Wednesday, 28 December 2016

The Incredible Suit's Top 10 Films Of 2016

I haven't got anything nice to say about 2016 but here are some films it produced which were less awful than most of the other things it produced.

MILES AHEAD
Where most Tortured Genius Biopics take you by the hand and gently lead you through a precision-calculated series of emotional switches, Miles Ahead sticks a gun in your hand, throws you into a speeding car and lets you work it out for yourself. Don Cheadle parps new life into a tired genre with this mad, zippy adventure through Miles Davis' psyche, and it's a lot more fun place to be than you'd imagine.

EDDIE THE EAGLE
Dexter Fletcher nails the sporting underdog movie, drenching his tale of a hyperopic buffoon bumbling his way into the hearts of millions in true Olympian spirit. The addition of Hugh Jackman tips the film further into fiction than it purports to be, but he and Taron Egerton are so overburdened with charm it just doesn't matter. If Eddie Edwards was completely fictional this could have been the beginning of a tremendous franchise for its director and leads, but sadly it appears that Eddie The Eagle 2: Gymnastic Boogaloo remains nothing more than a sweet dream. Review

ZOOTROPOLIS
The stunning animation and coruscating political allegory aren't quite enough to shove Zootropolis into the upper echelons of this list, but they are two perfectly good reasons to sit your cute little future intolerant xenophobes in front of it every day for the rest of their childhoods. Only the faintly disappointing noirish plot lets it down, but even then there are still the DMV sloths, the greatest supporting characters of any film this year. Co-director and Simpsons alumnus Rich Moore, sandwiching this between the excellent Wreck-It Ralph and its eagerly-awaited sequel, is officially in my good books.  Review

SING STREET
Nostalgia, fantasy, wish-fulfilment, vinyl records, '80s fashion disasters and Duran Duran: everything I ever wanted in a feelgood musical comedy is present by the bucketload in John Carney's delightful toe-tapper. It even has one of my most favourite things in films ever: a heart-burstingly enjoyable stage show (cf. Back To The Future, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, Napoleon Dynamite), although I'm docking a point for this one because it's a dream sequence. Nevertheless, Sing Street is ruddy essential for anyone who, while at school, wanted to a) be in a band, b) get off with a hot older girl, and c) wear a hat. Review

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
JJ Abrams expands his Cloververse with this pleasingly compact and contained potboiler; a semi-successful scriptwriting exercise where the setups are subtle enough but exist only to be paid off later rather than to be neatly integrated into the plot. Still, Dan Trachtenberg is an expert tension-ratcheter, and the final act is a gift to genre fans for the claustrophobic experience they've just been through. If we get one of these a year I'll be quite happy thank you very much.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY
An Expanded Universe entry brought to knicker-dampening life, Rogue One adequately fulfils its remit to tide us over until Episode VIII. It trips over its own shoelaces in the third act, but precious little has been as much fun at the cinema this year as watching Gareth Edwards conduct some of the greatest space-based carnage the Star Wars series has seen. Review

THE REVENANT
Granted, it's almost as much of an ordeal to watch as that experienced by Leo's bear-hugging trapper, but sweet baby jeebus does it look incredible. Iñárritu flings his camera through the melee of that first attack like a possessed demon, pulling off physics-defying moves unlike anything since, well, Iñárritu's last film. The bitter, unimaginable cold seeps from the frame so convincingly that you're inclined to climb inside a gutted horse to fend off frostbite, and the sheer determination and indescribable botheration that DiCaprio's Hugh Glass endures is awe-inspiring as both folk tale and modern acting triumph.

VICTORIA
It's unlikely I'd place Victoria this highly had it been shot traditionally, but that's not to say the 138-minute single shot format is merely an impressive gimmick. Sebastian Schipper's decision to never cut away is an immersive technique that goes beyond anything 3D could ever do: you're an accomplice every step of the way and you just can't get away. Watching the final scenes knowing the actors haven't stopped for two hours drives home just what an achievement this is for cinema, making all those Hollywood phonies with their fifteen-second takes look like bumbling amateurs. Review

ARRIVAL
Denis Villeneuve's stunning alien-invasion-meets-linguistic-theory ponderer (War Of The Words, if you will) plays out like a worthy thinkpiece on the healing power of communication for the most part, and just when you're about to scroll down to see how long's left he smacks you upside the head with one of the cleverest metatextual surprises you're ever likely to see in a film starring Jeremy Renner. Technically clinical and intellectually rich, it's the second sci-fi in two years (after 2015's Coherence) to do Christopher Nolan better than Christopher Nolan. Review

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!
A bunch of dickish jocks spend three days trying to find their place in the world and fail miserably. That's it, and it's absolutely wonderful. Richard Linklater is so good at these coming-of-age corkers now that he's just showing off; where someone like Michael Bay wanks out spectacular but unwatchable CG sequences, Linklater just ejaculates charm, tossing off one example of heartwarming bromance after another. There's no plot to speak of but the message is written between the scenes: there's a time in life when it's OK - nay, mandatory - to simply not give a fuck, and it doesn't last long so make the most of it. And if that time is way in your past, well, Linklater has made Everybody Wants Some!! so you can relive it for a couple of hours. Review

*

Edit: I saw 41 more films from 2016, and this list - including the #1 film - is now woefully out of date. The current version can be found here.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Friday, 23 December 2016

Rogue One

Rogue One launches itself at you without the Star Wars films' traditional opening crawl of exposition or John Williams' rousing theme, and it's simultaneously disconcerting and exciting. But almost immediately there's a shot inside a rural family home which prominently features a large glass of blue milk, instantly recognisable to fans from the franchise's '77 vintage. That's the tone of Rogue One in microcosm, efficiently distilled in the film's first minutes. This isn't going to be a Star Wars movie as you know them, but fans needn't worry: it's still Star Wars. That glass of blue milk is a sedative; a relaxing, reassuring tonic for anxious geeks.

Metaphorical glasses of blue milk litter the landscape of Rogue One, from mouse droids and a Dr Evazan cameo to a certain popular Sith lord (who even retains the reddish tint in his mask's lenses which disappeared post-Episode IV). But it's not just a conveyor belt of distracting nods and winks; this is very much its own thing - a scrappy, grubby, gloomy adventure that perfectly captures the mood of its place in the Star Wars timeline. The rebel alliance is fractured and flawed, and there's no sign of a magic wizard or his young apprentice on the horizon to save the galaxy from the tyrannical Empire. Ordinary grunts are going to have to get wet and dirty if they're going to root out any kind of hope for peace, and we're going to have to watch it through a handheld camera. Aesthetically, Gareth Edwards has absolutely nailed the attitude here, complementing his film's outsider status perfectly.
When Rogue One does go all Star Wars, it is properly, hair-raisingly belting. Watching new and inventive ways to blow up stormtroopers, AT-ATs and Star Destroyers is one of this miserable year's single greatest pleasures, and as the climax barrels headlong into the opening of A New Hope it falls over itself to provide one ridiculously thrilling shot after another. But there's much to admire in what's new, too: nicely-drawn characters whose backstories are only vaguely hinted at; a new and satisfyingly amusing droid in Alan Tudyk's scathingly honest K-2SO, and a more complex portrayal of the rebellion than we're used to, with militants and defectors threatening to destabilise the fragile alliance. Anyone with a favourite entry in the Expanded Universe who wishes it could be turned into a film (I'd plump for Claudia Gray's terrific 'sidequel' novel Lost Stars) will appreciate what's being done here.

But where Edwards conducts his effects sequences and space-based thrillery with the same brio he displayed in Godzilla, his work with actors is as disappointingly rote here as it was when he failed to get anything interesting out of the likes of Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Olsen. Felicity Jones and Diego Luna's plucky heroes don't have anything like the impact of Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in The Force Awakens, despite the former pair being the more accomplished actors, and there's a tragic sense of missed opportunity in the precious few scenes shared by Mads Mikkelsen and Ben Mendelsohn, two actors who should, by rights, set the screen ablaze when pitted against each other.
Despite this, most of Rogue One works perfectly well as an above-average sci-fi action adventure with the added bonus of being a Star Wars film. But its third act heist - the actual theft and transmission of the plans that will lead to the destruction of the Death Star - is where things start to fall apart. Chris Weitz's script (apparently heavily reworked during reshoots by Tony Gilroy) throws countless unnecessary hurdles in front of our heroes, and the convoluted machinations they must go through to achieve their goal are frustratingly complex: one character has to do one bit of the job from this room, another has to do the other bit somewhere else, someone else has to throw a master switch which is way over there for some reason, that guy is doing something else but I can't remember what, and an antenna has to be aligned or something before another thing can happen. It's an awful lot of effort to go through to send what is essentially a bloody email, and the whole shebang comes across like a poorly-plotted Mission: Impossible film. None of this is helped by disorientating leaps between locations; at times it's unclear which base, spaceship or even planet we're on, and it's never long before we're bounced off somewhere else.

As a gap-filler between Episodes VII and VIII, Rogue One is a perfect reminder of how deliriously enjoyable and occasionally frustrating the Star Wars films can be. Technically on point for the most part (David Crossman's costume design flawlessly segues into the original trilogy and Michael Giacchino's score is skin-prickling at all the right moments, but one heavily CG-reliant character is overused and distracting), there's enough to tide fans over for another year as long as their The Force Awakens Blu-rays are close at hand. But there's also enough sloppiness to warrant concern about the rest of the franchise (Colin Trevorrow's appointment, in particular, often brings me out in a cold sweat), and all the blue milk in the galaxy won't ease that anxiety.

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Silence

Speaking generously about his pal Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg once said: "My movies are whispers; Marty's movies are shouts". Ironically though, Marty's latest shout is titled Silence, and the fact that it's a quiet meditation on deeply personal, generally internalised emotional processes does kind of bugger up The Berg's metaphor. That said, and fully aware that I may be extending this tenuous linguistic connection to unnecessary lengths, Silence does have an awful lot to say about a subject that has echoed loudly throughout history, and shows little sign of decreasing in volume any time soon. OK I'll stop this now.

It's 1640 (the year, not the time), and respected Jesuit priest Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson, making good use of his old Jedi robes) has done a bunk from his business of promoting Catholicism in Japan. Nobody knows what's happened to him, but rumours that he's gone native and apostatised - i.e. renounced Christianity, as Ciarán Hinds helpfully clarifies in an early scene - are causing consternation back in his Portuguese church: Christians in Japan were suffering appalling persecution from the shogunate at the time, with priests and followers tortured and murdered for their beliefs. And so it is that two young, naïve priests, played by Andrew Garfield's enormous hair and Adam Driver's unfathomably peculiar face, set off to find Ferreira like two Martin Sheens on the hunt for a shaggy-haired Marlon Brando. Why Scorsese didn't just call it 'Apostatise Now' remains unclear.

Silence focuses on the journey of Garfield's Father Rodrigues, which you will be unsurprised to hear is more than just a geographical one. Rodrigues and Driver's Father Garrpe are strong of faith, but it's an untested, almost blind faith based on years of teachings, and their mission to locate Ferreira will see it interrogated, abused and turned against them until somebody, or something, breaks. The deeper Rodrigues strays into anti-Christian territory, the more vicious the assault on his faith: it begins insidiously, with a Gollumesque guide who may or may not be entirely trustworthy, and ends nearly three hours later with a final shot that exquisitely balances the weight of everything that's come to pass.

Along the way, Scorsese steadfastly refuses to employ any of his trademark visual whizzpoppery or breakneck editing; there are a couple of dramatic, high angle, God's POV shots sprinkled throughout, but stylistically this is as far removed from The Wolf Of Wall Street as Kundun was from the preceding Casino. That Scorsese can still surprise you with these gear changes at 74 years old is just one reason why it's a privilege to be alive while he's making movies. As expected, Silence is an utter joy to look at too: the Japanese scenery is mysterious, timeless and decidedly Kurosawan (despite being shot in Taiwan), while cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto studies the creases in the Japanese cast's faces in conspiratorial close-up.

Thematically, and for obvious reasons, Silence hews closer to Kundun and The Last Temptation Of Christ before it than Scorsese's more popular fare. But there are shared elements to be found in unlikely places: informants, inquisitors and a woozy sense of paranoia are common to both this and GoodFellas, for example, and Rodrigues' spiritual sense of belonging to a flawed collective that gives his life meaning isn't a million miles away from Henry Hill's calling to the mob. There isn't a single scene in which you doubt that as far back as Rodrigues can remember, he always wanted to be a minister.
But it's the thorough probing of faith, undertaken with relentless intensity by Scorsese and co-writer Jay Cocks in their adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel, that truly hits home. The wisdom of faith, the forms it takes (both physical and spiritual), its potentially catastrophic power, the arrogance it breeds and the eternal struggle between faith and doubt that defines humanity all come under the microscope here. Even I, a committed heathen, learned more about faith from Silence's 159 minutes than three years of mad Mrs Baker's R.E. class, which will no doubt please notable failed priest Martin Scorsese.

Silence is a film of serene power, and should be approached accordingly. It's long, it's talky and it's light on heavy drug use and face-pulping violence, but crucially it's never dull. Its zen-like atmosphere belies its tortuous production history, but it's a thing of great beauty to behold, and if you ever doubted that Martin Scorsese would pull off something so good at this late stage in his career, then shame on you. You should have more faith.

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Fast & Furious 8 trailer as seen through the eyes of someone who's never seen a Fast & Furious film

I've never seen a Fast & Furious film. Sorry. Just never got round to it. There's no point starting now because Episode 8 won't make any sense to me as I'll have missed all the nuanced layering of character development, and if I go back to the beginning it'll just be slow and boring, like the first series of 24 which was incredible at the time but now feels like Andrei Tarkovsky directed it while asleep.

So I thought it might be fun for you to experience the trailer for the new film (which, according to the poster, is the big-screen Phil & Grant Mitchell spin-off the world has been waiting for) through my eyes. The eyes of a man who does not know what he is talking about. So buckle up and let's enjoy the ride etcetera!!!!!

0:03 It is already my understanding that the laws of physics do not apply to the Fast & Furiouses, but it's good to be reminded of that early on by this shot of a car driving through what appears to be a solid concrete wall. Are crumple zones not a thing?

0:07 There have been nine cuts in the first seven seconds of this trailer so as an elderly gentleman I am already confused. Not least by this lady, who remains remarkably calm despite all the laws of physics being broken around her.

0:09 "These guys are taking this personal!" He means "personally", but I suspect that if I am to indicate every instance of abuse of the Queen's English I could very well be here until Fast & Furious 9 comes out, so I'll just sigh loudly and continue.

0:11 Everybody is shouting at each other and everyone is bald I can't take any more of this it was a terrible idea forget I ever mentioned it

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!