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Currently writing scripts, enjoying not having to deal with ignorant bureaucrats.
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If one asks what makes a good film, frequently one hears observations like 'a good story', or 'good acting' or 'good cinematography' or 'good directing', which begs the question as to what all these entail. Of course, all of those can contribute to enhancing the cultural value of a film, but they 'ain't really where it's at', to quote Bob Dylan. So this list intends to give anyone who is interested the opportunity to see forty films that, between them, display virtually all of the unique characteristics of the cinema that make it the apogee of human cultural endeavour. It invites you to see beyond a film's story and theme and into its expressive dimensions.
To 'see beyond the story' is the first and most important lesson. If 'content' was all that was important in narrative art, Readers' Digest-style reductions of great novels would have the same cultural validity as the originals. And remember that Shakespare never invented a single story from which he forged his plays. Cinematic expression is the art of elucidating the thematic complexity and subtlety of a story through cinematic means. Each of these forty films gives a clear example of how that is done, in different ways.
They are NOT 'the greatest forty films ever made', nor 'my favourite forty films', but if you seek to understand the cinema, and you haven't seen any of these, you are looking in the wrong place. Is the list too conventional? Perhaps: I purposely avoided the avant garde and the quasi-avant garde because I thought that many films would be a shock to the system for many, if not most takers. Also, many of the key works of the avant garde are not available to the populous at large.
I have tried (oh so hard) to avoid tokenism so there are no films by von Sternberg and Hawks, both of whom made films that were better than many of the films on the list, but their work was very much 'within' the conventional 'film-space', and I have generally chosen other works to typify what is best in their cinemas. But elsewhere, I admit to not being able to countenance a list without Godard the innovator, for example, even though most of his work leaves me cold. My biggest agony concerned Madame de..... Ophuls 'represents' a very important tendency in the cinema, but I finally came to the conclusion that there were shots in Citizen Kane, and Psycho that demonstrated the (partial) truth of Godard's dictum that 'a tracking shot is a moral judgement' as well as anything in Ophuls' work. Ophuls' contribution to cinema aesthetics is across his work, rather than within it.
Is the list too serious? Well, the cinema is an art, which, more than any other, exposes and monumentalises different aspects of the human condition. Regrettably, the human condition can be, and often is, fairly grim, and we should remember Welles' response when asked by a skeptical journalist if it was not possible to make a film with a happy ending... Welles said "Yes, but only if you don't tell the whole story"... Also, even the darkest of films, if it is wonderful at a cinematic level, can be transcendentally elating, as in Au Hasard Balthazar.
Probably the earlier films will be less controversial than the more recent ones (but maybe not). However, if so, this should not be a surprise, as greatness in art is not only recognised by the expression involved but by the fact that it stands the test of time. However, I am confident that at least two thirds of these films are likely to be in contention if another list of double the size is posited in a hundred years time.
It may be observed that the period from 1960 until 1967 has a large number of films in the list. There are two explanations for this and I am not certain which is the more important. The first explanation is that this corresponded to the era in which I first became 'seriously' interested in film - and so I became also acutely aware of the methodologies of the then contemporary films that were most celebrated at the time. The second explanation is, I contend, just as important and that is that the 60s really was the decade of innovation and experiment in the arts, and none more so than the cinema.
My greatest hope is that this list will lead some people into new areas of cinema that can expand and enhance not only the enjoyment and appreciation of those new works, but an even greater appreciation and enjoyment of the films that they already love. I invite everyone to watch the entire list in its chronological order and say if it has not, in fact expanded his or her understanding of what a film can be.
I do not claim that the list is 'definitive', but any list that seeks to illuminate the mysteries of cinematic expression would need to contain a good number of these films, unless it sought to be obscure; (and why be obscure when the aim is 'illumination')?
Finally, forty films on DVD, even in 'used' condition is a tall order at a financial level for many people. Why not persuade your friends to join you in watching the films on the list and then share the DVDs among yourselves (or sell them). That way the cost can be very little on a 'per film' basis.
The Hateful Eight (2015)
Key Largo is better.
By an astounding coincidence, the last film I saw before a preview of Tarantino's new film was a DVD of Key Largo, John Huston's celebrated 1948 film adaptation of a Maxwell Anderson play based in the Florida Keys.
Why is this an astounding coincidence? Because, to all intents and purposes, The Hateful Eight (Les Huit Salopards, as it is called in France) seems to be a typically Tarantino-esque remake of the Anderson play, and the Huston movie of it.
To remind those who have forgotten, Key Largo is the story of a criminal gang who have taken over a hotel on the seafront in the Florida Keys, with the aim of doing a deal with another mob that will aid the gang's leader, Johnny Rocco, in his attempts to escape his federal pursuers. His plans go awry, in part, due to a monstrous hurricane that keeps him on land while he had intended to be en route to Cuba.
Tarantino's film is transferred to land-locked Wyoming in the dead of winter a few years after the Amarican Civil War and the criminal gang are a bunch of confederate sympathisers trying to retrieve a female gang member who has been captured by bounty hunters. Other similarities include a snowstorm replacing the hurricane, a dead son of an old military man, and a number of innocent victims.
I am afraid I have long been of the opinion that Tarantino started brilliantly with his script for True Romance and has been going downhill ever since. His scripts remain clever - and I am not trying to be pejorative in using the word. He sets up situations replete with menace and irony - here the interdependence of a black bounty hunter and a racist sheriff. He continues his propensity for swapping the chronology of his action to add suspense and character interest - the film's story as told would be significantly less 'thrilling' if it were told chronologically.
He has also, from a technical standpoint, bucked the trend in choosing Ultra Panavision 70 as the visual format. But as, like Key Largo, 80% of the action is confined to a large saloon-style room, he doesn't really show the format off to its best effect for the most of the film.
Stylistically we get nods to Hitchcock and Peckinpah, and, probably, many more, but I wasn't sufficiently interested to seek out all the references. As this is a spoiler-free review, I won't mention the detail of what I regard as the film's major fault - its tastelessness. Suffice to say that the directors love of covering his canvas with gore is not withheld.
On the plus side, he has fun with a situation in which every few sentences someone is called a 'nigger' or a 'nigger-lover' - but he anachronistically allows one of his characters to accuse another of "racism", a term that didn't exist until almost 50 years after the events as presented. He is reasonably, and occasionally well served by his cast, notably the almost unrecognisable Jennifer Jason Leigh as the hapless Daisy Domergue, who manages to be truly menacing until the bitter end.
For all of its ironies and very convincingly presented freezing snowstorm, The Hateful Eight has nothing profound to say and adds not very much to Tarantino's two keynote items - the gunpoint confrontation and the chronologically twisted plot.
Footnote for film presentation historians: the Analogue 70mm version of the film sports a twelve minute overture which allows Ennio Morricone to show off his very eloquent, if occasionally OTT score. This used to be present for many 70mm presentations in the late 50s and early 60s - West Side Story being the finest example of which I am aware.
Knight of Cups (2015)
An enigma within and enigma (albeit a beautiful one).
Let me start by saying that I regard Terrence Malick as the sole currently working director who can be spoken of with the same reverence as that for the great early masters of cinema Welles, Chaplin, Hitchcock, Renoir (make your own list). Since 'The Tree of Life' - even since 'The New World', I have thought of him as the saviour of modern cinema from the slurry of bland naturalism.
But the enormous stylistic advances in cinematic expression that have characterised his recent works have come at a price, and the price is clarity of vision. We do not necessarily need to *know* what his images represent, but we need to *feel* it. Occasionally in 'The Tree of Life', frequently in 'To the WONDER' and most of the time in 'Knight of Cups' most people would, I suspect, be at a loss to rationally explain the relevance of much of Malick's visual expression. (They don't always 'feel' right, either.)
So (after three viewings) I offer my 'guide' to this enigmatic film. The 'story' (no story) of 'Knight of Cups' is that of a 'celebrity' Rick (Christian Bale) on the loose in Hollywood, who has lost his moral compass and lives a life of total debauchery drifting from one soulless sexual encounter to another in between failed relationships.
This is represented in a kaleidoscopic torrent of imagery reminiscent of the works of Bruce Connor in the 1960s. Bale does the best he can with the central role of Rick, a 'celebrity' in Hollywood, but, like Sean Penn in 'The Tree of Life', he has really drawn the short straw, as he, like Ben Affleck, Penn and Richard Gere before him tries to wordlessly express his response to ambiguous emotional and moral situations.
Malick, to his credit, tells us what the film is about in an opening voice-over, which recounts a story ('Hymn of the Pearl') from Acts of Thomas in the Apocrypha. A king sends his son to search for a pearl in a foreign land. The pearl is to be found in the sea, protected by a hissing serpent, but the prince is seduced by the inhabitants of the foreign country and given a sleeping draft. After he awakes, he has forgotten not only what he came for, but even that he is a prince.
Much of the first half of the film memorably (but not graphically) depicts the life of total decadence that Rick finds in Tinseltown. But this is interspersed with encounters real or imagined, present or past with people from his former life wife, brother, father.
The term 'emotional roller coaster' is often inappropriately used, but here it is very precisely apt, as one has the sense of Rick being propelled down paths he'd rather not take by external forces over which he has lost control. But, for me, at least, this section is too long and suffers from overkill, in the 'when you've seen one, you've seen 'em all' sense.
The rest of the film follows Rick in his attempts to make sense of his life and find 'the pearl', and, to be fair, the film does give the sense of an inexorable move in this direction which aids dramatic tension and gives clarity in some measure. As in 'To the WONDER', with the story of the crisis of faith of the priest, here also there are tangential sections in which compassion is seen as the alter ego of passion, and the place of young children adds positive emotion to an otherwise extremely bleak, if dazzlingly beautiful work.
Yes, Malick's unique visual lyricism is frequently on display, but, I would have to say that it seems less well integrated into the work's thematic thrust than it is in other of his films, but I could be mistaken here and I will be wanting to see it at least four or five more times when it opens in France in a couple of months.
Visually it is, from time to time, spectacular; sometimes Malick's montages are breathtaking, but there are great mysteries here that I have not come near to fathoming even after three viewings. Frequent shots of high-flying passenger jets, fast-moving shots from the front of a car on desert roads and long-held bleak landscapes from Death Valley and environs punctuate the film. It is not difficult to see the 'meaning' that these images carry, but it is difficult to know why they are repeated so often.
If I sound disappointed, I have not deceived, but Malick, with his entire work, has set the bar so high that anything not bordering on masterpiece simply has to be a disappointment. I drove a thousand kilometres to see this film and back again, and I do not regret the time and effort, but this is a desperately difficult work to fathom and, frankly, for me, makes 'To the WONDER' look like a model of clarity.
I see it as the third (and sadly least) in an intensely personal trilogy for Malick. So where next?
La doublure (2006)
An immense disappointment
At a time when French cinema is at, IMHO, its lowest ebb, with not a single great auteur in sight, I had come to rely on Francis Veber to provide excellence in comedy if of only a not very profound type. After Three Fugitives (both versions) and Le Dîner des Cons (to name just two) his films seemed to be heading into Blake Edwards territory.
But, oh my word!, what a catastrophe is this grotesque. The central character drifts through a series of 'adventures' involving an unpleasant millionaire (Daniel Auteuil) who is cheating on his wife (the fabulous Kristin Scott Thomas) with a model.
The whole thing is flat as a pancake, probably due to the casting of Gad Elmaleh - French cinema's most over-rated actor. This numb-skull drifts through promising scenes but doesn't give what is needed to bring them alive.
This is all the more troubling as, given he is playing the same character (or at least the character with the same name) as the central character in Le Dîner des Cons, François Pignon, One imagines what the magnificent Jacques Villeret could have done in the same rôle, had he not died just before the film went into production.
Magic in the Moonlight (2014)
Very enjoyable and effortlessly cinematic
Woody Allen's career seems to be on the up again. After 'Midnight in Paris and 'Blue Jasmine', 'Magic in the Moonlight' is another delight. Here he sets himself the problem of having a central character who is extremely unpleasant - arrogant, cynical, intolerant and close-minded. How will he win our hearts? The fact that the nasty Stanley is played by handsome, charming Colin Firth, of course, helps. But the actor's talent well convinces us that he is a nightmare on two legs.
Is is left to Sophie (Emma Stone), the lovely medium whom Stanley is trying to debunk, to bring out those limited human qualities that Stanley possesses. This is a gentle 'minor' Woody Allen but all the better for not trying too hard. The film is full of subtleties (and a few belief-stretching coincidences) that come into focus on second viewing. Stylistically, Woody seems to have evolved into late Chaplin, with the camera perfectly placed and unobtrusively expressive.
The Scarlet Empress (1934)
How to fill the frame....
I think it was during his press conference for 'Excalibur' at Cannes that John Boorman made the observation that his films were the opposite of 'minimalist' in expression. Like Boorman - but even greater in his command of cinema - Josef von Sternberg didn't want to leave anything to the imagination of the audience - it was all there on the screen.
I just saw 'The Scarlett Empress' for the first time in almost forty years (albeit on DVD rather than on the screen) and I saw that, of all directors in this great and glorious art of ours, von Sternberg knew how to fill the screen with expression. His is a cinema of light and shade, of scale and gesture, of visual expression on a grand scale.
The story of Catherine the Great is perfect for Sternberg's hyper- abbreviated style. No messing about here. Catherine has been given a bum steer by the handsome Count Alexei with whom, as a cloistered teenager, she has fallen in love. Her fate is to be married to the imbecile Grand Duke Peter - heir to the Russian throne (Sam Jaffe in an extraordinary debut performance). To triumph over this misfortune, Catherine must use all her charisma and sexual guile.
The rôle of Catherine is perfect for Marlene Dietrich - who, alone in actresses of the Thirties, was, like Marilyn Monroe twenty years later, an irresistible melange of innocence and raw sexuality. It is fascinating to see the way in which Sternberg takes her from wide-eyed ingénue to worldly-wise seductress.
But the acting is only a small part of Sternberg's creative methodology. The real genius (not a word I use very often) in this film is its use of decor - arguably the greatest piece of set design in history - to reflect the great historical forces that were at work in this 18th Century cauldron. Once arrived at the Kremlin, Catherine is surrounded by gargoyles and breath-taking interiors - headed by the jaw-dropping enormous throne of the Imperial court formed as a menacing double-headed eagle.
The Art Direction was done by the noted German Expressionist Art Director Hans Dreier, but Sternberg was noted for having a grip of iron over every part of his productions in this era, so I think we can give him the credit for this amazing piece of visual expression.
No matter - whoever takes the credit, it is magnificent. The film ranks with 'Shanghai Express' as one of Sternberg's greatest achievements and a monument to creativity in studio cinema of the 1930s.
What a massive disappointment
Though I am not a Bat-person, and do not wish to become one, I have admired Christopher Nolan for his early films and 'Inception', though, with the exception of 'Insomnia', I always regarded them as, in the immortal words of Andrew Sarris 'less than meets the eye'. I do not like to call films pretentious, but with 'Memento' and 'Inception' the word certainly came to mind. They seemed shallow pretending to be deep.
The same is, in my opinion, certainly true of 'Interstellar'. Yes, it carries you along for a ride, and yes the special effects are great, and yes, it might give us pause to think what will, in fact, be the destiny of our species. But, my dear Mr Nolan, surely you must realise that our species will not survive by planting American flags on distant planets. And, like 'Gravity' before it, the search for a happy ending has totally destroyed any shred of credibility of what might have gone before. The image of Cooper floating around Saturn without his spaceship, waiting to be picked up by a passing probe (just before his oxygen runs out, of course) is so ridiculous that if Stanley Kubrick were to be told that it is a respectful reference to the 'starchild' at the end of '2001', he'd punch you in the nose.
'Interstellar' - for all of its attempts to incorporate relativistic time dilation and very clever (I do not use that word in a derogatory sense) visual representation of multi-dimensional string theory towards the end, is void of any real cultural insight.
The film simply extends 'The Wizard of Oz' into the space age and decides at the end that there is really somewhere better than home. It is TOSH! Great films tell us something memorable about the human condition, or the nature of cinema itself. This film, for all its quotes from Dylan Thomas does neither. It is for people who think that the word 'awesome' has some profound meaning and not, as is the case, an excuse for not finding a more appropriate and restrained reaction.
Any suggestion that it deserves a Best Picture Oscar is a sad comment on the way that those awards have become debased in recent years.
As a passionate cinephile I get intensely annoyed when modern directors steal the ideas, situations etc., from great, and even not so great films from the past. 'Signs' is, in effect, little more than 'War of the Worlds' re-couched in a family environment that is reminiscent of 'The Birds' with a splash of 'The Wizard of Oz' thrown in. One has the idea that M Night Shymalan might claim that is film is some kind of homage to these films, but that is nonsense. It is a load of tosh (English slang for rubbish), that is interesting, up to a point, all the time it is 'about' crop circles, and disintegrates into ridicule when it becomes an apocalyptic vision. 'The Sixth Sense' was clever, well-constructed and thoughtful. This film is none of those.
A minor Mizoguchi, but exquisitely constructed
It's funny how, sometimes, one has to see a minor film by a great director to really understand the essence of their art. 'The Lady Vanishes', for example, is minor Hitchcock of his late British period, but it reflects the joy that he had found in turning expectations inside out and directing the eyes of the audience through camera and character movement.
A few weeks ago I bought a box set of the last eight films of Kenji Mizoguchi, and I am finally getting round to watching them. Of all major film directors, Mizoguchi is the one whose work I know least I had only seen two of his films (albeit two great masterpieces 'Ugetsu Monogatari' and 'The Life of O-Haru').
From those two films, I thought of the director as a great weaver of mystical tales and adherent of tracking shots, both of which are fine as far as they go, but perhaps limiting in films of lesser stature. However, taking the films in this set chronologically, I encountered first 'Oyu-sama' - a tragic melodrama about the forbidden love of a young middle-aged artisan for a widow of higher social station in turn of the century Japan.
In spite of being toted as a minor work, it impressed immediately with two aspects: first the painterly precision of the film's early rural exteriors that closely resembled, structurally, several major Japanese artists with nested planes of activity and visual interest drawing the spectator's eye irrevocably towards the focus of dramatic interest. The second and more important quality was that of the precision and the exquisite expression of the mise en scène.
The story revolves around the mistake made by the central male character, Shinnosuke, when being introduced to a potential wife. He sees from 'afar' the party of young women and falls for the elder, widowed, sister (Oye) instead of the bride on offer (Shizu). This is brilliantly managed by Mizoguchi by following the party of women in several long-shots largely from Shinnosuke's point of view, where Oyu takes the lead and Shizu is totally occluded by the other women. It sounds contrived, but in the context of Shinnosuke's ignorance and eagerness it fits the situation perfectly.
As the film progresses, the precision of the mise en scène becomes even finer. There is a scene late on in the film when Shizu is undergoing a personal crisis in her marriage and she runs out of the house onto the beach to free herself from her woes. Oye follows to comfort her, but Mizoguchi places the camera to show this as a pursuit with Shizu as running away from Oye and, dramatically, that is exactly what is happening, even though Shizu is trying to conceal it.
It is said that Mizoguchi was unhappy with the film, partly because the studio insisted on a linear narrative even though the novel on which it is based and the original script were structured as three long flashbacks. But there is enough complexity and resonance in the film to make it a valuable part of the director's work.
The well-known film that this most resembles, in my view is Renoir's 'Une Partie de Campagne', with which it shares a moving account of the way in which social conventions can devastate the lives of those who love unconventionally. It doesn't have the lyricism nor humour of Renoir's little masterpiece, but it does illuminate the film-maker's art as mentioned above and, through its modest achievements, show Mizoguchi to be the great director that his reputation announces.
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Meaningless catalogue of grotesques
I have seen thousands of films in my life, but I cannot remember one in which every single character was a disgusting example of the worst elements of humanity. At last I have found one. Is this the 'truth' about Wall Street? I have no idea, but it corresponds almost exactly with my own beliefs. So I should like it? Right? It panders to my prejudices. It tells 'the truth'.
Oh, no. That is not what makes for great cinema. Great cinema surprises you, it opens new vistas, it invites one to question things that had been assumed.
All of Scorsese's films - even since 'The Big Shave' - have featured characters who exhibit aspects of masochism, or self-destruction. In 'The Wolf of Wall Street' it is moral masochism writ large that is on display. That is not necessarily a problem, but this is a film without a moral compass. If it could be reasonably described as a 'cautionary tale', it might have some merit. But it isn't, because the film is seen through the eyes of a human cockroach.
Scorsese knows the cinema well. He knows that the audience will identify with, and try to rationalise the actions of, the character who is on- screen for the most of the time. Thus it has been since the cinema began. And, without a shadow of a doubt, an enormous number of people whose own personal avarice is well advanced, will see the film and rationalise it as a series of errors of judgement by the eponymous Jordan Belfort.
Of course, there are some positives - the visual catch-line to Jordan's miraculously fortunate drive while stoned with his drugs raises a laugh, and certain ironies emerge in the final quarter of the film, but it is Jordan's story and it is clear that he thinks he was justified and just made mistakes (viz the final scene).
If it were possible to get all of the right-wing finance ministers from around the world and lock them in a cinema that showed this non-stop for a few weeks, it might just change their mind about the thrust of economic policy that encourages unbridled avarice, but that is a vain hope.
In the end we see Jordan all set to make the same mistakes in another territory. He evidently hadn't learnt a thing. And what is a thousand times worse is that he had evidently benefited financially from the film - it being based on his own book.
People who know me and my philosophical approach to cinema will probably find this review strange. In general, I detest the idea of judging the moral stance of a film. But this film doesn't, it seems to me, take a moral stance in a story that concerns itself with a subject that most blights the lives of the majority of our species - inequality, and one man's efforts to increase it. And it doesn't provide us with psychological or cinematic insight into its subject either... the film is inhabited by a bunch of grotesques that are barely human in their blind avarice.
Avarice is the most evil of the seven deadly sins, because it leads to all of the others. This is not something which emerges from either this film's form or content.
Don't get me wrong, it's not worthless, but like 'Children of Men' and unlike 'Y Tu Mama Tambien' it fails at a simple level of being convincing over it's entire length. I really don't mind when films make scientific gaffes, but this film simply changes situations that it has, itself defined when they prevent arriving at an artificial and totally improbable happy ending.
When one exits form a cinema and reflects on the film, one shouldn't feel cheated at a level of logic, with spectacular technical effects being used to mask the logical inconsistencies. The use of the fire extinguisher was clever, however. For some cheap temporary thrills and a glimpse into the psychology of astronauts, fine, for anything else, forget it.
Helplesly derivative and totally unbelievable
I wasn't one of those that found District 9 original and compelling, but it was, for certain, much more original and compelling than this nonsense.
I know only too well that Hollywood studios look for the formulaic as films made to a 'successful' (ie financially rather than culturally successful) formula are less risky than those 'on the hoof' so to speak. But one would have thought that someone, someone along the line would have said 'Hey, wait a minute' this is just a re-working of bits of 'Avatar', or 'Aren't we in 'Children of Men' territory? or 'Hey this is treading on the toes of 'Metropolis' etc.
OK, to use are moderate, mediocre or great (respectively) film as a launch-pad for a new work can be justified, but 'Elysium' doesn't even seem to bother to conceal the origins of its 'inspiration'.
And there's the rub (Hamlet), the film uses thematic and structural cast-offs to hide the fact that it actually lacks its own inspiration.
The first fifteen or twenty minutes of the film is engaging enough, but thereafter its lack of originality, for me, at least, became increasingly irritating, as did its clumsy ways of papering over plot holes.
Along with the undigested 'references', the characterisations are weak as well, with the arrival of that cliché of clichés.... the sick little girl. Pur-leeeeeease!
And, oh, yes, ignoring the laws of physics is a dangerous game... 'open to space' space stations can NOT have breathable atmospheres.....
Exquisitely disturbing allegory
First, I must say that I am not an enthusiast of horror films, and that many of Brian Yuzna's subsequent films I find by turns stupid and vomit- inducing, but... this is, in my book, close to a masterpiece.
What do we have here? A full-blown assault on masonic (and other) corruption. Bill (Billy Warlock) lives in a very upper class neighbourhood close to some LA-like city. But Bill feels 'different'. In the course of the film, he finds that maybe it's not himself who is different, it is everyone around him.
What 'Society' is saying is that to get on, one has to be corrupt. That is as subversive a theme as one can find in all but a handful of modern films.
The film is truly, truly and gloriously shocking. Do yourself a favour, get shocked.
North West Frontier (1959)
A treasure chest of jewels
I have just watched this little gem for the first time since my childhood. Of course then, I didn't know much about classic cinema, it was just a ripping good yarn with funny and pointed dialogue.
With the benefit of a life in cinema behind me, it is much, much better than I remember. Think somewhere midway between 'The Lady Vanishes' and Ford's 'Stagecoach'. Perhaps this should not be so surprising as the writer of the original screenplay from which this is adapted is Frank Nugent, scenarist of 'Fort Apache', 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' and other classic, if less apposite John Ford films.
So from Nugent comes the 'army against the Indians' and from the very British situation come the characters who could easily have stepped out of a Hitchcock comedy. In fact there is a moment in the film which is almost identical to a moment in 'Lady Vanishes'. Kenneth More is handing out the guns and the lovable English colonialist, Bridie (Wilfred Hyde White perfectly cast)reluctantly takes one, and then admits that he once won something in a fairground.
This is almost identical to the scene towards the end of 'The Lady Vanishes' when, again, the guns are being handed out and Naunton Wayne, as Caldicott admits to having won something at a fairground.
Of course, J Lee Thompson is not Hitchcock, so there are some lesser moments, but really this is so much better than so much of the hyperbolic tedium of modern cinema.
There is a lot more in this than one would either hope or expect. It's funny too!
Two hours of tedium sandwiched between ten minutes of wonder
I'm not at all religious but there is something in the Bible about hiding one's light under a bushel. When Lars von Trier burst on the scene with The Element of Crime, one immediately knew that there was a talent there. From there it has, for me, been a largely downward spiral - plumbing the real depths with the Dogme debacles.
But, in this film, the opening sequences and the closing one, there is evidence enough the the talent is still there, but the judgement as to how to use it has vanished.
While I am happy to acknowledge that the spectator must, in a complex film, put in effort to obtain the 'hidden gems', in the bulk of this film, one sadly concludes that the hidden gems are not there, it is all dross without meaning or subtlety of any kind.
Film directors like von Trier should realise that they have made a contract with the viewer: (s)he will sit in a darkened room and stare at a screen, and the film maker will provide an experience BETTER than that of the previous two hours in the person's life. This film fails the test.
To the Wonder (2012)
Explain nothing, show everything. A great ethereal love story.
Some people say that film is like a language, but that is not exactly right, it is like language itself, and just as there are different languages, there are different cinemas. It seems to me that, in his last two films, Terrence Malick has been creating a very special type of cinema, that had hitherto existed only in an embryonic form. While most films have maybe 50-100 scenes, replete with dialogue and action, Malick's new cinema (MNC) has over twice that number of scenes, but they are fragmentary and consist of only the essence of meaning that was in a scene that would normally have been much longer. This can be sometimes several minutes or only a couple of brief shots.
Last evening I drove the 25 miles to see the early performance of 'To the Wonder'. I did that with the intention of returning to write this review while the film was still fresh in my mind. But after it I was so drained that I couldn't write a summary, let alone a review. At the current (late) stage in my life, what interests me most about the cinema is its limits. How far can the cinema go, and what exactly is a film?
Given the above, Terrence Malick is evidently the man for me, and I am convinced that 'The Tree of Life' is among the five greatest works of this greatest of the arts. So, after a masterpiece 30 years in the gestation and three + in the creation, how would Malick fare with a film relatively thrown together in a year or so?
On the face of it, this is a story of the relationship which starts in Paris between an American (environmentalist?), Neil, and an otherworldly French woman (Marina). When they return to mid-west America, Marina suffers from a sense of dislocation made greater when he daughter decides to go and live with her father in France.
But Malick seems much less interested in the *events* which he depicts than in expressing the feelings of the characters. Just the same way that 'The Tree of Life' was an *impression* of childhood, rather than the story of a childhood, 'To the Wonder' is an impression of a love affair, rather than its story. This is cinema infused in every shot with Heidegger's *dasein*. The logic of Malick's cinema is to *perfectly* catch the moment, and in doing so extract the truth of the experience. Hence, for Malick, a film story, is simply an assembly of 'essences'. These essences stay in the mind to thrill and haunt us.
There have been other examples of great filmmakers who have made films exploring the cinema's intimate connection with mental processes - Resnais and Bunuel come immediately to mind. But with Malick, it seems, the cinema's similarity to the mental processes of memory, dream and conjecture, have ignited a wildfire of creativity that has advanced the film art at a greater pace than has occurred since the sixties.
Here I have to admit to being only at the beginning of being able to appreciate what seems to be dizzying complexities in the film. My French is not up to totally understanding much of Marina's dialogue which, as I am in France, was not translated in the subtitles, so I am sure I have missed an entire dimension of the film. But Olga Kurylenko's performance is so magnificent, that this 'comprehension gap' didn't seem a problem.
Then there is the obvious question of the film's theme. Love, the very 'different' nature of women, dislocation in the physical, emotional and cultural senses - these are all up there writ large. But they are mixed with a nagging worry that, to return to my earlier concern, Malick has stretched the cinema to its limits, but sometimes, maybe beyond them. I do not think of myself as stupid, but I found great difficulty in grasping the relevance of certain shots or scenes. I rest convinced, however that this is another example of a film that it is necessary to watch dozens of times to find all of the poetic and meaningful connections.
I have great sympathy with those who go to the cinema wanting to be told a great story in the clearest manner possible. That is honourable and reasonable, but it is not the only experience that the cinema, this great and wonderful art of the cinema, can give. And it is certainly NOT the case that films that don't take the more prosaic approach are pretentious, meaningless or boring. 'To the Wonder' is to popular cinema what lyric poetry is to airport novels. So, if that is all you are looking for, it is best to avoid Malick's film.
But for those of us who know that beyond the sky is the limit for great cinema, Malick and MNC is the route to the stars, and 'To the Wonder' is a step, if a somewhat halting one, along that route.
The play's the thing...
As some other reviewers have noted, this production of one of Shakespeare's longest plays is very much 'enclosed' and presented on an abstract set. It is, for me , futile and irrelevant to speculate whether this was a creative or financial decision, but it does not invalidate the film. What we are getting is a record of a production of Henry VI Pt1 not a film of the events of the same play in 'real' locations.
For me, the production is a real curate's egg, but before commenting on that, I want to make a few observations about the play itself. In most of Shakespeare's plays there is a main driving narrative into which the Bard weaves his unique and wonderful insights into the human condition. This - apparently very early work (ascribed to ~ 1592), there is a melange of interlocking 'stories', and, structurally it seems more like, for example, 'Hannah and her Sisters' - that is a treatise on the inter- relatedness of things. It was hence written several years before the better-known and more celebrated Henry V, and in it's denouement, it is not so very different - with the King finally marrying a French princess to join the two nations in harmony (although it, and they, didn't).
It seems that scholars now regard this play as a collaborative work to which Shakespeare contributed but did not dominate. I was, nonetheless hugely impressed with the way in which the various narrative threads are joined together, and there are several exquisite scenes. In spite of the representation of Henry VI himself as weak and effeminate, his scenes ring with gentle wisdom in their optimism. By contrast, there is real venom in the scenes between Winchester and Gloucester. But the real jewel is the key scene (Act 4 Sc 5) in which Lord Talbot/Earl of Shrewsbury's son John comes to the aid of his father in an impossible military situation. Their dialogue on the place of valour and protective love of father for son is immensely moving and full of irony and the kind of insight into the human condition that we come to expect from Shakespeare.
So what of the production itself? Stylistically, is is virtually flat, with just the occasional close up for asides to break the sense that the director wanted to do no more than show the production 'from the front row'. So, ultimately, it stands and falls on the characterisations, the acting and the mise en scene. Trevor Peacock makes a creditable Talbot, Frank Middlemass is suitably venomous as Winchester/Cardinal Beaufort, David Burke makes a fine Gloucester/Lord Protector, and Bernard Hill is suitably Machiavellian as the Duke of York.
Clearly the casting of Peter Benson as Henry VI himself is controversial, to say the least. But this is difficult as the play presents events that take place over a 15+ year period during which Henry ages from 8 years old to at least 25. Benson would have been nearly 40 at the time of the production so we can only really regard his characterisation as 'symbolic'. And for me, at least, it works very well.
The French characters fare less well... Charles the Dauphin is all smirks and smiles, but carries no weight. Worse - indeed the major weakness for me is Brenda Blethyn's Joan la Pucelle (Joan of Arc) who is saddled with a ridiculous Yorkshire accent. But, in a way, she is written as a sort of pantomime villainess, and only comes alive at the hour of her death.
As long as one doesn't compare the production with the great Welles Shakespeare adaptations or suchlike, this Henry VI Pt 1 works fine. But it isn't cinema....
Special and unexpected
Maidens is a type of film I usually hate - feminist, happy-clappy, holistic... di-da-di-da. But it is , by turns, fascinating, intriguing, enlightening, lyrical, profoundly moving and ultimately euphoric. It reminds me, in a strange way of another 'documentary' - 'The Ballad of Crowfoot'. It preaches, yes, but in a celebratory not a censorious, way. In a year (2011/12) when the cinema has seen, in 'The Tree of Life' a masterpiece - the masterpiece of my life - based on the simple question 'who am I' and, by extension - of the audience, who are you?, this film with so little resources and in a quiet and unpretentious way, asks the same question. It is not only for women, nor only for new-age liberals, it is a wonderful reflection on the way that one's ancestors, knowingly or unknowingly shape one's life. Thank you Jeni Thornley.
The work of a master, but minor Polanski
Carnage is, in many ways, a companion piece to his other major play adaptation, 'Death and the Maiden', based on the work by Ariel Dorfman. The two works also share a common situation of two people/groups at loggerheads over an issue which at first seems cut and dried, but gradually unravels as tempers start to fray. Add to that the noticeable similarity between the characters played by Jodie Foster here and Sigourney Weaver in the earlier film, and Polanski does rather seem to be repeating himself. That having been said, Carnage has plenty of things going for it - especially a truly vicious sense of humour that allows us to squeal with laughter as these two appallingly mismatched couples gradually lose their sang froid while attempting to come to some agreement over how to deal with the injury that one of their sons caused to the son of the other pair. Polanski delights in taking sideswipes at several idiocies of modern life, and the tyranny of mobile phones in particular. It is interesting also to reflect on the similarities to some of the director's earliest films - 'Cul de Sac', for example, which features two couples equally as bonkers as those in this film. Worth going out to see, but not the scale and ambition that one hopes for from Polanski but the ironic coda is magnificent.
The Tree of Life (2011)
A matchless and immensely complex vision of childhood
The first thing to say about 'The Tree of Life' is that it is ESSENTIAL VIEWING for anyone who believes that the cinema is a great art, and an early front-runner for 'Film of the Decade'. I first heard about this project in the early 80s when the film world was awash with rumours that Malick had a project that was 'Cosmic, too cosmic even for Hollywood' (John Sayles). And, being a number one fan of Malick's magical realism, I have been metaphorically holding my breath ever since.
Normally, in describing a film one says this is the story of... da da da da. But this film is NOT a story in any but the crudest sense of the word. It is an impression... an impression of a childhood - perhaps Malick's own childhood, which becomes, through Malick's poetry, an impression of childhood itself... of being tactile, of feeling the love of one's parents, of experiencing the arrival of a sibling, of learning to walk... of a thousand things that we take for granted, but are wonderful and shape us more than we can imagine. It is by far the most brilliant evocation of rural childhood that, as far as I can remember, the cinema has ever given us.
This is a film of gesture and movement, of happiness and insecurity, of learning to love and learning to fear. It is unlike any commercial film I have ever seen.... it is as if Stan Brakhage had been given a $100 million budget. The trouble is that Malick may have been too uncompromising. Many, perhaps, sadly, most, of the film-going public, in my experience, find abstraction in films difficult. This is the most abstract film most of them will probably ever see... but it's wonderful and moving and visually stunning. So the question is will they stick with it. With immense sadness, I have to say that I have my doubts.
The much vaunted 'history of the universe' sequence is stunning and is like a poetic editing of all of the most stunning images from science documentaries. It adds even more gravitas to a film that is as philosophically weighty as it is visually impressive. Douglas Trumbull was a special effects consultant and many might immediately think of comparing this sequence with the 'Stargate' climax of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The film's philosophical/metaphysical weight rests, to some large extent on its deeply ingrained spirituality. Of course, this aspect has been there from the beginning with Malick, but here it is much more up-front. The film charts the paths of a family of characters. In the mother's opening line of dialogue she recounts how 'The nuns told us that there are two ways through life, the way of Nature and the way of Grace.' In the film, the characters show how much the difference between these two paths influences the personalities of the characters and the lives that they lead.
Because of this, it has a profound religious sense but without trace of piety or sentimentality. And if, like me, religion is not your thing, don't worry, the film's wonders do not require belief to reveal themselves.
There remains to be said a few words on Malick's stylistic approach. All of his films are incredibly visually rich, 'The Tree of Life' is no exception. But more important even than this is that large sections of 'The Tree of Life' are made in the magical style that he monumentalised in the two 'abstract' sections of 'The New World' - the love affair between Capt Smith & Pocahontas and the amazing final 20 minutes of the film covering her death. It is this fusion of magnificent meaningful imagery and musical montage that lifts this work to levels barely conceived of by most filmmakers.
'The Tree of Life', for all its wonders, is certainly not perfect as it seems again that Malick's dislike for dialogue has become a thorn in his side, as it was for 'Days of Heaven' and we get some embarrassing pauses as characters wordlessly confront one another or stare meaningfully into the void. It is not the matchless masterpiece to challenge 'Citizen Kane' that I was secretly hoping for, but it is wondrous and moving and unforgettable, a staggering piece of cinema that gives the impression of being immensely more meaningful than it appears at first sight... one just needs to put all of the pieces together... not in the narrative sense, for there is barely any narrative, but connecting up Malick's, 'universal' vision with the images of childhood that he presents. An example here is the confrontation between the two dinosaurs that has a resonance with the relationship between young Jack and his father.
All in all, this is one of those films, where it is more important to let one's psyche experience the incredible richness of the film's emotions, than to try to understand it intellectually - at first viewing, at any rate! (And I am sure that Malick would concur about the experience versus understanding conundrum.)
Finally... it is a very, very good idea to watch 'The New World' immediately before seeing 'The Tree of Life' - on DVD or VOD (if it is not being shown locally by some insightful cinema) because, stylistically, it puts you in the 'right groove' to appreciate Malick's cinematic expression... perhaps THE wonder of modern cinema.
Deceptively subtle play unevenly presented
Though I have loved watching Shakespeare plays both in the theatre and on film, I rarely watch them on TV. Just a few months ago, I decided to buy the BBC Shakespeare DVDs and watch the Bard's entire works in a systematic way (with the tome of the RSC Shakespeare at my side). So this is the first, as I have decided to watch the history plays chronologically (by history) before going on to the comedies and tragedies.
From my RSC Shakespeare I learn that, in the early 17th Century, this play was regarded as one of Shakespeare's finest... more so than Hamlet, for example. How times change. Perhaps it is because of the way in which the body politic has changed so much that the petty squabbles of nations seem tawdry these days.
It seems to me that this play (full title 'The Life & Death of King John') is subtler and more interesting than other reviewers have suggested. The subject is, in essence, the nature of 'kingship' and the qualities that it requires, and the nature of 'legitimacy' in that and other respects. The uncertain legitimacy of the seat of King John on the throne of England is brilliantly echoed in the somewhat prefatory scene in which John is required to make judgement on the claim of the younger son of Philip 'the Bastard' to be his father's heir. John, as portrayed by Leonard Rossiter (and written by Shakespeare) is a vacillating, self-serving knave, lacking confidence, but seeking to fulfil his royal charge. There are interesting parallels drawn, as well between the role of the Pope in the affairs of England in this epoch and that at the time of the Spanish Armada. Shakespeare being Shakespeare, in spite of the certain impression that the Papal legate is meddling where he shouldn't, he is no cardboard cut-out villain, and shown, finally, to be powerless.
It is certainly the case the 'the Bastard' has many of the best lines, and it is tempting to conclude that he represents, for Shakespeare, the innate nobility of the English people. But it is somewhat disturbing to think of the moral implications of one of his most memorable couplets...
'Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back
When gold and silver becks me to come on.'
Is Shakespeare really saying that money and not conscience should be the sole rationale for action?
As 'The Bastard' George Costigan is fine, but an actor of the quality of James McAvoy or Tobey Maguire is really required for this role 'on film'. The disappointment for me was Claire Bloom. Pace other contributors, I do not consider her part 'unactable' - indeed Constance is arguably the strongest part in the play, but she doesn't strike the right balance between displaying emotion and speaking the lines - preferring the elegance of Shakespeares words to the force with which they demand to be spoken. On this occasion the iambic pentameter is not the most important thing. I blame here the director more than the actress, as several of her speeches *demand* close-ups and we get none.
But this is simply carping perhaps, I would not dissuade any lover of Shakespeare from watching this fascinating production.
Best of all is the most harrowing scene in the play where Hubert is about to gouge out the eyes of the unfortunate young Prince Arthur.
Hubert: If I talk to him, with his innocent prate / He will awake my mercy which lies dead
Forget all these plethora of films about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bard here trumps every other shot at defining the relation between the torturer and the tortured. (But we wouldn't, realistically, expect anything else, would we?)
Finally, one might ask why, in spite of my enthusiasm, the work gets only six stars... it is simply that there is precious little attempt to illuminate Shakespeare's moral ambiguities with visual expression. Olivier 'Henry V', yes, but that had Agincourt as a coda, and Olivier's camera placement was immensely more articulate than is the case here. And, of course, we are not in the same universe as Welles' sublime expressions of Shakespeare on film.
Bright Star (2009)
Visually extraordinary but...
I feel somewhat guilty writing the following as for so much of the time, I find myself decrying the huge majority of films these days that eschew visual expression for flat and boring dialogue-based narrative.
What we have in Bright Star is a beautiful attempt to capture on film the plethora of emotions and complexities which ensue from the passion of a fairly ordinary young woman for a genius. Her desire to understand, her frustration at being required to uphold the moral norms of the era when her whole self wishes to be immersed in the object of her passion.
And Jane Campion has made her best film since the amazing 'Sweetie'. Forget 'The Piano', 'Bright Star' is on an altogether higher plane, both thematically and cinematically. The director's method is to reflect the poetics of Keats with a visual poetic - full of sensual images, awareness of nature - but not in any clichéd 'pretty-pretty' way.
Colour too, is exquisitely managed, and the arrangement of characters and objects frequently take on the grandeur of classic paintings. And the montage/editing is a joy to behold, cutting not just to advance the narrative, but to draw, sometimes, amazingly profound parallels between disparate parts of the story.
Nor has the director been let down by her actors in any significant way. Ben Wishaw is brilliant as Keats, suggesting a wonderful combination of worldliness and other-worldliness, passion, fear, joy, insouciance. All are there in this performance in abundance. Abby Corniche is fine for most of the time, but, given that it is her story, not perhaps quite 'there'. But Paul Schneider makes a fabulous Brown all bumble and bluster, but, when push comes to shove, able to show weakness and profound guilt.
So it must be a masterpiece... Regrettably not, and it pains my heart to say it. This is a love story, one of the great true classic tragic love stories of the 19th Century. Yes, we feel the love of these two people, the one for the other, from time to time, but somehow, for me at least, the emotion is diffused in 'something' - I know not what - it (the emotion) for the most part, just doesn't cohere.
That doesn't make the film a failure, nor does it mean that I cannot recommend it, just that Campion was on the edge of something quite transcendental, but she stepped back from the brink, and that is sad.
Three Fugitives (1989)
Exquisite comedy which deserves to be seen more often
While being a great enthusiast of French cinema, I hadn't heard of Francis Veber when I saw this magnificent comedy in 1989. Unfortunately his wonderful films were never released in the UK, until 'Le Dîner des Cons'. So I came to it fresh... and WOW. Here we have Nick Nolte in a perfect role as the tough former bank robber and Martin Short as the perfect nerdish but determined sidekick. The opening bank robbery sequence, that sets up the film is magnificent and hilarious. The sub-plot involving the little girl is sweet and moving - almost worthy of Chaplin. The loopy vet is amazing and one of his scenes had me crawling on the floor with laughter. I could start analysing the structure or the mise en scène, but such sophistry is irrelevant - just see it and laugh out loud like you will rarely have done so before. (Amazingly I haven't seen the original with Depardieu and Pierre Richard... why don't they release a subtitled version?????)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Still seems that Woody is running on empty....
Nothing that Woody Allen does in the rest of his career is going to alter that fact that he will be regarded as one of the greatest American directors of all time - one of a mere handful who have presented a unique world-view in their films.... However, our wonderful, wonderful Woody has seemed to be on a decline for some time... certainly since 'Deconstructing Harry' and perhaps before...
And yet every new Woody movie contains real insight into the human condition, it's just that he doesn't seem to be bothered to wrap them up in the near perfect packages that we saw in 'Manhattan', 'Hannah' and 'Crimes and Misdemeanors'.
Here we have a case in point. Love and responsibility is the subject - it is in all of Woody's best films. Vicky is conventional and reserved, Cristina is flighty and adventurous... But hey! Cupid can soon start turning things around...
It was one of the great disappointments of the latter half of Fellini's career that, for the most part - even just after 'Giulietta degli Spiriti' - he seemed to forget about the rigour of script-writing and narrative expression. It was as if her was saying 'people will come to see a Fellini film even if I don't bother my head too much.' It was the same with Godard - only for very different reasons. I wonder if, perhaps, Woody has got tired of all of the effort needed to hone his ideas into the near-perfect packages of earlier times. It could be that the title of his new film 'Whatever Works' - is a signal that the search for perfection has been replaced for the search for 'whatever works'.
As has been noted in an interesting thread on the board for this film, one of the main problems with this film is the narration. This is strange, as Woody can turn voice-over narration into pure gold (think of his poignant narration for 'Annie Hall'), perhaps, the real problem is that it isn't Woody who is narrating... it is some faceless narrator with a smug voice.
For me Woody is the comic Shakespeare of our age. I do so hope that he has a 'Winter's Tale' or a 'The Tempest' left in him... Regrettably this isn't it... even though it knocks spots off the awful 'Cassandra's Dream'.
The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)
Wizard of Oz for the unsubtle
As an undemanding way to spend a couple of hours, I have no objection to this film at all, and, yes, it has some fun dialogue and 'clever' moments.
But it is the need to put the word 'clever' in quotation marks that is the painful part. It has happened at least once before - in 'A Bug's Life', which must have had Kurosawa spinning in his grave. Here we have a film that shamelessly plagiarises a great film - 'The Wizard of Oz'.
No? Post-pubescent child is under threat and put upon. During a hazardous escapade he/she is injured and, in his/her mind taken away to a magical kingdom where he/she will need the help of some of its inhabitants (who bear an uncanny resemblance to persons in the real world). There he/she will have to overcome the evil machinations of a sorcerer/ess before realising that all he/she wants to do is to go home, ('I just want to go home/There's no place like home') where he/she will be a much wiser person.
Will the representatives of Frank Baum's estate, or MGM or whoever, please sue the insides out of these people. Pure and wonderful films/stories like 'The Wizard of Oz' should not be stolen and distorted to make crass rubbish such as this. It is an abomination.
Message to John Fusco (the 'writer')... if you are so unoriginal and incompetent that you have to steal the themes and structures of great films, find another job! I note in his biography that he dropped out of high school. It figures.
Chiedo asilo (1979)
Enigmatic, beautiful Jungian fable - but a head-scratcher!
Marco Ferreri, during this era, made several films that had highly ambiguous endings, where optimism and pessimism were both raised to great heights and made barely distinguishable one from another. Previously he has made 'Ciao Maschio' (Bye-Bye Monkey) which left Jane Fonda sitting on the beach with a new baby looking at the ruins of her life.
Here Ferreri is in less iconoclastic mood, but still the ironies pile up to a heart-stopping finale. What this film asks is the agonising question 'Do we, by educating children, remove from them that which makes them wonderful?' Of course, there is more than that, but, when push comes to shove, that is what the film is about.
There may be a more Jungian film, but I don't know of it. Here we have 'liberal' primary school teacher Roberto (Bengini) on a collision course with the 'authorities'. We have a bunch of, possibly autistic, children and we have the wondrous mother earth of Dominique Laffin (Isabella), who, as far as I am concerned was the greatest screen siren since Marilyn Monroe. (How sad that she died before the world recognised her beauty and talent.) As Roberto and Isabella coalesce, procreate and 'rescue' these damaged little souls, Ferreri asks some huge questions about existence, evolution and our place in the universe. In the final shot, as Roberto carries his loved but irreparably damaged charge into the unforgiving sea, we see this tragic drama through the eyes of a caged frog. There are few films that I think I can't really get my head around, but this is certainly one of them!