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Boris Godunov (1954)
A great performance despite hugely flawed editing, sound.
Modest Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" is the greatest opera ever written, if we don't count Wagner's Ring. Vera Stroyeva's 1954 film of Boris is a stunning account of this stunning work – or it would be if we could get all of it. Despite Amazon's editorial review's assertion that "this is the most complete Boris Godunov ever recorded on film", we're missing over 40% of the opera here. Boris runs about 3 hours. There are 2 versions of the Stroyeva film on DVD, each running about 1 hour, 49 minutes. You do the math.
If telling you the end of a plot as well-known as anything by Shakespeare, not to mention well-known as history, is a "spoiler", then I plead guilty. The people who made the "spoiler" rule are called "terminally stupid".
This is basically the Rimsky-Korsakov botch job, in which Mussorgsky's story is run right off-track by shuffling events and scenes. That would be bad enough, but compensated for by brilliant performances. However, the botch is here followed by the axe. The end of the Prologue (part 1) is chopped off, losing the ending chorus. Act III is butchered terribly, to the point where the viewer might wonder: who's that guy in red robes lurking in the background? In Act V. the Simpleton appears only in Scene 1. Scene 2 (Mussorgsky's original Scene 3), there's no Simpleton and much of the scene – especially Dmitri's appearance – has disappeared. In Scene 3 (Mussorgsky's original Scene 2) the weakness of Rimsky's rewrite is made manifest. In Mussorgsky's mind, Boris was only supporting actor, and the protagonist was (or were) the Russian people. This is why the opera is supposed to end, not with Boris's death, but with the scene in the Kromy forest and the Fool's lament. Amazingly, that is the way it ends after all. After Boris's death – the scene's last few moments are cut – the film goes back to the Kromy forest in what I guess we must call Scene 4. The False Dimitriy appears, the Simpleton bewails the fate of the Russian people, and the opera ends. The split of the Kromy forest scene is disorienting, a sort of compromise between Mussorgsky's intention and Rimsky's meddling, but at least we can more clearly understand the opera's meaning.
What saves this truncated performance is the magnificence of the remains. The orchestra plays with true Slavic verve (not well served by the spotty sound reproduction). The sets appear to be actual locations within Russia, within Moscow even, and the Kromy forest parts are filmed outdoors with a realistic burning city in "Scene 4" of Act V. The cameras take full advantage of the fact that the sets are real Russian buildings, with wonderful filming angles. The lighting is imaginative. The influence of Eisenstein hangs wonderfully and heavily over this production.
The cast is nothing short of miraculous. Aleksandr Pirogi's Boris is stunning: full of passion and humanity (and guilt). The man reduces the scenery to splinters.
The small but pivotal role of Prince Shuisky lives in N. Khanayev. Through much of Russian history, if there's plotting and villainy afoot, there's a Shuisky at the bottom of it. Ivan IV Grozniy fed a couple of them to his dogs, but that wasn't enough apparently. Khanayev fairly radiates nastiness – he steals scenes without even singing. His sly and malevolent glances provide a complete subtext to events. The man is fabulous.
Grigoriy Otropiev, the False Dmitriy (unless he actually was Prince Dmitriy), is played by G, Nellep. Nellep has a ringing Slavic tenor – a heldentenor mellowed by more than a soupcon of Alfredo Kraus. He might be regarded as a bit pudgy for the role, but his performance is so compelling that he quickly looks every inch the part.
A. Krivchanye shines as the venal and cunning Varlaam, a renegade priest who plays both roles superlatively. This is an opera crammed with baritone and bass voices, and Krivchanye is equal to the best of the others.
The Simpleton is portrayed by I. Koslovsky. He has only 2 bits, but they are (like Shuiski's) central to the story and our understanding of it. If you're puzzled by Boris's lack of anger at the Simpleton's spot-on accusations, simpletons or fools are "touched" – and expression we use, which means "touched by god". They were held sacred in Old Russia – just as Court fools in western Europe could go unpunished by saying anything to the King. Koslovsky gives the role a passionate sadness more touching than any dying soprano.
Marina Mnishek is played with wonderful cunning and coquetry by L. Avdeyevna. Aside from great acting and looking the part spot-on, Avdeyevna's voice flows like melted butter and her beauty would launch a thousand ships – warships only.
Remember, at the end, Russians know that the Time of Troubles is well under way. Boris's son, the last of the Rurikids, is quickly assassinated, and "Dmitriy" is crowned in Moscow. He rules well but is challenged by a great flaw: he (or his Jesuit advisors) tries to Catholicize Russia. It's not long before "Dmitriy" is himself assassinated and the country dissolves in civil war. Polish and Swedish forces contend with Russians and each other to secure the throne for this or that candidate. After a few years the Troubles end when Mikhail Romanov becomes Tsar. He and his heirs are the implacable foes of Poland, which is ultimately absorbed in pieces by Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
What a pity this tremendous production of a very great opera has such poor sound and is so badly cut. Even so, sound and awful editing and all, this is at least a 8-star product.
Where's the art? Where's the war?
The "Art of War" franchise has produced 2 good, fun films. Wesley Snipes has been largely responsible for how good they are, but there are also smart script-writers and effective directors involved.
Somehow, the 3rd film has run badly off-track. Since Mr. Snipes isn't in it, my guess is he saw the script in advance (they'd have been fools not to ask him), and gave it a big, big pass. Judging from what we now see on the screen, he was wise to do so.
The subject of the film is, generally, illegal arms trading. Namely, selling a nuke to North Korea. The primary focus is a UN-sponsored meeting on the issue in South Korea. The Secretary-General (a woman, which has not yet happened and may not since none of the Islamic nations, which have a vast, unreasoning fear of women, would vote for her) underplays a pivotal role here, and needed to have appeared a lot more.
Unfortunately, the film treats this subject in a somewhat fuzzy manner that obfuscates the seriousness of the issue. We know that the tyrant of North Korea wants a nuke so badly he can taste it. But my guess is that having it would be a prestige item much more than a threat – the Nuclear Club is a very exclusive one. Using a nuke invites retaliation – and North Korea's infrastructure is so fragile that a single hit – certainly more than 2 – would leave the state unable to manage itself. It can barely manage now. (By contrast, even if Seoul is completely flattened, South Korea would still be viable.) We should mention that the major characters are: Neil Shaw (or Agent #1), played by Anthony Criss (billed as "Treach"); Jason (or Agent #2), played by Warren Derosa; Sung Hi Lee, played by Sung Yi; and the aforementioned Secretary-General, played by Janet Carroll. Criss, who is pushing 49 and doesn't really look it, has had a robust film/TV career and manages to play his role as if he half-way believes it. The dynamic between Criss and Derosa is exactly the same as that between Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith in "Men in Black" – who gets to drive, who gets the big gun, and so on. It would have helped to play this bit for comic relief, but you're not working with first-rate movie-makers here. Sung Hi Lee is an anomalous character who's found with the bad guys early in the film, but then plunges in to cooperate whole-heartedly to help the good guys.
The story is developed through a lot of shooting and fisticuffs and implausible misses by the bad guys, who can't seem to hit the good guys with a hail of bullets. The fights are too obviously staged. The ultimate mystery here is the identity is the main bad guy. Some red herrings are dangled, but on the precedent of previous films it has to be somebody under our noses. Main candidates: Derosa's and Lee's characters. He is always seem to be a squeaky wheel and she, the sweet innocent, turns out to know her way pretty well about kung fu. Of course, since they're so obvious, the bad guy may be someone else entirely. The Secretary General? Kim Jong-il? Wesley Snipes? I'd tell you, in order to spare you having to go through this thing in order to find out, but there would be the usual bad-movie-masochists who will complain I committed the "spoiler" heresy. Hell, this film was spoiled the moment it went onto celluloid.
Some of y'all will just love the senseless violence. For the rest, avoid this turkey. Sayonara, "Art of War" franchise.
Bao hu lu de bi mi (2007)
A gourd to beat them with
This film is a Disney product. It's cutesy, kitschy, full of small
children, and partly animated. The only problem is that it's cutesy to the max, kitschier than "Leave It to Beaver", and the animation!
well, the animation's OK, I guess.
The "Secret of the Magic Gourd" is that it's awful. There certainly isn't any other secret, because what the magic gourd does is telegraphed to you right up front, and the appearance in the narrative is even less of a surprise than the appearance of an E.T. in "E.T.". About the only surprise in the whole thing is that the M.G.'s finger doesn't light up. Imagine the Disney imagineers forgetting that! The gist of S.o.t.M.G. is that there is a Magic Gourd (yeah, OK, so?) and it will grant you your every wish. Gourds are singularly unattractive objects (despite the opinions of deluded people who use them as decorations). Why not a genie? Disney does great genies. But no. We get a yellow gourd with big eyes and an off-side mouth. A yellow gourd that well, here comes the plot.
Raymond Bao is your typical 11-year-old boy. He's Chinese, which makes him statistically typical. He's lazy and not interested in doing what it takes to be successful at whatever school wants him to do. He's heard the story of the Magic Gourd and of course wants to find it. As things turn out, it finds him.
Gourds are, as you will recall, basically hollow. This one is no exception, especially in the upper part, where the brains ought to be. It therefore never thinks wishes through, but grants them very literally, including brainless (of course) speculations as to what "master" really wants.
The results are naturally disastrous. Over and over and over and OVER again. You would certainly think somebody would catch on. The audience ought to right away, but most of reviews of this film seem to indicate a gourd-like quality in the reviewers. The gourd seems to have caught on in the end, sort of. Raymond catches on at last and gets rid of the gourd. He then actually works for a goal (winning a track meet), which of course he does because this is a Disney film. Not for Disney the moral complexity and ambiguity of trying to explain how it's all right to practice your guts out and still not quite make it.
I'm sure some of you are waiting for the other bits like subplots, subtexts, secondary plots, or anything to make this more than a very long 8-minute cartoon. Actually, "Magic Gourd" is even less complex than an 8-minute cartoon. Animated humor for children is most successful when it aims some of its content toward adult viewers. Adults need not apply here.
What we have here is a film that's got a moral point to hammer home, and hammer it does – so much so that even the most retarded 3-year-old will get the point by the time the story's half-way done. This klutzy production has nothing on its um, mind but beating its little viewers about their collective heads with a single point. The lack of variety is positively stultifying. I was riveted to my seat with boredom. Any child with half a brain would be, too – I would hope. Nobody, however immature, should be subjected to this nursery rhyme gone mad.
On the other hand, I can see how children might actually like things like this. The results from our schools indicate that the little troglodytes flee from mental challenges, despise learning, and are generally less attractive than the pre-Gourd Raymond Bao. This sort of explains why, for instance, the study of evolution is so unpopular in intellectually challenged areas such as the inbred South and the Midwest. It's so complicated and hard to understand – like long division. It's so much easier to believe that some Magic Gourd in the sky made everything.
You can, if you wish, inflict this simplistic film on your children, in between episodes of Barney, Yu-Gi-Oh, Sailor Moon, Pokemon, and other mind-rotting fare. At least this thing has a worthwhile moral to hammer them with, assuming they enjoy being hammered.
Babes in Toyland (1954)
The triumph of kitsch!
The year is 1954. Oldsmobile has decided to sponsor a Yule-season special. The subject: Victor Herbert's saccharine musical, "Babes in Toyland". The production starred some very well-known names of the time – names that today are largely (and undeservedly) unknown. TV in those days was of course all-live, no retakes.
The production starred the inimitable Dennis Day as Tommy Tucker. Day, the quintessential Irish tenor, was in the early part of his primary career (1950-1965) as one of Jack Benny's constant on-air foils. Playing a department store Santa Claus, who tells the story to a lost girl, is Dave Garroway. The iconic Garroway made a career as a successful night show host, panelist, special guest, and so on – in other words, an actor who was primarily famous for playing himself. Wally Cox appears as Toymaker Grumio. Cox, mostly famous as "Mister Peepers" was a character actor credited with many appearances on TV although his range was limited by his short stature and fairly high voice. The also-iconic Jack E. Leonard appears as the villain, Silas Barnaby. Leonard was a comic whose insulting shtick was much more abrasive than that of Don Rickles (nowadays better known). Interestingly, his hallmark nastiness doesn't show through very much in his portrayal of Barnaby.
Don't expect to see much of Herbert's original musical here. Two main numbers remain: "Toyland" and "March of the Toy Soldiers". No production of "Babes" is without them. Also a little of Herbert's other music appears here and there. A very bare-bones version of the plot is used as a structural support for a number of very cutesy song-and/or-dance numbers. The result will be a real challenge to your gag reflex.
The greatest fun can be had in watching this somewhat silly effort by watching for mistakes and gaffes. Amazingly, detectable ones are rare.
On the whole this production is overly cute and overly precious, kitschy in the extreme. I can't imagine it went over that well, even in an era that was overall fairly kitschy (pink was then the "new black"). Even the notorious Leonard's performance was less villainous and more "oooooh! I'm soooo baaaad!" I'll wager even the iconically kitschy Sarah Palin would have trouble making it through this steady diet of treacle.
The print is clearer than one might expect, although the black-to-white contrast seems muted. It looks very much like a color film reduced to black/white. And sure enough, at the end of the production, there's an announcement that it's been made by a "color compatible" process. I grew up in that era, and if memory serves, that means that the color can be picked up by your non-color TV as black/white.
So maybe, somewhere, there's a color version of this production? I wonder how much pink would be in it.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Very porlly conceived and executed.
"Marie Antoinette" is the name of a film made in 1938 by the great W.S. Van Dyke (Director), the wonderful Norma Shearer (Marie Antoinette), the brilliant Robert Morley (Louis XVI), the talented Tyrone Power, the inimitable John Barrymore, the imposing Joseph Schildkraut, and others whose names will be forever enshrined in film history for this and other grand achievements.
"Marie Antoinette" is also the name of a film made in 2006 by the uncoordinated Sofia Coppola (Director), the ditzy Kirsten Dunst (Marie Antoinette), the ineffectual Jason Schwarzman (Louis XVI), the unfortunate Rip Torn (who must nave been duped, bribed, or blackmailed), and others who will spend much of their later careers trying to live down the fiasco.
This review is of course about the latter. I can understand why some reviewers actually like the thing. It's a pretty puff piece, a big fluffball of empty calories – cinematic junk food. In this case, it's not super-salty potato chips, but packing peanuts soaked the dregs of a deep-fat fryer. It's hard to resist this sort of toothsome slop – else most of the fast-food traps would be out of business.
The story of Marie Antoinette is a sad one, and in the end she suffered the fate that most members of her class richly deserved. This story needs to be told with empathy and dignity. In this film there is some feeble attempt at the former, but absolutely none of the latter.
The banality of the script is almost iconic, leaping like a starved carnivore from cliché to cliché. Amazingly, the script touches effectively on the point that "Let them eat cake" (literally, "brioche") may not have said by Marie Antoinette at all. In fact the script does a fair job of avoiding historical howlers.
We can at least say that the script gets the acting it deserves – as Dorothy Parker once said of Katharine Hepburn, no less – running "the gamut of emotions from A to B". The most important problem with the script is where it stops.
The connection of Marie Antoinette with the great French Revolution is fundamental. In this film, the Revolution takes place with scarcely any intimation that it's brewing. But the Revolution begins on schedule anyway, but is barely under way when the film ends. Marie Antoinette's life in the first years of the Revolution, and her execution particularly, may as well not have happened so far as this film is concerned. This is even more lame than (for instance) ending the story of Cinderella at the point when she arrives home after running away from the ball. (Of course, I'll bet you that most of any modern audience will sit there gaping, saying to themselves, "I wonder what happened to her after that". Such is the state of modern education.) Indubitably, the lamest part of this "Marie Antoinette" is the musical (if you can call it that) score. It's not merely lame, it's tawdry and terminally stupid. When it's not insipid musak, it's rock. Now, rock music is incapable of any real emotional content whatsoever. It's OK for car chases, fist fights, shoot-outs, tractor pulls, monster trucks, unbridled raunchiness, and other events of more than usual empty mindlessness. It's totally unsuitable for any film that aspires to some degree of quality. The quantity of this stuff is a good indicator of the depths to which the film sinks.
There is a little decent music in the film, every note of it composed during the period of Marie Antoinette's life or before. Even there, the film's penchant for cheap shots shines (if that's the word) through. Recall the several little episodes when Marie Antoinette is awakened and dressed in the morning. The music is Vivaldi's Concerto for Diverse Instruments. Where have we heard that before? Remember "All That Jazz"? This is the music that plays during Roy Scheider's wake-up ritual. "Marie Antoinette" uses some good music to good purpose and even then it's just a cheap rip-off of another film.
I suppose it can be said that "Marie Antoinette" has its good points. The sets and costumes are very bright, cheery, and not inaccurate. On the other hand, the genuine tawdriness of late 18th-Century French fashion serves admirably to set off the equally genuine tawdriness of the film. The same may be said for the complete absence of Voltaire as a character. After all, why bring out philosophy when you can trot out titillating assertions that Marie Antoinette was a slut.
The Gentlemen of Titipu (1973)
One of the worst Sullivan operetta adaptations ever.
I should have known better. I knew "The Gentlemen of Titipu" was animated. But I also knew that the inimitable Anna Russell voiced Katisha. "It can't be all that awful," I told myself.
This DVD is 45 minutes of almost pure drek. First of all, the plot of The Mikado is unnecessarily and stupidly twisted and perverted. Secondly, the presentation is "cute" in the same sense that "Yogi Bear" or "Magilla Gorilla" are "cute". At some points the urge to hurl is almost irresistible. Thirdly, the music (a term I use only out of convention) is so kitchy is to make Sullivan's music almost unrecognizable. Needless to say the musical numbers are jumbled totally out of order, often given new (and greatly inferior) words, and (in two words) utterly unattractive.
Anna Russell might as well not be in this thing. Her lines are mostly stupid (save the infrequent occasions on which Gilbert's words are actually used). She has made her voice so cartoony as to be unrecognizable as hers. Her witty presentation is gone, and what remains sounds as if she was doing a read-through so she could get paid.
Although his thing is clearly intended for children (who are mentally challenged), DO NOT SHOW THIS TO YOUR CHILDREN. OR ANY CHILDREN. OR ANYBODY ELSE, FOR THAT MATTER. It will give them a distorted idea of what Sullivan and Gilbert actually wrote and probably put them off the Savoy operas forever.
This is a terrible production. Its only redeeming feature is the lack of "bad" words. Do yourself a favor ... save your money. Burn any copy of this thing you run across. I'd give it a minus 10 stars if I could.
The Tudors (2007)
Henry VIII in Never Land
Showtime's obviously expensive production of "The Tudors" has got its first season into circulation as a set of DVDs. I have seen some advertising on this, and my first reaction was that any series portraying Henry VIII as a lean man with black hair can't be all good. The truth turns out to be worse. It would take a few days of solid research to plumb the depths of this historically ludicrous series.
The fact of the matter is this: if you expect to learn much about Tudor history, don't turn to this historical travesty. Let's start with the most basic fact: Henry VIII had red hair. This is no deep secret; it is one of the best-known facts in English history. The British have certainly got it right in their TV series how did the people responsible for "The Tudors" miss it? Amazingly, the right actor was right under their noses: Steven Waddington, who played the (3rd) Duke of Buckingham, is not only red-haired, but looks a heck of a lot more like Henry than Rhys Meyers and also has more the right build for the role. Rhys Meyers is certainly a delicious bit of eye candy, and often gets down to at least 1 button below the top of his shorts, but he is far too lithe to be a convincing Henry. Henry's eating habits had already given him something of a paunch by the time he was getting the hots for Anne Boleyn.
Before we continue with the bad news, we can consider the good. First of all, the sets and costumes are very good. True, Rhys Meyers is rather less overdressed than Henry VIII typically was. But overall, the sumptuousness of Tudor dress and architecture is well shown and gives the series a gorgeous look that makes us want to believe there's some attempt here at historical accuracy which there isn't.
The acting in the series is professional if not exactly thrilling. Even Sam Neill, as Cardinal Woolsey (a name various spelt in the sources) seems fairly subdued. It's a good cast just not a great one.
The script is fairly well-written if you can ignore the numerous verbal howlers, usually terms not current in the 16th Century. The worst is probably the reference of the Field of the Cloth of Gold as a "summit". This is a term that had no currency until the later 20th Century and sounds ridiculous in the mouth of Woolsey. There are other solecisms of this sort, but not quite so awful. In general, the patois of the English nobility hasn't got any sort of Shakespearian feel to it, and sounds far too modern. Various epithets, including the "f" word a favorite of the vocabulary-challenged, were unlikely to have been in use almost 600 years ago. We don't at all hear the favorite of the times, "'sblood". It would have helped if the producers had had a competent research department.
Historical dramas of course have to manufacture a lot particularly conversations that took place behind closed doors. Manufacturing lies to replace well-known historical facts, however, is far beyond the Pale. There is the matter of Henry's sister Margaret. Now, as it happens, Henry had 2 sisters: Mary and Margaret. Mary married the King of France and later Charles Brandon by whom she became the grandmother of Queen Jane Grey. Margaret married the King of Scotland and became the mother of James V and grandmother of King James I (and VI). In the Tudors, there is only 1 sister, Margaret, who marries the King of Portugal and then Charles Brandon. There is no excuse for this wanton perversion of historical fact.
At the end of the first season, Woolsey is arrested and conveyed to the Tower, where he commits suicide by slitting his throat. What an absolute insult to history and to the man. Woolsey was indeed arrested, but died of his illnesses before reaching the Tower. As you may know, the Roman Church takes a dim view (to put it mildly) of suicide, and no good Catholic much less a prince of the church, would ever consider it. The version in "The Tudors" is not only a lie, it is a damned lie.
The series goes on like this, casting truth to perdition and lying about the Tudors and their courtiers at every opportunity. The very name of the series is a lie how can it be about "the Tudors" when it ignores Owain Twdwr and barely mentions Henry VII? The rise of the dynasty is a dramatic tale that somehow gets overshadowed by Henry VIII's highjinks. I had hopes, when I first heard that this series was coming out, that it would have the good sense to dramatize the background to Henry VIII's reign. Apparently they would rather ignore the background and lie about the reign.
Well, as long as you realize this is almost a complete fiction, enjoy it. It's a good bit of mindless entertainment, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
The Phantom of the Opera (1991)
A mere phantom of The Phantom
I have always been a collector stamps, books, chess sets, music, and so on, 60-years of it. Current craze is of course DVDs. Collectors generally compulsively hang on to something once they've acquired it even if it turns out to be a piece of drek. You will therefore understand that while it was a wrench I've 86d this little item from my collection. And I'm about to tell you why.
The Phantom of the Opera is, like Dracula or Frankenstein (the monster's correct name since he would have the name of his father), an iconic figure from the lushly Romantic (as opposed to romantic) horror literature of the 19th Century. The Phantom exists in a number of celluloid versions, although inexplicably not so many as the endlessly dreary zombie films. At least, thank the gods, there are no zombie musicals.
The story line of this production pretty much follows (if sketchily) that of the Gaston Leroux novel on which the whole "Phantom" phenomenon is based. There is no need to rehearse this, since those who don't already know it well, what can I say? The music for this production is, at best, kitschy and banal, more or less on a par with the alleged music Disney provides for their teeny-bopper programming. There is only one even remotely good musical number and that is a very bad arrangement of Camille St.Saëns' "Danse Macabre". This accompanies the scène-ballet which follows the Phantom's unmasking. Missing from the production entirely is any hint of the music to the Phantom's grande-oeuvre, "Don Juan Triumphant".
The acting is no better. Indeed, it isn't acting at all; it's mere declamation. I've heard better delivery from used-car commercials.
This is of course a cut-rate production, complete with barely OK sets and obviously plastic prosthetics. Indeed, the Phantom's mask is far more realistic than his alleged disfigurements. We did get a falling chandelier not badly done, actually.
I've seen this billed on some sites as a "musical comedy". It isn't it's a serious if inept performance. We could perhaps regard it as a non-comedic parody. It is certainly a travesty.
I've seen some positive, even enthusiastic reviews for this performance. Well, everybody deserves to be loved by somebody. However, my advice is that you rent this before you even consider buying it.
Nosferatu: Phantom der Nacht (1979)
Clever parody, full of dark humor; hides its true nature well
Werner Herzog is one of those self-proclaimed cinematic geniuses who writes, produces, directs, takes the tickets ... all that. Some years ago he undertook to remake the 1922 silent classic, "Nosferatu". The result is the 1979 flick, "Nosferatu the Vampyre". The last word isn't exactly a misspelling: they often spelled it that way in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. Nowadays it's an affectation, and this little anachronism ought to give us a clue as to the film's (apparent) true intent. This isn't so much a remake as a parody ... it's not "Dracula: Dead and Loving It" (alas), but rather an almost-humorless Teutonic parody. Once you get past the deliberate dead-panning, it's hilarious.
Now, I have no proof of this, other than the evidence (which, of course, is evidence in court). One correspondent assures me that Werner Herzog hasn't got a "parody" bone in his body and that his comments on the DVD version of the film don't begin to speculate about the merest suspicion of a contemplation of the containing of even a hint of such a thing. Well, how do you make a good dead-pan parody if you then admit it? But consider the evidence. Although this is a remake of the original Nosferatu, some things have been done to bring it closer to the traditional "Dracula" story -- primarily the introduction of Dr. Van Helsing. There's a big clue -- in this film Van Helsing absolutely doesn't believe in vampires until the very last few minutes. And then he takes it into his head to drive a stake into Dracula, who has already been killed by sunlight. The overkill is a nice parody touch.
The relationships between the basic characters has changed. Lucy is Mrs. Harker, and Harker works for Renfield. The last, although he apparently has never laid eyes on Dracula, is (also apparently) under his spell -- he giggles at lot for no good reason: a manic Dr. Hibbert. In fact, the only character in the film who believes (a) in vampires and (b) that Dracula is one is Lucy (who, in the original story, has no such opinions). Van Helsing is a local doctor who has decided that local victims of the vampire have died of plague. It's true that the ship that brought Dracula also brought a bunch of rats ... scads and slathers of white (!!) rats, or perhaps oversize lab mice. Whenever they appear, they are shown in exaggerated piles and clumps, like hundreds of malformed puppies.
Parody here is often in the little details. Dracula's chiming clock, with a prominent skull on top and a skeleton going in and out doors below, is a great bit of guignol, but wonderfully out of place otherwise. And of course the music. Most of it is by Popul Vuh (often oddly folksy but usually appropriately creepy), but some is by Wagner -- specifically a few moments from the prelude to Rheingold. It's music related to the Rhein and the creation of the world. The music appears in 2 scenes, for both of which it is wholly inappropriate due both to the general character of the music and to its meaning in the Wagnerian universe. The scenes are: Harker travelling through a mountain pass to Dracula's castle and Dracula moving his coffins off-ship to his new home. Such use of this music is -- as Hertzog would well know -- laughable.
There is also the question of black-suited, black-hatted morticians/pallbearers. There seems to be quite a population of these people in Wismar (a canal-laced ancient city in Mecklenburg, near the Baltic Sea). At one point a whole parade of them bring out the coffins of the dead. It appears that everyone in Wismar is dying except these macabre individuals. Their march-with-coffins is a masterpiece of dark humor. Remembering it still drives me to laughter.
Finally, there is Klaus Kinsky's performance of Dracula. Critics have minced no words about how wonderful it is, how creepy, how appropriate. It seems to me that Kinsky isn't so much creepy as somnolent, as if he had a really bad case of weltschmerz. A vampire is one of the great powers of the supernatural world: a shape-shifter, preternaturally strong, a powerful mesmeriser. Kinsky seems more mesmerized. As a vampire he is diffident and shy, almost apologetic about being what he is. How brilliant! This isn't playing to type but playing against it. And that, friends, is parody. Or, to quote Warner Brothers, "Now, THAT'S comedy!"
Murder on the Orient Express (2001)
Molina and company stumble ... as against a perfect competition.
It is Alfred Molina's great misfortune that, in portraying Hercule Poirot, he has been preceded by Peter Ustinov, Albert Finney, and David Suchet. Had this not been true, we might have been tempted to give his performance a higher rating than it is now possible to do.
The original novel by Agatha Christie (same title) is one of the greatest whodunits ever penned. For unknown reasons, Ustinov never did it. My guess is that, although his Poirot films were made after the timely death of the pernicious and much-despised Code, the prospect of a murderer getting away with the crime was still too daunting for Hollywood. Suchet has yet to make Orient, but then it was only last year ('07) that he finally did "Mrs. McGinty's Dead" (with, we hope, Ariadne Oliver). Suchet's voice is used for Poirot in the 2006 Orient Express video game.
So finally, in 2001 a TV version of Orient is made with Alfred Molina in the key role. Alas. Molina is a talented actor. His portrayal of Poirot, while not definitive nor even close, is passable even pretty good in some ways. However, once we compare him with his predecessors (not to mention the literary original), the problems show up like fat, pendulous, juicy pimples (the kind we all loved to pop back in the day). We all know, for instance, that Poirot was fastidious to the point of school-marmish fussiness. Molina's Poirot is neat and that's about it. Molina's accent is a sort of generalized European, not the pointedly confrontational French that Poirot affected. Molina does use the catch-phrase "little grey cells", but he rattles them out because they're in the script, not because (as is the case) Poirot is obsessive about them. Indeed, Poirot's fundamentally obsessive character is de-emphasized to the point of vanishing. Molin'a Poirot seldom speaks of himself in the third person; Poirot does so rather a lot. His mustache is some short hair under his nose; Poirot's is a fashion statement and accessory that defines his dandified appearance. Molina doesn't wear gloves. Nor spats, but then the date of the mystery has been moved up to about the date the film was made. Anyone who by now believes I haven't made my case doesn't know Hercule.
While Suchet is the best Poirot overall, Ustinov bears away the palm for best actor. He inhabits the role so effectively that we become unconscious of his imposing height and bulk. Finney, who appears in the 1974 Orient, lacks for little in the Poirotishness of his portrayal. This is a competition that Molina simply can't win.
The plot of the 2001 film is, incidentally, pretty much the same as that of the novel and the 1974 film. Poirot is traveling from Istanbul on the famous Orient Express. He shares the first class car with a diverse set of individuals. One of them, a highly unpleasant person (Ratchett) is stabbed to death in the dead of night. There are plenty of clues in fact, as Finney's Poirot observes and Molina's does not, there are too many of them. The train is stalled in its journey (snow slide in 1974, rock slide in 2001) and the railway's CEO commissions Poirot to find the killer. Through patient questioning and separating false clues from real ones, Poirot does so twice. If you don't actually know the plot already, your cultural deprivation is truly unfortunate.
The problem with the 2001 production, however, runs deeper than merely the star. It's virtually the whole cast and what the update in time has done to their roles. The update from 1935 to c.2001 was apparently made because the producers figured that education has been so inadequate recently that viewers would never figure out what a White Russian (Princess Dragomirov) is, nor understand references to the Lindburgh kidnapping, nor fail to be puzzled by people going to Iraq for actual constructive purposes (archaeology), nor well, you get the gist.
The result is that we have characters who are updated but far less interesting. As for the participating actors: recall that in 1974 we get Martin Balsam, Richard Widmark, Wendy Hiller, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, Michael York, Vanessa Redgrave, Anthony Perkins, John Gielgud, well, again you get the gist. Want a cast list of the 2001 film? Well, there's Leslie Caron, and Who? and Whom? and What? and Which? and and and well, and a group of actors, most of whom are still working. They appear primarily in small roles in TV series episodes and in fairly little-known films. The upshot is that we get OK performances of a fairly uninspired script, and that's about it. The exception is from the one fine actor in the group, Leslie Caron. That's the upside. The downside is that her performance is deeply informed by that of Wendy Hiller as Princess Dragomirov. In this film the character becomes Señora Alvarado, the widow of a fairly nasty Latin American dictator. The problem here is that the character has way more social standing than would someone coming from such a sleazy background. She is in fact treated as the royalty Dragomirov was. That is, the character doesn't really compute in order to keep character relationships as they were before the rewrite, Alvarado had to be accorded deference even Eva Peron didn't get in exile. Still, Caron manages to convince us of her bona fides. As I said, she's good.
The cold, hard fact is that there are quite a few things on TV that are better than this remake. That's something we can't say about the 1974 original. The Poirot of the remake, Alfred Molina, is a pretty good actor but for whatever reason he has seriously misconceived the part he plays and as Poirot he winds up in 4th place in a field of 4. The picture, alas, winds up in about 9th place in a field of 2.
Beyond the Fringe (1964)
British sketch comedy at its finest
Sketch comedy has a long history beginning in this country with vaudeville and burlesque, and in England with the music hall ("vaudeville isn't dead; it just moved to England"). In the States, radio and television continued the earlier traditions because the people who first moved to the new mediums were old vaudevillians. The line is clear from vaudeville to Ernie Kovacs and Sid Caesar (among others) to Saturday Night Live, Mad TV, and their contemporaries and successors.
In England, however, something happened in the middle of the last century that changed radically the course and character of the British comedy sketch. That "something" was "Beyond the Fringe". There the line travels to "At Last the 1948 Show" and its contemporaries, to Monty Python, and onward. Of course the mother country could scarcely fail to influence the colonies. After "The Kids in the Hall" influences tend to become confused and muddled. So today we will not move beyond "Beyond" of which seminal production we luckily now have some wonderful remembrances in this recording of the final performance of the revue.
The writers and stars indeed, the entire cast of Fringe were Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Dudley Moore. They appear in this film uncannily resembling the Beatles at the start of their careers: wearing plain black suits. All of these talented gentlemen went on to considerable careers in stage and/or screen.
Bennett has thus far written or co-written 27 films and appeared in 31. He is the author of the brilliant film (and its stage-play source), "The Madness of King George".
Cook (deceased 1995) appeared in 44 films and wrote or co-wrote 17 including the wonderful "Yellowbeard".
Miller has been active in all facets of film, including direction of a number of Shakespeare's plays and production of a number of operas.
Moore is the best-known of the quartet. He has appeared in roles in 49 films and TV series, and as himself in 58 others. He has composed 8 film scores, and so on. In Fringe his piano playing suggests talent of concert level, but the only way to be sure is to get his recording of the Grieg concerto.
In a certain way Dudley Moore is the star of this show that really has no star. He performs some of its best material on the piano. His parody of Dame Clara Haskell (the Wanda Landowska of her day, but on the piano) is to die for but it will be lost on today's audience, most of whom won't know who Landowska was, much less Haskell. In any event, it's a minor event and not the best piano-related gibe. Moore does satires of art songs, of which the finest is a direct hit on Schubert, "Die Flabbergast". The best item has no singing: a fantasia on the March from "Bridge on the River Kwai" in the style of Beethoven. Assuming Moore wrote the piece, his wit is as unerring as his pianism.
Although Fringe had a core of material in more or less constant use, the show tended to mutate over time so that it consisted overall of about 40 or so segments. This version gives us 22 (+ 1 track that is not a sketch) . Among the best is "Aftermyth of War", a longish bit that has people reminiscing about WWII in an hilarious manner that must have seemed irreverent to the Brits, less than 20 years on. Of course, irreverence is the absolute hallmark of the best humor and this revue is rife with it.
Another hugely funny bit is "Sitting on the Bench", a monologue I've heard in other venues, and often known as "The Coal Miner's Tale". Here a coal miner bemoans his inability to pass the test to become a judge and had to take the coal miner's test instead. "There's only one question, 'What is your name?' I got 75% on that." Some of the best lines, such as the miner's rumination on the absence of falling coal in courtrooms, are missing here.
At least one routine is not to be found on the DVD nor apparently on the available CDs. This concerns Britain being unable to use the U.S. Trident submarine and thus having no remote launch platforms for its nukes. One plan is to run at the Berlin Wall, put up ladders, climbing the ladders, and throwing the bombs over. But there are plenty of others, and the DVD is funny as the dickens.
Cultural references being what they are, a good many viewers will find many of the sketches "dated". This means that they choose to blame the messengers instead of their own limitations in understanding the messages. Still, you needn't have lived through World War II to get some good laughs from "Aftermyth of War". And the good news is, there's 116 minutes of it.
If you like this sort of thing, there's more on CD. The one to get is "Beyond the Fringe: Complete", which has 3 CDs. The others are single CDs, each of which offers a limited selection, mostly duplicating the DVD. The 3-CD set has 42 tracks, but there are some duplications so that the total of different ones is 38, including 14 not found on the DVD. Two sketches from the DVD aren't on the CDs ("T.E.Lawrence" and "Art Gallery Director"), so the total DVD + CDs = 40.
Don't miss this opportunity to experience the great tap-root of the wonderful Pythons.
Burton's Todd gets a vat of venom, and deserves it.
It would have been nice had Tim Burton produced a "Sweeney Todd" that did a certain amount of justice to Steven Sondheim's masterwork. Unfortunately, what Sondheim wrote and Burton put out bear only the most casual resemblance to each other
namely, they have a lot of the same words and much of the same music assuming that you prefer Shakespeare's witches acting like Wagner's norns (Anna Russell: "this dreary set of women"), or prefer Beethoven's 5th taken at the tempo of Chopin's funeral march. Blech!
It should be noted that there are already available 2 other versions of this opera (yes, I know it has spoken dialogue, but so does Carmen when it's done properly). Both star the talented George Hearn as Sweeney. One is the 1982 fully staged version with Angela Lansbury grasping immortality as Mrs. Lovett. The other is the 2001 concert version with the great Patti LuPone. Ms LuPone does an undeniable star turn in this role, but fails to achieve Lansbury's high orbit. Hearn is a tremendous Sweeney, although in 2001 he's showing the 19 elapsed years since the last recording. I would recommend either of these entries, although my recommendation of the 1982 version is unqualified, enthusiastic, and excited.
And now Tim Burton tackles the Demon Barber. Burton is an erratic director who often hits the heights but here sinks to a new low in this thing that is less a performance than a travesty.
The reader may notice I mention none of the other performers. This is done mostly to protect the innocent. They do well enough, but their quality is still leagues from the 1982 version. As in nearly everything that went wrong with this Sweeney, I blame the director.
Somebody must have told Burton that Sweeney Todd is a dark comedy. He seems to have forgotten about the "comedy" and concentrated on the "dark" to great excess, alas. Practically everything is filmed through blue filters which may have been considered clever technique 50 years ago but is now just a strain on the eyes.
On first viewing the film, and assuming you know the score, the first thing you will notice is the complete absence of the chorus. Considering the deep relationship between Sweeney and Greek theater, this omission is akin to dropping the witches from Macbeth. It is this omission that robs the work of its dimensionality and causes the ending to fall flatter than last week's soufflé.
Aside from the directorial murder of the chorus and its music, this performance contains a number of omissions, truncations, and abbreviations. The flagellation scene, as I recall, is gone. The Todd-Pirelli contest contains only the shaving part, not the tooth-pulling half. (This omission is fairly common in performance, alas). The Beggar Woman's part is excised by about 50%, including most of the best bits. The "God, That's Good" number is foreshortened to the point of being seen on edge. The wildly funny lead up to Beadle Bamford's murder is gone. And so on and on. Somebody should remind Burton that this is a recipe for hash, not honest roast beef.
Burton's directorial aim seems clearly to rob Sweeney of almost every ounce of its considerable humor. He fails, and there's enough left to cause us to go into deep mourning for the rest. "Hello, my name is Tim. I'm here to make sure you don't have any fun." He seems to desire the players to be a funereal in their acting as possible.
As a result, a great actor like Johnny Depp is converted into somebody you'd never want to see or hear again. Depp, clearly too young for the role, is made up to look like somebody in a 1930s horror flick instead of someone who's spent nearly 2 decades in the penal sloughs of Old Australia. He plays Sweeney as if the man were loopy, which he isn't. He has a detached, dreamy delivery and never, NEVER catches fire. I suppose this approach may be considered interesting in a sort of abstract way, but mainly it's boring and tedious. Despite all the cuts, the film is only about a quarter-hour shorter than the 1982 and 2001 versions yet it seems to drag out a lot longer. You do the math.
Perhaps the weakest link in the whole cast is Helena Bonham Carter, who is manifestly too young to play Mrs. Lovett. Her makeup may be intended to age her, but merely gives her a tired and haggard appearance. Lovett's first appearance should wrench the viewer's attention onto her relentlessly. Bonham Carter's first appearance gives us time to see if there are any pictures on the ceiling. The less said about "Have a Little Priest", probably the better. There are a few clever moments, but only in the sense of a convergence of a visual clue to the lyrics a technique that doesn't hold up well with repetition. Bonham Carter's motherly effusions over Toby wouldn't convince a 3-month-old puppy.
Speaking of puppies, the staging of this dog omits the original wonderful mechanistic set in favor of a more realistic presentation of London. This can be understood, since films generally try to transcend the limitations of the stage. In this case, however, the relationship of staging with plot is too organic to be so lightly dismissed.
Look, guys if you buy this you'll regret it maybe not now, but later and for the rest of your life. (Thanks, Rick.) Try the Lansbury.
Caesar and Cleopatra (1945)
The magnificence of Shaw and Caesar
It's our amazing good fortune to have this document of one of George Bernard Shaw's greatest plays, filmed during his lifetime so that he could author the screenplay as he wrote the original stage work. It is a monument to the magnificence, not only of Shaw, but of Caesar. It is also a monument to Shaw's brilliant playcraft, clever plotting, and canny application of humor. It goes without saying that Shaw was brilliant, since of course he was a socialist.
We have seen this story before, though differently told, when the wonderful Rex Harrison played Caesar to the talented Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra. (Both of these names should be written with a K, since that is how they were both actually pronounced.) It is an absolute truth about that later film that only the first half is much worth watching, since Richard Burton in the second half plays a lovesick puppy so well it's thoroughly disgusting. GBS avoids that pitfall by giving us a great Caesar and a delightful Cleopatra, and fabulous stars to play them.
Shaw's play tells the story of Caesar's occupation of Alexandria after his final defeat of Pompey, and his defense of his position against perfidious Egyptians and renegade Romans in the service of Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra's prepubescent brother and husband. The text is a creation of the utmost cunning: nothing less than a successful imitation of Shakespeare (though mostly in a more modern idiom). Few writers other than Shaw would have attempted this feat, and fewer still would have been successful at it.
Mentioning Ptolemy XIV, I should mention his (and Cleo's) brother, Ptolemy XIII. They were both married to Cleopatra and each of them was pounding on her bedroom door by the time he was 10. The film, alas, forgets the last Ptolemy, the XVth, called Caesarion, Caesar's son by Cleopatra. It was his official acknowledgement of this son that caused him so much trouble back home.
The essence of Shaw is of course his wit. Hardly a play of his is as witty as this one. The film is 2 hours long and seems scarcely an hour, so packed is it with sparkling dialogue.
To portray this great literary work, the producers have assembled a gallery of some of the greatest actors of the time. Caesar is played by the hugely talented Claude Rains whose portrayals of iconic roles have made him one of the greatest actors of the last century. He gives the immortal Julius such sangfroid and cool calculation as to make us instantly believe his greatness as a general and statesman.
Cleopatra is portrayed by the great Vivien Leigh, who graced and enhanced every part she took. Her beauty is in fact far, far greater than the legendary queen's (we have pictures). There is a rumor that Cleopatra was African (black) by descent which, while not a big deal, is a lie. We know each and every one of her ancestors since before the time of Alexander the Great, and they are all Greek (and mostly closely related). Shaw also cleverly switches the story of the rug from her first meeting with Caesar to ruse to smuggle her into Caesar's emergency redoubt at the Pharos (the Alexandria lighthouse).
Apollodoros (misspelt with a "u" before the "s"), the Greek jack of all trades, arts, and talents, is played with huge humor by the inimitable Stewart Granger. Granger's acting talents gave both of the Fairbanks a run for their money. Cleopatra's nurse and chief bottle washer, Ftatateeta, is portrayed by the wonderful Flora Robson. For this part her skin is stained dusky and she's given an Egyptian-style fright wig and is absolutely convincing. When she's on camera, she manages to upstage even the riveting Rains.
The roll of talented veteran actors continues. As Pothinos (misspelt with a "us"), Ptolemy's puppet master and master of all nasty diplomatic maneuvers, we have Francis L. Sullivan. It was Pothinos' idea to knock off Pompey in the hope of sucking up to Caesar. No such luck, of course, because Caesar greatly admired and liked Pompey despite the fact that they had recently become enemies. Sullivan portrays Pothinos with delightful wiliness and sliminess. *** As the loyal Rufio, "Caesar's shield", we have a steadfast Basil Sydney. Rufio eventually becomes Roman "governor" of Egypt, although that country was then still technically independent and didn't have a governor. Rufio's part is given a good shot of good-humored testosterone and Sydney gives it great stature. *** The talented veteran Cecil Parker gives us Caesar's faithful British amanuensis, Britannus. His physical stature and Druidic appearance make him very convincing as a 1st-Century BCE British warrior-poet. *** And so on. Every part in this film is well-played by people who know what they're doing.
The DVD itself was manufactured in Korea. Don't expect a lot. This Technicolor film has a washed-out look although the colors are usually clear if not vividly bright. The sound is good (but could be better) and as we might expect from actors of stage quality, the dialogue is clear. There are, in addition, English subtitles. There are no extra features, but with older films we seldom get them. Some people might take points off for substandard color and sound. So do I. I give extra stars for Shaw's genius and take them off for an inferior recording of the original film. That leaves the correct total: the maximum.
Only one word: wow!
The pity of this series is that it was short-lived. Still, 27 episodes isn't a bad run.
The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. is a western series with a lot of humor, bizarre characters, and several bits of science fiction. If this mix sounds familiar, think "Wild, Wild West". However, this isn't just an imitation.
Brisco County Jr. is the son of Brisco County Sr., one of the great bounty hunters of the western territories toward the end of the 19th Century. Sr. is killed by the Bly Gang and Jr. (also an accomplished bounty hunter) swears revenge. (Sr. later shows up later, at least once, as a ghost.) Aside from the Bly gang, Brisco has a number of shoot-ups with the Swill brothers (Will, Phil, Bill, Gil, and Ed) not to mention the Swill sister (Lil) and of course the Swill mother (Ma). His companion through all this (first a rival bounty hunter and later a partner) is Lord Bowler. On occasion there are encounters with yet another bounty hunter, Dixie Cousins. There are also regular appearances by Briso's main contact with his employers (some western robber barons), Socrates Poole. Special mechanical needs in several episodes are met by Professor Albert Wickwire. And then of course there's Comet the Wonder Horse.
One of the reasons this series works is its casting. Brisco is played by the veteran actor Bruce Campbell. Campbell, who is vastly underrated (perhaps because he doesn't get asked to do Shakespeare or Scorsese), has before the age of 50 appeared in 92 films and TV series, produced 16, directed 7, written 3, and done just about everything else in film except sell the tickets. He brings to his role here a professional and keenly calculated sense of timing and of humor not to mention very athletic performances.
Brisco's partner, Lord Bowler, is played by the accomplished Julius Carry. Barely over 50, Carry has appeared in 58 films and TV series (mostly the latter). His performance here is characterized by athleticism, bluster, humor, and authority. In addition to Carry's star turn, the producers of the series have regularly cast black actors in roles not tailored to nor requiring African-American actors. For a long time after black actors began to appear in mainstream films, they only got roles specifically race-oriented. It's Hollywood's great strength that they have done a lot toward moving away from that sort of pseudo Jim Crowism.
Third in the series' trilogy of stars, playing Socrates Poole, is the delightful and talented Christian Clemenson. Not yet 50, Clemenson has appeared in 60 films and TV series. He's currently doing a bang-up job in "Boston Legal" as the socially handicapped Jerry Espenson. As Poole, he's an Eastern tinhorn who's not doing a bad job of adapting to the rough-and-tumble of the Old West.
Other actors in smaller roles are talented and believable. As Professor Wickwire is the fabulous John Astin, whose 140 acting credits include various stints as Gomez Addams and Professor Gangreen (you know, the Killer Tomato movies). All of the people appearing here are a pleasure to watch; not a dud in the bunch. Billy Drago is outstanding as the crazed John Bly and manages to look every inch the psychopath Bly is. Drago is a well-represented film veteran, with 90 films (including some TV work) to his credit.
The various episodes are well plotted, full of action and humor, witty lines, good character byplay, and the Orb. The Orb (of which there are 3, although 1 is destroyed early in the series and another vanishes into the future ... I suppose some oversensitive spoilsport might consider this a "spoiler") is an extraterrestrial spherical device consisting of a number of blue rods each with a gold end. The Orb has a number of interesting powers and can also confer powers and abilities. The attempts by Bly to get an Orb for himself and the efforts of Brisco to prevent this form the backdrop of many episodes.
The production values of this series are very high. Scenery, sets, costumes, livestock everything is exactly as it should be. Photography is clear and colorful. Most episodes are about 44 minutes; the pilot is 2 hours. The last 2 episodes constitute a 2-part series cap. The scripts display a good deal of originality, if one credits the amount the series owes to its predecessors. I'm not a big fan of westerns in general because of their predictability. "Wild, Wild West" (the series and the film) is of course an exception, and so is the Brisco County Jr. series. I highly, highly recommend you get this set. It's 22 ½ hours of pure entertainment.
Why does Disney hate consumers so much?
OK, now we have a new "platinum" (yeah...) 2-DVD edition of "101 Dalmatians". This is a classic Disney film and one of their better efforts. Complaints about the animation style arise from failure to appreciate that it IS a style. It's wonderful for its clarity and lack of clutter and arises from a cartooning style popular during the late '50s and early '60s.
It must be admitted that the "good side" characters are a little bland, especially the parent dogs' owners. The Disney people should probably have employed some better voice talent for these people and given them a few interesting crochets assuming this wouldn't be too great distortion of the original book.
However, Cruella De Vil and her nincompoop sidekicks more than make up for this deficiency. In the 1996 live-action version, the brilliant Glenn Close is even nastier and funnier. However, Betty Lou Gerson, the voice actress here, gives her Cruella plenty of bite and venom. Also making up for so many pallid characters are the "Cruella De Vil" song and Cruella's own number about pelts.
On the whole, the film is a good romp. Young children may be apt to take Cruella's threat to the puppies seriously although Cruella is painted in such broad strokes that a moderately intelligent 5-year-old will probably realize that she's all smoke and mirrors. Teen-agers and adults will relax and enjoy the fun without worrying.
The extras included in this set are on occasion interesting, even meaty. They are some inducement to buy the new edition even if you have one of the old ones. Also an inducement is the restoration work on the film itself, which makes it look as fresh as it did in the theaters. Well, almost (see below).
You may at this point wonder at my rating for this offering, since my verbiage seems to be working toward a tepid mid-range score. No such luck. This edition of 101 lies at the bottom of the barrel. I don't know why anyone would want to buy it, much less rent the thing. The reason is its disastrously mutilated visual aspect.
The Disney people have had a vile and pernicious prejudice against widescreen aspects from the get-go. The only reason they even make widescreen films for theaters is that's what audiences expect. But they know there are a lot of Luddite fools out there who want films to "fit" their oh-so-1960s little-screen TV sets. And this plays right into their hatred of the widescreen medium. Getting them to put out a DVD with a film showing its original dimensions sometimes amounts to pulling their teeth with rusty pliers. This latest travesty really takes the cake.
"101 Dalmatians" was filmed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Every single VHS and DVD edition of it that I know of has mutilated the original down to a disgusting 1.33:1 with a coy little note that it's been mutilated to "fit your television screen". WELL, IT DOESN'T FIT MINE. Welcome to the 21st Century, stupid stupid Disney people. Yes, people still buy antiquated little screens save those pennies, guys! But half the programs on many channels are already in widescreen, and it doesn't fit YOUR screen, ha-ha-ha. It fits mine. Most widescreen films are produced on DVD only in widescreen, and it's about time.
If Disney wants to wallow in the last Century, that's their business. However, I don't see why we should enable them by buying their old-fashioned, creakily antiquated products. Once they produce a widescreen DVD of 101, I'll buy it. Used that way they don't get my money. Until then, I'll just keep my VHS tape. Yes, Disney, I can still be even more-antiquated-than-thou. As to this issue of the film: what a rip-off!
That Hamilton Woman (1941)
Firmly among filmdom's greats.
I suppose that revealing an historical fact might be considered a spoiler by people basically ignorant of history. So I'm guilty. So shoot me.
I don't say that old movies are always better than new ones but old movies are usually better than new. This is especially when they're the same movie, and generically so when the old movie has no clone. The old "Four Feathers" is better than the new. The old "Count of Monte Cristo" is better than any of the new. The old Disney movies are better than the new, especially when they're the originals of "What's-Its-Name" II (or III or XXXI). "That Hamilton Woman" is an old film that makes no secret of its aristocratic blood and as yet nobody has had the cajones to remake it.
THW is a Brit film made during the Last Good War (1941) when the Brits were still going it alone and not doing all that badly. It's a wartime reminder of how the British navy kept that nutter Napoleon at bay for almost a generation even as they kept that loony Hitler at bay during his (gottzei dank!) briefer career. Although the film isn't centered on the man who put paid to Bonaparte's naval pretensions, Horatio Nelson; however, he is an important character.
The main character is Emma Hart, ne Amy Lyon(s) and latterly Emma, Lady Hamilton. The film opens about the end of Emma's life, while she's in jail in Calais for brawling. She tells her story to a cell mate who is also English. This opens in 1783, just as she arrives at the home of Sir William Hamilton to whose tender care he has committed her now that he intends to marry a lot of money. Hamilton is ambassador to the King of Naples. Emma and her mother, Mary Cadogan-Lyon (formerly Mary Kidd), move into the Hamilton home, where she learns she's been palmed off. Eventually she gets over it and marries Lord Hamilton (1791). During the 1780s she befriends Queen Maria Carolina and moves virtually to the pinnacle of Neapolitan society after her marriage.
The film, I should add, runs fairly close to history. In 1793 Horatio Nelson calls at Naples as part of a campaign to unite Italy against French aggression. Emma is smitten with him, but he almost immediately dashed off to confront a military emergency. After Nelson won the Battle of the Nile at abu-Kir (1798), he returned to Naples, minus an arm, an eye, and a lot of teeth. Nelson spent well over a year in the Hamilton home. Thence he returned to England with the Hamiltons and Emma's mother, arriving in 1800. Once in London, Nelson lived with the other 3. Nelson's daughter Horatia was born in early 1801. Late that year Nelson purchased Merton Place, a fixer-upper to which the quartet moved. The Emma-Horatio affair increasingly became a public scandal and Nelson's wife made their separation final. In 1803 Hamilton died and Nelson finally took up the sea again. He died in 1805 during his great victory at Trafalgar.
We see Emma's downward spiral begin, but we never see its end nor really learn its cause other than unspecified money problems. Emma had a gambling addiction. She died in Calais of liver failure (1815; not in the film).
The film itself is wonderful theater. Winston Churchill said he had seen it over 100 times. The director was the great Alexander Korda and the idiomatic music was by the brilliant Miklós Rózsa. The 5 principal roles are taken by a quintet of Britain's best. Horatio Nelson is played with enormous sincerity and passion by Lawrence Olivier. Sir Larry, which I'm certain nobody ever calls him to his face, was one of those dramaturgic prodigies of which Britain has produced so many and America so few. This rôle, relatively early in his career, already shows his mastery of the art of acting.
As if being treated to Olivier weren't enough, Emma is played by the gorgeous Vivien Leigh. Leigh was a lively, intelligent, radiant actress no wonder Olivier fell in love with her whilst they were making "Fire Over England". She made few films after THW, mostly due to persistent bouts with tuberculosis. Although she doesn't exactly resemble Emma, she is not exactly unlike her either. Her performance here is, until tragedy begins to overwhelm Emma, chock-full of joie de vivre.
William Hamilton is played by the venerable screen regular (171 films), Alan Mowbray. His aristocratic yet warm bearing allowed him to play a wide variety of roles; he is marvelously effective here. Mowbray spent his last years (1956-1969) appearing in American TV programs.
Emma's mother is portrayed by the estimable and talented Sara Allgood. Her warm, motherly face brought her many parts as a mother, a landlady, a neighbor, what have you.
The important, somewhat smaller, part of Lady Nelson was taken by the wonderful Gladys Cooper. Her bearing and diction led her to such rôles as Duchesses and other nobility or others of like personality. Her best-known rôle was Mrs. Higgins, Henry Higgins' mother, in Shaw's play Pygmalion and the musical made from it, My Fair Lady. As Nelson's wife, her grief shows subtly and clearly below her forbearance. Many who take similar parts could learn much from watching her here.
This DVD is of Chinese manufacture. There is no British or American copy yet. The subtitles are Chinese but not English, alas -- but the actors speak clearly and precisely. When the playback started, the main titles were unclear and the sound was badly reproduced. I expected the worst until the main film started. This had been digitally improved so that the sound was much better. The images were also clear, although the dark tones were somewhat muted. I'm sure the film will eventually come out with a better print, but this isn't half-bad.
The Pirate Movie (1982)
Even worse than "Gentlemen of Titipu"
Well, I hate to admit to being wrong, but there actually is a worse Sullivan & Gilbert adaptation than "Gentlemen of Titipu". This one seems to pin its hopes on the presence of some delectable eye candy namely, Chris Atkins, fresh from taking his clothes off in "Blue Lagoon". This is a performance that "runs the emotional gamut from A to B" as the brilliant Dorothy Parker once snipped about the equally brilliant Katharine Hepburn.
Don't worry, friends; it goes downhill from there.
The film in question goes by the title "The Pirate Movie". The reason for the title is, apparently, that the people responsible have pirated some pieces of Sullivan's "Pirates of Penzance" just enough to make you wish they had pirated the whole operetta and jettisoned the drek they added to the maimed remains they used.
Appearing in this wanton travesty are a bunch of little- and un-knowns who couldn't have salvaged the production even if it was good. Which of course it isn't. So the whole baggage sinks under its own dead, dead, dead, boring weight. Well, it wasn't their fault, really; it was a job for a lot of people who, judging by their credits on the IMDb, didn't get many. The names are withheld to protect the presumed innocent.
The story of "The Pirate Movie" follows the general and well-known outline of "Pirates of Penzance" (which is easy enough to look up if you don't know it) although with a number of rather stupid changes that sap it of its original vitality. To substitute for this vapidity, a composer was hired to write some "up" music. His talent, if any, is scarcely on display. What we get meager quotations from some of Sullivan's "Penzance" tunes although not always readily recognizable and usually not in the spirit of the original. Then there is a lot of stuff in a two-bit modern idiom that is also wholly out of touch with Sullivan's originality and wittiness.
This film is so awful on so many levels it's hard to find anything positive to say about it. The color is vibrant; that is to say, wasted on what it shows. The sound is at least too good for the material.
Ah, well. At least Atkins runs about in descamiado mode for most of the film, which I suppose is some slight compensation. And not enough. Avoid this turkey.
Rosemary & Thyme (2003)
Delightful Marple clones lead us on the garden path.
It's well known that Brits generally do murder better than Yanks (or anyone else, for that matter). This trend started with Conan Doyle and continues right down to the present moment. Part of the reason for this is that Brit mysteries are genteel and intelligent. Yank mysteries are often written as if the main audience consists of cave men. Which is, alas, all too true. Even so, the Brit example is starting to sink in on this side of the pond. Virtually all of the main characters in superb series such as "Bones" and "Numbers" consist of nerds who actually use 3- and 4-syllables (and bigger) words. They also omit gratuitous violence (tiresome) and profanity (even more tiresome). Readers may also recall the spectacular success of "Murder She Wrote", set among the rural beauty of the Murder Capital of New England, Cabot Cove. Genteel, engaging, beautifully filmed, this was everything a good mystery ought to be. If you actually like urban grunge and gritty plotting, but want something from the Brits in that line, there's always Helen Mirren's "Prime Suspect". This is really good grunge and grit, especially if you want Brit quality instead of slipshod Yank stuff that uses gratuitous violence to distract you from the vapidity of what you're watching.
The problem is that good Brit mysteries outnumber Yank ones as the Chinese outnumber the Brits. This first decade of the 21st Century is no exception. From 2003 to 2007 we were treated to the wonderful "Rosemary and Thyme". All indications are that after 3 seasons (03, 04, 06/07) and 2 specials (04, 05), R&T are through. Well, we still have the long-running "Midsomer Murders" and the more recent "The Last Detective".
Rosemary Boxer (played wonderfully by Felicity Kendal) and Laura Thyme (played even better if possible by Pam Ferris) meet by chance as the latter's husband is deserting her. They go into business as professional gardeners and go about (mostly) rebuilding decrepit plantings. Lo and behold, very shortly they have a body in their garden. Unlike the Midsomer people, the R&T people spread the wealth of death around, taking their characters to beautiful places in England, France, Italy, and Spain. The gardens are often spectacular, and even if not (one episode involves a lawn; another, a grape grove), there is usually a beautiful and/or interesting building to compensate. What we don't get is the American favorite, (ugh!) urban grunge.
The mysteries themselves are all to brief all episodes but 2 longer ones are only 48 minutes (as opposed to, say, 100 for Midsomer). In the beginning the girls don't solve the murder so much as they flush the guilty party into the waiting arms of the police. Mostly, however, they work out whodunit. These are good little conundrums, but it would be nice if they had more time in which to get worked out.
The scripts are clever and witty, informed by an insidious sense of humor. They're full of hilarious throwaway quips and verbal exchanges. This tendency reaches its height in the last episode in the set (the 2005 special), "The Cup of Silence". Here we get an actual black-out skit, á la Ernie Kovacs, which we should call "The Donkey Shop". It proceeds from the outré premise that somebody would actually try to make a go of a gift shop that sells nothing but donkey-related items. This builds in an exchange right out of Monty Python that leads to one of the most wonderful puns I've ever heard.
Besides, any series that dares to have one of its characters quote the immortal limerick, "While Titian was mixing rose madder", can do no wrong.
OK. Tiziano (Titian) Tecelli (1477-1571!) was a great artist. Despite its name, rose madder (root of the plant of the same name) is a brilliant red, often referred to a "true" red. OK, I had to look up the dates.
Aside from the witty scripts, the acting is on a par with them. There are several talented guest stars, including the brilliant Phyllida Law. One of the stars is a gizmo that used to steam the grape groves in "Cup of Silence". Bless us, holy Rube Goldberg!! R&T comes on 9 DVDs in a compact case. The discs are just a little difficult to remove. The aspect is 16x9. Typical of Brit programs (and this is a serious flaw), there are no subtitles. One of the "special features" actually is special. The first DVD for each season (or "series", as the Brits refer to it) contains a featurette on the locations used for that season. These are informative and have some beautiful footage. The rest is silence (of which, as previously noted, you can get a whole cup with the last disc).
Note on the lack of subtitles: luckily, the actors' diction is particularly precise and clear overall. Subtitles are not quite the necessity they normally are, although people who don't hear well, or at all, will find this lack damn inconsiderate.
As you might have figured, I highly recommend this collection. It will give you 18 hours of viewing pleasure at a cost only a couple of inches of shelf space.
Needful Things (1993)
Mean-spirited and bigoted?? Since when?
Run that by me again ... since when is being anti-Christian "mean-spirited and bigoted"? -- Particularly since Christianity is in a dead heat with Islam as the world's most mean-spirited and bigoted religion.
Stephen King is a brilliant writer who certainly has a fix on the inherent flaws of Christianity and the people who practice it. Of course, his fictional view of the "devil" takes directly from the viewpoints of the most mean-spirited and bigoted of Christians and holds this up as a condemnation of Christian superstition.
Alas, "Needful Things" is not being given a chance to speak clearly. A huge chunk of the film has been edited out of the DVD versions (hence a relatively low rating). It's difficult enough to be true to King's vision without chopping the result. Let's hope the full version will get to be on disc soon. Van Sydow's brilliant performance deserves to be seen in as close to its entirety as we can get.
One of the best Britcoms of the last decade
Our local PBS station at one time offered a marvelous selection of Britcoms on Saturday night. Many of these gloriously funny comedies lit up the small screen like brilliant fireflies that lived only 3 or 4 of the short British seasons and (alas) vanished Thin Blue Line, Murder Most Horrid, and others and of course Chef!.
Alas, now the station seems dedicated to the more heavy hitters: Waiting For God, Keeping Up Appearances, As Time Go By, what have you. These are worthy entries all, that lasted several seasons. They're long enough to bear repetition, although I'm not sure endless repetition works all that well. One really wishes for some variation . . . like Chef!.
Britcoms, unlike a majority of Americoms, have interesting settings. The American standard seems to be somebody's house. Interesting comedies can be done in somebody's house; George and Gracie did it but a house is a house is a house and it gets boring. Some Americoms have been done in interesting settings, such as a radio station, and that helps. But Britcoms are often more creative in the area of setting. Chef! is set in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant. OK, there are some scenes in somebody's house, but it's still a great Britcom.
Lenny Henry stars in Chef! as a very talented chef. Like many stars of sitcoms, he began his career as a standup comedian. His success is predicated on not stooping to the low-class sort of audience that believes swearing is funny and more swearing is more funny. Indeed, he has developed a style of invective that would send the swearing-is-funny types scuttling to the dictionary if they knew what one was.
The basic plot of Chef! is simple enough. Henry is Gareth Blackstock, a chef whose inflated opinion of himself is probably justified. The 2-star restaurant where he works, despite its success, goes into receivership. You know the sort of restaurant I mean the kind that serves you a couple of tablespoons of really great ours d'oeuvres, and charges you a small fortune for the privilege of having to rush home and make a couple of sandwiches to fill up on.
With great difficulty he and his wife Janice buy the restaurant. Most of the action takes place in the kitchen and other locations in the restaurant. Each episode is complete in itself, but there is an ongoing plot involving the fate of the restaurant and the relationship of Gareth and Janice (played with wit and charm by Caroline Lee Johnson). Also in the cast is Roger Griffiths, who plays Everton, a fine contrast to the urbane Blackstocks. These are the only members of the cast you will see for any longer than 1 season although another character (Gustave LaRoche) appears in seasons 2 and 3, he is played by the estimable Ian Niece in Season 2 and by Jeff Nuttall in Season 3.
On the whole, Chef! is a very funny series. In the last season, 3, things take a more serious turn. Seasons 1 and 2 appeared in 1993 and 1994, while season 3 appeared in 1996. The 1995 hiatus might seem to indicate a problem, and in fact no more episodes appeared after 1996. It's fair to state, however, that the ongoing plot of Season 3 is at least resolved at the end.
I believe it's fair to observe that there is a very serious problem with this program. Save for the 3 main characters, the entire cast changes each season. One barely gets used to characters, and develops empathy for them, than they vanish and are replaced by strange faces. It doesn't seem reasonable to expect audience loyalty to a show when this sort of thing is going on.
The DVD set is a set of the 3 seasons as they were originally put out, in normal-sized cases. The thinner cases now so often used in sets would have been much better.
Alas, there are no subtitles. The English seem to feel that they don't owe the viewer any help in understanding what's being said even down to the most outrageous Yorkshire or Welsh accents. This is the same country that, for years, didn't feel it necessary to label their stamps as to the country of origin. (Then, of course, there was the pre-WWI Times headline I kid you not "Storm in Channel, Continent cut off!".) Such hubris has only been partially punished by their having to endure a separate Scottish Parliament.
There are some special features on the 3rd DVD in the set. They're OK, but a little on the thin side: primarily interviews with the 2 main principals and a segment of a British food show profiling Chef!. These range (timewise) from brief to extremely brief the interview of Henry last little more than 3 minutes! The whiffy title music wears out its welcome by the 2nd episode, becomes even more obnoxious by the 3rd and by the 4th you will be clicking the fast-forward button before the "ooooo" begins, with trembling hands and a hymn of thanks to the god of remotes.
Nevertheless, it's pleasant to have a DVD collection of all the existing episodes to this fundamentally fine comedy.
Commander in Chief (2005)
If you liked "West Wing", you'll like this ... but not nearly as much.
I new know what some fool might consider a "spoiler", so I always say my review contains one. Make of that what you will.
It's hardly likely to elicit any argument if I note that "Commander in Chief was deliberately planted in ground already prepared by "West Wing". Unfortunately it was only a good show, not a great one. It was certainly better than to numerous dreary sitcoms infesting the small screen these days, not to mention the even drearier "reality" (there's a laugh!) shows, and the utterly drearier quiz and contest shows. In the end, however, even the considerable presence of Geena Davis and the brilliant (but challenged) malevolence of Donald Sutherland couldn't save the series. "Commander in Chief" disappeared in mid-1st season, after 18 episodes.
The premise of "Commander in Chief" is this: a Republican candidate for President chooses a progressive Independent woman (Mackenzie Allen) to be his Vice President in order, as one character puts it, "to get the soccer mom vote". Vigorous and athletic, he gets his just desserts in the form of a massive heart attack. On his deathbed he orders her to resign so that the terminally ambitious Speaker of the House, Nathan Templeton. She agrees, but ultimately rejects this course and takes the oath of office. Allen and Templeton are of course Davis and Sutherland, and their struggle for power forms the core of the series. Although every episode or couple of episodes contain one or more subplots, everything relates to the Allen-Templeton feud and this makes the series fundamentally a soap opera. It's a very high-tone soap opera, but still .
Allen brings into the Residence with her a husband, Rod Calloway, and 3 children: teenage fraternal twins (boy and girl) and a much younger daughter. They are played by decent, but not well-known, actors. She also inherits the former President's cabinet and staff. Among the latter is the Chief of Staff, Jim Gardner, played with effective gravitas by the very talented Harry Lennix.
The series proceeds with President Allen dealing doggedly with one crisis after another international, domestic, administrative, whatever. Templeton (the name of the rat in "Charlotte's Web", by the way) is always lurking, trying to sabotage Allen's efforts, or to take advantage of her difficulties, or at the very least to gloat and all this despite her repeated demonstrations of kindness and good will toward him (which seem to touch him at the time). In spite of seemingly intractable difficulties, Allen always seems to choose the road less traveled and wins through.
And that is the real difficulty of this fine but flawed series. Although the various crises differ in detail, the basic plot outlines are very much the same. She is such an honest, well-meaning goody-goody, so enthused about doing right, that the palm of victory seems virtually to drop in her lap, willy-nilly. We don't expect these astounding successes at the beginning, but after a half-dozen or so episodes we simply expect them.
Overall, "Commander in Chief" is an interesting diversion, and it's not half-bad and, as I said, better than so much else. But alas, it's not a patch on the sophistication, complexity, and sheer brilliance of its inspiration, "West Wing".
Loonatics Unleashed (2005)
WB falls flat on face
Loony Tunes have ventured (at least) twice into the future. The first time was with the brilliantly funny "Duck Dodgers". The latter time was with this
effort. "Loonatics Unleashed" isn't without merit, and might be considered a good product were it not that it isn't up to Warner Brothers quality. WB cartoons are noted for their cheeky humor, appealing at least as much to adults as to children. These pedestrian superhero episodes, on the other hand, cannot fail to convince adults to pass them up.
The premise of the series is that 6 ordinary individuals (2 bunnies, a Tasmanian devil, a duck, a roadrunner, and a coyote) live on the "city-planet" of Acmetropolis and acquire super powers when a meteor strikes the planet in 2772. What's confusing is that the titles section features these individuals with a count-up to 2772 from the 21st Century. Cute, but frelling stupid.
In each episode, the super sextet amid mildly amusing but essentially banal banter fight various super villains. For the most part, these are types that appear in every mediocre superhero adventure series and even some of the better ones. Like many mediocre superhero series, this one takes its villains far too seriously for the context. And of course these guys are the only characters that laugh the usual evil laugh, of course. Why is it that villains in predictable superhero adventures always ALWAYS laugh evilly at every opportunity? Animated material of this sort seems to leave laughter exclusively in the province of villains and (occasionally) their henchpeople and/or henchthings.
In point of fact, the makers of this series missed their best bets right from the get-go. The superpowers of the characters are sometimes based on their previous normal abilities, but sometimes not. The problem here is that we don't see enough WB looniness. Lexi and Ace have fairly ordinary biologically generated energy weapons and have virtually no personality traits one could describe as "Bugs-like". What we have here is basically the silly and drekish "Teen Titans", including its overly "modern" animation "look", but with animals. Feh.
The other misstep by the program's creators is (or are) the villains. As noted before, these are not terribly imaginative and do the evil-laugh bit excessively. Amazingly, the writers totally missed the obvious technique of making villains from stock WB characters as well as the protagonists. Adding to the fun could have been, say, Jupiter Sam as well as The Fudd, still hunting wabbits as well as Tech E. Coyote converted into a really neurotic villain and so on. Ah, the sadness of missed opportunities .
Sadly, this whole production has gone into too much overtime (that is, a 2nd season). Nevertheless, we can rejoice that there's something new out there for the 14-going-on-9 crowd. The rest of us can hope for a 3rd season of Duck Dodgers.
Fun film ... if you're not an uptight Baker Street Irregular
This is the 2nd of 2 very long TV movies/miniseries featuring two wonderful actors: Christopher Lee as Holmes and Patrick Macnee as Watson. (The following year a 3rd, "Sherlock Holmes in New York", promoted Macnee to Holmes.) Like the first, it has faults and virtues, although ultimately weighted on the side of the latter. As a side note, when shown on TV in this country, this film and its companion were each cut by about a quarter-hour.
However loosely and it's very, very loosely this film is related to an old Basil Rathbone film, "Terror by Night". This involves transporting a fabulous diamond, the "Star of Rhodesia", with Holmes overseeing security. "Incident at Victoria Falls" also involves a fabulous diamond, the "Star of Africa". This latter is an actual diamond, although much larger than the gem displayed in the film. That was the Cullinan Diamond, over 300 carats (well over a pound!) in the rough. The Cullinan was eventually cut in to 9 large gems and a goodly number of smaller items. These are all now part of the Crown Jewels.
The film's "Star of Africa", already cut and polished, is like the Cullinan going to be transported from South Africa to Britain, where it will be presented to Edward VIII. Mycroft Holmes sends his brother Sherlock to provide security with a plan involving a glass duplicate of the "Star". Yeah. You all know how this turns out: we get to play "diamond, diamond, who's got the diamond?" for the next couple of hours. But it's all in good fun, only slightly spoiled by the banality of the script I found myself on a number of occasions saying the next highly predictable line before the character who had it. On the bright side, we only get a glimpse of Holmes wearing a deerstalker instead of being constantly treated to that particular wardrobe malfunction.
As for the rest of the cast, there are few that would be much recognized on this side of the Pond. As to characters, it will turn out that one of them is a ringer not really a fair cop, since we're given no clue that there's anything suspicious about him or her. In the cast, several well-known historical names appear such as King Edward (played by the estimable Joss Ackland), Lillie Langtree (played by a fine actor, Jenny Seagrove), Theodore Roosevelt (played by the well-known Claude Akins), and Gugliamo Marconi (played by an unknown, Steven Gurney).
The settings for the film are scenic, and the action usually brisk. The train trip from Capetown to Victoria Falls is a lot of fun, enlivened particularly by Claude Akins, who plays Teddy Roosevelt with appropriate and effective swagger and bluster.
The script writers may have assumed the viewer would already know of the relationship between Langtree and Edward VIII but in any event, this fact never appears in plot or dialogue not to mention the fact that Ms. Langtree's participation in the story contains elements entirely antithetical to her actual character.
The story takes a number of twists and turns, although Holmes's vade mecum, detection by deduction, sometimes falls by the side of the road. In this respect, the film falls short of the standard set by the great Basil Rathbone not to mention the even greater Jeremy Brett.
Well, no film is perfect. This one is a good evening's entertainment, over 3 hours long. While the cast is generally average, Lee and Macnee give the entire film centrality and impetus. The trick here is not to mind the various little problems and go along for the ride. It's a pretty good one, especially the railroad.
An adequate Sherlockian pastiche
In 1991 and 1992, 2 long Sherlock Holmes pastiches appeared as TV miniseries. With Christopher Lee as Holmes and Patrick Macnee as Watson, we should have very high expectations of these presentations. For the most part, these were fulfilled to a large extent. Both men were associated with other Sherlockian endeavors. Lee had earlier (1970) played Sherlock's brother Mycroft ("The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes") and (1962) Sherlock ("Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Necklace") ... and played Henry Baskerville opposite the late Peter Cushing as Holmes in Hammer Studio's fine "Hound of the Baskervilles" in 1959..
(Cushing in turn played Holmes also in 1984's Masks of Death and in a UK TV series in 1965-68.) Macnee had previously played Watson in 1976 ("Sherlock Holmes in New York") and went on to play Holmes himself in a 1993 TV movie ("The Hound of London").
What is amazing here is how few times these men have played Sherlockian rôles. Lee gave some of the best portrayals of the Great Detective committed to film on a par with Rathbone although not so fine as Brett. Macnee was a fine, assertive Watson much less wimpy than the rôle handed to Nigel Bruce and very much the equal of Edward Hardwicke. We may be grateful that Lee didn't affect the unSherlockian deerstalker. (And Cushing, again, is really incisive as Holmes.) The "Leading Lady" of the title is none other than The Woman, Irene Adler. Here the film stumbles. First of all, the rôle is given to Morgan Fairchild not exactly a bad choice, but not entirely a felicitous one, either. Although Fairchild pretty much walks the walk and talks the talk, in the end it's simply not possible to believe that Sherlock would ever have called her "The Woman". More than this, the film's producers obviously have no idea that in the early 1890s (the film takes place in 1910), Sherlock spent some months in Montenegro, during which time he lived with Adler and fathered on her a son the later great reclusive detective Nero Wolfe (please note the "er-o" of Sherlock and the "ol-e" of Holmes). We see no sign of this aspect of their relationship.
The film takes place in and around Wien (Vienna) after an introduction in London. The plot involves a device developed by an Austrian scientist one that will explode bombs remotely. He has both a prototype and the plans. Of course, everybody is after this new toy: the Austro-Hungarian government, the Russians, the Germans, and some Serbian terrorists who want to blow up Emperor Franz-Josef. Obviously the latter bunch don't succeed (old FJ died in his bed in 1916), but in retrospect it's too bad they didn't.
The inventor rather stupidly imagines that the British can be trusted not to make improper use of his creation and offers it to them. Holmes and Watson travel to Wien to collect the detonator. The remainder of the film (almost 3 hours total) involves disguises, double dealing, racing and chasing, and a good deal of confusion. In the process the prototype and the plans become separated. The film's director keeps things moving and keeps Holmes guessing. The various characters are colorful and, for the most part, effectively portrayed. The Emperor, alas, is portrayed as far too affable, whereas the man was stiff, formal, and distant.
The only member of the cast who is well known, aside from those already mentioned, is Engelbert Humperdinck not the excellent 19th-Century composer, but the rather less excellent stage performer (the connection being that the latter took the former's name as a stage name). Humperdinck invests his character (Eberhard Böhm) with a fine Old World feeling and fits in well with the general high tenor of the cast.
Probably the best joke in the film is the appearance of Elliot Ness, on his first post-training assignment for what would later become the FBI. The best part of the joke is that Ness was born in 1903 and would then have been 7 years old. Somebody (a) didn't do his/her homework or (b) is pulling our legs rather vigorously.
On the whole, while this film can't be regarded as an absolutely top-notch Holmes pastiche certainly not the quality of "Private Life" or "Seven Per-Cent Solution" it's entertaining and worth watching. Don't be put off by the occasional banality of the script. On more than one occasion I found myself saying the utterly predictable next line before the character who was supposed to say it. To the film's credit, not once to I recall Holmes saying that "the game is afoot". Lee was, however, saddled with the occasional "elementary".
The Speckled Band (1931)
Sherlockian obscuranta ... with good reason.
The fact that a film is on DVD doesn't guarantee that its quality is very good. The fact that a film's quality is threadbare doesn't mean you shouldn't buy it. This review actually applies to 2 films paired on a single DVD.
The plots of these films are of little consequence. They are of interest only to people who collect Holmes films anybody who merely wants a few of the better offerings would do well to purchase some of those made by Jeremy Brett or, in a pinch, Basil Rathbone. There are a few other very good Holmes films featuring good actors on a one-shot basis such as "Seven Per Cent Solution" or "Private Life of Sherlock Holmes". In any event, these films are considerably less estimable.
Here we have a pair of films featuring some of the best actors to do Holmes, even if the results tend toward disappointing. This appears to be the only disc with these films on it (although "Deadly Necklace") appears by itself in the same version on other discs.
"(Sherlock Holmes and) the Deadly Necklace" dates from 1962, although it neither looks it nor sounds it. Some who have seen this may be surprised to learn that it was produce by Hammer Studios. Not that Hammer hasn't turned out some really schlock stuff, but where Christopher Lee was concerned, they usually did a better job. The print a direct transfer from a rather worn 1:1.33 copy in black-and white. The quality of the color suggests the original may have been in color, and the snipped ends of the film's aspect suggest it may originally have been 1:1.66 or more.
The film is set in the early 20th Century not improbable, since Holmes was still working then (and didn't actually die until 1957). However, the script is not adapted from any actual Doyle story. It involves an Egyptian necklace, and Professor Moriarty shows up as a world-famous archaeologist as well as the Prince of Crime. The plot is melodramatic and banal.
The biggest defect of this film is that for whatever unfathomable reason Hammer filmed it in Germany. It was nonetheless filmed in English. It was then dubbed in German and then re-dubbed in English. So what you hear isn't Lee nor any of the other original actors, but a bunch of unknowns not that, outside of Lee, I doubt anyone would know any of the other actors. This is too bad, since Lee (see his "Hound of the Baskervilles") makes a quite decent Holmes. As it is, his voice double is condescending and plain as bread pudding with no raisins nor cinnamon.
The music for this film is primarily jazzy, in a possible attempt to be "period". Too bad nobody thought of ragtime. As it is, the music doesn't relate to what's happening on the screen, and often is at odds with the action.
The other film is "(Sherlock Holmes and) the Speckled Band" from 1931, starring a young Raymond Massey. The quality of the picture and sound is fully up to that of the 1962 effort, and in fact a bit better. Massey makes a quite respectable Holmes, although he certainly doesn't own the rôle in the way Rathbone did and Brett does. The other thespians who take part in this production are unlikely to be of interest to modern readers. The acting as is true of many films of this period owes a lot to the post-Victorian stage and to silent films.
It should be noted that, while "The Deadly Necklace" is available on DVD by itself, "The Speckled Band" is available only with the former film.
There is very little else to be said of this film. The settings seem to be an odd combination of the 1890s (horse-drawn carriages) and the 1920s (electronic devices such as a primitive dictaphone). Taken altogether, it's an interesting curio and a sufficient inducement to buy the DVD with the pairing rather than a DVD with "Deadly Necklace" only.