Friday, May 30, 2008

"I miss that kind of clarity"

Aside from the great, obvious autuerist Classics that American Cinema threw up with such regularity in that decade, directed by the likes of Scorsese, Coppola and Altman, the 1970s produced some fantastic studio cinema. Mid-range programmers - comedies, thrillers, dramas - were superior in the 1970s. Perhaps something rubbed off from the New Hollywood revolution, but Cinema itself was more important in a way it can never be again, and the standard of quality was far higher. Directors lacking the talent of the Big Guns did excellent - sometimes even incredible - work. Directors who by any means of evaluation were really jobbing craftsmen. Directors like Joseph Sargent, Stuart Rosenberg, Robert Benton and John Flynn. Directors like Sydney Pollack.

You always knew you were in good hands with a Sydney Pollack film, up until the 1990s at least. He was probably the classiest example of that kind of director working in Hollywood for a couple of decades. His films were tasteful, intelligent, finely crafted and generally entertaining in an adult manner. He won all the big prizes, Oscars, golden globes, critical awards. Best Picture, Best Director. He worked with Big Big Stars for most of his career. He leaves a solid filmography behind him, eclectic and without a really poor film in it until the last few. In his last few years he became a fine actor and an interesting producer (most notably of Anthony Minghella).

But it could all have been so different. His early films are full of hunger and eagerness to experiment, to push boundaries. "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969), for instance, has a savagery to it absent from the rest of his work, a plainness in its presentation of the bleak realities of life. Perhaps it was the later demands of working with such big stars on massive productions that altered his sensibility. Only a real visionary, an iconoclast, could bend the commercial demands swaddling any movie star to such pessimistic end. Pollack was no visionary. He hit his stride in the 70s, and began a series of films with Robert Redford as the star. They were friends, they had met as young actors in the 1960s. Their careers blossomed in tandem. For a while in the middle of that decade, they did perhaps the best work either of them ever managed. Pollack's three best films are all from that period, and all genre works : "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972) is a tough, gritty mountain-man Western, written by John Milius, "The Yakuza" (1974) (which is Redford-less) is a Japanese gangland thriller with a Paul Schrader script, and "Three Days of the Condor" (1975) is a conspiracy thriller. They are all quite stripped-down, pure, narratively spare. Pollack's direction is assured, never showy. He works well with actors and is a smooth storyteller. The films work so well because they all know what they are and what they want to be. The corners of the plots are filled with small moments of crucial humanity - Redford's believable, affecting relationship with Faye Dunaway in "Three Days of the Condor", the understated, devastating ending to "The Yakuza". Pollack was great with such moments.

His biggest hits were also with Redford - "The Way We Were" (1973) and "Out of Africa" (1985). That facility with small moments of intimacy meant that he was well-suited to romances, and many of his films centre on old-fashioned love storys. And despite their success together, I have to wonder what might have become of him had he never met Redford, if he might have continued down a more interesting path. For he was drawn to risky work - you can see it in his choices as an actor and producer. I liked him as an actor, particularly when he allowed his cynicism and world-weariness to seep out in his roles in "Eyes Wide Shut", "Changing Lanes" and "Michael Clayton", in each of which he plays morally corrupted men, men tired of life.
He looked like becoming one of the great elderly supporting actors.


He left some cool movies behind him:


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Screengrab - "Better to be judged by twelve people than carried by six."

James Gray's third film as writer-director, "We Own the Night" feels generally a little too familiar. It covers territory audiences know well from a clutch of other films - New York Cops hunting down a drug ring, a man caught between friends and family, loyalty, violence, the dark streets of the American city in the past three decades, guilt, justice, revenge. You've seen it all before. You've seen it in the last year or two, in fact. You've seen "American Gangster" or "The Departed." "We Own the Night" is like a younger brother to those two films - its stars are less starry, its director less of a name, its budget and running time obviously less inflated. But Gray is hungrier than Ridley Scott or Martin Scorsese, and all three of his films so far - the other two are "Little Odessa" and "The Yards" - are impressive and speak of a growing talent who may one day deliver a truly great film.

Gray is a true auteur - he wrote and directed each of his films, and they share his thematic concerns. He is interested in family, in violence, in guilt and responsibility. He is a gifted director. Each of the films is directed with a confidence and inventiveness that is beyond the likes of modern-day Scorsese or Scott. The problem seems to lie with his writing, which can be uneven. He writes some beautiful scenes - sparkling dialogue and powerful emotions brought to the surface, realistically and painfully - but also some real clunkers. The plotting - particularly in "We Own the Night" - can seem horribly second-hand and derivative. When in doubt, resort to violence, seems to be Gray's way. But his characters can ground the films with their painful dilemmas, each of them conflicted and agonised by their lives.

What is most distinctive is Gray's seriousness. Each of his films is sombre and darkly atmospheric, intent on its own little tragedy. "The Yards" seems bent on turning itself into a mini-"Godfather" with its seeming mission to look like a John Alton-shot film noir in colour and its operatic heights of tension and release. Indeed, each of his films is beautifully lensed, and Gray deserves praise for his classicism, his determination to shoot films uncorrupted by modern editing styles and lighting techniques. It gives his work a timeless look, warm and lived-in yet never shrinking from the grubbiness of the urban underbelly they observe. His skill as a director is most apparent in the impact each of his set-pieces delivers. "We Own the Night", for instance, delivers a couple of stunning scenes. The first, a deafening, bloody police raid on a drug factory in a tenement building, is preceded by an equally impressive build-up of tension as one character feels that exposure as a police mole is close. The second is a car chase along a highway in a rainstorm. Here Gray's cutting and shot choice is exemplary yet never predictable, keeping the scene exciting yet intimate, horrific and convincingly confusing as it is. The film's finale - a bracingly suspenseful and visceral pursuit on foot through a field of reeds - is another example of his gift for set-pieces, as is the central fist-fight in "The Yards", perhaps the most realistic ever put on film. He is adept at evoking clammy fear, the dread of discovery, the adrenaline of sudden violence, always a you-are-there feeling of inhabiting a scene, perhaps because his approach to such scenes is always fresh and different.

Despite all this the best scene in "We Own the Night" is the opening credits. I say "credits" altough there are none. The movie's title is only visible as part of a badge in one of the photos making up the opening photo montage. This montage is composed entirely of period photos of NYC police at work - and a few evocative crime scene shots - from the 70s or early 80s. These photographs tell their own vivid and intriguing tales, with the faces looking out from some of them, the perfectly captured moments of real life, real police, real criminals, drug paraphernalia. You can almost smell some of the rooms, the stink of sweat and cigarettes. The photos are all black & white, full of subtly textured greys, and reminiscent in many cases of the work of legendary crime scene photographer Weegee. An instrumental, loungey lite-jazz reading of "I'll Be Seeing You" by Jackie Gleason's Orchestra plays over the top, its elegiac sadness counterpointing the bleak starkness of some of the images. Its a strangely potent sequence, and a reminder of the unequivocal power of the still photograph to capture an instant. It sets an aesthetic standard the rest of the film has significant trouble reaching, though Gray and his excellent cast give it a good go.

Perhaps the truly great film I hoped for above will be his next, "Two Lovers", his first non-genre piece, which played to mixed reviews at Cannes last week. Though admittedly, the premise suggests that this may be the film where he does not allow himself the escape of any set-pieces...


Friday, May 23, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 9

A lovely trailer for a great little film, one of the oddest and most distinctive Westerns of its decade:


Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Best there is at What he does

Wizard is a comics Magazine. Mainstream comics, Superhero comics, mostly. Its effectively one long advertisement for DC and Marvel, and I've never bought an issue. I do leaf through it occasionally in a shop. I was doing just that the other day when I came upon an article which, well, it shocked me.

It was a list. "Best 200 Comic Characters". Obviously that meant mainly Superheros or Supervillains. Now, you shouldn't really pay any attention to lists. They're subjective and bound to annoy you if you give them any weight. But at the same time, the fact that anybody could give the number one spot to their choice stunned me, appalled me. And it was a "they". The vote was
among Wizard staff, not just some editor, but a group. Which meant this view wasn't held by one person, but more than a few.
There were other flaws on the list, of course. Thats the nature of lists. But they had a character called "Cyborg Superman" above a lot of strong characters, like Iron Fist, for instance. Judge Dredd isn't on the list at all. No 2000AD characters are, in fact. But their top spot was what really rankled with me.

Wolverine. They chose Wolverine as the single Greatest Comic Character of all time. Now, I like Wolverine. I love Wolverine. He is a great character. He is a really cool character. And this, I think, is where the problem lies. The modern comics fan has been brought up on a steady diet of cool characters, of Image creations, of watered down versions of Wolverine and the Punisher. Characters prone to bloody spasms of ultra-violence, with murky pasts and short tempers and pseudo military costumes. And then they look at Wolverine, and the genius of the character is instantly apparent when compared to Grifter or Deathblow or Backlash or Deadpool or Cable, and he seems suddenly to be a truly great character, perhaps the best ever put in a Superhero comic.

But he isn't. In his great book "Reading Comics", Douglas Wolk defines the great superhero characters as each being a metaphor of some kind. That metaphor is then at the base of all of their adventures. Thus, Spider-Man is (obviously, explicitly) about the individual's struggle between power and responsibility, between what we want and what we know is right. Superman is about human perfectibility - he is the perfect human, only he is not actually human, and his main weakness, Kryptonite, reminds him of this. The Fantastic Four is about family, the X-Men about difference (racial, sexual, political) and identity. All of the greatest characters in the genre have a metaphor of some sort. Wolverine? According to Wolk, Wolverine is all about the struggle to contain rage. Which I can buy. But in his earlier appearances, it was never so. He was just the short hairy Canadian in the X-Men with the crush on Jean Grey, the cool power and the even cooler claws. He had a ridiculous temper, sure, but he didn't really seem to struggle with it. He was what he was.

The classic Claremont-Byrne run on "Uncanny X-Men" was where Wolverine started to blossom. Byrne is Canadian and he has stated he felt he needed to give his compatriot more to do. So Logan - his, ahem, "secret identity" - got a few solo scenes where he took out some poor schlubs alone, and the beginnings of his dark past were shaded in with the first appearance of Alpha Flight. And while he was given slightly more depth, his rage still wasn't seen as all that much of a problem. While X-Men was a team comic, Cyclops was probably the closest it came to a leading character at that point (when the first movie came out it was notable how Wolverine was obviously the protagonist). The first real step towards the Wolverine we know today came with his first solo Miniseries in 1982. In his introduction the reprinted collection, Claremont discusses how he tried to woo Miller into drawing the series. Miller wasn't interested in Wolverine, was the problem. He didn't see the potential in the character. The anti-hero with the short fuse wasn't enough for him, used to writing about Daredevil, with his apparent handicap which is really a gift, and his catholic neurosis and his penchant for the wrong women. So Claremont explained that he saw Logan as a "failed Samurai". This may be true. But there had never been even the slightest whiff of it in the X-Men comics up until then. I get the feeling that Claremont was aware of Miller's interest in martial arts and Ninjas and he went right for that weak spot.

It worked. Their series is arguably - still - the best Wolverine story, simple and beautifully told and moving in its way. But the main character is all but unrecognisable from the man of the same name in the X-Men comics of that era, though this new version of the character soon showed up there too. The greatest boon of Wolverine's dark past had been revealed to be the license it gave creators to invent slices of that past. Logan became a sort of Forrest Gump for the 20th Century in the Marvel Universe - present at some important events, in vital places at crucial times, altough he only remembered fragments of it. It meant that writers could really choose to tell any kind of story with him - he had been a spy, a soldier, a hunter, a mercenary, an assassin. Now he was a Superhero.

But it doesn't really convince me, the repeated attempts to give him a nobility, the "failed samurai" aspect of the character. I like him as an unrepentant killer, the berserker eternally amidst a melee, claws flinging blood in arcs, mouth open. Attempts to give him depth just seem a little silly to me, perhaps because they don't really allow for his obvious insanity. In fact they often deny it, forcing him to insist upon his own humanity, to swear he is not the beast his actions often condemn him as. This reminds me of a character far more worthy of the title of Greatest ever created - Batman. As Wolk acknowledges, Batman is insane. But its a benign insanity, driving him to the brink of his own humanity in an attempt to be the best he can possibly be. His arch-enemy, the Joker, is portrayed as just another, more malevolent sort of maniac, their kinship as the force that draws them into conflict time after time. Writers dwell on Batman's insanity, though none ever really openly acknowledges it (Alan Moore and Frank Miller have probably come closest) and it enriches his fictional existence, it is part of the tapestry.

Wolverine has a few other marks against him for me. He has never truly had a Great solo story, or even a Great run by a classic creative team. The aforementioned Claremont-Miller solo series and Barry Windsor Smith's beautiful "Weapon X" are possibly the closest he has come, and the first series is not the finest work by either creator, while Windsor Smith's script is unworthy of his frequently stunning art. Marvel hires too many hacks as writers - seemingly nervous of the big names, unless they have been developed in-house - and Wolverine has suffered from this in his solo title. Some fine artists (John Buscema, JRJR, Howard Chaykin) have drawn him over the years, just never in concert with a great writer, to my mind.

Nor does he have a great arch-enemy. His nemesis is Sabretooth, who is basically Wolverine, minus the adamantium, and only more so. He is feral, he possesses a healing factor, animal senses, a bad hairdresser, strange vocal mannerisms, etc etc. His links to Wolverine's past (revealed piecemeal over the years before more or less ruined in "Origin" a few years back) serve to give their every fight a special edge. But he's too simple and too similar to Wolverine to be a Great villain, his re-appearances too safe and dull. He is a cool character, and if you put him in Black Panther facing T'Challa, then I would want to read that. But against Wolverine? Again? Really? No thanks.

Visually, Wolverine is a strange case. Bizarre hairstyle, which means he has that odd mask, furry arms, which must be on display, meaning he wears tank-tops and long gloves, he's also short and stocky, and often shown chomping a cigar...none of his several costumes have been notable from a design standpoint. He looks a bit goofy. But it works, somehow. Maybe only when contextualized by his character. Or maybe because he's so often depicted mid-brawl. Or maybe it doesn't work and I've just become accustomed to him over the years so I don't question it at all. The best he's looked in ages was when Frank Quitely put him in a leather biker jacket, without any mask, without any exposed biceps, without any long gloves. Just a guy with a funny hairstyle smoking a cigar. Inspired by Hugh Jackman's more realistic iteration in the X-Men movies, it seemed far truer to the character than any yellow and blue spandex ever could. Basically, Wolverine's look is not really a vital part of his character. He's not quite as instantly, unmistakably recognisable as Spider-Man or Captain America, to name a couple of other Marvel characters. Those characters are almost inseparable from their costumes, which is a good thing in a visual artform. Wolverine? He hasn't quite got that recognition factor. The man in the street would know Spidey, or even Cap. But not Wolverine.

So who is better, who would have been worthy of inclusion at the top of such a list? Well, Batman, obviously. Of all the truly iconic heroes, he and Superman carry the most mythic weight, feel the closest to modern legends. They have transcended the. medium of comics and exist now as Cultural figures beyond their fictional lives. That alone shouldn't put them at the top of any list, but the fact that they are fantastic, archetypal characters should. They have depth and resonance and have each featured in dozens of brilliant stories. They are both visually masterful - simple and unforgettable. That follows for Spider-Man and the Hulk, too. Wonder Woman and Captain America are close but not quite at the same level. Wolverine exists in the next group, alongside other greats like the Flash and Daredevil and Green Lantern and Iron Man. But he is probably the best example of a certain type of character - the grim and gritty hero, the anti-hero, prone to ultra-violence, bristling with attitude but heroic underneath.



Wednesday, May 14, 2008

No Cannes Do

I've been to Cannes. Not during the Film Festival, obviously. Its a nice town, outrageously monied, pretty, and the Mediterranean improves every piece of urban planning it touches by virtue of its sheer lovely expanse of blueness. Its not a patch on nearby Nice, which has more soul and grit and flavour. But Nice ain't got no Film Festival.

The Film Festival excites me on an annual basis, even though it usually takes around another year for all of the films I'm interested in to come out in the UK. Because Cannes truly does get the best - or at least most exciting - of International cinema. Allow me to prove the truth of that statement with a few Coming Attractions.

Paolo Sorrentino's "Il Divo":

Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Three Monkeys":

Lucretia Martel's "La Mujer sin Cabeza"

Maradona By Kusturica:

Not to mention new films by Clint Eastwood, Walter Salles, James Toback, Woody Allen and Wim Wenders. Or "Ashes of Time Redux" long last. Or Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut. Or Steven Soderbergh's two-film Che Guevara biopic with Benicio del Toro, "The Argentine" & "Guerilla", which I'm probably anticipating more keenly than any of the others.

Except maybe this:


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The whisper is louder than the shout

This beautiful advert cast just the right actor at the perfect point in his career. Josh Brolin, even though here he's all slicked-up and smoothed down, still trails some of the dust on his boots from running those deserts in "No Country for Old Men", and a few wisps of it even rise up and enrich this spot. Not that it needs all that much enriching. Johnny Green has been one of the hottest young directors in advertising for a couple of years now, and he seems to have a natural eye for haunting, sublimely composed imagery and a great sense of timing in the edit. This page showcases just about all of his work, including a trailer for "Nyemka's Dream", a documentary (with accompanying book) he made about a Mongolian wolf hunter/ice speedway racer which looks amazing, though I haven't been able to find it anywhere. His other adverts are all impressive too, and more importantly they retain a certain personality and distinctive visual sense, suggesting its only a matter of time before he steps up to the plate and attempts a feature film, which should be worth a look. If only to see if he's really got game. This certainly suggests he does:

The music, by the way, is by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, "Martha's Dream", from their excellent soundtrack to The Proposition.


Sunday, May 11, 2008

Anatomy of an Action Hero

"I also cook."

It seems almost inconceivable that Steven Seagal was once a Big Star. A star who could open a movie, propel it's Box Office takings upwards by millions by virtue of his presence. Of course, this state of affairs didn't last very long. But briefly, in 1992, say, when "Under Siege" made more than $150 Million at the American Box Office, Seagal was a star.

He may be the only Movie Star who ever reached stardom wearing a ponytail. Ponytails are not good. Ponytails are lame. They are named after baby horses for just this reason. Otherwise they would be called "broncotails" or "mustangtails". But no, they are named ponytails. Seagal was defined by his ponytail for a while. When he first emerged, making his relatively low-budget action thrillers in the late 80s and early 90s, the 2nd rate action market was a crowded place. Proper movie actors made occasional forays into the genre, holding guns in the hopes they could be the next Bruce Willis. Tom Berenger, Patrick Swayze, Jeff Bridges - they were getting roles that should have gone to ex-Martial arts instructors, dammit. And the competition within the genre itself was fierce - successful white bread dullards like Michael Dudikoff were interchangeable - they could high-kick and they couldn't act. This put Seagal at a major disadvantage, since he couldn't even really high-kick. He had the inability to act down, though. He looked around and saw that some of the other up-and-coming action stars had gimmicks. Jean Claude Van Damme was foreign, short and quite camp. Brandon Lee's dad was some famous dead guy. Dolph Lundgren was foreign, enormous, and an even worse actor than the genre demanded. Seagal? He had...a ponytail.

An argument could be made that by sporting such a hairstyle - and such an ostentatious one, at that - Seagal was attempting to deconstruct the genre itself. Ponytails had been mainly the preserve of the villains in action movies until then. And not just the villains, but the villain's henchmen. The third guy on the left, holding the UZI, he might have had a ponytail just so that when Arnie or Sly shot him or broke his neck with a beautifully timed motion later on, the audience would mentally tick him off as dead : ok, ponytail guy - gone. Heroes generally opted for mullets instead. Mullets are wilder, less sleazy, more unreconstructed. Seagal couldn't pull off a proper mullet, I feel. He seems too oily. But by adopting the hairstyle of the villain, Seagal made a bold declaration of his ambiguous screen, I can't make that argument. He had a ponytail. He probably thought it looked cool. He was wrong, the berk.

Somehow the ponytail gimmick worked, anyway. Alright, so he could do martial arts. But his chosen form - aikido - is perhaps the least visually exciting of any martial art, and the least cinematic. Part of the appeal of the action scenes in the Bourne films is the use of Filipino Martial art Kali/Eskrima, which, when staged properly, is a thrilling blur of motion, of improvised strikes, blocks and weapon choices. Aikido is a grappling art. Its all about redirecting energy. So you watch Jet Li in a fight scene and you're liable to see a man leap through the air in apparent defiance of the laws of gravity, you will see him dance through a series of moves with a grace and power which seems impossible. All the while punching and kicking bad guys in the face. Seagal? Oh, he throws blokes over his hip.

Here you come, fancy some, do you? Eh? Eh? Lets have it. Uuuuup - and over. That'll teach ya.

Obviously its not quite that simple. He punches people, uses lots of painful-looking holds, and is not above resorting to weapons in his battles against evil. Effort is made to ensure these fight scenes work as cinematic spectacle. But basically they all come down to the same thing. Him lumbering around, throwing people against walls, making bad jokes afterwards. In his biggest hit, he strolls around the hijacked aircraft carrier and blows things up. Occasionally he engages in a gun battle. The odd time he'll grapple and maybe punch a guy just to up the adrenaline levels. But he never seems bothered, really. As an actor, pain, fear, concern - they are all beyond him. He has three expressions. Neutral, which he wears throughout 95% of his films. Smiling, which flickers creepily into view in some concluding scenes, and sometimes when he is "flirting" with a leading lady. Though mostly while flirting he maintains the neutral expression, a dead-eyed stare which is terrifying in this context and makes him come across as a ponytailed stalker of some sort. His last expression is a crinkling of the eyes, used to signify disdain or scorn or disgust. He is always self-righteous in his work, you see. Only Seagal among modern action stars would contemplate starring in and directing "On Deadly Ground", an environmentally-themed action movie (Seagal saves Inuits from evil Oil company men led by Michael Caine, slumming it big time) which features a five minute address by the actor at the end of the film delivered direct to camera on the evils of Big Oil.

He doesn't like to lose, either. This, combined with the fact that he's always so cool and unbothered, no matter how terrible his situation, conspires to rob his films of any tension. Its as if they don't even attempt to manufacture suspense, as if they're saying "c'mon, this is a Seagal film, you know he'll win out eventually." But there's really no eventually. He always wins. In all the little fights and skirmishes on the way through his films, he wins them all. Nobody gets the better of him. David Carradine reportedly used to insist on never losing a fight in a film - though I seem to remember him losing to Mel Gibson in "Bird on a Wire" and Uma Thurman beats him in "Kill Bill 2" as well - and it appears Seagal has similar habits. He allegedly became hysterical when due to film his death scene for "Executive Decision" and only the threat of legal action persuaded him to shoot the scene. You would think he would realise that he just couldn't compete in a movie with Kurt Russell, an action star who can actually, you know, act, but nope. He just couldn't see how his death would improve any movie.

Another strike against him. He has absolutely no facility with a one-liner. Of course, Bruce Willis is the king of the action movie one-liner. His timing and tone are generally perfect. Combined with his regular joe persona its what makes him such a likeable, sympathetic protagonist. But Seagal, on the rare occasion when one of the scripts he gets has a good joke for him to wring some chuckles from, he messes it up. Part of it is his voice. A dry, somewhat smug whisper, it doesn't have the greatest range of expression. Or any range of expression, really. Its not helped when that facial tic, the crinkled-eye one - wanders across his face, making him seem insufferably self-regarding. He tries, though. He tries to be funny, you can feel his desperation for lightness. Its just that the scripts, never of the highest quality, even when he was at his peak, are getting worse and worse as the movies get more and more straight-to-dvd. Decent jokes are hard to find.

Something that is dependably funny in his work are the names of his characters. Generally a Cop, Ex-Cop, Special Forces Operative, Hitman, mercenary or some insane combination of many of these elements, his characters always have funny macho names. Here's a quick selection : Frank Glass, Orin Boyd, Casey Ryback, Forrest Taft, Jack Taggart, Lt. Jack Cole, Austin Travis, John Hatcher, Mason Storm. Let me run that last one again: Mason Storm.

There are other funny things about him. You should check out his wikipedia page, its an entertaining read. He used to be married to Kelly LeBrock, but he left her for their kid's nanny, like some ageing city-boy copping off with the Polish Au Pair. He has "created" and sells his own energy drink. Steven Seagal's Lightning Bolt, which sounds like a porn movie, and an aftershave called "Scent of Action". The scent of action would be sweat, surely? He likes to beat up stuntmen, but isn't so hot on stuntmen knocking him unconscious with a choke-hold. He is a singer-songwriter - as anyone who has seen one of the films in which he performs a little number, apropos of nothing, as if he's wandered into some mutant Elvis movie, will know - and has released two albums, "Songs from the Crystal Cave" and the brilliantly titled "Mojo Priest". He claims to be a Deputy Sheriff. He says he had a Lassie type experience when a barking dog he had befriended informed him his Dojo was on fire, then moved along, Littlest Hobo style.

He's still plugging away, making two or three medium budget action movies a year. There must be an audience for them somewhere, even though he's getting chubbier and chubbier and he won't relinquish the ponytail. But then, why should he? Its his trademark, after all. It's served him well. Perhaps its the source of all his power, and without it, he would be nothing...

Oh yeah. And he does adverts. Showcasing his sense of humour and willingness to mock his own image. That Orange one that played in UK cinemas a few years ago. And this:


Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Vintage Trailer of the Week 8

John Milius' sense of macho mythic poetry and Warren Oates combine to great effect:


Sunday, May 04, 2008

"Its my sworn duty to push too hard"

It is difficult to find any logic in the factors determining exactly which directors become "Cult" Directors. Not in the modern age, where a director can attract a cult following after a single film, if their vision and/or style is distinctive or fashionable enough. But Directors from the classic era, the Hollywood Golden Age, which threw up Directors of every type - from Iconoclastic "Greats" (Hitchcock, Ford), to stylists (Minelli, Ray) and solid craftsmen (John Sturges, Raoul Walsh), mad geniuses (Welles) and underappreciated artists who, over time, found cult audiences. You could list the likes of Samuel Fuller, Douglas Sirk and Budd Boetticher in that last category. None really seen as a major director while they were at the peak of their working lives (whereas competent hacks like Wyler and Wise were...), each has since been critically reappraised and enjoyed a significant posthumous boost to his reputation. This began with French critics who approached American cinema in the 1950s without the snobbery and received notions of their American counterparts, meaning that they took B-movies and genre pictures just as seriously as Big Budget star-filled issue films, if not more so in many cases.

Why certain directors are chosen for such reappraisal while others are not baffles me. In the case of Cornel Wilde, it may be down purely to his original career as an actor. He was a stolid leading man in films like "Leave Her to Heaven" (1945) and "The Big Combo" (1955), but after his initial emergence from Broadway in the 40s, he never quite became a Big Star. As an actor he had too complex a screen presence for that, obviously intelligent, masculine, but suspiciously European, and slightly wooden. The success he had enjoyed in Swashbuckling roles early on meant that he moved almost exclusively into adventure films during the 1950s. They had vivid titles like "Treasure of the Golden Condor" (1953) and "At Swords Point" (1952) and made use of his virile physicality and square-jawed heroism. But Wilde was a lateral thinker and something of a renaissance man. While working in the Industry as an actor, he became interested in making his own films. He formed a production company and it was responsible for "The Big Combo", one of the best of the late films in the first wave of Noir films. Wilde was clever enough to recognise that he had done some of his best work as an actor in the Noir genre in the 40s - in "Road House" (1948) and "Shockproof" (1949) - and so he and producer Philip Yordan hired some of the greatest talents working in the genre for his return to it. Based on the terrific Kenneth Fearing novel, they chose Joseph H Lewis as a director, spotting a talent which had been largely unacknowledged since the release of the low budget "Gun Crazy" in 1949. Most importantly, legendary Noir cinematographer John Alton was brought on board and did perhaps his greatest ever work, making the film a glorious study in high contrast black and white.

Wilde made his directorial debut the next year, and he stuck to the crime genre with "Storm Fear" (hoods on the run hole up with a family during a blizzard), followed it with "The Devils Hairpin" (1957) (racing car driver finds himself at a sticky point in his career) and "Maracaibo" (1958) (oilfield drama). He stars in each of these films with his then-wife, Jean Wallace. None of them is available on DVD, which is an obvious consequence of Wilde's continued semi-obscurity, even in Cult terms. In 1963, he returned to the adventure genre with "Sword of Lancelot", a serious, technicolor take on the mythic story. He played Lancelot, Wallace played Guinevere. His interest in violence and in portraying its consequences became very evident in his work as a director here. He was a skilled Swordsman, having qualified for the US Fencing team for the 1936 Olympics, and "Sword of Lancelot" only really comes alive during its impressive action scenes. Wilde orchestrates large battles and shows real expertise with his staging of the more intimate combats. The action is always visceral and has a real impact - heads are split open, limbs sliced apart -, a rarity for a film of that era. Wilde makes a point of showing the injuries caused by medieval weaponry with some shocking cutaways. Unfortunately, the screenplay is less assured, and though intent on making this a version of the story aimed at adults, he and Wallace have a bizarre absence of chemistry, and his own French accent is uneven and distracting throughout.

His next film as Director, "The Naked Prey" (1966) would be a big step forward, and is probably his most fondly remembered today. Adapted from the story of the Trapper John Colter and his pursuit through Wyoming by Blackfoot Indians, the film relocates the action to Africa. Wilde is a hunter guiding a party of privileged white men through the Savannah when they cross and greviously offend a local tribe. The tribe attack the party, kill everybody else (in some excrutiatingly inventive ways), and strip Wilde naked before sending him racing off alone, a group of them prepared to hunt after him for sport. But Wilde is not prepared to go so easily, and he fights back as he flees, steadily evening things up. Its an utterly distinctive and interesting film, recently issued on DVD as part of the Criterion Collection, which is some mark of the admiration for it in certain circles. Once it becomes a chase movie, Wilde strips the narrative down entirely until the action is brutal, the setting somewhat elemental, the characterisation incisive and sparing - everything is cast aside in a rush of narrative momentum. Wilde's character is never even given a name. He is just "the man", an obvious nod to the wider meaning Wilde was searching for. As a director, he had a great eye for action, and the action scenes here are all tense and exciting as Wilde's character steadily eliminates his hunters one by one. And those hunters are humanised - we see them fight amongst themselves, experience doubt and anger - though never anything less than relentless and frightening. The film's early scenes seem to criticise the obvious racism of the colonial ruling class, and its use of the songs of the African Nguni tribe was far ahead of its time for a Hollywood film.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of "The Naked Prey" is that it focuses upon the chase at its centre until that chase becomes a subject worthy of such examination. It is revealed as a complex ritual, a metaphor for human survival in the world, for man's relationship with his environment, a testing ground of strength and courage. Mainly, it strips away civilizing instincts, leaving both pursued and pursuer little better than animals. Wilde seems obsessed with man's choice to use violence as a sort of means of expression and the moral consequences of this choice, and the opening narration almost summarises the film's themes : “And man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts, and their way of life was his.” Its emphasis on this almost dialogue-free, zen-like approach to action as a subject in and of itself has been somewhat influential - Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto" is virtually a remake, transplanted to Central America, and the Coen Brothers (who remade the film on Super-8 as teens) were presumably influenced by it in their approach to the aborted "To the White Sea" (there are even similarities with the chase segments of "No Country for Old Men"). Wilde's next film, "Beach Red" (1967) was to prove just as influential, even if that influence would take a few decades to reveal itself.

"Beach Red" is the story of an American attack on a Japanese-held Island in the Pacific during World War 2. It opens with an almost 40 minute long sequence of the preparation for and action of the landing on the Island's beaches by the Americans, then follows one unit as they move inland, sending out various recon patrols and encountering pockets of resistance. This sort of material had been covered in a hundred films before, as well as in such novels as James Jones' "The Thin Red Line" and Mailers "The Naked & the Dead". But Wilde avoided the cliches of many of those films while adopting a sensitive, meditative approach suggesting he was aware of the novels. "Beach Red" uses several risky stylistic techniques in its attempt to tell this story differently. Wilde uses first person point of view shots. He throws in moments when we hear the men's musings in brief snatches of voiceover as they think their frightened, selfish, sentimental thoughts. His Captain thinks, a little comedically : "Would there be Wars if clocks were never invented?" Other men ponder their own fear of death, their chances of survival, their loved ones at home. He also features visual flashbacks, generally played out in artful montages of still photos, representing (surprisingly effectively) the memories playing through these men's minds under high stress. Men remember wives, lovers, children, houses. Several key men are given actual flashbacks, always to encounters with women. Wilde's own flashbacks to his wife (Jean Wallace, of course) are poetic and melancholy, the effect lessened slightly by images of his son playing with a toy gun leadenly intercut with shots of men dying on the battlefield.
If any of this sounds familiar, it may be because Wilde's film seems to have been a definite influence on Malick's sublime "The Thin Red Line".

"Beach Red" features a moment where the advancing Americans troop though a field, passing by a still, ancient-looking native farmer, as does "The Thin Red Line". Both feature cutaways to the Island's wildlife, both treat the Japanese defenders sympathetically, even acknowledging their inner lives (Wilde with flashbacks, Malick with a voiceover). Both feature conflict between pragmatic, stoic Sergeants and liberal, sensitive Officers. "Beach Red" may be Wilde's most beautiful film, it's lovely attempt to capture the play f shadow and light beneath the jungles canopy only slightly bettered by Malick's film. Wilde's film also seems to have influenced "Saving Private Ryan", in the horrible violence of its beach landing scenes (which of course seem utterly tame in comparison with Spielberg's ordeal) and Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" in its even-handed portrayal of the Japanese side of the conflict. Violence and what it morally reveals about mankind was obviously a theme which interested Wilde, since it is central to "The Naked Prey", "Beach Red", and his next film as director, "No Blade of Grass" (1970). "Beach Red" stands out as a memorable and inventive combat film, and again its success is partly down to Wilde's determination to concentrate so singlemindedly upon the action at its centre. We are shown nothing of the wider campaign, and only learn of the men's pasts as they tell one another. Instead we follow them through this primordial jungle and all of the surreal horror of battle together. Distant explosions are picked out by Wilde's camera, but he is only really interested in what is happening inside these men as they deal with the violence closer to hand. Again the idea of violence reducing men somehow, tearing them away from civilization, is suggested. The film's most memorable moment may just be the one which best fuses the interior and exterior worlds of one soldier - as he lies dying by a tree, mentally listing his conquests, Wilde shockingly pours blood in a thick drip down a still photo montage, and the man dies.

"No Blade of Grass" shares this notion. Adapted from John Christopher's novel, it tells the story of a family making their way across England as society collapses into anarchy after every crop - including grass - has died. Here, anarchy means gangs of violent marauders roaming the country, raping and murdering. The family at the centre of the story are forced to become just as feral as those they flee in order to survive, making this probably Wilde's bleakest film. He puts some depressing British locations to great use, his foreigner's eye making for a particularly vivid portrayal. Again, he makes some risky stylistic choices, periodically cutting in flash-forwards, so that we see a shaky snatch of a character's gruesome fate an hour before it actually happens in the story. This doesn't work as well as the flashbacks in "Beach Red" altough it does help to give the film a truly ominous, doom-laden tone, only underlined by the constant cutaways to shots of polluted rivers and ruined fields. This tone leads to a violent, pessimistic climax in which the family, having banded together with another group of survivors, basically become the marauders, attacking a farm and taking it over. It is easily his most violent film, the increasingly lenient standards for screen violence of the era suiting Wilde as a director, allowing him to portray violence of a truly shocking impact, as he includes a couple of brutal rape scenes and some gunplay redolent almost of Sam Peckinpah in its effect.

The film is part of the apocalyptic strain of British sci-fi, a sub-genre the British character seems peculiarly suited to, but it was recut in post-production, and was a commercial failure, basically finishing Wilde as a director. That failure may be due to its dour tone or to what comes across as an unattractively preachy aspect in its portrayal of the ecological consequnces of our modern excesses. He directed only one more film, "Sharks Treasure" (1975), which sounds not unlike a straight version of Wes Anderson's "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou", before seeing out his days acting mainly on television. He died in 1989, never really having received any great credit as a director. Perhaps the recent interest in "The Naked Prey" could signal the start of a re-evaluation of his work, which is certainly worthwhile and definitely long-overdue.