Archive for July, 2013

‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ (Stanley Donen, 1954)

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If ever a film took a subject and made light of it in a way that makes the viewer feel incredibly ill at ease, then it’s ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’. Or possibly ‘Sleeping Dogs Lie’ (Bobcat Goldthwait, 2006) but sucking off a dog is the least of our worries here.

Adam Pontipee (Howard Keel) is a no-nonsense backwoods mountain-man. He has a big ginger beard and tassels to match. A hearty voice, six brothers, a good Christian upbringing and a taste for baked beans. He’s also something of a musical sex pest. You see, Adam is in town today and he’s looking for a wife. He has an impressive shopping list of criteria for this woman: Pretty, slim, eyes just the right size but not crossed and as sassy as can be. Adam struts through town singing his heart out about his future wife’s arse while ogling Milly (Jane Powell) as she serves dinner, chops wood, fights off a similar sex pest and milks a cow. He asks her to marry him, she says yes, once she’s finished milking the cow, and so he sets off for a shave and haircut. We’re seven minutes in.

Six victims

Let’s step back a bit here and return to the opening credits for Stanley Donen’s hugely respected family musical masterpiece. The story is credited as being based on that of the ‘Sabine Women’, or more honestly: “The Rape of the Sabine Women”. Now while ‘rape’ here has changed its meaning over the years, it’s still an abduction. One of the abductees in the Roman tale confirms that no sexual assault took place. But this is a film about the abduction and sexual slavery of six women and one aggressive cow-milker. This is very odd material for a musical comedy.

So Adam and Milly are married and they go back to his house in the backwoods where a surprise is waiting for her (no, not that. Stop tittering). Adam lives with six brothers in a filthy, decrepit farmhouse. Milly is expected to cook for them, wash their clothes, keep the house tidy – she’s essentially their servant with perks for Adam.

Adam’s brothers are named alphabetically to make life easier, all good bible names: Adam, Benjamin, Caleb, Daniel, Ephraim, Frank(incense) and Gideon. Being ‘sassy’, Milly rolls up her sleeves and tried to make the best of a bad situation. Having cleaned and prepared a meal she’s appalled at the behaviour of Adam’s brothers. Quite what she expected having met Adam is anyone’s guess, but one thing’s for sure: Adam ain’t getting any tonight.

Slowly but surely, Milly trains the brothers in manners, civility and the ways of women. Having her around has given them all a raging horn and something has to be done.

Big fartLucky for all involved, there’s to be a barn-building in town. Milly decides the best thing to do is to make the brothers get haircuts and put on day-glo silk blouses. Unfortunately for them, the Pontipees are not terribly popular in town, and while the local talent seems up for it, the local lads are not happy at having their rhubarb rubbed by a Pontipee. There’s only one thing for it – a dance-off!

This is the film’s stand-out sequence and while I can watch it any time I like on DVD, a common treat used to be to go to MOMI (Museum of the Moving Image)  on the Southbank and watch the looped sequence on the big screen over and over again. The closure of MOMI was a great shame.

The dance-off goes well, the boys manage to pick a bird each and all seems sweet, but then during the barn building things go awry and a fight breaks out resulting in a lot of pain for all involved. Milly is livid.

Adam on the other hand resorts to his usual tactic and comes up with the bright idea of just kidnapping the women, holding them against their will for several months until they develop some sort of Stockholm Syndrome and put out.

Steak outThis is exactly what they do. Riding into town one early winters’ eve they sneak around assaulting family members and kidnapping women one at a time. The laughs come thick and fast as Gideon hides behind a door pretending to be a kitten so he can snare his chosen victim, but, ha ha, her other half sees him and just as he’s about to smash his brains in with a snow shovel, Gideon is saved by his brother who knocks the man out. So Gideon meows much quicker and eventually she relents and goes to let the cat in, whereupon he throws a bag over her head and drags her away from her family. Who knew abduction could be such fun?

Once they’ve got the girls part way up the mountain pass, Adam starts an avalanche to ensure they can’t be followed. This means the girls are stuck with them until the Spring when the snow thaws.

Milly, naturally, is delighted with the situation. The boys are thrown out, including Adam (who takes it badly and huffs off to a mountain shack) meanwhile the girls wander around in their knickers singing sweetly about what it might be like to get married in June. Whether it’s plain cabin fever or hormones or both, the girls eventually seem to be cooling to the idea of domestic and sexual servitude among the mean ‘ol pole cats. Just as they’re about to give it up, Adam gets back to defend the place now the pass is open.

AndBaby Loganberry aren’t the townspeople happy when they arrive? The girls put up a fight – they’re clearly warmed up now, and during the commotion, a baby is heard crying. This is the one Milly dropped earlier. It could be Adam’s, but my money’s on Gideon. Anyway, since the girls adopt an ‘I’m Spartacus’ stance, the only answer is six shotgun weddings. And as quickly as Adam can propose, the film’s over.

As rape/revenge films go this is no ‘Death Wish II’ (Michael Winner, 1982) but the silly thing is, despite its subject matter it is a very jolly, enjoyable romp. As a kid I loved it, as an adult I can only question the morals on display in what is clearly meant to be a ‘Christian’ film. The studio even panicked over the working  title (‘A Bride for Seven Brothers’) because it implied bigamy and the lyrics to ‘Lonesome Polecat’ which referred to zoophilia in the lonely mountains.

It’s probably not got a place in a 24hr Film Session, but it does have a place in our hearts. Now get out there and bless a beautiful hide.

‘Defiance’ (John Flynn, 1980)

Fans of the Sergio Leone epic Spaghetti Western “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” will immediately recognise the following quote:
“There are two kind of people in this world my friend – those who like Blue Thunder, and those who like Airwolf”.

Growing up, I was an Airwolf child through and through. I used to run around the playground blowing cold breath out in front of me pretending I was Airwolf banking through the clouds at high speed.

I’ll begrudgingly concede that Blue Thunder was ok, but Airwolf had my vote (why was it called Airwolf and not ‘Airshark’? – the machine looks just like a shark from below). In fact, I don’t think I could knowingly have sexual relations with anyone who preferred Blue Thunder over Airwolf. (This is not an open invitation for Blue Thunder fans reading this to slip me a Rohypnol).

jmv_batThe success was in no small part to Jan Michael Vincent. Stringfellow Hawke was damn near the coolest man alive. I distinctly remember squinting my eyes to emulate his expression when conversing with my fellow prisoners at school.

As I grew older I checked out more of his back catalogue before his decent into alcoholism robbed him (and us) of a further career. His collaborations with Charles Bronson and Burt Reynolds are the standouts (and worth film session entries) – ‘The Mechanic’ and “Hooper’ respectively. ‘Big Wednesday’ deserves a mention for being both a superb film and a great performance.

Jan Michael Vincent had entered the Vigilante sub-genre before, with ‘Vigilante Force’ in 1976 – but he went back for more in 1980 with “Defiance”. It’s the story of a merchant seaman (you can tell he is a sailor because he has an anchor-shaped hatstand and paints pictures of boats), named Tommy Gamble, who is suspended from duty and must wait ashore until he gets permission to go back to sea. A local bartender gives him details of a cheap rental building in New York he can rest up in until he gets his call. Once in the neighbourhood, he quickly realises the locals are living under the control of a gang called the “Souls”, ruling the neighbourhood through fear.

Tommy is just trying to keep his head low and not get involved, but the gang have infiltrated daily life in the community and prove unavoidable.

churchWhist watching the film, I was reminded strongly of “Death Wish 3” – another ‘community under attack’ vigilante film. It comes close in terms of the cartoonish nature of it – the gang are helpfully made up of a Benetton-advert cast of races and creeds – the main bad guy dresses like Zorro, and they all seem to live in a big dirty commune (as with Death Wish 3’s gang). There seems to be about 20+ members – and they are not messing about: they gladly stab and shoot people when they feel like it, but their ambitions are a little low – at one point the whole gang descends on a Church hall Bingo session to steal the takings. You’ve got over 20 members with guns and getaway cars, and you decide to rob Bingo in probably the poorest neighbourhood in New York? You need a new leader. Preferably one who doesn’t wear frilly billowing red shirts and 1920’s villain make-up.

Under better leadership, I think a few of the gang would be feeling the heat come appraisal time – at a pivotal stage in the film, they break into Jan Michael Vincent’s apartment to wreak havoc while he is out. Well, I thought that was the plan – but as the door breaks inwards and gang members stream in – the only slightly criminal activity I witnessed was one flamboyant individual grabbing a sofa cushion and running into the other room with it, whilst his nearest compatriot skipped in behind him spraying shaving cream onto the carpet and a little bit of the living room wall. I couldn’t see what the others were doing, but I expect it was something equally heinous like switching dry roasted for salty in Jan’s nut stash.

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They do manage to get it together for long enough to beat the crap out Tommy in a subway toilet., in revenge for cutting one of their numbers’ ponytail off (since when has that been a bad thing? Even Michael Bolton eventually came round). They leave him for dead, not before stealing the watercolour paint set he had just purchased. Inexplicably, they leave the selection of acrylics on the ground, choosing one painting medium over another in the heat of battle. I just can’t understand the criminal mind sometimes.

The most interesting part of the film for me is the realisation that Jan Michael Vincent’s character ‘Tommy’ is a bit of an arsehole. Not in any kind of overt way, just that he really doesn’t give a toss about anyone. On his first day in the flat, his attractive female neighbour invites herself in for a chat (walks straight in off the fire escape despite the pair never meeting). As she recounts her life story, Tommy quietly goes into his bedroom and shuts the door. It’s quite a surprising moment. All Tommy wants is to get back on a ship and get off land. The vigilante always tends to keep his head down at first, but the difference here is he just doesn’t give two shits about anyone or their stories. Maybe this is the most realistic portrayal of the ‘everyman’ yet – as I can understand that point of view easily. If you had written this article, I wouldn’t be reading it, you can be sure of that. I’m an everyman.

His obsession with landing a new boat makes for a few surprising moments that may stir you from a 3am film session slumber – mostly due to Jan Michael Vincent’s inability to pronounce ‘ship’ properly. So you’ll regularly witness pedestrian dialogue scenes punctuated suddenly with such exclamations as “I need a shit Marsha”, “I’m waiting for a shit” and “I’m leaving, I gotta shit”. (If you can put 2 and 2 together I’ve just dropped a spoiler on you).

I’ll do you a favour and let you know right now that Jan Michael Vincent is not playing the Ambassador to Peurto Rico. The next door neighbour kid calls him ‘Ambassador’ all the time, as Vincent claimed to hold that role when quizzed why he was repeating lines of Spanish. I was lucky enough to catch this fact. Sleepy watchers may miss it and think the film is more “Coming To America” then “Death Wish”.

One mystery I can’t help you with is who this kid belongs to. He hangs around with an old Italian ex-boxer  (played by Luca Brassi from ‘The Godfather’)- slightly slow presumably due to his former career. My eyes narrowed during a scene when the boxer is lying in bed listening to a fight on the wireless, the camera pulls back to reveal the child sitting next to him on the bed in his underpants. Hmmm. Luca Brassi sleeps with the fishes, and underage street urchins too it seems.

The music is foul. It’s soft-rocking disco tracks – which almost reach Frank Stallone-levels of awfulness. I don’t want to comment further on this. I feel dirty.

It’s not a bad film, it just feels very forced. The neighbourhood doesn’t seem particularly marooned like the one in Death Wish 3 does – it’s in the heart of the city where the police just wouldn’t put up with that shit. The story is incredibly predictable, offering no surprises. And the only co-star of interest is Danny Aiello. And I’m stretching a bit saying he is ‘of interest’. The director is John Flynn, who has quite a few decent films under his belt – “The Outfit”, “Rolling Thunder”, “Out for Justice”. He shows little of the class on show in “Rolling Thunder” here.

Worth a watch, but put it a little further down your list than the likes of “Walking Tall” and “Vigilante”.

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‘Shock Treatment’ (Jim Sharman, 1981)

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Having been a victim of ‘that difficult second album’ syndrome myself I can more than empathise with the myriad talents that fell on swords when they made ‘Shock Treatment’.

‘The Rocky Horror Show’ had been a terrific success on stage, but the film, ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ (Jim Sharman, 1975) had been something of a disaster on release. It’s not a particularly good film and lacks the vibrancy and fun of the theatrical experience. But lucky for the makers, Americans loved it! That is to say, some people up very late at midnight screenings with nothing better to do than dress up and throw stuff around the cinema loved it. While this obsessive behaviour never really penetrated the UK on the same level, it’s fair to say ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ was a cult success.

Cosmo & SchnickThat a sequel was even considered is remarkable enough, that it ever got made is a near miracle, especially given the pig of a script they ended up with. Probably the guiding light that got it made was the fact that they had Richard O’Brien’s talent on hand. Why would you throw that away? As bad a film as ‘Shock Treatment’ is, and it is a bad film, but with many saving graces we’ll go over momentarily, there’s so much about it to enjoy. The songs are great, the performances are strong, the cast is an incredible snapshot of early 80s talent – there’s even Sinitta! So what went wrong?

First and foremost, the script is a problem. I’m fortunate to have an early draft of ‘The Brad and Janet Show’ by Richard O’Brien. It’s a wonderful satire on middle-America and a heartbreaking tale of a marriage gone stale. All that’s still in the songs, but it’s not really in the plot anymore. It feels like a producer’s script. Someone thought they could do it better and ballsed the whole thing up. I contacted O’Brien a couple of years back to look into publishing that original script in order to benefit a charity. He seemed open to the idea, but knew we’d have problems with 20th Century Fox which we did. That he replied at all told me that he still believed in that original idea.

What we’re left with instead purports to be a satire on American game shows and daytime television. It can certainly be read that way, but this would seem to be a retrospect description rather than the musical comedy they were aiming to make. Certainly it’s a very anti-American film which is possible why it failed to latch on to the success that ‘Rocky Horror’ enjoyed over there.

Janet & Brad

So our story centres on Brad (Cliff de Young) and Janet (Jessica Harper) Majors, the two spunky heroes from ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ who have no settled down and married. However it’s not the two leads from said film because they had excuses not to be involved. In many ways this is the viewer’s gain since both Jessica Harper and Cliff de Young had terrific singing voices and in the case of Cliff de Young, is able to pull off the dual role of Brad and Farley with considerable ease.

Brad and Janet find themselves on a game show where Brad is left medicated and Janet is groomed for stardom, apparently with a view to making her sexually desirable again to Brad but in truth to allow his evil twin brother to seduce her for himself. Are you paying attention at the back there? There are other subplots but they’re not particularly thought-out so for me to go over them would achieve nothing. Suffice to say we have a number of peripheral characters who act almost like a Greek chorus (especially in the case of Betty (Ruby Wax) and Judge Oliver Wright (Charles Gray)) and are really only there to link the disparate scenes together.

To call this a sequel to ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ is a mistake and was certainly the producers’ mistake. The leads could’ve been renamed and then all links to the previous production would’ve been discarded. Calling it a sequel pre-release lead to too many expectations. If ‘Rocky Horror’ had any success then it was due to Riff-Raff, Frank N Furter et al – with them out of the picture all you have is a knowing B-Movie.

Danube at DawnWhat the film does have going for it is a monster of a soundtrack with some of the best songs O’Brien has ever written. There’s a subtext to the majority of the songs which is a leftover from the original draft which makes them all the more tragic. Janet’s song ‘In My Own Way’ for example is, one assumes, O’Brien attempting to explain to his wife that his sexual interests extend further afield than just her. He quite literally comes out with the less subtle ‘Breakin’ Out’ and one day I’d love to hear O’Brien himself sing the narcissistic anthem that is ‘Me of Me’. The title track has a pounding drum line which is surely inspired by that years’ number one from Adam Ant, ‘Stand and Deliver’.

Then there’s the cast. Aside from the two leads there’s O’Brien and Patricia Quinn together again, camping it up in an incestuous duo. Charles Gray is back and partnered with Ruby Wax. Why this works is anyone’s guess but they compliment each other rather well and even sing a duet at one point. Think on that. A young Rik Mayall is making an early film appearance and Little Nell is back, this time playing a mini-skirted nurse.

The main draw though is Barry Humphries as Bert Schnick. Originally written for Jonathan Adams as the character was meant to be Dr Scott from ‘Rocky Horror’, Humphries more than makes the part his own, but perhaps lacked a firmer directorial hand. He clearly seems to be doing it with too much freedom, but the more fun he has is reflected on the viewer’s enjoyment.

Little Black DressThe choreography deserves a special mention too. These are not big dance numbers, but they are clearly intricately pieced together. From the opening sequence where the show is frantically preparing to go on-air, through to Janet’s endless wandering of corridors during ‘In My Own Way’, the garish Soho sleaze of ‘Looking for Trade’ and the outright headache that must’ve been ‘Look What I Did to My Id’ (where the cast dance with full-length dress mirrors) these sequences are natural and rarely seem stagey. Even ‘Lookin’ at an Ace’ doesn’t strictly feel like a song and dance number as Farley’s already established himself as a showman.

And what of those mirrors? There’s a lot of self-reflection in this film. Cosmo confronting Janet with a full-length dress mirror and explaining to her that she’s still a desirable woman, even though her self-confidence has taken a hit. The established celebration of self in ‘Me of Me’ and of course Brad and Farley’s slanging match at the end of the film, two sides of the psyche fighting each other. O’Brien’s duality is never more evident in this film, itself a far more honest example of the man behind the music than the more campy, friendly ‘Rocky Horror’. We know O’Brien is a transvestite and we know he’s a very camp bisexual man, but only when he turns the camp on. Off-screen he can be really quite rugged – he was a stuntman for some time after all! His duality is on screen here and perhaps the schizophrenic mess of a script is a result of that and not a producer’s intervention? Either way it would be a joy one day to see the original script produced into either a stage play or a film.

So we have to make do with second best. It’s not a good film, but it’s a fascinating film and that makes it highly watchable, as does the soundtrack and general glee on display. This was the last film O’Brien wrote, indeed it’s the last musical too. He contributed a song or two to ‘The Return of Captain Invincible’ (Phillipe Mora, 1983) but otherwise continued to let slip little hints at a ‘Rocky Horror’ sequel that never happened, often titled: ‘The Return of the Old Queen’. It’s probably the bad experiences on this film that caused that, but it would be a terrible shame if we’d heard the last of him.

In closing, what follows is a a track O’Brien recorded for that Rocky Horror sequel that never happened. David Bowie would be proud. Go on, Dicky – finish it.

Big AND clever.

Swearing in films hit something of a peak in the early-to-mid nineties where it became virtually impossible to watch a film without a ‘fuck’ or a ‘motherfucker’ every five minutes. While not in itself offensive, the laziness of the writing and often reliance on the actor’s part for a bit of improv swearing just became too much. We hit a point where suddenly big action films that once relied on continuous ‘fuck’-streams were suddenly well-spoken and with not much of a dip in quality.

hughfuckSuch happy, friendly, chirpy fodder like ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ (Mike Newell, 1994) is awash with comedy ‘fucks’ right from the start. A few years earlier an equally popular British film, ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ (Charles Crichton, 1988) had also employed a good ‘fuck’ as a joke. Even earlier still, the esteemed (though not in the cinema) ‘Withnail & I’ (Bruce Robinson, 1987) had some amazing ‘fucks’ on offer.

Modern films have employed a new method of swearing. One won’t do, it has to be a string of swearwords, often some made up, delivered with the sole intention of making an hilarious bleeped soundbite at the MTV Awards. Kevin Smith’s films, once original and fun, got tired very quickly. Jason Lee’s lines in ‘Mallrats’ (1995) are smoothly delivered and character-driven. His brilliant inappropriate “What? Like fucking?” during the gameshow is delivered with a massive smile. But flash-forward to 2006 and nothing’s changed. A row in a diner about someone using the phrase ‘porch monkey’ feels ten years old and wholly inappropriate to the film playing out (mind you, this is also a film with donkey sex as a plot point!).

One of the earliest shocks I had watching a film was ‘Christine’ (John Carpenter, 1983) where a character called someone a ‘cunt’. Never heard it in a film before. My parents were livid and turned it off. They did the same several years later when they overheard me watching ‘Street Trash’ (J. Michael Muro, 1987). Now it’s commonplace in not just most films, but also TV series. Fair enough it’s HBO, but ‘Californication’ has more ‘cunts’ in it than ‘EastEnders’ has ‘slags’. Compare this to the days of ‘Cagney and Lacey’ where Christine’s outburst: “Sweet Jesus, Mary-Beth” was censored.

And on the subject of censorship, the exciting and intricate, almost seamless methods employed by ITV in the UK to censor some films, or at least lessen their offense is admirable. Here’s a deft piece of work – I bet you can’t spot the join:

That said, ‘piss’ and ‘shit are commonplace on ITV and Channel 5 in the afternoons now. Just as they crept into children’s films in the eighties, ‘The Goonies’ (Robert Donner, 1985) and ‘The Monster Squad’ (Fred Dekker, 1987) both had prepubescents swearing away throughout.

pescifuckThe aforementioned improv problem is one that troubles me though. Poor actors like Joe Pesci are given to believing that improvising around a character requires the repeated insertion of  ‘fuck’ between words in order to be in some way convincing and this technique continues right up to ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (Quentin Tarantino, 1992) and beyond into the ‘noughties’ with those endless bloody awful British gangster films which generally consist of gravel-voiced hard-men or well-spoken softies swearing like dockers for 90 minutes.

But it’s the British film industry (Gawd bless yer, ma’am!) that’s spawned something rather unique in cinema: Professional swearers. Three spring to mind who do it better than anyone else in the world: Richard E Grant, Rupert Everett and the legend that is Sean Pertwee. They can make any swearing fit classy, funny and dignified. Everett even pulled it off in Europe in the likes of ‘Dellamorte Dellamore’ (Michele Soavi, 1994) and bought some chums along with him to the UK to give a terrific tumbling of ‘fucks’ in ‘B. Monkey’ (Michael Radford, 1998).

Richard E Grant we all know from ‘Withnail & I’, a film which is positively punctuated with profanity – and not once is it offensive, right down to its majestic but terrible ‘cunt’. He can sneer a ‘fuck’ out like no other and always sound like he means it.

pertweeSean Pertwee on the other hand never sounds like he meant to swear. His ‘fucks’ seem to be overflowing from his mouth. His early ‘fuck’-drops in ‘Event Horizon’ (Paul Anderson, 1997) are nothing compared to his full-on rages in the likes of ‘Dog Soldiers’ (Neil Marshall, 2002) and ’51st State’ (Ronny Yu, 2001). He carved a niche for himself as the UK’s proudest swearing export.

But is all this swearing really necessary to deliver plot or could a film with no swearing in it reach a wider audience without harming its message? ‘The Breakfast Club’ (John Hughes, 1985) tells the story of high school kids who want to fit in but don’t want to fit a mould. A vital message to most kids, but it’s never going to be heard by the age group it’s aimed at because the word ‘fuck’ crops up so often in the script.

Would John Bender’s impersonation of life in his own home be equally emphatic if his father was yelling back “Shut up” instead of “Fuck you!”? Probably not.

By the same token, wouldn’t intergalactic hard man Han Solo be a bit more convincing if instead of calling Jabba the Hutt a “… slimy, worm-ridden piece of filth” he just called him a ‘fat cunt’?

Perhaps the most obscure case of a film rendered virtually incomprehensible by going out of its way not to swear would be the Charles Bronson film ‘Murphy’s Law’ (J. Lee Thompson, 1986).

Excuse the bloody awful intro to this one, the compilation more than illustrates the point that sometimes, swearing IS necessary in a film:

Legends of the 24hr Film Session: Franco Nero

Sling a poison-tipped dart into a dung pile of seventies Italian ephemera and you’re guaranteed it’ll plonk itself into either one of Franco Nero’s handsome buttock cheeks, but don’t mistake his prolificacy for being a disposable background name.

franco1A well-built man’s man with piercing blue eyes and pubic hair spilling out from his underwear like angry ants carrying whips, Nero is a solid lead in many films; both tough and vulnerable, romantic, comic, violent and suave. His career is long and varied, but here we’ll be concentrating on the films which are fully deserving of a place in any 24hr film session.

In 1966 he lucked into the lead in Sergio Corbucci’s ‘Django’. In a way this proved to be the template for most of his coming performances – a loner seeking revenge. But prior to this would be his dalliance with Hollywood in major studio films such as ‘The Bible’  (John Huston, 1966) and ‘Camelot’ (Joshua Logan, 1967).

But we don’t care about that stuff because we’re cinematic rogues on a dirty and mysterious path; we have little or no time for Hollywood and its painted cows.

So let us skip forward a little to 1971 and Luigi Bazzoni’s spiralling (the pun’s wasted on you if you’ve not seen the film) giallo ‘The Fifth Cord’. Here Nero’s masculinity is proven as he butches around the franco2place with the character name of Andrea.  It’s a beautiful film, sumptuously shot with a confident plot which succeeds in spite of its absurdities, much like any good giallo. Andrea’s duality is clearly relished by Nero as he plays an investigative reporter looking into a killer who only kills on Tuesdays. That in itself is mysterious. If I were to kill people I’d do it on a Friday so as to maximise the impact on their family’s lives by ruining a weekend, or on a Sunday to emphasise the ungodliness of my act.

A few years later though and we get a film which impacts enormously on Nero’s future career. In 1974 he made his first film with writer/director Enzo G Castellari in ‘Il cittadino si ribella’, or to you and I: ‘Street Law. In fact from now on I shall refer to it as ‘Street Law’ simply so this doesn’t appear too obnoxious or “filmy”. In this ‘Death Wish’ inspired vigilante thriller (though Castellari insists both were in production at the same time) Nero plays a man pushed to the edge by hoodlums and ne’er-do-wells.  While Nero’s made better films, I don’t think he’s bettered this performance. From the start as he surreptitiously tries to secrete his cash in the bank during a robbery he plays a complete fish-out-of-water. This single act leads him to be kidnapped, beaten some more and generally exposed to a pretty shitty time of it. What’s great about Castellari’s film is that in fact his first act at vigilantism actually sees him getting the shit kicked out of him. It goes stupidly wrong. This in turn allows Nero’s Caro Antonelli to come back harder than ever before, and this time with a plan. He manages to overthrow the dirty crime gang and win the day, albeit with substantial blood loss. It’s clear throughout that here we have a director and actor working perfectly in tandem, no less obvious than in the scenes where Antonelli is repeatedly knocked down by a car and then driven over the edge of a cliff. That’s not a stuntman, my friend. That’s Franco Nero.

Here’s a magnificent compilation from said film:

nero3Any discussion of Nero can’t avoid the magnificent ‘Keoma’ (Enzo G Castellari, 1976). Again something of a vigilante film, but with a slightly more supernatural edge. It’s clear that Nero and Castellari were just peas and carrots. Nero has to carry the entire film as pretty much everything is told from Keoma’s point of view. He’s in every scene.

These films will all be covered individually later on this blog and in the book as there’s so much to say about each one. But Franco Nero was and always will be a cinematic legend. He even turned up in ‘Letters to Juliet’ (Gary Winick, 2010) with his wife Vanessa Redgrave. A film I was dying in front of, but his lively performance perked me up no end.

Franco Nero: We salute you.

‘Heart and Souls’ (Ron Underwood, 1993)

Heart & Souls

If you love film, then you must love the creation of a film. The intricacies and ephemera of film production, script processes, scoring, editing – all that ‘Movie Magic’. I used to watch a programme on TV in the early nineties called ‘Movie Magic’. It was incredible. Mainly it concerned miniature model effects, usually for sci-fi. You’d get Deep Space Nine or Aliens or something. You’d watch as a few guys would spend weeks and weeks preparing for a single shot which would last just a few seconds on screen.

One edition featured a bus flying off a bridge and crashing. Once it’s crashed, four of the occupants rise up like spirits. The latter recollection, the four spirits, doesn’t seem evident in this video (approx 15m in):

So it was either another example of the memory cheating, or the film was covered later in the series as well. But the image stuck with me and although I never saw the film on release or indeed near release, I did catch it around 2001 with my soon-to-be wife. Our music tastes couldn’t differ more strongly so it’s with some pride that while other couple’s have ‘our song’, my wife and I have ‘our film’.

Despite being a cynical, miserable, cantankerous old sod, I love a good romantic film. I enjoy a decent blub. This doesn’t happen often, and when it does it’s a credit to the film you’re watching that it can provoke such a strong emotional reaction.

‘Heart and Souls’ isn’t a great film and it’s not trying to be (these words become something of a mantra here at the 24hr Film Session HQ). It’s a piece of entertainment designed to not waste ninety minutes of your life and instead leave you satisfied that you weren’t cheated out of your cinema ticket price or the cost of a DVD (or whatever medium we’ve moved on to by the time I’ve finished this post).

SoulsOur story concerns four people who die simultaneously in a bus crash and a baby boy born within a few moments of said crash. The four people, whose lives we briefly glimpse, find themselves forever visible and connected to the boy, Thomas with no known reason why. As Thomas grows up they are like guardian angels to him, playing, singing, dancing and guiding him through his early years. But his belief in them is damaging and they make the decision to disappear physically from his life, and stay with him invisibly. For young Thomas this is devastating and the effects of their decision can be seen once he’s fully grown.

Here Robert Downey Jnr takes over and is slowly ruining his own life with bad decisions and a ruthless independent streak. Things come to a head when the bus that crashed at the start of the film reappears and the four ghosts learn that they were attached to Thomas to complete their unfinished business. Their time is now up. Given a few extra days extension they must reappear to Thomas and convince him, not only that they were real all along, but that he must help them complete their lives and settle their affairs.

It may all seem far-fetched, but this isn’t a film which strives for realism! It’s a modern fairytale which benefits from a terrific ensemble cast. There are some mawkish moments but they’re offset by the light comedy. There are some almost farcical sequences too, but never at the expense of the script and as ever with Downey Jnr, very well judged so as never to be silly.

Ooo-ah-oooDowney Jnr carries the film, presumably around this time off his face on all manner of chemicals. It doesn’t show, though the energy is certainly there in ever scene. The supporting cast are mainly playing to type, specifically the four ghosts. Charles Grodin and Tom Sizemore are just Charles Grodin and Tom Sizemore. But Alfre Woodard, who’s seemingly forever young in every film she’s in, plays the matriarchal Penny to a tee.

The film almost sinks into absurdity the moment she hears ‘Hug a Bug’ being sung by the police officer. This should be a coincidence too far, but it really isn’t and if you don’t choke back a tear at this point then you may as well switch the film off and return to uploading songs on your iPod and straightening your Ikea book shelves because your soul is moribund.

As Thomas struggles in vein to fulfil his friends’ individual needs, he seemingly neglects his own life and his impending marriage to Anne (Elisabeth Shue) who instead, again by chance and a 1000:1 coincidence, sees her fiance indulging in the most peculiar behaviour, not least his strident rendition of the Star Spangled Banner with BB King to a stadium packed with, among others, her parents. With each story he completes, he becomes a little stronger and there’s nothing subtle about the script here.

Wet DowneyThe film seemingly bombed at the box office and has had pretty shoddy treatment on home video and DVD with a Bluray release yet to happen – though this may be due to the large number of optical effects in the film. It’s worth tracking down. It doesn’t ask much of the viewer and you’ll at least have fun while you watch it.

For a 24hr Film Session it’s probably one for either the ‘evening wildcard’ or afternoon ‘accepted classic’. It’s probably not dynamic enough to substitute for the final ‘documentary’ period.

Open with a song!

Not enough films these days have a decent song and dance number. Balls to your musicals, your MTV generation video-cack and your Kevin Smith post-ironic Clerks II embarrassment … sometimes you just need an unashamed, cards on the table dance number.

No film does it better than ‘Adventures in Babysitting’ (Chris Colombus, 1987) which wonderfully does it not once but twice. Midway through the film we’re treated to the oddest gang-survival tip: sing your way out of the rough house. But it’s the opening where the magic happens:

It’s vibrant, joyous, face-slappingly attention-grabbing and performed with absolute gusto by brief screen-bother Elisabeth Shue.

A couple of years earlier, Steven ‘I still make films’ Spielberg pulled off the same trick with ‘Temple of Doom’. A weird, full-on dance number which drifts into Busby Berkeley territory emphasising the fantasy nature of the film and no doubt going part of the way to justifying an inexplicable PG certificate in the UK.

Another nod has to go to ‘Heart and Souls’ (Ron Underwood, 1993) which I intend to wax lyrical about later this week. It’s perhaps too brief to be counted as a musical number, but it retains that joyous, celebratory feeling that I’m banging on about. Unashamed pleasure which the aforementioned ‘Clerks II’ simply doesn’t have. It’s a clumsy, awkward, crow-barred musical number which seems as shallow as the sequel itself. This is how you do it, Kev:

Our final nod will go to wheelchair/alien McDonalds fun fest ‘Mac and Me’ (Stewart Raffill, 1988). It defies explanation.

Bring back this unashamed joy to your films. It doesn’t require a musical for a character to burst into song. Just judge it right, gauge your audience and don’t do what Kevin Smith did with ‘Clerks II’.

‘The Face Behind the Mask’ (Robert Florey, 1941)

Face Behind the Mask

If Hollywood has taught us anything over the years then it’s that a person’s face, if not adhering to the aesthetics of Hollywood’s ideals, must be inherently evil.

You have the occasional blip in their ‘Jesus! Look a that guy’s face!’ radar such as Cher-fest ‘Mask’ (1985) or Gibson Oscar-fodder ‘Man Without a Face’ (1993) but typically mainstream Hollywood insists that ‘ugly’ (ugly = any deformity ranging from injuries incurred through birth, violence or accident) means evil. Even modern fayre such as ‘Vanilla Sky’ (2001) or ‘Shrek’ (2001) hammer home the need for all of us to be ‘Hollywood-Beautiful’.

Peter Lorre

Back in 1941 a film was made which blurs these ideas. ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ is essentially a B-movie. But it’s the A-movie of B-movies. Its biggest asset is its star, Peter Lorre. His performance here, as always, is spot on. Even when he’s gone bad, he’s good.

The story tells the tale of an innocent, hopeful immigrant, Janos Szabo,  arriving in America to start a new life. He’s perhaps a little too innocent, but this is a B-movie and we can excuse that. Poor Janos gets caught in a fire and suffers terrible burns, mainly to his face. Janos tries in vain to find work but people are fearful of him. After he accidentally robs someone he elects to turn to a life of crime to teach those who knocked him back a lesson. And he’s bloody good at it. He swiftly becomes a crime boss and earns enough money to get himself a life-life mask to wear.

1z32xvq.jpgOnce he’s able to go out again without people running away screaming he meets a girl and as always with these tales, is smitten enough to want to leave his life of crime.

I won’t spoil the ending for you as it’s worth tracking this one down. Some copyright-resenting rogue has already upped the whole thing to YouTube! It’s a sweet tale which nearly goes against the grain of that Hollywood ideal detailed above, but what makes the mere 69 minute running time an absolute joy is Peter Lorre and easily one of his best performances. Give it a whirl.

Who? What? Who?

As a child I was plagued with tonsillitis. I’d get it pretty much bi-monthly but for some reason my GP said I mustn’t have my tonsils out, even when friends at school were getting theirs removed when they hadn’t even had tonsillitis.

One of the symptoms of this illness is a 24hr fevered, sweaty, hallucinatory dream-state. It’s pretty damned nightmarish and I found, with my parents’ blessing, that it was better for me to sit downstairs in front of the telly than lay up in my room. A consequence of this is that the majority of my early film viewing was ruled by what was on TV late at night. This being England, the channels were often in close-down by 2am, but as I got older they eventually switched to a full night of, sometimes signed for the hard-of-hearing, filler-films.

I discovered a lot of films this way and also developed a hatred for one or two of them owing to the state I was in and always connecting the film to the state of mind. Two films from these sessions stuck in my head, mainly because I had so much trouble tracking them down. The first was ‘The Medusa Touch’ – more about that some later day, but the other film I simply couldn’t identify.

Not wishing to dredge up a tired and irksome cliché commonly found in DVD commentaries, but this was before the internet. All I had back then was the indispensable and soon to be made utterly obsolete overnight by IMDB: Halliwell’s Film Guide. This would’ve been around 1985/1986 and the copy we had was a nice big hardback. I loved this book. But when you only have plot to go on and a few half-remembered images it’s more than useless.

I could remember the main thrust of the story being a man returned to the US from Russia with a metal face/head. No-one that used to know him really recognised him and they needed to be sure he wasn’t a spy in disguise. I remembered the final shot and not much else in the way of specifics. I couldn’t even recall the cast.

Who?

Now it’s a doddle. I can look it up and find that it’s called ‘Who?’, starred Trevor Howard and Elliot Gould and was directed by Jack Gould (Shit?! Really? The guy who did ‘The Medusa Touch’? What are the odds?) and made in 1973.

Prior to this I thought I’d nailed it when I found a film called ‘Robo Man’ in the very early internet days. I ordered it from Amazon in the US (there wasn’t an Amazon in the UK then) and after a while the sleeve arrived, the videotape didn’t. I’d paid $16 for a video sleeve because that’s what the internet used to be like. The sleeve’s cover image simply didn’t match the film I remembered. Roboman-BIt looked like a sub-Corman nasty eighties straight-to-video effort. I kept that sleeve for far too long until it eventually perished in a fire.

As the internet evolved my first victory on IMDB was discovering that the film I was after was indeed ‘Robo Man’. It took me a couple more years still to get hold of a copy and it’s still a fairly affecting drama. Joseph Bova puts in such a good performance which is probably what hung in my mind. Gould on the other hand seems bored throughout, but then that’s often been his style.

I wouldn’t say it was a great film, in fact it’s probably not even worth tracking down unless you’re a Gould-completist, but it was the journey that’s always stayed with me. Trying to find that elusive half-remembered image can be a real challenge because the memory frequently cheats and the longer you ponder on something, the more it develops in your head and morphs into something it isn’t.

b5e I remember when ‘Phibes Rises Again’ was shown late night on ITV. I definitely remember the title caption appeared in big purple letters next to Phibes when the organ had risen up into the rubble of his old house. It’s always possible ITV had a special print, though rather unlikely.

Sometimes you just have to accept that even though you remember something a certain way, you can’t rely on your brain to tell you the truth about it. With a film, sometimes it’s better not to go looking for it at all as you’ll only be disappointed that it doesn’t live up to your remembrances.

Who?

Nice music video compilation.

‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ (Ted Kotcheff, 1989)

Weekend at Bernie's

There are some films which exist purely by reputation alone, and those reputations are often poor. There is a blanket policy now to give ‘hip’ indie films a long and preposterous title such as ‘Hobo with a Shotgun’ or ‘Zach and Miri Make a Porno’. They are titles designed to provoke a response and with ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ it’s not so much the title that provokes the response but the very basic premise: Two men carrying around a corpse.

‘Weekend at Bernie’s’ is a great film. Not great as in ‘Citizen Kane’, but then it’s not trying to be. It’s a comedy and you’re meant to laugh and if you kick off your stroppy socks and give it ninety minutes of your time you’ll be rewarded.

weekatbernies1989720p-1If the film has a failing then it’s the opening thirty minutes. It takes a surprising amount of time for Bernie (Terry Kaiser) to die. During this time we’re introduced to Richard and Larry (Jonathan Silverman and Andrew McCarthy), two bottom-of-the-rung employees in an insurance company who, while working overtime, discover fraud on a grand scale within the company. Expecting to be rewarded they approach their boss Bernie who invites them up to his holiday home to celebrate.

However Bernie is in with the mob and is the one embezzling the money. He arranges to have Richard and Larry killed during the holiday, however because Bernie’s been dallying with the local mobster’s wife, it’s Bernie who is killed instead.

Richard and Larry, assuming they’re safe if Bernie is alive (following a misunderstanding with a telephone message) realise their best bet is to pretend Bernie is alive and well and they should be able to find a safe route off the island.

All is complicated however with the arrival of Gwen (Catherine Mary Stewart). Richard has fallen for her and Larry, being a shallow kind of guy, has decided they should just stay and enjoy the holiday, dragging Bernie’s corpse around with them wherever they go. Meanwhile the enraged assassin is continually trying to kill Bernie who still seems to be alive.

Okay, on paper that sounds rubbish. vlcsnap-2013-06-10-16h37m00s119But stick with it. Aside from the energetic and sometimes annoyingly over-the-top performances, especially from the two leads, you have to admire Terry Kaiser’s dead acting throughout the film. In my opinion it’s bloody nearly Oscar worthy. Daniel Day Lewis may well be able to sit still for a long time, but at least he could move his foot around. Kaiser has to be dead for almost the entire film, often in ridiculous circumstances. But even when he’s alive he steals the show.

Filled with some bizarrely delivered lines (‘That’s illegal. What you’re doing is illegal’) it’s actually a very complicated script with some brave set-pieces. Take for example the evening when Bernie manages to sexual satisfy the mobster’s wife for several hours, long after he’s dead. Necrophilia in a mainstream PG comedy? Apparently the BBFC are fine with it.

este_muerto_esta_muy_vivo_1989_1Sadly part of the reason the film is so poorly regarded is that it was followed by a sequel in 1993 which takes absurd and makes it ridiculous, something this first film never quite does. I defy anyone not to be reduced to tears of laughter when Bernie is being dragged behind the speedboat hitting the buoys as he goes. Daft, yes. But there’s still a minute degree of believability in there.

It’s a product of the eighties, albeit the dag-end of the eighties. The plot and characters are driven by eighties greed and money=success. That our two heroes will go to such lengths just to stay in a nice house for a weekend is a real sign of the times.

This is without doubt an essential ingredient for a successful 24hr Film Session.