Monthly Archives: August 2011

Cowboys and Aliens

AvatarThis week, two very different movies that must be seen on big screens: Avatar (2009) and How the West Was Won (1962). Of the films I’ve seen at the cinema in the last couple of years, these have left the biggest impression.

I saw James Cameron’s Avatar the night it opened in the UK, in a full house, in 3D. Avatar was a highly anticipated release and thanks to the 3D specs, it felt like sitting in a cinema audience in the 1950s. The film lived up to expectations – and the hype. The plot and script were okay (Dances with Smurfs some critics called it) and the message sometimes heavy-handed, but the visuals won out.

Avatar depicts a mission by the Research Development Administration (RDA) to kick the indigenous Na’vi out of their paradise on Planet Pandora, because their home sits on a massive deposit of valuable silver-grey mineral ‘Unobtanium’. There are parallels with American history and current US foreign policy, but the film’s real power lies in Avatar’s look and sound. The cinematography by Mauro Fiore renders Pandora in all its 3D glory, from the Fungimonium Giganteum (that’s giant neon toxic mushrooms to you and me) to the fluttering, jellyfish-like wood spirits, and the Bioluninescence that imbues the planet’s flora with its lush, pulsating glow. Cameron succeeds in creating this believable world, populated by beasts of wonder, such as the rhino-like charging Hammerhead Titanotherre, the winged Mountain Banshees and the Giant Leonopteryx, and the Na’vis’ land steeds, the Direhorses. On the opening night, these sights and sounds engrossed the audience and the 155 minutes flew by. Avatar was also released in the immense IMAX format, as well as ‘flat’ 2D in 2.35:1 widescreen, and has gone on to become the most successful film of all time.

Before Avatar began, I was sitting in the cinema thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if old movies could draw audiences in these numbers, with this much enthusiasm?’

Fast forward to April 2011, at the Widescreen Weekend at the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford, for a showing of How the West Was Won in three-strip Cinerama on a giant curved screen. It was a full, enthusiastic house for this too. The audience were soon blasted out of their seats by Alfred Newman’s theme music, in booming 7-track stereo, as the titles unveiled the roster of star names – some screen legends – involved. These include James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, with epic narration from Spencer Tracey. On its first release, How the West was the most successful western of all time, until the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seven years later.

How the West Was Won

When it‘s shown pan-and-scanned or cropped on TV, How the West Was Won must survive on its story and as stories go, it has the complexity of Avatar. It recounts the frontier exploits of a familial dynasty of pioneers, farmers, speculators and lawmen, tracing the history and taming of the old ‘wild west’ and  resulting in the USA of ‘today’ (well, of 1962 at least). The plot feels a bit like it’s been tailored around the locations and settings, but fortunately these are impressive, ranging from lakes, rivers and mountains, to desert plains. The film is in five parts: ‘The Rivers’, ‘The Plains’ and ‘The Outlaws’ (all directed by Henry Hathaway), ‘The Railroad’ (George Marshall) and ‘The Civil War’ (John Ford) – and each foregrounds the landscape and action sequences. These include an Indian attack on a wagon train, a shootout with river pirates, a buffalo stampede, a train robbery and Civil War battle scenes (actually footage lifted from Raintree County) on a screen so large, amid landscapes so vast, that you have to turn your head from side to side to fully see what’s going on. Even background details that are reduced to flyspecks on TV – for example horsemen on the far horizon, or the distant stone stacks of Monument Valley – are clearly visible. Like Avatar, this is visual cinema in its purest form – action, drama, intimacy, tragedy, on an epic scale.

I’ve seen both films on DVD since. While the IMAX release of Avatar is immersive and akin to Cinerama – the screen is so large you have to look to the action, missing the peripheral ‘bigger picture’ – the 3D release, with its 1.78:1 screen ratio, works fine on TV: its exceptional visuals largely survive. Not so How the West Was Won, which without the giant curved screen and mind-blowing sound – the ‘Cinerama’ experience – is an entirely different, inferior, proposition. For home screenings of How the West Was Won you need a very big screen.     

To buy Avatar on DVD: UK & US:

To Buy How the West Was Won on DVD: UK and US

To buy a bigger television.


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Tanks for the Memories

Kelly's HeroesFollowing ‘Movie Classics’ Special Editions focussing on Where Eagles Dare and Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy, collector’s film magazine Cinema Retro’s third issue in the series is devoted to Kelly’s Heroes (1970). This World War II film remains popular today for its mixture of combat and comedy. It’s a caper like The Italian Job, but also a ‘men-on-a-mission’ war movie, where the ‘mission’ is robbing a bank stacking with gold bullion, behind enemy lines. The story also has distinct echoes of another famous treasure hunt through a war zone: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Kelly’s Heroes generates ‘positive waves’ via Lalo Schifrin’s score, including the sing-along theme song ‘Burning Bridges’, and Donald Sutherland’s performance as World War II’s only 1960s hippy – the aptly-named Sherman tank commander Oddball.

Cinema Retro’s full-colour, 80-page tribute is filled with scores of behind-the-scenes stills, collector’s posters, promotional photographs of Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles and Donald Sutherland, and rare advertising material, much of which has never been published. There are interviews with those who worked on the film, including director Brian G. Hutton, writer Troy Kennedy Martin, John Landis and Stuart Margolin, and vintage on-set interviews with Eastwood, Savalas, Rickles and Sutherland, as they worked on the film in Yugoslavia in 1969. All facets of the film, its making, release and legacy, are covered by a team of writers, including Cinema Retro editors Lee Pfeiffer and Dave Worrall, Matthew Field, Mike Siegel, Darren Allison, Mark Mawston and Phil Nutman. I’ve contributed several articles to the issue, including a critique of the film and the contradictory times in which it was made, amidst ‘peace and love’ and Vietnam.

Click here for details on how to order this limited edition Kelly’s Heroes issue:

Kelly’s Heroes DVD UK & US

Kelly’s Heroes Blu-ray UK:

US, with Where Eagles Dare

Kelly’s Heroes OST:

Read more about Kelly’s Heroes and Clint Eastwood’s other war movies – Where Eagles Dare (WWII), Firefox (Cold War), Heartbreak Ridge (Invasion of Grenada), Flag of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (WWII) – in my book Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood published by I.B. Tauris

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Conan the Barbarian

With the new screen adaptation of Conan the Barbarian about to hit the box office like a warhammer – its backers hope – it’s interesting to look at the origins of the latest 1980s movie revamp.

Conan the Barbarian

Marcus Nispel’s Bulgarian-shot Conan the Barbarian (2011), starring newcomer Jason Mamoa as Conan and Rose McGowan as half-woman, half-witch Marique, is based on Robert E. Howard’s fantasy fiction. His work was first adapted by John Milius in Conan the Barbarian (1982), which was where Arnold Schwarzenegger first made an impact on cinema audiences. The ‘Austrian Oak’ starred as the broadsword-wielding hero, who sets out to track down Tulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) with help from Amazonian Valeria (Sandahl Bergman). This steamrollering fantasy epic produced by Dino De Laurentiis was scripted by Milius and Oliver Stone, boasts a rolling thunder score by Basil Poledouris and spectacular shooting locations in Spain, including the Almerian desert, the Sierra Nevada and the unmistakable ‘mushroom rocks’ of Cuidad Encantada (The Enchanted City), near Madrid.

An official sequel, Richard Fleischer’s Conan the Destroyer (1985), teamed Schwarzenegger with Grace Jones. The worldwide success of the ‘Conan’ films spawned many imitators over the next few years, including a bunch shot in Italy. The most famous of these was Red Sonja (1985), also directed by Fleischer, which starred Brigitte Nielsen as the revenge-seeking title heroine, Schwarzenegger as swordsman Kalidor and Sandahl Bergman as Queen Gedren. It was shot in L’Aquila and Lazio, Italy and had a score by Ennio Morricone. Conan also inspired the ‘Ator’ series of films in Italy, included Ator the Fighting Eagle (1982), starring Miles O’Keefe, and its sequel Ator the Invincible (1982 – aka The Blade Master). But Schwarzenegger is the epitome of this type of muscle-bound sword and sorcery hero and it’ll be interesting to see how the new Conan squares up.

UK TV viewers can see a double-bill of the ‘Conan’ films next week. Barbarian and Destroyer are being broadcast back-to-back on ITV4 from 9pm on Thursday 18 August. Plus Red Sonja is being shown on UK TV Channel 5 at 11.20pm on Sunday 14 August.

The original Conan has just been released on Blu-ray in the UK and the US:

It’s also available on DVD in the UK and US:

Almost all UK releases of Conan the Barbarian are cut for horse stunts. This widescreen videotape inexplicably slipped through the net in 1999 and isn’t:

To read more about the Italian ‘Conan’ knock-offs such as Ator, check out my new book Cinema Italiano: The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult published by I.B. Tauris

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Comedy Horror

I’ve picked up two books recently, which I read on holiday – one newly published, one new-ish. Both are cinema-related and encompass huge bodies of work in entertaining, engaging fashion: Paul Merton’s Silent Comedy and Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies.

BusterPaul Merton’s book, first published in 2007, looks at the silent comedy cinema boom of 1914-29 through the work of its key pioneers and exponents, as they made the transition from vaudeville and Medicine Show, to silent film and finally sound. It’s a roughly chronological look at the careers of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy, and the overlapping narrative – as each comedian tries to best his competitors – creates a palpable sense of competition between the filmmakers.

Silent Comedy followed a four-part TV series Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns, shown in the UK in 2006. The book allows Merton to delve in even greater detail, and his easy humour and enthusiasm make this an informative, engrossing read. It includes many detailed descriptions of shorts and features, and charts the rise and fall of the form, from slapstick pie-in-the-face two-reelers, to something approaching art. The book’s unfortunate side effect is that it will send you off in search of Keaton, Chaplin and others’ work on DVD, which will cost you a small fortune. It’s all out there somewhere, with new discoveries, fragments and restorations surfacing all the time.

SuspiriaAs good genre film books should, Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies will also have you scribbling long lists of movies to track down. Published in April 2011 and billed as ‘Horror on Screen Since the 1960s’, the book is in two parts. Part One is Newman’s original text published in 1984, and ‘completely revised, updated and rewritten’ in 1988, which looks at all aspects of post-Night of the Living Dead horror cinema, from exorcism movies, to Italian zombie gut crunchers, plus the work of auteurs such as Larry Cohen, David Cronenberg, Brian DePalma and Dario Argento. Part One is now accompanied by footnotes, where if need be Newman reassesses or adds information to a text that is now over 20 years old. The additional notes on Italian gialli films are especially useful, as these cult murder mystery thrillers have enjoyed considerable popularity in the last decade. Some very good prints of even the most obscure films are being released, in addition to giallo master Dario Argento’s films – Deep Red, Suspiria, The Bird With the Crystal Plumage etc – getting the Blu-ray treatment.

Part Two expands on horror cinema in the intervening years, looking at ‘modern horror’ in its myriad global forms. The shear volume and breadth of films discussed is impressive in itself, with Newman providing comprehensive commentary on, for example, the derivatives of Silence of the Lambs, or the many vampire revamps, or Japanese ghost stories, or the ongoing Zombie apocalypse, plus auteurs Tim Burton, Guillermo del Toro, Larry Fessenden and David Lynch. There’s also a highly entertaining chapter called ‘Scream and Scream Again’ which features a thorough, wide-ranging round-up of franchises, post-modernism and remakes that must have been a nightmare to research.

Both Nightmare Movies and Silent Comedy are five-star reads.

Order Silent Comedy here:UK US

Order Nightmare Movies Here: UK US

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