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A treasure chest of jewels, 29 March 2013

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!

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Two hours of tedium sandwiched between ten minutes of wonder, 27 March 2013

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.

102 out of 170 people found the following review useful:
Explain nothing, show everything. A great ethereal love story., 8 March 2013

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.

4 out of 5 people found the following review useful:
The play's the thing..., 11 November 2012

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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....

Maidens (1978)
Special and unexpected, 7 May 2012

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.

Carnage (2011)
0 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
The work of a master, but minor Polanski, 25 January 2012

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.

830 out of 1432 people found the following review useful:
A matchless and immensely complex vision of childhood, 16 May 2011

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.

3 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Deceptively subtle play unevenly presented, 14 November 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

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.

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Visually extraordinary but..., 29 November 2009

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.

6 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Exquisite comedy which deserves to be seen more often, 30 September 2009

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?????)

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