Many of you will have read these before, but I would be very grateful if you could take time to click on the links, and leave a ‘Like’.
There are lots of other good reviews there too. You might enjoy them.
I am always happy to buy most books published by my friends in this blogging community.
I never ask for free copies, but sometimes take them when available.
Mostly, I buy them. That way, I can review them as a ‘Verified Purchase’.
That’s a small price to pay (usually) to promote anyone I respect as a writer, and consider to be a friend.
But I thought I would add a note, for your information.
Just lately, I have purchased or pre-ordered quite a few of your books, albeit on Kindle editions only.
It is going to take some time to get to them all, in between the books I have bought that are not by bloggers.
I only read in bed at night, so how much I get through depends on how tired I am, and how early I go to sleep.
So just to let you know, in case you wonder why I haven’t reviewed them yet.
Regular readers will have noticed that I am reviewing a lot more books lately.
Since buying a Kindle Fire tablet for myself last Christmas, I have got back into reading.
As well as reviewing most books that I buy outside of blogging, I have also reviewed those of some fellow bloggers.
At the end of the review, I always add a buying link.
And that is usually an Amazon link, as they are the only suppliers of Kindle versions, which are generally the cheapest option.
But in case anyone was wondering…
*I am not affiliated to Amazon in any way, and receive no commission from any books bought via those links.
*I have paid for every book I have ever reviewed, even turning down the offer of free copies from blogging friends.
*I rarely pay more than £1.99 for a book, usually just 99 p.
*I still buy some paperback and hardback books second-hand, mostly through Amazon Marketplace sellers.
*I wouldn’t like any of you to think that I use those book reviews as a source of income, however small that would be.
*They are all 100% genuine reviews, so you can rest assured that I meant what I said, even if I gave a book the equivalent of five stars.
I am pleased to be able to feature a guest post, a film review from Em, at The Midnight Movie Vault. It concerns an unusual and disturbing war film, about Japanese atrocities. More film-related posts from that site can be found here. https://midnightvault.net/
Men Behind The Sun (1988)
During World War II China, the horrors of war were laid bare and taken to inhuman limits. After the Japanese occupation of China in 1937, Japanese internment camps began to sprout up in China, much like the Stalags of Nazi Germany. The most notorious of these camps, however, was the headquarters of Unit 731. Unit 731 were a Japanese military unit that conducted research into biological and chemical warfare, and the unit was led by Lieutenant General Dr. Shiro Ichii of the Imperial Japanese Army. The experiments that Unit 731 committed on prisoners of Chinese, Russian and Korean descent were absolutely inhuman. The experiments of Unit 731 are atrocities that should never be forgotten, and should never be repeated. Unit 731 has gone down in history as Japan’s worst offense, much like the Holocaust of Nazi Germany. However, unlike the officers of camps such as Auschwitz and Dachau, no-one from Unit 731 was brought to justice. Shiro Ishii was granted immunity by the American authorities for handing over all the experimental data from Unit 731.
Men Behind The Sun is Tun Fei Mou’s factual war drama about the horrific experiments that Unit 731 carried out. It’s possibly the most extreme Asian film I’ll ever cover and, although it has great historical significance, there’s no disguising just how depressing, shocking and disturbing the experience of watching Men Behind The Sun is for the common viewer. Story-wise, Men Behind The Sun is incredibly faithful to the factual events of Unit 731, from Shiro Ishii’s arrival at Unit 731 in 1936 to the disbanding of Unit 731 and the retreat of its officers in 1945. What’s interesting to note about the story of Men Behind The Sun, however, is the fact that it doesn’t just focus on Shiro Ichii and his officers. The story of Men Behind The Sun focuses on three groups of people: Shiro Ichii and his officers as they research, experiment and torture, the Chinese prisoners called Marutas (logs) who are subject to these vile experiments and desperately wish for escape, and the young boys who make up Unit 731’s youth corp. This multi-focused approach works really well for this type of movie. The children of the youth corp are created to be very empathetic, and their indoctrination, humanity, loyalty and moral stability are all tested throughout the course of the film. When the children are affected by the things that are going on around them that are perpetrated by the adults, I couldn’t help but feel so much sympathy for their situation. It’s clear that no-one should be put in their situation, and I felt for them every step of the way.
The portrayal of the officers of Unit 731 on the other hand are shown as uncaring, unfeeling adults with the fiercest of fierce loyalty. Although this was accurate to history as Japan’s army were intensely loyal, there are times when the officers seem to be almost maniacal, especially Shiro Ishii when he discovers the cluster effect of porcelain. This does affect the intensity of the characters somewhat, as it makes them seem like over the top villains, but this happens very sparingly, and most of the time the officers are portrayed in a very realistic, intimidating manner. This portrayal is supported by the fantastic acting on display from the entire cast. For example, Gang Wang is absolutely perfect as Shiro Ishii, because he carries an intense charisma to the role. His calm, reserved performance is absolutely intimidating to witness and it makes the character of Shiro Ishii incredibly powerful to see.
In terms of production, Men Behind The Sun isn’t exactly perfect. The cinematography could have been better and I noticed some audio sync issues, but the editing really stood out to me. Although I cannot find out the name of the editor, as the information on this film that is available is both detailed and sparse, the editing on Men Behind the Sun is perfect. It’s a tense and atmospheric movie which moves at a very appropriate pace, and the majority of that is due to the editing. The editor knew what shots to linger on, when to cut, what sequences needed to be faster and which needed to be slower. As a result, sequences which focus on the inhuman experiments are slower and more uncomfortable, whilst the climactic Maruta escape scene is fast paced and absolutely thrilling. I do wish I could find out the name of the editor because I would love to see other films that they may have worked on, as I applaud their work on Men behind The Sun.
However, I have to address the biggest issue about Men Behind The Sun: the special effects, or lack thereof. In the 1980s, although Hong Kong had a film industry, there was no dedicated VFX industry. This didn’t deter Tun Fei Mou, however, as he still wanted to show the graphic and horrific experiments that were performed by Unit 731. So, instead of trying to create realistic dummies with no special effects experience, Tun Fei Mou used actual corpses for the film’s death and dissection scenes. I want to iterate: nobody dies onscreen during Men Behind The Sun, but the film uses real corpses to ‘simulate’ the dissection and experimentation of the Chinese people by Unit 731. The most graphic of which is the dissection and organ harvesting of a ten year old boy, in which the scene is shown in heavy detail. It’s as uncomfortable, shocking and as disturbing as it sounds, and its the reason why the film is still very controversial and disturbing to this very day. Because of this many, many criticize Men Behind The Sun as being nothing more than a cheap exploitation film, a Japanese equivalent to the heavily controversial Nazisploitation genre of the late 1970s, and Tun Fei Mou received death threats because of it.
As for me? I do not celebrate the use of real corpses, but there’s no hiding the effect that the use of real corpses had on me. I was upset, I was shocked, I was disturbed. However, I realize that that was the intention of the whole film. Men Behind The Sun isn’t a film that’s supposed to be enjoyable, it’s supposed to be disturbing, it’s supposed to be realistic, it’s supposed to stay in the mind long after it’s finished and it’s supposed to deeply affect the viewer, and for me, it did just that. I gave this movie a chance, and I only find out the fact that real corpses were involved after I had finished watching it. For the record, I will never be happy about a film using actual corpses instead of clever special effects, but Men Behind The Sun is the only exception to that rule because of its historical accuracy and lack of enjoyability. Someone’s death should never be used for entertainment, but Men Behind The Sun isn’t trying to be entertaining, it’s supposed to be hard hitting and realistic. I didn’t come away from this film feeling fulfilled, I came away feeling incredibly depressed and upset, and its clear that was what the film wanted me to feel.
In the end, I wouldn’t recommend Men Behind The Sun freely. A viewer has to be aware of what they’re about to watch and be mentally capable of watching these images without being scarred or traumatized.
However, I will say that Men Behind The Sun is one of the greatest war dramas I’ve ever seen. Its realism is unparalleled and aside from a few images of obvious symbolism, such as a Chinese Maruta being impaled with the Japanese flag, and the crying of a new born Japanese baby right at the end after the death of its mother (symbolizing the birth of a new Japanese way and the death of the old way), there’s never been a more frighteningly realistic portrayal of the atrocities that happen during a period of war. To quote the beginning of the film: ‘history is history’, and if one wants to portray it accurately, it should be presented realistically without any unnecessary romanticization or patriotism, and Men Behind The Sun is as realistically horrifying as it gets. If a viewer wishes to watch this film, I would recommend only watching it once, as the images and effect of Men Behind The Sun linger in the mind for years to come.
Do any of you ever write reviews on this site? Or perhaps you read them before choosing a hotel, destination, or restaurant? It has certainly become influential in recent years, but very often, some reviews have to be read ‘between the lines’. It is very easy for a disgruntled customer to try to destroy the reputation of a venue, eating establishment, or hotel. Just by ranting about one unhappy experience, they can have a detrimental effect on a business for years to come.
But if every customer writes a bad review, you can probably assume that there is something going on, and that the place is best avoided. On the other hand, unlimited glowing reviews of somewhere are to be treated with caution. They may have been put up by family and friends of that business, in the hope of raising its profile.
I have only added a few reviews on that site so far. As with any of my reviews, for products on Amazon, or films I have watched, I try to be as fair and non-judgmental as I can. Even if fifty others diners have bad-mouthed a restaurant, if I had a good experience on the night I ate there, I will say so. On the other hand, If I felt ripped-off, or badly treated, I will say that too, although one hundred others may well have been happy.
I have recently started to be contacted by Trip Advisor, asking me to review lots more places and establishments. It seems that I am receiving favourable feedback on some reviews, and they want me to add many more. They even sent me a short video, listing my ‘story so far’. Here’s a link to that. https://tripadvisoryearinreviews.com/1a4e6c45-87fd-4208-a7a8-ab599c54139c
So, if you have thought about adding your own review on this site, give it a go. It will help others make up their own minds, may save some people money or a wasted journey, and on a positive note, it will help those places that deserve to get more attention.
(I should add that I have no connection to this review site)
Blogging about films comes in many forms and styles. Some bloggers write solely about the subject, often with passion and detailed research or experience. A few publish chatty posts about films or genres that they enjoy, or the latest releases they have just been to see at the cinema. If you want to get serious, you can find blogs and websites where films and the cinema industry are discussed and debated at an academic level. Certain productions and individual directors are dissected with surgical precision, and some scenes, even just on-screen glances, are examined as if seen under a microscope.
Many bloggers, myself included, just have a part of a wider blog dedicated to the subject. They post occasional reviews, overviews of current or past trends, and offer their own opinions on what makes a film good or bad. Many enjoy the ‘top list’ approach, where the blog author suggests their own list of the top ten (or more) films of all time, or in each genre. This often generates lively debate, and comments for or against the published choices. Most people like to be in groups, and sometimes seek like-minded individuals to agree with, and support. You will see the same bloggers commenting or posting similar articles on their own sites, which is all a welcome part of forging a blogging community.
Others like to arrive on these blogs with counter-arguments. They claim to know about the films mentioned, and present evidence or personal experience as to why the review is incorrect, or not to their taste. On many occasions, their arguments are sound, and well-informed, though sometimes they do appear to be rather pointless, and come across as spiteful. Luckily, I have not been the recipient of this, but have seen it happening on many other sites.
After four years of blogging about many things, film and cinema included, as well as having more than twenty articles on the subject published elsewhere, I have not been shy in expressing my own opinions and ideas. As anyone who reads this blog will know, I have little or no time for the comic book franchises and super-hero blockbusters that fill the cinemas these days. I am not a fan of American romantic comedies that I find to be generally unromantic, and unfunny. And I am even less enamoured of the endless and pointless remakes that smack of lazy film-making. Only this year, we have already had remakes of Ben Hur, and now The Magnificent Seven, as well as others.
On the positive side, both British and American serious drama has continued to impress, as well as the excellent foreign films generally known as ‘World Cinema’. There have been some very good historical and period films, and a few inventive horror releases. Despite the reliance on populist films to fill the multiplexes, it would appear that the film industry is in good health overall.
So, why this post?
It recently occurred to me that I was guilty (as are many others) of taking the subject rather too seriously. After all, they are just entertainment. Better acting can often be found in TV dramas these days, and streaming services are changing the face of the industry. The recent crop of ‘Nordic Noir’ drama serials on TV in the UK are every bit as good as anything on the big screen, with each double episode as satisfying as a two-hour film. DVD releases sometimes even offer the viewer the chance to change the ending, or see alternate cuts of the same film. If we are going to continue to write about this subject, we have to be aware that tastes are changing with the times too.
Just because I say a film is a ‘masterpiece’ doesn’t make it one. It is just my opinion. If someone adores a soundtrack because it seems relevant to them, that same music might well ruin the film for someone else. Jarring visuals and camera angles that are thought to be innovative and cutting edge might bring high praise from certain bloggers. But for others, they will make the story confusing, and hard to follow. So in future, I aim to be less pretentious, use less references, and to try to have more fun with the category. It will only ever be what I think anyway, and is unlikely to change anyone’s mind.
Last year, I posted six articles in this series about random selections from my DVD collection. I just slide out six films from the many stacks, and give them a short review. Towards the end, I also included short clips or trailers, where available. This is nothing like my current series ‘Unforgettable films’ as it includes films that may well not be very good, and others that were purchased on a whim. I thought it might be time to start this off again, as the last entry was way back in December, 2015. So here goes.
King Arthur (2004)
I couldn’t bring myself to go to the cinema to watch this, but was intrigued enough by the new treatment to buy the DVD. Directed by the man who made ‘Training Day’, and with a stellar cast, I expected quite a lot from this film, despite lukewarm reviews elsewhere. This is a big-budget epic, and released by Touchstone Films, with a cast including Clive Owen, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone, and the usually excellent Stellan Skarsgard. Even Mads Mikkelsen is in it! The film sets the story of the legendary King Arthur back in Roman Britain, where some believe it might well have its roots.
The Romans are getting ready to leave Britain. They have had enough, and the empire is falling apart anyway. The country is being invaded by brutal armies of Saxons, and the Picts are still rebelling. The band of cavalry led by Arthur is about to get their long-promised leave, but they are compelled to complete one last task before they are allowed to go. They have to venture into the dangerous country of the Picts, face the chance of encountering the Saxons, and all to save the godson of the Pope.
From there, it plays as a by the numbers bunch of hard men story. Ray Winstone plays his gritty Roman soldier as an East End London gangster who just happens to be armed with swords. Others in the group are worthy, but so familiar it becomes very hard to take them seriously as 5th century warriors.
Despite some well done set piece battles, and Skarsgard chewing up the script as the Saxon warlord, it is all very dated, and only worth watching if you have nothing else to do. Even the talented Keira Knightley manages to come across as a Kensington debutante, despite brandishing a bow and arrows, and wearing fierce blue make-up.
Southern Comfort (1981)
Walter Hill has directed some good films, and the underrated Powers Boothe has acted in some too. Add Keith Carradine, Fred Ward, and a marvellous soundtrack from Ry Cooder, and right there you have the makings of a great film. Well, almost. I saw this at the cinema, and later bought the DVD, though I have never actually watched it. It also throws in some familiar ingredients. Louisiana bayous, alligators, and those mysterious Cajun people who are often shown as backward and quaint in films from that era. (Think ‘Deliverance’ and you get the idea)
The story is a little different though. A group of part-time soldiers from the local National Guard are on a weekend exercise, training in the seemingly limitless swamps. Boothe portrays Corporal Hardin, who has transferred across from Texas, so is unknown to the rest of the soldiers. Naturally, they are wary of him, and he is content to be a loner, apart from the rest of his squad. The men discover what appears to be an abandoned camp, with some canoes. The leader decides to take the canoes, to make life easier getting across the swamps. From then on, events take a downward spiral.
When they see that they are being observed by the Cajuns from the riverbank, one of the soldiers thinks it will be amusing to open fire on them with his heavy machine gun. He knows he is only firing blanks, but they don’t. Firing back, they kill one of the soldiers, who get into a panic and get into cover.
One of the men confides that he has brought along real ammunition, and divides it up so that they can defend themselves. Then they hear dogs, and the Cajuns begin to hunt them down.
I recall finding this film both tense and enjoyable at the time. I expect that it still is.
Assault On Precinct 13 (2005)
Film fans will note from the date that this is a remake of the original 1976 film by John Carpenter. I tend to hate remakes, and as the original was one of my favourite films of the 1970s, I expected to hate this more than most. However, they wisely chose to considerably alter the original story, and bring in a thrilling tale of police corruption, very loosely based on the claustrophobic atmosphere and sinister feel of Carpenter’s film. By making these changes, we are left with a film that feels very different, and is able to stand on its own two feet because of it.
And the cast is good too. Lawrence Fishburne as the villain, Gabriel Byrne as the corrupt cop, and the ever-reliable Brian Dennehey, more or less playing himself. Add a sexy turn from the good-looking Drea de Matteo (well known from The Sopranos) together with a square-jawed Ethan Hawke as the honest cop, and the mix is a good one. Trapped by bad weather in a police station that is closing down, the disparate group of prisoners, police officers, and staff find themselves under siege from unknown assailants. It seems that they are trying to rescue the kingpin gangster (Fishburne) who is currently held there.
With lots of action, and some good twists and turns, this film is a lot better than you might expect it to be. That said, the 1976 original is much better…
Ma Mere (2004) (Foreign language film, with English subtitles)
I read some rave reviews of this film at the time it was released. Considering that the film has serious sexual content, not least the still-shocking subject of incest at its core, I was surprised to see it taken so seriously, so I bought the DVD some years later. Perhaps the cast, including the always magnificent Isabelle Huppert, helps to lift this film above the undeniably seedy subject matter. The location on the sunny island of Gran Canaria provides an interesting backdrop to what is an essentially French film, but the dark recesses of sexual perversity and everything associated with that cannot be overlooked. It was a hard watch, even for someone as hardened as me. Because of scenes that I won’t go into here, which many people will find decidedly unpleasant, I cannot recommend it. If you ever decide to watch it, that has to be your decision.
Le Samourai (1967) (Foreign language film, English subtitles)
Back when I was a teenager, I thought that this was one of the coolest films I would ever see. I am a lot older now, but I still think it is just great. In fact, I wrote a review of it for a film website, which you can read from this link, if you are interested. Le Samourai (1967) – Jean Pierre Melville (Pete Johnson)
I also wrote about it on this blog, in 2013. This is the short review from that post.
‘This 1967 film, shot in Paris, gives you two of the best; the director, Jean-Pierre Melville, and the lead actor, Alain Delon. In this production, they are both seen at the very top of their game. The moody direction and lighting from Melville, the coolest acting style of ‘less is more’ from Delon. The clothes, the hats, the cars, all scream 1960’s, and urban cool. The very good-looking Alain Delon out-cools every actor of his time, in the role of the lonely hit man. It is not about Japanese Samurai, as I fear that the title may mislead. This is merely a euphemism for the rigid rules that Delon’s character lives by, in the shady underworld of Parisian low-life he inhabits. He even drives a Citroen DS, so I admit to bias. Stylish, minimalist, and with an excellent Jazz soundtrack, this is one of my favourite films of all time.’
No more to say really, except to suggest that you watch it.
Novecento (1976) Also known as ‘1900’ (Foreign language film, English subtitles)
I have always liked the films of Bernardo Bertolucci, and this is no exception. An epic on a huge scale, running to 317 minutes long, (yes, almost five and a half hours) it is generally shown in two parts, so the DVD has two discs. This film covers the life of one Italian village and its inhabitants, rich and poor, from 1901 until the end of WW2, in 1945. This is a considerable undertaking, yet Bertolucci manages it to perfection. The multi-national cast reads like a who’s who of modern actors. Burt Lancaster, Donald Sutherland, Gerard Depardieu, Robert De Niro, Sterling Hayden, alongside a huge list of Italian talent too. The film is in Italian, and though subtitles are offered of course, the non-Italian actors are dubbed. I wouldn’t normally watch films with dubbing in this fashion, but it worked well enough.
Anyway, I was so soon caught up in the sheer rapture of this film, that I forgot about the dubbing almost immediately. This is not only a film of scope, it is beautifully shot, with some scenes as captivating as paintings. The events include involvement in WW1, the depression that follows, and the slide towards the divisive politics of Fascism and Communism during the 1930s. To complement the stunning visuals, there is a marvellous score from Ennio Morricone. This is film making as it should be. I was so excited by finding this DVD today, that I may well watch it again, next weekend.
So there you have six more from my collection. I hope that you find something to enjoy.
When thinking about what makes a film unforgettable for you, it is sometimes worth considering how our tastes change as we age. Films that were once lauded as ‘masterpieces’ can seem dated and stilted with the benefit of hindsight. Other films just get better with age, and repeated viewings often reveal delights that were not noticed at the time. Very often, a personal memory, a time or a place, a moment of happiness or realisation, all or one might be guilty of giving a false impression of something that was not really that good. It just appeared to be, because of your mood when you watched it. With these very personal recollections, I like to think that the films are actually good ones too. But that’s just my opinion…
Francis Ford Coppola is a film-maker you don’t hear that much about these days. By mid-1975, I had already seen ‘The Godfather’, and ‘The Godfather Part II’. I thought that Coppola was very good indeed, so when I heard about the release of another film by him, (made the same year as ‘The Godfather Part II’) I was keen to see it. I was a little disappointed that the star was Gene Hackman. Despite liking him a lot in ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I hadn’t been as excited as most by his turn as Popeye Doyle in ‘The French Connection’. But because of Coppola, I went off to watch ‘The Conversation’ anyway.
It was a revelation. Seedy locations, plot machinations, and a simply amazing cast. Hackman was a different animal too. He had a vulnerable side as Harry Caul, the surveillance expert whose world turns upside down when he begins to suspect that he himself is under surveillance.
On the surface, Harry is a user. Surrounded by a group of helpers who think of themselves as friends, hardly realising that Harry is a loner with no time for any of them. A girlfriend that he doesn’t really like, colleagues that he cannot relate to, and a life obsessed by privacy and order, all form the world of Harry that we enter into. Support from the likes of Allen Garfield, John Cazale, and a young Harrison Ford, just piles on the quality. After stumbling across a convoluted plot during a routine bugging job, (the ‘Conversation’ of the title) Harry attracts the attentions of other players in the same game, and his life starts to unravel very rapidly.
This is a remarkable film, and one that I have seen many times. The accurate equipment, convincing locations, and the perfect ensemble cast, all add up to a modern classic.
I had always liked Robert Mitchum. He was a reliable actor, and gave his best to many a role. I preferred him as a villain mostly, lending a sinister touch to films like ‘The Night of the Hunter.’ I carried on watching him as we both got older, and started to like him even more as he aged. In 1973, he gave what for me was his finest performance, in the downbeat gangster film, ‘The Friends of Eddie Coyle’. I couldn’t get to see it over here on release, so had to settle for buying the VHS film, over two years later. With Mitchum in the lead role, we see Eddie as a tired, down at heel crook and small time gun dealer. He has seen better days, spent too long in prison, and faces another charge that may well see him get more jail time.
Eddie’s so-called friends are anything but. Dillon, the gun-runner and bar owner who would just as soon set Eddie up as help him out, ably played by a completely convincing Peter Boyle. The gangster standby, Alex Rocco, once again superb as Jimmy Scalise, the hoodlum who wants Eddie to help out with a bank job. Another local gun runner Jackie, played by Stephen Keats, a man destined to be betrayed by the desperate Eddie. Controlling the events like a puppeteer is the heartless ATF agent, Dave Foley. Richard Jordan, better known for roles in TV mini-series gives Foley just the right amount of callousness, as he plays each crook against the other. Great location filming in Boston just adds to the authenticity
But it is the forlorn and tired Mitchum who steals the show. Perfectly cast in a role that he plays to perfection. A man destined for a sad end, after living a sad life. Just great stuff.
The mention of Gene Hackman above, and the recent death of Gene Wilder, take me to my next selection in this part. In 1967, I was only fifteen years old. I had seen a lot of gangster films, everything from the silent era, to the James Cagney classics, and beyond. I agreed to accompany my cousin to a cinema in London, to see a new film that was ‘all the rage’. I had enjoyed another Arthur Penn film, ‘The Train’, a few years earlier, so his pedigree was already established. I knew nothing about the real Clyde Barrow or Bonnie Parker, so went with no preconceptions at all.
I thought this film was unbelievably cool. Warren Beatty looked the part, in his 1920s suits, and Faye Dunaway looked at her best, as Bonnie. Added to this was the presence of Gene Hackman as Buck, Clyde’s brother, Michael J. Pollard as C.W. Moss, the driver, and a marvellous turn from Estelle Parsons as Blanche, Buck’s wife. I liked this film enough to write a whole post about it, so here it is.
“When I first saw the film ‘Bonnie and Clyde’, I was fifteen years old. I liked it so much, I went to see it again the following week. I didn’t know a lot about Warren Beatty or Faye Dunaway at the time. I had never heard of Estelle Parsons, Gene Wilder, or Gene Hackman either. I thought I recognised the strange face of Michael J. Pollard, but I didn’t know where I might have seen it. The man playing the Texas Ranger was Denver Pyle, and I knew him immediately, from old westerns. The same applied to Dub Taylor, who played the father of C.W. Moss in the film.
I had been going to the cinema for as long as I was old enough to sit up straight in the seat. I had seen all kinds of films, including many gangster classics. But I had never seen anything like this. I didn’t care that Beatty and Dunaway were too good-looking to be realistic in the parts, or that events and incidents had been altered or compressed. I just knew that I loved it. And I sensed it was cool.
In later life, I would appreciate the varied pace of Arthur Penn’s direction, and realise just how effective Charles Strouse’s musical score was. But I was fifteen, and it was all about sitting back, and letting this marvellous new style of film just wash over me.
For anyone unlucky enough to have never seen it, the story is simple enough. Based on the real-life adventures of the Barrow Gang, bank robbers who ranged across a wide area of the USA during the early part of the 1930s, at a time when America was in the grip of a nationwide financial depression. Clyde has just been released from prison, and meets Bonnie, who is a slutty waitress at a nearby diner, with dreams of a better life. He heads off with her, teaming up with his brother Buck, and Buck’s snobbish wife, Blanche. They enlist the help of a garage mechanic, C.W. Moss, and begin to rob banks in states all over the country. They are soon being hunted, and constantly move from place to place to avoid capture, becoming involved in car chases with the police, and shoot-outs where most of the gang are injured.
The film cannot decide whether they are romantic figures, Robin Hood characters, or just plain bad. It seeks to supply reasons for the choice of a life of crime, and at times to suggest that they helped poor people, at the expense of banks and financial institutions. They were not averse to shooting first, and wounded and killed many police officers, and some civilians too. Bonnie is shown as a frustrated poet, Clyde as a man uncomfortable with his sexuality. None of this matters. The cast all do a fine job with their roles, and even the cameo from Gene Wilder is priceless. Laced with comedic moments, exciting set-pieces, tragedy, and an ever-present sense of doom, it was a standout film, at least when I was fifteen. The sense of period is also immaculate, and never once did it feel like a set.
I would argue that it still holds up today. The flawless casting, the sharper moments in the script, and the fast-slow-fast pacing all comes together so well, offering a near-perfect gangster film, a million miles from the B-Movie roots of the genre. If you have never seen it, you are missing out.”
Enough said. Here’s a trailer.
Teen romances have never really been my thing, especially American ones. But I did have an inkling that Molly Ringwald could be a good actress, and Andrew McCarthy had impressed previously. They got together for the 1986 film, ‘Pretty In Pink’, directed by the prolific John Hughes. When I saw that it also starred the marvellous Harry Dean Stanton, I decided to give it house room, and bought the film on VHS. The name of the film comes from a much earlier record by The Psychedelic Furs, which features on the soundtrack over the closing credits. I needn’t have worried. The film is a treat. Forget the teen romance plot, and lose yourself in the details.
Ringwald is almost perfect, McCarthy’s character redeems himself in the end, (as you knew he would) and the music just adds to the sense of joy. It is a film of its time and place, and all the better for that. But wait. The thing that makes it memorable?
‘Try A Little Tenderness’ is one of my favourite songs, ever. Otis Redding’s version is my preference, and it appears in this film, in a very unusual way. The character of Duckie’, played by an enthusiastic Jon Cryer, is the boy who loves Andie (Ringwald) but is not loved in return. In an attempt to impress her, he mimes to the song in a local record shop, giving a stand-out performance as he does so.
Just spot-on. Here it is, in full. That’s why I have never forgotten it…
Anyone who has ever read anything on my blog knows just how much I hate remakes of classic films. I rant on about the subject constantly, never letting up. I sometimes add the disclaimer, ‘with some exceptions’. This is without doubt, one of those exceptions. When ‘Cape Fear’ was released in 1962, the stellar cast and the uncomfortable subject matter almost guaranteed an instant success. Robert Mitchum, Gregory Peck, Martin Balsam, and music from Bernard Hermann. What could go wrong? Well, nothing at all. It was a great film, a suspense thriller par excellence, with a very different feel, and a story that was unusual at the time. I loved it, and felt every second of that suspense.
Fast forward to 1991, and it is being remade by of all people, Marin Scorsese. I felt those remake feelings in the pit of my stomach. Then I looked at the cast. Robert De Niro, Nick Nolte, Jessica Lange, and Juliette Lewis. Scorsese had even shoe-horned in the original stars, with Mitchum and Peck delivering solid cameos. With the presence of Joe Don Baker too, I knew that I just had to watch it, despite my reservations.
Once again, I needn’t have worried. From the opening scene, De Niro makes the film his own, with a tremendous performance as Max Cady, the part originally played by Mitchum so well. Ably supported by the whole cast, with an especially memorable performance from the young Juliette Lewis, he takes the film from the 60s to the 90s, and sets his own stamp on the same story. This film made me eat my words, and I was happy to enjoy them.
Before 1969, I didn’t know a lot about Sam Peckinpah. he had made ‘Major Dundee’, which I had enjoyed, but was yet to create a stir with is 1971 film, ‘Straw Dogs’. He had released a western film again, something that generated a lot of interest in film circles. It had a great cast, so I thought I would go and see it. Despite being called ‘The Wild Bunch’, it was about a team of former gunslingers and robbers that were mostly well past their prime. They could still get drunk and throw a party, bed a willing senorita, and ride all day on a horse; but otherwise they had seen better days, with aching joints, and tales to tell.
This was a film about the twilight years of the old west. Bank robbers and bad guys had seen their best days, now facing a better organised law enforcement, as well as a west that boasted a society, and a vestige of civilisation. That it was set after 1900 was evidenced by many signals in the film. Modern weapons, including machine guns; civil war in Mexico, cars being used, and even the appearance of an emissary from Kaiser Wilhelm. These were men past their time, and their lifestyle was an anachronism.
The cast alone is worth watching the film for. Just take in this list. William Holden, Robert Ryan, Warren Oates, Ernest Borgnine, Ben Johnson, Strother Martin, Bo Hopkins, Dub Taylor, and Albert Dekker. these men had been in almost every western film made, and it showed. Add to that a convincing turn from Emilio Fernandez as the oily General Mapache, and it doesn’t get much better. But then it does. Edmund O’Brien appears in a wonderful small role as a grizzled and bad-tempered old cowboy. Just perfect.
All the stereotypes are there. The gang followed by a determined bounty-hunter, (Ryan) Mexican music, a cruel general, and put-upon locals trying to rebel against the government. Sexy senoritas, busty willing females, lots of heavy drinking and reminiscing.
But just forget all that, because it is simply wonderful. These are actors in the autumn of their years, giving some of their most memorable performances. And Peckinpah set his stamp on the film with a shoot-out finale of the like that had never been seen before. A part slow-motion, blood-soaked death-fest that hasn’t been equalled to this day. If you have never seen it, now’s the time. Here’s that shoot-out.
In 1969, like most people I had watched the film, ‘Easy Rider’. This was modern film-making at its best at the time, and I never heard anyone speak ill of the film, the performances, or the great soundtrack. The original ‘road film’ in many respects, those that followed it owed it a great debt. But this section is not about that film, it is about something else I have never forgotten. Robert Blake is perhaps one of the most underrated of modern American actors. His career has hardly been memorable, and few film fans these days could name him from a photograph. But anyone who has ever seen the film ‘In Cold Blood’ (1967) would surely remember him. This also applies to Billy Green Bush, one of my favourite American character actors. But if you have seen ‘Five Easy Pieces’ (1970), you might know who he is.
In 1973, the two came together for one of my most loved modern American films, ‘Electra Glide In Blue’. This was a ‘small’ film in every way, with a limited release, sparse reviews, and quick to dissapear. It is rarely shown on TV, and almost nobody remembers it. But I do. This story of a diminutive highway patrol policeman in Arizona, (Blake) his ambitions to be a detective, and his interactions with his partner (Green Bush) is a complete delight from start to finish. It might owe something to ‘Easy Rider’, it might not. That doesn’t matter, as it is just a treat. The soundtrack is pretty good too. It’s a world before ‘ChiPs’, and it doesn’t end how you might expect…
So that’s part five. Let me know in the comments if you want me to carry on with these. I have seen a lot of films, after all, and most of them are unforgettable.