Seen that!

A film and DVD blog

The Bonfire of the Vanities (1990)

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Concept: The film of the book.

Tom Wolfe's first novel was a huge critical and commercial success. In 1980s New York, a young man is killed in a hit and run. The authorities are barely interested until it turns out that a 'master of the universe' bond trader is involved. The prospect of having such a defendant creates a frenzy, involving the media, politicians and justice system. How guilty is he? A bit – he was in the car with his mistress – but will that be enough?

What’s good: The cinematography is great.

Outside the lead characters, the performances are all very good.

What’s not so good: It makes the typical Hollywood mistakes of trying to making the major characters nice and adding a happy ending.

Neither Tom Hanks (as the bond trader) or Melanie Griffith (as the mistress) are particularly good.

There's plenty of cynicism, but to be faithful to the book, there needs to be an awful lot more.

Music: Any soundtrack involving a chunk of Don Giovanni cannot be all bad.

Miscellany: Infamously, Melanie Griffith had a breast enlargement operation in the middle of the shoot. Somewhere there is doubtless a site detailing which of her scenes have the old and new breasts.

Overall: A critical and box office disaster, it deserved better.

So did the book and most of the problem is that it is clearly not as good as the book – as ever, you want to see the film before reading it.

If it had been an original screenplay, it would have had a better reception, because the good bits are very good. Again, its problem is that the book's great and very good wasn't enough at the time.

TL;DR Better than you've been told

Film: 3.5/5
DVD: 2/5

Nothing beyond the film. It deserves better.

Written by Ian

November 28th, 2012 at 11:16 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

Already Dead (2007)

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Concept: You'd like revenge, does it matter on who?

Architect Ron Elard is at the peak of his career when his son is killed and his wife attacked. Not long afterwards, the police officer in charge of the investigation comes to tell him that he is being reassigned: the case is being effectively dropped.

Obviously, Elard is not too happy with this, and after hitting the policeman, is sent to a therapist, Christopher Plummer. What he really needs, says Plummer, is to be in the same room as the man who killed his son, and he knows a way to make that happen…

What’s good: All the acting is fine.

What starts out in Hostel territory gets a bit more interesting (I say that as a fan of the first two in that series).

What’s not so good: .. but not much more.

I'm not so keen on the opening, which is a mix of Elard going to the meeting and flashbacks set up to make you think he's dropping off a ransom payment. The escape is all standard stuff, and 'two people who have to trust each other' aspect has been done much, much better.

Music: OK.


Overall: It's nearly good, but it fails to make the best of the situation.

The question of just how much Christopher Plummer knows is not a surprise.

TL;DR A missed opportunity

Film: 2.5/5
DVD: 3/5

Trailer plus plenty of deleted scenes… and for once not all of them should have been cut.

Written by Ian

November 2nd, 2012 at 11:52 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

Prometheus (2012)

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Concept: Alien prequel

It turns out that a number of otherwise unconnected ancient civilisations did some art all involving a big tall creature pointing at the same star pattern. Coo, could it be a clue to somewhere we want to go to? The two archaeologists convince a dying businessman to put up a trillion dollars for a mission to go there and find some answers to some big questions. Don't let me down, boffins!

This being an Alien film, there are lots of agendas on board the ship, not all of them compatible with everyone surviving…

What’s good: Most of it looks fabulous. You get the sense that Scott and his cinematographer really want to be asked to do a BBC nature documentary or two.

When given a chance, some of the acting, in particular Michael Fassbender as this Alien's android, David, and Noomi Rapace as one of the archaeologists.

Some of the scenes, such as this Alien's John Hurt moment.

What’s not so good: Argh, the science, it burns! Let's start with the archaeology. These two's great idea is to dig in random places around the world to see if there are any artefacts that match their theory. Erm, why dig on a hillside in Skye in the hope that you might find a cave painting that matches a design found elsewhere?? This makes Indiana Jones look like an archaeology text book! Of course, they actually find it. Then, when describing their great theory en route to the relevant star system, the pair reckon that Mesopotamia has no connection to Sumeria or Babylon. (For those with equal knowledge of history, Mesopotamia is where modern day Iraq is and contained first Sumeria and then Babylon.) And that Mayan city isn't Mayan. The closer you look at it, the worse it gets: this is fractal fail. So it doesn't really come as a surprise that, on arrival, they raise no objections to the spaceship being plonked right next to the structure they want to examine. It's not like it could do any damage…

The rest is just as bad. The physics has some howlers (stars that close move noticeably over the 35,000 years of the story; when arriving at a new star system or planet, you need to slow down, not have your engines pushing you forward until the last moments of landing; the moon – with Earth gravity, by staggering coincidence – would be highly unstable that close to its giant planet), the biology has some howlers (the DNA, evolution, the CO2 levels are wrongly said to be dangerous, sex = alien infection), the medicine has some howlers (you do not run around like that after that's been done to your abdominal muscles, never mind the use of staples rather than anything more advanced), the geology has some howlers (somewhere with storms like that is going to look very, very different), the linguistics has some howlers, and that's before we've really started on the spoilers, or the questions like if it's -12 degrees down there, why can't we see their breath?

Most of the rest of the script. When the writers' credit came up, I just gave a little sigh that it could not be the originators of Alien. I didn't go 'Oh, it's co-credited to Damon Lindelof of Lost infamy'. If I had realised who it was, I would have expected more of the Lost-style 'OK, this makes no logical sense whatsoever, but I think it would be neat if…' random mess that we get. If someone can behave stupidly out of character, they do. Especially the scientists, who appear to be entirely untrained and prepared – it's 'let's go into the haunted building's dark cellar to investigate the screams.. one by one.. without a torch!' time.

There's a lovely comment from someone comparing this with The Thing. In that, a bunch of guys face an alien. They talk about stuff, they watch out for each other, and they generally do the best they can. There is nothing you can point to that was stupid given who they were and what they knew, and some stuff is very smart (trying to ensure the Thing can't get away!) Here the biologist, picked to be the first and only biologist on a mission to examine alien life, decides it's a good idea to attempt to cuddle an alien creature showing clear threat behaviour. Yeah, that will be a good idea. We know that at least one member of the crew wants an alien… were the rest picked to be so stupid as to ensure this happened, one way or another?

Music: The highlights are the quotes from the Alien soundtrack and someone singing a song. Apart from that, meh.

Miscellany: I saw it in 2D and while I've seen some 'wow's for the 3D version, I am not going to bother. That big thing coming down to crush someone? It still looks like a big thing coming down to crush someone… but in clearer colours and without a slight double image.

If I remember the figures on the screen correctly, 3.something x 1014 km means they're about 32 light years from Earth, having taken just over two years to get there. The 'how' of space travel was never the Alien films' strong point and there are lots of unanswered questions about it…

Somewhere, someone is working out what the apparent magnitude of the star(s) must be in order for them not to be visible by the naked eye from earth and what implications that has for the solar system they're in. I bet it turns out to be another science howler, but never mind, look at the pretty pictures.

Was the Isle of Skye under ice when the cave paintings were supposed to have been done? Yes, it probably was.

Overall: Given the negatives, it's surprising that it's worth seeing, especially on a big screen. But while I'm glad I saw it, I am sure the theatrical version is not the best Prometheus that could have been made from the material. If Scott doesn't do a better one, the faneditors will…

… Ah, and they have. See Xenomorph, an edit that rips out the mysticism. There are some problems – someone we've not seen in this version makes an appearance in one confrontation – but the results are much, much better than the official version.

Without that sort of brutal editing, Prometheus is to Alien and Aliens what The Phantom Menace is to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back before The Phantom Edit: it looks great, but it is an insult to the intelligence of the viewer and to the legacy of the films that are the main reason for seeing it. Plus in both cases, the sequel is / will be worse.

TL;DR Alien meets Lost, and loses..

Film: 1.5/5
DVD: 1/5

I had high hopes for the DVD – it should have had a pile of deleted scenes and/or be 'director's cut' time, at least one alternative ending, and several commentaries. Nope, just a couple of deleted scenes.

Written by Ian

June 2nd, 2012 at 9:45 am

Posted in Cinema

The Happiness of the Katakuris (2001)

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Concept: Remake a Korean black comedy as a cheesy Japanese musical

After being made redundant from a shoe shop, a father takes his somewhat dysfunctional family to a remote country area to open a guest house, convinced that a new road will make their fortune. Eventually, someone does arrive, but dies overnight. If the news gets out, no-one will want to stay, so they bury the body. This happens more than once and, say, isn't that a volcano over there…?

What’s good: The plot is good, but then why remake films with bad ones? (Not that this has stopped anyone…)

The animated sections are quite fun and the acting is also good.

What’s not so good: The humorous bits aren't funny enough, the horrific bits aren't scary enough, and the songs aren't done well enough.

Music: Deliberately cheesy, complete with karaoke lyrics (in Japanese) for one duet.

Miscellany: This was one of seven films director Takashi Miike was credited with in 2001. Some were much better than this, some much worse.

Overall: I really wanted to like this more, but see 'what's not so good'.

If it weren't for the director's reputation, I don't think this would ever have left Japan. Like his best work, it's certainly distinctive, but that doesn't make it good.

If you want to see horror-comedy-musical done right, see The Little Shop of Horrors which gets at least two out of the three spot on.

TL;DR I suspect the original is better

Film: 2/5
DVD: 4/5

Director's commentary (in Japanese, so you can't have the film's subtitles on at the same time unless you speak Japanese), a making of (highlight: a few seconds of the swing stunt), a short on the animation, interviews and some trailers reminding you that he's done much better.

Written by Ian

May 17th, 2012 at 1:58 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

John Carter (2012)

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Concept: We can film A Princess of Mars at last.

Before he wrote the first of the books featuring John Clayton, who was raised by African apes after the death of his parents and became 'Tarzan', Edgar Rice Burroughs created another JC deposited in a strange situation: John Carter, veteran of the American Civil War, who is transported to Mars. Both were big successes at the time and while there are fewer sequels to Under the Moons of Mars (as originally serialised) / A Princess of Mars (the title of the book), they are still actually readable, unlike many of the Tarzan series.

They've also been tremendously influential, helping create the 'sword and planet' genre – they're undoubtedly a big reason for Jedi light sabres – and leading to series like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Because the first five books in the series are out of (US) copyright, there's been a straight-to-video feature, but the anticipation for the big budget version has been considerable.

And extended. The first attempt to do it was in the 1930s, with animation – if finished, it would have been the first animated feature film. Disney bought the film rights in the 1980s, but failed to exercise them. With the advent of good enough computer graphics, another studio bought them, but again failed to make the picture (had their original choice of director, Robert Rodriguez, been allowed to do it, it should have been a lot better than this one).

Then Disney bought the rights again, and gave the director of Pixar hits Finding Nemo (which had its moments) and Wall-E (which didn't) the chance to do a film with at least some live action. Where could it go wrong?

What’s good: The Martian fauna look good, if not always true to their description in the books – Green Martians are supposed to be fifteen feet high, not about ten, for example, and don't remember seeing them use their extra limbs as feet as well as arms.

They stuck to the time period of the originals, rather than making Carter a modern US sniper.

What’s not so good: Argh, the script. It's a mish-mash of elements from the first three books of the series, with some updating – making Dejah Thoris her city state's chief scientist – and the primary problem is that all the intelligence has gone. Let's take the Therns who are introduced in the second book, The Gods of Mars. There, they are a bunch of self-proclaimed gods who live around the valley which they have persuaded the rest of the planet is the entrance to paradise. The journey there is certainly the last one believers make, because the Therns kill or enslave the pilgrims. But the Therns are also fooled regarding religion, because the goddess they believe in is just a member of another Martian race who prey on the Therns.

Clearly all this false gods lying to people about paradise is too dangerous a century on, and here the Therns are the messengers of one goddess, and have incredible powers. As well as being able to jump between planets by speaking a few words while carrying a necklace, the primary example (played by the wasted Mark Strong) spends half his time morphing to appear as different people. It's not clear whether the way he appears as two or more different people at different points in the same scene is supposed to represent what's actually happening or just to remind the audience that the sweet old woman is really nasty Strong.

As in the originals, being from Earth means John Carter's muscles enable him to run faster / jump higher / throw further in the lower Martian gravity (it's just over a third of Earth's). Here, how it's shown varies from the amusing sight of him relearning to walk, to being ignored for most of it, to doing Superman impressions. If Carter was the world record high jumper on Earth in 1912, he'd have been able to jump 2m high, which equates to about 6m on Mars. With a "superhuman effort" he can sometimes do 10m thanks to the lesser density of air (no problems breathing here!), not the 60m or more he does again and again here.

Again, he's not so nice in the originals – a slave owner! – but here, the only substantial reference to his back story is a scene where he discovers the bodies of his wife and child in his burnt out farm house. (Who did it? There's no sign there were ever slaves on his farm, so accident or Yankees?)

The list goes on: poor casting, being plain tedious for stretches, while others are so confusing that if someone familiar with the books is going 'you what?' I have no idea what someone who's first exposure this is to the material will make of it (at least I knew the names).

Music: Forgettable. When the best bit of a score are the titles given to some of the tracks on the soundtrack album (including "A Thern For the Worse", "Get Carter", "Gravity of the Situation", "Thark Side of Barsoom", "Carter They Come, Carter They Fall", "The Second Biggest Apes I've Seen This Month", and "Thernabout") you know you have problems.

Miscellany: I'm pretty sure that the 'sand and pebble' diagram of the solar system which Dejah Thoris uses as part of the 'you're here now' sequence had nine pebbles for planets. Given that Pluto was not discovered when most of the books were written, and has been (rightly) downgraded to a dwarf planet / 'plutoid' since then, are the writers / designers making a feeble attempt to retain Pluto's planetary status, going 'oh, look, wasn't their astronomy better than ours at the time', or showing their own ignorance? (Original: "I knew that I was on Mars; not once did I question either my sanity or my wakefulness," says Carter on arrival.)

Overall: OK, Disney were never going to do an entirely faithful adaptation. ERB's Martians were a bit too fond of wandering around with no clothes on for that. But the vast bulk of changes are simply wrong.

The alternative to an almost straight adaptation would have been the tongue-in-cheek camp of the Lorenzo Semple Jr's scripts for Batman (1960s TV and film) and Flash Gordon – both dealing with source material that is basically silly and both vastly more intelligent than this.

TL;DR Read the books

Film: 1.5/5
DVD: ?/5

Written by Ian

March 19th, 2012 at 12:06 am

Posted in Cinema

Don Giovanni – Furtwangler (1955)

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Concept: Recording a classic production

Don Giovanni is my favourite opera and this is a recording of a famous production, done for the Salzburg Festival in the 50s.

What’s good: This is a very strong cast, with a very good orchestra, conducted by one of the greats.

What’s not so good: The sound is poor. Mono is ok and PCM should be as perfect as you can get (no compression) but the balance between the orchestra and singers is poor (the former is too quiet to my ears) and something in the process of recording couldn't cope with the full range of the singers. The result is some very audible and distracting distortion, especially when they're singing loudly.

The picture is desaturated (turn the colour up!) and some of the camera work is a bit juddery (see some of the pans).

Elements of the production have also dated horribly. See the tights the poor Don has to wear in contrast to everyone else's costume. Was he on the way to a fancy dress party?

Music: Don Giovanni is the greatest opera ever written, but the problems with the recording mean you can't hear it properly.


Overall: I'm sure it was wonderful live (you could close your eyes to avoid the tights!) and, compared to some other DVDs of Don Giovanni, it's cheap. But the problems mean that you're better off buying a CD.

TL;DR Not good enough to listen to or watch

Film: 1.5/5
DVD: 1/5

Subtitles, but nothing else.

Written by Ian

March 9th, 2012 at 11:49 am

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

Powaqqatsi (1988)

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Concept: Koyaanisqatsi 2, showing the rest of the world

The tagline at the end of the trailer for Koyaanisqatsi was 'until now, you've never really seen the world you live in', but that film almost never leaves the USA (some of the stock footage looks like the Soviet army). With a bigger budget, and many more people involved in the production, the follow up visits 'the global south'.

What's good: The title means 'life in transformation' and it is very good at showing the changes in the Third World, and asking – visually – if modernisation is an improvement.

What's not so good: For such a visual film, the vision is sometimes lacking. The opening sequence is in a giant open-air gold mine in Brazil, with tens of thousands of workers in a pit hundreds of metres deep. At no point do we see the full scale of it as the vast majority of shots concentrate on a few individuals who could be anywhere muddy.

To the visual styles of the first are added some out of focus and multiple exposure sections. Some of the latter work (I particularly like the burnt out car being passed by the 'ghosts' of cars that are still alive) but most of it is too abstract for me, in a way that, say, the night shots of car lights of Koyaanisqatsi aren't.

I also wonder, in a way that I do not about Koyaanisqatsi about what the people filmed got out of it. One of the most memorable images – the boy walking along the road being passed by a giant truck – was filmed by asking him to repeat what must have been an unpleasant and unhealthy experience for the cameras. Erm…

Music: There are some very good bits – the three Anthem sections in particular (it's not surprising that this is reprised over the end, used a lot in the trailer, and is the most widely reused piece) – but this is not a soundtrack I have ever wanted to buy.

Miscellany: Despite a nude boy and a child hitting an animal with a stick, this got a U certificate.

Overall: As I said, one of the things this does is confirm how good Koyaanisqatsi was, because it's not as good.

I don't think I am alone in thinking this. I suspect that the vast majority of people who saw the first one will have wanted to see this, but it made barely a fifth of its $2.5m budget in its US release. Clearly, the word of mouth wasn't there this time and it wasn't surprising that it took many years for Reggio to get the budget for the third Qatsi film.

TL;DR It's ok

Film: 3/5
DVD: 4.5/5

The double DVD pack with Koyaanisqatsi – this one has a 20 minute piece with Reggio and Glass talking about making it and the trailers for both films, plus the soundtrack album.

Written by Ian

March 8th, 2012 at 1:14 am

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

Koyaanisqatsi (1982)

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Concept: "No actors, no dialogue, no characters, no story, and a title that most people can't pronounce."

Director Godfrey Reggio and cinematographer Ron Fricke had some $40,000 left over from a media campaign. They decided to make a film purely of visual images.

What's good: The visuals. A mix of slow motion, real time and time lapse shots, some by Fricke, some by others, and some stock footage.

The editing. I don't want to think about how difficult it was to come to a decision about how to edit this. It took years.

The music. See below.

Let's say it again: the visuals, the editing, the music.

What's not so good: Not all of the sequences are equally interesting, but we'd probably disagree as to which were the best.

Music: One of Philip Glass's finest works, and one of the greatest film soundtracks ever.

Miscellany: Both the visuals and music have been endlessly sampled and referenced. One usage of the former not mentioned on IMDb or Wikipedia was by a 1980s 'youth recruitment' video by the UK's SDP political party – various young members including Shami Chakrabarti (hooray!) and, from memory, Danny Finkelstein (boo!) as talking heads with the night traffic shots as a background.

At one point, the VHS release was worth a significant sum, because rights issues were making a commercial DVD release impossible. Although I found a copy in a charity shop for about 50p, I missed the boat in selling it for a hundred times that…

Overall: A masterpiece.

It looks simple to do, but just how difficult it is was shown by the follow-up, Powaqqatsi, which isn't as good.

Watching it now is slightly odd because of what's happened in the world since: the scenes of buildings being demolished remind me of the World Trade Centre collapse, and the scene of the early NASA rocket exploding is reminiscent of the Columbia disaster.

TL;DR Watch it, listen to it

Film: 5/5
DVD: 4.5/5

The double DVD pack with Powaqqatsi, the original release of the soundtrack (edited to 46 minutes), the full soundtrack, and Glass's rerecording of his bits (plus the DVD audio version):

Written by Ian

March 7th, 2012 at 9:30 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

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Biutiful (2010)

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Concept: Survival is not always easy or possible

If Spain is unlucky enough to have a Daily Mail/Express equivalent, Javier Bardem would be one of their hate figures. He is trying to help at least two groups of illegal immigrants survive in Barcelona – for a cut. He's also a paid psychic, is dying, and has two kids who will need to be looked after by someone. Does it all go well? Of course not…

What's good: The performances. Bardem got the 'Best Actor' award at Cannes (albeit shared) and nominations for the Academy Award and BAFTA awards, but they're all very, very good.

The atmosphere – this is the mean streets of Barcelona, rather than anything the tourist board would like to show.

Some of the short-hand film-making, like showing Bardem's psychic ability or his history of drug use, is great. There's no need to show that he's right about the watch, for example, because we are never in any doubt that he's right. Does his daughter have the gift too? I think so, simply based on the way that a conversation carries on after his lips have stopped moving.

What's not so good: The story-telling. We see how economical director Alejandro González Iñárritu can be, so why is so much of it so dragged out?

The big life-changing incident is not a surprise. Show something ordinary twice and it's obvious that something very different will happen the third time.

Music: A mix of atmospheric score, borrowed music and some deliberately discordant annoying noises.

Miscellany: IMDb reckons this took 14 months to edit.

The DVD sleeve says 'From the director of Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel' – what it doesn't say is that all of those are better than this.

Overall: With such strong acting and a gritty hand-held documentary look, it's an enormous shame that the film as made is 30-50 minutes too long and that the story is treated so badly. It's a rule of thumb that a film needs to be about the most dramatic part of someone's life, and this is. You have a psychic who knows he's dying soon and needs to worry about what to do with his kids as well as failing to help two groups of people failing to survive in the city. There's a much better film to be made with that, even if it will not have such a strong set of performances.

How much of a missed opportunity is this film? Well…

TL;DR It is easy to imagine a remake being better

Film: 2.5/5
DVD: 4/5

Interviews, trailers – making it look a lot more exciting plus showing what we never see: what they're going towards in the forest scene that tops and tails the film – and notes.

Written by Ian

December 29th, 2011 at 9:56 pm

Posted in Cinema,DVDs

Green for Danger (1946)

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Concept: Murder in a small WWII hospital

It is late 1944 in SE England. V1 'buzz-bombs' fly overhead – when the noise stops, the missile is diving to explode. One of the local postmen is also a Civil Defence volunteer and has his leg badly broken when his HQ is hit by one of them. Taken to the local hospital, he dies just as the operation is starting.

We know, thanks to Alistair Sim's voiceover, that it was no accident, but for the story, it is not until one of the nurses announces to a party that it was murder and she knows who did it that everyone else does. Before very long, two people are dead and Scotland Yard detective Sim is being disrespectful to everyone in an attempt to solve the mystery.

It turns out that everyone left of the surgical team had a motive, but which one was it and can any of them be trusted, especially after a fatal dose of poison goes missing?

What's good: Alistair Sim is delightful, of course. Everyone else is fine and on the same page.

The script and cinematography are both above average too, with the night scenes particularly well done.

What's not so good: For a film where colour is a major plot point, it's in black and white.

I'm not entirely convinced by the 'whole story as flashback' structure – it is supposed to be Sim writing his report, but the start is there to unnecessarily heighten the drama rather than tell a superior what happened.

Music: Fine score from William Alwyn.

Miscellany: If you get nothing else from this, remember that announcing that you, and only you, know who a murderer is to a large crowd before going off alone into a dark room with lots of sharp things is not a good idea…

There's a sign on the wall of the ward saying 'no smoking'… but just for two short periods during the day.

Again, the BBFC cut this one on its original release. It's not clear what was lost – the BBFC site doesn't give details and doesn't know of any 'alternate versions'.

Overall: Made just after WWII, this is not the sort of 'heroes working together' film that most of the cast and crew had been doing.

Here the two doctors don't like each other – one's been involved in another surgical death and the other is involved with half the female staff – and the nurses are not selfless Florence Nightingales either. Similarly, Sim's detective rubs everyone's backs up and, had he been politer, the mystery may well have been solved earlier.

The freedom everyone had to be less respectful is probably why it works so well, and this is one of Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder's best.

TL;DR It would miss Sim, but I am amazed it hasn't been remade.

Film: 4/5
DVD: ?/5

It's a regular on Film4, which is where I saw it. Unfortunately, their print is not as good as it could be: the contrast is too high. Is the DVD any better?

Written by Ian

December 13th, 2011 at 4:49 pm

Posted in Cinema