Monthly Archives: February 2022

Where Eagles Dare (1968)

*. Also known as “the one where they get in a fight on top of a cable car.” I imagine that scene was sort of like the car chase in Bullitt (a film that came out the same year). In the script for Bullitt all it apparently said was “car chase.” They would have needed a bit more than that here, to take into account the planting of the bomb, the one bad guy falling to his death, and the jump to the other cable car, but there still might not have been much more than half a page of notes.
*. The cable-car fight grows in the imagination. For one thing, I’d had it stuck in my head that Schaffer, Clint Eastwood’s character, had been the protagonist. That would have made more sense — Richard Burton (age 43, overweight, and reported to be drinking up to four bottles of vodka a day!) was scarcely credible as an action star — but in fact Schaffer had been knocked unconscious and was sleeping back in the castle, leaving the heroism for Major Smith. Or Alf Joint, the stuntman who lost three teeth doing the jump.
*. The other thing that struck me watching the cable-car scene today is that there’s a lot less of it than I remembered. Most of it was done with process shots. For all the daring of the stunt work, which certainly was impressive, it only amounts to a matter of a minute or so on screen.
*. I kept thinking how they’d do it differently today. This is an old-school production which makes wonderful use of locations and physical stunts. In addition to the cable-car jump, Burton knocked himself out at one point (or else he was dead drunk), and the squib that exploded on the Gestapo officer’s face temporarily blinded him (squibs were a new technology in 1968). Sure some of it looks off, like the dummy that falls from the cliff and the ones in the jeep that explodes at the airfield, but overall it holds up well. I prefer practical effects to CGI any day.

*. One place where I think things have improved with today’s movies though is in pacing. I think Where Eagles Dare is sometimes sluggish and that’s not solely attributable to our abbreviated twenty-first century attention spans. Even in the 1980s action films would handle their main sequences in a far livelier way than director Brian G. Hutton does here. I kept thinking of the attack on the guerilla camp in Predator as a comparison. But we could also go with a more contemporary comparison. The assault on Blofeld’s mountain-top fortress in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is far better handled than anything here.
*. We spend a lot of time watching the gang set traps with their inexhaustible supply of dynamite bundles and it seems things should move a little quicker through the final act. I think some of this too might be blamed on the bizarre decision Smith makes to take the three double-agents with them. How was that ever going to work? Come on. And then it just goes from one escape sequence to the next, with the good guys always one step ahead of the explosions.

*. Geoff Dyer wrote a fun little book about this movie called “Broadsword Calling Danny Boy.” He’s pretty dismissive of director Brian G. Hutton: “Hutton’s stylistic signature as director lies in the absence of anything that might permit us to recognize him as an auteur. Apart from the stuntmen — and -woman — no one connected with the film is more undercover than its director.” But is a lack of flash a bad thing? I don’t think it has to be, at least for an action flick. But Hutton’s problem is that he doesn’t really deliver the goods with the action.
*. I grew up on the adventure novels of Alistair MacLean (and Hammond Innes, who I might have thought of as the same guy at one point). But aside from the basic premise I don’t think this is a great story. Eastwood found the script had too much exposition and he had a point. It’s far too complicated and left me wondering at the end just what had really been going on. The big dining-hall scene with Burton droning on only confused me. I wondered what would happen if one of the British double-agents was actually a triple-agent? How would Smith/Schmidt know? It’s not like they could have trusted Smith. And wasn’t this an incredibly complicated (not to mention dangerous) way just to smoke out some moles?
*. The cast manages. Aside from his being drunk I still had trouble buying Burton in his role but I guess he makes out. Eastwood refused to have his hair cut to look slightly more military, but can you blame him? That Sonic the Hedgehog ‘do looks great. Mary Ure had top billing along with the two male leads but I wonder how many people remember her today. She died young from an overdose.
*. Did you know that “radio room” in German is Funkraum? I didn’t know that, but I got a laugh out of seeing the sign on the Funkraum door. I guess radio in German is funk, or rundfunk. This is not, however, where we get the English word funk for a mix of jazz, soul, and rhythm & blues. That goes all the way back to the Latin fumigare for a strong, earth odour.
*. Another laugh came with the German soldier shot at the end of the bridge whose head falls forward so his helmet doinks on the railing. I don’t know if that was meant to be funny, or if it was even intentional, but it’s great.
*. Dyer’s book makes a lot out of how much the movie meant to him as a kid. Like me, he read MacLean as a tween. Going over the names he drops of people who still claim to love this film (Steven Spielberg has called it his favourite war movie) I have to wonder how much of this is nostalgia among men who are now middle-aged or older. While I think it’s still good entertainment, it’s too long, plays slow, and has a ridiculous storyline. Aside from the cable-car stunt there’s not even anything new or interesting in the action department but just the usual clichés like bad guys who can’t hit anything and cars (and planes!) exploding into balls of fire every time they get bumped. And yet it takes me back to better times. Maybe not better movies, but better times.

WALL-E (2008)

*. When watching kids’ movies the question any reviewer (or just casual notetaker) has to answer is whether their response should be based on how much they enjoyed/appreciated it or how much they think a kid would. In recent years, however, that distinction has come to be effectively elided by the rise in “kidult” entertainment, meaning books and movies aimed at both audiences.
*. I’ve written before about how much I despise the whole idea or cult of kidult (see my notes on Gnomeo and Juliet and The Lego Batman Movie). One of the people most responsible for it, or at least most successful at it, is the writer-director Andrew Stanton, who had a hand in such blockbusters as Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Finding Nemo. Not that I’m hating on Stanton for this. He’s someone who found his niche and struck gold in it.
*. So instead of looking at this movie from either a kid’s or an adult’s perspective WALL-E requires a double vision. I think kids liked it. There’s lots going on and even some music. For adults there are deeper layers. Or maybe not layers so much as Easter eggs. Like AUTO’s red eye being a reference to HAL from 2001, or the way WALL-E’s fire extinguisher blasts ejaculate on EVE as they do their space dance. I have to admit I did not recognize Sigourney Weaver supplying the voice of the ship’s computer, so some of this stuff is pitched at a pretty high fan level indeed.
*. But kidult also has a leveling effect on any deeper messaging. In particular Stanton claimed not to have had any political  or environmental agenda. Indeed, the only point of WALL-E finding a plant was that it would symbolize the robot’s own determined perseverance. I don’t know how much to credit this, as the notion of Earth being covered in garbage by a soulless one-world corporate government is inescapably political, but maybe Stanton didn’t want to seem preachy or rock any boats.
*. Was Stanton also drawing on the robots left to tend the greenhouse ship by themselves at the end of Silent Running? He doesn’t mention that film on his DVD commentary so I wasn’t sure. I’ve also heard that the human grubs on the Axiom were inspired by the underground citizens of E. M. Forster’s story “The Machine Stops,” but I don’t know if that was a conscious borrowing.

*. The story strikes me as weak and poorly structured. It just sort of moves from stage to stage without building much interest. I like the way humans have devolved into giant, seemingly boneless babies carried about on their automated strollers, dressed in onesies, and sucking from Super Big Gulp bottles. But this also made them far less interesting as characters. I wasn’t at all invested in the Captain’s transformation, and the way the shipboard audience cheers him on in his final struggle with AUTO struck me as a cheap trick, like a laugh track.
*. It does look great and they obviously put a lot of work into realizing WALL-E and EVE as characters without giving them mouths. They act mainly with their eyes. According to Stanton they studied the films of Chaplin and Keaton to learn how to do the comic bits with no dialogue. I guess it worked. But to be honest, this struck me as a movie that was more cute than funny.
*. Gender stereotypes are also pretty obvious. Not because male WALL-E is square and EVE smooth and ovoid, but because he’s a blue-collar working dude and she’s a highly educated professional woman with lots of girl power in her rocket arms. But of course when it’s time to get broody with a baby she’s ready to settle down in the best rom-com fashion.
*. The main takeaway for me is that beyond the rich look of the movie I didn’t think anything else about it was all that special. I wasn’t sure if Stanton even had much interest in anything beyond the look. He wanted to juxtapose the future with a lot of retro stuff because he’d never seen that done before (which is kind of hard to believe). Hence Chaplin and Keaton and Hello, Dolly! But do these go together, or comment on each other in any meaningful way? As noted, he didn’t want the film to carry any particular political message. He thought the big theme was how “irrational love defeats life’s programming,” but I wasn’t even sure that was a theme at all. EVE does follow her programming for the most part, doesn’t she?
*. The box office and critical reception suggests that both kids and adults liked what they saw, but as with most if not all kidult entertainment I thought it was thin gruel. I wonder if anyone is going to be watching movies like this forty or fifty years from now, when we may still be watching Buster Keaton and maybe even Hello, Dolly! I wouldn’t be putting my money on the robots lasting as long.

Quiz the one hundred-and-sixty-seventh: Pass me the binoculars (Part four)

I hope to have a quiz coming up on just what it is all these people are looking at. But for now we’re still looking at them, and trying to identify what movies they appear in.

See also: Quiz the thirty-sixth: Pass me the binoculars (Part one), Quiz the seventy-ninth: Pass me the binoculars (Part two), Quiz the one hundred-and-eighteenth: Pass me the binoculars (Part three).

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The Scarlet Clue (1945)

*. Charlie Chan in colour!
*. Well, it’s a fudge. To be honest, I was so disappointed in the run of Monogram Charlie Chan movies that by the time I came to The Scarlet Clue I was thrilled to find a colourized version that I could watch online (the film had fallen into the public domain). This isn’t to say that I’m a fan of colourization, because I’m not, but I was looking forward to anything that would lighten up what had become a menu of grim fare indeed.
*. The colourization process seems to be a borderline adequate job. But these movies didn’t give much to work with (Monogram sets and costumes are drab and spare), and noir lighting in general is a poor fit for colour anyway. The opening scene, with a man being trailed on a foggy, dockside street at night, shifts in tonal values like a cuttlefish stalking a crab.
*. Still, the colour here cheered me up. I have no idea what the story was about, but it had Charlie (Sidney Toler) along with Number Three Son Tommy and his usual Monogram sidekick Birmingham Brown (Mantan Moreland) investigating a case of spies trying to steal some radar technology from a company that shares a building with a television and radio station.
*. Does that make a lot of sense? Don’t let that bother you. If you do then you’ll really be flummoxed by the murder method. Are you ready? Gelatin capsules of gas are concealed in radio microphones and then detonated by signals beamed in from another part of the building. Now the gas doesn’t do anything, but when the victim then smokes a cigarette that has been laced with some weird element the combination causes instant death! Why the bad guys don’t just shoot their victims is beyond me.
*. I’m pretty sure that’s the loopiest thing I’d ever seen in a Charlie Chan up to this point. Throw in a tunnel room that exposes anyone who goes into it to both extreme heat and cold (with snow!) and you’ve got a very high nonsense quotient. But as I said about the colour, at this point I wasn’t taking marks off for any signs of life.
*. The best part though is the back-and-forth between Moreland and his nightclub partner Ben Carter, where they recreate a classic routine of finishing each other’s sentences in impossible ways. You may recall this routine from Spike Lee’s Bamboozled. I thought this was very funny, and even better is the fact that it’s not racialized in any way. I could just enjoy it, which was a relief.

The Tempest (2010)


*. This is one of my favourite adaptations of The Tempest — but I don’t think it’s ever a great movie, despite having so much promise. I don’t care for the play much in the first place, and for all its strengths this version feels too much like a film of its time.
*. Julie Taymor had directed stage productions of The Tempest before this, and as a film director had shown a strong, creative approach to Shakespeare in her interpretation of Titus Andronicus (Titus). In short, she knew what she was doing.
*. The casting is near perfect. I had no problem at all with Helen Mirren as the sorceress Prospera and think she does a marvelous job here, striking just the right note of forgiving but unapologetic sternness. Djimon Hounsou and Russell Brand both give great physical performances (and I love how the camera work matches this in the scene where they hide under the tarp together). Felicity Jones and Reeve Carney (suffering under a hilarious mop) both look pretty as the pair of drippy young lovers. The court party are all good, and I especially like Alan Cumming’s interpretation of Sebastian, making him a bit dimmer than usual and more easily led astray by the charismatic Antonio.
*. The costumes stand out, and the art direction is always interesting. The script is manipulated only a bit, and nowhere in a way that hurts the play.
*. So . . . why do I feel less than enthusiastic about this one?
*. A few little things stand out. The special effects aren’t that good. The devil dogs in particular are totally unconvincing, and I get the sense from listening to the commentary that Taymor thought so too. The Ariel effects were achieved through a complicated process that was not CGI, but still looks like CGI, and not in a good way. Aside from his turn as a harpy he just didn’t turn out right.


*. Then there’s the setting. It was shot in Hawaii, on the island of Lanai, which is today privately owned by Larry Ellison (he bought it off the previous owner in 2012). Bill Gates was married there. So much for Caliban getting his island back! He may still be out there fetching firewood.
*. It’s a fantastic setting, but not natural at all. There’s nothing wrong with that part, as this is a fantastic play. But Taymor says she wanted a “natural roughness” in some parts and never got it. It all seems too pretty and nice, in a National Geographic style.
*. Also, the music. I guess they were going for a dreamy effect but the results sound insipid to me. The songs in Shakespeare, however, are very hard to get right. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any I’ve heard that I particularly liked (though a lot of movies based on Shakespeare have had great scores).
*. But my real problem, I’m afraid, is that I just don’t like this play very much.
*. Sure it has some great poetry and remarkable passages that rank among some of Shakespeare’s finest. But it is also his least naturalistic, least dramatic work. There are only two interesting characters in it (Prospero and Caliban), the rest of the cast just being types. And there’s no drama to the situation: it’s all just a show being put on by Prospero. Antonio and Sebastian, and Stephano and Trinculo, may plot their coups, but we know nothing is going to come of it. Prospero is too much in charge.
*. The form it takes is the courtly masque. One thing this means is that it’s a play not just featuring but about special effects and other forms of magical artifice. As Julie Taymor puts it in the “making of” documentary Raising The Tempest, “Shakespeare wrote a visual effects piece.” This is certainly our present cinematic dominant mode, so if The Tempest isn’t necessarily a film for our time, it may be a film for our cinema. It’s no surprise that the next big production of The Tempest on film before this, Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), was another such visual smorgasbord.
*. It was often remarked (by Roger Ebert, among others) that the effects and the design are over the top, but that’s not how I see it. I think that’s just the kind of play it is (though Ebert would disagree). And the imagery, as strong as it is, doesn’t overwhelm the play for me. It’s supposed to be a spectacle, and Taymor does keep some quiet moments.


*. Part of the problem with the magical visuals though is connected to what I said about this being a film of our time. This is very close to being a comic book movie. Helen Mirren reminds me of no one as much as Ian McKellen playing Magneto, while Ariel is a combination Nightcrawler and Mystique, and Caliban is The Thing. This too is what comes with being a film for our time.


*. Part of Caliban’s elaborate body make-up included having Elizabethan swear words scarred on to his skin. I didn’t notice any of this the first time I watched the movie. The second time, looking for it, I still couldn’t make anything out. In one shot I could see the suggestion of writing, but had no idea what the words were. I guess you can chalk that up to another one of those perhaps too-clever ideas that didn’t make much of a difference, though I was a bit surprised Taymor didn’t realize this wasn’t coming through. She could have either made a point of revealing the words or should have dropped it.


*. I like the way Taymor emphasizes the elemental schematics of the play. We begin with the earth dissolving in water, and then the storm mixes fire and water that makes the seas seem combustible. I was surprised to see the “airy spirit” Ariel jumping out of a pool, and continue to be presented by way of a watery effect, but he later adopts more conventional airy trappings (like transparency). Of course Caliban is a creature of the earth, and seems to have a skin of cracked clay.
*. I’ve called Ferdinand and Miranda drippy, but the play is not without sexual undertones. Taymor mentions on the commentary that there may be something going on between Antonio and Sebastian, and that’s something that does lend the seduction in the forest (one of the better uses of a natural location in the film) an extra spark.


*. The other sexual force is Heather Mirren’s Prospera. Taymor mentions the charge between the powerful older woman and the androgynous naked young man (Ben Whishaw). Personally, I think this all comes out of Mirren, who is a sexy beast even with minimal make-up. Ariel is the one character in the film I couldn’t get a read on. Of course he’s a spirit and never really one thing or the other, but I didn’t get the sense Taymor settled on giving him a particular identity.
*. I guess what disappoints me the most here is not that Taymor is too wild and free in her interpretation of the play, but too restrained. The preservation of ambiguity is a good thing, but at the end of the day every director of Shakespeare, for stage or screen, has to make hard decisions about what direction they’re going to take things in, what angle they’re going to play up. Like Prospero’s revels, or the magic sounds of the island, the visual magic here is bright and diverting but insubstantial. I was left wondering what, for Taymor, the play really means.

National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007)

*. People like to complain about the Marvelization of the movie business in the twenty-first century but what they may really mean is the Disneyfication. This doesn’t have anything to do with a preponderance of animated family fare but rather refers to franchise entertainment writ very, very large. Like the productions of Marvel (bought by Disney in 2009), and Star Wars (bought by Disney in 2012) and all Disney’s homegrown franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean et al. Basically buy or create intellectual property and then keep squeezing those oranges for all they’re worth.
*. Later, with the launch of their Disney+ streaming service, this became not just a business model but a necessity, with the step from franchises to serials turning out to be a small one in the case of properties like Marvel and Star Wars. How well it all works out in the end is anybody’s guess, but the early evidence seems to point to a certain level of exhaustion being reached. You can squeeze any orange dry.
*. A case in point is National Treasure. This was an unexpected hit in 2004, leading to an inevitable (if initially unplanned) sequel. But the idea hadn’t been original in the first place, and already by part two it feels exhausted. So much so that it struck me as one of the most slavish rehashings I can remember. They brought back the same writers and same director and assembled the same gang (even Harvey Keitel returns as the FBI agent chasing them) to go looking for another buried treasure by following a bunch of obscure clues.
*. There’s a meme, because memes are cool. Instead of “I’m gonna steal the Declaration of Independence” we have “I’m gonna kidnap the President of the United States.” And the final reveal of the city of gold looks like it was cut and paste from National Treasure, right down to those flaming runnels that function as a light switch. They really weren’t even trying.
*. The plot though is even sillier than the first movie. Roger Ebert spent most of his review cataloguing all of its absurdities before finally saying that “The person who attends National Treasure: Book of Secrets expecting logic and plausibility is on a fool’s mission. This is a Mouth Agape Movie, during which your mouth hangs open in astonishment at one preposterous event after another. This movie’s plot doesn’t play tennis without a net, but also without a ball and a racket. It spins in its own blowback. And, no, I don’t know what that means, but this is the kind of movie that makes you think of writing it.”
*. Ebert also flagged how the cast promised something more. Sean Bean is replaced by Ed Harris, which is no drop-off, but his character is some kind of vanilla villain who isn’t a villain at all in the end. Helen Mirren as Ben’s mom is along for the ride as well, but she’s unnecessary in terms of the plot and is just there for the happy ending. In my notes on Greenland I registered how stupid the Hollywood plot of divorced or separated couples being brought back together by having to go through some trial was. Well here we get not one but two such instances, with Ben’s mom and dad reconciling while Ben (Nicolas Cage) and Abigail (Diane Kruger) also begin by being on the outs only to reunite on the treasure quest.
*. This would still be OK if the movie were more thrilling just on the level of your usual amusement-park ride stuff. But it isn’t. I wasn’t interested for a minute in what was going on, and the goofy local charm of the first movie is left behind as they go full Tomb Raider.
*. So, like the Pirates of the Caribbean, which was in its own needlessly prolonged death spiral at the time, the franchise was just being squeezed dry. But it made a mountain of money, even more than the first movie, so a third film was immediately announced. That project would, however, be stuck for years in development hell, and as of this writing has yet to appear. Meanwhile, a series was announced for Disney+. Because this is the way the money’s made.

National Treasure (2004)

*. National Treasure is a movie I’d always thought I’d seen, but watching it today I realize I was mistaken. At least I think this was my first time. Though given how generic a movie it is, I’m not sure if I’d just forgotten it completely.
*. Critics were dismissive but box office was huge, leading to a sequel, with a third part reported to be in the works. In general, audiences seem to have really liked it. What accounts for the discrepancy?
*. I don’t think reviewers liked it because of the generic quality I mentioned. Benjamin Franklin Gates (Nicolas Cage) is Indiana Jones for the new millennium. Or Lara Croft (2001/2003). Or Robert Langdon (Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code had been published the year before, though the movie was still a couple of years away). He’s the adventurous explorer type looking for a secret treasure of the Templars, which was passed down through the Freemasons and squirreled away by America’s Founding Fathers. The key to its location is provided by a secret code written on the back of a copy of the Declaration of Independence.
*. That’s boiler-plate adventure nonsense and none of it makes a lick of sense. But the notion of the Declaration of Independence being a kind of secular scripture, an American Ark of the Covenant, had some attraction at least with domestic audiences, and the recognizable but not shopworn locations are a plus.
*. But while critics yawned the public was pleased. Maybe it was the magic pixie dust of Disney. No bad language. No violence. I believe only the one unfortunate soul actually dies, and that by accident. It’s family entertainment. Even the romance angle between Gates and museum director Dr. Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) is kept chaste. When they’re using heat (heavy breathing) and lemon oil to reveal the code and say to each other “we need more juice” and “we need more heat” it’s the closest thing to innuendo the script is going to toss out. And it’s also my favourite scene in the movie.

*. That simplicity I think is the movie’s charm. Also the fact that they keep the action simple. This is no bloated CGI-fest but a movie that mainly gets by on simple stunts and effects. People run down streets and across rooftops, and swing on ropes. It’s old school, which was something I really enjoyed too.
*. Still, it’s a hard movie to get excited about. Cage wasn’t yet in full Cage-mode and comes across as just goofy. I thought this made the presence of the comic sidekick Riley (Justin Bartha) superfluous, but at least he’s there for the ride. Kruger is ridiculously glam for her job, but looks intelligent and no-nonsense enough. Sean Bean seemed thoroughly bored being typecast as the vapid British villain who is just some rich guy who wants the treasure because whatever. Harvey Keitel, playing the FBI agent, shares that same air of indifference. Jon Voight plays Cage’s dad and at least he’s not as annoying and affected as he usually is.
*. In short, there’s nothing offensive about it, but nothing memorable, original, or particularly well done either. It doesn’t take any chances and so doesn’t fail in any significant regard. That it was such a hit suggests a real demand for such modest and inoffensive fare. A demand Disney would be only to happy to meet with more of the same.

The Jade Mask (1945)

*. It’s easy to dump on these Charlie Chan movies put out by Monogram. They were lousy. So I’ll try to start off being positive here.
*. The plot is once again bewildering in its complexity. I honestly had no idea what was going on, or even what the title was referring to. But this is par for the series. What I enjoyed this time was the bizarre setting. Once again we have one of those labs that some rich gentleman-scientist has set up in his isolated, palatial estate. I’m not sure how far back this idea goes, but it had legs. It shows up again in the original version of The Fly (1958), for example.
*. In this case a Dr. Harper is doing investigations into poisonous gases, which means he has a gas chamber in his basement. Harper ends up dead and it seems everyone is a suspect since everyone hated him. And since the government has an interest in finding the formula for a gas Harper was working on, Charlie, who is still working for the Secret Service, is called in to investigate.
*. The proceedings aren’t just complicated but bizarre, involving the aforementioned gas chamber, secret passageways, a door that can only be opened by a voice-recognition system, poison darts fired out of a ventriloquist’s dummy, a cast of the killer’s ear that provides the final clue, and, capping things off, the hilarious bit of Scooby-Doo business where a mask is taken off of one character revealing that they’re actually one of the other characters. Wow. That’s some mask! And it just pulls right off!
*. Well, to be fair they were doing the same thing with the masks in all of those early Mission: Impossible movies, where it was no less ridiculous. Some plot devices you just have to roll with.
*. Unfortunately, all this wackiness is let down by what are some of the worst performances in any of the Chan movies thus far (and that’s a long, long list). Sidney Toler appears almost comatose, and even his put-downs are tired (for example: “If silence is golden then you are bankrupt”). Mantan Moreland joins him again as Birmingham Brown, but this time he has nothing to do. Then there’s Number Four Son Eddie Chan. Eddie is a bit different from his siblings in being a bespectacled egghead. I liked the change-up, but he has no energy and the actor playing him (Edwin Luke in what I believe was his first and only credited film role) is no Keye Luke (in fact he was Keye’s younger brother) or Victor Sen Yung.
*. Most of the supporting players are dreadful. Al Bridge plays Sheriff Mack and he’s one of the only bright spots. A lot of the other faces seem like total non-actors. If you want to see what people who can’t act do when they’re thrown in front of a camera, here’s your chance.
*. To be honest, the only way I can manage getting through these later Chan movies is because they’re short, coming in between 60-70 minutes. This one has enough weirdness about it to make it sporadically interesting, but it’s still a terrible movie that feels thrown together, and it lost me entirely at the end.

The Tempest (1979)

*. Every production of Shakespeare, and especially every instance of Shakespeare on film, can be plotted on a continuum of faithfulness to the text. Sometimes they’re little more than a camera making a recording of a theatrical performance, as in Olivier’s Othello (1965). At other times you have a pretty complete re-imagining of the play in a different context: Romeo and Juliet as West Side Story, Hamlet as The Bad Sleep Well, and The Tempest as a Western (Yellow Sky) or set in outer space (Forbidden Planet).
*. The Tempest has always been more open than most of the canon for a free interpretation. After all the time I’ve spent with it I’m still not sure what it’s about, or what to think of it. It’s a problem, or matter of personal taste, that I have with all the romances. And it leaves a director pretty free to go in any direction.
*. Derek Jarman obviously doesn’t feel wedded to Shakespeare’s Tempest in this adaptation. I say that despite the fact that he does keep most of the basic story intact. But the text is mangled badly, with a lot of cuts and rearrangements. Right from the opening, where we see a rather youthful Prospero (Heathcote Williams, who was only 38) writhing in bed muttering lines that I couldn’t make out at all I had the sense that Jarman really didn’t care much what was being said. As things went on that’s a feeling that would only deepen.

*. To my eyes and ears there are two problems with this Tempest. The way it looks and the way it sounds.
*. I would like to say that it’s poorly lit and has badly recorded sound, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. The look and the sound were conscious decisions. But the look is dark to the point where it’s hard to see very much and the sound, while there are some nice effects (like the breathing to accompany the working of magic), is frustrating and annoying. There’s a lot of loud laughter that made me cringe, but at the same time I could barely hear half of the lines.
*. I say this was a conscious decision, and it’s clear that Jarman had a vision here. But what was it? What is the point of going in this direction? And what direction is it anyway?
*. It’s often described as “punk” or “camp.” I don’t see much evidence of the former aside from the tatty atmosphere that hangs around Stoneleigh Abbey (and which made me wonder why they wanted to shoot in such a location when all they did was throw hay and trash around until they made it look like an abandoned tenement building or shooting alley). I don’t see much evidence for the latter aside from the musical number at the end with its dancing sailors and Elizabeth Welch singing “Stormy Weather.”
*. From Jarman’s handwritten notes: “I hope to capture something of the mystery and atmosphere of the original without descending to theatrics.” So . . . mystery and atmosphere. He also stresses the importance of magic quite a bit, but it seems to me that the magic in this film is really downplayed. As, aside from the final number, is the music. And what is The Tempest without magic and music?
*. Jarman also apparently said that he was drawn to the play because of the way it dealt with the theme of forgiveness. Which it does. But which this film doesn’t, since it leaves all of that stuff out.

*. It’s also not a particularly political Tempest. There was even some criticism from Shakespeare scholars because the post-colonial presentation of the play that was peaking at around this time (the island as the New World, Caliban as Black or Aboriginal) wasn’t pursued. Jarman thought that such an approach would be too limiting, “make it more specific than general,” and while I don’t agree with that I do agree with his exercising his freedom to make whatever kind of Tempest he wanted to. But again, what kind of a Tempest is it?
*. About the only thing I can say with some confidence is that this version really belongs to Ferdinand and Miranda. They are the stars of the show, despite being relatively minor parts in the play. We are a third of the way into the film before the court party are even introduced, and they are shortchanged the rest of the way as well. But we spend a lot of time with the young lovers, even when they’re just goofing around. But having said that, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The two of them have few important lines and really aren’t that interesting, apart or together.
*. I hope this doesn’t make me sound like a stick in the mud. Like Vincent Canby, say, whose New York Times review was a full-on rant, worth quoting just for the fun of it: Jarman’s Tempest “would be funny if it weren’t very nearly unbearable. It’s a fingernail scratched along a blackboard, sand in spinach, a 33-r.p.m. recording of ‘Don Giovanni’ played at 78 r.p.m. Watching it is like driving a car whose windshield has shattered but not broken. You can barely see through the production to Shakespeare, so you must rely on memory. . . There are no poetry, no ideas, no characterizations, no narrative, no fun.”
*. Actually, I think I probably do agree with Canby here. But I don’t think that makes me a stick. I like Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), and went along with Julie Taymor’s slightly more traditional 2010 version. I just didn’t enjoy this at all. Indeed, when I was watching it I was thinking it might be as bad as another “punk” Shakespeare, Troma’s Tromeo and Juliet. Then I began to wonder if Tromeo and Juliet might even be a bit better. In the end I couldn’t make up my mind. I sort of hate them both.