Reviewing the Rocky Franchise

I’ve always liked the original Rocky film but something more interesting than the film itself is the story of how it came to be made. In the mid-seventies Sylvester Stallone was a bit part actor with few acting credits to his name. One day in 1975 he watched the Ali v Chuck Wepner fight in which Wepner lost but managed to stay 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. Stallone, inspired by the bout, wrote a screenplay about a washed-up fighter called Rocky who manages to stay the distance with the world champion. He passed the screenplay to his agents who took it to various producers. The screenplay was good and many producers were interested but Stallone attached one small condition to the sale, that he himself had to play the part of Rocky.

The producers who finally picked up the screenplay were Winkler-Chartoff productions. They had a contract with United Artists but UA still wanted a big name star in the title role. Burt Reynolds and James Caan were suggested but Stallone hung on and continued to insist that he played Rocky. I have always thought that Stallone was offered a million dollars to let James Caan play Rocky but according to an article I read which quoted Stallone himself, the offer went up to $340,000 and he still said no. Eventually the producers gave in and Sylvester Stallone received just $35,000 for acting and writing the screenplay plus a percentage of the profits. United Artists had a major production in the pipeline at the time, New York, New York, a big budget musical and they felt that the profits from that film would cover any losses on Rocky. In fact, the musical was a flop and those losses were covered by the success of Rocky.

The basic plot of Rocky is that World Champion Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers and based loosely on Muhammed Ali, is let down after planning a title bout to be held during the US Bicentennial celebrations. His opponent backs out and no other contender is available. Creed decides to rescue the fight by selecting an unknown boxer for the hugely publicised event. He chooses Rocky Balboa, a part time boxer and debt collector. The problem is, Creed thinks it will just be a demonstration match but Rocky thinks he can win.

The film was a low budget production but is still a great looking film. It was one of the first films to be shot with a Steadicam, a revolutionary camera mounting which absorbs movement. It was used in the fight scenes and the scene in which Rocky runs through the market in Philadelphia. In a sequence filmed at a skating rink, the producers had no money for any extras so they changed the script. Instead of skating with extras, Rocky and his girl Adrian bribe the cleaning staff to let them in when the rink has closed and is empty.

Joe Frazier makes a cameo appearance in the film and in fact some aspects of his life were used on the film as part of Rocky’s training regimen, running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and punching the meat carcass in a freezer.

Rocky was released in 1976 and grossed over $5 million in the first weekend of its national release and a later box office of 225 million dollars worldwide. The film was nominated for various awards and won the Oscar for Best Picture. Stallone’s pay packet has increased with each subsequent instalment of the film franchise but even today he still isn’t happy that the producers, rather than Stallone himself, own the rights to the Rocky character.

Verdict: 10/10

Rocky II

Given the huge success of the original there was really no doubt there would be a sequel. The film starts just where the last one left off except in the original the two fighters agree that there will not be a rematch. In this sequel, Apollo Creed does a quick reversal and is immediately on at Rocky about a rematch. Rocky is not sure what to do with his new found celebrity or with his money. He buys a house and a new car. He tries his hand at TV advertising but when that fails he sinks deeper into debt and begins to consider fighting again. His manager played again by Burgess Meredith is against the idea but when Apollo ups his campaign to get Rocky to fight and publicly insults Rocky, he finally comes on board. Adrian isn’t keen on the idea and Rocky trains in a lacklustre fashion until she gives him her blessing.

The title bout begins and at the end the two fighters knock each other down together but it is Rocky who gets up to claim the win.

Stallone asked to direct the film and when John G Avildsen, the director of the original film was unavailable, he got his chance.

I’ve seen this film before and always thought that in a way it was just a remake of the original. I watched it again for this blog and rather enjoyed it.

Verdict: 7/1

Rocky III

Rocky is doing well as the heavyweight world champion. He is settled with Adrian and has a son. He takes on various contenders but is constantly hassled by Clubber Lang, played by Mr T, for a title shot. Rocky agrees to meet Clubber in the ring but his manager Mickey, played by Burgess Meredith, is not so keen. On the night of the match Mickey dies of a heart attack and Rocky loses to Clubber. Apollo Creed decides to help Rocky and takes over his training for the rematch. After a tough match he wins back his title and the film finishes with Rocky and Apollo getting together in the ring for a friendly and private bout.

Stallone wrote the screenplay and directed the film and the theme song, Eye of the Tiger won an academy award.

I had not seen this before but watched it last week and thought it was pretty good.

Verdict: 7/10

Rocky IV

Can’t say I was totally impressed with this film. Apollo Creed decides to make his comeback with a fight against Russian Boxer Ivan Drago played by Dolph Lundgren. Creed is badly beaten by the Russian and dies from his injuries. Rocky agrees to fight Drago in Russia and takes a predictable win. It was again written and directed by Stallone and he and Lundgren traded real punches in the filming which ended up with Stallone in intensive care. Stallone’s future wife Brigitte Nielson played Drago’s wife, Ludmilla. Bill Conti who wrote the musical score for all the other Rocky films was absent from this one and instead Vince DiCola produced the disappointing music.

In 2021 Stallone released a new version of the film and the re-edited and re-released film was titled Rocky Vs Drago. The new version is only slightly longer but apparently was meant to add more depth to the relationship between Rocky and Apollo Creed as well as cutting some sillier elements like the robot Rocky gives to Paulie as a gift. A review I read in the Guardian felt that Stallone only marginally succeeded.

Verdict 4/10

Rocky V

This is probably the low point in the franchise. Original director John G Avildsen returned to the director’s chair and Stallone intended it to be the last in the Rocky franchise but it’s possible that because it was badly received, he went on to make Rocky Balboa.

Rocky returns from Russia but retires from boxing due to an injury. He then finds that his brother-in-law Paulie has given power of attorney to Rocky’s accountant who has then gone on to squander Rocky’s fortune. Rocky and his wife have to sell their home to pay their debts but Rocky finds purpose in training a young fighter. The relationship later sours and the two engage in a street fight which Rocky wins.

I have to admit that this is one Rocky film that has eluded me so far. Over on Rotten Tomatoes the review went like this: “Rocky V’s attempts to recapture the original’s working-class grit are as transparently phony as each of the thuddingly obvious plot developments in a misguided instalment that sent the franchise flailing into long term limbo.”

Verdict: Rotten Tomatoes gave the film only a 29% approval rating.

Rocky Balboa

I have two of the Rocky films on DVD. One is the original Rocky and the other is this one, Rocky Balboa. It’s a really thoughtful entry into the Rocky franchise. Rocky has retired. His wife has died and he has lost a lot of his money. His income comes from a small Italian restaurant in which many of the patrons come not just for Italian food but also to meet the former heavyweight champion of the world, Rocky Balboa.

The current champion Mason ‘the line’ Dixon has been criticised for fighting easy opponents. To get some positive publicity, he decides to enter into a computer fight with Rocky. It’s a fight reminiscent of the encounter between Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali in the 1970’s. At the time Marciano and Ali were the sport’s only two unbeaten champions. They were filmed sparring for various rounds and the result decided by probability formulas entered into a computer. Two different outcomes were filmed, the version shown in the UK showed Ali winning which my father was not happy about as he loved boxing and was a particular fan of Rocky Marciano.

In the film Rocky is judged to have won the computer fight and so decides to renew his boxing licence. Mason, not happy about being beaten, challenges Rocky to an exhibition fight which both men want to win. Mason emerges as the winner but Rocky doesn’t seem to mind. His day is over and he receives a standing ovation from the crowd.

This was probably the very best entry into the Rocky series. Rather than just boxing, the film looks at Rocky himself as he gets older, mourns the loss of his wife, and worries about his relationship with his son. He revisits many of the locations in the original Rocky film including his old house and the pet store where he met his wife. The only problem I had with the film was that the actor playing Mason Dixon didn’t look much like a heavyweight boxer to me. Surprise, surprise, then when I found out that actor Antonio Tarver was in fact a former light heavyweight champion! Ah, not a proper heavyweight then.

Rocky Balboa was the last in the Rocky series although a spin off series began in 2015 with Creed in which Rocky mentors boxer Adonis Johnson, the son of Apollo Creed. Although Stallone apparently contributed to the story, he did not write or direct either this or the following films. He isn’t happy about the producers owning the rights to characters he created either and publicly tweeted his unhappiness about a reported spin off film about Drago, the Russian boxer in Rocky IV.

In a lot of ways, the Rocky films parallel Stallone’s own life. He turned down big money offers to let others play what was the role of a lifetime, took it on himself and was propelled to film stardom.


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Reviewing the Mission Impossible Franchise

It was a cold afternoon in Manchester and I mumbled something to myself about the supposed heatwave and zipped my jacket up to my neck. At the left luggage office I took out the key that had been given to me earlier and when I opened the compartment I found a small package inside. I took the package and walked the short distance to the square. I sat down on the hard wooden bench and opened it up. Inside was a small tape player and a set of earphones. I put on the earphones and pressed play. There was a short burst of static and then a voice spoke.

‘Good afternoon, Mr Higgins. In the 1970’s a television show called Mission Impossible was produced that became a minor cult TV classic. Many years later the franchise was revived with a series of feature films starring Tom Cruise. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to review the TV series and the subsequent films, look at the background to the films, try to understand why they have been successful and put together a blog post revealing your findings. The blog post must be ready for publication by Saturday at 10am.

This tape will self-destruct in 5 seconds.’

I put down the earphones and placed them and the tape player back in the package, moments later the package disintegrated and I dropped the remains into a rubbish bin and walked away.

The TV series 1966 to 1973

The TV show was created by producer Bruce Geller and concerned a team of special agents known as the Impossible Missions Force. They are a US government agency which takes on hostile foreign governments, South American dictatorships and criminal organisations.

In the first series the team is led by Dan Briggs played by Steven Hill but he was replaced for season 2 by Peter Graves in the part of Jim Phelps. Other regular team members were Leonard Nimoy, Martin Laudau and his wife Barbara Bain, Greg Morris and Lesley Anne Warren. Each played a team member with a particular skill, for instance Laudau and Nimoy played agents with a talent for impersonation and disguise, Greg Morris played an electronics expert and so on.

Mission Impossible ran for 7 seasons and was cancelled because, according to Wikipedia, the producers at Paramount found they could make more money by syndicating the existing series rather than making new ones.

A revival series was made in the 1980’s also starring Peter Graves. To save money the series was not filmed in Hollywood but in Australia but it only lasted two seasons and was largely unsuccessful.

A great feature of the series was the opening title sequence which involved a match being struck and then lighting a fuse shown over quick clips of the upcoming episode to the sound of the iconic theme tune written by Lalo Schifrin. Next would be Jim Phelps listening to his tape recorded instructions which after being played would then self-destruct. Phelps would then look through his agents’ files complete with photos and choose who he wanted for the mission. Sometimes a guest star would play one of the agents who would be introduced by Jim checking out his dossier. A team briefing would then take place and the mission would get under way.

The IMF used a great deal of gadgets to accomplish their missions, secret listening devices and other electronic hardware as well as incredible masks and make up to impersonate people. One particular episode that I remember was when the team had to retrieve some stolen gold from a South American dictator’s safe. They did it by drilling a small hole in the safe, heating it until the gold melted and ran out down the small hole then a little gadget sprayed the interior of the empty safe to cover the hole. Mission Impossible was staple viewing in our household in the late 1960’s.

Mission Impossible 1996

Paramount Studios had plans to make a movie version of the series but the plans never seemed to come to fruition until Tom Cruise expressed an interest. He had been a fan of the TV series and hoped to make the film version the first project for his own production company, Cruise/Wagner Productions. The project began with Sydney Pollack as director but Cruise later decided he wanted Brian De Palma. De Palma designed most of the action sequences in the film and the final script was written around these. It just so happens that recently Channel 4 in the UK decided to run all the Mission Impossible films on consecutive nights so that came in pretty handy to refresh my memory on these films.

I enjoyed Mission Impossible much more on this recent viewing than when I had first seen it. The film uses the fabulous TV theme and opens in a similar way to the TV series.

Cruise plays agent Ethan Hunt with John Voight playing Jim Phelps. Hunt is sent to stop the theft of a list of agents kept inside the American Embassy in Prague. The mission fails and Jim Phelps, the agent in charge, is wounded and all of his team are killed except for Ethan Hunt. There is clearly a double agent or mole at work and various things happen until we find out the mole was Jim Phelps which was just a little bit sneaky because all of us who watched the 1960’s TV series knew that Jim Phelps was a character in that show and therefore could not possibly be the mole. The fact that he was made me feel a little cheated by this film because they used my nerdy TV knowledge against me.

I read recently that Peter Graves was asked to play Phelps in the film but declined after seeing his character was the traitor. Other stars from the TV series weren’t happy either.

Mission Impossible II 2000

This second instalment of the franchise was directed by John Woo. It’s about a biological weapon called Chimera. Rogue agent Sean Ambrose steals the virus from its inventor by impersonating Ethan Hunt. He destroys the aircraft on which the inventor is travelling and parachutes to safety. Hunt was played once again by Tom Cruise and his mission is to regain the virus. The opening sequence sees Cruise doing some daring rock climbing which the studio wasn’t happy about. Cruise didn’t have a safety net but did apparently wear a harness. I didn’t like the heavy metal style version of the classic theme and as a matter of fact, I lost interest in the film early on.

Mission Impossible III 2006

This third instalment was directed by JJ Abrams and for the first time the writers decided to show a little of the background to the Ethan Hunt character. He has retired from the IMF and has become a trainer for new agents but is asked to take on a new mission. He is about to get married but his fiancée knows nothing of his espionage work. The IMF team kidnap villain Owen Davian who escapes but decides to take revenge on Ethan. The film is filled with high powered action sequences and although a little implausible, I kind of liked it.

Mission Impossible Ghost Protocol 2011

The IMF are tasked to stop a man only known as ‘Cobalt’ who is trying to initiate a war between the USA and Russia. Tom Cruise as Ethan, infiltrates a Moscow prison to get to a man who has links to Cobalt. Things go wrong and the IMF is closed down by the US government when Cobalt blows up the Kremlin. The IMF team however stay on the hunt for Cobalt and follow him to various parts of the world including Dubai, where Tom Cruise has to climb up the outside of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. Cruise does all his own stunts but for a long time I just assumed that all the stuff on the outside of the Khalifa was done in a studio with a green screen and the background digitally inserted. Nope, Cruise actually swung on hidden cables outside the skyscraper. Why he should choose to risk his life in that fashion is beyond me but there it is. A good film full of action and adventure with numerous shootings and explosions.

Mission Impossible Rogue Nation 2015

This next instalment of Mission Impossible is pretty similar to the previous one. The CIA director (Alex Baldwin) asks a government committee to close down the IMF and incorporate them into the CIA which they decide to do. Ethan Hunt escapes from a criminal organisation known as the Syndicate with the help of British double agent Ilse Faust. Various exciting adventures ensue including a highly dangerous motorcycle chase and a deep underwater dive without oxygen. The IMF manage to capture the head of the Syndicate in the end. A government committee decide it would be best to reform the IMF. It’s all a little fantastic but not bad for a Saturday night on TV with a couple of beers and a pizza.

Mission Impossible Fallout 2018

After a week of watching the Mission Impossible films I’m sorry to say I missed this one which is a pity because according to the reviews it’s the best in the series. Still, sometimes it’s important to move one’s lazy behind off the couch, switch off the TV and go out and enjoy oneself. Pity there weren’t a few Mission Impossible questions in the pub quiz that night. After all this research I think I might have done pretty well.

Update

It just so happened that my brother has Fallout on DVD so he brought it round and we gave it a watch. The plot is something about plutonium and atomic bombs and the IMF guys have to swap the captured head of the Syndicate for the plutonium. The plutonium gets put into 2 atomic bombs which cannot be defused but after some highly implausible action-packed chases including a helicopter chase with both helicopters crashing, rolling down a cliff and being suspended on the edge, things finally get sorted. I reckon this would have been a good one to watch in the cinema.

Conclusion

It’s not easy to reboot a successful TV series whether it’s for the small screen or the big one but the producers of the Mission Impossible films have actually done a pretty good job. The films do have something of a link to the old TV series. They have different characters and different actors but the films have kept that opening element from the TV show with the match lighting the fuse.  They have also kept that fabulous theme tune. Then again, could they have really made Mission Impossible without the Mission Impossible theme? I don’t think so.

I did read that some of the TV actors from the original series weren’t happy with the films. Greg Morris apparently walked out of a screening when it was revealed that Jim Phelps was the traitor which was exactly why Peter Graves, the original Jim Phelps declined to reprise his old role as I mentioned earlier.

Personally, with the exception of MI2 I’ve enjoyed all the films and I look forward to the next instalment in the franchise which I believe has already been filmed.

Please step away from this blog post. It will self-destruct in 5 seconds . . .


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Birds, Barbecues and Big Steve

I had a few ideas for the title of this post. I had A Piece of My Life on the brain for a long time and then substituted A Pizza My Life (A piece of my life, geddit?) I even had a graphic sorted showing a slice of pizza. The thing with that I thought is that even though it ranges from funny to faintly humorous, I reckoned I would be giving people the wrong idea and that readers might have been expecting a post about, well pizza. Just lately I’m trying to optimise my titles for SEO (search engine optimisation) and at the same time also trying to give the impression that I know something about it. Some time ago I did a few posts titled A Slice of My Life so perhaps I should be adding part 3 or part 4 and just going with that? Nah, time for something new.  Anyway, cue new title and blog post graphic and here we go . . .

I wrote a few weeks ago about the UK heatwave. Temperatures hit record highs although the hot weather here in the northwest only lasted for two days. The day after the hottest day, it was dull and wet once again. The summer has generally been like that, a few hot and sunny days followed by more dull and wet ones. Liz and I like our barbecues so when the skies clear we tend to defrost some meat from the freezer and crank up the barbecue. A regular visitor to our barbecues is a large seabird which we have christened CBS. Nothing to do with the American TV channel but that bird is one heck of a Cheeky Bastard Seagull.

He usually arrives on our garden wall and struts around in the manner of an avian Mussolini. If he gets no response from us, he will tend to have a bit of a stretch before going into a major squawking session. Now he has made his presence felt we can expect some more strutting about until we put some bits of sausage or fat from our steak on the wall. He’ll gobble that up with the occasional foray into the sky to fend off any other birds who might be after a nibble before beginning his ritual again. When the gas goes off and he knows no more food will be forthcoming, CBS will usually have a final strut, give us a last squawk and be off into the sky.

These last few weeks however, CBS has not appeared. We’ve saved him some bits and pieces but our familiar feathered friend has not made an appearance. I’ve often wondered what has happened to him. Has he emigrated somewhere? No, surely it’s not the time of the year for birds to migrate? Has he passed away? It’s hard to tell if he was a young or an old bird. Has he been hit by a car trying to peck at some stray leftover sandwich accidentally dropped in the road?

At our last barbecue a large seabird appeared on our wall. At first, we thought it was CBS but there was no strutting or squawking and the bird did seem a little timid. He wouldn’t come close to collect his titbits on the wall. Was he a doppelganger trying to muscle in on CBS’s patch knowing the real CBS has passed away? We’ll never know.

I do love my books and when the weather is warm and sunny it’s a delight to lie outside on my sun lounger and have a good read. I’ve got quite a few books needing my attention and the first one was another book from a second-hand shop, Bette and Joan by Shaun Considine. It’s about a feud between classic film stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. After reading it I’m not even sure there was a feud between the two stars but either way, it’s a nice excuse to talk about these two screen gems and compare their personal lives as well as their screen stardom.

The book takes us back to the days of classic cinema and the big-league movie studios when stars were stars and the studio manufactured every level of their image; magazine interviews, acting lessons, publicity shots and in some cases even their personal relationships. Rock Hudson was a big star but also a closet homosexual and the studios manufactured a marriage for him to make sure he had a clean-cut Hollywood image. Not that that ever stopped Joan Crawford from bedding Rock, which according to the book, she did. Crawford had numerous affairs and also had a penchant for cleanliness. She lived the film star life to the full with big houses, cars and servants with her career starting in silent films in 1925.

Bette Davis always claimed to be an actress rather than a film star. Her career began later than Crawford’s and her first film role was in 1931. On the film Dangerous, she fell in love with co-star Franchot Tone but Crawford stole him from under her, seducing and later marrying him. That might well have been the beginning of their feud. The two only worked together once which was on the film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. The two despised each other, didn’t get on at all and their mutual hatred was evident on the screen.

I do love my showbiz biographies and autobiographies and one I picked up a while back was an autobiography by Dora Bryan, According to Dora. I love Dora from her many appearances in British films but my favourite film is probably A Taste of Honey. The screenplay was by Shelagh Delaney and director Tony Richardson, adapted from Delaney’s own play which she famously wrote when she was only 18.

Dora Bryan gives an outstanding performance at times comic but always supremely natural. She grew up on an Oldham housing estate. Dora was a great performer as a child and so her mother took her to dancing school and further encouraged by her mother joined Oldham Repertory before moving to London to develop her stage career. She had a great career on the stage as well as on film and TV and appeared in many successful West End productions. The first part of the book is very interesting but then, like a lot of autobiographies, the latter part of the book seems to wander off into lists of productions and theatre and TV personalities. Even so, it was a lovely read.

We went to a birthday celebration this week and after a meal in a restaurant we went over to the Trawl Boat pub. Inside the talk turned to a fellow called Malcolm. He was an old chap and presided over the main table in the pub. He knew everyone and everything and his table was always referred to as the ‘Captain’s table’. Even the staff looked up to Malcolm. If you ordered a round, they would ask ‘is that for the Captain’s table?’ Yes. ‘OK we’ll bring it over’. We’ve never had service like that before or since. Malcolm was a character but he passed away a few years ago.

Another of the guys we used to chat to in there was a fella we called Big Steve. I’m six-foot and Big Steve towered above me, he must have been six-foot six, easy. He was a pretty fit guy having been a former drayman, one of those people who lug big beer barrels about for a living and he was a really easy fellow to get on with. We always used to sit with Steve and have a drink and a natter and when he was due to leave he would pull his jacket on, say his goodbyes and then always say to us; “Nice to see you both again, as always.” And then he would be off.

A few years ago, we saw Big Steve sometime in December and as usual at the end of the evening we said our goodbyes, wished each other a happy Christmas in case we didn’t see each other before the holidays and Steve said his usual “Nice to see you both, as always” and left.

We didn’t see Big Steve over Christmas, nor through the New Year period and one day we both said together in the Trawl Boat, ‘wonder where Steve is?’ Anyway, we thought nothing of it and assumed we’d catch up with him soon.

Later, Liz was chatting to some of the regulars and one mentioned to her that he had been to a funeral the previous day. Liz asked idly who the deceased was and the man answered that it was someone they didn’t think Liz or I knew. It was a guy called Big Steve who used to be a drayman! Well, the words leapt up and hit Liz and I like a slap. Big Steve was gone and we’d hadn’t even had a chance to pay our respects at his funeral. I can’t tell you how sad we both felt.

Liz, being the amateur Sherlock Holmes she is, tracked down the widow and we went to see her to pass on our condolences. It turned out that Steve had died quietly in his sleep and his wife went into his room one morning to find him dead. Not very nice for her but a peaceful passing at least for Steve.

I’ve not thought about Big Steve for a long time. Funny how that cheeky bird should bring back the memory of him.  Wherever Cheeky Bastard Seagull is, and I prefer to believe he has emigrated rather than been hit by a car, I hope the locals are looking after him.


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https://youtu.be/JzJA9YIAGls

Memory, Memories and Memorabilia

I got to thinking about memory the other day, after all memories are important. Our whole past experience is made up of memories so in effect, everything that has passed, everything that has gone before, exists only in memory.

My mother who suffers with dementia will be 93 later this year. Sometimes when I visit her she is talkative and chatty, other times not. A sad moment a few months ago was when her only words were please help me, intoned over and over like a ritual or a prayer. I left her feeling extremely saddened and upset that day but when I visited a few weeks later she was the complete reverse, bright, happy, talkative and chatty. She couldn’t remember her address, except for her childhood address, the one she left behind many years ago but still, she was bright and asked about her home and her garden and what about the rent? Was I keeping up to date with the rent?

The Auntie I never met.

I brought her a photo I had found of her sister Ada. Ada was a keen cyclist who was sadly killed in 1948 in a traffic accident on her bike. I showed her the picture and she knew Ada immediately telling me about her many achievements in cycling and also winning a place at the Manchester Central Grammar School for Girls.

The photo, as I had hoped, stimulated her memory and we talked for a while about the past and her long-lost sister.

Sometimes I wonder about my own memory. I forget names quite frequently and sometimes when Liz and I go to the pub quiz and try to identify celebrities in the picture round I end up saying things to Liz like ‘It’s the woman who was Mrs Peel in the Avengers on TV’ (one point for Diana Rigg.) Or ‘It’s the woman from the film Titanic’ (another point for Kate Winslet.) Or even ‘the guy who used to be on the breakfast show on Channel 4 with that woman who’s on Celebrity Gogglebox’. (Outstanding if you got Johnny Vaughn!)

The other day I was sorting out some of my old CDs. There wasn’t much on the TV so I popped one in the player. It was by Elton John called simply ‘Elton John’ and contains the hit single ‘Your Song’ and various other tracks. As Elton tinkled the ivories and began to sing, I realised I knew all the words despite not having listened to that album for many years. I’ve also got it on vinyl and when I was in my early twenties and discovered Elton, I played and played his records until my parents yelled up the stairs telling me to pack it in.

Memory is important too in today’s electronic devices. I mentioned in a previous post about how a shoot for one of my videos was curtailed because the camera’s memory card was full. I usually have a spare but on that particular day I hadn’t popped one into my camera bag. Result disaster! Well, almost disaster as I still had my spare camera. When I came to edit that particular video which was about Manchester Airport I also had a lot of unused video from previous visits as well as some video from the VHS days shot in the late 1980s so I was able to change direction a little bit and also to look at how the area has changed in recent years.

Going back further to the 1960s and 70s, my schoolfriends and I used to visit the airport regularly and go on to the viewing terraces to watch the aircraft land and take off. My old schoolfriend Steve used to be a real aircraft expert and when we made a video about the airport in 1986, he would comment on my photos saying things like ‘that was a 747 just arrived from Heathrow’ or ‘that was a Lufthansa 757 off to Munich’.

My mother too was pretty knowledgeable about aircraft, well, World War II aircraft anyway. Manchester was bombed in the war and mum’s suburban home of Wythenshawe was frequently hit as it was just up the road from the airport, a particular target of the Nazi bombers. The famous WWII pilot Guy Gibson did some of his training at Manchester airport, then called Ringway and mentions it in his autobiography, Enemy Coast Ahead. My mother says she could tell if the aircraft were British or German by the sound of their engines. The German bombers had a deep droning sound apparently.

A lot of my photographs are routinely backed up on Google Photos but recently they advised me about the new limits of their online backup service. From June 1st 2021, instead of free back up, that now only extends to 15 GB, after that we will have to purchase a plan with Google to continue our image storage. All my laptop images are backed up at Flickr.com but again, that isn’t a free service, I pay a yearly fee. Of course, I could just cancel but then how could I access my images? Well, it just so happens that all my images and videos are backed up on my three hard drives but Google is so much easier to use. If I want a picture for a blog post I tend to just search my Google photos rather than search around the house for my drives and then plug them in. When I went to back up my 2021 photos and videos the other day, I realised I didn’t have enough memory on my current drive so now I’ll have to get another one.

Loss of memory is a regular theme in the film world. The Bourne Identity and its sequels were about an intelligence agent who wakes and does not know who he is. Matt Damon plays the lead character who is picked up by a fishing boat near to death suffering from bullet wounds and total amnesia. The Bourne films are a series I’ve always wanted to watch but I never seen them. (Note to self- set the TV recorder next time The Bourne Identity appears on the TV guide.)

Hitchcock made an amnesia themed film in Spellbound starring Gregory Peck and Ingrid Bergman. A doctor, played by Gregory Peck, arrives at a mental hospital to replace the outgoing hospital director but Ingrid Bergman discovers Peck is an imposter. Peck’s character fears he may have killed the former director but cannot recall anything. Not my favourite Hitchcock film but it’s an interesting one with dream sequences designed by surrealist artist Salvador Dali.

Finally, here’s my favourite amnesiac film, Random Harvest starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. It’s a film not often seen on TV and now and again I’ll get out my old VHS copy if I want to watch it. Based on the book by one of my favourite authors, James Hilton, the film concerns a shell-shocked war veteran, played by Colman, recovering in a sanatorium during the latter days of WWI. The man cannot remember his past but makes a new life with Greer Garson. After they are married the man now known as Smithy, journeys to Liverpool to see a newspaper editor about a story he has written. In the city Smithy is hit by a cab and knocked unconscious. When he awakes all memory of Smithy has vanished but his true identity returns.

He returns home to his lost family but what was he doing in Liverpool. Where has he been in the years since his wounding in the trenches of the Great War?

At times a little sentimental, I’ve always loved this film. Colman is wonderful as the man who rejuvenates his family’s business, becomes a respected MP but cannot find happiness until he knows what happened to him in those few lost years.

Here’s a last thought on the subject of memory. When you are at the pub quiz and are struggling to recall the name of the guy who played Jason King in TV’s ‘Department S’, never say to yourself ‘I can’t remember’. According to Paul McKenna, the guy who produced all those books and tapes about confidence boosting which I used to use when preparing for job interviews, you are sending a message to your subconscious saying ‘don’t remember’. What you should say to yourself is ‘I’m not sure at the moment but the answer WILL come to me soon.’ That way, you’re sending a positive message to your subconscious telling it to get working on that long-forgotten name.

Now, who did play Jason King? Peter Wyngarde! Told you it would work!


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10 Great War Films (Part 2)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go. As this post went on a bit I published part 1 last week so now here’s part 2.

Angels One Five

Angels One Five is another WWII film this time concerning the Royal Air Force. John Gregson plays a new pilot who is assigned to ‘Pimpernel’ squadron at a small airfield in the south of England. When he touches down he crashes and damages his replacement aircraft, not making a great impression on his new colleagues. The film follows Gregson’s character, nicknamed ‘Septic’ as he begins work at the station, first in the control room and then as a novice pilot.

Parts of the film were shot at RAF Uxbridge where a wartime operations room was located. Jack Hawkins and Michael Dennison also star in the film which shows life in the Royal Air Force in the dark days of 1940 during the battle of Britain.

Paths of Glory

Paths of Glory was a 1957 film directed by Stanley Kubrick. It was set in the First World War and starred Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax. General Broulard of the general staff orders his army to attack a German position known as the Anthill. He commands General Mireau to organise the attack. Mireau says the task is impossible but changes his mind when offered a promotion. The attack predictably fails and some of the troops refuse to attack when they see their colleagues in the first wave mown down. The enraged General Mireau orders his artillery to fire on his own men but the artillery commander refuses.

Afterwards the general decides to have 100 men court martialled for cowardice but is later persuaded to have the number reduced to three. Colonel Dax, a lawyer in civilian life, volunteers to defend the men but the trial turns out to be a farce.

The Dambusters

This is one of those films that I have always loved in spite of its sometimes amateur special effects. The original Star Trek movie has been in the news lately as it has been re released with updated special effects and I often think it would be a great idea for some older films to be updated in that way too. Anyway, the Dambusters is another classic WWII film. It starts with the inventor Barnes Wallis played by Michael Redgrave who is working on an idea to breech the Ruhr dams in Germany thus disrupting the German manufacturing base in the Ruhr Valley. He works constantly in a water testing tank refining his ideas for a bouncing bomb. After a difficult process he gets his idea accepted by Bomber Command and a new squadron, 633 squadron is formed to take on the mission. Its leader is the famous Guy Gibson played by Richard Todd. Gibson and his team take on a difficult and dangerous task. The bombs must be dropped from low level at a specific height and specific distance from the dam. I’ve often felt this to be a wonderful film that not only shows the dangers of war and combat but also shows the whole process from beginning to end of the design and inception of a new wartime project. The only disappointing aspect is those poor special effects.

Platoon

OK, that’s enough of WWII, time to move on. Platoon was a film written and directed by Oliver Stone based on his own experiences in the Vietnam war. Vietnam was a different kind of war to WWII. The soldiers were younger and many were disillusioned about being in Vietnam in the first place. Charlie Sheen stars as a new recruit arriving in Vietnam and he soon learns that his life is worth less than the fellow soldiers. They have put the time in, they have fought the Vietcong and so if anyone deserves to go home safe and sound, it is them, not him.

The platoon is led by a young and inexperienced officer but the two real leaders are two company sergeants, Barnes and Elias played by Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe. Charlie Sheen’s character, Chris Taylor, respects both men but sees Barnes as someone who is a little dangerous. In an incident at a village Barnes shoots a Vietnamese woman dead while interrogating the villagers for information. Elias arrives and breaks things up and Barnes later finds he might be the subject of an investigation into the incident. During a fire fight with the Vietcong, Barnes shoots Elias dead in order to prevent him speaking up and later Taylor shoots a wounded Barnes.

Platoon is a powerful film that won many awards including four Oscars including best picture and best director.

Born on the Fourth of July

Born on the Fourth of July was another film by director Oliver Stone and the second in his Vietnam trilogy. It tells the story of Ron Kovic who was wounded in Vietnam and left paralysed and wheelchair bound. Tom Cruise gives a great performance as Kovic, showing him go from a believer in the war to the exact opposite, someone who campaigns for an end to the killing in Vietnam. He is invalided back to the USA where the poor medical care and the state of the veterans’ hospital is graphically portrayed. Kovic goes to Dulce Villa, a haven in Mexico for wounded veterans where he spends a lot of time drinking and perhaps getting the anger out of his system. Later he joins an anti-war group and the film finishes with Ron about to address the Democratic National Convention although I thought that a better ending might have been to show him actually making his speech. Even so, Oliver Stone has produced a powerful film which gave Tom Cruise his first nomination for Best Actor and another director’s Oscar for Stone himself.

So that’s my personal Ten Best War Films. If you missed Part One last week, click here to read it. What were your favourite war movies?


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10 Great War Films (Part 1)

I was reading a post called The 10 Best War Films Ever the other day. It wasn’t a list I particularly agreed with and in fact I hadn’t seen or even heard of quite a few of the films mentioned so I thought I’d have a go at making my own list. Here we go! As this post went on a bit I’ve split it in two and I’ll post Part 2 next week.

The Great Escape

The Great Escape was based on an actual event, a real life mass escape from a German prisoner of war camp in WWII. The film though wasn’t completely true to life, in fact I don’t think any American POWs were in the camp although Steve McQueen and James Garner played major roles. I also don’t think that any escaping POW’s tried to escape Germany on a motorcycle but hey, The Great Escape is one of those easy-going feel-good action-adventure films that is one of the most well-loved films ever made. For many years it was a staple of UK Christmas TV viewing and whether it is completely factual or not it is a great film. Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasance, David McCallum, Gordon Jackson and many others play the British officers. Attenborough plays Roger Bartlett who has just been released by the Gestapo after being recaptured and interrogated in relation to another escape attempt. He now plans a mass escape from the camp and organises the digging of tunnels, fake identity papers, maps and clothing. After the escape fifty officers were executed by the Nazis although of course, Steve McQueen lived to fight another day.

The Colditz Story

The Colditz Story is another prisoner of war escape film also based on a true story. In WWII the Germans rounded up a bunch of the most prolific escapers and put them all together in an escape proof castle named Colditz. John Mills plays a British officer who is tasked with co ordinating escapes with various other groups of captives, French, Polish, Dutch and various others as previous escape attempts were failing due to a sort of free for all escaping culture. Various escaping officers are elected and the prisoners work together towards breaking out from the castle. Mills eventually escapes by using an idea suggested by a fellow soldier. It’s a simple idea involving dressing up as German officers. Not very original you might think but the officers plan to be leaving the Officers’ club which they hope will make them appear more natural. The chief British officer decides the plan is doomed to failure as the man who thought of it was a very tall officer who he thinks would be immediately recognised by the camp guards. I won’t tell you what happens but Colditz is a great British picture and well worth watching.

The Wooden Horse.

The Wooden Horse is similar to the two films above. It is based on a book which in turn was a true story, actually written by one of the escapees from a WWII prisoner of war camp. In fact, if I remember rightly, the escape was from the same camp as the Great Escape Stalag Luft III. One of the big problems of digging a tunnel in a POW camp was the distance that needed to be covered. There was quite a distance from the camp huts to the perimeter, then there was an area of no mans land before the outside world. Two escapers, both captured airmen, hit on an idea. They decide to make a vaulting horse and lead it out close to the camp fence. Inside are concealed two men who dig a tunnel while their comrades exercised above. This meant that only a relatively short tunnel was required. The film covers all the aspects of camp life, the boredom, the petty arguments with fellow prisoners and the eventual escape. The film stars Leo Genn, Anthony Steel and David Tomlinson as the escapees.

The Cruel Sea

It’s time to move on from POW camps and escaping and to take a look at the war at sea. The Cruel Sea is a classic WWII film based on the book by Nicholas Monsarrat. Jack Hawkins is the commander of the escort vessel Compass Rose. The film follows the story of the ship from its handover in the shipyard to the navy all the way through to its final demise at sea. The crew are new to naval warfare but bind together through various incidents at sea guarding convoys in the north Atlantic. The outstanding cast are all stalwarts of 1940s and 50s British cinema, names like Donald Sinden, Denholm Elliott, Stanley Baker and Virginia McKenna.

The Compass Rose is eventually sunk by a torpedo and as the survivors struggle to stay alive in the cold Atlantic, many succumb to their injuries. As they drift in the oily water the soundtrack replays echos of their recent dialogue, a marriage proposal hangs in the air over the groom who will never wed and a petty argument haunts the body of an unhappily married officer. Happily, some survive till daylight when a destroyer returns to rescue them. The film continues with the next vessel Jack Hawkins is charged with commanding until the war ends. Colditz and the Great Escape are pretty light hearted films compared to this one which tends to be grittier and more realistic in its portrayal of the war.

Sink The Bismarck

Continuing with the war at sea, this film follows the hunt for the battleship Bismarck by the Royal Navy again in WWII. It focuses on the Admiralty’s control centre as they attempt to track down the German battleship before it wreaks further havoc with the convoys that brought vital supplies to Britain. Kenneth Moore plays captain Shepard, the chief of operations, as he and his team attempt to find the Bismarck so British destroyers can attack and destroy the enemy. The film is perhaps a little different to other war films in that a great deal of the action focusses on the Admiralty control room showing the work of the unsung back room experts as they collate information and sightings and relay it to the ships under their command.

Don’t forget to check back next week for part 2 of this post.


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Three Oscar Winners

The Academy Awards are the premier awards for artistic and technical expertise in the motion picture industry. The awards are given annually to mark various categories of cinema excellence. The award statuettes are known as Oscars and were first awarded in 1929 at a ceremony hosted by Douglas Fairbanks at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The very first film to be voted as Best Picture was Wings, a first world war silent film starring Clara Bow, Charles Roger and Richard Arlen. In my DVD collection I have quite a few Oscar winners but here I’d like to look closer at three in particular. Two fairly recent films and one absolute classic.

The Shape of Water

Now, there are those who seem to think I only ever look at black and white classic movies. Not so, I like modern films too and just to prove it I picked up The Shape of Water not long ago for a few pounds on Ebay. You may remember that the film won the Oscar for Best Film at the 2018 awards and it looked pretty interesting in the various clips I have seen. Everything I had heard about the film was positive so I decided to search the internet for the DVD version. The first warning sign was the extensive availability of DVDs of the film on Ebay and the second was the rather low prices those DVDs were fetching. Anyway, I got my copy and watched it and how this film won an Oscar I really do not know.

Yes it is well acted. The photography was excellent although everything is presented in a sort of greenish hue that the director perhaps feels enshrouded late fifties and early sixties America. However the content just didn’t do it for me. It’s about a young mute woman cleaner in a top secret government installation who falls in love with a strange creature, half man, half fish, that is held captive there. She and her father rescue the fish man and take him back to their apartment high over a cinema and install the creature in the bath.

The Guardian said this about the film: ‘Guillermo del Toro’s escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, (at the Oscars) the story of a young woman’s love for a captured sea creature — with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight.’

Don’t believe a word of it, the fact is The Shape of Water is a dismal weird film that completely failed to engage me and my copy will soon be available once again on Ebay. It was so bad it even made me hunger for one of Roger Moore’s dreadful Bond Films.

 

Nomadland

Now that I’ve retired I’ve often thought about spending more time in my motorhome and it’s only Liz’s recent hip operation that has prevented us from travelling over to France for some exploring. Could I live full time in a motorhome though? I’m not so sure. Everything is fine in the summer but I doubt if I could cope with the cold of the winter. Of course, we could always drive south towards somewhere a little warmer, even perhaps our beloved Lanzarote but van life isn’t, I suspect, as romantic as it sounds. Nomadland is a film that addresses this subject. A woman loses her job when the US Gypsum plant closes down in her town. Her husband has died so she decides to buy a van and go in search of work. She works for a while at an Amazon packing centre and when that job ends she goes off to Arizona where she heard fellow nomads will be meeting.

She makes new friends among the nomad community and has to overcome various problems, mainly issue with her van. At the end of the film she returns to her home town where all her possessions are in storage and finally sells them all before going back on the road again. After the first thirty minutes or so the film seemed like an actual documentary with real people rather than actors, so much so I had to pick up the DVD box and double check. It’s a slow film with little dialogue but even so it is original and realistic and examines the lives of a new breed of Americans, nomads who live in vans and spend their lives on the move, settling down where there is work and moving on when the work runs out. A flat tyre can be not just an inconvenience but a disaster as well as other problems which for us are merely distractions. Washing and showering for instance, not so easy when you have to consider whether there is enough water in the tank, where to do the laundry and so on. When a major van repair is needed the heroine of the film has to leave the van -her home- at a garage and check into a hotel while it is repaired.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this film. It’s good and well worth watching but whether it’s worthy of an Oscar I’m not so sure.

Silence of the Lambs

After watching the above two Oscar winners on DVD I fancied something a little different. The very first horror film to win an Oscar was Silence of the Lambs. It’s a gruesome film in many ways following the FBI as they try to track down a serial killer who has just abducted the daughter of a US senator. The killer known as Buffalo Bill, imprisons his victims then kills and skins them. (Told you it was gruesome!) To try and get a lead on the killer the FBI send trainee agent Clarice Starling to interview the incarcerated murderer and psychiatrist Dr Hannibal Lector to see if he can give any insight into the murders, a new perspective that might help the FBI investigation.

Lector is played by Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster plays agent Starling. She wants to work in the Behavioural Science Unit of the FBI and Lector, chillingly played by Hopkins, finds her interesting. He seems willing to give information about Buffalo Bill but in return he wants information about Clarice herself. He initiates a quid pro quo, he gives her information and observations about Bill and in return she must reveals snippets of information about herself, her background and her life.

Clarice becomes a pawn when Jack Crawford, the head of behavioural science, makes a fake offer to Lector. They promise that Lector will be moved to a secure unit on an island with a view of nature and wildlife in return for more information. The head of the secure unit where Lector is currently held, Dr Chiltern makes a rival offer which Lector accepts but passes on fake information about Buffalo Bill.

Clarice meets Lector again and presses Lector for the real information but Lector wants only to hear about her life, in particular when she was orphaned and terrified when lambs were slaughtered on the farm where she was staying. Lector tells her that all the relevant information to find the killer is in the case file which he has been allowed to read.

Later, FBI agents approach the suspected home of Buffalo Bill. At the same time Clarice is following a lead based on some advice from Lector. The two situations are presented in alternate clips. The FBI ring the bell of Bill’s supposed home. Clarice rings the bell of her suspect. When the FBI burst in and the house is empty, Jack Crawford, and we the viewers, realise that Starling has stumbled on the real Buffalo Bill.

Much of the content of the film is terrifying but at the same time, it is a compelling film and comes together in an exciting climax.

The film spawned numerous sequels. Hopkins reprised his role as Lector twice but Jodie Foster declined to play Clarice again blaming scheduling conflicts. Clarice was played by Julianne Moore in the follow up film, Hannibal.

Silence of The Lambs won five Oscars, Best Picture, Best Director (Jonathon Demme) Best Actor (Anthony Hopkins) Best Actress (Jodie Foster) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Ted Tally).

Do you have a favourite Oscar winning film?


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The Human Eye and A Handful of Film Directors

I wrote a blog post a while ago about the 60s TV show the Time Tunnel. I used to love that show when I was about 12 years old but watching it these days it isn’t quite as good as I remember. If the time tunnel was real and I could sneak inside and send myself back in time the place I’d like to go would probably be the early days on cinema in Hollywood.

Back then when the cinema was new and the job of film director was something that didn’t require a degree, I reckon I might have been in with a chance of getting to direct a film. These days I have to content myself with being an amateur video maker. Anyway, I may not be a director but I can certainly write about film directors if nothing else.

Charlie Chaplin

I’m going to start off with Chaplin because he was one of the very first to give actual direction to a motion picture. Charlie came to Hollywood after a career in Fred Karno’s musical halls in England. Karno was a successful impresario and producer and when his productions became successful, he decided to export them and sent various troupes on tours of the USA. On one of those tours Chaplin was spotted by slapstick film maker Mack Sennet and Chaplin began to appear in early Hollywood comedy shows. In those days there were no scripts. The actors and directors threw a few ideas about and then the cameras began to roll. The short films were made quickly and then sent off for distribution across the USA and even the world.

Chaplin clashed frequently with his directors when his ideas or suggestions were dismissed but after exhibitors asked Sennett for more Chaplin films, he was allowed to direct his own. When his contract expired in 1914 Chaplin asked for 1000 dollars per week. Mack Sennett complained that that figure was more than he was getting and refused. Another film company Essanay, offered him $1200 per week and a signing fee and Chaplin signed. He wasn’t initially happy with Essanay and didn’t like their studios in Chicago, preferring to work in California.

Chaplin was also unhappy after he finished his contract at Essanay because they continued to make lucrative Chaplin comedies by utilising his out-takes. Chaplin was however an astute businessman. In his new contracts the negative and film rights reverted to Chaplin after a certain amount of time. This was in the days when a movie had a life of months, if not weeks.

I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever thought of Chaplin as a genius but he was clearly one of the first to realise a film needed a structure and that comedy films didn’t need to be gag after gag after gag. They needed a story, the audience needed to sympathise with the characters and so on. Whatever you think of Charlie Chaplin, his contribution to the film world was immense.

Billy Wilder

My favourite Billy Wilder story goes like this: In his later years he wanted, as usual, to make a movie. He approached a studio and was invited in to make his pitch, as they call it in the movie world. The executive who met with Billy was a young man. He said to Billy, “I’m not familiar with your work could you tell me about it?”

Wilder replied, “of course, after you!”

Wilder was born in 1906 in Austria. He became a screenwriter while living in Berlin but left when the Nazi party began their rise to power. In 1933 he moved to Hollywood where many artists and film makers fled to escape the Nazis. Wilder wrote numerous screenplays with his co-writer Charles Brackett and in 1942 made his directing debut with The Major and the Minor.

A big hit for wilder was the film Double Indemnity. Wilder co-wrote the script with Raymond Chandler and the film was nominated for 7 academy awards as well as becoming a classic of film noir.

By far my favourite Wilder film though was Sunset Boulevard. The film follows William Holden as screenwriter Joe Gillis who is down on his luck and is about to have his car repossessed. To escape the repo men, Holden drives into what he thinks is a deserted house on Sunset Boulevard. To his surprise he finds reclusive film star Gloria Swanson living there. Swanson plays Norma Desmond, once a star of the silent era who is planning her return to the screen.

Norma engages Joe to edit a script she has written herself and Joe soon finds himself seduced by the affection and money she lavishes on him. Some of Swanson’s own silent films are used within the production and one of her old directors, Erich Von Stroheim plays the part of her butler and former husband. The final scene of Joe floating dead in Norma’s pool took was a difficult shot to film. Wilder eventually did it by putting a mirror in the bottom of the pool.

Wilder died in 2002. He is buried in Los Angeles and on his grave is inscribed. ‘Billy Wilder. I’m a writer but then, nobody’s perfect’, a reference to the final line in Some Like It Hot.

Oliver Stone

Oliver Stone enlisted in the US Army in 1967 and served in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry and later the 1st Cavalry.
Back in the USA he enrolled at university in New York and studied filmmaking. Martin Scorsese was one of his teachers. Vietnam was among the first subjects of his student films.

Stone graduated in 1971 and took on various jobs while he wrote screenplays. His breakthrough success was in 1978 with the screenplay for the film Midnight Express for which he won the Academy Award for best adapted screenplay.

The first Oliver Stone movie I ever saw was the 1986 movie ‘Platoon.’ Stone wrote and directed the movie set during the Vietnam War and based on some of his own experiences.

He followed up with another Vietnam film, ‘Born on the 4th of July’ about Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. A third film completed Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy, Heaven and Earth released in 1993.

Wall Street was a hit movie for Oliver Stone in the eighties and the character of Gordon Gekko played by Michael Douglas became an eighties screen icon. In Wall Street Stone first developed a mesmerising visual style almost akin to a music video and it is a style that many film-makers seem to have picked up.

In JFK, Stone takes this visual style to another level and combines various film formats to produce a stylish visual montage. The subject is a controversial one, the shooting of President John Kennedy in Dallas in 1963. Stone decides to use the investigation by New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison as a vehicle to explore the various theories about the shooting although ultimately an amorphous military industrial complex is blamed for the conspiracy. Criticism rained down on Oliver Stone from anti conspiracy theorists but I personally felt that the movie was a fair one and everything that was conjecture was shown as conjecture. The great treat for me was the combining of the different visuals and the inter weaving of documentary film with new footage. Stone went on to make two more films about American presidents, Nixon and W, the latter film about George W Bush.

George Stevens

George Stevens made many memorable films and I’ve including him in this handful of directors because if I was a director, I reckon I’d make my films the way George did. George directed the classic western Shane starring Alan Ladd. Shane is one of the great film westerns and one that tried to show the west as it really was. Stevens also directed Giant, James Dean’s last film. Giant is about Bick Benedict, a Texas rancher played by Rock Hudson and Dean plays Jett Rink, a surly ranch hand who is fired by Benedict. Benedict’s sister however, has a soft spot for Jett and when she is unexpectedly killed in a fall from a horse, we find that she has gifted a small piece of land to Jett. Bick wants to keep the ranch together and offers Jett a large sum of money for the property but he declines and goes on to strike oil on the land. Stevens filmed his actors with many cameras and liked to shoot everything he could then sit back and work his way through the resulting footage and slowly figure out how to edit it together, which is pretty much what I do with my short amateur YouTube videos.

Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was a British director who began in the days of silent films and came to be known as the master of suspense. Blackmail made in 1929 was the first British Talkie and 10 years later producer David O Selznick lured him to Hollywood where he made many films that are now regarded as classics, films like North by Northwest, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, The Birds and Pyscho. Hitchcock might also be seen as one of the first celebrity directors. He became popular because of his habit of appearing, however briefly in all of his films, sitting on a bus for instance, just missing the bus in another. He also became well known by introducing his television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

Alfred Hitchcock (Picture courtesy Wikipedia)

There are some directors who have tried to make films that show events the way the human eye sees things. Roberto Rossellini was one. Another surprisingly was Hitchcock himself.

In 1948 he made the film The Rope. It was an unusual film in many ways, especially for Hitchcock. The length of a film magazine back then was ten minutes so Hitchcock decided to shoot the film in a series of 10 minute takes each take morphing smoothly into the next one. The set was built with moveable walls which were able to be moved swiftly out of the way by the prop men to accommodate the very large film camera of the time as it moved about the set.

Making a film without the usual cuts and edits would create a viewer experience more akin to the way a human being sees things, or so Hitchcock thought. My personal view is that we see things with our mind more than the eye. The human eye is constantly scanning the scene before us and these scans are used by the mind to put together an image for us. Some of that image will be up to date, especially whatever it is we are concentrating on. Other elements, things in our peripheral vision for instance may be seconds out of date because that element of the image we are seeing was scanned seconds or even minutes ago. That’s my theory anyway. For me the director who films in the way the human eye sees things is Woody Allen.

Woody Allen

I’ve written plenty about Woody before so I won’t go on about him here too long. The great thing about Woody’s films is that they don’t follow the usual film school format of close up, medium shot and wide shot. Woody usually makes a one or two camera set up with few if any close ups and that’s it. In one shot in Hannah and Her Sisters, Michael Caine is talking to someone, it might have been Mia Farrow but I can’t remember off the top of my head and the Mia character goes into the bedroom but continues to talk with Caine. Michael expected there to be a second set up filming Mia in the bedroom but there wasn’t. He asked Woody why not and Woody answered why do we need to see the other person in the bedroom? We can hear their voice that’s all we need. If the character was hiding a gun in their purse or pocket or something pursuant to the plot then we need to see that but otherwise, what’s the point? That’s what I like about Woody’s films, their economical use of film and the lack of multiple set ups.

Those then are my handful of film directors. Who are your favourites?


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A Series of Random Classic Film Connections

Back in the 1960’s I was a big fan of the Apollo moon missions and on UK TV one of the presenters was James Burke. Burke also did a TV show called Connections. It was a really fascinating series which connected various historical events to make a sort of chain which led up to something which was pretty unexpected. The episode that stands out in my memory was one about the atom bomb, various unconnected events and discoveries that together, led to the splitting of the atom. I thought that in today’s blog, I’d try and do something similar but relating to film so here are five fascinating connections.

Casablanca.

Casablanca is one of my very favourite films, in fact a while back, I did an entire blog post dedicated to the film. Humphrey Bogart starred as Rick who runs a popular café in the city of Casablanca. Set in the 1940’s during the second world war, refugees are everywhere, fleeing from the Nazi menace. Certain letters of transit have disappeared guaranteeing the owner free travel out of occupied lands to freedom and various people want them, in particular freedom fighter Victor Lazlo and his wife Lisa played by Paul Henreid and Ingrid Bergman.

The Chief of Police, Captain Louis Renault, is out to stop them and perhaps even out to make a little money for himself on the side. The film was made in 1942 entirely at the Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood apart from one scene at Van Nuys Airport in Los Angeles. The film won the Oscar for best picture, best adapted screenplay and also one for best director for Michael Curtiz. The film has grown in popularity ever since and always ranks highly in any list of the greatest ever films.

Captain Louis Renault was played by Claude Rains. Rains was a British actor who became one of the screen’s great character actors. He died in 1967 but one of his last films was Lawrence of Arabia, made in 1962.

Lawrence of Arabia.

Lawrence is another great classic of the cinema. Filmed in 70mm and directed by David Lean, the films tells the story of TE Lawrence played by Peter O’Toole and like Casablanca it is a classic of the cinema. The film was made in 1962 on location in Jordan, Spain and Morocco.

There are numerous stars in the film as well as Claude Rains but the one I want to highlight is Alec Guinness. Guinness made his film debut in another David Lean film Great Expectations made in 1946. In 1955 Guinness was in Hollywood having been nominated for an Oscar. One night he went out and was struggling to find a table in a restaurant. At one establishment where he was turned away a young man came after him and asked him to join him for a meal. That man was James Dean. Dean insisted on showing Alec his new Porsche Spyder and when he saw the car Guinness was apparently overcome by a strange feeling and told Dean never to drive the car and that if he did, he would be dead by the following week. Guinness was not someone who regularly made predictions of the future and was probably as taken aback by this feeling as Dean was.

A week later, Dean was driving the Porsche to a race in Salinas when he was killed in a car crash.

Giant

James Dean had just finished the movie Giant only weeks before his death. Giant starred Rock Hudson as Texas rancher Bick Benedict with Dean playing the third lead of Jett Rink. Rink is a no good cowboy who works for Bick Benedict. Bick and Jett don’t get on well but Luz, Bick’s sister has a soft spot for Jett and re-employs him after Bick has fired him. Later, Jett Rink inherits a small piece of land after the death of Luz. He goes on to find oil on the land and becomes a millionaire. The film’s other lead star was Elizabeth Taylor. She plays Leslie who marries Bick Benedict.

Elizabeth Taylor was born in 1932 and began her career as a child actress in the 1940’s. She was one of Hollywood’s most highly paid stars and was married eight times including twice to Richard Burton. Her second husband was Mike Todd. He was an entrepreneur and producer who decided to try his hand at film production. His company developed the Todd AO Process, a widescreen film process that was based on Cinerama, a technique that used three projectors. He was sadly killed in a plane crash after completing Around the World in 80 Days, a film that showcased the process.

Around the World in 80 Days

Around the World in 80 days was a film version of the novel by Jules Verne. David Niven starred as Phileas Fogg, an English gentleman who takes part in a bet at the London Reform Club, in which he wagers that he can successfully circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. The film was shot in 70mm using the Todd AO process mentioned above. The film starred numerous celebrities in small parts and was filmed all over the world.

David Niven was perfect for the role as Phileas Fogg. He was an English actor and former army officer who arrived in Hollywood in the early 1930s. He worked as an extra and was one of the few people who went from extra to film stardom. He was put under contract by Sam Goldwyn.

The Charge of the Light Brigade

In 1936 Niven starred with close friend Errol Flynn in the Hollywood film version of The Charge of The Light Brigade, transferred by Warner Brothers from the Crimea to India. Flynn and Olivia De Havilland were the main stars and Niven writes about the production in his wonderful book, Bring On The Empty Horses.

The book was named after a phrase uttered by the director to begin a scene calling for a number of riderless horses. The director was none other than Michael Curtiz, who also directed Casablanca, which makes our film connections complete.


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More Beginnings and Ends

As I approach my 500th blog post, I sometimes wonder if I’m running out of steam. Yes, instead of brand new posts I’m looking back at my old ones and giving them a bit of a rehash or sometimes writing more on the same theme and adding ‘More’ to the title or ‘Part 2’.

Last week I talked about more Essential Englishmen and this week I’m going to return to a post from 2021 so, without further ado, let me see if I can interest you in some more beginnings and ends.

I’m going to start with an end, a personal end.

I wrote about the issues I had paying my electric bill a while ago. Here’s a quick recap. I’d paid my bill but my banking app remembered the account number from when I used to pay my mother’s electric account and used that instead of my own account number. Mum is living in a nursing home at the moment so her electricity account has been closed. I contacted my supplier Eon, who were not at all helpful. They wouldn’t credit my electric account and neither would they return the money to my bank. Contact my bank was their one and only suggestion. My bank tried to sort the issue, they tried to retrieve the payment but contacted me back the other week saying Eon’s bank were not playing ball.

I called Eon again but after waiting over 30 mins in a telephone queue I gave up, put the phone down and wrote a moaning email to Eon. In sharp contrast to last time, their staff member Jim checked the details I gave him, saw immediately an error had occurred and credited the amount into my bank account. Simple, although I’ve had weeks of hassle, hanging onto phone lines and going through various phone menus until I got basically nowhere. Thanks Jim at Eon!

Beginnings

Next I’d like to talk about one of my favourite films written and directed by my favourite director, Woody Allen. Woody is not the most popular guy in Hollywood these days but back in 1979 he made the film Manhattan and the opening sequence is one I’ve always been fond of. In it he’s narrating the opening to a new novel and as he goes along he starts editing and rewriting and starts over again. No, that’s too preachy, he says. That’s too angry, till finally he comes up with some text he really likes –I love this says Woody.

I loved it too, so much that I made a spoof version about Manchester rather than Manhattan.

The Godfather

The Godfather is one of the classics of cinema. It’s based on the book by Mario Puzo which is a classic in its own right. In the film version Marlon Brando plays Don Corleone, the head of the Corleone mafia family. The film opens on the day of his daughter’s wedding which is a day when no Sicilian can refuse a request. In his office that morning is a man whose daughter has been the victim of an attempted rape and he comes to ask the Don for revenge. The Godfather emerges out of the shadows not a happy man. Has he been asked with respect? No. Has he been called Godfather? No. Marlon Brando plays the Don beautifully as a man of honour but also a dangerous man.

Director Francis Ford Coppola always wanted Brando for the role but the executives at Paramount weren’t happy. They made him do a screen test and also put up a bond in case he delayed the film and caused unwarranted expense. The result is a wonderful piece of cinema.

The Truman Show

I’ve not always been a fan of Jim Carrey but I’ve always rather liked The Truman Show. It’s a sort of reality show where Jim Carrey’s character Truman is the star only he isn’t aware of it. Everyone around him knows everything is fake. Secret cameras film everything he does and all those around him, including his mother, his wife and best friend who are all actors in on the secret. The TV show is the brainchild of Christof, a producer/director played by Ed Harris. As the film unfolds we gradually realise that Truman is becoming aware of things that are not right; a spotlight that falls from the sky; people who approach him and want to talk but are hustled away by strange people; an office building where no one is working and his wife who seems to announce the benefits of various products as if she is in a TV advert.

The film is based on an episode of The Twilight Zone. A man getting ready for work finds a camera in his bathroom and realises he is being secretly filmed. It turns out that unknown to him, he is the star of a reality TV show. The producers take him aside and explain what a hit the show is and how much money he could be making. Why not carry on as if he never found out the truth they ask. Keep the show running. No one would ever know.

The man decides to just carry on with his life and allow the filming and the money to continue. In some ways I think that might even be a better storyline than The Truman Show. Either way, this film is a really interesting look at the current reality TV genre and flips the whole concept on its head. Carrey is great in what is really his first dramatic role too. The most telling moment comes at the end when the whole world has been glued to the last episode. When it has finished one of the enthralled TV viewers asks ‘what’s on now?’

The Big Sleep

The book The Big Sleep was written by Raymond Chandler and he had this really fabulous talkative way of writing. You can almost imagine hearing Humphrey Bogart’s voice as you read the book. Here’s a quote from the text, an example of Chandler’s descriptive style:

I sat down on the edge of a deep soft chair and looked at Mrs Regan. She was worth a stare. She was trouble. She was stretched out on a modernistic chaise-longue with her slippers off so I stared at her legs in the sheerest silk stocking. They seemed to be arranged to stare at. They were visible to the knee and one of them well beyond. The knees were dimpled, not bony or sharp. The calves were beautiful, the ankles long and slim with enough melodic line for a tone poem. She was tall and rangy and strong looking. Her head was against an ivory satin cushion. Her hair was black and wiry and parted in the middle and she had the hot black eyes of the portrait in the hall. She had a good mouth and a good chin. There was a sulky droop to her lips and the lower lip was full.

Not bad eh? Dilys Powell called his writing ‘a peculiar mixture of harshness, sensuality, high polish and backstreet poetry’ and it’s easy to see why. Anyway, the book was made into a film starring Humphrey Bogart as Philip Marlowe and the film and the book open with Marlowe’s visit to see General Sternwood. I was calling on a million dollars says the famous detective in the opening monologue. Sternwood is an elderly man who spends his time in a stiflingly hot conservatory where he offers Marlowe brandy while he explains just what he wants Marlowe to do.

The Story in Your Eyes

In my original blog post I stuck to film, TV and books but for this version I thought I’d throw in some music, just for the hell of it. Despite being a great music fan I was pushed to think of something with a really outstanding opening but I think the guitar riff on this track from the Moody Blues really fits the bill.

The Cut

Before I cut to the ‘ends’, I thought this might be just the point to show what we video editors call a cut. Here is what has been described as the most epic cut in film history.

Ends: The Fugitive

Another old show repeated currently on the CBS justice channel is The Fugitive starring David Janssen as Dr Richard Kimble, falsely accused of the murder of his wife. The show ran for four seasons but as viewer ratings began to fall, the series was cancelled. It was then that the producers hit on what at the time was an unusual idea. Instead of the show just ending, they decided to make an actual finale. Yes, they would wrap up the story of Kimble’s wife’s murder. Kimble had been searching for the supposed one-armed man he had seen leaving the murder scene for the past four seasons, now he would finally find him!

Back in the 1960’s, TV was not very highly thought of even by the TV networks themselves. So what if Kimble never finds the murderer. So what? It’s only a TV show. Of course, the viewers would disagree. They had kept faith with the series for four long years, they deserved a proper ending.

The final episode aired on August 29th 1967 and in the USA the viewing figures were a sensation: 72% of US TV viewers were watching that final episode and the show held the most watched record until November 1980 when someone shot JR in Dallas.

Citizen Kane

The cinematography was by Gregg Toland, one of the film industry’s top photographers. Toland had asked to work on the film and director and star Orson Welles replied ‘Why? I don’t know anything about making films.’ Toland countered that was exactly why he wanted to work on the film because a film by a newcomer, Kane was actually Welles’ first film, would produce something new and original.

There are some fascinating elements to Citizen Kane, especially in the special effects department. A famous one is where the camera flies through a rooftop sign and then drops down through a skylight into a restaurant. That was done with a sign that came apart as the camera approached and then a fade from a model shot into the restaurant set disguised in a flash of lightning. I could go on and mention plenty of elements like that but if you haven’t seen Citizen Kane let me just explain what it’s all about. The film opens with the death of Kane, a millionaire newspaper magnate. His last words were ‘Rosebud’. The makers of a cinema newsreel decide to find out what or who Rosebud was.

To do so they research Kane’s life; his inheritance of a huge fortune, his takeover of a newspaper, his great wealth, his power and influence, his marriage and divorce and ultimately his death. The reporters never find the answers to their questions but we, the cinema audience, have the secret revealed to us right at the end of the picture. The end is what makes the film really and Welles admitted that Rosebud, and the idea behind it, was the idea of his co-writer Herman Mankiewicz. The final scene takes place in a huge storage area, packed with crates containing all the numerous items the acquisitive Kane bought, packaged and hoarded during his lifetime. Some of the stuff is scheduled for the furnace and as one labourer throws in an old sledge, we see the flames begin to consume the wooden frame. The top coat of paint is burned off and we see revealed underneath the name ‘Rosebud’.

One Final End.

I’m due to get my state pension in October which as regular readers will know is my least favourite time of the year. I thought it might be nicer to retire in the spring which is actually one of my favourite times of the year, the days are getting warmer and longer and the summer is on its way. A nice time to tootle off in our little motorhome perhaps so I sent in my early retirement request letter to my boss. That is in fact one really big end. I’ve been working since I was 16, starting my working life in Manchester city centre in the world of insurance back in 1973. Apart from a break in the early 1990’s when I decided I wanted to be a film maker and went on a video production course in Manchester I’ve worked all my life so understandably I was a little nervous when I pressed the send button on that particular email. I didn’t get to be a film maker, well, not a professional one anyway. Still, I’m not dead yet so there’s still time for a new beginning . .


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