shiralee? Was Finch too little known in the US? Too young? Not available? Was Rod Taylor, who'd made Separate Tables for HHL, considered for the Ball role?

Even more problematic than the cast is the direction and writing. It's a poor adaptation - the basic play was a strong source material, but John Dighton has fiddled with it. There's this weird middle section where everyone is happy at Luna Park - Ball gives Borgnine his job back and Borgnine wins a boxing match and it's high fives all around. The ending is changed from something emotionally devastating to "oh that's alright let's smile and laugh" which robs the piece of any power and renders the whole thing pointless. Director Leslie Norman has no feel for the milieu, the characters, their dynamics, the themes.

So they had a classic of Australian theatre - not a very large field, admittedly - but the filmmakers stuffed it. It's bewildering why this hasn't been remade, properly.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Australian TV Drama of the 1950s and 1960s

The narrative of the Australian TV industry basically has it that Aussie drama didn't get going until Homicide. And basically it's true - but things weren't a complete graveyard. It was a graveyard compared to what came later, but there were shows being made. There was Aussie drama on the first night the ABC broadcast.

It just doesn't seem like it, even to buffs, because
a) most of the shows weren't repeated, so people don't realize
b) audiences weren't huge
c) many of the shows were Australian versions of overseas stories, eg Patrick Hamilton's Rope, Shakespeare, or Twelve Pound Note (the show dramatized on said first night of the ABC)
d) the writers and directors who worked on those shows didn't go on to become famous (cf US directors of the early days of TV like George Roy Hill, Delbert Mann, John Frankenheimer or writers like Paddy Chayefsky). Directors (they were called producers but they were basically directors) like Colin Dean, Raymond Menmuir, Chris Muir, Alan Burke, Patrick Barton and William Sterling; writers like Barbara Vernon, Bruce Stewart and Philip Grenville Mann.

But there was a surprisingly large amount of it. I'm sure a lot of it would've been terrible but some it sounds fascinating such as:
1) The Devil Makes Sunday (1962) - tale of a convict uprising on Norfolk Island in 1840s - originally performed on US and British TV
2) Outpost (1959) - tale of Australian soldiers in WW2, which was so well received it was broadcast in the US
3) A Light for Lucifer (1962) - the writer of They're a Weird Mob does a tale about the devil (Frank Thring) going to Sydney
4) Wild Life and Christmas Belles (1958) - a revue which contains (I think) the first TV appearance of Mrs Edna Everage
5) Ned Kelly (1959) - version of the Douglas Stewart play
6) Night of the Ding Dong (1961) - fun sounding account of war panic in 1870s Adelaide when a Russian boat is spotted
7) Burst of Summer (1961) - adaptation of an Oriel Grey play about an aboriginal woman who becomes a film star
8) The Multi Coloured Umbrella (1958) - adaptation of a play by Barbara Vernon
9) Swamp Creatures (1960) - adaptation of play by Alan Seymour
10) Bodgie (1959) - Rex Rienets play Wide Boy (filmed in Britain) adapted for Australia by Alan Seymour
11) The Sergeant from Burrallee (1963) - tale about the killing of an aboriginal
12) Lola Montez (1962) - adaptation of the Australian musical
13) Pardon Miss Prescott (1959) - the Lola Montez team were hired to do an original musical for Channel Seven
14) Ballad of One Gun (1963) - another version of the Ned Kelly story with John Bell as Kelly
15) The First Joanna (1963) - adaption of play by Australian author Dorothy Blewett
16) The Tower (1965) - version of the Hal Porter play
17) Jenny (1962) - domestic drama, an original Australian work (I think)
18) Funnel Web (1963) - a man-tries-to-kill-wife tale with Grant Taylor in the lead
19) They Were Big, They Were Blue, They Were Beautiful (1959) - original Australian story about two people who get involved in a baby kidnapping
20) Shadow of a Pale Horse (1959) - another Australian-set script by Bruce Stewart which had been filmed in the US and Britain - this one about a murder in a small town
21) The Grey Nurse Said Nothing (1961) - Sumner Locke Elliot play, originally written for US TV but based on the Shark Arm murder
22) The Slaughter of St Teresa's Day (1961) - adaptation of the play by Peter Kenna
23) Rusty Bugles (1965) - Alan Burke's production of Sumner Lock Elliot's wartime play
24) The Swagman (1965) - controversial tale of a swagman, an early work from director Henri Safran
25) A Little South of Heaven (1961) - story by Ruth Park and D'Arcy Niland

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Movie review - "The Big Circus" (1959) *** (warning: spoilers)

I didn't know what to expect from this late 50s Irwin Allen circus flick - the quality of his work varies so widely, from the good fun of Towering Inferno and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea to the incompetence of The Swarm and The Story of Mankind. But this is a lively, colourful, unpretentious movie which I enjoyed.

It benefits from Charles Bennett having worked on the script - Bennett could always be relied upon to deliver something with a decent story structure and this does: Victor Mature's circus is in financial trouble, so the banks send in an accountant (Red Buttons) and a PR person (Rhonda Fleming). Someone in the show is causing trouble and trying to kill people. That's decent conflict and mystery right there. Thrown in mysterious acrobat Gilbert Roland and Mature's sister Kathryn Crosby who falls for Buttons, plus Vincent Price as the MC and Peter Lorre as a clown.

I wish more had been done with Price - he's really just a red herring and that's it. The denouement involving David Nelson is strangely unexciting. And the film seems unable to make up its mind if Mature or Roland is the hero. I think Mature should have come to the rescue at the end. And when all's said and done this isn't a very good circus - acrobats are always falling from the wire, lions keep escaping, etc.

But its colourful. Circus tales have the advantage of instant production value - there's lions, and acrobats, and clowns and big tops.  The stars are second tier but they are pros and help tell who is who. And there is irresistible romance in the journey of Buttons' character - a numbers man who falls for the circus and becomes a clown. Who doesn't like a character like that?

Movie review - "Scoop" (2006) **1/2

Minor league Woody which you might have resented paying $15 for at the cinema but at home free on TV it's fine. The one real dash of inspiration comes when Ian MacShane dies (off screen) and pops up on the ferry to the land of the dead... then he drops his knowledge off to Scarlett Johansson and kind of plops out of the movie. It's Scarlett playing Nancy Drew with magician Woody Allen.

Like many later Woody movies there's elements from his earlier ones - Manhattan Murder Mystery in particular but also New York Stories (the magic segment). Romola Gorai pops up to suggest young Scarlett have an affair - and that's it. Seriously that's her role.

Scarlett is winning and pretty - as is Hugh Jackman, who plays the main suspect. It has pleasing locations and photography and Woody isn't bad. Admittedly my expectations were so low after hearing so many bad things about this but I enjoyed it.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie review - "Red Sun" (1972) **1/2

In the 70s this film was help as as an example of the most international of international co productions - with its Europudding finance, and casting including Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune, Alain Delon and Ursula Andress... something for everyone, except maybe Americans, where the general public didn't take to it.

It's not much of a movie. There is a great novelty in the basic idea - outlaws in the American west pinch a samurai sword intended for the President Grant so Mifune, who was assigned to look after it, goes after him. And it's a good complication to have him accompanied by an outlaw, Bronson, seeking to take down his treacherous deputy, Delon. There is, as you could expect, plenty of star power. Andress goes topless and is lively. Capucine even pops up as a hooker who sleeps with Bronson.

But Bronson and Mifune don't make a good team - both are stoic, silent types but because Mifune's English is so poor, Bronson is forced to be chatty. The film is at heart a buddy movie between these two but I never got a firm grip on their characters. Maybe more could've been done with Andress, who accompanies them. Delon's part isn't very big - he's a strong villain, I wish he'd had more to do.

The action scenes are patchy - this is frustrating. It also lacks suspense. I mean, this movie is okay... it's not a disaster. It's more dull. I kept feeling opportunities for culture clash (comedic, whatever) were missed. Action scenes are only so-so. I'm glad it exists, though!

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Movie review - "Anthony Adverse" (1936) **1/2

I remember enjoying this as a kid watching it on Bill Collins back in the day - even though I'd never read the book, you could feel it was adapted from one: a prologue leading to the birth of a title character, scenes of his childhood (including meeting a childhood sweetheart), adventures in exotic climes, a nemesis, rags to riches, etc, etc. It remains enjoyable if you can handle some melodramatic over the top acting.

It gets off to a strong start with Anita Louise married to nasty Claude Rains but in love with Louis Hayward (in the role that got him noticed in Hollywood), which results in Rains killing Hayward in a duel and Louise dying in childbirth. The resulting kid is dumped with nuns, and falls for a fellow girl. He then grows up to be the not very exciting Frederic March (I wish they'd cast Errol Flynn), though the girl is the delightful and charming Olivia de Havilland.

There's a very good support cast: Donald Woods as a random best friend, Edmund Gwenn as a kindly benefactor (very coincidentally March's real grandfather), Steffi Duna as a brown face native girl who has hot pants for March, Akim Tamiroff hamming it up outrageously as a slave trader. Most of all there are Claude Rains and Gale Sondergaard as a pair of villains.

I really like Eric Wolfgang Korngold's score and several of the scenes remain etched in my memory: March meeting his son, realising de Havilland has become Napleon's mistress, March talking to his son and them going away together, the death of Hayward. It badly misses a come uppance for Rains and Sondergaard.