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A period piece identity thriller, 22 October 2014

This is a charming period piece, made just before the War in Britain. Much of it was filmed in Hyde Park, both during the day and at night time, and there are some interesting shots of pre-War London. The film is an 'identity thriller' about a man who is depressed at his failure in life, and who changes identities with a man he finds lying dead in a forest. However, as is often the case with these identity switch dramas, the man whom he 'becomes' is a criminal, and things go very badly, with many dangerous situations. Robert Newton plays the lead. The character is meant to be overly excitable, verging continuously on hysteria, but in my opinion, Newton over-acts in the part. The film is known under two titles, its original being DEAD MEN ARE DANGEROUS, later changed to DANGEROUS MASQUERADE. It was the second feature film directed by Harold French, his next being THE HOUSE OF THE ARROW (1940), which I did not bother to review, as it was not very good. By 1942, French had become a much better director, and directed the wartime classic UNPUBLISHED STORY (1942, see my review). In 1952, he directed a Simenon tale, THE Paris EXPRESS (see my review), and in 1955 he directed THE MAN WHO LOVED REDHEADS, which was very disappointing and mediocre (see my review). It seems that his QUIET WEEKEND (1946) is a very good film, but I have not been able to obtain a copy. One of the fine performances in DEAD MEN ARE DANGEROUS is the maid Gladys, played by Merle Tottenham, a delightful character actress. The girl Newton is in love with but is too proud to marry because she is rich and he is poor is played by Betty Lynne, a nice English girl with a sweet smile and good manners who represented all that was desirable in thirties Britain. This film is good for a rainy afternoon to those who do not demand too much of old English movies.

Spectacularly brilliant and highly sophisticated thriller by Iain Softley, 18 September 2014

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

Iain Softley is one of the most original and talented of all British film directors. He has directed so many astonishing films that one's mind has long been boggled by them. There was K-PAX (2001, see my review), a film which entered another dimension and got the best out of Kevin Spacey. Softley's first film was the excellent BACKBEAT (1994), followed by the innovative and gripping HACKERS (1995), where the young Angelina Jolie pushed the envelope. And then there was the wonderful Henry James adaptation, THE WINGS OF THE DOVE (1997). All of these were first rate films. And now he has made a masterpiece of modern film noir, based on a French novel by Sebastien Japrisot, from which Softley has written the screenplay himself. Japrisot (pen name and anagram of Jean-Baptise Rossi) is a well known writer, one of whose novels gave us A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT (aka UN LONG DIMANCHE DE FIANCAILLES, 2004) with Audrey Tautou and Jodie Foster, and he also wrote THE CHILDREN OF THE MARSHLAND (aka LES ENFANTS DU MARAIS, 1999), which is very difficult to find with subtitles but is well worth the search and, I fear, the price. This film is based on his novel PIEGE POUR CENDRILLON, which was filmed previously in 1965, though no review of it exists on IMDb. The earlier version was scripted jointly by the author and the famous playwright Jean Anouilh, along with the director, Andre Cayatte. Not having seen the earlier film or read the novel, I cannot speak of their endings. Nor do I intend to reveal the ending of this film, except to point out that it is not to be found within the film itself. That may sound like a contradiction, but let me explain. I have never seen, in all the mystery films I have watched over the years, a film constructed in such a way that the viewer is intentionally left to figure out the ultimate mystery of the film himself or herself, after the film ostensibly ended. All of the evidence is there, and the director throws down the challenge to the viewer as if to say: I have hidden the answer in plain sight, now will you open your eyes please? Really, that is such an exquisitely sophisticated thing to do that I am full of admiration. In a way, you could say that this film is a classic intelligence test. But we are not talking about any old whodunit, this is a psychological thriller par excellence. The main characters are two girls who have known each other since childhood. One is beautiful, rich and a raver, and the other is demure, attractive without being beautiful, doting, dependent, adoring of her friend, and tending towards madness. In fact, both girls are tending towards madness, and in their case, one plus one makes ten. The actresses playing the girls are simply spectacular. The more amazing performance of the two is that by Alexandra Roach. She has such sensitivity that she is like a violin that plays itself simply by being hung up on a peg in the wind, free to vibrate in a series of harmonies and disharmonies, as each scene requires and as the wind of the story blows. She plays the dependent friend, named Domenica Law, who is called 'Do'. Her performance is the key, and makes the whole film work. One can imagine other actresses playing the other girl, but I can think of no other actress who could have played 'Do' so well. The other lead actress has the charming name of Tuppence Middleton. She must have had very whimsical parents and endured a great many jokes about her name at school. She is certainly worth more than that. Miss Two Pennies has a special quality of what I would call 'languid allure'. This works very well in the quieter moments of her performance, and when she is meant to be raving, she ceases to be languid and becomes frenetic instead. The end result is a nicely balanced portrayal of a girl on the edge. Kerry Fox plays a sinister and enigmatic protectress, who may be a mantis. The study of the intimate friendship between two girls who cannot bring themselves to part even though they are wholly incompatible is handled with elegance and sensitivity. Perhaps Iain Softley is really a girl. This is a deeply intriguing, intensely ambiguous and mysterious film with all kinds of resonances, some of them out of the range of hearing but nevertheless efficacious. The film reminds me of Tartini's 'third tone'. And that remark also is an intelligence test.

Lured (1947)
0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Inferior film noir by Douglas Sirk ruined by the casting of Lucille Ball, 15 September 2014

What a pity. Douglas Sirk, such a fine director, must have preferred not to remember this particular film noir which he made, or should I say tried to make. The casting of Lucille Ball in the lead doomed the project from the start. She was purely a comedienne, and with the greatest of effort in this supposedly serious film, she simply could not pull it off and ends up looking stupid. And I hope I do not say that with benefit of hindsight, since I mentally erased I LOVE LUCY from my mind, or tried to do so. Many comedians have done a wonderful job in straight roles, as a result of inspired casting against type. But Lucille Ball is not among that number. The screenplay of this film by Leo Rosten is also very poor. Sirk's direction is not bad, it is the film which is bad. George Sanders goes way over the top with his sinister and lecherous leerings. But then the script suddenly calls for this creep to turn into a prince charming whom Lucille Ball loves, and wants to marry. No continuity comes into this, it is just mandated by the script. Sir Cedric Hardwicke gives probably the best performance in the film, and almost manages to make his scenes work. The film is ostensibly set in London, with the Scotland Yard chief being absurdly played by the 'down home' American actor Charles Coburn, of all things! The film opens with some interesting stock night shots of Piccadilly Circus, with the prominent sign for the Trocadero displayed, but by and large this film is strictly a studio job. The scenes with Boris Karloff enacting insane fantasies are so ridiculous that one wonders whether this whole film was intended as some kind of joke. Don't bother with this one, even if you are a Douglas Sirk fan.

A very courageous and important film which all should see, 15 September 2014

This is possibly the most shocking feature film based upon real events which I have ever seen. As the extras (called 'Bonus') on the DVD make clear, every single episode is based upon events which really happened. The only alterations made in the film were in the conflation of multiple persons into single persons for the sake of dramatic clarity. Every detail of what happens to the girls in the film really happened to the real girls being portrayed. The film is so alarming in the massive and systematic corruption and evil which it exposes, that one's faith in international institutions like the United Nations is completely shattered. No wonder the brilliant female director of the film, Larysa Kondracki, has never directed a feature film again, but only TV episodes for series. Everyone must be absolutely terrified of her! What will she reveal next? The real whistleblower who broke this story to the world, Kathryn Bolkovac, not only really exists, but she is interviewed in the extras. She also is credited twice, as story consultant and at the head of thanks. But Bolkovac (an American of Croatian descent) was thrown out of the United Nations team and has never been able to get a job with any international agency again, because of the internal horrors which she exposed. This is all too familiar, as everyone in today's world who dares to tell the truth or tries to expose corruption is relentlessly hounded and persecuted, but never rewarded or praised. So corrupt has our world of today become. I would go so far as to say that the world has never in its entire history been as corrupt as it is now, and that is really saying something, considering what we know from history. Rachel Weisz plays Bolkovac, the lead character in the film, and it may be her finest performance. This film stimulated the people making it to rise to a high level because they all shared the same outrage at the events being portrayed. Vanessa Redgrave plays an honest United Nations Commissioner, and the real woman whom she portrays and who supported Bolkovac's whistleblowing is also interviewed in the extras on the DVD. The film was a Canadian-German co-production, probably because no one connected with the United States would touch it, as the corruption exposed was mostly amongst Americans working for the U.N. The film is mostly set in Bosnia, and Romania was used as the shooting location for that. Monica Bellucci plays a shifty UN executive who compromises other people's lives away in the bureaucratic battles inside the U.N. The Romanian actress Roxana Condurache who plays the girl Raya in this film is due to play Lauren Bacall in the forthcoming film BOGIE AND BACALL, due to shoot next year. That is highly appropriate, considering that Lauren Bacall was a Romanian Jew. All the acting in this film is high intensity and mesmerising. The direction is superb. The director, Kondracki, is a Canadian of Ukrainian descent. (For those who do not know, Canada has had a large number of Ukrainian immigrants living there for decades, the first of them to enter the Hollywood film scene having been actor Jack Palance (1919-2006), who is still very much a hero to the Canadian Ukrainian community.) Kondracki and writer Ellis Kirwan worked for years on this project, researching the subject, interviewing survivors and witnesses, and spending time with the real life Bolkovac. I believe the budget for this film was only a tiny $6 million. Everyone pitched in to make this film on a shoestring because they believed in it and the importance of its message getting across to the public. I suspect that many people worked on it for next to nothing. It is a magnificent and mind-boggling achievement, of the highest professional standard and level of excitement and intense nail-biting drama. Everyone involved can be proud. As for the subject matter and the story, I tremble to relate the full horror of it. As I write this, a scandal of 1400 young girls having been raped within about five years by gangs in Rotherham, a single town in Britain, has recently come to light, and the collusion of many police and council officials and others in authority has been headline news. But so far none of those officials has suffered any disciplinary action. So what is related in this film is eerily prescient. What the film shows is the systematic abuse of huge numbers of kidnapped girls who have been turned into sex slaves by human traffickers. But the worst part of it is that this was done in collusion with large numbers of United Nations personnel, mostly Americans. Most of them were working for a private company given the fictional name of Democra in the film, which later makes it plain that the real company went on to enjoy contracts worth billions in Iraq and Afghanistan. It does not take a great deal of imagination to work out what company it is. This wicked outsourcing of military work to private contractors by governments and international agencies is an open invitation to abuses of the worst kind, and raping, torturing, and even killing young girls who have been sold into slavery is just about as bad as it gets. That is what this film is about. Furthermore, none of the real persons was ever charged or imprisoned. The incidents all took place in Bosnia after the end of the war there, when the UN 'peacekeepers', or should I say gang rapists, were enjoying their diplomatic immunity to do any illegal thing they wanted, including taking an active part in the human trafficking and smuggling of girls in U.N. transport across borders. And remember this: no one was punished. Just think about that. The brave Kathryn Bolkovac deserves a medal. So does Elysa Kondracki. But when are we going to do something to stop these nightmarish crimes?

A good yarn, well knitted, 15 September 2014

This is a very intriguing and under-rated British film. It concerns a 'top of the charts' pop singer named Phoenix Blue whom no one has ever seen, and we discover in the film that he lives mysteriously on a large yacht as a kind of fugitive. He records his music on the boat and his contracts are negotiated by personal managers. The part of the pop singer is played very well by James Murray. His voice is excellently dubbed by the singer and songwriter Jeremy Randall, who wrote very good songs for the film. So the pop singing is of sufficient quality to make the story believable. It seems a shame that Jeremy Randall has not himself come anywhere near to reaching the top since the film was made, considering that he has so much talent. But we now live in an age where talent is not the main thing required to succeed, and where excellent ballads and singing ability are no guarantee of distribution and recognition. I recall this film making something of a splash when it came out, with some enthusiastic reviews, but there did not appear to be much follow-up or sufficient promotion. The film was written and directed by Tony Maylam, a talented director whose rise was also thwarted by factors unknown. This was his last feature film except for JOURNAL OF A CONTRACT KILLER in 2008, and Maylam seems to have endured the same fate as Randall, namely being ignored. But then there are plenty of people of talent in the same boat, alas. The female lead is played by the pert and endearing Emily Hamilton, who is perfectly cast as a determined elf of a girl journalist who will simply not stop trying to solve the Phoenix Blue mystery, despite the fact that it becomes physically dangerous and her life is at risk. Amanda Donohoe is chillingly sinister in her role as the dishonest lover and 'protector' of Phoenix Blue, whom she has fooled into believing that he is wanted by the police as well as a vicious gangster who has 'put a contract out on him', so that he is guarded at all moments and hardly dare leave his boat. His one passion, apart from music, is deep diving on a single breath, a weird sport of which we see a lot in the film. The film was shot in London and on location at Grand Cayman, and there is lots of white sand and blue sea and James Murray in flippers. The yacht has a crew of 18 people. What a lot of money some people waste! A new condition DVD of this rare film now costs £48.34, though a second-hand one is about seven pounds. This film could do with being 'currently available', and certainly deserves to be seen more widely.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Sodom and Gomorrah times one hundred, disgusting beyond words, 2 September 2014

Has Martin Scorsese gone mad? Some people try to excuse him by saying that this film is a black comedy. Black it is, beyond imagination, but despite some comic moments, it is no comedy. It is a disgrace, and such things should never be put on the screen. It is the most disgusting mainstream film I have ever seen. (I'm sure there is much worse in the porno world, but I do not watch such rubbish.) People might say, 'but Scorsese is so clever and talented, and Leonardo diCaprio gives such a brilliant performance!' True, but no excuse. It doesn't matter how brilliant your performance is if it takes place in a pile of excrement like this. Can diCaprio ever wash the contamination off? I wonder. And it does not matter how clever you are as a director, if you direct something this disgusting, you deserve contempt for what you have done. Dante would hurl both of these men into the lowest rung of his Inferno as punishment for making this film, and they would both deserve to stay there.

Il Posto (1961)
A late Italian Neo-realist masterpiece, of exquisite sensitivity, 2 September 2014

This is a marvel of film-making, Director Ermanno Olmi, following in the Neo-realist mode of his predecessor Roberto Rossellini, made this as only his second feature film (his first, TIME STOOD STILL, of 1959, is little known, though apparently excellent; it appears to be unavailable with English subtitles). This film has no frills. It is a brilliantly evocative 'fly on the wall' observation of what it was like at that time in Milan to try to find and retain employment. The sadness, the disappointments, the heartache, the bullying, the exploitation are all observed without comment. The two central performances are by Sandro Panseri as the boy Domenico and Loredana Detto as the girl Anotnietta, both seeking their first jobs, and both ending up at the same huge company where they work in separate buildings and essentially never see each other again, despite having bonded and formed the beginnings of a romance. Panseri's innocent and naked performance is positively inspired, but after appearing in two further films over the subsequent four years, he retired from acting, and today apparently manages a supermarket in Milan. Loredana Detto never acted again, but she married Olmi in 1963, and they have three children. The script for this film was jointly written by Olmi and someone named Ettore Lombardo, who never wrote anything for the cinema again. (One might make a mystery film about what happened to the people involved with Olmi in this film, and call it THE CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING TALENT.) The delicacy of Olmi's handling of this film is miraculous. He realizes the Neo-realist ideal to its full. He gets as 'close to life' as one can reasonably get without being personally involved, and he observes what is happening as if he were an invisible angel monitoring human activity with a helpless sense of melancholy (remember Wim Wenders's WINGS OF DESIRE, 1987, which may have been partially inspired by this earlier style of film-making by the Italians, as Wenders is such a knowledgeable film historian). This film is infinitely sad, but then so is Life.

2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
A superb film noir by Nicholas Ray, 1 September 2014

This was Nicholas Ray's third film, but he was already a master of his craft, as he had shown clearly in his very first film the year before, THEY LIVE BY NIGHT (1948). This film is based upon the novel MORTGAGE ON LIFE by Vicki Baum, and the screenplay by Herman Mankiewicz (brother of Joe, uncle of Tom, whom I knew slightly) sparkles with witty lines and lively dialogue. Herman died less than four years later at the age of only 55; he had written the original screenplay for CITIZEN KANE in 1941. This film has spectacular performances from Maureen O'Hara, Melvyn Douglas, and Gloria Grahame. Both gals play singers. There was a singing double, Kaye Lorraine (uncredited), who dubbed Gloria Grahame's voice. But watching Grahame sing the hit song 'Paradise', whoever's voice it was, is such a great moment that it is worth seeing the film just for that. 'Paradise' originally came out in 1931 and was one of the best songs of the period, and has been recorded by many famous singers, but nobody ever 'delivered' it like Grahame. The story is a good mystery. Grahame is shot early in the film and Maureen O'Hara insists that she did it, but many people suspect that she is only pretending to be guilty, especially as she even refuses a lawyer. Don't worry, Grahame comes back in numerous flashbacks, so we see plenty of her while she is meanwhile lying unconscious in hospital on the verge of death. Ray certainly knew how to get the best performances out of Gloria Grahame, and it was the next year that their joint triumph appeared, aided by Humphrey Bogart of course, IN A LONELY PLACE (1950, see my review), one of the greatest noirs ever made and one of the finest films of its time. Also in that year, Ray added to his list of excellent films noir with BORN TO BE BAD (1950, see my review). These early films of Nicholas Ray are genuine classics, and A WOMAN'S SECRET is not to be missed.

2 out of 2 people found the following review useful:
Rumsfeld remains an unknown known, 29 August 2014

I have rarely been so perplexed by a documentary film as by this one. It is 102 minutes long, and for much of that time Donald Rumsfeld is talking to the director/interviewer Errol Morris. However, despite that, I now feel that I know less about Donald Rumsfeld than I did before I saw the film. I almost preferred him as an unknown unknown to what he now is, an unknown known. Rumsfeld manages to talk endlessly in what appears to be a very candid way, without ever really saying anything. A few salient facts do emerge, but only a few. The most surprising one to me was the revelation that he and George Bush Senior evidently detest one another, although Rumsfeld thinks very highly indeed of 'W'. I also did not realize until I saw this film that Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney are so close, and worked together for so many years, that they are like brothers. However, a slight trace of vanity appeared throughout the film as Rumsfeld was always very careful to describe Cheney on several occasions as 'my deputy'. Just in case little brother got any big ideas about forgetting who was the older brother, I suppose. Cheney was indeed Rumsfeld's deputy for a long time in office. When Cheney became Vice President, it was Cheney who recommended to George W. that Rumsfeld be made Secretary of Defence. So yes, some facts did emerge, and they are interesting. As for Rumsfeld himself, he remains an enigma in the highest degree. I was surprised to discover how astonishingly intelligent Rumsfeld was. One does not normally expect to find that in a public figure. But the most interesting aspect of Rumsfeld's personality is that a sense of ironical whimsicality seems to pervade everything he says, thinks, and does. Those grins that he makes are not normal grins, they are grins at the ironical whimsicality of situations and events. They are an invitation to those watching him to share his sense of irony and delight. Rumsfeld's grins do not say, as most grins do: 'Hello, I'm very friendly,' they say instead: 'Isn't that wonderfully whimsical, and don't you want to grin with me about it?' In other words, Rumsfeld is not like other men. I had no idea that Rumsfeld had commenced working in the executive branch of the Government during the Kennedy Administration, having previously been a congressman. This film says nothing whatever of his business activities, and does not mention his launching of the agricultural chemical spray Roundup upon the world, which in some opinions was an act more serious than the Iraq War, and may cause more deaths (deaths which cannot be defended on any 'just cause' basis, as the cause was only making money). No one could appear to cooperate more in making a film about himself than Donald Rumsfeld did, but the feeling afterwards is that he is a master at appearing to be transparent while all the while surrounding himself in a cloud of ink like an octopus. People often joke about eating Chinese food (in a bad Chinese restaurant), when they consume a lot but feel hungry immediately afterwards. Well! Where is the real meat on Rumsfeld, or is he all grissle? Nor is there any fat to chew on, only snowflakes. This man is a mystery, truly he is.

0 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Very dated and mediocre, 25 August 2014

This is a film based upon Terence Rattigan's play WHO IS SYLVIA, which in turn takes its title from both the original poem by William Shakespeare and its setting to music as a song by Schubert (a song with which my grandfather, a baritone, won much admiration). Rattigan also wrote the screenplay. This is definitely not one of Rattigan's happier moments. The film is ridiculously dated and corny, bordering on a travesty. The story is a simple one: the 'hero' played by John Justin fell in love at first sight at the age of 14 with a girl named Sylvia who had red hair and blue eyes, but he then lost contact with her. For the rest of his life he cheated on his wife and had a mews house in London for trysts with a succession of redheads who reminded him of Sylvia. Pretty silly, really. Harry Andrews plays a butler, Roland Culver has a jolly time playing a pal of Justin's who does the same sort of thing, though not with redheads, Denholm Elliott plays an earnest young son of the older Justin, and Kenneth More does a lively job of satirical narration (we do not see him). Gladys Cooper comes in towards the end with her usual assured style. It is Moira Shearer, seven years on from THE RED SHOES (1948), who plays all the redheads in succession, culminating in one who is a Russian ballet dancer named Olga. As Olga, we watch a great deal of Shearer dancing SLEEPING BEAUTY. Indeed, so much does the camera dwell on Shearer as a dancer, that one nearly forgets the film entirely. (By the way, the set and costume designs for that ballet production are simply appalling, quite a disaster.) This was the last feature film directed by Harold French, who by the way lived to be 100 and died in 1997. He made the excellent UNPUBLISHED STORY thirteen years earlier (1942, see my review). It is a pity that this film is based entirely upon wholly obsolete social codes of a bygone era, that its comedy is tepid, and that it is just not very good.

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