Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati)

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

52-film Challenge, week 5

I have seen many (and at the same time, also not nearly enough) of the films often ranked in the top 100 of the “greatest films of all time” — as though time was over (or making films was over) and a final judgement could be rendered.

Playtime, made by and starring Jacques Tati, is a bona-fide masterpiece and visually one of the greatest films made … thus far. Forget Avatar, this 70mm exploration of humanity versus modernity blends several distinct film genres into one, with both deep philosophical and funny results.

In its way, it is a silent movie. Not literally of course, but dialogue is generally not viewed as that important and often pushed into the background. Actions take center stage and often key “gags” are performed simultaneously, meaning viewers have to keep their eye on virtually everything happening in the (wide) picture frame, and their ears open for any snippets of important “story” detail.

It is a film that demands, and rewards, your full attention.

Mostly, Playtime doesn’t really have a story as such: it is structured more like a “day in the life of” type film. That said, we do more-or-less follow a couple of key characters around a few city blocks over the course of around 18 hours — Tati himself, playing the hapless everyman of Monsieur Hulot (which appeared in some of Tati’s earlier films, most notably Mon Oncle), and the American tourist Barbara, who came to Paris to see the famous sights, but can’t seem to find them except for glimpses and moments.

The theme of the film seems to be that Paris is modernizing, and losing its character — but that humanity (at least as embodied by the Parisians in the film) fight back with chaos against the new, bland, glass-and-steel city they find themselves in.

Anyone who enjoys architecture as a topic of sometimes-appreciation, sometimes-debate — like me — will be positively swimming in the gigantic custom-built set of ultra-modern (and still uncannily relevant, 55 years later) “Tativille,” where traditional Paris is only seen in reflections in the endless glass doors or symbolised by a lonely flower shop on one of the exceptionally-clean street corners.

It doesn’t matter if you already know M. Hulot from the earlier films, his character is a universal silent-film comic archetype: a good person who continually falls into comedic misfortune or unwittingly helps drive events in the film through his difficulty in this unfamiliar environment.

Where nearly everyone wears smart suits or fashionably bland dresses, Hulot primarily wears a mack (overcoat), a traditional hat, ill-fitting clothes, and carries a pipe. He is a person living in the mid-60s, but not at ease with the pace of change and modernisation. The influence this must have had on Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean can scarcely be overstated.

Barbara, the tourist, often separates herself from the sheep-like tourist group she is with, determined to see the area on her own terms — but like a lost lamb she is often rounded up again and herded along to wherever the next encounter is supposed to be. When she sees only the reflection of the Eiffel Tower, she turns to gaze at it longingly — but she is miles away, in this concrete jungle.

Hulot stumbles around the film — seen more often than any other single character, but likewise often disappears for a while — bouncing from one hapless round of mostly-visual sight gags to another, all within a jungle of beautiful but sterile steel-and-glass storefronts and offices. One of the early scenes shows M. Hulot attempting to meet with an official of some sort, but the two only rarely intersect in the rat’s maze of a corporate cubicle farm (predicting that trend over 20 years early).

M. Hulot gets the overhead view of the maze he is in.

Barbara and M. Hulot do run across each other increasingly as the film goes on, because they are nearly always in what feels like about a four-block radius of each other. Unlike most films that feature strangers meeting, it never threatens to become a romantic comedy, and this is refreshing.

As mentioned, sound (and music) happens in this film to distinguish it from a silent film, but in the early scenes it’s used more like a paintbrush to set tones or support the visual language, and only much later in the film do both sound and human dialogue really come forward as equal elements.

Things build slowly, focusing on sight gags early on (and again, you have to pay nearly as much attention to the background as the foreground to get a feel for everything that is happening), but over time the film slyly shifts from being fascinated by the buildings and settings to focusing on the increasingly-chaotic humans as the action turns to the opening night of a not-quite-ready nightclub opening.

Eventually, full-blown chaos explodes among both the established characters and the myriad newcomers into the tale, but there isn’t really a climax in the traditional sense: things hit a peak, but as the dawn breaks we follow the climb-down and emerging calm that will reset the picture back to nearly the beginning, as the club empties, people find their way home, and Barbara gets back on the bus to go back to the airport — but not without spending just a bit of time with the old-fashioned gentleman that she’s been running into all evening.

At two hours, I’m not sure if modern attention spans will have as much love for Playtime as I do –– but the payoff on this film is enormous, and on multiple levels. It is a masterclass in visual comedy, multi-focus direction, sound as a background rather than foreground tool, societal commentary, and a celebration of messy humanity against a sterile, unfeeling backdrop.

Shot with 65mm film for a 70mm release, Playtime is ideal for HD and 4K TVs because everything, all the way back, is in focus. This gives Tati the opportunity to have lots of “business” happening throughout the entire frame, compared to the usual focusing on the main thing the director wants you to notice. This director wants you to notice it all.

So much glass everywhere in our modern world.

The colour hues and theme of automation uber alles are stunningly gorgeous and, unlike most films of this period, would easily convince some viewers that it was made much closer to the current year than it was. Its contrast of de-humanising and re-humanising themes is endearing and still relevant.

The prolonged pre-production, wildly expensive full-size sets and clever illusions, the perfectionistic direction of almost every actor in shot and much more establish this film as a beautifully synchronised machine with only small moments of anarchy at the beginning, but by the end the wheels have completely come off in joyous defiance of sharp angles, and a smooth-running society.

It is a joyous movie that absolutely bankrupted and ruined Tati’s reputation, but he felt it had to be made at all costs — and he was right. It is an utter masterpiece, and nearly as relevant today as it was in 1967.

I’ll avoid talking about the ending of the film, but after (finally) some actual human moments in the denouement, Tati saves his best and most withering (visual) comment for the final scene. If viewers have tapped into Playtime’s zeitgeist and stayed with it, they are richly rewarded as it fades to black.

You’ll have to trust me on this one, but this scene is very funny.

The Daughter of Dawn (1920, dir. Norbert Myles)

52 film challenge (week 4)
⭐️⭐️⭐️

This is one of the films that film-history majors watch, and pretty much nobody else (at least not anymore), but it’s actually a little bit fascinating.

This silent film is a non-patronizing look at life among the Kiowa and Comanche tribes — set in a time before they were herded into reservations and their previous way of life forcibly taken away from them, but acted by people this had happened to some 50 years earlier.

The story is a pretty straightforward “love triangle” story, but what’s amazing about this silent film is that the entire cast, without exception, is portrayed by Native Americans (some 300 all together), and featuring authentic outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes.

The acting is of course variable, but convincing enough to impart the story of one brave who feels he “deserves” the chief’s daughter and attempts to force her into marriage, while the young girl has already fallen for another brave. True love wins out, which itself is something of a radical idea given the time when the film came out.

The portrayal of the women of the tribes is surprisingly much less patronising than expected; the villain of the piece Black Wolf does have another who pines for him (Red Wing), but he callously ignores her in favor of the Daughter of Dawn (yes, that’s her name). He spends most of the movie creeping around and observing from a distance in the standard silent-movie way, helping us uncover developments, whereupon he discovers his rival While Eagle and plots his downfall.

The Daughter of Dawn and her true love, White Eagle.

The simple story is kind of excuse to recreate something like pre-reservation life among two tribes, including great landscape shots of the plains (the film was made in Oklahoma), hunting scenes featuring actual wild buffalo, daring stunts, and some time spent on the day-to-day life of the people. Director Norbert Myles seems to have wanted to a documentary-style drama rather than stigmatize the “savages” as was more the style for the time.

Actual First Nation peoples! Actual outfits, props, and tepees provided by the tribes themselves!

On a story level, this wasn’t that far removed from The Searchers (1954), but apart from the interesting historical context and backstory of the film itself — it was presumed lost for almost 90 years before mysteriously resurfacing in 2012 — it’s not a film most non-native people would seek out.

It’s pretty well-made and sympathetic for a 1920 silent film, and benefits strongly from an authentic Native American cast. The plot is very well-worn nowadays, but I would imagine it captured audiences’ imaginations — and maybe won over a few “paleface” hearts and minds — in its day.

The Tragedy of MacBeth (2021, dir. Joel Cohen)

52 Film Challenge, week 3
⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I’ve been saving this film since it came out since the trailer alone told me what I needed to know about it — neo-expressionist, Escher-influenced, exceptionally-sharp B&W mixing stagecraft and filmcraft (and witchcraft) with stunning performances and visuals that I would eat up like candy.

At just over an hour and 40 minutes, this might be seen by some as an attempt to get theatre-resistant souls to give this major Shakespearean outing a fair shake —

but the substantial trimming of the text is so skillfully done that the stark and incredible visuals fill in what’s not there with great artistry. The speeches that I recalled most vividly from the many productions I have seen in theatres were still there.

About the only bad thing I can say about this is an unfair complaint: I never find Shakespeare’s lines quite as musical when they are done by American voices. That is not to, in the least, denigrate the performances of the leads — Frances McDormand as Lady MacBeth (stunningly well portrayed) and Denzel Washington as MacBeth himself, though he failed to connect with me quite as much as some of his predecessors in the part.

I liked the variations, sincerity, and styling Washington gave to his speeches, and he joins a company of fine actors, from Bertie Carvel (in a very fine turn as Banquo), to Alex Hassel as the impossibly thin, impossibly beautiful, impossibly expressive Ross, to Harry Melling as Malcolm (another good turn from this maturing actor). This being filmed entirely on a soundstage (in California, sadly) gave it a beautifully claustrophobic atmosphere, even when scenes were set outdoors. A triumph of cinematography, this.

Alex Hassell as Ross nearly steals the picture, except when Frances McDormand is on.

Visually, pacing-wise, and performance-wise, this version punches all of my buttons and while I have seen a handful of filmed MacBeths before, this one is far and away my favourite. It’s like no version of the show seen before, and combined with some sparing but incredibly clever effects to enhance the witch(es) — with a nod of awe to Kathryn Hunter for her stellar performance — it is as riveting to watch as any of Laurence Olivier’s Technicolour (or B&W) Shakespearean movies (one of which actually has Melling’s grandfather in a notable role).

Holy crap, this scene.

A mention must be made of Carter Burwell’s musical score, which is minimal and rarely calls attention to itself but which is yet another element setting the mood, which is what Coen has really brought to this production (other than some well-placed scissors to the script). Although there were a few fleeting moments when I wished a line or an actor’s look had been done a bit differently, or if a scene had lingered just a bit more, these were but quickly drowned by the glory of the effects, the sets, the cinematography, the lighting, and all the other elements.

Finally, I am not yet settled on Coen’s main addition to the tale, that being some staging that suggests a non-traditional interpretation of the third murderer. But perhaps I will drink in this sweet wine of a film again and ponder on it. This unconventional movie took some risks, and for me most of them paid off handsomely.

Ugetsu (Monogatari) (雨月物語, lit. “Rain-moon Tales”) 1953, dir. Kenji Mizoguchi

2023 52-film challenge: week 2

The late 1940s and much of the 1950s was an interesting time for the film world, particularly in the West. In addition to filmmaking advances from other countries, interest in ”foreign” films and styles of filmmaking/storytelling grew at international competitions, increasing diversity and influencing North American and European filmmakers for decades afterwards.

The main characters (L-R): foolish Tōbei, prideful Genjūrō, Genjūrō’s wife Miyagi, their son Genichi, and Tōbei’s wife Ohana.

This movie, usually shortened to just Ugetsu, is an interesting film because it weaves some timeless story ideas together: a clever allegorical tale of the delusions of men — and the subsequent wartime suffering of their wives and children, shown in a almost-feminist sympathetic light — alongside a more traditional Japanese ghost story, offering up a meaningful anti-war theme based on the lives of the innocent victims of war.

The story is based on tales from a book written in 1776 (when another more famous war was going on), and is set during Japan’s prolonged civil war, which finally ended in 1600.

We focus on a small family: the potter Genjūrō, his wife Miyagi, and their young son Genichi. The other two main characters are Genjūrō’s brother-in-law Tōbei and his wife, Ohama. Both of the two men have big dreams: Genjūrō dreams of having money by selling his pottery in larger towns, while Tōbei is almost feverish with a desire to become a samurai.

Genjūrō’s more modest and achievable aims at least are rewarded; Tōbei’s goal is sort-of achieved in a rather comical way, but their visions of success both drive them to leave behind their families to seek their fortunes, causing mostly suffering compared to the poor-but-happy lives they already had.

Tōbei, as is his habit, stumbles into enough dumb luck to finally get rewarded as a samurai general, complete with armor, horse, and retinue.

Genjūrō, in town to spend all his money on gifts for his new wife, slowly discovers that she and the villa don’t actually exist any longer; he has been seduced by a ghost, and living in a dream world that makes him forget his real wife and son. A priest he bumps into gives him a reality check, and paints prayers upon his body to help dispel the ghost and the dream-world.

The backdrop of all this is the civil war. Miyagi and Genichi, left behind by Genjūrō in his quest for larger towns to sell to, are forced from their village, with Miyagi robbed and stabbed by soldiers. Ohama, who loses Tōbei in the crowd of the city, must fend for herself and is eventually turned into a prostitute.

Tōbei, who finally has a little money from selling Genjūrō’s pottery, blows it on armour and tries to get into a samurai camp, only to be rejected.

Meanwhile, Genjūrō has had an encounter with lady of royalty who seduces him back to her villa, and uses her sensual regalness to trick him into marriage.

The triumphant Tōbei wants to return to his village to show his wife his new hero status, but his men persuade him to stop by a brothel for the evening first — where he finds his wife Ohama as one of the working women there. He is shocked back to reality by the discovery, and promises to give up his status in order to buy back her honour.

Genjūrō returns to the now ruined village and finds Miyagi and his son in their former house, relieved that at least his kiln has survived the soldiers’ devastation. He takes some food from the joyful Miyagi, who refuses to let him confess his sins, and quickly falls asleep beside his son.

In the morning, he awakes to find only Genichi still with him. A village elder discovers them and tells Genjūrō that Miyagi died from her injuries some time back, and is buried outside. The elder has been taking care of Genichi since.

Genjūrō and Tōbei reunite in the village, and promise to work hard for the benefit of Genichi and Ohana, who has had her honor restored via Tōbei’s giving up on his false success.

The film is shot with interesting lighting, camera angles (extensive use of crane shots, allowing for a mythical look), and extensive use of both traditional western soundtrack and spotlighting ancient Japanese music.

Although Ugetsu is mostly of interest to film history students these days, the movie is nonetheless a still-compelling tale of morality woven with supernatural elements. The clues that Lady Wakasa is not who she seems start with her Noh-theatre style and hikimayu-style “eyebrows,” while Tōbei’s story is told in traditional Japanese comic-underdog style.

The skill in the filmmaking blends these oddly-compatible journeys together well, and (surprisingly for the time) does not shirk from showing how their families suffer because of the mens’ chasing of dreams.

As an introduction to director Mizoguchi, it makes me want to check out his other international hit, Sansho the Bailiff (1954). Because of its towering international achievements in awards and screenings outside Japan, the film has consistently placed in many “all time greatest films” lists — and is still on the revered Sight&Sound top-100 list, having resided there at different rankings since the first such list in 1962.

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

52 Films Challenge: Film 1

On a suggestion from Jason A. Miller and inspired further by Drew Meyer, I’ve joined a little social challenge to watch 52 movies in 2023, at least one per week. I may or may not binge a few during relaxed periods like this one in case I can’t fulfill a given week’s goal. I’ll try to avoid any “spoilers” in my comments on them, and try instead to persuade people to look up (or avoid) the film.

First up: Battleship Potemkin (1925) by a 27-year-old (!) Sergei Eisenstein.

Although very basic and propagandistic by today’s standards, this is a masterpiece of early Russian cinema and brought the now-familiar technique of “montages” into the vocabulary of silent film, a way to show a number of shots as a summation of what was going on. Oddly, I had not actually seen the entire film previously.

It is based on the true story of the ship, which in 1905 helped kick off a revolution against the authoritarian Tsar’s government and military after a mutiny caused by the Tsarist officers’ cruelty and indifference to the suffering of the crew. The film is also noted for being among the very few that portrayed graphic violence and some gore on-screen (rather than cutting away or minimizing it) at the time.

Modern viewers may find its points laboured and the editing disruptive at times, but as a piece of military history and for the remarkable “Odessa Steps” sequence that represents the cruelty and tyranny of the Tsar’s forces, it remains an interesting look at some of the events that shaped Russia for generations. At less than 1h20m, it’s a pretty easy watch if you enjoy long-form silent movies (the score on the version I saw featured lots of Shostakovich).

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part One (2010)

Written by: Steve Kloves (screenplay)
Directed by: David Yates
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint
Running time: 146 minutes

It’s a bad sign when your mind wanders during a film. It happened a couple of times during this one, which is not to say I didn’t like it. Overall, I liked it quite a lot — in part because after six of these films they finally figured out how to make Harry Potter movies, and in part because J.K. Rowling has nicked so many “bits” from other books and movies and just twisted them a little, and there’s nothing wrong with that generally speaking.

The first thing that broke my suspension of disbelief was a moment early on in the film when Harry meets Elphias Dodge, an old friend of Dumbledore’s. Nothing against David Ryall, who’s been in everything British TV can offer at one time or another, but I would have loved to have seen Tom Baker in that part — he’s much more the kind of mad character Dumbledore would hang out with.

Later, during the sequence in the Ministry of Magic, I remember thinking “ooh they should have let Terry Gilliam direct this one.” There were several moments like that.

But what really broke my concentration was the laid-on-thick parallels to The Lord of the Rings. Now, the whole series has at this point become a “Quest” tale so bits of other quest classics are of course going to show up, from Greek mythology to Doctor Who’s The Key to Time, but Rowling really doesn’t try to terribly hard to hide it.

I come at these movies not having read the books (yes, I’m the one guy who hasn’t read any of these books bar the first one!), so I judge them as movies. From that perspective, the series has been pretty uneven; after the first delightful one, they quickly got jumbled, hurried and senseless (particularly The Prisoner of Azkaban, which was a disgraceful mess). After a slight respite in the much-better Goblet of Fire, things returned to silly, overwrought and confusing in Order of the Phoenix, which I found totally forgettable and impossible to follow.

Much of the damage finally started being repaired in 2009’s The Half-Blood Prince, helmed by David Yates who took what Mike Newell started and ran with it, focusing like a laser on the actual story buried in the details and extracting it, much to the delight of anyone who hadn’t re-read the book the week before. HBP was clear, set up new events nicely, really let the young actors shine instead of being just an endless walk-through of notable old British veterans like the first five movies were, and as a result solved the pacing issue that had really hobbled all the films from #3 onwards.

Yates returned for this one, and the two-part nature of it might have been a crass marketing ploy but I for one am grateful; the slower pace makes this the first Harry Potter movie to have any appreciable amounts of silence in it. I found myself really enjoying the slower-paced scenes, such as Harry’s kiss with Ginny to remind you that they’re still a couple, and some of the later picture-postcard scenes do allow for some genuine thoughtful acting (rather than, say, re-acting to one of the many effects shots).

There is still a certain amount of blink-and-you’ll-miss-them with the by-now enormous guest cast (and remember, half of those characters have died in the films by this point!) and there are still some introductions of people who, as in so much of Rowling’s work, walk on and then are quickly killed or thrown out never to be seen again. I was disappointed we didn’t get more of the Dursleys, but at least this time they didn’t forget about having a few lighter scenes; the Seven Harrys will get a giggle out of many.

There’s a fair amount of sexual tension in the film, though for the life of me I can’t really see how the Ron-Hermione romance actually works so their on-screen actions feel kind of forced (and the “triangle” with Harry even more so), but the kids do pretty well with the material; this movie is much less a spotlight on Radcliffe as it is on Watson and Grint, the former proving herself what I have always suspected — a reincarnated Audrey Hepburn — while Grint struggles to look like he even belongs in this movie.

I don’t fault Grint so much as Rowling — Ron is just a blah character meant to balance the other two, and in the films he’s been a total third wheel since the first one and he knows it. Of the original young cast, I think Watson and Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) have a real shot at having genuine long film careers if they care to. Felton isn’t given that much to do in this one but he’s quite obviously going to have a bigger role in the next one, and I found the whole dynamic of the Malfoy household much more interesting in DH1 than ever before, as the family — particularly Lucius, Draco’s father — was painted in such cartoonish strokes up until the last film (and speaking of him, what the holy hell happened to Jason Isaacs? He looks terrible in this movie, like he’s aged 10 years to everyone else’s two!).

There were still sequences that didn’t make much sense, or seem to add much to the plot, but it is the scenes of the heroic trio on the run that make up the entire second half of the film, and while a nice change from the Hogwarts-bound nature of the previous movies, went too far over the LOTR-homage cliff and felt circular in nature — apart from destroying the Horcrux, they don’t actually accomplish much, and what few clues they turn up felt very Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew-ish in nature. Finally, they end up in right where they didn’t want to be — and despite their escape, they lose Dobby (I was not sorry to see him go, I considered him the Jar-Jar of this series, but at least they gave him a very good send-off) and the villain seems to have won the day.

Despite not having read the books, I have a pretty fair idea of where this is going for the wrap-up, which characters will return and which ones will redeem themselves. Why? Because while Harry Potter’s saga is imaginative — and enjoyable for that — it is not terribly original. Anyone well-versed in the Hero’s Myth, Freytag’s model and the best adventure stories that have come before it can see the general path ahead. But have we enjoyed the journey?

Though it remains entirely too dependent on the source books to make much sense without them, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, like The Half-Blood Prince, at least tries to give us a coherent enough main plot to follow that we aren’t bothered too much about the details, and on that level it succeeds.

For once, I understood perfectly what the subject of the title of the film was all about, thanks mainly to a really standout bit of shadow-play homage animation to illustrate the tale of the Three Brothers, and even the racism/eugenics allegory was further explored without beating me over the head with it. It even tied back to the first movie, well there’s a nice reward for those who have grown confounded by Rowling’s tendency to throw tonnes of interesting stuff at us and then refer back to precious little of it ever again.

I have hope that the finale really will tie up at least some of the bigger loose ends and give us a satisfying conclusion. I have no doubt that Voldemort has fallen for the last of Dumbledore’s traps, that just as the brass ring is in his grasp his “family” will begin to defect, and that characters not seen in this movie (or for a while, if you get my drift) will return. Hell, I’m half-expecting Ghostly Alec Guinness — sorry, Ghostly Albus Dumbledore — to turn up at a crucial moment and tell Harry to use the Force.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Written by: Norman R. Raine & Seton I. Miller
Directed by: Michael Curtiz & William Keighley
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia De Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains
Running time: 102 minutes

The short version: this is an absolute classic of a movie, so good that I don’t even mind that a number of the cast are obvious Americans.

This is a beautifully-executed amalgamation of various legends of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men in Sherwood Forest, a story that has evolved greatly over time (and deviated from what scant details are verifiable) but has its roots in genuine tales of a legendary archer who addressed injustices via vigilante violence from at least the 14th century.

This version presents the now-standard portrait of Robin of Loxley as a dispossessed Saxon knight forced to become an outlaw when the Normal Prince John, conniving brother of King Richard I, attempts to seize the monarchy and subjugate the Saxons while King Richard is away at the Crusades.

Very little of this squares in any way with the actual legend (itself full of disputed details) — it’s off by a mere couple of centuries, a different king and lack of nobility for a start — but who the hell cares. The setting gives us a genuine historical backdrop (Prince John really did overthrow Richard’s regent William Longchamp in an attempt to seize the throne while Richard was held prisoner), a rich and clearly-drawn cast of characters, an injustice for Robin to fight and plenty of pageantry. The 12th century never looked as good as this, and despite all the detail inaccuracy, most people consider this the definitive version of the story which, despite many subsequent attempts, hasn’t been topped (or even equalled).

The key to this movie’s enduring success — it’s still very watchable and enjoyable some 72 years after it’s release — has a lot to do with the screenplay, which is beautifully peppered with comedy and drama in perfect proportion to the action, and structured very much along the patterns of Shakespeare’s plots.

The casting must also be mentioned, as time has proven most of the choices very wise. Errol Flynn (who was actually born in Australia) gives us a passable attempt at an aristocratic English accent, convincing us he’s a Saxon lord being discriminated against by the treacherous Prince John (just this side of camp portrayal by Claude Rains), the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne (the flawless Basil Rathbone), and the rather ineffectual and oafish Sherrif of Nottingham (a refreshingly different, Cowardly Lion-esque approach by Melville Cooper).

Strangely, however, the Merry Men are appear to mostly be made up of Americans. Excluding Robin and Will Scarlett, the main speaking roles amongst the outlaws are the frog-voiced Friar Tuck (Eugene Pallette, a former silent-movie star who’s distinctive voice made him a comic actor in the talkies) and Little John (father of “Gilligan’s Island” skipper Alan Hale Jr.), the former of which is especially jarring in 12th-century Yorkshire.

Still, all is forgiven once the characters are introduced and the action begins, including a number of breath-taking stunts (remembering that there was no technology or safety standards in those days) set against a (California!) backdrop of perfectly gorgeous technicolour, still quite the novelty in 1938 but which has definitely helped preserve interest in this film.

Flynn comes off as the perfect heroic archetype; charming, sassy, bold, witty and noble. From his first encounter with Sir Guy and particularly in his latter bold appearance in the court of Prince John, his portrayal seems natural and self-assured, like he was born to play it — the fact that his interpretation stands as definitive to this day speaks loudly of how well the script was tailored to Flynn’s personality.

Poor Olivia De Havilland has to do all her acting using almost exclusively her eyes for most of the film, only ridding herself of her maiden headdress towards the end, but she proves up to the challenge and gives a surprisingly rich and nuanced performance, even when overshadowed by the much more (shall we say) theatrical stylings of messrs. Rains, Rathbone and Cooper.

Sharp-eyed or repeat viewings of the film can yield forth all manner of continuity goofs, embarrassingly rubber clubs and swords, strange plot points (Richard and his men just “show up” in Sherwood with no explanation of how they escaped or got there, right on cue) and so forth, but these sorts of things — which would be excoriated as sloppy in most films — are swept under the rug by the an audience swept away by the pageantry and action. Directors Curtiz and Keighley boldly stage complicated fight scenes and other set pieces with huge numbers of extras and rather complicated shots and by and large it all works stunningly well.

Like Captain Blood and other high-adventure films of the period, the filmmakers have no trouble balancing slower, character-rich moments with the fast-paced action, because at all times they remember to be servants to the overall story. The comedy is always delightfully light-hearted, the dramatic moments are credible (particularly thanks to De Havilland, such as the scene in the forest where she begins to be won over to Robin’s cause), and nothing feels out of place — even the entirely-invented romance between the hunter Much and Marion’s nurse Bess. Even the small moments and throwaway lines give the story more variety and depth — careful not to make Robin less than perfectly noble, giving the Merry Men sufficient backstory, avoiding painting the Normans as all-bad or the Saxons as all-good and so on.

The Axis of Evil, circa 1166.

If you only ever see one Robin Hood film in its entirety, this is the one to see (well, actually, you should watch Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights right after it). If you only watch one Errol Flynn movie in your life, this is the one to see. If you only watch one colour film from the late 1930s … okay yeah, that would be dumb because there were a number of fabulous colour movies from the late 30s, but this is definitely right up there with Gone With the Wind or The Wizard of Oz.

Historical accuracy be damned, this is Hollywood legend-making at its finest and the source of so much influence over not just later Robin Hood movies, but adventure movies in general, that it should be a staple of film schools and periodic revivals, particularly at outdoor film fests. This is genuinely among my all-time favourite films — great historical fun that holds up so well it may well last another century as a beloved fable.

The Runaways (2010)

Written and directed by: Floria Sigismondi
Starring: Dakota Fanning, Kristen Stewart, Michael Shannon
Running time: 109 minutes

The Runaways is a decidedly lopsided film about the hugely influential all-girl rock band who roared into life just on the crest of punk and combusted, as all legendary bands tend to do, before they ever reached their full potential.

The background of the film is that its screenplay is derived from (lead singer) Cherie Currie’s tell-all biography Neon Angel, but also has as one of its executive producers one Joan Jett, the leader of the band, and so we can presume that from the point of view of these two, at least, the real story of The Runaways is being told.

Fanning and Stewart are, frankly, miracle pieces of casting giving their best performances ever (Fanning we already knew was an adept actor, but who could have guess that Kristen Stewart had more to offer the world than Bella Swan?), totally submersing themselves in their roles and even actually singing most of the numbers performed. Apart from scene-stealing Michael Shannon as Kim Fowley, the two girls dominate not only the band but the entire movie.

Thus, it’s a pity that the movie focuses on only these two members of the band (and Fowley) so heavily. Drummer Sandie West (Stella Maeve) at least gets some decent screen time and a few lines, but Lita Ford (played by Scout Taylor-Compton) just comes off as a permanently disgruntled bitch with the very few lines she’s given throughout the film, and the bassist (a made-up character called Robin, since actual bassist Jackie Fox chose not to be represented in the film, played by Alia Shawkat) doesn’t get so much as a single word of dialogue! Ford and “Robin” just disappear into the background for 99% of the film, and West only fares slightly better. It’s like trying to tell the story of the Beatles while ignoring George and Ringo and instead only focusing on John, Paul and Brian Epstein.

That said, seeing the formation of the band makes for an interesting first half, showing not just Currie’s upbringing but Jett’s as well (though the film’s version of the band forming and their early practicing is an out-of-sequence and fictionalized version of what actually occurred). Frankly, Fowley still has enough life story left over to make several more films just about him.

The backstory on Currie’s disintegrating family is interesting, but by the middle of the film we see where that’s all going and would rather stick to the band members (who’ve had a very illuminating introduction into the realities of first-tour experiences), but since half of the band are little more than window dressing we get more about Marie Currie, Cherie’s long-suffering sister, left behind to take care of their alcoholic dad. After the band experience great success in Japan, things begin to fall apart with Currie taking on too many drugs (etc) to really function, even as she and Jett begin a relationship.

Before you know it, the band are in the recording studio, Currie is having a breakdown, Lita Ford gets her big bitch scene and voila, the whole thing flies apart. In reality, this process took four years and three albums (with Currie) plus a final record with Jett on lead vocals before it came crashing down. The film leaves us with Jett ruminating on a solo career, and an awkward coda years later as Jett is being interviewed by Rodney Bingenheimer on KROQ (played over-the-top, if that’s actually possible with Bingenheimer, by Keir O’Donnell); Currie, who hasn’t spoken to Jett in years, phones in and stammers through some on-air awkwardness, then goes back to her job folding napkins.

Viewers who are not familiar with the background of the band and its actual breakdown are likely to be a bit confused by the abridgement and time compression of the film, which actually helps the film feel rather short at 109 minutes, but rock n roll is as much a feeling as it is a series of actions, so this film is probably as much of the real story as you’re ever likely to get, and the soundtrack (mostly reperformed Runaways songs, but there’s also some delicious Bowie, Stooges, Gary Glitter, MC5 and even a little Suzi Quatro in there as well) is pure gold.

The film itself is efficient and well-shot, covering a lot of ground pretty smoothly overall. Although there’s more dysfunctional family life in this one than you get in most rock band biopics, it still feels at times fairly mechanical in its run-through from origins to breakup, complete with “updates” on most of the characters at the end.

Despite having little to no “message” apart from “the rock lifestyle is fun, but don’t overdo the drugs, mmmkay?”, it’s good to see big-name stars actually put some acting blood on the line and do justice to the (limited scope of) the story for a change, and the music is killer, so ultimately I recommend you see the film. I somehow just don’t see Ford, West and Fox (et al) ever getting it together to tell you their side of the story, so eat what you’re given and enjoy The Runaways.

Sherlock Holmes (2009)

Director: Guy Ritchie
Stars: Robert Downie Jr., Jude Law
Running Time: 129 minutes

When I was a boy, I devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories — and still credit my reasonable powers of observation and fair ability to “read” people to my studied enthusiasm for those imaginative tales.

Every few years, I get the itch to re-immerse myself in that wonderful world of Victorian crime and intrigue, intense problem-solving matched with equally intense pleasure-seeking, and the power of pure friendship and pure intellectualism. Most recently I’ve finally (after 20 years!) gotten a chance to watch Tom Baker play the world’s foremost detective from a 1982 BBC production. Baker, who’s best-known role (The Doctor of Doctor Who) is more than a little inspired by Doyle’s detective, was actually bloody marvellous in the traditional theatrical interpretation of the part, rather talky and stagey and with an emphasis on the character’s regal bearing contrasted with his inability to cope with anything beyond crime-solving. It’s available for rental and Holmes purists will probably find themselves generally delighted at this unfairly-overlooked production.

When this new Sherlock Holmes film first came around last Christmas, I had mixed feelings that ultimately kept me from seeing it in a cinema until now. I had great confidence that Robert Downey Jr would be fine in the lead, despite the alarming 80s hair he boasts in the promotional poster (thankfully not replicated in the film), but I frankly don’t care much for Guy Ritchie’s output; neither his choice of usual subjects (British gangland) or his particular directorial style (no more than 10 minutes till the next implausible action sequence) have ever sat well with me, though I’d be the first to admit the two generally go together successfully.

The trailer didn’t inspire me much, except to dare to hope that Jude Law (who plays Watson) would actually be good, something I’ve never managed to see happen before (including, most recently, in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). Holmes as a boxer? A dashing ladies man with all the right words? A Victorian London that appears to have a lot of explosions??

But one should never trust trailers. The actual film itself is, in my view, Ritchie’s most successful effort at being light-hearted, and while great liberties have been taken with the source, it is still identifiably Holmes and Watson, and makes for a solidly entertaining film that deservedly did well at the box office.

While the film is carried by the strong performance of Downey as Holmes, this is actually more Watson’s movie, a very wise move on the part of the screenwriters and director. Watson is often played (ever since Nigel Bruce ruined the part) as a bumbling fool whose only job is to provide narration and makes Holmes look good, but in this version we get something much closer to the Dr. Watson we met in the books and stories; a colleague who, after several years with Holmes, has picked up much of his power of observation, a foil who Holmes himself sees as the man he might have been, a faithful chronicler but not always so loyal a friend, often getting tricked or challenged into participating further.

Jude Law has, to my eyes, never ever been better than he is here. I have never much cared for him and find most of his performances wooden, underplayed and dull, but he clearly had a strong regard for Watson and a good chemistry with Downey, and hits exactly the right note.

As for Downey, his accent is (as Ritchie called it) “flawless” and his interpretation of the part is entirely suitable. If Doctor Who ever got made into a another big-screen movie and the current incumbent was unsuitable, Downey would be my second choice — his entire performance here might as well be one long audition piece for The Doctor. Though he lost some weight for the role to get into fighting trim, I still don’t see him as quite physically right for the role — Holmes was a wastrel in many ways, and the usual consequence of such addictions is a gauntness Downey just doesn’t possess. But he’s more than adequate in the part and apart from some occasional mumbled lines (usually spoken too quickly to be heard clearly), he provides the necessary mix of gentlemanly bearing with mischievous misanthropy, adding style and wit, particularly to his relationship with Inspector LeStrade (Eddie Marsan).

The plot is scarcely worth mentioning, in part because its not based on anything in the Conan Doyle canon and in part because apart from its overall raison d’etre — purporting to show the first meeting of Holmes with his later arch-enemy Professor Moriarty — it doesn’t matter really. The mystery is lovely and atmospheric and, as we know full well going into this, fully solved by the end. The supporting players are equally trivial to the point of the film, which is to showcase the complex relationship of Holmes and Watson. The whole film is actually structured more a Dan Brown runaround (such as The DaVinci Code) than a proper Holmes tale, for example eschewing the traditional “told after the fact” narrative angle and omitting the also-traditional part where a visitor to Baker Street sets up the entire background, one of Doyle’s most common literary devices. But it’s all been cast aside so that we may spend more time in the present moment with Holmes and Watson and watch their bromance take its roller-coaster ride through some very scenic set pieces.

Instead of all that drawing-room chat, we are dropped right into the thick of things, with Holmes and Watson stopping the ritual murder of a young girl by occult leader Lord Blackwood (bit of an in-joke, that name), played by Mark Strong. Blackwood tries his best to convince Holmes of the existence of the supernatural, even returning from the dead after three days (it’s been done), but Holmes is having none of it. Methodically and (as usual) against time and obstacles both external and internal, he unfolds the mystery and (along with the help of Rachel McAdams as an American former lover and jewel thief) saves the day.

London is of course a great place to shoot a Victorian mystery as its quite easy to use current locations with a minimum of dressing. The problem with Ritchie is that he has no concept of the word “minimum” — sets are usually over-dressed and dwelled on more than the actors. Some scenes appear to be chosen purely for their visual value rather than any practical meaning; a prolonged fight scene with Holmes bare-knuckle boxing a larger fellow exists ostensibly to show his ability to calculate his victory over an opponent, but this exact same ability was showcased in the first scene of the film — so this repeated scene is merely an excuse to show the same thing, only this time with Downey’s shirt off.

In another example, being chased by a giant French henchman (Fre-henchman?), the action allows for a large vessel to be loosed from its moorings and fall into the Thames, where it sinks entirely out of sight. The Thames, at its absolute deepest point and highest tide, wouldn’t be quite 20 metres (the spirit of Conan Doyle was notably absent during the “logical sequence of events” part of writing this screenplay). Not only that, the boat slipping from its drydock is entirely unnecessary and adds neither atmosphere nor content to the story.

The big climatic fight on the top of the still-being-built Tower Bridge was probably enjoyable to mainstream moviegoers but struck me as very unrealistic, breaking my suspension of disbelief by being so obviously green-screened. It’s no accident that it’s the only really “talky” part of the movie, the part where Holmes explains to the villain (as though he didn’t know) — and the audience — all the ways in which he’d rigged his “supernatural” tricks. I guess Richie can’t abide the idea of people just explaining things without visual drama all around them. At least he confined himself to only one huge explosion this time.

For a “Hollywood” movie (albeit shot in England), Sherlock Holmes is generally very successful at making the character more appealing to modern (read: less entertained by displays of cleverness) audiences; as a movie its good fun and I’m not surprised that the estate of Sir Conan Doyle gave its blessing, despite it being an original story. The choice of a “supernatural” villain was both genre-appropriate and created a nice contrast of styles. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack makes use of authentic sounds and even a few period songs alongside the usual “action” soundtrack requirements, so I’d rate it above average. The editing was, as is typical of a Guy Ritchie production, rather slapshot and trendy. Like the sets, it felt overworked at times. One fears for Mr Ritchie’s ability to stay focused for any lengthy periods of time.

This interpretation of Holmes may not go down as a classic, but its well worth your ticket or rental money, features a surprisingly strong pair of leads, and preserves the colour, charm and brains of the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes. Despite the sometimes ill-fitting choice of director, I’d say this is about as good a Sherlock Holmes movie as you could possibly hope for out of a mainstream US studio.

Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Director: Wes Anderson
Stars: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray
Running Time: 87 minutes

Wes Anderson’s films are very hit-and-miss with me, in part because he tries very hard not to make the same movie over and over, for which I thank him. I’m always a little amazed at how generally well his films do considering they have a distinctly “indie/art house” air to them; he’s the kid who somehow gets to make largely uncompromised movies on the studio’s dime, never having a megahit but always paying off the investors sufficiently that he gets to make another one. In some ways, he’s this generation’s Woody Allen.

So I have my reasons for wanting to like what I see from him, and by and large I have — although he’s very rarely moved me to be terribly enthusiastic. Such is also the case with his latest movie, Fantastic Mr. Fox — or as I call it, Not At All Bad Mr. Fox. I enjoyed it, not least because it certainly doesn’t look like any other movie on the screen this year — but it didn’t thrill me all that much, and I was a little disappointed to find the well-remembered Roald Dahl book quite tinkered with.

Still, it’s important to remember that I’m not the target audience for this — it’s a kid’s movie based on a kid’s book, and on that level I think the film works pretty well. I hope it inspires kids to read more Roald Dahl. The all-hand-done, stop-motion animation is a really nice change from the surplus of 3-D computer animation we’ve gotten, and although it uses the same technique as the Wallace & Gromit series it does have a distinct look and “feel” (what Ebert would call “texture”). The story works out pretty well despite Anderson’s (unnecessary) addition of a sub-plot and character that don’t end up making a big impression. As a children’s movie, I can recommend it at least as much as the book.

I can’t help but be disappointed by two key decisions, the first of which I’ve already alluded to: Anderson’s decision to (literally) wedge in a “young men who are rivals then bond” subplot that doesn’t actually go anywhere unexpected and seems to exist solely to “mark his territory” in the movie. The second mistake (in my opinion) was casting George Clooney as the lead. Certainly Mr. Fox is a smug sonofabitch and Clooney is terribly good at playing that sort of character, but there’s a reason why Mr. Clooney isn’t constantly swamped with voice work: it’s because he’s not a voice actor. A voice actor is someone who has great range in his voice and can hide, exaggerate his audible personality and usual range with aplomb. Clooney either can’t do this or was directed not to, which means you spend the entire movie looking at Mr. Fox but hearing (very obviously) George Clooney, which hurts the suspension of disbelief.

By contrast, Meryl Streep (who plays Mrs. Fox) is unrecognisable till the end credits (in part because the role is rather beneath her, quite frankly), as is Willem Dafoe. Even Owen Wilson, who sports a pretty recognisable voice and is of course to be expected to appear in every Wes Anderson film any more, manages to inject some actual character into his role. Not George — he just puts on that smug tone he employs in every Oceans movie and phones it in from there.

The aforementioned subplot is Anderson’s weakness — he just has to find a way to stick in some non-conformist dork character who refuses to stop being a odd little twerp, but at the exact same time longs to be accepted by the mainstream. To give Mr. Fox’s son Ash that title, it was necessary to invent a foil who starts off as a rival but then ends up as a friend, thus the invention of Ash’s “cousin” Kristofferson (what an original name!). Kristofferson is “acceptably odd” with his meditation and his quiet nature, versus Ash’s “unacceptable” lack of physicality and grace (bad qualities for a fox, I’m sure you’ll agree). Everyone else in the film is endearingly (but acceptably!) odd as well, except strangely enough for Mrs. Fox, an artist who just comes off stupid and rather gullible in the film.

The film diverges from the book in an number of important ways, some sensible and some insensible. In the movie, Mr. Fox is an expert thief who steals (primarily) chickens and such from the three local farmers just for the fun of it. In the book, he does this to feed his family (as every fox does). In the book, Mr. Fox has four children; in the movie, his “reformation” from a chicken thief to a newspaper columnist (who presumably now pays for food? It’s never explained) is brought on by a close escape and the revelation that his wife is pregnant (with their one son Ash).

Twelve years later (in fox years, a delightful invention that pops up periodically), Ash is feeling his oats again and conspires with the super of his tree-home, the opossum Kylie to start pulling heists of chicken, ducks, geese, turkeys and alcoholic cider. Mrs. Fox is extremely slow to notice. Mr. Fox’s thefts lead to a war of attrition with the mean old farmers, who use increasingly strong methods to try and flush Mr. Fox out, displacing all the other animals in the nearby land. Eventually, the Fox family as well as the the Badgers, rats and other animals are forced very far underground and are in danger of starving. Amazingly, the animals (including most incredibly Mrs. Fox) get only mildly annoyed with Mr. Fox for getting them all into this mess when everything was perfectly fine before by nothing more than his sheer avarice and lack of willpower. He is quickly forgiven, however, when he comes up with a plan to dig into the farmers’ storehouses while they are distracted by trying to flush him out.

From here, the rest of the film is largely a Roadrunner cartoon in stop-motion; the farmers try something, Fox miraculously figures out a way to outsmart them. Repeat. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In the book, Mr. Fox takes some responsibility for his actions, and his plans are borne of a sense of guilt about what has happened to the other animals while he was just trying to feed his own family. In the film, you never get that; you get instead an arrogant prick with no real willpower who takes more than he needs, gets into entirely predictable trouble, but manages to weasel (heh) his way out of one self-created jam after another, aided by enabling co-dependents. I was almost rooting for the farmers by the end of it …

I read somewhere that during pre-production, Henry Selick (James and the Giant Peach, Nightmare Before Christmas, Coraline) was going to be involved, and you have to wonder how that would have turned out, but in some way the art direction on this (done without him) is one of the things that really shines; a few scenes don’t quite “look right,” but that’s part of the charm of hand-made stop-motion.

In 10 or 20 years when nobody remembers George Clooney, this film will be seen for what it actually is; a charming, perhaps a little sloppy, but ultimately human adaptation of Dahl’s story of “wild animals” in a refreshing style that’s enjoyed by children (there were a fair number of laughs at the screening I went to, which had a healthy kid contingent).

At the moment, however, (particularly with Clooney being in every third film out in 2009), the film seems more like an animated version of that funny Captain Kirk “motivational poster” going around the net that says “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome I am.” I can’t help but think that sticking a little closer to the book and using a better vocal actor for Mr. Fox would have made the film a classic.

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