Rollercoaster (1977)

Big Boy, Big Boy!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Just how many films exist which are centered on rollercoasters? – Unfortunately, exceedingly few. Well, that’s where the aptly titled Rollercoaster comes into play. Rollercoasters and theme parks, in general, have been a fascination of mine since childhood with all those hours spent sitting at the computer playing Rollercoaster Tycoon (ah, good times). Even the ending of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms had me disappointed when that lovely rollercoaster was set on fire in order to kill the creature. I can happily sit all day and watch nicely shot and edited footage of theme parks as well as POV footage of Rollercoasters of which this 70’s thriller has in plenty supply.

Rollercoaster is often mischaracterized as a disaster movie and while it does feature that 70’s disaster movie motif of having an all-star cast, the only disaster occurs at the beginning of the film in which a bomb is detonated on an active rollercoaster (shot at Ocean View Amusement Park, Virginia). This leads to a very well staged and brutal sequence in which carriage goes off track and bodies are seen being crushed on screen, albeit very briefly. Throughout the remainder of the film, the killer in question is threatening disaster rather than having disaster play out. Rollercoaster is also one of several films in the 1970s to feature Sensurround, a process to give the viewer a sense of vibration. This along with the film’s ties to the disaster genre gives the impression Rollercoaster is going to be a gimmicky picture however it’s a stronger film than its exterior would indicate. Rollercoaster is a Hitchcockian, cat & mouse thriller which if anything owes more to Jaws than the disaster movie genre (both films feature July 4th as a major element in their plots). Rollercoaster also makes a worthy companion piece to fellow terrorist thriller from 1977, Black Sunday, which both explore how public attractions can’t just be shut down due to terror threats. Likewise, it goes without saying that in the 21st century no company would allow their brand to be featured in a film in which their product is at the basis of a terrorist attack while the plot itself would be less likely to occur in today’s surveillance world.

No motive is given to the killer played by Timothy Bottoms (simply billed as the “Young Man” in the end credits), however, the character comes off more frightening this way than if he was given a clear motive (see Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets for a similar villain). In one scene the Young Man is shooting with precision at a fairground range and is asked by the carnie if he is ex-military to which the Young Man gives no response. Could he be a Vietnam veteran? – Along with his knowledge of explosives, the movie leaves such a reading open. The relationship between the hero Harry Calder (George Segal) and villain in Rollercoaster takes place over audio channels as they never encounter each other face to face until the end. This dynamic would later become commonplace in action films such as Die Hard or Speed, but Rollercoaster is the earliest film I’m aware of to feature this trope. In retrospect, I feel Bottoms gives the strongest performance in the film. He has a cold, calculating menace to him and even manages to do a lot with his eyes and tone of voice. Timothy Bottoms would later go onto portray U.S President George W. Bush a total of 4 times, and once you know that you can’t unsee it.

The middle portion of Rollercoaster involves a lengthy sequence of mind games at King’s Dominion Park, Virginia, in which the Young Man orders Harry to perform a series of tasks including wearing a funny hat and going on various rides (including one titled Vertigo – a little Hitchcock reference?) in order to transfer a briefcase containing a cash ransom. It’s a very well constructed piece of suspense similar in vain to the Simon Says series of mind games in Die Hard With A Vengeance (not to mention that camera trick they pull off on the Rebel Yell rollercoaster is a real shocker).

So who is that band featured in Rollercoaster playing at the film’s finale in Six Flags Magic Mountain on the 4th of July? They’re called Sparks, a respected music act from what I gather despite their resemblance to an 80’s hair metal band as seen in the film. Their song Big Boy is played as a bomb squad is attempting to find and disable an explosive on the rollercoaster and on first viewing, it feels like the song is on loop for a comically absurd amount of time, even with several intervals in which the film cuts to other scenes in which the song is not played. When watching the film again and timing how long the song is actually played for it only lasts 5 minutes but on first viewing, I could swear it felt more like 20 minutes (good tune though). The roller coaster featured in film’s climax is the Revolution at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California which opened the year prior in 1976 and is the first rollercoaster in the world to feature a complete 360-degree vertical loop. The score by Lalo Schifrin on the other hand is surprisingly varied. The carnival motifs are original pieces composed for the film and not just lifted stock music, and like any carnival music, its one part joyous and the other part sinister. The score also occasionally transitions into the style of Bernard Hermann’s Psycho score and even throws some nice blaxploitation style funk into the mix at the beginning of the Magic Mountain sequence.

The film’s writers Richard Levinson and William Link were primarily involved writing for TV, thus Rollercoaster does have a made-for-TV vibe to it which it can’t quite shake off. The plot itself does sound the type of premise which would be the basis for a TV movie and unlikely to make it to cinematic A-picture. The characters themselves in Rollercoaster are only surface-level interesting but the plot has enough intrigue to keep it engaging. George Segal is likeable as everyman Harry Caulder who gets caught up in the Hitchcock tradition of an ordinary man getting trapped in an extraordinary situation. He is also given an odd but memorable introduction seen trying to give up smoking via Clockwork Orange style methods. Likewise, the always cool Richard Widmark does his reliable thing however I’m just disappointed Henry Fonda’s role in the film barely goes beyond a cameo. Fonda’s part could have provided some entertaining comic relief with the antagonist relationship he shares with George Segal by popping up now and then but instead only appears in two scenes and is clearly phoning in his performance – the part must have been a quick pay-cheque. Regardless of shortcomings, for now, Rollercoaster is probably the best film in the not so contested category of best rollercoaster film of all time. 

Sabrina (1954 + 1995)

Will They?/Won’t They?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Never again will the screen see such grace as Audrey Hepburn. Marilyn is hot, but Audrey is beautiful. However its Audrey being the goddess that she is which brings about the major flaw in Sabrina – you cannot make Audrey Hepburn look like a scrawny chauffeurs’ daughter. It doesn’t matter what she wears, Audrey can make any piece of dowdy clothing look glamorous (later in the film she even makes a lumberjack shirt look feminine). After all, in the original stage play, Sabrina Fairchild was played by the down to Earth Margaret Sullivan. Despite this, the sheer enchanting screen presence of Audrey Hepburn, as well as her childlike innocence does help to some degree, overcome this suspension of disbelief. The opening of Sabrina couldn’t be more impossibly romantic – a clear sky with a full moon, Isn’t It Romantic playing the background and a forbidden love imposed by class differences. Well that is until things take a dark U-turn and Sabrina attempts to commit suicide by locking herself in a garage with multiple car exhaust pipes emitting carbon monoxide. Even in a moment as disturbing as this, a joke is still thrown in with that one popping exhaust pipe (likewise did Sabrina’s father ever discovering that suicide note?).

Humphrey Bogart in the role of business mogul Linus Larrabee gets an opportunity to show his flair for light comedy. Bogart is such a pleasure to watch in the many witty lines he delivers, in particular the inter-office memo he sends to his brother David via a car phone. Linus Larrabee is a benevolent capitalist and not the stereotypical archetype of the evil business owner, as he brilliantly sums up in an exchange he shares with David:

“A new product has been found, something of use to the world. A new industry moves into an undeveloped area. Factories go up, machines are brought in, a harbour is dug up and you’re in business. It’s purely coincidental of course that people who’ve never seen a dime before suddenly have a dollar and barefooted kids wear shoes and have their teeth fixed and their faces washed.”

Linus evens has connections to a military general who can get him a bazooka to test against his revolutionary plastic, showing he has some Elon Musk in him. Likewise unlike as seen in many screwball comedies of the 1930’s, the servants of the Fairchild family have a perfectly amicable and respectable relationship with their masters.

David Larabee (William Holden) is the polar opposite of his brother – a 1950’s Billy Madison who lives for hedonism. Holden looks rather ghastly with his bleached hair and the ugly dressing gowns which he wears throughout the film. Sabrina has been head over heels for David since childhood but her love of the man was always forbidden due to class, well until her transformation after spending two years in Paris. David does not appear to be much longer than Linus, which is odd as it’s mentioned at one point in the film that David had kissed Sabrina when she was nine during a time they were roller skating. I never quite get what Sabrina sees in the immature David – this goes for both the original and the remake (more on that later).

At its heart, Sabrina is a story about true love vs. romantic love. Sabrina may be romantically infatuated with David, but ultimately it’s Linus of whom she is destined to be with. The age difference between Audrey and her leading men in multiple films is often a topic of conversation with the casting of a 54-year-old Bogart as a romantic love interest to a 25-year-old Hepburn not being the most obvious choice. Changing social norms since the 1950s and the feminist movement have made it anathema for a woman to rely on a man for money or status, making older man/younger woman relationships age gaps more taboo in modern times. Personally, I’ve seen enough old films with relationship age gaps that I’m more used to it plus the argument can be made that many women simply prefer an older man. At the very least the movie does acknowledge this age difference (“Here I am going off on a sailboat to make an ass out of myself with a girl of 22”). Age aside, with Bogart’s arrogance and overly masculine voice, Audrey isn’t the most obvious choice to play off him – she’s not like Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn. The argument can be made that the original casting choice of Cary Grant would have been more suitable for the part. Regardless these performers are two of my favourite movie stars of all time and they are a joy to watch together so I personally can’t complain at the end of the day.

That Billy Wilder wit is as strong as ever in Sabrina (“That good, that’s bad” – I can see where a certain Simpsons joke came from), with the film also including one of the most clever and witty methods in which a film got around the censorship of the day (“What rhymes with glass?”). On a technical level, it’s also notable that Sabrina was filmed in the 4:3 aspect ratio, despite being released in late 1954, making it one of the last Hollywood productions to do so as almost all movies at this point where being shot in various widescreen formats. Coming off the heels from Sunset Boulevard, Ace In The Hole and Stalag 17, I get the impression Billy Wilder wanted to do something more pleasant and straightforward with Sabrina. I don’t consider Sabrina to be one of Wilder’s best films but I do enjoy it despite its flaws and the relationship dynamics requiring much suspension of disbelief. When a rom-com sparks an interesting debate on whom the female lead should have ended up with, to an extent it has done its job. However, unpopular opinion time, I will argue that the 1995 remake of Sabrina directed by Sydney Pollack is a superior film. 

The remake of Sabrina carries the same themes and follows the same basic plot of the original but with some notable adjustments, the most prescient of these being Sabrina’s (Julia Ormond) transformation in Paris being far more significant. At the film’s beginning, Sabrina really is a scrawny, nerdy girl with a dreadful fashion sense and very long, unkempt hair. Her time in Paris takes up a significant portion of the film (this time working as a photographer for Vogue rather than going to a cooking school) in which she gets mentored by others and comes out of her shell. Symbolically her hair gradually gets shorter over the two year period and returns to the US unrecognizable (I’m just slightly disappointed the remake doesn’t include the attempted suicide scene). Unlike the original, the Paris scenes are filmed on location and are the most distinctly 90’s portion of the film with the fashions and music (nice cover of Love’s In Need Of Love Today). So who is the better Sabrina? I know its sacrilege to outrank Audrey Hepburn, but going from the standpoint on both superior writing and more appropriate casting, Ormond’s rendition of Sabrina does have greater depth, is more believable and is portrayed with a greater sense of vulnerability.

Who was the better Linus? You’re asking me to pit two of my favourite actors of all time against each other. Harrison Ford plays the part beautifully with his trademark comic grumpiness and a real sense of loneliness, and even with the 90’s setting, Ford’s Linus remains a conservatively dressed man with his glasses, dotted bowtie and Homburg hat. The remake also features a much more resentful relationship between David and Linus. In the original, Linus is not impressed with David but doesn’t harbour much resentment, whereas in the remake the relationship is far more antagonistic (“My life makes your life possible – I resent that – So do I!”). I do wish however they could have retained the benevolent capitalist aspect of his character as Bogart portrayed. I feel like going for a tie but I know that’s a cop-out so ultimately I will have to choose Ford once again due to the superior writing and more appropriate casting – Ormond and Ford are simply a more believable romantic pair.

Lastly who was the better David? Greg Kinnear does a good job at portraying the hedonistic sleaze of David, while his turnaround towards actually doing work at the end is a very nice comic touch. Yet even the additional aspect of the antagonistic relationship, I would choose Holden on the account of simply being a more charismatic and likeable screen presence. Likewise, I do particularly enjoy John Wood as Sabrina’s father, a real charmer of an English gentleman, while Paul Giamatti gets one of his earliest screen roles but it’s just a shame he’s given nothing to do. I’d even go as far as saying that Sabrina ’95 provides a greater feast for the senses. The location filming of the North-Eastern United States (notably including Martha’s Vineyard) with the gorgeous architecture alongside the breezy John Williams score, makes the film a very relaxing watch (I also have to ask, was the film’s poster inspired by that of Billy Wilder’s Fedora?). While I hate having to outrank these classic Hollywood legends, Sabrina ‘95 is a rare remake which remains a classy affair and outperforms the original.

We’re No Angels (1955)

Angels With Dirty Faces

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

We’re No Angels was Michael Curtiz’ second Christmas film in a row (despite its release date of July 1955), although unlike White Christmas, We’re No Angels is a less secular affair with its use of biblical references in the tale of three, perhaps not so wise men who bestow gifts on a distressed family at Christmas. We’re No Angels is both sentimental and darkly comic as the Ducotel family in a French colonial town on Devil’s Island (despite none of the cast appearing remotely French) are not massively bothered by having three escaped convicts stay at their adjoining home/business. The three disreputable men go to the Ducotel household intending to rob them but end up getting caught up in the spirit of the season after having a voyeuristic insight to the troubles bestowing the family and their failing general store. We’re No Angels is a bright and colourful affair with the scenes in the bustling port town in particular showing off Curtiz’ directorial skills. The picture even calls to mind Larceny Inc (1942), another film in which a group of criminals inadvertently turn around a failing business.

A large portion of the film’s dark humour comes from Aldo Ray alone in the role of Albert, a sexual offender type convict of whom we don’t know the extent of his activities but the movie hints that it ain’t pretty. Much of the film involves him having an attraction and interacting with the family’s daughter Isabelle (Gloria Talbott), including pinching her derrière and carrying her fainted form into her room with the door closed – once again, the family takes no objection to this. Likewise Isabelle appears to have a serious medical disorder in that she faints multiple times in a short period and even has an unrequited love for her second cousin. Contrasting the more lowly and thuggish Albert is Peter Ustinov as the eloquent and well-spoken Jules. His technique of cracking locks and opening safes involves him lightly touching the outside of a device and then bumping the side of his hand lightly against said device, resulting in the hatch opening – is it this simple in real life or is the movie playing loose with safe and lock-cracking techniques? 

We’re No Angels was Humphrey Bogart’s big career opportunity to show off his eccentric comedic side as the con artist Joseph. Bogart was able to display his comic chops in All Through The Night, however, We’re No Angels is more in the vein of The Marx Brothers – just look at the scene in which Joseph successfully cons a customer into buying a suit which is clearly several sizes too small for him. Bogart’s facial expressions and body movements accentuate the performance and even the sight of the tough guy cooking in a kitchen wearing a pink apron somehow doesn’t degrade his machismo. Likewise, Bogie also delivers one of the funniest lines among the pantheon of great Bogart quotes:

“We came here to rob them and that’s what we’re gonna do – beat their heads in, gouge their eyes out, slash their throats. Soon as we wash the dishes.”

Basil Rathbone on the other hand, the Hollywood embodiment of villainy portrays an Ebenezer Scrooge type role as Andre Trochard, the business owner who sees no objection to doing labour on Christmas Day nor having no concern for people’s humanity, just business. We’re No Angels bounces back and forth from zany jokes to more deadpan humour such as the trio’s very slow, drawn-out debate on who should tell Andre not to open the box with their pet snake named Adolf in it. The humorous ending in which the three decide to return to prison was likely brought about by the production code forbidding criminals to be portrayed as sympathetic characters thus their redemptive conclusion – an example of finding a clever solution within the confines of censorship.

Love Me Tonight (1932)

Tailor Made Man

Love Me Tonight was produced and directed by the forgotten movie magic maestro Rouben Mamoulian, a name who doesn’t make the history books compared to the likes of Orson Welles but who’s work during the pre-code era deserve that cliché expression, “ahead of its time” – films which had extensive visual freedom more technical wizardry than you can shake a stick at. No more so than in the musical, comedy Love Me Tonight, the first film in history to use a zoom lens as it does several times throughout the movie (yet it would be decades until this technique would catch on). Not to mention the film’s early use of slow-motion during a very dreamlike deer hunt sequence – quite unlike anything else you’ll see in a film from the time.

Sharp Dressed Man

Love Me Tonight opens with the city of Paris coming to life in a visual manner reminiscent of the silent documentary film Berlin: Symphony of a Great City; however this is accompanied by a symphony created by everyday sounds from a construction worker hitting the ground with a pike axe to a woman sweeping a pathway. Likewise, the Paris street sets look authentic (with shots reminiscent of Gene Kelly’s apartment and neighbourhood from An American In Paris), I would believe it was real-world location but it was a set in the Paramount back lot, which is equalled by the opulence and detail of the chateau seen later on in the film.

Love Me Tonight is an Ernst Lubitsch style romantic comedy focusing on European aristocracy. Our protagonist and his Supreme Frenchness is Maurice Chevalier in the role of well…Maurice – the stereotypical Frenchman who’s life revolves around the concept of romance (is there any truth to Hollywood’s fantasy of France and Paris in particular?). He is one fine dressed man in his dashing turtle neck and a distinct walk (he is a tailor after all) along with a shade of Groucho Marx aspect to his personality with his witty comebacks to all the bourgeois snobs he encounters. 

It was a novelty in 1932 for musical numbers to be so interwoven into the text and pushing the plot along, in particular, the Isn’t It Romantic number which cleverly connects future lovers by song as Maurice begins singing it in his Paris tailor shop and it ends up being carried out of the city and across the countryside to a chateau in which Jeanette MacDonald (who feels like she was tailor-made to play nobility) and her magnificent pair of pipes finish it off. Love Me Tonight has no shortage of character actors galore such as the inclusion of the three spinster sisters (a more benevolent version of the three witched from Macbeth) being a very humorous touch, especially when they sound like chickens as they frantically pace. Also take note of MacDonald’s reaction to Charles Butterworth falling off ladder and landing on his flute – priceless. 

The other great addition to Love Me Tonight is an always show-stealing Myrna Loy in a part which helped turn her career around from being typecast as the exotic temptress to performing high comedy as the sex-hungry Countess Valentine. The bored sex fiend spends her time around the chateau sleeping on chairs and furniture, becoming excited when the prospect of a male encounter arises. She gets many of the film’s best and not to subtle innuendo-laden lines and even sings for the only time in her career during her few lines in The Son Of A Gun Is Nothing But A Tailor. Currently, the only version of Love Me Tonight known to exist is the censored 1949 re-issue which includes among other potentially suggestive cuts, an omission of Myrna Loy’s reprise of “Mimi” due to her wearing of a suggestive nightgown. Why yes I’m outraged that a piece of film history has been erased and in no way does being deprived of seeing a scantily clad Myrna Loy factor into it. 

Regardless of what we are left with, it surprises me the Love Me Tonight would even receive a post-code rerelease with every other line of dialogue being a sexual innuendo (not to mention one particularly luring pan of MacDonald in lingerie as the Doctor inspects her). We can always hope one day an uncensored print we surface.

Thirteen Women (1932)

Mean Girls

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Aeons before the likes of Michael, Jason, Freddy or even Norman there was Ursula Georgi (Myrna Loy).Thirteen Women is one of the earliest prototypes of the slasher film (made at a time when most horror movies featured supernatural creatures) in which the half-Hindu, half-Javanese Ursula (even though Georgi is a name of European origin) seeks revenge on her former high school peers due to their racist mistreatment through the use of horoscopes which don’t predict a happy or successful future. Whether or not Loy actually enjoyed doing exotic roles such as this during her early career, she remains professional and doesn’t phone it in. I delight at that stoic dialogue she delivers and when she gives you that blank stare you know you’re done for, not to mention she goes through many a memorable costume change throughout the film’s short runtime.

Throughout the picture Ursula has control over her victims, leading them to commit suicide. However, the film does not make it clear if she has supernatural mind control abilities (“I was his brain as I am yours”) or simply can just manipulate her victims though psychological means as the film’s opening prologue appears to imply: 

 “Suggestion is a very common occurrence in the life of every normal individual…

…waves of certain types of crime, waves of suicide are to be explained by the power of suggestion upon certain types of mind.”

Pages 94 and 105 of Applied Psychology by Professors Hollingsworth and Hoffenberger, Columbia University.

The extent of the mistreatment towards Ursula is not made clear. In her final monologue at the film’s climax, Ursula speaks of she tried to become white and it was almost in her hands when the sorority of girls wouldn’t let her “cross the colour line”, subsequently followed by the sorority’s leader Laura Stanhope (Irene Dunne) acknowledging their cruel treatment. The film’s racial subject matter was frank for the time – this was after all when screen star Merle Oberon was hiding her mixed-race origins from the public.

Thirteen Women is an oddity in the career of Irene Dunne, being her only macabre picture in a filmography of generally light-hearted fare. Laura is the only woman in the sorority who attempts not to act so gullible and take superstitions seriously (not to mention she has one fine Beverly Hills Home). Thirteen Women is an example of a female ensemble film yet oddly all the women in the picture are comprised of divorced and single mums – there are no husbands insight and even the one who is married shoots her hubby at the beginning of the film.

Thirteen Women doesn’t disappoint with those to be expected pre-code shocker moments from the circus acrobat accident in the film’s beginning to Ursula going as far as to send poisonous chocolate and later a bomb disguised as a birthday present to kill Laura’s child. The film’s atmosphere is also aided with an exotic score by Max Steiner (topped with plenty of gongs thrown in there for good measure) at a time when most movies seldomly used scored music. Steiner would go onto compose King Kong the following year at RKO and the rest is history.

Thirteen Women’s biggest claim to fame is the film being the only on-screen appearance of the elusive Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by hanging herself on the Hollywood sign, shortly before the Thirteen Women was released – ironically the only film she appeared in had suicide as a major theme. According to the book Peg Entwistle and the Hollywood Sign Suicide, Entwistle’s role as Mrs Hazel Cousins was central to the first 22 minutes of the film in which she was involved in a lesbian love affair leading to the murder of her jealous husband. In the 59 minute cut of the film, Entwistle is only on screen for a few minutes in which during that time she locks arms with another woman (her love affair?) and later shoots her husband and then screams at what she has just done. Thirteen Women originally ran at 73 minutes however the likely watered-down 59-minute cut is the only version currently known to exist. Perhaps somewhere out there exists a 73 minute print of Thirteen Women, regardless of what we are left with is still an entertaining hour. Perhaps future cult classic status is still in the waiting for Thirteen Women.

Mulan (1998)

Yin & Yang

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Mulan is one of my favourite films in the Disney animated canon.  A movie which is rich in layers and characterisation topped with brilliant songs and great action, there’s barely a single minute that doesn’t leave me enthralled. The titular heroine herself is a unique specimen in the canon of female Disney protagonists. For one she actually has living parents and contrary to the likes of Belle or Ariel, Mulan is not a free spirit. She is a clumsy, unpunctual, clutz, and a bit of a tomboy who doesn’t fit the gender norms society would have expected of her at the time as she tries to find her place in the world. She is also an adult who still possesses some childlike tendencies, perhaps most memorably and heart-warmingly when she unexpectedly hugs the Emperor of China. Mulan is also under the Disney princess brand even though she has no royal lineage? – Money talks.

Mulan is one of many examples throughout history of women disguised as men in combat roles, albeit in the case of Hua Mulan being one of disputed historicity. For many western children, a film like this would be their first introduction to Chinese culture and history beyond what they would see in a Chinese takeaway. I’m not Chinese so I can’t atone for well the film represents the culture. From a historical accuracy perspective, however, the film presents the Huns being a threat during the film’s setting of 600AD (Tang Dynasty) when they were actually active several centuries prior to that. Likewise, fireworks and gun powder wouldn’t come along until the 9th century (also Mulan’s family owns a pet dog?). – Embrace it in a charmingly inaccurate Cecil B. DeMille way.

Mulan is a classic heroes’ journey as she begins the film within the familiarity of her village but soon has a call to adventure into the unknown, only to eventually return to her village, a transformed individual. Disney films often being at the ire of snooty left-wing academics due to their highly archetypal nature rooted in the conventions of storytelling which are often dismissed as passé and cliché formulas of storytelling in favour of the deconstruction of myths. Thus I have no desire to see a live-action remake of Mulan in the age of woke Hollywood. In relation to the dreaded “F” word of feminism, I’ll reference an unlikely source in the form of Knuckles the Echidna:

“You know Amy, any time someone brings attention to the breaking of gender roles, it ultimately undermines the concept of gender equality by implying that this is an exception and not the status quo.”

Ok, Mulan is a film which is guilty of this itself with irony-laden songs such as Honour To Us All and A Girl Worth Fighting For which would normally lead one to groan with their intentionally un-pc lyrics and little visual accompaniments such as Mulan unintentionally wielding the umbrella like a sword during Honour To us All, but I’m never left with the impression the film is propagating an agenda. Mulan’s journey was never some feminist quest to prove a woman can do anything a man can do and stick it to the patriarchy – rather it was to preserve her father’s and by extension her family’s honour. Mulan doesn’t want to change how her society works, but rather just cheat its conformist rules.

Hollywood has a modern tendency to portray female characters whom are just women acting like aggressive men who can beat up hordes of bad guys and lack any sense of femininity. Mulan is not like that and film demonstrates her lack of physical strength and demonstrates how she has to rely on her mental capabilities to survive. Mulan figures out how to climb the pole and retrieve the arrow with the stone slabs of strength and discipline not with physical strength but with ingenuity, by wrapping the ropes attached to the slabs around the pole as an aid to climb it. Some suspension of disbelief is required that no one in the boot camp isn’t more suspicious that Mulan’s alias Ping is not a man, even as an effeminate one at that (one way the animators got around this is by having Mulan’s face shape change when she is dressed as Ping). To use a symbol of ancient Chinese philosophy, Mulan’s balancing of masculine and feminine is akin to the balancing of the yin and yang.

“The quickest way to the emperor is through that pass. Besides, the little girl will be missing her doll. We should return it to her.”

From the opening shot of The Great Wall, Mulan captures an epic scope on par with some of the best live-action epics. The colour scheme throughout the film is a thing of beauty complete with many a fantastic shot or creative transition. Mulan was the first time a Disney movie dealt with warfare with the sequence involving the soldiers discovering the village following a genocide (after such a joyous upbeat song) being one of the darkest Disney moments. Likewise, the beginning of the battle sequence on the mountain as Shan-Yu and his men appear over the hill is reminiscent to the film Zulu (that avalanche sequence breaks many laws of physics but no less exciting). The film’s scope reaches a peak with the film’s climactic money shot of Mulan jumping of the palace roof in the Forbidden City with fireworks behind her. The only criticism I have for the animation is the repetition of very similar character models in the Chinese and Hun armies as well as in the Forbidden City. Although the appearance of these models on screen is very limited it’s a bit odd whenever I took notice of it.

Jerry Goldsmith’s East Asian influenced score is among the strongest of his career. The track titled Haircut is a piece of synth to die for! How does a piece of music from 1998 sound like it was recorded for a movie made in 1985? None of the musical numbers in Mulan fail in their grand, sweeping nature. The film’s classic Disney “I desire more” ballad in the form of Reflection (how did she wipe away all that makeup with on rub of her sleeve?) helps to signify Mulan’s vulnerability. Yet Mulan’s greatest musical accomplishment is the hair raising I’ll Make a Man Out of You, the militaristic training montage ballad with its larger than life lyrics and memorable one-liners from the supporting characters – it can proudly stand among the likes of the Rocky IV soundtrack as motivational music to get you out of any rut.

The other area where Mulan surprisingly exceeds is the comedy as one of the funnier Disney animated films, managing to balance the laughs with the high stakes drama. Eddie Murphy as Mushu doesn’t surpass Robin Williams in Aladdin but his antics and many memorable quotes give him one of his best career roles. However I find the film’s funniest moments come from Mulan’s attempts to act manly – it’s not a body swap comedy without a scene in which the character’s cover is almost blown when they are out of costume (underwear with hearts on it, anachronism much?). The only tonal criticism I would levy at the film is the end credits song True To Your Heart, an upbeat pop song which comes out of left field after Mulan’s heartfelt reunion with her father and family. A good Stevie Wonder jam but it feels out of place.

The film’s villain Shan-Yu is a two-dimensional bad guy but is still quite entertaining from how overtly evil he and his falcon companion are, with Shan-Yu himself being complete with fangs and muted colours. I also love how his scenes end with him delivering a spine chilling message (“How many men does it take to deliver a message?” – oh, badass!). He’s not the main source of conflict in the film so his two-dimensional personality doesn’t interfere with the film. However, he does display one revealing character moment during the film’s climax in which upon discovering Mulan was the solider from the battlefield who took out his army, in an ironic twist he is the only character in the film who does not belittle Mulan for being a woman.

Thug Life

Mulan’s world is populated with many great characters from the badass, no-nonsense general and love interest to Mulan, Li Shang (those abs are body goals) of whom it turns out is a bit socially awkward when it comes to women. Mulan’s dignified father Fa Zhou on the other hand is best summed up in the powerful shot of his attempt to walk without his aid and disguise his limp to accept his conscription assignment. Although absent for most of the film, he is at the film’s heart as the instigator of Mulan’s journey (“I know my place! It is time you learned yours!”). The question does have to be raised if the military would actually have this old, physically weak man on the battlefield but rather to act as a general due to the fact that he appears to be a well-known figure at the boot camp and thus likely respected and held in high esteem. I do also adore the trio of soldiers – the fiery voiced Yao (thank you Harvey Feinstein), the childlike Ling and the pacifist Chein with their camaraderie and failure to act like tough guys and lady killers. Then there is the slimy pencil pusher Chi-Fu, the film’s love to hate character. I like how he is given some humanising moments like his picture with the Emperor on his desk and his claim that he apparently has “a girl back home who’s not like any other”. Even The Emperor of China himself is full of wisdom and memorable quotations worthy of Confucius himself.

“The flower that blooms in adversity is the most rare and beautiful of all”

The Mad Miss Manton (1938)

Manhattan Murder Mystery

Melsa Manton (Barbara Stanwyck) and her ilk of rich, bored socialites use Manhattan as their playground similarly to the wealthy socialites in My Man Godfrey, using the city for bizarre escapades such as sleuthing in the middle of the night and all while still dressing to impress at the same time in The Mad Miss Manton. Stanwyck’s enthusiasm alone is infectious and the quick-fire interactions of the girls are one of the film’s highlights (“I was never much of an individualist, if the upstairs has to be searched we search it together – why that’s communism!”). They even partake in a number of Scooby-Doo like moments, in particular actions reminiscent of the character Shaggy, i.e. making a sandwich in the kitchen when sleuthing in a trespassed apartment. The other memorable addition to the cast is the sarcastic, wisecracking Hattie McDaniel who takes no nonsense from anyone and has a comeback to everything despite her socio-economic status (“Comes a revolution and we’ll start being exploited by our help”).

Francis Mercer is real dead ringer for Gail Patrick

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda – one true pair if there ever was one. Their chemistry makes it more believable that Peter Ames (Fonda) with his dorky bow tie would fall head over heels for this spoiled Park Avenue princess who is trying to sue him for a million dollars over an editorial. He is even driven to the point in which he casually imposes marriage on her. Henry Fonda isn’t given enough credit for his comic abilities, in particular, the scene in which he fakes his own deathbed in order to extract information from Miss Manton. In one scene Fonda is even seen holding a knife, in the same manner he would years later in 12 Angry Men.

The Mad Miss Manton was one of many films throughout the 1930’s which attempted to get a piece of that Thin Man pie. The formula of the 1934 comedy-mystery romp was an effective one and could easily be recreated with low budgets. It doesn’t matter that the mystery in The Mad Miss Manton is incomprehensible. The comedy and the atmosphere are what makes the movie, of which the picture succeeds in creating with the high contrast, film noir-like lighting during the sleuthing sequences (especially with the sequence in the subway) even though the film is visibly a low budget production. 

Marked Woman (1937)

The Mark of the Squealer

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

“I think I’ll be a big help to your business” says Mary “Dwight” Strauber (Bette Davis) as she foreshadows to Johnny Vanning (Eduardo Ciannelli) the new owner of the clip joint known as Club Intimate. Mary is the alpha female with a mother instinct among her group of friends who all work as nightclub hostesses for Mr Vanning. None of them think highly of the work they do (but state it’s still better and more profitable than working in a factory for 12 and a half per week) as they accompany male patrons until the early hours of the morning (also that piece of music which plays 18 minutes into the film during a montage in the nightclub, it sounds similar to Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse). The theme of female solidarity runs throughout Marked Woman as the group console over the fear of getting old and are seen walking down the street in unison several times in the film. Mary also attempts to keep her sibling Betty (Jane Bryan) away from the gangster world and on track to a more respectable life. This plot element would be recycled in another Warner gangster picture from the same year, Kid Galahad and also involving the same cast member, Jane Bryan.

Marked Woman gave Humphrey Bogart an early career opportunity to play a hero during this pre-stardom period in his career (of when he could look oddly boyish) in which he was often cast as the villain. Bogart plays David Graham, the young, idealistic lawyer who “can’t be bought” and like Elliot Ness and the Untouchables are determined to bring down the cities top crime boss. Despite the disclaimer, at the beginning of Marked Woman which asserts that the story is fictitious, Marked Woman is loosely based on the real-life crime-fighting exploits of Thomas E. Dewey, in particular, his conviction of New York crime boss Lucky Luciano (of whom Eduardo Ciannelli bears a resemblance to) via the testimony of numerous call girls in Luciano’s prostitution rings. – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Hollywood makes being a lawyer look like one of the coolest professions ever.

Marked Woman is criminal justice 101. Everyone and their mother know Johnny Vanning commits every crime and murder in the city and they can’t do anything about it without any witnesses to come forward and testify in court. Witnesses are either threatened or killed off, politicians are bought out and unscrupulous lawyers take advantage of every technicality in the law. A later Bogart film, The Enforcer (1951) explored similar subject manner but Marked Woman does it in a superior manner. Following the conviction of Vanning, Marked Woman concludes with the group of friends walking down the courthouse steps and into the mist, once again walking in unison as they did throughout the film. The lawyer gets all the praise and attention from the press whereas those who risked the most are forgotten about and walk into the night with no personal gain or future prospects. 

Kid Galahad (1937)

Thugs With Dirty Mugs

The plot of Kid Galahad is routine fare in this gangster/sports picture but is executed with the top-notch craftsmanship. With Michael Curtiz directing (complete with one of his trademark shadows) and three cinematic icons carrying the picture, you know you’re in safe hands. Kid Galahad is one of the better early attempts to capture boxing in a film, there’s no sped-up footage although the fight scenes are quickly edited and the knockout during the titular character’s first fight occurs off-screen. It wasn’t until Gentleman Jim that cinematic boxing was filmed to a more realistic degree.

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Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart would play foes a total of five times, with Bogart getting the short end of the stick in four out of five of these pictures. In these pairings Robinson would play the redemptive character while Bogart would be a plain old scumbag. There’s a fun rivalry dynamic with the two as competing boxing managers but along with their other pairings, this is by no means a complex role for Bogart. His part as the not so threateningly named Turkey Morgan is a two-dimensional bad guy but with Bogart, it’s no less engaging. Likewise, I much prefer this more endearing and playful Bette Davis to high end, sophisticated melodrama Bette Davis she would go onto to portray starting with Jezebel. I also have to ask where the studio trying to make a sex symbol out of Davis in this film? I can’t recall another film in which she exposed this much skin.

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“You think you’re cute? You’re pants are too long to be that cute.”

Kid Galahad was made three years into the production code and it is interesting to consider how gangster films from this late 30’s period would have differed had they been made a few years earlier. The aesthetics are much cleaner than if the movie had come out during the code but more significantly is the film’s moral content. Although a gangster picture, Kid Galahad is somewhat of a Middle America morality tale. The film highlights a clear divide between the urban world of the mob and its lavish parties to the innocent and simple world of the countryside. Despite his path in life, Nick (Edward G. Robinson) tries to keep his sister ( a much more wholesome relationship than that featured in Scarface) and mother far away from gangsters (or mugs as he calls them) by housing his mother in the country and sending his sister away to a convent. Even the boy-scout bellhop turned prizefighter (Wayne Morris) desires to become a farmer when he leaves the prizefighting world behind. I suspect much of this stems an effort to disown the gangster lifestyle in favour of a more conservative one to fall in line with the production code.

The Black Watch (1929)

Heart of Darkness

The Black Watch marked John Ford’s first venture into talking pictures and as expected with talkies from 1929, the film’s dialogue is delivered at a snail’s pace as one actor will wait over a second for the other to finish before they themselves start speaking, creating many long gaps in the dialogue and making the film’s pace slower than it needs to be. This gives The Black Watch a disjointed feel while the film still uses title cards over establishing shots – a silent era holdover. Visually speaking, however, the production values do not let the film down with the craftsmanship to be expected from a John Ford picture. The sets and costumes are lush and there are plenty of grand and expressionistic visuals – ultimately the film succeeds in creating that sense of adventure.

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The Black Watch is a loose adaptation of Talbot Mundy’s novel The King of the Khyber Rifles. The Heart of Darkness style story sees Captain King (Victor MacLaglen) of the Black Watch, 3rd Battalion, Royal Regiment of Scotland (“the descendants of highland chieftains who rallied behind Wallace and conquered under Bruce”) sent on a military mission during World War I to take out a cult leader in a territory not under British rule ahead of the northern frontier of British India near the Khyber Pass. The first portion of The Black Watch features a heavy emphasizes on military tradition with plenty of thundering bagpipe action to show off that sound technology, plus nothing beats some Auld Lyne Sang regardless of the movie. The Black Watch holds a number of parallels to the adventure film Gunga Din which was released 10 years later and also starring Victor MacLaglen in an Indian setting.

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One of the main draws of The Black Watch is Myrna Loy in the spotlight role of Yasmani – Goddess to the natives (“others have been sent to take her out but never returned”). Observe the theatrical manner in which Loy moves her body alongside her hammed up pompous speech delivery, all while cloaked out in lavish costumes and surrounded in splendour and opulence. Yasmani claims to be a white woman descended from Alexander the Great, with Aryan blood running through her veins as she puts it. When she delivers a sermon in the cave of echoes she speaks of the prophecy that a woman of Alexander’s line shall find a mate and are destined to rule these tribesmen.

The identity of the cult in the film is not made clear. The film gives many indications the cult are Islamic extremists (there is no mention of the words Muslim or Islam) from members praying to Allah to proclaiming the murder of infidels and even the appearance of a flag with the Islamic Star and Crescent. However, in Islam you wouldn’t have a woman, let alone one of western origin at the head of a traditional Islamic movement. Likewise wouldn’t referring to Yasmani as a Goddess not go against Islam’s (and Abrahamic religions’ as a whole) monotheism? Not to mention the cult’s racial undertones raises many questions. I can’t deceiver if The Black Watch is a poorly researched movie or was intentioned to be deliberately vague?