Tuesday, 29 December 2015

The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939)

The first film to pair Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, The Hound of the Baskervilles is great fun, with a fast paced story, two perfect actors in the lead roles and lashings of spooky foggy atmosphere.

Sticking closely to the novel by Arthur Conan Doyle, the story sees Holmes and Watson investigating the legend of a deadly supernatural beast that has been haunting the Baskerville family for hundreds of years. After his Charles Baskerville is found dead, his face twisted in horror and giant paw marks near the body, his nephew Henry, the last of the line, inherits the family estate – but has he inherited the family curse? Or is there a more down-to-earth explanation?

Moviegoers in the 1930s had no shortage of detectives to watch, such as The Thin Man, Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, Charlie Chan and Mr Moto. One element of The Hound of the Baskervilles that makes it stand out from these is one that we might take for granted nowadays, which is the fact that it is set in the Victorian era it was originally written in, rather than the time it was released in.

Another factor that sets The Hound of the Baskervilles aside from other contemporaries is that, as well as a detective story, it is a wonderfully spooky Gothic tale, with a crumbling mansion, a seemingly supernatural beast and fog shrouded moors, all of which translate perfectly to the screen, with an ambience reminiscent of the classic Universal horror films. It is perhaps not surprising that Hammer chose this same tale to follow up their Dracula and Frankenstein films.

Of course, a detective story is only as good as the detective and thankfully we have one of the best portrayals of Holmes ever. Rathbone is a dead ringer for the Holmes depicted in the Sidney Paget illustrations that accompanied the original publication, but he also brings a steely determination and energy to the part, and makes such an impact that it is easy to forget that the character is absent from most of the middle third of the story.

Nigel Bruce's take on Watson has come in for some stick over the years and there is no denying that this is a far more buffoonish than the book version. However, in his defence, Watson does have to be slightly behind events so that Holmes has someone to explain things to for the benefit of the audience, and in addition, there is no shortage of the other essential traits we associate with the character, the tenacity and loyalty.

Rounding out the films credentials as a work of horror is the supporting cast of suspicious characters, featuring no less than John Carradine as the Baskerville butler, a man who could read a shopping list and make it sound like a sinister threat, and Lionel Attwill as Dr Mortimer, the man who brings the whole matter to Holmes in the first place for reasons that seem unclear. Attwill usually gets typecast as sinister or sleazy villains and it is not surprising that he would go on to play Holmes nemesis Professor Moriarty in the later Rathbone film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon.

Making less of an impression is Sir Henry Baskerville himself, played by future TV Robin of Sherwood Richard Greene, although perhaps that is more a case of being overshadowed by the charisma and talent of the rest of the cast. In a sign perhaps of how little 20th Century Fox anticipated the success of the film, and the chances of any sequels, Greene actually gets star billing on the poster, over Rathbone and Bruce, despite this only being his second movie outing.

All of this is helped by a script that sticks to the basic storyline and zips along a good pace, intriguing without being confusing, while still leaving time to learn about something of the character of Holmes and soak up the glorious gloomy atmosphere of Grimpen Mire.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Movie franchises are ten-a-penny nowadays, but few come with more expectations and built in hype than Star Wars. The seventh chapter, The Force Awakens, goes some way to correcting the horrors of episodes 1 2 and 3, and introduces some new exciting and original new characters alongside familiar faces, and some even more familiar plot points.

Set some time after the events of Episode six (Return of the Jedi) that saw the Rebellion defeat the Empire and Darth Vader, a new threat has arisen in the shape of the mysterious First Order, who seem set on the same sort of Galactic conquest. The Rebellion’s legendary hero Luke Skywalker has long since vanished, but a young scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a droid may hold the key to his whereabouts. Pursued by the evil Kylo Ren, she teams up with Finn, a First Order Stormtrooper who is having second thoughts, and a couple of smugglers.

Ultimately the film plays it safe, giving the fans what they want, in the shape of gun fights, lightsaber fights, battles in outer space, a rousing John Williams score, a bad guy in a mask, and some snappy dialogue courtesy of Lawrence Kasdan. It also suffers the problem that any sequel suffers to some extent, in that being one part of a bigger story may limit how satisfying it can be as a standalone film. 

The most successful and memorable parts for me are the new elements and characters. Rey follows the Luke Skywalker model of a lowly youngster who has to grow up and learn some new skills pretty quickly, although she is distinct enough to not feel overly familiar. The real breakthrough character for me is Finn, as I liked the idea of subverting the trope of Stormtroopers being faceless mindless clones, and having one seems to suffer some sort of shellshock that makes him question his role in life.

Having said that, the familiar elements are there for a reason, and are integrated into a pacey and well thought out story, so the film can appeal equally both to fans, and people who just like exciting action packed films.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Courier of Death (1984)

The history of cinema is filled with people who did not make the big time, but along the way still managed to make at least one film. As that is one more film than I have ever made, I usually have a certain amount of admiration for them, especially if the film is as deliriously entertaining as Courier of Death. Whatever else you might call this film, it is certainly not boring.

JD Blackman is a courier, and his latest job involves a straightforward delivery of a briefcase containing millions of dollars in bonds, which is securely attached to the arm of his partner. However, things quickly go wrong leaving his partner dead and the bonds stolen, quickly followed by the kidnap and murder of his wife. Shortly after all of this an old army buddy, now high up in the government, contacts him with two pieces of news; firstly, the people behind the murder and theft are part of an underground fascist network; secondly, the government are giving Blackman tacit permission to hunt down and kill those same people.

While at no point could you claim this is a well-made movie it is not devoid of positive elements. While the dialogue lacks the deranged poetry of Ed Wood of Plan 9 from Outer Space and Bride of the Monster fame, the bizarre plot twists and almost dreamlike feel are on par with these films. The fine story details are a little confused, but the premise is straightforward and clear, a classic action move revenge driven plot, and JD is (conveniently) given a group of people to hunt down one by one.

Granted, in practise you have a series of baffling scenes that don’t always make sense, individually or in the context of the whole film, my favourite being the main bad guy chasing JD over a bridge to an island, then deciding as JD isn’t going anywhere, to put his head down and get some sleep. As well, let’s not forget the endlessly quotable awful dialogue (“I’m going to kick BOTH your eyes out”), and while I suspect that much of what we see on screen was made up they went along, this in itself may account for the energetic anything-can-happen feel of the film.

The other astonishing and genuinely good element is the soundtrack, which at its best is a relentless mix of pulsing and droning synths, industrial noise and weird atmospherics, which is reminiscent of the likes of Skinny Puppy or Throbbing Gristle.

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Ray Harryhausen - Special Effects Titan (2011)

A trip back to a time when fantasy worlds were painstakingly created one frame at a time, Ray Harryhausen – Special Effects Titan is an affectionate look at the career of the pioneer of stop motion animation, with words of praise from some high profile fans.

The story starts with his childhood, where Harryhausen became besotted with the original King Kong, and friendly with the creature’s creator Willis O’Brien, who became his mentor. We then get a journey through his sci-fi themed work such as Earth vs the Flying Saucers and First Men on the Moon, to the more mythology and fantasy based work like Jason and the Argonauts.

All this is interspersed with talking head clips from the man himself, who comes across as charming, articulate and warm, and celebrity supporters such as Terry Gilliam, John Landis, Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron and Joe Dante, all of whom talk of the influence Harryhausen and his films had on their lives and careers (Interestingly they all have their own favourite of his work, all for different reasons). Rather than just being fanboy ramblings however, they all seem to agree on the key to what makes his work special, which is that beyond the technical skill and spectacle, Harryhausen breathes life and even emotion into his characters.

We also get some insight into his working process, such as how his father used his engineering skills to help with much of the early building work, and how Harryhausen would not just build models, but get involved in story and design work on a film, even when not credited.

Furthermore, there is a plug for the Ray Harryhausen Foundation, set up both to continue teaching his techniques and to preserve his vast archive of models, drawings and notes, work that continues today, following his death in 2013.

The relentlessly positive mood gets a bit cloying after a while, and I started to long for some tales of conflict, something to break up the tone, but overall this is an enjoyable look at one of the greats of cinema.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974)

James Bond is one of the most enduring characters in cinema and undoubtedly one aspect of the longevity is the producer’s willingness and ability to keep the films relevant to contemporary audiences and tastes. The Man with the Golden Gun is an example of this, reflecting the tastes and attitudes of the target audience and popular culture of the time. Along the way however it needlessly complicates the story, wastes potentially one of the greatest Bond villains of all time, and relies too much on cringe-worthy comedy and weak supporting characters.

The hunter has become the hunted as Bond becomes the target of Scaramanga, a mysterious assassin, who charges one million dollars per job and always uses gold bullets on his targets. Scaramanga is also linked to the death of a scientist working on the "Solex Agitator", a powerful solar cell. How is this linked to the price on Bond's head – and will 007 live long enough find out?

Although the 70s Bond films were still using the original novels as source material, this was increasingly confined to the title, and basic plot, and The Man with the Golden Gun is no exception.  Producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman moved the action from the Jamaican setting of the book to the Far East, which, as Enter the Dragon had been released the previous year, allows the film to incorporate elements from the Kung Fu movies which were all the rage. This was neither the first or last time this sort of cash in would happen as Live and Let Die and Moonraker came out within a short time of Shaft and Star Wars respectively, and incorporated many of the tropes of those films as well as playing to the public hunger for them.  However in The Man with the Golden Gun, rather than incorporated, these elements feel clumsily shoehorned in, leading to scenes that are baffling and insulting to the intelligence (why does Hip, Bond's man in Hong Kong, bring his teenage nieces on a mission? So they can beat up bad guys. Because they're Kung Fu experts).

The race and gender depictions are very much also of the time, with the Asians presented as both mysterious and exotic, or simply there to serve the British.  Women come off just as badly, although this is not unusual for Bond films. They range from the helpless and doomed Andrea (played by Maud Adams), who, in a jarring break from Moore's wisecracking smoothie portrayal, gets several smacks round the face from Bond as he tries to get information from her. At the other end of the spectrum we have helpless and stupid in the form of fellow British agent Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland), a character who might have worked as a comedy relief dizzy blonde, but here is someone so stupid, incompetent and grating, that it actually insults the intelligence of the audience.

The goofy broad humour reaches a low point with the character of Sheriff J.W. Pepper, the two dimensional Southern Sheriff who had previously appeared in Live and Let Die. Bizarrely, and completely improbably (even in the improbable world of James Bond films) he is on holiday in Thailand, sat in a car at a showroom at precisely the moment Bond requisitions a vehicle for a chase. To make us believe that an overtly racist character like Pepper would holiday in Thailand is too much, never mind the idea that he would visit a car dealer at the same time

This leads to the most famous scene in the film, the corkscrew car bridge jump, and spectacular though this is, it, like the Sheriff, the Kung Fighting and the Solex Agitator, it adds nothing to the story telling and could have been left out without compromising the plot, or could have been inserted just as arbitrarily into any other film.

This is the crux of the problem with The Man with the Golden Gun, the simple initial premise of two men hunting each other needlessly complicated by these elements. The best Bond films, such as From Russia with Love take a simple plot with clear goals and make everything that happens, a clear and logical part of that. A duel between Bond and a worthy adversary should have been such a premise, and even if this takes in multiple locations and characters, they can all serve this. Sadly and unforgivably, the filmmakers (given this is a franchise, it is perhaps not always clear how much of the final product is down to producers, writers or directors) waste what could have been one of the greatest and most unique Bond villains of all time.

Christopher Lee rose to fame playing Dracula as a suave, charismatic, but ruthless and overtly sexual predator, qualities he brings to Scaramanga and, arguably, qualities that somewhat define the character of Bond. Certainly he is every bit as suave, charming, dangerous as Bond, almost like a mirror image of him, and while he does have a lair, gadgets and, in Nick Nack, played by Herve Villechaize, a sidekick (the 6ft 5 Lee  and Villechaize make a great odd couple, like Kramer and Mickey Abbott in Seinfeld), his focus on assassination and personal enrichment put him in a different league to Blofeld and SPECTRE.