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Balthazar-5

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119 reviews in total 
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9 out of 33 people found the following review useful:
A profound disappointment, 12 January 2006
6/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Ang Lee is one of a triumvirate (with Hsiao-hsien Hou, and Edward Yang) of Chinese directors who are among contemporary cinema's greatest assets. I have loved most of his previous films to exasperation, and so it was with great - perhaps too much - expectation that I ventured into 'Brokeback Mountain'. Let me emphasise that I have not read anything by Annie Proulx, but it doesn't matter. Films, no matter what their origins, have to stand by what is on the screen, and what is on this particular screen is, in my opinion, fatally flawed by careless cinematic expression. The two central characters are noticeably and understandably inarticulate. Their outdoor lifestyles are the total inverse of those of the chattering classes that inhabit, for example, the world of Woody Allen.

But in the cinema, there is a rule that says if your characters are inarticulate, then it is up to the director to give them 'visual articulateness'. If they cannot express their feelings in words, then we must be given visual pointers to their feelings. In 'The Ice Storm' - Ang Lee's masterpiece, in my opinion, this principle is adhered to with wonderful results. But here, we get grunts and manly gestures that suggest nothing. The 'bond' which ties them together as they part does not express any emotional need - they do not dream or daydream of each other, sexually or otherwise, as far as we are shown. The scene at the end of their summer on the mountain is a complete cop-out, we need to feel what they feel, and we are not invited to feel anything.

Why is this film attracting so much attention (compared with Lee's better early work)? I fear it is because a film embracing gay modern cowboys is thought to be on the brave side of risqué. Perhaps it will help us gain tolerance or some such desirable attribute.

But it isn't cinema.

13 out of 13 people found the following review useful:
An unsung masterpiece, 22 December 2005

Situation comedies come and go. Sometimes - Fawlty Towers, Friends - they are monumental and have a long-term future. Other times - like this little gem - they are misunderstood or too sophisticated for their audience. This magnificent little series was made and then, apparently, the BBC scheduler got cold feet and 'dumped' it late-night on BBC2 (by memory). However it was a gem - quite, quite wonderful. Set in the south of England during the massive post-war reconstruction era (~1949-55), it takes place on a building site among a group of council workers. The villain is the site supervisor while Norman Rossington plays 'Big Jim' - a beer-swilling joker who is always trying to 'get one over' on the boss. What makes it wonderful is the *absolutely perfect* sense of time and place. This is an era of innocence and optimism, the like of which has not been experienced since, and it is perfectly captured in this hilarious and, ultimately moving series. It says everything about the crassness of the BBC schedulers of the time that they buried it rather than shouting it from the rooftops. If it is ever resurrected, in any format, move heaven and earth to make sure you see it.

1 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
It's not just for Christmas - it's for life!!!, 10 December 2005
10/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This exquisite film is one of the great antidotes to the modern malaise of cynicism. One of the functions of 'art' is to illuminate and expose the 'human condition'. Does this film do it? Absolutely.

Here we have the Smith family moderately well-off but tense with the stress not of economic adversity, but that of emotional turmoil. Rose is anxious to get engaged, but the boyfriend won't pop the question. Ester is experiencing the pangs of love for the first time, and Agnes and Tootie are thrown into a maelstrom by plans to relocate.

Under the cosy suburban romantic melodrama here lurks an incredibly subtle depiction of the strength and guiles of womanhood. The patriarch of the family is out-manoeuvred in each of the film's three main segments. His son 'Lon' is shown to be putty in the hands of the initially villainous Lucille Ballard. Rose manages to get her way largely by giving the impression that she might be falling for the much older 'Colonel'. And John Truitt really gets the works from the infinitely scheming Ester.

All this is fine at a structural and thematic level, but what the film really does is give the audience one of the most unambiguously enjoyable thumps in the emotional solar plexus. Several of the scenes - not just Tootie's famous iconoclastic tantrum - are breath-taking in their emotional power, and the songs stick in the mind and worm their way into the softest, most emotional part of one's (well my at least) psyche. I am blessed with four wonderful daughters and MMISL has become, across the years, our 'family film'; as a life-long cinephile and sometime critic, I could not fault their choice.

Meet Me in St Louis is a wonderful film for Christmas - but it's not just for Christmas - it's for life, in the fullest sense of the expression!

78 out of 119 people found the following review useful:
One of the great romantic/satirical comedies of all time, 20 November 2005
10/10

There is a famous review of this film by the late Sunday Times critic, Dilys Powell which begins 'Is the joke funny?'... what Miss Powell was getting at was that, given the horror of the Holocaust, it is appropriate to laugh at the Nazis. The answer is, ultimately, irrelevant to the viewing of this modest masterpiece.

Lubitsch was, by this time, coming to the end of an exquisite career that defined the nature of sophistication in 'light' cinema. 'To Be or Not To Be' skips lightly over all of the minefield of a subject like this and it is difficult or impossible to think of any other filmmaker who might have managed it (if you look at Mel Brooks' limp remake, you can see why).

In 1996, I presented a massive season of 'the greatest' films in Belfast for the centenary of cinema - 250 titles in 9 months. Of all of them, this was the film which got the greatest ovation - about 5 minutes with a nearly full house standing and applauding! They may have applauded for many reasons, but here are certainly some of them...

The very complicated narrative is presented virtually flawlessly and the comedy is never allowed to hold up the narrative. The principle actors - Carole Lombard (breathtakingly beautiful) and Jack Benny in particular, but many of the supporting cast as well - throw themselves into the affair with a gusto that is completely infectious. Apart from the satirical aspect of the story and the way in which Hitler and the Nazis are mercilessly ridiculed for their authoritarianism and the fear which is their only motivator, the film pokes gentle fun at the vanity of actors in a warm and happy manner. Finally, and most important, is the notion of farce. Farce rarely works in the cinema, but here it does, and in the grand manner - just look at how many times the situation regarding Professor Siletsky changes profoundly during the film - it is dizzying - yet the characters manage to come up with (often self-defeating or inappropriate) schemes on every occasion.

This is a wonderful work that, I have no hesitation in saying, is absolutely vital for anyone who wants to really understand the glory of the cinema. But to answer Dilys Powell's question... yes, the joke is deliriously funny.

5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
Not vintage, but still Hawks!, 17 November 2005
8/10

'Ceiling Zero' fits quite neatly into the central part of his 'oeuvre'. The classical Hawks' hero is honourable and heroic, but flawed. 'Dizzy' Davis fits firmly and squarely into this archetype. His womanising and recklessness precedes him, and is the cause on one of the film's twin tragedies. But this is offset by daring and bravery that is 'de rigeur' for mail pilots of the era. It is very rarely in films of this era that the 'hero' could still be the villain with just a few minutes to go, but that is effectively the case here. As in many of Hawks' finest films, the opening sequence serves as a contrasting miniature morality play that sets the ensuing drama into focus. Here it is a cowardly pilot who, lost in poor visibility, bails out of his plane without thought for the financial consequences for his employers. It is no accident that the company at the heart of the film is 'Federal Airlines'. Many of Hawks' films make exquisite political allegories, and this is no exception. Read the 'fog' as the Great Depression, Dizzy as the reckless aspect of the American entrepreneurial spirit and Jake as The President…

But there is more… psychologically it works a treat too. Jake and Dizzy share the same heroic wartime background. It emerges that they share the same taste in women too. To some extent, they represent two aspects of the same character – it is significant that during the climactic moments of Texas' final approach to the airfield, they keep switching roles, with first one then the other taking charge of the situation. Both of them also show the same moral flexibility – Dizzy by exchanging places with Tommy's boyfriend, Jake by being willing to distort his professional judgement to save Dizzy's flying career.

In spite of all of this, 'Ceiling Zero' cannot really be placed at the same level as the truly great Hawks masterpieces – El Dorado, To Have & Have Not, Bringing Up Baby and, significantly, Only Angels Have Wings. At the end of the film, one doesn't feel that one has really known the characters. But, considering its vintage, it is an entirely worthy work that gives us clear indications of the wonders to come.

It should be absolutely essential viewing for anyone wishing to acquaint themselves with the an important work of one of America's greatest artists, in any discipline, of the twentieth century. Another interesting parallel is Ford's 'Air Mail'which has a similar story also originating in Frank Wead.

50 out of 59 people found the following review useful:
Magnificent adaptation of Dickens, 6 November 2005

Having worked in the cinema for most of my life, I tend to regard television - virtually all television - as shallow and second rate. But here is a totally magnificent adaptation of one of Dickens' more challenging novels.

As in most Dickens, here money - a surfeit and a lack of it - structures the complex comings and goings of a labyrinthine plot. The characters are fabulous and some of them - Skimpole and Mr Guppy, for example - may very well become well-known archetypes due to the popularity and power of this adaptation, in the same way that Micawber and Fagin are. The darkness of the sets makes for some wonderfully expressive design work, and the music is brilliantly chosen.

In fact it might be perfect...it's just that Anna Maxwell Martin as the central Esther Summerson is just a bit too simpering... But when you think how flaccid Charles Dance usually is, his Tulkinghorn is a truly creepy creation.... Plenty more to come, but to date (after four episodes), this looks to me better Dickens than anything outside Christine Edzard's 'Little Dorritt' and Lean's 'Great Expectations' - and it could even better them...

1 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
A beautifully-structured metaphor for America in Viet Nam, 28 September 2005
9/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

I can claim to be one of the first people to see Apocalypse Now - at the Cannes press-show - and it remains one of the most memorable filmic events of my life. The film announces its intention from the very beginning - 'This is the end...', the opening line of 'The End' by The Doors. A film that begins with that kind of irony is going to be some work, and so it is.

Though based on 'Heart of Darkness', I think that the war is so brilliantly embedded in the film that its debt to Conrad is small. In fact, for me, it supersedes Conrad, as his journey is primarily metaphysical. Here we have a metaphysical journey, but one which is totally infused with the greatest of all human 'darknesses' - war.

At the centre of the film is Martin Sheen's magnificent performance as Willard. Nearly everything Sheen has done has been wonderful, but here he is as close to perfect as we can expect from an actor - making sense of even his totally 'fou' opening scene.

Then there is the structure of the characters. The occupants of the boat are basically a cross-section of American society - hailing from the 'four corners' of the country - Chief Phillips comes from the north - Chicago, Chef from the south, Lance isfrom the west coast, and 'Clean' from the east. And Willard, he is from Iowa - in the heart of the continent. Here the film is showing us that the entire nation was involved in the war.

So who do we thank for Apocalypse Now's wonders? My own inclination is to give, perhaps, the lion's share of the credit to John Milius - the allegoric structure of the film is also not far from the methods of 'Big Wednesday'.

Are there problems? Yes. Sometimes it goes over the top - I think the Kilgore surfing scene is made more of than was necessary, the whole war is lunacy without underscoring it quite so firmly. Similarly the Playboy Bunnies sequence is also grotesque. I do not deny that value of humour in such an allegory, but I am a little uneasy about the glib way in which it is introduced.

And the sense of impending doom is magnificently presented, with scenes like the encounter with the tiger resonating with all of the major primal fears of our species. (Does the tiger itself have a symbolic function? It is an interesting speculation.) As the boat approaches Kurtz' camp, the horrors simply expand and deepen. To my mind, Kurtz is being represented as that part of the human psyche that rejects rationality, and that is exactly the psyche that embraces war.

Finally Willard succeeds in his mission, but at what cost...

This is, as I said, some film.

Oh, yes. Marlon Brando plays Colonel Kurtz and gives him a depth and complexity that would have totally escaped lesser actors.

4 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
One of the high-points of 20th century art., 27 September 2005
10/10

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Many great filmmakers have 'golden periods' - Chaplin's Mutual period, for example, Griffith between 1914 & 1919, Hitchcock between 1957 & 1962, Godard from 1964 - 1967 etc., etc. For Renoir, it was the late 30s (which is not to belittle his Fifties films). Coming after 'La Bête Humaine' and 'La Grande Illusion', at the time, cinephiles could have expected something wonderful. But they could *not* have expected the sublime perfection of this absolute masterpiece.

Here we have André Jurieux flying the Atlantic (no 747s in those days!) to see the woman he loves, but she won't even come to the airfield to greet him. Why not? Because she is married to a Marquis and public expressions of infidelity are just not cricket! Those are the rules of the game, the unwritten laws that keep society oiled and 'civilised'. Why, one might ask, is Jurieux a flyer? The answer is simple. He defies the law of gravity and survives. But to defy the rules of society is much more dangerous.

Everything in 'La Règle du Jeu' is in perfect balance. For example, the la Cheyniste-Christine-Jurieux triangle is perfectly mirrored downstairs by the Schumacher-Lisette-Marceau one. The cruelty of the famous 'hunt'sequence is no more so than the cruelty shown in the final denouement.

And lumbering through this very tragic comedy is the lovable and complex character of Octave played by Renoir himself. Full of boyish charm, as the film progresses, he shows himself to be a catalyst for tragedy. It is him, of course, who has the most famous line in the film - indeed, the most famous line in Renoir's entire oeuvre 'It's terrible, but everyone have their reasons...' He has a reason for wanting to upset the apple-cart by bringing Jurieux to the weekend party. Christine has her reasons for keeping her feelings at bay... and so it goes.

During a lifetime's work in the cinema, I have often been asked what I consider the greatest film ever made, a challenge that I invariably refuse. But I alway add, now if you asked me what the greatest *reel* of film ever made, that would be easy, its is the ending of 'La Règle du Jeu' from the beginning of the dance of death to the final credit. I invariably add that it is so much above everything else that in my view there is no competition.

In fact, this is a cheat, as the section of film is longer than the standard 20 minutes of a regular film reel, but the intention is to express that fact that in that ending 23 minutes or so, Renoir achieved a perfection of expression combined with a phenomenally complex and subtle theme that no-one - not Welles, not Hitchcock (even in Psycho), not Godard, not Murnau, not David Lynch, not even von Stroheim or Dovzhenko, has come close to. In view of the dwarfing humanity of this and all of Renoir's major work, my other comment on it may seem inappropriate... it is so much above anything else in the cinema, that one might have thought it was made by a man from Mars...

3 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Lovely script, good cast but Lombard doesn't sparkle, 27 September 2005
7/10

This is one of the films that have evaded me for forty-five years of obsessive film-watching. I finally bought the DVD and had a very enjoyable couple of hours. I am a great admirer of Preston Sturges and this looks for all the world like one of the great progenitors of his masterpiece 'Sullivan's Travels'. As in that film, here there is a stark comparison between rich and poor and we are left to draw our own conclusions. What is splendid is the script which shows the vagrant butler gradually becoming totally vital to the semi-functioning of a nightmarish family. (There are shades of 'The Admirable Crichton' here.) What let the film down, for me, was the unexpectedly silly performance from Carole Lombard. This wonderful actress seems a natural for the dizzy daughter, but she is allowed to ham it up to the detriment of the psychological realism of the whole. So, regrettably, what could have been a 9 became an 8, and is actually more like an upper-7. (Of course, it will probably improve substantially in the cinema where it belongs...)

Top Hat (1935)
2 out of 4 people found the following review useful:
Heaven, I'm in heaven..., 22 August 2005
10/10

Why am I in heaven? Because I have just returned from seeing this wonderful, wonderful film on the big screen (for maybe the tenth time). But it was over a decade since I had that pleasure and I had forgotten the wonder, the thrill, the ecstasy of it. Am I a musicals nut? No. Am I an Astaire-Rogers super-fan? No. But this delirious romantic musical farce is one of the most precious jewels in the crown of the cinema.

Whence cometh this wonder, I ask myself? Yes, many other of the Astaire Rogers films are enjoyable, and the dancing and even, perhaps, the songs in Swingtime or Carefree can match most of the numbers in Top Hat. But Top Hat stands like a beacon above and beyond anything that the duo, or RKO's musical division ever did before or after. I am coming to the conclusion that a lot of the credit belongs to Aladar Laszlo who was co-author of the play, but, more importantly had the same function on Lubitsch's masterpiece, Trouble in Paradise...

So what if Aladar did light the spark in the film? Nearly everyone concerned is perfect. There is barely a line of dialogue that is not funny or barbed, and even the corny jokes: Ginger:'What is this strange power you have over horses?'. Fred: 'Horse power.' add to the blinding sense of INNOCENCE that gives the film its power.

And then there are the supporting roles. Edward Everett Horton makes a magnificent Horace, but is upstaged in every scene by Eric Blore as the incomparable Bates. Erik Rhodes is sensational as Beddini, uttering mangled English as though he imagined he was Shakespeare. And what of director Mark Sandrich? If Howard Hawks' definition of a good director ('Someone who doesn't annoy you.') is right, then Mark Sandrich is a good director! But this is not a film d'auteur but a magnificent product of the Hollywood studio system - one of the best.

But I digress. I like thousands of films, and love hundreds of them, but this wondrous emotional masterpiece can take its place along with perhaps twenty or thirty films that I love to exasperation. That is alongside The Adventurer, 42nd Street, The General, Earth, Citizen Kane, El Dorado... OK, I won't bore you with the rest. And so that is why I'm in heaven. And if there is a heaven, then after I die, I will enter the world of Top Hat.


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