Fear in the Night (1947)

January 15, 2009 § Leave a comment

A man wakes up from a nightmare that he murdered someone, only to discover blood on his hand, and a key in his pocket that wasn’t there before. Nearly twenty years before he played Leonard “Bones” McCoy in the original Star Trek, DeForest Kelley was in this low-budget, smash hit crime film I’m tempted to call film noir, except it probably isn’t quite dark enough. While I love older films, something in this style has become a cultural curiosity — men wear hats, they smoke, they slap each other around, and women basically just sigh passively at everything.

Playing Bones McCoy didn’t just define the rest of his career, it became the rest of his career, through no fault of his own.  Before that, Kelley was in an impressive range of films and TV pilots (some that never became a series), though the only things I’ve ever been able to actually see on DVD are this film, and Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) where he plays alongside Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas.

By all accounts a quiet and pleasant man, Kelley happens to be the only Star Trek cast member who never wrote a memoir of any kind, though it’s probably the one I’d most want to read. As an actor, he has a fascinating face, though his range is  either limited or a bit saddled by awkwardness, depending on how you look at it. He isn’t a terrible actor, but he’s one of those actors that seems to only sometimes snap into the role and become completely natural.

Still, he’s the best actor in Fear in the Night, which is full of dialogue that was probably meant to sound original but instead sounds awkward. An old man says “Oh, that clock is a little slow, just like the horse I had yesterday,” and the future Bones McCoy (it’s so hard to disassociate him from that role) simply puts on his hat and walks away. The narration by Kelley says once or twice that it felt like his “brain was handcuffed,” which must be one of the most awkward images I’ve heard in a while, considering handcuffing a brain would actually be a bit of a challenge. Kelley is playing a twenty-four year old here, but is one of those actors that appears to have been born looking forty.

Regardless, it’s a tidy little film that wraps up after about 71 minutes, and a fascinating glimpse into the early career of an actor that would become a cultural icon.  I recall reading an interview with Kelley where he said after Star Trek he turned down various doctor roles to try and avoid typecasting, and then when nothing else was offered he took stuff that was worse than the roles he’d turned down, until finally the Star Trek films came along.  But if Trek was a blessing and a curse, Kelley dealt with it with his trademark gentlemanly behaviour, married to his wife Carolyn until his death in 1999.  It happened to be the month I turned thirty, and I recall drunkenly toasting him over and over at my celebration, on a patio with a bunch of friends. I’m sorry, DeForest. I meant to be classier about it, I really did.  But I was sincere in saying you’ll be missed, and the world needs more people like you, the less egocentric kind that know they’re just playing a part.


Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

January 10, 2009 § Leave a comment

Danny Boyle is becoming one of my favourite directors.  28 Days Later and Sunshine are both reviewed here, and like his original hit Trainspotting, they’re both highly original and worthwhile offerings.

His latest is Slumdog Millionaire, which begins with a character originally from the slums of Mumbai named Jamal (Dev Patel) being tortured by police because he’s on his way to winning phenomenal amounts on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” and it’s assumed he’s cheating. The film has a nifty narrative structure, where Jamal explains his ability to answer certain game show questions in a way that also allows him to illustrate parts of his life. Aside from this, the film enjoys a frantic energy in well-edited scenes that carry the viewer along at an impressive pace. As a director, Boyle often has impressive touches — Sunshine (his stab at science-fiction) has flashes of a doomed original crew as a new crew enters their ship and explores.

All the acting is decent, if not outstanding, and if some characters are a little unremarkable it’s easy to forgive while being carried along by such an interesting film. Oddly enough, the game show host emerges as a more memorable character than most, for being as creepily charming as he is secretly abrasive and slimy.

I’m a little torn about the political content of the film, if you can call it that (and stop reading here if you don’t want to know a thing about the ending).  Certainly, the slums are portrayed as a place where human life has little value, and bodies are mangled if it serves a need.  People have nothing, and predators are everywhere.  But it’s all eventually put to the side as the main characters become reasonably successful and a love story develops, with eventual freedom as easy as someone handing you the keys to a car parked nearby.

You can think of it two ways, really: it’s either troubling that people will go out and buy the pop music soundtrack without really stopping to consider what to do about a system that allows for such squalor and misery, or Boyle is using the film as a vehicle to introduce the injustice to a great many people, and make it palatable. I tend to think that the film reaches a compromise on that point — not every character ends up happy (though the happy ending is ultimately dominant), and the first half of the film at least toys with a stronger message, even if that message does ultimately feel put to the side. Slumdog Millionaire ain’t perfect, but it is highly recommended.  Just like any other Danny Boyle film I’ve seen.

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

January 4, 2009 § Leave a comment

Canadian actor Ryan Gosling is note-perfect as a reclusive, small town guy that announces to close friends and eventually the whole town that he has a girlfriend — a girlfriend that turns out to be a life-size doll found online.

In a film like this, I waited for is the heavy-handed “aren’t people nasty and closed-minded” moment, where a group of people tear the doll from him, and despite his urgent pleading, refuse to return it. In The Elephant Man (1982) it worked well to have the central misfit character pursued by a mob calling him an animal, because it drove home the point that the animal was the mob, not him.  Since then, this kind of dramatic scene has become the most obvious way to point out that people should be more compassionate.

But nothing like that happens. This is a remarkably well-paced, gentle and funny film that doesn’t need to resort to anything overly dramatic, even as the characters (and Lars, our misfit hero) do grow and change. The film never mocks the characters, or introduces a moustache-twirling villain of some kind who conspires to get rid of the doll. Instead, it’s a portrayal of compassion and growth, and in its own quiet way, a pretty remarkable little film.  Screenwriter Nancy Oliver (who wrote for the HBO series Six Feet Under, and now True Blood) has done an admirable job here.

Horror Express (1972)

January 1, 2009 § Leave a comment

So there’s this Neanderthal man found frozen somewhere in Asia, now being loaded onto a train by an arrogant professor (Christopher Lee) and as it turns out, it has a sort of glowing eye, is very much alive, and can grab people by the head and suck all the knowledge out of their brains, leaving them a corpse with plain white, colourless eyes.

As the weird-ass Neanderthal (actually an alien, it becomes more and more obvious) grows in strength, the whole thing plays out in the cramped, confined space of the train like some kind of horror version of an Agatha Christie plot.  The Christopher Lee character is given able assistance from an ultra-polite professor of some kind played by Peter Cushing.  The monster starts switching bodies, everyone is supect, there’s a cop, a countess, some kind of mad monk who believes the alien is Satan himself, and Telly Savalas shows up as a Russian officer with a New York accent.  There’s even an autopsy at one point that makes the X-Files look tame. Neanderthal dude claims he’ll cure illnesses and advance science by a few hundred years if he’s just allowed to hang around and, well, crush people into oblivion.

Why don’t they make bizarre, fun horror films like this anymore, instead of the joyless slaughter porn of recent years? Oh, and Peter Cushing (fast becoming one of my personal heroes) gets the best line in the film, when it’s suggested he or Christopher Lee could be possessed by the monster: “Monsters?  We’re British!”

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