Chas' film reviews ... new and old, B&W and colour, slime or sublime.

COW #142 -- 23-July-1994 -- “When Lightning Strikes”

Doh! I forgot to let my loyal blog readers know that I put up a great new episode of Chas' Crusty Old Wave up recently. Interestingly, the original recording and the release as a podcast were both on July 23 -- only 20 years apart!

When I tell you that this one is truly an electrifying episode, I mean that literally. Not only does it feature another great array of 80s music (with a couple of new-for-1994 releases thrown in), part of the original broadcast was knocked off air by lightning! We were right in the middle of Tim Curry's "I Do the Rock" when the station got hit with a lightning strike near enough to take us down. For this podcast, I've restored the full song that was interrupted, since you just DO NOT interrupt Tim Curry when he's on a roll!

On top of that "shocking" event, this episode features music from Spandau Ballet, XTC, the Undertones, new releases from the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure, Joey Ramone and Holly Beth Vincent, the Bolshoi, David Bowie, Ultravox, the Knack and more. There's also a live acoustic version of "Wild Boys" by Duran Duran, and some rarely-heard music by amazing Athens-Atlanta swing-pop band Donkey, who hosted an unforgettable concert in Orlando that evening. And this is just the first half of this originally three-hour episode (I'll post the second half next month!

Prepare to get your ears zapped with pleasure as we listen to the night WPRK went from 1,300 watts to 50,000 volts! Enjoy!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at, and enjoy!

COW 20-May-2013 -- "Candy and Records"

This is a super-fantastic new episode (well, recorded on the 20th of May, 2013), and I was back in Orlando as part of a Fringe Show a friend of mine did -- he later went on to win Best Comedy! If you've heard of "rap battles" or a battle of the bands or even the double-dutch dance-offs between those New York City girls, then this delightful DJ duel is going to be a special treat.

Sometimes when WPRK DJ Phantom Third Channel and I get together, we challenge each other -- with music! As Frankie says, when two tribes go to war, the audience is the winner. This show has a tremendous diversity of sound pulled from across several decades of indie and college rock, but with a definite 80s atmosphere. Over the next two hours you'll hear bands like Wire, XTC, They Might Be Giants, Bruce Wooley, Veronica Falls, Roxy Music, PIL, Galaxie 500, the Stone Roses and John Foxx -- and more!

In between songs, we chatter and gush over all the great stuff we play for each other. One of our best sessions, but stay tuned ... there's more new episodes to come!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at, and enjoy!

COW #173 - 20-March-1995 - "Bryan Ferry Cross the Mersey"

Here’s a treat for those listeners who remember the local band scene in Orlando and all the great concerts we used to have -- this episode’s twin focus is on the upcoming Bryan Ferry appearances that were happening that week, as well as both concerts and a new seven-inch, four-track EP put together by a handful of great local bands.

Our pal Jim was on the show, bringing along the latest Bryan Ferry album (which we go all fanboy over) and news of his upcoming appearance, and the two of us cooked up plenty of familiar and obscure New Wave gems, a few rarities and dance mixes as well. We took a little time to spotlight the local band EP and our special guest Aaron of Thee Exotic Aarontones in the middle of the show, and we also have a special all-new "bonus track" at the end from NYC-based Rude Boy George, who do a killer ska cover of the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep" with a guest vocalist from the English Beat!

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know how you like it at, and enjoy!

COW Episode #86: Part 2 -- Electric Boogaloo!

Finally! Here’s the second half of the epic three-plus-hour Episode 86, originally recorded on the 23rd of April, 1993! It features a nice mix of familiar and deeper cuts of great 80s and even some 90s music. Part one is also available (either here or on iTunes if you need to catch up), but for now just sit back, put on those headphones and let us take you back to the happy sounds of the early Clinton Administration!

Starting off the episode, we find our younger self carrying on with his obsession with the electrifying artist Webb Wilder, but we move on from there, since by this point we were naturally pulling in a lot of requests from you, the loving public, during the second half of the show. Familiar favourites like Echo & the Bunnymen, Katrina & the Waves, Culture Club, The B-52s and Ultravox turn up, but we still have time for deeper tracks from Ian Dury, Pseudo Echo, Kirsty MacColl, the Psychedelic Furs, and the Flying Lizards among others. It's a great mix of the popular and the profound and much that was so good about the 80s. 

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know what you think at!

The Idol of Idle Youth: COW Episode #86 -- 23-April-1993

Well here we are with a completely amazing episode from April of 1993 -- its so good in fact that I'm having to split it up into two parts so you get the full glory!

Your old pal Chas had caught the Nash Vegas fever of Webb Wilder's incredible root-rock-a-tronic southpaw music, and he pops up a couple of times in a show dominated by the great New Wave and Art Rock songs that weren't the biggest hits but scored a lot of points. From John Foxx to the Dickies, from Wall of Voodoo to Bow Wow Wow, from early Devo to Christina, you're going to hear a lot of songs and versions you haven't heard in a long time, spiced with a few more tracks more familiar to fans of the many groups represented here.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Let us know what you the loving public think at, and keep an ear out for part two of this shindig, coming soon!.

Bargain Bin Crusty Old Wave -- 13-May-2013

Here's another all-new episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, this time recorded on the 13th of May, 2013 live at WPRK. With our dear friend Phantom Third Channel behind the board, we once again took to the air to bring out the long-lost and beloved treasures of the New Wave era -- but this time we did things a little differently.

Just to change things up, Phantom and I took turn playing the kind of music that normally plays on our show when I'm not taking over the place. Naturally I brought my early 80s-centric songs, and he brought his avant-garde selection of eclectic thrift-store finds, lost gems from bygone decades and enough oddball curveballs to win a baseball game. It made for an interesting mix that saw John Foxx followed by Robert Johnson, Captain Beefheart opening for Lesley Gore and Roky Erikson going head-to-head with Steeleye Span. This episode is a wild one, to be sure.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Enjoy.

COW #038 - Girls! Girls! Girls!

Annnnd here we are with another fun-filled episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave! This episode (#38) comes to us from the first of May, 1992 is serves not only as a two-hour testament to how great some of the music of the 80s was, but also to showcase a little of the wonderful cast of characters that I was privileged to work with on WPRK at Rollins College in the 90s.

This episode has some unusual selections. You'll hear obscurities from Noel's Cowards, Gina X Performance, Jerry Harrison, Landscape, and Seattle group Uncle Bonsai alongside album cuts from XTC, Adrian Belew, Falco, They Might Be Giants, the Rutles, the Pet Shop Boys, Adam Ant and many more. It's a party in the basement, and you're invited! Let's kick it off with a little sauciness from Duran Duran, and listen out for a cut from Sesame Street. Yes, Sesame Street.

You can listen to the episode below, download it from the web site or subscribe to it in iTunes for free. Enjoy.

COW #168 -- 10-Dec-1994 -- Rock It to the Moon!

Here it is, the latest episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave, fresh out of the oven! It’s a humdinger as well if I do say so myself, with lots of killer tunes. Heck, any episode with both They Might Be Giants and Weird Al Yankovic is bound to be good, plus you throw in lots of original punk, an interview and music from Orlando band Potential Frenzy, some particularly brilliant but less-heard music from Bruce Woolley, Bill Nelson, Modern English, Joe Jackson, The Assembly, the Buzzcocks, Paul Collins' Beat, and Georgia bands The Woggles and Hillbilly Frankenstein.

Oh wait, there’s more! How about a rare remix from Yazoo, some ska from the Toasters and Madness, and more great local music from The Hatebombs? And did I mention a bit from Monty Python? It’s all here, friends, in two hours of delightful fun. Get it streaming or downloadable on the site or from iTunes.

Get your dancing shoes on -- by the time Malcolm McLaren’s “Double Dutch” shows up, you’ll already be out of your chairs and hip-hopping down the stairs! Enjoy.

SuperCOW loves SuperMOOOOOON!

And back into the tape vault we go! Here's a classic one from 1993, episode #102. This was just two weeks after my old Black Volvo was broken into and the core of my CD collection I used for the show stolen. In some ways (and with a lot of hindsight) I think it may have made this episode better than average.

I will always remember these days -- I was so shocked when it happened (first time my car had ever been broken into) and it came on the heels of a perfectly DELIGHTFUL evening (up to that point at least) in a period where I was doing very well for myself on most fronts. Popular show, king of downtown, some lovely relationship happenings, good day job ... Lucky Pierre, that's me ...

Anyway, a great mix of familiar and obscure 80s tunes. That's what makes COW so special.

You can grab your copy from the website or directly from iTunes.


That COW ... it’s ALIVE!!

Wow, sorry that took so long, but here it is -- part two of our madcap 20th Anniversary celebration as it aired on WPRK this past July 4th. On this episode, we took down the “80s only” sign and grabbed great music from the past 30 years to play for our listeners and to dance around the studio like mad fools in the wee hours to.

As I say in the introduction to the show, some of these songs are not just pieces of music ... they’re my friends! Seriously, I have long and cherished memories with some of these tunes, from the They Might Be Giants song I sang with a TMBG cover band (seriously!) to the way Kraftwerk melted my 70’s-rock, guitar-addled brain, to the way the Hidden Cameras and the Botticellis (both contemporary bands) make me feel so alive the way Punk and New Wave (and Ska) did way back when ...

There’s plenty of familiar stuff over the course of the 2.5 hours, like the B-52s and Elvis Costello and Violent Femmes and Talking Heads. But there’s also some stuff both old and new that’s so obscure I dare you to name every song on the playlist without cheating. Lots of really great tunes in my opinion!

You can grab your copy from the website or directly from iTunes.


COW XX -- 20 Years of Crusty Old Wave!

WPRK threw a party and invited me ... and, by proxy, you ... to a celebration of 20 years since the first episode of what would become Chas’ Crusty Old Wave. I returned to Florida for the first time in nearly two years, and we did not one but two two-hour shows featuring the music we all love so much -- the red-headed stepkids of the 80s!

Today, three months after the event, we present the first of the two anniversary shows, hosted by Phantom Third Channel and myself. We get on terribly well and giggle like schoolgirls reading Tiger Beat magazine when we talk about music and bands and records and stuff, and this shows in our several extended conversation breaks -- but don't worry, there's lots of great music there, with an emphasis on Brian Eno, David Bowie and Elvis Costello. A lot of the tunes on this episode slot neatly into that all-too-brief era between the fall of UK punk and the rise of commercial "alternative" music. For a bit there, before MTV and in a few cases even before punk rock, there was a period where Weird Was Good. We touch on a lot of that with things like the Stiff Records single You'll Always Find Me in the Kitchen at Parties by Jona Lewie, or Bruce Woolley's original take on Video Killed the Radio Star, or Bow Wow Wow's call for sonic revolution, C30 C60 C90 Go!.

We also hit some songs that are sheer nostalgia for me personally, within and without the New Wave movement -- such as Love and Loneliness the most over-produced record in the world, and Monochrome Set's odd little B-I-D Spells Bid, one of the very few songs written by and about the lead singer of the band. There's also some Ultravox from both "eras" of the band, some bona-fide classics like Gary Numan's Me! I Disconnect From You and more. You can grab your copy from the website or directly from iTunes.


COW your head -- the epic Episode #19 is complete!

Like the relief felt at the completion of the end of the Lord of the Rings, I have managed to split a massive six-hour (well, five after editing) show into two parts, including artwork and for the most part very high audio quality into two great new episodes of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave (actually, its predecessor Chas n Gwen’s Pop Pajama Party), both parts of which you can now download directly from the website or via iTunes.

As was the case with Chas n Gwen’s Pop Pajama Party more so than the later solo show, we mix up the 80s songs with a healthy helping of music from the very early 90s, to great effect in my opinion. This far on, only the most dedicated collectors and historians of the New Wave era will remember specifically that bands like They Might Be Giants (for example) weren’t part of the original New Wave movement, but of the first wave of great stuff that came after it, so it all ends up a bit of a wash of nostalgia. Looking back, it’s kinda cool to see the obvious impact the punk aftermath had on artists that were actually paying attention -- before that awful grunge crap came around and ruined everything for a while.

I'd suggest -- if you think you can stand five hours of 80s, 90s and Chas with his multiple personalities -- downloading both parts of episode 19 and use them as a good workout tape or just for revelling in memories of your own misspent youth. There’s a heck of a lot of great stuff in there. Enjoy.

Fall Back, Spring COW

With the flowers and warmer weather comes a great new episode of Chas' Crusty Old Wave (actually, its predecessor Chas n Gwen's Pop Pajama Party, part one of which you can now download directly from the website or via iTunes. Part two of this (originally) six-hour funfest will arrive next month, and we hope you will subscribe (it’s free) so that new somewhat-monthly-ish episodes are automatically delivered to your computer.

I’m very pleased in particular with the audio quality on this episode, given the age of the tapes -- there is still a hint of carrier-wave static and normal FM compression as always, but for the most part you won’t even notice it. Mainly because you’ll probably be dancing around your kitchen a lot -- this is some seriously great tunes.


A new review coming soon, and it will be (as if the title wasn’t enough of a giveaway) of The King’s Speech. Stay tuned.

SO Me ...

(Click for larger)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One (2010)

Written by: Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Running time: 146 minutes

It’s a bad sign when your mind wanders during a film. It happened a couple of times during this one, which is not to say I didn’t like it. Overall, I liked it quite a lot -- in part because after six of these films they finally figured out how to make Harry Potter movies, and in part because J.K. Rowling has nicked so many “bits” from other books and movies and just twisted them a little, and there’s nothing wrong with that generally speaking.

The first thing that broke my suspension of disbelief was a moment early on in the film when Harry meets Elphias Dodge, an old friend of Dumbledore’s. Nothing against David Ryall, who’s been in everything British TV can offer at one time or another, but I would have loved to have seen Tom Baker in that part -- he’s much more the kind of mad character Dumbledore would hang out with.

Later, during the sequence in the Ministry of Magic, I remember thinking "ooh they should have let Terry Gilliam direct this one." There were several moments like that.

But what really broke my concentration was the laid-on-thick parallels to The Lord of the Rings. Now, the whole series has at this point become a “Quest” tale so bits of other quest classics are of course going to show up, from Greek mythology to Doctor Who’s The Key to Time, but Rowling really doesn’t try to terribly hard to hide it.

I come at these movies not having read the books (yes, I’m the one guy who hasn’t read any of these books bar the first one!), so I judge them as movies. From that perspective, the series has been pretty uneven; after the first delightful one, they quickly got jumbled, hurried and senseless (particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was a disgraceful mess). After a slight respite in the much-better Goblet of Fire, things returned to silly, overwrought and confusing in Order of the Phoenix, which I found totally forgettable and impossible to follow.

Much of the damage finally started being repaired in 2009's The Half-Blood Prince, helmed by David Yates who took what Mike Newell started and ran with it, focusing like a laser on the actual story buried in the details and extracting it, much to the delight of anyone who hadn't re-read the book the week before. HBP was clear, set up new events nicely, really let the young actors shine instead of being just an endless walk-through of notable old British veterans like the first five movies were, and as a result solved the pacing issue that had really hobbled all the films from #3 onwards.

Yates returned for this one, and the two-part nature of it might have been a crass marketing ploy but I for one am grateful; the slower pace makes this the first Harry Potter movie to have any appreciable amounts of silence in it. I found myself really enjoying the slower-paced scenes, such as Harry’s kiss with Ginny to remind you that they’re still a couple, and some of the later picture-postcard scenes do allow for some genuine thoughtful acting (rather than, say, re-acting to one of the many effects shots).

There is still a certain amount of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them with the by-now enormous guest cast (and remember, half of those characters have died in the films by this point!) and there are still some introductions of people who, as in so much of Rowling’s work, walk on and then are quickly killed or thrown out never to be seen again. I was disappointed we didn’t get more of the Dursleys, but at least this time they didn’t forget about having a few lighter scenes; the Seven Harrys will get a giggle out of many.

There’s a fair amount of sexual tension in the film, though for the life of me I can’t really see how the Ron-Hermione romance actually works so their on-screen actions feel kind of forced (and the “triangle” with Harry even more so), but the kids do pretty well with the material; this movie is much less a spotlight on Radcliffe as it is on Watson and Grint, the former proving herself what I have always suspected -- a reincarnated Audrey Hepburn -- while Grint struggles to look like he even belongs in this movie.

I don’t fault Grint so much as Rowling -- Ron is just a blah character meant to balance the other two, and in the films he’s been a total third wheel since the first one and he knows it. Of the original young cast, I think Watson and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) have a real shot at having genuine long film careers if they care to. Felton isn’t given that much to do in this one but he’s quite obviously going to have a bigger role in the next one, and I found the whole dynamic of the Malfoy household much more interesting in DH1 than ever before, as the family -- particularly Lucius, Draco’s father -- was painted in such cartoonish strokes up until the last film (and speaking of him, what the holy hell happened to Jason Isaacs? He looks terrible in this movie, like he’s aged 10 years to everyone else’s two!).

There were still sequences that didn’t make much sense, or seem to add much to the plot, but it is the scenes of the heroic trio on the run that make up the entire second half of the film, and while a nice change from the Hogwarts-bound nature of the previous movies, went too far over the LOTR-homage cliff and felt circular in nature -- apart from destroying the Horcrux, they don’t actually accomplish much, and what few clues they turn up felt very Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew-ish in nature. Finally, they end up in right where they didn’t want to be -- and despite their escape, they lose Dobby (I was not sorry to see him go, I considered him the Jar-Jar of this series, but at least they gave him a very good send-off) and the villain seems to have won the day.

Despite not having read the books, I have a pretty fair idea of where this is going for the wrap-up, which characters will return and which ones will redeem themselves. Why? Because while Harry Potter’s saga is imaginative -- and enjoyable for that -- it is not terribly original. Anyone well-versed in the Hero’s Myth, Freytag’s model and the best adventure stories that have come before it can see the general path ahead. But have we enjoyed the journey?

Though it remains entirely too dependent on the source books to make much sense without them, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, like The Half-Blood Prince, at least tries to give us a coherent enough main plot to follow that we aren’t bothered too much about the details, and on that level it succeeds.

For once, I understood perfectly what the subject of the title of the film was all about, thanks mainly to a really standout bit of shadow-play homage animation to illustrate the tale of the Three Brothers, and even the racism/eugenics allegory was further explored without beating me over the head with it. It even tied back to the first movie, well there’s a nice reward for those who have grown confounded by Rowling’s tendency to throw tonnes of interesting stuff at us and then refer back to precious little of it ever again.

I have hope that the finale really will tie up at least some of the bigger loose ends and give us a satisfying conclusion. I have no doubt that Voldemort has fallen for the last of Dumbledore’s traps, that just as the brass ring is in his grasp his “family” will begin to defect, and that characters not seen in this movie (or for a while, if you get my drift) will return. Hell, I’m half-expecting Ghostly Alec Guinness -- sorry, Ghostly Albus Dumbledore -- to turn up at a crucial moment and tell Harry to use the Force.

It's Fall, and the COWs are Turning

The (ahem) October episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave is now available via the website or directly from iTunes. We’ve been very pleased with the attention the show has been getting lately, and we hope you will subscribe (it’s free) so that new more-or-less monthly episodes are automatically delivered to your computer.

I want to particularly highlight Liz Langley’s contribution to this (and other) episodes, her “Horror-Scopes” are always a comedic delight and this show features a specially-written one for the holidays that’s just plain hilarious.

Oh, and there’s also a crapload of great 80s tunes, a nice mix of stuff you’ll have heard before and maybe a few songs or artists you aren’t that familiar with. Please do check it out.

Light Summer Listening -- The August Episode of COW

Back on schedule, or at least my schedule ... the August episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave is now available via the website or directly from iTunes. We’ve been very pleased with the attention the show has been getting lately, and we hope you will subscribe (it’s free) so that new monthly episodes are automatically delivered to your computer.

Not many shows have the cahones to play The Fabulous Poodles in this day and age, no sir. Plus there’s a nice set of International (read: non-English) New Wave at the beginning, plus plenty of familiar favourites from bands like A Flock of Seagulls and Bananarama. Toss in a pair of Naked Weather Girls™ and now we’re cookin’ with gas.

But it’s not just great 80s music, you know -- there’s also some goofy government PSAs, a bit of Monty Python and some Barnes & Barnes, and a pro-life message from the Pork Institute as well. But yes, it’s mostly light, fun 80s music. Enjoy.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Written by: Norman R. Raine & Seton I. Miller
Directed by: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains
Running time: 102 minutes

The short version: this is an absolute classic of a movie, so good that I don’t even mind that a number of the cast are obvious Americans.

This is a beautifully-executed amalgamation of various legends of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, a story that has evolved greatly over time (and deviated from what scant details are verifiable) but has its roots in genuine tales of a legendary archer who addressed injustices via vigilante violence from at least the 14th century.

This version presents the now-standard portrait of Robin of Loxley as a dispossessed Saxon knight forced to become an outlaw when the Normal Prince John, conniving brother of King Richard I, attempts to seize the monarchy and subjugate the Saxons while King Richard is away at the Crusades.

Very little of this squares in any way with the actual legend (itself full of disputed details) -- it's off by a mere couple of centuries, a different king and lack of nobility for a start -- but who the hell cares. The setting gives us a genuine historical backdrop (Prince John really did overthrow Richard’s regent William Longchamp in an attempt to seize the throne while Richard was held prisoner), a rich and clearly-drawn cast of characters, an injustice for Robin to fight and plenty of pageantry. The 12th century never looked as good as this, and despite all the detail inaccuracy, most people consider this the definitive version of the story which, despite many subsequent attempts, hasn’t been topped (or even equalled).

The key to this movie’s enduring success -- it’s still very watchable and enjoyable some 72 years after it’s release -- has a lot to do with the screenplay, which is beautifully peppered with comedy and drama in perfect proportion to the action, and structured very much along the patterns of Shakespeare's plots.

The casting must also be mentioned, as time has proven most of the choices very wise. Errol Flynn (who was actually born in Australia) gives us a passable attempt at an aristocratic English accent, convincing us he’s a Saxon lord being discriminated against by the treacherous Prince John (just this side of camp portrayal by Claude Rains), the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the flawless Basil Rathbone), and the rather ineffectual and oafish Sherrif of Nottingham (a refreshingly different, Cowardly Lion-esque approach by Melville Cooper).

Strangely, however, the Merry Men are appear to mostly be made up of Americans. Excluding Robin and Will Scarlett, the main speaking roles amongst the outlaws are the frog-voiced Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette, a former silent-movie star who's distinctive voice made him a comic actor in the talkies) and Little John (father of “Gilligan’s Island” skipper Alan Hale Jr.), the former of which is especially jarring in 12th-century Yorkshire.

Still, all is forgiven once the characters are introduced and the action begins, including a number of breath-taking stunts (remembering that there was no technology or safety standards in those days) set against a (California!) backdrop of perfectly gorgeous technicolour, still quite the novelty in 1938 but which has definitely helped preserve interest in this film.

Flynn comes off as the perfect heroic archetype; charming, sassy, bold, witty and noble. From his first encounter with Sir Guy and particularly in his latter bold appearance in the court of Prince John, his portrayal seems natural and self-assured, like he was born to play it -- the fact that his interpretation stands as definitive to this day speaks loudly of how well the script was tailored to Flynn’s personality.

Poor Olivia De Havilland has to do all her acting using almost exclusively her eyes for most of the film, only ridding herself of her maiden headdress towards the end, but she proves up to the challenge and gives a surprisingly rich and nuanced performance, even when overshadowed by the much more (shall we say) theatrical stylings of messrs. Rains, Rathbone and Cooper.

Sharp-eyed or repeat viewings of the film can yield forth all manner of continuity goofs, embarrassingly rubber clubs and swords, strange plot points (Richard and his men just “show up” in Sherwood with no explanation of how they escaped or got there, right on cue) and so forth, but these sorts of things -- which would be excoriated as sloppy in most films -- are swept under the rug by the an audience swept away by the pageantry and action. Directors Curtiz and Keighley boldly stage complicated fight scenes and other set pieces with huge numbers of extras and rather complicated shots and by and large it all works stunningly well.

Like Captain Blood and other high-adventure films of the period, the filmmakers have no trouble balancing slower, character-rich moments with the fast-paced action, because at all times they remember to be servants to the overall story. The comedy is always delightfully light-hearted, the dramatic moments are credible (particularly thanks to De Havilland, such as the scene in the forest where she begins to be won over to Robin’s cause), and nothing feels out of place -- even the entirely-invented romance between the hunter Much and Marion’s nurse Bess. Even the small moments and throwaway lines give the story more variety and depth -- careful not to make Robin less than perfectly noble, giving the Merry Men sufficient backstory, avoiding painting the Normans as all-bad or the Saxons as all-good and so on.

The Axis of Evil, circa 1166.
If you only ever see one Robin Hood film in its entirety, this is the one to see (well, actually, you should watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights right after it). If you only watch one Errol Flynn movie in your life, this is the one to see. If you only watch one colour film from the late 1930s ... okay yeah, that would be dumb because there were a number of fabulous colour movies from the late 30s, but this is definitely right up there with Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

Historical accuracy be damned, this is Hollywood legend-making at its finest and the source of so much influence over not just later Robin Hood movies, but adventure movies in general, that it should be a staple of film schools and periodic revivals, particularly at outdoor film fests. This is genuinely among my all-time favourite films -- great historical fun that holds up so well it may well last another century as a beloved fable.

Summer COW At Last!

So yeah, took a little bit of an unexpected break in June there -- sorry about that -- but the now-renamed “June/July” episode of Chas’ Crusty Old Wave is now available via the website or directly from iTunes. We’ve been very pleased with the attention the show has been getting lately, and we hope you will subscribe (it’s free) so that new monthly episodes are automatically delivered to your computer.

How long has it been since you last heard Duran Duran’s “A View to a Kill?” Or “Waterfront” from Simple Minds? Or, for that matter, Monty Python’s song “Sit On My Face” on a radio broadcast? We’ve got all that and much more, including a record-breaking three Naked Weather Girls in attendance, serious public service announcements gone hilariously wrong, and a few songs you’ve probably never heard before despite having living through the 80s and 90s. Not to mention our usual mix of popular and obscure gems from throughout the Alternative era.

Two and a half hours of good radio. Hard to find these days, so download it and enjoy.

The Runaways (2010)

Written and directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon
Running time: 109 minutes

The Runaways is a decidedly lopsided film about the hugely influential all-girl rock band who roared into life just on the crest of punk and combusted, as all legendary bands tend to do, before they ever reached their full potential.

The background of the film is that its screenplay is derived from (lead singer) Cherie Currie's tell-all biography Neon Angel, but also has as one of its executive producers one Joan Jett, the leader of the band, and so we can presume that from the point of view of these two, at least, the real story of The Runaways is being told.

Fanning and Stewart are, frankly, miracle pieces of casting giving their best performances ever (Fanning we already knew was an adept actor, but who could have guess that Kristen Stewart had more to offer the world than Bella Swan?), totally submersing themselves in their roles and even actually singing most of the numbers performed. Apart from scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the two girls dominate not only the band but the entire movie.

Thus, it’s a pity that the movie focuses on only these two members of the band (and Fowley) so heavily. Drummer Sandie West (Stella Maeve) at least gets some decent screen time and a few lines, but Lita Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) just comes off as a permanently disgruntled bitch with the very few lines she’s given throughout the film, and the bassist (a made-up character called Robin, since actual bassist Jackie Fox chose not to be represented in the film, played by Alia Shawkat) doesn’t get so much as a single word of dialogue! Ford and “Robin” just disappear into the background for 99% of the film, and West only fares slightly better. It’s like trying to tell the story of the Beatles while ignoring George and Ringo and instead only focusing on John, Paul and Brian Epstein.

That said, seeing the formation of the band makes for an interesting first half, showing not just Currie’s upbringing but Jett’s as well (though the film’s version of the band forming and their early practicing is an out-of-sequence and fictionalized version of what actually occurred). Frankly, Fowley still has enough life story left over to make several more films just about him.

The backstory on Currie’s disintegrating family is interesting, but by the middle of the film we see where that’s all going and would rather stick to the band members (who’ve had a very illuminating introduction into the realities of first-tour experiences), but since half of the band are little more than window dressing we get more about Marie Currie, Cherie’s long-suffering sister, left behind to take care of their alcoholic dad. After the band experience great success in Japan, things begin to fall apart with Currie taking on too many drugs (etc) to really function, even as she and Jett begin a relationship.

Before you know it, the band are in the recording studio, Currie is having a breakdown, Lita Ford gets her big bitch scene and voila, the whole thing flies apart. In reality, this process took four years and three albums (with Currie) plus a final record with Jett on lead vocals before it came crashing down. The film leaves us with Jett ruminating on a solo career, and an awkward coda years later as Jett is being interviewed by Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ (played over-the-top, if that’s actually possible with Bingenheimer, by Keir O’Donnell); Currie, who hasn’t spoken to Jett in years, phones in and stammers through some on-air awkwardness, then goes back to her job folding napkins.

Viewers who are not familiar with the background of the band and its actual breakdown are likely to be a bit confused by the abridgement and time compression of the film, which actually helps the film feel rather short at 109 minutes, but rock n roll is as much a feeling as it is a series of actions, so this film is probably as much of the real story as you’re ever likely to get, and the soundtrack (mostly reperformed Runaways songs, but there’s also some delicious Bowie, Stooges, Gary Glitter, MC5 and even a little Suzi Quatro in there as well) is pure gold.

The film itself is efficient and well-shot, covering a lot of ground pretty smoothly overall. Although there’s more dysfunctional family life in this one than you get in most rock band biopics, it still feels at times fairly mechanical in its run-through from origins to breakup, complete with “updates” on most of the characters at the end.

Despite having little to no “message” apart from “the rock lifestyle is fun, but don’t overdo the drugs, mmmkay?”, it’s good to see big-name stars actually put some acting blood on the line and do justice to the (limited scope of) the story for a change, and the music is killer, so ultimately I recommend you see the film. I somehow just don’t see Ford, West and Fox (et al) ever getting it together to tell you their side of the story, so eat what you’re given and enjoy The Runaways.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Robert Downie Jr., Jude Law
Running Time: 129 minutes

When I was a boy, I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories -- and still credit my reasonable powers of observation and fair ability to “read” people to my studied enthusiasm for those imaginative tales.

Every few years, I get the itch to re-immerse myself in that wonderful world of Victorian crime and intrigue, intense problem-solving matched with equally intense pleasure-seeking, and the power of pure friendship and pure intellectualism. Most recently I’ve finally (after 20 years!) gotten a chance to watch Tom Baker play the world’s foremost detective from a 1982 BBC production. Baker, who’s best-known role (The Doctor of Doctor Who) is more than a little inspired by Doyle’s detective, was actually bloody marvellous in the traditional theatrical interpretation of the part, rather talky and stagey and with an emphasis on the character’s regal bearing contrasted with his inability to cope with anything beyond crime-solving. It’s available for rental and Holmes purists will probably find themselves generally delighted at this unfairly-overlooked production.

When this new Sherlock Holmes film first came around last Christmas, I had mixed feelings that ultimately kept me from seeing it in a cinema until now. I had great confidence that Robert Downey Jr would be fine in the lead, despite the alarming 80s hair he boasts in the promotional poster (thankfully not replicated in the film), but I frankly don’t care much for Guy Ritchie’s output; neither his choice of usual subjects (British gangland) or his particular directorial style (no more than 10 minutes till the next implausible action sequence) have ever sat well with me, though I’d be the first to admit the two generally go together successfully.

The trailer didn’t inspire me much, except to dare to hope that Jude Law (who plays Watson) would actually be good, something I’ve never managed to see happen before (including, most recently, in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Holmes as a boxer? A dashing ladies man with all the right words? A Victorian London that appears to have a lot of explosions??

But one should never trust trailers. The actual film itself is, in my view, Ritchie’s most successful effort at being light-hearted, and while great liberties have been taken with the source, it is still identifiably Holmes and Watson, and makes for a solidly entertaining film that deservedly did well at the box office.

While the film is carried by the strong performance of Downey as Holmes, this is actually more Watson’s movie, a very wise move on the part of the screenwriters and director. Watson is often played (ever since Nigel Bruce ruined the part) as a bumbling fool whose only job is to provide narration and makes Holmes look good, but in this version we get something much closer to the Dr. Watson we met in the books and stories; a colleague who, after several years with Holmes, has picked up much of his power of observation, a foil who Holmes himself sees as the man he might have been, a faithful chronicler but not always so loyal a friend, often getting tricked or challenged into participating further.

Jude Law has, to my eyes, never ever been better than he is here. I have never much cared for him and find most of his performances wooden, underplayed and dull, but he clearly had a strong regard for Watson and a good chemistry with Downey, and hits exactly the right note.

As for Downey, his accent is (as Ritchie called it) “flawless” and his interpretation of the part is entirely suitable. If Doctor Who ever got made into a another big-screen movie and the current incumbent was unsuitable, Downey would be my second choice -- his entire performance here might as well be one long audition piece for The Doctor. Though he lost some weight for the role to get into fighting trim, I still don’t see him as quite physically right for the role -- Holmes was a wastrel in many ways, and the usual consequence of such addictions is a gauntness Downey just doesn’t possess. But he’s more than adequate in the part and apart from some occasional mumbled lines (usually spoken too quickly to be heard clearly), he provides the necessary mix of gentlemanly bearing with mischievous misanthropy, adding style and wit, particularly to his relationship with Inspector LeStrade (Eddie Marsan).

The plot is scarcely worth mentioning, in part because its not based on anything in the Conan Doyle canon and in part because apart from its overall raison d’etre -- purporting to show the first meeting of Holmes with his later arch-enemy Professor Moriarty -- it doesn’t matter really. The mystery is lovely and atmospheric and, as we know full well going into this, fully solved by the end. The supporting players are equally trivial to the point of the film, which is to showcase the complex relationship of Holmes and Watson. The whole film is actually structured more a Dan Brown runaround (such as The DaVinci Code) than a proper Holmes tale, for example eschewing the traditional “told after the fact” narrative angle and omitting the also-traditional part where a visitor to Baker Street sets up the entire background, one of Doyle’s most common literary devices. But it’s all been cast aside so that we may spend more time in the present moment with Holmes and Watson and watch their bromance take its roller-coaster ride through some very scenic set pieces.

Instead of all that drawing-room chat, we are dropped right into the thick of things, with Holmes and Watson stopping the ritual murder of a young girl by occult leader Lord Blackwood (bit of an in-joke, that name), played by Mark Strong. Blackwood tries his best to convince Holmes of the existence of the supernatural, even returning from the dead after three days (it’s been done), but Holmes is having none of it. Methodically and (as usual) against time and obstacles both external and internal, he unfolds the mystery and (along with the help of Rachel McAdams as an American former lover and jewel thief) saves the day.

London is of course a great place to shoot a Victorian mystery as its quite easy to use current locations with a minimum of dressing. The problem with Ritchie is that he has no concept of the word “minimum” -- sets are usually over-dressed and dwelled on more than the actors. Some scenes appear to be chosen purely for their visual value rather than any practical meaning; a prolonged fight scene with Holmes bare-knuckle boxing a larger fellow exists ostensibly to show his ability to calculate his victory over an opponent, but this exact same ability was showcased in the first scene of the film -- so this repeated scene is merely an excuse to show the same thing, only this time with Downey’s shirt off.

In another example, being chased by a giant French henchman (Fre-henchman?), the action allows for a large vessel to be loosed from its moorings and fall into the Thames, where it sinks entirely out of sight. The Thames, at its absolute deepest point and highest tide, wouldn’t be quite 20 metres (the spirit of Conan Doyle was notably absent during the “logical sequence of events” part of writing this screenplay). Not only that, the boat slipping from its drydock is entirely unnecessary and adds neither atmosphere nor content to the story.

The big climatic fight on the top of the still-being-built Tower Bridge was probably enjoyable to mainstream moviegoers but struck me as very unrealistic, breaking my suspension of disbelief by being so obviously green-screened. It’s no accident that it’s the only really “talky” part of the movie, the part where Holmes explains to the villain (as though he didn’t know) -- and the audience -- all the ways in which he’d rigged his “supernatural” tricks. I guess Richie can’t abide the idea of people just explaining things without visual drama all around them. At least he confined himself to only one huge explosion this time.

For a “Hollywood” movie (albeit shot in England), Sherlock Holmes is generally very successful at making the character more appealing to modern (read: less entertained by displays of cleverness) audiences; as a movie its good fun and I’m not surprised that the estate of Sir Conan Doyle gave its blessing, despite it being an original story. The choice of a “supernatural” villain was both genre-appropriate and created a nice contrast of styles. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack makes use of authentic sounds and even a few period songs alongside the usual “action” soundtrack requirements, so I’d rate it above average. The editing was, as is typical of a Guy Ritchie production, rather slapshot and trendy. Like the sets, it felt overworked at times. One fears for Mr Ritchie’s ability to stay focused for any lengthy periods of time.

This interpretation of Holmes may not go down as a classic, but its well worth your ticket or rental money, features a surprisingly strong pair of leads, and preserves the colour, charm and brains of the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes. Despite the sometimes ill-fitting choice of director, I’d say this is about as good a Sherlock Holmes movie as you could possibly hope for out of a mainstream US studio.

March Comes in Like a Lion, Goes Out Like a COW

Before we get started, I have to get this out of the way: the March episode of my award-winnable podcast, Chas' Crusty Old Wave, was in fact available in March. As in “the 31st of March.”

However, as the next day was April Fools, I didn’t want to say much about it lest I be accused of participating in that most insipid of holidays. Now, however, the coast is clear -- and I’m particularly keen on this particular episode, which is now available either via the website or directly from iTunes. We’ve been very pleased with the attention the show has been getting lately, and we hope you will subscribe (it’s free) so that new monthly episodes are automatically delivered to your iTunes.

If you’re willing to help spread the word about C-COW as we sometimes like to call it, this is a really good episode to initiate a newbie with: it’s got (IMHO) an excellent mix of well-loved and obscure New Wave, a smattering of punk and ska, some great comedy bits by Liz Langley, funny voices by moi, and even a Naked Weather Girl. Seriously, this is a lot of entertainment packed into its 2.5 hours. Chas Bob says “check it out.”

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray
Running Time: 87 minutes

Wes Anderson’s films are very hit-and-miss with me, in part because he tries very hard not to make the same movie over and over, for which I thank him. I’m always a little amazed at how generally well his films do considering they have a distinctly “indie/art house” air to them; he’s the kid who somehow gets to make largely uncompromised movies on the studio’s dime, never having a megahit but always paying off the investors sufficiently that he gets to make another one. In some ways, he’s this generation’s Woody Allen.

So I have my reasons for wanting to like what I see from him, and by and large I have -- although he’s very rarely moved me to be terribly enthusiastic. Such is also the case with his latest movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox -- or as I call it, Not At All Bad Mr. Fox. I enjoyed it, not least because it certainly doesn’t look like any other movie on the screen this year -- but it didn’t thrill me all that much, and I was a little disappointed to find the well-remembered Roald Dahl book quite tinkered with.

Still, it’s important to remember that I’m not the target audience for this -- it’s a kid’s movie based on a kid’s book, and on that level I think the film works pretty well. I hope it inspires kids to read more Roald Dahl. The all-hand-done, stop-motion animation is a really nice change from the surplus of 3-D computer animation we’ve gotten, and although it uses the same technique as the Wallace & Gromit series it does have a distinct look and “feel” (what Ebert would call “texture”). The story works out pretty well despite Anderson’s (unnecessary) addition of a sub-plot and character that don’t end up making a big impression. As a children’s movie, I can recommend it at least as much as the book.

I can’t help but be disappointed by two key decisions, the first of which I’ve already alluded to: Anderson’s decision to (literally) wedge in a “young men who are rivals then bond” subplot that doesn’t actually go anywhere unexpected and seems to exist solely to “mark his territory” in the movie. The second mistake (in my opinion) was casting George Clooney as the lead. Certainly Mr. Fox is a smug sonofabitch and Clooney is terribly good at playing that sort of character, but there’s a reason why Mr. Clooney isn’t constantly swamped with voice work: it’s because he’s not a voice actor. A voice actor is someone who has great range in his voice and can hide, exaggerate his audible personality and usual range with aplomb. Clooney either can’t do this or was directed not to, which means you spend the entire movie looking at Mr. Fox but hearing (very obviously) George Clooney, which hurts the suspension of disbelief.

By contrast, Meryl Streep (who plays Mrs. Fox) is unrecognisable till the end credits (in part because the role is rather beneath her, quite frankly), as is Willem Dafoe. Even Owen Wilson, who sports a pretty recognisable voice and is of course to be expected to appear in every Wes Anderson film any more, manages to inject some actual character into his role. Not George -- he just puts on that smug tone he employs in every Oceans movie and phones it in from there.

The aforementioned subplot is Anderson’s weakness -- he just has to find a way to stick in some non-conformist dork character who refuses to stop being a odd little twerp, but at the exact same time longs to be accepted by the mainstream. To give Mr. Fox’s son Ash that title, it was necessary to invent a foil who starts off as a rival but then ends up as a friend, thus the invention of Ash’s “cousin” Kristofferson (what an original name!). Kristofferson is “acceptably odd” with his meditation and his quiet nature, versus Ash’s “unacceptable” lack of physicality and grace (bad qualities for a fox, I’m sure you’ll agree). Everyone else in the film is endearingly (but acceptably!) odd as well, except strangely enough for Mrs. Fox, an artist who just comes off stupid and rather gullible in the film.

The film diverges from the book in an number of important ways, some sensible and some insensible. In the movie, Mr. Fox is an expert thief who steals (primarily) chickens and such from the three local farmers just for the fun of it. In the book, he does this to feed his family (as every fox does). In the book, Mr. Fox has four children; in the movie, his “reformation” from a chicken thief to a newspaper columnist (who presumably now pays for food? It’s never explained) is brought on by a close escape and the revelation that his wife is pregnant (with their one son Ash).

Twelve years later (in fox years, a delightful invention that pops up periodically), Ash is feeling his oats again and conspires with the super of his tree-home, the opossum Kylie to start pulling heists of chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and alcoholic cider. Mrs. Fox is extremely slow to notice. Mr. Fox’s thefts lead to a war of attrition with the mean old farmers, who use increasingly strong methods to try and flush Mr. Fox out, displacing all the other animals in the nearby land. Eventually, the Fox family as well as the the Badgers, rats and other animals are forced very far underground and are in danger of starving. Amazingly, the animals (including most incredibly Mrs. Fox) get only mildly annoyed with Mr. Fox for getting them all into this mess when everything was perfectly fine before by nothing more than his sheer avarice and lack of willpower. He is quickly forgiven, however, when he comes up with a plan to dig into the farmers’ storehouses while they are distracted by trying to flush him out.

From here, the rest of the film is largely a Roadrunner cartoon in stop-motion; the farmers try something, Fox miraculously figures out a way to outsmart them. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In the book, Mr. Fox takes some responsibility for his actions, and his plans are borne of a sense of guilt about what has happened to the other animals while he was just trying to feed his own family. In the film, you never get that; you get instead an arrogant prick with no real willpower who takes more than he needs, gets into entirely predictable trouble, but manages to weasel (heh) his way out of one self-created jam after another, aided by enabling co-dependents. I was almost rooting for the farmers by the end of it …

I read somewhere that during pre-production, Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) was going to be involved, and you have to wonder how that would have turned out, but in some way the art direction on this (done without him) is one of the things that really shines; a few scenes don’t quite “look right,” but that’s part of the charm of hand-made stop-motion.

In 10 or 20 years when nobody remembers George Clooney, this film will be seen for what it actually is; a charming, perhaps a little sloppy, but ultimately human adaptation of Dahl’s story of “wild animals” in a refreshing style that’s enjoyed by children (there were a fair number of laughs at the screening I went to, which had a healthy kid contingent).

At the moment, however, (particularly with Clooney being in every third film out in 2009), the film seems more like an animated version of that funny Captain Kirk “motivational poster” going around the net that says “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.” I can’t help but think that sticking a little closer to the book and using a better vocal actor for Mr. Fox would have made the film a classic.

The 1st Annual (Almost) Totally Blind Oscar™ Predictions!

POST-AWARDS UPDATE: Well that went well ... I finished the evening with a 12-4 record, my best ever score. Turns out you can predict the Oscars by just watching the machinations of the hype machine! And here I’ve been wasting all this time actually watching the films. Lesson learned! :)

I’m actually shocked at how few films I’ve seen this year, but my usual film employer spent the last few months being bought and then rebuilding, so I didn’t get to see my usual 50-70 or so movies this year (unless you count Turner Classic Movies!). I did go out and see some films in cinema that personally interested me, but by that count this was an off year; there are some films out now that I would like to take in (and probably will over time), but very few I absolutely had to see. Of the nominees listed, I actually did see Up, Julie & Julia, Star Trek, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.

Thus, I’m in a good position to make Academy Award predictions, because I can go by almost nothing but the hype. I’m not even going to read Ebert’s predictions this year. I feel this frees me from the slavery of actually having to watch these films, at least some of which I might not enjoy, and allows me to discover the zen of pure movie criticism. I learned that from Helmut Spargle.

So, with a few measly drops of LSD and my critic’s intuition, I’ll stake my claims today, and find out how well I did tomorrow. Glory or shame will be mine!

Original Song: “The Weary Kind” from Crazy Heart. Because Hollywood wants you to know they love country music too. Yeah right.

Original Score: I will be pulling for Michael Giacchino for Up, but I actually think it will go to Avatar (James Horner). Nope, Giacchino won. I’m happy to be wrong on this one.

Sound Editing: This will be The Hurt Locker’s first of many Oscars.

Sound Mixing: I actually think Star Trek should get this one, as this is one area where I thought the film hung together (since it didn't in terms of plot, continuity, direction or design ...), but it will probably go to Avatar. Got it for sound editing, missed it for this one, it was The Hurt Locker again. Riff-Raff lookin’ good!

Cinematography: My bet is on Avatar for this one, which is a shame because computer-generated pictures shouldn't be eligible for cinematography awards. It really ought to go to Inglorious Basterds.

Art Direction: Unless the Academy is feeling extraordinarily ornery, this will go to Avatar as well.

Animated Feature Film: For no reason I can make out, the Academy hates Pixar (probably because they are a clique), nevertheless I will be like Charlie Brown and kick the ball for Pixar’s Up. But if I’m right about the Academy, expect it to go to Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Original Screenplay: Well, Tarentino’s out of this one, since Inglorious Basterds is about as original as an episode of Hogan’s Heroes; Up won’t get it because the Academy hates Pixar; and The Hurt Locker won’t get it because there have been charges that the story is stolen. That leaves  The Messenger and A Serious Man. From what little I know of these two films, I’m going with the Coen Brothers on this one. Dang it, missed this one. It was The Hurt Locker yet again.

Adapted Screenplay: Precious. That is all.

Foreign Language Film: Based completely on wild-assed guessing, I’ll pick The White Ribbon (Germany). Nope, it was the Argentinian film El Secreto de sus Ono.

Directing: Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, though perhaps we’ll get an upset win with Lee Daniels for Precious -- he certainly seems to be able to pull performances out of actors that other directors can’t get.

Supporting Actress: Mo’nique, Precious.

Supporting Actor: It’s between Christopher Plummer for The Last Station and Christoph Waltz for Inglorious Basterds. I’ll be rooting for Plummer, but my gut says headline writers everywhere have already got it: “Christoph WALTZES Away With Award,” har-de-har-har.

Actress: I would love to see a total newcomer like Carey Mulligan or Gabourney Sidibe win it, but nah, it’ll be either Meryl Streep or Sandra Bullock. My guess: Sandra, even though Streep was actually much better. I personally thought Julie & Julia was awful (well, the Julie part anyway), but Streep was absolutely amazing as Julia Child, whereas Sandra Bullock is being rewarded for taking a risk outside her comfort zone (but wasn’t actually at all convincing IMHO). If Gabourney Sidibe pulls an upset, that will be the big story of the night.

Actor: I actually think Jeff Bridges could pull an surprise here.

Best Picture: Everyone thinks it will be The Hurt Locker, and they're probably right, but I’m going with Precious for the upset. I was half-right on this, so I’m counting it. :)

Whether I’m right, wrong or somewhere in-between, I will say this: 2009 was a good year for variety of stories in movies, even if a number of them weren’t to my taste. I can think of many years where the nominees for Best Picture were mostly dramas with a token comedy, but this year we have a real buffet of styles and stories to choose from. I’m also seeing a pleasing trend back towards what I’ll call “sophisticated adult fare” like Up in the Air, An Education, A Serious Man and A Single Man (among others).

And in my world, the first 10 minutes of Up would receive a special award for Perfection in Computer Animation -- that sequence is a summation of every element of a film coming together.

Movies For (Film) Lovers

(This guest article I wrote is reprinted with permission from Liz Langley’s “Lust Never Sleeps,” an excellent but NSFW blog on all things erotic. Highly recommended.)

The films you saw at the early stages of your romantic life can have an enormous impact on your perceptions of love, the opposite sex, and life in general. Further, because most people tend to see movies on the big screen only once -- those thoughts and impressions and visual memories work their way deeper into our subconscious than something we can see on-demand any old time via the cable box or the internets.

Thanks to a local art-house cinema in my youth, my fantasy love life was longer and much richer than my actual love life for quite some little while, but I used that time learning from the Masters of Romance, from Rudolph Valentino to Errol Flynn. The main thing I learned from them is that their pick-up lines don’t work as well if you’re not as rich or good-looking -- or living in the 1940s.

Sexually-charged scenes always made an impact on me and the first I can recall was in Zefferelli’s 1968 Romeo & Juliet when the sun rose and the lovers gently bickered about the nightingale and the lark. It wasn’t just the nudity, I had seen that before -- there was a beauty and a tender emotional connection, between the lovers and between them and us -- that a movie hadn’t given me before. To this day, I get dreamy-eyed just thinking about this film.

Around that time I snuck into a showing of Fellini’s Satyricon and received a mind-blowing vicarious thrill of teen love and decadent lust that fueled a powerful fire indeed, one that drove me to accelerate my indoctrination into the forbidden worlds of adult pleasures. I happened to catch The Rocky Horror Picture Show on its earliest “cult” runs and recall vividly how Frank N. Furter -- particularly in the scene where he disguises himself and seduces both Brad <and Janet -- took my notions of “normal” and traditional sexual roles and blew them as sky-high as that spaceship mansion of theirs (it’s the sheer curtain that really does it for me).

Blue balls from unsatisfied lust has nothing on the pain of a pure and broken heart, and as I transitioned away from the raw thrills of sexually-charged films, I found (no doubt due in part to the early influence of Romeo & Juliet) that sad films often produced the most romantic feelings, as tragedy often reminds you of the importance of appreciating what you have when you have it. Films such as The Elephant Man and Requiem for a Dream, The Very Long Engagement or In America have all those elements -- but most to be honest, most romances are trumped by the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up; that such a charming, effective and utterly perfect portrait of love and loss and everything that is important about life should be the preamble of a children’s “wacky misadventure” type movie makes it all the more amazing.

It still must be said that if you made a movie of my love life it could only be a comedy. The romantic bits of Monty Python’s Life of Brian come to mind: I’m not the Messiah, I’m a very naughty boy!

One type of movie I can’t recommend if you’re serious about making Valentine’s Day something special is the so-called “Romantic Comedy.” There are a few good ones, certainly -- but as a whole, the genre is pretty swamped with Lifetime-esque cliche and unsatisfying junk. I suggest – as always – that you dig up movies with genuine emotion as much as wits or tits. A shared laugh is an often-overlooked but insanely powerful bonding agent. For all the yuks and sight gags, Airplane! is actually a really sweet love story. Young Frankenstein has nothing but love at its heart when you think about it. Still, my favourite commedia di amore is a classic in the “war between the sexes” genre – combining sagacity and sexuality, mischief and misdirection, exotic locations and erotic elocution; songs and words and deeds in praise of a love based on genuine friendship – 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing. Indeed, it was the theme of my wedding.

So give up that Ghost DVD and pass the porn on to your bachelor buddy – for true love, the play is the thing.

Romeo & Juliet (1936)

Director: George Cukor
Starring: Leslie Howard, Norma Shearer, John Barrymore
Running time: 126 minutes

One of my favourite movies of all time is the 1968 Franco Zefferelli version of Romeo & Juliet.

Today on TCM (February is always a great month to watch, it's all Oscar winners all month long), they ran the 1936 version of the classic story. Having not seen it, and being interested in some of the cast -- Basil Rathbone as Tybalt, John Barrymore as Mercutio (a role I have played myself), Leslie Howard and Norma Shearer in the title roles etc. -- I gave it a whirl.

Not as good. Appalling by today's standards, in fact.

In large part this is due to how old the leads were at the time -- in 1936 it was probably considered immodest to actually cast young adults in teenage roles -- but Leslie Howard was 43 YEARS OLD playing Romeo (Shearer was 34!). Most of the rest of the company were equally far too old to be in their parts, with the curious exception of the actors playing actual old people (!).

Throw in some truly diabolical overacting by 54 YEAR OLD John Barrymore as Mercutio (admittedly I'm biased), Edna May Oliver as Juliet's nurse and a completely unwatchable “performance” by Andy Devine as the lummox Peter (idiot servant of Capulet), and even the rest of the production (some parts of which are actually quite excellent) becomes quite unbelievable. Did I mention the awkward male leotards with their Scottish-esque sporrans, by the way?

The American accents in most of the cast don’t help much either ... I think we all know that if Shakespeare set the play in Verona Italy, he meant it to be performed in the the King’s English! Hmph and all that! :)

The movie isn't worthless by any means -- obviously we’re still talking the beautiful rhyming language of Shakespeare here (except when Andy Devine is speaking), and director Cukor (who went on to do many outstanding films) does good work overall, particularly in the larger scenes (the street fight between the families, the soirée where Romeo first lays eyes on Juliet and so on), and despite their great age Howard and Shearer do the roles justice, but still -- a Romeo with a receding hairline is pretty hard to get past.

Some have said that Barrymore was deliberately playing Mercutio as an older guy who just won’t grow up (or, more cynically, likes to hang out with young men), but I’m not buying it. He’s a comic character, yes -- but comparing Barrymore’s campiness to Reginald Denny’s much more finely-judged Benvolio shows off which of the two is the better actor, at least in this movie.

The sets, costumes and score are all excellent, but I have to admit that even as big a fan of B&W movies as I am, the story of Romeo and Juliet demands so much passion and exuberance to pull off all that flowery language that the movie not being in colour hurts it (in my eyes, particularly since I’m so enamoured of the 1968 version). Not only that, but the film is very “stagey” rather than naturalistic, which in 1936 might have been perfectly acceptable but looks terribly stiff today.

If you can get past The World’s Oldest Teenagers as the leads, there is obviously more than enough here to commend a viewing of the film if for no other reason than to compare it to the many other versions out there. Basil Rathbone as Tybalt in particular is easily the best version of the character of any film version in my opinion -- he’s just flatly terrific in the role of an eager young buck spoiling for a fight, and completely dominates every scene he’s in. But Shearer, despite a fine performance, didn’t get the role based solely on her talents -- she was the wife of producer Irving Thalberg, and it was perhaps her casting that made it necessary to make Romeo so old (etc).

Fundamentally flawed in a modern context but still based on what is arguably one of Shakespeare’s most universally-appealing stories (since he nicked it from Tristan & Isolde), this version is lavish and beautiful to watch -- but it’s fairly bit hard to listen to.

The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Director: John Huston
Stars: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, Sidney Greenstreet
Written By: Dashiell Hammett and John Huston

I recently got to see this film again for the first time in many years at the CineCenta theatre with a near-capacity crowd. Watching old movies -- particularly familiar classics -- takes on a lot of new meaning when you have a crowd, a fine print, excellent sound and such a big screen. Changes the whole dynamic.

When people refer to “film noir,” this is one of the archetypes of that whole genre. Many people today believe it refers to crime films taking place largely at night, but it actually has less to do with the stylised B&W look and a lot more to do with characters who have ambiguous motivations, secrets, and sexual agendas (well downplayed thanks to the Hays Office, but represented in other ways).

Bogart’s character Sam Spade is the perfect example: he’s in business with his partner Miles Archer but doesn’t like him, and at some point in the past was seeing Archer’s wife (though he has since lost interest). He doesn’t mourn Archer’s death when it happens, but he gives up a promising love affair to see his murderer brought to justice. He plays both sides of the law like a hopscotch court, alternately cooperating with then abusing the local police; and he admits that money sways him, although he (barely) ends up the hero. “Hard-boiled” is too weak a description for this guy: he drinks and smokes like a fiend, is blatantly greedy, is abusive to the people who are the most help to him, and his moral compass swings around like its at the North Pole.

The colourful supporting characters, and Bogart’s interaction with them, is what really holds the film together and why this version (and not the two previous film versions) is so well-remembered. Although each character (but one) is a delight, it’s Bogart deftly adapting to each one that is the real magic: Sam Spade is a consummate judge of character, knowing exactly how far he can push each person till they give.

Of course, this is the long-gone world of the early 1940s, and the interaction of characters as seen now gave for many moments of laughter as Spade steamrollers his devoted Miss Moneypenny secretary, smacks Peter Lorre around and tells him he’ll like it, intimidates the hapless police and brushes off Archer’s now-available widow in favour of the more dangerous Brigid O’Shaughnessy, among others. The laughter came naturally from a combination of awareness at how social morés had changed, along with the sharply written and rapid-fire banter. There’s a lot of really good lines in this film.

It doesn’t hurt that the movie is well-stocked with a diverse range of well-drawn characters, from the relentlessly civilised crime boss Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) to the rage-filled gunsel (that term used quite deliberately it would seem) Wilmer Cook (Elisha Cook Jr) to Peter Lorre’s unforgettable clever weasel, Joel Cairo. Even Spade’s office moll Effie (Lee Patrick), forever to become a caricatured stereotype in later films, projects a lot of heart into what we would today call a hopeless enabler. The only person really miscast in my view was Mary Astor, trying too hard to match Bogey’s machine-gun delivery until in some scenes it resembles an episode of Dragnet, and carrying off an Irish immigrant grifter about as well as Queen Elizabeth would have. She’s too stiff and too upper-class to really pull off the constant turns of softness and hardness the character needs, alternating from victim to gangster in a flash. Astor is just naturally glamourous and while some of that is called for, it never cracks enough for us to see if there’s anything underneath.

First-time (at the time) director Huston makes up for his inexperience by cleverly planning out every sequence and shooting almost totally in chronological order, making it easy for the actors to keep their performances consistent and keeping the crew on high efficiency (almost no dialogue was cut from the raw footage to the final edit). There are still short bits where the story gets into a bit of a muddle, but overall this is a very sharply-directed film.

There are several long sequences that appear to have been shot in a single take, including the finale which is over seven minutes of uninterrupted single camera angle, but my own favourite scene in the protracted struggle between Spade and Cairo in Spade’s office; motivations and fortunes change several times in the course of a five minute scene, with brilliant dialogue as punchy as the violence. Indeed, The Maltese Falcon is a far less violent film than you would expect; ultimately only two people actually die, and one of those is off a character who never actually appears in the film.

The elaborate plot unfolds rather deliciously, with the viewer led on a number of false starts; this is still a refreshing change from the hamfisted spell-it-all-out-complete-with-flashbacks approach too many modern mysteries indulge in. With almost all of the characters, there’s so much we’ve clearly not been told that could flesh them out, but instead Hammett and Huston leave them as they are, and we accept them as they are -- even though we’d love to know more. We get enough of their essential personas to let our imaginations fill in the gaps, and the sexual innuendo and tension laid on thick thanks to the censorship of the times actually helps give these characters more mystery than they would have had otherwise.

I was particularly re-impressed (as I always am) with the various scenes of Spade’s love/hate relationship with the police; there were gasps from the audience during moments where Spade takes command and browbeats the fuzz into submission, not once but several times.

Music, sound effects, incidental characters and establishing shots are similarly concise and economical, letting the characters and dialogue have the day over much action or violence -- all in service to the story, which is how it ought to be for a movie like this.

Despite some now-unintentional comedy due to the customs of the day, the tale and particularly its players bring a still-modern sense of complexity and ambiguity to their parts that still works to keep our interest; its only in the climax of the film that we finally find out of Bogart is going to sacrifice all for love, fall in with the villains or -- as it turns out -- find a nifty third way out of the whole mess.

Well-cast, well-played, shot in a workmanlike style and directed with great economy of tone, memorable characters and a multi-level story make The Maltese Falcon not just the first, but one of the best, of a just-minted genre. Guys should take their dolls out to this one; it’s not only a classic, it’s a San Francisco Treat.

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