Thursday, September 29, 2011

Double Feature: Robert Duvall and ... Robert Duvall!

The great Robert Duvall
From his non-speaking movie debut as Boo Radley in To Kill A Mockingbird to the present day, Robert Duvall has been a chameleon star of the first order.  For most of the 50 years of his career, he has rarely looked the same way twice in any part.  Duvall submerges himself so completely in a character, I remember being surprised one day when reminded that he was in The Godfather, so completely did he become the character Tom Hagen.  It is no difficult task to make a double feature out of two Duvall movies and believe you are watching two different men.  My double feature highlights Tomorrow (1972) and The Great Santini (1979).  Besides showcasing Duvall's amazing range, these are also my two favorite movies of all the great ones he has made.  Tomorrow is Duvall's favorite of his performances.  The Great Santini is my favorite of all the great roles he has played.

Tomorrow is a little film with a great legacy.  Released by independent Filmgroup Productions, directed by Joseph Anthony (The Rainmaker), and given beautifully stark black and white cinematography by Allan Green, Tomorrow is considered the best of many attempts to translate Faulkner to screen, notoriously difficult to do.  Faulkner himself was very pleased with the marvelous original play turned to screenplay of his story by writer Horton Foote (other screenplay adaptations: To Kill A Mockingbird and Tender Mercies.)  Faulkner's title is taken from one of Shakespeare's most famous lines, from Macbeth:  "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time..."

Fentry (Duvall) and Sarah (Bellin)
Filmed on location in Mississippi, Duvall plays Jackson Fentry, a gentle, loving, semi-literate man who has never known anything but hard work and the hand-to-mouth living of a hard-scrabble farmer.  Duvall's accent is so authentic as to be almost difficult to understand at first, but that does not last long.  Fentry is a man to whom words come slowly, but what he has to say is said with truth and love, however uneducated he may be.  The story is told in flashback, beginning with an older Fentry as the sole hold-out for a guilty vote in the trial of a troubled young man.  Fentry remembers back to years past when he took into his poor shack a woman whose husband has left her homeless and pregnant.  Olga Bellin plays Sarah, suspicious and frightened at first, then loving and grateful to the kind man who rarely speaks, but cares for her as best he can in the primitive circumstances of his life.  Fentry calls the abandoned Sarah his wife, and when Sarah dies from childbirth, he names the infant boy Jackson Longstreet Fentry.  Fentry and Jackson Longstreet are happy during the boy's young years, the child receiving all that Fentry has to give.  Then one day, the family of Jackson Longstreet's real father comes to call.

Fentry and Jackson Longstreet
Tomorrow is a film that any Duvall admirer must experience, and that any movie-lover would cherish. 

The Great Santini was released in 1979 by Bing Crosby Productions.  Directed by Lewis John Carolino (also the writer of a favorite movie of mine, Resurrection), it is a completely personal, totally true-to-life story of author Pat Conroy's career-Marine father and his experiences growing up in a complex, dysfunctional family run by this harsh, yet caring "warrior without a war."  First released straight-to-tape as The Ace, the movie was so popular that it was pulled from home release and brought to theatres as The Great Santini.  It is hard to believe that this movie was not recognized by the makers in the first place as the great work it is, and was released in such a strange manner.

Bull Meechum (Duvall) and his children
as they face life in a new town.
Colonel Virgil "Bull" Meechum runs his family like he runs his squadron of Marine fighter pilots -- with harsh discipline, extreme expectations and abusive manner.  However, Bull Meechum also loves his wife and children.  He is as difficult to love as he is to hate -- a man who suffers from the same background as the one he creates for his own children.  Bull Meechum is a respected Marine pilot, well-liked by his peers, feared by his subordinates, a thorn in the side of his superiors.  He is an aggressive, confident-seeming man with a wickedly funny sense of humor.  His wife Lillian (Blythe Danner) adores him, but also recognizes him for what he is.  His four children fear and love him in extremes.  The family's story is told through the experiences of the teenage son, Ben (Michael O'Keefe), and his relationship with his father.  The oldest daughter, also a teenager, is Mary Anne (Lisa Jane Persky), and she plays a pivotal role.  Bull treats Ben just as his nickname reveals -- he bullies him into being a man.  A basketball game played in the family's backyard turns into a deadly competition between father and son, and is a prime example of Bull's own problems as well as his family's.  The family has just made another of many moves to a base in South Carolina, and Bull gives his usual speech to the children about avoiding fear, taking the new town by storm, eating life before life eats them.  That is Bull Meechum's approach to the world.

Ben and Lillian (Danner)
before the family game
Lillian Meechum spends most of her time refereeing between Bull and his children, particularly the two oldest.  Ben is expected to excel at basketball, and a high school varsity game is another pivotal point of the story.  Mary Anne loves to stir the pot, and her mother tries to impart some wisdom: 
Lillian: "Your father is very nervous about this game. Look at me, young lady! Look at me! You've got to interpret the signals he gives off!"
Mary Anne: "No problem! He always gives off the signals of a psychopathic killer, so it really doesn't matter how you interpret them!"

In an attempt to get attention from her father, Mary Anne displays not only her sharp humor, but also an intelligent and desperate need for his approval.  It is a telling scene, but not without humor.  Part of the conversation gives you an idea:
Mary Anne: "Hey Dad, why do you love me more than your other children?"
Bull:  "Beat it, I'm reading the sports page."
Mary Anne: "Let's have a conversation Dad. Let's bare our souls and get to know one another."
Bull: "I don't want you to get to know me. I like being an enigma, like a Chink. Now scram."
Mary Anne: "Am I a Meechum Dad? Can girls be real Meechums; girls without jump shots? Or am I a simple form of Meechum, like in biology. Mary Anne, the one-celled Meechum."

The story revolves around Ben, with wonderful subplots involving fascinating and heartrending characters, and yet, to me, Mary Anne stands out as the sharply-intelligent, frustrated voice of all the children in their feelings about their father.

Conroy's father Donald called himself  the Great Santini after a magician he once saw.  Conroy wrote a completely unsanitized version of his father's abuse and skewed love, and yet the book and the movie brought the family back together again from a long period of estrangement.  Donald Conroy, with all of his problems, loved his children, and swallowed his lifelong pride to see that he needed to heal his family.  On his tombstone, Donald Conroy asked for the epitaph "The Great Santini".  This backstory has as much heartache and triumph as the movie.  Duvall never gave a better performance, and this is one role in which I cannot imagine any other actor. 

Robert Duvall, one man, two completely different roles -- a great double feature of a great actor.

(Quotes from IMDB)

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

My 100 Favorite Films: From 20 to 11

This month, the countdown enters the final turn (as they say in horse racing). It‘s been great revisiting these motion pictures—and even better hearing from others who include them among their favorites. Please keep in mind that these films are not what I'd consider the best 100 movies ever made. They are simply one classic fan's favorites. (An underlined title means there's a hyperlink to a full review at the Cafe.)

Gene Tierney and Rex Harrison.
20. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir – For over a decade, my wife and I watched this romantic fantasy every New Year’s Eve—I still can’t think of a better way to end one year and start a new one with a loved one. Gene Tierney stars as Lucy Muir, a young widow who moves into Gull Cottage with her young daughter and housekeeper. On her first night, she receives a visit by the ghost of Captain Daniel Gregg (Rex Harrison), the sea captain who owned the house. Despite their different backgrounds, Mrs. Muir and Captain Gregg evolve from dear friends to more—to the point that the Captain advises her to forget him and find love with a “real” man. I think this is Tierney’s finest performance, as evidenced by the look on her face when she learns the truth about “Uncle Neddy” (George Sanders). She and Harrison make an engaging couple, all the more remarkable because of the limitations placed on their characters’ love. The windswept cliffs photographed by Charles Lang and the haunting music score from Bernard Herrmann contribute mightily to the romantic ambiance.

19. The Bishop’s Wife – When I first saw this film on TV in the 1970s, it was not the annual holiday favorite that it is today. Its stature has grown exponentially since then and it’s typically listed among the best films of all three of its stars: Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven. I’ll omit the plot summary, since I figure most readers have seen it. Aside from its magical moments (e.g., the angel Dudley’s visit with the professor, the ice skating scene, etc.), what I admire most about The Bishop’s Wife is Grant’s performance. For once, despite his looks and charm, he doesn’t get the girl. Furthermore, Dudley becomes jealous and, in one scene, perhaps a little petty. In the hands of a less gifted actor, this often human-like angel could have posed a problem. But Grant provides all the required character shading and still keeps Dudley likable. That was one of his greatest gifts as a performer.

The brothers (well, six of them) seek brides.
18. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – The Oregon Territory in 1850 provides the setting for this high-energy, colorful musical about a hard-working “mountain man” who comes to town for supplies—and a wife. He quickly settles on Millie (Jane Powell), a comely—but sassy—lass who chops wood, cooks, and milks cows. For Millie, it’s love at first sight and the chance to take care of her own home. Alas, the honeymoon gets off to a rocky start when Millie discovers that Adam has six brothers. “Y’all live around here?” she asks. “Not ’round. Here,” replies one of the brothers. The score by Johnny Mercer and Gene de Paul is a tuneful one. “Wonderful, Wonderful Day” and “When You’re in Love” are bright, pretty love songs. But Mercer’s best lyrics are reserved for “Lonesome Polecat,” a woeful lament sung by the lovesick brothers (a sample line: “A man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep”). Michael Kidd’s spectacular choreography provides a perfect complement to the music. Kidd insisted that all the dance numbers derive from what the brothers were doing. Most critics consider the barn-raising scene to be the film’s showstopper. But I favor the dance where the brothers try to outshine their rivals from the town and the aforementioned “Lonesome Polecat,” in which the brothers cut and saw wood in unison with the musical beats.

Love this closing shot!
17. The Hanging Tree – The best of the “adult Westerns” of the 1950s stars Gary Cooper as Doc Frail, a physician in a small gold mining community. The doc has a dark past—there are rumors about a cheating wife and a burning house and, well, he does wear his holster like a gunfighter. To his own surprise, the reclusive Frail winds up sharing his cabin with a young sluice robber and a woman severely injured during a stagecoach robbery. The Hanging Tree shares many similarities with the great Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns like Winchester ’73, The Far Country, and Bend of the River. The hero is a man with a questionable past who is given another chance at life. In the Mann-Stewart films, the heroes are often redeemed by communities (as in Far Country and Bend of the River). In The Hanging Tree, redemption comes in the form of a woman’s love and, to an extent, a boy’s respect for his father figure. Plus, The Hanging Tree also features my favorite Western movie ballad (sung by Marty Robbins) and one of the best closing shots of any movie.

Hayley Mills.
16. The Chalk Garden – My favorite Deborah Kerr film is this offbeat, poignant tale about secrets and the passing of judgment on people, often without charity. Ms. Kerr stars as a governess (again), hired by a dowager to care for the elderly lady’s out-of-control teenage granddaughter (Hayley Mills). The girl has a fondness for setting fires and delights in threatening to burn down the gloomy mansion set among the isolated cliffs. As the story progresses, its focus shifts from the young girl to the governess—a mystery woman who paces her room at night “like a caged animal,” has only new possessions, doesn't have a picture of a loved one in her room, and receives no letters or phone calls. This quiet film is content to rely on its carefully-crafted characters and wonderful performances (to include John Mills). They will ensure that The Chalk Garden lingers with you long after its secret is revealed.

Stewart Granger reveals his identity.
15. Scaramouche – Stewart Granger plays Andre Moreau, a carefree rascal who is more interested in the pretty actress Lenore (Eleanor Parker) than in the soon-to-begin French Revolution. That changes when Andre’s closest friend Phillipe (Richard Anderson), a revolutionary activist, meets his demise in a duel with the Marquis de Maynes (Mel Ferrer). Andre vows revenge, but knows he is no match for de Maynes, the most renowned swordsman in France. Now branded a revolutionary himself, Andre takes refuge in an acting troupe. He assumes the stage role of Scaramouche, a buffoon who wears a pink-cheeked mask. To his surprise, Lenore turns out to be the small troupe’s leading lady. Her anger with him over their hot-cold romance generates laughs on the stage and Scaramouche’s fame begins to grow—but Andre’s heart is still filled with vengeance. A dandy swashbuckler from the pen of Rafael Sabatini, Scaramouche benefits from an incredibly likable cast and high-end MGM production values. The colors are vivid, the costumes ornate, and the set design impeccable. You’ll swear that the thrilling climactic swordfight (the longest in film history at 5:35 minutes…and my personal favorite) was filmed in a real Parisian theatre draped in gold, red, and white.

14. Pollyanna – Although I saw Pollyanna several times as a kid, I never fully appreciated it until I watched it as an adult. The well-known story has a young orphaned girl—an optimist if there ever was one—coming to live with her wealthy, spinster aunt circa 1913. Pollyanna pretty much shakes up the whole town, bringing lonely people together and reminding everyone that there are unexpected joys to be found in the most unlikely places. It’s a charming, uplifting tale, surprisingly devoid of schmaltz. My favorite scene is a simple one: When the town’s fire-and-brimstone pastor (Karl Malden) fears that he’s losing touch with his congregation, Pollyanna (Hayley) suggests that he focus on the joys of the Bible. Mills is delightful and there are many standouts in the supporting cast, particularly Agnes Moorehead, Adolphe Menjou, and Malden. The Walt Disney team lovingly creates a slice of Americana with a storybook town of quaint houses, white picket fences, and home-made pies. If you haven’t seen it since you were young, I heartily recommend you check it out again.

An impressive creature of horror.
13. Night of the Demon (aka Curse of the Demon) – When a professor investigating a satanic cult dies suddenly, John Holden (Dana Andrews), an American psychologist, and Joanna Harrington (Peggy Cummins), the professor’s niece, start their own investigation. Their primary suspect is the cult’s leader Dr. Julian Karswell (Niall McGinnis), who allegedly has the power to summon demons. I’ve often thought that if Alfred Hitchcock had made a horror film, it would have turned out something like Night of the Demon. Indeed, a children’s birthday party (with Karswell in disturbing clown make-up) reminds me of Hitch’s later kids’ party scene in The Birds. Director Jacques Tourneur, a Val Lewton protégé, avoids showing the demon in the film’s most famous scenes. But, in one of the great horror controversies, the demon is shown up close a couple of times—it’s pretty darn creepy! Andrews makes a bland hero and the charming Cummins is underused, but McGinnis is brilliant and Tourneur expertly balances horror and dark humor.

Jeff spies on his neighbors.
12. Rear Window – James Stewart stars as photographer L.B. “Jeff ”Jefferies, whose broken leg has kept him immobile in his apartment for seven weeks. To combat the boredom, he has resorted to spying on his apartment neighbors (the apartment building forms a square with a courtyard in the middle). Jeff’s newly acquired pastime initially disgusts both Lisa (Grace Kelly), his high fashion girlfriend, and Stella (Thelma Ritter), his insurance company nurse. But Jeff’s casual interest in his neighbors’ lives takes a dramatic turn when he begins to suspect a traveling salesman of murdering his nagging, invalid wife. As with other Hitchcock films, there are multiple layers to Rear Window. Taken alone, there’s nothing interesting about the mystery of the missing salesman’s wife. In fact, some of the loose ends are never fully resolved by the end of the film—because they don’t matter. The movie is really about the relationship between Jeff and Lisa. Though she is rich, beautiful, and loves him (Stella describes her as “perfect”), Jeff refuses to commit to Lisa. He fears that doing so will cause him to sacrifice his exciting, globetrotting life as a magazine photographer. It is only when Lisa becomes his “legs” and joins in the investigation of the missing wife that Jeff realizes how bright and exciting she truly is. It’s part of the film’s offbeat humor, because, to the viewer, Grace Kelly makes Lisa looks stunning and sexually exciting from the moment she walks into Jeff’s apartment. I love (repeat love) the apartment courtyard setting.

Alastair Sim as
Inspector Cockrill.
11. Green for Danger – At a World War II “emergency” hospital, emotions are running high due to the constant air raids and a love triangle with two of the doctors (Trevor Howard and Leo Genn) vying for the affections of one of the nurses (Sally Gray). After another nurse announces that a patient’s accidental death was really murder, she is found dead. Scotland Yard is summoned and arrives in the form of one of the cinema’s most offbeat detectives, Inspector Cockrill (Alastair Sim). Screenwriters Sidney Gilliat and Frank Lauder, who worked with Hitch on The Lady Vanishes, make brilliant use of time and place. Random explosions from the German bombs create both tension and humor (in the masterful hands of Sim). Equally atmospheric are the isolated hospital’s shadow-filled rooms, the tight hallways, and the white operating theater. It’s a spooky place, especially in the eerie, brilliantly-lit scene where Sister Bates is killed. People sometimes die in hospitals due to natural causes—so what better place to stage a murder? But what separates Green for Danger from other mysteries is its seamless integration of subtle humor in the form of its detective. It’s a shame that Sim didn’t reprise Inspector Cockrill for a sequel, or better yet, a series.

Next month, this series finally comes to an end with a Top Ten featuring two Hitch pics, two musicals, one sci fi, a very long Western, and Orson Bean explaining about “irresistible impulse.”

Monday, September 26, 2011

Trivia Time 96

Thanks to all who participated last week, particularly the newcomers! Here are the answers to the remaining questions:

Who Said This? "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it?" Who Said This?

Answer: Super Chicken (aka Henry Cabot Henhouse III)

2. In which film did James Garner and Malcolm McDowell appear together?

Answer: Blake Edward's film, Sunset, with Bruce WIllis

3. Which (living) actor is said to have been one of the best stunt drivers in Hollywood in the '70s and '80s?

Answer: James Garner

4. This early '60s film costars Tony Bill, Tom Poston, Ed Nelson, and Adam West. Name the film and the male and female stars. Who got credit for the screen play?

Answer: Soldier in the Rain; Steve McQueen, Jackie Gleason, Tuesday Weld; Blake Edwards

5. What do the film Bucket Of Blood and the TV series Peyton Place have in common?

Answer: Ed Nelson

Well, here is TT96:

1. Which '80s cult film features the game shows Wheel Of Fish and Name That Stain?

2. Who was the star of the film in #1?

3. The Blake Edwards Film SOB was his way of getting back for having to make which film ?

4. What is Donald Duck's middle name?

5. Where was Rocket (Rocky) J. Squirrel born? At what age did he learn to fly?

6. According to the World Economic Council (1959) what is the real basis for the global monetary system?

7. Name the boss over Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale, then name his superior.

8. On George Of The Jungle, who and what is "Shep"?

9. What was Captain Peter Peachfuzz's nickname?

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Bond Is Forever... As Are “Diamonds”

MI6 agent James Bond (Sean Connery) tracks the diabolical Blofeld (Charles Gray) to Cairo, where the villain is producing duplicates of himself. A physical confrontation ends with Blofeld sliding into a pool of boiling mud. MI6 later assigns 007 to investigate the smuggling of African diamonds, which continues in spite of tight security measures. Bond poses as a smuggler, one of numerous people who pass misappropriated diamonds down an assembly line of smugglers, most of whom are killed upon completion of his/her task by Mr. Wint (Bruce Glover) and Mr. Kidd (Putter Smith). Bond finds an ally in Tiffany Case (Jill St. John), and the two follow the diamonds to Las Vegas and a man named Willard Whyte, a reclusive casino owner. Sneaking into Whyte’s high rise casino, The Whyte House, Bond exposes the true culprit as Blofeld -- posing as Whyte by electronically replicating his voice -- standing in an office with one of his doubles. Blofeld plans to use the pilfered diamonds in a weaponized form and hold the world hostage.

After Connery departed from the series following You Only Live Twice (1967) and George Lazenby made his sole effort as 007 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), it seems that EON Productions wanted a return to form for Connery’s homecoming in 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever. Director Guy Hamilton had previously helmed the hugely successful Goldfinger (1964) with Connery, the film’s title song sung by Shirley Bassey, who also lent her voice for Diamonds Are Forever. Hamilton would additionally direct the subsequent two 007 movies, Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man with the Golden Gun (1974), and Bassey would sing a third theme with Moonraker in 1979. Even Charles Gray as Blofeld makes a return from his appearance in You Only Live Twice -- though, despite the 1967 movie featuring Blofeld, said villain is portrayed by Donald Pleasence while Gray plays an MI6 agent working in Japan.

Diamonds Are Forever was the final film in the cinematic Blofeld Trilogy and the final film for Sean Connery, who would reprise the role in an “unofficial” entry, Never Say Never Again (1983). Blofeld is a minor character in the pre-credits sequence of For Your Eyes Only (1981), but his face is never shown. Never Say Never Again is a second adaptation of Thunderball and was made after a lengthy legal squabble (see Thunderball for more on its bumpy road to the big screen).

Though not as remarkable as previous Connery/Bond films, Diamonds Are Forever is a worthy movie with strong qualities. Mr. Wint and Mr. Kidd are notable foes, very respectful and formal as they assassinate smugglers who are no longer necessary, and the men are made all the more intriguing by the implication that they’re lovers (an idea taken from Ian Fleming’s source text). Sprightly and physically adept Bambi (Lola Larson) and Thumper (Trina Parks) are irrefutably farcical, but they’re likewise memorable, if for no other reason than their monikers. And though some action scenes fall flat, such as 007 in a moon buggy pursued by men on minuscule ATVs and the concluding sequence atop an oil rig, they are overshadowed by superior moments, including Bond’s scuffle with the man he’s impersonating while crammed inside an elevator and a chase on the luminous streets of Vegas in Tiffany’s handsome Mustang Mach 1.

So while the villains are noteworthy, it’s disappointing that the Bond advocates are far less diverting. Tiffany Case is a mediocre Bond character. An introduction to Tiffany as a smuggler initially piques interest, but she loses credibility when learning that she was tricked into helping and is completely unaware as to what will happen to her when her employers feel she’s served her purpose. She even proves detrimental to the mission near the end of the film. Similarly, the genuine Willard Whyte (Jimmy Dean) is a superfluous addition to the story, Norman Burton is an unexceptional Felix Leiter, and Lana Wood as Plenty O’Toole has very little to do, other than latch onto Bond and remove her dress when they make it to his hotel room. The “good guys” are highlighted by appearances from Q (Desmond Llewelyn), who breaks the bank at the slot machines simply to test a new device, and Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), looking rather fetching in full uniform at the customs office.

In 2009-10, following MGM’s financial turmoil and the threat of bankruptcy, the James Bond series was in danger of expiring. But MGM recovered, and production for a new Bond film recommenced. Daniel Craig will return for a tentative release date of 2012. It will be the 23rd movie of the EON Productions series.

Diamonds Are Forever has its faults, but I cannot rightly disapprove of a movie that maintains tradition and keeps its feet in familiar terrain. Here’s a Bond who first appears with his celebrated introduction to a woman but who actually speaks it to the camera and the audience; a Bond whose assignment takes him to Las Vegas for a reasonably good excuse to gamble and wear a tuxedo; a Bond who, when asked if the man he’s just fought is dead, answers slyly, “I sincerely hope so.” The film does occasionally slip into camp, but it’s undeniably grounded in the world of James Bond, a world which I’ll happily visit time and time again.

This is the final Bond Is Forever entry, as I have now covered every 007 film with the exception of the latest in the series, Quantum of Solace (2008). But since James Bond will be returning to theatres, I’ll end this with an optimistic disclaimer: Bond Is Forever will return.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

CMBA Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon: Lifeforce

Check out all the great reviews in the Classic Movie Blog Association's Guilty Pleasures Movie Blogathon.

Let's get the controversy out of the way: I'm not even sure that Lifeforce is a guilty pleasure. I don't feel guilty watching it, even though it's typically not considered a good movie. It bombed at the boxoffice and received mostly negative reviews. Still, the same can be said for many films I enjoy watching. Additionally, I am not alone in my admiration for Lifeforce. It has attracted a small cult following over the years and, if midnight movies were still in vogue at mainstream cinemas, I could see it gaining in popularity.

Lifeforce opens with the HMS Churchill, a space station, discovering a huge, pencil-shaped object in the head of Halley's Comet. Colonel Tom Carlsen leads a search party that discovers a bunch of crunchy dead three comatose human-looking aliens--one female and two males--enclosed in crystal-like containers. Shortly after Carlsen and crew evacuate the crystal-enclosed aliens to the Churchill, communications break down between the space station and the European Space Research Centre back on Earth.

The female alien...she's bad news!
When a rescue team is dispatched, it finds burned corpses and damaged equipment inside the Churchill. In fact, the only items not destroyed are the crystal cases with the aliens. The cases are transported to Earth, where they're stored in the Research Centre and guarded closely. Too closely, it turns out when a security guard--infatuated with the naked female alien--gets too close to the crystal container. It opens, she kisses the guard, and then sucks the energy out of him, leaving a shriveled corpse on the floor.

Learning of these events, the center's director, Dr. Fallada (Frank Finlay), proclaims: "Don't worry. A naked girl is not going to get out of this complex." A few minutes later, after she's dispatched three guards and blown out the glass front of the building, the naked alien girl walks out of it.

The life force is sucked out!
To compound the situation, it turns out that the female alien's victims come back to life after two hours, but require "regular infusions of energy" to stay alive. Wait, it gets much worse: the two male aliens escape; we learn the female creature can move from body to body; and Colonel Carlsen returns to Earth in an escape pod and reveals he has a telepathic connection with the female alien.

Intriguing ideas--some original, some derivative--zip around Lifeforce like the electric currents emitted by the "naked alien girl" (Mathilda May). The film is officially based on Colin Wilson's novel The Space Vampires, although the proceedings have a definite Nigel Kneale feel to them. In fact, part of the film's appeal is that it reminds me of Kneale's brilliant Quatermass and the Pit, both thematically and visually. Both films propose that alien beings played a role in mankind's past, both climax with thousands of homicidal "humans" running around a burning London, and both use metal to dispatch the creatures. Interestingly, Neale's earlier The Quatermass Experiment ends in Westminster Abbey while Lifeforce stages its climax in a cathedral.

There are also similarities to Mario Bava's 1965 sci fi/horror film Planet of the Vampires, which has "space vampires" taking over members of a crew. The Hidden, which appeared two years after Lifeforce, expands on the premise of the alien moving from body to body (and adds an amusing "buddy film" spin to the proceedings).

Peter Firth as Colonel Caine.
Most of the cast in Lifeforce consists of solid British thespians like Finlay, Michael Gothard, and Patrick Stewart. The standout is Peter Firth (Equus), who plays Colonel Colin Caine of the Special Air Services, a no-nonsense investigator determined to track down his quarry. Decked in a white turtleneck and leather jacket, Caine is a memorable character worthy of his own movie. As Carlsen, Steve Railsback struggles at times in what is certainly the most difficult role in the film. May, on the other hand, has little to do as the female alien--except walk around in the buff for the majority of her scenes.

Technically, the film is a hodgepodge. Henry Mancini's score has its admirers, while the visual effects are undeniably cheesy. Tobe Hooper's direction is uninspired except for the fiery climax, which contains some striking images of London being destroyed.

There are numerous versions of Lifeforce in circulation. Hooper's cut was 128 minutes, although the final version released in the U.S. ran 101 minutes. In international markets, the running time was 116 minutes (this edition was later released on video and is the one I reviewed). Part of Mancini's score was replaced by musical cues by Michael Kamen in some versions.

Derivative, imaginative, occasionally campy, always entertaining--Lifeforce might leave you feeling a little guilty. But the final verdict is that the pleasure part will trump that modicum of guilt.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Trivia Time 95

Well, you all did a pretty good job last week! There is one glaring exception but more on that later.... LOL!

Who Said This In Which Film? Person #1 "I'd like a Coca-Cola." Person #2 "Coke?" Person #1 "Um-hm… a clean glass." Who Said This In Which Film?

Answer: Harry Shearer is Person #1, playing a NASA recruiter, and Chuck Yeager is Person #2, playing the elderly bartender in The Right Stuff (click on the link to hear the conversation).

4. Who composed the other 1/3 of the scores for the TV show in #3 (I Spy)?

Answer: Hugo Friedhofer

7. Name the film in which both Moroni Olsen and Alan Jenkins appeared. Name the stars and the director.

Answer: Dive Bomber, with Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, Ralph Bellamy, and Alexis Smith, directed by Michael Curtiz.

NOTE: this is the "exception" we were talking about! Our resident (so-called) Flynn experts completely missed this question! This was our FLYNN question!! What's up with that??

9. What was the name of the trailer park in The Last Starfighter?

Answer: StarLite, StarBrite

OK, Trivia Time 95 starts here.... Have fun!!

Who Said This in Which Film? "Meet me in my room in half an hour and bring rye bread!" Who Said This in Which Film?

Who Said This? "You knew the job was dangerous when you took it?" Who Said This?

1. What was the name of Tom Slick's girlfriend?

2. In which film did James Garner and Malcolm McDowell appear together?

3. Which (living) actor is said to have been one of the best stunt drivers in Hollywood in the '70s and '80s?

4. This early '60s film costars Tony Bill, Tom Poston, Ed Nelson, and Adam West. Name the film and the male and female stars. Who got credit for the screen play?

5. What do the film Bucket Of Blood and the TV series Peyton Place have in common?

6. Which Errol Flynn film features electric trains?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Ante Meridiem Theatre: “Basket Case”

Ante Meridiem Theatre is a new feature at the Cafe to focus on those movies that, years ago, would crop up on TV in the wee hours of the morning, when you were only partially awake, and right before the network turned to snow.

Duane (Kevin Van Hentenryck) is a young man staying at a hotel in New York, carrying with him a wicker basket in lieu of any luggage. Inside the basket is Duane’s brother, Belial, his Siamese twin, a deformed mass of flesh whose only recognizable features are a head and both arms. Years ago, the conjoined brothers’ father demanded that doctors perform an operation, and the two were forcibly separated. Belial, not even considered human, is discarded with the trash but is rescued by Duane. They are nurtured by a sympathetic aunt (Ruth Neuman), but following her death, they decide to exact revenge against the doctors responsible for severing their physical connection. Though Belial’s verbal discourse consists of grunts and shrieks, he communicates with Duane telepathically, making it impossible for Duane to hide his adoration of Sharon (Terri Susan Smith), a receptionist he met at a doctor’s office. Belial becomes envious of Duane and Sharon’s relationship, and the surprisingly mobile smaller brother becomes harder to control.

Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) is a low-budget treat. As with other films by the director, it merges subtly comedic moments with extraordinary violence, leaving some viewers confused as to when they should laugh. But the amusing morsels throughout complement the film. Duane and Belial’s attacks typically consist
of Duane setting the basket down and letting his brother do the dirty work, but Belial also makes his way around the hotel. Consequently, the hotel manager is repeatedly running up the stairs in response to a person screaming or sounds of a commotion. When he reaches the source of brouhaha (usually near Room 7, Duane’s room, though no one seems to notice), there’s a crowd of tenants which he subsequently must disperse. It begins simply as an indirect reaction to Belial’s lack of etiquette but gradually becomes a recurring gag, with the manager eventually referring to the hotel as a nuthouse.
Henenlotter also furnishes the film with visual puns. One of the condemned doctors is introduced ravenously devouring his lunch, only to later essentially be the lunch for the brother in the basket. Likewise, another doctor is prefaced with a premonition. She’s dining in a red dress, flanked by red candles and eating strawberries. The most striking visual involves a female tenant at the hotel in her room, with a smiley face clock on the wall and the woman changing into a smiley face nightshirt before she is attacked by Belial. It’s true that no one is smiling after Belial makes an appearance, but the real joke is Belial, who is almost nothing but a face himself and is inherently the mortal enemy of the smiley face.

Henenlotter’s films often deal with some sort of physical deformity or an unsanctioned physical alteration. He followe
d Basket Case with Brain Damage (1988), which is about a man afflicted with a parasitical creature that discharges a hallucinogen and forces the man to seek sustenance for the parasite (or, more specifically, brains). Henenlotter went on to direct Frankenhooker (1990), about an electrician/low-rent doctor who pieces his mutilated fiancée back together, and two Basket Case sequels, Basket Case 2 (1990) and Basket Case 3: The Progeny (1992), both which starred a returning Van Hentenryck. The director had evidently retired from the film industry but fortunately returned in 2008 with the release of Bad Biology, following the peculiar love affair between a man and a woman, each with physical anomalies.
Basket Case has enjoyed a couple of releases on DVD but will be making its Blu-ray debut on September 27th from Something Weird Video. Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case is just like its character, Belial. Bizarre, eerie, small, and prone to hurdling itself at your face. Both might be aggressive and violent, but what they really want is acceptance. The film is a great piece of cinema, appreciated by those who allow it to show its own merits. Some things are filled with treasures which one can only discover with patience and respect. Then again, other things (namely baskets) have tiny, deformed Siamese twins with razor sharp teeth and a score to settle. Choose wisely.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

3 on 3: Science Fiction Films of the 1950s

Three film experts. Three questions. One topic. That's the idea behind the Cafe's 3 on 3 discussion panels. This month's topic is a personal favorite: the classic science fiction films of the 1950s. To answer our three questions, we chose a trio of big brains (hey, it goes with the sci fi theme): the classic film blog Grand Old Movies; Tom, who just launched his new blog The Old Movie House; and Chris Cummins from MovieFanFare. Just click on the blog titles to visit any of these marvelous movie sites.

1. In literature, authors sometimes use science fiction to reflect on contemporary issues. Can the same be said of science fiction filmmakers in the 1950s? If so, what kinds of issues influenced their films?

Klaatu warns Earth in The Day
the Earth Stood Still.
Grand Old Movies: Hollywood's 1950s sci-fi films definitely commented on then-current events, beginning with 1951's The Day The Earth Stood Still, which is very much a warning against nuclear-arms proliferation. Many other sci-fi films, of course, reflected Cold-War terrors (e.g., Invasion of the Body Snatchers, It Came From Outer Space). The question may be why such a trend in science-fiction films began in the 1950s (some earlier exceptions, such as H.G. Wells' 1936 Things To Come, also reflect on contemporary history; for Wells, it was an anti-war message in the post-WWI world). It could be because major sci-fi writers with a finger on the pulse, such as Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson, were either writing for movies or having their works adapted. But I think there was a sense in America not only of its post-WW2 global importance but of having crossed a boundary---post-Hiroshima, we now possessed the capacity literally to destroy the world, and that anxiety permeated many aspects of culture, including films. Plus sci-fi is a genre that, by its speculative, fantastic nature, allows you to express abstractions as concrete metaphors. Forbidden Planet, for instance, gives us the 'Id Monster,' a literal symbol of humankind's unconscious, violent impulses gone out of control. Because the story is on another planet, thousands of years in the future, the filmmakers can embody this concept in a 'physical' form. And I would throw in the competition with that Hollywood hobgoblin, television. One way to drag people out of their living rooms and back into movie theaters is to tell them something about themselves, about what they're experiencing. And sci-fi tries to do that.

One fascinating aspect of how 50s sci-fi flicks reflect social attitudes is how they also anticipate issues that would later become prominent---one being feminism. Many of these films have strong female characters, who are often professionals: Women who are not just wives and mothers, and are not working as secretaries, but are frequently scientists and doctors. Faith Domergue in This Island Earth is a major example. Even Zsa Zsa Gabor in Queen of Outer Space is a scientist! She's working in a lab outfitted in an evening gown and high heels; later, she leads the revolution decked in gold lamé and an Uzi. You can't get more progressive than that!

Grant Williams and former pet in The
Incredible Shrinking Man.
Tom: In answer to the first question I would say the underlying theme of movies of the fifties, specifically science fiction films, I’d say was fear. Fear of the unknown. Atomic energy was an unknown. No one truly understood it, not even the people who created the bomb. The scientists thought it might do this, and it might do that. But nobody knew for sure. In the science fiction films of the fifties it was thought atomic energy could and would create horrible mutations. Gigantic animals, insects, and people were everywhere. The engine that powered the spaceship in the film The Day The Earth Stood Still was powered by atomic energy. At the opposite end of the spectrum people shrank as demonstrated in the film The Incredible Shrinking Man and in the film Dr. Cyclops. All because of an energy source many feared, and few understood.

Chris: I personally wasn't around back then, but it's clear to me that the era's problems were frequently reflected in popular entertainment of the day. From the subtextual exploration of McCarthyism in Invasion of the Snatchers to how films like Them! commented on atomic age fears, sci-fi was the genre that was consistently commenting on real world issues.

2. In terms of impact on the genre, what's the most influential science fiction film of the 1950s?

Dana Wynter and Kevin McCarthy
discover pods in Invasion.
Grand Old Movies: Most influential is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). It not only is a concentrated example of 1950s anxieties, but its paranoia narrative has shaped so many sci-fi films, even today (e.g., Contagion). Pauline Kael once noted about Invasion that its premise, of people transformed into pods, reflected the fear that "people are turning into vegetables." What Invasion does, as cited in my earlier point, was to take a metaphor and make it concrete---the idea that we are losing our humanity and are becoming unfeeling automatons. What's also striking about Invasion is how viewers argue whether it's a warning against Communism or against McCarthyism. The movie seems able to embrace both sides of the question. Some viewers might think this a weakness, but I think it adds to the film's richness. By, in effect, reflecting multiple anxieties, the film becomes more central, both to 50s sci-fi and to our ongoing concerns about who we are as social beings.

The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms was
a surprise boxoffice hit.
Tom: In terms of a specific film having the most impact you have to ask yourself: "How shall I answer this?" For simple economic impact the answer is The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. It made over five million dollars between the date of is release, June 13, 1953 and Labour Day 1953. From an intellectual point I think the film that had the most far reaching impact is the original 1951 version of The Day The Earth Stood Still. It not only entertained, it actually made people pause, and think. For once the aliens didn’t have to have scales and two heads. Because of that film people started, albeit very slowly, thinking that a unfriendly neighbour might look just like them. The film with the greatest legacy is The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s regarded by the American Film Institute as one the most important science fiction films ever made.

Chris: My pick would be The Day the Earth Stood Still, which remains the most exciting--and ultimately human--cautionary tales of the era.

3. What would you rank as the three best science fiction films of the 1950s and the single most underrated one?

Alien spaceships from The War
of the Worlds.
Grand Old Movies: My three best are Invasion of the Body Snatchers, War of the Worlds (1953), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). I've outlined my argument about Invasion above, in the 2nd question. War of the Worlds has been one of my favorites since I was a child---it's exciting, well-done, with great effects; the interest never lags. And it also, if I may dare say it, gives a sense of Higher Meaning---that human beings are linked to a greater power. The film's concluding line, how the smallest things "which God has put on this earth" defeat the Martians, is in the original Wells novel, but it's not central there; Wells pretty much tosses the line away. George Pal, however, concluded his film with the line, and gave it a much different emphasis. The same with Shrinking Man, which ends, quite movingly, I think, with the observation on how the infinite meets the infinitesimal---and that in the eyes of the Infinite, there is no zero. I haven't read Richard Matheson's novel, but I understand he does not conclude with such an observation; it was added by the director Jack Arnold. It does alter the film toward a different reading. Plus, Shrinking Man is an excellently done movie. It's another metaphor made concrete---the question of how important are our small selves in the vast scheme of the universe. And the last third of the story, in which the hero in his vastly reduced state must confront the terrors of his own basement, is terrific. His battle with the spider appoaches the mythic---ironically, you have to shrink the protagonist in order to arrange a combat with a monster that recalls such myths as Theseus and the Minotaur. It's a brilliant switch.

For underrated, my pick is Invaders From Mars (1953). Again, it's another old favorite of mine. I love its child-point-of-view narrative, how everything is told through the little boy's comprehension. That makes events more chilling, as when the parents become inexplicably cold and angry. The set design reflects this beautifully, particularly that all-white police station with its vertiginous, non-ending corridors. And the film's starting-all-over-again ending is unusual. Plus, frankly, what's not to like about that tentacled Head in a bubble!

Tom: The three best of the genre appeared at the beginning of the decade. First out of the gate was Destination Moon. Strange as it may seem they got many of the details right. Filmmakers later in the decade didn’t care, as long their pockets books were filled. The Thing from Another World would be my second choice as one the best sci-fi films of the fifties. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms would round out my choices. For the simple reason it showed what you could do with film, and that I enjoyed it. I think the most underrated film of the fifties was Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers. It was an ok film, but I think it could have been better.

Chris: (3) The Thing from Another World; (2) The War of the Worlds; (1) The Day the Earth Stood Still. As for the most underrated, I really have a soft spot for Invasion of the Saucer-Men. It's an incredibly fun romp that is highlighted by some truly great creature design.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

“Citizen Kane” Ultimate Collector’s Edition on Blu-ray and DVD

This month, fans of Orson Welles’ renowned classic, Citizen Kane (1941), can celebrate the film’s 70th anniversary with the release of Warner Bros.’ Ultimate Collector’s Edition, available today, Sept. 13th, on Blu-ray and DVD. The three-disc set arrives in a sharply packaged design with numerous extras and features.

Citizen Kane is the story of newspaper tycoon Charles Foster Kane (Welles). Sent away as a young boy, Kane is signed over his fortune at the age of 25 and buys a small newspaper publication, converting it into a tabloid with searing headlines to capture readers’ attention and a flourishing circulation. In time, he has a family, a home, and political aspirations. Though he succeeds as a businessman and a public figure, Kane’s indulgence and his inability to recognize or nurture personal relationships fundamentally leads to a descent as outrageous as his newspaper headlines. Alone in his vast estate, Xanadu, Kane lies on his deathbed and speaks the word that’s apparently a mystery to all who knew him: “Rosebud.”

At the time of its initial theatrical release, Citizen Kane performed poorly at the box office, typically accredited to Hollywood’s fear of an adverse reaction, as Kane is patently based on newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. Hearst threatened both Welles and Hollywood in general should the film see the light of day, and he refused to run stories or advertisements of Citizen Kane in any of his newspapers. Those in the film industry were reputedly unhappy with Welles, as he’d evidently antagonized the noted businessman. The movie was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including awards for Picture, Director, Actor (Welles), Art Direction, Editing, Cinematography, Score, Sound Recording, and Original Screenplay, with only Herman Mankiewicz and Welles winning in the writing category. Reportedly, Citizen Kane was booed when its nominations were read during that year’s ceremony.

The American Film Institute (AFI) has twice voted Citizen Kane as #1 in its list of the 100 greatest films. Regardless of what viewers may think of the movie in terms of drama, its technical achievements are unquestioned. One of its most popular aspects visually is the accomplished deep focus photography, in which items or characters prominently displayed in the forefront are as clearly visible as ones in the far background. Welles considered cinematographer Gregg Toland’s efforts so significant that Toland shared a title card with the director.

Welles was part of a radio troupe he co-founded with John Houseman, the Mercury Theatre, most notable for its legendary broadcast of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Members of the Mercury Theatre had roles in Citizen Kane and continued with careers in film and TV, including Joseph Cotten as Kane’s friend, Jedediah; Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s mother; Everett Sloane as Mr. Bernstein, another of Kane’s friends and employees; and Ray Collins as Gettys, the incumbent governor and political opponent to Kane. Ruth Warrick also got her start in Hollywood with this film, portraying Kane’s first wife, as did famed composer Bernard Herrmann and Robert Wise, who was editor on Citizen Kane but would step behind the camera for films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), The Haunting (1963) and The Andromeda Strain (1971).

The Ultimate Collector’s Edition from Warner Bros. is highlighted by a beautiful restoration of Citizen Kane, enhancing the already elegant deep focus and an impressive soundtrack in HD mono. In addition to the main attraction, the first disc contains interviews with Wise and Warrick, deleted scenes (presented as sketches or photos), commentaries by Peter Bogdanovich and Roger Ebert, storyboards, call sheets, a trailer, and featurettes. The second and third discs include, respectively, an informative documentary and a well made HBO film, RKO 281. The documentary is a presentation of the PBS series, American Experience, entitled “The Battle Over Citizen Kane” and recounts the lives of Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst before and after they intersect. The HBO movie is essentially a dramatized version of these events (the title taken from the production number assigned to Citizen Kane), with Liev Schreiber portraying Welles and James Cromwell as Hearst. The box set also features a glossy 48-page booklet with photos and details of the movie, a reproduction of the 1941 souvenir program, lobby cards, and recreations of production memos. The entire set is offered in separate Blu-ray and DVD packages (only the first disc is Blu-ray in the former option), and the movie is conjointly available in digital formats, On Demand and as a download.

For further details or to purchase the collector’s edition from the Warner Bros. website, click here. For On Demand, check your cable or satellite provider, and the digital download is available at various online retailers (iTunes, Amazon, etc.).

Warner Bros. provided a copy of the Blu-ray edition for review at Classic Film & TV Cafe. Photos courtesy of Warner Bros.