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: Now that Saturday and Sunday mornings are no longer given over to CBBC and CBeebies, BBC2 has been dipping into its large vintage film library. Most of the films they've shown have come from the RKO catalogue, which the BBC bought permanent TV rights to back in the 1950s. (If you want an old film shown that the BBC doesn't have the rights to, then you'll probably have to whistle. It was noticeable at Christmas when BBC Four showed a new documentary about Clara Bow that they didn't show any of her films to go along with it.) Earlier this month, they showed not one but three films in a row which had not been shown on UK television before - at least according to Radio Times.

This weekend they showed what may be the oldest film shown in a very long time, if ever, on the five main channels - The Gay Diplomat, from 1931. Not a title that would fly nowadays, and clearly intended to mean the exact opposite back then as the title character is recruited to be a spy precisely because of his reputation as a ladies' man. Apparently not a premiere but I certainly don't remember it being shown before, nor can I trace a previous showing. Eighty-two years is a very old film - the last showing I can remember even approaching that age were Channel 4's showings of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance back in 1993. (Film Four occasionally shows silents, such as Orphans of the Storm in the middle of the following night.) Richard Boleslawski was the director and this was the first of his films I've seen. His work was the best of it - he even spun the camera upside down during the opening battle scene - and he kept the pace up, bringing the film in just over an hour. Unfortunately the weak link was Ivan Lebedeff, in his only leading role, handsome but wooden and hampered further by a thick accent. It may have been Pre-Code but it wasn't much so - which I could guess from the fact that its only visit to the BBFC resulted in a U certificate back in 1931. The entry has the word "synchronised" in brackets after the title: there's a sign of the times for you.

Sunday morning's offering was Love Affair, a Best Picture nominee from one of the greatest years of the studio system, 1939. I was aware of its links to An Affair to Remember (a remake from the same director, Leo McCarey, which I haven't seen) and through that to Sleepless in Seattle, which I have seen, but I hadn't seen this Irene Dunne/Charles Boyer original before. I liked it very much, noting the adroit way it switched from the all-enveloping romance of the first forty minutes, to comedy (and some musical numbers!) back to romance for its finale, and the chemistry between Dunne and Boyer was palpable. I also noticed, given that Before Midnight is in the media now in the run-up to its release this Friday, that Love Affair has the same plot and structure as Before Sunrise and Before Sunset combined - with the middle act being the bit in between Linklater's two films. The ending also hinges on missing a mode of transport!

Back to Saturday afternoon, and BBC2 showed Tim, the only film directed by Australian actor Michael Pate, a love story between a middle-aged spinster (Piper Laurie) and the low-intelligence young man (Mel Gibson) who works as her gardener. I had seen it before on VHS, more than twenty years ago, but BBC2's showing was in HD, which made it worth another look as there isn't a UK, US or Australian Blu-ray. It was quite successful in Australia but went straight to video in the UK, developing quite a following among people who fancied the pants off Mr Gibson back in the day. It's a rather novelettish story, better acted (Gibson and the two actors playing his parents, Alwyn Kurts and Pat Evison, all won AFI Awards) than it is directed, but it's a not unpleasant way to spend an hour and three quarters.

DAVE: Arrested Development returned to our screens courtesy of Netflix and thanks to their free trial offer I was able to enjoy it for nought. "And that's probably all it's worth" is what I might say if I was feeling particularly catty, while a more level-headed response would pitch it as disappointing with fleeting moments of greatness. To their credit Season 4 both looks and feels like a natural progression to the series. The leading cast all return and effortlessly slip back into their roles, as do an impressive number of series regulars and guest stars, while the overall level of writing and use of clever visual gags helps it look and feel like the Arrested Development we all loved and mourned the loss of back in 2006.

So where does it go wrong? The single-character focus of each episode certainly doesn't help matters, nor does the development of Michael and George-Michael, both of whom become rather unlikeable over the course of this new season, but the single largest problem is that it's just not that funny. Save for one or two big laughs every couple of episodes, it's mostly knowing smiles or brief chuckles at best, and in its lowest points there are long stretches of the 30-minute episodes where laughter is completely lacking and it becomes rather boring to spend time in the company of the Bluths.

NICK C: After Earth was a strangely inert experience of watching a 14-year-old actor thrust in the middle of green-screen and expected to carry a potential franchise. I wasn’t excited or angry – just bored. The Happening is undeniably terrible, but at least M. Night Shyamalan used to make distinctive disasters. I had a similar reaction with Admission, a sort-of-comedy with Tina Fey and Paul Rudd. The watchable leads aren’t watchable enough to salvage a barebones script. At one point, it’s as if they’re sleepwalking through dialogue.

My other cinema visit was Man of Steel which was another chore, for different reasons. This time, it delivered what I feared and expected: over two hours of Zack Snyder. It’s loud, hollow and makes very clear that Lois Lane owns a Nikon camera. I went home and consoled myself with yet another viewing of Suspiria, a far superior example of how to mix bright colours and a decibel-heavy soundtrack. It even asks the almighty question we’ve all be wondering: “What does it mean to be a witch?”

IAN: I may very well be somewhat of a filmic masochist, but this past fortnight has seemingly had a pattern of visiting some of the most poorly received films of the past twelve months. Unfortunately, for me, the reactions have been completely justified. First up was Texas Chainsaw 3D which, while I liked the whole aspect of being a sequel to the original and ignoring the remakes (keep up at the back), makes the critical error of transforming Leatherface into an anti-hero. Not that many other errors aren't made along the way either.

Then it was a quick-fire double bill of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Silent Hill: Revelation, both of which offer some nice visuals while forgetting to make a film at the same time. The former somehow manages to make a 100-min film about a vampire-slaying President painfully dull, while the latter is riddled with an atrocious script that is so expository, that I'm amazed the stage directions weren't read out at the same time.

Still, at least I found the time to watch Zack Snyder's reboot of Superman which I thoroughly enjoyed, even with its excesses towards the climax. That might be a result of my soft spot towards Snyder as I either like, or at least find some merit in, each of his directorial outings to date. And there aren’t many working directors around today that I can say that about.

ANTHONY: Until last week my only exposure to German Westerns had been through Der Schuh des Manitu (or Manitou’s Shoe), a 2001 send-up of this particular quirk in the genre by comedian Michael Herbig. Needless to say, catching the parody before the films it sets out to lampoon is a somewhat perverse exercise, and so a bit of rectification was required.

The German Western stemmed from the success of Edgar Wallace adaptations and a desire to do similar with the works of Karl May. The first Der Schatz im Silbersee (US title: The Treasure of Silver Lake) arrived in 1962 and was swiftly followed by more than a dozen sequels often featuring the characters Old Shatterhand (so called because of the powerful nature of his fist) and Winnetou, an Apache chief. German television series followed in the seventies and eighties, with the format and approach becoming so recognisable in the country that it could prompt Herbig’s chummy piss-take in 2001.

Back in 2005, a number of these films began to emerge on disc in their home country which, late last year, made the upgrade to Blu-ray. Reviews of the old releases warned me that not all are English-friendly so I played it safe and went with the Winnetou boxed-set, which has optional dubs and subs for the first two of its inclusions and a dub on the third. The contents incidentally are Winnetou – 1. Teil, Winnetou – 2. Teil and Winnetou – 3. Teil. In other words part one, part two and part three, though these were released in the US as Apache Gold, Last of the Renegades and The Desperado Trail.

The first response when watching part one was shock at how incredibly quaint the film seems. Despite this being the decade in which the US Western would become increasingly psychological and its soon-to-arrive Italian equivalent increasingly political, the pleasures here are of a much simpler kind. Indeed, Winnetou – 1. Teil plays out like I imagined all Westerns were as a youngster: a man slides along a bar following a punch from Old Shatterhand while another tumbles from a bannister; the Native Americans smoke peace pipes, perform war dances and raid wagon trains; and so on. There isn’t really anything specifically German here at all, what with Old Shatterhand played by a former Tarzan, Les Baxter, and Winnetou embodied by a French man! The lush orchestral score is also a perfect embodiment of what a Western score should be. The sequels throw in slightly more involving (and complicated) plotlines, plus there’s a role for Klaus Kinski in part two, but still these films seem determined to include every hoary old cliché available to them – which is, of course, part of their appeal.

As for the discs themselves, the presentations have to contend with the materials which vary from scene to scene looking alternately gorgeous and decidedly so-so. Be warned too that the English subs relate to the dub tracks rather than translating the German dialogue. As such the narration can seem a bit off-kilter and, on occasion, there’ll be subtitles appearing out of thin air during the brawls and gun battles.

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