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The map of the human heart..., 5 July 2007

Love doesn't come in a minute,

Sometimes it doesn't come at all

I only know that when I'm in it

It isn't silly, no, it isn't silly, love isn't silly at all.

These words, from Paul McCartney's 'Silly Love Songs', seem to me to be a very accurate description of the theme of 'When Harry Met Sally'. This iconic romantic comedy, written by Nora Ephron, is, for me, one of the most insightful comments on the place of love in the post-60s world. It charts the way that acquaintance can turn into friendship and then into love.

Harry (Billy Crystal) encounters Sally (Meg Ryan) on a long car journey during which they both seem to decide that the other is obnoxious in one way or another. Their path to love is funny, totally engaging and ultimately unforgettable.

One of the greatest - no THE greatest - characteristic of the cinema is its ability to access our deepest emotions. How many times do we weep cathartically in our normal lives - most of us, not many. Yet there are dozens of films that induce just this kind of reaction. How many times do we laugh so much that we ache - very rarely outside a cinema, but often within. How many times are we so scared that we cannot move - almost never in life, but often in the cinema. And these emotions cannot be accessed in the same way through any other art.

And there are laughs and tears galore in 'When Harry Met Sally'. Why? Because we really *care* for these kooky characters, and the love that they find has a kind of purity that our loves struggle to emulate.

For some people (and I feel sorry for them) films that induce a warm feeling of pleasure are sentimental and worthless. They should avoid this film as it might undermine their sterile cynicism. But if you trust your emotions and regard them as your greatest asset, 'When Harry Met Sally' will be one of the most worthwhile films of the modern era.

Lilith (1964)
27 out of 28 people found the following review useful:
One of the cinema's luminous masterpieces, 4 November 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

When filmmakers are coming to the end of their lives, occasionally they make a film that transcends their place in cinema. Such a film is Lilith. Robert Rossen was a fine and highly competent director, but, even in 'The Hustler', there was no sign in his work that he could make anything quite as jaw-dropping as Lilith. Rossen was dying when he made this film, and his veteran cinematographer, Eugene Shufftan was also getting very old. It seems to me that they both thought 'we won't get another chance like this' and went for broke.

Lilith shows the very best of Rossen, the very best of Shufftan and the very best of Jean Seberg - the 60s' most luminously beautiful star. I have read J R Salmanca's novel, and it weaves a wonderful spell. In the up-market asylum, Salamanca found a metaphorical island somewhat like that in 'The Tempest' where pure aspects of the human psyche could be explored - particularly that most precious and fundamental aspect, love.

Indeed, the film deals in visual/conceptual metaphors in many ways - think, for example, of the analogy that is drawn between spiders and the inmates of the asylum. The Beatty character, Vincent, sees the beautiful Lilith as a victim of schizophrenia, being trapped in it, as if in a spider's web, but he ends up being trapped in her web.

Rossen does a fabulous job in keeping this really very static story moving and ensuring our identification with the central relationships. Vincent seems excessively mannered, but, like Travis Bickle, he is just back from the war and is trying to integrate back into society. We rarely see Vincent other than in a hospital environment until he has completely fallen for Lilith, so his attempts to re-integrate into society are, in effect, attempts to integrate into madness.

Seberg as Lilith is completely dazzling, her beguiling beauty hiding a gorgon in disguise as she plays each character off against the other until she has them helplessly reliant on her. She never looked, or acted close to this level before or after. Forget Breathless, forget Bonjour Tristesse or Saint Joan; forget even Birds Come to Die in Peru. This is essence of Seberg!

It is the visual aspect of the film, however, that is so wonderful, and that visual splendour is such that seeing the film on a television barely gives a small reflection of its qualities in this respect. Shufftan's black and white cinematography would get my vote for the greatest black & white cinematography of all time (Seven Samurai comes close...). On a cinema screen, you get the impression of being able to see every hair on the head of the central characters and light becomes a vehicle of meaning and wonder as in no other film that I can remember.

As the silent cinema came to an end, there was one monumental masterpiece that showed what was being lost in its passing - Dovzhenko's Earth. Now, as black and white cinema was coming to a close, Rossen and Shufftan showed what had been lost. There have been several major black and white films in the last forty years, but nothing that has the visual splendour of this magnificent work.

Volver (2006/I)
3 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Lightweight Almodovar..., 30 August 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

This darkly funny celebration of womanhood may sound like a return to 'All About My Mother', but it isn't really. Penelope Cruz' Raimunda is a fabulous creation, and her wide gamut of inscribed emotions - from flirtatiousness to despair keeps us interested as we discover the secret of her mother's death.

My Spanish is negligible, but I noticed the adverts on the buses in Madrid proclaimed Volver... siempre which internet translation tells me means 'Always to return'. It should have given us some clues! One of the great things about Almodovar is that he nearly always features asymmetric parallels in his films - with two characters having similar experiences but with different results. This is monumentalised in 'Hable con Ella', but here it takes the form of one woman not killing an unfaithful husband and making him disappear, while another does the killing and disappears herself.

While, in my view, Bad Education was a three steps backwards move for Almodovar, this is a 'one step forward'. So it is mild and witty Almodovar rather than profound and brilliant Almodovar. However, what you always get with this magnificent director, is fabulously expressive style, and this is no exception. It is also somewhat Bunuellian - with quasi-religious grotesques popping up from time to time to keep us on our toes.

I think it is often forgotten outside Spain how popular the director is with his national audience. However, in spite of the masterpiece factor, 'Hable con Ella' was his least popular film for some time. Maybe the last two minor works have been his attempt to regain that immense popularity which reached its peak at the time of 'Women on the Verge'.

Even though Volver is light-weight Almodovar, should we be worried? I don't think so. Here is a director who seems to be able to make more or less what he wants, and is fairly financially successful while doing it. It wan't be long before another masterpiece bubbles to the surface of his massively creative mind.

7 out of 7 people found the following review useful:
Strange, bizarre - such description doesn't even come close, 1 August 2006

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

The cinema is such a magnificent art that it enables artists to minutely examine the darkest crevices in the human psyche. Here we have one of the strangest examples of this possibility.

Zalman King makes a superb central character of Robert Troy who brings a 'sleeping beauty' from a fairground to his West Coast mansion. It emerges that she has been artificially kept asleep - drugged by her fairground owner. The mansion to which she is brought is a cavernous affair populated simply by two women, whose relationship with Troy is never fully articulated. There are clear suggestions of necrophilia here as Troy's obsession with the sleeping girl become more explicit, but the film doesn't pursue these lines, leaving the audience to make connections and draw its own suspect conclusions.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the film is in the scene in which Jennifer relates to Troy how she had experienced being asleep and just remembering how the men in the fairground kissed her... and more. However, she had only the alternative of oblivion to compare these half-perceived experiences with so regarded them as precious, but Harris doesn't moralise.

Although the British video that I watched (I had seen the film in the cinema before) promotes the fact that Richard Pryor is in the cast, he is, in fact, the weakest part of the film - playing a drug/booze-crazed friend of Troy. Carol White also has a strange part as the possibly Lesbian dominatrix, who regularly dresses as a nun in the weird role-playing games that pass for life in the mansion.

Visually the film concentrates on darkness with many strange chiaroscuro effects in the mansion lit by dim chandeliers and candles. When Jennifer (Sleeping Beauty) and Troy take a trip, it is mainly shot at night in anonymous, faceless locations. It seems to me that one of the few real clues to the heart of the film is in the choice of Nat King Cole's 'The Very Thought of You' as the key musical motif. This points, it seems to me, to the notion of the film being a reflection of the way that love enters and distorts the mind of the lover.

Finally, in this extraordinary film - made by one of Kubrick's closest associates of the time - we see mystery in almost every aspect. Where, if at all, does the flashback with which the film opens end, for example? There are relatively few movies that make you think that there is a whole new area of human existence, but this is one of them. It may be tacky and lacking in 'taste and decency' on occasion, but this is cinema of the fine line between decadence and depravity - it isn't 'nice', but it's, to use another Nat King Cole title, unforgettable.

5 out of 10 people found the following review useful:
Prepare yourself for something spiritual, 27 January 2006

OK, I'm a massive admirer of Terrence Malick. I think he is the greatest living filmmaker. His films touch part of my psyche that are left unmoved by any other filmmaker. But... Nothing, repeat NOTHING prepared me for the sensory explosion that is The New World. I had been following the production for over 18 months, watching the trailer online... counting the days... But I was worried. Some suggestions that Malick have over-reached himself, was self-indulgent... And Malick's style of cinema is so fragile, it could fall apart. So with optimism, but trepidation I took the plunge... and - oh joy, oh bliss, this is truly heaven.

Why is it so wonderful? The only word I can give is that it, unlike any film that I have seen since the death of Bresson (except, maybe, Flowers of Shanghai), is deeply, deeply spiritual. We have familiar Malick motifs - the wind on the grass, the shots of the sky reflected in water from The Thin Red Line - but here that take on a completely new and more satisfying meaning, for Malick's concern is with man in his purest communion with nature. The 'naturals' are precisely that - at one with nature. Malick uses his poetic imagery to set our senses aglow with the sheer wonder and of purity of the indigenous lifestyle. This is cinema at the level of what I can only term 'super-expression' - imagery communicates complex interaction between things and the way our senses perceive them, but it does so at an incredibly elevated level. The most remarkable thing for the casual viewer is how much Malick manages to express complex and wonderful things completely without dialogue. John Smith (Colin Farrell) barely speaks to his own people, let alone his indigenous captors. Yet we sense what he is thinking through Malick's absolutely magnificent use of imagery and sound.

There are other motifs. People hold hands. They express themselves through their breathing. And, yet again, Malick has found a wonderful vehicle for his vision in the form of Q'Orianka Kilcher. Her screen presence and the range of emotions that she suggests with so little dialogue is little short of miraculous.

For people who love the cinema not just on the basis of the quality of the stories that it tells, but the manner in which it tells them, this must be one of the films of the decade. Many people have said that the cinema is like a language, but that is to belittle it. It is not like A language, it is simply like language itself. And just as there are many languages, there are many cinemas - that is forms of cinema. And in each language there are masters of the language who excel in expressing themselves in poetry and in prose. In English we had Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. Now, in 'poetic cinema' at a higher level even than Stan Brakhage, we have Terrence Malick. Yes, The New World is THAT good. See it. See it. See it.

16 out of 25 people found the following review useful:
Lack of budget is no excuse for lack of structure, 21 January 2006

Let me say, straight away, that I am always suspicious of films that set themselves among the most under-privileged. There seems, for the most part some element of directors gazing down with virtuous intent from a great height onto these poor sods.

Pavee Lackeen suffers less than most from this syndrome, but it falls into the trap of thinking that a slice of life is the same thing as a slice of cinema. It isn't.

Two things stick out like a sore thumb in this film. The first is that it has no dramatic structure. We join the family of travellers on whom it focuses at, apparently, some random moment, some things happen, and then we leave them at another apparently equally random moment. On the way, have we seen character development? No. Have we been given any insight into the human psyche? No.

What we have had is a glimpse into the life of a young traveller girl, who is full of fun and life, and has lots of problems. We are sorry for her (we were probably that within five minutes of the start). We have learnt a few things about the way that travellers live in outer Dublin - but less than we might have by reading a well-written newspaper article.

At the screening I attended, the director, a nice man and former still photographer, declared himself to be in the line of film-making that came from Alan Clarke and early Ken Loach - that later Loach films, he thought, were too contrived. Hmmm. Yes. That says it all.

Here we have a naive belief that to film 'reality' without interference is art if that reality features the under-privileged. It isn't.

The director pointed out that it was shot on a minuscule budget (£320,000) - and, in fairness, he wasn't saying that this meant we had to make allowances.

It would be my belief that one of the most important things in a film is what is taken out. I don't mean edited. I mean that as much of what we see must be expressive and not confuse the viewer as to what each shot is about. Here, everything is cluttered and unstructured. I am not looking for 'beautiful squalor', but I am looking for some obvious attempt by the filmmakers to direct my eyes in a particular direction. I don't see it.

The 'acting' by these mainly non-professionals is fine. The archetypes created as characters are fine. But there is no structure and no visual strategy... that is, until the last shot, when the camera which has been jiggling about like a yo-yo for the rest of the film, is allowed to come to rest and in a single shot, say more about the plight of the characters than the previous 90 minutes - and for the first time, it uses non-diegetic music!! Great!

9 out of 33 people found the following review useful:
A profound disappointment, 12 January 2006

*** 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

*** 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

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.

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