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The Serpent's Egg (1977)
An unfortunate blemish on several notable filmographies
When asked by an interviewer about his notorious 1969 flop `A Place for Lovers,' Italian director Vittorio de Sica, who had previously made some of the most influential films in the history of cinema, simply replied `I'm an artist. Artists make mistakes.' It was an honest, straightforward statement that acknowledged the necessity of failure in the business of moviemaking. Filmmakers have their boundaries, and when those lines are crossed it is only appropriate that they are shocked and prodded back into their proper place.
Like de Sica, Ingmar Bergman has made many stunning films that skillfully explore the facets of the human soul. `The Serpent's Egg' is not one of them. This is a clumsy, heavy-handed mess that fails to find anything interesting in its subject. I'm sure this story has something interesting to say about the suffering caused by war, poverty, and bigotry, but Bergman doesn't seem to know how to translate his own script's ambitions to the screen.
Certainly, there are elements present that always make for an interesting Bergman film: family tragedy, frustrated love, a protagonist fearing for his own sanity, and a hint of the supernatural. But these elements do not flow together as they did in Bergman's previous films; on the whole, it comes off feeling static, lacking the urgency so desperately needed. Character motivations are frequently illogical, and the more interesting figures (such as a priest played by James Whitmore) are given too little screen time while the more frustrating characters are given too much. The film is also weighed down by banal dialogue that spells out the emotions of the characters in an insulting and sometimes laughable way. The performances don't help either; to call them `overwrought' is a dire understatement. David Carradine spends much of his time posturing and pouting, Liv Ullmann shrieks her lines enough to set your teeth on edge, and Heinz Bennett scowls and sneers his way through his final confrontation with Carradine just to make sure there are no doubts that his character is the villain.
The only really effective element to `The Serpent's Egg' is the atmosphere, thanks largely to photographer Sven Nykvist, who gives the smoke-filled cabaret halls a lurid, grimy feel. The recreation of 1923 Berlin is convincing, effectively portraying a society that justifies evil by using it to pull itself out of poverty. But the visuals are a thin shell that cannot hide the emptiness of the drama. Perhaps Bergman's vision was at odds with the demands of producer Dino de Laurentiis, who, at the time, was better known for action fluff such as `Mandingo,' `Death Wish,' and the 1976 remake of `King Kong.' Or perhaps Bergman, who made his most personal films in and around his Swedish homeland, did not know how to transplant his ideas into so foreign a setting. In any case, Bergman, like de Sica, later acknowledged his `mistake' in his autobiography `Images,' where he rightly described the film as one of the most disappointing experiences of his career. `The Serpent's Egg' is only of interest if you want to see what results when a talented artist pushes his art in the wrong direction.
A serious disappointment
It's hard to say exactly why "Quartet" fails. There are certainly some good things to be said; Maggie Smith gives her character just the right mix of not-too-subtle cynicism and self-loathing, and the photography by Pierre Lhomme does a fine job of complementing the surroundings. But there is something missing. The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala trio have always invested their stories with a strong compassion for their characters, lending a quiet urgency to the tone. Yet there is little of that feeling here.
The desperation of Isabelle Adjani's Marya simply does not ring clear, perhaps because her emotions are kept at a distance from the viewer when they should be brought to the forefront of the story. Marya views Heidler (Alan Bates) as a dominating force, but her fears and his intimidation never develop into anything effective. Bates is an actor who can always be depended on to provide a good performance, but his character is not given enough weight to dominate the screen when he should. In films such as `Howards End' and `The Remains of the Day,' the emotional conflicts between the characters drive the story and keep the (attentive) viewer involved; here, the conflicts do not spurn enough interest because the motivations of those involved are not very clear. The overall effect of "Quartet" is very cold and somber, with few, if any, memorable results.
The Talk of the Town (1942)
An uneven story salvaged by three resourceful actors
Social commentary either elevates the value of a film or bogs it down, and with comedies it is generally the latter. "The Talk of the Town" is no exception; while it is a fun film that has much to admire, the pretensions of the film-makers often get in the way of what could have been a masterpiece of comic suspense. The tone becomes almost unbearably preachy at times, and some of the monologues on `justice' and the `pursuit of truth' are excruciating on the ears. Thankfully, the good people at Columbia hired just the right people to star.
The specific political stances of Leopold Dilg are never made clear; we're just supposed to accept the idea that he's a good guy who is put down by a corrupt system. Fortunately, Cary Grant uses his remarkable charm and talent to turn in a performance that allows us to sympathize with a character whose background is far too vague. Likewise, Jean Arthur and Ronald Colman are able to invest interest in characters that might otherwise have come off two-dimensionally. The charisma of the three leads fuels a love triangle that does a far better job of moving the story forward than any "serious message" that the film-makers were trying to impart to the audience. Grant, Arthur, and Colman are rightfully remembered as three of cinema's finest actors, but they deserve special credit for adding some much-needed pizzazz to this movie.
All in all, "The Talk of the Town" is a rambling, misguided movie saved by smart casting and disciplined acting, not to mention more than a few laughs. It is a classic example of skilled performers triumphing over flawed material.
Préparez vos mouchoirs (1978)
A refreshing and surprisingly intelligent look at the perils of relationships
"Get Our Your Handkerchiefs" is a funny little film about the need for sexual gratification and all the insecurities and absurdities it entails. The humor is unapologetically raunchy, and yet the story retains all the sophistication of something by Lubitsch. But it's also quite touching; the dismal woman, it turns out, only wanted someone she could identify with, someone who felt the same need for intellectual companionship that was masked by her sexual dissatisfaction. The solution is provided by a 13-year-old wunderkind who, unlike the husband or his friend, knows how to relate to the woman, and their relationship is far more real and convincing that any other in the story. Bertrand Blier constructed a film that questions and ultimately debunks nearly every `rule' on relationships, and provides more than a few belly laughs along the way. In a nutshell, "Get Our Your Handkerchiefs" is one of the few sex comedies out there that actually has something to say about sex.
An enjoyable footnote in cinema history
`Wings' arrived just as the silent era in Hollywood was coming to a close, and managed to sum up the pros and cons of the big budget `epics' that had become popular during that time. The story leaves much to be desired; it relies too much on coincidence, has an overly-simplistic `war is bad' message, and plays up its melodramatic aspects once too often. Nevertheless, it remains entertaining due to William Wellman's talent as a director and the genuinely exciting action scenes that interrupt the preachy tone with a much-needed jolt of energy.
This was the first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar, which is a perfectly appropriate place for it in history when you consider the kind of film that the Academy usually rewards with its top prize: something made on a big budget that can draw in a large audience and has just barely enough quality that critics can manage a thumbs up. It also had '20's superstar Clara Bow leading the cast, which gave it more than sufficient star power. Some of the people who worked on the film went on to do better things: director William Wellman improved during the sound era with "The Public Enemy," the original version of "A Star is Born," and the American classic "The Ox-Bow Incident," and up-and-coming actor Gary Cooper, in one of his first credited performances, would go on to win a pair of Oscars himself.
So is `Wings' an integral part of silent cinema? No; in fact, it even pales when placed next to silent epics like Gance's `Napoleon,' Griffith's `Intolerance,' or anything by Eisenstein. But perhaps that's setting the bar a little high; the silent era had its share of the good, the bad, and the downright ugly, just like movies today, and `Wings' remains likeable enough, perhaps because it is made with all the spirit of something by Gance, Griffith, or Eisenstein, albeit not with the same skill. It isn't great drama by any stretch of the imagination, but it certainly isn't boring, either.
My Man Godfrey (1936)
The butler did it!
"My Man Godfrey" successfully blends the two most prominent schools of film comedy from the 1930's: `sophistication' and `screwball.' It smears the conservative upper-crust milieu with the keen eye of `Dinner at Eight' and the pie-in-your-face irreverence of `You Can't Take It with You,' with as many witticisms as either and probably more sexual innuendos. Occasional predictability keeps it from being on par with "It Happened One Night" or "Trouble in Paradise," but it is still one of the most emblematic films of its era.
William Powell is pitch perfect as Godfrey Parke, the hobo-turned-butler, breezing effortlessly through every scene. Carole Lombard also turns in one of her most cherished performances as Irene Bullock, the spoiled socialite who pretends to enjoy her wealth but really just wants to be around someone human. As their relationship progresses, Godfrey's humility rubs off on Irene and ultimately frees her from her elite family, which offered her security but only made her unstable. `My Man Godfrey' has no mercy on the aristocracy of the 30's, skewing it as socially incompetent and morally bankrupt. `All you need to start an asylum is an empty room and the right kind of people.' How terribly true.
"Besieged" plays out like a confused, misguided remake of Bernardo Bertolucci's much more assured "Last Tango in Paris." It is an ineffective combination of political and romantic drama, meandering back and forth between the two and never really concentrating on either. The film has an interesting setup, with the imprisonment of Shandurai's husband and the emotional instability of Kinsky, but the story gradually falls apart after that. There is no real emotional force driving the events in the film; the audience is kept at a distance by the cold, almost passionless tone, and there is never any satisfying realization of Shandurai's sadness or Kinsky's self-loathing.
Having said that, there's still a fine performance by Thandie Newton in the lead, and the always interesting David Thewlis does a fairly competent job as the eccentric pianist. But Bertolucci's inability to balance out the two halves of the story constituted by these performances impede the characters from reaching their full potential, and robs us of what could have been a fascinating drama.
A theatrical experience made cinematic
Adapting theater to the screen is not easy. It is difficult enough to film a play; staying too close to the text can render the tone too "stagy," while "opening up" the story can cause it to lose its authentic feel. Filming opera is twice as problematic- there is so much that is rooted to the stage and simply cannot be pulled away. How is it possible to film something that has been performed in such a specific, disciplined way for hundreds of years and keep all the elements fully intact? The answer has been provided by Ingmar Bergman, a man known to most of the world for harrowing films which peer unsentimentally into the depths of the human soul. With "The Magic Flute," Bergman takes another great talent of his- theater direction- and combines it with his cinematic abilities to create an elaborate fantasy that even his detractors can enjoy.
Rather than just treating Mozart's opera as a story to be filmed, Bergman relies on familiar themes within the narrative to strike a balance between the stage and the screen while keeping the audience involved throughout. This is not to say that the story is simplified or made abundantly clear to any half-attentive viewer; the surprising accessibility of the film comes not from any reconstruction of the story but rather from an emphasis on elements that today's audience can easily recognize: sacrifices that are made for love, rebellion against the amoral nature of one's community, and magical occurrences that pop up just in time to save the hero, to name a few. Although the opera itself unfolds on a stage, with frequent reaction shots of the audience, Bergman's direction keeps us so deeply involved that tone is distinctly that of a film. Indeed, `The Magic Flute' proves to be a very cinematic opera, and there are moments when the imagery, theatrical as it is, becomes so overwhelming that Bergman has to cut to the audience to remind us that we are in a theater.
`The Magic Flute' is evidence that the `epic' existed long before movies, and that much of what we enjoy viewing today owes its style to stories that have been told through vastly different mediums for centuries on end.
Journey into Fear
The characters at the heart of Tarkovsky's "Stalker" are people who embark on an arduous journey only to discover that they had no idea what they wanted to gain from it. The central character is a "stalker," a man who makes a living by illegally escorting people through a restricted area to The Room, a place where their greatest wish will supposedly come true. Exactly why the area is restricted is never made perfectly clear; in the novel this film is partially based on, "The Roadside Picnic," it was a site where aliens briefly landed, and The Room was an object they left behind almost as if it were refuse. But Tarkovsky would rather not settle for such a flat explanation. To him, The Room is a place that means different things to the people who journey there, and the stark, ravished landscape they must journey through consists of the phobias and anxieties that they can hardly bear to face. The expedition the men experience is a long and often maddening one, and there are many scenes where the camera lingers on a beautifully composed shot so that the viewer can take time to understand how the characters fit into the settings and how those settings form both natural and supernatural obstacles.
Andrei Tarkovsky was an artist who did not like giving solid answers to the questions his films posed. He sculpted his stories so that viewers who had the patience and self-discipline to stay attentive all the way through could draw their own conclusions. If there is any specific meaning to "Stalker," it is that we have to fully understand anything for which we are willing to alter our lives.
Captain Blood (1935)
Flynn and Curtiz at their best
"Captain Blood" represents the best qualities of Hollywood's 1930's swashbucklers. It was the first of twelve films that Errol Flynn made with Michael Curtiz and Warner Brothers, and maximized many of the now familiar staples of the genre: a totally likeable hero, beautiful locales, rousing fights, remarkably detailed sets, and lighthearted romance. But it also outdoes most of today's action flicks with its sharp, witty dialogue, and use of intrigue in the story that keeps the viewer interested in more than just the action.
The script by Casey Robinson (who did uncredited rewriting on Curtiz's "Casablanca") gives Flynn's character a sympathetic edge; he is not simply a muscular hero battling the bad guys, but also an intelligent and caring man who uses his wits to assist the less fortunate. Flynn is remembered today almost exclusively as an action star, but many of the scenes in "Captain Blood," particularly the ones developing his relationship with Olivia de Havilland's character, show that he had much more range. It's even more amazing to note that this was his first lead role, after only a few minor parts in earlier films; he shows remarkable confidence and ease in every scene.
Critics and audiences often overlook Curtiz when composing lists of the all-time great directors, perhaps because he was treated like a hired hand at Warners, basically doing whatever the studio assigned him. But after watching several of his films, it's easy to see that he had a very distinct visual style; he always stayed focused on the characters, even during the action scenes, never letting himself get distracted by the sumptuous settings that frequently appeared in his movies. He also kept his camera up close during the fights so that we see every swish of the sword. `Captain Blood' remains one of the brightest of Hollywood's many spectacles.