0202 tsuguA fo weiveR ylhtnoM ehT

It’s been quite a year, but now things are returning to normal… or some people are pretending they are, anyway. I mean, schools are going back, cinemas have reopened, and my film viewing has dropped back down towards 2019 levels.

Worse, my reviews are lagging. It’s been a whole year since I hit 2,000 listed reviews, but I’m still over 50 away from actually being able to say I’ve published 2,000 film reviews. Hopefully I’ll get there before the end of 2020. In particular, I’ve fallen behind with my 100-week roundups already; and there was no new TV column this month, which was also a mistake. I’m aiming to get both back on track in September.

For now, though, let’s reflect on what I did watch and post in August…


#185 Much Ado About Nothing (2012)
#186 The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador (1912), aka Le mystère des roches de Kador
#186a The Stunt Double (2020)
#187 RoboCop 3 (1993)
#188 Color Out of Space (2019)
#188a Frankenstein (1910)
#189 The Man Who Laughs (1928)
#189a The Dancing Pig (1907), aka Le cochon danseur
#190 Pearl Harbor (2001)
#191 Yes, God, Yes (2019)
#192 The Assistant (2019)
#193 Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020)
#194 Bad Boys for Life (2020)
#195 A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)
#196 Tolkien (2019)
#197 The Show Must Go On: The Queen + Adam Lambert Story (2019)
#198 Entrapment (1999)
Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Bad Boys for Life

Entrapment

.


  • I watched 14 new feature films in August.
  • That beats January’s 12, so it’s not the lowest month of 2020, but it’s also the first month since February with a total below 28.
  • It’s my eighth month in a row with 10 or more features, which is my second-longest streak of months with 10+ films. (The longest is 60 months, from June 2014 to May 2019, so there’s literally years to go before I rival that again.)
  • It tops the August average (previously 12.5, now 12.6), but falls short of the rolling average of the last 12 months (previously 19.3, now 18.9) and the average for 2020 to date (previously 26.3, now 24.75).
  • I may not have quite got to #200 this month, but #198 is still the furthest I’ve ever reached by the end of August. It also means 2020 overtakes 2016 to become my third highest year ever, with four months still to go.
  • Further to what I wrote last month about years from which I’d never seen a feature film, The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador is my first from 1912. That just leaves 1915 as the only year since the US and UK started producing features (in 1912) from which I haven’t seen a film.
  • Watching Pearl Harbor means I’ve now seen all of Michael Bay’s films. That and 6 Underground are still scheduled for review, leaving only The Island unreviewed on this blog. I last saw it at the cinema back in 2005. I quite liked it and always meant to revisit it (I even own the DVD, but obviously never watched it (typical)). At some point I’ll get round to that rewatch and cover it then.
  • From last month’s “failures” I watched The Assistant, Bad Boys for Life, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Color Out of Space, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always.
  • Talking of failures, I didn’t watch a Blindspot film this month. That’s the first time I’ve slipped in 2020, so hopefully I’ll just catch it up next month.



The 63rd Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
The notion of whether “favourite” means “best” or “most enjoyable” is on my mind with this month’s selection. Probably the best film I saw this month was abortion drama Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but, understandably, it wasn’t “enjoyable” per se. On the other side, then, the film I’m most likely to end up purchasing and rewatching is, a bit to my surprise, Bad Boys for Life — as a belated threequel it should by all rights be mediocre, but I think it might actually be the best instalment of the trilogy.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
Nothing truly terrible this month (at least not among the features — some of the shorts I was less enamoured of), but something must be chosen. I enjoyed Pearl Harbor more than most, so it would seem unfair to pick that. Instead, I’ll say The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador, which I was sold on by Movies Silently’s review but unfortunately didn’t enjoy that much. Never mind.

Film I Haven’t Actually Seen But Nonetheless Used as a Title Theme of the Month
It’s Tenet, ylsuoivbo.

Decade I Most Miss of the Month
Entrapment reminded me how much fun a solid studio programmer could be. Two stars, a few reasonably-scaled action scenes, and a mid-range budget add up to a couple of hours of fun. Not a great movie, but one I enjoyed enough to not regret the time spent watching it. It’s the kind of thing the major Hollywood studios are backing away from in favour of just making mega-budget super-blockbuster tentpoles, but that smaller indie studios aren’t up to providing. I feel like the ’90s did that kind of thing particularly well, too.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
No one post really caught on this month — this month’s highest charting new post was down at 55th overall (behind mostly TV columns, but also a dozen older film reviews). Even my review of a new release (Yes, God, Yes) didn’t generate a huge number of clicks (I guess it is a pretty niche title), although the victor only beat it by one hit. Said victor was Ready or Not.



My Rewatchathon continues at pace, which means I’m still about a month ahead of schedule. Although this month I finished a series that’s been a major part of it this year…

#34 Pursuit to Algiers (1945)
#35 The Great Mouse Detective (1986)
#36 Terror by Night (1946)
#37 Dressed to Kill (1946)

The first time I watched the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes series, it took me eight years. Now, I’ve rewatched them all in eight months. A much more reasonable pace, let’s be honest (the first time I was spacing them out so as not to rush them, but took it a bit far…) My original reviews are linked above, and I put some new thoughts on Letterboxd about Pursuit to Algiers, Terror by Night, and Dressed to Kill in these links.

My fourth film this month was also Sherlock Holmes themed, albeit turned into a mouse courtesy of, appropriately enough, the Mouse House. Disney’s 26th animated film used to be known as Basil the Great Mouse Detective here in the UK, but it’s been brought in line with the US for the Disney+ era. I’m only surprised it took them so long. (Now, if they could just sort out the UK list of the Animated Canon…) I’ve been on a bit of a Sherlock Holmes kick this year, so it was only natural I’d revisit Disney’s version. It manages to be both a very good Disney movie and a very good Sherlock Holmes one at the same time, mixing the comedy and charm of Disney animation with a healthy dash of the investigation and adventure of a Holmes story. It comes just before what fans call the Disney Renaissance, but it’s also directly responsible for it: after the failure of The Black Cauldron, Disney’s animation studio was under threat, but the success of The Great Mouse Detective allowed them to continue. The rest, as they say, is history.


After four months of no cinema releases to comment on, they’re back! It’s a gradual re-opening, of course, with Tenet the only truly major title on wide UK release so far (The New Mutants had previews, but isn’t technically out until this Friday). At least some people I follow on Twitter seem to have dived back in headfirst, but I remain a little wary — as I said earlier, I’ve not seen Tenet yet; whether that’ll change in the coming week or two, I’m undecided.

Netflix attempted to fill the blockbuster void with originals like Project Power, a super-powered action-thriller starring Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but the mediocre reviews put me off actually watching it (so far). This month they also bolstered their catalogue with the fourth and final Ip Man movie, and the only Tim Burton film Iv’e not seen, Pee-wee’s Big Adventure. Over on Amazon Prime Video, meanwhile, new-ish additions included Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang and true-story whistleblower thriller Official Secrets. Other newcomers of note include Mississippi Grind, which I heard recommended a couple of years ago and have been waiting for a chance to see since, and Roger Corman / Vincent Price horror The Masque of the Red Death, which is supposedly due on disc in a new 4K restoration later this year, but I don’t know if Amazon are streaming that.

As for the other streamers, Sky Cinema / Now TV had Terry Gilliam’s much-delayed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote; Disney+ had diverted-from-cinemas The One and Only Ivan (which I think I’ll give a miss anyway) and a doc about lyricist Howard Ashman, Howard (which does interest me); BBC iPlayer has a pair of films I’d like to rewatch, The Lost Boys and Love & Friendship, not to mention the original Poltergeist, which I’ve never seen; and on All 4 I missed the chance to see Wild Tales (the 183rd greatest film ever according to IMDb voters).

Finally, my new purchases on disc, of which there were a lot — some 54 films I could list (egads!) The bulk of those come from Arrow’s Gamera box set (with 12 films plus four alternate cuts), although Criterion’s Bruce Lee set was no slouch (with seven films plus one extended cut). The latter came as part of a belated order placed during Barnes & Noble’s Criterion sale back in July, which also included 1984, Come and See, and the four-part 1966-7 War and Peace; plus their editions of films I’ve already seen like The Grand Budapest Hotel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious. There were also a bunch of silents (I got good deals on eBay for US DVDs of the French serials Judex and The House of Mystery; plus an import of a French DVD set of French films from French director Raymond Bernard; and Masters of Cinema’s latest Buster Keaton three-feature box set) and a bunch of noirs (more from Masters of Cinema in the shape of No Way Out and Fritz Lang’s The Woman in the Window; and Blu-ray upgrades for the BFI’s releases of three Otto Preminger noirs and Jules Dassin’s Night and the City). Meanwhile, on 4K, I got Arrow’s UK format debut, Pitch Black, and their US format debut, but in its UK edition from StudioCanal, Flash Gordon (in a tat-filled box set. I love tat. It’s always kinda disappointing when you actually get it, but I can’t resist).

And that isn’t even everything, but it’s more than enough to be going on about.


Mulan comes to Disney+ for an additional fee (which varies by region). I’ll tell you this for nothing: I won’t be paying it.

Dressed to Kill (1946)

aka Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Code / Prelude to Murder

2015 #200
Roy William Neill | 69 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Dressed to KillIn the seven-and-a-bit years between 31st March 1939 and 7th June 1946, there were a total of 14 films released starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. By coincidence rather than design, I’ve spent nearly eight years viewing and reviewing them all for this blog — so yes, it’s taken me a little longer to watch them than it did to make them, which is ridiculous, but there you go.

This final film in the series sees Holmes in pursuit of a criminal gang who are on the trail of three music boxes, and are prepared to kill to acquire them. The boxes were all made by a prisoner and contain coded messages which, when combined and decoded, will reveal the location of stolen Bank of England printing plates — a literal licence to print money. Well, apart from the licence bit, because it would be illegal. But you get what I mean.

The Rathbone Holmes series was only sporadically adapted from the writings of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but this entry takes loose inspiration from several tales. The use of secret codes is reminiscent of The Dancing Men (previously the basis for The Secret Weapon), while the plot device of having to track down multiple identical items that hide something comes from The Six Napoleons (previously the basis for The Pearl of Death). I don’t know if that suggests there are only a few Doyle tales actually worth adapting, or if the makers of the series were running out of fresh ideas by this point.

There are also elements of A Scandal in Bohemia, the story most famous for featuring Irene Adler, aka The Woman, but screenwriters Frank Gruber and Leonard Lee have an unusual method of including it: Dressed for the occasionthe story is explicitly referenced in the film, Watson having just had it published; then the film’s villainess turns up, played by Patricia Morison, functioning effectively as an Adler stand-in — and using some tricks she learnt from reading Watson’s story! The series hasn’t featured Adler before, so why not just name this character Irene Adler, have her devise those tricks from her own imagination, and be done with? Who knows.

Dressed to Kill is an ending to the Rathbone/Bruce films only in the sense that it’s the last one, this not being an era of “series finales” or what have you. It isn’t among the top tier of Holmes adventures starring the pair, but it’s still an entertaining mystery. In some respects that’s a good summation of the series, and why they’ve endured in popularity for over 75 years: even when not at their very best, they remain enjoyable.

3 out of 5

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride (2016)

2016 #1
Douglas Mackinnon | 89 mins | TV (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 15

Screened in UK cinemas simultaneously with its TV premiere (and coming to the big screen in various other countries over the next week or so, too), the latest episode of the BBC’s modern-day Sherlock Holmes series is actually a standalone adventure set in the character’s original Victorian time period.

The rest of this review will be spoiler-filled, but before I get into that I’ll say this: if you’re someone who’s a Sherlock Holmes fan but not keen on Sherlock and are wondering if the changed temporal setting means this special might be of interest to you, then I think it’s fair to say it won’t.

1895: detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his sidekick / companion / chronicler Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) learn of the case of Emelia Ricoletti, who committed suicide by shooting herself in the head in public… and then later that evening murdered her husband. Despite the intriguing impossibility of the crime, Holmes’ thoughts are for some reason preoccupied with his deceased nemesis, Prof. Moriarty…

It would’ve been a bit weird if Sherlock completely abandoned everything that has marked the series out for an aside of an adventure in Victorian London, and so it is from the start. While there is certainly a different feel — not just the obvious trappings of horse-drawn carriages, candlelight, costuming, and so forth, but in the way the characters speak and behave — it’s still spun from the same cloth as the regular series. These are recognisably the Holmes and Watson we commonly know as Sherlock and John, surrounded by versions of Mrs Hudson, Mary Watson and Inspector Lestrade that aren’t so very different from their present-day incarnations.

The case they find themselves embroiled in is a little more period than usual, however, with lashings of Gothic and some of the trappings of a Christmas ghost story. The episode is co-written by series creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and anyone familiar with Gatiss’ wider work can clearly see his influence here. Moffat brings his trademark fast-paced intricately-tricksy plotting, for which individual viewers’ mileage varies greatly: some find it genius, some find it tedious. Is it clever, or does it just think it’s clever? Is it impossible to follow, or were you just not paying enough attention? As to the first question, I think it’s a bit of both; as to the second, I think the episode ultimately answers everything, but you might need to realise a few things for yourself.

Much of The Abominable Bride is a lot of fun. The mystery is fairly engrossing, though we’re frequently sidetracked into character interplay — such is Sherlock’s way. There are many entertaining scenes of this, however, not least Holmes and Watson’s arrival at the Diogenes Club and the state of the version of Mycroft they find therein. Douglas Mackinnon’s direction is atmospheric, retaining the series’ usual flashy, whizzing editing and camerawork at times, and incorporating suitably horror-esque elements at others. Anyone after a fully traditional take on a Victorian Holmes and Watson can always revisit Jeremy Brett — here we have Victorian Holmes through the filter of Sherlock, and it works.

Until the last half-hour or so, anyway, when the modern version suddenly comes crashing in. At first it seems like a clever interlude; a little reminder of the true time period for this version of the characters, and a tease for season four. But it quickly transpires that, no, this episode isn’t actually a wholly standalone aside from the main series — Gatiss and Moffat have found a way to integrate it into continuity. For me, this is where the special begins to come apart at the seams; not because I inherently object to this integration, but because from that point on the episode begins to jump back and forth between the present, the imagined past, and various other dream-state asides. It’s almost entirely justified by the beautifully-shot Reichenbach Falls sequence, but a spot of cinematographic prettiness doesn’t really excuse the way the story goes a little haywire. The least successful part of all, for me, is that it calls into question the solution for the case we’ve just been presented with… but then doesn’t get round to offering another, meaning you kind of feel like the case hasn’t been solved, even though it presumably has been, with the first solution. I think.

All of which kerfuffling makes The Abominable Bride a tricky beast. From the promotional trailers and blurbs, it may’ve looked like a standalone Victorian Sherlock Holmes adventure that happens to star the cast of the present-set Sherlock — hence why I felt it worth offering that clarification back in paragraph two, because, despite not being connected to a full series (the next one of which will probably appear in exactly one year’s time), in reality this is Episode 10 of Sherlock — and, tonally, feels like it.

As someone who enjoys Sherlock Holmes in his proper era but is also a fan of this modern day version (I would say “a big fan”, but I’m not one of those people), I’d rather they’d played this a little more straightforward. Not a lot — it’s still under the umbrella of Sherlock after all, and the era-transposed stylistic flourishes in the first hour-ish worked very nicely in my opinion — but the mixed-up mishmash of the final act dilutes the effectiveness of the entire experience. There’s fun and thrills to be had along the way, but in another form it could perhaps have been a Sherlockian classic in its own right.

4 out of 5

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride is available on the BBC iPlayer for most of January. It’s in cinemas worldwide over the next few days, including in the US on the 5th and 6th. An extras-filled two-disc special edition is out on the 11th.

The Climactic Monthly Update for December 2015

Happy New Year’s Day, dear readers!

The quest for 100 films has little regard for it being the first day of a new year, however — it’s still the start of a new month, which means it’s time to reflect on the last. And as it’s the last month of 2015, to reveal just what my final tally actually was…


#183 Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)
#184 Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)
#185 Terminator Genisys (2015)
#186 A Most Wanted Man (2014)
#187 Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)
#188 Begin Again (2013)
#189 Escape from Tomorrow (2013)
#190 Le Mépris (1963), aka Contempt
#191 Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
#192 About Time (2013)
#193 Happy Feet Two (2011)
#194 Morning Glory (2010)
#195 Dreamgirls (2006)
#196 Aladdin and the King of Thieves (1996)
#197 AfterDeath (2015)
#198 Heaven Can Wait (1943)
#199 Slow West (2015)
#200 Dressed to Kill (1946)


  • #200 is the final Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes film. It’s taken me almost eight years to get through that series — longer than they took to make — so it seemed an appropriate choice for such a momentous number.
  • With four WDYMYHS films left, I managed to watch… one. That was Le Mépris. On the one hand, not watching 25% of my list is a bit of a failure. On the other, watching 75% of it means I’ve watched nine films this year that I should’ve seen but hadn’t got round to, and almost certainly wouldn’t’ve got round to without WDYMYHS. So it shall continue next year, though I’ve not decided on the selection process yet.
  • Remember back in my October update, when I mentioned re-watching the Veronica Mars movie to get 2014 finished? Bloody well didn’t bloody happen, did it! I’ll do it in January.
  • Apropos of not very much, the version of Rawhide sung by the elephant seals in Happy Feet 2 is awesome.


The headline news here is, of course, that this year I reached #200.

That’s my highest final tally ever, by 64 films — 47% higher than the next best year! You could add together my two poorest years (2009 and 2012) and you’d still be nine films short of 2015’s solo total. Anyway, more whole-year stats in my next post — for now, let’s just look at December.

This month I watched 18 new films. Most importantly, that exceeds this year’s ten-per-month goal, making 2015 the first time I’ve done it for a whole calendar year. (It’s also the 19th consecutive month.) It’s only the second-highest December ever, just behind 2008’s 19, but it does pass the December average (10.86; now 11.75) and beats December 2014’s total of 15, the 11th month this year to beat its previous equivalent (only November let the side down). In terms of 2015, it beats the monthly average of 16.67, and is actually the third highest month of the year, settling in behind the record-breaking feats of September and October.

I always end these analyses with a look ahead to the rest of the year… which is now over. So what for 2016? Having reached 200 films in a year, will I be seeking to equal it next year? Perhaps even to better it? I can confirm that…

No. No I won’t.

There are so very, very many films that I want to see — and they keep making more of the darn things! So many that even watching 200 new films isn’t enough to make a serious dent in the “to see” list. But there are also TV series I want to watch, books I want to read, audio dramas I want to listen to — not to mention movies I want to re-watch — and the film fixation engendered by a goal as vast as 200 new films in a year is counterproductive to doing anything but watching new films. So of course 100 Films will continue, and maintaining my ten-per-month streak would be nice, but if this time next year I’ve watched 200 new films and not watched many TV series, or read books, or listened to audio dramas, then I won’t be dancing a victory dance. Quite the opposite. Whatever the opposite of “dancing a victory dance” is.

In conclusion, my personal goal for next year is… well, 100 films — that’s why it’s the name of the blog. But I’ll be aiming to maintain my ten-per-month run, making the target 120+ Films in a Year. Plus lots of TV and books and audio drama and films I’ve seen before and special features and goodness knows what else. There still won’t be nearly enough time, anyway.


Thanks to the advent calendar, 44 films were reviewed this month(!) Here’s a full alphabetical account:



The 7th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there aren’t a great many stand-out options here. Although I hugely enjoyed the new Star Wars, and some other 2015 blockbusters I caught up on weren’t as bad as expected, the winner is easily best-of-year contender Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
It’s not been a bad month, but there are still a few three-star-level contenders here. In the end, I decided to pick the film I felt I was most likely to never bother to watch again, and while there are a few I’m not likely to ever revisit, the least likely was AfterDeath.

Best Use of Time Travel
Was it to visit a wondrous future city of joyous technological advancement? Or to spend more precious time with your dying father? Or to send a cyborg to protect your mother from your robot enemy before your best mate arrives to stop that enemy murdering her before you’re born then trying to disable said robot enemy before it’s ‘born’? Or to get Emilia Clarke naked? How about using it to make Rachel McAdams fall in love with you in About Time. That and the dad thing.

Best Theme Tune
Oh sure, there’s John Williams on Star Wars… but of course there was. And I’ve already said how much I liked Rawhide in Happy Feet 2, but it’s not functioning as theme tune there. So the winner is composer Joe Kraemer finally giving Lalo Schifrin’s Mission: Impossible theme a suitable big-screen rendition not once but twice in Rogue Nation.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
When you think about it, this should come as no surprise. In a month that featured 47 new posts (it sounds a little insane when you put it like that), the most-read is one that was a hive of activity for 25 days: the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015.


…will be 31 days into 2016. Before all that, though, I’ll thoroughly look back and dissect 2015 — the largest year of 100 Films ever!

(Dog-loving regular readers will be pleased to know that (further to September’s update) Millie is still with us, and coping admirably with there already being a new Irish Wolfhound puppy in the family.)

Terror by Night (1946)

2015 #140
Roy William Neill | 57 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

After the previous Basil Rathbones-starring Sherlock Holmes adventure set its tale almost entirely aboard a boat, this time we find ourselves in the confines of a train. It’s a sleeper travelling from London to Edinburgh, with Holmes and his trusty sidekick Dr Watson (Nigel Bruce) aboard because they’ve been hired to guard the Star of Rhodesia diamond after an attempt was made to steal it in London. In short order, their employer is murdered and the diamond is missing. The crime can only have been committed by one of the handful of other passengers in the same carriage, but which?

For what is the shortest film in the series, screenwriter Frank Gruber and regular director/producer Roy William Neill have constructed a contained, almost claustrophobic version of a Holmes tale. There are definite pros to this: it’s effectively a locked room mystery, with an element of howdunnit closely tied to the whodunnit. The supporting cast are fairly colourful, and there’s a spot of genuine mystery to be had in which of them is the culprit. Okay, one or two red herrings are glaringly obvious, but I don’t think the teapot-loving couple were ever meant to be serious contenders anyway. Elements of the canon are incorporated willy-nilly, not least some memorable parts from The Sign of Four, which adds flavour.

Rathbone and Bruce are on fine form as ever, with the latter getting a kind of sidekick of his own in the equally-portly form of Alan Mowbray as an old chum, Major Duncan-Bleek. He keeps Watson occupied so Holmes and Lestrade (series regular Dennis Hoey, in his last appearance) can go about their business, anyway. Sadly, the next most noteworthy cast member is Renee Godfrey, who is remarkably bad as the suspicious Vivian Vedder. Perhaps it’s just because she’s clearly struggling with an atrocious variable accent, the quality of which makes it rather distracting whenever she opens her mouth. Having used Moriarty plenty, the series finally accepts that he’s dead and moves on to his right-hand man, Col. Sebastian Moran. Considering the identity of the conniving colonel is a mystery for most of the movie, however, his involvement is perhaps no great shakes.

Terror by Night is good fun for the most part, with a decent array of suspects and clues to keep us guessing in its moderately atmospheric setting. For what it’s worth, I’d put it a step above most of the other films in the series that I’ve rated 3, but a step below those I’ve rated 4. That it’s one of the series’ lesser instalments but still so enjoyable is simply testament to their overall quality.

3 out of 5

Terror by Night is on TCM UK tonight at 7:50pm.

Haiku Review

Ev’ry August film
reviewed in haiku form. (And
you thought drabbles short!)

I can’t even remember what gave me the idea, but the other day I started writing haiku-sized reviews of films I’d watched, and before I knew it had written one for every film from August. So, in what may or may not become a new regular feature, I’m going to share them with you. You lucky, lucky people.

Technically a haiku is more than just the 5-7-5 syllable structure most people know: it should be about nature, and (to quote Wikipedia) “the essence of haiku is ‘cutting’… often represented by the juxtaposition of two images or ideas and a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.” Obviously these haiku have nothing to do with the first of those conditions; as to the second, well, it comes and goes. At times, I’ve tried; others, less so. Hopefully none are just 17-syllable sentences split in three. Nonetheless, I don’t promise poetic quality with these.


Contagion
Gwyneth Paltrow eats,
whole world at risk of grim death.
Scares ’cause it could be.

End of Watch
Cops film selves, sort of.
Inconsistent P.O.V.
undermines reel-ism.

Inherent Vice [review]
Pynchon’s comedy
filmed by P.T. Anderson.
Laughs for weed users.

Interstellar [review]
Two-Thousand-And-One,
A Space-Time Anomaly.
Mainly, spectacle.

Justice League: The New Frontier
Uncommon premise
raises expectations, but
promise is squandered.

Life of Pi [review]
Tiger on a boat:
CG extravaganza!
Better than the truth.

Monsters: Dark Continent [review]
Genre transplanted,
but soldiers pose same quand’ry:
aren’t we the monsters?

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
This: way the world ends —
not with a bang or whimper,
but a love story.

Shallow Grave
Danny Boyle’s debut.
Cold cash leads friends to distrust
and dismemberment.

Sherlock Holmes (1922) [review]
Moriarty v.
Barrymore. Gillette-derived
slight Sherlock silent.

Shivers
Amateur work by:
biologist, kills neighbours;
Cronenberg, upsets.

Space Station 76 [review]
Groovy future fun,
undercut by theme of frac-
tured relationships.

The Story of Film: An Odyssey
Epic history,
too personalised for some.
Piqued insight abounds.

Stranger by the Lake
French gays have the sex
with a killer in their midst.
A slow-burn beauty.

The Theory of Everything [review]
Eddie Redmayne won
awards, but the film’s heart is
Felicity Jones.

The Thing (2011) [review]
Under prequel’s guise,
computers doodle a mere
Carpenter rehash.

The Haiku Review may return next month. We’ll see how things go.

Sherlock Holmes (1922)

aka Moriarty

2014 #106
Albert Parker | 85 mins | streaming | 1.33:1 | USA / silent (English)

Sherlock Holmes, aka MoriartyAmerican actor William Gillette was the most iconic portrayer of Sherlock Holmes on stage, penning his own play (with permission from Conan Doyle) that he performed 1,300 times between 1899 and 1923. It was filmed in 1916, a feature long thought lost but announced as found in October 2014 (and to be released on disc by Flicker Alley this coming October — expect a review eventually). Before then, the only thing approaching a filmed record of that iconic interpretation of the Great Detective was this: a 1922 remake starring John Barrymore as the famed sleuth, originally released in the UK as Moriarty (possibly for legal reasons, possibly (according to David Stuart Davies in Holmes of the Movies) due to “the mediocrity of so many of the earlier Holmes films”).

This film was also considered lost, until elements were discovered in the ’70s — not the film itself, but original negatives “in which every take — not every sequence, but every take — were jumbled out of order” (as per William K. Everson’s programme notes for the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, via Wikipedia). These were painstakingly reassembled into something resembling the original film, although around 26 minutes are still missing. Nonetheless, the film remains completely followable: nothing important to our comprehension is missing, with some storytelling rough edges the only vague sign that anything may be amiss.

Said story diverges from the canon so much it’s liable to give any particularly canon-focused Sherlockians a conniption. It begins in Cambridge, with what many reviews call a “prologue”, usually preceded by an adjective such as “overlong”. I think it would be more accurate to describe it as the first act. There, a student, Prince Alexis (Reginald Denny), third in line to the throne of somewhere-or-other-in-Europe, has been accused of stealing from the university, but he claims innocence. His friend John Watson (Roland Young) recommends he seeks the assistance of a chap in his year, one Sherlock Holmes (Barrymore). Holmes and Wastson, 1922 styleYes, shades of 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn there are fewer CGI stained glass window knights here, though.

Holmes quickly uncovers the real culprit, another student by the name of Forman Wells (the screen debut of William “The Thin Man” Powell, looking ever so young). However, Wells is acting under duress, forced to commit the theft by Moriarty (Gustav von Seyffertitz), an obviously evil-looking fellow who sits at the centre of a spider’s web of criminal activity. Holmes confronts Moriarty in Wells’ stead, to little effect, the criminal genius swatting the student away as one would a fly. Undeterred, our young sleuth commits to stopping Moriarty as his life’s very purpose.

That and finding a girl he saw once and instantly fell in love with.

Meanwhile, Prince Alexis is informed that his two brothers have died in a car accident, making him heir to the throne, and so he can no longer marry Rose Faulkner, a British commoner he’d been courting. Rose is the sister of Alice Faulkner (Carol Dempster), who just so happens to be the girl Sherlock fell for. When she learns of the split, Rose commits suicide.

And that’s just the so-called prologue. I’m loath to explain the whole plot of a movie, but the tale spun here is actually somewhat intricate. Personally, I thought it was quite a good yarn. It’s flawed in the telling — it’s not particularly Holmesian, and there are far too many overlong title cards (Everson calls it “one of the ‘talkiest’ silents”) — but I don’t hold with criticisms that it’s slow paced, or that the lack of any real mystery is a problem. Sherlock Holmes tales are remembered as “detective stories” because that was his profession, Sherlock Holmes in lurveand in many respects they led to the abundance of crime-solving fiction that fills bookstores and TV schedules to this day, but there’s a reason most of Conan Doyle’s stories are prefixed with “The Adventure of” rather than “The Fiendishly Difficult to Solve Mystery of”.

Anyway, after the Cambridge to-do the film jumps forward some years, to find Holmes a respected detective residing at 221 Baker Street (I guess he also acquired 221a and knocked through or something). Moriarty has still eluded him, but the revival of some matters from his student days are about to change that. Turns out Alice has in her possession some letters from Alexis to Rose, which she intends to publish to ruin him in revenge for her sister’s death. Goodness knows what’s in these letters; the ’20s equivalent of sexting, presumably. Alexis attempts to hire Holmes to retrieve the letters, but Holmes isn’t particularly inclined to do so because he rather agrees with the position of the love of his life (not that he’s seen her since that one time they bumped into each other years earlier). However, Moriarty also wants the letters, in order to blackmail Alexis, so Holmes takes the case so as to get closer to his nemesis.

You’ll notice a lack of Watson in most of this outline. He’s rather sidelined, unfortunately. Some would prefer this to the comical treatment he suffered at the hands of Nigel Bruce, but your mileage may vary. I think Watson’s often one of the most undervalued characters in literature, a very capable fellow who’s usually overshadowed by his grandstanding friend. There’s nothing wrong with Young’s performance, there’s just not much of it.

If I can just focus on the middle distance...Barrymore makes for a solid, if perhaps unremarkable, Holmes. He has the right look for the role, and makes good use of the same staring-contemplatively-into-the-distance furrowed-brow expression that Basil Rathbone would employ a couple of decades later. He has down the precociousness of student Holmes, which develops into a kind of righteousness when older. He’s not as stand-offish and borderline unlikeable as some interpretations of the character, nor as affable as others. As I say, he sits in the middle, doing nothing wrong but not getting a chance to mark himself out either.

The thing that does go terribly wrong, however, is the romantic subplot. Even if you set aside that such palaver doesn’t fit with the traditional Holmes character, this version is unconvincingly handled. Not only has Holmes apparently spent years pining after a girl he met once (it’s unclear why the Great Detective hasn’t been able to find her in all that time), but when he does meet her there’s no chemistry whatsoever. According to Fritzi at Movies Silently in her review, we should attribute the fault here to Dempster. I see no reason to disagree. Apparently Barrymore so disliked his co-star that he refused to perform the final scene with her, which would certainly explain the none-too-subtle way the actress’ face goes unseen at that point.

Young Mr Powell probably gets the best part, in particular a scene in a cab on the way to Moriarty’s lair where we learn his tragic backstory. The young thin manHe crops up in the years-later narrative too, used by Holmes to go undercover in the house where Alice is being held hostage by some of Moriarty’s many villainous associates. A major part of Holmes’ plan hinges on him turning up at these villains’ house, telling them what to do, and them obeying him. That this method succeeds is not due to Holmes’ considerable skill, but more due to the screenwriters’ lack of it.

Von Seyffertitz gives a very good Moriarty, though does err on the side of OTT. In part this is his look: I thought they had perhaps gone a little far with the make-up, turning him almost into a caricature of a villain, but having Googled the actor I think that it may mainly be his face… Still, what a perfect face for playing villains! Naming the film after him for the UK isn’t wholly inappropriate, especially as his role is expanded from Gillette’s play (the prologue confrontation being the main addition) and one of the throughlines is Holmes’ focus on apprehending him. It would certainly differentiate it from all of the other films called simply Sherlock Holmes.

The 1922 version isn’t the best film to bear that moniker, but nor is it the worst. I don’t think it’s a great interpretation of Holmes, but I found it to be a pretty entertaining adventure in its own right. I’d even quite like to see the plot rejigged (and the holes ironed out) to make it more truly Holmesian. Even having enjoyed the film, I must say how entertainingly dismissive I found Everson’s notes: he thinks that “one of the most painstaking recovery jobs ever […] quite overshadows the fact that the film itself Moriarty vs Holmeshardly seems worth such devotion except on a purely academic level.” He goes on to say that “it must be one of the blandest misuses of potentially exciting material ever,” that “it literally has no highlights,” that it “has no pictorial style of its own,” that Barrymore “clearly lends his profile to Holmes, and not much more,” that “if it is a major find, it is also a major disappointment.” Ooh, burn. (The whole thing is worth a read.)

Now, with the discovery of the Gillette film, one wonders if this Sherlock Holmes is destined to become even more of a curio than it already is. It’s not wholly undeserving of such a fate: it’s not bad and I found it solidly entertaining, but one for Barrymore fans and Holmes completists only.

3 out of 5

Sherlock Holmes, aka Moriarty, is available on YouTube here.

This review is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

2015 #74
Roy William Neill | 62 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | U

Pursuit to AlgiersAfter a fun opening where Holmes and Watson have to solve the world’s most obvious riddle (naturally, Watson is completely oblivious to there even being a riddle), the original dynamic duo are tasked with escorting the heir to the throne of somewhere-or-other back to his homeland, thwarting assassination attempts as they go.

In his production notes on the Optimum DVD release, Sherlockian Richard Valley describes the 12th film in the Rathbone/Bruce Holmes series as “the runt of the litter” — which it is — though he also declares that it “has its own peculiar charm… If it’s not in the same league as Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Scarlet Claw, neither is it a waste of time.” Of that I am less convinced.

Ostensibly, Sherlock Holmes stories are detective mysteries. In execution, they’re as often as not about the adventures of our heroes as much as they’re about the ins-and-outs of a case. The mystery is the glue that holds it all together, though. For about the first half, Pursuit to Algiers puts its pawns in place (getting Holmes, Watson and their charge on the boat to Algiers) and sets up its mystery: who is the assassin? About halfway through, Holmes and Watson stand around and very handily list all of the suspects… which just so happen to include pretty much every supporting character. So far, so good. However, it’s only a few minutes later that we actually find out the identity of the guilty party. If the mystery is the glue, then for me this is where the film comes unstuck.

So, Holmes has found out the identity of the assassins. Does he come up with an ingenious scheme to unmask them? Does he battle them and throw them overboard? Does he do anything at all about it? No. Instead, the rest of the film descends (further) into farce as Holmes lets the villains carry on with two or three assassination attempts, Time for a cracker joke?each of which he thwarts last-minute in sometimes amusing fashion. That’s not fundamentally a poor premise for an adventure comedy, I don’t think, but it doesn’t work for Sherlock Holmes. I mean, if you’re trying to prevent someone from being assassinated, why would you let the assassins carry on?! A last-minute twist reveals a sort of motivation, but it’s not a particularly convincing one in my book.

Even leaving the plot implausibility aside, I didn’t feel there was much else to recommend here. There’s altogether too much of Bruce buffooning around; there’s a half-arsed subplot about a jewel theft, seemingly tacked on so you could argue that there is a mystery in the film’s second half; and just generally, I didn’t think it hung together all that well.

Still, in a series where you’re churning out two or three a year, you’re allowed a couple of duds. Pursuit to Algiers is not completely without merit, but it’s certainly my least favourite Rathbone Holmes so far.

2 out of 5

Pursuit to Algiers is on TCM UK today at 3pm and tomorrow at 1:45pm.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1981)

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Приключения Шерлока Холмса и доктора Ватсона: Собака Баскервилей
Priklyucheniya Sherloka Kholmsa i doktora Vatsona: Sobaka Baskerviley
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson: The Hound of the Baskervilles

2015 #14
Igor Maslennikov | 146 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Soviet Union / Russian | PG

The Hound of the BaskervillesSherlock Holmes has appeared in more films than any other fictional character (yep, even those Marvel ones that are everywhere), which also means that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Great Detective has been portrayed by a staggering number of actors. “Who’s the best?” debates usually settle around Basil Rathbone, Jeremy Brett and, these days, Benedict Cumberbatch, though there are ardent fans of Douglas Wilmer, Peter Cushing, Robert Downey Jr… I could go on. In certain rarified circles, however, the “Sherlockian’s Sherlock” is, believe it or not, a Russian: Vasily Livanov, who starred in five popular (in their homeland) Russian miniseries/TV movies between 1979 and 1986 that some regard as definitive adaptations. We even gave him an MBE for them in 2006, so I guess he’s state-recognised.

The most famous Holmes adventure of them all, The Hound of the Baskervilles, was the subject of the third series, a two-part feature-length adaptation. (So yes, technically it’s not a film, but it’s the length of a film and it’s ever-so filmicly made, so I’m counting it.) The story, if you don’t know it, sees Devon gent Sir Charles Baskerville dying and his Canadian heir, Henry Baskerville (Nikita Mikhalkov), coming to England to inherit the estate. However, Sir Charles’ physician, Dr Mortimer (Evgeny Steblov), fears the old chap was murdered, and that it’s somehow connected to an ancient legend of a dog-like beast that roams the moors and torments the Baskerville family. Who better to investigate such phenomenon, and the potential threat to the new Sir Baskerville’s life, than famed detective Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Dr Watson.

Mr Sherlock HolmesAs many a Holmes fan will know, Baskervilles is not the best choice to get a handle on an actor’s interpretation of Holmes. Written by Doyle in the period after he’d killed Holmes off because he was tired of writing him, but before he later brought him back to life (as it were), presumably the author was still a bit bored with his creation, because Holmes disappears for a good chunk of the tale — in this adaptation, cited by many as the most faithful yet made, he’s in roughly the first and last half-hours, leaving a 72-minute stretch in the middle where he doesn’t appear at all. From what we do see of him, Livanov portrays a nicely understated Holmes. Clearly fiercely intelligent, but without the terseness of Cumberbatch’s version or the somewhat-jolly-hockey-sticks take of Rathbone. I’m compelled to get hold of the rest of the series to see what else he had to offer. (Sadly, only Baskervilles has reached UK DVD, but English-friendly imports are available. It’s also been released on Blu-ray, but I believe without English subtitles.)

The weight of the tale falls on Dr Watson, played here by Vitaly Solomin, who starred alongside Livanov in all his adventures. His is an excellent version of the character. Hopefully the Nigel Bruce-inspired image of Watson as a bumbling, useless sidekick has faded now, thanks to a couple of decades of strong interpretations from the likes of Edward Hardwicke, Ian Hart and Martin Freeman, but when this was produced it was presumably still de rigueur. Faithful to the original stories, however, Solomin’s Watson is highly competent; not expert at applying Holmes’ incredible deductive methodology, but nonetheless capable of maintaining an investigation in Holmes’ absence. Whatever Livanov’s merits, I’d happily watch the rest of the adaptations for Solomin’s Watson.

Dr Watson and Sir HenrySeveral other cast members manage to be both faithful to the novel and different to how their characters are usually depicted on screen. For instance, Dr Mortimer is usually played as an older gent, but is quite young in the novel — this is a rare (the only?) instance of that being followed. It’s the first time I’ve seen him played as being a bit shifty and suspicious, too. It benefits the storytelling here, because there really aren’t many suspects — it’s abundantly clear whodunnit, even if you don’t know, because there are no other options! Perhaps most memorable from the supporting cast is “internationally acclaimed actor/director” Nikita Mikhalkov as Henry Baskerville. The role is usually played as young, handsome, keen and brave (in the Rathbone version, Richard Greene even gets top billing in the role, and his incarnation is at the centre of a played-up romantic subplot). Here, Henry is a little older, prone to drinking, readily amused in a larger-than-life fashion, frequently baffled by events, somewhat cowardly, and most often used for comic relief.

There’s certainly a stronger strand of humour than I recall from either the book or any previous adaptation (though I’ve not seen the Peter Cook/Dudley Moore comedy version, which one would hope is funnier), but it’s all texture with Sir Henry rather than a narrative driving force. It also plays down the supernatural or Gothic side of things, which other versions tend to ramp up — the Rathbone film and the 2002 BBC TV movie both insert a seance sequence, even, which works so well that I’d forgotten it wasn’t actually in the novel. It’s a good addition partly for the atmosphere, but also for playing up the sense of community amongst the small band of characters. Here, everyone feels very isolated and rarely seen — there are even scenes where they’re surprised to actually run into one another. Holmes solves the caseThere’s more of an emphasis on people spying on each other suspiciously, which at least is rather appropriate to a murder mystery.

Indeed, I suppose this adaptation plays the story mostly as a detective mystery, if that’s not too obvious a thing to observe. Hound is far from the strongest mystery in the canon, mind, especially as presented here, with the the list of suspects seriously depleted by that absence of community. On the bright side, it makes up for it by having the ultimate revelation seem like proper detective work by Holmes. Normally the reveal hinges on him happening to spot a telling painting, an explanation that is implausible enough even without the element of happenstance. Here, the painting merely suggests a motive and a new line of enquiry to prove that theory. Nonetheless, the final summary contains a goodly number of “I don’t know, Watson”-type answers to dangling motivations/practicalities/etc. Anyone after a solid murder mystery, rather than a detective-led adventure, should look elsewhere.

The film itself is very well made. There’s some gorgeous cinematography by Dmitri Dolinin and Vladimir Ilyin; in particular, the cold morning on which Dr Mortimer examines Sir Charles’ body, mists drifting around some of the village houses, and anything on the moor in evening light, like when Watson finally finds Holmes. Also, just generally, it’s often very filmically shot — a shallow depth of field can pay dividends. The Russian city used as a double for Baker Street and its surroundings doesn’t look the least bit like Victorian London, though in fairness they’ve done their best to hide that, Yep, that's totally Britainincluding scattering iconic red VR post boxes around willynilly. The Russian countryside probably doesn’t look very much like Dartmoor either, but its qualities work for the story: very desolate, barren, bare trees, waterlogged dirt tracks for roads, rubble strewn around, the buildings rundown… All very atmospheric for a Gothic horror-tinged mystery, and far superior to the picture-postcard look of some adaptations.

Sonically, Vladimir Dashkevich’s score is succinctly described as quirky, with a main theme that’s very pompously British (apparently based on a familiar piece from the BBC World Service, which the Russian audience would therefore immediately identify with Britishness), but graduating to some quite contemporary riff-y guitar stuff later on.

(Unfortunately, the UK DVD is a little messy. For all the lovely film-ness of much of the PQ, there’s occasionally some nasty video/digital artifacting. Similarly, the subtitles are mostly fine but with sporadic lapses. A few lines are missed, and homophonic substitutions abound: “here” for “hear” (several times), “stake” for “steak”, “to” for “too”, and the second vowel in “Sheldon” changes a few times to boot. Shame.)

Russian Hound of the Baskervilles UK DVD from Mr BongoThe Hound of the Baskervilles has been filmed far too many times (a quick search of IMDb throws up a couple of dozen versions, for starters), which makes it tricky for any version to stand out from the crowd. This one picks up bonus points for reportedly being the most faithful of them all, backing that up with some strong performances, atmospheric locations and classy direction by the series’ regular helmsman, Igor Maslennikov. It’s not perfect, but then I can’t think of an adaptation of Baskervilles I’ve seen that is. Is it the best Baskervilles? It depends what exactly you want in the mix, but I think you’d have to say it’s a contender.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host Movies Silently.

The Woman in Green (1945)

2014 #111
Roy William Neill | 65 mins | DVD | 4:3 | USA / English | PG

The Woman in GreenBasil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes starred in films which, although they typically involve murder, are best described as “adventures”. The series’ 11th film, The Woman in Green, is one of the few — perhaps the only one — that could genuinely be described as dark and grim.

In a case with overtones of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer is murdering young woman and severing their forefinger as a trophy. The police are baffled — and even the Great Detective can’t offer much help. A lead emerges when the daughter of a widower catches him burying a forefinger. However, it soon becomes apparent that Moriarty (Henry Daniell) is involved, running a cruel moneymaking scheme.

Using elements from multiple Conan Doyle stories, including The Adventure of the Empty House, screenwriter Bertram Millhauser weaves a tale where it seems Moriarty may have finally outwitted our hero, leading to a remarkably effective climax with a hypnotised Holmes at the villains’ mercy. Moriarty’s plan is genuinely despicable, with the initial murders being entirely incidental to his end goal. It gives the film a subtly different tone to the rest of the series. Holmes still exhibits ingenious methods of detection, and there’s a comedy bit for Nigel Bruce’s Watson too, but behind it sits an odious undercurrent of contemptible crime. Indeed, put Moriarty’s plan in a drama today and I think people would still consider it particularly abhorrent. It’s occasionally startling for a ’40s production.

Hypnotised HolmesThe evil is carried off with aplomb by Daniell. Reportedly a cold actor to work with, he chills on the screen too. This is a man you can believe would carry out such a scheme without a single twang to his conscience. His comeuppance, even with its surprising finality, is welcomed. The titular woman, played by Hillary Brooke, is one of Moriarty’s cohorts, posing as the ‘girlfriend’ of the aforementioned widower in order to set him up. The film is of course in black & white, so we can’t see what colour she’s wearing, and no one ever refers to it — even when they’re hunting for her based on looks alone. I guess someone thought it was an evocative title nonetheless.

Starting with a particularly vile series of murders that mask an even more detestable scheme and genuine peril for our hero, I can imagine some fans would find The Woman in Green to be too big a step outside the Rathbone Holmes comfort zone. For me, however, these elements mark it out as one of the series’ best instalments.

4 out of 5