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.


To The Devil, A Daughter 1976 ***



In the 1970’s, Dennis Wheatley was a literary phenomenon, with a slew of bestsellers; he was pretty much the biggest brand-name for horror in the UK. Wheatley has been a friend of Ian Fleming, and an advisor to Winston Churchill during World War II, and knew his way around all manner of government secrets., He wrote spy novels too, but the notion of having access to hidden information seemed to inform his most popular work; They Used Dark Forces is a typical title. Hammer’s The Devil Rides Out was pretty good, special effects aside, but not particularly scary, and when Hammer was looking to take on The Exorcist, The Omen and the devil worship cycle of the mid 1970’s, it turned to Wheatley’s To The Devil A Daughter. With genre favourite Christopher Lee as a villain, imported star Richard Widmark as the occult writer tracking him down, and Natasha Kinski as the nubile Bravian nun set to be sacrificed to Old Nick himself, what could go wrong? Throw in Rising Damp’s Francis De La Tour as a Salvation Army singer, Bond girl Honor Blackman, saturnine Anthony Valentine and of course the always welcome Denholm Elliot, and there’s nothing boring about Peter Sykes’s film. There’s nothing very scary about it otherwise, but that’s to do with the source material. Wheatley was an adventure writer who used black magic themes; To The Devil A Daughter was the wrong selection of weapon, club or instrument by the Hammer executives, but shorn of expectations of the next big thing in horror, it’s a fun ride for specialists.

Dressed to Kill 1946 ****


Sherlock Holmes is a character who has lost something in his translation to the modern world; older films do not focus on his prowess as a bare-knuckle boxer, or lead to a climax with sword-fights on top of a mid-construction Tower Bridge. There’s no computer-generated mind-palaces, and his calculations are not visually realised by a slew of animated diagrams. Back in 1946, the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce series of Holmes movies was coming to an end, but Dressed to Kill doesn’t show many signs of tiredness. In fact, the action is fast and spruce, packing plenty of action and investigation into a commendably tight 70 minutes. A trio of music boxes are being sold at auction; the owners are separately murdered, but not before Stinky Emery (Edmund Breon) has enlisted the services of Baker Street’s finest to investigate a break-in at his home. Although not listed from a specific Sir Arthur Conan Doyle story, there’s an authentic flavour about the action in Dressed to Kill aka Prelude to Murder aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code. And it’s refreshing to see a strong female villain in Mrs Hilda Courtney (Patricia Morison), very much in the Irene Adler mode. Directors like Roy William Neill brought timeless characters to life with great acting, no-nonsense direction and crisp scripting; the lack of visual jazz makes each of the Rathbone Holmes films a pleasure to watch.

The Current War 2017 ****


The Current War has been on the shelf for two years now; specifically because it had been primed by Harvey Weinstein as an awards contender in 2017. It was unloved when screened at Toronto that year, but the negative buzz about the producer may have had something to do with that. The poster makes it look like The Prestige, but instead of competing magicians, it’s competing scientists, or rather inventors; Westinghouse, (Michael Shannon), Edison (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Tesla (Nicolas Hoult). Unless you’re a master of physics and chemistry, some of the technical details escape you, but compensations are plentiful including two big performances from big actors, the elaborate and unfamiliar period details, and the pointed montages; there’s a great juxtaposition of the electrified world fair in Chicago and the first electrocution of a murderer in an electric chair. Tom Holland also has a decent role, as does Katherine Waterston; it’s a big prestige picture of the kind that used to be released for awards-season attention on Xmas day by Weinstein. Sold off as an asset to another company for a paltry $3 million, it’s unlikely to draw a massive crowd amongst the brainless summer blockbusters, but it’s an intelligent and interesting movie. For all the nay-sayers who complain that there’s no smart summer movies, The Current War is far from the stinker it’s history suggests. The film has been re-edited and new scenes added; this UK release is an attempt to gauge interest before a more (or less) expensive US release is mooted.


CHiPs; Law and Disorder 2017 ***


Dax Shepard’s violent, profane but goofy action-comedy has something of the straight-shooting simplicity of the source material, the fondly remembered 80’s tv show CHiPs. But as with Starsky and Hutch and 21/22 Jump Street, a reboot has to take a fresh angle, and Chips doesn’t have a clear central idea to hang it’s hat on. Audiences stayed clear, but there’s an amusing mix of cynicism and Californian sunshine in the final product. Writing, directing and starring, Shepherd throws himself into his role as a washed up motocross champ, seemingly mad with enthusiasm to demean himself in the name of cinematic art, via unflattering nude scenes or getting covered in cat litter. He’s aided with support from his wife Kristen Bell, sidekick’s sidekick Michael Pena, and a decent villainous turn from Vincent D’Orfinio. And the action scenes have a certain straight-up directness, relying on old-fashioned stunts that look staged, but also dangerous.