Monday, March 27, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Hand" (1960)

I encountered 1960's "The Hand" while looking to find a copy of the 1981 film of the same name starring Michael Caine.

The second feature film directed by Oliver Stone, 1981's "The Hand" has a trashy reputation as a piece of schlock about an egotistic cartoonist who loses his hand in an accident, only to the see the dismembered appendage start killing his enemies before turning its ire on him. It has one of those "It was all happening in his mind.... OR WAS IT?!?" type of endings.

It's a rather silly goose of a movie, but I remember it fondly from my childhood and wanted to revisit it again to see how it holds up. When I saw there was a 1960 British film with the same title, with posters of a looming disembodied hand, I knew I wanted to see it, thinking it must be related.

O.M.G. What an incredibly horrid piece of movie trash. Turns out the 1960 movie, directed by schlockmeister Henry Cass from a script by Ray Cooney and Tony Hilton, was not the fountainhead for Oliver Stone's film. "The Hands of Orlac," a silent film that was remade a couple of times -- and was featured in this spot awhile back -- clearly seemed to inspire Stone.

The Brit "Hand" was marketed as a horror film but contains about five seconds of anything that could remotely be dubbed scary (or even the attempt). Just 64 minutes long, it's actually an interminable crime procedural, with lots of middle-aged English gentlemen who look and sound alike trying to out-diffident one another.

Coupled with a terrible video transfer, complete with jumpy editing, "The Hand" isn't useful for anything other than prime candidacy for a "Mysterious Science Theater 3000" spoofing.

It starts out with an arresting premise. Three British soldiers are captured by the Japanese during the Burma campaign (which the opening title card hilariously attributes to taking place in "1946"). A snide Japanese officer (Walter Randall) threatens them to turn over the location and strength of their unit. Two NCOs refuse to do so, and have their hands chopped off by the enemy's katana sword.

The third one, a cowardly officer, knuckles under and saves his hand. Years later, he returns to London and starts cutting off people's hands... I think? Honestly, I'm not really sure. "The Hand" may set some kind of new standard for the impenetrability of its plot. At the end I was not entirely sure who was who, who did what, or why, and if they'd done this before or it was a one-off.

An old drunk named Charlie Taplow turns up with his hand amputated and 500 pounds stuffed into his pocket. He tells the police he vaguely remembers being taken to a hospital where the surgery was performed. The police eventually track down a young surgeon who's carrying on an affair with one of the nurses.

Apparently he performed the procedure at the behest of his uncle, who's the cowardly officer, now fabulously wealthy and operating under another name. When he's caught, the doctor kills himself out of shame.

Now, let's stop right there. So many questions.

Why is the villain, who was called Roberts during the war but is now going by Roger Crawshaw (Derek Bond), going around removing strangers' hands? Given his war trauma, wouldn't he want to exact that retribution on the Japanese? Or even on his fellow British soldiers, for reminding him of his cowardice?

Second: if someone were obsessed with hands, why the eff would you go through this elaborate affair of having it surgically amputated instead of just lopping it off with an axe or what have you? And why involve a family member who's obviously reluctant? And then why would you let the person live so the trail could lead back to you?

The two handless soldiers turn up, impeding the police investigation because Crawshaw has been threatening them. (Another question: how do they know Crawshaw is Roberts, unless he deliberately revealed himself to them? And why would he, unless he was going to kill them?)

One, Michael John Brodie (Reed De Rouen), is the surly man of the lot. He gives the Japanese plenty of lip in the opening sequence, and later becomes a morbid drunk. George Adams (Bryan Coleman) is more or less a good bloke, who shows up to check things out when Brodie is killed.

The movie is essentially one long talkie scene after another, with very little tension or suspense. It builds up to a shoot-out in a barn, but only three people present have a gun. Then another guy shows up near the end of it with his own gun to plug Roberts. I have no idea who this fellow was, though I think he may be the guy who was forced out the window of a train earlier.

Anyway, Roberts staggers away from the scene to collapse on the train tracks, with one hand dangling over the rail as a train comes screaming by to run over it in an ALL CAPS IRONY MOMENT.

I should mention that Ronald Leigh-Hunt plays the Scotland Yard inspector who actually answers the phone by saying, "Scotland Yard." Ray Cooney plays his young sergeant, who frets about how all the long hours on the case are damaging his relationship with his girlfriend.

"The Hand" barely survives as a piece of cinema, with only terrible quality versions available for home video. The one I saw was cropped on all sides, so some of the visual information is missing.

So obscure is this title, I couldn't even find a video of the trailer to accompany this piece. I actually had to grab screen caps from the DVD to get high enough resolution photos to use with this post. It registers one step away from being a "lost" film.

Normally I'm all in for film preservation, but in this case our collective culture might just benefit from a little addition by subtraction.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Video review: "Silence"

“Silence” didn’t make my list of the Top 10 films of 2016, but only because I didn’t see it in time. Director Martin Scorsese and the studio didn’t push it during the awards cycle, declining even to show it to regional critic groups. After watching it, I get the sense this is an intensely personal movie for Scorsese, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Jay Cocks, based on the historical novel by Shūsaku Endō.

Sometimes, we take such pride in the things most precious to us that it doesn’t matter to us if others treasure it as much.

Set in 17th century Japan, “Silence” stars Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver as young Jesuit priests who have come in search of their mentor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly committed apostasy, or publicly renouncing his faith. This was at a time when the feudal leaders of Japan brutally put down any attempt to spread Christianity across the island, including torture, hanging and beheading.

The photography is breathtakingly beautiful -- cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto deservedly earned the film’s sole Academy Award nomination. And the performances by the supporting cast, mostly Japanese actors we’ve never heard of, are full of grace and truth. I was especially impressed with Shinya Tsukamoto as a simple farmer filled with unseen strength.

Ultimately it’s Andrew Garfield’s movie, though. His performance as Rodrigues is as fully fleshed out as anything you’ll see on a screen. A deeply religious man filled with compassion but also not a little vanity, he finds himself confronted with terrible choices between his faith in God and the teachings of the church that interprets that faith.

Most moviegoers aren’t searching for deep, slow contemplations on religious oppression in a far-flung land four centuries ago. But if you’re willing to invest a little faith in me, I think my recommendation for “Silence” -- the highest I can give -- will not lead you astray.

Unsurprisingly, bonus features for this film are rather sparse, consisting entirely of a making-of documentary, “Martin Scorsese’s Journey into Silence,” which comes on the Blu-ray edition. The DVD contains no extra material.



Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: "Life"

Just a mini-review today:

"Life" is an effective but derivative thriller in the mold of "Aliens" and "The Thing." A group of intrepid scientists stumbles across humanity's first contact with alien life. They are fascinated and overjoyed at the prospect of discovery, until the organism proves itself able to rapidly mutate into a larger, scarier form and starts eating faces. The crew is slowly picked off one by one, despite some ingenious attempts to fight the creature, with varying degrees of courageous sacrifices and boneheaded cowardice.

There's really nothing here we haven't seen before: snippets of the personal lives of each person, surprises as the tiny critter turns into a looming beast, chases down darkened passageways, gruesome deaths while another person watches, etc.

But director Daniel Espinosa and script men Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick find effective moments and genuine scares, a long with a large dollop of humanistic notes.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the medical doctor and former military man who's set a new record with 479 days in space; Ryan Reynolds the cocky Ryan Reynolds-type pilot and needler-in-chief; Olga Dihovichnaya is the station's resolute Russian commander; Rebecca Ferguson is the scientist in charge of making the hard decisions about whether to contain the beast or protect themselves; Ariyon Bakare is the scientist who forms a weird bond with the monster, dubbed "Calvin"; and Hiroyuki Sanada is the engineer type whose baby is born while he's high in the sky.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Review: "Trainspotting 2"

“So we all get old and then we can’t hack it anymore? Is that it?”
                --Mark Renton, “Trainspotting”

“You’re a tourist in your own youth.”
                --Simon aka “Sick Boy,” “Trainspotting 2”

File “Trainspotting 2” under Sequels We Never Thought We’d See. (Not to be confused with Sequels Nobody Wanted; e.g., “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”)

“Trainspotting” from 1996, which followed a rough group of Scottish heroin addicts/thieves, launched star Ewan McGregor and director Danny Boyle, who have both gone on to major movie careers. Serious, Oscar-winning filmmakers tend to shy away from sequels because they’re seen as a generally unworthy endeavor.

But Boyle has long expressed interest in a sequel, though it took a while to round up the old gang. And it turns out that Irvine Welsh, the author of the book upon which the first movie was based, penned a follow-up novel that revisited the characters about 10 years later.

“Trainspotting 2” takes us even further out to 20 years. Our young anti-heroes -- Mark Renton (McGregor), Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Danny “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner) and Francis Begbie (Robert Caryle) -- are now middle-aged schlumps struggling to get on with meaningful lives.

The story (screenplay by John Hodge) brings the quartet back together to address old grudges, work out their individual disappointments and dream up some new schemes. It borrows heavily from the first movie, from particular shots to musical cues, including a reversal of the famous ending scene where Renton walks toward the camera with a cynical admonishment to “Choose life,” having just ripped off his mates following a big drug score.

I’ve seen the movie and I’m still not sure how I feel about it. Certainly, I liked it. Almost equally as certain, I don’t think it needed to be made.

Watching it is not unlike the experience of an estranged friend showing up on your doorstep after a long absence, a meeting filled with awkward pauses and mumbled apologies. When they leave a part of you is glad to have seen them again, while the other part wonders if some things are better left unsaid, some mysteries savored for remaining just so.

Renton has been living in Amsterdam working a straight job in accounting. He returns to Edinburgh after a couple of life-changing experiences, and to look up his old chums and see if forgiveness is a possibility. He finds Spud clean (albeit temporarily) but out of work, estranged from his wife and son.

A truly gentle soul, who seems to have gotten even more bird-like with the passing of years and the thinning of his plume-like shock of hair, Spud stands a bit apart from the story and acts as our eyes and ears.

Sick Boy is still addicted, though shifted to a more upscale cocaine habit. He runs his family’s run-down old pub, and has a side business setting up his prostitute girlfriend, Veronica (Anjela Nedyalkova), with well-to-do customers so he can film the antics and then blackmail them.

His reunion with Renton is less amicable than Spud’s, at least initially. Soon they’re back in cahoots, reminiscing about old times, running new scams and seeing who can be the first to betray the other.

Even less amenable is Begbie, the truly terrifying psychopath who seems to enjoy hurting others for its own sake. He’s been languishing in prison this whole time, and has Renton’s name on his lips in an unceasing litany for revenge. We know things are going to end grimy and bloody.

“Trainspotting” was an edgy, groundbreaking film because it provided us a funny, caustic window into the lowest dregs of society, then turned that glass around into a mirror that asked if everyday lives were really that much better. “Trainspotting 2” underlines many of the same themes without adding any meaningful postscript.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Video review: "Lion"

“Lion” is a prime example of the old saw of the movie not being as good as the book.

Saroo Brierley’s book, “The Long Way Home,” recounted his incredible biography as a boy of India who became separated from his family at a very tender age and ending up raised by adoptive parents in Australia. At around age 30 he became obsessed with finding his biological mother and siblings, and spent years searching Google Earth to find their remote village and be reunited with them.

No hints on how things turned out.

Directed by Garth Davis from a screenplay adaptation by Luke Davies, “Lion” is a solid film but one of the most overpraised of the past year, including six Oscar nominations. One of those, ridiculously, was for star Dev Patel in the supporting actor category.

True, he takes over the adult role of Saroo about halfway through the movie from Sunny Pawar, who is an absolute revelation as the lost orphan. But I still need someone to explain to me how one can play the title character of a film, be the face on the posters and still be a “supporting” actor. A pox on brazen category-hopping.

David Wenham and Nicole Kidman (who scored her own unmerited Oscar nom) play his parents, who also adopted another Indian lad, Mantosh, who has emotional and cognitive problems. One of the things the movie fails to adequately explore his Saroo’s strained relationship with his adoptive brother, which is a discomfiting mix of affection and disgust.

Rooney Mara plays his girlfriend, Lucy, who struggles to relate to Saroo while he’s in the deep throes of his obsession. Priyanka Bose plays Saroo’s biological mother.

I think the first half of the film works better than the second. Saroo’s separation and wandering is a very compelling tale: he and his older brother sneak into a train station, and he ends up locked inside an empty passenger train as it makes a 1,000-mile journey to the other side of India, where they speak a different dialect.

He doesn’t know the name of his village, so he falls into the care of well-meaning orphan authorities, who seem more intent on making him available for adoption by foreigners than performing an exhaustive search for his true family.

“Lion” is an emotional film that sometimes pulls the heartstrings a mite too forcefully.

Bonus features include deleted scenes, production still photos and the “Never Give Up” music video by Sia.



Thursday, March 16, 2017

Review: "Beauty and the Beast"

Time passes for us all, and for the movies. Since “Beauty and Beast” came out in 1991 and became regarded as one of the greatest animated films of all time, an entire generation has been born, grown up and started having babies of their own. Though it might make some of us feel old to say, it’s passing into cinematic antiquity.

I walked into the 2017 live-action remake with but a single word of question on my lips: “Why?” I left without grasping any kind of answer.

The new movie, starring Emma Watson and Dan Stevens, is almost a shot-by-shot remake of the animated film, with a few extra flourishes and minor changes. They reuse the Oscar-winning musical score by lyricist Howard Ashman and composer Alan Menken, with four new songs by Menken and Tim Rice that don’t measure up to the old stuff.

Most of the cast spends the movie in CGI form as enchanted clocks, teapots, harpsichords, wardrobes, candelabras, etc. Directed by Bill Condon (“Mr. Holmes”), it’s a beautiful, colorful film with energetic musical numbers, distinctive characters and an ageless love story.

And it has no reason for existing.

I’m not a purist on remakes and sequels. If you can make something that adds to the mythology of a film, or extends the characters and their individual arcs, then you’ll get no arguments from me. Disney has launched a number of live action remakes of its classic animated flicks, including “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” and I’ve liked almost all of them.

But this one feels different… hollow, somehow. The tragic love story of the Beast (Stevens) and Belle (Watson) lacks the gut-churning emotional wrench of 1991. The best thing about the animated movie was its unexpected dramatic heft. That had the tone of “Romeo and Juliet.” This new one is the TV sitcom version.

It’s not helped by Watson’s singing voice, which is unequal to the task of carrying songs. That’s become a thing lately: casting non-singers as the leads in musicals. (See “Land, La La.”) Maybe it’s time to reconsider.

Stevens’ portrayal of the Beast using a mix of costume, makeup and CGI doesn’t exactly work, either. He looks like a smaller, softer, prettier version of the animated Beast. Even his leonine nose swoops down appealingly toward a modest snarl. I liked the cartoon Beast’s busted, crooked honker and every-which-way fangs. The new one looks like he got Jenny Craig and a plastic surgeon.

You know the story: village bookworm Belle stumbles into the castle of the Beast looking for her lost father, Maurice (Kevin Kline, changed from inventor to artist here). The master of the house and all his servants have been hexed with a terrible curse, which will become permanent if the magic rose loses its last petal before he finds true love. Belle agrees to become his prisoner in exchange for dad, and antagonism gives way to blooming romance.

The heavy is again Gaston (Luke Evans), the swaggering musclebound hunter/soldier who desires Belle for himself. Josh Gad, as the flunkie LeFou, adds notes of jaded longing for his longtime companion. Some people are upset about having a (more or less) openly homosexual character in a Disney movie, but I was more perturbed he falls into the weary cliché of gay man pining for an unavailable straight.

Ewan McGregor takes over the Lumiere role of rapscallion candelabra; Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, and does a reasonably good job warbling the title song; Ian McKellen is unctuous butler Cogsworth; Audra McDonald is the operatic wardrobe; Stanley Tucci is a new character as the wardrobe’s musical and marital accompanist.

Originally they were going to weave some of the songs from the stage musical version into the movie, but instead went with four new ones. Two are just short trifles, while the Beast’s “Evermore” is a bland Broadway hollerer. Though “Days in the Sun,” sung by Watson with help from the supporting characters, more adequately explores the dilemma of the servants caught up in their master’s curse.

I think the lesson is if you’re going to remake a beloved classic, you need to let it evolve. Take some risks, change it around and see how audiences react. They may not like it as much. But there’s no magic in mere repetition.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Review: "The Sense of an Ending"

Anthony Webster, as portrayed by Jim Broadbent, is an older gent playing out the string of a lonely life with a few untidy ends. “The Sense of an Ending,” based upon the novel by Julian Barnes, shows us Tony now and as a young man at university, and how he got to here from there.

It’s essentially a murder-mystery, as we puzzle out how he killed his younger self and became the man he is.

Tony wanted to be a poet but ended up running a tiny shop -- literally the width of a closet -- where he repairs and sells beautiful vintage cameras. He’s fussy and set in his ways; he is annoyed by actual customers and only opens up every day out of habit. Seems like the perfect sort of niche business to market on the Web, but Tony’s barely graduated to email.

He’s long divorced and still maintains a friendly/biting relationship with his ex-wife, Margaret (Harriet Walter). Their 36-year-old daughter, Susie (Michelle Dockery), has given up on men and is having a baby on her own. Tony affably (but somewhat grudgingly) ferries her to Lamaze classes, substitutes as coach and even chats up the lesbian couples.

Then a letter arrives in the email relating that he has been named in a will. After some confusion, he learns that the mother of an old girlfriend has bequeathed him a diary. And it’s not the mother’s diary, or the girlfriend’s, but belonged to his best friend from university, Adrian Finn. However, the girlfriend, Veronica, refuses to turn it over.

Director Ritesh Batra and screenwriter Nick Payne then shift back and forth to decades ago, where Billy Howle takes over the role of Tony. We meet Veronica (Freya Mavor), and eventually her parents and brother. The mother is played by Emily Mortimer, who is vibrant and flirty and a little bit sad. She looks at Tony in a way he wishes her daughter would.

Veronica is a mysterious young woman who takes great pleasure in remaining so. She loves to tease Tony and lead him on. She gives him his first camera, and photography starts to crowd out poetry. The relationship eventually falters.

Rather late in the movie we meet the modern Veronica, now played by Charlotte Rampling. Neither her beauty or her aura of deflection have faded. They meet, quarrel a bit about the diary, and she abruptly departs. Tony becomes obsessed with puzzling out this riddle that seems to have lain unexamined at the root of his life for so long.

Having not read the novel, I can only speculate as to what was left in and what was taken out. The examination of Tony’s friendship with Adrian (Joe Alwyn) feels skimped upon. Adrian is the standout genius of the class, who takes the tired lessons of their teachers, ties them into knots and throws them back in their faces.

Most movies these days could stand some degree of trimming in the editor’s bay, but “The Sense of an Ending” is the rare film that could stand to be longer.

It’s still an engaging personal journey, and Jim Broadbent is in his usual fine form. It’s a contemplation on memory, which is really the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Some are more impenetrable than others.