Jimmy Stewart is at his most charming in Harvey, a delightful little comedy about a man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit.
Of all the stars the Golden Age of Hollywood produced, James Stewart (1908-1997) is among the most beloved and renowned. Born in Indiana, Stewart got his start as an actor while attending a boarding school in Pennsylvania. joining a drama club and choir among other extra-curricular activities. Although he spent his first summer break back home working construction, he would spend the following two summers on stage with his friend, a stage magician - not as an actor, but musician, as he'd learned to play the accordion and piano as a child. At his father's insistence, Stewart attended Princeton instead of the United States Naval Academy, becoming the only freshman allowed to perform in Princeton's Triangle Club. He majored in architecture, but doubted whether he'd be able to find work in that field in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that kicked off the Great Depression. Some college friends of his got him a gig with a summer stock group called the University Players, although he mostly worked as crew, building and designing sets while getting the occasional bit part. The Players made their way to New York in 1932 for a Broadway gig, and Stewart went with them, rooming with fellow future Hollywood star Henry Fonda, who would be a lifelong friend of his. Stewart began getting more and better roles in a variety of Broadway productions from 1932 through 1934, and he made his film debut in 1934 in the Warner Bros. short Art Trouble (1934), starring Shemp Howard. However, it was his performance in the Broadway production of Yellow Jack (1934) that earned him a shot at a screen test - and a contract - with MGM
Despite his acting talents, Stewart found it hard to snag decent roles on account of his natural shyness and stuttering voice (later to be hallmarks of his more famous early roles), and at first, he was used more often for screen-testing other actors. His first film with MGM, The Murder Man (1935), had him playing a supporting role opposite Spencer Tracy, but it wasn't well-received. His next few films were hit-or-miss, spread out over several different genres, including playing nicely against type in After the Thin Man (1936). However, things started to change for Stewart when MGM loaned him out to Columbia at the request of Frank Capra, who thought he'd be ideal to star in You Can't Take in With You (1938). The film was a huge critical and box-office success, even winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards (as did Capra for Best Director). In 1939, Stewart and Capra teamed up again for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was also a big hit, earning Stewart his first Academy Award nomination. Next came his first Western, a genre he'd be closely identified with later on, Destry Rides Again (1939). More hits followed, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), his only Oscar win (and one he felt was undeserved). Although his father repeatedly tried to get him to quit acting, Stewart nevertheless sent him his Oscar statuette, which he proudly displayed in his store.
James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
However, it wasn't his father's wishes that compelled him to leave Hollywood for a time, but the impending outbreak of World War II. (As much as I'd love to cover Stewart's distinguished military service, I I think that's best saved for a different review, just for pacing purposes - this section's getting pretty long as it is.) After the war, Stewart struggled not only with rebuilding his Hollywood career, but also with PTSD - something he was able to channel into his vivid performance in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), his first role in five years and one of his best remembered. Unfortunately, It's a Wonderful Life was a commercial flop, as were his next few movies. He returned to the stage to take over the leading role in Harvey, a hugely successful play penned by Mary Coyle Chase. Stewart stayed with the production for three years, and when Universal decided to bring it to the big screen, Stewart came along with it, as did Josephine Hull, who played his long-suffering sister. Harvey's stage success meant a huge payout for the film rights - money well spent, given the quality of the film.
It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Not many people have a rabbit as a best friend - particularly a pooka, a benevolent but mischief-prone figure from Irish lore, who manifests itself as an invisible six-foot-tall talking rabbit. Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), a wealthy, middle-aged eccentric claims to be such a man, referring to his dear friend as "Harvey." Dowd takes great pleasure in introducing Harvey to everyone he happens to strike up a conversation with, and not surprisingly, most people are put off by a middle-aged man with an imaginary pal. His sister, Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull), is increasingly despondent over the impact Harvey is having on his niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne)'s social prospects, and she decides to have Elwood committed. However, when she tells Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) about Harvey, Sanderson believes she's the crazy one and ends up committing her instead. A clever comedy of errors of all sorts ensues, as Dr. Sanderson and his nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow) and short-tempered orderly Mr. Wilson (Jesse White) try to track Dowd down. In the midst of the chaos, we discover that maybe Harvey isn't as imaginary as everyone thinks he is...
The role of Elwood P. Dowd seems like it would be a very easy one to overplay, even for the best of actors. Fortunately, this is Jimmy Stewart we're talking about, who strikes the right balance a role like this requires. It's not just how he talks and listens to Harvey, but his artful movement and body language, which does a lot to sell his belief that Harvey is right there with him. Another thing that makes his performance - and the film as a while - work for me is how well Stewart brings out Dowd's naturally gentle, kindly personality. He conveys a sincere interest in meeting new people, wanting to get to know them over a drink or dinner, and listening to whatever they may have to say.
The rest of Harvey's cast pull their own weight quite well, and I don't think there's any dead weight among them. Josephine Hull is hysterical as Veta, especially in the aftermath of being mistaken for a mental patient. However, she also has her sweeter moments as well, particularly at the end of the film. (Stewart said that Hull had the hardest role, having to believe and not believe in Harvey at the same time.) Charles Drake and Peggy Dow are the straight men of the show, the calming voices genuinely concerned with Dowd's well-being and wanting to understand him better. I wouldn't say they have the most smoldering chemistry with each other, but what we get is certainly serviceable, and most likely appropriately limited by the demands of their scripted personalities. However, they also demonstrate perfect comedic timing in numerous scenes, and they pull it off so naturally, with nothing even close to a knowing wink to the audience. Cecil Kellaway's performance as Dr. Chumley, the straitlaced administrator of the asylum, also has a lot of warmth to it, especially when he discovers the truth about Harvey.
Aside from the performances, Harvey holds up well on a technical level as well. It strikes that perfect sweet spot between not rushing and not dragging. At Jimmy Stewart's suggestion, cinematographer William H. Daniels used wide shots whenever Harvey was "in frame," which I thought was a clever touch. However, like everything else about the film, it's a subtle one, and one I don't think I'd have picked up on had I not known that little detail beforehand. The filmmakers had considered having Harvey appear at the very end of the movie, but this decision was widely scrapped. The first time this had been tried on stage was also the last, due to the scathing audience feedback. As for the comedic elements, I've found that it's hard to talk about the brilliance of a really good comedy, particularly when it comes to timing and deadpan delivery of some clever lines, so you'll just have to take my word on that part. (This is one reason I don't review more comedies.)
Harvey wasn't a bomb, but it wasn't a huge hit either, and the cost of the film rights to the play ate up quite a bit of the film's profits. It did attract strong critical acclaim, with Stewart earning his fourth of five Academy Award nominations, and Josephine Hull taking one home for Best Supporting Actress. However, one critic felt that it was too easy of a role for Stewart, who was basically playing his same old screen persona. This may have been what prompted Stewart to take on more challenging and darker roles later on, including Westerns and numerous Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. His performance in Harvey remained among his favorites, however, and when it was released on VHS in 1990 (which went on to be a huge seller), he recorded a special introduction to the film. If you want to catch it, it's been released on both DVD and blu-ray, and it looks like you can snag it at a decent price - and, of course, there's always TCM if you have it.
I really can't think of a better way to describe Harvey other than "sweet." It's a delightful little comedy with lots of charm to it, and one I definitely recommend.
Sir Francis Drake fights for queen and country in Seven Seas to Calais, another film that tries to recapture the magic of the Golden Age of swashbucklers.
Drake (1540? - 1596) is one of history's more renowned action-adventure heroes, although the real Drake was more villain than hero. His family worked on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, who held the title of Earl of Bedford, and Drake himself was apprenticed to a merchant, learning seacraft and navigation when accompanying said merchant on his international travels. Some members of Drake's family had gotten into the privateering business and recruited him, as he had a talent for seamanship, and eventually Drake was commanding his own ship. His piracy career began with slave trading, and he developed a seething hatred of Spain after a near escape in Mexico that got most of his men killed. He received his commission as a privateer from Queen Elizabeth I in 1572, and kicked off his new line of work with a successful raid on Panama, despite being seriously wounded in the fray. It was during his years of service to Elizabeth that Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, a mission the queen secretly assigned him. He continued to plunder Spanish ships and towns, culminating in his defeat and destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. (History would repeat itself decades later when the British navy sank another Spanish armada at the Battle of Cape Passaro in 1718.) Drake died in 1596 during a failed military expedition to Panama, buried at sea in a lead coffin which to this day has never been found.
Drake's notoriety, particularly the slave trading, is probably why he rarely features as a main protagonist in fiction, instead relegated to supporting roles or character backstory. Pulp hero Solomon Kane, one of Robert E. Howard's numerous creations, served under Drake at one point in his career, and was present for his infamous execution of Thomas Daughty, one of Drake's co-commanders. Nathan Drake, the protagonist of the Uncharted video game series, is a direct descendant of Sir Francis, and was inspired by the exploits of his famous ancestor. There have also been fictional pastiches of Drake, such as Errol Flynn's character of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk (1940), widely considered to be one of the greatest swashbuckler movies ever made. (Yes, I'll be getting to this one.) Other than that, if you're looking for fiction about Drake, especially with Drake as the main character, Seven Seas to Calais might be one of your only bets.
Errol Flynn as Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, a Drake pastiche, in The Sea Hawk (1940)
To play Drake, MGM brought aboard Rod Taylor (1930-2015), who had originally made a name for himself as an actor in his native Australia. He started off in radio before making his big screen debut in King of the Coral Sea (1954), which became one of the most financially successful Australian films of the 1950s. He was soon on his way to Hollywood, where he continued to be cast in a number of supporting roles in movies and guest appearances on television, including an episode of The Twilight Zone. In 1960, he made his starring role debut in The Time Machine, which was a solid hit. Although the next film he starred in, Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1960) wasn't anything to brag about, critically or commercially, he followed it up with voicing Pongo in the Disney classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which fared much better on both fronts. His performance in the TV series Hong Kong earned him favorable press, and later would help land him the starring role in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Taylor would continue to work for MGM over the years, continuously racking up screen credits in film and television. (He would have played the role of Roper in 1973's Enter the Dragon, opposite Bruce Lee, had he not been deemed too tall for the role.) His last on-screen appearance was a cameo in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009), in which he played Winston Churchill.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
On a dark night in Plymouth, 1577, young nobleman Malcolm Marsh (Keith Mitchell) tries to rescue a man from Spanish assassins. The rescue fails, but the man has time to give Marsh a message for Captain Francis Drake (Rod Taylor) before he dies. Marsh fights his way to where Drake's ship is docked, eventually rescued by Drake and his crew. The message turns out to be a map of Spanish gold mines in the New World, and Drake petitions Queen Elizabeth (Irene Worth) for permission to raid the mines. Drake sets sail, Marsh joining his crew after saying what I'm sure was supposed to be a tearful, heartfelt farewell to his fiancée, Arabella Ducleau (Edy Vessel). Under Drake's command, Marsh contends with Spanish forces, a mutinous crew, and tumultuous seas during their many travels across the globe. But while Drake's away, there's intrigue afoot, courtesy of a Spanish plot to assassinate Elizabeth and secretly assemble a mighty Spanish armada in preparation for war with England. Not only that, but the treacherous Lord Babington (Terence Hill) is part of the conspiracy, and he plans to use Arabella as a dupe to help carry it out.
It's hard for me to say whether I liked Seven Seas to Calais, or whether I thought it was good overall. There are some aspects of the film that are quite well done, and some that aren't. When critiquing the flaws, there are some mitigating factors that need to be kept in mind. For one thing, this production was clearly hampered by a low budget - one of the reasons it was shot in Italy and used local talent - although this is an obstacle I've seen numerous other films overcome. Then again, while Seven Seas to Calais lacks the visual splendor and spectacle of MGM's earlier swashbucklers from the 1940s and 1950s (which I've criticized before for emphasizing style over substance), the end result is something of a gritty realism. This was also the last film to be directed by Rudolph Maté (1898 - 1964), who started off as a cinematographer during the Silent Era before switching to directing in the late 1940s. In fact, Maté didn't even direct the entire film - he shares a director's credit with Primo Zeglio, who had already directed a number of pirate films and swashbucklers before this one. Maybe two different directors with different styles account for some of the film's issues, although this could have been overcome with a stronger script.
I have to give Seven Seas to Calais props for Taylor's strong performance as Drake, which did a lot to keep me engaged. He's convincing as a swashbuckling hero, something I can't say about others who have tried following in the footsteps of Errol Flynn, such as Cornel Wilde, Robert Taylor, or Kerwin Matthews. He's decent with a sword, handles his dialogue naturally, and walks a fine line between taking his role as a historical action hero seriously without forgetting to have some fun with the role. Taylor is particularly effective at conveying a sense of melancholy and internal conflict in some of the film's quieter moments. Keith Mitchell is...okay as Marsh. He's a bland character, but not unbearable to put up with. The same, however, cannot be said for Edy Vessel, delivering her lines in a terrible French accent without much in the way of conviction. (She might have just been badly dubbed, but I can't find anything to confirm this.) It would have been bad enough if she was just a thrown-in romantic interest, just there to look pretty and not contribute much to the plot (a fate that has befallen quite a few actresses in this genre, unfortunately). Unfortunately, she plays a crucial role in the plot, so the role really should have gone to an actress capable of delivering a stronger performance. (I did, however, like how when Marsh was indignant with her spending time with Babington, she called him on it by pointing out his dalliance with a native girl during his travels.) Likewise, Terence Hill as Babington and Arturo Dominici as the Spanish ambassador, Don Bernardino de Mendoza, are rather weak antagonists, lacking any real sense of menace, which hurts the film in the climax. On the other hand, veteran stage actress Irene Worth simply shines as Queen Elizabeth, playing her as a wily, clever ruler who knows which face to put on when.
The film's premise certainly sounds exciting on paper, and indeed, Seven Seas to Calais starts off strong in terms of building solid dramatic tension. As soon as the opening credits end, we get mysterious strangers meeting on the night-shrouded streets of Plymouth, armed Spanish agents on the prowl, a mysterious message for Captain Drake, and some decent swordplay. The sense of intrigue and adventure is maintained throughout the first half of the movie, especially thanks to an attempted mutiny and a well-filmed raid on a gold mine. (Drake's duel with the mutinous Corrigan was my favorite of the action scenes - a good, lengthy duel with solid bladework by both actors.)
Unfortunately, the second half gets bogged down with story and editing issues; Drake's adventures eventually just become a series of events, choppily edited together between scenes of the Spanish plotting against Elizabeth. The climactic rescue of Queen Elizabeth and the attack on the Spanish Armada are disappointingly lackluster, especially when compared to the earlier action scenes, and the destruction of the armada in particular is woefully anti-climactic. Some plot threads have some interesting build-up that don't pan out well enough, such as the rivalry between Marsh and Babington, or the consequences of Arabella's unwitting involvement in the plot against Elizabeth. It's enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered putting these scenes in the movie. The interlude on the island is particularly cringe-worthy on account of its stereotypical imagery and the comedic shift in tone that feels like it belongs in the film. (And while Drake is credited as one of the people who supposedly introduced the potato to England, I'd be willing to bet it wasn't named for a native girl who had the hots for his first mate. Yes, there's actually a character named Potato in this movie.) Last but not least, Franco Mennino's musical score is okay, but way too repetitive, and it's hard to not notice this.
For all its faults, Seven Seas to Calais raked in a decent profit for MGM. On a budget of about $650,000, it raked in over $2 million at the box office, half of it from overseas attendance. I wasn't able to find any reviews from when it was released, so I don't know how it was received critically, although Jeffrey Richards praised the swashbuckling elements of the film in Swordsmen of the Screen. The film was released on DVD in 2012, courtesy of the Warner Archives, and every once in a while, you can find it on Turner Classic Movies (which is how I saw it). As for me, while I think Seven Seas to Calais had some excellent moments, particularly earlier on in the film, the whole isn't better than the sum of its parts, and it missed its potential to be better than it was.
I certainly wouldn't call Seven Seas to Calais unwatchable, and it's better than other MGM swashbucklers I've seen, but it does have its issues. My advice: catch it on TCM some time and make your own call.
A southern teacher attempts to save a local school in Within Our Gates, the oldest known surviving film by Oscar Micheaux.
I am by no means a film expert, and even when it comes to favorite genres and filmmakers, I have huge gaps in my knowledge base. That being said, Oscar Micheaux (1884 - 1951) is a name I'm surprised I didn't hear sooner than I did, as he was the first African-American to ever direct a feature-length movie. Different sources have provided contradictory details about his early life, even including how many siblings he had, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in my standard brief bio. The son of former slaves, Micheaux (originally Michaux) was born on a farm near Metropolis, Illinois, but the family quit the farming life either to give the kids access to good education or because of money woes (most likely a combination of the two). At the age of 17, he moved to Chicago, working as a porter (among other jobs) before buying some land in South Dakota, becoming a lone black homesteader among white neighbors. This new venture lasted two years before a drought forced him out of business. Micheaux turned to writing novels, his first being The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), based on his experiences as a sharecropper. He established his own publishing company to print them and went door-to-door selling copies of his novel, which he later reworked as The Homesteader in 1917.
Soon after its publication, The Homesteader got the attention of the black-owned and managed Lincoln Motion Picture Company, and they tried to negotiate with Micheaux for the movie rights. However, the deal fell through when they wouldn't let Micheaux direct The Homesteader himself. Instead, Micheaux establishing his own filmmaking enterprise, adapting his own novel into a feature-length film. Within Our Gates was his next film, and the one he's most famous for. It's commonly considered to be a counter-point to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), although Micheaux himself denied this intent. He kept directing films for the next twenty years - including Body and Soul (1924), in which Paul Robseon made his film debut - all the way through the sound era, during which he became the first African-American to direct a talkie (1931's The Exile), directing over 40 movies throughout his career. As a filmmaker, Micheaux used the medium to depict the realities of contemporary black life in America. In addition to criticizing systemic racism and bigotry and challenging stereotypical depictions of African-Americans, his work also bluntly depicted class and gender struggles within African-American communities themselves, while also vociferously condemning "Uncle Tom" type characters who sold out their fellow African-Americans to gain favor with white bigots. Micheaux was also greatly influenced by the writings of Booker T. Washington, and his works reflect the idea of the self-made person.
Within Our Gates falls under the category of "race films," a label used most commonly to refer to movies targeting African-American audiences and featuring predominantly African-American casts and crews. Some of this was a result of segregation laws, which banned African-Americans from going to the same theaters as whites. (While these laws were more common in the south, northern theaters would also segregate black audience members, either delegating them to separate sections of the theater or only allowing them to attend particular showtimes.) That same bigotry also closed doors to African-American filmmakers looking to get their films produced and distributed, meaning they had to do it all themselves, and with much fewer resources. Unfortunately, many of these early films were lost (although Kino Lorber is working on restoring what can be found). In fact, Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost film for a long time until a print of it was found in Spain in the 1990s, and it remains the oldest surviving full-length movie directed by an African-American. The title cards had to be recreated, translated from Spanish and worded based on Micheaux's writing style from his novels.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) is visiting her cousin Alma (Flo Clements) up north. She's eagerly awaiting the return of her fiance Conrad (James D. Ruffin), who is due to return home from army service in Europe after World War I any day now. However, Alma has her eye on Conrad herself, and successfully engineers a rift between the two. She also plots to set up Sylvia with her brother-in-law Larry (Jack Chenault), a gambler and crook. In the wake of all this, Sylvia sadly returns down south to Piney Woods, "where ignorance and the lynch law reign supreme," to quote one of the film's inter-titles. The local school for African-American children, run by Reverend Jacobs, is faced with closure due to crowding and neglectful state officials who refuse to provide adequate funding. A teacher herself, Sylvia decides to head back up north to raise funds for the school, without much initial success at first.
After a series of remarkable coincidences, she secures the funds with the aid of Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), who falls in love with Sylvia. The money actually comes from Mrs. Elena Warwick ("Mrs. Evelyn" - yes, that's how she's credited), a white anti-segregationist. All seems lost, however, when Mrs. Warwick seeks the advice of Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a bitter opponent of the suffrage movement who fears that educated black women will one day get the right to vote. (Within Our Gates was released on January 12, 1920; the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, would not be ratified until August 18 of that same year.) She tries to persuade Mrs. Warwick that education won't do African-Americans any good, that they can't handle it, the usual bigoted claptrap. However, in the end, Mrs. Warwick decides to make the donation anyway and save the school (going far above and beyond the amount Sylvia needed to raise in the process). We then find out why saving the school was so important to Sylvia. As a child, her attending school allowed her to help her father (William Stark) manage the family finances and discover he was being cheated of his wages by his boss, Mr. Girdlestone (Ralph Johnson). When Girdlestone was murdered, his black servant Efram (E.G. Tatum), fearing he'd be falsely accused, pinned the blame on the Landrys, leading to their deaths. Oh, and there's also a love triangle between Sylvia, Dr. Vivian, and Reverend Jacobs.
Given the times and the circumstances under which it was made, Within Our Gates is a remarkable achievement. Quite a few cast members only acted in a small handful of films before and after this one, and for others, this would be their on-screen performance. Evelyn Preer, a former stage actress who carries the film quite well, is the only one who seems to have continued acting in the long-term. The rest of the cast is pretty good; their performances are low-key when compared to other silent era performances I've seen, which I think is appropriate for a film such as this. The standout performance for me was Old Ned's, and I wish I had been able to find out who played him. His performance at the end of his scene, in which he berates himself for selling out his fellow African-Americans, is heart-wrenching to watch. Writing-wise, although there's a lot of plot crammed in, Within Our Gates does an effective job of getting its message across, and Micheaux isn't afraid to be blunt about it. Inspired by the writings of Booker T. Washington, Micheaux preaches a message of pulling one's self up by the bootstraps. As contemptable as the instituonalized racism depicted in the film is, Micheaux also lays part of the onus on the African-American community to rise above their stereotypical image, and presents education as the key to achieving their full potential.
For all the merits of its message, cinematically, this film has some issues. Like I said, there's a lot of story crammed into the 80-minute running time (including several sub-plots I didn't cover for the purposes of conciseness), and not all of it fits together. For instance, Sylvia's backstory isn't introduced until after she's gotten the money for the school and the main conflict has been resolved, and it's presented as something of an "oh yeah, I should probably address this" afterthought. Likewise, as emotionally moving as the scene with Old Ned is, particularly the closing of the scene, it doesn't really have anything to do with our main characters. I certainly don't object to those scenes being included in the film, but I would have liked for them to have been fit into the narrative a bit more smoothly. In all fairness, however, not only was Micheaux still an inexperienced film director by this point (again, this was only his second film), but film itself was still a young medium. Also, Micheaux was on a tight budget, unable to reshoot scenes, so that's something that needs to be taken into context in the interest of fair criticism. (It's also possible that current prints of the film may not be complete; there may be some missing scenes out there that might have addressed the cohesiveness issues.)
Micheaux didn't have an easy time getting Within Our Gates released. Censors in Chicago and Omaha, still reeling from recent race riots, were among the cities that initially blocked its release. They claimed they were concerned that the depictions of lynchings, mob violence, and attempted rape would provoke further violence. In some cities, certain scenes were cut or trimmed from the prints. However, when it was released, it drew sizable audiences and favorable press, and not just from black audience members. Within Our Gates is today recognized as a snapshot of African-American life in both the north and the south after World War I, not to an important milestone in African-American culture. The fact that it's the oldest surviving feature-length film by a black director has only added to its historical and cultural significance over time. For my part, Within Our Gates has made me curious to see more of Micheaux's work - the only reason I haven't is the same time constraints that made me stop doing this blog on a weekly basis.
Within Our Gates is an important landmark not only of African-American culture, but film history itself, and sadly, still all too relevant today. This one's definitely worth a watch.
The X-Men's arch-nemesis begins his transition from cardboard cutout villain to tragic figure in this milestone issue. From October 1981, this is "I, Magneto..."
I already went into the premise and publication history of the X-Men the last time I reviewed one of their comics (one of my favorite INCspotlight reviews I've ever written), so I won't do so again here. Instead, let's focus on our villain, Magneto, the self-styled Master of Magnetism. Magneto made his debut in [Uncanny] X-Men #1 (September, 1963), the same issue that introduced the X-Men themselves. (I think of all the Marvel superheroes that came out of the Silver Age, the X-Men are unique in this regard - the others didn't go up against their arch-enemies until months or even years after they were first introduced, unless you count S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA.) The X-Men were initially trained to defend normal humanity, who hated and feared them, from evil mutants who sought to conquer and enslave them. Magneto was one such mutant, who felt that his power gave him the grounds to pick on people weaker than him and make them his slaves. Following his first encounter with the X-Men, he returned in the fourth issue with a team of his own, the ridiculously named Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, although he would also attack our heroes solo sometimes.
Originally, there wasn't much that was distinctive about Magneto - he was just a typical bad guy out for world domination and that was it. He claimed to his followers that he was driven by fear that humans would turn on mutants, but I'm under the impression that he didn't really believes this in his earliest appearances, given his rants to the X-Men. This may have just been a ploy to persuade some of his more reluctant underlings (Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who eventually reformed and joined the Avengers) to fight for him. Not that he wasn't a force to be reckoned with on his own. Even from the beginning, he was able to use his mutant powers of controlling magnetic fields and manipulating metal in a wide variety of ways, as well as displaying some mental abilities (which were never mentioned again after the Silver Age). Although the X-Men were his primary foes, his agenda brought him into conflict with other Marvel heroes, including Thor, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Defenders. An encounter with the last of these ended up with him reduced to infancy (man, this is a weird genre), seemingly ending the threat he posed to the world.
The Uncanny X-Men #4 (March, 1964)
In March, 1970, X-Men was effective cancelled as of Issue #66, the next few years of the series dedicated to reprinting earlier issues before ending with Issue #93 in April, 1975. However, one month later, a new lineup made its debut in Giant-Size X-Men #1, packing more raw power, hailing from different countries around the world, and having a much more volatile team dynamic. The new team members included the demonic-looking teleporter Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner); Storm (Ororo Munroe), possessing the power to control the weather; the gentle-hearted Colossus (Piotr Rasputin), who could transform himself into solid steel; and, of course, the enigmatic Wolverine (Logan), whose healing factor allowed him to survive a gruesome experiment that laced his skeleton (including natural claws) with adamantium, an indestructible metal. Founding member Cyclops stuck around for a while, as did Jean Grey, until her tragic "death" at the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix storyline (Uncanny X-Men #129-138), which prompted Cyclops to leave the team. The new X-Men not only faced new enemies, but also was quickly reunited with some old ones, including the Master of Magnetism himself, restored to his physical prime. But we still didn't get much in the way of what really made Magneto tick, aside from a quick scene in Uncanny X-Men #125 of Magneto pining for his late wife as he recovers from a recent encounter with the X-Men. At least, not until this issue. (And even then, lots of blanks were still left to be filled, including his name. At some point after today's comic was published, his name was given as Erik Magnus Lensherr, but this turned out to be an alias. His true name was eventually revealed to be Max Eisenhardt decades later. But all that is yet to come.)
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Our comic begins with Magneto, using his advanced technology, sending a threat to world leaders from around the globe. He demands that every nation dismantle its nuclear arsenals in order to protect mutantkind from getting caught in the crossfire of a nuclear war, or face utter destruction. As he explains to the currently retired X-Man Cyclops and his human girlfriend, Lee Forrester (captives on his island for the past several issues following a shipwreck and powerless thanks to an inhibitor thingie), the funds spent on such weapons could now go to more worthwhile causes, such as combating hunger, disease, and poverty, ushering a new golden age - with mutants ruling humans and himself ruling mutants. Cyclops counters that there will be resistance, and a Soviet submarine, the Leningrad, proves him correct when it fires a nuke at Magneto's island - an attack he easily repels. He then uses his powers to sink the sub, killing all aboard.
Meanwhile, the X-Men have been out looking for Magneto, as they've been since last issue, and they finally happen upon his island base. Unfortunately, the island's safeguards not only disable their plane, but their powers as well. However, they're fortunate enough to meet up with Cyclops, who not only gives them the lay of the land, but also details about Magneto's ultimate plan. He means to enforce his demands with a device that can manipulate the earth's crust, and destroying it is now their top objective. Although they don't have their powers, their natural skills enable them to destroy Magneto's inhibitor. Magneto is unfortunately alerted to their presence, but with the X-Men's mutant abilities restored, the battle is on, both the X-Men and Magneto getting good shots in. However, when Magneto nearly kills Sprite (Kitty Pryde, the latest addition to the team and in her early teens), he realizes just how far he's fallen and how much he's become like the people that destroyed his family, and he backs down. Storm tries to reason with him to change his ways, but Magneto is doubtful he can change, having lived with his hatred for too long. With the danger over, Magneto slips away, and Xavier hopes this encounter inspires their old enemy to change his ways after all, and end his war with mankind.
Admittedly, I initially snagged this comic merely because it offered a fight between the X-Men and Magneto, not realizing how significant of a story it was to X-Men continuity, even after reading it for the first time. As long-time INCspotlight readers know, my favorite superhero comics to collect are the ones where the hero dukes it out with someone from his or her recurring rogues gallery, and brownie points if it's their arch-enemy. Magneto's bouts with the X-Men get even higher priority, since they happen so much less often in modern times, thanks to Magneto's frequently shifting loyalties (more on that in a bit). So when I found this on eBay, and at a really good price, this was something I simply couldn't pass up. And milestone issue aside, I was glad I didn't. The rich depth of character and the quality of Chris Claremont's writing (even if the prose can be a little too purple and the dialogue a bit too cliche-ridden) help demonstrate how the X-Men became so popular after their relaunch. In addition to Magneto, the X-Men themselves get some solid moments of their own: Cyclops ruminating on how Magneto's supposed Golden Age will cause more problems than it will solve, Storm's temptation to murder Magneto as he sleeps and her post-battle attempts to reason with him, the inexperienced Kitty's terror of dying, and Lee dealing with what it's like to be hated and despised just because of who you are. Dave Cockrum's art can be a little stiff sometimes, and there's something about the way he draws Storm's face that bugs me (specifically her eyes), but I think that's just a matter of personal taste. Other than that, he does a solid job of portraying a character's emotions. Fans of superheroics and actions will have plenty to enjoy here as well, and the way the X-Men go into action without their powers shows ingenuity on Claremont's part.The battle between the X-Men and Magneto is a good one, with both heroes and villain using their powers cleverly, so that neither side comes off looking badly. It's clear the X-Men have learned from their past encounters with Magneto, pushing him farther than they have previously.
This is also the comic that establishes Magneto's backstory as a Holocaust survivor, who witnessed the murder of his entire family at Auschwitz. Having lived through one genocide, Magneto was from here on out portrayed as wanting to prevent a similar fate from befalling mutantkind. As if this wasn't bad enough, we also find out in this issue that he'd built a new family for himself years after World War II with a wife and daughter, only to lose them to anti-mutant violence. With a background such as this, it's no wonder he turned out the way he did. Obviously this doesn't excuse what he's done, or his anti-human bigotry, but it does make him a more complex, three-dimensional character, and thereby a more interesting villain. Incidentally, there was speculation that Magneto's origins meant he was Jewish, something Marvel was hesitant to state at first, probably thinking that it would be considered anti-Semitic to have a Jewish villain. As someone who is Jewish myself, the idea of Magneto being Jewish has never bothered me, and I was glad when his Jewish heritage was later confirmed. Much to my delight, this was even kept it in the live-action movies. In X-Men (2000), a young Erik Lensherr is clearly seen wearing a yellow star on his clothes, and X-Men: First Class (2011) has him remembering celebrating Hanukkah as a child with his family (although it would have been nice if they'd gotten the chanukkiah right).
From here on out, everything was different for Magneto. I could go into a lot more detail here than I'm about to, but X-Men continuity is so complex and in-depth that it would take forever, and it's not really relevant to this particular story. Suffice to say, after this story, he was almost always depicted in a more complex light, even being a member of the X-Men at more than one point. (The first time, he even led the team.) Even on the occasions he resumed his war against the X-Men and the human race, he never returned to his "the world shall be mine, muah ha ha ha" demeanor. (Grant Morrison's "Planet X" storyline, which showed Magneto engaging in mass genocide and putting humans in concentration camps, was widely reviled by fans for being so out of character. The story was later retconned with the revalation that Magneto had been impersonated.) The haunted, fanatical survivor aspect of his personality has become such an integral part of his personality that it's carried over to alternate continuities (except for the Ultimate universe), various video games, the beloved animated series from the 1990s, and, of course, the live-action movies, in which he was portrayed by both Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender. The dynamic between Xavier and Magneto also changed over time, a later issue revealing they had been friends when they were younger, but fell out over their drastically different beliefs. Just as the X-Men themselves have been seen as an allegory for the civil rights movement, the Xavier/Magneto feud has often been compared to the rivalry between Dr. Martin Luther King and the more militant Malcolm X.
Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Professor X and Magneto, X-Men (2000)
Normally I dislike it when a villain becomes a hero, for the same reason I like seeing villains killed off. Like I said, I enjoy seeing heroes duke it out with their villains, and making the villain a hero takes away that conflict. More importantly, I like to see good stories come from the clash of ideologies. Having the X-Men, who fight for peaceful co-existence, clash with an embittered victim of prejudice who sees force as the only answer makes for great storytelling and drama when it's done right. In Magneto's case, however, I think his occasional reformations work. The times when he does fight alongside the good guys is probably the ultimate tragedy that defines the character. He probably could have been one of Earth's greatest heroes all along instead of one of humanity's most dangerous enemies, if not for the many losses he's endured at the hands of hate-filled bigots. It's probably why he remains such a compelling, enduring character over the years, and one of the key elements in the success of the X-Men franchise. He's been depowered and re-powered, an X-Man leader and antagonist, killed off and resurrected. But through all this, Magneto remains a tragic figure, haunted both by his past and his increasingly justified fears for the future.
The last X-Men comic I reviewed showed the team at arguably its worst. This one shows them at their best. If you're an X-Men fan, you owe it to yourself to snag this.
INCspotlight regular Errol Flynn returns in the unfortunately mediocre melodrama Another Dawn, starring Kay Francis.
Given how many Errol Flynn movies I've reviewed on the INCspotlight so far (and there are many more to come), I'm kinda running out of things to say about the guy, so let's talk about his leading lady, Kay Francis (1905 - 1968) - who was one of the biggest stars of her day. Francis's real name was Katherine Edwina Gibbs, leading people to assume her mother (also Katherine) was the founder of a chain of vocational schools - something Francis never bothered correcting people about. Her mother was actually an actress, but Francis herself didn't get into showbiz until 1925, with a small part in a modern-dress Broadway production of Hamlet. More stage roles followed, earning her Paramount's attention and leading to a two-year contract with said studio. After a small role alongside the Marx Bros. in The Cocoanuts (1929), she began to get bigger parts more and more frequently in films such as Trouble in Paradise and The False Madonna (both in 1932). In most of her roles with Paramount, she was typically cast as wily villainesses, which she quickly tired of. Eventually, Warner Bros. lured her away from Paramount with the promise of better pay as well as better parts.
During her time with Warner Bros., Francis's career skyrocketed, thanks to a number of high-grossing hits such as I Found Stella Parish (1935), The White Angel (1936), and Confession (1937). She was such a box office draw that she was earning more money than any other actress in America, and her face appeared on more movie magazine covers than anyone else at the time except for Shirley Temple. All this in spite of a slight speech impediment that caused her to pronounce the letters L and R as W. (On the Paramount lot, she was known as "the wavishing Kay Fwancis.") In fact, when she was cast in Another Dawn (adapted from the play Caesar's Wife) opposite Errol Flynn, Francis was the one who got top billing. Then again, hers is the main character, so that's only fair. (Fun fact about this movie's title: apparently, in previous Warner Bros. films that had scenes with a movie marquee, they kept using the title Another Dawn. When the studio couldn't come up with a title for this particular movie, they just slapped that title onto it.)
Another Dawn's director, William Dieterle (1893-1972), also deserves some spotlighting here. A native of Germany, Dieterle started off as an actor while in his teens, including six years under the direction of Max Reinhardt. Dieterele started off as a romantic lead, a type of role he continued as he transitioned to film roles during the Silent Era, under the direction of German Expressionism pioneers such as F.W. Murnau (including his 1926 classic Faust) and Paul Leni. Eventually, Dieterle lost interest in acting in favor of directing, making his directorial debut in 1923 with Man by the Roadside, featuring pre-stardom Marlene Dietrich. Dieterle's association with Warner Bros. began in 1930, prompting his emigration to the United States, and initially he directed German-language movies for the German market before moving on to their regular films, beginning with The Last Flight (1931). In 1935, Dieterle and Reinhardt reunited for a lavish big-screen adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream that unfortunately performed poorly at the box office. Fortunately, some of Dieterle's later films for Warner Bros. fared far better, including The Life of Emil Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939), as well as RKO's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Our story is set in the fictional (?) British colony of Dickit, somewhere in India. The local garrison is commanded by Colonel John Wister (Ian Hunter), with the aid of the gallant Captain Denny Roarke (Errol Flynn), an old friend of his. During a trip to England, Wister meets Julia Ashton (Kay Francis), whose fiancé recently passed away. The two hit it off over several more encounters, and she eventually agrees to marry Wister, hoping to find contentment, if not exactly happiness, as she's still emotionally in mourning. However, after her arrival in India, she meets Roarke, and the two fall in love. Julia is torn between being a faithful wife and finding genuine love with Roarke, while Roarke faces a similar dilemma regarding his friendship with Wistin. Wistin is no fool, and when the opportunity comes for a convenient opportunity for self-sacrifice, he naturally takes it for the sake of Julia's happiness. (Hey, that's what the spoiler warning is for. Besides, it's an ending you can see coming ten minutes into the movie.)
It's a short plot summary, I know. Then again, it's a short movie, only clocking in at 73 minutes. However, it felt longer than that; as big an Errol Flynn fan as I am, this was a chore to sit through. None of the romances in this movie, on which the entirety of the story depend on, feel at all natural or organic. They seem to happen just because the plot says so (and because it's Errol Flynn - of course he's gonna have the hots for a lady). Even Wistin's sacrifice for the sake of Julia's happiness at the end (an overdone cliche I've seen done much better in numerous other movies) just happens, with no emotional build-up. The dull script and lack of chemistry between the leads share the blame for this one. Kay Francis's performance in this movie is painfully dull, both her line delivery and facial expressions. I know she doesn't have that interesting of a character to portray, and the dialogue she's stuck with is as stiff as a frozen turkey leg, but she doesn't seem to be even trying to elevate it. By her own account, she was dismissive of her role in this movie due to its lack of substance, and it shows. (Come to think of it, this seems to be a movie nobody wanted any part of. Flynn also disliked this movie - like Kay Francis, he was tired of being typecast as a romantic lead - and Dieterle only directed it as a favor to Hal Wallis, one of Warner Bros.'s top producers.) Ian Hunter's performance is utterly forgettable, and he lacks chemistry with the other leads in the cast.
Is there anything redeeming about this movie? A few things here and there. Flynn's performance is a saving grace, making the best of what he can, which isn't much. Not only do I continue to maintain he's a better actor than he's given credit for, but there's no denying he has a magnetic screen presence - it's not hard to see why he was such a big box office draw. Yet it's Herbert Mundin, who plays Colonel Wister's uptight orderly Wilkins, who probably gives the best performance of the movie. Wilkins actually has an interesting subplot dedicated to him; apparently ran away during a battle and has been derided by his fellow soldiers for it ever since. Naturally, in the movie's only action scene, a pretty decent desert battle, he gets the chance to redeem himself. Unfortunately, it doesn't really seem to connect with the main plot in any way, nor does it really have anything in the way of payoff. (Another subplot involving Roarke's sister Grace, played by Frieda Inescort, also feels disconnected and goes nowhere interesting.) Last but not least, while Another Dawn doesn't sport one of my favorite Erich Wolfgang Korngold scores, it's still an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, which is a welcome addition to any film. (Much to my surprise, Korngold's score for this movie was one of his favorites that he ever composed, even using parts of it for his 1947 violin concerto.)
Upon its release, Another Dawn didn't earn much more than a "meh" reception from critics. However, as the studio hoped, Francis and Flynn's combined star power was enough to bring in audiences, and the film took in double its budget at the box office. Ever since starring in Captain Blood (1935), Errol Flynn had a hot streak of one hit after another after another, Another Dawn included, and it would be years before it fizzled out. Kay Francis, however, was not so fortunate. Shortly after Another Dawn's release, her dissatisfaction with the roles she kept getting led to arguments with the studio bosses, and her career took a bad swan dive shortly thereafter, to the point where she was officially considered box office poison for a while, until former co-star Carol Lombarde helped her snag a choice role in In Name Only (1939) for RKO. She enjoyed a nice rebound after this until World War II, during which she did extensive volunteer work. After the war, though, she struggled to get work, even turning to poverty row studios such as Monogram Pictures, and she retired from acting in 1948.
As a fan of Errol Flynn's movies, this is definitely not one of his better ones. I didn't hate Another Dawn the way I hated Santa Fe Trail (1940), but that was on account of Santa Fe Trail's favorable depiction of slavery and escaped slave hunters - other than that, I have to admit that it was a technically well-made film. I also didn't find it as tedious as Silver River (1948), which was overly long and slowly-paced, although Flynn and Ann Sheridan deliver solid performances. Still, there's no denying this is one of his lesser efforts and lesser films, and while I'm not sorry I saw it, I doubt I'll be rewatching this one any time soon.
I can't recommend Another Dawn except to the most hardcore of Flynn fans. If you miss out on this one, it's no great loss.
At long last, Donnie Yen makes his INCspotlight debut in Drunken Tai Chi - which is not only also his film debut, but one of the last old-school kung fu movies ever made.
Long before he was kicking Imperial Stormtrooper ass in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which I really enjoyed), Yen (born Yen Ji-dan) was one of the top talents in the Hong Kong martial arts film industry, finally achieving superstardom in the mid-2000s after two decades of career ups and downs. I've been a long-time fan of his ever since college, thanks to the very first film class I ever took spending a week on Hong Kong martial arts cinema - in fact, that's when I became a hardcore fan of the genre as a whole. (Sadly, I had a schedule conflict when said he attended a screening of his directorial debut, Legend of the Wolf, at said college.) Mostly what appeals to me about him, besides his talent as one of the most impressive screen fighters I've ever seen, is that for a long time, I saw him as something of an underdog. He's one of those actors I feel deserved a bigger following than he had for a while - and, to be frank, a better filmography. He's no underdog anymore, having had a series of critical and financial successes over the past few years that have made him the top action star in Hong Kong, and it remains to be seen if Rogue One, or the upcoming xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017) help him achieve similar acclaim here in the US.
Although Yen Ji-dan was born in Guandong (aka Canton), China in 1963, his family relocated to Hong Kong when he was two, and then to Boston, Massachussets when he was eleven. His mother is Master Bow Sim-mark, a martial arts instructor of no small renown, and Yen began taking lessons from her at an early age. Yen's appetite for martial arts training was insatiable, and he studied a wide variety of styles under other instructors as well. As a kid, Yen would frequently skip school to not only study and practice martial arts, but watch kung fu movies in theaters, and he apparently had a knack for being able to perfectly replicate the moves he saw on screen. He also started spending a lot of time in Boston's infamous Combat Zone, prompting his parents to send him to the Beijing Wushu Academy, where he trained under Wu Bin - who was also Jet Li's instructor - for two years. After this, he decided to return home, but made a fateful stop in Hong Kong, where he happened to meet director Yuen Woo-ping. (I've heard different accounts about how Yen and Yuen met.) Having launched Jackie Chan to stardom with Snake in the Eagle's Shadow and Drunken Master, Yuen was looking for a new star to work the same magic with. He offered Yen a screen test, and after a stuntwork gig in Miracle Fighters 2 (1982), Yen wound up with the lead role in Drunken Tai Chi.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Qian Dao (Donnie Yen) is the favored son of a wealthy yet miserly salt merchant (Lee Kwan), much to the chagrin of his elder brother (Yuen Yat-chor), who Qian Dao always sticks up for in vain. Qian Dao is is the local bully Ta Sha (Mandy Chan), a apparent long-time rival of Ching Do. When one of Ta Sha's payback schemes goes awry, he has a complete nervous breakdown as a result, and his vengeful father (Wong Tao) hires the mute assassin Tie Wuxing (Yuen Shun-yee) to murder Qian Dao and his family, and the killer strikes while Qian Dao's enjoying a night out on the town. Alone and destitute, he's taken in by an eccentric puppeteer (Yuen Cheung-yan) and his wife (Lydia Shum). It's an uneasy relationship at first, as Qian Dao's ineptitude at basic household tasks causes all sorts of hijinks, but a family bond of sorts forms between them after a while, and the puppeteer eventually trains Qian Dao in the art of tai chi. It's a good thing, too, because it's only a matter of time before Qian Dao and Tie Wuxing's paths cross and vengeance must be served - but not before Qian Dao befriends Tie Nian-ci, Tie Wuxing's young son.
In many ways, Drunken Tai Chi isn't all that different from other martial arts comedies of the few years that preceded it, such as Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (1978), Drunken Master (1978), Magnificent Butcher (1979), or Knockabout (1979). We see a lot of the same tropes and stock characters: the young bratty protagonist, the eccentric mentor with an unorthodox training method, over the top villains, and at least one doomed family member. (And, unfortunately, we have a second act bogged down with lots of pratfalls and lowbrow comedy.) However, this movie goes further than the others when it comes to its characters and giving them some depth. For instance, Qian Dao's favored son status makes him an unlikely protagonist in a genre that thrives on unlikely underdog heroes - one might expect that his brother would end up the protagonist, rather than Qing Dao. Then again, Qian Dao is constantly looking out for Qian Yu Pung, even helping him with chores and sneaking him food, despite their father's objections. (Think of the Boromir/Faramir/Denethor dynamic from the extended cut of The Two Towers.) It helps establish empathy with his character, rather than him being the protagonist just because the plot says so. Speaking of family dynamics, it's unusual that the mentor figure is married, and Lydia Shum's longing for a kid gives her character pathos beyond her just providing comedic antics. The big one is the final boss villain of the movie, Tie Wuqing, having a young son, and while it's never outright stated, the subtext is pretty clear that Tie's only an assassin for hire so he can look after his son. Qian Dao befriending Tie Nian-ci and knowingly facing off with his father, who he learns is the true killer of his family, gives their final battle a bit more of an emotional heft. I don't know whether Yuen Woo-ping knew he was making the last film in a fading genre at the time or not, but if he did, it's clear that he wanted to go out with more of a bang than just in terms of action.
Even beyond the extra effort put into character depth and development, as a first time lead, Donnie Yen carries the movie extremely well. While he can be over the top at times, he's no more so than Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, or Sammo Hung were in these similar kinds of roles. He has a great sense of comic timing in addition to his physical skills, and the scene where he breakdances while dressed like a puppet (it makes sense in context, I swear) is hilarious. Yuen Cheung-yan hams it up like there's no tomorrow as the hapless puppeteer who nevertheless knows his stuff when it comes to tai chi, and Lydia Shum, while her longing for a kid helps to make her an empathetic character, also provides some decent comedy. Wong Tao doesn't have that big a role in this film, which is unfortunate, given that I've become a big fan of his in recent years, but what screentime he has is solid, and he pulls off a villain role quite well. Last but not least, Yuen Shun-yee is a surprisingly compelling character than other villains of his ilk, and he plays the doting father just as well as the ruthless killer for hire.
Now let's finally get around to discussing the action - which is naturally awesome, with talent like this in front of and behind the camera. As a screen fighter, Yen combines effortless grace and agility with ferocity and power in his fight sequences, which is one of the reasons he's my favorite martial arts movie star. He has plenty of opportunities to show his stuff, both against solo and multiple opponents - a testament to the quality of the fight scenes he'll be able to deliver in future movies. Most of the fights in the first and second act have a lot of slapstick in them, but they're still entertaining to watch, as they demonstrate a lot of creativity - not just in terms of moves, but how props and the setting are integrated into the action, such as paintbrushes or an improvised hamster wheel of sorts. Then again, this is Yuen Woo-ping we're talking about here, so that should be no surprise - not to mention his brothers, who not only also worked on the action, but play several key roles in the film. Yuen Cheung-yan is no slouch in the action choreography department in his own right, having arranged the fight scenes not only for various Hong Kong productions, but also Hollywood movies such as Charlie's Angels (2000) and Daredevil (2003). The third act, when Yen finally goes up against Wong Tao and Yuen Shun-yee, gives us the best of the martial arts sequences. (Which makes sense - save the best for last, right?) Both actors serve as formidable opponents for Yen, and my newly-acquired appreciation for Wong Tao makes me enjoy his fight with Yen even more. It serves as a fitting passing of the torch from one generation of martial arts movie talent to the next. (Just as a caveat, Qian doesn't actually perform any tai chi moves while drunk, despite the title of the movie. Most likely, that's just to cash in on the fame of Jackie Chan's Drunken Master.)
Drunken Tai Chi made less than $7 million HK upon its release, and I'm not sure if that was considered decent money back then (although given the likely budget, I'm sure the movie made a profit). Either way, it was the launching pad for a long career for Yen, which I'll be covering in more detail when I review some of his later films - and believe me, I will. As for this movie, it's still well-regarded by kung fu movie fans, not to mention Donnie Yen fans like myself. Much to my annoyance, a region-compatible Chinese language release with English subtitles doesn't seem to exist, and every version that claims to be such a release them is apparently lying. (This includes Miramax's release available through Amazon, which really pissed me off.) It hasn't even gotten a decent release on DVD or blu-ray in Hong Kong. I would have hoped that Yen's recent superstardom would mean that his older work would be more in demand, especially his first film. However, I've been told that Hong Kong audiences simply aren't interested in older films, and there isn't much market for them, so I may have a long wait on this. (Unless someone puts together a fan edit.) Still, I'm hoping one day Drunken Tai Chi will get a proper DVD release so I can watch it the way it was meant to be seen.
Drunken Tai Chi is not only an entertaining sendoff for an era of Hong Kong filmmaking, but a worthy debut for one of Hong Kong's top action stars. It's definitely worth a watch, even in the absence of a decent release.
A wizard contends with a mysterious enemy in The Face in the Frost, a delightful fantasy that offers laughs and genuine chills in equal measure.
I haven't been able to find out all that much about John Bellairs (1939 - 1994), which is a shame, given the acclaim he earned throughout his literary career. He's apparently most well known for his several fantasy series he wrote for young adults, featuring the supernatural adventures of Lewis Barnavelt, Johnny Dixon, or Anthony Monday, which constitute the vast majority of his books - of the 31 novels he completed, all but three were part of these series. Other than that, I don't really know much about him, except that prior to becoming a professional writer, Bellairs was an English teacher throughout New England, and he drew inspiration for his gothic fantasy works from M. R. James's ghost stories. His first published book was a collection of articles and essays entitled St. Fidgeta and Other Parodies (1966), a parody of Catholic rituals in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. He followed this up with The Pedant and the Shuffly (1968) and The Face in the Frost, his last novel for adults before moving on exclusively to works aimed at young adults. Frost, written while Bellairs was on a trip to England, was also an attempt to emulate J.R.R. Tolkien's writing style - more on that in a bit.
I'm really excited to be able to review this particular book on the INCspotlight - not only because I think it's a great book in dire need of attention from modern readers, but also because of what I had to go through in order to read it again. I first got my hands on The Face in the Frost when a family friend gave me a bunch of used books he didn't want anymore and thought I might like, this book obviously being one of them. I ended up really enjoying it, to the point that it's among my favorite books. I unfortunately made the mistake of loaning it to someone at camp who never gave it back (a genuinely devastating loss), and I spent more than twenty years since then trying to find it again. As The Face in the Frost has been out of print for a very long time (and for the life of me, I can't figure out why), I turned to used bookstores and libraries without success. I held off on buying it online because I wanted to make sure I got the same edition I had originally read, with Marilyn Fitschen's illustrations and Carl Lundgren's cover design. (A couple of bad experiences have left we wary of buying books online.) Eventually, I lost patience and snagged it on Amazon, hoping that the version advertised was the one I would receive (and thankfully, it was). And having read it again...well, I think by this point, you can already tell if I think it was worth all that time and effort put into tracking it down.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
As our story opens, we're introduced to a wizard named Prospero (no, not that one, as the book helpfully reminds us), who lives in a run-down house loaded with all sorts of knickknacks and wizarding paraphenelia, including a sarcastic talking mirror. He wakes up one morning with a feeling that something is somehow wrong, and that he's in some sort of danger. As he proceeds about his day-to-day business, the feeling continues, compounded by some unsettling incidents. Fortunately, that night, his old friend and fellow wizard Roger Bacon drops by for a visit. Bacon's been researching a book of magic written in a mysterious cypher for Prospero, and they wonder if it has anything to do with whatever may suddenly be after him. The next morning, it becomes evident that whoever has the book is gunning for Prospero for some reason, and Prospero and Roger set forth to find out who is after him and why. But their foe is growing stronger every day, attempting to create a permanent winter over the world, leaving behind a ghostly face in the frost-coated windows as his sigil.
The signs of Tolkien's novels influencing this story are subtle - I didn't even pick up on some of them until I was researching this book for this review - but they're there, and hard to miss once you're aware of them. (This isn't a complaint - just an observation.) For instance, both The Hobbit and The Face in the Frost open with a description of their protagonists' houses before we know anything about the protagonists themselves. (Bellairs had a fondness for antiques, and it shows in the detailed descriptions of all the stuff in Prospero's home - since I like this sort of thing, I wasn't bothered by it, but other readers may find it a bit boring.) Also, both books start on a fairly comical note before getting more serious as the story progresses. One can also draw parallels between Prospero and Gandalf, two old men who initally seem harmless beyond a cutesy spell or two, but who wield more power than you might at first expect. None of these parallels make The Face in the Frost feel derivative of Tolkien's works; his writing style, and the overall plot, have a flavor all their own.
The Face in the Frost is not a long read. I'd compare it to The Hobbit in length, and it may be even a bit shorter than that. However, it usually doesn't feel rushed, nor does it drag. The mystery of who's after Prospero and why is well-established, and it drives the reader's curiosity to figure out what's going on as they follow Prospero trying to answer those same questions. Another strong point in the book's favor is that it's easy to become invested in Prospero and Roger, which I consider to be important as a reader, as both have well-developed personalities. What truly makes the book stand out, and earned it a lot of praise from other fantasy authors, is its establishment of an eerie, unsettling tone that could get pretty darn creepy. Even reading it as an adult in a room with lots of lights on, I still got chills in certain scenes. It helps that there's a cloud of mystery and uncertainty behind the different attacks on Prospero, who is as much in the dark about his enemy as we are for most of the book, and it's the unseen menace that's the most frightening. The climax, however, is a bit hard to follow, and even now, I'm not sure what's going on - and it doesn't help that even Prospero doesn't quite understand it himself.
The Face in the Frost drew rave reviews upon its release, with Lin Carter, Ursula K. Le Guin, and John Clute praising it for its style. (Carter went so far as to praise it as one of the best fantasy books to be published since The Lord of the Rings.) Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax listed the book as recommended reading in the Master's Guide, and may have gotten ideas for the game from this book (particularly wizards having to memorize spells before being able to cast them). As I said earlier, it's been out of print for a long time, which really is a shame, because fantasy fans are really missing out on this one. (I couldn't even find scans of the illustrations.) Still, it ought to be easy to find online without coughing up too much money for it, and there's always Kindle. I'm glad to have gotten a hold of it again, and I enjoy re-reading it - while also finding a standalone fantasy novel a refreshing change. I enjoy reading fantasy, but most books in the genre that I've come across are multi-volume series that require a significant time commitment, so I haven't gotten around to as many as I'd like to. Bellairs had kicked around both a prequel and a sequel to this book, but abandoned them in favor of his numerous young adult series, and only a fragment of the former exists.
If you want a fun, spooky, fantasy adventure that won't take up an entire bookshelf, The Face in the Frost ought to be right up your alley.
It's a rite of passage for parents to be dragged to bad movies by their kids, or vice versa, but I'd like to think that when I was a kid, my family usually dodged that bullet pretty well - at least when it came to seeing stuff in theaters. Not only was I not the movie buff I am today as a kid, and not only did we usually have other commitments that limited theatrical outings, but my parents have always had a pretty good sense of quality control. (My dad may love watching bad movies for the sake of being entertained by how bad they are, but he's not the type to spend twenty bucks to knowingly see one at a theater.) And speaking of my dad, he worked for Blockbuster Video for most of my formative years, and he got to rent stuff for free all the time. There simply wasn't the urgency to see certain movies in theaters when I knew that eventually, I could see it at home thanks to one of his free rentals. There were some movies I couldn't wait to see on the big screen, like Disney's The Three Musketeers or The Mask of Zorro, which weren't exactly hard sells (my mom's a big fan of the Disney Zorro television series), but fortunately, both ended up being good.
Still, for one reason or another, I've found myself sitting through a stinker here or there in theaters. Not a ton, but enough to populate a top ten list, with a few other possible contenders I just didn't find memorable enough to include on here. To my credit (and I suppose to my parents' as well), a number of these I was dragged to by kids I was babysitting or when I was at camp. Others...either I just didn't listen to the reviews, or I'd been misled by my own expectations. And then, of course, were the times when the movie just wasn't to my personal taste, regardless of its qualities. (That's why this is a "least favorite" list and not a "worst" list.)
I'm not really sure how to rank this list, even for the number one choice, so I think I'll just list them in chronological order. In order for a movie to make this list, I had to have seen it for the first time in theaters (as opposed to seeing it on home media and then catching it in theaters in a re-release), and I had to have hated it the first time I saw it. If I liked a movie and then later changed my mind upon a second viewing, it didn't make this list.
So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Least Favorite Movies I've Seen in Theaters!
10) Problem Child (1990)
I don't remember this movie very well (and I had no intention of revisiting it for this review), but I have a very strong memory of not wanting to see it. I only did so because it was a camp outing, and I did not enjoy it in the least. It was just too mean-spirited for my liking, and I've always had a problem with stuff like that. Maybe I'd feel differently if I gave it another shot, but again, from what I remember of it, I don't really feel the need to do so.
9) Dracula: Dead and Loving It (1995)
Okay, Mel Brooks, this should have been a no-brainer. You were parodying both the classic Universal Dracula and the overdone Francis Ford Coppola version (1992). Not only that, but you had Leslie Nielsen, one of the titans of comedy, as Count Dracula. Plus, you made Young Frankenstein (1974), a brilliant horror parody that happens to be one of my all-time favorite movies. How could you have possibly screwed this up?! Oh, right, lazy writing, forced humor, and not having of the cleverness and charm that made your earlier spoofs so delightful to watch. I don't remember cracking so much as a smile during this movie, which is sad, given how much I remember I'd been looking forward to this one. This felt more like a Friedberg and Seltzer "comedy" than a Mel Brooks movie, and that is a painful thing to say about a comedic genius of Brooks's caliber.
8) The Jackal (1997)
A remake of the 1973 thriller The Day of the Jackal, which in turn was based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth, this movie was just tedious to sit through, with boring characters, boring dialogue, and very little in the way of intrigue and action. (Plus, the "plot twist" with there being a true target all along made no sense - both the fact that there even was a true target and who it turned out to be.) Part of me wonders if I was disappointed because I'd recently seen Face/Off, which I thought was excellent, and I was expecting something similar, especially where the bad guy was concerned. Face/Off's villain, Castor Troy, whether played by Nicolas Cage or John Travolta, is among my favorite movie villains, and I was hoping Willis's portrayal of The Jackal would be just as formidable and entertaining. He wasn't either one, even when not compared to Troy. This is also the first movie I ever saw in a theater by myself - I went to the theater with my dad, but he'd wanted to see something else, so we each went to our own movie and met up afterward. I don't remember what he went to see, but it had to have been better than this was.
7) Home Alone 3 (1997)
This was not only part of a weekend babysitting gig, but also assigned viewing by a brand-new local newspaper I was trying to get to take me on as a film reviewer. (Unsuccessfully, making the memories of having to sit through this all the more unpleasant.) The big problem here was that the kid (Alex D. Linz) seemed too vulnerable, and the professional thieves he was pitted against were too imposing for a kids film like this one. The Wet Bandits from the first two Home Alone movies were capable thieves, true, but there was a sense of comedic ineptitude to them, and they were up against an older, more snarky kid. It gave those movies more of a sense of fun. Here, seeing a sick little kid menaced by hardened pros, the kind you'd see in a Bond or Bourne film...it's more uncomfortable to watch. Plus, in the end, it's still a re-tread of the same old pratfalls and booby traps.
6) The Thin Red Line (1998)
Terrence Mallick's World War II drama had the unfortunate timing of coming out around the same time as Steven Spielberg's masterpiece Saving Private Ryan, and I'm sure comparisons between the two films were inevitable. For me, though, there was no contest. Even if I hadn't seen Saving Private Ryan first, I can't see myself having any other reaction to The Thin Red Line other than "it sucked." If it hadn't been a class assignment from the best high school teacher I ever had, I doubt I'd have seen it in theaters, if at all, and I don't think I'd have been any worse off. I barely got to know any of the characters, the film didn't really seem to be saying anything, and it just felt so fuggin' pretentious, so hollow and devoid of substance while trying to feel substantial and deep. I think I even slipped these sentiments into the writing assignment I had to do after seeing it; fortunately, my grade for said assignment didn't depend on liking the movie.
5) Gladiator (2000)
Ooooooooh, I'm gonna get me some hate for this one. But I'm sorry: I just don't care for Gladiator. There's no question it's impressively crafted from a technical standpoint, but its story and characters just left me cold. (Well, except for the late Oliver Reed as Proximal - that was a saving grace.) I guess its story just felt too formulaic and overdone, and Russell Crowe's perpetual moodiness and lack of anything to live for except revenge just felt one-note. I get what Ridley Scott was trying to do, show how a lone slave and gladiator can overcome someone as powerful as an emperor, but the execution just didn't do it for me. I've seen it twice since, each time trying to keep my mind as open as possible, and nothing's changed my initial opinion so far.
4) Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
As far as I'm concerned, the Terminator franchise ended with the second film, Judgment Day, and everything since then is just bad fanfic. I had no intention of ever watching this unnecessary sequel, and the only reason I did is because some friends invited me to go with them to see it, and I didn't want to be unsocial. As it turns out, none of us liked the movie, and the most entertaining part was us making fun of it together. There was no way any sequel could have possibly topped T2, which is probably one of the best sci-fi action movies ever made, but Rise of the Machines didn't feel like anyone was even bothering to try. The action wasn't exciting, some of the jokes killed the mood, and I really hated the whole "Judgment Day is inevitable" thing that undid the message of the previous film, one of the things that made it resonate and hold up as well as it does.
3) Eragon (2006)
As a favor to some family friends who were staying with us over their kids' winter break, it fell to me to take them to see this. I'd started reading the book a while ago, and...it just wasn't my thing and I didn't finish it, let's leave it at that. (As someone trying to get a book published, I think it's bad karma to publicly shred another author or their work.) The movie, however, felt like a recycled retread of better movies that had come before it, and Ed Speelers in the title role was a tear-inducingly boring character - not to mention kind of annoying. (At least his character on Downton Abbey was supposed to be unlikable.) As with Gladiator, there's a lively supporting performance from the inevitably doomed to die mentor character - in this case, Jeremy Irons as Brom - and Rachel Weisz did a good job as the voice of Saphira. It just wasn't anywhere near enough to get me into what could have been a much more satisfying fantasy adventure.
2) Spider-Man 3 (2007)
Yup, another third entry in a trilogy, and this one especially hurt. The first two Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies are among my favorite comic book movies, and they laid a lot of groundwork for what could have been an awesome third film. Unfortunately, way too much got crammed in, and the entire movie suffered as a result. And what the hell was with Venom's origin? I can't fault Raimi for how it turned out, as I understand there was a lot of studio interference on this one, resulting in a bloated mess of a movie with some good moments, particularly the Spider-Man/Sandman fights (one of which made my Top 15 favorite comic book movie fights list earlier in the year). I don't get why Sony didn't trust the guy who'd struck gold twice already, or at least broken this up into multiple movies. I hope the new Spider-Man movies with Tom Holland manage to avoid this mistake. (Also, semi-minor nitpick: I don't like how Peter Parker never fought Harry Osborn, aka the New Goblin - ugh, I hate that name - while in his Spider-Man costume.)
1) Quantum of Solace (2008)
Casino Royale (2006) was just the shot in the arm the Bond franchise needed, giving us a peek behind the curtain at what made Bond tick, while also giving us practical-looking effects and stunts. It also set the stage for interesting possibilities with a brand-new Shadowy Evil League. Not only that, but I'd seen three of director Marc Forster's other films by that point - Finding Neverland (2004), Stranger Than Fiction (2006), and The Kite Runner (2007) - and I was encouraged that a director of his caliber would be at the helm of this movie. Sadly, Quantum of Solace was a cluster in every sense of the word; it meandered and dragged, the action scenes were so rapidly cut that I couldn't follow any of the fight choreography, and the villain's scheme just seemed underwhelming. (And I despised the opening song "Another Way to Die.") What a waste of potential. At least Skyfall made up for it, although I have issues with that one's storyline as well when I think hard enough about it.
The Matrix Reloaded (2003)
I'm on the fence as to whether I think the original Matrix is good or not, but I'm not so conflicted about the sequels. The ending to the first sequel, Reloaded, left me both disappointed and confused as all hell, and not really all that interested to see what would come next. (I did see Revolutions, but only on DVD - a smart choice in retrospect.) Reloaded grabs the honorable mention slot, though, because I'm not sure how I feel about the rest of the movie. There was a lot of potential here that just didn't have a good payoff, and the leads were bland and uninteresting, both in terms of performance and characterization. Still, there were some high points. Any scenes with Hugo Weaving as ex-Agent Smith or Lambert Wilson as The Merovingian just lit up the screen. They seemed to be the only cast members actually having anything resembling fun (or any other emotion). Plus, some of the martial arts sequences were genuinely impressive, and I liked actually being able to see Zion. I just couldn't decide at the time if I'd actually liked what I'd just seen, and I guess I still can't.
For obvious reasons, I kinda have the number "three" on the brain right now. And that means it's finally time for me to review Disney's The Three Musketeers, which once upon a time was my favorite movie ever.
The last time I reviewed a Three Musketeers adaptation, I went into a lot of detail about the history behind the original novels and some of the more notable film adaptations, so I won't bother with that here. I also briefly covered the numerous other adaptations that are out there, so again, no need to rehash. Of all the adaptations I've seen (the 2011 movie and BBC series still aren't among them - and I really want to see the BBC series), I still consider this one to not only be my favorite, but the best one we've gotten so far, despite it baring only superficial resemblance to Dumas's work. While some might prefer a movie more true to the novel, I wonder if The Three Musketeers is one of those books that simply might not work as a film - or at least a single film. It's a long story in which a lot happens, and as good as the novel is, it's very uneven in terms of its pacing and tone, most of the swashbuckling action takes place in the first half of the book, and the ending is bittersweet at best. The silent adaptation from 1921, starring Douglas Fairbanks Sr., is a good film, probably the best Three Musketeers film behind the one I'm reviewing today, but it only adapts the first third of the book. The 1948 adaptation I already reviewed crammed most of they story into a two hour film, and it felt badly rushed as a result. Richard Lester made a smart decision to split the story in half, giving us The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), but his inclusion of broad slapstick comedy contrasted sharply with the second film's more dramatic moments, resulting in serious mood whiplash (a problem I also had with the 1948 film). So I can see why filmmakers might be tempted to stray more from the source material, and I'm okay with that - within certain limits. (Airships, Paul W. S. Anderson? Seriously?)
The Three Musketeers (1973)
The director of The Three Musketeers, Stephen Herek, also deserves a bit of attention in this review, as my fellow children of the 'Eighties undoubtedly know some of his work. Born in 1958, Herek studied filmmaking at the University of Austin, where the legendary Edward Dmytryk was one of his instructors. His movie career started off with him working for the master of shlock, Roger Corman, as an assistant director. During his tenure with Corman, he co-wrote the script (with old friend Dominic McNair) for Critters (1986), which was his directorial debut - and a surprise box-office hit. The success of Critters led to more directing offers, and his next film ended up being none other than the comedy classic Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.(1989) for Warner Bros. His next two films weren't exactly critical darlings, but they were popular with audiences, including The Mighty Ducks (1992), which took in five times its ten million dollar budget. With Herek's knack for overcoming weak reviews and bringing in strong profits, plus a gift for working comedy into other genres, it makes sense that he ended up being the guy to direct Disney's live-action telling of The Three Musketeers. Sadly, Herek only released one more hit after this one, the live-action 101 Dalmatians remake (1996). After two disastrous flops, including the epically disastrous Eddie Murphy vehicle Holy Man (1998), he hasn't worked in theatrical films much recently, if at all.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Our story takes place in France in the 1620s, supposedly under the benevolent rule of the young, naive King Louis XIII (Hugh O'Connor), newly married to Anne of Austria (Gabrielle Anwar). However, Cardinal Richelieu (Tim Curry) is the one with the real power, and the people of France suffer under his covert tyranny, despite the best efforts of the royal couple. Meanwhile, d'Artagnan (Chris O'Donnell) is off to Paris to follow in his late father's footsteps and become a musketeer, depicted in the film as the king's personal bodyguards. His timing is unfortunate, as Richelieu has manipulated the king into disbanding the musketeers, supposedly in preparation for a pending war with England. Three of them, however - Athos (Kiefer Sutherland), Porthos (Oliver Platt), and Aramis (Charlie Sheen) - have refused to resign their commissions and are now hunted by Richelieu's minions, including Captain Rochefort (Michael Wincott). Naturally, d'Artagnan ends up picking fights with all three of them, but he impresses them when he helps them fight off a group of the Cardinal's guards. Despite their victory, though, d'Artagnan ends up captured by Richelieu's men. While in captivity, d'Artagnan learns of Richelieu's scheme to put himself on the throne by forging an alliance with England's Duke of Buckingham, and the cardinal dispatches the seductive Countess de Winter (Rebecca de Mornay) to England with the treaty. After being rescued by our titular trio, d'Artagnan and his new comrades in arms must race the clock to thwart the cardinal and protect the king. Much awesomeness ensues thereafter.
I make no apologies for considering this adaptation of The Three Musketeers to not only be my favorite, but the best of the lot. Like I said earlier, its similarities to the original novel are superficial at best, but unlike films such as King Solomon's Mines (1950) or Scaramouche (1952), what we get in place of the source material is enjoyable, engaging, and so much fun. It doesn't take itself too seriously, presenting itself as an enjoyable popcorn flick (which Herek himself asserted they were going for), and in this respect, it succeeds. This is probably one of the reasons the movie is able to mostly maintain a consistent tone, where numerous other adaptations have failed. It's no technical marvel or anything, but it's well-shot, and the pacing is fluid, efficiently establishing story and character without bogging things down or hurriedly shoving them into the narrative. The plentiful sword fights, choreographed by Bob Anderson, are pure swashbuckling action, devoid of unnecessary CGI, wirework, or unnecessary over-editing. And, of course, there's Michael Kamen's glorious score for this film - I think I've mentioned before that this is one of the films that really got me into movie music. I even like the end credits song "All For Love," performed by Bryan Adams, Rod Stewart, and Sting. I've taken a lot of grief over the years for this being my favorite song (or at least it used to be - not sure if it still is), but if there's anything I've learned from Channel Awesome and its comrades in arms over the years, it's not to be ashamed of my taste in movies or music, or anything like that.
What really made The Three Musketeers such a winner for me is how invested I was able to get in the story and the characters, and I want to break down how the filmmakers accomplished this. First up is Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, the three musketeers themselves. While many other adaptations focus on d'Artagnan and how awesome he is, the titular trio are actually the stars of their own adventure, something that, again, can't even be said about them in the original novel. (Porthos and Aramis are far more important in the literary sequels than the original book.) D'Artagnan is still the main character, of course, but Athos, Porthos, and Aramis have a lot more to do here than in other adaptations. And it's a good thing, too, because the chemistry between the musketeers is nothing less than magical. I'm completely sold that these guys have fought, laughed, and mourned together for years, and would sacrifice anything for each other. More importantly, for all their snarking and witty banter, they understand the stakes they're playing for, and they take their duties seriously - and they know when to be serious, not breaking the drama of a somber moment for the sake of a cheap one-liner.
I also want to spend a bit more time on d'Artagnan himself, who I have to admit isn't one of the stronger elements of the film. Like his literary counterpart, he's brash and cocky, sometimes annoyingly so, and his romance with Constance (Julie Delpy) feels like it was thrown in as an aftertought. Also, while I wouldn't call Chris O'Donnell's performance bad by any means, he's overshadowed by the rest of the cast. On the other hand, he's less of a Marty Stu in this version than the others I've seen. He pulls his weight and makes important contributions to the plot, but he's still appropriately depicted as inexperienced and needing the help of his new friends, which is a nice touch. Another refreshing aspect about his characterization is that despite his father dying in the line of duty, he's not motivated by revenge. There's no "one day I'll find and kill the guy whoever killed my father thing" going on. In fact, in the climactic duel with Rochefort at the end, he doesn't even know Rochefort is the guy who killed his dad (hey, the spoiler warning is there for a reason) until the very end of the fight. The entire rest of the time he's fighting him, it's out of duty to the king, not personal vengeance. Last but not least, I can relate to him wanting to make the musketeers proud, and be seen as deserving to be one of them.
The villains, of course, are not to be outdone by our heroes. Tim Curry is perfectly cast as Cardinal Richelieu, and the amount of fun he's having with this performance is infectious. He not only looks the part, but he leaves no scenery unchewed in his delightfully over-the-top performance, worthy of comparison to Alan Rickman's performance in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. And speaking of Prince of Thieves, Michael Wincott fares much better in The Three Musketeers than he did in that film, actually getting to show off his stage combat chops and play a villain who actually gets to be villainous, as well as duke it out with the good guys. Interestingly, Milady de Winter, on the other hand, is a much more complex character than she was in the original story. Rather than a raging demon with a heart of pure evil, as written by Dumas, this Milady is more of a guilt-ridden tragic figure behind her manipulative facade. Last but not least, Doctor Who fans are in for a surprise treat, as the Eighth Doctor, Paul McGann, appears in a dual role here: not only is he the screechy-voiced Gerard, who bears a grudge against d'Artagnan for getting overly friendly with his sister, but also Jussac, an officer in Richelieu's guards. I'm not sure why they double-cast McGann in these two roles - did the filmmakers just really like working with him that they wanted to maximize his screen time as much as possible, or was he a last-minute re-cast?
The Three Musketeers was also an important lesson as a writer in terms of making the audience care about the stakes. In the book and all other adaptations of The Three Musketeers that I've seen, King Louis XIII is a petty, selfish ruler who cares little for his subjects' welfare or his wife's happiness. If the life of such a king was in danger, you probably wouldn't give a damn whether he croaked or not. In fact, in the French film Revenge of the Musketeers (1994), that's exactly how I felt about Louis XIV's life being threatened by the villains - I didn't care, because he was such an unlikable prat. (And yes, that one's also on the list.) By making the king young, innocent, and good-natured, not to mention genuinely in love with Anne, you feel sympathetic towards him, and you actually care if he lives or dies, beyond not wanting to see the ruthless Richelieu seize the throne. It's a lesson I've taken to heart when trying to come up with stakes for my stories.
Like most of Herek's other films, The Three Musketeers didn't go over well with critics, and even on IMDB, it only has a 6.4 rating. It made a decent amount of money, earning a decent profit, but it was no blockbuster. The single of "All For Love," however, went on to become a big success, throughout Europe as well as here in the US. Also, in 1994, Marvel (not yet owned by Disney) thought it was worth the effort to publish a two-part comic book adaptation. (I haven't read it, so no idea how good it is.) I can see why this movie didn't have more of a lasting impact, let alone make more of a splash when it hit theaters. However, seeing it in theaters as a twelve-year-old kid, I thought this movie was nothing less than awesome, and hit so many high marks, I couldn't think of any other movie I'd enjoyed more up to that point, and for many years afterwards.
So...what happened? If I enjoy The Three Musketeers so much, and have so many good things to say about it, how did it fall from grace? Easy: it didn't. It's still on my top ten list, and even though my taste in movies and my standards for what makes them good have changed, I still hold this film in high regard. Everything I used to love about it, I still love about it. The few bits I didn't care for still annoy me. But the movie is still the same amazing, fun, exciting swashbuckler I've always regarded it to be, no matter how many times I see it. That hasn't changed. I've simply been exposed to a lot more movies over the years, a few of which have managed to equal or surpass it. Also, I finally acquired a copy of The Adventures of Robin Hood, something I didn't own for a long time, and I've had more chances to see it more often. If we'd owned said copy growing up, I'm sure Robin Hood would still have been the front-runner, and The Three Musketeers a close second.
The Three Musketeers is the kind of swashbuckler that simply isn't made all that often anymore: a rollicking adventure with likable characters and a genuine sense of unpretentious fun. I'd definitely recommend this one.
And thus concludes another year of The INCspotlight! It hasn't been as productive of one as years past, simply because my schedule doesn't allow me to crank these out on a weekly basis anymore. I'd like to think, though, that a more flexible schedule has given me time to get each review right, to find something interesting to delve into and research for each film, comic, or book that I'm looking at. I still love writing this blog, though, and I hope to keep it up for as long as possible - there's still tons of stuff I haven't gotten to yet. I'd also like to once again thank the folks at Channel Awesome for giving this humble little blog a home, all my readers for your time and encouragement these past three years, and my family and friends for all the support.
'Till next time!
Is it weird that one of my favorite writers is fictional? Is it any less weird if we can actually read his work?
In 2009, after one and a half seasons, ABC cancelled True Beauty in favor of a new crime series, Castle. Created by Andrew W. Marlowe, who also wrote the screenplays for the movies Air Force One (1997) and End of Days (1999), Castle was a mid-season pickup that managed to blend comedy and drama perfectly, to the point where you were never quite sure which category best matched it. It quickly found an audience and a devoted fan following, and continued on for seven more full seasons - probably one or two too many, depending on who you ask.
The eponymous Castle is Richard Edgar Castle (Nathan Fillion), a mystery writer who rides along with ace homicide detective Katherine "Kate" Beckett (Stana Katic) of the NYPD during her investigations. Prior to their partnership, Castle had written 23 best-selling novels, including a series of thrillers starring Derrick Storm, a private detective turned CIA troubleshooter. Castle eventually became bored with writing about Storm and killed him off, thinking he could easily come up with new characters. Unfortunately, he hit a bad case of writer's block, as he lacked inspiration for a new book. Then Detective Beckett (a closet Castle fan) stepped into the picture, investigating a series of serial killings based on Castle's books (his lesser works, by his own estimation). With the case solved, Castle found in Beckett the inspiration for a new character - Nikki Heat, a tough, savvy, sexy homicide detective. Thanks to his connections, Castle arranged it so that he would accompany Beckett on her cases, much to her initial dispeasure. Castle's snark and immaturity grated on the seriously professional Beckett, as did his depiction of her fictional counterpart, but his writer brain allowed him to come up with out-of-the-box angles for investigating and solving cases, and the two evolved from being uneasy partners to friends...and, of course, a couple. Castle was also instrumental in helping Beckett solve the long-unsolved murder of her mother, written off as a random slaying at first, but later revealed to be part of a widespread conspiracy.
In addition to its deliciously snarky banter, Castle's biggest strength was its well-developed characters, brought to life by a talented cast with strong chemistry - not just the leads, but the supporting cast as well. Aiding Beckett with her investigations were fellow detectives Javier Esposito (Jon Huertas) and Kevin Ryan (Seamus Deaver), staunch allies and friends who enjoyed the bickering between Castle and Beckett, and who could always be counted on to get their backs. Castle also had his family - his high-school/college age daughter Alexis (Molly C. Quinn) from his first marriage, and his mother Martha (Susan Sullivan), a former Broadway star. Other recurring characters were the NYPD's forensic specialists, Dr. Lanie Parrish (Tamala Jones) and Dr. Sidney Perlmutter (Arye Gross). For the first three seasons, Beckett's commanding officer was the kindly Captain Roy Montgomery (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). In Season 4, Montgomery was replaced by the more taciturn Captain Victoria "Iron" Gates (Penny Johnson Gerald), who didn't warm up to Castle for a long time. Also in Season 4, psychiatrist Dr. Carter Burke (Michael Dorn) began making occasional appearances, a very different character than I'm used to seeing Dorn play (or hearing him voice).
The showrunners put a lot of work into the gimmick that Castle actually existed. Real-life authors, including James Patterson, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connelly, and the late Stephen J. Cannell, would join Castle at his regular poker games, and sometimes even offer writing advice. Not only that, but Castle had his own website where you could see his entire bibliography, as well as get writing advice (quite useful advice, I must say) and read his blog. Blog entries included his bucket list, plans for successfully ambushing Alexis at laser-tag, and homemade memes mocking Nebula 9, Beckett's favorite sci-fi show. It really was remarkable how much work and detail went into this website, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it's been taken down, replaced by a generic "about the show" page. I guess when ABC decided to destroy everything enjoyable about Castle during Season 8, they wanted to be as thorough as possible.
The crowning achievement of this gimmick, however, was the publication of the actual Nikki Heat novels, supposedly authored by Castle himself. The identity of the actual writer remains unknown, and is a source of much internet speculation. The "about the author" sections of the books show a photo of Nathan Fillion with a bio of Castle, not to mention acknowledgments from "Castle" himself. To top it off, Nathan Fillion's not above signing books as Castle - something I can personally attest to, thanks to the friend who got me into all this in the first place.
As of the time I'm writing this, seven books in the Nikki Heat series have been published, all New York Times best-sellers, with an eighth on the way this October 25th and a ninth announced for next year. (There are also some real-world works about Derrick Storm, including a series of graphic novel adaptations of the older novels published by Marvel Comics, as well as new novels featuring Derrick Storm, revealed to have faked his death. Nikki Heat makes a cameo in the first of these novels, Storm Front.) In fact, it was actually the books that finally got me into Castle in the first place. (Well, that and the urging of a very old friend whose judgment I can trust about this sort of thing.) I'm much more picky about TV shows than movies these days, on account of the time commitment required to invest in an ongoing series, and Castle just didn't seem like anything original, based on the premise. However, once I saw the Richard Castle books on shelves at a local Barnes & Noble, that's when I had my "okay, I've gotta listen to my friend and check this show out" moment. It didn't take me long to get hooked, for the reasons I stated above, and then I went ahead and nabbed all the novels in print at the time. I've had a lot of fun re-reading these in preparation for this review, as has my always-dependable Trusty Research Assistant. (I was briefly tempted to follow suit with this review, playing along with the idea that Castle was real, but I wasn't sure how many people would get the joke.)
Similar to the show, Nikki Heat is an NYPD homicide detective whose mother Cynthia was murdered in her home by an unknown assailant. Since then, she's dedicated herself to making sure every victim gets the justice he or she deserves, regardless of who they are, never becoming just another statistic. Her ridealong, Jameson Rook, is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist doing research for a magazine article. (He also writes romance novels on the side under the alias "Victoria St. Clair.") Miguel Ochoa and Sean Raley (given the joint nickname "Roach") are clear analogues for Esposito and Ryan, as is Captain Montrose for Captain Montgomery. There are some new additions to Nikki's homicide squad that don't seem to be based on anyone from the show. Randall Feller and Dan "Opie" Rhymer, and in two of the books, burglary detectives Malcolm and Reynolds. (Like the show, the books drop lots of references to Fillion's prior role as Captain Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly.) The annoyingly inept Sharon Hinesburg is modeled on Detective Karpowski, a character who only appeared in a couple of episodes - Hinesberg plays much more of a key role in the books than Karpowski ever did on the show. Other than that, the books could basically be episodes of the show.
You don't need to have seen a single episode of Castle to be able to follow the books, although it will help you appreciate all the mythology gags and references to the TV series. While the show won't really spoil all that much from the books, the books will have lots of spoilers for the show, especially if you read the acknowledgments, as I encourage you to do. So if you're planning to check out both Castle and Nikki Heat, watch Castle first, then read the books. Just as a heads up, the books are also far more explicit than the show, especially when it comes to language, violence, and sexual content. (In the first novel, Heat Wave, Heat fights off an assailant in her apartment while she's completely in the buff.) This isn't a bad thing: just something to be aware of for those of you who are concerned about stuff like this. I'm not going to review each individual novel as a whole, because it would basically be repetitive. The quality of the writing and the chemistry between the characters is consistent throughout the series. I'll try and keep the spoilers to a minimum as much as possible.
Alrighty, I think that's more than enough exposition. On with the review!
Heat Wave (2009)
Nikki Heat investigates the murder of real estate tycoon Matthew Starr, all the while saddled with a ride-along: famed reporter Jameson Rook, who's writing an article about her and her squad. Naturally, Rook's cavalier attitude, refusal to follow instructions, and attempts at charm grate on Nikki, but he's nevertheless instrumental in helping solve the case. Castle fans who had yet to see Castle and Beckett so much as hug by the time this book came out probably enjoyed seeing their fictional counterparts hook up. This book starts off as a fairly straightforward mystery, which takes some interesting turns later on. The real fun is watching Heat and Rook play off each other, and everybody else enjoying the show. A strong beginning to the Nikki Heat series.
According to Castle lore, Heat Wave was a smash hit, leading to an offer from Castle's publisher for three more books. It even got a movie adaptation starring Natalie Rhodes (Laura Prepon) as Heat, and there was an episode where Rhodes - a hardcore Method actor - shadowed Beckett so as to best be able to portray her on-screen. Unfortunately, it went straight to DVD on account of Rhodes's substance abuse issues.
Naked Heat (2010)
As Heat deals with the fallout from Rook's article in First Press, she unexpectedly finds him at the scene of a murder. The victim turns out to be notorious gossip columnist Cassidy Towne, who had no shortage of people who wanted to see her dead - athletes, pop stars, celebrity chefs, you name it. Rook is once again on hand to help out Heat, but thanks to his article, he's not exactly welcome, which makes for some nice tension. Not as much action in this one compared to the other books, but lots of suspects, and it does a better job of building suspense once we get to the killer's identity and motive. Everything I enjoyed about the first book was here in force, but I found the actual mystery itself to be more engaging this time around.
Heat Rises (2011)
A priest is found tortured to death in a BDSM dungeon, and it appears Captain Montrose is involved somehow. As Heat struggles to unravel the mystery, she finds herself stonewalled by her captain, under assault by mysterious assassins, ensnared by police department politics, and devoid of an on-assignment Rook for the first part of the book. The case turns personal for Heat when she unexpectedly suffers a devastating loss.
This is, by far, my favorite book in the series, and I've re-read it more times than the other entries. I think it's the best written, the best plotted and put-together, and it did the best job of keeping me riveted to the page wondering what would come next. The mystery has lots of moving parts to it, and I'm impressed with how well everything tied together in the end. All the books in the series have been able to pull this off, don't get me wrong, but Heat Rises stands out in this regard.
Frozen Heat (2012)
A dead woman is found in a suitcase that once belonged to Heat's mother, reopening the cold case as she works to solve this newest murder. As Heat and Rook inch ever closer towards the truth, some surprising revelations about Cynthia Heat are brought to light, none of which I saw coming - including the identity of her killer. (I was audibly surprised by who it turned out to be, which got me some weird looks as I was riding the bus home from work.) It also ends on an EVIL cliffhanger, and I was chomping at the bit waiting impatiently for the next book to come out in paperback. Beyond this, Heat and Rook have some beautiful moments together, which appeal to the sentimental sap in me, and while the bad guy may be a bit too easy to identify (at least if you're a veteran of the genre), it's a minor quibble in an otherwise stellar entry in the series - probably on par with Heat Rises.
Deadly Heat (2013)
Continuing from the previous book, Heat faces a double-threat: the same shadowy conspiracy from the previous book, and a ruthless serial killer who's racking up serious headlines. As Heat confronts these double-threats, her superiors once again are on hand to question her ability to tackle both cases at once. There's also some rivalry with an anti-terrorism unit working the first case, one member of which is an old flame of Rook's. As if this wasn't bad enough, but someone on Heat's squad may be working for the bad guys.
I'm not entirely sure how well the two plots of the conspiracy and the serial killer intersect - especially since the two perps manage to get in each other's way, making one of them come off as substantially less of a threat. This probably would have worked better as two separate stories. Still, it's well-written, and it does a good job of wrapping up this particular arc of Nikki Heat's story, even if I was hoping for something a bit more epic. It left me wondering where the series would go from here, especially once I learned that it would indeed go on.
Raging Heat (2014)
Nikki Heat encounters one of her more gruesome crime scenes - a victim apparently dropped from a plane. The man behind it appears to a charismatic but ruthless former businessman turned Port Authority commissioner primed to move on to bigger and better things. Nikki is convinced the evidence points to Gilbert, but her squad, her superiors, and even Rook aren't so sure. The timing on this lack of faith couldn't be worse, as Heat is facing some professional and personal possibilities that this case threatens to undermine. Oh, and Hurricane Sandy is bearing down on New York as all this is going down.
This is an interesting variation compared to the other books in the series so far, as we pretty much know who the guilty party is from very early on in the book, and certain key plot points make it all the more inevitable. The mysteries here are how Heat can prove it, why the victim was murdered in the first place, and what the culprit's overall scheme is - and Rising Heat keeps you guessing all the way to the end on that, with a satisfying payoff in the end. And speaking of endings, Rising Heat's has quite a status-quo game-changer that ends on a bit of a cliffhanger. Also, it was an interesting choice using Hurricane Sandy, a real storm that did a great deal of damage and cost many lives, as opposed to a fictional storm.
Driving Heat (2015)
Nikki Heat, now precinct captain, suffers yet another loss - Dr. Lon King, her psychiatrist, who has been mysteriously shot to death. As the bodycount increases, the NYPD faces a hacking assault that shuts their tech down, and Heat faces some internal squabbling that casts doubt on her ability to be an effective captain. Also, Rook's principles as a journalist force him to hold back key information he might have on the case, which puts him at odds with Heat.
While there was a lot about this book that I enjoyed, especially the beautifully written ending, I don't think the mystery was as well-assembled as it was in the previous books. The payoff was especially disappointing, even after a second read-through. It's not by any means bad, but I was expecting more.
I'm looking forward to seeing what the next book, High Heat has to offer, and hopefully it'll leave me wanting to come back for the next one, Heat Storm (which I'm guessing will be a full-fledged Nikki Heat/Derrick Storm crossover). I hope the series remains strong, and avoids making the mistakes of its television source. As long as it does, the Nikki Heat series can count me in...always.
It's once again time for my favorite internet holiday - Talk Like a Pirate Day! And what better way to celebrate than by reviewing a pirate movie...from the Silent Era.
If you're a big fan of classic swashbucklers, the first movie to come to mind when you hear the title The Sea Hawk is probably the Michael Curtiz version from 1940, starring Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall. Unlike Curtiz's film, the silent version is a faithful adaptation of Rafael Sabatini's novel, published in 1915. (In the book's title, "Sea-Hawk" is hyphenated, but not in the film.) Long-time INCspotlight readers probably know that Rafael Sabatini is one of my favorite authors, a specialist in historical adventure fiction whose works have inspired much of my own writing. Unlike Captain Blood or The Black Swan, which revolved around Caribbean piracy, The Sea-Hawk focused on the Barbary pirates (also known as corsairs), the Ottoman Empire's privateers who operated around Northern Africa and the Mediterranean Sea (although some of their raids reached as far as Iceland and Ireland).
Even though Muslim pirates had operated in these waters since the 9th century, it was during the 1500s that the corsairs got their infamous reputation, and they remained a force to be reckoned with until after the Napoleonic Wars. Unlike the lone wolf privateers of Europe, whose actions were publicly condemned but privately sanctioned, corsair galleys struck in force with the public backing of the Ottomans, with Tripoli and Algiers serving as their safe harbor cities. A substantial amount of their profits came from either selling their captives into slavery (including as galley slaves - although they got a piece of the action after each raid) or holding them for ransom, although some could earn their freedom if they converted to Islam. (Not all the corsairs were Muslim, however. Their ranks included Jewish exiles seeking revenge on the Spanish Empire for centuries of persecution.) The Barbary corsairs had enough force at their disposal to compel the European nations to pay tribute in exchange for safe passage through the Mediterranean. This ended up being the impetus for the newly-independent United States to establish its own navy, as President Thomas Jefferson deemed the tribute demanded by the Berber states to be both an unsustainable economic hardship and a sign of weakness in a new nation. (I could go into a lot more detail on this last point, but there's plenty of information out there on the USA's numerous treaties with the Berbers, and this is already getting pretty long as it is. Bottom line, it's a fascinating part of American and pirate history that's worth reading up on.)
The Barbary pirates haven't had the same presence in popular culture that their Caribbean counterparts have, but they've shown up here and there in classic literature, including Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo (1844). More recently, they've been featured in Pirates of the Levant, the last of Arturo Perez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series to get an English-language translation. Sabatini would use the Barbary pirates again in The Sword of Islam (1939), which I just can't get very far into despite multiple attempts. (It's not one of Sabatini's better works, and the lack of historical context makes it hard to follow.) As for film depictions, there have been a few movies where they feature, but nowhere near to the same degree The Sea Hawk does.
A film adaptation of The Sea-Hawk was the perfect project for Frank Lloyd (1886 - 1960), one of the founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, to direct. Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Lloyd started off as an actor, both on stage and screen (making his film acting debut in 1913), before too many bad reviews persuaded him to look for work behind the scenes as a screenwriter and director. He signed with Twentieth Century Fox in 1917, specializing in adventure films and adaptations of literary classics. These became Lloyd's stock-in-trade, and when he joined First National Pictures (later part of Warner Bros.) in 1922, they gave him his own production unit that specialized in such films, including Oliver Twist (1922). Throughout his career, Lloyd directed several Best Picture winners, including Cavalcade (1933) and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935), and won Best Director for himself with The Divine Lady (1929) and Cavalcade, not to mention several other nominations. His talents as a director weren't only limited to technical prowess; Lloyd directed seven Academy Award winning performances throughout his career, including Clark Gable's in Mutiny on the Bounty and Basil Rathbone's in If I Were King (1938).
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Sir Oliver Tressilian (Milton Sills) has it all: wealth, health, and the gratitude of Queen Elizabeth I for his part in the Spanish Armada's sinking. However, Sir John Killigrew (Marc McDermott) regards Tressilian as little more than a brutish pirate, and refuses to allow him to marry his ward, Rosamund Godolphin (Enid Bennett). Rosamund's brother Peter (Wallace MacDonald) is even more of a dick about it, and Rosamund makes the short-tempered Tressilian promise never to fight Peter, no matter how much he provokes him. Naturally, everything goes south when Peter ambushes Tressilian's callow younger brother Lionel (Lloyd Hughes), and Peter pays for his vindictiveness with his life. It's all done in fair fight, but with no witnesses, Lionel's smart enough to know people will say Peter was murdered in cold blood - and he's right. Although Tressilian vows to look out for Lionel, as he always has, Lionel repays his brother's kindness by having him be abducted by smugglers, fearing that Oliver might change his mind. Plus, with the elder Tressilian out of the way, Lionel can now lay claim to all of his brother's wealth and try and win Rosamund's affections.
Fate isn't done screwing with Tressilian yet, though. The smugglers' ship ends up attacked by the Spanish, and Tressilian winds up a galley slave. After six hellish months chained to an oar, Oliver befriends fellow slave Yusuf Ben-Moktar (Albert Prisco), whose uncle is Asad-ed-Din (Frank Currier), the basha (a high-ranking official) of Algiers and leader of the corsairs. Their ship is attacked by corsairs, and Tressilian and Yusuf help them defeat the Spanish. Unfortunately, although Tressilian saves Yusuf's life during the battle, Yusuf is ultimately killed. Still, his attempt to save Yusuf earn him the friendship of the corsairs. Embittered by his treatment at the hands of his fellow Christians, Tressilian converts to Islam and joins the Barbary pirates, becoming known as Sakr-el-Bahr, "the Hawk of the Sea." Over the next several years, Sakr-el-Bahr becomes the terror of the Mediterranean, a fearsome enemy to be reckoned with in battle and a close friend of Asad-ed-Din. However, when he decides to reclaim Rosamund for himself and take his revenge on Lionel, it could cost him everything he's gained, not to mention his very life.
How you react to the film's depiction of Muslims will obviously be based on your own personal perceptions and biases (which is the case with all aspects of artistic works across all mediums). Some may condemn said portrayal as typical Hollywood Orientalism, relying on bigotry-rooted clichés and stereotypes, while others might see it as a fair, respectful portrayal of Muslims - at least for the time. For me personally, while The Sea Hawk does indeed invoke a number of stereotypes, I find myself in the latter camp. Muslim characters are portrayed more sympathetically than English Protestants or Spanish Catholics, and more importantly, they're given the chance to be developed characters with complex personalities, particularly Asad-ed-Din. Even when Sakr-el-Bahr has a falling out with his new allies, none of the Muslim characters really qualify as villains - certainly not to the same degree that Lionel does, at least. I've heard The Sea Hawk take criticism for invoking the Mighty Whitey trope, which I don't think applies here. For one thing, Oliver Tressilian helped sink the Spanish Armada, and his time as a galley slave enhanced his already formidable physical strength. Besides, European converts to Islam were historically among the real-life Barbary pirates, so there's an actual historical basis for Oliver joining their ranks. So I don't think Sakr-el-Bahr reaches the top echelons of the Barbary corsairs just because he's a white guy, but because he's a friggin' badass, and was one long before he converted and joined the corsairs. I won't say there isn't anything problematic about The Sea Hawk's depiction of Muslims, but what we got was, in my humble opinion, for the most part respectful. As we saw in The Sheik (which I reviewed last year), it could have been worse. Soooooooo much worse.
As an adaptation of Sabatini's novel, The Sea Hawk is solid, streamlining and condensing the source material while still faithfully telling Sabatini's story. The book has some more details and character insight, obviously, but enough makes it into the movie to satisfy my fellow Sabatini fans. While The Sea Hawk's performances are nothing to write home about (and Milton Sills and Enid Bennett don't have much in the way of chemistry), it's magnificent to look at, thanks to its elaborate sets, costumes, and action sequences. Realizing that audiences wouldn't be fooled by miniatures, Frank Lloyd splurged on employing thousands of extras and building wooden exteriors for full-sized ships (designed by Fred Gabouire, Buster Keaton's prop man). Rather than using sound stages and tanks for scenes set at sea, Lloyd shot them around the Catalina Islands. As for the other technical elements, The Sea Hawk mostly moves along at a good pace. Most of the action takes place in the first half of the movie, so the second half feels slower by comparison, but I can't completely fault the filmmakers for this, as this was the case in the novel as well.
All the hard work that clearly went into this film paid off when it finally hit theaters. The Sea Hawk was the highest-grossing movie of 1924, and earned a great deal of critical praise as well. Lloyd's attention to detail and willingness to invest in this film allows it to hold up even by modern standards (technically, anyway), and it remains a rousing adventure story. I think it's among the best pirate movies ever made, and as a Sabatini fan, it's nice to see the rich source material be faithfully brought to the big screen. It's available through the Warner Archives, and it's one worth adding to your DVD collection, especially if you like silent films and/or swashbucklers - or if you're curious to see how The Sea Hawk depicts its Muslim characters. And, of course, there's always Turner Classic Movies, which is how I saw this movie for the first time.
This is a meticulously-crafted rousing adventure story that deserves to be seen, just as much as the book it's based on deserves to be read. I definitely recommend this one. (And yes, I'll be reviewing the Errol Flynn Sea Hawk at some point.)
W. C. Fields is California dreamin' in It's a Gift, a comedy classic from one of the great comedians of movie history.
As far as I can tell, most of the biographical information I've found about William Claude Dukenfield (1880 - 1946) is a blend of tall tale and actual fact, and it doesn't help that Fields frequently fudged his own backstory. The anecdotes about his fights with his father may be true (although they made up later on, Fields buying his retired parents a house in his later years), but his living on the streets by his wits since the age of twelve is pure fabrication. A talented juggler with an uncanny sense of balance, Dukenfield started off as a music hall and vaudeville performer as a teenager. A theater manager took the liberty of shortening his name so it would fit on a billboard, and thus the stage name of "W. C. Fields" was born. He was immensely popular on the stage, touring throughout America and Europe, and he joined the Ziegfeld Follies in 1915, later seguing into comedy. Like many before and after him, his road as an entertainer eventually led him to Broadway success with the musical Polly, and later to the big screen, beginning with Pool Sharks (1915), which he also wrote. (Fields wrote a number of the films he starred in, later using pseudonyms such as "Mahatma Kane Jeeves" and "Otis Criblecablis.") However, after Pool Sharks and His Lordship's Dilemma (also 1915), his theatrical commitments kept him away from film work until 1924, when he signed on with Paramount Pictures.
Pool Sharks (1915)
Unfortunately for Fields, most of his silent movies weren't that successful - in fact, five of them in a row bombed at the box office. However, his film career got a new lease on life in the sound era, beginning with the screwball comedy Million Dollar Legs (1932), a favorite film of the notorious critic Pauline Kael. Fields's star continued to rise with a series of short comedies made with Mack Sennett, including the much-beloved The Dentist (1932), and his supporting role in the ensemble comedy International House (1933) propelled him to stardom. (I'm debating whether or not to review International House at some point.) Fields made a number of hit comedies over the years, and It's a Gift (a remake of his silent film It's the Old Army Game) is considered to be one of his best. He didn't exclusively stick to comedies, though. In 1933, he played Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland (directed by Norman McLeaod, who also directed It's a Gift), and took a rare completely dramatic role as Mr. Micawber in David Copperfield (1935), a role he was desperately eager to play. It was the one and only time he never ad-libbed any of his lines.
David Copperfield (1935)
Fields was immensely popular and a frequent subject of parody and caricature, recognizable not only for his red nose (incorrectly associated with his copious drinking), but his distinctive, faux-sophisticated line delivery. Part of the appeal of Fields was not only his razor-sharp wit, on-and-off screen, but also the two personas he'd perfected on Broadway: the big-talking con artist and the henpecked family man. Both of these characters could misanthropic, cantankerous, and sometimes even downright cruel, which can be funny when done right - and Fields usually did. His famed on-screen rivalry with child star Baby LeRoy in particular brought out the worst in his characters, although he never gave as much as he got in their encounters. Much of this seems to be mere persona, even his famed disdain for working with children - or children in general - rather than a reflection of his real sentiments. When Baby LeRoy's film career prospects dried up and his family couldn't make ends meet, Fields supported them financially. He was also an outspoken opponent of segregation and is said to have once kicked someone off his property for using the n-word.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Harold Bissonette (W. C. Fields) is stuck in a rut, and I don't just mean the fictional New Jersey town of Wappinger Falls. He hates his job as a grocery store owner, thanks to a string of customers that belong on notalwaysright.com and an inept assistant . His home life isn't any better, thanks to his short-tempered wife Amelia (Kathleen Howard), self-centered teenage daughter Mildred (Jean Rouveral), and loudmouth son Norman (Tom Bupp) who seems to spend all his time on rollerskates. What he really wants, above all else, is to buy and run an orange grove out in California. When his uncle Bean passes away and leaves him an unspecified but apparently sizable inheritance, he buys one, despite being warned that the one he's set on purchasing isn't any good. The warning turns out to be true, but naturally, when all seems lost, a convenient deus ex machina arrives to save the day.
The story is, as reviewers pointed out at the time, just a framing device for the comedy routines, three of which make this film absolutely shine. The first is early on, in which Mildred is primping in the bathroom in front of the mirror, completely oblivious that Harold is trying to shave. It's that obliviousness that makes it work; neither W. C. Fields nor Jane Rouveral are trying to be funny or obnoxious, and that makes the scene all the more funny. The second is set in Harold's store, Harold having to deal with an impatient customer, a blind regular who's also hard of hearing, and Baby LeRoy being allowed to wreak havoc by Harold's inattentive assistant. Some may cringe at finding humor in someone's disability, but his obnoxiousness helps assuage the guilt. The most iconic sequence of It's a Gift, the one it's probably best remembered for, is Fields trying to take an outdoor nap on a porch swing, only for one thing or another to keep waking him up - the clatter of milk bottles, the squeaking of a laundry line, and the world's pushiest insurance salesman (T. Roy Barnes) looking for someone named Carl LaFong. Some of the gags in this film, including the porch scene, had not only been part of his vaudeville routines, including his stage revue The Comic Supplement, and it's not hard to imagine seeing these sequences being done on a live stage. That's not to say there aren't laughs to be found elsewhere in the movie, some of them quite clever. There's a scene where you know Fields is going to slip on a conveniently-placed roller-skate as he comes down the hall, but his stopping to pluck a flower from a vase for his lapel, building anticipation for the pratfall to come.
Unfortunately, the third act of the film, when the Bissonettes head out to California, doesn't have any of the comic brilliance from earlier in the film, and it just peters out. The last of the big comedic set pieces, when they mistake a private manor for a public park and stop for a picnic lunch, just doesn't have the same energy that the earlier ones did. (Although to be fair, some scenes are apparently missing from the DVD release - maybe these would have fixed things?) Also, Kathleen Howard as Harold's nagging wife is a one-joke character, always speaking in the same manner and tone, and it gets old after a while. And let's be honest here - most of the time she's complaining about what Harold's doing, she's absolutely right. The only time she's not is when she walks into the middle of something going on and makes wrong assumptions about the context. It's funny once, but over and over again? Not so much.
For all its crudity, It's a Gift was a hit with audiences and critics, even if they criticized the thin plot, and like I said earlier, is considered to be Fields at his best. It's on AFI's "100 Years...100 Laughs" list of best comedies, outranking titles such as Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), The Court Jester (1956), and City Slickers (1991). I don't know how modern audiences would react to this one overall, but the three comedy set pieces I highlighted will probably win you guys over. Hopefully, we'll one day get a proper release of this movie with the missing scenes included.
For classic comedy aficionados, It's a Gift is unmissable, and there should be plenty of laughs for younger generations as well. Give it a chance - you won't be sorry.
I'm trying something different on the INCspotlight today - a mini-roundup of various retro and classic arcade games I've enjoyed playing over the years.
For those of you who don't know what MAME is or what it has to do with video games, and why that's the title of this particular blog, allow me to explain. MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator) is an open source program that emulates arcade games, allowing you to play exact recreations of them on your own computer. The stated purpose of this is to allow the preservation of these games, as finding many of them in an arcade these days is next to impossible. In other words, if you have a hankering for classic arcade gaming, this will most likely be your best shot. MAME, and the individual ROMs for each game, can be found on multiple websites for free, and naturally, you're not pouring any quarters into an arcade machine, with the push of a key on your keyboard serving as an "insert coin" function instead. Best of all is a save state option for in case you mess up and want a do-over without having to replay an entire chunk of the game. (Or if you enjoy boss battles and just want to play those instead of plowing through the entire game first, which I like to do with superhero games.) MAME isn't the only arcade emulator out there, but it's my understanding that it's the most well-known (and the most conducive to a catchy title).
As I've mentioned before, I'm a huge fan of retro gaming, and not just because these were the games that came out when I was a little kid. As impressive as the leaps in video game technology can be, giving them movie-quality graphics and elaborate storylines, there's something to be said for the simplicity of older games, which you can play and unwind with for just a few minutes. Besides, while they lack the immersive worlds and the deep characterizations many modern games have, the simple graphics of older games make it easier to give each one its own distinct character and set them apart from each other. And with the decline of arcades, or at least arcades likely to have more obscure games, it's only thanks to MAME that I've gotten to play some of these.
Rather than devote a single blog post to a single game, I'm just going to give some quick mini-reviews of some of the more obscure personal favorites of mine, in no particular order. I doubt I'd be able to get an entire review out of most of the games I want to highlight - and besides, I'm kinda breaking my own self-imposed rule about not writing about anything I haven't played through in its entirety, so I can't give these games a proper INCspotlight review. Depending on the responses I get, I may make this a recurring series on the INCspotlight.
Knights of the Round (1991)
I'm not a big fan of first-person shooters, but there's something about vector graphics games that really appeals to me. There's no story to speak of here; you're a tank blowing up other tanks and the occasional flying saucer thingie. A radar at the top of the screen shows you where the enemy tanks are, and there are various obstacles that you - and your enemies - can hide behind. Also, you're only taking on one tank at a time, which makes it a fair fight. (Although depending on your reflexes and gaming skills, it's entirely possible for you and the other tank to eliminate each other at the same time.) It may sound simple, but it's ridiculously addictive once you start playing. (The original arcade machine had a periscope you had to look through in order to see the screen - obviously you don't need to do that with this game.) There were a lot of ports of this game to home consoles, and the Macintosh game Spectre is quite a well-made clone of the game. (There was even a special version of this game made for the US military called The Bradley Trainer.)
Yie Ar Kung Fu (1985)
An early fighting game from Konami, you play a martial artist named Oolong who must fight his way through a gauntlet of martial arts masters in one-on-one combat. Your opponents are typically armed with a particular weapon, and you have to face them bare-handed. (Although at least you get to jump, something most of them can't do.) I have something of a love-hate relationship with this game. I find the controls frustrating to figure out, to be honest, and I don't trust the game's hit detection, but I keep coming back for more. I've also played the Nintendo port of the game, which has fewer opponents and what I find to be easier gameplay, but I like the arcade version's variety of opponents. A home-console only sequel came out in 1986, but I've heard it was a side-scrolling beat-em-up instead of a fighting game. I'll have to track that down one day.
Action Hollywood (1995)
A top-view action game similar to Gauntlet, you play the role of a Hollywood action hero (or heroine, if you're playing as the second player). You have four films to choose from, each with their own sub-levels: "Temples of Chaos" (Indiana Jones-style adventure), "Excaliwood" (a medieval swashbuckler), "Transylvania" (horror, duh), and "Galaxy War" (see previous "duh"). Regardless of which film you choose, the gameplay is the same for all of them. Your objective is to step on each floor tile, changing its color, within the time limit. Along the way, you pick up all sorts of treasures - gold, jewels, Academy Award statues - some of which are hidden within the walls. Each level is also populated by a variety of enemies, and you have a melee weapon of some kind corresponding to the genre - a whip, laser sword, etc. - to fight them off with. It can get very repetitive after a while, but the movie buff part of my brain enjoys the concept, and the cartoonish graphics (complete with sound effects) make it entertaining to play.
Wizards of Wor (1980)
This is one I never heard of until MAME, and I don't even remember how I found out about it. Despite the title, this isn't a fantasy sword-and-sorcery type of game. You play some kind of laser-gun wielding monster hunter called a Worrior. (No, that's not a typo. Yes, that spelling is stupid.) You have a team of Worriors that you send into a maze-like arena, one at a time, and you shoot monsters. However, the monsters come at you much faster as you progress through a level, so you'll need to keep your guard up. You can either play cooperatively with another player (or the CPU), or you can try and eliminate each other and try and hog all the points (and the peril). There's a decent variety of monsters, and the possibility of having a rival team of Worriors to contend with makes it even more fun.
An odd but entertaining platform shooter with some beautifully designed levels, you play Toki, a jungle man turned into a monkey by the evil sorcerer Vookimedlo, who has also - of course - kidnapped your girlfriend, Princess Miho. (I'm guessing he's planning to sacrifice her or something - on the Game Over screen once you run out of lives, she tearfully begs you to keep playing or she'll be killed.) However, not only do you have the ability to destroy the legion of Vookimedlo's minions by stomping on them Mario style, but for some reason, you can spit some kind of projectiles at them. You can nab temporary power-ups, which not only include different kinds of attacks, but football helmets (heh) for temporary invincibility, It's very tongue-in-cheek, which is part of the fun, and the graphics are quite impressive. Toki's pretty easy to kill, unfortunately, as it doesn't take much damage for him to lose a life, but thanks to the various "weapons" and power-ups at your disposal, he's pretty badass. I originally played the Nintendo port more often than the original arcade, although that's changed since I discovered MAME.
Captain America & The Avengers (1990)
I'm going to go into more detail on this one, mostly because there's a lot more to talk about, but also because of how much I enjoy this game. I knew very little about Marvel mythology at the time I first played this - most of what I knew about superheroes came from the 1960s Batman TV show and a couple of PSA comics they gave out in elementary school, one of which was Captain America Goes to War Against Drugs. (The first real superhero comics I remember reading was a friend's collection of Luke Cage comics, and I'm pretty sure that was after I'd played this game for the first time.) Still, this lack of knowledge didn't prevent me from loving this game, and I think it's what helped get me more into superhero comics. The one and only reason this game didn't eat as many of my hard-saved quarters as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was simply because the latter game was everywhere, whereas I only ran into Captain America only once or twice. I've played it much more on home consoles and emulators than I ever did in the arcades.
If you've ever played Double Dragon or the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles arcade game, you pretty much know what you're in for. It's a typical side-scrolling beat-em-up with Marvel superheroes and supervillains, and a rather simplistic one at that. The plot is just an excuse for the action; Captain America's arch-enemy, The Red Skull, has built an army of supervillains to help him either take over or destroy the world, depending on what level you're on. You control one of four heroes - Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, and the Vision (four players can play at a time) and fight your way through five levels of various enemies in a loosely-plotted quest (with in-game dialogue worthy of Ed Wood) to stop the Red Skull's mad schemes. Other Avengers, such as Quicksilver and Wonder Man make brief cameos to drop off health power-ups or deliver flying machine thingies to Cap and Hawkeye in the segments of the game where you're airborne (in which Wasp provides some temporary extra firepower).
Mostly, you'll be button-mashing without much technique and making use of your character's distinctive ranged attacks. Fortunately, the levels are short, so this doesn't get all that tedious, the gameplay is straightforward, and supervillain miniboss battles are pretty frequent. Adding to the fun, comic book sound effects pop up during combat or when you blow something up. (The Amazing Spider-Man arcade game did the same thing.) Unlike the X-Men or Spider-Man arcade games, which may also show up in a future installment, you can use your chosen hero's special abilities - Cap's shield-throwing, Iron Man and Vision's energy beams, or Hawkeye's arrows - as much as you want, with no penalty or limit. Also, my favorite part of superhero games is getting to fight supervillains from the comics, and they're plentiful in this game, both traditional Avengers foes (The Whirlwind, The Grim Reaper, and Ultron) and other Marvel bad guys (The Juggernaut and The Controller). The heroes don't really play all that differently from each other, although Iron Man and Vision have the ability to fire diagonally when jumping, which comes in handy. For the most part, though, it's all about your personal preference. I like to make sure that certain heroes fight certain villains - for instance, I always fight The Mandarin as Iron Man, since they're arch-enemies in the comics, and same deal for playing as Captain America when going up against Crossbones and Red Skull. (Although you don't actually fight Red Skull in this game, which is why he snagged the honorable mention in my Top 10 Most Disappointing Movie Villains a couple years back.)
This game is a lot of fun, especially if you're a Marvel fan, and definitely worth checking out.
That does it for this installment of "It Came From MAME." If you'd like to see more, please let me know!
A former IRA member must face the consequences of betrayal in The Informer, a classic thriller by John Ford.
There have been many famous film directors over the decades, but few have achieved the iconic status that John Ford (1894 - 1973) has, praised by the likes of Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock for his filmmaking talents. Born John Martin Feeney in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, he followed his older brother, Francis Ford, into the film industry, initially as an actor in his brother's films - as well as a Klansman in D.W. Griffith's infamous The Birth of a Nation (1915). Eventually, he parted ways with his brother and joined up with Universal Studios, renaming himself Jack Ford (and later John Ford). It was at Universal that he moved behind the camera, his first directing effort being The Tornado (1917). More Westerns followed, including Ford's silent epics The Iron Horse and 3 Bad Men (1926), the latter of which had a significant impact on the works of Akira Kurosawa. Ford would direct a number of films of various genres, including the 1935 Edward G. Robinson comedy The Whole Town's Talking (one of the first films I reviewed on the INCspotlight), before returning to Westerns in 1939 with Stagecoach, John Wayne's star-making role. Although not all of these films were commercial successes, Ford's vivid directing style drew strong praise from critics and helped to establish his reputation as a top-tier director.
The Informer is adapted from the 1925 novel by Liam O'Flaherty (1896 - 1984), a key figure in the Irish literary renaissance (part of a turn of the century Celtic cultural revival). O'Flaherty had previously served in World War I and had helped establish an Irish Communist party, which took over a Dublin concert hall not long after the Irish Free State was established in 1922. He emigrated to England after this, dead broke, and desperately turned to writing professionally to make ends meet. Fortunately for him, his first novel, The Informer was a huge success, and it was first adapted to the British big screen in 1929. Ford and O'Flaherty were friends, and Ford successfully bought the screen rights to the book. Originally, RKO was skeptical of the idea of a remake, given the grim subject matter and the nature of the film's protagonist. However, Ford's success with The Lost Patrol the previous year (which I'll be getting to at some point) not only got the film green-lit, but its budget was increased to $250,000. Even back then, though, it still wasn't a lot of money to work with, and Ford passed on his director's fee in order to stay within the budget. The script by Dudley Nichols took six days to write, and the entire film was shot in a mere 17 days.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
The film opens in 1922, after the end of the Irish War of Independence (1919 - 1921), The Black and Tans (the nickname for the British reserve force for the Royal Irish Constabulary) are on the hunt for Frankie McPhillip (Wallace Ford), an IRA member wanted for murder. There's a £20 reward for his capture, tempting the simple-minded Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen) to turn him in. Nolan was booted from the IRA six months ago for not carrying out a revenge killing, and he's been struggling to make ends meet ever since - as has his prostitute girlfriend, Katie Madden (Margot Grahame). They dream of starting a new life in America, and the reward money for Frankie's capture is just enough for them to afford to do so. On the other hand, Nolan and McPhillip are old friends, and McPhillip's mother (Una O'Connor) has always looked out for Nolan. Howvever, when Nolan runs into McPhillip at a pub and learns of his plans, he can no longer resist temptation and tells the Black and Tans where McPhillip can be found. They find McPhillip at his home and kill him during a shootout, right in front of his mother and sister Mary (Heather Angel). Word quickly spreads that the Black and Tans were informed, and IRA leader Dan Gallagher (Preston Foster) orders said informer to be hunted down - not only for the sake of the cause, but for Mary, who is in a relationship with Gallagher. As the manhunt commences, Nolan is torn between clearing his guilty conscience and fear of the consequences of his actions.
Victor McLaglen's off-kilter performance as the hapless snitch is impressively effective. Nolan is a pathetic figure, full of empty bluster and swagger. While we may be willing to forgive him turning in his old friend (who, to be fair, is a murderer and terrorist), some of what he does to try and avoid blame is pretty low. And yet, McLaglen manages to make us pity Nolan and empathize with his plight. He earns the Academy Award for Best Actor he received for this performance, although I don't know if he thought it was worth it in the end. Supposedly, Ford made McLaglen's life miserable during production - deliberately getting him drunk and forcing him to perform with a hangover, pulling bait-and-switches about shooting schedules, and telling McLaglen that real takes were actually just rehearsal takes, all to get just the right reactions and performance he wanted. When McLaglen found out how Ford had manipulated him, he was pissed. Maybe it's not as intense as what Leonardo DiCaprio had to go through to finally get his Oscar for The Revenant, but it still sounds like an unpleasant experience, assuming this is indeed true.
With as strong a lead as McLaglen, it's easy to overlook the rest of the cast, although their performances are excellent as well: just more subtle. The exception to this is J.M. Kerrigan as Terry, a manipulative fast-talker who connives Nolan into spending his ill-gotten money so he can get free booze. He's a weasel of a character, and it's hard not to smile with satisfaction when he gets what's coming to him. The rest of the cast is subdued and measured. Even the always-delightful character actress Una O'Connor is more restrained than usual, which is appropriate for this particular kind of story and for her character. Margot Grahame in particular gives a strong, low-key performance. In her opening scene, where she's approached by a potential customer, not a word is spoken, but her effective body language and expression - bitter resignation combined with shame - says it all.
Equally as impressive as the performances in this movie is the craft behind it. Right from the get-go, The Informer grabs your attention with a shot of a Nolan in silhouette trudging through empty, fog-shrouded streets, accompanied by Max Steiner's grim score (for which he won his first Oscar). Ford was inspired by the German Expressionism movement, courtesy of F.W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), and it shows here with the vivid use of shadows and fog (which also serve to hide the sets - or lack of them - to save money). The result is a moody, haunting atmosphere that's perfectly suited for a story of betrayal and guilt. Like all films, though, The Informer does have his weak points. Sometimes the use of symbolism is overly heavy-handed, especially on a second viewing when you know what's going to happen and the same sense of tension isn't there anymore. Also, the scenes with Nolan and Terry feel like they distract from the more engaging elements of the story, such as the tension of the manhunt or Nolan's qualms about what he's done - the beginning and end of the film are far better paced.
The Informer was lauded by critics upon its release, with cast and crew receiving strong praise, to the point where it was labeled as one of the best movies ever made. Although Andre Seinwald of the New York Times lamented a scene in which Katie begs Gallagher for Nolan's life, a sharp difference from the novel, because it undercut "the utter loneliness of an Irishman who has betrayed the cause, the traitor whom nobody will shield," he nevertheless had high praise for the film, and referred to this critique as a minor flaw. It bombed at the box office when it was initially released, but its numerous Oscar nominations and victories (including a win for John Ford for Best Director and Dudley Nichols for Best Screenplay - which Nichols declined over a union disagreement) led to a profitable re-release. And speaking of unions, another part of The Informer's legacy is that it reportedly led to Ford to spearheading the establishment of the Screen Directors Guild after the producers shot some additional scenes behind his back that he wasn't aware of. It still holds up well, although repeated viewings aren't as effective as the first time you see it.
This is a carefully crafted thriller that deserves to be seen and appreciated. Give it a watch and see for yourself.
Bruce Lee conquered the American box office in the 1970s, but King Boxer was the film that paved the way for him and other kung fu movies to come.
I've talked about the decline of Shaw Bros. in some of my earlier reviews, but I don't think I've talked about the studio's origins or glory days. The Shaw family started off as opera theater owners, and their first transition to movies was filming their hit play The Man From Shensi. The elder three brothers - Runje, Runme, and Runde - started their own film studio, the Tianyi (Unique) Film Company, in 1924, and their first films began hitting theaters in 1925. A rival studio, the Mingxing Film Company, organized a monopoly to keep Tianyi's films out of the market, and the Shaw brothers retaliated by setting up their own distribution network operating out of Singapore, which was able to get their films to theaters across Asia. Tianyi also produced the first sound films in China, starting with the Cantonese-language White Golden Dragon (1933), starring famed opera star Sit Gok-sin and the rest of her opera troupe. The studio relocated from Shanghai to Hong Kong in 1934, prompted by the Chinese government's ban on Cantonese films and martial arts movies, and renamed itself Nanyang. The Shaw empire continued to expand, and in 1957, the youngest brother, Run Run Shaw, established Shaw Bros. LTD, operating out of Hong Kong's Clearwater Bay. Their production facility, Movietown, was completed in 1961, a massive production facility that not only sported state-of-the-art equipment, but multiple sound stages and complete sets, allowing for around-the-clock production on multiple films at the same time.
Run Run and Runme Shaw
Shaw Bros.'s business model was modeled on the old Hollywood studio system, where actors were under exclusive contracts. (And it's no accident that their logo resembles Warner Bros.'s.) Among the many big names Shaw had under contract were Cheng Pei-pei, Jimmy Wang Yu, Ti Lung, Li Li-hua, David Chiang, Gordon Liu, Alexander Fu Sheng, and the famed Venom Mob (the nickname given to the cast of 1978's The Five Venoms, who worked together on other films). Not only that, but young opera students such as Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung were loaned out to Shaw Bros. to play bit parts and child roles, moving on to stunt work when they got older - this is how Chan got cameos in such Shaw Bros. classics as The Love Eterne (1963) and Come Drink With Me (1966). Since there were far more people looking for work than available productions to work on, the studio felt they had no obligation to be generous with their salaries, even with their biggest stars. Some actors even resorted to working for the Triads to help make ends meet, working as hired muscle or escorts, which ended up giving the Triads a lot of influence in the entertainment industry. Shaw's penny-pinching ended up biting them in the ass big time when Bruce Lee turned down a contract with Shaw and went to Golden Harvest. The success of Lee's Golden Harvest films gave the rival studio the clout to compete against Shaw Bros., breaking their monopoly. (Run Run Shaw himself said that losing Lee to Golden Harvest was the biggest mistake he ever made.)
Although Shaw produced films of every genre, it's their martial arts films that they're arguably most known for today. In the 1960s, they specialized in lavish wuxia pien (martial chivalry) productions. These were tales of heroic swordsmen and swordswomen, sometimes with supernatural feats, traveling the land in search of worthy causes to fight for. Japanese jidai geki films, such as the ones Akira Kurosawa was making, had a strong influence on the wuxia pien genre, making it bloodier and grittier. However, audiences' tastes changed, and like any studio, Shaw was quick to follow trends. Their 1970 smash success The Chinese Boxer, starring Jimmy Wang Yu, not only codified the kung fu movie formula we know today, but paved the way for films featuring unarmed combat instead of swordplay. The star of King Boxer was Lo Lieh (1939 - 2002), born in Indonesia to Cantonese parents. Lo had been with Shaw Bros. since 1962 and had already appeared in a number of films, making his debut as a lead actor in The Invincible Fist (1969) - a wuxia pien film despite the name. Although he would go on to appear in other Hong Kong action classics, Lo would spend much of his later career playing villains instead of heroes, including in Executioners From Shaolin (1977), The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978), and Police Story III: Supercop (1992) opposite Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh.
WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!
Chao Chih-hao (Lo Lieh) is a martial arts disciple of Master Sung Wu-yang (Ku Wen-chung). Sung has been training Chao to win a local martial arts tournament, which will not only earn the winner a great deal of prestige, but apparently a sizable amount of cash. However, when Master Sung is almost killed by assailants one night, he fears he's an inadequate teacher for Chao, and sends him to learn from his colleague, Suen Hsin-pei (Fang Mien). Chao protests, as he wants to stay with his teacher - and his daughter, Ying-ying (Wong Ping) - but Sung insists. Upon his arrival, Suen tests Chao by matching him up against his top student, Han Lung (James Nam), in which Chao fares badly. Disdainful of Chao's skills after this, Suen instead puts him to work at his school, but is eventually won over by Chao's patience and willingness to learn. After a while, Suen trusts Chao not only to represent his school in the upcoming tournament, but with learning the powerful iron palm technique. However, Han Lung is ticket off about being usurped by Chao, and joins forces with the evil Master Meng (Tien Feng), a rival to both Suen and Sung. Meng dispatches his goons, including a Japanese mercenary named Okada (Chiu Hung), sending them to murder Chao's old master Sung out of spite. Next they attack Chao himself, breaking his hands so he supposedly can't practice martial arts anymore. However, through sheer willpower, Chao gets himself back into fighting shape and wins the tournament. Meng, being something of a bad sport, naturally murders Suen, and Chao must avenge both masters.
This is one of the quintessential classic kung fu movies, featuring all of the classic tropes - stoic heroes, overly nasty villains, rival schools, a martial arts tournament, MANLY STRIDING, Japanese assassins, betrayals, murdered mentors, crazy hairstyles...you name it, King Boxer's got it. Still, there's a deviation or two from the standard clichés. For one thing, the film invests a great deal of time into character development, making you more invested in what happens to everyone - something this genre isn't exactly renowned for. Even though I've seen this movie a bunch of times, I remember this movie a lot more for its plot and characters than any of the fight scenes, which are plentiful but short. Also, there's actually more than one female character in this movie, and one of them actually gets to do stuff! While Wong Ping's role is basically to look pretty and winsome, Wong Chin-feng gets to do a lot more as a traveling singer with a crush on Chao but a history with Han Lung. While neither character is essential to the story and both are grafted on to provide eye candy and create melodrama, the melodrama isn't handled too badly.
Part of what helps make the emphasis on character development work is the performances of our cast. Lo's portrayal of Chao Chih-hao definitely is a standout compared to numerous other blank slate protagonists from other films. His performance is rather low-key, making him less flashy than his fellow cast members, but it's certainly effective. He gets to portray a range of emotions besides grim determination; his shining moment is his despair after his hands are broken by Meng's goons, and he's seemingly unable to practice martial arts anymore. Tien Feng, who I've seen in various supporting roles in other films, makes a good affably evil big bad, although most of the actors playing his numerous underlings are ridiculously over the top. The exception is Chin Chi-chu as Chen Lang, one of Meng's underlings who's decked out as such as an obvious bad guy and who acts like a thug for the first half of the film. However, he ends up having his fill of Meng's cruelty and ends up helping Chao. His characterization and motivations feel inconsistent, but whichever side he's on, Chin's performance is always strong. (Fun fact - Bolo Yeung, later of Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport fame, has a cameo as a Mongolian fighter in one scene.)
Technically, King Boxer is competently put together, although it seems like director the crew is hamming it up even more than the cast, including director Chung Chang-hwa. The camerawork can be over the top at times, thanks to its fast zooms, but it kinda adds to the campy fun factor. The same goes for Chen Yung-yu's now iconic musical score, sampled in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill, Vol. 1 (2003), which is quite catchy. As for the fight choreography, like I said, I found it rather unmemorable. It's neither realistically brutal or overly flashy. The final battle is probably the most memorable, building some good tension as Chao faces the katana-weilding Okada bare-handed, although there's way too much trampoline-assisted jumping around going on. Not only that, but Chao's "iron palm" abilities allow him to perform feats that are hard to take seriously, He can snap a katana blade in half, punch through a wooden post to strike Okada, and hit the villain into a wall hard enough to break it. Lau Kar-wing, brother of the legendary Lau Kar-leung, was one of the fight choreographers on this movie, working with Chan Chuan, and he'd only worked on a small number of films as an action director by this point in his career.
King Boxer was a resounding success both throughout Asia and the rest of the world, including Europe and the Middle East. Retitled 5 Fingers of Death for its American release, the film was not only a hit in the United States, but it was one of the top ten box office hits of 1973, kick-starting the kung fu movie craze and opening the doors to Bruce Lee's films meeting with similar and greater success. The Marvel comic book character Iron Fist, particularly his distinctive "iron fist" power, may have been directly inspired by this film, according to creator Roy Thomas. It remains a beloved classic among fans of old school kung fu movies, and I would recommend it to today's audiences as well, despite the crudity of the action. The Dragon Dynasty release, which uses both titles on the DVD cover, is quite good, featuring both an English dub and Chinese language tracks with what I think are accurate subtitles. This is one American release that did not drop the ball.
It may be dated, but King Boxer is an important part of kung fu movie history, and is quite a decent film in its own right. If you're already a martial arts movie fan but haven't seen this one yet, this is required viewing.
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