On DVD/Blu-ray: Martin Sheen in The Believers (1987)

Based on the novel The Religion by Nicholas Conde, John Schlesinger’s The Believers (1987) is a horror thriller that tackles two favorite 1980s punching bags: Afro-Caribbean religions like voodoo and the wealthy. Martin Sheen stars as a police psychiatrist dealing with the sudden, traumatic passing of his wife who suddenly finds himself battling a religious cult with an unseemly interest in his son. I recently viewed the film on a new Blu-ray release from Olive Films.

The film opens with his wife’s bizarre death scene, which consists of a perfectly-timed sequence of horrific bad luck. It has little to do with the events of the remainder of the film, and could even stand on its own as a horror short, but it effectively sets a tone of dread which fills every moment of The Believers. It also has a sensational, over-the-top feeling which seems to be specific to a certain type of 1980s thriller and characterizes the shock moments throughout the film.

At the core of the plot is fear of faiths like the voodoo religion, also seen at the time in films like The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Angel Heart (1987). For the most part the film takes an incurious, one-note approach to the faith, setting it firmly in “other” territory so that presumably it is easier to view it as the practice of evil, selfish cultists. This is a world away from the more nuanced perspective presented in films like Maya Deren’s documentary featuring the religion, Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti (1985) and that appears to be the intention.

Sheen first encounters the rituals of the cult following his return to New York with his son. While in Central Park, they find bloody animal remains and beads abandoned after a ritual gathering. In the chaos of the discovery, he doesn’t notice his son pocketing one of the mysterious beads. 

Sheen's Latina housekeeper (Carla Pinza) does notice the bead, in addition to other warning signs. He forbids her from performing the rituals, more "other" activity that frightens him, and fires her when she persists in her struggle to keep him out of the cult’s hands.

Not long after the incident in the park, the NYPD begins to investigate a series of grisly child murders that appear to be the result of ritual sacrifice. With guidance from a hysterical cop played with manic energy by Jimmy Smits (the cult took his badge, so he knows he’s doomed), he begins to research voodoo and the brujería-inspired Santería faith apparently connected with the murders. In his off-hours, he romances his landlady (Helen Shaver), who in one of the film’s most stomach-churning scenes becomes the unfortunate victim of one of the cult’s spells.

Eventually Sheen connects the wealthy class of NYC with the crimes and finds connections to the cult in his own life. It’s not a set-up that rewards too much thought. The Believers is best approached as a vehicle for thrills, which it does offer, if on a somewhat uneven basis. It will appeal most to those who love that particular kind of paranoid, sensational thriller that thrived in the eighties.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

On Blu-ray: Richard Roundtree in Shaft's Big Score! (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973)

I was thrilled when Warner Archive announced it would be releasing the two sequels to the original Shaft (1971): Shaft’s Big Score (1972) and Shaft Goes to Africa (1973) on Blu-ray. I’d wanted to see these films for years. They ended up being interesting viewing and not what I expected when it came to plot and style.

Both films look great, because the restorations didn’t iron out the grain that gives these films added warmth and grit. I know it shouldn’t surprise me that a Gordon Parks film would be so gorgeous, his visual skill as photographer and filmmaker are immense, but I was especially stunned by the color composition in Shaft’s Big Score. These films will always be filed under Blaxploitation, but they are really gorgeously-produced, high-quality action films and the Blu-rays reveal that beautifully.

The John Shaft in these sequels is still tough, charismatic and resourceful, but the character doesn’t have the same edge. There was always a flicker of righteous anger in the 1971 Shaft. You don’t see the man who walks through traffic shouting at taxi cabs here. He’s more serene and much nicer to the ladies too. While I missed the zing of that brand of Shaft, it was interesting to see Roundtree develop the character and move him subtly in a different direction.

Shaft’s Big Score was my favorite of the two films. It’s got a slow build up, and lacks the riveting, gritty street-bound feel of the original, but it entertains in its own slick way. Roundtree seems more settled into the action hero mold and more appealing because of his gentler take on relating to the female sex. He even relies on one of his ladies to take the wheel during the climactic chase scene, which becomes increasingly ridiculous, and entertaining, as it progresses.

That chase scene is emblematic of what makes Shaft’s Big Score different. It’s less a document of a man working in the streets and more about building up to blood-pumping action. Roundtree is able to stay true to the essence of John Shaft, but when you add a boat and a helicopter to your chase scenes, it is definitely a different game.

Keep your eyes open during the casino scene to see the always distinguished director Parks in a cameo.

Shaft Goes to Africa is my least favorite of the original trio, but I appreciated the willingness to try something new with the character. It was a good gamble to assume that Roundtree was the true draw of the series and that he was versatile enough to play Shaft in a different milieu. Here, instead of a street-smart private dick, he’s more of a Bond-type hero fighting against human trafficking in Africa. There’s even a Q-like scene where he gets a custom-made weapon.

This film never quite falls into a rhythm though. Its story always feels a bit scattered. There are many good to great moments, but they don’t flow together. Many of the great moments are due to Vonetta McGee, who matches the charisma of her leading man and is the strongest female character to grace the series.

Overall, the original Shaft series fascinates me. Roundtree consistently proves his ability to mesmerize in any circumstances and he benefits from the essentially high production values and strong direction he receives here. While they vary in quality, there isn’t a bad film in the bunch.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Streaming Diary: 8 Classic Films to Watch on Kanopy

Lately I’ve found the free library service Kanopy to be a satisfying destination for streaming classic films. In addition to offering a significant number of Criterion Collection releases, it offers an intriguing mix of Hollywood and international classics. Here are some of my favorites. All titles link to the film:

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Alec Guinness plays an astonishing nine members of the wealthy D'Ascoyne clan in this dark comedy about an aspiring gentleman (Dennis Price) who plots to kill all of them because he is next in line for the family fortune. He is desperately in love with the sensuous Sibella, played by Joan Greenwood with that purr of a voice that always melts men into a puddle at her feet. As impressive as Guinness’ accomplishment is here, it is Greenwood who weaves the most enduring spell.

The Queen of Spades (1949)

This haunting fantasy-horror drama of greed and destruction was long thought lost when it was rediscovered and restored in 2009. Anton Walbrook is a working class soldier in 1800s Russia who seeks wealth and revenge against the ruling class by attempting to steal a card game trick from an elderly countess (Edith Evans). She refuses to share her hard-won secret, for she sold her soul to the devil to get it. There’s spooky feel of dread to the entire film which sharpens as what has essentially played as a drama slowly slides into the supernatural.

The Sissi Trilogy: 
Sissi (1955) 
Sissi: The Young Empress (1956)
Sissi: The Fateful Years of an Empress (1957)
It took me way too long to watch the effortlessly charming Romy Schneider in her breakout role as Empress Elizabeth ("Sissi") of Austria. Being able to finally see the trilogy on Kanopy was the moment I realized what an excellent addition to my viewing rotation this service was going to be. This cheerful, brilliantly-colored take on the royals of Habsburg has very little to do with the despair and scandal-ridden life of the real Sissi and company, but audiences have embraced the way it polishes history and it is a hugely entertaining series.

Two Men in Manhattan (1959)
Jean-Pierre Melville takes on film noir in an American setting with this lightly-developed story of a French reporter and photographer searching Manhattan for a missing French UN delegate. The story and performances are only somewhat compelling, but the location photography in mid-century New York City elevates it in every way.

That Man from Rio (1964) and Up to His Ears (1965)
Though I’ve seen Jean-Paul Belmando in all kinds of films, I never took him for a comic action hero. After watching him in this pair of funny, romantic adventure flicks, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s the kind of role he was born to play. In both films he plays an essentially ordinary man thrown into a dangerous quest in an exotic location. His romantic lead in That Man from Rio is the radioactively charming Françoise Dorléac, who practically steals the movie. Ursula Andress is less charismatic as his female sidekick in Up to His Ears, though she does have more comedic skill that she’s generally given credit for. Supposedly Steven Spielberg found inspiration for the Raiders of the Lost Ark in Rio and that essentially describes the spirit of the films.

On DVD/Blu-ray: Annette and Frankie in How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965)

In a lot of ways How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) is a typical beach film. It’s got you-couldn’t-do-that-today lady ogling, horny, but ultimately unsuccessful beach boys, cheerful musical outbursts, and a sprinkling of old Hollywood stars that were presumably meant to draw parents to the movie theater. What makes it fascinating is the way it adjusts the formula to accommodate the personal circumstances of Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, here appearing in the last of the popular beach movies they made together. I recently enjoyed the film on a nice-looking Blu-ray from Olive Films.

In their final pairing, Funicello and Avalon have only a few minutes of screen time together. Reportedly this is because Avalon asked for more money and the studio’s response was to cut his role down to what amounted to a beefy cameo. So instead of dancing on the beach together, Funicello pines for her man in California while Avalon is on naval reserve duty in Tahiti. There he has a witch doctor (the simultaneously cringe-worthy and amusing Buster Keaton) conjure a spell to keep her faithful to him, though he doesn’t hesitate to flirt with an island beauty himself.

Back in the US, Funicello lounges on a beach blanket, fully clothed, spending most of her time reading and eating. This was due to the actress’ pregnancy, which clearly ruled out a bikini. Instead, she flirts with Dwayne Hickman, who I will never be able to see as anyone but the unfortunate lad who falls victim to Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1946).

This is the kind of flick where you’ve got to switch off your brain and go with the flow. Goofy as it is, the relentless cheerfulness of the spontaneous songs, romantic entanglements, and classic actors like Mickey Rooney, Brian Donlevy, and Keaton create a sort of deluge of entertainment that is hard to resist. Even moments that should be excruciating, like the spectacle of a watery-eyed Keaton playing a Tahitian native of all things, are somehow engaging. This partly due to the charisma of the stars, but also because everyone is so fully committed to this bizarre world of constant play.

As a genre classic with a few odd quirks, this is lively entertainment.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

On DVD: Wallace Beery and Dean Stockwell in The Mighty McGurk (1947)

Wallace Beery picks up where he left off with Jackie Cooper in the 1930s in The Mighty McGurk (1947), a drama of an ex-boxer in the Bowery who finds himself responsible for a British orphan (Dean Stockwell). Now available on DVD from Warner Archive, if you didn’t see the extra mileage on Beery, it would be easy to mistake this film for also being a product of the thirties.

Beery is the titular McGurk, nicknamed Slag, retired from the ring and making a living as a bouncer at a saloon for the morally crooked Mike Glenson (Edward Arnold). His pawnshop owner sort-of-girlfriend Mamie Steeple (Aline MacMahon) keeps him from starving as he looks to open his own place. When Slag goes to retrieve Mike’s daughter (Dorothy Patrick) at the docks after a boat journey, he tips off her former love, and his former boxing protégé Johnny Burden (a young and adorable Cameron Mitchell). Mike sent his daughter away to end their relationship, but Slag approves of the relationship.

At the docks, Slag finds himself suddenly the custodian of Nipper (Stockwell), who has been shipped to his uncle. He is pressured into finding the man for the lad, but soon finds that Nipper would rather stay with him. While he deals with what he hopes to be temporary parenthood, Mike is up to no good, and Mamie is losing her patience with the commitment shy McGurk.

Every element of this movie, from the script to the 1800s setting could be dropped right into the 1930s and seem perfectly in place. Beery, MacMahon and Arnold could also have even been plausible in the same roles, as they would have had the chops to find the necessary world weariness in their earlier years.

The big difference is in Stockwell, who certainly had his cutesy moments, but for the most part was a more sober and realistic child performer than Cooper. He doesn’t have the same chemistry with Beery as Cooper did, but he’s also pleasant for being a little lighter on the sugar than the typical juvenile star.

Though I respect his ability, I’m not a fan of Beery. I’ve always felt that too much of his real life nastiness has always seeped into his performances to make them very palatable for me. He appealed to me here though. It’s as if age settled him a bit, making him seem more pleasant and shaving a bit of the ham off his acting style.

It’s a cute flick, briskly paced and essentially what you’d expect from taking a gander at the poster.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Podcasts for Classic Film Fans: June Round-up

June’s Podcast Roundup is another varied mix of familiar and new-to-me podcasts. If you’ve got a podcast to share (including your own), please tell me about it in the comments. I’m always up for fresh voices! All episode titles link to the show:

Ticklish Business
Stagecoach (1939) and the Complicated Legacy of John Wayne
May 29, 2019

I got a little nudge from the creators of this podcast in the comments section of my last monthly roundup to be included this month, but honestly, I love this show. Yes, I take Ticklish Business for granted, probably because it was one of the first shows I listened to on a regular basis. This is a great episode because host Kristen Lopez is joined by both of her rotating co-hosts Samantha Ellis and Drea Clark. They have a thought-provoking conversation about the Ford western Stagecoach (1939) and John Wayne which encompasses how Wayne has been a part of their personal lives and the culture at large, in addition to the western genre and the magic of Wayne’s breakout film. They also dive into the tricky business of problematic films and stars.

Just the Discs
Cleopatra Jones Super Fly!
April 22, 2019

Just the Discs is another one of those podcasts that I tend to take for granted because it’s been a part of my rotation for so long. Brian Sauer (also of Pure Cinema Podcast) is an excellent host though, an unpretentious, knowledgeable champion for movies, and especially those that tend to get forgotten. I especially love it when he has Stephanie Crawford as a guest, because they have a perfectly complementary knowledge of film and a nice, easygoing banter. Here they discuss the Cleopatra Jones movies, touching on what makes them so remarkable and sharing lots of interesting background details about their production. They also talk about the first Super Fly (1972) film.

Eli Roth’s History of Horror: The Podcast
Tippi Hedren
May 31, 2019

I’ve loved every episode of Eli Roth’s History of Horror podcast, which is a companion to the AMC show. Here he shares the full interviews he conducted with the greats of the genre, which are excerpted in the series. My favorite episode so far has been his interview with Tony Todd, but fans of classic film will especially appreciate this interview with Tippi Hedren. The actress goes into great detail about her experience making The Birds (1963) with Alfred Hitchcock. She does a great job handling the more controversial aspects of her association with the director, acknowledging the distress his obsession with her caused in a practical and cool-headed way. Hedren also discusses Roar and her horror favorites.

The Film Programme
Mind the Gap: Barbara Stanwyck
February 12, 2019

I’ve been generally enjoying going through the archives of this new-to-me show from BBC Radio, but I was especially impressed by this short episode in which the hosts discuss the films of Barbara Stanwyck. “Mind the Gap” refers to gaps in one’s knowledge of various areas of cinema. I liked the titles they pick here, especially the underseen comedy The Mad Miss Manton.

I Blame Dennis Hopper
Karen Hannsberry (Film Noir)
May 30, 2019

I had to feature Ileanna Douglas’ podcast yet again, because my dear friend Karen Hannsberry, editor of the fabulous Dark Pages noir newsletter, was recently her guest. The pair had an interesting conversation about film noir and Karen’s writing about the genre. This is a must listen for any film fan new to noir and looking for title suggestions. As a big fan of noir, I found a few new things to watch myself listening to this episode.

The Movies That Made Me
Leonard Maltin
June 11, 2019

In an episode recorded live at MaltinFest, Leonard Maltin shares a list of movies that he thinks more people should know, one from each decade of the past 100 years. His choices are delightfully eclectic and, as always, he has a lot to share about the history of these films and the industry people he has met throughout his career. His comments about Jerry Lewis were especially interesting.

Book Review-- Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant

Olivia de Havilland: Lady Triumphant
Victoria Amador
University Press of Kentucky, 2019

It is comforting to know, that at this moment 102-year-old Olivia de Havilland is living in luxury in a Parisian hotel. With her bright white hair, pearls, and velvet caftans, she still entertains visitors, and shares pink champagne with them. That is behavior befitting the last of the greats of classic Hollywood. In a new book about de Havilland, Victoria Amador draws on her personal relationship with the actress, which includes indulging in sparkling wine together, to tell the story of her life, which was remarkable even for a movie star.

With her brown, doe eyes and sweet smile, it can be easy to forget de Havilland's iron will. That gentle beauty belies the determination of a woman who was before her time in the way she fought for career, independence, and happiness on her own terms. Perhaps her most famous accomplishment beyond acting is a legal victory she won early in her carer, known as The de Havilland Decision, in which she challenged the studio’s ability to add time onto seven-year contracts for suspensions; a win which changed the fabric of Hollywood and made life better for generations of film workers.

She had agency in her personal life as well. De Havilland made her career a priority for years, having affairs with the likes of John Huston and Jimmy Stewart and earning herself the title of “bachelor”.  When her eventual marriage to writer Marcus Goodrich didn’t work out, she got out with a minimum of fuss and with custody of her beloved son. When her second marriage to Paris Match editor Pierre Galante fizzled into a friendship, she crafted a modern, friendly arrangement for the sake of her children that worked brilliantly. In the end she managed to have a strong career and a satisfying personal life, all on her own terms.

Amador covers all of these events, but she focuses on de Havilland’s career and how she fought to play roles with meaning on the stage, screen, and television. Popular success was never enough for the actress; she wanted the challenge and glory of great parts. By the time she got them, she felt she’d aged out of screen stardom and turned her focus to family. It was not quite the end for her though and she had the luxury of being selective and filming what she pleased in the final years of her career.

The book is organized in an unusual way, it is essentially chronological, but it has chapters devoted to the core elements of her life, like her relationship with frequent costar Errol Flynn, her legendary appearance as Melanie in Gone with the Wind (1939), and her notoriously rocky relationship with her sister, the actress Joan Fontaine. Amador seems to be aware that readers will skip to these topics that have so often been the subject of juicy gossip and she approaches them all with a steady perspective, challenging what rumors she can, but granting de Havilland her wish to keep some things private. She strikes a good balance between “here’s what happened” and “none of your business.”

For the most part I appreciated the way these focused chapters gave Amador the space to fully examine the major elements of de Havilland’s life. The necessary repetition of facts and events in the more general chapters could be a bit tedious and confusing, but for the most part the narrative flow dips back and forth in time with ease. I was a little more disturbed by a couple of instances where her sources seemed unreliable: one where she refers to something learned on the notoriously undependable Internet Movie Database, another where she admits that her source was "admittedly dubious," but went ahead and shared what they said anyway.

Amador has had the opportunity to meet with de Havilland multiple times over the years and has maintained a friendly correspondence with the actress. As a result, she has gotten many direct quotes from her which are as interesting for the character they reveal as they are for the clarification of various details. I appreciated that while the author clearly wanted to be respectful of her friend and subject, she didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her flaws. The book could have easily been a hagiography written by an adoring fan, but she seems to understand that kind of whitewashing would be a disservice to such a forthright actress.

Many thanks to University Press of Kentucky for providing a copy of the book for review.
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