The third film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Basil Dearden’s London Underground. Out of all the films in the collection, this is the one that might hold the most significance, at least from a historical standpoint. Released in 1961, the film directly tackles the personal anxieties of closeted homosexuals during a time when the very admission of homosexuality in England could bring about not just serious personal repercussions, but legal ones as well. At the center of the drama is barrister Melville Farr, who becomes wrapped up in a blackmail scheme that threatens both his future and the futures of many other gay men across the city. Farr is played by Dirk Bogarde, in what was a very personal role. As a gay man in real life, he faced the same kind of social and professional alienation as his character in the film, and like Farr, he was willing to take an open stance at the cost of his reputation and livelihood. Victim was one of the most high-profile releases at the time to openly status the status quo in this regard. It garnered a good deal of controversy at the time, but only six years later the status quo changed for the better with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967, which decriminalized homosexuality in England.
If Victim had a narrative that matched its sociopolitical ambitions, then the results could have been extraordinary. As it stands, the film shares both the strengths and the weaknesses of Dearden’s earlier film Sapphire, which also used the outlines of the mystery/procedural genre for the purpose of social commentary, in that case race relations in late 1950s London. In both films, the central mystery is never as involving as the questions that are raised around the margins. When the reveal of who is behind everything finally comes around, it really doesn’t register as all that important; the culprit could have been anybody and the impact would have been the same. Victim is at its most compelling when examining the relationship between Farr and his wife, played by Sylvia Syms, and how his admissions change the nature of their marriage. This aspect is only given a handful of scenes though, and you get the feeling that Dearden might have been better served to dispense with the genre elements entirely and place his focus squarely on the human drama. It’s something of a disappointment that the film itself is never as consistent or involving as the details behind its making, but as a document of an important period in human rights history, the film remains valuable. 7/10.
The fourth and last film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Basil Dearden’s London Underground is a modern reimagining of William Shakespeare’s Othello, played out over one night in an early 1960s New York jazz club. To celebrate the one-year anniversary of musician Aurelius Rex (Paul Harris) and singer Delia Lane (Marti Stevens), wealthy music promoter Rod Hamilton (Richard Attenborough) sets up an elaborate party at his club. The evening promises to be a happy one, but the scheming band drummer Johnny Cousins (a delightful, weasely Patrick McGoohan) has plans to break the couple apart for his own personal gain. In the previous three films in the collection, Basil Dearden used more traditional genre elements to tackle some of the more weighty social issues of the time. With this film, however, the approach is somewhat different; the closest it comes to any kind of sociopolitical statement is in its completely casual and loving depiction of two interracial relationships. Especially after the strong focus in Dearden’s Sapphire on racial tensions in London, it’s remarkable how little is made of that topic in All Night Long.
Because the film’s subject matter is a little looser, the opportunity is there for Dearden to have some fun with his direction. The jazz club setting, from which the action never leaves, is loud and full of energy, and Dearden nicely balances the darker aspects of Johnny Cousins’ manipulations with several spirited musical performances from the likes of Dave Brubeck, Charles Mingus, and Tubby Hayes, among many other jazz greats of the time. And occasionally, these two elements will converge together to great effect, most memorably in a tension-filled drum solo from McGoohan’s Johnny Cousins and when Stevens’ Delia Lane is finally coaxed into singing to the party guests. It’s all quite good fun, and while All Night Long might not be the most emblematic of Basil Dearden’s social conscience, it might be the film that best showcases his skills as a director. Even though this is the lightest of the four films in the Eclipse collection, it’s the one I ended up enjoying the most. 8/10.
This is the first film in Criterion’s Eclipse collection Oshima’s Outlaw Sixties, a set of five films from Japanese filmmaker Nagisa Oshima, referred to on the back of the Criterion package as the “Godard of the East.” The two filmmakers are similar in that they both led the charge of 1960s New Wave filmmaking in their respective countries and their approaches combined experiments in genre fiction with strong political overtones. However, they each bring enough of their own sensibilities to their output that a simple comparison between them doesn’t hold much water. For one, the omnipresent archness you pervades so much of Godard is nowhere to be seen with Oshima (at least in the films of his I’ve seen), and that includes this seedy tale of a heartsick tutor resorting to desperate actions in his search for meaningful female companionship. Katsuo Nakamura plays Atsushi, desperately in love with one of his pupils, so much so that he commits murder for her. Yet his feelings are left unreciprocated, and the woman goes on to marry another. Shortly after this happens, a mysterious businessman shows up to confront Atsushi on his actions. Instead of turning Atsushi in, however, he offers him a deal: safeguard 30,000 yen that the businessman embezzled from his company until he gets out of prison, and in turn he will ignore Atsushi’s crimes.
Atsushi is forced to agree, but once the businessman is caught and sent away, he decides to spend all of the money in one year, and at the end of that year he will end his life. Over the course of that year, still devastated by the dismissal from his supposed true love, Atsushi offers money to a series of women, who accept his offerings but who are unwilling to grant the love that he so desperately seeks. In this way, Oshima subverts the usual romanticism of the gangster cruising down the path to oblivion with his woman in tow. Atsushi makes for a surprisingly pathetic protagonist, one who operates throughout the film on the assumption he can buy love through money and reckless acts of supposed affection. The nature of this main character allows Oshima to turn the film into something of a strange feminist statement, an examination of man’s misguided mentality to view women as objects of pleasure and steadfast devotion. That’s not the kind of subtext you’d usually find in a noir-influenced crime story, but it demonstrates Oshima’s willingness to challenge conventions and offer new takes on established genres. Not bad for a filmmaker making his first independent production after breaking away from the studio system. 8/10.
It’s been tough for me to shake the feeling of diminishing returns in the last few years regarding superhero films. Because of that feeling, I decided early on in 2013 to skip seeing new films of that sort in theaters. Iron Man 3 was the first casualty, but it wasn’t the toughest decision to make; after the disappointment that was Iron Man 2, which just felt like everyone going through the motions, I had very little interest in another entry in the franchise. A couple factors intrigued me enough to catch up with this new one at home though. The first was the choice of Shane Black, an action movie veteran best known for his work on the Lethal Weapon series and the excellent comic noir Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, to work behind the camera. The second was Robert Downey Jr. who, despite looking extremely disinterested in the second film, still has a unique star charisma, something that can’t be said about many of the other actors currently working in the Marvel universe. The idiosyncrasies these two men bring to the table do elevate Iron Man 3 above its uninvolving predecessor, but still not enough to match the highs of the first film in the series.
Like most superhero films these days, Iron Man 3 overstays its welcome. 130 minutes can be an endurance test no matter what kind of film you’re watching, and if there isn’t enough compelling material, the long runtime can feel like an eternity. Black tries his best to lend some spark to the production, and the moments when his voice breaks through the homogenous superhero wall are the best the film has to offer. You can see examples of this in the conversations between Tony Stark and a smart-alecky kid, the two of them gleefully exchanging barbed remarks back and forth. Or in the buddy cop banter between Downey and Don Cheadle. Or in the reveal of a sinister character’s true nature at the film’s midway point. I wish there were more moments like these, especially that last example, which felt to me like it was thrown in to intentionally ruffle the feathers of the comic book community. But because this is a new film in a big blockbuster franchise, there are certain boxes that need to be checked off. So we get perennial overactor Guy Pearce hamming it up in an otherwise fairly bland villain role. We get a bizarre group of supersoldiers that seem like they’ve walked in from the X-Men universe (yes, I know the film takes elements from the Extremis story arc in the comics, but this feels like a case where what worked on the page didn’t translate effectively to the screen). We get the usual finale where everything gets to blow up real good. I understand why all of this is necessary, but at a certain point the behemoth of obligatory elements overwhelms all the odd little quirks I find myself drawn to the most. 5/10.
Probably best to get this out of the way right at the beginning: anyone expecting this 2013 film from director Marc Forster to remain faithful to its source material is bound to be disappointed. Apart from the name and the globetrotting nature of the narrative, there is not much here that ties directly back to Max Brooks’ 2006 novel. Which is certainly a disappointment, as World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War is a landmark in zombie fiction that could have inspired one of the more ambitious film productions in the history of the genre. While the film certainly has ambition, the end result is more of a mixed bag. Still, considering all the talk leading up to the film’s release of serious production problems and extensive reshoots, it’s something of a miracle it has anything going for it whatsoever.
Nobody is going to mistake this for the smoothest narrative ever constructed, but it’s far from being a The Invasion-type situation, where all the excessive studio tinkering was painfully obvious in the final release. With that said, the film does have an odd structure, beginning with large-scale spectacle and the most high-energy moments, and then gradually becoming more and more intimate as it moves along, with the final stretch taking place entirely in the zombie-infested hallways of a Wales medical center. This isn’t the worst thing in the world to happen, as Forster still isn’t the surest hand when it comes to staging large-scale action. The “epic” moments here are more successful than Forster’s last attempt at big-budget spectacle, the middling, oftentimes incoherent James Bond entry Quantum Of Solace, but it is something of a relief when the film moves away from mountains/waves of CGI zombies to a series of more low-key setpieces.
Studio meddling is most noticeable in relation to the film’s ‘PG-13’ rating, a decision that completely strips the film of any blood or viscera. Just on intensity alone, World War Z feels like an ‘R’ rated film, but through the use of some extremely awkward editing, all the gruesome details magically exist just outside of the frame. A ‘PG-13’ zombie film in this day and age is an odd creation, especially with the popularity of AMC’s The Walking Dead series demonstrating that audiences can handle the blood and gore that is typically requisite for the genre. I’m starting to realize I’ve spent a good deal of time focusing on how the film’s production troubles inform what shows up onscreen. The truth is that, despite all the off-camera issues, World War Z somehow still manages to be a perfectly acceptable, workmanlike zombie thriller, which is something to be admired given the circumstances. It’s just not something I can see having much long-term appeal, and it’s unfortunate a genre-defining work of literary zombie fiction couldn’t inspire a film of similar impact and value. 6/10.
Top five first-time viewings in September 2013:
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
All Night Long
Pleasures Of The Flesh