50 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
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)
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)
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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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)
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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'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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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)
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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