The man who gave zombies brains

 

From www.denofgeek.com

 

There are few things I enjoy more than a good zombie movie.  Thus, since the death of Pittsburgh filmmaker George A. Romero on June 16th, I’ve been wearing a black armband – because Romero was the zombie auteur extraordinaire.

 

Romero’s 1968 debut was Night of the Living Dead, a movie that’s been stupendously influential in at least three ways.  Firstly, filmed during nights and weekends over a period of seven months for a paltry $114,000 – the famous opening sequence took place in Pittsburgh’s out-of-town Evans City Cemetery for the simple reason that Romero figured he could film there for free, on the quiet, without getting hassled by the police – its success became a lasting inspiration for low-budget filmmakers everywhere.  It showed that with enough ingenuity, determination and talent you could accomplish something out of next-to-nothing.  No doubt when things were getting tough during the shoots of landmark but ultra-cheap horror films like the $300,000-budget Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) or the $350,000-budget Evil Dead (1981) or the $60,000-budget Blair Witch Project (1999), their respective directors Tobe Hooper, Sam Raimi and Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez consoled themselves with the thought, “If old George could do it, so can I.”

 

Secondly, Night of the Living Dead wrestled horror movies away from the gothic costume dramas made by the likes of Hammer Films in Britain, Mario Bava in Italy and Roger Corman in the USA, which by the mid-1960s had become their comfort zone.  It dragged the genre into the present day and made it visceral, nihilistic and properly frightening.  The human characters having to cope with the horrible events in Night were ordinary Joes like those sitting watching them in the cinema audience.  This could happen to you, it was telling them.  And as none of those human characters got through the titular night alive, you really didn’t want it to happen to you.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

And thirdly, Night introduced the world to zombies as it knows them today.  And it knows zombies very well today.  Popular culture is swarming with them, not only in blockbuster Hollywood movies like World War Z (2013) but in other media like TV shows, computer games, books and comics.  Whereas before Night zombies had been depicted as poor, lost souls brought back to life by cruel, capitalist zombie-masters using the power of voodoo and put to work in flour-mills and tin-mines, as in Universal’s White Zombie (1932) and Hammer’s Plague of the Zombies (1966), after Night they had a new template.  They became apocalyptic.  They rose from the dead in hundreds, then thousands, and then millions, and fed on living humanity – in scenes employing as much blood and gore as the movie-censors would allow.  If they bit you, you got infected, died and became a zombie yourself.  And the only way to stop the shambling, bite-y bastards was to “shoot ’em in the head”.

 

What I love about zombies of the Night of the Living Dead variety is that though they are mindless creatures, the movies themselves don’t have to be mindless.  Brilliantly, those shambling zombies can be a metaphor for all sorts of things – for proletarian workers, consumers, oppressed peoples, whatever – giving filmmakers endless opportunities for social comment.  Thus, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflects a modern Britain where anger is an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ have entered the popular vocabulary; its sequel Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007) is an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq; and Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirises a twenty-something slacker generation who can’t tell if someone’s a zombie or just pissed, hungover or zonked out.  And again, Romero set the agenda with Night, which channels the fears of late-1960s America.  The country’s racial tensions are symbolised by the fate of the black hero (Duane Jones), who survives the zombie onslaught only to be mistaken for one himself and shot dead by a supposed rescue-posse of trigger-happy rednecks.  Meanwhile, the rednecks’ zombie-shooting / burning activities are not unlike things going on in Vietnam at the time.

 

© Image Ten / Laurel Group

 

However, Night of the Living Dead wasn’t the first George A. Romero film I saw.  That honour belongs to a movie he made five years later called The Crazies, which turned up on late-night British TV in the 1970s.  The Crazies has similarities to Night but isn’t a zombie movie because it features people turning into murderous lunatics rather than into murderous walking corpses.  The story of the US Army trying, and failing, to contain a virus that gradually infects the population of a small rural town and drives them insane, The Crazies is basically Romero giving the military a kicking.

 

It’s the army who’ve secretly developed the virus as a potential biological weapon; who accidentally let it escape into the town’s water supply; and who prove useless in trying to maintain order – this is a rural American community and there are a lot of guns, and before long it isn’t just the infected townspeople who are violently resisting the gas-masked, biohazard-suited soldiers.  The army also bring in scientists to try to develop a vaccine but give them hopeless facilities – the local school’s science lab – and when one of them accidentally does stumble across a vaccine, more military bungling leads to his death and the smashing of the vital test tubes.  At the film’s end, they even fail to do an immunity test on the hero, who by now is the only uninfected person left in the town.

 

© Cambist Films

 

The Crazies isn’t perfect – its low budget sometimes means there’s a visible gap between what Romero aspires to and what he achieves on screen – but to my 13-year-old mind its blend of anarchy, violence, rebelliousness and, yes, humour was astonishing.  I’ve never forgotten scenes like the one where a soldier bursts into a rural homestead and encounters a sweet old granny doing some knitting, who then stabs him to death with a knitting needle.  A remake appeared in 2010 and, while it has some good moments, it’s ultimately unsatisfying.  This is largely because it focuses on the civilian characters and hardly shows anything of the military ones.  Of course, it’s the soldiers and their half-comical, half-horrifying ineptitude that makes the original so effective and enjoyable.

 

In 1978, Romero returned to bona-fide zombie moviemaking with Dawn of the Dead.  The shopping malls spreading across the American landscape at the time inspired him to revisit Night’s zombie apocalypse and film a more expensive and expansive sequel.  This has four survivors, led by a black SWAT officer (Ken Foree), taking refuge in an abandoned mall and fortifying it against the living dead.  Romero uses the setting to poke fun at both the sterility of consumerism – the foursome’s lives rapidly grow tedious despite their unlimited access to everything in the mall’s stores – and its idiocy, as more survivors show up and the two groups fight for possession of the building, though it contains enough supplies for everybody.  The zombies, meanwhile, become irrelevant.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

The shots of zombies shuffling mindlessly through the mall’s aisles and thoroughfares, staring with glazed eyes at the goods on display, is satire of the sledgehammer variety – but hey, it works.  Nearly forty years on, whenever I find myself in a shopping mall, I experience at least one uncomfortable moment where I imagine the shoppers around me not as human beings but as ambling cadavers.  Also, in keeping with its theme of excess, Dawn piles on the bloodletting, courtesy of Romero’s regular special-effects man Tom Savini.  In the opening minutes, Romero and Savini treat us to a close-up of an exploding head and the gore rarely relents after that.

 

Dawn has been remade too, with a Zack Snyder-directed Dawn of the Dead appearing in 2004.  It’s a film I have mixed feelings about.  On the one hand, the first 25 minutes are terrific and I love the credits sequence, which shows a montage of clips of unfolding zombie carnage accompanied by Johnny Cash singing The Man Comes Around (2002).  On the other hand, the film is devoid of satire – the zombies spend nearly all the film not being in the mall, so there are none of those marvellous shopper-zombie juxtapositions – and you get a general impression of things being played safe.  It’s a shame, as Naomi Klein’s anti-globalisation tract No Logo had been published a few years earlier and a big gory horror movie poking fun at brainless brand-hungry consumerism and mindless corporate greed would have been just the ticket.

 

© Laurel Group Inc

 

In 1986, Romero wrapped up his original zombie trilogy with Day of the Dead, which like The Crazies shows his utter contempt for the military – though by now his contempt for humanity generally seems intense too.  Day has the world overrun with zombies and focuses on an elite band of scientists and soldiers holed up in an underground nuclear missile silo, desperately trying to find a solution for the mayhem happening above.  Bitter arguments between the obsessed scientists and the brutish military eventually escalate into all-out warfare – so when the zombies swarm in at the end they seem the least mindless members of the cast.

 

Admittedly, Day has a couple of sympathetic humans, namely a philosophical Jamaican pilot played by Terry Alexander – Romero’s third black zombie-movie hero – and a slightly alcohol-pickled Irish radio operator (Jarlath Conroy), both of whom realise the battle has already been lost.  They just want to escape the silo, abandon the mainland and start afresh on a desert island.  However, the film’s most likeable character is actually a zombie, one nicknamed Bub (Sherman Howard) who’s been captured by the scientists and domesticated – sort of.  He can listen to music, pick up a phone and almost whisper a couple of words.  He has vague memories of his former life, when he was a soldier, because he knows how to salute and hold a gun.  He’s very fond of the scientist who looks after him and when that scientist is murdered by the repellent Captain Rhodes (Joe Pilato), he’s genuinely upset and you feel genuinely sorry for him.  And a climactic scene where Rhodes is torn apart by Bub’s zombie compadres while Bub looks on and gives him a farewell salute is one of the most satisfying moments in horror-film history.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

On a more intimate scale than Dawn, with more talk and less action, Day was regarded as a disappointment by Romero enthusiasts when it was first released.  However, over the years, its reputation has grown.  It’s my favourite Romero movie and one of my favourite horror movies generally.  Meanwhile – surprise! – a remake appeared in 2008.  Unlike the other remakes I’ve mentioned, this one is absolute shite.

 

After Zack Snyder’s version of Dawn of the Dead made a lot of cash in 2004, Romero got the go-ahead – and considerable studio money – to make his first zombie picture in nearly 20 years.  The result was 2005’s Land of the Dead which, although it received some decent reviews, was disdained by many hardcore horror-film fans who saw it as evidence that Romero had sold out and / or lost his touch.  I think that’s unfair as, to me, Land is three-quarters of a good movie.  Its opening sequence is grotesquely superb, showing an abandoned (by humans) suburb whose zombie inhabitants now potter around in the way they did when they were alive.  A zombie commuter lumbers out of his front door with a dusty briefcase, some zombie musicians abortively try to play their old instruments at the local bandstand and a zombie gas-station attendant shuffles dutifully to his pumps whenever something sets off the motion-sensor bell in his hut.

 

I also like the movie’s set-up.  Presumably taking place several years after Night, Dawn and Day, Land has Dennis Hopper as a megalomaniac who’s created a human sanctuary (bounded by a river and an electric fence) in the middle of a decaying city.  There, the rich and powerful humans live in a luxury apartment block called Fiddler’s Green while the less well-off live in Oliver Twist-like conditions in the streets below.  To keep his society going, Hopper regularly sends out a military force into the surrounding wasteland in a huge armoured vehicle called the Dead Reckoning, which is half-tank and half-truck, to scavenge for supplies.  Trouble is, the zombies inhabiting the wasteland are developing rudimentary powers of thought and self-organisation and, miffed at getting splattered by Hopper’s military expeditions, they start to march towards his little enclave.  (Their leader is none other than the petrol pump attendant, played by black actor Eugene Clark.  In a series where the hero has always been black, this suggests Romero has now totally sided with the zombies.)

 

© Atmosphere-Entertainment MM / Romero-Grunwald Productions

 

Parallels with America’s wealth inequalities, its oil-driven foreign adventures and anti-American sentiment in the Middle East during the noughties are no doubt fully intentional.  I’d assumed that the Dennis Hopper character in Land represented George Bush Jr.  However, as the critic Kim Newman pointed out in an obituary for Romero in Sight and Sound magazine, the character is actually a property developer.  So maybe Romero had a premonition of who’d be sitting in the Oval Office in 2017.

 

Land’s main problem is that it’s anti-climactic.  The end scenes where the zombies penetrate the human enclave and then Fiddler’s Green are suitably gory and carnage-ridden.  But you’re waiting for the military force in the Dead Reckoning, led by Simon Baker and Asia Argento, to ride to the rescue and start kicking serious zombie ass.  When Baker, Argento and the gang finally arrive, though, all they do is blow up the electric fence to allow a few survivors to escape.  And, um, that’s it.

 

Still, Land is way better than the two zombie pictures Romero made subsequently.  2007’s Diary of the Dead has an interesting premise – it’s a found-footage movie about a group of young filmmakers who’re working far from home when a zombie apocalypse breaks out; and they decide to record their adventures on film, documentary-style, as they journey across an increasingly chaotic landscape.  What’s particularly interesting is how they intercut their own story with clips that people around the world are simultaneously uploading to the Internet – and this being Romero, those clips often show human beings taking advantage of the mayhem to act appallingly.  However, after a gripping opening section, the middle of the film becomes routine and predictable; and its final stretch is talky and ponderous to an extreme.

 

Survival of the Dead followed in 2009.  Set on an island off America’s northwest coast where a feud between two families escalates while society breaks down around them, it resembles a particularly scrappy episode of The Walking Dead TV show and is a sad final instalment in Romero’s zombie sextet.

 

In between zombies, Romero made other types of movies and a couple are very good indeed.  That said, I’m not a fan of his two collaborations with Stephen King, Creepshow (1982), an anthology film scripted by King in the style of the old EC horror comics, and The Dark Half (1993), an adaptation of one of King’s novels.  (Creepshow has its admirers and features an excellent cast – Adrienne Barbeau, Ted Danson, Ed Harris, Hal Holbrook, E.G. Marshall, Leslie Nielsen and Fritz Weaver – but I find it unnecessarily hokey and slightly wasteful of Romero’s talents.)

 

© Libra Films International

 

But Martin (1978) is excellent.  It’s about a modern-day American teenager (John Amplas) who, clearly mentally disturbed, believes himself to be an 84-year-old vampire.  He ends up living in the Pittsburgh suburbs with his great-uncle, an elderly Lithuanian immigrant who, steeped in the lore and superstitions of his old country, is only too happy to take him at his word.  A disorientating mixture of blood-spilling, dreaminess, humour and melancholia, Martin would be worth re-watching in 2017 as a tonic to those wimpy Twilight books and movies that have defined teenaged vampires for the last decade.

 

Also praiseworthy is Romero’s 1981 non-horror movie Knightriders, which has a young Ed Harris in charge of a travelling medieval-style fair where the central attraction is the re-enactment of knightly jousting tournaments.  The gimmick is that there isn’t a horse in sight – the knights doing the jousting are bikers riding (and regularly falling off) motorcycles.  Furthermore, Harris, who sees his fair not as a business but a community, tries to live according to a knightly code of virtue and honour.  This does him few favours as the fair suffers money problems and attracts unwelcome attention from bloodsucking promoters and talent scouts, sensationalist journalists, crooked cops, rival motorcycle gangs and redneck crowds who just want to see motorbikes getting smashed.

 

© Laurel Productions

 

Knightriders is overlong and meandering and has about 15 characters too many, and at times it’s sentimental, melodramatic and hippy-dippy; but it’s also endearingly high-minded and decent-hearted.  It again shows Romero’s disdain for materialism and mindless conformism, though this time in human rather than metaphorical terms.  And Harris’s struggles in Knightriders reflect Romero’s uncomfortable relationship with the wider film industry, an industry that was all-too-happy to ignore him, exploit him, mess him around and rip him off.

 

In closing, I’ll say this to the spirit of George A. Romero.  Sir, you were responsible for a half-dozen films – the original Dead trilogy, The Crazies, Martin and Knightriders – that are extra-special ones for me.  I salute you.

 

© Laurel Entertainment Inc

 

Bad hombres

 

© Pan Macmillan      

 

I greatly admire Cormac McCarthy’s novels Blood Meridian (1985) and The Road (2006).  However, I hadn’t felt any overwhelming urge to read No Country for Old Men (2005) – another of McCarthy’s more famous works – because in 2007 I’d seen its Oscar-winning film adaptation by Joel and Ethan Coen and I’d heard that the film followed the book closely.

 

Thanks to the Coen Brothers, I already knew the characters and plot of No Country for Old Men.  Also, I found the film vaguely dissatisfying.  As I rather pretentiously explained to a friend in 2007, “It’s like a Frankenstein’s monster where Jean-Paul Sartre’s head is stitched onto Clint Eastwood’s body.”  What I meant was that for most of its running time the film is a lean, ruthless and nasty thriller, a gripping piece of modern western noir.  But then near the end, its remorseless storyline just stops.  And after that, there’s a protracted scene where Tommy Lee Jones’s Sheriff Bell character visits an elderly relative and announces his intention to retire because, basically, the world is a terrible place and he can’t handle it any longer.  Thus, the film seems to peter out amid lamentations of angst and existentialism.

 

I’d assumed that, since it was supposedly a faithful adaptation of the book, the book would have a similarly dissatisfying ending.  Which admittedly is a bit unfair towards poor old Cormac McCarthy.

 

A while ago I was back in Scotland and I spotted a second-hand copy of No Country for Old Men, the book, on sale in a local charity shop.  And with that jolt of horror you get occasionally when you’re growing older and you realise how quickly time seems to be passing, it occurred to me that it’d been a whole decade since I’d seen the movie.  I’d also forgotten a lot of what’d happened in it.  This seemed, then, a good opportunity to buy the literary version of No Country for Old Men and acquaint myself with it.

 

Here’s my opinion and, inevitably, there are spoilers ahead both for the book and for the film.

 

My main impression after reading No Country for Old Men was that, yes, for the most part, the Coen Brothers were remarkably faithful to the original when they made their movie.  As the story unfolds – a hunter and Vietnam vet called Llewellyn Moss stumbles across the bloody, corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug-deal-gone-wrong on the remote Texas / Mexico border, lifts a satchel full of money and makes a run for it, only to be pursued by a gang of vengeful drug-dealing gangsters, as well as by a certain Anton Chigurh, a hitman so relentless, merciless and fearsome he makes the Terminator look like Bambi – I found near-identical scenes from the movie returning to my memory after ten years.

 

One difference between the book and the film that I noticed early on was when Moss, having scarpered with the money, nobly but foolishly decides to return to the scene of the massacre because he’d left behind one survivor, a badly-injured gangster who was begging for water.  When he comes back with some water for that survivor, the survivor is surviving no longer; and one of the gangs involved has sent along some new hoodlums to find out what’s happened to their drugs and money.  There follows a nail-biting chase across the desert, climaxing with Moss flinging himself into a river to escape the hoodlums.  In the film, the Coen Brothers ratchet up the suspense yet further by introducing a big attack dog that doesn’t appear in the book.  Even the river doesn’t deter the beast in its pursuit of Moss because it swims as fast as it runs.  Indeed, the dog is a crafty metaphorical foreshadowing of Anton Chigurh, who is soon pursuing Moss too.  If there’s one thing you want following you even less than a big attack dog, it’s him.

 

The book also has more of Sheriff Bell, the ageing lawman trying to find and save Moss whilst also keeping tabs on Carla Jean, Moss’s young wife.  At regular intervals, there are short chapters representing Bell’s stream-of-consciousness while he ruminates on existence and the general state of things.  “My daddy always told me to just do the best you know how and tell the truth…” he says at one point.  “And if you done somethin wrong just stand up and say you done it and say you’re sorry and get on with it.”  This makes him a likeable and sympathetic character, but not too much so.  Later, as we hear more of his musings, we realise some of his views are quite reactionary and probably if he was still around in 2016 – the story is set in the 1980s – he’d have voted for Donald Trump.  These interludes also prepare us for the gloomy philosophical ending, in a way that we weren’t prepared for it whilst watching the film.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

For much of the book and film, the plot is an increasingly desperate and vicious cat-and-mouse game between Moss and Chigurh, while various cannon-fodder Mexican gangsters turn up and get blown away.  McCarthy describes it all in his admirably economical and deceptively simple-looking prose, though lovers of punctuation will cringe at his brutal disregard for apostrophes and inverted commas.

 

It helps too that McCarthy seems au fait with the macho, rural and violent world he’s writing about: its gangland machinations, its police procedures, its vehicles, its guns: “The rifle had a Canjar trigger set to nine ounces and he pulled the rifle and the boot towards him with great care and sighted again and jacked the crosshairs slightly up the back of the animal standing most broadly to him…  Even with the heavy barrel and the muzzlebrake the rifle bucked up off the rest.  When he pulled the animals back into the scope he could see them all standing as before.  It took the 150-grain bullet the better part of a second to get there but it took the sound twice that.”  I know little about McCarthy’s background – he’s very reclusive – and I’ve no idea if he’s really the man’s man, the rugged Hemmingway type, that he comes across as here.  But the fact that he does come across like that gives the telling of the story an extra conviction.

 

I felt apprehensive as I approached the novel’s end.  Would the main storyline finish as abruptly and unsatisfyingly as it did in the film – which had Bell arriving at a motel for a rendezvous with Moss, only to discover that Moss has just been killed (offscreen) by some Mexicans?  Leaving only the scene where Bell decides to call it quits, plus one where Chigurh pays a visit to the now-widowed Carla Jean?  (In the film, it’s implied that he executes her.  In the book, it’s spelt out more clearly.)  I assume that by ending it like this the Coen Brothers believed they were making a statement about the fickleness of fate and the randomness of life and death – and by this late moment in the story, Moss had surely used up all of his nine lives.  But having spent the most of two hours rooting for him, I wanted something more than a brief, flippant reference to him dying.  Call me old-fashioned, but I’d have liked a little more closure with the character.

 

In the book, Moss dies with an equal sense of arbitrariness – Bell gets to the motel and finds out that his man has just been assassinated.  However, there’s more.  The Coen Brothers, it transpires, had made a major break with this section of the book because they left out a character, a female teenage runaway.  McCarthy has Moss pick the girl up while she’s hitchhiking and while he’s making the fateful journey to the motel.  To be honest, the girl isn’t much of a character, being a think-she-knows-everything teenage brat.  As someone who was once a thought-I-knew-everything teenage brat myself, I can speak with authority here.  But at least her naivete provides some context for Moss, who by now is feeling as old, jaded and world-weary as Bell.  (Later, at the motel, she offers to sleep with Moss, but wanting to stay faithful to Carla Jean he turns her down.)

 

When Moss finally shows up, yes, the Mexicans have intervened and Moss is dead, as was the case in the film.  However, the book has a deputy tell Bell what happened from the eyewitness reports: “…the Mexican started it.  Says he drug the woman out of her room and the other man (Moss) came out with a gun but when he seen the Mexican had a gun pointed at the woman’s head he laid his own piece down.  And whenever he done that the Mexican shoved the woman away and shot her and then turned and shot him….  Shot em with a goddamned machinegun.  Accordin to this witness the old boy fell down the steps and then he picked up his gun again and shot the Mexican.  Which I dont see how he done it.  He was shot all to pieces.”  So at least Moss dies making an honourable (if futile) self-sacrifice to save the teenager, and he goes down with guns blazing, taking out one last bad guy.  That’s more like the closure I was looking for.

 

I know people who’ve objected to both versions of No Country for Old Men because of another disappearing plotline, the one involving Anton Chigurh – who in the film was memorably played by Javier Bardem.  Both the book and film end with him still on the loose, presumably being unspeakably evil and continuing to kill people.  But I don’t mind that loose thread so much.  I find it appropriate that McCarthy wraps up the story with Bell lamenting about the darkness of the world; while Chigurh still lurks in that darkness as a symbolic bogeyman.

 

© Miramax Films / Paramount Vantage

 

And my overall verdict?  I’d give McCarthy’s novel an impressive 9 out of 10, compared with a less impressive but still decent 7 out of 10 for the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation – a couple of points being deducted on account of its ending.

 

Cinematically stoned

 

© Omni Zoetrope / United Artists

 

In my previous post I wrote about the late Anita Pallenberg and her finest cinematic moment, the dark and twisted 1968 crime / rock movie Performance.  This also starred Mick Jagger, fellow Rolling Stone and best buddy of Pallenberg’s then lover, Keith Richards.

 

Performance’s cocktail of rock stars, gangsters, drugs, decadence and debauchery was seen as representative of the culture surrounding the Stones in the late 1960s; and this, along with Pallenberg and Jagger’s participation, surely means it can be classed as a ‘Rolling Stones movie’.  Which begs the questions, “Are there other Rolling Stones movies?  And if so, what?”

 

After all, there’s been plenty of Beatles movies over the years: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Yellow Submarine (1968), Let It Be (1970), I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978), Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), The Birth of the Beatles (1979), Give my Regards to Broad Street (1984), The Hours and Times (1991), Backbeat (1994), Two of Us (2000), even The Rutles (1978).  But what of the Liverpudlian moptops’ less wholesome London rivals?  What’s been their contribution to cinema?

 

On the face of it, there isn’t a lot.  That is, if you don’t count the various documentaries made about them like Charlie is my Darling (1966), Jean Luc Godard’s oddball Sympathy for the Devil (1968) and Gimme Shelter (1970), a chronicle of their 1969 American tour that ended bloodily with Hells Angels-inspired carnage at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival.   And if you don’t count their many concert movies like The Stones in the Park (1969), Let’s Spend the Night Together (1982), Julien Temple’s The Stones at the Max (1991) (the first feature-length movie to be filmed in IMAX – because what you really want to see is a 100-feet-tall close-up of Keith Richards’ face, right?), The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1996) (plug your ears for the bit with Yoko Ono) and the Martin Scorsese-directed Shine a Light (2008), which provided the gruesome spectacle of leathery 60-something Jagger duetting with 20-something pop-moppet Christina Aguilera and prowling around her like a camp velociraptor.

 

There’s been little effort to film key events in the history of the Rolling Stones.  Off the top of my head, the only one I can think of is the little-known Stoned (2005), about the possible circumstances of Brian Jones’s death.  And as for movies featuring Stones-members as actors, well, there’s just a couple of items with Mick Jagger – epics such as Ned Kelly (1970) and Freejack (1992).  Ouch and double-ouch.

 

© Walt Disney Productions / Jerry Bruckheimer Films

 

Actually, you could make a case for the Pirates of the Caribbean series being Rolling Stones films as their star Johnny Depp famously based the voice, mannerisms and swagger of his Captain Jack Sparrow character on Keith Richards.  I thought Depp-playing-Keith-playing-a-pirate was a rib-tickling gimmick that elevated the first Pirates of the Caribbean instalment, back in 2003, from being a middling film to being an entertaining one.  Alas, Captain Jack / Johnny / Keith has gradually lost his novelty value as the sequels have become ever-more convoluted, repetitious and tedious.  For the third in the franchise, At World’s End (2007), the filmmakers had the bright idea of bringing in the real Keith Richards to cameo as Captain Jack’s pirate dad.  You can see his cameo here on Youtube, which saves you the ordeal of sitting through the whole poxy movie waiting for him to show up.

 

However, there’s one thing you can say about the Rolling Stones and celluloid.  In the right film, blasting over the soundtrack at the right moment, a Stones song can help create a splendid musical, visual and dramatic alchemy, turning a good cinematic scene into one that’s truly awesome.  Here are my all-time favourite uses of Rolling Stones songs in the movies.

 

© Taplin-Perry-Scorsese Productions / Warner Bros

 

Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets (1973)

Wow.  Martin Scorsese really likes the Rolling Stones.  Not only has he made a concert movie about them, the above-mentioned Shine a Light, but he’s used their music in umpteen films: Goodfellas (1990), Casino (1995), The Departed (2006) and the one that first put him on the map, 1973’s Mean Streets.  Even today, more than 40 years later, the scene in Mean Streets where a young Robert De Niro comes swaggering through a bar, in slow motion, towards a pensive Harvey Keitel, while Jagger hollers in the background about being “born in a cross-fire hurricane”, is a great synthesis of rock ‘n’ roll music and rock ‘n’ roll cinema.  Indeed, Jumpin’ Jack Flash is a fitting accompaniment for the arrival in popular consciousness of De Niro, who’d spend the rest of the 20th century showing Hollywood how to do proper acting.  (The 21st century, containing The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle (2000), Little Fockers (2010), New Year’s Eve (2011) and Dirty Grandpa (2016), is a different matter.)

 

Satisfaction in Apocalypse Now (1979)

The Stones’ early, primordial and still potent stomper Satisfaction gets a brief but memorable airing in Francis Ford Coppola’s baroque Vietnam War masterpiece, playing on the radio while Captain Martin Sheen and his not-exactly-fighting-fit crew go cruising up the Nùng River in search of Marlon Brando.  Cue some funky on-deck dance moves by a frighteningly young-looking Laurence Fishburne and some funny / cringeworthy water-skiing moves by Sam Bottoms that knock various Vietnamese people out of their fishing boats.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Alien Nation (1988)

Graham Baker’s sci-fi / cop movie Alien Nation isn’t very good.  Its premise of an alien community getting stranded on earth and having to integrate as best as they can with the curmudgeonly human natives was handled much better in Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009).  But I do like a woozy, hypnotic scene in it where alien-loathing cop James Caan enters a sleazy alien bar while a lady-alien performs an erotic dance to the strains of Sympathy for the Devil.  Not the original Stones song, but a correspondingly woozy, hypnotic cover-version of it by the great Jane’s Addiction.  I can’t find a film-clip of the scene, but here’s the Jane’s Addiction cover.

 

© Légende Entreprises / Universal Pictures

 

Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? in Casino (1995)

While Martin Scorsese serenades Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel with Jumpin’ Jack Flash in Mean Streets, he employs the 1971 Stones song Can’t You Hear Me Knocking? for another of his regulars, Joe Pesci, in Casino.  Remarkably, Scorsese plays all seven minutes of the Santana-esque Can’t You… as an accompaniment to a lengthy sequence showing how Pesci’s Casino character Nicky Santoro gets established in Las Vegas.  Predictably, the sequence has Pesci doing what Pesci usually does in Scorsese movies: being a psychotic shit, barking orders at hoodlum sidekicks twice his size, eating in restaurants, ingratiating himself with fellow Mafiosi, being a psychotic shit, cursing and swearing, getting a blow-job, being a psychotic shit, talking about food, knocking off jewellery stores, acting the loving family man with his non-criminal relatives… and being a psychotic shit.

 

Sympathy for the Devil in Interview with the Vampire (1995)

It’s Sympathy for the Devil again.  And again, this isn’t the Rolling Stones original but a cover version, this time by Guns n’ Roses.  It’s as ramshackle, shonky and (for me) enjoyable as Guns n’ Roses’ other covers, which include ones of Bob Dylan’s Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door and Wings’ Live and Let Die.  In Interview with the Vampire, Sympathy… kicks in during the final scene when, to nobody’s great surprise, the supposedly-vanquished vampire Lestat (Tom Cruise) reappears and takes a bite out of reporter Daniel Molloy (Christian Slater).

 

© Strike Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Ruby Tuesday in Children of Men (2006)

Wistful Stones ballad Ruby Tuesday features briefly on the soundtrack of Alfonso Cuarón’s gruellingly pessimistic science-fiction thriller Children of Men.  It’s another cover, sung by Franco Battiato.  We hear it during one of the movie’s calmer moments when Theo (Clive Owen) is visiting his mate Jasper (Michael Caine), whose home provides a small pocket of sanity amid the unfolding dystopian grimness.  Amusingly, Caine, well known in real life for being a right-wing old grump given to moaning about his tax-bill, here plays a left-wing old hippy given to smoking super-strong pot.

 

© Plan B Entertainment / Warner Bros

 

Gimme Shelter in The Departed (2006)

Martin Scorsese loves the Rolling Stones and he loves their apocalyptic 1969 number Gimme Shelter in particular.  By my count he’s used it in three movies: Goodfellas, Casino and The Departed.  It’s best deployed at the beginning of The Departed, rumbling in the background while gangland thug Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) expounds his philosophy.  “I don’t want to be a part of my environment,” he intones, imbuing his words with that leery, languid menace that only Nicholson is capable of.  “I want my environment to be a part of me.”  Strangely, in Scorsese’s Shine a Light two years later, Gimme Shelter was one of the songs the Stones didn’t perform on stage.  So Marty missed a trick there.

 

Street Fighting Man in Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

Director Wes Anderson also sticks Rolling Stones songs into his movies, but so far I haven’t mentioned him because I find most of his work insufferably smug and pretentious.  (Play with Fire figures prominently in 2007’s The Darjeeling Limited, an Anderson movie so twee it’s the cinematic equivalent of being force-fed with chocolate cake-mix.)  However, I like the scene in his stop-motion-animation adaptation of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox where, to the sound of the rabblerousing late-1960s Stones anthem Street Fighting Man, Farmers Bean, Boggis and Bunce use three diggers to tear up the den of the titular Mr Fox; forcing the den’s inhabitants to frantically dig an escape-route.  As Keith Richards might say: “We’re the Stones – you dig?”

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

Farewell, Black Queen

 

© Dino de Laurentiis / Paramount Pictures

 

A word that frequently came up in tributes to the Italian model and actress Anita Pallenberg, who passed away last week, was ‘muse’ – i.e. muse to the Rolling Stones, a couple of whose members she was involved with during the 1960s and 1970s.  She started off as girlfriend to Brian Jones, was Keith Richards’ partner for more than a decade and was rumoured to have had a fling with Mick Jagger, though this rumour she always denied.

 

It was no doubt frustrating for Pallenberg to have her life defined almost entirely by the Rolling Stones, even though she was only associated with them for 15 years.  I read somewhere that she abandoned a project to write an autobiography because the publisher kept demanding that she put more in it about the Stones.

 

Still, if you’re a Stones fan, as I am, you should be toasting Pallenberg’s memory just now because she was with them during a period when they were truly on fire and deserving of the moniker ‘the best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world’ – from the Beggar’s Banquet album (1968), through Let It Bleed (1969) and Sticky Fingers (1971), to Exile on Main Street (1972) – and her influence surely played a part in the band’s greatness at the time.  It’s said that once Beggar’s Banquet was in the can, Jagger took her advice and remixed the tracks; and she provided backing vocals for the album’s most famous and notorious song, Sympathy for the Devil.  The Stones’ then bodyguard and drugs procurer Tony Sanchez claimed that Pallenberg was into the occult and would carry around garlic and holy water to ward off evil, and I like to think her esoteric interests contributed to the spooky vibe that Sympathy is famous for.

 

Years later, when her relationship with Keith Richards was on its last legs, she at least provided the inspiration for Richards’ song All About You, one of the few good things on that duff Stones album Emotional Rescue (1980).

 

As an actress, Pallenberg’s filmography included the Marco Ferreri-directed Dillinger is Dead (1967) and the Marlon Brando film Candy (1968), but for sheer iconic-ness it’s her role as the villainous Black Queen in Roger Vadim’s sex-comedy-sci-fi-fantasy movie Barbarella (1968) that she’ll be remembered for.  Sporting a piratical eye-patch, Pallenberg doesn’t really have to do much acting in Barbarella, since her voice is dubbed by veteran actress Joan Greenwood.  But she looks great.  I have to say that for me she’s the only reason to watch Barbarella, as I’ve always found it annoyingly smug and leery and – worst of all – totally not funny.  Then again, I don’t think there’s any ‘swinging 1960s’ comedy movies that I like.  Yip, Help! (1965), What’s New Pussycat? (1965), Casino Royale (1967), The Magic Christian (1969), even The Italian Job (1969) – I hate them all.

 

© Goodtime Enterprises / Warner Bros

 

Pallenberg also appears, of course, in Performance (1968) – the famous and psychedelically weird crime-rock movie co-directed by Donald Cammell and Nicholas Roeg, which tells the story of an on-the-run gangster (James Fox) who holes up in a mansion belonging to a burnt-out rock star (Mick Jagger) and gets involved in some mind-bendingly druggy goings-on.  Pallenberg plays one of the mansion’s female inhabitants – she memorably welcomes Fox when he rings the doorbell by saying over the intercom, “Please leave a message after the beep.  Beep, beep, BEEP!”  Performance neatly captures the dark, dangerous aura that was popularly associated with the Stones at the time and it did the film’s scary reputation no harm that afterwards Fox underwent a ‘crisis’, dropped out of acting for a decade-and-a-half and became an evangelical Christian.  When I first saw the film as an impressionable teenager, it certainly blew my socks off.

 

Talking of socks…  Keith Richards had and still has a deep-rooted aversion to the film, thanks to the sexual shenanigans that Pallenberg supposedly got up to with Jagger during filming.  He believed these shenanigans were orchestrated by Donald Cammell, presumably as a way of getting Pallenberg and Jagger further ‘in character’.  In his autobiography Life, Richards describes Cammell as “the most destructive little turd I have ever met.”  But actually, if you’re to believe Life, old Keith didn’t have that much to complain about.  He claims that he got his revenge on Mick Jagger during the filming of Performance by nipping around to the house of Jagger’s then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, and getting up to some ‘hot and sweaty’ hi-jinks with her.  Supposedly, while they were in the middle of this, Jagger unexpectedly arrived home – which led to Richards having to shin his way down the drainpipe from Faithfull’s bedroom window.  He was in such a hurry that he forgot to put his socks back on and left them lying on the floor.  However, Jagger, who was obviously a bit of a slob, didn’t think there was anything amiss about a pair of rogue socks littering Faithfull’s bedroom and suspected nothing.

 

Thanks to Richards’ loathing of Performance, one Jagger-Richards song that’s never been played at Rolling Stones gigs and is unlikely to ever be played at future ones is Memo from Turner, which soundtracks a particularly strange sequence at the movie’s climax.  On the Performance recording of the song, Jagger is the only Stone involved, doing vocal duties, while Ry Cooder plays slide-guitar (wonderfully) and Randy Newman plays piano.  It’s a shame that we’ll never hear a live Stones version of it as it’s a belter.  (I’m also partial to this cover of it by forgotten 1980s retro-rockers Diesel Park West.)

 

Then again, I guess the omission of Memo from Turner from Stones concert set-lists is another example of the lasting influence that the late Anita Pallenberg had over a band who, for a few heady years at least, really were the best in the world.

 

The boys are back in (the Auld and New) Town

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Finally, nearly five months after it went on cinematic release in the UK and just before it goes on sale there on DVD, I’ve been able to catch up with Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting 2 in Sri Lanka.

 

It is, of course, the long-awaited sequel to Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), which somehow caught the zeitgeist of mid-1990s Britain, obsessed with Britpop and all things Cool Britannia.  How long ago that seems now…

 

To be honest, it annoyed me that the original Trainspotting got lumped in with the Britpop / Cool Britannia thing, even if the filmmakers opportunistically loaded its soundtrack with music by bands of the time such as Pulp, Sleeper, Elastica, Leftfield and Underworld.  (Ironically, the song that became the film’s signature tune, Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, had nothing to do with 1990s Britain.)

 

To me Trainspotting sprang from an earlier, darker and less glamorous era than the one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark, Geri Halliwell’s Union Jack dress and Blur-versus-Oasis – namely, the mid-to-late 1980s, when a boom in heroin use and a subsequent, resultant HIV / AIDS epidemic in Edinburgh led to the city being dubbed ‘the AIDS capital of Europe’.  This became material for the book that inspired the film, Irvine Welsh’s novel Trainspotting (1993), which is an altogether bleaker and rougher-edged work than Boyle’s cinematic version.  Though of course the film isn’t without its bleak or rough-edged moments either.  The worst toilet in Scotland, anyone?

 

Not that I’m complaining.  I think both Trainspotting the book and Trainspotting the movie are great and are classics in their respective fields, 1990s Scottish literature and 1990s British cinema.  So here’s what I thought of the new movie.  A word of warning – there will be spoilers ahead.

 

Trainspotting 2 also has its roots in an Irvine Welsh book, 2003’s Porno.  This reunited the four main characters of Trainspotting, Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, who in the original film were memorably played by Ewan McGregor, Johnny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle – actors who, in various stages of menopausal gnarliness, are also excellent in the sequel.  Porno was about their efforts to illegally raise money to fund a blockbuster porn movie called Seven Rides for Seven Brothers, which Sick Boy intended to film in the back rooms of the pub he’d just inherited from an aunt.  Its sub-plots included Spud trying to escape his heroin addiction by writing a book and a just-out-of-prison Begbie vowing to get bloody revenge on Renton, who at the end of Trainspotting (book and film) had run off with the all the money they’d made on a drugs deal.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Trainspotting 2 scriptwriter John Hodge retains these basic elements from Porno, but determinedly does his own thing with them.  Sick Boy owns a pub, but instead of wanting to shoot a porn movie on the premises he wants to turn it into a bordello.  Begbie breaks out of prison – in the novel he’s simply released – and first crosses paths with the hated Renton halfway through the movie.  This differs from the book, where Renton and Begbie’s first and last confrontation is saved for the climax.  And Spud, who in the book was attempting a write a history of his hometown Leith, here decides to use his past adventures, good and bad (though mostly bad), as the basis for a novel.  When you see him writing its opening line – “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy” – you realise what he’s doing.  He’s writing the original novel of Trainspotting.

 

I almost expected Trainspotting 2 to end with Spud’s completed manuscript falling through a time warp and ending up in 1993, where it arrives in the hands of Irvine Welsh, who sneakily passes it off as his own work.  Alas, that doesn’t happen.

 

One element of Porno that I’d expected Hodge and Boyle to dump, because it’d be too mysterious for cinema audiences who weren’t Scottish or Irish, surprisingly turns up in Trainspotting 2.  That’s the scam perpetrated by Renton and Sick Boy, whereby they break into and loot the bank accounts of various West-of-Scotland / Loyalist / anti-Catholic Glasgow Rangers supporters because they know what the four-number pin-codes are likely to be: 1690, the year of the Battle of the Boyne, when King William of Orange (King Billy to his fans) defeated the Catholic forces of James II and saved the countries of Britain for Protestantism.

 

In Trainspotting 2 this is compressed into a single sequence where Renton and Sick Boy sneak into a Rangers club in Glasgow to steal bank cards.  When their presence is noticed and they’re asked to entertain the punters with a song, they have to improvise like crazy to save their hides – and if you’re familiar with the culture that Boyle, Hodge and co. are poking fun  at, the result is hilarious.  In fact, I don’t expect to see a funnier scene in a film this year.

 

The great advantage that Trainspotting 2 has over the book Porno is timing.  Taking place in the early noughties, Porno’s characters were starting to realise that they wouldn’t stay young and reckless forever; but they could still act that way.  Set more than a dozen years later, Trainspotting 2 – whose making was delayed for a long time because of a rift between Boyle and Ewan McGregor – sees Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie firmly in the throes of middle age and reacting to it, for the most part, badly.

 

Renton and Sick Boy, when pissed and stoned, tend to retreat into a rosy, nostalgia-distorted version of their pasts where everything was, you know, better.  (This smartly allows Boyle and Hodge to duck the accusation that they’ve made Trainspotting 2 out of nostalgia for the 1990s.  No, they can argue, they’ve made a movie about nostalgia.)  It’s telling that in one scene they start obsessing about the legendary but ill-fated Northern Irish footballer George Best.  When the 40-something Renton recounts the famous ‘George, where did it all go wrong?’ anecdote, it seems he’s rewriting history for his own comfort.  No, he’s arguing, Best didn’t lose it as was commonly assumed.  He still had it – just as Renton himself believes he still has it.

 

Spud relates rather better to the past and his lost youth – he uses them creatively, as material for his writing.   Begbie, a psychopathic dinosaur, seems unable to grasp the concept of time, let alone the fact that it changes.  But even he’s starting to notice that he’s no longer the force he once was, something emphasised by a scene where he nicks a packet of Viagra.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

One difference between Trainspotting and Trainspotting 2 is that the new film makes much more of its Edinburgh setting.  The Royal Mile, the Grassmarket, the Cowgate, Cockburn Street, Harvey Nichols, the Scottish Parliament, the tram system, the Forth Road Bridge and Salisbury Crags are all used to good visual effect and even Edinburgh Bargain Stores and Edinburgh Castle Terrace Car Park look sexy during the movie’s comic and action set-pieces.  Indeed, the Scottish capital has rarely appeared so glamorous and exciting.  The days when ultra-Conservative Edinburgh councillor Moira Knox used to fulminate against Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting phenomenon for giving the city a bad name are long gone.

 

Like James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) – a sequel with which it shares an abbreviated nickname, T2Trainspotting 2 is immensely enjoyable but doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original.  It can’t reach them.   The original Trainspotting (like 1984’s The Terminator) was iconically of its time and place and the ideas driving it, by virtue of being fresh and new, gave it a momentum that any follow-up simply can’t manage.  Nonetheless, Boyle and Hodge deserve kudos for resisting the temptation to just rehash the original and for exploring new territory with the characters, even if that territory is more ruminative and melancholic and less cinematically in-your-face exciting.

 

Trainspotting 2 isn’t the classic that its predecessor was, then, but it’s as good a sequel as I could’ve hoped for.  I think the adventures of Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie should end here, though.  Just as the Terminator franchise ran out of steam after the second movie, I fear another entry in the Trainspotting franchise would be a sequel too far.  Yes, a Trainspotting 3: Rise of the Machines would probably be shite.

 

© Film 4 / Creative Scotland / DNA Films

 

Cinematic heroes 11: Abbott and Costello

 

From mynewsla.com

 

Before I write about the film-comedy double-act of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, here’s a digression – an entry from The Ian Smith Life Story.

 

In the early 1970s I attended a primary school in rural Northern Ireland and occasionally the school would receive visits from entertainers and impresarios who’d put on shows for the pupils.  These included a stage magician, a puppeteer and a couple with a mobile zoo, which in reality was some animals in tiny cages crammed into the back of a van.  In today’s climate, with British educationalists placing huge emphasis on child protection, it’s hard to believe these assorted oddballs and chancers were ever allowed to saunter into a school and be in close proximity to young kids.  Plus, of course, that mobile zoo would’ve been busted immediately on grounds of animal cruelty.

 

Not that we cared.  Anything to provide a break from the drudgery of our lessons.

 

Another of these visitors was someone I thought of as the ‘film-man’.  He’d commandeer a classroom and set up a screen and a hulking projector with reels rotating on top and a lens sending out a beam that highlighted the swirling dust patterns in the air.  Once the lights were turned off, he’d show us short comedy films featuring the Three Stooges and sequences from full-length comedy films featuring Abbott and Costello – among the latter, I remember watching the finales of 1943’s It Ain’t Hay and 1947’s Buck Privates Come Home.  In the early 1970s, the BBC broadcast Laurel and Hardy movies all the time.  However, neither the Stooges nor Abbott and Costello seemed to have been on TV for a while and they were new to kids our age.

 

Yes, I lived in a low-tech world back then.  I thought it was the height of excitement to be shown black-and-white film clips from the 1940s by a travelling showman with a creaking movie projector.  That’s an experience lost on the Youtube generation.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Anyway, it was thanks to the film-man that I discovered Abbott and Costello.  Later, I made a point of watching as many of their movies as I could – it helped that, in the mid-1970s, the BBC acquired the broadcasting rights to some of their movies and ran a season of them.  And for a few years I believed them to be the funniest thing on the planet, better even than Laurel and Hardy.  It wasn’t hard to see how they appealed to a ten-year-old like myself.  Their comedy was broad – few comic figures came broader than Lou Costello’s loud, bumbling, sentimental, harassed but occasionally crafty man-child – and their films contained plenty of slapstick and crash-bang-wallop chases.  Also, they lacked that undercurrent of melancholia and pathos that I sometimes found unsettling when I watched Laurel and Hardy.

 

Fast-forward a decade to my college-years and my opinion had changed.  When I watched Abbott and Costello movies on TV, I’d cringe – finding them painfully dated.  Also, by then, I’d realised that the melancholia and pathos in the Laurel and Hardy films was indicative of comedy genius.  So Laurel and Hardy had become the funniest, Abbot and Costello the unfunniest.  (Well, not quite.  They still didn’t seem as dire as the Three Stooges.)

 

Today, I’ve yet another opinion of Abbott and Costello.  I like them again.  It’s largely because now I perceive them for what they were, a pair of sharp stand-ups from the burlesque circuit – Abbot had been producing and performing in burlesque shows since 1923, Costello became a burlesque comedian in 1928 and they started working together in 1935 – who ended up in a different medium, film, where the necessity for slapstick and visual gags sometimes got in the way of their true comic talents, which were verbal.  Mind you, the verbal routines that do appear in Abbott and Costello’s movies are often funny.  No more so than the famous ‘Who’s on first?’ one, which the duo had performed on stage and radio before essaying it in the movies One Night in the Tropics (1940) and The Naughty Nineties (1945).  Taking as its premise that there’s a baseball team whose players have unusual nicknames like Who, What and Because, a fact that Abbott is aware of but Costello isn’t, ‘Who’s on first?’ sees comic confusion escalate along these lines:

 

ABBOTT: Well, that’s all you have to do.

COSTELLO: Is to throw it to first base?

ABBOTT: Yes.

COSTELLO: Now who’s got it?

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Who has it?

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Naturally.

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Okay.

ABBOTT: Now you’ve got it.

COSTELLO: I pick up the ball and throw it to Naturally.

ABBOTT: No, you don’t, you throw the ball to first base!

COSTELLO: Then who gets it?

ABBOTT: Naturally.

COSTELLO: Okay!

 

So popular was the ‘Who’s on first?’ routine that Abbott and Costello performed it live for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and it led to their induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a rare honour for people not directly involved in baseball.  There’s also a 1999 episode of The Simpsons where Principal Skinner and Superintendent Chalmers attempt, and fail, to perform ‘Who’s on first’ at a school show – Skinner blows it by blurting, “Yes, not the pronoun, but a player with the unlikely name of ‘Who’ is on first!”  Coincidentally, the actor supplying the voice of Principal Skinner, Harry Shearer, made his film debut at the age of eight in the 1953 movie Abbott and Costello go to Mars.

 

© 20th Century Fox Television

 

I also like the duo’s ‘7 into 28’ routine, which today seems to form the basis of Donald Trump’s economic programme.

 

For me, another positive about Abbott and Costello is a particular group of their movies that I still find enjoyable – the scary ones, where they perform their comic shtick in horror-film settings, though obviously the horror is watered down to suit family audiences.  It’s a formula combining laughs and chills that continues today in children’s cartoon-shows like Scooby Doo; and children especially seem to find this combination delightful.  They love being scared but not too scared, with the comedy providing a safety valve.  In the late 1940s, Abbott and Costello’s studio, Universal, had the bright idea of teaming them with the monstrous characters who’d populated the same studio’s famous horror films during the past two decades: Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, the Invisible Man, Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the Mummy.

 

The first three of these characters – well, four, as the Invisible Man makes a cameo ‘appearance’ right at the end, voiced by Vincent Price – appeared in 1948’s Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, which is one of the best horror-comedies of all time.  Partly this is because, despite the presence of Abbott and Costello, the monsters are presented as serious threats rather than as comic stooges.  For instance, Dracula (Bela Lugosi) and the Wolfman (Lon Chaney Jr) have a bruising confrontation at the finale, and the scene where Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) throws supporting actress Lenore Aubert to her death though a window is unexpectedly nasty.

 

On the other hand, there are some priceless moments of humour, such as when Abbott and Costello stand over Dracula’s coffin in a wax museum: “I know there’s no such person as Dracula.  You know there’s no such person as Dracula.”  “But does Dracula know it?”  Also good is this exchange between Lawrence Talbot, aka the Wolfman, and Costello: “I know you think I’m crazy, but in half an hour the moon will rise and I’ll turn into a wolf.”  “You and twenty million other guys.”  No wonder Quentin Tarantino claims he was fascinated by this movie as a kid, because it taught him how successfully the hilarious and the horrific could be blended together – something Tarantino’s done throughout his career.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein was a big success, so more movies with Abbott and Costello meet… in their titles followed.  In 1951 there was …meet the Invisible Man, with Arthur Franz, not Vincent Price, voicing the titular creature.  1953 saw the underrated …meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which has an atmospheric Victorian London setting and the great Boris Karloff playing Robert Louis Stevenson’s transformative mad scientist.  It contains a weird sequence where Costello accidentally drinks a potion in Jekyll’s laboratory that changes him into a giant fluffy mouse, prompting the line: “How do you like that Dr Jekyll?  He turned me into a mouse – the rat!”  And in 1955 there was …meet the Mummy, which while not great, was still better than the several ‘serious’ Mummy films that Universal made during the 1940s.

 

Like many people who found fame being funny onscreen, Abbott and Costello’s lives offscreen weren’t always a barrel of laughs.  The grumpy, gravelly Abbott, greatly underrated as a straight man, suffered from epilepsy and became too fond of the bottle.  Costello had to endure bouts of rheumatic fever and was devastated in 1943 when, just before he was due to do a radio show, he was informed that his one-year-old son had fallen into the family swimming pool and drowned.  He went ahead with the radio show, saying, “Wherever he is tonight, I want him to hear me.”  By the mid-1940s the pair of them had clashed about money and even their act’s name – Costello wanted it to be ‘Costello and Abbott’.  That’s why their gentle 1946 ghost / fantasy movie The Time of their Lives seems so strange – they’re in it but scarcely have any screen-time together, because in real life in 1946 they weren’t on speaking terms.

 

By the mid-1950s, the writing was on the wall.  Cinema audiences were more interested in a younger and hipper comedy double-act, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and to compound the misery the US Inland Revenue Service gave both of them a hammering.  In 1959, two years after they’d ended their partnership, Costello died of a heart attack aged just 52.  Abbott lived until 1974, but his final years were blighted by financial insecurity, strokes, a hip injury and, finally, cancer.

 

Abbott and Costello are too much of-their-time to be considered in the same league as comic legends like Laurel and Hardy or the fabulously surreal and anarchic Marx Brothers; but if you’re a connoisseur of wordplay and smart comedic patter, or if you just have a liking for offbeat movies where funny men meet scary monsters, then the pair retain their charm.

 

And I like the fact that in 2016’s impressively intelligent science-fiction movie about alien contact, Arrival, the scientists who’re tasked with communicating with the giant cuttlefish-like aliens nickname the pair of creatures they encounter ‘Abbott and Costello’.  In a movie about the importance of communication, I assume this is a sly reference to the unfortunate consequences of miscommunication.  Who’s on first?!

 

© Paramount Pictures / FilmNation Entertainment

 

RIP, Sir Roger

 

© Eon Productions

 

I feel slightly hypocritical to be paying tribute to Sir Roger Moore, the movie star and the third and longest-serving of the cinema’s James Bonds, who passed away yesterday at the age of 89.

 

As a serious Bond aficionado, especially regarding the original novels written by Ian Fleming, I was generally not impressed by the Bond movies Sir Roger made between 1974 and 1985, nor by the easy-going way that he inhabited the role.  And during the five years this blog has been in existence I was frequently unkind to him, making cruel puns about ‘Roger Mortis’ and the Bond movies getting ‘Rogered’ in the 1970s and 1980s, and dismissing his acting ability with ungentlemanly comparisons to planks and floorboards and blocks of wood.  Once, I even sniped that the makers of Guardians of the Galaxy (2015) should have hired him to play Groot the sentient alien tree rather than Vin Diesel.

 

However, two years ago, in a fit of remorse at my un-Rogerly ways, I posted a piece detailing all the admirable things about the venerable actor.  I mentioned how his third Bond movie, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me, was actually really good.  I pointed out that he was surprisingly effective as a rich, smug businessman going to pieces while a mysterious, malign and unseen doppelganger invades and takes over his life in the creepy psychological horror film The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970).  I also enthused about his 1971-72 TV series The Persuaders.  To be honest, the show itself wasn’t much cop but the theme music, composed by John Barry, made for the best TV theme tune ever.

 

And I highlighted the amount of humanitarian work he’d done as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, since 1991.  And he didn’t just express good will towards humans – he’d “also been involved in the campaign by PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, against the gruesome processes used in the making of foie gras and he helped to persuade the department store Selfridges to stop stocking the stuff.”

 

© The Independent

 

One thing mentioned in Sir Roger’s obituaries that I hadn’t known about was his loathing of fox hunting.  Despite the languidly aristocratic air he had both as Bond and as his real-life self, he slammed the brutal upper-class pastime with the declaration: “Sport hunting is a sickness, a perversion and a danger and should be recognised as such.  People who get their amusement from hunting and killing a defenceless animal can only be suffering from a mental disorder.  In a world with boundless opportunities for amusement, it’s detestable that anyone would choose to get their kicks from killing others who ask for nothing from life but the chance to remain alive.”

 

To be honest, if I hadn’t been obsessed with the Bond books and hadn’t formed some strong opinions about how Bond should be portrayed on screen, and if I’d come across Moore’s Bond movies at a younger age – I didn’t see any of them until I was a sullen teen of 14 or 15 years old – I probably would have really enjoyed them: all that funny, silly but exciting stuff with Jaws, Nick-Nack and Sheriff Pepper, all those laser-gun battles in outer space and gondoliers that turn into speedboats and alligators that can be used as stepping stones when you’re making your escape from Mr Big’s henchmen.  (Indeed, Daniel Craig did something similar with Komodo dragons in 2012’s Skyfall.)  As it turned out, millions of other filmgoers, less severe in their tastes than I was, really did enjoy them – and as I’ve admitted elsewhere on this blog, the Bond franchise was fantastically lucrative when Sir Roger played its title character.

 

I often wondered why the Bond producers cast Roger Moore in the first place.  But recently I read a book called James Bond: The Man and his World by Henry Chancellor, which observes that Moore was first suggested for the role by the Supreme Being in the Bond-verse, Ian Fleming himself.  According to Chancellor, in the early 1960s when the first of the Bond movies was on the drawing board – and before co-producer Harry Saltzman got his way and cast Sean Connery in the role – Fleming “initially suggested his friend David Niven.  When it was pointed out that Niven was too old he suggested the young Roger Moore, who was starring as The Saint on television.”  Ironically, both of Fleming’s suggestions would eventually get to play Bond, for Niven turned up as 007 in the ‘rogue’ 1967 production of Casino Royale, a swinging-sixties would-be comedy so dire and unfunny that it makes even the worst of Roger Moore’s Bond films look like masterpieces.

 

Lady killers

 

© Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

Last week, on two consecutive nights, I watched two recent black-comedy / horror movies about lady killers.  Note that I’m not using the term ‘lady killer’ in its idiomatic sense, meaning a handsome chap who has a winning and seductive way with the opposite sex; nor in one of its literal senses, meaning a murderer who specialises in killing women (which, unfortunately, is a premise of too many horror films – the killer is a crazy bloke with a mask and a machete and the victims are nubile, scantily-clad females.)

 

No, here, ‘lady killer’ means a lady.  Who kills.

 

The movies I saw were The Love Witch, which first surfaced in the UK at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival; and Prevenge, which was released in the UK a few weeks ago.

 

The Love Witch is set in California, in the picturesque town of Arcata on the northern Californian coast.  (My better half, who’s Californian and who adored The Love Witch, pointed out that early on we see someone driving south from San Francisco to Arcata when they should be driving north.  But having them drive south means it’s easier to fit in pretty backdrops of the Pacific Ocean.)  And the film could only be set in California, because its cocktail of Age-of-Aquarius occult mysticism and permissive-era free love feels very West Coast.

 

Newly settled in Arcata is a young woman called Elaine, the titular witch, who declares that, “What I’m interested in is love.  You might say I’m addicted to love.”  And she wastes no time in searching for love in the form of a hunky ideal man.  Her musings on the subject suggest she’s read far too many Mills-and-Boon romances.  For instance: “What do men want?  Just a pretty girl to take care of them”; or “…men are very fragile.  They can get crushed down if you assert yourself too much”; or “Giving men sex is just a way of unlocking their love potential.”  No wonder one of Elaine’s female acquaintances retorts, “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.”

 

To the men who encounter her, the gorgeous, saucy and happy-to-fall-into-bed Elaine seems almost too good to be true.  And as the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is.  Elaine gets through her men as single-mindedly as James Bond working his way through a bevy of Bond girls, seducing them, enjoying them and finally dumping them.  Though each time the dumping is a necessity because, invariably, the men wind up dead.

 

For most of the movie it’s questionable whether Elaine – who’s been using magic spells and potions to ensnare her men, though at no point is it made explicit that her magic really works – would be convicted of murder in a court of law.  The victims become neurotic and suffer heart attacks or commit suicide.  Is this Elaine’s doing?  Did she destroy their constitutions by ladling on the love-magic too strongly?  Or did she just trigger a physical / mental weakness that was already there?  That said, encouraging one poor dude to gulp down an eye-watering love potion probably doesn’t help.

 

© Oscilloscope Laboratories

 

The Love Witch isn’t perfect.  At two hours, it goes on a bit and it could probably have made the same points about sexual politics in 90 or 100 minutes.  Actress Samantha Robinson is excellent as the simultaneously giddy and sociopathic Elaine, but being in the character’s presence for so long gets a tad exhausting.

 

Nonetheless I recommend The Love Witch highly, not only for its sinisterly funny script and perfectly-pitched performances, but also for its look and style, all of which were masterminded by Anne Biller, its director, writer, producer, editor, set designer, costume designer and musical supervisor.  I haven’t seen such a lovely-looking horror movie since the days of the Italian maestro Mario BavaThe Love Witch treats us to a sumptuous palette: lavender wallpapers, scarlet upholstery, blue-purple-yellow stained glass, golden flames, crimson candles and – surely the must-have accessory for witches this season – a fetching red-and-black-fringed magic-circle rug.  Elaine herself first appears in a cherry-red sports car with matching frock, lipstick, nail varnish and suitcases, the red offset only by the soft blue crescents of her eye-shadow.  Everything is shot with a warm mellowness that recalls both the silly, psychedelic sixties and the goofy, glam-y seventies.

 

Certain scenes evoke periods further back in time.  Elaine frequents a pink-decorated Victorian tearoom where giant flower-laden hats are the thing to be seen in, the waitresses dress as maidservants and music is supplied by an Edward Burne Jones-style nymph with a harp.  And there’s a sequence where Elaine and her latest beau attend a medieval pageant staged by the local coven of witches and warlocks (who, it must be said, are generally less barmy than she is).  This features candy-stripe tents, scarlet-clad minstrels and jesters, ladies in virginally-white gowns and an equally white unicorn.  It harks back to the happy dayglo colours of old, medieval-set Hollywood kids’ movies like Jack the Giant Killer (1962).

 

© Kaleidoscope

 

The Love Witch fashions its surreal world out of such cultural flotsam and jetsam as old horror and fantasy movies, pulpy romantic fiction, hippy-dippy New Age tracts and cod pre-Raphaelite art, none of which bore much resemblance to reality in the first place.  In contrast, the world that Prevenge is set in is real, grim and very British.

 

It’s a place of soulless Travelodge-type hotel rooms, concrete underpasses and pedestrian bridges, hellhole Saturday-night city centres full of boozed-up louts and crap pubs trying to lure in punters with 1970s-theme nights.  But somehow, it’s streaked with a weird unreality too.  It’s a fitting if unhealthy environment for Ruth, played by Alice Lowe (also the film’s director and screenwriter).  She’s a lonely and depressed woman in the late stages of pregnancy who may be – probably is – going out of her mind.

 

Ruth had found a man, fallen in love and conceived a child with him…  But then things stopped going according to plan.  The man has died in an accident and now, seven months pregnant, she’s on her own.  But not wholly on her own because Ruth can hear the unborn child speaking to her – in a horrid, throaty voice that suggests she has a little Gollum gestating inside her.  And the advice it gives her is pretty one-note.  It’s ordering her to kill, and kill again.

 

At first it seems that the bloodthirsty foetus is inducing Ruth to kill randomly, but later we realise that the victims are loosely implicated in the death of its father / her partner.  Coincidentally, many of them are so anti-children and anti-family in their attitudes – a work-obsessed and self-isolating businesswoman, a shag-happy but commitment-fearing lothario, a sporty suburbanite who refuses to give money to children’s charities – that Ruth almost seems like a crazed vigilante acting on behalf of downtrodden and unappreciated mums-to-be everywhere.  Between the bloodletting, meanwhile, she keeps her appointments with a cheerful midwife (played by the excellent Jo Hartley) whose platitudes like “Baby knows what to do” unwittingly prolong Ruth’s killing spree.

 

Prevenge is Lowe’s first outing as a director – previously, she’d starred in and co-written the 2012 movie Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley.  While she hasn’t quite mastered all the tricks of the trade yet, she orchestrates some impressive sequences: for example, one set in a specialist pet-shop where close-ups of the creepy-crawlies on sale accompany the innuendo being spouted by the shop’s creepy-crawly owner (who offers at one point to show Ruth his ‘big snake’); or a sequence set at Halloween, simultaneously phantasmagorical and horrible, where Ruth tramps through the streets encountering both people dressed as ghouls and drunken yobs acting like ghouls.  Ruth is in costume herself, looking a little like the fearsome kuchisake-onna from Japanese urban myth.

 

Ruth seems able to kill with impunity and after a while the movie started to remind me of the Brett Easton Ellis novel American Psycho (1991), where the forces of law and order are also absent no matter how many bodies pile up.   (In Prevenge, the only evidence of the cops is the wail of a distant police siren, which facilitates a gag about high-pitched noises and lactation.)  While it’s easy to assume that Ruth is imagining the baby speaking to her, I found myself wondering if she was also imagining the whole thing, murders and all.  That’s the insinuation you eventually get about Patrick Bateman, the supposed killer in American Psycho.

 

A meditation on the more disturbing aspects of pregnancy – feelings of bodily invasion and loss of bodily control – Prevenge is gruelling in both tone and content.  But if you can handle that, it’s also very funny in its bleakly-observant way.

 

If only Elaine from The Love Witch could meet some of the men that Ruth meets in Prevenge – like the drunken D.J. Dan, whose technique with the ladies involves vomiting into his Afro wig just before attempting to French-kiss them.  A few encounters like that and Arcata’s Love Witch might be less addicted to love.

 

© Kaleidoscope

 

Great unappreciated films: U-Turn

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

It’s hard to believe today, but there was a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when Oliver Stone seemed to bestride American cinema like King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building.  Like it or not – and many critics and commentators did not, both conservative ones who didn’t approve of his shit-stirring, anti-establishment politics and sophisticated liberal ones who found his approach loud, crude and simplistic – he was everywhere.  He’d clobber you with one big sensationalist movie tackling some unsavoury aspect of America’s present or recent past.  And then, when you managed to withstand that, he’d pop up again and clobber you with another one.

 

US involvement in Central America?  Salvador (1986).  Vietnam?  Platoon (1986), Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Heaven and Earth (1993).  The swinging sixties?  The Doors (1991).  Kennedy’s assassination?  JFK (1991).  The coarsening of the American news media?  Natural Born Killers (1994).  Watergate?  Nixon (1995).  Wall Street?  Er, Wall Street (1987).  For a while, it was almost like an episode of modern American history hadn’t properly happened until old Oliver had made a movie about it.

 

But times change.  Stone has continued making films into the 21st century, like Alexander (2004), World Trade Centre (2006), W. (2008) and Snowden (2016).  The reviews have been lukewarm, however, and the consensus seems to be that if he hasn’t entirely lost it, he certainly doesn’t have what he had 25 years ago.

 

I find this rather sad because, with a few exceptions, I enjoyed the movies Stone made in his heyday.  They might have been pompous and in-your-face but they were rarely dull.  And I liked the fact that Stone’s movies were both popular and questioning of the status quo, at a time when the Reagan-Bush administrations in Washington DC would doubtless have preferred Hollywood to keep churning out Rocky and Rambo films.

 

And though it was fashionable to deride Stone as a big, earnest movie mogul with no sense of humour, I found many of his films very funny.  During the likes of Salvador and The Doors and even the bloodbath that was Natural Born Killers, there were moments when I laughed out loud.  I couldn’t understand why when it came to Stone many critics didn’t get the joke.

 

For me, though, the Oliver Stone movie that ranks highest on the laugh-o-meter is one of his most neglected and forgotten ones – I suspect the reason why it’s neglected and forgotten is because it’s a very rare beast, a non-political Stone movie.  1997’s U-Turn is a crime thriller / black comedy based on a novel called Stray Dogs by John Ridley, who also wrote the script.  (In 2014, Ridley would win an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave).  It’s about a drifter called Bobby (Sean Penn) fleeing from the mafia, to whom he owes money, whose car breaks down and leaves him stranded in a hick town called Superior in the middle of the Arizona Desert.

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Whilst waiting impatiently for his car to be fixed so he can get out of town again – his pursuers will be turning up soon and, also, the place and its inhabitants are driving him crazy – Bobby gets caught in a web of intrigue involving crooked local bigshot Jake McKenna (Nick Nolte), Jake’s young, gorgeous and predictably duplicitous wife Grace (Jennifer Lopez) and the sullen and also-crooked town sheriff Virgil Potter (Powers Boothe).  As an interloper, Bobby is soon enlisted to murder one of the parties concerned.  And then that party enlists him to murder someone else…

 

The Nolte-Lopez-Boothe part of the plot gives U-Turn a twisty and poisonous crime noir  vibe – Stone described the scenario as a ‘scorpions-in-a-bucket’ one where every character is a predator who won’t stop stinging until he / she’s satisfied everyone else is dead.  But the film is also Kafka-esque in an amusing way.  Bobby loathes the hot, sweaty backwater he’s become stuck in.  “Is everyone in this town on drugs?” he rants at one point.  Yet through sheer bad luck his every effort to escape from Superior is thwarted and before long you’re wondering if he’ll ever escape from it.  Which is hellish for him but blackly funny for us, the audience.

 

It doesn’t help that Bobby has entrusted his broken-down car to the care of a local mechanic called Darrell, played by Billy Bob Thornton, who’s nearly unrecognisable in hideous fake teeth, taped-together glasses and a patina of engine grime.  His approach to car repair is as delicate as ISIS’s approach to historical conservation and the scenes where Bobby visits Darrell’s garage to find his car dismantled into ever-smaller pieces are comedy gold.  “Darrell,” laments Bobby, “40,000 people die every day.  How come you’re not one of ’em?”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Cranking Bobby’s blood-pressure level even higher are the occasional appearances of a blind half-Indian vagrant who pushes a shopping trolley containing a dead dog.  Played by Jon Voight, this blind vagrant has apparently made it his mission to wind Bobby up, uttering statements both gnomic and annoying: for example, “Your lies are old.  But you tell ’em pretty good.”

 

Can things get any worse for Bobby?  Yes, they can.  For he also has to endure the company of a delinquent called Toby N. Tucker, played by Joaquin Phoenix – “People round here call me TNT.  You know why?”  “Because they’re not very imaginative?” “Cause I’m just like dynamite, boy, and when I go off somebody gets hurt!” – and his girlfriend Jenny, played by Claire Danes.  Between them, TNT and Jenny don’t have two braincells to rub together.  Jenny keeps trying in her artless way to flirt with Bobby, who doesn’t want to touch her with a bargepole; and TNT keeps taking umbrage and threatening Bobby with violence.  The scenes with Penn, Phoenix and Danes are even funnier than the scenes with Penn and Thornton.  At one point in a diner, while Patsy Cline sings from the jukebox, Jenny muses: “I just love her.  I wonder how she don’t put out no more new records.”  To which a disgruntled Bobby retorts: “Because she’s dead.”  “Oh, that’s sad.  Don’t that make you sad?”  “I’ve had time to get over it.”

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

Later, there’s a hilarious and cathartic moment when TNT ambushes Bobby and destroys his last chance to get out of town – he snatches away the bus ticket Bobby has just bought with his last remaining money and eats it in front of him.  Bobby finally flips and beats the shit out him.

 

I can’t finish this entry without singing the praises of Jennifer Lopez.  As Grace, the movie’s supercharged femme fatale, she’s steamier than the surrounding Arizona landscapes and she possesses a gaze sizzling enough to fry a full-English breakfast in three minutes.  She was equally splendid in another crime thriller made the following year, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Out of Sight.  In fact, I feel it was a blow for the film world that soon after she reinvented herself as J-Lo and concentrated more on singing.  (To be honest, that was also a blow for the music world.)

 

© Tri-Star Pictures

 

U-Turn isn’t perfect.  At times, Stone’s frenetic camera-angles, point-of-view shots, editing and use of different film stocks – a hangover of the pyrotechnics he indulged in with Natural Born Killers – can be distracting.  But if you’re curious to see one of 1990s cinema’s big cheeses let his hair down and slum it a bit, if you enjoy cynical, amoral thrillers where each new character is even scummier than the last, if your mouth waters at the prospect of watching character actors like Nick Nolte, Billy Bob Thornton, Powers Boothe, Joaquin Phoenix and Jon Voight chew up the scenery, and if you fancy discovering the greatness of Jennifer Lopez before she devoted herself to a career of causing earache, then U-Turn is for you.

 

And as I say, parts of it are as funny as hell.

 

Bill Paxton too? That’s just f***ing great, man…

 

© F/M Entertainment / DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group

 

Despite my best efforts, this blog in the last couple of years has tended to resemble a series of obituaries.  I’m afraid this tendency must continue today as I’ve just heard the news that the American actor Bill Paxton has died at the age of 61 from complications following surgery.

 

In American movies of the 1980s and 1990s Paxton seemed ubiquitous.  He turned up in the populist likes of Stripes (1981), Weird Science (1985), Commando (1985), Navy Seals (1990), Predator 2 (1990), Tombstone (1993), Apollo 13 (1995), Twister (1996) and Mighty Joe Young (1998).  Though not all his films could be described as ‘populist’.  I suspect I’m the only person in the world who remembers he was in Jennifer Lynch’s arthouse misfire Boxing Helena (1993) with Sherilyn Fenn and Julian Sands.

 

From all accounts an affable and good-humoured Texan, he probably had the right temperament to get on with certain directors who had the reputation of being hard-asses.  He worked with Walter Hill in Streets of Fire (1984) and Trespass (1992) – the latter movie I like to think of as ‘the Bills versus the Ices’, since it’s about a pair of treasure-hunting firemen played by Paxton and Bill Sadler falling foul of a pair of gangsters played by Ice Cube and Ice T.  He worked too with the no-nonsense Katherine Bigelow in the haunting horror-western Near Dark (1987), playing one of a band of vampires who roam the dusty prairies and prey on unsuspecting cowboys.

 

© Universal Pictures

 

But it was with Bigelow’s former beau, the single-minded James Cameron, that Paxton got some of his most famous roles: as a punk clobbered by a naked and just-arrived-from-the future Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator (1984) (“I think this guy’s a couple of cans short of a six-pack!”), the alternatively bragging and blubbering man-child Private Hudson in Aliens (1986) and the sleazeball car salesman Simon who pretends to be a secret agent in order to get into Jamie Lee Curtis’s pants in True Lies (1994).  He was also in one other movie Cameron made in the late 1990s – I can’t remember its name but Leonardo DiCaprio was in it.  Whatever happened to him?

 

The great thing about Paxton was that though he frequently performed in a supporting role, he was often the most memorable thing in the movie.  His characters were commonly loud and obnoxious and had an inflated sense of their abilities, but they were very funny as a result.  This was never more so than with the motor-mouthed Private Hudson in Aliens, who despite everything else that’s going on in that movie manages, just about, to steal the show.  Before the aliens show up, he’s a swaggering, show-offy git – “Hey Ripley, don’t worry.  Me and my squad of ultimate badasses will protect you…  We got nukes, we got knives, we got sharp sticks!”  And after they show up, he’s a quivering, whiny git – “Hey, maybe you haven’t been keeping up on current events but we just got our asses kicked!”  Inevitably, many of the people paying homage to Paxton on Twitter last night were tweeting another of his Aliens quotes, the brief but legendary “Game over!”

 

© I.R.S. Releasing

 

Occasionally, he got a chance to step forward into the shoes of leading man and the results were excellent.  He was tremendous in Carl Franklin’s One False Move as Dale ‘Hurricane’ Dixon, the good-natured but naïve hick sheriff who’s doesn’t seem to know what’s coming when a trio of murderous psychos (including one played by the movie’s co-writer, Billy Bob Thornton) flee the law in Los Angeles and head for his town.  You find yourself seriously fearing for him as the movie nears its end.  He also impressed in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (1998) about three people in a wintry mid-western town – Paxton’s blue-collar plodder, his wife (Bridget Fonda) and his slow-witted brother (Billy Bob Thornton again) – whose lives are drastically changed, seemingly for the better but in reality much for the worse, when a mysterious crashed plane sets a huge cache of money in their laps.  Also worth checking out is the horror film Frailty (2001), which Paxton directed as well as starred in, alongside Matthew McConaughey and Powers Boothe.

 

Six years ago, I unexpectedly found myself present at the making of history – and I unexpectedly found myself thinking of Bill Paxton too.  I was living in Tunis at the time and one January morning I wandered down to the centre of the Tunisian capital to find out why a huge crowd of protestors had gathered in front of the Ministry of the Interior building.  This would have been unthinkable just 24 hours earlier – Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s security goons would have dragged any protestors away, thrown them into a cell and beaten the shit out of them.  This mass protest, it transpired, was the tipping point of the Arab Spring.  Ben Ali fled the country that same day and other Arab dictators started toppling like dominoes soon after.  Anyway, I noticed how some protestors were holding signs towards the ministry building that bore the message GAME OVER! – Private Hudson’s famous line from Aliens.

 

I know it’s improbable, but I’d like to think this showed that even the murky and complicated world of North African Arab politics had been affected by the acting talent and sheer entertainment value of the great, but now unfortunately late, Bill Paxton.

 

© Times of Malta

© Brandywine Productions / 20th Century Fox