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…
GARY: Much of my viewing at the moment is review-related, including reading Rachel Seiffert's novel The Dark Room in preparation for re-watching Lore on Blu-ray. I did see The Great Gatsby in the cinema, and it's as visually flashy and superficial as you would expect from a Baz Luhrmann film. I haven't read the novel in thirty years, which I did as extra homework when I did Tender is the Night for A-level English, so it's definitely time to revisit it. I saw the 1974 film version at the National Film Theatre years ago, and the 1949 version on BBC2 even further back, but neither have lasted in my memory. I remember the photography and set design of the 1974 version more than I remember any other part of it.
Via Lovefilm Instant, I did catch up with Whit Stillman's first film in thirteen years, Damsels in Distress, starring reigning indie queen Greta Gerwig, which I wasn't able to see in the cinema last year. Stillman is very much an acquired taste and this is no exception, and on one viewing I'm not sure if it's as good as his earlier work. However, let's hope it isn't another thirteen years before he directs again.
JOHN: For the smaller screen, it's been a couple of weeks of climaxes, resolutions and denouements. Doctor Who saved this run's best episode for last and hid a revelation in plain sight, Arrow finished with an excellent final story and Elementary chose to reveal the modern day Holmes' modern day Moriarty. Castle, though, ended with a surprising twist which begs the question whether the curse of Moonlighting is beginning to strike. Of the newer series Defiance is definitely staring to limp towards the generic, but Hannibal is coming in to its bloody own as Lector's true nature is revealed.
Iron Man 3 was a bit of a let-down to be honest with an impossible plot and a few comic moments to relieve what little tension there was. Still, Sir Ben did good. Again, the best of film watching has come from the past catching the bonkers Satanik, the Bond knock-off From the Orient with Fury and the blissful face-off between Andy Lau and Lau Ching-Wan in Johnnie To's Running Out of Time.
MIKE: Although I've come to dislike going to the cinema for the simple reason that I can't stand distractions while I'm watching a film - grumpy old man mode is usually on these days - I have caught both Star Trek: Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 during the past week. The former struck me as a mess with some good dialogue and entertaining performances but the latter was an unexpected treat. Unlike certain superhero films which are so self-consciously solemn that they resemble religious epics from the 1950s, this one was genuinely witty, spectacular, and performed to perfection by Robert Downey Jr, Guy Pearce and the superb Ben Kingsley - as usual, Sir Ben flourishes when he's given something slightly off-the-wall to do. I'd like to see Shane Black work a lot more often. I also saw Michael Winterbottom's The Look of Love which suffered from the fundamental problem of Steve Coogan being far too likeable to be convincing as Paul Raymond.
I watch very little television but have been caught up in the BBC 4 repeats of I Claudius which take me right back to watching it when it was shown again in 1986. If it isn't the best ever TV drama, it's in there fighting at the same weight as The Singing Detective and Edge of Darkness and most modern shows look rather pathetic in comparison. Surprising how much I'd forgotten since last seeing the whole thing - John Hurt's unforgettable entrance in drag being a case in point. One thing which surprised me however was discovering that the most famous and shocking turn of events - the last ten minutes of episode eight - has absolutely no basis in historical record or, indeed, in the book by Robert Graves.
My on-going trawl through the backwaters of mainstream American cinema has turned up some interesting specimens recently. I thoroughly enjoyed Sidney Lumet's raucously funny Bye Bye Braverman, a Jewish comedy which makes good use of George Segal and was tremendously impressed by a revisiting of Ivan Passer's Creator. It's not a great movie but it is an immensely charming one and Peter O'Toole's performance is one of his most charismatic. Somewhat less enthusiastically, I sat through the whole of Robert Altman's early feature Countdown in the hope that something interesting would happen but was doomed to disappointment. Even that somnolent epic was riveting in comparison to Mike Nichols' The Fortune, a disastrous comedy without any laughs and proof positive that Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty can be as devoid of charm as anyone else if they try hard enough.
DAVE: With a lull in new game releases I used my Lovefilm sub to rent some DVDs in the past couple of weeks starting with the Terracotta Distribution release of South Korean rom-com Petty Romance. It's fairly standard stuff for the genre and also a little long but there are some inventive animated sequences which tie in with the comic book the affable leads are working on as their attraction blossoms. Not the best example of the genre from South Korea but it's nice to see Terracotta picking up titles like this. Maybe one day we'll actually see a release of perennial favourite My Sassy Girl on these shores?
Third Window Films are another UK distributor who pick interesting titles and from the synopsis Crime or Punishment?!? sounded right up my street. In this Japanese comedy a struggling gravure model is given the PR job of 'Police Chief for a day'. The twist being the police department treat her like a real chief, looking to her for guidance on interrogation methods and following any order she gives. I was hoping for a comedy which played the scenario completely straight, throwing a young model in at the deep end with wacky results. While it's true she is given complete control over the police for a day, this is a very different kind of film to what I was hoping for, with downright bizarre characters who are hard to care for and a strained sense of humour which made it a struggle to sit through. Persist and there are some pretty big laughs in the final 30-minutes, but the time it takes to get there is a chore.
I also managed to catch Stephen Chow's long-awaited Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons which manages to retain his unique blend of action and comedy despite him not appearing on screen. The only real complaint I could level at the film is how the lead actor is channelling Chow, which he does a good job of, but it took me a while to adjust. Once I got over that however the film's energy and pace sucked me in and it was a pleasure from start to finish. We never did see CJ7 on release over here but hopefully someone will pick this one up for UK release.
ANTHONY: As a belated tribute to Bob Godfrey (who died in February) I decided to catch up with the six ‘sextoons’ he made during the seventies and early eighties in and around his work on the Roobarb and Henry’s Cat television series. I’d seen a couple previously, back when Channel Four would regularly show animation as part of the late night schedules, but not the complete set. Handily, Godfrey had licenced them all to Pickwick in 2007 for a DVD release of admittedly variable sound and picture quality.
Beginning with Henry 9 ’til 5 in 1971, these six short films lingered somewhere between high quality and low smut. “I saw it twice,” was head censor John Trevelyan’s response to the first film, “but I had to give it an X.” Indeed, it was the UK’s very first animation to earn such a rating. This was the tale of an everyday bowler-hatted businessman who enlivens his black-and-white humdrum life with full-colour sexual fantasies. Godfrey combines the hand-drawn with the photographic cut-up as well as a good deal of humour, picking up a BAFTA for his efforts.
In fact, most of the ‘sextoons’ picked up awards or nominations. Kama Sutra Rides Again and Dream Doll were both given the nod by the Academy, while Bio Woman and Dream Doll (again) were also recognised by BAFTA. It’s a sign of the talent behind them, but also the populist approach. They are very funny – especially Dear Margery Boobs, a series of spoof letters (and responses) in the manner of the Marjorie Proops’ ‘Dear Marje’ column for the Daily Mirror – and deserve to be recognised as a key part of Godfrey’s eclectic filmography. As well as the ‘sextoons’ and the TV series, he also found the time for industrial documentaries, collaborations with Bruce Lacey, cameos in Beatles’ movies and the superb Great (Isambard Kingdom Brunel). It would be a wonderful thing if a DVD label were able to compile much of the film work in a single place.