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Lake Placid (1999)
Truth in advertising
The review quote on the DVD box reads: "You'll spend as much time laughing as you do screaming".
And that's no lie: I spent exactly as much time laughing as I did screaming. Nevertheless, the publicist who chose that line as the sales pitch needs to check his or her ambiguity detector.
To be fair, I've seen (I won't say watched) no more than the first half so far, and if I'm hanging in there for the remainder, it's only because I'm nursing faint and fast-dwindling hopes about what might happen to the characters played by Bridget Fonda and Oliver Platt. It would scar my life forever if they should get eaten by a giant crocodile and I missed it.
Rising Damp (1974)
Satire, not spleen
Despite the fact that many posters seem to think Rising Damp was guilty of racism, the reverse was actually true. Don Warrington's character Philip was often the target of boorish remarks by Leonard Rossiter's landlord Rigsby (not really malicious by the standards of 1970s England, just ignorant: a real 1970s racist wouldn't rent a room in his own house to a black man anyway), but it's Rigsby that we find ridiculous, not Philip. Throughout the series, Philip is consistently portrayed as the most intelligent, charming, attractive, sophisticated and grown-up of all the characters, and he's certainly no deferential Uncle Tom. ... that's not racism, is it?
Robbery with violence
Although Robbery belongs to one of my favourite British film genres, i.e. that of the sordid, sleazy gangster movie, I can't really like it. Compared to pictures such as The Good Die Young (1954), Villain (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980), Get Carter! (1971) and The Frightened City (1961), it lacks any psychological interest, and has no characters in whom one can invest even the slightest sympathy.
Another thing that doesn't help is that the leading man is the snake-eyed Stanley Baker, whose talents didn't include charm or likability. But perhaps the nastiest thing about Robbery is that it's based upon the so-called "Great" British Train Robbery of 1963, in which the train driver was very badly beaten up, which may well have contributed to his premature death a few years later. The film gives his fictional character no sympathy at all.
Moral considerations apart, Robbery is also shot in the ugliest, flattest colour I've ever seen in a modern-era film, and it feels like the longest 110-minute film ever made. I give it 6/10 for historical interest only.
The Postman (1997)
This postman didn't even get to ring once
Post-apocalypse films aren't generally my cup of tea, and Kevin Costner would be more likable if he didn't obviously like himself so much. However, the critical and public loathing of The Postman was more an example of runaway group-think than a sensible reaction to an over-inflated but perfectly watchable family picture with a positive message about co-operation and opposition to fascism.
There are several highly implausible plot points, especially towards the end, and a somewhat naive, let's-all-be-nice-to-each-other Hollywood idealism that neglects all the tough questions about how human beings can get along together. But in a time when so many films seem to be made for an audience of heartless morons, The Postman should be cut some slack for being a well-made film, with a strong story-line, that you can watch with your children and/or parents without embarrassment. There's no crude humour, hardly any bad language, virtually no sex, and the fairly modest amount of violence is not presented in such a way as to invite us to enjoy it.
The only big thing wrong with The Postman is that it isn't anything like as good a film, given its intriguing premise, as it might have been. Unfortunately, it came along at a time when it was parrot-fashion to ridicule anything Costner might do (and, to be fair to the critics, he brought some of that on himself). The film was already being savaged long before it was finished, so this Postman never had the chance to ring once, never mind twice. Watch it with an open mind, and you'll see it really isn't so very bad at all.
Freaky Friday (1976)
Good family fun in the old Disney style, but much older than that!
It may interest some readers to know that this story of a parent/child identity swap originates with the British comic author F Anstey's novel Vice Versa, published in 1882, and there have been at least 10 film and TV versions of it (probably more), going back as far as 1916, under various titles. It's a pretty decent time-passer for a Sunday afternoon, and suitable for all the family to watch together, but I think Jodie Foster's role was slightly too sexualised. To be fair, back in 1976 we weren't quite as sensitive to that kind of thing as we are today. For example, Foster's 1978 film Pretty Baby would, quite rightly, never get a release today. However, Freaky Friday is generally good, old-fashioned family fare.
Sucks the blood out of a great series
I'm a great fan of the Sherlock Holmes stories and the Granada TV series starring the magnificent Jeremy Brett, but The Last Vampyre is among the worst Holmes adaptations ever made. The story has almost nothing to do with Conan Doyle's The Sussex Vampire, and Holmes just doesn't belong in a Hammer-type supernatural setting. His milieu was the real, material world of late-Victorian London, to which he could apply his supremely rational mind. Also, in a long career of strange roles, Roy Marsden never played a less plausible role than he does here. On another tack, it's sad to see Jeremy Brett looking as ill as he does here - he could almost pass for a vampire himself. It might have been kinder to retire the series and the star a year or two before this unworthy addition to series was made.
A Few Good Men (1992)
A right-wing film that left-wingers can love!
A Few Good Men is unusually morally complicated for a military drama, because it doesn't make the usual choices for you. While the act that drives the plot - the unintentional killing of an inadequate US Marine by two of his comrades, who intended only to discipline him roughly for informing on another comrade's misconduct - is obviously wrong, we are clearly shown that the soldiers on trial, underprivileged members of the American working class, are decent and honourable men.
Defending his subordinates against US Navy lawyers Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, Colonel Jessup (Jack Nicholson) is a macho monster whose religion is the Marines' book of rules (and some rules of his own), but his business in life at Guantamano is, essentially, the protection of other people's lives. By the superbly dramatic end of the film, we're really not sure whether he's the hero or the villain.
Like it or not, Western liberals and lefties like myself have to recognise that all our rights and freedoms depend on people who volunteer to put themselves in the way of harm, even if we don't always agree with the causes and campaigns that they're ordered to serve in. To deny that would put you in the position of those who, in the words of Rudyard Kipling's poem, enjoy "making mock of uniforms that guard you while you sleep".
Well, that's how I feel about this highly enjoyable and superbly scripted piece of film entertainment. Put it this way: whom would you rather have defending your home and family - the US Marines, or brigades of arts and humanities graduates such as myself? Before I go, though, let me point out an enormous hole in the plot: in real life, an officer in Colonel Jessup's position would have ordered the victim, Santiago, to be discharged from the services as unfit for duty long before the story even got started. The Marines don't want 4Fs, do they? But then there wouldn't have been a film ...
The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947)
A delightful, warm-hearted ghost story
Although I don't generally care for Rex Harrison's films - his typical role is that of a slick, sophisticated, superficial snob* - in The Ghost and Mrs Muir he projects a very engaging, masculine warmth and heart as the ghostly mariner, attractive to women and likable to men. He does it so well that I wish he'd done more work of the same kind, instead of swanning around in Mayfair drawing-rooms on stage and screen. Gene Tierney is infinitely lovable and vulnerable as Mrs Muir, and George Sanders is as delightfully devilish as ever (he played the same role all his life) in playing her lover. It's a pity that Hollywood seems to have lost its knack for warm-hearted, good-humoured ghost stories like this since the 1950s.
*Noel Coward, author of Harrison's greatest success, Blithe Spirit, once told him: "If you weren't the best light-comedy actor of your time, you'd be fit for nothing but selling second-hand Rolls-Royce cars in Curzon Street."** ** For the benefit of readers outside Britain, I should explain that this is an extremely high-class commercial street in the West End of London, formerly the centre of the up-market end of the used-car trade.
Murder by Decree (1979)
Murder By Decree falls into that interesting category of "Bad but good" films - bad because the allegedly non-fictional storyline is nonsense from beginning to end, but good because it makes convincing viewing as long as one doesn't worry about the facts. Production values are very high for a made-for-TV film, and Christopher Plummer (a minor-league film star who had a really wooden screen presence) and James Mason (a true star who never had as many big roles as he deserved) are pitch-perfect as Holmes and Watson. The later film From Hell, starring Johnny Depp, follows the same plot, but with less excuse, because by the time From Hell was made, the book by Stephen Knight on which both films were based had long been exposed as a fraud. Murder By Decree is a much more stylish and more tasteful film. Silly, but great fun!
Longer than the Roman Empire!
Having looked up this film on IMDb simply because it's on British TV tonight, I'm slightly surprised to see it so highly rated, and that it has so many fans. I don't think it's an altogether bad film, just a touch lifeless, solemn and far too long. As everyone knows, it died like a dog at the box-office, which I think was partly due to its enormous advance hype, which hardly any film could hope to live up to. Taylor and Burton were wonderful stars, but not wonderful actors, and this story needs actors to make the best of what scholars agree was not one of Shakespeare's greatest hits. It's an interesting might-have-been to imagine what it might have been like with, say, Anthony Quayle and Vanessa Redgrave in the leads. As for Rex Harrison as Caesar, that had to be one of the worst casting decisions of all time: sexy Rexy was born to utter brittle wisecracks in Mayfair drawing-room comedies, and not much else. Noel Coward told him that if he wasn't such a superb light-romantic leading man, he'd be good for nothing but being a showroom salesman for expensive second-hand cars. There's far more entertainment to be had from the parody Carry On Cleo - and in terms of historical accuracy, that film's not much worse than the original!
Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994)
Too faithful for its own good
Like its near-contemporary Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992), Mary Shelley's Frankenstein achieves the impressive feat of being every bit as dull as its source novel. It may well be the most faithful/least unfaithful version ever filmed (which isn't saying much), but what it's faithful to, in mood and spirit if not always in detail, is one of the dreariest examples of the unreadably dreary Gothic novels of the early 19th century. It aims at seriousness, but reaches only a solemn kind of silliness; lacking any sense of the ridiculous, it often stumbles into unintentional hilarity. Long-winded dialogue, eccentric casting and pedestrian cinematography - there isn't a single shot that would make a still worth framing - all contribute their lifeless parts to a monster that should never have been made. The unpretentious but supremely cinematic Universal Frankensteins of the 1930s and 1940s offer much more entertainment, not to mention art and even poetry, than this crashing bore of a film.
Killer's Kiss (1955)
You can type it, but you can't speak it ...
Although I prefer Stanley Kubrick's earlier films to his later ones, I can't help noticing that hardly anyone has remarked upon the dialogue and narration in Killer's Kiss, and how cripplingly bad they are. Even allowing for the limitations of amateur and semi-professional actors, and the fact that every word was dubbed in post-production, each stilted and leaden line just lies there and dies there. As Harrison Ford said to George Lucas about the script for Star Wars, "You can type this stuff, but actors can't speak it". It's amazing that only a year later Kubrick's best film, The Killing, crackled and fizzed with sheer verbal electricity. Killer's Kiss is for die-hard Kubrick fans only, I think - just like Eyes Wide Shut ...
Brute Force (1947)
Time sure passes slowly in prison!
Everyone seems to have covered most of the bases on this one, but I'd like to add that Brute Force, despite its many fine qualities, must be the slowest and talkiest prison drama ever made. Whole life sentences seem to pass by without a hint of action, though the three violent set-piece sequences are shockingly well done.
Politically, I can't agree with one erudite and entertaining contributor's claim that it's a Stalinist allegory. Uncle Joe would have packed its makers off to jail themselves for the sin of bourgeois pessimism, not to mention for making a hero of a criminal, a member of the parasitical lumpen-proletariat.
Romantic existentialist gloom is more its line, along with similarly doom-laden and vaguely left-wing period gems such as Gun Crazy (alias Deadly Is The Female) and The Lady From Shanghai. If you want a truly Marxist 1940s film allegory, try Abraham Polonsky's magnificent Force Of Evil, if a film so politically transparent can be called an allegory at all.
I wonder if this defiantly uncommercial film sold many tickets on release? If it was even a minor hit, that would suggest some interesting differences between 1947's audiences and today's.
The Water Engine (1992)
The Real Con
Essential viewing for those of us who like David Mamet's highly stylised dialogue and his always watchable cast of regulars, but it's a shame that someone as sharp as he is, and an expert on con games too, should appear to endorse the apparently undying folk myth of the man (there have been several of them) who invents an engine that runs on water but is suppressed by big business. A film that accepted the falsity of free energy/perpetual motion claims and the villainy of the people who promote them - at least one free energy salesman is probably robbing the local farmers of their savings in a Midwest church hall right now - would have been a really ripe subject for Mamet, and a more satisfying film.