2022 | Weeks 7–8

It’s been a hectic time, both at work and in my personal life, these past few weeks. I’ve managed to carve out a small amount of time for some film watching (though not as much as I’d like), but little for film reviewing — hence why there’s not been an Archive 5 for a fortnight, and why this update comes over two weeks after the period it covers.

But better late than never, and the only way to get back on track is to get on, so…

  • Shot in the Dark (1933)
  • The Brits Are Coming (2018), aka The Con Is On
  • Ode to Joy (2019)
  • The Courier (2020)
  • The Misfits (2021)


    Shot in the Dark

    (1933)

    George Pearson | 52 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | UK / English

    Shot in the Dark

    The works of Agatha Christie and G.K. Chesterton are casually evoked in this ‘quota quickie’ murder mystery, adapted from a novel by H. Fowler Mear, a screenwriter whose Wikipedia entry describes him as “competent but uninspired”. (FYI, the film is often listed as A Shot in the Dark online, I presume due to confusion with a couple of slightly later films that go by that title. As the title card makes plain, there’s no A here.)

    When a wealthy old man dies of a gunshot, it’s ruled a suicide; but when the family gather to listen to the will he recorded, the deceased claims he must have been murdered. Before he can make any further accusations from beyond the grave, the record goes missing. Fortunately, the local vicar (O.B. Clarence) happens to be passing at the time, and sticks his nose in — to find both the record and the murderer.

    There’s nothing particularly special about the mystery that unfolds. As a detective, the vicar is a cut-price Father Brown knockoff; a weak caricature of the Sherlock Holmes type: every time he interviews someone, he seems to already know everything they’re going to tell him, if not more. It’s quite fun that almost everyone confesses to the murder at one time or another, only to turn out to not actually be responsible, but I have trouble crediting that as a deliberate gag — it’s not emphasised enough for that to be the case. When the actual culprit is eventually revealed, how and why the crime was committed isn’t properly explained. This is the kind of film that doesn’t see the value in wasting valuable screen time on things like “motive” and “plausible opportunity” and “plot twists” when it can offer dark & stormy nights and people storing poison next to medicine and secret passageways. Indeed, when they find a secret room, it turns out to have its own secret room — that’s the kind of work we’re dealing with here.

    All in all, it’s not <i<bad for a quick little murder mystery, but it’s not strictly good either. It scrapes a 3 by the skin of its teeth.

    3 out of 5

    Shot in the Dark is the 16th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.


    The Brits Are Coming

    (2018)

    aka The Con Is On

    James Haslam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

    The Brits Are Coming

    Uma Thurman and Tim Roth star as a couple of British crooks who accidentally gamble away a pile of cash belonging to a crime lord (Maggie Q), so flee to LA to steal the expensive new engagement ring of his ex (Alice Eve).

    As a crime-comedy caper, you feel like this must have read funny — how else to explain such a starry cast in such a cheap-feeling production? Assuming that’s the case, something definitely got lost between page and screen: almost everything about The Brits Are Coming seems as if it should work, and yet almost none of it does. The occasional moment lands, amid a barrage of F-words so unnecessary you wonder if the film was in some kind of competition to use as many as possible. You sense the cast might’ve been having fun, at least, though supporting appearances from the likes of Stephen Fry and Crispin Glover do little to elevate the material.

    1 out of 5


    Ode to Joy

    (2019)

    Jason Winer | 97 mins | digital (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / R

    Ode to Joy

    Charlie (Martin Freeman) has cataplexy, a rare neurological condition that means if he feels a strong emotion — in his case, happiness — he passes out. Unfortunately for Charlie, he seems to be a bit of a softy: even just seeing someone with their baby or cute dog on the street is liable to make him wobbly. So Charlie lives an uneventful life, working in a library (what better place for calm?) and never doing anything particularly interesting. Certainly never dating. But then one day he defuses a situation involving Francesca (Morena Baccarin), who takes a shine to him; and of course he’s interested in her, because, duh, it’s Morena Baccarin. Can Charlie manage to be happy… but not too happy?

    If it all sounds a tad far-fetched, you should know that it’s inspired by a true story (there’s even a writing credit acknowledging the journalist behind the original piece). Nonetheless, the fictionalised version could easily have turned the premise into something ridiculous, but a solid screenplay and great cast ensure it stays balanced on just the right comedy-drama line. Freeman is perfect casting for “man who would like to be happy but must keep himself miserable”, playing to strengths he’s displayed ever since his breakthrough role in The Office. As his love interest, Baccarin could probably have got away with just looking pretty, but there’s more zest to her character than that. Among the supporting cast, The Big Bang Theory alum Melissa Rauch is particularly hilarious as Francesca’s ‘boring’ friend who Charlie ends up dating instead. She’s the closest thing the film has to an outright “comedy character”, but the screenplay and Rauch’s performance manage to round her out.

    Ode to Joy could’ve coasted on easy (if probably repetitive) gags derived from Charlie’s condition, or it could’ve more-or-less ignored it as simply a hook for a bog-standard romcom. Instead, it’s something a bit more thoughtful, exploring what it really means to be “happy”, as well as where and how we find happiness. Not to mention that age-old question, what’s the point in living if you don’t feel alive?

    4 out of 5


    The Courier

    (2020)

    Dominic Cooke | 112 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Russian | 12 / PG-13

    The Courier

    A fascinating true story that I wasn’t the slightest bit aware of, The Courier stars Benedict Cumberbatch as nondescript businessman Greville Wynne, who was recruited during the Cold War by MI6 and the CIA to travel to Russia and collect information offered by an asset in Soviet military intelligence, Colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), at that time the highest-ranked Soviet to leak intelligence to the West. Definitely sounds like spy novel stuff, but, as I said, it’s all true (well, except for the bits tweaked for dramatic licence, obv).

    As regular readers will no doubt have inferred from my reviews of James Bond, John le Carré adaptations, and other similar fare, I love a bit of Cold War espionage. Normally that’s of the fictional variety — I guess most of the true stories aren’t quite as exciting, or remain too classified — but there’s nothing quite like knowing the events you’re witnessing actually took place. That said, the events depicted here fall under the latter category, as they’re officially still classified. Screenwriter Tom O’Connor reportedly pieced the narrative together from various sources, which I imagine helps make this as close to the truth as we’re likely to get, for now at least.

    Either way, it’s a suitably thrilling tale, powered by two superb lead performances from Cumberbatch — initially reluctant and floundering, but increasingly self-assured and moralistic — and Ninidze — controlled and honourable, but with an emotional undercurrent. Strong supporting turns, too, from the likes of Jessie Buckley and Rachel Brosnahan, don’t let us forget the very human cost of the spy games, especially if things should turn sour…

    By the end, you definitely feel that the actions of Wynne and Penkovsky should be better known. Perhaps the need for keeping official secrets has stymied that — although (without wishing to spoil what happens) some events did make news at the time, and this isn’t the first drama or documentary to cover the case — but The Courier stands as a valiant effort to bring their tale to a wider audience.

    4 out of 5


    The Misfits

    (2021)

    Renny Harlin | 95 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UAE & Finland / English | 15 / R

    The Misfits

    If you thought Michael Bay’s 6 Underground was bad, The Misfits is here to show you what a properly poor “former crooks do good deeds from the shadows” action movie looks like.

    The eponymous ‘Misfits’ are a small group of international Robin Hoods, preying on the rich and selfish for the benefit of the poor and helpless. Their latest job is to steal the gold reserves of a terrorist organisation, which are kept safe in a prison owned by Warner Schultz (Tim Roth, slumming it again), so they recruit his nemesis: thief and multi-time Schultz prison escapee Richard Pace (Pierce Brosnan, only half succeeding to reconjure the roguish charm he deployed decades ago in similarly-themed films like The Thomas Crown Affair).

    Despite the involvement of a couple of big-ish names in front of the camera and a former blockbuster director behind it (Renny Harlin, whose credits included Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger before a couple of flops relegated him to rental-shelf-filler fare), The Misfits looks like it was made for £3.50 and a favour from the Abu Dhabi tourist board (the city appears glamorous and expensive, unlike anything else about the film).

    The screenplay feels like it was generated by an AI fed on every low-rent heist movie from the last 30 years. It’s not just clichés, but the way it drifts along with a “this is the sort of thing that happens in this sort of movie” logic, not particularly caring if it makes objective sense. The construction is sloppy, too. For example, a ton of time is devoted upfront to introducing the ‘Misfits’, only for most of them to be 2D one-trick pies (a thief, a fighter, an explosives expert, etc) who are supporting characters in what is really Brosnan’s film. I thought it was going to be a case of bait-and-switch marketing — make the famous actor prominent on the poster, only for his role to be little more than an extended cameo when the film is really about these other guys — but no, he’s genuinely the lead, it’s just the film is weirdly built. And that’s before we get onto the centrepiece heist itself, where the inevitable twists and reveals are either too clearly telegraphed, or simply pulled out of thin air (the gold isn’t there, it’s here! Except it’s not here, it’s there! But it’s not there, it’s here!)

    If you are exceptionally forgiving, The Misfits has vague merit as entertainment, but it’s a very hollow kind of fun. If you’re in the mood for the particular joys of a heist movie, and you can’t think of or get hold of another one at that minute, it would probably scratch the itch.

    2 out of 5

    The Misfits is the 18th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022.

  • Archive 5, Vol.5

    I have a backlog of 427 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today, melancholic Frenchmen, screwball Americans, and royal Africans are followed by a superhero team-up and a lesson on the evils of social media.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • La Belle Époque (2019)
  • The Awful Truth (1937)
  • Coming to America (1988)
  • Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold (2018)
  • The Social Dilemma (2020)


    La Belle Époque

    (2019)

    Nicolas Bedos | 115 mins | cinema | 2.35:1 | France / French | 15 / R

    La Belle Époque

    Sixtysomething Victor (Daniel Auteuil) is officially a grumpy old man, and his marriage is on the rocks because of it. To cheer him up, his son buys him an experience with his friend’s company, who stage bespoke historical reenactments as a form of time travel. When Victor’s wife finally has enough and throws him out, he uses his experience to revisit 1974, when they first met and fell in love.

    To oversimplify things, it’s kind of like Groundhog Day by way of Charlie Kaufman: the immersive theatrical experience recalls Synechdoche, New York (in a superficial way, I guess), and Victor’s desire to live it over and over again is, well, obvious. Except he’s not stuck there, but choosing it. It’s a mix of nostalgia and melancholy, because, of course, he’s not actually reliving that day, however much he comes to believe in it.

    Advance reviews led me to believe La Belle Époque would be little more than a pleasant diversion, but there’s a lot more to it than that. It clearly has something to say as regards the power of nostalgia and the need to live in the present. But, deep thoughts aside, it’s also a charmingly romantic film — sharply witty, unexpectedly beautiful in places, and genuinely emotional by the end. It’s a shame that it seems to have had half-hearted distribution outside of France (perhaps the fault of it being acquired by Disney, I suspect with an English-language remake in mind, rather than a ‘proper’ distributor of foreign fare who would’ve shown it more love) because I think it deserves, and would reward, a wide audience.

    5 out of 5

    La Belle Époque was #140 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019. It placed 7th on my list of The 15 Best Films of 2019.


    The Awful Truth

    (1937)

    Leo McCarey | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 1.37:1 | USA / English | U

    The Awful Truth

    When Leo McCarey received his Best Director Oscar for this film, he said that he got it for the wrong film — a clear reference to his fondness for Make Way for Tomorrow, which he made the same year. I’m not wholly sure I agree with him, although Tomorrow’s is clearly the ‘worthier’ picture — but that doesn’t always mean better.

    The Awful Truth was the first of three screen pairings of Irene Dunne and Cary Grant, and the film that refined the latter’s famous screen persona. Here, the duo play a married couple who begin to divorce, only to then interfere with each other’s further romances. When it’s on form, the film is up there with the best of its subgenre: a sparkling screwball comedy with glorious dialogue, a pair of splendid lead performances, and a magnificent dog. Unfortunately, it goes on a mite too long and begins to lose steam in the final act. While that might hold the film back from perfection (and so open the door to the idea that Make Way for Tomorrow is somehow superior), the magnificence of what comes before means it’s still a must-see for fans of this style of comedy.

    4 out of 5

    The Awful Truth was #95 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Coming to America

    (1988)

    John Landis | 117 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 15 / R

    Coming to America

    Eddie Murphy plays a pampered but bored African prince, who dodges an arranged marriage to travel to America and find a bride. With that plot and the fact it was made a few decades ago, I was half expecting Coming to America to have aged badly. If nothing else, it seemed primed to base its humour around cringe-inducing culture-clash awkwardness — not necessarily an invalid kind of comedy, but not one I personally enjoy.

    As it turns out, it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, it’s actually rather sweet and kind-hearted, with just enough lewdness to give it a kick rather than make it eye-rollingly vulgar (I’m sure it would only take a couple of minor trims to get that 15/R rating down to a 12/PG-13). Some have criticised it for being too slow — including director John Landis, who asked Paramount if he could re-edit it for the Blu-ray release (they refused) — but I thought it was quite well paced. It doesn’t move at whipcrack speed, but it doesn’t need to. All in all, it holds up well enough that I can see why they decided to produce a belated sequel (which is still on my watchlist).

    4 out of 5

    Coming to America was #28 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Scooby-Doo! & Batman:
    The Brave and the Bold

    (2018)

    Jake Castorena | 75 mins | digital (HD) | 1.78:1 | USA / English | PG

    Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold

    There are an awful lot of Batman movies nowadays (58 and counting, according to my Letterboxd list), but I thought I was at least aware of them all. Turns out not, because I hadn’t even heard of this one until I happened to see someone log it on Letterboxd several years after its release. (It’s a direct-to-video production that they didn’t bother to release on Blu-ray, so that’ll be a big part of why it slipped under my radar.)

    A plot description is pretty unnecessary here: the title tells you all you need to know. The reason it’s a particularly unwieldy one is because Scooby-Doo and friends team-up with, specifically, the Batman from animated series Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I watched a selection of episodes from that show a few years ago and, frankly, didn’t enjoy most of them (although a couple are excellent: Mayhem of the Music Meister is so good I watched it twice in as many days, which regular readers will know is very unlike me), so I didn’t have high hopes for this movie either.

    At least it’s an appropriate iteration of Batman to crossover with Scooby-Doo, because (a) the whole point of the show was team-ups, with every episode seeing Batman join forces with a different DC hero (the subtitle is derived from a classic DC team-up comic), and (b) the overall tone of the show was camp and comical, which chimes well with Scooby-Doo. In fact, despite Scooby-Doo getting top billing, the film is really a feature-length episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold guest starring Mystery Inc, rather than the other way round. I mean, it’s set in Gotham City, stuffed with appearances and cameos by other DC characters, and (most of all) it uses The Brave and the Bold’s animation style, even featuring a version of the series’ title sequence and theme music — with a Scooby makeover, of course. Nonetheless, it also adopts plenty of the tropes of a Scooby-Doo story, like the unmasking at the end.

    Thanks to all that, it’s everything you’d expect from “Scooby-Doo meets Batman” — they leave nothing on the table, right down to having Scooby actually say, “Holy Scooby-Dooby-Doo, Batman!” And would you have it any other way? It’s a daft concept, mashing these two cheesy franchises together — there’s no point trying to be above it. By embracing what it is, it delivers what you’d expect as well as could be imagined. For that, I quite enjoyed it on the whole. And so I would say that, if the basic idea of it doesn’t interest you, give it a miss; but if you think it sounds potentially appealing, you should definitely watch it.

    3 out of 5

    Scooby-Doo! & Batman: The Brave and the Bold was #105 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Social Dilemma

    (2020)

    Jeff Orlowski | 94 mins | digital (UHD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

    The Social Dilemma

    One of those Netflix documentaries that everyone seems to be talking about for a while but then forgets just as quickly, The Social Dilemma is essentially about how dangerous social media is, as told to us by the people who created it. Not the Mark Zuckerberg of the world, obviously — they’re still raking in far too much cash to want to dissuade us from using their products — but various other developers and whatnot who’ve been involved over the years.

    Naturally, the main reaction to all this information is: “OMG, I totally need to change all my social media habits!” And do people? Not as far as I’ve seen. As one contributor in the doc comments, “knowing what was going on behind the curtain, I still wasn’t able to control my usage. So that’s a little scary.” Eesh. We’re doomed.

    4 out of 5

    The Social Dilemma was #20 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


  • Archive 5, Vol.2

    I have a backlog of 442 unreviewed feature films from my 2018 to 2021 viewing. This is where I give those films their day, five at a time, selected by a random number generator.

    Today: musical comedies from ’41 and ’51; murder mysteries from ’33 and ’73; and an animated film that changed the Oscars.

    This week’s Archive 5 are…

  • Royal Wedding (1951)
  • A Study in Scarlet (1933)
  • Chicken Run (2000)
  • The Last of Sheila (1973)
  • Road to Zanzibar (1941)


    Royal Wedding

    (1951)

    aka Wedding Bells

    Stanley Donen | 93 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English | U

    Royal Wedding

    Cynically, I assumed this US production was designed as a cash-in to a news event, most likely the wedding of Princess Elizabeth (i.e. the Queen) and Philip. Although those are indeed the eponymous nuptials, they actually took place several years earlier, in 1947; and in the UK, for its initial release the film was retitled Wedding Bells so audiences wouldn’t think it was a documentary about the real event. So much for my modern cynicism.

    The actual plot is semi-biographical, inspired by the real-life dance partnership of the film’s star, Fred Astaire, and his sister Adele, and who she went on to marry. Here the sister is played by Jane Powell (almost 30 years Astaire’s younger) as the duo take their successful Broadway show across the ocean to London in time for the royal wedding. Such window dressing aside, the plot that unfurls is run-of-the-mill, with both siblings finding themselves in romantic entanglements, and the songs are unmemorable too. The object of Astaire’s affection is played by Sarah Churchill, daughter of Winston Churchill, which adds a bit of fun trivia, at least.

    There is one noteworthy highlight: a set piece in which Astaire dances up the walls and across the ceiling of his hotel room, an effect that’s achieved seamlessly — there’s no wobble or what have you to give away the trickery, and Astaire’s choreography helps hide the behind-the-scenes technique too. There are one or two other neat bits if you’re a fan of dance-y musicals, but, on the whole, this is a thoroughly middle-of-the-road Astaire musical — not bad, just no more than adequate.

    3 out of 5

    Royal Wedding was #180 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    A Study in Scarlet

    (1933)

    Edwin L. Marin | 72 mins | Blu-ray | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    A Study in Scarlet

    For some reason, cinema has a long history of taking the titles of original Sherlock Holmes stories but then producing an entirely new plot underneath. A Study in Scarlet — the very first of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Holmes works — seems to be a particularly afflicted tale. It features the first meeting of Holmes and his roommate / sidekick / chronicler, Dr Watson, but I think there are two adaptations that actually show this — and, ironically, neither of them are actually called A Study in Scarlet (one is the debut episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, and the other is the first episode of the Russian series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, which is called Acquaintance). According to IMDb, “the Conan Doyle estate quoted the producers a price for the rights to the title and a considerably higher price to use the original story” — perhaps they did that all the time, hence my observed phenomena.

    Obviously, this ‘poverty row’ effort is one such example of title/story mismatch: this so-called adaptation stars Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson… and that’s where similarities to the novel end. The pair don’t even live at 221b Baker Street — for no apparent reason, it’s been changed to 221a. Did the filmmakers just misremember one of the most famous addresses in literature? Having only paid for the rights to the title, the producers hired director Robert Florey (the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts; Murders in the Rue Morgue) to write a new story, and actor Reginald Owen — who stars as Holmes — wrote the dialogue. Owen hoped this would be the first in a series of Holmes films starring himself. It wasn’t.

    Physically, Owen isn’t anyone’s ideal image of Holmes, but his actual performance is adequate. Much the same can be said of the whole film: it’s an entertaining-enough 70-minute crime romp, with enough incident to create a brisk pace, and a use of the rhyme Ten Little Indians that makes you wonder if Agatha Christie saw this movie before she published And Then There Were None six years later (or is it just a coincidence? The audio commentators spend a good deal of time chewing it over). Given second billing behind Owen is bona fide Chinese-American movie star Anna May Wong, even though she has relatively little screen time. She makes her mark, though, with a role that doesn’t simply conform to racial stereotypes (possibly an unintended side effect of her late casting rather than genuine progressivism by the filmmakers, but sometimes you gotta take what you can get).

    This particular Study in Scarlet is a long way from being a definitive Sherlock Holmes movie, but for fans of ’30s detective flicks, it’s nonetheless a likeable little adventure.

    3 out of 5

    A Study in Scarlet was #206 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.


    Chicken Run

    (2000)

    Peter Lord & Nick Park | 84 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK, USA & France / English | U / G

    Chicken Run

    I’ve always enjoyed Aardman’s work. I grew up watching the Wallace & Gromit shorts on TV, and have seen all of their feature output — except their first. I’m not sure why it’s taken me 20 years to get round to Chicken Run. I guess when it was originally released I had grown out of “kid’s movies” but not yet grown back into them; but since then, to be honest, something about it never particularly appealed to me. It certainly has its fans: it’s still the highest grossing stop motion film ever; there was a push to get it an Oscar Best Picture nomination, the failure of which led to the creation of a category it could’ve won, Best Animated Feature (trust the Academy to shut the door after the horse had bolted); and when Netflix recently announced a sequel, there was much pleasure on social media.

    So, finally getting round to it, would I discover what I’d been missing all along? Unfortunately, no. I thought it was fine. In no way did I dislike it, but nor did it charm me in the way of my favourite Aardman productions. It’s rather dark for U-rated film — it doesn’t mince its words or imagery about the fact the chickens are being killed — and that contributes to some particularly effective sequences, like when our heroes end up inside the pie machine, or a suitably exciting climactic action sequence. There are some reliably decent gags along the way, too.

    I’m sure I’ll watch the sequel. Maybe I’ll like it more. But, I confess, the fact they’ve now announced a new Wallace & Gromit movie for the year after does have me even more excited.

    3 out of 5

    Chicken Run was #148 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2020.


    The Last of Sheila

    (1973)

    Herbert Ross | 120 mins | digital (SD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15* / PG

    The Last of Sheila

    I’d never even heard of this before Rian Johnson mentioned it as an inspiration for Knives Out 2. Co-written by Anthony Perkins (yes, Norman Bates from Psycho) and Stephen Sondheim (yes, the famous musical composer), The Last of Sheila is a murder mystery firmly in the Agatha Christie mould — despite the writers’ pedigree, there are no significant horror elements (even the deaths are, at worst, on the PG/12 borderline) and certainly no song-and-dance numbers (excepting a magnificently inappropriate song over the end credits, sung by Bette Midler). Apparently Perkins and Sondheim used to host elaborate scavenger hunts for their friends in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and they adapted them into a screenplay at the suggestion of a guest, Herbert Ross, who produced and directed the film (seems only fair).

    Further inspiration came from their professional lives and acquaintances, because the potential victims and suspects are all actresses, agents, and the like, gathered for a Mediterranean cruise aboard a producer’s yacht. He proposes they play a game about secrets and gossip — but clearly one of the secrets in play is too big, because someone winds up murdered. A well-constructed mystery is unfurled throughout the film, although its execution is a little variable: a fun, very Christie-esque first half gives way to long talky scenes in the second, as characters stand around and explain the plot to each other. But when that plot is as good as this — with some nice surprises, plus motives dark enough to give it a little edge — it feels churlish to object too strongly.

    4 out of 5

    The Last of Sheila was #186 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2021.

    * IMDb says it was given a 15 on video, but the BBFC say it hasn’t been rated since 1973, when it got an AA. The BBFC site is crap nowadays; IMDb will accept any old junk users submit. You decide. ^


    Road to Zanzibar

    (1941)

    Victor Schertzinger | 87 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    Road to Zanzibar

    The second in what became the Road To… series — though it was never intended as such. What ended up becoming Road to Zanzibar was initially an original feature, first offered to Fred MacMurray (this before his roles in the likes of Double Indemnity and The Apartment) and George Burns (an actor I’m not particularly familiar with). After they rejected it, apparently someone at Paramount remembered Road to Singapore had done relatively well, and that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby seemed like a good pairing, and so they were offered it.

    As I wrote in my last review of a Road To film (which was over 11 years ago?! Jesus…), if you’ve seen one Road To film then you’ve a fair idea what to expect from any other — essentially, a suitably daft bit of fluff and fun. This one’s a bit thin — on plot, on gags, on everything — but it skates by on the charm of Bob and Bing, joined, as ever, by Dorothy Lamour. The only serious problem is the same as Singapore: dated depictions of African stereotypes. It kind of gets away with it by being a spoof of “African adventure”-type movies, but maybe that’s me being kind with hindsight. Either way, the bit where the tribe’s African dialogue is subtitled with contemporary American vernacular is one of the film’s more amusing gags.

    3 out of 5

    Road to Zanzibar was #110 in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2019.


  • The 100-Week Roundup XXXI

    The 100-Week Roundup covers films I still haven’t reviewed 100 weeks after watching them. Sometimes these are short ‘proper’ reviews; sometimes they’re only quick thoughts, or even just the notes I made while viewing.

    This week’s selection includes a trio of films I watched back in May 2019

  • Widows (2018)
  • Cosmopolis (2012)
  • The Kennel Murder Case (1933)


    Widows
    (2018)

    2019 #88
    Steve McQueen | 130 mins | digital (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & Spanish | 15 / R

    Widows

    The story of four women with nothing in common, except a debt left behind by their dead husbands’ criminal activities. Set in contemporary Chicago, amid a time of turmoil, tensions build when Veronica (Viola Davis), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo) take their fate into their own hands and conspire to forge a future on their own terms.IMDb

    Best known for powerful socially/politically-conscious work like Hunger, 12 Years a Slave, and the Small Axe series, director Steve McQueen here delivers something closer to a genre movie — although, with its storyline of gangsters’ women empowering themselves, and a racially diverse cast, it still feels at least somewhat radical. As a thriller, it’s not exactly taught with tension, but it’s not too slack either — the pace is considered but not slow, allowing enough room for everything (and there’s a lot) without feeling rushed.

    4 out of 5

    Cosmopolis
    (2012)

    2019 #89
    David Cronenberg | 101 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | Canada & France / English | 15 / R

    Cosmopolis

    Riding across Manhattan in a stretch limo in order to get a haircut, a 28-year-old billionaire asset manager’s day devolves into an odyssey with a cast of characters that start to tear his world apart.IMDb

    David Cronenberg may be most famous as a horror director, but the only thing horrific about Cosmopolis is having to sit through it. It has the visual, aural, writing, and performance quality of an overambitious semi-pro early-’00s webseries, from the distractingly ugly green-screened limo windows to the “undergrad philosopher”-sounding screenplay and stiff performances. I presume this literally monotonous lack of realism must have been intentional, but doing something deliberately doesn’t inherently make it good. Cronenberg reportedly wrote the screenplay in just six days, apparently by copy-pasting the book into screenplay format and separating the dialogue from narration. That would go some way to explaining why it’s all so unnatural and impenetrable.

    1 out of 5

    Cosmopolis featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2019.

    The Kennel Murder Case
    (1933)

    2019 #91
    Michael Curtiz | 73 mins | digital (SD) | 4:3 | USA / English

    The Kennel Murder Case

    Before he starred in The Thin Man, one of the definitive detective movies, William Powell played private eye Philo Vance in a series of movies — three at Paramount across 1929 and 1930, later returning for this one at Warners. Here, Vance investigates a locked-room mystery: wealthy collector Archer Coe is dead and all signs point to suicide, but Vance had run into him the day before at the Kennel Club, where Coe was looking forward to his dog winning the next day’s competition.

    While the ensuing story unfolds a solid mystery, it lacks the charm and wit of the Thin Man films. Powell’s character is a facilitator of the plot rather than an entertaining main character; a blank slate who wanders around solving things. That lack of verve or individuality (which you do find in, say, the Falcon and Saint films, which this is on a par with in most other respects) is what really holds it back. Mind you, it has its moments: for example, much of Michael Curtiz’s direction is perfunctory studio-programmer stuff, but there’s the occasional striking shot (the discovery of a body though a keyhole) or sequence (the recap of how the murders went down, with a roving first-person view to hide the killer’s identity).

    3 out of 5

  • King Kong (1933)

    The 100 Films Guide to…

    King Kong

    A Monster of Creation’s Dawn
    Breaks Loose in Our World Today!

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 100 minutes
    BBFC: A (1933) | PG (1985)

    Original Release: 2nd March 1933 (New York City, USA)
    UK Release: 17th April 1933 (London)
    Budget: $672,254.75
    Worldwide Gross: $5.3 million

    Stars
    Fay Wray (Doctor X, Mystery of the Wax Museum)
    Robert Armstrong (The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young)
    Bruce Cabot (Fallen Angel, Diamonds Are Forever)

    Directors
    Merian C. Cooper (The Four Feathers, The Last Days of Pompeii)
    Ernest B. Schoedsack (The Most Dangerous Game, Mighty Joe Young)

    Screenwriters
    James Creelman (The Most Dangerous Game, The Last Days of Pompeii)
    Ruth Rose (She, Mighty Joe Young)

    From an idea by
    Merian C. Cooper (Roar of the Dragon, Mighty Joe Young)
    Edgar Wallace (The Squeaker, The Hound of the Baskervilles)


    The Story
    Adventurous filmmaker Carl Denham and crew travel to an uncharted tropical island in search of the subject for his next picture. There, they encounter a gigantic ape — Kong — who takes a shine to the movie’s pretty young star…

    Our Hero
    Ann Darrow is a down-on-her-luck gal in New York City, when successful movie producer Carl Denham plucks her to star in his next movie — which involves going on a long boat voyage to a mysterious uncharted island, where she’ll make a big new friend…

    Our Villain
    People might point to Kong — he is a giant monster who kidnaps the heroine and kills a bunch of people, after all — but I think we all know the real villain is Carl Denham, the risk-taking heath-and-safety-averse movie producer turned theatrical impresario, whose exploitative whims ultimately lead to death and destruction.

    Best Supporting Character
    He may be a stop-motion puppet made of metal and rubber and fur, but animator Willis O’Brien injects so much life and personality into Kong that he is, unquestionably, the real star of the show.

    Memorable Quote
    “It wasn’t the airplanes. It was beauty killed the beast.” — Carl Denham

    Memorable Scene
    King Kong is full of great moments, but the most famous has to be the climax: having wreaked havoc across New York City, Kong scales the Empire State Building with Ann in hand, deposits her at the top, and fights for his life as a fleet of biplanes swarm around. It’s not going to end well…

    Truly Special Effect
    I’ve already mentioned Willis O’Brien’s animation of Kong, but his skill goes far beyond that: there are all manner of beasties on Kong’s island, brought thrillingly to life by O’Brien and his team. These stop-motion effects are obviously of their time, but the way they’re integrated with the live action is frequently impressive, and any technical limitations certainly didn’t lead them to skimp on the action — you might think Kong would only appear sparingly, but the big guy gets tonnes of screen time.

    Making of
    King Kong was made before the enforcement of the Production Code, but its 1938 re-release was after. To comply, multiple scenes were removed (perhaps most famously, one where Kong peels off Ann’s clothes). They weren’t restored until the ’70s. But one scene was deleted even earlier: the so-called “spider pit” sequence, in which the sailors Kong tips off a log are attacked and killed by a bunch of creatures. When included in a preview screening, audience members were so disturbed that they either left or were so focused on what they’d just seen it disrupted the rest of the film. Consequently, the sequence was removed before the film’s general release, and is probably lost forever. But it remains a kind of Holy Grail of deleted scenes, and so during production of the 2005 remake, Peter Jackson and Weta set about recreating the original spider pit scene, just as a fun side project. The end result (included on subsequent Blu-ray releases of the ’33 film) is nice ‘n’ all, but what’s really incredible is the half-hour making-of devoted to its creation. The amount of time, effort, and skill that Jackson & co put into creating such a short sequence — something they themselves describe as “just a bit of fun” — is phenomenal.

    Next time…
    King Kong was such a hit that a sequel was raced out the same year. Produced on a vastly reduced budget and in just six months to get it into theatres for Christmas, The Son of Kong was not a success. But the iconicity of Kong has ensured he’s survived long-term. In the ’60s, he was licensed to Japanese studio Toho so they could pit him against their own giant monster in King Kong vs. Godzilla, and in 1967 they produced a Kong-only followup, King Kong Escapes. In 1976, a big Hollywood remake of the original updated events to a contemporary setting. Although it wasn’t a success, sequel King Kong Lives eventually followed ten years later. There was another remake in 1998: a direct-to-video animated musical titled The Mighty Kong (no, really). Also in the late ’90s, a small-time horror director from New Zealand nearly produced another remake, but the project didn’t come together. One billion-dollar-grossing, Oscar-winning, genre-defining, medium-revolutionising fantasy trilogy later, Peter Jackson was finally allowed to realise his dream, helming an epic reimagining that this time retained the original film’s 1930s setting. Various other animated films, TV series, comic books, games, theme park rides, and the like have featured Kong down the decades. Most recently, he’s once again been inducted into a shared universe with Godzilla, getting a wholly rebooted origin in Kong: Skull Island before facing off against the giant lizard in Godzilla vs. Kong. Given the latter’s current box office success, more films will surely follow.

    Verdict

    Beauty and the Beast is reimagined as a monster movie in this iconic classic. Obviously some of it has aged (not just the effects, but some broadly racist attitudes around Pacific islanders and the ship’s Chinese cook), although its pre-Code roots allow it some unexpected liberties (from gruesome deaths to an unmistakable sexuality around Fay Wray — all within PG levels, but still). Take all that in your stride, and King Kong absolutely holds up as an adrenaline-fuelled spectacle.

    Gone with the Wind (1939)

    100 Films’ 100 Favourites #41

    The most magnificent picture ever!

    Country: USA
    Language: English
    Runtime: 233 minutes
    BBFC: A (cut, 1940) | PG (1988)
    MPAA: G (1971)

    Original Release: 15th December 1939 (premiere in Atlanta, Georgia, USA)
    US Release: 17th January 1940
    UK Release: 18th April 1940 (premiere)
    First Seen: TV, c.2005

    Stars
    Clark Gable (It Happened One Night, Mutiny on the Bounty)
    Vivien Leigh (Fire Over England, A Streetcar Named Desire)
    Leslie Howard (Of Human Bondage, 49th Parallel)
    Olivia de Havilland (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Dark Mirror)
    Hattie McDaniel (Show Boat, Song of the South)

    Director
    Victor Fleming (The Wizard of Oz, A Guy Named Joe)

    Screenwriter
    Sidney Howard (Arrowsmith, Dodsworth)

    Based on
    Gone with the Wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell.

    The Story
    The American South, 1861: wealthy teenager Scarlett O’Hara spends her days attending parties and flirting with her many admirers, though she only really has eyes for her neighbour, Ashley. After he declares his intention to marry his cousin Melanie, a furious Scarlett meets Rhett Butler, a practically-minded gent who only serves his own interests. When the American Civil War breaks out, Scarlett has to apply her manipulative nature to survival, as down the years she engages in a love/hate relationship with the similarly-tempered Rhett.

    Our Heroes
    Scarlett O’Hara is the perennial belle of the ball in her Southern community, until the American Civil War comes and she’s forced to grow up. Her innate selfishness and tendency to manipulate people (or try to, at least) helps her survive the conflict in more-or-less one piece. Equally self concerned is Rhett Butler, a gentleman not afraid to stand up to Scarlett, which is why they clash, and why they’re probably made for one another.

    Our Villains
    Those damn Unionists, with their trying to get rid of slavery and everything!

    Best Supporting Character
    Hattie McDaniel is memorable, likeable, and Oscar-winning as the O’Haras’ maid, Mammy. Whether her performance was a good thing for the African American community or just an ‘Uncle Tom’ is another matter.

    Memorable Quote
    “As God is my witness, as God is my witness they’re not going to lick me. I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again. No, nor any of my folk. If I have to lie, steal, cheat or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.” — Scarlett O’Hara

    Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
    “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” — Rhett Butler

    Memorable Scene
    In the streets of Atlanta, Scarlett comes across the casualties from the battle. First we only see her face as she comes upon a shocking sight. Then it cuts to a long-shot: Scarlett stood by some soldiers, a couple of wounded men on the ground before her. The camera tracks back as Scarlett walks forward, gradually revealing the field of wounded soldiers she’s walking among. It continues to pull back, up into the sky, for a full 55 seconds, the injured stretching as far as the eye can see as a damaged Confederate flag flutters into view in the foreground.

    Technical Wizardry
    The Technicolor photography by Ernest Haller is absolutely gorgeous, and looks better than ever nowadays thanks to new restoration techniques developed in 2004 (12 years ago?! Where does time go?) That restoration is where the real wizardry lies. Gone with the Wind was shot with Technicolor’s three-strip process, in which a prism split the light entering the camera into its green, red and blue parts, which were each exposed on a strip of black-and-white film. These strips were then dyed the appropriate colour, before being combined onto a new film to create the final full-colour print. Naturally this process was liable to human error: misalign one of the strips by even the slightest amount and you get errors; small and almost unnoticeable, maybe, but less than perfection. In 2004, they went back to the original three strips and, using complicated new computer programs, realigned them from scratch. This perfect alignment revealed details that have always been on the film but would never have been seen before, meaning these movies (they also did it for the likes of The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Adventures of Robin Hood) literally looked better than they ever had. Magic.

    Letting the Side Down
    There are a raft of criticisms that can be levelled at Gone with the Wind, from its depiction of black characters, to making the South seem not so bad, to the faithfulness of its adaptation (too much). The second half is certainly less focused and less memorable than the first, but the whole overcomes that, for me.

    Making of
    The search for an actress to play the leading role of Scarlett O’Hara is legendary — it was even dramatised in an Emmy-winning TV movie in 1980. In all it lasted two years, including an open casting call that interviewed 1,400 unknowns (useless for casting, great for publicity), and the formal screen-testing of 31 actresses, including the likes of Lucille Ball, Clara Bow, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and many more. In the end, it of course went to a young British actress, then unknown in America, called Vivien Leigh. The rest is screen history.

    Next time…
    Fans and filmmakers alike tried to get Margaret Mitchell to write a sequel until her death in 1949. In the ’70s, her brother agreed a deal with MGM and Universal under which a novel would be written and simultaneously adapted into a film. Despite a 775-page manuscript being produced, the deal fell apart. Numerous sequel novels have been published, and in 1994 one of these, Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlett, was adapted into a miniseries starring Joanne Whalley as Scarlett and Timothy Dalton as Rhett, with a supporting cast that includes Sean Bean, John Gielgud, and Ann-Margret. Apparently it’s not very good.

    Awards
    8 Oscars (Picture, Actress (Vivien Leigh), Supporting Actress (Hattie McDaniel), Director, Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing)
    1 Honorary Award from AMPAS (for “outstanding achievement in the use of color for the enhancement of dramatic mood”)
    1 Technical Achievement Award from AMPAS (for being “pioneering in the use of coordinated equipment”)
    5 Oscar nominations (Actor (Clark Gable), Supporting Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Score, Sound Recording, Special Effects)

    What the Critics Said in 1939
    “There has never been a picture like David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind. It is so true to Margaret Mitchell’s novel of the Civil War, as it was fought in and around Atlanta, that the film is of the same epic quality as the book. […] Vivien Leigh, the little English girl imported to play the role of Scarlett, gives a magnificent performance. No other actress in Hollywood, or on the New York stage, could have come close to equalling it. […] She is pert and beautiful, lacking in erudition but the possessor of all the arts and allure of the vital female. She is quick-tempered, selfish, untruthful, sturdy and wilful as a lioness. No attempt has been made to gloss over Scarlett’s weaknesses and sins. As she is, she dominates the picture from its gay and light-hearted beginning to its tragic close.” — Kate Cameron, New York Daily News

    What the Critics Said in 1973
    “The most interesting way to consider GWTW today is in comparison with the film that may eventually surpass it in profits, The Godfather. Look at the similarities. Both originated in best-selling American novels. Both are very long. Both are about predators. Both are ultra-American yet are very closely allied to Europe (Walter Scott and Sicily). And, most important, both live within codes of honor, and both codes are romances. William R. Taylor has shown, in Cavalier and Yankee, that the ‘Walter Scott’ antebellum South was largely a literary fabrication, concocted at the time, not retrospectively; as for The Godfather, our newspapers show us daily that ‘They Only Kill Each Other’ is just another escape hatch to allow us to blink facts. ‘Us,’ by the way, means the world, not just the United States, since the whole world flocks to both films. And that’s interesting, too, because it leads to a difference, not a likeness. In a new age, when the ‘realistic’ Godfather is packing them in, the romantic GWTW is still popular. There’s a crumb of comfort in that: at least culture is still more pluralist than some of our propagandists would have us believe.” — Stanley Kauffmann, The Atlantic

    What the Critics Said in 2015
    “Its stereotype of happy slaves and kindly masters has never been more wince-inducing […] But no one watches Gone with the Wind for historical accuracy. What keeps us coming back is four-hours of epic romance in gorgeous Technicolor. Slavery, the Civil War, the burning of Atlanta, a street knee-deep in dead soldiers—all just a backdrop to the main event, Scarlett ’n’ Rhett. The feminist jury is still out on Southern belle Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh). Nothing but a serial husband-thief? Or a resilient modern woman doing what she can to survive? You decide.” — Cath Clarke, Time Out

    Score: 94%

    What the Public Say
    “What’s striking almost 75 years on is how fresh and modern both Rhett and Scarlett remain. Gable’s eyes twinkle as he rolls Sidney Howard’s dialogue around his mouth, but there’s also a sadness there and a resignation that, no matter how hard he tries, he and Scarlett can never last. Leigh, who came through a tortuous audition process to land the part, positively crackles. Although still one of the feistiest and most driven female parts committed to screen Scarlett is, for the most part, pretty damn annoying and does little to enamour herself as the film progresses. […] Rhett sums Scarlett up perfectly when he remarks that she’s ‘like the thief who isn’t the least bit sorry he stole, but is terribly, terribly sorry he’s going to jail’.” — Three Rows Back

    Elsewhere on 100 Films
    I briefly reviewed Gone with the Wind after a re-watch way back in 2007, when I assessed that “the direction is brilliant, displaying styles you think weren’t invented for another 20 years; all of the design work is gorgeous; and the story is epic and expertly told, moving across genres (romance, war, melodrama, comedy) with ease. It’s easy to see why this is the most popular film ever made.”

    Verdict

    Last week I wrote about the enduring mass popularity of The Godfather, and here’s another case in point. Gone with the Wind may not rack up the ratings in the same circles as Coppola’s opus, but it has consistently been voted America’s most favourite movie, and its numerous massively successful re-releases mean that, adjusted for inflation, it’s still the highest grossing movie of all time. It’s an epic in the truest sense of the word, with a story spanning many years and many miles, passing by historical events in the process. However, at its core it’s the story of a tumultuous romance between two people, who may love each other or may hate each other, but who, with their unique, selfish, manipulative perspectives, are surely perfect for each other.

    #42 will be… #42 will be… #42 will be…

    Of Human Bondage (1934)

    2016 #68
    John Cromwell | 83 mins | download (HD) | 1.33:1 | USA / English | PG

    W. Somerset Maugham’s semi-autobiographical novel Of Human Bondage is, per Wikipedia, generally agreed to be his masterpiece, and regarded as one of the best English-language novels of the 20th Century. I’ve never read it, but I’m going to begin by recapping its plot (again courtesy of Wikipedia), the relevance of which will become clear after. Spoilers abound, should you be so concerned.

    So, Maugham’s novel tells the life story of Philip Carey, a boy with a club foot who is orphaned and sent to live with his aunt and uncle. They quickly dispatch him to boarding school, where he struggles to to fit in due to his disability. Although groomed for an Oxford education, Philip insists on travelling to Germany, where he eventually takes an apprenticeship. Again he fails to fit in, his co-workers resenting him for being a gentleman. On a business trip to Paris, he decides to quit his job and become an art student. A fellow student falls in love with him; he doesn’t realise, and she eventually commits suicide.

    (I know, you came here for a film review, not a plot summary, but bear with me.)

    Realising he’ll never make it as an artist, Philip returns to England, eventually deciding to enter medicine. While struggling as a student, he meets a waitress, Mildred, who he falls in love with. She leaves him heartbroken when she announces she’s marrying another man. Philip begins seeing an author, but when Mildred returns, pregnant and unmarried, he breaks off the relationship and begins to support Mildred. Despite his kindness, she falls for one of Philip’s friends and runs off with him. Later she returns, now a single mother, and Philip takes her in again. This time she makes advances on him, which he rejects, so she destroys his belongings and disappears. Eventually he meets her again, when she’s in search of his medical opinion. She has contracted syphilis from working as a prostitute, but rejects Philip’s advice to quit. Her ultimate fate remains unknown.

    (Nearly done…)

    Meanwhile, Philip is left penniless by poor investments, and unable to complete his education. He’s taken in by the family of a patient, who find him a job at a department store, which he hates, although his talent for art earns him a promotion. After his uncle dies, the inheritance Philip gains allows him to return to his medical tuition and finally become a doctor. He takes a temporary placement at a hospital, where a senior doctor takes a shine to him and offers a stake in his practice. Philip declines. On a summer holiday with the patient who took him in earlier, he meets one of the man’s daughters, Sally, who likes him. She winds up pregnant, so Philip abandons his plans to travel the world, deciding to marry her and accept the doctor’s partnership offer after all. It turns out the pregnancy was a false alarm, but he decides to settle down anyway.

    Phew! What a life.

    All of that plays out over 700 pages. How do you adapt it into an 80-minute movie? The answer, at least for RKO in the ’30s, is that you cut most of it out.

    The film begins in Paris, with Philip (Leslie Howard) being told he’ll never make it as an artist. He instantly decides to become a medical student, during which time he meets Mildred (Bette Davis). From there, the rest of the film follows the plot described in the second paragraph, albeit with some notable modifications (which I’ll come to later), with parts of the third paragraph (the patient, his daughter, abandoning travel for marriage) surfacing during the third act.

    As I said, I’ve never read the novel, but it strikes me this is less “an adaptation” and more “a partial adaptation”. I’m not sure how Maugham fans feel about that. Even more surprising, at least to me, is that it seems no one’s ever attempted a more faithful retelling. There were two more film adaptations, but the last of those was 52 years ago and, from a quick glance at some plot descriptions, it sounds more like they’re remakes of this film than fresh adaptations of the novel. Considering the book is so acclaimed, it’s a wonder someone like the BBC has never given it the miniseries treatment, especially considering it’s been so long since the last film.

    It would probably withstand a new treatment, too, because this version is not exactly highly acclaimed. Not that it’s a bad film, but there is only one real reason to watch it: Bette Davis, giving the performance that made her a star. She overcomes a terrible cockney accent (we’re talking Dick Van Dyke-level bad) to map out the sad decline of Mildred, starting out as a rude and dismissive waitress (it’s hard to see what Philip sees in her, but he’s a bit of a drip so we’re not exactly on his side), slipping to a struggling single mother desperately throwing herself at her one-time admirer, to a final terrible state: gaunt, dead-eyed, looking like she’s almost rotting away before our eyes. Maybe it’s not as gruesome as that sounds — this is a ’30s drama, not The Walking Dead — but it’s still striking.

    In the film it’s not syphilis that does for her, but tuberculosis, and prostitution is never mentioned, or even really alluded to. The changes were no doubt due to the infamous Production Code. (There are paintings of naked French women all over Philip’s apartment, though, but I guess that counts as Art. Sadly, there’s no meta-funny dialogue about painting anyone like one of his French girls.) Of Human Bondage is often labelled as a Pre-Code film — as coming from that narrow era between the Code being invented and anyone seriously bothering to apply it. The latter came about in 1934, when an amendment to the Code stated that any film released after July 1st 1934 had to receive a certificate of approval before it could be released. Of Human Bondage premiered on June 28th, which I guess is why it gets labelled a Pre-Code film, but it went on wide release from July 20th, so fell under the Code’s new remit after all. The print held by the Library of Congress (used for the US Blu-ray release) even has the Code certificate at the start (it’s #53, if you’re curious).

    Anyway, back to Mildred: her final degraded state is one of two parts that really mark Davis’ performance out. The other is a monologue delivered after Philip finally rejects her, a screaming force of nature that tears off the screen. Part of its effectiveness lies in the contrast to Davis’ work in the film up to that point, which has been calmer and emotionally reticent, her feelings concealed from Philip because, as it turns out, she has none for him. When she bursts forth with a tumult of fury, an explosive anger based in her lost ability to manipulate this weak man, it’s both a surprise and entirely expected of her selfish character.

    When Davis is off screen, it feels like the film is waiting for her to return. Her arc aside, it’s a take-it-or-leave-it damp squib of a drama — there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not all that engaging. Howard has definitely been better; his romance with Sally arrives too late to have much emotional weight, though it’s easy to believe he could fall in love with Frances Dee at first sight.

    More interesting than the plot of the film is the behind-the-scenes story, which brings us back round to Davis. At the time she was a contract player at Warner Bros, and feeling her career was going nowhere. Of Human Bondage had been rejected by some major actresses due to Mildred’s distinct unlikeability, but Davis saw it as an opportunity. She begged Jack L. Warner to lend her to RKO, which he resisted because he believed it would tarnish her image. However, he ultimately relented when Warners wanted an actress from RKO (Irene Dunne for Sweet Adeline, if you’re interested), and because he believed she would fail. Obviously that didn’t happen, much to the chagrin of Warner executives, who were embarrassed by one of their actresses having such success in a rival studio’s film. When there was talk of her winning an Oscar, Jack Warner began a campaign to discourage Academy members voting for her. At that time the vote counting was handled internally by the Academy itself, so Warner was able to get his way, successfully keeping her off the nominations. However, outrage by voters led to a write-in campaign. Davis ultimately placed third, but the effects were longer lasting: write-in votes were banned, and independent firm Price Waterhouse were hired to manage the voting next year — a job they still do today.

    That might make quite a good film, actually; the kind of thing that might win some Oscars…

    Award-winning or not, Davis’ performance is the main reason to watch Of Human Bondage. Maybe the novel is a great work, but the film is little more than adequate, with one exception. It may take a while to get past that accent, plus the addition of some dramatic fuel to allow Davis to catch light, but when she does it’s clear how this was a star-making turn.

    3 out of 5

    This review is part of the Bette Davis Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fantastic contributions collated by host In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.

    L’Atalante (1934)

    2015 #138
    Jean Vigo | 85 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | France / French | PG

    The only feature-length work of director Jean Vigo (though Zéro de conduite just qualifies for AMPAS’s definition of feature-length, being 41 minutes) before he died tragically young at 29, L’Atalante has been acclaimed as one of the greatest films ever made.

    It wasn’t always thus. It was not well received at first, leading to a tumultuous release history. Previews were so poor that the distributor cut 20 minutes and released it as Le chaland qui passe, the title of a popular song at the time, which was of course added to the soundtrack. It translates as The Passing Barge, which is a very apt moniker, at least. Nonetheless, it was still a commercial failure. In 1940 it was partially restored, and after World War 2 its reputation began to be rehabilitated by critics, including becoming a favourite of the French New Wave directors. It was more thoroughly restored in 1990, and then again in 2001, bringing the film as close to its original form as possible.

    Personally, my view hews closer to the original reception. Reportedly a French distributor called it “a confused, incoherent, wilfully absurd, long, dull, commercially worthless film,” while critics called it “amateurish, self-indulgent and morbid.” OK, maybe it’s not that bad, but there are nuggets of truth in there.

    It boils down to a relationship drama, about a couple so in love that they married in haste and now must learn how to live together and reaffirm their love in a new context. That story is told with some asides to barge life that seem (at least to me, on a first viewing) wholly unrelated, but in themselves are frequently more entertaining, thanks primarily to the performance of Michel Simon as the barge’s older first mate.

    The romance is told in a way many describe as “poetic”, which seems to me to be something of a euphemism for “obliquely”. There are certainly poetic shots or sequences, like Jean’s dive where he sees a vision of Juliette, but the actual narrative is more social realist — low-key, and not spelt out or expounded upon for our benefit.

    At one time, L’Atalante must have been visionary, groundbreaking, and revelatory to both critics and other filmmakers. Over eight decades on, however, whatever was then new has been subsumed by filmmaking in general; it has become familiar, or been better employed by filmmakers who were finessing rather than experimenting. L’Atalante may well be a significant work in the history of film, and for that reason may once have been considered one of the greats (and still is by some), but for me, now, it doesn’t have enough merit as a work in its own right.

    3 out of 5

    L’Atalante was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2015 project, which you can read more about here.

    This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

    Another Thin Man (1939)

    2014 #129
    W.S. Van Dyke II | 98 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    Another Thin ManHusband-and-wife detective duo Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) — now with a baby in tow — are once again coerced into investigating a crime when the manager of Nora’s estate fears a dismissed employee is plotting murder.

    As per usual, a complex web of lies and deception unfurls, enlivened by the comic teasing between our leads. The baby prompts an unlikeable subplot about a bunch of ex-cons throwing a party for the detective who put them away (as you do), but it does aid a somewhat farcical climax. The rest of the movie offers the series’ trademark delights.

    4 out of 5

    Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.

    In the interests of completing my ever-growing backlog, I decided to post ‘drabble reviews’ of some films. For those unfamiliar with the concept, a drabble is a complete piece of writing exactly 100 words long. You’ve just read one.

    After the Thin Man (1936)

    2014 #124
    W.S. Van Dyke | 108 mins | DVD | 1.33:1 | USA / English | U

    After the Thin ManImmediately after their New York Christmastime adventure in The Thin Man (the sequel’s title is very literal!), married detectives Nick and Nora Charles (William Powell and Myrna Loy) are back home in San Francisco for New Year. Summoned to dinner by Nora’s stuffy aunt, it turns out Nora’s cousin’s rascally husband has gone missing and they want Nick to investigate. They find him easily, but he’s shortly murdered and our heroes are drawn into a web of conspiracies and deceptions.

    For my money, After the Thin Man is a more successful venture than the first film, however good that was. From the start it has its focus in the right place: rather than a lengthy preamble with the supporting cast (as in the first film), here we begin with Nick and Nora arriving in San Francisco and teasing the horde of journalists that greet them. It takes a little while to actually get to the case they need to investigate, but that’s fine because it isn’t really the point — it’s the interactions, the humour and good-natured teasing, particularly between our wedded heroes, that are the films’ primary joy.

    Nonetheless, I still found the case to be a more puzzling and intriguing one than the first film’s, though the subsequent fame of a supporting player — namely James Stewart, in just the second year of his career, looking young but sounding like he always would — might help some along in their deductions.

    He won't stay thin if he's always in the fridge...There’s also an increased role for the couple’s dog, Asta, granted his own subplot as he has to fend off a philandering Scottie with intentions toward Mrs Asta. I make no apologies for preferring this over the previous film in part because there’s more amusing doggy action.

    The original Thin Man may have attracted Oscar nominations and all that, but this first sequel clarifies, sharpens, and perfects the formula, placing more emphasis on the elements that worked so well and still presenting a mystery that’s at least as good as its predecessor.

    5 out of 5

    Read my reviews of all the Thin Man films on Thin Man Thursdays.