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

 

Alternative Hurt

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

And so another prominent feature of the cinematic and televisual landscape that’s surrounded me since I was a kid has gone.  I’m referring to the legendary English actor John Hurt who died late last month.

 

Hurt had many famous roles and managed for six decades to keep his profile high among the film and TV-viewing public.  He played the flamboyant Quentin Crisp in Jack Gold’s TV comedy-drama The Naked Civil Servant (1975); the luckless Max in Alan Parker’s Midnight Express (1978); the even more luckless Kane, who becomes an unwilling incubator for the nightmarish H.R. Giger-designed beastie in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); the noble but deformed John Merrick in David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980); and that great everyman of dystopian fiction, Winston Smith, in Michael Radford’s adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 (1984 – yes!).

 

Later, while the highbrow performances kept coming – as scabrous Tory politician Alan Clark in the TV mini-series The Alan Clark Diaries (2004-2006), Quentin Crisp again in Brian Laxton’s An Englishman in New York (2009), Corkery in Rowan Jaffe’s Brighton Rock (2010), Control in Tomas Alfredson’s Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy (2011) – he also appeared in several internationally-popular franchises: as Ollivander in the Harry Potter movies; Bruttenholm in the Hellboy movies (2004 and 2008); Oxley in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008); and the War Doctor, the militarised black sheep of the Doctor’s many incarnations, in the fiftieth-anniversary special of Doctor Who (2013).

 

The role that made the biggest impression on me, though, was the very first one I saw Hurt playing – in Jack Gold’s TV mini-series I Claudius (1976), based on the novels by Robert Graves, where he was the simultaneously deranged, ludicrous and terrifying Roman emperor Caligula.  Actually, thinking now of the scenes where Hurt harasses the limping, stuttering future-emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi), I can’t help but think of another demented tyrant who likes to mock the physically afflicted.

 

© BBC

© BBC

 

But for this tribute, I thought I’d write about some items on John Hurt’s CV that have received less attention – films he appeared in that have vanished off the radar and / or ones in which he had supporting roles.  Here’s my pick of the Alternative Hurt.

 

10 Rillington Place (1971)

Based on the case of real-life 1940s / 1950s serial killer John Christie, Richard Fleischer’s 10 Rillington Place remains a gruelling watch today.  This is largely due to a performance by the normally cuddly and loveable Richard Attenborough, who brings Christie to life in a balding, pot-bellied, cardigan-wearing, tea-sipping, lisping, ingratiating, manipulative, quietly lecherous and homicidally perverted fashion that makes your skin crawl.  What’s even worse is the knowledge that Christie evaded capture for several years by having his third and fourth murders, of neighbour Beryl Evans (Judy Geeson) and her infant daughter Geraldine, wrongly pinned on Beryl’s husband and Geraldine’s father Timothy (Hurt).  After Timothy Evans was hung for the crimes, Christie killed four more times.

 

As the thickly Welsh-accented Timothy Evans, Hurt manages an impressive balancing act.  His character is slow-witted, boastful, occasionally violent and generally unlikeable; but nonetheless he elicits enough sympathy for the audience to be shocked when he gets condemned to death through Christie’s duplicity and the police’s stupidity.  (Attenborough, it’s said, agreed to do the film because he felt it justified his abhorrence of capital punishment.)

 

The Osterman Weekend (1983)

In the final movie made by maverick director Sam Peckinpah, Hurt plays a CIA man who enlists the help of investigative reporter Rutger Hauer to bust an alleged spy ring.  Mainly, this involves rigging Hauer’s house up with surveillance equipment before the conspirators are invited over for the weekend.  The reality, though, is not what Hauer thinks it is…  A collision between a twisty, hi-tech espionage thriller and Peckinpah’s signature crash-bang-wallop, slow-motion, blood-spurting action set-pieces, The Osterman Weekend doesn’t always work.  But its cast (Hurt, Hauer, Meg Foster, Craig T. Nelson and Dennis Hopper) keeps it entertaining.

 

And a scene where Hurt, speaking to Hauer via a two-way video / audio link, suddenly has to pretend to be a TV weatherman when the wrong person appears in Hauer’s proximity, is very funny.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Palace Films

 

The Hit (1984)

Stephen Frears’s The Hit features John Hurt as an assassin and a young Tim Roth as his apprentice.  They capture a retired gangster, played by Terence Stamp, and transport him across Spain.  Long before, it transpires, Stamp turned Queen’s evidence against some criminal associates and now it’s payback time.  What lifts this crime-drama-cum-road-movie out of the ordinary is its characterisation.  Stamp is surprising philosophical about his impending fate, Roth is endearingly gormless and Hurt gives a glorious study in world-weariness.

 

The Field (1990)

A tragic drama about an obsessed Irish farmer (Richard Harris) who gradually loses his mind when a precious piece of land slips through his fingers and into those of a rich American property developer (Tom Berenger), Jim Sheridan’s The Field ends up in King Lear territory – with Harris as the diminished monarch and Hurt as his loyal Fool.  In fact, Hurt’s performance as Bird, Harris’s daft, cackling and excitable side-kick, adds a few slivers of comedy to what is overall a powerful but grim film.

 

Rob Roy (1995)

Having played a Welshman in 10 Rillington Place and an Irishman in The Field, Hurt completed his Celtic hat-trick with his performance as an evil Scottish nobleman in Michael Caton-Jones’s Rob Roy.  The film suffers from the fact that its star, Liam Neeson, fails to convince as the Scottish Highlander Rob Roy MacGregor – every time he opens his mouth, a Ballymena accent comes out.  And excitement-wise it never quite sets the heather alight, especially compared to the same year’s barnstorming, crowd-pleasing Braveheart.  Its strongest feature is its outstanding trio of villains: Tim Roth (again) as the bastardly dandy Archibald Cunningham, Brian Cox as the venal factor Killearn and Hurt himself as the purringly malevolent Duke of Montrose.

 

© United Artists

 

Dead Man (1995)

Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man is a demented psychedelic western about an innocuous accountant who becomes the quarry of bounty hunters.  It also boasts an astonishing cult-movie cast headed by Johnny Depp.  Hurt appears as a vinegary aide to the great Robert Mitchum who, in one of his last film roles, plays the rich, powerful and barking-mad businessman who sets the bounty hunters on Depp’s trail.

 

At one point, Hurt also shares a scene with Lance Henrikson and Michael Wincott, who between them have appeared in four other Alien movies – which makes this quite an Alien-actors convention.

 

The Proposition (2005)

While Alien contains the ultimate John Hurt death scene, John Hillcoat’s violent, grubby Australian western The Proposition gives him a pretty memorable way of shuffling off the mortal coil too.  As the raddled but eloquent bounty hunter Jellon Lamb, he expires quoting some lines by the Victorian author George Borrow: “There’s night and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon and stars, all sweet things; there’s likewise a wind on a heath…”  That’s just before he gets a knife the size of a shovel-blade rammed through his chest and a bullet in the head.  Well, Nick Cave wrote the script, so what did you expect?

 

© Zentropa / Memfis Film

 

Melancholia (2011)

The Lars Von Trier-directed Melancholia is both a study of clinical depression and an account of the last days of earth before it has an apocalyptic collision with another planet.  But the mood is thankfully lightened when John Hurt makes a cameo appearance as the gregarious, party-loving old reprobate who’s father to Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg.

 

Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)

An arty, languid but likeable vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive sees Hurt working again with Jim Jarmusch.  While most of the film focuses on vampire lovers Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, Hurt provides good support as the Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who didn’t actually die in 1593 but – surprise! – got vampirised instead.  Four centuries later, he lives as Swinton’s avuncular and quietly blood-drinking neighbour in Tangiers.

 

Snowpiercer (2013)

Bong Joon-ho’s sci-fi epic Snowpiercer has an imaginative premise.  The earth has been decimated by a new ice age and the last human survivors live in an oppressively hierarchical society on board a super-long train, which is in perpetual movement around the snowbound globe.  Unfortunately, the film is all over the place in terms of tone, unsure whether it wants to be a gritty sci-fi actioner, a slice of Terry Gilliam-esque surrealism or a darkly humorous Roald Dahl-type fantasy.  Hurt at least brings some levity to the proceedings, playing the leader of the train’s rebellious proles.  Unsubtly, his character is called ‘Gilliam’.

 

Incidentally, one John Hurt movie I haven’t mentioned here because I’ve never seen it in its entirety is 1978’s The Shout, also starring Alan Bates, Susannah York and Robert Stephens and based on a short story by I Claudius author Robert Graves.  People whose opinion I respect say it’s very good; and from the opening minutes, which are up on Youtube, it certainly looks intriguing.

 

© First Look Pictures

 

Death log 2016 – part 2

 

© Hat Trick Productions

 

Just before I bid adieu to 2016, here’s a second posting paying tribute to those people whom I liked and admired who passed away during the year.

 

Firstly, two people who died in the first half of 2016 but whom I forgot to mention in my previous posting.  American author Harper Lee left us on February 19th.  Her classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) was both an indictment of racial injustice in 1930s Alabama and an affirmation of human goodness, as epitomised in the characters of upstanding lawyer Atticus Finch and the scary-but-good-hearted Boo Radley.  Rather less wholesome was the character played by Irish actor Frank Kelly, who died on February 28th, in the classic 1990s TV comedy Father Ted.  Kelly’s Father Jack Hackett was a man reduced by a lifetime of hard (and un-priestly) living to a sedentary existence in the world’s grottiest-looking armchair, from which he would occasionally bellow, “Feck!  Arse!  Drink!  Girls!”  Father Jack couldn’t have been further from the charismatic, cerebral and articulate person that Kelly was in real life.

 

© Richmond Film Productions / Rank

 

TV comedy lost another talent on July 2nd with the death of British comedienne, actress and writer Caroline Aherne, famous for acting in and co-writing the sitcom The Royle Family (1998-2012) and for playing the titular host in spoof chat-show The Mrs Merton Show (1995-98).  July 2nd was also a day when cinema took a double hit, seeing the deaths of filmmakers Michael Cimino, co-writer of Silent Running (1972) and Magnum Force (1973) and director of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), The Deer Hunter (1978) and ruinously expensive western Heaven’s Gate (1980); and Euan Lloyd, producer of the not-to-taken-seriously mercenary epic The Wild Geese (1978) with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore, its demented sequel The Wild Geese II (1985) and laughably right-wing SAS thriller Who Dares Wins (1982).

 

Meanwhile, record producer Sandy Pearlman died on July 26th.  He’d worked on classic albums by two bands who, while they were equally loved at Blood and Porridge, were wildly different in their styles: the Blue Oyster Cult’s Agents of Fortune (1976) and The Clash’s Give ’Em Enough Rope (1978).

 

© CBS / Epic

 

A number of veteran character actors died around the middle of the year.  William Lucas, star of such fascinatingly oddball British movies as X the Unknown (1956), The Shadow of the Cat (1961), Night of the Big Heat (1967) and Tower of Evil (1972) died on July 8th.   The New Zealand actor Terence Baylor, who died on August 2nd, will be remembered for uttering the most quotable line in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979).  After Graham Chapman’s reluctant messiah Brian pleads with a crowd of followers to leave him alone because they’re “all individuals” and the crowd mindlessly chants back at him, “We are all individuals!”, Baylor pipes up: “I’m not.”  He also appeared in Terry Gilliam’s The Time Bandits (1981), which lost another cast-member in August – the excellent Kenny Baker, who died on August 13th.  Baker was best-known for being the man inside R2D2 in the Star Wars movies and he was honoured at Blood and Porridge in this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6802

 

There were also many deaths among the American acting fraternity.  Comic actor and writer Gene Wilder died on August 29th.  Though Wilder was best-remembered for playing the title character in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), for me his finest hours came in two Mel Brooks movies made in 1974 – playing the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles and Dr Frederick Frankenstein (“Pronounced ‘steen’”) in Young Frankenstein.  Two days later the hard-working character actor Jon Polito passed away.  Polito was a regular in the films of Joel and Ethan Cohen, appearing in Barton Fink (1991), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), The Big Lebowski (1998), The Man Who wasn’t There (2001) and most memorably Miller’s Crossing (1990) where he played the mobster Johnny Caspar.  And on September 5th Hugh O’Brian, veteran of many a western movie and TV show, rode off into the sunset.  As the villainous Jack Pulford, he had the distinction of being the last person to be shot dead onscreen by John Wayne, in Wayne’s swansong The Shootist (1976).

 

© 20th Century Fox

 

September 16th saw the departure of Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning American playwright Edward Albee, whose work included The Zoo Story (1958), The Sandbox (1959), A Delicate Balance (1966) and most famously Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), made into a movie four years later and distinguished by splendidly unhinged performances by Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor as a booze-sodden university couple from hell.  Filmmaker Curtis Hanson, who started off writing interesting little movies like The Dunwich Horror (1969), The Silent Partner (1978) and White Dog (1982) and ended up directing the brilliant L.A. Confidential (1997), died on September 20th.  A somewhat less reputable filmmaker died on September 26th: Herschell Gordon Lewis, whose ultra-cheap but sensationally gory horror movies like Blood Feast (1963) and 2000 Maniacs (1964) were by no stretch of the imagination good, but left enough of an impression on Blood and Porridge to warrant this entry:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6940

 

Another American purveyor of low-budget celluloid sensationalism, Ted V. Mikels – of The Astro-Zombies (1968), Corpse Grinders (1971) and Blood Orgy of the She-Devils (1973) fame – died on October 16th.  October 13th saw the death of multi-tasking Italian Dario Fo, described on his Wikipedia page as an “actor-playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, stage designer, songwriter, painter, political campaigner for the Italian left-wing and the recipient of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Literature”, whose dramatical works made him “arguably the most widely performed contemporary playwright in world theatre.”  Ten days later, the comic-book world said farewell to artist Steve Dillon, who cut his teeth on British comics like Doctor Who Magazine (Abslom Daak), 2000 AD (Judge Dredd, Rogue Troopers, ABC Warriors) and Warrior (Marvelman, Laser Eraser and Pressbutton) in the 1980s and ended up working on acclaimed American titles such as DC Comics’ Hellblazer and Preacher in the 1990s and Marvel Comics’ Punisher in the noughties.  And on the same day, Jimmy Perry, who scripted the much-loved TV comedy Dad’s Army (1968-1977) with David Croft, died at the age of 93.

 

© Arena Productions / MGM Television

 

On November 5th, the English actor John Carson died.  As well as being a regular face on British television, he appeared in three memorable Hammer horror movies: Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter (1974) and best of all Plague of the Zombies (1966), where he played a voodoo-practising Cornish squire saving on labour costs by using reanimated corpses to work in his tin mine.  Passing away on November 11th was actor Robert Vaughn, famous on television for playing Napoleon Solo in The Man from UNCLE (1964-68) and equally famous in the cinema for being the longest-lasting member of the titular septet of gunslingers in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven (1960).  Between those two dates, on November 7th, the great Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen expired, having delivered one final album, You Want It Darker, just the previous month.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge said about Cohen at the time of his death:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7111

 

The great Irish novelist, short story writer and playwright William Trevor died on November 20th, while actor Andrew Sachs passed away three days later.  Most famous for playing the Barcelonan waiter Manuel in John Cleese’s classic sitcom Fawlty Towers (1975-79), Sachs was the son of a German Jew who fled to Britain to escape Nazi persecution in 1938 – an irony missed by right-wing British tabloid the Daily Mail, which printed the refugee-scare headline MIGRANT NUMBERS HIT NEW RECORDS next to the news of Sachs’ death on its front page.

 

© Hammer Films

 

Valerie Gaunt, who died on November 27th, made only two movies in the late 1950s before leaving the acting profession, but she made a big impression in them; playing Justine, the fickle maid who tries to blackmail Peter Cushing’s Baron Frankenstein in the 1956 horror classic The Curse of Frankenstein, and playing Christopher Lee’s vampire bride in 1958’s equally classic Dracula.  And the venerable character actor Peter Vaughan, who played Grouty in the sitcom Porridge (1974-77), played Maester Aemon in blood-tits-and-dragons saga Game of Thrones (2011-2015) and gave many memorable performances besides in films and TV, died on December 6th.  Here’s Blood and Porridge’s tribute to the great man:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=7196

 

© Spitting Image Productions / ITV Studios

 

Astronaut John Glenn, the fifth person to travel in space in 1962, and also the oldest person to travel there as a crewmember of the Discovery space shuttle in 1998, died on December 8th.  Two day later saw the death of the avuncular Scottish weatherman Ian McCaskill, who presented forecasts on the BBC from the late 1970s to the late 1990s and was regularly lampooned on TV puppet show Spitting image (1984-96).  On December 18th, the world said goodbye to actress and all-round personality Zsa Zsa Gabor, who could appear in a masterpiece like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil and a camp Grade-Z pudding like Queen of Outer Space in the same year (1958) and be inimitably Zsa Zsa-esque in both.  Distinguished British TV director Philip Saville died on December 22nd.  His career highlights included 1977’s Count Dracula, probably the most faithful adaptation ever of Bram Stoker’s seminal vampire novel; 1982’s condemnation of Thatcherism, Boys from the Blackstuff; and 1986’s gaudy and saucy TV version of Fay Weldon’s Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

 

Pop star George Michael died on Christmas Day.  I wasn’t a fan of his music, but from his philanthropic work (which included donating the royalties of his ever-popular festive anthem Last Christmas to the Band Aid charity) and from the fact that he lived his life with a healthy disregard for the strictures of Britain’s prurient tabloid press, I’d say he was a thoroughly good bloke.  And finally, the lovely and witty Carrie Fisher, aka Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, died on December 27th.  (Even more tragically, her mother Debbie Fisher passed away the following day.)  A depressing indication that in the shithole year that was 2016, you weren’t safe even if you were a fairy-tale princess.

 

© Lucasfilm Ltd / 20th Century Fox

 

Films of 2016

 

© Sidney Kimmel Entertainment / CBS Films / Lionsgate

 

2016 was generally a bloody horrible year but it at least produced some decent films.   Here’s my top ten favourite movies of 2016.  I realise that some of them were made (and released in their home countries) in 2015.  But since they didn’t reach British cinemas and / or DVD outlets until the following year, I’m treating them as 2016 films.  Be on your guard for occasional spoilers.

 

Anomalisa

The Guardian’s excitable film critic Peter Bradshaw described Anomalisa as “unforgettably, skin-crawlingly strange”, though I found its wistful and amusing story of a middle-aged celebrity finding love in a big soulless hotel more reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation (2003) rather than anything by David Lynch.  There’s even a scene in Anomalisa that does for Cyndi Lauper’s Girls Just Want to Have Fun what Lost in Translation did for Roxy Music’s More Than This.

 

However, Anomalisa is based on a play by Charlie Kaufman, who scripted and co-directed it with Duke Johnson, so it’s also flavoured with brain-bending oddness.  David Thewlis’s harassed customer-service expert, in Cincinnati for a conference, suffers from Fregoli Delusion, i.e. he perceives nearly everyone in the world as the same person, including his wife, son and ex-girlfriend.  All have the same bland face and same bland voice (supplied by Tom Noonan).  When he meets a young woman who somehow bucks the trend and possesses some individuality (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he promptly falls for her.

 

What makes Anomalisa odder still is the fact that it uses stop-motion animation – Thewlis, Leigh and Noonan are speaking through puppets.  If, like me, you still associate stop-motion animation with the Ray Harryhausen movies of yesteryear – featuring cyclopses, gorgons, dinosaurs and giant octopi – the scene where the Thewlis and Leigh puppets indulge in cunnilingus will blow your mind.

 

© HanWay Films / Paramount Pictures

 

Bone Tomahawk

I’ve already written about Bone Tomahawk on this blog so I’m not going to say much more about it – save that S. Craig Zahler’s bold exercise in combining a traditional western (for its first hour, giving us time to get to know and like the characters) with a bloody in-your-face horror movie (for its last half-hour, when we get seriously worried about what’s going to happen to those characters) was one of 2016’s unexpected pleasures.

 

It doesn’t end well for Deputy Nick, though.

 

Green Room

Three years ago writer / director Jeremy Saulnier treated us to the melancholy modern-day noir classic Blue Ruin.  He maintains his high standards with Green Room.  A down-on-their-luck punk band get a chance to make money playing a gig at a bar in the remote Pacific Northwest.  The catch is, it’s a ‘boots-and-braces’ crowd, i.e. the audience are neo-Nazi skinheads.  The band survive the gig – despite performing the Dead Kennedys’ Nazi Punks F**k Off – but then see a murder committed backstage and end up trapped in the titular green room, besieged by some shaven-headed psychos who want to eliminate the witnesses.

 

Saulnier skilfully cranks up the tension in this nasty but blackly funny thriller.  Rarely in a movie have attack-dogs appeared more terrifying.  And equally terrifying is Patrick Stewart as the bar owner and the skinheads’ cerebral but malevolent leader – Stewart no doubt welcoming a chance to ditch his Goody-Two-Shoes Star Trek image for a while.

 

© Broad Green Pictures / Film Science / A24

 

Hell or High Water

Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967) updated to the 21st century, Hell or High Water has two Texan brothers, played by Chris Pine and Ben Foster, adopt an unusual strategy to rescue their family farm from a mortgage deal with a bank.  To pay it off, they start robbing local branches of the same bank.  Will their scheme succeed before the investigating Texas Rangers, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, catch up with them?  Director David Mackenzie deftly orchestrates the drama – we have two pairs of characters whom we like, but we know the results are going to be unhappy when their paths finally cross – and the bank robberies receive extra tension from our knowledge that this is happening in Texas, a state where the customers are as heavily armed as the robbers and security staff.

 

Oh, and Jeff Bridges just gets better with age.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

As I grow older and more curmudgeonly, I find fewer comedy films capable of making me laugh.  An exception is the work of New Zealand writer / director Taika Waititi: Eagle vs Shark (2007), What We Do in the Shadows (2014) and now this film.

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople is about grumpy old misfit Hector (Sam Neill) and chubby juvenile delinquent Ricky (Julian Dennison) taking to the New Zealand mountains pursued by police, social services, vigilantes and the media; along the way encountering hardship, killer wild boars and an affable lunatic called Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby), but also forming a precious friendship.  Waititi creates a funny and affecting movie but avoids easy laughs and cloying sentimentality.  The characters here take some hard knocks and the happy ending is hard won.

 

© Gamechanger Films / XYZ Films

 

The Invitation

Karyn Kusama’s The Invitation takes a familiar dramatical trope, the dinner party that goes wrong – see Rope (1948) or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) – and turns it into a horror movie.  For most of its length, though, it’s more about social awkwardness as a group of well-heeled trendies get together for a meal in the Hollywood Hills and find their hosts a little too vocal about the New Age fad they believe has turned their lives around.  Logan Marshall-Green is good as the guest who suspects something sinister is afoot – but is he just overacting to his hosts’ happy-clappy goofiness?

 

Kusama shows Hitchcockian skill in stoking up and then dampening down Marshall-Green’s suspicions at different points in the film.  Meanwhile, hulking character actor John Carroll Lynch gives a memorable turn as an unexpected party guest.

 

Krisha

Krisha was the year’s other great dinner-party-goes-wrong movie – not in a macabre way but in a painful, all-too-human one.  During Thanksgiving, the sixty-something Krisha of the title turns up at her family’s celebrations as a not entirely welcome guest.  Long considered the black sheep of the family because of alcohol and substance abuse, Krisha is on a last warning to behave herself.  Inevitably, as the day progresses and subtle but niggling pressures mount, Krisha’s self-control begins to fray.

 

Shot over nine days in 2014 with a budget of just $14,000, Krisha feels claustrophobically intimate because director Trey Edwards Shults filmed it in his parents’ house, using members of his family and his friends for the cast.  Making it feel more intimate still is the fact that Shults himself plays Trey, Krisha’s estranged son; while Krisha Fairchild, his real-life aunt, plays Krisha.

 

Krisha is a low-fi marvel and it’s easy to see why indie filmmaking guru John Waters named it his film of the year.

 

© A24

 

Room

More claustrophobia is served up by Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, scripted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name.  This Canadian-Irish co-production sees Brie Larson abducted and imprisoned for seven years in a small, fortified shed that has the amenities of a grotty caravan – sink, toilet, bathtub, TV, gas cooker.  Larson’s abductor also subjects her to a sexual relationship, the result of which is a young son, played by Jack Tremblay, who knows nothing of the world but what he sees in the cramped quarters around him.  To him, ‘Room’ becomes as huge and all-encompassing a concept as the ‘Earth’ or ‘Universe’.

 

Eventually, Larson and Tremblay escape from Room.  But faced with uncomprehending and emotionally-traumatised relatives and by sensation-hungry journalists, you wonder if spiritually they’re going to be prisoners of Room forever.  It sounds like a discouragingly bleak film but, thanks to Abrahamson and Donoghue’s treatment of the story and to the performances by Larson and Tremblay (the former winning an Oscar), the ultimate result is surprisingly positive and uplifting.

 

Train to Busan

Yes – Zombies on a Train!  It’s easy to dismiss Yeon Sang-ho’s high-concept horror / disaster movie as a case of what you see being what you get – and what you do see and get is plenty of spectacular and nail-biting action set-pieces.  However, there’s more going on than you might initially think in Train to Busan, which has a zombie apocalypse erupting on the Korean peninsula and some survivors on a train trying to get past zombie-overrun stations and avoid the infection spreading on board to reach the southern, zombie-free city of the title.

 

© Next Entertainment World

 

While blue-collar characters like Ma Dong-seok’s streetwise bruiser and Choi Gwi-hwa’s homeless man act in defence of their fellow passengers, suited CEO scumbag Kim Eui-sung has no compunction about sacrificing everyone else to save himself – and the train staff are alarmingly and maddeningly deferential to him.  In fact, he embodies the corporate rottenness that contributed to South Korea’s real-life MV Sewol disaster in 2014.

 

The Witch

Finally, praise for Robert Eggers’ The Witch, which was stupidly marketed as a straightforward, scream-a-minute horror film.  This baffled audiences of adolescent horror buffs who came to it expecting something like Sinister (2012) or The Conjuring (2013), but instead were treated to a slow and unsettling tale of a Puritan family being torn apart by superstition, mistrust and paranoia in the Nathaniel Hawthorne-esque setting of 17th-century New England.

 

At least Stephen King got the right measure of The Witch, calling it “a real movie, tense and thought-provoking as well as visceral.”

 

© Rooks Nest Entertainment / Universal Pictures

 

Death log 2016 – part 1

 

© American International Pictures

 

You may have noticed that one or two people died in 2016.  Here are some folk who passed away this year who’ll be particularly missed at Blood and Porridge.

 

January 10th saw the departure of musical legend and stylistic chameleon David Bowie, who was commemorated in no fewer than three postings on this blog:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6104

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6114

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6130

 

Die Hard (1988)
Directed by John McTiernan
Shown: Alan Rickman

© Silver Pictures / 20th Century Fox

 

The British actor Alan Rickman died four days later.  Rickman’s career, and especially his talent for playing delightfully fiendish villains in movies like Die Hard (1988) and Robin Hood Prince of Thieves (1991), was also celebrated at Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6183

 

January 9th saw the passing of American actor Angus Scrimm, who’ll be fondly remembered by horror-film fans for playing the Tall Man in Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm movies.  And Scottish writer Robert Banks Stewart died on January 15th.  Banks Stewart was well-known for creating the TV detective shows Shoestring (1979-80) and Bergerac (1981-91) and he also scripted two of the scariest stories of Tom Baker-era Doctor Who, 1975’s Terror of the Zygons and 1976’s The Seeds of Doom.  The alien monsters in the former adventure, the repulsively slimy and sucker-covered Zygons, proved so popular that forty years later they’re still menacing Peter Capaldi in the revived Doctor Who.

 

© BBC

 

Another British actor to depart in January 2016 was actor Frank Finlay, who passed away on the 30th.  Finlay played Porthos in the classic trilogy of Musketeers films directed by Richard Lester in 1973, 1974 and 1989; Van Helsing in the BBC’s stately adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula in 1977; and Dr Fallada in a less reputable vampire epic, Tobe Hooper’s hilarious Lifeforce (1985).  He also had the curious distinction of playing Inspector Lestrade in two different films where Sherlock Holmes investigates the Jack the Ripper killings, 1965’s A Study in Terror and 1979’s Murder by Decree.  The final day of January saw the death of Irish broadcaster Terry Wogan, whose twinkly-eyed, possibly toupee-bearing visage seemed to symbolise the BBC during the 1980s as much as Ronald McDonald did McDonald’s or Colonel Sanders did the KFC.  Equipped with a soft brogue, gentle wit and inability to take himself or anyone else too seriously, the ubiquitous Wogan could host any ropey old chat-show or game-show and make it entertaining.

 

Italian author Umberto Eco died on February 19th.  I always thought his acclaimed novel The Name of the Rose (1980) was overrated, but at least the film version six years later gave Sean Connery one of his last good film roles.  On February 22nd, the British cinematographer Douglas Slocombe passed away at the venerable age of 103.  Slocombe’s half-century career included such highlights as Dead of Night (1945), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), The Servant (1963), The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967), The Lion in Winter (1968), The Italian Job (1969), The Great Gatsby (1974) and the first three Indiana Jones movies (1981, 84 and 89).  Another great behind-the-scenes man of British cinema, production designer Ken Adam, died on March 10th.  Not only was Adam responsible for the spectacular and now iconic sets of seven James Bond movies between Dr No (1961) and Moonraker (1979), but he designed the War Room in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove (1964), reckoned by Steven Spielberg to be the greatest movie-set ever.

 

© Hawk Films / Columbia Pictures

 

Another Kubrick veteran, the actress Adrienne Corri who appeared in 1971’s A Clockwork Orange, died on March 13th.  Among her other credits was a role in the bloody but fairy tale-like Hammer horror movie Vampire Circus (1972).  Two days later saw the death of Sylvia Anderson, the one-time Mrs Gerry Anderson, co-producer of such classic kid’s puppet TV shows as Stingray (1964-65), Thunderbirds (1965-66), Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons (1967-68) and Joe 90 (1968-69) and such adult sci-fi TV shows as UFO (1970)  and Space 1999 (1975-77).  In Thunderbirds, she also provided the voice for the gorgeous and glamorous, though frankly plastic, Lady Penelope.  Author Barry Hines died on March 18th.  His most famous work was A Kestrel for a Knave (1968), which a year after its publication was filmed as Kes by mighty British director Ken Loach.

 

© ITC Entertainment

 

The comedy world took a treble hit in spring 2016.  The English comedienne, actress, writer and director Victoria Wood died on March 24th; the Scottish comedian and comic performer Ronnie Corbett on March 31st; and the great American stand-up, actor, writer and producer Gary Shandling on April 20th.  The passing of the impish and fruity-toned Corbett prompted this tribute from Blood and Porridge:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6367

 

© BBC

 

Welsh actor Gareth Thomas, who played intergalactic freedom-fighter Roj Blake in the BBC’s downbeat 1970s space opera Blake’s Seven, died on April 13th.  Surely the most traumatic TV moment ever came at the end of Blake’s Seven’s final episode, which sees Blake bloodily gunned down by his second-in-command Kerr Avon (Paul Darrow) who wrongly suspects him of treachery.  (“Have you betrayed us?  Have you betrayed… me?!”)  A week later, on April 20th, film director Guy Hamilton passed away.  Hamilton was another James Bond alumni with four 007 movies under his belt, most notably 1964’s Goldfinger.  And April 21st was a day when another great musical talent was snuffed out: Prince.  Blood and Porridge paid its respects to the saucy purple one here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6441

 

On April 24th we bid adieu to two character actors who’d enlivened many an old British B-movie: Australian Lewis Fiander, who’d had supporting roles in the horror movies Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971) and Dr Phibes Rises Again (1972) and was the leading man in Narciso Ibanez Serrador’s splendidly creepy Spanish film Who Can Kill a Child? (1976); and British-Chinese actor Burt Kwouk, who was best known for playing Inspector Clouseau’s manservant Cato in the Pink Panther movies, though he’d appeared in a lot of movies and TV shows besides.  Kwouk was a big favourite at Blood and Porridge, which published this tribute to him a year ago:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=5707

 

By June, the month when the United Kingdom voted for Brexit, it was clear that 2016 was going to be remembered as a monumentally shite year.  This unhappy fact seemed to be reinforced by the passing of the great Muhammad Ali on June 3rd, which was recorded on this blog here:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6607

 

From www.wantedinrome.com

 

June 12th saw the death of one of Scotland’s more outré eccentrics, Tom Leppard, aka the Leopard Man, who was reckoned by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s most tattooed man.  A former soldier, Leppard had his body covered in a leopard-skin pattern of spots and spent much of his later life living in a remote bothy on the Isle of Skye.  On June 19th, the American-Russian actor Anton Yelchin died in a tragic freak accident.  Aged just 27 at the time of his death, Yelchin had made a name for himself in impressive movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) and Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room (2015), as well as in the rebooted Star Trek movies where he played Chekov.  And Bud Spencer, the burly Italian Olympian swimmer and comic actor, died on June 27th.  In partnership with Terence Hill, Spencer made 20 movies of rumbustious and destructive slapstick that regularly turned up as supporting features in British cinemas during the 1970s.  Watch Out, We’re Mad (1974) and Crime Busters (1977) are particularly fondly remembered at Blood and Porridge.

 

Finally, June ended and July began with what Blood and Porridge dubbed ‘the curse of the Radiohead video.’  No sooner had the avant-garde British rock band released a video for their new song Burn the Witch, which combined the look and the Claymation animation style of the classic British TV children’s shows Camberwick Green (1966), Trumpton (1967) and Chigley (1969) with the plot of the classic British folk-horror movie The Wicker Man (1974), than: (1) Gordon Murray, producer and animator of those children’s shows died on June 30th; and (2) The Wicker Man’s director Robin Hardy died on July 1st.  Here’s what Blood and Porridge had to say about Hardy:

 

http://bloodandporridge.co.uk/wp/?p=6706

 

© XL

 

To be continued…  Unfortunately.

 

He’s Spartacus

 

© Universal International

 

David Bowie, Umberto Eco, Prince, Michael Cimino, Gene Wilder, Edward Albee, Leonard Cohen…  During 2016 the Grim Reaper has cut a swathe through the world’s great musical, literary and cinematic figures.  At times the bodies were dropping so thick and fast that he didn’t seem to be using his scythe on the global arts community, but driving a combine harvester through it.  And the year isn’t over yet.  I just hope that for the remaining twenty days of 2016, Neil Young, Philip Roth and Robert De Niro are holed up somewhere safe with ample supplies of food, drink and antibiotics.

 

Therefore, with death all around, it’s nice to be able to report on a 2016 news story involving longevity.  For yesterday saw the 100th birthday of dimple-jawed Hollywood legend Kirk Douglas.

 

During the late 1950s, it seemed that cinematically Kirk Douglas could do no wrong.  (I’m not old enough to have seen his 1950s movies when they were released in the cinema, of course, but they never seemed to be off the TV when I was a kid in the 1970s.)  As Ned the harpooner, he rescued James Mason from that pesky giant squid in Richard Fleischer’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954).  As Vincent Van Gogh, he sawed off his own ear in Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life (1956).  And as Doc Holliday, he overcame his tubercular cough to help out Burt Lancaster in John Sturges’s Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957).

 

He played a Norseman alongside Tony Curtis and Ernest Borgnine in Fleischer’s testosterone-charged, hardly-historically-accurate but thoroughly enjoyable The Vikings (1958).  It’s Borgnine, not Douglas, who gets the film’s best line – after listening to treacherous English nobleman Lord Egbert (James Donald) describe the custom back home of dropping prisoners into a pit of ravenously hungry wolves, he exclaims, “You see?  The English are civilised!”  But an earlier retort by Douglas to Borgnine is pretty funny too: “Oh, stop shouting.  You sound like a moose giving birth to a hedgehog.”  The Vikings, though, isn’t all fun and games.  Watching it as a kid, I was traumatised by the scene where Douglas loses an eye to Curtis’s very pecky pet falcon.

 

© United Artists

 

In 1960, of course, he played the leader of Rome’s rebellious slaves in Stanley Kubrick’s epic Spartacus.  The film’s most moving and memorable scene is still surely the bane of the British police force on Saturday nights, when it has to deal with damage caused by a drunken stag parties / rugby clubs / gangs of engineering students.  “All right.  Will the person among you who broke the window identify himself, please?”  “I’m Spartacus!”  “I’m Spartacus!”  “I’m Spartacus!”  “I’m Spartacus!”  Etc.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8h_v_our_Q

 

But it’s in another Kubrick movie from the same era, 1957’s Paths of Glory, that Douglas perhaps enjoys his finest hour.  He plays Colonel Dax, a French officer trying to save three of his men when they’re court martialled for refusing to take part in a suicidal assault on a German position during World War I.  The film’s historical and anti-military themes proved so controversial in France that it was denied a showing there until 1975.

 

After that, Kirk Douglas’s film roles were never quite as good again, although I’m partial to his turn in Anthony Mann’s tale of World War II Norwegian resistance fighters The Heroes of Telemark (1965), a movie that’s engrained on my memory because during the 1970s the BBC seemed to show it on TV every other week.  And I like him in Burt Kennedy’s The War Wagon (1967), where he spends most of his time getting wound up by John Wayne.  (“How are we going to take it?  With the Prussian Army?”  “With three other fellas.  Five of us.”  “Five.  I’m kind of glad I didn’t kill you tonight.  You’re funny as hell.”)

 

© Universal Pictures

 

Perhaps his last good film was Brian De Palma’s The Fury (1978).  Still, afterwards, he managed to improve the quality of a couple of movies just by being in them – even though essentially those movies were puddings.  I’m thinking of Don Taylor’s shonky fantasy The Final Countdown (1980) about a modern US aircraft carrier being catapulted back in time to the week before the attack on Pearl Harbour; and Stanley Donen’s sci-fi misfire Saturn 3 (1980), in which Douglas and Farah Fawcett are menaced by a killer robot that’s had Harvey Keitel’s libido programmed into it.  (I suspect these days Martin Amis keeps it quiet that he wrote Saturn 3’s script.)  Not even Kirk Douglas, though, could redeem Alberto De Martino’s Holocaust 2000 (1977), a British-Italian horror movie about nuclear power plants and the Antichrist that truly has to be seen to be believed.

 

He’s given great performances in some of the most robustly-entertaining movies that Hollywood has ever produced.  Congratulations, Kirk, on reaching treble figures.

 

© Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

 

Grouty’s greatest hits

 

© BBC

 

I suppose I shouldn’t feel too upset about the passing of the great British character actor Peter Vaughan.  He’d enjoyed an excellent innings – he was 93 when he died three days ago – and his seven-decade acting career had lasted right up to the present with his performance as Maester Aemon in the blockbusting HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones.  But I’m still sorry to see him go, primarily because he was one of those thespians who’d seemed so enduring and ubiquitous that I fancied he was going to continue popping up in films and on TV shows until the end of time.

 

Here’s a selection of my favourite moments from Peter Vaughan’s acting CV.  I haven’t picked his acclaimed performance in the award-winning 1996 BBC TV series Our Friends in the North because I haven’t seen it – I wasn’t living in the UK when it was broadcast.  And I haven’t mentioned Game of Thrones because, believe it or not, I’ve never watched it either.  (Though someday I’ll take half-a-year off and devote it to a seven-season Game of Thrones boxset binge.)

 

Fanatic (1965)

When the famous British studio Hammer Films wasn’t making gothic horror movies in the 1960s, it was making small-scale psychological thrillers.  These included Taste of Fear (1961), Paranoiac (1963) and this film, which despite some predictability and a disappointing ending is a lot of fun.  It benefits from a great little cast and from deft low-budget direction by Canadian filmmaker Silvio Narizzano, who’d later direct 1966’s classic Georgy Girl and the 1970 movie version of the Joe Orton play Loot.

 

Fanatic has Stephanie Powers crossing paths with and being imprisoned by a rich, elderly and demented religious fanatic, played with scenery-chewing gusto by Tallulah Bankhead.  In the roles of Bankhead’s husband-and-wife servants – who do her bidding because they hope to get a generous inheritance after her death – are Vaughan and the formidable actress Yootha Joyce.  By the late 1970s Joyce would be Britain’s indisputable Sitcom Queen, thanks to playing the dragon-ish Mildred Roper in Man about the House (1973-76) and George and Mildred (1976-1980).

 

© Hammer Films

 

The pleasure of Vaughan’s performance in Fanatic is what a total scum-bucket he is.  His character is by turns shifty, scheming, greedy, sadistic, thuggish, lecherous and cowardly.  You can’t help but cheer when near the end Bankhead shoots him in the face.

 

An additional bonus is that playing the household’s mentally subnormal handyman is a young and before-he-was-famous Donald Sutherland.  Yay!

 

Straw Dogs (1971)

Set in rural Cornwall, dealing notoriously with vigilantism, violence and rape, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs sees Vaughan essaying another scummy character.  He’s local patriarch, boozer and brute Tom Hedden, who leads the climactic assault on Dustin Hoffman and Susan George’s house after the village idiot accidentally kills his daughter, flees and takes refuge there.

 

© ABC Pictures / Talent Associates

 

When the village magistrate, played by T.P. McKenna, arrives at the house to try to defuse the situation, Vaughan blasts him apart with his shotgun.  Then Vaughan starts climbing in through one of Hoffman’s windows.  Hoffman tackles him and things don’t end well for him when his shotgun goes off again during the struggle.

 

After viewing Straw Dogs, one sick-minded friend of mine was prompted to quip, “Peter Vaughan never really found his feet in that movie, did he?”

 

Symptoms (1974)

Spanish director Jose Ramon Larraz’s British-made horror film is a languid, dreamy and quietly effective piece of work that’s regarded now as a minor classic.  Little seen for many years, it was finally scheduled for DVD release this year with the help of the British Film Institute.  Lorna Heilbron plays a young woman invited by a new, slightly-odd friend (Angela Pleasence) to spend time with her on her remote country estate.  However, Vaughan – playing yet another unsavoury character, the creepy groundsman – is soon dropping hints to her that she isn’t the first young woman to have been invited to the estate; and the previous one may not have left it.

 

© Finiton Productions

 

In the supporting cast is Mike Grady, who along with Vaughan would later become a regular in the BBC sitcom Citizen Smith.  About which, more in a minute.

 

Porridge (1974-1977 & 1979)

I can understand why Vaughan was bemused at how a generation of Britons identified him completely with Harry Grout in the BBC’s classic prison-set sitcom Porridge.  He was in Porridge for only a couple of episodes and the 1979 movie adaptation.  However, he certainly made an impression.

 

Usually funny, occasionally serious, Porridge follows the adventures of a cynical old lag (Ronnie Barker) and his naïve young cellmate (Richard Beckinsdale) as they try to keep their heads down, serve their time with a minimum of trouble and navigate a safe path between the prison authorities on one hand and the prison’s more criminal elements on the other.  Representing those criminal elements is the prison’s Mr Big, the fearsome Harry Grout – Grouty as he’s referred to, under whispered breath.

 

Despite being a convict, Grouty lives a life of luxury with his every need attended to by obsequious fellow-inmates and crooked warders.  He’s clearly inspired by Mr Bridger, the character played by Noel Coward in the popular 1969 caper movie The Italian Job.  But while Coward plays Bridger for laughs, swanning about his lavish cell like a member of the Royal Family, the bear-like and quietly-intense Vaughn imbues Grouty with genuine menace.  You have no doubt that if you cross him, he’ll arrange for someone to break your legs.  And if nobody’s available to do it, he’ll break those legs himself.

 

© BBC

 

Citizen Smith (1977-78)

A BBC sitcom scripted by John Sullivan, Citizen Smith was a political satire starring Robert Lindsay and set in 1970s south London.  Lindsay plays Wolfie Smith, a hopeless Che Guevara wannabe and leader of a revolutionary, but equally hopeless organisation called the Tooting Popular Front.

 

Peter Vaughan would have been a shoo-in for the role of local gangster Harry Fenning (actually played by Stephen Greif), whom Wolfie frequently rubs up the wrong way while he tries to engineer a people’s uprising.  Instead, however, Vaughan landed the slightly milder role of Charlie Johnson, the father of Wolfie’s comparatively-sensible girlfriend Shirley (Cheryl Hall).

 

Much of the show’s charm came from the bickering between Wolfie and the conservative, no-nonsense, old-fashioned Charlie.  The latter’s sarcastic tones as he repeatedly refers to his prospective son-in-law as ‘Trotsky’, ‘Chairman Mao’ and ‘the yeti’ are a joy.   Citizen Smith lasted for four seasons, but it was never quite the same after Vaughan left at the end of season two.

 

The Time Bandits (1981)

Director / writer Terry Gilliam’s fantasy The Time Bandits is a lovely film with a lovely cast – and I don’t just mean the various Hollywood stars in (mostly) cameo roles, but also Craig Warnock as eleven-year-old hero Kevin and David Rappaport, Kenny Baker, Jack Purves and co. as the time-travelling dwarves.  Vaughan appears as a cantankerous, feeling-his-age and self-pitying ogre called Winston: “You try being beastly and terrifying… you can only get one hour’s sleep a night because your back hurts, and you daren’t cough unless you want to pull a muscle.”  He shares a houseboat with his wife, Mrs Ogre, who’s coincidentally played by another Sitcom Queen – Katherine Helmond, who was Jessica Tate in the legendary American comedy Soap (1977-81).

 

© Handmade Films

 

When Winston catches Kevin and the dwarves in his fishing net, he and Mrs Ogre make plans to eat them – “Aren’t they lovely?  We can have them for breakfast!” – but the dwarves turn the tables on him after he unwisely agrees to let them massage his sore back.

 

Terry Gilliam liked Vaughan so much that he cast him in his next movie, Brazil (1985).  Writing on Facebook the other day, Gilliam urged his followers to “put on Brazil or Time Bandits and lift a glass to him.  Farewell, Peter!”

 

The Remains of the Day (1993)

James Ivory’s The Remains of the Day is much admired but I’m not a huge fan of it.  Perhaps this is because before I saw it I’d read the Kazuo Ishiguro novel on which it’s based; and I prefer the book to the film.

 

Vaughan plays Stevens Sr., father of the main character played by Anthony Hopkins – James Stevens, a duty-obsessed and unthinkingly loyal butler to a 1930s aristocrat.   Stevens Sr. was once a distinguished butler himself, equally dutiful and loyal.  As his health and abilities fail, however, he loses his standing and dignity in the household and ends up a lowly cleaner.  His plight becomes a warning to his son about what lies ahead.  An added tragedy is that the son is too self-consciously reserved to show his emotions at the old man’s decline.

 

And for me, the most memorable thing in the movie version of The Remains of the Day is Peter Vaughan’s poignant performance.

 

© Merchant-Ivory Productions

 

And just when you thought 2016 couldn’t get any worse…

 

© Columbia

 

I’ve just read in the news that the great Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist Leonard Cohen has passed away.  With Donald Trump newly elected to the White House, I suspect Cohen decided it was time to check out because the world had reached a point where it was even more depressing than one of his songs.

 

Cohen produced many tunes that were marvellous because of their very sadness.  Their melancholia was delicious.  No wonder his most recent album, released only last month, was called You Want It Darker – he knew what his audience expected of him.

 

I’m not a great fan of 1984’s Hallelujah (1984), perhaps his most famous song, which for me has just been covered (and X-Factored) to death.  But I love The Stranger Song, Winter Lady and Sisters of Mercy from his debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967), all of which featured on the soundtrack to Robert Altman’s classic western movie McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971).

 

© Warner Bros

 

Indeed, the beginning of McCabe and Mrs Miller where Warren Beatty and his horses plod across a bleak, windswept mountainside to reach the muddy, back-of-beyond frontier town that’s the setting for the film’s action, to the strains of The Stranger Song, is my all-time-favourite opening sequence in a western.  Though I have to admit that starting the film with a Leonard Cohen song gives the game away somewhat.  The moment Cohen starts singing, you just know there’s going to be an unhappy ending.  Warren Beatty is going to die.

 

Incidentally, the other day, I was watching Taika Waititi’s amusing comedy-drama Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016) when, suddenly and unexpectedly, Cohen started playing on the soundtrack. This was during a bleak-looking sequence where Sam Neil and Julian Dennison struggle across some wintry New Zealand mountains.  Of course, this was an affectionate nod by Waititi towards McCabe and Mrs Miller, though the song played here wasn’t The Stranger Song.  It was The Partisan, a 1969 cover Cohen did of La Complainte du Partisan, written in 1943 by Emmanuel D’Astier de la Vigerie and Anna Marly.

 

© Defender Films / Piki Films / Curious

 

Two other Cohen songs I’m fond of that also have a strong cinematic connection are Waiting for a Miracle and The Future, both off the 1992 album The Future.  These book-end Oliver Stone’s ferocious 1994 movie about the American media’s adulation of two mass-murderers, Natural Born Killers.  The slow, gruffly-intoned and doom-laden Waiting for a Miracle plays at the film’s opening, which sees Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis arrive in a fly-ridden, redneck-infested diner in the New Mexico desert.  The song warns you that something horrible is about to happen.  And yes, since this is an Oliver Stone movie, something horrible soon does happen.

 

Played at the close of Natural Born KillersThe Future is a jauntier affair, but it contains the worrying refrain, “I’ve seen the future, brother – it is murder.”  Actually, I rather hope that Cohen has arranged for that to be played at his funeral service.  Then the joke really will be on us.

 

© Regency Enterprises / Warner Bros

 

Favourite film websites

 

© Paramount Pictures

 

At some point during my formative years I realised I was obsessed with films.  Unfortunately, my formative years occurred at a time when being a film obsessive was expensive. 

 

It meant shelling out money to see the things at the cinema or, a little way into the 1980s, rent them from the video-shop – the alternative was waiting for what seemed like 25 years before they turned up on one of the UK’s four terrestrial TV channels.  But it also meant paying serious money for film magazines to get background information about them.

 

Actually, from the late 1970s and through the 1980s and 1990s I must have spent an amount equivalent to the Gross Domestic Product of some developing-world countries on film magazines.  At one time or other I was purchasing Cinefantastique, Cinema, Empire, Fangoria, Fantastic Films, House of Hammer, Monster Mag, the Monthly Film Bulletin, Premiere, Sight and Sound, Starburst, Starlog, Stills and Total Film.

 

How different it is today.  Thanks to the Internet, a million websites devoted to movies old and new are available at a click of the mouse or a tap on the touch-pad; and most of them are free to read.  The magazines above – at least, the ones that’ve survived to the present day – have their own sites but many more movie-websites are creations of the Internet era alone.  Here are a few of my favourites.

 

© DEFA / BBC

 

According to its blurb 366 Weird Movies is a site dedicated to “the cinematically surreal, bizarre, cult, oddball, fantastique, strange, psychedelic, and the just plain WEIRD!”  Hence, it provides articles on everything from 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild to 1955’s Night of the Hunter, from 1990’s The Reflecting Skin to 1973’s O Lucky Man!  Covered here is work by all the cinematic mavericks you’d expect, like David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, Peter Greenaway, Ken Russell and Lars von Trier.

 

http://366weirdmovies.com/

 

One reason why I’m kindly disposed towards this website is because I’m quoted on it.  At the bottom of each film-entry is a What the Critics Say section and my thoughts have been published about, of all things, The Singing Ringing Tree – the freaky 1957 East German fairy-tale movie that was chopped into episodes and broadcast as a children’s TV series by the BBC.  Of which I wrote (originally on this blog): “for pure weirdness you couldn’t beat The Singing Ringing Tree…  (It) resembled a Brothers Grimm story directed by David Lynch.”

 

© Sol Lesser Productions / RKO

 

More weirdness appears at Atonal Cinema for Zombies, which focuses on ‘strange black and white American films’ from the 1930s to 1960s.  It gives brief but droll accounts of items like Tarzan’s Magic Fountain (1949), Teenage Doll (1957), The Maze (1953), I Married a Witch (1942) and Island of Doomed Men (1940), i.e. all those monochrome movies that long ago would be broadcast on TV as filler for the then-graveyard-slots of the late morning, mid-afternoon and late-evening; movies that, even when I saw them as a kid, I found memorably odd.

 

http://atonalcinemaforzombies.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Meanwhile, the splendidly-titled Jollygood Babylon looks at old British movies.  And not the ones that get celebrated in expensive coffee-table tomes about the history of the British film industry.  It deals with British exploitation movies of yore – all those cheap, unsavoury crime, horror, sex and sex-comedy movies that respectable British critics at the time liked to pretend didn’t exist.  Thus, you get entries on the gloriously tacky likes of 1982’s Xtro (killer aliens, killer toys, slime, sleaze), 1971’s Revenge (child murders, vigilantism, Joan Collins in her underwear) and 1970’s Groupie Girl (swinging London, drugs, foursomes, decadent rock ‘n’ roll bands with names like Orange Butterfly whose music actually sounds more like “Brotherhood of Man than Led Zeppelin”).

 

http://jollygoodbabylon.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Over the decades, horror movies have formed much of the British film industry’s output.  For coverage of older examples of these, i.e. from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, check out British Horror Films.  Alas, this site has been inactive for a few years and its extensive film-review section has become harder to access, although the following link should get you there:

 

http://www.britishhorrorfilms.co.uk/films.shtml

 

The site’s creator Chris Wood tackles his subject matter with a fond but faintly mocking tone.  Thus, Roman Polanski’s Macbeth (1970) gets the endorsement, “Brush up on ‘O’ Level English and watch some extreme violence at the same time” (which were certainly the reasons why I watched it as a teenager); whereas Nicholas Roeg’s much-praised Don’t Look Now (1973) is brought down a peg or two by the observation, “Couple aim to forget daughter’s drowning by moving to Venice – a city full of water.”

 

© British Lion Films

 

For modern British horror movies – products of a boom that began in the late 1990s and continues to the present, helped immeasurably by indie filmmakers churning out movies that bypass the cinema-screen and reach an audience via DVD and Video on Demand – look no further than the blog M.J. Simpson: Film Reviews and Interviews.

 

http://mjsimpson-films.blogspot.com/

 

I don’t agree with all of M.J. Simpson’s opinions – there’s a hint of reverse-snobbery that makes him uncomfortable with anything mainstream, big-budget, critically-acclaimed or directed by Ben Wheatley – but I admire his courage, strength and indefatigability when it comes to reviewing just about everything that appears, no matter how obscure, cheap, nasty or bizarre.  We’re talking items like Devil Dog Shuck Returns (2016), Killer/Saurus (2015), Fluid Boy (2015) and Where Seagulls Cry a Song (2010).  Never heard of those?  Don’t worry, neither had I.  With his ‘someone made it, so someone ought to watch it’ ethic, Simpson is to modern British horror films what the late John Peel was to alternative music, and there’s no higher compliment than that.

 

© 88 Films

 

Now from Britain to Italy, home to two of my favourite movie sub-genres.  If you admire the way the Italians reinvented the western, that most American of film-forms, in the 1960s – introducing squinty-eyed heroes, bearded villains, monosyllabic dialogue, shonky dubbing, operatic violence, Catholicism, cigar butts, ponchos, twangy musical scores and the landscapes of Andalusia and Lazio pretending to be the US / Mexican border – then The Spaghetti Western Database is for you.

 

www.spaghetti-western.net

 

I don’t know how many films’ details are stored here, but there are a lot; running from 1910 to 2009, with an obvious glut around the glory years of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  Productions are listed not just from Italy but also from Spain, Germany, France and Turkey.  British-made Westerns don’t count as spaghetti westerns, though, so there’s no mention of Carry On Cowboy (1965).

 

The Giallo Files, on the other hand, is an invaluable guide to the Italian horror / thriller form known as giallo – Italian for ‘yellow’, after the colour of the pulp crime paperbacks that were once popular in the country.  The site helpfully defines what constitutes a giallo, narrowing it down to four essentials: being European, being stylish, having (preferably multiple) murders and being mysterious.  “In a giallo, the killer may be a deranged psycho with or without a motive, but his identity is kept a mystery until the end of the movie.” 

 

http://giallofiles.blogspot.com/

 

There’s also a helpful checklist of things common to giallo movies: ‘murders’, ‘attempted murders’, ‘fake murders’, ‘inept police’, ‘main character in a creative profession’, ‘scene in a cemetery’, ‘bad 1970s art’ (“Apartment and houses in gialli are usually decorated with awful, amateurish abstract art”), ‘spiral staircase’ (“Maybe they symbolise the twisting plot…  Maybe they’re just cool”), ‘red phone’ (“I don’t know why this is a thing but it is”) and J & B Whisky (“The drink of choice for giallo characters”).

 

Back to horror films now.  A general site about scary cinema that I like is Brutal as Hell which, despite its in-your-face title, manages to be intelligent, thoughtful and balanced.  It tries to review new releases, no matter how gruelling they are, with an open mind; whilst treating old movies (which are usually reviewed when they come out on Blu-ray) with respect and affection.   Mind you, from what I can tell about the site’s contributors, they’re all young enough to qualify as being my offspring.  And when they grumble, occasionally, about the undemanding horror-movie tastes of ‘kids today’, I feel really old.

 

http://www.brutalashell.com/

 

© Kadokawa Pictures

 

And finally, my favourite movie website at the moment.  To get to Breakfast in the Ruins you first have to navigate a Content Warning by Google, which is nonsensical.  You’ll see the odd bare boob or splash of blood there (usually from some 1970s schlock-fest that’s tame by today’s standards); but I’ve viewed far worse on more mainstream movie websites. 

 

http://breakfastintheruins.blogspot.com/

 

A skim down the site’s sidebar shows what sort of films are featured heavily.  For instance, you get German krimi movies, 1960s crime thrillers based on or inspired by the writings of Edgar Wallace.  You get Japanese pinky violence movies, 1970s action films emphasising sex as well as violence but with tough female characters.  You get Japanese movies about Zatoichi, the fictional blind swordsman who made his first cinematic appearance in 1962.  You get movies from the Spanish director Jess Franco, who made all sorts of weird and wonderful (and admittedly sometimes terrible) stuff at an industrial rate.  You get movies from the French director Jean Rollin, who, though his filmography contains about 60 titles, was only a fraction as prolific as Franco.

 

This eclecticism and internationalism are what make the site so enjoyable.  I check it practically every day in the hope that something new and fascinating has been posted.