The Russia House (1990)

2016 #158
Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

The Russia House

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

5 out of 5

The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

The Witches of Eastwick (1987)

2016 #47
George Miller | 113 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

The first US feature from the director of Mad Max is an unusual affair. Three now-single women (Cher, Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer) accidentally summon a man (Jack Nicholson) who lures them into a life of debauchery, while helping hone their latent magic powers.

Undoubtedly a comedy, Eastwick is less laugh-out-loud, more wryly amused by small-town tittle-tattle. Nicholson was made for devilish characters like this, but the rest of the film isn’t as focused. A presumed point about female empowerment gets lost in the mix, and it doesn’t know how to end, resorting to an effects-driven climax.

Still, it’s largely fun.

3 out of 5

For more quick reviews like this, look here.

Batman Returns (1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #9

The Bat
The Cat
The Penguin

Country: USA & UK
Language: English
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 12 (cut, 1992) | 15 (cut, 1992) | 15 (uncut, 2009)
MPAA: PG-13 for “brooding, dark violence”

Original Release: 19th June 1992 (USA)
UK Release: 10th July 1992
First Seen: VHS, c,1993

Stars
Michael Keaton (Beetlejuice, Birdman)
Danny DeVito (Twins, The Rainmaker)
Michelle Pfeiffer (Ladyhawke, Hairspray)
Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, Seven Psychopaths)

Director
Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Dark Shadows)

Screenwriters
Daniel Waters (Heathers, Demolition Man)

Story by
Daniel Waters (see above)
Sam Hamm (Batman, Monkeybone)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.

The Story
Batman has a lot on his hands when abandoned Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, emerges from the shadows seeking acceptance by running for mayor, backed by corrupt businessman Max Shreck. Meanwhile, a newly-created Catwoman has an axe to grind with Shreck, and won’t let Batman stand in her way…

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, with a kind of ’30s Gothic edge.

Our Villains
A triumvirate of terror! Danny DeVito is the Penguin, deformed, abandoned as a child, and out for revenge against the city. Michelle Pfeiffer is Catwoman, PVC-clad, kinky, and also out for revenge. Christopher Walken is Max Shreck, a morally corrupt businessman with political needs, who clashes with Bruce Wayne as much as Batman.

Best Supporting Character
The one significant constant through the four ’80s/’90s Bat-movies, Michael Gough is a near-peerless Alfred.

Memorable Quote
Batman: “Mistletoe can be deadly if you eat it.”
Catwoman: “But a kiss can be even deadlier if you mean it.”

Memorable Scene
Batman and the Penguin are having an argument. Suddenly, a figure comes backflipping towards them — Catwoman. They stare. “Meow.” The building behind her explodes. It’s not actually her first appearance, but it’s quite an introduction.

Technical Wizardry
The whole design of the film, and Gotham City in particular, is fantastic; a kind of ’30s-but-also-modern art deco style. It’s all quite Burtonesque too, though not too much so for my taste.

Truly Special Effect
The Penguin’s army of penguins, an effective mix of real birds, animatronics, and actors in suits.

Making of
The first draft of the screenplay was intended to be more of a direct sequel to Batman: subplots included gift shops selling fragments of the destroyed Bat-Wing, revelations about the past of the Joker, and Bruce Wayne proposing to Vicki Vale by the end of the film. However, Tim Burton was uncomfortable with making a direct sequel, so the script was rewritten. Ah, the days when people wanted sequels to be less connected…

Previously on…
Tim Burton’s first Batman film brought the dark ‘n’ gritty ’70s/’80s evolution of the character from the comic books to the big screen for the first time. It was a huge success, though I think it feels notably more dated today than Returns does.

Next time…
Two semi-direct sequels — though with Burton and Keaton both abandoning the series, they took a distinct downward turn in quality. The 2005 reboot has so far led to three more Bat-movies, and now another new series dawns starring Ben Affleck.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Visual Effects, Makeup)
2 BAFTA nominations (Special Effects, Make Up Artist)
1 Saturn Award (Make-Up)
4 Saturn nominations (Fantasy Film, Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito), Director, Costumes)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actor (Danny DeVito))
3 MTV Movie Awards nominations (including Most Desirable Female (Michelle Pfeiffer))
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“Burton couldn’t play it safe if he wanted to, and he doesn’t want to. Entrusted with one of the most valuable franchises in movie history, he’s made a moody, grotesque, perversely funny $50 million art film. […] Something about the filmmaker’s eccentric, surreal, childlike images seems to strike a deep chord in the mass psyche: he makes nightmares that taste like candy.” — David Ansen, Newsweek

Score: 80%

What the Public Say
“unmissable in Batman Returns, Burton tends to employ the film noir style in his movies. […] a visual sensation from start to finish, nearly all to the credit of Tim Burton, and all of the other elements of the film noir style come together quite brilliantly to reintroduce Batman, as flawed antihero, back into popular culture.” — Kate Bellmore, Reel Club

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’. Of Returns, I wrote that “Tim Burton’s first Batman film is great, no doubt, but Returns is a much better film in so many ways. The direction, writing, acting, action and effects are all slicker. They spent over twice as much money on it and it really shows.”

Verdict

Controversial on release — and since — but for me, Batman Returns holds up best out of the four ’80s/’90s Batman movies. Tim Burton brings his own stamp to the Bat-universe, crafting a darkly Gothic fantasy world that’s both striking and effective, populated by grotesques (in different senses) like the Penguin, Catwoman, Shreck, and perhaps even Batman himself. There’s chemistry between the entire cast, memorable scenes and set pieces, and the sense of an entire artistic vision that the Bat-series wouldn’t have again for over a decade.

#10 will be… a tale as old as time.

Ladyhawke (1985)

2015 #78
Richard Donner | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

This is one of those films that crops up in the daytime TV schedules now and then and I’d always paid little heed to, because no one else seemed to. Then I read this write-up on Movies Silently and my interest was piqued. (There are many films of interest or recommendation that I haven’t got round to years after hearing of them; other times, I learn of something and watch it more or less instantly. What this says about me I don’t know, but we’ll just have to live with it.)

Ladyhawke is an ’80s medieval fantasy, though relatively light on the fantasy — it’s not Conan the Barbarian. It’s more like an old romance, in the “classical literature” sense rather than the “movie genre” one. (Apparently Warner Bros even marketed it as being based on a real medieval legend, until the screenwriter who actually came up with the story complained to the WGA. Reportedly they paid him off and continued to claim it was a legend. Ah, Hollywood. (Though he has a “story by” credit on the poster, so this may be apocryphal.)) The story concerns fugitive thief Philippe (Matthew Broderick) finding himself indebted to hawk-wielding swordsman Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer), who wants revenge on the bishop (John Wood) who had also imprisoned Philippe — the fact Philippe escaped those dungeons is Navarre’s key to getting in. To add intrigue, that night Philippe is almost murdered by a giant wolf and encounters a mysterious beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappears with the beast.

“What’s so fantastical about all that?” you may be asking, if you a) have never seen any promotion for the film, and b) didn’t decode the title. So let’s forge ahead with ‘spoiling’ it: the woman is a hawk by day, the man a wolf by night, and they are cursed lovers. See what I mean about “classical-style romance”? The revelation of their situation is played in-film as a mystery and then a twist, and yet it’s central to the film’s concept, how it was marketed, and how it’s discussed today. I always find it weird when movies treat as a big reveal something that’s been readily given away in advance. Here, there’s a good 45 minutes or so of mystery before said reveal. Obviously, therefore, it would work better as a fresh viewing experience if you didn’t know that going in; but it’s so fundamental to the setup (despite the focus on Philippe, it’s their story) that I wonder if anyone has ever seen it without knowing? On the bright side, it doesn’t really matter: this is not a film where the ‘big twist’ is the point.

Indeed, there’s so much to commend Ladyhawke that I remain baffled as to why I wasn’t more aware of it. Well, there’s one possible explanation: the score. Oh, the score. It’s so reviled that I think it single-handedly explains the entire film’s lack of recognition. The work of prog rocker Andrew Powell, it’s very “of its time”, which means it now doesn’t seem to fit the genre… though, based on people’s comments, I’m not sure it ever did: the music one associates with “the ’80s” has very little in common with what we think of for “medieval fantasy”. It does have its moments though, usually once individual cues have got underway. You’d think you’d get used to it, but no: every time a new bit starts, it still jars. Ah well.

Nonetheless, a terrible score (or “debatably terrible” — it has its fans) is no reason to write-off an entire movie — just look at GoldenEye. Ladyhawke’s many enjoyable elements include some absolutely stunning locations and scenery, often beautifully lensed by Vittorio Storaro. There are good action sequences, in that more freewheeling, less hyper-choreographed way older movies have. They’re also not an end to themselves: this is a story, not a series of set pieces strung together. Concurrently, the screenplay (credited to three writers) is nicely balanced. It’s not a comedy, but it doesn’t feel the need to be po-faced either; the romantic adventure storyline is played straight, but Philippe occasionally addresses amusing asides to God, for example. It even wisely dodges special effects… most of the time. The few occasions on which it does make motions in that direction, it demonstrates why it was wise not to attempt them more thoroughly. These days they’d slather on the CGI, but shying away from such things is not just due to a lack of technology: it’s far more magical to not be too explicit.

The film also offers an array of likeable characters and performances. For starters: Rutger Hauer as the good guy! Wonders will never cease. In fact, he was originally cast as the villainous captain of the guard, but when the original Navarre, Kurt Russell, dropped out, Hauer got a promotion. It’s a shame, in a way — no offence to Ken Hutchison, who does a solid job, but I wager Hauer would’ve given the villain more presence. Equally, he lends the heroic knight something of an edge that other actors might not have brought. As for the rest, Broderick is a likeable lead; you can believe everyone falls in love with Pfeiffer; Leo McKern turns up as a suitably wise old hermit; and oh look, it’s Alfred Molina, with crazy hair and some prosthetic scars playing a wolf hunter. John Wood’s nameless bishop is an odd primary villain, though. Not afforded much screen time after a couple of scenes early on, we mainly learn of his evil deeds from other characters. Come the climax, he mostly stands there in silence while he’s defeated.

I do wonder if, had I seen Ladyhawke as a kid, among all the other family-friendly ’80s SF/F I watched back then, would it be a beloved childhood favourite? I think it might. That’s the kind of age when one might be liable to fall in love with it; or, at least, people of (very roughly speaking) my generation would — I suppose Kids These Days fall in love with copious CGI, be that animated or ‘live action’. Anyway, I think it deserves to be less overlooked, and if you’ve never caught it (or not for a while) it certainly merits a chance.

4 out of 5

Dark Shadows (2012)

2014 #86
Tim Burton | 109 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA & Australia / English | 12 / PG-13

Dark ShadowsDirector Tim Burton’s most recent live-action movie is an adaptation of a 1960s soap opera… albeit one featuring vampires, witches, ghosts and sundry other supernatural goings-on. You wouldn’t get that on EastEnders (more’s the pity).

In the mid 18th Century, the Collins family leaves Liverpool for the New World, setting up a successful fishing empire and their own town, Collinsport. The son Barnabas (Johnny Depp) has a fling with the maid, Angelique (Eva Green), before laying his affections on Josette (Bella Heathcote). Little does he know, Angelique is a witch, who kills Josette, turns Barnabas into a vampire, and goads the townsfolk into burying him alive. As you do.

Fastforward 200 years to 1972, where young Victoria Winters (also Heathcote) arrives in Collinsport to become governess for the still-surviving Collins family’s youngest. The fishing business is failing, the mansion crumbling, and the family (Michelle Pfeiffer, Jonny Lee Miller, Chloë Grace Moretz, Gully McGrath, plus live-in psychologist Helena Bonham Carter and handyman Jackie Earle Haley) are a collection of odd-sorts. Then Barnabas’ coffin is dug up, resurrecting him, and… Oh, look, I’m basically telling you the whole movie now. It’s quite hard to provide a summary of the introduction to the plot, because there’s actually rather a lot going on.

white-facepainted-weirdo Burton stapleEarly on, it works. The first 20 to 30 minutes offer a serviceable prologue and an engaging introduction to most of the characters. It’s funny, it’s occasionally spooky, there’s a good deal of promise for a marginally-more-serious Addams Family-cum-Edward Scissorhands fantasy (I did say “marginally”). All in all, it’s a skilful and cohesive opening, if nonetheless a little Burton-by-numbers. Sadly, the film doesn’t seem to know where to go with it after that.

The story is hard to summarise because it feels like someone tried to cut a year’s worth of a soap into a movie. There are more characters than the film knows what to do with, meaning we get major developments that come literally out of nowhere, plots that are explained rather than seen, others that are introduced only to be wrapped up, and the nagging sense that a lot of material has been deleted.

Standing out from that crowd are Eva Green, who chews the scenery with aplomb, and Bella Heathcote, who grabs her chance to shine among an otherwise starry but phoning-it-in cast. Depp trots out the latest variation on his white-facepainted-weirdo Burton staple; Pfeiffer seems to wish she was back in Stardust or Hairspray; Moretz almost undermines her rising-star status (and is a little too jailbait-y to boot); Jonny Lee Miller battles his American accent almost as much as his character’s lack of purpose; and Helena Bonham Carter is in it as well, obviously.

Eva Green steals the filmIt’s a tonal grab bag: at times it seems to be a knowing spoof of daytime soaps, at others pushing for drama almost with a straight face; it’s sometimes deliberately and successfully comedic, at others straining too hard for a desperate laugh; it has a strain of bizarre sexuality that may be aiming at comic but is frequently just uncomfortable. This scrappiness leads to the most cardinal sin of any entertainment: it ends up a bit boring; and, in its out-of-the-blue big-battle climax, crushingly derivative.

Burton has spent almost a decade picking projects that are glaringly obvious choices for him. Perhaps it’s a reaction to Planet of the Apes’ failure; perhaps he’s just as predictable as the “Burton-esque” labelling these projects would likely have received under a different director. Whatever, it seems to have led to an artistically-criminal level of laziness — and I say laziness rather than ineptitude because, for all the project’s predictability, some almost-inspired moments do shine through. Just not often enough.

3 out of 5

Hairspray (2007)

2008 #53
Adam Shankman | 111 mins | DVD | PG / PG

HairsprayWho’d’ve thought a John Waters film could become a bright and breezy musical? It’s a bit of a surprise but, thanks to a successful Broadway version, that’s exactly what’s happened. But while the key to Hairspray’s success may be its positive attitude and memorable songs, perhaps the key to its quality — and the eventual score of this review — are the issues it tackles around those.

It’s the latter that I found must surprising while watching the film. Everything about its advertising campaign, largely young cast and candy-coloured design suggested Hairspray was a light-as-air feel-good flick — no bad thing, but nothing more than a couple of hours of disposable fun. Pleasantly that’s not the case, as the film tackles head-on issues of racism and other such discrimination, with the ‘beautiful people’ — led by a deliciously bitchy Michelle Pfeiffer — doing their best to keep down those who are in any way different, be they black or, in the case of lead character Tracy Turnblad, fat. The apparently fluffy style of the film in many ways makes it perfect to tackle such issues, showing how they can permeate every area of life, not just Serious Social Dramas, and forces those who would normally avoid the latter type of drama to face up to them. Its ultimately happy ending may be more in keeping with the film’s overriding optimism than with reality, but equally it’s wholly appropriate: the crusade against oppression has to end well here, because if it didn’t the concluding message would be “don’t bother fighting, things won’t change”.

The film’s unwavering optimism is perfectly encapsulated by newcomer Nikki Blonsky, leading the cast as Tracy. She’s instantly and constantly likeable, irrepressibly chirpy and yet not annoying — an impressive feat. Equally remarkably, she’s never overshadowed by the heavyweights who round out the cast; instead, they provide able support. Even John Travolta, disturbingly convincing as a housewife (under a ton of makeup), doesn’t steal the show — he comes close, but Blonsky’s performance holds sway. Elsewhere, Christopher Walken, Queen Latifah, James Marsden and Zac Efron all get catchy songs and have a whale of a time — and, unlike the Ocean’s… sequels, the fun the cast is having is infectious.

The first credit at the close is an unusual one: “Directed and Choreographed by Adam Shankman”. Rather than shirking in either department, the rare combination seems to have helped proceedings: the numbers are all exemplarily executed and the direction doesn’t suffer elsewhere. It’s an indication of the music’s quality that even the three cut songs, which play over the end credits, are pretty good and wouldn’t’ve been out of place in the film itself. The first of these is clearly the actual closing number, though the decision to bump it to the end credits, thereby leaving You Can’t Stop the Beat as the final song of the film proper, was a wise one — it makes for a stronger, catchier, more upbeat finale.

Hairspray is a deft mix of issue-driven drama and colourful musical levity. Catchy, optimistic, uplifting, funny and fun, it may just surprise you.

5 out of 5

Hairspray is on Film4 today, Tuesday 11th November 2014, at 6:45pm.

Hairspray placed 6th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2008, which can be read in full here.