Sunday, June 25, 2017

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) feels contradictory. For the third time, Michael Caine returns as Harry Palmer, the deadpan secret agent in thick glasses meant as a realistic alternative to James Bond, and yet the main plot wouldn't feel that far out of place in a 007 adventure.

Some of the elements of the story - a supercomputer dictating policy and the power of a private corporation - feel more relevant today than they did in the 1960s, but the villain's henchmen are cowboys. They wear ten-gallon hats and denim shirts, even as they run around his secret, hi-tech lair.

Meanwhile, the director is Ken Russell, who would go on to make the likes of Altered States, Lair of the White Worm, The Devils, and Tommy based on The Who album. Russell is a strange choice for a hard-boiled espionage thriller; he's better known for his hallucinatory, surreal, bizarre, and at times hysterical style.

That is not to say Billion Dollar Brain is a bad movie. Far from it. It's a lively, energetic entry in the series, Caine brings the goods as the cynical and reluctant agent, the emphasis remains more on characters than on hi-tech gadgetry and action, and it maintains the droll sense of humor of Funeral in London. The plot feels like it's moving a little too close for James Bond territory, but while he might be an unorthodox choice, Russell gives the film a taste of his distinctive touch.

Palmer is out of the British Secret Service but of course ends up drawn back in. This time, he goes to Finland, helping an old friend, Leo, (Karl Malden) smuggle some eggs and being in drawn into a scheme to infiltrate an organization run by a rabid anti-Communist Texas oil tycoon (Ed Begley). Also around is Anya (Francoise Dorleac), who is in a relationship with the married Leo but puts the moves on Harry. The eccentric Colonel Stok (Oscar Holmolka), the Soviet intelligence officer, also pops in to warn Harry about the danger he's putting himself in.

In Funeral in Berlin, director Guy Hamilton brought a workman's touch. He wasn't flashy or showing off. He focused on telling the story. He tended to keep his distance, concerned more with being clear and covering the terrain, so the viewer could follow all the characters even as they committed various double dealings.

By contrast, Russell is more stylish, giving the film a different kind of unsubtle energy. He uses more close ups of the actors' faces, and when we are introduced to Begley's General Midwinter at a barbecue in a Texas oilfield, he stands in front of a tall flame, next to his company's logo that looks suspiciously like Nazi Germany's Reichsadler (the eagle coat of arms).

Russell moves his camera around more as well, and the film feels more frenetic as a result. The aforementioned oil field cookout is shot with a spinning camera in a sea of dancing bodies, and it feels like we're descending into madness. Elsewhere, a tense encounter between Harry and Anya is captured with a long, unbroken take; the camera weaves, bobs, and slants as Harry's world becomes increasingly unsteady.

Billion Dollar Brain still has a light touch and several funny moments and lines, usually the result of Caine's deadpan cynicism and snarky quips; the Finnish setting is suitably cold and wintry while other locations, such Midwinter's lair, are sleeker, more technological, and imposing; and the plot is filled with the expected double crosses, twists, and surprise reveals.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Funeral in Berlin

How is it I'm only now learning the 60s produced a series of movies starring Michael Caine as a British spy? I guess every time I start to think I know everything, something comes along to demonstrate how little I know.

In Funeral in Berlin (1966), Caine plays Harry Palmer, a bespectacled secret agent who first appeared unnamed in the spy novels of Len Deighton (the name Harry Palmer originated in the adaptation of The Ipcress File, also starring Caine). Palmer exists as a counterpoint to the more flamboyant James Bond, which is ironic because Funeral in Berlin was directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed a number of 007 pictures, and produced by Harry Saltzman, the longtime Bond producer.

Unlike the smooth, romanticized Bond, Palmer is more grounded, more of a working-class stiff. He doesn't use hi-tech gadgets, he doesn't get into very many fights, and he prefers anonymous suits to fancy tuxedos. In some ways, he's a glorified bureaucrat for his majesty's secret service. He deals more in paperwork, forged documents, false names, hidden identities, and clandestine meetings in dark alleyways than the cloak-and-dagger adventures of Ian Fleming's agent.

In Funeral in Berlin, Palmer is dispatched to Berlin to help coordinate the defection of a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka). Berlin is still is a divided a city, and getting Stok across the Wall won't be easy, assuming of course, he's genuine and not up to something else as Palmer suspects.

Other prominent characters in the story include Johnny Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid), an old associate of Harry's and now in charge of British Intelligence operations in Berlin; Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi), a gorgeous model who so willingly spends the night with Palmer that he is immediately suspicious; Hallam (Hugh Burden), the documents man for British Intelligence; and Kreutzman (Gunter Meisner), a West German criminal who will smuggle anyone over the wall for the right price.

Funeral in Berlin is not an action movie, although it opens with a stunt that might not be out of place in a Bond movie as a famous musician escapes to the West using a construction crane. Who can Palmer trust and what's everyone's real agenda are just a couple of questions. Needless to say, no one and nothing are what they seem, and before long, Palmer is in over his head, trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

But the movie is not dry and dark. At times, it's rather funny. Stok is quite eccentric and always laughing at the hoops he forces Palmer and British Intelligence to jump through (he initiates their first meeting by pretending to have Palmer arrested and is rather amused by it.). Meanwhile, Palmer's undercover identity is that of a lingerie salesman, and one of his meetings with a contact occurs at a drag queen cabaret.

At the center of all this is Caine's performance as Palmer. It would be wrong to think of him as a square, but he's not especially dashing or emotional, although he frequently clashes with his superiors and is not shy about expressing his opinion, often in a cynical, deadpan manner. He's a cold operative who keeps his feelings in check. He insists he's not a coldblooded killer (he doesn't seem to like guns), and even when he gets angry, he stays in control. He is cerebral more than anything else, but he can fight when he has to.

In a way, he's the straight man of this unfolding drama. Everyone else is running around, double-crossing each other, pulling off elaborate schemes, and trying to kill people, Palmer is in the middle of everything, just trying to do his job.

The film was shot on location in Berlin and makes good use of its authentic locations. Berlin is a city of hip clubs and fancy hotels but also barbed wire, armed guards, barriers, and constant surveillance along with dilapidated warehouses and old ruins. It's a beautiful city with a lot of history, but it's also a place of danger for a British spy.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Defenders of the Faith

If Defenders of the Faith (1984) maintained the momentum of its first three songs, it would be my favorite Judas Priest album, hands down.

"Freewheel Burning" is one of the great opening tracks, by Priest or anyone, and it contains one of my favorite guitar solos. When someone describes music as face-melting, this is what they're referring to. It's just so good, so cool, I want to crazy when I hear it.

"Jawbreaker" is a textbook display of how to build intensity and a sense of danger in a song, and "Rock Hard Ride Free" is epic. It soars. When I'm wearing headphones and this song comes on, I swear it feels like the speakers are about to explode. My reaction to these songs is purely visceral and emotional; I can't break it down intellectually or explain it. I just feel them and react.

"No denyin'. We're going against the grain.
So defiant, they'll never put us down.
Rock Hard! Ride Free!
All day, all night.
Rock Hard! Ride Free!
All your life."

After those three songs, Defenders of the Faith hovers around the level of pretty good, but hey, "pretty good" by Judas Priest is still better than the best of most other bands. Priest's brand of speed metal displays the technical chops, blazing speed, and heavy, palm-muted crunch we expect from the guitar tandem of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing with bassist Ian Hill. Singer Rob Halford remains at the top of his game, shrieking and howling like no one else. I don't know how he can sing as fast as he does.

"Look before you leap has never been the way we keep. Our road is free.
Charging to the top and never give in never stop the way to be.
Hold on to the lead with all your will and concede
You'll find there's life with victory on high"

Those first three songs, plus "The Sentinel," are ridiculously fast-paced for a mainstream metal release. The other songs are somewhat slower, more mid-temp anthems with staccato-based rhythms such as "Eat Me Alive" and "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll." Even the "slow" ballad-like "Night Comes Down" is not a sappy love song, even though it's kind of about a lost love. Priest makes it sound tough.

It all leads to the marching two-part beat of "Heavy Duty" and "Defenders of the Faith" that, like "Rock N Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" on AC/DC's Back in Black, feels like a climactic statement of purpose and a summation of who the band is. The band's religion is heavy metal, and they are the clergy who will keep the faith and summon all metalheads and headbangers together.

"We'll rise inside ya till the power splits your head.
We're gonna rock ya till your metal hunger's fed.
Let's all join forces.
Rule with an iron hand
And prove to all the world
Metal rules the land."

Standout Songs
"Freewheel Burning" - Just an excellent, racing opener.
"Jawbreaker" - A crushing, building track.
"Rock Hard Ride Free" - I dare you to not sing along to the chorus.

Favorite Moment
That solo on "Freewheel Burning." Hearing it, I feel like I'm in the front seat of a blazing car, kicking it into high gear and accelerating beyond all control.

Album Cover
A transformer-like, colorful, mechanized beast on treads. If this a weapon we get to use to defend heavy metal, then sign me up.

Track Order
1) Freewheel Burning
2) Jawbreaker
3) Rock Hard Ride Free
4) The Sentinel
5) Love Bites
6) Eat Me Alive
7) Some Heads Are Gonna Roll
8) Night Comes Down
9) Heavy Duty
10) Defenders of the Faith

Personnel
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitar
K.K. Downing - Guitar
Ian Hill - Bass
Dave Holland - Drums 

Junior Bonner

I have never been to a rodeo and have no strong inclination to go to one. Maybe if some friends invite me along, I'd consider it, but I'm not going out of my way for one. If you enjoy rodeos, that's cool, but just remember my preference as you read this review.

From director Sam Peckinpah, Junior Bonner (1972) tells the story of Junior "JR" Bonner (Steve McQueen), a once great rodeo rider whose best days are behind him. The next stop on tour brings him to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona. There, his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) is selling the family property to develop a trailer park, and his parents Ace (Robert Preston) and Elvira (Ida Lupino) are estranged. Ace has plans to head to Australia for his latest crazy scheme.

This is another strange one for Peckinpah. While the cowboy imagery and the celebration of Junior's rugged individualism in the face of encroaching modern capitalism feel par the course, no one dies horribly, and the characters even enjoy some happiness in the face of their uncertain futures. It's odd, but the best words I can think of to describe the film are charming and easygoing.

The plot is rather perfunctory. There are no unexpected twists or turns, and no surprise revelations are offered that reshape everything you thought you knew about the characters. They are who they say they are: for all their faults, honest, upfront folks. Even Curly, who might have been more of a villain in another movie, is less of a greedy sellout and more someone who sees where things are headed and wants to position his family so they are financially secure, including JR and Ace, the wild and irresponsible ones of the family.

The rodeo elements are fairly minimal, at least in terms of actual screen time (not surprising considering the goal is to ride a bull for eight seconds, and even with Peckinpah employing his trademark slow motion, these sequences pass quickly). Much more time is devoted to the family dynamics and interaction with the others in town, including the owner of the mean bull JR wants to beat (Ben Johnson), a fellow bull rider (Bill McKinney), and a girl who catches JR's eye (Barbara Leigh).

Performances are mostly good. It's a little hard to buy McQueen as a broken-down has-been, but the relationship between Preston and Lupino is moving. The film also has some laughs, like when Ace drunkenly rides a horse through the town parade like a madman and JR manages to both instigate and avoid a bar brawl.

I can't quite get behind Junior Bonner. It's straightforward to the point of simple, the narrative doesn't so much unfold as it proceeds from vignette to vignette, and by the end, not much has really changed from the beginning. Maybe that's the point, and if you want a nicer, sweeter Peckinpah picture, this is one to check out.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

With The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), director Sam Peckinpah moves away from the despair, cynicism, and brutal violence of his other Westerns toward a lyrical if bittersweet fable. Here, he celebrates the triumph of individual spirit and the cherished dream of American West, and most surprisingly, he does it with good-natured if sometimes crass humor.

The setup sounds like the expected Peckinpah plot. The titular Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left to die in the desert by his partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), and as they ride away, he vows to survive and get back at them, but first, he has to find water.

When he does, Cable realizes this is the only watering hole in a huge stretch of land between a couple of towns and decides this might make a good business venture. With advice and support from a wandering preacher (David Warner), he makes himself an entrepreneur and even begins to romance a local prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens). But one day, Cable knows his former partners will pass through.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue eschews the violence we expect from Sam Peckinpah. I think - and I might be mistaken - there are only two gunshots in the entire movie. Most of the action consists of Cable overcoming obstacles in his way and trying his damnedest to prove himself to a society that treats him like a bum and a fool. All things considered, the movie is rather sweet and a nostalgic. When Old Glory is hung over Cable's Spring, it's a genuine celebration of the American spirit.

Robards is the perfect actor for this role. He's tough and weathered; he's clearly lived through a great deal and has the will to survive, but there's a glimmer in his eyes, an inner light that says deep down, he's really an OK guy, never bitter or cynical. A man of great spirit, you might say, he takes everything in stride. As he wanders the desert looking for water, he turns to the sky and says, "Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen."

It is said of Cable that he is not a good man or a bad man, but truth be told, no one in the movie is all good or all bad. His partners betray him, but it's not hard to see their logic: they have enough water for two but not three. Joshua, the preacher played by Warner, is a man of God, and his preferred form of testimony involves comforting emotionally vulnerable women by sleeping with them. Even when hiding from one jealous husband, he can't resist copping feels or other attempts at seduction.

The movie is filled with that kind of bawdiness. When a not-quite dead husband turns up while Joshua is with a supposed widow, the film speeds up as the preacher tries to flee like in an episode of Benny Hill. This slapstick occurs on a grand scale when Cable, after insulting Hildy, ends up spreading chaos and confusion through the town as he tries to leave, culminating with the collapse of a revival tent on top of the congregation.

The humor also includes moments of triumph. Early on, after securing his claim, Cable tries to partner with a stage business and is humiliated when the owner (R.G. Armstrong) tosses him out, disbelieving his claim of water. Later, it's not hard to feel satisfaction when the owner and his employees turn up next door to Cable's watering hole, fruitlessly digging for their own spring. Looks like the dirty desert rat wasn't so crazy after all.

The film is beautifully shot, Jerry Goldsmith contributes a wonderfully folksy musical score, and it all leads to an ending that marks the passing of the Old West as modernity arrives in the form of those newfangled automobiles. Even blood feuds and old vendettas seem out of place in this brave new world.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Getaway

The Getaway (1972) might be director Sam Peckinpah's most straightforward and commercial-sounding movie - a married fugitive couple on the run - but don't think Peckinpah's selling out. Quite the contrary, it's really, really good, possibly his leanest, most efficient work, and filled with his trademark style.

The fugitive couple in question is played by Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. How can we tell she's not as completely disposable as some of the other women in other Peckinpah movies? She has to drive McQueen around because his license has expired.

McQueen and MacGraw play the McCoys, Doc and Carol (My God, these "Mc/Mac" names are a nightmare to keep track of!). In a script by Walter Hill based off the novel by Jim Thompson, the movie follows them after Doc gets out of prison, the pair plan and participate in a bank heist that goes terribly wrong, and they flee to Mexico with all sorts of loons and scumbags in pursuit, not to mention dealing with the occasional civilian who recognizes them as criminals.

It's a meat-and-potatoes story, but it is well served by Peckinpah's direction, Hill's characterization, and the performances of the cast. The film opens with a mostly wordless sequence of Doc in prison, and in a fluid, visual montage that captures the boredom and soul-crushing routine of life inside, we understand why Doc tells Carol to do whatever she can to get him out.

No, of course he won't regret telling her to do that and then blame her when he finds out exactly what she did because it impedes on his sense of manhood.

There are a number of standout sequences: the bank robbery and its meticulous planning and timing, the cat-and-mouse chase between Doc and a sleazebag cowboy who steals the money bag from a train station locker, a nighttime car chase at a burger joint that ensues when the waitresses realizes she's serving the McCoys, an evasion from police that ends with our leads in the back of a garbage truck, and the final showdown in a motel.

Peckinpah's great strength is to show rather than tell. While there's no absence of dialogue (in fact, there's a few good lines), he relies on imagery and action to tell his story without getting bogged down with over-explaining everything and leading the viewer by the hand. He and Hill both favor characters who take action rather than talk.

The cast is great. Nobody does laconic cool like McQueen; no one else could say so much while doing so little. MacGraw is the perfect foil, more open and emotional but willing to call him out on his stubborn nonsense. For a couple of lowlifes, they make for a sympathetic couple, and we root for them.

It helps that the rest of the performers play characters who are even worse. Ben Johnson is the corrupt businessmen who peddles his influence to get Doc out of prison and expects favors in return, Al Lettieri is a backstabbing accomplice in the robbery, and Sally Struthers is a hostage whom Lettieri takes in his pursuit of the McCoys but who quickly hops in the sack with him (they even tie up her husband to make him watch).

In fact, the only truly decent person in the movie is the appropriately credited Cowboy, played by Slim Pickens (aiding and abetting fugitives aside), providing further evidence that Pickens could remain jovial and good natured under any circumstances.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Unleash the Beast

If I had been listening to Saxon in 1997, I might have been concerned when I heard this album.

Unleash the Beast finds Saxon diving into a darker and heavier direction. Maybe it's the arrival of new guitarist Doug Scarratt (replacing fired founding member Graham Oliver), but Saxon seems to have actually unleashed a beast within themselves. Their sound is louder, packs more crunch, and resembles modern German power metal more than classic British New Wave. The title track is about stone gargoyles coming to life, but it could be a metaphor for the band embracing its heaviest sound yet.

"Unleash the beast.
The time has come.
Feel the fire in your soul.
It's time.
Unleash the beast."

But that's not why I would have been worried. It's not how the music sounds but what the songs are about. Lyrically, singer Biff Byford sings not about motorcycles, rock n roll, or good times but about betrayal, the loss of friends, near-death experiences, media manipulation, and snake-oil preachers. The band was almost 20 years old, and it's finding the world to be a frightening, despairing place. I can only speculate if "Cut Out the Disease" is about their soured relationship with Oliver.

"You make your living from backstabbing.
You're just a snake in handmade boots.
You slither round like something slimy.
Nothing's ever what it seems."

I mean, ouch. Tell us how you really feel, Biff. Elsewhere, Saxon includes creepy monster songs, including the aforementioned title track and "Bloodletter," which is about vampires, and the world itself is turning on people. "All Hell Breaks Loose" describes a hurricane as the "Devil's messenger" that is "screaming across the sky" and creating "death and chaos all around." The boys also describe a near-death experience on "Circle of Light," adding in a pumping heart beat and the sound of labored breathing for a creepy effect.

Only three tracks aren't so pessimistic. The gung-ho war epic "The Thin Red Line" recounts a battle for the glory of the British Empire and is suitably rousing. "Terminal Velocity is about skydiving but would fit in well with the band's past motorcycle tracks in how it gets the adrenaline flowing.

"Absent Friends" has an acoustic riff, and the band gives us a tender ballad dedicated to the group's late tour manager, John "JJ" Johns. Biff sounds genuinely upset and heartbroken over his fallen friend. It doesn't sound like the Biff we'd expect.

"You went in the morning.
We didn't say good bye.
The friends that you left here
Wonder why, wonder why."

I didn't care too much for Unleash the Beast when I first heard it. It didn't resonate for some reason, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. Saxon shows us their dark side and continue to play with infectious energy and catchy melody melodies and riffs.

Standout Songs
"Unleash the Beast" - The title sets the dark, gothic mood.
"The Thin Red Line" - You'll be ready to enlist after hearing this.
"Cut Out the Disease" - Possibly the band's most cynical song.
"Absent Friends" - A touching tribute to the band's tour manager.

Favorite Moment
The solo on "The Thin Red Line." It feels like you're on the battlements making a final stand.

Album Cover
A living, drooling gargoyle with an evil look in his eyes crouches, ready to pounce from the rooftop. Sweetness.

Track Order
1) Gothic Dreams
2) Unleash the Beast
3) Terminal Velocity
4) Circle of Light
5) The Thin Red Line
6) Ministry of Fools
7) The Preacher
8) Bloodletter
9) Cut Out the Disease
10) Absent Friends
11) All Hell Breaks Loose

Personnel
Biff Byford - Vocals
Paul Quinn - Guitar
Doug Scarratt - Guitar
Nibbs Carter - Bass
Nigel Glockler - Drums