Writers: Bill Bryden, Steven Phillip Smith, Stacy Keach, James Keach n
Cast: James Keach, Stacy Keach, David Carradine, Robert Carradine, Keith Carradine, Dennis Quaid, Randy Quaid, Christopher Guest, Nicholas Guest
The Long Riders, Walter Hill’s take on the exploits of the Jesse James and Cole Younger gang, is an entertaining, highly watchable Western with some charismatic performances, if not quite a classic of the genre. The film’s ace in the hole, casting real-life brothers to play the ones in the gang, may sound like a bit of a gimmick, but it’s actually a strategy that pays off beautifully (despite the fact I can’t help but think that the roles of the Quaid brothers should have been reversed). Although James Keach produced the film, he and his brother Stacey, as Jesse and Frank James, respectively, take something of a back seat to the Younger brothers, terrifically played by David and Keith Carradine. It’s Keith in particular, whose character, Jim, seems to spend half the film romancing a whore, in some of the film’s lighter moments, who delivers one of the film’s strongest and most appealing performances.
Hill and his screenwriters are generous with their sympathy for the notorious bandits: the film opens with a bank robbery that goes wrong when one of them shoots a civilian, causing the trigger-happy criminal to be exiled from the gang. The James-Younger gang don’t kill the innocent; but rather it’s the undiscriminating Pinkertons, hot on their tails, who are the true criminals, unleashing their fire on anything or anyone that stands in their way.
Episodic in nature, the film isn’t built around any one narrative arc, but rather follows the already-notorious gang through their – at times – even mundane existence, as they go from bank robbery to hiding out, chasing women, attending funerals and dances, and, of course, attempting to dodge the law. And it all ends with the notorious betrayal of Jesse James – the subject of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, one of the best Westerns in recent years. The feel is almost languorous throughout, demanding a little patience from the audience, before rewarding them with a terrific climactic shoot-out, with plenty of slow-motion shots of spurting blood and reeling, writhing men.
Carefully composed and beautifully shot, with a soundtrack by the legendary Ry Cooder, there are more than enough elements packed in this Western to recommend it. But what makes it a special treat is the chance to rediscover some fine acting from a bunch of Hollywood legends who seem to have lost their way in recent years.
Vincente Minnelli’s insider look at the golden age of Hollywood is sly and slickly entertaining, with Kirk Douglas as the unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields adding a tough edge to the black and white melodrama. Told in three long flashbacks, it recounts the relationships of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and the luminous Lana Turner, who plays the actress Georgia Lorrison, to the ambitious Shields. Shields woos them, puts a magical gloss on their burgeoning talent, and then carelessly, casually ditches them when they’ve outlived their usefulness to him.
Charles Schnee’s whip-smart script, packed with sharp one-liners and passionate dialogue is a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the noir-ish look of Robert Surtees’s cinematography. There’s an extra layer of knowingness to the whole production too: shadows, odd staircases, extravagant stage sets and behind the scenes shots are nods to the mechanics of filmmaking, while in-jokes about directors and actors add an extra frisson to this gripping tale of Hollywood hubris.
Director Amiel is the first one to dish the dirt on Shields. A paid mourner at the funeral of Shields’s father, he insults the dead producer: ‘one of the mad men who almost wrecked it, a butcher who sold everything but the pig’s whistle’, unaware that he’s standing next to his son. He apologises and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship. The duo learn their craft on the B-movie production lot, their biggest success ‘The Doom of the Cat Men’, where the laughable, ill-fitting cat costumes are abandoned for the shadowy allure of silhouettes: ‘Because the dark has a life of its own. In the dark all sorts of things come alive.’ Soon after, darkness enters their relationship too, as Shields’s ruthless disloyalty becomes evident.
Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison is next in line for the Shields treatment. Drunk, and crushed by the weight of the legacy of her actor father, she is rescued by the charismatic Shields from playing ‘the doomed daughter of the great man’. Shields coaches her, stops her drinking, makes her believe that he’s in love with her. Lana’s all aglow, like a damaged angel, tender and trembling and determined to do her best. Until fear overcomes her on the night before filming her first important role and she goes on a bender. Shields drops her in a swimming pool to sober her up, and sets her on the path to being a star. And then along comes the celebratory party where Georgia is feted and Jonathan is missing. Heading to his house wrapped in a white mink, and with her heart on her glittery sleeve, she’s determined to celebrate with him. But instead of a celebration, Georgia is faced with the heart-breaking realisation of Shields’s betrayal.
James Lee Bartlow seems the most likely candidate to resist the allure of the film world. A pipe-smoking Southern writer, with a delightful wife - Gloria Grahame, blonde and blithe and funny, with the catch phrase: ‘You’re a very naughty man, I’m happy to say’ - he nonetheless succumbs: ‘I’m flattered that you want me and bitter you got me.’ Jonathan and James go to work on the script, with constant interruptions from charming Rosemary Bartlow, until Shields, unbeknownst to James Lee, arranges a distraction with fatal consequences. It’s the end of another relationship, a definitive severing of all ties, like those with Amiel and Georgia.
But this is Hollywood, and in the final scene the three protagonists are clustered around a phone, listening to the scintillating, despicable Shields pitching them a new project. Until the very end we wonder if they will be sucked in again by his treacherous charm.
Part two of the Vincente Minelli retrospective runs until 26 June 2012 at BFI Southbank.
Writers: Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens, Bruce Beresford, Kit Denton
Based on the play by: Kenneth G. Ross
Cast: Edward Woodward, Jack Thompson, John Waters
A palpable, and justifiable, air of anger, bewilderment and injustice permeates Bruce Beresford’s Boer War drama, a major entry of the Australian New Wave of the late 70s and early 80s. With an Academy Award-nominated screenplay co-written by Beresford, Jonathan Hardy and David Stevens, a never better Edward Woodward in the title role, and an all-Australian supporting cast including Jack Thompson, Bryan Brown and Charles ‘Bud’ Tingwell, Breaker Morant recreates the damning true-life tale of a court martial where military chicanery and international diplomacy doomed the accused before proceedings had even started.
A lieutenant in the Bushveldt Carbineers during the Second Boer War in South Africa, the Anglo-Australian Morant, now a folk hero to many in Australia, was arrested, along with lieutenants Peter Handcock (Brown) and George Witton (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), and charged with the murders of six Boer prisoners. Morant and Handcock were also charged with the murder of a German missionary, who witnessed the killings and may, or may not, have been siding with the Boers. Acting under long-standing orders to take no prisoners and also to seek vengeance for the killing and mutilation of their ranking officer Captain Simon Hunt (Terence Donovan), Morant, Handcock and Witton would end up as sacrificial lambs for the greater good of the British Empire. Used as scapegoats to appease the South African and German governments after news of the summary executions by firing squad spread, and to keep the planned peace talks on track, the accused claimed that they were following the direct orders of their superiors, including Lord Kitchener, but their assertions held no sway in what was, ironically, little more than a kangaroo court. Morant and Handcock were executed by firing squad, and Witton, the youngest of the three, was sentenced to life with hard labour.
The larrikinism, earthy mordant humour and loyalty of the trio stand in direct opposition to the handlebar moustaches, repressed emotions, deceitfulness, clipped accents and air of privileged arrogance evinced by the British military leadership throughout Beresford’s expert retelling of the story. Morant, a renaissance man known for his great skill with horses, ballad writing and poetry, Handcock, a simple, working-class soldier and Witton, a naí¯ve, idealistic young man, were thrown to the wolves by the army they had volunteered to join. Presented in a non-linear, episodic fashion, reflective of the disjointed (and patently false) narrative that the British army forced onto the incident, Breaker Morant, shot entirely on location in South Australia, is awash with cutting dialogue, memorable performances and striking imagery.
The winner in 10 categories at the 1980 Australian Film Institute Awards, and including a performance by Thompson as the accused’s lawyer, Major J.F. Thomas, that won him the Best Supporting Actor Award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, Beresford’s take on the 1978 stage production Breaker Morant: A Play in Two Acts by Kenneth G. Ross is an enduring reminder of a shameful act of betrayal, not just of individuals and colleagues, but of the colonial bonds between Britain and Australia. Morant’s bitingly sarcastic comment that ‘It is customary during a time of war to kill as many of the enemy as possible’ lays bare the hypocrisy, pig-headedness and callous indifference of his superior officers. Thompson indelibly captures the frustration, stoicism and professionalism shown by Thomas in fighting a battle that was already lost, and the climactic hilltop execution of Morant and Handcock, filmed at sunrise in a coincidental but notable reversal of the sunset sacrifice of Woodward’s Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man, is both gut-wrenching and visually breath-taking. As with much of Breaker Morant, the eschewing of a musical score in the climactic scenes enhances the grip of the emotionally engaging material. Everything you need to see and feel is up there on the screen without the need for aural manipulation.
The corrupting influence of war on all those involved and the heavy price paid by some for their blind allegiance to a cause, the flag they fought for and those in charge of espousing its virtues is thrown into stark relief in Beresford’s anti-war classic. Specific though the narrative may be, it attains a timeless quality made abundantly clear by the contemporary horrors of Abu Ghraib and the distance the US military’s chain of command put between itself and the perpetrators of those crimes committed in the name of the War on Terror.
For low-budget filmmakers, having a tiny cast and only one or two locations is a huge bonus in keeping costs down. This has led to a number of films based on ‘locked room’ scenarios over the last decade and a half. Cube (1997) was an excellent, genre-defining example of this and in subsequent years, Maléfique (2002), Ryûhei Kitamura’s Alive (2002), Saw (2004), Fermat’s Room (2007) and Exam (2009) have explored horror and science fiction variations on the theme. Many of these have screened at SCI-FI-LONDON or FrightFest in the past so this is starting to become a well-worn theme for fans of the genre and regular genre festival attendees.
Enrico Clerico Nasino’s True Love, which screens at SCI-FI-LONDON this month, is another example, but unfortunately, it adds little that hasn’t been seen before. The central premise of a young married couple, kept in separate, futuristic cells and made to answer difficult questions about how much they trust each other under the threat of water, sleep or mobility being removed is strong enough. As a film made by Italians with an American cast and setting, this could have resulted in an interesting exploration of Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo Bay-style interrogation techniques on middle-class suburbanites who experienced the ‘war on terror’ as a mild diversion through their televisions, but disappointingly, this aspect is barely hinted at.
Instead, the writers and directors have reality dating shows and the Milgram experiment in their sights as the subjects they’re giving an SF twist to. Even then, the science-fictional aspect of the film is minimal, apart from a final scene that adds an eye-catching set piece of gravity working differently in opposite ends of the prison-like environment. [SPOILER WARNING] But this is undermined by a ‘was it all a dream?’ ending, and the nature of the lies they have told each other - adultery, financial trouble - is more suited to romantic melodrama than a death trap thriller. [END OF SPOILERS]
Neither the two main actors or the parts they’re playing are particularly engaging, meaning that the film’s main attraction lies in the more technical aspects of the production. True Love‘s direction, editing, cinematography and sound design are all solid, and for these qualities alone, those involved behind the scenes deserve to work on bigger and better things, but the film overall suffers of a lack of ambition and originality. While True Love isn’t by any means a particularly bad film, for audiences to get the most out of its narrative and visual twists and turns, they’ll need to be unfamiliar with similar narratives that have dealt with these tropes better and with more imagination.
SCI-FI-LONDON opens on May 1 and runs until May 7 at various venues across London.
An excellent science-fiction thriller that, while reminiscent of a number of other films, including The Cell (2000), Identity (2003), Timecrimes (2007) and Inception (2010), improves on all its predecessors by having tight direction, characters the viewer can relate to and a brisk running time that doesn’t overstay its welcome.
US genre TV star Sasha Roiz, reminiscent of a laid-back young Jeff Goldblum, plays an inventor whose device allows a person to experience their own or other people’s memories as an interactive virtual reality environment. To get funding for this, he unwittingly does a deal with a law enforcement agency, who want to use it to investigate whether a supposed killer has committed a murder he claims no memory of. Roiz rushes to get the prototype finished for this initial demonstration. It works well enough in letting him enter the killer’s mind but malfunctions when he attempts to leave, putting his own body into a coma and trapping his consciousness in the killer’s mind for the next four years.
The script explores the morality of the device and the truths and fictions we tell ourselves. While tense and gripping when needs be, the film refreshingly doesn’t feel the audience has to be kept on the edge of their seats throughout, giving the human drama space to breathe. Since the budget doesn’t allow for the eye-boggling visuals of The Cell or Inception, it also avoids the over-familiarity of blockbuster set pieces that its predecessors got bogged down in. And despite the potentially labyrinthine possibilities of the scenario, it tells the tale in a straightforward manner that doesn’t require a scientist with a blackboard to explain the narrative to viewers without a Ph.D.
Indie actor Dominic Bogart portrays a sympathetic junkie and potential killer very well, experiencing his own incarceration in jail while he has another person trapped inside his head, and through the recreation and repetition of his memories, we learn how he has been betrayed and manipulated by the people he loves, throughout his life.
The story includes a twist that makes us doubt the central premise and leaves the plot open for a welcome sequel. This leads to some minor problems I have with the script, in particular: for a film that relies on a certain amount of real-life science, it seems strange that the filmmakers don’t acknowledge until the very end the well-established fact that each time a person remembers something, the memory changes slightly - a fact Roiz’s character seems incredulously unaware of.
Overall, though, a top-notch indie thriller and one that will hopefully find a distributor and a larger audience as soon as possible. Extracted is certainly the best film I’ve seen so far at this year’s SCI-FI-LONDON and its second screening on May 4 deserves to be sold out.
SCI-FI-LONDON runs from May 1 to 7 at various venues across London.
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