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10/10
War in Heaven
10 August 2010
This remarkable series passed me by on this sublunary sphere. It did not descend to the terrestrial regions where lesser work crawls.

So I bought the boxed DVDs to see what all this distant thunder was about ...

Now I know: Sky's little satellite had picked up the distant waves of a War in Heaven.

Not an ordinary science-fiction shoot-em-up, you understand, but a metaphysical battle for the soul of man, set afar-off in those remote regions where this fragile organic life somehow exploded out of the dust of unstable minerals.

Taking us on a visionary journey through the mind-bending creative forces first discovered and harnessed by Cosmonaut Tarkovsky and Astronaut Kubrick, we are brought to appreciate, by the time we have been exposed to the double episode "Resurrection Ship," that "Battlestar Galactica" is one of the greatest epics realised since Milton's "Paradise Lost" burst upon an astonished world.

I do not care if idle pedestrians jeer at me in the street for a zany...

Because I have seen a manifestation of something marvellous, a creation touched by genius, and that mad stare you see in my eye is Dr. Gaius Baltasar on a good day, perfectly in his right mind and filled with love, and wonder.

To speak more scientifically, my 'Peak in Darien' is the soul of the Hubble Space Telescope - or it is the wandering spirit of Voyager - and it is a sensation of being filled with the wildest surmise that ever came out of that hissing, scratching box in the corner where the electric tiger was penned in an ocean of white noise.

I sit in the electric snow of stars as Lee Adama falls in love with easeful Death, and I feel the fatal, ecstatic embrace of Heaven ...

This Truth will be known in years to come.
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A fine film - deserves to be better known in Britain.
29 April 2010
Warning: Spoilers
A film best encapsulated in the words of the late, great Dave Berry, author of the definitive 'Wales and Cinema - the first hundred years', UWP, 1994:

WARNING - SPOILERS "Directed by Endaf Emlyn (b. Pwllheli, 1944), whose emotional identification with, and knowledge of, the Snowdonia of Caradog Prichard's novel enabled him to realise (and release) the many layers of emotion in a deeply personal work. ... The film deals with the last days of a man riven with guilt all his adult life after a fatal aberration in youth. He feels guilty not only for the violence which led to a girl's death, but his failure to prevent his unhinged mother from entering a mental institution. He returns to his home village to complete the cycle by seeking absolution ... and the use of woods, hills and barren landscapes in sharp juxtaposition with claustrophobic looming interiors which hem in the protagonist, can scarcely be faulted. The film gains immeasurably from fine editing and the beautifully modulated performance of Dyfan Roberts ..."

The excellent screenplay by Gwenlyn Parry, and the haunting use of music add greatly to the overall impact of a film that does justice to the great Welsh novel it is based on, and which has been widely read across the world in many translations. The film, too, was well received on its international release. This is a film that deserves to be more widely known in Britain, yet - shamefully - isn't.
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Fugitve images from 'The rogue song'
28 January 2009
For information: There are 8 monochrome production stills, from throughout the film, reproduced as plates in Val Lewton's eponymous novelization of 1930 for the publisher Collins. To repeat, for the sake of the automatic filter: There are 8 monochrome production stills, from throughout the film, reproduced as plates in Val Lewton's eponymous novelization of 1930 for the publisher Collins. To repeat, yet once more, for the sake of the automatic filter: There are 8 monochrome production stills,from throughout the film, reproduced as plates in Val Lewton's eponymous novelization of 1930 for the publisher Collins. Please only refer to the first sentence, as the rest is padding to trigger acceptance. (11 lines of text! At last!)
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White Feather (1955)
10/10
Funeral ode for a great people.
16 October 2008
This is a truly epic Western - epic in the moral sense: It operates as a great ceremony, a funeral ode for a great people, and the Homeric nobility of their doomed warrior heroes. The whole film sweeps majestically along with the native Americans to the bitter end of their doomed civilisation, and all the distracting side-plots are merely adumbrated at the margins of the action. The U.S. Cavalry, too, is given its due meed of admiration for the honest professionalism of its best soldiers, and the finest representatives of its military tradition. In this, Webb's film is reminiscent of a John Ford Cavalry Western. But it has something else: The awareness of a 'great game' - almost in the sense this term was applied by the English to their Imperial adventure – being played out with mutual honour and respect, even admiration and fondness, between the great rivals for possession of an entire Continent.

This is a truly great film, unblemished by the jittery special pleading of Hollywood that bespeaks the unacknowledged guilt of the American White Man. This is a sincere film - not a film of gestures: It is, as I began by saying, a grand Ceremony. And in the Ceremony is the aching sense of the loss of a Great Game which conferred greatness upon all who were brave enough to participate on equal terms.
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The Muse (1999)
8/10
Brooks and Stone are great
8 August 2008
I have just discovered Albert Brooks, with his film The Muse. I can see why he is known as a West Coast Woody Allen.

The Muse is both elegantly witty and laugh-out-loud funny by turns.

The notion of a nearly-man so desperate for success that he is willing to suspend all reason, and believe that he can be rescued from his imminent Hollywood screen-writing oblivion by a woman claiming to be the Muse of Greek Mythology made real in flesh and blood, but who turns out to be only a particularly resourceful runaway from the local (shall we say) Home for the Oddly Gifted, is sublime! Sharon Stone s performance as the self- and omni-delusive (her psychiatrists, though amazed and amused, know otherwise!) Muse is outstanding. She effortlessly obliterates the wooden acting of the strangely-featured Andy McDowell throughout.

As madly demanding actress - for that IS what she is doing in reality - and - in the final payoff - harridan Studio head she is just superb, and through her the film s high concept is perfectly - and delightfully - pitched.

I cannot speak highly enough of this team of Brooks and Stone.
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9/10
The more inglorious struggles of the insignificant and friendless to survive deserves our respect, not an easy and priggish contempt.
7 August 2008
Menzel, faithful to Hrabal, shows the Fall of Czech Man - and Sudeten German Woman - and their expulsion from their respective Middle-European idylls: They tragically fall into each other's arms just as global issue is joined that soon disillusions our Romeo and destroys his (now unfortunately rampantly Nazi) Juliet.

Neither the quiet life of getting rich and enjoying all the pleasures money can bring, nor the stirring Wagnerian strains of Germanic supremacist idealism, can survive, but our opportunistic anti-hero, Ditie (a name which can translate as 'little man') is more adaptable, because his ideals are more pliant to the accidents of fate than his German wife's rigid Hitlerite fanaticism, and consequently he is eventually able to emerge from a sort of Communist Purgatory with a keen appreciation of life's real and much simpler necessities.

With profound irony, it is in a smashed and ethnically cleansed Sudeten German village that an older and a wiser Ditie's rehabilitation is completed. And it is from this sobering perspective that he can finally both regret the excesses and errors of his life, and yet also take nostalgic pleasure from what was, after all, the wonderful, glittering, profoundly human spectacle of folly and grandeur which his life has been! Far from tragic or depressing, therefore, this film of the 20th century debacle of a nation ruined remarkably concludes with a very Czech endorsement of the simple, inoffensive pleasure in life which will always console this patient people at the troubled heart of darkest Europe: Ditie allows himself to enjoy a tankard of Pilsener beer - and Menzel's camera seems to gild the moment with as much gloriously sensuous golden dreaminess and spiritual fulfillment as ever bloated millionaire or romantically excessive idealist knew.

At last, the little man has found his fulfillment where it always lay: in the little things. At last, old, disillusioned and unseduced any longer by the world's headier attractions, Ditie finds himself at home and happy.

Here, the film seems to be saying, is the real idyll to which the Czech person should retire for refreshment of the soul, and not those false - though fabulous - ones we have been forced to discard.

Just as Ditie observes that his own career of accidents always turned out well, so in this perspective the Czech experience seems, on the whole, to have turned out for the best. This optimistic fatalism seems typical of the Czech way of seeing things, and is as characteristic of this film of Menzel's old age as it was of his early masterpiece, 'Closely observed trains.' On this view, it would be churlish to condemn the film for self-indulgence, as many Western critics have done. Frankly, they haven't suffered so much, so what do they know of ethical conundrums and the moral paradoxes of survival? This meditation on the more inglorious struggles of the insignificant and friendless to survive deserves our respect, not an easy and priggish contempt. This must especially be true in the country which lies behind the heavily loaded title 'I served the King of England,' for this heavy hint must surely prick that particular national conscience with its role in one of history's most blatant acts of betrayal. The title practically dares any English commentator to judge Ditie in his historical predicament!

(There is also considerable satisfaction to be had by the viewer from the sheer technical finesse of the film's production, on every level. Jiri Menzel's craft is also hugely impressive in scene after scene, which are turned with complete mastery of tragi-comic effect. But this is a study for another occasion.)
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Van Helsing (2004)
1/10
Consumption of cheaply-conceived yet expensively-made junk fails to satisfy.
7 November 2007
Hollywood films of pure 'popcorn' entertainment value don't require any excuse beyond that of the old fairground barker of cheap sensation who is their true ancestor. And the casual audience for this sort of tripe are not about to be persuaded into an appreciation of any art-house offerings. If there are both producers and audiences out there who want to throw vast sums of their money into the production of rubbish, so be it. About half-an-hour of this frantic and wildly misfiring film was quite enough to take me well past the boredom barrier. 'Van Helsing' actually thinks it is quite a cool and witty film, with all those horror-movie references, when in actual fact it is nothing but a farrago of enormously expensive and utterly tedious special effects.

If you want modern witty and cool with great CGI, go to Pitof's superbly atmospheric and gripping take on the criminal underworld of old Paris, in 'Vidocq'.

If you want witty and cool with that old-fashioned grasp of the magic that already haunts the movie camera, go to Polanski's hilarious and chilling nightmare 'Dance of the Vampires'.

But of course if you are perfectly satisfied by the consumption of this cheaply-conceived yet expensively-made junk, then that is your business. And very good business it is, I'm sure!
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1/10
'Hair was bad enough, but this is a load of dandruff.'
26 October 2007
I can't better Philip French's dismissal (above) of this film (from his 'Observer' column). I am embarrassed for Ms Taymor, who - on the evidence of 'Titus' and 'Frida' - is a hugely talented filmmaker.

But here the director's talents are only intermittently diverting, and cannot save what is an utterly pointless project.

As 'versions' of the originals the songs are often attractively delivered, though too often with a bland professionalism that entirely lacks any edge. The Gospel choir, and perhaps some of 'Sadie''s numbers, are quite powerful in themselves, but even these positive examples hardly rate a notice in the context of what heights cinema musicals have already hit. The song-and-dance routines - though fanatically well disciplined (as if that would subdue all opposition!) - are uniformly appalling, and would have instantly bombed on the stage of any professional theatre. They are all manic energy without real engagement.

It does not help that all the characters are annoyingly and rather dishonestly tangential to historical reality - like a reminiscence of the great originals ('Jude' = 'Paul Macartney', 'Sadie' = 'Janis Joplin' for instance), or merely inserted as an incarnation of a song (the otherwise pointless 'Prudence'), or of something wildly trippy in a cartoonish way (a brilliant Eddie Izzard completely wasted in a misfiring farrago entirely bereft of any identification with the hippy ethos - to call it 'pastiche' would be to wildly over-praise it).

Even the more 'down-to-earth' scenes back in Liverpool lack any substance at all: Even the Albert Docks location looks as gentrified here as it has become in reality, at the hands of the property developers. (One would have expected the well-known team of British writers to have got this right, at least.) In fact the whole picture suffers from a total failure to identify with the time and culture it is feverishly and showily pursuing.

And the more it pursues, the further off is that authentic psychedelic rainbow.

Perhaps Julie Taymor is in pursuit of her own lost girlhood, which would explain the self-indulgence in the unspeakably trite American family clichés ... But surely better, in such a case, that she should have created or commissioned a more focused screenplay: This one seems hopelessly hung-up on squeezing in the absolute max. of Beatles songs.

And we don't even get a decent pastiche of Dick Lester's witty style of early Beatles' music-video, for God's sake! Humour is indeed direly lacking - how the team of Clement and la Frenais, the writers of the gloriously funny and characterful 'Auf Wiedersehen, Pet' saga, could ever agree to pen this flat, bland, po-faced, Americanisation of a major part of their own popular cultural heritage from the industrial North of England is beyond me! And the hyper-Hollywood style of 'musical number' sits very ill with the naivety at the heart of the subject. The truth is, I am afraid, that the film is ludicrously over-ambitious in terms of mere personal grandstanding by the director at her most showy: 'Look at me, isn't this brilliant?' Actually, 'No, Ms Taymor.' As director she neither reveals nor evokes any love for her subject. It is indeed a really stupid movie, whose ambition is all for the perfection of the surfaces, but which possesses not one spark of inspiration whatsoever.

But the biggest mistake of all was to portray the whole era as some kind of alternative reality, existing 'Across the Universe,' which actually lacks inspiration and magic in direct proportion to its distance from the original milieu that inspired the songs (a kind of Anti-Oz one might say). Crucially, since the film's entire mise en scene is set neither in any convincing 'then' nor in any engaging 'now' it is difficult to see what possible relevance or attraction it possesses for any audience.

Taymor has been lost in this No-Man's-Land, which is the result of exposing the inadequate simplicities of the sketchy plot to the whole industrial panoply of Hollywood: She wanders through a scene of artistic devastation, amongst groves of burnt-out and songless trees. And were that (or something like) a defining image of her own creation, we might at least have had a half-decent anti-war movie! As it is, even Cliff Richard's safe old 'Summer Holiday' vehicle seems more relevant and punchy.

And what sublime madness could a Ken Russell in his reprobate heyday have wrought with such a subject ....! But we torment ourselves with such 'might-have-beens.' Or rather, these things have been before, and far better done, and there was absolutely no reason for this film to exist in the first place. It is a completely misbegotten enterprise and will be utterly forgotten by next week, if not sooner.
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8/10
A war film of rare authenticity
21 May 2007
This film's message was so important and serious that it was originally intended by the authorities in wartime Britain for military circulation only. However, the original project for a simple training film warning of the terrible danger of Nazi espionage grew into a full-blown Ealing Studios feature, largely because the director (the great and nowadays relatively unsung Thorold Dickinson) was able to convince the 'top brass' that the message of his film should also be brought to the attention of the 'next of kin' on the home front.

The paradoxical result was that a film at first only intended for strictly limited circulation amongst those with security clearance became a great box office hit. Equally paradoxical was the degree of really quite startling realism - especially for the time - with which it convincingly presented certain uncomfortable realities of war to the domestic audience; the only concession to any kind of comforting assurance being the explosive finale when, despite horrifying casualties amongst the invasion force whose plans have been compromised by enemy agents, the commandos are able to press on and successfully sabotage their strategic military objective on the coast of occupied France.

The location filming of authentic training manoeuvres in and around the Cornish village of Megavissey is superb, and does not pull its punches in showing bodies blown to bits, etc. The remarkable live sound recording gives a really stomach-tightening sense of the military hardware being unleashed: The sounds of the actual artillery, bombs, and powerful engines actually mobilized for War contribute to a far greater urgency than what audiences were used to. Even now, it is abundantly clear that CGI pyrotechnics, by comparison, just do not pack the requisite punch.

The script cleverly and effectively alerts its audience to the very real danger of 'careless talk' and even deals unblinkingly with such unsavoury real-life scenarios as a cocaine-addicted stripper being blackmailed into spying on her soldier boyfriend by her Nazi-sympathising dresser; or a cultivated bookshop owner who is in reality a ruthless Nazi agent, and perfectly prepared to blackmail his young assistant into obtaining information by threatening to arrange that her Jewish parents, whom she has had to leave behind in occupied Amsterdam when she became a refugee, are detained in 'protective custody;' or the mild little businessman from Wales who strolls around undetected and undetained throughout the film, stealing information with alarming ease, to the untold advantage of his country's deadly foe.

These Nazi spies are not the usual easily-defeated Prussian blockheads beloved of more naive propaganda films, but intelligent, sophisticated and well-trained agents, supplied with detailed cover, a network of contacts, and portable radios. They represent an all-too-believable and imminent threat to Britain's survival.

One cannot help reflecting that this clear-eyed view of Britain's predicament stands now in stark contrast to the present era of lies and dissimulation. Churchill thought - quite reasonably during such an extreme emergency - of banning this film, but eventually reconsidered, since the military authorities of the time were ultimately prepared to trust the people of Britain with something surprisingly close to the truth. I venture to state that, evidently, people were trusted more by their governors during the global crisis of a World War, when national survival unquestionably stood in far greater danger of sudden catastrophe, than they are today!
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Eldra (2003)
8/10
A miniature masterpiece
29 January 2007
The matter-of-fact acceptance by the Romani of the wonderful truths of their traditional beliefs is beautifully played out, in this miniature masterpiece, against the equal hatred and fascination of the settled modern community which surrounds them, under the looming industrial backdrop of the slate-tips of Bethesda, in nineteen-thirties North Wales.

The excellent ensemble of Welsh actors have completely identified with this nostalgic, yet still relevant, glimpse of a famous harpist's girlhood. This Eldra of the title is beautifully realised by the young Iona Jones, in a performance of simple honesty. John Ogwen's grandfather ('Taid') is noteworthy as a gently feral goblin of a man who comes and goes like the fitful promptings of a race memory. The creative sympathy of Robat's (Gareth Wyn Roberts) encounter with these strange and exotic folk reveals the strength of a fine soul, already secure in his diminutive frame, and provides moreover a tragic contrast with the fearful aggression of his siblings, already wholly identified with an Americanised culture of capitalism and cheap sensation. The contrast with the gentle family relationship which Eldra's people seem to maintain with the whole of creation could hardly be greater.

Indeed, it is a shock to see Robat's brothers, in one scene, force him to play a despised 'Indian' to their fearful lynch-minded 'cowboys' in order to punish his race-treason. It should, however, be noted that the implied critique is probably more pertinent to the unformed characters of young lads, than intended as any wider sociological observation of the adult world which they inhabit: The quarrymen were generally a rather civilised lot, and it is perhaps the absence of any fuller presentation of their cultural background that limits this film. Lord Penrhyn is also perhaps too much of an old-fashioned top-hatted Marxist caricature.

It is of course possible to see this simplistic view of the dominant 'Gorja' culture as a representation of little Eldra's still unquestioning acceptance of her own people's mythic rendering of the shifting cultural and historical scenes around them in terms of their own ancient experience: Fascinating it is to see how she naturally recasts the 'Castle' of Lord Penrhyn in terms of the vanished feudal world of kings and peasants. This vital mythology is not a game to her, as 'Cowboys and indians' is only a game for the local lads - however revealing it may be to the observer. It flows from the childhood of the race, rather than from the latest Cowboy film at the local cinema.

The great strength of the film is, in fact, its location of 'fairyland' in the most powerful intuitions of our common human nature, and in its ability to show how the simple goodness of such a natural world is equally accessible to the two children, who befriend each other across the great cultural divide which so troubles the relations of their respective peoples.

This naturalism in the presentation of childhood puts this film into the same distinguished class as 'Fairy tale: a true story', that wonderful meditation on private childhood and public trauma in an England bereft of all certainties by the Great War. By the same token, 'Eldra' also stands as a quiet reproach to the rootless and empty biopic 'Miss Potter', which touches on its themes only to falsify them by the sort of frenetic dramatisation more suited to such barbarisms of shallow wish fulfilment as are enacted in American shoot-'em-ups; for be it ever so genteel, 'Miss Potter' is just the kind of film to perpetrate unthinking formulaic violence on an innocent subject! 'Miss Potter', with its intrusive animations, presents a Beatrix Potter who is to be understood and justified as a precursor of Walt Disney; 'Eldra' presents a child of nature, to be understood on her own terms, and in her own time. Eldra's animal companions - the fox and the owl - are themselves. Like an icon, the Welsh film extends its reality out into the world, from where it came. The big-production feature draws us into a manufactured make-believe masquerading as reality, and traps us in its world of airless contrivance.

Perhaps the most abiding image of 'Miss Potter' is her young brother impaling another moth for his collection, whilst crying 'Die, you devil.' The film has stirrings of an uneasy conscience.

Eldra's Brown Owl seems to fly off through the artificial night which supervenes after the final credits at the end of the Welsh film, magically transforming that impenetrable silence with one surprising cry. The 'smaller' film clearly has a grasp of something far grander than the posturings and muggings of the mainstream offering.

You only need see the natural face of Iona Jones and then the mannered and grotesque over-acting of Renee Zellweger, for comparison, to know instantly which is the greater film.
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Les espions (1957)
8/10
The inmates take over the asylum.
9 August 2005
Warning: Spoilers
This absurdist satire of a world gone mad is a creepy delight.

SPOILER ALERT! The final scene is a real chiller, with the asylum keeper suddenly realising that, in an utterly insane world, the sane man is regarded as mad - and indeed is so, to all intents and purposes.

Like Kubrick's later 'Dr. Strangelove' the terrors of the H bomb are effectively used to create an uneasy comedy that finally lurches into horror, as the increasingly eccentric pursuit of the secret of the 'H3' super-weapon spins out of control, distorting reality itself in the process.

The twitterings of the Ocarina Players' Convention, the storm of feathers bursting (as it were) out of the frustration of a mute female patient, a mystery man called 'Vogel' (bird), and the harsh squawking of the insistent and threatening telephone: All these are memorable elements in a film as darkly humorous as anything by Hitchcock.

Curiously, I was often reminded of the quiet lunacy which threatens to engulf the two main characters in Alan Plater's TV trilogy, that begins with 'The Beiderbecke Affair'! Both film and TV series no doubt owe much to the inheritance of Kafka, showing as they each do the spectacle of people struggling to make sense out of their irrational and arbitrary fates.

The lack of any innovation in the cinematic technique of 'Les Espions' should not blind us to Clouzot's masterly creation, therein, of a world of ultimately inescapable horror.

This is a great film, and one to be viewed repeatedly.
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Intacto (2001)
Preposterous, pretentious, incomprehensible, and completely mad.
14 December 2004
I had to read the comments on this site just to grasp what the h*** was going on here! I needn't have bothered: Even after reading the many seemingly coherent accounts of both the plot and the significance of this film, I have to admit that I still don't have the slightest glimmer of a notion as to what it was all about.

Perhaps 'Lynch-style exercise in random insanity' comes about as close as I can to summing up this preposterous piece of film-making.

It really isn't at all interesting to submit oneself to this typical modernist assault upon reason and sensibility - since obviously the experience of insanity and insensibility, when endured for some two hours, will be a powerfully degrading experience. You will just feel bad afterwards. The film is pure poison.

And, frankly, anyone who wittingly decides to expose themselves to something that is as hostile as this is to the art of communication has to be totally masochistic. The film doesn't attempt to seduce its audience: It just beats your head into an abstract, conceptual pulp! Nothing elegant, nothing deeply considered, just radical attitude.

What it most powerfully conveys to me, indeed, is a profound impatience with and hostility towards its audience. Perhaps in the land of the Corrida this kind of ultra-refined aesthetic violence is attractive. But I'm afraid this Northener (at least) just thinks it is all a load of old bull.

And yes, I do like challenging films!
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If These Walls Could Talk 2 (2000 TV Movie)
Vanessa Redgrave's heart is as big as a - home.
10 November 2004
ITWCT2 is a simple portmanteau film based on the experience of lesbianism. However, the linking device is the overstretched external coincidence of a house that we are expected to accept has attracted lesbian residents, not for merely two, but for three successive generations!! As an entirety, therefore, 'The Hours' must be recognised as the better film, overall, since the psychological coincidence of each of three female protagonists having read Virginia Woolf's 'Mrs. Dalloway' is obviously located in cultural, rather than material, space, as well as being naturally sustainable as an influence over time and a wide range of personal backgrounds. The structure of 'The Hours' is far more sophisticated, and acceptable, as a linking device.

Nevertheless, I believe that the obviously fractured - and artistically uneven - divisions of ITWCT2 do contain one story, the first in sequence, that stands out at every artistic and emotional level from the others, that were hatched in the same nest. Not only so, but the story of poor Miss Tree, and her almost childlike companion who somehow perches, like a little unfledged bird, precariously above the abyss which is the world, has a power and depth far beyond anything even attempted in Minghella's generally somewhat aridly stylish and intellectual exercise. Not even his middle, and best, episode, concerning the repressed 1950's housewife, has anything to show more devastating than Miss Tree's utter and complete bereavement in Redgrave's superb performance.

The final shot of a jackdaw about to depart through the window, opened to air the now completely empty house prior to the arrival of new, unknown, residents, is alone worth everything in the bigger film.

I will confess that the overall 'agenda' of ITWCT2 is of little intrinsic interest to this old-fashioned male, and nor did the other two segments possess the artistic power and truth to involve me greatly. Nor do Vanessa Redgrave's personal beliefs and political creed have any appeal for one who counts himself a natural conservative.

Yet, despite this, Miss Redgrave's performance shines forth for its human integrity and power, completely untainted by any political gesturing whatsoever. How could anyone fail to love Miss Tree, as brought to life by Vanessa Redgrave's deep understanding of the wellsprings of human nature?

The portrait, which she sustains so believably, of the cruel ending of a tender relationship, which had flourished gently and unseen - like a delicate bloom, overgrown and hidden away from the busy thoroughfares of the heedless world - ever since the innocence of an Edwardian childhood, is heartbreaking. In many ways, it is the general insensitive hard-heartedness of the modern age which is responsible for the suffering of an innocent person, in this drama. For I believe that the educated classes of previous ages would have been more likely to respond with at least a modicum of decent tact when confronted by the predicament of any such 'delicate situation.' Only the little daughter of the deceased companion's nephew glimpses at least a glimmer of the sympathy and respect that should be given to such heartfelt grief. The moment of departure for the deceased aunt's relatives presents the stark contrast of the chilly wife's ruthless censorship of all Miss Tree's humanity, with the handshake - as of equals! - between the old woman and the young girl who was, in the end, naturally and simply sorry for her, and it is a moment of all-too-brief communication across the generations.

Perhaps it was the gentleness and simplicity of another era, another culture, that alone could permit the basic tolerance of 'don't ask - don't tell' (at least insofar as women were concerned), which Miss Tree's relationship seemed so much to depend upon? Possibly this demonstrates the felt necessity of contemporary political militancy in defence of such choices, with all the attendant crudity and emotional alienation which now so disfigure what is - and after all should ideally remain - a private affair.

Certainly, there is a beauty and sweetness to the twilight of this lifelong inter-dependence, which to see disposed of so casually - whether in the form of the poor corpse in the hospital, or those of the beloved presents of little model birds that are all simply expropriated as material items - is to see exposed in all its obscenity the profoundly unspiritual ugliness of the modern world.

See this short film as a self-contained drama, and know that you have witnessed true greatness. And a beauty that is never mawkish. This brief tragedy resonates with our own society's guilt for having trampled over the delicate structure of the heart, where love and dreams and happiness are nursed for flight. Can any mere political movements put those crushed chicks back into their palpitating eggs?

What this strong, yet simple, piece of work shows is how casually the world can brush aside all that may be of the greatest importance to an individual. The inescapable loneliness of human beings has seldom been more powerfully evoked. And only the big heart of Vanessa Redgrave could ever have sustained such a sublime portrait of grief.
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Aprili (1961)
Old in experience - young at heart.
13 October 2004
This short film, from Iosseliani's apprentice years during the Soviet era in his native Georgia, is a charming, humorous, yet barbed, contemporary fable of modern life and traditional values.

It shows the age-old tension between the tender intimacy of young love and the blundering officiousness of serious adult society. Along the way it shows the public mobilization of Labour in conflict with the private need for space in which to cultivate the personal, be it physical or musical culture, or the mutual rapture of intimacy. Indeed, the film may be said to deplore the increasing 'meuble-isation' of Soviet society, as its 'embourgement' proceeds apace to stuff the clean modern apartments of the new worker's housing development with heavy black furniture and fragile glass ornaments.

As little old men dressed in dingy black overalls and flat caps begin to infest the streets and corridors of the lover's home town with the increasingly distracting noise and bustle of unwanted deliveries of unwanted, ugly, old-fashioned, furniture, Iosselliani's whimsical yet shrewd penchant for Tati-esquire comedy is given much scope. But there is a native Georgian poetry in his heart, also.

The young couple move into one of the new apartments, and are delighted with its clean, uncluttered modernity: All the modern conveniences of daily living, such as the running water on tap in the kitchen, the large gas-range, and the electric light are welcomed with the same innocent wonder as the traditional beauties of Georgian nature, in which the lovers originally had their tryst. Indeed, so magical are these socialist goods, that the bulb lights, the water flows, and the gas rings leap with flame merely in sympathetic response to the lover's desire!

But all soon goes wrong, as the couple sit, alienated from each other, in their now hopelessly cluttered flat, by the obstacle of possessions, with a jail-like array of locks and padlocks and chains and bolts on the entrance to secure the imposed paranoia of this materialist burden. No longer do the bulb, the gas, and the water glow and dance and sparkle at will for them!

Sadly, the ancient tree, where lovers must have met for generations before ours were born and came to meet there themselves in happier days, is chopped down by the little, Kafkaesque, human furniture-beetles, in order to inflict yet more hideous appurtenances of an uncomfortable existence on the already cramped lives of the people.

However, in a joyous rebellion against all such pointless and restricting formalism, whereby the most trivial details of private life have somehow been unsympathetically dictated without any prior consultation, the inhabitants begin throwing their furniture out of the windows, satisfactorily reducing it to matchwood below! (The Soviet censors took a dim view of such anti-social waste.)

Even the young Iosselliani has a wonderfully keen eye, and there are wonderful scenes, both comic and piquant. He also possesses a remarkable cinematic intelligence, demonstrating here a superb technical finesse in the construction and cinematography of his film. The use of sound, in what is essentially an example of 'Cinema muto,' is particularly brilliant, and orchestrated to a degree that again puts us in mind of Tati. The use of people as mimes of the director's intentions, rather than as actors in their own right, is also reminiscent of Tati's approach to film performance.

The whole effect is dreamlike and magical, leaving one with the sense only folk-tales can give, of having recollected the story from somewhere - perhaps one's earliest years - and never really forgotten it. I had the strange feeling that I had seen it somewhere before, long ago ... and yet I know this cannot be possible.

There is a timelessness in the world Iosselliani has conjured up here which has been patiently awaiting our return to consciousness of it. And thanks to Cahiers du Cinema and 'blaq out' it awaits anyone who wishes to have it, since it has been issued in France as part of a wonderful boxed set of 7 DVD recordings of a lifetime of Iosseliani films.
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Too much deference to the author?
8 October 2004
'Sr Moreno' dismisses the Preminger film adaptation of 'The human factor' very intemperately: The clincher of his argument - which consists largely in being rude to Iman (she was perfectly adequate in her role, and certainly believably a beauty whom a career diplomat might have risked his career for) - is Graham Greene's own declared dislike of Preminger's version.

While obviously his own direct collaboration with Carol Reed made 'The Third Man' into the definitive Greene adaptation for the screen, and a classic sans pareil, there is still no need to be unduly respectful of his impatience with this version of his 'The human factor.'

After all, Greene had a well-known falling-out with Mankiewicz during the filming of the 1959 version of 'The quiet American,' but no-one else thinks that was a bad movie!

Few filmed adaptations are entirely successful - probably without the original author's close collaboration they will inevitably be more-or-less diminished versions of the literary form. And while Grahame Greene was perfectly entitled, with the status of 'onelie true begetter' to be hyper-critical of any lesser recensions, that is not a sensible reason for the rest of us not to enjoy and appreciate what is a perfectly intelligent and involving film in its own right.

There are few enough thrillers around on the TV today which do not involve various forms of adolescent excitability and excess that I should have thought the BBC were perfectly justified in giving it an airing recently on their 'thoughtful' channel.

This is no 'The third man' to be sure - but then, what is? This remains a film with, clearly, much in it to admire.

Surely, if every film has to achieve the status of 'masterpiece' before it can be accepted at all - as 'Moreno' appears to believe - then would there not be a certain danger of an unbridgeable culture-gap developing between the extremes of 'art-house film' and 'teen-flick'? Fortunately, audiences - and film-makers - are still quite willing to 'give it a go,' even if the results are 'merely' intelligent, rather than the absolutely brilliant - and still quite rare - product of genius!

Really, I feel most strongly that 'Moreno''s strictures represent exactly the kind of intellectual snobbery which can only tend to alienate cinema audiences even further from any more sober and challenging films.

There really are enough points of worthwhile discussion raised by this film of 'The human factor' for it to be impossible to dismiss in a single paragraph of supercilious contempt: 'Terrible' does not amount to a review, but only to intemperate spleen, I'm afraid.
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An embarrassing success?
5 October 2004
Tom Stoppard's adaptation, and Preminger's direction, seem to have produced a stylish and grown-up filmed interpretation of Greene's sardonic yet moving condemnation of the cruelty of the Cold-War, during which both the Left and the Right have forgotten 'The Human Factor.'

Both the West and the Soviets are portrayed as they execute a risibly elephantine yet humanly appalling dance of death over the crushed lives of ordinary, decent people.

This remarkably accomplished and understated politico/moral thriller is a far more effective translation of an immeasurably greater book than is the more recent film of John Le Carre's original novel of 'The Tailor of Panama.' The latter film in particular entirely fudges the politics of Noriega's Panama, and the United States' role therein. Preminger's film, by contrast, is amazingly honest and balanced, for its period, about the protagonists of the fraught global struggle of its time. In this it is faithful to Greene's intentions.

No doubt the earlier film was critically sunk by its evident contempt for the received political 'wisdom' of its age. And by its willingness to entertain the possibility that the 'democratic' West could quite easily countenance Nazi-style medical research, both for the removal of inconvenient individuals like the wretched Davis, and for sale to strategic allies like apartheid-era South Africa in the form of a poison gas 'cordon sanitaire' between them and black Africa. Certainly, even the best American reviews (which always heavily preponderate on this Website), while they 'condemn with faint praise,' studiedly avoid any mention of the political and moral core of the film. This is to circumvent, and to radically subvert, the integrity of a serious work.

However, anyone who has actually grown up since then should enjoy and appreciate this rather brilliant - if neglected - film version of a Grahame Greene classic: Script, performances, design and filming are uniformly excellent. It is far, far more than a spy-thriller. Greene's original is faithfully followed into areas that Le Carre merely touches upon.

Special praise and thanks, therefore, to BBC4's original and brave choice to programme it on their new British channel, recently! Naturally, it is not commercially available in Britain. American capitalism, however - to its partial credit! - is capable of allowing this film to exist at least as a product, relying on dialectical hostility to effectively police the public's exposure to such an evidently heretical viewpoint! Sufficient numbers of people will always helpfully parrot the 'official line' that is peddled by our cultural 'commissars' in order to prevent such views spreading in the wildfire manner which a truly free exchange of ideas would permit. Their critical contempt for the viewing public is obviously justified, I regret to say.
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You will be the poorer for seeing this film.
14 July 2004
So this is what promising auteurs of the French cinema are now turning their hands to: Mindless entertainment with a sauce of pointless style, the whole served up on a bed of re-hashed American mass-market junk.

Not even after the Second World War was French cinema in such a dire state that a mess like this would be served up! Even its supporters do not seek to conceal its glaring flaws.

We should have realized that something was seriously wrong with contemporary French film culture when Bertolucci's 'The dreamers' actually turned the Nouvelle Vague into a nostalgic costume-drama: The very tendency which provoked the most important revolution in film theory and practice has become - ironically, but unfortunately without intending to express irony, - a retrograde parody of itself, dressed in papa's cast-offs.

Such disappointing and worthless films in fact represent, with supreme cynicism, a revival of the Cahiers-du-cinema-derided 'Cinema du papa' in the superficially plausible guise of mass appeal to the most shallow values of youth: Fat, elderly businessmen - or physically cultured feral ones in killer fashions - sit in the unsubtle glare of back rooms and fleece unadventurous, disillusioned and ill-educated youth of their money, in exchange for an empty fairground sensation.

Even the best new French films, like 'Laisser passer', seem largely nostalgic, when they are not pale imitations of Hollywood, or essays in disillusioned yet obsessional sexual morbidity incapable of achieving the vital freedom and balance of genuine, forward-looking creativity. Like its greater geo-political parent, the French revolution in film art has finally betrayed the fresh hopes of the new dawn, and led the intellectual romanticism of Truffaut into the squalor and decadence - albeit intellectualised - of films like 'The pornographer,' or the terror unleashed in 'Baise moi.'

You only have to look at the now ruined visage of Jean-Pierre Leaud to see the living death of Antoine Doinel.

Only in the almost hermetic reserve of Rivette, Godard, and Rohmer, who have practically retired into the silence of their private communion with personal values, do we see any possible source of inspiration. Unfortunately for us and for culture at large, the maturity of such contemplative dreamers intimidates any engagement with the world of instant gratification. Even Godard's aggressive politics seems to have despaired of the world. He keeps up merely the stance of a polemicist, for form's sake.

In the West we live, I regret to say, in a society profoundly inimical to personal values of this kind. The grace of the youthful revelation which the Nouvelle Vague gave us has long since faded into the common twilight of the prostituted urban day.

As with sex, the walk from the mystery of the outwardly darkened yet interiorly-illuminated auditorium into the anonymous and indifferent throng of the street is a saddening journey out of the rare illusion we treasure as the creative process, and into the commercial glare of mass-production. And we know that no return journey will now be possible, as the street is no longer the street of Paris in the 1960s.

For a while, we were all privileged to inhabit an idealised, intellectualized, Paris. That great city has been swallowed up in the ruthlessly global village. Olivier Assayas even makes his films from the anonymity of crowded Hong Kong. From that perspective, his 'Irma Vepp' recalled the streets of Paris in Feuillade's early, silent, thriller, which were haunted by the absence of all those people who had been drawn away by the vampire of international war-capitalism.

That remembered Paris is nothing but a ghost-town, except that it is not to the War that people today have gone, but to Disneyworld, and French cinema has become little more than an aspect of the industrialization of leisure. Where are artistry and integrity to come from in this culture of naked consumerism?

The rivers of inspiration have dried up, and only contribute to a stale and dusty pool of evaporating memories. One would wish to translate into French terms that great image of disillusion from 'Once upon a time in the West' where the quintessetial thrust of a European sensibility through the dream of an American West ends, exhausted, not on the crashing shores of the great Pacific Ocean, but on the filthy margins of a transient puddle in the middle of nowhere.

But a certain pretentiousness still clinging to these latter-day failures of the French film industry reveals only a profound lack of self-knowledge that does not even know how to expire decently. Their films are as full of animated corpses as that cemetery of light in Hollywood.

Perhaps the small and perfectly poised, but irrelevant, film essays of Godard represent the truest farewell to cinema's impossible dream, and its weird swan-song? His mysterious removal from our world of restricted reference at least preserves the concept of alternative possibilities - an absence, a zero: Place-holder in the binary union of night-and-day which maintains our persistence of vision. And one fine day, by another mysterious accomplishment of grace, we, also, may find ourselves once more translated by and into the light.

And so Truffaut steps aboard an illuminated cloud at the end of Spielberg's 'Close encounters of the third kind'. Perhaps in another forty years he will be returned to us?

Perhaps at least we shall be able to pick up his original message again on some Orphic, Cocteauesque medium of secretive cultural resistance, as an oracular modulation in the ether ...?

For at present it is the lead strip's expectant stream of silence which is the most engaging portion of any film. For onto this brief glimpse of possibilities we may project the whole of our own interior life. The films that follow now largely intrude upon this contemplation, which alone would enable us to grasp reality again.

Cinema was nothing less than an engine of thought; the movies are no more than a trick of the light. We have surrendered our critical role in the creative process to a synthetic dream of mindless satisfaction.

Welcome to the soul-destroying trip to be embarked upon in 'The matrix' or 'Demonlover.'

Welcome to a world of alien avatars, or technological succubi battening upon our sleeping reason, threatening our oblivious humanity.

Now there's a crime - there's a horror story - and there is real human interest: 'The invasion of the body-snatchers' for the post-Cold War generations, indeed. And it is the international conglomerates and their creatures, the corporate states, which draw sustenance from those living corpses which they animate by means of empty materialism.

Such creaking mechanisms as 'The purple rivers' serve only to divert talent and attention towards indulgence in transient and illusory pleasures, which provide no satisfaction at all. Such blatant commercialism only robs and beggars society. You will be the poorer for seeing this film.
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Sleepwalker in a landscape of romantic artifice.
8 June 2004
Warning: Spoilers
The person of whom we know least is the aviator's woman. This is largely because the emotional topology is neither simple nor relatively stable like the triangular formula it first appears to be.

François is too matter-of-fact to go with the flow of this gestalt of rapidly metamorphosing relationships. Like a latter-day Polyphemus, he drowses dimly through a hazily-grasped landscape of romantic artifice, and always fails to get the girl through the folly of an approach so direct as to be lumbering. Because he is so ponderous, Lucie teases him, to relieve her impatience.

François threatens the essentially gossamer-like dance of youthful romance – the flirtatious touch-and-go of creatures as yet unburdened with any sense of their mortality. But he also burdens the older Anne with his stolid inability to hurry after and keep company with her advancing sense of years and maturity. He lightly observes to Lucy in the park that he is, chronologically, stuck exactly midway between two women, but it is the formula and not its significance which strikes him.

He sleepwalks across a wideawake Paris, from yesterday's literally exhausted love, to the dawning of a new love at a temporal juncture which unfortunately for him does not coincide with the pattern of his shift-distorted days. In a tragic conclusion to this farce of an elementary failure of communication, the student who must work his way through college is shown as forever excluded from the smooth and easy path set before the privileged children of the haut-bourgoisie. Indeed, there is a double tragedy, as Anne still appears to be languishing in an at least emotionally unresolved divorce, and yet age has put her asunder from François, thus robbing both of their natural and mutual haven from those whose fortunate background will ensure that everything will come to them as a matter of course.

This is the dark side of Rohmer's generally more sunny world of gently bittersweet dalliance: The film shows the point at which all the lightness must become serious. The pilot and his woman – is she wife? sister? mistress?professional associate? – seem to preside from an aloof and unknowable distance, like Arcadian deities over the cruel twisting of human destiny.Their inexplicable appearances and disappearances mirror the faltering course of human affairs, which do leave most of us more-or-less in the lurch.

There is a Mozartian harmony to this conception of how life produces not only winners, but losers as well, yet losers who are not obviously the wilful creators of their own fate. As a portrait of the apparently random strokes of fortune, dealt by the endlessly absconding figure of the vaguely heaven-located ‘aviator,' this film could even be said to breath the air of Classical Greece ... were Rohmer not so conscious of the artifice as to locate the impossible flirtation of Lucy and François in a park all of the bucolic features of which are entirely artificial.

Amidst all the pretty lies, one thing is certain: Disillusionment.

Yet Rohmer seems to believe – as the subtitle of this film suggests – that such a bleak world of conceptual emptiness would be literally unimaginable for the artist, unsupportable for the creative intelligence. Quintessentially French, it is the rational play of wit that satisfies and expresses this cool, classical sensibility. Here, he deliberately objectifies the limits of his own talent, or human-interest: It is an admittedly delightful formula bounded on one side by the beautifully illuminated world of the aquarium by Anne's bedside, and on the other by the crystalline confection of the snow-shaker in François' nervously occupied hand as she ‘freezes him out', but it is a formula, nonetheless, and can only describe the imagined regions of those with the temporal luxury – the time – to develop such a rareified sensibility.

Neither shiftworkers nor disappointed women – the one cruelly pressed for time, the other by it - can luxuriate in that fundamentally aristocratic sense of the infinite possibilities of self – the sense which gives to so many of Rohmer's films their particular quality of timeless dalliance. This is a game for kittenish teenage girls and their attentive swains, and it presents them with no immediate consequences.

It is, in short, amidst those who are still young and therefore truly alive that Rohmer wishes to remain. In this film he acknowledges the cruelty implicit in the intuition that life ceases once consequence is encountered. He has created a Garden of Eden in his delightful films of the delicate blooming of relationships, but in ‘La femme de l'aviateur' he has pre-figured the inevitable temporal fall of this first waking dream of those young creatures who early stretch in the sun's first, kindly, rays, in fields that seem made especially for their innocent sport.

The aviator's woman is like the rainbow's trajectory: The occasion of charming speculations, which can only be pursued, but never satisfied. Don't be misled by Rohmer's ‘documentary style.' He is a poet, not a realist. Or rather, perhaps, he is the documentarist of the evanescent, the ephemeral – like the green flash of sunset in his ‘Le rayon vert.'

Perhaps this director expresses that very French nostalgia for the ideal aristocratic society of Romance – an impossible political Eden, therefore? And a somewhat guilty pleasure, on the evidence of. ‘La femme de l'aviateur.' Yet what sensual pleasure is there but eventually leaves us sadder than we were?

Like that annual holiday which we dream of all the rest of the year, and which figure prominently in Rohmer's films, or like that hoped-for holiday romance undefiled by the unromantic intrusions of the daily grind, we are glad to be indulged by the prospect of escape, even though we know perfectly well that it will all come back to earth again with more or less of an unpleasant bump. Unusually for Rohmer, in this instance we are made very conscious of the disappointing nature of everyday reality during the course of the film. This atypicality, wonderfully, rather strengthens the artistic integrity and value of what the director wishes to do in the rest of his oeuvre. Maybe nostalgia for our lost Edens is, after all, sufficiently distinct from a defective grasp of reality to prevent our losing our heads...?
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Weekend (1967)
'SHELL'IS A PUN
10 May 2004
Reminding us somewhat of the sensibility of Bunuel, or of Fellini, or even the Rossellini of 'Voyage in Italia' with its terminally bickering couple on a motoring holiday (the film was financed and partly made in Italy), Godard's gleefully destructive impulses wilfully contrive all manner of unsurvivable collisions - both physical and metaphysical.

A burning meteor of a film, it fizzes like a bomb with the primordial purpose of such epic and incomprehensible destruction as encompasses the death of the world and the resurrection from its ashes of a new-made and uncontrovertible fundamentalism, punned in the Stone-faced guerrilla rock-band of the Front Liberation de Maine-et-Ouse.

The film crackles with all the energy of the sinister clown-like hippie Angel of Extermination, whose anarchic violence is an efflorescence of energy growing from the barrel of a gun: 'Flamboyance' as he styles the approved modus operandi.

Pure, elemental energy. This is a burning poetical judgement on a world lost in the void. Its formlessness follows its function, and thereby reforms our sense of the possible.

Brilliant incandescent explosion of the hallucinations of an entire age: 'SHELL' IS A PUN.
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Will stand the test of time.
7 May 2004
Brilliantly accomplished descent into a domestic suburban normality whose 50's banality masks the dysfunctional morbidity of a household which is an almost Ortonesque symposium of 'inappropriate behaviour'. Except that the black humour turns to a sense of hysteria. Even the last attempt by the sexually triangulated characters to escape the emotional miasma of their huis-clos by pic-nicing in the countryside is tragically doomed.

Ultimately, they destroy each other in a distinctly incestuous and furious resolution by people hopelessly isolated from decent society, beyond the pale of ordinary acceptance, forgiveness, or indeed of any possible closure but that of death.

Horrific and disgusting - most definitely.

But infinitely pitiable, as well, and a tragedy of truly Greek proportions, reminding us that the respectable shibboleths of civilised morality, such as 'Mum' constantly employs in her sententious middle-class way to 'shore against the ruins' of a collapsing private world, are not necessarily sufficient to guard us against our own flawed nature. The drama in this film has a Sophoclean power, and leaves us humbled and cleansed by the spectacle of puny individuals destroyed by forces greater than themselves.

We shudder at the spectacle, and are perhaps purified thereby of the temptation to indulge too readily our own baser natures. In Greek terms, we learn a new respect for the gods that rule over our mortal nature.

The dramatisation of such awe and pity restores us to our right mind. This is a very unusual object for a contemporary film: So often it is the 'authenticity' of transgression which is lauded and extolled in modern culture, no matter what the cost. Perhaps this film is seen by modern audiences as in some sense therefore 'reactionary' in its revulsion from the fate of its characters, who are seen by the writer and director in Classical terms as having been trapped and destroyed, rather than as having achieved any meaningful selfhood? Not for this director the typically adolescent Romanticism that so admires the supreme perversity of self-immolation. It is not that he condemns his characters for their weakness, or even that he harps particularly upon their evil natures, for he does neither, choosing instead to regret the selfishness, the solipsism, that has excluded them from the human family. Much as Mankind in general is excluded from the innocence of its early, Edenic, dreams by the psychological burden of a self-consciousness that actually is the guilty sense of being regarded as having drawn attention to the Self: The whole psychological evolution of modern man seems to demand that we must constantly seek to submerge our sense of the obtruding and distracting self to our sense of the Other. Whereas, in 'Mum''s household rebellious emotions finally overwhelm all pretence of domesticity, and the world beyond their walls, for them, ceases to be of any relevance or significance, and therefore becomes absolutely untenable and unsustainable. There is no 'consequence-free' zone where they may be permitted to go off and begin new lives, in any conceivably more sympathetic milieu: As much as in Arthur Penn's film of 'Bonnie & Clyde' these are lives driven to their own destruction by their own interior demons. They are by no means the exemplary free spirits that some might wish them to represent. Quite the opposite - they are the damned. They are a lesson, and a warning.

It is possibly for just such conceptual offence against the reckless modern creed of untrammeled and indulged Individualism that this film has been punished at the box-office, upon its release. It is made a more important film thereby, and will stand the test of time, that destroys the transient glamour of fashion.

All the acting is very fine, but Julie Walters gives a phenomenal performance. Altogether a great piece of work.
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The Dreamers (2003)
It seems the New Wave is forever young!
26 April 2004
Anyone who has been moved - or who has at least conscientiously taken the trouble - to research 'Le Nouvelle Vague' must, quite simply, be forever in debt to Bertolucci's wonderful nostalgia-trip for the way films were, and the way film culture was for an historical moment.

For one of those not fortunate to have been in any sense intellectually or emotionally 'there' during the sixties, this meditation by one of those who were part of that ferment on the formative experiences of their early life (one must notice the injunction to the Matthew/Bertolucci character to recognise Mao Tze-tung as a great film director, and reflect how this would issue many years later in 'The last Emperor') acts like an implanted memory: Retrospectively, we find ourselves protesting at Henri Langlois' politically-motivated sacking from the Cinematheque, and see the image of the young Truffaut flickering from Jean Pierre Leaud's face to Truffaut's documented own and back again in a seamless transformation between the actor of Truffaut's alter ego, Antoine Doinel, and his great directorial and life mentor.

From then on, the New Wave rolls again as the film unfolds. It is a document of the spirit, and a love letter to the cinema which ignited the young Bertolucci. That there is such a commanding talent still working in film in today's shallow culture is a miracle. This is a film to convince audiences that statements of freedom should still be possible, and even to inspire honest and wholly original careers.

The complexity of this at once fresh and passionate and intensely intellectual experience is exhilerating, and not to be briefly summed-up: First one feels one must immediately renew one's acquaintance with so many great films of this movement - or get to know them for the first time, indeed.

It seems the New Wave is forever young! It is obviously designed to inspire a whole new generation of filmgoers with just the idealism that so entranced the young of the sixties, and led them to see the life-affirming, life-changing possibilities of film.

Here was an age when the mercurial surface of film seemed a portal to our innermost desires ...
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Red Corner (1997)
Boxer Rebellion in Madison Square Gardens?
26 April 2004
Essentially what we are shown here is not the classical American court drama. When our 'Mr. Deeds' goes to town, the town is Beijing, and his case becomes a show-trial in the cockpit of a new Chinese revolution that is taking place between the old-guard Maoists and the modernisers.

Richard Gere's American is an alienated, rootless 'Rick' caught in the cultural cross-fire between two power blocs. It is his enforced engagement with the reality of another world-view and the struggle of an intelligent Chinese woman to redeem the revolutionary excesses of her culture that lead directly to the Casablanca-esque ending, where love is sublimated beyond the personal to an ideal understanding and identification - 'You have a family here' - with the historical plight of a people.

This explains Richard Gere's unusually selfless performance, where he has had the taste and intelligence to let the women, particularly his Chinese defence lawyer, dominate every situation and every scene. Indeed, this feminist tendency in the film is also reflected in the consistently hostile view taken of the militaristic structure of Chinese state power as so much authoritarian posturing. As symbol of a new China the young woman lawyer is most effective: The ancient Greeks also saw the spirit of unbiased law as female, and Shakespeare's Portia is another such paradigm. And the actress portraying her illuminates the screen with her passionate intellectual intensity.

There is an effective parallelism to the revolutionary acts which destroyed the young lawyer's father during the time of the Cultural Revolution, leaving her with crippling and unresolved guilt, and the barrel of a gun in the hands of the murdered girl's father which alone can resolve the historical tensions at work in the courtroom, and reverse all the political lies in a new revolutionary act, additionally realising the great potential of a young China, by freeing that stirring Chinese conscience from its historical contradictions.

So this is an intelligent political thriller, although those of a more Costas-Gavrian or Godardian intellectual purity do seem to resent seeing a crisis of the Left viewed even from a very disengaged American viewpoint, disliking the humanist American strain of populist appeal in a political context, and resenting the smooth professionalism of the presentation as a mere circus. Even stranger are the objectors to Gere's Buddhism, who seemingly take fright at the intrusion of other perspectives into their own blinkered focus! In any case, Buddhism seems clearly not to be an issue to the scriptwriter.

This film in no way presents itself as the last word on its subject - but it is an intelligent and engaging movie, which, far from slandering the Chinese in the manner some vintage Korean-War tub-thumper about the 'Yellow Peril', goes out of its way not to identify the Chinese people with their masters. Curiously, this is exactly what the film's detractors do!

There is a sly reference to the Boxer Rebellion that began China's long road to modernisation, in the person of the trusty who was sent to beat up or even kill the American, but who comes to see that the real foreign devils in this instance are the corrupted Chinese officials who have sold out to the worst foreign traits of cynicism and greed by doing back-door deals with an unscrupulous Western communications company, and who finally confesses his error with true selfless revolutionary earnestness.

The fact that this Boxer Rebellion is played out in the blockbuster film equivalent of Madison Square Gardens, and is mightily entertaining throughout, has led many critics to assume that all they have been presented with is a superficial entertainment unworthy of such a serious subject. Actually, the film is fully engaged with the tragedy and passion of the Chinese people as they try to work out their destiny, and the proof of this is that, to any unbiased observer, the film leaves one with a new respect for the Chinese people, caught up in the complexities of their own history, and struggling for a better life. There is nothing patronising; there is emphatically no United States Cavalry riding to the rescue.

And I should have thought the contempt shown throughout towards official American diplomacy and state policy would have appealed to the most anti-American leftist. But are the critics just taking fashionable left jabs at their own right-wing bogies? - and I do mean Humphrey! Let us leave these obsessives to their futile shadow-boxing, forever engaged with an opponent entirely constructed from the straw which evidently bulks out their own brain-pans.
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Titus (1999)
Hot blood and cold style
23 January 2004
'Titus': The cold style of revenge as primitive therapy for all the unquiet spirits of a cruel age. The ritual purging, or exorcism, of horror, grief, and rage. The inevitable meeting, in this Arena of Cruelty, of sadistic cynicism - represented by the Moor - with malicious seductiveness - represented by the Goth Queen - has for its equally inevitable issue the Child of Darkness and of Blood: This child is Man, of course, surviving alone in a damaged Universe, and about to be penetrated by the first shafts of daylight's painful disillusionment. But life that lacks an illusionistic carapace is far too tender to exist, as this drama relentlessly exposes.

For the ritual, stylized, excess, of what is presented to us as the nightmare obsession of a psychologically damaged child, will conduct us through the dream-like anaesthesia of self-defensive shock - just the degree of brutalization that enables our humanity to survive the hallucinatory trauma of being in a mad world.

No accident (surely) that the film's visual experience is grounded in the ancient Roman ruins of the former Yugoslavia's dismembered body-politic; nor that it is also grounded in the terminally Roman decadence of Mussolini's operatically-gesturing Fascist fantasies, but as those already overblown fantasies were subsequently replayed in the sinister parodies thereof provided in Antonioni's, or in Fellini's work.

The disembodied phantoms who finally appear to have been silently attending to all that (seemingly) has passed before our own eyes, in the insistent image of the Stadium of Death, which is the Arena of Taymore's Shakespeare-mediated Senecan spectacle, are themselves - like their representative, Lavinia, - mute witnesses to the scenes relentlessly paraded before us in that Circus of Horror, which signifies nothing less than the very Orbit that circumscribes this World of Suffering.

Having discovered so much contemporary - that is to say, eternal, - sense in the ancient spectacle of Senecan tragedy - the smallest symbolic details of the poetic language of which are brilliantly transferred into the film's visual imagery, and consistently re-worked in the retro-modern, comic-book pastiche of the Savagery that was Ancient Rome - , Julie Taymor achieves the unnervingly sublime poetry of excess and horror better than perhaps any creative intelligence since Thomas Lovell Beddoes, or Ken Russell - even proving a match for old Seneca himself.

Indeed, thanks to this film, at last a modern audience can understand the disturbing Senecan vision. The ostensibly wooden characters of this grand-guignol type of tragedy provide that reductio-ad-absurdum of human beings who are abruptly shorn of all that signifies their humanity: Lavinia's truncated gestures are eked out in wooden trimmings, her hands a puppet's dumb-show, her tongue a stick scratching in the dirt's dusty eloquence like an epigraphy of some ancient grievance, long since past remedy.

Sick humour comes as the final parodic relief: Titus has a splendid jest with Death, indulging to the full the satisfying conceit of making the murderous mother of such murdering and murdered offspring of her womb the grave of these her own children. Thus all partake of the ultimate communion with Death.

Such sinister hospitality provides the totally negative resolution of the tragedy - at least, as Shakespeare wrote it, having opened this dark Senecan vein, - for it brings no saving reconciliation whatever, but only the savagely cathartic perversion and total annhilation of all that was human.

That is why we recognise nothing living or human in such a completely unreal spectacle.

That is why we are forced to recognise ourselves for the surreal spectacle to which we have been reduced by our insane history.

This is how the outraged sensibility is healed: By madness - by a term in Hell. Such nightmares are the pain of the mind as it tries to heal itself.

This process of purgative disillusion is what Taymor is about, here. The ending is another birth - in terms of personal symbolism, a re-birth. And this is, very particularly, a female artist's determined resistance to the general mayhem of a largely male-dominated world: Incomprehensibly far beyond all the destructive logic of the unending abuse of nature, She continues to entrust her innocent flesh and blood to another incalculable day.

This remarkably profound and intelligent film is also graced by astonishing technical finesse in every department, from costumes to cinematography.

Next to 'Titus', the splendidly macho 'Gladiator' seems like just another Hollywood action movie (which of course it is).
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Wim Wenders' meandering bore of a film.
22 January 2004
Pretentious self-indulgence. An incomprehensible, rambling doodle that was based - for some inexplicable reason! - on a thriller scenario (for goodness' sake!). The thriller is definitely not a wise choice for the naturally discursive Wenders. Not here the mercurial brilliance of the French New Wave, re-imagining the quick-fire cynicism that plays over the sharp, obsidian surface of Hollywood noir. The film that suited Wenders' talent was his later 'Wings of desire,' the dreamlike stream-of-consciousness of which conjured the eccentric poetry of a certain place and time.

Please take just one look at any of the often crazy but always disciplined, focused, films of Werner Herzog, and see exactly the cinematic intensity that is missing from Wim Wenders' meandering bore of a film. Or look at Dassin (Rififi) - or Melville (Le Doulos) - Godard (A Bout de Souffle) - or even Truffaut (Tirez sur la pianiste) - or such sharp modern naturalisations to a French ambience of the American gangster genre as Leon (Luc Besson) - and then, watch that wildly futuristic-looking re-invention of the legendary father of the Surete, Vidocq: In these wonderful movies the intellectual and cynically playful Gallic intelligence creates genuine originals out of the radical re-invention of their hommages, whether the hommage be to an alien cinema genre, or to an exotic broadside entertainment from the streets of a vanished Paris.

Wenders' fellow countryman Herzog can still do darkness and nastiness with real style; Wenders admits to having considerable trouble portraying baddies. The whole project was doomed from the start.
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Safe Conduct (2002)
Explaining France: A Purgatory for an entire nation.
17 December 2003
This deeply humane film is the first that I, as a child of a British generation who once faced the real and imminent possibility of life under Nazi dictatorship, have ever seen that allows me to understand just what a nightmare it was, to actually live in the collaborationist state of Vichy. How could the human soul survive such radical compromises as were required of the French every day of their war-time existence? How, except by a unique form of cultural prostitution, could people negotiate for the temporary return of their own lives, which was the best accommodation for which they could hope?

Without the obvious and utterly stylized heroism beloved of the Hollywood dream-factory, and of communist ideological fantasists, alike, this film reveals and communicates more of the agony of ordinary lives under Vichy - largely through the microcosm of the 'film family' - than any other I know. The gains in such directorial and authorial humility are in the honesty this permits in the observation of the shifts people are put to to survive: Such as the dog-end scam of a floor sweeper, who encourages harried fumeurs to stub out barely-smoked cigarettes on their way to the air-raid shelter; or the retrieval of river fish, stunned by the repercussions of British bombs, detonated nearby, and their free distribution to the film crew. This process of adaptation to extreme situations comes over as deeply sympathetic. Indeed, the whole business of earning your living (for that is what it amounts to when the means of life are so scarce and so insecure) by making films to pander to your conqueror's debased notions of your culture - which films yet contrive to be, in some residual sense, an expression of your innate and irreducible Frenchness - seems to me to be all of a piece with such simple, even seedy, everyday strategies for survival, that also, and despite appearances to the contrary, permit a conquered nation to retain some semblance of its pride and integrity. Thus a captive people secretly harbours dreams of what it once was, and must be again. 'The wind must change one day' says one of the lesser characters who teem through this film.

The insistence on sheer craftsmanship as a value in itself, despite the malign vagaries of German-sourced film-stock, material, and equipment, is a most eloquent rebuttal of Truffaut's somewhat facile and intemperate post-war Cahiers du Cinema rejection of most of the ill-starred war-generation of French film-makers. The fact remains that he was the talented if disturbed son of these tragic fathers, whether he chose to acknowledge them or not. (And he did have a lurking affection for some of them - Guitry, par exemple.) Of course, his rebellion has value - as who can possibly deny who appreciates the fruits of the Nouvelle Vague? We should make the effort to understand this paternity, albeit it is one that appeared only negatively influential in terms of cinema history. Indeed, Tavernier sees that it is time that justice was done to this lost generation of film makers. Further, he divines that their metier was a microcosm of a France effectively governed by Germany.

Therefore, it is with a shock, that, towards the end of the film, we are introduced, during Devaivre's unexpected debriefing session in England, to a proud and still independent people who are clearly managing to hold their own against Hitler; a people whose straightforwardness - even bluntness - grates unavoidably against the psychologically complex reality of the Occupation, which the Frenchman despairs of communicating to them. This wonderful scene, which is full of a balanced, good-natured satire, and is reminiscent of the style of Powell and Pressburger's great wartime films, has been carefully cast with English actors, and reveals Tavernier as an artist of international stature. The complexity of the course of the obscure affairs of ordinary flawed mortals towards an illumination of all that is best about human beings is almost miraculously realised. Out of the very particular, even embarrassingly private, troubles of his country in those dark days, he has fashioned both a detailed account of the experience for his fellow-countrymen (and francophiles!), and a moving drama of the human spirit under adversity, that should rank this work amongst the greatest films of war-time.

To understand is (indeed) to forgive. This film allows us to comprehend a very dark chapter in the history of France. This is how most British people would have lived, I'm sure, if the whole of Britain had gone the way of the Channel Islands. I really don't see any reason for the French to be embarrassed by such a film: It explains them to the world, in terms of their own experience.

Clearly, collaboration was no cake-walk - more a Purgatory for an entire nation.
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