Thursday, August 4, 2011

Capsule Reviews: An Assortment

Here, read these.
Pearl of Death (d. Roy William Neill) - The truth of the matter is this: I do not think very much of Basil Rathbone's take on Sherlock Holmes, and, really, never have. When I was a kid, he seemed stiff, and now as an adult who has read his fair share of Doyle's stories, I realize that the problem -- which is less Rathbone's than the tone of the movies -- is that he's only playing Holmes's intelligence. If Holmes was just some super smart fellow, he never would have taken off as a character, and yet the defining cinematic presentation of him to date depicts him as just that, and nothing more. It wasn't until Jeremy Brett's relevatory, and frankly kind of batshit, turn as Holmes the series Mystery that I, as a fan of the stories, really understood what had always been missing.

Even so, Pearl of Death is a good entry to the series of films Rathbone made as Holmes, with the completely wrong and out-of-character Nigel Bruce as Watson. The thing about Bruce's Watson, though, is that wrong though he may be, the character is actually funny, bumbling doofy-ness and all. You can't argue with what works. Also working is Miles Mander as Conover, the main villain who wants the titular pearl, and Rondo Hatton in his first appearance as the back-breaking killer known as "The Creeper." Hatton is the reason I checked out Pearl of Death in the first place, as I knew who Hatton was but had yet to actually experience his on-screen presence for myself. And quite a presence it is. His appearance, the result of the long-term effects of poison gas, gave him a quite unexpected career, albeit a small one, in films, mostly as a weird bit of scenery until the Creeper came along. In any case, his very being adds an uneasy tilt, like the swaying camera that zooms in on the freaks in carnival and circus movies, to a solid but otherwise rote movie.

Good Neighbors (d. Jacob Tierney) - This dark Canadian thriller caught me completely unawares. It stars Emily Hampshire, Scott Speedman, and Jay Baruchel as neighbors in an apartment building who become friends, and more in some cases, against the backdrop of a Quebec neighborhood that is being terrorized by a serial killer. So which one of them -- specifically, which one of the two guys -- is the killer, right? Well, that's what I figured this thing was about for about 60% of its running time, and then it blind-sided me. Not with some whiplash of a twist, but a natural progression into a different sort of film, one much more interesting and strange and disturbing. Speaking of, that's one more thing you might be unprepared for if you decide, as I did, to casually, even lazily, purchase Good Neighbors on PPV: it contains one of the most unpleasant and harrowing and awful moments of violence I've seen in many a moon. This scene is also kind of funny, in a way that will make you feel deeply ashamed.

But this is a good movie. Check it out.

The Driver (d. Walter Hill) - I've always been something of an agnostic when it comes to Walter Hill, having been underwhelmed at a young age by several of what I was told were his very best films. But every so often, I'll cave in again and decide to see if I'm more in tune with his stuff, which I should be, by all rights, given my tastes. When it comes to Southern Comfort, which I rewatched not too very long ago, no, I'm not, unless you're talking about the last fifteen minutes, in which case yes, I am. So impressed was I, this time around, with that film's ending that I figured I'd better keep going (it even erased the whole rest of the film in my mind, which still does nothing for me), and so over the weekend I watched The Driver , Hill's second film. Starring three-time good movie-maker Ryan O'Neal as the title character, The Driver is a classic of '70s crime cinema, which puts it right up there pretty high in the genre's Hall of Fame. Like Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop, the film is about cars, and character types (who aren't given names -- O'Neal plays The Driver, is nemesis Bruce Dern plays The Detective, and so on), and, like so many heist films, which this sort of is without ever quite seeming like it, it's also about doing the job. Not to mention dealing with the shit that comes with that job. It's all so very well-made, so precise and lean -- "expertly sketched", is what a book critic might call it if The Driver was a novel. It's pure cinema, though, and bracingly brutal, too. And Ryan O'Neal should probably send Hill a Christmas card every year, because that part where he shoots that dude from behind the car door must be the coolest thing O'Neal has ever been allowed to do in a film.

Battle Beyond the Stars (d. Jimmy T. Murakami) - These new "Roger Corman's Cult Classic" DVDs they have now are sort of odd. I'm not debating the need for a deluxe DVD of the original Piranha or Humanoids from the Deep or Death Race 2000 or anything like that. But some of these films are so limp, even in their attempts to exploit all the things we want to see exploited (rarely have I see nudity more half-heartedly filmed than in Slumber Party Massacre). And if you're not going to exploit anything, and want to skew younger, then you'd better be as insane as Starcrash. Because if you're not crazy, and you're not exploitive, you know what you are? You're Battle Beyond the Stars, a film whose deluxe DVD exists solely because people think nostalgia is nice.

It would appear to be a can't miss ripoff, in that it is, in Corman's own words, "Seven Samurai in space", but none of the characters who are being recruited by our fresh-faced hero (Richard Thomas) to take down the guy who wants to kill everybody (John Saxon) registers beyond their make-up. Well, George Peppard does, because he's the Han Solo character, and Sybil Danning does because of being Sybil Danning, but that's it. And the other thing that filmmakers who use this structure must remember is that when your samurai stand-ins start dying, it had better be interesting. In other words, if you need to kill one by having their spaceship explode, try to limit that to just one. Here, it seems like half of them go out that way, or in ways so similar as to be indistinguishable. This, I'm afraid, is boring. When James Coburn dies in The Magnificent Seven, he throws his knife into a piece of wood before falling. And don't even make me bring up Toshiro Mifune in the film that got this ball rolling. "Seven Samurai in space" is a premise, not a film.


Lee Russell said...

Good reviews. I'm not a fan of Basil Rathbone's Holmes either, and even less of a fan of Nigel Bruce as Watson, of course. Holmes was a British gent gone bad. He was the product of the
classic Victorian public school system but he was also beyond brilliant, pugilistic and fearless. So fearless that he was almost stupid in the risks he'd take. He was physically and mentally tough, emotionally quite crippled, dogged, impetuous and relentless. He was flawed, passionate and very glacial all at the same time. Jeremy Brett nailed it, as well as Peter Cushing to a degree.

bill r. said...

Thanks, Lee. You are correct about everything you say about Holmes, and you didn't even need to stop there. You could go on about that character, but the makers of the Rathbone films were content to simply make him good at solving puzzles.

Still, I maintain that Bruce is funny. Remove him from any connection to Doyle's Watson, and he makes me laugh. I can't help it.

Greg F. said...

Ha, finally, someone (Lee Russell) agrees with me on Peter Cushing! Peter Cushing could have been just as great as Jeremy Brett if Hammer had done more than just one freakin' Holmes' movie. Brett, of course, was able to develop the character fully and is considered the best, I would say, by Holmes' fans. But too many dismiss Cushing because he only has the one film to go on but in that film I can see an awful lot of potential for a great Holmes to emerge. Oh, if only the BBC was making source-faithful Holmes adventures in the fifties.

Anyway, the Brett ones are now available on Instant, I think. They'll make for perfect viewing on cold fall/winter nights.

I wrote a piece on TCM about period in movies and one of my main call-outs was to the later Rathbone movies. Not only was Holmes just a puzzle solver but in modern times no less. Uggh.

Greg F. said...

Also, since Holmes is an excellent fighter, the newest incarnation, with Robert Downey, Jr, seemed to be trying to make audiences aware of that although most just thought it was Hollywood making that up.

And, still, I hated it. Its main sin was that it was really boring not that they messed with Holmes too much.

bill r. said...

I've never seen the Cushing film, I'm afraid, so I can neither embrace you and Lee in our shared brotherhood, nor reject you both with a contemptuous sneer. I'm a man without a country.

As for the Guy Ritchie movie, I'm afraid I enjoyed it. I would probably like it more if they'd given the character a different name, but as a fun time at the pitcher shows, I was surprised by how much I liked it. I'm sorry!

Greg F. said...

The Hammer version isn't a great version by any means (frankly, rather dry and slow) but I like the way Cushing played it.

I confess, I stopped watching the Guy Ritchie film because the ramping of action sequences (it's slow! it's fast! it's slow again!) really turns me off. It's like an anti-action sequence for me because it doesn't provide for momentum. As a result, the action sequences feel like they just drone on, hence the boredom sensation.

Maybe I'll watch it again. I'll just start up where I left off and give it another go. In the far distant future.