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)I have been intrigued 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.
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.
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.