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Invitation to the Waltz (1935)
Adequate, reasonably ambitious and... forgettable.
Director Paul Merzbach brings enough scale and spectacle on a budget to justify a slightly above average rating for this film on a purely objective level, even if subjectively it's something of a chore.
I caught this film after buying a boxset for a copy of 1934's "Happy" (see separate review). Titled "British Musicals of the 1930s", Invitation to the Waltz is something of a stretch in that company as it only features one song, right at the end. It does, however, contain music throughout, and some eye-catching double tier sets, even if the story really fails to engage.
It's pointless commenting that a film over 80 years old contains material that seems out of place today, though some of the sexual references are unusually racy for the time, and Lilian Harvey's scenes in blackface are a curiousity because it's not clear (to me at least) how or why she ended up in that condition.
Harvey is allowed to be irritating/funny (delete as applicable) with a "kooky" persona that's unusual for female romantic leads of the period. She's there to charm and allure the viewers, but also show them that an attractive woman can be funny, too.
Occasionally one or two of the guest actors can seem to be behind their lines (Alexander Field as Harvey's onscreen father leaves a few awkward pauses around him, and the Duke's assistant has to work extra hard to remember the financial information he's discussing) but generally all work hard to make this so-so star vehicle work.
Let's Make a Night of It (1937)
"If you had a good song and you could sing a little better, you wouldn't be half bad."
Although Let's Make A Night Of It is a British musical, its three headlining stars were Americans, which perhaps explains why a print of the film reputedly resides in the Library of Congress. The American influence can felt in some of the song numbers, some of which appear to recall Cab Calloway and The Ink Spots.
There are some nice lines, and it's amiable, breezy and fun. The plot, featuring two competing night clubs, is so slight that it doesn't even kick in until over 25 minutes in, and is really just a good-natured excuse to thread a lot of songs together. What's most surprising is that something so inconsequential came from Graham Cutts, a mentor to Hitchcock and director of the controversial 1922 silent Cocaine.
Fred Emney is pretty amusing throughout, even if it's never clear how he got to have an American daughter. There are also some jokes that are surprisingly racy for the time, some corny jokes that are fairly amusing, such as the tale of 288 ("I can't tell you, it's too gross."), a man who gets flattered by flowers, and, in one instance, the N word.
As a "plot" spoiler, then the joining together of two clubs is actually quite innovative, albeit not really explored to its full potential, and the final shots with a band on board a huge sound stage is the kind of thing the film should have done all the way through. However, this is pleasant if unremarkable stuff. The title quote might be quite apt for Claire Luce, and the song quality is variable, but when it's "on", it's... okay.
Cradle of Fear (2001)
It's really not fair to judge Cradle of Fear by the same standards as other movies, as the undisclosed budget is clearly minimal, and many of the actors and locations are there as "favours" to the director. Of the actors credited on the IMDb, then 11 of them have three or less acting roles to their name, with five of them having appeared in nothing more than this straight-to-video offering.
A portmanteau movie in the style of the old Amicus pictures, it could maybe have worked if it was intentionally tongue-in-cheek. (Possibly it is, but the intent is so muddled it's never quite clear). Stuart Laing (Richard in the "sick room" sequence, one of the better segments) is one of the few actors involved to have a developed CV, and it does show. Wikipedia would currently have it that the film is "chiefly of interest to Cradle of Filth fans", though it's far more likely to attract a certain kind of clientele who wish to see TV presenter Emily Booth naked. On this level the film delivers, along with later gratuitous nudity of several anonymous actresses. That the likable but amateurish Booth gives one of the best acting performances in this film says a lot. Many of the cast wander into scenes like members of the public who are reading their lines for the first time.
Direction, continuity and production are all, sadly, quite laughable, including a camera clearly in shot during one of Booth's scenes. Perhaps worst of all is a tinny drum and bass soundtrack which completely works against the supposed mood of the piece, be it horror or sex scenes. Segments might end with a girl getting a bottle unconvincingly shoved into her eye, the blood dripping and splashing over her undulating, bra-clad breasts, or a mutant spider- baby emerging from Booth's bare stomach and spraying blood in the mouth of her friend. Said friend's severed fingers do bring to mind Vyvyan from The Young Ones, and the only reaction this film could seemingly produce is laughter (intentionally or otherwise) or mild titillation. The concept of it somehow working as a horror movie is almost unthinkable.
Café Society (2016)
Passable, inoffensive, forgettable...
Cafe Society marked Woody Allen's first foray into digital filming and became, at $30 million, his most expensive film to date. There are times when the freedom of the digital medium, using a Sony CineAlta F65 camera, really aids his direction, the colour palette particularly well considered. It's decently cast, with Jesse Eisenberg one of the better Allen analogues of recent times, and yet it's just... okay.
Woody Allen making movies that are "just okay" is something to get used to of late. In recent times he'd developed a more extreme stance, whereby one good movie would be followed by a stinker, and he could never seem to put together two decent projects in a row. Since his last good, arguably even great, movie, 2013's Blue Jasmine, Woody has put together three "decent" movies, nearly all of them forgettable, which does suggest that he's settling into even more of a comfort zone.
2016's other big project was his first "television" series, the Amazon Prime six-parter "Crisis In Six Scenes". Allen himself admitted in interviews that he didn't know what he was doing and had regretted taking on the project. Had the series been put together as a film then it would have been his longest movie at around 135 minutes and would have been perhaps not as bad as they say, just, with a kind eye...... "okay".
Cafe Society has occasional new territory, such as Eisenberg remarking on how his former beau (Kirsten Stewart) married his uncle, making her his aunt... a rare discussion of the complications of relations through marriage, something not unlike Ronan Farrow's quips on Twitter suggesting he calls Father's Day "Brother-In-Law Day". There are some flaws, such as Allen's use of voice-over narration... a nostalgic and touching addition to Radio Days, but here intrusive, and often just explaining the plot. The overriding feeling is that the script wasn't quite completed, and he felt the need to bridge the gaps, at one stage even giving us a scene without any audible dialogue.
Ken Stott is an unlikely choice as a Jewish father, and Steve Carrell seems unable to breathe three-dimensionality into an underwritten part as the third cog in a love triangle. This can be excused, given that Carrell was cast on 28th August, 2015, sometime after the filming commenced on 17th August, a time when original actor Bruce Willis had had to leave, officially due to scheduling conflicts. Rather than a below-par performance by his own standards, Carrell can be looked on at helping to save the film at the last minute.
Lastly, amongst all the traditional Allen fixations and conversations that have become incredibly, almost wearyingly familiar over the previous 40+ movies, there's the obsession with jazz. It's a fine line to walk, where the beauty of the music can add class to a film that warrants it, or make a dud seem pretentious. It's also unfortunate that Woody seems obsessed not with its bluesier underside or more experimental areas, but with Dixieland jazz, which is arguably the most trite of its forms.
"Are you dizzy, blood?"
The first two "Hood" films by Noel Clarke were, if not without their problems, genuinely enjoyable and suitably gritty.
Sadly, it seems somewhere in the eight years since Adulthood (6/10), Clarke has lost his way. He went on to write and direct 220.127.116.11., a movie I personally quite liked, but had lukewarm reviews, and then The Anomaly, one of the most shockingly poor sci-fi movies I've ever seen.
In September 2016 Clarke appeared on The One Show, comparing his achievements in cinema against those of Sidney Poitier, seemingly without irony, and therein lies the problem. Whereas the original Kidulthood (7/10) was an ensemble movie, this final chapter acts almost as a vanity vehicle, where Noel's Sam Peel (a relatively minor figure in the first movie) is now the sole focal point. Perhaps the sole lack of vanity not on screen is an opening which features Clarke looking at his pot belly in a gym mirror, surrounded by younger, more fit men.
Clarke's dialogue in the first two movies engaged, even though it often lacked naturalism. This was, after all, a series where the first film had a man shouting out the moral of the story after being hit in the throat by a baseball bat. But the level of "on the nose" dialogue increases here, with clunky lines like "You think you've got power because you've got a hammer? Getting a job... owning your own place... that's power."
"We don't riot because we want to, we riot because we have to" is one of two completely overt references to the 2011 London riots, something which was covered with rather more topicality and a little more subtlety in Plan B's superior 2012 movie Ill Manors. Finally, a girl talking about guys calling each other "pussies" notes "I'd appreciate it if you didn't insult other men by calling them an albeit now accepted colloquial word referring to the female genitalia."
Although the title "Brotherhood" obviously has a wider meaning, Sam gets a literal brother here, a previously-unknown sibling called Royston, played by Daniel Anthony. An underdeveloped part, there solely as a catalyst to propel Sam into some rather OTT and unrealistic "violence", it's a role that goes nowhere.
The humour so rich in the other movies is here absent, with clunky, unconvincing comic dialogue from Henry (Arnold Oceng). Adam Deacon claimed to have had uncredited contributions to the first two movies, and his much-publicised absence from this one is felt. Watching characters talk about crispy creme doughnuts in the middle of otherwise-dramatic scenes make it very believable that Deacon contributed heavily to the previous two entries. Either that or Clarke has completely lost whatever touch he had, delivering up completely unrealistic scenes like Henry deceiving a girlfriend who is the kind of gullible you'd only get in a mainstream sitcom.
What Clarke does next will be interesting to watch, and this film is not without some moments. But as a final part to a series that didn't require one, it's sadly something of a stain on an otherwise engaging film series. Perhaps someone needed to take Noel Clarke to one side and ask him the title quote?
The Black Connection (1974)
"The trouble with her is she don't know a lady when she sees one.. and I am a motherf***in' lady!"
I'm slightly surprised at this movie having a relatively high IMDb score of, to date, 5.5/10 on 61 votes. All film appreciation is subjective, of course, but there's very little that's objectively good about this incredibly amateurish outing. The acting is, almost across the board, abysmal, often hilariously so, the editing is chronic, and the dialogue frequently lousy. ("I'm hurtin', sweet baby, I'm hurtin'
and it ain't for that big beautiful black dong o'yours.")
And yet it's all so much fun. As a bad movie, it never fails to entertain, even though 90% of the plot seems to be people having conversations on telephones and telling each other what's about to happen. Of the lead character, then it's claimed "he has a paranoia about phones", but if that's the case, he's the only one, with 17 phone calls being made over the short 87 minute runtime. Even scenes that don't feature calls include phones placed on restaurant tables, scenes opening with an unheard call being placed down on the receiver, or characters repeatedly talking about how they will/won't make a phone call, a tantalising glimpse of telecommunication-based excitement.
Direction and blocking of scenes is so bad it's unintentionally hilarious. This said, there's a very funny karate scene and a hotel receptionist who almost laughs on camera, so possibly all concerned were in on some great joke. The three leads are also members of Checkmates, Ltd., a group who provide the music. Thankfully they're far better musicians than they are actors, and many of the songs – despite one being named after the film's unfortunate alternate title "Run, N*****, Run" – are very catchy.
I was pleased to complete the credits for this movie on the IMDb, though one omission remains: the writer, or writers. Only a script superviser (sic) is included in the credits, with no screenwriter seemingly given the blame. I did stumble across a blog that had a post purportedly from star Bobby Stevens, who claimed he co-wrote it (not specifying who with) and that with all the behind-the-scenes difficulties they had, it was a wonder the film was made at all. Thank God you succeeded, Bobby, because this atrocious movie is a real gem.
A generous 3/10 for quality, but at least 8/10 for entertainment value.
"What's that for?" "For you!" "Well I don't want it!"
Stanley Lupino seems to be largely forgotten today, or, if remembered at all, more due for his daughter, Ida. Indeed, in February 2016 a commemorative blue plaque, dedicated to both of them, was placed at the house where Ida was born.
Finding information on Stanley is hard. He and his Happy co-star, Laddie Cliff (who went on to appear with him again in Sporting Love and Over She Goes) both died before their 50s, and both of them had film careers that finished before the end of the Second World War. Such a short time frame puts him several generations past being remembered, and it's only due to an afternoon screening of this movie on ITV around the late 1980s that, as a child of the 70s, I'd heard of him at all.
Of Lupino's 13 movies from 1931-1939, none of them have, to date, above 30 votes on the IMDb... five of them haven't even passed the minimum votes benchmark. While eight of his other films have a review on them, proving that he's not without his remaining fans (though the reviews are the work of only two people), a search on the internet reveals astonishingly little about him.
To date, Happy has just a dozen votes, and appears to have only been released on DVD as part of a collection, with the even more obscure "Invitation To The Waltz" on the same disc. 1933 was the year of King Kong and Duck Soup, of Laurel and Hardy and The Invisible Man. In among British output like The Private Life of Henry VIII, this lighthearted, lightweight musical about a down-on-his luck musician seems to be almost completely forgotten.
Discussion of both comedy and song is highly subjective, though the film, based on a play and starring a musical hall comedian, is of a rhythm that may irritate some. Jokes are often so tired it's easy to forget they may have been new once: "I've got a screw loose somewhere" says Frank Brown (Lupino), only to hear the predictable rejoinder of "I've known that for years." An introductory discussion with the director reminds us that light sexism was also very much in vogue: "Adam took a rib from his side, and invented the first talkie - and it's still in use."
Even the decent gags ("I can tell you how to sell twice as much lager [...] fill your glasses right up.") are accompanied by a long pause or reaction shot, there to give the audience time to get over the laughter. It does mean the movie initially drags along in fits and starts, any chucklesome moment then brought to a halt as pure silence fills the screen as a stop gap.
Yet once the romance plot kicks in, the film gets into gear, and there's a certain freshness elsewhere. Lupino and Cliff are two broke songwriters who live in an attic and have physical fights continually (which is where the title quote comes from) and living below them is their older friend, a man who collects geese. But, crucially, there's Lupino. Although the style of humour may be dated, there's a certain kind of charm about him, and with his enthused delivery and slightly effeminate appearance (including what appears to be heavy eye make- up) he's a delight. There's a nicely camp camaraderie between him and Cliff, where they're not afraid to dress each other, hold hands between fights, or Lupino can call him "sweetheart" without batting a mascara'd eye.
Then there are the songs. Despite being at least 25 years since I first saw the film, the title track is so instantly catchy that I had no problem remembering it. There are several idiosyncrasies that add to the charm: the film is set in France, though virtually none of the actors talk in a French accent; and although cast as a romantic singing lead, Lupino is perhaps neither what you'd call a traditional leading man, nor a classical singer. More Formby than Fred Astaire, there's something endearing about him, even several decades after his kind of humour was in fashion.
Although not high art, Frederic Zelnik clearly has ideas beyond "point and shoot" in his direction, and if there's nothing here that hadn't been done before, it's work put together with considerable effort, including dissolves, tracking shots and an animated sequence with the stars in the sky. Such a devotion to the craft of what is really just a throwaway entertainment make it easy to overlook the very occasional boom mike shadows that play over the actors.
For a film of the time, there's also a certain racy quality to some of the humour. The loose plot has Lupino attempting to sell a rich businessman his invention of a car alarm, with the businessman looking at glamour magazines before his arrival. Eventually Lupino hosts the businessman at a large party, pretending it's his own house for show, and some of the various goings on allude to jokes that were close to the line for 1933, even if they sound tame 83 years on. One lady explaining that she and her husband used to live in "Cincinnati" hiccups on alcohol after the first syllable, drawing a shocked response.
With his slightly cocky persona, only a man of Lupino's likable qualities could make it work, and highlights include his geese owner friend's drunken dance at a party, plus Lupino and Cliff having a fight while performing a tap dance routine. Eventually the plot ties together and Lupino marries the businessman's daughter, Cliff marries his own love, and their friend buys two female geese for his two ganders, who understandably hadn't laid any eggs. They all drive off into the sunset, and everyone is, as the song goes, happy.
Blackboard Jumble (1957)
"Hypertension's getting everybody down."
A so-so spoof of the classic Blackboard Jungle that does sadly outstay its welcome even at less than seven minutes.
The problem is that, despite a likable characterisation on the Southern-accented wolf (a rare example of a positive Southern American character in the media), the plot relies on repetition. The wolf goes into a classroom situation with earnest albeit dim-witted intentions, only for the kids to turn the tables and cause him physical harm. Over and over.
A customary racy joke is the wolf's cry when a missile accidentally penetrates him anally, and a suspect joke is the wolf, having been blown up, being transformed into blackface. However, this is thankfully understated compared to other instances in cartoons of the period, such as Bugs Buggy in 1953's "Southern Fried Rabbit".
In all, this isn't a bad short, and the one thing that stands out is how endearing the wolf character is, even if the animation now appears primitive and crude, even for the time. Yet it's a one-joke short that quickly becomes tiring.
Draining and self-congratulatory superhero antics...
Like Guardians of the Galaxy and the two Avengers movies before it, Deadpool shows a worrying amount of smugness, its own self-amusement only equalled by its disregard for the intelligence of the audience. There's not a single one of the "instant reverse" jokes in The Avengers that even a very credulous small child wouldn't see coming, and Deadpool's scatological humour aims for little higher than the lowest (or broadest) common denominator.
It's a crowdpleaser, and not awful, but if fart jokes, genital punching and a plot that resembles a 15-year-old's masturbation fantasies aren't your thing, you may find it all a little wearying. The gags are predictable and relentless... which, in fairness, is kind of the point for "the merc with the mouth", but doesn't make it any less tiresome.
In an age where scarcely any film lacks postmodernism, Deadpool's constant fourth wall breaks seem almost passé. While a reasonable conceit in and of itself, there's nothing particularly intelligent done with it, the fourth wall just used as another vessel for some masturbation gags.
The best jokes in the film - Deadpool frequently commenting on why A-List X-Men don't appear - lose lustre when you realise it's made by Fox and so they could well have. Current voting on the IMDb sees it just inside the top 50 all-time greatest films, comfortably edging out Citizen Kane, M, Rashomon and Taxi Driver.
Plot-wise, then a thug also being the brains behind the bad guy's operation lacks credulity, though this is a film where Stan Lee urges prostitution, so all bets are very much off.
The Lost Man (1969)
"You go to movies a lot?"
Not that often, it seems, as Beverly Todd's minor character Sally Carter claims to have named herself after Dorothy Dandridge and asks Poitier's character if he's a fan. As he starred with Dandridge in Porgy and Bess, Todd never wonders why the man in her bath tub looks just like Sidney Poitier, but it's a nice tribute to Dorothy, who had died just four years previously.
Based on the same source novel as the artistically superior Odd Man Out (1947), this drama sees wholesome Sidney Poitier retooled as conflicted black militant Jason Higgs. Somehow it doesn't quite gel, despite Poitier's considerable thespic skill, as by this stage his general screen persona was too rigidly defined. The upshot is it's a little like watching Lionel Richie sing Fight The Power, or seeing Extremities remade starring Bill - er, well, you get the idea. That said, it's hard to imagine another actor making the character of Higgs so ultimately sympathetic, with his tendency towards reluctant violence.
The film closes the chapter on Poitier's 60s output, just two years on from his commercial peak; only forgettable comedy "For Love Of Ivy" coming between it and him being the biggest draw at the box office. After this, it's largely downhill: patchy Virgil Tibbs sequels, four one-off movies (including the underrated The Wilby Conspiracy), three comedies with Bill Cosby(!) and then retirement. Poitier would of course come back in the 80s for bit parts and then get involved in TV movies... while these comeback films weren't, generally, awful, it's astonishing that both the artistic and commercial appeal of Sidney Poitier could be squandered so drastically.
As a closer to the decade, this isn't a bad one to go out on, possibly scraping in as one of his 15 best movies, if only just. One-time director Robert Alan Aurthur gives a bleak outlook to the exteriors, though the studio work, including the lighting and colour palette, does unfortunately look flat and like the aforementioned TV movies that Sidney would drift into during the 90s. And as excellent a musician as Quincy Jones is, his soundtrack does sometimes seem at odds with the content; or possibly it's just dated in an unappealing way.
Poitier gets some considered lines of dialogue in his lead role, though the near-2 hour runtime is perhaps at least a quarter of an hour overlong, and a romantic subplot with Joanna Shimkus feels artificially grated onto the narrative. Shimkus' involvement is perhaps the most famous element of the picture, as she became Poitier's second wife seven years later. Her input does ultimately lead to a tragic ending, as her love for Poitier's humanised militant elicits an emotional response from the audience, though the more the film turns into a straight thriller, the less vibrant the dialogue.
The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)
"A politically committed Indian dentist? That sounds like all the people I can't stand at a cocktail party."
The Wilby Conspiracy is the second of Sidney Poitier's three films about apartheid in South Africa. In 1952 he had appeared under Canada Lee in the slow but rewarding Cry, The Beloved Country. Fast forward to 1997 and he's playing Nelson Mandela to Michael Caine's F.W. de Klerk in a pretty decent TV movie.
It's Caine he stars with here, getting top billing after his career was somewhat resurrected by Uptown Saturday Night. It's an overlooked film, with some great comic chemistry between them and some genuinely witty lines. Stories of how Poitier's Shack Twala was electo tortured in prison are rendered blackly comic by their telling, with Poitier showing more genuine comic flair than he ever did mugging opposite Bill Cosby.
For such serious subjects the film flirts closely with the line between gallows humour and overt comedy, but the wit of the script always keeps it from going overboard. At one point Twala explains how, at school, he discovered Marx and Lenin instead of Mark and Luke and from there "had absolutely no difficulty getting into jail." Handsomely shot with Kenya doubling for South Africa, it's only the rear projection for car/helicopter scenes in Pinewood Studios that detract.
As the film progresses, the events do start to become more fantastical, and it's difficult to know what's more unbelievable about Persis Khambatta's character... her motivation or the Indian incidental music that follows her around wherever she goes. (A rare sex scene for Poitier sees African drums take over, his own music dominating hers as they become entwined). Similarly, Prunella Gee starts out with a very sensible character but ends up being sexualised more and more as the film progresses. Fortunately it manages to pull the whole thing together with a very good series of twists at the end.
Ultimately this well packaged picture is a strong vehicle for Caine- Poitier and deserves to be more than to be a forgotten entry on both men's resumes.
Pressure Point (1962)
Terrific two-hander with Poitier as a prison psychiatrist playing opposite Bobby Darin's Nazi prisoner. Poitier's counsellor doesn't get the opportunity for many flourishes - he takes on the role by wearing glasses, basically - so it's up to Darin to get the showy stuff. While beautifully shot, it does touch towards broad melodrama at various stages.
Like a theatre production, Darin's nameless prisoner gets his childhood flashbacks recreated. At some points we see Darin as a boy on the psychiatrist's couch, then cut to scenes with Darin's mother, lipsynching the words the boy is speaking. There are scenes where he threatens to stab his imaginary friend, and all of the flashbacks occur within flashbacks, as Poitier's character is relating events to Peter Falk in the present day. If all this sounds confusing, then it isn't on screen, where an odd Twilight Zone vibe is disrupted by somewhat melodramatic incidental music. With a more sympathetic score this could have been a more expressionistic movie; as it is, it can be somewhat laboured in intent, the broadness of the Hollywood machine, yet still great despite it.
The climax is somewhat underdeveloped, however, the prisoner's story getting a fixed ending where perhaps none was needed.
The Mark of the Hawk (1957)
"What are you... an Uncle Tom?"
Cheaply made and often badly staged, The Mark of the Hawk is nevertheless a worthwhile venture despite its failings.
With its wordy script, in some hands it can seem poetic, notably Sidney Poitier's. (Still a year off his first star billing, despite being the nominal lead in this, his tenth movie). Yet in lesser hands it can seem leaden, ham-fisted and trite. Certainly David Goh was unlikely to take any Academy Awards for his work here, and he's not alone. Parts of the film look like one of the best dramas Poitier was ever involved with... other parts look like an amateur home movie.
The film begins with an air of sophistication, but the longer it runs, the more it starts to unravel. Poitier's intelligent militant Obam begins to turn his back on the idea of independence when he learns of the love of Jesus, the film's concept of exploring all sides of the argument evaporating for a syruppy get-out. While many of the themes are looked at from a mature perspective, the film's tagline "Against Voodoo Fury... The Flame of Faith!" was something which set out to unintentionally undermine it.
We go from a manor house party with elegantly crafted lines and gradually descend through the ranks of amusingly kitsch flashbacks, all the way down to Eartha Kitt deciding to make this political message film a light musical. A rare British movie appearance for Poitier, his future forays into this arena - A Warm December, The Wilby Conspiracy and, particularly, To Sir With Love - all reaped richer rewards. Ultimately The Mark of the Hawk goes from a lesser- known gem in his career and down to something of a missed opportunity.
Good-bye, My Lady (1956)
"It's a lotta dawg."
Good-bye, My Lady largely centres around just three characters for its 95 minute runtime: a boy, his uncle and their laughing (yes, laughing) dog. As a result, the film's appeal lies solely on having the audience fall in love and care for these characters, a hard ask sixty years on where the mannered style of acting is antiquated, and the rhythms of speech are sure rightly fashioned old, yes sirree bob.
The two leads insist upon their own charm, and the jaunty, syruppy music doesn't help matters, seemingly just two minutes of the same turgid theme on a loop. Cloying, dirge-like and sentimental with obvious bluntness, it's a different world where a child's main wish is to buy a shotgun and drink black coffee. Sidney Poitier looks bored in a bit part, sandwiched in between far larger roles in Blackboard Jungle/Edge of the City. Certainly, his involvement (the reason why I watched it) is a severely limited one, just three scenes amounting to less than 7 minutes of screen time.
With the constant obsessions over the stray "dawg", and what looks suspiciously like animal cruelty by today's standards, including slapping the poor thing in the face, it's a movie that's almost singular in its intent. In fact, it's hard to think of a movie so channelled towards a sole plot line; even Stallone movies have more of a developed narrative than this. Oddly for a film with such a flimsy plot, then there's even narration to move the picture along in case the audience can't grasp the complexity of a boy who tells us he loves his "dawg". Over and over.
It's of course entirely possible to enjoy films from all eras, from the present to the very dawn of cinema. But Good-bye, My Lady is not only dated in a very bad way, but with the very title giving away the ending, is also dramatically inert. It's hard to be in any way moved by a film that insists upon its own contrived emotion the way this picture does, but the current 7.3/10 rating from over 500 IMDb voters would seem to suggest that I'm in a minority.
Virgin Island (1958)
According to IMDb votes, this is the least-seen Sidney Poitier movie, along with 1947's Sepia Cinderella. Of course, this isn't really Poitier's picture, the actor cast as a secondary character, a Jamaican-accented island help in one of his more over-the-top performances.
The main two players are John Cassavetes and Virginia Maskell, both of whom seem to share genuine rapport and a love of improvisation. Playing two newlyweds who set up home on a deserted island, the film moves along pleasantly enough, though without real incident - it's almost 45 minutes before we learn that there is smuggling around the island, for example.
Yet for what is essentially a lightweight, incident-free movie, there is a sense that it's quite progressive for 1958: the concept of beginning independence on a small island is relatively novel (albeit one that Laurel and Hardy had bowed out on 7 years earlier), and there are some small pleas to female equality. However, the basic simplicity of the film is its charm, with an almost fairytale quality to events. Just as an example, there's no real resolution to the smuggling subplot, and the couple decide to loan the whole island to Poitier and his fiancé at the end, pretty much "just because". Despite Cassavetes inventing his own alternative to method acting, this isn't a picture that extends towards overt screen realism, or attempts to.
While entertaining for what it is, it's difficult to watch what is a somewhat dated movie without being reminded of the darker side of the two stars: Cassavetes died of liver failure before he was even sixty, whereas Maskell died from an overdose of anti-depressants before she'd even reached the age of 32.
Rat Pfink a Boo Boo (1966)
How can you not love this movie?
Objectively the current IMDb overall rating of 3.3 is probably accurate... but there's such love put into the frames of this quirky picture that it's subjectively worth so much more.
I was first introduced to the film in an episode of 1988's "The Incredibly Strange Film Show", where the director explained that the entire genre of the picture changes halfway through as "I got bored with the movie".
Beginning as a low budget, badly-dubbed thriller with catchy surf music, it gets around the halfway point and changes into an amateurish but enthusiastic superhero tale. Just as the pace starts to flag around the hour mark, a man in a gorilla suit comes on, and the whole thing's wrapped up in less than 70 minutes.
Ray Dennis Steckler estimated that the budget was around $4000- $5000, and it shows. With tinted colour effects that change throughout the duration, it's a love letter to film, from the age of silent cinema to the then-present day. Steckler wasn't a man who let technical shortcomings restrict his ambition, and there is some talent that can be glimpsed between the restrictions.
It all ends with a rock out beach party, as well it should.
The Interview (2014)
"Your butthole is ironic!"
A quote that illustrates the general level of humour in this generally likable yet thoroughly mediocre movie. Now it's almost impossible to divide this film from the mountains of free publicity that its attained, it's unfortunate that the controversy surrounding it casts a greater spotlight on what is generally quite a forgettable flick. When a film inspires a Presidential address, it demands an expectation that it can't deliver.
James Franco acts an approximation of someone being funny, Rogen's character is slightly annoying and gets in the way, and Randall Park lightly steals the show as Kim Jung-Un. Laughs are moderate albeit predictable, and the scatological nature of much of them begins to pall after some time. The absence of genuine wit is heavily felt, and this isn't a film that can really be described as a satire, more just a broad, dumb movie to sell popcorn. No real attempt to break the mould is given, and no one involved stretches themselves in any way. To watch The Interview isn't to watch some scathing deconstruction of a political regime, but just a few cheap dick jokes dressed up with topical trimmings.
The various politics behind the movie, and the fact that seeing it is now regarded in some quarters as a patriotic act, is almost immaterial to the matter at hand. There's lots of issues surrounding this film, from threats to hacks to Presidential addresses, and doubtless more will follow in the weeks to come. But for The Interview itself, it's a film that's gently amusing, largely insulting to its audience's intelligence, and maybe tries just a bit too hard.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
"You don't have to worry about Church any more. He's ahh he's out of the picture."
An obvious dig at Bruce Willis, who was famously blasted on Twitter by Sylvester Stallone for his involvement in this series. Perhaps sadly, it's one of the few in-jokes we get in this third instalment, with no references to Wesley Snipes' prior movie with Stallone or, perhaps more understandably, Mel Gibson not sending up his personal phone calls.
It's maybe something of a relief, as the second Expendables movie almost sank beneath the weight of its own chronically unfunny indulgence. This third edition sees it back on more reliable ground, even though only the very credulous would get a single surprise from any plot development that takes place over the entire two hours.
With the old Expendables fired to make way for a new, younger group, what follows is completely predictable. However, it's not helped that we never really get to know the new Expendables beyond the most basic, sketch-like ciphers. You know, what with the regular cast having such three-dimensional, nuanced characterisations and all.
In the first half of the new decade, Expendables has dominated Stallone's work. It's understandable, as these generic, lowest-common-denominator movies are not only kind of fun if you're really in the mood, but were also doing good business. Stallone used to have genuine ambition, but is now content in his late 60s to phone it in so much he's acted off the screen by Jason Statham. Though as his second collaboration with Robert DeNiro was the so-so but uninspired Grudge Match, it's clear that Stallone isn't the only one just churning out product.
None of these films are as appallingly bad as Stallone's lowest work in the 80s and 90s. Films like Bullet to the Head and Escape Plan contain, like Expendables, zero surprises for the viewer, but they're watchable, passable indulgences. Even generic, virtually unwatchable films where he voices a talking lion aren't black marks on his resume like Judge Dredd was.
Overall, though, if the best you can say about a movie is that it's "watchable", then it's damning with faint praise. What shines through these movies is disdain for the audience. Do the people involved in the Expendables really believe that anyone would find the "humour" therein to be genuinely amusing? It's insipid and patronising, and for a series that pays homage to the violent action movies of the 80s, then its lacks real teeth, particularly under its new PG-13 rating.
Much had been made of the fact that this third Expendables movie was leaked before release, and that it possibly affected the box office, which currently sees it only just scraping past breaking even. However, even on its first week of illegal "release" it wasn't being stolen as much as older films, so maybe the answer is more simple... maybe people finally caught on to the fact that the movies just aren't very good?
The Inbetweeners 2 (2014)
The downside of success...
With the original, so-so Inbetweeners movie generating surprisingly high box office, a sequel was inevitable. Sadly it's a sequel that's made by people too in love with the success of the first.
Almost written to order, we get by-the-numbers gross out gags, the now- tedious cameos from the parents (how many times can you laugh at Will's mum being desired, or the 1000th "Neil's dad is gay" gag?) and the total absence of any genuine characterisation whatsoever.
Most importantly, there's no realism in the film. Neil was always slow, but he's a human cartoon here, and the Australian Uncle is just Jay's dad with a different accent. Everything from the plot, to the performances and motivation is phoned in and xeroxed from previous glories.
The likable television series, while perhaps unlikely to be described as "sophisticated", had a good-natured heart to it, the idiocy and inadequacy of the leads the joke. Here their rampant misogyny is the joke itself, including Neil taking advantage of a woman under the influence of cannabis. Cannabis was a plot point of an entire episode of the series, of course, but here it's casually shown as something Simon smokes, while with Neil's reaction we're called upon to laugh at a rape joke. I thought such things had died out of cinemas in the 1980s. Though the final joke being a routine about transgender might also showcase the somewhat antiquated, mean-spirited tone.
The TV show coasted by on a nostalgic feeling... the 1980s songs in the end credits, the feelings of first love, school discos, etc. It also contained leads who were flawed but ultimately decent human beings. The Inbetweeners pictured in this 2014 movie aren't particularly likable individuals, and the women involved are just ciphers.
A sad end to a great TV series, a series that tried to break new ground each year. The movies do nothing of the sort, content to recreate past glories. Other than the dying scene, there's perhaps little that's new in this film, the remainder just a tired, uninspired reheating of old jokes, dumbed down to the lowest common denominator of humour.
The Jungle Book (1967)
"Birds of a feather should flock together"
There is an interesting - possibly unintentional - racial subtext with this film, which ends with two of the lead characters returning whey they "belong". Maybe such things weren't intended with a cartoon film about singing bears who give boxing lessons, but it makes it one of the thematically more intriguing Disney offerings.
Technically this doesn't always look like it was made 25 years after Bambi - while the art has a certain elegance in places, it's also scrappy and looks almost pencil drawn at stages. This isn't an express criticism, as it gets by on charm, which it has a considerable supply of.
Centrepiece of the film is the sequence with King Louie, a jazz/scat singing orangutan. Although the idea of having someone possess the mannerisms of black culture while in the form of a monkey is a questionable feat, his signature song - wanting to appropriate the manner of another man in order to share in his freedoms is nicely sardonic for 1967.
However, if there's one criticism of the film that holds up, it's how episodic the whole thing is. Introducing a great villain like Shere Khan three quarters of an hour into the runtime is quite a novel feat, but other characters are picked up and dropped throughout, with very few constants. Louie doesn't appear again, and just as the film begins to wind down, we get some vultures with "what's that supposed to be?" English accents. It's telling how old-hat Disney could be at times in that what were inspired as parodies of the Beatles end up singing a Doo Wop number.
Ultimately while the film has touches of greatness, and is a very pleasing time-filler, the unevenness of the story progression causes it to feel a little flat when viewed as a whole.
Sixteen Candles (1984)
An odd mix of overearnest and bawdy
I caught up with this John Hughes movie after reading that it was a direct influence on his later Pretty In Pink, and also is more highly regarded.
It's something of a surprise, given that the comedic elements here are broad and garish, and the emotional elements are really without payoff. This is the world of the 80s, where drink driving, taking advantage of drunk girls and racial stereotypes are all just everyday occurrences. (Of the latter I can't complain too much as Gedde Watanabe does seem to be genuinely enjoying himself, bless him).
Having just rewatched Pretty In Pink (and rated it a perhaps overgenerous 8) I was astounded that it not only stands up as a guilty pleasure, but a genuinely decent movie. You may have small niggles, like Andrew McCarthy's eyes continually opening so wide it looks like he's having an aneurysm, or wondering how you ever thought Duckie was straight, but it's a well constructed film with emotional pay-offs.
Sixteen Candles, in contrast, has only shallow thrills. There's no real reward with the relationship between Ringwald and Schoeffling as they don't even speak until the end of the movie, and their dialogue consists of trite lines like "Make a wish." "It already came true". Away from the stilted romance, and Anthony Michael Hall as unlikely friend/borderline sex pest, we get comedy sound effects to cement the overplayed comedy elements, such as a Chinese cymbal noise every time anyone talks about Long Duk Dong(!)
This isn't a bad movie. In many ways, it's quite a good one. But it features two disparate elements that don't gel together all that well: while I can see how it went on to be vastly improved in the guise of Pretty In Pink, the other 50% of the movie went on to be Weird Science. Not that Weird Science is a terrible picture, but it's a diametrically opposed one, and this - complete with a topless scene and a blowjob reference - jars badly with the core subject matter.
John Hughes was just in his early 30s when he made this, his sixth movie but the first he directed. The follow-up, The Breakfast Club, went for overreaching earnestness, and I received many a heated private message when I criticised it in a 2001 review. But fast-forward two years and you get the run of Pretty in Pink/Ferris Bueller's Day Off/Some Kind of Wonderful, three solid movies that deserve to be revisited. John Hughes was able to tap into teen concerns and was known as one of the masters of the coming of age movie... he just needed to come of age himself.
Actually, it's more than that. It's arguably Jim Jarmusch's best film in his first thirty years of making features.
Coming in the middle of his oddly experimental stage of making films with actual plots, this one appears between similarly story-oriented pictures Dead Man and Broken Flowers (as well as the more typically plot less Coffee and Cigarettes) as one that's narrative driven.
Jarmusch's feature debut, Permanent Vacation, contained the line "What's a story anyway, except one of those connect-the-dots drawing things?" It's a philosophy the gifted director seemed to take on board for the majority of his works, giving us a series of variable but nearly always entertaining movies, most of them without anything you could regard as a traditional narrative.
Ghost Dog is one of the few that bucks this trend, with an alien beginning-middle-end set up. Although often referenced as a homage to the excellent 1967 movie Le Samouraï, the connection between the two isn't as pronounced as you might think. And, being a Jarmusch film, it's not without his own quirky brand of humour, from Italian American gangsters who listen to Flava Flav and watch 1940s cartoons, to a hit-man who communicates with pigeons and has a best friend who is a French ice cream vendor.
A talented man with a fairly unique take on movie making, his works are always worth seeking out, whether they contain rigid story lines or not. Ghost Dog may be his best to date, but his other works are often just as entertaining.
Son of Frankenstein (1939)
"That knocker must have been used in the old days to arouse the entire household."
A quote for fans of British slang there. There's plenty of more amusing moments, intentional or not, in this second Frankenstein sequel from Universal. Not for nothing did this film get extensively mined for Mel Brooks' classic Young Frankenstein, and the increasingly over-the-top performance from Basil Rathbone is a particular delight.
When Rathbone (the titular son), his English wife and their inexplicably American-accented young child travel to his father's old home predictable things begin to happen once more. Gone is the real subtext, wit or invention that the first two classic movies offered, and in its place is something that's merely okay.
Karloff is sidelined here, not getting real screen time until almost an hour into the movie, and it's left to Rathbone to carry the film as some kind of extended drawer room farce. It works well enough, even though it's all pretty much repeats, and the four sequels that followed were even lesser returns. Although the Hammer Frankenstein movies of the 50s and 60s didn't reach as great heights (and arguably lower lows), they were able to display a freshness and invention that many of the Universal sequels lacked.
The films that follow this were produced as B movies, and without Karloff's presence or the need to credit Mary Shelley for story. Although incredibly formulaic and repetitive, many of them were still watchable and quite charming, with only the melodramatic and dry House of Dracula really killing off the franchise for good. By that stage Universal's output had dropped in quality so far that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was not only an effective revival of the series, but one of its high points.
Son (and the follow-up, Ghost) strips away one of the most discussed subtext of the first two Frankenstein movies by giving Colin Clive's character sons. It also takes away any attempt at genuine artistry, as well as Karloff's voice. Frankenstein from 1939-1948 was worth watching as a lightweight piece of fun, most of them carried by Lon Chaney as the Wolfman. But for Frankenstein films that had any artistic merit, then stick with the first two.
Crimes of the Future (1970)
Worth a look only as a study of the director's early work
Back in 2000 I posted three unnecessarily flippant reviews of David Cronenberg films, including the two that followed this. But while the Cronenberg of 2000 wasn't a stranger to critical appraisal, or even mainstream commercial appeal (particularly in the 1980s), it was easy to be flippant about a director who was so well known for body horror, verging on schlock.
Fast forward to 2012 and Cronenberg has managed to completely reinvent himself, a late career renaissance as he prepares to enter his 70s. That the director could build a career for thirty years as the master of visceral horror and then completely reinvent himself is an extraordinary feat. That's not to say that his works of the new millennium haven't been sexually aware, or even in possession of an asymmetrical prostate, but suddenly he's a man of serious critical attention.
Which makes it an ideal time to reinvestigate his early back catalogue, in particular his first four films. 1966's student film "Transfer" is a study of mental illness, an extremely rare, 7 minute student film that, to date, only 55 people have seen on the IMDb... myself not included. Following this was arguably the most accessible of his first four efforts, 1967's 13m student piece, "From The Drain". So esoteric that there are wholly different plot summaries of it on the net, this story of two men in a bathtub is open to interpretation.
The first film proper was 1969's "Stereo", a silent black and white piece with narration, lasting a little over an hour. Crimes of the Future follows this trend, though adds colour and ambient sound to the mix, the minimalism possibly there as a budgetary requirement as much as a need for the avant garde.
As films to study, they're more than worth anyone's time, particularly fans of the director and his work. As entertainments, they're largely null and void, a future auteur trying out his craft rather than narratives to engage. Five long years passed before Cronenberg got to do another film, then averaging a picture every two years or so from 1975's "Shivers" until the present date.
Seeing "Shivers" again as part of this study, I realise I was perhaps too hard on it, and it's interesting to see Cronenberg emerge from avant garde director to man behind a serious (albeit black humoured) narrative. The jump to full audio and speaking parts does make his direction look a little clumsy in places, but this was a man honing his craft via experience.
The issues with "Shivers" – the debatable misogyny, the crass titillation and suspect subject matter – are actually all present in Crimes of the Future, right down a sequence that involves paedophilia... in this case it forms Crimes' denouement. Such story elements are in highly questionable taste, even for satirical science fiction, and do paint the young Cronenberg out as a man who wanted to shock. However, without these early ventures he may never have established a platform for himself as one of the most notable directors of the modern age.
Porgy and Bess (1959)
"No use complainin'"
Turned down by Harry Belafonte who found it "racially demeaning", the lead role in this film was then offered to the tone deaf Sidney Poitier, who was required to mime to Bobby McFerrin's dad. Placed under enormous pressure to take part, to the possible detriment of his career if he declined, Poitier reluctantly agreed, giving a professional job while The Defiant Ones was waiting. He spends the entire film on his knees, both literally and metaphorically, at least spared the indignity of any close ups by Otto Preminger's stagelike direction.
Co-star Dorothy Dandridge was also unenthused to be taking part in this questionable play, with only Sammy Davis Jr. really wanting to be there. It's not an awful film, in fact it has its plusses in many ways. The $7 million it cost can be largely seen on screen, some of the songs are genuinely worthwhile, and the puerile might get a laugh or two out of the Crabman's song where he extols the virtues of crabs.
Oddly, Belafonte released an album of tracks from the musical with Lena Horne the same year the film was released, as if to suggest that principle can only stretch so far. However, he was in good company as songs from the musical have been recorded by, amongst others, Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles. And although a lot of the lyrics are somewhat patronising, Richard Dawkins would surely tap his feet to "It Ain't Necessarily So".
Ultimately the movie wasn't successful critically or commercially and is generally forgotten today, while films like The Defiant Ones and In The Heat of the Night live on. If anything, it stands as a film that saw one man make sacrifices in the name of greater future good.