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Noir - in all its colours
This is a mish-mash where the original cynical Marlowe of the late 40s meets the laid-back and careworn private detective of the 60s. We move from all those shadows that dominated the noir films to the bright lights of the swinging 60s. And it doesn't really work; nor should it. To me, it comes over more as a satire on the originals with plenty of good one-liners and a surreal couple of scenes with Bruce Lee.
The storyline is too complex to set out here and I suspect there will be many differing versions of just what the story actually is. Not that that matters too much as I think it may be better simply to see it as a satire or, perhaps, a parody.
Gayle Hunnicutt was out of place although Rita Moreno maybe makes up for that. Garner is, well, Garner. See it as a curiosity rather than as something that is important or significant in the history of film.
Good - but not great
Given the somewhat clichéd and thin storyline (from a short story rather than a novel), the film just about hold up. This seems to be due to Negulesco's balancing act between some of the overwrought passions and the basic telling of the story.
Joan Crawford came to this following on from her Oscar-winning success in "Mildred Pierce". No doubt she, and the studio, thought that this would be "her" film. But John Garfield's performance actually overshadows Crawford; may this be a testament to method acting? I found it difficult to muscle up much sympathy for either of the main characters and this probably accounts for my comparatively Luke-warm conclusion. Both characters seemed devoid of any humour but fortunately we have Oscar Levant's one-liners to relieve some of the emotional tension. The extensive music performed in the film will be a plus for many, especially as much of it is from the Romantic era of classical music.
It's certainly worth watching if you're interested in film history; if you're not then I suggest you wait for a wet Sunday afternoon when it's on TV.
I must confess to approaching Camille with some trepidation. The story had been done so many times in opera, theatre and cinema that my question was simple.What would MGM bring to the party that others hadn't, especially in those years between the Depression, the growth of fascism in Europe and the outbreak of World War II? The answer is, of course, a wonderful cast, great direction and sumptuous sets and costumes. My fears that this would be given an overly-sentimental Hollywood treacle treatment were wholly unfounded. It was interesting to see how the film gets the message across that Marguerite is a courtesan ("hooker" just sounds too down and dirty for Garbo!). No overt mention of her trade is made in the dialogue although in the titles we are informed that these women are "girls of discretion". But the way Garbo moves, reacts to events and speaks leaves us in no little doubt as to her profession.
Robert Taylor plays a touching Armand, Henry Daniell is outstanding as the Baron and Lionel Barrymore skilfully manages a blend of severity and compassion in the comparatively short, but crucial, scene in which he appears with Garbo.
Any downsides? Well,maybe a scene or two could have been shorter, or even excluded but this is a minor issue. Not quite a masterpiece but essential viewing for anyone interested in the history of film.
La strada (1954)
Is it really that good?
It's always risky to write a critical review of a revered film that is over 50 years old (or, these days, over 5 years old!). But I do wonder about La Strada. On the face of it, a film that folds us into its inner content, of poverty and hope, but from this distance does it not all seem rather contrived? The two main protagonists are so opposites that they never come close- so how to deal with their relationship? As David Thomson (2008) says in his short essay on this film 'it's my hunch that not many people could endure La Strada today without some numbing potion'. The key character in the film seems to be the "fool" - a far more interesting person than either the Quinn or Masina characters. Gelsomina (Masina) is a simpleton and although we might love her to bits (mainly because of her innocence and her smile), she remains just that - a simpleton. Zampano is a simple male bully who needs no sympathy from us - not even at the end.
In the 1950s I can see that this was breaking new ground and, as such, is to be admired. But does it hold today? I doubt it given the extreme (and characterised) positions of the two chief protagonists.
La route de Corinthe (1967)
All Greek to me
Add Seberg and Greece to Chabrol and you'd expect something to sizzle. Unfortunately sizzle is not quite the right word - damp squib, maybe? The plot, such as it is, has been well set out by others so I won't rehash that. Whilst the story and the events are ridiculous, there is, nevertheless, a certain style here. The opening scene, where a magician enters Greece and the Greek border guards find the incriminating goods, promises a good film (I understand that this scene was cut from the version originally shown in the UK - as it's one of the best scenes goodness knows what it must have been like watching it back then). But sadly it's all downhill from there although the style and flair are still there. Who could fail to admire the dapper, but ruthless, killer in his white suit, white shirt, red tie and matching red-banded straw boater? Fortunately Chabrol returned to more masterful output a year later with "Les Biches", a film that is so far removed from this it's hard to believe it's the same director.
And who on earth dreamt up the dumb English language title for the US release? Surely "The Road to Corinth" would have worked.
A late Truffaut misfire
As an admirer of French cinema I came to this with high hopes. Sadly, they were not justified. This is a miserable experience concerned only with a dismal 41-year old man who seems incapable of loving but only of lusting. And the women seem equally bland and lacking in charm and affection once you cut past their external beauty. It's difficult to admire a film when virtually none of the characters justifies sympathy. In fact the only person in the film who I felt any sympathy with was the typist who undertook writing up the book; at least she got out before the end.
The structure doesn't help. I can deal with a flashback approach (the film starts with our "hero's" funeral), but then we get flashbacks within flashbacks, including some rather contrived pieces of early childhood and mother-son relationship. This led to some confusion about chronology although, to be honest, by that time I had lost the sort of interest that I always had for his earlier work.
Maybe Truffaut, who was himself rather fond of women, felt there was some autobiographical element in the story; or maybe he was trying to justify his earlier experiences with women. Either way it was a disappointment.
Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982)
Of the genre - could be worse
I'm not a fan of the teenage/high school genre, which seems to be a uniquely American thing. Thus I approached this with some trepidation and whilst my worst fears were not confirmed I remain unconvinced about the genre.
There is little by way of plot; just a few months in the lives of the characters who range across the usual types to be found in this type of film. As with teen movies the focus is firmly on the males - they are the only ones allowed any variation of character. The girls always seem to be the same one-dimensional cardboard cutouts whilst the males are allowed to range from crazy to lazy and nerdish to pervish. In particular, the scenes immediately before and after a visit to the abortion clinic suggest that undergoing such a process leaves no physical or mental scars and is about on a par with a visit to the dentist for a check-up. Thus it's fair to say that the film is sexist - surprising given that it's directed by a woman.
On the upside there are some good lines - particularly the comment about romance in Ridgemont: "In Ridgemont? It's not even easy to get cable TV in Ridgemont" (or something like that). And Sean Penn makes the whole thing tolerable.
Is age and generation something to do with appreciating this type of film? I am a great fan of "American Graffiti" - it's more or less my generation. And why did I find myself rooting for Mr Hand in his battle with Scipoli?! I tend to follow Roger Ebert's and James Berardinelli's reviews and it's interesting to compare them on this film as they usually tend to have similar reactions. Berardinelli was fine with it seeing it as a reflection of his own generation, whilst Ebert hated it. And, of course, Ebert is from a much earlier generation.
If you have 90 minutes and time is hanging heavy then you could do worse (unless, I suspect, you are an American at high school in the eighties in which case you'll probably appreciate it much more).
Pass the zimmer frame, nurse.
Land and Freedom (1995)
Politically and cinematic ally mature
It is, perhaps, surprising that more films about the Spanish Civil War haven't been made. The Spanish landscape, the sheer ruthlessness of any civil war, and the perceived Spanish emotions all combine to make what would appear to be an attractive proposition for a film-maker. The names of Picasso and Lorca will forever have an association with the war, yet where are the artists representing cinema? All the more surprising then that it should have been British director Ken Loach who took up the cudgels. Loach is probably best known for his gritty portrayals of the British working class (and under-class), something that has, perhaps, made him more approachable outside his own country.
In tackling the Spanish Civil War any writer is faced with the overwhelming complexities that underlie the events. The regionalism (think only of the Catalan and Basque regions, let alone Galicia and Andalusia), the monarchy, the Catholic Church, landowners, trade unions, anarchists plus the leaderships of the Nationalist and Republican movements all combined to create a very tangled web. Add to that outside involvement, principally from Mussolini and Stalin, the vacillation of Britain and France and, of course, the omnipresence of Hitler, and anyone might wonder where to start.
Loach and Allen take their approach through the eyes of an unemployed Liverpudlian, David Carr (admirably played by Ian Hart) who, as a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, answers the call to fight for the Republic. We follow his exploits through a number of episodes, involving battles, falling in love, injury and, ultimately, a degree of disillusion as the reality of Stalin's views eventually come to dominate, and eventually destroy, his cause. The film is supremely well-made, highlighting the horrors, the camaraderie, and the political divisions. In particular, the debate amongst the militia about collectivisation after they have taken a small town takes no sides, but simply allows a number of valid arguments to be exposed within the context of the shifting sands of the war.
There is still ample material for the industry to go on to make more films on this important period in history. But Loach has set the benchmark.
Extreme Measures (1996)
An uneasy blend of thriller and morality
The dilemma that underpins this is whether or not it is right to sacrifice a few for the good of many, particularly when the "few" are represented by New York homeless down-and-outs, and the "many" by wheelchair bound accident victims. In tackling this dilemma a number of cinematic options are open and here the makers opt for the thriller genre rather than a story woven around personal tragedy. But in so doing the moral dilemma tends to take a back seat in order that the thriller approach can grab the audience's attention.
Dr Luthan (Grant) is a bright up-and-coming doctor working in the Emergency Room of Grammercy Hospital in New York. Gunshot wound and drug overdose victims are staple diet for this ER but Luthan's curiosity gets the better of him when one of his patients dies in mysterious circumstances. His subsequent investigation of this death see him drawn into a murky world equivalent to that of good old-fashioned body-snatching. Indeed, even the two police officers he comes up against are Messrs Burke and Hare!
His pursuits lead him into all manner of personal and career crises as he descends (literally) into the Hell beneath the city streets. This leads to his eventual showdown with Dr Myrick (Hackman) who has his own ideas about conducting medical research. And here we are presented with the moral question - to what extent should it be permissible to sacrifice the few for the many? It's also at this point that the use of the thriller genre as a vehicle for the moral question comes a bit unstuck. We have been rooting for Luthan throughout as he overcomes one difficulty after another and, as a result, it is difficult not to side with him when it comes to resolution of the moral questions. Although some efforts are made to help convey Myrick's viewpoint they are really shoe-horned into the scene in which the two doctors come up against each other on level terms. Here the audience is clubbed about the ears with Myrick's viewpoint, a viewpoint rather heavy-handedly reinforced by the presence of his pretty wheelchair-bound assistant.
The ending sees Luthan symbolically ascending the steps to his own "Promised Land", in sharp contrast to his earlier escapades in the nether world. Overall the film was not a bad attempt at involving its audience in the underlying morality issue. But the thriller format and the consequent need, in such circumstances, to have the audience firmly on one side, obscured objective consideration of the issues.
The performances in the main were excellent. Gene Hackman played a very cool and balanced Dr Myrick in such a way that although we are never sympathetic to him, we do recognise his intentions are good - the problem is with the means. Of Hugh Grant, what can be said? He again plays, well, Hugh Grant. He looks more like an amiable, slightly detached Notting Hill bookseller than an overworked ER doctor - but he does so in all his films! David Morse deserves a special mention for his mean portrayal of Hare (of Burke and Hare fame). The direction is well-paced and in the whole thing treats its audience with respect.
Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999)
The laughs come too cheap
Most forms of entertainment render themselves liable to satire when performances are made into a competition. The music world satirises itself with the annual Eurovision Song Contest, an event which has achieved almost cult status through its sheer awfulness. Competitive ballroom dancing was beautifully targeted in "Strictly Ballroom" and the teen beauty pageant has been dealt with in Michael Ritchie's "Smile".
"Drop Dead Gorgeous", in attempting a further shy at the teen pageant business, goes for an in-your-face, sledgehammer approach. It's a mix of slapstick and odd characters, most of whom suffer from problems such as anorexia, obesity, paranoia and mental retardation. Given this line-up the laughs are inevitably bought at very low cost. That's not to say that there aren't some really funny moments (Becky Leeman's grotesque performance with a stuffed Christ attached to the Cross is but one). But such genuine comedy moments occur only in patches.
Once a couple of the "bad" characters are dealt with about two-thirds of the way through the rest of the film becomes a desperate search for the inevitable ending in which good must prevail over bad. Throughout all this the performance of Allison Janney shines out. She steals every scene she's in, portraying a character not a thousand miles removed from that of Joanna Lumley in TV's "Absolutely Fabulous".
The laughs are there, but often only because the targets are so soft. By the benchmarks of "Smile" or "Strictly Ballroom" this falls short.