Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
I also do quite a nice line in IMDb film reviews; see below.
Please note that all the rarities I review are those screened by the BFI at the National Film Theatre in London: I do not own copies of any of these films and am unable to make them available to collectors however nicely you ask
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Great aesthetic, neat twisty plot
This was one of the Disney films I meant to see during the BFI's all-year Disney-a-week marathon, but managed to miss out on (my enthusiasm had rather flagged by the end of the year). I watched it today under less-than-ideal conditions, on a salvaged second-hand DVD that jammed and skipped, and without actually being able to concentrate on the screen for considerable periods of time, and I liked it a lot: more than "Tangled", more than "Frozen". Loved the Twenties aesthetic (little references like Naveen's ukulele), Tiana's realistic working-class parents, the New Orleans setting, the jazz, the voodoo (the Shadow Man has definite overtones of Baron Samedi). I liked the way that Charlotte, though clearly spoilt rotten, turns out to be a good friend and not an antagonist (and they even manage to make the friendship between the Sugar King's daughter and Tiana the black waitress come across as plausible). The Shadow Man makes an excellent villain. And, although this sounds cruel, I liked the fact that they went so far as to really kill off Ray, instead of pulling off the last-minute magical resurrection that seemed to be on the cards -- though any last words at all were a bit implausible under the circumstances!
I have a bit of trouble swallowing the idea of talking animals in New Orleans in the 1920s -- mainly the idea that the alligator can actually talk to ordinary people as well as to enchanted ones -- although that's a weird sticking-point given that I had no trouble with the idea that frogs can talk to alligators and fireflies... My main beef with the film would be that Naveen didn't really work for me as a character and I couldn't see what someone like Tiana would see in him; Flynn Rider as a similar 'reformed rogue' was much more interesting from that point of view.
Having watched the DVD extras I now gather that he was supposed to be a complement to Tiana's character in that he can appreciate the things of the moment while she is so focused on the future that she misses out on beauty and reality that she's in the middle of -- and that at least one of the jammed/skipped sections was one that apparently made this point :-( However, when I saw the film he came across as rather flat. (And why the French-sounding accent, when he's the one character in New Orleans with no reason to sound French?)
I wasn't especially fond of the songs as tunes -- nothing like as memorable as the numbers from "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Corpse Bride" -- but they work well as spectacle with the accompanying animations. "Friends on the Other Side" reminds me a bit of "Remains of the Day" in that respect, which is perhaps unsurprising! The film scores highly for me in that it repeatedly took completely unpredictable twists: I couldn't see the plot points coming, and yet they generally made perfect sense in retrospect. This is one picture where 'spoilers' are definitely best avoided, and somehow I'd managed to miss hearing any of them in advance :-)
High on the visuals (sorry, but I'm really not that sold on 3D animation), high on the plot, very high on the background and setting. Naveen drags it down a bit, I'm afraid, as I couldn't really get invested in the romance, but overall 8/10. It would bear watching again under better circumstances; I'd have been tempted to hang onto the DVD if it hadn't been damaged!
The Goose Steps Out (1942)
Subversive schoolmaster for Nazi spies
Loved this -- probably one of the funniest Will Hay films I've seen. I far prefer the pictures he made with Charles Hawtrey to the 'classic' teaming with Moore/Marriott, and an excellent supporting cast here includes Peter Ustinov and Frank Pettingell (of "Gaslight" fame).
I always find Hay funnier when he is being a pompous but resourceful twit rather than simply an arrogant incompetent, and here his schoolmaster character is put up against the Nazis and manages (with assistance) to rise to the occasion... aided by the fact that his opponents half the time are even bigger buffoons than he is. A sharp script relies heavily on verbal humour, with two outstanding scenes that riff on the absurdities of the English language. The invasion plan sequence in which Hay improvises strategy wildly in a cascade of puns while attempting to pick a German general's pocket deserves to be a classic of the genre (take them from the flanks in Lancs to keep the Paras all tied up in Notts... but don't get caught with your Panzers down in the Severn Tunnel).
There is also a clever yet natural-seeming series of gags making use of an asbestos suit, some of which you can see (and enjoy) coming in advance, some of which I didn't! The final reels of the film didn't work quite so well for me, chiefly because I couldn't help but be aware that with all those antics the plane wouldn't have lasted for a minute and had some trouble suspending my disbelief in the name of comedy -- it's always funnier when it's actually physically plausible, however far-fetched. (The ingenious tactic by which Hay contrives to prevent his friend Professor Hoffmann from drinking a glass of poison by triggering his "Heil Hitler" reflex precisely at the requisite moment, for example.) Up to that point I would have rated the film at a definite 8/10; I still rate it a solid seven.
The contrast between English and American propaganda films was never more marked; see also "Night Train to Munich", "Pimpernel Smith" and even "The Lady Vanishes" for Englishmen working against the Nazis who simply don't take themselves all that seriously.
Time Out of Mind (1947)
Brooding melodrama that I found unsatisfactory
I usually like this sort of thing (overwrought melodrama based on long-forgotten bestseller), and Phyllis Calvert's name is one that I know well from English cinema of the era. But this film began to irritate me more and more as it went on.
Partly I think there is just too much in it, an inherent problem with adaptations from novels: either the first or the second half could have stood as a separate film on its own, but tied together they are just too much. Partly I think the problem lay with the source material, as Chris becomes less and less sympathetic, and Kate's unthinking allegiance to him starts to look like an exercise in pathetic self-deception rather than the undying love which it ought to represent. And the final development by which we are supposed to believe that he is a musical genius after all when not being stifled by the deep trauma of his wife's money(!) felt a bit forced. (It would have helped if I had been able to detect any difference between the supposedly derivative and unoriginal concerto, and the "New England Symphony": both sound equally melodious to my uneducated ear!) Personally I feel that it might have been more interesting for Chris to discover in Paris, like "Little Women"'s Laurie in Italy, that talent is not necessarily genius and that early promise is no guarantee of success... however, that's an issue with the novel's plot and no reflection upon the film itself. Rissa's virtually incestuous obsession could also have done with more development and/or clarification, as could the role of Jake, who funds Chris without sympathising with him, and Jake's hinted-at relationship with Kate.
Technically there is nothing wrong with the film (save perhaps a railway scene with the arrival of what is a blatantly non-functional train). It has all the Hollywood production values of what was a big-budget picture for Universal: a high-end musical score, inventive camera handling (for example, we don't actually get to see Chris's face until the moment that he awakes from his coma, although he is the centre of the dialogue and action up to that point), director Siodmak's trademark use of light and shadow, and set-piece scenes with scores of extras in period costume. I just found my disbelief and hence tolerance for the soap-opera antics slipping throughout; the turnaround by which Chris is perceived/portrayed as the sensitive, persecuted protagonist escaping family oppression in the first half only to reappear as a self-pitying failure in the second half could have been a striking development, but instead it came over as rather annoying. As an earlier reviewer says, Gainsborough Films had done this sort of thing more effectively with Phyllis Calvert in England.
John Abbott turns in a memorable performance as the music critic Liebermann, and Ella Raines is notable as the tormented Rissa. As a contemporary reviewer put it in the "Monthly Film Bulletin" for 1947, "the rest of the cast do all that is expected of them", which is no reflection upon the actors concerned.
Cobra Woman (1944)
Comic strip come to life
This is an absolutely unashamed B-movie... and about as sophisticated as can be expected of any picture featuring a beautiful, wicked snake-priestess, human sacrifice into a volcano, good and evil twins separated in infancy, a gigantic mute assassin, a lost heir(ess), a cobra-worshipping cult and a pet ape wearing a skirt for decency! It's technicoloured in more ways than one -- this is the pulp fantasy material of boys' comic papers come to life, and wouldn't be out of place as a lost novel by Robert Howard or Rider Haggard. Just about everyone sports a bare midriff at the slightest provocation, most of the women spend the entire picture clad in a skimpy band of material round their top half, and Sabu wears next to nothing throughout thanks to a magnificent young physique.
As the reader may have gathered, most of it is unabashed fun. There are a couple of suggestions that hint at something deeper: the idea that perhaps Tollea really ought to stay and improve life for her people instead of marrying her rescuer, for example (though the final outcome makes sense -- she was only ever herself a pawn in the hands of the would-be reformers, after all), and, despite the missionary upbringing of the main protagonists, an unexpected treatment of the cobra cult as a genuine religion, where offending the Powers can have consequences and people deserve to worship as they see fit.
The special effects are rather better on the costume front than they are where dangerous items are concerned, although there is a brave attempt at showing an advancing lava front by merely illustrating its effects, which works surprisingly well. The dialogue veers wildly between pidgin and fluent English as spoken by the same character at different times (sometimes within the same speech) -- it would be nice to think that this reflected an attempt to show whether they are trying to communicate in English or addressing others in their own native tongue, but I suspect it wasn't thought out in that much detail! Otherwise, the main criticism I'd make is that the final fight goes on perceptibly too long and in too repetitive a way: it could, with advantage and with more credibility, have been cut by several minutes to provide a more explosive climax.
But the film is thoroughly enjoyable for what it is. It has no pretensions to be anything more, and the characters generally look as if they're having a good time (when not being tortured, threatened with death, etc.) Sabu plays the hero's mischievous sidekick without a hint of embarrassment and tends to steal every scene in which he appears. Lon Chaney Jr has presence. Maria Montez plays a naive South Seas islander and a power-crazed priestess with aplomb and smoulders out of the screen (her snake dance in a scintillating costume is definitely a memorable scene).
Jon Hall makes an engaging romantic lead, though the plot suggests that the character is perhaps more honest than bright: his approach is generally to walk straight into danger and hope that circumstances will work out in his favour. Occasionally they do (this is the sort of film, after all, where you can walk straight into the inner sanctums of the palace after changing clothes with a high official, and nobody so much as notices) but generally he needs rescuing from the consequences!
I wouldn't actually describe this an unmissable camp classic, not because it's too bad but because it isn't. It's a perfectly good piece of entirely escapist entertainment which was never intended to be taken seriously, and while it has zero emotional depth it's easy on the eye.
Memory of the Camps (2014)
This is the first time that I can recall that I have ever looked consciously upon the naked or the dead; when such sights are broadcast as news or entertainment, I've always felt that decency forbids us to look too closely. Bodies of strangers deserve some respect.
But here, decency itself obliges us to override that skittering reaction and to bear witness to these unknown thousands and what was done to them -- to the flopping bodies and their pitiful appendages, the calcined corpses that failed to burn and the slack-jawed eyeless masks that are not latex monsters from TV horror shows but people... what becomes of people when they are starved and killed and stripped even of their rags and left to rot. And like the German neighbours who were brought to the camps to see just what had been done in their name, we have no right to look away because it is improper or uncomfortable.
Ironic, since this film was abandoned simply because its message had become both uncomfortable and impolitic. Showings of earlier shock footage to German civilians provoked flat disbelief and had 'unsettled' communities; by the time the slow process of constructing a full-length documentary film in measured and accurate tones had reached its final reel, official policy had moved on from implicating all Germans in culpability of the crimes that had been committed to attempting to reconstruct a country that could be an eventual ally in the nascent Cold War. And Jewish agitation in the Holy Land made it unwise to release footage of concentration camp survivors being nursed back to health from their sufferings, when large numbers of them were then ending up in Palestine.
So the picture that was to have provided a factual record of what was then known about the Nazi concentration camp atrocities was quietly shelved and eventually abandoned. It remains very much a period piece, instantly recognisable as the product of the masterly British documentary movement of its day: understated and dispassionate, flavoured with irony rather than rhetoric, condemning by unemotional fact and asking the implicit question -- how would we have acted, had we been in the shoes of those happy, healthy German girls smiling self-consciously for the camera at Belsen or Ebensee, aware in a general fashion that undesirables were being shipped in to perform hard labour for the good of the nation and not troubling ourselves to enquire too closely as to how this was done...? The film makes a point of illustrating how close these camps were to major towns and cities, and how normal life seemed to the approaching soldiers outside -- save, the commentary remarks quietly, for the smell.
Given the circumstances of the revelations under which it was made, the script actually displays a notable lack of polemic: the facts stand for themselves (although the Imperial War Museum presenter at our screening noted that some of the statistics quoted are now known to be wrong). Despite its original conception as a document to educate the defeated German people, it shows a significant lack of newsreel national stridency: the condemnation is of how bystanders could have failed to rise up "to defend the good name of Germany" despite the likely consequences, and the hope at the end is that Germans will mend what Germans have broken. The moral drawn at the end is for the whole of humanity.
This is not a triumphalist film made by the victors (and one can see why there was a lobby who wanted the raw footage taken away from the Ministry of Information and used for precisely that purpose!) It's an attempt at showing what unspeakable things can occur on a routine, normalising basis along a long slope of acceptance and dehumanisation -- and a warning. It would be nice to think that if it had been released as planned, various modern-day atrocities might not take place... but while the Nazi industrialisation of death remains unique in its insane scope (what did they think they were they going to *do* with all those pairs of scissors, stored up and unused? with the toys of Jewish children, or the sorted sacks of hair?) human nature has not changed in its ability to ignore the uncomfortable where it suits us to do so.
This is a film conducted with a restraint that speaks volumes. It's also one that does not flinch from the depiction of the unspeakable. And yet in addition it does its best to re-humanise those who were imprisoned for extermination -- to show the recovery process of those who lived in addition to the discarded stacks of those who died, and to show the photographs, suitcase destinations (these were men and women who travelled to tourist hotels that would have been known to pre-war British travellers) and the toys of those whose very bodies have been obliterated.
Sometimes we must bear witness to remember that these were people and not just statistics to be argued about in some blame-game. I was reluctant to watch this film not because I anticipated unknown obscenities (I think in Britain we've all 'done the Nazis' at school, with graphic photos) but because it felt like welcoming a potential ghoulish thrill, a tasteless parade of horrors to send a chill up the spine at a safe distance.
But there are some things that should be seen and heeded.
Beautiful homage to silent serials
I haven't seen the original Judex, but I've seen Ultus, the equivalent British serial of the era... and I definitely recognise the style here. Multiple disguises, hairbreadth escapes from death, jawdropping coincidences, gadgetry and sleight of hand... and villains who never kill their victims when they ought to!
The print in the BFI National Archive was in beautiful condition (save for some oversized and rather intrusive subtitling), and this film is visually and musically stunning; the Maurice Jarre soundtrack is lovely, fitting and eerie. The morality of the story -- despite its simplistic chase format -- is surprisingly grey, with Jacqueline the only pure innocent (and thus, alas, the least interesting character). It's hard not to sympathise with Favraux in his situation, despite everything that we learn, or with young Morales, caught between the ruthless woman he loves and his long-lost father, and Judex himself finds his self-appointed mission of punishment harder and harder to fulfil.
Scenes like the masked ball (shrouded in almost surreal mystery, since it is not until afterwards that we have any idea what was going on!) and the spider-like climb of Judex' minions to the roof are very memorable, while the film also has a nice line in self-deflating humour, courtesy of the fiction-obsessed detective Cocantin and his rapport with small children. For such a preposterous comic-strip confection the plot holds together quite well, although having displayed such crowning ineptitude in their first attempt to kill Jacqueline (and what happened to the original idea of questioning her first?), it's hard to understand why the plotters don't just make away with her immediately the next time they get the opportunity!
The one thing that really grated, as with all old historical dramas, was the very 'modern' hairstyles and make-up used on all the eye-candy characters in order to make them attractive to a contemporary 1960s audience -- the result now, of course, is that instead of appearing subconsciously appealing they appear distractingly out of period. It's hard to credit a swooning damsel of 1916 when she is made up to look more like Brigitte Bardot...
Casting a professional magician as Judex enables the character to perform some impressive sleight-of-hand, and there are some subtle references to the original era, like the opening iris shot, the super-advanced (and supersized) antique surveillance gadgetry, and the title cards setting the various scenes. But perhaps the most impressive thing is that this is basically played entirely 'straight': it's not a tongue-in-cheek homage to pulp serials, it's presented in its own right as a piece of poetry for us to suspend disbelief -- a 1914 adventure of a mysterious caped avenger, an athletic, resourceful villainess, and a celestial innocent who sought to redeem her father's deeds.
Madam Satan (1930)
Has to be seen to be believed
This is a totally bizarre amalgam of at least three different films: a wisecracking sex-comedy, an unsuccessful operetta, and a bedroom-hopping farce. Add into that mix 'disaster movie' and 'fashion parade', and you get a film that's worth seeing just for its jaw-dropping novelty value alone.
It's actually pretty good: most of the humour is intentional, and some of the rest of it may well be. (I'm not sure quite how seriously the film takes itself: I got the impression that the heroine is pretty much in the know about what is going on, for example, and is simply playing innocent when it suits her... either to get the information she's after, or merely in order to watch her misbehaving husband squirm.) Farce isn't my thing, but those scenes are pretty slickly done, while a lot of the risqué dialogue sparkles.
Sadly the film suffers from primitive sound recording techniques, to the extent that most of the lyrics of the musical sections are incomprehensible -- not too much of a problem for the stand-alone numbers, but a big issue for the ensemble songs that are supposed to drive the later part of the plot. A lot of the verbal punchlines to the visual jokes at the masquerade disappeared into the background fuzz, as well: for example, I still don't know what on earth Bob's costume was supposed to be, because I missed the announcement as he entered.
As a musical "Madam Satan" is not very successful: it's a story of missed opportunities (Cole Porter, Rudolf Friml, Oscar Hammerstein II, Sigmund Romberg and even Albert Ketelbey of "In a Monastery Garden" fame were all considered to write the musical numbers at one time or another, as were Jeanette MacDonald and Gloria Swanson for the lead). The operetta numbers are unmemorable -- the 'popular' numbers from Jack King and Elsie Janis have worn better in performance style, although you still won't find yourself whistling them as you leave.
There are lengthy ballet/costume sequences in the second half of the film that appear to be basically the equivalent of the gratuitous fashion parade colour reels that crop up in various 1930s films -- simply inserted into the story as an excuse to show off the spectacle. They are staggeringly extravagant, but to my taste the display dragged a bit after a while. (Watching all the revellers subsequently attempt to don parachute harnesses on top of these costumes, however, tends to confirm me in my suspicion that the film really doesn't take itself seriously!) And we learn, to my amazement at least, that on a dirigible the parachutes are not actually packed on the wearer's back but attached to casings in the hull itself -- no wonder the harnesses look weirdly skeletal. You can't simply jump free wearing a parachute: you have to be clipped on first...
The parachute sequence is another piece of disaster-comedy that has to be seen to be believed. On the whole I'd say that the film is at least 60% successful: MGM might have done better if they had ditched the musical elements altogether, since this is probably the weakest strand and the box office was saturated by musicals at this point, and gone flat out for shock value. It's certainly worth seeing for sheer bizarreness.
Kamet Conquered (1935)
Amazing high-quality footage of 1930s-style climbing
Following in the footsteps of Captain John Noel and his immensely popular documentaries taken on the Mount Everest expeditions of the 1920s ("Climbing Mount Everest"/"The Epic of Everest"), Frank Smythe hoped to help finance his 1931 attempt on Kamet, another Himalayan peak, by bringing back film footage of a successful ascent including summit shots which were at that time the highest ever taken in the world. Like Noel, he shot on full-size 35mm film stock rather than the 16m (or even 8mm) used by the later Everest expeditions -- but he had the benefit of the latest technology in the shape of Bell & Howell's compact 'Eyemo' camera with its clockwork mechanism, which he was able to use to document even the highest stages of the 25,000-foot climb, and the quality of many of these shots is extraordinary. Unfortunately he was unable to get a commercial release for the completed documentary with its recorded score and narrative commentary, and it eventually ended up being distributed in 16mm format as a schools' educational film. Smythe was left cynical and disillusioned by the whole experience, complaining that "photographs of toil and difficulty on the 'Roof of the World'... count for nothing when the 'accidents', 'blizzards' and 'avalanches' can be faked in the studio" and "the public has been so soaked in sensational make-believe that the unvarnished truth is no longer anything but boring".
In fact contemporary reviews suggested that the undoubtedly high-quality footage and dramatic content was somewhat let down by Smythe's commentary, and having seen a screening of the BFI's preserved archive copy I find myself reluctantly coming to agree. It's odd, because Frank Smythe was a prolific and vivid author who would go on to publish many popular mountaineering volumes and had at this juncture already written a highly successful book, "The Kangchenjunga Adventure". But the voice-over he penned to accompany this film (and recorded himself, occasionally with audible 'fluffs'!) is uneven in tone and effect, occasionally very much so: I thought it worked best in the central section of the film and rather less well at the beginning and end. We had the opportunity beforehand of comparing the sound print with an extract from the silent (and evidently slightly shortened) version distributed to schools, which has one advantage in that it is able to use the full width of the frame rather than sacrificing a strip to the soundtrack: a comparison which becomes evident when, for example, a nicely-framed shot of a Gurkha displaying his kukri knife reappeared in the sound print with the left-hand end of the blade truncated.
On the other hand "Kamet Conquered" makes a fascinating companion piece to Noel's artistically more successful "Epic of Everest". It is close enough in date to record what were essentially the same techniques and conditions -- the endless cutting of steps with long-handled ice-axes in the absence of forward-pointing crampons, the multiple layers of woollen clothing and nailed leather soles, the crates carried up to a succession of camps as an ever-decreasing team of porters drop out in exhaustion -- in far more close-up detail than Captain Noel sought or was able to do. It depicts eloquently what it was like to climb in the Himalayas in the 1930s: the achingly slow pace of a high-altitude ascent without oxygen, dwindling to barely 100 feet in an hour, the vertiginous paths along which the yaks and porters had to navigate, the makeshift cooking and eating arrangements, the plodding labour of soft snow, and crippling frostbite through layers of clothing. This is probably the closest we will ever get to seeing what those early Everest expeditions were actually like, when not being 'epic'!
And the ethnographic footage of the villages and pilgrims along the upper reaches of the Ganges is also fascinating: in place of Noel's Tibetan Buddhists, we get contemporary Hindu culture from the other side of the Himalayas. (Although Smythe comments that the Bhotias would happily suit their religion to whichever side of the border they happened to be on...)
Smythe has succeeded in getting some amazingly dramatic footage, whether of icefalls from the hanging glaciers, yaks crossing a raging torrent, or climbers like black specks on the upper slopes of the mountain. The quality of the close-up shots showing the final push to the summit -- with exhausted men labouring up a sheer ice slope or dragging booted and putteed feet over the shelf of a rocky outcrop -- is so high that I found myself ignobly wondering whether Smythe had resorted to later 'reconstruction' at lower altitudes: if this material was really shot on the way to the peak by a cameraman dulled by oxygen deprivation, it is the most incredible technical achievement. As to the panoramic shots taken from the top of Kamet itself, exceeding all previous height records, there can be no doubt as to their authenticity.
For anyone interested in the history of Himalayan climbing, this is unmissable. As a general documentary, it is fascinating: as an art picture it can be astoundingly beautiful. It's just that I can, after all, see why it was not a commercial success.
The Epic of Everest (1924)
Noel's second Everest documentary
It was interesting to see this film immediately after Captain Noel's first Everest documentary, the optimistically-entitled "Climbing Mount Everest" covering the 1922 attempt on the mountain. The degree of public interest in the earlier film had prompted Noel into the venture of buying the commercial rights to the film of this new expedition outright, raising the amazing sum of eight thousand pounds in advance; effectively, "The Epic of Everest" financed the 1924 summit bid.
The difference between the two approaches to the same subject is notable. This film runs half an hour longer than its predecessor, but if anything feels shorter: it is constructed as an artistic whole, whereas the first attempt relies much more on the sheer novelty of its subject matter -- both Tibet and the mountain were being filmed for the first time ever -- and in consequence has a certain random "what I did on my holidays" feel to it. On the other hand, it's certainly worth seeing as a companion piece, not least because it explains some of the background detail that appears in "The Epic of Everest": the prayer wheel that we see here, for example, which is otherwise implied to be a musical instrument of some kind. And at least one shot (of Tibetans dancing) has clearly been inserted directly into this film from the 1922 version!
For the "Epic of Everest" Noel makes an attempt to create human interest, introducing individuals and showing us clips of Somervell sketching, Geoffrey Bruce at the typewriter, and Sandy Irvine swinging a thermometer(?): the tale of a newborn donkey provides another minor strand. To modern eyes I think the film would have benefited from more such material, especially given the practical difficulties of filming actual mountaineering (almost all the climbing footage had to be shot via telephoto lens at extreme long range) and the requirement for the photographic party to wait around in camp below to learn the results of each fresh summit bid: shots of camp life on a more human level would have helped bring the realities of the expedition home. As it is, we get little beyond a couple of scenes of the expedition members gathered at table in the open air, and learn nothing of, for example, the relay system of runners that dispatched Noel's precious negatives all the way back to Darjeeling for developing. An even more puzzling omission is the absence in this film of any coverage of the oxygen system eventually used by Mallory, a precursor of which is seen on Finch and Bruce in the 1922 footage.
And because -- presumably -- it was impossible to film in anything other than the most perfect of conditions, we get very little idea of the savagery of Everest's weather, which constantly frustrated the climbers' attempts. Only the billowing of the little Meade tents on the North Col gives any hint as to the conditions that entrapped four porters (and almost exhausted both Mallory and Somervell in a rescue expedition before ever they could make their respective bids for the summit).
But this film is conceived on a more elevated level, with sweeping tinted shots of the mountain and its approaches, the vast bulk of the north-eastern ridge above the cameraman, and the vertical precipices that await the climber who slips. To those familiar with the still photographs of the expedition, perhaps the greatest magic is to see those familiar scenes come alive: to see porters on Irvine's famous tent-peg rope ladder, to see climbers turn and grin at the camera, to see Norton and Somervell's stumbling, blind return from 28,000ft. Perhaps most memorable (and rightly selected by the BFI for their trailer) are those shots of the Himalayan sunset creeping across the folds of the mountain and finally extinguishing the highest peak: both art and metaphor.
In an similarly elevated tone are the intertitles -- although by the standards of silent drama/action films it can be very intertitle-heavy. If only the voice-over had existed for documentaries in 1924...
I was sceptical about the idea of the modern score composed for the film's re-release, but in fact I found that it worked very well. The use of 'found sounds' and natural noise goes some way to substitute for the lack of soundtrack, introducing heavy breathing and harsh winds to restore some idea of the sheer labour involved in those little black dots moving over pristine white, and providing ambient sounds for a Tibetan yak herd or Darjeeling bazaar, while it includes Captain Noel's own recordings of the Tibetan lamas who performed at the film's original London premiere.
Inevitably "The Epic of Everest" is constrained by the technical challenges of filming under extreme conditions -- I wondered also if the relative lack of human-interest footage was dictated by a limited supply of film stock -- and while Captain Noel greatly admired Herbert Ponting's pre-WW1 Antarctic achievements, despite technical advances I'm not sure he reaches the same artistic heights. Ponting's "The Great White Silence" is another film that began as a documentary and had to be re-edited into a memorial to a Great British Failure, and as such is an obvious point of comparison: but it contains some shots of truly jaw-dropping beauty. With the difficulties of altitude and long distance added to that of intense cold, the interest of Noel's film lies to a greater extent in its record of a historic event. I like this score better, though!
For anyone with an interest in the 1920s Everest expeditions it is certainly worth going to see "The Epic of Everest" during its general release; for the more curious, "Climbing Mount Everest" is also available to watch in person via the BFI's Mediatheque screens at various locations around the country.
Star Trek (2009)
Galaxy Quest was infinitely superior
Apparently this is teenage Star Trek, in which the juvenile delinquents take over the starship "Enterprise"....
I am not a particular "Star Trek" fan - my main knowledge of the series was gained by encountering various tie-in novels while devouring the science fiction section of my local library, although I've probably seen half a dozen repeated episodes of the original TV series over the years and watched (and disliked) some of the earlier films when they first came out -- and I know very little about the subsequent spin-off series. All of which goes to say that I didn't have a vast amount of emotional investment to be overthrown when watching this film. I simply remembered that it got good reviews when it first came out, that I'd intended to watch it at the time but never got round to it, and that it might be a good idea to have a look at it now in case I actually wanted to watch the forthcoming sequel.
I was at least expecting decent entertainment...
This film is simply one long string of modern action-movie cliché from start to end, with frenetic camera-work, constant shoot-em-ups and/or punch-em-ups, fights over multi-level platforms (haven't I just seen this same sequence shoe-horned into "The Hobbit"?), supposedly emotional scenes that leave me absolutely untouched and not a little irked at the intended manipulation, and the insistence that any action marginally more intelligent than charging head-to-head with vastly more powerful baddies and hoping for a miracle is simply arrant cowardice. All of which would be bad enough (plus the truly lazy use of time-travel as a deus ex machina for some hand-waving technology), but which is accelerated past the stage of merely being bad science fiction and into the stage of being deeply annoying by the teenage cast.
Presumably this was an attempt to win the vital Young Adult (16-24) market -- however, the scenario where a bunch of space cadets are sent out to save the universe because, whoops, the rest of the navy isn't in port yet, really doesn't hold water. Let alone the scenario where all the famous characters just happen to be the same age and end up on the same ship -- funny, that -- so that the series can be 'rebooted' with a complete cast of photogenic crew members under the age of twenty-two. I may not know much about Star Trek history, but I do have some idea of naval organisation and the workings of seniority! As for Kirk, he is unbelievably annoying -- I felt like cheering when Spock had him thrown off the bridge and off the ship after behaviour that should have got him cashiered. The idea that this delinquent stowaway cadet could commit mutiny via grossly insulting his superior officer and be rewarded for it by appointing himself captain is not only ludicrous but offensive to the intelligence of the viewer: as another reviewer points out, even Dr McCoy was senior to Kirk at that point.
What is -- or should be -- deeply worrying is that "Galaxy Quest", written as a deliberate "Star Trek" spoof, is actually infinitely more effective as straight science fiction than this 'reboot' is. It is perhaps unsurprising that it is also much funnier (what jokes exist in this film tend to fail badly), but the producers should be seriously concerned that the so-called spoof is also far more emotionally involving, more heroic, more exciting, and more scientifically coherent. You actually care about what happens to that crew of washed-up actors and hapless aliens: they face real challenges, evolve real relationships and manage to eat their cake and have it while poking gentle fun at the nerds who ultimately help save the day.
As for this film -- well, I liked most of Spock and what little we saw of McCoy, hated Kirk, found the other 'canon' crew members pretty ridiculous and thought the plot was detestably silly. Again, as another reviewer says, you could plausibly have made it an 'origins' story for Kirk alone (though the character would still have been a complete pain in the neck), but attempting to assemble a complete juvenile version of the crew really stretches credibility. It wasn't just a bad blockbuster: it was a blockbuster that I deeply resented seeing.