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Henri Verneuil was no Jean-Pierre Melville and "The Sicilian Clan" is no "Le Doulos" or no "Le Cercle Rouge" but it has its own delights, mainly in the form of Jean Gabin and Alain Delon, (the crooks), and Lino Ventura, (the cop on their heels), and a plot that involves the hi-jacking of a plane carrying a fortune in jewels. It's a very sixties crime caper, beautifully photographed in wide-screen by Henri Decae. The version I saw was in English and I'm guessing it was only partly dubbed and very well at that. The plot may be a bit on the preposterous side but Verneuil pulls out all the stops and while it is far from the greatest of heist movies, it is still very enjoyable.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
"Le Quai Des Brumes" is one of the great masterpieces of French cinema; as deeply romantic in its way as "Casablanca" but much more melancholic. Jean Gabin is the army deserter waiting in a fog-bound Le Havre for a ship to take him to South America who falls for Michele Morgan's Nelly, living in fear of her guardian and potential seducer Zabel, (the great Michel Simon). You know its all bound to end in tears and it does, mostly the audience's; only the hardest of hearts will fail to be moved by the plight of these doomed lovers. The director was Marcel Carne, working at the very height of his powers. The writer was Jacques Prevert, the superb cinematography was by Eugen Schufftan and Alexandre Trauner conjured up Le Havre on mostly studio sets. The great score was by Maurice Jaubert.
Travis Fine's remarkable film "Any Day Now" deals with the very thorny issue of gay parenting or more specifically, gay adoption. Alan Cumming, (superb), is the drag artist who feels responsible for the mentally handicapped child next door, (a terrific Issac Leyva), after his mother is picked up by the vice squad and who decides to do something about it by legally adopting the child himself with the help of his new lover who just happens to be a lawyer, (a very good Garret Dillahunt). It's the kind of topic the movies tends to shy away from and it has all the potential for mawkishness but Fine manages to steer clear of sentimentality; the result is both intelligent and very moving, yet not without a degree of humour. Of course, it also deals with issues that many will find grim and distressing and it proves to be a challenging watch. This is one gay-themed film that lays it very much on the line and is all the more powerful for it. In an age when so many polemical films are cut and dried and conventionally on the side of the angels here is one that is content to bleed like an open wound. You won't forget it in a hurry.
Anthony Perkins had yet to find his feet when he made "The Lonely Man" in 1957, cast as former outlaw Jack Palance's son, but he's remarkably assured nevertheless. It's a so-so western from a mediocre director, Henry Levin, with Palance the lonely man of the title, wanting to go straight but finding both the law and his former partners doing all they can to see that he doesn't. A first class supporting cast, (Neville Brand, Robert Middleton, Lee Van Cleef, Claude Akins) ensure that it's never less than watchable and it's very handsomely photographed in black and white VistaVision by Lionel Lindon. It's a pity the script never really develops the characters beyond the one-dimensional and now it is very seldom shown.
Preston Sturges' final film "The Diary of Major Thompson" or as it's also known, "The French, they are a funny race" may be the strangest, least likely film he ever made hence it's cult status. The critics hated it, it was a flop and proved to be the nail in Sturges' coffin but while it may not be a masterpiece like "The Lady Eve"or "Sullivan's Travels" or "The Palm Beach Story" it's not the disaster many claim it to be. It's consistently amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny and Jack Buchanan is perfect as Major Thompson, the punctilious Englishman living in Paris and married to none other than Martine Carol, (dire). We should be grateful, therefore, that Sturges at least gave Buchanan a part worthy of him. Now what we need is for this to get the DVD release it deserves.
Relying solely on his material, a terrific script by Stephen Beresford
and a bevy of flawless performances, theatre director Matthew Warchus,
(this is only his second film), has made in "Pride" the best feel-good
gay movie since "Beautiful Thing" as well as a powerful piece of
political maneuvering in much the same vein as "Brassed Off". In 1984 a
small group of lesbian and gay activists based in London decided to
raise money for the Welsh miners during Britain's almost year long
miner's strike. It was an uphill struggle; they had to battle the
miner's homophobia for a start but their determination and their
winning personalities won the day. As we know, the miners lost but out
of this alliance a bond between the Trade Union movement and gay rights
groups was forged that still exists to this day.
To enjoy "Pride", and it is a hugely enjoyable film, a knowledge of the events portrayed isn't any more necessary than being gay, a miner or even particularly left-wing in your beliefs. This is a humanist entertainment that is as funny as it is moving. It doesn't shy away from issues like homophobia and AIDS but its ultimate message is entirely positive. In a superb cast it's only fair to single out Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, (he's centre stage in one of the films two great musical interludes), Paddy Considine and Andrew Scott. Of the younger cast members George MacKay as a young activist coming to terms with his homosexuality, edges out his co-star and the film's ostensible male lead Ben Schnetzer but then almost everyone on screen makes their mark in what is a great ensemble. I can already see it seizing a slew of BAFTA nominations next year. Hopefully it will also make it across the Atlantic. British cinema has built up a good relationship with Oscar and there is no reason why "Pride" can't continue that relationship; it really is that good.
Michael Caine made "A Shock to the System" in 1990 and I must have blinked and missed it, (me and a lot of others). He's Graham Marshall, a corporate businessman who is passed over for promotion in favour of his hot-shot subordinate Peter Riegert. Naturally, he doesn't take this too well. In fact, he feels that he's cursed in some way and he really should do something about it. As it turns out, "A Shock to the System" is a deliciously funny and dark comedy about a man who will go to any lengths, including murder, if it means getting ahead and Caine is terrific, (it's actually one of his best performances), and he's backed by an equally terrific supporting cast. Riegert is superbly slimy as Caine's new boss; then there's Elizabeth McGovern as the colleague who takes a shine to him, Swoosie Kurtz as his social-climbing wife, John McMartin as the out-going head of department and Will Patton as a very inquisitive cop. The director was Jon Egelson who doesn't revert to any tricks to tell his tale but rather relies on the quality of his material and his cast and it and they don't let him down.
Amat Escalante won the Best Director prize at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and it's easy to see why. "Heli" is an absolutely brilliant and utterly uncompromising study of crime and poverty filmed with a documentary-like precision that makes its scenes of violence virtually unwatchable, (including a scene where a boy's genitals are set on fire). At its core are several extraordinary performances by a young cast who inhabit their roles so completely it's impossible to tell where the actor ends and the character begins. Heli is an 'outlaw' not in any criminal sense, (he is totally innocent), but in the sense that he exists outside the fringes of society and is sucked into a criminal underworld by circumstances totally outside his control, (his young sister's boyfriend has hidden drugs stolen from a drugs cartel inside Heli's home). This is humanist cinema but set in a place almost devoid of humanity. It's frightening, bleak and deeply disturbing but also essential viewing. A masterpiece
It was obvious that David Lowery's "Ain't them Bodies Saints" (where did they get that title) would be compared to such films as "Badlands" and "Days of Heaven". We are sure as hell in Malick country and in a good way too, as young outlaw Casey Affleck breaks out of jail and heads for home to be reunited with his girl Rooney Mara and the young daughter he has never seen. Meanwhile Sheriff Ben Foster sits and waits and tries to woo Mara. It was also obvious that Lowery's film was far from a conventional thriller. This is strictly indie movie-making and of a high order. Lowery's original script is as fine as his direction, it's luminously photographed by Bradford Young and scored by Daniel Hart while Affleck, Mara, Foster and Keith Carradine's mentor and father figure are all outstanding. It came and went much too quickly but I have a feeling it's a film we will be returning to in the future.
"King and Country" was made 50 years after the outbreak of the First World War. At a time when most film-makers might have been expected to pay tribute to the men who fought and died in that conflict Losey, perhaps not unexpectedly, chose a different tact, This is a film about a British private on trial for cowardice when, in fact, what he was suffering from was battle fatigue. The soldier is Tom Courtney and the officer charged with defending him is Dirk Bogarde. It's a depressing, small-scale affair, (by comparison, Kubrick's "Paths of Glory" is positively an epic), very wordy and very well played by everyone. It may not be the best thing either Losey or Bogarde ever did, (though Courtney has seldom been better), but it's a bold and honorable film nevertheless. Unfortunately, the grimness of it's subject means it's seldom revived but it is worth seeking out.
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