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A rather feeble effort, 19 February 2017

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.

The eternal encounter, 15 February 2017

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.

Hunting the Elf and Picking a Berri, 14 February 2017

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.

Two peas in a pod, I'll wager, 12 February 2017

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)
So powerful, 11 February 2017

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.

An amusing tale of how a Normandy château outwitted the Nazis, 11 February 2017

This film A MATTER OF RESISTANCE is a French film whose original title is LA VIE DE Château. The 23 year-old Catherine Deneuve, having already appeared in 16 feature films by that age, plays the female lead. Her real name was Catherine Dorléac, being the younger of two beautiful sisters who both quickly became screen goddesses. The year after this film was made, her older sister, Francoise Dorléac, died tragically at the age of only 25, and the whole of France was plunged into mourning. Catherine had until then had been regarded as the lesser of the two, and suddenly she was the only one left. These twists of fate affected the French public and French film industry, and no doubt Catherine 'Deneuve' herself most of all, profoundly. Francoise was really very amazing, and the loss of her was traumatic in Europe somewhat as the early death of James Dean was in America: always mourned, never forgotten. Catherine Deneuve later on developed her cool exterior, but in this film she plays a pouting, spoilt spitfire of a young girl with such passion that the ice queen who was to come cannot even be guessed at. In most of her later films, she appears tall. But in fact she is only 5 feet 6 inches, and here her small size is very evident. She is wearing very obvious sixties makeup with all the prominent eye-liner and looking very much a girl of the 1960s. That is rather odd, considering that the action of the film is set in 1944 near the coast of Normandy. No one in 1944 looked like that, but never mind. The film itself, directed by Jean-Paul Rappeneau (perhaps best known for THE HORSEMAN ON THE ROOF, 1995), is delightful. It is directed with such a light Gallic touch, and is extremely entertaining and well made. Deneuve plays the daughter of the farm manager who has married a somewhat older man who is lord of the manor and lives in the huge old 18th century Normandy château. He is played with droll confidence by the ever-engaging Philippe Noiret, then aged 36. Of course we are not used to seeing Deneuve and Noiret when young like this, so it takes some adjusting to our expectations. The film is in black and white, or as the French say in reverse: blanc et noir. It is difficult to believe that Noiret, who made 153 films and was such a mainstay of the French cinema, died as long ago as 2006. So time passes and carries all away. Mary Marquet is superb as Noiret's bossy and commanding mother, a gentlewoman of the old school who will take no nonsense from anybody, including obnoxious Nazi soldiers billeting themselves in her house. D Day is coming soon, and the Resistance are active in the vicinity of the château, preparing for American paratroopers to drop onto the chateau's lawn. But the Nazis have planted sharp stakes in the ground for any paratroopers to land on. There are many complications and intrigues, but the film is chiefly concerned with the comical antics of the characters, and even the chief Nazi officer billeted in the house becomes a figure of fun. This is a light-hearted film, and the backdrop of the War is seen more as an inconvenience to the lives of the characters than as a tragedy and a danger to the country, no matter in how many intrigues they may be involved. Much of the film is devoted to a romantic comedy based upon three men all infatuated with the tempestuous Deneuve. It is really a lot of fun.

A girl who goes off the rails, 9 February 2017

There have been three films and two novels with the title THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN. (There is also a novel called GIRL ON A TRAIN.) The earlier novel was written by my friend Peter Whitehead, but it has never been filmed. The second novel was made into the third film. Of the three films, this was the first, though its title in French was very different, namely LA FILLE DU RER (THE GIRL OF THE R.E.R.). For those unfamiliar with the underground systems of Paris, there are two. The first is the well-known Metro, which goes short hops a few minutes apart. The second is called the R.E.R. It goes for long distances between a few main stops and extends way out to the far suburbs, being a genuine rapid transit system for commuters. So the girl of this story is not really on a train per se, she is merely on a commuter service which starts overground and goes underground when it reaches the centre of Paris. Four years later, a less well known film of the title was made in America, with its action commencing at New York's Grand Central Station. And in 2016, a British film of this title was made with Emily Blunt, which has had a considerable commercial success and is the best known of the three. This one is a brilliantly made film by that old pro, André Téchiné. He directs films as effortlessly as water flows under a bridge. But that is not to say that the film is wholly satisfying. The script is very good, but the story conception is somewhat perplexing, with insufficient background information. Hence it lacks focus, unlike the cameras.The director presumably must have wanted to make a film which remained enigmatic and suggestive, leaving us guessing about the layers beneath. That must have been his intention, and in that he succeeded. But is that really effective? The central character in the film is a very young woman, really still a girl, who is 'all mixed up', to say the least of it. No effort is made to get us to sympathise with her, nor is any made to get us to dislike her. We are meant to be puzzled observers. It is clear from the very beginning that she is wilful, foolish, pig-headed, and astonishingly stupid. She has a vague childlike charm, but she also can snarl and pout at the drop of a hat. Her father was an Army officer who was killed in battle in Afghanistan when she was 5, and she has been raised by a rather aloof mother, played by France's leading ice queen, Catherine Deneuve. Deneuve shows a surprising amount of diffused and unfocused sympathy, clearly trying hard to love her child but finding it difficult. The daughter tells her very sinister drug-dealer boyfriend that she and her mother are so close that they are 'inseparable', but that is merely one of the girl's many disembodied fantasies. She wants to be loved but is not at all discriminating about who might do so. In other words, she is a lost young soul wandering the world, dressed only in a smile. The girl is played to perfection by an extremely talented young Belgian actress, Émilie Dequenne, who at 28 looked and behaved younger. She played Valentine in the 2006 film of LE GRAND MEAULNES. The girl inexplicably goes to pieces and fabricates a sensational tale of having been assaulted by anti-Semites while travelling on the RER. Before boarding it, she had cut herself with a knife to make a gash on her face, cut off part of her hair, and drawn swastikas (as it happens, the wrong way round) on her stomach. She then goes to the police and claims this was all done to her by neo-fascist yobs. This causes a scandal in the press and even the President of the Republic issues a statement of sympathy for her. But then her story unravels when it is realized that she made it all up. She does not appear to realize why she did this, nor can anyone else figure it out. She is not even Jewish. The story is far more complicated than this, and involves penetrating studies of several characters, resulting in a tapestry portrait of some intersecting lives and groups of people constituting a haphazard milieu, all of whom are in their own ways deeply perplexing. So I suppose the director wanted us to know just how strange everyone really is. I believe him.

The Schnozzle Does His Stuff, 8 February 2017

No, this is not a film about explosions, unless they are of laughter. It is an amusing thirties comedy set in New York, starring 'the Schnozzle' (thirties slang for 'big nose'), as Jimmy Durante was affectionately called by his fans. His extreme Brooklyn accent is made more extreme by his over-pronouncing of it, and he gets all his words wrong and says everything in as ungrammatical and incorrect a manner as inhumanly possible, giving rise to many laughs. He and his fellow actors crack a lot of gags. My favourite for this film is when Durante says, unaware of the contradiction: 'I have a verbal contract, and I'm gonna sign it!' Durante specialised in being what the English would call 'dotty and eccentric', and he was a wonderful comic singer as well. The glamour gal for the film is the Mexican actress Lupe Velez, who was highly successful at the time and became known as 'the Mexican spitfire'. She was not much of an actress, but she conveyed a lot of useful jollity and could do a good vamp, as well as sing. Her life ended tragically when she committed suicide at the age of 36, having been dumped in turn by her lover Gary Cooper and her husband Johnny Weissmuller ('Tarzan') and turned to drink, drugs, and depression. She made another comedy with Durante in this same year, THE GREAT SCHNOZZLE. The story for this film is flimsy, but suffices as a skeletal framework for typical Durante nonsense. A young writer with big ideas about himself and no sense of humour at all (hence a good foil for Durante), played by Norman Foster, is urged by his wife to start writing for radio. Durante plays a famous radio star. It is difficult for people these days to imagine, but radio was BIG back then, before television existed, and it was stuffed full of excellent live drama and comedy shows. Foster cannot even understand gags, much less write them, but he ends up writing them for Durante by stealing them from old joke books and modernising them. This satirizes what was a standard practice amongst the top gag writers such as Mark Hellinger and his proteges, who routinely strip-minded old jokes from PUNCH and other such sources. (I know this for a fact because I knew some old-time gag writers personally, who told me.) This was however such an 'in' joke that only the professional gag writers watching the film themselves would fully have 'got' it. Foster fancies himself as something of an intellectual, and more satire raises its lovely head when he starts talking to the uneducated show people about the French philosopher Henri Bergson's book LAUGHTER: AN ESSAY ON THE MEANING OF THE COMIC (London, 1911), being an English translation of the French original LE RIRE (1900). But this is a double satire, as having read that book, I can assure people that Bergson had just about as much of a sense of humour as Foster in this film, and I wonder if Bergson ever actually laughed at a joke himself in his life. Here is a sample sentence from Bergson's book: 'We have studied the comic element in forms, in attitudes, and in movements generally; now let us look for it in actions and in situations.' You get the picture, and yes, I have the book right beside me. But no, it is not funny. Another interesting thing I noticed about the film is that two dinners take place in Sardi's Restaurant in New York, but its name is never mentioned. I suppose that observation qualifies under the label of 'Trivia'. The story has its ups and its downs and its twists and its turns and it lasts for 71 minutes, and hey ho.

Chocolat (2016)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
A superb and tragic tale of France's first black clown, 9 January 2017

This is a terrific film, with superb performances and direction, based upon the amazing but tragic true life story of Rafael Padilla, known as 'Chocolat', a black colonial slave who escaped to France as a child and became famous there as a circus clown. The director is Roschdy Zem, a well known actor in France who has only directed four films. He directs this film with such thorough professionalism that one could readily believe that he had really directed forty rather than four. The two lead actors are Omar Sy (that being a Senegalese surname, but he was born in France), who plays Chocolat, and James Thiérrée, who plays the older clown who discovers him, trains him, and becomes his partner, known as Footit. I must point out immediately that this is the same James Thiérrée who is such a genius stage performer, who tours the world with astounding surrealistic circus acts, and is perhaps the most highly regarded person of his kind in the world. He is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin and looks exactly like him (I mean Chaplin in real life, not 'the Little Tramp'). I first saw James and his sister Aurélie (another well known solo performer now) perform onstage when they were tiny children, appearing with their parents, Victoria Chaplin and Jean-Baptiste Thiérrée. Of all the Chaplin children, Victoria is the one who carried on the pure Chaplin talents for mime and acrobatics with the utmost genius, and her son has even surpassed her. Victoria's most astonishing feat in her own touring circus act was to fold herself up so that she could be shut into a moderately-sized suitcase! They really are an amazing family (and in Victoria's case, easy perhaps to take on holiday in the baggage rack). But Victoria and her husband are very, very private. They do not mix in the Paris world of celebs at all, and when I first had to contact her about something, two Paris celebs who 'knew everybody' and I thought could help me find her told me 'No one knows them.' James however seems to have an infinite number of friends who cluster around him enthusiastically, smothering him with admiration and bonhomie. He shows no signs of being surly or grumpy in his person, so it is all the more remarkable how wholly convincing he is in this film as Footit, a man who was always depressing and surly. In other words, James is a superb actor as well as everything else that he is. Omar Sy is magnificent as Chocolat, as he effortlessly glides between pathos and wild slapstick comedy. He too is a leading talent in France. So the film works, and comes together extremely well. Because James and Omar Sy are naturally practised and skilled at what they are doing, their circus acts are incredible. James not only plays someone who is, but himself is, a thorough circus pro who can do anything and everything, and has done so in public since at least the age of five or six. He can do clowning, acrobatics, high wire, trapeeze, mime, you name it. And he writes and plans and directs all his own shows with his small troupe. He is what is called THE REAL THING, and so is this film.

Ever upwards, 9 January 2017

This French film entitled in English THE WOMAN WHO DARED has the original title of LE CIEL EST A VOUS (THE SKY IS YOURS). A screen card at the beginning of the original version says it is based on real events which took place in 1937, though no one seems to know what those were. In any case, the story is set in the late thirties in France. The film is directed by the much-revered French director of yesteryear, Jean Grémillon. He directs at a leisurely pace and is in no hurry to cut out the expository parts of early scenes in order to get a move on. He likes to lay the groundwork of his story in a languid fashion. The film was made under the German Occupation of France, and all such films have aroused both suspicion and hostility, many who made them were accused of being collaborators, and some genuinely were. Charles Vanel is wonderful as a mild, tolerant husband to a fiery younger wife, played by Madeleine Renaud with her usual flair. Vanel's character had worked as an engine mechanic for a famous fighter pilot in World War One. He has now become an expert auto mechanic in a small garage and struggles to make a living. Unpredictable events lead to his elevation to a better paying status, and his wife gets a well-paying job too away from home. He has secretly been piloting planes at the local aerodrome, his wife finds out and is horrified and forbids him to continue, to which he reluctantly complies. (She is a real tyrant and forbids her daughter to continue taking piano lessons when her piano teacher has the effrontery to suggest that the daughter is so talented that she should go to a Conservatoire of music and become professional; the mother wants her to earn money, not become artistic.) Suddenly, Renaud becomes infatuated herself with flying and she too becomes a pilot. Husband and wife get really carried away and adapt their plane for long-range flights so that the wife can attempt to beat the world ladies' record for solo distance flying (which at the moment stood at 2500 kilometres). With no money and no support, having sunk every penny of borrowings into their new improved plane, they enter the competition. I must not say what happens then, but she does indeed qualify to be called 'the woman who dared' and the original title of the film is absolutely right.

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