We've Been Watching...

Here at the Digital Fix we don’t simply watch the films that we write about. Of course, the review discs take priority so as to keep our readership informed of the latest releases, but still we find the time to satisfy our various tastes and predilections. As such we’ve come up with a new fortnightly feature in which to share some of our off-duty viewing. Every other Wednesday we’ll be asking the reviewing team to highlight some of the films they’ve been watching, whether it’s on a big screen or small, an ancient title or brand new…

MATT: Although I’ve been seriously slacking off on film-watching duties so far this March, Oz the Great and Powerful hit cinema screens last week and I like to think of myself as a fully qualified fan of Sam Raimi (the conditions are that you have to own Crimewave on VHS or DVD), so this was an absolute must-watch on the big screen type deal. The story is basically a prequel to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz that also goes to pains to reference and homage MGM’s 1939 film adaptation.

James Franco plays the titular Oz, a womanising circus magician who is swept up in a tornado whilst fleeing the angry spouse of one of his conquests. After crash landing in the magical world of Oz, he finds himself immediately embroiled in a prophecy that foretells the arrival of a great wizard who will defeat the Wicked Witch (who killed the last king of Oz) and become ruler of the land. This puts him in the centre of a power struggle between sister witches Evanora & Theodora, and Glinda: The Good Witch of the South.

Oz the Great and Powerful ticks the basic prerequisite boxes you’d look for in a prequel to the 1939 film: Chiefly it incorporates a sepia-toned epilogue, recreates many of the iconic visual aspects of the realm of Oz, and fully embraces the use of actors-in-dual-roles. The visuals in particular are the film’s strong point, it’s a veritable cartoon brought to life with the frenetically stylised camerawork that Raimi is famous for.

Backing this up is a solid cast all performing solidly in a very solid way, so there is no weak link technically, yet despite all its technical strengths Oz never really rises above the status of disposable entertainment: Mostly because the script is just a series of ever-more-familiar clichéd scenarios, and if you’re a fan of Army of Darkness a strong feeling of déjà vu will pervade as Oz is basically a candy-cane remake that hits all the same story beats as Raimi’s horror-comedy; and let’s face it, narratively-speaking Army of Darkness felt like old hat back in 1993. Oz is good enough that you won’t feel robbed of £10 and two hours of your life, but you probably won’t walk out of the theatre dying to see it again in the near future.

JOHN: A lull in the world of US TV has caused me to catch up on old episodes of The Cleveland Show (I just love Rollo) whilst many faves take a short break. Still the highlight of my TV watching has been Lennie James returning to The Walking Dead in an excellent intimate episode signalling a lull before next week’s storm as the season brings Andrew Lincoln’s Rick and David Morrissey’s The Governor to fisticuffs. On these shores, didn’t see the appeal of either Broadchurch or Mayday as we try to capture that "Scandinavian feel" in our own shows.

I am now weaned off Spaghetti Westerns, moving onto oddities like The Island with Michael Caine kidnapped by David Warner’s forgotten pirates, some German produced Edgar Wallace Mysteries (Klaus Kinski plays a Spaniard!), and some lovely horror nonsense like The Nest, Bad Dreams and Dick Maas’s slightly potty Saint. Best of all has been revisiting Johnnie To’s Election films and admiring a young Nick Cheung as he developed into the cracking actor he is now where even a weak film like Nightfall can’t stop him from standing out as a performer.

ANTHONY: I have this theory that 1998 changed the British film industry forever. This was the year that brought DVD to Europe and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels to the Edinburgh Film Festival for its international premiere. Both were highly successful, of course, with Lock, Stock sparking a rash of imitations almost immediately after its release. We’re still seeing the effects today, though the lark-ish gangster flicks have slowly mutated into hooligan pics and those of the ‘urban’ persuasion – a catch-all term that seems to encompass everything from Shameless to Kidulthood to Ill Manors. DVD, meanwhile, has served as the enabler. The format has not only greatly expanded the home video market, it’s also heralded all manner of digital technologies. The ways in which these films are made and the ways in which they can be viewed have changed: cheap, lightweight digital cameras and editing tools; multiple platforms in which to watch, whether it’s big screen, small screen, tiny screen or monitor. Of course, a fully-fledged theatrical release remains the goal for aspiring directors, but it’s much, much easier to get your film out there nowadays.

And so, in the past decade and a half, British genre filmmaking has been flourishing. Horror has gotten in on the act, too, thanks to the success of the likes of The Descent and Shaun of the Dead and, unsurprisingly, has begun to cross-pollinate with the gangster movies and the urban pics. Attack the Block is the most visible, but there’s also Cockneys vs Zombies, to consider, not to mention Gangsters, Guns & Zombies (which is very much in thrall in to the Guy Ritchie template), Comedown and plenty more besides. Community, which was released onto DVD this week, is just the latest addition. It’s from the makers of New Town Original, a no-budget coming-of-age set in Essex that never really troubled the box-office. Two years ago it was re-released onto DVD as This is Essex in a shameless attempt to cash-in on the TOWIE phenomenon and, I suspect, similar thought processes went into Community. It’s a film chasing the success of others, but whose heart never really feels in it. In a nutshell, this is the story of a pair of film students who enter a particularly scary estate as part of their final year project. Needless to say, it’s even scarier than they managed and soon enough they’re confronted by feral kids, burly psychopaths and a cross-dressing drugs kingpin. There are elements of torture porn, Ben Wheatley-esque discomfort and a few nods to ‘social injustice’ added into the mix, but it’s a rather clunky concoction despite some nice turns and an excellent handle on the overall pace.

Incidentally, Community did prompt me to return to Jim Gillespie’s 1995 short film, Joyride. Though not all-out horror, this little tale of a repairman kidnapped by a pair of youthful psychos is a terrifically tense concoction to which Gillespie’s subsequent Hollywood efforts never really lived up. I Know What You Did Last Summer worked as a solid enough slasher throwback, but the less said about D-Tox and Venom the better. If you want to see Joyride, incidentally, you can find it on the Cinema 16 British Short Films compilation or any of the Blu-ray editions of I Know What You Did….

GAVIN: Trips to the cinema over the past week have included Arbitrage, a glossy and absorbing drama from newcomer Nicholas Jarecki, starring the evergreen Richard Gere as a businessman whose life begins to unravel over the course of a couple of days. The ending is slightly unsatisfactory, but it’s otherwise a strong tale about the wheelings and dealings that go on behind closed doors on Wall Street. Gere hasn’t been this good in years. Stoker, meanwhile, is a bonkers but richly atmospheric slice of Southern Gothic, with a trio of excellent performances from Mia Wasikowska, Matthew Goode and Nicole Kidman. Inspired as much by Hitchcock as it’s title’s connection to Dracula’s author, fans of Chan-wook Park’s previous works (like 2003’s Oldboy) will not be disappointed by his American debut; a twisted, sordid and bloody tale of death, madness and sex. Finally, Side Effects was a classy drama from retiring director Steven Soderbergh about the drugs industry, which also looked to Hitch for inspiration. Jude Law was on especially good form.

GARY: I took advantage (if that’s the word) of a day off sick from the day job by delving into the increasingly growing area of streaming films online, in my case via a Smart TV...

First was Side by Side, a documentary about the rise of digital cinema hosted by Keanu Reeves, recently in UK cinemas but watched by me via Curzon on Demand. It’s a discussion on the whys and wherefores of shooting your film digitally as opposed to film, with contributions from filmmakers on both sides of the fence, both strongly pro-digital (George Lucas, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher) and those anti or at least agnostic (Christopher Nolan among them). It does address the big elephant in the room - how to preserve digital media? It’s inevitably skewed in that this is a feature which you can almost certainly only see digitally, in a cinema (do 35mm prints of this even exist?), and was almost certainly shot that way too, It’s also a little simplistic in that it suggests shooting on film isn’t all 35mm. 4K or 5K resolution digital-capture is arguably comparable to 35mm but it certainly isn’t in the same league as 65mm (such as The Master) and IMAX (of which Nolan is an advocate, having shot parts of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises in the format). And there are also filmmakers still shooting in 16mm - recent examples include Beasts of the Southern Wild and Lore. So while digital projection is probably all but dead - I could probably count the new films I saw last year projected from film on two hands (and three of those were IMAX prints and one was The Master in 70mm), shooting on celluloid is still with us for a while longer.

Secondly, I headed over to LoveFilm Instant and watched Kostas, a 1979 film directed by Paul Cox about the love story between a Greek immigrant (Takis Emmanuel), a former journalist in exile from the Colonels’ regime and now working as a taxi driver in Melbourne, and a divorcee (Wendy Hughes). This was Cox’s third feature and is reputedly a step up from his first two (which I haven’t seen), sincere and well-acted, though less stylised than some of his 80s films which made him an arthouse proposition in the UK in the 80s, though not since. The film was presented in 4:3 (OAR is most likely 1.85:1) and is clearly not from an HD master as it struggled with some darkly-lit scenes. Then again, this film isn’t on DVD as far as I’m aware and I doubt that a HD master exists. Even more to the point, it’s a film that has never had a UK commercial release or TV showing that I know of, and LoveFilm are to be commended for making it available, along with several other Cox films. (Also available on Curzon on Demand and possibly elsewhere.)

Meanwhile, other than review DVDs, I’m working my way through series three of Spiral before I watch series four, recorded off BBC 4. I’m also catching up with a few Oscar nominees of recent years that I didn’t see at the time, and next up is The Reader on a rented Blu-ray.

CLAIRE: This week has seen a Robert Rodriguez theme in the form of Desperado and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, two parts of the Mariachi Trilogy that kickstarted Rodriguez’s filmmaking career. Desperado was the second instalment, starring Antonio Banderas and Steve Buscemi, and introducing Salma Hayek to US audiences. It follows Banderas’ El Mariachi, who is still seeking revenge for the murder of his wife (due to a case of mistaken identity) in the first film. Rodriguez style of storytelling is incredibly fast-paced, overly violent and bloody with a lot of humour and tongue-in-cheek drama thrown in. This makes for a distinctive trademark style that can easily be spotted in the third film, Once Upon a Time in Mexico – this time starring Johnny Depp, Eva Medes and Mickey Rourke, as well as Banderas. All the Rodriguez signatures are there: the gun-slinging, the massive body count, the quirky lines, Mexican setting, Spanish guitar, even Cheech Marin and Danny Trejo (who feature in a lot of Rodriguez work, including Desperado, where they play different characters). I did find that Once Upon a Time in Mexico was more disjointed than its predecessor due to the many overlapping storylines, but it was still an excellent watch. Both films are incredibly entertaining and stand out for me in terms of style and the brilliance of their obvious ridiculousness. Highly recommended!

CLYDEFRO: Paddy Chayefsky is probably one of the more famous writers in Hollywood history, and the notoriety is really just for a handful of works. Primarily, it’s the Oscar-winning Marty and his prescient Network screenplay that secured Chayefsky’s place, but you can dig just a little deeper to find The Americanization of Emily, which I adore, and The Hospital, which I watched this past week. The latter film shares the on-going, almost unstoppable madness explored in Network without ever really coalescing as a whole. George C. Scott plays a depressed, recently divorced doctor who seems to feel powerless too much in his life, including a hospital spinning more and more out of control. Plus there’s an apparent murderer on the loose in the facility. When the film succeeds, even now, it’s primarily for Scott’s brilliant performance while Chayefsky’s dialogue hits more than it misses despite at times feeling like it’s trying too hard to be polemical. Also, the tone is strange in that it rarely feels like a comedy despite its intentions.

More obviously a laugher is the 1933 pre-Code picture Hard to Handle, directed by Mervyn LeRoy and starring James Cagney. The explosive actor was perfectly suited to the rapid-fire style of comedy from this era. Here he plays a public relations man of questionable ethics but definite ambition who’s trying to make a few bucks and romance a sweetheart with a meddling, conniving mother. The role gives Cagney the chance to spit dialogue as he uses his charismatic style for (mostly) good this time rather than in his more characteristic gangster parts. It’s short, very fast and a little gem of a picture. Warner Bros. included the movie in its recent Warner Archive Collection release Forbidden Hollywood, Vol. 5 (which can be had on properly pressed discs rather than burned DVD-Rs like the vast majority of the Archive titles).

IAN: The last couple of weeks have proven to be somewhat of a catch-up session for me. Alongside finally getting to see the likeable, but slight, Warm Bodies, the likes of The Sweeney and Frankenweenie have been ticked off my to-watch list and neither of which are likely to find themselves on my re-watch list. Unlike Tower Block which, having seen it at FrightFest last year and being pleasantly surprised, I was happy to discover loses none of its taut and ruthlessly efficient thrills on repeat viewing. Sheridan Smith and Jack O’Connell are truly terrific in the leads.

As for new stuff, if you were to ask me at the end of the week, I could say I’ve finally watched the Evil Dead remake (which I’m oddly confident about), but Oz the Great and Powerful shall have to suffice. Safe to say, I wasn’t expecting much but the excellent 3D visuals are more than matched by wonderful turns from Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams, even if James Franco ultimately proves one-note. As family entertainment goes, there’s not much that Oz doesn’t deliver and a $150m worldwide debut tends to suggest the world agrees.

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