Monday, May 31, 2010

Assembly (2007)

Today is the day in the United States that we remember those who served in the armed forces and fought to keep the country free. In honor of the miltary brotherhood I'm going to talk about a film that concerns a true story about a man who fought for years to make sure that his men were not forgotten and to assure that they were hailed as the heroes that they were. While it is not an American story, or even an American film, the sentiments of the film are, I think, universal for any man or woman who has served in any military and formed a bond with their fellow soldiers. It is in the spirit of that comradery and shared sense of sacrifice I present Assembly.

In 1948 during the Chinese Civil War, a broken company of men is ordered to hold an old mine until the bugler plays assembly. As the battle goes on each man thinks they hear the bugle call, however the captain never does and he refuses to let his men retreat. After the war, the captain, the only survivor and the only one who said he did not hear the bugle call, tries to find their bodies and prove his men died as heroes.

Profoundly moving story of the brotherhood created in war and the need to right an old wrong. Though not quite perfect, this is one of the best war films I've seen, period. Its power comes not from the battles, rather from the humanity of those that fight. This is a film about people and characters first and foremost and its what lifts this toward greatness. I have never seen a film where everyone, on both sides of the battle, are portrayed as human beings. There are no monsters, no stick figures, just people. Even the people in the mass of uniforms are people even if we only see them for an instant. This is a film about the people, and the individuals who fight in times of war. None of the main characters are clichés. Its not like Saving Private Ryan where everyone is a WW2 cliché, here we have people and even if we don't know everything about them we do know that they are individuals. This is a film about the human cost of war.

Ultimately the film works because of Zhang Hanyu as Captain Gu Zidi. Here is a man who is racked with guilt for "killing" all of his men. He wants nothing better than to honor them, and when after being found in the carnage of that final battle he comes to realize that no one believes him, he is forced to not only fight on but also do everything he can to see that the memory of the brave brothers is kept alive. Zhang Hanyu breaks your heart as he tries to both join his men and prove to the world that what they did mattered. It is a portrait of quiet strength and occasional rage that makes you feel for him and for the men who fought with him. Its one of the best performances of the year.

I know for some the first hour of relentless battle (its nasty) will make the more sedate second half something they will have trouble sitting through. I know some will wonder where the guns have gone, but at the same time this is not a story of battle but of people. The horrors of the first hour (filmed in the now standard shaky cam style) make the poignancy of Captain Zidi's quest all the more touching, since he wants to make his mens sacrifice and trip into hell worth something. You really have to be patient and go with the film and let the film reward you in its own way. I suspect that knowing the film shifts gears for the second half helps since you don't have expectations of a two hour battle. I know that my initial attempt at watching this film blind lead me to believe this was going to be wall to wall action, however a friend who borrowed my copy before I could finish it warned me of the tone change and I think it helped me a great deal when I finally watched it from start to finish.

You really should see this film since it ultimately speaks to all people who send their sons and daughters off to war and why we need to remember them.

And as I said at the outset, yes its a true story.

This is currently out on DVD.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Crimson WIng:The Mystery of the Flamingos (2008)

This doesn't appear to have a US release despite it being a Disneynature film. Its played around the world and is out in DVD elsewhere, but in the US its played in some film festivals and this past weekend and next weekend its playing at the IFC Center in New York City.

The film concerns the flamingos return to Lake Natron in Tanzania where they breed each year. The lake is full of salt and except on the fringes it supports no life. However once the rainy season comes the flamingos returns and breed on islands of salt (think ice slaps but of salt). The film follows as the birds breed, lay eggs and try to keep their young safe before they match off to the fringes of the lake waiting for the young's feathers to mature enough so they can fly.

Its a visually arresting film that was a joy to see on the big screen. There are shots that will take your breath away. An early shot of a large flock of birds fling in formation had me awestruck, and then tearing up as the flock was halved when we realized that half the flock was the birds reflections and they were coming in for a landing. There are so many shot like this you may want to tie your mouth closed.

The problem with the film, and the one that keeps me from saying run out and see this on the big screen if it plays by you (though doesn't affect my whole hearted recommendation for DVD) is that the film is too long by say fifteen minutes. Once the birds leave the salt and head out into the marshes on the fringes of the lake, the film has nothing much to say. The narration repeats and we simply wait for the birds to mature enough to fly off so they can return the next year. While the film remains visually inspiring (the erupting volcano and shots of the birds flying in a lightning storm will blow you away), the film just runs out of steam.

I heartily recommend the film for those who love nature documentaries, but at the same time, you may want to wait for the DVD.

A word of warning: the film does not shy away from the death of the birds. We see the cycle of life so we so see the carnage brought by predators. We also see the chicks become encased in salt shackles which form on their legs and feathers making their mobility limited if not not existent. Its heart breaking and incredibly sad to the point a couple of kids who were in the audience when I saw it yesterday needed to be reassured by their parents. If the film doesn't get a big push by Disney I'm guessing its the true life scenes of death.

They Fought for the Motherland (1975)

This is the second of two films from the great filmmaker Sergei Bondarchuk. Bonderchuck is one of my favorite filmmakers because his films are so different than anyone else's. He takes us into the hearts and minds of his characters managing to both show events on a huge scale at the same time showing us the effect of the people involved. For my money he's one of the most under appreciated filmmakers of world cinema.

Its 1942. The war in Russia is going badly for the Russians. They are being slowly pushed back by the ever advancing Nazis. This is the story of a regiment who's slowly dwindling numbers try to survive and remain optimistic as they continue to try to prevent the enemy from ever reaching Stalingrad.

This is a great war movie. As with all Sergei Bondarchuk films this is a movie that makes you think and feel by showing you what its like to be a lone man in a huge situation. We get to go inside the heads of the various characters and we see what its like to be in battle. The battle scenes are good as the Russian soldiers simply try to survive the strafing, the bombing and to keep the Germans far enough away that they don't have a good chance at killing them.

In someways this film reminded me of Terrence Malicks's Thin Red Line which used similar techniques at times (for example: subjective camera, manipulation of the soundtrack, disjointed flashback.) Actually this movie reminded me of several other war films produced after its release. I'm curious if film makers like Francis Ford Coppola and others studied copies when they made things like Apocalypse Now.

As good as the film is, it isn't perfect. The film can come off as a bit too "rah rah" for mother Russia at times, even though the film ultimately speaks to the larger question of defending one's own home land. The film can also be a unfocused in the second half as the film takes some odd turns; then again the second half has some of its most powerful imagery with the young nurse trying to save the wounded man in the bomb crater and the return of one soldier from hospital.

See this movie. Its a great great war war film which only suffers when compared to some of the gems in the Sergei Bondarchuk back catalog of films.

This can be had as an import. I picked this up from an e-seller at Amazon.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Destiny of a Man (1959)

Sergei Bondarchuck is one of the great unsung masters of the movies. He was an actor who turned to directing and ended up making what I think is one of the true masterpieces of all cinema the 1968 War and Peace. It's a huge sprawling epic running around 7hours and comprising, in its uncut form, four separate films. It’s a film that is both epic and small scale. It is absolutely perfect in some spots and utterly messy in others. It’s a film that transcends its problems to be a something greater. Trust me that film is so much better than the punch line of a joke its become (Down the road after my next viewing I think there will be an entry here)

However before War and Peace, before tomorrows film They Fought for the Motherland, there was The Destiny of a Man, the story of one man and his life before, during and after the Second World War.

The star of the film is Bondarchuck himself and he’s quite good as the everyman representative for all of those in the Soviet Union or the world. He makes us care about him and feel for his plight as he goes from happy peasant to soldier to POW to survivor. We feel as his world his turned upside down again and again by life’s trials and tribulations. It’s a tough role that is full of opportunity to over do, but Bondarchuck the director reigns in Bondarchuck the actor so that his performance remains note perfect.

Filmed in a moody black and white this is a film that perfectly conveys the horrors of war and of life in simple ways that other filmmakers need hours and complex effects to reveal. The short five or so minute death camp sequence is to my mind a perfect distillation of what the death camps were. In the course of what seems to be a simple tracking shot Bondarchuck shows us how people arrived on the trains, were sorted and ended up going up the chimneys. Its a sequence that is sparse, far from graphic and yet utterly chilling. The whole film is like that, simple sequences that convey a greater sense of events.

I really like this film a great deal. I like it because no matter what you say about the film’s technique or look, the film is ultimately about people. We watch the film because we identify on some level with out hero. The film is about our hero and his struggle to survive in extraordinary circumstances. We watch in the hope that if these things happen to us that we might one rise to the occasion, even when we’ve broken. There is a wonderful sense of life and of humanity even in the darkest times.

And no the film is not perfect. This was Bondarchucks first time out of the box in the director’s seat and there are a couple of times where the story’s larger implications get away from him and kind of blur things, there is a more than a hint of a propaganda message in the mix. I don’t know if that’s his doing or the greater powers controlling film production, but there is clearly a deep love for mother Russia. Then again I don’t think Bondarchuck was ever not a messy filmmaker. Any film that I’ve seen which he directed always had something imperfect about them.

If you can look past the flaws I think this film will knock your socks off. See this film. It will move you.

Currently out on DVD

Friday, May 28, 2010

Keep Surfing (2009)

Let me over sell this right at the start:


That of course means nothing since its a matter of personal taste, but damn this movie made my mouth hang open and murmur "wow" repeatedly.

The film is about river surfing, nominally in Germany, but its a sport that's going on elsewhere (We see some surfing in Canada). The idea is that on rivers there are places where, because of underwater objects, water level and other things that create a sort of permanent wave that a surfer can ride for as long as the like. You don't travel anywhere, you just ride the wave.

I can't do this film justice. this is the sort of film you really need to see to appreciate. That may sound like a cope out, but when you see the images that are in this film you'll be left just as speechless as me.

Bjoern Richie Lob, the director is a surfer who has been filming his friends surfing for several years. When he did a rough cut of the footage he was given a large grant to shoot the film the way he wanted. He was helped by the fact he managed to parley his love of surfing into a job working for European television on their coverage of surfing. The result was he was able to bring in expert camera men, cranes and lights and really shoot the surfers the way most sports filmmakers could always dream about filming their sport.

Lob talked to the founders of the sport, to the regular people who surf the canals, the the cranky old guy who figured out how to modify one canal so they could surf all year round, to the ocean surfers who came to try their hand and to the people in the street (literally) who stop to watch the crazy people surfing in all weather and with and without clothing. Thanks to Lob being a hell of a nice guy He got everyone to open up. Its not really surprising, he stood next to me for much of the Tribeca screening I attended and was a blast to interact with. Actually his Q&A after the film was one of the highlights of the festival (I liked that he gave a prize for the best question asked).

I saw six documentaries at Tribeca and this was the only one that NEEDS to be seen on a big screen. The way this film has been shot puts you there with the surfers and the spectators and the best way to truly appreciate this is see it on as big a screen as possible. I really do hope that this film not only gets a wide theatrical release around the world but also gets to be seen by more than just surfer dudes and dudettes. Trust me this is a movie and a sport for everyone.

Currently on the festival circuit, I'm not sure what the release plans are for it after that.

Trust me you want to see this. Rarely have I seen such a great audience reaction to a film, not only at the film festival where the audience actually seemed to be one with the film but in general. (Another indicator, almost no one left before the Q&A was over, everyone pretty much stayed put. That was unheard of at the Tribeca screenings I saw since at most films seemed to have much of the audience bolt)

One of the best film going experiences of 2010.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Blood and Rain (2009)

On a rainy night in Bogota Jorge is dropping off a fare. Across the way car pulls up and two men tell Jorge that they want to set up a meeting for their boss to give him information about the death of his brother. Jorge doesn’t want to hear it and doesn’t feel safe so gets out of his cab with a crow bar. One of the other men beats him up for “disrespecting” them. This then sets in motion a series of events that will result his meeting lonely party girl Angela and violence.

Nihilistic doesn’t begin to describe this bleak black film. It’s a film that hangs around you and makes you feel unclean. This is not a happy movie and you may hate yourself for seeing it, as a couple at the Tribeca film Festival screening I attended did. Its dark oppressive and you can’t escape. It’s a film that moves toward its conclusion with a certainty that none of the characters has, much like all of us.

I don’t know what I think of this film. Its clearly the calling card of a director with a huge amount of talent. It has the feel of a real place, of events that may have happened.

As a film as an object de art it’s a masterpiece. I could wax poetic about the technical aspects (including one of the best soundtracks-sound effects ect-that I’ve ever heard) for hours. The film is technically that good. Unfortunately the film has problems dramatically that have made it hard to put it on the high pedestal the film is aiming for (it still hits high up like some one shooting for the moon and ending up in the stars).

The problem with the film is that it is dramatically confused. There is a great deal going on that we don’t know. Much of it is because Jorge doesn’t know, but there is a great deal more that is never revealed because it’s the life of the characters that bleeds off the screen. Its as if we have been truly dropped into these characters lives with no road map. It works on some levels because its clear there is a real world they are operating in, but at the same time it leaves us wanting to know just a little bit more. Its problem that goes all the way to the end because while we see things to the end, we never get any answers about what it was that brought about the terrible events. (There is a seeming problem with the film’s internal clock but its not worth going into since its nit picking)

I’m not sure that this film is really about the events as depicted or if, perhaps the film is more a mediation on various themes running through it. In the morning after I saw the film I found that if I jettisoned the plot and just thought about the ideas I liked it better. The film is largely a dark meditation on loneliness and violence. I like the films depiction of the damage and dangers of random violence. Rarely has any film clearly shown how the stupid things we do by violent or forceful means, leads to more violence and more damage. Indeed the downward spiral of the film is set in motion because one man chooses to beat up Jorge who then has to take steps to protect himself, which leads into misunderstandings and further complications which leads to more violence and death. It’s a film where people who don’t know anything choose to beat their way through things and then get shocked (or dead) because they don’t take the time to see the stupidity of their actions.

Of course the people who see the film and use it as something to change the way they behave won’t.

This is a film I admire a great deal. I’m still not sure I more than like it but at the same time I think that this a film worth seeing.

A word of warning there is full frontal nudity, graphic sex, violence and general unpleasantness. This is a film that will probably be released in the US as either an NC17 or more likely unrated. Keep the kids away.

Currently on the festival circuit, I expect this to be picked up for release since there were several people at the screening I attended looking at the film for possible pick up.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

King Kong (1933)

Yes, the original King Kong.

And yes, I know you've seen it but hear me out...I just saw it Brooklyn Academy of Music on a big screen and trust me, you haven't seen it until you see it on a big screen.

There is something different seeing it as a HUGE all enveloping image. I never really had a sense of size, of the wall, of Kong, of New York, of everything. It's one thing to see Kong and Ann in a perfectly composed shots on TV, its another to see a huge Kong standing over a small Ann, and having to turn your head to move from one to the next to take in the whole image. The scale of the image puts you on Skull Island. It blew my mind.

Also blowing my mind was the little details I never noticed before, the tiny figures moving in the background, of other details that are lost on the small screen. One of the things that amazed me was seeing Driscoll trailing Kong through the jungle. Actually it wasn't so much his trailing of Kong, rather it was the fact that it was an animated figure. I never noticed that. More importantly I never noticed the numerous animated people in the backgrounds.

There is so much I didn't notice until I saw it on the big screen.

Trust me, until you see it on the big screen you haven't seen it either.

Seeing it on the big screen I finally understood why the film has survived for 80 years.

If you get the chance to see it on the big screen, do so. It will change your opinion of the film.

In all honesty this is an unseen film, yes most people have seen it, but most people haven't SEEN it.


This film blindsided me. I had come home from a terrible film at the Tribeca Film Festival and wanted to see something good. I needed to see something to restore my faith in films and in the film festival. To that end I went searching the Pay Per View films that were playing at the film festival and picked this one. The choice was made pretty much blindly. I based the choice on a couple of over heard conversations from people in the theater earlier in the evening where several people discussed wanting to see the film.

From the instant the film began I was hooked. Here was a film that lived and breathed like a movie should. Here was a film with stunning visuals and infectious music and the most wonderful characters. It was a film that was a wonderful and the film earlier in the evening had been miserable.

The story of the film has a young man named Vishnu uncertain about his future. He doesn’t want to sell the hair oil his father produces, not does he know what he wants to do. When the opportunity comes for him to drive an uncle’s portable cinema across the country to its new owner, he takes it. Packed up with food water and a generous supply of hair oil he heads off on an adventure that will change how he views life.

I find this to be a magical film. It’s a film that I liked so much that I watched it three times over the course of a weekend. I frequently have a tough time getting through a movie one time, but here is a film that I liked so much that I felt I had to see it a second and third time. As much I didn’t like the trekking to and from the Tribeca film festival this was a film that seriously considered making a special trip in to see on the big screen. The only thing that stopped me was the realization that the film would be playing at friendlier times after the festival at a cinema in the city.

What do I like about the film? As I said the characters, the photography and especially the music which wraps everything up in a cozy blanket of sound. Actually there is something more something special that I can’t yet put my finger on. I don’t think I really know. It’s just a film that resonates with me in a way that few films have. I know that I’ll be seeing the film several more times over the next few days and weeks as I return to again and again. You need to see this film. Its magical.

Currently in release in theaters in the US and on cable as an on demand film.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Trotsky

This is a case of a film growing on me. I had watched The Trotsky on the pay per view element of the Tribeca Film Festival after I had come home from a rather mediocre screening. I was in the mood for something more and I decided to splurge. Watching the film at about 1 am I found I was liking the film but I wasn’t loving it. The trouble seemed to be that the film was a little too pre-programmed, much like our hero’s life. I considered the film pretty much cable fodder and a near miss.

Then something happened. The next night I went to see the horror film The Possessed (see yesterdays post) and found I was too haunted by that film to go right to bed. I needed something to clear the mind of the monsters and to that end I put on The Trotsky a second time (thanks to the ability to watch a ppv movie as many times in 24 hours). Surprisingly I found that I liked the film a great deal more than I did before, the result of the things that worked the first time, the characters and the humor they create, over powering the preprogrammed nature of the plot line.

The plot of the film has 17 year old Leon Bronstein going through life convinced that he is the reincarnation of Leon Trotsky. He has a chart on the wall with all of the things that Trotsky did in his life and he makes every effort to live a similar life. Working for his father (whom he calls a fascist) during vacation he organizes a hunger strike and when that fails he tries to get a union started. Leon gets hustled out of there rather quickly. Back at school he begins organizing the students into a union. He also tries to get a former political lawyer, now professor to help him and in the process falls in love with his daughter.

For better of worse how the plot spins out from there you can pretty much guess. I did and it disappointed me the first time because the characters and the humor were so good that to hang them on a worn plot line seemed to do the film a major disservice. This was a film that I wanted to love not like, but the film just wouldn’t let me…

…Then I saw the film a second time and things changed. Sure the film isn’t the be all and end all it could have been, but at the same time it’s a very funny film with warm characters. I liked the people in the film. I like that the humor is character generated and not a series of jokes that are separate and apart from the characters. The jokes work here because its these characters not any random characters. I got a warm fuzzy feeling with the romance between Leon and the older Alexandra. What I found the second time through was that the film’s well worn plot line worked just fine for what the film was doing, it didn’t upon further review, damage the film as badly as I first thought.

Sue me I like the film now. Sure its flawed (the political talk still is a bit much and I still wish it didn’t stay on track so much) but its till an enjoyable two hours of entertainment. Is it going to win any I awards, probably not but I’m guessing it might find a place in your heart. Worth a look.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Possessed (2009) aka Bulshinjok aka Disbelief Hell aka Living Death aka Hell of the Nonbeliever aka...

This is the start of a week of films from the Tribeca Film Festival. These, along with Into Eternity, which ran as a capsule review back during the festival, are the best of the 16 films I saw. I'm sorry its taken so long to actually post these, but I needed to get some distance before I wrote them up. Frankly I needed to be able to let the greatness of the films not be colored by the unhappy experience of the festival itself.

So, in the hope of clearing the decks I'm going to start with one of the best films of the Festival and possibly of the year.

This is a Korean film with way too many alternate titles in English. Trying to find the trailer for the film on You Tube resulted in finding clips but under a variety of titles. The film played at the Tribeca Film Festival as Possessed, which is one of the better possible titles… (see the post title for other names)

The plot of the film has a college student getting a call from her mother to come home because something had happened to her sister. This is after receiving a strange late night call from her sister asking her if she was okay. Racing home she finds her sister missing and her mother refusing to do anything about it. All mom is interested in is having her daughter begin believing in God. As mom goes to church to pray, the girl calls the police. At first the police don’t think anything is wrong, the sister has simply run off, however people begin to “commit suicide” and other weird things begin happening.

One of the best most haunting horror films I’ve seen. It’s a film that hangs with you and stays with you and forces you to ponder what you’ve seen and what it’s getting at.

“Getting at?” you’re asking yourself, “what do you mean getting at?”

I mean that the film has more on its mind then making you jump out of your seat, which it does repeatedly. Not only is the film a horror film of the first order, it’s also a film about the notions of faith and belief. Can you believe in something that you don’t have evidence for? (This is a subject that was taken up by the terrible Buried Land which also played Tribeca and which it failed miserably to deal with) When the film ends it’s the questions of faith that remain and which resulted in two hours of post film discussion on the subway and train ride home.

This is that rarest of all things a horror film that works not only as a visceral horror film, but also as an intellectual one. In some ways I think that makes this a scarier film because it’s working you over on any number of levels and you can’t retreat into the safety of dismissing what you are seeing.

I should probably point out that this is not a gory film. Actually there isn’t much blood and no guts, which will probably disappoint the gore-hounds who like everything stained red. The horror here comes from the situations, from the implications and from seeing things that really shouldn’t be (eyes don’t move like that). If you like horror films but don’t like where they have descended this film is for you.

You’ll notice that I’ve been lacking in really discussing the details of the film and that’s intentional. I want anyone who sees this film to walk in and get hit with the film the way I did, straight on and full in the face. If you know too much at the start I think the film won’t work. This is a horror film that’s structured like a mystery so if I give you too much information you’ll be able to unravel what is going on, and if that happened you won’t have as much fun as you should.

Trust me, this is one of the best horror films you’re likely to see. I know from the reaction of the audience I saw this with that everyone was loving it. Sitting in the back of the theater I could see that everyone was sitting bolt upright staring at the screen, never moving except to jump out of their seats. (This is a rare horror film where it sets things up and moves in a direction and you plead with it not to go where you think its going because you know something is going to happen and when it does you scream and jump).

I'm not completely sure what the status of the film is. I think its making the rounds of film festivals and is out on DVD overseas.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Island (Ostrov) (2006)

Pavel Lungin's mystical film about, guilt, belief, god and the need to be forgiven.

The film concerns Father Anatoli, a monk at a far off monastary. During the Second World War he had been forced to shoot and kill a friend by the Germans in ordersave his own life. Thrown into the ocean he washes ashore at the monastery where he becomes a monk with a reputation for miracles, and unfortunate practical jokes. 30 years on the monks still don't know what to make of the strange man who lives among them.

I picked this film up from an Amazon e-seller because when I read the description of strange things going on at a monastary it sounded interesting. Actually the decription made it sound more like a mystery and a thriller rather than what it is, a drama about looking for redemption. I don't think I would have expected what I got even if I had read proper description because there is something about the film that is impossible to describe.

First off there is a wicked sense of humor that runs through the film. Partly through the jokes played by our hero, but also from the characters interacting and trying to deal with what is going on. This isn't to say that the film is an out right comedy, its not rather there is a simply a vein of the humor of life running through it. The humor is mostly from the absurd moments that happen to us all.

The film is also very much about humanity. The film cares for everyone and Anatoli's antics makes it clear that God cares for us as well, even if he moves in ways that are not always readily apparent. The head of the monastary moves in with Anatoli after a fire, and what happens to him is not what he expected in his wildest dreams.

One of my few reservations while I was watching the film was that we never really know if what Father Anatoli is saying and doing is really messages from God. There is no proof, people come and go, things happen , but we don't see absolute proof. I got over it by reminding myself that if he wasn't some hoe inspired people wouldn't have kept going to him. Actually it wasn't until I was well done with the film that it occurred to me that we don't need to know if the advice and visions are real, that's not the point of the film. When I realized that I liked the film more. It was at that point the film clicked with me.

I like that the film challenged my expectations. First the film wasn't the way it was described and then it didn't behave as I thought it should. There is something special about a film that completely knocks you off your feet. Seeing the film was a little like seeing Father Anatoli, a long journey to place where we are going hoping to find enlightment, but instead of the wisdom we expect we find something else more valuable instead.

Track the film down and give it a try. It will be worth the effort.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Tsar (2009)

I'm going to do a weekend of films by Russian director Pavel Lungin.

It didn't start out this way. Actually I didn't start out with the idea for a weekend double feature at all. All that happened was I happened to see two Russian films back to back, both of which I liked. Both of the films seemed to have similar themes and feels and the same star Pyotr Mamonov (in today's film he's Tsar Ivan and in tomorrow he's Father Anatoli).

However when I went to look them up on IMDB I found they had the same director and then my mind began to meld the films together in a thematic exploration about faith and belief. They are both challenging films that kind of sneak up on you. I really like them and have been thinking about them since I saw them.

I'm not sure what the release status of the films are. I saw both as import DVDs from Amazon e-sellers. I've seen some bits that Tsar is playing in film festivals around the world (I noticed it on a British site that reviewed it at a film festival). My advice is keep an eye out for both since they are worth your time.

(I'm presenting the films in the order I saw them, not int the order of release)

This is the story of Tsar Ivan (The Terrible) who it seems is sliding into madness. He is trying to divine God’s messages to him and to crush all of the traitors in his court and with in his country. He calls an old friend Philip to Moscow and then he appoints him as Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church. At the same time he makes Philip promise to always to tell him the truth. What transpires from that point is a battle of wills as Ivan proceeds to terrorize the population and Philip insists the best way to go is to show mercy and forgiveness. It all comes to a head when a battle is lost when the attacking Poles outflank a town’s defenders and take the town. Ivan wants all of the retreating soldiers killed, Philip wants them shown mercy. When Ivan refuses Philip takes steps to keep them safe. It’s all down hill from there.

This is a film less concerned with being historically accurate to the facts of the story rather it’s more concerned with exploring the ideas that the story is kicking up. I mention the lack of faithfulness to events because I’ve read several reviews of the film and the most scathing ones have been those that have taken the film to task for not being a documentary on events. Strangely they are fine with the mystical, almost border line fantastical, elements but they dislike the move away from the historic record.

Personally I don’t know how true or not true the film is. I don’t care. Any film that makes me feel as if I’ve been kicked to the curb and has had my head ringing for days with the ideas explored in the film is okay in my book.

The film has been said to be a meditation on the Stalin years in the former Soviet Union , However the film can also be seen in other lights:

- a meditation on what does god want…
- the general battle between church and state…
- the battle of atheism and belief…

There are more, but I leave them for you to work out.

There is an other worldly quality to the film. You feel as those you are in a place and time long ago. We are not here, we are not now. We are then and there. The film benefits from seemingly having been filmed on location and its own time. I read one review of the film which mentioned that the film seems to be wonderfully free of computer enhanced graphics. I agree.

The film is full of these wonderful characters. The mad Ivan trying to save his soul and trying to define what God actually wants. Philip who is clearly a good man of God, and who becomes more and more frustrated by his friends insistence that he knows what God wants. There is the demonic court jester who eggs Ivan on and who even in his final moments makes you wonder if he's human or from hell (He's actually one of the most evil characters I've run across in film).

Mostly this is a film of surprises. Its a film that doesn't go where you expect it to. It unfolds as it does, takes odd mystical turns, makes you think, it makes you feel and leaves you feeling exhausted at the end.

When I got to the end I was left sitting in my seat wondering what it was that I had just seen. I couldn't put my finger on it, but for some reason I felt that I had been moved out to the curb. For days afterward I found myself turning the film over in my mind trying to work out why I felt the way I did, and why are some people so clearly a danger to humanity.

It is a deeply felt film. It's very spiritual.

Its a trip. Its worth the time and effort to track down because it will make you feel.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Deadly Nightshade (1953)

I stumbled upon this wonderful small scale film. Its a marvelous compact little thriller that I picked up from a dealer at a nostalgia show. I knew nothing about it going in, with the result it was a nice surprise coming out. I've seen this film several times since I picked it up and I've really enjoyed it each time.

An artist in England finds himself mistaken for an escaped convict and arrested. He's freed thanks to a police inspector friend. However things go in a different direction as the convict shows up and ends up in his place just as a series of events transpire to complicate things.

This is the sort thriller that begins and then never stops for its entire running time, and since it runs about an hour flat there's a great deal to cram in. As things go its complication and twist followed by more complications followed by... you get the idea. The film handles all of the complications with an ease that is most impressive. I would love to talk about where this film goes but I think its best to just see it since it a great ride.

I really liked this film a great deal. Its a small gem of a movie that's more satisfying than many bigger films. For the most part it all works.

This is one to look out for.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Chick Carter Detective (1946)

I am a huge serial nut. I love the old movie serials with a deep passion and I've either seen or own pretty much every sound one that was released and has made its way to home video wither via an official release or from a dealer. At some point I'll be doing more serial reviews but for now I'm going to talk about one of the best serials I've seen. I recently picked this up from a collector/ dealer at a nostalgia show because regetably most studios don't think there is a market for serials. I'm not going to debate the isssue now, instead I'm going to talk about Chick Carter Detective.

To be honest this is not so much a serial as a long mystery broken up into fifteen parts. This is one long story that simply goes from the opening credits and doesn't really stop. I can't imagine watching this on a weekly basis since the story is so compact that waiting a week for the next part would probably cause you to forget things. Worse if you missed a chapter there might be a chance that you could end up lost.

The plot of the film, I can't say serial, starts when nightclub owner Joe is leaned on by rival Nick to repay the loan he got to open his club since Nick wants to close up shop and move on. Joe is unable to come up with the amount of money needed so Nick suggests giving him the "Blue Diamond" a supposedly cursed necklace. Joe refuses and instead puts it in the paper that his singer will be wearing the necklace the next night. This sets in motion a series of plots and counter plots that leads to the theft of the diamond. The police are called in and Lt Chick Carter is put on the case.

It's a complicated tale with enough plot for nine one hour long mysteries. What impressed me was that the film doesn't follow the well worn patterns for most serials, it doesn't stall for time or spin its wheels to fill out the required number of chapters. For example even though the story will loop around on itself by going to the same locations and having "who has the necklace" chases, what happens is internally consistent, in other words they are not looping back on itself just to fill time (for the most part), we move through time and space because of what the characters do (in most serials we go to the dame places because its cheaper). We also don't get endless recaps, the story kind of assumes that you've been watching and paying attention so events just play out. Even when we get to a cliffhanger events flow outward from them, we don't get, as we do with many Republic serials, a discussion of the danger and then a false pause and redirection of the story as if it was all directed at getting to the action sequence, and now that that is over we have to head for the next one.

The cliffhangers in the serial are not spectacular by serial standards. Yes, there are a couple of really good ones but mostly they seem to have been placed in the middle of an action sequence. I don't mean this as knock, rather I mention it to point out that the action is part of the story and not the reason for the story. To be honest the "cliffhangers are really more chapter endings rather than climaxes. For example one of the chapter endings ends when a crow bar is swung at Chick Carter who ducks out of the way, and then the crow bar hits an electrical board producing a shower of sparks. We know Carter is safe, we saw him move out of the way, but it's the closest thing to a "cliffhanger" at that moment so it was chosen as the place to end it. There are a couple of bumps like that where ends are almost non-cliffhangers since we know how its going to come out. Its not bad, but it just makes it clear that the cliffhangers are the least important element to the story.

I do have to say that this is a long complex haul. There's a great deal going and its best if you pay some sort of attention (so much is going on you'll probably wonder where Chick Carter is during most of the first chapter since he doesn't show up until the chapter is almost over). And while I was completely enjoying it I was beginning to get tired by the third episode simply because so much was going on. From that point on I was in a battle between wanting to know what was going to happen and being really tired and wanting to go to bed.

The film does have two problems in my eyes, one minor and one major.

The minor flaw is that the serial has one character, Ellen Dale who shows up a couple of chapters in and ends up as one of the more important characters. Very little about her is explained and she wanders through the proceeding operating completely according to her own set of rules. Clever viewers will be able to figure out what she's doing, and its explained in the end but before that you really don't know what to make of her.

The major flaw is that beginning with the moments preceding the end of chapter 11 through until chapter 15 the serial starts to do everything that it hadn't been doing up to this point, namely circling back on itself for no good reason and stalling for time, actually what its doing is creating an extra three chapters for the Columbia Studios mandate that serials must have 15 chapters(this one should have been 12). The result is logic and reason goes out the window as well as everyone suddenly knows the name of Vasky, the hired gun sought by the police as an unknown killer. Granted Spud hears his name, but no one reacts when he uses it and everyone from that point on knows who he is, even when they shouldn't. To be honest Chapters 12, 13 and 14 take what is a great serial and make it something very good. It does recover in the final chapter but its really annoying since other than those three chapters this is a dynamite crime drama.

I really liked it and would rather think of it as one long mystery then 15 parts. Worth a look for those who want a long mystery for an evening, or for those searching for an atypical serial.

This is not out on official DVD but you should be able to track this down from a dealer who sells old movies on line or at nostalgia shows.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Capsule Reviews 5/19/10

THE OGRE (2008) A pair of teens on the road find they have traveled back in time to a place where an undying community lives forever thanks to sacrifices to the title character. Low Budget TV movie of the sort that SYFY shows on Saturday nights. High art its not. But enjoyable it is, at least when taken on its low brow level.

WARBIRDS (2008) During World War Two a plane on a secret mission is forced to land on an uncharted island by a change in the weather. There they find that the island was once the stronghold of some Japanese who have been eaten by some flying dinosaurs. They are forced to fight for survival using what ever means they have (dinosaurs vs zeroes). Enjoyable romp that is played pretty straight with the result its a winning little adventure film that is utterly implausible but a great deal of fun. Get out the popcorn and enjoy.

DRAGONQUEST (2009) Rare good low budget fantasy about a young man who tries to stop an evil wizard who has woken up a sleeping dragon so he can destroy the countryside. Its a rare mixture of good performances, effects and a script that truly is worth plopping sown in front of the TV and watching. I started to watch this thinking it would be like any number of other fantasies that are little more than background noise. What I found instead was a neat little film that was worth the time and effort to not only watch but share. Since there are an number of films with the same title look for the one directed by Mark Atkins and has Jason Connery and Marc Singer in it.

23 Paces to Baker Street (1956)

I have no idea if this film is in the Turner Classics rotation. I know its not on official DVD since I picked this up from a dealer at a nostalgia show. Unfortunately its a pan and scan copy which means the wonderful widescreen that you see fleetingly during the opening and closing credits is completely missing for the body of the film. This is a film that needs to be seen by more people and needs to be out at the correct aspect ratio.

Van Johnson is a blind playwright in London. Cranky since he lost his sight he lives a reclusive existence having driven away anyone who cared about him. He's helped along only by his butler. One day when he wanders off to a pub he overhears a conversation that leads him to believe that a terrible crime, a kidnapping or murder, is going to take place. When his call to the police gets him nowhere, he decides to stop the crime himself; or rather with the aid of his butler and his ex-fiance.

This is a nifty little thriller that is akin to Hitchcock's films of the 1950's. While it echoes Hitchcock's work it is decidedly its own beast with the plot and events playing out in ways that Hitch never really explored. Johnson's blindness is both a blessing and a curse and a good chunk of the tension comes from not knowing if he's in over his head. The plot is nicely crafted so that, like Johnson and his companions, we are not sure what exactly is being planned. We, like the characters on the screen, have to piece things together. Its so nice not to have everything spelled out at the start or to have a big reveal moment too early in the tale.

The whole cast are very good with everyone nicely filling out and selling their assigned roles.

If there is a problem with the film its that film has the feel of some of the big budget films of the 50's that were made in color and on location so that people would be lured back to theaters in order to see things they couldn't get on TV. Its often too "big" for some of the small moments with shots set up to look good in widescreen, but almost at the cost of the story. Still its a minor complaint and the film looks good in the full screen edition I saw.

This is one to look out for, especially if you're a Hitchcock fan, since it appears to be an under appreciated thriller.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Jigsaw (1949)

This is a great little crime film that is readily had in the bargain bins for a couple of bucks. This is a perfect example of why you need to search out the bins for lost treasures.

A printer "commits suicide", though we in the audience know its murder, not long after a story appears in the paper about how he was printing material for a hate organization. But it isn't just a hate organization but it may actually be a cover for a corrupt money making scheme. In the wake of the "suicide" the writer of the newspaper story continues to chase after his leads; while his friend, an assistant DA, tries to figure out if it really was murder or suicide. When the reporter ends up dead ( another "suicide") all bets are off and the DA begins to pursue the death of his friend. He quickly finds that the murder angle looking more likely when he gets a visit from a man looking to do him harm.

This one blindsided me in that I thought it was going to be an average crime story that I could put on and drift off to sleep, unfortunately for me its an above average little thriller that kept me awake when I was trying to fall asleep. I was ready for sleepy time and instead I had to fight to stay awake to follow some of the twists and turns of the story. An added bonus was the fact that the film appears to have been filmed in and around New York, so the locations make it all feel even more real.

Granted its not the best film ever to wander down the pike,. but it is a solidly good one that's worth the effort to see.

Worth looking for.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Fritz Lang's M-The original English language Version

Quick name the first film that Peter Lorre made in English....if you said anything other than M you're wrong. To be fair, up until recently you would have been right, however the truth is that Lorre actually shot an alternate version of M in English and it's been released in the UK as part of the Masters of Cinema series from Eureka Films and in the US as part of the recent Bluray from Criterion.

(A bit of background: Where we in the US have Criterion as THE company putting out super sets of old and new films the UK has two BFI- The British Film Institute and Eureka who put out the Masters of Cinema. Both of those companies work with Criterion so very often the release mirror each other.)

The Masters of Cinema release of the Fritz Lang classic was just done this year and it benefits from the discovery of the long rumoured, until recently never absolutely proven English language version of the film. The liner notes mention that Criterion had tried to find the film for their DVD release of M a few years back but that they couldn't find a copy.

Even though I have the Criterion DVD version in my collection I ordered the Masters of Cinema version because Amazon UK had it on sale and I was too curious about the English M to pass it up.

According to the liner notes Lang didn't have anything really to do with either the English version nor the French version of the film. Both versions are essentially the Lang version dubbed into the appropriate language with a few alternate sequences that were filmed in English or French as well as all of the newspapers and posters translated into the language of the version. Both version run about 96 minutes which is the length of M before a restored version was put together several years ago. For the most part the new sequences in the English version fit in with the film and unless you were really looking at the mouth movements there are is a chance that you wouldn't notice. (Then again you might... but I'll get to that in a moment)

The real kicker in the English version is the trial sequence which has new shots of Peter Lorre acting in English inter-cut with the old footage from the original film. The shots don't match the remaining original footage much, and its a bit jarring, more so when you know its a patch job, however the performance of Lorre is still amazing. Here, three years before Lorre did The Man Who Knew Too Much, was Lorre acting in English, and doing it really well.

I'm not going to lie, outside of Lorre this version of the film is little more than a footnote. I can completely understand why the film bombed when it was originally released and was buried. To me the problem is not the film itself, but the dubbing process, which makes the film seem like a silent film with post synchronized sound. A few mismatched mouth flaps aside, the problem is that the dubbing has wiped out almost all of the sound effects and ambient sound to the point that the dialog seems like it was recorded in an empty room. It all seems wrong. Watching the two versions back to back I was shocked at how the poor soundtrack ruined the film. Seeing the dub its easy to see something is wrong, even with Lorre doing his own speaking.

Is the film worth seeing?

How big a fan of the film are you? More importantly how big a fan of Peter Lorre?

To me the chance to see Lorre doing, what is essentially a "do over" of the trial scene was worth it. The ability to see another run through is one of the reasons I like to see live performances a second time because you get to see how an actor approaches a part on a different night. There is shading. Lorre's original take is the best, but at the same time this is an interesting curio, more so since it's clear he's giving the role more than the people who are acting with him.

If you're curious this version is worth keeping an eye out for. I wouldn't say buy it if you already have a copy of the restored version that it accompanies, however if you don't have the restored version and don't have a Bluray player, the Masters of Cinema version maybe the way to go, especially if the extras on the Criterion version are not to your liking.

Ticket to Paradise (1936)

Super little romantic comedy has a man in a hurry for a meeting getting into a cab and after telling the cabbie to hurry to the station, ending up in car accident and losing his memory. Armed with 10 grand in his pocket he jumps on a train hoping to figure out who he really is. Once in New York he ends up hooked up with an heiress who tries to help him find himself and the pair ends up falling in love.

Charming off kilter film with great characters and an unending sense of fun. I put this on last night expecting nothing but a background time killer and instead found myself utterly charmed as "John Doe" and his lady love cook up scheme after scheme to help him find his memory. Its not always laugh out loud funny but I don't think the smile left my face at all during its 65 minute running time. Its one of those movies I plan to hand off to friends and revisit myself. One of the best finds of the year. Definitely worth a look.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Calling Paul Temple (1948)

Calling Paul Temple: posterPut on your tuxedo, pour a chilled martini, and settle down to watch with me Calling Paul Temple, the thrilling adventures of a telemarketer who's only been given a single name to contact by his vindictive boss. Actually, it's the sequel to Send for Paul Temple, which suggests that before, Scotland Yard was perfectly willing to pay his travel expenses, but now they'll just ask him questions over the phone.

The action begins one year after the previous movie. It's Paul and Steve's first anniversary, and they've celebrated by getting younger and turning into completely different people.

Calling Paul Temple: Steve and Paul

Actually, that's the all-new, all-different Paul and Steve Temple, British actors John Bentley and Dinah Sheridan, who bring a cheerful and up-tempo beat to their scenes and dialogue. Much as I enjoyed Anthony Hulme and Joy Shelton, Bentley and Sheridan bring a brisker, more romantic banter to the characters, and you can't help but wonder if the mostly subdued falling-in-love subplot of Send for... would have taken a further step onto center stage. Bentley and Sheridan are a convincing doting couple and would play the Temples in two more films in the series.

This time, the mystery is more complicated and the plot has more thrills and genuine cliff-hanging moments, not unlike the radio program—not surprising, as the storyline is adapted from the 1945 radio serial "Send for Paul Temple Again," which was remade yet again on radio in 1968 as "Paul Temple and the Alex Affair." Beautiful women are being mysteriously murdered. The only clue? The scrawled word REX on the walls. Which means the murderer can only be one man:

Calling Paul Temple: Rex Harrison is not in this film
British stage and film legend Rex Harrison!

Whoops, I've made another one of my silly mistakes. That's why Paul Temple's the detective and I'm not. Besides, I'm pretty sure the Butchers Film Company, Ltd. Couldn't afford Harrison. No: "REX" is another mysterious dying clue—the Temple mysteries, like those of Ellery Queen, are full of them, and Paul and Steve become entangled in the case, tracking down the mysterious Mrs. Trevellyan, who's connected to each of the victims.

While the hook is the cryptic mystery, the real highlights are the teasing and affectionate light dialogue between Steve and Paul, and the competent cast of British B-level actors, especially Wally Patch as "Spider" Williams, cheery accomplice and one-eyed informant, who manages to get a rise out of the usually unflappable Steve.

Calling Paul Temple: Spider, Steve and Paul

The pace is brisk, with a few well-timed action sequences that toss Paul and Steve into danger, including a car crash and an encounter with a ticking time bomb:

Calling Paul Temple: The Bomb

There's an encounter with a mysterious hypnotist, red herrings a-plenty, and a trip to Canterbury to track down clues. Can you spot the immediate connection between a typed list of the victims and the menu at a hotel?

Calling Paul Temple: A List of the Victims
Calling Paul Temple: Hotel Menu

It's all in good fun even if you can spot the beats of the plot a half-hour ahead. Who can guess what's going to happen to this woman as she momentarily pauses in the writing of a letter that will reveal the identity of the murderer Rex?

Calling Paul Temple: Rex is...Argh!

Yes, that's a good lesson to be learned from Calling Paul Temple: in any note explaining your role in a criminal affair, be sure to lead off the letter with the identity of the murderer.

Calling Paul Temple is one of those B-movie mysteries that offer a lot of fun for the dollar pound. I very much enjoyed the crossover with the works of J. K. Rowling as Paul and company chase the villains through Hogwarts...

Calling Paul Temple: Canterbury Church

...and just like a James Bond movie on a tighter budget, the villain is keen on tying up the heroes in an underground catacomb beneath a Canterbury church and letting the forces of H2O do the dirty work for him:

Calling Paul Temple: Steve and Paul are trapped!
Calling Paul Temple: Steve and Paul almost drowned

See, this is about the point when I'd like to see Paul Temple's ultra-smart trained dolphin, Finny, swim in and rescue them, but alas, even though we've seen he does indeed have a pony, he has no dolphin. I'd fix that oversight if I were writing new Paul Temple serials: each adventure he'd team up with another new animal pal who would assist him and Steve in cracking calamitous crimes. Just imagine it: "Paul Temple and the Panda Affair!" "Paul Temple and the Kangaroo Kaper!" "Lights Out for Paul Temple and His Electric Eel!" "Paul Temple's Egrets Are Unable to Lunch Today!" And many more. Think about it, won't you, estate of Francis Durbridge?

Like its predecessor, Calling Paul Temple is an exceptionally light mystery/romance where the plot takes a definite back seat to the dialogue and clever back-and-forth repartee . Your attention may wander during the murder mystery, but when Paul and Steve step onstage, the movie shines. It's in great part due to Dinah Sheridan's light and sparkling portrayal of Steve Temple—a more vibrant and playful performance than the perfectly competent but more sedate Joy Shelton. This is a Steve who's an even partner to her front-billed husband: she spots clues, hears bombs ticking, and looks elegant and stylish even in a dressing gown.

Calling Paul Temple: Steve

The formula of husband and wife sleuths is a tried-and-true one that didn't originate nor peak with the Paul Temple mysteries, but while it's sometimes possible to have a single male protagonist who later marries his partner in deduction (Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane stand out a good examples), I doubt a Steve-less Paul Temple story would be half as interesting. Consider the venerable NBC Sunday Night Mystery feature McMillan and Wife starring Rock Hudson and Susan St. James. When St. James left the series due to a contract dispute, the show was renamed McMillan and cancelled two seasons later. Frankly, I would've given Miss St. James a truckload of cash to keep that romantic chemistry together. Would Hart to Hart be as successful if it was just Hart? Where would Clark Kent be without Lois Lane? Ricky without Lucy? Ben but no Jerry? Gin without tonic?

Calling Paul Temple: Paul and Steve

No, give us our Steve. The films might be named after Paul Temple, but in Calling Paul Temple, it's clear what makes them more than just an ordinary British mystery is the partnership of Paul and Steve. Which only goes to prove: even murder mysteries can have a very happy ending.

Calling Paul Temple: The End

Bully- an introduction

Yesterday's post for the first Paul Temple film was also the first post for a little stuffed bull named Bully.

I know you're thinking I've lost my mind but Bully really is a stuffed bull and he has his own blog called Bully Says:Comics Oughta Be Fun. It's, as the name says, a comics blog, but he also writes on anything that interests him, for example he did a long series of posts on P.G. Wodehouse that actually fit nicely into the over all scheme of the blog.

As you've no doubt discovered Bully has a wicked sense of humor (Wodehouse no doubt would have been a fan). If you've read his blog for any amount of time you'll notice that while he will stay on topic he will not stay serious for any longer than he absolutely must. For the most part some where along the way the need to talk about, say ponies (see yesterday's post) will come the forefront. Of course the joke is that what at first seems like humorous quip will very often end up as fodder for something down the line.

Bully is a very clever bull. Probably much more clever than this confused human.

What I like about Bully's writing, aside from it more often then not will make me laugh out loud, is that when you're reading one of his pieces you feel as though you've actually read something. There is a weight and a substance to what he has written that makes it more than just a tossed off piece. If you read yesterdays piece (if you haven't go read it, I'll wait) you see that beyond the jokes there is substance. In the course of one review you not only got a movie review but you got a well done basic introduction to the character of Paul Temple.

There is also love in what he's writing. Yes, he'll make fun of something but its the fun that comes from loving something enough that you can make fun of it and not have it break. There is so much cruel humor around these days that sucks the life out of things, say comics or movies, that when you read a review by someone who has supposedly written a positive piece, you still don't want to see it or read it because the humor was so cutting it destroyed the supposedly good thing. Bully isn't like that, in the piece on Send for Paul Temple he chides the film, but at the same time, it's done out of love. He kids the film but still likes it. Best of all when he's done you still want to see the film.

I like his style. I think you will too. I'm just hoping that I can get him to do more pieces since he's a very busy bull.

If you like his pieces here please do head over to his blog and read some more, you will be richly rewarded.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Send for Paul Temple (1946)

Send for Paul Temple: movie posterIf you're an Anglophile and especially a fan of British radio drama, you're sooner or later going to run into Paul Temple. Created in mystery novels by author Francis Durbridge, Temple's a crime novelist turned-amateur sleuth: the go-to man when Scotland Yard are baffled by a mysterious case, need some help tracking down a criminal, or just want to hang out with cool, debonair, witty and urbane socialite Temple. Why, wouldn't you?

Played in radio drama by many actors, Temple's best-known portrayal is by Peter Coke (pronounced "Cook," so for quite a while I thought the well-known British comedian filled the role). The books and radio series all feature Paul and his lovely wife Steve, swapping bon mots, sipping cocktails, and solving crimes all around England and in the Continent. The upper-class married couple as detectives is a familiar one in books, radio, and film: think The Thin Man's Nick and Nora Charles, Agatha Christie's Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, even DC Comics' superhero-and-wife turned sleuths, Ralph and Sue Dibny.

Each episode of the Peter Coke Paul Temple radio show begins with the series' signature tune, Vivian Ellis's light orchestral piece "Coronation Scot, "to which I mentally supplement with my own made-up-lyrics:

Here is Paul Temple
He's got a wife
Her name is Steve and
They have got a pony...

I'm making that part up, of course. They really don't have a pony.

As with so many popular mystery novel and radio series, the inevitable movie adaptation follows—the first of the Paul Temple movies, Send for Paul Temple, is the thrilling saga of a man, his letters, and a playing card:

Send for Paul Temple: title card

I tell another lie: it's a mystery thriller that pits Temple against what must be either Britain's boldest gang of jewel thieves, or its dumbest. They stage smash-and-grab robberies in broad daylight on a crowded street, ten feet away from a policeman, who they then shoot point blank, having no sense of British courtesy, reservedness, or judicial reform. The police, being police in a mystery film, are baffled! The solution? Why, it's right in the title: send for Paul Temple! This phrase is repeated several times throughout the movie, possibly for the people who came in during the middle of the film.

Send for Paul Temple: newspaper

Send for Paul Temple, with its gangster robbery ring and brutally high (for a period British mystery) body count, has the feel of a noir private dick thriller, but a uniquely British one with policemen in bobby's helmets and old English pubs, mysterious dying clues, poisoned suspects, and suspects a-plenty, from a boozy pub landlord to a chipper spinster tourist, a country doctor and a "comedy" Asian houseboy. There's plenty of skulking around in bushes, showdowns with criminals, and a nighttime automobile chase culminating in an unconvincing model shot of a car plummeting off a bridge.

Send for Paul Temple: car crash

There's nothing exceptionally original here, but the mystery has a clever twist, and the actors are clearly having a good time, especially Anthony Hulme as Paul Temple and Joy Shelton as his (soon-to-be) wife Steve. Their chemistry is by no means Bogie-and-Bacall or even David Addison and Maddie Hayes, but there's a lovely pleasure to Hulme's smile when Shelton enters a scene, and Joy Shelton brings a chipper and spunky edge to newspaper reporter Steve when the couple meet for the first time. Answering a long-time question of mine, "Steve" isn't short for Stephanie; it's her journalistic pen-name, which momentarily hides the fact that she's closely related to one of the murdered men.

Send for Paul Temple: Paul and Steve

It's the romance that makes the film: adding Steve to the mix brings a romantic banter to what would otherwise be a fairly pedestrian crime mystery movie. While some of the scenes attempt John Alton-style noir, you never forget it's the countryside in a motion picture filmed in England. American mystery movies might be released by the big powerhouse studios of the time: Warner Brothers! MGM! RKO! And over in England we have

Send for Paul Temple: production company card
"Butcher's Film Service of Walton-on-Thames."

Wow, you couldn't get more British than that even if you stapled the Queen to the title card.

A similar period movie set in Chicago or Los Angeles would feature rats scurrying through dark and filthy alleyways, but in Send for Paul Temple we instead get

Send for Paul Temple: cats

Even though the last half-hour looks like it was shot on a soundstage lit by a single 25-watt bulb...

Send for Paul Temple: Steve and Paul's all done with such a light touch that its forgivable. In other words, come for the mystery, stay for the romance, and enjoy the bright happy ending that puts Paul and Steve together forever in their legendary roles of husband and wife. And hey, what do you know...he really does have a pony!

Send for Paul Temple: horseback riding

If you liked Send for Paul Temple, hey, have we got great news for you!

Send for Paul Temple: Newspaper headline

No, no, not the shooting of a policeman...this great news:

Send for Paul Temple: Newspaper headline
More Paul Temple Films are coming!

Yup, there were three other movies in the Temple series, although they didn't star Anthony Hulme and Joy Shelton. Still, with a sequel on the horizon, at least you can say with confidence that this is not the end of Paul Temple.

Send for Paul Temple: The End

Friday, May 14, 2010

Last Train Home (2009)

I saw Lixin Fan's documentary about the mass migration of 150 million Chinese each Chinese New Year at the New Directors New Films series that ran at Lincoln Center and the Museum of Modern Art at the beginning of April.

This is a film who's subject matter boggles the mind. Think about it 150 million people, roughly half the population of the United States, going home for the holidays every year. If you ever wanted to see what it would be like to evacuate a big city during a huge disaster, this will show you. Its frightening and haunting. Its truly amazing that these people choose to do this every year. Once would have been enough for me.

The film focuses on one family from the country. Mom and dad have been living the migrant existence of living in the city working in a factory. They only come home for New Year. Their kids are raised by Mom's mother. There is friction as the kids crash heads with the parents they barely know. We watch the cycle of three years as the parents come and go, and how the daughter herself heads into the city in search of money (and to get away from, or perhaps be near, her parents). Its a tale that is repeated millions of times all over China.

To be honest this is an uneven film. The problem is that the family stuff kind of stagnates. There is a point where the sameness of these peoples lives becomes a bit one note. Yes, you care for them, but there is a point at which we stop learning anything new. The cycle simply continues unabated.

On the other hand the material focusing on the migration and on the lives lived by the workers is truly amazing. This is really a slice of life that we never see. Your mouth will drop open in amazement. Its good enough on its own to warrant seeing this film if you get the chance.

Currently in the cycle of film festivals this film is connected to Sundance and if I heard them correctly the POV TV series.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lake of Fire (2006)

This is going to be shorter than the typical pieces that are run here on Unseen Films, simply because there is little to say.

Tony Kaye’s decades in the making look at abortion is quite simply one of the best documentaries ever made.

Scrupulously fair the film has been known to rattle everyone who sees it. I’ve talked to people from both sides of the issue and found that they were forced to re-evaluate their position several times over the course of the film. I’m guessing the fact that the film refuses to take a side is the reason the film has slid into semi-oblivion. Who is going to champion a film that doesn’t champion your point of view?

Actually the film does take a side, that of the women who consider and even go through the abortions. Its all fine and good to say you’re for or against, but its kind of meaningless unless you know what the effect of the procedure is on the psyche of the women having them or choosing not to. In siding with the women Kaye has made a film that illustrates the intellectual arguments and then throws that all away in favor of humanity.

It is a masterpiece of cinema.

(A word of warning the film does have a graphic depiction of an abortion. Even though its shot in black and white it is upsetting no matter which side of the argument you stand on)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Capsule Reviews 5/12/10

M (1951) Joseph Losey directed remake of the Fritz Lang story of a child killer played by David Wayne, and the hunt for the same by the criminals and the police. Its an odd mix of a Film Noir set in the day and a Dragnet style police procedural. Its not the equal of the original but it is a solid film on its own terms. I especially like its examination of the mob mentality. If you can find it do see it.

REPEAT PERFORMANCE (1947) Woman shoots her no good husband just before the stroke of midnight on New Years Eve and then walks out the door to find its a year earlier and it might be possible to change what happened. Very good film about second chances and the choices we are given. A copy was given to me at a nostalgia show by someone who swore it was a lost classic. I don't know about that but it is a film that still haunts me enough that I regret passing on my DVD. Worth a look see.

FOOTSTEPS IN THE FOG (1955) Gothic Film Noir that was shot in widescreen and color that would have been better had the film been in claustrophobic black and white. The plot has Jean Simmons as a maid who finds out her boss Stewart Granger has poisoned his wife. She then blackmails him and things go sideways. Its an interesting film in that there really are no good guys. Its Victorian London setting makes this an odd Film Noir. Its not the best film ever made but for those who like Noir and who want something different this is the way to go.

Orozco The Embalmer (2001)

The first time I saw this film was not long after the death of my mom. I have no idea why I would watch this in the aftermath of a loved one, but I did. Weirdly this film kind of helped me get through some of what I was feeling. I think because it helped put some stuff in perspective. I don't really suggest that one watch this in time of grief, however it kind of puts my feelings toward the film in perspective.

This is the story of Orozco, an embalmer in Columbia. Located in a poor and crime riddled village, Orzco provides his services for people on the downside of life. We watch as bodies are brought in to his shop and he prepares them for their funerals. As Orozco works he talks about life, his job and the people he serves. We also get to see another embalmer in the same town at work.

Clearly not for all tastes...rather most tastes, this is an in your face matter of fact document of the work of one man preparing the dead for burial. There is no cutaways, no trick shots, nothing to hide the work on the earth remains of those brought in (The film was shot on one video camera which is just pointed to record what was happening in front of it. There are no fancy anything, just a stepped up "home movie"). If you don't want to see how bodies are prepared for burial in a poor country do not see this film (its very graphic with literally blood and guts and other things). What you see is, in all probability, is a variation as to what may happen to you or a loved one one day and if you don't want to see what that entails don't look. Its tough going.

Listed by some as a horror film, the film really isn't (though what happens maybe considered horrific). This is a document of the work of a man who cares for his the people he services. You see the care he takes with each person making them look better in death then they may have looked in life. I was shocked to see how a body looking more like a doll would come in and in the time its in Orozco's hands the whole demeanor would change from thing back into a person seemingly asleep.

As you watch the film the embalming falls away and all that remains is the man himself. Orozco the man is the reason to watch the film, not the shocking images. He seems to have been a very nice man (he died after the film was completed) who seems to have been made more than a bit sad by his job and his surroundings. His take on life is unique and understandable and what ever you call it, dark, bleak, sad, it is in many ways more real than that of the lives we see on TV or in our daily interactions.

As the film went on I kept wondering if I will be lucky enough to have someone as caring as Orozco work on me when I pass over. Its a strange thought, but one can't help but ponder when viewing a film as stark as this about the end of life.

Recommended for those with strong constitutions and wishing to see a intriguing portrait of a man at work.