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Taking Off (1971)
Lovely Forman American debut.
A wonderful American debut from Milos Forman, who transcends a rather schematic premise ('wayward' daughter is actually quite sensible, while bourgeois parents enter a counterculture of pot-smoking and (nearly) wife-swapping orgies) with his wise European eye, which mixes clear-eyed observation with fantasy, implausibility and farce. The lead couple are acted in such a low key, you're astonished at the emotional power they generate, and while the subject matter is quite depressing, Forman's comic benevolence is always foregrounded: the convention for parents of missing children, and the accompanying lesson in parental empathy, is an American classic.
The Storyteller (1987)
A surprisingly palatable tribute to stories.
Despite its pedigree, the most interesting things about this series are not the animatronics or puppetry, which, while charming, are little more than sideshows, at least in the story I saw, A STORY SHORT. In fact, loathe though I am to admit it, the programme's chief pleasure lies in that most ancient art, storytelling.
John Hurt, in Rowley Birken QC-mode, grotesque, medieval make-up, relates a story about story telling, seated by the fire, accompanied by a cynical dog. One winter's day, starving and poor, he spots a fellow beggar thrown out of the Royal Kitchen by the nasty cook. The Story Teller tricks this latter into giving them an excellent soup. Furious, the Cook pleads with the King for permission to boil the villain, but, pleased with the Story Teller's wit, the monarch offers him a reprieve - for 100 nights, he must tell the King a new story: if he fails to do so, he will hand him over to the cook.
The story may be old, but it's told with great gusto. Anthony Minghella's script is excellently dramatic (as befits a playwright), witty, and with some disturbing concerns beneath the fun, such as fears for the self, or the culturally self-generating power of storytelling, linked to the continuation of ideological power. For a programme aimed at children, it is bracingly self-reflexive (with little nonsense about film being the new oral culture); despite the Americanised style, there is a charming sense of medieval bustle, its grotesqueness and arbitrary terror, as well as its magic and power.
Flawed, but cherishable.
This is a film of so many pleasures - the delineation of a culture not usually represented in the mainstream; an empathetic, comic-sad, character-driven narrative; an awe-inspiring, Lean-like evocation of the vast lonely Mongolian landscape and its dwarfing of its inhabitants; its moments of genuine hilarity and sadness - that you are fully prepared to forgive its glaring flaws - its 'Westernising' an Oriental subject matter (lush composition, mobile camerawork and editing, excessive close-ups, epic music), unoriginal city/country dichotomy (although this is more complex than at first appears) and its maddening fudge into apocalyptic fantasy.
RKO 281 (1999)
This film, which at first seems rather inadequate, is actually a hugely complex Borgesian mirror-fantasy reflecting the genius of Orson Welles and CITIZEN KANE. Everything that is awe-inspiring, thrilling, dark, problematic, and unique about that classic and in its maker is, prismatically, transferred here into its complete opposite: KANE's bursting out of the straitjacket of convention, is a final entrapment here, in TV-movie hell, just as the real Welles finished his career in advertisements and talk-shows. The enigmatic, unpredictable monstrous genius of Welles becomes sweetly naive and petulant. Labyrinthine sequences even the greatest minds still can't fully comprehend become predictably explicable and slotted neatly into the conservative demands of the genre. Reckless visual excess becomes manageable and smooth. It really is the most remarkable thing.