Sunday 27 October 2019

A Fistful of Dollars by Leone, Catena, Gil et al

There was a remarkably prescient review in the show business newspaper Variety when this Sergio Leone western came out.

The reviewer not only recognising that it was something special, but also drew some very perceptive parallels with the James Bond films, which were still new on the scene.

I've just watched a Blu-ray of A Fistful of Dollars, complete with an excellent documentary track and featurette by Leone scholar Christopher Frayling, which takes note of those parallels...

From the violent, colourful graphics of the title sequence, through the unforgettable electric-guitar based score to the hip and cynical central character.

A Fistful of Dollars arrived like an earthquake and was a milestone in the history of popular cinema.

It's also a very low budget film, shot on an existing set of a Western street in Spain. The environment depicted is virtually a ghost town — not just because there's been so much killing in the backstory, but because the producers couldn't afford any extras.

I first saw this movie when I was a kid and I thought I remembered nothing about it, but I was surprised by how much came back to me and how quickly — like Eastwood's remark to the coffin maker, "My mistake, four," after he guns down some bad guys.

What I definitely hadn't forgotten though, was how the film was based on Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest by way of Kurosawa's film Yojimbo.

In other words, A Fistful of Dollars rips off Yojimbo without credit and Yojimbo rips off Hammett without credit. (Maybe that's why there's no screenwriters named during the credit sequence on A Fistful of Dollars.)

Essentially this is a story about a smart, ruthless outsider who comes into a corrupt town and plays off the factions of bad guys against each other. In Hammett's original — and no one disputes that he originated the story — the outsider is a detective, the Continental Op.

In Kurosawa's film that figure is a samurai, in Leone's a gunfighter.

It's a testament to the strength of Hammett's concept that it works so well in these very different contexts.

It's also interesting to note that Dashiell Hammett never gave the Continental Op an actual name. Just like Eastwood's Man with No Name.

Despite its larcenous origins and its breadline budget, Fistful is a forceful and revolutionary film. Leone's direction, with its gigantic close ups and casual violence was something altogether new.

But the unsung hero of the movie is Carlo Simi, the production designer. His contribution to the film's visuals is considerable. (That dandelion fluff floating around in one scene was his idea. As were the windblown dead leaves in another.) Simi was also responsible for creating both the sets and the costumes — notably Eastwood's iconic poncho.

In this humble garment, never before worn by a Western hero, Eastwood has tremendous screen presence from the very first shot. He looks young, but haggard. And his stubble is again something entirely new.

Before this, the bad guys had stubble and the good guys were clean shaven.

Enio Morricone's music deftly shapes and punctuates the anecdotes of the film, brutal or funny. It's terrific and the fact that Morricone's name is hidden under a ridiculous pseudonym on the Blu-ray print is, I think, disgraceful.

Like the score, Clint Eastwood has a tremendous impact. He says very little, apparently having requested extensive cuts in the dialogue, but he's charismatic — and entirely convincing in the scene where he's beaten to a pulp. (One of the few other bits of the movie that I remembered.)

Eastwood in his poncho and Morricone's music add up to a fantastic blend, especially in the final confrontation when he comes walking out of a wall of smoke. And in this scene the poncho actually becomes a plot point, concealing a primitive bulletproof vest.

This movie is by no means perfect. It occasionally drags. Some of the story is ridiculous (no one would be fooled by those dead soldiers in the cemetery), there are often silly sound effects and laughable dubbing. But...

A Fistful of Dollars is unquestionably a classic. It changed the rules of the game and began a remarkable sequence of Sergio Leone westerns which would culminate in Once Upon a Time in the West.

(Image credits: More wonderful posters from the excellent site Movie Poster Shop. If I had the wall space I would be buying crazy amounts of these.)

Sunday 20 October 2019

Straight Life by Art Pepper & Laurie Pepper

Harrowing and engrossing in equal measure, Straight Life tells the life story of Art Pepper, accurately described by Freddie Hubbard in the last pages of the book as "the greatest alto saxophone player in the world."

It's Pepper's virtuosic gift for music — he plays like an angel — which makes Straight Life worth reading. It's his ineradicable tendency for self destruction which makes it so hard to read. 

Art Pepper was a junkie — primarily heroin, but he was so addictive that almost any substance would do. As a result, he spent a huge portion of his career behind bars instead of making the priceless music which would have uplifted us all.

If you want to see what that life did to Pepper physically (though, miraculously, it didn't affect the music), just compare the cover photos of the handsome young man with the exhumed-corpse of later years.

Probably the dominant feeling I had, reading this book, is anger at a legal system which destroys someone just because they use a chemical to make themselves feel good. Is that really a criminal act?

Incidentally, I channelled some of this anger into my novel Written in Dead Wax, where my descriptions of the way the LA narcotics cops persecute jazz musicians was based on my readings about Art Pepper, Chet Baker and Gerry Mulligan.

We have Art Pepper's third wife, Laurie, to thank for this classic book. She constructed it from taped interviews with Art and other important figures in his life. 

Laurie also writes really well herself, as when she describes her husband on tour as being "droopily unhappy and unhelpful as a small child."

She had no illusions about Art, but loved him all the same, and that is what makes this book so superb. It does require the occasional reality check, though, since it so powerfully replicates the tunnel vision of its subject.

For instance, Art is amusingly scathing about his second wife Diane, often for good reason. She got him sent to prison, for a start. 

And the way he talks about her is bitterly hilarious. Describing his struggle with drugs, and comparing her with his beloved first wife, he says   “When I was with Patti I was using, so I certainly wasn’t going to stop for Diane.”

And the reader completely buys into this — until we realise that without Diane, his greatest album Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section would never have been recorded.

If you read Straight Life, and I urge you to do so, make sure you get one of the later printings which features not just the original text but also a useful introduction by Gary Giddins, and an absolutely priceless afterword by Laurie.

The book is peppered (sorry) with fascinating observations about music, like Art's comparison of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington (they both "wrote for the individuals in the band instead of writing charts just with an anonymous band in mind").

Or how, when he sold his saxophones to pay for drugs he would still retain the mouthpiece because “with your own mouthpiece you have half the battle won”.

But because of Pepper's tormented life, this book is as relevant to anyone who wants to know about the penal system in America as it is to music lovers.

(Image credits: book covers from Good Reads. The LP cover of Rhythm Section — the first British issue of the album — is from the magnificent blog of my friend the London Jazz Collector.)

Sunday 13 October 2019

Joker by Phillips & Silver

Joker is definitely a divisive movie. 

Three friends got in touch with me out of the blue saying how impressed they were and asking if I'd seen it. 

Another friend told me in no uncertain terms that she would not be going near it because of its depiction of mental illness.

I decided to see it and find out what the fuss is about.

Joker is shot like an archetypal movie of the 1970s (the era many believe to be Hollywood's finest) — its first image is the vintage Warner Bros logo from that period, which then gives way to a vision of a grungy New York (okay, I know it's Gotham City) that might have come from a classic Sidney Lumet film.

The movies that Joker really draws on, though, are two by Martin Scorsese — Taxi Driver for its unstable time bomb of a protagonist, and its vigilantism, and King of Comedy for its squirm-inducing portrait of a talentless nerd with huge dreams, stalking a celebrity.

(The presence of Robert De Niro as a talk show host really emphasises the King of Comedy connection.)

Joker also strongly calls to mind another recent film starring Joaquin Phoenix, You Were Never Really Here, a powerful and memorable movie which again was influenced by Taxi Driver.

And comparing Phoenix's performance in You Were Never Really Here to his depiction of Arthur Fleck in the Joker is really quite shocking. 

In the earlier movie he was burly, almost obese. In the new one he is scarily stick-thin.

Joker is unquestionably  a striking movie. 

The cinematography is by Lawrence Sher and it has a powerful visual style which both offers a glittering, polished beauty, as in the scene where the train snakes along beside the river, and carries a violent emotional impact, as when the single-word title fills the entire frame.
I was also very impressed by the music. The score is by Hildur Gudnadóttir who often worked with the late, great Jóhann Jóhannsson — she played solo cello on Sicario and went on to compose Sicario 2.

The cast is strong and memorable, especially Zazie Beetz as Sophie, Fleck's single parent neighbour, a flower growing amongst the rubble.

But the bottom line is that I didn't walk out of the cinema after seeing the Joker with the feeling of exhilaration I get from a great movie. 
I explained this to myself by reflecting that Joker is so relentlessly bleak and dark — it's emotional tone is unvarying and deeply negative.

Yet you could say the same thing about Taxi Driver, which is a great movie and did leave me with just that feeling of exhilaration. 
I guess the answer is that Taxi Driver is touched with genius in a way that Joker, for all its power and virtues simply isn't. 

Returning to the controversy surrounding the Joker, apparently a lot of people object to the use on the soundtrack of a song by Gary Glitter, a convicted sex offender.

Personally, I wasn't troubled by that. But what did offend me was the scene where Fleck takes what I believe to be a six shot revolver and fires about ten rounds without reloading. 

It may seem trivial, but for me the movie quite never recovered from that gun gaffe.

Not least because, in a film so haunted by fantasies and hallucinations, I wondered if this was supposed to be a clue that the scene had never really taken place...

(Image credits: a healthy selection of posters at ImpAwards.)

Sunday 6 October 2019

Ready or Not by Busick & Murphy

This is a terrific little horror movie with a sly sense of humour, and it's still in cinemas now so I'd urge you to check it out on the big screen.

Ready or Not is essentially a non-supernatural horror story, with a potential supernatural mechanism hovering in the background — but we'll get to that in a minute.

It's the tale of the wealthy Le Domas family whose fortune is founded on a line of board games — we see an amusing array of vintage boxes on display in the first shot. 

Ready or Not has an implicit line of commentary about what shits rich people really are, and it soon turns out that the Le Domas clan have an odd ritual whenever an outsider marries into the family.

The groom — or bride, in this case — is invited to play a game. Exactly which game is determined by drawing cards. And so long as the game isn't hide and seek, everything is fine.

If it is hide and seek, though, the newcomer is in trouble, because the family will arm themselves and hunt down their prey and kill them.

(All of this is established very early on in the movie so it isn't really a spoiler.)

And of course in our movie the bride Grace (an excellent Samara Weaving) draws the hide and seek card. If she survives until dawn she will be spared — not because the family will let her go, but because they will all be destroyed.

This is where the supernatural element comes in. Because the Le Domas family's fortune was founded on the historical beneficence of a certain Mr Le Bail — whom they believe to have been Satan.

Yes, they made a pact with the devil. (Le Bail is a clever name; it took me a while to realise it was an anagram of Belial!)

It doesn't much matter whether there really is a deal with the devil, what matters is that the Le Domas family believes there is. They are convinced that if the outsider isn't sacrificed they will all themselves be wiped out.

So, "The bride must die by dawn!" as Aunt Helene (the fabulous Nicky Guadagni) shrills.

And the hunt is on, with Grace only realising what is at stake when the coked up Emilie (Melanie Scrofano, another great performance) accidentally kills one of the family's — rather creepy — maids.

In fact, the death of the maids becomes a running gag with the reluctant young Le Domases asking if these collateral casualties might serve as the necessary sacrifice, leading to the memorable lines, "Does the help count?" and "Put the maids in the goat pit."

The script is by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy and besides being thrillingly and cheekily funny it also touches upon profundity: "You'll do pretty much anything if your family says its okay."

With its blend of bloodshed and sardonic wit, Ready or Not calls to mind Heathers and Happy Death Day. It's a quality piece of work and well worth your attention.
(Image credits: the three official posters are from Imp Awards. The red poster, apparently unofficial, is from Pinterest. The Wedding Nightmare poster and Samara with the shotgun are from from IMDB. The bloodspattered face and arrow in the mouth collage is from Mashable India. The Hong Kong poster is from CinemaHK.)