Monday 14 December 2015

Monday Night Roundup #7

I haven't posted anything to Apocalypse Later this last week, though I'm about to get busy catching up with submissions and projects.

Here's a brief review of some other features I watched this last week that won't end up reviewed on that site any time soon:

Crimson Peak (2015)

Director: Guillermo del Toro
Stars: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam and Jim Beaver
‘Ghosts are real,’ says Edith Cushing, ten years before her mother’s ghost visits her at home, and off we go into one of the least well marketed movies of recent years.

A number of friends went to see this as soon as it came out, for one reason or another. All of them found themselves surprised to be watching a gothic and some of them left rather confused because they didn’t know what a gothic even was. To be fair, it’s hardly a vibrant modern genre and the last gothic most of us saw was Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, which was neither a good representation nor a good memory for anyone who saw it. Suffice it to say, this underwhelmed as the horror film people expected and worked only for those who knew what it actually was.

As a Guillermo del Toro fan of long standing, I was surprised to be underwhelmed too, just not quite so much as most viewers.

For a start, it’s utterly gorgeous, with imposing architecture, glorious costumes and organic camera movements. I was greatly impressed by the lighting, which feels like it comes entirely from the gas or electric light fittings we see rather than from anything outside of our vision. It only gets better as we shift over the pond, as the family mansion of Sir Thomas Sharpe is absolutely stunning, even if it has a huge hole in the roof that lets in the snow. Allerdale Hall is a magical location for the second half of the film and the set decoration is wonderful.

The acting is strong too, with Mia Wasikowska put to much better use in the lead than she was in Alice in Wonderland. It occurs to me here that I also used to be a Tim Burton fan of long standing, I’ve talked down two of his recent movies in this review thus far and I really hope del Toro isn’t going to use his career as a template. Tim Hiddleston is a revelation here, deeper and more complex after a single scene than he managed during the entirety of Thor, which was even worse than a modern Tim Burton movie, and soon deeper than he’s managed across the entire Avengers franchise. Jim Beaver is almost unrecognisable to those who know him from Supernatural but he gives Hiddleston a run for his money.

What weakens this heady Victorian mix is the script, which is promising for a while but soon reveals itself to be a predictable mass of archetypes, aided and abetted chiefly by Jessica Chastain, who plays an important character, Lucille Sharpe, continually like her reveal rather than her deception.

Wasikowska is Edith, an aspiring author and daughter of Carter Cushing, whom Sir Thomas visits in Buffalo, New York, to seek funding for an invention that he’s designed. His family estate sits upon vast deposits of magnificent red clay and he merely needs the means to extract it commercially. Edith and Sir Thomas are immediately attracted to each other and her father isn’t having any of it. When he sends the baronet on his way with a cheque to guarantee the two will never meet again, he’s promptly murdered and the couple married. Off we shift to Cumberland to discover if what we’ve already guessed is the case really is.

The writers, Matthew Robbins and del Toro himself, do a good job of setting us up, prompting us to ask questions and examine relationships. In Buffalo, there are many character dynamics of note: Edith and her father; Edith and her admirer, Dr Alan McMichael, who indulges a hobby of photographing ghosts; Edith and Sir Thomas, who is notably forward; Sir Thomas, with his dark sunglasses, and his sister, Lucille, even darker in style; and Sir Thomas and Carter, whose money kicks the story into motion.

Given that the cast decreases to merely three actors when we hop the pond, you might expect those dynamics to disappear, but they’re merely replaced. Now we’re watching Sir Thomas and his new wife, Edith, a fish out of water in these new surroundings of northern England; Sir Thomas and his notably jealous sister, Lucille; Lucille and Edith, who are like chalk and cheese; Edith and the mysterious figure who wanders around Allerdale Hall with some sort of purpose; each character and the dog which appears out of nowhere and attaches itself to Edith; and Edith and the house itself, a decaying and often oppressive structure which talks, bleeds and conceals many secrets.

I took a lot more notes about that second set of character dynamics but I can’t pose any of the questions which I wrote down because every possibility I raised turns out to become the case and each would thus constitute a spoiler. Now, I am familiar with the gothic amalgam of romance and horror, so I always knew roughly what to expect, but I’ve been surprised before and was sad to find that wasn’t here at any point.

If Robbins and del Toro aimed simply to put a gothic in front of unfamiliar contemporary eyes, then they succeeded admirably and only the marketing threw them off. If, however, they wanted to create a gothic that would stand the test of time, almost a requirement in this timeless genre, they failed because they couldn’t bring anything new to the table except production values and that’s just not enough.

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976)

Director: Michael Pressman
Stars: Claudia Jennings, Jocelyn Jones and Johnny Crawford
I popped this film on because my wife wanted to see some action and it was one of the twenty films left for me to rate in the 100 Greatest Cult Films list. I hadn’t seen it and if there’s a title that promises action, it’s surely this one, but it turned out to fit its alternate title of Dynamite Women much better. I enjoyed it, as an unashamed B movie that does what it does with gusto, not to mention does it fifteen full years before Thelma & Louise copied a great deal of its formula, but it’s not particularly good and, looking back, I’m surprised that the folk picked it.

They did so because of the lead actress, Claudia Jennings, and the double act she runs in this film with Jocelyn Jones. Jennings did four Playboy spreads, she almost replaced Kate Jackson in Charlie’s Angels and she was a drive-in superstar during the seventies in films like ’Gator Bait, Sisters of Death and Deathsport. She died young, just short of her thirtieth birthday, but not for the usual reasons. While her life did spiral into the stereotypical morass of drink and drugs, following a break-up, apparently she got clean again, dying instead in a head-on collision with a van after falling asleep at the wheel. From certain angles here she’s as beautiful as those credits might suggest. From others, she’s almost skin and bones, perhaps at this point because of her cocaine use. Jones had a much shorter career, only appearing in five features over fifteen years (of which I’ve now seen four). Nowadays she runs an acting studio.

The two of them do three things throughout the movie: they rob banks, they show off their breasts and they look happy while doing almost all of it. Those are good qualifications for this sort of movie and I’m not complaining one bit.
Jennings is Candy Morgan, who busted out of prison before the film starts so she can rob the Alpine Bank and save the family farm. Daddy didn’t want her to break the law but, in a way, he’s proud; she delivers the cash and hits the road. Jones is Ellie-Jo Turner, a teller at that bank, who was fired just before Candy shows up and happily collects the money for her. She hits the road too, as she has no ties in town and thinks the robbery was the most exciting thing she’d ever seen in her life. When a driver leaves her at the side of the road because she won’t put out, synchronicity has Morgan the next vehicle along to pick her up and spark a new double act.

While that first job was all Morgan, who walks in with a lit stick of dynamite, she sees her criminal career as over until Ellie-Jo convinces her otherwise. Unfortunately their first job together fizzles with the sticks of dynamite they attempt to use to blow up the vault and the chase is on, with them in a stolen Mustang and the cops hot on their tails. Off they go to luck their way through bank robbery after bank robbery, building a name for themselves as the Dynamite Women and somehow staying just ahead of the local constabulary even though they have very little idea of what they’re doing.

There’s a lot of ineptitude here. These girls aren’t professionals. They’re just keeping going until their luck runs out, which we expect it eventually will. The cops are just as inept, in the way we know from Smokey and the Bandit and every hicksploitation movie out there; these just read Beaver magazine on the job. Minor characters are inept too, if often well meaning, such as the bellboy at the hotel they check into for a brief bathtub diversion. Even extras are inept, probably highlighting how few takes were taken.

Like most B movies, this was shot in California, even if it’s supposed to be Texas from the title and the dialogue, but the confederate flag on the Alpine Bank wall, the southern gentleman bow ties everyone wears and the cops’ behaviour suggest that we’re further east, maybe where those Duke boys live. This really is Thelma & Louise in Hazzard County, fifteen years before the former and three before the latter.

I loved the first chase because it felt real. It didn’t feel quite as scary as the lunatic antics people got up to in Polk County Pot Plane, but it did feel like there weren’t any stuntmen (or women) doing their jobs. It felt like the actors were really doing the work and they were going just as fast as they seemed to be. It felt neatly dangerous and that added an edge to the film that helps it wonderfully.

That’s needed, because the budget clearly isn’t large, the acting isn’t great and the dialogue is cheesy. However, to distract from that we have twin female leads with long seventies hair, short shorts and no bras under their flimsy shirts. Frankly, this paragraph is the one that you should really read to see if you want to seek out the movie or not. It highlights the biggest reasons why you might want to watch.

The biggest problems with the film all tie to the feeling that the filmmakers didn’t know what they’re doing. The pace is wildly inconsistent; each time we get busy with bank robberies and chases, we slow down for pointless nothing scenes. The tone is off too, as scenes shift from tense action to odd comedy, clever ingenuity to stunning ineptitude, well written drama to overdone slapstick. We even shift at one point from The Dukes of Hazzard action where nobody ever gets hurt to a bloody shootout. For all the nudity, which is mostly the leading ladies showing their boobs and butts but does include a few little slips, both male and female, it’s surprisingly tame, the one swearword that shows up a glaring anomaly.

There are huge gaps in the story too, as if a four hour script was chopped brutally into ninety minutes. We watch the Dynamite Women rob banks but we rarely see them do anything with the money. The odd meal and hotel stay won’t make a dent in those stacks of cash, but perhaps the white Rolls Royce that just shows up at one point would. It’s the most ridiculous getaway car imaginable. At least the third main character gets both an entrance and an exit. That’s Johnny Crawford, the kid from The Rifleman, as a petty thief they acquire at a grocery and promptly hijack into a life of crime, which is perfectly fine by him.

So The Great Texas Dynamite Chase isn’t great, isn’t in Texas and could do with more chases, but otherwise it’s dynamite! It’s a good fun B movie that’s easy to like, especially as there are no moral overtones to distract from the entertainment. This isn’t even Big Bad Mama, let alone Bonnie and Clyde! These girls have empty lives so, after finding a little bit of excitement, head on out and do bad things while looking good. That’s as deep as it gets, folks. It’s drive-in B movie fun and that’s all it pretends to be.

This was film #81 in my runthrough of the 100 Greatest Cult Films. You can find the full list here.

Cutthroat Island (1995)

Director: Renny Harlin
Stars: Geena Davis, Matthew Modine and Frank Langella
Somehow I’d never managed to get round to Cutthroat Island, a legendary flop that killed off Carolco Pictures by earning a mere $10m at the box office to offset its troubled $98m budget. When my better half and son discovered that, we promptly made it tonight’s movie and discussed Geena Davis’s best roles. As much as they both liked Cutthroat Island, neither of them ranked it at the top of her work. An action heroine she clearly isn’t.

We’re in Jamaica in 1668 to watch outrageously overdone scene after outrageously overdone scene, perhaps to counter the fact that Davis really isn’t Douglas Fairbanks Jr, let alone Sr, pet monkey or no. She’s not embarrassing as a swashbuckler, but she does give the impression that she’s just holding on for dear life throughout rather than breezing effortlessly through cliffhanger after cliffhanger.

She’s a pirate, Morgan Adams, and the first scene establishes her credentials by suggestively outwitting her undercover lawman bedpartner for the night before leaving in slow motion. It certainly doesn’t help that he’s highly reminiscent of Weird Al Yankovic rather than the Latin lover he’s going for. She leaves for the ship of Dawg Brown, so she can rescue her chained uncle, Black Harry, from its very deck right before his execution. He is shot in the escape, though, so at his request, before he dies, she shaves him bald and takes his scalp.

On that scrap of flesh is a third of a treasure map to the legendary Cutthroat Island and Black Harry tells her that her uncle Mordechai has the second. Unfortunately, Dawg Brown has the third, being another of her uncles, but that just sets up the action. We’re privy to some of that quickly enough after Morgan is recognised while buying a slave who speaks Latin and the ensuing chase through the harbour district of Port Royal ends up with a good portion of it destroyed by gunfire and a full broadside from a ship. It’s fun, however outrageous, convenient and flamboyantly clichéd as it gets.

What follows is more of the same, the film not skimping on swashbuckling action, explosions or a stirring score to accompany them. Everything feels off though: the choreography, the editing, the stuntwork, the snappy dialogue, the timing, the hilariously bad accents, the works. It’s almost a parody of a pirate flick that decided that it never wanted to be funny to begin with. But on goes Morgan Adams, new captain of the Morning Star, to find all three pieces of the map and then her way to the treasure that they identify.

On the plus side, there’s an obvious budget, director Renny Harlin throwing a lot of that money onto the screen where we can see it in ships, costumes and explosions. There’s little CGI here: these are all real ships, big explosions and real stunts, so it looks good whenever we don’t notice how those stunts were obviously done. There’s also Frank Langella, who nails his role as Dawg Brown in precisely the same way that nobody else even comes close to doing. In fact, it’s all the better because I bought into his vicious nature even with it written so one dimensionally and in an unintended comedy to boot. The only humour that I believe is actually deliberate, until the final scene, was when Morgan belts someone with an electric eel in a tavern fight. That was hilarious.

On the negative side, there’s pretty much everything else. Matthew Modine plays William Shaw, conman, love interest and all round bounder like he’s auditioning for The Princess Bride almost a decade too late. Maury Chaykin isn’t bad as John Reed, chronicler of pirates the world over, but his role is wasted, just as most roles in this film are wasted. Characters like Blair and Glasspoole are set up with great potential but nothing’s ever done with them, while the ones who do get to do something get almost no set up at all. There’s no chemistry anywhere to be found, unless it’s between Morgan Adams and her pet monkey and that doesn’t bear thinking about.

I’m torn as to whether the worst aspect is the script or the direction. The script is awful because it’s half routine pirate clichés that we’ve seen a hundred times before and half a complex series of betrayals that we really don’t care about in the slightest. The bad dialogue makes it worse, though in better hands that could have been salvaged somewhat. Yet Harlin’s direction is surely responsible for the off kilter feel, the unintended comedy and all the goddamn slow motion shots. There are points where he does seem to get it, the stunts work and we get caught up for a few minutes in the action as we were always supposed to do, but then it all falls apart again. Usually these good bits arrive when Dawg is thoughtful and Morgan is quiet, but those moments aren’t frequent enough to save much of anything. It’s worth mentioning that when budget overruns prompted Carolco to run out of money, Harlin spent a million bucks of his own to rewrite the script again. Does that highlight better his inability as a director or a writer?

Cutthroat Island is one of those legendary flops that have become known for being truly awful, but I’ve often found that they’re not as bad as they’re made out, from Daredevil to Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever. Like them, this is far from a good picture but I’ve seen a heck of a lot worse. There are people who make this sort of film without the budget to make it look good, without a name like Frank Langella to lend some credence to proceedings and without the balls to take care of action physically in the grand era of CGI.

Of course, there are other pirate films that manage to swash buckles, make us laugh and generate real physical stuntwork. I’d heartily suggest Jackie Chan’s Project A, which clearly inspired one of the more unbelievable stunts in this film. I go back to that again and again. I doubt I’ll ever come back to this one, even with its kickass female lead.

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