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September 2011 September 30, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Editorials, progress reports, 2011 , 2 comments

By the end of September 2010 I’d made it to my goal of 100 films.

This year?

Not a chance.

Of course I haven’t. I ended last month on 77 — even at my best, 23 films in a month is madness. (Actually, I did manage it once: August 2007, when I watched between 24 and 29 films. (I wish I’d kept more thorough records of exactly when I watched things back then.) But my next highest is 18, and next 17, so…)

In January’s summary I noted that, if I could keep my viewing rate the same, I’d reach 100 in early September (and 144 by the end of the year). In May things were clearly going to that plan, as I passed #50 and noted that I should reach #100 on September 9th (and 145 by the end of the year). As you can see, that rate didn’t continue.

But hey-ho, the first part of the year always seems to go better than the back bit, and I’m not behind my schedule to reach exactly 100 by the end of the year — indeed, even if I hadn’t watched a single new film this month I’d still be three ahead. But I watched four, so that’s… well, it’s better than nothing, eh…

#78 Bringing Up Baby (1938)
#79 Holiday (1938)
#80 How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
#81 Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)


Attentive readers may note that I’ve made some changes to the ‘info line’ the starts each of my reviews. I’ve been pondering this for a while now and have finally just taken the plunge. Any suggestions for additions (or removals) from the new set of info are welcome. Changes thus far are as follows:

Other than that it’s all stuff that was there before. I’m not going to change all the old reviews to match the new format, though — there’s well over 500 reviews now, I’m not mad.

As I said, feel free to berate me for either including something needless/inaccurate or for leaving out something essential. I’ve tried to keep the list focused on facts that are accepted to be important (e.g. the director) or stuff that can vary depending on the viewing source (length, aspect ratio, language), which obviously might impact my experience and therefore opinion.

Next time on the all-new 100 Films in a Year monthly update…

With just three months to go it’s getting close to the final countdown.

Will I make it to 100 next month? Doubt it. 90? You never know…

#76: The House on 92nd Street (1945) September 28, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Documentary, Thriller, Film Noir: Classic, Crime, 4 stars, 1940s, true stories, 2011 , 2 comments

Henry Hathaway | 84 mins | TV | 4:3 | USA / English | U

The House on 92nd StreetHere’s an unusual one from the pantheon of film noir. These days we’d probably call it a docu-drama, though thankfully there are no talking heads, but there is a factual voiceover narration. The story, we’re told, comes from the FBI’s files and is based on a real case — IMDb tells me the original title was Now It Can Be Told and it’s “loosely based on the case of Duquesne Spy Ring headed by Frederick Joubert Duquesne and the work of real life double agent William G. Sebold.” So there you go.

The story we actually see centres on Bill Dietrich, an American student of Germanic descent who’s approached by someone with an offer to train in Germany. This being set in a period when Hitler was on the rise, Bill toddles off to the FBI, who inform him that he’s being recruited to be a Germany spy… and so they encourage him to go and become a double agent. On his return to America, he infiltrates a group who are stealing weapons secrets and things progress from there. And they’re based in a house on New York’s 92nd Street, hence the title.

What this all really allows for is a film of two halves, though thankfully it’s not obviously divided up that way. On the one hand we have a double-agent spy thriller, which has a noir-ish tinge but isn’t the most representative film of the genre; on the other, a fairly factual look at the contemporary workings of the FBI. Many of the smaller parts were played by real FBI agents and a lot of time is put into showing FBIhow they really work and investigate a case. At the time I imagine this was a fascinating procedural; now, we’re all a bit more familiar with how such things go, but it still works as an historical document.

The tone is very reverent toward the Bureau, but as it was made while the US was still at war with Japan (it was released a week after their surrender; we’ll come back to that in a moment) that’s understandable. I don’t think it goes too far — they’re certainly shown to be faultless good guys, but at the same time they’re not superheroes. Plus none of this really gets in the way of the more straightforwardly thriller-ish side of the story, which has suitable amounts of tension and an all-action climax, plus a decent twist/reveal for who The Man Behind It All is.

Two final things, then: first, another bit of trivia from IMDb that I found interesting and so will quote more-or-less in full:

The movie deals with the theft by German spies of the fictional “Process 97,” a secret formula which, the narrator tells us, “was crucial to the development of the atomic bomb.” The movie was released on September 10, 1945, only a month after the atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, and barely a week after Japan’s formal surrender. While making the film, the actors and director Henry Hathaway did not know that the atomic bomb existed, or that it would be incorporated as a story element in the movie. (None of the actors in the film mentions the atomic bomb.) However, co-director/producer Louis De Rochemont and narrator Reed Hadley were both involved in producing government films on the development of the atomic bomb. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Hadley and screenwriter John Monks Jr. hastily wrote some additional voice-over narration linking “Process 97″ to the atomic bomb, and Rochemont inserted it into the picture in time for the film’s quick release.

Well there you go, eh? Don’t get much more timely than that.

Secondly, from Wikipedia: “Although praised when released in 1945, the film when released on DVD in 2005 received mostly mixed reviews. Christopher Null writes, “today it comes across as a bit goody-goody, pandering to the FBI, pedantic, and not noirish at all.”" I think I’ve addressed most of these points already, but it’s the last one that gets me. Essentially he seems to be moaning that “they didn’t make a good enough film noir!” Might be because no one ever knew they were making a film noir, eh? FBI chappyHow can you expect something to conform to a set of rules that were only defined after the fact? Hathaway and co didn’t fail at making a noir, they just made a film that doesn’t fit the later-defined template as well as the films used to define said template. I know, four words from some other online critic hardly merit a whole paragraph, but it does bug me when people write daft things like that.

Anyway, back to the point: The House on 92nd Street is not the best example of film noir one could find, certainly, but it is an entertaining and informative documentary-ish spy-thriller.

4 out of 5

The House on 92nd Street is on More4 tomorrow, Thursday 29th September, at 10:30am (and, naturally, on More4 +1 one hour later).

#64: Valley of Fear (1983) September 26, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Animation, adaptations, 2 stars, 1980s, Mystery, Sherlock Holmes, 2011 , add a comment

Warwick Gilbert, Alex Nicholas & Di Rudder | 48 mins | DVD | 4:3 | Australia / English | U

Valley of FearI don’t recall how exactly I came across these animated Sherlock Holmes adaptations starring the voice of Peter O’Toole as the eponymous detective, or how I came to decide to view all of them, but it’s been almost four years since I reviewed the first… and three years since I reviewed the third. Now, finally, I get to the final episode. Such is the erraticism of using LOVEFiLM. (At least I have an excuse for my dawdling here — my incredibly slow viewing of all the Rathbone/Bruce Holmses is entirely my own tardiness.)

This series started decently for me, with a moderately promising adaptation of The Sign of Four, but then slid gradually downhill to an atrocious version of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Valley of Fear isn’t as bad as that, but nor does it represent a massively significant increase in quality.

The negatives of the previous films still remain, primarily the weak ’80s TV animation. It’s not as badly designed as the bright-and-colourful version of Baskervilles, at least. O’Toole’s performance is nothing to write home about either. The story is perhaps the least-well-known of the four Holmes novels, and while it has its moments — mainly in clever deduction, often the best bit of any Holmes tale — this version is unlikely to change anyone’s mind on that fact.

Having quite liked the first of these adaptations that I saw, it’s a shame the other three haven’t lived up even to those expectations (it was only a three-star effort, after all). Ah well.

2 out of 5

Valley of Fear featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2011, which can be read in full here.

#34: Night of the Demon (1957) September 23, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Horror, adaptations, 3 stars, 1950s, British films, 2011 , add a comment

1957 | Jacques Tourneur | 92 mins | TV | PG

Night of the DemonAdapted from an M.R. James story, Night of the Demon sees Dana Andrews as Dr. John Holden, a psychologist arriving in Britain to discredit satanic cult leader Julian Karswell. To cut to the chase, Holden begins to wonder if Karswell has placed a curse on him, and perhaps what he had set out to disprove isn’t such mumbo jumbo after all…

A horror movie in the old fashioned mode — creepy and uncanny, rather than aiming to make you constantly jump or turn your stomach with lashings of gore. A scene at a children’s party at Karswell’s house is particularly unsettling, the apparent jollity contrasting with the ominous winds and undercurrent of evil. There are some other effectively tense sequences too, like Holden breaking into the villain’s house for a late-night search, or meeting a rather odd family during his investigations. These weak descriptions don’t do it justice, clearly.

Holding the curseTourneur’s film is beloved by some, but I don’t think I quite got it myself. There are some great sequences, but I didn’t always find it hung together in between. Ironically, while many have criticised the actual appearance of the titular beast at the end, I think it works rather well — it’s surprisingly well realised, and you can take it as either a real manifestation or part of one character’s deranged imaginings. It’s an effective climax.

One to watch again someday and re-assess, I think. For now, though:

3 out of 5

#38: The Day of the Locust (1975) September 18, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Drama, adaptations, 4 stars, 1970s, films about films, 2011 , add a comment

1975 | John Schlesinger | 137 mins | TV | 18 / R

The Day of the LocustAdapted from the novel by Nathanael West, The Day of the Locust is a slightly scrappy film about the seedy underside of Hollywood’s golden age. The plot is neither here nor there in many respects — the film is about the grotesques who are attracted to Hollywood, and that being exactly what it feeds on. The bizarre, surreal ending definitely makes more sense if you’re already thinking about the film in this way.

The magnificent riot at the end is a tour de force of cinema that single-handedly almost justifies that whole theme — it’s what happens when their frustrations at dreams not being realised overflows. It could be argued it makes an easy juxtaposition — of fans baying for stars at a premiere with a revenge-fuelled mob baying for blood — but it’s still a just one. It’s capped off by the way one turns into the other, and how that turns into a kind of apocalypse. I don’t know how it’s meant to be read, but I choose to take it that way

(Spoilers in this paragraph.) If the riot is a literal apocalypse, then the next scene becomes an afterlife-set coda. It’s very brightly lit and white, like a Heaven, and Faye is still there — still in Hollywood, exactly where she’d dream of being — while Tod is gone. She’s looking for him, back at the Bernadoo where she was kinda happy, and she wants him after all — but he’s not there; he doesn’t want her. Homer Simpson. Not that one.It’s a tenuous reading for a film that seems to be a real-world drama, maybe… but not a wholly unsupported one — it’s a flat-out unusual scene.

Also brilliantly staged is the collapse of a Waterloo battle set. Appropriate as it’s one of the novel’s most memorable moments.

Despite having top billing, Donald Sutherland’s part is a beefed-up supporting role. Except he’s so good in it that he fairly steals the film. And despite fourth billing, William Atherton is ostensibly the main character. I don’t know if the film takes lengthy asides from him because they cast a fourth-billed-level actor, or if they cast a fourth-billed-level actor because the film takes lengthy asides from him, but either way these long-feeling stretches away from the only character we’re really encouraged to identify with dilute the film’s drive. Primarily for this reason, it could do with being shorter. Interestingly, the novel is a mere 163 (in my edition), meaning the film is close to translating it at a rate of a page per minute, which is rather extraordinary — very few adaptations do so little condensing.

Who ya gonna call?(You probably recognise William Atherton from slimy supporting roles in Ghostbusters and the first two Die Hards. Believe it or not, his Ghostbusters character is available as an action figure. That is madness.)

It may be a mess, or it may be a flawed masterpiece. It may very well be both. For much of it’s running time it pootled along at 3 stars, pushing down toward 2 the more diluted it began to feel. But seeing the completion of Donald Sutherland’s performance in the final scenes, plus the way those scenes seem to draw together the whole film, revealing and fulfilling themes I hadn’t even noticed developing until that point, in a spectacular orgy of apocalyptic violence… well, the stars suddenly ratchet back up.

4 out of 5

The Day of the Locust is on Sky Movies Indie tonight at 9:30pm, and at various other times throughout the week.

#46: A Bunch of Amateurs (2008) September 13, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Comedy, 2000s, 3 stars, British films, films about films, Shakespeare, 2011 , add a comment

2008 | Andy Cadiff | 92 mins | TV | 15

A Bunch of AmateursA faded action movie star (Burt Reynolds) thinks he’s been signed up to play King Lear with the RSC… but when he arrives in England, he finds it’s just a small village amateur dramatics group. Hilarity, and the odd heart-warming message, ensue.

To put it simply, A Bunch of Amateurs is entertaining enough and has its moments. It’s thoroughly predictable — most viewers could probably map out the plot before the film even begins, so it’s certainly easy to guess what’s coming next as it trots along — but there’s also something reassuring about that predictability — it’s exactly the sort of Quaint British Movie you expect it to be. Some will find that insufferable; I’m sure there are some who find it absolutely lovely and it’s the only kind of film they ever want to watch. I think it’s fine for what it is, a nice hour-and-a-half on a Sunday afternoon with something unchallenging but likely to raise a smile.

It’s certainly well cast. Well, mostly. Reynolds isn’t a great actor, is he? Appropriate casting when his bad-actor character is acting, then, but not so hot the rest of the time. (Reportedly he struggled to learn his lines and consequently many differ significantly from the play. So I’m not wrong, am I.) Luckily he’s made up for by a cast that includes Samantha Bond, Not Bond, BondImelda Staunton and Derek Jacobi, all ceaselessly watchable, plus a supporting cast of faces you’ll likely recognise from British telly.

Late on, there are a couple of jumps in the plot that suggest cut scenes. Or bad writing. So we’ll go with the former. I appreciate the (presumed) desire to keep the running time tight, but there were a couple of glitches I observed and it would be nice if they’d been smoothed over. Ian Hislop is a credited writer — I guess we know the source of some light newspaper satire that’s sprinkled across the film (most notably in the final act), then.

The worst gap in the writing is that it goes unexplained why the am-dram group thought he was a good idea at any time. It’s ‘explained’ as the school-age daughter of the group’s director suggesting him, but no idea is given as to why — he’s not a great actor; he’s a wash-up who used to be in crap action films. If he’d been suggested by a version of Nick Frost’s character from Hot Fuzz, or by the B&B lady who fancies the pants off him, that might make sense, but why the schoolgirl? And why did anyone agree to it? It’s sort of ignored in the hope we won’t notice this massive whole in the logic, but… well, I noticed.

Not so amateursProbably the best bit is the series of films Reynolds’ character is known for: Ultimate Finality 4 plays as a nice, subtly-used background gag.

The 15 certificate is over-doing it. There’s a couple of instances of swearing that make it clear how that rating was achieved (according to the BBFC, ten in total, including seven in one sentence), but those aside it’s really not a 15 kind of film; it’s far too gentle for the vast majority of its running time to merit so high a classification. Not that anyone under the age of 15 is going to be dying to see it, but the implication of what a 15 contains is more likely to put off the real prospective audience. Maybe. Oh I don’t know, but it doesn’t seem right.

IMDb reports that “Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip requested a copy of this film after attending it’s Premiere 2008 Royal Film Performance so they could show it at Sandringham Castle for the rest of the family over the Christmas holidays.” Take from that what you will.

3 out of 5

#61: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - 3D (2011) September 9, 2011

Posted by badblokebob in : Action, Disney, Fantasy, adaptations, 3 stars, Adventure, 3D, 2010s, 2011 , 1 comment so far

2011 | Rob Marshall | 137 mins | cinema | 12A / PG-13

Pirates of the Caribbean On Stranger TidesNo one had high hopes for Pirates of the Caribbean when it set sail for the big screen (sorry) in 2003. It was based on a Disney theme park ride, for chrissake! But no, as it turned out: a witty and exciting screenplay, some properly photo-real CG from ILM, and an instantly-iconic Oscar-nominated performance from Johnny Depp were some of the ingredients that helped it become an instant blockbuster classic.

And then, drunk on success, they churned out two disappointing, overblown sequels. Picking up on elements left vaguely dangling from the first film, the filmmakers somehow fashioned it to look like a trilogy (not that the first film doesn’t work absolutely fine by itself), and given the lacklustre critical reception and conclusive nature of the story, I think everyone assumed that would be that.

But no. Not when you’re Disney and have a franchise capable of grossing over $1 billion per film. And so here we get Pirates 4, with high hopes — they seemed aware the two-part-ish sequels hadn’t gone down so well, promising a standalone adventure that returned to the quality of the first film; it’s adapted in part from a largely unknown but beloved by those that do novel (which also inspired the Monkey Island games, which in turn contributed a lot to Pirates 1 — it’s all very incestuous); plus Disney insisting on cuts for a tighter budget suggested there’d be less of the sequels’ excesses.

It still cost $250m, mind, and the fact that’s what’s considered a cutback arguably shows.

Surfing UKThings start really well. The opening sequences in London are a hoot, Depp bringing some of the joy back to the character of Jack Sparrow that went awry during the last two films. We also get to see why he is actually a great hero, something occasionally lost under the drunken swaggering — look at his well-plotted escape from the King’s court, which initially looks like pure lunacy but turns out to be all clever set-up, for instance. The carriage chase through London streets that follows is good fun too, undoubtedly the film’s high point.

It’s pretty much downhill from there though. The film burns through ideas and plot points at a rate of knots. While I’m all for not stretching ideas thin — something that can happen too often in blockbuster movies these days — here the opposite is true, with not enough time devoted to explaining things, to characterisation, to making us give a damn about what’s going on or why it’s going on. They seem to think we’ll care about Sparrow, Barbossa and Kevin McNally’s character just because they were in the three previous films… and, in fairness, we do, to a point (well, the first two); but they also seem to think this will transfer to the new cast, and it doesn’t.

The love story between a missionary and a mermaid barely factors. Word was this pair would be the series’ new Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley, Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley... notbut whereas Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner were central to the plot of all the previous films (appearing before even Captain Jack in the first, if I recall), these two turn up late in the day and never have a chance to go anywhere. There’s also a surfeit of villains, meaning they either barely appear (the Spanish) or aren’t given close to enough screen time (Ian McShane’s Blackbeard). Every introduction is rushed, every subplot underdeveloped, every ending unsatisfactory. There’s too much, even for a movie that still runs over two hours.

There’s potential here, as there has been for all the Pirates films that followed in the wake of the first one, but as the quality continues to slip it’s becoming easy to believe that screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio hit a fluke with the quality of the first film and haven’t been able to meet it again since. And I would say most of the fault lies with the screenplay, because there’s little fundamentally wrong with the rest of it.

Except the 3D, maybe. I have no idea if this was a post-conversion or shot for real, but it doesn’t matter — it’s dull. Either things are too dark to matter, or it just doesn’t pop in the way you’d like. A couple of sweeping scenery shots aside, it offers no benefit. 3D is a gimmick and all about spectacle — I believe anyone who thinks it’s a serious filmmaking tool for the future is deluding themselves, at least until someone can prove otherwise (much-heralded work like Avatar certainly hasn’t)Sword in audience — but it’s a gimmick On Stranger Tides doesn’t engage with, in the process showing it lacks spectacle. And considering dark scenes obviously don’t work well in the format, I dread to think what Ridley Scott’s Prometheus will look like. (I probably won’t see it ’til 2D Blu-ray anyway, so that might be a moot point.)

I’m certain some will think my score for On Stranger Tides is generous, but despite all the flaws it still has its moments. I just wish that instead of churning Pirates films out ASAP they’d put more effort into developing the screenplay. Perhaps hiring new writers would help. But with a fifth and possibly sixth film on the horizon, and no significant change of scribe imminent, any such hopes are already dashed. And as this poorly-reviewed effort still grossed a phenomenal amount (third highest of the year; eighth of all time), Disney will still get their money and keep pumping them out. The whole situation is not so much yo-ho, more ho-hum.

3 out of 5

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is out on DVD, Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray in the UK from Monday, 12th September, and in the US from 18th October. Why can’t the Marvel releases from this summer be that way round, hm?

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