The Abyss (1989)

When it’s on: Tuesday, 17 April 2012 (6.15 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

As I write these words, Titanic – a film first released in 1997 and repolished in 3D – is once again number one at the UK Box Office. Whatever your thoughts on the merits of the record breaking watery disaster epic, it seems clear enough that James Cameron knows how to fashion a blockbuster. This wasn’t his first foray into aquatic adventure, however; arguably, he did it better with The Abyss, made almost a decade earlier.

Like Titanic, The Abyss scored major points for its ground-breaking special effects. The early CGI that turned liquid surfaces into water was really something at the time, though limited (it would be deployed to much better effect for the jaw-dropping action sequences of Terminator 2 in 1991), and it wasn’t enough to save the film from a bit of a commercial ducking. Filmed mainly in an enormous tank of water, this tale of a deep sea diving team that finds it isn’t alone in the ocean was criticised for being over-long, slow paced and downright dull, and in fairness there are long swathes of The Abyss where not very much happens.

What it does have is tension, the kind of natural suspense that comes from an appreciation of the team’s fragility. Hundreds of feet underwater and joined by a Navy Seals detachment that has its own agenda, there’s a permeable sense of threat, a gentle unease that slowly becomes more pronounced over the film’s running time. The aliens, when they appear, are quite different from anything seen beforehand and there’s a neat logic to how they manipulate water to move around. Not everyone in the team feels friendly toward the visitors, though, and meanwhile a rise in natural disasters above the surface is defying explanation and becoming more catastrophic in nature…

Unfortunately, the version shown here is the theatrical cut, which truncates the film’s conclusion and loses much of the logical sense that only becomes apparent in the expanded special edition (boosted by more than thirty minutes). It seems the original cut was approved by Cameron himself, presumably to remain as close to the two hour preferred length as possible but in the process excising much of the film’s point. A shame, though not a mistake he would repeat as Titanic broke the three hour barrier and sailed past every record for ticket receipts.

The Abyss: ***

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Went the Day Well? (1942)

When it’s on: Monday, 16 April 2012 (2.50 pm)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Over the years, Ealing Studios has carved out a niche as that most British of production companies, producing a number of postwar comedies that were broadly reflective of the national psyche whilst retaining a sense of wit that is winning to this day. Personally, I prefer some of the darker entries in their catalogue, especially a couple of releases in the mid-1940s – Dead of Night and It Always Rains on Sunday – that depicted the uncertain mood of the country at the end of World War Two. The murky morality of these films jars with the chipper tone of the classic Ealing Comedy and provides a nice historical counterpoint to the rise of film noir in the States.

Went the Day Well? was directed by Alberto Cavalcanti, who was also responsible for the terrifying Ventriloquist’s Dummy sequence in Dead of Night. The Brazilian-born Cavalcanti moved to Britain in 1933 after spending the early part of his career in France and worked for Ealing throughout the war. Disdainful of the projected image of the English as stiff upper-lipped, jolly and indomitable, he picked up Graham Greene’s story as an exploration of how this veneer may crack when placed under extreme pressure.

Sure enough the film, which is ostensibly a propaganda piece about denizens of a sleepy village fighting back after it is taken over by the Nazis, takes on a darker twist when viewed now. Cavalcanti lets the typically English attitude of the  community dominate the film’s early scenes, plays with and teases the people’s slow realisation of what’s going on, and even sees a couple of early efforts at defiance be foiled by accidents (the broken eggs) and sheer bad luck.

It’s only when David Farrar’s silkily evil Nazi officer tells the villagers that some of their children will be killed as punishment for an escape attempt that the narrative turns dark. The people take action. Previously harmless villagers find ways to murder their captors, often horribly and with little sense of remorse, in the process steadily turning into monsters. It’s a really interesting idea, the depths human beings will sink to in order to survive. Britain didn’t suffer the direct invasions of other countries during the war, yet the film offers an uncomfortable glimpse into the shattering of ways of life at such times.

Went the Day Well? is beautifully put together and paced expertly to make the last half-hour an exercise in pure tension that, by contemporary standards, gets quite visceral. It’s also worth nothing the story is told in flashback, by villager Mervyn Johns (who would go on to play Walter Craig, the sufferer of Dead of Night’s recurring nightmare), who is passing the account on to us after the war has finished. But of course when the film was made, the war was far from over and the events depicted in it still felt as though they could possibly happen. Its assumption that victory for the allies was inevitable is a fascinating one, suggested for morale purposes and backed by the involvement of the USA by 1942, but I wonder if the Nazis posited such ideas in their own films of the time.

Went the Day Well?: ****

Rocky IV (1985)

When it’s on: Sunday, 15 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV 4
IMDb Link

I was reading a cracking article at Den of Geek recently that advised how I could tell the film I was watching had been made in the 1980s. One of the tell-tale signs was the use of musical montages, which I guess was a trend arising from the impact made by MTV. Reading it, I found myself transported back to a series of mid-eighties movies, some caught on our Betamax home entertainment breezeblock, but many at the local fleapit (which, I’m happy to report, still exists). The Karate Kid was stuffed with montages, my favourite being the one accompanying Bananarama’s Cruel Summer because I liked the song. Another was Mannequin, a roundly terrible feature that I think I went to see on a date and, worse still, insisted on actually watching the thing. What a catch, huh?

And then there’s Rocky IV, a film that in reality consists of little more than the most wafer-thin of plots strung together by montages. Here’s a spoiler-free guide to what happens in it:

  • The Russian boxer fights Rocky’s friend, who loses and dies.
  • Rocky fights the Russian boxer.

In between, we get a series of flashbacks to episodes in Rocky’s life, culled from the first three films and intended to peer into our hero’s tortured mind as he contemplates his epic struggle with the Russian. The likes of Survivor and other MTV-friendly turns are piped onto the soundtrack to give these clips shows some momentum, but it’s scurrilous and cheap film making. Later, more pumping music plays to the shots of Rocky training for his big fight. Exiled in the Soviet Union, watched constantly by KGB heavies and cut off from the outside world, he goes back to basics in building up his strength, which is juxtaposed with shots of the Russian using the most high-tech equipment, not to mention dining on steroid injections to boost his freakish strength.

Rocky IV was made as Reagan’s America hit the heights of its Cold War revival. Far from being portrayed as the country falling into economic chaos that it really was, the USSR was depicted as an unknown superpower, capable of anything and intent on bringing down the democratic west. In hindsight, it was an incredible attitude to have mere years before the collapse of the Iron Curtain, but it was the party line at the time and Sylvester Stallone conjured a yarn to match.

It’s jaw-dropping stuff. An early tagline for the film was Get ready for the next world war. The film’s opening shot showed two boxing gloves painted in USA and USSR colours colliding into each other. The Russian boxer, played by Dolph Lundgren, and his promotion team (one of which includes Brigitte Nielsen) are cast early as baddies, overshadowed with ominous, foreboding music. In the promotional fight between Lundgren and Rocky’s friend, the washed up Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), it’s clear what’s going to happen, yet the film pads out the inevitable with a jolly James Brown tune, which then juxtaposes to jarring effect with the joyless build-up to Rocky’s fight in Moscow. Of course, Rocky’s indomitable spirit is what matters in the end. He wins over a previously partisan Russian crowd and finishes on a speech of such incredible pomposity and bloody cheek that even the Politburo (led by a shadowy Gorbachev) start applauding. It seems the spirit of Glasnost started here.

Even the things the previous films did well i.e. the fight scenes, have been reduced to cartoon violence, with little inherent logic to them. The two fights in Rocky III made sense as Balboa took on Mr T’s Clubber Lang before and after his new and improved training regime and fresh determination. In Rocky IV, watch the pummelling dealt out to our hero. At around the same time as this film came out, a young heavyweight boxer called Mike Tyson was laying waste to every opponent on the way to his title. Many of his wins came via first round knockouts, yet the punishment he meted was as nothing compared with the licking Rocky takes here, and unlike Iron Mike’s victims Balboa comes back for more. Because that’s what America does, right? Gets back up and dishes it back? Yeah right.

Rocky IV: *

Ride the High Country (1962)

When it’s on: Saturday, 14 April 2012 (11.00 am)
Channel: Film4
IMDb Link

Ride the High Country was an early film directing job for Sam Peckinpah, but elsewhere it’s all about the endings. It was released toward the end of the Western’s ‘Golden Age’, as the genre was losing popularity and becoming  more introspective in tone. It marked the last film role for classic Western actor, Randolph Scott, who seemed determined to go out on a high. The action is set during the final days of the ‘wild west’. Cars are replacing horses. Cowboys perform for the public and Joel McCrea’s ageing former lawman rides into town to take on a last job. He’s hired by a bank to protect the traffic of gold from a nearby mine and it’s work he intends to take seriously. His character knows the gold will be moving through some dangerous territory, so he enlists an old, trusted friend (Scott), along with his protege (Ron Starr) to help, only he doesn’t realise they’ve both signed up in order to steal the gold. Neither does Scott appreciate just how ‘straight’ McCrea has become. ‘All I want is to enter my house justified,’ he tells Scott, which defines everything his character does, whether protecting the virtue of a young girl or telling Starr not to drop litter.

The rift between these old men of a vanishing frontier emerges over the course of the piece, yet earlier it focuses on their mutual affection, the shared stories and nostalgic feelings about what their world used to be. It also becomes clear that the west is going to be a worse place without them. The younger characters are all, to varying degrees, unscrupulous chancers, especially the psychotic Hammond brothers, who emerge as the film’s main villains.

At a shade under 90 minutes in length, Ride the High Country packs a lot into its running time. The plot passes economically, allowing for insights into all the chief characters’ motivations whilst never sagging (I can’t say the same for The Wild Bunch, Peckinpah’s later and generally higher regarded Western, but perhaps that’s just me). Long-time Peckinpah collaborator and Director of Photography, Lucien Ballard, provides some gorgeous shots of the disappearing frontier, ever catching McCrea’s longing glances at the horizon as though both he and the camera realise it’s all about to change.

It’s a real treat of a film and Randolph Scott belongs on the kind of Saturday matinee screening provided here by Film4.

Ride the High Country: ****

Notting Hill (1999)

When it’s on: Friday, 13 April 2012 (10.00 pm)
Channel: ITV2
IMDb Link

Notting Hill almost feels like a sequel to Four Weddings and a Funeral, and there’s little doubt the effort was made to repeat the formula of 1994’s ‘little film that could’ – written by Richard Curtis, starring Hugh Grant, use of a female American star (the ante was upped here considerably, Julia Roberts taking on the ‘Andie McDowell’ role whilst probably the highest profile actress on the planet). Between Four Weddings and this, Curtis had once again hit gold with the screenplay for Bean, whilst doing the same on the small screen with mannered comedy, The Vicar of Dibley. In the meantime, Grant by now was a vastly bankable star, though the projects he undertook in America played wholly to his screen persona as a posh, bumbling, floppy haired Englishman abroad, essentially a loveable innocent. His arrest in 1995 for soliciting an LA prostitute undermined all this, possibly a good thing given the stereotypical roles he might have been offered forever by the studios…

Four Weddings introduced Grant and Curtis to a wider world, leading to fears that Notting Hill might be little more than a retread. Fortunately, the film is a very different and far more sophisticated piece of work, a comment on the celebrity enjoyed and suffered by its star and writer in equal measures whilst finding work for an entire prep school of British thesps (the sort of cast Curtis would forever attempt to assemble, reaching its ultimate expression in Love Actually).

Grant plays William Thacker, the proprietor of the kind of travel bookshop in Notting Hill that seems blissfully free of paying customers, apart from those who bring some element of comedy. Into the store walks Julia Roberts, pretty much playing herself as Anna Scott, the movie world’s biggest star. All Anna really wants is a normal life and it becomes clear that Thacker’s destiny is to provide one for her. That’s more or less it, but with two hours of screen time to fill there are a series of contrived situations to endure and those British thesps to meet. Some of the former are brilliant. Compelled to meet Anna at a press junket, Thacker realises the only way he can reach her is to pretend to be a member of the media establishment and thus reinvents himself as the film critic for Hare and Hounds. Hilarity ensues.

Of the thesps, Gina McKee is probably the best as Thacker’s wheelchair-bound sister and perhaps one of most positive role models for the disabled ever written for the screen. Tim McInnerny is her husband who can’t cook but who can sweep her tenderly into his arms at the most empathetic moment. Long before Downton loomed into view, Hugh Bonneville was a jobbing British actor who’d popped up in umpteen TV and film roles and here plays the good-natured idiot, a staple of Curtis scripts (James Fleet in Four Weddings, McInnerny in Blackadder). And then there’s Rhys Ifans, basically igniting his career as Thacker’s slovenly flatmate.

Fans of Four Weddings who were expecting more of the same in Notting Hill might initially have been put off by its gentler pace and more rounded characters, the latter in place of that earlier work’s plot contrivances (the eponymous quartet of weddings, etc) and all the better for it. If anyone comes out of it badly, it’s Roberts, whose character is self-centred, spiteful and overly tough on poor Thacker. The film’s unexaggerated setting suggests this could indeed be what she’s like in real life and the moment when she returns to his bookshop to ask him back into her life feels like it’s been tacked on to ensure the plot moves in the direction it has to, whereas viewers hope he might have found happiness elsewhere. But of course he hasn’t. Every other female in the story is either connected or related, ensuring the film doesn’t fall into the Four Weddings trap of ensuring Grant ends up with the frosty, aloof McDowell as the more suitable – and no less attractive – Kristin Scott-Thomas and Anna Chancellor are discarded along the way.

Despite Julia Roberts, there’s much to love here. Grant and Curtis are at the top of their respective games and some of the filming is wonderful, not least the scene where the passing of seasons is expressed by Thacker strolling along Notting Hill market, eternal through the sun, wind and snow to the refrain of Bill Withers’s Ain’t no Sunshine. Its mission statement, to be bigger than Four Weddings, was realised in full as it effortlessly soared past its forebear to become Britain’s biggest grossing film of all time.

Notting Hill: ***