Monday, 28 June 2010

Hawks Blog - "Whaddaya mean ya think I'm funny?"

The title line of this blog was not uttered by Joe Pesci, as might be obvious to some (well, me until recently) but Paul Muni as incestuous and brutal gangster Tony Camonte in Hawk's Scarface, predating Pesci's terrifying Tommy DeVito but some 60 years or so.

Ages ago I set out to try and see as many of Howard Hawks films as I could and the reader could well be forgiven for thinking that I'd let the task fall to the wayside. But no, it's just taking a while to obtain the films, see them and have the time to blog about it.

So, since my last Hawks blog I've managed to squeeze in a few more. Unfortunately I missed an opportunity to see The Crowd Roars, Hawks racing drama with James Cagney and Joan Blondell, so that will have to wait for another time. But before that I did get a look at Hawks' Scarface.

One of the earliest and well regarded gangster films of the wave which hit in the 1930's, it was stopped at the gates for a few years after production owing to a disagreement between Hawks and producer Howard Hughes about which ending to use. Hawks' original ending, where Muni's Tony Camonte goes out in a hail of bullets after killing his sister, was re-instated after Hughes' alternative involved Camonte giving himself up to police, going before the judge and being hanged, all without a glance at his face as none of the shooting involved Muni. The alternative ending is available on the DVD and is just rotten but does provide an little insight to the fear some filmmakers might have felt at the time about the violence they were portraying; no one could go out with a bang and justice had to be seen to be dealt out by society.

With that in mind, the end of William Wellman's The Public Enemy, where James Cagney's character of Tom Power's bound corpse (it seems wrapped up like a mummy) looms dramatically into frame as his brother opens the door, is far better in my mind, a pretty startling end that didn't give in to the moral authorities demands that they be seen to be dealing with the problem. Death is death in these matters and the unseen but well expected effect Cagney's character's death would have on his mother has far more impact than the weight of the law ending his life.

But then again, I'm biased as I'm a Cagney fan and love The Public Enemy. The theme of the film, I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles, was a song my grandfather used to sing to me as a very small child (he died when I was 3) and hearing the version used in the film gives it a brilliantly horrid but touching edge. The enduring love of a mother for a son she has brought up but who has become something evil. Nice and tragic balance.

Muni, on the other hand, is effectively greedy and brutal by turns but seems to be overdoing it a lot of the time as well. His accent makes the Italian Chef from The Simpsons look like the antithesis of the stereotype, wandering into the comedic at times. But one of the things I like about Scarface is its balance, or possible lack thereof, between the brutality of Camonte's activities and the absurdly comedic. His secretary, Angelo, is a comic relief character bordering on the ridiculous at times, providing a levity in the proceedings I can't imagine the moral authorities tolerating much at all. But things like this can emphasise the sudden switches to violence, giving Camonte a sense of unpredictability that, say, Cagney's Tom Powers might not have possessed.

"Hey, Moe, why you no speaka witha your old accent a-no more?"

Boris Karloff, refreshingly not playing a monster, gets a wonderful demise in a bowling alley in another of Camonte's almost gleeful sprees.

Visually, Hawks has fun. The opening scene is an extended tracking shot, moving into a night club as Camonte, unseen by us, starts the killing which will elevate him to the top. The whole opening five minutes or so done in one take, moving into buildings and through walls, witnessing the killing and then moving back out again. The X which appears above the doomed is also a nice if slightly overplayed little device (the moment where we see it above George Raft's head is a cracker), but I suppose, given the time the film was made, this was brand new stuff, along with the brilliant idea of having a machine gun seem to shoot the pages off a calender, forcefully showing the passage of time as Camonte continues his reign of terror.

It's all pre-Code stuff, pretty damn violent for its time and the more than hinted at incestuous feelings Camonte possesses for his sister are quite surprising too, leading to an ending that is derived less from a sense of moral outrage but more from human flaws and desires. Camonte's end is entirely his own doing.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Metal Thrashing Mad!

I usually prefer to blog about film related stuff but I have to mention last night's experience in a cinema. And it was in no way connected to the movies.

The Sonisphere Rock Festival, presently doing the rounds in Europe and soon to hit UK shores, has just included the best line up a stoopid metalhead such as myself would remove any limb of preference to get a swatch at - The Big Four of Thrash Metal, namely Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax all on the same bill.

Awesome doesn't quite cover this one.

Reducing much of the awesomeness of this is the fact that this line up seems to be exclusive to Europe and will not be hitting the UK next month. In fact, they're not even doing it in the US.

Rebuilding a fair bit of the awesomeness was the forward thinking of the organisers to broadcast the gig live (well, almost live. No 20 minute gaps between sets) in cinemas all around the world. So I went with my good mate Chris, a fellow veteran of the Edinburgh Metal scene, circa late 80's/early 90's. Oh, how me miss Madisons and The Mission. And damn, did we have a good time? Hell yeah. Someone had a decibel meter on an iPhone. 98dBs. Oh yes. In a cinema. Full of metal heads (with a good age range from teens to 40's by the look of it.).

Anthrax came on first and were just amazing, not losing an iota of their energy after all this time. Another major plus was that Joey Belladonna, lead singer through what many believe to be Anthrax's best years and albums, had recently rejoined. I think this was his first gig with them and he just kicked ass in a fucking superb way. Even during the "Wardance" bit from Indians, he rushed out onto the stage with a native American head-dress on, as though no time had passed since Among the Living had come out. They just look like they have so much fun and I want to see them live more than ever now.

Megadeth. I like the music but they're a bit dull onstage. At least Dave Ellefson was present, so he'd obviously patched things up with the mercurial Dave Mustaine. They sounded fucking bang on but, as I say, not a huge amount to see live.

Slayer. The band I'm least acquainted with but still know their most famous songs. Absolutely brutal. Tom Araya provided all the smiles while Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King did their thing looking as mean as possible. Kerry King's solos were like being confronted by a blast furnace and the cinema audience went absolutely ape-shit when Reign in Blood started.

Metallica. What else is there to say about this band? Amazing live and a blistering show. Full on pyros during the opening bars of One. They knew how to entertain the audience and every song bar one was a classic from their first five albums, the exception being Cyanide from Death Magnetic, which I reckon is a return to form for them (let's not mention Load or Reload).

A decent couple of tribute pieces to the late Ronnie James Dio as well, who was due to perform before he took the ultimate Holy Dive recently. Loads of Dio metal hand signs went up in the air.

And then James Hetfield did what I prayed would happen. Brought the other bands out on stage, with the exception of Slayer's Hanneman and King (enough with the feuds, guys) and Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and half of Slayer proceeded to jump into Am I Evil.

I've never heard people make that kind of noise in a cinema before. Quite a sight to see metallers head banging and jumping for joy in perfect silhouette against the screen.

Just about all of the playlists read like greatest hits compliations buyt that's why we were there. A simply fucking awesome night, save for the fact I was sober and driving. Actually, me, beer, metal. That would likely have been a messy affair, possibly reducing today as a write-off.

And now, back our (ir)regularly scheduled witterings...

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

"Will You Join Me On The Veranda?"

Wow. Been a while. I need to get this blog thing regular again.

This year's Edinburgh International Film Festival is in full swing and as usual, I'm can't get to see much, if anything. A busy weekend just past, however, ended with with the premiere of Donkeys at the EIFF, which I am glad I managed to get to. It was directed by the brilliant Morag Mackinnon and written by the equally brilliant Colin McLaren, two good friends with whom I've shared some wonderful alcohol induced and occasionally shameful times. All good.

So, while I'm friends with the filmmakers, I'll try and be as objective as possible.

Donkeys has been a while in the making but it was worth the wait. Telling the story of Albert (James Cosmo), a man who has reached that time in his life when he sees that the end may actually be in sight and sets about trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Kate Dickie), involving his old mate Brian (Brian Pettifer) in certain questionable ways. The film treads a fine line between tragedy and the blackest, sharpest comedy and is a brilliant example of how we deal with that eventuality in life that does not involve taxes. The tone shifts beautifully from bleak and sad to sidesplitting almost guilty comedy, an achievement hardly any films seem to either attempt or pull off these days and the entire proceedings are drenched in just the right kind of no-bullshit pathos I've seen in their work in the past and it's about damn time Colin and Morag got their chance at a feature.

It also features, to paraphrase festival director Hannah McGill, the funniest assisted suicide scene you'll ever see, but which is also handled beautifully. As well as laughter, there are a few tears. And a brilliant use of Demis Roussos' Una Paloma Blanca. A great film about that one certainty of life and the other bits that come along with what makes us human.

It's hilarious and touching stuff. I can't wait to see what they get to do next.

I'm going to see if I can get to a couple of things at Best of the Fest this Sunday, particularly Monsters, a film I've been wanting to see for some time, but circumstances always seem to stand between men and the EIFF. That and the fact it's so damn expensive these days if you want one of the event passes.

But tonight is all about seeing metal's Big Four on the big screen as Metallica, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth all perform at Sonisphere in Bulgaria tonight and the whole damn thing is being shown live. Bring it.