Monday, 28 November 2016

Every Hitchcock-directed episode of
Alfred Hitchcock Presents* reviewed
and ranked for some reason

*and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour

Good evening.

Watching and ranking every film Alfred Hitchcock directed (as I did last year) is all well and good, but it does leave you in the depressing position of not having any Alfred Hitchcock films left to watch. Fortunately Hitch predicted that this fate might befall me, so he kindly directed eighteen shorter films to help ease my withdrawal symptoms, and called them "television programmes". These he buried within the 361 episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, broadcast between 1955 and 1965, a decade when Hitchcock was arguably at the height of his fame and powers.

By their very nature, these TV episodes were hardly the ideal platform for Hitch to replicate the kind of magic he was then working on cinema screens. Restricted by budget and time, he saw the series more as a lucrative opportunity to expand the Alfred Hitchcock brand, work with some of his favourite casts and crew and, with luck, discover new talent. So while there's none of Rope's technical showboating, or North By Northwest's meticulously devised set-pieces, or Vertigo's chilling psychodrama to be found in these episodes, they do offer the chance to ruminate on where Hitch was at that fascinating stage in his career, which stories appealed to him as a director and where he left his grubby, incriminating fingerprints.

Like much of the series, the episodes Hitch directed often featured murder, crimes of passion and marital woes; usually all three, if possible, glued together with sticky black humour. Short of that, though, it's tricky to identify the director by watching the episodes. Hitch biographer Donald Spoto noted that a handful of them have characters deliver "the stare of madness" - that vacant gaze, assumed while something deeply unpleasant was going on either physically or emotionally - but that's about as Hitchcockian as we get. Even the series' best-regarded episode, The Man From The South (starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre), was directed not by the chubby fella with his name in the title but by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Norman Lloyd.
Still, as a tedious completist I felt it my duty to watch Hitch's contributions (I haven't yet managed to sit through all 361 stories) and, as is necessary in order to prevent mental atrophy in the reader, list them in reverse order of excellence as if that somehow matters. So here are the seventeen episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents - plus one of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour - directed by the man himself, ranked for my own amusement. Do keep an eye on The Incredible Suit in the near future for full examinations and rankings of Hitchcock's Best Words, Hitchcock's Best Dinners and Hitchcock's Best Wees. Until then...


18. Wet Saturday
Episode 2.1     First broadcast September 30 1956
Script: Marian Cockrell     Story: John Collier
Hitch launched the second series of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in incongruously dull fashion, with an episode that ends so drearily he has to rewrite it in his closing monologue. Rope’s Cedric Hardwicke plays a devious patriarch forced to protect the daughter he despises after she murders a lover; John Williams (no, not that one; the moustache-combing inspector of Dial M For Murder) is the unfortunate patsy who Hardwicke incriminates. Hitch directs Tita Purdom and Jerry Barclay to play Hardwicke’s grown-up children as irritating imbeciles so we identify with the exasperated father, but he’s no less annoying than they are, and you wish the whole family had been bludgeoned with a croquet mallet.

17. Arthur
Episode 5.1     First broadcast September 27 1959
Script: James P Cavanagh     Story: Arthur Williams
The Manchurian Candidate's Laurence Harvey deploys his voice of silk and poison to narrate the story of how his sociopathic character dealt with a particular irritant (the solution involves hungry chickens and an industrial meat-grinder). A pre-Avengers Patrick Macnee co-stars, and the two men make an otherwise rote episode worth watching. That and the unintentionally comical sound effect used to denote the death cry of both a chicken and a human, despite sounding nothing like either.

16. I Saw The Whole Thing
Episode 1.4 (of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour)     First broadcast October 11 1962
Script: Henry Slesar     Story: Henry Cecil
John Forsythe heads up an uneventful courtroom drama (never Hitchcock's forte) as a man accused of manslaughter after a hit and run accident. The only fun to be had is from the performances of the five witnesses, each of whom Forsythe must attempt to discredit: a dizzy blonde, a drunk, an obstinate war veteran, a pompously righteous berk and a sad mom. The twist is a bit shit and nobody seems to give a stuff about the poor bastard who died, but at least John Forsythe wears some nice jackets.

15. Lamb To The Slaughter
Episode 3.28     First broadcast April 13 1958
Script and Story: Roald Dahl
Barbara Bel Geddes wallops her old man to death with a leg of lamb the size of a small child, then cooks it and serves it up to the investigating police. And that’s it. There’s a distinct whiff of Lamb To The Slaughter being written because Roald Dahl thought the phrase was amusing, which is a shame given his usual skill at weaving tales of the unexpected from humble beginnings. This was Hitchcock's favourite of all his TV outings, but while it makes for an amusing anecdote it's not quite meaty enough to fill half an hour of telly.

14. Revenge
Episode 1.1     First broadcast October 2 1955
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: Samuel Blas
Hitch kicked off his big TV project inauspiciously, directing an unengaging whodunnit with an improbable climax and a predictable twist as the very first episode. Ralph Meeker and Vera Miles are newlyweds; he comes home to find her unconscious after a mysterious attack. Typically Hitchcockian police incompetence leads Meeker to take matters into his own hands, with hilarious consequences (lol j/k, the consequences are tragic). The staging is vaguely cinematic and the episode benefits from repeat viewings when you care less about the payoff, but there's little Hitchcock magic here. Only really notable for being the first time Hitch would work with Vera Miles (a professional relationship which would shape his entire future), Revenge is the kind of opener that would get a series axed before the first ad break if it ran today.

13. Banquo's Chair
Episode 4.29     First broadcast May 3 1959
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: Rupert Croft-Cooke
A wily copper sets up a dinner party with the specific intention of eliciting a murder confession from one of the guests in this rather humdrum tale. The twist is as old as time (or maybe it originated in the source play, written in 1930), and isn’t particularly well staged by Hitchcock, but just about makes the episode worthwhile. Also features one of many missed opportunities in the series for John Williams – more or less reprising his Dial M For Murder character here – to give his moustache another cheeky comb.

12. The Crystal Trench
Episode 5.2     First broadcast October 4 1959
Script: Stirling Silliphant     Story: AEW Mason
The crystal trench of the title refers to a glacier, which claims a victim in Act I and spits it out again forty years later in Act III, along with an unwelcome secret. An unexceptional episode, made even more so by charisma-free leads James Donald and Patricia Owens, this is nevertheless notable for a) a cameo by an almost unrecognisable Patrick Macnee as a suspiciously accurate forecaster of glacial movement (he predicts the emergence of the body to within a few hours, four decades in advance) and b) bearing a striking resemblance to the premise of 2015 rom-dram 45 Years.

11. Mrs. Bixby And The Colonel's Coat
Episode 6.1     First broadcast September 27 1960
Script: Halsted Welles     Story: Roald Dahl
Marital infidelity is the catalyst for a gentle but amusing episode in which the titular Mrs Bixby receives the titular coat from the titular Colonel, only for Roald Dahl to twist events towards a satisfying bit of petard-hoisting. Hitch keeps things light and breezy despite a lengthy prologue in which he promises another season of amateur murders, and - considering how Hitch's subversive women usually end up - the episode lets Mrs B off lightly.

10. The Case Of Mr Pelham
Episode 1.10     First broadcast December 4 1955
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: Anthony Armstrong
Notable for being based on the same story as Roger Moore’s undisputed masterpiece The Man Who Haunted Himself, this episode sees Tom Ewell as the businessman discombobulated by the unwelcome appearance of his doppelgänger. Ewell is suitably mousy and nervous in the role (talking to himself only slightly less than in The Seven Year Itch), but his implied degeneration into madness isn’t given enough time to fully convince, as it does in the feature-length version. The premise is nice and creepy, more Twilight Zoney than Hitchcockian, but there’s little for Hitch to get hold of and make his own.

9. Dip In The Pool
Episode 3.35     First broadcast June 8 1958
Script: Robert C Dennis     Story: Roald Dahl
A morality tale which proves cheats never prosper; nor, for that matter, do gamblers, liars, bad husbands, boozehounds or men in loud jackets, as one poor sap who happens to be all of the above discovers on a cruise ship. Keenan Wynn plays the improbably-named Mr Botibol (thanks, Roald Dahl), a walking compassion repellent who nevertheless doesn’t quite deserve the fate dealt to him by the story’s final twist. Hitch enjoys shifting our sympathies though, and knows full well we wanted Botibol to get everything his dispassionate creators could throw at him. Anybody would think we’re the bad guys here.

8. Breakdown
Episode 1.7     First broadcast November 13 1955
Script: Francis Cockrell & Louis Pollock     Story: Louis Pollock
Joseph Cotten plays a stone cold bastard in Hitchcock's second episode; when a car crash leaves him paralysed he soon learns the value of emotions. Wait, come back! It’s much better than that sounds. Hitch busts out some welcome formal experimentation, telling the story almost entirely through Cotten's internal monologue, and you can sense his mischievous glee at taking an actor of that calibre and having him do nothing but stare blankly into space for twenty minutes; this is Spoto's "stare of madness" extended across an entire story. Minus points for the world’s worst coroner though, who can’t distinguish between a corpse and a breathing man with a pulse.

7. The Horseplayer
Episode 6.22     First broadcast March 14 1961
Script and Story: Henry Slesar
Hitch takes the opportunity to have a primetime pop at hypocrisy and moral lapses in the Catholic Church, and in the process slips some decidedly irreverent entertainment under the noses of God-fearing viewers everywhere. Claude Rains is, obviously, eminently watchable as the priest trying to plug the holes in the chapel roof, and his furtive glances skyward when presented with a less-than-holy solution are delicious.

6. Poison
Episode 4.1     First broadcast October 5 1958
Script: Casey Robinson     Story: Roald Dahl
"There’s a snake in my boots!" says nobody in this episode, because the snake is actually in Harry’s pyjamas, and he daren’t move lest it sinks its poisonous fangs into his gut. Harry’s pal Timber spends the evening deeply unsympathetic to Harry’s plight, so let’s hope for his sake their roles are never reversed, hmm? Hmm? Hitchcock enjoys wringing tension out of both the unseen critter in the bed and Timber’s hair-pulling ambivalence, and Roald Dahl gives his characters enough backstory to lace their words with sinister meaning; seems the poison was there long before the snake was.

5. The Perfect Crime
Episode 3.3     First broadcast October 20 1957
Script: Stirling Silliphant     Story: Ben Ray Redman
An overly talky two-hander, but when one of those talking hands belongs to Vincent Price you can forgive Hitch for having him yammer on for an entire episode. Price plays a Holmesian detective whose cunning is challenged by a visiting lawyer; while the episode plays out like a Conan Doyle short story for the most part, its climax takes a decidedly Hitchcockian turn. Like John Dall in Rope, Price gets to ruminate on murder as a statement or an art form, but as the director reveals in a typically droll epilogue, there’s never a perfect crime in Hitchworld.

4. Mr Blanchard's Secret
Episode 2.13     First Broadcast December 23 1956
Script: Sarett Rudley     Story: Emily Neff
Just two years after Rear Window, Hitchcock directed this lesser tale of a nosey parker with an overactive imagination who suspects the neighbour of offing his wife. Hitch enjoys the repeated setups and debunkings of each far-fetched theory, and encourages the audience to suspect everyone in the story of some crime or other at some point. A gentle episode with a darker edge provided by our own expectations, Mr Blanchard’s Secret throws a metatextual light on the effect of crime fiction on suspicious minds.

3. One More Mile To Go
Episode 2.28     First broadcast April 7 1957
Script: James P Cavanagh     Story: FJ Smith
Three years before Psycho, Hitchcock directed this eerily familiar episode about an ordinary citizen who commits a crime in the heat of the moment. Unequipped to adequately deal with the consequences, their getaway is hindered by a traffic cop who doesn’t realise their darkest secret is in the car with them, and things only go less smoothly from thereon after. Hitch plays to his silent era strengths in the dialogue-free first act, and obviously enjoys the motif of a troublesome wife who becomes no less troublesome despite her cadaverous status.

2. Bang! You're Dead
Episode 7.2     First broadcast October 17 1961
Script: Harold Swanton    Story: Margery Vosper
Five-year-old wannabe outlaw Jackie is wandering around town with a gun which he thinks is a toy, but we know he's inadvertently picked up Uncle Rick's loaded revolver. From that simple premise Hitchcock stretches out the tension to snapping point, and he delivers in spades the very lessons in suspense he's been preaching on the big screen for years. A terrific episode, marred only by some bungled editing at the climax which carries a strong whiff of network censorship. So strongly did Hitch feel about the subject matter that his usual flippant closing monologue is replaced with a sombre public service message about gun control in the presence of minors. That was 1961; in 2015, 265 under 18s in the US picked up a firearm and accidentally shot someone. 83 of those shootings were fatal.

1. Back For Christmas
Episode 1.23     First broadcast March 4 1956
Script: Francis Cockrell     Story: John Collier
Boasting a loveless marriage, a long-planned murder, genuine comedy suspense and a lip-smacking twist, this episode is the first Hitchcock-directed story in the series to actually feel like a mini Hitchcock film. John Williams is the hen-pecked husband with a flawless plan for a wife-free retirement which, obviously, isn’t quite as flawless as it seems. Williams and his screen missus Isabel Elsom are great, and Hitch magics seat-squirming fun out of a hole in the ground and a rickety stepladder.

*

Huge thanks to Fabulous Films. Every episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Alfred Hitchcock Hour is currently available on DVD.

Friday, 11 November 2016

A brief(ish) guide to Abel Gance's Napoleon for anyone without 332 minutes to spare

Because I am a staggering ignoramus, my knowledge of the life and times of Emperor Of The French, King Of Italy and Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine Napoleon Bonaparte is entirely limited to the movies. So while I may have had to check Wikipedia to discover that the Battle of Waterloo wasn't actually fought inside Waterloo station, I do at least know that Napoleon was once cruelly robbed by time-travelling dwarves, and that he enjoys water slides and Ziggy Pig ice creams when visiting late-1980s San Dimas.

When it was announced, then, that Abel Gance's five-and-a-half-hour 1927 biopic of the short dead dude would be screened at the Royal Festival Hall with a full live orchestra, I grabbed the opportunity to reduce my Napoleonic ignorance to socially acceptable levels. My expertise on the subject would still be limited to what somebody kindly placed on a massive screen in front of my face, but at least this new information would be French in origin, and therefore more credible and slightly classier.
Proof that I am not making any of this up

The screening, held last Sunday, was an absolute joy despite being the same length as the average working day (the organisers had kindly inserted two wee breaks and a 100-minute dinner-plus-poo interval, bumping the total experience up to eight hours; an endurance test not dissimilar to that undergone by the soldiers in Napoleon's army, I shouldn't wonder). Carl Davis' incredible score was conducted by the maestro himself in full conducting regalia (unless that was his dressing gown), and sounded awesome when parped out by the Philharmonia Orchestra. The recently-restored picture, too, was virtually flawless, marred only by the shadow of the masking below the screen which was caused by the orchestra's lights. You'd think if they were that good they could play in the dark, but apparently no, they need to be as floodlit as a midnight football match played deep in the bowels of Moria.

If you're unfamiliar with M. Bonaparte's life story (hahaha you uncultured MORON), allow me to recap the events of Gance's extraordinary film and at the same time highlight some of its, uh, highlights. This post might look like quite long but then people said that about the film, and yet nearly a century after it was made we're still talking about it and celebrating it as a monumental achievement. Sometimes genius takes effort, that's all I'm saying. Let's march into history!

This photo of Wes Anderson may seem incongruous but I saw him just before I took my seat and I really want you to get a sense of what it was like to be there

THE FIRST EPOCH
ACT I
The first part of Napoleon concerns the future star of the 10,000 franc note's school years, focussing on his prowess in advanced tactical military operations in the field, specifically the snow-covered field just outside his school where a tense snowball fight is underway. Because all 18th century French children look the same (that's not racist), Napoleon is conveniently dressed in a Napoleon costume (complete with wang hat), as he is for the majority of the film. This makes him easy to spot among the rest of the brats, which is vital when Gance suddenly launches his camera into the fray on a toboggan or whirls it round his head like a loon. There is some seriously innovative shit going down in this scene, not least some frenetic editing, and it very quickly stops feeling like a 90-year-old film and captures the breathless freshness (and showy-offness) of the likes of Hitchcock or Tarantino.

Team Nap win the snowball fight, despite the enemy secreting rocks in their snowballs, thanks to the young leader's preternatural strategic nous. You'd think this would make him popular, but in fact he remains about as well-liked by literally everyone as a baked shit in a croque monsieur. His only friend is his pet eagle; I don't know if most French kids in those days had large, powerful birds of prey as pets but there's a suggestion that the eagle might be some kind of metaphor so I won't dwell on it. Shortly afterwards, Napples gets into a massive scrap with his entire dorm, which is so chaotic it splinters the frame into nine separate images, and it's completely brilliant.
How Michael Bay sees the world

Nine years later (not literally, the film isn't that long) and we're firmly in French revolution territory, a period in history vividly brought to life in popular culture by such artistic titans as Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo and Susan Boyle. Revolutionaries are gathering, plotting and - most importantly - picking a theme tune, and when a young officer tosses off La Marseillaise he is congratulated by Lieutenant Bonaparte and told that his work will fuel the revolution more than any army ever could. "Well that's great but I can't pay me rent with compliments can I?" he says, mostly with his face to be honest. It is a chilling portent of the issues still faced by young creatives today, although Gance chooses not to focus on that theme. No doubt he was being quite sufficiently remunerated for his work, merci beaucoup. Anyway until this point Carl Davis had been teasing the first few notes of La Marseillaise in his score before blasting it out in full, not unlike David Arnold's gradual revealing of the James Bond theme in Casino Royale. I'll let them argue over who thought of it first but it's very effective.

The Napster returns to his homeland of Corsica, which - much to his horror - is about to come under English rule. He stresses the need for the island to remain French, and thereby once again annoys pretty much everyone. A price is put on his head and he is forced to escape to the coast in an amazing sequence which features horse-mounted cameras and all sorts of kinetic whizzbangery that shoves you right into the middle of things. Pausing only to steal a giant Tricolour from the town hall, Napoleon legs it to the sea where he finds a boat with no oars or sail, and in a crowd-pleasingly triumphant moment of unlikely genius he rigs up the flag and uses it as a sail to power his boat away from the army on his tail. I'd like to believe this scene was the inspiration for Roger Moore's Union Jack parachute in The Spy Who Loved Me, and frankly I think Carl Davis missed a trick by not having the orchestra burst into the Bond theme at this point.

Meanwhile, as Napoleon is tossed on the waves of a storm in a jaw-dropping example of early cinema, France is undergoing its own political storm. Fearing that 1920s audiences may not have grasped the allegory, Gance helpfully points it out in an intertitle which may as well have included the phrase "Do you see what I did there?". Not long after, Napoleon drops one of its best gags (of which, surprisingly, there are many) as a coincidentally on-the-scene Horatio Nelson is denied permission to blow Napoleon's boat out of the water. It's funnier in the film, trust me.

INTERMISSION
Feel free to go for a wee at this point, or alternatively do what the large gentleman at the end of my row did and remain in your seat without moving to let anyone past, thereby forcing us all to clamber down a row in order to get to the ruddy bog.
Napoleon's is on the right

ACT II
I'll be honest, Act II lost me a bit. It was late afternoon by this point and I was already quite sleepy, and as far as I could gather the best part of an hour was spent on the siege of Toulon (essentially Napoleon's Battle of Helm's Deep), a supposedly impressive battle scene that's actually quite confusing and really very lengthy indeed. It looks great though, tinted red and with rain hammering down like nails. But, you know, ten minutes max is all that requires. I did enjoy some moments of eye-watering violence though, like when a heavy cart rolled over some poor bastard's leg or an unsuspecting soldier got an eight-inch knife thrust up his anus. I also liked the bit where a British general, in the midst of all the chaos, pours himself a nice cuppa from a china tea set while casually ordering the destruction of the French fleet, and I wondered how much longer Gance was planning to continue this comedy xenophobia because I didn't want to enjoy it too much.

END OF THE FIRST EPOCH
(DINNERTIME)
You now have 100 minutes to pop next door to Giraffe for dinner or, if money is no object, get a sandwich from the Royal Festival Hall. You are also free to take this opportunity to go home if you're not enjoying yourself, as at least eight people did who were sitting near me. This was great because the old couple next to me had been alternately providing a running commentary on the film and audibly sleeping, so I was glad to see the back of them. Wealthy middle class pensioner audiences in all their Marks & Spencer finery are the absolute worst, they really are.

THE SECOND EPOCH
ACT III
If Act I is Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone and Act II is The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, then Act III is a political drama with slatherings of military strategy and dollops of romantic comedy, and I can't think of a modern equivalent of that. There's clearly a gap in the market for a new film that covers all those bases, so if one pops up you'll know where they got the idea from. (Me. Not Abel Gance)

There's a lot of chit-chat and argy-bargy and ooh-la-la in whatever the French equivalent of the Houses Of Parliament is, and it's tricky to keep track of who's on which side. At some point the general public turn on the revolutionary leaders for overthrowing all the toffs and then sitting on their fat arses eating Camembert, and quite rightly too. Imagine if our leaders presided over an enormous political upheaval and then didn't have a single fucking clue how it was going to work! Why, we'd show them who's really in charge by writing pithy comments of 140 characters or fewer and distributing them to people who thought exactly as we do. That'd show 'em.

Napopo gets disappointingly little screen time while all this is going on. Poor and hungry, he's asked to contribute a plan for invading Austrian-occupied Italy but his ideas are rejected for being too stupid, so he uses them to paper over missing panes of glass in the windows of his Napshack. Not sure what he was intending to do when it rained, but he's the master strategist so I'm sure his little bit of paper will keep him dry somehow. Then, shortly after the Thermidor comes the Vendémiaire (if you don't know what I'm talking about you really are a massive thicko), and Napoleon steps up to lead the revolutionaries against an uprising of Royalists. He does this so sexily that he catches the eye of Josephine, and at a party celebrating his victory he wins her in a game of chess, or something.
The lengths you had to go to to get a date pre-Tinder

We head into a lengthy stretch of wooing, which reminded me of the excruciating scene in Henry V when Hal tries to get off with Kate by reciting Shakespeare at her, except it works much better in Napoleon because you can't hear any talking. "When you're silent you're irresistible," Jo tells Nap, which doesn't reflect awfully well on the reputation of the French as charming lovers but does provide a good opportunity for people who like it when silent films get a bit meta.

Eventually Napoleon and Josephine marry. I was waiting for an amusing wedding-night use of the phrase "Not tonight, Josephine", but evidently Gance hadn't done his research thoroughly enough and it never came (and neither did Josephine, ZINNNNG!). At the same time Violine, a childhood friend of Napoleon's who has fancied him since, like, forever, cries into the definitely-not-weird Napoleon shrine she's constructed in her bedroom. Later on Josephine will discover this shrine in a creepily effective handheld POV scene, the likes of which you rarely see in early cinema. The evidence that Abel Gance visited the future looking for filmmaking tips is stacking up and I am yet to be convinced by his defence, which is simply that he is some kind of genius.

INTERMISSION
make u think

Nearly there guys. You've got this far so you may as well carry on. Do what I did and get a coffee from EAT to keep you going, but don't do what I did and spill it down your trousers because that's the shittest way to end an experience like this.

ACT IV
The Napman sets off to the Alps to do some hardcore war, but stops en route at the now-deserted Maisons de Parliament, feeling nostalgic for all the great times that were had there. The ghosts and echoes of dead revolutionaries pester him with interview-type questions about his intentions, and he responds with a rousing speech that elicited a spontaneous round of applause in the Royal Festival Hall, particularly this bit:
LOL as if

The pro-European sentiment went down well with the crowd (especially as I'd pegged most of them as Leave voters), although I felt like people seemed to miss the irony in the fact that Napoleon was literally yelling into an echoey chamber like an 18th century French Armando Iannucci on Twitter.

To the Alps, then, and the funnest stretch of this wild and crazy Bonaparty. As Napoleon gives the obligatory rousing pre-battle speech, Gance goes absolutely fucking mental and triples the width of the screen by shooting with two extra cameras. The triptych, as I believe we must call it, is absolutely first class for three reasons: firstly, when the image is expanded it allows a literally wider scope for Gance's remarkable vision; secondly (and thirdly), when Gance places separate images onto the three screens it facilitates clever visual juxtaposition while effectively allowing us to watch an hour of footage in twenty minutes, thereby bringing the prospect of hometime much closer to a reality. Maybe if Gance had deployed this technique earlier I wouldn't have missed Planet Earth II, and would have understood what all the tweets about iguanas and snakes meant, but again I shan't dwell on his faults because he isn't here to defend himself.
ERROR: Triptych is too amazing for blog. Please crop it or reduce resolution

It's a minor disappointment that we see a lot of the buildup to and aftermath of the battle in the final act and not many actual killings, but it hardly matters. Carl Davis' score has gone into full-on pomp mode by now and the triptych has been tinted blue, white and red and everyone in the Royal Festival Hall is in the latter stages of crazed, cabin-fever-induced ecstasy, as no doubt you also are by this point. And so with a final appearance by Napoleon's possibly imaginary eagle and its deeply unconvincing shadow leading the troops home, Abel Gance's Napoleon comes to a rousing climax (unlike Josephine, ZINNNNG!). I sucked myself out of the me-shaped dent in my seat and, following in the diminutive footsteps of Napoleon Bonaparte himself, headed for a rendezvous with destiny at Waterloo. (walked to the tube station)

THE END

Clearly this isn't quite the end, because I need to tell you some more things. Firstly, although Carl Davis won't be dragging the Philharmonia Orchestra to selected cinemas across the country, you can see this quite incredible film and hear his score at a film-o-plex near you from today (assuming you're reading this on November 11th 2016). And if you'd like to be able to watch it naked but your cinema of choice frowns on the freedom to bare all, it's out on Blu-ray and DVD on November 21st. The home entertainment release is a thing of immaculate beauty, and although it does not contain this blog post as a special feature (too highbrow for the "BFI", no doubt), it does include the following:

  • A lovely interview with Carl Davis about how great he is
  • A featurette on the restoration presented by a BFI archivist who, fantastically, wears a white lab coat with three pens neatly clipped into the breast pocket
  • A 1968 BBC documentary on Abel Gance which, amazingly, features actual behind-the-scenes footage of him directing Napoleon in 1927. Why didn't Hitchcock do that? Slacker.
  • Some stills and what have you
  • A commentary (which, at five and a half hours, I confess I haven't listened to in full. Or at all)
  • Most excitingly, each panel of the triptych is presented by itself on a disc of its own. This means that if you can find three DVD players and three 4:3 TVs you can, in theory, line them up and play the final act as it was meant to be seen (not on three 4:3 TVs you understand, but with the extended width and no loss of height).

OK, that's definitely the end now. Well done if you made it this far. As a reward, here's my favourite picture of Napoleon. À bientôt!

Friday, 4 November 2016

BlogalongaBond / Spectre:
The Author Of All My Pain

Thunderball. Moonraker. Die Another Day. What do these three James Bond films have in common? Two things: firstly, they are the fourth outings in the tux for Sean Connery, Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan respectively. Secondly, they're all rubbish.

See if you can guess where I'm heading with this.

Spectre was a big deal for me. Skyfall seemed to get so much right in terms of balancing old and new, tradition and surprise, character and Massive Fuckoff Explosions, that to get Sam Mendes back for another go seemed like an idea that could not possibly fail. Furthermore, through a combination of incessant Bond waffle from my direction and sheer dumb luck, I found myself reporting on the film from the Mexico set for Empire magazine, a bucket-list event which to this day I can't quite believe actually took place. But it did, I've got hundreds of photos to prove it. Come round one day, we'll have a slideshow.
He was even happier to see me than Pierce Brosnan was that time

So I was invested in Spectre. I knew it would be amazing. It would be the Bond film I could download into my grandchildren's brainports and say: "Hey kids, Grandad stood just out of shot there, dribbling even more than he does now!" But in my excitement I had forgotten two things: one, Spectre was Daniel Craig's fourth Bond film and therefore automatically cursed, and two, I don't have any children and at this stage am extremely unlikely to conjure any up. But that's a blessing, because now I won't have to witness their offspring's hollow-eyed disappointment as they realise I was present at the scene of one of the worst crimes in Bond history and did nothing to stop it. For Spectre is not just Daniel Craig's worst Bond, it's possibly the most crushing disappointment in the series' lifetime.

I outlined a lot of what Spectre gets calamitously wrong in my immediate reaction, bashed out after a preview screening just over a year ago, so I won't repeat myself here. Not much, anyway. I saw the film again a few days later at the premiere, and, having dramatically lowered my expectations, found it just as flawed but not quite so distressingly average. But in the past twelve months I haven't been able to face it again. In fact such was its impact on me that, aside from a desperately needed go on Licence To Kill to remind myself why I love James Bond, I haven't watched a single 007 adventure in all that time. That is unheard of in these parts, let me tell you.

So exactly one year to the day since my first viewing, I gave Spectre another go. Surely, with a year's distance between us, the Bond films and I could reunite, rediscover what we did for each other and enjoy some unbelievable yet firmly metaphorical make-up sex. When I casually mentioned on Twitter that I was planning a rewatch, I received a smattering of ambiguous responses:







I felt like people were trying to tell me something, though I couldn't quite put my finger on exactly what it was, so I pressed on with an open mind and a full wine glass. Alas (and I wish Twitter had made some effort to warn me), it turns out Spectre is still a distressingly average film, and therefore an unacceptably substandard Bond film. I'll be surprised if I ever get round to watching it again. So what went wrong? Apart from - as mentioned in my previous review - the monotony of the narrative, the awful theme song, the unsettling location-hopping, the appalling treatment of Monica Bellucci, the shittest henchman since the one nobody remembers from Tomorrow Never Dies, the sterile fights and chases, the cack-handed retconning of the previous three films, the repetitive guff about the 00 section being obsolete, the inexplicable volte-face of Madeleine Swann's attitude to Bond, Christoph Waltz's bored performance and Thomas Newman's unforgivably lazy score? I could go on, but I won't.

Like most Bond films, Spectre gives its opening sequence everything, and I do love that four-minute unbroken shot, despite the knowledge that it was stitched together from four takes, shot weeks and miles apart from each other. But like the building Bond manages to blow up, the film comes crumbling down around his ears from there on. The helicopter sequence is the first warning sign: the fight choreography is dull; you can practically see the green screen out of the window; the lack of music under it removes any sense of danger (and when the score does begin it's a cue lifted directly from Skyfall); the much-trumpeted loop-the-loop is shot as if by a bystander on their phone (obviously not the Sony Xperia Z5) and cuts away before it even finishes. And then Sam Smith comes along to squeak a strong contender for the series' worst theme song over some mild tentacular erotica, as if everyone involved in the film has lost their fucking mind.
Hentai another day

There's some enjoyable, albeit brief, fan-service in the first act: the first antagonistic meeting between Bond and M in a wood-panelled office since The Living Daylights is most welcome, and only the third recorded sighting of the inside of Bond's flat is a fun bit of production design. Intended to mirror the psyche of Craig's Bond (sparse, functional, unemotional), the set does a similar job to those that reveal Connery's 007 in Dr. No (classic, angular, golf-oriented) and Moore's in Live And Let Die (vulgar, gadget-obsessed, bit porny). Even the Order Of Temporary Guardianship Moneypenny drops off is worth pausing the Blu-ray over, containing as it does the names of Bond's Aunt Charmian and Hannes Oberhauser, both characters from Fleming's books (although Oberhauser was never Bond's legal guardian and he certainly didn't have a snot-nosed son called Franz who went mental when James turned up).

After that, sadly, everything else is lacklustre and uncharacteristically inert, as if someone's forgotten to wind the film up before letting it go. Much of Bond's dialogue consists of clipped, cursory answers like "I can hardly wait", "That sounds marvellous", "I completely understand" or "Of course", delivered in a way that's meant to sound sardonic but just comes across as bored. Rubbish thug Mr Hinx has the mysterious power to make all the extras in his set-pieces disappear (where is the population of Rome at midnight? What happened to all the people on the train?). The biggest explosion ever captured on film somehow manages to be so flat that it barely ruffles Léa Seydoux's hair.
*ffft*

Then there's the hamfisted unpicking of some of the good work done in the previous films, perhaps best exemplified by Q branch rebuilding the Aston Martin DB5. The destruction of one of Bond's most iconographic elements in Skyfall was so ballsy and laden with feels that it really hit me in the nuts (in a good way, if that's possible), so to just glue it back together like a child's broken toy is frustrating and pointless. Systematically depriving Bond of the few things he cherishes - his true love, his car, his boss - has been a sadistically enjoyable motif of the Craig era, but Spectre loses its nerve in its rush to return to Old Bond. (Interestingly, an early draft had Rory Kinnear's Tanner as an MI6 mole, which would have taken the concept even further, but ended up being one of the few absolutely terrible ideas that was dropped before filming. In the books, Tanner is Bond's only real friend in the Service, and although the films have left that relationship woefully underserved so far, that would have been A STEP TOO FAR DAMMIT)

As for the film's Big Reveal, well. One of those early drafts had Blofeld as an African warlord (to be played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, rumour has it), which may have set him up as Just Another Villain but at least we wouldn't have had to put up with all that brother bullshit. More importantly though, the character was introduced early in the script, thereby negating all the is he / isn't he bollocks we had to put up with in the year running up to Spectre's release, as if the Star Trek Into Darkness Khan fiasco had never happened. What's the point of Oberhauser revealing that he has another name? NO POINT. It means nothing to Bond, because he's never heard the name before; only we, the audience have. And we, it seems worth pointing out, are not characters in the film. It would have made more sense for Waltz' character to call himself Blofeld for the majority of the film, only to reveal himself as - ZOMG - Bond's surrogate sibling all along; at least that would have had some dramatic impact.

But Spectre's biggest crime is its feeble attempt to slot into the plots of the previous three films; a device so lame in its inception and execution that it is an unfathomable mystery why nobody in the film's production ever stopped to think about just how dumb it was. Oberhauser / Blofeld's "It's always been me" speech is such absolute bullshit it makes me cross just thinking about it. It makes literally no sense that he was in any way behind any of the events of Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace or Skyfall, and the very notion not only makes Spectre look stupid, it retroactively renders those three films nonsensical too, which really is quite the achievement. And let's not even get into Blofeld's dunderheaded plan to tell Bond everything, then make him forget everything (wuh?), then kill him (eh?). People complain about the villain in Quantum Of Solace, but at least that guy wasn't a total fucking moron.

That said, it could have been worse. Spectre's script was notoriously leaked during filming, and while I would never condone obtaining and reading it, I did somehow come across a bunch of other ideas intended to demonstrate how Blofeld had been the author of all Bond's pain. They didn't make it into the finished film, but maybe they should have:

Ten more examples of Bond's pain which were authored by Blofeld:
  • Just after the black-and-white bathroom fight at the beginning of Casino Royale, Bond goes to the toilet only to find that someone has recently done a poo and not flushed it. That person... was Ernst Stavro Blofeld
  • At some point between the events of Casino Royale and Skyfall, Blofeld moves the steering wheel of Bond's Aston Martin DB5 to the other side to fuck with his mind
  • Blofeld edited all the action scenes in Quantum Of Solace to try and stop people seeing how good Bond was at fighting and that
  • It was Blofeld who hid the stationery in Bond's hotel room in Quantum Of Solace. Unfortunately his plan backfired; little did he know that the absence of a free pen and notepad was exactly the kind of thing that made Agent Fields' fanny damp
  • For most of the last four 007 films Blofeld is standing directly behind Bond, mockingly pulling his own ears out and making a pouty face. You just can't see him because he's smaller than Bond
  • One night in 2010 Blofeld crept into Bond's tailor's and altered all his measurements so that none of his suits would fit
  • When Moneypenny accidentally shot Bond off the train in Skyfall, it was Blofeld who - just offscreen - whispered the word "bumtrumpet" in her ear and made her do it
  • For most of the first act of Skyfall, Blofeld repeatedly hides Bond's razor
  • Just before Bond does the gunbarrel walk at the end of Skyfall, Blofeld put a little bit of olive oil on the floor, making Bond do a silly little wobble
  • In order to make Bond's heroic deeds appear dull and uninteresting throughout the events of Spectre, Blofeld wrote the score

From now on, then, I would like to impose a rule on the James Bond films: each new actor who plays Bond must do three films in ten years. No more, no fewer. A cursory glance at the Bond back catalogue demonstrates the genius of this idea: no Thunderball, no Moonraker, no Die Another Day, no Spectre, plus we'd have had one more film with Timothy Dalton in it (ignore George Lazenby, he buggers up my otherwise foolproof plan). As much as I've enjoyed Daniel Craig as Bond (he's far and away the best thing about Spectre, even when he's at his most monosyllabic), I think it's time he went. And he can take the bloody DB5 with him.


Ralph Fiennes
Fiennes is bloody great as M, isn't he? He's basically playing the role exactly as Judi Dench did, his infuriation with everyone outside his immediate team palpable and his short-fused tolerance with Bond barely concealed. But his military background means he gets to throw a punch every now and again, and although I don't need to see future scriptwriters crowbarring an action sequence in for him every time, I'm happy to see him get his hands dirty once in a while.

Ben Whishaw
Whishaw, meanwhile, is the perfect Q right now. Ignoring the aforementioned DB5 nonsense, Spectre's Q Branch scene shows his comic skills off wonderfully, and his relationship with Bond is fascinating: he's not impressed by what he does but he's a little bit scared of him. Also he is very concerned about his job and his cats, and those are noble attributes. Plus OH MY GOD THAT SWEATER


And finally: There is no 'And finally'. As if to hammer its rubbishness home, Spectre doesn't even have a decent double entendre making reference to James Bond's penis. What a load of old cock.

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Wednesday, 19 October 2016

LFF 2016:
Manchester By The Sea / The Ghoul /
Mascots / My Life As A Courgette

Well that's that for another year. The 60th London Film Festival is over, and so is my all-encompassing coverage of 4.9% of all the films it had to offer. Join me again next year when we hope to break the magic 5% barrier!

Manchester By The Sea
Kenneth Lonergan's long-awaited follow-up to the epic Margaret lacks that film's scope and scale, hewing closer to his excellent debut You Can Count On Me by virtue of teasing more sibling-related drama out of everyday life. Casey Affleck is terrifically ordinary as "The Lee Chandler", a janitor with a tragic history that hangs over him throughout the story; permanently shuffling around Massachusetts with his hands in his pockets, unwillingly trying to take care of his horny nephew after a family bereavement, Lee's life is a series of obstacles recognisable to anyone who's ever been related to anybody.

Lonergan's skill is in making the everyday dramatic without ever tipping into melodrama, eschewing formalities like distinct acts or character arcs that might lead you to believe you're watching a movie movie. His knack for writing, directing and editing scenes of superficial tedium which are never less than compelling is uncanny, and he's aided enormously by Affleck and Michelle Williams, who - despite essentially replaying her Blue Valentine character here - is literally incapable of being unwatchable. Kyle Chandler, too, threatens to typecast himself as the go-to big brother seen in two series of Bloodline, but he's forgiven because he's exactly the big brother you'd want. On a personal note, if you're going to double-bill Manchester By The Sea with La La Land like I inadvertently did, watch this one first. The other way round is like eating dessert before the main course.

The Ghoul
Written and directed with quiet intensity by Gareth Tunley, The Ghoul is an unsettling depiction of a troubled soul, and dares to tackle a subject all too rarely examined in mainstream cinema. What begins as a modern-day Holmesian detective yarn swiftly mutates into something else entirely: a weird, woozy headscratcher that probes the darkest corners of its protagonist's psyche and presents its findings with appropriately disorientating perplexity. While it suffers from the odd casting decision that can only have helped it get made in the first place, Tunley's film is a layered, metaphor-laden, smartly-constructed puzzle which loops around on itself like the Möbius strip motif at its core. If you can, once the credits roll, watch the beginning again and see if you can spot where the story ends. Good luck.

Mascots
Christopher Guest has made his film again: a gentle mockumentary focusing on a handful of social misfits whose entire life is devoted to one activity so pathetically pointless that the only obvious way to approach it is through a mirthless sneer. The target this time is "sports mascottery" and the grand final of the "Fluffies", a global competition to find the world's greatest Person Who Dresses Up In An Oversized Suit And Does A Funny Routine. That's Guest's first mistake: whereas his previous targets have been familiar to the average audience (am-dram actors, musicians, dog lovers), few of us are as au fait with the deadly serious nature of being a sports mascot, and it's tricky to laugh at lampoonery if you know nothing about what's being lampooned.

For a high-profile proponent of the mockumentary style, Guest just can't seem to be arsed with it this time. A smattering of faux-interviews are about as mocku- as it gets, the rest of the film shot in the style of any other bland and unspectacular comedy. The only thing that's consistent is that blandness, which characterises every joke in the script: attempts to skewer political correctness are weak; a British entrant in the competition is a poor man's David Brent; Guest briefly reprises his role as Waiting For Guffman's Corky St Clair, an appalling gay stereotype who, in one shot, is seen doing needlepoint AND THAT'S THE JOKE. Every film I've seen at this year's London Film Festival has been funnier than Mascots, and that includes the one about the dying parent and the one about the suicidal newscaster.

My Life As A Courgette
A deeply lovable stop-motion animation featuring ludicrously bobble-headed kids, whose various unfortunate circumstances have landed them in Mme Papineau's Home For Peculiar Children. Icare, who goes by the name of Courgette for reasons never fully explained, is our unlikely guide to the joy of companionship and friendship via misery, bullying and loneliness. With eyes bigger than Emma Stone's, each character seems to be locked in a perpetual state of uncertainty, surprise or downright terror, yet director Claude Barras keeps them sympathetic and identifiable via believable dialogue and nuanced animation. Sweet but slight (at just over an hour there's barely time to get comfy), this is a grown-up tale for kids which balances its horrors with some hilarious nonsense about exploding willies.