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Acid Rain (1998)
I got to hear about this film entirely by accident after seeing that Valerie Singleton played a homeless woman in it. After some research, it turns out it wasn't the Blue Peter presenter, wrongly attributed (and now corrected) but someone with the same, fairly unique, name.
But the questions didn't stop there. Even just simple ones like "why is this film called Acid Rain when acid rain is never mentioned at any point in the movie?" ring out.
It's hard, and unfair, to judge a no-budget film against the work of professionals. The sound in Acid Rain is often quite poor, with loud music drowning out some of the dialogue, and many of the absurdist elements of the plot are lampooned in a pretty amusing review on Something Awful.
Yet there's no denying the ambition of the director. Spanning over many areas of New York, he takes viewers through the underworld via forests, trains, clubs and alleyways, and with almost 100 credited performers.
Now, some of those performers are street artists, filling out the runtime, and many of the other actors give performances that can charitably be described as "amateurish". But despite all this, there's a certain kind of charming ineptitude to the whole thing, a dedication to its own often muddled story that doesn't so much end as peter out.
There's a nurse going around stealing organs for no real reason, and, due to the low budget, any street scenes see passersby look into the camera, but it's hard to fault the willingness of director-writer-producer-actor Albert Johnson in daring to TRY.
The Emily Atack Show (2020)
"It's better to have laughed and lost, than never laughed at all."
It's debateable whether anyone would really do that during this show, yet it's actually not as divisive as the IMDb ratings and reviews would make it appear. While all comedy is subjective, this does reach semi-mediocrity more than it reaches either the many "10s" or the enormous amount of "1s" it's attracted.
Naturally, most of the positive reviews come from people from Emily's own demographic (a young, sexually active woman in her early 30s) and most of the negative ones come from men. While the overall ratings suggest a lot of women weren't too keen, either, this isn't a surprise as what Emily does isn't so much traditional jokes or observational comedy, as "relatable humour". To some, hearing just HOW sexually active she is might be a little shocking, but to her, and girls like her, it's something they can laugh at in recognition.
As someone relatively young, then Emily's observations on life, whether written by herself or one of her team of nine writers, aren't particular wide-reaching. This isn't a series that's going to get into life, death, politics and reality, but instead never strays too far from sex, drink and willies, no matter which of the six "themes" she's talking about that week. A lot of her stand up has been cited as the weakest part of the show, but it's undermined by frenetic editing which doesn't say on a single shot for more than a couple of seconds, and what sounds like amplified laughter at best, or, at worst, canned. Keeping the camera still and letting gentle titters play out may have been more honest, but gone against the "high energy" vibe she painstakingly tries to cultivate.
Sketches are hit and miss... a Keith Lemon impression doesn't really come off, and as it's a fictional character in the first place, how can you spoof a spoof? Better is Emily as Holly Willoughby or Gemma Collins, sketches which amuse even without knowing who she's taking off. There are also some decent looks at office life, including a skit in the last episode where girls get engaged for social media approval. However, it's a rare foray into something truly insightful, if only still on the shallowest of levels.
The show's probably a little below-par, but gets an average rating here thanks to Atack's enthusiasm and personability. It's definitely not meant for everyone, as the conversation strays into territories that many won't be comfortable with. Emily talking about all the one night stands she's had, or outing one of her own friends as the recipient of anal sex in front of a national audience are the kind of things that a great deal of people will, understandably, cringe at. But as an overall show, it's... reasonable.
"There's a cold war... cold as ice."
Dialogue was never Christopher Nolan's strong suit as a film maker, but it sinks well below standard here. That a man who has been making movies for over two decades would think lines like the title quote are acceptable is staggering.
But it's not just corny, cheesy lines that are the issue... a complicated (yet not complex) film, Tenet exists on almost 100% exposition. The cast deserved better, as the film, between car chases and gunfights, is basically two-and-a-half hours of John David Washington being told the plot.
There are some good performances, with Kenneth Brannagh almost completely submerged in his character, but the characters are little more than ciphers to facilitate the plot. In this sense it's not dissimilar to Nolan's previous effort, Dunkirk, the technical side of things taking precedence over any real emotion or human psychology.
In all honesty Nolan, once quite a talented filmmaker, had been going off the boil for some time. Whether it was Batman getting his spine punched back into place or Blade Runner's iconography being mined for the astonishingly overrated Inception, the wheels were clearly beginning to fall off.
Tenet plays out like an Alice Through The Looking Glass for Top Gear fans, and despite multiple reviews on the IMDb suggesting it needs to be watched at least twice, many of the "twists" are ones that most viewers would see coming an inverse mile away.
"Forever... and ever... and ever and ever and ever...."
That is how long Hamilton can seem at points... there's a theory that Jean-Paul Sartre said that "Hell is other people" only because he'd never seen musical theatre. But any take on the material is, by definition, subjective - the performers are all strong and professional, even if giving one with a prominent lisp lines like "I came to say congratulations" borders on cruelty.
Personal choices don't come into this, though a lot of the material does sound quite "samey". It's notable that the bits that really break away from the somewhat repetitive songs are with Thomas Jefferson and, particularly, King George. King George's songs are a welcome break from the same general rhythms, and the crowd respond very well to his campy character, though others may find it all a bit too twee and prefer the regular songs.
Very much a film for 2020, the interesting thing about Hamilton is what it says for the IMDb Top 250, given that it looks almost certain to remain in the chart by the year's end. The IMDb Top 250 isn't that bad for a mainstream site with a disproportionate male/US/youthful membership. A place where Citizen Kane isn't as good as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Rashomon has yet to reach the artistic heights of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, sure, but there's some decent stuff in there. There's also a lot worse films in the chart than Hamilton, with efforts like American History X, Klaus, Rang De Basanti, and, yes, Avengers: Endgame that are throwaway mediocrities at best, risible junk at worst.
But as a work of CINEMA, then this is the filming of a stage show. A very well shot and choreographed stage show, for sure, but a stage show nonetheless. Should the filming of stage shows enter the same "inapplicable" ruling that now governs shorts and documentaries? As this ruling also extends to TV movies, it means we're living in an age where a stage play can get in the IMDb chart, but efforts like Threads (1984) and Cathy Come Home (1966) aren't allowed.
Quite informative, historically, this is a film you'll either like or won't, down to personal taste - are you the sort of person who likes to watch two-and-a-half hours of musical theatre, or not? But whether this musical theatre should be awarded when transferred to a different medium is another matter entirely.
The Untouchables (1987)
"I just happened to be there when the wheel went round."
The Untouchables has aged very badly... so badly, in fact, that Sean Connery as an Irishman is now the least chucklesome thing about it.
Containing one of the most jarringly inappropriate soundtracks ever, the incredibly 80s incidental music stands out against the 1930s-set plot. DePalma's best film is obviously Scarface, perhaps closely followed by the cult Phantom of the Paradise. But while Scarface introduced the world to a shouty version of Al Pacino that never went away thereafter, here "full scale" performances are replaced by pure ham, DeNiro included. Astonishingly Ennio Morricone was behind the music, suggesting that everyone involved had a bad day.
Oddly, there's never really any sense of danger in amongst the glib humour and very sanitised, Hollywood vision of the prohibition wars. Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness never really seems in any particular danger, and any detective work seems done via the easiest route possible. Ness wants to make some arrests, or shoot the bad guys? He does it, then on to the next scene. There's no real setbacks (other than the deaths of two of the Untouchables, obviously, though it's a little hard to take those parts seriously when Connery lives on for several minutes after being shot at least a dozen times by a machine gun).
Writer David Mamet was involved with three other movies starring DeNiro, with We're No Angels, Wag The Dog and Ronin on his ledger, all of which range from mediocre to pretty good. This was also DeNiro's fourth film with DePalma, after three little-seen movies in the late 60s/early 70s. Both had better collaborations elsewhere.
It's obvious that DePalma was stylistically trying to evoke westerns and noir, but having a stylistic conceit doesn't make it workable, whether intended or not... or maybe it's just that it's hard to take a gangster movie seriously when there's a wailing 80s sax behind it. A film like this needed to be gritty and realistic, not glossy homages to Eisenstein while what sounds like the theme tune to My Two Dads plays in the background.
The Untouchables, largely based on a series of fabricated situations, isn't a BAD film. But neither is it a particularly good one, either.
Die Büchse der Pandora (1929)
A film that suffered unfairly at the hands of critics... twice.
Pandora's Box isn't exactly a forgotten film, but did miss a place in the then fairly well-known 1988 book "John Kobal Presents the Top 100 Movies". As discussed in a review of 1954's Senso (q.v.), then the book saw Kobal using flawed maths to add up the poll results of 81 critics, leading to multiple mistakes. Not only did some films make the list that shouldn't have, but some films that did qualify were overlooked.
Every placing from 96th place to 100th could have been filled by any number of films that tied with 10 points each, from The 400 Blows to The Night of the Hunter and The Colour of Pomegranates. Perhaps due to the nature of the book, it's understandable that "ties" weren't allowed, and that 11 qualifying entries were omitted.
However, much more striking is that five films which should have been well within the top 100 weren't included at all: War and Peace, My Night With Maude, Day For Night and M all should have appeared when the scores are added correctly. The biggest omission, though, was Pandora's Box, which would have ranked the highest of them all, thanks to votes from Freddy Buache, David Sylvester and Deborah Young. In actual fact, it should have tied for joint 57th place, along with Nights of Cabiria, The Thief of Bagdad and To Be or Not to Be (the latter of which was placed 90th).
Has this omission harmed its standing? Maybe, maybe not. It would have helped keep the film in the public eye a little longer, certainly. With the image of Louise Brooks now perhaps more famous than the film itself, it has recently been included in modern works such as Hugo (2011) and Blue Is The Warmest Colour (2013). Although critically slated at the time and reappraised in the 1950s, it has yet to enter the Sight and Sound critics' list, so its correct inclusion in the book would have helped to bolster its reputation.
It's also a film that can be a little impenetrable for mainstream audiences. Commendably the film opts for a more naturalistic acting style, comparatively speaking, than the majority of silents. However, this more internalised, introspective method does make the film seem distant, the lack of sound a barrier.
Appreciation of the film is greatly aided by the commentary track of Film Studies Professors Thomas Elsaesser and Mary Ann Doane, who offer a detailed reading of the performance codings, directorial choices and inherent subtexts. The ambiguity of the film sees the commentators disagree on certain points, most notably on three separate occasions, which shows that interpretation is open. The Criterion release also contains four separate, optional scores, illustrating how mood can be changed depending on stimulus.
Also on the release are several extra features, including the 1998 Louise Brooks documentary "Looking for Lulu", and 1984's "Lulu In Berlin", which includes an interview with the actress herself. Considering the film takes on such heavy themes as murder, gambling, lesbian affairs, Jack the Ripper and prostitution, then it can perhaps still be a little remote when watched over 90 years on. Yet it remains a worthwhile piece, one worth exploring in more depth.
A baffling movie...
I use the term "baffling" not to describe a sense of confusion with the would-be labyrinthine plot, but bafflement at what the film was actually trying to achieve.
Elsewhere it's described as a picture for "thinking people", as if this is some cerebral showcase that only a niche audience would be able to comprehend. Yet it contains "twists" so heavily signposted and telegraphed that the (mis)assumption is that the characters are aware of this, and are playing some elaborate game with assumed identities, where pretending to be fooled is part of the set up.
The first twist with Caine's "death" is fine, a nice mix of straight intrigue and perverse theatricality... the unhinged, left-field acting choices of Caine, and, particularly, Olivier, something of a delight. But then it begins to all get a little strange. Caine comes back, disguised as a policeman, and Oliver is terrified of the prospect.
Now, Michael Caine is a fine actor, but a chameleon he is not - most notably in, say, 1997's Mandela and De Klerk - so only the truly incredulous would see the bald cap and cod accent of "Inspector Doppler" and NOT immediately realise it's Michael Caine dressed up. Yet somehow Oliver goes along with this transparent, obvious charade - and a later one where Caine "talks to two policemen at the door" - to the extent that the camp shenanigans seem like a game both men are playing. And not a "game" as in the game of masculine pride that is really going on, but some kind of game where two lovers are assuming roles, and going along with each others' incredibly transparent "tricks" in order to continue the fun.
When you realise that not only are they supposed to be genuinely fooled, but that also people see this bit of frivolous nonsense as an intellectual exercise, you realise that this is an "intelligent" film for people who don't actually know what an intelligent film actually is.
It's not, I would argue, one for a "thinking person", it's one where you have to switch your mind off, and just go along with an incredibly unlikely journey of two fine actors elevating shaky material. It's good stuff, as indicated by my (slightly too generous) rating, but ultimately hollow.
One last point of trivia, which had no bearing on my overall mark, but does bear mentioning - there are a great number of continuity clashes and errors in the film, with various hand placements/objects differing from shot to shot. Many of them have already been captured in the IMDb's "goofs" section, though I was planning to add more, before I realised what an exhausting prospect this would be, as there are so many. However, of special note is Caine - as Inspector Doppler, his back to the camera, with his hand raised with a pen in it to take notes - talking to Oliver on the stairs. It cuts to a shot with the side view of Caine, where his arms are at his side, and then raise to begin to take said notes... just one of many clashes of continuity that pepper an enticing, yet slight, two-hander. Or, as you may have it, a movie for "thinking people"... like many of the "twists" in the film, it's all a matter of perception.
The Harder They Come (1972)
Perception vs. Reality - ether way, a fine film
The Harder They Come was shown four times on the BBC, the first back in 1994 as part of Alex Cox's excellent MovieDrome series. I first caught it when it was shown in August 2002, to celebrate 40 years of Jamaican independence. Revisiting it 17 years later makes me realise just how a movie can change depending on editing and your own personal perception.
The IMDb lists some cuts to the DVD version, including removal of frontal nudity, a dinner scene, some more bicycle fixing, and Ivan watching Jimmy Cagney in the cinema. Yet it was more than that. The version seen on DVD presents an egomaniac who just wants notoriety, but I remembered the film as him being more sympathetic, and pushed into a life of crime against his will.
It seems as if this isn't a misremembering on my part, as reviewer Atunik posted that "the original revolutionary message of the movie has been hacked out and distorted, and the hero has been turned into an unsympathetic criminal. Scenes are missing and some altered, and the feeling of the film has gone from Robin Hood (protector of the poor and driven to violence by severe oppression) to Bonnie and Clyde (natural born criminals with no regard for human life)."
However, it's not just this unfortunate reframing of events that caused a new experience, but possibly also my own initial interpretation of the movie. It ends in a gunfight where Ivan is killed, as audience members in a cinema laugh and cheer. While I had recalled (possibly mistakenly) that they actually see him on the cinema screen, that isn't in the DVD version, instead it cuts between Ivan and the audience as two separate entities.
A reading of plot summaries suggests that the audience is all in Ivan's head, his self-aggrandising imaginings. While such an ending is worthwhile, I had originally interpreted it much differently. I had thought that the film had ended up as a film-within-a-film, a moment of meta content in a movie that, while ambitious, wouldn't be expected to feature such high concept conceits. That one man's struggle to stay alive under hardship features in another reality where his death is just meaningless entertainment. It seems my own misreading of the film, all those years ago, produced a version in my mind that was arguably better than the real thing.
Despite all this, it's still a very strong film, the opening parts shot almost in a Cinéma vérité (French for "we haven't got much money so passersby look into the camera") style, and the concept of a mass murderer becoming a lauded public figure is a deeply interesting piece of social commentary.
Beautiful and enticing
A beautifully-shot historical piece that takes a full operatic look at a doomed romance. Visually it's wonderful to look at, so it's something of a shame that so many of the main cast, including the leading man, weren't actually Italian and had to be dubbed. The poor lip synching on display does slightly detract, even if, like me, you're spending at least some of the runtime reading the subtitles and so not focusing on the mismatched mouths.
Despite all this, it emerges as a fine dramatic film with much drama and a compelling narrative. Included in the 1988 critical work "John Kobal Presents the Top 100 Movies" (as also discussed in the 1927 version of Napoleon, q.v.) it benefited from poor maths being used to work out the final ranking.
Compiling the poll results from 81 critics, a study of the scoring involved shows that many films were scored incorrectly when the book was compiled, with less than a quarter actually in the right order. Three films - Earth, The Far Country and A Matter of Life and Death - while fine pictures, shouldn't have actually appeared in the Top 100 at all. Senso's 63rd placing isn't actually too far off its actual joint 65th ranking, if the scores were to be added correctly, and it's a fine addition to a striking collection of films.
3 Idiots (2009)
All is well...?
The prospect of a knockabout comedy that lasts for over 160 minutes isn't an enticing one, but luckily the title "3 Idiots" is something of a misnomer. There's some broad humour, "comedy" characters and lots of scatological references, but also depictions of suicide and reflections on the human condition. Western audiences may find this tonal inconsistency hard to take, as an onscreen suicide by hanging is followed by one of many songs.
The fifth Aamir Khan movie I've seen, he's an always likeable and engaging presence, but one criticism is that his characters never seem realistically flawed (Save for Dangal). Always the wisest person in the room, his "think outside the box" method of living embodies many of his portrayals and his passing of philosophy to his fellow students borders on preaching. Khan has the likeability and charisma to pull this off and prevent it from being too cloying, but in a movie where he becomes a famous scientist, redevises an entire system of learning and delivers a baby, it's something of a surprise to see him near a mass of water at the end of the movie and not start walking on it.
Currently on Netflix in the UK, there is some issue with the meaning of words and phrases being changed when translated: I know enough to realise that the subtitled "ass" said around an hour into the movie is really "dog", but I wasn't aware that balatkar (rape) was said throughout the doctored speech scene, with it changed to a more benign "screwed" for the UK audience. An interesting article on how the difference in ratings between men and women could be divided (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/what-if-online-movie-ratings-werent-based-almost-entirely-on-what-men-think/) shows that this film would be over a hundred places lower if only the votes from women were taken. All, it seems, is not well.
Napoléon vu par Abel Gance (1927)
Worth the investment
Films like Napoleon are ones that take dedication to see, given their nature. With many alternate versions available, although officially listed on the IMDb as 4 hours, the version currently available on the BFI Channel runs to 5-and-a-half hours, even with onscreen acknowledgement that one scene is missing.
An epic work that shows the various machinations of fate that placed Napoleon into various positions and kept him alive against the odds, many of the scenarios are signified with the bracketed term "historical" to illustrate that they reference real words or descriptions recorded at the time. Perhaps the weakest section comes in Act 3, which focuses on Napoleon's relationship with Josephine, and contains a drop in "historical" notifications, settling instead for speculation and a greater focus on whimsy that the rest of the film only flirts with.
Many films such as these were perhaps brought to the attention of mainstream audiences with books like 1988's "John Kobal Presents the Top 100 Movies". 81 film critics and film makers were polled for their 10 favourite pictures, and then the final 100 (or 103, as some entries had more than one film counted, such as the Apu Trilogy) were drawn up from the answers.
Such a work naturally contains some films which are dated past the point of pure subjective enjoyment, and must be regarded as historical documents in their own right; admired, if not quite enjoyed, for the artistry of film alone. Yet others still have the power to compel, and Napoleon - a silent film experience lasting 331 minutes - surprisingly leans towards the latter camp.
Ranked 52nd in the Kobal book, its release date in cinema came just under 106 years after Napoleon's real-life death. At date of writing it's almost 93 years since that release date, meaning the film is almost as much of an historical document today as the events depicted were then. Accordingly, for every innovation the film possesses, it has to be worked at, where the silent nature doesn't perhaps lend artistic merit to a film that relies on dialogue but is unable to voice it. This is not a detraction of silent cinema, just the suggestion that the silent experience wasn't the best technical method for this particular entry. Thankfully it's also visually spectacular, and surprisingly brisk considering the runtime.
Perhaps the only real detraction comes with the finale. While it is indeed impressive, and experiments with a three screen experience, it also brings with it the realisation that the film will end in 1797, some 18 years before Napoleon would meet his Waterloo. Reputedly director Abel Gance had intended for it to be the first of six films on the subject, and, while visually intoxicating, as the stand alone film that it became, it can feel a little like viewers are narratively short-changed if they don't know what to expect.
The disadvantage such films have in being relatively obscure to mainstream cinema goers is that they're unlikely to ever see the IMDb's Top 250 as they fall foul of the rule whereby films require a minimum of 25,000 votes to be eligible for inclusion. At date of writing 25 of the Kobal movies are in the Top 250, and others have entered in previous years, meaning that 51 of them have seen the Top 250 over the years. In fact, it appears that only nine currently eligible films - including Hiroshima Mon Amour - have yet to receive the honour.
Altogether 40 of the films have yet to reach the 25,000 vote limit, though intriguingly the highly-rated La Règle du Jeu is on the verge of eligibility, being just 81 votes shy of the vote minimum. Napoleon, sadly, will take many more years before it can achieve such a feat. Although highly rated as 8.1/10, it's still still a good 18,500 votes away from being able to compete for that target.
American History X (1998)
Likeable albeit thoroughly preposterous nonsense that somehow sits in the IMDb top 40 ahead of titles like Modern Times, Bicycle Thieves and Rashomon.
Edward Norton plays a white supremacist who learns love and acceptance of black people after going to jail and befriending a black guy who tells him jokes. He then realises that white supremacists aren't all they're cracked up to be after they rape him in the prison showers... something he later claims he's "glad" happened.
The film eventually enters an ever higher point of absurdism, as overblown, showstopping music - the kind only an American studio would think was appropriate - fills the screen. Scenes like two brothers tearing down their bedroom decorations of Nazi memorabilia are pat and simplistic, and too "easy". The plot lines take over the movie, and characters change from scene to scene because they're required to, not because of realistic motives. Even a typically eccentric performance by Avery Brooks can't rescue the film from its ludicrous premise.
At date of writing, American History X is rated on the IMDb as the 35th greatest movie of all time, comfortably ahead of Citizen Kane, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now. It's watchable stuff, possibly for all the wrong reasons, but probably shouldn't even be in the top 350, let alone top 35.
A likeable if rarely surprising tale whereby Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) finds himself in a world where the Beatles never existed. Deciding to sing their songs, he becomes the biggest global artist in the world, while his unrequited love looks on.
It hangs on tenuous logic, of course. The Beatles didn't exist in a vacuum, and so their absence from the world would have had presumably more impact than just Oasis being amusingly but somewhat cruelly slated. Certainly the Rolling Stones that still exist in this world would have needed a new second single and different backing vocalists for We Love You. Other things have disappeared from the world, too, such as Coke, cigarettes, and - as this is a Richard Curtis movie - working class people.
But such discussions are immaterial, as this isn't a reflective sci-fi piece, but a "feelgood" romantic comedy that's fairly charming if never particularly anything you didn't expect. Even if you weren't aware that this film was written by Curtis, you'd guess it from the formula that's there... the British film that's sold entirely on its appeal to America; the eccentric parents; the "zany" best friend who has anti-social tendencies but not in any way that's offensive or unpalatable.
Despite being a multicultural film, every character is also an "easy" and "safe" middle class character with zero rough edge; the lead character and his parents three Muslims played by people with Hindu and Sikh backgrounds, and given the name of "Jack", "Jed" and "Sheila". It's a cute film, sometimes cloyingly so, and, apart from one swearword at the end it's one you can comfortably show your grandmother.
The real big issue here is the trailer. For some reason the last few years have gone from trailers being there to... well, trail a movie... and into things that contain enormous, massive spoilers. Some notable recent examples in the "do I even need to go and see it now?" category include Batman vs. Superman, which killed any vague suspense that may have been generated by showing a clearly post-battle duo on good terms; or Stan & Ollie, which showed... well, pretty much the entire film.
It's trailers made by the mindset behind Planet of the Apes having DVD releases with the Statue of Liberty on the front cover, and Yesterday is that most amazing of products - a film that was released with every. single. major. plot. point. shown. in. the. trailer. This reaches such extraordinary, outrageous lengths that plot twists that take place less than TEN MINUTES before the end credits are shown in the trailer.
Presumably the makers assumed that Richard Curtis scripts are so predictable there was nothing to spoil, and, apart from a scene where John Lennon appears as an old man, never shot dead in 1980, it's all very "safe roads" and a fantasy world that never exists... entertaining, but often threatening to drown in its own saccharine. Jack's world may no longer have Coke, but it certainly still has more than enough sugar.
Invitation to the Waltz (1935)
Adequate, reasonably ambitious and... forgettable.
Director Paul Merzbach brings enough scale and spectacle on a budget to justify a slightly above average rating for this film on a purely objective level, even if subjectively it's something of a chore.
I caught this film after buying a boxset for a copy of 1934's "Happy" (see separate review). Titled "British Musicals of the 1930s", Invitation to the Waltz is something of a stretch in that company as it only features one song, right at the end. It does, however, contain music throughout, and some eye-catching double tier sets, even if the story really fails to engage.
It's pointless commenting that a film over 80 years old contains material that seems out of place today, though some of the sexual references are unusually racy for the time, and Lilian Harvey's scenes in blackface are a curiousity because it's not clear (to me at least) how or why she ended up in that condition.
Harvey is allowed to be irritating/funny (delete as applicable) with a "kooky" persona that's unusual for female romantic leads of the period. She's there to charm and allure the viewers, but also show them that an attractive woman can be funny, too.
Occasionally one or two of the guest actors can seem to be behind their lines (Alexander Field as Harvey's onscreen father leaves a few awkward pauses around him, and the Duke's assistant has to work extra hard to remember the financial information he's discussing) but generally all work hard to make this so-so star vehicle work.
Let's Make a Night of It (1937)
"If you had a good song and you could sing a little better, you wouldn't be half bad."
Although Let's Make A Night Of It is a British musical, its three headlining stars were Americans, which perhaps explains why a print of the film reputedly resides in the Library of Congress. The American influence can felt in some of the song numbers, some of which appear to recall Cab Calloway and The Ink Spots.
There are some nice lines, and it's amiable, breezy and fun. The plot, featuring two competing night clubs, is so slight that it doesn't even kick in until over 25 minutes in, and is really just a good-natured excuse to thread a lot of songs together. What's most surprising is that something so inconsequential came from Graham Cutts, a mentor to Hitchcock and director of the controversial 1922 silent Cocaine.
Fred Emney is pretty amusing throughout, even if it's never clear how he got to have an American daughter. There are also some jokes that are surprisingly racy for the time, some corny jokes that are fairly amusing, such as the tale of 288 ("I can't tell you, it's too gross."), a man who gets flattered by flowers, and, in one instance, the N word.
As a "plot" spoiler, then the joining together of two clubs is actually quite innovative, albeit not really explored to its full potential, and the final shots with a band on board a huge sound stage is the kind of thing the film should have done all the way through. However, this is pleasant if unremarkable stuff. The title quote might be quite apt for Claire Luce, and the song quality is variable, but when it's "on", it's... okay.
Cradle of Fear (2001)
It's really not fair to judge Cradle of Fear by the same standards as other movies, as the undisclosed budget is clearly minimal, and many of the actors and locations are there as "favours" to the director. Of the actors credited on the IMDb, then 11 of them have three or less acting roles to their name, with five of them having appeared in nothing more than this straight-to-video offering.
A portmanteau movie in the style of the old Amicus pictures, it could maybe have worked if it was intentionally tongue-in-cheek. (Possibly it is, but the intent is so muddled it's never quite clear). Stuart Laing (Richard in the "sick room" sequence, one of the better segments) is one of the few actors involved to have a developed CV, and it does show. Wikipedia would currently have it that the film is "chiefly of interest to Cradle of Filth fans", though it's far more likely to attract a certain kind of clientele who wish to see TV presenter Emily Booth naked. On this level the film delivers, along with later gratuitous nudity of several anonymous actresses. That the likable but amateurish Booth gives one of the best acting performances in this film says a lot. Many of the cast wander into scenes like members of the public who are reading their lines for the first time.
Direction, continuity and production are all, sadly, quite laughable, including a camera clearly in shot during one of Booth's scenes. Perhaps worst of all is a tinny drum and bass soundtrack which completely works against the supposed mood of the piece, be it horror or sex scenes. Segments might end with a girl getting a bottle unconvincingly shoved into her eye, the blood dripping and splashing over her undulating, bra-clad breasts, or a mutant spider- baby emerging from Booth's bare stomach and spraying blood in the mouth of her friend. Said friend's severed fingers do bring to mind Vyvyan from The Young Ones, and the only reaction this film could seemingly produce is laughter (intentionally or otherwise) or mild titillation. The concept of it somehow working as a horror movie is almost unthinkable.
Café Society (2016)
Passable, inoffensive, forgettable...
Cafe Society marked Woody Allen's first foray into digital filming and became, at $30 million, his most expensive film to date. There are times when the freedom of the digital medium, using a Sony CineAlta F65 camera, really aids his direction, the colour palette particularly well considered. It's decently cast, with Jesse Eisenberg one of the better Allen analogues of recent times, and yet it's just... okay.
Woody Allen making movies that are "just okay" is something to get used to of late. In recent times he'd developed a more extreme stance, whereby one good movie would be followed by a stinker, and he could never seem to put together two decent projects in a row. Since his last good, arguably even great, movie, 2013's Blue Jasmine, Woody has put together three "decent" movies, nearly all of them forgettable, which does suggest that he's settling into even more of a comfort zone.
2016's other big project was his first "television" series, the Amazon Prime six-parter "Crisis In Six Scenes". Allen himself admitted in interviews that he didn't know what he was doing and had regretted taking on the project. Had the series been put together as a film then it would have been his longest movie at around 135 minutes and would have been perhaps not as bad as they say, just, with a kind eye...... "okay".
Cafe Society has occasional new territory, such as Eisenberg remarking on how his former beau (Kirsten Stewart) married his uncle, making her his aunt... a rare discussion of the complications of relations through marriage, something not unlike Ronan Farrow's quips on Twitter suggesting he calls Father's Day "Brother-In-Law Day". There are some flaws, such as Allen's use of voice-over narration... a nostalgic and touching addition to Radio Days, but here intrusive, and often just explaining the plot. The overriding feeling is that the script wasn't quite completed, and he felt the need to bridge the gaps, at one stage even giving us a scene without any audible dialogue.
Ken Stott is an unlikely choice as a Jewish father, and Steve Carrell seems unable to breathe three-dimensionality into an underwritten part as the third cog in a love triangle. This can be excused, given that Carrell was cast on 28th August, 2015, sometime after the filming commenced on 17th August, a time when original actor Bruce Willis had had to leave, officially due to scheduling conflicts. Rather than a below-par performance by his own standards, Carrell can be looked on at helping to save the film at the last minute.
Lastly, amongst all the traditional Allen fixations and conversations that have become incredibly, almost wearyingly familiar over the previous 40+ movies, there's the obsession with jazz. It's a fine line to walk, where the beauty of the music can add class to a film that warrants it, or make a dud seem pretentious. It's also unfortunate that Woody seems obsessed not with its bluesier underside or more experimental areas, but with Dixieland jazz, which is arguably the most trite of its forms.
"Are you dizzy, blood?"
The first two "Hood" films by Noel Clarke were, if not without their problems, genuinely enjoyable and suitably gritty.
Sadly, it seems somewhere in the eight years since Adulthood (6/10), Clarke has lost his way. He went on to write and direct 220.127.116.11., a movie I personally quite liked, but had lukewarm reviews, and then The Anomaly, one of the most shockingly poor sci-fi movies I've ever seen.
In September 2016 Clarke appeared on The One Show, comparing his achievements in cinema against those of Sidney Poitier, seemingly without irony, and therein lies the problem. Whereas the original Kidulthood (7/10) was an ensemble movie, this final chapter acts almost as a vanity vehicle, where Noel's Sam Peel (a relatively minor figure in the first movie) is now the sole focal point. Perhaps the sole lack of vanity not on screen is an opening which features Clarke looking at his pot belly in a gym mirror, surrounded by younger, more fit men.
Clarke's dialogue in the first two movies engaged, even though it often lacked naturalism. This was, after all, a series where the first film had a man shouting out the moral of the story after being hit in the throat by a baseball bat. But the level of "on the nose" dialogue increases here, with clunky lines like "You think you've got power because you've got a hammer? Getting a job... owning your own place... that's power."
"We don't riot because we want to, we riot because we have to" is one of two completely overt references to the 2011 London riots, something which was covered with rather more topicality and a little more subtlety in Plan B's superior 2012 movie Ill Manors. Finally, a girl talking about guys calling each other "pussies" notes "I'd appreciate it if you didn't insult other men by calling them an albeit now accepted colloquial word referring to the female genitalia."
Although the title "Brotherhood" obviously has a wider meaning, Sam gets a literal brother here, a previously-unknown sibling called Royston, played by Daniel Anthony. An underdeveloped part, there solely as a catalyst to propel Sam into some rather OTT and unrealistic "violence", it's a role that goes nowhere.
The humour so rich in the other movies is here absent, with clunky, unconvincing comic dialogue from Henry (Arnold Oceng). Adam Deacon claimed to have had uncredited contributions to the first two movies, and his much-publicised absence from this one is felt. Watching characters talk about crispy creme doughnuts in the middle of otherwise-dramatic scenes make it very believable that Deacon contributed heavily to the previous two entries. Either that or Clarke has completely lost whatever touch he had, delivering up completely unrealistic scenes like Henry deceiving a girlfriend who is the kind of gullible you'd only get in a mainstream sitcom.
What Clarke does next will be interesting to watch, and this film is not without some moments. But as a final part to a series that didn't require one, it's sadly something of a stain on an otherwise engaging film series. Perhaps someone needed to take Noel Clarke to one side and ask him the title quote?
The Black Connection (1974)
"The trouble with her is she don't know a lady when she sees one.. and I am a motherf***in' lady!"
I'm slightly surprised at this movie having a relatively high IMDb score of, to date, 5.5/10 on 61 votes. All film appreciation is subjective, of course, but there's very little that's objectively good about this incredibly amateurish outing. The acting is, almost across the board, abysmal, often hilariously so, the editing is chronic, and the dialogue frequently lousy. ("I'm hurtin', sweet baby, I'm hurtin'
and it ain't for that big beautiful black dong o'yours.")
And yet it's all so much fun. As a bad movie, it never fails to entertain, even though 90% of the plot seems to be people having conversations on telephones and telling each other what's about to happen. Of the lead character, then it's claimed "he has a paranoia about phones", but if that's the case, he's the only one, with 17 phone calls being made over the short 87 minute runtime. Even scenes that don't feature calls include phones placed on restaurant tables, scenes opening with an unheard call being placed down on the receiver, or characters repeatedly talking about how they will/won't make a phone call, a tantalising glimpse of telecommunication-based excitement.
Direction and blocking of scenes is so bad it's unintentionally hilarious. This said, there's a very funny karate scene and a hotel receptionist who almost laughs on camera, so possibly all concerned were in on some great joke. The three leads are also members of Checkmates, Ltd., a group who provide the music. Thankfully they're far better musicians than they are actors, and many of the songs – despite one being named after the film's unfortunate alternate title "Run, N*****, Run" – are very catchy.
I was pleased to complete the credits for this movie on the IMDb, though one omission remains: the writer, or writers. Only a script superviser (sic) is included in the credits, with no screenwriter seemingly given the blame. I did stumble across a blog that had a post purportedly from star Bobby Stevens, who claimed he co-wrote it (not specifying who with) and that with all the behind-the-scenes difficulties they had, it was a wonder the film was made at all. Thank God you succeeded, Bobby, because this atrocious movie is a real gem.
A generous 3/10 for quality, but at least 8/10 for entertainment value.
"What's that for?" "For you!" "Well I don't want it!"
Stanley Lupino seems to be largely forgotten today, or, if remembered at all, more due for his daughter, Ida. Indeed, in February 2016 a commemorative blue plaque, dedicated to both of them, was placed at the house where Ida was born.
Finding information on Stanley is hard. He and his Happy co-star, Laddie Cliff (who went on to appear with him again in Sporting Love and Over She Goes) both died before their 50s, and both of them had film careers that finished before the end of the Second World War. Such a short time frame puts him several generations past being remembered, and it's only due to an afternoon screening of this movie on ITV around the late 1980s that, as a child of the 70s, I'd heard of him at all.
Of Lupino's 13 movies from 1931-1939, none of them have, to date, above 30 votes on the IMDb... five of them haven't even passed the minimum votes benchmark. While eight of his other films have a review on them, proving that he's not without his remaining fans (though the reviews are the work of only two people), a search on the internet reveals astonishingly little about him.
To date, Happy has just a dozen votes, and appears to have only been released on DVD as part of a collection, with the even more obscure "Invitation To The Waltz" on the same disc. 1933 was the year of King Kong and Duck Soup, of Laurel and Hardy and The Invisible Man. In among British output like The Private Life of Henry VIII, this lighthearted, lightweight musical about a down-on-his luck musician seems to be almost completely forgotten.
Discussion of both comedy and song is highly subjective, though the film, based on a play and starring a musical hall comedian, is of a rhythm that may irritate some. Jokes are often so tired it's easy to forget they may have been new once: "I've got a screw loose somewhere" says Frank Brown (Lupino), only to hear the predictable rejoinder of "I've known that for years." An introductory discussion with the director reminds us that light sexism was also very much in vogue: "Adam took a rib from his side, and invented the first talkie - and it's still in use."
Even the decent gags ("I can tell you how to sell twice as much lager [...] fill your glasses right up.") are accompanied by a long pause or reaction shot, there to give the audience time to get over the laughter. It does mean the movie initially drags along in fits and starts, any chucklesome moment then brought to a halt as pure silence fills the screen as a stop gap.
Yet once the romance plot kicks in, the film gets into gear, and there's a certain freshness elsewhere. Lupino and Cliff are two broke songwriters who live in an attic and have physical fights continually (which is where the title quote comes from) and living below them is their older friend, a man who collects geese. But, crucially, there's Lupino. Although the style of humour may be dated, there's a certain kind of charm about him, and with his enthused delivery and slightly effeminate appearance (including what appears to be heavy eye make- up) he's a delight. There's a nicely camp camaraderie between him and Cliff, where they're not afraid to dress each other, hold hands between fights, or Lupino can call him "sweetheart" without batting a mascara'd eye.
Then there are the songs. Despite being at least 25 years since I first saw the film, the title track is so instantly catchy that I had no problem remembering it. There are several idiosyncrasies that add to the charm: the film is set in France, though virtually none of the actors talk in a French accent; and although cast as a romantic singing lead, Lupino is perhaps neither what you'd call a traditional leading man, nor a classical singer. More Formby than Fred Astaire, there's something endearing about him, even several decades after his kind of humour was in fashion.
Although not high art, Frederic Zelnik clearly has ideas beyond "point and shoot" in his direction, and if there's nothing here that hadn't been done before, it's work put together with considerable effort, including dissolves, tracking shots and an animated sequence with the stars in the sky. Such a devotion to the craft of what is really just a throwaway entertainment make it easy to overlook the very occasional boom mike shadows that play over the actors.
For a film of the time, there's also a certain racy quality to some of the humour. The loose plot has Lupino attempting to sell a rich businessman his invention of a car alarm, with the businessman looking at glamour magazines before his arrival. Eventually Lupino hosts the businessman at a large party, pretending it's his own house for show, and some of the various goings on allude to jokes that were close to the line for 1933, even if they sound tame 83 years on. One lady explaining that she and her husband used to live in "Cincinnati" hiccups on alcohol after the first syllable, drawing a shocked response.
With his slightly cocky persona, only a man of Lupino's likable qualities could make it work, and highlights include his geese owner friend's drunken dance at a party, plus Lupino and Cliff having a fight while performing a tap dance routine. Eventually the plot ties together and Lupino marries the businessman's daughter, Cliff marries his own love, and their friend buys two female geese for his two ganders, who understandably hadn't laid any eggs. They all drive off into the sunset, and everyone is, as the song goes, happy.
Blackboard Jumble (1957)
"Hypertension's getting everybody down."
A so-so spoof of the classic Blackboard Jungle that does sadly outstay its welcome even at less than seven minutes.
The problem is that, despite a likable characterisation on the Southern-accented wolf (a rare example of a positive Southern American character in the media), the plot relies on repetition. The wolf goes into a classroom situation with earnest albeit dim-witted intentions, only for the kids to turn the tables and cause him physical harm. Over and over.
A customary racy joke is the wolf's cry when a missile accidentally penetrates him anally, and a suspect joke is the wolf, having been blown up, being transformed into blackface. However, this is thankfully understated compared to other instances in cartoons of the period, such as Bugs Buggy in 1953's "Southern Fried Rabbit".
In all, this isn't a bad short, and the one thing that stands out is how endearing the wolf character is, even if the animation now appears primitive and crude, even for the time. Yet it's a one-joke short that quickly becomes tiring.
Draining and self-congratulatory superhero antics...
Like Guardians of the Galaxy and the two Avengers movies before it, Deadpool shows a worrying amount of smugness, its own self-amusement only equalled by its disregard for the intelligence of the audience. There's not a single one of the "instant reverse" jokes in The Avengers that even a very credulous small child wouldn't see coming, and Deadpool's scatological humour aims for little higher than the lowest (or broadest) common denominator.
It's a crowdpleaser, and not awful, but if fart jokes, genital punching and a plot that resembles a 15-year-old's masturbation fantasies aren't your thing, you may find it all a little wearying. The gags are predictable and relentless... which, in fairness, is kind of the point for "the merc with the mouth", but doesn't make it any less tiresome.
In an age where scarcely any film lacks postmodernism, Deadpool's constant fourth wall breaks seem almost passé. While a reasonable conceit in and of itself, there's nothing particularly intelligent done with it, the fourth wall just used as another vessel for some masturbation gags.
The best jokes in the film - Deadpool frequently commenting on why A-List X-Men don't appear - lose lustre when you realise it's made by Fox and so they could well have. Current voting on the IMDb sees it just inside the top 50 all-time greatest films, comfortably edging out Citizen Kane, M, Rashomon and Taxi Driver.
Plot-wise, then a thug also being the brains behind the bad guy's operation lacks credulity, though this is a film where Stan Lee urges prostitution, so all bets are very much off.
The Lost Man (1969)
"You go to movies a lot?"
Not that often, it seems, as Beverly Todd's minor character Sally Carter claims to have named herself after Dorothy Dandridge and asks Poitier's character if he's a fan. As he starred with Dandridge in Porgy and Bess, Todd never wonders why the man in her bath tub looks just like Sidney Poitier, but it's a nice tribute to Dorothy, who had died just four years previously.
Based on the same source novel as the artistically superior Odd Man Out (1947), this drama sees wholesome Sidney Poitier retooled as conflicted black militant Jason Higgs. Somehow it doesn't quite gel, despite Poitier's considerable thespic skill, as by this stage his general screen persona was too rigidly defined. The upshot is it's a little like watching Lionel Richie sing Fight The Power, or seeing Extremities remade starring Bill - er, well, you get the idea. That said, it's hard to imagine another actor making the character of Higgs so ultimately sympathetic, with his tendency towards reluctant violence.
The film closes the chapter on Poitier's 60s output, just two years on from his commercial peak; only forgettable comedy "For Love Of Ivy" coming between it and him being the biggest draw at the box office. After this, it's largely downhill: patchy Virgil Tibbs sequels, four one-off movies (including the underrated The Wilby Conspiracy), three comedies with Bill Cosby(!) and then retirement. Poitier would of course come back in the 80s for bit parts and then get involved in TV movies... while these comeback films weren't, generally, awful, it's astonishing that both the artistic and commercial appeal of Sidney Poitier could be squandered so drastically.
As a closer to the decade, this isn't a bad one to go out on, possibly scraping in as one of his 15 best movies, if only just. One-time director Robert Alan Aurthur gives a bleak outlook to the exteriors, though the studio work, including the lighting and colour palette, does unfortunately look flat and like the aforementioned TV movies that Sidney would drift into during the 90s. And as excellent a musician as Quincy Jones is, his soundtrack does sometimes seem at odds with the content; or possibly it's just dated in an unappealing way.
Poitier gets some considered lines of dialogue in his lead role, though the near-2 hour runtime is perhaps at least a quarter of an hour overlong, and a romantic subplot with Joanna Shimkus feels artificially grated onto the narrative. Shimkus' involvement is perhaps the most famous element of the picture, as she became Poitier's second wife seven years later. Her input does ultimately lead to a tragic ending, as her love for Poitier's humanised militant elicits an emotional response from the audience, though the more the film turns into a straight thriller, the less vibrant the dialogue.
The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
"A politically committed Indian dentist? That sounds like all the people I can't stand at a cocktail party."
The Wilby Conspiracy is the second of Sidney Poitier's three films about apartheid in South Africa. In 1952 he had appeared under Canada Lee in the slow but rewarding Cry, The Beloved Country. Fast forward to 1997 and he's playing Nelson Mandela to Michael Caine's F.W. de Klerk in a pretty decent TV movie.
It's Caine he stars with here, getting top billing after his career was somewhat resurrected by Uptown Saturday Night. It's an overlooked film, with some great comic chemistry between them and some genuinely witty lines. Stories of how Poitier's Shack Twala was electo tortured in prison are rendered blackly comic by their telling, with Poitier showing more genuine comic flair than he ever did mugging opposite Bill Cosby.
For such serious subjects the film flirts closely with the line between gallows humour and overt comedy, but the wit of the script always keeps it from going overboard. At one point Twala explains how, at school, he discovered Marx and Lenin instead of Mark and Luke and from there "had absolutely no difficulty getting into jail." Handsomely shot with Kenya doubling for South Africa, it's only the rear projection for car/helicopter scenes in Pinewood Studios that detract.
As the film progresses, the events do start to become more fantastical, and it's difficult to know what's more unbelievable about Persis Khambatta's character... her motivation or the Indian incidental music that follows her around wherever she goes. (A rare sex scene for Poitier sees African drums take over, his own music dominating hers as they become entwined). Similarly, Prunella Gee starts out with a very sensible character but ends up being sexualised more and more as the film progresses. Fortunately it manages to pull the whole thing together with a very good series of twists at the end.
Ultimately this well packaged picture is a strong vehicle for Caine- Poitier and deserves to be more than to be a forgotten entry on both men's resumes.
Pressure Point (1962)
Terrific two-hander with Poitier as a prison psychiatrist playing opposite Bobby Darin's Nazi prisoner. Poitier's counsellor doesn't get the opportunity for many flourishes - he takes on the role by wearing glasses, basically - so it's up to Darin to get the showy stuff. While beautifully shot, it does touch towards broad melodrama at various stages.
Like a theatre production, Darin's nameless prisoner gets his childhood flashbacks recreated. At some points we see Darin as a boy on the psychiatrist's couch, then cut to scenes with Darin's mother, lipsynching the words the boy is speaking. There are scenes where he threatens to stab his imaginary friend, and all of the flashbacks occur within flashbacks, as Poitier's character is relating events to Peter Falk in the present day. If all this sounds confusing, then it isn't on screen, where an odd Twilight Zone vibe is disrupted by somewhat melodramatic incidental music. With a more sympathetic score this could have been a more expressionistic movie; as it is, it can be somewhat laboured in intent, the broadness of the Hollywood machine, yet still great despite it.
The climax is somewhat underdeveloped, however, the prisoner's story getting a fixed ending where perhaps none was needed.