Trainspotting (1996)

*. I’ll start with the book. Irvine Welsh was among the first of a generation of bad-boy authors who burst on to the scene around the same time, with early bestsellers being quickly adapted into movies. Think Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho, 1993 and 2000) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, 1996 and 1999).
*. Trainspotting is usually described as a novel but always struck me as a series of linked stories (there is a difference). It was a smash success when it came out in 1993, leading to this fairly quick adaptation. Then after Trainspotting Welsh, like Ellis after American Psycho and Palahniuk after Fight Club, went into an almost instant decline. I appreciated Filth, but found the rest of Welsh’s output nearly unreadable. Glamorama wasn’t bad, but I can’t look at anything by Ellis after that. Palahniuk was a total one-hit wonder.
*. Danny Boyle gives Welsh a lot of the credit for the movie Trainspotting but I think this is being very generous. It’s a good book, but a better movie. Screenwriter John Hodge did a terrific adaptation, cutting a lot of the unfilmable parts while giving the whole a structure and a bit of heart. Welsh’s book I remember as being a nastier bit of work. I get the sense reading Welsh that he really hates people, and the feel of the movie is quite a bit different.
*. Hodge did, however, leave out any explanation of where the title came from. At least I don’t recall the business of trainspotting ever coming up. This is the sort of thing that drove Leslie Halliwell crazy, and he had a point.

*. A nice assembly of talent on the way up. Director Danny Boyle and writer Hodge getting together again after Shallow Grave (they’d go on to further collaborations). And an ensemble cast that gelled perfectly. Ewan McGregor, also back from Shallow Grave, as Renton. Ewen Bremner as the caricature Spud. Jonny Lee Miller as a glam Sick Boy. Robert Carlyle as Begbie, sporting a moustache that projects a surprising amount of threat.

*. And introducing Kelly Macdonald, who’d been working as a barmaid and answered an open casting call. I guess there is something in being a natural, a quality some people have when it comes to acting. I’m not alone in wishing there was more between Rent Boy and Diane here, and Boyle and Hodge tried their best to expand her character. It’s just that in the end this is a movie about the lads.
*. Directed in what was known then as the flashy MTV style, which worked well with the soundtrack. (Today I’m not sure that reference works, as MTV turned away from playing music and music videos are no longer on the cutting edge of visual culture.) When T2 came out twenty years later it wouldn’t have the same edge, though that’s not to say that this movie is merely fashionable. I think it’s effective. Even if things like the freeze frames were done, in Boyle’s admission, “just because it was cool to freeze your favourite shot.”

*. Boyle also remarks in his commentary, and quite correctly, that all the flash in the world can’t help a movie where you don’t care about the characters. I think this is the real triumph of Trainspotting, as I didn’t care for the characters in the book, and wouldn’t want to meet any of the guys in the movie, but I still found them sympathetic beyond the conventional “wages of sin is death” message tossed in with the drug use. These aren’t nice people, and none of them are redeemed.
*. Instead they’re launched at us, and into our world, like a virus. Sick Boy is going into “business” and Renton is a star on the rise. The way he leaves the others at the end must have been meant to recall Johnny walking away with his girlfriend’s money at the end of Naked, but I don’t recall Hodge or Boyle mentioning the connection on the commentary.
*. I think that in 1996 we could see how everyone was going to turn out, and the reunion in T2 was unnecessary. Watching the films together now, the first time still seems fresher. For whatever reason, and I’m thinking again of the literary zeitgeist too, follow-ups seemed to be difficult around this time. Perhaps success was becoming a bigger catastrophe, at least creatively, than ever.

Henry V (1989)

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*. In my notes on Olivier’s Henry V I noted David Thomson’s comment about how there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with, and that for that reason he remains “helplessly loyal to Olivier.” I said there that I thought this was probably true, but that for me Kenneth Branagh’s film would always have such a place. I’d only add here that this Henry V also holds a special record in my personal movie-going history, being the only film I went to see, upon its release, three times. I was an English student at the time and it just seemed like the best thing ever to me.
*. I still rate it very, very highly. I think it’s the best of all of Branagh’s Shakespeare adaptations, and that he really never did anything near as good. Seeing as he wasn’t even thirty here, there’s something a little sad about that.

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*. As remarkable an achievement as this film was for Branagh — and it marked his directing debut — I’d say he has to share accolades with composer Patrick Doyle, whose first film score this was. This is, in my opinion, one of the four or five very best scores ever written, especially if you consider it in total and how well it works with the rest of the film. It’s not overstated, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it is because it feels large. How on earth it escaped even being nominated for any major awards is a complete mystery to me. Who picks these things? But, as with Branagh, I’m not sure Doyle ever did anything else as good (though his overture for Much Ado About Nothing is a masterpiece).
*. I take it that the long dolly shot over the battlefield with the Non Nobis arrangement playing is meant to recall the electric dolly shot that covered the cavalry charge in Olivier’s film. A nice pairing that.
*. It’s usually described as being a more realistic take on Shakespeare, and the first thing that’s meant by this is mud. Not the single wet spot on the sunny emerald Technicolor green of Olivier’s illuminated battlefield but rather a Passchendaele-like mud bowl that the combatants wallow in.

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*. More than the mud, however, the film’s realism resides in its language. You may never hear Shakespeare delivered as naturalistically as it is here, and at such speed and with such obvious relish. You can almost feel Branagh’s delight in rolling the words around in his mouth. And this works because Henry, being a king, is a performer. He knows it, and everyone around him, all the way down to the boy, knows it. When he’s bellowing at the walls of Harfleur or rallying the troops before Agincourt it’s understood that it’s all just a show. But playing the part of a king well was a king’s job, back in the day when it was a job.

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*. Branagh also amplifies the language in two ways. The quiet scenes are played in close-ups, which exaggerate small gestures (a nod, a roll of the eyes, tears), while the louder, more confrontational parts are emphasized by frequent cuts to the speaker’s audience. It’s the same principle as the laugh track, where seeing or hearing the response to the speaker’s words on screen helps direct or amplify our own response. This is something Branagh does throughout, both when dealing with groups of people (the English soldiers Henry rallies) or in one-on-one verbal assaults (the poor herald Montjoy has to keep looking humbled after being dressed down again and again).

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*. The Eastcheap gang were played pretty much as buffoons by Olivier, and here they’re far more sympathetically drawn. The thing is, as a group they’d been in decline throughout this trilogy of plays, and now with Falstaff dead there’s a real air of morbidity hanging over them all. With even Nell and the Boy dying in the end, Pistol isn’t just diminished but returning to a diminished world. He’s finally been written out of History.
*. Derek Jacobi’s Chorus works quite well, in modern dress, perhaps because we’re likely to recognize him as one of those talking-head presenters, David Starkey maybe, in some History channel docudrama. Remarkably, it never takes us out of the play.

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*. It doesn’t strike me as a particularly political interpretation — unlike Olivier’s, which was very much a film of its historical moment. Though, as befits the more realistic presentation, the war is presented as something engineered through the operation of power politics, with the scheming bishops in league with Brian Blessed’s Exeter, a character whose bluff and hearty exterior belies a shady, manipulative warmonger. Dramatically, these opening scenes are surprisingly fresh and edgy, and have only taken on a greater resonance in a time that now has some more recent experience in the selling and marketing of imperialist wars.

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*. I think all of this makes the film very Shakespearean, meaning full of ambiguities and complexities. Olivier never wanted us to mistake that we were watching a play, but a play that was expanding to encompass a wider stage. Branagh’s film wants us to see the world as a stage, which it is when dealing with such a subject as this anyway.
*. As with any really successful film, the stars were in alignment. Branagh and Doyle both making electric debuts, a supporting cast including a number of veteran stalwarts (I particularly like Paul Scofield), a full chemistry set with Branagh wooing Emma Thompson, and just perfect execution in nearly every production department. You don’t even notice that the battle scenes seem to all be taking place in the same little mud hole, the action is kept so fluid and crowded. There’s nothing like the cavalry charge from Olivier’s film, but has a Shakespearean battle ever been as expertly constructed as this? I can only think of what Welles did in Chimes at Midnight, and nobody’s ever topped that.
*. That Henry V is one of Shakespeare’s best and most film-friendly plays also helps. But I guess I have to fall back on what Thomson said as for why this may be my favourite Shakespeare film. I might not have been born with it, but I was born for it. In nearly thirty years I don’t feel any diminishment in its hold on me and I’ll likely remain helplessly loyal.

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Dawn of the Deaf (2016)

*. Zombie movies have been allegories since they got started, and by that I mean even before George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). We can go as far back as I Walked with a Zombie (1943), where zombies represented a slave-labour force used to harvest sugar cane. Though with Romero the social allegory in particular really took off, from zombies as mindless consumers walking the mall to a revolutionary underclass.
*. So if Dawn of the Deaf isn’t just a zombie splatterfest but instead seems to be a movie about other things, that’s not a bold new direction so much as a natural extension of the super-plastic zombie metaphor. Zombies being always among us, they can be made to stand for anything.
*. Unfortunately, even for a movie that seems so intent about standing for something, I was never sure what that something was. Which is surprising given that it’s just a 12-minute short. The basic idea is that an audio “pulse” makes everyone drop dead and then, a few minutes later, rise again as flesh-eating zombies. The only ones not affected are the deaf.
*. Sticking with the plot outline here, I found it surprising that the IMDb plot summary has this to say: “When a sonic pulse infects the hearing population, a small group of Deaf people must band together to survive.” This is not at all what the film is about, or even what happens. There are only two girls at the end who are together after the pulse, and that’s where we leave them. There’s no banding together to survive. I wonder where this summary came from. Could it have been supplied by the producers? Also: is Deaf now supposed to be capitalized? I keep missing these memos.
*. In addition to being deaf the two survivors are also girlfriends, so as lesbians they are doubly marginalized. In addition, one of the girls is the victim of incest, as her father is sexually abusing her. This is really unpleasant stuff, and not at all what I was expecting from a movie with such a joke title. In fact, the title had been used in a zombie comedy out of Australia just the year before. There was some real mixed messaging going on here, as this is not a comedy and indeed doesn’t even try to raise a smile at any point.
*. Aside from the two girls there’s also a deaf man who is addressing some gala event. After the pulse he will be torn to pieces.
*. As I say, I’m not sure what the point here was. Ironies are pointed. The one girl tells the other that she doesn’t care who knows that they’re lovers, only when the world has been transformed so that there’s nobody left who will ever care or know. The man making a speech is proud of doing so in his own voice, but then has his tongue ripped out. I get it, but then I don’t.
*. There’s one neat bit of business when the subtitles for hand signing go in and out of sight as the two girls are arguing in an underpass. Aside from that, the film is a mess. In particular, I couldn’t figure out the timeline. Does the girl kill her father before or after she goes to meet her friend? Because he seems to be coming back to life on the bed, which would be well ahead of schedule. And what’s with the pranksters scaring random people? Just a pair of jerks?
*. I can’t say I liked this one much. It left me confused and with a bad taste in my mouth. Why include all the creepy incest stuff? I guess the point is just that the world pre-pulse is full of predatory jerks like the guys pulling pranks and the girl’s father, so that when they get turned into zombies they haven’t changed all that much. This is a familiar theme in zombie movies, but it’s not put forward with any real urgency here. It’s nicely turned out for such a low-budget effort, and marks an early teaming of British director Rob Savage with writer Jed Shepherd, who’d go on to make Host a few years later, but that’s all that’s worth noting.

Minimalism (2015)

*. An interesting and I think important subject only superficially glanced at.
*. Here it’s called minimalism, but it’s been elsewhere marketed, and I think that really is the word, as decluttering, anti-materialism/anti-consumerism, self-editing, and mindfulness. It’s an idea that goes back to ancient times (the rejection of worldly goods by Stoics and early Christianity) but which has only grown in relevance in a mass consumer society: the world is too much with us so get rid of all the stuff that’s complicating your life and that the advertising industry has tricked you into thinking you need. Simplify! Simplify!
*. The documentary Minimalism basically follows a couple of buddies — Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, a duo who call themselves “the Minimalists” — on a book tour promoting their book about, you guessed it, the minimalist lifestyle. You will immediately recognize a sharp dissonance. The Minimalists present themselves as determinedly against advertising, yet the entire movie (which they produced) is essentially an infomercial for their book. There’s even one clip at the end from their appearance on The Today Show where they include the plug the hosts give for the book. My jaw dropped slightly open at this. Was this irony? I don’t think so. The movie is a pitch, just as the name “the Minimalists” is a brand they are flogging.
*. To be sure, lots of documentaries have companion books to go along with them. Just among ones I’ve looked at recently there are Inside Job and Requiem for the American Dream. But Minimalism takes this a whole lot further. It’s a straight-up ad.
*. That’s painful, but there are other aspects of the movie that are just as troubling. Chief among these is the way minimalism is presented as a lifestyle choice indulged in by — and I hate to use this language — privileged, upper-class, white people. At one point Nicodemus refers to the listeners of National Public Radio as their “peeps” and target “demographic.” Meaning older, wealthy, and white. People who have everything and may decide that, since they’re not totally happy, they should get rid of some of it.
*. As I say, there is nothing new in any of this. When Millburn reads a passage from his book I honestly thought he was just quoting from Edward Norton’s monologue at the beginning of Fight Club. I spent most of the movie wondering where all the kids were, and though a couple are introduced at the end nothing much is said about how minimalist families work. Nor, despite the subtitle — A Documentary About the Important Things — is there any clear sense of what these important things are. Self-enrichment (in the non-material sense). Personal growth. An authentic self. It sounds mushy to me, especially as I think it likely that “the important things” will be different for every individual.
*. It’s a shame the movie is such a dud because this is an important subject. As one of the talking heads, a designer of tiny homes, puts it, “we’re not very going to be able to achieve the environmental gains that we’re seeking while still expecting our lives to be the same. We’re going to have to give up a lot. The secret is that a lot of that we’re not actually going to miss.” I think this is right. Our present mass production-mass consumption civilization is unsustainable. We will have to lead simpler lives, making do with less, either by choice or (more likely) by necessity. Such a life can, however, be both healthier and happier than what we have now. I believe in all of this, and my own life is, at least in relative terms, quite minimal. I like the message here. I’m just not stuck on the messengers, or the slickness of the packaging.

Promising Young Woman (2020)

*. A highly touted picture that received near universal critical adulation and lots of award nominations, Promising Young Woman is one of the bigger disappointments I’ve had in the last little while.
*. Essentially it’s a rape-revenge fantasy for the #MeToo generation, only different from other examples of its kind, going back over fifty years now, by the currency of its references and being bootstrapped into a rom-com. There’s also a bit of a twist at the end, but not much of one and the fact that it’s a twist only underscores how stale the rest of it is.
*. Carey Mulligan plays Cassie, who dropped out of med school and started working in a coffee shop after her classmate and best friend Nina was gang raped by a bunch of fellow med students. It’s implied, I think, that Nina committed suicide at some point after this traumatic event, so now Cassie is taking her revenge on men by pretending to get drunk at local clubs and then letting guys pick her up and take her home, where she may kill them or let them go depending on how nice they are. If her murder journal is any indication she seems to be one of the most prolific serial killers in history, but presumably she’s discreet as the police don’t appear to be after her. Or maybe she isn’t killing anyone. The movie is surprisingly silent about what’s actually going on. Perhaps she’s just leaving her dates high and dry.
*. So, continuing with a bit of exposition, some years later Ryan (Bo Burnham), a former classmate of Cassie’s, walks into her coffee shop and falls in love. This gives Cassie the idea of getting a more specific revenge on the actual guys who raped Nina. One wonders why she hadn’t thought of that before. Or thought of the fact that her sweetie pie Ryan might not be so innocent himself. I didn’t give a spoiler alert for that twist because it’s so obvious from the get-go it doesn’t count as a twist. At least not for me.
*. There are a lot of things holding Promising Young Woman back. In the first place they seem to have been trying to get a PG rating because there’s nothing shocking or violent about it at all. I was surprised when I checked and saw that it was actually rated R. For what? According to the advisory warning: “Strong violence including sexual assault, language throughout, some sexual material and drug use.” Strong violence? There’s one murder at the end, but it’s no more than what you get at the end of any production of Othello. The drug use is one comic scene of a guy snorting coke. Language? On the commentary track writer-director Emerald Fennell says the line “That’s a kick in the cunt” was one of the things that led to an R rating. Really?
*. Now I can certainly respect Fennell’s desire not to go the exploitation route here and show . . . well, show anything even mildly upsetting. But doesn’t packaging all of this in a PG box undercut the story just a bit? What does Cassie really do to her dates? She’s actually quite forgiving when it comes to the people she holds responsible for Nina’s death. And come to think of it, what exactly happened to Nina? I guess we’re left to just imagine the worst, but to leave out the evidence for what was a case that we know was lost at court also undercuts the message a bit by leaving the actual crime ambiguous. If we saw the video, would we see what Cassie sees? Does she seem stable enough to be trusted?
*. That may seem like I’m taking a stand against our promising young woman, but I’m not sure why Fennell leaves this ambiguous, or even if she thought it ambiguous. Take the scene where Cassie smashes in the lights and windshield of the pick-up truck. This is because she had fallen asleep at the wheel and her car was blocking the road. The truck’s driver pulls up alongside her and he yells at her, which causes her to wake up and smash his truck with a tire iron (to the soaring strains of Wagner’s Liebestod). On the commentary Fennell seems to think this was justified. Haven’t we all wanted to do that to someone who yells at us, she asks. But surely Cassie is in the wrong here. If the truck driver had been a cop she probably would have received a fine. So are we really meant to be on her side?
*. Another way of looking at this is that in the mixture of tones that went into this movie, the rom-com elements won out. This was bad news for me, as I’m more a fan of violent psychological thrillers than I am of rom-coms. When Fennell said that Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” is her favourite song of all time on the commentary track I took a double take. Not that it’s a bad bit of ear candy, but because I didn’t even know Paris Hilton knew how to sing. That’s how far out of the target demographic I am. Though the soft ending can’t be blamed on Fennell, as it was insisted on by the studio because leaving us off with Cassie’s cremation was thought to be too bleak.
*. Fennell won an Oscar for her screenplay. I don’t like it at all. There are no memorable lines. The plot is filled with weird improbabilities that seem to take it into the realm of fantasy (or rom-com fantasy). Just to instigate a basic turn in the action Madison (Alison Brie) has to show up and give Cassie a video of Nina’s rape. Why does she (still) have this? Why does she give it to Cassie? Why does she give it to her now? Just because that’s what the plot demands.
*. If the script feels like fantasy, and it does, that’s something that’s further assisted by the set design. I made notes on this as I was watching, which is a bad thing because usually if you’re noticing set design then it’s not for a good reason. Here I was thinking that the coffee shop didn’t look at all like a coffee shop and the pharmacy not like a pharmacy and the homes and apartments not like any space that people actually lived in. All the more strange that Fennell goes out of her way to compliment the set dressing in her commentary, and how she insisted on giving it a more “cluttered” and realistic look. Cluttered? The kitchen set in Cassie’s parents’ house, which she specifically sites as being cluttered, looks pristine. The other homes and apartments look like they’ve just been professionally cleaned and staged for an open house. I didn’t see any clutter at all.
*. Another big weakness with the script is the way all of Cassie’s enemies are presented as stereotypes. They’re just there to spout off some misogynist, rape-apologist lines before crumbling before Cassie’s steely determination and empowered female gaze. As I said in my notes on Black Christmas: “This is a #MeToo film that’s all about the oppressiveness of the patriarchy and rape culture and cancel culture and toxic masculinity (symbolized by the black goo that turns clean-cut kids into alpha male monsters). I don’t think this was a bad idea, but it just gets laid on so thick that you start to feel that it’s the movie’s whole reason for being.” Well, ditto here. Which leads me to another question: Is this a better movie than Black Christmas? Even a better #MeToo movie? I don’t think so. And I didn’t think all that much of Black Christmas.
*. I mention Black Christmas, but there are a lot of other movies I was thinking of too. Let’s face it, if we’re embedded in a rape-revenge plot how can you not think of Zoë Lund putting her war paint on as Thana in Ms. 45 when you see Cassie doing her lipstick in the car’s sideview mirror? And is she Frigga from Thriller or Harley Quinn from Birds of Prey as she heads off for the final showdown at the bachelor party? Finally, I think it goes without saying that in her fetish nurse uniform she’s playing Asami from Audition at the end.
*. Not surprisingly, given the nature of most DVD commentaries, Fennell doesn’t mention any of these movies as sources or inspiration. Instead she points to a couple of borrowings from Night of the Hunter, to which I can’t see any connection here at all, and Fatal Attraction, which I would have thought cast Cassie in an even worse light.
*. Yes, Carey Mulligan is good. She plays against cuteness to do what she can to save the whole project. But there’s nothing new here and even by 2020 the #MeToo stuff was all starting to sound like clichés; clichés that are then watered down further by the intermixing with a rom-com plot, a deliberate vagueness in the presentation, and a fantasy setting. That Fennell and Mulligan are Brits may have played a bit into this latter point. This just doesn’t feel like America (Ohio, to be exact). Even Hollywood America.
*. The DVD box cover comes with this pull quote: “A game changing masterpiece” (no hyphen). I struggled to read the print underneath to make out who wrote this little gem. Apparently it comes from some website called We Live Entertainment. For what it’s worth, at least one review I found at this site, by Staci Wilson, was lukewarm: “I would have liked it even more if Promising Young Woman had either been a lot darker or much funnier. As it was, I felt vaguely unsatisfied as the credits rolled.” For some reason, this review still resulted in the movie getting a score of 8 out of 10. This is one of the curious ways the hype machine works. I mean, what do you have to do to get a 6 out of 10? Or a 4?
*. Just to be as critical of Promising Young Woman as I’ve been probably invites a charge of some kind of thoughtcrime, but at the end of the day I can’t see where this is a good movie. As Matt Lynch, in one of the rare dissenting voices, put it in his review, it’s a movie “built on a shaky foundation of cheap douchebro stereotypes, retread girl-power revenge tropes, and cheeky formal gimmicks.” Then, with studio intervention, it flubs the ending and only sends us off with just desserts and another ironic reuse of “Angel of the Morning.” Now that’s sad.

Charlie Chan on Broadway (1937)

*. Charlie Chan was an ethnic Chinese detective based out of Honolulu but in the series of films based on his character he turned into quite a globetrotter. Hawaii was exotic enough for one movie (The Black Camel, extravagantly shot on location), but after that he took flight for such foreign destinations as London, Paris, Egypt, and the Berlin Olympics, while visiting domestic spots of nearly equal drama like the Opera, the Circus, and the Race Track. Given that the stories were all pretty similar, it’s no big stretch to say that the location was everything that set these films apart.
*. Which is a roundabout way of introducing Charlie Chan on Broadway. A title that, alas, means nothing at all. Charlie does go to New York City, and the opening credits are presented over some stock shots of Times Square, but that’s it.
*. “Broadway” is usually taken as shorthand for New York City’s theatre district, so with a title like this you’d expect it has something to do with that world. It doesn’t. I’m not sure Broadway — referring to either theatre or just the street — is even mentioned. I guess they just went with the title for what Miles Kreuger, an authority on American musicals interviewed for the featurette included with the DVD, refers to as Broadway’s “cachet of glamour.” Struggling to find some connection between the title and what’s actually going on in the movie, Kreuger says the only reason it’s called Charlie Chan on Broadway is because of the newspaper gossip columnists being such an important part of the plot. Which isn’t very much to hang your hat on.
*. Overall this is one of the weirder of the Warner Oland Chan films. The female lead the movie begins by introducing actually pulls a Janet Leigh and turns into the murder victim halfway through. Then the romance angle is frustrated when the heroine’s love interest turns out to be a heel. Though I don’t know what she would have been expecting from a guy with a name like Speed Patten.
*. The other thing that makes it weird is that the murder takes place at a dance joint called The Hottentot Club on “candid camera” night. On candid camera night the guests go around taking pictures, mainly of the dancing girls, hoping to win a prize. This made no sense to me and I wondered if this really was a thing in the 1930s. It seemed really pervy, what with horny-looking guys running around snapping pics of girls.
*. Photos are brought into the plot in a few different ways though, so they do make something out of it. But to be honest, I felt like they were reaching here.
*. One of the more compact stories in the series, which makes it easier to follow. And it mostly plays fair. Harold Huber is also pretty memorable as a New York police detective. Not a bad entry at all, but not one of the best.

American Pie (1999)

*. The legendary screenwriter William Goldman once formulated a rule of Hollywood that has become a kind of holy writ: NOBODY KNOWS ANYTHING. What he meant is that there was no way to predict what was going to be a hit. “Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”
*. It’s had not to be reminded of that bit of hack wisdom when reflecting on the mega-success of American Pie, which did $235 million box office (out of a negligible $11 million budget), and spawned three direct sequels. For what? A generic teen sex comedy (the script’s working title was Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy) about a bunch of high school boys looking to lose their virginity before they graduate.
*. I guess the best that might be said of such fare is that every generation needs its Porky’s. Young people have to go to movies and watch something other than superhero movies. Don’t they?
*. Comedy doesn’t age well. Even the most hilarious raunchy-stupid flicks from this period — Dumb and Dumber (1994), There’s Something About Mary (1998) — aren’t very funny today. Some of the humour here no longer plays as fresh. It’s hard to remember a time when MILF wasn’t a widely known acronym, with its use here being a joke that has to be explained. Or the idea of laughing at a guy tricking his girlfriend into having sex while livestreaming it over the Internet. No, that’s not so funny now.
*. A side note. Here is Roger Ebert on that scene: “When the lucky hero gets the foreign exchange student into his bedroom and she turns out to be ready for a romp, it is funny that he has forgotten and left his CU-See Me software running, so that the entire Internet community can watch him be embarrassed. It would not be funny if he left it on deliberately.” Well Roger, he did leave it on deliberately. That was the whole point. I’m not sure how Ebert missed that part.
*. But the thing is, I’m not sure any of this movie was all that funny to begin with. It’s hard to identify the laugh lines in the 2010s. Fucking an apple pie on the kitchen counter? Well, I suppose. But really, nothing about the script strikes me as very good, and it’s telling that when Eugene Levy came on board he apparently insisted on improvising his lines. Levy’s a guy who knows good material and he clearly wasn’t seeing it here.
*. Nor does the cast do much to help things along. The four horny musketeers (Jason Biggs as Jim, Chris Klein as Oz, Eddie Kaye Thomas as Finch, Thomas Ian Nicholas as Kevin) strike me as being charmless at best. Meanwhile, their girlfriends are only slightly more appealing.
*. Not as shocking today as it was twenty years ago. Perhaps even more nostalgic. I suppose most of it qualifies as being good-natured, but that’s about it. The main comic conceit is that the girls are more mature than the boys, which is a point I think everyone will have grasped in the first few minutes. But then it’s not a movie I was in the target audience for at the time, and I feel even less obliged to care for it now.

Henry V (1944)

*. While doing some background reading for these notes I was a bit surprised to hear this movie so often referred to as the first successful film adaptation of Shakespeare (successful meaning both popular and a decent interpretation of the play). Was this true? I thought Max Reinhardt’s 1935 A Midsummer Night’s Dream pretty good. It failed at the box office, but then Henry V didn’t do that well either.
*. Though even without box office it did have value as propaganda at the time, what with England about to invade (German occupied) France again. Shakespeare may be timeless, but this Henry V is also a movie of its moment. As such, it has taken on a kind of iconic value, along with whatever personal place it may have in the memories of fans. David Thomson: “maybe there is no gainsaying the version of Henry V you were born with. I am helplessly loyal to Olivier.”
*. I think this is true, as Kenneth Branagh’s version has the same sort of resonance for me. But there’s no denying Branagh was responding to Olivier, as I think nearly everyone has since.

*. I can’t think of other Shakespeare adaptations that have anything like the same look as this. At the time it must have seemed incredibly daring. The Technicolor was still something new (there was only one Technicolor camera in England), but most of all the production design, going from the costumes, elaborate models, sets, and painted backdrops to the green fields of Ireland, is something I can’t think of anything to compare to. It’s remarkable, and fits perfectly with the whole idea of the playhouse disappearing as we’re drawn into its world.
*. The art direction was by Paul Sheriff and he deserves a lot of credit. So much credit that I had to wonder how much to give to Olivier for directing. I think quite a bit. He hadn’t wanted to direct, but all his first choices (William Wyler, Carol Reed, Terence Young) turned him down and since he’d wanted complete control over the production anyway it only made sense that he’d direct. And would anyone else have been so daring? As Bruce Eder remarks on the Criterion commentary track, “no one else could or would have gotten away with making a movie that looked like this.”

*. The brashness, daring, and originality of a rookie? The obvious comparison is to Welles and Citizen Kane, and while I don’t think Olivier was a filmmaker on the same level as Welles, the fact that this was his first rodeo might have made doing his own thing a little easier. I made a similar remark with regard to Clive Barker and Hellraiser. I think there’s something to be said for the freedom an artist feels when they’re starting out.
*. In terms of the film’s conception, the drawing in and then drawing back out, I think it’s brilliant. That cavalry charge is such a fitting climax in terms of the camera finally cutting loose on its mile-plus racing dolly shot. But the long takes were probably less showing off (as they are with Welles) than the result of just working in a way that the cast was most comfortable with.

*. Something else that few other directors could have gotten away with is the job that’s done on the text. As in all of Olivier’s major Shakespeare productions, this is a heavily edited and re-arranged version of the play. Even the language is changed to make it more accessible (an elder-gun, for example, becomes a pop-gun, which is the same thing). Eder mentions that only half of the lines in the play were kept, and if you know the play well you can really feel the gaps. But it works, because Olivier knew what would work. And as I’ve said before, it’s not like a full-text Shakespeare would have been produced even in Shakespeare’s own day.
*. As an example of how the rearrangement and presentation can result in a wholly new interpretation, take the scene where the French leaders moan about the shame of their defeat and then pledge to go off into battle (“to the throng”) to try and salvage something from their disgrace. In the film this is followed by their immediately attacking the defenceless baggage train, and killing “the poys and the luggage.” The short scene where Henry commands the English to kill their prisoners is cut (as it usually is). Then when the nobles return the Dauphin is seen riding away. Not, I think, in cowardly retreat, but in disgust at what his compatriots have just done. It’s an interesting interpretation (the Dauphin is usually portrayed as a poltroon) and I’m not sure where it comes from, since it would probably be hard to do the scenes the same way on stage.

*. Eder points to how it’s a modern production that is both grounded in Shakespeare’s Globe and in medieval art (the sets and backdrop paintings are lifted from the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry). It’s also, I think, grounded in different styles of filmmaking. At times it plays like the drama of the silents, with oversized gestures and lots of physical business. But then it becomes more subtle, quieter, and more naturalistic, to the point where Henry’s monologue before the battle is done entirely as a voiceover. Though even in the battle scenes there is a strong sense of stylized action, recalling Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, among other sources.
*. I think if you want to know why Olivier is such a great actor you just have to watch his eyes. I’m honestly mystified at how he manages to project so much with them, while not changing his facial expression at all. His face may even be mostly covered up, as when Montjoy the herald arrives for his final parley. Those eyes make it perfectly clear that this is a man not to be pushed any further, and yet his expression is completely blank. How does he do this? Is there an art to it?
*. The supporting cast is great. Henry V has I think Shakespeare’s biggest role for a Chorus, and Leslie Banks (Zaroff in The Most Dangerous Game) handles it well. Robert Newton made a whole new career for himself with the broad comedy of Pistol. Renée Asherson as Princess Katherine is fittingly doll-like (Olivier had wanted his wife Vivien Leigh to play the part, but she was under contract). Photography by Robert Krasker that really paints with colour and light. A classic score by William Walton. It’s hard to think of anywhere they went wrong. They even won the war.

Doomwatch (1972)

*. As a general rule, British TV has never been very popular in North America. There are still some people who enjoy classic Britcoms and can endure Coronation Street, but they are dying out. Even Doctor Who is a niche taste over here.
*. Doomwatch was a program that ran on the BBC from 1970 to 1972 about a government agency set up to deal with the unanticipated consequences of scientific research. Apparently it was quite popular but I’ve never seen it, and given the BBC’s policy of wiping master tapes after transmission I’m not sure all the episodes even survive. I think it was a bit like the X-Files of its day, and like that show it led to a big-screen spin-off.
*. Anyway, the story here has it that a chemical company dumped a bunch of experimental growth hormone with Food of the Gods properties off the shore of a remote island. The barrels sprang leaks and contaminated the fish, which, when eaten by the local fishermen, led them to develop a form of acromegaly and drove them mad. A doctor from the Doomwatch patrol (Ian Bannen, not a regular on the show) is sent to the island to investigate an unrelated oil spill and slowly twigs to what’s going on.
*. That’s all there is. About as much plot as you’d get in an hour television show. As a timely ecohorror thriller it’s not very scary, especially when you figure out that the “monsters” are only to be pitied. Nor is there anything terribly interesting going on. The only highlights are the locations, with the picturesque town of Polkerris in Cornwall standing in for the island.
*. The lowlights are another matter. I’d list the wardrobe here, though there may be some out there who will groove to Dr. Quist’s odd belted sweater-jacket or Dr. Shaw’s mauve turtleneck. More distressing is the appearance of George Sanders as the Admiral. Doomwatch was one of his last films, with only Endless Night and Psychomania to come, which lets you know that he had a lot to be depressed about on a professional level. On first seeing him my mouth fell open and I had to say to myself “This man is not well.” He wasn’t. He was suffering from dementia as well as depression, had perhaps experienced a stroke, and apparently had very basic mobility issues. His appearance is just sad.
*. So I’d pass on this one. The next year there’d be a much better British horror movie about an authority figure visiting a strange island where the locals guard a deadly secret. But this would be the end of the line for Doomwatch.