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Get Gatsby, 9 September 2017

This film seems to be largely out of favour, and it does have problems, but taken as an Ibsonian study of 20s flapper society, it's fine. Class, money, personality and style form a cocktail that looks far better than it tastes and this film captures the vacuousness being absurdly rich quite effectively. The tendency to overblow this story is strange though, as it's basically a chamber piece.

For a classic novel, Fitzgerald's story is ungainly, with an unconvincing mix of themes, the metaphorical nature of which is too transparent - such as the sordid road between Manhattan and the Eggs. Mainly it is misogynistic, and the film doesn't attempt to elucidate the real subtext of the story - Gatsby's implicit bromance with Carraway. Of course, Gatsby was not meant to be gay, only codedly gay - it was impossible for Fitzgerald to be literal, being firmly in the closet himself. That angle, as in the book, is more obviously portrayed by Jordan, whose role is to provide the clue.

It also perhaps simmers too long - it's a while before we meet the man, and the improbable lifestyles and flapper parties have to carry things along until the mystery of Gatsby's personality takes over. Unfortunately it is also a mystery why he is so attracted to shrill, neurotic Daisy (Mia Farrow) and that undermines what ought to be the driving dynamic of the film.

The tension does mount steadily in the latter part of the film though, amplified by the (now rather stock) stifling weather trick (did Tennessee Williams get it from here?). If Coppola's meandering script were a little more incisive, Farrow replaced by someone that Gatsby might have actually found desirable, and the camera pulled back a little from all the perspiring faces, this could have been a classic.

A laborious kind of Disney Time, 9 September 2017

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Four hours of Martin Scorsese talking us through his favourite Italian (mainly neo-realist) films. The format is odd. The problem is not that we don't get to see much of Scorsese - he appears only occasionally - but that he basically presents condensed versions of entire films - lots of them one after the other, using an extensive series of clips over which he narrates the story from beginning to end, giving away everything. This is annoying, and it is necessary to keep fast-forwarding in order to avoid all the spoilers.

Rossellini gets most attention - a third of the film is devoted to him. Rome Open City, Paisan, Flowers of St Francis, and Viaggio in Italia are all treated in depth. The others, and the films that he singles out to rave about, are: Visconti (Senso), Fellini, (I Vitelloni), De Sica (Gold of Naples) and Antonioni (L'Avventura) - although many others touched on in less detail.

Scorsese insists repeatedly that these films influenced his own work, but at no point gives any particular examples, and it's hard to see any. Where is the realism and the humanism in Scorsese's films? He admires Viaggio in Italia for not leaping from one climax to the next, instead allowing the drama to unfold through small moments - and yet breaks that precept completely in The Aviator.

It's relentless adulation rather than critical assessment, and that becomes dull. Without adding enough critical value, it's hard to understand the point of the whole exercise.

Gidget (1959)
The beginning of things, 9 September 2017

The greatest social revolution of the 20th century was the emergence of the teenager. Before the mid-50s teenagers didn't exist - people went straight from childhood to middle age - from Disney to Bing Crosby, apparently. Teens were neither a subject nor a market until rock and roll gave them a voice and James Dean gave them a presence. Up until then Hollywood had been in the grip of the old guard who had set things up in the 20s, and as they got older, film output calcified into stock formats - epics, melodramas, noirs, westerns to keep the old folk happy.

This preamble is just to put Gidget into context. Trite and trivial now, it must have been vibrantly original at the time, spawning a mini genre of beach films and beach music through the 60s - this film was made a couple of years before the Beach Boys formed and the music in it is, bizarrely, still closer to Frank Sinatra than rock and roll. The authenticity of the innocent charm is the best thing about it, though titchy Sandra Dee (Gidget = girl-midget) is cute enough, and the good-natured sexual liberation is remarkable - a sixteen year-old is basically out to lose her virginity. Corny back-projection surfing is a must, there's a luau (new to me) and a wholesome family that gives it a Happy Days feel. But most of all it feels like the beginning of things.

was never going to work, 9 July 2017

For some reason (one can only presume his ego got the better of him) Bill Forsyth actually made a big-budget art-house film here. If that isn't an error of judgement sufficient to end a career, I don't know what is.

It's hard to fathom how he thought it would be possible for such a film to be released commercially. And while the producers presumably forked out for it without actually studying the screenplay - somehow persuaded that they should all go to Morocco to shoot some scenes on a beach and some dunes - it boggles the mind how the director and the producers managed to remain so far out of alignment on their target market, right through to the film's completion.

In any case, Warner Bros understandably couldn't market it to mainstream cinema audiences, and in a desperate attempt to salvage something, cut it severely and added a narrative voice-over to dumb it down. If anything, the surgery only made it worse. Not only has it lost its artistic integrity, it has a slapped-on narration - presumably in imitation of a bed-time story - that crops up at meaningful moments to let us know that it's a meaningful moment. The narration adds nothing, only patronises. Worse, it is incongruously done in strident tones and a raw, modern American accident. It's hard to think of a more botched attempt to salvage a film.

It's not a difficult film, but it does require some indulgence. Certainly, mainstream cinema-going viewers will only be nonplussed at having to think about what they are watching, having to tease subtleties, ambiguities, and ironies from a series of slow moving, wistful, existential stories.

Forsyth's original screenplay demanded even more indulgence, trying to extract depths of meaning out of every moment. This obsession at painting emotion is what really sinks the film - it's more literary than cinematic, and little of the attempt successfully translates to the screen. Thus, when Hector in the first story sees the boats coming in, he stands there hesitantly in full view of them and there is little sense of the absolute terror the screenplay he tells us he feels - mainly he comes across as simple-minded.

There is plenty, though, to appeal to the intelligent viewer who likes to reflect on life. The historical scenarios (except for the last segment) are interesting choices - it is rare to be taken to those times and places - some of them fairly unique. The moral or practical challenges presented to Hector each time are never boring. We like him for being hapless and benign, and we come to care for his welfare. This is excellent and engaging - for the thinking viewer - and is all the better for the straightforward technique, without any of the manipulative technology-driven tricks of modern Hollywood.

However, it's hardly an unsung masterpiece. No consistent theme emerges. Nothing really coheres into a whole. The stories needed to be much cleverer for it all to come together into a frisson of satisfaction at the end - nothing really does come together. Two of the stories have hopeful endings (if not entirely happy), the others have sad, wistful, or ambiguous endings. If there was significance in the ending of each, it was too subtle to grasp. By the last story we (might) realise that footwear seems to be a theme, though quite what the moral is there in terms of the human condition, is obscure. Other symbols, such as the windmill and the cross, if symbols they are, don't work at all, as almost everyone will miss them completely.

Worse, Hector hardly stands for the whole human race, having evolved apparently into the fashionably-sensitive liberal, the banality of which is revealed in the last story, which serves up the biggest cliché of them all: father issues, presented here with dismal earnestness as Hector bonds with his estranged children. When Hector is told that his son only needs a hug to solve everything, and his early-teen daughter gives him a little lecture on meaningful moments, I'm not sure whether my howls were of excruciation, disbelief, or disappointment.

Abhijaan (1962)
Needs a little indulgence, but Ray never disappoints, 26 May 2017

Ray is the western face of Indian film-making. He also has a personal talent that is reminiscent of David Lean - intelligent, sophisticated, impeccable - that shows you exactly the right things, exactly what you felt you wanted to see. The story is of a taxi driver who sets himself up in a village with the help of a drug baron. Moral anguish ensues.

It's a long film and gives itself plenty of time to tackle a host of ethnic, social and personal issues: love, envy, pride, impetuosity, lust, hope, despair, corruption - too many to heap onto one man really - and we get a bit tired of 'Singhji' after an hour or so. It's odd because he is bad-tempered for a lead character whereas the 'bad guy', the corrupt businessman, is extremely good natured and likable.

The theme is the struggle to get ahead, embodied in the taxi driver's efforts to get past the cars ahead of him, or beat a train to its destination. The scenes on the dusty roads are among the most interesting as villagers and cows hurl themselves out of his way. Any intelligent film automatically contains humour, but the little chap playing the mechanic - familiar from other Ray films - is there for good measure.

Everything is in conflict here: caste against caste, boss against employee, business against business, woman against man - it's a tough old world. Ray put famed Bollywood goddess Waheeda Rehman among the low-life and the effect is startling. She takes a long time to make an appearance, but towards the end she spices up the film like a hot curry and it's worth the wait because you can't take your eyes off her.

Something of an Indian classic.

Thoughtful and sentimental, 26 May 2017

This has the same actors as Uzak, playing very similar characters. It also has the Ceylan's parents in leading roles - playing a film director's parents. It's fairly self-indulgent - there can be no doubt that Ceylan only knows one thing, and that he is filming it here - but that's precisely the reason to come to Ceylan: to get away from the commercial stuff, to get some glimpses of ordinary people more or less struggling with their lives.

This film has few pretensions, only aiming to show us various people from small-town Turkey, each with their own petty preoccupations. It takes its time, but when it's hot and the sun is dappled by leaves against the wall, why rush? These things are worth capturing for their own sake, because times and places change, people die and disappear - and the world is fascinating despite our weariness. The message is implicit in the very making of the film, which is a record of the making of a film.

This kind of thoughtful, gently sentimental film-making surely owes a lot to Kiarostami and the Iranians. Ceylan is halfway between that and Tarkovsky, just as he is geographically. Clouds of May is not something you need to see - Uzak was a better distillation of what he has to offer in terms of original cinema - but it leaves an impression of things you feel you ought to have more time for, and which are perhaps among the most important things.

Suspect, 26 May 2017

Verbatim rerun of Camus's study of motiveless murder. Quite competent (except for the lamentable fight scene) but on the whole adding no artistry of its own, and with its lengthy courtroom scenes, rather dull. Mastroianni is also utterly wrong for the part. What really interested me here is what attracted Visconti to the project, which bolsters my suspicion that this is one of most misunderstood novels of the twentieth century, along with Kafka's The Trial. Let's see: life as meaningless and absurd, somewhat angst-ridden, nibbling away at society's mores, an ambivalent attitude towards women. Hmm.

Consider that the eponymous Stranger may well be the Arab, not Meursault - a significant shift of focus that doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone. Certainly Meursault is hardly an outsider, as the translated title claims. His only fault is a certain impassivity - the word is repeated at key moments - it is really his impassivity that condemns him. But why has he become emotionally impotent? Consider that Meursault is compelled back along the beach towards the Arab accompanied by melodramatic dazzling sunlight and dizziness. That the murdered man is an Arab only aligns this scene with a certain age-old North African cliché that Wilde, Gide and Bowles knew all about. In any case we can't assume it is meaningless. The dizziness is his disorienting attraction to the Arab that drives him to distraction. The five shots could stand for a different kind of shot - consider that we only have Meursault's word for what happened, and evidently whatever did happen cannot speak its name (another age-old cliché). Writ larger, the murder itself is a metaphor for his visceral rejection of a certain kind of intolerable desire.

This is much more interesting than mere antisocial nihilism - not just an errant frame of mind but a potentially life-blocking quasi-existential condition. If Camus was in the closet, his anguish must have been deep. Of course, there's no evidence at all that he was, and plenty that he wasn't, but I will be scrutinising his work closely in future in the light of these circumstantial indicators, plus the rather salient fact that Visconti was attracted to the story.

Italian EastEnders, 26 May 2017

Portrait of a working class community in Florence in the 1920s as the Fascists tighten their grip on society. It's set in a narrow street populated by market traders, cobblers, gossips, unfaithful wives, gangsters, with an old matriarch overseeing things from her window and the local Fascist on patrol down below. Mainly it follows the fortunes of three marriagable young women and their lovers, with, at the centre of the film, a brutal night of assassinations which changes the community forever.

It's quite dialogue-heavy - there's barely a moment without subtitles on the screen - and there's little humour, but it's well made and is suffused with a non-judgemental humanism that prevents things getting too morose. Mastroianni stands out among the cast, which includes an Olympic gold medalist discus thrower as a blacksmith. Particularly interesting to see a non-touristic side of Florence, when the place had a real lived-in feel.

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Fails even to be subversive, 26 May 2017

Stiff, humourless fantasy in which a chap gets sucked into a surreal nightmare after meeting a woman in a nightclub and finding her dead on the road shortly after. You can sense the writer-director desperately trying to strip away the ordinary meaning of things, only to inadvertently reinforce them by means of allusion and connotation, of which the film is largely comprised, as there's little original here. Much of it seems to be a nod to Melville, with our despondent hero being some kind of secret agent in a raincoat.

It's a game that feels as though it's being made up as it goes along - the girl's a ghost, no she isn't, it was all a dream, no it wasn't - the only interesting thing is the auteur's ulterior motive in making the film. Clearly you can't trust reality, or your idea of it - the ultimate paranoia. If that's it, it's simplistic, and unfortunately it's none too amusing or entertaining, apart from the chick on the bike. Surrealism being some decades past its sell-by date at this point, the sense is of Robbe-Grillet having his finger on the pulse of a cadaver.

Craves indulgence, 22 May 2017

Modern day adaptation of a section of Proust's magnum opus that is true enough to the book in its theme and events and interestingly has the Marcel character still sunk in an archaic, aristocratic world.

KD Lang lookalike Stanislas Merhar does a good job doing the insulated, emotional (and physical) frailty, trapped in an adolescent infatuation of towering poetic naivety, all the while consumed with jealousy by the suspicion that his live-in girlfriend is an active lesbian behind his back.

It's slow. There's a lot of prowling around his creaking Paris apartment, lots of talking in cars - we seem to be taking entire journeys in real time. Akerman gave herself an easy directing job. The use of classical music is lazy - Schubert's Arpeggione Sonata is suitably Proustian, but Rachmaninov's Isle of the Dead is absurdly melodramatic, especially when played incongruously, Godard-fashion, over serene images.

Those familiar with the writer and director can easily pull back the gauze to reveal the real issues - an inverted couple struggling to maintain a hetero relationship - but that is so superficial it hardly seems worth special effort and the film works better with the ambiguity in place (as intended), with the implication that naivety (misunderstanding, confusion) is at the root of jealous passion. The Marcel character is so naïve that in the sex scenes he doesn't even know that he is supposed to put it in - doing the movements without getting undressed (he's in bed in his overcoat in one scene). That was strangely tragic, and although it may have been a stylisation to symbolise their failure to connect, it was easier to take it literally.

With liberties like that though, and done so earnestly, it's craves some indulgence. The worst problem is that the girl is comatose and unattractive, showing nothing of Albertine's sprightliness and guile that gave that character her painful duplicity. The ending too is a disappointment.

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