Monthly Archives: August 2021

Macbeth (1948)

*. William Shakespeare and Orson Welles. Two towering geniuses, with the greatness of Welles’s Othello and Chimes at Midnight being stunning testimony to what their union could bring forth.
*. But . . . Homer does nod. Witness this adaptation of Macbeth, which, though not a terrible movie, I think has to be considered an artistic failure on almost every level.
*. Welles certainly had excuses. A limited budget (around $800,000) and a ridiculously tight shooting schedule (23 days), for starters. Still, he knew how to stretch a buck and was a fast worker (at least when it came to shooting, editing was another matter).
*. No, if you want to know why this movie doesn’t work you can’t use that excuse. Instead you have to look at what were, however constrained, creative decisions that just didn’t work.
*. Contemporary reviewers were particularly harsh on the use of dialect. A review in Life Magazine famously opined that, with his burr, “Orson Welles doth foully slaughter Shakespeare.” It’s hard to disagree. Frankly, I don’t see any point in doing the Scottish play in a Scottish accent. When Macbeth (Welles) complains here of having been left with “a barrrren sceptre in my grrrrrripe,” I just had to roll my eyes. He’s not fooling anyone.
*. Then there are all the bizarre design elements. This looks like a movie put together from a rummage sale of old Hollywood costumes and props. We see people armed with what appear to be tiny tridents and others with crosses. At the end, Welles throws a spear that looks borrowed from an old Flash Gordon serial. There are Viking helmets and others with Celtic crosses sprouting out of them. Macbeth’s crown looks like an upside-down footstool.
*. The weird costumes (far weirder than the witches’ appearance) fit with the otherworldly sets. Does Macbeth even have a castle or does he just live in a cave, with some steps leading up to it carved out of a cliff? The interiors have the cheap SF look of shiny rock walls and bare floors. Jonathan Rosenbaum: “the unabashed B-movie artificiality of the sets confirms that Welles wanted to draft something closer to a charcoal sketch than a finished canvas.” Well, that’s a nice way of putting it, making what was probably more of a grim necessity into an aesthetic choice.
*. For what it’s worth, Welles thought the setting was a cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein. He got a lot more than that in here.
*. There are two things I’d flag about this crazy, stylized-Stone Age look of the film. In the first place, it’s very theatrical. Most of the movie was obviously shot on a studio set, and when you add on Welles’s penchant for long takes (which, in this film, are overdone to no real purpose), you really have the sense of a filmed play. That’s not a look any movie wants to end up with, even they are filmed plays.
*. The second thing about the design is that it’s silly. Some of it probably wasn’t meant to be, but still is. When Malcolm’s forces are marching through Birnam Wood and are told to chop branches from the trees I felt like I was watching the Python troupe meeting up with the Knights who say Ni and being asked to fetch a shrubbery. The helmets with the crosses didn’t help.
*. At other points, however, I think Welles must have been aware of the joke. Once we see Macbeth in power he promenades to what sounds like the comical notes of a tuba. With his royal bulkiness wrapped in furs to go with the musical cue you might think you’re looking at the march of “Rooty,” A&W’s Great Root Bear.
*. The play’s big moments are disappointing. The murder of Banquo is a joke and his ghost is just ho-hum. The “tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech is given over a shot of swirling mist. Birnam Wood just appears as some men holding branches coming out of that mist. The imaginary dagger is scarcely more than a cue. The witches are barely seen.
*. For some reason the character of a Holy Man is added. I can’t figure him out at all. The Christian imagery just feels tacked on anyway.
*. Even when he was young Welles liked playing old men: titans whose life has fallen into the sere. I don’t think this helps him with Macbeth because the play has a natural pull in this direction already. Macbeth goes from being an ambitious up-and-comer to a burnt-out case pretty quickly. In the final acts he’s a man who’s weary of it all and though he shows some of the old spark on occasion (we’d call him bipolar today), mostly he just wants an end. The thing is, Welles is so comfortable with this kind of character that he makes him seem even more enervated than usual, and I found the latter half started to drag.
*. Jeanette Nolan has a promising introduction, with a very sexy “unsex me here” soliloquy, lying on her back in furs with a bust that looks pretty ambitious all on its own. But after this Welles doesn’t give her that much to chew on, and keeps most of the close-ups for himself. To be honest, I found many of the other characters indistinguishable.
*. The direction is less inventive than it may appear at first glance. Aside from the long takes there are a lot of high- and low-angle shots that work to exaggerate the odd shapes of the sets even more. In all of this I didn’t feel like there was anything that enriched the play very much or that took it in any new directions.
*. But while it may be a mess, and a poor movie overall, it is Welles, and Welles is always at least something. There are ideas here that might have worked.
*. As already noted, upon its release it was savaged. It has since rebounded in the eyes of critics, to the point where I’m sure a Criterion release must be in the works. I think everyone needs to pump the brakes on revision. This is not a good movie, though it’s definitely worth checking out for what does, and more often doesn’t, work.

Dr. Feelgood (2016)

*. I don’t know when the term Dr. Feelgood first started being applied to doctors who obliged their patients with the abuse of prescription drugs to help ease their pain or to just get them through the day (“momma’s little helpers”). Both John F. Kennedy’s and Elvis Presley’s personal physicians were referred to as Dr. Feelgoods, so it goes back a way.
*. The profession, of Dr. Feelgood really took off with the opiate epidemic in the United States though, where pills like OxyContin became a drug of choice and then an addiction for sufferers of chronic pain. This documentary examines the case of one such Dr. Feelgood, Dr. William Hurwitz.
*. Was Dr. Hurwitz a caring professional or an unscrupulous pusher running a pill mill? Healer or dealer? If you’re familiar with the way these docs work you know that they’ll set you up to think one thing at the beginning and then pull the rug out from under you at some point with a disturbing revelation. That’s basically what happens here, as we hear from a couple of patients who are sad cases and who claim Hurwitz saved their lives. But then we hear from the police, and the families of less fortunate patients (who committed suicide or died of overdoses), as well as tape recordings made by patients who went in to the clinic wearing a wire. On this evidence it seems like Hurwitz was basically a pusher. He is convicted at trial, though much of this is reversed on appeal. To this day he has his defenders, but there are also those who think he got off easy.
*. There’s a third alternative. Hurwitz’s wife calls him a fool, which is just possible but unlikely. It’s the way some of his peers also saw him, and he may have indeed been foolish, but more than that he was terribly irresponsible. It was obvious he was giving a lot of pills to people who shouldn’t have been getting them. That part is on him, and his defence that he was just doing his job and he wasn’t a cop doesn’t come across as very convincing. Everyone will have their own take, but I didn’t find him a very sympathetic figure when being interviewed.
*. I also didn’t find this true-crime part of the movie particularly interesting. What it does draw attention to, however, is the whole question of personal choice vs. the public good. If you want something, and can afford it, should you be allowed to have it regardless of the consequences? That would be the libertarian judgment. Prohibition doesn’t work! And isn’t it better to do this through these sort of channels instead of having junkies hooked on heroin out on the street?
*. But of course substance abuse doesn’t just affect the addict, and so the government has to step in because when dealing with a product this powerfully addictive people can’t stop themselves. It’s a message that could have been more powerfully made here, as Dr. Feelgood never rises much above the level of a rather average Frontline episode.

Carry On at Your Convenience (1971)

*. Ugh. I’ve said before that the historical Carry On movies tend to be better than those with contemporary settings, and that’s certainly the case here. But by 1971 the series was feeling really played out anyway, and I don’t think they could have visited Cleopatra or gone up the Khyber and had a better movie. The previous film, Carry On Henry VIII, had been a period piece and it was lousy in its own way. Still, this is an especially terrible entry, mainly because of its tone-deaf topicality.
*. Right from the opening credits, which appear on a roll of toilet paper, we lower our expectations. The setting is a toilet manufacturer, so is this just going to be a movie full of bog jokes? Luckily, no. Or maybe they would have been better off if it had been.
*. The owner of the plant is named W. C. Boggs. Other family names include Plummer and Spanner. Despite all the forced larfs, things are not happy at the factory, with the union striking every week or so over some petty grievance. And here we have the place where the movie really goes off the rails.
*. Apparently the idea here was to do a Carry On version of I’m All Right Jack, a movie about similar union shenanigans that came out in 1959. In 1971 labour issues hadn’t reached the level they would during the so-called Winter of Discontent (1978-79) but they were heading in a bad direction. I remarked in my notes on Hoffa how that movie was a real throwback in its depiction of the early Teamster movement as a heroic struggle for workers’ rights. In England things had been going downhill for years before Thatcher took over.
*. As an aside, I’m not sure why this is. I’ve been a member of several unions, and while they certainly have their downside I think it’s better to be in one than not. But for whatever reason, and corporate propaganda would be near the top of the list, people and political parties turned against them in a big way. Today, outside of the public sector, they are vanishingly rare.
*. Carry On at Your Convenience very much picks a side in this struggle, and does so in a ham-handed and unfunny manner (or, in the measured understatement of Richard O’Callaghan on the DVD commentary, “they did seem a little bit biased”). Vic Spanner (Kenneth Cope), the union shop steward, is an arrogant (read: Bolshie) loser who just wants to go on strike so he can watch football. He’s lazy and carries around a little book of union rules that the boss likens to toilet paper and, when followed literally, shut the plant down. Meanwhile, everyone else just “wants to do an honest day’s work”! Sure enough, Spanner will get his comeuppance, losing his girlfriend to the son of the factory owner (O’Callaghan) and getting beaten up multiple times before finally being thrown over his mother’s lap and given a good spanking. Now carry on working! (the film’s original title). Yay!
*. O’Callaghan mentions on the commentary that the Carry On movies he did (I think he was only in two) “lasted longer than anything else I’ve made.” And it’s true that these films have had a cultish afterlife — a cult O’Callaghan attributes not to a specific film but to the series or genre. Still, by this point they were burnt out. I don’t think Carry On at Your Convenience has lasted.
*. This was the first of the Carry On movies to lose money on its theatrical run, only breaking even years later after selling television rights. Some of this was attributed to its being Conservative propaganda when the Carry On audience was predominantly working class and pro-union. Even more of it though can be put down to the fact that it just isn’t funny.
*. Near the beginning there’s a union meeting where Cope, Sid James, and Joan Sims engage in the usual ribald innuendo and everyone else roars with laughter at every line. It’s like a laugh track, which isn’t something they’d relied on a lot in earlier films. Indeed, throughout the movie many lines are delivered with cackles and laughter. Nothing says tired desperation in comedy so much as laughing at your own jokes, and in this movie they do it a lot.
*. So: poor material and bad politics. Crudity that hasn’t aged well (these were the day when slapping a bird on the ass would only get you a playful look and the admonition “Saucy!”). One oddly melancholy scene between James and Sims as they go back to their lives of monogamous suburban misery after an outing at Brighton. Even, or especially, for fans this is one you should miss.

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)

*. Sure I’d been warned. Wonder Woman 1984 received some dreadful reviews but I figured (1) it had Gal Gadot coming back and she was great in the first movie and (2) it was set in 1984 so I figured if nothing else it would have a cool soundtrack and some funny jokes about big hair and how stupid we all were back then. I thought it was going to be silly and have a lot of cheesy CGI, but aside from that: bring on the camp!
*. Well, even going in forewarned I was still let down. Crushed even. I said in my notes on the first movie that Gal Gadot might not be a great actress but she is a great Wonder Woman. And she still is. But she’s asked to do more this time out and comes up woefully short in her big scenes involving any emoting. The ’80s music? I heard Frankie Goes to Hollywood playing in the background at the party. The ’80s style? There’s one scene involving Diana Prince dressing up Steve Trevor in the height of MTV fashion. That’s pretty much it, unless you count the opening action scene in the mall, because malls are so 1984.
*. Really, calling this Wonder Woman 1984 almost constitutes false advertising. And the cheesy CGI? It looks terrible. Is this all that $200 million buys you these days? Where’d the money go?
*. Things get off to a very bad start with a flashback to young Diana competing in some ultra-gymnastic sporting event. I hated this for at least three reasons. (1) This is the second movie in the franchise now. We’re supposed to be done with back story and origins stuff. Get on with it. (2) Are we supposed to believe that even as a little girl Diana can keep up, running and jumping and shooting arrows from horseback, with adult women? I know she’s a budding superhero, but that makes no sense! (3) It’s all just a prologue and it goes on forever just to wind up with some hokey moral line about how cheaters never prosper and nothing good can come from lies. Things hadn’t even gotten started and I was already wondering what else could go wrong.
*. A lot. Everything. I have to say, Wonder Woman 1984 impressed me. Really impressed me. It’s hard to believe they managed to stuff so many bad ideas into one movie, even one that runs an unforgiveable 151 minutes (that bloated running time itself counting as another bad idea).
*. I honestly don’t know where to begin. I guess with the story. It’s driven by the introduction of something called the Dreamstone, which is the laziest and stupidest plot device you can imagine. It makes wishes come true, you see. And this doesn’t make any sense because what if two wishes come into conflict? Or a wish contradicts the laws of physics in some way? No matter. Nothing that the script and a Hans Zimmer score that really puts in some overtime can’t do an end around.
*. A stone that grants wishes is also what allows Diana to bring Steve back, after he died at the end of the last movie. Except he’s not really brought back. His soul, or whatever, hops into somebody else’s body. That in itself is incredibly stupid, and seems kind of unfair to the meat puppet, but more than that it’s just dumb from a plot point of view. Steve has little function and he’s really only here so that Chris Pine could show up and maybe sell a few more tickets. I wish they’d left him out.
*. About the only thing Steve does do in the plot is he flies Diana around in a jet. Which he knows how to fly because he used to be a pilot in the First World War. I’m telling you there’s no bottom to how stupid this movie is.

*. The Dreamstone also activates the rest of the plot because it creates Wonder Woman’s two antagonists: a mousy chick named Barbara (Kristen Wiig) who wishes to become like Diana but ends up looking like a discount cast member from Cats, and a business bozo named Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) who . . . you know, wants to take over the whole world. I guess.
*. Wiig is a comedian by trade but the part of Barbara isn’t funny at all. In fact she’s pretty sad. Pascal is capable, which is good because the movie is really all about his character. Which is another mistake.
*. Nearly everything about the movie is very bad. There’s a subplot involving tensions in the Middle East and those are always painful when Hollywood takes them on. Steve and Diana fly their jet through some fireworks and you’re obviously just meant to look at how pretty it is. Wonder Woman loses her powers for love and then gets them back, because that’s what happened in Superman II. Actually she gets her powers back plus some new ones, like the ability to fly. Where did that come from? And she gets some shiny new armour that actually doesn’t help her much at all in the end.
*. There’s a theme about people wanting too much and how you need to be careful what you wish for. This might have been interesting if it wasn’t played through a megaphone until it finally collapses in a wave of distorted noise about the beauty of truth. But in all these movies the fate of the world, or even the universe, has to be at stake so of course it’s dialed up to eleven.
*. A final point worth mentioning has to do with the critical response. I mentioned at the outset that Wonder Woman 1984 received only “some” dreadful reviews. The response was mixed though, ranging from raves to pans. In general, however, its ratings entered into a now familiar decline after the initial hype broke. Or, as Sonny Bunch wrote in the Washington Post, “Wonder Woman 1984‘s critical reception has whipped from early praise to precipitous decline as fast as Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) can snap her lasso of truth.”
*. This decline has become so predictable it makes one suspicious of critical “first responders”: that first wave of reviews that seem so in synch with every new release’s promotional budget. Indeed, this is now so much the case that I’m inclined to write off any hot take on a new release as likely to be a product of the phenomenon Mark Kermode described as being “first, but wrong.” Critics should give themselves at least a week of reflection before writing/publishing their reviews. Even that much time to collect their thoughts would probably help keep things a little more real.
*. I think part of the problem may have been fear at criticizing a film with such sterling feminist credentials. But some critics, particularly in the manosphere, went the low road and took it on for its gender politics. Personally, I actually found this part to be relatively well handled. Yes, Diana is a model for little girls everywhere and embodies the best sort of female empowerment. Barbara, on the other hand, is a toxic feminist who just wants to be another alpha (or apex) predator running with the big dogs. I don’t see that as a “women are good, men are bad” message. As I’ve said, it might even have worked if it had been more focused.
*. But instead the whole thing is bloated and stupid and uninteresting. A movie like this, first and foremost, should be fun. Its biggest failure is that it is no fun at all. Not even to talk about. It’s a bad comic-book movie on a level with such bombs as Batman Forever. But that movie wasn’t the end of Batman and I’m sure there’s more Wonder Woman to come. On the plus side, I’m pretty sure things can only get better. I don’t think you can make a movie this bad twice.

Welcome to Marwen (2018)

*. Welcome to Marwen is a biopic based on the life of the photographer Mark Hogancamp, whose story had already been told in the acclaimed documentary Marwencol. As I said in my notes on that film, Hogancamp’s story is compelling but it’s really a pretty humdrum doc that didn’t give me much insight into his personality. Welcome to Marwen tries to do more, but left me even more frustrated.
*. First and foremost, I wasn’t sure how much of it was true and how much only “inspired by” Hogancamp’s story. Did the real Mark Hogancamp have a breakdown during a sentencing hearing for the men who nearly killed him, running screaming from the courtroom? Did he really propose to Nicole, the woman who lived across the street from him? Did she really have a scary ex? Or were scenes like these just made up for the movie?
*. You can tell what would have attracted Hollywood, and Robert Zemeckis in particular, to the material. Hogancamp is, after all, an auteur: building sets, creating characters, writing a script, and shooting film of an alternative reality that provides an escape and an antidote to reality. All that and the chance to do some state-of-the-art animation as well. How could you miss?
*. Well, miss they did. By a mile. I got the sense that Steve Carell literally didn’t have any idea how he was supposed to play Hogancamp so just settled on distant. But then he wasn’t given a lot of help. Despite foregrounding a lush psychodrama I still have no idea what makes the guy tick. He’s lonely, sure. But what exactly does his obsession with women’s shoes and stockings amount to? Is it even sexual? The movie offers us nothing.
*. I could go on here but I don’t want to because I really hated this movie. Why so strong a reaction? Because they took a dark and difficult story and dressed it up as the usual Hollywood tripe about the triumph of the human spirit. Some of that might have to do with making a biopic of a living figure, which means any sort of critical attitude or exploration was off the table. But the rest of it?
*. And so Hogancamp’s male friends, who we met in Marwencol so we know they exist, disappear completely and we get a message about how women are the greatest (I think at one point the title was actually going to be The Women of Marwen). Then, as the music soars, the Nazis are finally defeated, Mark stands up to his tormentors in court, and his anxiety pills all get tossed down the sink! His photography show opens at a swank gallery and his gal pal tells him “Gosh darn Mark, you did it.” Did he ever!
*. To take a story that is, as I say, as dark and complicated as this and turn it into such feel-good cartoon pap is inexcusable. And it’s all very dull too. In any event, critics weren’t impressed and audiences hated it, turning it into one of the year’s biggest bombs. A fate that this time was entirely deserved.

Marwencol (2010)

*. Marwencol was one of the most acclaimed documentaries of the past decade, winning raves from critics, appearances on a pile of year-end lists, a plethora of awards (there are ten listed on the front of the DVD box), and even the ultimate accolade of a (less well-received) dramatic adaptation: Welcome to Marwen (2018), starring Steve Carell.
*. Given all this, and the genuine feel-good nature of the story, it seems churlish to register any doubts and reservations. But I will anyway.
*. The first thing I’d insist on is the difference between a great documentary subject and a great documentary. This is a pretty basic distinction but one that few people seem interested in or capable of making anymore. Put simply: one test of a great documentary is to make a difficult or boring subject accessible and interesting, or a seemingly simple one complex. That’s not what happens here.
*. Mark Hogencamp, the man whose life and work is documented in Marwencol, is a fascinating character with a compelling story. Beaten nearly to death outside a bar in his hometown of Kingston, New York, he recovered by way of creating a world of 1/6 scale dolls and toys populating an imaginary Belgian town of Marwencol during the Second World War. I don’t think it would be possible to make a documentary out of this story and for it not to be interesting. Throw in a twist like Hogancamp’s crossdressing, and give it all a happy ending with a successful Greenwich Village show, and you’ve got a movie that can’t miss.
*. But is it a great movie? I don’t think so. Is it particularly well filmed? Does it do anything inventive with the documentary form? No. It basically plays like an extended 60 Minutes profile. The DVD contains a pile of deleted scenes and when I was watching them I tried to figure out why they were left out. I didn’t see how the movie would have been any worse if they’d been included, or if they’d been substituted for some of the material that made the final cut. Most deleted scenes are left out for what are pretty obvious reasons. Here I just didn’t have a sense that they were any better or worse, significant or less important, than the parts that made it in.
*. The structure is also formulaic for this kind of a movie. As soon as we’re told the story of Hogancamp’s horrific beating I wanted to know what was being left out. Five guys don’t usually just jump another guy outside a bar and beat him to a pulp. I assumed Hogancamp was gay and it was a hate crime. But the movie has to wait until it’s halfway over before springing the “surprise” of Hogancamp’s being a crossdresser on us. I thought this was just being coy, and in an obvious, manipulative way.
*. A lot of complicated ideas could have been explored further. Art as obsession. Art as therapy. Art as the sublimation of sex. Art as world-building. Now by “explore” I don’t mean they had to explicitly address any of these topics, but I thought they could have used Hogancamp’s story to examine and develop them in insightful ways. But this is a movie that really doesn’t have anything it wants to say. It basically lets Hogancamp tell us his story, but he’s a very private person and doesn’t seem especially introspective or articulate anyway.
*. In short, it’s a movie I’d recommend to anyone but not because I think it’s a particularly good movie. It’s a documentary about an interesting personality that doesn’t dig very deep. I don’t know how much of that was by necessity and how much by design. To take one example, I was wondering throughout just how much of a catalyst the attack was for Hogancamp. Did he play with dolls and toys much before the beating? Did he build tiny towns? What about his marriage? Hogancamp says he doesn’t remember anything about his life prior to the attack, but doesn’t somebody know something? All we know is he was an alcoholic and isn’t now, which tells us nothing.
*. So if you want to just enjoy the art, which I think is marvelous, you can buy the coffee-table book. I think it might be more revealing.

Twelfth Night (1996)

*. I started out resisting Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night. There’s some narration by Feste at the start that isn’t in Shakespeare and then some talk of a state of war that’s also new and unnecessary. Then there’s the general look of the film. This is Illyria, which is to say another magical Shakespearean setting that’s just meant to be some romantic place far away. Meaning far away from the real world. But here Illyria is Cornwall and it looks almost like realism was what Nunn was going for.
*. This put me on my guard. But once this Twelfth Night gets going, and it gets going slowly, it’s a movie that won me over. I actually found myself believing in the nonsense plot, with Imogen Stubbs and Steven Mackintosh actually looking pretty similar as the twins Viola and Sebastian. And there was a feeling of real romantic attraction among the perfect couples. None of the characters comes across as a simple caricature, with even the love-junkie Orsino (Toby Stephens) and the gull Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Richard E. Grant) having multiple sides.

*. I’m inclined to give a lot of the credit to Nunn, a veteran stage director who doesn’t do much with the material here as a movie but lets his cast do their thing and puts them in the best possible position to succeed. Meanwhile, the players are all well cast, with the possible exception of Ben Kingsley as Feste. I’m still trying to make up my mind about him. He’s certainly not a very jolly clown. But then, is he meant to be?
*. The quality of the actors also lets Nunn add some subtle wrinkles and texture to the proceedings. There’s an implication, for example, that Feste knows that Cesario (Stubbs) is a woman that I liked. And we can see that Maria (Imelda Staunton) has her doubts about Toby’s treatment of Malvolio even if she’s just observing in the distance. I call these wrinkles because they do roughen a conventional, smooth reading of the play, but I think they both work.
*. In his review, Roger Ebert references something important that can’t be stressed enough: “Shakespeare’s language is not hard to understand when spoken by actors who are comfortable with the rhythm and know the meaning. It can be impenetrable when declaimed by unseasoned actors with more energy than experience (as the screaming gang members in Romeo + Juliet demonstrate).” This is the problem with so many realistic or contemporary updates of Shakespeare that keep the original language but give us characters who either have no sense of the rhythm of those lines or who have been directed not to deliver them in a dramatic manner but more realistically. Which ends up being less realistic because it just make a hash out of everything.

*. One of the abiding difficulties with Twelfth Night has to do with the treatment of Malvolio (Nigel Hawthorne here). Personally, I’m in the camp of those who think he is “most notoriously abused,” and I don’t find all that he is put through very amusing. I think this is where Nunn’s sympathies lie as well, as Sir Toby (Mel Smith) is not a very likable figure here.
*. You can also see this redirection of our sympathies in the way the film ends. Toby and Maria are ushered off in hugger-mugger (will she even go through with the wedding?), while Malvolio’s big line about being revenged on the whole pack of them is downplayed (tossed off, over the shoulder, as he climbs the stairs). He later exits all cleaned up and heading off, one assumes, to a new position.
*. Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing had come out just a few years earlier and I wonder if its presentation of the scene where Benedict is fooled was in Nunn’s mind when he did the scene where Malvolio finds the letter. Of course they’re very similar scenes anyway, but the way it plays out here really makes me think Nunn had Branagh’s film in mind.
*. Yes, there are time when it misses a lighter, more cinematic touch, especially given the running time. But overall this is an entirely satisfying production without any real weak spots. It’s one of the few Shakespeare films I know of that I can honestly say made me like the play itself a little better. That’s impressive.

Charlie Chan in Honolulu (1939)

*. Neither as good nor as bad as you’d be justified in expecting it to be. Warner Oland and Keye Luke were gone, to be replaced by Sidney Toler and Victor Sen Yung (as Number Two Son Jimmy Chan). But H. Bruce Humberstone, who had directed Charlie Chan at the Race Track, the Opera, and the Olympics, was back and there’s actually a decent little murder plot set aboard a freighter bound from Shanghai to Hawaii (despite the title, almost the entire film takes place on the ship and not in Honolulu, which isn’t even evoked in any stock footage).
*. I don’t think it’s saying anything surprising to recognize that Toler is no Warner Oland. As Chan authority Ken Hanke puts it in the DVD’s accompanying featurette there’s just “something about Toler that’s not as likeable.” He has a robotic delivery and always has a somewhat angry expression on his face (if that’s not just the make-up). Toler’s Charlie has none of the warmth or geniality of Oland’s, even when interacting with his family. A family that continues to grow, as there’s a subplot playing in the background throughout this movie that has his daughter giving birth to a Number One Grandson.
*. Victor Sen Yung is a step down from Keye Luke too, but he’s still energetic and has appeal. Elsewhere in the cast the presence of George Zucco helps quite a bit. He’s good in just about everything. And there’s also a good turn put in by Oscar the grumpy lion, as for some reason the freighter is conveying a menagerie.

*. At least we can be thankful that the animal handler who’s scared of his own shadow isn’t Black this time, though the script does throw in the one casually racist joke (Charlie is first shown a Black baby at the hospital and says “Wrong flavour”).
*. Given Oland’s illness it was likely always going to be an awkward transition for a series that had become a cash cow for Fox and so had to be kept going. Hanke describes this one as an uncomfortable apparition between the two eras, and thinks that when Norman Foster took over the directing reins for the next couple of films it helped. I don’t think Humberstone does anything wrong here, but Oland isn’t good, Charlie is no longer the focus even of the detective story, the villain is oddly laid back, and the animals are just something for the circus crowd. Not a good beginning then, but better (and worse) was to come.

The Black Torment (1964)

*. Not a Hammer production, but a low-budget (even lower-budget than Hammer!) clone. The production company was Compton Films, managed by Tony Tenser and Michael Klinger. Their first film was Naked as Nature Intended, which I’m guessing was a “nudie cutie,” but they’d actually go on to do some good stuff, including Polanski’s Repulsion and Cul-de-sac. When Tenser (“the Godfather of British Exploitation”) went solo he’d produce Michael Reeves’ The Sorcerers and Witchfinder General.
*. Alas, they didn’t have real talent like Polanski or Reeves helming this one. The director was Robert Hartford-Davis, about whom I know nothing. Apparently he ordered that all prints of his movies be destroyed after his death. That seems a bit strong. I mean, I don’t think there’s anything to be particularly proud about here, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of either.
*. Well, like I say, it’s a Hammer clone. A stately manorial pile (The Vyne, standing in for Fordyke Hall) is home to various sinister happenings in what I think is the early 19th century, based on the army uniforms. As things begin a woman with a heaving bosom is chased through a forest before being strangled. Then the lord of the manor returns home with his new bride. There are whispers in the village that he (the lord of the manor) is actually the strangler, which we might also suspect once the lord starts seeing the ghost of his previous wife stalking the grounds of Fordyke Hall at night. Another woman is killed after a roll in the hay with her swain (“I’ll keep you warrrrrm!” he provocatively tells her). What’s going on? Is Sir Richard Fordyke losing his marbles? Or is he the victim of some dastardly plot?
*. OK, I’ll spoil this for exactly no one and tell you it’s a dastardly plot. This is basically a Gaslight story, which Hammer also, for some reason, grew fond of around this time. A bit different for the gender reversal and Regency setting, but otherwise very dull and predictable. The dialogue and acting are both very bad, feeding off one another. Look at the scene where Sir Richard confronts one of his servants about a mysterious banging window. “Every night the window bangs open . . . wind or no wind. So I come to shut it. It is m’lady’s window, sir. ” Meaning, the previous lady of the house, now deceased. The lines are given a ridiculous gravity, but then they’re so clunky I don’t know what else the actor could have done with them. Meanwhile, the plot throws every cliché in the book at you. We wind up with a swordfight that has the hero taking a swing at a stand of candles and slicing them off. Tally-ho!
*. Not even fun in a campy or exploitative way but just a humdrum bore to sit through. I’m not sure what the title refers to, but it’s the best thing about it. That and the fact that it’s short. I didn’t, and don’t, want to spend any more time on it.