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.

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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

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.

The Last Photograph 2017 ****

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Danny Huston’s CV runs from cigar-chewing villain in the first Wolverine spin-off to his outstanding performance in Bernard Rose’s Ivans Xtc. He’s hardly a prolific director, but his work in front of and behind the camera in The Last Photograph is impeccable. What’s near criminal here is that aside from a handful of festival screenings, his 2017 film The Last Photograph is pretty much invisible; there’s no user reviews on imdb, and not even a single-line Wikipedia entry for it. Perhaps there are reasons, but it’s not any reflection on the film-making. Huston plays Tom Hammond, a book-shop owner struggling to forget the death of his son, one of many casualties of the terrorist attack on Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1998. When a book is stolen from his shop, containing a photograph that connects Hammond to his son, it awakens memories of the night in question, and a search for justice that’s been suspended. Huston is immense in this role, angry, grieving, but without an outlet; as a director, he’s sensitive to the portrayal of a complex, nuanced character. The real-life tragedy referenced here is well-handled, with newsreel footage mixed with the film’s narrative in a non-exploitative way. The subject of The Last Photograph appears taboo; few dramas have explored Lockerbie, and perhaps that’s why The Last Photograph appears to have been obliterated by market forces; this is the kind of film that deserves a second wind through streaming services, and it’s a shame that it’s so hard to locate. Maybe Huston’s pay the rent job in –yikes- the unanticipated Angel Has Fallen will cash him up for self-distribution and get this worthwhile film out there.

Saint Jack 1979 *****

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There’s been a couple of flickers of interest from people about the ‘why can’t I see this film?’ category; this tag gets added if a film isn’t on any of the main streaming services, and occasionally a link is provided if the film is on You Tube or Daily Motion. This is tough on film-makers, who presumably are losing out financially by not having their film behind a pay-wall, but the thinking is that the exposure, temporary as it might be, might at least engender enough interest for a re-release or even a restoration. Both would be desirable for Peter Bogdanovich’s best film, 1979’s adaption of the novel Saint Jack. Reputedly, Orson Welles gave the book to Cybill Shepherd, who got the rights as part of a legal win over Playboy magazine; Hugh M. Hefner produces. In the late seventies, an adult-themed film like Saint Jack was still deemed to have potential at the box-office, although poor distribution kept Paul Theroux’s adaptation of his own book out of mainstream theatres. Ben Gazzara gives a huge performance as Jack Flowers, an ex-pat who runs a Singapore brothel, and turns to an auditor (the great Denholm Elliot) for help, only to find himself out of his depth when the CIA get involved. Saint Jack is a brilliant character study of a reprehensible man who is also a decent human being; this is a story where the moral messages are not cut and dried. George Lazenby, Rodney Bewes and Joss Ackland round out the cast as ex-pats; Saint Jack dares to point the finger at American and British behaviour abroad, and comes to unsavoury conclusions about human nature. The gap between the public perception of this film and it’s quality is remarkable; a portrait of a hustler’s hustle, it’s every bit as good as Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, but the lack of violent catharsis seems to have relegated it to the dustiest drawer in film history. See it while you can.

The Entity 1982 ***

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Quite a sensation in the early 80’s, Sidney J Furie’s The Entity is a brutal account of a woman being regularly assaulted by paranormal forces, and makes a virtue of being based on true events, the well documented case of Doris Bither. Renamed Carla Moran, this woman is played with remarkable candour by Barbara Hershey in this adaptation of Frank De Felitta’s novel, with Ron Silver as the doctor she turns to for help. Furie doesn’t play the gothic card at all, with drab LA settings adding a strange verisimilitude and building to a truly weird climax where a duplicate of Moran’s house is built on a sound-stage, with the intention of freezing the demon when it appears. The special effects of the demonic attacks are still impressive, even if the whole entertainment value of the film is problematic. Of course, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino were front-row fans of the film, and it’s become a cult item since. Hershey locates a sympathetic core in Moran, and the gradual feeling that all the men in her life are in some way exploiting her is persuasive. The vestiges of an incest subplot only serve to confuse issues, but The Entity is worth a look for genre fans because of the high-seriousness and the mistrust of the male scientific figures involved. If nothing else, now almost certainly is a better time to consider The Entity’s merits than when Scottish television somehow selected this as their festive Christmas Day movie in the mid 1980’s.

https://trakt.tv/movies/the-entity-1982