Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007)

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Elizabeth: The Golden Age
Dir. Shekhar Kapur
Premiered at Toronto September 9, 2007

Confession time: while no critic can appraise a film in a truly unbiased fashion, Elizabeth: The Golden Age is exceptionally difficult for me, not because of any disagreement with the film’s portrayal of history– though that’s also in there– but mainly because I’m just fucking tired of its subject.

Elizabeth I is probably the most frequently depicted English monarch in all of film and television, at least outside the UK. This obsession seems to have peaked between the late 1990s and mid-2000s, during which she was portrayed by Judi Dench, Imogen Slaughter, Tamara Hope, Margot Kidder, Lorna Lacey, Catherine McCormack, Anne-Marie Duff, Helen Mirren, Angela Pleasance, and of course Cate Blanchett, who became a household name on the strength of her performance in 1998’s Elizabeth, to which The Golden Age is a direct sequel.

Together, the two films effectively bookend this period of Elizabeth-mania, and while I didn’t absolutely despise Elizabeth, it was hard to watch for how little it varied from other media that came after. Every one of these films and shows wants to be the definitive portrait of the monarch, and accordingly they not only cover the same events, but do so with largely the same perspective: there’s always the vaguely feminist theme of a strong woman needing to prove herself in a man’s world, the boilerplate political intrigue, the starry-eyed romanticism of taking on Spain and dreaming of a future British Empire, and of course the evergreen speculation that the Virgin Queen was nothing of the sort.

On top of that, Elizabeth is a bad film anyway. There’s a good case to be made for taking liberties in service of a larger theme or purpose, but here the inaccuracies outnumber the facts, what few truths appear unadulterated butt in and are quickly whisked away like unwanted guests, and the lot of it is presented with the most sensationalistic of ‘90s cheese. Mind you, the direction and acting are fine if somewhat perfunctory, but there’s no escape from a bad script, and The Golden Age happily doubles down.

Released four years after the conclusion of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Golden Age attempts to capture the same fantastical uplift as those films, but lacks the budget ($55 million), adequate runtime (114 minutes), or sense of direction to make it so. The majority of the film attempts to juggle Elizabeth’s potential interest in explorer/pirate Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen) and his subsequent betrayal with one of her handmaidens (Abbie Cornish) with a continuation of the foreign machinations depicted in the first: the Spanish crown sponsors an assassination attempt against Elizabeth (featuring Eddie Redmayne as the gunman), and Queenie’s trusted advisor Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush) implicates the legandary Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton) as a co-conspirator.

Call me unsentimental, but while I found neither plot to be compelling in the form presented, I must say that the latter had far more potential. Alas, the filmmakers went for maximum bodice-ripping while reducing the meatier cloak-and-dagger business to mere bullet points, despite it being the main driver of the film.

After Mary is executed, the Spanish Armada is sent to conquer England, and history goes completely out the window. The Spanish and English ships race through a storm– the real battle was under mostly clear skies. Elizabeth forgives Walter Raleigh so he can save the day at sea– the real leaders, Drake and Howard, are relegated to minor roles, as is Elizabeth’s court philosopher John Dee. The battle is a massive slaughter with the whole Spanish Armada sinking in flames– most of the ships ran aground in Belgium or had to go all the way around the British Isles to return to Spain.

If the governing philosophy behind Elizabeth: The Golden Age could be reduced to a single scene, it would be the prelude to battle in which Elizabeth herself rides out in full plate armor on a white horse, pledging to fight to the last as a common soldier should the time come. This climactic humiliation is mercifully elevated to so-bad-it’s-good status when the horse keeps walking in circles, forcing Cate Blanchett to constantly reorient herself in an losing battle to maintain her composure.

How Did It Do?
Elizabeth: The Golden Age grossed $74.2 million, too little to recoup its marketing budget and less than the original Elizabeth, even accounting for inflation. Although it managed an obligatory Oscar for Best Costume Design (and a nomination for Blanchett), critics were much harder on the picture than its predecessor, lambasting its soap operatics, loose history, and strangely vacillating characterization of the Queen herself (though that’s true of almost everyone portrayed).

If Elizabeth failed in all the same ways The Golden Age did, why is the former better remembered? Probably because the first came about in an era of greater tolerance for cheesy melodrama, and probably because it kicked off the Elizabeth craze, whereas The Golden Age heralded its merciful death.

Now it’s her father Henry VIII who’s getting run into the ground.

Next Time: Honeydripper

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Eastern Promises (2007)

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Eastern Promises
Dir. David Cronenberg
Premiered at Toronto September 8, 2007

Throughout the 1990s, David Cronenberg took a sharp turn. Formerly the grandmaster of gross-out gore like Scanners and The Fly, he began to take on more serious fare, gaining critical praise and awards buzz from 2005’s A History of Violence and its follow-up, Eastern Promises.

Make no mistake, though; Cronenberg still has an unsurpassable flair for body horror, a fact that occurred to me while watching this film. An immigrant gangster story seemed tailor-made for New York, I thought; why set this story in London? And then I realized how much disturbing it is to watch people kill each other with knives, hand-to-hand, than with guns.

On Christmas Day, a teenage girl dies in childbirth in a London hospital, leaving behind a diary entirely in Russian. Her midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) initially takes the diary to her uncle to translate it, but after finding the card of a local Russian restaurant, she takes it to the restaurant owner, Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl).

What Anna doesn’t realize is that Semyon is the kingpin of a ruthless mafia family– trafficking in heroin, sex slaves, and unadulterated terror. What’s more, the girl’s diary implicates Semyon and his manchild son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) in a litany of international crimes. Meanwhile, the Family runs afoul of some upstart Chechens, and bring aboard the cold, tranquil fix-it man Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), who possesses secrets of his own.

Eastern Promises is visceral and horrific in a way that few gangster films are, partly due to the choice to make the gangsters Russian. Let’s face it; if you were eating in a restaurant and Tony Soprano walked in, it wouldn’t be scary. These guys are another story. And the film keeps up this sense of terror by imbuing it with a constant sense of uncertainty; it’s never clear who is going to do what, but you know to expect the worst. This entire sensation pivots around Viggo Mortensen, who does an outstanding job as Nikolai, a man you can never quite read or predict until the final act.

Altogether, Eastern Promises is one of the best gangster films, if not the best, of the 2000s, and while I would not count it among the best of the best films of the year overall, it’s well worth a look from those who can steel themselves against the brutality that unfolds.

Signs This Was Made in 2007
The City of London Skyline consists of the Gherkin and a bunch of cranes. The Family’s heroin supply is constantly being cut off due to the American war in Afghanistan.

How Did It Do?
Although Eastern Promises grossed just $56.1 million against a $50 million budget, its status among cinephiles and especially gangster movie afficionados is legendary. Earning an 89% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, many critics praised the film’s uncompromising brutality, most notably in one of the most extraordinary fight scenes ever put to film, and which Cronenberg requested no critic spoil. Several critics listed it among the ten best of 2007, with Mark Doyle of Metacritic placing it at #1. Viggo Mortensen received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor and, despite the initial financial disappointment, plans began for a sequel before being quashed by Focus Features in 2013.

Next Time: Across the Universe

Stardust (2007)

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Stardust
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Premiered July 29, 2007

For most of these reviews, I include a sub-section called “Sign this was made in 2007.” With Stardust, that’s difficult. You can tell this movie was made in 2007 because it exists.

The Lord of the Rings is the last big blockbuster that changed everything. Going against his better judgment, New Line Cinema exec Marc Ordesky allowed Peter Jackson to make the entire trilogy at once, and by succeeding, gave us the instant franchise. More importantly, it brought Hollywood out of a late ‘90s dark age that 9/11 had prematurely killed, and fostered an unprecedented reliance on adaptations of recognizable properties. At the time, it was even thought that Jackson’s films had finally opened the doors for high fantasy as a popular genre.

But the last of those promises turned out not to be true, and by 2007, the last high fantasy epics were making little impression on the silver screen. The most well-received of these was Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust.

Somewhere in rural 19th Century England, an ancient Roman rampart is revealed to be a portal into the magical kingdom of Stormhold. After losing his job, young Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) discovers that his mother lives in this mysterious land, and vows to recover the remnant of a falling star that landed there so he can bring it back and win the favor of his materialistic crush Victoria (Sienna Miller).

Tristan’s intentions turn out to be more fraught and more fortuitous than he could have imagined. Not only do fallen stars take corporeal form in Stormhold (in this case Yvaine, played by Claire Danes), but they are also much beloved by witches (led by Michelle Pfeiffer) for the ability to restore youth, beauty and power. Stormhold is also a fratricidal dictatorship in the midst of a succession crisis, with Yvaine in possession of a jewel that bestows kingship.

…And that’s just the first act. The plot of Stardust, while comprehensible, is so devilishly complicated that reading any further plot description would either bore the reader or reveal far too much. While I wasn’t in love with this film, I did enjoy the hell out of it, and caught myself on the edge of my seat several times. While the basic plot has more than a little of the classic hero’s journey in it, the rest is as original as anything I’ve seen in this genre.

Most notably, Stardust is a fairy tale. A new fairy tale. And an unapologetic one. In an era that bemoans fairy tales as the bane of all modernity that will return us to the Dark Ages (despite the fact that civilization never abandoned fairy tales and yet still exists), Stardust makes no excuses, never takes refuge in detached cynicism, and tells its own story rather than subverting old ones. I realize that it’s based on a book, but the book was only written in 1999. That is a rare thing, and while I’m probably not going to revisit Stardust anytime soon, I’m glad that this was our coda to Hollywood’s latest wave of high fantasy.

At least I wish it was. The actual genre-killer came later in 2007. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Additional Notes

  • One thing I should mention: Robert DeNiro as a flamingly gay, Anglophilic sky-pirate. Worth seeing just for the what-the-fuckness of it.
  • Another thing: while some characters are iffy about black magic, the film treats its use as perfectly fine. That’s different.

How Did It Do?
Despite a unprecedentedly enthusiastic reception from test audiences, Stardust grossed $135.6 million against a $70 million budget, narrowly failing to make up marketing costs and earning an unusually poor $38 million in the United States– compare to its native United Kingdom, where it earned $31 million despite a much smaller population.

Nevertheless, critics were mostly positive, earning the film a 76% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and it really is impressive that this movie isn’t a complete disaster with all its wild shifts in tone and genre.

In his otherwise positive review, David Edelstein dickishly insisted on referring to director Matthew Vaughn only as “Madonna’s husband’s best man,” which is pretty fucking rich: Vaughn had already broken out three years earlier with Layer Cake, while his creative partner Guy Ritchie, the “Madonna’s husband” in question, was leaping straight into the late Bush era’s special brand of cinematic pretension with the gentile-bastardized-Kabbalah-manifesto-crime-thriller Revolver. Ritchie went on to direct two successful but instantly-forgotten Sherlock Holmes movies and failed to create an exceptionally grubby King Arthur cinematic universe, while Vaughn did Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class, and Kingsman. Advantage Vaughn.

Next Time: Rush Hour 3

Hot Fuzz (2007)

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Hot Fuzz
Dir. Edgar Wright
Premiered February 14, 2007

The 2000s were a dark decade. The horrors of the September 11 attacks in 2001 cast a shadow over the western world, yes, but even in those innocent days leading up to that terror, an inexplicable melancholy was emerging. This new world was pale, dour, and clad head-to-toe in black. Absent a much-needed sense of common sacrifice and effort, Hollywood decided that we had to become monsters in order to fight monsters. Angst was the law. Fun was the enemy. We didn’t know how to switch off.

It was into this milieu that audiences were first treated to Hot Fuzz, the third directorial feature of Edgar Wright, and the second entry in his Cornetto Trilogy of buddy-centric genre parodies. I don’t know how general audiences reacted when this film came out, but it must have been a welcome shock to the system.

After putting his colleagues to shame with his stellar record, hyper-competent London police sergeant Nicholas Angel (Simon Pegg) is sent away to rural Sandford, Gloucestershire. Initially repulsed by the parochial residents and lax policing, he finds an unlikely friend and partner in Danny Butterman (Nick Frost), an overeager devotee of shoot-em-up cop movies including, notably, Point Break and Bad Boys II. Although Angel is disdainful of cowboy antics, he soon finds himself in the action flick to end all action flicks when a conspiracy seems afoot and people in the village start dying mysterious, uncommonly gruesome deaths.

Once upon a time, action movies were looked down upon as pablum for the masses (an idea that filmmakers have occasionally played with). In 2007, when parody and genre tributes were either shallow, hateful, or cynically above-it-allHot Fuzz (and a couple of other films we’ll soon discuss) taught us how to mock with love for the first time since Mel Brooks was a hitmaker. Today, action movies are finally getting the respect they deserve (as long as they’re not remakes), making Hot Fuzz a prescient trendsetter, as well as a riotously funny, meticulously crafted, and often quite sweet action-comedy.

How Did It Do?
Hot Fuzz took in a cool $80.7 million against a $12 million budget. It was also a critical smash, earning a 91% fresh rating on RT. It’s since become a home movie staple and is often quoted in media. Wright, whose breakout Shawn of the Dead had yet to overshadow his work as a teenage directing prodigy in British television, was a name and a brand, and has used it wisely in the decade since.

Hot Fuzz wasn’t the only comedy in 2007 to handily tackle the subject of platonic male friendship. The other is one of my all-time favorite films. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Next Time: Beaufort

Son of Rambow (2007)

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Son of Rambow
Dir. Garth Jennings
Premiered at Sundance January 22, 2007

Anyone who wants to prove the existence of Carl Jung’s fabled collective unconscious has no further to look than cinema’s tendency toward micro-genres. Every once in a while, a series of films come out with very similar premises. These particular instances are never the type big, successful blockbusters that inspire imitators, and they’re made too close together to be following each other’s lead, yet there they are. People just come up with the same ideas at the same time.

The 2000s gave us a couple of these. Toward the beginning of the decade were Admissions Comedies; movies about young people attempting to get into a university or pay their tuition through some sort of misdeed (Orange County, Stealing Harvard, The Perfect Score, Accepted). Then there was the truly bizarre trend of ugly, borderline-unwatchable action movies that were also nonsenical, pretentious political manifestos, all of which flopped (Southland Tales, Smokin’ Aces, War, Inc.).

Son of Rambow, as far as I can tell, was the first of another notable micro-trend the amateur-filmmaking genre. While there’s never a shortage of new movies about making movies, a small selection of movies in the late 2000s (Son of Rambow, Be Kind Rewind, Super 8) decided instead to focus on the relationship between movies and ambitious outsiders who love them– which at least runs less of a risk of alienating audiences with Hollywood insider talk. And while it was a bit weird to get these all at once, it worked out a hell of a lot better than the political action movies did.

The film begins with Will (Bill Milner), a child being raised by a single mother (Jessica Stevenson) in some sort of hardline religious movement in the early 1980s. At school, he gets in a fight with incorrigible bad boy Lee Carter (Will Poulter). The child of absentee parents living in an old folks’ home with his bullying brother (Ed Westwick), Carter quickly cons Will into giving up his late father’s wristwatch, and then into helping make a movie to win a national youth filmmaking contest. Because of his religious upbringing, Will has never watched a movie before, but once exposed to Carter’s pirated copy of First Blood, a childhood’s worth of pent-up creative yearning bursts forth, and the two become genuine friends.

After a long period of shooting, Will and Carter’s efforts attract the attention of their classmates, as well as the Prince-styled French exchange student with whom the entire student body is obsessed. But the rapidly expanding scope of their production drives a wedge between Will and Carter and threatens both of their home lives.

If you have ever wondered what it would be like if Jean-Pierre Jeunet adapted Stand By Me, this’ll give you a pretty good idea. That’s not always an asset. One of the pleasures of movies about filmmaking is that it enables the viewer to directly look into the artist’s imagination, which Son of Rambow does to the fullest. However, there’s not enough of a visual distinction between Will’s artistic visions and his everyday life, especially early on with questionably fake-looking stunts and effects and The Gods Must Be Crazy-type fast-motion.

I also wish the religion thing had been explained better. While the Brotherhood’s cultish disdain for media and distinctly Soviet style of dress is somewhat exoticized, the lack of explanation for who they are suggests that the viewer is supposed to just know. (They’re Plymouth Brethren, which I had to look up and had never heard of before).

But these are minor issues; the unflinchingly chaotic friendship between Will and Carter anchors the film wonderfully. Finally, Sundance 2007 has provided a movie for me to truly like. However, the best is yet to come.

Additional Notes
It’s a very minor thing, but the kids actually appear to be middle school-aged, by which I mean the girls are way taller than the boys. You never see that in live-action film, and you can’t help but appreciate the commitment to authenticity.

How Did It Do?
Son of Rambow spent over a year in the festival circuit before finally being released in May 2008, shortly after an ill-fated attempt to revive the Rambo franchise itself. Grossing $10.9 million against a $6.5 million budget, Son did virtually no business except in its native UK, where it was a relative hit, spending two weeks at #2 in the box office. While it didn’t make it’s money back, it gave a boost in prestige to director Garth Jennings, who had come and gone from Hollywood after his adaptation of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy bombed, eventually returning for Illumination’s 2016 film Sing.

Next Time: King of California

Equus (1977)

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Equus
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Premiered October 14, 1977

Usually, it’s a novel. While this practice hasn’t completely gone away, it seems that any and every trashy nonfiction bestseller in the 70s would get an adaptation and get it fast. Equus wasn’t a novel, it was a play: a provocative Broadway hit (and what’s “provocative” in New York is “controversial” in Los Angeles), so one might expect to feel some higher pedigree watching it than, say, The Other Side of Midnight, or tomorrow’s offering, Looking for Mr. Goodbar. But it isn’t any different, not really.

Psychiatrist Martin Dysart (Richard Burton) is proud of his work, but is shaken by his latest task: unraveling the mystery of Alan Strang (Peter Firth), a 17-year-old arrested for gouging the eyes of six horses whilst working as a stable boy. In between his therapy sessions with Alan, who initially does little more than recite commercial jingles despite having been raised without television, Martin discovers a childhood fixation with horses and a religious mania inherited from Alan’s mother that led him to place horses– Equus, the spirit of horses in general– in the place of Jesus Christ.

It’s all very Freudian and quite reductive, and really leans into the ‘70s obsession with the supposedly inherent homoeroticism in Christianity Granted, there’s plenty of gay Christian art by gay Christian artists; the previous year gave us Sebastiane; but the idea that it’s all gay is just as iffy and ‘70s-ish as the Freudian psychology depicted here. Alan’s sexually-charged but mercifully non-bestial relationship with horses vs people indeed resembles the internal struggle of a repressed gay man, but that’s not what the film chooses to focus on.

No, much like Sidney Lumet’s previous film Network unaccountably sidelines its famous television industry farce for a run-of-the-mill relationship drama, Equus focuses on how Dysart is affected by his work with Alan. Reflecting an attitude towards mental illness that was popular until very recently, but has aged very badly very fast, Dysart becomes jealous of Alan’s insanity, lamenting in a final soliloquy that while Alan may be a sexually dysfunctional religious nut/animal abuser, at least he’s free, maaaan, while Dysart is the worst thing in the world: a middle-class professional in a boring marriage. It’s the same sophomoric, bourgeois romanticism for psychosis as seen in Garden State.

Would that Equus was merely offensive; unfortunately it’s also extremely boring. I’m aware of the inherent challenges of adapting theater to film, making the abstract concrete and inevitably losing the energy of live performance. I saw Fences. But I’m not reviewing the play; I’m reviewing the movie, and while Equus goes to some effort at adaptation through techniques like flashback, it’s not enough. It’s just terribly drab and talky and it numbs you. Never before in my life has a 1970s beaver shot struggled to hold my attention, but I was just waiting for it to end, which it soon did, with exactly the gross conclusion anyone even half-watching would expect.

Signs It Was Made in 1977
Posh horsey girl Jill (Jenny Agutter) asks Alan on a date to a porno theater. The porn is one of those Swedish softcore things, and the main character is 16. There was some other stuff I wrote down, but I’m tired and don’t know where my phone is.

How Did It Do?
Equus was generally well-received, earning a 71% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, but that should be taken with a big asterisk. Many of those early reviews came with the caveat that it could never measure up to the play, and that expectations should thus be lowered. Many, for example, criticized the realist take needed to bring it to the screen. For the most part, critics seem to be ignoring the film in favor of praising the play.

Equus received three Academy Award nominations: Best Lead Actor for Burton, Best Supporting Actor for Firth, and Best Adapted Screenplay for Peter Shaffer, who also wrote the original play. None won; Burton, amazingly, never would.

Director Sidney Lumet, who had spent the entire 1970s on a hot streak, would see his reign as a hitmaker and award-winner come to an end the following year, with a borderline-incompetent film adaptation of The Wiz. And Equus briefly returned to notoriety in 2007, when Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe performed nude in a revival, not so much because he was 17, but because he had become a children’s icon and was doing something risqué in (a work that no child would ever want to watch anyway, I hope).

Next Time: Looking for Mr. Goodbar

The Duellists (1977)

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The Duellists
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered August 31, 1977

What makes a Ridley Scott film a Ridley Scott film? I asked this of a friend once before. It was a troubling question. Scott has made so many films that it’s easy to find commonalities: throwbacks to midcentury epics, strong woman protagonists, a penchant for respectful ambiguity that drives studios insane. But these are all cherry-picked.

Yet can’t be denied that there’s…something…in almost all of his films. A monumental visual element that is at home in most of his works, making even the smallest stories feel operatic. And that can be seen in his very first feature film, The Duellists.

The Duellists is based on a short story by Joseph Conrad, itself a thinly veiled retelling of actual events. The year is 1800. Napoleon Bonaparte has taken power in France, but has yet to crown himself Emperor. His country is almost constantly at war with its neighbors, and requires a massive army in which order is the only way to survive. It is here that we find the insatiable Lieutenant Feraud (Harvey Keitel) under arrest for nearly killing the son of the mayor of Strasbourg in a duel of honor. Critically upset over having been arrested in the home of a friend, Feraud demands satisfaction from the fellow officer who arrested him, Lieutenant D’Hubert (Keith Carradine).

The ensuing duel is inconclusive; when D’Hubert is prevented from killing Feraud, and much as he may not want to, D’Hubert is honor-bound to defend himself the next time they meet in peacetime. Occasionally, the Napoleonic Wars do take a break, and almost every time D’Hubert irritatingly finds himself in Feraud’s presence. Accusations of unpatriotism fly, wars come and go, regimes rise and fall, and both men get older. Yet they always continue.

The weakest link in the film is Carradine. Like many of the actors in the previously-covered Cross of Iron, Carradine’s California shag is a preposterous giveaway of the 1970s in what is otherwise a thoroughly realized and uncommonly grim portrait of the Napoleonic Era. And that more than makes up for it: The Duellists is one of the most visually sumptuous movies of the year, its cinematically atypical style evoking art from its period setting, such as the paintings of J.M.W. Turner. The production design is similarly deliberate, and the action scenes are as sharp as those of films like Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Altogether, the viewer is witness to the most visually unique period piece one might have made at the time (comparisons to Barry Lyndon by critics are myriad, and partly valid).

How Did It Do?
Box office receipts are undocumented for The Duellists, but at a deceptively low $900,000 budget, the likelihood of a profit is very high. It won Best Debut Film at the Cannes Film Festival (for which reason I should’ve reviewed it back around A Special Day) and deservedly so. Critics adored it, earning a 91% fresh rating on RT. Having long worked in British television and advertising, then-39-year-old Ridley Scott was a late bloomer. But The Duellists was just the beginning.

Next Time: Soldier of Orange

The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)

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The Spy Who Loved Me
Dir. Lewis Gilbert
Premiered July 7, 1977

I have a confession to make: I’m not a big fan of James Bond movies. I only saw them as an adult, and watched them all at once at that, so most of them are blurred together. If I had to pick favorites, I’d probably say From Russia With Love and Casino Royale, and my favorite of Roger More, the Bond of 1977, is For Your Eyes Only. My interest in espionage is strictly of the hardboiled John Le Carré variety.

My biggest problem, I think, is the series’ fundamentalist approach to the formula established in 1964’s Goldfinger– flirting with Moneypenny, a brief from M, gadgets from Q, two countries visited, two girls bonked, the first one dies, etc. It’s weird, right? No other successful film franchise does this, and if they did, people would endlessly complain about it. I can’t always speak to the quality of the movies that break from this template, but the usual adherence has always kept me at arm’s length, even when it comes to what is generally regarded as “the other good Roger Moore movie.”

Britain and the Soviet Union both lose a nuclear submarine so that independent villain Stromberg (Curd Jürgens) can start World War III and rebuild global society in his own image. James Bond (Roger Moore) is put on the case for the British Navy and ends up in Cairo, where he faces against his Soviet counterpart, Agent XXX (Barbara Bach). While they both want the same thing, their relationship is emphatically non-cooperative. But when they’re faced down by iron-toothed, super-strong henchman Jaws (Richard Kiel), and more importantly the Stromberg mission brings the KGB and MI6 together, 007 and XXX fall for each other. Little does XXX know that Bond is the man responsible for her lover’s death during a routine ski chase.

So yeah, I’d agree that it’s the other good Roger Moore movie. In many ways, it’s a cleaner, less convoluted take on the formula established by Goldfinger. It does most of the tropes, but does them well: good action, good gadgets, a respectfully subdued but mercifully present sense of humor. There’s not much else to say; halfway through 1977, it’s in my top 10. Just don’t expect it to stay there.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Bond says “you’re on Candid Camera.” However, Allen Funt never comes boogieing on out. Detente is namedropped, and is the entire subtext of the movie. The score is all lush Marvin Hamlisch piano pieces, including the theme by Carly Simon, with the one exception of the Bond theme’s disco remix. Eat your heart out, Meco!

Next Time: Orca

The Other Side of Midnight (1977)

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The Other Side of Midnight
Dir. Charles Jarrott
Premiered June 8, 1977

For 20th Century Fox executive Gareth Wigan, 1931-2010

Full disclosure: from here on, when we talk about 1977, we’re going to have to talk about Star Wars. 1977 is not a particularly great year for movies, but it is a historically important point in the evolution of Hollywood, and that’s mostly because of Star Wars. This is even more true of The Other Side of Midnight. Based on an immensely popular novel, both 20th Century Fox and theater owners fully expected it to be a massive hit, and the studio had to force theaters to screen Star Wars in order to also screen this film.

This is the only reason The Other Side of Midnight is still remembered.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Noelle (Marie-France Pisier) moves to Paris to become a fashion model, where she meets Larry (John Beck), an American volunteer in the Canadian Air Force. Naturally, the two fall in love over just two weeks before he goes on a mission, never to return. Fearing him dead, Noelle finds out that Larry is actually a serial philanderer, and upon finding herself pregnant with his child, she administers a DIY abortion that is incredibly hard to watch– and not for the reasons director Charles Jarrott intended.

Instead, Noelle sleeps her way to stardom in the French film industry and uses a private detective to keep Larry from finding work as a commercial pilot when the war is over, by which time he has met and married a striking young wartime propagandist (Susan Sarandon). Finally, Larry finds work as a private pilot for Greek tycoon Constantine Demeris (Raf Vallone), who just happens to be Noelle’s new husband.

It’s hard to know where to start with The Other Side of Midnight. I don’t know how faithful it is to Sidney Sheldon’s novel, but I suspect it’s a little too similar to the source material, including multiple sequences with no bearing on the overall plot in an already long movie. Here, we’re treated to Sarandon’s character Catherine coming to Washington DC to start her job, Noelle being pimped out by her father in Marseille before running away to Paris, and Constantin being ingratiated into Parisian high society at the beginning of the war.

That’s not to mention the multiple plot holes: most notably, how is Noelle able to become a popular film star in Paris while under German occupation? Most baffling of all is a barely present framing device in which Noelle confesses the entire story to Constantin while under arrest for murder– the same framing device used decades later in another terrible melodrama, Vanilla Sky. And every line of dialogue is ridiculously forced, like a robot trying to sound like a hack romance novelist (example: “you drink so much, why don’t you put a straw in the bottle?” “Because it might just be the last straw!”). The result is a bizarre cross between Casablanca and Valley of the Dolls. To say nothing of the production itself: The Other Side of Midnight is stagy and overproduced. Every interior is overlit like a soap opera, every frame shot through a telephoto lens.

Pisiers bawls and whines every line like Kurt Russell in Big Trouble in Little China– and it’s all meant to be taken seriously. Adding insult to injury, she’s forced to pantomime her way through the flattest, most clinical sex scenes I’ve ever seen in film, presumably for the benefit of teenage boys and middle-aged moms in the audience. As for Beck, it’s impossible to tell if he’s acting badly or not at all. Larry is supposed to be an irresistible bad boy, but comes off as a leaden oaf. His romance with Noelle lasts ten minutes, and never for a moment is it believable. Perhaps this is why, when one of Larry’s compatriots break the news to Noelle that he wasn’t really interested in her, it comes off as a cruel joke rather than actual exposition. Sarandon is the one bright note in the main cast, who, mostly confined to their own sprawling plot cul-de-sacs,  rarely actually interact.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The inclusion of nudity, and the presence of the then-bizarrely-popular Greek tycoon archetype, are the only indications this was made in 1977. The production design, cinematography, and music evoke high melodrama of the sort Jeff Chandler used to headline in the 1950s. And all of this in a movie set between 1939 and 1947.

How Did It Do?
According to its Wikipedia page, The Other Side of Midnight was critically acclaimed. No citation was given for this claim, and I have yet to find a review from the time that wasn’t completely scathing, though it did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Costume Design.

The film did make a profit, earning $24.7 million against a $9 million budget, but not being the massive success that 20th Century Fox anticipated was enough to condemn it to the dustbin of history, being far outsold that summer by Star Wars, Smokey and the Bandit, and…

Next Time: A Bridge Too Far

Cross of Iron (1977)

cross_of_iron

Cross of Iron
Dir. Sam Peckinpah
Premiered January 28, 1977

Whichever way you cut it, Cross of Iron was a risky proposition. That one of the great New Hollywood auteurs would try his hand at making a film about the war was inevitable, but it was just as inevitable that, in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the finished product would not be a gung-ho endorsement of battle. Even today, filmmakers are hesitant to give such a morally grey treatment to what Studs Terkel famously dubbed “The Good War;” to have done so in the 1970s, when most of the men who fought in the war were only in their fifties*, was downright daring. Director Sam Peckinpah’s solution to this problem– showing the war from the point of the view of the Germans– should have been no less controversial.

It totally works.

Although Cross of Iron was Peckinpah’s only war film, he is an inspired choice. Best known as the man who brought blood into the western, Peckinpah’s trademark style emphasizes the brutality of battle in a way that is beautiful to look at, but conscientious and thoughtful rather than dehumanizing and fetishistic. The film introduces a German Army that is anything but respectable. Reeling from the epic defeat at Stalingrad, the Wehrmacht is in a desperate race back across Russia; ordinary men scarred by years of combat wait to die for a country they no longer believe in; particularly the fatalist Captain Kiesel (David Warner) and the necessarily stiff-upper-lipped Colonel Brandt (James Mason).

In contrast, Sergeant Rolf Steiner (James Coburn) is deeply bitter towards his superiors but far from resigned to an anonymous death. Both of these qualities are put to the test when Steiner’s company gets new leadership in the form of Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a haughty aristocrat fresh from occupied France who, although emphatically not a Nazi Party member, has no compunctions against committing war crimes, and is driven solely by a collector’s desire to acquire the vaunted Iron Cross. Stransky’s obsession is enough to get him to take credit for a dead officer’s bravery, only Steiner refuses to go along with the ruse. Stransky retaliates by leaving him and his platoon stranded behind the Soviet line, and with surrender to the Soviets a death sentence in all but name, Steiner must find his way back to company command, with unsettling results.

Although based on Willi Heinrich’s 1955 novel The Willing Flesh, the parallels to the more recent conflict in Vietnam are unmistakable, not least the summer heat, woodland setting, depictions of endless replacement soldiers as naïve conscripts, severe discontent between enlisted men and officers, and the willfully unflattering depiction of many ordinary soldiers. It is a strange but interesting sensation to feel, at times, that you are meant to root against the characters, as when some of Steiner’s men attempt to rape a garrison of female Soviet troops– or when Steiner pointedly leaves them to be torn limb from limb by the women. But while it is not always subtle, Cross of Iron is devastatingly successful in its unexpectedly hopeful message, as conveyed by Colonel Brandt: “the new Germany, if such a thing is allowed to exist, will need builders, thinkers…wars end, nations are defeated, but life goes on. Tomorrow will be another day, and it’s at least worth trying to live for.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Many of the actors were unwilling to part with their shaggy haircuts, a minor point against the film.

Additional Notes
*Among that generation was America’s brand new President, Jimmy Carter. Although not a combat veteran, he did answer the call, training at Annapolis to help lead the Invasion of Japan when the war ended. Within my own lifetime, the United States would have another WWII vet as President, George H.W. Bush.

What’s more, popular culture before MTV was far more interested in appealing to older people than it has since– there’s a reason Frank Sinatra is still so beloved– which accounts for why no fewer than four films in this project are set in the Second World War. Today, pop culture for the aged is either mediocre, kitschy, or awards bait, and goddamnit, they deserve better.

How Did It Do?
Contemporary discussions of Cross of Iron suggest it performed poorly. Although the most popular film of the decade in Germany, the film struggled to overcome a modest but apparently bloated $6 million budget, and wasn’t very commercially appealing to begin with. Critical acclaim was and continues to be glowing. Among the film’s boosters were Orson Welles, who compared it to All Quiet on the Western Front, and Quentin Tarantino, who drew inspiration for Inglourious Basterds. Director Sam Peckinpah, whose most celebrated work was behind him, followed the film up with Convoy, embarrassingly his biggest financial success.

Next Time: Suspiria