Cannonball 1976 ***

cannonball-3The no-hold-barred, cross-country car-race became familiar via The Gumball Rally and The Cannonball Run films; Paul Bartel’s Cannonball was a pioneering entry in this subgenre, with David Carradine’s character Coy “Cannonball” Buckman taking some inspiration from Edwin G ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker. There’s a whole lot of cannon-balling in that intro, but there’s even more in this Roger Corman film, which has a decidedly shaky tone. Bartel had ben asked by Corman to beef up the content featured in Death Race 2000, and this chaotic mess of a film does exactly that, with plenty of violent deaths which run counter to the otherwise sunny outlook. Racing against Coy and his girl Linda (Veronica Hamel from Hill Street Blues) are brother Robert Carradine, Mary Wonorov as one of the ‘game girls in a van’ team, Dick Dastardly-lite Wolfe Messer (James Keach) and singer-songwriter Penman Waters (Gerritt Graham). As if that’s not enough, there’s also Dick Miller getting beaten up while Bartel serenades him on a grand piano, blink-and-you’ll-miss them cameos from Sylvester Stallone and Martin Scorsese, plus producer Don Simpson as a DA. Cannonball wears its thirst for carnage on its sleeve, and hopes the audience will feel the same. ‘See the worlds biggest pile-up!’ the poster screams, but the bloodshed sits uneasily with the silly comedy, and the idea of a road race in which dozens of people die is a conundrum the film’s lightweight resolution fails to address. The Cannonball myth was refined for more popular films; Bartel’s 1976 film is still something of a curiosity piece.

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The Thief and the Cobbler 1990 ****

the-thief-and-the-cobbler-post2A few long car journeys with a friend recently gave birth to a new conversational cliche; when you first discovered the internet, what was the thing you searched for? One of the original reasons that this blog was created was Richard Williams’ astonishing animated film The Thief and the Cobbler, which popped up in the amoral copyright-free wild west that was You Tube over a decade ago. This was big news; Williams’ masterpiece was considered to be incomplete, unfinished; the chance to see any version at all was like a peek behind the wizard’s curtain. Williams was an animator whose work ranges from his Oscar-winning version of A Christmas Carol to the bridging scenes of The Charge of the Light Brigade to such feted work as the Pink Panther credits and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? That feature led to Williams being given the chance to make a feature with the huge scale of a Disney, or at least a Don Bluth, and Williams delivered a film of strikingly unique tone and appearance. Disney’s Aladdin is one of the Mouse House’s best, and there’s a remarkable similarity in the style of the drawings here. The Arabian theme is bent with imagination, creating dizzying worlds for the characters to step nimbly through. The Thief and the Cobbler has always been hard to track down; brief glimpses on You Tube are your best bet. It’s a shame that at the time of his death in August 2019, Williams’s terrific film was barely viewable; perhaps now is the time to exhume The Thief and the Cobbler and celebrate Williams as an all-time great in the field of animation.

Race With The Devil 1975 ***

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A film-loving friend suggested trying to imagine the definitive 70’s movie; The Great Smokey Mountain Carquake and Orangutan In a Trans-am were the (fictional) winning entries. Race with the Devil would do just as well; Jack Starrett’s 1975 horror-action hybrid attempts to capture the mid-70’s angst by fusing demonology with hard driving; the late Peter Fonda was the ideal centre for this film. Roger Marsh (Fonda) and his pal Frank (Warren Oates) grab their girls (Loretta Swit and Lara Parker) and head into the desert with their RV and motorbikes, only to come across Satanists; the result is, quite literally, a race with the devil. There’s a few staples of 70’s cinema here, from distrust of authorities to a downbeat ending, but there’s also a sense of fun; if you mash up Deliverance, Easy Rider and The Exorcist, this is exactly what you get.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/race-with-the-devil/id759908747

Heat 1986 ***

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Any personal investigation into the decline and fall of Burt Reynolds would have to include Heat, a 1986 film which eared the star a cool $2 million. Reynolds had decided, perhaps a half dozen films too late, that the ‘man with a car’ trope had been overdone, and was looking for more mature roles. Both Stick and Heat demonstrate that his stardom was considerable enough to bring in a team of top talent; William Goldman adapts his own novel here, while super-producer Elliot Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, The Long Goodbye, Angel Heart) produces. The opening sequence is pretty striking with Nick Escalante (Reynolds) hitting on a woman in a bar, only to be badly beaten by her wimpy husband. It’s soon revealed that this is a set up job, and that Escalante is being paid to make the husband look good. Establishing that our central character is happy to debase himself for cash is a strange way to start, and things get odder when Nick dons a ridiculously garish pimp outfit to avenge a woman Holly (Karen Young) who has fallen foul of a local crime boss DeMarco (Neill Barry). Nick pulls soon lamentable slow-mo kung fu moves and enables Holly to humiliate DeMarco by taking a knife to his genetalia. A side-plot involves Nick working as a bodyguard/chaperone to a gauche young man (Peter McNichol), although given how sleazy the whole enterprise is, it’s hard to imagine Nick’s influence being a positive one, and the way the stories are blended at the climax is crude to say the least. Heat went through several directors, with Dick Richards allegedly quitting after Reynolds punched him in the face. Given the atrocious fight-scenes here, a punch from Reynolds wouldn’t have much impact; a scene where he karate-kicks a light-bulb out if its socket is utterly farcical. And Nick’s habit of carrying his jacking on his shoulder by one finger makes him look like a male-model. And yet…Goldman was one of the Hollywood greats, and there’s some interesting scenes, notably a long meditation on gambling that transfers well to the screen. And even the confrontations between Nick and DeMarco have some latent menace; this is a small-scale, nasty but bluntly effective crime story, quite different from Goldman’s other work, but with evidence of his unique style. With support from Howard Hesseman, Heat isn’t exactly a classic, and was probably worth remaking as Wild Card with Jason Stratham, but there are treasures amongst the ruins for fans of Goldman’s gift for character.

Battle Beyond The Stars 1980 ****

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‘I eat serpent seven times a week’ says Gelt (Robert Vaughn), in one of a number of quotable lines from Roger Corman’s Star Wars rip-off Battle Beyond the Stars. There’s a certain logic to Corman’s thinking here; if Star Wars knocked off Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, then why not rip of Seven Samurai? Sure, The Magnificent Seven already Westernised that classic text, but why not lean into it and have characters like Cowboy (George Peppard) and to take things further, get Robert Vaughn back and have him say the same dialogue he did in John Sturges’s film? John Sayles was the screenwriter charged with sorting out the conceptual issues, and presumably his writing process involved being locked in a room with the script for Magnificent Seven, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and a massive lump of cheese, because cheesy action is what results. Henry Thomas is Shad, a young farmer dispatched to put together a group of mercenaries to defend his home planet against despot Sador (John Saxon). The team he puts together include various oddities like a lizard man, bald twins and a Valkyrie, played by the voluptuous Sybil Danning in costumes which make Caroline Munro in Starcrash look positively demure. With a James Horner score and James Cameron on effects, Battle Beyond The Stars has quite a pedigree, and the talent bring their A-game to this B movie. Jimmy T Murakami directs, so what do we talk about when we talk about Battle Beyond The Stars? Spaceship interiors seeming made of plasticine, planets made of candy-floss; it’s a strange universe to explore in low-budget cinema, but there’s a degree of knowing wit in the dialogue that makes Battle Beyond the Stars a guilty pleasure.

The Queen of Spades 1949 *****

queen of spades 5 suvorin countessFilms can be good and bad; only a few offer magic. Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel Flicker is about a film-maker whose connection to the black arts allows him to put subliminal messages in his films that make them hypnotic; while it sounds like an ideal David Fincher project, it’s yet to be filmed. But some movies, from Last Year in Marienbad to Valerie and Her Week of Wonders and Celeine and Julie Go Boating have it, an inexplicable quality that makes the film feel like more than what’s on-screen. The Queen of Spaces is such a film. There’s been a few brilliant horror films adapted from work by great Russian writers; much like Mario Bava’s spell-binding adaption of Chekov’s A Drop of Water in his Black Sabbath anthology, Thorold Dickinson’s Pushkin adaptation has a sense of dread that chills the bones. Anton Walbrook is the manipulative Captain Suvorin who seeks the secret of a elderly countess (Edith Evans); she’s reputed to be a witch, who has sold her soul to the devil to discover how to win every card game she plays. But at what price? Suvorin’s first mistake is to seduce the Countess’s ward to get closer to her; once he inveigles his way to the dying countess’s bedside, things are only going to go against him in the cruellest way possible. The Queen of Spades is a film believed lost for years, but it looks sensational now, with disconcerting use of glass and mirrors to create a unique sense of 1806 St Petersburg. Treasured British film stalwart Michael Medwin is also amongst the cast; if you’re tiring of jump-scares and monster masks, The Queen of Spades is almost certainly the best ghost story you’ve never seen. It’s real cinematic magic.

Reuben, Reuben 1983 ****

reubenWhy do some truly great films fall into neglect? Reuben, Reuben is a perfect case in point. Tom Conti won an Oscar nomination for best actor in 1983 for his performance as a drunken poet, with Dylan Thomas a clear inspiration. The screenplay, adapted from a novel by noted humourist Peter De Vries and then a play called Spofford, is by Julius J Epstein, who wrote everything from Casablanca to Cross of Iron, and that was also Oscar nominated as one of the five best adapted scripts of the year. It was the first film of Top Gun star Kelly McGillis. And it’s a funny, sweet and yet harsh and original story about excess and survival that’s not dated in any way. And yet there’s no Criterion Collection revival, nor even a spot on Amazon or iTunes, just a rare DVD or Blu Ray that, at twenty bucks a piece, won’t ensnare many casual viewers. The reputation of Robert Ellis Miller, director of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter and this, was practically zero when he died in 2017, and that’s a shame for anyone with career highlights like this. Conti is ideal as Gowan McGland, a Scottish poet in suburban American, seducing women, drinking excessively, generally mooching off everyone and unaware that his behaviour is leading to a sticky end, and not one that he can possibly imagine. The problem is more than sex or alcohol addiction. Like Ray Milland in The Man With X Ray Eyes, McGland’s problem is that he sees too much; his wit pulls people towards him, but then pushes them away. It’s a tragic-comedy of the highest order, and it’s well-past high time something was done about restoring the reputation of Reuben, Reuben, which takes its title from the old song, and from the last line of dialogue in a devastating, surprising final scene.