Godzilla (1954)

aka Gojira

2019 #71
Ishirô Honda | 96 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Japan / Japanese | PG

Godzilla

Before its current re-fashioning as a major US-produced blockbuster franchise, the rep of the Godzilla movies was more-or-less cheesy B-movie SF with cheap-n-cheerful “man in a suit” special effects. (I expect die-hard fans would disagree, but to outsiders looking in, I feel that’s fairly accurate.) But that certainly wasn’t how things started with the first movie. Indeed, this first movie was nominated for Best Picture at Japan’s answer to the Oscars, only losing to Seven Samurai. There’s no shame for any film in losing to Seven Samurai. It was also a pricey affair: the most expensive Japanese film ever made up to that point, costing almost a million dollars — ten times the average budget for a Japanese feature at the time.

But, more than just the blockbuster entertainment of its day, Godzilla is a serious-minded work. A giant monster stomping on cities — or, if you prefer, a man in a rubber suit stomping on models — may have soon become fodder for the kind of movie fans who enjoy pulp entertainment, but, in its original incarnation, it’s an analogy for the terror of the nuclear bomb. Released just nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it’s one of the first films to deal with that scar on the Japanese national psyche. And lest you think this is something pretentious critics have projected onto the film after the fact, the movie itself draws the connection, with one character — a young woman, no less, as if to remind us of the recency of those events — commenting that she only narrowly escaped the bombings. A big part of why Godzilla still works as a film today, almost 70 years later, is because everyone involved is playing it straight, and the clear messages about the folly of mankind interfering with nature, and the futility of weapons, are powerful.

That’s not to say it’s perfect. Subplots get in the way, like a love triangle that manages to waste screen time while not really having any significant impact on the viewer. (Reportedly, a flashback scene that would have helped explain the connection between two of the participants was deleted because it slowed down the film. The romance is slow enough as it is, but you never know, maybe that extra clarity would have helped.) Conversely, some of the moral conundrums raised by the story are barely touched on. One of the main characters is a scientist who thinks mankind should study Godzilla rather than try to kill it, but other than him stating that fact and consistently looking miserable, the film doesn’t really do anything more to engage with his argument.

Good God

As for the stomping monster action, viewed with a modern eye the effects are of course a mixed bag (the miniature vehicles look like something you’d find in a toy shop, for example), but make some allowances and they’re still pretty darn effective. An underwater sequence that mixes footage of real divers with “dry for wet” shots of Godzilla and lead characters remains mostly convincing. Godzilla may have lost Best Picture to Seven Samurai, but it did win the award for special effects, and that’s one thing it does have over Kurosawa’s film, at least. I don’t know if those same awards had one for music, but if so I guess Akira Ifukube’s score wasn’t even nominated. It would’ve deserved it for the main theme alone, though, which has since become iconic for good reason.

The Godzilla franchise has come a long way and changed a good deal across the seven decades since this film’s release. It’s not a series, nor a genre, that’s to everyone’s taste (just look at the wide spread of reactions to the recent US movies, including the fact even people who broadly like them can’t vaguely agree on which order to rank them in). But this original, at least, stands tall as an example of how a movie that some might seek to dismiss as facile genre fare can actually be about a whole lot more.

4 out of 5


For 50 years, you couldn’t actually see Godzilla in the West — not exactly. Instead, you’d watch…

Godzilla, King of the Monsters!
(1956)

2019 #82
Terry Morse & Ishiro Honda | 81 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | Japan & USA / English | PG

Godzilla, King of the Monsters!

In an era where the original cut is king (to the extent that, say, a major studio might hand a director $70 million to complete his cut of a not-particularly-successful movie just so they can release it on a streaming service), it seems wild to remember that, until 2004 — a full five decades after Godzilla‘s premiere release — this re-edited, bastardised version was the only one available to Western audiences.

With a runtime 15 minutes shorter than the Japanese cut, you might think King of the Monsters was just an abridgement. But they went at it more thoroughly than that back in the ’50s; in fact, almost 40 minutes of footage was cut, and the disparity is covered by newly-filmed scenes starring Raymond Burr as Steve, an American journalist. These new scenes don’t just place Burr’s character around the existing action, but work to make him the (human) star of the movie.

The end result is actually fairly close to the original story-wise, just now there’s an American journalist hanging around the fringes. At first he’s often to be found at the back of a crowd or the edge of a room, observing events, but they get bolder as the film goes on, integrating him with some of the main characters, either by repurposing and rearranging original footage or shooting Burr with doubles whose faces we never see. It’s not a perfect match, but for a quickly-produced low-budget effort in the 1950s, it’s surprisingly well achieved. This is partly thanks to the choice of director for the new scenes. Terry Morse had 30 years of experience as an editor and director of low-budget films, and it was felt someone with that kind of background would be well-placed to maintain the continuity needed to make it seem like Burr was part of the original production.

Raymond Burr, sir

Morse also makes some interesting decisions about how to adapt the existing footage. Although all of the ‘Japanese’ characters speak perfect English with American accents in the new bits, a lot of the Japanese dialogue in Ishiro Honda’s scenes is left undubbed, and it’s never subtitled either. Instead, the film trusts us to infer what’s happening, or informs us via someone translating for Steve, or his voiceover narration. It feels like quite a mature way to handle a multi-lingual production. Unfortunately, any such maturity doesn’t extend across the board: when abridging the original, they removed or neutered much of its commentary about mankind’s destructive nature, thereby turning a powerful allegory into a simple monster movie.

To my surprise, Godzilla, King of the Monsters is not a complete disaster. There’s a fair bit of the original movie left, and the American inserts aren’t unremittingly terrible, which they certainly could have been. If this was the only version of the film available, I’d probably give it a solid 3 stars. But it isn’t the only version anymore, so the question becomes: why watch it nowadays? It neuters some of what was great about the Japanese cut, and it’s inherently a bastardisation — so, other than curiosity value (or, for older fans, nostalgia), there’s no reason to bother with this. Stick to the real one.

2 out of 5

The Man Who Reviewed Some Films

There are a lot of films about a man who did something — already on this blog I’ve written about men who invented Christmas, sued God, and, um, laughed. But I noticed I have many other reviews pending about such apparently-noteworthy fellas, so I’ve rounded most of them up into this one handy location.

Some of these men knew stuff; some shot somebody; one just had a nap… but they’re all men who had a movie named after them. They are:

  • The Man Who Knew Infinity (2015)
  • The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)
  • The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962)
  • The Man Who Sleeps (1974)


    The Man Who Knew Infinity
    (2015)

    2019 #65
    Matthew Brown | 109 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Man Who Knew Infinity

    Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is a man of boundless intelligence that even the poverty of his home in India cannot crush. His skill for mathematics attracts the attention of noted British professor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), who invites him to develop his computations at Trinity College, Cambridge. Ramanujan finds that his largely-intuitive mathematical theories clash with stringent academic requirements, just as his cultural values are challenged by the prejudices of 1910s Britain. With Ramanujan’s health in decline, the two men join in a mutual struggle that would define him as one of India’s greatest scholars. — adapted from IMDb

    Writer-director Matthew Brown takes this interesting true story and turns it into an ironically by-the-numbers biopic. Even with reliable actors like Patel and Irons headlining, there are some surprisingly stuff performances, and the film struggles to truly convey the genius or importance of the maths involved. Instead, it’s just lots of characters saying “OMG look at this stuff he thought up” and other characters saying “nah mate, it’s wrong” (except in the vernacular of 1910s Cambridge, of course). Alongside that, it doesn’t have many places to go with the story or characters, so it comes to feel repetitive as it goes round and round over the same points. Even the start of World War I has no genuine impact on events, factoring into the film only because that’s when these events actually happened, so Brown seems to feel it must be mentioned. Indeed, a lot of the film feels beholden to fact in this way, though I’m sure it must be doing the usual biopic thing of bending the truth.

    3 out of 5

    The Man Who Knew Too Much
    (1956)

    2019 #84
    Alfred Hitchcock | 120 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Man Who Knew Too Much

    Dr. Ben McKenna (James Stewart), his wife Jo (Doris Day), and their eight-year-old son Hank are on vacation in Morocco when they witness the public murder of a mysterious man who, before he dies, manages to reveal to Ben details of an assassination about to take place in London. The plotters kidnap Hank to keep the McKennas silent, so Ben and Jo return to London to take matters into their own hands. — adapted from IMDb

    Famously, this is the time Hitchcock remade himself: he’d previously filmed The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1934 while he was still working in Britain. Later, he’d compare the two by calling the original “the work of a talented amateur” while the remake “was made by a professional”, although he reportedly preferred the earlier version precisely because it wasn’t so polished.

    Undoubtedly, the 1956 Man Who Knew Too Much is not top-tier Hitchcock, but that doesn’t mean it’s without joys. Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day are perfectly cast as an ‘everyman’ American couple who accidentally get embroiled in international espionage, and Hitch could make such thrills work with his eyes closed. He’s also on top form during a sequence in the Albert Hall, a stunning set piece that lasts 12 minutes without a single word of dialogue, in which Hitch has the balls to just keep going through an entire piece of music, allowing the tension to almost build itself as he cuts around the room; even when Stewart finally turns up, we still don’t need exposition — we know exactly what’s happening.

    Although a key part of the film’s conclusion, it’s not the actual finale, which is a shame because the following plan to rescue Hank is a bit daft. And, when you think about it, the villains’ plot doesn’t make a whole lot of sense either. It’s stuff like that which gets in the way of The Man Who Knew Too Much being among Hitch’s very best work, but it remains a fine suspense thriller.

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
    (1962)

    2020 #66
    John Ford | 118 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | U

    The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

    When US Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend the funeral of his friend Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), a young reporter persuades him to tell the story of why he’s there. Flashback to a quarter-century-or-so earlier, when Ransom, a newly-qualified lawyer (still played, unconvincingly, by 53-year-old Stewart), arrived in Shinbone with a plan to bring law to the West. After Ransom receives a beating from local heavy Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), he recuperates at the Ericsons’ restaurant, where he takes a job in their kitchen to repay their kindness. He develops an affection for their daughter, Hallie (Vera Miles), who’s also being wooed by young rancher Doniphon (still Wayne, also in his early 50s — it seems there was a good deal of movie star vanity in this casting). With local law enforcement refusing to do anything about Valance’s violent oppressive tactics, Ransom eventually takes it upon himself to face the villain down…

    Despite the violent promise of the title, Liberty Valance is very much a dramatic western rather than an action-packed one. Just shooting Valance isn’t the characters’ first recourse; indeed, the film on the whole is interested in the clash between the moral values of the old West and incoming modernity, and how the old ways can persist even as new ones come into force. That older Ransom is a senator is not incidental: a major part of the plot concerns Shinbone (or, rather, wherever it is) applying for statehood, and Ransom and Valance both standing to be a representative.

    All of which is fine, but unfortunately the dramatic focus seems to have resulted in the film being rather slow-going at times. The main plot is fine, but the telling could’ve been tighter — there’s a lot of stuff about Ransom washing dishes and teaching everyone to read and write. It establishes his place in town, sure, but it takes forever getting there. At the other end, Valance is actually shot a full 25 minutes before the end. There’s story to wrap up and twists to reveal, but it takes its sweet time doing it. None of which is distracting as the age-related issue I already referred to. I was genuinely puzzled why everyone kept talking about how young Ransom was, when Stewart patently isn’t, until I realised it was an example of good ol’ Hollywood vanity, where someone thought a star in his 50s could get away with playing a guy in his 20s.

    Despite that, however, Stewart and Wayne remain powerful screen presences, and the commentary on the changing face of the West — indeed, of the country as a whole — is indicative of a direction the genre continues to explore to this day (it’s what the whole of Deadwood is about, at its core).

    4 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps
    (1974)

    aka Un homme qui dort

    2020 #203
    Bernard Queysanne | 78 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | France & Tunisia / French

    The Man Who Sleeps

    When I watched this, it was ranked as one of the greatest films of all time by Letterboxd users. I did not feel the same — rather than Un homme qui dort, I found it more like Un homme qui t’endort. (That’s a joke I’m so pleased with, I’ve now used it four times.)

    At first it plays like a stereotype of French art house cinema: shot in black & white, it’s about a disaffected student, told with introspective voiceover narration, which philosophises at the level of a pretentious undergraduate, and nothing actually happens. But then I began to feel that, actually, it does a pretty good job of capturing how I’ve felt often in my life; especially back when I too was a pretentious undergraduate. But that feeling didn’t last much more than quarter-of-an-hour — and as the film is an hour and a quarter, that became a problem. As I slogged on through it, the interminable narration became repetitive; the musings less relatable. Just because warped minds exist doesn’t mean it’s worth our while to spend 78 minutes in their thoughts.

    The Man Who Sleeps is the kind of film that thinks it’s profound, but is actually pretentious. That may gel with the worldview of its undergrad subject, but, just as you wouldn’t want to listen to a real-life undergrad’s philosophising for over an hour, I don’t want to endure the same from a fictional one either. I guess it’s apt that a film titled “the man who sleeps” would be a good cure for insomnia.

    2 out of 5

    The Man Who Sleeps featured on my list of The Worst Films I Saw in 2020.

  • The 100-Week Roundup XI

    This week: an underrated crime thriller based on the same true-life story as a Hitchcock classic; an investigation of the trauma left by conflict in a film I’ve nicknamed “Gulf War Rashomon”; and a test of this “just post my notes already” roundup format with one of my favourite films I watched in 2018.

    They are…

  • Compulsion (1959)
  • Heathers (1988)
  • Courage Under Fire (1996)


    Compulsion
    (1959)

    2018 #194
    Richard Fleischer | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12

    Compulsion

    Based on a novel that was based on the Leopold and Loeb case (which has also been the inspiration for various other films, most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Compulsion is the story of two students who think their intellectual superiority will allow them to get away with the perfect murder.

    Playing the students, Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman are both fantastic. They’re two different types of well-to-do prodigies: Dillman charming and cocksure; Stockwell both awkward and supremely confident of his own exceptionalness. Their performances keep things compelling, even as the events unfolding are a foregone conclusion. You should and will hate them — even if they weren’t murderers, they’d be insufferable pricks (they sound like any number of modern-day politicians, don’t they?); that they’re cold-blooded killers just makes them worse. But even though you’ll never root for them, they’re still addictively watchable. Also, bearing in mind when the film was made, there’s a strong undercurrent of their homosexuality. It disappears as the film goes on, becoming more concerned with the case than the relationship between the two guys, but it’s discernibly there at the start.

    And then Orson Welles turns up. Despite getting top billing, he has more of a third act cameo that turns into the film’s most grandstanding moment: his closing speech at the trial; a real tour de force against capital punishment. Apparently it was issued on vinyl, it’s that good. The three stars got and get all the recognition (they shared Best Actor at Cannes that year), but there are also fine supporting performances from Martin Milner and Diane Varsi as a couple of fellow students who get caught up in the case in different ways; and E.G. Marshall is very good as DA Horn, the man who eventually catches the guys and therefore becomes Welles’ courtroom nemesis. He’s particularly understated during Welles’ big speech, gradually shifting from annoyance and hatred to agreement, ultimately rising to his feet at the end as if in a silent standing ovation.

    Stillman, Stockwell and Welles

    Aside from that obvious Big Scene, there are several other memorable ones: Dillman calmly talking to his teddy bear while Stockwell frantically searches for misplaced glasses, for example; or the cat-and-mouse scenes where the DA interviews the lads separately. Much of it is fantastically shot, too. There’s an occasional showy bit (like focusing on glasses on a nightstand as it gets dark outside, then showing the culprit and investigator reflected one in each lens), but also a general level of quality that often helps emphasise the darkness in the lads’ souls.

    I don’t think Compulsion is widely discussed anymore (it has fewer ratings on IMDb than Love on a Leash!), but I thought it was a brilliant film; one that can withstand comparison to more-acclaimed versions of the same story. It’s definitely underrated today.

    5 out of 5

    Heathers
    (1988)

    2018 #196
    Michael Lehmann | 103 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Heathers

    Heathers was one of my favourite films I watched in 2018 (it placed 5th on my list of The 26 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2018), but I didn’t make any notes on it at the time, and (obviously) it’s now two years since I watched it. Oh dear.

    So, in the spirit of the point of these roundups (to clear old unreviewed films, regardless of how much or little I have to say about them), we’ll have to make do with repeating my brief summary from the aforementioned “best of” list. Though I’ll also add that I watched this on Arrow’s then-new Blu-ray edition, which comes from a 4K restoration and looks absolutely fantastic.

    The darkness that’s barely concealed beneath the pleasant veneer of American high schools is exposed in this pitch-black comedy, which mixes violent teen wish fulfilment with a certain degree of societal satire to boundary-pushing effect. It’s not as transgressively shocking 30 years on as it might’ve been back in the ’80s, but it’s still so very.

    5 out of 5

    Courage Under Fire
    (1996)

    2018 #197
    Edward Zwick | 108 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Courage Under Fire

    It’s “Gulf War Rashomon” when a traumatised tank commander (Denzel Washington) encounters conflicting accounts of what happened while he investigates whether a helicopter pilot (Meg Ryan) deserves to be posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor, which would make her the first woman to receive it. As higher-ups put pressure on him to just push the honour through, he remains committed to uncovering the truth…

    The mystery of what really went on is not as clever or engrossing as the film thinks it is, but it still works as a meditation on how we acknowledge wartime heroism and the place of truth in doing so. It’s also a consideration of how many people are affected, in different ways, by the sacrifices of war.

    There are some decent performances along the way: Washington is always good value, and a before-he-was-famous Matt Damon demonstrates his commitment to the profession by losing a ton of weight between filming the flashback and “present day” scenes (endangering his health in the process) to portray a medical specialist indelibly affected by what went on ‘over there’. Apparently Mark Kermode said the casting of Meg Ryan as a chopper pilot was “the benchmark for a casting decision so ludicrous that it takes the viewer out of the film,” but I suspect that says more about how she was regarded at the time (best known for romcoms) than her actual performance (she’s no standout, but she’s fine).

    3 out of 5

  • The 100-Week Roundup II

    I had a nice little introduction written for this post when T2 3D was going to be part of it, but then that got too long and I posted it separately. So, anyway, here are three other films I watched almost two years ago but haven’t reviewed yet…

    Laura
    (1944)

    2018 #93
    Otto Preminger | 85 mins | download (HD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Laura

    This classic film noir stars Dana Andrews as a New York detective investigating the murder of an advertising exec and society girl played by Gene Tierney, the eponymous Laura. And there’s a good twist halfway through that completely turns the film on its head, so I’ll keep this vague. (We can debate the merits or otherwise of openly discussing plot points from 75-year-old films another time. Heck, go on Twitter — I’m sure someone’ll be ranting about it from one side or the other right now.)

    As a murder investigation, Laura is a decent little mystery — there aren’t a huge number of suspects, but enough to keep you guessing; though I did eventually wonder if it actually hangs together 100% as a case. But that doesn’t matter when everything else about the film plays out so well. For starters, it’s noticeably well directed by Otto Preminger, with some nice shot construction and editing. Then the screenplay (based on a novel by Vera Caspary, and penned by three credited writers and one uncredited, as per the interweb) boasts lots of great dialogue. It’s rarely show-off-ily snappy, but it is effective and sometimes witty. That’s only appropriate considering one of the characters (Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker) has a rep as a wordsmith — that wouldn’t fly if he didn’t have plenty of bons mots to offer.

    The rest of the cast are similarly noteworthy. Tierney is very plausible as the kind of gal everyone would fall in love with, and Andrews is equally so as the solid copper. A key supporting role is filled by a young-ish Vincent Price. (Can we call 33 “young”? As someone who was born in 1986, I’m going to go with “yes”.) It’s an accident of history how effective his casting is — not that his performance is bad in and of itself, but his later reputation brings certain expectations about how things might pan out. Is that warranted? Well, you’ll have to watch it to see…

    5 out of 5

    Jigsaw
    (2017)

    2018 #104
    The Spierig Brothers | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & Canada / English | 18 / R

    Jigsaw

    After seven films between 2004 and 2010, the Saw series seemed well and truly done. But nothing once-popular can stay dead for long in Hollywood, and so 2017 saw this revival (and this year will see another, pandemic permitting). It seemed to go down quite poorly, and I’m curious as to why. It’s a Saw film through and through — if you don’t like the series, there’s no reason you should like this — so, I mean, why would you want or expect a Saw film to not be a Saw film? Maybe it’s just people who don’t actually liking Saw films all that much but chose to watch an eighth one anyway? Well, it’s up to them how they choose to spend their time…

    Anyhow, as a Saw film, I thought it was one of the better ones. Not the very best (that’s still the first), but definitely top end. I liked the final reveal, which is a big part of these films’ appeal — what twist they’re going to pull in the final moments. Sure, I’d guessed part of it well in advance, but it still had some neat aspects. (I do wonder how many people were fooled into thinking Jigsaw was still alive, somehow? He died many, many films ago; he’s not coming back.) In terms of the whole series, it does raise a load of questions — but digging into them is really getting navel-gazing about the series’ continuity. I’m not sure it’s worth worrying about.

    3 out of 5

    Inferno
    (1953)

    2018 #107
    Roy Baker | 84 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG

    Inferno

    3D and film noir aren’t things you readily associate with each other, but there are a couple of them — see here for a few. Some might count Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, too. Inferno here is another borderline case. The plot definitely has a whiff of noir — a husband left for dead by his wife and her lover, which cause her moral quandaries but him not so much — but the telling is more of an Adventure movie, some might even say a Western, with the husband struggling through an arid wilderness. Plus it’s all shot in brightly-lit Technicolor.

    Whether you count it as noir or not, it’s most noteworthy for its 3D. It was one of the last films made in the format during the fleeting ’50s experiment, especially as its studio, Fox, were backing CinemaScope as a TV-beater instead (well, I guess they were right). It doesn’t make blatant use of its 3D — there’s no stuff poking at the camera (until the punch-up finale) — but it often brings a nice sense of depth often, including to the wide-open desert vistas. It was well received, too, with the New York Times saying it was where “3-D comes of age”, and others comparing it favourably to other movies of the era, which treated 3D as no more than a gimmick and squandered its potential. All of that said, a climactic fight does indulge in all the in-your-face aspects we associate with classic 3D movies — but it was a late addition forced on the film by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, who wanted to see more overt 3D action. In summary up, director Roy Ward Baker commented, “the critics gave it unanimous applause, largely because it has a good story to which the process contributed greatly, as opposed to the usual stereo films which were simply exploitation stunts. However, we did include a few of the cliches, at the behest of DFZ. I guess he was right at that.”

    It is a pretty good tale. Baker wanted to make a film in which “the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says.” Nonetheless, we’re given a voiceover narration from the hero, which gets a bit twee, albeit with an enjoyable dry wit now and then, and an interesting pragmatism about his situation. There’s some neat editing to juxtapose his situation with that of his condemners, too: when he’s starving it cuts to wifey enjoying a lavish meal; as he digs in the desperate hope of water it cuts to her lover casually fixing himself a drink. Said wifey is played by Rhonda Fleming, who apparently was known as “the Queen of Technicolor” because of her complexion and vibrant red hair. Everyone in the film is in love with her — even the cops who’ve just met her comment on it — and, yeah, I buy that. There’s an amusing bit where her lover is desperate to throw caution to the wind and visit her room that night simply because it’s “been four days”, wink wink nudge nudge. Men, eh?

    4 out of 5

    Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Marathon Roundup: Westerns

    Here are two more selections from Tarantino’s movie marathon. He included them because they’re the kind of fare the lead character from his new film (Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton) might’ve appeared in. They’re both Westerns (obv.), and they’re on TV (in the UK) again as a double-bill later today.

    In today’s roundup:

  • Arizona Raiders (1965)
  • Gunman’s Walk (1958)


    Arizona Raiders
    (1965)

    2019 #108
    William Witney | 93 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | NR* / PG

    Arizona Raiders

    Arizona Raiders begins with a double prologue that fills us in on the history of Quantrell, a bloodthirsty commander for the losing side in the American Civil War, who now runs rampant with his gang of former soldiers. In what would be a kind of prologue if it wasn’t for the two other prologues, the good guys, led by Captain Andrew (Buster “Flash Gordon” Crabbe, who starred in an unrelated film with the same title three decades earlier), finally catch up with Quantrell’s gang, who scatter, though some are captured and some are killed — including Quantrell himself. All that time telling us his life story, and the guy’s barely in it…

    But that’s not the end for his gang, as an already mutinous lieutenant re-establishes it and begins rampaging again. A few years later, they’re terrorising Arizona, and Andrew is tapped to establish the Arizona Rangers — like the Texas Rangers, but in Arizona (clever, that) — and stop the gang. His bright idea is to break out two of the gang members he captured in the raid, Clint (Audie Murphy) and Willie (Ben Cooper), and send them undercover. The prison break works fine, but the guys aren’t convinced about whose side they should be on, even though Clint’s adoring younger brother is a fully signed-up Arizona Ranger and helping them on the mission.

    Really quite brutal in places. Mainly his face, it looks like.

    I guess this is the kind of programmer they used to make piles of back in the day — the sort of good old fashioned Western where outlaws who’ve been living rough for months wear neatly-pressed shirts and boast clean-shaven features. At least its morality is more complicated than the old “white hats good, black hats bad” style, with anti-hero(es) for the lead role(s) — Clint and Willie aren’t just former criminals, you’re not sure they won’t just go back to their old ways once they meet up with their former gang. It gets really quite brutal in places too, with more bloody violence than you might expect from a Hollywood feature of its time.

    Initially I thought this was only interesting for the context it provides to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, especially during the unusual opening 20 minutes. But it steadily improves as it goes on, developing into a pretty entertaining adventure, which includes a tense shoot-out halfway through and some surprising developments in the second half. Plus, with the dubious morality of its heroes and some relatively graphic violence, it’s perhaps a surprising for a classic-era Hollywood Western, too.

    3 out of 5

    * This hasn’t been classified by the BBFC since its original release in 1965, when it was cut to just 89 minutes and given an A. You can rent it from Amazon (in HD too), where they say it’s rated 12. ^

    Gunman’s Walk
    (1958)

    2019 #109
    Phil Karlson | 90 mins | TV | 2.55:1 | USA / English

    Gunman's Walk

    I found that much of Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon was, to be kind, a mixed bag. I’d never even heard of most of the movies (the two I had will be in the next roundup), and it seemed like that was for good reason: watching them was interesting in one way or another, but I didn’t always particularly enjoy them. Proof in point: in the six reviews I’ve posted so far, I’ve given four poor two-star ratings and two middling three-star ratings. Gunman’s Walk is a definite exception, however: I’d never heard of this one either, but it’s a great Western, easily my favourite film of the marathon (so far), and I feel like it generally deserves to be better remembered than it is (and better treated — for example, the only Blu-ray release is in Germany).

    At its most basic, it’s the story of a powerful rancher, Lee Hackett (Van Heflin), and his two grown sons, Ed (Tab Hunter) and Davy (James Darren), and the tribulations they face after Davy falls for a half-Sioux girl (Kathryn Grant) and Ed kills her brother, he says by accident, but witnesses say not. More than that, though, it touches on a handful of thematic points. It’s set at a time when the West was becoming less Wild: with towns and communities established, civilisation has truly arrived, and it risks leaving behind the frontiersmen who conquered the West — men like Lee Hackett. Tied to that is the way Lee has tried to raise his sons, in his own image, and almost more as underlings than children — he encourages them to call him “Lee”, for instance, and insists they obey rules like always wearing a gun.

    I won’t spoil the twists and turns of the plot, but it’s a great narrative, powered by some superb performances. Heflin gets the biggest arc, with a multi-faceted role that takes a confident, commanding man through his paces to expose who he really he is, and how he really feels about his effect on the world. There develops an inner conflict within Lee, and the story and Heflin’s performance navigate its expression in various ways, both positive and negative. It seems like he’s an upstanding father at first, but then we see how this upbringing has twisted one of his sons, and when he’s confronted with problems we see the real man underneath — the man who thinks he’s above the law, and will do anything to get his own way. He likely doesn’t think of himself as having such negative qualities, but they’re clearly part of his character, and his sons — one of them, at least — has picked up on that and adopted it more overtly. At the end, when Lee realises that he’s ultimately responsible for creating this monster (albeit unintentionally), he then seems to realise his own flaws too.

    Toxically masculine

    Hunter and Darren’s characters are a bit more straightforward — the good son and the bad son — but they embody those roles well, with Darren a likeable nice guy and Hunter a boo-able wayward son. That’s a bit of an unfair simplification, actually, both of the story and character arcs and of Hunter’s performance. At the start Ed is merely not a very nice chap, bullying and sullen, whereas over the course of the movie he develops into a cold-blooded murderer. At no point are we on his side, but his degeneration affects characters we do like.

    These days we’d say Gunman’s Walk is about toxic masculinity, in particular how it’s perpetuated, even if unintentionally. Lee has set very macho examples for his boys; although, while his ways are certainly becoming outdated, they’re not wholly dishonourable. Unfortunately, Ed has taken the wrong lessons from his father, and consequently developed values that are not only out of time but also twisted out of shape. He believes they’re How A Real Man Should Behave, even as we can clearly see how nasty they are. Davy stands in counterpoint: he was raised by the same father but has turned out alright, although that’s clearly by rejecting some of his father’s instructions. So both kids are formed in reaction to their father, for good or ill — literally for good and ill, respectively.

    Talking with Tarantino, Kim Morgan says the film is more progressive than you’d expect from a ‘50s Western, specifically with regards to how it presents quite an anti-violence stance. I think that’s a fair assessment, and the film seems ever so timely, over 60 years later, with talk of prohibiting the carrying of firearms in town, etc. Apparently this was a genuine social issue back in the late 19th century too, which really shows how slowly the USA changes its attitudes. But a similar point can be made about the film’s treatment of Native American characters. After that killing of the brother, its his two Native American friends who were the witnesses to Ed’s actions. They’re the ones telling the truth, and, in fairness, the judge weighs their evidence equally against Ed’s… although as there’s two of them and one of him, and he takes that as being unsolvably balanced, I guess maybe not wholly equal. (Then again, the two guys are friends, so of course they’d support each other’s accounts.) But as soon as another white witness steps forward, well, that settles it. So even as they’re not specifically ill-treated, the system is still stacked against them. Elsewhere, characters use derogatory insults (“half breed”), but those issuing the insults are clearly pitched as bad guys, while Davy, the good son, wants to marry someone who places herself clearly on the Natives’ side. OK, so they’re still minor supporting characters, and the girl is half white and looks it (of course she does — it’s a ’50s Western, everyone’s white really), but, for the time it was made, it’s pretty advanced.

    For whatever reason, Gunman’s Walk has become rather lost to time. I think it really merits a rediscovery, though: so many of its themes are exceptionally timely right now; but even aside from that, it’s just a damn good tale.

    4 out of 5

    Gunman’s Walk placed 14th on my list of The 15 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2019.

    Arizona Raiders and Gunman’s Walk are both on Movies4Men today from 5:10pm.

  • Quentin Tarantino’s Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon Roundup: Spy-Fi

    I introduced the concept behind QT’s movie marathon in my previous roundup of films from it, but to quickly recap, these are all movies with a connection to Tarantino’s latest flick, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

    While many of Tarantino’s selections speak to the setting of OUaTiH (in terms of depicting its time and place on screen, or the social landscape of its era), others have a bearing on it in quite a different way. These are movies his characters might’ve seen, or might’ve appeared in, or (in the case of Sharon Tate) did actually star in. Three of those also fall under the banner of espionage fiction. Two hail from the James Bond-inspired spy-fi craze of the ’60s, while one is a ’50s war movie about a secret mission. (Yeah, that last one is stretching the definition — it’s not really a spy movie at all — but it doesn’t pair up with anything else in Tarantino’s selection, so here it is.)

    In today’s roundup:

  • Hammerhead (1968)
  • The Wrecking Crew (1968)
  • Battle of the Coral Sea (1958)


    Hammerhead
    (1968)

    2019 #112
    David Miller | 95 mins | TV | 16:9 | UK / English

    Hammerhead

    The success of the James Bond movies led to a whole raft of imitators throughout the rest of the ’60s, a spy-fi craze that kickstarted other long-running franchises like Mission: Impossible and The Man from U.N.CL.E. Of course, as well as the memorable and enduring successes, there were piles of cheaply-made, entirely-forgettable knockoffs. Hammerhead is one of the latter. Like Bond, it’s based on a series of espionage novels, these ones by James Mayo (pen name of English novelist Stephen Coulter) and starring the character Charles Hood. Coulter had been friends with Ian Fleming, and apparently (according to Quentin Tarantino) his Hood novels were popular with secret agent fans because they were written in a similar style to Fleming. Hood didn’t have the staying power of Bond, though, the series running to just five novels which (as far as I can tell) haven’t been in print for decades. On film, he fared even less well: this is the only Charles Hood movie.

    The film’s biggest problem is its desire to be a Bond movie, but without the money or panache to carry it off. As Hood, Vince Edwards has none of the easy charm of Sean Connery, instead seeming like a stick-in-the-mud who’d rather be anywhere else (preferably back in the ’50s, I suspect). And the film itself so wants to be like Bond that there’s even a pop song named after the titular villain… though rather than playing over the opening credits, it pops up two or three times mid-film, incongruously played dietetically. As a Letterboxd reviewer put it, “apparently in the late ’60s if you were a pornography-obsessed master criminal you could also be the subject of a pop song.”

    Oh yes, that’s right: the villain collects porn. Not just any old rags, though, but Art — paintings and sculptures by renowned masters, that kind of thing, just ones that feature boobies. Something about that does feel ever so ’60s. The film itself is as pervy as its villain’s obsession. Well, okay, maybe not that pervy, but there are certainly gratuitous shots of women in their underwear, etc. Perhaps the most egregious is the closeup of female co-lead Judy Geeson’s bouncing behind as she rides on the back of a motorbike up some steps, complete with boinging sound effect. That’s about as explicit as it gets, though: it may be firmly set in the Swinging Sixties, with up-to-the-minute fashions and scenes set at experimental art happenings, but it’s stuck in the past enough to not feature any actual sex or nudity, just plenty of cleavage, gyrating dance moves, and the odd bit of innuendo (don’t expect any Bond-quality puns, mind — it’s not that clever).

    Trying to swing

    I haven’t mentioned the plot, but it’s a frequently nonsensical bit of nonsense involving a report so top-secret its author has to have a highly public cover story for what he’s supposed to be doing while he actually sneaking off to present to international delegates who’ve arrived in the country unannounced. If anyone ever said what this report was actually about, or why the conference had to be kept a secret (or how something like 23 different countries, and their associated delegates and security staff and so on, all managed to keep it hush-hush), I missed it. The villain wants to intercept the report — not steal it, not stop the conference, just learn what’s in it — which requires an elaborate plan with an impressionist and various decoys. Why not just honeytrap one of those 23 delegated? I guess that’d be too easy. What’s the villain’s motivation for wanting the report? No idea — he’s defined by being a reclusive pornography connoisseur, not by whatever he does to make money to afford his expensive porn habit.

    Well, it’s all part of the film wanting to be like Bond, but not seeming to really understanding what makes the Bond films tick. On the bright side, it doesn’t take itself very seriously, which means it’s kooky fun in places (there’s a nice bit of farce in a hearse, for example). Not without entertainment value, then, but only hardened ’60s spy-fi fans need apply.

    2 out of 5

    The Wrecking Crew
    (1968)

    2019 #115
    Phil Karlson | 101 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG / PG

    The Wrecking Crew

    Unlike Hammerhead, I’m not sure anyone should apply to watch The Wrecking Crew, the last in a series of four movies starring the Rat Pack’s Dean Martin as Donald Hamilton’s Matt Helm. The character was a mite more successful than Charles Hood, then, but on screen and in his original literary form: the book series ultimately ran to 27 novels, the last published in 1993, with a 28th written but left unpublished after Hamilton’s death in 2006. The film series would’ve continued too — I guess not for that long, but for at least one more film. Reports vary on why a fifth instalment never happened, but one highly plausible version ties it to the murder of Sharon Tate. Tate co-stars in The Wrecking Crew and is quite the best thing about it. Martin loved working with her, and the plan was for her to return as Helm’s sidekick in the next film. But then what happened happened, and the followup was abandoned. (The alternate version is that poor reviews and poor box office for The Wrecking Crew just led the studio to scrap the series.) There are several tragedies about the murder of Sharon Tate, but I don’t think depriving us of more Matt Helm movies is one of them.

    As for the lead character, Helm is a secret agent cum fashion photographer — and that’s not the only thing here that’ll remind you of Austin Powers. The Bond movies are often cited as the sole inspiration for Powers, but it was really drawn from across the ’60s spy-fi spectrum, and it’s clear Matt Helm was part of the mix. Unfortunately, The Wrecking Crew plays like a low-rent Austin Powers movie with any humour value sucked out. In his discussion around the film, Tarantino recalls seeing it in the cinema on its original release, and how audiences found it hilarious at the time. That wasn’t a quality I observed, personally. It’s clearly all tongue-in-cheek, but it rarely achieves levels of genuine amusement.

    Enter Sharon Tate

    More tangible is the sensation that the film thinks it’s super cool and hip, but really isn’t. That might just be because of its lead. Dean Martin feels a bit like Roger Moore in his later Bond films: still behaving like he’s a young playboy while looking far too old for it. But even Moore, with his ageless class, felt more ‘with it’ than this. It really shows that the “effortless cool” of Bond does require some effort. The past-its-date feel is underscore (literally) by frequent random snippets of old-fashioned-sounding songs — presumably Dean Martin numbers, placed awkwardly to convey some of the hero’s thoughts (sample lyric: “If your sweetheart puts a pistol in her bed, you’d do better sleeping with your uncle Fred”). So much for the Swinging Sixties… and this was nearly 1970, too!

    There’s no respite in the actual storyline, which is at least broadly followable (the villain has stolen $1 billion in gold, because who doesn’t want to be rich?), but then drowns itself in a flood of little logic problems and implausibilities, shortcomings of research or insight into foreign cultures, casual racism, lazy casting (why does someone called Count Massimo Contini sound like an English public schoolboy, other than because he’s the bad guy?), and no consideration for where surveillance cameras might actually be placed. You despair of constructively criticising the film for its mistakes — it’s beyond help.

    The Wrecking Crew is another movie no doubt inspired by the desire to emulate the success of James Bond, but this is the kind of mediocre imitation that gives you a new appreciation for even the worst Bond movies. Hammerhead clearly struggled to compete due to the constraints of a tight budget, which it at least made up for somewhat with a vein of authentic Swinging Sixties antics. The Wrecking Crew, on the other hand, seems to have all the money it could need (it was produced by a major studio and had star names attached, remember), but nothing like enough charm or skill. It can’t even find benefit in fight choreography by the great Bruce Lee, with stunt performers incapable of convincing combat.

    2 out of 5

    Battle of the Coral Sea
    (1958)

    2019 #116
    Paul Wendkos | 83 mins | TV | 16:9 | USA / English | PG

    Battle of the Coral Sea

    May, 1942, the South Pacific: a US submarine on a top-secret reconnaissance mission is captured by the Japanese fleet. Its crew are taken to remote island interrogation camp, where they just have to keep silent for a couple of days until what they know will no longer be of use to the enemy.

    Yes, far from the combat movie the title implies, this middle-of-the-road World War 2 movie is one part submarine adventure (the first act) to two parts POW thriller (the rest). The latter also includes an action-packed escape for the climax, which is almost a moderately exciting action sequence, but is marred by a litany of minor daft decisions. For example: the escapees start by killing a couple of guards, but only pick up one of their guns; then they use that gun to mow down more guards, but still don’t bother to grab any more weapons. When some of them get killed a minute or two later, you can’t help but feel it was their own damn fault.

    It picks up some points for making the camp’s commander a reasonable man — a human being, rather than an alien, vicious, evil torturer, which is the stereotype of Japanese WW2 prison camps. That said, considering how infamously brutal said camps were/could be, the niceness of the prisoners’ treatment makes the film feel somewhat neutered. It’s not like the captured seamen get to laze around all day — they’re put to work — but you feel like these guys aren’t really suffering, not compared to what others went through. It contributes to the feeling of the film being a something-or-nothing tale; just another story of the war, rather than an exceptionally compelling narrative.

    Under the Coral Sea

    Apparently the eponymous battle was rather important, though: a voice over informs us that “it was the greatest naval engagement in history”… before adding that “the victory laid the groundwork for the even greater sea victory at Midway.” So it was the greatest… except the next one was greater? Who wrote this screenplay, Donald Trump? We do actually get to see the battle, eventually, when it turns up as an epilogue, conveyed via a speedy stock-footage-filled montage. I wonder how much of that was fed into the trailer…

    Battle of the Coral Sea is the kind of film I would’ve completely overlooked if Quentin Tarantino hadn’t included it in his Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon (it represents the kind of thing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s Rick Dalton would’ve appeared in early in his career, as one of the seamen with a couple of lines), and I don’t feel I’d’ve really missed anything. It’s not a poor film — anyone with a fondness for ’50s-style war movies will find something to enjoy in it — but it’s not a noteworthy one either.

    3 out of 5

    Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in cinemas now.

  • Blindspot Review Roundup

    Of the 22 Blindspot/WDYMYHS films I watched in 2018, I still haven’t posted reviews for 18 of them. (Jesus, really?! Ugh.) So, here are three to get that ball rolling.

  • The 400 Blows (1959)
  • Big Fish (2003)
  • Strangers on a Train (1951)


    The 400 Blows
    (1959)

    aka Les Quatre Cents Coups

    2018 #4
    François Truffaut | 100 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | France / French | PG

    The 400 Blows

    One of the first films to bring global attention to La Nouvelle Vague, François Truffaut’s semi-autobiographical drama introduces us to Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a schoolboy in ’50s Paris who plays havoc both at home and at school, which naturally winds up getting him in trouble. The film is both a portrait of misunderstood youth (Antoine isn’t so much bad as bored) and indictment of its treatment (neither his school nor parents make much effort to understand him, eventually throwing him away to a centre for juvenile delinquents).

    The film barely contains one blow, never mind 400, which is because the English title isn’t really accurate: it’s a literal translation of the original, which is derived from the French idiom “faire les quatre cents coups“, the equivalent meaning of which would be something like “to raise hell”. Imagine the film was called Raising Hell and it suddenly makes a lot more sense.

    Anyway, that’s beside the point. As befits a film at the forefront of a new movement, The 400 Blows feels edgy and fresh, that aspect only somewhat blunted by its 60-year age. I was thinking how it was thematically ahead of its time, but I suppose Rebel Without a Cause was also about disaffected youth and that came out a few years earlier, so I guess it’s more in the how than the what that 400 Blows innovated.

    Either way, it’s an engaging depiction of rebellious youth, that remains more accessible than you might expect from a film with its art house reputation.

    5 out of 5

    Big Fish
    (2003)

    2018 #32
    Tim Burton | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English & Cantonese | PG / PG-13

    Big Fish

    After getting distracted into the mess that was his version of Planet of the Apes, Tim Burton returned to the whimsical just-outside-reality kind of fantasy that had made his name. Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, it’s about the tall tales of a dying man (played by Albert Finney on his deathbed and Ewan McGregor in his adventurous prime), and his adult son (Billy Crudup) who wants to learn the truth behind those fantastical stories.

    Most of Big Fish is fun. It exists at the perfect juncture between Burton’s sense of whimsy and a more realistic approach to storytelling — he’s reined in compared to some of the almost self-parodic works he’d go onto shortly afterwards made since, but it doesn’t seem like he’s constrained, just restrained. With a mix of many funny moments, some clever ones, and occasional somewhat emotional ones, it ticks along being being all very good.

    But then the ending comes along, and it hits like a freight train of feeling, clarifying and condensing everything that the whole movie has been about into a powerful gut-punch of emotion. It’s that which elevates the film to full marks, for me.

    5 out of 5

    Strangers on a Train
    (1951)

    2018 #176
    Alfred Hitchcock | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

    Strangers on a Train

    Alfred Hitchcock’s adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s thriller novel, in which two men get chatting on a train and agree to commit a murder for each other — as you do. In fact, one of the men — tennis star Guy Haines (Farley Granger) — was just making polite conversation and doesn’t want to be involved; but the other — good-for-nothing rich-kid (and, as it turns out, psychopath) Bruno Antony (Robert Walker) — really meant it, and sets about executing the plan.

    Strangers on a Train is, I think, most famous for that premise about two strangers agreeing to commit each other’s murder; so it’s almost weird seeing the rest of the movie play out beyond that point — I had no idea where the story was actually going to go with it. It’s a truly great starting point — the kind of “what if” conversation you can imagine really having — and fortunately it isn’t squandered by what follows — the “what if” scenario spun out into “what if you actually followed through?” Naturally, I won’t spoil where it goes, especially as you can rely on Hitch to wring every ounce of suspense and tension out of the premise.

    Aside from Hitch’s skill, the standout turn comes from Walker, who makes Bruno a delicious mix of charming and scheming, confident and pathetic, and brings out the homosexual subtext without rubbing it in your face (well, it was the ’50s).

    5 out of 5

    The 400 Blows, Big Fish, and Strangers on a Train were all viewed as part of Blindspot 2018, which you can read more about here.

  • Film Noir Review Roundup

    I’ve made a conscious effort to watch more film noirs this year, and today’s roundup contains a few results of that:

  • The Narrow Margin (1952)
  • Accomplice (1946)
  • Shockproof (1949)


    The Narrow Margin
    (1952)

    2018 #2
    Richard Fleischer | 68 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    The Narrow Margin

    Recognised as a classic noir, The Narrow Margin follows a detective (Charles McGraw) who must protect a mob boss’ widow (Marie Windsor) as she travels by train from Chicago to LA to give vital evidence. As the ‘tec finds himself getting involved with an attractive fellow passenger (Jacqueline White), the assassins on his trail mistake her for their actual target…

    What unfurls is an exciting plot with some solid twists and some great dialogue (enough that it earnt a Best Writing Oscar nomination, in fact), all told in a snappy running time that ensures the film powers forward like, well, a locomotive. Director Richard Fleischer makes very effective use of handheld camerawork and the train setting to create a confined, claustrophobic atmosphere that emphasises the tension and peril of the characters. It all blends into a very fine thriller.

    4 out of 5

    Accomplice
    (1946)

    2018 #16
    Walter Colmes | 66 mins | streaming | 4:3 | USA / English

    Accomplice

    Described by Paul Duncan’s Pocket Essential Film Noir as “hardboiled fun”, and by the few other people online who’ve seen it with phrases like “one of the worst assembled detective movies I’ve had the occasion to watch in a long time”, Accomplice graces my eyeballs before many no doubt finer examples of film noir by virtue of the fact it was available to stream on Amazon Prime and I thought I’d catch it while it was there.

    Adapted by Frank Gruber from his novel Simon Lash, Private Detective, it sees private detective Simon Lash (Richard Arlen) being hired to track down a missing bank executive by his concerned wife (Veda Ann Borg), but the bank insists he’s merely on vacation. As Lash digs deeper, he begins to suspect the wife may have other motives — as does, well, everyone else.

    Running little more than an hour, Accomplice’s plot races past, giving you no time to stop and consider it. Maybe that’s for the best. Conversely, it makes it feel like it doesn’t hang together, even if it actually does. But it rushes along at a scene level, too: Lash seems to figure things out as quickly as it takes the actors to say their lines. It’d be Sherlockian, if you actually believed he had the necessary information and wherewithal to make the deductions.

    There is some fun to be had in a speedy car chase and the film’s occasionally kooky location choices, like the climax being set at a castle in the middle of the desert that’s pitching itself as some kind of hotel for mid-getaway crooks (I think that was the owner’s business plan, anyway). There are other surprising flashes of entertainment, though some of them were likely unintentional, but Accomplice is not really a good film.

    2 out of 5

    Shockproof
    (1949)

    2018 #68
    Douglas Sirk | 76 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

    Shockproof

    When you hear “film noir” you don’t immediately think of director Douglas Sirk (nor vice versa), better known for his colourful ’50s melodramas. Well, according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They’s list of most-cited noir films, he helmed three, of which this is the second. The plot has plenty of noir elements, but the film actually feels more like a romantic melodrama. It’s quite an effective mix.

    So, the noir: it’s about a female murder parolee (Patricia Knight) and her parole officer (Cornel Wilde), who begins to fall in love with her. But is she still attached to the crook she took the fall for (John Baragrey)? Is she just pulling the wool over the eyes of the parole officer? That’s kind of a love triangle, hence we’re back in melodrama territory. But the advantage of it being billed as a noir rather than a romantic drama is you’re not sure where it will go. Will she fall for the good honest parole officer with his sweet younger brother and blind mother? Or will she be tempted back to the criminal love of her life? Or will it have a more tragic ending altogether?

    Well, no spoilers, but it definitely takes a turn I wasn’t expecting — the third act spins off in a whole different direction. To be honest, I didn’t really like it, but at least it was unusual, a big departure from the earlier part of the film, and it kind of worked because of that. Again, no explicit spoilers, but it comes to a neatly ironic conclusion… before there’s one extra scene, which feels tacked-on and undermines where the film had got to tonally. And that’s exactly what happened: co-producer Helen Deutsch rewrote Samuel Fuller’s screenplay and added a cop-out ending that Sirk felt ruined the film.

    Fatal femme

    At least until that point there’s stuff to enjoy. Knight’s performance is the real star: although her true nature seems to have been revealed at the start (she’s a parolee, i.e. a no-good criminal), the film adds more nuances to her than that — primarily, you can’t be sure if what she’s doing is genuine, or if she’s playing the parole officer for her own ends. There’s also an interesting turn from Baragrey: I couldn’t be sure if his acting was a bit flat, or if he was deliberately being cool, cold, calculated, thinking he’s always in control, the smartest guy in the deal. Well, even if it’s the former, it functions well as the latter.

    So, Shockproof (a title that has no relevance whatsoever, incidentally) isn’t a total disaster, with some surprising turns that are to be commended even when they don’t work. It was clearly a compromised production, but an interesting one.

    3 out of 5

  • Review Roundup

    This may look like a pretty random selection for a review roundup… and it is. But they do have two things in common: I watched them all in 2017, and I gave them all 3 stars.

    Yeah, not much, is it?

    Anyway, in today’s roundup:

  • The Girl on the Train (2016)
  • Lions for Lambs (2007)
  • Tea for Two (1950)


    The Girl on the Train
    (2016)

    2017 #113
    Tate Taylor | 112 mins | streaming (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    The Girl on the Train

    Based on a bestselling novel, The Girl on the Train stars Emily Blunt as Rachel, an alcoholic divorcee whose commuter train passes her old home every day. She tortures herself by observing her ex (Justin Theroux), his new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) and their child, as well as her former neighbours Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett), who she imagines living a perfect life. But after Rachel sees something that shatters the image she’s created, she wakes up from a black out, with mysterious injuries, and to the news that Megan has gone missing…

    The whole story unfurls with a good deal of histrionics and a questionable level of psychological realism, but as a straightforward potboiler it has some degree of entertainment value. In fact, if it had been made with a little more panache then it may even have been seen as a throwback to the kind of melodramas they produced in the ’40s and ’50s. Because it doesn’t seem to have that level of self-awareness, I guess it’s just the modern-day equivalent.

    3 out of 5

    Lions for Lambs
    (2007)

    2017 #121
    Robert Redford | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Lions for Lambs

    The US intervention in the Middle East is obviously one of the most significant geopolitical events of our age, but how many films have really got to grips with it? Some, like The Hurt Locker, have given a sense of its impact to those on the ground. Lions for Lambs tried to take a more intellectual standpoint, with three interconnected storylines: a young and ambitious US senator (Tom Cruise) details a new military strategy to an experienced and sceptical journalist (Meryl Streep); a college professor (Robert Redford) tries to engage a talented but apathetic student (Andrew Garfield); and two soldiers become stranded in Afghanistan (Michael Peña and Derek Luke), providing a link between the other two stories.

    Screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan originally conceived the work as a play, before realising the Afghanistan section needed the scale of a movie. Nonetheless, his original conception shows through: the film is very talky and stagey, and the other two storylines could certainly be performed on stage with no changes necessary. You can also tell it’s driven by disillusionment in the US’s actions, and it has everyone in its critical sights: the government, the media, the education system… It feels more like a polemic than a movie, lecturing the viewer; although, like everyone else, it doesn’t seem to offer any firm answers.

    Streep and Cruise both give excellent performances. I suppose being a smarmy senator isn’t much of a stretch for the latter, but Streep’s turn as an insecure journalist is the highlight of the film. You need acting of that calibre to keep you invested in a movie like this, and it almost works, but ultimately the film has too little to say.

    3 out of 5

    Tea for Two
    (1950)

    2017 #162
    David Butler | 94 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Tea for Two

    Musical comedy starring Doris Day (radiant as ever) and Gordon MacRae (given little to do as her love interest).

    The songs are largely forgettable, with a couple of sweet exceptions, but at least there are other things to recommend it, like some impressive dancing from Gene Nelson, particularly during a routine on a flight of stairs. There’s a solid helping of amusing one-liners too, most of them claimed by Eve Arden as Day’s wry assistant Pauline, the rest by S.Z. Sakall as her embattled uncle. Said uncle is, by turns, a bumbling old codger and an underhanded schemer who uses tricks to try to ruin his niece’s happiness just so he can win a bet. Best not to dwell on that too much…

    The same goes for the rushed ending, in which our heroine is in financial ruin, so her assistant basically whores herself out to a rich lawyer so they can still put on the show. Hurrah! And talking of things not to dwell on, there’s also the title, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story (other than it being probably the best song). Conversely, the name of the play it’s based on — No, No, Nanette — is bang on. Ah well.

    Nonetheless, Tea for Two is all-round likeable entertainment; the kind of movie you put on for a pleasantly gentle Sunday afternoon.

    3 out of 5

  • Blindspot Sci-fi Roundup

    With my 2018 Blindspot and “What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen” selections now chosen, it’s about time I got on with reviewing those from the class of 2017 that are still in my “to do” pile. Here, then, are four more reviews of my 2017 must-sees, connected (as you may’ve guessed from the title) by all being works of science fiction.

    In today’s roundup:

  • District 9 (2009)
  • Moon (2009)
  • Her (2013)
  • Forbidden Planet (1956)


    District 9
    (2009)

    2017 #88
    Neill Blomkamp | 112 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | South Africa, USA, New Zealand & Canada / English | 15 / R

    District 9

    We begin this roundup with two 2009 sci-fi thrillers that made the names of their respective directors. District 9 got the wider attention, being backed by Peter Jackson and receiving a Best Picture Oscar nomination (alongside three other nods), but I’d argue it’s ultimately the lesser of the two films.

    Although District 9 remains highly praised, co-writer/director Neill Blomkamp’s next two movies — Elysium and Chappie — haven’t gone down so well. Having seen both of those first, I feel like there are a lot of structural and tonal similarities between all three films, so it’s interesting to me how poorly the next two were received. Basically, they all start with some kind of societal sci-fi issue, explore that for a bit as the world of the story is established, then transition into being a shoot-em-up actioner.

    In District 9’s case, it starts out as a documentary about (effectively) alien refugees who live in a segregated community in South Africa. The obvious real-world parallels are, well, obvious. Then events transpire which make the idea of having to identify with those who are Other than us — of becoming affected by their culture — very literal. Then it turns into an achieve-the-MacGuffin shoot-em-up runaround. It’s done well for what it is, with some strikingly gruesome weaponry to give the well-staged shootouts a different edge, but that’s still what it is. Presumably it was all the rather-obvious allegory stuff that helped land the film a Best Picture nomination, and the fact the second half is a not-that-original humans-vs-aliens shooter was overlooked.

    Not so different. Okay, pretty different.

    For me, the clunkiest bit is the storytelling style it adopts. It’s a mockumentary… until it decides it doesn’t want to be so that it can tell its story more effectively… but then it sometimes slips back into mockumentary later on, most notably at the end. I found that distracting and formally inconsistent. I’d rather it had kept up the mockumentary act throughout or not used it at all; or, if you’re going to do both documentary and ‘reality’, have a point to it — show differing versions of the truth, that kind of thing, don’t just mix it together willy-nilly.

    All told, I found District 9 to be a mixed bag. The first half is excitingly original and interestingly ideas-driven, with allegory that is powerful if perhaps a little heavy-handed (I suppose that’s kind of unavoidable when you make a movie about segregation and set it in South Africa). The second half is just a shoot-em-up.

    4 out of 5

    Moon
    (2009)

    2017 #145
    Duncan Jones | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

    Moon

    The other 2009 sci-fi debut feature was that of director Duncan Jones. Although it received no Oscar love it did get a BAFTA, but seems to remain less seen: it has almost half as many user ratings on IMDb as District 9. Personally, I thought it was the superior film.

    It stars Sam Rockwell as the sole inhabitant of a mining facility on the Moon. As the end of his tour of duty approaches, his investigation in a malfunction unearths a startling secret. To say any more would spoil things, though Moon gets to its reveal pretty speedily. Also, you may’ve guessed it from the trailers (I more or less did). Also, it’s nine years old now and you’ve probably seen it — though, as those IMDb numbers show, maybe not.

    If you haven’t, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Like so much good sci-fi, it uses its imagined situation as impetus to explore the effect on its characters (or, in this case, character) and what the human reaction would be in such a situation. Maybe this is becoming a cliché already, but it’s quite like an episode of Black Mirror in that regard. (Isn’t all sci-fi that puts a high concept through the ringer of human experience “like Black Mirror”? Such stuff existed before that series. That said, maybe there wasn’t as much of it.)

    It's like looking in a mirror. A black mirror.

    Jones marked himself out as a director to watch with his attentiveness to character in the midst of his SF setting, but also by helming an excellently realised production on a tight budget — the moonbase set looks great and the model effects are perfect. A major reason I reckon it’s clearly better than District 9 is this consistency of style and tone. It’s a film that better knows what it wants to be and how to achieve its intended effect.

    As for Jones, he went on to make Source Code, a solid follow-up, but then seemed to throw a lot of talent away on the risible Warcraft. Hopefully his forthcoming Netflix Original, Mute, will restore the balance.

    5 out of 5

    Her
    (2013)

    2017 #165
    Spike Jonze | 126 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Her

    If Moon is “a bit like an episode of Black Mirror”, Spike Jonze’s Her virtually is one. Set in a highly plausible near future — which has clearly been developed from our current obsession with our phones, iPads, digital assistants, etc — it stars Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore, a lonely chap who gets a new operating system based around a genuine AI, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). As Samantha develops, she and Theodore soon become friends, and then more.

    People often refer to the template of Black Mirror as “what if technology but MORE”, and Her definitely fulfils that brief: “what if Siri was genuinely intelligent and someone fell in love with her?” Also like an episode of Black Mirror, it’s as much about what this reveals about humanity as it is about the crazy sci-fi concept. It’s primarily a romance about a lonely guy who was hurt in the past finding a new connection, with the fact he’s falling in love with a piece of technology almost secondary. Even within the world of the film, he’s not some kind of outcast: we hear about other people who’ve fallen for their AI, and his friends unquestioningly accept his relationship as genuine.

    Such acceptance doesn’t translate into our current world, it seems. Although Her is generally very well liked, some people struggle to engage with it at all, and from what I can tell that mostly stems from them not being able to relate to Theodore and his situation, i.e. the very concept of falling in love with an AI is too impossible for them to even imagine. I can’t help but feel that says more about those viewers (for good or ill) than it does the film, which executes the storyline with a great deal of believability and heart.

    5 out of 5

    Forbidden Planet
    (1956)

    2017 #172
    Fred McLeod Wilcox | 98 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | U / G

    Forbidden Planet

    This classic sci-fi adventure sees a spaceship crewed by blokes (led by Leslie Nielsen) land on the planet Altair IV to investigate what happened to a previous mission there. They find it inhabited only by Dr Morbius (Walter Pidgeon), his robot servant Robby, and his beautiful daughter Altaira (Anne Francis), who perpetually wears short skirts and has a fondness for skinny-dipping. Turns out the crew are a right bunch of horndogs (they spend most of their time lusting after Altaira, tricking her into kissing them and stuff like that), but there are bigger problems afoot when the planet starts trying to kill them.

    Once it gets past everyone’s lustfulness (it feels uncomfortably like watching the filmmakers play out some personal fantasies), there are proper big sci-fi ideas driving Forbidden Planet. There are also some gloriously pulpy action sequences, like a fight against an invisible monster. It’s backed up by great special effects. Obviously they’ve all dated in one way or another, but much of it still looks fantastic for its time — the set extensions, in particular, are magnificent.

    Nothing's forbidden on this planet, wink wink

    Something I wasn’t expecting (but I’m certainly not the first to note) is how blatantly the film was an influence on Star Trek. You can even map the similarities between characters pretty precisely. Switch out the spaceship models and original-flavour Star Trek is all but Forbidden Planet: The Series.

    Although its gender politics have aged even less well than its special effects, and its story occasionally gets bogged down by stretches of explanatory dialogue (it sometimes feels like you’re watching the writer invent and explain his ideas in real-time), Forbidden Planet remains a mostly enjoyable SF classic.

    4 out of 5

    District 9 and Forbidden Planet were viewed as part of my Blindspot 2017 project, which you can read more about here.

    Moon and Her were viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2017 project, which you can read more about here.