Categories
Documentaries and Books

The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley

I direct a speakers series at Stanford Medical School which features prominent thinkers and policymakers in health. In 2015, as I huddled with advisors to choose our upcoming guests, I heard the name Elizabeth Holmes for the first time. Smart people I respect told me that she was upending the diagnostic testing industry and that she was being advised by luminaries like former cabinet Secretaries George Schultz and Jim Mattis. I didn’t really understand what her company did, but judging how many impressive people were impressed with her, I joined the rational herd and assumed she’d be a terrific guest. It was just dumb luck that I didn’t invite her before a brilliant investigative reporter exposed the fraud for which she is slated to soon go on trial. The story of this strange, beguiling, person and the company she founded is expertly told in Alex Gibney’s 2019 documentary The Inventor: Out For Blood in Silicon Valley.

As he showed in his documentary on Enron (my recommendation here) Alex Gibney has a talent for telling complex stories of corporate malfeasance in a clear and compelling fashion. With his trademark superb editing of his own interviews with principals, candid footage provided by insiders, and news stories, Gibney introduces us to the weirdly unblinking, suspiciously baritone-voiced, black turtleneck-wearing Stanford dropout who transfixed my local community and the world for a few years with the claim that myriad diseases could be detected in the tiniest drops of blood: Elizabeth Holmes. Gibney makes clear how Holmes’ boundless confidence in her own ideas likely made her more effective at persuading employees, journalists, investors, and politicians to aid her cause.

The gender dynamics Gibney illuminates are one of the more fascinating aspects of the film. Stanford Professor Phyllis Gardner, who was never fooled, notes that Holmes had a particular talent at getting old, highly accomplished men to see her as surrogate daughter or granddaughter, and to trust and protect her as such. Much of the media and political world, desperate to have a female Silicon Valley star to promote, also gave her a pass she did not deserve.

Even though some journalists are shown in a poor light, overall this movie made me feel better about the enterprise. Roger Parloff is candid about how he was initially taken in by Holmes and then to his great credit, publicly recanted. John Carreyrou’s investigative instincts and determination are impressive, as is the fact that his employer, the Wall Street Journal didn’t cave under pressure despite the fact that Rupert Murdoch invested in Theranos (That pressure by the way was applied by David Boies, who between representing Theranos and Harvey Weinstein serves as an object lesson in how to torch a hard-won reputation in late life).

The Inventor is not the most visually interesting movie. Gibney does the best he can, but there are only so many shots of blood testing equipment and corporate headquarters that the human eye can stand. Yet even after having read Carreyrou’s excellent book Bad Blood and knowing a number of the people in this movie, it still taught me new things and engaged me throughout. Bravo to Gibney, who again fulfills his reputation as one of the world’s leading documentary makers.

Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

Them!

Before Aliens, before Starship Troopers, before The Swarm, even before Tarantula (my recommendation here), Hollywood discovered that bigging up bugs into a threat to humanity could translate a prevalent human anxiety into a nerve-jangling cinematic experience. The year was 1954 and the movie has since became revered as a trendsetting sci-fi classic: Them!

As I have said many times on the site, I love films that put the audience immediately into the story without ponderous context-setting. Them! is a master class in the art. The film opens with a little girl (Sandy Descher), visibly in shock, walking mutely across the New Mexico desert. She is rescued by police, led by the brave and compassionate Sgt. Ben Peterson (James Whitmore). The cops investigate, finding homes torn open, people dead or missing, and a suspicious quantity of spilled sugar. When the horrifying nature of their atomically-charged adversary becomes apparent, the authorities call in a stout FBI agent (James Arness), an eccentric, elderly myrmecologist (Edmund Gwenn), and his equally scientifically gifted daughter, who is also a dish (Joan Weldon). A thrilling humanity vs. super-insect war ensues.

48. Them! (1954) | Wonders in the Dark

Hollywood has always had prestige directors who make big budget, A-list films. But in the era when many people went to the movies every week, the studios also needed competent, no name directors who could efficiently deliver movies of all forms on a tight schedule. Gordon Douglas was cut from that cloth: he directed 27 films for Warner Brothers in the 1950s alone, most of which were modestly budgeted films destined to be second features in theaters for a couple weeks and then be forgotten. But he could make a very good movie when he was given the tools, as was here courtesy of original story writer George Worthing Yates, adapter Russell Hughes, and screenwriter Ted Sherdeman. His artistically outstanding decision was to direct the first 30 minutes of this movie like a ghost story set in the eerie expanses of sand-swirled desert. After one of the most famous big reveals in sci-fi film history, the story then becomes a more conventional “bug hunt”, but Douglas handles that form well enough to bring the audience along with him.

Them! (1954)

Whitmore and Arness’s characters don’t make much sense, in that they start out as a highway patrolman and FBI agent and end up practically running the U.S. military’s anti-ant operations. But they are strong-jawed enough to be upstanding and believable action heroes. As a daffy but brilliant professor, Gwenn adds some welcome humor, and Weldon is credible as a confident and intelligent woman (not many of those in movies of this period) who catches Arness’ eye while also helping save our species.

The other attraction here are the Oscar-nominated special effects. By modern CGI standards, they are of course laughable. But at the time, they were pathbreaking. And in any event, part of appreciating old monster movies is finding the charm of the craft of SPFX creators in a pre-high-tech environment.

Categories
Action/Adventure Comedy

To Be Or Not To Be

To Be or Not to Be (1942) | BFI

Long before Mel Brooks got everyone laughing at Nazis, a Hungarian-born producer (Alexander Korda) and German-born director (Ernst Lubitsch) somehow persuaded Hollywood to take a major risk at the height of World War II: Combine an espionage thriller with screwball comedy! The resulting film met a decidedly mixed reception in 1942, but over time has become recognized as one of the great movies of the 20th century: To Be Or Not To Be.

The plot: A Polish acting troupe anchored by Maria Tura (Carole Lombard) and her hammy husband Joseph (Jack Benny) have little to concern them other than Shakespeare and ardent fans — too ardent for Joseph in the case of a handsome young admirer of Maria’s (Robert Stack, in his film debut). But their lives, like the film itself, turn gravely serious when the Nazis invade Poland. When the Polish underground is threatened with exposure by a clever double agent (Stanley Ridges), they realize that their theatrical abilities must be called upon to pull off the deceptive performance of a lifetime. Can they fool the Nazis to save the underground, even if one of them has to impersonate you know who? An utterly original combination of adventure and laughter ensue.

This movie could have been a disaster, even offensive, given how it switches from farce to suspense to lightness to moral gravity and back. That it works so brilliantly is a powerful testament to Edwin Justus Mayer’s superb screenplay, a uniformly stellar cast, and Lubitsch’s directorial magic.

Lubitsch died suddenly in 1947 and had less enduring artistic impact than one might expect, perhaps because his comedic and romantic style were seen by post-war filmmakers as dated. But he was remarkably talented (His friend Billy Wilder has a charming explanation here of “the Lubitsch touch”) and his best films remain highly entertaining today. To Be Or Not To Be is particularly impressive because effectively combining such emotionally different tones would challenge a director in any era, but even moreso at a time of national peril (and indeed, some critics and audiences were put off by this film in 1942). I admire how Lubitsch slams down the gas pedal without fear. In particular, I have mentioned a number of times on this site that I appreciate films that don’t dawdle and explain too much at the beginning; on that principle I admire the outrageous, ludicrous, gut busting way Lubitsch starts To Be Or Not To Be.

I can’t end this review without paying tribute to another Hollywood legend. With all the world’s women throwing themselves at him, why did Clark Cable marry Carole Lombard? Asked no one ever. In her last film, she is luminous in her beauty, style, wit, and intelligence. The script gave Benny most of the explicitly funny lines and a tailor-made part, and he’s does well with it. Yet Lombard somehow outshines him just the same. Hollywood lost one of best performers of the era when she tragically died serving the war effort, but she’s still triumphing over her enemies today every time someone else watches this classic film and guffaws at a Nazi’s expense.

Categories
Horror/Suspense Science Fiction / Fantasy

The Incredible Shrinking Man

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) - Midnite Reviews

Of all the talented people I mention on this website, I don’t think any name appears more often than Richard Matheson. Working almost entirely within the science-fiction/horror genre, this prolific writer managed to tell stories that entertained a broad audience while also being consistently intelligent and in some cases also conveying considerable psychic weight. No adaptation of his work illustrates better than the classic 1957 movie The Incredible Shrinking Man.

The plot: The Careys, an attractive, happy, married couple are out boating when a mysterious fog on the water scatters a strange, shimmering material on Scott (Grant Williams). Six months later, after being exposed to some pesticide, his body begins to shrink, inch by inch. Doctors conclude that some sort of chemical, possibly radiation-related, malady has afflicted Scott; they can slow it down but not stop it. Helplessly and bitterly, Scott becomes smaller physically as well as in other respects: he can no longer hold a job, becomes resentful and controlling of his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), and is widely mocked. His resentment turns to terror when he is left alone the house with the family cat and subsequently trapped in a dank basement with one of the scariest spiders in screen history.

Incredible Shrinking Man, The (1957) -- Mousetrap - Turner Classic Movies

There’s much to admire in this film both technically and thematically. The production design and special effects are trend-setting, and six decades later still impress and unnerve modern audiences. Williams and Stuart, whose subsequent careers surprisingly did not flower, deliver strong performances as ordinary people coping with extraordinary stress on themselves and their marriage. And director Jack Arnold turns in the best effort of his career.

But what really makes the movie is Matheson’s story, which he published as a novel and then co-adapted with Richard Allen Simmons for the screenplay (although Matheson did not value Simmons’ changes and refused to share an on screen credit with him). The story’s strengths include a highly original premise, believable dialogue, crisp plotting, and engaging philosophic themes.

321) The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) - YouTube

Many people read this film as being about threatened post-war masculinity, seen for example in Scott’s anxiety over becoming smaller than Louise, his inability to provide financially for her, and him eventually being forced to live in a dollhouse she sets up for him. Although it’s never made explicit, the couple’s sexual relationship also ends, and there’s something pathetic yet touching in the protagonist going from being a virile, confident, 6 footer in the opening scene to showing sudden, desperate interest in a pretty, pint-sized circus performer (April Kent)….until he shrinks below her size too. Yet the film works just as well as a more general reflection on the human search for meaning in the face of our trivial place in the universe and the inevitability of death. There is no dialogue during the closing third of the movie, only Scott narrating his existential predicament, which ultimately is surprisingly profound, even moving.

I have also a recommended Jack Arnold’s comparatively lightweight but quite entertaining B-movie Tarantula, about a giant spider who terrorizes a town (There’s a movie legend that Arnold used the same tarantula in this film, which seems implausible). It’s thought-provoking to reflect on why a giant tarantula chasing normal sized people in that movie is less scary than a normal sized tarantula chasing a miniaturized man here. Partly it’s the camerawork, which makes the audience see the spider and everything else in the basement from Scott Carey’s vulnerable perspective. The other part is the extreme isolation of the character. In Tarantula, there are many people who are towered over by the spider, whereas here Carey is utterly alone not only in the battle but in the universe, a recurring theme in the work of the legendary Richard Matheson.

Film Review: The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957) | HNN
Categories
Action/Adventure Horror/Suspense

Assault on Precinct 13

Review: John Carpenter's Assault on Precinct 13 - Slant Magazine

I went through an enjoyable spate of watching early John Carpenter movies. Dark Star is an endearing ultra-low budget movie which highlights the emerging talent of Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon and will likely always have a place in college sci-fi film festivals. But it’s too unpolished and uneven for me to recommend. In contrast, his next movie, made in 1976 with a larger (if still small in absolute terms) budget, is taut, thrilling, and well-acted from end to end: Assault on Precinct 13.

The spare plot is a reworking of Howard Hawks’ claustrophobic classic Rio Bravo (whom Carpenter also echoed in The Thing ). Highway Patrol Lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) is given the ostensibly ho-hum assignment of overseeing the closure of a near-abandoned police station. But of course it couldn’t be that easy: a vicious, well-armed street gang converges on the station to avenge the killing of some of their members by the police as well as by an enraged civilian whose family they victimized. After the gang’s initial assault kills the few remaining police officers, Stoker can only rely on a worldly secretary (Laurie Zimmer) and two prisoners (Darwin Joston and Tony Burton) to hold off the horde. Superb action and suspense follow.

Assault On Precinct 13 – Collector's Edition (Blu-ray Review) at Why So Blu?

Carpenter boils everything down to the essentials here: the desperate human will to survive, how danger can draw out courage in some and fear in others, and how shared risks can make enemies learn to trust each other. He matches that thematic simplicity with a no-nonsense visual style and fat-free storytelling. And he draws effective performances from his no name cast, further attesting to his talents as a director.

The excruciating tension of the siege on the station comes in part from the zombie-like nature of the gang members (Indeed, Carpenter has acknowledged the influence of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead on his script). The gang members barely speak in this movie, being a mindless, remorseless, deadly mob akin to those Carpenter summoned up so well in The Fog, Ghosts of Mars, and They Live. Their intended victims, like the audience, want to know why the villains are they way they are, but there is no sensible or reassuring answer: they want to kill, they will not stop, and that is all.

Carpenter really did it all here, writing a tight script with solid dialogue, crisp plot lines and some moments of black humor (including the legendary “ice cream” scene). His characters aren’t extremely well-developed, but enough so that you root for them. Also worthy of comment: Carpenter made an intriguing and I think productive decision to bend reality by making the street gang multi-racial, as are the defenders of precinct 13, thus avoiding what might have been ugly overtones if the dueling sides had been racially monotone. He also composed one of his best scores and even, under a stage name (John T. Chance) did the editing, which not incidentally is terrific, particularly in the actions scenes. Like Roger Corman, Carpenter was underappreciated for many years before being recognized as a masterful filmmaker. Assault on Precinct 13 shows that his talent was evident from the earliest days of his career.

p.s. I didn’t see the 2005 remake of this film and based on reviews I don’t want to.

Categories
Action/Adventure Drama Foreign Language Romance

Napoléon

Napoleon: 10 unmissable highlights from Abel Gance's five-and-a-half-hour  masterpiece | BFI

In 1927, the days of silent film were coming to an end, but some brilliant directors sent it out in style. William Wellman’s Wings and F. W. Murnau’s Sunrise landed the first-ever Academy Awards, while in The Soviet Union Sergei Eisenstein’s October hit the screens. But a French film towered even over that mighty company in ambition, scope, and enduring fascination: Writer/Director/Producer Abel Gance’s Napoléon.

The plot: Well, take a deep breath, because this 5 1/2 hour epic covers a lot of ground (and incredibly, Gance wanted to make it only the first of a series of six movies!). The story begins when young Napoleon (Vladimir Roudenko) is an eccentric, bullied schoolboy, already brilliant at strategy and tactics as shown by his triumph at a massive, extended, snowball fight. He grows into an impecunious, unappreciated young man (Albert Dieudonné), with little to comfort him other than his loving family of origin in Corsica. The French Revolution erupts, and Danton (Alexandre Koubitzky), Robespierre (Edmond Van Daële), and Marat (Antonin Artaud) try to guide its fractious, passionate supporters, while Napoleon’s life is turned upside down by political events, forcing him into a dramatic escape from Corsica. But fate finally smiles on Napoleon when he is given command of the artillery at the Siege of Toulon, defeating the British and becoming a hero of the revolution. Returning to Paris and enmeshed in political intrigue as The Revolution devolves into The Terror, he finds time to romance the bewitching Joséphine de Beauharnais (Gina Manès), before being promoted to head the French Army in Italy, leading to a spectacular final battle against his country’s enemies. (Insert sound of reviewer pausing to catch his breath). But those are just the highlights of this mammoth cinematic event.

The Many Lives of Abel Gance's 'Napoleon' - The New York Times

Everything about this movie is on an epic scale, the performances, the battles, the artistry, and the themes. And yet it’s in no way ponderous or pretentious; indeed it’s tremendously fun to watch, containing trilling action sequences, delightful moments of comic relief, and eye-catching humor and eroticism. The best way to see this film if ever you get the chance is on a big screen with a live orchestra. But though I suppose it’s a sin, you can still appreciate many of its virtues on a smaller screen.

The movie is also unforgettable because of Gance’s creativity as a filmmaker, as he fluidly shows off innovation after innovation in multiple exposure, triptych photography, fast cutting, special effects, cameras strapped to horses, and more. He was such an influential filmmaker that you will many times recognize moments that were echoed or consciously copied in subsequent films. My own favorite of these is the scene in which before a life or death battle, Napoleon confronts the ghosts of The Revolution, which almost perfectly prefigures Aragorn doing the same in the Paths of the Dead scene in The Two Towers.

Napoleon (1927) | The ominous ghosts of Saint-Just, Robespie… | Flickr
The Lord Of The Rings' Army Of The Dead Explained

Gance cut and re-cut Napoléon many times over the years. The original Paris release was 4 hours (which I suspect is about the right length as the 5 1/2 hour version has some slow spots). In one of the most astonishing feats ever in cinematic restoration, historian Kevin Brownlow painstakingly reassembled the film with input from Gance and financial support from Francis Ford Coppola. That preserved this treasure of the silent era for future generations, earning Brownlow an honored place in film buff heaven.

Categories
Documentaries and Books

I Am Not Your Negro

I Am Not Your Negro | Film of James Baldwin's Words on Race in America |  Independent Lens | PBS

Late in his life, James Baldwin began writing a book about three of his friends, all of whom had been assassinated: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. The book, entitled Remember This House, was to be a reflection both on their remarkable lives as well as on the nature of America. Baldwin unfortunately never got very far with the project, leaving behind at his death only a 30-page draft. Thankfully, a talented filmmaker named Raoul Peck picked up the pieces by using the draft and assorted filmed interviews of and lectures by Baldwin to weave together I Am Not Your Negro.

Effectively narrated with the right touch of anguish by Samuel L. Jackson, this 2006 Academy Award-nominated documentary could not have had a better screenwriter. The words are almost entirely those of Baldwin himself, an acknowledged master of the language. The film also helps the viewer appreciate Baldwin’s comparable facility with silence. Whether giving a prepared talk or speaking off the cuff, Baldwin’s cadence is a thing of beauty: a devastating insight, an memorable phrase, and then just long enough of a pause (never with an “um” or an “uhhh”, just silence) to let it sink in before his next powerhouse observation.

The documentary also illuminates the content of Baldwin’s thoughts about race and America, and obviously, it’s not frothy and uplifting. Baldwin is angry at, yet in his way, also loving of, his country. He is weighed down by the burden of American racial oppression, yet says “I am an optimist, because I’m alive”. And he’s in my opinion undeniably correct in seeing the fate of Blacks, Whites, and the nation as fundamentally tied together. As my Baldwin-quoting collaborator Ekow Yankah once wrote “A furnace fed by racism eventually consumes us all“.

This could have easily been a talky and boring film, but Peck never forgets that he’s making a movie rather than a book. The editing is crisp, the images well-chosen, and the pacing is exactly right. Some of the juxtapositions between newsreels, movie clips, and the like with Baldwin’s words are a bit overdrawn (e.g., the Doris Day movie clips), but overall Peck masterfully uses the power of cinema to give Baldwin’s words even more impact.

Some of the putatively positive reviews of this film contained dreadful comments like “All of White America should have to watch this movie”, as if Peck had assembled a fourth-rate implicit bias training that was a punishment to be endured rather than a skillfully made, compulsively watchable film. To listen to James Baldwin is to be in the presence of greatness, and Peck shows greatness of his own in translating the writer, thinker, and advocate so effectively to the screen.

Categories
Mystery/Noir

Blood and Wine

My endorsement of Twilight should be sufficient warning that I have a weakness for slightly flawed noirs that are rescued by old hands. In that honorable club, I would also place Bob Rafelson’s 1996 movie Blood and Wine.

The plot: Alex Gates (Jack Nicholson) is a failed wine shop owner, serial philanderer and aspiring thief. He is on thin ice with his long-suffering wife (Judy Davis) and has fallen through it entirely in the eyes of his stepson (Stephen Dorff). Alex wants to get back on top by stealing a diamond necklace from one of his wealthy clients with the aid of his beautiful young mistress (Jennifer Lopez) and an ailing professional thief (Michael Caine). But noir being noir, no sooner does Alex get the necklace in his hands than a twisty sinkhole of violence, envy, and betrayal opens up underneath his feet.

Let’s get the unpleasant stuff out of the way first. Nick Villiers and Allison Cross’ screenplay has too many slow spots (especially at first), Judy Davis is miscast (Mimi Rogers, who was considered for the role, would have been better), Dorff’s performance is only so-so, and while Lopez is undeniably pretty she at this point in her young career didn’t have the acting chops to register like the femme fatales of yore. These weaknesses help explain this film’s poor box office performance and mixed critical reaction. Why then do I recommend it? Let me tell you a story.

By the mid 1990s, the legendary Sir Michael Caine was no longer getting many lead roles, and was contemplating retirement. He bought a restaurant in Miami and stopped reading scripts. But then a fellow aging giant, Jack Nicholson, reached out and said that he should re-invent himself as a character actor, starting with Blood and Wine. That Nicholson was persuasive was fortunate for movie goers more generally, and it was particularly so for this movie.

As soon as Caine comes on screen as a tubercular, bitter, cynical, dangerous, yet somehow sympathetic wreck of a man, Blood and Wine takes off. And Nicholson lights up along with him, allowing the two of them and Judy Davis (strong as usual despite this being an odd role for her) to carry us through this dark and complex tale.

There’s a certain type of ugliness that descends on some people in middle-age when they feel that life has unfairly not abided by their plans. All three of these top-rank actors gives us different shadings on this experience, be it rageful hurt (Davis), moral decay (Nicholson), or some admixture thereof (Caine). It also powers one exciting, extended sequence that ranks with the best in noir history. I won’t ruin it for you, but suffice it to say that it starts with a faked flirtation in a bar room and ends with Nicholson pawing through dying people’s pockets for loot rather than love, utterly reduced to his basest instincts.

The veteran actors’ weaving of gold from straw, coupled with Rafelson’s ability to give the viewer the sense that violence is always just around the corner, surmount the weaknesses of Blood and Wine. It’s a worthy entry in the noir genre, as well as a nice coda to Rafelson and Nicholson’s long cinematic partnership.

p.s. Years after making this movie, Lopez said that Rafelson shot a sex scene with her and Dorff that didn’t make the final edit. Rafelson’s characteristically un-Hollywood decision was a wise one artistically, because it puts the audience in the same emotional spot as Nicholson, being suspicions of a liaison but not really knowing if it happened.

Categories
Action/Adventure Mystery/Noir

The Narrow Margin

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

In an era of hundred-million dollar movies that suck, I increasingly appreciate the craft and inventiveness of filmmakers who quickly turned out high-quality films on a tight budget. To supplement my recommendations of B-movie gems like My Name is Julia Ross and Plunder Road, I hereby endorse a nail-biting noir with a no-name cast that was shot in two breathless weeks in 1950: The Narrow Margin.

Based on a story by Martin Goldsmith and Jack Leonard, with a screenplay by Earl Fenton, the movie has a simple, much copied plot premise: Police detective Walter Brown (Charles McGraw) has to make a perilous journey while protecting a former gun moll named Frankie Neall (Marie Windsor) so that she can testify against the mob. Far from being grateful, she’s mouthy, sleazy, and denigrating…why can’t she be more like the goodly wife and mother in the next train car who catches Brown’s eye (Jacqueline White)? And how will he manage the heavies on board who offer him silver or lead?

This film is a triumph for then unknown director Richard Fleischer, who pulled off two impressive feats at once. First, no real budget meant no real stars, yet he got strong performances from the cast end to end. Second, despite 90% of the film being set on a train, it’s consistently kinetic and arresting when it could easily have been stagy or dull.

Of the main performers, Marie Windsor, soon to be known as “The Queen of the Bs” makes the strongest impression as a sexy, tough, bad girl. On the surface her character is reminiscent of Vera as played by Ann Savage in another famous low-budget noir that Goldsmith wrote, Detour. But Frankie has more dimensions to her nature than did Vera, as revealed in an intriguing plot development well into the movie. Of the smaller parts, Peter Brocco stands out as a businesslike gangster.

George Diskant masterfully handles the technical challenges of shooting a picture in tight spaces (I also liked his work during the tense opening sequence as Frankie and Walter encounter an assassin before they get on board). Diskant spent his career almost entirely in television and never photographed an A-movie, which is too bad given his fine work here as well as in another well-shot low budget film, Kansas City Confidential (My recommendation here).

After completing this movie so quickly for RKO in 1950, it drove Fleischer crazy that legendary weirdo mogul Howard Hughes became obsessed with it and would not at first release it as shot. Hughes’ proposed changes included reshooting the whole movie over again with bigger stars in the lead parts! He finally relented in 1952. Well-received upon release, The Narrow Margin’s reputation has only grown since, earning the film a place in every discussion of the best movies ever made on a shoestring.

Image result for 1952 the narrow margin

p.s. Peter Hyams’ 1990 remake is an above-average film, but still a comedown from the original.

Categories
Comedy

The Castle

Image result for the castle 1997

The Australian coat of arms has an emu and a kangaroo upon it because neither animal ever takes a backwards step. That Australian spirit suffuses Director/Co-Writer Rob Sitch’s hilarious 1997 film The Castle.

The plot: Daryl Kerrigan (Michael Caton) is an honest, happy, tow truck driver who heads a close-knit family. He adores his wife Sal (Anne Tenney) and four children and takes tremendous pride in the rambling, partially completed house he built next to the airport, underneath power lines, and on top of some toxic waste. The Kerrigans’ serenity is shattered when the airport authority announces plans to expand the runway, forcing all the families in their neighborhood to sell their properties. Outraged by the threat to his home and family, Daryl teams with a third-rate lawyer (Tiriel Mora) to fight back, on the grounds that the forced sale violates “the whole vibe” of the Australian Constitution. It’s an uphill struggle against wealth and power, but before you can say deus ex machina, Daryl befriends a retired, kindly constitutional scholar (Bud Tingwell) who sees in the Kerrigans a cause worth fighting for.

No movie I watched during a year of COVID-inspired lockdown more thoroughly banished the blues than The Castle. In part it was how hard and loud and often it made me laugh. It was also the way it made me laugh. It’s pretty easy to make an audience laugh with surprisingly funny line. What Caton is so good at here is harder: Making the audience laugh even though it’s obvious what his funny line will be. If you saw Last Cab to Darwin, you know Caton can do heavyweight drama too, but here he shows comic timing and delivery at the Redd Foxx/Jeanne Stapleton/Bob Newhart level. Under Sitch’s direction, the rest of the cast acquits themselves nearly as well.

Abundant humor is only part of what makes this film so delightful: it’s also endearingly warm and upbeat. Daryl and his clan are inspiring in their ability to derive joy from simple things: a day trip to Bonnie Doon, their favorite television show, a bargain in the classified ads, or a decent meal. And most of all, they unreservedly love and admire each other. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to root for this family as they fight for what’s right.

The Castle is for many Australians the quintessential expression of their culture, and some national catchphrases flowed from the witty script. But it’s in no way culture-bound: I’ve spent less than 2 months of my life in Australia, and I appreciated every moment of this winning movie.

p.s. The Kerrigans would have appreciated the business aspects of this film. Shot in less than 2 weeks on a small budget, it was a smash hit in Australia that returned more than ten-fold its investment. What a bargain, and I’m not dreamin’.

p.p.s. Keep your eyes peeled for Bryan Dawe, half of the brilliant satirical team Clarke and Dawe.