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Romeo & Juliet (2013)
A dummy's reply
Of all the clever-clever barbs fired at the 2013 "Romeo and Juliet", "Shakespeare for Dummies" has probably given the film's detractors the most satisfaction. But, as anyone who has read my user reviews of the 1940 "Pride and Prejudice" and the 1999 "Mansfield Park" will quickly realise, I am no purist as far as literary adaptations for cinema are concerned. I suppose therefore I must be something of a dummy, but a dummy who would like to take the floor to confess to finding this recent version of literature's most famous youth-love-death cocktail rather wonderful. Not that it hasn't been well done before. I haven't seen Castellani's but Zefirelli's later version was a thoroughly worthy attempt, certainly of a standard to raise a question as to whether further interpretations were needed. I experienced serious unease fuelled by all those truly awful reviews before even the opening credits. Give it half an hour perhaps. Not that it started particularly well. A horseback contest between a Montague and Capulet reminded that we might well be entering "Ben Hur" country with all the boredom of that gargantuan epic. I suppose it was the entry of Douglas Booth's Romeo chipping away at a stone figure of Rosaline, his current love, in an artist's workshop that raised more than a glimmer of interest. Was ever a portrayer of the role more handsome! And this coming from a pretty 'straight' viewer! Just imagine his effect on all those Juliets in the audience! I have to admit to finding him the more engaging partner, hardly matched by a no more than pretty Juliet, who rather gabbles her lines and is, well, little more than average school dramatic society material. By now I am aware that I am hardly writing a review of something of a terrific film, so what makes it so outstanding? It can be summed up in the one word - passion. This version concentrates on the lovers to the exclusion of much else such as the groundings humour of Mercutio here played absolutely seriously as is Lesley Manville's pragmatically intelligent Nurse. For once,in Paul Giametti's outstanding portrayal, we can really feel the tragedy of Friar Lawrence's ghastly misguided solution to saving the young lovers which serves to drive the action forward to those tragic deaths presented with such moving intensity. It all culminates in a truly great moment when the young Benvolio clasps the dead lovers hands together. Not Shakespeare but nevertheless a masterstroke. As a bonus we are treated to beautifully shot locations. At one point where the lovers depart from one another on a riverbank the image is ravishing. The main quarrel of its detractors seems to be copious liberties with the playwright's text. There is no question but this is an adaptation in the same way as Kurosawa's "Throne of Blood" and "Ran" both of which are reverenced by cineastes yet contain not a line of Shakespeare. Why all the furious reactions to this version? Remembering the derision than was heaped against Powell and Pressburger's marvellous "Gone to Earth" when it first appeared in the early 1950's but has now achieved deserved recognition, I put it that Carlo's Carlei's "Romeo and Juliet" is possibly a film before its time. Sadly I shall not be around in a few decade's time to say, "I told you so."
Pride and Prejudice (1940)
It isn't Jane, but who cares!
MGM's "Pride and Prejudice" must have been pretty popular cinema-going fare in the '40's. I remember seeing it eight or nine times - not bad going in those days when one didn't have access to a private film collection and had to rely solely on getting ones cinematic "fix" from whatever "dream palace" was on hand. Until the arrival of "The Third Man" it was the film I had watched the most number of times, so much so that I could quote much of the dialogue, especially lines that I believe were not even in the book. I even remember picking up a second hand Collins edition lavishly illustrated with stills of Greer Garson, Laurence Olivier and others. I could not have seen it so many times if I had not enjoyed it. A peep a few evenings back merely reconfirmed that, with very few exceptions, I tend to enjoy what pleased me in those far off years just as much now, in spite of the derision that my many purist friends sometimes shower on me. What does it matter if the costumes are early Victorian rather than Regency, the dialogue more akin to Hollywood screwball than Austen vernacular, many of the characters a good deal more quirky than those that Jane imagined, when the result is such fun. One simply has to forget the original and see this as an entirely different entertainment. I get enormous enjoyment from Mary Boland's outrageously silly Mrs Bennett and Edna May Oliver's gloriously over the top Lady Catherine. Some of the men are possibly more plausible in the Austen sense. Who could take issue with Edmund Gwenn's wisely spoken Mr Bennett. And then there is the great Olivier, who, in a performance of real authority as Darcy, for me, absolutely convinces as a man who has to face up to the eponymous faults of the book's title before gaining his Elizabeth. Greer Garson's performance is not quite in the same class but at least she is endowed with the looks and intelligence that enabled her to go on to stoically face the traumas of the Blitz (Mrs Miniver) and discover radium (Madame Curie). MGM gave its one excursion into Austen country its full production values with sumptuous ball and garden party sequences and a lush score by its in-house composer, Herbert Stothart, which must cover at least three-quarters of the film with its Wagnerian leitmotivs suggesting many of the characters. A score well worth a listen in its own right.
Till Death Us Do Part (1969)
A pleasant surprise
One-off movies based on TV sit-com series seldom work, which is probably the reason there aren't more of them. Generally they fall into the trap of expanding material that sits well in a half-hour slot but when stretched to feature length comes out as interminable even for the fans. "The Inbetweeners Movie" is a classic example of how not to do it. I must admit I approached the 1969 film of "Till Death do us Part" with some trepidation on this score only to finish up with more than a degree of pleasant surprise. Norman Cohen's Alf Garnett saga works well for the very reason it is just that - a saga spanning the second world war before hopping on twenty years. It crams in a tremendous amount, sometimes almost too much. A lengthy sequence in which Alf and his "Scouse git" son-in-law drunkenly attend Britain's World Cup victory seems just an excuse for including some archive newsreel footage. And then there are those monologues such as Alf's church prayer for salvation against being re-housed and his acceptance in a dream of an honour bestowed by "Her Gracious Majesty" that have a silliness bordering on the embarrassing. Not so two deliriously funny sequences, one where the old "moo" joins in a sing-song in a London underground shelter during the blitz, another a riotously drunken wedding celebration that has the energy one finds in the best of Fellini and Ford. Quite some achievement! But possibly the most memorable feature of "Till Death do us Part" is its re-creation of those dusty East End streets during the dark days of the war. In such scenes the film touches on the special.
Hue and Cry (1947)
"Hue and Cry", one of the earliest and freshest of the Ealing comedies, now has that look of what my children and grandchildren call "the olden days" rather than yesteryear. What more fascinating document to capture the look of London in the immediate post war period for historians! Because this is escapist fare no mention is made of the blitz. Bombsites are presented as one vast amusement park where the youngsters of the film cavort and have fun. In Britain during the 'forties filmmakers were going great guns on escaping the studios for interesting locations, albeit, in this case, acres of debris. For a climax the chase was the big thing and what better than bringing the goodies and the baddies together for one massive punch up in a bomb damaged urban landscape, location work that more than makes up for some pretty phony looking studio backdrops in places. "Hue and "Cry" is a hugely enjoyable romp in which a gang of youngsters led by the engagingly cockney Harry Fowler take on and eventually foil a gang of crooks led by laughing mastermind Jack Warner after discovering that their favourite 'penny dreadful' is being used as the means to convey instructions for criminal activities. Because almost everyone enjoyed a caricature in those days, there is the larger than life Alistair Sim to provide that added dimension of playful eccentricity in the person of the innocent writer who is completely unaware of the use to which his stories are being put. It all leads via a scene in the London sewers, predating "The Third Man", to the glorious climax where all the boys of the capital and one girl descend, quite literally in one case, on the baddies. And what better to round it all off than a shot of angelic choirboys, bandaged, black eyed and gap toothed,singing "Oh! for the Wings of a Dove!"
Boogie Nights (1997)
A creative labour of love
"Boogie Nights" is that remarkable achievement, a depiction of particularly ugly goings on made singularly watchable through vibrant direction and the sheer likability of an endearing cast. It's a sort of secular "Pilgrim's Progress" in which we follow the journey of Eddie, a high school dropout and dish-washing nobody to the heights of porn film acting by virtue of his super well-endowed cock, then to the depths as both he and his associates mess their lives up during a period of decline in their industry to a finale that gives just a little peek at their recovery. Clearly influenced by Scorsese (all those exhilarating tracking shots in and out of rooms in single takes) and Altman (the skillful manoeuvring of a large cast), Paul Thomas Anderson has fashioned a great ensemble piece that cleverly balances comedy and violence in a way that is genuinely funny in spite of the often shocking happenings. Burt Reynolds brilliantly plays Jack Horner the porn king who gathers into his entourage a troupe of grotesques that continuously delight. Particularly lovable are Rollergirl who never takes her skates off even when having sex, Julianne Moore who plays the motherly dope addict actress Amber and a remarkably young Philip Seymour Hoffman as the cuddly queer cameraman Scotty who has a crush on Eddie. When Eddie eventually f***s things up by rounding on benefactor Jack, our eyes are cleverly drawn away from the two main foreground protagonists to a distraught Scotty in a background group of onlookers. It's a wonderfully perceptive moment in a film full of small wonders and sometimes greater ones as when Eddie drinking with Jack and another friend, all half immersed in a vat of water at a party declares his chosen stage name to be Dirk Diggler. "I think heaven has sent you here, Dirk Diggler. I think the angels have blessed us all because of you" declares Jack. It is an almost spiritual cry of joy, the climax of what is for Anderson clearly a creative labour of love.
The third of the triumvirate
Ot the three senior directors who dominated the golden age of Japanese cinema, Mikio Naruse is the least known in the West. This could be partly due to the fact that unlike his contemporaries, Mizoguchi and Ozu, his cinematic language was more conventional and less innovative. And yet, if one looks long and hard, it becomes possible to identify stylistic trademarks that could be uniquely his, characters that are forever walking and interiors that are often shot from the centre of a room looking towards a corner. The very title is a metaphor for characters that are drifting their lives away with very little sense of purpose. The tragic couple, Yukiko and Kengo, who met in French Indo-China during the second world war when they were engaged on a forestry project find themselves drifting when they meet up again in a post-war Japan soured with defeat and despair. Generally when we see them they are walking, often through urban landscapes of a Tokyo desolate and scarred by the immediate past. They are always on the move in the manner almost of characters in a road movie to wherever they can travel, be it to a sad holiday resort out of season or a remote island drenched by rain that hardly ever stops. But their relationship is doomed partly because whatever passion they may feel for one another is always curiously out of sync with each other's. Their personalities are also deeply flawed to the extent that neither is able to cope with the social disadvantages of being part of a defeated nation. It has been said that defeat left many professional Japanese men feeling emotionally emasculated. This is certainly true of Kengo. As for Yukika, she has none of the stoicism of Mizoguchi's long suffering female protagonists. Dissatisfaction with her lot has left her whingeing with self pity. ""Floating Clouds" is a deeply pessimistic film in a way that Kurosawa's "The Silent Duel", which deals with a pair of lovers living through the similar period of the immediate aftermath of war, is not. Ultimately Kurosawa's characters come to terms with misfortune in a way that presages a future of some hope. Both films no doubt reflect their directors' widely different temperaments.
Brighton Rock (1947)
Dark goings-on not that far from here
"I never knew the old" Brighton "before the war" with its razor-slashing protectionist race gangs, crooked lawyers and ineffective police. We seldom travelled out of London. "I really got to know it in" those post-war days of safe family holidays by the sea - the excitement of the beach, ice cream sodas on the West Pier, cinemas in the evening.....
(No prize for recognising my reference to the opening of the great film that appeared two years later!)
Part of my fascination with the 1947 "Brighton Rock" is of course affection for a place I grew to love and know so well during the course of many happy vacations with my parents in those far-off days. I was even drawn to eventually settle in a sort of mini-Brighton complete with Regency squares and balconies and the sound of screaming seagulls, 37 miles along the coast to the east. But I digress.....What particularly surprised me on a recent viewing of the film was not only how well it has worn, but the extreme darkness of its nightmare vision of a gangster-ridden society. For a British film of the late '40's it is unusually violent and shot through with a bleakness that outstrips much of the Hollywood noir of the period. Was there ever a more vicious young thug than Richard Attenborough's enormously effective portrayal of the 17 year old Pinkie Brown who runs his protectionist racket from a seedy backstreet dwelling? Pointless to write at length when so much has already been written. (An excellent user comment on this site from laika-lives says it all). Simply let me record my admiration for the Boulting Brothers, especially John the director, for demonstrating an understanding of pacing and montage that almost equals the best work of the great Carol Reed, particularly in the terrific opening quarter of an hour when the unfortunate and terrified Fred is finally tracked down to meet his doom on the Ghost Train at the end of Palace Pier. They don't seem to do sequences like this with such style any more. A good enough reason, I would have thought, for shunning a recent remake!
La nana (2009)
The pleasure of the unexpected
The pleasure of this modest but highly successful offering from Chile is the experience of watching a film unfold in a way that is contrary to one's expectations. Everything to begin with points toward an outcome that could be quite nasty. There is that gradual crescendo of menace remembered from such works as "Play Misty for Me" and "Mon Fils a Moi". We first meet the maid to an upper class Santiago family on her birthday when she reacts awkwardly to the attentions her employers bestow on her. A little later she obviously has her nose put out of joint when it is suggested that she needs an assistant as advancing years are beginning to affect her efficiency. To us she still appears quite young. There are just a few telltale signs that she may be a little past her best, health wise, but she still seems well able to do her job. Assistants one and two come and go, each driven away by the maid's intransigence in refusing to accept their role, accompanied by her ever darkening behaviour. By this stage in the film everything seems to have been set up for quite an awful showdown. But with the arrival of assistant number three the mood suddenly lightens. This isn't a sombre melodrama after all but a real feel-good flick, all the more pleasurable for this unexpected turn. It culminates in a deliciously pertinent closing shot of the maid taking part in the outdoor physical activity enjoyed by her third assistant. She is none the worse for wear and, for one brief moment, is even smiling.
A sort of "Alice in Wonderland with an X certificate
What better way to plunge into nightmare that by taking a descending escalator towards a deserted metro platform. An inebriated woman who having, after a struggle, successfully opened a bottle of bubbly during her descent suddenly has her solitary revelry cut short when a fleet footed hooded maniac jumps out sending her hurtling into the path of an oncoming train. Such is the impressively horrific opening to the Hungarian "Kontroll". Though not quite! Just before, some sort of "official" tells us that what we are about to see bears no relation to the Budapest metro system that goes about its business in an orderly way, but that permission was given to allow a talented young director to film therein on the grounds of artistic integrity. At least I think that is what he means although he could be something of a clever literary ploy rather than a genuine bureaucrat. There is nothing to suggest either way. Everything about "Kontroll" intrigues and thereby lies its fascination. The main character, Bulcsu, spends his life in the metro. When the last train goes and everything shuts down so does he by kipping on a deserted platform. We simply assume he has no home to go to although we are never told. Does he ever change his clothes? Does he ever wash? All he ever eats is junk food from from station outlets. Understandable if Bulcsu were a vagrant, but he isn't. He leads one of the teams employed to sniff out those passengers who travel the system without tickets. As such he spends his days showered by abuse, with more cuts and scars to his face as the film progresses. Eventually he finds some sort of affectionate companionship with a rather pretty young thing who travels the metro in the costume of a bear. Again there is no explanation why she dresses this way. On her final appearance however she is flimsily dressed with angel's wings to lead Bulcsu upwards - all four escalators ascending. No prize for spotting the symbolism here! But not before we have experienced the very stuff of which bad dreams are made. The hooded monster (could he be the hero's alter ego?) plunges two more innocent victims to their doom with ever increasing ferocity, the third particularly unnerving in its suddenness, before being itself felled down in a sort of game of "chicken" with the hero. "Kontroll" has all the untidiness and illogicality of a dream. I suppose it can best be described as a sort of "Alice in Wonderland" with an X certificate.
Went the Day Well? (1942)
Those beastly Germans!
I suppose racism becomes excusable particularly when used as propaganda in wartime, all the more so when God is on your side. The only Germans we get to know in "Went the Day Well?", when they have the affront to invade an English village, are all rather horrid. They shoot the poor old vicar dead almost without warning in the church bell tower and then, once their mission is threatened by insurrection, have no compunction about delivering notice of summary execution on five children the following day, just enough time for the villagers to rally together by knocking off the enemy one by one in the best "Boys Own" style before help finally arrives. But not without some pretty nasty happenings on both sides including the bayoneting of the pub landlady after she throws pepper in the eyes of an enemy in order to send him to "kingdom come" with a sharp blow to the head, or the noble action of the lady of the manor whose protection of a group of young evacuees from a hand grenade results in her being blown to pieces. But surely films weren't that violent back in 1942? Some certainly were. It was just that most were in black and white so they didn't need oodles of ketchup. They also had a slick way back then of sparing us the worst by showing us the action then quickly cutting, leaving the effect to the imagination. Or else there was always a prop like a closed door as a suitably sanitised way of suggesting the lady of the manor's demise behind it. Of course we can smile at the quaintness of it all from the vantage point of just over seventy years on; the chapel going couple who object to the German instruction for all the villagers to assemble in the church, a German soldier claiming he comes from Manchester not realising the London isn't the only city to boast of a Piccadilly, or the dotty niece's corny observation that to eat a hyena would be "no laughing matter". But for all that, as sheer entertainment "Went the Day Well?" must almost be a contender for the blank space at the end of Barry Norman's recent lovingly compiled list in the Radio Times of the 49 best British films. Although no match for the finest, it is certainly better than some of the chosen. It has all the ingredients of those matinée thrillers we loved in the 30's and 40's when good and evil were so sharply defined except when the preconception of many of the characters was sometimes excitingly upset by the discovery of the arch villain as the most respected English gentlemen in the community. I don't suppose Godfrey Tearle started it all when he revealed the missing joint of a finger in Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" but he was certainly Leslie Banks's most distinguished forerunner.