Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973)

aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию / Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession

2016 #112
Leonid Gaidai | 92 mins | streaming (HD) | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian

Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future

I know: having seen the title of this film, you’re probably thinking some variation of, “so what’s that then?” Well, it’s only a better sci-fi film than Aliens, 2001, Metropolis, Blade Runner, or Solaris! It’s only a better comedy than Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Sherlock Jr., Some Like It Hot, It Happened One Night, or The Kid! Only a better adventure movie than North by Northwest, Lawrence of Arabia, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or The Bridge on the River Kwai! Only the best musical ever made that isn’t The Lion King, and the 8th greatest film of one of cinema’s defining decades, the ’70s — that’s what!

Well, “that’s what” according to IMDb voters, anyway, who’ve placed it in the upper echelons of all those best-of lists. In fact, it’s a Russian sci-fi comedy, adapted from a play by Mikhail Bulgakov (most famous to Western audiences now for the TV series A Young Doctor’s Notebook starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe and Jon “Mad Men” Hamm). Apparently it’s a huge popular classic in Russia, hence why it’s scored so well on an international movie website and shot up those lists; and, because of that, it’s a moderately (in)famous film on movie-list-checking website iCheckMovies (at least, it is in the parts of it I frequent), because it’s a film you have to see if you want to complete any of the aforementioned lists.

And so I have seen it — courtesy of Mosfilm’s YouTube channel, where it’s available for free, in HD, with English subtitles — just in case this review makes you want to watch it too. Which, you never know, it might, because it’s actually kinda fun. In the end.

Terrible meal

The plot concerns scientist Shurik (Alexsandr Demyanenko), who is trying to perfect a time machine in his apartment (as you do) but is getting grief from his busybody building supervisor Ivan Vasilievich (Yuri Yakovlev). Meanwhile, George (Leonid Kuavlev) is trying to rob a neighbouring apartment. To cut a lot of faffing short, the three of them end up transported to the past, where it turns out Ivan Vasilievich is the spitting image of Ivan the Terrible (also Yuri Yakovlev) and — to cut some more farce equally short — Ivan Vasilievich and George end up stuck in the past, pretending to be Mr Terrible and his chum, while Shurik and the real Mr Terrible are returned to the present day. More hijinks ensue!

So, you can see why its original title is the wittily understated statement Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession, and how its English title can just about get away with being such a blatant attempt to cash-in on a popular movie.

As for the film itself, it starts off not so hot, somewhat overacted and a little hard to get a grip on what’s happening — it’s also a sequel or sorts, so perhaps launches with the idea you’ve seen the previous adventures of Shurik and so know what kind of thing to expect. But as it continues… well, maybe it’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome, but I ended up rather enjoying it. It’s not genius, but it’s a fairly amusing farce once it gets going. Very of its time as an early-’70s mainstream-style silly comedy, but what’s wrong with being of your time? It also sounds like it’s fairly faithful to Bulgakov’s original play, which is a little surprising, but there you go.

Terrible face

Unsurprisingly, Ivan Vasilievich is not a better film than all those ones I listed at the start. If it got wider exposure and more IMDb votes, I’m sure it would drop down lickety-split. At the same time, I’m actually quite glad I watched it: after I eventually warmed to it, it was kinda fun.

3 out of 5

The Sting (1973)

2016 #127
George Roy Hill | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The StingSet in Chicago during the Great Depression, The Sting follows a young street-level con artist (Robert Redford) as he seeks revenge for his murdered partner by teaming up with a seasoned big-con pro (Paul Newman) to scam the mob boss responsible (Robert Shaw).

If that sounds like a somewhat violent crime movie… well, it kinda is. Although The Sting is often billed as a caper, sometimes even as a comedy (look at those grinning mugs on the poster!), it actually has more of an edge. I mean, it’s not The Godfather, but it’s not Ocean’s Eleven either. The star power and chemistry of Redford and Newman are what give the movie a buoyancy to overcome the storyline’s inherent darkness, though I wouldn’t say that reaches far enough to regard the film as a romp, which is the impression I’d obtained over the years.

Indeed, I wonder if it suffers from its age more broadly. Not because the filmmaking quality has dated (they may not make ’em like this anymore, but great filmmaking is timeless), but because it was so influential that it’s been copied to death. It still has a lot of points to commend it, but the heist — the driving force of the plot — lacks freshness to modern eyes. Newness is not the be-all-and-end-all, of course, but the con only really comes to life in a flurry of last-minute twists… most of which have also been copied ad nauseam, of course.

The Sting is certainly not a bad movie — and, for all my talk of it being mercilessly copied, it did manage to con me in a couple of places — but it wasn’t exactly what I’d anticipated. Perhaps I’ll like it more on some future re-watch.

4 out of 5

The Sting was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Star Wars (1977)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #88

A long time ago
in a galaxy far, far away…

Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 121 minutes | 125 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1977 (USA)
UK Release: 27th December 1977
First Seen: VHS, c.1990

Stars
Mark Hamill (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Star Wars: Episode VIII)
Harrison Ford (American Graffiti, The Fugitive)
Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally…, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai)
James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, The Lion King)

Director
George Lucas (THX 1138, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)

Screenwriter
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones)

The Story
When he discovers a distress call from a beautiful princess, a young farmhand joins forces with an old warrior, a roguish pilot, his bear-like first mate, and a pair of bickering robots to rescue her — which involves taking on the evil galactic Empire, and in particular their chief enforcer: Darth Vader.

Our Heroes
Farm boy Luke Skywalker just wants to go off and join the rebellion, but little does he realise how much that path leads to his destiny. Helping him get there is smuggler Han Solo, who may come from a wretched hive of scum and villainy and is happy to shoot first at the same time as his opponent, but has a heart of gold really. The object of their mission, and both their affections, is the strong-willed Princess Leia.

Our Villains
A man in a black suit with breathing problems might not sound like one of the most effective screen villains of all time, but that’s what you get when you come up with pithy descriptions like that. In fact, Darth Vader is so badass, he’s not above choking members of his own side, the evil Empire — and they’re evil.

Best Supporting Character
R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are also introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi. A mysterious old man who inducts Luke into the ways of the Force, Obi-Wan is played by veteran character actor Alec Guinness, meaning he is bestowed with instant awesomeness. Not as handy with a lightsaber as he used to be, mind.

Memorable Quote
Darth Vader: “Your powers are weak, old man.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I have a very bad feeling about this.” — Luke Skywalker

Memorable Scene
It’s fair to say Star Wars is loaded with memorable scenes, but for pure effectiveness you’d have to go a long way to beat the opening sequence: giant spaceships flying overhead, blasting laser beams at each other; walking, talking robots bickering; a gunfight between men and armoured soldiers; and then Darth Vader, stalking into the movie like a sci-fi vision of Death himself.

Memorable Music
George Lucas wanted a score reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies to help inform audiences about what they were watching — that although it was set on alien worlds with giant spaceships and laser swords, it was a familiar kind of heroic adventure tale. Composer John Williams delivered exactly that, drawing on influences including classical composers, like Stravinsky and Holst, and film composers, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (King’s Row) and Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won). He produced not only a great soundtrack all round, but arguably the most famous movie theme of all time.

Truly Special Effect
Star Wars did so much to break new ground in special effects, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of it’s a little skwiffy (the lightsaber effects are notoriously problematic, their colours varying even in recent remastered versions), but the model work — the spaceships and their battles — is fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Han shot first! *ahem* Yes, A New Hope is definitely the movie where Lucas’ unpopular Special Edition fiddling is it at its least liked, primarily for that bit where Han no longer shoots Greedo in cold blood. What do you have to do to get a merciless good guy these days, eh? Other changes have varying degrees of effectiveness: having extra X-Wings in the Death Star battle looks pretty neat, but the CGI Jabba the Hutt — complete with Han stepping jerkily over his tail — is terrible.

Making of
George Lucas screened an early cut of the film for a group of his director friends, most of whom agreed with him: it was going to be a flop. Brian De Palma even called it “the worst movie ever”. There was one dissenting voice: Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be a huge hit. As if that man’s entire career wasn’t proof enough that he knows what he’s talking about…

Previously on…
Star Wars’ influences can be clearly traced back to the sci-fi cinema serials of the ’30s and ’40s, like Flash Gordon. In-universe, the saga begins with the Prequel Trilogy, and there’s shedloads of other spin-off media. Most pertinently, this December’s first live-action non-saga Star Wars film, Rogue One, should lead more-or-less directly into the start of A New Hope.

Next time…
Star Wars essentially inspired the next 39 years (and counting) of effects-driven summer blockbusters. It also started a mini-industry all of its own — well, quite a large industry, actually: films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, board games, role playing games, toys, clothes, lunch boxes… anything you can imagine, I’d wager. Primarily, the story is directly continued in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and resumed in The Force Awakens, with more to come in 2017 and 2019.

Awards
7 Oscars (Editing, Score, Sound, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, Original Screenplay)
2 BAFTAs (Music, Sound)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Editing, Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
13 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (tied with Spielberg for Close Encounters), Writing, Music (John Williams tied with himself for Close Encounters), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Set Decoration, Special Award for Outstanding Cinematographer)
4 Saturn nominations (Actor (both Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill), Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Peter Cushing))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“The battles, the duels, the special effects — and what special effects! Swords made of light, blasters shooting laser beams, exploding planets — it goes on and on. All the aging acid-heads who tripped out to Stanley Kubrick’s overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, will go bananas over Star Wars. Not to mention comic-book freaks, science fiction and fantasy fans, lovers of old westerns, romances, mysteries and movies about the Crusades. In addition to being a slickly produced and highly entertaining adventure suitable for the whole family, Star Wars is richly evocative of a whole range of old film forms and I predict that entire books will be written on the sources, the religious symbolism, the mythological and historical allusions, and so on and so forth that Lucas has incorporated” — Robert Martin, The Globe and Mail (This review from the original release, before it was called Episode IV, also notes that it “opens like Episode 6 of a serial”. Good call, sir.)

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“To this day, A New Hope is used as a primary example of storytelling. It perfectly establishes a world and introduces audiences to a protagonist that goes on his hero’s journey. There’s a reason that so much pop culture parodies and pays tribute to this film and it’s because of how near perfect it is. You have the Princess in peril still holding her own against what will always be one of the greatest movie villains of all time in Darth Vader. That is also one thing the prequels do that take away from this movie and the two that come after: They soften Vader. Vader is cold, ruthless, robotic, and menacing. Not someone who cries about his girlfriend. […] A New Hope just does everything the right way. When it wants you to be excited, you are. When it wants you to be sad, you are. John Williams contributed to this a great deal with his score; and Lucas’ use of practical effects to tell his story make it a masterpiece.” — Reed, We’re Not Sorry

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of A New Hope’s modified DVD version, I said that “there are a few extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release.” Then, treating the film as the fourth part of the saga, I wrote that “the biggest change [from the prequel trilogy] is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power.”

Verdict

In my post on The Empire Strikes Back, I said it wasn’t actually my favourite Star Wars film. For all the popularity the series has as a whole, there’s only really one other possible contender for that crown: the first one. By which I mean this one, not Phantom Menace. Here, Lucas almost instantly conjures up a universe that feels wholly-imagined and genuinely lived-in (which is part of the reason people ended up so disappointed by the made-up-as-they-went-along, fill-in-the-blanks prequel trilogy). Throw in an array of likeable and entertaining characters, plus groundbreaking special effects, and you’re on to a winner. The plot may just be a classical hero narrative, but it’s in space and has laser swords — that counts for a lot.

Next: #89 ! Fuck yeah!

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

2016 #100
Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestBy many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.

Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.

Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.

Wretched RatchedHollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.

Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in Only sane one hereThe Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.

I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.

4 out of 5

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Westworld (1973)

2016 #155
Michael Crichton | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / PG

WestworldWhen writer-director Michael Crichton hit upon the notion of a theme park where the future-science star attractions broke free of their shackles and endangered the lives of the guests, it was so good it served him twice: he replaced the initial murderous AI-powered robot cowboys with rampaging genetically-engineered dinosaurs and sparked a multimedia franchise of enduring popularity. His first attempt hardly faded into obscurity, mind, bedding in as a minor sci-fi classic that HBO has now seen fit to reboot as a TV series, which premiered on Sunday in the US and debuts in the UK tonight. I think this new version may be most welcome, because Westworld has a great concept but, when it comes to the original film, that’s almost all it has.

Set in the near future, the film follows two friends (Richard Benjamin and James Brolin) as they visit an amusement park where you can live for a time in thorough recreations of either ancient Rome, medieval Europe, or the old West. It’s an immersive experience where you’re kitted out with era-appropriate clothing, stay in authentic lodgings, and the staff really believe it all — because they’re robots who’ve been programmed to do so, distinguishable from humans only by their imperfect hands. The film follow the chums through this process and the fun they have pretending to be gunslingers, though one of the robots (Yul Brynner, done up as the spit of his character from The Magnificent Seven) seems repeatedly antagonistic towards them, and, behind-the-scenes, the repair staff are baffled by some robots’ out-of-character actions.

Westworld doesn’t even reach the 90-minute mark, but even then there isn’t quite enough story to fill the running time. There’s a big dose of wish fulfilment in seeing Benjamin and Brolin getting to just enjoy the park — wouldn’t it be cool if this was real? Wouldn’t you want to go there? Though the price tag would put most people off: it’s $1,000 a day, which, factoring in inflation from 1973, means a two-week stay would now cost a little Face off, mk.1under $76,000, or about £58,200. The potential threat of the robots malfunctioning is built up gradually here and there, in asides from what our ostensible heroes are up to, and isn’t explained. There are nods to the fact the human staff don’t actually know how the robots work, but why should that be? Some of them were apparently designed by other robots, but how did the designing robots come about? Rather than explore any of its science fiction themes, the film just uses the basic idea to have the robots go on a killing spree right at the climax. This is something Crichton definitely turned around for Jurassic Park, where how it was done is explained and debated… and then the creations go on a rampage. Best of both worlds, that.

So this is where there’s space for HBO’s new version. I haven’t read too much about it (avoiding spoilers ‘n’ that), but given the long-form needs of TV I’m presuming it’s going to dig into the science a bit more. Co-creator Jonathan Nolan has already demonstrated an interest in the whys and wherefores of artificial intelligence through his last TV series, Person of Interest (which I’ve discussed in several of my monthly TV overviews), so I’m presuming it’s going to take Crichton’s broad idea but then be a little bit Ex Machina: The Series as well. Sounds good to me. Maybe this will be a reboot that pays off, because while the original film does offer Crichton’s superb concept, plus a few straightforward action/suspense thrills, it’s too slight to really deliver on the inherent promise.

3 out of 5

The new Westworld starts on Sky Atlantic at 9pm.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #76

Give yourself over to absolute pleasure.

Country: UK & USA
Language: English
Runtime: 100 minutes
BBFC: AA (1975) | 15 (1987) | 12 (1991)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 15th August 1975 (UK)
First Seen: TV, 31st December 1998

Stars
Tim Curry (Annie, Clue)
Susan Sarandon (The Front Page, Thelma & Louise)
Barry Bostwick (Weekend at Bernie’s II, Spy Hard)
Richard O’Brien (Flash Gordon, Dark City)
Meat Loaf (Roadie, Fight Club)
Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out, Diamonds Are Forever)

Director
Jim Sharman (The Night, the Prowler, Shock Treatment)

Screenwriters
Richard O’Brien (Shock Treatment, Digital Dreams)
Jim Sharman (Shirley Thompson Versus the Aliens, Shock Treatment)

Based on
The Rocky Horror Show, a stage musical by Richard O’Brien.

Music & Lyrics
Richard O’Brien (Shock Treatment)

The Story
When straight-laced young couple Brad and Janet approach a spooky castle in need of shelter, they stumble into the strange world of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who’s throwing a party to celebrate the ‘birth’ of his new creation: a tank-grown muscleman named Rocky. But it’s not only Rocky who’ll be getting an awakening…

Our Heroes
Good clean all-American kids Brad and Janet, newly engaged but forced to stop off at a creepy castle after their car breaks down in a storm. By the end of the night, they’ll certainly have learnt a new thing or two…

Our Villains
Dr. Frank-N-Furter — not much of a man by the light of day but by night he’s one hell of a lover. Just a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania, which would be fine if he didn’t get a bit murderous. Surrounded by a gaggle of home help and hangers-on, like hunchbacked handyman Riff Raff, mental maid Magenta, and vaudevillian groupie Columbia.

Best Supporting Character
Charles Gray is perfect as The Narrator, holed up in his wood-panelled study and telling the audience this fantastical story with admirable matter-of-factness.

Memorable Quote
“Let’s do the time warp again!” — everyone

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I see you shiver with antici…

…pation.” — Dr. Frank-N-Furter

Memorable Scene
The title sequence: the opening number sung by a pair of very big, very red lips. Simple, but iconic.

Best Song
Rocky Horror is one of those musicals where almost every song is genius: the cleverly reference-filled, surprisingly melancholic, bookending refrain of Science Fiction/Double Feature; the wittily rhymed Dammit Janet; the mission statement that is Sweet Transvestite; the sweetly kinky Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me; the epic multi-part floor show climax… and more. That said, I always disliked the post-climax Super Heroes, and wasn’t alone: it was actually cut out of the original US release. But then I heard Richard O’Brien sing it with acoustic guitar on the DVD special features, and in that variation it’s a darkly beautiful song. But for all that, when talking about the best song in Rocky Horror you really can’t beat the utterly iconic Time Warp.

Making of
Many films have “Easter eggs” — little half-hidden treats for fans to discover — but not many have them literally. The exception, of course, is Rocky Horror. Apparently the crew had an Easter egg hunt (which, considering the movie was shot from October to December, doesn’t make much sense) but they weren’t all found, hence why some turned up in the final film. I won’t tell you where they are (I mean, five seconds on Google and you can find out), but there are supposedly three.

Next time…
Initially a flop, it was when someone got the idea to screen the movie for the midnight crowd that Rocky Horror caught on. The interactive, ritual-filled experience of these screenings is legendary, and they’ve continued ever since — to the point where some cinemas have it as part of their regular schedule, and the DVD & Blu-ray releases include alternate tracks featuring the audience participation. It also means that, officially speaking, Rocky Horror has the longest theatrical run in movie history. In 1981, Sharman and O’Brien produced a sort-of-sequel, Shock Treatment. A new adventure for Brad and Janet (both recast), it featured several Rocky Horror actors (O’Brien, Patricia Quinn, Little Nell, Charles Gray) in new roles. It didn’t go down very well, though apparently it has its fans — a cult following within a cult following, I guess. In 2010, once-popular high school musical TV series Glee aired a tribute episode, The Rocky Horror Glee Show. It is truly horrendous; a plasticky, sanitised, neutered version of something that should never be those things. So I don’t hold out much hope for the next thing the same network (Fox, of all places!) have planned for the property: after years (decades?) of rumours, they’re finally making good on the threat by remaking the film. Officially dubbed The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, the clips released so far look almost as bad as the Glee version. We’ll see. Finally, the original stage show has continued across numerous productions, and last year a 40th anniversary gala performance was simulcast to cinemas across Europe and later aired on TV. It’s now available on YouTube. I’ve not watched it, but I suspect it’s a better bet than that Fox version.

Awards
1 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films Golden Scroll nomination (Horror Film (it lost to Young Frankenstein))

What the Critics Said
Rocky Horror is actually a very good film in its own right; made on a small budget, it’s a triumph of clever filmmaking by Sharman, who should have gone on to bigger things (and might have, had he not arrived at the end of an era). Yes, there are little technical glitches, but rarely has there been a more cleverly and creatively shot and edited film. Nearly every angle, every cut, every zoom shot, every optical transition is used to effectively maximize its respective scene. […] Remember the cult status, yes, but sometime try watching Rocky Horror just as a movie. It pays real dividends.” — Ken Hanke, Mountain Xpress

You What?
“Viewed on video simply as a movie, without the midnight sideshow, it’s cheerful and silly, and kind of sweet, and forgettable.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (Rocky Horror is many things, but “forgettable”? Hm.)

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
Rocky Horror is so distinctive, so unique, that it could’ve come off as bizarre, alien, and off-putting, but it didn’t. It has such self-aware charm, a catchy soundtrack that sticks in the head for days, and hilarious performers, that it overcomes its rather dull protagonists. Of course, Brad and Janet have their own charm as parodies of the square-jawed hero and his girl, but they will always be the least interesting characters on screen.” — That Other Critic

Verdict

Some people dismiss Rocky Horror as a film, thinking its only worth (if they acknowledge it has any) is as a live experience. I’ve never seen it ‘live’ (and don’t have an especially great desire to) but will happily fight its corner as a solo viewing experience. It’s camp and transgressive, but ‘safely’ so — that’s not a criticism, just an observation that it can work well as an eye-opener for the young or more conservative. But beyond that social impact, the outré style belies an underlying cleverness, with witty writing that features abundant references to sci-fi B-movie classics, precisely pitched performances, and, of course, the unforgettable toe-tapping tunes. Whether alone or in a packed auditorium throwing stuff and shouting back at the screen, it’s just fun. To watch it is to, indeed, give yourself over to absolute pleasure.

#77 will be… the greatest love story the world has ever known.

Badlands (1973)

2016 #87
Terrence Malick | 94 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18* / PG

BadlandsThe debut feature of Terrence “four films in 30 years” Malick comes with a tagline-cum-plot-description so good I’m just going to quote it wholesale:

He was 25 years old. He combed his hair like James Dean. He was very fastidious. People who littered bothered him.
She was 15. She took music lessons and could twirl a baton. She wasn’t very popular at school.
For awhile they lived together in a tree house.
In 1959, she watched while he killed a lot of people.

As 60-word summaries go, that pretty fairly covers the characters, plot, and, to some degree, the film’s tone. It’s loosely based on a real-life killing spree (which also inspired several other movies, including Natural Born Killers), though it’s told with Malick’s style of cinematic poetry, rather than documentary realism or sensationalised violence. Malick has spoken of trying to give the story a fairy tale tone, to “take a little of the sharpness out of the violence but still keep its dreamy quality.” The latter is definitely true: the extended sequence where the young lovers live in a treehouse in the woods has an ethereal feel, like a daydream fantasy. For me it was probably the film’s most memorable section, though it’s the least related to the central criminal thrust.

As for removing the sharpness of the violence, I’d argue that, if anything, Malick has heightened it. When it comes it is short and shocking, kind of grubby and nasty. While the film may contain dreaminess and poetry, it’s not a pleasant experience. The shabby lives Crazy kidsthe leads start out from bleeds outwards into their time on the run, which Holly romanticises but feels constantly grotty. I suppose a film about killers shouldn’t be nice, but maybe this is why the time in the treehouse stood out for me — a little oasis of pleasantness; a break from the insalubriousness of the rest of the picture.

It’s fair to say I didn’t like the film very much, which is not the same as saying it’s not good. The adjective I keep coming back to is “grubby” — in spite of its occasional beauty, it has a grubbiness in its production, which tells a story of grubby people leading grubby lives in grubby circumstances as they perform grubby acts. I suppose that unpleasantness is a necessary counterpoint to the innumerable movies we have that glamorise violent lifestyles.

4 out of 5

* Badlands was reclassified 15 in 2008, but that was only for cinema releases. I watched it at home, where technically it’s still an 18. Ah, the BBFC. ^

Ten Little Indians (1974)

aka And Then There Were None

2016 #120
Peter Collinson | 94 mins | TV | 1.66:1 | Italy, West Germany, France, Spain & UK / English | PG / PG

Ten Little IndiansThe third English-language screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s famed mystery, one of the best-selling novels of all time, relocates the action to the middle of a desert but is otherwise a word-for-word remake of the 1965 version — though it does lose the gloriously ’60s “Whodunnit Break”. (Both versions were made by the same producer, who would later remake it again in the ’80s.)

It’s interesting, therefore, that this lacks the atmosphere or tension of that version. I don’t think it’s just because I’m now more familiar with the story (having seen not only the ’65 version a couple of years ago, but also the new BBC adaptation that was on last Christmas) — it feels rushed at times, like a summary of the novel rather than a full retelling. Considering the screenplay is nearly identical to the ’65 version (merely tweaked to reflect the relocation), I can only assume that’s down to the way director Peter Collinson chooses to handle certain sequences. For example, in this version I never bought the relationship between youngsters Hugh and Vera, and sequences like the group searching the cellars contain no real sense of menace.

The cast is made up of recognisable faces from ’60s/’70s European cinema, led by Oliver Reed and Richard Attenborough, but also including the likes of Herbert Lom, Gert “Goldfinger” Fröbe, and Adolfo “Emilio Largo” Celi. Not that anyone’s bad, but there’s the sense they were probably there to earn a bit of cash while having a nice exotic holiday, and making a film on the side.

As a précis of the storyline, with some nicely photographed locations (the Iranian hotel they filmed in looks fairly stunning), this isn’t half bad. However, there are at least two better screen adaptations of the novel, and if what I’ve heard of the 1945 film and ’80s Russian adaptation are to be believed, I guess this comes pretty far down the chain.

3 out of 5

Duel (1971)

2016 #140
Steven Spielberg | 86 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | 12* / PG

DuelAs far as Americans are concerned, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature film was The Sugarland Express (which I reviewed just last year). For the rest of us, it was Duel. Originally produced as a TV movie for ABC, it was a ratings and critical success, which led Universal to have Spielberg shoot extra footage so they could release it theatrically in the rest of the world. It merits it, too, because Duel is a brilliant work.

Adapted by renowned Twilight Zone writer Richard Matheson from his own short story, the film sees ordinary family guy David Mann (Dennis Weaver) driving across the back of beyond to a business meeting, when he comes up behind a massive slow-moving truck. Perfectly reasonably, he overtakes and continues on his way… but a few seconds later, the truck thunders past him. “Whatever,” thinks Mann (in modern parlance)… until the truck slows down again. When he tries to overtake, the truck speeds up, or blocks his way. So begins a game of cat and mouse between the two vehicles, which mild-mannered Mann finds impossible to escape, as it becomes clear the mysterious truck driver is definitely trying to kill him.

It’s an incredible simple, straightforward premise; so simple that initially one struggles to see how Matheson and Spielberg intend to ring half-an-hour out of it, never mind a whole feature. That is to underestimate them, however; and to underestimate the truck driver, who has many ways of messing with Mann’s head — all without revealing himself (the one time he disembarks from his cab, we only see his boots as he paces on the far side of his vehicle). Never revealing the trucker’s face was Matheson’s idea, but Spielberg leapt on it wholeheartedly, because the scariest monsters are the ones you never see. Couple that with a specially-chosen truck (of the seven Spielberg ‘auditioned’, it was the one whose front most resembled a face) and you have a genuinely threatening presence.

Although Duel has been analysed as a horror movie, or a Western, or a commentary on class war in America, Spielberg didn’t see it that way, regarding it as a pure Hitchcockian suspense thriller. He’s bang on the money. It’s not scary in the way a horror movie would be, and I think calling it a Western is a bit of a reach, though I can kind of see where the class war thing is coming from; but you can absolutely see the ingredients for a Hitchcock movie here. Mann is an everyman (I’m sure his name can be no coincidence), a completely nondescript ordinary Joe, who gets caught up in extraordinary events against his will, and winds up the only person in a position to do anything about them. The truck is akin to the eponymous avians of The Birds, an everyday thing that seems to be acquiring almost supernatural powers; that you can never predict its next action, or where it will next appear, other than to know it will always be there, waiting for you. It’s a situation any driver — or, indeed, any passenger — can conceive of finding themselves in, which adds a “what would I do?” frisson to proceedings.

Weaver is excellent, plausibly charting a course from bland normality to apologetic paranoia, on to hopeless despair, ending in desperate lunacy. At one point he pauses at a roadside cafe to get a breather, but has reason to suspect one of his fellow patrons is his tormenter. As he tries to subtly surveil them, attempting to figure out what he can do to defuse the situation, Mann’s thoughts are narrated on the soundtrack; but we barely need it, because Weaver physically conveys all of his uncertainty, his fear, his wannabe-bravado. Sequences like this also demonstrate how Spielberg was already a master of camerawork and editing, guiding us as to where Mann is looking, shifting angles high and low, the constant changes in perspective not disorientating our sense of space but nonetheless keeping it off kilter.

This applies tenfold to the road sequences. Spielberg was originally urged to shoot the film on a soundstage using rear projection, the only way to shoot a feature-length piece of this complexity in the time they had available; but he knew that wouldn’t be effective, so despite the insanely tight schedule he took the production out on the road and shot it all for real. Although he did run over in the end, the original TV movie was still shot in less than a fortnight, and edited in ten days to boot. (The additional photography for the movie version amounted to just two more days.) You wouldn’t know it. The array of complex setups on display is extraordinary if you’re looking out for that kind of thing; even if you’re not, there’s some fairly detailed road choreography in play at times, including dynamic moving material that can only have been achieved with a separate camera car. It’s no wonder this work brought Spielberg a lot of attention, and finally facilitated his long-desired move from TV into movies.

Speaking of which, why has no one ever done a “TV work of Steven Spielberg” box set? There’s a short featurette on the Duel DVD (and Blu-ray) about the other TV productions he directed, and while I’m sure it can’t be his greatest work, he’s clearly not totally ashamed of it, and the clips shown suggest it’d be worth a watch. For one thing, being able to see the original TV edit of Duel would be interesting, for two reasons. First, it would solve the aspect ratio dilemma. The DVD is presented in 4:3, as it was originally shot for TV, even though it’s the movie cut. The more recent Blu-ray follows the cinematic framing of 1.85:1; however, it’s not just cropped and it’s not just widened: when they reviewed the footage to create the movie version, Spielberg discovered he could see himself sat in the back seat giving direction — so the final print is both widened slightly and cropped slightly. I guess which is ‘right’ is now a matter of personal preference, though the Blu-ray undoubtedly looks tonnes better in every other respect.

Secondly, it would be interesting to see Duel without the material that was added to pad the length. Specifically, that includes: the opening credits, where Mann backs out of the garage and drives through the city; when he phones his wife from the gas station; the scene at the railroad crossing; and the school bus. With the exception of the railway crossing, which is in-keeping with the focus of most of the rest of the movie, these are exactly the kind of scenes that feel added. That’s not to say they’re badly done, and if you didn’t know there’d been footage added they possibly wouldn’t stick out at all; but it would be interesting to see a version that less dilutes the otherwise near-unwavering concentration on Mann vs. Truck.

Nitpicks and “what if”s aside, Duel is a fantastic calling card from a director who has gone on to become arguably the most significant and influential filmmaker of the ensuing 45 years. To say it stands in contention to still be regarded among his finest films does no disservice to the body of work he’s produced since, but rather indicates just how assuredly he hit the ground running.

4 out of 5

Duel is on The Horror Channel today at 6:40pm and tomorrow at 8am.

* Duel’s initial rating under the modern system was PG in 1987, which stood until 2015 when it was resubmitted (presumably for the Blu-ray) and inexplicably given a 12 — “inexplicably” because even the BBFCinsight information doesn’t make the reasoning clear. It appears to be because of “threat”, which is a ridiculously vague non-justification. ^

Barry Lyndon (1975)

2016 #111
Stanley Kubrick | 185 mins | Blu-ray | 1.78:1 | UK, USA & Ireland / English, German & French | PG / PG

Barry LyndonStanley Kubrick made a good many exceptionally well-regarded films — indeed, with possibly the exception of his first semi-amateur feature, Fear and Desire, every one of his works can lay claim to being someone’s favourite. Nonetheless, although you wouldn’t guess it from its barebones also-ran type treatment on DVD and Blu-ray, three-hour period drama Barry Lyndon places among his top works in terms of consensus audience favourites, in that it’s on the IMDb Top 250. That said, it’s at #230, while the other six films on there are in the top 100, and he only made 13 features anyway — so it sits at the precise halfway point of his oeuvre, at least on IMDb.

Adapted from a novel by William Makepeace Thackeray, commonly called The Luck of Barry Lyndon but whose full original title is going in a footnote because it’s so long,* Kubrick’s film narrates the life of the eponymous Irish rogue (Ryan O’Neal) as he falls in love, runs away from home, joins the army, becomes a spy, becomes a con artist, marries a wealthy heiress (Marisa Berenson), runs an estate, and is a man of dubious virtue and questionable likeability throughout the whole affair.

Apparently the novel is considered to be the first English-language ‘novel without a hero’, aka antihero, and Lyndon certainly fits that bill. He serves his own interests throughout the tale, which is rarely seen as a desirable characteristic but can certainly be an understandable one, though at times you may despair at how his stubborn dedication to certain causes actually works against his interests. On the other hand, he has a great propensity for blagging his way through a war, and the ensuing complications, so I guess he learns from his mistakes… some of them, at any rate. It would be tough to say that Barry is a character you empathise with, but that doesn’t stop him from being a fascinating one to follow for a couple of hours. Some of this dislike may stem from the film’s voiceover narrator, who often tells us less-than-favourable things about the lead character. Apparently this is an example of an unreliable narrator, and I suppose some of the things we’re told aren’t directly evidenced on screen, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to leave that seam to be mined by other writers, because (on a first viewing at least) I didn’t see where or to what effect the narrator was lying to the viewer.

As played by O’Neal, Barry’s accent places him as coming from the same part of Westeros as Littlefinger. Although I wouldn’t say he did a bad job, there seems little doubt he was miscast. The story of how he came to be in the film is more interesting than his performance, really: Warner Bros would only finance the film if Kubrick cast a top-ten box office star, based on the annual Quigley Poll of Top Money-Making Stars. O’Neal was second on the 1974 poll, just behind Clint Eastwood and ahead of people like Steve McQueen, Robert Redford, Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Marlon Brando. Barbra Streisand was the only woman on the list, so you’d think Kubrick had nine options, but apparently they were all considered “too old or inappropriate for the role” with the exception of O’Neal and Redford. O’Neal was the bigger star thanks to also securing a Best Actor Oscar nomination in the past, but Kubrick was smart enough to offer it to Redford first, but he turned it down so O’Neal it was. Ironically, 1973 was the only year O’Neal appeared in that top ten, while Redford placed first in 1974, 1975, and 1976.

Whether it was the intention or not, O’Neal often gets by thanks to the style of the narrative, in which a series of variously-plausible events keep happening to Barry as much as he is proactive in making them occur. This is not a simple, narrow-focused, cause-and-effect kind of story, but a fictional biopic, that ranges across Europe and across time to… what effect? It’s a Kubrick film, so the ultimate goal of the tale, the message(s) it may be trying to impart, are debatable. You could see a story of the pitfalls of hubris. You could see an exploration of how a certain class lived in this time period. You could just see a man who led an adventurous life.

Whatever the merits of the tale, its telling is a frequent wonder. It’s length and pace are surely barriers to entry for some — this is not a thrill-a-minute rollercoaster ride; it’s more analogous to a BBC miniseries, perhaps, albeit one where you’re watching all three episodes at once. Well, binge viewing is the TV watching style du jour, so that shouldn’t be a problem for anyone nowadays. Much has been made of the film’s candle-lit photography, using special lenses adapted from NASA, and rightly so; though perhaps it’s beginning to look less remarkable as we move into an era where digital cameras can produce exceptional range and quality. That’s not to say the potential commonality of such lighting decisions dulls the excellence of John Alcott’s photography, but, without knowledge of the production challenges, a modern viewer might not be so readily wowed.

Maybe I’m one of them, because for me the best shots are to be found elsewhere. The film is littered with recreations of art from the era — not obvious “ooh, I know that painting” recreations, but photographic imitations of the painters’ style, subjects, and composition. The opening shot, for instance, really looks like a painting. It’s incredible. I’d even go so far as to say it’s the best shot in the film; which is not to say the ensuing three hours are a visual disappointment, just that it remains the best among greats. (That said, having looked up images online for this review, it seems slightly less striking to me now. That may be the quality of the screengrabs; it may be that the painterly quality is so remarkable at first appearance (before becoming more familiar when the whole movie has that quality) that its memorableness is heightened.)

With its measured pace, obfuscated meaning, and sporadically likeable characters, Barry Lyndon is not the most readily accessible movie ever made. Well, it’s Kubrick, isn’t it? There’s so much to commend it though, especially if you consider visual style a reason to watch a movie (not everyone is satiated by that, but, for a visually-driven medium, I think it’s a perfectly acceptable element to be particularly engaged by). It’s an imperfect film (for Ryan O’Neal if nothing else), but perhaps a brilliant one. Certainly I’d put it in the high-middle of my Kubrick viewing so far — and as his only films that I’ve seen are all on the IMDb Top 250, that’s an upgrade from me, at least.

5 out of 5

The restored 40th anniversary re-release of Barry Lyndon is in UK cinemas from today.

Barry Lyndon was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

* The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. Of The Kingdom Of Ireland Containing An Account of His Extraordinary Adventures; Misfortunes; His Sufferings In The Service Of His Late Prussian Majesty; His Visits To Many Courts of Europe; His Marriage and Splendid Establishments in England And Ireland; And The Many Cruel Persecutions, Conspiracies And Slanders Of Which He Has Been A Victim. ^