Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Nicholas Stoller)

ForgettingSarahMarshall

An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: LA and Hawaii in the modern day.

Faithful to the novel? Not at all – this isn’t an adaptation or even a horror film. Instead, it’s a romcom whose inclusion in this blogging project is solely down to a throwaway gag that sees the lead character writing a Dracula musical. Forgetting Sarah Marshall was released during a noughties vogue for movies produced by Judd Apatow which centred on immature characters struggling with the trials of everyday life. Toying with gross-out humour and using the improvisational skills of their casts, the phase had kicked into gear with the out-and-out comedy Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), then included the watchable The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005), the decent Knocked Up (2007), the sublime Superbad (2007), the funny Bridesmaids (2010) and several others before its popularity petered out. Forgetting Sarah Marshall tells the story of Peter Bretter (played by Jason Segel, who also wrote the script). He writes the incidental music for an ersatz-CSI TV drama, but is thrown into despair when he’s dumped by his actress girlfriend, Sarah (Kristen Bell). We follow him as he plummets into depression then decides to go on holiday to Hawaii, where – wouldn’t you know it? – he ends up in the same luxury hotel as Sarah and her new beau, the English rock singer Aldous Snow (Russell Brand).

Best performance: It’s a cast with a lot of US TV comedy connections: Segal from How I Met Your Mother, Bell from The Good Place, Bill Hader from Saturday Night Live as Peter’s brother, Jack McBrayer from 50 Rock as a newly-wed at the hotel… Even Paul Rudd – once best known as Mike from Friends – has a small role as a surfing instructor. When Peter arrives at the Turtle Bay resort, he meets receptionist Rachel Jansen. She’s a stunningly gorgeous young woman who takes a shine to him, despite his self-pitying neuroses. Rachel is played by Mila Kunis (the voice of Meg in Family Guy, to keep the TV comedy theme going), who’s able to fulfil the function of the male lead’s object of desire and yet also feel like a self-assured character in her own right.

Best bit: When Peter attempts to hit on Rachel, he boasts that he’s writing a rock opera but is then immediately sheepish when she asks what it’s about. ‘Dracula,’ he says without conviction. ‘And eternal love. That’s the theme, but I think the two kind of go hand in hand.’ He also says that his dream is to stage it with puppets. (Jason Segel is an admitted Muppets fan. Roping in puppet experts from The Jim Henson Company to help with this film led to him co-writing and starring in a reboot of the Muppets movie series in 2011.) Later in the evening, Rachel forces Peter to sing a number from his musical on stage in a crowded bar. He’s nervous, saying that out of context the song might not work, then launches into a plaintive piano ballad which he sings in an affected Broadway manner. Sample lyric: ‘And if I see Van Helsing, I swear to the Lord I will slay him/Take it from me, but I swear I won’t let it be so/Blood will run down his face when he is decapitated/His head on my mantle is how I will let this world know.’ As their relationship develops, eventually becoming sexual, Rachel urges him to finish writing the opera. Back home in LA, he does just that – and the film’s climax is built around a well-received performance of Taste for Love: A Dracula Puppet Musical at a small theatre. Peter and the other puppeteers are visible on stage, a la Avenue Q; the characters are clearly modelled on the Jim Henson idiom. It’s silly but sweet.

Review: There aren’t that many laugh-out-loud moments here, and the story never takes you by surprise, but this is an amiable-enough romantic comedy with a good cast. The Dracula musical – based on a real incident in Segel’s past – adds an oddball tone to all the conventional storytelling. It works well, especially when we see the triumphant performance. (Incidentally, Jonah Hill as a hotel worker who idolises Aldous was such a success in his scenes with Russell Brand that the actors later teamed up for spin-off: the more overtly funny film Get Him to the Greek, in which Brand reprised Aldous Snow and Hill played a new character.)

Seven little holidays with Hitler out of 10

Advertisements

Creed II (2018, Steven Caple Jr)

Creed II

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.

Adonis Creed climbs to the top of the boxing world, but then is challenged by the son of the man who killed his father…

What does Stallone do? He co-wrote the script and plays Rocky Balboa for an eighth time. Sly was 29 years old when he wrote the original Rocky and he’s now in his early 70s: this character has been a lifelong project… When we rejoin the story a few years after the events of the previous movie, Rocky – grey-haired after his cancer battle – is still the trainer of boxer Adonis Creed. The two men part ways, however, when Adonis is offered the chance to fight Viktor Drago – the son of the boxer who killed Adonis’s father during an exhibition fight in 1985. Rocky advises against it, saying Adonis has everything to lose while Viktor has nothing to lose, but Adonis ignores him and promptly comes off second best in the bout. Lonely Rocky is reduced to watching the fight on television in the restaurant he’s been running for the last three films, then is shunned when he tries to visit Adonis in the hospital. Later, after a rapprochement, Rocky takes the younger man into the desert to train for a second bout with Drago…

Other main characters:
* Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) has had a bad 33 years since he was defeated by Rocky (as seen in Rocky IV). His wife left him to raise their son alone, and the Russian people sneer at him because he lost a fight that was intended as Soviet propaganda. When he sees that the son of his former foe Apollo Creed is now a champion boxer himself, Ivan flies to Philadelphia and seeks out Rocky. He wants Adonis to fight his son, Viktor… Lundgren barely speaks in the film, which is probably for the best.
* Viktor Drago (Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) is a bruiser of a heavyweight. When not beating people to a pulp in the ring, he works in a loading yard. He has the upper hand during his first fight with Adonis, but is disqualified for hitting his opponent when down.
* Adonis’s girlfriend, Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson, very good), is now suffering from hearing loss and wears a hearing aid. She says her time is running out; she knows she will eventually become fully deaf. After Adonis proposes and they get engaged, the pair leave Philly for LA and have a daughter together, who has to undergo tests to see if she’s inherited her mother’s heading issues.
* Early in the film, Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) becomes world heavyweight boxing champion and can hardly believe it. Then he learns that Russian boxer Viktor Drago – the son of the man who killed Adonis’s father during a fight in Moscow in 1985 – wants a shot at the title. Adonis can’t resist the temptation, seeing it as a way of exorcising some ghosts: ‘I can’t let that slide,’ he tells Rocky, who refuses to train him for the event. However, during the resulting fight, Adonis is badly beaten up and knocked unconscious; he only retains his belt on a technicality. He then faces a long recovery period – and pressure to fight Viktor again. At least he makes amends with Rocky, just in time for Rocky to accompany Adonis to the hospital to attend the birth of his daughter. He then gears up for a rematch with Viktor Drago, which takes place in Moscow and is a brutal brawl with both men struggling to stay upright.
* Buddy Marcelle (Russell Hornsby) is the promoter who puts on the first Drago/Creed showdown. He goes public with the challenge before speaking to Adonis, then later offers a hollow apology for the theatrical tactic: ‘That’s just what the sport has become.’
* Mary Anne Creed (Phylicia Rashad) – Adonis’s stepmother, in effect – is pleased to see him and Bianca when they arrive in LA. She even correctly guesses that Bianca is pregnant. But she’s furious that Adonis has decided to fight Drago. She fears he’ll end up like his father.
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen) is Viktor’s mother. She appears at a posh dinner Ivan and Viktor attend, but the latter is angry with her because she abandoned him and his father years previously. It’s a rather pointless cameo.

Key scene: When they arrive in America, Ivan and Viktor visit the steps outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art – a key location that has featured in several Rocky movies. It’s always been a symbol of Rocky Balboa’s success: he ran up the steps while training for title fights in the 1970s, then a statue was put there to commemorate him winning the championship. Now, however, these two outsiders have come to scope the place out: they’re ready to invade Rocky’s world, to knock him and his protégé off their perch.

Review: One of the successes of Creed II is the way the backstory (ie, the events of Rocky IV) feels like backstory rather than fan-pleasing continuity. We only glimpse occasional clips of the 1985 footage, so the events are mostly talked about, and in that context they’re always meaningful for the characters. For example, the fact Rocky could have – indeed, should have – thrown in the towel during Apollo Creed’s fight with Ivan Drago creates conflict 33 years later between Adonis and Rocky. There’s a weight to what’s going on and that makes the film engaging. It’s generally well directed, in fact: drama scenes sock home; there’s a good central cast; it’s occasionally funny and often tender. All this helps distract us from how stunningly predictable the storyline is and how the middle third grows so slow it begins to test your patience.

Seven broken ribs out of 10

 

Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyBalboa

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 a widower in his late 50s, Rocky is tempted to get back into the ring for an exhibition bout with the current world champion…

What does Stallone do? After 16 years away, Rocky Balboa returned – and Sylvester Stallone returned to play him, write the script and direct the film. The actor hadn’t been happy with Rocky V, so wanted to tie the series off in a more appropriate way… When we check back in with Rocky, he’s a lonely, grieving widower (Adrian has died of ‘woman cancer’). After a day commemorating his wife’s passing in which he trawls round his old haunts and remembers events from previous Rocky films, he bumps into a woman he knew when she was a child 30 years earlier. Marie is now a single mother and works in a bar; they strike up a touching friendship of mutual support, and Rocky also acts as a mentor to her wayward son. Meanwhile, a TV show debates whether Rocky in his prime would have beaten the current world champ, Mason Dixon, and this gets Rocky thinking. When Mason’s agent suggests a non-title fight – from which everyone would earn a boatload – Rocky agrees and gets to training seriously. (He’s seemingly got over the debilitating brain damage he was diagnosed with in Rocky V.) When the two get into the ring at a glitzy, showbiz event at a Las Vegas hotel, Rocky knows he can’t win on speed or skill, so his tactic is to try brut force. Mason floors him a couple of times, but Rocky holds in there. He loses a split decision (the judges are 2-1), but walks away with his head held high… Across six films, Stallone has progressed from a kind of cut-price Robert De Niro to a middle-aged Joey Tribbiani. But here he’s recaptured the knockabout charm that typified the early movies.

Other main characters:
* Mason ‘The Line’ Dixon (Antonio Tarver) is the undisputed world heavyweight boxing champion, but is unpopular with public and press alike because it’s believed he’s won his belts by defeating no-hopers. Then an ESPN-style panel show discusses whether he could beat a 1980s Rocky Balboa, and a computer simulation reckons Rocky would win. Mason is angered by these slights, but his people just see dollar signs and plot to tempt Rocky out of his long retirement for a money-spinning exhibition fight… While still a bit cocky, Mason isn’t an arrogant, unfeeling thug like Rocky III’s Clubber Lang – before the fight, he assures Rocky that he won’t be trying to hurt him unnecessarily.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) now works at a packing plant. He gets laid off just as Rocky is gearing up to fight Mason, so conveniently has lots of spare time to join his support team.
* Rocky’s son, Robert Balboa (Milo Ventimiglia), is now a grown-up with the kind of big-business job that means he hangs out with yuppies. He’s a bit embarrassed by his father (‘You throw a big shadow,’ he says) and is far from encouraging when Rocky says he’s going to fight again – he fears his dad will be humiliated and this will lead to endless teasing from his pals. Rocky, not unreasonably and not unkindly, tells him he’s being an arse; he needs to stop caring what morons think and just live his life. Robert eventually comes round to the idea so much that he joins Rocky’s support team.
* Marie (Geraldine Hughes) appeared in the first Rocky movie as a local teenage girl who Rocky protectively walked home one night and told to quit smoking and get her act together. Now she’s a bar-worker in her 40s with a son called Steps (short for Stephenson). When the manager at the restaurant Rocky owns takes maternity leave, he offers the job to Marie. She lacks confidence but Rock talks her round (the pair really are two downtrodden peas in a pod). She repays her pal’s belief in her when she gives him a pep-talk and encourages him to fight Mason… Hughes plays the role really well, treating the film like a low-budget drama rather than a Hollywood franchise film. Rocky and Marie’s poignant relationship – no sex, refreshingly; just a quiet understanding – is the highlight of the movie. (In 1976’s Rocky, Marie was played by Jodi Letizia.)
* Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire) appears in flashback clips from previous films when Rocky remembers his late wife.

Key scene: This half-decent film has a serious blight. It’s really ugly to look at. It offends a cineaste’s sensibilities. Dialogue scenes are shot harshly and coldly – they look cheap, to be honest – while the bizarre decision has been made to present Rocky and Dixon’s fight as if it were coverage on a pay-TV channel. (At least to begin with: it then goes all hyper-edited and tricksy.) The video look, too-fluid camerawork and chintzy lighting do nothing for the story or for the film as a whole. A shame.

Review: We’re back to the earthy tone of the original Rocky, and genuinely so this time. Rocky Balboa feels authentic and confident in a way that the ersatz and artificial Rocky V never managed. (That film felt like what it was: millionaires playing at being poor.) Rocky may get stopped by the public wanting selfies, but he’s a faded star, past his prime. At his restaurant, he acts as host and trots out practised anecdotes about his glory days to customers who hardly seem enthralled. So it’s a plausible storyline when the carrot of a big-time bout with Mason Dixon is dangled in front of him. It’s not, it must be said, the most gripping drama. Mason is a vastly underdeveloped character and his sections of the film lack any real tension or interest. (He and Rocky barely meet outside the ring, let alone develop the kind of connection Rocky had with previous opponents Apollo, Lang and Drago.) But there’s an undeniable sweetness, especially when concerned with Marie and Rocky’s relationship.

Seven heavy-duty, cast-iron, pile-drivin’ punches that will have to hurt so much they’ll rattle his ancestors out of 10

Next: Rambo

Foreign Correspondent (1940, Alfred Hitchcock)

ForeignCorrespondent

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

A reporter is sent to Europe to get a scoop on the upcoming war but soon becomes embroiled with a sinister plot

Alfred Hitchcock made several films with action set pieces, scenes of tension, suspense, double-crosses, and moments of both tragedy and absurdity. So Foreign Correspondent is going up against some hefty competition, movies such as The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes and North by Northwest. While no disaster, Foreign Correspondent is not in that class.

It’s August 1939. Europe is on what is almost always called in these cases the brink of war. Over in the US, the editor of the New York Globe newspaper is tired of the flat, drab coverage he’s been receiving from his reporters in the field so seeks out an employee who can bring a fresh perspective to the situation. A louche, carefree hack called Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is plucked from the newsroom, given the grand-sounding pen name Huntley Haverstock, and sent off across the Atlantic. Editor Powers (Harry Davenport) specifically wants an exclusive chat with an influential Dutch diplomat called Van Meer.

Having never been a foreign correspondent before, Jones shows both naivety – he moots trying to get an interview with Adolf Hitler – and hutzpah. When he arrives in a London full of bowler-hatted men, he meets a colleague who cynically tells him that all he needs do is forward on press releases and sign them ‘our foreign correspondent’. But Jones is wilier than that, and soon thinks he’s got a scoop when he bumps into Van Meer (Albert Bassermann) outside his hotel. However, soon after a polite but substance-light chat, Jones learns that the man was actually an imposter…

Meanwhile, our hero gains a love interest. Van Meer is supposed to be talking at a meeting of the Universal Peace Party, a multi-national anti-war movement. At the posh shindig, Jones meets a woman called Carol (Laraine Day) and accidentally offends her by ridiculing the party’s leader – who happens to be her father. As the story throws them together in the classic thriller style, they become a mismatched Hitchcock couple a la The 39 Steps or Young and Innocent: they bicker but are clearly attracted to each other.

After the London shindig, the action then moves to a political conference in Amsterdam. Jones sees the fake Van Meer outside the venue so confronts him, but then the man is shot on the street by an assassin. This audacious and cinematic sequence is the highlight of the whole film: we’re outdoors, it’s raining, the gunman poses as a photographer to get close to his prey, there are high-angle shots of umbrellas twitching as the assassin flees through the nearby crowd; and the scene then evolves into a car chase. Hitchcock shows a brilliant choreography of action, actors and background extras. It’s terrific stuff.

Just generally, the breakneck story plough ahead; the film has a real pace to it. The script also contains the kind of rat-a-tat dialogue you’d expect from a 1930s screwball comedy. However, the back-and-forth patter is not always played as fluently as you’d hope and, as the plot goes through some not-terribly-interesting twists, everything unfortunately starts to feel a bit samey and inconsequential. It doesn’t have the ante-raising moments you need in this kind of film.

There are still exciting episodes and individual images, however. The film begins with a cute model shot of the New York newspaper office building, complete with huge globe logo spinning atop. In the middle of the film, Jones is shadowed by a seemingly friendly man (played by Edmund Gwenn) who lures him to the heights of Westminster Cathedral’s tower intent on pushing him off. The plot climaxes with an enormously impressive action sequence as a flying boat stocked with passengers crashes into the Atlantic.

But this is a lesser Hitchcock film, lacking the magic that powers the best of his thrillers. It was only his second movie made in America (after Rebecca), which may explain the lack of punch. As Hitchcock later said, in 1940 thrillers were ‘looked on as second-rate’ in Hollywood. In the UK, however, they were ‘part of the literature’ – thanks in part to the successful capers Hitchcock himself had directed. With Foreign Correspondent, the required tone – serious but playful – doesn’t quite hit home. It’s a film about serious subject matters such as war, assassination and betrayal, but the script is going for the kind of breezy action-and-suspense later used in, say, the James Bond series. Style and substance don’t mesh.

Seven men reading a newspaper out of 10

Rocky IV (1985, Sylvester Stallone)

RockyIV

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.

The Soviet Union’s best boxer turns professional, leading to a showdown with Rocky Balboa…

What does Stallone do? He wrote the script, directed the film, and starred for a fourth time as Rocky Balboa. After the death of his friend Apollo Creed, Rocky resolves to take on the man who killed him in the ring: a giant Russian boxer called Ivan Drago. Ultimately Rocky defeats him in an oddly oomph-free fight in Moscow, then gives a cringe-making speech to the watching world about the current acrimony between the US and the Soviet Union: ‘In here, there were two guys killing each other… but I guess that’s better than 20 million.’

Other main characters:
* Rocky’s wife, Adrian Balboa (Talia Shire), doesn’t go with him to Russia for the fight. Then she does. They must have been paying Talia Shire a lot of money to keep turning up in these films.
* Robert ‘Rocky’ Balboa Jr (Rocky Krakoff) is now about nine years old. He also stays behind when his dad flies off to Russia, but later cheers him on while watching the fight on TV.
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still loafing, still moaning, still earning a wage from Rocky for no discernible reason. He has a birthday in this film, so – and this really is one of the most bizarre moments in all of 1980s cinema – is given a robot butler as a present. A fucking robot butler. Paulie later reprograms it with a sexy female voice, then the film wisely turns its attentions elsewhere. (As easy as it is to scoff, as I’ve just proved, there was actually a sweet reason for robot’s inclusion: it had been designed a few years earlier to assist autistic children with communications skills and Stallone’s son Seargeoh, then about eight, is autistic.)
* When Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) learns that young Soviet boxer Ivan Drago wants to turn pro and fight an American, he steps up to the rope – partly through pride, partly through patriotism. Rocky advises against it, given that Apollo has been retired for a few years, but then agrees to be his corner man. The quickly arranged exhibition bout starts out as razzmatazzy as they come: James Brown sings a song, showgirls flounce about, the ring is part of an elaborate stage set. Creed then begins the fight well, but when Drago lets loose he absolutely pummels the older man. Creed is knocked out in the second round and dies in the ring… Rocky is distraught. Drago shows no remorse.
* Captain Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) wears his military uniform to his first press conference in the States, and is flanked by stern Soviet handlers. A world amateur boxing champion, he’s a man of very few words – just 46 in the whole movie – and when he does speak he says things like ‘You will lose’ and ‘I will break you.’ His support team emphasise their technological approach to training – screens, readouts, statistics, white-coated boffins – while he himself seems to be completely devoid of emotion. While Apollo is lying unconscious on the mat, his leg twitching unnervingly, Drago tells a reporter: ‘If he dies, he dies.’ (The quality of Lundgren’s performance can be illuminated by the following anecdote. A couple of years after Rocky IV had come out, Sylvester Stallone visited the set of kids film Masters of the Universe. He turned to a friend who was working on the movie, pointed at its star Dolph Lungren, and said, ‘You gave that guy lines?!’)
* Ludmilla Drago (Brigitte Nielsen, who married Stallone in December 1985) is Ivan’s wife and de facto spokesperson. She’s a former Olympic swimming champion.
* James Brown plays himself.
* Tony ‘Duke’ Evans (Tony Burton) used to be Apollo’s trainer, and was more or less a background character in the first three Rocky films. Here he joins Rocky’s entourage and offers some fatherly guidance.

Key scene: After Apollo’s death, Rocky drives his sportscar around at night while reminiscing about the events of the series so far – we see clips as he broods on past events and the scene is scored by Robert Tepper’s soft-rock hit No Easy Way Out. It’s basically a fully-fledged music video just dropped inelegantly into the middle of a Hollywood film! And it’s far from the only montage in Rocky IV. The movie hits peak montage as Rocky trains at a remote cabin in the Russian wilderness. Two sequences – separated by a short drama scene involving Adrian – amount to *seven and a half minutes* of screentime. They contrast Rocky’s snowbound slog with Drago’s high-tech and well-funded preparation, and the film editors have great fun match-cutting images of the two men doing similar things in very different surroundings.

Review: While Rocky IV was in preproduction, President Ronald Reagan won a second term in the White House and Mikhail Gorbachev became the new leader of the Soviet Union. Soon after filming wrapped, the USSR announced a moratorium on testing nuclear weapons but the US refused to follow suit. Then on the very day Rocky IV was having its LA premiere, Reagan and Gorbachev met for the first time at a summit in Geneva. The Cold War was hot news in 1985, and Rocky IV uses boxing as a metaphor for the clash between the two superpowers. In the American corner is Rocky Balboa, the meritocratic yet passionate individual, free and frank and funny. In the Soviet corner is Ivan Drago, the cold, unholy product of a totalitarian state, driven and determined and detached. It’s not subtle. Neither are all the other 1980s concerns squeezed into this film: the brash showbiz, the crass commercialisation, the technology fetish, the cheesy FM rock, the Miami Vice suits… It’s also a quick film – rushed, to be honest – and is directed with an overreliance on close-ups, press conferences and montages (so many montages!). Take it too seriously and the whole enterprise will flop to the mat. But its silliness and total commitment mean you end up punch-drunk and quite enjoying it.

Seven lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government out of 10

Next: Rambo III

Rocky II (1979, Sylvester Stallone)

rocky-2

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.

Boxer Rocky Balboa is forced to get back into the ring for a rematch with the world heavyweight champion…

What does Stallone do? After the success of the first Rocky film – a huge profit, good reviews, an Oscar win – Sylvester Stallone was in a prime negotiating position when it came to the sequel. So as well as again writing the script and playing the lead character, he also took over directing duties. (Rocky director John G Avildsen was busy working on Saturday Night Fever. Coincidentally, Stallone later directed that film’s sequel, Stayin’ Alive.) Sly had only made one film previously, a now largely forgotten wrestling movie called Paradise Alley, but he does a decent job here. For the most part, Rocky II is no-nonsense, well told and engaging – if familiar and predictable… As the story begins, Rocky Balboa has surgery after his battering boxing bout at the end of the previous movie (he says he doesn’t want to end up with a nose like his trainer Mickey’s). He may have lost the fight on points, but he came out of it with pride and has decided to retire. At first, thanks to his new high profile, he has the cash to flash on coats, watches, a car and a house, but Stallone generates sympathy from us when Rocky later fails as a minor celebrity and struggles to find work. The actor is oddly likeable and there’s a dignity in his performance. When Rocky’s finances get grim, he’s forced to consider fighting Apollo again…

Other main characters:
* After a recap of the first film’s climactic boxing bout, we rejoin the story later that same night. The victorious Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) approaches Rocky in the hospital and, embarrassed that his amateur opponent lasted the distance, demands a rematch. But while the world heavyweight champion is puffed-up and adversarial for the watching journalists, behind closed doors he’s downbeat and becomes obsessed with proving that he can knock Rocky off his feet. So he continues to taunt his rival in the media, urging him to fight again…
* Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian (Talia Shire), doesn’t want him to get back in the ring so is pleased when he retires. They get wed and soon have a child on the way. But she’s worried about how quickly he’s going through the $37,000 he earned from his title bout, then later goes into labour prematurely. The baby is fine, but Adrian falls into a coma for a while. (This section sees the film at its soppiest.) After recovering, she doesn’t attend her husband’s rematch with Apollo on doctor’s orders. (In reality the actress was busy on another film.)
* Paulie Pennino (Burt Young) is still a bit of a prick. When he thinks his sister is failing in her matrimonial duties, he suggests that Rocky break her teeth. (Rocky replies that he likes Adrian’s teeth where they are.) Paulie also asks Rocky to sort him out a strong-arm job, which he does – so as Rocky’s fortunes fall, Paulie’s actually rise and he’s able to buy his brother-in-law’s sportscar from him.
* Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith) now has a hearing aid to further emphasise how old, grizzled and world-beaten he is, and initially says no when Rocky asks him to be his trainer again. In a touching, low-key scene, Mick demonstrates that Rocky’s damaged eyesight is a liability. ‘You got the heart but you ain’t got the tools no more,’ the mentor says. But later, Mickey sees Apollo being arrogant on TV and comes round to the idea of a rematch: ‘I think we oughta knock his block off!’ His plan (which was actually cooked up because Stallone had injured his left arm before filming) is to train Rocky to fight right-handed, holding his southpaw power in reserve for later in the bout.

Key scene: During his attempt to make a living off his newfound fame, Rocky is persuaded to film some TV ads for Beast aftershave. The set-up has him dressed first as a caveman in a cage, then as a sketch-show version of himself with a fake-looking appliance for a boxing bruise. The director is an angry, rude, little man who has no patience for the fact that Rocky can neither act nor sight-read off the cue cards (or dummy cards, as they insensitively get called). As a storytelling tool, the sequence is the gear that shifts Rocky from laidback retirement to the realisation that boxing is his only viable way of supporting his family.

Review: Don’t you miss film sequels that begin with a lengthy reprise of the previous instalment? The second and third Karate Kid films give you a handy refresher of the story so far; Halloween 5 replays a cliffhanger to show you what *really* happened; while Back to the Future Part II actually refilmed the previous movie’s ending because a major role had been recast. It’s a shame this device has gone out of fashion, presumably because home video and download have made films so much easier to see more than once. Anyway, Rocky II’s recap reminds us that the Italian Stallion went the distance with – but lost on points to – world champion boxer Apollo Creed. We’re then into the new stuff… which is a conventional story made entertaining by a half-decent cast. After 80 minutes, a Bill Conti-scored training montage, which is a mini-masterpiece of rousing emotion, drives us into a final act where Rocky takes on Apollo for a second time. The fight features a ludicrous and unrealistic amount of punches, then an arch, slo-mo climax as both fighters fall to the mat at same time. But it’s difficult not to get swept up in the moment as Rocky beats the count and wins the championship…

Seven condominiums (I never use ’em) out of 10

Next: Rocky III

The Lady Vanishes (1938, Alfred Hitchcock)

TheLadyVanishes

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

On a train journey across Europe, a young woman begins to panic when a fellow passenger goes missing without a trace…

Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller The Lady Vanishes is an adaptation of the 1936 novel The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White – and it’s breezy, confident and a lot of fun. Four decades later, there was another film adaptation of the same book, this time directed by Anthony Page and made by Hammer Films. Inevitably it’s tempting to view the two movies in direct comparison, so let’s do just that and see how they match up.

Story

Both films follow largely the same plot. A motley gang of passengers – a beautiful fiancée, an eccentric older woman, a couple having an affair, two cricket-obsessed men and others – board a train in central Europe, heading west. The young fiancée befriends the older woman, but is shocked when the latter goes missing… and her anxiety only increases when no one else on board seems to remember ever seeing the woman. The fiancée’s only ally is a charming young man who helps her search (perhaps more because he fancies her than he believes her story). After they spot a bandaged patient being brought aboard the train at the next station, the fiancée suspects that the older woman has been switched for the patient – and it turns out she’s right! A group of bad guys have been hunting the older woman because she’s actually a secret agent carrying a coded message back to London. Eventually, the train is surrounded by gunmen and the fiancée, her male friend and others passengers are besieged – they must hold off the bad guys until the older woman can sneak away to continue her quest…

Time

1938: Hitchcock’s film is set contemporaneously to when it was made, so the story takes place in the late 1930s.

1979: We’re in the late 1930s in the Hammer version too – an on-screen caption tells us it’s August 1939. But because these filmmakers had the perspective of 40 years, their movie has an extra level of political context. It’s the month before Germany invaded Poland, starting the Second World War, and Nazis have taken over the picturesque town where the story begins.

Place

1938: Hitchcock’s film gets underway in the fictional central-European state of Bandrika (‘one of Europe’s few undiscovered corners’), starting at an alpine inn and then following the train as it crosses the countryside. One of the stops the trains makes is at the similarly made-up town of Morshkan.

1979: The action begins in the landlocked German state of Bavaria. The passengers then board a train for Basel in Switzerland.

Heroine

1938: The lead character is Iris Henderson, who we first meet in the inn staying with two friends. One night she complains about noise coming from the floor above and has the man creating the racket kicked out of his room. Brazenly, he then walks into her room while she’s in bed and attempts to share it. The next day Iris leaves for London to get married, but we suspect that her heart is not really in it. She soon bonds with another guest from the inn, a kindly older woman. But after Iris wakes from a nap, the woman has disappeared – and Iris gets increasingly manic when no one else on the train remembers seeing her… Iris is played by Margaret Lockwood, who is a British take on the idea of a ‘Hawksian woman’: a type of female character popularised by director Howard Hawks who is both movie-star beautiful and sassy-smart. Or as Hitchcock put it when discussing Lockwood: ‘She photographs more than normally easily and has an extraordinary insight in getting the feel of her lines, to live within them.’

1979: In the later film, Iris’s equivalent is ‘madcap’ heiress Amanda Metcalf-Midvani-Von Hoffsteader-Kelly, whose introduction into the story comes when she does a daring impression of Hitler… while drunk… and wearing a slinky and revealing evening gown… in front of dozens of Nazi shits in a hotel bar. She’s nearly 30, enjoys marrying people for money, and is American rather than English, but like Iris is on her way to London for a wedding she’s not too enthusiastic about… Cybill Shepherd plays her character with a fast-talking energy and the air of someone who’s used to getting her own way. The actress had burst onto the scene with an amazing performance in drama film The Last Picture Show (1971), then starred in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver in 1976.

Hero

1938: The man causing the noise above Iris’s hotel room is musicologist Gilbert Redman, who spends the whole film with a carefree, cheerful attutide. He’s a cocky individual, but as he’s the only passenger on the train willing to help Iris she’s forced to spend some time with him. He’s deflated when he learns Iris is returning to London to marry, then like so many of Hitchcock’s mismatched partnerships of the 1930s – The 39 Steps, Secret Agent, Young and Innocent – they almost imperceptibly start to fall for each other. Gilbert is played by Michael Redgrave, a member of the famous Redgrave acting dynasty (he was the son of stage actor Roy Redgrave; the father of Vanessa Redgrave, Corin Redgrave and Lynn Redgrave; and the grandfather of Natasha Richardson, Joely Richardson and Jemma Redgrave). The Lady Vanishes was his first big film role, but he was an established theatre actor and brings a knowing wit to the part.

1979: Gilbert’s equivalent in the second adaptation has also has his nationality switched to American. Robert Condon is a photojournalist rather than a music expert, so we get a more subdued meet-cute than in 1938. There’s no ruckus in the bedroom above; instead the two characters simply get chatting outside their hotel. But, like Gilbert, Robert soon falls for the film’s leading lady – the fact Amanda spends the entire story in a flimsy dress and no bra is probably part of the reason. Elliott Gould, an actor who’d had a very good 1970s thanks to films such as M*A*S*H, The Long Goodbye, A Bridge Too Far and Capricorn One, gives Robert a different kind of light touch from Redgrave; less smug, more affable. His Jewish heritage also adds another level of meaning to the film, of course.

Lady

1938: The eponymous character of the story is the kind-hearted and inoffensive Miss Froy, a woman in her 70s. She claims to be a governess who’s lived and worked in Bandrika for six years; she says she loves the place. But we later learn that she’s an intelligence agent who’s been tasked with delivering a message to London – the information has been coded in the form of a musical tune, which she heard from an undercover spy in Bandrika. (As Hitchcock himself later chuckled, why don’t they just send the message via carrier pigeon?) Miss Froy is played with old-woman twinkle by May Whitty, a woman who was born in the year Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

1979: When we first glimpse Angela Lansbury’s Miss Froy in the 1979 film, she’s whistling a tune as she tramps down an alpine valley (so therefore already has the coded message as the film begins). She doesn’t meet Amanda until they take their seats on the train; the former helps the latter wash off her Hitler moustache, which she hasn’t had time to deal with since her drunken night in the bar. Lansbury was only in her early 50s when making this movie and plays Froy with a more lively eccentricity than Whitty.

Charters & Caldicott

1938: Two of the other passengers on the train are a pair of unflappable, unruffled Englishmen called Charters (Basil Radford) and Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). They’re the story’s comic relief, and an early gag has you wonder if they’re secret agents – they say they need to race home because England is ‘on the brink’. Is this a comment on the rising threat from Nazi Germany? No, the two men are actually cricket obsessives and are talking about a Test match at Old Trafford. The characters are all the more amusing because the actors never go for ‘funny’ – they play everything dry, calmly; with a straight bat. (One comedic scene has them sharing a bed, Morecambe & Wise-style.) Radford and Wayne were so successful as supporting characters in this movie that they reprised Charters and Caldicott in three further unrelated films – Night Train to Munich (1940), which also co-starred Margaret Lockwood, Crook’s Tour (1941) and Millions Like Us (1943). They also played suspiciously similar double acts in eight other films of the 1940s and various BBC Radio comedies.

1979: The 1979 versions of Charters and Caldicott are also entertaining and are played by Arthur Lowe, who’d spent the previous decade playing the self-important Captain Mainwaring in BBC sitcom Dad’s Army, and Ian Carmichael. In their opening scene, the men ask a German officer when a train is due to leave and are rather affronted that he doesn’t speak English. Later, the 1938 gag about needing to race home because ‘England is on the brink’ is repeated, but has added weight here because we know war really is imminent. After this film, Charters and Caldicott featured in their own TV spin-off, produced by the BBC in 1985 and starring Michael Aldridge and Robin Bailey. The characters were missing, however, when the Beeb made their own version of The Lady Vanishes in 2013. In that adaptation of the novel, their role in the story was given to female characters played by Stephanie Cole and Gemma Jones.

Production

1938: Hitchcock made his film entirely in London studios, but opened up the fictional world via rear-projection screens for the train windows, stock footage of moving locomotives, and – most appealingly – some beautiful model shots. The best of the latter is the film’s opening image: the camera pans across a charming, train-set model village covered in snow, tracking in towards the window of the inn. The film is in black and white, like all Hitchcock movies before 1948, and was made before the advent of widescreen cinema.

1979: Shot attractively in Panavision’s 2.35:1 aspect ratio and in colour by cinematographer Douglas Slocombe (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Italian Job, Raiders of the Lost Ark), Hammer’s version contains plenty of location filming in Austria. Scenes aboard the train were recorded at Pinewood Studios, but the scenery passing by the windows is faked very well.

Review

Cinema was born with short films made by French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière and projected to paying audiences in the 1890s. One of their earliest works, first screened in January 1896, was a 50-second single take called L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. It showed – at a daringly oblique angle – a train pulling into a station, and the probably apocryphal story goes that audiences fled in terror, assuming the train would burst through the screen and into the room. So trains have been a part of the movies since the very beginning, and as the art form developed into complex narratives, they were soon being used as both plot devices and settings. Think of silent-movie clichés and you’ll probably list a scene where a woman lies on the tracks in front of an oncoming train. (It did happen, of course: in a 1905 film called The Train Wreckers, for example, or in 1911’s The Attempt on the Special. But the cliché actually predated cinema, and the few silent films that featured such a moment usually did so as a spoof.) Elsewhere, trains cropped up in some vastly significant films: DW Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator (1911), one of the earliest movies to cut between different locations rather than stick to a single setting; Buster Keaton’s innovatively filmed Civil War comedy The General (1926); the British action thriller The Flying Scotsman in 1929, which featured actors risking their lives by hanging off the side of the speeding locomotive; and Shanghai Express, the seductively noir-ish thriller directed by Josef von Sternberg in 1932. (And it wasn’t just cinema, of course. Agatha Christie published her novel Murder on the Orient Express – a masterpiece of a mystery story set almost entirely on a train – in 1934, just two years before Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins.) Hitchcock had got on board with the idea too, featuring trains in films such as The 39 Steps and Secret Agent. But his adaptation of The Lady Vanishes takes things to a whole new level. The dialogue sparkles like a screwball comedy, but the director never forgets that this is a thriller and he keeps the plot speeding along with such confidence, such aplomb. Things take a dark turn when Miss Froy disappears and an added element of pleasure comes from the sophistication of the script: the characters who claim they never saw the old woman each have a plausible reason for lying. This gives us, the audience, more information than Iris, allowing us to both enjoy and sympathise with her plight. The 1979 version, meanwhile, is an efficient film in its own right, if flatter and more conventional. Shepherd, Gould and Lansbury are all good value. Nevertheless, it was made with a certain disdain for the first adaptation. ‘Hitchcock’s film had some brilliant things in it,’ intoned writer George Axelrod. ‘But as a whole picture you’d have to admit it’s pretty creaky. The four or five things people remember from the original receive a homage in our version.’ What a strange thing to say: aside from the new political context, almost every good idea in the Hammer remake is a direct lift from 1938.

1938: Nine men at Waterloo station out of 10
1979: Seven poker games with Karl Marx and Jean Harlow out of 10

Acknowledgment: This blog post was helpful with details about trains in silent cinema.

Torn Curtain (1966, Alfred Hitchcock)

TornCurtain

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

When an American scientist seemingly defects to East Germany, his fiancée follows – leading to them both being trapped behind the Iron Curtain…

Touted at the time of its release as Alfred Hitchcock’s 50th movie (which it was if you discount short films, Elstree Calling and the German-language version of Murder!), Torn Curtain begins with an impressionistic title sequence reminiscent of the James Bond series. Swirling, fiery images play opposite snatched glimpses of characters and incidents while lush music with a ‘full’, orchestral sound tempts us into a world of espionage. 

There had been four Bond pictures by 1965, when Hitchcock began production, but rather than the current vogue for spy films, the inspiration for Torn Curtain actually came from real life. Hitch had been fascinated by the defection to the Soviet Union of the British diplomat Donald Maclean in 1951, and specifically by what that meant for Maclean’s wife and family. Melinda Maclean followed her husband to Moscow about a year later, and Hitchcock wondered how her husband’s choice had affected her emotionally…

The film’s equivalent of Donald Maclean is Michael Armstrong (Paul Newman), an American physicist attending a conference in Norway with his British colleague and fiancée, Sarah Sherman (Julie Andrew). They seem to be deeply in love – our first sighting of them is when they’re cuddled up in bed rather than attending a meal – but Michael soon begins to act oddly. He’s sent obscure radiogram messages, then lies to Sarah that he has to fly to Stockholm. When she learns that his flight is actually heading for East Berlin – in other words, inside communist East Germany – she buys a ticket too and sits a few rows behind him…

It’s typical spy-movie stuff: paranoia and hidden agendas and acrostics and codenames. And it was far from the first time Hitchcock had worked in the genre; he’d dabbled with this kind of material on and off for 30 years. In fact, for the roles of Michael and Sarah, he’d initially wanted to reunite the stars of his phenomenally successful spy film North by Northwest: Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. However, studio bosses insisted on actors who were more ‘current’. Julie Andrews was certainly that: she’d just had a massive hit with The Sound of Music and won an Oscar for 1964’s Mary Poppins. Co-star Paul Newman was hot from movies such as Hud and The Hustler.

Sadly, it often feels like their characters in Torn Curtain have never met before. It’s difficult to recall an on-screen couple in any Hitchcock film who have less chemistry. Hitch presumably wanted Andrews to be one of his classic blondes – an enigmatic female character with sex appeal and a cool exterior, but who is going through emotional turmoil on the inside. The actress, though, plays Sarah too straight, too blandly, to generate much interest. Newman, meanwhile, was a student of the Actors Studio and gives a down-to-earth, tightly wound performance that fails to connect with the heightened tone of the script. (Behind the scenes, Newman infuriated Hitchcock with questions and concerns. The director was more used to actors like James Stewart and Ingrid Bergman – people who showed up, knew their stuff, and did what they were told. When asked about his motivation in a certain scene, a frustrated Hitch is said to have told Newman: ‘Your salary.’)

Landing in East Berlin, Michael is warmly welcomed by the authorities and treated like a celebrity by journalists at a press conference that feels like it was inspired by the Beatles’ famously impressive first public appearance in America. It then dawns on Sarah what’s happening. Michael, seemingly disillusioned with his work at the US defence department being stymied, is defecting to the communists. He’s brusque with his fiancée, refusing to say whether he wants her to stay behind the iron curtain with him or go home.

Thankfully, we viewers don’t have to wait too long for the inevitable plot twist, which anyone who’s ever seen a spy film before will have seen coming from before the title sequence was over. After 40 minutes Michael gives his handlers the slip and heads out into the countryside to meet with a farmer. We’re let into his secret when he and the farmer – who’s actually an undercover agent – discuss how he’s only pretending to defect in order to get some vital information about a revolutionary new anti-rocket system. 

But of course there’s a problem. When he arrived in Berlin, Michael was given a bodyguard, who in reality is there to keep an eye on him. The gum-chewing, American-slang-loving heavy who Michael finds hard to evade is called Hermann Gromek and is excellently played by a sinister Wolfgang Kieling. When Gromek shows up at the farm, Michael initially tries to bluff his way out of the problem – but then must kill Gromek in a blackly comedic scene that’s the highlight of the whole film. With no incidental music to take the edge off the violence, Michael and the farmer’s wife try to subdue their enemy by strangulation, a stabbing, a shovel attack and eventually by forcing his head into a gas oven. (A German gassed in an oven? Hitch was aware of the implication, but later said it wasn’t a political comment.) The scene is a deliberate deconstruction of the spy-film cliché of an easy kill – Gromek is clinging onto life for a long time – and is totally gripping.

Elsewhere, regrettably, some of the filmmaking has not dated well. Alfred Hitchcock seemed to have a high tolerance for artificial devices such as rear-projection screens for scenes in moving cars and matte shots to extend sets and locations. All well and good for a movie made in the mid 1960s. Less excusable, however, is his decision to build an entire – and entirely fake-looking – park on a soundstage for a key scene that comes after 69 minutes. Knowing Gromek’s death will be discovered sooner rather than later, Michael takes Sarah aside and admits that he’s on a secret mission. In a neat trick that Hitchcock used in other films too – Topaz, for example, and North by Northwest – we don’t actually hear the dialogue because it’s information we viewers already know. But the plot swings here: now, Sarah is in the know.

Michael had buried Gromek’s body, but is rumbled when the taxi driver who delivered him to the farm reports seeing Gromek there too. (The taxi driver is played by American actor Eugene Weingard, who went by the stage name Peter Lorre Jr. He actually had no connection to the Hungarian-born star who had appeared in two Hitchcock films in the 1930s – aside from a slight resemblance. The more famous Lorre attempted to stop Weingard using the name, but after the former’s death in March 1964 the latter was free to pretend they were related.)

So the pressure is mounting. Seeking out a famed rocket scientist, Michael tricks him into revealing the secret equations he needs to take back to the States. With the sneaky plot now played out, Michael and Susan then flee down their escape route, which involves a bus service run by the resistance, some help from an eccentric Polish aristocrat (Lila Kedrova’s Countess Kuchinska) and a showpiece finale at the ballet that brings to mind the Albert Hall sequences in Hitchcock’s two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. 

There’s plenty to admire and enjoy in Torn Curtain, whether it’s the Hitchcockian touch of demonstrating how cold a room is by showing someone breaking up the ice that’s forming in his glass of water, or the cat-and-mouse sequence in a museum that has echoing footsteps creating tension and menace. The blocking – the relative positioning of the actors in a scene – also tells the story just as much as dialogue, such as the distance between Michael and Sarah when she thinks he’s a traitor compared to later when she’s learnt the truth.

However, it’s far from a wholly successful film. It mostly feels too safe, for example. This is the story of a man taking the enormous risk of going undercover in a communist state but it lacks the cynical edge and – Gromek’s death scene aside – the sense of danger seen in other 60s spy films like The Ipcress File (1965) or even the Bond series. Hitchcock also seems to get bored with his lead characters: Sarah in particular goes missing for long stretches, while in the second half of the story both she and Michael feel like passengers rather than drivers of the plot. 

Seven men in the hotel lobby out of 10

Note: In a 1999 interview, Steven Spielberg revealed that as a teenager he’d sneaked onto the set of Torn Curtain to watch the filming. He lasted 45 minutes before someone realised he shouldn’t be there.

Ready Player One (2018, Steven Spielberg)

ready-player-one-1

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In 2045, everyone spends their time in a massive virtual-reality game. But then teenager Wade Watts learns that a huge prize can be claimed by finding an Easter egg hidden within it…

Seen before? Once, before which I’d read the source novel.

Best performance: Wade’s love interest in the story is a fellow ‘gunter’ (ie, Easter egg hunter) known by the moniker Artemis, who we initially only see as a digital avatar – a kind of cartoony, anime-ish representation of herself. The character might be a CGI creation in these scenes, but the eyes sparkle and the smile is infectious; actress Olivia Cooke (The Limehouse Golem, TV show Bates Motel) radiantly pops through the mo-cap technology. There’s a subplot going on here about Artemis being ashamed of the way she looks; that’s why she doesn’t want to meet Wade outside the RPG fantasy of the virtual-reality game. Of course, seeing as we’re dealing with a Hollywood movie here, when Wade (Tye Sheridan) does finally encounter her in reality she is captivatingly pretty even with a minor birthmark.

Best scene/moment/sequence: The film is based on a terrific 2011 sci-fi novel, which is full of references to popular culture of the 1970s and 80s. Wade has a love for and a deep knowledge of the period and the book sings with a geeky passion and enthusiasm. The movie does too, and the nods soon begin to mount up: He-Man and The Wizard of Oz, Batman and Superman, Star Trek and Star Wars, Ferris Bueller and The Breakfast Club, a-Ha and New Order, King Kong and Godzilla, Alien and Silent Running, Back to the Future and Tron, The Buggles and Tears for Fears, Dark Crystal and The Iron Giant, Beetlejuice and Buckaroo Bonzai, Bill & Ted and Monty Python, RoboCop and Freddy Krueger, Last Action Hero and Dune, GoldenEye (the game) and Saturday Night Fever, and many, many, many more. When adapting Ernest Cline’s novel for the screen, however, one key section caused a problem. In the book, Wade’s quest takes him into a digital recreation of the futuristic LA seen in Blade Runner. However, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic was in production at the same time as Ready Player One, so Spielberg couldn’t get hold of the rights. As a replacement, the creative team instead used the setting of the 1980 horror movie The Shining. And the sequence is a wonder: a pixel-perfect recreation of the sets, lighting schemes and general mood of Stanley Kubrick’s best film. (Quite what it all means if you’ve never seen The Shining is another matter!)

Review: Ready Player One is certainly a visually dazzling film. Huge stretches of the story take place inside the virtual-reality world of a MMORPG called the Oasis – ‘a place where the limits of reality are your own imagination’. Near-flawless CGI is used to create a sleek, sweeping, 360-degree, photorealistic and immensely detailed environment. It’s a gamer’s wet dream, and there are hundreds of pop-culture references to spot and feel smug about spotting. But for all this razzmatazz and Spielbergian panache, the core of the movie is ultimately hollow. There’s a sense of a good adventure and some decent gags, but the longer the film goes on the more it gets bogged down with boring action scenes. Wade is a limp, uninteresting lead character who lacks the zip and charisma evident in the source novel’s first-person prose. An affected Mark Rylance is miscast the Oasis’s geeky creator. There are some weak young actors in secondary roles (a real rarity from the director who had strong juvenile performances in ET, Jurassic Park and A.I. Artificial Intelligence). And despite a typically watchable turn from Ben Mendelsohn, the story’s business-exec villain is as one-note as they come. It’s not a dreadful film – far from it – but all the fantasy could do with a bit more reality.

Seven corn-syrup droughts out of 10

The Ring (1927)

MV5BMDFiZjU0NmYtMjE4Mi00YjAwLThiNDQtYmJkYzI2NTAyYTNkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTM3NzQ5NzQ@._V1_

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

Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

An exhibition boxer is hired as a pro’s sparring partner. But then the pro makes a move on his girlfriend…

Some of the earliest ever movies were boxing films. In the 1890s, cinema pioneer William Kennedy Dickson – the man who came up with the industry-standard 35mm film format – recorded fights involving boxers such as world heavyweight champion James J Corbett. Short and basic, they were the world’s first sporting films – and they were staged specifically for the camera. So Alfred Hitchcock’s The Ring was following an established tradition. By 1927, of course, drama elements had been added to the mix – and the title of The Ring is actually a pun. As well as the boxing arena, it refers to a wedding ring. Because, for all the ways it prefigures movies such as Rocky and Ali, this is mostly a love-triangle melodrama.

At a funfair, Jack Sander (Carl Brisson, who had once been a prizefighter himself) is an undefeated boxer who puts on shows for the punters. But one day a man challenges him to a fight – and Jack is beaten. No wonder: it turns out the challenger is heavyweight champion Bob Corby (Ian Hunter). Jack’s done well enough, though, to be offered the job of Bob’s sparring partner. Bob then takes a shine to Jack’s girlfriend, Mabel (Lillian Hall-Davis). She initially returns his affections, then pulls away. She later marries Jack, but is torn between the two men. Meanwhile, Jack sets his sights on challenging Bob for the championship…

The film climaxes with the men’s bout, which seems to be taking place at the Albert Hall – a venue where Hitch used to watch boxing, fascinated by the rituals of the sport, and where he later set the finales of his two films called The Man Who Knew Too Much. We get all the now-familiar clichés of a boxing movie: the well-to-do crowd, the frantic cornermen, POV shots as the fighters square up, the camera shooting through the ropes.

You can sense a lineage from all this to, say, Martin Scorsese’s 1980 film Raging Bull. But nonetheless The Ring has dated. How could it not? It was released 91 years ago and everyone involved in the production is long gone. There are six actors credited in the opening titles, for example, and five of them died in – respectively – 1933, 1945, 1958, 1967 and 1975. (London-born Harry Terry’s date of death is unknown, but given that he was in born in 1887, we can safely assume he’s no longer with us either. The most tragic death was the first: depressed after a downturn in her career, Lillian Hall-Davis took her own life, aged just 35.)

Perhaps the most old-fashioned elements is the lack of dialogue. There are very few title cards containing speech, so as a modern viewer you’re left to infer an awful lot of the detail. It doesn’t help with engaging with the drama, and after a while you wish you could get inside the heads of the characters just a little bit more. This paucity of words may be explained by the fact the script is credited to just Hitchcock himself. (Other people did work on it, however, including his wife, Alma Reville.) He was much more comfortable with and interested in visual storytelling, so while the story, characters and situations are conventional and predictable, there is the usual array of dynamic shots and effects. Crowd scenes at the funfair always have a waltzer rotating in the background; some shots have superimposed images so we can know what a character is thinking as well as what they can see; and at one point Mabel and Bob are filmed reflected in the gently ebbing waters of a river.

The best piece of narrative-by-pictures comes when Jack’s success in the boxing world is dramatised by a montage that shows his name being given more and more prominent placings on successive posters. A fantastic Hitchcock grace note has the seasons changing too.

Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.01Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.18Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.36Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.48Screenshot 2018-11-26 19.53.57

Seven bracelets out of 10