Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Movie review - "West of Shanghai" (1937) **

Boris Karloff appeared in a fair bit of yellow face during his career - Fu Manchu, the Mr Wong series, this... He plays a Chinese general who encounters some American oil people in China. This was directed by John Farrow, early in his directorial career and he does a good job - it's full of energy, and solid acting, and nice touches.

It starts off well, with a bunch of potentially interesting characters on a train - an oil dealer (Richard Cortez), a nubile woman, a warlord (Karloff), a general (Validimir Sokoloff),a businessman (Douglas Wood). Sokoliff is assassinated, and everyone hops off at a war torn province.

Then things slow down, with Gordon Oliver as this dull decent oil engineer, and Karloff's assistant hot for white women, a dull missionary, and far too many scenes of people sitting around talking. The one surprise was that you think Oliver is going to get with Sheila Bromley but he falls for a married woman (Cortez's wife) - because Cortez is killed they can go away together. And Bromley doesn't really have much of a purpose in the film.

Karloff's character is very unbelievably attached to Oliver. Okay so Oliver helped save his life ages ago but to then arrange to kill Cortez, kill his lieutenant and go to his death...? It's like, alright, already. Disappointing.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Book review - "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Volume One" by Edward Gibbon (1776-89)

Classic tome about the very long fall of Rome, basically from the reign of Commodus onwards... all the way to the fall of the Byzantium. Which is an awfully long fall, longer than the rise. It's probably fairer to say Rome fell a number of times (Crisis of the third century, Gothic invasion) but managed to live on in one form or another until the final defeat at the hands of the Turks.

Once you get used to his style of writing, its entertaining to read and Gibbon has no doubts as to the bad things human beings can get up to. His anti-Christian slant means this feels surprisingly modern (although less so his views on sexuality - namely the famous quote that of the early Emperors only Claudius' tastes were "entirely correct"). He has man crushes on the Antonines, and lesser known emperors like Alexander Severus, and Decius. A little tricky to read but worth it.

Book review - "The History of the English Speaking Peoples" by Andrew Roberts

Really should have been titled History of why critics of the English speaking peoples are wrong. There's no reason why some historian shouldn't have taken on Churchill's mantle and Roberts is a good writer and entertaining historian - but while his style remains as readable as ever and he has a good eye for an anecdote, it's constant neo-con agenda gets wearying.

So the concentration camps in the Boer War were for the good of the Boers, Britain had to fight World War I for the sake of honour, the massacre of Amristar was justified, why can't the aborigines just get over what happened, the Vietnam War was justified and only lost due to defeatism of the West (a breathtaking lack of handling for military strategy), Platoon and Full Metal Jacket only depicted the American army negatively because of Hollywood's liberal bias (ignoring the fact Oliver Stone was a veteran), mis spelling Kevin Costner's name, the Attlee government spent too much on welfare and not enough on roads. It got boring.

Script review - "Rope" (1948) by Ben Hecht, Arthur Laurents

This tends not to be regarded among top flight Hitchcock - I've never been sure why. Maybe because James Stewart is so patently miscast in a role needing Cary Grant or James Mason. Maybe it's regarded as "film theatre" even though it improves mightily on Patrick Hamilton's already excellent source material - and it is cinematic too, using close ups of the rope, the chest, the various people talking.

It's a brilliant screenplay. It starts with a bang - a murder - and proceeds at a fine pace. The two killers, Brandon and Philip, are very definiable and different. The supporting characters too - which no one remembers - are easy to understand: the dopey guy who was in love with the dead man's girlfriend, the dead man's girlfriend, a nattering woman, the dead man's father, the house keeper. Most of all there's Rupert, the superior intellectual whose words and attitudes are thrown back at him by the killers.

The build up of tension is done extremely well as Rupert slowly figures it out, clocking the interactions at the party. The killers almost get away with it right up until the end. The homosexual subtext - is it that, or more subtle depictions of gay characters (the two guys live together, are clearly a couple) - is completely appropriate for the story: two people living in a hidden world, turning their exclusion into superiority. I suppose there are some overly convenient things, like Brandon letting Rupert come back up and Brandon giving away his gun. And some speeches are preachy. But this is a knockout.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Movie review - "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" (1962) ***1/2

I was surprised by the emotional reaction I had to this film. My expectations were so low going in - I'd seen clips with Jimmy Stewart and John Wayne far too old to play young things in the old west, heard that the film's heart apparently laid with Wayne's gunslinger as opposed to lawyer Stewart.

But it got me in the gut. It's very sympathetic to Stewart, who wants to bring law and education to the West - he's got book learnin', teaches at the school. He's brave but gets bullied by Lee Marvin's Liberty Valance, the sort of thug who always threatens the world (for instance he brutally attacks Edmond O'Brien). The film is about the conflict between Marvin and Stewart, with Wayne looking on... he understands Marvin and can deal with him; can see that Stewart can't, knows that Stewart stands for a better future. Both love the same woman (Vera Miles).

It's not a perfect film - there are all these sequences which don't feel needed, like the final election sequence (included to give John Carradine the chance to barnstorm?) which went on forever. The bit where Marvin confronts Stewart and his cronies at an election meeting didn't feel true - Marvin was scarier operating out of the shadows and in the dark. And Stewart and Wayne are too old.

But age aside they are well cast. The themes of bullying still have resonance. Its about being brave and the importance of myth and about realising the world is going to pass you by and it's sad and quite lovely.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Book review - "Joseph Kennedy Presents" by Cari Beauchamp

For whatever reason it took me about ten or something goes to finish this book. No criticism of the author or subject matter - it was just one of those cursed books. Maybe also it was the size of the print. Or all the detail.

It's a very good book. Exhaustive. Thorough. I learned a hell of a lot. Joseph Kennedy often pops up in movie history books as a support character - he's there wrecking Gloria Swanson's career, or Fred Thomson's, or helping found RKO, or bailing on it to go and become ambassador to England.

This is surprisingly the first book to focus on Kennedy in Hollywood - maybe serious Kennedy historians didn't take it seriously. Which is silly because Hollywood provided a large slab of his fortune, not to mention high public profile.

Kennedy is a fascinating creature. A sociopath who demanded loyalty from people he'd discard when he no longer needed them; a womaniser who was apparently poor in the sack; a genuinely loving and devoted father (as devoted as you can be not actually being around) who took intense interest in his kids; a ruthless capitalist who nonetheless realised, after the Depression, the need for more equitable distribution of wealth or you'd have a revolution, and turning Democrat; someone who figured out the economic basis of movies v quickly and could actually make money out of it (lots of low budget programmers).

It's got to be said, Kennedy may have engaged in insider trading and been a sneaky fox and ruthless - but it was the fault of people for getting involved with him. Fred Thomson was clearly a bit of a dill, as was Gloria Swanson. People who got close to him should've known better it was always about his kids and his money. And it's a shame he didn't go back to running a Hollywood studio later in life - say RKO in the late 40s, who could've used him.

Film wise, Kennedy's legacy isn't that awesome - a lot of silent Westerns, mostly. The only two films of his that buffs are like to remember are two from Gloria Swanson - The Trespasser and Queen Kelly (the latter made with Eric Von Stroheim). His real passions were obviously elsewhere.

Movie review - "Seven Days in May" (1964) ***1/2

The 70s didn't invent paranoid thrillers - this is one that stemmed from the early 60s anti-Commie nutbag generals running loose. You think today is a divisive time but back then there was everything with have now and nuclear weapons.

Frederic March is an unpopular president determined to push a nuclear treaty with the Russians through. Burt Lancaster is fabulous as a general who is secretly plotting a coup with Kirk Douglas solid in the thankless role of the officer who figures it out.

The best bit about this is the first half as Douglas figures out - relatively quickly, I should add - what's going on, and March and his team of advisers figure out what the hell to do. It's all very early 60s adult, which means a lot of craggy character actors smoking and black and white photography. Ava Gardner's part - an ex flame of Lancaster's - feels badly "tacked in" to get some glamour.

The film suffers in the second half when Douglas pretty much disappears from the action and it becomes more about March and Senator Edmund O'Brien trying to stop it. Also once they figure out a coup was on I always got the impression everyone wasn't in that much danger... maybe when Martin Balsam dies, that was a bit of a threat to democracy, but the plotters were remarkably passive. I mean, heaps of officers must've been involved in the coup - none of them did anything?

This is one of those movies that could be remade - you use the powers of the plotters more, have them try to kill people (I think Balsam's death is an accident).

Awesome cast - people like John Houseman and Hugh Beaumont (as a Bill O'Reilly type figure) add class to little roles.