Rocky V (1990, John G Avildsen)

RockyV

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Now retired, Rocky Balboa acts as mentor to a promising young boxer – but his commitment to the cause leads to a rift in his family…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa again. (Five movies in and the actor’s soppy shtick is starting to grate now.) But for the first time with a Rocky sequel he didn’t direct. As this was intended as the final film in the series, original director John G Avildsen returned, having spent most of the intervening 14 years making Karate Kid movies… Soon after the events of Rocky IV, Rocky Balboa is welcomed back to the US by excited journalists who are proud that he beat a Soviet boxer in his own back gulag. But the bonhomie falls away when the Balboas lose all of their money and are forced to move into meagre housing in urban Philadelphia. Needing cash, the now-retired Rocky considers fighting his replacement as world champion, a young guy called Union Cane, but is then diagnosed with cavum septum pellucidum (in other words: irreversible brain damage). So instead he takes over running his old boxing gym, and then encounters a promising young boxer called Tommy Gunn. The two quickly develop a bond, with Tommy even living in the Balboas’ basement (much to the chagrin of Rocky’s son, Robert, who feels ignored). But then Tommy is tempted away by a flamboyant boxing promoter, who promises him riches if he fights Cane. As the public turns against him for abandoning his old trainer, the riled and petulant Tommy feels the need to beat Rocky in a fight – and the two men end up brawling in the street… During filming the plan had been that Rocky would die at the end of his scrap with Tommy, but then Stallone changed his mind and the character lived to fight another day (in 16 years’ time, as it turned out).

Other main characters:
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) insists that her husband has retired after his bruising battle with Ivan Drago in the last film – even when Rocky is tempted by a huge payday if he gets back into the ring.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa (Sage Stallone) has magically aged a few years during the weeks his father spent in Russia – he now appears to be about 12. When the family move into inner-city Philly, he starts at a new school but is soon bullied. (You know, in that way that sons of world heavyweight boxing champions are often picked on…) As Rocky becomes more and more distracted with training Tommy, Robert is beaten up and feels isolated and alone. He wants to learn how to fight but his dad is too busy to teach him.
* Pauline Peninno (Burt Young) has mucked things up in a big way. He naively signed away the family’s power of attorney to a crooked accountant, who has now wiped out all their wealth. (Does this make sense? Since when did layabout Paulie have that kind of authority?) Rocky and Adrian’s only remaining asset – thankfully, because it keeps the plot going – is the old gym once owned by Rocky’s mentor Mickey Goldmill. Characteristically, Paulie shows little remorse for his fuck-up. He also moots moving to Miami to work as a gigolo.
* The flamboyant, loud and arrogant George Washington Duke (Richard Gant) styles himself as a promoter extraordinaire, and is pretty obviously based on boxing impresario Don King. He wants Rocky to fight one of his young clients, a guy called Union Cane (Michael Williams, a real-life boxer giving a truly dreadful performance). But Rocky resists the idea, so Duke hounds him in the media and in person then later turns his attentions to Rocky’s new protégé.
* The late Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) appears in some newly filmed flashbacks. Set during the timeframe of Rocky II, and featuring Mickey giving pep talks to Rocky, the scenes are so heavy-handed they very nearly rip through the screen and flop onto the floor.
* Tommy ‘the Machine’ Gunn (Tommy Morrison) is a boxing hopeful from Oklahoma who introduces himself to Rocky on the street and wants him to be his trainer. A walking collection of muscles with a mullet on top, Tommy is a savage brawler who impresses Balboa enough that the older man takes him in, shows him the ropes, encourages him… However, Tommy’s head is then turned by the flashy Duke (and his cleavage-on-legs moll). Morrison gives a pretty flat performance of a one–note character.

Key scene: When Tommy gets a chance to fight world champion Union Cane, Rocky watches the bout on television – and he throws or ducks every punch along with his friend. When a victorious Tommy then gives a speech, he says he wants to thank one man in particular and Rocky’s chest puffs out in pride… only for Tommy to say he owes everything to Duke.

Review: If this lacklustre film is about anything, it’s about fatherhood. At one point, Rocky says that having his son was like being born again; it gave him a second chance. Rocky himself has lost his own father figure (trainer Mickey, who died in Rocky III) and is now attempting to take on the role of a parental mentor. However, the person who he should be focusing on – his son, Robert – gets ignored because Rocky has acquired a surrogate in the form of Tommy. (All of this has an extra level to it: Robert is played by Sylvester Stallone’s real-life son.) But the choice of storyline has an odd emotional effect. Rocky is the film’s lead character and yet is behaving so appallingly – being such a poor father – that we don’t have any sympathy for him. Tommy, meanwhile, is soon revealed to be a selfish chancer. Robert should be the one we root for, and it’s actually not a bad performance from 13-year-old Sage Stallone, but he gets relatively little screen time. It constantly feels like the movie, not just Rocky, is distracted. Elsewhere, the clunky plot that strips the Balboas of their wealth overnight is pretty laughable. The high times of the previous sequels (flashy cars, mansions, robot butlers) has gone, and now Rocky and co are back in a working-class ghetto. (‘This neighbourhood’s coming down with tooth decay,’ says Paulie.) Director John Avildsen is going for the kind of stark realism he used in the original movie, but it now comes off as artificial. Rocky might start wearing his old hat, old locations might get reused, old scenes echoed. But it’s all undercut by a cast who are either coasting or not good enough, a hip-hop-flavoured score that feels out of place, and lots of soft Hollywood lighting. Then the finale is just risible. Tommy goads Rocky into brawling on a Philadelphia street and the resulting fight is shot with tricksy frame rates, irritating editing and the kind of staging you usually only see in music videos. Rocky wins and everyone around him acts like a 45-year-old man beating up the world heavyweight boxing champion in the gutter is a perfectly reasonable thing to happen.

Four butts in the buckets, asses in the seats, out of 10

Next: Rocky Balboa

Advertisements

Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985, George P Cosmatos)

RamboFirstBloodPartII

A series of reviews looking at Sylvester Stallone’s two most famous characters, Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, film by film…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

War veteran John Rambo is coerced into a dangerous mission, one which involves returning to Vietnam…

What does Stallone do? In the early 1980s, James Cameron – then known as a behind-the-scenes boffin who’d directed a dreadful B-movie called Piranha 2: The Spawning – was offered two writing assignments on the same day. Needing money, he accepted them both, so was working on a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic Alien at the same time as a draft for a follow-up to the Rambo film First Blood. When he then had to shift focus to his own film The Terminator (1984), Sylvester Stallone took over the First Blood sequel script and made several changes. He removed a techy sidekick character, he beefed up the action, and he underlined the political subtext with some cloying dialogue about patriotism. Although George P Cosmatos is the credited director of the movie, the rumour mill says that Stallone was the real power on set… When we check in with John Rambo (Stallone) a few years after the events of his debut film, we find him breaking rocks in a prison camp. But his old mentor, Colonel Trautman, then offers him a way of cutting short the sentence. Despite the Vietnam War having been over for a decade, it’s rumoured that Americans are still being held there as prisoners of war – and Rambo is required for a covert reconnaissance mission. Parachuting into the jungle, he soon finds an illicit camp and confirms that POWs are in fact there. But despite being on a recce only, he can’t resist helping one of the Americans escape. Things go badly, however, and both men are captured. Rambo is tortured but escapes, then tools-up for a one-man assault on the compound…

Other main characters:
* Colonel Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) shows up at Rambo’s prison and tells him his name has been selected by a computer as the ideal man for a dangerous mission. That’s right: the powers-that-be want to arm a war vet with PTSD and return him to Vietnam. ‘Do we get to win this time?’ deadpans Rambo. While John is on his mission, Trautman butts heads with the guy running it…
* Marshall Murdock (Charles Napier) is the arrogant bureaucrat in charge of the op in southeast Asia. He has lots of fancy computers, but no compassion or decency; to him, this is just a box-ticking exercise. When John finds the prisoners, Murdock abruptly aborts his extraction and the sordid truth comes out: the mission was always intended to fail, so money could therefore be saved by not committing to any rescue attempts. Napier is sufficiently weaselly in the role.
* Ericson (Martin Kove from The Karate Kid) is one of Murdock’s lackeys, who acts like a Mafia boss’s bodyguard. He also flies the plane when Rambo is dropped into ‘Nam. Another goon is Lifer (Steve Williams), a perma-sunglassed prick who pulls a gun on Trautman at one point.
* Co-Bao (Julia Nickson) is Rambo’s in-country contact. She helps him cross the jungle and later poses as a prostitute so she can sneak into the enemy camp and rescue him. As often happens in these kinds of films, we’re first told the character’s name in a gender-neutral way so Rambo assumes he’ll be meeting up with a man rather than a hot 20-something woman. Nickson and Stallone have virtually no connection at all in their scenes – it’s like the actors have never met before – and Co-Bao is a nothing character.
* Lt Colonel Podovsky (Steven Berkoff) is a sadistic Russian military type, who arrives in the camp after Rambo’s capture and tortures him for information. The hammy Berkoff had recently played a not dissimilar character in the James Bond film Octopussy (1983).

Key scene: One of the few subtle moments of this movie comes when Rambo breaks an American called Banks (Andy Wood) out of the POW camp. Banks is weak and thin and has clearly been through hell. He asks Rambo what year it is and looks devastated to learn he’s been in captivity so long… The notion that Americans assumed to have died during the Vietnam War were actually being held as POWs was a live political issue in the mid-80s. Given the sheer number of servicemen whose remains were unaccounted for, a lot of people believed the Viet Cong had captured them and were keeping them alive. Subsequent governmental reports, however, concluded that there’s no compelling evidence for the notion being true.

Review: Sometimes a movie’s sequels drift off-topic to such a degree that the series takes on a new reputation. The first Fast and Furious film had none of the cartoon action and Bond-style supervillains of later films, for example. The opening Carry On was a gentle, innuendo-light comedy. The original Friday the 13th doesn’t even have Jason Voorhees in it, let alone a hockey mask. Well, here the stripped-down economy and social satire of First Blood has been abandoned and we’re into the stuff that came to typify the Rambo brand. Part II is a dumb, on-the-nose, right-wing, tough-guy war movie. You half expect Chuck Norris to wander in at any point. When the scenes aren’t dominated by gunplay, stabbings, explosions and nameless foreigners being killed, the drama is patience-testingly basic and empty. In the plus column, composer Jerry Goldsmith and cinematographer Jack Cardiff – classy men with many films of a *much* higher quality on their CVs – are working very hard to lift the material. So it’s not total preposterousness. But it’s not far off.

Five rocket launchers out of 10

Next: Rocky IV

Aquaman (2018, James Wan)

Aquaman

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Having joined Batman, Wonder Woman and others in saving the world, Aquaman is now a famous superhero, but he’d rather live a quiet life. Then a woman from the undersea realm of his ancestors arrives and asks for his help…

Good guys: After a cameo in Batman vs Superman (2016), Arthur Curry (aka Aquaman) was properly introduced in 2017’s superhero mash-up movie Justice League. (Was he called Arthur in that film?! Honestly can’t remember.) He’s played again by Jason Momoa, who enjoys highlighting the character’s flippancy, sarcasm and reluctance to be a superhero. All this lightness helps distract you from the fact that, aside from a minor subplot about his mother, Arthur has no journey or emotional resonance in this story at all. He drifts through the film, being reasonably entertaining but rarely trying to achieve or learn anything. The film begins with a 1980s-set prologue showing us how Arthur’s parents – a stranded mermaid-type called Atlanna (Nicole Kidman) and a laid-back lighthouse-keeper called Thomas (Temuera Morrison) – met, fell in love and had a child. It’s a lightly sketched sequence that isn’t too concerned with nuance or texture. In just a few minutes we race through a mini-episode that’s kinda reminiscent of 80s romcom Splash… if, you know, Splash had contained a 25-second shot showing its heroine beating up an invading force of mermen. The sequence then ends with Atlanna being taken away by some goons, back to her oceanic home of Atlantis… In the present day, Arthur is a grown man (a very grown man; seriously, check out his pecks!) but it seems he would rather forget his stint as a world-saving metahuman in the previous film. Then a hot, redheaded woman from Atlantis called Y’Mera Xebella Challa, mercifully aka Mera, shows up and he’s convinced to leap into superhero action again. She’s played by Amber Heard, who’s actually quite watchable despite bucketfuls of woeful dialogue and a character without much personality. Arthur’s help is needed in Atlantis, where Atlanna’s other son has taken control. He wants to combine the seven underwater kingdoms into one force, be ordained ‘ocean master’, become the commander of the greatest military might on the planet, and wage war on the land-based nations. But because Arthur is of royal blood and is Atlanna’s first-born he can challenge his half-brother to the throne. After Atlantean forces launch attacks on the countries of the world, using tsunami to fling battleships and garbage onto shorelines, Arthur and Mera head down into the depths, where Arthur challenges his brother to a ritualistic combat. The film then goes through several genre-movie clichés: fights and chases, cryptic messages and quests, MacGuffins and globetrotting locations, CGI environments and CGI monsters, a sibling rivalry between two men who have never met before and bullshit backstories explained with a straight face… While all this is going on, we also see flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood, where he was trained in the ways of the Atlanteans by a kind mentor type called Nuidis Vulko (a bored Willem Defoe), who also tells him that his mother was executed after she returned to Atlantis. Vulko is still around in the present-day scenes too.

Bad guys: The initial foe for Arthur is a high-tech pirate called David Kane (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who we meet while he’s attempting to steal a nuclear submarine. During the heist, though, Aquaman shows up, bests him, and cruelly refuses to save Kane’s father when he’s trapped under a heavy torpedo in a flooding room. So, now with a grudge against Arthur, Kane skulks off to the guy who’d hired him… who happens to be Arthur’s despotic half-brother, Orm Marius (Patrick Wilson, looking so rubbery under the post-production effect of being underwater all the time that he may as well be 100-per-cent CGI). He’s the boss of Atlantis and bobs around his undersea realm in a shiny suit of armour and Aryan hair. ‘The time has come to rise again!’ he says, movie-villain-generically. The culture he wants to dominate is one of those fictional worlds that makes such little sense that you question if *any* thought went into creating it. How can the Atlanteans talk underwater? Why do they speak English? Why do they wear clothes? Why can some people breathe oxygen and others can’t? How have they forged metal underwater? Why has evolution given them arms and legs? And hair? Where does all the light come from at the bottom of the ocean? It’s impossible to take  these scenes seriously. Anyway, Mera’s dad is often by Orm’s side – he’s called Nereus, is played by Dolph Lundgren (no, honestly), and mostly just stands– I mean, swims around saying doomladen things. Later, Kane returns to the story: he suits up in elaborate scuba gear that makes him look like a manta ray, so adopts the superhero-villain name of Black Manta and attempts to get revenge on Aquaman. 

Other guys: There are a host of forgettable characters around the coastline of the story – creatures from other undersea realms who presumably have detailed backstories and personalities that were worked out in story conferences and workshopped in rehearsals but then don’t translate at all into interesting on-screen storytelling. We won’t waste time cataloguing them here.

Best bits:
* Having been taken into Thomas’s home, Atlanna is spooked by a TV playing the title sequence to puppet show Stingray – so she chucks her trident at the screen.
* As a child, Arthur is threatened by some bullies at an aquarium – then they realise the shark in the nearby tank is attempting to smash the glass in order to protect Arthur. All the other life in the tank assembles behind him too, like a gang backing up its leader. (It hardly makes any sense, and the moment – like all moments of drama in this film – is rushed through as quickly as possible, but it’s a decent image.)
* David Kane is a fun bad guy. The sequence that introduces him – as he and his dad storm a submarine – is well shot and works nicely as a character introduction. ‘I’ll do you deal,’ he tells the captured captain of the sub. ‘I won’t tell you how to captain, and you don’t tell me how to pirate.’ There’s sadly then a really awful beat as – right in the middle of taking over a submarine! – Kane’s father decides to pause, give David a family heirloom and impart some parental homilies. It’s almost like he knows he’s not to survive much longer.
* Aquaman shows up! ‘Permission to come aboard,’ he says over his shoulder like he’s in a James Bond film. He then starts beating people up in gleefully cartoony ways.
* Aquaman has a drink in a bar with his dad. A huge, scary, tattooed man aggressively interrupts – ‘Are you that fish boy from the TV?’ – and it seems like a fight will ensue… But the guy just wants a selfie because Aquaman is famous! High-larious.
* The flashbacks to Arthur’s childhood training with Vulko feature an exceedingly irritating child actor giving a wide-eyed performance, but the film actually cuts between the past and the present with a bit of flair.
* It’s quite funny when, in the midst of all the pretentious portent of the Atlantean realm, Arthur is frustrated to learn that he must fight Orm in front of thousands of onlookers. ‘Shit,’ he says to himself.
* Arthur and Mera are in a sportscar-like submersible, being chased by Orm’s henchmen. ‘Heads up, we’ve got a bogey on our six!’ he says. Mera: ‘What does that even mean?!’ Arthur: ‘Bad guys behind us.’ Mera: ‘Well, just say that!’ Arthur, in a high-pitched voice because he’s worried: ‘Bad guys behind us!’ (Momoa and Heard are a pretty good double act. They deserve a much better script.)
* Kane gets an A-Team-style montage as he builds his Black Manta cybersuit, complete with a Depeche Mode song on the soundtrack.
* Needing water to kickstart an ancient hologram machine that they’ve found buried under the Sahara, Mera uses her magical powers to delicately extract a drop of moisture from Arthur’s forehead. ‘Could have just peed on it,’ he later says.
* Hanging out in a picturesque square in Sicily, Mera eats some flowers (because being an ocean-dwelling isolationist means she doesn’t know what they are, I guess).
* Black Manta’s armoured suit looks both cool and ridiculous at the same time.
* Some of the action sequence in Sicily is quite exciting: Mera running across slated rooftops, Manta crashing through walls, that kind of thing. (It’s such an action-movie cliché, though, isn’t it? Characters visit a Mediterranean country? Gotta run across the rooftops! See The Living Daylights, The Bourne Ultimatum, Quantum of Solace, Taken, Skyfall…)
* Mera smashes the facemask of a Atlantean bad guy’s helmet while they fight on dry land. As he can’t breath without the water that’s now drained away, he solves the problem by… plunging his face into a nearby toilet. (Aquaman is basically a kids’ film tarted up with a blockbuster budget.)
* Arthur’s mum is still alive! I did not see that coming when they cast a really famous actress for what seemed quite a small role! She’s been hiding out all alone for several years in an uncharted area of sea near the centre of the planet (I think), so is this film’s equivalent of Ant-Man and the Wasp‘s Michelle Pfeiffer.

Review: One of the most important elements of any film is its tone. Get your tone wrong or a bit off or inconsistent, and you’re sunk. While watching Aquaman – the sixth film in the extremely variable DC Extended Universe series – you start to feel like the filmmakers have approached this issue by attempting 17 different tones all at once. The movie is occasionally so portentously po-faced that you can’t help but giggle (‘You wield our mother’s trident. Powerful, but flawed. Like her. I wield my father’s and it has never known defeat!’). Other times, there’s actually a sweetness and a charm about the characters. Elsewhere, it’s a slapstick comedy, a bombastic action movie or a collection of filler scenes from a computer game. It’s a terrible film. It really is. And it’s not just that it can’t decide on a unified mood; other faults keep piling up too: the dialogue that’s so awful it could have been written by someone who’s never heard human beings speak, the drama scenes done as swiftly and perfunctorily as possible, the self-important characters impossible to find interesting, the fight scenes that lack any impact or consequence, the musical score than hammers home every single point imaginable, the over-reliance on sudden explosions as a way of ramping up the tension, the final third that just becomes white-noise of meaningless action… However… Because the film contains some attempts at humour, and because we get two half-decent actors in the main roles, it is more diverting and slightly more enjoyable than most of the previous movies in the DC series.

Five drumming octopuses out of 10

I Confess (1953, Alfred Hitchcock)

untitled

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Will a priest break his sacred vow when he’s accused of a murder committed by one of his flock?

Filmed in black-and-white, often on real locations in Canada, I Confess has a low-key feel. Lauded at the time of its release by New Wave critics in France, who swooned over its film-noir aesthetic, it now comes off as a bit artificial. This is an undemonstrative film, which lacks the usual Hitchcock X factor.

The incident that ignites the slow-burn plot is the death of a dodgy lawyer called Villette. Soon afterwards, the German immigrant who tends to his garden, Otto Keller, asks to speak to the local Catholic priest. Father Michael Logan takes Keller’s confession and is shaken when the man admits that he’s accidentally killed his employer. Due to the priestly oath of the confessional box, however, Logan cannot reveal this information to anyone. And that becomes a major problem when, due to circumstantial evidence, the police suspect that Logan may be a murderer. He’s eventually put on trial but still refuses to speak, even though it may lead to his conviction…

The priest is played by Montgomery Clift, who gives a decidedly un-Hitchcockian performance. Introverted and quiet, he underplays everything to such a degree that it’s questionable whether it still counts as acting. Clift was a pioneer of the Method school, an acting technique that’s been called the ‘art of experiencing’ (rather than pretending to experience something), and he employed it in Hollywood before the likes of Marlon Brando and James Dean. When Hitchcock cuts to a close-up of Clift, you do get a sense of the character’s turmoil. But he mostly remains a distant figure. Compared with the emotional weight on the shoulders of, say, James Stewart in Vertigo or Tippi Hedren in Marnie, and Logan seems bland and unsympathetic. Hitchcock certainly didn’t enjoy working with an actor, who didn’t respond well to direction and required multiple takes. ‘Too obscure,’ was his pithy assessment.

The director also objected to having to use Anne Baxter as Father Logan’s old squeeze, Ruth, who’s now married to a politician and was being blackmailed by Villette. (The backstory of Logan and Ruth’s relationship is revealed in a long, overly romantic flashback – one of the odder sequences in Hitchcock’s canon.) Swedish actress Anita Björk was initially cast in the role but then let go due to a minor scandal, so Baxter was a last-minute, studio-suggested replacement and Hitchcock thought she was miscast. (Perhaps he got on better with Keller actor OE Hasse, who began his career with a small role in the German classic The Last Laugh (1924) – a film that the young Alfred Hitchcock had witnessed being made while working at a studio in Potsdam.)

But whatever the respective merits of the actors, they’re fighting a losing battle in I Confess. All great Hitchcock films are told from specific points of view. In Psycho, for example, we follow Marion Crane; in Dial M for Murder, we spend the bulk of the story with would-be killer Tony Wendice; in Rebecca, the unnamed female lead is our eyes and ears. Movies don’t have to stick to just one character – Psycho, of course, switches perspective after its most famous scene – but I Confess goes too far in the other direction. We flit about all over the place, at various points experiencing the story via Logan, Keller, Keller’s wife, Ruth and Karl Malden’s classily played Inspector Larrue. There’s no fluidity to these switches and therefore we never really empathise with anyone too deeply.

Another issue is the key fact that the movie is built on a theological quandary, which obviously will have differing levels of resonance for different viewers. Hitchcock himself summed up the issue when he said, ‘We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists and the agnostics all say, “Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing.”’ Perhaps. However, the script and its treatment seem to *assume* the viewer will care about Logan’s plight, rather than justifying it. After all, stripped of its religious implications, this is a story of man protecting a selfish killer.

The plot then concludes with a tacked-on chase scene and a convenient climax as Keller’s guilt is revealed. But the resolution lacks any punch or grace. At least lessons were learnt: almost every aspect of the movie – the noir-ist photography, the vérité locations, a decent man being accused of a crime and reacting stoically, the stroke-of-fate ending – would be repeated by Hitchcock three years later, in the much more interesting, entertaining and powerful The Wrong Man.

Five men walking down the street out of 10

Easy Virtue (1928, Alfred Hitchcock)

5921

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A woman tries to move on from a disastrous relationship, but her past catches up with her…

A silent film based on a play by Noel Coward is obviously going to be missing the rather important element of his witty dialogue. So while Easy Virtue may have title cards, it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock’s visual invention where the real interest lies. An early courtroom scene, for example, features the joyfully brilliant moment when a judge raises a monocle to his eye to look at one of the barristers. The shot is from the judge’s point of view, so we see the monocle rise in the frame, magnifying what’s behind it. There are a few other clever shots dotted around too; later, we also get some location filming in the South of France.   

The plot follows Larita Filton (Isabel Jeans), who divorces her boorish husband after a tragic incident in which a painter was killed over a misunderstanding. Fleeing to the French Riviera and changing her name, she meets a man called John Whittaker (Robin Irvine), falls in love and returns with him to England. But Larita constantly fears that her murky past will be discovered – especially when she meets John’s frosty mother, who recognises her from *somewhere*.

In many ways, all this is a strange precursor of Hitchcock’s later film Rebecca. That 1940 gem also features a nervous woman in the south of France who meets and falls for an Englishmen but then faces resentment when she goes home with him. Both movies also change tack when there’s a key revelation. In Easy Virtue, the shift comes when Larita’s secret is rumbled – an old photo of her appears in a newspaper and John’s friends and family learn who she is. But sadly the drama is nowhere near as gripping.

The marriage quickly peters out, as does the film. Larita leaves, but not before telling John’s ex-girlfriend Sarah (Enid Stamp Taylor) that *she* should have married him instead. The moment is tender and almost Sapphic but also – like a lot of this film – quite melodramatic.

Five men walking past a tennis court (possibly: there’s doubt over whether it’s actually Alfred Hitchcock) out of 10

NOTE: Easy Virtue was lost was about half a century before a print was discovered in Austria in the 1970s. Nevertheless, it’s still not in a great shape archivally speaking. The copy I watched for this review was a terribly damaged, shaky and tatty video on YouTube. When the BFI attempted to resurrect the movie as part of a restoration project in 2012, they hit several problems – as detailed in the following press release: ‘[The film] survives only in a number of more or less identical 16mm projection prints, all in very poor quality and considerably abridged. The original running time of the film at 7390 feet – amounted to approximately 94 minutes depending on running speed. What survives is equivalent to 5434 feet a mere 69 minutes. We don’t know if a major section is missing or if (more likely) there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of little trims. We hoped at the beginning of the project that more or better material would turn up, but this has proved elusive. We will of course continue to search. The international search for this Easy Virtue has brought in prints from the US, Australia and the Netherlands as well as the UK. Unfortunately, all the existing copies are 16mm prints that have been much projected, resulting in surface wear and tear. All the copies derive from the same source and contain the same printed-in damage. The biggest problem is the underlying picture quality which, thanks to much duplication, is lacking in resolution. Working from such limited material, the best that we can do is to minimise scratches and damage and remake the intertitles. We have chosen the best source and replaced several shots from a second print where they helped to improve quality. All the main titles and intertitles were reconstructed using the original fonts, as in the other Hitchcock restorations.’

The Paradine Case (1947)

Poster - Paradine Case, The_02

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When a barrister takes on the case of a woman accused of killing her husband, he begins to fall for her – will it compromise her chances of acquittal?

The rumour is that Hitchcock only made this film to fulfil his contract with famed Hollywood producer David O Selznick, the man who’d first brought him to America. The partnership had produced at least one classic of cinema – 1946’s Notorious – but Hitch was feeling hidebound and wanted free of a producer who was all-too-keen to put his own stamp on each film. (Selznick’s name is egotistically all over The Paradine Case’s credits, even going as far as introducing two of the actors as ‘new Selznick Stars’.) Leading man Gregory Peck later said that Hitch had seemed bored with the material, and that’s not hard to believe. It’s one of his most flatly orthodox movies.

London, 1946. A wealthy widow called Maddalena Anna Paradine (Alida Valli, who’s lit like a movie star but has little of the sparkle) is arrested for the murder of her husband, an older, blind man. She’s a frosty, calm, reserved woman, but when hotshot barrister Tony Keane (Peck) is hired to represent her, he can’t help falling under her spell. This causes tensions in his marriage, with wife Gay (Ann Todd) feeling increasingly sidelined and ignored…

A big problem is that neither the script nor the performances ever convince you why Tony is so infatuated with Mrs Paradine. Peck is fine enough as the blinkered barrister, but Italian actress Alida Valli – credited as simply Valli as a marketing gimmick – is too cold, too aloof, too drab to generate much interest as the defendant. (Hitch had wanted to cast Greta Garbo, but she turned it down. Hedy Lamarr and Notorious’s Ingrid Bergman were also considered.) It’s also – it must be said – a rather boring, two-suspect case. Mrs P is accused of poisoning her husband, perhaps as an act of mercy because he was unhappy with being blind. The only other person who could’ve done it is the man’s valet, a French Canadian called André Latour. Given that Tony is desperate to prove his client’s innocence, he travels to the Paradines’ Cumberland holt to meet Latour (future Bond villain and future Dracula Louis Jourdan, all brooding and intense). The valet acts suspiciously and evasively, then snaps and tells Tony that Mrs Paradine is evil.

Then, after an hour, we enter the courtroom section of the movie. We’re in the Old Bailey – still bomb-damaged after the war – so it’s a world of wigs and gowns and people sitting in place, rather than suited American lawyers Perry Mason-ing all over the place. A haughty Charles Laughton is the judge; Hitchcock regular Leo G Carroll is the prosecution lawyer. Gay Keane sits in the gallery with a friend helpfully spelling out what each story beat means. But despite Mrs P being the accused, Tony has by now gone overboard in love with her, so the scenes play more like *Latour* is on trial. Tony harangues him in the witness box, to such a degree that during a recess in the trial Latour kills himself with shame.

Courtroom stories always have built-in drama; they’re difficult things to make boring. And The Paradine Case has its fair share of legalese, barristers’ objections, semantic bickering, shock reveals and the judge intervening. But the earlier sections of the film haven’t set up the second half well enough. So when the news of Latour’s death hits Mrs Paradine hard, and she admits that she’s guilty, and that Latour was her lover, and that she hates Tony for what he’s done, it has nowhere near the punch it should have.

Five men carrying a cello out of 10

Blake’s 7: Animals (1981)

Screenshot 2018-10-05 18.29.17

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Dayna attempts to recruit her old mentor to the gang’s cause, but Commissioner Sleer gets wind of the plan…

Series D, episode 5. Written by: Allan Prior. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 26 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Tarrant (18) hopes Dayna’s old friend Justin, who he calls a ‘mad scientist’, will be worth the trouble. The Scorpio has come to the planet Bucol-2 so Dayna can visit him, but once she’s teleported down Tarrant is menaced by some Federation pursuit ships. With Scorpio damaged in the encounter, he has no choice but to leave Dayna behind and head back to base…
* Dayna (18) hasn’t seen Justin for a long time and hopes he remembers her; he was a friend of her father’s, who used to visit their home to mentor Dayna. On the surface of Bucol-2, she’s stalked by strange creatures – humanoid animals with fur and large horns. Thankfully Justin then appears and they retreat to the safety of his lab. He reveals that the creatures are the result of his Federation-funded experiments in merging humans and animals into troops who are immune to radiation. When he tried brain implants, they rebelled and escaped. Dayna is disgusted but still asks Justin to join her anti-Federation group. Later, she goes outside to try to reason with the lead animal, Og. But he bashes her on the head and she falls down a ravine… and then is found by Servalan’s soldiers, who have just arrived on the planet. Servalan brainwashes Dayna into thinking she hates Justin, so she’ll lead Servalan to him. Later, though, Dayna manages to escape when Justin sacrifices his life for her – leaving her distraught.
* Slave (5) and Orac (27) get some functional dialogue.
* Upon hearing that the Scorpio is damaged, Avon (43) orders Tarrant home. The repairs take a long time, but eventually Avon, Tarrant and Soolin are able to head to Bucol-2 to look for Dayna.
* Servalan (23) – who’s still going by her new identity, Commissioner Sleer – learns that some pursuit ships had an encounter with a super-fast planet-hopper near Bucol-2, and her interest in both the ship and the planet is piqued. After some investigation, she learns about Justin and his experiments, so journeys to Bucol-2, captures Dayna and forces her to help find Justin.
* Soolin (5) flashes a cheeky smirk when Vila (44) is forced to crawl into Scorpio’s gloopy, mucky innards to fix a fault.

Best bit: Idiosyncratic character actor Kevin Stoney drops in for a single scene as a decript, blind old man who Servalan interrogates about Justin. He realises who ‘Sleer’ really is, but then has to smartly backtrack when she makes it clear what will happen to him if he reveals the information.

Worst bit: Does Servalan’s new persona make any sense at all? Isn’t it like Vladimir Putin showing up with a moustache and expecting no one to recognise him?

Review: At least it’s a Dayna-centric episode, which is a nice change. (The storyline was planned for Cally but then the actress quit the series.) There is also some fun season continuity going on: the Sleer storyline and the pacification drug were set up in Traitor, the Scorpio’s new engine in Stardrive. But this is a script with very little panache and quite a lot of leaden dialogue. Meanwhile, the design of the animals themselves – more like Muppets than a menacing threat – really makes it difficult to take things seriously.

Five inertial-guidance glycolene ballast channels out of 10

Next episode: Headhunter

Blake’s 7: Power (1981)

Screenshot 2018-09-23 12.22.20

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Stranded on Xenon, the gang try to gain access to the spaceship Scorpio, but also encounter two warring factions of locals…

Series D, episode 2. Written by: Ben Steed. Directed by: Mary Ridge. Originally broadcast: 5 October 1981, BBC1.

Regulars (with running total of appearances):
* Vila (41) is under pressure from his colleagues to crack open the door that leads to the Scorpio, the team’s only escape off the planet Xenon. When working on the problem alone, though, he’s surprised to see a woman has somehow entered the base. Pella (Juliet Hammond-Hill from Secret Army) is a local who reveals that the base will blow up if Dorian – a character who inconveniently died in the previous episode – doesn’t reset the security codes.
* Tarrant (15) goes outside with Dayna to look for a missing Avon. Without success. He then tries to work out how Pella entered and left the locked base. Without success.
* Dayna (15) reckons the gang’s food supplies will only last three weeks, so they must have access to the Scorpio. Later, while outside, she and Tarrant are captured by a tribe of local men called Hommicks. (They’re yet another example of Blake’s 7’s obsession with medieval-like natives, though these ones at least know about technology.) Plucky Dayna challenges chieftain Gunn Sar (Dicken Ashworth, playing him working class and northern) to a fight and managed to beat him… with some help from a watching Pella, who has telekinetic powers.
* At the start of the episode, Avon (40) is scouting the local area when he’s attacked and captured by the Hommicks. Gunn Sar tells Avon that he’s killed 26 challengers in ritualistic combat, but an aide corrects him: it’s 25 confirmed kills and one gone missing after he fell off a cliff. After a tiff, Avon challenges him to a fight. Avon has the upper hand, but then one of Gunn Sar’s underlings bashes him on the head. (Referee!) Avon is put in a cell with Pella, who has also been captured and she explains some context for what’s going on: her female friends from the Seska tribe are captured by the male Hommicks, operated on, and then must provide children. (The boys are kept, the girls discarded.) It’s later revealed that Pella has been plotting to get access to the Scorpio for her own ends. When she uses her telekinesis skills to get inside the ship, Avon follows via a new teleport system Orac has been working on… and shoots Pella dead.
* Orac (24) declines to help Tarrant with the puzzle of how Pella got into and out of the base, then later tells him the base will explode in three hours and 24 minutes unless they get to the override switch – which is behind a locked door.
* Slave (2) has some lines when Avon teleports aboard the Scorpio.
* Soolin (2) appears on the scene at the very last minute and asks to join the crew. Where the chuff has she been all episode?!

Best bit: This dramatic composition.

Screenshot 2018-09-23 12.20.50

Worst bit: The two fights we see – Avon and Gunn Sar, Dayna and Gunn Sar – are slow, cumbersome and decidedly unthreatening.

Review: The conflict between Gunn Sar’s all-male Hommicks and Pella’s all-female Seska is a war of the sexes. Is this a searing satire of gender politics, or just an excuse for some more misogyny dressed up as entertainment? Well, perhaps the answer comes in a scene where Avon uses his alpha-male virility to push Pella onto the floor. ‘However you use [your strength], a man’s will always be greater,’ he says. ‘Unfair perhaps, but biologically unavoidable.’ He then kisses her. Times change, of course, and judging previous eras by today’s standards can be troubling. But it’s fair to say that Power has not dated very well. (Elsewhere, in another jarring moment, Dayna is referred to ‘the black woman’ when there’s only one woman the speaker could mean.) There’s also a muddled plot and plenty of hammy staging. It’s a slog to sit through generally.

Five ordinary, domestic heliofusion rods out of 10

Next episode: Traitor

Elstree Calling (1930)

81PW7Do-+JL._SL1500_

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

This rough-and-ready revue film was made at Elstree Studios (‘The most marvello studio in Europe-o,’ says compere Tommy Handley) as a British reply to the lavish, all-star examples then in vogue in Hollywood. It was directed by André Charlot, Jack Hulbert, Paul Murray and – thankfully for our purposes here – Alfred Hitchcock.

The bulk of the film is presented as if you’re watching a live television broadcast made up of sketches and performances, all linked together by Handley (who still had a few years to go before his hit BBC radio series It’s That Man Again). Hitch was responsible for some bonus scenes: a rather silly running gag about people whose TV set isn’t working, which was at least topical given that television was an excitingly new medium at the time.

The format sees a parade of musicians, comedians, dancers (including a blackface trio) and magicians, then the climax is an elaborate and chaotic spoof scene from Taming of the Shrew, with superstar actress Anna May Wong throwing custard pies around for not immediately obvious reasons. One of the more interesting aspects of this black-and-white movie is that some of the dance numbers have been given primitive, yellow-heavy colour in post-production via the Pathécolor process.

Along the way, we get lots of precious footage of bygone stars – music-hall star Will Fyffe, actress Cicely Courtneidge, percussionist Teddy Brown – but most of the segments drag tediously and many have dated badly. At least the film never takes itself too seriously.

Five xylophones out of 10

Mr & Mrs Smith (1941)

MV5BNWQ2MWRkYzgtYzkwOS00NzBiLWE0MmMtM2MzOTE4ZDE2ZTNjXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjUxODE0MDY@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1276,1000_AL_

An occasional series where I review a randomly selected movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock…

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

After a couple realise they’re marriage isn’t legal, they go their separate ways, but find it hard to let go…

Hitchcock later claimed he only took on this project as a favour to its leading actress, Carole Lombard. She was one of the biggest – and most highly paid – stars of the age. Hitch was a fan and had wanted to make a serious film with her, but after a short sabbatical she was keen on a return to the genre that had made her name: screwball comedy. (Tragically, it was one of her last films: Lombard was killed in a plane crash just a year after Mr & Mrs Smith was released.)

The pair had a relationship of mutual respect and affection. He allowed her to direct his ubiquitous cameo and she delighted in making him do multiple retakes; she also poked fun at his comment that ‘actors are cattle’ but arranging to have three heifers brought into the studio with actors’ names on their hides. However, this behind-the-scenes fun doesn’t translate onto the screen. The movie Hitchcock and Lombard made together feels very much like something produced by an assembly line. It lacks zip and punch and too many sequences fall flat.

Married couple Ann (Lombard) and David (Robert Montgomery) make up after a three-day row, though in the name of full disclosure he admits that, if given his time again, he wouldn’t have got married. He loves her and wants to be with her, but can’t resist admitting that he regrets getting tied down. Then a man shows up at David’s office (played by Charles Halton, the bank inspector from It’s a Wonderful Life) and reveals some shock news. Due to boundary changes in Idaho, David and Ann’s marriage is not legal. The man coincidentally knows Ann from her childhood so then, without David’s knowledge, seeks her out and tells her the same news.

So later that night, as the couple go to an old haunt for dinner – which is owned by William Edmunds, another It’s a Wonderful Life alumnus – there’s tension in the air. Ann has assumed David will tell her the news then suggest they make their common-law marriage legal by ‘remarrying’. But she gets increasingly frustrated as he plays dumb and doesn’t mention the development.

Finally she snaps and explodes into a rage (the momentary increase in energy is a rare instance of the movie coming alive). She throws him out, their relationship over. In a case of be-careful-what-you-wish-for, though, David then gets jealous of Anne moving on with her life. He eventually tails her as she goes on a wintery holiday with new boyfriend Jeff (Gene Raymond) and – wouldn’t you just know it? – the movie ends with the pair reconciling.

At the time this film was made, there was a real vogue in Hollywood for screwball comedies: light-hearted romcoms with rat-a-tat dialogue, sharply written romances and a battle of the sexes where the female character is at least the equal of the male. In 1934, Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night had become the first film to win all five major Oscars; in the three years before Mr & Mrs Smith, Howard Hawks had directed two of the very best examples – Bringing Up Baby (1938) and His Girl Friday (1940), both starring future Hitchcock regular Cary Grant. Sadly, judged in that company, Mr & Mrs Smith seems staggeringly slow and ploddingly predictable. Lombard and Montgomery are far from awful, but you can’t help but imagine snappier dialogue and pacier scenes and other, better actors in the roles. Hitchcock had wanted Cary Grant for the part of David – no wonder.

Five men walking past in the street out of 10