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The Word (1978)
Struggles to utter
This review is not of the full mini-series but of its greatly reduced version which was issued as a video. I had the old video sitting around for many years and decided I should finally watch it because of its obviously interesting content. I did not bother to check the running time and was amazed when it went on and on, lasting more than three hours (188 minutes). But even then I could tell that it had been savagely edited down, with whole chunks torn out, as there were so many discontinuities, sudden changes, character motivations and development lacking, and so on. I estimated it must have lost at least half an hour. But when I later checked the IMDb listing I saw that it was a cut down version of an eight-hour mini-series (480 minutes). That means that nearly five hours had been cut out. No wonder so much of the story made no sense! It had originally been shown on television in four two-hour episodes. So that is the first thing to make clear. Many of the actors billed for the film barely appear at all, such as John McEnery and Roland Culver. Others are completely eliminated from the video version, such as Nehemiah Persoff, who played a monk on Mount Athos (in the cut version the footage shot at Mount Athos, which must have been fascinating and rare, has been cut out entirely). The story is based on a best-selling novel by Irving Wallace, of the same title. The subject matter could not be more fascinating and relevant. However, the film is so badly made that it was a wasted effort. The main thing wrong with it was the catastrophic miscasting of David Janssen as the lead actor. His miscasting must go down in cinema history as one of the worst examples of bad judgement on the part of any director and producer that anyone could ever think of. He blunders and blusters his way through the story with his gruff, rude, and abrasive manner as if he were a hard-boiled detective investigating a murder in a crime thriller in Los Angeles. Nothing could be less suited to this particular film. What a terrible loss of a chance to bring a subject like this to public attention! The story concerns the discovery of a new gospel, a Gospel according to James. The New Testament was written in Greek, and the Gnostic gospels survive mostly in Coptic translations of the Greek, but in the story, the text discovered in the ruins of Ostia Antiqua, the ancient port of Rome, is an autograph manuscript on papyrus written in Aramaic. (No other biblical text survives in an Aramaic manuscript today, even though Aramaic was the language actually spoken by Jesus and his circle.) The James of this gospel is the brother of Jesus, and his tale says that Jesus did not die when he was crucified, but survived after being taken down from the cross. He went on living and preaching, including at Rome, for many years. The film contradicts itself, at one point saying he lived to be 52 and at another point saying he lived to be 54. Then he was crucified again and this time he really did die. James describes witnessing his miraculous ascent to Heaven. This may sound like really wild fiction, but I should point out that the Gospel of Judas was only published for the first time in 2006, and it is merely the latest in a series of previously unknown gospels discovered since 1947. (Most of these are part of the huge collection known as the Nag Hammadi Texts, of which I have a complete collection of the volumes with both Coptic and English on facing pages.) It is well known to biblical scholars that at the time of the Emperor Constantine there were about 200 gospels, or purported gospels, about Jesus, and that for simplicity's sake in constructing his new state religion, he and his associates and successors burnt all but the four which they kept for canonical purposes, and which are now in the New Testament. The oldest surviving gospel, which was discovered in Coptic in Egypt, is believed to be the Gospel of Thomas. It consists entirely of sayings of Jesus (including many previously unknown ones) and contains no story line at all. As far as the New Testament goes, one needs to point out that more than 5,000 manuscripts of it survive, each slightly different from the others, and that there are more than 200,000 textual variations known to scholars. Simple believers are never told about this, because it causes problems, as in matters of religion the slightest textual variation can have huge consequences, and hence these are mostly suppressed. There are other problems where Jesus is concerned. For instance, Nazareth did not exist in his day, and the 'Jesus of Nazareth' of the canonical Bible was invented as a substitute designation to replace 'Jesus the Nazarene' (Iesos Nazarenos), in order to prevent people asking the embarrassing question: What is a Nazarene? Nazarene comes from the Aramaic word 'nazar', which means truth. (This word does not exist in Hebrew.) In other words, many liberties were taken with Christian texts centuries after the time of Jesus, and the reports in some of the 'lost' and some of the surviving Jewish texts as well that Jesus did not actually die when he was crucified have also been suppressed. Wallace cleverly revives this tradition in his story. The mysteries concerning Christianity are not merely divine ones, there are many earthly ones which are inconvenient to all concerned. Wallace really stirred things up, but this unsatisfactory film did little justice to the subject matter, as it is such a mess, and the lead protagonist, David Janssen, is so appallingly offensive and oafish. There were many good performances in the film, but they could not save it, and also, one really does need the full intact version.
Iron Maze (1991)
A surreal mystery drama set in an abandoned steel mill
This is a very unusual film. It was written, directed by, and starred some Japanese people, but was made in English in America. The initial title states that it is set in 'Corinth, Pennsylvania, six miles from Pittsburgh'. However, Corinth is a fictitious name, and the film was made in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a tiny and desolate former steel town which has now become an eastern suburb of Pittsburgh. The female lead is played by everybody's favourite waif actress, Bridget Fonda, looking as pale, vulnerable, and faintly palpitating as usual. She has such a way of allowing her cheeks to pucker and ripple with apprehension and anxiety, and her eyes can become haunted in an instant. And there is plenty of reason for apprehension in this film, so she gets lots of chances to act, that's for sure. The setting for this film epitomises the now notorious American 'rust belt', and if anyone wants to know who voted for Donald Trump and where they live, you need look no further than this movie to understand why those people are in despair about 'politics as usual'. The abandoned steel mill, which is at the heart of the film, says it all. (For British people, just think 'Rhondda Valley in Wales' and the closure of the coal mines.) Yes, Pennsylvania went for Trump, and here we see just why, even though this film was made 26 years ago. If things were that bad then, just imagine now. The director of the film was Hiroaki Yoshida, who according to IMDb only directed two films, of which this was the second. He adapted for the screen a story entitled IN A GROVE by the Japanese author Ryunsosuke Akutagawa, who died as long ago as 1927 at the age of only 35. He wrote the original story for the film RASHOMON (1950), so famously directed by Akira Kurosawa, later so brilliantly remade in America by Martin Ritt as THE OUTRAGE (1964), and remade once again in Thailand in 2011. This film also has many echoes of RASHOMON, since it tells the story of what happened in the steel mill and the town several times from the points of view of the different characters. Each version is different, and we are continually faced with the problem of who is lying. As the old video cover which I have states, it is 'a labyrinth of deception'. Jeff Fahey plays a local redneck who is obsessed with Fonda. He is rather creepy and also very annoying, but then I suppose he is meant to be. I could not say he is my favourite actor, and I would have preferred someone else in the part who had a third dimension to him. Fonda is the wife of a Japanese businessman, played by Hiroaki Murakami, who has just bought the abandoned and rotting steel mill, intends to demolish it, and build a children's' theme park on the site. The locals are resentful and do not like the idea at all. Things get very tense, to say the least of it. Fonda plays a complex character who met the businessman in Japan and married into wealth, having come from a 'poor white trash' background in a small town ironically called Harmony. She has never felt comfortable about the change in her lifestyle, and her doubts about her marriage coincide with her arrival in Pennsylvania from Japan. The film poses various problems: has someone been murdered, or has someone not been murdered, and if so, which of various possible people either did or did not do it, assuming whether it was either done or not done. This is a bit like playing the game of 'known unknowns' and 'unknown unknowns', not to mention 'known knowns' and 'unknown knowns'. The film is rather weird, placing as it does the bizarre Japanese mentality within a redneck context in a steel town near Pittsburgh. I wonder how such an extraordinary idea ever occurred to anyone. Certainly, the location of the real abandoned steel mill is used to the fullest extent possible in the filming, and that adds to the weird atmosphere, for I never saw so many teetering gangways, loose railings, dangling weights on sliding chains, multiple levels, see-through floors, perilous perches, thick levels of steel dust rising in clouds with every movement, and the whole phantasmagoria of the ghost factory. The film is a satisfying thriller with a difference.
Greek Street (1930)
A tale of late 1920s London Soho
I have only seen a 53 minute version of this rare and forgotten early British sound film, which was from a print found in Pennsylvania long ago by a specialist old film collector (possibly John Grigg or his protegé and heir of his collection, Dave Shepard?) IMDb records its original length as having been 85 minutes. I doubt whether the full version survives. The title comes from one of the main streets in London's Soho district, Greek Street. In this shortened version we do not actually see Greek Street, however. The film opens with some night shots of Piccadilly Circus as it was in 1929, but these shots are very poor and dark, and are savagely edited (doubtless for the shortened version). Just about the only thing one can gather from them is that there was a large lit sign advertising Ginger Ale on view at that time, and some men walking along towards the camera in evening clothes. These are the only exterior shots in the film, at least in the shortened version. Everything else was filmed on sets at Lime Grove Studios in Shepherds Bush, London. The subtitle of the film states that it is 'A Tale of the Italian Quarter of London'. Most of the action is set in an Italian restaurant-cum-dance hall called the Napoli, meant to be located on Greek Street. It is worth noting that the British authoress Radclyffe Hall had in 1926 published a novel entitled ADAM'S BREED, which called attention to the Italians of London and their Little Italy. Because of Hall's notoriety at the time, this may have aroused sufficient interest in them for this film to be made three years later. It is based upon a story written by Robert Stevenson (1905-1986), later famous as a writer and director; he wrote the screenplay for JANE EYRE (1943), and directed MARY POPPINS (1964) and many other Disney productions. The 'Italian quarter', or 'Little Italy', of London may have had its restaurant outposts in Soho, as it doubtless did, but it was really located not in Soho but between Holborn and Clerkenwell along Clerkenwell Road, and the now wholly desolate and depressing Saffron Hill, and all the other little side streets of that immediate area. This had commenced already by the middle of the 19th century. The reason why Dante Gabriel Rossetti settled with Lizzie Sidall in the 1850s in Red Lion Square was that, although outside Little Italy and hence free of its stifling social pressures on him, he could walk back to Little Italy to visit his parents in ten minutes. The best of both worlds! The old Italian Catholic church on Clerkenwell Road is still used by the now widespread and disparate old Italian community of London for their weddings. They come from all over for sentimental and family reasons to the old church, to honour the tradition of their forebears. One often sees glamorous brides, surrounded by hordes of Italian relatives, emerging from the little church door into the street, showered with confetti. This is despite the fact that very few Italians live anywhere near the church, and certainly not within convenient reach of it. The Italians were in the old days the only significant minority community in London, and they struck together for comfort, and to share their food. (Two Italian delicatessens survive in the area, though greatly changed in the past 20 years.) The Napoli of the film would have received all of its food and sauces from the real Little Italy, and in Soho there is still one of the oldest and best of the early Italian delicatessens doing thriving business. The film concerns the son of the proprietors of the Napoli, who runs the business. He is called Rikki, and is played by William Freshman. One evening he hears a girl singing in the street just outside the Napoli's door, and her voice enchants him. He opens the door and she finishes a song for him, then holds her hand out for some coins, but nearly faints from hunger and exhaustion. Rikki takes her in and gives her a good meal, and she says her parents have both died, she does not have a friend in the world, or a penny to her name. Her name is Anna, and she is a pretty young girl who has had voice training. Rikki falls in love with her pretty quickly, but is passionately jealous, while she keeps fending him off. She becomes the singer who is the main attraction at the Napoli. She is sympathetically played by the actress who called herself Sari Maritza (1910-1987), a woman who made 12 films between 1930 and 1934, this being her first. This actress 'Maritza' was a woman whose own story was so strange, it could have been a film in itself. Born in China, long thought to be an Austrian, she was in fact British. Charlie Chaplin at one time became so infatuated with her that he danced the tango with her all night long, causing a press sensation, but we are not told what else they may have done all night long on other occasions. However, I leave the fun of researching her to those who, like myself, enjoy strange tales. William Freshman, who plays Rikki with his best attempt at an Italian accent, was in fact an Australian. He overdoes his protestations of love, but then perhaps that was fashionable at the time. The film is full of lots of high-warbler singing, with one particularly catchy tune which I have heard elsewhere on various occasions but cannot place. I wonder if it originated with this film. There is some good tap-dancing by a gaggle of girls, seen entirely in long shots. Martin Lewis plays a villainous impresario, with suitably unctuous and loathsome traits. This film is very much a period curiosity with little intrinsic merit. Normal viewers seeking entertainment would find it merely tedious and annoying.
Marked Woman (1937)
Powerful drama in which Bette Davis tries to nail a vicious gangster
This film is a thinly disguised account of the trial and conviction of the real-life New York gangster, Lucky Luciano. In the film he is called Johnny Vanning, and is played with convincing ruthless menace by Enrico Ciannelli. The fact that the film was really a portrait of Luciano was revealed by LIFE Magazine on April 19, 1937. Bette Davis is feisty, outspoken, and a 'realist' who reluctantly turns into an 'idealist' when her kid sister is murdered by Vanning. The film is extremely well directed by Lloyd Bacon, who began his career by directing many silent shorts in 1922 and became famous in 1928 for directing Al Jolson in the early sound film THE SINGING FOOL. He is probably best remembered today as the director of the outstanding film 42nd STREET (1933). The fact that he directed the football film KNUT ROCKNE ALL American (1940) came to the world's renewed attention when Ronald Reagan became President. His patriotic and impressive film THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (1944) is also highly thought of. His last film (his 130th) was released in 1954, and he died in 1955. The prosecuting attorney who aids Bette David is played by Humphrey Bogart, who delivers his lines very well and forcefully, but who shows about as much emotion as a marble statue. His eyes are numb. A number of young actresses support Bette Davis very well indeed, namely Lola Lane, Isabell Jewell, Mayo Methot, Rosalind Marquis, and Jane Bryan. Of these, Mayo Methot married Bogart the next year, 1938, having met him during the shooting of this film. She was tempestuous and once threatened Bogart with a gun in front of dinner guests. She divorced Bogart in 1945 and died a few years later at the early age of 47 as the result of years of alcoholism. As for Jane Bryan, who was a special protegé of Bette Davis, it was she and her husband who were responsible for persuading their friend Ronald Reagan to run for President. She then served on the Federal Arts Commission and was one of Reagan's closet political advisors. The only one of the five who soon faded from the screen was Rosalind Marquis. She was a concert pianist who briefly turned actress and made 11 films between 1936 and 1938. But after only two years in the business, she retired from films, became a singer for a few years, and then became a 'socialite' in Kentucky, as wife of the wealthy Ed Axton. Both she and Jane Bryan lived to be 90. Sometimes it can be interesting to research some of the supporting actors and actresses in films, as you never know what you will find. This film made a big hit and deserved to, as it portrayed a group of young women who are the only ones to stand up to a gangster who has terrorised New York City, bribed many of the great and good, murdered many of his enemies and 'girls who might talk' and thrown them into the river, and threatened just about everybody else. When corruption goes that far, an honest society becomes impossible. Bette Davis was the perfect choice for the provocative leading role in this challenging film. The fight against corruption never stops, so this film is as relevant today as it was then.
Les grandes personnes (1961)
A tale of an intensely passionate romance
This excellent film, whose original French title is LES GRANDES PERSONNES (THE IMPORTANT PEOPLE), has the English language title of TIME OUT FOR LOVE. It is based on a novel by Roger Nimier entitled (in translation) HISTORY OF A LOVE. Nimier was a well known French writer who died tragically young at the age of only 36. I slightly knew his former mistress, and had an interest in him because of his close friendship with one of my favourite writers, Paul Morand. His daughter Marie Nimier is also a novelist, her best known novel perhaps being ANATOMY OF A CHOIR. Another one of her novels has been filmed, and she has also had an original screenplay filmed this year entitled BARRAGE. This film stars the wonderful Jean Seberg, who had made BREATHLESS with Godard the year before. Here, aged 23, she plays a 19 year-old American girl from Lincoln, Nebraska (Seberg herself was from Iowa, which is next door to Nebraska), who has come to Paris speaking fluent French with a strong American accent, to look after an extremely rich uncle who has had a heart attack. He lives in a huge mansion with a very depressing interior, and we get little more than glimpses of him in the film. Seberg wears a wig with pigtails at the beginning of the film to make herself look younger, which is successful. Later she reverts to her short-cropped BREATHLESS look, the perfect gamine. Seberg knows no one and is lonely. She meets a famous woman fashion designer, played by Micheline Presle, and they become intimate friends instantly. Presle has her design office at the top of Galerie Lafayette and lives in style at 2, Rue Rivoli. She and her set are the 'important people' of the original French film title. (The surname Presle is probably the origin of the name Presley in America, and I suspect Elvis may have been of Huguenot descent, as was James Agee, also of Tennessee.) As she is now mixing with an older 'smart set', Seberg is quickly given a makeover and wears designer clothes and has the cropped hair, becoming an overnight glamour gal. Then she meets Presle's rich, fickle, and narcissistic lover, played by Maurice Ronet. They fall in love, and for Seberg this is 'the big one' from which there will never be any emotional recovery. But Ronet's extreme and passsionate love turns out to be a convertible currency, easily changed from one woman to another. He is incapable of loyalty, much less fidelity, and he lacks kindness. A great deal of emotional bruising is unavoidable for any woman who comes near him. His greatest love is himself. There is a documentary profile of the director, Jean Valère, on the Blu-ray disc, in which he says that he had wanted to film JULES ET JIM, but Truffaut beat him to it, so he made this film instead. It is extremely well made indeed. It was released on disc by Gaumont only in 2015, and has English subtitles. It is definitely a classic, no doubt about it, in that rare category of 'extreme romance' films, of which there are so few. (It is just as well there are not more of them, as they are very nerve-wracking and upsetting.) We get a lot of wonderful location footage of Paris as it was in 1960, and the most remarkable thing about that is the incredible absence of traffic everywhere. On one romantic night, Seberg and Ronet stay up all night and visit many famous locations, calling each other's names to each other across considerable distances, without any background noise or traffic. An example is when they stand on opposite sides of the Place de la Concorde and there is not a car in sight, he shouts 'Ann' (Seberg's character name) and she shouts 'Philippe', their names echo in the early morning stillness, and they repeat this in various places. They genuinely 'have Paris to themselves' to celebrate their love in this romantic manner. Such a thing is incredible to us today, as all the European cities are now so over-crowded that it is inconceivable that anyone could shout his or her lover's name anywhere at any hour and expect to be heard at any distance at all. Maurice Ronet was a very good actor, as he proved also in George Lautner's fabulous thriller MORT D'UN POURRI (DEATH OF A CORRUPT MAN, 1977, see my review). He died aged only 55. But that was nothing compared to the terrible tragedy of Jean Seberg's death. She was only 40 when she died mysteriously of an overdose, which may have been either suicide or murder, we shall never know. (Strange how this mystery reminds us of the unsolved deaths also of Natalie Wood and of Marilyn Monroe.) Jean Seberg was such a breath of fresh air, that in a 'breathless' world (pun intended), her gamine face was an inspiration, and her performances rang true. I have already praised her wonderful performance in BONJOUR TRISTESSE (1958, see my review). Even in LILLITH (1996), she magically charmed us as she scared us. One interesting thing I would like to point out about this film is that the film's music is by Germaine Tailleferre, the only female member of Les Six, the six composers of the Montparnasse Era who formed a famous group (including Auric and Poulenc; Auric also became a prolific film score composer, and Germaine herself composed 8 film scores altogether.) Despite the early deaths of the other two stars, Micheline Presle is still with us, even though she was older than both of the others and is now 95. That's what I call staying power! Her last performance in a feature film was in 2012, aged 90, although she subsequently appeared in another film in 2014, aged 92, as 'une passante' (not the same as the one in Baudelaire's poem of that title).
Warn That Man (1943)
A rather feeble effort
This is a poorly made and rather feeble wartime film about a plot by the Nazis to kidnap Churchill and spirit him off to Germany. The name Churchill and the title Prime Minister are never mentioned in the film, and Churchill is referred to only as 'that man', which comes across as ludicrously coy. From the very beginning, when a silly voice-over says three times before the credits: 'Warn that man! Warn that man! Warn that man!', I knew I was in for a grim viewing of a very inferior film. I am a great admirer of Gordon Harker, and here he has a leading role, but the part offers him little opportunity to show off his genuine talents, and the direction is so bad that all he is asked to do is mug some faces, lark about, and make some limp Cockney jokes. The film creaks like an old door hinge. I cannot understand why anyone bothered to put it on Blu-Ray, as if it were a classic. The only kind of classic it is, one might say, is a classic flop.
Brief Encounter (1945)
The eternal encounter
It might be thought that there is nothing new to say about this great classic, which every true movie lover must have seen. And 72 years later, fans are still visiting Carnforth Station in Lancashire where it was filmed to get the atmosphere for themselves. I have earlier pointed out that some inspiration for the film probably came from an earlier film, BRIEF ECSTASY (1937, see my review, which also had restrained lovers denying themselves happiness out of consideration for 'decency', which is Celia Johnson's word to describe her dilemma). But last night, BRIEF ENCOUNTER entered a new and higher dimension. At the Royal Festival Hall in London, it was shown on a giant screen with the music on the sound track replaced by live music from the London Philharmonic Orchestra and pianist Alexandra Dariescu, which was superbly played by Alexandra, who specialises in Rachmaninov. The evening began with a normal performance of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. After an interval, the film was shown with the orchestra and pianist sitting beneath the huge screen, and they played live all the portions of the same concerto to match the places where the recorded music would have appeared. Stripping the music from the film to enable this to happen was apparently so lengthy and tedious a business that in one day they could only get through sixty seconds of the film. This was truly a spectacular event, one of the great cinematic experiences one could have. In the last two scenes of the film, the sudden extra-loud burst of Rachmaninov from the live orchestra hit everyone in the solar plexus with such overwhelming force that the wave of emotion was almost unbearable. Much of the packed house consisted of younger people who could never possibly have met the type of English people of circa 1943 who were portrayed in the film. For about five minutes, there were ripples of laughter from the younger viewers at some of the dialogue and scenes, as the characters were behaving and speaking in a way so alien to them. But this very soon ceased. For the rest of the film, the enormous audience sat riveted in silence so intense that you could have heard them breathing if they weren't in fact mostly holding their breath in rapt attention. The overwhelming performances of Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, with their honesty and purity of emotions, succeeded in silencing all cynical viewers entirely, as they sat immovable with amazement at what might for so many of them have been their first experience of seeing a film portraying pure romance. As has been wisely said, the power of the film largely comes from the fact that nothing happens, as only two or three stolen kisses and walking arm and arm, and sharing some laughter are all that the unfortunate couple manage to extract from their trapped situations. Having met by chance in a tea room at a railway station, with wartime rationing limiting the amount of milk and sugar they can have in their cups of tea, Johnson and Howard try to remain faithful to their spouses and home and children while falling hopelessly in love. And they succeed. Their self-restraint is a now vanished virtue in this age of today, where no one is restrained about anything any more. Truly this is the most outstanding memento of the traditional English 'stiff upper lip'. David Lean's fantastically inspired direction succeeds in making small matters happening in a rural train station into matters of world importance, since the film deals with the universal problems of love constrained by circumstance. The moody cinematography by Robert Krasker and the powerful editing by Jack Harris give such support to Lean's genius that the film was transformed into a work of art, using only the simplest of subjects and settings. The sub-plot of the flirtation in the station tea room between Stanley Holloway and Joyce Cary is wonderfully funny and well done, and acts as a necessary foil to relieve the tension of the main romance. The small actress Margaret Barton as the tea room assistant also adds character to the situation. I see from IMDb that she is still alive aged 91. Among the most astounding revelations in terms of casting, which I noticed in this viewing for the first time, is that the cellist and organist who gives such a touch of humour in the Kardomah and cinema scenes is none other than the much loved Irene Handl, who in her 183 film appearances was later to become Britain's most popular cockney actress. I never previously realized she was the actress in that part. And speaking of casting surprises, it is Noel Coward's own voice over as the station master making announcements. I wonder if there is anyone still alive who remembers seeing Coward's stage play, upon which this film is based. Three talented people, all uncredited, worked on the script and dialogue, namely Lean himself, Ronnie Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allan. The evening was all the more remarkable in that it was introduced by actress Lucy Fleming, Celia Johnson's daughter (and Ian Fleming's niece). She read extracts from the letters which her mother wrote home from the filming location at the time, which were fascinating. She revealed that Johnson's daughter in the film was her real life niece, Henrietta Vincent. The letters describe Johnson's anxieties and apprehensions about getting the part right and being true to the character. She describes one occasion when they shot at the station all night until 7:30 AM. The studio work was done later at Denham. The reason why they had to go so far north as Carnforth to make the film was that the War was still on, and the Government would not give permission for arc lights to be used at night anywhere further south because of the German bombing. After the film my wife and I reminisced about visiting dear Trevor Howard at home when he was old.
Ensemble, c'est tout (2007)
Hunting the Elf and Picking a Berri
This is an excellent but relatively little-known film scripted and directed by Claude Berri. The original French title of the film is ENSEMBLE, C'EST TOUT. It is based on a novel by Anna Gavalda. It offers yet another opportunity for the Elf (Audrey Tautou) to shine, which is always welcome to tautouologists. Her eyes are just as big as usual. Indeed, the behaviour of this rare mammal never disappoints and is as interesting as the meerkats, especially with her great big eyes. Elves also have the advantage of being related to humans, so that they are even more endearing. Here the Elf pretends to be difficult and disturbed, which we tautouologists know is only acting. Equally difficult and disturbed is Guillaume Canet, who for a long time does not fully appreciate the Elf, and is apparently blind to her merits. Indeed, there is even initial hostility between them. But then something called Love enters the story, and the two creatures discover the joys of cuddling and other such intimacies which mammals enjoy. Dancing round these two creatures is a splendid one called Laurent Stocker, who plays the character called Philibert, an aristocrat with many more grand names after that, including also the necessary 'de', without which no French aristocrat is complete. He is what is known as 'effete', but in the most charming and delightful and scatty way. They all end up living together in a gigantic flat in Paris which is full of antiques and family portraits of the 'de' family. As for the Elf and the Canet, they are not aristocrats, and the Canet has boorish habits such as living in an untidy nest with things all over the floor. This is a very charming romantic comedy, directed with the flair which we normally associate with the Berri, and which suits all films starring the irresistible Elf. All animal lovers and Francophiles will love this film. And even the French, who are so hard to please, must enthusiastically enjoy such an ensemble, and believe that c'est tout. Of course, this all happened a very long time ago, in 2007. But its warm glow persists in the sky of celluloid heaven.
Oscar and Lucinda (1997)
Two peas in a pod, I'll wager
This is an amazing film. How could I have missed it until now? Well, better late than never. Directed with sizzling intensity and flair by the Australian Gillian Armstrong, it pairs Ralph Fiennes as Oscar with Cate Blanchett as Lucinda, when they were at their most youthful, zestful, and charming. It is a kind of gnomic comedy, but it is also a sweeping drama. In fact, it defies all categories. Seeing her as she was then, and thinking of her as she is now (solid, established, accomplished), my breath was taken away by the youthful and shameless vivacity with which Banchett here makes the screen ripple with skittish, playful laughter and merriment. Blanchett and Fiennes play two oddballs, whose childhoods are briefly but effectively sketched, in this strange tale set in the 1840s and based on a novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey. There is a narrator's voice, that of Geoffrey Rush, who tells us about them as we follow them through their lives and discover how they meet. From then on, their story is shared. They both have the same single vice, being pathological gamblers. They will bet or wager on anything, compulsively. This is treated very much in a comic fashion. There is a great deal of astonishing cinematography of the wilds of New South Wales, especially of a place called the Clarence River Valley. At times, it is almost like watching a wildlife film, with Oscar and Lucinda as the creatures with the strange habits. They are so obsessed with gambling that they forget to fall in love until rather late in the story. Rarely have an actor and actress been so perfectly paired as these two in this film. They play off each other as wittily as William Powell and Myrna Loy in the Thin Man films. So wonderful are they together that the world missed a great chance in that they did not make a string of films together, instead of only this magnificent
Angi Vera (1979)
The first thing which needs to be explained before discussing the film is its title. Angi Vera is the name of an 18 year-old girl who is the lead character. In Hungary, as in China, the surname comes first, so the girl's first name is Vera and her surname is Angi. The performance of the young actress Vera Pap (Pap Vera in Hungary) is nothing short of miraculous. She speaks little, and she has some of the most expressive eyes of any actress, but she conveys everything just by being there in front of the camera. It is pure magic. It is a tragedy that this actress, who was 22 when she filmed this, died at the age of only 59. And the utterly brilliant director of this film, Pal Gabor (Gabor Pal in Hungary) died only 8 years after making this film, aged only 54. I have previously praised the amazing acting of Eva Szabo, who plays Maria Muskat (seen at the end on a bicycle). See my reviews of her performances in the three amazingly powerful autobiographical films by director Marta Meszaros in which she appears: DIARY FOR MY CHILDREN (1984), DIARY FOR MY LOVERS, which should really be translated DIARY FOR MY LOVES(1987), and NAPLO APAMNAK, ANYAMAK (DIARY FOR MY FATHER AND MOTHER; 1990). All of these films are works of the greatest genius, and Eva Szabo adds greatly to their power and effect. ANGI VERA certainly ranks with them as a triumph of cinematic art. I wish more films by these talented Hungarian directors were available with English subtitles. But in fact Hungarian cinema is barely known outside of Hungary, despite having been productive of some world-class cinematic masterpieces such as this one and the other three just mentioned. Other especially good performances in this film are by Erzsi Pasztor as Anna Trajan and Tamas Dunai as the teacher Istvan Andre Istvan, who falls in love with Angi Vera. The suffocating hothouse atmosphere of the three-month political re-education school, and the agonizing self-criticism sessions, are so real, you feel as you watch that you will be called upon next to criticise yourself and betray others. This story seems to be set in the early 1950s, since there is still so much talk about the characters' wartime exploits during the Nazi occupation, and mention of the years many of the characters have spent in prison. There is no mention at all of any national leaders or of any wider contemporary events. This film is restricted to an intensely harrowing portrayal of only what is happening just to this group of people during the three month period. It is as if there is no outside world, and that is what it must have felt like to all who went through these ordeals. The film is certainly one of the most realistic films I have ever seen. It is so powerful, it is like a Force of Nature. Watch it and be blown away.