July 30, 2010

SHINJUKU INCIDENT (2009) - Jackie Chan, hard man

(2009, Hong Kong)

Jackie Chan proving he can act up a storm

I love the films that Jackie Chan makes in Hong Kong. The last I saw was his belated 2004 entry into the phenomenal Police Story series. Many of his Chinese action movies are legendary, with life-risking stunts and an inventive mastery of martial arts. His direction and imagination in comedy action has been compared to the work of Buster Keaton, one of the few film-makers who also included the ambitious staging of stuntwork into his stories.

But the other brand of Jackie Chan film is something less than phenomenal. His Hollywood films focus more on his imperfect English and are obsessed with him being Chinese. The restrictions on risky stuntwork in Hollywood, plus his advancing years, have prevented him from doing most of his own stunts, severely restricting his talents.

Thinking about it, the last Hollywood film I saw Jackie Chan in was The Cannonball Run II (1984), during his first attempt to break into the American market. Since then, I’ve not been at all tempted by his English-speaking films, mostly comedy or children’s films.

Even in his recent Hong Kong movies, he’s been doing far fewer stunts and more acting. But in his own country, he has no problem being accepted in more serious roles. This is a more interesting side to his talents, best showcased in the new Shinjuku Incident in which he gives his best performance yet.

A world away from Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon, this is a tough drama about a sensitive subject, illegal Chinese immigrants trying to work in Japan. The film opens with a spectacular image of a shipwreck and a beach swarming with exhausted survivors. A farmer nick-named Steelhead (Chan) makes his way to Tokyo to join his brother (Daniel Wu). He’s left North-East China to try and find his girlfriend.

But as he tries to find work in Japan, he discovers that crime is easier than the dirty work offered to ‘illegals’. Through flashbacks we see his former life in China, which really doesn’t look that bad. The film presents financial gain as the motivation for his friends and family trying their luck in Japan. But this doesn’t fully explain why so many would repeatedly risk their lives just to be able to afford the latest luxury goods? Is the story avoiding telling the truth about why some Chinese ran away from China?

But Jackie isn’t like the others, he’s not in it for the money. The first half of the film tells a convincing story, with Chan giving an excellent and underplayed performance. It’s also fascinating to see him play an ordinary man who doesn’t know how to fight when he gets into a physical confrontation. I thought this was a cleverly played angle for someone so famous for their fighting skills.

The story takes a rather forced turn as his new friends, in this home from home, take on Japanese organised crime! It turns into a faint echo of The Godfather, right down to the brutal violence. It can’t hope to compete with such a classic, though the unusual setting carries it along. There’s more action and cinematic drama in this second half, but it’s rather rushed, with a noticeable leap in the narrative that hints that the film may once have been even longer.

While Steelhead’s motivations were easy to understand early on, his increasingly complex situation makes it much harder for us to sympathise. It’s hard to feel any compassion during his power struggle in the world of organised crime, however noble his reasons.

This is no less believable than many modern thrillers, in that they forfeit logic for intrigue, but the opening story of immigrants in Japan felt interesting enough. I’d have liked to see it played out logically, comparing the quality of life in China with Japan.

The use of Tokyo as a backdrop, and the mix of Japanese and Chinese actors must have been an ambitious undertaking, but it's entirely successful and fascinating to watch.

As a violent gangster tale in an unusual setting, with Jackie Chan showing just what he’s capable of as an actor, this is worth seeing. It's out in the UK on DVD and Blu-Ray from Cine Asia.

Here's a trailer...

July 23, 2010


(1929, USA)

Rare, creepy Hollywood silent from the director of Haxan

A fearless bespectacled adventurer (Creighton Hale, also in The Cat and the Canary, 1927) and his fiance (Thelma Todd) get trapped in a house of mystery after panic breaks out at a society party.

They're kidnapped and imprisoned in a huge house filled with secret panels, torturers, assassins and a gorilla on the loose. Quarelling factions help and hinder them from escaping. A Chinese mystic, a dwarf and a monkey man inform them they are unwilling guests in the house of Satan, pawns in a deadly game...

With subtle tracking shots and a masterly use of shadows, the director was already a horror veteran. Benjamin Christensen made the extraordinary Haxan (1922) in his native Denmark, an unsettling and unique history of witchcraft and demonology, visualising devils and their worship. The other-worldly special effects make-ups must have caught Hollywood's eye, though I was surprised that he could adapt to the mainstream after creating such an experimental vision. He also worked on the epic adaption of Jules Verne's Mysterious Island (1929) which, like Satan, was hurriedly adapted into a version with sound, when silent movies suddenly had to compete with the synched dialogue of The Jazz Singer.

From the very first scene, the audience gets wrong-footed, misdirection sustains the surprises that literally leap out of the woodwork. These are often better staged than many modern horrors, where you can easily anticipate the next 'shock'. He often springs surprises just as a scene begins, before the audience has had time to get its bearings.

The parade of weird-looking characters predates Freaks, Angelo Rossitto appearing in both films - here (above) he has a rather strange beard. The use of animalistic make-ups look like a warm-up for Island of Lost Souls. A grotesque character on crutches called 'The Spider' reminded me of a Lon Chaney make-up - the actor is Sheldon Lewis, one of the first actors to play Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a movie (in 1920).

Seven Footprints to Satan has the fast pace of a slapstick two-reeler sustained for feature-length, though it's not intended as comedy. With all the sliding bookcases and hidden panels, it plays like an early Scooby Doo cartoon. I'd love to see it restored, as it should take its place alongside the classic creepy movies of the period. It's as much fun as the highly-acclaimed The Cat and the Canary, and more eventful than The Bat Whispers and Lon Chaney's The Monster. The plot twists are still rewarding at a pulp fiction level, though it's not very faithful to the source novel by Abraham Merritt, whose story Burn Witch, Burn was later adapted for Tod Browning's The Devil Doll (1936).

Christensen's earlier Haxan has been remastered by Criterion but Seven Footprints to Satan seems to be floundering in the grey area of 'public domain'. I've only ever seen this same wobbly, over-exposed print, with its Italian intertitle cards. Some clever person translated them all and edited a new all-English version that was briefly presented on YouTube. Perhaps that makeshift presentation will eventually lead to a proper restoration. Seven Footprints is the only surviving film from Christensen's Hollywood horrors.

The bleached-out visual quality and scratchy print is poor but watchable, though not a great introduction to silent cinema. But it was the only way I've ever been able to watch this film in English, and there might not even be any better prints out there (there's a rumour of one possibly stored in a Danish archive). But anyone enticed by the startling publicity photos, and fans of the director or the period had better hope it'll emerge again one day soon.

The fan-translations of the Italian Intertitles are online, listed here.

Some great stills of the leading characters, on Yesterday's Papers.

More rare stills and posters, here on Gorilla Men and here on a Thelma Todd blog.

All that I can find online now are a few clips (with Italian intertitles) on Vimeo here and here...

July 21, 2010

Meeting William Shatner: the London Film & Comic Con 2010

Just because I want to meet William Shatner, that doesn't make me a Trekkie!

While it presumably pales into insignificance against the San Diego Comic Con, this London version is only a train ride away for me and... William Shatner was attending.


"The Shat".

I guess it's pointless trying to distance myself from Star Trek. But I wasn't wanting to see him because of Star Trek. Every time I say I like horror movies and sci-fi, most people's brains fast-forward immediately to labelling me as a Trekkie. Should I speak more slowly? How do they get from horror movies to Star Trek? Admittedly I first saw him in classic Trek, but I'll watch him in anything: from TV movies to every episode of TJ Hooker, his episode of The Outer Limits, the esperanto movie, anything. His acting style is mesmerising, bizarre, unique, fascinating. I had to meet him!

He was by far the biggest draw at the event - I was delighted that he has so many fans in England. We'd pre-booked tickets to get our photos taken with him, months in advance, and we still had to wait all day to see him.

I'd love a Batmobile, but which version is the best?

In the meantime, there was other fun to be had. Besides the Batmobile (from Batman Begins?) there were some great fan costumes around. My favourite was the classic Cylon with an operational 'scanning' red eye. The lords of the sith were a little overweight, the Imperial Stormtroopers a little short to be stormtroopers, but the Alien xenomorph was good enough to illicit heartfelt screams from the unwary.

I wanted to meet Andrew Robinson - his roles as the really insane killer in the first Dirty Harry film and the nasty dad in the first Hellraiser had provided me with indelible memories. Despite being buried in rubber appliances, his character Garak, in Deep Space Nine, is an impressive and subtle performance, lighting up every scene he's in. I asked him about how he got cast in his first film, Dirty Harry. He said it was because he was friends with the director's son, who he'd already worked with. I thought it was still a stretch that a newcomer to movies could pull off a character as completely demented as Scorpio. Comforting though that the actor is nothing like his screen villains. I also got a little nervous meeting Tony Todd, who's even taller than me. Again, really nice and normal in real life. Would you really want to meet someone like the actual Candyman.

I moved on to meet Tom Noonan, mainly because he was the Tooth Fairy serial killer in Michael Mann's Manhunter, the film that introduced Hannibal Lecter to the big screen. That, and he was the Frankenstein creature in The Monster Squad, one of my favourite movies. Most recently he was in the acclaimed faux 80's horror House of the Devil. I brought up the subject of the possible Monster Squad remake and hit a nerve. Noonan lamented that no less than four movies that he'd been in were currently in the process of remakes.

Onto the Star Wars corner, where there was a spread of Star Wars talent - Dave Prowse and Kenny Baker as usual, Jeremy Bulloch (the first Boba Fett, pictured above), and one I hadn't seen before, Julian Glover. Not only had Glover been in The Avengers, early Doctor Who, Space 1999, Bond film For Your Eyes Only, but was also an Imperial Officer in Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. But I wanted to meet him because he'd been in Hammer's Quatermass and the Pit (1967) as the untrustworthy Colonel Breen, one of the few remaining survivors of that cast.

As a break from collecting the autographs of bad guys, we went to meet Sean Young, the star of Blade Runner and Dune, not to mention Ace Ventura - Pet Detective. No, I didn't mention it. While I believe she's fantastic in comedy, it's her character in Blade Runner that I'll always associate her with. While it's my favourite film, this is only the second actor I've met from the cast - the first being Joe Turkel (he played Eldon Tyrell). Again, despite what I'd heard through the years, she was really nice and charming, though I was too starstruck to ask any meaningful questions or pay any original compliments. (The above photo is Sean with my husband.) I'm usually too shy to ask to get photos with my idols. I settle for their autographs.

But finally it was time to meet Shatner.

It was certainly well-organised. Like a military operation. Over the weekend, thousands of fans wanted to get his autograph, get his photograph or attend his Q&A session. The only way this was going to work was on an assembly line. I wasn't under any delusion that I was going to get quality time with him. I recalled my 'meeting' Adam West (my favourite Batman) - there was only time to say "Hello, Mr West" while he signed an autograph. At least he looked up to see who was talking to him.

Much the same thing happened with Shatner, though more surreal. As we queued to get an official photograph taken with him, we noticed how fast the line was moving - an early clue as to how long we were each going to get! As we took a corner around a partition, there was William Shatner, parked on a backless bar stool, grinning at the camera. All we had to do was step up to a line, wait for the signal, step onto the cross, smile, (flash), and move on.

The photographer was calling the shots. Well, shouting the shots, like a drill sergeant. Next! It was my turn. I had to say something to him. I used 'the Adam West manouevre'. I said "Hello, Mr Shatner!". He looked up at me, still grinning - I guess if he dropped the happy expression he'd spoil a shot and his day would get even longer. As our eyes met, and I saw his happy little face, it crossed my mind that he was thinking of how much he was making each time the flash went off.

By talking to him I'd interrupted the flow of the operation. The photographer made me hold for a second photo because we hadn't stuck to the script. I squatted down a little, so as not to tower over the happy gnome. Flash! I was done. Next!

And it was over. I'd met William Shatner. It was just the briefest of moments, but it was all worth it. To a fan of all his works, it was like an audience with the Pope, and I should know...

(That's me on the right.)

Anyone interested in over 50 years of the work of Mr Shatner should sample this unimpeachable blog,
Shatner's Toupee, which reviews his many performances while taking care to also analyse the quality of 'hair acting'...

And finally, (thanks to Megan for the heads up) there's this new dance track that celebrates Mr Shatner selling himself as both an actor and a director...

July 16, 2010

WIRED (1989) - and bad movies about movie stars

(1989, US)

Michael Chiklis IS John Belushi...

This isn't about recommending good movies. This is about movies that I've watched because I couldn't believe that Hollywood had dared to make them. When taste and logic have flown right out of the window, really exceptionally fast.

A case in point. 1978, hot off Saturday Night Live John Belushi was becoming Hollywood's hottest comedy actor. I'd never even seen Saturday Night Live (we've never had it on TV in the UK), but I was immediately won over by his performance in National Lampoon's Animal House and I wanted to see him in many more movies. He was priceless as Bluto, the legendary student anti-hero slob, a prototype of the overweight slacker that's currently in favour. The next film of his I saw was Spielberg's 1941, which he wasn't in for enough time for my liking. And then there was the role he's best remembered for, as Jake 'Joliet' Blues, in The Blues Brothers (1980). I didn't see his later films (like Continental Divide, Neighbors) which can't have had a wide release, if any, in the UK. And then he was gone. March, 1982. Dead from a speedball overdose. He was at the forefront of 'comedy as the new rock 'n' roll' but didn't live nearly long enough to reap the benefits.

Movie biographies about movie people, living or recently deceased, have to be done extremely carefully and cleverly. Wired (1989) isn't one of them. John Belushi's life and death was poorly dramatised and drained of humour. The complete opposite of a fitting tribute. I haven't seen it in years, and I always like to watch movies afresh for Black Hole reviews. Problem is, I haven't got a copy any more.

Last time I watched my VHS of Wired, I decided I'd never watch it again. I keep getting that wrong. (Don't be like Mark - don't get rid of stuff). There's always a reason for going back, but please remember the ravenous way that VHS tapes ate up shelf space. In short, I'm relying on memory here.

I originally wanted to see if Wired shed any light on why and how Belushi died. This was definitely the kind of project that Hollywood unites in avoiding, blacklisting actors who dared to show up show business under a bad light. By bad light, I mean a drug-fuelled system with no means of support to prevent their brightest stars from imploding. (Little seems to have changed, except the same self-destructive results are now possible with 'prescription drug' abuse).

Besides the cast risking the ends of their careers appearing in a controversial tragedy literally in the heart of Hollywood, on Sunset Boulevard, it was double jeopardy because they were also in a badly flawed film that was destined to be a critical and financial flop.

Wired uses the movie Sunset Boulevard as a starting point, having it narrated by a corpse, and borrowing the opening that Billy Wilder couldn't use, with a dead man sitting up in a morgue. The character of Belushi then looks back at the highlights of his life. But with so little material legally allowed, and so few actors and movie-makers allowing their names to be used in the story, the recreations of his famous sketches and behind-the-scenes dramas are almost unrecognisable.

Unsurprisingly, Wired was last seen on VHS and has never surfaced on DVD.

Wired was too abstract in its story-telling, so I tried the book, written and researched by no less than Bob Woodward, co-author of All The President's Men which blew the lid on the Watergate scandal of President Nixon's administration. But the totally uninvolving style reads like a court transcript - dense with legally-approved facts, but lacking subtext, opinion or conclusions. (A fictional representation of Woodward is played by the late J.T. Walsh).

Because it was so widely reviled, I honestly thought I'd never see the star of Wired ever, ever again. But that's why I'd like to see it again. I was halfway through watching the first season of The Shield when I looked up the previous credits of Michael Chiklis (who plays the lead, Vic Mackey). I was shocked to see he was the one, the unfunny guy who'd dared to play Belushi. I'd not seen him in anything else, having missed his heavily disguised turn in the series The Commish. Quite a career turnaround - maybe even worthy of a TV movie...

In fact, before he nabbed The Shield, Michael Chiklis again tempted fate with another celebrity impersonation. While Hollywood is now attempting to tackle a big screen version of the lives of the beloved Three Stooges, Chiklis has already appeared in a similar TV movie, as Curly. More details and pics on this are here on As Seen On TV. The Three Stooges (2000) was sort of interesting, but again, couldn't expect to be funny like the originals.

Worse still. Much, much worse. The epitome of disastrous casting in an impersonation movie is the (presumably) deliberately humorous casting of Patsy Kensit as Mia Farrow. In a TV movie made to cash in on the media storm that surrounded Woody Allen and Mia's spectacularly public bust-up, entitled Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story, I shit you not.

July 14, 2010

GEGEGE NO KITARO: NIPPON BAKURETSU (2008) - Kitaro's first feature-length anime

(2008, Japan)

The first ever feature-length animated Kitaro movie, released as part of the anime series' 40th anniversary, was almost lost among the many other Gegege No Kitaro productions in 2008. There was the second live-action film, the weekly anime series, as well as an OVA mini-series.

Nippon Bakuretsu, (roughly translated as Japan Erupts!) is animated in the same style as the 2007-2009 TV series, featuring all the regular characters and indeed, as many different yokai monsters as they could possibly cram in.

The story begins as usual with a spooky local disturbance, as a schoolgirl is harassed by some scary mirror demons (alarming silvery CGI claws), trying to pull her through to another dimension. Her home life is not untroubled as she has trouble pleasing her extremely strict mother.

Luckily she knows where to find Kitaro's post box and calls on the ghost boy to defend her from the mirror demons. But that's not the end of her problems at school or at home, because she's unwittingly involved in a demonic plot that threatens the entire nation of Japan with destruction that not even Enma, the Lord of the Underworld, can prevent...

The film is quite episodic, with three distinct 'chapters', almost like gaming levels, with foes that keep getting tougher. The final 'boss' that Kitaro faces is the largest yokai monster I've ever seen!

While the animation effects and creature designs are impressive, it all still looks like the TV series with an expanded budget. There's still spectacle and dynamic action that the live-action feature films lacked, I just wouldn't volunteer it as an example of a typical modern Japanese anime feature.

While the latest series has been moodier and scarier than its predecessors, the film shows Kitaro taking more of a beating than usual, with several scenes that would upset his youngest fans. A couple of the lizard monsters were also quite sexual in appearance, another departure from the family-friendly series. I'm not saying this is anything as strong as Legend of the Overfiend, but at one point a flurry of tentacles, teeth and one-eyed monsters did remind me of it...

Gegege No Kitaro: Nihon Bakuretsu is out on DVD and Blu-Ray in Japan, but also on a far cheaper Taiwanese DVD, but none of these have English subtitles. The Taiwan DVD is a good-looking 16:9 anamorphic image, with optional Chinese audio and subtitling.

For more about the many TV and movie incarnations of Gegege No Kitaro, here's my extensive overview.

Lastly, here's a Japanese trailer for the movie on YouTube...

July 09, 2010

JU-ON: WHITE GHOST, JU-ON: BLACK GHOST (2009) - a homage to video horror

(2009, Japan, Shiroi Roujo)

(2009, Japan, Kuroi Shoujo)

Two new films for the tenth anniversary of the Grudge saga...

For me, Takashi Shimizu's Japanese Grudge movies provided more scares than the Ring movies. Even the first two shot-on-video films, commonly referred to as Ju-on: the Curse 1 and 2, were creepy as hell. Together with the US remakes, the various different incarnations of The Grudge are easily confused - I laid it all out here.
The story began as a mystery centred on a suburban house. Everyone who visited the house was scared to death - if they left the house before they died, their own homes would become similarly cursed. As the story leapt forwards and backwards in time, following different visitors and their families, a picture emerged of the original events that sparked off the curse, as well as tracking how far it had spread.

Shot in an actual house in the suburbs of Tokyo, Takashi Shimizu's first four films turned everyday surroundings into nightmares. The attic, the landing, windows, cupboards and stairs all became terrifying locations for full-on scary, haunting, gory terror.

Last year, to mark the tenth anniversary of the 'series', two more Ju-on films appeared, produced the same way as the first two, by shooting cheaply on location and on video. With two different directors, the video-look distances these from Shimizu's current movie series. He's still promising a third Grudge movie for Japan, not to be confused with the American The Grudge 3, which wasn't directed by Shimizu. Not confusing at all.

Ju-on: White Ghost
and Black Ghost unfold like the classic Ju-ons, with the narratives shifting back and forth in time, changing with each cut-to-black chapter break. But these new stories aren't closely linked to the old ones. There's a completely new house and I was disappointed that (almost) none of the regular characters appear to link it all back to the original 'grudge'.

In White Ghost, the jumpy scares kick in quickly after a shaky (camerawork) start. But it tries too hard and too often to make us jump, resulting in a series of hit and miss scares. The new 'face' of the grudge verges on the humorous because she keeps popping up repeatedly... and carrying a basketball. Basketballs have never been scary, still aren't.

Other distractions include the Christmas setting which has zero bearing on the story. It doesn't help that the characters put candles on their Christmas cake and blow them out as if making a birthday wish. Why? Now I'm used to characters in horror movies acting illogically, but several of the characters' motivations are quite puzzling. It's especially hard to believe any couple would start French-kissing just after one of them has puked!

Thematically, the method of the Ju-on curse also seems to have shifted, from ghosts killing people, to people killing people, with some unwelcome hints of incestuous paedophilia thrown in.

Black Ghost
is a continuation, but is less intricately cross-connected with White Ghost the way all the previous films intertwined their characters' lives... and deaths. This is scarier, better shot and better paced, but also strays further from the Ju-on mythos into Tomie territory, with the problems of corpse disposal, a mysterious foetal cyst, and even the classic Tomie signature image - the head in the bag!

This new pair isn't essential to the series and indeed lacks many of the core ingredients. I really miss the link back to the original house - and having Kayako lurking in the attic... But it's an interesting experiment, recalling the look, and viciousness, of the earliest chapters of the saga, (as well as some of the J-horrors that first followed
Ring, back when shooting on video was far more common and obvious).

But the lack of quality of performance, creepy pace and intricate structure makes it regrettable that Shimizu isn't writing and directing. So I'll continue to look forward to his third Japanese Grudge movie.

Although released separately in Japan, these are wisely being sold as a double-bill on DVD in the UK, as both films last barely an hour.

Here's a spoilery, subtitled trailer on YouTube...

July 02, 2010

Truman Capote and IN COLD BLOOD - three movies compared

CAPOTE (2005)

It’s not about Capote vs Infamous – the must-see is In Cold Blood

The story so far…

Kansas, 1959. Two men rob a remote farmhouse at night. They kill the entire family in cold blood and flee. The story hits headlines across the country and a manhunt begins. Celebrated author Truman Capote takes an interest in the story and travels to Kansas to begin documenting every aspect of the case, interviewing the police, detectives, as well as friends and relatives of the victims. When the killers are finally caught, Capote interviews them, at length. The resulting book is a unique, narrative presentation of a crime. It’s widely lauded as a critical success. Two years later, In Cold Blood becomes a hit film.

Almost forty years later, two more movies are being made, Capote and Infamous, based on different books. But both telling very similar stories about the killings and how the writing of the book affects the author. Capote is released to wide acclaim in 2005 and gets five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. But Infamous has its release delayed until 2006 - the reviews are good, but it barely competes with the Oscar-winner (Best Actor for Philip Seymour Hoffman) that beat it into cinemas.

Capote and me

I first saw Truman Capote in his suitably bizarre role in the Neil Simon comedy Murder By Death back in 1978. I knew he was famous, but not that he’d written Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Seeing photos of him at Studio 54 and reading stories about him in Gore Vidal’s books, I built an image of a short, loud, unique, gossipy gay individualist who wrote fluffy comedies about New York society. That he’d also written the best screen adaption of The Turn of the Screw (filmed as The Innocents) and a tough documentary novel about mass murder didn’t quite fit that image.

When I later saw Michael Mann’s Manhunter, I thought the opening hook, that a serial killer would kill an entire family, was a new idea. I eventually tried to read In Cold Blood, but thought it a long, dry presentation of endless facts.

So now, Capote and Infamous come along, I had two chances to learn more about Capote and his reasons for writing In Cold Blood.
To try and get a different angle I watched Infamous first, to give the underdog a chance. Then Capote, and finally In Cold Blood, the reverse order of their original release dates.

(2005, US)

At least, Hollywood didn’t remake In Cold Blood (there was already a 1996 TV movie) opting instead to tell the story of how Capote wrote it. Unfortunately for Infamous, a rival production was filming the same story.

It starts off well, as a comedy, Truman in fine form amongst the jet-set of Manhattan society. I was surprised by the added starpower of Sigourney Weaver and Isabella Rossellini in cameo roles. The comedy continues as Capote (Toby Jones) travels to Kansas with Nelle Harper Lee (an excellent performance from Sandra Bullock) who has crucially just written To Kill A Mockingbird.

Even in a small farming town, Truman doesn’t tone down his extravagant, out-gay personality even a notch. Even though he’s constantly mistaken for a woman. Respectfully he becomes more serious as he attempts to talk to the townsfolk, in a tight community that’s been shaken by the tragedy.

When the killers are captured, Capote manages to talk to them and stays in Kansas, developing a long-standing and increasingly close relationship with one in particular (played by Daniel Craig). Though it’s not clear why he focuses on only one of them, Capote needs to build his trust in order to find out what happened that night, but if he confesses it could affect both their sentences…

As the case draws out over the years, the stress takes its toll on Capote as he struggles to complete the book. He’s not shown in a perfect light, when he lies to his friends. The story gets a little fragmented, looking more like they've skipped to all the juiciest bits from the book, rather than keeping to a narrative.

Infamous successfully depicts the effect the murders have on the town, and even the country. But the murderers also get sympathy, sitting on death row. Truman says that the title of his book is as much about the death penalty as the original crime. However, this could be another lie to keep the killers’ cooperation, and therefore keep the flow of material for the book. But the fate of the murderers looks as brutal as their crimes.

(2005, US)

Watching this a few weeks after Infamous, the story was far too similar. The story based on exactly the same events. I felt that many scenes were too short, not including as much background information. Important supporting characters were given far more time in Infamous, especially the Detective in charge (Chris Cooper) and Nelle Harper Lee (Catherine Keener).

Also, a couple of pivotal scenes have little dialogue, the audience supposedly settling for Philip Seymour Hoffman just standing there acting... (like the bizarre scene, above). Hoffman is also allowed to indulge his impersonation of Capote’s mumbling lisp to the point of inaudibility.

Toby Jones’ Capote in Infamous, is more sympathetic and more audible, not to mention the closer physical resemblance. I’d first seen Jones in The Mist and then learnt he’s the son of Freddie Jones, one of my favourite British character actors. Not only did his dad play the best Frankenstein experiment (Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed) but is a regular collaborator with David Lynch (Dune, The Elephant Man). Not much bearing on Toby Jones as an actor, but interesting trivia.

Capote focuses on Truman manipulating the situation for his own ends, which admittedly was affecting his life drastically. While concentrating on his more controversial decisions, it also presents less context for the viewer to decide for themselves. Infamous concentrates on Capote’s developing relationship with one of the killers, which I thought was more interesting, as long as it was true.

In comparison, Capote felt like it had more money up on the screen, with more extras in the crowd scenes and wider shots in the historical recreations of settings, like the courtroom. It’s also noteworthy for the beautiful but bleak cinematography, emphasising the wide open spaces of flat Kansas farmland.

Whichever you see first, the other will seem like a close copy. Two too similar versions of the same events. It’s almost unbelievable that both got made.

(1967, US)

Wow. The film of the book, released only two years after it was published. A book and a murder case that the whole country had been talking about, but Richard Brook’s movie doesn’t play it safe. Like the book, it’s a meticulous recreation of the events, but also one of the best true-crime movies. It takes risks with the narrative and the cinematography, with edgy language and superb performances.

It starts with Quincy Jones’ exciting offbeat music and stays gripping to the end. It felt like they were trying to cram in as much detail from the book as possible. I was particularly impressed with the transitions between scenes, locations and time frames. Sometimes visual links, sometimes stream of consciousness logic. It keeps the audience concentrating - blink and you might miss a switch to a different location, or a different month.

The black and white photography is superb, even Vegas looks good. The look of monochrome in 2.35 widescreen was short-lived but I really like it. It was by the late Conrad Hall, an award-winning cinematographer who also filmed many episodes of classic The Outer Limits, Marathon Man (1975) and American Beauty (1998).
At the time, shooting in black and white would have been cheaper, as well as a less bloody choice, but it would also be more familiar to 1967 audiences as ‘the look’ of the 1950s. Only the handheld camerawork and zoom lenses identify it as late 1960's.

Paul Newman and Steve McQueen were offered the roles of the killers. This was obviously a prestigious project, but casting the most handsome and charismatic actors in Hollywood would have glamourised the killers.

I already knew Robert Blake (Electra Glide In Blue, Lost Highway) played one of the killers, but was surprised to see Scott Wilson as the other. I’d known Wilson from The Ninth Configuration and Exorcist III, not to mention his recent cameo in South Korea’s The Host. I never knew he was in this. His character is enthusiastic, sleazy and dangerous - usually he plays paranoid and downbeat.

The late John Forsythe (Scrooged, The Trouble with Harry, Dynasty) is the detective in charge of the murder hunt. The strongest performance I've seen him give. A dogged and professional policeman, a level-headed choice to nail one of America’s most sensational murder cases.

Of the three movies, this is very different. Truman Capote isn’t represented at all, which feels strange knowing the amount of his involvment. There’s just a small role, a detective, who subtly represents ‘a writer’. But this is really just the story of the killers, not about the writing of the book. While the effect of the murders on the local community isn’t shown as much as Infamous, this is the only version that fleshes out the family of victims as characters. Something I felt lacking in both the recent films.

The script for In Cold Blood still feels modern - tough-talking, swearing even, interested in psychiatry (and psychics) for clues to the murderers’ identities, with a weary cynicism about press involvement.

Afterwards, I discovered that In Cold Blood was shot in many of the actual locations, including the house where the murders took place! A rather ghoulish and cold-blooded attention to detail which occurs in other murder recreations (like 10 Rillington Place and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures). Maybe it helped sell the film, but surely it’s in poor taste for such a major work.

The exceptional Quincy Jones’ soundtrack sounds like it’s been influenced by Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin. I can’t believe it’s never been on CD.

In Cold Blood was all the more impressive because I’d watched it last of the three and it was still fresh and compelling. If you only watch one film, watch this one.

In Cold Blood was a big deal in 1967, but 'true crime' is now a whole department in bookstores, and we’re spoiled for murder documentaries and crime movies 'based on a true story'. It’s still rare that an acclaimed writer interviews the murderers, and an artist directs the movie. While it's a very impressive entertainment, I still feel guilty that if they hadn't murdered anyone, we wouldn't be so interested in their lives. If only they hadn't forgotten to buy that pair of black stockings...


Whichever you watch first, of Infamous or Capote, will probably be the one that impresses you the most. I watched Infamous first, and it was the more rewarding of the two. But In Cold Blood is the movie you mustn’t miss. You can even watch it after either of the others. It’s really that strong. And there isn’t a Truman Capote impersonator in it.

and In Cold Blood are out now on a 2-disc Blu-Ray double bill. Details and screengrabs here on the exceedingly thorough DVD Beaver.

In Cold Blood trailer on YouTube...