The Rocketeer (1991)

2015 #46
Joe Johnston | 104 mins | streaming | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The RocketeerBased on an ’80s-created superhero modelled on the matinee serials of the ’30s and ’40s, The Rocketeer sets its scene in 1938, when stunt pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) winds up in possession of an experimental rocket pack. Initially donning it as part of the stunt show, when Cliff uses it to rescue another pilot he, a) attracts the attention of the hoods who originally stole it, and b) discovers his true calling as a hero, etc. Throw in a love interest (Jennifer Connelly) who’s a Hollywood extra with connections to the swashbuckling film star (Timothy Dalton) who’s really behind the theft, and you’ve got yourself an adventure!

After years stuck in development — including, variously, attempts to make it in black & white with an unknown cast (I guess someone realised that would never make money), having to persuade studios of the possibilities of a comic book movie (this being before Burton’s Batman, even), neutering the source material to make it kid-friendly (in the comic Connelly’s character was a Bettie Page-inspired nude model), and attempts to set it in the present day (until someone pointed out the success of Indiana Jones) — the version that finally emerged on screen is a bit of a mishmash.

The real problem is the first act. It drags and unbalances the film, which picks up considerably (though gradually) after the Rocketeer himself finally turns up. It would feel a much better film, and perhaps be better regarded, if it didn’t dilly-dally for so long before getting to the meat of the plot and action. It doesn’t help that it has ambition ahead of its era when it comes to special effects. The limitations of the time mean there’s not that much action of the hero actually flying, his raison d’être. He mostly jets around a room, along the ground, or via a handful of very brief green-screen shots that are mostly confined to one sequence. Jennifer Connelly is in this movie, what else do you need to know?We all know effects alone do not make a good movie, but equally trying to make an effects-y movie when you can’t achieve said effects is a fool’s errand. Fortunately there’s some other derring-do to make up for it, and the climax atop a zeppelin isn’t at all bad.

Campbell is a nondescript lead, but there are some excellent scenes involving Jennifer Connelly and/or Timothy Dalton — in particular, the bit where he’s trying to seduce her and she keeps identifying the movies he’s stealing lines from. Connelly’s role certainly isn’t your standard “damsel in distress”, a plus side of that long development period, where it was noted they needed to strengthen her character. She very much holds her own, with a nice line in bashing people over the head. Elsewhere, Dalton’s Errol Flynn-inspired movie star is a great villain — well, us Brits always do that best, don’t we?

A lot of people seem to love The Rocketeer; I think it has a bit of a cult following, even. I wanted to like it that much, and as it goes on it plays more into such territory, but it wastes too much time early on and is somewhat hamstrung by the production limitations of its era.

3 out of 5

The Tourist (2010)

2014 #101
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck | 99 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA, France & Italy / English | 12 / PG-13

The TouristMuch maligned on its release, I thought The Tourist was actually a decently entertaining light thriller.

Some of the criticisms are valid: stars Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie do lack chemistry, there are some plot holes and logic leaps, and the tone is muddled (is it a thriller? A romance? A comedy? All of the above but with the wrong balance?)

However, other parts are good fun, and there are solid, entertaining twists to be found in the plot. It may not be a great movie, but taken as a light amusement, it’s not as bad as its reputation suggests.

3 out of 5

In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

Agatha (1979)

2008 #62
Michael Apted | 100 mins | TV | PG / PG

AgathaThere are no giant wasps in sight as Vanessa Redgrave’s Agatha Christie goes missing for eleven days in December 1926, and Dustin Hoffman’s journalist tries to track her down. While the frame of the story is true, the reasons behind Christie’s disappearance, and what occurred during it, aren’t known — which makes it fertile ground for speculation. Sadly, a fantastical plot about jewel thieves and shapeshifting aliens is much more exciting than the down-to-earth mystery we’re offered here.

It’s easy to see the attraction of Christie’s disappearance: it’s a real-life mystery about arguably the greatest mystery author ever, with enough unusual events surrounding it to make it extra suspicious and a long enough gap for something significant to have happened. But while the idea is initially exciting, when it comes to retelling it there isn’t a great deal there — the facts of her disappearance are just the ‘before & after’, amounting to little more than an abandoned car, an assumed name and some amnesia. Unless one invents something to fill those missing days, there’s little to tell (she went to a hotel and forgot what happened, essentially) — so, of course, this film fills in the gap. With a murder mystery, naturally. Sort of, anyway.

To be honest, I found it a tad confusing for the most part. While the initial setup is well handled, showing what drives Christie to run away (consciously or not) and the beginning of the police search, it begins to flounder once the plot slides into its fully fictional phase. Hoffman’s journalist, who had been hoping to interview Christie, manages to stumble across her at the hotel, where he pretends not to know who she is, while she… has health treatments… It’s only at the conclusion, when Christie’s plan begins to come together, that one realises there was a plan at all. It’s a shame the revelation comes so late because it’s actually not that bad a plot, and makes for quite a neat and almost plausible (providing you can accept Christie as a potential murderess (sort of)) explanation for everything.

The performances do nothing to raise the film. Redgrave is lumbered with little to do, mostly wandering around looking dazed. Her performance is decent but the material she has is lacking. Hoffman, on the other hand, is just flat, while Timothy Dalton’s sneering Colonel Christie sadly barely features. On a more technical level, the police investigation subplot is disappointingly forgotten halfway through, and everything is shot with too little light. Sometimes the latter is effective, such as during a train journey where occasional flashes of light illuminate Christie’s uncomfortably blank face, but at other times it merely obscures events. (It’s possible this is just the print, of course.)

Christie’s disappearance remains a fascinating mystery, though in all likelihood the true causes were either very internal or mental health related — not the easiest thing to depict in a movie, especially when your audience is likely expecting a thriller. Agatha has a game stab at weaving an interesting tale into the gaps in the facts, but by the end I was wondering if a straightforward biopic mightn’t have been a better idea.

3 out of 5