Author Archives: Alex Good

Prospero’s Books (1991)

*. There was a time back in the 1980s when I was a little more into the local cultural scene that I attended several “performance pieces” on campus. It was hard to pin down exactly what these were, as they just involved people moving about on a stage, not saying much. They wore costumes and sometimes danced or arranged themselves in tableaux. And there was music. And there was a lot of stagecraft, with odd set design and the imaginative use of strange props.
*. You came out of these things invigorated, sometimes laughing at what it all might have meant but usually wanting to talk about what you’d just seen. They were creative and fun even if they didn’t usually make a lot of sense.
*. I saw Prospero’s Books at the cinema when it came out and it fit in with this kind of aesthetic at the time. Today it takes me back in a way that’s nostalgic. It’s stagey, but not in a traditional way. Instead it’s like the fluid stage of the performance pieces, constantly being transformed and unscrolled by director Peter Greenaway’s beloved tracking shots.

*. It’s a Renaissance film, not in the sense so much of Greenaway’s inspiration in period art and the acres of naked flesh on display, but for being a melding of a variety of forms. Literary, being an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with John Gielgud (aged 86!) as Prospero delivering almost all the lines until the final act. But it’s also a movie filled with striking visuals, music (the operatic score is by Michael Nyman), special film effects, and modern dance (Caliban is played by Michael Clark, who strikes a lot of strained contortions). More than a masque, it’s a sort of Gesamtkunstwerk that combines as many arts as possible. Most of them quite successfully.
*. It’s also a film of paradoxes. Text is central, with the title taken from the small library of arcane books that Prospero took with him into exile. But as it’s a paean to books, of reading and writing, at the same time it blows pages of text to the wind and refashions the play as a sort of interior monologue: Prospero’s dream, or perhaps just his reading of the play he is ultimately revealed as writing.
*. Other paradoxes abound. Caliban is a monster in the play, but here he takes an ideal athletic form. The “painterly” compositions are often quite ugly, at least to my eyes, and always in motion, either scrolling or being deconstructed into screens-within-screens. Nudity is both a classical or Renaissance ideal and also something human and sloppy. Dangling man parts go marching alongside imperfect buttocks and breasts, and because it’s 1991 people still have body hair. Instead of evoking high art one thinks of The First Nudie Musical.

*. In other words, it’s high art that walks a line, consciously I think, with camp. Just get a load of the width of those lace ruffs, and the sky-high platform heels the courtiers wear. The perfect camp touch of taking everything just that little bit too far.
*. But I don’t think it’s camp. The Tempest is a play about magic, and that’s what I think Prospero’s Books is all about. Not just the magic of Shakespeare’s language, but the magic of theatre and film and their conjuring of a world of make believe that we buy into even as we’re drawn to notice how unreal it is. Like any good magician, Prospero/Greenaway knows that we want to be fooled. Suspension of disbelief isn’t a trick, but the price of admission. Once the show starts belief has already been dismissed.
*. That doesn’t mean we can’t be critical though. One thing about novelty movies like this is that the novelty wears off and when there’s no story being told (as here), or when the way it’s presented is more intellectually than emotionally involving (as here), you get tired of it pretty quickly. Even knowing the play well I found Prospero’s Books got a bit trying and I don’t think anyone not knowing the play would be that interested in it at all. It would only work as spectacle or circus.
*. But it’s a critical maxim of some validity that you have to judge the success of any work of art based on its own terms, on what it sets out to do. Seen this way, Prospero’s Books should be considered a triumph. I think it’s exactly the movie Greenaway wanted to make, an expression of a very personal vision. It is, however, resolutely “not for everyone.” Or, as Greenaway put it, “I have often thought it was very arrogant to suppose you could make a film for anybody but yourself.”
*. Indeed, I imagine it’s for very few people. “Shakespeare” is by no means synonymous with “art house,” or at least it shouldn’t be, but there’s no denying this is “art-house Shakespeare,” or Greenaway’s Shakespeare, all the way. It comes to the same thing: a treat for those with a taste for either bard, and a trial for everyone else.

Frenzy (1972)

*. An aerial shot comes swooping in on London’s Tower Bridge and . . . what is that music? A fanfare?
*. Well, that’s what Hitchcock wanted, as much to announce his own return to England perhaps as to set any kind of opening note for what’s to come. Because I can’t think of anything less appropriate to a tawdry slasher flick.
*. There’s a bit of a story behind the score, and it leads one to reflect on the movie this might have been. Perhaps not better or worse, but definitely one with more interesting credits. Henry Mancini had originally been hired to do the score but because Hitchcock wanted something jauntier he hired Ron Goodwin.
*. Then there’s the script. It’s based on the novel Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square by Arthur La Bern and Hitchcock had approached Vladimir Nabokov to do the adaptation. He didn’t get Nabokov but got Anthony Shaffer instead. And again I think we missed out on something that might have been really interesting.
*. Finally, the cast. Michael Caine was Hitch’s first choice to play the killer Bob Rusk but he didn’t want to be associated with what he thought was a disgusting part. Vanessa Redgrave turned down the role of Brenda and Helen Mirren didn’t want to play Babs. Oh what might have been.
*. As it is, we get Jon Finch in the starring role here, playing Dick Blaney (“Blamey” in the book, which I guess was a little too obvious). Finch was a hot property at the time, coming straight from Polanski’s Macbeth, but he fell off the radar after this. Fun fact: He was cast to play Kane in Alien but fell ill at the start of shooting so John Hurt got to give birth to the xenomorph.
*. After that opening shot of the bridge we come to a man making a speech about the government’s plan to start cleaning up the Thames. They’re going to get all the poisons and pollution and other “waste products of our society” out of it. One such waste product immediately arrives in the form of a naked body floating in the scummy water. And that really sets the tone. Because we’re in slasher territory here and bodies are just offal, or (as we’ll later be shown) sacks of dirty potatoes.

*. Yes, Hitch was back in Blighty, and even more specifically in Covent Garden, where he’d grown up as his dad was a greengrocer. But London, and the movies, had changed a lot. Everything just feels unnecessarily sordid here, which may not be an unfair assessment of England in the 1970s. It’s not just that a sexual serial killer is strangling women with neckties, it’s even in the language.
*. We’re introduced to Blaney as an ex-air force guy tending bar but drinking on the job and, in the words of his boss, spending half his time “pulling [the] tits” of the waitress Babs “instead of pulling pints.” Babs responds to the bar owner by saying that he’s always fingering her. You don’t expect to hear the characters in a Hitchcock movie talking like this. One can understand why Caine might have had his doubts about getting involved.
*. Instead of Caine we get Barry Foster as Bob Rusk, the Necktie Murderer. He’s a doozy, looking a bit like a seedy Michael Caine with even wilder sideburns and sweating profusely while committing his atrocious acts. That sweat, and grime, complements the nasty language in giving the sense of how far down in the world things have come. This is a dirty movie, with all kinds of waste products on display. Remember how Marion Crane was killed in a shower, and Norman Bates cleaned up the mess? In this movie, Rusk is the kind of degenerate who polishes an apple that’s already half eaten.
*. “Just thinking about the lusts of men makes me want to heave,” says the hotel porter. Seeing those lusts in action is worse. If Hitch had made this movie ten years earlier it might have ended his career, like Peeping Tom did Michael Powell’s. But by now he could get away with it. Plus, Psycho had been a hit.
*. Another big reason he could get away with it is that critics could fit Frenzy in with earlier, much loved, works by the Master of Suspense. The innocent man on the run, for example, and the drolleries mixed with suspense. There’s even the one standout sequence where the camera goes back down the stairs while Rusk is killing Babs. That’s very nice.

*. So was Hitchcock really back? Some critics were more generous than Gary Arnold of the Washington Post, who wrote that Frenzy “has a promising opening sequence and a witty curtain line, but the material in between is decidedly pedestrian. The reviewers who’ve been hailing Frenzy as a new classic and the triumphant return of the master of suspense are, to put it kindly, exaggerating the occasion … If this picture had been made by anyone else, it would be described, justly, as a mildly diverting attempt to imitate Hitchcock.”
*. I think this is mostly right. The floater is a catchy start but the ending feels a bit like a punchline we’ve been waiting a couple of hours for. The onscreen murder is just vile, perhaps deliberately so, and the potato truck sequence labored. The Chief Inspector’s sufferings at the dinner table also play like leftovers. More waste products of our society, I suppose. More ugliness disguised as art.
*. That said, I do prefer this movie to Torn Curtain and Topaz and it does exert a sort of horrible fascination. There are times I’ve even found myself liking it. I also cut Hitch some slack as he was quite old and frankly well past his prime but he wasn’t just mailing it in. Movies had changed though, and even more than that the world had changed as well. You can’t go home again.

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent (2022)

*. A laboured title but a clever enough idea. Not an original idea — the movie star who gets stuck in a situation where he has to “be” one of his most famous characters in order to survive — but clever enough to make something out of. And by this point in his career Nicolas Cage is perfect for the part, as his roles have pretty much become him playing Nicolas Cage now. So it’s all self-referential and meta and hip. Good for some laughs anyway.
*. Unfortunately, it never graduates from a concept to a real script. Cage plays “Nick” Cage, an actor whose personal and professional life are both on the skids. What’s next up is being a celebrity birthday-party guest at some rich guy’s private Majorcan estate. Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal), however, may be a crime lord as well as someone with an obsessive man-crush on his favourite movie star. So Cage is soon working with a CIA agent (Tiffany Haddish) to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a politician from the estate/compound, all while trying to stay in character with Javi.

*. It’s a movie that’s mostly played in a minor key but never takes off or really engages. It’s easy to smile along with — and the best part, with Cage and Pascal tripping on LSD while driving has become a joyful meme — but there are no belly laughs. It’s filled with references to Cage’s oeuvre that I mostly pulled a blank on, either because I hadn’t seen them or (more often) because I’d forgotten them completely. A nice pastiche of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari was originally worked into the third act but was cut. It’s worth checking out as one of the extras included with the DVD, but I can see why it was left out as it’s too jarring a gear shift from the rest of the action.
*. To be honest, I’m not sure who this movie was for aside from die-hard Cage fans, which is a limited niche. And even for them I don’t think it has a lot to offer. I’d rather watch him going over the top in Mandy or Color Out of Space. Pascal is a rising star with a friendly face, and Cage does his usual Cage thing, but at the end of the day it can’t hold a candle to Three Amigos in the comedy department (only the most obvious reference point) and the action is just a yawn.

Hamlet (1948)

*. Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet is one of the totemic works of Shakespeare on film. Not just for having England’s Greatest Actor playing the title role but for its commercial success and critical accolades — it was the first British film (and the first non-American film) to win the Best Picture Academy Award, with Olivier also winning for Best Actor. That a Shakespeare movie could actually make money was something that before this time had seemed unlikely. Such prestige pictures were seen as sure-fire box office losers.
*. If it was lionized at the time — Pauline Kael: “Whatever the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes, this is very likely the most exciting and most alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on the screen” — some of the blush is off the rose. Many now consider this to be the least of Olivier’s big three Shakespeare productions (Henry V and Richard III being the others). I’d probably rank myself among them, for various reasons. Also, the then trendy notion of playing up the Oedipal theme has grown tired, to the point of almost seeming put on by the time of Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 film and Mel Gibson locking lips with Glenn Close.

*. Even as a teaching supplement to be fed to schoolkids its limitations are stark. Not just because of the radical pruning of the plot, eliminating, most notably, Fortinbras and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern entirely, but for the dumbing-down of the text. They call us drunkards, not clepe us. The ghost wears his visor up, not beaver. “I’ll make a ghost of him who lets me” becomes “hinders me” (the meaning of “lets” being pretty much the opposite of what we take it to mean today). The cock is the herald to the morn, not trumpet. “Recks not his own rede” becomes “minds not his own creed.” “Very like” becomes “very likely.” And so on.
*. Were Olivier’s instincts, or motivations, suspect in making these changes? He felt that “one great whacking cut had to be made” to keep the running time manageable, and that’s fair. Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 version played the full text but clocks in at four hours. Both versions work, but I’m all for letting productions of Shakespeare cut what they want and move at their own pace, a matter of tempo that is not to be slighted. Also, as previously noted, this Hamlet did open up the box office. And finally, at this point Larry Olivier could pretty much do as he pleased with the Bard.

*. Perhaps the most famous change is a pure invention: the opening voiceover that tells us “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind.” That’s another reading that’s available on the evidence, though it’s since been called into question. Actually, Hamlet stays pretty active throughout the play. It’s also the case, as many critics have pointed out both then and now, that Olivier has so much energy that it’s hard to buy him as a ditherer.
*. Even more to the point, Olivier doesn’t emphasize the parts in the play that highlight Hamlet’s indecision, for example cutting the entire “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” speech. This makes you wonder why he wanted to foreground this particular reading by suggesting that indecision is the “mole” in Hamlet’s nature.
*. I mentioned the Oedipal angle. This is helped along by the fact that Olivier was 40 when the movie was filmed and Eileen Herlie, the actress playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, was only 29. This is weird, but I don’t think it registers that strongly. Olivier had a face that could be young or old on command. The kisses on the mouth, however, even bother Claudius. They’re a bit of a giveaway.

*. Another interesting note with regard to the casting. This was the first of 22 movies that Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing both appeared in. Cushing is easily identified, as Osric is a substantial part and he plays him very well. Lee, however, is only credited as Spear Carrier and I wasn’t able to pick him out.
*. Olivier didn’t win the Oscar for Best Director. That year it went to John Huston for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. I think they got it right. What sets the tone here is more the black-and-white photography, which has been compared, perhaps a bit lazily, to expressionism and noir. I guess there are notes of both, but the influence of Welles, especially in the use of deep focus, is more direct. I saw a restored version this time and it really made the high contrast stand out.
*. But mostly it’s a production that just seems kind of a stagey in a cheaper and less artistic way than the canvas and plywood of Olivier’s Henry V. I kept looking at that circular platform and wondering whether medieval castles actually had helipads. I also thought the lack of editing chops showed in some of the scene changes and the amount of time spent looking at the back of the actors’ heads.

*. Also keeping with something Olivier did, I think more effectively, in Henry V are the soliloquies presented as voiceovers. I didn’t think this worked as well here because it made more sense for Hamlet to be talking out loud to himself rather than musing. But perhaps Olivier thought it was a signature move he had to include.
*. Things get off to a rough start. This has to be one of the most disappointing Ghosts in the history of Hamlet productions. It doesn’t hold a candle to Grigori Kozintsev’s spectacular figure. Indeed, it’s just a blur, with the lines read by Olivier but played back at reduced speed.
*. Why, given all that was left out, did they include the pirate battle? It looks kind of silly and feels out of place. But I guess they figured if they were making a movie they had to get something like that in there just to let people know they were watching a movie and not a play.

*. One part that I think really does work well is the play-within-a-play. This stood out for me the first time I saw the movie and I like it even more now. Olivier still doesn’t want to do anything by way of editing but uses a masterful camera movement around the stage that erases the difference between the performance and the audience, letting us watch all the watchers and their intersecting lines of vision. I don’t think the scene has ever been done better.
*. There’s a new wrinkle added in Gertrude drinking the poison cup presumably knowing what’s in it. I’m not sure where she got the idea (if she knew of the plot why didn’t she warn Hamlet in advance?), but I think it works here because the way the play is stripped down there’s more of a focus on her relation to her son.

*. Though heavily cut, it’s still a long journey. 154 minutes. But it holds tempo pretty well and it is a great performance from Olivier. He does seem to be channeling a black-box production at times but it also has some original ideas that Branagh didn’t mind borrowing for his version nearly fifty years later (Hamlet’s jump onto Claudius at the end, and his corpse being carried off).
*. Is it still the most exciting and alive production of Hamlet you will ever see on screen? I don’t think so. Watching it now I could still appreciate it but felt that with all “the omissions, the mutilations, the mistakes” Branagh’s film, despite its excess and overreaching, has surpassed it. In any event, given that it’s now 75 years old you can’t really judge it by contemporary standards. At the time it was a gamechanger, and it still plays today not as a historical curiosity but a production with its own distinct presence and vitality.

Make Way for Tomorrow (1937)

*. I wonder if there’s a bigger name in film history that has pulled as dramatic a vanishing act as that of Leo McCarey. In his heyday he was one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed directors in Hollywood, respected by his peers and awarded Oscars for both writing and directing.
*. Today I think he’s almost entirely forgotten outside of certain film circles. He thought Make Way for Tomorrow his best work, but today it too is “forgotten” (Peter Bogdanovich) or “nearly forgotten” (Roger Ebert). I think the only people who do know about it, and again we’re within those same certain film circles, are those who know it was the inspiration for Ozu’s Tokyo Story. Some, maybe a lot, of McCarey’s fall from the heights of fame and critical acclaim has to do with the anti-communist tear he went on in his later years, but I think in the case of this movie it’s more to do with the subject matter, its lack of big stars, and its downbeat ending.
*. Make Way for Tomorrow didn’t do well when it came out and hasn’t gathered much of an audience since. Because let’s face it: who wants to watch a movie about an elderly couple on the verge of being sent into a retirement home? That’s part of the point the movie is making though: that we just want these people to disappear, or at least stay in their bedrooms and not make much of a fuss while we’re entertaining guests.
*. At the same time, you can tell why so many people champion this movie today. A lot of it still packs quite a punch. There are a number of memorable moments that will resonate with anyone who has experienced similar situations. There’s Bark’s sad reflection on hearing the letter from someone in a retirement home that “those places must be terrible.” There’s his rejoinder to the man at the employment office that he didn’t used to be a bookkeeper, he still is one. An impossible sell, at his age. There’s Ma telling her granddaughter that facing facts is easy when you’re young, but as you get older it’s better to pretend. And most of all there’s Ma telling George, aware that he’s sending her away, that he was always her favourite child. It’s a moment like that that makes you feel along with Orson Welles that you’d have to be a stone not to cry at this movie.

*. The thing is, these moments work, at least to my eye, despite the performances and McCarey’s direction. I honestly don’t think Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi are very good here. They both seem to be playing the parts in an affected manner, and along with the obvious make-up (Moore was 60 and Bondi only 48) they come off as almost caricaturish old folks, no less so for his occasional grumpiness and her passive aggression. Nor does the supporting cast stand out in any way. Meanwhile, the direction is capable and gives everyone room but doesn’t add very much beyond what I would have expected from any old studio hand. As Peter Bogdanovich admits, it’s not a movie that’s directed with any real sense of style.
*. I didn’t even think the plot made any sense. Why is it that Ma and Pa have to be split up and live 300 miles apart? Why would it be too great a burden on the kids to take both of them in when they’re willing to accept one? Wouldn’t they be easier to manage if they were together as a couple and (at least to some extent) looking after each other?
*. What the performances get right is how difficult Ma and Pa can be. They aren’t all sweetness and light but can both be real pains in the ass. Like Ma ruining the bridge lesson or Pa refusing to say the number 99 and biting his doctor. Even at the end, where I think we’re supposed to be firmly on their side as they enjoy a last night on the town while their kids worry about them had me thinking they were being selfish. It’s a big deal if you’re cooking a roast and someone doesn’t show up on time!
*. As with any morality tale though the point is to force us into making judgments, however much McCarey wants to put his finger on the scale. Especially by having that Biblical injunction to honour your father and mother looming over things. Still, the roast has been ruined and while nobody would be against them having a good time, somebody has to take care of them moving forward. Like a lot of old people in the same boat they want to keep going the way they always have and not face up to facts. As Ma points out, it’s nicer to pretend. But that’s not being responsible to themselves or to others. So you get things like the situation that kicks things off, where they haven’t told the kids that the house has been foreclosed on until it’s too late for them to do anything about it except in emergency mode.
*. Worth seeing, but not a great movie, mostly for being such an uneven ride, jarring between a tough-minded realism and sentimental fluff. Most of the supporting characters, like the car salesman and the band leader, are perhaps unbelievably sympathetic to Ma and Pa, but then they don’t have to live with them and I think that’s the larger point. Family, or love itself, is both a source of strength and support and a trap. In the end, you really can’t win.

Beast (2022)

*. I thought Beast was a lousy movie, but I could imagine it having a different impact on me if I’d seen it when I saw a lot of other movies like it on TV when I was a kid. Movies where a giant killer animal goes on the rampage. I’m talking B-flicks, or C-flicks, like Grizzly (1976), Orca (1977), and Alligator (1980). In Beast, the titular beastie is a male lion whose pride has been wiped out by poachers. Now he’s taking his vengeance on humankind. Including an American doctor (Idris Elba) and his two young daughters who happen to be visiting an old friend (Sharlto Copley) in Africa and find themselves very much in the wrong place at the wrong time.
*. If you’ve heard anything about Beast then you know it’s the movie where Idris Elba punches a lion. This he does. And the rest of his MMA training comes in handy too in a final showdown with the King of the Beasts that he miraculously survives. Which is very stupid, but far from the stupidest thing going on here.
*. Things get off to a dumb start with the opening shots of the poachers approaching a pride of lions with their guns drawn, in a packed formation where they’re all standing behind one another. This is not the way a squad of armed men arrange themselves, unless you want the back of your head blown off by the guy behind you. Then, later in the same scene, one of the poachers will get caught in the trap he just set. At which point you realize you’re going to be groaning and shaking your head a lot in the next 90 minutes.
*. In addition to being stupid, the plot is the usual string of clichés. Elba’s doctor carries a sense of guilt in relation to his estranged wife’s death, which his kids also resent him for, so the trials they face will, you guessed it, bring them closer together as a family. There are mountains that cut off any phone or radio communication, so our heroes are on their own except for walky-talkies. One of which goes off just when Elba is trying to be very, very quiet! Everyone acts like a teenager in a slasher film’s idiot plot, wandering off on their own so that they can find themselves in danger and have to narrowly escape the lion . . . again and again and again. It’s not even clear why Elba’s character feels he has to go mano-a-leo at the end. Why not just stay in the church? Because the lion will never leave them alone, is what he tells the kids. OK.
*. The structure of the plot is also utterly predictable. The lion is surely killed in a fiery explosion, but just as surely we know it will come back. And it does. We’re introduced to a “good” pride of lions in the first act that will have a role to play later. Though not much of one, as the ending feels rushed and oddly anticlimactic. It’s like they ran out of money for any more effects and just decided to call it a wrap. Indeed, I’m not even sure what happens, aside from the fact that Elba and his kids survive to tell the tale.
*. There’s not much to say about this one. The CGI lion actually looks pretty good, which is a blessing because without that they would have had nothing. CGI insects, however, remain a real problem. Elba does his manful best to try and sell the worthless script, and his manful best is very good, but it’s only enough to keep his head above water.
*. Like I say, seen on TV ca. 1978-1980, a twelve-year-old version of myself might have been impressed by this. But those days are long gone and movies like this a rightfully endangered species. Unless you’re talking about a bear zonked out on cocaine. That’s how far we’ve come.

The Lion King (1994)

*. Hamlet on the savannah? Yes, and explicitly so. According to co-director Rob Minkoff in an interview in Oprah magazine they wanted to tap into a familiar story as an anchor seeing as this was Disney’s first animated feature that told an original story. At least that’s what I read in Oprah. But wasn’t The Aristocats an original story? I don’t know.
*. In any event, the Hamlet part — a prince’s father is killed by a usurping uncle, setting in motion a revenge plot — is an archetype going back quite a ways. Set’s murder of his brother Osiris, whose son Horus then gets revenge on Set, may be the oldest version. Step-fathers are as wicked as step-mothers in myth and fairy tales.
*. To all of which we might say that there have been Shakespeare adaptations less faithful to their source or inspiration. And the script here was apparently reworked so many times by so many different hands (there are 29 writing credits!) that I’d be surprised if they’d managed much more than what they eventually got in.
*. There are other, looser, connections to Hamlet. Scar spreading a forged process of Mufasa’s death and then sending Simba into exile. Simba being visited by his father’s “ghost.” There was even an alternate ending that had Scar killing Simba and then saying “Goodnight, sweet prince” before dying himself. But that would have been too tragic for kids in the ’90s.

*. In the few animated children’s films I’ve reviewed here I’ve made it clear that I’m not the target demographic for such entertainment so I’m probably not the best judge of it. So I’ll just make some comments on the highs and the lows and leave it at that.
*. It’s short. 88 minutes. For some reason I thought it was going to be longer. But there’s no padding or subplots. Just everything moving along quickly to get where you know it’s going.
*. Some of the music is pretty good. Three of the five nominations for Best Song at the 67th  Academy Awards were from this movie (all of them with music by Elton John and lyrics by Tim Rice). This may be a record. “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won, and it’s great. The sly courtship going on between Simba and Nala when it plays is also pretty daring for Disney. “I Can’t Wait to Be King” is another good number, which plays through a Fantasia-style jungle romp. The rest of the tunes were just so-so though, with “Hakuna Matata” being particularly uninspired. It should have been a real show-stopper of a hummable number and it’s anything but.

*. Jeremy Irons naturally steals all his scenes as Scar. Because Hollywood villains often have British accents. Why the brother of James Earl Jones would have a British accent is all part of the Disney magic I guess.
*. Is a political critique necessary? I have to admit being a bit taken aback at monarchy and the divine right of kings being so wholeheartedly endorsed. Not only all of nature submits to the authority of Mufasa and Simba, but God himself shines down in a beam of light like God the Father blessing Simba as the Son in which he is well pleased. Meanwhile, the food chain is presented as a medieval great chain of being.
*. Of course we don’t see the lions actually preying on anything but grubs while the hyenas only eat carrion dressed up like deli cuts. Instead, all the animals that lions eat bow down and dance for the kings of the jungle, who they can only pray will be enlightened monarchs. It doesn’t seem very modern. Meaning post-1688 or thereabouts.

*. The animation is very traditional, and I thought a bit dull. The adult lions in particular didn’t strike me as very effectively drawn. Even Scar with his black mane, green eyes, and eponymous marking looks dull compared to Shere Khan from The Jungle Book. And the climactic fight on top of Mount Doom was surprisingly uninspired. They even slowed the action down at one point, which I thought a very poor decision.
*. Apparently it was considered to be less of a prestige project than Pocahontas and some in the animation team didn’t have high hopes for it because, as one declared, “the story wasn’t very good.” But it turned into a gargantuan hit, becoming what was then the second-highest grossing movie of all time. It took a while for Disney to follow up though, waiting until 2019 to release a CGI version that didn’t impress critics as much but still did over a billion in box office.
*. I look at it as being decent kids’ entertainment, marking the peak of what’s been called the Disney Renaissance. Personally, I prefer it to the more “kidult” fare of Pixar, and I think I would have enjoyed it more as a kid too. Its massive success and subsequent cultural prominence is a bit mysterious to me though, unless it can just be ascribed to how hungry the public is for such traditional, inoffensive family fare.

Wrath of the Titans (2012)

*. I’ve complained enough about CGI over the years. In Wrath of the Titans the effects, however, aren’t bad. In fact they’re pretty good. But I still think the CGI is a net minus for the film.
*. This may seem paradoxical. In fact it is. Wrath of the Titans is a CGI movie. You would know that going in. But that is my point. The genre of “CGI movie” has become so predictable not only visually (large monsters, armies, cities being destroyed) but in terms of plot that all of the elements are basically interchangeable. What movie am I watching? A CGI movie.
*. The story here has the Olympian gods (or at least the male ones, as Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite are nowhere to be seen) heading into their Götterdämmerung because people have stopped praying to them and infighting has led to the possible release of the titan Kronos. The hero Perseus is the only one who can save the day by assembling the Spear of Trium out of Zeus’s thunderbolt, Hades’s pitchfork, and Poseidon’s trident.
*. Got it? Good. Even if you went into this cold you’d be up to speed in no time. I could only keep myself amused by plugging the various characters and plot points into an imaginary CGI-movie template constructed out of earlier and later movies. So Zeus (Liam Neeson) is Gandalf, or Odin from the Thor movies. The bitter half-sibling Ares is the Ocean Master. Kronos is Sauron or Thanos. Hades is Voldemort. The Spear of Trium is the One Ring or the Tesseract or the Trident of Atlan.
*. Even the casting is predictable. If you were surprised by Ralph Fiennes (Hades) and Edgar Ramírez (Ares) turning on Zeus then you obviously don’t watch many movies. Hell, Zeus didn’t even remember the previous movie, where he’d signed off saying that Hades was only “biding his time” to take his revenge. Meanwhile, Bill Nighy is back as Davy Jones and you can even tell it’s him. Nighy, that is.
*. You might be expecting, or at least hoping, that Kronos, being the Father of the Gods, would be a bit more interesting. Alas he doesn’t speak in any known language (not that he has much to say anyway) and has even less personality than the Kraken. He’s really just a big steaming pile of magma.
*. The script is full of the usual fustian, with a surprising lack of humour. Here, for example, is Andromeda’s defence of humanity: “We may not be gods. But we do what people say can’t be done, we hope when there isn’t any. Whatever odds we face, we prevail.” Being an actor in a CGI movie can’t be easy. As Harrison Ford once said to George Lucas, “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”
*. You would have thought they’d have given Toby Kebbell some funny lines, but I was left wondering what Agenor was even doing in this picture. Come to think of it, Andromeda (Rosamund Pike, filling in for Alexa Davalos) doesn’t have much of a role either, beyond showing that girls can kick ass too.
*. A budget of $150 million that took in $300 million box office. Which means it flopped (Clash of the Titans had grossed $500 million two years previously). One benefit of this being that the planned sequel, Revenge of the Titans, was scrapped. So as for now the gods are dead.

Clash of the Titans (2010)

*. Pretty much everything I figured it would be, and a bit less.
*. CGI gods and monsters. The only thought that entered my head while watching it was what effect all this might be having on kids who have been growing up on this fare. My guess is that most of them would be playing video games anyway. Which comes to the same thing, doesn’t it? Or again, maybe something a bit less.
*. The story bears some resemblance to the 1981 original. Zeus (Liam Neeson) calls for the release of the Kraken. Bubo shows up only to be quickly dismissed.
*. Hard to think of anything that stands out. Sam Worthington has nice legs. The effects weren’t bad for 2010 but are starting to show their age now. Especially with the couple of shots meant to play in 3D. The film was hastily converted to 3D after the success of Avatar, which led to director Louis Leterrier disowning it. I suspect he wasn’t that fond of it in the first place.
*. I don’t know why anyone would have thought they needed to do it all again just a couple of years later, but they did, subbing out the Kraken for Kronos. There didn’t seem to be a big demand. The kids were too busy playing on their computers, and I can’t say I blame them.

A Tale of Winter (1992)

*. Félicie has a summer fling on the coast with a handsome fellow named Charles. They go their separate ways but she gives him her address so they can stay in touch. It’s the wrong address. Fives years later it’s winter in Paris and Félicie has a daughter, and a relationship with two different men: her boss the businessman Maxence and an intellectual librarian named Loïc. Neither man can satisfy her because she’s still carrying a torch for Charles. Maxence and Loïc know about each other, and Charles, but hope to land Félicie for themselves. But then she meets Charles on a bus and it looks like they’ll finally be happy together picking right up where they left off five years earlier.
*. If that sounds like a rom-com you wouldn’t be far from the mark. It’s a fantasy, or romance in the Shakespearian sense, meaning a late work from Éric Rohmer that mixes mythic elements into an improbable plot with a happy ending. Of course there’s a nod to Shakespeare in the title and the long passage near the end of the movie where Félicie and Loïc go to see a production of The Winter’s Tale. The full scene is played out where the “statue” of Hermione comes to life, and it moves Félicie to tears. You can then draw further connections for yourself.
*. Félicie has two such quiet moments of epiphany in the film, here and earlier when she stops into the cathedral in Nevers and realizes rather abruptly that she doesn’t love Maxence and has to leave him and return to Paris. What happens to her in these moments? Rohmer isn’t coy, and she does try to explain both experiences, but I don’t know how much we can trust her. Or maybe trust isn’t the right word. The thing is, Félicie is a rom-com heroine and they don’t run deep. She’s the princess in this fairy tale (a.k.a. a winter’s tale) just waiting for her prince to reappear.

*. The plain documentary style and the cast of unfamiliar faces (Charlotte Véry, Frédéric van den Driessche, Michel Voletti, Hervé Furic) fits this brand of magical realism. Though Charles does look like a movie star, or as Félicie’s sister points out, a male model. But then Félicie herself is a hairdresser, and if that sounds like I’m stereotyping I’d respond that Rohmer is doing a good enough job of that himself. Loïc is right that she’s bored with intellectual talk, or talk of faith, as she can only respond with her own New Age musings. What were these guys even thinking in going after her in the first place?
*. In one of the philosophical discussions Loïc tries to engage her in he mentions Pascal’s famous wager. At first I couldn’t understand why Rohmer was bothering bringing this up, but by the end of the movie I thought I’d figured it out. Both Maxence and Loïc have made their own version of the wager. Félicie hasn’t really led them on. She’s told them she can only really love Charles. That’s her version of keeping faith. But they’re betting on him being dead, or at least no longer interested in her. And in a non-romance world that would be a safe bet indeed. But this kind of story works by different rules. Alas, they aren’t the heroes of this rom-com. They’re not villains but just placeholders, or representatives of the “normal” world that have to be rejected.

*. Full credit to Véry, an actor I was unfamiliar with (though when I checked her filmography I guess I saw her not so long ago in Madame Hyde). Or maybe most of the credit goes to Rohmer for not letting us give up on her completely in the early going. Rohmer has always gotten a lot of leeway from critics because he genuinely likes women, which is something that isn’t all that common, at least among male directors.
*. I think we like Félicie mainly because she’s honest, and the men in her life so obviously calculating of their odds. Rejected, or dismissed from the stage, they leave with a shrug. Because, as I’ve said, Félicie plays fair with them, at least most of the time.
*. I’m still not sure how or why she gives Charles the wrong address though. An imp of the perverse? A bit of subconscious sabotage? Meanwhile, a line like “There’s love and love” expresses something that is absolutely true, for men and women, but it’s not very flattering to the guy who’s not being loved the way he’d like. And her complaint that she can “only live with a man I’m madly in love with” really should have had Maxence running for the door. She’s a single mom, not a moody teen. Or a heroine in a rom-com. Except, in this case she is.
*. Roger Ebert: “What pervades Rohmer’s work is a faith in love — or, if not love, then in the right people finding each other for the right reasons. There is sadness in his work but not gloom. His characters are too smart to be surprised by disappointments, and too interested in life to indulge in depression.” It’s not tragedy or comedy then, but romance, which is its own genre. This is a fantasy of wish-fulfillment, but a nice one with a happy ending for the only two people (or maybe three) that matter in the world. And you don’t have to give a thought as to the odds that they’re going to stick together. I’d only give them about a month.