Wednesday, January 11, 2012

DVD reviews

Midnight in Paris. It was a good thing when Woody Allen finally stopped playing the Woody Allen character in Woody Allen movies. Now he leaves it to people like Owen Wilson, who is actually much better at it. The whimsical plot of this movie creaks and groans a great deal in getting itself set up, but once it's off and rolling - that is, once Owen accepts what's happening to him and just goes with the flow - it's an absolute delight from then on through the last drop. The previous Woody film it most resembles is The Purple Rose of Cairo. It's not quite as good, but the theme is the same: can you live in your fantasies?

Three other points. 1) In one sense, the plot is about the inevitable breakup of Owen and his fiancée. Usually I find such stories too sad and upsetting to watch. But they're so obviously utterly unsuited for each other from square one, and it's handled so lightly and skillfully, I didn't mind. (It's necessary, however, to empathize with the goofball him rather than the brittle her, and I'd like to hear from women who've seen it if this was a problem for them.) 2) In another sense, it's a love letter to Paris. I've never been to Paris, but mutatis mutandis (a big caveat, for the cities have very different atmospheres) the street scenes of this movie remind me vividly of what it's like to just walk around Rome, so now I feel I know what it's like to walk around Paris. Thanks, Woody. 3) After you watch the movie, watch the trailer. It's an amazing trailer. It gives simultaneously an accurate and a cheekily misleading idea of what the movie is like, and, unlike every other movie trailer of the past couple decades, it doesn't summarize or even give away the plot. Amazing.

Nightmare Alley. The 1947 film noir with Tyrone Power. Watched as a crude substitute for reading the novel, which I don't want to do, but I was curious. First reaction: A lot of good acting, too much of it gone to waste on typically crappy Forties-movie romantic dialog. Second reaction: Oh, come on, would that carny blather really work on everyone? "Every boy has a dog," say the shysters, so every man will think the description of the image of a boy running barefoot through the hills with a dog is him. Well, I didn't have a dog. I never ran barefoot either. Did have hills, though. Third reaction: This is supposed to be the story of the fall of an over-reaching man. Actually, though, it's mostly about his rise, leaving his fall to be stuffed hastily, details mostly undepicted, in the last reel. Fourth reaction: Yes, that was a big flashing neon plot sign prefiguring the end of the movie at the very beginning. I thought so. Final reaction: Wow, what a creepy story. No wonder the author's wife left him.

The Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries. The original BBC adaptations, with Ian Carmichael. I saw these when they were first on Masterpiece Theatre decades ago, but I'd only ever seen a couple of them since. In fact they were my introduction to Sayers, almost the only canonical murder-mystery novelist I really like. Take the eleven Wimsey novels, remove the four with Harriet Vane (whom the producers obviously didn't want to handle), delete the two remaining ones which are the least good, and you have the five of this series. They turn out to be quite delightful, particularly in catching stock British tv actors of the day whom I recognize from The Prisoner etc. In fact, one of them was one of the Castle Anthrax "doctors" ("They, uh, have a basic medical training, yes") in Holy Grail. Holy blood!

The least successful was the adaptation of one of the best books, Murder Must Advertise. Too much of what makes that story delightful had to be edited out to fit, and Paul Darrow, later to win fame as the psychopathic Avon on Blakes 7, is too coiled and repressed to be well-cast as the weak, self-indulgent Tallboy. He's just about the only case of that, though. The script for The Nine Tailors, best of the five originals, tears the novel apart entirely but rebuilds it moderately well. The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club is better still, with some great small parts. Clouds of Witness actually improves on a somewhat dodgy novel. Best of all the adaptations was Five Red Herrings. I've only read the novel once; I found it difficult to keep track of who was who among seven irascible Scottish landscape painters, nor could I work up much interest in which one of them killed which other one of them, and when, amid a welter of railway timetables. But on television, where you can see all seven and try to remember which is which, it works pretty well.

By the way: though all five stories are set off by a dead body, only two of them turn out to be actual murders, with villainous intent to kill.


  1. I'm so happy we agree about the relative merits of the Ian Carmichael versions. Back in the '80s we actually stayed one night at the Selkirk Arms in Kirkcudbright where the owner told us all about how they shot the scenes of The Five Red Herrings there and the actors who stayed there during the shoot. One of the better trips we've ever taken!

  2. The filming site I'd be interested in Galloway would be the fishing village used for the town of Summerisle in the original The Wicker Man.