Films I’ve watched recently

In the last few weeks I’ve had a horrible and debilitating attack of arthritis, so extreme that for several days I was physically unable to leave my bedroom. It also fogged my brain so I was absolutely unable to concentrate, so couldn’t work from the bed. (Don’t worry, I am much better now, thanks to the wonder of anti-inflammatory steroids.) During my lay-up, I watched quite a few films, so here are some brief and beleated thoughts on them.

Rocky III (1982)

I watched the first four Rocky films way back around the time they first came out, and have been gradually revisiting them in the last year. It’s now pretty much forgotten that the original Rocky (1976) won the Best Picture Oscar, and for good reason: it’s a slow, brooding, gritty film about a washed-up boxer inexplicably given a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and how close he comes to blowing it because he doesn’t quite believe it’s happening. Rocky II (1979) is something of a retread, but still a fairly substantial piece of film-making.

Rocky III is where the tone definitely changes, and the films start to become simple hero movies. And yet, there is still something very compelling about it all. By this point, Rocky is well established as the world heavyweight champion, and is challenged by an up-and-coming boxer (Clubber Lang, in a breakout role by Mr. T.) with pre-echoes of Mike Tyson in his sheer savagery and total uninterest in the norms of boxing. He is a properly nasty piece of work and it’s straightforwardly gratifying when Rocky puts him down at the end of the film. It’s not art, but it’s a satisfying way to spend a couple of hours.

I vaguely plan, in my spare time, to push on through the rest of the Rocky films and see how the more recent entries (Rocky Balboa, Creed, Creed II) stand up. I’m also interested to watch Stallone’s First Blood again, and see whether it holds up as well as I remember from the 1980s. As I recall, it is a completely different kettle of fish from its nominal sequel, Rambo.

The Railway Children (1970)

I watched this because I’d recently read Nesbit’s novel and was deeply moved by its simple portrayal of goodness. The film was disappointing, despite its iconic reputation. It really added nothing to the book, and by casting much-too-old actors as the children it undercut a lot of what made the book so appealing.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

I read the book a while back and was interested to see what such a stellar cast would make of it. It was only OK. Perhaps it’s inevitable that when you pour so many world-class stars (Judi Dench, Kenneth Brannagh, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley) into a big pot and stir, you’re going to lose a lot of the individual flavours.

To me, the big mistake here was trying to treat Poirot as an actual character. In Christie’s novels, he is merely a collection of mannerisms, and much the better for it. The characters are the people involved in and surrounding the murder: Poirot himself is a force of nature, a plot device with a moustache, and that’s just fine. Once the focus shifts onto him, the clarity of a Christie plot is lost.

Anyway, it was pleasant enough.

Die Another Day (2002)

I don’t quite remember what made me want to go back and watch this one again, but it reinforced my long-standing impression that it’s bizarrely underrated. Frequently cited as among the very worst Bond films, it actually has a tough-as-nails Bond, a gritty prologue, a fascinating setup, two outstanding Bond-girls in Rosamund Pike and Halle Berry (both more than capable of looking after themselves) and a memorable villain. Sure, it’s a bit silly in places — what Bond film isn’t? — but it does everything such a film ought to do, and does it well. Tons of fun.

The Last of Sheila (1973)

Title: LAST OF SHEILA, THE • Pers: MASON, JAMES / WELCH, RAQUEL / HACKETT, JOAN / McSHANE, IAN / CANNON, DYAN / BENJAMIN, RICHARD • Year: 1973 • Dir: ROSS, HERBERT • Ref: LAS038AA • Credit: [ WARNER BROS / THE KOBAL COLLECTION ]

I have been intruiged for decades to see this film, because the script was co-written by Stephen Sondheim, whose musicals I love deeply. Admittedly, there was no particular reason to think that a stellar composer and lyric writer would also be good at screen-writing — and the fact that he had never written or co-written any other movie before or since would seem to suggest that he maybe wasn’t that great. But I wanted to see what he’d produced.

To my pleasant surprise, this was excellent — a properly fascinating murder mystery with plenty of twists, all of them making perfect sense. I would never for a moment have guessed that the screenplay was not by an experienced and capable old hand. Very well worth seeing.

Hot Fuzz (2007)

Another one (like Rocky Horror) that my next-door neighbours love, and kept telling me I ought to watch. This one, I did enjoy — though like its predecessor Shaun of the Dead, I didn’t find it quite as marvellous as a lot of people seem to think I should. I’m glad I went into Hot Fuzz not knowing anything about the plot, so that the gradual developments came as a sequence of surprises. But maybe the biggest surprise is how much of the humour was gentle and character-based.

The Seven Per Cent Solution (1976)

Another film that I watched because of a Stephen Sondheim connection — this time, though, he only contributed a diegetic song, I Never Do Anything Twice. To my mind, the song was much the best thing about the film, which I found slow and ponderous, and lumbered with the most appalling casting of Robert Duvall as Doctor Watson, offering an “English” accent every bit as excruciating as Dick Van Dyke’s in Mary Poppins.

The conceit here is that in response to Holmes’ growing addition to cocaine (the titular 7% solution), Watson into tricks him into travelling to Vienna where he meets Sigmund Freud. Freud helps him overcome his craving via hypnotism and together the three men solve a kidnapping case that ends with an interminable steam-train chase. Oddly, the film seems to have been well reviewed at the time, and is well regarded today. Perhaps we’re spoiled now, but to my mind the BBC’s Sherlock (with Benedict Cumberbatch) and the American series Elementary (with Jonny Lee Miller) are both, in their different ways, far more compelling than this disappointing film.

Stewart Lee: Stand-up Comedian (2005)

I’m classifying this (and the next entry) as films because they are long-form single-episode presentations. I went back to watch Stand-up Comedian for the first time in several years partly just to remind myself how far Lee’s work has evolved in the fifteen years since 2005 — and it really has. There are lots of excellent routines in this show, but they do feel like routines, strung together, sometimes with the joins between them painfully obvious.

To be fair to Lee, he was well aware of this by the time he wrote his fascinating 2011 book How I Escaped my Certain Fate. The body of this book consists of transcripts of three of his shows with very extensive footnotes describing the genesis, background and performance of the material. He is harsh on himself in pointing out the places where some material in this show is weak, and where transitions feel half-hearted. All his subsequent shows have much stronger through-lines and much better defined narratives.

Frankie Boyle: Excited for You to See and Hate This (2020)

… which is more than you can say for Frankie Boyle’s much more recent show. It was recommended in a Guardian column and free on the BBC iPlayer so I thought I might as well give it a go. It’s only 44 minutes long, which stretches the definition of “long form”. Boyle has some very good one-liners, but little structure. I enjoyed his description of Jacob Rees-Mogg as “so weird and elongated, like his mum was too posh to dilate”, while conscious that this is not really the aspect of Rees-Mogg most deserving of scorn.

I feel like Boyle could be really good if he cared to be, but just can’t be bothered to make the effort. But maybe it’s not fair to judge him by Stewart Lee’s standard.

Slaughterhouse-Five (1972)

I watched this because I recently read the book, which I found profoundly disconcerting and moving. I know that Watchmen has often been described as unfilmable (wrongly, as it turns out), but surely Kurt Vonnegut’s book is much more so. It constantly leaps back and forth between times, places and degrees of reality, all under the gaze of a very unreliable narrator whose coherence degrades even as the book progresses. (If anyone’s not read it, I do highly recommend it.)

Sure enough, the film is disorienting. I wonder whether someone who had not already ready the book would follow what was going on in the absence of, for example, the much more careful explanation in prose of who the Tralfamadorians are. Anyway, it was interesting to see visually the characters I was familiar with from the book, and to watch certain episodes play out on screen. But I’m not sure I’d recommend it as a film in itself.

Hellboy (2004)

Somehow I picked up the idea that this is unusually morally complex for a superhero film. Turns out that this idea refers to a sequence late in the film where Hellboy, who is a good character, considers being evil instead but then decides not to.

It was OK, but nothing special. Better than Green Lantern, not as good as the worst of the MCU films.

10 responses to “Films I’ve watched recently

  1. Let me be the annoying person who points out that Dick Van Dyke’s “English” accent in Mary Poppins is impeccable. It’s so good, in fact, that some people don’t even realise that it is him playing that role. Whereas his “Cockney” accent in his other role as the chimneysweep is undeniably execrable.

    Oh, and I like Die Another Day as well. The fencing sequence is particularly fine, and I can even excuse the invisible car (well, up to a point!) I do think it is interesting that the “Bond Girls” who already had a reputation get a much more equitable treatment as a result – this probably reached a peak with Michelle Yeoh, but Halle Berry is clearly Bond’s equal in DaD. Indeed, it seems to me that the Craig movies have regressed somewhat in this respect, even if they did manage to get Moneypenny into the field.

  2. Well, I have to admit I’d never realised DVD had another role in that film! Listening to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Nuv_AliAoI it does indeed seem perfectly cromulent, so thank you for showing me something new!

  3. Sorry to hear you werent’ fealing well; I don’t know what arthritis _is_ yet (I mean, to experience it), and I hope to put that off as long as possible!
    Hot Fuzz is brilliant, if you like that kind of thing (and I do!), but even if not.. its still a fun take on the buddy cop thing, so thats cool; and the directory, forget hsi name, is almost always brilliant. Given you’ve now seen Shaun and Hot Fuzz, you must see the last in the trilogy!

    Theres a film version of Slaughterhouse Five? That blows the mind. I may have to catch that.

    Murder on the Orient Express – of all the amazing cast, its Kenneth Braunaugh that most caught my eye there.. I’ll have to catch it sometime, even if its meh. I’ve not read the book.

    Die Another Day .. is that the one where Bond pulls out the magic cellphone and drives the car around? That scene, whichever Piece Brosnon it was, sucked at the time .. don’t know if it holds up; PB can be fantastic .. I’ve been tempted to re-run the Bond series. The earlier movies _are_ over-rated I think .. they’re creatures of their time, but still have some wonderful moments if you forgive the 70sness and so on. Iconic to be sure – Goldfinger and such. Does Moonraker suck? I’d have to go see again.. but I think that earlier ones are great, then goofy and sloppy, but mid-late and later Bond films are consistrntyly pretty good – none bad, just okay to fantastic. Daniel Craig’s version has been pretty good .. I don’t remember much about QoS, but Casino Royale was great, and Skyfall was fantastic. Looking forward to the new Bond … but Perce Brosnon edition, I’ll have to revisit.. and also Timothy Dalton / Rassilon there.

    Sorry for the haphhazard response :)

  4. Arthritis is, or at least can be, appalling. It was quite a shock to me how completely it undid me, leaving me not just unable to move around on my own, but also unable to think straight — not even enough that I was able to blog the films as I watched them, let alone do any meaningful programming. It left me feeling undermined as a human being, unmanned. I fervently hope that they can get to the bottom of it at my appointment in January, and that we can come up with something that will prevent further attacks. I’ve had something a bit like this at random every second or third autumn, but never nearly so debilitating as this time.

    Just checking: you know I’ve written about all the Bond films up to (but not including) Daniel Craig’s right? You can find them at https://reprog.wordpress.com/category/movies/james-bond/

    In general I agree that the halo of nostalgia has given the early films a reputation that they don’t really merit in the cold light of day. But there are a handful of Connery films that really are that good — notably Goldfinger as you mention. Very little of Roger Moore’s tenure stands up for me, with The Spy Who Love Me the big stand-out. Brosnan’s films are my favourites on the whole — though when I finally get around to writing the Daniel Craig section, it will be become apparent that I think he has completely rewritten the role and in a very good way.

  5. (if its uncomfortable or private to discuss, please disregard) re Arth: Wow, thats brutal. I hope there is some treatment for you. I need to read up mroe on what it actually it is .. I imagine there are many kinds, and because we are made of meat, the implications are many. But I had thought at its basiclevel it was calcium or something getting into the join, or muscle wear, or … something, that causes swelling; all of these things hamper movement, or ache .. but I didn’t know that ache or swelling or pressure on joints or what, would come and go, and that it could hit so hard. And what caused brain fog was just the excessive amount of pain that you were in a constant state of reboot? Like jeez :(

    I was not aware you’ve written about the Bond films at such length, akin to your ol’ Doc Who musings (that I miss, and did buy the book of :) .. I’ll go read up, thanks!

  6. Jeff, I’m quite happy talking about arthritis. Like a lot of medical-sounding terms, it’s not really one thing, but a description of a bucketload of symptoms that can have many different causes. “Arthritis” just means inflamation of the joints, but it can be caused by accumulated mechanical damage (osteoarthritis), soft-tissue problems (rheumatic arthritis), crystal build-up (gout) and probably other causes. The medication I’ve been given so far hides the problem by making the symptoms go away (anti-inflammatories and painkillers) but the real wins will come when I get properly diagnosed and understand what the cause of this is. Hopefully there will then be some simple course of action that I can take to avoid recurrences.

    I actually don’t understand the brain-fog at all. I don’t think it was just pain, because at times I was able to get reasonably comfortable if not trying to move. It felt like my body was redirecting all the power away from my brain to the pain receptors or something. (Yes, I agree this is not a particularly scientific explanation).

    The Bond write-ups are nowhere near as in-detail as the Doctor Who reviews, but hopefully worth reading nevertheless.

  7. The classic murder mystery movie is pretty rare in the modern day, at least at the theatrical level; it was decently common in the 30s and 40s, but I think TV detective dramas are part of the reason it died out. I’ve never heard of the Last of Shelia; I’ll have to check that out.

    Have you read the book The Seven Per Cent Solution, which the movie is based on? It sounds like it’s a close adaptation of a passable original. The train chase sounds like it’s right out of the book, though I would have hoped it would have been more effective in film form than book form.

  8. I’ve not read the book The Seven Percent Solution, no — and as things stand I don’t plan to. The film just wasn’t interesting enough. (Plus the book won’t have the Sondheim song.)

  9. Hi, Mike! I don’t comment often, but I read your blog regularly and do enjoy getting your take on pop culture.

    Re: Hellboy – I want to like Guillermo del Toro’s films, but there’s a certain level of camp to everything he does that I find off-putting (I did enjoy Shape of Water).

    Anyhow, the Hellboy comics are much richer, visually and tonally unique, and well worth checking out if you like fantasy. There is an overall story arc, but any of the trade paperbacks can be enjoyed out of context. Highly recommended!

    I hope you get your arthritis figured out soon. I have occasional bouts with sciatica that leave me in much the state you described, so I can empathize.

    Cheers,
    Nathan

  10. Thanks, Nathan, appreciated. I may look into the Hellboy trade paperbacks: I do enjoy a good graphic novel, even if I always seem to end up comparing them unfavourably with Watchmen!

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