Monthly Archives: November 2021

Richard III (1912)

*. I made a lot of comparisons to this film in my notes on Frank Benson’s 1911 adaptation of Richard III. Some of these had to do with the way both films start out with showing us Richard murdering Henry VI, which isn’t actually in this play (it comes at the end of Henry VI Part 3, and was introduced as a prologue to Richard III by Colley Cibber at the beginning of the eighteenth century). I think this helps make the point that Richard is a really bad guy, especially when we see him here killing Henry, then leaving to join the crowd cheering Edward’s entry into London, then going back into Henry’s cell to stab his corpse twice more before disdainfully wiping off his blade.
*. What I really love about this scene isn’t its display of pointless cruelty but the wonderful way we move from Richard killing Henry to his exiting onto the balcony to show him welcoming the glorious summer of the sun/son of York. That’s an incredibly smooth transition for 1912, and it works so well in presenting us with information necessary to the plot while underlining the theme of Richard’s public vs. private face. It’s a terrific sequence, and well ahead of its time. I can’t think of another film this early having such an effective passage achieved mainly through editing. The Birth of a Nation was still a few years away and Griffith is usually considered to be the one who really took the next big step in dramatic editing.

*. The other comparison I made between this movie and Benson’s had to do with the latter being studio-bound while this one has a number of scenes filmed in the great outdoors. There’s even a shot of Richmond’s ship arriving in England that’s a real ship with knights on board. It’s a dull shot, but still impressive. This is a production that must have cost a bit of money.
*. In fact, I’ve heard this described as the oldest surviving American feature-length film (it runs just short of an hour), and the first feature-length Shakespeare adaptation ever made. If true, that makes it an even more notable achievement. And we’re lucky to have it, as it was considered lost and only discovered in 1996.

*. Even if you don’t care about its place in history, this Richard III is still a must-see for Shakespeare fans as well as anyone interested in early film. In addition to that great transition at the beginning, note the strong diagonal in the scene where Anne holds the sword to Richard’s breast in the wooing scene. Or the later scene where she is poisoned, which seems borrowed from Fuseli’s The Nightmare. The young princes are associated with puppies and ponies and are mostly just pathetic, though the movie does manage to fit in the business, easy to miss, where they mock Richard’s deformity at court. There’s also a gloriously mustachioed Richmond that raises a smile.

*. One thing that surprises me a bit is that neither this film nor the 1911 version chose to make anything out of Clarence’s dream of drowning. I can only imagine Georges Méliès jumping at the chance to dive to the bottom of the sea, but here they don’t try to represent it at all. Given how disappointing the ghosts are it may be that the director, André Calmettes, just wasn’t that interested or confident in the use of special effects.

*. Richard is played by Frederick Warde, who is also seen in modern dress at the beginning and end. As was often done at that time, Warde would travel with the film and give lectures on the play before each screening, a practice that this is an awkward nod to. Warde, who would go on to star in a King Lear directed by his son in 1916, is quite good. He doesn’t overplay the role in the manner that was usual in silent film, even choosing to minimize Richard’s deformities. Olivier’s Richard would be more of a grotesque in 1955, which may have been closer to the Vice figure Shakespeare intended. Warde, however, is restrained.
*. Of course it’s far from a polished piece of modern filmmaking. There are a number of overly static shots, like that of the sailing ship I mentioned. The battle scenes are well performed for the time, but still very limited. Editing is sometimes used to bring us closer to the action by a step, but there’s nothing like a true close-up. But for 1912 this is as good as it gets, and I think it’s a movie that’s still worth tracking down as an essential bit of Shakespeare on film.

Harpoon (2019)

*. I love the way things kick off here. It’s a shot looking down on a yacht that’s placidly sitting in pristine blue waters, but as we slowly descend we make out the SOS duct-taped onto the deck. There’s always trouble in paradise.
*. The waters are the Caribbean somewhere off of Belize. I mean that was the filming location. I’m not sure where the yacht actually was supposed to be. Maybe they said something about that and I missed it, but in any event it doesn’t matter. The interiors were actually shot in Calgary. In January. That’s a whole lot colder than Belize.
*. The reason I even mention that this is a Canadian production has to do with a minor point about English vs. American pronunciation. As a Canadian watching a Canadian movie I’m used to being in a kind of no-man’s land here, but I did have a couple of triggering moments.
*. First of all: buoy. I pronounce this “boy,” with maybe a hint of “bwoy.” Some Americans pronounce it “booey” (for what are obscure reasons). It is pronounced “booey” here. This despite the fact that the name of the yacht is Naughty Buoy. How does that joke make sense as Naughty Booey?
*. Second: route. I pronounce this “root.” Some Americans, however, pronounce it “rowt” (or “rout,” as in the rout of an army). This is one I don’t care about too much, but I do find “en rowt” to be disagreeable. But once again the American pronunciation is presented here. So, to tidy things up, the point is that we’re not in Calgary.

*. Leaving these minor points aside, I thought Harpoon a pretty good movie. A trio of buddies head out to sea on the Naughty Buoy: rich dick Richard (Christopher Gray), Richard’s girlfriend Sasha (Emily Tyra), and third wheel Jonah (Munro Chambers). Yeah, that’s pretty much a recipe for disaster right there. The disaster erupts and before you know it the three chums are dead in the water, with escalating revelations pushing them all to the edge.

*. Things start off with a bang, which is usually a great idea but does lead to the pacing difficulty all fast starts have, which is dealing with the inevitable lull. Luckily it’s a short movie (84 minutes) so there just isn’t time for things to slow down too much. And the script — by director Rob Grant — while not all that original, does enough to hold interest during the talkier parts. At times it’s even quite clever, especially with a voiceover that takes us outside the movie but not in any kind of annoying way.
*. The voiceover sets a tone as well, which is that of the now ubiquitous “dark comedy.” But more than just horror and humour, the voiceover also indicates that none of this is quite real, which is a tricky note to hit right. That also helps with something I would have found fault with, which is the fact that none of the three amigos look like they’re dying of hunger or thirst. The performances are fine, but I thought they could have used some more make-up. Some parched lips? I mean, I was already suspending disbelief in thinking that they could go for a week without water. But would such a nod to verisimilitude have had any place in a movie like this? There’s that underlying sense throughout that none of this is to be taken seriously.
*. All-in-all a pretty successful little movie that I was glad I took a chance on. Being Canadian gave it a better chance of getting on my playlist and I wasn’t disappointed.

Black Widow (2021)

*. There are franchises, and then there is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A bit of looking into these matters tells me that Black Widow is the 24th movie in the MCU, of which I may have seen half. I was also shocked to find out that this is Scarlett Johansson’s ninth appearance as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. How did that happen?
*. I guess there’s some kind of through narrative that links all the various storylines together, but I didn’t get many of the connections. So I came at it more-or-less as a standalone entry, albeit another Marvel superhero movie. Which is all you really need to know going in.
*. I’ll say up front that while they didn’t knock it out of the park — I don’t think there have been any Marvel movies that knocked it out of the park — this is one of their better efforts. I enjoyed it. At 130 minutes I thought they could have cut at least half an hour out of it, but the story was passable (I’d give any story that didn’t involve opening a portal to another dimension a pass at this point). The cute parts, like the dysfunctional family reunion, were cute. The leads were respectable. Even when saddled with a hopeless Russian accent (that, given the back story, was unnecessary) Florence Pugh out-acts Johansson, which bodes well for the future (I think). They kept the bad guys simple: a devious Russian controller with an army of mind-controlled widow-ninjas and a Terminator cyborg thingy called the Taskmaster. At least there were no demigods and aliens this time.

*. Cate Shortland directs. I don’t think this is really her thing, as the action and fight scenes are nothing special. Though by now I don’t know if Marvel has any new ideas for doing car chases or manically-edited martial arts. I do like the occasional bit of grit, like the depressing apartment in Budapest or the pig farm outside of St. Petersburg. I sort of wished there’d been more of that, but that’s not what people are laying down their money for. They want exotic locations, so . . .
*. The script, like the action, is just functional. There’s obviously a feminist angle to it — with the sorority of widows gaining class consciousness and rising up to overthrow the swinish patriarchy at the end — but I didn’t find it inappropriate or preachy. There’s also some good sibling badinage that got some smiles. Meanwhile, there are also lots of booty shots of Johansson and Pugh’s backsides in tight outfits, if that’s your thing. And yes, it’s my thing.
*. There isn’t much more to say. Apparently this was meant to kick off a new “phase” (the fourth, ye gods) to the MCU. I liked it slightly more than the usual run of Marvel fare. Johansson sued Disney for not giving the film a theatrical release, settling for a reported $40 million. Oof.
*. A good day’s (or couple of month’s) work for a lot of people. As usual there’s a post-credit scene that I forwarded through the credits to get to. Has anyone ever counted the number of names that get a mention on these productions? By my reckoning they must be getting up in the thousands. It takes a city to make one of these movies. Meanwhile, I can’t help thinking all that time, effort, and money could have been spent making 100 better movies, but this is the state of the industry.

Everest (1998)

*. Everest is an IMAX movie, which I think tells you nearly everything you need to know. But I’ll go into a little more detail here.
*. IMAX is a super-large film format used to shoot movies that were originally designed to be shown in special cinemas on huge screens. Hence the popularity of nature documentaries dealing with subjects that exploited this format.
*. An expedition to the top of Mount Everest was an obvious choice of subject matter, but one that presented enormous logistical difficulties given the weight of the camera (a special miniature version was constructed that “only” weighed 40 pounds) and the film (10 pounds of film were needed just to shoot 90 seconds of footage). In the thin air of high elevations lugging around this kind of weight was a major problem, not to mention operating the equipment in extreme cold.
*. That the film team managed to summit, while filming, was a tremendous achievement. And adding to the drama is that the 1996 Everest climbing season was the most dramatic ever. Just days before the IMAX team made their ascent several other groups met with disaster, as recounted most memorably in Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into Thin Air.
*. All of this should have made Everest a documentary classic. But it isn’t, and partly for the most obvious reasons. Given the extreme conditions it would be too much to ask for the hours of great footage that go into most documentaries. Instead we only get a few great shots and some filler, in a movie that is only 44 minutes long to begin with. Add in the fact that you’re likely not watching this on an IMAX screen and I think the results are going to strike most people as disappointing.
*. Also, despite the DVD box telling us that this is “The True Story of the 1996 Mount Everest Disaster that Killed Eight Climbers” that’s not the story the team was sent to capture, and they didn’t. It’s a part of the story, but only a chapter.
*. Ten years later the Discovery Channel would turn Everest expeditions into reality TV with the series Everest: Beyond the Limit. Comparing the two doesn’t show this film to advantage, at least on a small screen. In Beyond the Limit they had a lot more time to tell a much fuller story, and a lot more footage that was more easily captured with devices like high-def helmet-mounted cameras. It pains me to say it, but I got a lot more out of watching the series.
*. So it’s not as spectacular as you might be expecting — especially for audiences used to the current state of the art for filming nature documentaries — and doesn’t engage that much with the drama of the historical event that it was a part of. The fate of Rob Hall is addressed, for example, but Scott Fischer doesn’t come up. But the elisions are even a bit worse than that.
*. I’ve read Krakauer’s book, and the companion volume to this movie by Broughton Coburn, Everest: Mountain without Mercy. The story as told here is streamlined quite a bit, presumably to make it more audience-friendly. I understand this, but for a documentary, however given over to scenery, I found it misleading.
*. The biggest thing to note is that the leader (or co-leader) of the expedition, David Breashears, who also co-directed the film, isn’t included. I mean, his name isn’t even mentioned (though it appears in the credits). Nor is that of cameraman Robert Schauer. Also, the four camps set up on the ascent are reduced here to three. I’m not sure why, as it doesn’t make the story that much simpler or easier to understand.
*. This streamlining seemed excessive to me, taking things to the point where it didn’t seem like an accurate a portrayal of the events. It seems as though the three stars — Ed Viesturs, Araceli Segarra, and Jamling Tenzing Norgay (son of the famous Tenzing Norgay) — were almost on their own the whole time. The Japanese climber Sumiyo Tsuzuki was part of the team but broke some ribs in the early stages and couldn’t make the final ascent. She was on radio duty then, as the movie says, “despite her cracked ribs.” As I understand it, she was left behind because of her cracked ribs. She couldn’t physically make the summit.
*. A final point that keeps coming up with any book on Everest is the contribution of the Sherpas. There’s usually some lip service given to how they’re essential to the expedition, or even the real heroes, but that’s it. This is a point that’s always bugged me. I mean, the Sherpas are climbing with the others, and even having to lug the majority of the gear and pre-secure the ropes for the summit push. Would playing that up diminish from the achievement of the Americans and Europeans? Because it does seem kind of racialized, to use a trendy word.
*. None of this is meant to take away from what I think was an incredible physical achievement, both in climbing Everest and filming it the way they did along the way. But there’s no denying that given that effort and the surrounding story this movie registers as a major let-down. The fact is, the “making of” featurette included with the DVD is a lot more interesting than the film itself, and almost as long. It’s more accurate and more detailed too. Which is a plus if you have the DVD, but it’s not the way things are supposed to work.

Richard III (1911)

*. Richard III is Shakespeare’s second-longest play after Hamlet (the longest if you only compare the Folio versions), and it’s usually cut pretty severely in production. But to do it all in 20 minutes? That takes a lot of hustle.
*. What makes it even more constrained is the way the story begins here with Richard killing Henry VI, which is something that I think was introduced by Colley Cibber in his 1699 adaptation. It’s how David Garrick performed the play as well in the eighteenth century, but aside from the 1912 film version starring Frederick Warde I don’t know of any other productions that have followed this lead.
*. But I actually like starting things off this way. It provides some necessary background that Shakespeare’s own audience might have had in mind based on the earlier trilogy of Henry VI plays. You might compare it to someone trying to jump into a later entry of the Marvel Cinematic Universe without knowing anything about what had gone before.
*. Despite Richard III being a very theatrical performance piece, I’ve always had difficulties with there being so many characters and so much historical material to get through. How do you keep all the widows and their grievances straight, and the different court parties and players like Buckingham and Hastings and Catesby and Ratcliffe? I have a lot of trouble following the political maneuvers no matter how well I know the story or how many times I’ve seen or read the play.

*. But the intro helps, both here and in the 1912 version. After killing Henry the film takes us through all the big scenes: Richard wooing Anne, Clarence being killed (though both here and in 1912 they pass on trying to represent his prophetic dream, and neither has a butt of Malmsey standing around), the murder of the Princes in the Tower (only described in the play, but unavoidable on screen), Richard being upbraided by the mourning women, and finally Richard’s night of bad dreams before the battle of Bosworth (with Richmond’s dreams, as usual, elided).
*. Those are the highlights, and they play well even if it’s impossible for anyone not versed in the history of the period to know exactly what’s going on. Richard is the connecting thread, even though he only indirectly causes most of the action, for example ordering the murders of Clarence and the princes instead of doing it himself. This is another way presenting his murder of Henry at the beginning of the film helps underline his malignity even more. It won’t do for us to think he doesn’t want to get his hands dirty himself. He has to be shown enjoying that side of things.
*. Frank Benson directs and stars as Richard (with little evidence of deformity). Benson was a celebrated actor-manager with his own theatre company, specializing in Shakespeare. This Richard III, however, is the only film that survives of one of his productions.
*. It’s a remarkably clean print, but much as I enjoy Benson’s performance I don’t think he was much of a film director. This is very much a filmed play. The camera stays in position, which is right in front of the stage. And it’s obviously a stage, with painted backdrops and a rug pulled over the clearly evident floorboards even when we’re supposed to be outdoors.
*. That’s fine, and no different from what a lot of filmed plays looked like at this time. What’s more disappointing is how often Benson fails to frame a scene properly, having the main action occurring to either side. On stage this works because the audience is all around, but in a movie like this there is only one point of view. I’m not sure Benson really understood this.
*. So an interesting historical artefact with an excellent lead performance. Just the next year, however, Richard III would truly jump onto the big screen in a production that would make this seem old fashioned even for its time.

Doubt (2008)

*. It’s not always a good thing when a movie takes you somewhere you’re not expecting. A good example is Doubt, which I thought was building up to the ironic reveal that young Jimmy Hurley — the stand-in for writer-director John Patrick Shanley — was the one actually being abused by Father Flynn (Philip Seymour Hoffman). But, and here’s an anti-spoiler alert, that’s not what happens. Which is a pity, because I think that would have made for a much more interesting twist than the ending we do get, which is unexpectedly weak.
*. Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep) has her doubts. Maybe not so much about Father Flynn, but about the Church and the winds of change that are roaring through it, knocking down branches and elderly nuns. As a theme, this is less than I was expecting, and I wasn’t the only one to be disappointed. Peter Bradshaw found Streep’s final speech “stagey” (not the word I’d use) and “beyond absurdity.” He also thought the movie as a whole “a terminally muddled piece of star-studded Oscar-bait.”
*. At least the Oscar-bait part was true enough. Doubt received five nominations total, four of them in acting categories. Didn’t win any though.

*. Critics were divided into those who saw it merely as Oscar-bait and those who, well, took that bait. I put myself more in the former category. The acting was nothing special. Streep’s Bronx Irish accent comes and goes. Hoffman doesn’t suggest any hidden depths. Amy Adams is too innocent.
*. Viola Davis is good, but mainly because she’s given the one really good scene (it’s her only scene) to work with. It opens a window, however briefly, on a moment of profound moral ambiguity. She gives us a far more authentic character than Streep’s caricature, but at the end of the day she’s only a bit player in the drama.
*. Produced by Miramax and Scott Rudin Productions. Hm. Hollywood is an ironic place.

*. Based on Shanley’s play of the same name (or near enough, Doubt: A Parable), so of course it’s talky. And shot by Roger Deakins so it looks swell. But it just doesn’t engage as much as it should. Except for Davis’s Mrs. Miller there are no depths here to be plumbed. I’ve said how Sister Aloysius is a caricature and I would have liked more on the question of whether she’s a shepherd or a cat hunting a mouse. Father Flynn is shuffled off stage, which seems a repetition of historical errors made by the Church. Shanley doesn’t want us to judge him, so makes judgment impossible. Indeed, we can’t even judge Streep’s suspicious mind. The children are voiceless.
*. You can’t see this as a movie that has anything to say about the Catholic Church and child sexual abuse. Instead it’s a movie that, I think, is about questioning authority. Except it doesn’t seem to want to go there either. I’m not sure where it does want to go. There are glimmers of a better movie here but they remain roads not taken. You can only play ambiguity, or doubt, for so long before you have to offer something more. I honestly left this movie having no idea about how Shanley felt about any of this, aside from his nostalgic affection for Sister James. That doesn’t seem like a strong hook to hang such a story from.

Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021)

*. This is how I began my notes on The Hitman’s Bodyguard: “The Hitman’s Bodyguard is a really unoriginal movie, which means there’s not much to say about it, since I don’t even think it can be said to represent much of anything.”
*. If that was true for the first movie, how much more true is it for the second? All I have to do is cut and paste.
*. Also from my earlier notes: “Ryan Reynolds can pretty much charm his way through anything. He just has that ‘it’ quality that immediately draws us toward him.” Well, he still has “it” here. In fact he was really spreading “it” around in 2021, with the release of this movie, Free Guy, and Red Notice. That’s playing the lead (or one of the leads) in three major studio productions in a single year, which goes to show where he sits on the current A list. The very top.
*. As for the movie . . . they had a lot of stars, a lot of money, and very little else. The story has Antonio Banderas as a Greek terrorist-billionaire-super patriot (I wasn’t sure which label fit best) looking to strike a blow at Europe’s power and communications grid because of the EU’s sanctions on Greece. Somehow the only way to stop him is for bodyguard Michael Bryce (Reynolds) to reunite with hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kincaid’s wife Sonia (Salma Hayek).
*. I guess they figured that was enough to go with. What follows are car chases down narrow but picturesque Italian streets, fights, and explosions. And wisecracks, none of which are funny. Morgan Freeman shows up for the final act but feels out of place. Banderas does a caricature bad guy. Hayek is as annoying as she was in the first movie, and there’s more of her, apparently because of audience demand. I think someone read things wrong on that one.
*. Released as The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard only in Australasia. What happened to the definite article for the rest of us?
*. His ubiquity may eventually put his charm to the test, but Reynolds still has enough here to keep the movie afloat, as Jackson clearly wasn’t even trying. So it does float. It’s not a great movie, in fact I think it’s pretty bad, but it’s watchable, especially for fans of light action fare.
*. Box office was middling, but that may not be enough to stop further instalments. Director Patrick Hughes: “It dawned on me during the first film that the endlessly suffering fool who is Michael Bryce must suffer endlessly, therefore we must endlessly make sequels.” Endless suffering it is then!

Quiz the one hundred-and-fifty-fourth: A closer look (Part one)

I sometimes worry that the pictures I include for these quizzes are too small. But I guess they’re big enough for people to work with. A related problem is when they’re too dark to make out, and there’s nothing I can do about that. In any event, you can always enlarge them. Or, as here, use a more traditional tool, which you’ll often see in the hands of classic film detectives.

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Murder Over New York (1940)

*. Perfunctory entry in the series that has Charlie chasing after another saboteur. A tight enough plot, as far as these things go, but . . .
*. The casual racism is a bit much this time out. At one point the police round up every Hindu in New York, looking for the villain’s assistant. His name is Ramullah, but as things turn out every Hindu man’s name is Ramullah! Consternation! In any event, the chief is amazed at how there are so many “Ali Babas” in New York when the line-up is filled with a whole eight suspects. That’s a lot of Hindus. One of them is also tagged as being a “fakir” who the chief immediately spots as a “faker” (he makes the joke). He turns out to be Shorty McCoy (Shemp Howard, uncredited) with some shoe polish on his face. Well, at least the real Ramullah is played by a Hindu actor. That’s something.
*. Then there is a Black man, playing a frightened butler, who is one step up above Stepin Fetchit (Mantan Moreland was waiting in the wings). I don’t know why they even brought the Black guy in. Under questioning he says he is “completely in the dark.” To which Charlie sharply responds, with no sense of humour, “Condition appear contagious.” Ugh.
*. There’s a weird moment when Charlie mentions that the former wife of the villain may not recognize her ex (as we later find out he’s had plastic surgery) and says that the leopard may have changed his spots. This seems a mangling or misprision of the proverb about a leopard never changing its spots. A fumble from the master of the aphorism? Or intentional?
*. Moves well enough, with lots of action and the usual gang of suspects. Also as per usual even the innocent characters try to outdo each other in looking as guilty as possible. Adds up to another bit of product from the assembly line, and only of interest to committed fans.