Tuesday, 30 June 2020

The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948)

Three men go in search of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Director: John Huston
Cast: Humphrey Bogart (Fred C Dobbs), Walter Huston (Howard), Tim Holt (Bob Curtin), Bruce Bennett (James Cody), Barton MacLane (Pat McCormick), Alfonso Bedoya (Gold Hat)

Is there anything that warps the human character more than greed? Humanity sometimes seems driven only by the desire for more, to fill our pockets with cash and leave the rest behind. It’s greed that becomes the subject of John Huston’s masterful The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – and specifically the effect it has on Humphrey Bogart’s Fred C Dobbs. If you can pick up as much gold as you want off the ground around you, why does it become so difficult to watch others take it away?

Dobbs and Bob Curtin (Tim Holt) are down-on-their-luck drifters in Mexico, bumming spare change off American businessmen and struggling on hand-to-mouth jobs for shady businessmen. So how could they resist the chance to team up with fast-talking old-timer Howard (Walter Huston) who knows that there’s gold in dem da hills? Heading into the wilderness – partly financed by Dobbs’ lucky small lottery win – the three men strike lucky and start pulling the gold from the ground. Problem is as the piles grow, so slowly does the men’s suspicion each other – not least Dobbs, who grows increasingly paranoid and unbalanced at the thought of any danger to his gold. In the wilderness of Mexico, with bandits across the countryside can the men’s growing suspicion of each other be held off long enough to get the gold back home?

Based on a novel by B Traven – an author so notoriously private that even today no one knows who he was – John Huston’s classic is part adventure story, part treatise on the human condition. It’s also gloriously entertaining at every turn. One of the first major Hollywood films to be shot largely on location, it drips with the sultry heat of Mexico, beautifully filmed by Huston. Huston’s masterful script also packs the film with a punch, from quotable titbits (most famously the oft-misquoted “Badges? I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”) to its Shakespearean touches as a rambling, mad, paranoid Dobbs walking alone through the desert wilderness like a cut-price Lear.

Dobbs is the heart of the film – and there is perhaps no anti-hero more ‘anti’ in the whole of Hollywood than this ruthlessly selfish, obsessive paranoiac. Bogart probably gives his finest performance ever as the scruffy, sweaty, unshaven and bitter drifter who finds he can’t abide the idea of having to give away any of what he sees as his share of the loot. And, worse than that, becomes convinced that the whole world is out to take it from him. 

Bogart digs deep into the weasily, rat-like greed of this man. Bogart fought long and hard to play who he called “the worst shit you ever saw”. Dobbs has a strange moral code and sense of honour that’s entirely personal. Having his character impugned by others is an affront he can’t abide – though murder and violence are perfectly acceptable. He’s the sort of guy who will savagely beat a man who stiffs him for wages and then precisely take only what he’s owed from the guy’s wallet. Bogart is perfect as the cold-eyed loner who talks big at first about partnership, but later whines about how he staked most of the starter capital so should be getting a larger share of the profits. Bogart, in perhaps one of the biggest snubs in Hollywood history, missed out on an Oscar nomination in a notoriously weak year for Best Actor. Perhaps, the vision of Rick Blaine bitterly muttering to himself, covered in flies and filth, while plotting the murder of his friends in the Mexican outback was too much for the voters to take. Either way, Bogart’s late mental collapse into near-Shakespearean envy, jealousy and twitchy paranoia is as effective as it is subtly done.

More fortunate at the Oscars were the Huston family. John had written the part of Howard for his father Walter. It bought Huston Snr the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Walter Huston is wonderful as this fast-talking eccentric, rocketing through his dialogue at a hundred miles an hour, as if he has lived so long through the events he is talking about that he barely has the time or patience to tell the story at a normal pace. Huston adds touches of wonderful eccentricity, to Howard’s insane jig of joy when finally finding the site of the gold, to his infectiously unrestrained cackling laughter. 

Eccentric as he is though, Howard is a decent and honourable man who has every intention of sharing the gold and is well aware of its corrupting influence. The wily Howard is also the only essential member of the crew – the only one with the experience to survive in the wilderness, the only one who can recognise and knows how to mine for gold. The most loyal to the fellowship, he’s the good angel to Dobb’s bad. In the middle of this moral spectrum, John Huston places Tim Holt’s Bob, a plain-speaking, more na├»ve figure who has elements of both characters in his pride and hunger for gold, matched with his sense of honour and loyalty. The film partly becomes an unspoken struggle for the soul of Holt’s Bob, as we wait to see which way he will fall. 

Not that any of these men are angels. They are all determined to protect what they have. Struggling in shoot-outs with bandits is fine. They even vote on whether or not to execute a fellow drifter (played by Bruce Bennett) who encounters their stake and enquires about joining them for a share. Bennett’s Cody is, by the way, the smartest character in the film, who sees with pathetic ease through the nervy lies told by the three men, as well as acutely analysing their situation and options with a sharpness that seems beyond all of them. 

Of course by that point suspicion between them – specifically Dobbs and Bob – has already grown dramatically. Dobbs takes to spying on his fellows and digs a separate hiding place to which he carefully takes his own share (Curtin takes to doing the same). John Huston includes a marvellous sequence where the three men each wake up in turn during the night – and react with suspicion on noting the absence from the tent of the others. Later Bob will think long and hard before saving Dobbs from a mining cave-in. Only Howard seems less affected about the gold – although with his talk of the corruption he has seen in the past, perhaps he was a Dobbs himself in the past, now grown wiser and more accepting of the easy-come-easy-go nature of gold. 

Huston’s Oscar winning script (he also lifted the Oscar for Best Director, although Best Picture went to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet) keeps the rich vein of irony running throughout the script, even while it shows how susceptible men are to corruption. The film’s final act – and the eventual fate of the gold – is a treat, a natural extension of the films theme of mankind being a dog-eat-dog world. What else can you do but sit in the dust and laugh at it all? 

There are no heroes really in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – even the mountain remains named only in the title of the film – just three men, scruffy, seedy and not that smart, struggling to grab what they can from the earth. Life becomes more and more cheap as the film goes on – Dobbs and Curtin are like brothers at the start, but increasingly come to see both other people and each other as expendable rivals. With Dobbs like some scruffy Smaug, the film boils down to each man confronting his own emptiness. The only character with any emotional hinterland is the drifter Cody, looking for gold for his wife and kids (his story has real impact on Curtin), the rest are just living from moment to moment.

John Huston’s classic is a marvellous musing on the nature of greed and humanity, superbly filmed by Huston with not a single false note in acting or writing. Perfectly placed, it mixes a western vibe with a Shakespearean grandness – and has a simply wonderful performance by Bogart. A classic that really delivers.

Monday, 29 June 2020

Die Another Day (2002)

Pierce Brosnan signs off as Bond with the mess that is Die Another Day

Director: Lee Tamahori
Cast: Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Halle Berry (Jinx Johnson), Toby Stephens (Gustav Graves), Rosamund Pike (Miranda Frost), Rick Yune (Tang Ling Zao), Judi Dench (M), John Cleese (Q), Michael Madsen (Damian Falco), Samantha Bond (Miss Moneypenny), Colin Salmon (Charles Robinson), Will Yun Lee (Colonal Tan-Sun Moon), Kenneth Tsang (General Moon), Madonna (Verity)

Die Another Day was the highest grossing Bond film ever released. So why was it almost four years before another one was made? Put simply, because this one weren’t no bloody good. Released at the Bond series’ 40th anniversary, Die Another Day was meant to be a celebration of everything Bond – instead it’s like the final nail in the coffin of an entire lifecycle in the franchise that started probably around the early Roger Moore films. When Bond came back out after this, he was radically different. 

James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is sent undercover to Korea to take out renegade Korean Colonel Moon (Will Yun Lee). The mission is a success – but Bond is betrayed and captured by the North Koreans. Coming out of Korean prison a year later, Bond is no longer wanted by MI6. So he goes off on his own to find out who betrayed him – and finds newly emerged diamond businessman Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) might have something to do with it. With a trail that starts in Hong Kong and heads to Cuba, the UK, Iceland and back to Korea he’ll work alongside CIA agent Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) to find out how this all ties together and get his revenge.

So Die Another Day starts a bit like a Connery Bond – and about half way through it segues into being perhaps the most ridiculously overblown Roger Moore-esque Bond you’ll ever see. I suppose you could say this was the scriptwriters trying to capture the essence of 40 years in one movie. But actually it’s probably just incoherent scriptwriting and stupid storytelling. It starts trying to be grounded – Bond is captured and tortured for a year! – but then shrugs off any aftereffects of this year of hell with lackadaisical ease before throwing us into the sort of “Ice palace! Invisible cars! A weapon that channels the power of the sun!” malarkey that even Roger might have thought was a little bit too much.

It’s not helped by the fact that the entire film is so shoddily put together and so lazy in its execution. The one liners in this film are terrible – there are no double entendres in this film only single entrendres (words like thrust, pleasure, weapon and mouthful are used with gleeful abandon) – and far from being a playful exercise in Bond’s cheekiness are just hand-in-the-mouth embarrassing. But that’s almost as nothing compared to the woeful special effects. Even in 2002, nothing in this film looked real. 

I hardly know where to start with the awful plasticky sheen of the effects here. The film opens with Bond and fellow agents surfing (!) into a deserted island – at the end of which Brosnan in front of blatant blue screen rips off his mask to show it-was-definitely-him. As if that wasn’t bad enough (Bond surfs? I’m out!) Bond surfs AGAIN in the movie halfway through, using a parachute as a sail to escape possibly the least convincing wave ever put onto film. It really has to be seen to be believed (or rather not believed). That’s not to mention the wonky overblown final plane sequence, or a laughably unrealistic looking Jinx dive from a cliff down into the water below.

Brosnan probably tries his best in all this, but even he can’t save this total mess. How does a film that started with Bond in prison and emerging damaged and on a gritty quest for revenge end with a villain wearing a robot suit controlling the sun? The script after the first 15 minutes gives Brosnan nothing to play with. The film loses all interest in the traitor plotline about halfway through, and when she is unmasked (in a twist that surprises no one at all) Bond barely seems to care. Pierce himself looks frankly too old and a little out of shape (his running in this film with his arms pumping up to his face looks terrible), something only magnified by the youth of his co-stars. 

Not that I’m saying his co-stars are any good either. When this film came out there was a brief flurry of excitement that Halle Berry’s Jinx would be worth a franchise of her own. That died shortly after the film came out – this is a character that acts tough when needed, but still needs to be saved twice in quick succession by Bond, who says faux-tough things like “Yo Mama!” but has barely two personality facets to rub together. Berry simply does her bit and meets the requirement of looking sexy and fighting. Mind you she still fares better than an embarrassing Toby Stephens, whose villain is so paper-thin the actor seems to have taken the bizarre decision to channel Alan Partridge. Rosamund Pike’s fencing MI5 agent barely registers.

Needless to say Bond beds her – as he beds all the women in this with a perfunctory inevitability that fits the box-ticking exercise of the whole film. The film is littered with references to past Bond films, although that is probably only going to make you want to watch almost any of the other films instead. Perhaps to try and up the ante and make this one “even biggerer and betterer than before” there are more gadgets than ever before. These are topped with the crowning turd of the invisible car, a nadir for the franchise, a senseless advantage (Bond at one point follows directly behind two walking heavies in the car – it’s invisible NOT silent for goodness sake!) and something so overblown that however much the producers at the time tried to justify it by pointing at military technology just sounds silly. Don't get met started on the bizarre VR training sequence Bond carries out (later replayed for a grotesquely demeaning Moneypenny joke that made me feel sorry for Samantha Bond).

But then the whole thing basically sounds silly. Giving the villain a huge ice palace lair might have seemed like a cheeky nod, but again it just looks absurd and the producers desperately trying to find a location that hasn’t been used before. The entire film feels like a rushed attempt to get something out for the 40th anniversary (perhaps the rush helps explain the insane product placement, leading to the film being nicknamed Buy Another Day). The script has been assembled from the off-cuts of other Bond films. There are no fresh ideas at all and everything that happens in the film has the air of “well this sort of thing happens in Bond films”. The script and special effects feel half finished. Rather than a tribute to how Bond was done in the past, it feels like a tombstone. Here lies James Bond c. 1967-2002. No wonder under Daniel Craig he needed to be reborn as someone who felt vaguely in touch with something approaching reality.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982)

The Enterprise crew re-unite to face The Wrath of Khan

Director: Nicholas Meyer
Cast: William Shatner (Admiral James T Kirk), Leonard Nimoy (Spock), DeForest Kelley (Dr Leonard McCoy), Ricardo Montalban (Khan Noonien Singh), James Doohan (Montgomery Scott), George Takei (Hikary Sulu), Walter Koenig (Pavel Chekov), Nichelle Nichols (Uhura), Bibi Besch (Dr Carol Marcus), Merritt Butrick (Dr David Marcus), Paul Winfield (Captain Terrell), Kirstie Alley (Saavik)

After the overblown, slow and tedious The Motion Picture, you’d have been forgiven for thinking that we had seen the Enterprise crew boldly go for the very last time. If there was going to be a sequel Paramount had very clear guidelines for what it wanted: more entertaining, exciting, don’t involve Gene Roddenberry and above all make it for a fraction of the price. I think it’s fair to say that the decision to bring producer Harve (“I could make three movies for the cost of that first one!”) Bennett and above all writer and director Nicholas Meyer on board, saved the franchise.

Neither Meyer or Bennett were familiar with the franchise in advance. But they did what those involved in the first film should have considered doing (looking at you Robert Wise!) – they went back and rewatched all the previous episodes and tried to work out exactly what people enjoyed about the show to begin with. And then tried to make a movie based around that. So first and foremost they decided they needed a villain – so after running through all the previous episodes they decided genetically-engineered superman Khan Noonien Singh, left abandoned on a planet with his followers after the episode Space Seed – was the best pick. Giving the film a simple “revenge” structure, it became a taught battle of minds and wills between Khan and the man he blames for all his problems – Admiral James T Kirk (William Shatner).

Star Trek II opens with an ageing Kirk, unsure of his place in the world while stuck in a desk job and scared about getting old. Running a cadet training voyage with his old crew, Kirk is called back into action after Starfleet loses touch with Federation scientists working on the Genesis device, a terraforming rocket that will help the Federation build new worlds and civilisations. The problems with Genesis are directly linked – without Kirk’s knowledge – with Khan’s (Ricardo Montalban) hijacking of the USS Reliant after brainwashing the ship’s captain Terrell (Paul Winfield) and his first officer Chekov (Walter Koenig). Khan blames Kirk for the disasters that have taken place on the planet he was marooned on – and is determined to exact revenge on Kirk no matter the cost.

Unlike the dry Motion Picture, Wrath of Khan builds is action around a compelling, emotionally charged, story that gives each character a clear and relatable motive for their actions. Building a film about revenge may not exactly be in Roddenberry’s ideal for the 23rd century: but by heck it makes for a much better film. Because, if nothing else, while we may struggle to understand what the hell V’Ger wanted in the first film, everyone understands the dangerous obsession of revenge. It helps that the film has an excellent villain – a scowling, unbalanced but still strangely honourable and decent Khan, played with a grandstanding relish by Montalban who is clearly having a whale of a time. Despite never sharing the screen (or even being on set at the same time) Montalban and Shatner go at the rivalry and its impact on both characters with a real intensity that makes for compelling viewing.

Meyer also tightened and refocused the entire franchise. Roddenberry may have struggled with the increasingly naval view of Starfleet in this film – it’s at least twice referred to explicitly as the military – but Meyer recognised that if the franchise was partly Hornblower Ii Space, then why not redesign the film with that in mind. The ship is run with naval precision, including yeoman whistling to signal shifts and orders, uniforms that have a stylish naval formality to them, a greater focus on the ship’s movements being described in strictly naval terms – even the photon torpedo bays are prepped by enlisted men in what Meyer called his “running out the guns” sequences. This makes the entire operation not only easier to relate to, but interesting and entertaining in its own right.

It also adds huge tension to the duel that develops between the Reliant and the Enterprise that plays out part naval battle and late on – when battle turns to the Mutara nebula where systems and sensors work only intermittedly – part classic submarine drama, with Meyer practically throwing in depth charges. The battle scenes are filmed with simplicity and economy – but because the personal clashes between Kirk and Khan are so compelling and involving, they absolutely drip with tension, as these two go through move and counter move.

Meyer’s film is lean, engrossing and thrilling, and superbly well directed. It goes from skilled set-piece to set-piece, and never for a moment overlooks character. Unlike the first film, we get the moments of Kirk-Spock-McCoy discussing key themes together so beloved from the series, while most of the main cast also get their moment in the sun, most especially Walter Koenig who, as a brainwashed Chekov, gets more to work with here than he got in the whole original series. 

But this isn’t just an action adventure in space. Meyer’s literate and intelligent script has far more depth and thematic interest in it than the faux intellectualism of The Motion Picture. Taking as its starting point Kirk’s fear of on-setting age (the film opens with his 50th birthday, and McCoy’s gift of antique spectacles), it expands into an engrossing mediation of how we react to the impacts of our actions and lose-lose situations. Kirk has also to face the mortality of age and the impact of past actions – like his son (Merritt Butrick channelling Shatner’s impulsiveness) – coming back to bite him. All this while flying a ship of young cadets round – who need to shepherded into the risks of conflict. Khan meanwhile is confronted time and again with the damaging impact of his choices to follow revenge and obsession rather than settling for a winning hand.

Meyer gets his best work ever out of Shatner (allegedly after realising Shatner over committed to early takes, he made Shatner take multiple takes in order to focus his energy). This is a Kirk getting old, dealing with inner resentments and made to face up to the consequences of his actions – both with Khan and meeting the son he fathered. Shatner tackles all this with a world-weary resignation and touch of sadness that many felt were beyond him, while still making room for the fireworks that are his calling card (I suppose the famous “Khan!” was Meyer’s one major indulgence of Shatner’s exuberance).

However the other element the film is well known for is of course it’s tragic ending – the sacrifice of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock. Lured back to the film, but not convinced about ever returning, Nimoy agreed to the final reel shocker (although he enjoyed making the film so much he willingly agreed to leave the door open for Spock’s resurrection). It gives the film an emotional heft that none of the others in the franchise has. For the first time, our heroes would not magically escape unharmed to fly off onto the next adventure. Just as the film started with the cadets learning that sacrifice and facing a lose-lose scenario is a part of command (a lesson Kirk cheated on in his day, and a situation he has never faced or understood, as the film teaches him), so the film ends on the same beat. The ship can escape – but only if Spock takes a fatal radiation dose to restart the engine.

Both Nimoy and Shatner play the heck out of these scenes, probably the most emotional in the franchise – a low-key but deeply affecting moments of two old friends sharing their last moments together. It’s this successful switch into showing the real cost and loss associated with adventures like this that cap the thematic depth Meyer bought to the film.

Star Trek II succeeds on every count. Meyer’s intelligent script quotes and riffs everything from CS Forrester to Dickens via Moby Dick, while giving both heroes and villains deep and rich character arcs. It’s grippingly filmed – you wouldn’t believe how much cheaper it was than the first film, as it looks ten-times better with not a penny gone to waste – and hugely exciting. It carries real emotional force, and it’s hugely benefited by a fantastic score by a young James Horner. Even now it’s still the high point of Star Trek on screen – and probably a highlight of the franchise as a whole.