I celebrated the birthday of Edgar Allan Poe by reviewing a lesser known adaptation of one of his short stories, Mystery of Marie Roget (1942).
I commemmorated the 130th anniversary of Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by reviewing four silent versions of the story, all called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: the 1912 version with James Cruze in both lead roles, the 1913 version with King Baggot, the famous 1920 feature version with John Barrymore establishing himself in no uncertain terms and the shorter 1920 version with Sheldon Lewis.
I also remembered Dan Haggerty by covering the two films he selected from his career for me to review for my Make It a Double project back in late 2014: Axe Giant: The Wrath of Paul Bunyan (2013), a classic tall tale reinvented as a slasher movie, and The Capture of Grizzly Adams (1982), the TV movie that wrapped up his run as his most famous character after a 1974 feature and a 1978 TV show.
Here are brief reviews of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:
Crime Spree (2003)Director: Brad Mirman
Stars: Harvey Keitel, Gerard Depardieu, Johnny Hallyday, Renaud, Said Taghmaoui, Stephane Freiss, Albert Dray, Shawn Lawrence, Joanne Kelly, Richard Bohringer and Abe Vigoda
I never saw him in his most famous role, as Det Sgt Phil Fish on the sitcom Barney Miller and its spinoff show, Fish, but I’ve seen him in films as varied as The Godfather, Cannonball Run II and Joe vs the Volcano. To remember him here at Apocalypse Later Now!, I pulled out a picture that I hadn’t seen but which looked like a whole bundle of fun, riffing comedically on his many serious gangster roles. It’s Crime Spree, a Canadian/British co-production from 2003 which pits a number of French legends against American gangsters. It turned out to be a really good choice, because I laughed aloud for a majority of the first half and some of the second.
Now, at this point we might expect a Pink Panther sort of story, but that’s not where we’re going. In fact, the boss’s henchman highlights that well by mixing up the Pink Panther with the Black Panthers. That’s not where we’re going either, but America is. The boss wants them to go to Chicago to steal jewellery from the bedroom safe in an empty house. Even these morons can’t get that wrong, but just in case, he sends his right hand man and they add a professional assassin and someone who used to live there and owes them money.
The team ends up as six people. Depardieu is Daniel Foray and his two partners in crime, Julien Labesse and Raymond Gayet, are played by Stéphane Freiss and Albert Dray. I didn’t recognise either, but both looked familiar and they make a great trio with their better known leader. The two professionals arrive in the legendary forms of two of France’s biggest rock stars: Johnny Hallyday, as Marcel Burot, and Renaud, as the killer, known only as Zéro. The final man is Sami Zerhouni, a young Algerian portrayed by Saïd Taghmaoui, who was César nominated for his role in La Haine and is now starring in a host of Hollywood films as varied as GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra, Conan the Barbarian and American Hustle. His arrival in this film is when the dialogue mostly switches from French to English.
How deep a hole, I hear you ask. Well, over in Chicago is a mob guy called Frankie Zammeti. He’s tough enough that he has his men break his own brother Vinnie’s arm because he can’t pay back the $20,000 he lent him. Later, he has them send him flowers and a get well card, but he sticks to principle. Frankie is a big deal and he’s played by Harvey Keitel, who can play mouthy gangsters in his sleep. So when these French hoods show up at the address they’re given, find that it isn’t as empty as they were led to believe and tie up the occupant and break into his safe, it won’t be too surprising to discover that that’s Frankie Zammeti in his underwear that they’ve duct taped. Uhoh!
The cast are excellent. The French criminals aren’t given the background they deserve but the actors do their jobs and some get a good opportunity to grow throughout the film. Their boss, Laurent Bastaldi, is well cast too: the highly experienced Richard Bohringer does exactly what he needs to. This could have played out as an entirely French film without any of the additional complexity and it would still be great fun. However, we have a whole American side to the story too.
Keitel is exactly as you expect but thrown into surreal situations that impress; there’s a shootout in a bar that ends in a fantastic way, for instance. At least he got an establishing scene with his brother. He’s a major player but he’s not the boss; that role goes to Abe Vigoda as Angelo Giancarlo. He has a lot of fun here too and watching Keitel and Vigoda reprise what they do best while the script conjures up laughs around them is an absolute blast. This applies to their men too. One of the funniest sections is when the tied up and duct taped Zammeti rings Joey Two Tons with his nose and the latter thinks it’s a dirty phone call. The Frenchmen’s contact in Chicago is Sophie Nichols, in the form of Joanne Kelly, six years before she’d become Myka Bering on Warehouse 13. I love that show but I liked her better here, where she isn’t as stuck up. Shawn Lawrence also gets plenty to do as FBI Agent Pogue and he keeps evolving with the film too.
The downside is surely in the odd consistency of the film. It starts out as a comedy but ends as a drama; while the entire film is both, the laugh factor decreases consistently throughout the film and the serious side grows just as consistently. This makes us wonder if the hilarity of the first half was part of the actual plot rather than the film and, if we start to believe that, the occasional humour in the second half feels a lot more out of place. It also means that the first half is much faster paced than the second; we spend half a film building up complexity then the other half tying up all the many loose ends.
Sure, it’s an odd picture in many ways. The pace isn’t remotely consistent. It’s an English language film with a lot of subtitled French dialogue. It changes from being a serious comedy to being a funny drama. The ensemble cast meas that some characters don’t get the opportunities they should and we deserve more background for many. But I like laughing out loud and this film got more of that from me than any I can remember in quite a while. I’ll definitely be showing it to other people for that reason alone.
Now, we’re almost into February. Hopefully Death can calm his scythe down a little and leave us some of our legends for a little bit longer.
RIP, Mr Vigoda.
The Revenant (2015)Director: Alejandro G Iñárritu
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Duane Howard and Arthur Redcloud
What we don’t get in story or dialogue, we get in cinematography, as a group of trappers, led by Captain Andrew Henry, try to escape an Indian attack with whatever they can take with them. This is the most gorgeous picture I’ve seen in a long while, courtesy of Emmanuel Lubezki, who won the last two Oscars awarded in this category, for Gravity and Birdman, and could easily make it three in a row with The Revenant, his eighth nomination. Nobody’s ever done that before and it would take something very special to beat him.
His camera roams, floats and turns but rarely cuts. Stephen Mirrione does a solid job as the film’s editor but he makes less cuts than I can remember seeing in a feature. There’s a shot where the camera follows the trappers onto a boat to leave, under fire from the tribe attacking them, then works back around to see the shore, now very differently populated. We’ve changed focus a few times and perspective a few more, with intricate choreography to make it all viable, but it’s all done in one single, utterly amazing shot. And this isn’t the only one. It’s one in a bundle of a dozen early on. It wouldn’t surprise me if my jaw wasn’t hanging open at this point. These early scenes are what cinema is for.
Glass manages to kill the grizzly but is horribly mauled in the process and close to death. Realising that they can’t carry him back over the mountains to their home base at Fort Kiowa, Capt Henry promises a bonus to any volunteers who will stay with Glass until he dies and then give him a proper burial, before following the main party. And here’s where things really get interesting.
One of those volunteers is John Fitzgerald, who’s the Donald Trump of the party, in the sense that he says what everyone else is thinking but also goes much further to boot. Having previously survived a scalping attack which left the skin on his head disfigured, he’s already biased against Glass, who has a halfbreed Pawnee son called Hawk. He’s also selfish and unscrupulous enough to do whatever it takes to get ahead, so he takes the $100 bonus to stay with Glass and promptly tries to murder him, using witchfinder logic: blink if you want me to do it. When the dying man’s son interrupts him, he kills him in front of Glass’s eyes, an especially tough moment for a man of action who’s utterly unable to move. Then, with Indians closing in, Fitzgerald drags Glass into a makeshift grave and leaves him for dead.
However, with Glass too tough to die and now burning for revenge, the main thrust of the film begins: the march of the many, followed by the two, followed by the one, followed by a Native American tribe looking for the chief’s daughter, Powaqa, who has been stolen by trappers.
As Fitzgerald, Tom Hardy is almost as good but in completely different ways. He actually reminds of Jesse Ventura here: the hunch, the headgear and the attitude. He gets most of the dialogue in the film, and I’d love to find out the percentage, but he’s rarely clear. I was annoyed initially as I missed lines, but then I realised that this approach fits the character well. Fitzgerald is a lazy soul who doesn’t care if anyone can understand him or not and we all get the point, even if we don’t hear the words.
These two would dominate the film, if not for Lubezki. Even with what he shows us early on, there were points where Iñárritu’s script calls for something else nigh on impossible to deliver and Lubezki promptly delivers. The entire film was shot on location, in harsh terrain, under snow and storm and cold. The lighting is almost never overt, the majority of the film lit naturally with campfires or odd glimpses of sunlight from over the horizon or through the trees. Light is a precious resource in this film for us, as it would have been for these trappers in real life. While we see characters up close often enough, there are many shots that are very long and wide to emphasize how small man really is in these surroundings. The trappers struggle against the land even more than they do the pursuing Indians, who are dangerous enough on their own.
There are others in support of DiCaprio and Hardy and they’re strong too, if with much less opportunity. Domnhall Gleeson, enjoying an insanely good year, with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Ex Machina and Brooklyn also to his credit in 2015, plays Capt Henry, a principled man who merely isn’t the outdoorsman that Glass and Fitzgerald are. Will Poulter is Jim Bridger, a young and idealistic trapper who volunteers to stay with Glass for nothing, only to fall foul of circumstance and Fitzgerald’s scheming. Both are solid but eventually become props for the two leads to use.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this film is that it’s a true story, or at least close to one. Some of these characters didn’t exist or had other names and some of the situations are conjured up for the film (or taken from the novel it was based on), but Hugh Glass was a real man and he was really mauled by a bear and left for dead by his comrades, only to survive alone in hostile country and struggle 200 miles back to Fort Kiowa even with a broken leg, exposed ribs and festering wounds. In real life, he set his own leg and used maggots on his wounds to avoid gangrene. Friendly Native Americans sewed a bear hide onto the skin of his back to cover his wounds. So, while Iñárritu and novelist Michael Punke gave him a little too much credit at points, there are others where they don’t give him enough.
There have been other film versions of this story. Richard Harris played Zachary Bass in 1971’s Man in the Wilderness and Dewitt Lee played Sam Glass in the 1975 western, Apache Blood. I’m interested in seeing both, especially the former, but surely neither will hold a candle to this one. The Revenant was nominated for twelve Oscars. In less than a month, we’ll find out how many it wins.