Saturday, 31 January 2015

Cool as Ice (1991)

A deserved but minor entry in the crapola hall-of-fame, Cool as Ice continues a number of well-worn Hollywood traditions, such as taking a flavour-of-the-month celebrity and dumping them into a hastily constructed vehicle for their talents, and cashing in on a subculture by appropriating the surface elements and presenting a neutered version of it for mass consumption. Luckily, it also continues some bad film traditions, such as atrocious acting, baffling plot twists, and needless musical numbers, which give the film a passable amount of entertainment value.

The plot is essentially a loose reworking of The Wild One, with rapper Vanilla Ice in the Marlon Brando role. He plays Johnny Van Owen, a freewheeling, motorbiking rapper, who drifts into Anytown USA with his gang of fellow rappers/bikers. Johnny catches the eye of local honour student Kathy Winslow, and after a broken down bike leaves them temporarily stranded, he decides to get to know Kathy better. However, her dad is having none of it, fearing Johnny may be linked to a dark secret from his past. Kathy's boyfriend Nick is having none of it either, and decides to take a violent revenge on Johnny.

When a film opening moments have the main character trying to impress a girl by jumping a motorcycle over a hedge to land in front of the horse she is riding, you know you are in the presence of a special kind of idiot. Other highlights include: the husband wife team of Mae and Roscoe, the bumbling owners motorcycle repair store, with a workshop as full of shiny new bikes as their heads are empty of ideas on how to fix broken ones; Naomi Campbell sings! (Well, she at least opens and closes her mouth in sync with some singing); Kathy’s dad, who loves to go on the local TV news even though it might possibly compromise his cover in the witness protection programme; and the poster tagline, which really gives you something to think about: “When a girl has a heart of stone, there's only one way to melt it. Just add Ice”

Director David Kellogg has spent most of his career making music videos, TV commercials and Playboy documentaries, and his love for the first on that list is evident as the goofy thrills and spills soon taper off, along with the laughs, leaving what is essentially a series of song and dance numbers. These are shot in the slick, fast edit way all videos were in the 90s, and it is this slickness that ultimately stops the film from being too entertaining, as a truly eccentric or deranged visonary individual behind the camera could have made for a truly unhinged film.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 (1929)

The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is of interest more for the part it plays in cinema history and the once-in-a-lifetime cast rather than the actual content of the film. Presumably anxious to show off the new medium of talking pictures, MGM did not waste valuable time writing a script. Instead, the studio bosses simply rounded up their brightest and best talent, shoved them on a stage, pointed a camera (just one by the look of things) and let them get on with songs, dances and comedy routines.

The entire thing is filmed with all the cinematic flair of a parent recording their child’s school play, and the rigid camera and uninspired angles often sap much of the energy and talent of the performers for the viewer. Of course, a non-stop parade of variety acts would be perfectly fine for those watching in a theatrical setting, as the immediacy and the atmosphere from the audience would more than compensate for the repetitive format. However, this film was made to an empty house, making the corny banter of hosts Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny fall flat, something not helped by having them address the non-existent theatre audience, rather than the camera.
Unlike other films that use the revue format, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 has no story, either to link the skits or run in the background, surprising, and a little frustrating, given that silent pioneers – including some on this bill - had been hard at work developing cinema in order to tell stories. They had also invented a few tricks and techniques that were unique to the medium, but these are few and far between here. There are a couple of cinematic touches, such as the opening number where the picture goes (presumably intentionally) negative, or, more successfully, where Bessie Love initially appears in miniature (inside Jack Benny's pocket of all places) before growing to full size to complete her number. In fact, the effect is so successful that it is repeated later in the film with Marion Davies and her soldier-themed routine.

Despite this there are enough points of interest both on and off screen for fans of the films and the history of early Tinseltown to watch The Hollywood Revue of 1929 at least once. For a start, it marks the first on screen appearance of the song Singin' in the Rain, more than 20 years before co-writer Arthur Freed, in his later capacity as an MGM producer, would use it as the basis of the classic film of the same name.

We also get to see early talkie appearances from silent stars such as Laurel and Hardy, in an enjoyable routine playing bungling magicians, and Buster Keaton, doing pratfalls in a scene that lacks the purely cinematic invention of his classic work. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford, introduced as "the personification of youth, beauty, joy and happiness", shows off her lesser known song and dance talents.

While it may make for an uneven, often grating watch, not helped by the nearly two hours running time, there is no denying the place of The Hollywood Revue of 1929 in the story of cinema as a medium. Films like this were part of a process that separated those, like Crawford or Laurel & Hardy, who could adapt to sound from those who couldn't, such as, sadly, Keaton.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Bleak, unsettling and relentlessly paranoid, Invasion of the Body Snatchers takes the premise of the source material, both film and short story, and gives it a gloomy, post-Watergate spin. The end result is a paean to all the things that make us human, and why we should never let those things go.

Donald Sutherland plays Matthew Bennell, a San Francisco public health inspector, who has his curiosity piqued when a colleague, Elizabeth Driscoll tells him that her husband has changed, almost overnight into a cold, distant man. Bennell's psychiatrist friend David Kibner (Leonard Nimoy) tells him that several of his patients are starting to think that their husbands or wives are not who they seem to be. Just when Bennell is thinking he may have caught up in some kind of mass hysteria - two of his friends, Jack and Nancy Bellicec, find a partly formed corpse, part of an alien plot to replace the world’s population with emotionless clones.

Right from the start, director Phillip Kaufman draws us into an off-kilter world of mistrust and suspicion, mixing shots of normal life and slightly odd things and occurrences (a telephone cord, a priest on a swing, a man playing banjo) and seemingly imbuing them all with meaning – a classic trait of the paranoid. Cleverly, by moving the setting of the story from a small town to a big city, the idea of people behaving in a cold uncaring manner seems plausible and easier to dismiss as the consequences of “city living”.

However, despite the nationwide and global scale of the invaders plans, the script never loses sight of the human drama and the plight of the individual. Kaufman wisely chooses to balance the weirdness with characterisation, and he is helped by a first rate cast. Sutherland, eschewing any movie star trappings or mannerisms, is believable and sympathetic as the rational everyman, trying to make sense of the increasingly bewildering and unsettling situations.

The score it is the only cinematic effort by jazz musician (and psychiatrist) Denny Zeitlin is  eclectic, switching between ominous, sometimes discordant, orchestral cues, dark rumbling synth lines, and quieter, more reflective small jazz band pieces,

The special effects work is excellent, gooey and unpleasant, predating Cronenberg’s films The Brood and The Fly, or John Carpenter’s The Thing, linking the film to the sub-genre of Body horror.

One thing that this remake does not have that the original did is a clear political subtext. Instead the focus is more on emotions, feelings, the things that make us human, something that makes the final iconic scene as devastating as it is disturbing

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (1943)

The recent BBC TV series was not the first attempt to move Sherlock Holmes from Victorian times into a more contemporary setting. Universal set several of the series of films starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr Watson, during the wartime 1940s world that they were released in. What makes Sherlock Holmes Faces Death one of the best of these is that the war is now the backdrop to, not the driving force behind, the story, and the filmmakers went back to the source, adapting the Conan Doyle story "The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual".

The plot sees Watson working at to the Musgrave estate, a country mansion turned makeshift hospital for soldiers wounded in World War Two. When one of his colleagues is mysteriously attacked, Watson asks Holmes to help investigate, but when the great detective arrives, he finds one of the Musgrave family murdered, a long list of suspects, and a possible link to an old and sinister family tradition.

The script plays fast and loose with the original short story, making it more of a straightforward murder mystery, set in a slightly hokey haunted house, complete with thunder, lightning, suits of armour, secret passages and cobwebs. The story plays out in a somewhat formulaic manner, quickly setting up the story and showing us the suspects one by one.

Rathbone's take on Holmes is one that keeps many of the traits of the books, such as the unpredictable energy, fierce intelligence and eccentricity (we first see him shooting bullets into his living room wall in order to test a theory, and he also has an encyclopaedic knowledge of train times and current affairs). His portrayal is the one that I grew up with, and is the one that perhaps set the public perception of the character in the twentieth century,

Watson is not as quick-witted as in the books, but he is a loyal and likeable fellow, as well as, for the audience sake, filling the role of giving Holmes someone to explain the story to (and being the sort of Doctor who prescribes patients "those American cigarettes you like")

Regular Holmes foil Inspector Lestrade is on hand to provide the comic relief, bumbling from one mishap to the next, even though nobody has any explanation for why a London police officer is investigating a murder in Northumberland. Having said that, nobody has any explanation as to why the English village has a distinctly Mediterranean look either.

Unlike previous wartime Holmes films, here, he is not working for the Allies, and the conflict seems rarely to get a mention. Interestingly though there are hints at some tensions between the British and the billeted US soldiers, with one villager talking disapprovingly of somebody "running off with a Yankee". The only time war comes to the fore is the stirring speech by Holmes at the very end, talking of "a new spirit abroad in the land" where "the old days of grab and greed are on their way out". It feels tacked on, and jars somewhat with the rest of the film, which is a fun, interesting, and atmospheric mystery thriller.