Monday, May 23, 2011

Film Review: They Came To Rob Las Vegas (1968)

In the 1960s, as the Hollywood studio system was falling apart at the creative and financial seams, European cinema was kicking ass with auteurs like Fellini, Truffaut, Godard, and Antonioni. Europe was also doing a roaring business in what would later become cult pictures: titles such as Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, The 10th Victim, and Black Sunday all became classics of their kind. It's into this last category that They Came To Rob Las Vegas falls. Like most cult films, it's essentially a B-movie that earns the cult label through an extra degree of artistry, inventiveness, energy, and, for lack of better term, craziness.

The plot, which is far more complex than your average B-movie, has a group of thieves taking down an armoured car that ferries cash from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. But this is no ordinary armoured car; it's a Skorsky armoured car, which means it's built to be invulnerable to attack. It even has remote controlled machine guns to dissuade attackers. Tony, the leader of the gang, has the edge on Skorsky because his girlfriend, Ann, is Mr Skorsky's personal (very) assistant, and can tell him the route the car is taking. The attack on the armoured car goes down without a hitch, but things quickly go pear-shaped from there, and Tony, the anti-hero of the film, has to scramble to keep the money and his life.

That's the plot in a very tiny nutshell. But what makes the film a cult classic? Let's start with the soundtrack. It was almost a regulation that all European genre films of the '60s had to have a really cool/weird musical score, and They scores high in this department. Georges Garvarentz was the composer, and when he wasn't scoring schlock like Killer Force and Sappho, he wrote the music for Charles Aznavour's songs. Georges gives the film some wonderfully brassy, bombastic music for the action scenes, and a classic piece of trippy mood music that features a female vocalist doing a lot of humming and la la la-ing.

The quality of the acting is all over the place. Pros like Lee J. Cobb and Jack Palance earn their paycheques, but no more, and Elke Sommer as Ann is, well, she looks good in a low-cut dress. It's Gary Lockwood as Tony who's the revelation here. Stanley Kubrick had already cast him as the doomed astronaut in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and you can see here why Kubrick gave him the role. Lockwood lacks leading man looks, but he certainly has leading man charisma. His character is supposed to be tough, smart and oh-so-very-cool, and Lockwood conveys all this effortlessly. It's a bewilderment that Lockwood never got anything but TV work after this and 2001. The no-name actors who make up the rest of Tony's gang all seem to have got their training in the commedia dell'arte. Nothing is too over the top for this group of thespians. The script infers that they're all hippies, but they come across as deranged hipsters with a fondness for trilby hats.

What really makes this film work is the look of it. European directors of this period loved the chance to work with big, wide-open spaces. Sergio Leone being the most obvious example. In this case the director, Antonio Isasi, is shooting in Las Vegas, California and the Spanish desert (doubling for Nevada), and he clearly relishes the chance to move men and machines around in vast landscapes. The shot composition is always first rate, as is some of the location work in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The highlight of the film is the seizure of the armoured car in the desert. It's a complicated sequence involving many moving parts and it is, without a doubt, a brilliant combination of cinematography and editing. It's during this sequence that something becomes very apparent about the film's visuals. Except for a few shots involving moving vehicles, the camera never moves in this film--no zooms, pans, tilts, and no tracking or dolly shots. Normally that would produce a film that looks inert, but in this case almost every shot ends with a cut on some kind of action, which is picked up, perfectly synced, in the next shot. Some razor-sharp editing ties it all together to produce a visually dynamic film in which the camera is almost always locked down. If I was teaching in film school this film would be on the syllabus.

Another thing that distinguishes this film is its absolute cold-bloodedness. Tony is clearly the hero of the film and yet he thinks nothing of killing security guards and, in one case, an innocent bystander. This kind of nihilist attitude is common in films now, but in 1968 it was pretty shocking.

Is They Came To Rob Las Vegas a great film? No, of course not. The acting is sometimes laughable, the dialogue is clunky, and some sequences (the Las Vegas strip by night) appear to have been filmed from the back seat of a cab. What this film does have is insolence, energy, a surprisingly intricate plot, good action sequences, and a fun vulgarity that makes it not just a B-movie, but a cult B-movie. If you want it, you'll have to order it online from the Warner Archive Collection.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Film Review: Thor

Well, I can't say I was expecting much, so I can't say I was disappointed. In fact, Thor was passably entertaining. Unlike the Batman movies it's not stuffed with emotional sturm und drang, and Kenneth Branagh, the director, seems well aware that he's making a popcorn movie for teens and kids, unlike Christopher Nolan, who seems to think his target audience is moody hipsters.

Two things work in Thor's favour: first, it has a sense of humour. I'm not saying it's a laughfest, but the preposterousness of a Norse god arriving in a small town in New Mexico is milked for a few laughs, and Thor's relationship with his human allies (Natalie Portman and Stellan Skaarsgard) is kept light and silly. Even the romance between Thor and Portman's character is kept at a flirtatious level. The second point in the film's favour is that it's brief. Too many of the superhero/summer blockbusters go on and on and on, like some kind of tights and testosterone Berlin Alexanderplatz.

The weakest part of Thor are the action elements, which are just a CGI rehash of your average episode of Wrestlemania. I also have to quibble with Asgard, home of the Norse Gods: it looks more like an insanely expensive hotel in Dubai than an abode of the gods. But then that style has become common in sci-fi/fantasy films over the last 20 or so years--alternate realities apparently look startlingly like first-class airport departure lounges.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Game Misconduct For Hockey Night In Canada

If you have an underperforming and/or overpaid player in the NHL you can trade him, bury his contract in the AHL, or even buy him out. I only wish CBC would do the same with some of HNIC's on-air talent.

Let's see; how about sending Glenn "Hyperbole" Healy down to a house league somewhere in the Yukon where he can constantly tell kids they're about to play the most important game/period/shift of their lives; Don Cherry could be traded, straight up, for Donald Trump; and Ron MacLean could be bought out and sent to open a referee school in Khandahar.

The problem with all three of these personalities is that thanks to being given jobs on Canada's premier hockey program, they have all developed a level of self-importance that beggars belief. This was most recently seen with Healy's tirade against the Green Men of Vancouver, who, he claims, detract from the game. Outside of Osama Bin Laden hunting, hockey is the nastiest, ugliest, most violent team sport in the world. Does Healy really think two men cavorting in green unitards can tarnish the game? But then, Healy is speaking from the HNIC pulpit where hockey is viewed as a quasi-religion.

Don Cherry has simply gone past his sell-by date. It used to be that he couldn't pronounce European names, now he can't handle good ol' Canadian names like Kevin Bieksa. Aside from that problem, his bigotry remains undiminished (he only makes loving mention of the hometowns of Anglo-Canadians), and his praise of players who don't wear visors is akin to urging parents to forgo baby seats for their infants.

The worst of the lot is Ron MacLean, the perpetually smirking adolescent of Canadian sports broadcasting. Ron's tortured, witless puns now seem to have become the manifestation of his outsize ego: "I said it, so it must be funny!" His self-importance becomes glaringly obvious whenever someone other than Don Cherry disagrees with him. Recently, Mike Milbury took a more pacifist stance than MacLean thought desirable and a whining Ron practically choked on his own bile. And on the rare occasions MacLean interviews Gary Bettman, his disdain for the commissioner could only be more obvious if he bit him.

So here's a plan to revamp the HNIC team, much as hockey teams do in the off-season: bring Elliot Friedman up from the minors and give him MacLean's job; poach Pierre Maguire from TSN and cut loose Healy; and send Cherry to the old goons retirement home and just do away with Coach's Corner. Finally, here's a really revolutionary idea for HNIC: hire a European colour commentator. A Russian one, preferably. Europeans have been a major force in the NHL for nearly 40 years so it would seem that they're overdue for one of the commentating jobs currently monopolized by ex-enforcers, ex-backup goalies, and ex-coaches.

I know, get Alexei Kovalev to replace Don Cherry and call the segment Commissar's Corner. At least Kovalev's actually won a Stanley Cup.