Monthly Archives: February 2018

Schizo (1976)

*. “When the left hand doesn’t know who the right hand is killing!!” That’s a great ad line.
*. As far as the film goes, I can’t be quite as complimentary. But I think the time and place matter.
*. The year is 1976, which is a couple of years before the success of John Carpenter’s Halloween officially launched the slasher film genre. Horror aficionadoes may point further back, to Black Christmas or even Psycho, but I think it was the success of Carpenter’s film that really established the formula. In any event, all I want to say here is that Schizo wasn’t just a rip-off of Carpenter. It’s not a dead teenager movie, for one thing.
*. The place is England, which might also come as a surprise. The grimy urban texture looks like the New York City of Abel Ferrara in such films as The Driller Killer and Ms. 45, and shares the same interest as those films in tortured psyches gone murderous. But again, Schizo was several years earlier.
*. All of which is to say that, despite being a crude exploitation flick, Schizo was actually somewhat ahead of the curve. Something we might have guessed from director Pete Walker, a cult figure who independently financed his movies and tended to use them to pursue his own idiosyncratic vision of terror.
*. Schizo isn’t what I would call a typical Walker movie, as it doesn’t work any of his core themes, like the tyranny of corrupt authority figures. Which I guess makes it even more of a curiosity. Not a very good movie, but an odd one.
*. It’s a decent script that keeps you guessing, at least for the first half. After that it starts to get pretty clear as to what’s going on. Still, the various alternative possibilities are kept open as long as possible.
*. I don’t know if it was a conscious connection, but Schizo also reminds me of Cat People. There’s the newlywed couple, with the neurotic wife pursued by shadows and troubled by fears of going crazy. In distress she turns to a friendly (nudge, nudge) shrink, while becoming jealous of her husband’s old gal pal. Does that seem too big a stretch? I really do sense a resemblance.
*. I wouldn’t want to make Schizo into something more than it is. Walker was an interesting albeit minor director who says he mainly just wanted to “create a bit of mischief” (and, of course, make some money). I believe he stopped making movies entirely at the age of 41 and turned to the business of buying and restoring cinemas.
*. The suspense is handled reasonably well, and there are a few nice flourishes, like the scribbles on the newspaper turning into the circles Samantha’s skates cut into the ice, but aside from the dark ending (one of Walker’s trademarks) there’s not much to recommend.

Quiz the ninth: Caught in the crosshairs (Part one)

Lock, load and get your target in sight: here’s a quiz that looks at life from a very particular point of view. I’ve lined them up, now see how many of these films you can hit.

See also: Quiz the seventy-second: Caught in the crosshairs (Part two).

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The Revenant (2015)

*. The Revenant was greeted with nearly universal praise when it came out, though several reviewers mentioned how close some of it came to comedy. In that spirit, I’ll admit that it’s the first movie that I laughed out loud at for a long time. I don’t mean that in a bad way. What I laughed at was the dead bear rolling down the hill after Leonardo DiCaprio’s Hugh Glass kills it, ending up landing right on top of him. That was funny. Good luck getting that big fella off!
*. As with a lot of these big movies (big budget, historical subject matter, lots of awards), I think The Revenant has trouble living up to its reputation. In fact, I’d say it has trouble living up to its scenery. It’s not a bad film, but it’s a very simple story that gives the cast little to do except look at the trees for over two-and-a-half hours.
*. Sticking with the scenery, Emmanuel Lubezki got a lot of praise for the photography but as I’ve said many times before, great photography should be about more than making things that are already beautiful look beautiful. Here we’re given lovely mountain landscapes that were, I think, mostly shot in Canadian national parks. How can you go wrong shooting snow-covered mountains? It’s postcard stuff and it looks like a collection of postcards. I also wondered why there were so many shots pointing up at the tops of trees in the forest. Was there some kind of point they were trying to make with that? Because they do it a lot.
*. I liked it better when Lubezki got dirty and moved things around a bit, especially in a number of complicated long takes that include lots of 360s. The opening attack on the trappers’ base was terrific, and the bear attack wasn’t bad either. But those are both early on and nothing in the rest of the movie measures up to those two scenes. I also thought the dirty could be overdone. If snow or blood or bear slobber gets on the camera, he just lets it sit there. Is that realistic, or an alienation effect?

*. What certainly isn’t realistic are all the dips Hugh takes in icy mountain streams. As I said in my notes on The Grey, if you don’t get out of your clothes and close to a fire or some other heat source within minutes of such exposure you’ll die. But maybe mountain men in the 1800s were tougher than we are today.
*. Oscars were won by Lubezki, director Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Leonardo DiCaprio. They (the Academy) do like this sort of thing.
*. I think DiCaprio’s award was the biggest stretch. It is not a challenging part. I don’t mean because he doesn’t have many lines (since his character spends much of the film recovering from a grievous throat wound), but because his character doesn’t develop very much. He’s a simple man on a simple mission: survival, then revenge.
*. The actor I did like watching was Tom Hardy. I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s laconic dopiness, and the fact that his character does have an arc. I don’t think he’s a bad man but just someone who keeps finding himself in bad situations and failing moral tests. One can empathize with him, at least somewhat, in almost all of his worst moments.
*. In sum, I found The Revenant overblown. This isn’t calling out the critical response; I’m only referring to the movie itself. It’s a slight, conventional story, without any interesting twists or challenges, and it’s stretched out at great length and over vast empty spaces. You can call such a treatment “epic” if you want, and I’ll admit it does have a certain awesomeness about it, but I don’t think there’s enough here to qualify The Revenant as a great movie.

Pursuit to Algiers (1945)

*. In the excellent DVD collection of Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes films, Pursuit to Algiers doesn’t have a commentary track, but Holmes scholar David Stuart Davies does say a bit about it during his commentary on the previous film in the series, The Woman in Green. Specifically, he says that it is “certainly . . . the weakest of the whole twelve films.”
*. I can’t disagree. Pursuit to Algiers is a half-hearted effort with none of the interest of any of the previous instalments. The story is just a sketch combining a pair of plots on board a cruise ship. One has Holmes escorting the heir to some Ruritanian throne to his homeland and the other features an unwilling jewel smuggler.
*. Neither storyline is very interesting. The main one basically consists of a trio of hapless assassins who are consecutively foiled by Holmes. We are always a couple of steps ahead of them, and we know Holmes is too. By now the devices that Holmes uses are pretty stale, including the familiar one where he pretends to be dead, fooling everyone, including poor Watson.
*. Only just over 70 minutes and there are three musical numbers, including one by Nigel Bruce.
*. You have to be a huge fan of the series to want to bother with this one. Even so, I think it really is a disappointment. But if you keep your expectations low it may provide enough entertainment to fill a lazy hour.

The Woman in Green (1945)

*. I really like this series, but let’s be honest: The Woman in Green marks a significant downward turn.
*. A lot of it just seems slightly off. Let me give some examples.
*. First: As David Stuart Davies says on his DVD commentary, it’s a “rather dull title, bland and innocuous.” It’s also unexplained, since the only reference made to the colour of Hillary Brooke’s clothes is in her first scene where she’s said to be wearing purple. Also, why give her character the title? She’s very good, but she’s not the chief villain. She’s just one of Moriarty’s henchmen. The original title, Invitation to Murder, was better.
*. Second: We begin on an odd note. There have been a series of Jack the Ripper-style killings that seem a little grisly for a Holmes film. In fact, they had to tone the plot down because as originally written they were to be child murders. Then we note that Dennis Hoey’s Inspector Lestrade is missing, replaced by Inspector Gregson. And where is Watson? He puts in a very late appearance.
*. Davies says that they dropped Lestrade because they need a more sensible and sober policeman to introduce these violent crimes, and that Nigel Bruce’s Watson was kept back from these scenes for the same reason. I wonder if Hoey just wasn’t available. But then, I guess such a reading does make sense with regard to Watson. But I have trouble seeing anyone at the studio being this sensitive to such things in what was an assembly-line production.
*. Third: Moriarty’s plot is, as Davies notes, “unnecessarily fussy and complicated.” Such a criminal mastermind should have been able to come up with a far easier blackmail scheme than this hypnosis-and-mutilation business, which involves too much blood and too many extras. Even his plot to kill Holmes at the end, whatever pleasure he takes in it, is so contrived as to be silly. Almost as silly, I have to add, as how it is undone.
*. Fourth: the story, like Moriarty’s plot, is full of odds and ends that don’t fit together or that seem otherwise out of character. Holmes, for example, must have seen through the subterfuge of Moriarty’s prank call to get Watson out of the building, so why wasn’t he better prepared? He tells Moriarty later that he assumed that Watson was being put in danger, so what was his plan?
*. Another example is the scene where Watson is hypnotized. This is just “comic padding” (Davies) and again seems out of character for Holmes, who later has to disavow it. And as originally scripted it was supposed to be even worse, with Watson taking off his pants.
*. I like Henry Daniell well enough, but he doesn’t really have the panache I associate with Moriarty. He always looks so dour and glum.
*. Bruce liked playing Watson, and apparently wanted to keep the series going after Rathbone got sick of it, but I get the feeling he’s tired here, which is almost as bad as being bored. And the jokes are labored too.
*. I’m always impressed by actors who can hold their eyes open for long stretches without blinking. This may be because I’m a blinker myself. In any event, hats off to Coulter Irwin (credited as Tom Bryson) who plays the hypnotized Williams. I couldn’t stare open-eyed for half as long as he does in his big scene.
*. In the end I can’t agree with the opinion that this had the potential to be one of the best of the Holmes films. The original script, which only has a couple of borrowings from canonical stories, is a mess and I just got the feeling that the string had been played out. But the series still had three films to go.