Start the Revolution Without Me (1970)

Revolution 1789

To my surprise Start the Revolution Without Me begins with none other than Orson Welles introducing the film as well as narrating it; this along with the stylistic opening credits featuring footage of John Barrymore in Don Juan I know I had to be in for a treat. Start the Revolution Without Me is largely unheard of but surely paved the way for other large-scale historical comedies of the 70’s and 80’s from the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks; a type of film comedy which is long extinct. The recurring repetition of the date “1789” in the narration has vibes of Monty Python while the film’s ending reminds me of that from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Likewise, the film is probably the closest thing to a spoof of costume dramas; think the costume drama getting the Mel Brooks treatment. The film includes references to works of fiction including A Tale of Two Cities, The Corsican Brothers and The Man in the Iron Mask (portrayed here as a bumbling fool). With the film’s historical references, King Louis XVI is a slow-witted cuckold and Marie Antoinette is portrayed as a nymphomaniac.

The production spared no expense getting the shoot in actual historical locations in France. You would think they would only allow such locations for more dignified films, not a slapstick comedy. The film itself is as lavish as any big-budget costume drama but not in tone of course. Costume pictures are always a genre I’ve struggled with, dare I say I find them dull with characters I can’t identify with or care about; you know, rich people problems. Thus there’s a sense of satisfaction seeing the genre turned into a slapstick farce. Not only do you get an impressive display of madcap physical comedy, but you even get some swashbuckling action with Gene Wilder getting the opportunity to display his abilities as a swordsman.

Gene Wilder and Donald Sutherland play two sets of identical twins who are accidentally switched at birth resulting in an aristocrat with a false brother who was supposed to be born into life as a peasant and vice versa. I get the impression Sutherland plays the twins intended to be aristocrats as they seem more comfortable and in tune with the lifestyle than the two twins played by Wilder. Mistaken identity humour is often looked down upon but it makes laugh whenever it is done well. Start the Revolution Without is inspired zaniness if I’ve ever seen it.

The Omega Man (1971)

Apocalypse Now?

I began The Omega Man with some initial trepidation from the not so great editing (including a pointless fade away on zooming out shot) the use of sped-up footage and obvious line dubbing; thankfully after that, it gets better. It must appreciated the filmmakers clearing the streets of Los Angles with spanning, wide shots of the city in which it is deserted; no easy task. To accomplish this the filmmakers had to film during Sunday morning and due to filming at this golden hour, the deserted streets and the golden light reflecting off the buildings has a real beauty to it. I don’t know of the film’s budget but it does come off feeling like a low budget production but does so in a charming way. The campy 70’s sounding music score feels like it’s on the verge of killing the mood and being too corny but just about manages to avoid doing so.

Charlton Heston’s Nevillie feels like the predecessor to modern action movie heroes with his use of one-liners. The scene in which he pretends to negotiate with a dead salesman at a car dealership feels very Arnold Schwarzenegger. On the other hand I do find there is some Initial unintentional humour coming from seeing Heston dressed as an aristocrat and talking to a chess-playing bust of Julius Caesar but once that settles these do showcase some poignant scenes of the last man alive trying to keep himself occupied; also I do love this little world he has created for himself in his apartment. Likewise seeing the later Republican Heston watching and the enjoying the film Woodstock and even reciting lines is intriguingly odd. The Omega Man also features one of the earliest on-screen interracial kisses between black and white. I don’t know if it was intentional that a film about repopulating the Earth has an interracial romance but thankfully doesn’t have to call attention to itself.

The Omega is a perfect example of Charlton Heston’s immense screen presence and his ability to carry a movie as he spends much of the runtime alone. When I think “screen presence” several actors will pop into my head, Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Clark Gable and of course Charlton Heston.

The Yakuza (1974)

Perhaps You’ve Heard of the Yakuza, the Poison Fists of the Pacific Rim. The Japanese Mafia!

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

At the heart of The Yakuza’s theme of the clash between eastern and western cultures, is that of the two’s opposing views on forgiveness. In Japanese culture, forgiveness is something you must earn. In western culture as preached though Christianity, any action can be forgiven regardless of how heinous; go to a confession box at a church and your sins will be wiped away. The Japanese don’t understand this; as a westerner don’t understand it either. Only towards the end of the film does Harry Kilmer (Robert Mitchum) become fully assimilated into another culture, and truly realise so much pain he has caused to Ken Tanaka (Ken Takakura), and performs the Yakuza ritual of Yubitsume, cutting off his little finger.

I can’t imagine a better choice for the role of Harry Kilmer than Robert Mitchum. I believe his acting experience and background is what brings a great level of sincerity to the role. Throughout his career, he appeared in a number of World War II films, including those about the war in the Pacific and featuring the use of the racial slur “Jap”. It can be an interesting experience seeing classic era actors in roles after the 1960’s that weren’t ensemble disaster movies; movies which contrast the attitudes of their ’golden age’ work. I’ve read Robert Redford was considered for the role but I believe the role was suited for an older, world-weary actor like Mitchum; plus it’s an apt choice casting one of the icons of film noir in this neo-noir. What I also love about the film is the touching love story between Harry and his Japanese love Eiko Tanaka (Keiko Kishi), a love of two people from different worlds made forbidden due to family ties, made all the more poignant with Mitchum being superb at portraying characters who are tough yet also tender.

Hollywood has had a long fascination with the Far East, producing movies which aren’t entirely very thoughtful or sensitive; The Yakuza is the more well-researched effort, to say the least. Yet I could still see the modern day PC patrol will still find something to the uproar about. Cultural appropriation is apparent throughout the film. Westerners Harry Kilmer and his friend Wheat (Herb Edelman) are so engaged with Japanese culture and customs to the point that it is second nature to them; while the Japanese display westernised trends such as the wearing of western clothes, or take the scene in the nightclub in which My Darling Clementine being sung.

The appropriation just doesn’t extend to the characters; the 1970’s Hollywood aesthetic and music is combined with Japanese iconography. Dave Grusin’s score is superb, creating a world alien to westerners and also contributing to one of the classiest films of the 1970’s. The violence is portrayed in a classy, arty tone and not coming of gratuitous with an effective combination of gunfire and katana duels. Also, can a gun still remain in a person’s hand and fire after their arm has been chopped off? Either way, it looks cool.

The Yakuza acts like a time capsule of 1970’s urban Japan, just take the scene in which Harry walks through the streets of Tokyo at night to meet his old love after 20 years. The filmmakers clearly took full advantage of the Japanese locations at their disposal; the Kyoto International Conference Centre in which Harry meets ken’s brother is an incredible piece of architecture and that public bathing room, dam, I want to go there!

Ash Wednesday (1973)

The Fountain of Youth

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Richard Burton hated this movie, calling it a “f***ing bloody, lousy, nothing film”: I must strongly disagree. Ash Wednesday paints a haunting picture of a plastic surgery hospital, with patients walking around like zombies with bandages over their heads in a last desperate bid to be young again. As Keith Baxter’s character puts it “we all simply refuse to accept reality”. One moment during the film is in which a group of patients are playing cards; reminds me of the ‘waxworks’ scene from Sunset Boulevard. Realistic or not, this whole section of the movie is eerie and effective. Even after Elizabeth Taylor has left the hospital there is this continuing sense of unease, as if she has just sold her soul to the devil; helped in part by Maurice Jarre’s music score. The movie’s theme of fading beauty is made all the more poignant since its Elizabeth Taylor of all people doing the role.

The first act of Ash Wednesday features graphic scenes of plastic surgery. Watching the film I didn’t know if they were real or just really convincing special effects. Nope, it turns out it is real footage with skin being cut open and plenty of exposed flesh in close up detail. I do wonder who is actually under the knife in this footage but it is an effectively put together sequence in which I believed Elizabeth Taylor’s character was the one undertaking plastic surgery.

The opening credits of the film feature a series of cut and paste photographs of Elizabeth Taylor and Henry Fonda in an effort to make it appear they have been a married couple as they age over the years. Fonda being much older than Taylor in real life, these series of photos feature the two at the same age periods, so a photo of Fonda in the 30’s will be cut and paste with a picture of Taylor from the 50’s. It’s not entirely convincing but is neat to look at.

What I appreciate most about Ash Wednesday is just honest the storytelling is. Taylor’s husband played by Henry Fonda simply doesn’t love her anymore, there is no sexual attraction between the two them and they don’t satisfy each other’s needs anymore; yet he doesn’t come off as a jerk getting these points across. Untimely the two learn to accept this but not without having an understanding of each other and move on with their lives.

Ash Wednesday has yet to ever see the light of day on DVD, remaining VHS only.

Star Wars (1977)

The Greatest Story Ever Told

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Reviewing the might that is Star Wars; part of me wonders if there is even any point. You know that cliché review term “what can I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before?” Should I pretend its 1977 and I’m just back from the movie theatre – if only I could have experienced it firsthand. With the hype underway for the upcoming The Force Awakens, I’ve been rekindling my love for Star Wars (the good trilogy, not the crummy one) so allow me to be the zillionth person to give their own perspective on Star Wars. Before I had ever even seen Star Wars I felt like I had watched it before. You could probably recreate the film from the parodies it has received. It’s hard not to get caught up in a five-hour conversation about these movies and talking in depth about every single frame. From the archetypes, the plot structure, the glorified B movie tropes and the inspirations coming from the Bible to ancient mythology to westerns to Japanese Samurai films; Star Wars is the story of stories.

I can’t help by getting tearful over the beauty of the original trilogy; whether it’s the introduction of Luke Skywalker to the achingly beautiful John William’s score, or Luke and Leia’s scene in which they try to get away from oncoming Star Troopers by swinging on a rope over a drop – but not before she kisses him – such a classic image taken from any swashbuckler. The sights and sounds of lasers blasting or dogfights in space have an aesthetic and a charm which I could never tire from. What makes the Star Wars universe feel so human? There is advanced technology but it feels used and it doesn’t always function properly. Also, I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again: CGI isn’t anything on practical effects. Part of me doesn’t want to know how they did these effects just to be kept alive the thought of “how did they do that?!” I can still enjoy the special editions despite the changes (it would take a lot more CGI to entirely ruin a film like this), yet the original theatrical versions do have a charming, 70’s hokeyness (particularly during the Mos Eisley scenes and the final assault on the Death Star), which the special editions take away.

What imagination or imaginations can come up with something so wonderful, which raises the question of just how much of genius within Star Wars can be actually credited to George Lucas? Is the guy an untalented hack who got lucky by being surrounded by talented people? It’s disheartening to think the man may never have been the genius we all thought he once was making the man as much of an enigma as the fictional universe he came up with.

Is Mark Hamill’s performance in the original Star Wars the greatest? No, but I feel it works in the trilogy’s favour as his performances in Empire and Jedi are much improved just like how the character of Luke matured and even within the original Star Wars by itself, I do get a sense of enjoyment from how charmingly amateurish Hamill’s performance is. Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, however, is by far the most tender performance ever given by an actor in a Star Wars film; the comforting mentor and father figure who is wise without any pretension. Also what gives C-3P0 and R2-D2 such a great dynamic? They’re both robots and one is essentially a talking fax machine, either way, best robot chemistry ever.

But If I’m going to really talk about one Star Wars characters it’s Han Solo as played by the greatest of all time, Harrison Ford. Simply put Han Solo is my favourite movie character of all time; the cinematic embodiment of masculinity and individuality. He’s badass, cocky, funny, has a legendary vest, is the most handsome man ever and every word of dialogue he utters I would frame and hang on my wall. Yes, he is God himself.

The other thing I love about Star Wars which like many things was sorely missed in the prequels is the entourage of British actors. To me Star Wars isn’t Star Wars without an imperial star destroyer on which every commander on board has a sinister English accent. Even the presence of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin I feel elevates Episode IV over other films in the saga.

The confrontation between Obi-wan and Darth Vader still remains my lightsaber duel in the series. Two old men, minimal movement, no music, choreography as basic as it gets, yet it is infinitely more emotional and substantial than Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen doing somersaults inside a volcano for five hours.

Star Wars changed cinema, pop culture and the world as we know it for a reason. Something which has brought joy and happiness to myself and millions around the world (as well as much anger and despair). Many film snobs will dismiss Star Wars as the film which ruined cinema helping bring about the end of the New Hollywood era which it total tosh. I could go on and on and on with this review, adding more to it like Lucas likes to add changes to his already existing films but I feel the best way to review what Is one of the most talked-about films of all time I too try and convey the sense of emotion and euphoria I get from watching such a film.

Sometimes a Great Notion (1970)

Sometimes a Great Motion Picture

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

There is no overarching plot in Sometimes a Great Notion yet I was still engaged with the life of this family with their ongoing effort to try and make a living and their own family dilemmas all occurring among the beautiful forest scenery of Oregon. This is a man’s movie reminiscent of the male bonding films from Howard Hawks such as Only Angels Have Wings and Tiger Shark.

Henry Fonda plays a character called Henry so I like to imagine his interactions on set with Paul Newman occur just like they do in the movie. I’ve also often championed Henry Fonda’s unsung abilities as a comedic actor and here he provides the film with some great moments of comic relief. Michael Sarrazin gives the most interesting performance though as the girly man Leeland Stamper who doesn’t fit in with the rest of the men largely due to his long hair. There’s a quiet confidence to his character though as he is unbothered by the remarks of the other men and eventfully wins their respect, by how? Winning a game of the ever manly sport of football.

The logging scenes themselves are actually quite suspenseful, seeing men who are putting their lives in danger in order to make a living, you’re expecting someone to get injured or killed at any time and that brings me to scene in the film which left the greatest impression on me. There are two death scenes towards the end of the film. First, there’s Henry Fonda’s death which is sad, itself but that is but nothing compared to the death of Richard Jaeckel; I was thinking about this scene for days after watching the film and it’s even more powerful watching it a second time as I’m waiting in dread for the scene to arrive. For starters, the character is trapped under a log while the tide is slowly rising and he spends the whole time joking about it and when he is eventually submerged in the water he can only stay alive through constant mouth to mouth resuscitation until help shows up to move the giant log. I can’t imagine a more terrifying situation a person could be in; you can possibly get rescued and live but in order to do so you must remain completely calm; one mistake and you’re a goner. This one of the most harrowing things I’ve ever seen in a film. I doubt I will ever see a more intense death scene or one so difficult to watch.

Sleuth (1972)

It Was Only a Bloody Game

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I believe the title of Sleuth may be misleading. When I first approached it I wasn’t aware of the stage play it was based on and thought the film was going to be a standard “whodunit?” and thus wasn’t expecting much from it. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Watching it I soon discovered it to be a different film entirely, a giant mind game, a battle of wits and a tale of revenge. I’ve never seen a film quite like Sleuth before. The exploits between Michael Caine and Laurence Oliver trying to outwit each other with the plot’s many twists, surprises and under the direction of Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ (a master at handling dialogue) makes for a film that’s hard to forget.

Watching this film I quickly came to realize that Caine and Olivier may be the only two cast members throughout, which had me thinking if they could carry the film to the very end by themselves it will be nothing short of an acting marvel, so I was disappointed when the movie introduced what appeared to be a third cast member, Alec Cawthrone as Inspector Doppler; I felt the movie was making a mistake by doing so. That was until it turned out that Inspector Doppler was Michael Caine in disguise the whole time, yes, there’s no such actor as Alec Cawthrone, he was simply created for the film’s credits. I’m not sure how many people will be as perceptible as I was but the movie successfully fooled this viewer. On second viewing I can clearly see Caine through the disguise but I’ll always have the memory to cherish of being spellbound the first time round from seeing Caine taking off all that makeup, which itself makes up appreciate the art form. Sleuth actually has a fake cast list in the opening credits in an attempt to fool the audience; this includes three other nonexistent actors, one of which is named after the character Eve Channing from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ earlier film All About Eve. Up until the film’s very last scene in which police sirens and knocking on the door can be heard, I was on the edge of my seat hoping the movie would not introduce another cast member.

I’ve always liked Michael Caine but Sleuth greatly increased my respect for him, while also making me a fan Laurence Olivier; their ability to carry this film is nothing short of phenomenal. Milo Tindle is one of Caine’s more effeminate roles, a hairdresser who even takes joy in wearing a piece of women’s clothing at one point. Olivier, on the other hand, is the given the opportunity to have tons of fun with his role of Andrew Wyke, doing impressions and playing dress up with another grown man and with all those gadgets, gizmos and games everywhere, it’s always a pleasure to look into the background of Andrew Wyke’s manor. Likewise, the humor that comes from seeing a man being convinced that dressing as a clown is the way to go when doing a staged crime, has me laughing nonstop through the entire charade.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)

Fanboys

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I Wanna Hold Your Hand follows a group of fanboys and fanboyettes who put all modern day internet fan communities to shame on a journey to meet their idols. There’s a lot of screaming, shouting and overall hyperactivity with its lightning fast, 1930’s-like repertoire and I watched the entire film with the biggest smile on my face. Crazy over the top comedies like these are my forte and I Wanna Hold Your Hand is one of the most energetic I’ve ever seen. The film begins with Ed Sullivan (Played by Ed Sullivan look-a-like Will Jordan) on the set on his own show off air introducing the movie Patton style, setting the stage for just how big The Beatles had become by January 1964. This was only three months after the assassination of JFK but this is never mentioned in the film. The film shows how Beatlemania provided an escape from the real world.

Wendie Jo Sperber and Eddie Deezen (a voice forever implanted into my head from years of childhood exposure on Dexter’s Laboratory) as Rosie and Ringo (as he calls himself) are the two most hyperactive of the cast members. I find it adorable that these two, one a social outcast and the other puppy dog eyed time bomb being brought together through their insane Beatles’ worship; especially when Rosie tells Ringo, “You’re the only boy I feel I can really talk to”. Likewise, Pam Mitchell’s (Nancy Allen) scene in which she invades The Beatles’ hotel room as she strokes and licks Ringo Star’s guitar neck is erotic cinema at its finest (she even takes off her engagement ring and puts t into her shoe beforehand, nice touch). The cinematography really puts a lot of emphases put on that guitar neck only for Ringo himself to later comment that it’s covered in sticky stuff, sexy. I’d do the same thing as well, not with The Beatles but there are other celebrities of whom I was in their hotel room I would be rubbing my face against everything they’ve touched and don’t lie, you would too.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand also features Paul Newman’s daughter Susan Kendall Newman in her second of three film appearances. Her character of Janis is introduced complaining to the manager of a record store that “all I see around the store is Beatle albums. What about Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, don’t they get equal floor space?”; back to the USSR for you Ms. Frankfurt School. It seems every generation has their socially righteous trying to ruin everyone’s fun although the movie does manage to make her into a sympathetic and more likable character as the film progresses. The film even gives significant attention to Beatles’ haters. One of the film’s greasers Tony (Bobby Di Cicco) hates The Beatles so much he abuses Beatles’ fans and even attempts to sabotage their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show; talk about haters gonna hate.

The other stroke of genius is while we do see The Beatles they are never shown in their entirety. Rather the film takes the Ben-Hur Jesus approach in which only the bodies are seen but never the faces. If they actually did cast actors to play The Beatles in which we see their faces it would take you out of the film. There are even shades of American Graffiti present in I Wanna Hold Your Wand with its early 1960’s setting, young people, rock music and cars.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand marked the directorial debut of Robert Zemeckis. Like in Zemeckis’ Forrest Gump years later, I Wanna Hold Your Hand combines fiction surrounding a historical event. Much of the film’s cast being reunited the following year in the comically less successful 1941 (directed by Steven Spielberg) despite also being written by Zemeckis and Bob Gale. I’ve always considered Zemeckis to be a much better director than Spielberg.

I Wanna Hold Your Hand captures that feeling of having such a strong devotion to something. As you become increasingly attached to these characters you feel that if they really did miss The Beatles performance on The Ed Sullivan Show then their lives really wouldn’t be worth living.

Fedora (1978)

When the Pictures Became Small

Fedora is one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen, to say the least. At points I’m almost laughing at the movie’s plot twist yet the more bizarre and highly improbable the movie became the more I found myself getting engaged in the story, waiting in eager anticipation to find out what will happen next with those oh so joyous “I did not see that coming” moments. The film’s highly implausible plot manages to draw the thin line between being completely absurd but never feeling like a parody.

The character of Fedora herself is a reclusive movie star who goes to extreme lengths in order to stay “on top” and retain her eternal youth to the point which even Norma Desmond would consider crazy. Early during the film, I suspected Greta Garbo to be the likely source of inspiration for the character of Fedora (whom Wilder always had great admiration for) but as the plot progressed I thought to myself “ok even Garbo was never this nuts”.

One of Fedora’s other intriguing aspects is the film’s critique of New Hollywood and how times have changed since Hollywood’s golden era came to pass. Fedora is the only film I’ve seen which displays a harsh attitude towards New Hollywood with lines referring to Hollywood being taken over by kids with beards who don’t need a script, just a handheld camera with a zoom lens as well as the demise of glamorous movie stars of the past. This is one of several aspects of Fedora which makes it similar to what you could call its spiritual cousin Sunset Boulevard; which itself commented upon what was lost when the silent era came to an end. I could go on making comparisons between the two films from William Holden playing a Hollywood hack in both films to Michael York’s role the in film being similar to the role Cecil B. Millie played in Sunset Boulevard.

I imagined by 1978 Wilder was far past his directing prime, not to mention after the 1950’s he seemed to become content with only directing comedies; thus I’m surprised to consider Fedora as one of his greatest films and a return to the roots of his earlier work as a director. As soon as William Holden’s narration begins you can instantly tell this is classic, old-school Billy Wilder.

The Cheyenne Social Club (1970)

Quit Badmouthing the House!

The Cheyenne Social Club sounds like a bad idea on a number of levels. For beginners it stars two elderly actors towards the end of their careers in a comedy about prostitution, not to mention Gene Kelly would be one of the last people I would expect to be directing a western. For a long time it remained a movie I doubt I would ever watch yet much to my surprise the film turned out not only to be perfectly dignified but also very funny and surprising endearing. The idea of Jimmy Stewart being the owner of a brothel and becoming a sugar daddy sounds wrong on paper yet somehow it manages to work. The Cheyenne Social Club paints an idealized version of a whore house in which the women are proud of their profession and worship their boss. The movie doesn’t shun prostitution and while propaganda might be a strong word I certainly got the impression the movie was voicing its support for the legalisation of prostitution.

Henry Fonda is by far the funniest thing in the film; a child in an adult’s body living out a completely carefree existence with Stewart being the straight man and the grown-up one of the two. Even as soon as the film begins Fonda babbles through the entire opening credits which according to the movie lasts for literally over a thousand miles which helps distract from how ordinarily plain the test in the opening credits are. The relationship between the two is incredibly endearing with one of my favourite moments of the film is the two of them innocently sleeping in the same bed together. It is also very amusing as Fonda just follows Stewart wherever he goes as he has nothing else to do with his time but also because he just likes his company. It’s evident through their own screen chemistry that the two where lifelong friends. The film’s other major highlight is Stewart and Fonda’s discussing of politics (Stewart being a Republican and Fonda a Democrat) mirroring their real-life personas and bringing to mind an occasion when their friendship was almost brought to an end when they got engaged in a fist fight over politics in 1947 (“I don’t like to dispute you John but didn’t you always vote democratic?, Well…that was when I didn’t know any better”) .

The Cheyenne Social Club is the third of three films James Stewart and Henry Fonda starred in together. The first two of which are among the weakest films I’ve seen from ether actor. Thankfully the third time was the charm; it took 35 years to get these two legendary actors in a great film together but it was worth the wait.