Reviews written by registered user
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A group of children walking in an unfamiliar landscape stop to gaze in rapture at a garden full of colourful flowers. For a moment they seem to have forgotten the reason they have taken their journey; one lovely moment among many in Hirokazu Kore-eda's "I Wish," a meditation on how children would like their world to be that little bit better. The film has taken quite a while to reach this point. In a rather meandering exposition the elder of two brothers separated geographically by a family split comes to realise that his greatest wish is for them to be reunited again. He even wonders whether the smouldering volcano that dominates the town might one day burst, causing the mass exodus that could end in physical relocation and reconciliation. He paints a picture of the eruption, places it on a high point of his wall and gazes up at it from his bed. During the development that follows be excitedly learns that the passing of the two bullet trains on a newly constructed line joining his town and his brother's generates at their point of passing a force so powerful that anyone standing beside the track will have their wish come true - the very stuff of fairy tale here translated into a realistic contemporary setting. When both brothers gather together a few friends to make their collective wishes come true what has until then been a rather slow footed film cluttered with non-essentials suddenly springs to life. The two groups travelling from their two towns towards each other on their local line meet up at a country station. From this point there is magic in the storytelling. What I admire most about Kore-eda is his honesty. In real life not every wish can come true but every so often there can come about a coincidence that can in itself be something of a miracle. Here it takes the form of the children's chance encounter with very human "good fairies." the elderly couple who see in one of the girls a resemblance to a daughter whose company they no longer enjoy. This is just enough to get the children to the one place where they can be close enough to the bullet trains to scream their wishes. The rest of the films is the quietest of codas as the children return home with perhaps a wiser view of the world than when they set out.
Hou Hsiou-Hsien's "A City of Sadness" is one of Oriental Cinema's most rewarding challenges. I have returned to it several times, always with a sense of awe, understanding it a little more on each occasion but still not always sure what is actually happening on the screen. Although this makes the experience sometimes frustrating, the miracle is that it never detracts from the gut feeling I have had from the very first viewing that I am watching a masterpiece. An ambitious attempt to capture the immediate post second world war period of Taiwanese history by following the members of one family through fragments of their daily lives rather than a carefully constructed continuous narrative, Hou's work resonates with tremendous feeling. As is usual with this director, the audience has to work hard to supply connections in a film without joins, in order to understand who is who and what is actually going on. I have to admit that some of the scenes of gang violence still elude me, but, these apart, the light is beginning to shine through. It is clear that the old man with the beret who sits often staring vacantly is the owner of that densely furnished restaurant; that he has four sons. The eldest, the sturdy looking one, seems perennially mixed up with figures of a gangster underworld, the second has returned from the war mentally damaged, the third did not return from active service in the Phillipines and is presumed dead. And then there is the youngest who has a photographer's studio and seems completely apart from the rest of the family by virtue of a sensitive, gentle nature and the disability of complete deafness brought on by a childhood accident. It is his fortunes and those of the young nurse he eventually marries that provide the sense of audience empathy that even the most obscure cinema need in order to work its magic. Their scenes provide moments of great tenderness in a relationship that relies entirely for communication on the written note such as the occasion when she needs to tell him about the beauty of a German folksong that is being played. When the country is placed under repressive martial law with massed executions for dissenters we have snippets of the deaf mute's experiences. There is a particularly telling moment when he is in captivity, unable to hear the sound of the firing squad from which he somehow mercifully escapes. In "A City of Sadness" it is short scenes such as this that one remembers so vividly. That it provides the experience of a sweeping epic without recourse to any great scenes of action is both its mystery and fascination.
Having read a lukewarm review of "The Captive Heart" in Time Out (my cinema bible) and thinking, "They're bound to trash this one," I leaped to the IMDb reviews ready to play my "champion of the turkey" role. What a pleasurable surprise to find it not needed, that I am indeed at one with sympathetic users and critics alike in admiration for this rather special offering from the Ealing archive. Whereas the comedies from the West London studios are still admired with affection, their more serious fare tends to be overlooked. "The Divided Heart" is something of a forgotten treasure, a tribute in the wake of victory, to our gallant servicemen who spent much of the second world war as prisoners in German camps. It's another team piece in the mode of Carol Reed's better known "The Way Ahead" which takes a cross section of class types and closely observes their behaviour as they share an enforced coming together. It's all very stereotypical but if treated with sincerity, as in both films, a measure of character cliché can be forgiven. If the level of acting is fairly mediocre, particularly some of the women with those period prissy upper class accents, one part, that of Michael Redgrave as a Czech who has assumed the role of an English soldier killed in battle to escape being identified by the Germans, stands out for its quality. Where the film really scores is in its reminder of a time when people were really nice to one another particularly when brought together in adversity. Everyone mucks in to help, from comforting the young soldier when first confronted with the permanence of his lack of sight to the initially unsympathetic character who gives up his chance of repatriation to aid one who needs it more, welcome reminders of an age when it was generally normal rather than exceptional to emerge from the cinema feeling good.
They've been screaming at one another for an awfully long time. And they're still at it, those dysfunctional couples and families that seem to come mainly from American theatre. Cinema guarantees an even larger audience for screaming domestic monsters so it is no surprise that many stage hits from "The Little Foxes" to "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" quickly find their way to the big screen. Family angst enriched by the odd skeleton in the cupboard is usually sure fire box office. I must admit to finding the genre quite addictive,so much so that I have to be really careful to distinguish the good from the bad. What of "August: Osage County" which I have just caught up with? Well, it has Meryl Streep for a start as a matriarch with the ability to out-scream everyone else on set or any other set for that matter. Otherwise she hasn't much going for her, poor thing - a widow suffering from mouth cancer but still smoking like a chimney, popping as many pills as she can get her hands on, hair falling out from chemotherapy. But at least she has rather an attractive wig that she wears with great presence in those scenes where she is called upon to scream her loudest. Hers is a tremendous part and Streep seizes it with a relish that just about sends her over the top. The eldest of her three daughters is almost her match when it comes to verbal vitriol. Julia Roberts gives a powerful performance that in places almost overshadows that of her film mother in the way her dislikability is the more believable. From the acting point of view this is a terrific ensemble piece with every character playing their gut wrenching weaknesses to the hilt. Even Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems to be attracting a lot of attention lately, tears his heart out for getting up too late to attend the family funeral, capping this with the disaster of upsetting a dish at the aftermath dinner. That dinner is quite something! It somehow seems to bring out the worst in everybody, raising domestic angst in a tremendous crescendo, but not before Streep's brother-in-law is forced into the position of having to deliver an embarrassingly long and mawkish grace. I am not sure where all this leads but I certainly enjoyed it. However, is there not something exploitive in the process of of being offered entertainment by watching people behaving badly, inducing in one pure titillation? Fine if the result is pure comedy like that most successful TV series "The Inbetweeners," but rather more dubious in the case of a drama inviting comparison with "A Long Day's Journey Into Night" of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", both outstanding for their penetrating tragic insights into the human condition. "August: Osage County" strains rather too hard to surpass its predecessors in hysteria so that any messages it might have been trying to convey become drowned in grotesque caricature. However as I enjoyed it so much I feel obliged to crown it a very good 'bad' movie though not quite a great 'bad' one, an accolade I would reserve for Sam Wood's glorious 1942 melodrama, "Kings Row" in which a future President of the USA screamed "Where's the rest of me?"
There are times when I long for a great new film from France. Gone it seems are the days of Goretta, Chabrol, Truffaut, Malle and Bresson. Sometimes Techine rises to it, but only just. I was reminded a few days ago of what we are missing when I caught up with Mia Hansen-Love's "Goodbye First Love", a film that conveys the ecstasy and pangs of adolescent passion with a delicacy that the French so often manage to achieve with such effortless ease. In short, this could not have come from any other country. I watched the first third which follows the intense relationship of eighteen year old Sullivan and the younger Camille with something of the excitement of rediscovery. Hansen-Love's direction has a fluency and pace that perfectly match the breakneck quality of an affair teetering on the edge of uncertain fulfilment. When Sullivan departs with his mates on a South American backpacking trip Camille is distraught. Her slow recovery and recognition of a different type of love in her relationship with her mature architecture teacher, Lorenz, form the central part of the film. Unfortunately with the absence of a frenetic passion something of the vitality of the first third is lessened and the film becomes an altogether more mundane affair that even Sullivan's return several months later cannot quite rescue from the occasional yawn. What I imagined from the beginning might prove to be a re-run into "La Dentelliere" country ends up as something far less substantial in quality. Today's French cinema, although often still quite distinctive in style, sadly lacks a director of the calibre of those men from the past.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
British cinema has long been telling us "it's grim up north." Directors certainly piled on this message during our '50s and '60s New Wave. Up in Scotland, as Bill Douglas in his Trilogy let us know, it could be even grimmer. In some of the work of Tony Richardson ("A Taste of Honey" for example) the grimness could be softened somewhat with poetic images of industrial landscapes. Nothing wrong with this. "Honey" is a lovely film in many ways, but if a director wanted to be hard-hittingly grim he had to jettison poetic visuals as Lindsay Anderson did in "This Sporting Life", possibly the greatest film of our New Wave. There have been innumerable "grim" films with northern settings since with occasional outstanding examples as Ken Loach's "Kes" and more recently Shane Meadows's "This is England." Into this august company steps Clio Barnard with "The Selfish Giant" remarkable for painting possibly the bleakest picture I have come across of life north of The Wash. True there are some beautiful shots of cooling towers and others of horses in misty landscapes but these barely relieve the unrelenting sordidness of the way families of no-hopers live on the fringe of a northern city.. The opening scene introduces Arbor, a disturbed, hyper-active kid being fished out screaming from underneath his bed by his constant friend, Swifty, to go on a night time forage for scrap metal. Although they are in the same class at school, Swifty seems that much older and more mature by virtue of a voice that has already broken. The boys always do things together, whether it is being excluded from school or nicking scrap to sell to the unscrupulous dealer, Kitten. Eventually Arbor goes one step too far when he nicks scrap from Kitten to sell elsewhere. Ordered to replace the stolen cable results in a shocking and unbearable tragedy. "The Selfish Giant" is one of those films that doesn't give up its secrets straight away. When I first saw it I was sickened by its unrelieved sordidness, with foul-mouthed characters such as Swifty's father acting completely without respect or compassion for anyone, but with the death of one of the boys some three quarters of the way through, the film begins to achieve a level of intensity that makes for mesmerising cinema. Arbor is not able to articulate his grief on the death of his friend but the long wait in the rain outside Swifty's house, his eventual acceptance by the grieving mother and the affectionate grooming of the horse in the the final shots say it all. Herein lies the compassion we have been longing for, the very stuff of great tragedy.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Come as You Are" is an all too rare example of a film featuring physical disability that actually succeeds. Let's face it. Which of us would normally expect to be entertained by the spectacle of three young men, a paraplegic, one with hardly any vision and one semi-paralysed as a result of terminal cancer, struggling to go on a holiday sex adventure? I have to admit that on reading the blurb in the Radio Times I thought this could not possibly work. It sounded like some sort of "Inbetweeners" effort in the worst possible taste. However as it was taking up time in a BBC World Cinema slot I felt duty bound to give it a "ten minute" test particularly as too little attention is given to foreign movies by our TV companies. That the film grabbed immediately and survived those initial scenes I can only attribute to the likability of its characters. Admittedly Philip the paraplegic, the mouthy one of the three, needed getting used to, but his companions, Lars and Jozef, had those endearing features that make for good company on a long journey. But even Philip was to reveal a more sympathetic side towards the end. I suppose in a way it worked because it was a comedy that skilfully sidestepped the mawkish, with each scene however embarrassingly uncomfortable for the characters at the time - the hotel bedroom scene where a key is mislaid or the misadventure where Jozef accidentally rolls down an embankment into a lake - tending to come right so that the overall feel-good factor was never quite dissipated. Claude, the lads' overweight female chauffeur holds the whole thing together beautifully. She develops a bond with her charges as we do with both them and her. In the end their sexual fulfilment is what matters all round. Admittedly the scene where death finally catches up with Lars is terribly sad but somehow it speaks for the honesty of a film that faces up to the fact that life is a balancing act of laughter and tears for most of us.
When watching Jane Campion's affectionate account of the final months of John Keats's brief life I could not but ponder on the precariousness of human existence even at such relatively short time ago as the early years of the nineteenth century. Ahead were those advances in medical science that certainly have enabled this octogenarian to watch several hundred wonderful films rather than a small handful. It is the ephemeral nature of experience that tugs at the heartstrings, a romance with everything going for it, cut short because a cure now available simply was not there. "Bright Star" lovingly conveys the "carpe diem" of the all too brief relationship of the young poet with his very near neighbour, Fanny Brawne. Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish instinctively express the emotions of an affair they know to be all too short in a way that reminds that great romantic cinema is far from dead. As if this were not enough, Campion's work is terrific on period detail. A shot very near the beginning depicting a Hampstead village landscape with white sheets of washing flapping in the foreground is breathtakingly beautiful. And this just one of many. There are moments of exquisite tenderness such as the scene where Keats comments on the rosebud complexion of Toots, Fanny's much younger sister. We are never far from the poetry itself which is oft-quoted even to the extent of providing a background to the final credits thus rendering the usual rushed exit from the half lit "dream palace" all but impossible. There is a moment shortly towards the end when Fanny, hearing of Keats's death collapses in a paroxysm of grief. As moving as similar moments in the work of such masters as Satyajit Ray and Hou Hsiao-Hsien, this places Jane Campion's film on the highest level.
I certainly didn't ask to become the champion of lame ducks but having been exposed to such diabolical reviews of the 2013 "Romeo and Juliet" and now an even worse batch on "The Monuments Men" I suppose I shall have to accept the role. For the second time in under a year I find myself completely out of step. It is almost as if I have watched entirely different films from the multitude of pen blasters. Not that I would place these two works on the same level. Carlo Carlei's Shakespearian adaptation is for my money one of the finest cinematic takes on the Bard, a work imbued with passion, excitement and visual beauty that had me reeling to an extent I have not found anyone to share. Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is no more than a worthy middle-of-the-road film, what in terms of literature one might deem "a good read." As I tend only to submit reviews of films of outstanding quality, as a means of imparting enthusiasm for those I particularly admire, I would not have been writing this. My motive here is rather different, to lambaste injustice that I find near incomprehensible. Not only is the exciting true story of the rescue of great works of art from the Nazis during the latter parts of the war well told, the art direction capturing the devastation of the period is visually most impressive. If the film has a fault which places it on a lower level than such wartime epics as "The Great Escape" it is short on character development which tends to be swamped by emphasis on action. For once a better balance needs longer running time, rare to ask for from one of today's action flicks. Reports have it that George Clooney was deeply upset about the adverse reaction to what to all intents and purposes should have been a popular hit with audiences. If it is any consolation, George, I lapped it up and am probably as puzzled as you about the extent of such unjust denigration.
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."
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